Prologues: The Devil’s Work

Prologues: Do editors really hate them?

Recently, at a writer’s discussion, an aspiring author discussed his fantasy novel. It started with a prologue that explained something important that happened fifty years prior to the action that begins the first chapter.

I advised him to cut it and work that information into the book in other ways. I dislike prologues.

Too often, especially in science fiction and fantasy books, authors use a prologue to explain the world and set the scene. Instead of jumping into the story, we get a long history lesson, full of names and places we’ll instantly forget, many of which never appear again in the book.

Bor – ring.

Let us find out about that background when it’s needed. Introduce it through dialogue instead of in some “info dump.” Trust your readers.

You’ll probably find that most of the information you created isn’t really needed for the story.

Writing a background history is important — I encourage all authors writing to develop their worlds fully. It will aid you greatly in developing your characters’ personalities. However, your reader doesn’t need all that information.

ARCH ENEMIES and THE AXES OF EVIL take place in a fantasy world with a detailed history. The magic in this world works in a specific way. Terin, the teenager who gets pulled into the adventure against his will, learns what history and magic he needs to know as he progresses through the story. Amazingly enough, that’s exactly the amount the reader needs in order to follow the story and get excited about its plot.

None of the rest of that grand world history is in the book other than through passing comments. It’s not needed to tell the story.

Not all prologues are evil. Just unnecessary ones. For instance, in a tale about a haunted house, a short prologue describing the murder that took place there a hundred years ago might work just fine. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a prologue that sets the story. But then, why not just name that “Chapter One”?

Here’s my entire first chapter for my upcoming novel BLOODSUCKERS, about a vampire who runs for President (disclaimer: This could change by the time of publication):

Norman Mark was a politician with skeletons in his closet.


I could have called that the prologue, because it sets up the feel of the book in a concise way while not actually starting the plot at all. In fact, Norman Mark is not even the main character.

I have no problem with an introductory opening like that — and neither do editors. There are plenty of examples of books that begin this way.

Really, what I hate (and what editors hate) are info dumps — where the author needs the reader to understand certain things and gives a lesson instead of tells a story.

I’m against those at any point in the book, but especially in the beginning. Your opening words need to grab the reader, and a history lesson doesn’t do it.

Interview with author Peter Orullian

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Peter Orullian. In 2006, Peter sold his first short story to a Denise Little anthology, and has since sold numerous stories to both Denise and Marty Greenberg, as well as Orson Scott Card’s “Intergalactic Medicine Show.” Then, in early 2009, Tor purchased the first three books in an epic fantasy series Peter is writing. His web page is here.

How did you get your first “big break” in publishing? Did you have an agent first?

PETER ORULLIAN: I think my story here is pretty traditional, and maybe a tad boring. I did get an agent first, and he then sold my fantasy series, The Vault of Heaven, to Tor. The funny thing is that in today’s publishing world, the path to publication is happening in so many ways. But my “big break” was that I landed a new agent—-I’d had one prior-—who took a deep interest in my work and almost immediately sold my books. There’s much to be said for having someone who really gets behind you.

VENTRELLA: Aspiring authors often seem to think that writing a book is easy and your first one is sure to be a huge hit. What writing experience did you have prior to publication?

ORULLIAN: Well, I’d sold a dozen or so short stories. But more than this, I’d spent several years working on my craft and understanding the business side of writing and publishing by attending workshops and following the industry. That isn’t to say that I’ve got it all figured out, but if a writer is serious, he needs to commit these kinds of things.

On instant success, I get how aspiring writers start to think this way. They’re close to their own work, and they yearn to be writing full time, doing something they love. And unfortunately, the success stories of writers who have this happen to them are oft repeated in writing circles. The thing a writer needs to do is keep writing, put his heart into each book, and then move on to the next one. With that approach, things will generally continue to get better on all fronts.

VENTRELLA: What resources did you use in creating your fantasy world?

ORULLIAN: Lots of imagination. That sounds cavalier, but it’s kinda true. I’m sure that all my years of reading, and my college days, and all my wide interests have found their way into the work. And often you’ll start down a path, and realize you need to know a bit more about a particular thing, and so you’ll do some research. But I like to extol the value of invention. Plus, therein lies the fun!

VENTRELLA: What distinguishes your fantasy world and story from all the others?

ORULLIAN: At the end of the day, stories are about the characters. And I’ve got a unique bunch. Oh, there are things like magic systems, one based on music that is pretty unique —- I’m a musician, you should know. Then, of course, the cosmology is my own, and like that. But I tend to believe that we mostly read for characters, and I’ve put mine through the grinder, as they say. They’re forced to make very hard choices, and to try to reconcile doing the right thing for the wrong reason and vice versa. Those moments of intense personal conflict, I like to think, are one of the hallmarks of my series.

VENTRELLA: THE UNREMEMBERED is the first in a new series. Have you planned them all out in advance or are you taking them one at a time?

ORULLIAN: I’ve got the first three pretty well defined. And I know the ending with a great deal of clarity. Then, the space between the end of book three and the end of the series, I have in broad strokes. So, there’s still some planning to do late in the series.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the plot for THE UNREMEMBERED.

ORULLIAN: Oh, man. I’m not good at summarizing my own work. And mostly, I don’t think it can be done well in short bits of text for any book. Suffice to say that nations and realms are on the brink of war; social upheaval is putting ideologies at odds; ancient threats and enemies are stirring; and there are some who see the coming storm who are working desperately to avoid it.

See, that’s not real awesome when you boil it down. But I’ve had readers who like George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss and others email me and tell me liken my work in many respects to these epic fantasists. So, that’s both humbling, and perhaps an indication of the type of books I’m writing.

VENTRELLA: Do you tend to outline heavily or just jump right in? What is your writing style?

ORULLIAN: I’m somewhere in between. I have a rough outline, that I deviate from quite a bit. But having the outline is a nice set of guideposts to get me moving. And I do a great deal of story thinking in my outline phase, which I find helpful when I sit to write. That said, a lot of discovery takes place in the writing itself.

VENTRELLA: When creating believable characters, what techniques do you use?

ORULLIAN: Think first: What matters most to my character? Then, give them conflict and real motivation.

VENTRELLA: What was the biggest mistake you made in your career?

ORULLIAN: I stuck with my first agent for longer than I should have, since he didn’t seem to have an active interest in my career.

VENTRELLA: Tell me about the book trailer. Did you produce this or hire someone to do so, or did your publisher take care of it?

ORULLIAN: I produced it with the help of some friends. I’m lucky to have folks around me with crazy amounts of talent. So, between the set of us, we’ve done some pretty cool things, I think.

VENTRELLA: Do you feel that book trailers help sales at all?

ORULLIAN: Good question. I’m not sure. I don’t have any analytics on my own stuff, so I can’t speak with any kind of authority on it. Mostly, these kinds of things are there to help create awareness of your work. So, doing at least some of these kinds of things seems right. You simply have to take a balanced approach—don’t over-index on marketing stuff. The best sales tool for your work is the work itself.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also placed a map and other information about your world on your web page. Have you found this to help sales at all or is it more for those who have already read your book and want more information?

ORULLIAN: I believe it’s both. Hopefully, readers who haven’t read my work yet might find this information and consider getting the book. But it’s also there to provide some depth for those who have already read it. Whether it helps sales or not really wasn’t my motivation though. I’m a bit of a geek for this kind of stuff, as I love finding it on the websites of authors I read. So, I went ahead and did some of it from a reader’s point of view.

VENTRELLA: Do you find short stories to be easier to write in any way?

ORULLIAN: Well, they take less time. But if you’re asking from a craft standpoint, no. It’s a bit of a different form, for sure. But each has its own unique considerations. I enjoy writing short fiction, as well as novels.

VENTRELLA: Do you advise authors to write short stories to help promote their other work?

ORULLIAN: No, I don’t advise it, as such. The main reason I do it is because I have this idea that some of the stories are too much like a data-dump, were I to drop it into one of the novels. But I like the backstory, and think others might appreciate some of the depth. So, I write the short stories for those who want to have a deeper look into my world. They’re not necessary by any means, but readers who read both the short and long stuff will have a some of those “aha” moments when they’re reading.

VENTRELLA: Many authors are now making short stories set in their world available for free online. Do you think this is a good way to grab new readers? Has it worked for you?

ORULLIAN: Again, I have to say I’m not sure if it’s a good way to grab readers or if it has worked for me. I have no way to track such a thing. For my part, I don’t do it so much as a marketing tactic, as much as I do it because I like the notion of transmedia, where using the strengths of various artistic media to tell a broader story is the goal. What that means is that you can read my book and not read my short fiction (or watch my webisodes, or explore my online map, or spend time looking through the art, etc), and you’d be just fine. But if you read and explore some of these other things, there’s a kind of larger “story experience” available to you. I really dig that possibility. That’s why you see me doing these kinds of things. I love the resonance and enlarging opportunities transmedia affords me as a storyteller. Oh, gosh, I could go on and on . . .

VENTRELLA: How do you prefer to make your short stories available – anthologies, magazines, download? What is better, in your opinion?

ORULLIAN: There’s no science to this yet, in my opinion.

VENTRELLA: Couldn’t help but notice that you’re a musician (as am I). I used music to help explain the magic in my world – has music played a part in your fiction as well?

ORULLIAN: Absolutely! As I mentioned, there’s a music magic system. And it factors heavily in several aspects of my series. Plus, I’m writing a concept album as part of the transmedia approach I mentioned above. It won’t be a retelling of the novel. It’ll be additive story, going into the early life of one of the characters, a old war, and some explanation of what I call “The Song of Suffering,” which is a song of power in my world.

On another level, I think it helps me approach a sense of lyricism in my writing. So, yeah, this is a great big question that we simply don’t have enough space to go into here . . .

VENTRELLA: Why do so many authors also tend to be musicians?

