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 Lucas Mangum

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Lucas Mangum today. Lucas and I met years ago when we both took a writing course from NY Times Bestselling author Jonathan Maberry. I am very pleased to see where he is today! Lucas Mangum used to live in the Philly area but has relocated to Austin. He enjoys wrestling, cats, wrestling with cats, and drinking craft beer while crafting weird stories. Follow him on Twitter @LMangumFiction and talk books and horror movies, or visit his website heremy face

Lucas! Tell us about the plot of FLESH AND FIRE.

LUCAS MANGUM: FLESH AND FIRE is exactly the kind of book I’ve always wanted to write. It’s a little bit supernatural horror, a little bit romance, a little bit dark fantasy. The story follows Todd, who, thirty years ago, left the love of his life to die, for the life he thought he wanted. Now, in the midst of a midlife crisis, he is haunted by her memory. When Chloe escapes Hell in search of the peaceful rest that has eluded her, a demon named Samael is on her trail and she needs Todd’s help. While on the run Todd and Chloe face demons real and personal, soul-threatening danger, and their long-buried feelings for each other.

VENTRELLA: What is the Doubledown Series about?

MANGUM: I am so glad you asked that, because it’s not a series in the sense that the stories are connected at all. The Doubledown Series is inspired by the old Ace Doubles series, where two books are released together as one. The cool part about this series is that Journalstone, the publisher, will pair a veteran writer with an up and comer. FLESH AND FIRE is packaged with DARK OF NIGHT, a brand new zombie adventure by Jonathan Maberry and Rachael Lavin.

VENTRELLA: All genres have formulas in some manner – readers expect certain things when they read a mystery or a romance. What do readers expect in a horror novel?

MANGUM: That’s a tough question, because horror has a lot of subgenres. I guess the ultimate goal of a horror novel is to unsettle or stir up dread in the reader (Douglas E. Winter said, “Horror isn’t a genre, but an emotion), but depending on the subgenre, the reader will get there differently. Extreme horror tends to rely on gory descriptions to inspire that dread. Survival horror achieves dread by emphasizing isolation and images of collapsed society. Psychological horror explores the darker areas of the human mind. And so on.

VENTRELLA: What was the best lesson you learned from Jonathan Maberry?

MANGUM: You were probably there when I learned it. I think starting out, you know, the idea of writing a book can be very overwhelming. Jonathan told us, on that first day of that novel class, about focusing on how many words you can realistically do in a day and just kind of take things from there. That writing a book is like anything in life, in that it takes a daily commitment, may seem overly simplistic, but for me, it was exactly what I needed to hear at the time. I did finish that novel, but I never shopped it, because it was a first novel in every sense of the term. I’m sure we all have those buried on our hard drives. I ended up writing the first draft of FLESH AND FIRE in three weeks, not long after the sixth draft of that initial piece.

VENTRELLA: What are some of your upcoming projects?

MANGUM: I’m currently working on a sequel of sorts to FLESH AND FIRE, called BLOOD AND BRIMSTONE. Front_Cover_Image_Flesh_and_FireWithout going too much into spoilers, it follows the kids of FLESH AND FIRE’s protagonist as they try to make sense of what happened in the first book. I’ve also got a balls to the wall supernatural horror novel called, WE ARE THE ACCUSED, that I’m excited about. It has some of the most intense scenes I’ve ever written, I think.

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?

MANGUM: As a reader (and all writers better be readers too), I like characters who are down-to-earth, even average, but have moments in which they perform larger than life feats because they have something they care about, and that something is either threatened or somehow out of reach. I think that’s both interesting to read about and believable.

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

MANGUM: My process is finicky. If I accidentally outline too much, and end up knowing everything about the story, I get so bored, I can’t bring myself to actually write the story. If I don’t outline at all, I’m apt to write myself into a corner around the end of the first act or so. What I’ve found works best for me is knowing the big moments, and by that I mean the turning points, so that I end up with not so much an outline as a series of goals for the characters to be aiming for. Sometimes those goals change during the first draft as journeys can have detours, but I like to at least know where I want to go, and then I worry about the means of transportation later. It allows me to be spontaneous, but not directionless.

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

MANGUM: Oh, definitely. While my outlines for novels tend to be vague, I am more likely to do a detailed outline of a short story, because there is just less space to work in, and you need to nail down what you want to say a lot quicker, whereas with a novel, you can afford to let the piece wander a bit (provided that where you wander is compelling).

