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, LandThatILoveNovel.WordPress.com, 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.

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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!

Plowing Through That First Draft

One piece of advice that professional writers have given me over and over again is to just keep writing until that first draft is done.

It’s also one of the hardest things I’ve found to do!

But it’s true. If you don’t force yourself to write — even if what you’re writing is crap — you’ll never get anything done. It’s better to just plow ahead with your story and worry about the pacing and the details later.

Just keep saying to yourself “It’s just a first draft.” No one will see it unless you show it to them.

But you have to at least get that done if you expect to ever have a book completed.

I’ve met so many potential authors who have commented that they have a book started that they never finished. They do the first few chapters and then go back and polish those up and then polish them some more and some more, and the book never gets done. Meanwhile, others who may not be as talented actually get theirs completed and published, because no editor will be interested in looking at your incomplete manuscript no matter how good it is.

The hardest part is pushing onward, no matter what. It is very tempting to go back and make changes. Instead you need to fight the temptation and say to yourself “I’m not allowed to make changes until I get to the end of the book.” That way, it becomes a reward you can give yourself when you finish.

This is especially difficult when you’re facing that dreaded Writer’s Block. Sometimes I’m at point A and I need to get to point B but am not sure exactly how to do that, so I just plow ahead. Even if what you write is later tossed completely, it should get you past that hump and onto the next section. And sometimes an idea will hit you that you never would have thought of had you planned it all out in advance.

For instance, in AXES OF EVIL, there is a climatic scene near the end where our hero — the coward Terin Ostler — meets his enemy, who has the most powerful magic weapon in the world. Terin, who has no skills whatsoever, must defeat the villain. How to do this? I wasn’t quite sure, so I began writing the scene. I just plowed ahead, figuring I can always come back to it later and fill in the blanks. Instead, when I was done I realized that my solution was perfect — not only did it make logical plot sense for the characters to act that way, but it was even foreshadowed in an ironic way. I guess my subconscious knew something I didn’t.

And don’t wait for inspiration. Writing is work! If you wait for that moment to hit, you’ll never get anything accomplished. Force yourself to write.

Imagine a sculptor staring at a lump of clay. In his mind, he has his outline of what he wants to accomplish — a horse, for instance — but he’s not quite certain exactly what the final version will look like. He starts molding the clay to the form he wants, and after a while, he can step back and look at his “first draft” and realize that even though it’s rough and crude, it certainly looks like a horse. He now knows how it will be posing and the rest is easier, because it’s the clean up and polishing.

If instead he had concentrated on the horse’s left foot, he’d end up having spent the same amount of time with a lump of clay with a very nice foot sticking out of it. Seeing that little bit done doesn’t encourage you to work harder, I don’t think. Instead, I think it depresses you that so much effort has been spent on a foot, no matter how good it is.

I always enjoyed working on the second and third drafts, because that’s where you can flesh out your character’s personalities better, insert some foreshadowing you hadn’t thought of before, and really turn the work from a passable story to something special. But getting through that first draft — that’s the hard part!

Interview with author Dennis Tafoya

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Dennis Tafoya today, whose latest novel THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK has just been released. His first novel, DOPE THIEF, was published by Minotaur Books in 2009. His short story “Above the Imperial” will appear in Philadelphia Noir, coming from Akashic Books in November as part of their award-winning City Noir series. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and the Liars Club, a Philadelphia-area writers group. He lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Dennis, let’s begin by talking about how you first got started. What got you interested in being a writer?

DENNIS TAFOYA: Writing is something I’ve always done. When I was nine I wrote a story about a monster with my friend Keith Parker. We thought it was pretty good, but looking back I have to admit it was basically a rip-off of an episode of the TV show, One Step Beyond. I associate my love of writing with a love of reading, and my early stuff was very much influenced by the science fiction and horror authors I loved when I was young, like Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison. I would still like to write something in a paranormal or horror vein, and I still think those authors are amazing.

VENTRELLA: Do you think starting authors should concentrate on perfecting short stories first? Do you feel the skills needed for novels is different?

