Great Zook, this dungeon has gone to rags since we last had a vict– ahm, guest author here. Get to work, you lackeys, this place must be perfect before he arrives. Dust! My allergies; and look at these fire-tongs, covered in grime. Polish the branding irons, you, and let’s get this rack angled a little closer to the fire so he can see all the pokey things on the left-hand shelf. Less light! Yes, burgundy curtains perfect, they don’t show the stains. I’m serious, churls, Jefferson Smith is coming and everything must… Zook on toast, he’s here.
I don’t mind telling you, gentle reader, this is a big day for the author-interview dungeon, as we welcome a man I consider not simply a Peer of Pain but even a Mentor of Mental Mis-alignment. If you would just sidle back into that set of manacles there, Mr. Smith– perfect, not too tight? Well, I’m nervous as the first time I used the bullwhip, but here goes. Welcome, sir, most welcome.
Now then, confess! ::whip crack :: How was that, not too over the top? I so want to make a good impression, and I just have to say, BIG FAN. Alright, take two…
Q: Confess, Smith! If that’s your real name… With so many years of publication under your belt, when will you abandon this heresy of multiple genres and just settle down! Fantasy stories, sci-fi short stories, the Alleged Real World, magical ones, funny and serious and everything in between– the truth, sir, what is your home genre?
A: Depends on who you’re asking, lick-spittle. WE ARE LEGION!
-Tell him about the chocolate milk story.
-No you idiot, lead with the junk yard star fighter.
-Everyone likes the Hollywood adventu– Enough!
::shudders violently, straining against the shackles.:: ::goes limp, sagging low, held up only by his wrist straps:: ::exhaustion softens his face and his eyes slowly drag open, seeking upward, until they find the inquisitor’s face::
We have taken a vote. The answer is “Fantasy.”
Q: Ooh, one of the possessed, such a treat. But what about readers? Do you think you’re drawing different folks when you cross titles, or is there something essentially Jefferson-Smith-ian that keeps them with you? If you don’t know, which would you prefer?
A: Okay, this one is about marketing. I claim the right to answer!
::Smith’s tired eyes close, opening a moment later with tinges of red flame::
With the novels, I am consciously focusing on fantasy, establishing a beachhead there before expanding my dominion into other genres.
::He shudders again, shaking the very framework to which he has been tied. His eyes reopen, this time clear and bright.::
Yeah, maybe, but the short stories are where the rest of us come out to play. It’s so much b–
::Another shudder, which gives way to a smiling avuncular face – an academic of some kind.::
Oh, poppycock! There is no distinction between fantasy and science fiction in the first place. They are all just stories of the fantastic, differing only in the particular rules of reality at work within them. Examine our oeuvre and you will see that, technologies aside, our style remains consistent throughout. We take tropes and turn them upside down–the orphan girl who isn’t actually an orphan, the lazy boys who are forced to become heros, the villain’s henchman who runs an aluminum siding business on the side. Every tale subverts a tradi–
::His head flies back suddenly, cracking against the woodwork. Though his eyes remain shut, every muscle now strains against its tendons. His head whips from side to side as he gurgles piteously, forcing words through tight-clenched teeth::
What about the humor? It’s supposed to be funn–
::His head slams more violently to the side. Left. Right. Left. Right. Finally he sags once more against his bonds. The academic is back::
Ahem. Where was I? Oh yes. I suppose there is some vestige of playfulness in the storytelling, a thin humor of a sort, but clearly, we all share a much deeper fascination for econom– ::his eyes fly open in horror:: Oh please. Not the void again. Anything but the vo–
::The red-eyed persona returns to the forefront.::
Brilliant, Herr Professor. Scare them off with your prattle about the economics of fantasy worlds. I can hear them yawning already. Here’s what you should have told them. ::his glowing gaze swings to regard the inquisitor::
We believe fantastical worlds should differ from reality by more than just the usual hallmarks–its fashions and technologies. When a world actually functions differently–is built upon different values and assumptions than our own–that’s when it really begins to feel new and exotic. Worthy of spending time in.
Ever notice how most fantasy worlds still use money? Gold and silver and jewels? Even though their wizards can produce that stuff by the barnful? If you really want to build believable worlds, you have to think such details through.
That’s why, in our work, you’ll find everything a bit more off-kilter. Like a race of Gnomes who use expressions of emotion as a form of currency. “I’ll give you a nervous laugh for it, but not one giggle more.” Or a world where community service is governed through a lottery based on magical beer.
These aren’t just Medieval Europe with added potions. These are truly worlds of the fantastic.
Q: You’ve had experience with crafting story on stage and screen, and if I wasn’t a fan of your work before… tell me, can you think of a time or two that your work on F/X or having to build a visual scene really came to your aid later in writing? Can that be learned without a doctorate in computer science?
