Interview with author Paul Levinson

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Paul Levinson today. Paul is a Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University. His stories and novels have been  nominated for Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Edgar, Prometheus, and Audie Awards. His novel THE SILK CODE won the Locus Award for Best First Science Fiction Novel of 1999. PLCapeHe’s appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the History Channel, NPR, and numerous TV and radio programs. He was President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from 1998 to 2001. His web page is here.

Since I love a good time travel story, I recently read THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES.  What led you to this plotline?

PAUL LEVINSON: I never believed that story that came down to us through The Crito, in which Crito (they only had one name in those days) comes to Socrates the night before he’s supposed to drink his death sentence, the hemlock, and tells Socrates that there’s a ship waiting for him in Piraeus, the Athenian harbor, which Socrates can take to escape, and Socrates says, oh no, I may criticize the state, but I would never put myself above it, so I’ll stay here and drink the hemlock. That rang untrue to me, and in fact went against every bone in my body.  If some jury sentenced me to death for my political opinions, and an old friend gave me an escape option, I’d be out of there in a New York minute. I mean, take me to Thebes, any place where I can continue my criticism of the state. So I never bought that story, never thought it gave the real reason that Socrates declined the boat to safety. I read some plausible alternative explanations, but, in the end, I came up with my own … which you’ll find at the end of THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES.

VENTRELLA: What background did you have to write about Socrates? Or was this just something you were always interested in?

LEVINSON: A combination: I was always interested in Socrates, and I also have some philosophic background.   My first published book was IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH: ESSAYS ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF KARL POPPER, which was published in 1982 (I assembled and edited the anthology). I read I. F. Stone’s THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES when it was published in 1988, and found its explanation of why Socrates was so provocative at his trial intriguing and plausible.  That nonfiction got me thinking about the plot that would eventually become THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES.

VENTRELLA: I note that the book has discussion questions in the back. Since I learned a lot, I am wondering if it has been required reading for courses?

LEVINSON: Those discussion questions were put in at that suggestion of Tor Books, which published that paperback. socratesFrankly, I think it’s lame to put in discussion questions at the end of a novel which was certainly not intended as a textbook. On the other hand, it has been used as required reading in a few courses over the years, and I’m certainly very happy and grateful for that. I am especially glad, by the way, that I was able to able to write from the perspective of a female hero – Sierra Waters – it was fun writing from the point of view of a gender that’s not you, and I hope I got it mostly right.

VENTRELLA: What is it about time travel stories that we like?

LEVINSON: First, travel to the past and to the future are two different things, with different payoffs. Travel to the past has the irresistible appeal of changing something we don’t like in history – either in world history, or in our personal history. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to do that? Travel to the future shows us where we, those we love, and the world may be in the future – that’s important knowledge, too. But both are very likely impossible, which is what also makes these kinds of stories such appealing fiction.If I traveled to the past and changed something I didn’t like, how would I have knowledge of that in the first place? You’d need to say PL 1 from Reality 1 traveled to the past and changed it to Reality 2, with PL 2 and no knowledge of what was changed, but that’s ok because PL 1 did the time travel not PL 2. But that kind of new reality snapping into being with every drop of the time traveler’s hat is even more incredible than time travel. Meanwhile, if I traveled to tomorrow, and saw you were wearing a pair of jeans with a slight tear in the knee, that would mean you had no free will – that you will have no choice but to put on those jeans tomorrow, whatever else you may want to wear. And I think we do indeed have free will, that we can wear whatever we please. So that’s why time travel is likely impossible, but also why it’s so good to read or see on the screen.

VENTRELLA: You have two sequels – do you plan any more? 

LEVINSON: I have no specific plans for a fourth novel in this saga, but you never know.  When I wrote UNBURNING ALEXANDRIA, the sequel to THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES, I didn’t expect to write a sequel to that, but CHRONICA just came to me.

I do have a fourth Phil D’Amato novel about half-way finished, and a first chapter to a sequel of BORROWED TIDES. So, yeah, I like sequels, and we’ll likely see Sierra Waters again, somewhere down the line.41k79NJdbIL

VENTRELLA: Or up the line, as the time travel case may be.

Some time travel stories involve closed universes, where what happens in the past does not change the present;  you’ve gone the other way. Tell us about your decision-making process. Do you personally prefer one to the other?

LEVINSON: For some reason, I’ve always been partial to the kind of time travel story in which someone travels to the past to prevent some kind of bad event, then it turns out that the time traveler is the one who made that event happen, or contributed to it in some way. There’s a little of that in THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES, but there are also changes in the present as a result of the time travel, and that’s exciting to write, too. I think the key is to keep the reader off-balance, never quite knowing what to expect, but weaving a story that has enough connection to the reality we know to be plausible and therefore even more unsettling.

VENTRELLA: You’ve released your Phil D’Amato series with the comment that they are “they way the author always meant them to be.” How is that? What was it about the previous versions that you didn’t like? 

LEVINSON: The late David Hartwell was my editor at Tor for all three Phil D’Amato novels, BORROWED TIDES, and THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES (not the sequels). David along with Stan Schmidt were the best editors I ever had the luck and pleasure to work with. But I didn’t agree with every one of David’s edits or the changes in my initial manuscript he suggested. Sometimes we discussed this, and I got my way. Other times, I went along with the suggestions. In some of these cases, I found I was happy or at least ok with these changes when I prepared the three novels for Kindle re-issue. In other cases, I realized that I preferred my original wording, or plot point, after all. That’s what I meant by “author’s cut” or publishing the novels “the way the author always meant them to be”. Ultimately, there are no huge differences in the original Tor and the newer Kindle versions – but I do like the Kindles a little more.51bggurvo8L

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the series!

LEVINSON: Phil D’Amato began his exploits in “The Chronology Protection Case”. Stan Schmidt, then editor of Analog Magazine, got back to me a few months after I sent him the story and said, I really like this, but why did you kill off such an interesting character? I thought it over, decided to save Phil’s life, and expanded the short story into a novelette, which was published in Analog a few months later. That novelette has been reprinted five times, was a Nebula Award finalist, has been used as a text in at least one science fiction class in the MidWest for a decade, and has been made into a high-budget radio play (nominated for the Edgar Award) and a low-budget short movie.

I published two other Phil D’Amato novelettes in Analog – “The Copyright Notice Case” and “The Mendelian Lamp Case”.

One day, in the late 1990s, I ran into David Hartwell at a con – it was Philcon, come to think of it – and he said, why don’t you write a Phil D’Amato novel and send it to me? I did, incorporating “The Mendelian Lamp Case” in the first part, and it became THE SILK CODE, which won the Locus Award for Best First Science Fiction Novel of 1999. THE CONSCIOUSNESS PLAGUE and THE PIXEL EYE followed, and I’m currently writing a 4th novel in the series.