TAFOYA: That’s a really interesting question, and I’ve never thought about short story writing as a prerequisite for the aspiring novelist. I know people who are very comfortable in the long form who really don’t like writing short stories, and short story writers who really struggle with the requirements of the novel. I think the best novel chapters are frequently short stories in themselves, though, and trying to master the short story can teach the writer a ton about tight control on the elements of story.

I love writing short stories — I’ve got a bunch of them out or coming out in the next few months, and I’m really proud that I’ve got a story in upcoming Philadelphia Noir from Akashic Books. I did write shorts before I tried a novel, I think to show myself that I could write a complete story. It’s also a lot easier to find a home for a short story because of the explosion of story sites on the web. I frequently advise my aspiring writer friends to take advantage of those sites, both to get work out there and get reactions, and as a way to meet people who are writing in your genre, too.

Actually, my only creative writing teacher was a poet, and I think writing poetry is an excellent path to writing fiction. Writing good poetry requires a brutal discipline, and it kind of distills the tension that should be present in all good writing to a very fine point. Poetry teaches an awareness of rhythm and word choice, too. I think making demands on ourselves as writers is the only way to get better at what we do.

VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to be a “crime writer”? What sort of background do you bring to the genre?

TAFOYA: Oh, not much other than a deep interest in crime. The threads that inform my work are literary fiction and true crime, I think. I have a few relatives with a little Damon Runyon quality to thier lives, but mostly the characters in my novels and stories are out of my imagination, applied to what I’ve read and heard about criminals and the criminal life. I’ve been lucky to know police officers and prosecutors and defense lawyers, and I’ve gotten some amazing things out of those associations, but I’m pretty boring and middle class personally. I think that’s a little disappointing to people who meet me, and I was thinking I should get some tattoos or something to sell the image a little more.

VENTRELLA: What kind of research do you do when preparing a story?

TAFOYA: I’m a fiend for research. I want to get the details right, and I want to write about those worlds as well as I can. I did a ton of research for both DOPE THIEF and WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK. I read, go to the library and spend thousands of hours on the internet trying to learn the things I want to know.

The cool thing is that research itself can generate new story ideas and take me in directions I wouldn’t have thought to move. Reading about crime in Philly for WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK, I stumbled on stories about ‘hoppers,’ kids who ride freight trains and live in squats in the city. So I added a couple of hopper characters to the novel, and the stuff I’ve learned is tucked away in my brain in case I want to spend more time developing characters or stories that involve that world.

VENTRELLA: Do you like being called “hard boiled”? What the heck does that mean, anyway?

TAFOYA: I’m not entirely sure. I guess it’s fiction with a gritty edge. I don’t mind the label, but I hope it doesn’t keep people away who might enjoy the books but who think my work might be too intense. My stories are character-driven, and while the stories do involve violence and drug use, I really want to arouse the interest and sympathy of the reader, not shock or alienate anyone. I write about people who struggle in the margins, who live compromised lives but who are still smart and aware and want more from life than their roles would suggest. I hope people recognize themselves, at least a little, in characters like Orlando in WOLVES or Ray in DOPE THIEF.

VENTRELLA: How did you interest a publisher in your first novel?

TAFOYA: I was extraordinarily lucky. Basically, a very nice woman from California, a writer and producer named Cori Stern, took an interest in my work and started me toward publication. She introduced me to her manager, Brooke Ehrlich, who agreed to represent me. Brooke found me an amazing literary agent, Alex Glass of Trident Media, who sold the book to Minotaur. It was all so painless I feel guilty when I hear other writers tell me about trying for years to find representation and get their work in front of editors. Like Blanche Dubois, I depended on the kindness of strangers, but it went much better for me than for Blanche.

VENTRELLA: THE DOPE THIEF was released first in hardcover. Why was that decision made? Do you think it was the right decision?

