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

Interview with Lucas Mangum

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Lucas Mangum today. Lucas and I met years ago when we both took a writing course from NY Times Bestselling author Jonathan Maberry. I am very pleased to see where he is today! Lucas Mangum used to live in the Philly area but has relocated to Austin. He enjoys wrestling, cats, wrestling with cats, and drinking craft beer while crafting weird stories. Follow him on Twitter @LMangumFiction and talk books and horror movies, or visit his website heremy face

Lucas! Tell us about the plot of FLESH AND FIRE.

LUCAS MANGUM: FLESH AND FIRE is exactly the kind of book I’ve always wanted to write. It’s a little bit supernatural horror, a little bit romance, a little bit dark fantasy. The story follows Todd, who, thirty years ago, left the love of his life to die, for the life he thought he wanted. Now, in the midst of a midlife crisis, he is haunted by her memory. When Chloe escapes Hell in search of the peaceful rest that has eluded her, a demon named Samael is on her trail and she needs Todd’s help. While on the run Todd and Chloe face demons real and personal, soul-threatening danger, and their long-buried feelings for each other.

VENTRELLA: What is the Doubledown Series about?

MANGUM: I am so glad you asked that, because it’s not a series in the sense that the stories are connected at all. The Doubledown Series is inspired by the old Ace Doubles series, where two books are released together as one. The cool part about this series is that Journalstone, the publisher, will pair a veteran writer with an up and comer. FLESH AND FIRE is packaged with DARK OF NIGHT, a brand new zombie adventure by Jonathan Maberry and Rachael Lavin.

VENTRELLA: All genres have formulas in some manner – readers expect certain things when they read a mystery or a romance. What do readers expect in a horror novel?

MANGUM: That’s a tough question, because horror has a lot of subgenres. I guess the ultimate goal of a horror novel is to unsettle or stir up dread in the reader (Douglas E. Winter said, “Horror isn’t a genre, but an emotion), but depending on the subgenre, the reader will get there differently. Extreme horror tends to rely on gory descriptions to inspire that dread. Survival horror achieves dread by emphasizing isolation and images of collapsed society. Psychological horror explores the darker areas of the human mind. And so on.

VENTRELLA: What was the best lesson you learned from Jonathan Maberry?

MANGUM: You were probably there when I learned it. I think starting out, you know, the idea of writing a book can be very overwhelming. Jonathan told us, on that first day of that novel class, about focusing on how many words you can realistically do in a day and just kind of take things from there. That writing a book is like anything in life, in that it takes a daily commitment, may seem overly simplistic, but for me, it was exactly what I needed to hear at the time. I did finish that novel, but I never shopped it, because it was a first novel in every sense of the term. I’m sure we all have those buried on our hard drives. I ended up writing the first draft of FLESH AND FIRE in three weeks, not long after the sixth draft of that initial piece.

VENTRELLA: What are some of your upcoming projects?

MANGUM: I’m currently working on a sequel of sorts to FLESH AND FIRE, called BLOOD AND BRIMSTONE. Front_Cover_Image_Flesh_and_FireWithout going too much into spoilers, it follows the kids of FLESH AND FIRE’s protagonist as they try to make sense of what happened in the first book. I’ve also got a balls to the wall supernatural horror novel called, WE ARE THE ACCUSED, that I’m excited about. It has some of the most intense scenes I’ve ever written, I think.

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?

MANGUM: As a reader (and all writers better be readers too), I like characters who are down-to-earth, even average, but have moments in which they perform larger than life feats because they have something they care about, and that something is either threatened or somehow out of reach. I think that’s both interesting to read about and believable.

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

MANGUM: My process is finicky. If I accidentally outline too much, and end up knowing everything about the story, I get so bored, I can’t bring myself to actually write the story. If I don’t outline at all, I’m apt to write myself into a corner around the end of the first act or so. What I’ve found works best for me is knowing the big moments, and by that I mean the turning points, so that I end up with not so much an outline as a series of goals for the characters to be aiming for. Sometimes those goals change during the first draft as journeys can have detours, but I like to at least know where I want to go, and then I worry about the means of transportation later. It allows me to be spontaneous, but not directionless.

VENTRELLA: Do you think short stories are harder to write than novels?

MANGUM: Oh, definitely. While my outlines for novels tend to be vague, I am more likely to do a detailed outline of a short story, because there is just less space to work in, and you need to nail down what you want to say a lot quicker, whereas with a novel, you can afford to let the piece wander a bit (provided that where you wander is compelling).

