Interview with author Paul Levinson

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Paul Levinson today. Paul is a Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University. His stories and novels have been  nominated for Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Edgar, Prometheus, and Audie Awards. His novel THE SILK CODE won the Locus Award for Best First Science Fiction Novel of 1999. PLCapeHe’s appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the History Channel, NPR, and numerous TV and radio programs. He was President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from 1998 to 2001. His web page is here.

Since I love a good time travel story, I recently read THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES.  What led you to this plotline?

PAUL LEVINSON: I never believed that story that came down to us through The Crito, in which Crito (they only had one name in those days) comes to Socrates the night before he’s supposed to drink his death sentence, the hemlock, and tells Socrates that there’s a ship waiting for him in Piraeus, the Athenian harbor, which Socrates can take to escape, and Socrates says, oh no, I may criticize the state, but I would never put myself above it, so I’ll stay here and drink the hemlock. That rang untrue to me, and in fact went against every bone in my body.  If some jury sentenced me to death for my political opinions, and an old friend gave me an escape option, I’d be out of there in a New York minute. I mean, take me to Thebes, any place where I can continue my criticism of the state. So I never bought that story, never thought it gave the real reason that Socrates declined the boat to safety. I read some plausible alternative explanations, but, in the end, I came up with my own … which you’ll find at the end of THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES.

VENTRELLA: What background did you have to write about Socrates? Or was this just something you were always interested in?

LEVINSON: A combination: I was always interested in Socrates, and I also have some philosophic background.   My first published book was IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH: ESSAYS ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF KARL POPPER, which was published in 1982 (I assembled and edited the anthology). I read I. F. Stone’s THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES when it was published in 1988, and found its explanation of why Socrates was so provocative at his trial intriguing and plausible.  That nonfiction got me thinking about the plot that would eventually become THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES.

VENTRELLA: I note that the book has discussion questions in the back. Since I learned a lot, I am wondering if it has been required reading for courses?

LEVINSON: Those discussion questions were put in at that suggestion of Tor Books, which published that paperback. socratesFrankly, I think it’s lame to put in discussion questions at the end of a novel which was certainly not intended as a textbook. On the other hand, it has been used as required reading in a few courses over the years, and I’m certainly very happy and grateful for that. I am especially glad, by the way, that I was able to able to write from the perspective of a female hero – Sierra Waters – it was fun writing from the point of view of a gender that’s not you, and I hope I got it mostly right.

VENTRELLA: What is it about time travel stories that we like?

LEVINSON: First, travel to the past and to the future are two different things, with different payoffs. Travel to the past has the irresistible appeal of changing something we don’t like in history – either in world history, or in our personal history. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to do that? Travel to the future shows us where we, those we love, and the world may be in the future – that’s important knowledge, too. But both are very likely impossible, which is what also makes these kinds of stories such appealing fiction.If I traveled to the past and changed something I didn’t like, how would I have knowledge of that in the first place? You’d need to say PL 1 from Reality 1 traveled to the past and changed it to Reality 2, with PL 2 and no knowledge of what was changed, but that’s ok because PL 1 did the time travel not PL 2. But that kind of new reality snapping into being with every drop of the time traveler’s hat is even more incredible than time travel. Meanwhile, if I traveled to tomorrow, and saw you were wearing a pair of jeans with a slight tear in the knee, that would mean you had no free will – that you will have no choice but to put on those jeans tomorrow, whatever else you may want to wear. And I think we do indeed have free will, that we can wear whatever we please. So that’s why time travel is likely impossible, but also why it’s so good to read or see on the screen.

VENTRELLA: You have two sequels – do you plan any more? 

LEVINSON: I have no specific plans for a fourth novel in this saga, but you never know.  When I wrote UNBURNING ALEXANDRIA, the sequel to THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES, I didn’t expect to write a sequel to that, but CHRONICA just came to me.

I do have a fourth Phil D’Amato novel about half-way finished, and a first chapter to a sequel of BORROWED TIDES. So, yeah, I like sequels, and we’ll likely see Sierra Waters again, somewhere down the line.41k79NJdbIL

VENTRELLA: Or up the line, as the time travel case may be.

Some time travel stories involve closed universes, where what happens in the past does not change the present;  you’ve gone the other way. Tell us about your decision-making process. Do you personally prefer one to the other?

LEVINSON: For some reason, I’ve always been partial to the kind of time travel story in which someone travels to the past to prevent some kind of bad event, then it turns out that the time traveler is the one who made that event happen, or contributed to it in some way. There’s a little of that in THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES, but there are also changes in the present as a result of the time travel, and that’s exciting to write, too. I think the key is to keep the reader off-balance, never quite knowing what to expect, but weaving a story that has enough connection to the reality we know to be plausible and therefore even more unsettling.

VENTRELLA: You’ve released your Phil D’Amato series with the comment that they are “they way the author always meant them to be.” How is that? What was it about the previous versions that you didn’t like? 

LEVINSON: The late David Hartwell was my editor at Tor for all three Phil D’Amato novels, BORROWED TIDES, and THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES (not the sequels). David along with Stan Schmidt were the best editors I ever had the luck and pleasure to work with. But I didn’t agree with every one of David’s edits or the changes in my initial manuscript he suggested. Sometimes we discussed this, and I got my way. Other times, I went along with the suggestions. In some of these cases, I found I was happy or at least ok with these changes when I prepared the three novels for Kindle re-issue. In other cases, I realized that I preferred my original wording, or plot point, after all. That’s what I meant by “author’s cut” or publishing the novels “the way the author always meant them to be”. Ultimately, there are no huge differences in the original Tor and the newer Kindle versions – but I do like the Kindles a little more.51bggurvo8L

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the series!

LEVINSON: Phil D’Amato began his exploits in “The Chronology Protection Case”. Stan Schmidt, then editor of Analog Magazine, got back to me a few months after I sent him the story and said, I really like this, but why did you kill off such an interesting character? I thought it over, decided to save Phil’s life, and expanded the short story into a novelette, which was published in Analog a few months later. That novelette has been reprinted five times, was a Nebula Award finalist, has been used as a text in at least one science fiction class in the MidWest for a decade, and has been made into a high-budget radio play (nominated for the Edgar Award) and a low-budget short movie.

I published two other Phil D’Amato novelettes in Analog – “The Copyright Notice Case” and “The Mendelian Lamp Case”.

One day, in the late 1990s, I ran into David Hartwell at a con – it was Philcon, come to think of it – and he said, why don’t you write a Phil D’Amato novel and send it to me? I did, incorporating “The Mendelian Lamp Case” in the first part, and it became THE SILK CODE, which won the Locus Award for Best First Science Fiction Novel of 1999. THE CONSCIOUSNESS PLAGUE and THE PIXEL EYE followed, and I’m currently writing a 4th novel in the series.

My daughter Molly, 12 at the time, read THE SILK CODE in manuscript form, and said, “Daddy, Phil is just like you!”  She was very perceptive. Phil D’Amato is what I think I would have been had I gone in for forensic science. He does forensics for the NYPD, and has a penchant for getting involved in strange cases, in profound developments lurking just below the surface …

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

LEVINSON: I don’t like talking about what I’m currently writing, because, who knows, I could change my mind. But I did finish a 10,000-word brand new time travel story last month, with major historical characters I haven’t written about before (well, one, just a little). I’m currently mulling over what to do with this – expand it into a novel, send it out to a suitable magazine or web site, maybe publish it myself on Kindle.51i7-OBEt0L._SX295_BO1,204,203,200_

Speaking of which, I did finish my “Loose Ends” series last year, with a fourth story entitled “Last Calls” (the first three were published in Analog, and “Loose Ends” was Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon nominated). All four are now on Kindle, if you’d like some more of my time travel. So are my three “Ian’s Ions and Eons” novelettes, also first published in Analog a few years ago.

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

LEVINSON: I became interested in writing – both fiction and nonfiction – in first grade, where I wrote both. For me, writing is just a little more difficult than speaking, which has always been pretty easy for me, which is one reason I became a professor. I can’t even imagine a day without writing, it’s so fundamental to me.

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

LEVINSON: I think people are indeed born storytellers, in terms of their imaginations, concoctions of plots, and need to tell those stories, and even with the ability to tell them in appealing and intriguing ways.  That last part can be improved through practice and in some cases guidance, but, ultimately, either you have that capacity or not. And here’s a crucial point: don’t let anyone talk you out of your need to write, or even how to write, if you have a technique that works. There is no universally best or right method.

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

LEVINSON: I never outline, at least not on paper or screen. I sometimes think out a story partially in my head, but most of the time I just jump in and see where it goes. I take the same approach for nonfiction, and for speeches I give at scholarly conventions. I never write the speech beforehand – I just give the talk, and if someone wants to read the speech afterward, there’s always a transcript. Writing for me is a wild, untamed, dangerous ride, and I like to keep it that way.515piy7uGVL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_

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

LEVINSON: It means if I’m writing about a real city or town in this world, I need to have been there, spent some time there, in order to write about it convincingly. And it means that when I write about any character, good or evil, I need to plumb the depths of my own psyche, discover what I would do in that situation, in order to make the character convincing. With any luck, readers will find this compelling.

 VENTRELLA: What criticism of your work do you disagree with the most?

LEVINSON: Truthfully?  Most criticisms. But if I had to pick just one, it would be the observation that BORROWED TIDES is my “worst” novel. Of course, everyone has to have a worst novel. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t written it yet, and, with any luck, never will.

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

LEVINSON: My first publication was a piece of music criticism, “A Vote for McCartney,” in the Village Voice in 1971. I sent it to them as a letter to editor. They published it as an article, and sent me a check for $65. What more could I ask for?

