Interview with author Marie Lamba

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Young Adult author Marie Lamba today. Marie is the author of the humorous young adult novel WHAT I MEANT…, which Publisher’s Weekly has dubbed “an impressive debut.” She has two more novels which will be coming out soon. In addition to her fiction writing, Marie has written and published more than 100 articles, including features in national magazines such as Garden Design, Your Home, and Sports International. Her most recent piece, “Plotting a Novel Group,” appears in the February 2008 issue of Writer’s Digest. Her web page is www.marielamba.com.

MARIE LAMBA: Hi Michael. Thank you for having me on your blog.

VENTRELLA: Marie, what is it that makes a novel a Young Adult novel?

LAMBA: To me, a young adult novel is categorized primarily by the age of the main character. Since readers read about characters older than themselves, if you have a 13-year-old protagonist, you’ve just written a middle reader (not a YA), and will have mostly elementary school aged readers. Also, content figures in. Sometimes the content is not right for the YA market. But these days, almost anything goes for YA readers. The edgier the better, though you may just be banned by schools…which usually reaps great press and even better sales, interestingly enough.

VENTRELLA: You keep a pretty active blog. Do you think this is necessary to help promote your work?

LAMBA: My site helps me promote my work every single day. I’ve heard people say that if you don’t update your blog at least 3 times a week, then don’t bother having one. I heartily disagree. Sometimes it’s not about getting a huge number of subscribers, but about having a presence, and being able to be found in various ways.

While my blog may seem really active, I sometimes post as rarely as once a month. I just don’t think there’s a point in posting unless I really have something to say. Yet the site is dynamic and gets a fair number of hits everyday because I’ve got a lot going on there. In addition to offering updates about my work, essays on writing, and book reviews, I’ve made it function as my website, www.marielamba.com. So folks are going there to find out about my appearances, to read my bio, to read excerpts from my books, etc. And with links to my Twitter feed, there is always something new to see.

By combining my website with my blog, people stumble onto it while doing the weirdest searches. Like when looking for the menu of Nat’s Pizza. And then they see that my novel has a scene set there. Then they click on my link to buy my Doylestown-based novel. All because of a blog post that tagged Nat’s Pizza in it, if that makes sense?

VENTRELLA: Should unpublished authors have a blog?

LAMBA: Absolutely. It’s a great way to start establishing yourself and your voice. Everything from the color scheme you use to the tone of your bio can help create a feel for who you are. Have a page on your blog with short excerpts of your work, but don’t give away too much material there. Just enough for a taste.

If you really want to be savvy, then you could use your site for things such as book reviews and editor and publisher interviews, which would make your name familiar to the “powers that be.”

VENTRELLA: What can an author do to make their blog stand out among the many out there?

LAMBA: I think it goes back to your voice. Who you are should come through in the tone of your writing, and what you choose to highlight. Then, of course, you need to connect with your audience. That’s where bringing your site to the attention of an organization can help. For example, after I wrote a post about plotting, I saw on a children’s writing message board that I belong to that there was some recent discussion about plotting. I immediately commented there, providing my link to my post.

VENTRELLA: You also make extensive use of Twitter. How can you make your tweets stand out when there are so many people on Twitter? And do you think this is an efficient use of your time?

LAMBA: You know, Twitter is so quick that it isn’t the time suck that sites like Facebook seem to be. At least not for me. Here’s the trick though: when you post there, make it under 40 characters so that you can easily be retweeted to others. Also, try to always provide a link, whether it is to a relevant blog post or a Facebook invite to an event. Links are always too long, so go to www.bitly.com, paste the link there, and you’ll get a shorter link that you can use. And don’t always make your tweets about you. Highlight the accomplishments of others. It’s fun to do, plus I think it’s just good karma.

As for making your tweets stand out, I definitely avoid the whole “I’m getting a cup of coffee now” variety of posts. Again, I only go on there when I have something to say or I really want to respond to someone. I think then people will pay more attention to you. You aren’t the annoying talker everyone wishes would go away. And I try not to follow just anyone or anything. My list is made up of people I know, and of publishers, editors, librarians, media, authors. In short (in the spirit of Twitter), folks who might actually care to hear what I have to say.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? (Do you outline heavily, create character backgrounds first, come up with the basic concept and run with it, etc.?)

LAMBA: Good question. It’s evolving. For my past few novels, I knew my final scene. I had my opening dialogue. And then I was off! Kind of like knowing I’m driving to California, and therefore start heading west, but without a map. I do get to the end eventually. The fun thing about this method is the unexpected twists and turns. The not-so-fun thing is cleaning up the mess that I’ve created, trying to make it more direct and cohesive. It can take a long time.

With my current novel, I’m trying to be more organized. I’ve plotted it out, and now I’m in the outlining stage. Then I’ll start writing. I’m hoping that this will help me write faster. My last novel DRAWN (which is now out on submission), took over a year and a half to write. I want to be much more productive than that.

VENTRELLA: What are you doing in your fiction that no one else is doing? What makes your book different and exciting?

LAMBA: I think, again, it comes down to voice. I’m the only person with my point of view and my humor, and that flavors the plot and the characters. With WHAT I MEANT… (Random House YA), the book’s cast of bi-racial characters mirrors my own family’s blend of Italian-American and Asian-Indian personalities. Because WHAT I MEANT… has a mixed race protagonist, yet it is a mainstream story not focused on race, it became a standout in the field.

VENTRELLA: Have you received any surprising results from your writing?

LAMBA: It is always touching to have readers contact me saying that they identified with the characters and that WHAT I MEANT… is their favorite book. One girl even said that she never cries at anything, yet she found herself bawling at the end of my novel because it touched her. That was humbling.

On a funny note, an ex-boyfriend from high school assumed that one of the guy characters in the novel was named after him. He wasn’t.

