Defying all odds is what #1 New York Times and international bestselling author Sherrilyn McQueen writing as Sherrilyn Kenyon does best. Rising from extreme poverty as a child that culminated in being a homeless mother with an infant, she has become one of the most popular and influential authors in the world (in both adult and YA fiction), with dedicated legions of fans known as Paladins–thousands of whom proudly sport tattoos from her numerous genre-defying series.
Since her first book debuted while she was still in college, she has placed more than 80 novels on the New York Times list in all formats and genres, including manga and graphic novels, and has more than 70 million books in print worldwide. Her current series include: Dark-Hunters®, Chronicles of Nick®, Deadman’s Cross™, Eve of Destruction™, Nevermore™, Lords of Avalon® and The League®.
Over the years, her Lords of Avalon® novels have been adapted by Marvel, and her Dark-Hunters® and Chronicles of Nick® are New York Times bestselling manga and comics and are #1 bestselling adult coloring books.
While he is best known for horror (and is one of the most successful indie horror authors in the world), Michaelbrent Collings has also written internationally-bestselling thriller, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, humor, young adult, and middle grade works, and romance.
In addition to being a bestselling novelist, Michaelbrent has also received critical acclaim: he is the only person who has ever been a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award, a Dragon Award, and a RONE Award, and he and his work have been reviewed and/or featured on everything from Publishers Weekly to Scream Magazine to NPR. An engaging and entertaining speaker, he is also a frequent guest at comic cons and on writing podcasts like Six Figure Authors, The Creative Penn, Writing Excuses, and others.
James Kennedy is the author of the speculative thriller Dare to Know, which the Guardian praised as “a fascinating, compulsively readable thriller” and SFX Magazine called a “superb piece of storytelling: vivid, thought-provoking and unsettling.”
James is also the author of the young-adult fantasy The Order of Odd-Fish and the founder of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, in which kid filmmakers create short movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery-winning books in about 90 seconds, which screens annually in a dozen cities nationwide. He also co-hosts the Secrets of Story podcast with Matt Bird. James lives in Chicago with his wife and two daughters.
An hour-long chat with Jess E. Owen, award-winning author of the Summer King Chronicles, short stories that have appeared in Cricket and various “furry” genre anthologies, and an upcoming contemporary young adult novel.
Jess Owen is the author of the Summer King Chronicles, a young adult fantasy adventure that she describes as Lion King meets Lord of the Rings. The first book in this debut series won a gold medal in the Global e-book awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Self Published Book Awards. The second book, Skyfire, won an Ursa Major from the Anthropomorphic Literature & Arts Association for best novel in 2013.
Her short fiction has appeared in Cricket Magazine and various “furry” genre anthologies. She continues to write in the world of the Summer King, and has also penned a contemporary young adult novel, due out in spring 2022, by Page Street Books.
An hour-long conversation with Sebastien de Castell, award-nominated author of the swashbuckling fantasy series The Greatcoats and YA fantasy series Spellslinger, whose latest book is Way of the Argosi.
Sebastien de Castell had just finished a degree in Archaeology when he started work on his first dig. Four hours later he realized how much he actually hated archaeology and left to pursue a very focused career as a musician, ombudsman, interaction designer, fight choreographer, teacher, project manager, actor, and product strategist. His only defence against the charge of unbridled dilettantism is that he genuinely likes doing these things and that, in one way or another, each of these fields plays a role in his writing. He sternly resists the accusation of being a Renaissance Man in the hopes that more people will label him that way.
Sebastien’s acclaimed swashbuckling fantasy series, The Greatcoats, was shortlisted for both the 2014 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy, the Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Debut, the Prix Imaginales for Best Foreign Work, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His YA fantasy series, Spellslinger, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and is published in more than a dozen languages.
Sebastien lives in Vancouver, Canada with his lovely wife and two belligerent cats.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Sebastien, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thanks so much for having me.
I should have practiced “dilettantism” before I tried to read that bio.
Yeah, that’s that’s one of those tricky words, isn’t it, where there’s just one too many syllables for what we kind of expect when our eyes go over the word
And all those Ts. It’s very confusing. But yeah. So, we are both in Canada, we haven’t met anywhere, but we do share a publicist in Mickey Mickkelsen from Creative Edge, and that’s kind of how I made connections with you. Also, you were mentioned by Chris Humphreys, whom I interviewed not that long ago, as somebody who was kind of a beta reader for his stuff. And I thought, hey, I should talk to Sebastien. So here we are.
Well, you know, I’ve only recently met Mickey and he seems lovely, but I think it’s important to get on the record that Chris Humphreys is a dastardly rogue. He’s too talented. He’s too good looking. And above all else, he’s far too British for anyone to trust.
Well, I enjoyed talking to him anyway, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy talking to you, too, as well. So, I’m going to start as I always start, which is to take my guests back into the mists of time—I’m going to put reverb on that any day now—and find out . . . well, you started in archaeology, you didn’t start in writing, but you must have been interested in reading and writing before that. So how did that all come together for you? How did you get interested in in the world of telling stories, and where did you grow up, that kind of thing?
Oh, all the all the good stuff. I grew up as a young man in a troubled small town far to the east where . . . no, I was never one of those what I think of, and perhaps inappropriately, as natural writers. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a natural writer now. But I often meet other writers who will talk about the fact that they were always writing, and I was not always writing. My first serious foray into writing was when I was 27. I was in a a beleaguered and failing rock and roll band making, you know, two hundred and fifty bucks a weekend playing cover tunes, being sued by the bass player for control of the band. And when you’re being sued over control of a of a group who fundamentally makes their living playing “Brown-Eyed Girl” in bars in the interior of British Columbia, you know, you’ve hit a creative low point in your life.
And so I did what I did, what I think I’ve always sort of done in my life when I felt like I was, you know, missing purpose and a plan, which is I went to the library. And, you know, like most writers, I’m a huge . . . not so much an advocate of libraries, but a huge user of libraries, someone whose entire existence to some degree relies on the fact that libraries are there and that at any point in your life, no matter what’s going on, no matter how confused or depressed you might be, you can walk into a library and all of a sudden there’s, you know, a million different possibilities to sort of explore.
And when I was there, I found a box of book tapes, which was a course by a guy named Ralph McInerny, and it was called Let’s Write a Mystery. And this was such a strange thing. It was a set of 24 tapes. Twelve tapes, 24 sides, cassette tapes, and an accompanying book, and the accompanying book was the draft of a novel that he writes as he’s dictating these tapes to you. And he talked in a sort of a 1960s professorial sort of voice, the kind you would have heard in science class in high school, where you would sort of say, you know, “And today we’re going to make our protagonist and he should be a guy you’d like to have a beer with.” And oddly, that kind of strange, soothing tone allowed me to do something I don’t think I’d ever been able to do before, ever would be able to do before, which is to write my way through a novel for the first time. And as it should be, as the universe demands, that novel was terrible. It’s called Skeletons in the Cloister. It’s an archaeological mystery that deeply reflects my love of archaeology, or lack thereof. But it taught me everything, you know, it suddenly changed the entire way that my mind worked, such that I was able to conceive of how to write a novel, like, nothing felt too big anymore.
And so, a few years after that. . . and I felt so good, like, it just changed my life in the sense that even having written this one terrible novel, I was just so much more confident and so much more interested in people and in the world around me. And a few years later, I decided to do what’s called the Three-Day Novel-Writing contest, which is an annual contest that’s been around forever, where you try and write, you know, something in three days. And I ended up writing 44,000 words of a novel in three days. All the while, I think I still went for runs. I slept more hours than I usually sleep. And I had a music gig where I had to learn to sing “The Lady in Red,” which is a rather painful song for me to sing for purely musical reasons. And so, somehow I ended up with this draft, which I was super happy with. And years later I decided, What the hell, I’ll give a shot at this. And I revised that novel and nearly tripled the length in the process. And that became Traitor’s Blade, which was the first book in the Greatcoats series, which launched my career. And, you know, it has gotten me to the lofty heights to which I ascend to this day.
Well, if we go back, way back, you must have been a reader. Nobody suddenly decides to write if they haven’t been a reader. What sorts of things did you read growing up?
Well, when I was . . .I came to reading actually through my sister, who when . . .I was a comic- book reader as a little kid. In fact, the first time I realized I could read in English was reading a comic, because I used to just look at the pictures. And then I went to French school, even though I only spoke English. Getting dumped into French school at six years of age when you only speak English is quite a trauma, I can tell you. And so, my first sort of actual exposure to learning to write any language was in French. And then one day, I suddenly noticed I could . . . I was looking at the same old comic books and realized I could read the words, which was a very strange experience to have. But from there, I sort of, you know . . . when I was about nine years old, my father was dying of cancer. And my mother asked my sister, who is about 15 years older than me, to take my brother and I on a trip to England and France to kind of get us out of the house, I guess. And I mean, we didn’t have much money. So, you know, how my mother and sister made that work is still baffling to this day. And she started reading to my brother and I from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And so, I became completely enthralled with Narnia and in that world for a while.
But it wasn’t until in my teens where I really started reading in English for myself. I read when I was in French school, I wasn’t always . . . I had a period of time where—I think lots of us do—where you get kind of disconnected from other people. And again, the library, the school library, was a sort of a place of refuge. And I read a little bit there, but it was when I was around 15, 16, where a friend of mine in an English high school by the name of Edward Swatchek (sp?) was kind enough to give me a copy of a book called Jhereg by Steven Brust. And I was just blown away by this book. I mean, I still think in many ways he’s not recognized—even though he’s widely admired. I don’t know if he’s recognized to the degree to which I think he helped inform some of the stylistic options available to fantasy writers, that we didn’t have to write everything in “thees” and “thous” and things like that.
I certainly remember my encounter with him when I was probably university age, when I ran into Steven Brust and I read everything I could get my hands on.
Yeah, me too. You know, To Reign in Hell is, like, such a deeply troubling book, actually, that I . . . I adored it but could never read it other than the one time, because there’s just so much for me. There was just so much emotional trauma tied to how well that story is told. But I so I kind of fell in love with that. And that kind of led me to other books, some of which are sort of forgotten sometimes, including Keith Taylor the wonderful Australian author’s Bard books about Felimid mac Fal He wrote a series of books about an Irish bard that were just so full of sort of verve and zest that they made me want to become a bard, which to one degree or another, for the rest of my life, I’ve been sort of trying to do that, which is partly how I got stuck being sued by the bass player . . .
I was going to say . . .
The bass player is a perfectly nice guy, by the way. We’re still friends. And, you know, and into some books that I think are now being sort of reconsidered to some degree, like Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books and things like that. So, my sort of, you know . . . which is, sorry, a very long-winded way of saying, like my sort of sense of fantasy, which is the domain in which I largely write—I also write sort of mysteries on the side, but not that I think anyone would really want to read—but my sort of sense of fantasy was really drawn from the ‘80s, which is a strange place to derive it from because it’s both too late to be the classics and sort of too out of date to entirely sit within the, kind of the present taste for fantasy.
Well, what actually then drew you into archaeology that you then found out you hated when you actually had to go on a dig?
At the time, I would have had a better answer. Positioned as I am sufficiently far away from it. I think it’s I can admit that it was Indiana Jones.
And the thought of adventure. You know, adventure is a very difficult thing to get these days. Right. You know, society isn’t really structured around adventure. The kinds of adventure that are largely available to us as human beings now involve either extreme sports, which, you know, doesn’t sort of have that kind of quest feeling to it unless you really like hiking up dangerous mountains, which is great, but not totally my thing. Or if people, you know, sort of want to join the military, which requires, you know, a sort of an ideology that not everyone necessarily shares. But there’s not all the sort of opportunities for adventure and archaeology. When I was in university, you know, I think, as many people did, I conflated it with the sort of adventurous side that’s presented in an Indiana Jones movie—which in my defense, because I realize this sounds pretty pathetic, but in my defense, the archaeology department at Simon Fraser University did once confirm to me that every time a new Indiana Jones movie came out, their enrollment shot up through the roof.
I’m pretty sure Indiana Jones’s approach to research and working in the field would not work in the real world.
But what’s absolutely fascinating about that to me now is, because I remember by the time the second or third movie was coming out, people were sort of saying, “Well, you know, that’s not proper archaeology.” And, you know, we now know that it’s not. But if you listen to or read the transcripts of the original conversations between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and I think Larry Kasdan, who actually wrote the script, they were very intentional about the fact that this was not a good-guy archeologist. He wasn’t doing archaeology. He was a kind of antiquarian thief. And that his sort of justification was, someone’s going to raid these temples anyway, someone’s going to steal this stuff. At least if I steal it, I’ll sell it to a museum rather than a collector. And so, there was a . . . there’s a stronger element of the anti-hero in Indiana Jones than there is in Han Solo, who is regrettably often quoted or listed as being an anti-hero, when, in fact, he’s nothing of the sort.
The archaeology thing and being on a dig and realizing you didn’t like it . . . I went through the phase like many kids do, thinking I might want to be a paleontologist because, you know, dinosaurs are cool. And then I’ve had the opportunity since then to be really into paleontology digs and all that bending over in the hot sun with a toothbrush, brushing away dirt, I realized . . . much as when I went out with a veterinarian, a farm-animal veterinarian, and had to see what they did with farm animals when I was in high school and I realized that veterinary medicine was not for me either.
Yeah. My goodness. You know, paleontology is archaeology magnified in the sense that . . . I often tell people that archaeology is an excellent—like, field archaeology specifically because obviously there’s many, many different kinds of many different branches of archaeology—is actually, by the way, a good career. People do earn good livings as archaeologists, strangely enough. But field archaeology is an excellent endeavor if you really like camping, because basically that’s what you’re doing. You’re camping and then you’re out in the hot sun and then you’re pulling out the toothbrush. And, you know, at night there’s the campfire and drinking and not tons of showers. And, you know, if that’s your thing, it’s fantastic. I’m really . . . probably no one’s going to quote me when they’re putting together posters to promote archaeology programs. But it is it is a wonderful field. I’m super glad that it exists. And I’m almost equally glad that I’m not in it anymore.
Well, the drinking and camps . . .we’re not far from here is the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, and it has a cast of Scotty, who’s the largest T-Rex found in North America. And I was at the dig when they were pulling him out of the ground out in the Frenchman River Valley. But the reason he’s called Scotty is because when they found him and realized what they had, they went back to camp and drank a bottle of scotch. That’s why he’s Scotty. And the paleontologist, Tim Tokaryk, who was working on it, said that it’s like when you have a find like that, it’s, “Yeah, this is exciting.” And then, “Well, now I know what I’m working on for the next multiple years of my career.” I also wanted to ask you about being a fight choreographer. You actually are somebody who knows how to use a sword, is that right?
I am, in as much as anyone sort of knows how to use a sword without ever having to actually risk their lives with one, because obviously that changes everything. But yeah, I used to fence quite a bit. Years and years ago. And then for a while I was doing sword choreography for the theater and that, you know, informed my writing in all the ways you can imagine. But so, there are other . . . there are many other writers in fantasy who have far better credentials on that particular front than I do. I think specifically of someone like Miles Cameron, who is genuinely a historian, both more broadly and specifically of arms and armor and things like that. But, you know, I have some game
And you’ve done some acting as well. And I always ask about that because I’m a stage actor and I have found that being an actor influences my writing as well in a beneficial way. So ,I’m just curious, all these things, the archaeology, the fight choreography, the the acting, the music, does that all fit into your stories, do you think?
Oh, absolutely. I think one of the beautiful things about writing, and something I’m very passionate about, just as a human being, is everyone writing a novel. I think everyone who wants to write a novel should write a novel. I think we all have a good book in us. It’s just varying levels of effort to get it out. And often, I meet people who are nervous about . . . they’re having trouble writing their novel and they get very stressed out and they’re worried that because they’re having trouble, they won’t do it. And I always say that one of the wonderful things about writing, and I think especially fiction, is that it feeds on everything you’ve experienced. And so, there’s always time to write your novel in the sense that, you know, if this isn’t the year, it might be next year or the year after. It might be that it’s the experience of going to a place or doing a particular job that’s going to unlock it for you. And all of it feeds into it.
For me, music is probably the element that influences my writing more than anything else, because music introduces that notion of the contrast between rhythm and melody and rhythm can very loosely be attached to pacing, for example, inside of a scene or inside of dialogue, and melody can kind of loosely be attached to the sort of emotional intensity and tonality of the writing. So ,everything influences it. But I’m often more conscious, I would say, of music as driving the feeling of a scene for me as I’m writing it. And, you know, very frequently when I go . . . I run quite a bit. I’m an absolutely terrible runner, but running has this weirdly perfect combination for me that . . . it’s hard on me because I’m not good at it, and so it makes me emotionally kind of vulnerable. And so, I’ll listen to music, which also tends to make me emotionally vulnerable, and I will have to conjure up scenes, and then I’ll have these profound emotional reactions to an idea for a scene. And so, people will be wondering why this pathetically slow runner going up a hill is crying.
I would cry running up a hill, but . . .
It’s just that thing that allows you to kind of, you know, put things together at that right moment. That’s so much . . . I think what the act of creation is from the standpoint of a novelist is, it’s this combination of you have to put your body and your brain into a particular state. For some people, that’s, you know, they burn incense and light a . . . and drink the right tea and sit at the right place at the right time of day. For me, it’s actually being somewhere. It’s doing something. It’s having an experience that’s outside of my normal day that that kind of drives it. So then, it’s that putting yourself in that state and then allowing those kind of emotions to run a little bit rampant and all your dark little secrets to kind of creep up from your subconscious. So, yeah, so all those sort of activities help, but they all help in different ways. You know, the fight choreography taught me a lot about the role of a character inside of a scene because, you know, you were mentioning . . .. you’ve been a theater actor, have you done any stage fighting?
Not with weapons. There’s been a couple of fistfight things, but that’s all.
Well, you know that typically . . . you know, there’s a famous sort of Shakespeare line, “They fight,” which is . . . you’ll have this massive script full of the world’s most amazing dialogue. And then it’ll be, you know, somewhere it’ll say Romeo and Paris confront each other in the fourth act or third act of Romeo and Juliet. And they have these lines, wonderful lines of dialogue. And then it just says, “They fight.” And so, what a fight choreographer has to do is somehow put in a piece o choreography in which that conversation continues, but without words. And so, the way a character fights . . .and then, this, I think, can be expanded to the way a character moves and can be expanded to the way a character does anything is a constant reflection of the sort of the narrative that they’re telling about themselves, right? I am the hero in this fight. And, you know, I’m much more devious than you think I am. You know, all of these sorts of things can play out inside of a swordfight, which is what makes those fun for me to write
I’m not someone who typically watches or aims to watch, you know, boatloads of action movies because often those are spectacle devoid of narrative. Not always. You know, if you watch . . . I think Jackie Chan is particularly wonderful at this putting kind of a story into his fight scenes. But a lot of fight scenes now tend to be spectacle without the need for narrative. But so, that’s what I learned from fight choreography. So, to round it out, all of that kind of informs the writing and sometimes in ways that you’re conscious of and sometimes in ways that you’re not.
Well, I think for me, it’s not the fight choreography so much, but just the acting and the fact that when you’re acting . . . I’ve also directed plays, and you’re always extremely conscious of where everybody is in relationship to each other within the space. And I think that that carries over when it comes to writing scenes and having that mental image of where everybody is in relation to each other. And when I mentor younger writers or do instruction, I will sometimes find scenes that seem to happen in just kind of this amorphous grey space and there’s no sense of place and they lose track of where characters are. And I just think that the acting and directing side is kind of helps with that and obviously fight choreography even more so when it comes to writing those fight scenes.
I just wanted to say, I think I always view the actor role slightly differently in this regard, that . . . the thing I didn’t understand about acting, even probably in the time when I was an actor properly, is that an actor’s job isn’t to perform a particular set, deliver a particular set, of words while making a particular set of actions, but that it’s a much more sophisticated process in that they’re creating all of these interpretations and layers that aren’t available in the script itself. And for me, that’s what the reader does, right, that when the reader picks up the book, they’re reading the script and they’re having to direct all of the action and produce all of those, a lot of those layers of subtext themselves, which is what’s so amazing about it. It’s also one of the reasons why I absolutely adore getting, hearing, the audio books of some of my books, because there you have an actor and often an extremely skilled actor who is suddenly taking your text and adding all of these layers to it that are, that just for me, just bring the story alive in a completely different way than I expected.
Yeah. I often say that although writing is a solitary act, it’s actually a collaborative art form and that you’re collaborating with the reader and you don’t actually know what the final art form is because it happens individually in each reader’s head. Each reader is constructing their own version of your story based on their own background and understanding of the words that you were using. And it’s really, really fascinating to think about that. When you write a book, you’re actually writing a whole bunch of books, because every reader is getting a different book out of it.
Absolutely, and yeah, and I’m philosophically I’m a believer in reader response theory, which argues that the only, that the true narrative act is, is when the reader reads the text, that s the author, our, you know, our intent becomes irrelevant the moment the words are fixed to the page because it doesn’t matter what I intended or what I was thinking. That’s not available to the reader. There’s only the text and they will, from that text, conjure up whatever they want to conjure.
It’s one of the reasons I also don’t take it too personally if sometimes someone will say, you know, “Oh, this this represents this, this scene represents something horrible or this character is vile,” or, you know, this book is about something that it’s not about for me because I always recognize well, it is about those things for that reader. And it’s why I think, you know, literary criticism is such a tricky area. You know, it’s expanded so much because, you know, everyone has a YouTube channel now or lots of book bloggers are out there. And there’s sometimes a sort of an attempt to kind of consolidate a sort of a definitive interpretation of a book, which to me is a pretty problematic effort at best. Whereas, you know, sometimes when people are just trying to share what they love or even what they hate about a book, that sort of to me always feels like a more personal expression. And therefore, it always aligns better with my own sense of, as I say, a reader response theory, that every reader is the one constructing the story from the text.
That’s interesting. I’m currently reading a collection of Robertson Davies essays published just after he died in the mid 90s, and he had a line in there to the effect that he hated it when a reader would say to him, “So what you’re trying to say in this is,” and he would always say, “No. I said what I’m saying to the, you know, to the best of my ability, your job is to figure out what I’m saying.” And I thought, I don’t quite buy that.
You know, that always feels like a very Canadian thing to me. I don’t know why, but I always feel like, when I hear kind of the Canadian literati talk about books, that there’s such a strong adherence to a very old-fashioned notion of literature as this thing created by great minds that the rest of us should struggle to interpret. And if you don’t enjoy a great book, it’s because you didn’t interpret it correctly. And if you didn’t get out of it what the author later informs you through their memoirs they intended, then it’s because, you know, you didn’t interpret it correctly. So, I’m not a big fan of that perspective, I would say, which is nice, because this is my first time explicitly contradicting Robertson Davis. I’m sure that will go down in the annals of literary history.
I mean, I loved his essays. I love reading good stuff, but I did kind of push back against that. Well, now let’s move on to your process for creating great literature. But you have a book that’s just coming out, Way of the Argosi. When does that come out?
That comes out on April 19th. It’s oming out in various languages in various parts of the world, but I’m not actually sure what it’s publish date for North America is going to be. So, it’ll be available in pretty much everywhere except Canada and the United States on April 19th. It may end up being available in Canada and the United States on that date. But it’s a little wishy-washy right now.
Well, this this, as it happens, unusually for these podcasts, we’re doing this just a few days before it comes out. We’re doing this interview on a Monday, or is it Tuesday? And it will be coming out this coming weekend. So, it’ll be out very, very promptly, so, before that comes out. So, let’s start by a synopsis of it, and then we’ll talk about how you created it as an example of your creative process.
Sure. So, Way of the Argosi is a young adult fantasy novel about a young refugee who is pursued and tormented by the mages who massacred her clan. And as she sort of struggles to survive in this world, she finds herself trying to adopt the kind of archetypes of different ways that people navigate the world ,of trying to behave like a knight and, you know, trying to, you know, value honor. And when that sort of fails for her, trying to be a thief and surviving that way, but then finding the limits of that, and ultimately coming to meet one of these rather strange and enigmatic kind of what I would call a cowboy gambler, monks who are called the Argosi, who sort of offer her a somewhat different path through the world. But it’s one that comes at great cost. And so, that’s what Way of the Argosi is about. It’s the . . . the main character is Ferius Parfax, who is a character who appears prominently in the Spellslinger series. But this is her story, told for the first time.
Well, I haven’t had a chance to read the entire thing, but it immediately gripped me with the opening scene with the 11-year-old girl hiding among the corpses, you know, going on from there. Very gripping reading and opening, I think. Greatcoats, your first one that made your career, as you said, that wasn’t YA, was it?
No, no. The Greatcoats is definitely adult fantasy. Although, you know, the dividing line between adult fantasy and young adult fantasy is blurry at best. It’s very much a sort of a marketing distinction at times. If you think to the classic fantasy that we probably read as kids at various points, it very often featured younger characters who might start, you know, Way of the Argosi only briefly has Ferius as sort of 11, and then it progresses into her teenage years. But lots and lots of, you know, the Belgariad by David Eddings, for example, I think the main character starts out very young and stays very young throughout pretty much the whole series. So, it’s an odd distinction. But The Greatcoats definitely sort of fits into that classification of adult fantasy, if only because it sort of features a trio of middl-eaged men.
So why did you start focusing on YA? Because your next series was YA, was it not?
That’s right. Spellslinger sort of fit into that Y.A. category. I think . . . my wife is a librarian and she, I think, gave me the best definition of her notion of YA at one point, which was that young adult stories are about first experiences. And so, what happened was . . . Spellslinger was kind of interesting. Originally ,I was going to write it with one of my best friends and I sometimes write with a guy by the name of Eric Torin (sp?), who’s a well-regarded video game person, but also a terrific writer. And we wanted to write something together and we were spit-balling various ideas. And then. his life got very busy and he said, “No, you go off and do it.” And so, I’d written this story about an exiled former mage, you know, wandering the desert like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu, which is a reference not everyone will get.
Yeah. And, you know, a more modern parallel is probably Jack Reacher in the sense that Jack Reacher is sort of like, you know, David Carradine in Kung Fu, but without the philosophy quite as much. And so, I had written this book and I I loved it and my agent loved it. And then it went through this sort of odd cycle of things where, all of a sudden, I was being asked by various publishers who are sort of saying,”Look, we would love to see a YA trilogy of prequels to this and would you be interested in doing that? And could you write a rough outline of what that would look like?” And I said, “OK,” which is always the first mistake I make when I’m asked to write a book proposal because they’re nightmarish, not so much in the process of making them, but in in the consequences where now you’ve basically given somebody nothing they can fall in love with, but something that they can critique.
And so, it kind of went through various cycles of that, where they say, “Well, now we need some chapters. Well, now we need some more chapters. Oh, this is looking really good. Can you write even more?” And I was like, I said, “You know, I’ve written almost half the novel now. I think you’re just asking me to write the novel.” But eventually, it sort of went back and forth between a couple of publishers. And I ended up with this very strange eight-book deal from Bonnier in the U.K. for world rights. And it was a really great deal. It basically meant for four years of my life, I had, you know, a ful-time, excellent income just writing those books. And so, we originally said we would do four books, would be Kellen as a young man, and four books would be Kellen as an adult. But then then an editor came on board who said, “Well, actually, I think we’d like six books, all telling the story of his youth,” which is what we did.
And then, that left two books on this contract. And I said at one point, “You know, what is it you want me to do with these other two books?” And they sort of said, “Well, you know, write whatever you want.” And I thought, Well, that’s like a really strange thing to do. And I didn’t have high hopes that doing so would result in a massive marketing push. But I was really delighted working with Bonnier and their imprint, HotKey Books. And so, as we were coming around the bend of wrapping up the six-book series about Kellie, I said, ”Look, you know, I’m if you want two more spells on your books, I’ll write two more Spellslinger books. If you want something different, I will, like, let’s talk about something that you could be passionate about.” And they were kind of interested in something that was set in that world but wasn’t just a continuation. And in the meantime, I was getting these letters. I get quite a bit of fan mail, or more than I sort of expected to get as a writer. And often the fanmail I get is from people who will say, “I read Spellslinger, I want to become an Argosi, tell me how to become at heart Argosi. And of course, you know, it’s a strange thing to try to sort of helpfully answer those letters because I am not an Argosi and there is no, you know, there’s no school of the Argosi.
But what I think people were sort of falling in love with was this notion of this system . . . the Argosi are a little bit like the Jedi, except rather than having basically magic, they kind of don’t revere magic, but they sort of mock magic. You know, in fantasy novels, magic is always this sort of moral superiority in a sense. You know, we all want to have it. And the Agosta are sort of like, “You know, that stuff’s all kind of children’s games. The real thing you need to learn how to do is dancing, you know, or singing, or learning languages.” And so, what the Argosi do is, they take very human phenomenon and, like, very human things, and they kind of elevate them almost to the level of magic. And the best example I can give is sort of martial arts, right? When you think of it, martial arts are pretty amazing, right? Like, the human body is a pretty crappy instrument for most forms of violence. We don’t have very good, you know, biting teeth. We don’t have very good claws. We’re sort of gangly-limbed. And somehow, humanity over the millennia has sort of created martial arts where all of a sudden these otherwise gangly bodies can become kind of amazing inwhat they can do. And so, I was sort of extending that with language and wit and even with something like swagger, like charisma and confidence.
