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 For publishers, I mostly used 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.

Interview with Bud Webster

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing long-time friend Bud Webster today. Like previous interviewee Mark Waid, Bud was part of my old Dungeons and Dragons crew in college (Bud played a mercenary dwarf whose catchphrase was “When do we get paid?”) Bud We both worked at Peaches Records where we spent much of the day making bad jokes and entertaining the customers. We also took at least one class together that I remember — Animated Films (or something like that).

BUD WEBSTER: History of Animation, taught by the inestimable Steve Segal.

VENTRELLA: Yes indeed, thanks. Bud, as a voracious reader, you became quite the archivist? Anthologist? Expert? I’m not sure what word to use – how did that come to be?

WEBSTER: “Anthopologist” is the word I coined. It happened the same way it did when I was collecting rocks, magic tricks and records. The true geek can’t shut up about his/her geekery, we’re compelled by our passionate interests to blather on about it to anyone who’ll listen (or even pretend to). I was lucky enough to have found outlets that spanned a greater audience than just a roomful at a party; first, I did some exploration in my own fanzine, Log of the Starship Aniara (later just Aniara) back in the early to mid ‘70s, then a few pieces in other ‘zines. None of that, of course, was for money, and was mostly just about books in general. I did, for instance, a long piece for Aniara in which I detailed the holdings of a special collection at the University of Virginia that originally belonged to an alum who was seriously into HPL. It wasn’t until 2001, though, that I actually did anything I consider serious with my heavy interest in anthologies. That’s when Peter Enfantino invited me to contribute something on the subject to bare*bones, the ‘zine he co-edited/published with John Scoleri. I did a fairly lengthy examination of Fred Pohl’s Star Science Fiction series for Ballantine, and had the chance to interview Fred (via mail, since he wasn’t doing e-mail at the time). He was very cooperative, happy to answer all my questions, and he continued to read the columns as they appeared elsewhere, sending me the occasional correction when they were needed. That column was reprinted in ’02 in David Hartwell’s New York Review of Science Fiction and that was the beginning of my writing about this stuff for actual, y’know, money.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the SFWA Estates project.

WEBSTER: Well, SFWA had been tracking estates for years when I was asked to take it over in ’07, but it was catch-as-catch-can and some of the information they had was either outdated or inaccurate. I was on the verge of leaving SFWA after several events had transpired, and then-president Russell Davis and former president Michael Capobianco offered me the position of Estates Liaison not to placate me but to give me a legitimate reason to stay on and be productive. 1256I had already been able to track down a few estates through the network of email lists I was on, so it was right up my alley. It appealed to my sense of history, and it fit in with my interest in keeping classic sf and fantasy alive.

VENTRELLA: Have you had much difficulty in locating anyone?

WEBSTER: If you only knew. I have names on the list that I haven’t been able to track down since the Project was handed to me. Some of them are almost certainly legitimately orphaned – Frank Belknap Long and his wife left behind no family so his only “heir” is the State of New York – but others … Well, how easy is it going to be to find the heirs of George H. Smith?

VENTRELLA: Which writer do you think just hasn’t received the attention her or she should have (and why)?

WEBSTER: How much space do you have? Seriously, there are dozens of authors whose work has been forgotten or unfairly ignored, not all of them old guys from the pulp days. Terry Carr, a fine writer as well as a prolific anthologist; Tom Reamy; Alfred Bester, who wrote two of the best novels sf has ever seen; Avram Davidson, Robert Sheckley and Richard Matheson, all of whom wrote brilliant short fiction; Cordwainer Smith, James Tiptree (aka Alice Sheldon) and R. A. Lafferty, whose work transcends any and all genre limitations… The list can go on for a long time. It’s the big reason I began writing the Past Masters columns.

VENTRELLA: Does one need to be an expert on classic SF to enjoy your essays?

WEBSTER: I’d like to think not. I don’t write them exclusively for fellow geeks, although they enjoy them too. I’m more concerned with piquing the interest of the average reader, with urging them to look for old paperbacks online or in used bookshops than I am in trading minutiae with my colleagues. I get as much pleasure from a note from a stranger telling me that they can’t wait to track down a copy of San Diego Lightfoot Sue as I do from a fellow historian saying, “Hey, I didn’t know that!”

VENTRELLA: Your fiction has received great reviews and awards as well, but you haven’t written that much of it. Do you plan to do more?

WEBSTER: Absolutely. I’ve recently placed stories with Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show (“Fantasiestűck in A Major – A Flight of the Imagination in Three Movements” in #40) and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (“Farewell Blues” upcoming in the January/February 2015 issue), and there are a couple more I’ve just sent out. 51LV1Irkn+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have plans to do at least one more Bubba Pritchert story, too. Let’s face it – writing is hard work and for some of us, non-fiction is not only a little easier but can pay better and faster. I pitch it, the editor greenlights it, I turn it in and get paid. I still have to throw fiction in over the transom like everybody else, and there’s no real guarantee. I still get rejections.

VENTRELLA: Speaking of science fiction, you had a role in the film “Futuropolis” (I missed my chance to do a cameo in it by being sick that day and I still regret it). I expected that film to become a cult favorite, something shown regularly at SF conventions, but it isn’t. Why do you think that it never caught on?

WEBSTER: Mostly because it hasn’t been available except as a video cassette. I’ve been trying to get Steve Segal and Phil Trumbo (the creators) to do a DVD, and they do think it’s a good idea; Phil mentioned recently that he’s even done a “Making Of” segment that would really add to the interest level. Maybe if we poke them enough…?

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about fiction in general. What kinds of characters are you sick of reading about?

WEBSTER: Badly conceived and delineated ones. As long as a character can really walk and talk to me, I don’t care if it’s a sparkly vampire.

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?

WEBSTER: Why can’t they be both? Yeah, readers have to be able to identify with and believe in characters, but there’s no real reason why there can’t be a little exaggeration as well. Bubba, for example, is an autodidact who knows what “autodidact” means; he’s down-home but intelligent. His persona tends to be a little loud and jokey, but I’ve tried to give him depth and seriousness as well.

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

WEBSTER: Alfred Bester, one of my idols, couldn’t begin until he’d created a detailed outline. I tried it once; the story never got written because I’d scratched the itch too thoroughly with the outline. I’ve found that I need to keep a relatively comprehensive chronology as I go along, but I don’t outline beyond that.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating a plot first, a character first, or a setting first? What gets your story idea going?

WEBSTER: Depends. Sometimes I write to, sometimes I write from. Sometimes I have a specific idea, other times it’s an overall concept. I have had stories change as I wrote them, more than once. “Christus Destitutus”, for example, was originally envisioned as a satire, the sort of wry observation that Damon Knight and others used to write for Galaxy or F&SF. It turned into a dark and angry commentary on my own religious upbringing, something I honestly did not expect. I still find the story disturbing, in fact.

As a rule, though, I rarely start the actual process of writing until most of the story is clear in my mind. A lot of the time I even have the last lines right there in front of me. The-Joy-of-Booking Other times, well, it’s very different. I was doing research online one morning for my wife when I decided, just for kicks, to Google a small town not far from Richmond called Frog Level. Turns out there are two small towns in Richmond by that name, and that was the genesis of “Frog Level ≇ Frog Level”. That story wrote itself in four days, with very little rewriting.