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

MANGUM: Nowadays, I have no problem with it. I think if you’re the kind of person who likes to have control of your book from its inception to its publication, you should go for it. It’s so much cheaper than it used to be. That said, you should still be willing to fork over some money. Make sure your cover is professional. Make sure your book is edited (and not just by your buddy from English class, but a real editor). If your goal is to sell books, you have to be prepared to spend more time marketing than writing your next piece, unless you can afford to hire someone, which, if you’re writing, you probably can’t. And just because you’re indie, you should still be going to cons and meeting people. You should still be doing events. You should still be publicizing yourself on social media and blogs. If you have the personality where you can take it all on, go for it. I know that I, personally, am not that guy. I’m always thinking two, sometimes three books ahead, and while I’m perfectly fine marketing myself, I would much rather be writing. Even when I go to cons, I’ll spend most of the day in my room reading or writing and only really come out for the parties. Everyone knows that’s where all the real networking is done anyway.

Long story short, I have the utmost respect for anyone who can self-publish and still produce a professional product, but me, I don’t know anything about book design, don’t trust myself to see everything a professional editor won’t, and would much rather be writing than marketing, so self-publishing is definitely not for me.

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

MANGUM: If you don’t have an agent, and you want one, know the agent to who you are pitching your project. Visit their website, read the stuff they’ve represented, and try to meet them if you can. The same applies if you want to forgo an agent and go directly to a publisher. Know your audience. You, hopefully, wouldn’t make dick jokes in front of your mother-in-law, so you shouldn’t pitch your 140,000 word epic fantasy to someone who reps literary fiction.

Reminds me of another bit of advice I got from Jonathan: not everyone will want to read your book, and that’s okay. Your audience isn’t everybody. That’s not realistic. Find out who reads stuff that’s similar to what you do and talk to them. Yeah, I know, you’re unique and your book is unlike anything ever written. I know that feeling. Best case scenario is to let that sentiment go. If you can’t, find something about your story that helps you place it. Hell, I was worried FLESH AND FIRE, a horror novel with a strong romantic element, was unmarketable, but it sold, so I’m someone out there wants to read it.

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

MANGUM: Don’t quit your day job, because writing seldom provides a steady paycheck, and never offers health insurance.

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

MANGUM: Stanley Kubrick. That man’s mind never ceases to amaze me. I discover different things in his films every time I watch them.

Interview with Kerry Gans

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing good friend Kerry Gans today (We’ve both studied under the Master Jonathan Maberry). Kerry is the author of several short stories, a family history book, and the middle grade novel THE WITCH OF ZAL. She is a chocoholic theater geek, believes libraries are magic, and considers Chincoteague Island her perfect writing retreat. When not writing, she haunts cemeteries and dusty archives in search of long-dead ancestors and pursues her most important work-in-progress, her daughter.KerrySmall

Tell us about your newest book!

KERRY GANS: THE WITCH OF ZAL is a re-envisioning of The Wizard of Oz. It’s a genre twist, in that Dorveday is from a completely urbanized sci-fi world, which makes rural, magical Oz quite the culture shock. 12-year-old Dorveday runs away from home to protect her robotic dog from the oppressive Ministry, and she accidentally lands in Oz. A Victorian gentleman Scarecrow, a clockwork Tin Man, a literally yellow-streaked Lion, and an escaped slave boy help Dorveday to find her way home to Zal. Together they battle zombicorns, killer butterflies, and an alchemist Wicked Witch while overturning society as Oz knew it. But will Dorveday return home in time to save her mother from Ministry threats—and can one girl shake up Zal the way she did in Oz?

VENTRELLA: What made you decide to write an Oz book?

GANS: I never set out to write this book. The book started out as a homework assignment. Jonathan Maberry asked us to take the Dorothy meets the Scarecrow scene from The Wizard of Oz and rewrite it in a different genre. I made Dorothy from a science-fiction world, so rural Oz would be completely alien to her. I had so much fun writing this scene, I decided to write the entire book!

VENTRELLA: What is the main difference in writing a middle grade book and an adult book?

GANS: In a middle grade book like THE WITCH OF ZAL, there are a few guidelines (all of which can have exceptions, of course). No sex. No falling in romantic love. No swear words. Make sure the vocabulary fits the age group. Most important, the kid has to be the hero, the one who solves the problem in the end.

While I do think you can tackle any topic you want in a middle grade book (even difficult topics like abuse and death), there is a certain sensitivity you need to bring with you. Perhaps certain scenes happen off-stage that in an adult book you would see. Perhaps the language you choose is not as harsh or as stark as you might use in an adult book. So while I would never tell a writer to avoid hard topics in middle grade, be aware that if you want to get it published you probably can’t handle the topic as baldly as you would with an adult book.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the publishing decisions made.  