My daughter Molly, 12 at the time, read THE SILK CODE in manuscript form, and said, “Daddy, Phil is just like you!”  She was very perceptive. Phil D’Amato is what I think I would have been had I gone in for forensic science. He does forensics for the NYPD, and has a penchant for getting involved in strange cases, in profound developments lurking just below the surface …

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

LEVINSON: I don’t like talking about what I’m currently writing, because, who knows, I could change my mind. But I did finish a 10,000-word brand new time travel story last month, with major historical characters I haven’t written about before (well, one, just a little). I’m currently mulling over what to do with this – expand it into a novel, send it out to a suitable magazine or web site, maybe publish it myself on Kindle.51i7-OBEt0L._SX295_BO1,204,203,200_

Speaking of which, I did finish my “Loose Ends” series last year, with a fourth story entitled “Last Calls” (the first three were published in Analog, and “Loose Ends” was Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon nominated). All four are now on Kindle, if you’d like some more of my time travel. So are my three “Ian’s Ions and Eons” novelettes, also first published in Analog a few years ago.

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

LEVINSON: I became interested in writing – both fiction and nonfiction – in first grade, where I wrote both. For me, writing is just a little more difficult than speaking, which has always been pretty easy for me, which is one reason I became a professor. I can’t even imagine a day without writing, it’s so fundamental to me.

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

LEVINSON: I think people are indeed born storytellers, in terms of their imaginations, concoctions of plots, and need to tell those stories, and even with the ability to tell them in appealing and intriguing ways.  That last part can be improved through practice and in some cases guidance, but, ultimately, either you have that capacity or not. And here’s a crucial point: don’t let anyone talk you out of your need to write, or even how to write, if you have a technique that works. There is no universally best or right method.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process?  Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

LEVINSON: I never outline, at least not on paper or screen. I sometimes think out a story partially in my head, but most of the time I just jump in and see where it goes. I take the same approach for nonfiction, and for speeches I give at scholarly conventions. I never write the speech beforehand – I just give the talk, and if someone wants to read the speech afterward, there’s always a transcript. Writing for me is a wild, untamed, dangerous ride, and I like to keep it that way.515piy7uGVL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_

VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.”  What does this mean to you? 

LEVINSON: It means if I’m writing about a real city or town in this world, I need to have been there, spent some time there, in order to write about it convincingly. And it means that when I write about any character, good or evil, I need to plumb the depths of my own psyche, discover what I would do in that situation, in order to make the character convincing. With any luck, readers will find this compelling.

 VENTRELLA: What criticism of your work do you disagree with the most?

LEVINSON: Truthfully?  Most criticisms. But if I had to pick just one, it would be the observation that BORROWED TIDES is my “worst” novel. Of course, everyone has to have a worst novel. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t written it yet, and, with any luck, never will.

VENTRELLA: How did you get started?  What was your first story or book published?

LEVINSON: My first publication was a piece of music criticism, “A Vote for McCartney,” in the Village Voice in 1971. I sent it to them as a letter to editor. They published it as an article, and sent me a check for $65. What more could I ask for?

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

LEVINSON: I have a very high opinion of it:  You don’t have to suffer through an acquiring editor, who, if you’re a new writer, is more likely to turn you down than accept your story or novel. Regarding novels, you make a 70% royalty on Amazon rather than a paltry 10%. Traditional publishing still has some advantages – a professional copy-editor and getting books into bookstores would be the main ones – but self-publishing is becoming increasingly worthwhile for authors.

VENTRELLA: What sort of advice would you give an un-agented author with a manuscript?

LEVINSON: Don’t waste too much time in pursuit of an agent. Send your manuscript out to a publisher directly, or publish it yourself.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?Paul-Levenson-Digital-McLuhan-book-cover

LEVINSON: It came from an editor whom I had queried about a nonfiction book about Marshall McLuhan shortly after the media theorist had died in 1980. The editor told me no one cared anymore about McLuhan. My 1999 book, DIGITAL McLUHAN, is still in print, and my McLUHAN IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA (2015) is selling dozens of copies per month.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

LEVINSON: Actually, from Marshall McLuhan. I asked him how to write a (nonfiction) book. He said think of each chapter as a separate paper. It’s worked like a charm for me.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting writer that you wish someone had given to you?

LEVINSON: Don’t ever stop writing. Write what you want to write. Don’t pay too much attention to criticisms. Don’t keep your writing to yourself – get it out into the world, in whatever ways you can.

Interview with editor and author Ian Randal Strock

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing Ian Randal Strock, a good friend who has helped me out at many conventions with the Eye of Argon reading.  Ian is the owner and publisher of Gray Rabbit Publications, LLC, and its sf imprint, Fantastic Books. He thinks of himself as a science fiction author, even though 98% of his published words have been non-fiction. 23a62b17-cf39-4473-bb47-2e7d571e5f62He’s the winner of two AnLab Awards from his writings in Analog, and the author of THE PRESIDENTIAL BOOK OF LISTS (Random House, 2008), RANKING THE FIRST LADIES (Carrel Books, 2016), and RANKING THE VICE PRESIDENTS (Carrel Books, 2016). His name is unique on the internet, but having such a varied resume means that many of those pages look like they’re talking about different people, so he recently launched his own eponymous web site, just to draw them together to some degree.

Ian, you have a political science background as I do. Tell me about that and explain how you ended up where you are now.

IAN RANDAL STROCK: I went to college thinking I was going to be a doctor, but half way through, I realized that wasn’t my proper career path. I wandered into the student-owned newspaper, worked my way up the editorial staff, and chose a major in something that had always fascinated me. Unfortunately, there’s just about no place you can walk into and say “Give me a job; I’m a political scientist.” But you can get a job saying “I worked the equivalent of a full-time job on the student newspaper at Boston University, working my way up to Deputy Editorial Page Editor and Assistant Book Review Editor.”

VENTRELLA: What did your years as an editorial assistant teach you?  

STROCK: That the world is usually not what you imagine? That I’m immune to hero worship? That even though publication may be ephemeral, there are facets that last a long time? That technological changes can be overwhelming when you look at them in retrospect? That sometimes it pays to play it a little more cautiously? That’s just a few, but perhaps they deserve some fleshing out.

That the world is not what you imagine: After I graduated from college and moved to New York, I looked for a job in publishing. After taking a job that was a mistake, I was looking through the classified ads in the New York Times, and saw a three-line ad: “Wanted: Editorial Assistant for science fiction magazine. 380 Lexington Avenue, NY NY 10017” (I still remember it, though they’ve moved several times since then). I said to myself “I know that address. I’ve been sending them stories. That’s either Analog or Asimov’s.” I sent them my resume with a cover letter that basically said “Gimme the job! Gimme the job! Gimme the job!” I got called in for an interview, and was thrilled to learn that the job was for both Analog and Asimov’s. I knocked on the door, expecting a large reception room and spacious offices beyond, so when I opened the door, I was… surprised. Inside was a room about ten by twenty feet, crammed with five desks, four floor-to-ceiling book cases, and half a dozen file cabinets. This one room was the entire editorial space for the two largest US science fiction magazines. The intern wasn’t allowed to come in on Tuesdays, because that was the day the editors came in (the rest of the week, they worked from home), and there wasn’t a place for him to sit.