VENTRELLA: Since we are on panels together at conventions all the time, I assume you think they’re worthwhile. Why do you find these to be a useful activity?

WEBSTER: Good question. Part of it is that in many cases, verbalizing helps me firm up my thoughts and make them workable. The exchange of ideas between the other panelists (as well as intelligent and well thought-out questions/comments from the audience) can lead me to reconsider my own opinions in a very real and constructive way. Plus I get to show off my vocabulary.

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

WEBSTER: I’ve never had a problem with it in general, I’ve even done it myself. And there was a time when there were honest vanity presses who offered their services to people who wanted to self-publish family genealogies, poetry collections, regimental histories and the like. They made no promises of promotion, distribution, or best-sellerdom though; all they did was deliver a case or two of printed and bound books that the author was responsible for thereafter.

Is someone with a checkbook who Kinkos their own book and shows up at a convention demanding table space and signings and their own panel(s) a colleague of mine? Not necessarily, no. Anyone with a thick enough stack of credit cards can throw something together and run through their local copy shop, it takes a lot more than that. There are plenty of those who have proven to me that they are a colleague both through their own hard work as a writer, editor and publisher and though their obvious skills at promotion and willingness to go the literal extra mile to travel on their own dimes to conventions, festivals, conferences and bookshops all over the place for the possibility of a couple of dozen more sales. Why? Because that’s what it takes to market your own books, and that’s what it takes for me to take them (as well as the current conception of self-publishing) seriously – hard work.

VENTRELLA: In this market, with the publishing industry changing daily, how important is the small press?

WEBSTER: It is absolutely vital. It’s always been important, especially back in the days of Gnome Press and Arkham House, but now with the majors being inundated with more and more crap that they have to wade through to get to the Good Stuff, the small presses make it possible for a new author to reach an audience larger than they could reach on their own. If the press has a good, solid rep, it adds a cachet to the author and makes it more likely that sales will be even better: “Hey, there’s a new book out from HomminaNomicon Press! I really liked the last two, so I’ll try this one.”

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

WEBSTER: Don’t go the “easy” route first. Find agents and/or publishers who are willing to look at new work by new writers, put together a proposal, a solid three-hots-and-a-cot (first three chapters and a synopsis), and get ‘em in the mail. AFF JUl-AUG 2007 FINAL RG.eps Be very careful, though – there are predatory “agents” out there who are dedicated to ripping you off and will sweet-talk you into believing that the Sun sets in the East if you let them. Go to the Predators and Editors website and look through the list of agents and see what their records show. There’s nothing easy about writing, no aspect that doesn’t require careful research, attention to details (especially with contracts) and hard, hard work.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting writer?

WEBSTER: Bust your behind to get it as right as you can, pay attention, and let your work speak for itself. If you can find a good writers’ group in your area, check them out to see if you’re a good fit. They can be enormously helpful, but again, be careful; some groups can be deliberately harsh, even cruel, and there’s no quicker way to be discouraged. Critiques should be honest and firm, but never mean. Do not look for shortcuts, because there really aren’t any.

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

WEBSTER: Boy, you really don’t want short answers, do you? Let’s see … Bester, Ellison, Heinlein, Effinger, Doyle, Simak, Russell, Niven, Niven and Pournelle, Pournelle, Pratchett, King, Haldeman, Sanders, Silverberg, Pohl, Gaiman, Davidson, Clarke, Bradbury, any Conklin anthology, Cordwainer and Doc Smith, McKenna, Bond, Leiber; how many more do you want? Oh yeah, there’s this guy named Ventura or Ventiller or something, but he writes like a sissy.

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

WEBSTER: I’m putting together my first fiction collection, including stories and poetry. It’s going to have most of what I’ve done over the years except the Bubba stories; they’ll have their own book with new material tying them together. Some of the stories are pretty old – going back more than 20 years. I’m hoping it will be out by the end of 2015.

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

WEBSTER: In no particular order: Nelson Bond, Einstein, Buzz Aldrin, Frank Zappa, Pierre Boulez, Steve Allen, Igor Stravinsky, John Lee Hooker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Tom Lehrer, John W. Campbell, Charlie Chaplin, J. R. R. Tolkien, August Derleth, William Gaines, Mel Blanc. And my wife, or course. Have to be a big table, though.

I doubt I’d say a word, but I would video the whole damn thing and live off the revenue from the books I’d write about it for the rest of my life.

Interview with author Leona Wisoker

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing novelist Leona Wisoker today. Leona is a frequent guest at the conventions I attend and I always have a great time when she’s on a panel with me (as long as it’s not too early in the morning before she’s had her coffee).leona-square1 Her science-fantasy series “The Children of the Desert” is set in a world still struggling through a number of basic moral and developmental issues. Her webpage is here.

Leona, how did you first become interested in writing?

LEONA WISOKER: I’ve told stories for as long as I can remember. Whenever my older sisters were out of the house, I would sneak into their rooms and tell their stuffed animals endless fantastical tales. I have no idea if I told stories to my own toys. I probably did. But theirs were so much cooler! Besides, I wasn’t supposed to be in their rooms at all, so that added to the fun.

When I was … around ten, maybe eleven, I taught myself to type using a self-directed record and flipbook course. It made me feel important and business-y and Just Like Dad, who went to an Office every day and had a Desk and Important Grown Up Business to handle. I remember deciding, early in life, that I wanted to have a job that involved an office and a typewriter and a pencil cup and a calculator. Thankfully, I turned out to be a terrible receptionist.

I wrote quite a lot on various typewriters and computers from that point on, although for many years my first processing point was handwriting a story in a notebook. Ah, the days of scribbling away and getting blue ink all over my hands! I think I was in my late twenties before I abandoned that in favor of brainstorming on a computer.

At some point I started submitting my tales to various magazines, if you can call it that. I sent in roughly one story a year: my annual Why-Am-I-Doing-This-When-I-Know-I’m-Gonna-Get-A-Rejection-Day. I was always too busy getting in my own way, of course. I resisted learning technique or craft because I already Knew It All. I had a huge vocabulary! SecretsGallery I earned straight A’s in English class — when I turned in my homework, of course. That was always a problem. Homework is so boring…

Gaming was a lot more fun. I put far more effort into my AD&D campaigns than I ever spent on homework. I built detailed worlds and plans — I wanted to be sure that any tavern or stable the characters walked into, I had plots and hooks ready in all possible directions. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had a file cabinet drawer full of backstory and modules and character sheets and so on. I even developed voices for special NPCs.

Inevitably, it occurred to me that all this work would be better off used for stories. I drifted away from gaming and focused on my writing. Now I could finally showcase all the really cool stuff the gamers kept missing, and these characters wouldn’t ever insist on wandering off across town to the one spot I hadn’t developed, goddamnit–

Um. Yeah. Well, by the time I learned the flaw in that reasoning, it was too late. I already had so much time and effort invested into learning to write properly that there was nothing for it but to plow ahead. End result, happily, was a four-book publishing contract with Mercury Retrograde Press, and a handful of short stories accepted by various anthologies and short-fiction magazines.