And so, that’s what the Argosi kind of do. And so I . . . and because the Argosi are also an expression of my own philosophical bent towards existentialism, which, you know, of course, as with everything else, I’m not an expert on. But for anyone who’s completely confounded by what existentialism is supposed to mean, in its simplest form, it’s the idea that there’s no inherent meaning in the universe. There’s no natural purpose to anything. But humans, for whatever reason, can’t seem to live without a sense of meaning. And so, you know, existentialism is a philosophy that says, therefore, what you have to do is decide what is meaningful to you and live authentically to that. And so, the Argosi, rather than being a kind of an order of knights, as we’ve seen in the past, that have, you know, you must be this, this and this, or unlike the Jedi, let’s say, from Star Wars, the Argosi believe that every person has to find their own path and sort of take that on and embrace that and follow it where it leads. And so that seems to be, I think, very appealing for a lot of people these days who don’t feel like a lot of the traditional avenues that that, you know, our parents had or their parents had fit them very well. And so I, when it was time to deal with these last two books, I said, “You know, maybe I’ll write something that’s . . .” My original idea was was I’m going to write my own version of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, which really nobody should do. I’m not entirely sure Coelho should have done it, because The Alchemist is basically sort of a fantasy story that is him expounding on his personal philosophy and spirituality.
And so, that’s why this got called Way of the Argosi, because I thought, Oh, I’ll just expound on all of that. But, of course, you know, it became just a very personal story of of this character, various power facts. And along the way, we sort of, you know, pick up some of those things. But it’s not a sort of a guide to how to become an Argosi in that sense. It’s a tale in which in which some of those ideas are explored. And so, yeah, I’ve been absolutely delighted with it.
I, funnily enough, I received the audiobook. They sent me the audiobook to get to listen to and the performer, Kristin Atherton, is so amazing. And, you know, going back to what we were saying about acting, she just brings that whole story to life in this whole new way. And it’s absolutely captivating for me because even though I wrote the words, you know, she takes them and she’s made them her words. And, you know, it’s like I’m getting to hear various effects for the first time.
Well, I think in all of that, we’ve kind of covered some of my usual questions about where the idea came from and the development of it. What’s your actual writing process look like? Are you an everyday writer, do you do it in long stretches or snatches around other things? Do you write with parchment and the quill pen under a tree? How does it work for you?
I write exclusively in blood. Not mine, you understand, other people’s, because I would get tired if it was my blood. I’d run out of energy. So, my process is a giant mess. And to kind of give you a sense of how big a mess it is, I’ll put it this way. In January of 2020, so, January of last year, I called my editor at HotKey Books and they were just transitioning from Felicity Johnston, who was wonderful, to go to a new fellow, Maurice Lyon, who is also wonderful. And I had this chat with her and I said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to write Way of the Argosi. It’s not working. It’s really not working. I need to push back publication by a year,” which is not a nice thing to do to your publishers. She, of course, was wonderful and said, “No problem. You know, I understand. Do you want me to read some of what you’ve written?” And I said, “OK, but it’s a disaster.” And then she took it and she shared it with Maurice. And a few weeks later, we had this conversation and they said, well, no, the stuff . . . they loved what was there, but it wasn’t quite hanging together. And in the course of a sort of a 20-minute phone call or 30-minute phone call, you know, a couple of ideas were bounced around. And Maurice said something like, “You know, I feel like you’re rushing from the moment of her trauma in that opening chapter to later events,” and that it would be OK to explore some of the stuff in between.
And that doesn’t sound like a particularly profound insight. But 60 days later, two months later, I was turning in the manuscript of Way of the Argosi, and virtually nothing changed from that manuscript to the one that is dropping in reader’s hands in the book on April 19. You know, it was copyedited by the fabulous Talia Baker, who transforms my occasionally clumsy sentences into something closer to sublime narrative. But the story was all there.
And so, my process is so messed up that I can get to a point of literally thinking there’s no hope for a book. And then, someone will say something that will seem very, very basic to anybody else. And yet, all of a sudden, that unlocks things in more sort of tactical terms or pragmatic terms, which was probably where you were headed with the question. But I’m fabulous for derailing questions. But on a tactical level, look, there’s things that I’m always very cautious when I’m asked this question. And the reason I’m cautious is because I know that a lot of listeners are either writers themselves or thinking about writing. And I’m always terrified of imparting something that will sound like the rules for a field that you and I both know really has no rules.
It’s kind of the point of this podcast, is that everybody does it different.
No, absolutely. And so, it’s one of those things where I always feel like I have to keep saying, “But of course, this may work differently.” And in my own life, in fact, I have probably done every different kind of writing, every different approach, all within the bounds of the 11 books I have published so far. So, with something like Way of the Argosi, the way that it finally came out was in part by saying, “All right, I am going to write this draft, knowing that the story may not go where I want it to go may not be anything of any value. And I’m just going to write every single day.” And that’s what I did. So, for 30 days straight, all I did was write this book and I didn’t worry about whether it was going somewhere logical or not. And then, somehow, it did. But I’ve done that again recently with a different book, and it’s gone straight to hell. I mean, it’s gone into a book that makes no sense, that has, you know, no artistic merits or values whatsoever. And so, it’s always all over the map. You know, with Knight’s Shadow, the second Greatcoats book, I think I wrote a 45-page outline, and to some extent, I followed that outline. So, I sort of use everything. And that’s the big challenge for me when I’m writing a book, you know, and I’m actually kind of glad that you’re making me talk about it here, because it sort of forces me to remind myself of this.
The biggest challenge when I set out to write a book is to figure out what is the process by which this particular book is going to come to life, because I don’t know what process that’s going to be. So, it might be, sit down and write a big outline. It might be, have no outline and just explore. And even beyond those very tactical concerns, there’s often a mental game involved, which I don’t know if you encounter this because, you know, in your writings, maybe . . . I’d be interested in hearing how you deal with this. But it seems sometimes as if we have to program our own brains or deceive our own brains or tell ourselves something . . . like, I’ll have to trick myself by saying, “All right, I’ve decided that this book isn’t going to be published and I’m just going to write, I’m going to write a book that’s going to, that’s basically intended to irritate fans of fantasy, you know, that all these people that talk about what fantasy is and what it should be and what tropes are allowed and not allowed, I’m just going to, you know . . .”, and somehow that’ll get me to a book that doesn’t offend people necessarily, but it seems to work, whereas other times I have to tell myself some other thing. And so that whole internal process, I think that’s why I’m so sensitive to not wanting to ever make any writer feel like they’re doing something wrong, because I just never know what the process is going to be.
I think my usual trick is just telling myself that I’ll get this mess out and once I get to the end, I go back and fix it. The first person I interviewed here, Robert Sawyer, and he got the term from Edo van Belkom, I think he said, he calls his first draft the vomit draft, because you just vomit it out and, you know, it makes a huge mess that you have to clean up, but you feel better so you could get on with the cleaning it up. My next book for DAW Books, The Tangled Stars, is this big, sprawling space opera that turned out to be humorous, which I didn’t really know going in, necessarily. And I’m struggling with it a bit. But that’s really what I’m telling myself, is, I’ve just got to get the words out there and then I’m going to I’ve got to fix all this stuff I know it’s horribly wrong with it right now, but not until I get to the end. That’s kind of the way I tell myself.
It’s interesting, because I sometimes correspond with Dean Wesley Smith, who, you know, is the writer of any number of Star Trek and Men in Black novels and Marvel comics, superhero novels and things like that, as well as all of his own series, the Poker Game Series and things like that. And he has a very specific philosophy about writing, which is, you write one draft, you turn off the internal critic entirely. You allow your brain to take the story wherever it’s going to go. You can cycle back while you’re writing as many times as you need to clean things up. But once you hit the end, that’s it. It’s over. It may get a sort of a typo-cleaning pass, but that’s it. And he’s very firm about this notion that you have to trust what you write and if you keep second-guessing what you write that that you’re basically training your creative brain not to trust itself, so it’s . . . and I’ve had a couple of books recently where following that is sort of process really worked for me. I’ve had others where it didn’t. But it is interesting that that even that notion of the first draft, is that the first draft, this getting stuff out of yourself so that you’re more analytical brain can fix it, or is that first draft the true and genuine expression of the story your artistic self wants to tell you, therefore you have an obligation to it? That’s the question.
I would say with my . . . OK, we’ll talk about me for a minute. I would say with my writing, with my first draft that it is, I don’t change huge, huge things in these. You know, I have things to fix. But the overall story, I don’t, like, switch scenes around or move chapters here and there or anything like that. Once I have that something to the end, that is the shape of the story for sure. So, I guess I’m following a little bit into his way of thinking about it. So, it does get worked out in my head as I’m going. It’s just that I know at times that I’ve got I’ve got to do some foreshadowing back there because I didn’t really set this up and that sort of technical stuff. But the overall shape of the story, if I do run into trouble, which I did on my last one, The Moonlit World, I got to the middle of the book, realized that I could no longer get to where I thought I was going because my brain had changed things, and I had to go back and sort of take a fresh run at it from the beginning and read through it all and change a couple of things. And then, when I hit that stop spot in the middle, I was able to power through it and carry on to the end. So, it’s not . . . as you said and as this whole podcast is about, there’s no one way to do it.
And I think, yeah, it’s interesting, because I think the middle is the true book in a way, the true book that has to be followed in the strange sense that, you know, I will very frequently write an opening to a book that I think is terrific. And n fact, I almost never struggle to write a strong opening to a novel. But once you get into that second act, you know, however, one defines the second act, that’s where things get really, really fuzzy. And that’s where one of two things will happen, either for me, either I get lucky and I’m on the right track and that middle will carry me through that, you know, will carry me all the way through to the story itself, or I won’t be. And sometimes, I’ll do sort of what you described, which is I’ll cycle back to the beginning of the book, you know, right back, and all I’ll be doing is just changing a word here or there. It’s more just me reimmersing myself in where I started from and see if I can get to a better launching point in that second act.
The thing that appeals to me, I have to say, about Dean Wesley Smith’s model is the notion is it allows for the notion of a novel from the standpoint of a writer being a journey that you begin with the first word on the page and end with the last word at the end of the book. And that’s just, psychologically, for me is so appealing, right? The notion that today I will sit down and begin a book and then, you know, X number of days from now, I will end that book and it will be finished, I will have completed that journey, I will have climbed the mountain as opposed to what very frequently happens to me. And by the way, part of what informs this is, I am not kidding, I’ve turned in the tenth draft of Play of Shadows, which is the first book in the new Greatcoats series, the tenth draft. I’ve never done 10 drafts a book and that starts to feel like you go and you climb this mountain and you get to the top and discover that you took the wrong route. You get kicked off the mountain, you roll down to the bottom, dust yourself off and start climbing again.
That doesn’t sound like fun.
It’s so, you know, I think my wildest fantasy of writing is something along the lines of this. As I travel to an exotic location, or, not even that exotic, let’s say you got to go to Paris for a month and you write a fantasy novel that’s set in a fantasy sort of version of Paris. And you start it when you get there and your afternoons are spent in a cafe, you know, somewhere on the left bank of the center. And then when you get on the plane to fly back to Canada, you’re also hitting send on the manuscript to the editor who will then fall in love with it. You know, that’s the vision of being a writer that I think I’m always desperately trying to get towards. And so that’s why I write so much now. You know, I write so many books in a given year, a couple of which are meant for publication and a couple of which will literally just be me just trying to get better as a writer so that I can one day hit that point where I can be like, “Yes, I will fly off to Cambodia and I will write a wonderful novel while going on an adventure.”
Well, I think we’re kind of down to the end of the time here. And I think although this did not follow my usual formula of questions, I think you covered pretty much everything I normally ask as we as we chatted back and forth. So, thanks for that.
I apologize for the long answers. I’m a novelist, not a short-story writer.
No, it’s fine. It was great. What are you working on now?
Yeah. So right now, I’m waiting . . . so, soon I’ll be getting notes back on Play of Shadows. I’m going to be starting up the second novel in that series, which is called Our Lady of Blades, which I which is one of those books where I’ve done a lot of climbing up the mountain and then gone, “Wait a second. There’s a there’s a more interesting story to explore here.” I just finished up another mystery novel. I’ve never published a mystery novel, but I’ve written, like, four of them, which is kind of a weird thing to do. But I suppose it allows me to kind of, you know, stretch my writing muscles a little bit. And I’m about to start copyediting on Fall of the Argosi, which is the sequel to Way of the Argosi, which is the one that’s coming out on April 19th and which I hope everyone will enjoy as much as I do.
And where can people find you online?
They can find me at . . . the best way, generally, to find me is at my website, which is decastelle.com. I will see stuff on Twitter and try to respond to it. Facebook is notoriously bad for me. Someone will sent me an incredibly heartfelt message and I don’t see it until six months later. So, my website is usually the best. But, anyway, people try to reach out to me, I will try to respond.
OK well, thanks so much for the conversation. I really enjoyed that. I hope you did too.
Chris (C.C.) Humphreys has played Hamlet in Calgary, a gladiator in Tunisia, and a dead immortal in Highlander; he’s waltzed in London’s West End, conned the landlord of the Rovers Return in Coronation Street, commanded a star fleet in Andromeda, and voiced Salem the cat in the original Sabrina.
He has just published The Tapestry Trilogy, set around—and through—the fabulous medieval Unicorn Tapestries in New York’s Cloisters Museum.
He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Chris, welcome to The Worldshapers!
Thank you very much for having me.
We were just talking—we know we’ve been at the same place at the same time, but we didn’t actually talk to each other at the time, because we were both at When Worlds Collide, the great literary conference that’s held in Calgary every year, a few years ago.
That’s right. Well, we might have, though we might have been drunk, and that’s why we don’t.
Entirely possible. So, we’re going to talk about specifically the Tapestry trilogy as an example of your creative process. But first, I will take you back into the mists of time, which is getting further and further back for some of us, and ask you about—well, your biography, you have an interesting upbringing—and how you got into both the acting side, which really interests me because I’ve done, nothing on your level, but I’ve done some professional stage work over the years, and then how the writing came along. So, just take me through your life and how you got interested in writing and especially on the fantastical side of things.
Right. Well, so I always really defined myself as a storyteller because I do I tell stories in all these different ways. You know, I began telling other people’s stories as an actor. I was blessed, or cursed, depending on how you look at it, because my dad was an actor and all four grandparents were actors. They also wrote, some of them. Both grandfathers wrote. My Norwegian grandfather particularly wrote. He was quite a well-known writer in Norway. And I was avoiding all the acting thing. My mother, who was not an actor but obviously grown up with one, married to one, daughter of one, did not want her dewy lamb to be an actor with all the hassles that a career in an industry like that can bring. So, I was being steered away from that. I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do. And then, you know, when I was about seventeen, I got cast in the lead in the school play, and suddenly all those genes kicked in. And I thought, That’s it. And I went to drama school in London, the Guildhall School, and then embarked on a pretty healthy acting career.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of very . . . well, you listed some of them. You know, I’ve done a huge amount of screen and stage work. But the writing side began because I’d always wanted to write. I mean, you know, like a lot of people, I had a way of thinking, Oh, that’s what I really, really want to do. And I’d always had such a wild imagination. I was the kid telling stories. I was the five-year-old organizing all his friends into knights and Vikings and pirates and, you know, playing out these elaborate games, which everyone does on screen now, of course, but we didn’t have screens in my day. And so, that was me. And I always wanted to tell stories. And I particularly loved historical fiction. That’s where I lived. You know, I loved swordplay, especially. And I indeed ended up as a fencer at school, it was my main sport, and a fight choreographer later on, and essentially became an actor so I could jump around with bladed weaponry, which I managed to do an awful lot of, which was great.
But the writing side, you know, I knew that . . . you know, acting, I love acting as a pure essence of a craft, I absolutely love it. I still need to do it periodically. But the business of acting is a pain, you know, always submitting yourself for approval, you know, things so out of your own control. You can give the best performance but be an inch too tall or have the wrong colour hair, and you just don’t get the role. So, even though I did well and, you know, ended up in Hollywood at one stage and on the West End stage and played, as you said, played Hamlet, I was frustrated by the gaps, particularly the gaps between creativity. And I wanted to write, and I got into it the normal way, tried a few short stories. I didn’t understand something which I now teach, because I do quite a lot of teaching of writing now, and what I really teach is process. I thought things had to be good straight away and didn’t realize that it was a process of . . . you know, good and bad actually aren’t in my vocabulary, really, in any of the drafts I write. It’s just about what works and what doesn’t. So, a bit of craft there. I didn’t understand, but I gradually got into it, and then, I started—I actually won a twenty-four-hour playwriting competition in Vancouver, and they produced my play and gave me 500 bucks. And it was like, “Oh, I’m a professional writer now.” And so, I carried on writing plays because they felt, you know, like a small enough chunk. A novel, which is truly what I wanted to write, seemed like a mountain, whereas a play seemed like a hill to climb.
But then I had this idea for my first novel, The French Executioner, about the man who killed Anne Boleyn. And even though it’s historical fiction, it’s really got huge, fantastical elements, not least the ghost of Anne Boleyn wandering around without her head tucked under her arm, actually, which is as the old song goes. But I didn’t have the courage really to jump in, knowing I most wanted to do that. I found ways to avoid doing it, researched the absolute backside off the thing for six years, only then discovering that research is a form of procrastination, and finally jumped in and started writing it.
When I did, it just took off, and I wrote it in ten months, showed it to an agent. She took me on, she had it sold within a month, and suddenly I had a two-book deal. And then I was being published professionally by Orion in the UK. The fantastical side came a bit, actually came fairly early on, in that another agent who had taken me on my first agent lunch . . . of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, as they say. And she came up, she said to me, “Have you ever thought of writing young adult fiction?”
And I went, “No,” because I’d written three adult historical novels by that time. And anyway, she said, “This type of stuff, you write action-driven, character-driven family stuff. You know, it would work really well, if you’ve got any ideas.”
And I went away and thought about it and I thought, I only write what I love anyway. And I was very interested in the sort of Norwegian side of my family, which is, to put it mildly, a little spooky. It has a sort of ghostly/psychic element to it that I always found interesting. And so, I delved into that and I came up with this idea for a book called The Fetch, which is a term for, like, the doppelganger or that that sort of thing. You know, the other you that we all have inside and that can go out. Certain cultures have it. Corsicans have it. Italians have it. Indonesians have it, surprisingly, because they bought the books in the end. And I came up with this idea, dashed off a chapter and a very skimpy treatment. My agent took it to New York. They went, “Yep,” and had it sold in ten days. And suddenly I’m writing a trilogy for Knopf in New York called The Runestone Saga. So that began my fantastical journey. It’s more earth magic, I would say, than fantasy. It’s all about Runic magic and the fetch and time travel and all the stuff I love.
Before we get too far into what you’re writing now, I just want to go back a little bit back into your bio, because I did want to establish that . . .you’re thought of as British, I think. But of course, you’re actually from Canada originally, aren’t you?
I was born in Toronto, yeah. Born in Toronto. Left when I was two. Grew up in Los Angeles till I was seven because my dad was an actor having his shot in Hollywood. And then I moved to England when I was about seven. And hence the accent you’re hearing, which was laboriously crafted from years of English private school, followed by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, getting rid of my lazy Rs, my Canadian, my American, Rs that I still had. So, then I became quite the Brit actor. But I’m not—I mean, I am. And I played that. But I’m—but it’s funny. I’ve played so many different things and I play American and Canadian. I’m making quite a career at the moment, actually, my sort of pivot in these turbulent times is to be an audiobook narrator and I’m doing a lot of that and I’m doing that American, Canadian, whatever it’s called for, you know. So yeah. So, that’s the background on the accent.
And I wanted to talk a little bit more about the acting and how it ties into the writing. Now, you said you started writing, writing plays, and you actually—you know, I think people who are naturally novelists or short story writers would think a play is the daunting task as opposed to the novel. The novel would come easy; the play would be hard because you have to tell everything strictly through dialogue and action on the stage. But how did the two things tie together for you? I mean, I often try talking to people who are involved on the acting or directing or playwriting side, that one thing they bring to their fiction writing is a very solid sense of what’s happening in the scene in a physical sense, like where characters are in relationship to each other, and you don’t have the sort of amorphous space where people suddenly seem to teleport from one place to another, which I’ve run into in some people’s writing. How do you find that the two things tie together, the play side and the prose side, the novel side?
Well, yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, my books, people always say, “Oh, I can see the film,” you know, and I go, “Well, I wish you would because obviously, I’d be much wealthier if they did.” And a number of my books have been optioned for TV or movies, but none made so far. In answer to a question, the playwriting, it was a natural progression for me, having done so much theatre. I love dialogue. I love the use of dialogue. My books tend to have a lot of dialogue because I always find dialogue is very active, and I like to keep scenes active. Obviously, the opposite is passive, and who wants to read that? So, I like to move action. And I think dialogue is particularly useful for revealing character, concealing character in some ways, because people usually don’t say what they really mean or often don’t. And yes, that sense of dramatic action, I always say that what I write really is character in action. And obviously, that’s three words rather than two, because character inaction would be really boring, but character in action. So, you know, I don’t do a lot of interior monologue. I like my characters to reveal themselves by what they do and how they react to circumstances, which actually helps me in my writing because I, you know, I very rarely get stuck because something is able to happen. I can just take my character into some situation, and things will evolve.
And that’s kind of how I write things. I, I don’t know necessarily that much about the whole book. I don’t plot, really, I have an idea where I’m going. And then I let the characters take me there by doing stuff they need to do so. So, I think that’s the acting side. It’s almost, you know, Acting 101. You’ve done some of yourself, Ed, you know that when you as an actor, what you’re always taught and what you learn is that rather than dwell on, “Oh, do I remember my lines,” or whatever, you trust that they’re there and that you’re going to react spontaneously to what happens. “What do I want?” is the key question for me. “What does this character want?” And then take that character into a scene and run into an obstacle that prevents you getting what you want. So, how do you deal with that? So, I do that a lot. And that’s a definite, that’s the most direct correlation between my acting/playwriting side and my prose side.
Yeah. And that’s something else, when I’ve talked to other actors who are also writers, as an actor, you’re trying to inhabit a character and make that character come alive. And that’s exactly what you’re doing as a writer. The only difference is that as a writer, you have to make up the dialogue. It’s not given to you by somebody else.
This is true. This is true. And that can be both good and bad. You know, if you’re doing Shakespeare, you’re relishing the fact that you’ve been given this amazing dialogue. If you’re doing some terrible television show, you’re thinking, “How do I make this work? I can’t even begin—this makes no sense at all.” So, I’ve done both, obviously.
Well, now, let’s go back to the books you were going through, the ones that you have had written. You have this . . . I can’t remember where you left off when you were talking about that, but you have the fantasy novels from Gollancz that were coming along there somewhere, I think.
Yes. Well, I’m currently I’m in the midst of those right now. I’m doing something that’s quite interesting, and I think a lot of your listeners might relate to. I’ve become what they call the hybrid author because I’m both being published by the big houses still, but I’m also doing some self-publishing, getting my—
Yeah, of course, getting the backlist back, reissuing those because, as you know, often a writer will feel that they’ve laboured for a year over this, or a year or more over a book, and then it barely registers before the publisher has moved on to another book. You know, you’re hot for about three days, and then they’ve moved on, and you think, “Well, they didn’t really. . .” You know, they expect some magic to happen, you know, so you always get frustrated because, let’s face it, we write to be read. And if people aren’t aware of your books being out there, how the hell are they going to be read? So, I’m quite interested in the whole . . . I’m not the world’s greatest. I have to tell you, I’m not a great marketer or a publicist, but I’m doing OK. And my plan is just to get all the books out there again. And so, that with the . . . Gollancz, of course, you know, they’re doing whatever they do. I don’t think they’re making them as known as they could, but, you know, there’s very few writers that aren’t going to complain about their publishers pushing their books. However, it’s . . . to write epic fantasy like that is quite interesting to me, because my other fantasy, even though I don’t really believe in marking between YA and adult, I just write a good book. And a lot of adults have read my so-called YA fantasy and vice versa. But my epic fantasy is, you know, it was an agent who actually said, you know, “Epic fantasy is kind of big right now, have you got something?” And I just thought, No, but I did what I do, which is, I sat down with a notepad, I wrote a word in the middle of the first page, and the word was “immortality.” And then I just started riffing off that and within two hours had a five-page treatment
So, I’m sure that’s going to offend a lot of your listeners, I’m sorry. It sounds too pat, but it’s that feeling of which I was talking about before, about process, and that initial process of just letting your mind go and riff and relate and word association, and all that stuff helped me come up with the idea for the Immortals Blood series, which Gollancz then, after a few hoops I had to jump through, bought, and the two books, as you said, were already out. I think it’s very different. I mean, of course, I would say that. But it’s not . . . I mean, there are battles. There are swords. There are, you know, there’s all this. But there’s nary an elf maiden with a lost king in sight. You know, it’s about immortality, and it’s about the corruption of basically the one percent, what the elites can do to a world. And three very different worlds, one kind of Viking, one kind of Greco Roman, and one kind of Mesoamerican. And what has immortality done in those three respective cultures. So that’s . . . I’ve loved writing those. I’m just about to receive book three, which is called The Wars of Gods and Men, which is the concluding book of the trilogy, back from my editor. And then that’ll be out probably until early next year.
And then that brings us to the Tapestry trilogy, which, yes, we’re going to focus on a little bit more as an example of your process. We’ve talked quite a bit about your process already, but we’ll go through it anyway. So, tell me, first of all, before we start talking about it, tell me about it.
The Tapestry trilogy. So, this is a good example of how the hybrid world works. So, I wrote—when I’d written the Runestone saga, my editor asked me to write another book. I hadn’t thought of writing so-called YA fantasy fiction at all. So, I was a little bereft of ideas. And then, as you mentioned in the bio in the intro you gave, I suddenly looked at the ring on my finger, the rampant unicorn that I’ve worn since I was 18 years old. The family crest, no less, though, my horse-auctioneer great-grandfather was the one who came up with it. So, it’s . . . I’m not hidden nobility or anything like that. Anyway, and I thought, “What does a unicorn mean?” And I started delving, and various things happened. Unicorns could only be tamed by maidens. Unicorns are indomitable, unconquerable, apart from the maiden in the mirror, actually. And they could also cure illness and poisons and, dare I say, viruses, and heal and cure pollution as well. They calm a stream to make it drinkable, that sort of thing. I was fascinated by that.
And then I discovered the Unicorn Tapestries, these amazing medieval tapestries, which are in the Cloisters museum in New York. And the great thing about—-one of the great things about them, apart from their sheer stunning beauty and, you know, no one knows exactly who made them or when they were made, like, late fifteenth century is the best guest and Flanders is the best geographical get. But no one really knows anything about them, who they were made for, who made them—someone very rich because they’re very, very expensive to make, gold, red, and silver thread, but they are stunning, absolutely stunning, you know, this whole journey of a unicorn, the hunt of the unicorn in five tapestries.
And so, I immediately glommed onto that and came up with the idea that maybe a New York young lady called Elayne or, full name, Alice Elayne, is told by her father, who’s dying, actually, he’s got leukemia, that there’s a family history. And there’s this book he reads to her that tells of the original tapestry weaver, who was their ancestor, and who had woven a gateway for a unicorn to travel back to his world because unicorns, magical beasts, were in our world, but then basically it got too hot, man got too good at killing them, so they all went back to the place they were from, which is Goloth, the land of the fabulous beast.
And so, the tapestries became a portal, you know, kind of like the wardrobe in Narnia between our world and this medieval world, Goloth, where all our myths live. And she is summoned by a five-hundred-year-old unicorn called Moonspill through the tapestries because he needs her there, he needs her help. And it’s her adventures in Goloth and how they have a complete misunderstanding because she thinks, What do I know? Because he wants her to tame him because he needs to not go mad. He needs to rescue his mate, who’s held by the tyrant king. And she goes, you know, “I barely passed calculus. What do I know about unicorn-taming anyway?” I won’t tell you the story, but there’s a rapprochement and an adventure.
