Verbose guy is verbose

I did a written interview recently for a website called “The Indie View,” a blog that focuses on drawing attention to small-press and independent writers. The interview questions are the standard form they use for all their authors, which was a little weird, but I felt like I made a couple of halfway-decent points amid the meandering responses I gave, so I figured I might as well post it here. Won’t actually be published on the site until April 18, but it’s a cool blog, an interesting part of the little guy-author process. Definitely worth checking out for anyone interested in under-the-radar fiction authors.

Q: What is the book about?

A: The short, literal answer is that this book is about a heist. In space. Elmore Leonard meets Robert A. Heinlein. A master thief named Christmas “Crazy-eyes” Parker steals something she shouldn’t have. That object – which it was Parker’s dumb luck to come across – makes her the target of the police, her former criminal allies, the government, and potentially someone far more powerful and dangerous. Unwittingly, Parker may become the catalyst of a wholesale change in the human condition. Whether mankind will rally to confront its first truly foreign danger remains an open question throughout the novel.

As the story takes place in an undefined, semi-alternate timeline, Parker inhabits a future where man has spread out into the Milky Way and colonized a handful of habitable planets, all of which are governed by a singular, nominally democratic government known as the Galactic Coalition. The Coalition is no utopia, nor is it an authoritarian dystopia. It is a functioning republic, albeit with a myriad of serious structural problems. As the whole of the Children and Ghosts quintet will hopefully make clear, the most powerful of empires can stand on a house of cards. But only for a while.

The narrative follows a mosaic of lives, on both sides of the law. Parker, who after a lifetime of crime has at last found something worth stealing. Atusa Navarro, Parker’s boss, whose covert ruthlessness is matched only by her overt generosity. Detective Benjamin Weizmann, an intelligent obsessive workaholic who is not the upstanding paragon of moral virtue he fancies himself. Echo Norton, equal parts violent sociopath and tender, caring mother, haunted by the demons of drug addiction. Horace Murchison, a portly, bookish bureaucrat who late in his career finds in himself the capacity for sedition. Regina Bell, whose grandmotherly appearance belies the fact that she’s a brutal mobster.

So the longer, somewhat more figurative answer is as follows: this book is at the outset is about people doing what they’ve always done, going about their business, trying to make their way in the world, pursuing their own agendas via the usual power structures of money and politics. But gradually, a select few come to realize they’re now confronted with a bizarre situation the likes of which we’ve never encountered. This book is about what happens after that initial encounter.

The title, incidentally, is an allusion to a William Blake poem.

Q: When did you start writing the book?

A: According to the first entry in my writing journal that mentions it, that day was June 14, 2011. The entry reads, in total, “Finished chapter one of Crazy-eyes’ story. No idea yet where it’s going. Want it to feel like a Michael Mann picture, if Mann made a sci-fi.”

The genesis of the thing was somewhat before that. I’d wanted to write a science-fiction/crime combo for at least a few years, since long before I had any semblance of an idea of how to construct a novel. (If ever I make the big time, I may publish some of those execrable early drafts, as encouragement and motivation for other aspiring authors who might be unhappy with their initial efforts.) As far back as I can remember I’ve been a fan of the darker side of the science fiction spectrum, the Blade Runners, the Children of Mens, the Dark City’s, so I always wanted to contribute something to the genre’s more rough-and-tumble side. And from the very outset, I wanted to write about regular people, with recognizable problems, in a fantastic, extraordinary environment.

The character of Crazy-eyes initially started out as a minor character in a very different sort of sci-fi piece. During work on that story her voice and manner began to change in my mind – she went from caustic and wisecracky to terse and no-nonsense – and this book was born, more-or-less.

Q: How long did it take you to write it?

A: Almost exactly one year, though the pace was by no means consistent. That includes a couple of significant breaks when life got in the way, and an all-nighter where I cranked out the last five chapters between the hours of 12 and 7 a.m., with short breaks only for coffee and Skyrim.

Q: Where did you get the idea from?

A: I like heist stories a lot. I like science-fiction a lot. So I threw ‘em in a blender.

Initially I envisioned it as a quick one-off read – throw around some bullets and spaceships, get-in-get-out. It’s since become more complicated than that. Fair to say my imagination has experienced what the military would term “mission creep.” Not until fairly late in the first draft did I realize this thing wasn’t over, not by a long shot. It’s not going to end up anywhere close to where it started, to say the least. But from that jumping-off point, the idea for the loose blueprint of a quintet came to me very easily.

