Interview with author Randee Dawn

Randee Dawn is a good friend who co-edited the anthology ACROSS THE UNIVERSE with me, and her first novel has just been released! I’m pleased to be interviewing her today.

Randee is the one on the left!

Randee is a Brooklyn-based entertainment journalist who scribbles about the glam world of entertainment by day, then spends her nights crafting wild worlds of fiction. She writes about the wacky world of show business for Variety, The Los Angeles Times, Emmy Magazine and Today.com and is the co-author of The Law & Order: Unofficial Companion. Find out more at RandeeDawn.com.

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about your new novel TUNE IN TOMORROW. Where did the idea come from?

RANDEE DAWN: Short answer: Everywhere. Longer version: I pulled from a variety of life experiences – working at a cable access news program in college where the folks on camera were the pros, and everyone behind the camera was a college student (I was directing news programs when I was a sophomore); from working at a soap opera magazine for five years and seeing how the sausage got made on regular set visits; and years of covering the entertainment industry.

Then, I was commissioned to write a Tune in Tomorrow interactive text-based adventure for Choice of Games, and failed when it came to the coding aspect, and stepped aside. Fortunately, Tune was still my property and I went from an outline for a game to – a novel! Many changes were made in the process, needless to say.

VENTRELLA: How did you find a publisher? Did you get an agent? Connections?

DAWN: I’ve had an agent since 2015; Bridget Smith saw potential in a finished novel I’d written that was more serious, but still focused on the entertainment industry (rock ‘n rollers in that case). It didn’t get picked up, nor did the second novel she shopped for me, but third was the charm. Yes, connections for sure on the agent front – Bridget was recommended to me by the great Ellen Kushner (author of SWORDSPOINT, among other novels), and my words clicked with her! Do not underestimate the power of networking (though Ellen is a friend as well). The publisher was discovered by Bridget!

VENTRELLA: Who are some of your favorite authors and why?

DAWN: I love authors who tell good story, with characters I want to follow. The prose can be lovely, but underneath it all has to be story, not just vague angst and gazing out a window wondering about the woes of this life. The ones who I’ve enjoyed again and again include Jonathan Carroll, Stephen King, John Wyndam, Robert Cormier, Sarah Pinsker, Shirley Jackson and, more recently, Meg Elison. They tell cracking good tales first and foremost, with ideas and resolutions that stick to my heart.

VENTRELLA: Do you think fiction writers should stay away from political messages in their stories?

DAWN: The personal is political, is it not? If the story warrants it, then anything is valid. I don’t know how literal a writer needs to be in all instances, but the way you perceive the world filters into your characters and how they see the world, and the Mobius strip goes round and round. You don’t have to agree with my political stances to enjoy TUNE IN TOMORROW, but enjoying the book might give you a broader picture on the world.

VENTRELLA: You started off as a journalist. What made you decide to write fiction?

DAWN: I became a journalist because I wanted to write fiction. I had this sense that writing fiction was not going to pay my bills, but I could maybe possibly get paid for writing other kinds of words. On the one hand, that’s great: I’ve been able to make my career out of writing. On the other hand, writing non-fiction all the time gives me less time for what I really want to be doing – telling stories. That may be changing, but for now it’s always been a push-pull. I’m not sure how it would have been different if I’d pursued a different career; writing articles all these years has improved my writing, and made me better understand the editorial process – which has made me better able to get published.

VENTRELLA: You’ve been able to interview many famous people in your work – who was the most fun to meet? Who surprised you the most? Any interesting stories you wish to share?

DAWN: The most fun people, in my mind, are the creators. I’ve met a bunch of A-list and other alphabet-list stars, and some are delightful and some are pretty empty and many are clearly playing a role (The Actor Being Interviewed), so it varies wildly. Mostly I love talking about the people who are making things – directors, writers, even producers, and when I covered the music industry, the musicians.

