Intrerview with Nebula nominated author Bud Sparhawk

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing three times Nebula finalist Bud Sparhawk today. He’s primarily known for his short fiction with heavy and hard science, but also for his humor (in particular his “Sam Boone” series).

Bud, although you have extolled the virtues of outlines, do you think it’s possible to write a great story without an outline?

BUD SPARHAWK: I’m not certain “extolled” is the right word. Certainly I’ve advocated paying considerable attention to a story’s structure – the sequencing of scenes, time frames, and points of view. I don’t think I’ve ever recommended preparing a formal outline where a story is described in detail, point by point.

My own style of writing is to set up the scenes I think the story needs, block in the characters, setting, and time, and then move things around to the way I want to tell the story. Many times I write quite a bit before breaking what I’ve done into key scenes and then add sketch ideas that fill in empty spots. It’s generally a messy back and forth process but it works for me.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever done so?

SPARHAWK: Written a great story or used an outline to write it? All three of my Nebula finalists were done sans outline – just bashing along until they felt complete. I wouldn’t call any of them “great” – entertaining maybe. The one story that I felt was “great” was “Bright Red Star” and which received almost no literary comment, except from David Hartwell who included it in his Years Best SF #14. This story has now appeared in several languages and on audio pubs, which is somewhat of an affirmation. It was my response to some of the hysteria surrounding 9/11.

VENTRELLA: You’ve concentrated almost entirely on short stories and novellas. What is it about the shorter form that appeals to you?

I’ve been blogging about this very subject on for some time. One of my latest musings dwelled on the differences between novelists and we short people. Although there are clearly differences between the two camps, my conclusion was simply that that some do and some can’t: Temperament, patience, and economic necessity are probably involved in a writers choices, but the mix would vary considerably.

VENTRELLA: Many writers consider short stories to be harder than novels. What is your experience?

SPARHAWK: I don’t think “harder” is the distinction I’d make. Some writers find it impossible to describe anything in a single sentence while I find it difficult to drone endlessly on about anything because I’m always anxious to get to the payoff. In my opinion, brevity always makes a point sharper and I usually edit down to reach that clarity. For example, I recently turned in a 15k piece that was originally 33k in second draft and around 20k in the penultimate one.

When I started writing I could write a 5-7K story in a weekend and once wrote one – “Persistence” – that I later sold to Analog – in an evening. I like to deal with issues or ideas and the short form is ideal for that. Longer pieces deal more with character development or expansion of a situation. I’ve written several as yet unsold novels and have found developing increasing complexity that forces the word count ever upwards tedious, albeit interesting.

Dedicated novelists have told me that they cannot begin a story without discovering that complications arise and they are faced with an irresistible urge to explain, describe, or comment. Then too, other characters come along with their own damn issues, backgrounds, motives and … well, you see how that goes, with the inevitable result is other than short.

VENTRELLA: What usually comes first for you – an idea or a character?

SPARHAWK: The idea or concept, always. I see characters as vehicles that carry the ideas forward, and try to make them eloquent spokespersons for what I try to say.

VENTRELLA: We’ve met at various conventions over the years. Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

SPARHAWK: I’m just a ham and enjoy the spotlight, talking to fans, and especially having the opportunity to talk writerish with the other pros. I love the readings, especially by unfamiliar writers to me.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite convention experience?

SPARHAWK: The random discussions that arise in the hallways or in the dealers room have be my favorite experiences. I hardly ever leave one of these random discussions without a story idea or two.

VENTRELLA: I meet many authors who have gone the vanity press or self publishing route and then wonder why no one takes them seriously. What’s your opinion on self publishing?

SPARHAWK: The line between vanity and self-published has become very thin. Established writers are self-publishing collections, reverted novels, and even original works – all to take advantage of the opportunities eBooks have created. Some non-professionals (another vague term) have been highly successful with their “vanity” publishing. Results are mixed, but in most cases it seems to depend on the degree of self-promotion one is willing to undertake. Social networking seems key to success for both types.

VENTRELLA: Do you think there is a difference if an already established author self publishes new material?

SPARHAWK: If a writer has already established a reputation, then selling new material via POD or eBook should not be a problem. Otherwise you use up a lot of time, effort, and creative juice that could be used for improving your writing.

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

The lengthy delays between submission and response, which is an unfortunate consequence of limited staff and/or time available to the publisher. The industry probably needs more underpaid English majors looking for “experience” in the publishing field.

Since most editors now accept electronic submissions I can easily see the day when some maven will design an app that evaluates e-manuscripts on the fly, all tailored to an editor’s preset specifications. That would certainly change the writing game for both writers and editors. Don’t know if this would make the publishers happy or not.

VENTRELLA: What do you like to read for pleasure?

SPARHAWK: Short stories, of course, and mostly SF, but I make an exception for anything by Terry Pratchett.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

SPARHAWK: See above – “Bright Red Star.” Interestingly, I’ve written three more shorts in the same universe, two of which are in McPhail’s anthologies.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

SPARHAWK: I’ve a long novel in penultimate editing, four or five shorts that still need work, and getting as much of my published works into eBook formats as I have time for. The novel deals with the long term effects of human expansion into the universe and what exactly makes our descendants “human.”

VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?

SPARHAWK: It is a puzzle that in these days of instant everything and twittering phrases that short fiction does not sell better. Steven King recently observed that much of the popular long form fiction has little substance but does carry the reader along in an engaging, but superficial narrative thread that provides an immersive experience. Summer reading at the beach, in other words. I find that much of the “epic” fantasy fits this description. Clearly, fantasy in general is not my cup of tea, but there are some fantasy works that rises above the rest – like Laura Anne Gilman’s Vineart series.