That I’m immune to hero worship: My second day at the magazines was a Tuesday. On Tuesdays, the editors came in. And on Tuesdays, Isaac Asimov visited the office. His name was on the magazine, but his only responsibility to it was to write the monthly editorial and to answer the letters. But every Tuesday, he’d come in to the office, talk with the editors, ask if there was anything he needed to know, and socialize. So on my second day at work, in the middle of January (it was cold), I heard this harsh Brooklyn voice coming closer to our door, singing loudly and cheerfully. In walked this nebbish bundled up in a heavy coat with a thick hat wearing big muttonchop sideburns and a big smile. Isaac Asimov. One of those names I’d known since I’d discovered science fiction. He was here! After he’d unwrapped himself, Sheila Williams (one of my bosses, she was the Managing Editor of Asimov’s) introduced us. Isaac looked up at me (he was about 5’9”, I’m 6’2”) and said “you’re not a cute little girl” (my two predecessors in the job had apparently been five-foot-nothing and really cute). I said “you’re not a ten-foot-tall god” (not sure where I found the chutzpah to say that to Isaac Asimov). 9781631440588-frontcoverHe said “I’m not going to make up a limerick for you.” That began our friendship that lasted for the last three years of his life. Two or three months later, Sheila told me one of our authors would be visiting, and I got excited. “I’m going to meet my first author!” I said. And she said “what about Isaac?”

That even though publication may be ephemeral, there are facets that last a long time: Those crowded book shelves in that tiny little office contained every issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Not a week went by that we didn’t get a letter from someone offering to sell us back issues of the magazines, either accumulated or inherited. We had a list of dealers we’d send back to them, but we knew there was almost no call for old magazines. On the other hand, two or three years later, I was involved in a writers’ group for which we were going to share stories of the past that inspired us, and I spent several days trying to find one particular story I’d read in high school. Eventually, having had no luck, I described it to Stanley Schmidt (the editor of Analog). Stan said, “Oh, yes, we published it: ‘Diabologic’ by Eric Frank Russell.” I checked our archives, and pulled the March 1955 issue off those shelves to find the story I’d been looking for.

That technological changes can be overwhelming when you look at them in retrospect: When I walked in the door to interview for that job at Analog and Asimov’s, I was not the least bit surprised to see a typewriter on every desk. By the time I left those magazines six years later, my desk (which had in the interim moved into different offices three or four times) was the only one that had a typewriter on it. I also had a computer on my desk, as did everyone else. And now I think back on how little that poor computer could actually do, with its monochrome monitor and dial-up modem.

That sometimes it pays to play it a little more cautiously: When I walked in for that interview, Sheila and Tina Lee (the Managing Editor at Analog, my other direct boss) asked if I’d be willing to commit to staying in the job for at least a year, because each of my predecessors had left within six months, and they wanted someone who’d stay a little while after being trained in the job. I said of course. They also asked what my career goals were. I said “I’d like one of your jobs, but I really want either Stan or Gardner’s job (Gardner Dozois was the Editor of Asimov’s).” I wound up staying six years, and left because, to my mind, my bosses weren’t getting any older, they weren’t making any moves toward retiring, and when the entire “up” in the company is four people, there’s not a lot of room for advancement. The opportunity came along to start my own magazine (Artemis, which I published until 2003), so I left. I’ve since been through a series of jobs. But if I’d passed on the chance to start Artemis, and instead stuck around, Tina left two years later, and I would have been the Managing Editor of Analog. Then I would have been in the perfect position to move up and become the Editor of Analog when Stan retired in 2012.

VENTRELLA: How did you decide to establish Fantastic Books?

STROCK: I’d published a magazine for several years (Artemis), and been involved in several other start-up businesses, so the entrepreneurial nature of starting a publishing house wasn’t alien to me. A friend of mine was publishing lots of public domain books, and making some money at it, when he decided to start up a science fiction line. He hired me as an acquiring editor, but soon he decided to spin off the line, and I bought it from him. The original concept was a reprint house, bringing back into print authors’ out-of-print back lists (to go along with new books they’re writing and publishing). Soon, however, I decided to take on original titles as well. Now, the company is about half reprints and half original titles. Without consciously planning it, we seem to publish an inordinate number of collections of short fiction (in part because the larger publishing houses are less likely to pick those up). And Fantastic Books is just half the company; the other imprint, Gray Rabbit Publications (which is also the corporate name) is a catch-all for anything else I think will sell: literary fiction, mystery, erotica, history, we have a line of Presidential speeches.…

VENTRELLA: What are you proudest of?  New releases or the re-releases of classics?

STROCK: I’m very proud to be one of Michael Moorcock’s publishers, and James Gunn’s, Shariann Lewitt’s, Allen Steele’s, and so on. But the original titles tend to outsell the reprints. Having those big names (and some smaller-name midlist authors) gave the company a jump start when we started publishing original titles by newer authors, and earned us a bit more attention from reviewers (which, in answer to one of your later questions, is one reason to go with a publishing house rather than self-publishing).

James Gunn reminds me of amusing story. We’ve got several of his books available, and I’d been showing them at conventions for probably two years when someone excitedly pointed to them and asked “Are these by the James Gunn?” I said of course, who else? This happened at the next few conventions, until someone pointed out to me that there’s a movie writer/director named James Gunn. Several of my James Gunn’s books were published before that other James Gunn was even born.

Allen Steele is one of our hybrid authors: he is still published by a major New York house, but he’s a long-time friend, and when we started the company, he offered us a few old reprints (including one massive collection which was out of print). We published his collection TALES OF TIME AND SPACE last year. Tor published his latest novel, ARKWRIGHT, earlier this year. I would have published that novel in an instant, but Tor was able to offer him more money and better distribution, so I’m just happy to have some of his new work.

We also had a few reprint titles from Tanith Lee, but a few years ago, she got an offer (with significant money) for the books, and asked for the rights back. 9781631440595-frontcoverAs a small publisher, one of the things I offer authors is a much more personal relationship, so when she asked, I of course said yes. As thanks, she offered me a new collection, and I jumped at the chance. DANCING THROUGH THE FIRE was published on what would have been her 68th birthday last year, and was a Locus Award finalist for Best Collection.

VENTRELLA: What future plans do you have for it?

STROCK: Without planning it, I’m a serial entrepreneur. Gray Rabbit Publications / Fantastic Books is the fifth start-up business I’ve been involved with. But it appears to be the first for which the business plan does not include the line “and then a miracle occurs.” My future plans are to keep running this company and grow it into something that can support me in the manner to which I would like to become accustomed. It’s still at the stage that, like a baby, it will take all the time and effort I can give it, but I can see a day hopefully in the not-too-distant future that it grows to where I want it to be.

VENTRELLA: I have to ask this question because I know some of my readers want to know: Do you take unsolicited manuscripts?

STROCK: No. Emphatically, no. I’ve read piles of unsolicited submissions for several magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, Artemis, Absolute Magnitude) and even for a book publisher (Baen). Fantastic Books is still so small that it makes no financial sense to spend that much time reading unsolicited manuscripts (in fact, I’ve got ten books stacked up on my desk right now for consideration, and those incredibly patient authors haven’t started threatening me yet).

VENTRELLA: What are the things that make you throw a story aside? What frustrates you the most?

STROCK: The one thing that frustrates me the most comes from working with authors who aren’t quite publishable yet. They frequently (painfully frequently) have characters do things because the author needs them to do those things, rather than because the characters would do such things themselves. When you’re writing a story, you’ve created a world, and all the characters in it are your toys to play with as you see fit, to move around to do what you want to do, like a chess board. But just like that chess board, it’s no fun when you move the pieces about randomly: the moves have to follow the rules of the game to make it most exciting. And when you’re creating characters, they have to be believable characters within the world you’ve created.