In some ways, it was a lot more fun to tell stories to my sister’s stuffed animals. They were a fantastically supportive audience. Real life writing involves an awful lot of boring homework and practice exercises. I often miss being a GM, too; there’s something exceptionally cool about being in charge of steering a group of people from one disaster to another while they try desperately to outwit you.

But I have a desk, and a chair, and a pencil cup; I go to work in an office, and I feel very Business-y and adult. This is the life I dreamed of as a kid. And I have stuffed animals of my own now — two dragonets that ride on the dash of the Blue Dragon, my much-beloved Jeep; the mini dragons are named Marguerite and Henry. (Bonus points to anyone who gets the reference!)

I cannot confirm nor deny telling stories to my dragonets while I’m on long road trips.

VENTRELLA: the transformation from Dungeon Master to author is one I can relate to completely, as can many authors I’ve interviewed here. GuardiansGallery

Which of your characters was the hardest for you to write and why?

WISOKER: Hands down, Ellemoa has been the most difficult character in the series to date. For those unfamiliar with the series, a quick explanation is in order: Ellemoa is a ha’ra’ha from Arason, and Idisio’s mother. She is completely psychotic — by human standards, at least.

Ellemoa illustrates what happens when a ha’ra’ha loses interest in following human morality structures. The only reason she doesn’t go on a rampage and wipe out every single human being in sight is that it would hurt her son–and the last remnant of her sanity is tied to keeping Idisio safe from harm. Balancing her brutality and sympathy was a tricky process. Idisio needed to see himself as independent, Ellemoa needed to believe that she was in charge, the reader needed to see the dangerous slide toward mutual insanity underlying the entire relationship. And I needed the reader to be rooting for Ellemoa to come back from the darkness in spite of her terrible actions. So from a technical standpoint it was tough; from an emotional standpoint it was painful, because I had to really think about what she’d gone through and how she would react.

Not something I really want to do again. I’m not planning on ever developing another character quite that damaged. Once was enough, unless I want to start along Stephen King’s career path….

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist and antagonist believable characters?

WISOKER: With the “Children of the Desert” series, I found it easiest to round out each character by showing them from other points of view; thus the multiple POVs in each book. For example, one person thinks Alyea is wonderful, another sees her as a spoiled noble brat; and then there’s how she sees herself. That approach brings fantastic complexity to characters.

When I’m working with a single POV, as in my short stories, I try to keep ordinary and extraordinary moments balanced. BellsGallery In one of my stories (“Silver and Iron”, Sha’Daa: Pawns), an evil fae makes plans to sacrifice her lover in order to summon demons, then goes to the grocery store and deals with traffic jams. “Believable” roots in common experiences, in keeping a foot in what we see as real life. Meals are a really easy way of hitting that shared note, because everyone has to eat. Basic weather changes also give the character and the reader to meet on common ground.

The hardest part, for me, is cutting out the fat. I tend to overwrite, and my early drafts have to be put on a drastic diet. It’s a painful but strangely satisfying process.

Speaking of process, it’s time for me to return to my fiction writing. I’m still not done with the first draft of the last book in the “Children of the Desert” series, and it’s getting both annoying and embarrassing. Fear and anger are excellent motivational forces, aren’t they?

Thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog, Mike! This was a lot of fun.

Interview with author and editor Bernie Mojzes

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Bernie Mojzes is a writer and editor, responsible for a variety of stories ranging from fantasy and science fiction to horror to erotica, and even some non-genre work. He’s a friend who I see regularly at conventions, and has contributed some amazing and captivating stories my own TALES OF FORTANNIS series. bernie-spikeIn his copious spare time, he edits Unlikely Story.

Bernie, How did you first become interested in writing?

BERNIE MOJZES: I read voraciously as a kid, from day one of “Dick and Jane” when I finished the book while the other kids were trying to figure out page 3 (and was then told by the teacher that I was never to read faster than the other kids again. I wish I could have been there when my dad discussed that with the teacher.). But seriously, I loved reading, loved falling into those new and interesting worlds, and for as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve wanted to be one of those people who can create that sense of wonder in others.

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?

MOJZES: Ah, the nature/nurture question. There’s a massive difference between being a writer (being able to use written language to clearly and convincingly convey an idea) and being a storyteller (being able to create an interesting narrative that captivates an audience), and in the intersection of those two things is that creature that most people call “a writer.” Within that intersection, there are three major things that are necessary:

* a willingness to learn the craft (everything from basic grammar to how to incorporate beats and cadance into your prose)
* cultivation of the imagination
* observation and transformation of the world around you
* an openness to hearing critique

Yeah, I know. That’s four things. I can count. I swear.

Different people’s brains work in different ways. How we observe, how we perceive and what interpretations we make of those perceptions, and how we process and integrate and assimilate that information. And that’s not all, but it’s also how we connect the dots between that, what we’ve learned in the past, and what we will learn in the future, and then how we use all that to construct new worlds and new characters and new stories. Some people will weave intricate multilayered tapestries while others write linear, full-throttle with guns a-blazin’ adventures. What’s the right approach? There is none; there’s only the approach that works best for that particular writer.

If you can figure out the way your brain works best, and then train to minimize your weaknesses, and do the hard work of the three (4) things I listed above, I think most people can become good writers. But there are no shortcuts. It’s hard work – harder than most folks realize – and in the end, a lot of aspiring writers falter because they aren’t willing to do the work.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your latest work!

MOJZES: Last October I had a story in the debut issue of Betwixt Magazine called “The Red Danube,” available here. EvilGazebo_lgThis is the most difficult and unflinching piece I’ve had published, and I’m very proud of it. Technique-wise, it was a challange and a blast to write. I wanted to do two things simultaneously: pull the reader close into the the most intimate thoughts and actions of the characters while simultaneously pushing the reader away, holding the reader at a distance. Since one of my weaknesses is talking about my own work, its probably better to point you at a review of it up at ChiZine, which starts:

No end-of-year round up would be complete without mentioning Bernie Mojzes’s “The Red Danube” (Betwixt Issue 1, Fall 2013). This story is something else.

Charlotte Ashley reads deeply, and writes insightful reviews; she’s worth following closely.

VENTRELLA: How did you decide upon the theme for your magazine? I mean, really, bugs?

MOJZES: Hm. Yes, bugs. The magazine started its life as The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, a biannual online magazine dedicated to stories involving bugs. How we came up with that is a long and sordid tale that involves, well … it’s long and sordid, and since this is a PG13 blog, let’s just leave it at that. Ultimately, we decided that we wanted to see what we could do with a really unusual and specific theme. There was the danger, of course, that everyone would look at it and think, eww, bugs, I’ll send my horror story about spiders. Fortunately, the writing community came through for us, sending us, yes, some horror stories, but also stories about love and loss, death and transformation. About race relations and science and society and historical revisionism. Interestingly, by focusing in on such a seemingly narrow, weird theme, we’ve been able to put together issues of astounding diversity.

VENTRELLA: How has it been received?