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

LEVINSON: I have a very high opinion of it:  You don’t have to suffer through an acquiring editor, who, if you’re a new writer, is more likely to turn you down than accept your story or novel. Regarding novels, you make a 70% royalty on Amazon rather than a paltry 10%. Traditional publishing still has some advantages – a professional copy-editor and getting books into bookstores would be the main ones – but self-publishing is becoming increasingly worthwhile for authors.

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

LEVINSON: Don’t waste too much time in pursuit of an agent. Send your manuscript out to a publisher directly, or publish it yourself.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?Paul-Levenson-Digital-McLuhan-book-cover

LEVINSON: It came from an editor whom I had queried about a nonfiction book about Marshall McLuhan shortly after the media theorist had died in 1980. The editor told me no one cared anymore about McLuhan. My 1999 book, DIGITAL McLUHAN, is still in print, and my McLUHAN IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA (2015) is selling dozens of copies per month.

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

LEVINSON: Actually, from Marshall McLuhan. I asked him how to write a (nonfiction) book. He said think of each chapter as a separate paper. It’s worked like a charm for me.

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

LEVINSON: Don’t ever stop writing. Write what you want to write. Don’t pay too much attention to criticisms. Don’t keep your writing to yourself – get it out into the world, in whatever ways you can.

Interview with editor and author Ian Randal Strock

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing Ian Randal Strock, a good friend who has helped me out at many conventions with the Eye of Argon reading.  Ian is the owner and publisher of Gray Rabbit Publications, LLC, and its sf imprint, Fantastic Books. He thinks of himself as a science fiction author, even though 98% of his published words have been non-fiction. 23a62b17-cf39-4473-bb47-2e7d571e5f62He’s the winner of two AnLab Awards from his writings in Analog, and the author of THE PRESIDENTIAL BOOK OF LISTS (Random House, 2008), RANKING THE FIRST LADIES (Carrel Books, 2016), and RANKING THE VICE PRESIDENTS (Carrel Books, 2016). His name is unique on the internet, but having such a varied resume means that many of those pages look like they’re talking about different people, so he recently launched his own eponymous web site, just to draw them together to some degree.

Ian, you have a political science background as I do. Tell me about that and explain how you ended up where you are now.

IAN RANDAL STROCK: I went to college thinking I was going to be a doctor, but half way through, I realized that wasn’t my proper career path. I wandered into the student-owned newspaper, worked my way up the editorial staff, and chose a major in something that had always fascinated me. Unfortunately, there’s just about no place you can walk into and say “Give me a job; I’m a political scientist.” But you can get a job saying “I worked the equivalent of a full-time job on the student newspaper at Boston University, working my way up to Deputy Editorial Page Editor and Assistant Book Review Editor.”

VENTRELLA: What did your years as an editorial assistant teach you?  

STROCK: That the world is usually not what you imagine? That I’m immune to hero worship? That even though publication may be ephemeral, there are facets that last a long time? That technological changes can be overwhelming when you look at them in retrospect? That sometimes it pays to play it a little more cautiously? That’s just a few, but perhaps they deserve some fleshing out.

That the world is not what you imagine: After I graduated from college and moved to New York, I looked for a job in publishing. After taking a job that was a mistake, I was looking through the classified ads in the New York Times, and saw a three-line ad: “Wanted: Editorial Assistant for science fiction magazine. 380 Lexington Avenue, NY NY 10017” (I still remember it, though they’ve moved several times since then). I said to myself “I know that address. I’ve been sending them stories. That’s either Analog or Asimov’s.” I sent them my resume with a cover letter that basically said “Gimme the job! Gimme the job! Gimme the job!” I got called in for an interview, and was thrilled to learn that the job was for both Analog and Asimov’s. I knocked on the door, expecting a large reception room and spacious offices beyond, so when I opened the door, I was… surprised. Inside was a room about ten by twenty feet, crammed with five desks, four floor-to-ceiling book cases, and half a dozen file cabinets. This one room was the entire editorial space for the two largest US science fiction magazines. The intern wasn’t allowed to come in on Tuesdays, because that was the day the editors came in (the rest of the week, they worked from home), and there wasn’t a place for him to sit.

That I’m immune to hero worship: My second day at the magazines was a Tuesday. On Tuesdays, the editors came in. And on Tuesdays, Isaac Asimov visited the office. His name was on the magazine, but his only responsibility to it was to write the monthly editorial and to answer the letters. But every Tuesday, he’d come in to the office, talk with the editors, ask if there was anything he needed to know, and socialize. So on my second day at work, in the middle of January (it was cold), I heard this harsh Brooklyn voice coming closer to our door, singing loudly and cheerfully. In walked this nebbish bundled up in a heavy coat with a thick hat wearing big muttonchop sideburns and a big smile. Isaac Asimov. One of those names I’d known since I’d discovered science fiction. He was here! After he’d unwrapped himself, Sheila Williams (one of my bosses, she was the Managing Editor of Asimov’s) introduced us. Isaac looked up at me (he was about 5’9”, I’m 6’2”) and said “you’re not a cute little girl” (my two predecessors in the job had apparently been five-foot-nothing and really cute). I said “you’re not a ten-foot-tall god” (not sure where I found the chutzpah to say that to Isaac Asimov). 9781631440588-frontcoverHe said “I’m not going to make up a limerick for you.” That began our friendship that lasted for the last three years of his life. Two or three months later, Sheila told me one of our authors would be visiting, and I got excited. “I’m going to meet my first author!” I said. And she said “what about Isaac?”

That even though publication may be ephemeral, there are facets that last a long time: Those crowded book shelves in that tiny little office contained every issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Not a week went by that we didn’t get a letter from someone offering to sell us back issues of the magazines, either accumulated or inherited. We had a list of dealers we’d send back to them, but we knew there was almost no call for old magazines. On the other hand, two or three years later, I was involved in a writers’ group for which we were going to share stories of the past that inspired us, and I spent several days trying to find one particular story I’d read in high school. Eventually, having had no luck, I described it to Stanley Schmidt (the editor of Analog). Stan said, “Oh, yes, we published it: ‘Diabologic’ by Eric Frank Russell.” I checked our archives, and pulled the March 1955 issue off those shelves to find the story I’d been looking for.

That technological changes can be overwhelming when you look at them in retrospect: When I walked in the door to interview for that job at Analog and Asimov’s, I was not the least bit surprised to see a typewriter on every desk. By the time I left those magazines six years later, my desk (which had in the interim moved into different offices three or four times) was the only one that had a typewriter on it. I also had a computer on my desk, as did everyone else. And now I think back on how little that poor computer could actually do, with its monochrome monitor and dial-up modem.

That sometimes it pays to play it a little more cautiously: When I walked in for that interview, Sheila and Tina Lee (the Managing Editor at Analog, my other direct boss) asked if I’d be willing to commit to staying in the job for at least a year, because each of my predecessors had left within six months, and they wanted someone who’d stay a little while after being trained in the job. I said of course. They also asked what my career goals were. I said “I’d like one of your jobs, but I really want either Stan or Gardner’s job (Gardner Dozois was the Editor of Asimov’s).” I wound up staying six years, and left because, to my mind, my bosses weren’t getting any older, they weren’t making any moves toward retiring, and when the entire “up” in the company is four people, there’s not a lot of room for advancement. The opportunity came along to start my own magazine (Artemis, which I published until 2003), so I left. I’ve since been through a series of jobs. But if I’d passed on the chance to start Artemis, and instead stuck around, Tina left two years later, and I would have been the Managing Editor of Analog. Then I would have been in the perfect position to move up and become the Editor of Analog when Stan retired in 2012.

VENTRELLA: How did you decide to establish Fantastic Books?

STROCK: I’d published a magazine for several years (Artemis), and been involved in several other start-up businesses, so the entrepreneurial nature of starting a publishing house wasn’t alien to me. A friend of mine was publishing lots of public domain books, and making some money at it, when he decided to start up a science fiction line. He hired me as an acquiring editor, but soon he decided to spin off the line, and I bought it from him. The original concept was a reprint house, bringing back into print authors’ out-of-print back lists (to go along with new books they’re writing and publishing). Soon, however, I decided to take on original titles as well. Now, the company is about half reprints and half original titles. Without consciously planning it, we seem to publish an inordinate number of collections of short fiction (in part because the larger publishing houses are less likely to pick those up). And Fantastic Books is just half the company; the other imprint, Gray Rabbit Publications (which is also the corporate name) is a catch-all for anything else I think will sell: literary fiction, mystery, erotica, history, we have a line of Presidential speeches.…

VENTRELLA: What are you proudest of?  New releases or the re-releases of classics?

STROCK: I’m very proud to be one of Michael Moorcock’s publishers, and James Gunn’s, Shariann Lewitt’s, Allen Steele’s, and so on. But the original titles tend to outsell the reprints. Having those big names (and some smaller-name midlist authors) gave the company a jump start when we started publishing original titles by newer authors, and earned us a bit more attention from reviewers (which, in answer to one of your later questions, is one reason to go with a publishing house rather than self-publishing).

James Gunn reminds me of amusing story. We’ve got several of his books available, and I’d been showing them at conventions for probably two years when someone excitedly pointed to them and asked “Are these by the James Gunn?” I said of course, who else? This happened at the next few conventions, until someone pointed out to me that there’s a movie writer/director named James Gunn. Several of my James Gunn’s books were published before that other James Gunn was even born.

Allen Steele is one of our hybrid authors: he is still published by a major New York house, but he’s a long-time friend, and when we started the company, he offered us a few old reprints (including one massive collection which was out of print). We published his collection TALES OF TIME AND SPACE last year. Tor published his latest novel, ARKWRIGHT, earlier this year. I would have published that novel in an instant, but Tor was able to offer him more money and better distribution, so I’m just happy to have some of his new work.