ORULLIAN: I’m not sure that’s true. Thinking now of all the writers I know, most aren’t. But yes, of course, some are, too. Rather, I’d say, “Why do so many authors also tend to engage in other artist pursuits?” Because I know writers who are painters, poets, photographers, etc. I think writers are creative types, and most creatives have more than one creative outlet, or so I’ve noticed.

Interview with author Michele Lang

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to interview Michele Lang, who writes all kinds of speculative fiction, and has also practiced the unholy craft of litigation in New York and Connecticut. LADY LAZARUS, her latest release, is a historical fantasy, the first of a series (Tor: September 2010). DARK VICTORY, the next book in the series, releases January 2012.

Michele, how did you get your “big break”? Aspiring writers want to know!

MICHELE LANG: I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten a “big break” exactly, more like a bunch of sweet serendipities that have led me from project to project. My first book, MS. PENDRAGON, was published by a now-defunct e-publisher; I pitched the executive editor at an online workshop run by an online romance writers group, From the Heart.

My first NY contract was with Chris Keeslar, who I met on the plane back from Romantic Times in Daytona in 2006. Now that was a lucky break! Chris is a wonderful editor, and I enjoyed writing NETHERWOOD for his Shomi line. Because of that contract, Lucienne Diver agreed to rep me as an agent, and Lucienne sold the LADY LAZARUS series to Jim Frenkel at Tor.

VENTRELLA: Do you believe that anyone can be a fiction writer or is the ability to tell a story more of an innate thing?

LANG: I think storytelling is part of what makes us human. I know many fantastic storytellers who cannot convey those stories in written form, so writing ability is not exactly correlative with a storytelling gift.

The most important factor, I think, in becoming a fiction writer is sheer determination. I know many talented writers who have broken through, but they didn’t break through because of their talent. They became published, and stay published, because they refuse to give up in the face of rejection and difficulties.

VENTRELLA: I recently blogged about “plowing through that first draft” and you wrote similarly about the “salami list.” What tricks have you found that help you personally get your work done?

LANG: To be honest, a contractual deadline does the trick better than anything else! But, aside from sheer panic, I have found some little tricks that help me to get work done.

The best is to have a daily goal. It can be humble, and probably should be, but most important it must be tied to your long term goals.

Start with a vision – what do you want for your writing life? Tie that vision to a goal you can achieve through your own efforts.

Break down the goal into measurable steps, and break those down into monthly steps. Weekly, and then daily. Work your plan, and review it in writing every month – how are you doing?

Try to get your daily goals done at the beginning of the day, before life sinks its teeth into you. Maybe this is only a tip for the morning people of the world, but it definitely is helpful for me.

Expect resistance and the termites of daily life to attack these goals. But dedicate a daily time to pursuing your goals with passion and consistency, and your dreams won’t be denied.

I try to write every day, though with a bunch of small kids in the house that is not always something I can achieve. I have time dedicated to writing: right now it’s 5:30-6:30 a.m., weekdays. I try my best to tack on another hour during the day, but that is not always possible. But I’ve done my best to make a habit out of the 5:30 hour.

That said, when I’m on deadline all bets are off. I write every minute I possibly can, then. The house goes to hell, but my immersion in the project overwhelms all resistance. I love writing 24 hours a day against a hard deadline – it’s so primal and exhilarating.

VENTRELLA: When creating believable characters, what process do you use?

LANG: I try to listen. When I am deep into a story, I can hear the characters and they tell me what they do and why. They often surprise me too.

If they go off and do something I don’t expect, I follow them and try to figure out what they are doing and most importantly, why. I try mightily not to impose my own judgments and expectations of what they should be doing – when I do that, the writing gets very dull and safe. And that’s death for the story.

When I’m rewriting, I try to climb inside my characters and see the story from their perspectives. And I try to make sure the story reflects their truest natures, whether they are villains or heroes or some combination of the two.

VENTRELLA: Some of your work is hard to categorize. How do you see yourself?

LANG: The stories that come out of me end up in the genre aisles, the romance and fantasy shelves. I think that’s a wonderful destination.

But before that, I am simply a writer. I write the stories that demand to be written, the ones that I have no choice but to write. I write the stories that I wish already existed inside a book.

I read this way, too. I try to read like a kid, without preconceptions about the market, what is marketable, where a story fits in the pantheon of Story. I read for love.

I might find WATERSHIP DOWN in the fantasy aisle, or FULL DARK, NO STARS in general fiction (or at the front of the book store in its own special dump), but the books I love the most transcend category for me. They are just wonderful stories.

To keep writing, it’s important to understand the marketplace, to respect the daunting job of the sales department and marketing department to get books into stores and into the hands of readers.

However, I figure if I write the best book I can possibly write, there will be a place in the market for it, especially now with the rise of ebook distribution and its long, long tail.

VENTRELLA: How does your latest fit into this dilemma? Is this giving your publisher problems with promotion?

LANG: LADY LAZARUS is a historical fantasy, but one with werewolves and vamps. My editor calls it historical urban fantasy, but it’s pretty epic in scope, too. The pacing doesn’t match a standard urban fantasy, but it does get pretty explodey by the end, and the next one, DARK VICTORY, picks up speed and ends up blowing up a good chunk of Eastern Europe and our history of World War II, besides.

Tor’s been great about promoting the books. I went to BEA last year, NYC ComicCon and I just got back from the Empire State Book Festival too. I think the urban fantasy market is very, very crowded but LADY LAZARUS is not quite an urban fantasy, so its out of the box status might actually help set it apart.

VENTRELLA: We met at Lunacon a few years ago; do you attend many conventions? Do you find them worthwhile?

LANG: I only started attending SFF cons after I sold my first book, and love them. I love meeting readers, and so I also find cons a great source of inspiration and new ideas.

I attend as many local cons as I can, and wish I could travel to more. I did get to go to World Fantasy last year and it was wonderful. But the local ones are great too.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the plotline and setting for LADY LAZARUS.

LANG: The series is set on the eve of World War II in a magical Budapest, and tells the story of Magda Lazarus, a witch with the power to return from the dead. In order to avert her sister’s horrifying visions of the impending war, Magda must battle SS werewolves, wizards, and demons, including the one who has possessed a willing Adolf Hitler.

VENTRELLA: How did you get the idea for the story?

LANG: This idea went and got me, I often say. My parents are both Holocaust survivors. This book is the ultimate what if – could my family have all survived if they had magic on their side?

The title comes from the famous Sylvia Plath poem, “Lady Lazarus.” She uses the idea of a Jewish girl returning from death as an extended metaphor for her own suicides. I am very literal-minded — when I read this poem for the first time I thought the idea of a murdered Jewish girl returning from the dead to kill Nazis was awesome. Wanted to read the story, so I wrote it!

VENTRELLA: Do you find short stories to be a good way for aspiring authors to get noticed?

LANG: Yes, absolutely, though that is not the way I came up in the writing world at all. Short stories are becoming a bigger and bigger market, and I think that’s terrific. The form is going to get more popular, I think, as people’s reading habits continue to change.

Aside from getting noticed, it’s a great way for published writers to promote their longer work, and also a great place for any writer to audition settings and characters for longer stories.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. What effect will this have on the publishing industry?

LANG: Hah – by the time I gave you an answer, it would be out of date, things are moving so fast! I’ll just say that it’s an amazing time to be both a writer and a reader. I write stories, my readers read and enjoy them. The more ways I can get my stories to readers, the better.

VENTRELLA: For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

LANG: I’m not sure…it is definitely a confusing thing! The NY publishing route is no longer the only way to achieve financial success as a writer. The best way for a new writer to go forward is to get educated about their rights (read the Copyright Handbook for a start), read any publishing contract very carefully, and go forward boldly.

You will make mistakes – all writers make business mistakes at some point, or have bad luck. But then we start again. As I said above, stubbornness is the key to the game, more than luck or talent.

VENTRELLA: And finally: You’re like the fifth author I have interviewed who was an attorney prior to giving it all up to write. (I’m still practicing, though…) What is it about lawyers that make us want to write fiction?

LANG: I could say something witty here about lawyers and the truth, but I just won’t 😀

Actually, most lawyers I met during my practice were ethical and decent, and many of them were brilliant. I was a litigator, and I can say that the ability to convey a narrative is essential to winning jury trials. Also, to be a good lawyer, you need to be able to read a witness, tell when they are lying, get to the bottom of their motivations, etc.

The other great thing about being a lawyer is you learn to endure. It sounds like I’m joking around again, but I’m not. Generally speaking, litigation is like trench warfare – whoever hurts the other side the most, wins. That stubbornness, again – you need it to be a successful lawyer, you need it to be a pro writer.

Coincidence? Not in my case. Being a lawyer toughened me up for being a writer.

Short Stories

Short stories are hard. Harder than novels.

That’s what I and many other writers think, as you can see from some of the interviews here. A novel gives you time to develop characters, control the action, and create a full world. A short story has to do as much of that as possible in a very limited space.

At the same time, a short story can be completed in much less time.

I had a short story published in the anthology RUM AND RUNESTONES last year called “X Spots the Mark” in which pirate Captain Irad the Fair follows a fake treasure map. Of course, being one of my stories, things are never as they seem and you can expect a twist at the end.rum3

The sequel will soon be published in another anthology called CUTLASS AND MUSKET: TALES OF PIRATICAL SKULLDUGGERY. And then my story “The Zombie King’s Plan” will be in the collection TALES OF FORTANNIS: A BARD’S EYE VIEW due out in June (and edited by me!)

I am doing more short stories in anthologies these days for exposure. When someone buys an anthology, they probably have never heard of me or read anything by me. They’re getting it because they like the subject or because there is another author whose story in the anthology they wish to read. But once they have the book, they may take a chance and read my story as well. And then I might have another reader who will want my novels.

Plus I get paid. I mean, come on, that’s nice too.