Two quick stories: I interviewed Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal together in a restaurant that was mostly empty; we sat around a booth. (Note: Hugh Jackman, who I’ve now interviewed twice, is absolutely lovely. Jake Gyllenhaal is a little more reticent, but certainly nice enough.)

Anyway, this would have been in 2013, when both were in future Dune-director Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners.” Anyway, a couple of older ladies came in at some point and sat in the booth behind us. At some point, they came over to the table and began speaking exclusively to Hugh, fangirling away. I leaned over and made sure to introduce Jake Gyllenhaal to them, who they’d completely ignored!

Second story: During the “Good Omens” publicity run a couple of years ago, I got to interview Neil Gaiman. He was set up in a hotel room and publicists walked journalists in and out, one after the other. Now, if you’ve never interviewed anyone, you may not realize that having a third party in the room is disruptive, even if they say nothing. But some publicists feel they need to hand-hold their clients. The publicist for the show settled into a corner of the room as we started to chat, and I politely asked if she
would wait outside. I mean, I’ve done this for a lot of years. As has Neil. Neither of us needed to be chaperoned. She got extremely huffy and all but said, “Well, I never!” – but she left. I said to Neil, “Hope that wasn’t too awkward.”

“No, it was amazing,” he said. And this is why we love Neil Gaiman, Reason 8927B.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever surprised yourself when writing?

DAWN: All the time. When I’m deep in a story, it’s being told through me, not because of me, and the subconscious is all lit up with ideas, like a quantum computer figuring out every possibility and feeding me the best one. It’s in those times that I know exactly why I do this – and they make up for all the times you look at the page and think, I have no idea what to do next.

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?

DAWN: There are things about being a person that make you a good writer: Curiosity about the world. Nosiness. Ability to observe and process small details and big ones alike. Willingness to upset the paradigm. An imagination that fires up even when you aren’t asking it to. Those things have nothing to do with the technical aspect of putting words on paper. I think the words-on-paper aspect can be learned. Some of the other stuff can be trained for, or at least practiced. But those who can’t harness their imagination, and who don’t know how to kick it into gear and let it go like a wild horse, are just going to be putting words down, not really telling story.

VENTRELLA: As a co-editor of an anthology, what did you learn about it that you were not expecting?

DAWN: That sometimes very, very good stories don’t make it for practical reasons. That it is not personal if you get rejected (well, probably not personal; I don’t know what relationship you have with your editors). That there are editors who are genuinely disappointed not to be able to include your story, sometimes.

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

DAWN: Don’t do it unless you are willing to do it in silence, without feedback, without being lauded or recognized in any way. Of course you will try to get all those things eventually, but not having them should not kill your desire to write. If the only person who ever reads your work is you, you still will do it. Then, you can begin to write.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve heard people give?

DAWN: “Let me tell you how to fix this.” Back to Gaiman – my favorite piece of advice he gave once is this: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Take suggestions, but take them with grains of salt.

VENTRELLA: What writing projects are you working on now?

DAWN: I have a draft of a novel about all-female superheroes that I’d love to get to my agent, but word has it that those are very hard to sell. I also have several chapters of the semi-sequel to Tune in Tomorrow that I’d also like to tackle, but may hold until I see how the book does. And I have a short horror story that’s about ¾ of the way done … I’d like to wrap that one up first. But having just gotten back from the five-day WorldCon in Chicago, I need a nap first!

Making it up as you go along

Lots of my author friends are posting this meme, thinking it’s a silly criticism.

But it isn’t.

I’ve read books that felt like the author had no point. Scenes were unneeded, plotlines rambled, and it was like a kid playing with toys making it up as they went along with no idea how it would end.

It’s a valid criticism.

The “just making it up” applies to all fiction. It’s the “as they went along” part that is a valid critique.

It’s possible to write a good book as you go along but it should never read like you did that.

I outline my books very sparingly, setting things up so that the plot follows logically and everything fits like it should. But when I start writing, sometimes I find the plot veering off in different directions and if it feels like that’s what it should do, I go along. But I always end up at my destination and hit the points inbetween.