GANS: I tried to get an agent for Zal, but no one showed interest. This was quite soon after the movie Oz The Great and Powerful had come out and didn’t meet expectations, so I think people were not interested in another Oz offering. Jonathan Maberry suggested I send it to a small press that was looking to start a middle grade fantasy line. Turns out that Charles Day, the publisher at Evil Jester Press, is crazy for Oz stuff and really believed in the book. So I got my first book contract with no agent—a scenario I had never envisioned. But it pays to keep your mind open and never get so tunnel-visioned on one way of publishing that you miss opportunities that come your way from unexpected sources.

Once I was on board at Evil Jester, I did book edits (several rounds) with the editor. We also needed a new title because my working title didn’t work for the market. My publisher is also an illustrator, so he did the cover art for the book. We went through multiple rounds of cover art until we settled on the one we have. Working with a small press, I had a lot more input throughout the entire process than I would have with a large traditional press.

VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to go that route? Any regrets? 

GANS: I wanted my first book to be with a press—I did not want to self-publish. I wanted to go through this entire publishing/marketing process with someone else, someone who would have my back and who could brainstorm ideas with me. In many ways, a small press is the best of both worlds, in that the author often has more control over the final product (such as cover art), while having a larger reach than they could get by themselves.

I wouldn’t say I have regrets—the people at Evil Jester are great and so supportive. I do have lessons I have learned, though. The biggest one is that while a small press gives you the best of both worlds, a small POD (print on demand) press is often trapped between the worlds of self-publishing and traditional publishing. I have found in trying to get the word out that I can’t capitalize on many self-publishing marketing strategies because I don’t have the ability to control pricing and other variables, yet because we are POD I am not eligible for many of the traditional marketing avenues, either. If your small publisher does a traditional print-run, most of those closed doors open.WitchOfZal Cover

I would never discourage someone from going the POD route—I feel it makes the most sense financially and environmentally—but be prepared to be a little more creative with your marketing. A huge self-publishing support network has grown up to serve that community, but there is not a similar system for POD small publishers. I think there is a need for it, and it may yet arise.

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

GANS: My writing process is constantly evolving. I’m not a huge plotter—I usually know the beginning and the end and a few scenes in between. I used to write everything straight onto the computer, but now I’m incorporating writing longhand again. I’ve found that when I write longhand, what I write has a vastly different feel and depth than what I write straight to the screen. I also find that I get “attached” to the words on the screen—I have trouble thinking outside what is already there. I don’t have that problem with handwritten pages—I can cross out, draw arrows, have notes in the margin. It frees something in my revision brain.

So my current process looks something like this: 1) a short sketch of what I know about plot and character, 2) perhaps a typed up “first draft” that acts as a fleshed-out outline and lets me get to know my characters, 3) using that as a guide, write the whole thing longhand, 4) type it in fresh from the longhand manuscript. I haven’t actually written a book from scratch since I re-incorporated my longhand writing, so I’m not certain this is the way it will work. But that’s my plan.

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

GANS: I write a really bad first draft, then go back and cut mercilessly. If the reader doesn’t need to know that info at that moment, then it can go. And since the first draft is complete, I can see where the information I’m cutting works better, where it actually belongs—or even if it’s not needed at all.

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?

GANS: I think it depends on the author. Writing short stories is a completely different skill set than writing a novel. Some authors are more naturally attuned to the short story skills, others to the novel skills. I will say that even if you are focused on being a novelist, gaining that short story skill set is vital. It helps sharpen your craft, and we are seeing that writing short stories using your characters and your world between novels is a great way to keep your audience rabid while they wait for your next book. Writing and publishing short stories as a stepping stone to getting a first novel published, however, is no sure-fire path to success. A few stories in high-quality publications is never a bad thing, but agents won’t take you on the basis of those stories alone—they need to know you can write the novel you’ve pitched. Bottom line, if you love to write short stories, write them, but if your heart is in the long form, follow it. There is no single “right” path to publishing success.

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

GANS: I have no problem with self-publishing—in fact, my genealogy book is self-published. There is absolutely a place for self-publishing and it fills the voracious appetites of the readers. There is some very good self-published literature. However, there is undoubtedly a large amount of poorly written self-published work out there, which tarnishes the self-publishing “brand” for everyone. Some people hypothesize that eventually a system will rise to help readers separate the professional-level work from the first-draft level work. Amazon’s warning labels for error-riddled books may be the first step. Ironically, we may see the rise of gatekeepers on the very platforms designed to help us escape the gatekeepers.