MOJZES: Really well, surprisingly. When we first opened up for submissions, we were terrified of the grand experiment being a flop, but from Issue 1 on, we’ve had good to excellent reviews. We’ve had stories by some of the more interesting authors on the scene today. Stories that have appeared in our pages have gone on to make honorable mention lists and appear in Best of Year anthologies.

VENTRELLA: You’re expanding, though. Tell us about your new endeavor.

MOJZES: Expanding? Diversifying is probably a better word. In 2013 we decided that we’d offer new and interesting (for us, and hopefully for others) games to play. With this decision, we realized that The Journal of Unlikely Entomology was no longer properly descriptive, so we’ve gone with “Unlikely Story.” Under the Unlikely Story umbrella, we’ll continue to put out one issue of Unlikely Entomology, and also one issue of The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography (stories involving cryptography, ciphers, hacking, etc.), and one other issue. The first of those was The Journal of Unlikely Architecture (stories about buildings); the second will be The Journal of Unlikely Cartography (stories involving maps). Cryptography will be coming out in February, and we’re currently accepting submissions for the next Entomology issue.

VENTRELLA: You’ve co-written stories (for example, in the TALES OF FORTANNIS: A BARD IN THE HAND anthology, ahem) … how did you go about doing that? bardinhand-510 What was the process?

MOJZES: Co-writing a story is an interesting process. I wrote “Embarassing Relations” with Bob Norwicke, a friend of mine from an old D&D campaign. He’s since moved to a different state, and we’d lost touch, but he had this brilliantly twisted character in the game that I wanted to use as a foil for my protagonist. I found Bob online and asked if he’d mind me stealing his character. That’s how I found out that Bob’s also a writer, and we decided to give co-authoring a try. I sent him a rough one paragraph concept for the story, he liked it, so I wrote an opening scene, written from my protagonist’s POV. Sent it to Bob, who wrote the next scene from his protagonist’s POV. From there we alternated. Some of what we did was writing toward the conclusion, writing to move the plot along. But some of what we did was writing a scene that intentionally put the other’s protagonist into a bind. This was the challenge — write your way out of the bind while still moving the plot along. That created some really interesting and unexpected twists that, I think, led us to bring the story to places we might not have otherwise discovered.

We did establish some ground rules. First was that I had veto power (because it was my story idea), and would eventually do an editing pass to make the story stylistically cohesive. Second, either of us could say “my character wouldn’t do that,” and offer rewrite suggestions. Third, both of us were free to re-write any dialog that the other author put in our character’s mouth.

Other than that, we created a vague outline early on (which included the phrase “hijinx ensue” multiple times) – left intentionally vague in order for us to both have the freedom to play within the plot and let the plot evolve.

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist a believable character? And what’s the best way to make the antagonist a believable character?

MOJZES: Okay, first thing is, these two are secretly the same question, and I’d expand that out to include the secondary and tertiary characters that appear in your work.ClockworkChaos_lg All of these characters have, to the degree allowable by the point of view from which the story is told and the amount of time they have on the page, be as fully developed and “real” as possible.

First thing to remember is that every character is the protagonist of their own story. So whenever anyone does anything, it has to make sense for that individual to be doing that. Sometimes you find yourself writing a scene where the needy, self-absorbed and completely narcissistic friend of a friend suddenly does something immensely selfless in order to move a plot point along, you’ve got to take a step back and rethink. Maybe you need to rethink the character. Maybe you have to rethink how you get through that plot point.

But most importantly, remember that nobody is perfect. If you have a character that always does the right thing (or that always does the wrong thing, in the case of the villain), you end up with a caricature, not a character. Good people have flaws and failings. Bad people have good in them. That’s what it means to be human. You have to show that humanity in your characters.

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?

MOJZES: A character can be larger than life but still be believable. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Finding a character that’s big enough to be interesting but human enough to be believable.

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

Not much. I think as advice goes, it’s easily taken to mean that you should know your proper place and not dare step beyond it. All that leads to is solipsism. I think reversing it – know what you write – is more interesting. By which I mean, research deeply and respectfully, and with an open mind. Don’t be superficial, and don’t look to media representations of something for reality. Think three-dimensionally, and consider the wider context.

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

MOJZES: Whenever possible, I try to break the info dumps into smaller pieces and incorporate that into dialogue or action. fantasic_erotica_cover_comp_400x600Sometimes you’re stuck with an expository lump, though – information that you just need to get across to the reader, and can’t for whatever reason (word count limits, for example) deal with it more elegantly.

So, lets say there’s a 10 sentence paragraph that fills a whole page and sits like a giant indigestable lump in the middle of your story. So first, for each piece of information, decide whether or not the reader really needs it. (You may need someone else to point these out to you). Cut the bits that aren’t needed.

Now you have a 7 sentence info dump. See if there’s any of that that can be incorporated naturally into dialogue or action.

Now you have a 5 sentence info dump paragraph. Break it into 2 paragraphs and separate them with one or more paragraphs of dialogue and/or action.

Lastly, rewrite those two paragraphs so that the info that is dumped is done strongly through your POV character’s perspective. So, not just [fact], but [fact as your character perceives it]. By doing this, you’re taking what is largely an uninteresting declarative statement of fact and making it do double duty as something that reveals character. And like magic, you’ve turned a giant, boring info dump into interesting, compelling prose.

VENTRELLA: As an editor, what is the biggest problem you have when dealing with authors?

MOJZES: We have blessedly not really had any major problems with authors. The biggest problem has been technological, where the author wasn’t seeing all of the edits we had sent them, either due to old software, file format incompatibilities, or whatever. And that ultimately leads to misunderstandings and aggravation on all sides. Probably the most problematic of these issues comes from authors having their software set to use .docx format by default, and we suggest that people change the default settings to use .doc or .rtf instead.

VENTRELLA: In this market, with the publishing industry changing daily, how important is the small press?

MOJZES: In an environment in with that large presses are contracting and consolidating, small press is critically important. Dead_souls_Cover_Final OnlyWell, first, we should really define some terms. There are small presses like Small Beer and Subterranean that have significant resources and ability to put books into bookstores, and micro-presses which perhaps only put out a few titles a year. I think it’s important to understand that distinction, because they really fulfill a different need in the market.

The are three technological innovations that allow small presses to be successful with books that a large press won’t touch: Print-on-Demand, The Internet, and e-books. POD and e-books allow small press to reduce or eliminate the need to order and warehouse large print runs of books that aren’t guaranteed to sell. The Internet allows people to find obscure and niche books, leading to something called “The Long Tail.” Small and micro-press can cater to niche markets and be successful selling smaller unit counts.

This creates opportunities for a wide variety of authors who simply could not be successful under a large press marketing scheme.

Interview with author Thomas Erb

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: From the snowy confines of Upstate New York, from a place he calls “Hell’s 1/2 Acre,” author/artist Thomas A. Erb brings stories of the unlikely hero: from extreme brutal violence, to touching, gripping interpersonal relationships sure to catch the reader and never let them free. (He wrote that.) 2012-09-29 22.36.48

Thomas, how did you first become interested in writing?