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

SPARHAWK: 1. Don’t give up your day job.

2. Put some time aside for writing every day.

3. Learn humility and to accept rejection gracefully.

4. Join SFWA as soon as you can.

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

SPARHAWK: Endless rewriting in pursuit of perfection, which can never be achieved. The pursuit of “better” is ever the enemy of “good enough.” A writer should rewrite only until the piece achieves a satisfactory level in their own opinion and, of course, whenever an editor asks.

VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?

SPARHAWK: “Where do you get your Ideas?” to which I respond “a guy in New Jersey sends me two a week for five bucks.”. Ask a silly question …

Seriously though, no one ever asks how the magic is done and the toll it takes on family life, work, and socializing. I wrote for years while holding a fairly demanding job, raising a family, and dealing with the issues of aging parents, yet managed to eke out a few words each night, having them add up to some decent stories and a lot of less than sales worthy. The ideas bubbled up during my non-writing times and, if they were worthy of remembering, finally made it into a story. Truthfully, I have no idea where the ideas come from. I only know how much work it takes to turn them from daydreams to reality.

Interview with Lawrence M. Schoen

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Hugo-nominated author Lawrence M. Schoen. Lawrence holds a PhD in cognitive psychology and spent ten years as a college professor. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language. A few years back he started Paper Golem, a speculative fiction small press aimed at serving the niche of up-and-coming new authors as well as providing a market for novellas. In 2007 he was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer and in 2010 received a Hugo nomination for best short story. He’s the author Guest of Honor at Lunacon next weekend (March 18-20, 2011), where he’ll have a book launch for his second novel, BUFFALITO CONTINGENCY. (I’m just a regular guest, but I am on at least one panel with him!).

Lawrence, Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN: I love conventions! Most of my friends are either authors or fans (or both) and they’re scattered all over. Conventions are often my only opportunity to see them and catch up. It’s become trite to talk about how writing is such a solitary experience and how only other authors can really relate to the tribulations of the life, but the reason it’s trite is because there’s so much truth in it. It’s incredibly comforting to settle in with other writers and listen as they share their own joys and complaints and be reminded that it’s actually a kind of club.

Back in my psychology days, I attended research conferences for much the same set of reasons. One of my graduate professors, a brilliant scholar named Thaddeus Cowan — the only person I know to have invented a new impossible figure! — told me that that when it comes to conferences and conventions you’re looking for three things: 1) meet up with an old friend, 2) make a new friend, and 3) come away with a fresh idea. If you do any two, it’s a good event, and if you manage all three, it’s great. Most conventions I’ve been to, I’ve been lucky enough to hit all three, over and over again.

Having said that, I don’t think every author should attend conventions. Conventions aren’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. I’m an extravert, a big guy with a loud voice. Having been a professor for ten years, I’m very comfortable standing in front of a room full of people and telling everyone what I think about something, at length. I’m completely at home in that kind of setting, but I know people who can’t abide crowds, let alone being trapped in a room with a bunch of loud people with big egos. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be an either/or kind of thing. I think you can be very successful as a writer without stepping into the spotlight and bloviating. A shyer author can attend a convention, hang out in the background and chat quietly with other authors and fans, attend functions and make connections. There’s plenty of room for variety, and even people like me get tired and calm down eventually and welcome a quiet conversation before the day’s out.

VENTRELLA: You are known in large part for your promotion and publication of Klingon translations of Shakespeare and other works. What led you to the interest in the language?

SCHOEN: I’ve always been fascinated with languages. I’m not necessarily particularly talented at them — it’s not like I have a great ear for languages, or learn them quickly, I just enjoy them. My academic expertise is in psycholinguistics. I stumbled into Klingon with the right set of skills at the beginning of the internet explosion. So I was in the right place at the right time. Traditionally, the two things that hinder any language, natural or constructed, are 1) time, and 2) distance. I became immersed in Klingon at the precise moment when these factors ceased to be an issue, when the technology and expertise allowed real time communication with people almost anywhere in the world, something that other constructed languages hadn’t previously enjoyed. It was like being on a linguistic rollercoaster, and the ride’s been going nonstop for twenty years!

VENTRELLA: You also established a small press company called “Paper Golem” a few years ago. What led you to that decision?

SCHOEN: I’m extraordinarily lucky. I have a good job that pays me a decent wage for part time work. That leaves me free to do things like write. A few years ago some members of Codex (an online community of writers) were kicking around ideas for generating more group identity, and I offered to edit a reprint anthology for them. When I looked at the numbers, I realized it wasn’t that much more time and money to set myself up to do additional books as it was to do just that one book. Basically, I was in a position to commit an act of “paying it forward” and that’s how Paper Golem came about. It’s not intended to make a lot of money. The goals of the press are much more modest. I’m very happy to have a book break even, and anything extra gets folded into the next project. We’ve put out four books to date, with another one due in May. And the last book, ALEMBICAL 2, has an original novella that’s up for a Nebula Award. As you can imagine I’m feeling pretty chuffed about that.

VENTRELLA: What works have you released through Paper Golem that have impressed you?

SCHOEN: We have two “series” that we do. First, I’m committed to providing a venue for novellas, because there aren’t a lot of places where you can sell a story that’s in the 20K – 40K word range, particularly if you’re not a Big Name Author. That’s what ALEMBICAL is for. Second, I like the idea of doing single author collections for writers who are producing incredible stories but haven’t yet written and sold a novel. These are authors who deserve to be read, who deserve to have their work gathered in one place so that potential readers can find them and be delighted. Our first single author collection was for Cat Rambo, and it’s absolutely beautiful. The next one, which I’m finishing up even now, is by Eric James Stone, and contains a novelette that’s also just been nominated for a Nebula Award. It’s incredibly satisfying to work with such talented authors who are going to transform this field as they progress through their careers.