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

 GANS: In this day and age, there are a lot of publishing paths available. The first thing I would tell them to do is get it professionally edited—get themanuscript into top-tier condition. The second thing to do is decide what they really want from the publishing experience. Depending on their goals, they can then decide whether they want to pursue self-publishing, traditional publishing, or something in-between. But whatever road they take, make sure they put out a professional-level product.

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

GANS: I did get this advice when I was a novice writer, but I wish I had gotten it earlier because I would have gotten started on my career sooner.

Jonathan Maberry once told a group of us that if we were serious about wanting to be professional writers, we had to start calling ourselves writers—even if we had a day job where we did something else. For instance, we would answer, “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer and a video editor.” Once we start saying it aloud, once we own that part of ourselves, many things start to change.

Once I started following that advice, my writing career advanced. When you openly claim your writing, you look at it in a different way. It’s not a little hobby you feel you have to hide—it’s a part of you that you are proud to claim. You view yourself through a different lens, too, because you’re not denying a part of who you are anymore. You gain confidence in that. You meet others who also identify as writers. Most of all, by saying it out loud, you’re giving yourself permission to make writing a priority in your life.

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

GANS: I have 2 books in active revision and another on the revision back-burner. The book closest to being ready is The Curse of the Pharaoh’s Stone, which is a middle grade historical adventure. Set in 1922 Philadelphia, a 12-year-old boy tries to break the curse he believes he placed on his family. While trying to decipher the Egyptian artifact he thinks powers the curse, he places his family in very real danger from a man who would kill to possess the artifact the boy guards.

I’m deep into revisions of a Young Adult sci-fi novel, Veritas. In this book, a 16-year-old girl who has been told all her life she is worthless discovers that she controls the greatest power in the universe. But is that enough to stop a war and gain her father’s love?

My back-burner book has been out on submission to agents, but early feedback leads me to believe it’s not quite ready, so I’ll be looking at it again before I send it out anymore. The Oracle of Delphi, Kansas is a YA contemporary fantasy, where a 16-year-old daughter of Apollo is torn between her human side and her godly side. When her half-god boyfriend threatens the entire town with destruction, she must either stand with him as a god and sacrifice the people she loves or stand against him in defense of humans—and maybe lose her life.

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

GANS: As a person with anxiety disorder whose panic attacks are often triggered by eating with others, I would never hold a dinner party. But if I did, I would invite my ancestors—particularly the ones where I can’t find their parents. My brick walls and dead ends. They could not only tell me their lineage, but I would find it fascinating to hear about their lives—particularly the ones who immigrated to the U.S. Most times they didn’t leave any information as to why they left their home countries for America, or what they felt as they tried to assimilate to a new culture. I’d be taking a ton of notes!

 

 

How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?

Practice, man, practice!

No one picks up a guitar and becomes Eric Clapton. No one grabs a pencil and becomes Leonardo DaVinci. No one picks up a basketball and becomes Wilt Chamberlain. And no one sits at a keyboard and becomes Charles Dickens.

Practice, man, practice!

I’ve been writing all my life — short stories as a kid, plays as a teenager, articles for newspapers and magazines when I got older, histories for role-playing games, legal briefs, blog posts … writing, writing, writing.

And you know what?  Most of that early stuff really sucked.

But I didn’t know it. I thought I was writing masterpieces.

It’s very difficult to analyze your own work. Everyone thinks their children are smarter and prettier than everyone else’s children. I look back on things I wrote even ten years ago and see the problems.  And I look at what I am currently writing and know I’m still not where I want to be.

But fortunately for me, there were guardians protecting me along the way. Back in the 90s, I sent some short stories in to the science fiction magazines and they were all rejected. I am so glad they were now, because as I read them today, I see that they were not that good. They deserved to be rejected.

The sad thing is that with self-publishing, people think they no longer need those guardians. They can write something and get it published without having to deal with editors and those who would turn them down.

I’m not talking about the writer who has already published many times who decides to self-publish something. I’m not talking about the author who sets up his own publishing house, hiring editors and copywriters and proofreaders who provide the function of the guardians keeping bad writing away from the public.

I’m referring to the average person who wants to be a writer who thinks that self-publishing is an easy way to make it and who instead merely embarrasses himself or herself by putting out something that should never have been shared with the world.

