Interview with author Steve Miller

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am honored to be interviewing Steve Miller today. Steve and I have been on panels together at conventions, and I interviewed his collaborator (and wife) Sharon Lee recently. They started the first Liaden novel in 1984 and have published sixteen novels and several dozen short works together in that series alone, garnering a number of awards as well as invitations as Guests of Honor and Special Guests coast to coast in the US and Canada at many conventions. Their work has enjoyed a number of award nominations, with SCOUT’S PROGRESS being selected for the Prism Award for Best Futuristic Romance of 2001 and LOCAL CUSTOM finishing second for the same award. BALANCE OF TRADE, appeared in hardcover in February 2004 and hit Amazon.com genre bestseller lists before going on to win the Hal Clement Award as Best YA Science fiction for the year. SALTATION is a current nominee for Best SF of the Year on the Goodreads Choice Awards.

Steve, how do you and Sharon work together? What’s the process like?

STEVE MILLER: A madhouse, according to some solo authors.

We often role-play at dinner or after going over the day’s work; sometimes we’ll start driving, get in a discussion of a character or plot point and end up in Canada. The role-playing may involve standing and showing body language, or the raising of voice in character, or the rapid alternation of characters, more or less in voice — I guess, yes, our own madhouse. Sometimes one or another of us will pause at the grocery store, say “storystuff!” and we’ll discuss things right in front of the oatmeal or carrots — story takes precedence.

More prosaically, one of us generally does the typing/sketching of the first draft — Sharon will sometimes retire to the couch and write longhand notes, and I usually work on the netbook or big computer directly, my hand written notes being unreadable the next day. We sometimes switch off in the middle if timing is an issue — neither of us is automatically doing the first run. Generally, the person doing the base work is the “traffic cop” on the book, and is responsible for backing up the book, having the two foot pile of paper in their office, and etc. Since we usually agree on points as the book is written there’s not that much disagreement on things — but the traffic cop gets third vote on a book if there is an impasse about something, thus making calling in the Marines to solve something for us much less likely.

VENTRELLA: What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work?

MILLER: Oddly enough, or perhaps predictably enough, partnership is one, as is the unreliability of formal education and educational institutions. I note that Sharon and I have both worked in university settings ….

We also tend to stress the need for individuals to have a trusted pool of competent (if not savory) people who they can depend on for advice, at least. I think I also deal with change-as-necessity. We also subscribe to the Andre Norton “there have been prior civilizations” school of thought and all that may be carried forth from there.

VENTRELLA: What makes your work different from others in the genre, in your opinion?

MILLER: I think that I’m a bridge between many of the older ideas and approaches of science fiction and the new, from the old market to the now market. I’ve had breakfast, lunch, dinner, and sometimes a morning or late night glass with writers and editors ranging from John Brunner, Damon Knight, Ted White, and Hal Clement to Roger Zelazny, Jack Chalker, Vonda McIntyre, and Toni Weiskopf; I’ve been to Clarion and I was published in Amazing before the lamented-by-me attempt to turn it into a mediamag. Having talked shop and traded manuscripts with this kind of an array brought me to face to face with idea writers and storytellers. Also, I’ve extrensivly read — not studied, but read and absorbed as a young reader and then a young writer — many of the founders of SF and Fantasy as we know it, both in short fiction and longer fiction. And not just the celebrated classic authors, but the pot-boiling writers to whom story and flow was ghod. Not too long ago I was surprised to see someone recognizably a “name” writer of the 1990s and 2000s assuming to have invented a certain genre … which actually was invented in the 1930s by a famous writer apparently unknown to the “modern” writer. What this means is that I have, and draw on, a breadth of “SF genre” that many newer writers lack — and that some disdain, to their detriment. In other words my meme farm is huge, and I’m not afraid to use it!

VENTRELLA: Everyone who is published was an “aspiring writer” once. What mistakes did you make along the way?

MILLER: How much time do you have? No, seriously, I made a lot in a very short time — especially between the ages of 20 and 24, when I’d been assured by some very good writers that I could probably make it it as a pro someday, based on what they’d seen of my work. They were the fiction writers, of course, because by that age I was already writing for newspapers, magazines, semi-pro zines, anywhere I could — particularly if there was pay involved.