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

MANGUM: Nowadays, I have no problem with it. I think if you’re the kind of person who likes to have control of your book from its inception to its publication, you should go for it. It’s so much cheaper than it used to be. That said, you should still be willing to fork over some money. Make sure your cover is professional. Make sure your book is edited (and not just by your buddy from English class, but a real editor). If your goal is to sell books, you have to be prepared to spend more time marketing than writing your next piece, unless you can afford to hire someone, which, if you’re writing, you probably can’t. And just because you’re indie, you should still be going to cons and meeting people. You should still be doing events. You should still be publicizing yourself on social media and blogs. If you have the personality where you can take it all on, go for it. I know that I, personally, am not that guy. I’m always thinking two, sometimes three books ahead, and while I’m perfectly fine marketing myself, I would much rather be writing. Even when I go to cons, I’ll spend most of the day in my room reading or writing and only really come out for the parties. Everyone knows that’s where all the real networking is done anyway.

Long story short, I have the utmost respect for anyone who can self-publish and still produce a professional product, but me, I don’t know anything about book design, don’t trust myself to see everything a professional editor won’t, and would much rather be writing than marketing, so self-publishing is definitely not for me.

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

MANGUM: If you don’t have an agent, and you want one, know the agent to who you are pitching your project. Visit their website, read the stuff they’ve represented, and try to meet them if you can. The same applies if you want to forgo an agent and go directly to a publisher. Know your audience. You, hopefully, wouldn’t make dick jokes in front of your mother-in-law, so you shouldn’t pitch your 140,000 word epic fantasy to someone who reps literary fiction.

Reminds me of another bit of advice I got from Jonathan: not everyone will want to read your book, and that’s okay. Your audience isn’t everybody. That’s not realistic. Find out who reads stuff that’s similar to what you do and talk to them. Yeah, I know, you’re unique and your book is unlike anything ever written. I know that feeling. Best case scenario is to let that sentiment go. If you can’t, find something about your story that helps you place it. Hell, I was worried FLESH AND FIRE, a horror novel with a strong romantic element, was unmarketable, but it sold, so I’m someone out there wants to read it.

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

MANGUM: Don’t quit your day job, because writing seldom provides a steady paycheck, and never offers health insurance.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

MANGUM: Stanley Kubrick. That man’s mind never ceases to amaze me. I discover different things in his films every time I watch them.

Interview with Larry Hodges

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA:  I’m pleased to be interviewing author Larry Hodges today. His web page is here. Larry, tell us about your latest work!

LARRY HODGES: My new novel, CAMPAIGN 2100: GAME OF SCORPIONS (from World Weaver Press), dramatizes and satirizes politics in a new sub-genre, campaign science fiction. larry1_smThe novel covers the election for president of Earth in the year 2100, when the world has adopted the American two-party electoral system. A father decides to buck the system and run for president of Earth, taking on his own daughter with a third-party moderate challenge – with an incredulous alien ambassador along for the ride.

Presidential politics has dominated the news for years, and few stories are more compelling than a bare-knuckle, fight-to-the-finish political campaign. And yet, where are the SF stories that cover this? CAMPAIGN 2100 is West Wing in the 22nd Century. The underlying theme of the novel is moderation in politics; some will read it as a Moderate Manifesto.

VENTRELLA: How did you go about finding a publisher?

HODGES: One of the toughest decisions for a new author is whether to try and get an agent, or go directly to publishers. I decided to try both, and sent numerous queries. For agents, I mostly used http://www.agentquery.com. For publishers, I mostly used http://www.ralan.com. It took three years – three years of checking email every three minutes – but then, one day, I received a note from a publisher that they really liked the novel – only . . . [and there followed a list of things that they’d like to see rewritten]. I did the rewrite. With the publisher’s blessing, I also had the novel critiqued at The Never-Ending Odyssey (an annual writer’s workshop for graduates of Odyssey), and did more rewriting from that. I sent the rewrite to the publisher, and from there on I checked email every three seconds for many months. And then came the response, which I printed out and put on my bulletin board: “I’m pleased to offer you publication with World Weaver Press for the novel CAMPAIGN 2100: GAME OF SCORPIONS…”

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

HODGES: I’ve been reading science fiction & fantasy since elementary school. It was inevitable that at some point I’d start writing it. My first story was “The Snowflake,” written circa seventh grade, which featured a guy read about a snowflake warning in the newspaper, and rants about how stupid that is, that they meant a snow warning. Then he sees the same snowflake warning on the TV, on the radio, from friends, and he keeps sarcastically correcting them. It ends with a giant snowflake falling onto and demolishing his house.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t science fiction that turned me into a professional writer – it was table tennis. Yes, ping-pong. In high school, when I wasn’t reading SF, I was training in this Olympic sport, and became first a top player, and then a top coach. (I’m in the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame.)SpiritofPong-cover-med I began writing coaching articles, and then books on table tennis. I was hired as director and a coach for table tennis at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and between training sessions, I began to write SF. I now have over 1600 published articles and eleven books – seven table tennis, five SF/fantasy, which adds up to twelve since one is a table tennis fantasy novel.