One scene I remember specifically from a book I edited involved the main character on a ladder. We meet the love interest as he rushes in, cushioning the main character as she falls from the ladder. They have a moment, a brief conversation over the dangers of climbing on ladders, and then the love interest walks out, end of scene. The problem, of course, is that we never learn why the love interest was in the scene in the first place. The author had him there to catch and meet the main character, but in order to make the story believable, the love interest as a person must have had a reason to be there.

VENTRELLA: You’ve written many short stories, but when you finally decided to do a book, you wrote THE PRESIDENTIAL BOOK OF LISTS. What inspired you to do that?

STROCK: I’d always been interested in the Presidents, from the time my mother hung a poster in our house with the Presidents’ pictures, names, and dates of office. Soon after I’d memorized that, my earliest political memory is learning that Richard Nixon was going to resign, and asking my parents if that meant Kissinger would be President (since his was the only other political name I knew). They explained about the Vice Presidency, and I was off and running. My brain likes to categorize and rank things, so it wasn’t much of a leap to try ranking the Presidents, seeking out shared characteristics (and wondering if I could acquire those characteristics myself to become President). But it was just a hobby until 2006, when I realized I could turn it into a book. As a writer, most of my output has been short-short stories (I may still have the record for the greatest number of Probability Zero stories in Analog), and I realized I could write my book as a bunch of individual, short-short chapters (because writing a book-length work was daunting). I set out to arrange all the data I had, find the gaps and write new chapters to fill those, and, within six months, I’d written a book.

Then came the problem of what to do with it. I’ve been a science fiction professional long enough that I know all the agents, but none of them had a clue about selling this non-fiction book. Walking around the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2007, I overheard a fellow at a table say to the exhibitor “I’m an agent…” I waited for him to finish his conversation and turn away, then approached him about my book. He wasn’t very encouraging, but offered to look at my proposal, which I promptly sent him. Again, he wasn’t terribly encouraging, but said he was willing to look at the whole book. Receiving that, he said he thought it would be very hard to sell, but he’d be willing to give it a try. And within three weeks, he’d sold it to Villard, which rushed it into print in October 2008.

VENTRELLA: And now, as a follow up, there’s RANKING THE FIRST LADIES. What kind of ranking? How did you make that determination?

STROCK: As with the Presidents, by characteristics that are both measurable and rankable. Important things, like height, longevity, fertility, education…

On the Presidents book, THE PRESIDENTIAL BOOK OF LISTS was, in my mind, just a place-holder for a title. But the publisher kept it, and then added the subtitle: “From Most to Least, Elected to Rejected, Worst to Cursed—Fascinating Facts About Our Chief Executives.” In all those 21 words of title and subtitle, far and away, people looking at the book focus on one word almost to the exclusion of the others: “worst.” Without picking up the book, the one question everyone asks is “Who was the worst President?” But I’ve learned that what they mean is “You agree with me when I say XXX is the worst President, don’t you?” 90% of those people go on to tell me that to them, the worst President is either Barack Obama or George W. Bush. It’s really frustrating, because my goal was never to foist my view, my choices on the readers.bookcover I really was looking for the characteristics of the Presidents, trying to figure out if I could predict who the next President would be (and for the last two elections, it turns out that the “average President” I created in the book really does predict the winner).

VENTRELLA: Was it difficult comparing the First Ladies, given how the role of women has changed so much since Martha Washington?

STROCK: Well, the most recent ones tend to be better educated and have fewer children (on average), but beyond that…

VENTRELLA: Since we will probably have a First Gentleman soon, will that make your book obsolete? Will you have to rename it? 

STROCK: The book is a comparison of the Presidential spouses to this point. The fact that all of them have been female is almost incidental. Similarly, the fact that all the Presidents have thus far been male doesn’t seem to be a big point. For instance, in the election of 2008, the candidate closer to the Average President was much closer, and he won. Other than his skin color, Barack Obama looks almost exactly like his 42 predecessors. The only top-five list that changed in that book due to his election was The Five Youngest Presidents (Obama is the fifth youngest to hold office, edging out Grover Cleveland by 182 days.

VENTRELLA: If we call a male President “Mr. President” then why don’t we call a female President “Ms. President”?

STROCK: Actually, we call the male President “Mister President.” “Mr.” is a written abbreviation, but not a spoken abbreviation. “Ms.” on the other hand, has no verbal extension beyond that written abbreviation. I’m guessing that when we have a female President, we’ll probably call her Madam President (because we call female foreign leaders Madame Prime Minster).

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing. How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

STROCK: I supposed it depends what you want to write. A big thing in writing in these days of easy self-publishing is journaling. Apparently a lot of people feel very satisfied writing down their life stories and having them produced in book form, so in that regard, I guess anyone can be a writer. But in terms of writing something that other people will want to spend money to read, I think that’s a somewhat more rare ability. It may be teachable/learnable, but as with any skill, it requires a lot of effort.

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?

STROCK: I don’t know about important, but it always made sense to me. Some pundits have said that we have to write through a million words of garbage before we get to the good stuff. Others have said that you have to practice your craft. My thinking is just that the first few things you write probably aren’t going to be very good, you’ll have to keep practicing to learn your craft. If those first few things are short stories, they’ll take a few days or weeks to write. But if those first few things are novels, they’ll take a lot longer to write.

Then again, I’ve had this conversation several times with novelists: I’ll ask how they can possibly write 100,000 words. I sit down to write a story, I get to the end, and it’s 900 words. They’ll respond that they’ve tried to write short stories, and before they’ve finished clearing their throats, the stories are at 30,000 words. So maybe different writers have different innate lengths, and to do the other takes training and effort.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

STROCK: When I got into professional publishing, and started attending science fiction conventions, the occasional self-published author in a dealers’ room was usually avoided. People would look askance at an author sitting behind a table of books he himself had written and published. But now that I run a publishing house, when I’m at conventions with the books I’ve published, most people walking up to the table are surprised that I didn’t write them. So apparently, self-publishing is much more accepted by the general readership (and since they’re the ones buying the books, it’s their opinion that matters).

But whether you’re self-publishing or going the traditional or small press route, you want your book to look as professional as possible, be as good as possible. A publisher will spend time and money editing, designing, producing, publicizing, distributing your book. Doing it yourself means a lot of your writing time has to be spent on non-writing things. If you’re going to do those things, do them well. A self-published author recently showed me her book, and when I opened it up, the interior was double spaced and ragged right. All I could say to this excited young woman was “very nice, I wish you success with it.” But what I was thinking was “Have you never opened a book before? Do you not see how your book differs, physically, from every professionally published book?”

I own a small publishing company, and I’m also an author. My books have been published by imprints of Random House and Skyhorse. That’s not because I couldn’t do it myself, but as an author, I know the publisher can do things for my books that I can’t. Also, a publisher will pay me an advance that I don’t feel right taking from my own publishing company. They give me greater publicity and distribution. And my marketing efforts—which I would be doing regardless of who published the book—are enhanced by those of the publisher. But in the end, I guess I’m uncomfortable with the thought of self-publishing my own books. Now that other publishers have picked them up—showing that another publisher values them enough to put the time and money into publishing them—if they go out of print, I’ll be much more comfortable bringing them back into print through my own publishing company. And I have actually self-published a few small volumes, which go along with my usual speech topics, to have something to sell at those lectures.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best advice you would give to a starting writer that they probably haven’t already heard?