VENTRELLA: You do a lot of personal appearances to promote your books. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing these? How do you organize them?

LAMBA: The main advantage is making a personal connection with a reader. If someone meets you and enjoys talking with you, they’ll also remember you and feel a connection to your writing. This is really how books are sold: one reader at a time. I love meeting people, and appearances take me away from my isolated little writing spot and out into the real world. All good. The disadvantage? I can’t think of a single one. I’m careful to pick and choose where and when I go so it doesn’t take away from my writing time.

Events happen many ways. Sometimes booksellers or conferences or teachers contact me. Sometimes I get in touch with them if I have a specific event idea. And I have done presentations to hundreds and hundreds of scouts. I also have to mention that I’m a proud member of the Philly Liars Club, a collection of 13 authors who basically lie for a living. Together we stage a slew of oddball events, and have a blast.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss the publishing business a bit. With self-publishing and e-books becoming more prominent, how do you think this will change the demand and market for new writers?

LAMBA: I really think that self-publishing and e-books represent a revolution in publishing, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1460’s when old Guttenberg came onto the scene with his printing press, displacing those hard-working monks and their illuminated manuscripts. Documents at that time show that people didn’t realize the magnitude or ramifications of what was going on. Quite simply, the change was so huge that they couldn’t envision the implications.

And so it goes with us. We speculate, but we can barely foresee what all these huge changes mean. I say look to the music industry, to prevalent iPods and the dearly departed record stores. And be cautious. Will books on paper no longer exist? Will bookstores and libraries disappear? Will publishers become obsolete? The only thing I know for sure is that no matter what form content will take, someone will have to write it.

Cling to that, writers and future writers. We are not replaceable.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the stigma of being self-published will continue? Do you think it’s deserved?

LAMBA: Some self-published books are brilliant. Others are painful and shouldn’t see the light of day. Books that are horribly written and barely edited definitely ruin the reputation of others out there, sadly.

I do think that as distribution of self-published novels improves, and more established authors step into this arena, that this stigma will fade. I mean, what does an author like Stephen King really need a publisher for? Couldn’t someone of that stature just put books out into the stratosphere by himself by self-publishing? J.A. Konrath has started to do it with some success, though he still also goes the traditional route.

VENTRELLA: Who are your favorite authors? Why?

LAMBA: Anne Tyler for her beautiful imagery and quirky characters. T.H. White for his epic storytelling, sense of grandeur, and sense of humor. Audrey Niffeneger for her amazing plotting abilities. Sarah Dessen for her touching and real YA voice.

VENTRELLA: What’s the biggest mistake you see aspiring writers make?

LAMBA: Not taking the time to polish their work, and really learn their craft. Writers need to work so hard to improve everything they do. Established authors are always struggling to polish, to edit. They value pointed criticism, and vigorously revise. When I see someone with talent refusing to do this type of work to polish their manuscript, or not absorbing decent criticism, I know that they are limiting themselves, and that’s a shame.

VENTRELLA: What advice can you offer that you wish someone had offered you?

LAMBA: Writing is not only an art, it’s a business. And sometimes in this business really nasty crap will happen to you. In fact, expect it. Your novel, no matter how important it is to you, is just a commodity in the business world. Be as businesslike as you can, while protecting the sensitive artist within. And write another book. And another. And another.

VENTRELLA: And what’s next? What can we look forward to seeing from you?

LAMBA: My YA paranormal DRAWN (excerpt on my blog/website) is under consideration right now. It’s about a teen artist who moves to England in search of a normal life. But then she starts channeling one very hot ghost through her drawings. Not normal at all.

And right now I’m working on a novel for adults: When an Italian grandmother shares old fashioned recipes for sauces and for a happy life, her three granddaughters test the ingredients in fresh ways, cooking up a surprising blend of spice, passion, trouble and true love.

That pretty much sums it up! Thanks, again, for having me here.

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Interview with Hugo Nominated Author Steven Barnes

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Hugo nominated author Steven Barnes.

Steven Barnes has a very interesting background: His martial arts accomplishments include black belt in karate and judo. He is a trained hypnotherapist, and studies yoga and other physical arts. His writing includes a number of novels by himself and others, short stories, and television episode scripts.

Steven, I have to begin by discussing something personal. You see, years ago friends and I read DREAM PARK and become enamored of the idea. It wasn’t too much later that we began the New England Roleplaying Organization, one of the largest Live Action Role-Playing games in North America. I edited all of their Rule Books and have since moved off and started my own group (Alliance LARP) – all because of a spark started by you and Larry Niven. And now I’m writing my own novels…

My first question, then, is: Did you realize how much of an influence that book had?

STEVEN BARNES: Not until Larry and I attended the first IFGS gaming conference. Being surrounded by hundreds of LARPers really drove it home. We’d created, or certainly influenced, an entire sub-culture.

VENTRELLA: That was not your first novel with Larry Niven. How did that relationship begin?

BARNES: I was about twenty-seven, and writing my butt off without getting anything published. My theory is that if you want to learn something, find someone else who is doing it, and figure out what they’re doing. I needed a role model…or a mentor, if I could be that lucky. A friend told me that Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle frequented the LASFS clubhouse (Los Angeles Science Fiction/Fantasy Society) on Thursday nights. I went up there, met Larry, and convinced him to read a few of my stories. He liked what he saw, and gave me a chance to work on an unpublished story of his called “The Locusts.” Luckily, I saw a flaw in the story that my particular skills could improve. It was published in Analog, and was nominated for a Hugo.

VENTRELLA: What process do you use when you collaborate? Do you split up subplots, or does one person write and the other rewrite?

BARNES: We work out the plot outline extensively, and then I write the first draft. Larry rewrites, suggests, tells me when I’m on the crazy train.