VENTRELLA: Has Paper Golem been the success you hoped?

SCHOEN: Absolutely, particularly because (and this may be the same mindset that originally set me on the road of being an academician) I don’t measure success in terms of how much money is produced. Paper Golem is bringing quality fiction to print, and if you love reading good science fiction and fantasy then there really isn’t a higher mark to hit.

VENTRELLA: What does a small press offer than the larger publishing houses cannot?

SCHOEN: The ability to take chances. The opportunity to work with authors as a labor of love without having to justify it to the accountant. There are tradeoffs, of course. Would I love to publish a best seller? Sure. More sales would mean more money to do more books, but it would also mean reaching more people and introducing them to authors they might not have otherwise found. Don’t get me wrong, I love big presses, and I love what they do. But small presses serve a different niche. Small presses are all about the long tail, the specialized market. For Paper Golem that’s novella-length fiction and newer authors, and seriously, that’s not all that specialized. Somewhere I’m sure there’s a small press that is specialized to serve the reading desires of people who want nothing but humorous SF stories about talking, vampire cats solving computer crime in space. Hmm… I wonder if anyone has a novella about that…

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

SCHOEN: Lately I’ve become more and more upset about the economics and how that drives what publishing does. I’ve seen author friends who are working on series get dropped by their publishers because while the series is profitable, it’s not as profitable as hoped, so the author has to change publishers, and in effect end their series (the big exception to this being Carrie Vaugh) because what new publisher would want to pick up a series with book #5 when the rights to books #1 through #4 are tied up elsewhere? I understand that publishing is a business, and it would be criminally naive to imagine otherwise, but I don’t read because doing so puts money in some editor’s pocket or employs a proof reader or marketing department; I read because I enjoy what a given author creates.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

SCHOEN: I read anything by Walter Jon Williams, Karl Schroeder, Daniel Abraham, China Mieville. I go on binges where I’ll read everything I can get by a particular author that I’ve stumbled over or rediscovered in my library, and I’ll keep tearing through all of that author’s work for a while until I’m sated and have to come up for air. Last year I devoured books by the late Kage Baker. Right now I’m in the middle of Michael Chabon.

VENTRELLA: How has your background as a psychologist influenced your work?

SCHOEN: I trained as a researcher, and so everything comes back to a question. Everything gets turned into a testable hypothesis. Why does the character do X. What happens if the bad guy is thwarted by removing Y from his path. What are the systematic variables that can affect the outcome? This kind of worldview permeates not just my fiction, but also my daily wife. It drives my wife nuts!

VENTRELLA: How did you come up with the concept of The Amazing Conroy?

SCHOEN: Some years back I was enrolled in the two week workshop that James Gunn offers out of the University of Kansas. It was the last night; we were done. Everyone had gathered and in a celebratory mood, and this line of dialogue just popped into my head and right out of my mouth without any control. It was “Put down the buffalo dog and step away from the bar!”

As soon as I said the room went quiet and everyone was staring at me. I had no idea what it meant or where it had come from, but I vowed to one day write a story with that line. It took years, but then, one day, I found myself writing “Buffalo Dogs.” At the time, I had no idea it was going to lead to another quarter million words and a branded identity.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a theme in much of speculative fiction about super-humans – the “chosen one” who has special powers no one else has who is the subject of a prophecy to save the world blah blah blah. Of course, that’s an old theme going back forever. The main characters in my books are just normal guys who do their best, make mistakes, yet win in the end, and you have the same attitude in your work. So why do these kinds of characters appeal to you?

SCHOEN: I blame Thornton Wilder. I had to read a lot of his stuff back in high school, and he spent a fair amount of time championing the “every man.” Ordinary people finding themselves in extraordinary circumstances are much easier for a reader to relate to than someone who is superhuman in extraordinary circumstances. Most of us are never going to be James Bond, but we very well could be the guy who lives in the apartment next door to him (of course it’s not his real apartment, just one he keeps as a cover). I like protagonists who aren’t jaded by the chaos and adventure of their lives, but rather are dragged into it by surprise, kicking all the way.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

SCHOEN: The answer to that is constantly changing, because I’m constantly changing as a writer. I’m very happy with the new novel, and I think it represents a new high point in my ability to craft a complex story and tell an entertaining tale. There’s a short story I wrote a while back that came out in January of last year and that I secretly (well, not so secretly now) harbor an unlikely hope that it will make the Hugo ballot. It’s called “The Wrestler and the Spearfisher” and it’s one of my infrequent jaunts into Fantasy.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

SCHOEN: I’m constantly changing how I work, trying new things. Nowadays, I’m trying to get better at blocking out the scenes in a story or novel before I do too much of the writing. I’m somewhat transitioning from being a seat-of-the-pants writer (what some like to call a “discovery writer”) to an outliner, but I suspect I’m going to stop far short of the end. I’m enjoying knowing more about a work before I sit down to write it though. It’s very different from the way I used to work. But will it last? We’ll just have to see.

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?

SCHOEN: Problems in Perspective. There are always going to be bigger fish, and if you constantly compare your attainments to them, you’re always going to make yourself miserable. Keep a perspective on things and don’t view this business as a zero-sum game. Instead, if you have to be competitive, compete with yourself. Are you further along now than you were at this time last year? Is your prose improving? Are your plots more involved? Work on improving yourself, rather than trying to be as good as someone else. You’ll get there sooner, and you’ll be happier along the way.