And then, I was asked to write this . . .I didn’t think of writing a sequel. I thought it was a pure one-off. But as you know, unless you actually kill the characters off, they’re there. And I started wondering, you know, after all the extraordinary and terrifying adventures, what would happen to someone like that? I mean, how do you go back to your normal life in New York? How do you go back to—two years later, she’s actually at Columbia—but how do you go back to a normal life when you’ve done all these incredible things? You know, there’s probably a touch of PTSD, you know. And so, I revisited. . . and then, of course, the other thing was, I really thought, Well, I’ve had a unicorn, I’ve got to do a dragon. So, I came up with this idea, The Hunt of the Dragon, and wrote that. And then, you know, that was only published in Canada. So, I thought, now I want to take this further. But then I thought, I know what I’ll do. I’ll write a third book, because, of course, there was more. And I discovered this thing about dragons. I decided not to stick to one sort of medieval European wyvern or something like that. I incorporated all various aspects of Eastern dragons as well. And Chinese dragons particularly are able to be shapeshifters. And I thought, Wow, that’s cool. A dragon that can actually turn into a human being for a couple of hours and then wreak unspeakable havoc when it does. Because my dragons are not cozy dragons, my dragons are killers. And so, I wrote The Hunt of the Shapeshifters, which is what happens when some dragons manage to get their way back to Earth and start killing. So, serial killer dragons, I thought, that’s going to be good. So, I wrote that as the conclusion of the trilogy, a completely new book for that whole saga, and then brought them out myself and called it all the Tapestry Trilogy.
Well, you talked a little bit about the Gollancz trilogy, starting with a single word and then building out around from that. In this case, it seems like you started with a ring, but did you use a similar process? And how much planning and outlining did you do? It sounds like you don’t do a lot.
I don’t do a lot. No, I. You know, with The Hunt of the Unicorn, I mean, I suppose . . . it’s a while ago since I wrote it, actually the first iteration of it, but it would be my normal process. I tend to . . . I mean, it depends how much research I needed.
There’s, you know, there’s a misconception that that fantasy doesn’t require research. You know, they say, “Oh, it must be so much easier for you now. You’re not writing historical fiction.” And I go, “You have no idea. I mean, you know, researching weaving for a start and tapestries and then and fabulous beasts, because, of course, it’s not just the unicorn and even the dragon. There’s griffins and manticores, and each has their own mythology around it and therefore their own way of behaving.
So, there was all that. But what I tend to do is, I take . . . you know, it’s, again, another misconception that I don’t plan anything. I just don’t write out a chart or a plan. I’ll have a rough idea where I’m going. What I do is . . . what I often say is I liken it to an alphabet. The book is an alphabet, A being the beginning and the Z being the end. And, you know, I’ll have an idea of both those things. You know, what will be the, “Well, what’s the start of this journey?” The summons basically, but the set up of her life and her ancestry, which she doesn’t believe in, and her father being ill and all that stuff in New York.
And then, I know she’s going to get summoned through, and I know the unicorn is going to be facing this. So, back to the alphabet. I’ll know A, and I’ll probably know D, the summons, and I’ll know G because that’s when she meets the unicorn, and I’ll know M and then T and then, you know, W or whatever. But I don’t know how I’m going to get between them necessarily and that’s what I then write you know how and then because, I really, I believe in the process of writing, that it actually happens while you’re writing and so that the ideas I come up with in my logical mind are probably not going to be as good as the ideas that I come up with when I’m actually writing the story, you know, physically sitting there writing it.
So, all sorts of things happen. You open yourself to serendipity. You open yourself to inspiration. You literally, I mean, without being too sort of, you know, you solicit the muse. You know, I don’t make it all sound super-mystical, but it’s you know, it’s that’s part of the process for me. And so, when I get to the end of the first draft, that’s when I do a plot. That’s when I become a little nerdy and get my pencil and ruler out and literally write out this chart on butcher’s paper, which I pin to a chalkboard, which has the chapters, the rough action, and then notes about, well, you know, if this happened in Chapter 24, I’ve got to plant that in Chapter 15, that sort of thing.
On the character side, because you described your fiction as characters in action . . .
Yes, yes. Well done.
. . . how do they develop for you? Like, do you have them clearly in your mind when you start? Do they also develop through the process of writing?
Oh, no. They very much develop through the process. Yes. You know, I always say that they’re, you know, I need them to tell me who they are. I will start out with an idea of who they are. But then by putting them through the action, I will then discover, you know, who they are, how they react to circumstance and what they say to people, and that way, when I go back into the second draft—because I’m very big on separating out the different needs of each draft, you know—by the time I got to the end of the first draft, I know them so much better. So then, I go back and start writing the second draft and some of the early stuff. I think, “Oh, no, because she’s proved to me that she is this. Therefore, she wouldn’t do this in the beginning.” And that’s when my rewriting comes in.
It’s a bit like the rehearsal process on stage. You start off with a rough idea of the character, but it develops as you as you play it and bounce off the other characters in the piece.
Yeah, that’s an interesting analogy, actually. Yes. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. But you’re right. That’s exactly right.
Because the character you end up with in performance is not the way you started when you were sitting around the table for the first time reading the script.
Yes. Well, I know. . . you hope. You hope. I mean, that’s the point of rehearsal. And often there are, you know, there are instinctive choices you make that are very good and will appear in the final performance. And there are others that you’ve gone, “Oh, that’s that,” and something one of the other actors gives you or director, you know, sometimes gives you, you know, gives you a different way of approaching and you rethink it. You rethink how you can do it, or you try something different, and you think, “Ah, that works.” So yes. So, it is similar. It’s a good analogy for the writing process as well.
What does your actual writing look like? Do you write, you know, longhand? Do you just tap on a laptop? Do you like to work in an office or out somewhere?
Yeah, no, quill and inkpot, you know, on old vellum . . . no. I’m not a very good typist, and I’ve often thought I should correct that and become a speed typist, but then I actually don’t mind because it sort of slows me down a bit, which I quite like. You know, I’m quick enough, but I do a lot of writing what I call off-piste. I have notebooks, I have these brown notebooks that I favor made by a French company called Clairefontaine. And I’m always writing stuff in there. Often, it’s research stuff. And then it’ll be, you know, I’ll say, oh, yeah, I’ll discover some interesting fact, and then I’ll put N.B. underneath it. The unicorn Moonspill could do this now because of that aspect of unicorn lore or whatever. And sometimes, though less often these days, sometimes I go off-piste entirely if it’s a particularly tricky passage and just write it longhand. I only ever wrote one book longhand, and that was Vlad – The Last Confession because the material was so dense and tough, and I tried to do what I do, which is essentially write thrillers, historical thrillers, fantastical thrillers, in a subject that was so layered and so complicated by politics and religion and myth. Actually, I thought now I need to connect the head in the heart and the hand here. So, I wrote longhand. Never do that again because it’s so bloody labour-intensive to then put it into the computer. And also, my writing is scribble. So, I go, “What’s that word? I can’t even read that anymore.”
I wrote longhand in high school, and I haven’t done it since. I still have . . . actually the first book I wrote is right here on my desk.
Yeah. I would never do that again. My writing is also really bad.
I love the feeling. I’ve got a great pen, but I keep that for sort of a bit of journaling or a bit of riffing, you know, but yeah, it’s not ideal. So, no, it goes in the computer, and then it gets revised.
OK, and that brings us to revision. What does that look like for you? Do you do start to finish? Do you do a rolling revision as you go along? It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like you’re going start to finish
Absolutely. Yeah, I . . .one of the classes I teach is called “The Mountain.” I came up with this concept of the mountain, the novel as a series of accents. And so, you know, it’s three different climbs up the mountain. I mean, there’s more probably than that. You do some bits, you do more, you work hard and do more drafts on than others perhaps, which come more naturally. But so, the first ascent up the mountain for me is that free climb. It’s like climbing a mountain. You forget the summit. You need to reach that handhold there, that foothold there. And that . . .if you free climb up the first time, that’s the exploration for me. That’s finding the best way up the mountain. And so, you know, one of the rules of mountain climbing, apparently, I’m not really a climber, but is, “Don’t look down,” right, and so I don’t look back, very rarely will I go back. Sometimes I go back to check eye colour or something, but even then, I don’t because I know I’ll pick it up next time. And often, if I’m . . . especially with the historical fiction, if I hit a point where I go, yeah, well, you know, I’m writing World War Two at the moment, “How did the Heinkel bomber . . .” you know, I put a question mark in rather than actually go back and look it up at the time, because I don’t want to stop the flow of the inspiration.
So, yeah, no, I don’t revise as I go. I get to the end, and then I go back to the beginning, and then I read it and . . . well I do my chalk first, actually. And then I just start again. As I’ve done it more and more, I find that my first drafts have become cleaner and cleaner. There’s not a huge change now as there was before, probably. You know, when I started out, I overwrote, I think, and now I don’t do that nearly so much. I find that the first draft is pretty clean, some passages will need reworking, obviously, something I discovered will have to go in, but there’s not a huge amount of revision on the second climb up the mountain. And the second climb is much more, “Right. I’m going to fix a route that someone could follow me up.” And then the third draft is, you actually take the editor up with you, and they go, “Yeah, look at that. That really worked. But why did you go over there? Why didn’t . . .?” And that metaphorically and then literally becomes the third draft.
Do you use beta readers of any sort, or you just going straight to the editor once you’ve got it finished to your own satisfaction?
You know, I don’t normally use beta readers. I did for Shapeshifters because I was writing it entirely for myself. And so, I got five fantasy writers, no, three fantasy writers, to have a read of it and give me some notes, which was great. Sebastien de Castell, Kristi charish, another, more screenwriter, Beth Stewart, who’s a friend of mine. They all read it and gave me notes, and then I use their stuff. So, I didn’t, actually, apart from the copy edit, I didn’t run that by an editor. So, that’s the only time. But normally, no, I don’t. It goes straight to the editor because that’s the advantage, of course, of working with a big house.
Yeah., I’ve never used beta readers either, partly because when I started writing, there just wasn’t anybody else around who read the stuff that I was writing
And once I got to being published by DAW, well, I have one of the best editors in the business, so I’ll let her tell me what needs to be worked on.
Exactly. Exactly. You’ve got to trust your editor. Yeah.
So, what kind of notes do you typically get from your editors? Are there certain things that you always find yourself having to do?
No, not really. There’s nothing that springs to mind. You know, I mean, I always say . . . again, when I’m teaching this stuff about the different ascents up the mountain, you know, the editor’s job is not to write your novel for you—as they say in England, you don’t buy a dog and bark yourself, right? Their job is not to say to you, “Yeah, you should do this, you should do that.” Their job is, I think . . .it boils down to clarity. What is the writer’s vision? And is this passage of writing helping in making that vision clear? So, for me, it’s about clarity. You know, the best question an editor can ask really is—which applies to theatre as well, actually, you know, you can say to a director, if you’re assisting a director or whatever, “OK, so we’ve just watched that scene. This is what I see. Is that what you want?” And if an editor says that to me, I’ll go. “Ah, “because it might be clear to you as an author, but you might not have made it clear for a reader.
So, it’s getting you, know, those are the sort of notes I like from an editor, you know, and then being able to say, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. That is unclear.” Or, “You know what, you’re not right because it’s ambiguous. “And I’m big on ambiguity. I like ambiguity in character. I don’t like lack of clarity. And there’s obviously a big difference between those two things.
But it’s interesting, and I often make the point, that writing and, for that matter acting, is actually a collaborative art form, but I mean between you and the audience, because what you . . . especially in writing, you’re putting something into their head. What they see in their head is not necessarily what you see in your head.
It doesn’t mean it’s not working. It just means they’re bringing themselves to it and getting something different out of it than perhaps you thought you were putting in there.
Totally. Totally. I mean, two people make a book. The writer and the reader. I mean, leaving aside the editors and all that. But, you know, you . . . and I was saying this just this morning to my girlfriend because a young lady in Russia has written to me. She loved the Runestone saga, which only the first two books of were translated into Russian. She now speaks very good English—and this is ten years ago—suddenly writing to me and saying, “My grandmother and I really want to know how that story ended. We can’t get that book.” And I said, “I’ll send you one.” So, I literally just sent off a copy of Possession, which is the third book of the Runestone saga, to her in Moscow today. And I said to my girlfriend, I said to her as well as in the inscription I wrote in the book, you know, this is, all books are a journey and a journey between, you know, we take it together. And that’s why I annoy people who are reading my books by saying, “Oh, where are you up to? Where are you up to?” You know, because I like to remember that journey then and I’m part of it and get their feelings of the journey, which, as you say, can be quite different from what you might have intended or whatever. But I think that’s an important thing to remember as an author. You know, you’ve got to leave space for the reader to be in your story. I think explaining everything is not necessarily the way to go.
You’ve talked about teaching writing, so I wanted to ask you about that. But first I wanted to ask you, because I often do with authors, did you have any formal training yourself on the writing side?
No. I mean, I know people will go, “Well, wait a second, you got an MFA. “But I got that after I’d already written nine novels, I decided I needed to get a . . . I’d never gone to university. I’d gone to drama school. And I kind of felt cheated of that experience. Plus, I thought, you know, anyone who’s trying to teach in Canada today needs a master’s degree. So, I thought maybe, you know, if I want to teach at university, which really, I did, but I thought maybe that’s an idea now. So that’s why I went and got my MFA, which would be another podcast to tell you what I actually think about creative writing training, and it’s not necessarily all good. But anyway.
I get that a lot from writers.
But I took, you know, I remember taking a short story class long before I was, you know, I was just a wannabe. And this is probably ten, twelve years before I even before I turn my hand to writing. But no, and I’m not a great manual reader either, though I’m actually considering writing one right now because of all the stuff I picked up along the way, the experiential stuff I like. But what got me writing was reading a book called Writing the Natural Way, and it was very much about left brain, right brain. And it was . . .I mean, it was maybe a little over-heavy on that side, but it really did emphasize the separation of the process. And I read that book, and that’s when I started. That’s when I wrote my first play.
Well, have you found now that you are teaching other people to write, do you find that that comes back to help you in your own writing? I certainly do. I’ve taught writing, and I’ve been a writer in residence at the public libraries in Regina in Saskatoon, working with a lot of writers, starting up writers. And I find that focusing on other people’s writing often makes me see my old work clearly. Is that your experience?
Yes, I would say that’s true. When I teach, I tend to teach in a fairly, you know, I’m not very rigid. I like to see, you know, I’ll have a series of bullet points that I’d like to work through. It’s kind of like my alphabet for writing the novel. I know I want to get from A to D, but I’m not sure where B and C are going to be or what. They’re good. So, you know, I’ll riff on stuff. Other things will come up, and I’ll come up with a phrase, something I’ll go, and I’ll stop, I’ll say, “Excuse me a second,” I’ll stop and write it down because it does apply to my writing, but, oh no, absolutely you do. You know, especially when you can clearly see someone who’s got talent but maybe doesn’t know, doesn’t have the craft and how to channel that talent. So yeah, that does definitely help.
Do you find it rewarding when people advance as a result of your teaching?
Yeah, absolutely, and I love it. I do love it. I mean, I’m you know, I never seek teaching work. I’m often asked. I’ve been doing quite a bit online this year, actually, of course. And I’m actually teaching—I don’t know if this podcast is going to go out by then, but you might want to share this.
Oh, right. OK, well, I’m teaching a fantasy writing workshop for a literary festival that’s starting on Salt Spring Island. And, of course, you know, terrible timing for the poor woman who’s tried to start this. So, it’s all online at the moment. But I’m going to be teaching a fantasy writing workshop a week on Saturday, March 6. And if people want to go to Paper Covers Rock, which is the website, they might even be able to join in if they want.
Well, unusually, we’re recording this like three days before it will go live. So that will work out. That’s a week in the future or thereabouts when this goes, so . . .
Fantastic. Well, Paper Covers Rock, which is clever because Salt Spring is known as the Rock. And so this and this woman deserves the support because she’s trying to do what had never been done before establisher a literary festival in Salt Spring, which is crazy, and then tried to do it during a pandemic. So, I’m going to be teaching that class and hopefully get a few people out. And I’ll talk very specifically about writing fantasy.
One of the things I found teaching and being a writer in residence, in particular, is telling somebody very strongly, you know, I think this is very important, and you should do this and thinking to myself, “Just don’t look in that book that I wrote where I didn’t actually do that.”
That’s what we’re getting into the last few minutes here. So, I want to . . .you thought it was a little early for big philosophical questions, but I’m going to ask you. OK, there are three, really. Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes, in the big picture of human experience? And then, why write fantastical stories in particular? You don’t just write that, but you have recently written quite a bit of that. So, those are the three questions. But the first one is, why do you personally write? You’ve been doing it for a long time.
Why, why, why? Why, why this madness? You know, yeah, I . . . there’s a wonderful . . . I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a book called The Unstrung Harp. It’s an Edward Gorey book. Mr. Earbrass writes the novel, and there’s one . . .it’s a fantastic book for writers because it’s all about the process. And at one point, there’s this gorgeous Edward Gorey picture of this man, his hand across his eyes holding a manuscript. He’s rashly decided to revisit an early draft, and he goes and he sees it for what it is, dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. Why does he go on writing when it all turns out rubbish? You know, why endure “the unexquisite agony?” Why didn’t he become a spy? “How does one become one?” he says, it’s just wonderful, you know, and sometimes you do feel that. Of course, I write because I need to tell stories. You know, I’ve done it since I was a child.
I’ve told stories, you know, just getting my mates playing games. I love stories. I think stories are important. I think that what makes us human. If you’ve read the book Sapiens by Uri Yuval Harari, he posits the theory that what allowed sapiens to become the dominant, in fact, the only hominid, was our ability to gossip, i.e., tell stories. And that’s what draws us together as humans. So, I suppose that that furthers into your other questions of why does anyone write. I think we’re trying to make sense of the world, we’re trying to share our little viewpoint. And I’ve often likened us to, we’re all little mushrooms, and we’re popping up and giving our little view of the world there. You know, there’s a wonderful Wim Wenders film called Wings of Desire. I don’t know if you have ever seen it, but it’s set in Berlin, and it’s about these two angels. And their job is to go down and listen to people. They literally just sort of fold into them. They can’t be seen. And they hear what the people are going through. Very mundane stuff often, but they kind of testify. And I like that image, the idea that one’s testifying to the world and to, you know.
Fantastical stories. Yeah, I don’t know why particularly. I know I always enjoyed fantasy without reading it exclusively. I think it can be in the right hands so imaginative. I think it can shed light on our current situation, I mean, you know, I don’t write message fiction per se, but I do, you know, I’m always aware, even with my historical novels, people say, “Oh, you are an historical novelist.” I go, “No, I’m a modern novelist. I just happened to write historical fiction. You know, the books are relevant to today, are being read today. My fantasy fiction, I mentioned before, particularly the Immortals Blood trilogy, does deal with the world as it is now. It does deal with climate change. It does deal with the elites, the one percent, without trying to spell out a big message. You know, I’m more a depicter than coming up with answers, but I love the fantasy fiction that really looks at the world in a very different way. I just recently read for the first time, shame on me, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Have you read that, Ed?
Yes, I did a long time ago now, when it first came out.
Oh, my goodness. Reread it. But just that worldview, that ability to take something so different and yet make it also accessible to humans, I think it allows us to explore, yeah. Explore ourselves even when we think we’re reading something that’s so different from ourselves. So it’s, you know, a human wrote it. So, therefore . . . I started my book, Vlad, which I realized . . . I was writing about Vlad the Impaler, right? And I was worrying about, was I going to whitewash this guy? Was I going to excuse him? And I didn’t want to do either. And then I realized, no, that’s not my job at all. My job is to depict him. And I literally wrote a prologue that said, “I’s not up to me to decide. You decide. You’re the reader. You decide what you think of this guy.” And I came . . . I found this quote by a Latin writer called Terence, who said, “I am a man. Nothing human is alien to me. “And I think that’s a good sort of motto for the for us in the world. And perhaps particularly as fantasy writers, you know, let’s explore, and everyone is probably, if you do it well and with integrity, going to be able to find something that they can relate to or something that’s going to make them think about their world slightly differently.
And what are you working on now?
Well, switching hats entirely, I’m back into historical fiction, though, not my more medieval stuff, which is where I’m probably better known. I’m writing a World War Two saga. Fascinated by World War Two. It is loosely based on my parents’ story because, I mean, you wonder why I grew up a storyteller, my dad was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot. My mum was a spy. So . . . she was a spy in the Norwegian resistance. So, I’m writing a story about, it’s loosely based on them, about a pilot and a spy meeting and various times they meet during the war and what their different wars look like. You know, I’m not . . . given my you know, that I don’t set out knowing the huge amount, I’m not quite sure what it is yet. I’m just writing and having a hell of a time, actually, I’m really enjoying it. It’s very close to my heart in lots of ways. I feel I’m shaped by the people who shaped me, who were shaped by World War Two.
Did your parents tell stories of those times or write them down?
My dad was a storyteller, you know, being an actor and a writer himself, and, to a certain extent. My mum . . . my dad was very gregarious and, you know, one of the lesser-told stories of the war is that for many people, it was their best time, no matter how terrible it was. You know, how do you beat being a glory boy? You know, a fighter pilot? How do you beat . . . does the world ever come close to that again? My mum not so much. You know, Norwegian, you know, saw the Germans marching down her high street on April the 9th, 1940, lost a lot of friends to it all, just escaped with her life when they bust her cell. She didn’t talk about it much at all. But I’m finding out a lot more now.
With my little publishing company I started for my own publishing purposes, Shadowpaw Press, one of the first things I put out was the First World War memoirs of my grandfather-in-law, my wife’s grandfather. And he set out to write his memoirs very late in life, and he wrote very complete memoirs of the First World War. And then it kind of petered out. It’s like he intended to go on through his life, but the rest of his life just obviously wasn’t as vivid to him as that time he spent as a truck driver at Vimy Ridge and then as a navigator on a Handley Page bomber and prisoner of war and all that stuff. It was quite a little set of war memoirs. And I was very happy to be able to bring it into the world.
Yeah. Fantastic. Well done you.
So that brings us, I think, pretty close to the end here. Just let people know where they can find you on mine.
Well, my website is AuthorChrisHumphreys.com. Chris Humphreys. People often misspell Humphreys. You can follow me on Twitter @HumphreysCC. I’m on Instagram @CCHumphreys. I have a Facebook, professional Facebook page, Chris Humphreys. But the best place to start is my website for sure.
OK, well, thanks so much for doing this and for being on The Worldshapers. And yeah, unusually, this one’s going to go out almost right away, so it’ll be very fresh.
Great! Well, fantastic. I mean, obviously, send me all the links, and I’ll publicize.
Award-winning filmmaker Elaine Mongeon wrote and directed the short films Good Morning for Warner Bros. Pictures and Swiped to Death for Hulu and the Sundance Institute. She also served as an associate producer on Magic Mike XXL. Elaine has a love for the outdoors and has been known to spend her time traversing glaciers in Canada and precision motorcycle riding. Originally from New England, she currently resides in Los Angeles.
Glen Zipper is producer of the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated, and the popular Netflix series Dogs, which was greenlit for a second season, as developed and co-produced the recent Netflix hit docuseries Challenger: The Final Flight. He is also known for producing the HBO film Showbiz Kids directed by Alex Winter of the hit franchise Bill and Ted and is producer of the Emmy Award-nominated and Critics Choice Awards-winning HBO series What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali. Born in New York City and raised in Fort Lee, NJ, Glen currently resides in Los Angeles, where he enjoys motorcycle riding and stopping to pet every dog he sees.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Glenn, Elaine, welcome to The World Shapers.
Thanks so much for having us.
And now this will be an interesting one. I have not done two co-authors at once. I have done co-authors, but I did them as separate episodes. So, we’ll see how this goes.
We’ll still follow the same procedure, I should say, first, usually I say, oh, we met at some convention or something. But no, we’ve never met in person. So, this is all new territory for me. We’ll start as I always start, which is taking you back into the mists of time and find out how each of you—and we’ll have to trade this back and forth a bit—how each of you, where you grew up and that sort of thing, basic biographical information, but how you got interested in storytelling. You’re both filmmakers now. You’ve written a novel. Was there writing and books involved in your early interest in science fiction fantasy, or where did that all come from? So why don’t we start with Elaine?
E: OK, well, so from a very early age, my mom would encourage my siblings and me to tell stories. Basically, from the time we could talk, we’d tell the stories, and she’d write them down and draw the pictures. And then, once we could write and draw, she encouraged us to write and illustrate our own storybooks. She is a writer herself and an English teacher, and, you know, she just really encouraged us to explore our imaginations. And then, my older brother and sister, who were eight and ten years older than me, they really introduced me to sci-fi and fantasy. I was reading things like The Neverending Story and The Lord of the Rings and then progressed to things like The Stand, when I was much too young to be reading stuff like that. But movies really played a big part, movies and series in introducing me to sci-fi and growing my love of it, just, you know, Star Wars, the original Superman movies, Mad Max, the Alien movies, Blade Runner, all of these movies that I probably shouldn’t have been watching. So, that’s kind of how it all started.
And, you know, I would write privately because my mom never stopped encouraging us to write. And then, in high school, my English teacher was sort of the first person other than my mom to encourage me to keep writing creatively. And then I went on to college, originally as a bio/pre-med major, because I never actually thought that I could, you know, develop my writing into something that I would do professionally. It was always just sort of something that I did for fun in my spare time. But I quickly realized that science wasn’t really the track that I wanted to be on. My mom actually…I called my mom in tears when I was in Chemistry 101, freshman year of college, and she said, “Get out of the class.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And, you know, “This is my dream of becoming a doctor?” And she was like, “It’s OK,” you know, like, “You’re miserable. Do you really want to be this miserable for the next at least eight years of your life?” And so, she was very, very smart in, you know, supporting me and making the change. And I kind of floundered for a semester, and then she called and said, “B.U. has a film program. You love writing, you love movies. Your brother loved film school. Why not consider going to film school?” And again, you know, she just had this insight into, you know, kind of what I was not realizing for myself, which is that I’ve always been a storyteller, and I just never really thought of it as a practical whole. And so, I did the film school, and I got in, and I absolutely loved it. And that set me on the right course that eventually led me to L.A.
And, Glen, what’s your story?
G: You know, I’ve been answering this question a lot in the last few weeks since the book got released. And I’m realizing that I’m getting free therapy as I answer the question, and some sort of working it out. And my answer is evolving as I’m coming closer and closer to the truth of where it all began, I think? For me, I had a relatively difficult childhood, like many other people, child of divorce, and there was a lot of stress going on in the family. And we had one of the first VCRs, top-loading VCR, and we had four we had four tapes. We had Star Wars, we had Superman, we had The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and we had a film called Where’s Papa? with George Segal and Ruth Gordon. And those, the confluence of those four films, I think, might have warped my mind a little bit. Star Wars and Superman, you know, a child’s brain could process. Then you go to Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I don’t know what that did to me, but it definitely did something. Where’s Papa? I didn’t totally understand. But when you’re that age, you look at TV, it’s not a TV, it’s a window. You think that what’s on the other side of it is real or some version of real. And when all the other chaos was going on in my life, that world, looking through that window, is what brought me comfort. And as you mature, as you get older and you start to come to terms with the fact that it’s not real and that the comfort of that imaginary world starts to go away because it’s it is imaginary, I think I just had this impulse to start creating my own world because if they lived inside my own head, they were somehow real, or more real. And as time went on, and I lived with these stories in my head, there’s yet another impulse that starts to take root, which is, “I want to share these stories.” They’re not going to be fully realized or fully real unless I bring them out into the world, unless other people can see them and touch them and be affected by them.
And for me, that started in film. But as a producer, you’re really just executing, helping other artists execute on their visions. I have a joke that I make, which is, “What does a producer do? A producer takes a director’s dream and makes it their nightmare.” And there is a lot of truth to that statement. Not that it’s an unpleasant thing to do, it’s a wonderful thing to do, but you . . . again, you are problem-solving for someone else. And it’s very . . . there’s not all that much direct creative energy that you’re able to put into something. So, between the process of, throughout my life, of coming up with these own stories and building these imaginary world in my head and at the same time being frustrated at not being able to tell my own stories as a producer, I think it was just a natural progression and evolution to wanting to write my own stories.
Now, writing scripts is different from writing prose. Had you done a lot of prose writing, either one of you, or had you been very much focused on scriptwriting?
G: Scriptwriting. But there’’s a funny story there, which is, Devastation Class initially was conceived as a television show because that’s what we knew how to do. And we wrote a pilot and wrote a few episodes, we wrote a bible, and we showed it to our TV and film connections and friends and colleagues. And the response was overwhelmingly positive, but as often happens in this business, overwhelmingly positive response does not necessarily lead to anything productive. “This is great,” but no one wanted to lift a finger to help us get this thing set up anywhere. And we languished with it for a minute, and then Elaine sent it to a friend who is an artist who does cover art for writing novels, and we wanted him just to read it as sort of a fanboy read to tell us if it passed his sniff test, and he read it, and he loved it, and he asked if he could show it to his, to a couple of editors at where he worked. And he showed it to them, and a couple of months later, they reached out to us very excited, and they asked us if we could write it as a novel, if we could write prose. And that’s when Elaine and I both decided that we needed to just lie a lot. “Yeah, 100 percent, we write prose all the time.” It’s not that, we do it for ourselves, and we never let anyone read it, but, you know, I had stacks and stacks of things I’ve written that I’ll never let the world see. But maybe this is the first thing that will write that we’ll let the world see. And so that sort of “fake it till you make it” moment is where the transition from TV to novel began.
Well, how did you two meet, and how did the collaboration begin?