TAFOYA: It’s been Minotaur’s decision to release both books in harcover. I’m still a little worried that, times being what they are that people will balk at the price, but I have to trust that my publishers know what they’re doing. I think there is more interest and attention aimed at hardcovers, but there is that price issue, too. It’s a tremendous vote of confidence from Minotaur and my editor, but I feel a huge responsibility for it all to go well.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about characters. The best and most memorable are flawed in some way yet believable. What sort of process do you take when developing your characters? How do you make sure they don’t turn cliche?

TAFOYA: Trying to avoid cliche is one of my major preoccupations, in my characters, in the plot and in the prose itself. My aim is to write something readers haven’t seen before, but that delivers a satisfying experience and engages them emotionally. It’s a lot to try to accomplish, but I think I’m a better writer for at least moving in those directions.

I’m really only interested in characters who are deeply compromised. Maybe because I see myself that way, maybe because people who are self-contained, capable and sort of unassailable are cyphers to me. I don’t know many people like that in real life, either. Good writing is about tension, and I think that tension between the way we live and the way we want to live is what generates story in a really interesting and organic way.

VENTRELLA: Also difficult is making unsavory characters appealing to a reader. What do you find works best?

TAFOYA: I think some degree of self-knowledge is the key. My characters are drug addicts and criminals, but their awareness of themselves and the gap between what they want for themselves and the lives they lead is something we can all identify with. In DOPE THIEF, the main character is trying to figure out where things went wrong for him and whether he can get to a better life that’s about connection and engagement with his own best impulses. You don’t have to be a criminal to feel that way.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing style? Do you outline heavily, jump right in, start at the end…?

TAFOYA: I outline very briefly and generally, a couple of pages. I find so much in the writing that I don’t want to limit myself. The story will demand it’s own level of planning, too. WOLVES was a mystery, and there are logistical issues that need to be worked out with a little precision when you’re working on that kind of project, but I always find new characters or new ideas, so my sense of the story remains pretty fluid. I do have an image or scene that I’m writing toward, usually, a kind of state I want things to be in at the end. That’s pretty important for me.

VENTRELLA: WOLVES was bought by your publisher based on a one sentence synposis, about a heroin addict trying to solve a mystery. Did that provide a challenge? Are you pleased with the result?

TAFOYA: I don’t know what I was thinking promising to write a mystery. I have so much respect for writers who can deliver those on a regular basis! I’m really glad I did it, and I’m pleased that the book is getting good reviews, but it was a real challenge. It stretched me in new ways, and not just because of the requirements of the mystery form. I knew I was going to have to plan much more extensively, create red herrings and keep control of the way information is revealed, but I was also working for the first time with multiple viewpoints and a much larger palette. It was pretty ambitious, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am that the book is getting good reactions.

VENTRELLA: WOLVES also deals with the seedy underbelly of Philadelphia. What is it about Philly that makes it unique to your stories? Could your fiction work in any other place?

TAFOYA: I was asked that in another interview recently, and I’ve been thinking about how Philadelphia and its characters might be unique. I’ve spent a lot of time in New York and Washington and some other places and I can say people in each of those places really seem different to me. I recently set a short story in Vegas that dealt with characters from the west, and I think the speech patterns, the way people engage one another, reflect a slower pace and sometimes a little more recalcitrance than the people I know here. My friends and relatives from Philly talk fast and loud and share different kinds of information. We’re on display in a way that a guy from rural Nevada might not be.

Another thing I think is interesting is that here in Philly we’re more rooted to the place we live. In my family we used to joke about that, about our relatives who thought they needed a passport to leave South Philly. We’re defined by neighborhoods, by where we grew up and where our families live. Our accents are very specific and we’re very conscious of class and income. My relatives from Oregon Avenue regarded the Main Line as a different planet.

VENTRELLA: Can we expect your third novel to do the same?

TAFOYA: I’m working (very slowly) on a new novel dealing with little criminals from South Jersey. It’s an excuse to do a ton more research, of course, and to spend time in the area getting to know the places and reading local papers, eating in the diners. Research like that is always fun and it always yields really interesting stuff, some of which might actually make it into the book.