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 author William Freeman

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I welcome author William Freedman. His debut novel, LAND THAT I LOVE, was published this year by Rebel and he is currently finishing his second, MIGHTY MIGHTY. His novelette “Forever and Ever, Amen” appeared in the 2006 Spirit House chapbook and his short story “Intentions” is scheduled to be published this year in Ash-Tree Press’s HOLY HORRORS anthology. He is a founding member of the Long Island-based LISciFi critique group and has been a panelist at I-Con, Balticon, Albacon, Capclave and Arisia. He holds degrees in journalism and international business and his non-fiction work has appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, Euromoney Books, Global Finance magazine, Treasury & Risk Management magazine, and many other business and financial news outlets both in print and online.

William, what is it in your background that made you want to write LAND THAT I LOVE? Was there some specific political event that triggered the idea?

WILLIAM FREEDMAN: When I began writing LAND THAT I LOVE, George W. Bush had just won the 2004 presidential race. (I hesitate to use the term “re-elected” because that presumes he was elected the first time.) Considering all the changes in American politics in the brief time since then, some might not recall the mood of the nation back then. The Republican Party controlled both chambers of Congress as well as the White House, and the Supreme Court was getting more conservative all the time. We were effectively a one-party nation. From Election Day until Katrina, dissent was rarely heard in public. I remember telling a co-worker at the time, “I’m married and raising three kids in a Republican-majority suburb, so I’m a lifestyle conservative. I’m an MBA, so I’m by definition a fiscal conservative. As someone who was in harm’s way during the Gulf War, I’m in favor of military intervention in Iraq, even if I don’t buy the reasons the White House is giving for that intervention. With a few codicils, I’m pro-life. But I don’t believe in rescinding habeus corpus. I don’t believe in warrantless wiretaps. I don’t believe in torture for torture’s sake. But what exactly am I allowed to disagree with the President about and still be considered a good American?” He didn’t have an answer to that.

By the way, it didn’t take me five years to finish writing a 55,000-word book. It took me one. But it then took three years to find a publisher and the better part of another to get through the contractual, editing and launch processes. On my blog site,, I have a page with excerpts from some of the rejections I got from publishers and agents. At first, nobody wanted to touch the political controversy. Then, after it became fashionable again to criticize Bush, the rejections tended to say that the material was too dated — that by the time they’d be able to get it on the shelves, the war would be over. Of course, the book has been out for the better part of a year now, and we still have a hundred thousand American troops spread between Iraq and Afghanistan. I suppose I get the last laugh, but I’d give it up if it meant bringing them all home.

Incidentally, I don’t consider this book anti-war. It’s anti-arrogance. I don’t consider it anti-conservative, as its Amazon reviews would indicate. It’s anti-seeing-the-whole-world-through-only-one-lens.

VENTRELLA: Who were you inspired or influenced by? (Am I remiss in seeing the ILLUMINATI trilogy in here somewhere? fnord)

FREEMAN: I never read it. Maybe I should. I’m not really into the whole conspiracy-theory thing. Although there is an element of deception, there are no conspiracies in LAND THAT I LOVE. Everyone’s motivations are pretty clear and nobody’s manipulating anyone. It’s the naked power of a remote overlord versus the scrappy resistance of the proud locals. This plot goes back at least to the Maccabees and almost certainly before that.

I do steal the plot straight out of H.G. Wells’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS with one exception: There are no aliens. In the corner of the Milky Way in which LAND THAT I LOVE takes place, there are no extant, high-functioning non-human civilizations. Humanity has spread throughout the sourthern spiral but hasn’t encountered much in the way of competition. And I think that will continue to be the case. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever encounter anything out there more dangerous than ourselves.

VENTRELLA: Given the good reviews you have received, how are you capitalizing on that?

FREEMAN: I get a little more respect from my local librarians. And now that I have a book in print and those kind words on Amazon and on the back cover, I feel like I have quite a decent calling card when it comes time to get serious about floating MIGHTY MIGHT, my superhero spoof/social satire, to the agenting and publishing worlds.

VENTRELLA: I met you at Albacon, a science fiction convention. Why did you decide to target that audience?

FREEMAN: Satire is my canvas, but science fiction and fantasy are my palette. These are the tropes I use. But I belong to a sci-fi/fantasy crit group, not a comedy crit group. Just as I want my writing to work on the gag level and on the message level, it absolutely has to function on the adventure level. Don Adams won the Best Actor Emmy three years in a row because Maxwell Smart, as Adams inhabited him, might spend most the show making faces, delivering a litany of trademark gag lines and stepping on rakes, but in the last five minutes he’d be swinging from chandeliers, winning sword fights, expertly manipulating some world-saving gizmo and outwitting the villains as surely as James Bond or Napoleon Solo or Matt Helm would have. And you wanted him to get together with 99, and you wanted him to impress the Chief. Get Smart worked as a parody precisely because it also worked as character-driven romantic comedy and as the kind of secret agent story that it was sending up. Of course, sci-fi and fantasy auteurs in 2010 take their genre far more seriously than the spy writers of the 1960s did. I’d probably have ruffled fewer feathers in that milieu.

Even so, I remain resolute in identifying with sci-fi (which I insist on calling “sci-fi” despite protests from people who are trying to jettison the term in some have-baked, poorly conceived and wrong-headed attempt at gaining respectability) and fantasy. My favorite author these days is Paolo Bacigalupi, whom I’ve been following like a deranged fanboy since “Pop Squad” first appeared in 2006. Over the past couple years, he’s won all kinds of awards and critical acclaim. No less august an outlet as Time magazine showed him love for THE WINDUP GIRL. In a convention green room a few months ago, he was chatting with some other writers and talking about how mainstream publishing pros are telling him to keep doing what he does, but stop calling what he writes “science fiction”. He just laughs it off. I like to think I would too. Not that I’m in any position or am ever likely to be.