The character of Crazy-eyes occurred to me at a restaurant in Santa Barbara, California. I was eating alone, reading a book, when a kid at the table next to mine told his sister to quit giving him “that crazy-eyed look.” And the wheels started turning.

Q: Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?

A: I think any writer – let alone a relatively inexperienced one like myself – would be lying if (s)he said that writing a complete, coherent story didn’t involve a hell of a lot of struggle. Writing, for me, is weightlifting – if you aren’t struggling, you’re doing it wrong.

There were absolutely a few points where I was jammed up, unsure how to proceed. I’m pleased that I now mostly can’t recall precisely which points those were. But they were certainly there. That was an object lesson for me – in the marathon of writing, what feels like a roadblock won’t even look like a bump in the road when you’re looking back from the finish line. So keep writing. One foot in front of the other. There is absolutely nothing more important than keeping going.

Q: What came easily?

A: It seems to be a common phenomenon that inexperienced writers will go in knowing the beginning and the end, and if you’re going to get tripped up, it’ll be somewhere in the morass of the middle. This was absolutely the case for me. Both the beginning and the end came to me easily, in a rush. Every snag I hit was somewhere in the middle third-or-so. I’m generally very methodical and detail-oriented with syntax and style, but even the words of the first and last sections were almost a stream-of-consciousness exercise.

Most of the dialogue came pretty painlessly. The characters never went silent on me, even in those weeks where I wasn’t producing much on the page.

Q: Are your characters entirely fictitious or have you borrowed from real world people you know?

A: I intentionally borrowed a few physical appearances and a few names. Christmas Parker is real person, a friend of a friend who I randomly “met” on Facebook a few years back. To this day I’ve never met her in person (and probably never will), but I told her over the internets once that I thought her name was perfect for a character and I was going to borrow it. So here we are.

While I didn’t consciously borrow any particular personality traits, a certain amount of that is probably inevitable. You’re writing about people after all, so it stands to reason every person you create on the page is going to be a composite of pieces of yourself and people you’ve known. They’re going to say things you’ve never said and do things you’ve never seen done, but at some point in your life you met somebody (more likely, multiple somebodies) who planted the seed for that character’s existence. That’s just how it works. For me, at least.

Q: We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?

A: Far too many to list, so I’ll try to keep it to my personal Mount Rushmore. With Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss all working at the same time, the speculative fiction genre has never been in better shape. Rothfuss’ world-building consistently leaves me in awe. As pure storytellers, you probably can’t do much better than Martin or Sanderson in any genre. Going back a bit, I owe much of my love for science-fiction to Arthur C. Clarke, more specifically Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke’s depictions of extraterrestrials were revolutionary for me. They weren’t monsters; nor were they gods. They were products of a different branch of evolution on a different world, struggling to relate to us as much as we were to them.  Though he’s not a print writer per se, David Simon (in his HBO series “The Wire”) made it brilliantly clear how long-term social trends affected and encouraged the behavior of the members of a given community. If I had Simon’s talent I would write speculative fiction that illustrated its society in both the macro and the micro with such stark clarity. I may never accomplish that feat, but it’s my goal.

There were primarily three books from childhood that kind of punched me in the breadbasket in the right moment, greatly deepening my desire to write: Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Those three lit a fire in my imagination in a way that just doesn’t happen every day. For the rest of my life, I expect, writing will be an exercise in chasing that fire.

As stylists, practitioners of the art and beauty of the English language, there is nobody better by my reckoning than Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. I’m hesitant to say they’ve influenced me – that’d be like a first-year piano student claiming influence from Mozart – but if forced to choose a governing stylistic influence, they’d be it. And, of course, nobody writes better dialogue (or better crooks) than Elmore Leonard.

There are… eleven faces on Mount Rushmore, right?

Q: Do you have a target reader?

A: I don’t believe in such a creature. Maybe it’s just that my own tastes have broadened so much as I’ve gotten older. (If you want to be a writer, you can’t afford to have narrow tastes. But that’s another topic altogether.) If you ask me all good stories have crossover appeal, and everything good eventually finds an audience. I’ve known plenty of science fiction/fantasy readers who didn’t fit the typical mold one would expect. At the same time, some of my favorite books of the past several years have been well outside my particular natural wheelhouse. Stepping outside your box – giving your preferences a chance to expand – is always a good idea.

Q: Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?

A: Well the moon has to be in Virgo and Mars has to be in Cancer, it has to be precisely 7:30 Greenwich time when I get started, I must be at the desk in my precise Feng Shui office with ambient white noise and I need a cup of shade-grown coffee from a particular family farm in Paraguay.