Please. I seriously have seen it happen too often with friends and others who have asked for my advice and then ignored it. If you’re just starting out, trust those who do this for a living when they tell you your work isn’t ready yet. And most importantly: Don’t get discouraged when they do. Because your next one will be better.

Practice, man, practice.

Interview with Author and Editor Alex Shvartsman

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA:  Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer. He has sold over 60 short stories to a variety of magazines and anthologies. His fiction has appeared in such venues as the journal of Nature, Daily Science Fiction, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy’s Edge, and many others. Click here for the complete bibliography.alexbio

Alex edits UNIDENTIFIED FUNNY OBJECTS — an annual anthology series of humorous science fiction and fantasy short stories. You can get his latest novel here and read his short stories here. His web page is here!

Alex, what inspired you to create the “Unidentified Funny Objects” series?

ALEX SHVARTSMAN: There isn’t enough great humorous SF/F short fiction being published, and there is no other venue that specializes in doing such, outside of an occasional themed anthology. I knew I’d love such a series as a reader and felt there are enough fans of the lighter fare out there to make the project successful.

VENTRELLA: As anyone who has read my work knows, humor plays a part – not that I write comedy, but my characters have personalities and make wisecracks and funny things can happen even in a very serious book, just like in real life. What’s your opinion on humor in fiction?

SHVARTSMAN: I think almost any story can benefit from a bit of comic relief. There are very funny moments even in grimdark fare like Game of Thrones, and they belong well. But there is a difference between a story that’s humor and a lighthearted adventure story that uses humor as one of the many tools in the author’s toolkit. It’s difficult to define the line, and it’s something I’m always conscious of when I read submissions for UFO.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about UFO Publishing. How did that come to be?

SHVARTSMAN: I’m a tinkerer and a serial businessman at heart. It’s hard for me to ignore opportunities. I felt that I could put together a good product while doing things differently from many other publishers, and so I created an imprint for the UFO anthologies and an occasional other book.

VENTRELLA: Has it been a success?

SHVARTSMAN: I think so. I’m not rolling in dollar coins Scooge McDuck style (yet!) but I’ve been able to pay authors and other professionals involved in putting the books together competitive rates, and to release books I feel look as good as anything from a big New York publisher. I haven’t paid myself anything yet, which, I suppose, makes me a hobbyist — but I’ve made investments into the series and the sales are gradually increasing every year, so I may be turning a profit one of these days. Until then, I got a ton of experience out of it, got to work with and edit New York Times bestselling authors, and made lots of new friends in the field.

VENTRELLA: What are some of your upcoming projects?

SHVARTSMAN: This is a busy year for me. My short story collection, EXPLAINING CTHULHU TO GRANDMA AND OTHER STORIES was released in February, and my steampunk humor novella, H.G. WELLS, SECRET AGENT just came out. Up next is FUNNY SCIENCE FICTION — a reprint anthology similar to UFO that’s due out in September, and then UFO4 (featuring GRRM and Gaiman) out in November.

VENTRELLA: Editing an anthology can be a pretty frustrating job (as I well know) – what are some of the biggest mistakes you see when authors submit stories?

SHVARTSMAN: Often authors do not really understand what the editor is after. The best way to figure it out is to read the magazine/anthology series you’re submitting to — but not everyone has the time, or sometimes the budget, so I don’t get upset about it. Ultimately I would rather see the story if the author is not 100% sure whether it’s a good fit, then not see it.

VENTRELLA: What is your pet peeve about editing an anthology?

SHVARTSMAN: People blatantly disregarding the guidelines. While I want them to send stories in when it doubt, I don’t like seeing an 8000-word horror novelette when I ask for humor stories of up to 5000 words! I’m not even sure what goes on in the mind of such an author. What are they hoping to achieve? Suppose I end up reading this thing and even liking it a lot — but I don’t edit anything that could publish such a work anyhow.

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

SHVARTSMAN: I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy since I was about ten years old. I’ve always wanted to write it, too, but my family immigrated to the US when I was 13 years old, and I had to learn a new language. For a long time my English wasn’t good enough to write fiction, and by the time it (arguably) became good enough, I was too busy with other endeavors. I kept promising myself that I would get to writing someday, when I had free time. Eventually I figured out that I will never, ever have free time. I’m the kind of person who finds himself projects to take up the time (see UFO Publishing!) And so I just decided to start writing, back in 2010. Five years and over 80 short story sales later, I’m still 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?

SHVARTSMAN: Being a great writer requires a combination of two things: talent and craft. You can have all the talent in the world but you will only ever be a mediocre writer without craft, and vice versa. Craft is learned: you do the 10,000 hours thing, you keep writing and getting those rejection letters, and your skill improves.