VENTRELLA: Have you received any negative comments based on the political nature of the book? Or do we just assume that the targets of your book don’t read anyway?

FREEMAN: I think history has come down on my side on this one. As unpopular as President Obama is today, he’s still twice as popular as President Bush was in his final year. Even the new wave of Republicans have little good to say about Bush’s policies.

A quick word about my own politics. Like I said, I’m an independent. I tend to vote for Democrats at the national level, but I’m just as likely to vote for Republicans in local and state contests. I got my liberal arts degree from a conservative school and my business degree from a liberal school. I’m used to disgreeing, pointedly but respectfully, with my friends, then going out drinking with them afterwards. If you think I’m an extremist, it might be because you’re the extremist and believe that everyone who doesn’t agree with you on every issue is stupid, misinformed or evil. That goes for liberals, who might identify more with my broader beliefs, as well as conservatives. My non-absolutist views on the abortion debate don’t set too well with the left.

Abortion doesn’t figure in LAND THAT I LOVE’s plot. I just cite this to call out some increasingly shrill voices who expect their favorite writers to tow a party line. I refer to the former fans of Elizabeth Moon, who vilified her for expressing what I agree is a reprehensible position on how the American mainstream ought to treat the Muslim-American community. I don’t defend her stance, just her right to disagree with the rest of us. Am I supposed to burn my signed copy of ENDER’S GAME just because I’m uncomfortable with Orson Scott Card’s anti-gay rhetoric? Is it inappropriate for me to read Nietszche or listen to Wagner because I’m a Jew and they were anti-Semites? Guess I should’ve never bought that Ford then. I mean, how would those of us who are left-of-center react if Glenn Beck went on the air and told all his viewers to boycott Alec Baldwin movies? If we’re artists, aren’t we expected to draw a reaction — a strong reaction? Can we do that if we’re concerned that we’ll lose our audience if we say something they might disagree with? We won’t ever have to worry about government or corporate sponsorship if we allow others to cow us into censoring ourselves. Yeah, good luck saying something brilliant if you’re always on the defensive against saying something stupid. And good luck getting through the rest of your life without saying something stupid.

VENTRELLA: Do you think today’s political landscape is in need of more satire, or is the news itself satire enough? (Since my next book is about a liberal vampire who runs for President, I certainly hope there is a market out there still for political satire!)

FREEMAN: No, Mike. Sorry. I tapped that well dry. There’s nothing left. I feel bad for you after all that work. Tell you what: I’ll buy a copy.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on next?

MIGHTY MIGHTY takes place in a world very similar to ours but with one exception: it has roughly the same proportion of superpowered individuals as the Marvel or DC universes seem to have. As one character puts it, “There are as many people with powers as there are people with herpes.”

The reason that world is otherwise indistinguishable from ours is that we ourselves have abilities and talents we don’t use. We all have excuses: lack of ambition, lack of social graces, family responsibilities, better things to do. But we could all be making more of a difference in the world. That’s why so many of MIGHTY MIGHTY’s most powerful characters work as airport screeners or mall cops. Until Fate, i.e., me, steps in to provide them with one last chance at redemption.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

FREEMAN: Bruce Stirling, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Iain M. Banks. I mentioned Paolo already.

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?

FREEMAN: You can’t copy-edit enough. Ultimately, you have final signoff. Your name goes on the cover and any mistakes that can creep in during the editing process, you own forever. Don’t assume that leaving the editing to skilled professionals is like leaving it to infallible gods. Don’t make that final cut on a screen. Print out all hundreds of pages and read them fresh. In LAND THAT I LOVE, I had what my editor considered an unclear antecedent to the pronoun “his”. There were two possible individuals that could have been referenced, although I can only see the logic in one. She picked the other and replaced “his” with the wrong character’s name. The mistake takes me out of the story every time I read it for an audience — and it’s right there in the first chapter. Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, though, because nobody else has told me they caught the error yet.


From a Lunacon panel in 2014

Interview with Walter H. Hunt

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Walter H. Hunt is a science fiction writer known primarily for his “Dark Wing” series, a “military space opera.” His most recent work, A SONG IN STONE, deals with the Knights Templar. He lives near my old stomping grounds (Boston area) with his wife and daughter. His web page is here.

Walter, you began writing scenarios for games. (As a person who has done the same — albeit for LARPs — I know what that’s like!) How did you get published that way? In other words, how did you turn your hobby into a business?

WALTER H. HUNT: I had the good fortune to encounter Rich Meyer and Kerry Lloyd of Gamelords in 1981 and was pulled into the company as a writer. Between 1981 and 1984 I worked on a number of projects for them. When they stopped publishing Richard and I (along with others, including my wife) began Adventure Architects to write free-lance in the game industry. We worked for Mayfair, Iron Crown, FASA, and several other companies.

VENTRELLA: Is there still much of a market out there for writing for games?

HUNT: It seems so, though I haven’t done any of it for quite some time.

VENTRELLA: When did you decide to start writing fiction, and what were your first attempts like?

HUNT: When I was in elementary school. And it was predictably awful, though it meant that I wrote lots and lots of words and learned how to set scenes and compose dialog. I wrote six novels in middle and high school. They will never be seen, I hope.

VENTRELLA: How did you get your first big break?

HUNT: I’d shown a manuscript to a friendly editor at a convention in 1987, and when he began working for Tor Books in 2000 he contacted me through a mutual friend to see if I still had it available. The mutual friend lined up the agent, so I got the agent and the publisher at the same time. Lucky break – though it took almost 14 years for me to get so lucky.