E: We met on an online dating site . . . it’s actually sort of a lifestyle website called nerve.com that had a personal section. And, you know, we met, we had a first date, the first day quickly turned into an overnight binge-watch of Battlestar Galactica, the Ron Moore version. Because we quickly discovered in hanging out that we had a lot of similar interests and mutual love of all things genre, specifically sci-fi. So, you know, we did this binge, and we were together probably for about a year or so when we decided that it would be really cool to collaborate on something together, and the original core idea that we came up with was “teenagers in space,” sort of aboard a starship, a sort of Lord of the Flies in the stars. And then the idea kind of grew from there. And we were actually inspired by this movie called Taps.
Yes. I saw I saw that. And I very much remember I’m old. I saw Taps when it first came out in the movie theater, I was probably . . it came out in what, ’81 or something like that.
So, I would have been about the same age as the characters—a little older, I was 22 in 1981, I guess, and had just started working as a newspaper reporter and editor. I have a very clear memory of Taps and how much I enjoyed it. And so, it was interesting to see that, and I can see the connection in the book. So, how did you come to Taps, though? I mean, it’s an old movie.
G. Yeah, it was, you know . . . I’m a bit younger than you, I was relatively young when it came out, I think I would have been about 10 or 11 years old. In the early days of HBO, they didn’t have very many movies. And so, what they would do was, they would take whatever movies they had, and they would just loop them, just one after the other after the other, and Taps was in that rotation. And so, even though I was probably too young to truly understand the sort of the implications of the movie and the themes of the movie, I became invested in that film after watching it so many times. And although we didn’t know who those actors were at the time because they weren’t quite that famous yet, we did have Tom Cruise and Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton, and it did have Giancarlo Esposito. And these are some remarkably powerful actors. So, even though they weren’t famous, their performances were remarkably effective. And I think that also left an impression on me. And it’s also a very jarring film. For those who haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but when you leave that film, it’s just one of those films that sticks with you for a while and feels like, a bit like a gut punch to the stomach. And so, I’m sure that that was part of the reason the film lingered with both of us for so long.
The divergence between Taps and Devastation Class is, in Taps, you had these military cadets who were students at a military academy, and they had a loyalty to the ideal behind the academy. And when the academy was threatened with being demolished to make way for some new condominiums, these cadets, they just couldn’t bear the thought of it, and they essentially mutiny and take control of the academy and try to prevent the construction crews from coming in and tearing down the academy. But that is a story about sort of an abstraction, a loyalty to an ideal. And you could look at that film and say, “Well, with these cadets did, really, their actions can’t be justified. The means don’t justify the ends here.” You know, the academy goes away, there’s some new condominiums that go up. Yeah. And so what? And to us, we said, “What if we took that to another level? What if the stakes were life and death? What if we had a group of cadets where if they didn’t take action, even though they weren’t permitted to, even though it would require a mutiny, if they didn’t take action, if they really believe that will need to their deaths and lead to the demise of perhaps even human civilization, what do you do now? And how do you handle the unforeseen consequences that come as a result of that decision?”
This might be a good point for a brief synopsis of the book for those who have not yet read it. Without giving anything away.
G. Sure. The story takes place in the very distant future after the conclusion of a devastating nine-year war with an alien race called the Kastazi. And in the aftermath of the war, humanity is having a bit of a renaissance, and instead of taking their battleships into space to fight aliens, they’re going on missions of science and learning. It’s peacetime. And because these battleships no longer have a war to fight and don’t need to be packed to the gills with soldiers, they’ve even taken students and young military cadets aboard these ships as they go on their missions of science and learning. And on one particular mission, on the flagship of humanity’s fleet, the alien race, the Kastazi, they return. A reinvasion force returns. And when the ship comes under attack, most of the adult officers are off the ship on a space station. And the few adult officers that are remaining on the ship are really not competent enough to save the lives of everyone that’s remaining on the ship. So, our cadets make the impossible decision to mutiny, to take over the ship, and to try and save themselves and everyone else. But after that happens, chaos is unleashed, and consequences that our characters never saw coming do manifest, and a mystery eons in the making starts to slowly become unraveled, which will ultimately lead to some pretty shocking surprises across the trilogy of books.
So, once you had the inspiration and once you decided that this was going to be a novel, what did your planning process look like? There’s two of you. You obviously would have had a lot of bouncing of ideas off of each other. Did you end up with a very detailed outline, or did you have a general idea and then just start writing? And how did that work for you?
E. Well, we were tasked, when we spoke with those editors who expressed interest in the story, they suggested that we write a book proposal.
You already had a serious proposal, right, like a series bible?
We did. Yeah, we had three episodes of the series written in script form. And then we had a bible for the rest of season one. So, we already had, you know, we had already structured out a lot of the story. Now, when we decided to make it into a novel, a lot of the original concept changed structurally, and characters changed, but for the most part, the bones stayed the same. So, we wrote about a hundred pages of prose, and then the rest of it was an outline, basically a synopsis of what the rest of the book was going to be. And because we lived together for a large portion of our relationship, we were constantly, or we were spending so much time together, we were constantly, in our free time—because we were both working our other jobs while we were doing this—we were really spending a lot of our free time just talking things through before pen ever went to paper and exploring other ideas and spending our weekend brunches, like, over eggs and pancakes, just talking a lot about where the story was going to take us and where these characters were going to go.
Did you have any major disagreements during that process about how it should proceed?
G. We did. We had a big one in the beginning, which was . . . we had initially started writing the book in the third person because there’s so much action that takes place parallel to other action in the story. And if you’re in the head of, or in the perspective of, one character, how do you see that? How do we get that across to the reader? How do we portray in an efficient way all these multiple storylines that are happening at the same time? And we gave it a crack, and we were probably a third of the way through the book, and I think we both instinctively knew that something wasn’t working. And I was more stubborn and wanted to stay in the third person, and Elaine was very dogged about wanting to give the first-person perspective a shot. And at some point, I got frustrated enough with her that I said, “Fine, just go do it, you go do it, and then you send it to me, and it’s going to be terrible, and then I’ll tell you it’s terrible, and then we’ll go back to the third person.” And so, she went away, she did that, she sent it to me, I opened it up, started reading it very angrily, like, “This is going to be terrible. I think this is . . . oh, this is actually excellent. Golly.” And then I had to admit that I was wrong, which I hate doing, and I’ve done maybe three or four times in my life, not any more than that. And we went back, and we changed the perspective, and it was all first-person, and it became a multiple-character book. So, we tell the story through the perspectives of various characters. And that was our way of being able to touch on the various storylines that are happening parallel to each one other at the same time.
Yeah, choosing the voices is always challenging. My current one is mostly first-person, but I did . . . it’s first-person with third person, is what I did, which was interesting.
E. Whoa. Wow.
And I did one years ago, before I was getting published, but when I was still feeling my way, I wrote an entire book in third person, and then I wrote it again from first person. And first-person, I think . . . I mean, your book, having only seen it in first person, it’s hard to imagine it in third person because the first person seems, you know, it’s very immediate, and you’re right in these kids’ heads. So, yeah, I think I think Elaine was right, Glen.
G. She was. It’s quite frustrating. And I’m just going to have to live with it. I’m in therapy, and I’m working through it. I’m getting a little bit better every day.
Well, once you had your outline, what did your actual writing process look like? You’re collaborating, are you writing, each person writing a chapter, then switching them back and forth? Or how did that work for you? And I’m presuming because you’re collaborating, that it was all done on computer. You’re not literally putting pen to paper, which is the expression Elaine used, but maybe. I don’t know.
E. No, no. Everything is definitely on the computer. You know, we have this joke that, like, people often envision is writing together, sitting at, like, a kitchen table with our laptops back to back as if we’re playing a game of Battleship. But that’s definitely not how we do it. Yeah, one of us will go off and write a handful of chapters and then send it off to the other person, and that person will take a stab at it, and we just kind of go back and forth until we’re both happy with how they’ve landed. And, you know, sometimes we have heated discussions about things that we disagree on, but I would say that along the way, a large percentage of the time, we are very much in agreement about, you know, what it should be.
So, one of the interesting things here, you’ve got a fairly complex world with various alien races. I love the fact that the Greys are an actual alien race, I thought that was very funny, and you’ve got, you know, spaceships, you’ve got to have to figure out how you’re going to, you know, how do they get around the galaxy? You have this Blink reactor, which is something else. You’ve got space stations. So, what kind of research and sort of that level of planning would you have to do? It’s kind of like, you know, in film terms, it’s like set design and set decoration and stuff like that. Did you have a lot of that kind of material worked out ahead of time, especially when you’re writing separately? You know, you want to make sure that one person’s version of the spaceship is the same length as the other one and has the same arrangement of rooms and things like that.
E. We actually, you know, for the actual ship of the California, we actually sat down one day and, like, talked it through and made a diagram of where things would be just . . . you know, I mean, neither one of us are our artists in that way, but a super crude drawing of where, of how to lay it out, just so that we could . . . you know, it’s much easier to envision where things are happening if you actually have it plotted out. So, I kind of remember looking at some maps of the galaxy online and then quickly abandoning the idea of being accurate because it’s so complex, you know . . .
And you’re in three dimensions, too, it’s not a two-dimensional world.
E. Exactly, so . . .
G. There’s also, you know . . . I think some of the influences are obvious in the book, and one of the primary ones would be Star Trek. And I remember at some point watching, it was a YouTube video of someone who worked on Star Trek and designed the technology and wrote the technobabble, and someone in the audience raised their hand, and they asked the question, they said, “Well, how does the transporter work?” And the Star Trek production person looked at that person and said, “Very well, thank you.” And I sort of took it the heart, you know, and we also, as we were writing the book, we were thinking about, you know, what if someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson read the book and tweeted out, like, “Well, that’s not how something would operate in space.” But our answer to that would be, “Are you really sure this book is happening in space?”
Well, and there’s a lot more freedom with a far-future tale than there is, if you’re trying to do, you know, Gravity or something like that, which looked good, but apparently was really quite wrong in many ways.
But when you’re dealing with the far future, of course, you could say, “Well, yeah, we have artificial gravity, and why do we have artificial gravity? Well, because it’s really hard to tell a story where everybody floats around all the time.”
E. Yeah, exactly. Yes.
And that’s a long history in science fiction with space drives, right, hyperspace and folding space and time, because otherwise you just can’t tell the story you want to tell.
What about characters? How did you find the characters you wanted, and how did how do you build up and design your characters?
G. I think there is an inevitable impulse to imbue yourself into these characters somewhat. We all like to see ourselves as the protagonist. Even when we’re watching a film that we love, we see. . . you’re watching Star Wars, you sort of see yourself in Luke Skywalker, and you see yourself in Princess Leia, even though that is ridiculous, you just inevitably do that. At some point, we realized that we were probably doing that a bit too much because we have arguments, like, Elaine would say, “Well, JD would never do that.” And I would say, “What do you mean you wouldn’t do that? I am him. And that’s exactly what I would do.” And then she would look at me and say, “You’re not him. “And she was right because he’s far more talented, far more proficient in everything he does than anything I do. Probably the more accurate component or portrayal of ourselves in these characters are in their flaws and their insecurities and their doubts. So, in that sense, a part of us lives in all these characters.
Another interesting influence for us, if you noticed, the book is dedicated in part to our dog, who sadly left us last December after being with me for 17 years. But his loyalty, his love, his tenaciousness, his fierceness. You know, he was sitting at our feet the whole time we were writing this book, and he was an omnipresent reminder about the best qualities that we could hope for any of these characters to have. And so, there’s a part of him that that lives in each of these characters.
And then also, we both have an affinity for all things 1980s, particularly 1980s films like John Hughes films. And if you look at those films, many of them were ensembles with teenage characters from every walk of life. And, you know, if you watch those films, you always pick a character that you identify with more than some of the others. And we wanted this book to have some of that as well, which is also why we were very careful to not be too particular in the way that we describe the physical appearance of these characters because we didn’t want there to be a bar to entry in that identification. We wanted someone reading the book who identified with JD or Viv or Anatoly or Safieh or Ohno to say, “Oh yeah, that’s me. That’s my character in this book. So, I think, if you take all those factors and put them into a bag, that’s really the origin story from where these characters came from.
You started with teenagers right off the bat, when you first started this idea, what drew you to a teen story where the characters are young?
G. Because it helped with the stakes, because they’re not yet equipped to solve even the most basic problem sometimes. We would submit drafts to our editor, and a note that we got back often and that we found frustrating was, like, “Why did they make this decision? It’s stupid.” And we’d be like, “You remember when you were a kid and all the stupid decisions that you made?” And, you know, we were making stupid decisions as kids, sort of like, maybe, we drove the car too fast, or maybe we broke the lamp, and we lied about it. We didn’t have life and death stakes. We didn’t have the fate of the universe on our shoulders. And, so imagine how difficult it is for someone in the position of these characters who are 17, 18 years old, to have to navigate the stakes of the universe imploding upon them.And to us, that was much more interesting than 40-year-olds, 30-year-olds, who have some life experience, have navigated some serious landmines in their time, it’s just that juxtaposition of, those who are not ready who have to take on something that, if they were to just stand down, would probably result in their demise. That’s why the tag line of the book is “Fate Doesn’t Wait for the Ready.”
Yeah, I think that’s what draws many people to YA, both as authors and as readers. And, I mean, even adults read a lot of YA. I’ve written quite a bit of who I am. I have a trilogy called The Masks of Aygrima with a fifteen-year-old protagonist. And I would see reviews that say, “She keeps doing stupid things.” And I said, “She’s a 15-year-old girl. Of course, she does stupid things!”
E. It’s so frustrating, so frustrating. We feel your pain.
Now, you are scriptwriters first, and then you’ve come to prose. So, what differences did you find in writing prose as opposed to writing scripts? Obviously, there’s more description and maybe less dialogue, but other than that . .
E. Well, you know, with prose, you’re not limited by the sort of parameters that you have to follow within film and television. You know, we didn’t have to conform to a certain page length, for instance. We didn’t have worry about a budget.
There’s a famous story there that you may have heard. Star Trek’s episode. City on the Edge of Forever, Harlan Ellison’s original script had, like, this huge valley with giant statues looming over it, stretching off into the distance. And at the end, it was a, you know, a plaster rock with a hole in the middle of it showing old newsreel footage.
G. The ability to, going back to the first-person perspective, there is the ability to be in somebody’s head. Whereas, if you were going to do that in a film or TV show, really the only way to do that is through narration, which is really hard to do well without it being boring, without it feeling like it’s a crutch. We’re like, “Oh, we couldn’t, we’re afraid the audience doesn’t understand this. So, we’re going to have, we’re going to have a narrator sort of connect the dots for us. You know, famously, the Harrison Ford, the version of Blade Runnerwhere Harrison Ford is narrating everything you’re seeing, which isn’t very good, at least in my opinion.
G. And so, but when you’re writing prose, it does make sense. It doesn’t feel like a crutch. It doesn’t feel like you’re connecting dots for the audience that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to connect themselves. Instead, it feels like you’re offering the audience an intimacy with these characters that they wouldn’t otherwise have. And when you have that level of intimacy with characters, it’s much easier to invest yourselves in them. And that’s the formula for storytelling in our minds: characters you’re invested in, who go on a journey with stakes that are somehow paid off in the end.
On the other side, what . . . I mean, that’s a change. What advantages do you think being a scriptwriter first brought to your prose writing?
G. Efficiency, because in the end, you write a script, anything longer than 90 pages is hard for people to get through. I mean, like, the people who read scripts, you know, they usually go home over the weekend with seven or eight scripts that they need to read. And it basically destroys your entire weekend. It’s like, you can’t read that many scripts over a weekend and have a sort of personal or social life. And so, I remember, back in the day when I had to read scripts, when I would open up a script, and it was 120 pages, I would be like, “Come on, man, there’s no reason . . . like, why? You can tell this story in 90 pages. Why are you expecting me to read these extra 30? And so, we had to constrain ourselves to the same limitations when we would write in screenplay format. And so, you develop the tools and the skills to have an efficiency in storytelling, to be able to tell your story more clearly and with less runway. And also, without the crutch of being in someone’s head, you have to learn how to connect the dots through action, to have things make sense without your characters literally talking to you and telling you why they’re doing what they’re doing. And I think if you take those skills and you apply them to the prose, it allows for the same sort of efficiency. And then, you have to remind yourself to take the governor off and to allow yourself to go a little bit deeper, to let go of some of those efficiencies.
Do you think that there’s a better grasp of pacing, perhaps, than you see in some prose?
I mean, I don’t know how to answer that question without sounding like patting ourselves on the back, but I think so. But I think that could also be a criticism of the book, where someone will say, you know, “Why didn’t we get more time to sort of live inside these characters’ heads, get to know them, be more in tune with their inner dialogue? Why does it have to be sweaty action from chapter to chapter to chapter?” And we just made the choice early on that’s the sort of storytelling we wanted to engage in, where we wanted this book to feel like. Like, an action movie in a book. We never had the ambition for it to literally be Lord of the Flies or anything of that ambition. We just wanted people to read this book and have a tremendous amount of fun with it. And then when they were finished, kind of feel exhausted in the best possible way.
I think there are . . .whenever you writing a book, you’re writing for different readers, some readers will like the choice you made and some won’t. You can’t satisfy everybody—unlike in film where, you know, everybody loves every film. So, Elaine, you’ve done directing, and maybe Glenn, you have, too. I’m a stage actor myself, and I’ve directed and written plays. And I’ve . . . when I talk to people who have some theatrical or filmmaking experience, one of the things that it seems to me is that . . . I feel like I have a really good grasp in my head of where people are in relationship to each other. When I’m doing action scenes like, I know where they are in the room and where they have to go to to make something happen. Do you feel that perhaps your directing background helped with some of this on-the-page action as opposed to on-the-screen action?
E. Yeah, I would say so. I mean, you know, just having the ability to visualize people within a certain space. And, you know, I think that both Glen and I, because of our, even just, love of movies, really brought that eye toward a cinematic representation of, you know, when we’re describing what people are doing and describing the action, we really wanted it to feel cinematic overall. And I only directed for the very first time in a real way three years ago. And by that point, were already well into, you know, heavily into the book. So, I think, you know, the book helped the directing in many ways, and the directing helped the writing of the book. It kind of goes hand in hand, I think.
How long did it take you to write the version that you considered completed?
G. We’ve struggled with answering that question because we’ve done so many iterations, we don’t really know when it started, you know, because we had that first version of it that was a television pilot and then three episodes, and we did the book proposal, and then we made the revision from third person to first person. And so, where we settled is that writing the book proper was probably about four years or so. And a lot of that also . . . and this is a trilogy, so there were elements to the story that we pulled out that we are saving for subsequent installments of the book. And so, we weren’t just writing one book, we were writing three books, so that four-year time frame is a bit non-representative as it relates to one book, because we weren’t just writing one book.
Plus, you were doing other things at the same time.
E. A lot of other things. Yeah, a lot of other things. And I can add that we . . . there was a practical element to sort of the timeline, just because we had changes in editors at one point, so, you know, you kind of bring somebody else into the fold to have those creative conversations and things shift a bit. So . . .
That kind of leads to the next question, which is the revision and an editorial process. Did you write a complete draft, and then you were showing it to the editor or did . . . it sounded like maybe you had input along the way? Since they had come to you and asked for this.
G. Yeah, I mean, there was some back and forth. We did definitely show them components of the book before it was completed . . .
E. We also didn’t end up selling it to the original people that were interested.
E. Yeah, which is really interesting. They kind of wanted . . .it turned out they wanted more of a heavily romantic element, and we weren’t interested in, like, in diving into that. Yeah, so we ended up at a different place, actually.
Did you show it to other people along the way? I mean, many authors use what are often called beta readers, sometimes alpha readers, people who read it before it’s finished and give feedback. Did you have anybody like that, like friends or colleagues that you shared it with along the way?
E. No, we really didn’t. We shared it with our agent, Charlie Olson at Inkwell, who’s been with us from the very beginning, and I think Glen and I both felt like, because we had each other to bounce things off of, we didn’t really . . .you know, it can get a little murky and sometimes messy when you have too many people kind of weighing in. So, we kind of just wanted to keep it limited, you know, with the exception of that very early decision to share it as the TV version just to kind of get like that, “Yeah, this is good,” reaction. We really kept it to a small, small circle.
It’s interesting because I read acknowledgments in many books, and there are so many people that are, like, “And thank you to all these edits,” and it’s like ten people that pre-read and gave feedback. And I was like, “Wow, you know, like we didn’t do that at all.”
Yeah, it’s interesting. Well, one of the things about this podcast is,
I talk to authors, bestsellers, and everybody does it differently. And many people have beta readers, but others don’t. I never have, partly from growing up in a small town. There just wasn’t . . . the writers’ group in my town, in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, was elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, so . . .
And I was writing science fiction and fantasy, and it just wasn’t a good match.
So, I just never got used to that. My stuff, I write it, and I send it to my editor, and that’s, she’s the first person that sees it, so . . .
G. It’s really interesting, because we do a lot of this in film, too, where we test stuff before we . . . if we’re making something from Netflix, we’ll have a friends-and-family screening, and you’ll get feedback from people. I’m always sort of on the fence about if it’s a good idea at all because when you ask people for criticism, you know, they’re
loathe to just say, “Yeah, it’s great, don’t change a thing.” They feel like they’re required to give you some sort of criticism. And there’s also . . . ego comes into it. So, like, if they don’t make suggestions for how to make it better, they haven’t left their imprint on your work. And so, it’s really hard to cut through it all and decide which notes to take and which notes to dispense. And really, the only way, in my experience, to figure out which notes are truly legitimate from other notes that are just someone imposing their own creative, you know, feelings on something, telling you the story that they would write if they were writing it, is to get a tremendous amount of feedback, because then you could say, “What are the notes that that keep coming up again and again and again, by different people consistently?” because that’s probably an issue that needs to be addressed. The thing is, a book is so personal that I wouldn’t feel comfortable showing an unfinished draft to 40 people. So, it’s a bit of a Catch-22.
That is one of the freeing things about writing a book as opposed to working . . . and again, my experience is more in theatre. Everything is very collaborative, maybe not, probably not, as much in theatre as it is in film and television. Whereas with a book, it’s really just, you ultimately get the final say—maybe the editor, yeah, but you don’t have to necessarily take anybody’s advice if you don’t want to while you’re writing it. Was that freeing?
E. It was freeing, for sure. I mean, you know, I love the collaborative nature of filmmaking. It’s one of my favorite parts of the process, is you bringing together all of these tremendously talented people to contribute toward this one goal. But it was definitely nice to just kind of have it be us, you know, figuring it out and working through it and exploring our imaginations. Just us.
Once you did submit it to the publisher, what kind of editorial feedback came back? Were there specific things you needed to work on that you had perhaps not worked on until the editor said, “Hm . . .”?
E. I think one thing that came up early on in the editorial process that we at first were, I think, a little reluctant to . . . and then ultimately decided it was a very good idea . . .was adding the perspective of one of the students, which we hadn’t done. We had only had the cadets’ perspective. And that was a really important contribution from our editor that we think, you know, we feel really improved the storytelling because we were really able to present both sides. And, you know, that was key. Glen, can you think of anything else that may have . . .?
G. I think that’s probably the big one.
E. You want to talk about Bossa a little bit?
G. Well, yeah, well, I mean, it actually might be something that I think was an editorial feedback that we got that we, if we can do it all over again, we would have rejected, which was . . . there is another character in the book, named Bossa, who is an outsider, a bit of a space pirate, who comes into the story and sort of unsettles things. And we had his perspective in the book. And our first editor just didn’t didn’t think it was appropriate to have his perspective in the book. And he was a bit of a, certainly a lighter character in terms of his perspective. Certainly not a light character, but he definitely had an irascible spirit about him, or does have an irascible spirit about him, and was just really fun to write. And we ultimately took that note, and we did remove his perspective from book one. But, oh, he’s going to be all over book two, his perspective, from beginning to end.
E. Yeah, we’re really excited about that.
So, you did envision this as a trilogy from the very beginning?
That’s helpful because then you can, as you said, you can pull things out and say, “We’ll use this in the next book.” It’s when you write one, and then they say, hey, let’s make it a trilogy, and you didn’t really plan for that that you sometimes . . .
G. And it gave us the opportunity to plant a lot of fun Easter eggs in the book. And they’re not easy to find, but once people read book, too, it’ll pay off, and they’ll say, “Wow, I didn’t notice that those elements were living in book one all along. How did I miss them?
Well, the book is out now, as we are doing this conversation, and it will have been out for quite a while by the time this goes live. Have you been pleased by the response you’re getting?
G. Yeah, I think we’re, like, we have five stars or . . .
E. We have.
G. . . . or close to five stars on Amazon, and we’re doing pretty well on Goodreads, which I find absolutely terrifying. People don’t hold back, the people who don’t like you on Goodreads, you sort of just want to go, “Hey, here’s my address, come to my house and repeat that to my face.”
Yeah, I’ve had one like that. More than one like that. Yeah.
E. Yeah, brutal.
So, do you read your reviews?
G. The good ones.
E. Yeah. Yeah.
G. You know, look. I have a series out right now on Netflix called Challenger: The Final Flight, about the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. It’s doing very well, you know, at something like 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and it was the number two show on Netflix in the US last week. And so, it’s a big success. But you go on Twitter and there’s, like, some of the people are, like, “It’s too long,” and then there’s other people, “It’s too short.” You’re like, can you guys maybe get together and come back to us with the consensus? As you were saying earlier, you just can’t please everybody, and everyone does . . . the most frustrating thing I find about criticism is people don’t criticize you on your terms. Like, here’s a criticism of the book you wrote. The criticism is, “Here’s the story I wish you would have told.” Well, then you write that story. Tell me how you feel about the story that we wrote.
Well, and that brings us nicely to my big philosophical questions, here at the end, which is, “Why tell stories? Why are we, why are people in general driven to tell stories? Why are you particularly driven to tell stories and . . .and there was a third part to that, but I guess that will cover it. Yeah . . .oh, why stories of the fantastic in particular? Why go to science fiction and fantasy for storytelling? So those kind of three questions.
G. Well, I think that for science fiction, why science fiction, It’s because of the possibilities. There’s no limit other than the limit of your imagination. And also, when you are telling stories that have a component that are a bit like eating vegetables, you’re trying to get across important themes, you can sort of hide the chocolate in the popcorn when you’re telling stories in science fiction where people don’t really see those vegetables until they’ve finished the meal and then it resonates with them afterwards. In terms of why tell stories to begin with, I think as storytellers, we just enjoy that feeling of affecting people. By being able to create something and see the emotional response, you know, it’s sort of a call-and-response, where we create something that has some sort of endorphin response in them, which then, in turn, gives us a satisfying endorphin response of our own. And that back and forth in storytelling and telling stories is why I do it.
Yeah, and, you know, I feel . . . I agree with all of that and feel the same way, and I also think that there’s just a certain element of magic to storytelling overall. You know, I think that it’s this process of word by word expressing yourself onto a page, like literally grabbing something out of your brain and making a complete thought of it, and then being able to share that with other people and have them react and respond and entertained by it. And, you know, that process, while it can be grueling, it can be a very grueling process, it can be . . . it’s also tremendously satisfying. And, you know, the joy of being able to complete a project, you know. It was interesting for Glen and me to deliver this book amidst the pandemic. We handed in, we finally handed in the final version of it, and it was like, “This feels like we should be, like, jumping up and down and, like, having celebratory drinks.” And instead, we’re both in our individual houses, like, you know, just like, “Congratulations, we did it!” You know, it’s like this, you know, you’re confined to your own space during this strange time that we’re living in. But, yeah, I just go back to the magic and, you know, Glenn says there are just so many possibilities with sci-fi, you know, and I say there are no rules, you know. And I think that that also translates to, the magic of it all translates to filmmaking, as well. You know, when I finally had the experience of directing for the first time a few years ago, I went into it thinking, “I’ve been wanting to do this for such a large portion of my life. Oh, my God, what happens if I hate it?” And then on day one of production, the first time I gave the actors some feedback, and they adjusted their performance, and it was perfection, I literally yelled, “This is like magic!” after the take. And I think that that can be applied to novel writing as well, where you’re talking to people, and they are totally getting what you were trying to do. We, like, they . . . some people are noticing . . . I think the first time we had an interview where somebody noticed some of the Easter eggs and were like, “Wait, is that going to come into play in book two? We were like, oh, cool!” Like, this is such a cool thing to have other people, you know, recognize these things that we’ve been trying so hard to achieve for so long.
So, is it easier to get a perfect performance out of an actor or out of a character that you’re writing in a novel?
E. Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding? Way easier. Way easier in the novel.
So, we’re just about out of time here. What are you working on now that you want to mention? I think I saw in a interview, Elaine, that you sometimes don’t like to talk about what you’re working on, but . . .
E. Yeah, I’m a little I’m a little superstitious. I can say that I’m working on a couple of scripted movie ideas that I’m excited about, but it’s so early on in the process that it’s kind of not worth talking about them in any detail. And, you know, we’re both working on book two, which is obviously very important. And Glen, what are you working on?