THOMAS ERB: I’ve always been a storyteller. It started visual when I was two and used to draw elaborate battles with army men fighting the Nazis or another vile foe. It then turned to comic books. For most of my young life, all I wanted to do was work for Marvel comics. I would create my own characters and write whole story arcs to accompany all my great illustrations. (pure sarcasm intended.)

Then I got into role-playing games. Yup, that’s right … Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Champions, Twilight 2000, Call of Cthulu, you name it, I’ve played it. And, just like for comics, I’d have to create highly detailed character backstories and potential subplots for my DM(s). Although, I never knew if they liked that I did that or not. Oh, as a word of advice … Never piss off a Game Master. Bad idea.

Now, I’ve fallen in love with writing my very own fiction — a love that keeps on growing with each tale I tell.

VENTRELLA: I must admit, my background is similar — I went from creating worlds and stories in D&D to creating them in LARPs to writing my own stories (the characters in my books are so much easier to control than my players).

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?

ERB: I believe we all have an innate creative talent. Each one of us has something to say and in that yes, we are all storytellers. However, much like my philosophy with the visual and musical arts, I think that innate ability has a limitation. By that I mean, while we all can create, there is a certain level where some folks top off their talent. Some folks are just “born” to be X. Poe/Hemingway/Toklien/King were surely born to the written word. Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Picasso, Rembrandt were put on this earth to give us visual masterpieces. Krupa, Rich, Peart were born to make playing the drums into a sonic art form. Same goes for the rest of us.

Quick life anecdote: While I was born to draw, I never tried hard. It’s always come easy to me. I had friends that would bust their humps and draw for hours and hours and no matter what, they couldn’t draw the same level as I did. (Now, I am saying this with no ego at all. Just an observation.) The same holds true for drumming. I’ve been playing drums since I was 16 and really love jamming. Sure, I’ve been in many bands and jammed with some amazingly talented musicians but I’ve plateaued my drumming talent. I know I will never be a Neil Peart. I wasn’t “born” with that level of ability. Even if I took more lessons and practiced for ten hours a day. It’s just a reality.

So … very long answer I know, but yes, writing talent is human nature but the level of craftsmanship,language, once in a generation storytelling ability does have a cut off. Not everyone can be Stephen King, Tolkien or James Joyce.


ERB: My very first novella, TONES OF HOME, was released in June of last year and it’s the most brutal, violent story I’ve ever written. If you dig graphic scenes with tons of blood, machetes and shotguns, rednecks and oh yeah, the Beatles … then this story is right up your jukebox.TONES official Cover

I am currently working on my first novel. (well, the one that I actually want folks to read.) It’s a deep story of loss, troubled relationships, a Nor’easter and a black monster coming to a small lakeside town, seeking revenge. I’m really loving this project and hope to have it in the hands of an agent by Thanksgiving.

VENTRELLA: What should someone read first if they want to get to know your work?

ERB: That’s a really tough one. I feel like I am just now, seeing my true “voice” come to fruition. While I loved writing all the great bloodletting in TONES OF HOME, I don’t think I am a Richard Laymon kind of writer. But, it’s the best work I’ve done thus far. So, Yeah, I’d say check out TONES OF HOME or “Spencer Weaver gets Rebooted.” It’s in a new anthology called FRESH FEAR.

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

ERB: All of my stories seem to be based around an extremely flawed character. Or, as I like to refer to them, the unlikely hero. Usually they have something about them, whether it be a physical or mental determent. I have a weakness for the “loser”. The outcast, the outsider. A fat or skinny kid with asthma. I just identify with that and my thinking is, “hey, if I can feel for this guy/gal, then the readers should as well.” It’s not about having the Chisel-chinned, barrel-chested hero, saving the day. No … that’s the easy way out. It’s more of a challenge to break away from that trope and find a way for this less-than-heroic protagonist to overcome all the huge hurdles that makes up a great compelling story.

All characters must have flaws. Both protagonists and antagonists. (even Darth Vader has a soft side.)

VENTRELLA: Certainly agree with that (as you can tell if you read about the reluctant “hero” of my fantasy books.)

ERB: There are so many basic story ideas out there in the ether and to me, it’s more of how you get there as opposed to reworking old ground. Either way, readers want to escape and I hope I offer a wide mix of rich characters and tales they can sink their hungry teeth into.

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

ERB: When I first started writing, I just sat down, opened a cold beer and let the muse of chaos take the wheel. That’s how I wrote my first novel. (a zombie tale that might see the light of day … someday.) But, when I went back to write a second draft, I was overwhelmed. Too many characters. Too many plots and subplots.

So, now, I am working on a happy medium kind of approach. I need to have some kind outline. It’s always loose and organic. Nothing is written in concrete. That would feel too much like a term paper and not an adventure.

I write the basic novel idea is. Usually the characters come to me almost immediately. I then write a very loose outline and then, write the first draft. Get it all down, fast and dirty. Never looking back.

Side note: Dry erase boards and sticky notes are a writer’s best friend.

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

ERB: This is lame, but I’m going to steal from the master. Stephen King states in his must-read ON WRITING book that we should take that statement as much extensively and inclusively as possible.

While I may not know anything about being a Gunny Sargent in the Royal Space Marines guarding the Princess Allayha, I do know what it’s like to always try to live with the demon of my father being a cruel man whom I could never please. You can use that kind of thing in your fiction.

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

After on a whim, I spent a year writing a zombie novel, I decided that I really enjoyed this writing thing and I started meeting other writers online. Back then, it was Myspace and through a few message boards. I discovered Brian Keene, (who’s book GHOUL made me want to write seriously) and found out he was attending a con in Ohio. I went and met him and some other folks that changed my life forever.

I began writing short stories and then submitted my short story, “Cutting Class” to the DARK THINGS II anthology edited by Ty Schwamberger (whom I met at the con) and next thing I knew, Bazzinga! I was a published author. mock cover

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?

ERB: I think each person tackles their writing in their own way. I jumped straight into the novel but I was only doing it for fun. It wasn’t until later that I wanted to do something with this whole writer gig.

With some hindsight, I’d suggest write some short stories first. With shorter works, you really learn how to write tight, lean prose. Plus, it’s far easier (and I use that term loosely) to get published.

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

ERB: I think both have their own angels and demons. It also depends on what kind of storyteller you are. If you like deep character development and more than two intricate plots…a novel is best for you. If you really dig fast-paced, gripping tales with a small cast… short stories are for you.
I love writing both. I usually like to write a short story in between other long works. It’s a nice change of pace.

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

ERB: Platform. Publishers are looking to see if you have an effective and active writer’s platform. And to me, that means an engaging, fresh online presence. A blog, Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, Goodreads account. And many, many more. Too many, in my opinion. It can be a distraction, trying to keep up with updating all your social media sites. (A necessary evil, but still evil.)

I do giveaways, I’ve done podcast interviews, blog talk radio interviews. I go to conventions when the money is right and try to post something funny, new and interesting on the social sites as much as I can manage.

I’m always looking for new ways to get my work out there. It’s an ongoing process.