We also had a few reprint titles from Tanith Lee, but a few years ago, she got an offer (with significant money) for the books, and asked for the rights back. 9781631440595-frontcoverAs a small publisher, one of the things I offer authors is a much more personal relationship, so when she asked, I of course said yes. As thanks, she offered me a new collection, and I jumped at the chance. DANCING THROUGH THE FIRE was published on what would have been her 68th birthday last year, and was a Locus Award finalist for Best Collection.

VENTRELLA: What future plans do you have for it?

STROCK: Without planning it, I’m a serial entrepreneur. Gray Rabbit Publications / Fantastic Books is the fifth start-up business I’ve been involved with. But it appears to be the first for which the business plan does not include the line “and then a miracle occurs.” My future plans are to keep running this company and grow it into something that can support me in the manner to which I would like to become accustomed. It’s still at the stage that, like a baby, it will take all the time and effort I can give it, but I can see a day hopefully in the not-too-distant future that it grows to where I want it to be.

VENTRELLA: I have to ask this question because I know some of my readers want to know: Do you take unsolicited manuscripts?

STROCK: No. Emphatically, no. I’ve read piles of unsolicited submissions for several magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, Artemis, Absolute Magnitude) and even for a book publisher (Baen). Fantastic Books is still so small that it makes no financial sense to spend that much time reading unsolicited manuscripts (in fact, I’ve got ten books stacked up on my desk right now for consideration, and those incredibly patient authors haven’t started threatening me yet).

VENTRELLA: What are the things that make you throw a story aside? What frustrates you the most?

STROCK: The one thing that frustrates me the most comes from working with authors who aren’t quite publishable yet. They frequently (painfully frequently) have characters do things because the author needs them to do those things, rather than because the characters would do such things themselves. When you’re writing a story, you’ve created a world, and all the characters in it are your toys to play with as you see fit, to move around to do what you want to do, like a chess board. But just like that chess board, it’s no fun when you move the pieces about randomly: the moves have to follow the rules of the game to make it most exciting. And when you’re creating characters, they have to be believable characters within the world you’ve created.

One scene I remember specifically from a book I edited involved the main character on a ladder. We meet the love interest as he rushes in, cushioning the main character as she falls from the ladder. They have a moment, a brief conversation over the dangers of climbing on ladders, and then the love interest walks out, end of scene. The problem, of course, is that we never learn why the love interest was in the scene in the first place. The author had him there to catch and meet the main character, but in order to make the story believable, the love interest as a person must have had a reason to be there.

VENTRELLA: You’ve written many short stories, but when you finally decided to do a book, you wrote THE PRESIDENTIAL BOOK OF LISTS. What inspired you to do that?

STROCK: I’d always been interested in the Presidents, from the time my mother hung a poster in our house with the Presidents’ pictures, names, and dates of office. Soon after I’d memorized that, my earliest political memory is learning that Richard Nixon was going to resign, and asking my parents if that meant Kissinger would be President (since his was the only other political name I knew). They explained about the Vice Presidency, and I was off and running. My brain likes to categorize and rank things, so it wasn’t much of a leap to try ranking the Presidents, seeking out shared characteristics (and wondering if I could acquire those characteristics myself to become President). But it was just a hobby until 2006, when I realized I could turn it into a book. As a writer, most of my output has been short-short stories (I may still have the record for the greatest number of Probability Zero stories in Analog), and I realized I could write my book as a bunch of individual, short-short chapters (because writing a book-length work was daunting). I set out to arrange all the data I had, find the gaps and write new chapters to fill those, and, within six months, I’d written a book.

Then came the problem of what to do with it. I’ve been a science fiction professional long enough that I know all the agents, but none of them had a clue about selling this non-fiction book. Walking around the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2007, I overheard a fellow at a table say to the exhibitor “I’m an agent…” I waited for him to finish his conversation and turn away, then approached him about my book. He wasn’t very encouraging, but offered to look at my proposal, which I promptly sent him. Again, he wasn’t terribly encouraging, but said he was willing to look at the whole book. Receiving that, he said he thought it would be very hard to sell, but he’d be willing to give it a try. And within three weeks, he’d sold it to Villard, which rushed it into print in October 2008.

VENTRELLA: And now, as a follow up, there’s RANKING THE FIRST LADIES. What kind of ranking? How did you make that determination?

STROCK: As with the Presidents, by characteristics that are both measurable and rankable. Important things, like height, longevity, fertility, education…

On the Presidents book, THE PRESIDENTIAL BOOK OF LISTS was, in my mind, just a place-holder for a title. But the publisher kept it, and then added the subtitle: “From Most to Least, Elected to Rejected, Worst to Cursed—Fascinating Facts About Our Chief Executives.” In all those 21 words of title and subtitle, far and away, people looking at the book focus on one word almost to the exclusion of the others: “worst.” Without picking up the book, the one question everyone asks is “Who was the worst President?” But I’ve learned that what they mean is “You agree with me when I say XXX is the worst President, don’t you?” 90% of those people go on to tell me that to them, the worst President is either Barack Obama or George W. Bush. It’s really frustrating, because my goal was never to foist my view, my choices on the readers.bookcover I really was looking for the characteristics of the Presidents, trying to figure out if I could predict who the next President would be (and for the last two elections, it turns out that the “average President” I created in the book really does predict the winner).

VENTRELLA: Was it difficult comparing the First Ladies, given how the role of women has changed so much since Martha Washington?

STROCK: Well, the most recent ones tend to be better educated and have fewer children (on average), but beyond that…

VENTRELLA: Since we will probably have a First Gentleman soon, will that make your book obsolete? Will you have to rename it? 

STROCK: The book is a comparison of the Presidential spouses to this point. The fact that all of them have been female is almost incidental. Similarly, the fact that all the Presidents have thus far been male doesn’t seem to be a big point. For instance, in the election of 2008, the candidate closer to the Average President was much closer, and he won. Other than his skin color, Barack Obama looks almost exactly like his 42 predecessors. The only top-five list that changed in that book due to his election was The Five Youngest Presidents (Obama is the fifth youngest to hold office, edging out Grover Cleveland by 182 days.

VENTRELLA: If we call a male President “Mr. President” then why don’t we call a female President “Ms. President”?

STROCK: Actually, we call the male President “Mister President.” “Mr.” is a written abbreviation, but not a spoken abbreviation. “Ms.” on the other hand, has no verbal extension beyond that written abbreviation. I’m guessing that when we have a female President, we’ll probably call her Madam President (because we call female foreign leaders Madame Prime Minster).

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing. How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

STROCK: I supposed it depends what you want to write. A big thing in writing in these days of easy self-publishing is journaling. Apparently a lot of people feel very satisfied writing down their life stories and having them produced in book form, so in that regard, I guess anyone can be a writer. But in terms of writing something that other people will want to spend money to read, I think that’s a somewhat more rare ability. It may be teachable/learnable, but as with any skill, it requires a lot of effort.

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?

STROCK: I don’t know about important, but it always made sense to me. Some pundits have said that we have to write through a million words of garbage before we get to the good stuff. Others have said that you have to practice your craft. My thinking is just that the first few things you write probably aren’t going to be very good, you’ll have to keep practicing to learn your craft. If those first few things are short stories, they’ll take a few days or weeks to write. But if those first few things are novels, they’ll take a lot longer to write.

Then again, I’ve had this conversation several times with novelists: I’ll ask how they can possibly write 100,000 words. I sit down to write a story, I get to the end, and it’s 900 words. They’ll respond that they’ve tried to write short stories, and before they’ve finished clearing their throats, the stories are at 30,000 words. So maybe different writers have different innate lengths, and to do the other takes training and effort.

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

STROCK: When I got into professional publishing, and started attending science fiction conventions, the occasional self-published author in a dealers’ room was usually avoided. People would look askance at an author sitting behind a table of books he himself had written and published. But now that I run a publishing house, when I’m at conventions with the books I’ve published, most people walking up to the table are surprised that I didn’t write them. So apparently, self-publishing is much more accepted by the general readership (and since they’re the ones buying the books, it’s their opinion that matters).

But whether you’re self-publishing or going the traditional or small press route, you want your book to look as professional as possible, be as good as possible. A publisher will spend time and money editing, designing, producing, publicizing, distributing your book. Doing it yourself means a lot of your writing time has to be spent on non-writing things. If you’re going to do those things, do them well. A self-published author recently showed me her book, and when I opened it up, the interior was double spaced and ragged right. All I could say to this excited young woman was “very nice, I wish you success with it.” But what I was thinking was “Have you never opened a book before? Do you not see how your book differs, physically, from every professionally published book?”

I own a small publishing company, and I’m also an author. My books have been published by imprints of Random House and Skyhorse. That’s not because I couldn’t do it myself, but as an author, I know the publisher can do things for my books that I can’t. Also, a publisher will pay me an advance that I don’t feel right taking from my own publishing company. They give me greater publicity and distribution. And my marketing efforts—which I would be doing regardless of who published the book—are enhanced by those of the publisher. But in the end, I guess I’m uncomfortable with the thought of self-publishing my own books. Now that other publishers have picked them up—showing that another publisher values them enough to put the time and money into publishing them—if they go out of print, I’ll be much more comfortable bringing them back into print through my own publishing company. And I have actually self-published a few small volumes, which go along with my usual speech topics, to have something to sell at those lectures.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best advice you would give to a starting writer that they probably haven’t already heard?

STROCK: “Don’t do it. There are many less frustrating ways to live your life, so if you can possibly not write, then by all means, don’t. The world needs far more readers than writers.”