G. Uh, I’m working on my tan. Well, of course, you have book two, and we’re just about finishing up season two of Dogs on Netflix. Challenger: The Final Flight was released last week, and that was a collaboration between my company and Bad Robot. And we have this second Bad Robot collaboration that’s in production now that I can’t talk about. But we’re hoping that will premiere sometime in early 2021.
You know, there’s a publisher called Angry Robot. I always get them mixed up with Bad Robot. But they are two different things.
E. Oh, I didn’t know that.
I think I think they’re British. They’re called Angry Robot. They have a pretty funny Twitter presence. They’re always making robot jokes. Oh, and where can people find you online.
E. Well, we have a wonderful website, DevastationClass.com, and then I’m @ElaineMongeon on Instagram and @E_Mongeon on Twitter.
G. And I am @Zipper on Twitter and @GlenZipper on Instagram, with one N. And if you go to my Instagram, you’ll notice there’s not much there other than me posting at least one funny animal video a day. So, if you like funny animal videos, head on over to my Instagram account.
E. Oh, and we have we do have an Instagram account for the book as well, it’s @DevastationClassNovel.
Great. Well, I think that will just about do it. So, thanks to both of you so much for being on å. I enjoyed that. I hope you did too.
Edward Savio grew up in the bucolic bedroom community of Berlin, Connecticut. After Howard University, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting, where he became a ten-year overnight success, selling the first of a half-dozen scripts a decade after arriving in Hollywood.
Savio’s first long-form novel, Idiots in the Machine, was his anti-screenplay, giving him the freedom to explore and develop deeper characters, multiple narratives, and play with language. He wrote Idiots with the certain belief that no one could make it into a movie, not even him, and then Sony Pictures optioned Idiots for the Academy Award-winning producers of Forrest Gump for seven figures.
After three more six-figure deals with Sony and Disney, Savio moved to San Francisco to start a family. And after years of commuting between homes in SF and LA, he chose to shift the focus of his writing towards novels so he could spend more time with his children. He lives and writes in the home where Danielle Steel wrote her first two breakout novels.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Edward, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Hey, how are you? Good to have this time with you today.
I like your first name. You’re the first Edward. I’ve done it on the podcast.
So are you…see, I’m an Edward. Are you an Ed or an Edward?
I write under Edward. That’s my byline. But people that know me call me Ed. Unless they knew me in high school. Then I’m Eddie. So it’s one easy way to tell when somebody knew me, is by what they call me.
See, I used to be Ed in high school, but then when I got to college, people, you know, across the campus would be yelling, “Ehh!”, like, any noise, and I just kept turning around. So finally, I was like, “Okay, can we just be Edward?” And it just worked out that way. But yeah, I mean, I know. And of course, my mother, when she’s upset with me, would call me Eddie. So I have those three personalities as well.
Yeah, I was always Eddie right up until I started working for a newspaper. And then I decided my byline as Eddie Willett…I was only twenty when I graduated from university and started working as a newspaper reporter, and I decided I needed to seem older than I was. So I went from Eddie to Edward at that point. And it’s been my proper byline ever since.
So, we’re gonna talk about your series, which started with Alexander X, but before we get to that–and, of course, the real focus of this podcast is on your creative process. We’ll use that as an example of your creative process–but before we do that, there’s a…it’s kind of a cliché on The Worldshapers, and someday I’m going to put reverb on it…I’m going to take you back into the mists of time and find out how you got started at all this. I know you grew up in Connecticut. Were you a big reader? When did you get interested in words?
You know, it’s funny. I am a student of words. I love words. I didn’t start out that way. You know, I think, like, how did I get interested in writing or writing sci-fi or writing worldbuilding? Like, there are so many different questions there. Which one do you want to start with?
Which came first?
Writing. You know, I think with writing, I have to say that I was a…most writers start out as readers. Right? I was not a reader first. I really wanted to become a director when I was a kid. I loved movies.
All you really wanted to do was direct.
All I really wanted to do was direct. And I knew that from the time I was in seventh grade. And I knew that the two most common ways to become a director were through the visual side, cinematography, cameraperson. And the other was writing. Actors, of course, have become directors, but most directors come from either cinematography or writing. And since I didn’t have a camera and I couldn’t develop my own film, you know? I wrote–a lot. I wrote dialogue-heavy plays and then screenplays, and I wrote a musical in order to graduate high school, because in between my sophomore and junior year in high school, I went to France and French girls just kind of got in my head and I needed one more credit to graduate, and so I had to do an independent study at the end of, or during, my senior year, when everyone else was loafing. And a lot of it was comedy and action, but when I wrote prose, it was always short stories, and almost exclusively science fiction. The screenplays I wrote, they might have a magic element to them, but almost all of them were mainstream comedies and actions.
So, after selling screenplays to the studios and making a good living and writing mainstream novels, I wanted to go back to my roots, and I think writing sci-fi and building a world is a way to do that. And, you know, there are so many ways into science fiction. As a kid, I–because I was this visual person because I wanted to do movies. You know, I loved watching Lost in Space before school or, you know, of course, the Star Trek reruns. That’s how I got into sci-fi. And I didn’t begin reading the classic science fiction until I was in my 20s. And I have this inverted life, right? Like I said, most writers, a lot of writers are big readers.
I think you’re the first one I’ve talked who said they didn’t start as a reader.
So, yeah, I mean, most people do that. And I was always a big writer. I wrote my way out of everything, feelings, and all of that. And so, I made a lot of mistakes that probably would have been fixed if I had read more. But I made my own mistakes. But that’s how I got into the idea of writing and specifically sci-fi.
When you were writing whatever you were writing as a kid, were you sharing it with other people and letting them see what you were doing and getting feedback that way?
Yes. So, you know, I wrote a lot. I wrote poetry. I would read it. It would be, you know, like I would read it in front of a class or do it in front of an assembly. I did stand-up comedy in front of assemblies when I was a kid. I did this musical that needed to be performed in order for me to, you know, get the grade. So, yeah, I was not shy about showing my work, but it was funny, when I went and talked to my English teachers, my English teachers looked at my work and went, “You’re writing in present tense all the time. And you should be writing…this sounds like a script.” And I was like, “Yeah.” So, even my prose, in the beginning, was in present tense, which helped me a lot. You know, I go through and use a lot of different tenses, even in the same book, because, you know, with Alexander X, there’s the past, but sometimes in the past, I’ll use the present tense. But I use tense to either make the action more visceral or to show a difference between when someone is talking and when someone is talking about the past, even if it’s reversing the present tense versus the past tense. But yeah, I didn’t have a problem with showing my work to other people. And I know that’s a big problem for a lot of writers. They just never show anyone that first work. And I’m so glad I did it early on because, you know, I’m proud of everything I’ve written. But the stuff I’ve written when I was younger, it’s still pretty good, but it wouldn’t have gotten better if I didn’t have some feedback.
And that’s why I always ask. Because it does vary from writer to writer. But…I was someone who wrote my first short story when I was 11, and it was called “Kastra Glass: Hypership Test Pilot,” so you could see where my mind was right away.
But I was always sharing it. And it was…if I hadn’t shared that story with a teacher who gave me some critiquing on it, I might have not had that little spark that made go, “I want to keep doing this because readers actually enjoy what I’m doing for them.”
Yeah, I mean, I always made people laugh in school, you know, or I was the person that, whenever we had a big assembly, I would be, like, the M.C. or the person that would gather…you know, would be up at the mike. I was not shy about that.
You know, you mentioned something about the musical. Did you perform in that? Did you do some acting as well?
I did. I’m an average-to-poor actor, you know. I was just watching Hamilton this weekend…
So were we!
…and, you know, I’d seen the play earlier this year in person in San Francisco, and it was amazing. And I think they did a great job in what they showed in the film. But it was interesting because, you know, as much as it is…I wanted to see Lin-Manuel do this because he is amazing at it, but he’s the writer and the creator. And in many ways, most of those other people are better, quote-unquote, actors than he is better singers than he is. He brought something no one else could bring to that part. But that’s how I would feel if I was doing something. I don’t even know if I’d be that good at all, but I’m saying that when I did my own stuff, when I was acting in my own stuff, I was the weakest link of it. But the writing is what gets you. And then also, understanding playing things is important.
One of the things that people have talked to me about is, in the Alexander X series, Wil Wheaton is the narrator. And people have said, “You know, is it weird when he does something different?” I said, “Well, a lot of novelists get weird about when someone makes a choice about their words. That’s all I started out with. I was never going to be the one that was in your head. When I wrote a screenplay, it was never going to be me telling you this story. It was going to be someone else. It was through someone else’s filter.” So, for me, it was actually a lot easier. I think it’s a lot harder for some writers to make that jump from book to audiobook. When they hear it, they go, “Oh, God, I didn’t mean that.” And it’s like, “Well, yeah, you didn’t, but a performance was built and was born out of your words.”
Well, I’m a stage actor, and I’ve talked to other authors who have some sort of theatrical experience. And I do find that it gives people a different idea on their regular writing. One thing that I often say is that, you know, you’re talking about, “Does it sound weird when somebody makes a different choice with the words than you did?” But that’s exactly what happens in every reader’s head. You don’t know how they’re hearing those words in their head. They’re essentially acting them out in their head the way that they would interpret them if they were an actor on stage. So really, everything that we write is being interpreted differently than we perhaps have it in our heads as soon as it crosses over into somebody else’s head.
I agree. I mean, I remember driving home from this girl’s house at like 2:00 in the morning. I was, like, seventeen years old or something. And I remember we had just, like, been, we were making out, it was like this my whole mind is like, “Oh, my God, this is amazing.” And I’m driving home, and it’s late, and this…I don’t know who it was, it was a late-night deejay or something…and he gets on, and he says this sentence and I will never forget it. And it’s absolutely influenced my writing ever since. And he said, “I can say the words ‘I never said he stole my coat.’ And if I inflect each word differently, it changes the meaning. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat.”
I’m going to remember that now.
Yeah. Each one of those means something different. And I will never forget that I’m gonna write this sentence and someone can read it, as many different words as are in there, they can put an inflection on there differently. And so, in writing, you know, I do use italics at points where I really feel like something is necessary and has to be there. I let the reader have their own mind for a lot of it. But I learned because of writing screenplays that I needed to be very specific in how I wanted something to be said. An actor and a director are gonna do what they’re going to do. But at least you have to give them your intent, so they can go, “I don’t want to do that.” Or, “Oh, I get what you’re saying here and I’m going to bring something different to it.” But you at least have to give them the intent. And it’s a wonderful thing.
One of the things that I find most interesting about writing is when you get criticism. People, you know, people tend to be only either lovers or haters when they write a critique. There aren’t a lot of “meh” in-between critiques. And what’s funny is when someone is negative, when someone doesn’t like something, it is usually not liking the very thing that either I as the author or the majority of people who love the piece enjoy. It, you know, someone’s like, “Oh, you write too much about history,” or “You do this or X or that.” And it’s like, and then other people are like, “I love when you go into the deep dives into history.” And so, you know, he can’t make everyone happy. But, you know, you’re at least trying to find your audience so that…it’s interesting, like, the first book, Alexander X, has a very good rating. But the second book has a much better rating. Now, is it because I wrote so much better? I think it is a better…I mean, I’ve developed the story, it grows…but I think it’s because I’m starting to find the audience and the people that aren’t going to like that first book aren’t going to go to the second book.
I think it’s Robert J. Sawyer, whom I interviewed, that said that you’re not trying to be…it’s impossible to be the favourite author of everybody, but you want to be the favourite author of a nice, solid chunk of people, is how most people find success. It’s not by being the most popular author of everybody, because you can’t please everybody.
No, you can’t. You really can’t. And you can’t even try. And, you know, you can’t even try. It’s just something that that doesn’t work. So, you know, I think one of the most interesting things about building a world, and that’s what you love to talk to people about, and I think in your own work, you love to build worlds, is that, you know, we get to create something. I’m not a believer in simplistic worldbuilding because, you know, when you have everyone, you know…there’s movies, television, there’s books, where you have a conceit, and you break people into five different groups, or you have certain different factions and those factions are very, very cut and dried. Well, if it’s a metaphor, I get it. But in the world, most things would never happen like that. But it is interesting to be able to create a world that is both familiar and shines a light on who we are, yet brings us into something completely different. Alexander X is very realistic science fiction, and so the worldbuilding is about the people themselves. I’m coming out with something, it’ll probably be next year, called Flux Capacity, and it is a very different concept, very much where I can go and play in this playground.
You spoke about, you know, Idiots in the Machine being the anti-screenplay, my first novel. I didn’t start writing sci-fi in terms of long-form until my kids were a little bit older, and I wanted to write something that they might be interested in. And that’s how, you know, I came about to write Alexander X. But with Idiots in the Machine, you know, I had this idea that I was going to just do the opposite of a screenplay. I was going to…I was tired of, you know, before I sold my first screenplay to a studio, I had written fifteen, maybe eighteen screenplays? I had made money, a little bit of money, from about the eighth or ninth? I was a starving writer living at about eight to ten thousand dollars a year, you know, living with roommates, living my life, not working other than writing. And then I started to write this novel, and nobody cared at all. No one gave me any money. And so, I had to start working. And so, I worked at this talent agency, and I got to see how the product was handled. And I learned a lot of things about the business. Those people never helped me at all. But I did meet someone who was an assistant, who became my agent, who helped change my life. She introduced me to the woman who became my wife and the mother of my children, and also, I learned about lit agents, and she was a talent agent, and I worked with her and developed how we could talk to people about the scripts. But, building a world is something that starts…it starts with a kernel of an idea.
Well, just before you get there, because that’s the main focus of what we’re gonna get you in a minute, I did just want to back you up to the university level. Did you study writing formally at some point?
So, again, I was very much a film person, you know, and I went for screenwriting and for film making. And I ended up just writing and writing and writing and writing and writing while I was doing that and it became the thing that I realized…again, learning how to get behind the camera was okay, but if I was going to do anything I had to be writing, I couldn’t be…it couldn’t be someone else’s…I couldn’t take someone else’s vision. I had to take my own vision if I wanted to be out there. That was the risk I took. And so, there were plenty of people that made more money in the beginning because they went and worked in the industry and moved their way up through things. But what I did was I took a gamble and, you know, I paid a lot of…you know, cheap food when I was in my twenties, but I put…I invested in what I felt was my best chance, which was to create my own things.
So now we’ll go back to the kernel idea. Because I want to go through your creative process. And the very first thing is, of course, that kernel of an idea. So, where do those kernels come from for you and specifically for the Alexander X books?
So, Battle for Forever…
Oh, one more thing before we say that. We should have a synopsis, so people know what we’re talking about who haven’t read the book.
So, yeah. So, okay. So, Alexander X. So, here’s the kernel, the start, right? So, the idea is…I had this idea as a screenplay idea, that there was this guy who was very good at everything. Mid-thirties. And what we find out is he’s a couple of hundred years old. And so he’s able to be really good at everything he does. And I put that idea away in a drawer. And then later on, when I was thinking about writing for my kids, I wrote this book called, you know, it was called The Stuperheroes vs. Dr. Earwax. And I did the illustrations that were just horrible, but they loved it. And my kids read up. They read above their weight class. And so, I started thinking about teenagers and young adults. And what if this character wasn’t 200 years old? What if he was a hundred times that, or a hundred times as old as a normal person? And what if it wasn’t one character, but maybe a few hundred? And they’ve been kings and queens and generals and some of the most famous people in history. But they’re not immortal, right? They step in front of a train. They die. Except, they have this genetic defect–what we now know is a genetic defect–that kills most people born with it. But the ones who survive have lived many lives, pretended to die, disappeared, started again as someone else. But for the last hundred years or so, they’ve been mostly living in the shadows because fingerprints, surveillance, DNA, biometrics, make it too risky. If they become great or even well-known, people are going to figure it out, and even if they pretend to age and die, their secret is going to be revealed the next time they show up, the next time they want to be great again. And they want to be great again. And the older ones, they’ve never gone this long without that kind of power and adulation. So, what would they do?
So, that’s the world. That’s before we even start the idea. That’s the backdrop for meeting our hero, Alexander X, who is a junior at a small high school in the Berkshires. And he’s known as Alexander Grant at the moment. And he’s never been famous or great, but he’s lived a lot, and he’s seen a lot, fifteen hundred years of it. But his mind, his body, and his emotions are that of a fifteen-to-seventeen-year-old. With all the good and bad that comes with that, right? So, everything’s going along fine and maybe a little boring, but fine, until someone tries to kidnap him and use him to get to his father, who is one of the most powerful of their kind. So that’s the jumping-off point. And Alexander is basically trying to figure out what the hell is going on. And so, that’s both the synopsis and the kernel of where the idea came from.
Spreading it out a little wider, how do how do story ideas typically come to you? Not just this one, but of all the things that you’ve written?
You know, I mean, so for me, you know, I have a lot of different ways. I have three different ways of putting information down. And I have hundreds of snippets of stories and thoughts and ideas. Things have come in many different ways. You know, one of my original…originally, screenplays, sometimes we would take an idea that was a classic. And so, the first thing sold to Disney was Swiss Family Rubinstein, which was, you know, it’s Swiss Family Robinson, but written for if Bette Midler and her family are rich in New York and they get lost on an island because of all of this reason, what would that be? So, it’s like taking a kernel of something old and making it new again.
Or, it’s a snippet of something. I read–for Idiots in the Machine. I read the front or the back cover and saw the cover, the book cover’ and read the first few paragraphs of a book called The Confederacy of Dunces. It was just a brilliant book that won the Pulitzer Prize. And I thought it was gonna be a certain book. It ended up being this other book. But a couple of years later, I was thinking about my first thoughts, about the ideas I’d put down when I first picked up that book in the bookstore before I ever read it. I had driven home thinking about what this book was gonna be. And I wrote that book. I wrote the book that I was thinking about, you know? So there’s…so, I am still…I am…like, about half of what I write is something I thought of 15 years ago, and the other half is something…like Flux Capacity is a new idea. Alexander X, I had that idea ten years before I wrote the book. So, they come from different places. And that’s why you just have to…honestly, the greatest advice I can ever give to anybody is–and I’m only about seventy percent of the way there–is have the best, most searchable database of ideas that you can so that you can go find them and look things up when you need them.
Once you have the idea, I’m looking at the novels here, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Or do you just start writing?
So, when I was writing screenplays, I was, oh my God, I was completely so very anal. I’m not an anal person at all. But in writing, I have to pretend to be one. And I would go through and use index cards and later use programs that mimicked index cards and write out everything, you know, everything, including indirect dialogue, including the major type of scenes. And then, by the time I went to go write the screenplay, I was going boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, and I’m there. When I wrote Idiots in the Machine, again, because it was this anti-screenplay, I did exactly the opposite. I had an idea–that, because, it was this thought in my head, through this idea that I had with the book–and I might have had an ending in mind. I had this vision, this one shot. It’s one image. Like I was filming a movie. I had one image. And then from everything else, I went and just went off. And so it’s all of these…imagine you take your fingers, your ten fingers, and they’re all spread out, and they’re just completely separate, and then all of a sudden they start interlocking like a zipper till the end. And that’s how it went and how it came together like that. My anal side kind of came in about halfway through the process, but it started out freeform.
Now, my writing process is a little bit more of both. I have three different ways that I write. I have tablets and digitized paper where I make some longhand notes. Obviously, I do most of my writing on a computer, typing. But I also make notes using voice-recognition software. I have a large space where I work, with screens on either side of this room, and I have a headset like those that the pop stars or the performers in Hamilton use. And I will walk around and act out action scenes. So, I may peek my head around the corner, pretending that I have a gun in my hand or I might block out how I’m going to do a fight scene. Now, I have large windows in my place, and it may be possible for my neighbours to see me from some angles and I can only imagine what they think of me when I’m doing this. I must look like a complete crazy person because I am literally fighting with myself and acting all of this out. And so, I put those things down on…you know, the biggest problem as a writer, my most time-consuming thing is to then reorganize those stream of consciousness ideas, which are well-formed in their little packets, I can write a whole scene or a section of a scene, but it’s reorganizing them in a coherent way to make them into a book because that…you know, they’re just ideas until you put them together.
Once you start doing that, do you work sequentially, then?
I tend to work sequentially, mostly. I will write big scenes. I may write a rough draft of an ending, you know, somewhere around halfway through the process. I already know something of the ending, usually. As a screenwriter, I’ve always started with two things. I know the first shot. I know what’s going to, what I’m gonna see, and so I know the first words or the first image in a book, and I’m going to know the last image I want people to know. And…but I tend to work sequentially. I tend to write and rewrite a lot of the first part of a book, you know, getting through till I’m comfortable, at least with usually about a third of it, about maybe 40 percent. And then I start moving onward.
And one of the reasons why I really develop the beginning is because spending time there at the beginning really makes the last part go a little bit faster, where I have a voice, I have a style, I have a thing that I know what I’m doing here, and I can go through and move further. I tend to do a lot of rewriting. Rewriting is, you know, I think…I mean, I think many people talk about this, right? But rewriting is the most important thing. And I do this one process where I write on a piece of paper or a digital version of it–usually, I use a PDF and an iPod–and it’s non-destructive editing, and I can make all the changes that I want, put funny lines in or ideas that I have, and nothing has changed in the original document. Because going into a computer is destructive editing, and a lot of writers have…they clench up, they get constipated, they literally clench up, and they can’t move forward because they’re like, “Ugh, I don’t know where I’m going.” But when you do it in a non-destructive way, you can do anything you want. And then later on, when you come back and put it into the computer and put it together, “Yeah, I guess it’s not that great of an idea,” or, “That other idea that I had later is completely contrary to this idea.” So, let me work those two out before I’ve done all this work.
I think you’re the first one who has told me of a process quite like that. People revise as they go, but most of us tend to just do it on the computer and not have a separate, non-destructive way to make those suggestions to ourselves and then come back to it.
It’s really the most freeing thing. It really is. I mean, it is the most freeing thing. And when I figured out how to do this–because I used to do it on paper and have these thick, just reams of things that I would always lose or, like, I couldn’t find them when I needed them. And on a PDF, I can at least search for the words near where I’m looking for or something, and I can just put it right there, and it’s on my iPad and then, “Oh, it’s on my computer right next to my what I’m working on.” It is the most freeing thing I’ve ever found.
I know it’s happened to me once or twice where I have rewritten something and then think, “You know, the original maybe was better,” but I don’t have the original anymore.
So, yeah, I can certainly see to see the benefit of that. Do you…it sounds like, with the process you’re working, I’ll bet you work almost entirely in your dedicated writing space, and you’re not somebody that goes out and works in a coffee shop or something like that.
I don’t work in a coffee shop, but I don’t work necessarily in a dedicated space. I actually have a few spaces where I write. So, I’m…right now, I’m in the booth where I do audio work. So, this is a creative space. But in terms of writing, I have three other creative spaces for the actual writing. I have a stand-up desk where I do a lot of this walking back and forth with this monitor on the other side of the room. I will go out on my balcony, and I will take my computer out and write looking out at the bay. You know, this house, this place has a lot of Chi, writing Chi, you know, Danielle Steele wrote two of her books here, so it really does have a good feel. And I use her bookcase. She built this one bookcase in here, this big, giant bookcase, which is my quote, hallway library. But I also can go and walk and talk, and I may go out and ride or walk and make notes to myself out in different places, because sometimes that is the most amazing…like, you get stimulated by whatever you’re seeing.
You know, I was, I got to go to Rome last October and some of the scenes in the third book in the Battle for Forever series, take place in Rome. And I already had an idea of what I was going to do. I already knew–I didn’t know if I was gonna go there. I was going there for… A friend was having a birthday party and I got invited, and it was this eye-opening experience. I’d never…my family is five generations on one side and four generations on the other of Italians. But we’re not, like…because we’ve so been here so long, we’re not like the new Italians coming over. So, you know, we have this, a little bit of our culture, but I had never gone to Italy. And I’ve been to Paris, I’ve been to Europe, I had all of these things, and I put them in my writing. But when I went to Rome, I was like, man, I could not have imagined what I’m looking at. The pictures don’t do it justice. The feelings that I’m feeling don’t do it justice. And I just started to walk around and mostly…like, the first couple days I just experienced. I didn’t try to intrude on my experience. But there were moments, you know, where I would pull out my phone and make notes to myself, audio notes, or think about what I was doing or where I would put this, and almost kind of do a live version of that thing I do in my house where I’m blocking out something. I might be in a place and go, “How would I run up these stairs if I was going to do something illegal here? How am I gonna get to that roof if I’m gonna use that great piece of architecture, you know?”
And so,. I think it’s important…a lot of writers create…you know, when I was younger, I had a small little room, nine by ten, and I used to sit in it, and I loved writing like that. And a lot of people love that little cozy writing space. But I also think it’s important for writers to get out and create in an open space. Take your computer, take your iPod, take your…whatever you’re doing, and go completely off-grid or in the middle of a city and start writing something. And maybe later on, it is going to turn out to be nothing, but it might be the kernel that you need for a scene or a whole story.
Yeah, I think the most productive I ever was, was getting out of my office and going to the Banff Centre for a week, for a self-directed residency, and I wrote 50,000 words in a week. You had this magnificent mountain scenery all around you. And it…although the odd thing was, the book I was writing was set on the prairies, but it was still…it was, you know, just the change of scenery alone stimulates, I think. So, once you get the first draft…well, first of all, are you a fast writer, would you say, or how does this process work?
I’m a bit…I’m about…I would say that I’m a fast writer, with a ponderous amount of pondering. So, when I’m writing, writing, I can do a lot of work, but when I’m thinking, it’s a long time, and when I’m editing, I can go through and agonize over a sentence or, you know, a group of phrasings here and there. So, it’s a little bit of a mix. I would say that overall, I’m not a fast writer. I’m not a slow writer. But I’m very fast and prolific at certain times.
When you get to the end, with all the revision that you do as you go along, is there then still a complete revision process for you where you go back to the beginning and work your way through? What does that look like?
I am, you know. Yeah. I mean, I am literally just…I am constantly rewriting. You know, I have…it’s very funny. So, I wrote the Idiots in the Machine years ago. And finally, you know, now that sort of had this second boost through Alexander X and everything…you know, I had a successful career as a screenwriter, and then, you know, I had this book that did something and then, you know, I raised kids and didn’t do much because I wanted to raise my kids, and I changed my life. I would fly back and forth, but it became too much if I wanted to be…and have a life. And so, it was a difficult choice, but I didn’t…you know, I kind of got rid of my apartment in Los Angeles, even though I kept it for years, and I just started writing.
But so, with that said, this book came back into the realm after Alexander X hit number one on Audible, and the opportunity to do an audiobook version of Idiots in the Machine became real, and I could get the type of people that I wanted to get. I rewrote some of it. I rewrote some of it because I looked back at it as I was going through and I was like, well, you know, I mean, most of it was just things that didn’t play well to me or just didn’t, you know, didn’t seem to age well? A joke here and there where you’re just like, “Okay, that doesn’t work.” And I’m always reminded of this thing that Tennessee Williams said, you know, someone was interviewing him, he was in his 80s, and they came into his office, and he had Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on his desk with pencilled notes on it. And they’re like, “What are you doing?” He’s like, “It’s not finished yet.” It’s been a movie. It’s been a play on Broadway. No one’s going to redo his thing. But to him, it wasn’t finished yet.
So, yeah, I go through, and I rewrite a lot and, you know, I use that, like I say, that non-destructive editing. I go in and I write. I have people read and give me some notes. I don’t very much listen to notes directly. And I learned this in screenwriting where I almost got fired off of a job because I actually listened to the studio executives. I came back with this version based on every single one of their notes. I had gone down, point by point by point, and done everything they wanted, and they’re like, “This is horrible.” And I’m like, “This is all, these are all your ideas.” I mean, that’s what I wanted to say. So, two things happened after that. From then on, I walked into meetings and I would put a recording device in the middle of our meeting, and the red light would stare at them, and they became seventy-five-percent smarter, knowing that their voices and their ideas would be saved for all eternity. And the second thing I learned was, don’t do what they say, do what they mean. And if someone or a few someones tell you something’s wrong, their answer is not right. But they do, they are coming up against a speed bump or a pothole in your story. And you need to figure out how to fix that.
How do you find the people who do this reading for you? Are they just friends, or…?
It could be. Yeah. I mean, so, I have a group of maybe about a couple of hundred people who have grown to love this so much that they’ve kind of, you know, the first two books, I’m giving them pieces of things. In general, you know, my kids were really important in reading this. They are really tough critics. They do not pull any punches. I have a few adult friends who have read things. My manager or agent will look at stuff, you know, but it’s mostly been people that are that I know or that love something already.
You know, here’s the thing. It’s always tough because when you give something to people that are fans of your work, they tend to, you know, either they’re really helpful, but they want to love it, and they also feel like, well, you know, you’re the writer, and they’re going to say nice things to you. So, I usually have people that I say to them, “Hey, I know it’s really good. You don’t need to tell me it’s really good. You need to tell me what you have a problem with. Again, I may not listen to anything you say, and I’m probably not going to listen to any of the ideas that you have. But I’m going to listen to what you mean and why you’re saying that. And I may ask you some questions about that. But don’t be afraid to be critical.”