STROCK: “Don’t do it. There are many less frustrating ways to live your life, so if you can possibly not write, then by all means, don’t. The world needs far more readers than writers.”

That’s the same piece of advice I give every person who asks how to become a writer. I figure if I can save a few of them from being writers, I’ve made those people happier. Of course, most of the people asking that question laugh off my answer, and then tell me they have to be writers (I don’t know how many of them really will be writers, but ignoring that first piece of advice is inevitable). To them, I say: write what you want to read, what you enjoy reading, because if you’re not enjoying what you’re writing, it will show. But once you’ve decided you simply must write, treat it like a job: learn the tools of your trade (that is, first and foremost, the English language), learn how to tell a story (and how not to) by reading a lot. Follow the rules (Heinlein’s rules of writing, Stanley Schmidt’s “The Ideas that Wouldn’t Die,” and so forth). And then, when you’ve completed the story, treat the concept of getting (and being) published as a business. Present yourself appropriately to editors, readers, and other writers, both in person and online. I could go on at great length, but even my eyes begin to glaze over at this point. Just remember that it’s a fun business to be in, but it is a business, and pissing off potential customers is bad for business.

Hamming it up in the "Eye of Argon" reading at Balticon 2016 with Ian ignoring me in the background. (He was the editor judge!)

Hamming it up in the “Eye of Argon” reading at Balticon 2016 with Ian ignoring me in the background. (He was the editor judge!)

Every story is a mystery

You may write science fiction or horror or romance or thriller, but what you’re really writing is a mystery.

Every story should be a mystery. Obviously, I don’t mean you need a murder and a detective and a bunch of suspects. What you need are unanswered questions — the kind that keep readers turning pages to find out what they mean.sneakyreader

This is not easy but on the other hand, it’s tremendous fun. I love dropping those clues that make the reader go, “Wait, what? Why did he wink knowingly at the other character? Why did that strange car drive by at that moment? What did he mean when he said “there is another”?

In my current work in progress, the main character has a secret. It’s a secret I keep from the reader as well. It’s fun to drop hints. Here are some examples from the first draft:

Beverly smiled. Many white people at the time would have never considered offering her such hospitality. She had heard of Mr. Roosevelt, read many of his books on American history, and knew that he was a good man who supported both women’s suffrage as well as racial equality, and it was nice to see this confirmed by his household.

It almost made her feel guilty for not telling him the truth.

The reader at this point has already come to like Beverly and Beverly has told everyone about who she is and what she is doing. Then this last line comes out and the reader has a mystery: What was false? She’s not what she said she is! The only way to discover the mystery is to keep reading …

Sometimes the “mystery” is merely a postponement of the reveal:

“Now calm down, Miss Haddad,” Samuel replied. “But there isn’t a plan there, is there? You’re just running into danger, hoping that maybe something good happens.”

“Do you have an idea, Mr. Clemens?”

“Well, as a matter of fact—”

The cabin shook as a loud booming noise filled the air. Above them, they could hear yelling as footsteps echoed through the hull.

Teddy was on his feet immediately. He ran to the door and threw it open just as Hugo appeared, eyes wide.

“Pirates!” he yelled.

Wait, what was Samuel’s plan? Would it have worked? Are they still going to use it or is the attack going to ruin everything?

Keep your readers guessing. Don’t reveal everything at once. And then make sure that there is an answer and that these answers don’t wait to the very end of the book. If you string them along with questions but never provide some answers along the way, it gets very frustrating.

Go back and read over some of your favorite novels and you’ll see this is true. The best writers know how to keep you turning pages, and that’s to have a question on every page, no matter how small, to make you search out the answer.


Interview with Phil and Kaja Foglio

I’ve been a fan of Phil Foglio’s since I first read “Fun with Phil and Dixie” in the back of Dragon magazine way back when, and have followed his career closely ever since, which included seeing him perform with his comedy troupe the Zanti Misfits, phil and kajabuying a piece of his original artwork at a convention in the late 80s, reading his novel ILLEGAL ALIENS, and buying all the various comics he produced over the years and getting him to sign as many as possible at conventions. He and his wife Kaja started Girl Genius about 15 years ago, and I anxiously await each tri-weekly installment (and then, of course, buy all the collections when they become available). This steampunk-inspired strip has won multiple Hugo awards, and deservedly so.

So it was a wonderful treat when they both agreed to be interviewed at a recent convention. It was a fun experience with lots of laughs!

MICHAEL: So I’m here with Phil and Kaja Foglio…

KAJA: It’s pronounced “ka-ya.” It’s one of those names …

MICHAEL: I’m so sorry! I’ve only read it…please forgive me.

KAJA: That’s quite all right.

PHIL: We just like to think of this as “strike one.”

MICHAEL: (laughs) Got it!

I appreciate this opportunity. I want to discuss writing since that’s the theme of my blog. I think your stuff is so well written! I have the impression that you had Girl Genius planned out long before you even started episode one.

PHIL: Yes. We started working on it in 1993 and we didn’t start publishing it until 2001.

MICHAEL: So do you have a huge bible where you know where events are going and what’s going to happen?

PHIL: Yeah, pretty much.

KAJA: In our heads.

MICHAEL: I certainly get that impression because there are things that we see that don’t really make a lot of sense and then, five years later, we go “Oh, that’s why they said that!” — so you’ve got to have some major planning going on.

KAJA: Oh we do, we do … We don’t have it all nicely written out —

PHIL: Which may be an error on our part —

21814336KAJA:  Well, yes.

MICHAEL: Do you have an ending planned?

PHIL: Yes.

MICHAEL: How long will it be until you get to that?

KAJA: We’ll probably die.

PHIL: A couple of years.

MICHAEL: Are you really going to end it?

PHIL: Well, does anything really have an ending? Does the world explode? No.

KAJA: It probably won’t explode. I am a great fan of everyone floating dead in space …

PHIL: With every story, there comes a point where you’re like, “Okay, the characters go to bed and that’s it. Tomorrow’s another day.”

KAJA: Or they all walk off into the bright future.

PHIL: There you go!

MICHAEL: You had a stopping point a while ago where the characters went into the future, and that’s like “part two” and even the books are designed a little bit different now. Are you seeing a “part three” or is it too soon to say?

KAJA: That’s almost a packaging consideration. I change ideas a lot as far as packaging goes. We did the “second season” kind of thing because we were getting so far into it we thought, “Let’s give ourselves the writing challenge of building a safe point where if someone is looking at this huge vast thing and saying ‘I do not have time for that’ there’s a place they can jump in.” It doesn’t really affect what happens to the characters; it affects the way we tell the readers what is happening to the characters. It’s a presentation thing. It’s how you choose to write and present that material, rather than the actual events that are happening in the story.

MICHAEL: Do you have anything you planned that didn’t go as expected?

PHIL: Oh, sure.

KAJA:  Klaus Wulfenbach was supposed to die in the very first segment of the story and then Gil was going to be the big evil bad guy for the rest of the thing, and there was going to be that tension where they’re kind of attractive to each other but he’s the villain and she’s the hero — that did not work out the way it was going to go.