VENTRELLA: And finally, what advice would you give the aspiring writer that isn’t obvious (“write better”)?

TAFOYA: Find other writers. I meet people who have been working alone on novels for years, hoping to finish that novel or screenplay, or endlessly refining work they’ve already done. Meeting other people who are doing the same thing you are will help you gain confidence, it will get you help and advice, and it will hopefully let you get reactions from people who are engaged in the same work. Your friends and family might be really supportive, but they’re rarely able to help you get better at your craft or help you find ways to get your work in front of readers or agents or editors. Your best bet is to meet other writers. I think you’ll find, like I have, that writers are extemely generous and supportive. Nearly all of the great things that have happened to me have been because other writers went out of their way to help me or give me advice.

Tafoya

Interview with David Niall Wilson

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing David Niall Wilson today. David has been writing professionally since the 1980s. He has more than sixteen novels and 200 short stories published and has won the Bram Stoker Award for poetry and for short fiction. He is an ex-president of the Horror Writer’s Association and an ordained minster. David lives and writes on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina with the love of his life, Patricia Lee Macomber, their children Stephanie, Billy, Zachar, Zane, and Katie, two brainless Pekingese and a chinchilla named Pook Daddy. David is CEO and founder of Crossroad Press, publishing e-books and professional level audio books. His personal web page is http://www.davidniallwilson.com/ and the publishing site is http://www.crossroadpress.com/catalog

Vampire novels began your career, with White Wolf. Were these stories based on the vampire LARP games? Were you limited in any way because of this?

WILSON: First off, my career (at least by publication date) started with the sale of my stand-alone vampire novel, THIS IS MY BLOOD, followed by the actual publication of CHRYSALIS, my Star Trek Voyager novel.

To answer the question, yes, the White Wolf novels I wrote were all written in their “World of Darkness” and were always intended as companion fiction to their games. The vampires were required to be part of a known clan, to have the proper abilities, and in many cases the novels – while I plotted them – had a particular outcome that was required to further the overall story arc the publishers / editors had in mind. Yes, it was a bit restrictive, but I had a lot of fun with it. Recently I wrote the novel VINTAGE SOUL, which came out in hardcover this past December. It’s the first in a series titled “The DeChance Chronicles” that is written in much the same style and “feel” of my White Wolf novels.

VENTRELLA: You’ve used religion in your writing. What sort of research did you do to prepare?

WILSON: Well, just about every biographical note concerning me will mention that I’m an ordained minister. While that’s a bit tongue in cheek, I spent many years of my youth studying for just that purpose. It wasn’t until about my second year in the US Navy that I determined most (if not all) organized religion was merely an excuse for a small group of people to take control of a larger group by making crazy rules and blaming it on supernatural entities. I left the church behind, but not before I was pretty well versed in The Bible and most denominations who claim to live by it.

VENTRELLA: For the benefit of those unaware, can you describe the plot to THIS IS MY BLOOD?

WILSON: It is a retelling of the gospel from a very different perspective. When Jesus goes into the desert and is tempted by the devil, there is one temptation added. One of the fallen is raised as a woman to tempt him with the flesh. Instead, the woman, named Mary, falls in love with Jesus and his promise of returning her to Heaven.

Cursed to follow him and drink the blood of his followers, Mary walks a fine line between her desire to love and support the Christ, and her burning need to return to Heaven. This novel takes the world of faith, which was the world of men, and of the apostles, and shows it through the eyes of a fallen angel – one who has, in her own words, walked the roads of both Heaven, and Hell. She doesn’t believe there is a God … she knows.

Faithful to the storyline of the original gospels, only weaving in new things when there are gaps in the old, this is a novel of faith, redemption, and ultimate sacrifice.

It’s also my shot at that aforementioned organized religion. In this novel Mary knows that there is a Heaven, and a Hell. She has no need of faith, and this frees her to comment on the lack of belief, harmony, and strength in the apostles … not to mention I’ve always thought Judas got a bad deal, and had fun correcting that as well.