That’s the same piece of advice I give every person who asks how to become a writer. I figure if I can save a few of them from being writers, I’ve made those people happier. Of course, most of the people asking that question laugh off my answer, and then tell me they have to be writers (I don’t know how many of them really will be writers, but ignoring that first piece of advice is inevitable). To them, I say: write what you want to read, what you enjoy reading, because if you’re not enjoying what you’re writing, it will show. But once you’ve decided you simply must write, treat it like a job: learn the tools of your trade (that is, first and foremost, the English language), learn how to tell a story (and how not to) by reading a lot. Follow the rules (Heinlein’s rules of writing, Stanley Schmidt’s “The Ideas that Wouldn’t Die,” and so forth). And then, when you’ve completed the story, treat the concept of getting (and being) published as a business. Present yourself appropriately to editors, readers, and other writers, both in person and online. I could go on at great length, but even my eyes begin to glaze over at this point. Just remember that it’s a fun business to be in, but it is a business, and pissing off potential customers is bad for business.

Hamming it up in the "Eye of Argon" reading at Balticon 2016 with Ian ignoring me in the background. (He was the editor judge!)

Hamming it up in the “Eye of Argon” reading at Balticon 2016 with Ian ignoring me in the background. (He was the editor judge!)

Interview with Larry Hodges

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA:  I’m pleased to be interviewing author Larry Hodges today. His web page is here. Larry, tell us about your latest work!

LARRY HODGES: My new novel, CAMPAIGN 2100: GAME OF SCORPIONS (from World Weaver Press), dramatizes and satirizes politics in a new sub-genre, campaign science fiction. larry1_smThe novel covers the election for president of Earth in the year 2100, when the world has adopted the American two-party electoral system. A father decides to buck the system and run for president of Earth, taking on his own daughter with a third-party moderate challenge – with an incredulous alien ambassador along for the ride.

Presidential politics has dominated the news for years, and few stories are more compelling than a bare-knuckle, fight-to-the-finish political campaign. And yet, where are the SF stories that cover this? CAMPAIGN 2100 is West Wing in the 22nd Century. The underlying theme of the novel is moderation in politics; some will read it as a Moderate Manifesto.

VENTRELLA: How did you go about finding a publisher?

HODGES: One of the toughest decisions for a new author is whether to try and get an agent, or go directly to publishers. I decided to try both, and sent numerous queries. For agents, I mostly used For publishers, I mostly used It took three years – three years of checking email every three minutes – but then, one day, I received a note from a publisher that they really liked the novel – only . . . [and there followed a list of things that they’d like to see rewritten]. I did the rewrite. With the publisher’s blessing, I also had the novel critiqued at The Never-Ending Odyssey (an annual writer’s workshop for graduates of Odyssey), and did more rewriting from that. I sent the rewrite to the publisher, and from there on I checked email every three seconds for many months. And then came the response, which I printed out and put on my bulletin board: “I’m pleased to offer you publication with World Weaver Press for the novel CAMPAIGN 2100: GAME OF SCORPIONS…”

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

HODGES: I’ve been reading science fiction & fantasy since elementary school. It was inevitable that at some point I’d start writing it. My first story was “The Snowflake,” written circa seventh grade, which featured a guy read about a snowflake warning in the newspaper, and rants about how stupid that is, that they meant a snow warning. Then he sees the same snowflake warning on the TV, on the radio, from friends, and he keeps sarcastically correcting them. It ends with a giant snowflake falling onto and demolishing his house.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t science fiction that turned me into a professional writer – it was table tennis. Yes, ping-pong. In high school, when I wasn’t reading SF, I was training in this Olympic sport, and became first a top player, and then a top coach. (I’m in the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame.)SpiritofPong-cover-med I began writing coaching articles, and then books on table tennis. I was hired as director and a coach for table tennis at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and between training sessions, I began to write SF. I now have over 1600 published articles and eleven books – seven table tennis, five SF/fantasy, which adds up to twelve since one is a table tennis fantasy novel.

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

HODGES: CAMPAIGN 2100 really has four main characters – an ensemble cast. I decided that each would get their own introductory chapter. Each had to have some major issue to deal with that affected the plot, while developing them as memorable characters.

• Toby, the de facto “main character” (since he’s the one running for president of Earth), is introduced in chapter one, which is five years before the rest of the novel. President Corbin Dubois is being sworn in as the new president of Earth – and Toby ran his campaign, assisted by daughter Lara. Only he now realizes he’s made a terrible mistake, thinking, What have I done? He’s supposed to stay on as Corbin’s political director, but decides to resign. Corbin blackmails him, threatening his daughter if he leaves, and Toby ends up staying – but leaves us with the cliffhanging thought, What can I do to fix this? His character is developed as he faces a huge conflict – his desire to fix his mistake in making Dubois president, while not destroying his daughter’s future. The novel really takes off when he finally goes to war with his own daughter! He is a gold mine of conflict – inner conflict over his past support of Dubois, his battle with his daughter, and various campaign issues; and external conflict as he runs for president against Dubois.

• Twenty-two, the alien ambassador, is introduced as she’s diving into Earth’s atmosphere on her way to landing at the seat of world government. She’s excited, wondering about this new world and its politics as she naively converses with her overly adoring ship’s computer. We learn a terrible secret about her, which the reader knows but no one in the story will learn of until the very end. And then we see the alien point of view during first contact – and how both sides react when it turns into a disaster.

• Bruce, who also helped Toby run the Dubois campaign (but quit early on when he realized it was a mistake), is a professional table tennis player. He’s introduced as he’s playing for the U.S. championship. His great intelligence and sarcasm is highlighted throughout, with him simultaneously carrying on four conversations (with his opponent, the umpire, people in the crowd, and his thought computer), and then, right when he’s about to win . . . he makes a big decision. He’s such a flamboyant character that he’s easy to write, but he can be irritating, and so it’s a high-wire act making sure he goes the Han Solo rather than the Jar Jar Binks route.

• Feodora, the tiny Russian general who is running for president, is built up in advance by hints about her almost super-hero status. When she’s introduced, she’s stuck in bureaucratic meetings, representing Russian in talks with China, Japan, Korea, and others. Her character is built up via the contrast between her somewhat whimsical and sarcastic comments there, and her contrasting thoughts. Campaign 2100 Front Final-sm(She’s practically a superhero, and so throughout the novel she is showcased doing over-the-top things.) We get a flashback history lesson on how she shot and killed the Russian lead general, took command of Russian troops, and led them to a surprising victory. Feodora originally wasn’t intended to be a major character, but when she first appeared halfway through the book in the first draft, she pretty much took over, dominating the story whenever she appeared. At the behest of critiquers, I rewrote the story so she could appear sooner. I also had to send her on various journeys to get her off the stage so the other characters could get attention!

VENTRELLA: Which of your characters was the hardest to write and why?

HODGES: The toughest was probably Toby, simply because I had to be careful that he wasn’t overshadowed by the interesting and flamboyant Twenty-two, Bruce, and Feodora. He was the heart of the story, as he struggled with his inner demons over his guilt in making Dubois president and taking on his own daughter, and his desire to make up for this by running for president. The other three were very easy to write, once I had their characters down – the naïve goody-goody with a secret alien; the brilliant in-your-face sarcastic Bruce; and the over-the-top almost superhero and yet soft-spoken Russian general Feodora. One key thing about writing all four of them is that I considered them all different facets of myself (or facets I wanted to be), and so would just become that part of me when I wrote that character.

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?

HODGES: It’s a balancing act, but for the type of story I was writing, I needed larger than life characters, such as Feodora and Bruce. But they were balanced off by the far more believable Toby, who comes off as a more regular guy in an extraordinary and highly public position.

VENTRELLA: What makes your fiction unique? In other words, what is it about your stories that makes them stand out against all the other similar stories out there?

HODGES: I thought long and hard about what I wanted to write about, balancing my strengths and interests versus what readers might want to read. I think all new writers need to do this. I decided that I wanted to write at least three different novels, each one unique – and then I’d decide which of these sub-genres to focus on:

A political satire – CAMPAIGN 2100: GAME OF SCORPIONS. What was unique about this that it created a whole new SF subgenre – campaign science fiction. I asked myself the simple question (also noted above): “Presidential politics has dominated the news for years. Few stories are more compelling than a bare-knuckle, fight-to-the-finish political campaign. And yet, where are the SF stories that cover this?”

A humorous fantasy – SORCERORS IN SPACE. What was unique about this? It was potentially a new series that covered historical events but replaced the main characters with sorcerers. In this case, the novel covered the U.S.–Soviet space race of the 1960s, but with sorcerers instead of astronauts/cosmonauts. Maybe I could be the next Terry Pratchett!

A table tennis fantasy – THE SPIRIT OF PONG. What was unique about this? Well . . . how many table tennis fantasy novels are there?

VENTRELLA:  Hey, come on. My novel BLOODSUCKERS: A VAMPIRE RUNS FOR PRESIDENT is also “campaign science fiction.”  (INSERT SMILEY FACE)

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

HODGES: This is another thing that new writers struggle with. When I first decided to write Campaign 2100, I spent a huge amount of time outlining it in great detail. Sorcerer-in-Space-cover-medThis is now some top writers operate, such as Connie Willis, who is famous for doing detailed outlines of every chapter – and then writing the novel out of sequence, writing whichever chapter she feels like writing that day. And she’s won more major awards than any other SF writing – eleven Hugos and seven Nebulas. The other extreme would be a writer like Stephen King, who only has a vague idea what he’s writing about when he starts, and often writes a huge amount before he figures out what the story is about. Another example might be Isaac Asimov, who often started with a general idea of what the story would be, and with an ending, and then wrote to that end.