13. Do you attend conventions or writing conferences? Do you find these to be a useful activity?

I attend as many as time and finances allow. Conventions are one of the biggest reasons I’m here today. I’ve made many, life-long friendships as well as business connections. It’s a must to get you and your words out there. We writers live and create in a room, all alone. You need to get out and meet other like-minded folks who know what you’ve been going through.

Plus, I’ve gotten the blurbs for my books and stories because of the conventions and conferences. Writing and life in general is about relationships.

Get you and your stories out there.

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

ERB: When I first started writing back in 2007, self-publishing was the devil’s work. It was much maligned- rightfully so and very much a joke. But now, in 2014, you are a fool if you don’d consider exploring the self-publishing market. Things are fluid and ever-changing in the publishing world and the once hated and mocked world of self-publishing is now becoming common place.
The secret is to put out work that kicks the crap out of any book that comes out of the big 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?fresh-fear3

ERB: Get the first draft down, fast and dirty. Don’t stop to worry if it’s good. That’s what second and third drafts are for.

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

ERB: Research the publisher before you sign a contract. Know the business side of things. Royalty rates/payments/editing, etc.

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

ERB: Anything from Jonathan Maberry. They guy is a monster and tackles all the genres I love. YA zombies, military thrillers, comic books, you name it. He is my mentor and I use him as my career guidepost.

VENTRELLA: And I couldn’t help but notice he named a character after you in his latest novel…

ERB: Jon was so kind to have his signature cop-turned Department of Military Sciences bad ass Joe Ledger clean my clock in his last Ledger novel, EXTINCTION MACHINE. I think my jaw still pops when I talk.

VENTRELLA: What can we expect next from you?

ERB: I have a retro-zombie novella that is looking for a new home. And I am currently writing a wintry monster novel that I hope to have completed and in the hands of agent by the end of the year.

I am also working on a comic script, a screenplay and a self-publishing project of my short works I hope to have out early in 2015.

I love having a lot on my plate. Not just saying that as a fat guy. I have many stories and projects inside me and time is of the essence.

Interview with Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing one of my favorite writers, Robert J. Sawyer! Mr. Sawyer has won 51 awards for his fiction, including the Hugo and the Nebula, and the top science-fiction awards in Canada, China, France, Japan, and Spain, plus an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada. 220px-Robert_j_sawyer_in_2005The ABC TV series “Flashforward” was based on his novel of the same name. His physical home is in Toronto, and his online home is here!

The big news is that your 22nd novel RED PLANET BLUES has just been released. It’s a detective novel set on Mars done in the noir style, first person and everything. What made you want to write this?

ROBERT J. SAWYER: It’s become increasingly hard to tell traditional detective stories set in the present day. Everyone knows about CSI-style forensics: it’s almost impossible for a killer not to leave behind fingerprints or DNA. And our public and private spaces are increasingly covered by surveillance cameras; there’s almost no room left —- on Earth anyway —- for the traditional whodunit. But RED PLANET BLUES is set on a lawless frontier Mars -— where the security cameras have been smashed —- and it involves a technology that lets people transfer their consciousnesses into gorgeous android bodies, which don’t have fingerprints and don’t shed DNA. But who is actually inside any given body is anyone’s guess, letting me tell a good-old fashioned mystery … out on the final frontier.

VENTRELLA: From the opening chapters, it almost feels as a mixture of various pulp fiction styles. Was that the desire?

SAWYER: Absolutely. “Pulp” shouldn’t be thought of as a dirty word. Two of the most successful commercial fiction genres today are science fiction and mystery, and both have their roots in pulp magazines of the 1920s through 1950s. It seemed natural to bring those two genres together in that particular voice.

VENTRELLA: Was it difficult trying to capture that style of writing?

SAWYER: It was, but it was also very rewarding. Untitled-2 I immersed myself in noir mystery fiction to get the voice right, and Raymond Chandler, one of the fathers of that genre, wrote a very helpful essay entitled “The Simple Art of Murder” in 1950, which he gives lots of advice on how to write that form.

VENTRELLA: In some ways, a good science fiction novel is like a good mystery, although usually the “mystery” involves scientific discovery, doesn’t it?

SAWYER: Yes, indeed. I’ve always felt that science fiction has much more in common with mystery than with fantasy, anyway. Science fiction, after all, is about things that plausibly might happen; fantasy is about things that never could happen —- in that sense, they’re antithetical genres. But science fiction and mystery both prize rational thought, and both ask the reader to carefully pick up the clues the author has salted into the text —- in mystery, of course, to solve the crime, and in science fiction to puzzle out the unfamiliar backdrop against which the story is being told.

VENTRELLA: How did you approach writing a more traditional mystery? Did it require more outlining and preparation, for instance?

SAWYER: Absolutely. Mystery is a very complex narrative form – every piece has to fit together, and in the end it all has to go snick-snick-snick at it falls into place. That requires a lot of planning.

VENTRELLA: This seems like it was a fun novel to write. What novel gave you the most writing pleasure?

SAWYER: I think I enjoyed writing CALCULATING GOD the most; it was an absolute joy to write, in part because it was in a way an alternative version of my own life: I’d originally hoped to become a dinosaur specialist at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, just like Tom Jericho, the main character in that novel.calculating-god-tp

VENTRELLA: Looking back, do you have a favorite novel (or series)?

SAWYER: My favorite series of mine is the WWW trilogy of WAKE, WATCH, and WONDER, about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness. I loved the range of characters I got to write: blind teenage math genius Caitlin Decter, her autistic father Malcolm Decter, the chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid Hobo, and Webmind itself, the vast world-spanning intelligence.

VENTRELLA: Which of your characters was the hardest for you to create?

SAWYER: Alex Lomax, the protagonist of RED PLANET BLUES because he’s so unlike me. He’s violent, coarse, hard-drinking, uneducated, and a loner; I’m a pacifist, I try to be kind, I don’t drink, I went to university, and I’m gregarious. But for RED PLANET BLUES to work as hardboiled detective fiction, Alex had to have the traits I gave him.

VENTRELLA: What book has surprised you the most upon completion?

SAWYER: TRIGGERS, which has just come out in paperback in North America after a successful run in hardcover. It was unlike any book I’d ever written before -– an out-and-out page-turner thriller. I found it very challenging, but ultimately very rewarding, to write.

VENTRELLA: A common theme in your books involves science versus religion. How do you try to approach that issue without possibly alienating certain readers (or does that come into play at all)?

SAWYER: As a writer, your job isn’t to be blandly acceptable to everyone; it’s to be the favorite author of a narrow segment of the reading public. If I wasn’t alienating some people, I wouldn’t be doing my job. My editor at Tor, David G. Hartwell, used to say to me sometimes, “You know you’re going to lose some readers if you keep that bit in,” and I’d say, “Yes, I understand that,” and we’d both nod and move on. triggers-by-robert-j-sawyer I’m interested in being provocative and in getting people to think about things they perhaps haven’t pondered for years.

VENTRELLA: Here in the US, it seems that religion has trumped science much more than in Canada or Europe, especially in our political fights over creationism in the schools, abortion, and gay rights. Do you think we will ever evolve past religious belief, or will we still be believing a thousand years from now?