So if you’re a starting writer, consider short stories as a way to get noticed. In the TALES OF FORTANNIS series I am editing, I am more than happy to read stories from unpublished writers, and in fact, about half of the stories in this first collection are from first time authors. I am already planning the next edition and have set a deadline for August 1, 2011. More information is available here.

Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author John Ringo

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing New York Times bestselling author John Ringo, who will be the Guest of Honor at this year’s Ravencon convention. (I’ll be there, too!)

John has has over two million copies of his books in print, and his works have been translated into seven different languages. His books range from straightforward science fiction to a mix of military and political thrillers.

You’ve had an interesting background. What made you decide you wanted to be a writer?

JOHN RINGO: My family tells me I’ve always written but you wouldn’t know it by my memory. I was always the kid who never turned in his essays. But I guess I’ve puttered at writing most of my life. And it’s better than a 9-5 job.

VENTRELLA: You’re also quite unique in that you did not collect a pile of rejection letters before your first novel was published. What’s the secret? Who did you bribe?

RINGO: Sigh. I need to just make a copy of this reply somewhere so I can cut and paste. 🙂

I wrote A HYMN BEFORE BATTLE in two chunks in the mid to late ’90s. It was the second “novel” I’d written. (The quotes are because neither the original version of HYMN nor my first novel were current novel length. And the ‘first story’ is never going to see the light of day.) When I’d finished, at least as well as I knew how at the time, I consulted ‘The Writer’s Digest’ then submitted it to Baen following all the submission requirements exactly. I’d already determined that it was more or less center of the lane for what they published.

I knew it would take months to even get reviewed so in the meantime I started on the sequel (one of my big suggestions to aspiring authors) and poked around on the Baen website. There I found one of the first ‘webforums’ (Baen’s Bar). Being a shy and retiring type, I, of course, just lurked. Hah! By the end of the first month I was one of the top three posters. 🙂

Another top poster was Jim Baen. He’d been active on the internet practically since it was opened to private and business use and he actively involved himself in the discussions. Which meant we were trading frequent discussions (as well as japes, gibes and jousts.) One point to make is that I did not go on there saying ‘I’m an aspiring author! Read my manuscript!’ I just got involved in the discussions. But at one point there was a discussion going on on the Aquatic Ape Theory. Jim was a proponent. I said ‘I think you’re crazy but I have to be nice to you cause I’ve got a book on your slushpile.’ His response was ‘Marla! Find me this manuscript!’ I took that as a jest suggesting that he was going to shred it.

About a week later I got a rejection. Just a mailed form letter with the title (A HYMN BEFORE BATTLE) squeezed into the title blank in a woman’s hand.

By that time I knew enough about Jim that if he had rejected it he’d have sent a personal message. So I sort of put it aside (I think I threw it away, I wish now I’d kept it!) and continued work on the sequel. I knew by then that Lois Bujold had been rejected three times before she published so I wasn’t worried. I had a day job and I’d just keep plugging along until I got published.

A week after I got the rejection (two weeks after Jim’s comment) I got the first email I’d ever gotten from Jim. ‘Nobody can find your manuscript. Send me an rtf.’

I then wrote a really abject letter explaining that it had been rejected but that was planning on reworking it as well as I could and I understood if he didn’t want to override his first reader…

I didn’t know Jim very well at that point. When he read the manuscript he fired the person who rejected it. 🙂

Anyway, I sent him HYMN as well as as much as I’d finished of GUST FRONT. One point that had come up during the discussions was that publishers look for ‘more than a one trick pony.’ They want someone who is going to be able to keep putting out stories. So I wanted to show I had more than one book in me.

He read it then sent me a series of emails telling me what was wrong with it. And the last was ‘if you fix it the way I told you, I’ll buy it.’ (Yes, every aspiring author’s dream.) So I did and he did.

The denouement to the story occurred a few month’s later. Jim accepted HYMN in April of 1998. In August I was puttering around on the computer and got an email from Jim. (Ding! You’ve Got Mail! Remember those days?) 🙂 The email read ‘Your mss Gust Front stops in media res. You have ten minutes.’ 🙂

I’d mentioned that I’d sent ‘as much as I’d finished’ of the sequel to Hymn when I sent Jim the Hymn mss. Well, it was exactly as much as I’d finished. I was working on it at the time so it ended in the middle of a battle in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a prepositional phrase. The last word of the mss was ‘of.’. 🙂

Fortunately, I’d finished it by that time and I sent him the whole thing. And he bought that. It was also when he hooked me up with David Weber.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that someone can learn to be a good writer? In other words, can a distinction be made between the technical skill and the creative skill?

RINGO: I think that any competent person can learn to be a competent writer and sometimes that’s all it takes. To be a really good author, though, I think requires talent. That may seem pompous but… I love music. I listen to music all the time. I have a head for lyrics. I absolutely suck at music. I have zero talent. I can’t figure out how to play the most basic notes, I’m flat as a singer. I just really suck. So I leave the music to people with the talent and admire that talent but I don’t go inflicting it on people.

But talent alone is not enough. ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ ‘Practice.’ As I mentioned above, I wrote a ‘full’ really really crappy novel before HYMN. And, yes, lots of other stuff before that. (Even if I was lousy about turning in homework.) Figure that you’re going to write a million words before you’re good enough to be published. But don’t get freaked by that. Those ‘million words’ are all the letters you write, emails, blog discussions, essays, etc. If you write them well, you’re advancing in the craft. Go for leet and you’re setting yourself up for failure. (At least until novels are primarily published in leet. 🙂

VENTRELLA: What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work that may pop up without planning?

RINGO: The competent individual trying to achieve goals using a system in which he has to use people who are below his level of competence to achieve those goals.

Real life in other words. 🙂

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

RINGO: The pallette. In SF you can pretty much create the starting environment and then work within that new millieu.

VENTRELLA: What science fiction stories (literature or movies) have inspired you?

RINGO: Heh. Either due to innate anti-socialness or the fact that I was always the ‘New Kid’, I grew up without alot of friends. Middle school and early HS was particularly bad. So I read instead of, you know, having a social life. So the list is…long.

Heinlein in general. (At least his earlier stuff.) The juveniles, STARSHIP TROOPER, obviously, the first part of TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE is probably my favorite book of all time. (The latter part being nearly my least favorite Heinlein.) Clarke’s DEEP RANGE was awesome. The list is endless.

VENTRELLA: Lately, fantasy has been outselling science fiction. Why do you think that is?

RINGO: Education. The educational system in the ‘West’ in general has been dumbed down so much that people’s brains aren’t well exercised. SF is designed to make people think. If you’re not used to that it, literally, hurts. A new thought causes increased blood flow to new areas of the brain. This is a good thing but it causes a slight headache. Since people’s brains aren’t broadly stressed by their education and day to day interactions reading SF gives them a headache.

In addition, alot of the traditional ‘core’ SF readers are now doing gaming instead of reading.

Combine the two and you have the relative success of fantasy.

However, thank God for it. For a while there nobody was reading. The population which graduated in the mid 80s into the late 90s contained a miniscule fraction of readers compared to newer graduates. Harry Potter has made reading ‘okay’ again. That’s a good thing.

VENTRELLA: Often, new writers are told to “write what you know.” This would seem to preclude anyone from ever writing science fiction or fantasy. Is this good advice at all?

RINGO: At one point it was suggested that I take over a writer’s workshop at a major convention. (Which idea I rejected.) But the joke was that the first thing I’d do is tell people to get some experiences. ‘The first writing exercise is to RUN to the top of this 22 story hotel! THEN BACK DOWN! When you get back I want a five hundred word essay on HOW YOUR FEET FEEL! MOVE IT MAGGOTS! MOVE IT! 🙂

What ‘write what you know’ means in SF is have a base of experience upon which to draw so as to more effectively tell the story and create the environment. I recently had to write a scene where a space welder is in an out-of-air situation. Have I ever been in an out-of-air situation in space? Nope. But I’ve been in one diving at least six times. (The last one during a cave dive which is why I now have claustrophobia.) So my big suggestion is always ‘Experience life. Then write. That way you’ve got something you ‘know.’

VENTRELLA: What is your writing style? (Do you outline heavily or just jump right in? Do you tend to start with an idea, a character concept, or something else?)

RINGO: Generally I jump right in. But … The ideation for the story is usually solid from months and even years of thinking about and building scenes and concepts. And I generally start with a general idea and a scene. Then, in general, I have scenes that I write to, what I call ‘stringing the pearls.’ Those scenes (‘visions of fire’) are what drive me to keep writing and are, generally, the really good part of my books.

Sometimes stuff comes out of nowhere and requires itself to be written. INTO THE LOOKING GLASS, GUST FRONT, GHOST and THE LAST CENTURION are in that category. Those write themselves and write themselves fast. LOOKING GLASS was a couple of weeks, GUST FRONT (one of my longest books) was a couple of months while I was working, GHOST was a month, LAST CENTURION was seven net days. (153k words)

I love those.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

RINGO: UNTO THE BREACH. I don’t recommend the series. Despite it’s popularity (and it’s immensely popular) it’s not everyone’s cuppa.

But UNTO THE BREACH is outstanding. It’s one of the few books of mine I recommend. The last book that was that good was GUST FRONT but GF is weak in prose and grammar. (Early author mistakes.)

VENTRELLA: You’ve done quite a few collaborations. What do you see as the advantage of doing so?

RINGO: For the junior author the advantages are several. They build market by introducing the new author to the established author’s fanbase. They help teach the craft of writing as well as working in the publishing industry. And you can generally get more money from doing a collab as a new author than your own work.

For the senior author they’ve got two or three values. They permit the author to get a story out there that they either don’t have time to write or don’t have quite the right skill set to write. (See ‘write what you know.’) And the senior author gets fairly good money for slightly less work than a full novel.

VENTRELLA: They have obviously worked out, as you continue to do them. Is it a truly collaborative effort, or does one author primarily do the writing and the other act as guide and editor? How do you divide up the responsibilities?