VENTRELLA: Have you received any negative response to your books which use religion as the core?

WILSON: Not a bit. In fact, more than one person (recently, even) has told me that the work has given them new perspective on the Christian faith. So far as I know the only time it’s been an issue was when a German publisher said they could not publish it because they were backed in great part by The Vatican.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever had an idea that bit at you but you couldn’t make work?

WILSON: Not so far. I have had moments where I had an idea I knew to be very, very good, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. The first time this happened was when I sat down to write THIS IS MY BLOOD. Oddly, the project I’ve just started feels that way, though after all the years and words, I’m less worried whether I can do it than I am whether I’m ready to do it…I guess time will tell.

VENTRELLA: Writing a short story is much different from writing a novel. What are the difficulties you have found?

WILSON: I’ve always been good with short fiction (I suppose that explains the award). I have noticed, though, that if you spend most of your time writing novels, it can be more difficult to go back to short form with success. You have to change your focus – sort of like the difference between a snapshot and a movie. A short story usually winds around a single conflict, while a novel can have multiple related plots that wind in and around one another. You have to be a lot more careful with your words in the short form and waste none of them.

VENTRELLA: Why do you think some authors specialize in one or the other?

WILSON: Part of it is a difference in career focus. It’s not impossible to make a living with short fiction, but it’s almost as rare as making a career of being a poet. If you want to reach larger audiences and make a mark, it’s necessary to move into longer forms at some point.

For some, creating short stories is the focus. They love theme anthologies, magazines, and collections, and I admire authors who can maintain that focus. As for myself, I write short fiction when time allows, but my focus has largely shifted to novels and screenplays.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the public is sick of vampire stories yet? Will there be a saturation point? (As an aside, I hope not, given my next book…)

WILSON: I don’t think vampires are going anywhere soon. They are very versatile, shifting to fit whatever the fiction style du jour might be. Today they are mostly just characters in bigger stories. In the old school vampire novels, the fact that there were vampires WAS the story. Now they are just characters with a different set of needs, powers, and goals. They’re not going to disappear on us in the foreseeable future.

VENTRELLA: What work of yours would you advise as a starting point for your books and why?

WILSON: It depends entirely on what sort of fiction you enjoy. My most enduring work is THIS IS MY BLOOD, while my personal favorite so far is DEEP BLUE. My latest is VINTAGE SOUL, and I’m hoping that will launch a series that sort of falls halfway between White Wolf and Harry Dresden. I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, dark fantasy, and horror. There’s something available out there for nearly everyone.

VENTRELLA: I note that you do not limit your blog to your writing only, and instead discuss whatever you want. What sort of feedback do you receive? Do your fans appreciate this, skip past it, or does it matter?

WILSON: I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the blog, and I have to say, I can’t imagine the purpose of a blog other than to share what’s on your mind. There’s only so much one can write about their work, and if you want to actually create rapport with readers, you have to be willing to give something in return. I am personally turned off by and uninterested in blogs that cover nothing but a writer’s work. It feels like an advertisement rather than a connection.

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

WILSON: Not sure that it was not given to me and ignored, but I’d say the best advice in today’s writing world is to not get caught up in blogs, websites, hunting for agents, worrying over markets, self-publishing, and “branding” to the point that you forget the most important thing. If you don’t write, write well, and then write some more, all the rest is a waste of time.

Interview with Tanya Huff

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

Tanya, How did you break into the publishing business?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the short answer is, no.

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Were you pleased with the result?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write subjectively. Edit objectively.

Have fun.