VENTRELLA: Lately it seems that fantasy of all varieties has taken the place of science fiction on the bookshelves. To what do you attribute this change?

HUNT: Haven’t a clue. There is a lot of bad fantasy, but there is a lot of bad science fiction too – especially on television. Sturgeon’s Law, I suppose.

VENTRELLA: Your most recent work is about the Knights Templar and the Rosslyn Chapel, something most people had never heard of before Dan Brown. How did you decide to tackle that subject?

HUNT: The Order of the Temple is an interesting subject, with plenty of scope for writing. I’d heard of Rosslyn before reading the Brown book – it’s common pseudohistorical fodder in Masonic circles, and I’ve been a Freemason since 1988. When we went to Scotland for Worldcon in 2005 I put it on my itinerary, and was fortunate to receive a tour from a fellow Mason. He pointed to the ceiling of the lady-chapel and said, “that’s the Rosslyn music.” As the lead character in “Despicable Me” is fond of saying, “light bulb.” By the time I came back from Scotland the book was plotted and partially written.

VENTRELLA: You are a regular at science fiction conventions (and indeed, we have been on panels together!). Why do you attend them?

HUNT: Why, to meet fascinating colleagues. Seriously, the opportunity to meet readers and fellow writers is something not to be passed up. For professionals (or aspiring professionals), there are editors and publishers as well. I arranged my most recent book deal at NASFiC this summer by having the right conversation with the right person. And I’m still a fan: I’ve gotten to sit next to people like Robert Sheckley and Frederik Pohl and Connie Willis and David Brin and a dozen others – and talk to them (and listen to them. More listen than talk, I hope.)

VENTRELLA: What advice would you have for an aspiring genre writer for attending these things, even if they haven’t been published yet?

HUNT: Finish the book. No one buys an idea from an aspiring writer – only a manuscript. But by all means believe in your own work; I have seen too many occasions when an unpublished writer lets his/her work be folded, spindled and mutilated by people who want to make it into something else because it might be more “publishable.” Write what you understand, trust your creative instinct, and finish it.

VENTRELLA: What’s your pet peeve about the industry?

HUNT: I’ve heard it said that the criteria and market studies for genre fiction are thirty-plus years out of date. I think that some editors base decisions on what to buy and what to promote based on inaccurate perceptions of the composition and demographics of the buying public. But, again, I have no idea if this is true.

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

HUNT: To assume that there’s any money in this business. I’m married; as the old joke goes, “what do you call a full-time writer who’s single?” The answer is, of course, “homeless.”

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

HUNT: Small press deserves better respect, and I think the internet is helping with that. My Rosslyn book A SONG IN STONE is currently published by a small press. Self-publishing is a mistake: it says, essentially, “no one professional will buy my work, but maybe the reader will. I hope so, my garage is full of these things I paid to print.” So I’d wait to have someone buy my work.

VENTRELLA: I see you are a historian or sorts, having studied that in college. With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

HUNT: Top of the list would be Benjamin Franklin – polymath, wit, diplomat, Freemason. Erasmus of Rotterdam. Stanley Weinbaum and Cyril Kornbluth, two great science fiction writers. My parents, whom I miss terribly (they’ve been gone for twenty years and never saw me succeed as an author. My mom would enjoy meeting Franklin, I suspect.)

You know that Hendrik van Loon did this little thought experiment, right?

VENTRELLA: Um, no. Hendrik van Loon? Did you make that name up?

Goofing off at Capclave 2014

Goofing off at Capclave 2014

Interview with Hugo Winning Author Allen Steele

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing two-time Hugo award winning author Allen Steele today! Allen has won numerous awards and nominations for his science fiction stories, novels, and novellas. His novels include ORBITAL DECAY, LUNAR DESCENT, THE JERICHO ITERATION, OCEANSPACE, and the “Coyote” series. His web page is here.

Allen is the Guest of Honor at the 2010 Albacon SF convention (which is next weekend as of this posting). I’ll be there too (but only as a regular ordinary guest)!

Allen,You’re one of the few authors who has been published on another planet. How did that come about?

ALLEN STEELE: A couple of years ago, NASA’s Phoenix lander made it to Mars, and aboard it is a DVD containing a library of science fiction stories and artwork about Mars that was compiled by the Planetary Society. Among them is ‘Live From The Mars Hotel”, my first published story, which was published in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 1988. The DVD is intended to be a repository for future Mars colonists, and also a tribute to SF writers and artists who’ve portrayed Mars since the 1700’s. It’s a huge honor to have my work represented in this way. In fact, I wrote a story about this that appeared in Asimov’s earlier this year: “The Emperor of Mars”, in the June 2010 issue.

VENTRELLA: You’ve been with small publishers and large. Which do you honestly prefer?

STEELE: Both have their benefits. Large publishers like Ace or HarperCollins pay better and have greater distribution; small publishers like Subterranean and Old Earth give me the advantage of more creative control and also the ability to publish individual novellas and short fiction collections, something which large publishers tend to avoid these days. So I split the difference by having my novels put out by large publishers and my short fiction by small publishers. Any preferences I may have are predicated by what I’m publishing, really.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing? Should a starting author consider such a thing?

STEELE: Only if they don’t mind not making any money from your work or not having it seen by very many people. Yes, I know there are exceptions, and that online publishing is offering yet another option, but the success stories are few and far between. Nearly every time I go to a SF convention, I see people hawking self-published novels from tables they’ve rented in the dealer’s room, and at best they sell only a handful. Bookstores won’t carry them, and reviewers simply won’t touch `em. There’s literally thousands of self-published novels and stories online, and I’d be amazed if any of them were downloaded more than a few dozen times. And once a book or story has seen print in any form, professional editors are not inclined to reprint them (again, yes, I know there’s exceptions. I can only name one or two, though). So it’s a dead end, and one that a new author should avoid.