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

BARNES: What I would call “Self Directed Human Evolution” — the process of personal growth as it has been expressed in world culture, religion, philosophy and myth.

VENTRELLA: What is it about science fiction that attracts you? You have written a few things that are out of the genre (like some “Baywatch” episodes) –- what brings you back?

BARNES: The size of the canvas, perhaps. Most probably, the fact that I was just a dreamer as a kid, and loved stories of heroic adventure against exotic back-drops. But if I had had access to Ian Fleming instead of Larry Niven, I’d be writing spy novels.

VENTRELLA: Do you feel that editors and publishers still are fairly conservative when it comes to taking chances, even with science fiction?

BARNES: No more than their audience. I consider science fiction to be quite socially conservative in some ways, but that may be another discussion.

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?)

BARNES: Usually I’ll start with an idea, and then create characters to people that world. I outline using 3×5 cards, outlining programs, whatever. Every way of looking at a story reveals different details.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

BARNES: LION’S BLOOD. I felt as if I had finally managed to create a work that expressed my core sense of social reality in America.

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

BARNES: Again, LION’S BLOOD, set in an alternate world in which Islamic Africans colonized the Americas, bringing European slaves. The reversal of racial roles was already pushing the edge. But 9/11 happened, and we were demonizing Muslims. That was the worst timing for a book you could imagine.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

BARNES: Oh, I don’t know if there’s anything. There are some things about human nature — tribalism — that have worked to my disadvantage, but that’s also a survival trait, so I guess I have to grin and bear it.

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

BARNES: A writer should write for the sheer passionate love of it as much as possible. You have no idea how much external success you will ever have, so you’d better find a way to be happy just being a writer.

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

BARNES: Chasing the market.

VENTRELLA: You’ve posted on your Facebook page about self growth and fulfillment. What are your goals and aspirations and how well have you met them?

BARNES: I reached every goal I ever set as a kid. I wanted love, to be a martial artist, and a successful writer. Got ’em. Now I’m redefining myself, and setting up new challenges. Primarily, I don’t want to be a professional writer any more. I want to be an amateur writer, writing for the sheer love of it. That means setting up an entirely new business. In this instance, coaching writers and those who want balanced lives. I offer a free phone coaching session to anyone: your readers can reach me at steven@diamondhour.com

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

BARNES: Sun Tzu, Aristotle, Shaka Zulu (leave the assagai at the door, please!), Lewis Carrol, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Jefferson, Musashi Miamoto (likewise with the katana), William Shakespeare … and the most important women in their lives.

VENTRELLA: And finally, do you find yourself optimistic about the future?

BARNES: Very optimistic. I am most worried by people who don’t believe there is much risk of overpopulation. Frankly, I think this is leftover meme from the time humans were on the brink of extinction. Overpopulation won’t destroy the world, but it could destroy the ability to sustain a technological civilization.

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Interview with Hugo Award-winning author Lawrence Watt-Evans

Lawrence Watt Evans grew up with parents who were science fiction readers, so he grew up reading the stuff, and decided at the age of seven or eight that he wanted to write it. He has been a full-time writer for more than thirty years, producing more than forty novels, over one hundred short stories, over one hundred and fifty published articles, and a few comic books. Most of his writing has been in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and he has received a few awards, including the Hugo for best short story in 1988, for ”Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers.” He served as president of the Horror Writers Association from 1994 to 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and the obligatory writers’ cat.

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Lawrence, thank you! Let’s start by letting us know what your latest work is that is available and what we can expect next.

LAWRENCE WATT-EVANS: My latest novel is called A YOUNG MAN WITHOUT MAGIC; Tor released the hardcover in November of 2009. This is the first volume of a fantasy series called the Fall of the Sorcerers; the second volume, ABOVE HIS PROPER STATION, will be out in November 2010. Whether there will be more remains to be seen. If there’s sufficient interest from readers and publishers, this series could go a long time — I have about a dozen novels plotted.

VENTRELLA: You try to break down traditional plot cliches in your stories. What are your plotline pet peeves?

WATT-EVANS: My biggest is simply people doing things, or failing to do things, because it’s necessary to make the plot work, and not because that’s how real people would act. Plots that depend on people not telling each other important things when there’s no reason to keep them secret, for example. Real people generally like to talk, and keeping a secret is hard, so why do so many characters in books go to such lengths to not tell each other things?

Why don’t characters in novels call the cops more often? Why don’t they tell their friends what they’re up to?

VENTRELLA: I’ve commented on this blog before about how I dislike the typical fantasy hero who is a noble-born chosen one with special powers. Why do you think it’s important to avoid those kinds of characters?

WATT-EVANS: I don’t think it’s important to avoid them; I just think they’ve been overdone, and I prefer to focus on more ordinary people.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever worry about genre when your work crosses the line? Do your publishers and editors ever give you a hard time about it?

WATT-EVANS: When I started out I never used to worry about genre. Back in the ’80s, I wrote whatever I wanted and let the publisher worry about labeling it. By the ’90s, that looked like a bad idea — my fantasy was much more successful than my science fiction or horror, so writing SF or horror was dragging down my sales and hurting my career. My agent eventually convinced me of that, and I mostly stopped writing SF and horror novels. (In short fiction, no one cared.) I’d intended to go on writing SF under a different name, but that never really worked out. By the turn of the century I was purely a fantasy writer.

But the thing is, the market kept changing, and now readers and publishers want cross-genre stuff — pure traditional fantasy isn’t selling well anymore. Urban fantasy, crossing fantasy with hard-boiled detective stories — that’s selling. Paranormal romance is selling. Historical fantasy is selling. Since I write for a living, I can’t afford to ignore that, so I’m currently working on an urban fantasy novel called ONE-EYED JACK, and I’m looking at some other genre-bending possibilities.

I’m perfectly happy working in various genres, but I do try to keep up with what publishers are buying.