RINGO: Every collaboration is different. I’ve done collaborations where I wrote a 35k outline for the junior author, (THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS, HERO) one where it was the junior author’s idea and I took portions of it as well as teaching the craft of writing, (VON NEUMANN’S WAR) wrote most of it and left portions for the junior author to ‘fill in’ (Vorpal Blade series) to ones where I basically gave the junior author a vague concept and they ran with it. (TULORIAD.)

Every collaboration is different.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever run across unexpected controversy with your writing? If so, how have you dealt with it?

RINGO: Unexpected? No. I’m considered a ‘controversial conservative SF author.’ Not to mention GHOST, which… well, you just don’t get more controversial unless you’re a gangsta rappah under indictment for murder. How do I deal with it? Generally I try to swallow my rage and smile. Because with the exception of some of the stuff in the Ghost series, I really don’t see what I say, what my characters do and say, as particularly controversial, crazy, evil or illogical. I see the people who consider it ‘controversial’ as idiots and morons. (Whereas they view me as a ‘racist, homophobic, xenophobic, genocidal asshole’ in the words of Mercedes Lackey.)

So, mostly, I ignore it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve never shied away from political issues as well (nor have I) – we have had a few interesting discussions in this area. Do you think it is wise for authors to take stands which may alienate readers?

RINGO: As I said in a recent email to a family member, politics has become religion and there is virtually nothing which is not politicized. You can take the PC approach of having the enemy be alter versions of what the Left hates (the US military as in Avatar, Christians, middle-class white males) in which case you can alienate the core readers of SF. Or you can alienate the Left by being a human and American exceptionalist and having characters who, whatever their race, nationality, creed or sex, act in a traditional self-determinant manner and worry about PC after the Human Race has been saved.

Whatever people think, you don’t get the choice to not piss anyone off. ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’

VENTRELLA: Do you think this has affected your sales in any way? Do you care?

RINGO: If anything in the positive. My ‘controversial stands’ fit the market of my core writing. And, no, I don’t even if it’s in the net negative.

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

RINGO: Get an accountant.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

RINGO: I tend to get sarcastic about this question. Impatience is one. There are alot of people out there that want to get published. Publishers who are even willing to look at unsolicited manuscripts are overwhelmed. So don’t think it’s going to be a fast process. Fill the time by writing your next book. Publishers also want people who have more than one book in you and if you’re a writer you’re going to want to write that one, too. Just write it. It may take years to get published. Unless you’re in your ’60s, you should have them. Be patient and keep writing in the meantime.

‘Puff reads.’ I made this mistake. After HYMN got accepted I asked Jerry Pournelle if he’d read it. He sent me a reply which at the time I took to be very rude to the effect that I’d asked him to do the most odorous chore of a professional writer so, no. Since then I’ve gotten to know more about Jerry and being asked to ‘read my manuscript’ and for Jerry he was being really damned polite.

There are authors who really enjoy that sort of thing. I don’t. Most don’t. So… please don’t ask. When we say ‘Yes’ we’re not really happy about it and when we say ‘No’ we feel like we’re dissing somebody’s baby. So … Don’t ask. Kay?

VENTRELLA: Finally: What’s the latest news on the possibility of movie adaptations? What other exciting scoops can you share?

RINGO: Zero. Nothing moving on that area. It sort of norks me that I’ve got 33 novels published or in the pipeline and so far I don’t have option or contract one. OTOH, given that I’m a ‘controversial conservative sf author’ (three strikes against me since even Syfy no longer does SF) I’m not really surprised. Just…norked. (Mildly irritated.)

Interview with author Steve Miller

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am honored to be interviewing Steve Miller today. Steve and I have been on panels together at conventions, and I interviewed his collaborator (and wife) Sharon Lee recently. They started the first Liaden novel in 1984 and have published sixteen novels and several dozen short works together in that series alone, garnering a number of awards as well as invitations as Guests of Honor and Special Guests coast to coast in the US and Canada at many conventions. Their work has enjoyed a number of award nominations, with SCOUT’S PROGRESS being selected for the Prism Award for Best Futuristic Romance of 2001 and LOCAL CUSTOM finishing second for the same award. BALANCE OF TRADE, appeared in hardcover in February 2004 and hit genre bestseller lists before going on to win the Hal Clement Award as Best YA Science fiction for the year. SALTATION is a current nominee for Best SF of the Year on the Goodreads Choice Awards.

Steve, how do you and Sharon work together? What’s the process like?

STEVE MILLER: A madhouse, according to some solo authors.

We often role-play at dinner or after going over the day’s work; sometimes we’ll start driving, get in a discussion of a character or plot point and end up in Canada. The role-playing may involve standing and showing body language, or the raising of voice in character, or the rapid alternation of characters, more or less in voice — I guess, yes, our own madhouse. Sometimes one or another of us will pause at the grocery store, say “storystuff!” and we’ll discuss things right in front of the oatmeal or carrots — story takes precedence.

More prosaically, one of us generally does the typing/sketching of the first draft — Sharon will sometimes retire to the couch and write longhand notes, and I usually work on the netbook or big computer directly, my hand written notes being unreadable the next day. We sometimes switch off in the middle if timing is an issue — neither of us is automatically doing the first run. Generally, the person doing the base work is the “traffic cop” on the book, and is responsible for backing up the book, having the two foot pile of paper in their office, and etc. Since we usually agree on points as the book is written there’s not that much disagreement on things — but the traffic cop gets third vote on a book if there is an impasse about something, thus making calling in the Marines to solve something for us much less likely.

VENTRELLA: What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work?

MILLER: Oddly enough, or perhaps predictably enough, partnership is one, as is the unreliability of formal education and educational institutions. I note that Sharon and I have both worked in university settings ….

We also tend to stress the need for individuals to have a trusted pool of competent (if not savory) people who they can depend on for advice, at least. I think I also deal with change-as-necessity. We also subscribe to the Andre Norton “there have been prior civilizations” school of thought and all that may be carried forth from there.

VENTRELLA: What makes your work different from others in the genre, in your opinion?

MILLER: I think that I’m a bridge between many of the older ideas and approaches of science fiction and the new, from the old market to the now market. I’ve had breakfast, lunch, dinner, and sometimes a morning or late night glass with writers and editors ranging from John Brunner, Damon Knight, Ted White, and Hal Clement to Roger Zelazny, Jack Chalker, Vonda McIntyre, and Toni Weiskopf; I’ve been to Clarion and I was published in Amazing before the lamented-by-me attempt to turn it into a mediamag. Having talked shop and traded manuscripts with this kind of an array brought me to face to face with idea writers and storytellers. Also, I’ve extrensivly read — not studied, but read and absorbed as a young reader and then a young writer — many of the founders of SF and Fantasy as we know it, both in short fiction and longer fiction. And not just the celebrated classic authors, but the pot-boiling writers to whom story and flow was ghod. Not too long ago I was surprised to see someone recognizably a “name” writer of the 1990s and 2000s assuming to have invented a certain genre … which actually was invented in the 1930s by a famous writer apparently unknown to the “modern” writer. What this means is that I have, and draw on, a breadth of “SF genre” that many newer writers lack — and that some disdain, to their detriment. In other words my meme farm is huge, and I’m not afraid to use it!

VENTRELLA: Everyone who is published was an “aspiring writer” once. What mistakes did you make along the way?

MILLER: How much time do you have? No, seriously, I made a lot in a very short time — especially between the ages of 20 and 24, when I’d been assured by some very good writers that I could probably make it it as a pro someday, based on what they’d seen of my work. They were the fiction writers, of course, because by that age I was already writing for newspapers, magazines, semi-pro zines, anywhere I could — particularly if there was pay involved.

What I didn’t comprehend was that a suggestion by a well-known fiction pro that maybe I should “clean this up and send it on to XXXX magazine” didn’t mean “Tell him I sent you” … and also that once I did get a nibble that I shouldn’t expect instant results, that is, that as a no-name-newbie my work was something that might fill out an issue when it would fit — of course there were more print magazine then and many of the editors had come along as I was coming along, and thought that was how it would work forever — get a foot in, become first a byline, then a signature, then a name, then an invite to write a novel.

Clearly, the biggest mistake I made was lack of patience and in the long run trying to rush things probably cost me a year or two of pro work.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest misconception people have about being a writer?

MILLER: There are several that go together, I think — One is that being a writer is inherently glamorous and the add-on is that being a writer elevates one to a superior state of being, with all the joys thereof.

VENTRELLA: How did you first interest an agent in your work?

MILLER: Accidentally. I was working as “third key” at Williams-Sonoma in Owings Mills, Maryland — meaning I was official management and got to deal with provblems and situations the manager didn’t want to deal with, like book signings and in store demos. Thus, when we had a double whammy of that, it was me in the front line — we had a cookbook author come to the store for a demo! The day before she came we’d gotten an offer on Agent of Change from Own Locke at Del Rey. It turned out that the cookbook author also wrote fiction… and when I mentioned that we had an offer in hand she recommended us to her agent, who looked over (and improved) the contract and got us through the three Del Rey books. Once we had a record getting the next agent was a little easier, but she was uncomfortable dealing with the SF side of things, and eventually we moved on after personal meetings with several agents at conventions and we’re pleased to link up with Jennifer Jackson.

VENTRELLA: What process do you use when creating believable characters?

MILLER: I’m hoping to write a book about this, but not here. Generally there’s no concious prefabrication involved in my new characters — the story starts, the character stands out from stage left or right, and Ta Da! I rarely base a character on someone I’ve met, but it may be on someone I know — that is, based on a character I’ve met in the thousands of books and stories I’ve read. The key to believabilty is not in the original creation, but on how the character acts in the story. A multi-hundred foot tree as a character? No problem. A sentient dragon looking for love? No problem… as long as they act right by who they are and don’t just act like dolls moved form here to there in a dollhouse.