So I tried the Willis method, and began to write. But it didn’t work for me. I kept coming up with creative ideas that I had to ignore, since I had already outlined what was supposed to happen, and if I changed things, then subsequent chapters wouldn’t work. And so I tried to squelch my own creativity! The result for me was rather drab writing, and it was also pretty boring to write. I finally put aside the detailed notes, and instead did a very general outline of each chapter, about one or two sentences each, and went from there – along with an ending I wanted to work toward. Often chapters would go in directions I hadn’t foreseen, and I’d just go with it – but always I’d manage to bring it back on course toward the planned ending. This method worked for me, and I’ve since adopted this.

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

HODGES: Some people mistakenly think this means write what you know now. What it means to me is two things: 1) write about stuff you know and enjoy, because you can write well about things you know, and if you enjoy it, the writing is fun; 2) research the stuff you don’t know, either because you need it in the story, or because you want to learn about something and then write about it. I’m an amateur presidential historian – I can name all 44 presidents, their term of office, and all sorts of trivia on them. I know a lot about presidential politics, and so when I wrote Campaign 2100, I knew what I was writing about – other than that thing that it was 84 years in the future, and took place in settings all over the world that I knew nothing about, with all sorts of unexpected topics coming up. And so I became an expert on such diverse topics as Tanzania; the South China Sea; Antarctica; blue whales and narwhals; wheat production; submarine bases; Brodmann Area 10, which is the moral judgment center in the brain; the United Nations; and the Hindu caste system.

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

HODGES: That’s a tricky subject, as it’s so easy to fall into the “As you know, Bob” syndrome, since that’s the easiest way to let the reader know what the characters already know. For Campaign 2100, it was a serious problem, in that readers needed to learn about the history – our future – as well as the political system. And so I had First Contact, bringing in the alien ambassador Twenty-two. Readers learn about Earth’s history (our future) and the political world of 2100 at the same time as the alien – and if I wrote it well, then readers will be as incredulous as Twenty-two!

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

HODGES: Learn the rules guidelines for writing before breaking them. There are few rules, just guidelines that range from strongly recommended to general ones, and you should understand them all – and then, when you have reason to, break them mercilessly. It’s okay to explore breaking these rules, but always have a specific reason for doing so, or your work will likely come off as amateurish. Writing is both art and craft, and you need to do both.

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

HODGES: I mostly read science fiction & fantasy and history. My favorite authors for many years were the three most famous grandmasters – Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. I read their complete works by the time I finished middle school. I periodically go back and reread some of their works; last year I reread the Foundation series from Asimov. In recent years my favorite writers have been Robert J. Sawyer and Jack McDevitt. Sawyer consistently brings us thought-provoking SF on a wide range of topics, such as his recent QUANTUM NIGHT. I read much of McDevitt, but my favorites are the Alex Benedict series, where we have a guy who researches ancient relics – but the relics are things from our future! Very interesting stuff. And yet, I’ve been debating whether to broaden my reading to some of the classics. I was on a panel with Sawyer at the recent Lunacon SF convention, and he recommended just that. After reading QUANTUM NIGHT, I’m now 60% through Stephen King’s 11/23/63, which is fascinating.

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

HODGES: I wrote 17,000 words of the sequel to Campaign 2100 (which was 124,000 words long), but I’ve put it on hold to see how the first volume sells. If it does well, expect more futuristic campaign politics as our moderate extremists move into space, running the campaigns (or running for office themselves) in local star groups! I’ve also outlined sequels to Sorcerers in Space and The Spirit of Pong, and also have plans for several other potential novels.

Interview with author Gail Z. Martin

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Gail Z. Martin again today! Gail is a good friend and a great writer who has helped me with advice from time to time. Some of her books are available through my publisher, DDP, and we often do DDP book release parties at conventions. Whenever we’re at a convention together, we always end up on at least one panel together, and she’s often been one of my favorite performers in our “Eye of Argon” panels.  I interviewed her about six years ago but so much has happened since then.

Gail, let’s begin by talking about your new steampunk novel, written with your husband, Larry N. Martin. Tell us about the plot!

GAIL Z. MARTIN: There’s lot of action, intrigue, industrial sabotage, cool inventions, mad scientists, awesome steampowered gadgets and airships!

So here’s the official blurb: New Pittsburgh in 1898, a crucible of invention and intrigue, the hub of American industry at the height of its steam-driven power. Born from the ashes of devastating fire, flood and earthquake, New Pittsburgh is ruled by the shadow government of The Oligarchy. In the abandoned mine tunnels beneath the city, supernatural creatures hide from the light, emerging to feed in the smoky city known as ‘hell with the lid off.’

Jake Desmet and Rick Brand, heirs to the Brand & Desmet Import Company, travel the world to secure treasures and unusual items for the collections of wealthy patrons, accompanied by Jake’s cousin, Veronique ‘Nicki’ LeClercq . Smuggling a small package as a favor for a Polish witch should have been easy. But when hired killers come after Jake and a Ripper-style killer leaves the city awash in blood, Jake, Rick and Nicki realize that dark magic, vampire power struggles and industrial sabotage are just a prelude to a bigger plot that threatens New Pittsburgh and the world. Stopping that plot will require every ounce of Jake’s courage, every bit of Rick’s cunning, every scintilla of Nicki’s bravura and all the steampowered innovation imaginable.

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration work? In other words, did you split writing plots and characters and then edit it all together later or did someone do a first draft that the other revised and so on?

MARTIN: We worked out the setting, plot and characters together. Then we passed the drafts back and forth to tighten up, make sure of continuity, and continually brainstorm. We’ve got a pretty good system going!

VENTRELLA: Why do you think steampunk is popular now?  What is it that makes it appealing?

MARTIN: The Victorian era is now beyond living memory. For many people, it’s the era of their grandparents or great-grandparents. So it’s familiar (or at least the TV/movie interpretation is familiar if not the reality), but distant enough in time for us to be able to play with it without offending the people who lived through it. I&B final coverIn Europe, it’s also the 100th anniversary of World War I, which was really the end of the old world of the empires that the Victorians worked so hard to build. And it’s an outgrowth of the fascination with shows like Downton Abbey, which show the clothing and societal change (although without the cool airships and gadgets)!

VENTRELLA: Why did you pick Pittsburgh as the location for the story?

MARTIN: Pittsburgh is the logical place to put an American steampunk story because at the end of the 1800s, Pittsburgh was the epicenter of American steam-powered manufacturing. Pittsburgh in the 1890s was a huge deal, the country’s second-largest financial center, and the home to Robber Barons like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Mellon family. An astonishing number of important inventions came out of the Pittsburgh of that era, and its skies were constantly dark with the clouds of soot from the coke furnaces that drove the mills.

In our book, we tampered with history somewhat to incude the cataclysmic circumstances that creates  New Pittsburgh, so things are similar but different in some crucial ways. That helps to set up the steampunk, and also to create some long-standing opponents.

VENTRELLA: Will this be an ongoing series and if so, do you see an ending to the story?

MARTIN: Each book is self-contained, but we plan more novels and novellas/short stories set in the world of New Pittsburgh. We’ve done spin-off stories featuring the government agents from the Department of Supernatural Investigation that you meet in the novel, and we call those the Storm and Fury Adventures. One of those stories is in Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens anthology (Airship Down). Another one is in the upcoming Weird Wild West anthology (Ruin Creek), and we just released Resurrection Day as a short story on Kindle/Kobo/Nook. There will be a new novella on Wattpad (Grave Voices), and stories in the upcoming Unbound corset-themed anthology, the Alien Artifacts anthology (currently on Kickstarter from Zombies Need Brains, LLC), and even a super-villain steampunk story in The Side of Good/The Side of Evil from eSpecBooks.

VENTRELLA: What are your favorite steampunk stories?

MARTIN: Jules Verne, shows like Wild Wild West, and of course the Books and Braun series by Tee Morris and Philippa Ballantine. Steamboy, The Rocketeer, even the new Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey, Jr. have steampunk elements.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Deadly Curiosities. Where did the idea for this originate?deadly

MARTIN: I went to a conference in Charleston and fell in love with the city. It had so much character, so much of a past, and was so haunted—I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t already set an urban fantasy series there. So I immediately began brainstorming with Larry and my teenagers to come up with the bones for a series that would feel intrinsically like Charleston.

VENTRELLA: Will there be more Deadly Curiosities books?

MARTIN: VENDETTA, the second Deadly Curiosities novel, comes out December 29, and we’ve got more planned. There are also a growing number of Deadly Curiosities Adventures on Kindle/Kobo/Nook with more being added each month. And there’s a free novella, The Final Death, available on Wattpad.

VENTRELLA: You began by writing high fantasy, with two separate series. When the Ascendant Kingdoms series is complete, do you see yourself writing others?

MARTIN: Oh yes. I’m already planning for a new epic fantasy series—and we’re planning a space series! I’m also bringing out short stories on Kindle/Kobo/Nook from both of my epic series. The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures short stories will add up to the equivalent of three serialized novels that are prequels to THE SUMMONER, and give the back story of one of the Chronicles of the Necromancer’s most popular characters. I’ve also just done a short story (No Reprieve) set in the Ascendant Kingdoms world that takes place in a six-year gap of time we skip over at the beginning of ICE FORGED, when Blaine McFadden is sent to an arctic prison colony. It is due to come out on Orbit Short Fiction in October. I’m planning a series of novellas filling in that six-year gap as convict/colonist.

VENTRELLA: Which of your series has been your best sellers?

MARTIN: I’ve been fortunate to say they have all done well, but I think there’s a lot of fondness for the Chronicles of the Necromancer series from readers. They keep asking for more books about those characters, and I do have 6 more planned that will get written at some point.