Interview with Author and Editor Val Griswold-Ford

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am happy to be interviewing Valerie Griswold-Ford, writer and editor. Val was journalism major in college and covered several political beats, wrote a weekly column and rose to associate managing editor of The Daily Campus, the fifth largest daily newspaper in Connecticut. Val writes dark fantasy, horror, paranormal romance and urban fantasy, in addition to her nonfiction works. She is currently co-editing the third book in the “Complete Guide” series with Lai Zhao, entitled THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO WRITING FANTASY: THE AUTHOR’S GRIMOIRE. Her two dark fantasy novels NOT YOUR FATHER’S HORSEMAN and DARK MOON SEASONS are available from Dragon Moon Press, and she is working on the third book in the trilogy, LAST RITES. She lives with her husband and three kittens in Concord, New Hampshire. Her web page is www.vg-ford.com

Val, your most recent work is the pirates and magic collection of short stories RUM AND RUNESTONES, due out in April of 2010. Where did the idea for this come from?

VAL GRISWOLD-FORD: Well, I’m a pirate addict. I adore pirates, and always have. So I was at a party at RavenCon last year with Misty Massey and Gail Martin, and we decided that we had to do an anthology of pirates and magic. I pitched it to Gwen Gades, the head of Dragon Moon Press, got the okay, and we were off!

VENTRELLA: Tell us about this new collection!

GRISWOLD-FORD: It’s amazing. More than I’d ever imagined. The writers were given a very simple assignment: to write a short story, under 8k, that used pirates and magic as the main impetus of the story. It was an invitation-only anthology, and I approached about 20 authors. Thirteen of them (including you!) responded. We’ve got everything from dark and creepy to love-lost-and-found to comedy. Even a song! It’s a great anthology, and I’m very proud to be the editor.

VENTRELLA: What is the process that you take as an editor when organizing short story collections?

GRISWOLD-FORD: This is my first short story collection, so I sort of made it up as I went along. I waited until I had everyone’s story in and read, then I listed them all in a word document and arranged them in an order that I thought made sense.

VENTRELLA: Some short story collections are reprints, and some (like RUM AND RUNESTONES) are by invitation. Is one easier or better?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Easier for who? The writer or the editor? : )

I think that by invitation is easier for the editor, because you can pick and choose your authors, so you’re getting a known quality as far as work. I specifically chose authors for R&R that I enjoyed reading, so I knew what level of quality I was getting. On the other hand, as a writer, I can see how the invitation-only anthologies might seem a bit cliquish. I don’t normally write short stories, but I was in one invitation-only anthology (WRITERS FOR RELIEF 2), and knowing that I had been chosen put a little bit of added pressure on me. Could I finish the story to the editor’s expectations? It can be tough.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also cowritten guides to writing, specifically THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO WRITING FANTASY. Why did you think such a book was needed?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Because there wasn’t a how-to on specifically writing fantasy. The Complete Guide is more like a reference guide than a “this is how you write.” Each book (there are three in total) goes into detail on topics that specifically apply to fantasy. The first one has topics like medieval feasts and clothing, writing fantasy fight scenes, things like that. We went a little deeper in the second book, building on the first and going into topics like combining mystery and fantasy, writing sex into your fantasy and government systems to use in fantasy. The third book was what to do once the book was written -– it went into things like querying magazines, agents and publishers, writing query letters, what to do about advertising -– things that writers don’t necessarily think about. It definitely filled a need –- I’m still getting emails from writers about what they’ve found in it.

VENTRELLA: As an editor, what submissions have you seen that just make you scream?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Hmm. Well, when we were doing the second guide, we got a submission that looked like it had been written in another language and then run through Babelfish to translate it to English. It was seriously weird -– all odd tenses and sentence construction. That was really the oddest. Most the subs I get are from professional authors, so I don’t get too many howlers.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written novels and short stories of your own. Does a background in editing help? When an editor is assigned to your work, have there been major problems?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Not really. I tend to edit my own work before I send it off to Tina (my long-suffering editor), so she’s yet to threaten to murder me. The only time I saw her slightly aggravated was when I was having issues with a chapter in Horseman –- I actually sent her the chapter with “This sucks” as every other line. She was not impressed.

VENTRELLA: Where did the idea for NOT YOUR FATHER’S HORSEMAN come from?

GRISWOLD-FORD: I belong to a group called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), and I’m part of the Storyteller’s Guild for our barony. We were doing a storytelling exercise, making up a story around a word we were given, and my word was Plague. I made up the story, and then had a dream that night about a modern-day Horseman. Nikki was the result.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your most recent novel, DARK MOON SEASONS.