VENTRELLA: What is your background in writing? What led you to wanting to be a writer?

MILLER: I pretty much have wanted to be a writer since I started reading books, and it probably helped that my grandmother was an award-winning poet so the concept of writing for publication had a priority over writing for school from the time I was quite young.

In high school I worked on the school literary magazine several years before becoming editor as a senior and in college I joined the school newspaper in my freshman year as a reporter, and soon took over some editorial duties. I started reviewing for the school paper as well as a number of fanzine and semi-pro genre mags shortly thereafter, and eventually was Managing Editor. I also contributed to poetry publications — which led to my weekly poetry column in a local newspaper by the time I was 23, IIRC. I was the sceince fiction book reviewer for the Baltimore Sun in my mid-20s when I was also a music columnist for the Baltimore area Star newspapers — and that led to me eventually being a features editor and then to taking over as Editor of several weekly papers. The whole time, from about 17, I was also writing fiction, which began appearing in semi-pro magazines and then in Amazing and some other pro places. I did spend some summers working construction, which helped convince me that writing was the way to go when it came to making a living.

VENTRELLA: The publishing industry is changing daily. What trends do you predict and how will this affect the business and your own publishing?

MILLER: Shoot for the moon: I think IPads in he current size will become obsolete in a couple years and theat reading will increase as people have access to phone readers and more reasonably sized and priced tablets. Paper publishing will continue to be a zoo, the current returns system in the US will crumble with in next 5 years as physically moving books becomes too expensive — this will cut down print runs drastically which will cut a lot of small bookstores out of the loop. We’ll keep on writing.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now that we can look forward to?

MILLER: I’m told that between a new yet-to-be-seen novel and new Baen editions of previous novels we have at least six books due out in 2011, so it shouldn’t be hard for a a new reader to find us. Those are all books that are written, however.

In the short term, the new stuff? I’m working on finalizing SKYBLAZE, a novella due out as a chapbook from my own SRM Publisher in February. For those familiar with the Liaden Universe(R) this will span the end of the attack from I DARE and the early SUREBLEAK period and is our holiday chapbook (delayed a bit because of my recent hospitalization and the moving of SRM’s principal office).

Beyond that, we have contracts for three more Liaden novels to be delivered over the next 18 months or so. The first is DRAGON SHIP, which is the follow-on to GHOST SHIP; I have notes on that and once SKYBLAZE is done I’ll do a week of rereading of the series and then start right in — it follows Theo from FLEDGLING, SALTATION, and GHOST SHIP as she deals with the results of her pursuit of a, let us say, nonconforming path to independent starship pilot. Also in the works is an unnamed novel set on a post-Korval-arrival Surebleak and the long-awaited JETHRI follow-on, TRADE SECRET, which, depending on where you started reading the series, is a distant prequel to the Agent sequence or a distant follow-on to the Crystal books.

We’ve also committed to several more short stories for 2011 but I can’t say more than that quite yet.


Dinner with Steve and his wife Sharon Lee (and my wife Heidi Hooper) when they visited us

Interview with Hugo award winning author Peter Beagle

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Hugo award winning author Peter Beagle. I emailed some questions to him and was thrilled when he took some time from his busy schedule to send me back a voice recording of his answers!

Peter Beagle is probably best known for his novel and screenplay of THE LAST UNICORN. His other acclaimed novels include A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE, TAMSIN, and THE INNKEEPER’S SONG. He also has a number of short story collections and nonfiction works to his name.

Besides THE LAST UNICORN screenplay, he has also written the screenplays for Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Lord of the Rings and the episode “Sarek” for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The transcript follows:

Mr. Beagle, THE LAST UNICORN was made into an animated film back in the days when maybe we’d get two animated features a year. How did that arrangement come about?

PETER BEAGLE: It came about because a red-headed rascal named Michael Chase Walker not only optioned the book from me but eventually — and this doesn’t often happen with options — eventually paid the purchase price to buy the rights to the book and then turned around desperately looking for a deal to make believing that somebody would want to make this book into a movie. He ran through a lot of people back then before he finally got Rankin and Bass to fall in love with it.

VENTRELLA: Were you happy with the results artistically?

BEAGLE: I’m as happy with it as their budget would allow them to be themselves. They did some wonderful work in it. There’s nothing that appalls me; nothing that makes me want to leave the country. At its best, it’s marvelous. It rarely has a ‘worst’ to it. I found myself saying, when watching it a year or so ago, “Oh my god, the damn thing’s a classic.”

VENTRELLA: How did the “lost” version of that book come about?

BEAGLE: Well, I started the book when I was twenty three. That summer I was sharing a cabin in the Berkshires in Massachusetts with my closest friend from childhood who was a painter, and still is. I began writing a story — just a story about a unicorn going somewhere with a companion who I couldn’t see, because he was out all day working on an enormous landscape. He’d make his lunch and then pack the landscape on the back of his motor scooter and I wouldn’t see him all day, and I wanted to show him that I had been working on something all day and not just fooling around in the warm sun or playing with the guitar. So I tried several stories that summer, and none of them seemed to work.

And then I found myself writing this story about a unicorn traveling somewhere in search of her people. It was almost completely different from THE LAST UNICORN that people know. I got about 85 pages done that summer and then simply hit the wall. I didn’t know what I was doing — well, I didn’t know what I was doing writing the whole book anyway — but I really didn’t know where this should go and I just dropped it. I put it aside, about 85 pages in, and wrote another book, nonfiction, about crossing the country with the same friend on a couple of motorscooters.

And then the mother of my children gently nagged me to get back to it. She’d read the original version and wanted to know what comes next. And I threw out — or thought I had thrown out (my mother kept everything, thank goodness) — I threw out everything but the first couple of pages from the earlier version and started over. What is out as the “lost version” was printed and will be republished is basically that first 85 pages. A reader would recognize certain things at the beginning and be absolutely baffled by a whole lot else.

VENTRELLA: Do you prefer screenplays to novels?

BEAGLE: Fiction is more fun — writing books in general is more fun — but screenplays pay better.

VENTRELLA: You are the Guest of Honor at Philcon this year. (I’m just a regular guest, but I’m hoping to maybe be on at least one panel with you!). Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

BEAGLE: When I pull into a convention, I always imagine myself and my business manager as a couple of peddlers coming to town with their cart and their mule, setting up shop by the roadside, and selling out of the wagon. There are extra elements to a convention. There are people I only meet there — there are friends I make at conventions that I never see during the rest of the year — and generally, I’ve had very good experiences. Some have touched me very deeply. And there are people I look forward to seeing when I know I am going to be in that town and I know they’ll be coming. But I never advise a writer to do too much of it. I didn’t do conventions at all for years, and I’m trying to cut down, because one is supposed to be home working and it’s not simply the time, it’s the energy. You only have so much and it usually takes me a couple of days to get charged up again after a convention. At a convention, you’re running on adrenaline, and that’s not the same thing.

VENTRELLA: What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work that may pop up without planning?

BEAGLE: I’m trying seriously to at least cut down on the elder goddesses, cats, and music, as well as shapeshifters. Gotta watch it with the shapeshifters, they’ll turn up in my work. I’m doing pretty well with most of them but you have to watch the cats. Every time you take your eye off a cat, it shows up in your story.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

BEAGLE: Well, I read far less fantasy and science fiction than you might think. I read a lot of history because my father was a history teacher and I have a taste for it. I’m getting back to reading poetry — I got scared off in college, which happens to a lot of people. And I have favorite writers whose books I’ll pounce on. Right now, I’m reading a novel I missed by John le Carre. I like mysteries very much and le Carre has an extra dimension, an extra depth that most mystery writers don’t have.

In fantasy, I look for books by old friends like Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley and Patrick Rothfuss — I’m still waiting for his second book to come out. And I re-read a lot. I re-read books I haven’t read in years that I just want to see again, like visiting an old friend. I re-read George McDonald Fraser’s FLASHMAN novels. Flashman is an absolute scoundrel. There is nothing to be said for Flashman. It’s a rat’s eye view of 19th century English European history. There’s something just inspiring about Flashman’s badness because at least he never pretends he is anything other than what he really is! You can’t ask more from a character.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you? What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

BEAGLE: The biggest mistake — it’s not even a mistake, but something I wish an author had told me: Don’t get too mad at yourself when you do it wrong. Just do it again. Because that’s most of it, just doing it again, learning by doing it wrong.

The thing I always tell people who want to write is that you have to show up for work. Most people haven’t got the patience. The talent doesn’t have anything to do with it. I know a lot of people with as much or more talent than I have … But I will sit there, even when nothing is coming. Anybody can write when the stuff is flowing. But I’ll sit there until, as Red Smith, the great sportswriter said, “I’ll stare at the blank screen or page until little drops of blood start to come out of my forehead.” That’s how you know you’re writing.

When I was fifteen or sixteen, I met a writer through friends named Charles Jackson who I’m sure isn’t remembered these days except for the movie that was made out of his novel THE LAST UNICORN. [laughs] I’m sorry, THE LOST WEEKEND, which was about an alcoholic. It was made into a movie, and was very successful. But when I met him, he wasn’t writing fiction. He was working for one of the early television soap operas. And being the age I was, I was immensely snobbish. How can somebody who wrote THE LOST WEEKEND lower himself to write for a TV soap? We rode in on the train together from Connecticut to New York, and he told me, among other things, “I can only really write about something that’s a part of me. I am an alcoholic, so THE LOST WEEKEND came out of what I know. And there hasn’t really been anything like that since.” I remember him telling me this: “I can probably get a hundred thousand dollar advance on my name for a new book of any sort, but you can’t do that. It’s not honorable. What I’m doing may not seem like much to you, writing for this soap opera, but it’s honorable work, and it’s professional. And when something erupts in my life that wants me to write about it, then I will. Meanwhile, I’ll do this.”