What I didn’t comprehend was that a suggestion by a well-known fiction pro that maybe I should “clean this up and send it on to XXXX magazine” didn’t mean “Tell him I sent you” … and also that once I did get a nibble that I shouldn’t expect instant results, that is, that as a no-name-newbie my work was something that might fill out an issue when it would fit — of course there were more print magazine then and many of the editors had come along as I was coming along, and thought that was how it would work forever — get a foot in, become first a byline, then a signature, then a name, then an invite to write a novel.

Clearly, the biggest mistake I made was lack of patience and in the long run trying to rush things probably cost me a year or two of pro work.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest misconception people have about being a writer?

MILLER: There are several that go together, I think — One is that being a writer is inherently glamorous and the add-on is that being a writer elevates one to a superior state of being, with all the joys thereof.

VENTRELLA: How did you first interest an agent in your work?

MILLER: Accidentally. I was working as “third key” at Williams-Sonoma in Owings Mills, Maryland — meaning I was official management and got to deal with provblems and situations the manager didn’t want to deal with, like book signings and in store demos. Thus, when we had a double whammy of that, it was me in the front line — we had a cookbook author come to the store for a demo! The day before she came we’d gotten an offer on Agent of Change from Own Locke at Del Rey. It turned out that the cookbook author also wrote fiction… and when I mentioned that we had an offer in hand she recommended us to her agent, who looked over (and improved) the contract and got us through the three Del Rey books. Once we had a record getting the next agent was a little easier, but she was uncomfortable dealing with the SF side of things, and eventually we moved on after personal meetings with several agents at conventions and we’re pleased to link up with Jennifer Jackson.

VENTRELLA: What process do you use when creating believable characters?

MILLER: I’m hoping to write a book about this, but not here. Generally there’s no concious prefabrication involved in my new characters — the story starts, the character stands out from stage left or right, and Ta Da! I rarely base a character on someone I’ve met, but it may be on someone I know — that is, based on a character I’ve met in the thousands of books and stories I’ve read. The key to believabilty is not in the original creation, but on how the character acts in the story. A multi-hundred foot tree as a character? No problem. A sentient dragon looking for love? No problem… as long as they act right by who they are and don’t just act like dolls moved form here to there in a dollhouse.

VENTRELLA: What is your background in writing? What led you to wanting to be a writer?

MILLER: I pretty much have wanted to be a writer since I started reading books, and it probably helped that my grandmother was an award-winning poet so the concept of writing for publication had a priority over writing for school from the time I was quite young.

In high school I worked on the school literary magazine several years before becoming editor as a senior and in college I joined the school newspaper in my freshman year as a reporter, and soon took over some editorial duties. I started reviewing for the school paper as well as a number of fanzine and semi-pro genre mags shortly thereafter, and eventually was Managing Editor. I also contributed to poetry publications — which led to my weekly poetry column in a local newspaper by the time I was 23, IIRC. I was the sceince fiction book reviewer for the Baltimore Sun in my mid-20s when I was also a music columnist for the Baltimore area Star newspapers — and that led to me eventually being a features editor and then to taking over as Editor of several weekly papers. The whole time, from about 17, I was also writing fiction, which began appearing in semi-pro magazines and then in Amazing and some other pro places. I did spend some summers working construction, which helped convince me that writing was the way to go when it came to making a living.

VENTRELLA: The publishing industry is changing daily. What trends do you predict and how will this affect the business and your own publishing?

MILLER: Shoot for the moon: I think IPads in he current size will become obsolete in a couple years and theat reading will increase as people have access to phone readers and more reasonably sized and priced tablets. Paper publishing will continue to be a zoo, the current returns system in the US will crumble with in next 5 years as physically moving books becomes too expensive — this will cut down print runs drastically which will cut a lot of small bookstores out of the loop. We’ll keep on writing.

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

MILLER: I’m told that between a new yet-to-be-seen novel and new Baen editions of previous novels we have at least six books due out in 2011, so it shouldn’t be hard for a a new reader to find us. Those are all books that are written, however.

In the short term, the new stuff? I’m working on finalizing SKYBLAZE, a novella due out as a chapbook from my own SRM Publisher in February. For those familiar with the Liaden Universe(R) this will span the end of the attack from I DARE and the early SUREBLEAK period and is our holiday chapbook (delayed a bit because of my recent hospitalization and the moving of SRM’s principal office).

