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.

Interview with Larry Hodges

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did you go about finding a publisher?

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

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with NY Times Bestselling author Heidi McLaughlin

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Heidi McLaughlin today.  Heidi is a bestselling author now living in Vermont with her family. A movie based on her bestseller FOREVER MY GIRL is currently in production. She’s also got a great story in my “Alternate Sherlocks” anthology coming out soon!Heidi Mc

First, tell us all about your latest book.

HEIDI McLAUGHLIN: My most recent release is called BLIND REALITY, which is Big Brother meets Married at First Sight, a fun little romantic comedy that is very reality-television based. If you’re not a reality TV fan, this book isn’t for you.

VENTRELLA: Romance continues to sell, but it goes through trends like all fiction. What is popular now?

McLAUGHLIN: Probably stuff I don’t write! Everyone loves the Alpha male, the down and dirty smut and shock factor. I like to keep everything mainstream and fun.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself writing what is popular or do you just write what you want and hope people will like it?

McLAUGHLIN: I write what I want to write. If I have an idea and I can make it work, I’m running with it. Life is no fun when you’re thinking like everyone else. I want to set the trend, not follow.

VENTRELLA: Do you feel there is a limitation with romance in that it pretty much has to have a happy ending? Or am I mistaken in that?

McLAUGHLIN: No, you’re very on point. In BLIND REALITY, it’s a cliffhanger, albeit it minor one, and people flipped out. Funny enough, when I’ve been asked about it and asked in return why they felt that way, the reader was able to answer their own question. Compared to some enormously huge bestselling novels, my cliffhanger is a blip and barely noticeable. Unfortunately, readers don’t see it that way and I’ve paid the price.

VENTRELLA: Perhaps more than other genres, romance has to have tremendously believable characters.  Do you agree? How do you accomplish that?

McLAUGHLIN: I absolutely agree. When people read romance the way to feel like they’re the character being wooed or falling in love. They want to live in the happily ever after and avoid reality of a dirty kitchen, loads of laundry, etc… For me, modeling my characters after people I know or have encountered makes them believable. Every character I write I want the reader to feel like they know them, that they live next door or went to high school with them.6873690_orig

VENTRELLA: What’s the difference between romance and erotica?

McLAUGHLIN: Well that’s a loaded question (excuse the pun). Erotica is heavy behind the doors taboo stuff that you don’t discuss at the dinner table with Grandma sitting across from you even though Gram has probably read a good old fashioned Harlequin in her day. Romance is the light-hearted can’t-wait-to-tell-you-about-my-day happy stuff… most of the time.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion of FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY?

McLAUGHLIN: E.L. James hit the market when women needed something new to sink their teeth into. Erika is a marketing genius.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever had to censor yourself where you think you may have gone too far?

McLAUGHLIN: No, I’m fairly tame and am often told I need more detail with certain scenes.

VENTRELLA: Why do you think more men aren’t reading romance?

McLAUGHLIN: I have a contingent of male readers and my husband has even read JR Ward! I think some men are just afraid of what those pages hold.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest misconception people have about romance novels (and romance novel writers)?

McLAUGHLIN: That writing is a hobby, or we’re just writing porn.

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

McLAUGHLIN: When I was little I was an only child for the longest time and my playmates were my aunts and uncles who were older. I had to create worlds to entertain myself when they weren’t around and my grandma always told me to write them down.1003461

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? 

McLAUGHLIN: Writing is a craft. you have to learn, process and repeat. No one is “good” out of the gate.

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

McLAUGHLIN: I’ve never outlined. I take notes, and write. I’m a chapter by chapter and never out of order. If I have a scene in mind I’ll write it down and save it, but chances are I never come back to it.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating a plot first, a character first, or a setting first? 

McLAUGHLIN: Lately, it’s been the plot first. I hate naming my characters so I tend to do that last. But show me an image, song, or something on the news and I can give you something to work with.