MICHAEL: Do you know who Agatha is going to end up with?

PHIL: Yes.beast

MICHAEL: But you’re not going to tell me that.

PHIL & KAJA: No. (laughs)

MICHAEL: Didn’t think so.

KAJA: There’s this martian prince…

PHIL: And a werewolf boyfriend.

KAJA: No werewolves!

MICHAEL: One of the things I admire about your work, and I try to emulate in my writing, is the fact that every single side character seems to have a huge backstory.

PHIL: It’s a huge story with literally hundreds of characters so you have to make them interesting and you have to make them visually interesting or else people will get confused.

KAJA: From just a writer’s standpoint, the minute you give a character a shape, you start thinking about who they are and what they feel about things and that’s the same when we’re reading someone else’s story. “Oh, here’s this new character! What’s their deal?”

MICHAEL: And with the novels, you are able to go into a lot more detail about that.

PHIL: We did the comics first. Comics are very much like movies, stylistically. No doubt you’ve got stories you’ve enjoyed that got turned into movies. They left a lot out, didn’t they? Well, they had to! We had all this world-building and background detail but there really was no satisfactory way to put it into the comic or else or it would be even slower paced!

KAJA: You don’t want to interrupt a visual story-telling medium with “By the way, there’s this really interesting historical anecdote about this vase on the table blah blah blah” whereas in a novel, you can totally do that.

GGnovel02_largePHIL: We had all that stuff! So we wrote the novels to show people how smart we are.

KAJA: I thought we just liked writing novels…

PHIL: Well, that too.

MICHAEL: One of the problems you might have with the comic is that you have to end each page with some sort of cliffhanger or joke …

PHIL: I like to do that, mostly because it’s a webcomic. You look at the first couple of issues of Girl Genius, and we were doing it in a traditional comic book format, so we thinking more in larger arcs. Whereas webcomics … if somebody is like, “Ah, I’ve heard of this Girl Genius thing, let me check it out…” Boom. You’ve got one shot to catch their interest.

KAJA: I have a different opinion about this. This has always been a kind of bone of contention. I’m just like, “For pity’s sake, we are telling a long-form story here. Tell the goddamn story.” Don’t fuss about “Oh, it has to do this” or “It has to do that.” Especially because every single panel is a cliffhanger. Everything leads into the next thing. The only reason you notice is because it stops for the day.

If you’re reading a novel and you’re only able to read to page 52 and then you have to go to the grocery store, that’s a cliffhanger because you haven’t turned the page yet. I think it’s an artificial definition.

MICHAEL: I suppose but often when I read that last panel, I go, “Wow, there’s a new muse!” Then I’m waiting to find out who it is…

PHIL: Yeah …

MICHAEL: It’s what gets me impatient for the next one, because I read it three times a week…

KAJA: There will always be something where the characters are talking and they stop, because it’s the last panel! Of course they stop!

MICHAEL: There’s a lot more freedom with a novel. Phil, you did ILLEGAL ALIENS years ago…

PHIL: With Nick Pollata.aliens

MICHAEL: I interviewed him and he told me about how much fun he had in putting that together, and how you guys were in the comedy troupe together… Will that be re-released? I still have my original copy, by the way…

PHIL: Nobody has expressed an interest. I probably should send it to my agent.

KAJA: There might be some legal stuff involved.

MICHAEL: What about the Buck Godot comic books that have never been put into paperback?

KAJA: You mean the Gallimaufry?


KAJA: That needs some editing because editing was not a thing that was happening a lot back then…

PHIL: (laughs) Yes, that’s true…

KAJA: Makes my college-girl brain sort of clump into a little ball and die.

PHIL: Buck Godot was a project that frankly, I was doing when I didn’t have to worry about money. That pretty much came out when I was in the middle of doing work for the Post. So money was coming in from that…

KAJA: And you were doing Xxxenophile…

PHIL: So money was not a problem, which is a good thing, because Buck Godot never really made a lot of money.

KAJA: Buck Godot was a labor of love. It cost money.

buckPHIL: People really liked it!

KAJA: I didn’t work on Buck Godot so I can honestly say it’s brilliant. I have it mostly laid out for printing and every time I’m working with it, I’m like, “This is so good!”  But it needs editing.

MICHAEL: I look forward to seeing that! The Xxxenophile stuff is not really being promoted any more…

KAJA: It’s a different age level than what we’re doing now.

MICHAEL: I can understand that. I used to enjoy reading those and the main thing is that there are great stories underneath all the sex.

KAJA: I made the comic book store sell them to me when I was seventeen, which was technically illegal, but whatever! That was the same comic store that introduced me to Phil.

MICHAEL: As someone who has always loved steampunk, I wanted to talk about what you are doing because you’re sort of doing a fantasy version of steampunk.

PHIL: Oh, very much so.

KAJA: I don’t give a shit about what steampunk means. We’re making a story.

PHIL: The thing is that we don’t call our stuff steampunk.

KAJA: (pointing to my notes) He’s got “gaslight fantasy” written there.

MICHAEL: I agree with you!

PHIL:  Kaja came up with that exactly because there are people who are determined what steampunk is.

KAJA: This was me predicting the future, because this was back in the late 90s when I had just heard the term steampunk and it wasn’t this big subculture. There were a few things out there, but I could just smell it. I knew there was a fight there that I didn’t want a part of. This is going to be one of those things where there are people saying, “You’re doing it wrong.” And I’m, “Nope!”xxx

I guess I had seen a bit of that with goth. My friends in the goth community who were “Well, it’s not properly goth unless…”

MICHAEL: That’s one of the reasons you set Girl Genius in an alternate Europe where things are not quite the same…

KAJA: Making up your own stuff is so much more interesting just using someone else’s stuff.

MICHAEL: But Phil, you’ve always been interested in fantasy and science fiction and not worrying about being too accurate. Even Buck Godot had its magic…

PHIL: Yeah, there were deux ex machina elements, certainly. Alien technology, law machines…

MICHAEL: There are a lot more people writing “gaslight fantasy” these days, including my next book. But I think that’s what makes it more fun.

PHIL: Science fiction for a long time has been caught up in real science. Oh, let’s go to Mars! You can’t, because X. It would be impossible because of Y. And for the people who like to write scientifically, great. Good for them. But a lot of people just like escapism. So why not “Here, there are colonies on Mars. We got there by rowing really hard.” You know you could if you just tried! But some backbone into it, you lazy…

KAJA: There are canals in Amsterdam and canals on Mars. Obviously, they’re connected!

MICHAEL: The bottom line is in telling a good story. And I appreciate your storytelling which is why I have all your books and read everything you guys put out.

angel4PHIL: Thank you!

MICHAEL: From the beginning, it wasn’t just about the artwork, but there were stories there I could really enjoy.

PHIL: You can have crappy artwork but if you have a good story, people will pay attention.

MICHAEL: What other projects might you ever do?

KAJA: It’s hard to know. Right now, we’re just working on this. Phil is working on a novel.

PHIL: It’s about a monster that lives in Disneyland. That’s something I work on when I don’t want to work on anything else.

KAJA: I have a few things brewing… If I start blabbing, it would be boring and it wouldn’t stew as well.