GRISWOLD-FORD: DARK MOON SEASONS is the second part of the Apocalypse trilogy. Nikki now knows both more and less than she did before, and she’s on the hunt for the other Horsemen. Now, though, she has more to deal with than just Gene-Tech –- the government has gotten involved, and she’s got to worry about Department V agents as well.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to promote your books and let people know about them?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Well, I’m on Twitter, and I run contests on my blog. I also have teabags with my books’ names on them that I put out on the freebie tables at various cons I attend. I’m going to be podcasting HORSEMAN this summer, and DREAMS this coming winter, which I hope will garner some more interest as well.

VENTRELLA: Many new authors, anxious to see their book in print, rely on self-publishing. What’s your opinion on this?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Self-publishing is a hard road. Unless you’ve exhausted all your options, and are prepared to hustle your rear off selling, I would advise against self-publishing. If you really think you can make it, go for it, but don’t make it your first choice. I know it’s a long road -– I’m still trying to find an agent -– but don’t give up. You can’t have a thin skin in this business.

VENTRELLA: Do you advise authors to start with the small press publishers and build up a reputation first, or should the pitch be given to the majors first?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Shoot for the top. Don’t get me wrong -– I adore my publisher, but seriously, if you don’t try for the apex, you’ll never know if you could have sold it to Tor, or Baen, or St. Martin’s. Believe in your work, and go for the gold.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the future of publishing? Will e-books eventually take the largest share of the market?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Honestly, I don’t know. I like ebooks, but until the readers come done in price, I don’t know that they’ll take over. I still love my paper books, and don’t own an e-reader, although I do read books on my computer. But ebooks have definitely come, and they aren’t going away.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of advice you could give aspiring writers?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Don’t stop reading and writing. Don’t judge your journey by anyone else’s. And don’t give up. Ever.

I will tell you the story of how I got HORSEMAN published as an example. Feel free to laugh, because I was a true newbie at the time.

So, it’s September 2004, and THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO WRITING FANTASY has just come out. It’s my first byline since college, and I have never been published as an author before. We’re talking on the email list that spawned the Guide about what we can do to promote it, and I offer to set up a book tour up here in New Hampshire. Tee Morris (of MOREVI and Billibubb Baddings fame) takes me up on it, and we go on a 3-state, 6-stop tour in 4 days. Seriously a whirlwind. We end up with nothing to do Saturday afternoon, so we take out our laptops (another bit of advice: have something to write with at all times!) and he starts editing. I start noodling around with a story that will eventually become HORSEMAN. He reads what I have and says, “This is really good! You know I’m going to push you to write more, right?”

Flash forward to December 8, 2004. I know this date, because there was an ice storm and I stayed home from work. Tee calls me, and our conversation goes like this:

Tee: How’s the book coming?

Me: Um, it’s coming.

Tee: Good! Do you have an outline?

Me: Um, sort of?

Tee: Well, Gwen wants to see it tomorrow morning.

Me: …!

I pulled an outline from somewhere, and sent it off to her. She emailed me back and asked to see a rough draft. I finished it at 45k (yes, 45k!) and sent it off to her on Jan. 4, 2005. She came back and said that it was good, but short –- could I lengthen it? Of course!

Well, by then, Tee and I were working on OPUS MAGNUS, and we were talking to Gwen about launching at Westercon 58, which was going to be in Calgary that year. In one email she sent, Gwen mentioned three launches they were looking to do: LEGACY OF MOREVI (Tee’s book), THE GUIDE, and HORSEMAN. I sat and looked at that email for a good five minutes before I got up the courage to email her back and ask if that meant she was buying HORSEMAN. She emailed back and said she’d told Tee in December that she was. Hadn’t he told me?

Well, he hadn’t, because he’d thought she was kidding. Unknown authors do not sell books based on a chapter outline. But I had.

Which is why you never give up. Never.

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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