VENTRELLA: Are humorous stories easier or harder to write?

WATT-EVANS: Easier than what?

For me, each story has its own natural tone, and that has nothing to do with the difficulty of writing it. Some funny stories are easy, some are hard; some serious stories are easy, some are hard.

VENTRELLA: What difficulties and pitfalls face someone trying to write humor?

WATT-EVANS: The tricky thing about writing humor is that senses of humor vary. What one person finds funny may leave another cold. When Esther Friesner and I were writing SPLIT HEIRS, while we were mostly in accord, I found out that Esther has a more vicious sense of humor than I do, but isn’t as fond of pratfalls — with one exception, any scene in the book where death or serious injury is played for laughs, Esther wrote it, while I think all the falls are mine. Knowing what readers will find funny — well, I’m not sure there’s anything that every reader will find funny. There are people out there who don’t find Terry Pratchett funny, which I find incomprehensible.

So what you need to do is to incorporate a variety of humor. Don’t stick entirely to one thing — there’s no gag that won’t get old eventually. Maybe you think puns are the epitome of wit, but relying entirely on puns is going to leave most readers cold. SPLIT HEIRS had puns and pratfalls and pain, contrived explanations and elaborate absurdity, double entendres and drunk acts, so if a reader didn’t laugh at one bit, the next might get him. Overusing any one joke can kill it. Change it up.

Also, don’t try too hard. Don’t overdo it. Humor has to have some grounding in reality in order to work. There’s a reason the classic comedy acts always included a straight man. Have some respect for your characters, no matter how absurd their situation may become. It’s much funnier when something ridiculous happens to an ordinary guy than when it happens to a capering buffoon.

VENTRELLA: I know there isn’t a template that is used each time, but when creating a new world, what is your process? Do you first concentrate on the story and characters and then think about the politics and religion of the world?

WATT-EVANS: Oh, it varies. A lot. I mean, a lot.

Ethshar started out as a map I drew during a boring geometry class in ninth grade; the locations of Aldagmor and the three Ethshars were where the point of a compass had marked the paper when I used it as backing for an assignment. That was 1969. I added names and worked out some of the linguistics between then and 1972, and figured out some of how warlockry functioned, then put it aside until 1977, when I started designing the other kinds of magic. History and politics and religion came along between 1977 and 1983, but I didn’t have any stories to set there until about 1982. I started writing THE MISENCHANTED SWORD in December 1983. I’m still adding details.

For the Lands of Man, on the other hand, I knew the story first, and wanted a setting. I started with the history, from the wars against the dragons to the opening of DRAGON WEATHER, but I didn’t know the geography or magic, or history before the wars, until after I started writing the novel. I never did get the linguistics straight.

NIGHTSIDE CITY was inspired by the Los Angeles of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels — “inspired” not meaning copied, at all. Lew Archer’s L.A. is a city of night, where the real world Los Angeles is a very sunny place, and that got me thinking about a city where it’s always been night, but the sun’s about to come up. (A “Little Nemo in Slumberland” strip where the sun dissolves King Morpheus’ palace may also have figured in.) So I started designing out a world where that would be possible, and even hired a planetologist, Dr. Sheridan Simon, to work out the physics for me.

VENTRELLA: Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?

WATT-EVANS: I used to find novels easier, though obviously they take longer, but somewhere in the late ’80s I got the hang of writing short stories, and since then I don’t find one more difficult than the other.

As for which I prefer, do you prefer steak or chocolate cake? They’re different. Sometimes I want one, sometimes I want the other.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the primary difference between the two?

WATT-EVANS: The primary difference is that a short story is about a single change, while a novel is about something developing, step by step. The first time I was asked this question, many years ago, I said that a short story is a kiss, and a novel is a courtship, and I still think that’s a pretty good analogy.

VENTRELLA: Publisher’s Weekly said of your latest (A YOUNG MAN WITHOUT MAGIC) that the characters were “unlikeable” but that the “the tight plotting and absorbing new world make this tale readable.” Do you agree that the characters are “unlikable”?

WATT-EVANS: I didn’t think they were unlikable — not all of them, anyway. I like Anrel quite a bit. Several of the others are less than charming, I admit, including Anrel’s best friend, but I thought I’d come up with a protagonist readers would find pleasant company. I suspect the reviewer found him too fatalistic, a trait that fades greatly in the sequel, ABOVE HIS PROPER STATION.

VENTRELLA: How do you deal with negative criticism?

WATT-EVANS: Mostly, I ignore it. I know I can’t please everybody. In one case, though, a reader’s comment about TOUCHED BY THE GODS me rethink the whole story, which is a part (though only a small one) of why there’s no sequel and will never be one.

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

WATT-EVANS: How broadly are you defining “theme”? A lot of my stories turn out to be about someone finding a place for himself in the world. I also seem to write about a lot of immortal (or at least ancient) characters who have lived in isolation and are reconnecting with the world. And characters who are struggling to control some power that could cause great destruction if unleashed.

I don’t know why.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing style?

WATT-EVANS: It varies, but usually it goes like this:

Come up with central concept, which can vary hugely in complexity — it could be a gadget, a spell, a characteristic of the setting, a plot element, a scene, a character. THE MISENCHANTED SWORD started with the spell on the sword, NIGHTSIDE CITY started with the doomed city, THE CYBORG AND THE SORCERORS started with the scene of Slant talking to the wizards of Teyzha. Sometimes this concept is the result of combining two or more old ideas I had kicking around.

Usually, I let this stew for awhile, accreting material. If I didn’t start with a character, figure out who the characters are who would be involved. Work out a background where this could take place — which might be a setting that already exists, or a new one.

Write an opening scene, to get the material fixed in my head. Sometimes this comes before the stewing.

Figure out how the story ends.

Come up with some rough plan for getting from the opening to the ending.