Do you bring in editors or an editor that works on it at some point?
You know, so yeah, I mean, we did this…Babelfish is a very small thing that I started with a couple of writers and literally, the people…we are now getting interest from bigger publishers, which is one of the reasons why I’m sorry, readers, that things are taking a little bit longer because the process is a bit…is a bit more lengthy, but we’re working through that. So, you know, I’ve had editors work with me, but really, the most important thing is that you have people that know how to write. You have people that know how to read. And they tell you what’s wrong. And, you know, my job is to try to figure out a way to fix it. And one of the things…if I’ve gotten any good compliments in my life, there’s one thing I’ve heard, over and over, which is, “I will take your criticism. I will not get mad at you, I will not do that, and I will try to find a solution that not only makes, you know, not only answers your problem but also tries to take it to the next level because you’re challenging me to do something better. And if I’m going to waste…not waste, but if I’m gonna take time to address something better, I better well address it, you know, as best I can.
Now, we mentioned the audiobook, obviously, with Wil Wheaton. How did that come about? That’s a pretty top of the line, narrator you got there?
Yeah, so. So, well, a couple of things. You’ve interviewed John Scalzi, and I’m a big fan of Scalzi’s, and I’m also a fan of Ernie Clines’s Ready Player One. And so…you know, when I was writing this, I didn’t have a voice in my head. I had my own voice. But I was…I had been reading…so my kids, again, read above their weight class and to keep ahead of them when they were younger, I would read and also listen to audiobooks because I’m out walking around or doing something or working out, and I would listen, because my kids could just read much faster than I could. And they had more time to deal with that. And so, I started listening…one of my sons got Ready Player One as a gift. The book. And I got the audiobook and the book, and I was reading the book, and I also was listening to the audiobook, and I was like, “Wil Wheaton. I like Wil Wheaton. This is great.”
And then, I also had read John Scalzi’s earlier work, Old Man’s War, which was not done by Wil Wheaton. But then I started getting into his later work, and I was again, I’m an adult, I don’t have as much time to read, I listened to some of them, and a lot of his later work, most of it now, is done by Will. And so, when we were sitting down to come up with narrators, I had a first, a second, and a third choice. And every single one of them was Wil. And I just…I just fought for the ability to do this. And luckily, the people…Wil goes through and will read what he’s…obviously takes a look at what he’s going to look at, and he has, he’s very picky and only chooses certain things. But before you can even get to Wil, you have to get through sort of a gauntlet of a few people that know what he likes and know his wheelhouse. And Wil started out as…I mean, you know, this child actor…
We just watched Stand By Me with my daughter not too long ago.
It’s great. Right? Amazing. And he’s this child actor who then grew up. And so, in some ways, he’s really perfect for this because this is a teenager, this character, who is really an old soul. Right? So, a lot of people have, you know, until he went on to other things, you know, his voice work and Big Bang Theory appearances and things like that, they always thought of him as this teenager. And he was kind of locked into that and battled with that personally, about how that affected him in his business. And if you read his blog or his writings, he talks about that, and he’s come to terms with it. And it was so…and he brings that to every sentence in this book. He brings that lifetime struggle that he dealt with to this struggle that this lead character deals with. You know, he is a fifteen-to-seventeen-year-old biologically. He has all of the hormones, the brain, the brain development, everything of that. But he’s lived so long, and he’s got so much information, but he doesn’t have the maturity. And he struggles with what that means and how other people see him because he’s smarter, knows a lot more than someone who is going to look at him and go, “Oh, you’re just a teenager.” So, it was a really great thing. And when I heard him, when I heard the first version, I was blown away. And what’s funny is, I’ve done voice work, and I recorded a new book that’s coming out of mine that’s an adult, you know, mainstream fiction. And it’s called Velvet Sledgehammer and very personal, so I really had to be the one that did it. And the amount of time and effort and strength and, you know, exhaustion that you feel working to get this done. You know, he did a 10-hour, 45-minute recording in, I don’t know, you know, four days or something. Five, four, you know, four and a half days. And it’s insane how someone could do that.
Yeah, I’ve done some myself. And it is…it’s the time commitment and everything else that goes into it. It was way more work than I anticipated when I thought, “I should do some audiobook recording.”
Yeah. Everyone’s like, “Hey, how hard can it be.” Yeah. And you know, it really…and what I love also, Wil opened up a whole different audience for me. And also, he…you know, everybody’s like, “Do you think about what he’s going to say, how he’s gonna sound?” And I’m like, “I don’t think about how he’s gonna sound.” But I was really thankful that…before I ever did this, I always had a problem with the he-said-she-said nightmare that happens in books, you know, where…when we read he said, and she said, we don’t see them.
Yeah. They’re pretty much transparent.
They’re transparent. They’re like names on a script, you know, the character names, or in a play. We don’t read them, we just know who’s speaking. But when you hear them, they become very annoying. And so, I was glad that I had figured out a lot of ways to avoid a lot of that repetition before, because if…because, I just felt that way about even reading them. And I was grateful when he read, and it didn’t sound like some books.
Well, we’re getting close to the end of our time. So I have to ask you–this is where I need more reverb again, the big philosophical questions, which are basically why? Why? Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And specifically, why write science fiction? You’ve sort of talked about this earlier on, but now you get to sum it all up.
So, yeah, the big question. Why do we write? Why do I write? Why does anyone write? For me, the answer’s pretty simple. I have to write. There’s no choice for me. You know, like, it’s like asking like, whether I want to breathe or not. You know, we have to eat well, we have to exercise our bodies, but we also have to exercise our minds and whatever that means, right? Not everybody can do this or wants to do this, but human beings are human beings because we think. One of the things I talk about in the Battle for Forever series, one of the themes, is that you can do anything you want. You can become great at anything if you focus on it. Now, we don’t have hundreds of years to learn how to play the piano or study martial arts, but it’s a metaphor. And writing for me is something that I’m constantly striving to be better at. And in some ways, it’s this interesting balance of the, almost the opposite of what our English teachers taught us in high school, because as kids, we write very simple ideas, very simple sentence structures. And in school, we start to learn how to complicate our ideas, you know, with flowery language and big dictionary words. Right? And storytelling needs words. But we have to find the balance between how we tell a story and how we phrase it. You know, I’m a firm believer in the em dash and long, complicated sentences.
And I feel that in creative writing, the semicolon is like an intersection where everyone has a yield sign, and no one knows what to do with it. Right? In fiction, I think we should get rid of semicolons. But, you know, there are also these moments when you need to just write like you’re Hemingway, where it’s he did this, dun-dun-dun dun-dun-dun dun-dun. Right? It’s changing the different cadences. So, I have to write, right? It’s what keeps me sane.
You know, when I was writing comedy more exclusively, I didn’t think I was crazy enough to be a comedy writer. And in my thirties, I found out I was crazy enough. But I also found out that writing is like a daily meditation and therapy. And I think most writers, whether they are famous, not yet famous, or maybe never will be famous, that’s why they write, because they have to write. And I tell people I work with, people who have either interned with me or, you know, come to me for advice, that if I say anything to you, any criticism that I give you, because I’m going to give you tough, tough criticism, if any of it can stop you from writing, discourage you from writing, then you probably aren’t in the right business. Because there is nothing anyone can say to me about writing, no criticism, no negative comment, nothing that would stop me from what I’m doing. You know, because I have to do it. You know, and I just have to say one last thing about this, which is, I’m so grateful that others want to hear or read what I have written, what I have to say. It gives me pleasure, and it drives me farther, and it makes me try harder. But it is only the turbocharging. It’s the nitrous oxide booster, right? It makes it easier. It makes it faster. But it’s not the main fuel.
Yes, because most of us wrote an awful lot before anybody read any of it. And yet we still did it.
I would write if no one saw it.
Yeah, me, too. So what are you working on now? Obviously, there’s the next book in the…Battle for Forever, I guess, is the name of the entire series.
Yeah, Battle for Forever is interesting because there’s going to be four books and I’m writing the third, and the last book is going to be called Battle for Forever, which will really screw everybody up when they come to the series and they sit down and try to read the first book with the title of the series and they go, “Wait, hold on. This is…I’m in the middle of something here.”
So, I’m writing League of Auld right now, I’m about 90,000 words into what will be 110,000 words, but I’ll probably write another thirty or forty thousand before I start cutting back down. I’ve already…you know, I’ve probably already written about a hundred, a hundred and twenty thousand, and gotten down to my ninety, so… And I’m working on Flux Capacity, which is this cool, fun story that I’m working on as well. And I have this very inappropriate, totally not safe for work Velvet Sledgehammer story that is about basically the coming…a person who is reaching adulthood…well, their mid-30s, real adulthood…and is starting to face the fact that children are coming. And in the middle of creating what turns out to be the World Trade Organization, because he’s the trade representative for the United States, and it takes place in 1993, that he…his girlfriend decides that they should get married and have children, and he thinks he’s the last person in the world that should have kids. And so it’s this coming-of-age story for an adult and how we have to deal with all of the things in our past and our present and find those things in us to pass them on to the next generation and screw them up just right.
And do you have any dates for when these things will be appearing?
So, most of the things are in a little bit of a nebulous space because of dealing with the larger publishers. And…like, Velvet Sledgehammer is ready to go. And if anybody contacts me and they want to read an advance copy or they want to give me some feedback on both the audiobook and the book themselves, they can look at that. But they want to hold it back because it’s so different than my sci-fi stuff that they don’t know where to put it yet. But League of Auld by the end of 2020. And I will take a break and not finish the fourth book for maybe a year, year and a half. And in the meantime, I will finish Flux Capacity for next year.
And if anyone wants to find you online, where can they do so?
They can basically find me, Edward Savio, @EdwardSavio, Twitter, Instagram, dot com. Those are the best ways to get me. I will respond on Twitter and Instagram as well. I’m not on there as much because words a little bit more than visual are my thing. But that’s where they can reach me. And if they want to check out Battle for Forever, but don’t necessarily want to yet get into that, they can go to battleforforever.com, and they can get a free novella that is told from a different character, a female character who I just love, she’s great, who’s about 2,000 years old, and it will give you an idea both of the story and some things that might be coming in the future, but it will not ruin anything in the books themselves. You can read it before you read them or in the middle or after. It will just give you a greater understanding of what’s going on.
Okay. And when I do the transcript and everything, I’ll put links on the website, The Worldshapers website for the stuff.
So, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. That was that was a fun conversation. At least, I thought it was fun. I hope you did.
An hour-long conversation with New York Times-bestselling author Kelley Armstrong, author of numerous fantasy, mystery, and thriller novels in multiple series for adults, including the thirteen-book Otherworld series, which began with her first novel, Bitten, and other series and standalone novels for young adults and middle-grade readers.
Kelley Armstrong is the bestselling author of numerous fantasy novels, mysteries, and thrillers, for adults, young adults, and middle-grade readers, both standalones and in multiple series.
Born in Sudbury, Ontario, she grew up in London, Ontario. She went to the University of Western Ontario to study psychology, with plans to become a clinical psychologist, but on the brink of grad school, realizing such a career would limit her writing time for many years, switched paths and went to Fanshawe College in London, studying computer programming.
While getting her education, she married and had first child, a daughter, then took a full-time job programming for a bank while continuing writing. She sold her first novel, Bitten, in 1999, and had two more children, sons, before it was released in 2001, at which point she quit her job to write full-time, which she’s been doing ever since.
Now we’re both authors in Canada, but I don’t know that we’ve ever actually met each other in person anywhere at any conventions or anything like that. I can’t think of a time.
I don’t think so. We’ve probably passed somewhere at some convention because it’s a, you know, relatively restricted literary landscape. But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t recall.
Yeah, it’s a small literary landscape, but it’s a very, very large physical landscape. And Saskatchewan and…you’re in Ontario?
Yeah, they’re actually a long way away from each other.
When we moved up here from Texas when I was eight years old, it was the year of Expo ’67. And I was excited as we were leaving Texas because I thought, we’re going to Canada, and I’d get to go to Expo 67, and my parents had to point out to me that…
It’s a long way.
…we would be closer–we’d be just as far away from Montreal in Saskatchewan as we were in Texas; basically, it was pretty much the same distance. In my defense, I was only eight, so.
Well, so this…you have two books coming out this week–month–which we are going to talk about a little bit. But first, I’ll do what I always do with this, which is take you back into the mists of time–I’m going to put reverb on that one of these days, the mists of time–and find out, well, first of all, where you grew up and then how you got interested in writing. And probably you started as a reader, because we all do, and the sorts of things that drew you into this field and, you know, all of that stuff. So, how did that all happen for you?
Yeah. So I grew up in London, Ontario, and it is that typical thing where you start off by reading. I was a very young reader. I was the oldest child, and my parents were very keen on teaching me how to read. Neither of them was a huge reader themselves, but they understood literacy was important, and so, their first kid, they were doing everything right, making sure that I was learning to read. So, every night, after dinner, while Mom cleaned up, Dad would be reading these books. And I very quickly learned to read that way. And for me, it turned into, “I want to do that.” I would take those stories and do what we would now call fanfiction, where I would take what I had heard and maybe create a new story for those characters or a story with different characters in that world as some way of working on what the author had created and building my own stories on it and then, getting older, was moving into creating entirely my own stories.
Well, what were some of the books that influenced you back then?
So, certainly back when I was very young, I can’t really recall. We have sort of gone through trying to work that out. It was a whole lot of really simple Golden Book readers. So, none of them stuck. So, the ones that stuck came later. There was one series about Irish setters, and they were adventure series where each…one was Big Red…and each one had a different Irish setter.
I remember reading Big Red.
Yeah, exactly. So all those…Hardy Boys, too. Read so many Hardy Boys. They always had much more interesting adventures than Nancy Drew, so I devoured Hardy Boys. And some of the classics, but really I was looking at the adventure stories, the mystery stories, and the stories with the animals.
So when did the fantasy side of things start to creep in?
So yeah, people always ask, where did that come from? And I always jokingly blame too many early Saturday mornings watching Scooby-Doo. That supernatural-combined-with-the-mystery was perfect. But I think it was more, when it comes to stories, mythology has them, so I very quickly got into mythology. I knew the Dewey Decimal System number for the myth and folklore section. So I would be there pulling down those books when I sort of ran out of stories in my own area to read.
When you started writing as a young person, well, did you share your writing with other people? I always ask that because I did, and I found it was like, oh, people actually like the stories that I tell.
Exactly. Yeah. Because I was so young and I was telling stories before I could write them down, so, at that age, you don’t have any of that…when people get older, and they start thinking, do I want to share this or not? As a kid, no, of course you share it because you have created this thing. So certainly, early on, sharing everything with parents, siblings, etc., friends and so on. It’s only when you get older that you start double-guessing, do I want to actually share this?
Did you have any teachers that sort of encouraged your writing along the way in high school or around that time?
I did. I certainly did, certainly in both elementary and high school. I was doing a lot of writing and getting a lot of really good feedback on my writing. So I often joke that, you know, they really tried to steer me away from the fantasy, the supernatural, etc. “You could write normal things,” but the normal things were what interested me. So it’s good that they still encouraged me despite the fact that I was not necessarily writing the kinds of stories that they were hoping for.
I always tell a story that when I was about eleven, I wrote my first complete short story that I remember actually finishing, and it was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” So you could tell where my mind was early on. And there was a teacher who, you know, he was my junior high English teacher, and I showed it to him and he took it seriously, and he critiqued it and said, you know, “I don’t understand why your aliens to this and why does your character do that?” And I still credit that with taking it seriously, taking the writing seriously, with having helped set my mind on, “Well, I’m going to keep writing, and I’m going to write better things going forward.”
It is, and it’s very important because, yes, even if it’s not necessarily what they’re hoping you would write, or it’s not a genre that they read, just that overall encouragement means a lot. Without that, I wouldn’t have gone on.
But you didn’t actually go immediately into writing. You studied psychology to begin with, I believe, is that right?
Yeah. I went to Western for psychology undergrad. I was planning on going on to masters and doctorate and becoming a psychologist. I was heading into grad school and realized I was heading into that kind of a career where there’d be a lot more schooling, and I would not be writing, because university was the one time where I didn’t have time to actually write fiction. So I thought, I’ve got this long time where I’m probably not going to be writing, do I want to wait that long before I try to at least…? My sort of goal was, maybe someday I’ll be able to be a part-time writer and part-time at some other career. So I switched gears there and went to college for computer programming. I had been doing that way back from the Commodore 64. It was a big interest of mine. So I did that. Got your typical corporate cubicle job that let me write and study the craft of writing.
Do you find…I mean, psychology would tend to tie into writing in some way. Did you find that what you studied in that field has been beneficial in your writing career? And the computer programming? I mean, I always say, nothing you do is wasted when you’re a writer. Have you found that?
It’s true. Because people always sort of look back and they say, you know, was that a waste, or when I see young people heading into college, university, and their ultimate career is writing, and they just want to totally focus on that. And I say, anything that you take is going to help. Psychology for characters, absolutely. Because it helps with my character backgrounds to know if I want a character who is like this at 35, what type of background did they probably have to get them there or what life experiences could they have had that get them where I want them to be at that age? And of course, programming meant that I did not have to hire anyone to, you know, code those early websites.
I had a Commodore 64 for years, and I did a lot of programming at the time, too, in BASIC, and I did some quite complicated things. You know, I created a whole music entry system to use that synthesizer chip that it had. And you had to put in like three different values for each note. And yet I did all that, and it worked. And then I thought, “But, you know, other people do it better than I do.” And I was never tempted to stick with programming because, again, it was more like, well, that takes a lot of time. I could be writing.
It did. Yeah. I was doing the old text-based adventure game, so I was writing text-based adventure games, which of course took a whole lot of work just for a very short, short and simple one.
Well, your first novel was Bitten, which came out in 1999 or was sold in 1999. It came out in 2001. How did that come about? That’s kind of your breaking-in moment. Or had you had some short stories before that, or how did that work for you?
Yeah, I had had a couple of short stories published, but nothing significant. And I had been writing novels. So, when I made that choice to go into programming instead of going on to graduate school, that meant that I then knew that I had to get serious about writing. And it meant writing novels, joining writers’ groups, taking writing courses. So I was doing that. I was writing novels. I was writing novels that were to market. So whatever was…I had one that was, for example, a female private eye, in the time period when we were seeing a lot of that. When I got to…so, I finished three novels, no interest, no interest from publishers or agents. And then, I decided I was going to work on this one idea that I had for a book about female werewolves. And I figured nobody’s going to ever want this, so this is just totally for me. And it was all freeing that way, too, like not be saying, “I’m writing this in hopes of getting it published,” But just I’m tired of trying to get stuff published. I’m just going to write something for myself. Got it done, and of course, started thinking, “Well, is there any chance?” So I had a writing instructor take a look at it, and he thought that it had promise, so he offered to recommend me to an agent, and she took it on, and it took off from there.
And there’s been quite a few since then.
There has been, yeah.
So is it a fairly straightforward, you know, once that one came out, it was successful, and you’ve been doing it ever since?
Yeah. Not…certainly now people look back and say, well, clearly Bitten was successful, and I’m like, not actually, no. The publisher, my American publisher, bought the first two and then was not interested in a third book because they just weren’t selling. They started selling more with the third book. But yeah, you certainly get that where…they were successful enough that I was able to keep publishing, and from where I stand now, 20 years later, that’s the big measure of success, is not how much you make or how many copies you sell, but just can you keep finding a publisher to want more books?
Yeah, that sounds familiar.
Now, I’m going to ask you this, even though as somebody who’s worked in Canada as well. I think I know the answer. But have you ever…has being a Canadian author but published in the US market, has it been a good thing or a bad thing, or has it made any difference at all, do you think?
It’s been a good thing for me because certainly I make more. I mean, having that extra market…I mean, a Canadian bestseller is, what, 5,000 copies? I mean, that’s not going to give you an annual income even if you’re doing one per year. I mean, being able to have that US market, that’s where sort of the much bigger incomes coming from. And then that drives getting a UK publisher, getting the foreign publishers, and it’s all of that. I mean, Canada is great, but actually being able to make a living off of strictly being published in Canada would be tough.
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about what you have coming out this month. You know, two books in a month is not bad.
It’s weird, yeah,
And another one coming in October, I think.
Yeah. And it was kind of an odd thing because, yes, so what is my second middle grade came out early this month. There was supposed to be a standalone thriller coming out in August, because they usually obviously don’t keep them quite so close, but the standalone thriller got bumped up to the end of June. So I end up…because it’s the same publisher in Canada for them, Random House, and they didn’t see any crossover t you’ve got. You’ve got, like, your fantasy middle-grade book and your standalone adult thriller, they’re like, “There is no crossover.” So it’s not like I’m going to be competing with myself. It just makes it tougher for me promoting to be making sure to mention that I have two books coming out.
Well, and I did want to ask you, even before we start talking about The Gryphon’s Lair, which is the middle grade, um….when did you make the step into the. Both middle grade and young adult markets, I guess?
Yeah. So for a young adult, that came back…so, the first one came out 2008. Would have meant I was writing it in 2005. And that was back when you were seeing a little bit more interest in young adult books. I had a daughter who was hitting that age, she was twelve, thirteen, and she wanted to read Bitten. And I was like, “Absolutely not.” So I said, how would I write something that is that type of book in that world, but with teenage characters. So that became The Summoning. And then after it was written, you were seeing publishers wanting that, because that’s when Twilight started taking off. So, they were looking for more paranormal YA, and I happened to have some. So then that one sold. Middle grade took a little longer. I have sons, too, so when they got to be the middle-grade age, I was writing with a friend (Melissa Marr), she also has a son that age, and we decided that we would co-write middle grade for our son. So that was the first trilogy, the Blackwell Pages, based on Norse mythology. And then I kind of took a break from middle grade there and then went back. Last year was the first in this new series.
OK. I have to ask you, does your daughter read your books? Did she read that? Because I have a daughter who’s nineteen now and the only one of mine she’s read are ones I’ve actually read out loud to her, and she really seems to be reluctant to read my stuff. And I think it’s because if she doesn’t like it, she wouldn’t know how to tell me.
I know. And that’s really tough. Now, my daughter reads everything, and she’s obviously, she’s like twenty-eight now, so if she read everything…
She’s probably read Bitten by now.
Yeah, exactly. She reads early…she reads sort of drafts when they’re at the point where I want her to take a look at it. She helps with that. Now, my sons are a different thing. Yes. They read the trilogy that I wrote them, but let’s just say that they are not exactly saying, “Hey, Mom, what else do you have?”
So I had, I still have, a niece, when she was a teenager–this is a long time ago now, probably my first book–and she said she didn’t want to read it because she didn’t want to know what was going on in her uncle’s head. Which I thought was funny.
Exactly. I mean, that is the weird thing, too, if you write. Yeah. Bitten has some sex scenes in it, and it was like, yeah, do you really want to know what your mom’s going to write for that scene? No, the answer is no.
Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. Well, we’re gonna talk primarily about The Gryphon’s Lair book, but we’ll also mention Every Step She Takes, which is the standalone that’s coming out, because we’re going to talk about your creative process and it will be interesting for me to hear the difference between your planning and writing for an adult novel, and your planning and writing for the younger age group. But first of all, how about a synopsis about The Gryphon’s Lair?
So, The Gryphon’s Lair is book two in a series. The basic concept is that we’ve got this set in a fantasy world, completely fantasy world, with monsters. This world has monsters, but they’re based on science. So, there’s no magic in this world. If you’re going to have a, say, a basilisk that can turn people into a stone, it can’t really do that, but it can shoot a neurotoxin that can paralyze someone. So you’re doing things that are science-based rather than magic-based. The main character is a princess. I mean, there are a lot of princess books out there. I wanted to take my try at going ahead and doing that in a slightly different way. And she is a twin. She’s supposed to become queen, and her brother is supposed to become the Royal Monster Hunter. That’s how this always works. And she would much rather be the Royal Monster Hunter. He would make a better king.
So, an accident happens and they’re able to switch places. So, in the book one, we saw her first sort of forays as the Royal Monster Hunter, book two, we’ve got, she is in charge of a young gryphon, because while it’s called A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying, the slaying part is pretty light. It’s really more like being a monster conservator or a monster ranger, where you’re trying to help people live with, you know, monsters being in that land. And sort of moving the monsters out when they get in, killing them if you have to, but it’s more about a conservationist idea. So, she is raising a young orphan gryphon, and it becomes a little big and dangerous. So in book two, she has to take it into the mountains where the gryphons live and try to take it back home.
Sounds like a great setup for a story.
It’s a lot of fun.
Maybe just a brief bit about Every Step She Takes, too. When I say they’re coming this month, I should explain to listeners that we’re recording this in June. I guess Gyphon’s Lair is already out, right?
Yes. And then, yeah, every step she takes comes out on the 30th.
So it’ll be out when this airs, which goes live, which will probably be…it might be August. So if you’re hearing this, you can get these books.
So, Every Step She Takes, maybe a little bit about that.
Yeah. Every Step She Takes, standalone thriller. It’s about a woman, Genevieve, who is living in Rome, and she’s living a very ordinary life. She’s a music teacher, has a boyfriend. She’s very happy with this life. She’s a former American. And she gets this package addressed to Lucy Calahan, which is a name she hasn’t used in 10 years. Turns out that she was the victim of a scandal when she was 18. It was a celebrity scandal, and in trying to get out of that, she ended up finally just leaving and coming…and going abroad, and ended up in Rome. Now she’s getting a call from somebody who was involved, who wants to make peace with it, who wants, who has come to understand that her role in it was not what she thought and called Genevieve back to make peace. And she goes back to make peace, and the woman ends up dead. So, that’s kind of a problem, because she is dead and Genevieve is being framed for it.
So these are two very different books…
Very different books, exactly.
So let’s talk about how these things come about. I mean, it’s a cliche to ask, where do your ideas come from, and yet, it’s a valid question. Maybe if you don’t like it that way, I often say, what was the seed from which this novel grew?
Exactly. Exactly. And for the Royal Guide series, that was actually…it comes from two things. So it comes from video games. Witcher. I was playing Witcher years ago, playing probably the second or third one, and thinking, “You know, I really like the monster hunter concept. I really it. I feel like I’d love to do something with it in fiction. Not that idea obviously, but just that very basic monster-hunting concept. And I played around with it as a young adult book. So the book was pretty much the concept was the same in that it was a princess who had a twin brother, they really wanted to switch roles. I wrote about 5,000 words of it, and it wasn’t really gelling. Just something wasn’t working. And I put it away, and every now and then I would come back to it and say, “I really like this concept. What’s not working?” And one day just had this epiphany of, “What if it was middle grade? What if, instead of being seventeen, she’s twelve.” So that, of course, meant a total rewrite, but when I rewrote, I could see, yes, that absolutely works with…it had that level of fun and lightness that it needed. The original version with the teens made it much darker, and it just wasn’t quite gelling. But in the middle-grade version, it just popped.
And that one came from sort of…not exactly random, but, you know, just something else that you were doing. Is that kind of typical of where ideas come from? They can come from anywhere, in other words?
Yeah, it certainly can be, where it’ll come from something that sort of sparks an idea, and then I run with it, and by the time you get to the final product, it doesn’t necessarily bear any resemblance to the original concept, or the original where I sort of took that from. I mean, nobody’s going to read Royal Guide and think, “Aha, she was clearly influenced by Witcher,” which is a very adult and very different story. But yes, I can sort of say that that’s where it started, and then my brain keeps on spinning on that concept until I make it my own.
On the mystery side, is it any different?
No, it’s very similar. Certainly with the, sort of grain for Every Step She Takes, we see a lot of things now, particularly when we see #MeToo coming out, where we see these stories of young women who made mistakes in some way and the way they were demonized for them. I feel like, I hope we would not necessarily do at this point, where we can look, where, at the time, it was very clearly the young woman had seduced the guy who was in power, etc. But I was fascinated by the way that we presumed that she was guilty, even when you can look back now and she would have been like, you know, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, early twenties, and the guy’s like forty or something, and yet we still somehow see that Lolita complex, where clearly she was the instigator, and she’s the one who got all of the fallout. That’s where that idea started from, but of course, once I took it and ran with it, it does not bear any resemblance to any actual case.
Now, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? You know, are you a pantser a plotter? There’s another cliche question for you, but what does it look like to you?