Beyond that, we have contracts for three more Liaden novels to be delivered over the next 18 months or so. The first is DRAGON SHIP, which is the follow-on to GHOST SHIP; I have notes on that and once SKYBLAZE is done I’ll do a week of rereading of the series and then start right in — it follows Theo from FLEDGLING, SALTATION, and GHOST SHIP as she deals with the results of her pursuit of a, let us say, nonconforming path to independent starship pilot. Also in the works is an unnamed novel set on a post-Korval-arrival Surebleak and the long-awaited JETHRI follow-on, TRADE SECRET, which, depending on where you started reading the series, is a distant prequel to the Agent sequence or a distant follow-on to the Crystal books.

We’ve also committed to several more short stories for 2011 but I can’t say more than that quite yet.

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Dinner with Steve and his wife Sharon Lee (and my wife Heidi Hooper) when they visited us

Interview with Sharon Lee

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am honored to be interviewing Sharon Lee today. Sharon Lee is, with Steve Miller, the co-author of seventeen novels, most of them set in the Liaden Universe (R). She’s been executive director, vice president and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Creating believable and unique characters, free from cliche, is often a difficult chore. What process do you use to develop personalities for your characters?

SHARON LEE: Creating believable and unique characters is hard to do only if you concentrate on the notion that you-the-god-author are creating characters. The story isn’t about you, after all; it’s about them. If you approach a character as if you were meeting someone for the first time; ask them gentle, probing questions, display an interest in them, find out what they want — no, what they really want — it becomes surprisingly easy to write about them in a believable way, because you’re writing about people you know, not about ciphers you’ve invented.

I look at some of the “systems” for creating characters that are offered to writers, and I wonder if I’m the only person who had an imaginary friend when I was a kid.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a preference between writing science fiction or fantasy? Is one easier than the other?

LEE: There’s a false either-or here. In terms of the work required of the author, science fiction and fantasy are exactly the same. The work is: build a believable world, populated by characters people care about, who have [a] compelling problem(s).

I think, rather than fantasy or science fiction being easier or harder to write, that some stories are less and more challenging to tell. AGENT OF CHANGE, for instance, was fun and easy to write — we had the whole thing up and out the door in three months. Of course, it was our first novel; we didn’t know it was supposed to be hard. CARPE DIEM, our third novel, was difficult to write — looking back, that would have been because it was the first book where we actually had to buckle down and do continuity — which is, of course, key to writing a long series in the same universe and dealing with at least some of the same characters. Not that we knew that, then, either. We were learning by doing.

More recently the Fey Duology — DUAINFEY and LONGEYE — were difficult to write, not because they were fantasy, but because we were building the world around us at the same time we were becoming acquainted with the characters. And a book that I thought would be very difficult to write — MOUSE AND DRAGON — practically wrote itself.

VENTRELLA: How does your collaboration with Steve Miller work?

LEE: After seventeen novels and mumble-mumble short stories, I’d say it works pretty well, thanks.

Let’s see… We talk out the story-in-progress between us and role-play key scenes — kind out acting out the first draft. Usually, but not always, I do the first written draft — because I type faster, not because Steve is too Grand to undertake the work.

Some books are more one than the other of us. Because of that, and because there are two of us, each book that we write together has a traffic cop. The traffic cop is usually the one who brought the project to the table, and holds a third vote, in case of a tie. Instances of ties have been pretty low — I think we’ve each used our third vote once.

Because we do write character-driven fiction and because the story is about them, not about us, we tend to resolve most points of disagreement by studying on what the character would do and/or want. That exercise unties most knots — and it’s notable that, in the two instances where the tie-breaker was invoked, the point of disagreement was a plot issue.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever had something published and then regret it, wanting to make changes?

LEE: Certainly, there are books that I wanted more time with; that’s one of the trade-offs you make, when you’re writing to a contracted deadline, as opposed to writing on spec. Nobody cares if you take ten years to write a book on spec[ulation]– it’s your baby and you don’t have to let it go until it’s perfect. Or ever.

A book under contract, though — that comes with encumbrances: a deadline; a target word count; a place in the publisher’s schedule; a cover artist . . . A writer with a book under contract simply writes the best book she’s capable of writing at that point in her career, and within the constraints set out in the contract. Then, she does it again, with the next book.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about what you’re working on now. (Is that GHOST SHIP?) Give us a hint! We want a scoop here!

LEE: Not much of a scoop, I’m afraid, since I’ve been talking about it on my LJ, but — yes! GHOST SHIP; the long-awaited “book after I DARE” and, coincidentally, the “book immediately after SALTATION,” is our current writing project; it’s due at Baen in August. I don’t have a firm publication date, but surely not before spring or summer of 2011.