Start writing.

Usually, I’ll stop after awhile — usually the first time I hit a plot problem — and write up a working outline, running from three to thirty pages; when I’m satisfied with that, I’ll go on writing the story.

The first draft is usually skimpy; the second draft is largely filling in details I skipped over while working through the plot. I generally don’t know the characters all that well when I start, but I get to know them writing the first draft, so the second draft lets me flesh them out.

And after that it’s just polishing.

However, not every story follows this model. I do whatever works. Sometimes I never do write an outline. Sometimes I write one, but don’t follow it. Whatever works.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

WATT-EVANS: DRAGON WEATHER. That one came out really good. Some others came close, but I’d rate that one as my best.

VENTRELLA: And finally, who do you like to read?

Terry Pratchett, Fritz Leiber Jr. — right now I’m not sure who else, as I seem to be in a transitional period where I’m losing my taste for old favorites (e.g., Robert Heinlein) and haven’t yet settled on new ones.

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Get a Good Editor!

One of the hardest things for creative people to do is to look at their own work objectively.

The final edits on my second novel (THE AXES OF EVIL) are now complete, and I am very grateful that I had an excellent editor this time to help me out. J. Thomas Ross, whose blog you should all be reading, tore apart the manuscript and now the book is 100% better.

Some of the edits were based on grammatical errors and phrasing, but any good editor should point those things out. No, what made the difference was having an editor who also pointed out exposition holes and other problems.

I can clearly see a situation in my head as I am writing it, but that doesn’t mean I have explained it well enough for someone else.

Here’s an example: In AXES, there is a scene where Terin, the main character, is trying to sneak into a barbarian village. He has obtained the aid of some rather incompetent goblins, and they are hiding in a food storage shed. Peeking out the window, they observe the scene and make their plans. This is important. A reader needs to understand the layout to not only get what is happening but also to build the tension and suspense as Terin leaves the building and heads toward the prison where his friends are being held.

I thought my description was just fine, but Judy (my editor) couldn’t see it. “Doesn’t the fence get in the way?” she’d ask. “And I thought the jail was the big structure at the end of the clearing.” I eventually emailed her a quick map of the town as I saw it, and that assisted in the rewriting. Hopefully no readers will be confused now.

Another problem the original manuscript had was mentioning things that made no sense unless you had read the previous book in the series. Judy had not read ARCH ENEMIES, and this assisted me greatly, as I wanted THE AXES OF EVIL to be a stand-alone novel. We looked at the references and eliminated the ones that were irrelevant to the plot of AXES and explained the ones that were. In doing so, I tried as much as possible not to give away all of the plot to ARCH ENEMIES — what’s the fun in that? Still, some spoilers were unavoidable and necessary.

Having someone edit your work is tremendously important. If you’re receiving many rejection letters, that may just be the reason why. I have always had family and friends read my manuscripts before submitting them, but even then they may not catch everything. Someone who does this at least semi-professionally will make all the difference.

Interview with author David Wellington

David Wellington is the author of seven novels. His zombie novels MONSTER ISLAND, MONSTER NATION and MONSTER PLANET form a complete trilogy. He has also written a series of vampire novels including (so far) THIRTEEN BULLETS, NINETY-NINE COFFINS, VAMPIRE ZERO and TWENTY THREE HOURS, and in October of 2009 began his new Werewolf series, starting with FROSTBITE. His web page is www.davidwellington.net.WellingtonAuthorPictureWeb

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Welcome David! You’ve gathered quite an impressive array of degrees from prominent universities having to do with creative writing. How has your education influenced your writing?

DAVID WELLINGTON: Only indirectly, really. The main reason to pursue a graduate degree in Creative Writing is to be surrounded by other writers–you learn a lot more from your fellow students than from the instructors. The focus is on workshops, and I’ve found you can get that from an informal writing group. I suppose there may have been occasions when someone took me more seriously because I had an MFA, but really, the work needs to stand for itself.

VENTRELLA: Do you believe good writers are “born” or is education and training essential?

WELLINGTON: It’s all about hard work, unfortunately. It took me thirty years to get to the point where my work was worth being published. Exceptional talent might cut down on how long it takes–but the only way to improve as a writer is through trial and error. You need to write, a lot, and learn from your mistakes.

VENTRELLA: How did you get your “big break”? Aspiring writers want to know!MonsterIsland_LoRes

WELLINGTON: I tried everything, of course. I tried selling short stories to magazines. I tried submitting manuscripts to publishers, completely unsolicited. Nothing worked. I was actually ready to give up — when a friend of mine suggested that I publish a book on his website. The book happened to be MONSTER ISLAND. He set up a blog for me and I posted a short chapter three times a week. At first it was just for fun — I had no reason to believe it would lead to anything. Then people started reading it. A lot of people. By the time I had a couple of thousand people reading each new post, a publisher came to me with an offer. I used to say I got into publishing through the back door — but I’ve since come to realize there really isn’t a front door. If you want to be published today, you have to get creative. Luckily, if you’re a writer, you’ve already got a well-developed imagination!

VENTRELLA: How did you get involved in the Marvel Zombies series?

WELLINGTON: Marvel actively sought out the authors of zombie novels to come up with some new ideas for the franchise. They approached three of us to each write one issue of Marvel Zombies Return. I absolutely jumped at the chance — I’d been a fan of comics my whole life, and had always dreamed of writing one some day.

VENTRELLA: How does writing for comics differ from writing novels?

WELLINGTON: It’s much more like writing a screenplay. You’re writing something that will never be seen. Your script is going to be interpreted by an artist, so you give up a certain measure of control. You have to trust your artist to interpret your vision. Luckily for me I was matched with Andrea Mutti, whose art really brought my story to life. The guy’s a pro.