Yeah, I think like a lot of writers, I’m somewhere in the middle, and I’ve developed my own sort of process by now, where, when I go into a book, I have a very good idea of that Act 1. I know what the setup is going to be. So if we were to take something like Royal Guide, for the first book, I know exactly what the setup is: these two twins, and they’re in the wrong positions, and we’re going to have…a gryphon is attacking, and we’re going to have, the brother goes off after it, sister is left behind, and she’s going to sneak off after them. Things are going to go horribly bad, and we’re going to lose our current Royal Monster Hunter, which then means that that position is now open for someone who’s way too young. So that’s Act 1. And I know that going in. I know my characters. I know my setting. Once you get past that, I know the major points. So I would know, how do these two add up switching rules? What is she going to have to do to prove herself? What is her voyage going to be? What do I want? I mean, often in a story like that, you get this very elongated training session, where a character is going to be the Royal Monster Hunter, so now let’s spend half the book showing her in training. And I knew I did not want that. So, how do I work around that? So, I would know all the major parts, and the final act, what she’s going to face down, she’s obviously going to face down that, you know, gryphon that killed her aunt in the early part of the book. She’s going to have to come full circle and face down that gryphon. So I know that’s what’s going to have to happen. I have no clue when I start writing where this is going to happen or how it’s going to happen. Because, if I was to go and decide exactly how that happens, by the time I reach that point in the book, it would no longer fit.
On the mystery side, you often…they’re often quite intricate, and you have to be careful about what information you provide and when. Do you do more detailed planning for mysteries than you would for a straight-ahead kind of fantasy story?
You would think that I would, but I actually don’t, and it’s because a lot of the mystery is shaped through editing. So I will go into it certainly knowing who I think is the killer, etc., that could change. And mystery fans hate hearing that you get like partway through the book and change who the killer is, but it’s not like you’re being cheated because then you continue writing that, and then you finish that book and go back and you craft and edit and you put in the correct clues, you get rid of the clues that pointed in the wrong direction. It’s not as if you sort of go off on a 90-degree angle and cheat halfway through. A lot of it really is formed through that editing process of saying, OK, now that I am done, where did I put in clues that led nowhere? I mean, yes, you want some red herrings, you don’t want too many of them, or where am I missing clues that would have pointed towards this, and going back and filling all of that in.
What does your actual writing process look like? Are you like, know, a quill pen under the tree on a piece of parchment writer or…?
Computer. Yeah, because I grew up on computers. Now, I did write…my earliest stories were on a typewriter, and so, having done the longhand and done typewriters in my past, I’m still that generation that remembers what a glorious thing word processors were. Like, you did not…you could edit to your heart’s content. You didn’t have to be, you know, getting it right the first time. You could go in and edit and change things. So, yes, totally computer-based.
Do you work at home or do you go out…I mean, right now, we’re all working at home, basically, but…
Exactly. Yeah. No, I’ve got a writing cabin in the back field. So I live rural. We live on 10 acres or so, and so I’ve got a little cabin in the way, far back. It’s off-grid. No Internet. No, you know, everything. So I just go back there and work.
I was going to mention, on the word-processor side, since you are familiar with the Commodore 64, you probably remember a program called PaperClip?
That was my first word processor, and for a long time, in my early books, they all had 10-page chapters, because you got 499 lines of text in a PaperClip file, and that was as far as you could go.
Right, yeah, exactly.
And that works out to about ten pages of manuscript format. So for a while, all my books had the same length of chapters because of PaperClip.
I think mine, still, if you were to look at my chapters, they’d probably all be between eight and 12 pages.
Yeah. I think I still fall into that kind of a zone as well. So, you talked a little bit about working on the mystery side, on revision, and so forth, but in general, once you have a first draft, what does your revision process look like?
So, I write a first draft right through. I don’t stop. If I decide that I’m going to make a change in plot, I mean, something as drastic even as getting halfway through a book and saying, “OK, I’ve decided that this character’s father is now dead,” even though he’s been alive until this point, I’m going to decide that he died, like, ten years ago, I don’t actually stop and go back and fix it up. I just keep on going as if he’s been dead for ten years and making lots of notes on things that I want to change. So, once it’s done, put it aside for a couple of months, come back to it. Do usually once sort of go-through on the computer, which is more of a revision one, where I’m moving stuff around, adding stuff in, you know, killing off father, you know, ten years ago, etc., going and fixing all of that. And then, if I have time, doing a round of paper edits, because even though I’m so computer-based for my writing, I still find that I edit best on paper, paper and pen, so I can see it, and it looks like an actual book story. And then it goes off to the editor after that.
Yeah, it’s…I’m a little bit older than you, but I also started on a typewriter and then switched to the computer, and the way that you write sounds very much like the way that I do, too, and I was…who was it I talked to? I guess it was John Scalzi I talked to…one of my very first interviews on here, and he talked about how he does a rolling revision, but he’s always written on a computer. And he never went back to that time when you pretty much had to do a single draft all the way through before you did your revisions. And he thought that there is a connection between having once worked on a typewriter and doing it that way. I don’t know about that.
I don’t know, because, yes, certainly in my early word-processing days, even with Bitten and my early novels, I did that, where I would write, and I would go back and edit and I would write and go back and edit. But I got so caught in that endless editing, and I would be editing things that I would later just cut right out because I’m pretty ruthless in the revision and I will cut out entire chapters. I will lift out 20,000 words and put in 20,000 words of stuff. It’s much harder to do that if I’ve spent time perfecting this, you know, chapter. It’s easier to pull out a first draft chapter than a chapter that I have polished, you know, five times, so…
And the working on paper resonates with me too. I am currently doing page proofs for my next book from DAW, The Moonlit World, which, by the way, is werewolves and vampires. But yeah, you know, once you get to page proofs, there’s stuff that you can’t believe that you left in the original file that you sent because it just somehow comes out differently when you see it in print than when you see it on the screen.
It does, yeah.
Now, once you’ve got a draft, you mentioned that your daughter reads stuff, do you have other beta readers? Do you do that, or are you self-contained more?
Yeah. It completely depends on what the project is. If I’m gonna be working on a series, if I’m partway through a series, there’s fewer early editors at that point. But if it’s a brand-new standalone or if it’s a new first novel or if it’s a new novella, I’m more likely to send it to my daughter, or I’ve got critique partners, and they will see it before my editor does. Now, if it’s, you know, say book three in a series, book four in a series, it’s going to go to my editor first, because by that point, I kind of know what I’m doing, and there’s not as much of that, “Is this working?” The editor knows what to expect, and I can go there. And then a critique partner or my daughter may come in at a later point if they just say, “I’d just like to read it.”
What sorts of things do you get…you mentioned, “Is this working?” Is that kind of the focus of that level of reading?
Yes, certainly for that first–if it’s standalone, if it’s first in a series–I’m really sending it to somebody to say, just generally, “Is this working? Is this flowing? Do you see any major issues with it? Do you see that it’s too close to anything that you may have read?,” even, because you never know, you can send it to somebody, and they’re like, “I just read something that’s very similar to this recently.” So, it helps to have that totally trustworthy critique partner who, before the editorial process, can help me get it cleaned up, because, by the time the editor sees it, I don’t want to be embarrassed.
One thing I forgot to ask was, are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
I am fast, and I do a fast first draft. I think it’s because of that mow right through it, not stopping to edit. I want to stay in the voice. I want to stay in the mood, and I want to keep that going. So I’m going to…now I’m not nearly as fast as some people I have met. I am relatively fast in getting that first draft done.
It’s always relative. There’s…no matter how fast you are, there’s somebody else…
…who says, “Oh, I did a hundred and fifty thousand words in a week.” When you get to the editorial stage, what sorts of things do you generally find the editor commenting on? What kind of changes are requested, if any?
There are always…it’s always interesting to go back and see because there are always those things that, in the back of my mind, I knew was a problem. But even after 30-odd books, I’m still at the stage where, “Yeah. OK, that’s probably a problem,” but I’m hoping it’s just me because fixing it is a lot of work. And then they come back and say, “Yes, that is a problem,” OK, thanks. And then they say it independently, where I don’t say, “Is this a problem?” I do, sometimes, if I’m concerned. But that independent verification of, maybe a plot point that I feel like, eh, that’s not quite gelling for me. Or they might come back…certainly in a series, especially, coming back with, like, “We need more of a reminder of who these characters are, we need less of a reminder of, you know, plot points from previous books because we don’t want to…if someone hasn’t read previous books, we don’t want them to be not willing to go back. If they already know who the killer is in the past two books, they’re not going to want to go back and read them, right?
You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. How has that been?
It’s been good. Ninety percent of the time it’s such a good experience. They bring up the things…I always say that, you know, most of my editors, there’s about 80 percent of what they say I dead-on know, “Yes, you’re totally right. Either I already knew it or, as soon as they say it, I see it. Then it’s about 15 percent where I’m not sure, and I have to think more about it. And it’s only about five percent where I can say, “I understand what you mean, but that’s not right for my book.” So, 90 percent of my editors have fallen into that group. There’s always the occasional one that you’re just not going to gel with. Whatever I’m working on, they are looking for something different. They very clearly are looking for a different kind of story than the type of story that I tell. And I can’t sort of twist myself to give them the type of story they want, because that’s not what my vision is for that book.
You were talking about the editors saying things that you kind of knew in the back of your head. My main editor, of course, is Sheila Gilbert at DAW Books. And all of us who work for DAW, like Tanya Huff and Julie Czerneda, and all those people. We all have this thing in the back of the head, “What would Sheila say?” And even though, you know…I do exactly the same thing. I will know that there’s something there that, you know, “I bet she says something,” but I’ll think, “Maybe not.” And sure enough, she always comes back and says, “You know, I didn’t…this needs…whatever,” you know. So…
Yeah, this needs to work. This little area here, this motivation or this plot point just needs a bit of work.
And that’s what editors are for. When I work with new writers, you know, sometimes, I’ll run into people who are concerned about what editors will do to their work. And I say they will generally make it better. That is really what they’re about.
Exactly. There’s a lot of fear, I think, with new writers, they get some kind of feeling, or they’ve heard stories where the editor is going to demand bizarre changes, like demand that you change your werewolves into vampires or your female main character into a male main character. That doesn’t happen. What they’re in there doing is just helping you shape that story, because it’s hard to tell when you’re that close to your story, whether or not it’s actually working.
And speaking of characters, one thing I kind of forgot to ask along the way was how you go about developing characters. I mean, you know who you need in the story, from the big picture. But then how do you flesh them out? Do you do a lot of character sketches or writing in their voice or any of these various tricks that some people use, or how does that work for you?
Yeah…I’ve sort of learned to do this combination where I certainly do dive in at the beginning, and I want to know who they are, what’s their biggest fear, what’s their main goal, what do they want most from life, and what do they want most from this situation? And, you know, what are some of their hobbies? What are some of their interests? What are some of their dislikes, their past experiences, all that psychology stuff? But I still have to get into the writing because I can certainly say that if it’s the first book in a series or it’s a standalone novel, when I start writing, I can say the character is like this, and by the time I’ve hit, you know, ten, twenty thousand words, that character has shifted. And then I have to go back and adjust that early part.
Yeah, that’s often a revision step for me is to make sure that the character’s consistent.
Do you ever find, as some do, that minor characters become major characters without your knowing it was going to happen?
It definitely happens, where, yes, you come up with what you expect to be a minor character…I always use one example from my first book, Bitten. So, there was this renegade werewolf, he was one of the bad guys, and in the first draft, I killed him off at the end of chapter three. But then was like, “I really like him. I feel like he has more to him.” So I thought, OK, fine, I’ll keep him alive till the end of the book. I kept him alive till the end of the book, and I killed him, and then I still was like, I still feel like he had more. So then, I let him live. He eventually ended up becoming part of the pack and becoming a major character. And in the last book of the series, he appears to have died, and it was kind of an in-joke for everybody who knows how hard I try to kill this character early on.
Well, I did want to ask you about series writing. I’ve been on a panel–at CanCon, I think it was–talking about writing series–the most I’ve ever done as a five-book series–what the struggles of writing a series? The challenges and the rewards, I guess.
Yeah. I guess…the rewards are easy because that readership growth and that readership loyalty, that, if the series takes off, if it finds its audience, they are right there hungry for the next book. And that’s a whole lot easier than standalones, where you’re reinventing the wheel every single time and looking for a fresh audience. So, the series has that built-in audience if it works. The drawbacks are obviously, especially when you go into a long series, running out of ideas, running out of originality. Certainly, with the Otherworld, the only reason that it got to 13 books was because I changed narrators. So, every few books, one of the minor, one of the secondary, characters would become the narrator, and the other characters would fall into the background. So, it would instead be a story about this character’s corner of the world, so you’d start with werewolves for two books, and then spin-off to a witch and get her corner of the world for two books. And then, you spun off to a ghost and get her corner of the world for a book. That kept it going through 13. Nowadays, I don’t think I would ever get that long because even by 13, by changing characters, by the time I finished the series and went on to something else, I realized how tired I really getting. I didn’t see it until I went on and did something new.
I often wonder about the challenges of continuity…I mean, even in a trilogy, continuity could be a problem. Did you do something to try to keep track of all those little details that just pile your pile up?
Yeah, yeah. There’s the series bibles. And now what I do is my daughter is in charge of those and she…when she’s doing her reading, she’ll usually read one of my books for just that, you know, for fun and for general feedback, but then later on, after it’s completely done, past proofs, everything, she’ll take it and enter it into the bible. So if there’s new information, it goes in there. And then, on the next book, when she goes and does that first read-through, she can first read through the bible, and she will in that read through notice, “OK, Mom, you said this here, and it seems to contradict something.” You know, something like, you get a minor character’s age wrong, you know, you said they were twenty-eight here, and they’re twenty-seven now in book two. Unless they regressed, that does not happen.
Yeah. There’s that and, the other one that that’s happened to me, is that because I’m writing…you know, sort of like you, I have a kind of a general idea, but then I’m making up a lot of stuff as I go..and this was in the five-book young adult series. And I made up something in the first book. And by the time I got to the third book, I really wished I had not made up that particular aspect of how the magic worked, is what it was, because I wanted them to be able to do something, and I had shut that door in my face without even knowing I was doing it, three books before.
Yeah. And it really is that you kind of learn to try to not give absolutes. You try to, you know, learn with that first series, to try to, in future series, instead of saying, “It’s not possible to do this,” you will say, “It’s usually done this way,” or “As far as we know, it’s not possible to do this..
“It’s never been done.” That’s a good one.
Well, let’s move on to–this is where the reverb should come in again–the big philosophical questions. Why do you write? And why do you think any of us write? And in particular, why do you write the kind of stuff that you choose to write?
Exactly. And for me, I think it still is…I’m still that reader. I’m still the kid who was the reader who wanted to tell stories. And it still is for me. You know, I love reading other people’s work because I don’t know what’s going to happen. You know, you can read someone else’s story, and it’s entertaining in a way that is original to me and fresh. However, writing my own story, it’s exactly what I want to write. It’s exactly the type of story that I most want to tell. So, all my favorite themes, my favorite tropes, my favorite character types, archetypes, are going to be in there because that’s what I’m doing. I always, still, because I started as a reader who was trying to write to entertain herself, I’ve kept that where, I still have to be my own first reader. And if I’m bored with a story, I need to stop and look at it and say, “Where did I lose interest?” Because for now, it still is, I love writing, and I always tell a story of…I think I had about three or four books out, and I was on a panel, and somebody said, “Now that you’re doing this for a living, do you still love writing?” And so they went down the panel, and when it got to me, I was, “I absolutely still love this. I can’t believe that I can make a living doing this.” And after the panel, one of the panelists said, “Oh, honey, you just wait until you’re at Book 10, that that will change.” And I’m at 35, whatever it is. And no, that has not changed. And I think that’s really important for me, that I still love what I’m doing and I still can’t believe that they actually pay me for this.
Well, on a bigger scale, what do you think is the impetus for telling stories for all of us who do this?
Yeah, and I don’t even…it’s really hard to say. I mean, certainly, the reader feedback is lovely. I mean, that sort of moment when somebody tells you how much a book of yours meant to them. And it can be that it meant something because it came at a difficult time in their life and it provided escape, etc., or it can just be, “I love these books, and I’ve read them to death.” And that’s a really important thing, and it’s a wonderful ego boost, and it feels like you’ve shared something of yourself with them. But I’m not even sure whether that’s the main thing. I mean, that’s obviously important, and the feedback is wonderful. But if I was to say that I could never get feedback again, would I keep on writing? I would. It probably wouldn’t be as enjoyable because I would be constantly worrying, are people out there actually liking what I am writing? That feedback helps to reassure me, but I just feel like, for me, it’s that storytelling. I feel like for a lot of us–I mean, when people say they want to become a writer and you tell–and once they really realize what that means, I think they figure they’re going to write a book and make a lot of money, or…I always figured, as a kid, if I could finish a book, like finishing a 100,000-word book would be so huge that very clearly it would get published. Ha-ha-ha, no. And I think once they realize…I’ve had so many people have said to me, “I wanted to be a writer, but then I got to know you and saw you, like, on a personal level how hard you work,” and said, “I don’t actually want it that badly.” And I’m like, that’s OK because I do.
I mean, I’m twenty…well, more than 60 books with all the nonfiction and everything…and I still love writing. And the thing is, you know, the whole thing of would I do it even I wasn’t knowing that people were reading it, well, I did, you know, a good nine or ten novels before I published anything. So I guess…and I was still enjoying the mere fact of writing the stories, even though I wasn’t finding a readership.
It is, because certainly with those early books, the unpublished ones, I would finish it and it wouldn’t sell. And there’s that moment of, “I shouldn’t even bother continuing,” but I couldn’t do that because every time I would go back and say, “I’ll right this next one for me,” because I couldn’t not write even when it wasn’t working out.
Well, and what are you working on now?
What I’m working on now is a young-adult thriller. I’ve taken a couple of years off of doing young adult while I got my middle grade going, and I wanted to come up with an idea, I felt like I wasn’t coming up with the right concept for next one. So I am working on that.
Yeah. I always struggle with Instagram. I would like to be more active on it, but I keep forgetting about that one somehow.
Exactly. I do, too.
And perhaps should mention everybody should know that it’s Kelley with an e, K-e-l-l-e-y.
It is. Yes. Although I also have the domain without the extra E, so if you type it in wrong, it should redirect you.
I should do that with Willett because that second T is constantly dropped off. Even if they put it in right–like, the Saskatchewan Book Awards judges put out their comments from this year’s, and I had a book nominated, and in the first part of it they put two Ts on it, by the time they got to the end of it, they dropped that second.
Yes, it does. It is not…I mean, I get so much that doesn’t have the E, that was one of the first things I did was snag that domain that didn’t have the second E.
I should look and see if it’s available. That would be a good thing.
All right. Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers.
That was a fun conversation. I hope you enjoyed it.
Arabella of Mars won the 2017 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, his story “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, his story “Nucleon” won the James White Award, and he has been shortlisted for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, Sturgeon, and Locus. His stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Tor.com, numerous anthologies and websites, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies, as well as his collection Space Magic from Wheatland Press, which won the Endeavour Award for the best SF or Fantasy book by a Pacific Northwest writer.
David is a contributor to George R. R. Martin’s bestselling shared-world series Wild Cards. He is also a member of Book View Cafe, a writer-owned publishing cooperative, and Oregon Science Fiction Conventions Inc., a non-profit organization that produces OryCon and other SF conventions. He has narrated podcasts for Escape Pod, PodCastle, and StarShipSofa and the audiobook of Space Magic, and his video production “Dr. Talon’s Letter to the Editor” was a finalist for the Parsec Award. In 2010 he spent two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, a simulated Mars base in the Utah desert.
David lives in a hundred-year-old bungalow in Portland, Oregon.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, David.
Nice to be here.
Usually, at this point, I talk about how we’ve met each other at conventions or how we know each other through this or that, but I don’t think we’ve ever met anywhere.
No. At this point, I don’t recall how you crossed my bow. I’m always interested in podcasts. I’ve done interviews on a lot of podcasts and I also do podcasts narrations. I narrate my own stories and also sometimes those of other people.
Well, we’ll have to talk about that, too. But first…the other cliché on this podcast is I’m going to take you back into the mists of time, and find out how you got interested in…most of us start as readers, so perhaps that’s how you began—you probably did—how you got interested in science fiction and fantasy and how you got interested in writing: how you got started putting words on paper, which it still was probably when you started writin
It was, yes. So, my father was a science-fiction reader back in the ’30s, in the days of the pulps, so there was a lot of science fiction around the house, as a matter of fact. There are stories that my father told me as bedtime stories when I was a kid which I now recognize as being classics of the field, like Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement. And so, I was surrounded by science fiction. I always loved it, big fan. I counted myself fortunate when Star Trek premiered in 1966 that I lived in the Midwestern time zone because if I’d lived in the Eastern or Pacific Time zones, it would’ve been past my bedtime. So, I was a Star Trek fan from day one. And my early…the books that I remember were, there was Miss Pickerel Goes to Mars, Have Space, Will Travel, and Willy Lay’s The Runaway Robot was an early favorite.
So, I’ve been reading it since I was a kid and I know I started writing science fiction stories about as soon as I started writing it all. I actually have a science fiction novel in two volumes, which is to say two spiral-bound notebooks, that I wrote in fourth grade. And, you know, I picked it up and re-read it a while ago, and it’s not bad. It’s, you know, I mean it’s dated, but it’s not embarrassingly badly written. I mean, it’s juvenile. It’s juvenile, but I think the sentences are in the correct order, and, you know, there’s actually plot and character—not so much on the character, but definitely there is plot. Character has always been my weakness and plot my strong point, and that’s been the case since the beginning. So, I wrote a lot of stories in middle school and high school, and in college, I took a science fiction writing class, and people said, “Hey, this stuff is really good, you ought to submit it.” But when I got out of college, I started working as a technical writer, writing software documentation, and writing fiction was just too much like the day job. So, I didn’t write a lick of fiction for 20 years.
And then I changed careers. I moved from technical writing into software engineering because I was tired of cleaning up other people’s design messes and wanted to have a chance to build the software so it was usable from the beginning. So, once I started being a software engineer instead of a technical writer, I found that my fiction-writing energy had come back. And so, that was around ‘98. And so, I had a sabbatical from my job coming up in 2000, so I had told my wife, to her surprise, that I wanted to go to Clarion for my sabbatical. So, I went to Clarion West in 2000 and I started publishing almost immediately thereafter. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being a technical writer for 20 years as a path to fiction writing, but what it did for me is, I was able to spend 20 years focusing on the craft of writing, writing nonfiction. with all of the…I mean, simple things like. not just the grammar and the punctuation, but the work habits: outlining, scheduling, my time, ergonomics, all of the things…I mean, writing is a really complicated business, and I was able to focus on everything except for the fiction craft parts of it for 20 years. So then, when I went to Clarion in 2000, Clarion West, I was able to add the fiction disciplines to the general writing disciplines I already had, which explains why I was able to hit the ground running so hard, I think. And certainly…I mean, you know, I went to Clarion West in 2000 and I was on the Campbell ballot in 2003. I don’t think most people can do that. Again, I wouldn’t recommend going to Clarion at age 38, 39, which is what I did, but, you know, everybody has their own path. There’s a…I’m a member of Book View Cafe, which is a writers’ co-operative.
Yeah. I’m familiar with that.
Yeah. And we produced a book called The Usual Path to Publication, which is, you know, the title is a joke. It’s a collection of essays where each of the 20 or so people in the book discusses their path to publication. And, of course, the joke is there is no useful path to publication. And I called mine, “How to Sell a Novel in Only 15 Years,” because everybody’s path to publication is different.
Yeah, I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library here in Saskatchewan, and one of the things that I…one reason for this podcast, and one reason I recommend all the want-to-be writers who come in to see me, and I’ve seen 40 or 50 individuals at this point, is by listening to these podcasts, you discover that there is no one right way to do this stuff, that everybody brings a different style and a different approach and gets into it in a different way. There are some similarities with you and what…I started in journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter for 10 years, and I was in communications for five years, and I was writing fiction at the same time and selling, you know, here and there, minor things. But I do believe that just the very act of sitting down and having to write thousands and thousands of words every week is quite invaluable. It’s like anything else. You have to exercise those muscles.
Yeah. When I was, like, a student, writing research papers, I hated outlining. And then, as a professional technical writer, outlining is absolutely an unavoidable part of the process. You have to do an outline before you can figure out how much time you need to budget to do the work. So, I was a really, really heavy outliner when I started, and I discovered in my personal path, and I think this is true of many other people, that I started out as a plotter and become more and more of a pantser as I become more experienced. And I’ve also noticed that pantsers actually realize the value of outlining and become rather more plotters as they become more experienced. So, I think the more experience you get, the plotter/pantser distinction becomes a lot fuzzier.
Now, this…your first few stories.,..”1992: the WorldCon that Wasn’t.” I’m just curious about the title. What was that about?
So, this was…it started out…so, as you mentioned, I co-edited a fanzine with my wife for 25 years or so. And so, this started out as an essay in the fanzine. So, the 1992 World Science Fiction Convention was held in Orlando. And it just so happened that there was a hurricane that basically just missed slamming into Orlando like a week before the convention. So, we wrote an essay, my wife and I collaborated, we wrote an essay, kind of an alternate-universe con report of what happened when we went to the convention, despite the fact that the convention center had been wiped out by a hurricane the week before, basically riffing on the idea that fans will get together and put on a convention under any circumstances.
And so…I was going to say that fans love stories about fandom.
Yes. Well, but the thing is, is that this was in a fannish publication. It was explicitly…basically it was an alternate-universe con report. So, a couple of years later, Mike Resnick, who has recently passed on, he did a lot of anthologies. He did a lot of alternate-universe anthologies, beginning with Alternate Presidents. And so, he decided that he was going to do a fan project called Alternate WorldCons. So, he opened the floor, and this was explicitly a fannish project, they did not pay professional rates, he was very clear about that up front, but he opened for contributions, and so I said, “Hey, I’ve got this essay. Would you be interested in it?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So, you know, he paid me some something less than pro rates, like maybe a penny a word. And so, that on appeared in the second volume, Again, Alternate WorldCons. So it’s basically…it was based on something that almost happened, but that makes it an alternate-history thing and therefore was perfect for Again, Alternate WorldCons. So that was my first publication in a science-fiction market, although it was not my first professional publication.
But it was a few years after that when you really started publishing regularly.
And you focused on short stories to start with.
Why were you drawn to that first? I mean, that also varies some author to authors., Some leap right into novels and some seem to gravitate to the shorter forms.
I was…as…when Humphrey Bogart was asked in Casablanca why he had come to Casablanca, he said, “For the waters.” “Monsieur, we are in the middle of a desert.” And he said, “I was misinformed.” So, that’s why I wrote short stories, because I was misinformed. At the time, I thought that…like I said, my father was a reader during the pulps. So, I had a bunch of anthologies and magazines from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s that I grew up reading. And so, reading the essays in there, I got the impression that the way to make a career as a science-fiction writer is, you begin by making your name with short stories and then you do a fix-up novel and then you begin writing novels. That wasn’t even true then, and is even less true now, but nonetheless, that’s what I believed.
And also, when you go to Clarion West or Odyssey or any of several other workshops for beginning writers, they use short stories because it’s a much better pedagogical technique. When you write a short story, you can write the whole thing in a week, you can do beginning, middle, and plot, characters, setting, all the pieces in an easy-to-critique and easy-to-understand chunk. If you wanted to workshop a novel, you couldn’t possibly do that in six weeks. And the Taos Toolbox workshop that Walter John Williams does is focused on novels and does two weeks, but even in two weeks, all you can do is you can talk about novels and you can read excerpts, but you can’t write and critique a whole novel in two weeks. That’s physically impossible.
So, by going to Clarion West, I discovered that I enjoyed short fiction and I was good at it, so I kept writing short fiction for a long time. I find that most writers are either natural novelists or natural short-story people. And I found myself to be a natural short-story writer. I’d say that most people are natural novelists because most of what people read these days is novels and you are what you eat. You tend to write what you like to read. And so, most science fiction and fantasy these days is published and consumed in the form of novels.
Novels get a lot more attention. Novels get a lot more critical interest. If you just Google on, you know, “best science fiction of 2019,” you’ll probably find nine or 19 pages talking about nothing but novels for every one page you find that even mentions a short story. Novels are where the action is. And so, I did spend a long time in the short-story mines and I learned an awful lot, but I always felt that novels got more attention. It certainly is the case that even a mid-list novel gets more attention than even an award-winning short story. So, I always wanted to be a novelist, and I wrote…Arabella of Mars was the fourth novel I wrote, but the first one to sell.
What did you start with? What was the first one that didn’t sell?
So, the first novel I wrote had the working title of Epixemic, with an X, which was changed to Remembrance Day for submission. It takes place on an Earth where the aliens have come, and…my model was the British in India, that there were not very many of them and they didn’t conquer. They just came in and offered us a really good deal and took over. So, they had…they gave us a worldwide rapid-transportation system and cured disease and stuff like that. And all they wanted was to, you know, to make use of our raw materials and special craft. So, they really were dominating the planet, but only economically, not militarily. And so, this was a world where the aliens were…they were the elite. They were the classy ones. And basically, all of humanity was relegated to a subsidiary role. And most people were reasonably happy with it, but there were a few people who didn’t like it.
So my main character was somebody who fell in with a group of rebels— or terrorists, as they were described by people outside the group—who had managed to seize an alien biocomputer. And he was a computer hacker and he hacked it, and for reasons that he didn’t understand at the time, the hack resulted in a plague, an “epixemic,” an alien plague, and so all the aliens on Earth started coming down with this horrible disease that was spreading like wildfire. And the connection between the two wasn’t even clear at first. And to make things more complicated, he was the ex-lover of the daughter of the alien’s leader. Who was also, not coincidentally, the first person to fall to the virus.