Or something.

In reality I have no writing process whatsoever. That concept is utterly foreign to me. This book was written at all hours of the day, on three different computers, in all rooms of my house (including the kitchen), in two dozen coffee shops and restaurants, on a few hundred scraps of paper, in a few notebooks, and on two different phones. I wrote probably five percent of it while walking an hour to and from work, after a vehicle breakdown put me on foot for a while. (At first I used the memo function on my old phone, though I later downloaded a word processing app on my new one.)

The closest thing I have to a process is that I do it compulsively in the back of my mind, during most of my waking hours. This will occasionally annoy those around you, if you happen to have a breakthrough and miss something said because of it and the other person is left wondering where the hell you just went for a second. But there are worse things than being thought a space cadet for the sake of your passion.

Q: Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?

A: This is going to sound terribly unprofessional, but so be it. Not only do I not outline, but I can’t. Can’t do it. Mentally incapable. The most I’ll ever do is the five fuzzy plot points that form the overarching superstructure of the series, and maybe, occasionally two or three chapters ahead of my current progress. And even that few chapters ahead is only outlining by the loosest definition of the word. A particular example might read (proper nouns changed to protect the integrity of plot points): “Joe goes to Altai. Eddie shows up. Shit gets real.”

I’d love to be able to sound like a real professional and say I carefully plot everything in a detailed blueprint from start to finish. But that’d be a lie. I imagine it’s a somewhat more reckless way to work (I don’t know for sure because I’ve never seen the other side of the fence), and you might end up wasting a lot of time and effort if you paint yourself into a corner. That can happen, and has happened to me more than once. Does that happen, if you outline? Maybe. I don’t honestly know.

Simply put, I don’t know another way to do it. Writing a novel is an enormous, protracted exercise in self-discipline and mental exertion. The temptation to quit halfway through and move on to some other project that struck your fancy is immense. I don’t even know how many stories I’d started without finishing, before finishing even one. Part of conquering that temptation is simple, hard-nosed self-discipline. Even if you realize you don’t like what you’re working on, even if the narrative starts to sag and you lose energy in the middle, even when that hit of excitement strikes you at the birth of a new idea and you want to get working on it right away, you should finish what you start. Get in the habit of writing endings.

Beyond self-discipline for me, though, part of being able to finish a story is letting it continue to surprise me. Outlining drains the fun from the process. There will always be a thousand reasons for your writer’s discipline to fail you, but one way to avoid that is to keep the process fun and revelatory, even when you’re jammed up and staring at the same ten words for a few days at a time. Maybe someday I’ll join the ranks of those responsible professionals who outline a story from start to finish before they get to work. But that day certainly isn’t today.

Q: Do you edit as you go or wait until you’ve finished?

A: A seat-of-the-pants, no-outline writing style sort of necessitates that you edit in progress. If there’s a continuity error or major narrative hiccup, you want to catch it sooner than later. I usually edit a fair distance back in the manuscript, ten thousand words back at the least. A piece has to be out of my head for a few weeks before I can get enough perspective on it to see it remotely accurately.

After finishing a chapter I will go through a mini-edit where I ask a few questions about it – does it significantly contribute to the overall narrative? Did something important happen? Do the characters behave consistently with their own agendas and perspective? Are the characters in a different situation than they were at the start of the chapter? If the answer to any of those questions is no, that chapter gets an immediate re-write.

Q: Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?

A: If I’m at the computer, or walking somewhere with headphones, I usually have music on while I’m working. What it is depends on the mood. It can be anything from movie/TV show OSTs, to Ella Fitzgerald, The Rolling Stones or Keb’ Mo, to modern bands like The Heavy, We Were Promised Jetpacks, or the Black Keys, to old-school Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine, Ice Cube or Mos Def. Sometimes acoustic strings do the job, William Elliot Whitmore, or the John Butler Trio. I’ve recently discovered a love for a capella Southern Baptist hymns, specifically the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists.

I’ve been in a big post-rock phase the past couple years. It makes for some really exceptional writing music. Hammock, This Will Destroy You, Mogwai, We All Inherit the Moon, and God is an Astronaut are some of the best – darkly moody and evocative. Also, everything Radiohead has done after Kid A.

Q: Did you submit your work to Agents?

A: Briefly.

Q: What made you decide to go Indie, whether self-publishing or with an indie publisher? Was it a particular event or a gradual process?