VENTRELLA: Hard science fiction seems to be taking a back seat to high fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy, and other genres. Why do you think that is?

STEELE: This last decade, yes, SF has been less visible. Personally, I think the principal reason is that the other genres you mention are almost entirely escapist in nature, and tend to look backward instead of forward, while SF is usually a forward-looking genre, with the best work grappling with the effects of the present while confronting plausible futures. We’re living in scary and uncertain times, so it’s little wonder that many readers are searching for that sort of literature that avoids reality, whether it be ersatz-Tolkien fantasy worlds, sexy vampires, or pseudo-Victorian settings that bear little or no resemblance to history as it actually happened.

But when you look at the history of the SF genre as a whole, you see that SF is something that periodically waxes and wanes in popularity. When my first novel was published in 1989, it was during one of those waning periods. Shortly after that was the SF boom of 90’s when a lot of new writers like myself who write this sort of thing entered the genre, but this followed by the gradual decline of the last decade. Eventually SF will make another comeback. Until then, writers like myself will continue to satisfy that solid, hard-core SF audience that has never gone away, while several hundred fantasy, horror, and steampunk writers struggle to distinguish themselves from the pack.

VENTRELLA: I can think of many SF novels that aren’t that old that didn’t predict cell phones or email, for instance, which makes them a bit quaint. How does one avoid those things?

STEELE: The purpose of science fiction isn’t the prediction of the future. When that happens, it’s by accident (and incidentally, there is an older SF novel that depicts a cell phone: TUNNEL IN THE SKY by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1955). So claiming that a given SF novel is “quaint” because it didn’t predict the future that it depicted means you’re holding it to a double-standard that’s impossible for a writer to keep. When a SF writer comes up with a futuristic scenario, he or she is simply devising a world that doesn’t presently exist and may never; because he or she is extrapolating from our current condition, they should try to create a certain verisimilitude by keeping a close eye on what may be possible. But his or her job isn’t to predict the future, but rather to tell a good, believable story.

VENTRELLA: In a similar vein, LABYRINTH OF NIGHT made use of the “Face on Mars” – is this something you regret or try to avoid now?

STEELE: When I wrote “Red Planet Blues”, the 1989 novella which I later expanded to become LABYRINTH OF NIGHT, the “Face on Mars” was an astronomical oddity that relatively few people knew about. Aside from that single grainy image photographed by the Viking orbiter in 1976, it was a curiosity and nothing more. Our lack of knowledge about it gave me the liberty to use the Face as a springboard for a first-contact story. By the time the novel was published in 1992, though, the Face had become the subject of tabloid journalism and pseudo-science books, and not long after that the Cydonia region of Mars was revisited by subsequent NASA probes, during which the Face disappeared. I don’t regret the novel I wrote — it’s a good adventure story that sold many copies in both the U.S. and in Europe — but it’s now obsolete and I don’t mind that it’s gone out of print.

VENTRELLA: What is it about alternate history novels that appeals to writers and readers?

STEELE: The appeal of alternative history is obvious: depicting what might have happened if certain events had happened in a different way. It’s like futuristic SF, only in reverse. And just as it’s unwise to read a futuristic SF novel as a means of predicting the future, I think that it’s similarly unwise to read an alt-history story as a means of understanding the past. It’s just another form of storytelling, really.

VENTRELLA: What did you do to prepare for your alternate history novels?

STEELE: When I’ve researched the alt-history stories I’ve written, I’ve started by reading every reliable account I can find that depict the particular historical events upon which I’ve basing that particular story or novel. If possible, I visit actual locations; museums are another major resource. I take loads of notes, and during this period I’m fine-tuning the story and characters as well. It’s hard work, but I think it pays off in the sort of verisimilitude that you need to achieve if the reader is going to buy into the variation on history that I’m depicting.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake made by authors who write SF?

STEELE: The common mistake by novice SF writers is two-fold: not doing enough research, and then letting the research they have done get in the way of their story. Science fiction is hard to write, mainly because of the homework involved — which is a principal reason, I think, why so many new writers have taken to fantasy or horror instead; they’re easier to do — and there’s a great temptation to take shortcuts, but it’s just those sorts of shortcuts that undermine the story you’re creating. The other side of the coin is to do boatloads of research, then front-load everything you’ve learned into the story you’re writing; this can bog things down and cause the reader to lose interest. So you have to walk a line here: do your homework, but don’t bore the class by telling them every little thing that you learned.

VENTRELLA: Is writing a skill that can be learned or are the best writers born, not made?

STEELE: I think fiction writing is something that can be learned, yes … but it takes a long time to develop the skills necessary to tell a good story, and it’s a task that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. Not every kid who joins a Little League team is going to grow up to be a pitcher for the Red Sox; not every guy who plays guitar in a garage band is cut out to tour with the Rolling Stones. Somehow, though, there’s a belief that if you know how to spell correctly and can compose a coherent paragraph, you’ve got the chops to publish a novel. Writing is hard work; it’s not something you learn overnight. And, yeah, it helps if you have a certain innate talent for this sort of thing. I once tried to learn how to play guitar, but gave up after two months of weekly classes after my instructor and I came to the realization that I have no musical talent whatsoever. So if you don’t really think you’re a writer … well, you should be honest with yourself and admit that you probably aren’t.

VENTRELLA: What’s the most interesting light bulb moment you’ve had, where you suddenly have an idea that makes the entire story?