SAWYER: I think if we don’t evolve past fundamentalist religious belief, we won’t be here a thousand years from now; it’s fundamentalism that will lead to the wide-scale terrorism at home and abroad. As technology advances, and more and more destructive power is in the hands of individuals, someone will destroy us all, unless we as a species grow up. I tried to portray what that grown-up society might be like in my Hugo Award-winning HOMINIDS and its sequels.

VENTRELLA: Memory – or maybe “consciousness” – seems to be another thread common in your books. Who we are and what we perceive. Do you find that subject comes up subconsciously in your work or do you generally plan stories around that particular theme?

SAWYER: I’ve said that science fiction is the genre of intriguing juxtapositions, and that being a science-fiction writer is the best job for a science generalists – someone who likes to be involved with multiple disciplines. Well, there’s no more multidisciplinary area than consciousness studies, in which neuroscientists, computer scientists, cognitive theorists, quantum physicists, and philosophers all come together and spark off each other. Inner space is far more interesting to me than outer space, and so that’s what I write about.

VENTRELLA: I just finished FLASH FORWARD and noted how it ended with an idea that you later used for ROLLBACK. Had you considered making ROLLBACK a sequel originally, or did you just want to write about immortality in a similar way? fLASHfORWARD

SAWYER: I don’t like sequels. FLASHFORWARD and ROLLBACK both involve radical life prolongation because those are inevitable technologies; it’s going to happen, and if you’re writing about the future you have to acknowledge that. But the two books are unrelated to each other.

VENTRELLA: You’ve written about immortality in various ways in more than one novel. Is this because you’d like to be immortal? Is there something special about the topic that interests you?

SAWYER: What interests me about it is not dying. Sure, I’d like to live a very long time – I’m 52, and haven’t read 1% of the books I’d like to, I haven’t seen even a quarter of this planet (and I travel a lot), there is, rounded to the nearest percent, 100% of the human race I haven’t yet met. More: we still are trying to work out fundamental problems in social interaction, social justice, and international relations -– we’ve been struggling with them for thousands of years. Maybe that’s because, in all those millennia, no problem has ever been worked on for more than a few decades by any one person. We need the time to dig in and solve the really big conundrums; nature’s natural lifespan doesn’t provide enough time -– but science will.

VENTRELLA: How much input did you have in the “Flash Forward” TV series?

SAWYER: Lots. I met with David Goyer and Brannon Braga before I did the deal to let them adapt my book, and we discussed every change they wanted to make. I was consultant on every episode, spent a lot of time on the set and in the writers’ room in Los Angeles, and wrote the 19th episode, “Course Correction.”

VENTRELLA: Do you feel that the action bits they added were necessary for a TV audience and an on-going series? Did they distract too much from the story?

SAWYER: Sure, they were necessary for the TV audience. That’s why we added them. A novel can be cerebral -– people talking about ideas, or thinking about them without doing or saying anything -– but TV is a visual medium: things have to be happening constantly on screen or viewers turn away. As for distraction from the story, not at all: we had more story beats, more continuing characters, and a more involved plot, than just about any other show on the air at that time.

VENTRELLA: You’ve certainly had other works optioned before. Is there anything in the pipeline we can look forward to?

SAWYER: It looks like the movie version of THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT is finally going to happen, and I’ve just been commissioned to write a screenplay adaptation of TRIGGERS for a feature film, and I have high hopes of that being made, too.9780765345004_p0_v1_s260x420

VENTRELLA: What is it about science fiction that attracts you?

SAWYER: The variety: I can write hardboiled detective fiction (RED PLANET BLUES), courtroom drama (ILLEGAL ALIEN), romance (ROLLBACK), thriller (TRIGGERS), allegory (FAR-SEER), and more, all without leaving the genre. Science fiction is the least-restrictive genre to be working in.

VENTRELLA: Science fiction doesn’t seem to sell as much as before; do you think we’ve just become so used to our gadgets and modern technology that reading about spaceships doesn’t hold the wonder it did when we were kids? (I’m about your age, by the way…)

SAWYER: No, I think it’s something you alluded to earlier: if you don’t teach the core truths about science –- cosmology, evolutionary biology, and so forth -– people lose interest in what the Canadian poet Archibald Lampman called “the wide awe and wonder of the night.” Yes, there’s not much science fiction about spaceships, but that never was what science fiction was all about. But it is about science, and a culture that devalues or distrusts science isn’t one that’s going to embrace a literature that’s built on it.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

SAWYER: Most of my reading is nonfiction -– Robert Wright, Steven Pinker, Ray Kurzweil, and so on. But within the science-fiction genre, I love the works of Julie E. Czerneda, Jack McDevitt, and Robert Charles Wilson.

Interview with Author Myke Cole

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Myke Cole, who constantly upstages me whenever we’re on a panel together at a convention. Headshots of Myke ColeAs a secu­rity con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke’s career has run the gamut from Coun­tert­er­rorism to Cyber War­fare to Fed­eral Law Enforce­ment. Thank goodness for fantasy.

Myke, let’s start with the big news about your latest book FORTRESS FRONTIER. Give us a hint of what it’s about.

MYKE COLE: FORTRESS FRONTIER is the second book in my SHADOW OPS military fantasy series. It tells the story of a military bureaucrat suddenly forced to take command of a combat outpost against hopeless odds. The book explores the question we all ask ourselves: how would I stand up in a crisis? What would I do if I were truly tested?

Oscar Britton, the main character in CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS #1) is a character in FORTRESS FRONTIER, but not the protagonist. I always intended to use a ensemble cast in this series, and FORTRESS FRONTIER is the first step in that direction.

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting it?

COLE: The same way I promoted CONTROL POINT: I’m carpet bombing the Internet with guest blog posts, interviews, giveaway contests and excerpts. I just put out a book trailer. I’m getting out to cons as much as I can. I just got back from Confusion, and I’ll be hitting Boskone and Lunacon in the next two months.

But the biggest thing I’m doing? Not being a dick. I don’t bear-bait or take polarizing stances in public. I don’t tear other people down. I respond to my fans when they email or @ me. I have adhesive backed bookplates that I can sign and send to people if they want an autographed copy of my work, but don’t want to pay the high price of shipping a book back and forth. I generally try to be accessible, available and kind to people, whether they’re industry pros, personal friends or fans I’ve never met before. That’s rarer than you’d think, and it goes a long way.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Shadow Ops series.

COLE: Peter V. Brett described it best when he called it “Blackhawk Down meets the X-Men.” It’s as honest a look I can provide into how the US military would deal with the existence of magic. It deals with some tough issues like the conflict between liberty and security in a free society, but it’s also crammed full of giant explosions and helicopter gunships squaring off against rocs. Win-win, if you ask me.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a set series in mind? In other words, do you have a plan for a specific number of books in the series?

COLE: I’m under contract for 6 books right now. BREACH ZONE will complete the arc of this particular story, but the other 3 will also be SHADOW OPS books. ShadowOps_FortressFrontier_US_Final1Books 4 and 5 will be prequels, taking place in the early days of the Great Reawakening before CONTROL POINT. Book 6 will follow an ancillary character from FORTRESS FRONTIER on his own adventure.