VENTRELLA: Is there one that you prefer?

MARTIN: It’s like asking which of your children is your favorite! They’re all special in their own way.thesummoner

VENTRELLA: It is easy to fall into cliches when writing fantasy. How do you avoid being too predictable? What is it about your fantasy novels that make them stand out?

MARTIN: I try to either pick an angle on a story I haven’t seen before, or a twist in the circumstances or setting that makes it new. Or I try to come at something key to the story—like magic–from a different angle. So in the Chronicles of the Necromancer series, it all started with the idea of a necromancer as a good guy. And in the Ascendant Kingdoms series, it was about a post-apocalyptic medieval world where magic was a casualty of war. They say that only two stories actually exist: 1) a person goes on a journey or 2) a stranger comes to town. (And someone pointed out those are the same story from different perspectives.) So I look for how to make it fresh and different. And while fantasy has its tropes and archetypes, there is plenty of room to play with them, switch things up, do the unexpected.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about promotion. You have a background in this, and have done many workshops and panels about it.  What is the best piece of advice you would give an author wanting to promote their book?

MARTIN: Build relationships. Promotion is nice, and it’s essential, but the sales and publishing opportunities will come through the relationships you build with readers and other professionals. And oh yeah—social media is not a fad. You need to be out there consistently.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your advice books.

MARTIN: “Advice” books sounds like help for the lovelorn!  Actually, they are books on social media and promotion. 30 DAYS TO SOCIAL MEDIA hit several bestseller lists and got a lot of ink in publications like The Washington Post and Worth magazine. There are also two more 30 Days books on PR and on Productivity. I tried to make everything really simple and quick for people who didn’t have a lot of time but wanted results fast.

There are also three books on book promotion. The first one, LAUNCHING YOUR BOOK WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND, is about preparing for a book launch and what do to leading up to the launch and during and after the debut. The other two books are on online promotion and social media for authors. I tried to take what had worked for me, break it down and make it easy for other people to put it to use, minus the stuff I tried that didn’t work!

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

MARTIN: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories, even when I was a little kid. When I was five years old, I got my grandmother to write down a story I made up about a vampire. The-Dread-frontWhen I was a teenager, I started to write fan fiction about my favorite TV shows and movies, and my friends liked the stories enough they bugged me to write more. That’s how I discovered that I could entertain people with my writing.

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

MARTIN: I think some people have a real gift for storytelling, especially if they have grown up in a family or community that values and demonstrates creating and telling stories. That’s especially true when people grow up hearing books read aloud dramatically or hearing family members tell tall tales as a form of entertainment and expression. Everyone benefits from learning technique. The point of technique isn’t to suppress your voice; it’s to help you use your voice in the best possible way. To that end, I think that someone who is sufficiently motivated can hone their abilities to write well. Will that make them a bestseller? Who knows?

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

MARTIN: I outline more than I used to, because doing three books a year plus short stories plus anthologies, there’s no time to go down blind alleys and start over. I can write faster with an outline, and I’m less likely to hit a dead end if I know what comes next. I can still sometimes get stuck for a bit figuring out how to actually write a chapter from that few sentences of outline, but it does help.

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

MARTIN: It depends. It’s been different with each book. For the Chronicles of the Necromancer, I really had the characters of Tris and Jonmarc first and built the world and plot out from there. With Ascendant Kingdoms, I had the idea of a post-apocalyptic medieval world with broken magic, and built backwards from that. With Deadly Curiosities and Iron & Blood, it was the city setting that shaped everything else.

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

MARTIN: Don’t try to be someone else. What works for someone else probably won’t work for you if it doesn’t come naturally. Martin_WarOfShadows-TP1It doesn’t mean that you can only write characters who are just like you or that you’re limited to experiences you’ve actually had, but even as you create characters who are very different or situations that are very different, there’s probably a thread of commonality with people you do know or things you have experienced that tether it to real life.

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

MARTIN: Try to make them as short and painless as possible. Even if you’re doing them in conversation or it’s explaining something to the new kid, keep it short. If at all possible, show something unfamiliar being done in a way that the reader can intuit for him/herself from context clues what is going on.

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

MARTIN: At that point, we’re looking for places where the pace slows down, for contradictions and continuity errors, for plot holes and places that need to be fine-tuned.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

MARTIN: I think it’s due to a couple of things. First, we are living out the science-fiction fantasies (and nightmares) of previous generations. The Internet, cell phones, satellites, drones, WiFi, computer systems in cars, space probes to Mars and the rest of the solar system—it’s the stuff SF writers were speculating about and it’s real life now. So I think people are a harder to ‘wow’ than they used to be.

Also, where previous generations could be blown away by the idea of spaceflights and computers, the next generation of ‘wow’ is a lot harder to explain—singularities, chaos theory, quantum mechanics, string theory, etc. These things are profound and really mind-blowing, but they aren’t necessarily as visual as a rocket ship or a ray gun, and they require a reader to take the time to learn something and maybe even math a little.

Finally, I think that SF continues to feel less welcoming to women, people of color and people of different sexual orientation. Hard SF about the ‘future’ tends to show fewer women and less diversity than the real US Military nowadays! Certainly we’ve made strides with the women/people of color/LGBTQ people who are writing SF and going into STEM careers and actually becoming astronauts and physicists, etc., but I think the status quo still seems entrenched in hard SF (recent kerfluffles notwithstanding)—more so than in fantasy. Reign-of-FINALThe ‘future’ envisioned by a lot of hard SF looks an awful lot like the current status quo, only with cool background sets and robots.

Urban fantasy is a lot easier for people who may be relatively new to the genre to get into because it has one foot in the real world and so requires less explanation and less suspension of disbelief. And I think we’ve seen a lot more diversity of characters in urban fantasy and a growing effort to tell more diverse stories in epic fantasy beyond the standard Western European setting. People like to be able to see themselves in stories.

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

MARTIN: I think it’s entirely possible to put out a very good book and reach a large audience with a well-produced and well-written self-published book. And I think most authors in the future will have hybrid careers writing for a mix of large traditional publishers, small presses and their own self-published work. But succeeding at self-publishing requires more time, effort and money than going the traditionally published route, and people need to realize what they’re getting into. You can’t do it half-way and make it work.

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

MARTIN: I think small presses are doing really exciting things. They are picking up the slack where large publishers are cutting back on new books and anthologies, and doing very well at it. They are experimenting with new models like Kickstarter funding. I’ve always thought it was ridiculous that large publishers have a business model based on gambling on finding a few bestsellers instead of on the steady productivity of a solid, groomed and nurtured midlist. The current publishing model is more like horseracing than business. I think that small presses will figure out a way to make viable margins on books that sell well but aren’t million-copy bestsellers. And I think that will be a game-changer.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?

MARTIN: One of my professors in college blew up at me when I said I wanted to write books. He said that he had never been able to get published, with all his experience and credentials, and so how the hell did I think I would get published! (To make it worse, he was the college chaplain!)  And now he’s long-ago passed away and I’m published. So there.

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

MARTIN: David Drake told me to stick with it and gave me the low-down on how the business actually worked.iceforgedcover2

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

MARTIN: Everything takes longer than you think it will. Stick with it. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it never will.

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

MARTIN: I just finished the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher, and I’m finishing up the Nightside series by Simon R. Green. And I always post the books I’m reading on Goodreads!

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

MARTIN: We’re finishing up edits to VENDETTA, which is the second Deadly Curiosities novel that comes out in late December, 2015. And the edits to SHADOWED PATH, the Jonmarc Vahanian anthology coming in June, 2016. The fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, SHADOW AND FLAME, comes out in March, 2016. In November 2015, the WEIRD WILD WEST anthology will launch at Philcon, with our steampunk story in it, “Ruin Creek.” THE SIDE OF GOOD/THE SIDE OF EVIL superhero/supervillain anthology with our story in it is also supposed to come out at the end of this year.  And we will owe a story to ALEIN ARTIFACTS, another new anthology, plus there are a few more anthologies in the works.  And we bring out a new short story every month on Kindle/Kobo/Nook in one of three different series (tied into the books). Plus a new Blaine McFadden short story, No Reprieve, coming out on Orbit Short Fiction in October, and a set of novellas set in the world of the Ascendant Kingdoms coming soon. Busy, busy!


Interview with author Jim C. Hines

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am tremendously pleased to be interviewing Jim C. Hines today! Jim is best known as a fantasy novelist and the guy who did those gender-flipped SF/F cover poses. JCH-TARDIS-300x287His first novel was GOBLIN QUEST, the tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. After completing the goblin trilogy, Jim went on to write the “Princess” series, four books often described as a blend of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Charlie’s Angels. He’s currently working on the “Magic ex Libris” books, which follow the adventures of a magic-wielding librarian from northern Michigan. He’s also the author of more than forty published short stories. His web page is here.

Let’s talk about your latest news: The FABLE book, based on the best-selling game. How did that come about?

JIM C. HINES: The publisher contacted my agent to see if I’d be interested in writing the book. I’m guessing a lot had to do with my previously published work, particularly the GOBLIN QUEST series, which has some of the same fantasy and humor feel as the Fable game universe. My agent and I talked about the contract details, he went back and did a bit of negotiating, and voila – I got to write FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES, which was a great deal of fun.

VENTRELLA: What kinds of limitations did they give you? In other words, how far away from the main narrative could you go?

HINES: I had a fair amount of freedom with the story. They wanted a book that would introduce the characters and the world, but I wasn’t novelizing the plot of the game. I had to set the story in the world of Albion, and to use the characters from FABLE LEGEND, but I was able to introduce my own villains and secondary characters, my own plotline, and even my own quirky little town.