VENTRELLA: You have already tackled several classic horror monsters: werewolves, vampires and zombies. All of these takes were fairly unusual in their descrpition of the monsters’ qualites/appearances, yet retaining a lot of the classic elements at the same time. How did you come by that decision?

WELLINGTON: Whenever I start a project, I want to do it my own way. Otherwise where’s the fun? I start with the traditional version, and think about how I can play with it. That way I can add something new, and hopefully something fresh. My zombies don’t just eat brains — they eat anything organic. They peel gum off the street and eat it if there’s nothing else. They’re the ultimate consumers. My vampires were a direct reaction to the romantic vampires you see so often these days. I wanted my vampires to be scary — predators in a world where we would have a very hard time fighting back. And so on.hair ablowin

VENTRELLA: What’s next? Any plans to give us a fresh take on another horror creature?

WELLINGTON: There will be two books in my new werewolf series–FROSTBITE, out now, and OVERWINTER, which will come out next year. I’d like to do a fifth vampire book, to finish the series.

VENTRELLA: The protagonist of your vampire series, Laura Caxton, is lesbian which is quite unusual for mainstream horror. Anything specific that prompted you to that decision?

WELLINGTON: There wasn’t a lot of decision-making involved. When I created Laura, I knew I had a scene where she comes home after a very nasty day at work and gets into bed. I knew there would be someone in the bed waiting for her — when I got to that scene, the other person just happened to be another woman. The character was partly based on my sister, who is gay. Beyond that I gave it very little thought–and nobody ever gave me a hard time about it. My editors never blinked. My readers have accepted it without making a big deal out of it. I was pleasantly surprised by that.

VENTRELLA: What are your favorite books in the horror genre? Favorite horror movies?

WELLINGTON: My favorite books in horror are the classics — Lovecraft, Poe, Arthur Machen. As far as movies go, I like any horror movie that plays with the genre or expands a story in an interesting way. “Near Dark” is a great film, as is “Let the Right One In,” for this reason.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever considered writing in any other genre?

WELLINGTON: When I started publishing, it was with a horror novel. But I’ve never considered myself just a horror writer — I’ve actually written far more science fiction novels than horror novels, they just never got published. I write fantasy, mystery, even literary fiction — whatever idea comes along, I pounce on it.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite monster?

WELLINGTON: Frankenstein’s Monster, definitely. There’s something about that character — both in Mary Shelley’s book and in the Universal films — that really speaks to me, an existential loneliness that demands answers. What am I? Why was I created? What am I supposed to do now? The monster asks all these questions, and gets no answers. That’s how I feel every morning when I wake up. Then I eat my cereal and get to work and I feel a lot better.

VENTRELLA: Do you have any specific advice you would give a writer trying to make it in the publishing business that they may not have heard before?

WELLINGTON: Keep writing — it can seem pointless, but it’ll work eventually. Something will catch somebody’s eye. Or you’ll improve as a writer to the point where people can’t ignore you any more. Try to tell stories, rather than creating great art. Keep reading books — every book, good or bad, has something to teach you.frostbite

VENTRELLA: What are you most proud of? For What would you like to be remembered?

WELLINGTON: A book that hasn’t been published yet. One I haven’t written yet. Every book I write is better, in some way, than the last. I don’t want to be one of those writers who publishes one good book and then can never catch that fire again. I want to be the guy who’s best work is always his latest one, like Terry Pratchett.

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

WELLINGTON: FROSTBITE, my werewolf book, is out right now–you can get it at Amazon or in any bookstore. There will be a sequel called OVERWINTER, out next year. I hope you’ll like them!

Interview with Gregory Frost

Gregory Frost is the author of the Shadowbridge duology, SHADOWBRIDGE and LORD TOPHET. His latest short fiction appears in the anthology POE, edited by Ellen Datlow. He’s been a finalist for every award in the sf, fantasy, and horror genres. Other works include LYREC, TAIN, REMSCELA, THE PURE COLD LIGHT, FITCHER’S BRIDES, and the short fiction collection ATTACK IF THE JAZZ GIANTS & OTHER STORIES. His essay on Slipstream fiction appears in Modern Fantasy Literature (Cambridge University Press), co-edited by Farah Mendelsohn. For two years he was the principal researcher for a non-fiction television producer, for shows that appeared on The Learning Channel and The Discovery Channel. Currently he is the acting Fiction Writing Workshop Director at Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, PA, and teaches in writing programs in and around the Delaware Valley. His web page is Gregoryfrost.com.

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Gregory Frost. I first became aware of Frost with his initial novel LYREC which I remember reading on the Boston subway back in the 80s. Although I have not re-read it since then, I recall it being quite fun with some real issues about religious beliefs…

Gregory, was LYREC the first novel you had written? What made you decide on that theme for your first novel? (PS: My wife says to tell you she loved that book.) Any news on it being re-issued?

GREGORY FROST: LYREC was the first novel that was published. Hardly the first one I’d written. In fact my first attempt at a novel was about 70 pages long. The second attempt was, at least, of an appropriate length, around 250 pages. But it and numerous others live in a box in a closet, which is where they belong. That second one made its way to Lin Carter, who was editing the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series in those days (that should date me), courtesy of a letter of introduction from one David Gerrold, who’d never even met me. And Carter, bless him, did a line edit on the first 10 pages, showing me how much I did not understand of the craft. It would be a decade after that before I sold LYREC. But both Gerrold’s letter and Carter’s efforts were acts of kindness on their part. I think apiring authors should always stiffen their spines and talk to published writers. Trust me, only some of us bite. The zombie writers…yeah, you should probably not talk to the zombies.