But really, how the book gets completed isn’t important. You can write it out of order; you can have an outline; you can make it up as you go along. All that matters is the final version.

But if the final version feels like the story is going nowhere and is just rambling, then you’ve failed. If it ends without a satisfying conclusion because it wasn’t going anywhere, if the characters are the same at the end as they were at the beginning without having changed based on what happened, if no problem was solved or plotline resolved … then yeah, it’s going to be an unsatisfying book.

With good editing, you can make it work. The process isn’t important. The story is. If the story makes the reader go “Yeah? So? It just rambled all over the place,” it’s a failure even if you had outlined it that way!

Editors want to discover you

As someone who has edited a number of anthologies — some with some very big famous names — allow me to drop a bit of encouragement your way.

All editors want to discover you.

Don’t worry if you’ve never been published before. Don’t be intimidated by all the Big Names who are already in the anthology. Don’t think you have no chance.

One of the great things about the publishing industry is that often, all that really matters is the quality of your story.

I’ve spoken to many other editors and have been on panels with them at conventions and writing seminars, and we all agree: We all want to brag that we discovered a great new writer. In fact, it’s something we can even use in the book’s promotion. It’s a plus. It’s a bonus. WE LIKE IT.

Many of the anthologies I’ve edited recently were done through kickstarter campaigns, where we get some Big Name Authors to commit to submitting a story, thus guaranteeing we can raise enough money to get the book printed. We then open it up for submissions to fill the rest of the book.

Some new authors think “My God, he’s got David Gerrold and Spider Robinson and Jonathan Maberry! I can’t compete with those best sellers!” — and then they’re too intimidated to submit their story to the anthology.

But the fact is that your story may be great. It may be exactly what the editor wants.

The editor already knows the book will be published. The editor doesn’t need more Big Names and is now looking to make the book as entertaining as possible. And if your story is good enough, the editor won’t care that you have never been published before. In fact, the editor may be thrilled that you have never been published before.

Trust me — some of my favorite stories in the anthologies I’ve edited are not from the Big Names but from the new author who either has never been published before or has only published a few times before.

All that matters is the quality of your story.

So aim high.

(However, a caveat: Don’t forget all the other basic advice when submitting a story. Don’t screw up your chance by ignoring the guidelines, having lots of grammatical and spelling errors, or pissing off the editor in other ways.)

When the prose gets in the way of your story

I often find myself yelling at the screen during certain movies and shows. “Just hold the damn camera still, you moron!” Hand-held cameras that jiggle all over the place make me wonder how a director can afford top-notch stars and special effects but not, apparently, a tripod.

On the other hand, I also sometimes find myself going “Wow, that Kubrick camera movement is wonderful. It’s just so beautiful to see.”

And in some ways, both extremes are bad, because instead of paying attention to the story, I’m seeing the process behind the scenes.

The same is true of fiction. “What’s the big deal if there are a few misspellings or grammatical errors?” someone recently asked me. “Isn’t the story more important?”

Well, sure. But if I am thrown out of the story because of the bad spelling or grammar? That’s the last thing any author wants. I want my readers to be lost in the story to the point where you’re not even consciously thinking “Hey, I’m reading a book right now.”

And just like the movies, it can work against you to go too far in the opposite direction. If you’re trying to show off how clever you are by using words that make people run to the dictionary to figure out your meaning, then you’ve lost them. If you’re so enamored with your flowery writing that your readers are spending their time admiring your poetry instead of caring about your characters, then it’s going to be a lot easier for them to put your book down and not pick it back up again.

Mind you, there are plenty of authors who disagree with me on this point. Maybe it’s just because of the type of books I like to read (and write). When I see the zippers on the monster’s costume, I’m no longer scared.

Don’t let them see the zippers.

Know Your Tools

Imagine you’ve hired a carpenter who holds up a screwdriver and says it’s a wrench. How much confidence would you have in his abilities?