A: ::The red-rimmed eyes fade, and a quieter geekier face peers out.::
Yeah, I worked in Hollywood animation and special effects, but I had no direct input to the story. I was the head of development for the software tool that became Maya, so I was often called in to high-profile production companies (ILM, Disney, etc.) to either help them figure out how to achieve what they were trying to do, or learn what limitations they were facing and then go home and dream up new features for our software to solve the problem.
Simply playing with 3D computer graphics as a dabbler had made me very aware of camera placement and lighting. But my work specifically in Hollywood, surrounded by such talented film people, taught me the importance of what I now call “camera grammar.” Establishing the physical viewpoint of the narrative and then keeping the reader apprised of how it’s moving around. You have to develop rules about what you’re going to show, or not show, and why.
This was brought home for me when working on the lava chase sequence in Aladdin, where he escapes the Cave of Wonders. Go back and watch it. Watch the camera work. We get wide shots showing the danger, close shots showing the human reactions, tracking shots showing the desperate carpet flight, over the shoulder shots showing the danger getting closer, looking ahead shots showing how far they still have to go, more facial reactions. It’s a ballet, where every move has a specific purpose, keeping the viewer up to speed on half a dozen different issues: where is Aladdin, how close is the lava, how far away is the exit, how does Aladdin feel, who is with him, and so on.
But you don’t have to work in Hollywood to learn this. Just put your favorite movie on, from whatever genre you write in, and stop the film every time the camera moves or cuts to a new image. Ask yourself why the editor chose to show this view now. There is ALWAYS a reason. Sometimes more than one. Where is the camera now? Whose POV? Wide angle or tight? What elements are in frame? How are they relating to each other.
This teaches you SO much. But for a writer, it’s even worse, because you’re not just juggling visuals, sound, and dialogue. For a novelist, you can (and should) be keeping texture, smell, moisture, weather, and about 20 other factors in the air as well. Frankly, it’s exhausting. And to make matters worse, 99% of the time, you have to leave 99% of all that stuff out, because including it all just creates impenetrable walls of text.
And that’s where my experience as a cartoonist comes in. With cartoons, the rule is that any line that can be left out, should be left out. It’s a minimalist art form. So writing, for me, is a constant tug of war between those two aesthetics. You have to get a sense for what the reader’s subconscious will fill in for you, and then just give them enough to trigger that reaction.
Q: I think our past guests have split the line down the middle between full-time and part-time authorship. But your bio might be the first to openly confess to the crime of “full-time writer”. Well done, sir, your soul can now be saved. But tell us more: when did your apostasy begin? Describe your writing routine on an average day of sin; nice closed door? small-life-form interruptions? And what proportion of your time in a year do you set aside for marketing, tours, your cartoons, lectures and other heretical activities?
A: A typical day? I do most of my work while walking on my treadmill, which grew out of my original 40-minute daily walks for ImmerseOrDie. Now I spend between 4 and 6 hours each day actively afoot. The first couple of hours of trudging are through the forests and backwaters of my invented worlds, taking notes along the way. Once I hit 2000 words, I call the writing portion of my day over, and then turn to other issues. Doing an ImmerseOrDie report usually comes next, and then I have other projects to service– such as coordinating a StoryBundle, like the one that’s ending tomorrow, or editing the ImmerseOrDie short story anthology that I’ve just released. Plus I do some consulting for other author friends, alpha reading, helping them with marketing, etc. Not to mention a couple of secret projects that haven’t been announced yet. There’s never any lack of things to do. But with a solid 8-hr day, I usually have plenty of time for family after dinner.
Q: In your recent release “Brotherhood of Delinquents” the main characters are young fellows stumbling into strange stuff. We’re seeing a number of protagonists who aren’t heroes these days. Is this going to be “Game of Thrones, High School Edition”?}
A: No, I don’t think I’d call it GoT. When I was a kid, I got started on stuff like The Hardy Boys and The Three Investigators, but when I made the switch to fantasy in my teens, I couldn’t find similar stories about a group of friends. Suddenly everybody was a brooding lone-wolf type. Where was the camaraderie, the esprit de corps?
So with this series, I wanted to explore the kinds of stories I had been yearning for then. A trio of buddies, standing together against a sea of troubles and solving crimes and righting wrongs, but in a fantasy setting. You want adventure? Gimme secrets, tunnels, puzzles and evil, then throw in some boys who everybody thinks are losers, and I’ll show you adventure. Don’t believe me? Check out Brotherhood of Delinquents and take the oath for yourself. I dare you.
Q: Duly dared and taken, I am enjoying myself so far. Now, on pain of, ehm , of further pain, tell us your immediate plans to spread this apostasy. What’s your next move, assuming you escape of course (and that’s the easiest exit, by the way, just past the flensing grate).
A: One of the most important things to me about IOD is the chance it gives me to shine a spotlight on some really great authors. When a book survives my 40-minute treadmill examination, I then take it for a more thorough test drive, doing a full read, which nets me 6-10 great new books each year.