So, I did something incredibly ambitious. I said, “Well, if Iain Banks can write a novel that bops back and backward and forward in time simultaneously, I can, too.” So, I didn’t have…in Iain Banks’s, I believe it’s Use of Weapons, you’ve got alternating points of view, one of them going forward in time, the other one backward, to a mutual conclusion. I didn’t do that, but I did have one of the two point-of-view threads begin, say, in January, and the other one began in September of the same year, and bopping back and forth between them. One of them is catching up to the other and they both finish up in December. So you’ve got, one thread is offering you previews and foreshadowing for what’s happening in the other thread. And the other thread is explaining what’s happening in later one. So, anyway, it was ridiculously complicated. And I believe I pulled it off, but nobody was willing to risk it for a first novel.
Also, there was polyamory and my main character slept with men, women, and aliens, and…and it was a first novel, you know? I think it was really good, but it didn’t sell. You know, I came close. I got an offer from a major publisher, but the editor…I did not get an offer from a major publisher. I got an editor who wanted to buy it, but he couldn’t convince his boss to put up the money. And one of the other publishers were interested. And so, the second novel was a similar thing. Again, I thought it worked. I learned from the first novel that I needed to be a little bit less ambitious. So, instead of having alternating points of view bopping back and forth in time and a complicated polyamorous bisexual alien fucking love story…I’m sorry, did I say that word?…I, in the second novel, I had only two points of view. And it was strictly going one direction in time. But I still had an underage lesbian romance at the heart of it. And that one also did not sell.
OK, OK, so, that one didn’t sell. And the third one was a was young adult, one point of view, strict chronological, and still had a possible lesbian love affair in there, but not inter-generational. And at the time I was finishing up book three, the rejections that I was getting on book two, people were telling me “Science fiction just isn’t selling these days.
I remember that.
I don’t know if it was actually true at the time, but was certainly the message that I was getting from both editors and agents. So, for my fourth project…so, after I finished that third book, the young-adult one, I did not even submit it. I set it aside because it was science fiction. And I said, “What can I write that’s fantasy enough to meet the needs of the market, but science fiction enough to satisfy my science fiction writer heart?” And so, of the huge pile of ideas that I have—because I don’t know about anybody else, but it certainly is a truism in this field that ideas are the easy part. I mean, you know, that thing about somebody will come up to you at a party and say, “Hey, I’ve got this great idea for a science fiction story. You know, I’ll give you the idea. You write it, we’ll split the profits.” And no, no, ideas or easy. Ideas are a dime a dozen.
So, I had this huge pile of science-fiction story ideas. And there was this one that involved an alternate Regency…or. at least. an alternate Enlightenment period, where the sky was full of air and the European powers had colonized Mars and Venus, which are, of course, inhabited. And so, I had this idea and I thought, “You know, this kind of feels like fantasy, with the flying sailing ships, but I’m going to I’m gonna approach it as science fiction.” And so, I wrote it, and…and this is one of those things where, when you mention, “Well, I’ve got I’ve got these three or four novel ideas,” this was the one that everybody pointed at and said, “Yeah. Yeah, that one sounds fascinating.”
And really, that’s, you know, the basic idea of Arabella, with the flying sailing ships and the girl who dresses as a boy and Martians and pirates and privateers, it’s got a lot of jazz to it. People really like the raw idea. And that helped propel me through the writing of it and it really helped sell it.
One thing that is really important when you are submitting a book to either an agent or an editor is, you’ve got to have your comps, your comparable titles. And for my first couple of novels, I said, “Well, it’s kind of like Larry Niven,” or “It’s kind of like Jack Vance.” You know, I was comparing myself to writers who were already 20 or 30 years out of date. But on this one, I could say it’s Patrick O’Brian in space. You know, that’s my comp title. I could also compare it with Mary Robinette Kowal’s Regency magic series. So, if you can realistically compare your book to things which are highly regarded, critical successes and current bestsellers, it dramatically increases the chances of success, versus saying, “Well, it’s kind of like this obscure thing that you might not have heard of or was 40 years ago.”
So, and that’s something that you’ve got to do…that has to be baked into the core of the book. It’s not something…you can’t come up with comp titles after it’s written. You have to understand as you’re beginning to write it, “I’m going for a C.J. Cherryh feel,” or, “It’s going to be like N.K. Jemisin,” or, “I want something like Captain Nemo.” You have to have your comp titles in mind from the very beginning, and it’s best if those comp titles are things that people will go, “Yeah. Cool. I love that. I want more of it.”
All right. Well, let’s get a synopsis of Arabella of Mars first for those who, for some inexplicable reason, have not read the book.
OK. So, Arabella of Mars takes place in 1813 in an alternate universe in which the sky is full of air and the European powers have colonized Mars and Venus. Arabella is a girl who was raised on a plantation on Mars, but her mother, fearing that she was turning into a wild colonial child, hauled her back to England. She hated it in England. Everything was too heavy, too wet, too warm, and the people were dull. She wanted excitement in her life. She had grown up basically completely on her own. She and her brother would run around in the desert with their Martian nanny and have all kinds of adventures. And in England, it was just balls and cards and horses and incredibly dull. So then, they get a letter discovering that Dad, who had remained back on Mars, had passed away of a fever. And Arabella discovers that her cousin is planning to travel to Mars and do in her brother so that he can inherit the family fortune. She is, for a variety of contrived reasons, the only person who is in a position to do anything about this. So, she disguises herself as a boy and signs on to a fast interplanetary freighter to attempt to beat her cousin to Mars so she can warn her brother and save the family fortune. Naturally, hijinx ensue. She winds up…there’s a mutiny, the ship is attacked by pirates, they land on Mars to discover there’s an alien rebellion in progress. Eventually, there’s a confrontation and Arabella does indeed get the boy, save the fortune, and calm the Martian rebellion.
It’s a heck of a lot of fun. Now, going back to the initial idea, you have a lot of ideas, but do you remember what kind of made you think of this in the first place? And is that typical of the way that your ideas come to you?
I say of ideas that ideas are like neutrinos. They come sleeting down in space by the billions, but you have to be dense enough to stop one. So if you just keep your eyes open, ideas are coming to you constantly. I was talking with somebody at Clarion, one of my fellow students. She said, you know, “Where do you get your ideas?” And there was a bird in the tree nearby, we were outdoors, and I said, “Well, you know, there’s a bird. You know, let’s talk about birds. You know, what if, what if, I don’t know, what if birds were spaceships? What if you could build a spaceship out of a bird brain? And I just sort of sketched out an idea right then. And that idea became “Tail of the Golden Eagle,” which was my first Hugo nominee.
So, in this particular case, I know exactly where the seed of Arabella was. It was 1987. It was Gene Wolfe’s book, Earth of the New Sun. Earth of the New Sun takes place in a far, far, far future, which is almost medieval. And at one point, our hero boards a ship to take him to another planet, and he’s given a necklace which holds the air around himself. And he discovers that when he goes out on deck, in order to talk to somebody else, you have to move up close to them so that your envelopes of air intersect, because there is no there is no sound in space. And he asks, “Why is this so?” And he is told, “Well, the philosophers believe that if there were sound in space, the roaring of the stars would define the universe.”
And that note about space is full of vacuum, because otherwise the roaring of the stars would deafen the universe, stuck with me for over 20 years. And I had this idea for…first it was gonna be a short story about, it was going to be an alternate 1700s where humanity discovers that the sky is indeed full of air, that the universe is full of air. And this was gonna be, I figured, “When would people discover this? When and how would people discover that the universe was full of air?” And I figured they’d probably do it, it would probably be, you know, Ben Franklin or Isaac Newton or something like that, and they would discover it by actually hearing that vibration, which, you know, people would have evolved to not hear it, but there would be this peculiar low-level hum that’s everywhere.
And so, I started out thinking about it as being the discovery of the phenomenon. But then I started thinking about, “What would people do after they discovered it?” So I had this idea about the flying sailing ships in the 1700s, I think probably because I started out with the idea of the Enlightenment? And then, as the plot evolved, it moved from the 1700s up to the Regency, because I do dearly love Patrick O’Brian, and so the Napoleonic wars in space. But I like having a young-adult main character, I like having a female main character, because life is harder for women, especially in the past of our cultures, and so, putting your main character in a situation that is difficult is a way to make their story more interesting. So, basically, making her female just made her life harder. And so, that’s how I came up with my main character and my setting. And then the rest of it kind of evolved through discussions with other writers and mostly just kind of pulling things out of my tail because, you know, that’s what fiction is, is pulling stuff out of your tail and putting it on the page.
There’s a Canadian writer…who’s been mentioned a few times by Canadian writers who actually studied with him…Candas Jane Dorsey had actually met him and I think worked with him a bit. Not a science fiction writer. His name is W.O. Mitchell, but he used to have a TV show which dramatized some of his fiction, and the name of the TV show was The Magic Lie, which I thought is a great expression to describe fiction. And I was glad you talked about ideas being everywhere, because when I do workshops and things, I did one not too long ago, in fact, and I was talking about this, and I said, “Well, look around the room. There are coat hangers over there. And I looked at the coat hangers and I asked questions and I came up with a story idea based on coat hangers. So, yeah, it’s just…again, it’s kind of that muscle that you exercise, I think.
Yeah, I do a workshop called “Idea to Story in an Hour” and I usually do start off with something like that.
Now, you had your idea. You had a character. Now, what does your planning process look like? How do you take that and turn it into your novel? You said you’re more of a pantser than an outliner now, but you also said you were an outliner, so what does it look like for you?
So, yeah, at the time I wrote Arabella I was a pretty strict outliner. So, my writing process is, I always have two files, or in Scrivener, I have one file outside of the manuscript. And so, I have my notes file and I have my draft file. And so, I start off in the notes file and my notes file, I only ever add onto the end of it. So it’s a combination of writing journal and process notes. So, I start off, every writing session, I sit down and I write the date and where I am. And then I start typing in the notes file about, “OK, so here’s where we are and here’s what I’m gonna do next.” And so, for the first, maybe, you know, for the first hour or two on a short story or for the first weeks or months on a novel, I’ll just type in the notes file and I’ll think, “OK, well, this is what I want to do, and this is some ideas for the story and the setting.” And I may go off and do some research and copy and paste stuff out of Web pages into the notes file I may write a couple of paragraphs about the character and where they’re coming from. The notes file is full of lots of “maybe” and “what if” and “oh, well, then if I, then I could.” And so, I just talk on paper. I just talk it out. And then every once in a while I’ll stop and I’ll write a bullet list of, OK, this is the outline so far. And I will actually, like, copy and paste bullet lists down further into the notes file so that I can refer back to previous versions. So, generally, the notes file is as big or bigger than the actual project.
And eventually, at some point, I actually start drafting in the other file. And so, the notes file will contain my notes about, “What did I write today and where do I think this is going next and what are the problems I need to keep an eye out for in the future and how many words did I write today?” And sometimes my notes file just says, you know, “Writing at so-and-so coffeeshop with so-and-so, did 1,500 words on X.” You know, sometimes it’s just that. And sometimes my entry for a notes file will be pages and pages and pages and pages of. “Oh God, I’ve written myself into a corner, what can I do now?”
So, I find that my process is generally, I will outline the whole book before I begin writing. And then I have to stop about halfway through and re-outline the second half based on what I’ve learned about the characters and situation in the first half, because the second half that I had in mind is no longer viable, or I discover…many, many times I discovered that my outline, I outline the first half in considerable detail and then the second half is then is something along the lines of, “And then hijinx ensue and everybody comes out happy.” So, I have to…so, not only because I didn’t think it through in detail, but also because what I had in mind isn’t going to work anymore, based on where I’ve gone up until this point, so I stop and re-outline at the halfway point, and then again at like the three-quarter point, I stop and re-outline the back quarter of the book.
Yes, that sounds very familiar to me, too, because I do something similar. In fact, I just did it for…not that long ago for the one I’m working on now, which is my next DAW novel. I had to replot to the end because it just wasn’t going to work the way I originally thought it was going to work.
Yep, yep. I find that I’m…my particular process is, I can’t begin writing until I have an ending in mind. I may not wind up with that ending, but I have to have an ending in mind or I can’t start moving.
Now, you mentioned a little bit about your writing, the actual physical act of writing. You write in coffee shops some. Is that typical? Do you write out of your home or your home office or how does it work for you?
I have a comfortable writing chair in my living room, but I do find that it’s much easier for me to write if I can get away from my home environment with all of its chores and distractions. And so, I find that writing with one or two other people in a coffee shop is the most motivating, because when you’ve got somebody on the other side of the table typing diligently away, you don’t pay attention to the fact that they may just be, you know, they may just be on Facebook. You…they give the impression of productivity and therefore, that compels me to be productive. Also, there’s something about the noise of a coffee shop that is very…it helps people to focus. And I’m far from the only person to have discovered that. And, of course, there’s coffee.
So, interestingly, I did, when I first started…and I don’t write full time. I am retired from the day job. But people say, “Oh, you retired to write full time?” No, I’m not spending any more time writing than I did before, but I don’t have a day job. So, when I first retired and started thinking about putting more attention to my writing, I considered renting space in a co-working space. And basically the choice was, I could rent a co-working space for, like, $300 a month with free coffee, or I could pay for the coffee at, you know, like three bucks a shot, and get free working space. So it was just, it was just cheaper to work in a coffee shop than a co-working space. I’d love to be able to have regular co-working partners. I know people who are software engineers and people…a lot of cartoonists. In Portland, we have this amazing studio called Periscope, which is a co-working space for cartoonists and comics illustrators, and I’d love to have that sort of working environment, but it just…I just can’t justify the expense.
I like to work in coffee shops, too, but here’s another question about working in that kind of a space. Do you find that you occasionally are overhearing conversations that interfere with your writing? Because that’s what happens to me and then I have to put on headphones and listen to music.
I used to write to music and I found that I just sort of stopped doing that. I guess I don’t find those conversations too distracting. The one thing that will be distracting is if there’s music at the coffee shop and the music has words.
And if that starts happening, then I have to go someplace else. But the conversations don’t impinge too badly.
Once you have a draft…well, first of all, are you a fast writer? A slow writer? How do you typify yourself?
I am an extremely slow writer. I have been working…with the exception of the third Arabella book, which because of various life factors, I had to finish in six months. I’ve never written a novel in less than two years, and my current project, which again, due to various life circumstances, I’ve been working on for over two years now, I could easily see it extending out to three. And I’m trying to be kind to myself. I have a real tendency to beat myself up for not being more productive. But I’m trying to be kind to myself and let the process flow as it does.
So, once you do have a draft, what’s your revision process before it gets submitted anywhere? Do you have beta readers? Do you do it all yourself? How does that work for you?
After I finish a draft, I generally will go through and do a revision based on what I’ve learned about the book during the process of it. I generally…my first drafts come out extremely consistent because I’m really good at keeping details clear in my head and so I don’t have to go back and revise to make sure that my heroine’s eyes didn’t change color or anything like that.
Clothes are what get me. What people are wearing.
Yeah. But I have a really strong sense of where everything is in the room. I don’t have difficulty with blocking. I never have people across the room and then find themselves back at the door. So, the problems that I have are larger problems, like, the character isn’t sympathetic enough or there’s not enough tension. And I wish there was like a knob on the outside of a story that you could just turn, you know, make the character more sympathetic or what have you. So. Okay. But anyway, so, by the time I get to the end of it, in my notes file, I have a whole bunch of notes of things I want to take care of in the first revision. And so, I go through and I do a revision pass on my own. Then, if possible, I have workshopped a couple of novels using a process where you get together with a bunch of other novelist friends, you rent a beach house for a long weekend, and you trade off critiques. A technique which has worked really well in the past is, you get, say, a dozen people together, and everybody has a completed novel, and you have to have a draft done by a certain date, maybe two months before. And so, then you share. You put your novels up on a shared drive so that everybody can access them. Everybody reads everybody else’s synopsis and first 50 pages. And then, two people read your complete novel and you read two complete novels. And the person who’s organizing the thing has to figure out who does which. It’s a little bit complicated, but I’d never done that part myself. And then you go and you spend a weekend at a beach house with, you know, cooking together and eating together, and exchanging critiques during the day, and just talking shop and chewing the fat for the rest of the time. So, in this way you get at a bunch of people looking at your premise and opening, which is really important. And then, a couple of people look at the whole thing. And likewise, you learn an awful lot from critiquing other people’s work. So, this is the best way that I have found to get feedback on a novel.
I also, for my first two novels I was working with a critique group that met regularly in person. And so, I was writing a chapter for every meeting. And I promised them that if I did not have a chapter for them, I would buy everyone drinks. And I never had to do that. So, it was very motivating for me to keep drafting, and I was getting feedback on the thing as it went along. Now, I remember Dean Wesley Smith telling me that nobody’s ever written a good novel that way, but he said this right after he’d praised my novel, which was written that way. So he said, “Well, I suppose there’s an exception to everything.” But, so, I do like to get feedback. I don’t have…sadly, at the moment, I do not have a writing group. I do not have trusted beta readers. The people that I was working with, many of them have stopped being productive for a variety of reasons. And those that have been productive are too busy with their writing careers to take time to critique other people’s stuff. So, putting together a good writing group is important and it’s also difficult.
Yeah, I’ve never had one, living in small-town Saskatchewan growing up. There was a writing group, but it was elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, so…
Yeah. We have to two writers’ organizations here in Portland. We’ve got Willamette Writers and the Oregon Writers Colony, and they’re both very good. But the majority of people in them are retired people, mostly women who are writing their memoirs. We do have quite a few fiction writers and quite a few screenwriters and playwrights, but the numerical majority of members of these writers’ organizations are people writing memoir.
I did find a good…this is, you know…as I said, I’m pretty much your age. I’m a couple of years older than you. And there used to be a group called the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop, which was a by-mail critique thing, because we didn’t have e-mail yet, and it worked well, and I found a couple of really great critiquers who went on to have careers of their own. And that was nice, but critiquing by mail is a very slow process. So it just didn’t work once, you know, you started trying to get books turned around in any kind of reasonable amount of time.
Yeah. So, here’s something that I say. I’ve led a lot of critique sessions at science-fiction workshops. I started out attending them and gradually shifted over into leading them. And what I say about critiquing in groups is that the benefit to a writer of critiquing in groups is that you take the time to read a work with a critical eye. And this is a draft, so everybody involved agrees that this is not finished, perfect work. It’s not like a literature class, where you’re reading something that has already been published and has probably received a lot of critical acclaim. You’re reading something which is definitely rough, definitely a draft. And so, you’re looking for ways that it can be improved. So, you look at it with a critical eye, and then you get together and you share your opinions in a circle with other people who have also read that same work with a critical eye. And from listening to the other reactions to a piece that you have just read with that critical eye, you can hear, for example, “Other people found that this thing here was a problem, and I didn’t even notice that,” or, “I thought that this was a problem and other people didn’t.” And so, by hearing what other people thought of the same story that you just critiqued, you can improve your own critical faculties. You can figure out, “What am I missing that other people are spotting?”, or vice versa. And so that, I think is one…I mean, in addition to the critique that you receive and the things that you learn from reading other people’s drafts, you also learn from other people’s critiques. And so, that’s something that you cannot duplicate by mail. You could duplicate it with, like, you know, like a group video chat. I have not tried doing critique by group video chat, but I can imagine that it would work as well.
So once you have your polished draft, and it goes into your editor, what kind of editorial feedback to you typically get? You’re with Tor, so…
Yes. The first book had been through many rounds of critique, and so the editorial letter was quite short. The second book, I did get a rather extensive editorial letter. And the third book, both because it was written so fast and because of critiques…I mean, not critiques, reviews, that I’d read of the second book. I got a really…okay, so this is a Tor book, and it got a really scathing review on Tor.com, the second Arabella book. And that really set me back on my heels. And I made substantial changes to the third book to address the problems that this reviewer found with the second book. And I really wish she had reviewed the third book so I could find out what she thought of the changes, but she did not. So, whether the third book is better on those issues of colonialism and racism than the second book was, I haven’t received a lot of feedback indicating whether or not it did a good job. Because books, you know, books in a series are like children. You know, you look at somebody’s photo album and there’ll be, you know, a dozen photos of the first child and a couple of photos of the second child and the third child is, “Oh, wait, here they are at seven.”
That was me.
Yeah. Books in a series are the same. The first book gets a lot more critical attention. Like, I mean, look at the number of reviews of the three books on Amazon or Goodreads and you’ll plainly see…like, the first book has, I don’t know how many reviews, certainly well over 50, the second more like a couple dozen and the third, maybe a dozen. You know that…readers and publishers like series because it answers the question of, “I enjoyed this. Give me something that’s just like this, only different.” But, in general, only the people that read the first book will read the second…only some of the people that read the first book will read the second…and only some of the people that read the second book will read the third. So, the number of readers always goes down over the length of the series. Even, you know, even George R.R. Martin is not getting as many sales of the last book in his series, even though it’s a huge national bestseller, as he did for the first book, because every book in the series acts as an ad for the first book. So, a successful series, as it goes on, every new book that comes out at the end is going to cause more people to start at the beginning. But many of those people who start will not, will read either just the first book or just the first couple and not go on. So, there’s this big descending curve of readership over the course of a series, even the really successful ones.
Yeah, when I wrote my first trilogy, as E.C. Blake, it was under a pseudonym , and the first book…by far, my most popular book, but as the trilogy went along, I certainly noticed that, that each book had fewer readers, which is disturbing in a way. That’s just the way it works.
It is just the way it works. There’s a death spiral that can occur, where…it’s called ordering to the net. When, back in the days when brick-and-mortar booksellers were the top of the food chain, they would, you know, if they ordered 20,000 copies of some book and only sold 15,000 of them, then they would only order 15,000 copies of book two and they’d probably only sell 12,000 copies of that. So they would only order 12,000 copies of Book 3, which meant it was almost physically impossible to increase sales from one book to the next. So, you know, so there’s ordering to the net, it can turn into a death spiral where you don’t where you no longer have the opportunity of selling more because they just aren’t in the stores.
Did you know that Arabella was going to be…you say Ah-rabella, don’t you? How do you...
I say Ah-rabella. I believe that I am pronouncing the name of my main character incorrectly. So, I will not…I will never, ever correct anybody else’s pronunciation. I think I’m wrong, but I’m not…and people say, “Well, that’s the way you pronounce it, it must be correct.” No, not necessarily. I mean, I had a story that was set in China. And I had all these Chinese words in it, which I had looked up. But when I went to read it, when I went to do the audiobook of it, I discovered that I had no idea how to pronounce those words that I put on the page.
Funny story, I asked a friend of mine who does speak Mandarin how these words were pronounced, and he e-mailed me back saying, of this one particular word, was pronounced with the like the a in can, not the a in can’t. And I went, “What?” But I forgot he was a Brit. So it’s can and cahn’t, but anyway…so, just because I wrote something doesn’t mean I know how to pronounce it. And a lot of people have trouble with the name of the story “Tk’ Tk’ Tk’,” and that’s just how I say it. I just say tick, tick, tick. So you got it fine.
So anyway, so Arabella, I wrote it as a standalone, but during that novel-critique weekend, I was talking with my writer friends and everybody says, “You know, if you go to a publisher, if a publisher comes back to you with an offer, they’re gonna say, you know, ‘What else do you have in mind?” And if you can say, ‘Well, I’ve got two more books planned in this series,’ they’ll offer you a three-book contract.” And so, we…I just basically sat around with some friends in the evening and we BS-ed out a second and a third book. So, I wrote it as a standalone, but when…by the time I came to present it to the publishers, I had a one-page outline for a book two and a one-paragraph sketch of a book three in my hip pocket. So, when the publisher did indeed come back and say, “We like this, what else do you have?” I could say, “Well, here’s a sketch for book two and a sketch for book three. And so I got a three-book contract.”
All right. Well, we’re getting within about 10 minutes of when I need to cut this short…well, not that short, it’s still an hour. So, I want to ask my big philosophical question, which is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write? Why do you write science fiction? And why do you think any of us do?”
Why do I write? I write because I enjoy making things. And this is something that that I really enjoyed about software engineering is basically, you know, I wiggle my fingers and stuff to appear, stuff that actually does a job. In this case, the job is entertaining people. But I enjoy the process of creating. I enjoy the, “Ooh, what happens next?” thing. Storytelling is a basic human thing. And I happened to find myself with this skill set. I think some of it’s innate and some of it’s trained. And I definitely have some innate skills, and I’ve also done a lot of, I’ve taken a lot of workshops., I’ve taken a lot of courses, I’ve chewed the fat many a late hour talking about how do we do this thing on. And so, I’ve built up a pretty good skill set and I enjoy exercising that skill set.
And, you know, and the ego boost when somebody says, “Ooh, I read that book, I loved it,” is just, you know, that’s one of the best things in life, is when somebody says, “Hey, I saw that thing you did, it was great.” So really…I mean, people write for all sorts of reasons. They write for money. They write for fame. They write for critical acclaim. I really do write for the reviews and the awards. That is the thing that I am hoping to achieve. And why does anybody do it? Everybody’s got their own reasons. And if you’re going to pursue a career in writing, you really have to understand what you want out of it and how you’re going to prioritize the things that you do in order to align your particular skills with your goals. You’ve got to understand what your goals are before you can determine how to achieve success. You know, if I had, like, if I had twice as many readers and was making less money, I would go, “Great trade-off!” I would happily do that.
I know other people that are trying to, you know, trying to put food on the table. They wouldn’t take that. They would say, I would much rather sell a thousand copies with 50-percent royalty than…sorry, they’d say I’d rather sell 500 copies with a 50 percent royalty than 2,000 copies at a 25-percent royalty. Even though the money might be the same, that means that…if you self-publish, you get more money per copy. But most self-publishers can’t sell, can’t move as many copies as a traditional publisher with all of their marketing resources can. So, I would much rather have a smaller slice of a bigger pie, even if I get less money out of the deal, because you get more exposure, more visibility, more readers and more critical attention. If my book appears in brick-and-mortar bookstores, in libraries, and, you know, gets reviewed, you know, these are all things that are more available to me as a traditionally published writer. And they matter to me. It really matters to me to find my book in the library. And that to me is worth giving up a big chunk of the royalties. For a self-published writer, they would rather have a bigger chunk of the royalties of each book, which means that they make more money, even if they put fewer copies in front of people’s eyeballs. So, you have to understand what’s important to you and then choose your tactics based on achieving your goals.
And why science fiction?
I always say, “What’s the point of reading a book where it’s limited to things that could happen in the real world?”
That’s what I say, too!
I mean, oh, okay, yeah, yeah. So I’m reading How the West was Won or Gone with the Wind, you know. And Gone with the Wind, you know, nothing really interesting is going to happen. No Martians will descend. There are no ghosts. I think fiction’s all made up, and you should have the ability to make up whatever you want. And so, I really do find stories with the element of the fantastic to be a lot more interesting than stories that are limited to what could actually happen.
Yes. When people ask me, “Why do you write science fiction?” I say, “Why wouldn’t I?”
You know, it’s just more interesting to me. All right. Well, what are you working on now?
I am working on what I describe as a space-opera caper picture. It’s a cross between Leverage and Firefly in the universe of The Expanse. A group of…a criminal gang, basically, they had what they thought was going to be the job that would set them up for their lifetimes. It didn’t go well. Several gang members were killed and they split up. Ten years later, the son of the leader of the gang shows up and says, “Dad’s in jail. I’m putting the gang back together to break him out.” And it turns out to be more complicated than that.
Sounds fun. Is there a release date on that or is that still some way off in the future?
No, it’s some ways off in the future. I’m at…let’s see., I think I just crossed 78,000 words or thereabouts, shooting for 100,000. But that’s on first draft. So, it’s gonna be a while before it’s even ready to submit, never mind having a publication date. And, as I said, I’m trying to be kind to myself and not beat myself up for not being as productive.
And anybody that wants to follow you and find out what you’re up to, where can they find you online?
My Web site is daviddlevine.com. You can find me on Twitter as DavidDLevine. You can find me on Facebook as David.D.Levine. But I use that David D. Levine identifier…I’m also on Instagram as David D. Levine. I use my middle initial because the name David Levine is quite common. There’s a New Yorkercaricaturist, David Levine. There’s an Indy car driver named David Levine. Lots and lots and lots and lots of dentists and lawyers named David Levine. So I just I, you know, I never had a hope of getting my unadorned name to be near anywhere near visible on Google. But if you Google on David D Levine, you should follow me.
I’ve been pretty lucky with Edward Willett. There’s a professional golfer, I think, and there’s a guy who plays the cello. He played on the theme music for Northern Exposure with a group called Chance, and his name is Ed Willett. But if you Google Edward Willett, I get like most of the first two pages of hits. So that’s pretty good.
All right. Well, thanks so much for the conversation. That was great. Thank you very much. I’m glad you were a guest on The Worldshapers.