VENTRELLA: What is it like writing a story that has already been written, with characters you didn’t develop? Did you find it liberating (“Hooray! I don’t have to spend months working all the details out!”) or confining (“Dammit, I want the character to do this but I am limited by what someone else wrote first!”) or somewhere inbetween?

HINES: I was hoping it would be a bit easier to write pre-existing characters, but as far as I can tell, nothing about writing ever ends up being easy. Libriomancer-LgLionhead came up with some interesting and entertaining characters. Sometimes it was fun to play with ideas I wouldn’t have necessarily come up with on my own. But there were also moments when I wanted to do something with a given character and couldn’t, because it didn’t fit with what Liongate had set up.

VENTRELLA: Assuming that this is like other games, your character could make different choices which could change the ending completely. How did you approach this?

HINES: I haven’t played LEGEND, but I’ve played some of the other FABLE games and read some of the previous tie-in books, so I was definitely thinking about the emphasis on choice. I tried to include some moments for the characters where they had a clear and important choice to make. Trust this character or don’t? Fight or flee? Kill or capture?

VENTRELLA: Who do you think the audience is for these kinds of books?

HINES: Well, we want it to appeal to fans of FABLE. First and foremost, I hope that all the hard-core chicken-chasers will approve. But if I’ve done my job well, you shouldn’t have to be familiar with the games to enjoy the book. If you like fantasy and quirky humor, you too can be part of the audience!

VENTRELLA: What will people who have already played the game get out of it?

HINES: Right now the game is still in beta testing. I don’t know if the book will come out before the game, or how that schedule will work. So it’s possible this could be the first real point of entry into FABLE LEGENDS world. For those who have played the previous games or participated in the beta, my hope is that they’ll get some insight into the characters, some exploration of Albion and its history, and a new adventure to enjoy.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about the “Goblin Quest” series. Where did the idea for that originate?

HINES: I guess I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogs, and it’s hard to get more underdogged than the goblins. How many goblins got slaughtered in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time? So I really liked the idea of taking this scrawny, nearsighted goblin runt and doing a typical fantasy adventure from his point of view, with all of his questions about fantasy logic and this so-called “heroism” stuff.

VENTRELLA: What inspired the “Princess” series?

HINES: Those books were for my daughter, who went through a princess phase when she was younger. Red-Hood-LgSome of the movies, and a lot of the merchandise, all stressed that a princess has to look pretty and be rescued and so on. I wanted stories about princesses who teamed up and kicked butt and beat the witch and saved the prince. I also wanted to play with the older fairy tales, and to do something fun with it, like turning Sleeping Beauty into a ninja, or letting Snow White run around doing mirror magic.

VENTRELLA: I’ve blogged about humor in fiction, and feel that tooLibr many authors think that if your characters crack jokes then you can’t make serious points or make them ever seem to be in danger. Since humor is a part of your work, how do you approach it? How do you find the right balance?

HINES: Humor and serious go quite well together. Just ask Joss Whedon. The contrast between humor and fear/pain/tragedy can make both more powerful. You don’t want to let the humor undermine the tension, but that’s just a matter of practice and learning how to write it. Human beings crack jokes. Even in dark times. Especially in dark times. It’s one of the ways we cope. Completely stripping that out of a story feels dishonest and hollow to me.

VENTRELLA: You haven’t avoided talking about politics on Facebook and your blog. Do you ever worry that this may alienate readers?

HINES: It’s weird. A fair amount of what I talk about are things like sexual harassment and racism and sexism, stuff I’d have assumed most people agreed were bad, regardless of politics. But it’s the internet, so everyone seems to get assigned to one “side” or the other, and that’s the end of that. It’s definitely cost me some readers. But I think these are important things to talk about, and I’ve ended up with a bit of a platform to do so. It would feel like a betrayal not to do so. I try not to be a dick about things, but it doesn’t matter how polite and “civilized” you are. There’s always someone who’ll get pissed off at you.

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

HINES: I think practice and skill are far more important and useful than talent. Looking back, I don’t know how much of where I started was actual talent vs. skills I’d picked up over my life, from reading and telling jokes and getting a pretty good education and so on. Goblin-Quest-LgBut wherever you start, pretty much all of us have to work to improve before we become Good Writers™.

VENTRELLA: What criticism of your work do you disagree with the most?

HINES: I try not to disagree with criticism, as a general rule. Once my book is out there, it’s up to the reader what they find in the story. Who am I to say they’re wrong?

That said, it annoys me to be told I only included a non-white or non-straight character as part of an “agenda,” or to push some mysterious “message” down people’s throats. Acknowledging the existence of people who aren’t exactly like me isn’t a message. And choosing to exclude people who aren’t like you from your stories is lazy, lousy writing.

VENTRELLA: Which of your characters was the hardest to write and why?

HINES: Lena Greenwood, the dryad character from the LIBRIOMANCER books. I’ve been working to get her character right for at least a decade. The way I wrote her and her backstory is problematic as hell. This series deals with the magic of books, and Lena was “born” as a sexual servant, one who gains in strength and independence over the course of the series. There’s a lot I’ve tried to do with her journey, but it’s so easy to mess up, and I know I’ve made mistakes along the line. For some people, she’s their absolute favorite character, but she’s been tough to write.

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

HINES: I prefer to flip it to “know what you write.” Do your research, and make sure you know what you’re talking about.

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

HINES: Mostly, I try to pay attention to when I’m getting bored while writing the story. There’s nothing wrong with exposition and info dumps from time to time, as long as it’s interesting. But the moment I start getting bored, that’s a clue to look more closely at the story and figure out why.

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

HINES: My first draft is when I get a sense of the book’s structure. I can’t hold an entire novel in my head, and outlines help, but they only work so-so. Cover2Once I’ve finished that first draft and know more or less how the book goes, I can go back and start developing the characters better, cleaning up plot problems, and generally delving deeper into the story.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

HINES: Not a clue. I think it depends on where you look, too. Are superheroes science fiction? If so, then Marvel’s films are blowing away most of what’s out there. Video games? Paranormal romance vs. sword and sorcery? I try not to worry too much about what’s hot this year, and to just write stories I love.

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?

HINES: I was told you have to write short stories first, and I spent years doing that before really trying to write novels. That was Bad Advice. There’s no one right way to learn, and while short fiction used to be the “traditional” road for breaking into novels, these days I’d tell people to write whatever the heck they want. Enjoy short stories? Do that. Prefer books? Start writing them.

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

HINES: I think they’re different. For me, short stories are much faster to write. You know, on account of being shorter. I like that. But you have some of the same challenges of characterization and worldbuilding and so on.

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

HINES: I like anything that gives authors more options, and gives readers more ways to find stories they love. I could do without the religious crusades about the One True Way to publish, though.

Most of my books are through DAW, a commercial publisher in New York. I’ve also self-published some electronic chapbooks, as well as a mainstream novel and a fantasy novel project that … well, let’s just say RISE OF THE SPIDER GODDESS probably wouldn’t have found a home at most self-respecting publishing houses.

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

HINES: I think the small impress has been and continues to be important. They have more ability to take chances and to take on projects that might not sell huge numbers, but are important and powerful nonetheless.

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

HINES: Finish the manuscript, and do some research. Learn how agented and unagented authors built their careers.Mermaid-Lg Learn the pitfalls of different paths. Read Writer Beware and other writing blogs and resources. There’s no one right way to do this, but there are definitely some wrong ways to be aware of!

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?

HINES: You have to write short stories before you can write novels.

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

HINES: I don’t know that it’s a specific piece of advice so much as a general attitude of persistence. Writing is hard, and there are times it will wear you down. Most of the successful authors I know are the ones who got stubborn and just kept writing.

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

HINES: Have fun. Find your own voice, and your own passion. I spent years trying to write the books and stories I thought I was “supposed” to be writing, but it wasn’t until I said the heck with it and started having fun with this goofy little goblin and his flaming pet spider that I really found myself as a writer. Coincidentally, that’s the first book I sold. Go figure.

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

HINES: It depends on when you ask! Terry Pratchett, Janet Kagan, Nnedi Okorafor, Seanan McGuire… Heck, I’m on Goodreads. You can see my shelves here.

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

HINES: I’m working on the fourth LIBRIOMANCER book, which is called REVISIONARY and should be out in February of 2016. I’m also finishing up the copy-edits on FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES. Beyond that, I’m starting on INVISIBLE 2, which will be a collection of essays about representation in science fiction and fantasy. I’ve also got several anthology invites waiting for me to write short stories. So basically, I’m in no danger of getting bored any time soon!

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

HINES: I’m not actually much of a party person, so I’d probably keep it small. Maybe David Tennant and my wife to start with. (So that my wife could meet David Tennant, which would make me the Best Husband Ever. And also because I’m a bit of a fanboy myself.) Janet Kagan, who was something of a mentor for me, but passed away before I could meet her in person. I’d also want to invite someone who can actually cook, you know? Oh, and maybe Gutenberg, because he’s one of the characters in my current series, and if I got him to sign one of those books, it would be a pretty awesome memento!

Interview with Bud Webster

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the SFWA Estates project.