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

McLAUGHLIN: To me that means – don’t think outside the box. I’m glad I didn’t listen because I write a Navy SEAL series that I absolutely love, but I’m not in the Navy, nor have I even been though BUD/s. If we only wrote what we knew, we’d be boring.

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

McLAUGHLIN: When people tell me how I should’ve ended a story, or assume they know my characters better than I do.

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

McLAUGHL3312058IN: I wrote a manuscript (my 3rd actually) and shared it with my friend who encouraged me to publish. My first story was FOREVER MY GIRL, which is slated to start production for the big screen this year.

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?

McLAUGHLIN: Short stories are fun, like the one we’re doing, but serial novels tend to make the reader wait too long for the conclusion. I do prefer a novel though.

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

McLAUGHLIN: For me, yes, especially, when you’re limited on a word count.

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

McLAUGHLIN: Every press is important, but you can get lost with the big ones and just become a number. As with anything small, you’re always on their mind.

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

McLAUGHLIN: Believe in yourself and the process. It does work. My first MS I queried 45 agents all to be told no, so I published and hit USA the next week and half those agents came back to work with me.

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

McLAUGHLIN: That social media doesn’t sell books.8811796

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

McLAUGHLIN: Never give up.

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

McLAUGHLIN: Do not trust everyone you come in contact with, and do not share your story with you FB bestie. Keep your work close to your heart and invest in your craft.

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

McLAUGHLIN: I love paranormal romance, but also contemporary. However, Nelson DeMille is my favorite author.

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

McLAUGHLIN: Right now I’m finishing up SAVE ME, which will come out April 5th – it’s a Navy SEAL novel, and I’ll be writing my manuscripts BLOW (Virtuous Paradox 1) and LEFT FIELD (The Boys of Summer 2).

 

My Albacon 2016 Schedule

What a crazy two weeks. Last weekend we were down in Roanoke for Mysticon and this weekend, we’re off to Albany for Albacon. Albacon is special because my wife Heidi Hooper is the Artist Guest of Honor!albacon16 flyer v3-page-001

Albacon is also special because on Friday, they start very early and have what is basically a writer’s conference. It’s like a convention and a conference all in one. I am hosting some of these sessions, and I look forward to meeting some new writers there.

Here’s my schedule:

The Biggest Mistakes Made by Beginning Authors (Friday 9 am):  We’ll discuss not only writing mistakes but also promotional mistakes: How writers have screwed themselves over and killed their chances of making it in the publishing world doing easily preventable things!  With Llalania Ghose, Jim Rudnick, and David Weber

Tooting Your Own Horn with Social Media (Friday 2 pm): Self-promotion is an important part of building a career. Poorly executed, it can do more harm than good. Our panelists will discuss what works and doesn’t work. With Debi Chowdhury, Kate Laity, and Keith Willis

Ice Cream Social (Friday 8 pm): What better way to meet the Guests of Honor and other participants than in a big party, complete with ice cream and all the fixings?

The Greatest Animated Films of All Time (Friday 10 pm): A debate over the list of best animated feature films. Will our panel agree or will the discussion break out in fisticuffs?  With Susan Hanniford Crowley, J.A. Fludd, Herb Kauderer, and Dawn McKechnie 

Reading (Saturday 3:30 pm):  I’ll be reading from “Bloodsuckers” and, depending on time, perhaps a bit of a preview of some upcoming works.

The Eye of Argon (Saturday 11 pm):  The worst science fiction story ever written gets a reading by our brave panel as they compete to go the longest without tripping over a misspelled word or laughing uncontrollably. Audience members are also encouraged to take a chance. Can you keep a straight face, especially when the panel begins acting out the story?  With James Cambias, Andre Lieven, Ryk Spoor, and Ian Randal Strock

Making Politics Work in Fiction (Sunday 11 am): Real world political narratives are filled with cultural revolutions, passionate speeches about social change, war, and intricate Machievellian plots. How can you portray them convincingly in your story? From noble houses in fantasy worlds to galaxy-spanning empires in SF, how do you make them believable and engaging without burying your reader in the intricacies of your setting’s political theory? With Ian Randal Strock and David Weber

 

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