After that, I’ll take a look at the state of publishing and book selling, see how fans are reacting to my work, and decide where to go next.

VENTRELLA: I have to admit that “military fantasy” is a genre with which I am unfamiliar. Was that a hard sell to agents and editors?

COLE: I only ever tried to sell it to one agent – Joshua Bilmes. He has been a dear friend for over a decade now, and from our first conversation, I knew he was the only person in the world I wanted to represent me. He rejected 3 novels from me over 7 years before finally agreeing to represent CONTROL POINT, and a lot of people suggested I try other agents. But I never did. It was going to be Joshua, or it was never going to be.

Editors were a different story. They did balk at a blending of two genres that appeal to disparate audiences. When CONTROL POINT went out to market, it garnered rejection after rejection, many with comments like, “the story seems unsure of its voice.” I had almost given up hope when Anne Sowards made the offer.

VENTRELLA: How did you obtain Joshua Bilmes?

COLE: How did I “obtain” him? That makes it sound like I have him trussed up in my desk drawer. I knew of Joshua by doing research on who was representing authors I admired. I then deliberately sought him out at a SFWA party at Philcon in 2003. Fortunately, we hit it off amazingly, stayed up talking until 3 AM, and have been close friends ever since. As I said earlier, Joshua rejected 3 novels over 7 years from me. All that time we were visiting one another (I lived in DC at the time), exchanging phone calls and emails. The friendship was always separate from our business relationship.

But, ultimately, how did I “obtain” him? I wrote a good book and sent it to him. That’s the only way anyone ever gets an agent. There is no end run.

VENTRELLA: It appears that you started off, like me, writing mostly nonfiction. Do you feel that the skills learned in writing nonfiction are comparable to writing fiction?

COLE: In the bones, sure. Good nonfiction requires solid prose styling and feel for rhythm, the beats of your sentences. You have to be interesting and construct a narrative in essays just as much as in fiction.

The real difference for me is in Law-Enforcement/Military/Intelligence writing (reports, orders, plans, analysis, etc) that is a totally different animal.

VENTRELLA: What was your first published piece of fiction and how did you get that published?

COLE: Let’s talk about the first piece of fiction I had professionally published. That would be “Blood and Horses,” a military SF short that took 3rd in the Writers of the Future contest and was published in Vol. XIX. wotf191I did it the old fashioned way, I entered a story every quarter, without fail, for 5 years.

Now, it was a great experience and there’s no doubt that it launched my career. I learned a ton out in LA, developed some critical contacts, and got the shot in the arm I needed to keep going. Unfortunately, I later learned that the contest is not firewalled from the Church of Scientology, and there are personal and financial ties there. I certainly won’t judge the beliefs of the church (or of any faith), but there’s enough reporting of physical/financial abuse tied to them that I am now very uncomfortable with having participated. There’s nothing I can do about it now, other than caution new writers who are considering getting involved.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing. Are you someone who outlines heavily or are you a “pantser”?

COLE: I am an uber outliner. I frequently have outlines as long as 50-100 pages before I write a lick of prose. I also submit my outlines for feedback before beginning prose. This way, I don’t wind up with a problem later in the manuscript that forces me to throw out 30,000 words at the 11th hour. Oh, wait. That happens all the time anyway. *sigh*

VENTRELLA: Do you start with an idea, a setting, or a character?

COLE: In the case of the SHADOW OPS series, I started with an idea: “How would the US military handle magic?”

VENTRELLA: What sort of research do you do when building a character (or a setting or plotline, for that matter)?

I use the Internet almost exclusively. It’s rare I can’t find intimate details on almost any topic (I had to research heavy crane operations for BREACH ZONE). When I hit walls on Wikipedia, I turn to friends and sometimes acquaintances and fans I know through social media.

When all else fails, I make it up. These are fantasy novels.

VENTRELLA: What techniques do you use to make your hero someone with whom the reader can relate?

COLE: The irony here is that the technique I used arguably failed. I made Oscar Britton, the protagonist of CONTROL POINT as human as possible. He’s wavering, indecisive, terrified of the decisions that face him. I feel confident that is an accurate portrayal of how a person of his background (bad family, no sense of rootedness) would handle the situation he finds himself in, but it’s also the most consistent criticism of the novel. In the end, I don’t think readers want real characters. They want dramatic, inspiring characters that feel real. There’s a big difference there.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to establish a believable fantasy world? In other words, how can you introduce the fantasy elements into the story and make them real without relying on info dumps?

COLE: I cheated. I use epigraphs at the top of each chapter that allow me to engage in as much exposition as I want without getting accused of info dumping. I mask it all in the form of quotes, newsclips, etc, but the truth is that it’s all just stuff I needed the reader to know and couldn’t think of any other way to get it to them.

VENTRELLA: When going through second and third drafts, what do you look for? What is your main goal?

COLE: First off, 2nd and 3rd drafts are hors d’oeuvres. CONTROL POINT went through 14 drafts. ShadowOpsCoverFORTRESS FRONTIER had 9. BREACH ZONE is currently on its 7th. And what is my main goal? To make the book awesome.

VENTRELLA: All writers basically write what they would like to read. So what do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

COLE: Totally disagree. Plenty of writers try to strike out and do something new, and others write what they think will sell. I certainly won’t pass judgment on either decision, but that’s not what I do.

My favorite authors? There isn’t room to list them all, but here’s a few: Peter V. Brett, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, George R. R. Martin, Richard K. Morgan, Naomi Novik, China Mieville, James Clavell, Bernard Cornwell, Jack Campbell, Mark Lawrence. Believe me, I could go on.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you?

Stop writing short stories. There’s like 3 people in the entire world who read short stories for pleasure. Everyone else is an aspiring writer looking for the magic key. You want to be a novelist so write novels. If you write a dynamite novel, nobody is going to care that you didn’t have a story published in F&SF or Realms of Fantasy. They’re going to buy and publish your novel because it’s awesome. Stop wasting time and learn your craft.

VENTRELLA: With the publishing industry in constant change, do you think the small press has become more acceptable, prominent, and/or desirable for beginning writers?


VENTRELLA: Do you ever advise self-publishing?

Yes. I think that self-publishing is a perfectly viable way to go about bringing your work to market. The trick is making sure that you actually have work that’s good enough to bring to market and you’re just an unrecognized genius, vice doing an end-run around the bald fact that your work just isn’t there yet.

I absolutely cannot judge my own work. I need an expert to give it the nod. Self-publishing also requires a lot of project management skills. You have to be your own art director, and you have to supervise the copy-editor and the proof reader. You have to get ISBNs, you have to convert and format your text. You have to get it uploaded and figure out a good price point.

That’s a shit ton of work. I’d far rather give a professional a percentage of my profits and let them deal with all that crap.

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?

COLE: After that big speech I just made about short stories and self-publishing, I’ve just completed a novelette set in the SHADOW OPS universe. It’s a piece of backstory for BREACH ZONE told from the goblin point of view. I briefly considered sending it out to short story markets, but was turned off by the market policies (no simultaneous submissions). So, now I’m toying with the idea of self-publishing it, or using my literary agency’s eBook program (for which they charge the standard fee of 15%).


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