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

VENTRELLA: Have you had much difficulty in locating anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with author Shane Lindemoen

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Shane Lindemoen today. Shane is a newer science fiction writer from Minnesota. He started with short literary fiction, earning honorable mention in the 2005 Lorian Hemingway competition with his story “Mount Airy,” and a Glimmer Train nod in 2011 for “Lucretius.” His debut novel ARTIFACT (Boxfire Press, 2013) won the National Independent Publisher Award (Gold, 2014). Shane has had a varied professional life, working as a private investigator, a shoe salesman, and as an Editor of National Affairs for the ezine Secret Laboratory (Maple Hills Press, 2011). He’s also an inactive, licensed Peace Officer for the state of Minnesota, and very nearly finished with his MA in Behavioral Systems Analytics. You can typically find Shane at trying his darndest to transform his thoughts into tradeable monies.Profile

Shane, what is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

SHANE LINDEMOEN: My process is an unmitigated, undifferentiated mess. My workstation is enclosed by a mountain of reference books that I call upon at any given time; my browser has thirty bookmarks open at once, always Wikipedia, always a thesaurus, always Google. My writing has this tendency to take on the language and feel of whoever I’m reading at the moment. Which is beneficial in some ways, but harmful in others: there are many books I can’t read while in the midst of writing something. I once spent two weeks obsessively reading every single Chuck Palahniuk book in existence, and when I sat down to write it was the most horrendous block of text every typed into a word processor.

I have learned to use this weird dynamic to my benefit: if a scene calls for suspense, for example, I’ll use time reading John Little, Stephen King, Joe Hill, Ronald Malfi, or John Everson, which puts me in the right mindset to write suspense. If I have an action scene, I’ll read Matthew Woodring Stover. If it’s time to paint exposition or do some world-building, I’ll read Dan Simmons, Larry Niven, Ian M. Banks, Tolkien. Alex Garland, Amy Hempel, or Cormac McCarthy if I want to say something profound and thoughtful. There’s a whole pantheon of heroes I invoke at any given time when I write. This is why I hesitate reading stuff by new authors, especially when I’m in the throes of writing a new yarn, because if I read something that’s written poorly, I’ll begin to write poorly.

As for the outline. I take that pretty seriously. Before I even drop ink on a draft, I’ll spend time drawing out on paper the various plot threads and where they intersect on the broader timeline. I’ll mark the beginning, the big events, and the end – and while I may not know exactly how things will unfold between those events, I try to make something happen every 1500 words to raise the stakes, create more peril, reveal small amounts of plot, and move things forward. I don’t spend much time on characterization, because I feel the characters flesh themselves out through interacting with each other and responding to things I throw at them. Some say it’s beneficial to have personality types in place before hand, but I get the feel of a character as I go. I simply tag them with something that readers will identify – I give them an image to anchor a voice to, and I try remaining consistent to the way each character responds to things.

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

LINDEMOEN: I subscribe to the belief that we’re all red-blooded, anatomically-lateral humans capable of accomplishing the same things. Our species hasn’t drifted too far from itself in something like 200,000 years, and yes, there are dimensions of difference specific to us, and yes, many do have certain predeterminations, but excluding functionally demonstrable certainties (disability, mental illness) there is nothing one human can do that another can’t. Writing is a skill – it can be learned, it can be honed, and it can be perfected like any other.

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

LINDEMOEN: I think it means to either stick to your expertise, or write what you’ve experienced. I think they say this because the yield is more authentic that way. How I’ve interpreted this is simply to know what I’m talking about in terms of research. If I’m writing a space adventure, for example, I’m going to want to know actual spacecraft design and engineering. I’ll learn about antimatter and ion propulsion and how to theoretically create artificial gravity. The goal is to sell the idea of authenticity, and swindle my readers into thinking that I know what I’m talking about. Nothing kicks readers out of perceived immersion more than illogical crap that doesn’t make sense on real terms.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

LINDEMOEN: Reading science fiction is more work. I think it’s a genre that requires its readers to be active observers and engage with the theoretical aspects of it. In other words, reading fantasy is like a ride; reading science fiction is like a homework assignment.

A lot of science in science fiction is actually, functionally possible, which appeals more to the scientific-thinking person – someone who expects a certain amount of reality in what they’re reading. A reader of fantasy doesn’t feel compelled to analyze and measure things against functionally demonstrable laws of nature, because the expectation is that everything – from the nature of the characters, to the nature of the universe itself – is fair game and intended to be taken at face value, no matter how fantastic or absurd. This might sound like I’m making fun of fantasy or something, but that’s not my intention. Fantasy is just a different delivery system of narrative and truth, which I think appeals more to the largest bell of the readership curve. Readers won’t suddenly debate internally about the natural selection of dragons and griffens and trolls, because it isn’t possible in real terms. Readers can accept each thing for what it is and enjoy the ride as passive observers. An interstellar warp drive is possible. Suspended animation is possible. Colonizing other planets is possible. And because of this realness of things, readers of science fiction come into a story with certain expectations.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about ARTIFACT! Jacket

LINDEMOEN: ARTIFACT is my debut novel, which recently won the 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award for best science fiction. It’s about an ancient alien machine recovered from beneath the surface of Mars by interplanetary miners. When scientists bring it to Earth for study, a physicist activates something inside of it that causes him to inexplicably teleport back and forth between different points in the same timeline. As the separate moments begin to focus on some sort of singularity, the physicist must use what little time he’s given in each place to piece together exactly what happened the moment he invoked the artifact, before it rips reality apart. I’ve been comparing it to equal parts Matrix, Inception, Dark City, Stargate, and Night of the Living dead. I’m not going to lie… it’s pretty out there.

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

LINDEMOEN: I’m currently working on another science fiction yarn tentatively titled VAGABOND. I haven’t tried soliciting it to publishers or agencies yet, so we could be talking about a slushpile candidate, but it really depends on whether or not I can sucker anyone into buying it. Here’s the setup:

The last evidence of the Endeavor spacecraft became immortalized in a single image captured by the Pinnacle telescope: A teardrop silhouette falling into the shadow of Saturn’s largest moon, moments before losing contact with Earth. The mission and its crew vanished, never to be heard of again. It was considered the last great human push into the fringes of deep space.

Years of silence, speculation, and uncertainty intervened – an uncertainty that stifled any hopes of interstellar travel – and without warning, the IDSI administration received a signal from an outpost in deep space matching the Endeavor’s distress beacon.

Commander Susan Fenroe of the International Deep Space Initiative – a veteran astronaut assigned to her last six-month rotation aboard the science station and galactic telescope, Pinnacle – is beseeched by Command to select a crew of eight, and once again tempt the final darkness. Her mission: travel to the source of the distress beacon, and ascertain the fate of her long lost contemporaries. And when her ship comes in violent contact with something close to where her predecessors disappeared, Fenroe and her crew quickly learn that they must surrender faith to each other and their training if they hope to make it back alive. Because what they find in that distant outpost of human curiosity and ambition is a force of nature that could bring about the end of all things.

A dark fantasy mixed with equal parts survival-horror and hardline science fiction, VAGABOND is one woman’s odyssey into the last of all unknowns. A poignant contemplation of being lost, of shapes moving in the dark, and of the light that keeps them there.

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

LINDEMOEN: I think it’s great. I think it fills an important void in the market. But there’s almost no way other than word-of-mouth for the consumer to sift through the innumerable quantities of crap out there. Many serious self-published authors have the odds stacked against them, because they must somehow find a way to set themselves apart, and there’s really no validation of quality at the onset other than the author’s word. But like in anything, good stuff will always claw itself out of the lesser muck. I know of at least two people who’ve made livable money going the self-pub route after they couldn’t land any traditional contracts.

One author – Adam Nicolai – decided to publish one of his fantasy yarns (CHILDREN OF A BROKEN SKY) exclusively on his own, because he had faith in its success and wanted a larger cut of the profits. Of course, almost every self-pubbed author claims that self-pubbing is a choice, but in his case I actually believe it – Adam is an excellent writer, and his novels are good enough that it’s conceivable publishers would consider picking them up. And then there’s Andy Weir, author of the phenomenally amazing science fiction novel THE MARTIAN, who’s probably going to win the Hugo and the Nebula next year. He couldn’t sell TM at first, and decided to self-publish it. When it sold a couple thousand copies on Kindle, it was quickly picked up by Crown, and hit the New York Times Bestseller list shortly after that. So, yeah – self-pubbing is a good platform for the fierce amateur, but it’s also a thankless, unglorified, disrespected, cut-throat place in which only the serious, learned, passionate, and skilled authors will survive.

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

LINDEMOEN: I didn’t have an agent when I made my first professional sale. But I can tell you theoretically what the process should look like. I know that you’re to solicit agencies first, before you try finding a publisher. And if none bite, you have five options. You can 1.) spend the next year refining and perfecting your manuscript, and approach agencies again with a better product, or 2.), start immediately contacting publishers directly. The reason you hit up agencies first is because they won’t normally take you if you’ve been rejected by every single publisher in existence. And most advance-paying publishers don’t accept unsolicited, albeit unagented manuscripts. But say you’ve been rejected by agencies a couple of times, and your manuscript has been refined to the extent that neither you nor your cohorts can find a single reason why it hasn’t been picked up. Well, you really have nothing to lose by pawing the mail slots of various publishing houses. Your manuscript is dead – might as well flame out on the off chance it gets picked up. And if it doesn’t, option 3.) Self-publish. Option 4.) Toss your manuscript in the garbage and start a new one. Option 5.) Enroll in creative writing classes and learn how to write better.

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

LINDEMOEN:A few sage words from one of my favorite authors, Matthew Woodring Stover:

“ ‘Unreliable narrator’ is a tautology. Belief in the reliable narrator is an act of faith intellectually equivalent to belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.”


“If your writing is not a vehicle for truth, it’s just fucking product. Pink slime. Chicken paste.”

One more:

“The next time someone advises you, as an aspiring author, to ‘Show, Don’t Tell,’ advise this person in turn to read BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, and then invite him on my behalf to shut the fuck up for the rest of his life.”

Last one, from Neil Gaiman:

“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.”

Thanks for inviting to your site! If anyone needs me, I can usually be found in two places:, or Thanks again!

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