He wasn’t scolding me. He wasn’t coming down on me or anything like that; he was very gentle. But he taught me a thing about what is professional and honorable. What you can do and what you can’t, even if you need the money.

Charles Jackson had principles. I make jokes about having no principles of my own because I can’t afford them, but when I do come up against a principle, I know what it is. I’ve usually got ten seconds to make a decision. I hate it, but I think of Charles Jackson. He was gay, by the way, which he didn’t go into, and he did write a novel after that — again, this was in the 1950s — from the point of view of a gay man. He’s long dead. If anyone reads anything of his, it’s probably for a film class that included THE LOST WEEKEND. But he was a good guy and I’ve never forgotten him.

The biggest mistake an aspiring author makes is thinking either that nothing you write is any good or that everything you write is good, and neither one is true. The biggest mistake is listening to too many people and also — and this I talk about a lot — confusing writing with publishing. It’s not the same thing at all. Publishing is a business. Publishing involves making someone else some money and maybe a little bit for yourself. Writing, storytelling, art — that’s another matter. I’m not being romantic about it; there’s just not a lot of connection between the two.

There’s a saying that an artist is someone who can’t not be an artist, and that’s really what matters. If you can’t do without being an artist, then it really doesn’t matter if it doesn’t sell. You don’t burn the manuscript, for heaven’s sake, you find a place for it … The only publication that would touch my story “Lila the Werewolf” back in the 1960s was a college magazine at UC Santa Cruz. Later on, it got picked up, but I just wanted it published.

Me and Peter Beagle

Interview with Jody Lynn Nye

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Jody Lynn Nye today. Since 1985, she has published 39 books and over 100 short stories. Among them are her epic fantasy series The Dreamland, five contemporary humorous fantasies starting with MYTHOLOGY 101, and three medical science fiction novels starting with TAYLOR’S ARK. STRONG ARM TACTICS, a humorous military science fiction novel, is the first of Jody’s new series, The Wolfe Pack. Jody collaborated with Anne McCaffrey on four science fiction novels, and edited an anthology of humorous stories about mothers in science fiction, fantasy, myth and legend, entitled DON’T FORGET YOUR SPACESUIT, DEAR! She has written eight books with the late Robert Lynn Asprin. Her web page is

Jody, I first became aware of your work with the fun MYTHOLOGY 101 series. Was MYTHOLOGY 101 your first published work?

JODY LYNN NYE: MYTHOLOGY 101 was my first solo novel, but not my first published work. I wrote some humor and short pieces (unpaid) for various digests and newsletters after college. While I was working for WFBN-TV in Chicago, I contributed technical articles for Video Action magazine. For those, I was paid sometimes in money, but sometimes with technology items that VA had been given to review. My first paid work was for Mayfair Games, Inc. They published the Role-Aids game supplements to Dungeons and Dragons. I wrote modules for D&D and the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine game.

Because of the game materials, I had credentials to ask to be included in the Crossroads game book series for TOR Books, which were choose-your-path novels but based upon established science fiction or fantasy series. I had volunteered to write adventures for a couple of other books in the series until Anne McCaffrey gave consent to allow the creator/editor of Crossroads, Bill Fawcett, to commission Pern-based adventures. As a big fan of Anne’s, I couldn’t resist dropping my previous selections and writing one of those.

That first Crossroads book was DRAGONHARPER (not to be confused with the current novel by Anne & Todd McCaffrey, DRAGON HARPER). It was published in 1987. I eventually wrote four Crossroads adventures, two in Pern and two in Piers Anthony’s Xanth. Once Anne and Piers found I was easy to work with and respected their worlds, Bill had me write the VISUAL GUIDE TO XANTH and the DRAGONLOVER’S GUIDE TO PERN. The DLG is in its second edition and who knows which printing.

I wanted to work on my own novels, of course. I sold MYTHOLOGY 101 to Brian Thomsen of Warner Books in 1988. I did not have an agent, but as you may know, SF/fantasy editors are far more accessible to fans and would-be writers than in many other genres. I got to know Brian through friends and professional contacts. At a SF convention, I chatted with him about my concept for the series, and he asked to have me send a proposal to him at Warner (note to aspiring writers: do not try and load an editor down with paperwork at a convention. Always send it to their offices.). He bought it, and I was off to the races. MYTHOLOGY 101 came out the same year as the first of my collaborations with Anne McCaffrey, THE DEATH OF SLEEP. So far, there have been four books in the series.

VENTRELLA: I always imagined that the idea must have come to you while secreted in some college library. Is that true? What was your influence for this series?

NYE: You are absolutely right. The Midwestern University college library is based upon a real library. If you had ever seen the original, you would be able to identify it. Some alumni of that university have come up to me and asked about it.

In fact, the library itself was the influence for the series, not the characters. Those came later. In the carrels among the nine-story stacks, it was warm and quiet — except for the sounds of distant voices. I could never make out what they were saying. It was odd, because no one around me was talking, nor was anyone in the reading rooms out front. The sensation of the disembodied voices stuck in my mind for years. Finally, one day I began to think about it. Where were those voices coming from? Who were the speakers? And somehow, they became the little people who lived in the basement of the library.

VENTRELLA: Will we ever see another MYTHOLOGY 101 book?

NYE: I certainly hope so. From Warner, the series moved to Meisha Merlin Publishing, which ceased to publish a few years ago. I would dearly love to place the Mythology series with another house. I have more stories to tell. After all, Keith and Diane finally got engaged!

VENTRELLA: More than most authors, you’ve managed to work with some of the biggest names in speculative fiction. How did these arrangements come about?

NYE: SF actors Wil Wheaton, Roxann Dawson, Armin Shimerman and Nigel Bennett were once on a panel at a convention when the subject came up how some of them had become published authors. Armin, Roxann and Nigel each said that because they knew Bill Fawcett, they had been approached to co-author books with science-fiction writers for the Star Line, an imprint of Baen Books that had been arranged and packaged by Bill. Wil noted down carefully, that to become published, one needed to “know Bill Fawcett.”

One of the many hats Bill wears is that of ‘book packager.’ His function is to create a book or series, staff it with one or more authors, supply illustrations and maps if needed, possibly even commission the cover from an artist, and put the whole, production-ready package into the hands of a publisher. It is what a publishing house would do for itself if it had far more employees than one typically does.

In the late 1980s, Bill created a package for Baen Books that paired CJ Cherryh with three junior writers apiece to write a series of co-authored novels. CJ’s was “Sword of Knowledge”, and included Nancy Asire, the well-known filker Lesley Fish, and a new fantasy writer named Mercedes Lackey. These series gave the senior writer a chance to have ideas for which s/he had no time to do alone, and gave a boost to the career of the junior writers, who would get to work closely with a noted name in the field whom they admired.

A few years later, Bill interested Anne McCaffrey in trying the same thing. She liked the idea, because she had always had more ideas than she would ever have time to write in some of her non-Pern series. I was one of the three noobs who were signed on to co-author books in the Planet Pirate trilogy with her. She already knew my work from the DLG and two Pern Crossroads books. She and I wrote THE DEATH OF SLEEP. Chronologically, it is the first novel in the trio, but was published second, after SASSINAK, by Anne and Elizabeth Moon.

VENTRELLA: How did you meet Robert Asprin?

NYE: I read ANOTHER FINE MYTH the year it was published in mass market paperback by Ace Books. I loved it. At the time I never thought I would ever meet any author at all, let alone end up collaborating with Robert Asprin on eight books.

It’s funny, but I seemed to have been following Bob into so many places long before I met him. I was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism in the late 1970s, early 80s, but he, known there as Yang the Nauseating, had already stopped going to events. His legend, however, persisted. I knew dozens of stories about him. How he had founded the Dark Horde. How he was mischievously disrespectful to the king. His songs. His quips. His legendary prowess with women.

When a friend whom I knew from the SCA took me to my first convention, I found at least one more Myth book in the dealers’ room. I heard legends of Bob. His perpetual ‘office’ in the hotel bar (sort of a permanent party). His love of Irish whisky. His friendship with Gordon R. Dickson. His irrepressible humor and memorable filks. His legendary prowess with women. But he had already stopped going to so many conventions, so I never ran into him.

It was not until Bill, then my fiancé, took me up to Ann Arbor to meet Bob and his wife, fantasy author Lynn Abbey, that I met the man himself. Bill was one of Bob’s closest circle of friends. At the time, Bob was writing his own books as well as co-editing the shared-world anthology series Thieves’ World with Lynn. He and Lynn were so kind and gracious to me, a baby writer, that the impression has never faded. Bob was encouraging about my efforts in humor fiction, but at that time the subject of collaborating didn’t come up.

Later, when Bob had some trouble with writer’s block, we agreed to try writing together. We found we were very compatible as co-writers. We had a lot of interests in common, which meant we got one another’s jokes. Our first book was LICENSE INVOKED, a novel about spies, magic and rock and roll.

VENTRELLA: When working on the Myth Adventures series with him, how much input did he have?

NYE: We communicated mainly by e-mail and in person at conventions. After the first Myth novel, MYTH ALLIANCES, we would get together at DragonCon in Atlanta every Labor Day weekend and work out the plot over a table in one of the restaurants. When we got going, the ideas came out faster and more furious than a hive of angry bees. It was a lot of fun. We threw around plenty of concepts; what we didn’t use for the book that year I squirreled away in a laptop file to discuss at future dates. Bob was not great at keeping notes, and I type faster than he did.

VENTRELLA: What sort of arrangement do you have to continue the series?

NYE: Ace Books has purchased two new Myth novels (and one Dragons novel). I am already working on the first one.

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration with Anne McCaffrey work?