For the last two years, I’ve highlighted these by featuring them in a StoryBundle, but there are plenty of people out there who don’t want to gamble on a bundle, or who generally don’t trust indie publishing.
So, after giving it some thought, I’m trying something new this year. Last summer, I invited each of the authors who have survived the treadmill to nominate one other author who they thought also had game. Then I invited all 35 authors to submit a short story. I got 25 submissions, which I then gave to a panel of 3 judges, and told them to be brutal. What I got back was a collection of 15 excellent short stories that demonstrate the wide scope of what’s going on in indie publishing today.
That collection is called All These Shiny Worlds, which I’m tickled to tell you has just been released. And here’s the best part. It’s completely free. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time such a ruthlessly curated anthology has ever been assembled for the sole purpose of giving it away.
Each participating author will be giving it to his or her own audience, of course, but we invite every indie author to do so, in an effort to help us break down the stigma that all indie authors face. Indie publishing has great authors telling great stories over a wide range of styles and genres, and it’s in our collective best interest to show people proof of that. That’s how we grow the entire market for all of us.
If you want to check it out, the book is available right now, in both Kindle and Kobo formats. Visit creativityhacker.ca/SW-CH to get links to your preferred vendor. And please, send the link to everyone you know.
Q: You anticipate my next question. I can’t hold it in any longer. I simply MUST know more about ImmerseOrDie! Whatever your other crimes, I cannot but admire such exquisite agony as you inflict there. And what a crowd you draw! But the centerpiece of brilliance– your victims come to you. What ideally is your future plan for reviewing indie books and analyzing immersion?
A: Ultimately, it would be very cool if there was an easy way for more people to contribute reviews, but it would have to be some method that didn’t create more work for me in supervising/editing the results. I’m exploring a couple of possibilities along those lines now, but don’t hold your breath.
The juice, however, is not in placing more and more work under the harsh IOD lens. I’m glad that authors who don’t go the 40-minute distance are finding the feedback helpful, but the true win for all concerned is in finding and celebrating the work that really does stand out.
So if I could find a way to get a few other first-round reviewers involved, I’d like that. It would allow me to focus more on the second round readings and the celebration activities. Plus, it might allow us to broaden the list of genres we can accept and do justice to. But until I’ve figured out that expansion without burden trick, IOD will probably remain as it is for the foreseeable future.
Q: I empathize, sir, I’ve had the devil’s time finding good lackeys as you can see. Idiot! The brazier goes over there, so he can feel the heat. Morons, I tell you, no sense of theater. And speaking of good help: you’ve been a big proponent of self-pub done right, for example making sure the draft is edited and formatted before trying to hit the shelves. Can you give us any tips or tricks about the smart way to invest in your own efforts, and get quality work out there without breaking the bank? What’s the biggest single expense most of us are missing that will truly pay off?
A: The biggest challenge every writer faces is in finding out what part of writing they still suck at. How can you fix it if you don’t know it’s broken? And coming to IOD to learn that after you’ve published is a very risky gamble.
Before spending a nickel on copyediting, or a dime on having a cover made, I tell writers to find a top-notch story consultant and pay them to do an assessment of your manuscript. For a relatively small fee – maybe $100 – 200 – you get someone to read your work and tell you which of your skills still need work. They won’t tell you how to fix it, but they’ll draw your attention to the biggest warts on your pig.
This is a way better use of time and money than hiring a copy editor, who can only polish what you give them, even if it’s crap. And there’s no use buying a beautiful cover if you’ll only be using it to lure people to your stinking pile of manure. You are the only person who can’t smell it from a mile away, because you’re just too close to it. You’re immune to your own stink. We all are.
So buy yourself a stinkectomy. Think of it as taking the ideal writing class, one that’s focused entirely on the things you most need and nothing else. Do that once this year, and then spend the rest of the year teaching yourself how to fix those problems. Then do it again next year. You’ll be surprised how much you’ve improved, because you’ve stopped trying to get better by simply thrashing at random. You’ve turned learning the craft into a precise and repeatable exercise.
That’s the biggest reason most self-published authors aren’t earning any money. They’re spending all their energy trying to sell garbage and then complaining about the results, rather than investigating the funny smell and fixing their product.
Q: That will have to do for now, you may go pending future inquiries. Oh, who am I kidding– here’s a key to the place, if you ever need to borrow a poker or get some coal for your furnace, you just drop on by. Do let us know where we can find you and your books.
A: All my books are listed at creativityhacker.ca/jbooks and my free short stories are at creativityhacker.ca/short-stories. Feel free to check those out. And if you want to get more short stories as they come out, or opt-in for notices about new articles for authors, you can sign up for my mailing list and choose which sort of things you want to hear about, and I’ll keep you in the loop. Do that at creativityhacker.ca/signup
Now will you untie me? I think one of your books is next up on the treadmill and I– Urk! Aaah! Nooooo!