Talent, on the other hand, is something you have to be born with. Either you have it, or you don’t. You have to have at least some, to succeed as a writer.

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist a believable character? And what’s the best way to make the antagonist a believable character?

SHVARTSMAN: This is really the same question: they have to be interesting, they have to want something, and they have to be at least a little inconsistent, like real people. They can’t be all-good or all-bad. That makes them predictable and boring, and real people don’t work that way. They have to have flaws, and weaknesses, and every character you write has to act and speak as though he/she is the hero of the story. Because in their own mind, they are.

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

SHVARTSMAN: The protagonist of my novel-in-progress is a queen and a warlord who skirts the line between anti-hero and villain, and is forced to make many difficult choices along the way. Writing her is a balancing act: I want to keep her sympathetic to the reader but not too sympathetic, because she often does bad things or makes bad choices. So I play the balancing act, to ensure the reader always wants to keep turning pages.

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?UFO2cover

SHVARTSMAN: They absolutely need to be larger-than-life. No one wants to read about Bob from accounting who comes home from work and watches Netflix for the rest of the evening, because that’s boring. The characters themselves need to be extraordinary, or they can be ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances. Either way can work well, depending on the story you want to tell.

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?

SHVARTSMAN: Every author’s stories are unique in some way, aren’t they? We all have our own voice. In my case, I tend to write short, compact stories with very tight plots and (hopefully) clever resolutions. And, of course, a healthy dash of humor.

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

SHVARTSMAN: I envision the world of the story, the conflict, and then the resolution. That last one is key: if I don’t have an ending I’m satisfied with, I don’t start writing the story.

Once those elements are in place, I mostly pants the rest. Each scene drives the story toward the intended resolution in some way, which keeps things nice and compact, while I get to explore the setting and my characters along the route of this journey.

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

SHVARTSMAN: A lot of my stories begin with a “what-if” idea. But it can really start with any prompt, or combination of prompts. Like most writers I know, I have a note file where I write down story ideas, one-liners, and other curiosities that I think I can use in my fiction.

Several of my stories, including my most famous one: “Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma,” grew out of conversations and goofing around on Twitter.

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

SHVARTSMAN: Not a damn thing. I write about galactic empires, magic, and alternate-history Victorians.

Seriously though, your life experience always influences your fiction. Coffee_Cover_v1r2Whether it’s personal experience or just being well-read. GRRM could not have written his epic fantasy series without studying up on the War of the Roses. Asmiov probably would not have invented his Three Laws of Robotics without his scientific background. And me? I immerse myself in pop culture and stay current on the latest cat memes!

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

SHVARTSMAN: Exposition gets a bum rep, especially among beginner workshop authors who don’t know any better. In truth, it’s an integral part of storytelling and one should use it when it’s the best tool for the job. The trick is to use it sparingly, just like every other tool you have. Write interesting enough exposition and you can keep the reader’s attention for pages, without them pausing to notice!

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

SHVARTSMAN: Clarity. A lot of the time what’s clear to the omniscient view inside of my head is not necessarily translating to the page. Likewise, there are a lot of extra words hiding in the first-second drafts that need to be cut. For example: “He nodded his head.” Well, what the hell else was he going to nod? “His head” gets cut in the third draft. (Pun intended.)

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?

SHVARTSMAN: I don’t think that’s a requirement. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. In my case, I’m confident that cutting my teeth on short stories will help me improve my odds of writing a sellable novel. But one shouldn’t force themselves to write short if that’s not their preferred form.

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

SHVARTSMAN: They’re not harder to write, but they’re harder to sell. I think it’s more difficult to place a short story with a top genre magazine than to sell a novel. Because a good short story writer pumps out dozens of them a year, and so the competition is fierce. While plenty of novels get written every year as well, few of them are publishable and most of those generally find homes.

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?

SHVARTSMAN: Absolutely. There are a ton of great writers out there to choose among. Meeting readers in person is a great way to convince them to sample your writing.

VENTRELLA: Many authors are using online sites to publish short stories these days.  Have you done this, and if so, has it worked for you?ufocover

SHVARTSMAN: I have my reprint stories (once the rights have reverted) available as e-books, as well as downloads on QuarterReads.com — it’s a few extra dollars a month, not a major source of income or readers, but it adds up, slowly, and there’s no good reason not to utilize every avenue available to obtaining new readers and getting paid for your work.