PHIL: If you’ve got a great story inside of you, if I tell you, it acts as a pressure release valve and I feel like I’ve written it already.

MICHAEL: You’ve done projects for others in the past, like the Angel and the Ape books. Any of those kind of side projects?

KAJA: You did a monocle comic.

MICHAEL: I didn’t know about that.

KAJA: I don’t know if it’s available to the whole world…

PHIL:  It is actually. I just have to post about it.

KAJA: Saturday Morning Breakfast Circle is a really funny webcomic and he did a really goofy kickstarter for single-use package monocles that look like condoms… I guess we did it, since I totally lettered the hell out of that thing.

MICHAEL: You’ve let other artists do Girl Genius stories when you took vacations.myth

KAJA: We’ve done that a couple of times.

PHIL: Chris Baldwin and Cheyenne Wright, our colorist…

KAJA: Boy, we hear about that when we do it. We’re not allowed to take vacations. We actually had one — that Phil drew and Cheyenne colored — where we had the characters say that the creators have to go on vacation and so we’re doing this other thing instead, and we hard about that! Logic does not always come into play here. Clearly, we were still working but because the characters said we had gone on vacation…

MICHAEL: Nobody wants you to take a break.

KAJA: It’s not fair!  (laughs)

MICHAEL: You have a big fan base.

KAJA: It goes too slow for me.

MICHAEL: Well, there are lot of things I’d like to see answered that I’ve been wondering about for ten years or so…

PHIL:  Yeah?

MICHAEL: Like that very first scene with the time travel… We’re seeing clues now, obviously, so that’s coming up.

PHIL: Oh, yes!

MICHAEL: There are characters out there that I’m wondering what happened to…

KAJA: That depends. I notice when we talk to people at conventions that people will say, “What about this thing?” and we’re like, “That’s done. ggColl12_cover01That character was not a major character. They passed through the other character’s lives and now they’re done. That’s all we ever intended.” It’s not pertinent to this story what that person went and did.

MICHAEL: Sometimes you might see something and think, “Well, obviously the circus is going to come back” but you imagine it and then expect it even though it wasn’t planned…

What do you like to read? What are your influences?

KAJA: I like anime. I like manga. What else do I like? I don’t know. I don’t like anything.

PHIL: Let’s see. Gosh, I read an awful lot of stuff. I like historical stuff. I’m currently working through a Richard O’Brien book…

KAJA: Yeah, because I bought it! Why do you get credit for it? (laughs)

PHIL: Because I’m reading it!

KAJA: Richard O’Brien does a series of nautical adventure novels. Very good. The movie was “Master and Commander.”

MICHAEL: Yeah, sure!

KAJA: It’s interesting because they take things out of several of the books and squish them together into the movie, which is very strange. They’re really a research project. I started reading them and then I had to go and buy the book of maps and the book of nautical terminology. I already had the cookbook because I like historical cookbooks. If you start talking to people about historical cookbooks, the first one that comes up is LOBSCOUSE AND SPOTTED DOG which is all the cookery from this series of novels I hadn’t read… So I finally bought them all, but Phil has pulled ahead of me in the series.

PHIL: We are both big fans of George MacDonald’s “Flashman” series.

MICHAEL: I can see that.

KAJA: They’re great. Well, Flashman himself isn’t great, he’s dreadful, but the books are fantastic.

MICHAEL: I think I remember reading in an interview with you where you said you would have loved to have worked with Terry Pratchett.

PHIL: Yes. He was awesome.GEN-BOOK6-cover1

KAJA: His stuff has been a big part of my life. I had a friend in high school who was from England. “You’ve got to read these, and there’s a third one coming out! It was like if Douglas Adams wrote fantasy! Here you go!” This was back before I met Phil.

MICHAEL: I still remember when THE COLOR OF MAGIC came out…

KAJA: I had a very nice boyfriend who introduced me to his friends and the first thing they did, they started throwing books at me. “Have you read this? Have you read this? Well, did you like it?” Finally, at the end, they were like, “You may date this woman.”  It was a great group of people. We played a lot of GURPs.

MICHAEL: What’s your take on the Hugos?

PHIL: Ugh.

KAJA: I’m so glad we got our Hugos before all this happened. Our Hugos are less tainted! (laughs)

PHIL: I think the Hugos will pull out of this.

KAJA: Is this still going on?

MICHAEL: They did a little more this year. Nominated Chuck Tingle…

PHIL: People are paying less attention to it. They’re doing desperation moves. They’re saying, “All right! The Puppies are still here and this year, we’re nominating ‘Star Wars.'”

MICHAEL: Like it wouldn’t have been nominated any way.

PHIL: Right. But they want it to look like they’re the ones pushing it. So if/when “Star Wars” wins, they can say “Yep, one of our nominees won.”

KAJA: Dr. Who will totally beat it. (laughs)

PHIL: So, you know, fuck these guys.Untitled

MICHAEL: You took yourself out of contention at one point…

KAJA: We said “for next year” but what a lot of people heard was “forever.” That’s cool because the next year where we were eligible we lost fair and square. First of all, curses! But it also shows that this is a viable category. It was insanely flattering but also people were also saying, “Well, it’s just going to be the Girl Genius category” — obviously not, but it’s so nice of them to say.

I didn’t want to go to the Hugos, and didn’t want to touch it, and I sat in the lobby watching a feed and getting all emotional.

MICHAEL: How much of the comic version of this where you two were arguing about whether to take your name out of consideration was true?

PHIL: That was just us goofing around.

MICHAEL: I wasn’t sure if it was based in any slight bit of truth…

KAJA: No, Cheyenne is not actually the Bat King of the Underworld, although we’d like to think he is.

PHIL: Pretty much everything we do in that sort of thing is done for laughs.

KAJA: All the congratulations to other people are totally true.

PHIL: (Rolls eyes) Oh, yes. Totally true. (laughs)

MICHAEL: So before we leave, any hints you’d like to give?

PHIL: Major character appearing next Wednesday!

KAJA: Who is that?

MICHAEL: The muse?


MICHAEL: I guess I’ll find out!selfie with foglios

My Balticon 50 Schedule (so far)

Balticon is celebrating its 50th birthday by inviting some amazing guests to this convention!

I figured if I posted this picture, more people would read this than if I had posted a picture of myself

I figured if I posted this picture, more people would read this than if I had posted a picture of myself

I’ll be rubbing shoulders with people like George R.R. Martin, Larry Niven, John Varley, Connie Willis, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Springer, Steve Barnes, Harry Turtledove, Allen Steele, Peter Beagle, Joe Walton, Phil and Kaja Folio, and many many more! (I’d list them all but it would take up the entire blog.) Seriously, if you read science fiction and fantasy at all, you know most of these names. A complete list is here.

The convention is Memorial Day weekend of 2016.

Here’s my schedule as it stands now (subject to change):

Reading (Friday 4:00 pm): I’ll be reading from my work along with Gail Z. Martin and Charlie Brown.

Social Media for Authors (Saturday 3:00 pm): There’s a skill to presenting yourself and publicizing yourself in social media; things to emphasize and things to avoid. Should you create an image? Avoid politics? Twitter or Facebook? How much is too much?  The panel will discuss strategies for letting people know about your work without turning yourself into an advertisement or spam. With Gail Z. Martin.