A: By chance, via a mutual friend, I met a small-press ebook/paperback publisher named Ray Hoy. I liked Ray immediately, greatly respected his time and experience in the field, and appreciated his attitude towards publishing in general. He believed in my book, so that was that.

I decided to go with a small publisher like Fiction Works after spending a little time rethinking my priorities. Finding an agent entails an enormous commitment of time and energy, and at this particular moment in life, I didn’t see myself attacking that beast with the necessary gusto. I don’t have very expensive tastes, and I don’t particularly care if I never see one of my books with the words ‘Tor’ or ‘Random House’ on the binding. I don’t need that to feel I’m living my dream as a novelist. What matters to me is the work, the writing. I’d prefer to concentrate most of my energy on becoming the absolute best writer I can, and if I write a strong enough story, it will reach an audience appropriate to its level of quality, whether or not it has the marketing machine of a New York publishing house behind it.

For me there is no end game in this besides eventually doing it for a living. By that I don’t mean fame and fortune. My only goal is to eventually be able to devote all my working hours to writing, whatever living standard and level of material comfort that provides. What matters is the work. If that never happens, so be it. I’ll still be working on a story on the day I check out of this life. But, to bring this back around to the question, I went with a small press because there are fewer hoops to jump through, and I prefer to spend my time and energy working. If someday in the future I get hooked up with the publishing big dogs, well sure, that’d be cool. I wouldn’t turn it down. But if it never happens, I won’t be heartbroken.

Q: Did you get your book cover professionally done or did you do it yourself?

A: The publisher did the cover. I had no say at all, but I liked what they chose. I don’t like book covers that depict close-ups of characters.

Q: Do you have a marketing plan for the book or are you just winging it?

A: “Winging it” is a pretty fair assessment. I sort of dropped into this relationship with the publisher, so I wasn’t really prepared with any kind of self-marketing plan before the book hit the electronic markets. Before the sequel gets out there I intend to do my research and go into it with some kind of organized, coherent marketing model. I have very little patience or enthusiasm for such things, but I recognize that a certain amount of it is necessary.

This leads naturally into the next question, but I would advise any and all small-press authors to take advantage of every piece of free marketing the internet has to offer. If you’re like me, you have a potent natural aversion to self-promotion. Get over it. The internet has democratized the marketplace, but only if you’re willing to get out there and talk yourself up. Send your book to every free review site and book blog you can. Start a blog and link to your book on Amazon (or wherever it is). You never know what’s going to lead somebody to your work.

Of course, that’s all advice I’m giving myself at the moment as much as anybody else.

Q: Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?

A: Be smart with your money. If you don’t need to spend the money you make from writing, don’t spend it. Put it away, with the eventual goal of investing. If your long-term goal is writing for a living (and it should be), this is the smartest way. You might never strike it rich. Based on the odds, you almost certainly won’t. But you can still get there if you’re careful. Put away every penny you make from writing. Put it somewhere that it’s going to make you more money.

Be circumspect with your sales goals, and remember that you are in this for the long haul.

Never pay for a review. The hell with that. There are plenty of free marketing avenues, enough that with a little time and effort your work will eventually find the audience it deserves. If it doesn’t sell right away, who cares? Suck it up and get back to work. Those ten people who bought your first book might turn into a hundred for your second book.

While we’re on that note, never stop writing. That, to me, is the first, most central, integral rule to being a writer – output. Writers write. You don’t feel like working today? To paraphrase Glengarry Glen Ross, hit the bricks pal. Go home and tell your wife your troubles. If you want to be a pro, if you want to do this for a job, accept that it’s not some hobby you squeeze in every other Saturday between video games and working on your car. Writing is a lifestyle. It will demand of you self-sacrifice. Hours upon hours of time, effort and energy. If you don’t want to accept that, especially as an indie, you are wasting your time.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: In the shadow of the world’s most beautiful mountains (note: I haven’t been to every mountain range in the world, but if you’ve seen the Sierra Nevada, especially the Eastern side, you know what I’m talking about).

Q: Where do you live now?

A: The Pacific Northwest.

Q: What would you like readers to know about you?

A: I’ve wanted to write books since I’ve known what writing was. I’ve read several mind-blowing, awe-inspiring books over the course of my life, books that made my world a little better, books that made the world make a little bit more sense than it did previously. This is the experience which made me want to write fiction, and this is the experience which, humbly, I hope to someday compel in readers. I may never succeed, but that is my goal.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Book two of the “Children and Ghosts” quintet, titled The Silence and the Light. It’s about half done. I hope to have it finished by May of this year.

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~ by kroveechernila on February 28, 2013.

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