NYE: Each of the four collabs I did with her was different. On THE DEATH OF SLEEP, she had a basic outline for each of the three novels. Since they were being written simultaneously we juniors had to adhere to the structure we were given to maintain series continuity, though we had room to add our own ideas. I wrote the first draft and sent it to Anne. She worked on it and sent it back to me. I made changes or corrections, then it went back to her for a final look and polish. As the senior writer she had the final say on everything, but she was intensely generous with me. For example, she had no problem using one of my ideas if she liked it better than her own. I learned an incredible amount from her.

VENTRELLA: Do you find collaborations easier or harder than writing on your own?

NYE: They go faster than solo books. When you are bouncing ideas off another person, you can crank out a lot of energy. That’s not to say that when I am working alone I don’t cackle over my keyboard at something that strikes me as funny and pound the keys at top speed to get it down. Collaborations are more work because you can’t just keep an idea in your mind and come back to it later. You must share everything with your co-writer that you expect or hope to have in the final manuscript. You must prepare to compromise and respect your co-writer’s opinion and skills. Only in solo books can you get your way on everything. I think it’s worthwhile to learn to work with someone else. It’s like teaching: you learn a good deal about your craft when you have to explain something to someone else.

VENTRELLA: Some writers tend to think that humor in fiction means that it can’t be taken seriously as literature, and therefore should not be considered as “worthy”. What’s your take?

NYE: I deplore the fact that just because something makes one laugh that it is not worthy of the respect enjoyed by tragedy. Without the light moments, no one could stand all the dark ones. Those writers who don’t consider humor to be literature have to turn their backs on Mark Twain, Anthony Trollope and many others whose books occupy the Literature shelves in bookstores and libraries. Shakespeare’s comedies are held in the same esteem as his dramas. I would put up a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel against any number of popular dramatic novels that I don’t consider nearly as well written.

VENTRELLA: Your most recent work, A FORTHCOMING WIZARD, is a stand-alone novel. What’s it about?

NYE: That is actually the second half of an epic fantasy I wrote for TOR. It does stand alone, the vicissitudes of publishing being what they are, but I hope people will seek out both books. The first half is called AN UNEXPECTED APPRENTICE. The story concerns a smallfolk girl named Tildi Summerbee who, like Frodo Baggins, is thrown into an epic struggle not of her making. She comes into possession of a page of the Great Book, a magical tome that can change reality. Only Tildi, because of a chance gift from her parents, can touch the book without being harmed. She becomes part of a fellowship to regain possession of the book and restore it to a place of safety before it destroys the world.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

NYE: Already finished and heading for your shelves in December is DRAGONS DEAL. This is the third in the Dragons series created and written by Robert Asprin for Ace Books. The first two were DRAGONS WILD and DRAGONS LUCK. The copy-edited manuscript of the second landed on my doorstep only a few weeks after Bob died. I took care of it, and some time later, when we had all recovered a little, the editor asked me if I could and would continue the series. I hope that our readers will enjoy it. The Dragons series is about a brother and sister named Griffen and Valerie McCandles who discover that they are hereditary dragons. And they are by no means the only dragons out there. Hence, drama and comedy ensues. DEAL takes place during Mardi Gras. As the series is set in New Orleans, where Bob lived the last many years of his life, I felt that was fitting.

At Baen Books, I have an entirely new humorous SF book, which I hope will become a series, called VIEW FROM THE IMPERIUM. If you ever read P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books, you will understand something about my two main characters. Thomas Innes Loche Kinago is a foolish, spoiled, rich, good-hearted young noble who has never had to work a day in his life. He has just graduated from the space academy and is serving his required stint on a warship. His duties, as he is a noble (pretty nearly useless in this society), are nominal. That’s not to say he can’t spin a perfectly ordinary assignment into chaos. To keep him from doing more damage than is strictly necessary, Thomas has assigned to him an aide de camp, Commander Parsons, who seems to know absolutely everything, and is never at a loss for the right action to take. VIEW FROM THE IMPERIUM is due out in April of 2011.

VENTRELLA: When creating characters, how do you make them real and believable to a reader?

NYE: As CJ Cherryh said during a panel discussion I once sat on with her, in the end all stories are about people. The protagonist of a story, or at the very most distant, the sidekick, needs to be someone with whom the reader can identify. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, it is Dr. Watson, a nice, normal human being, intelligent, caring and devoted, with whom most readers feel empathy. For us, Watson asks why. Through him we feel involved in the action. The reader will be drawn into the book by a compelling proxy.

I need to know what motivates my characters. Often, a new writer will only know what s/he wants a character to do, but maybe not why. Such characters will feel wooden and artificial. Once you know where your character is coming from, you can see how it will behave in various situations.

All beings have flaws. Perfect people are irritating or boring (or both). Imperfections give characters vulnerability that we understand, or can learn to understand. Hidden hurts or past events in my characters’ back stories inform their behavior.

When I create a character, an image often appears in my mind. A few of my writer friends like to use celebrities as the basis of their cast, but that hasn’t worked for me. Only once have I ever run into anyone who resembled one of my characters.

One thing I dislike enormously is having a character do something stupid just to advance a plot. If I have created realistic personalities, it will feel wrong if I try to steer them into an unrealistic situation. That’s not to say I can’t have a character behave stupidly –- people do dumb things all the time -– but it can’t be to make things easy for me as the writer. I owe my readers real people.

VENTRELLA: I tried to avoid cliches in my fantasy novels (regarding the typical “chosen one” hero and so on) while also relying upon them too (elves, dwarves, wizards…). How does one meet the balance of creating a world that balances both?

NYE: There is always an element of the “chosen one,” or else why are we reading about him or her? If that character isn’t special, then can anyone do what s/he does? What if there had been a hundred Arthurs who could have pulled the sword from the stone, but he just happened to be the one who tried that day? (Hmm, there’s an unexplored story.) But why that one, and what happened afterward to all the others? When I write a story, I have to focus upon my protagonist. What is extraordinary about this person? How can s/he succeed when others have failed? I think a successful story will tweak the reader’s perception and give a new way of thinking about the meaning of a hero/ine. Archetypes exist because they have a core of truth about the eternal journey. Cliches exist because some storytellers can only think of telling an archetypal story the way we have always heard it.

I agree, there have been a LOT of books lately featuring familiar tropes like elves, dwarves, werewolves, pirates, vampires, pixies, princesses, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with using these creatures, as long as you don’t necessarily believe that they all belong in the same worlds all the time. Or if you do, have a good reason for it. Only in D&D do Aztec gods occupy the same sphere as leprechauns.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written role-playing books (a subject close to my heart, since I have been doing that for 20 years now myself). How did you arrange those?

NYE: I’ve been affiliated with the gaming industry for a long time. I got into D&D role-playing when I was nineteen. It’s always been dear to my heart, though I haven’t played in a long while. My first DM introduced me to one of the partners at TSR whom I dated for a year. I ended up typing out Gary Gygax’s manuscripts for the new Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I guess you could call that my first job in publishing. It made me aware of the game industry, where I met an amazing number of creative people. For a short time, I worked with a couple of fellow players who wanted to create game materials. I attended every GenCon from 1977 until it moved from Wisconsin to Indianapolis. Because I had a background in role-play, I had the expertise to write for Mayfair Games and later for TOR Books’ Crossroads series, as I mentioned above.

VENTRELLA: And finally, tell me… why do so many writers have cats? (I have four, by the way…)

NYE: Cats are the superior species in the universe, or haven’t they told you that? I like to use the Two Cat System of writing, my take on Dave Barry’s Two Dog System. My cats specialize in holding me in one place, usually through Cat Gravity (read Robin Woods’s excellent small book on her Theory), so I have to stay put and work. Other writers I know use more or fewer cats, depending on how much inspiration they require. Some writers, like Mr. Barry, use dogs for inspiration. Cats are a convenient size for laps and do not need to be walked in the rain, so I prefer them. Also, purring is a near-magical soother to a creative person’s troubled soul. I often rely upon purring to get me through a complicated story.

Thanks for interviewing me! I enjoyed your questions.

Interview with S. C. Butler

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing S.C. Butler today.

After graduating from Harvard, S.C. Butler worked in New York’s financial sector. His first published novel was REIFFEN’S CHOICE, published by Tor Books in September, 2006, followed by QUEEN FERRIS in the fall of 2007, and THE MAGICIAN’S DAUGHTER in May, 2009.

S.C., you had tried to make it as a novelist after college, but instead ended up on Wall Street. Tell us about those earlier books. Why do you think they didn’t get accepted?

S.C. BUTLER: My early books didn’t get accepted because they weren’t very good. They were all over the place, too: a scifi rock and roll novel, a baseball novel set in the Old West, a children’s book called THE MOVIE MICE (think Ratatouille with cameras instead of food).

VENTRELLA: Why have you been able to make sales now?

BUTLER: Ten years after I’d stopped writing, I reread one of my novels and realized it wasn’t very good. Which meant not getting published was my fault (and something I could fix by writing better books), and not the fault of a blind publishing industry. (It rarely is).

VENTRELLA: I certainly know the feeling, having gone through a similar process myself. Please tell my readers about your books!

BUTLER: THE STONEWAYS TRILOGY was conceived as one book with three basic parts. In REIFFEN’S CHOICE the reader discovers how Reiffen learns magic; in QUEEN FERRIS we learn what he does with his magic; and in THE MAGICIANS’ DAUGHTER we learn what his magic does to him. The books are very much about the consequences of power, but with a lot of humor and drama along the way. My own favorite character is Durk, the talking rock.

VENTRELLA: Do you have an agent? How has that relationship worked out?

BUTLER: I have an agent. I think it’s very important for writers to have an agent, not just for the doors an agent can open, but for the business knowledge they bring to the table as well. Most agents are definitely worth the money a writer pays them.

VENTRELLA: We met at a science fiction convention. Have you been attending those for very long?

BUTLER: I only started attending conventions after I became published.

VENTRELLA: Do you find that they are useful?