STEELE: I had one of those moments just a couple of weeks ago. You’ll forgive me, though, if I don’t describe it in detail; I haven’t written the story yet. It involves an interesting little item I found at my next-door neighbor’s tag sale. Within five minutes of picking it up, I had an entire short story in my head. It’ll be fun … once I get around to writing it.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. What effect will this have on the publishing industry? For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

STEELE: No one is really sure how ebooks are going to shape the publishing industry. There’s a lot of projections that they may eventually replace hardcovers or mass-market paperbacks. On the other hand, most readers I know tell me that they still prefer print novels. But I think ebooks are not only here to stay, but also have the potential to completely reshape how — and even what — people read. The take-off point will occur when the price of a good, reliable ebook device drops to about $50. If and when that occurs, you’ll see them all over the place.

Beginning novelists will probably have an easier time adapting to whatever changes there may be, simply because they’ll be able to take advantage of them from the get-go. It’s guys like me, who’ve had long careers writing exclusively for the print medium, who are going to have a tougher time adapting to the new environment. But we’re trying, we’re trying…

VENTRELLA: You’ll be the guest of honor at Albacon this year. What is it about attending conventions appeals to you?

STEELE: I don’t attend as many SF conventions as I used to, mainly because I’d rather spend my time writing. But when I do go to conventions — like MadCon in Madison, Wisconsin, last week, or Albacon in Albany, New York, next week — I generally have a lot of fun in a lot of different ways. I like meeting readers I haven’t met before, or seeing again those whom I’ve already met, or catching up with old friends and colleagues. I’m also a book collector, so you’ll usually find me prowling the dealer’s room in search of items to fill out my collection. And it sometimes gives me a chance to see a town I haven’t visited before, as I did in Madison.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now? Come on, give us a peek!

STEELE: I won’t tell you what I’m currently writing except that to say that it’s a young-adult SF novel, my first of this kind. The next novel to be published is HEX, which is set in the Coyote universe and is my take on the Dyson sphere concept; it’ll be out next June from Ace. As for what I’m going to do after that … I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go along.

To Hell With Outlines!

OK, not really.

But still, the point of today’s blog is to remind myself (and you) that outlines are not straightjackets, but road maps. And it is sometimes very desirable to veer off and take a different, more scenic route to get to your destination.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to discuss what I am learning along the way. I’ve managed to get two novels and a short story published with small publishers, but that hardly makes me a successful author. My writing still isn’t where I’d like it to be, and I am still a student of the craft. (Literally. I’m taking a writing course now.) There’s always something new to learn.

My first two novels were very organized and outlined, as I blogged about a while ago. It was very important for those two, because the plots were like mysteries, where everything had to fit in place to be explained in the end.writing

I didn’t need that kind of complexity for my current project BLOODSUCKERS (about a vampire who runs for President). I made a very simple outline. I wrote a sentence or two with every idea I had for the book and then put them in order. When I was done, I had a list of about sixty items that I felt were necessary. It looked like this:

      Democratic frontrunner finds naked girl in hotel room night before convention; she charms him into jumping off balcony

Reporter Steven Edwards woken by call from editor; turns on TV to watch coverage of the “suicide”

NY Times article about the incident

Edwards travels to convention floor and is shocked to discover that the Virginia delegation is supporting Norman Mark, even the conservatives; becomes suspicious

Hardball episode with discussion about what the Democrats will do; word gets around media that Mark is surging, everyone astounded

Mysterious conversation where powerful businessman says that Mark must be stopped or he’ll “ruin everything” – hires Karl to assassinate him

AP bio of Mark; multi-billionaire computer genius, inherited from immigrant father, never married, educated in Europe, no college, philanthropist

Edwards talks to protesters calling Mark a vampire

Conservative talk shows talk about Mark

Mark accepts nomination, gives amazing and inspiring speech, saying that unlike other politicians, he cannot be bought; pushing a very populist platform

News article about police investigation of suicide after autopsy; no drugs, no suicide note, but no one saw anyone enter the room, video shows him jumping

Interview with woman who wrote book about charisma, looks and (for men) height and how important it is in business and politics, emphasizing how Mark is very charismatic and surrounded by equally charismatic people

Steve is back in Richmond, lamenting how boring his life and job are

Steve appears on local conservative talk radio, caller discusses vampires

Karl plans the assassination, realizes he will need Nick’s help

…And so on (as Kurt would say).

I skipped a few of those points when I realized they slowed the story down too much. About ten points later on in the outline turned out to only comprise one chapter.

And even though I was following my outline, I was not satisfied.

My original idea was very political, about corruption in politics and whether we would be willing to accept an evil vampire as President if he was going to do good things. Originally, my main character Steve was to learn of the real existence of vampires at the end of Act One, and would then spend the rest of the book trying to prove that the Presidential candidate is one. But as I continued, I became less and less attracted to that idea. It just wasn’t enough fun. There wasn’t enough adventure. Where was the action? Where was the thrill?

So I suddenly moved an important assassination scene that originally had been scheduled for near the end of the book to the end of Act One.  But even that wasn’t enough. Then the idea hit for Steve to be framed for the assassination by other vampires out to get the candidate.

Now we’re talking.

This pushed the novel into high gear. It went from a humorous political satire to an action-paced thriller with political undertones. Much more exciting!

And that outline? Well, it’s still there but it’s all out of order, and a lot of new plot points have been added. The destination is still the same — I know exactly how it’s going to end — but now I am coming up with something more.

And that wouldn’t have happened if I had remained glued to my original outline.

So my lesson this time is simple: Definitely outline, but never be afraid to toss it out the window if something better comes along!

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