The Greatest Animated Films Ever (Saturday 6:00 pm): The Our panelists try to come up with a Top Ten consensus of the greatest animated feature films ever.  Which films will make the cut? And, more importantly, can they do it while avoiding violence?

Masquerade (Saturday 8:00 pm): The costume competition (in which my wife, award-winning artist Heidi Hooper, is one of the judges and I help out by assisting the performers).

Signing (Sunday 10:00 am):  I’ll be signing books along with George R.R. Martin. Well, he’ll be signing a lot more than I will be.

The Biggest Mistakes Made by Beginning Writers (Sunday 11:00 am): The panel will discuss (from a reader’s point of view) not only writing mistakes but also promotional mistakes: How writers have screwed themselves over and killed their chances of making it in the publishing world after doing easily preventable things! With Christine Rake

Signing (Sunday 1:00 pm): Another signing session, this time with Phil Guinta and Lawrence Watt-Evans.

The Eye of Argon (Sunday 11:00 pm): One of the genre’s most beloved pieces of appalling prose” read by some of the best narrators, presented in all its theatrical glory and critiqued by those who can’t keep a straight face. When a panelist makes a mistake, they are required to get up and act out the story! Everyone in attendance can also make an attempt at reading.  Come prepared to laugh!


Using the internet to promote your books

A five-point program:

Sell yourself, not your books. Nothing is more annoying than an author whose every other post boils down to “Buy my book!”  Sell yourself instead (using some of the ideas below). If you’re posting on Facebook or Twitter, say something clever or interesting that people will like. Share a joke or a video.

Make people want to read you. And if they like your posts and tweets, they’re more likely to want to check out your books.

Blog about something interesting. There are a billion blogs out there. No one wants to read your blog about what you had for lunch. Find something interesting to blog about.

I have two blogs I run: The first is this one, where I talk about writing and interview authors. When I began, I was astounded at how many famous writers I had always admired were willing to be interviewed. It’s easy — you email them questions and they email you back. And then their fans read it and see your name associated with the interview and look at the links to your books, and everyone is happy.

Go ahead and do an interview blog. It’s not like there can’t be more of them if done well. Interview people who write in the same genre as you do or who share an interest with you that is prevalent in your books. (Hey, I’m available to be interviewed…)

My second blog is my political one. My undergraduate degree is in Political Science and I have a law degree, so I write about things I not only know, but which I also have a bit of an expertise. The hits I get on that blog far surpass this one.

People go to my blogs because I have advice, comments, and analysis that give them something they can’t necessarily get elsewhere. Think about your own background. What are you an expert at? Gardening? Skiing? Science? Surely there must be something you can post about regularly that will interest people.

Blogs are important because, let’s face it, you’re a writer. If you can’t keep a blog active and interesting, how will you convince people you can keep an entire book interesting?

Be Yourself. Or at least the self that you want to present to the public. Some authors refuse to post anything controversial, for instance, for fear of alienating readers. I clearly do not do that, and I’ve found that my followers and the number of Facebook friends I have just keeps increasing. My thoughts about politics and religion may challenge you, but so may my books.  If I avoided talking about politics on my blog while making it a major theme in my books, then I would feel hypocritical.

However, do what works well for you. If you don’t like talking about certain things, then don’t. People can smell a phony, and that’s not the image you want no matter what.

Use your tools. If you hired a plumber and he held up a screwdriver and claimed it was a wrench, how much confidence would you have in him?

Well, as a writer, your tools are words. If you constantly post poorly-written and misspelled tweets and have trouble distinguishing between there, their, and they’re, what kind of confidence would potential readers have in you?

Say something and say it well. Show that you know how to write.

Promote writing. There’s nothing wrong with reminding people that’s what you do. Discuss what you’re working on. Talk about what you’re currently reading. Make people interested in books.

I sometimes ask for advice from my Facebook friends (“What’s a good name for a steampunk gun for the book I’m working on now?”). Not only can this get me some great ideas but also helps to get people excited about the upcoming book.

And don’t just limit it to your own books. Talk about writing conferences and other issues of importance to writers and readers. If one of your friends has a new book coming out, mention it. Remember,  you are not in competition with other writers — it’s not like there is a finite number of books out there. We can help each other. Networking will only help you.

And finally, remember: All the promotion in the world won’t help you convince someone to buy your book if they aren’t interested in it. Some of my best writing buddies online and at conventions write in genres and themes that I have no interest in reading. They could win tons of awards and I still wouldn’t want to read it. (There are award-winning movies and lots of music I don’t care about either, because all art is a matter of personal taste.) So don’t bug your friends or try to make them feel guilty for not reading your book.


My Ravencon 2016 Schedule

Ravencon is a fun little convention that keeps growing — It used to be in my hometown of Richmond but this year, they are moving it to Williamsburg, right next to Busch Gardens where I spent many days riding roller coasters when I was younger…RavenConBanner

Anyway, the main guests this year are Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, but you can also find many other great writers. editors and agents, including many I’ve interviewed here on the blog:  Larry Hodges, Mike Kabongo, Gail Z. Martin,  Peter Prellwitz, Bud Sparhawk, and Allen Wold! We’re also doing a tribute to my old college friend Bud Webster.

The convention is the weekend of April 29th.

Here’s where you can find me:

MARKETING AND BRANDING FOR AUTHORS (Friday 6 pm): Many old-school authors have stories about books that were rejected because the publisher didn’t know how to market them. In the Createspace world we live in, marketing has become the author’s responsibility. The panelists discuss tips and strategies on promoting your writing to a potential audience, and on how building the right identity can attract readers to your work. Panelists: Baine Kelly, Gail Z. Martin, Alex Matsuo, Michael A. Ventrella (M)

RAVENCON OPENING CEREMONIES (Friday 7 pm): We welcome attendees and guests to RavenCon 11 and present last year’s RavenConnie. Plus a performance by Jonah Knight.

BUD WEBSTER TRIBUTE (Friday 10 pm) Bud Webster was an author, a literary historian, a book dealer, and so much more. He was also a dear friend to many of us here at RavenCon. Join us as we share our favorite Bud stories. Panelists: Michael D. Pederson (M), Michael A. Ventrella, Allen L. Wold

THE EYE OF ARGON (Friday 11 pm): The worst science fiction story ever written gets a reading by our brave panel as they compete to go the longest without tripping over a misspelled word or laughing uncontrollably. Audience members are also encouraged to take a chance. Can you keep a straight face, especially when the panel begins acting out the story? Panelists: Gail Z. Martin, Peter Prellwitz, Gray Rinehart, Michael A. Ventrella (M)

LAW AND SOCIETY IN SCI-FI (Saturday 11 am): How do the law and social structure fit into Sci-Fi? Should you regulate the tech in your SF universe? What fundamental differences in law are there between SF and other genres? Panelists: Richard Groller, Stephen J. Simmons (M), Michael A. Ventrella

ALTERNATE HISTORY (Saturday 9 pm): Why is this genre so fascinating, and how does it relate to the rest of speculative fiction? What special challenges does it pose for the writer—and reader? Panelists: Kate Paulk, J. Matthew Saunders, Michael A. Ventrella (M), Steve White

READING: MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA READS BUD WEBSTER (Sunday 11 am): Michael A. Ventrella reads one of Bud Webster’s classic stories

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