BUTLER: A lot of people find conventions useful for networking and business, but that isn’t the main reason I enjoy them. I attend conventions more for the chance to meet new people, find out what they’re reading, what they like and don’t like, that sort of thing. A writing friend describes attending SF conventions as a writer’s version of hanging out at the water cooler at work. Since writers tend to work alone, we don’t get a lot of chances to hang out together.

VENTRELLA: What other types of promotion have you done for your books and what do you find the most successful?

BUTLER: I’ve done readings, handed out postcards, done interviews, done bookstore signings, gone on radio programs, done podcasts, blogged, and spoken at schools. Speaking at schools is the only promotional activity I’ve found particularly effective, especially if the talk is combined with a school book fair where I can sell books. Most of my attempts at promotion have had relatively little effect, and I’m coming around now to the idea that the best way to sell books is to write another, better one.

VENTRELLA: What makes your fantasy novels different or unique from others in the genre?

BUTLER: I like to think that my books stand a lot of fantasy conventions on their heads. For example, though one of main protagonists in THE STONEWAYS is a 13 year old boy whose kingdom has been stolen from him by his uncle, he never becomes king. A lot of reviewers didn’t get that, perhaps because the red herring was too red, and thought the book was yet another fantasy where the hero conquers the baddies to win the girl and the crown. But, as I said earlier, the books are very much about the consequences of power. Too much fantasy sidesteps that issue entirely – the hero is more powerful than anyone else, yet never really does anything bad. He saves the world and that’s that. What if Boromir had actually gotten hold of the ring in THE LORD OF THE RINGS? That’s the question THE STONEWAYS asks.

VENTRELLA: What clichés do you see in the genre that you hate? How do you avoid them?

BUTLER: I dislike books where the magic has no cost, where magic-users are people with special talents unavailable to the rest of the people in the world. I much prefer magic that anyone can learn and use, but only if they’re willing to pay the cost. It’s how they deal with their power they have that I find most interesting.

VENTRELLA: When we met, we discussed the fact that neither of us have religion in our fantasy novels, which is somewhat unusual in the genre. Why did you make that decision?

BUTLER: This follows nicely from the previous question – another cliché I dislike is the use of religion as a plot device, usually with the bad guys being priests or clerics who want to preserve their power. The actual faiths of these one-dimensional bad guys are never actually described in this sort of book. It’s just one more form of medieval political power, no different from the various kings, barons, or magic-users also out there trying to take over the world. Though I am not religious myself, I recognize that most religions have a great deal of thought and history behind their beliefs. But bad fantasy religions rarely discuss these things. They’re just present to provide easy motivation for the bad guys.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

BUTLER: My current project is a science fiction story I call THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS meets CONTACT. But writing sf is very different from writing fantasy, and I find myself still adjusting my writing style to the new form’s demands. It’s an interesting challenge – I just hope I can pull it off!

Interview with Tanya Huff

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Tanya Huff today! Tanya Huff lives in rural Ontario, Canada with her partner Fiona Patton and, as of last count, nine cats. Her 26 novels and 68 short stories include horror, heroic fantasy, urban fantasy, comedy, and space opera. She’s written four essays for Ben Bella’s pop culture collections. Her Blood series was turned into the 22 episode BLOOD TIES and writing episode nine allowed her to finally use her degree in Radio & Television Arts. Her latest novel is THE TRUTH OF VALOR (DAW, September 2010). When not writing, she practices her guitar and spends too much time on line.

Tanya, How did you break into the publishing business?

TANYA HUFF: I started by sending out Third Time Lucky to the digests — Asimov didn’t want it and Amazing did. At the same time, I’d finished writing CHILD OF THE GROVE (in about 80% the same shape as the published book) and sent it out as a YA to Terri Windling at one of the Ace imprints I think. It was twenty-five years ago so details are foggy. Terri suggested I submit it as an adult book.

One of the things they suggest when you’re looking for a publisher is to look at what who publishes what you read and I was split about 50/50 between DAW and Del Rey. But I had a friend, S. M. Stirling who’d sold two books to Sheila Gilbert while she was at Signet and now she was at DAW and that seemed like a sign. I was heading to NYC to see some shows and Steve said he’d call Sheila and ask if she had time to see me. Unfortunately, he forgot and when I called Sheila, she said she hadn’t heard from him in a few years but if I could get there right away, she’d just had someone cancel and could see me for about twenty minutes.

Never do this, btw. Never cold call an editor and mention you just happen to be in town. It was barely doable 25 years ago. It’s really isn’t now.

We talked, I left the manuscript for CHILD OF THE GROVE with her, eventually, a year and a rewrite later, she bought it and, in the intervening years, she’s bought another 25.

VENTRELLA: You’ve stated in the past that you decide to write a vampire book because, basically, you knew they were popular now.

HUFF: No, what I said was, I decided to write a vampire book because I was working in a bookstore and had observed that vampire readers were very, very loyal to their genre. That they’d buy anything with fangs on the cover in the desperate hope of finding something decent to read. I figured if I wrote a good vampire book, then I’d give the vampire fans what they were looking for and they’d be that loyal to me. So I did. And they are. But twenty odd years ago when I wrote BLOOD PRICE, vampires were no where near as widely popular as they are now. This was pre-Buffy, remember.

VENTRELLA: This leads to an interesting question in general: How much of writing is about art and how much is about business? Do you think most authors write for the love of writing or because they want to be successful? Are the two incompatible? And is there anything wrong in that?

HUFF: The two are certainly not incompatible. On one level it doesn’t matter what job you do, if you’re just in it for the money, it’ll show and it won’t be pretty. On another, good writing requires a piece of your soul so you’d better love it given that you’re gouging chunks out of yourself to produce it. Also, as I tell the high school kids I occasionally talk to, you’d better love it because the odds are very good you’ll never make much money at it. On the other hand, I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t have a mulitude of ideas floating about and the smart ones will look at what’s selling, try to use that to figure out what’ll be selling in a year to eighteen months when any book you may start now will actually be published, and develop the idea that has the best chance in the market. On yet another hand, sometimes you just want to tell a particular story so badly that the market be damned and it then becomes your agent or editor’s job to reign you in.

So the short answer is, no.

VENTRELLA: You ignored many traditional vampire myths in your books. (I’m doing the same in my next novel, by the way, about a vampire who runs for President.) What led to that decision? Did you get any complaints from the hard core vampire fans?

HUFF: In order for myth to remain alive, it has to grow and change. Once a myth codifies, it dies. I used the parts of vampire myth that were relevant to my story and ignored what wasn’t. So far, no one’s complained. Well, not to me anyway.

VENTRELLA: You’ve been fortunate (and talented) enough to have a TV series based on one of your series. How did that come about?

HUFF: The wonderful guys at Kaleidoscope optioned the Blood series because they loved them and then worked their butts off to bring it to the screen. All I had to do was cash the option check. They did all the work.

VENTRELLA: Were you pleased with the result?

HUFF: I loved the result. Christina Cox was one the actors I saw playing Vicki back in the early 90’s when she was on a show called F/X THE SERIES and I was thrilled when she got the part. Dylan Neal was not how I physically saw Mike — until I saw Dylan play Mike and I loved his interpretation. I’d never been able to cast Henry Fitzroy but now I can only see Kyle Schmid in the part.

VENTRELLA: Did the TV series inspire you to make changes in future books of the series? Did you care about continuity at all, or was that not an issue?

HUFF: I wrote the last Blood book in… I think 1996 so it was totally a non issue. I said at the time that BLOOD DEBT was the last and it has been. There’s been a few short stories since Blood Ties but I have no problem keeping the show mythos and the book mythos straight.

VENTRELLA: What process do you use when preparing a novel? Do you do extensive research? Do you outline?

HUFF: First I have the idea — or, more accurately, separate the idea I’m currently excited about from the herd. Then I write up a pitch for my agent to give my editor — this is a very short outline and has, in the past, actually used the phrase, “And a bunch of stuff happens in the middle.” I always know where I’m starting from and I always know where I’m going, I just don’t always know how I’m going to get there. After the book sells, I research for two to three months until the weight of information tips me over into writing. Then I start at the beginning and tell the story until I finish. Because I edit as I go, my first draft about 95% similar to the book you buy.

VENTRELLA: How do you personally create a new fantasy world, with its own rules? In other words, how much planning and background information do you write?

HUFF: When I create a new fantasy world I need a map so I know the climate, the type of food, the industry, the type of farming, the housing needs. I need to know what time of year it is. I need to know what the religon is, and I need to work out the profanity. Most profanity is very tied to religion and is often the hardest thing to come up with in a created world.

VENTRELLA: What do you bring to the genre that other similar books miss? In other words, what is different about your books?

HUFF: Well, I don’t take myself or the genre (or various) subgenre too seriously while still respecting my readers, but I’m not the only one. I like kick ass women and witty repartee, so that’s going to be included every time. I guess the big thing that’s different about my books, is that I’ve written them…

VENTRELLA: Many aspiring authors get conned by self-publishers who pretend not to be, or by “editors” who do little more than proofreading for a large fee. How does one avoid these scams?

HUFF: They’re not hard to avoid. Publishers and editors pay you — you’re creating the product. If you’re paying them, it’s a scam.

VENTRELLA: Besides “keep writing” what specific advise would you give an aspiring author?

HUFF: Put a third of every check you receive into a separate tax account. Sure, it won’t matter for years but there will come a day when you’re actually making a living wage and the goverment will want a surprising amount of it. If you’re Canadian, you have to pay both halves of the Canada Pension Plan and that’s a surprise when it hits the first time, believe me. It’s best to remember that you’re essentially a small business all year long, not just in April.

Remember that publishers, editors, and agents all talk to each other. They will talk about you. You don’t have to be a saint, but don’t be an ass. If you get a reputation as being unprofessional or hard to work with, it won’t matter if you have all the talent in the world.

And speaking of talent, discipline matters more. I guarentee that more disciplined people with minimal talent are published than talented people with minimal discipline.

Write subjectively. Edit objectively.

Have fun.

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