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist a believable character?

HODGES: CAMPAIGN 2100 really has four main characters – an ensemble cast. I decided that each would get their own introductory chapter. Each had to have some major issue to deal with that affected the plot, while developing them as memorable characters.

• Toby, the de facto “main character” (since he’s the one running for president of Earth), is introduced in chapter one, which is five years before the rest of the novel. President Corbin Dubois is being sworn in as the new president of Earth – and Toby ran his campaign, assisted by daughter Lara. Only he now realizes he’s made a terrible mistake, thinking, What have I done? He’s supposed to stay on as Corbin’s political director, but decides to resign. Corbin blackmails him, threatening his daughter if he leaves, and Toby ends up staying – but leaves us with the cliffhanging thought, What can I do to fix this? His character is developed as he faces a huge conflict – his desire to fix his mistake in making Dubois president, while not destroying his daughter’s future. The novel really takes off when he finally goes to war with his own daughter! He is a gold mine of conflict – inner conflict over his past support of Dubois, his battle with his daughter, and various campaign issues; and external conflict as he runs for president against Dubois.

• Twenty-two, the alien ambassador, is introduced as she’s diving into Earth’s atmosphere on her way to landing at the seat of world government. She’s excited, wondering about this new world and its politics as she naively converses with her overly adoring ship’s computer. We learn a terrible secret about her, which the reader knows but no one in the story will learn of until the very end. And then we see the alien point of view during first contact – and how both sides react when it turns into a disaster.

• Bruce, who also helped Toby run the Dubois campaign (but quit early on when he realized it was a mistake), is a professional table tennis player. He’s introduced as he’s playing for the U.S. championship. His great intelligence and sarcasm is highlighted throughout, with him simultaneously carrying on four conversations (with his opponent, the umpire, people in the crowd, and his thought computer), and then, right when he’s about to win . . . he makes a big decision. He’s such a flamboyant character that he’s easy to write, but he can be irritating, and so it’s a high-wire act making sure he goes the Han Solo rather than the Jar Jar Binks route.

• Feodora, the tiny Russian general who is running for president, is built up in advance by hints about her almost super-hero status. When she’s introduced, she’s stuck in bureaucratic meetings, representing Russian in talks with China, Japan, Korea, and others. Her character is built up via the contrast between her somewhat whimsical and sarcastic comments there, and her contrasting thoughts. Campaign 2100 Front Final-sm(She’s practically a superhero, and so throughout the novel she is showcased doing over-the-top things.) We get a flashback history lesson on how she shot and killed the Russian lead general, took command of Russian troops, and led them to a surprising victory. Feodora originally wasn’t intended to be a major character, but when she first appeared halfway through the book in the first draft, she pretty much took over, dominating the story whenever she appeared. At the behest of critiquers, I rewrote the story so she could appear sooner. I also had to send her on various journeys to get her off the stage so the other characters could get attention!

VENTRELLA: Which of your characters was the hardest to write and why?

HODGES: The toughest was probably Toby, simply because I had to be careful that he wasn’t overshadowed by the interesting and flamboyant Twenty-two, Bruce, and Feodora. He was the heart of the story, as he struggled with his inner demons over his guilt in making Dubois president and taking on his own daughter, and his desire to make up for this by running for president. The other three were very easy to write, once I had their characters down – the naïve goody-goody with a secret alien; the brilliant in-your-face sarcastic Bruce; and the over-the-top almost superhero and yet soft-spoken Russian general Feodora. One key thing about writing all four of them is that I considered them all different facets of myself (or facets I wanted to be), and so would just become that part of me when I wrote that character.

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?

HODGES: It’s a balancing act, but for the type of story I was writing, I needed larger than life characters, such as Feodora and Bruce. But they were balanced off by the far more believable Toby, who comes off as a more regular guy in an extraordinary and highly public position.

VENTRELLA: What makes your fiction unique? In other words, what is it about your stories that makes them stand out against all the other similar stories out there?

HODGES: I thought long and hard about what I wanted to write about, balancing my strengths and interests versus what readers might want to read. I think all new writers need to do this. I decided that I wanted to write at least three different novels, each one unique – and then I’d decide which of these sub-genres to focus on:

A political satire – CAMPAIGN 2100: GAME OF SCORPIONS. What was unique about this that it created a whole new SF subgenre – campaign science fiction. I asked myself the simple question (also noted above): “Presidential politics has dominated the news for years. Few stories are more compelling than a bare-knuckle, fight-to-the-finish political campaign. And yet, where are the SF stories that cover this?”

A humorous fantasy – SORCERORS IN SPACE. What was unique about this? It was potentially a new series that covered historical events but replaced the main characters with sorcerers. In this case, the novel covered the U.S.–Soviet space race of the 1960s, but with sorcerers instead of astronauts/cosmonauts. Maybe I could be the next Terry Pratchett!