Recently, a self-published friend posted an ad he had made for his book which misspelled “you’re” as “your.” I pointed this out and to his credit, he fixed it and thanked me, but really — how much confidence would you have in this writer’s abilities after seeing that?

Words are your tools.  As a writer, you need to know how to use them. tools

I’ve also seen writers post things on Facebook that were terribly written, contained spelling mistakes, and did not impress me with eloquence or insight. Come on folks, why should I check out your book if your posts don’t impress me?

If you’re going to use social media to promote yourself, the best way to do it is not to constantly say “Buy my book!” in various ways, but to make people think, “This person writes well. They say interesting things and have interesting views. I’ll bet their books are good, too.”

Be insightful with your posts. Write things no one else is writing. Be humorous if that’s your thing. Make people want to read what you have to say. And, most importantly, say it well, showing your skill with words, phrases, grammar and spelling.

You know — your tools.

Zombipalooza!

Zombiepalooza radio recently did a five-hour show (!) dedicated to my latest anthology BAKER STREET IRREGULARS. It was great fun, and we took in questions from viewers and had a lot of laughs.

I was the main guest for the first hour, but I stuck around for the entire thing since I was the co-editor of the book. Every hour would be another guest author: First there was Jim Avelli, then Keith DeCandido, Jody Lynn Nye, and Ryk Spoor.

We discussed Sherlock, writing, talent, and many other things, with lots of advice for writers (based on what the authors interviewed said they did to prepare a story).

Please check it out!

Interview with author Paul Levinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the series!

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with editor and author Ian Randal Strock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did you decide to establish Fantastic Books?

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What future plans do you have for it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every story is a mystery

You may write science fiction or horror or romance or thriller, but what you’re really writing is a mystery.

Every story should be a mystery. Obviously, I don’t mean you need a murder and a detective and a bunch of suspects. What you need are unanswered questions — the kind that keep readers turning pages to find out what they mean.sneakyreader

This is not easy but on the other hand, it’s tremendous fun. I love dropping those clues that make the reader go, “Wait, what? Why did he wink knowingly at the other character? Why did that strange car drive by at that moment? What did he mean when he said “there is another”?

In my current work in progress, the main character has a secret. It’s a secret I keep from the reader as well. It’s fun to drop hints. Here are some examples from the first draft:

Beverly smiled. Many white people at the time would have never considered offering her such hospitality. She had heard of Mr. Roosevelt, read many of his books on American history, and knew that he was a good man who supported both women’s suffrage as well as racial equality, and it was nice to see this confirmed by his household.

It almost made her feel guilty for not telling him the truth.

The reader at this point has already come to like Beverly and Beverly has told everyone about who she is and what she is doing. Then this last line comes out and the reader has a mystery: What was false? She’s not what she said she is! The only way to discover the mystery is to keep reading …

Sometimes the “mystery” is merely a postponement of the reveal:

“Now calm down, Miss Haddad,” Samuel replied. “But there isn’t a plan there, is there? You’re just running into danger, hoping that maybe something good happens.”

“Do you have an idea, Mr. Clemens?”

“Well, as a matter of fact—”

The cabin shook as a loud booming noise filled the air. Above them, they could hear yelling as footsteps echoed through the hull.

Teddy was on his feet immediately. He ran to the door and threw it open just as Hugo appeared, eyes wide.

“Pirates!” he yelled.

Wait, what was Samuel’s plan? Would it have worked? Are they still going to use it or is the attack going to ruin everything?

Keep your readers guessing. Don’t reveal everything at once. And then make sure that there is an answer and that these answers don’t wait to the very end of the book. If you string them along with questions but never provide some answers along the way, it gets very frustrating.

Go back and read over some of your favorite novels and you’ll see this is true. The best writers know how to keep you turning pages, and that’s to have a question on every page, no matter how small, to make you search out the answer.

 

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.

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