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

SHVARTSMAN: It’s an awesome tool but it works best for authors with a fair amount of traditional publishing success. Tim Pratt is an excellent example of someone who does both. I don’t think it’s a great way for a new novelist to start out. Editors and publishers act as gatekeepers: they ensure that only the highest quality work sees the light of day. Very often I see authors on the verge of becoming very good give up and self-publish books/stories that are only a little sub-par. Have they stuck with the submission process, it would force them to work harder and to improve faster. As is, and with the lack of the gatekeepers, they settle into the “good enough” attitude and produce weaker work.

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

SHVARTSMAN: Small press is important in that boutique publishers can often undertake niche projects that a big publishing house won’t take the chance on. I think there’s room for every size publisher in the healthy industry — the important thing is that, even the smallest publishers, learn to treat authors well and fairly.

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

SHVARTSMAN: Submit to agents. And while you wait, write the next book!

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

SHVARTSMAN: Someone in a critique once told me never to open a story with dialog. They told me this at length. And they meant it.

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

SHVARTSMAN: Keep writing. If possible, write every day. Don’t give up. So many people give up because they become discouraged with rejection or lack of sales. This is not for the thin-skinned: you take your lumps and you keep working. If you stick with it, and you have some of that talent we talked about above, you will eventually succeed.

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

SHVARTSMAN: Teddy Roosevelt, Benjamin Disraeli, and Mikhail Bulgakov. I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy myself, if I didn’t die of awesome first.

VENTRELLA:  Well, I agree about Roosevelt, who is the major character in my upcoming steampunk novel!

Interview with author and editor Cat Rambo

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Cat Rambo today. Cat lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 150+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection NEAR + FAR (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. ramboHer editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current Vice President of SFWA and its upcoming President. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, visit her web page here

So, Cat… What took you so long to write a novel? And why so many being released this year?

CAT RAMBO: It’s not so much that it took me so long to write a novel as it took me so long to get one published. ;)  This year I’m releasing two, the first and second books of the Tabat Quartet, and hoping to release the next two next year. Part of the speed’s due to a very nice thing about small publishers – they’ve got much faster schedules, generally, than the traditional one. I do have a slew of books coming out this year, but that’s because there’s a couple of short story collections and a cookbook out in the mix.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Tabat series.

RAMBO: Tabat is a fantasy city that I’ve been working in for years now with short stories. It’s a city that depends heavily on intelligent magical creatures for its existence, and BEASTS OF TABAT takes place at a time in which many of those creatures are questioning that system. 91KRunE5CwLOne of the advantages of having worked in it so much with short stories is that I know the world very well; another that’s emerged is that many of those stories have turned out to be foreshadowing of things that would take place in or affect the novel.

VENTRELLA: As an editor, how do you determine what you want? Could you tell within the first page whether it was something you wanted to read?

RAMBO: You can tell a lot from the first three paragraphs; mainly whether or not the author is capable of telling a good story. For me, I’d go through a batch of slush, maybe 40-50 stories, and perhaps pull out 5-6 that made me go hmm, maybe. Then I’d go back in a day or two and winnow out any story I couldn’t remember reading — maybe half. Even then you usually have to keep culling, and often that’s the point where you start thinking about things like the stories that will run with it (because you want a balance, or at least a feeling of coherence in an issue or anthology) or what else is in the pipeline.

VENTRELLA: What do you think SFWA should do about its admissions given the great changes in the publishing industry? Do you agree with what has been done so far?

RAMBO: I think SFWA should continue to observe the changes and try to react in ways that help it continue to serve professional writers. I absolutely agree with the recent changes in admitting independently and small press published writers – getting that in place was one of the reasons I ran for SFWA office.

At the same time we’re not abandoning the traditionally published writers, by any means. As part of the change, we also nudged up the necessary advance amount from $2k to $3k, in order to pressure publishers to give larger advances.

VENTRELLA: You’ve written books about how authors can use social media to promote themselves. What do you think is the biggest mistake made?

RAMBO: I think being negative or mean in social media is one of the biggest mistakes. You can be clever/cruel, sure, and build a following, but I keep seeing that strategy eventually biting people in the ass.41ydtaxrkLL._UY250_ I was reading someone’s post the other day, who was lamenting that a particular workshop never had invited them to teach, and I am pretty sure I know the reason why, which was a lot of very funny but rather cruel things said about not just their students but that workshop.

VENTRELLA: I’ve been advised many times to avoid talking about politics in social media, but I refuse to shut up. Should I worry? Do you think this will limit me in making connections and book sales?