A table tennis fantasy – THE SPIRIT OF PONG. What was unique about this? Well . . . how many table tennis fantasy novels are there?

VENTRELLA:  Hey, come on. My novel BLOODSUCKERS: A VAMPIRE RUNS FOR PRESIDENT is also “campaign science fiction.”  (INSERT SMILEY FACE)

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

HODGES: This is another thing that new writers struggle with. When I first decided to write Campaign 2100, I spent a huge amount of time outlining it in great detail. Sorcerer-in-Space-cover-medThis is now some top writers operate, such as Connie Willis, who is famous for doing detailed outlines of every chapter – and then writing the novel out of sequence, writing whichever chapter she feels like writing that day. And she’s won more major awards than any other SF writing – eleven Hugos and seven Nebulas. The other extreme would be a writer like Stephen King, who only has a vague idea what he’s writing about when he starts, and often writes a huge amount before he figures out what the story is about. Another example might be Isaac Asimov, who often started with a general idea of what the story would be, and with an ending, and then wrote to that end.

So I tried the Willis method, and began to write. But it didn’t work for me. I kept coming up with creative ideas that I had to ignore, since I had already outlined what was supposed to happen, and if I changed things, then subsequent chapters wouldn’t work. And so I tried to squelch my own creativity! The result for me was rather drab writing, and it was also pretty boring to write. I finally put aside the detailed notes, and instead did a very general outline of each chapter, about one or two sentences each, and went from there – along with an ending I wanted to work toward. Often chapters would go in directions I hadn’t foreseen, and I’d just go with it – but always I’d manage to bring it back on course toward the planned ending. This method worked for me, and I’ve since adopted this.

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

HODGES: Some people mistakenly think this means write what you know now. What it means to me is two things: 1) write about stuff you know and enjoy, because you can write well about things you know, and if you enjoy it, the writing is fun; 2) research the stuff you don’t know, either because you need it in the story, or because you want to learn about something and then write about it. I’m an amateur presidential historian – I can name all 44 presidents, their term of office, and all sorts of trivia on them. I know a lot about presidential politics, and so when I wrote Campaign 2100, I knew what I was writing about – other than that thing that it was 84 years in the future, and took place in settings all over the world that I knew nothing about, with all sorts of unexpected topics coming up. And so I became an expert on such diverse topics as Tanzania; the South China Sea; Antarctica; blue whales and narwhals; wheat production; submarine bases; Brodmann Area 10, which is the moral judgment center in the brain; the United Nations; and the Hindu caste system.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to avoid “info dumps”?

HODGES: That’s a tricky subject, as it’s so easy to fall into the “As you know, Bob” syndrome, since that’s the easiest way to let the reader know what the characters already know. For Campaign 2100, it was a serious problem, in that readers needed to learn about the history – our future – as well as the political system. And so I had First Contact, bringing in the alien ambassador Twenty-two. Readers learn about Earth’s history (our future) and the political world of 2100 at the same time as the alien – and if I wrote it well, then readers will be as incredulous as Twenty-two!

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

HODGES: Learn the rules guidelines for writing before breaking them. There are few rules, just guidelines that range from strongly recommended to general ones, and you should understand them all – and then, when you have reason to, break them mercilessly. It’s okay to explore breaking these rules, but always have a specific reason for doing so, or your work will likely come off as amateurish. Writing is both art and craft, and you need to do both.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

HODGES: I mostly read science fiction & fantasy and history. My favorite authors for many years were the three most famous grandmasters – Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. I read their complete works by the time I finished middle school. I periodically go back and reread some of their works; last year I reread the Foundation series from Asimov. In recent years my favorite writers have been Robert J. Sawyer and Jack McDevitt. Sawyer consistently brings us thought-provoking SF on a wide range of topics, such as his recent QUANTUM NIGHT. I read much of McDevitt, but my favorites are the Alex Benedict series, where we have a guy who researches ancient relics – but the relics are things from our future! Very interesting stuff. And yet, I’ve been debating whether to broaden my reading to some of the classics. I was on a panel with Sawyer at the recent Lunacon SF convention, and he recommended just that. After reading QUANTUM NIGHT, I’m now 60% through Stephen King’s 11/23/63, which is fascinating.

VENTRELLA: What projects are you working on now? What can we expect next from you?

HODGES: I wrote 17,000 words of the sequel to Campaign 2100 (which was 124,000 words long), but I’ve put it on hold to see how the first volume sells. If it does well, expect more futuristic campaign politics as our moderate extremists move into space, running the campaigns (or running for office themselves) in local star groups! I’ve also outlined sequels to Sorcerers in Space and The Spirit of Pong, and also have plans for several other potential novels.

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