VENTRELLA: Even established authors need to promote themselves these days. What do you do in that regard?

LEE: We do interviews 🙂 We do book signings. We send out the Liaden Universe (R) InfoDump (an electronic newsletter), which has over a thousand subscribers. Hard-core fans can join the Friends of Liad, a social and discussion list has been running for, oh, a dozen years or more, I guess, most recently under the able management of Scott Raun.

Conventions. . .We go to science fiction conventions, yes, to promote our work, but also because . . . we like to go to conventions.

In terms of social networking, both Steve and I have Live Journal and Facebook accounts. I prefer LJ to Facebook, mostly because I’m an introvert and Facebook is just too “noisy.” Twitter doesn’t hold much appeal for me, as you might imagine.

However a writer decides to promote their work, the key is that they should enjoy it. If you (universal you) go to conventions, or do book signings — or tweet — and you hate it, you won’t be happy, and the people who have come to see/tweet/hear you will notice that you’re not happy, and will assume, y’know, because most people are nice, that it’s them. Plainly, you don’t want people to think that they’re making you unhappy; so you want to interact with them in an environment where everyone’s comfortable.

VENTRELLA: You had to trademark your Liaden Universe(R) to prevent its misuse. How did that come about (if you are free to discuss it)?

LEE: I can say that we had an internet stalker who was bent on mischief, and the best protection for our work was to trademark it. We made the decision because the laws governing trademark are in general more thoroughly understood, should the mischief have gone to court, than copyright.

I certainly don’t advise all authors to go to trademark; it’s a non-trivial expense and one’s trademark needs to be “protected” in ways that copyright doesn’t demand. And in most cases — absent an active mischief-maker — copyright is perfectly adequate protection.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the publishing industry is much different now than when you began? If so, how?

LEE: A lot of things are different about the business, but I’m not sure that the publishing industry has changed that much. Well, let me take that back. There are fewer publishers, with fewer imprints; fewer print magazines; the distribution system has imploded a couple of times; and the megastores want to dictate what gets published in order to maximize their profits.

OK, I guess the publishing industry has changed. Another change is the rise of smaller presses, to fill the void left by the consolidations of the bigger houses. And the willingness of practically everybody except the big houses to experiment with this internet thing for fun and potential profit.

VENTRELLA: What’s the biggest mistake you see new writers make? And what is the biggest piece of advice you would give to an unpublished author?

LEE: The biggest mistake. . .lack of research. Now, granted, the internet is full of disinformation, but it’s also full of good information. A new writer who is serious about becoming professionally published needs to find reputable sources that will teach her how to achieve her goal.

It may not be easy for a brand-new writer to figure out at first which sites are disreputable, or offering false information. Reputable sites include: The Association of Authors’ Representatives, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, specifically the author information page and Writer Beware.

The biggest piece of advice I would give an unpublished author . . . Have patience. And no, that is not easy for me to say.

VENTRELLA: Who are your favorite authors?

LEE: I think Laura Anne Gilman is perfectly charming; and I’m quite fond of Jim Morrow. Elizabeth Moon is lovely, and . . .

Oh . . . wait . . .

One of the downsides of pursuing a career as a writer is that writing cuts into your reading time. I used to have a three-book-a-week habit. I still have the habit, but I don’t have the time to indulge it.

Writers who influenced me, back when I was reading everything I could get my hands one, like a one-woman locust swarm? CJ Cherryh, Isaac Asimov, Anne McCaffrey, Poul Anderson, Georgette Heyer, Ian Fleming, Dorothy Sayers, Daphne DuMaurier, Frank Yerby, Mary Stewart, Rex Stout, Paul Gallico, Elswyth Thane, Charles Dickens, Carl Sandburg, Agatha Christie, Samuel Shellabarger, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Thorne Smith, James Thurber.

To name a few.

Nowadays, I read new books when I can, but I’m too scattershot to have a favorite author to read. In the last year, the novels I’ve read that have really stuck with me as good reads were FLESH AND FIRE by Laura Anne Gilman, SHAMBLING TOWARD HIROSHIMA by James Morrow, THIRTEENTH CHILD by Patricia C. Wrede.

VENTRELLA: Why do so many authors have cats?

LEE: Because cats keep you humble.

VENTRELLA: And finally, of all your work, what are you most proud? For what would you like to be remembered?

LEE: LOL! I’m not done yet.

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Dinner with Steve, Sharon, and my wife Heidi

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