I expect LYREC would have been a YA novel had there been such a category in ’84. Main character is an alien who has little experience with human emotions and finds himself greatly overcome by them as he inhabits a human body; he has to sort out his angry, warring and violent impulses. And his sidekick is unable to manifest as a human and so goes through the book as a large talking cat with attitude. I was trying to do something with fantasy besides interminable trilogies and quests. So there’s way more Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in there than there is Tolkien or Robert E. Howard. I love Fritz Leiber, and those stories of his were unquestionably influential. Roger Zelazny’s work, too. It’s fresh, funny, different. I was shooting for all that with LYREC. A really good ride.

And at the moment there’s a possibility it’s coming back into print from Wilder Press this winter. Negotiations on that front continue, and I don’t know how that’ll fall out.

VENTRELLA: How did you break into the publishing business at that time?

FROST: I broke in by publishing a short story (in The Twilight Zone Magazine for the old people in the audience), and then in quick succession two more in F&SF, and around then at a convention I met Terri Windling, who at the time was an editor at Ace Books. I was in the middle of a draft of a novel based on the Irish epic The Tain, and the idea excited her. She agreed to look at LYREC, I think, pretty much on the strength of the idea that I was going to do my version of Cú Chulainn.

VENTRELLA: Has the business changed much since then?

Back then a publisher would try to develop a relationship with you—grow your career, so to speak. Now you’d better write a bloody best-seller coming out of the chute or you’re for it, mate. The bean-counters will look at your numbers and instead of thinking, “We can promote her next book and sell even more,” they go “Huh, your numbers weren’t great, so we’re not going to publish you at all!” That is the current reality. I can’t even tell you how many writers I know of who published a portion of a trilogy or series with a full character arc, only to have the publisher say in the middle of it, “Don’t bother to finish. We don’t want the last book(s) because your sales haven’t been great.” It’s ugly—and bovinely stupid—out there.

One of the books I use in teaching writing is THE GREAT GATSBY because so much of the correspondence between Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins, his editor, is available to us. And it’s interesting to see how much of that book was pulled together during the editing and revision process. Fitzgerald did not turn in a fine, complete, perfect manuscript. Far from it—the original Jay Gatsby was a complete cypher, even to the author. But nowadays that’s what you’re expected to do, turn in a perfect, finished work. Editors are now responsible for twenty more times the number of books in any given minute, so they can’t take the time to guide, to work in close that way. Someone like David Hartwell may still take such carewith selected authors, but he’s a dying breed. Everything now is Walmartized, the whole process. And it is not giving us better literature.

VENTRELLA: You have not limited yourself to one specific genre. While certainly that is very admirable artistically, do you feel that may harm you professionally? Should authors try to “specialize”?

FROST: I wouldn’t recommend the genre hopping as a career move. But then I wouldn’t recommend you be slow and methodical, either, in the genres.

Okay, I was having lunch with two contemporary authors a few days ago, Rachel Pastan (LADY OF THE SNAKES) and Asali Solomon (GET DOWN). And Rachel expressed to Asali how prolific I am. I mean, I had two books out last year. I’m now working on what I hope are final revisions of a supernatural mystery. I protested that I’d been working on this thing for 18 months and that was after setting it aside to write LORD TOPHET when Random House picked up SHADOWBRIDGE. And in discussing this, I realized that for a contemporary—let’s say (snootily) literary—author, a decade between books isn’t particularly shocking or unusual. Lord-Tophet_web

Asali’s collection came out a few years ago, and she’s under contract to produce a second book. But nobody’s going mad wondering where it is, and she’s still pondering it. Now, I took seven years probably from beginning to end to write SHADOWBRIDGE, and got nothing but shit about it from reviewers and interviewers. You take that much time in the genres and you’re immediately suspect. There’s this kind of “You’re writing entertainments, so if you took that long there must have been a problem” thing going on. We’re expected to knock out a book a year, in the same mold as the last book. You want a career, you should be doing that. You’re not supposed to be spending years crafting sentences.

Anyway, not answering your questions exactly, am I? Short answer: I write what I feel like writing. Always have. Always will. No, it’s not a smart career move when the industry and fan-base wants volume 18 of the seemingly endless saga of Morgock the Swordbelcher, or the eighth alternate history of some damn war that you haven’t added laser weapons to yet. Truth is, if you can stomach doing that and you’re fast, go do it, because you will definitely see more financial reward. Going off into the dark and changing up every time will likely not do this for you. Especially if you’re slow. But I’m stuck with me and that’s how I am. Contrarian by nature.

Having said that, I do write stories for anthologies that I’m invited to contribute to, provided I can think of something that fits within the proposed theme. But I have to get interested. I turned in a werewolf story for an anthology Darrell Schweitzer put together. But I only did it because I got to write a Donald Westlake werewolf story. And for another anthology of Darrell’s, of vampire stories, I wrote one because it allowed me to create a fifteen minute version of Homer’s The Iliad.

There has to be something to interest me and get me beyond the “oh, great, another vampire book” response, which is invariably my first reaction. TWILIGHT? Oh, please kill me now. (Of course, he said, mine wouldn’t be like that.) Also my response to anything to do with King Arthur, bands of small hairy men on terrible quests, or brutish brooding barbarians. The best King Arthur work since T.H. White was a throwaway piece penned originally as a Christmas card by the late John M. Ford. No one else has even come close. The best barbarian was in Ian Banks’ THE BRIDGE.Shadowbridge-web1

VENTRELLA: What is the basic theme of the SHADOWBRIDGE series? What’s the long term plan for the storyline?

FROST: The basic theme is that the books are and will be all about stories and storytelling. The first two are about Leodora aka “Jax”, who travels the world of Shadowbridge collecting stories and performing them. She sort of finds herself obsessed with learning stories and eventually discovers that her own exploits are becoming mythic, stories are being told of her. And finally her very life depends on knowing one particular story, one particular truth.