RAMBO: If you’re writing good books, that’s the most important thing. But beyond that it really depends on how you’re doing it. I’ve got Facebook friends that feel obliged to come correct me whenever they think I’m wrong politically, and there’s a big difference for me between the ones who will say, hey, I think that argument is skewed and here’s the data/reason why I think that, and the ones who come screaming in strafing about dirty dirty (noun of your choice) oppressing them.

So – if you’re being reasonable about it and interested in discussion rather than scoring points – I think anyone who would refuse to make a connection because of your politics might not be worth making connections with.

VENTRELLA: There’s so much I could ask you about the whole sick puppies controversy. How do you think the Hugos should deal with them?

RAMBO: The WSF and the valiant volunteers who run Worldcon each year have my deepest sympathy and good wishes. But rarely have I been so glad to not have SFWA involved in a particular controversy – and I don’t think we should be, because we have members on several different sides – and I firmly believe there are a kerjillion “sides”, not an Us vs. Them in the way it keeps getting parsed.  I wish I had a solution that would leave everyone feeling happy and as though their various concerns had been heard – but I’m not sure that solutions exists.

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?

RAMBO: Certainly there are some people that pick it up faster than others. I suspect that the amount of reading one does has a certain affect on that. But I’ve also seen people move from not particularly competent writers to ones whose writing I’ll seek out. The fact is, though, that if someone’s working at it – writing, and thinking about writing and how to make it better – they will, barring something physiologically wrong with them.

We learn storytelling in the same way we learn our native language, by listening and retelling, first fairy tales and legends and other children’s stories. cat bookWe know the grammar and the expectations: that something happens, that there is a beginning, middle and end, and so forth. It’s one of the things that makes interacting with kids so much fun – witnessing them learn how storytelling works. I’m on vacation right now with my godkids, aged 5 and 7, and we’ve been playing a lot of storytelling games.

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

RAMBO: I need a good starting point, usually. With short stories, most of the time I’ve spent a good period thinking about the story and how it will progress before I start writing it down, and have a good idea of the shape.

For example, I recently was working on a story I’ve tentatively titled, “The Owlkit, the Candymaker, the Beekeeper, and the Brewer.” I knew it was the story of a lost animal looking for a home in a specific setting that I’ve written in a couple of times before, and I knew it would interact with each of the people mentioned in the title. When I knew a little bit about their circumstances and how they related to each other, I was able to sit down and write a first draft. I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending, so I put the story aside for a few days and then went back when I’d figured out how I wanted to refine the ending.

Books are entirely different, and every one so far has been its own particular flavor of chaos.

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

RAMBO: Here’s the thing. Stories are, at their hearts, about being human. About what human beings do. And that’s where “write what you know” comes in. You may not know what it’s like to be a mermaid pining away for a mortal love, but all of us know what it’s like to suffer unrequited love. That’s the heart of the story, and it’s where you do have to dig deep into your own experience and put it on the page.

It’s helpful to know wonderful, realistic details that help you create an engaging, immersive world. seedTo be able to use them as part of the story. But without some human heart to it, all those details won’t do much.

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?

RAMBO: That depends so much on the person and their circumstances. If writing short stories is hard for them, for example, then a novel might be the most logical place. For another, for whom it comes more naturally, writing short stories might be a better way to get their name known to the point where an agent will be interested – but that’s not going to help without a good book to sell.

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

RAMBO: One of the things I’ve been doing lately is calling it independent publishing, rather than self publishing, because to me that’s one of the niftiest things about the current publishing scene: writers are not required to go through the set of traditional gateways they’ve had to in the past. Now there’s a lot of different publishing models, including crowd-funding, subscriptions, small press, etc.

Writers differ wildly. For those who don’t want to handle marketing or any of the business aspects, the traditional options are still there. But that model doesn’t make as much sense for the very prolific or the ones who are also skilled in self-marketing. That’s really pretty nifty.HH-Near-Cover1-200x300

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

RAMBO: Someone once told me that editors don’t like stories with cats in them. This also qualifies as the most bizarre piece of writing advice I ever got.

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

RAMBO: I’m working on the sequel to BEASTS OF TABAT right now — HEARTS OF TABAT — which will be followed by the other two books of the quartet, EXILES OF TABAT and GODS OF TABAT. I’ve also got a new story collection coming out this fall, NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, which is another double-sided collection like an earlier one, NEAR + FAR. I’ve also got a young adult novel that I’m picking away at and want to have a complete draft of by the end of the summer.

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!

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