I built the world to be open-ended, and part of the first book’s challenge was winnowing down the breadth of possibilities into one large canvas on which creation myths, kitsune tales, stories about Death, and ghost stories could all float. With one exception the stories were written where they showed up. And I have a couple that never found their place, so they’re sitting off in a notebook, raring to be used somewhere, sometime.

VENTRELLA: Not every writing technique works for everyone, but what’s your writing process? Do you use extensive outlines?

FROST: No, not every technique works, and no two people have the same process. So I cannot advocate what I do in the sense of saying “you must do this.” In fact, anyone who says “You must do this” is at best telling you what they must do.

I’ve adopted what I call the John Cleese method of outlining, which sounds like a joke but isn’t. I heard him interviewed, describing how he and Connie Booth had written “Fawlty Towers” episodes by stretching a sheet of butcher’s paper across his living room and then writing the things they knew, or thought they knew, in about the place where that seemed it should happen. Started out with just a few things and then added to it, building a timeline of a sort.

So I have boxes of this old useless pinfeed paper, and I now take five or more sheets of it and do the same thing—write what I think I know, approximately where it seems to belong in the book, and then add to it. Build it up. And once it’s done, I’ll pretty much ignore it and go write. Usually by that point I’ve already done a few scenes or chapters anyway, because something got me interested. For the Shadowbridge books, I had a draft of the final dialogue between Leodora and Tophet done before I’d started the second book or had any notion of how I would arrive at that dialogue.

And about a third of the way into the book, I’ll usually find that the outline is invalid, because something better came along while I was writing and I took a left turn at Albuquerque. So I’ll do another outline as verification that I’ve still got a story going. And then I’ll write forward. And on top of that, I’m writing longhand. With a fountain pen (and Noodler’s Inks). Now, how in the world could I recommend that process to any sane human being?

VENTRELLA: Of which book are you most proud? What would you like to be remembered for?

FROST: Currently, I’d like to be remembered for the Shadowbridge duology and for FITCHER’S BRIDES, which I think was a hellishly good novel of horror. I think I did up Bluebeard pretty well for Terri Windling with that book (I seem destined never to stray very far from Terri’s influence). On the other hand, since joining Facebook and other online communities, I’ve been floored by people who have read TAIN and REMSCELA to the point where the pages are falling apart and claim these are their favorite books in the world. So (to quote Bill Murray), I’ve got that going for me…which is nice. Fitcher-Cover

(Oh, and there’s a limited small-press edition of those books in one volume, by a publisher who went out of business, so if anyone’s still searching for them, get in touch, because I have all the remaining copies…)

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on e-books? Do you think they’re the wave of the future or a step down from traditional publishing?

FROST: It may be the thing that saves us all. My agent swears by her Kindle. I expect Apple will come up with an iNovels reader in the near future (you heard it here first) that tries to do for literature what the iPod did with music. I think we’ll reach the point where bookstores become places that make the book for you on the spot, eliminating the returns and distribution problems that plague this idiotic industry now. Put in your order, get your book in twenty minutes, like a pizza. I think if America wasn’t so pig ignorant we’d be making books from hemp paper now, which would cut costs ridiculously since, you know, it’s a weed that grows almost anywhere, like kudzu. But that would not make timber and paper industries happy, just as alternative energy sources infuriate Big Oil…so until you kill the chuckleheads, it probably won’t happen and you’ll shortly pay $10 for a mass market paperback.

Essentially, I’m for anything that puts books in the hands—and minds—of people, and makes them kill their TVs. Invite me to your house. I’ll kill your TV for you.

VENTRELLA: Tell me about the Liar’s Club and what you hope to accomplish with it. And be sure to let me know when you are accepting applications for other members.

FROST: The Liars Club of Philadelphia is a small collective of authors from across and outside the genres who felt that we could do more to promote ourselves as a collective. The baker’s dozen includes Bram Stoker Award Winner Jonathan Maberry and bestselling author William Lashner. We’ve been doing a “Liars Club Tells the Truth” tour now for about 6 months in and around the Delaware Valley, strictly at libraries and independent bookstores. We’re trying to promote the indies as well as ourselves. When the dinosaurs die (and Borders, I’m talking to you), then our hope is the independents will move back into the spaces that they were squeezed out of by these small-brained leviathans. We’re doing our part to help by throwing bashes at the bookstores and bringing in as many people as we can get. Here’s a link to our latest outing, at Aaron’s Books in Lititz, PA (http://liarsclubphilly.com/?p=189)

Greg and me

The Curse of Enthusiasm: “Don’t Get Cocky, Kid.”

You’ll never get anywhere in this business if you don’t have a healthy ego and believe that you are indeed producing good work that people want to read.

But in the words of a famous pilot, “Don’t get cocky, kid.”

The biggest mistake I made when I began was in being too confident in my abilities.

A few years ago, I finished writing my novel ARCH ENEMIES. Filled with enthusiasm for my baby, I rushed it off to every agent and publisher listed in the traditional resources. Surely they would see it for the masterpiece it was! How would I decide between the multiple offers that would flow my way?ArchEnemies-510

As you have guessed, I spent a year collecting rejection letters.

One reason for this, which shall be discussed in a future blog, was due to poor query letters (an art in itself, I have discovered). But the real reason was that the book deserved to be rejected.

After some time, I went back and re-read it. And found that while the characters and plot were fun, the writing itself was clumsy and pedestrian. I was so excited about my story that I had basically submitted my first draft.

I rewrote it, almost line by line, and not wanting to embarrass myself further, submitted it to the small (but growing rapidly) publisher Double Dragon, who accepted. It has since done quite well with them. But even now, I want to rewrite sections.

So today’s lesson is this: Slow down. Don’t be so enthusiastic. Take your work and set it aside for a while until you calm down, and then go over it line by line. Get that first draft out quickly to get the right feel and flow for the material, but never forget that it is a first draft.

Coming to a later post: Ideas aren’t everything. Everyone has them.

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