Interview: Peter McLean

AW’s own Peter McLean kindly consented to an interview. McLean’s fourth novel, Priest of Bones will released by Ace on October 2,2018. Priest of Bones is the first of McLean’s War for the Rose Throne series; the second novel, Priest of Lies, is scheduled for release in July 2019. I’ll definitely be checking it out, but in the meantime, McLean’s previously published urban fantasy Burned Man trilogy (Angry Robot) is a great way to spend time waiting for the next book in the War for the Rose Throne series.

Peter McLean’s bio from his Website says:

Peter McLean was born near London in 1972, the son of a bank manager and an English teacher. He went to school in the shadow of Norwich Cathedral where he spent most of his time making up stories. By the time he left school this was probably the thing he was best at, alongside the Taoist kung fu he had been studying since the age of 13. He grew up in the Norwich alternative scene, alternating dingy nightclubs with martial arts and practical magic. He has since grown up a bit, if not a lot, and spent 25 years working in corporate IT. He is married to Diane and is still making up stories.

What’s your elevator pitch for Priest of Bones?

It’s The Godfather meets Peaky Blinders, with Swords.

Did you have a playlist for Priest of Bones?

Oh yes, I always write to music and it’s always stuff I know so well I don’t have to listen to it, just feel it throbbing away in the background. Priest of Bones was written almost entirely to a steady stream of the marvelous Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, along with various 80s heavy rock albums.

Every main character get’s their own theme music, in my head — Tomas Piety’s theme tune is Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”, which is also the title music to Peaky Blinders. Bloody Anne’s is “It’s My Life” by Wendy O Williams, and Ailsa enters to “Sanctified” by Nine Inch Nails. Billy the Boy gets “Dio’s Evil Eyes”, and Jochan’s is “Reckless Life” by Guns n’ Roses.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Priest of Bones? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

I’m largely an outliner so I usually know where the story is going overall, but all my stuff grows arms and legs while I’m writing it so there’s always something to discover on the journey. I’d never planned for Billy to develop as quickly as he does, and had envisaged Old Kurt being his “wise old mentor” figure. Turns out Billy wasn’t having that, and I wasn’t going to argue with him!

Priest of Bones is the first in the War for the Rose Throne series. Did you set out to write a series, or did it evolve into one? 

I originally wrote an outline for a single book, but by the time I’d drafted the first fifty thousand or so words and was still on the first paragraph of my synopsis I realised it was going to be half a million words or something ridiculous if I didn’t break it down into multiple books.

I’m mostly a plotter but still partly a discovery writer. I always have the main plot points outlined, and I sometimes even write the very end first, but as I said my stuff always evolves in the writing process and ends up twice as long as I think it’s going to be — and it still always gets longer in edits. I may write a stand-alone novel one day, but this is not that day.

The second instalment, Priest of Lies, is scheduled for release in July 2019

What’s your writing process like?

Chaotic. I’m not one of those rigorous “write x number of words every day” people, my head just doesn’t work like that. I’m absolutely a binge writer, and as I work a day job those binges are usually Friday and Saturday nights, often going to 3 or 4am if I’m in the groove. I’m naturally nocturnal, I’m sure I am, and I’m never much use creatively in the mornings so I take the opportunity when I can get it.

I’ll start with a rough idea for a setting or a character, sometimes both at once if I’m lucky, and just doodle a few thousand words to see if I like it. If I do, I’ll decide how the story wants to end and write that bit, or at least the last few lines to set the closing tone, then outline my way from beginning to end.

Once I start actually writing it’s start to end in chronological order, with no jumping about, and I absolutely do edit as I go despite what everyone says about that – it just works for me. Each writing session starts with tidying up the previous session’s work then blasting out a new chunk, which can be anywhere from 1000 to 8000 words at a go. I’ll also go days without writing anything at all, but if I get a neat idea for a line or a scene I’ll jot it down somewhere and slot it into the outline next time I sit down at the computer.

One thing with me: once it’s written it happened. I very rarely go back and fundamentally change something, so sometimes the plot goes a bit off piste and when that happens I’ll adjust the outline to fit the story rather than the other way around. The upshot of that and the continuous editing is that once my first draft it done (three to four months for a 100k novel) it’s pretty clean. I don’t do re-writes or multiple drafts. Once it’s done I’ll park it for a few days, then print it out and do a pen-and-paper edit, make the changes, read it through once more and it’s good to go to my agent.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I’m really lucky with this – we only have a small house, but the previous owner had the garage converted into a self-contained annex and that is now my office. It’s the place I can sit and write until the early hours and blast my music as loud as I like without my wife wanting to murder me!

Tools wise I’m very straightforward – it’s MS Word, and that’s it. Publishing runs on Word and Word comments and Word track changes, and trying to use anything else just feels like making life hard for yourself, to me. All I ever need is Word and a web browser and connection, and I’m good. My PC is an ancient, on-its-last-legs Windows 7 box that I flat refuse to upgrade because it just works, but I have a high-end keyboard and monitor as those are the only parts of the system I really interact with.

You have created a rich multi-cultural world with multiple religions. Any particular suggestions about world building? 

Oh boy, I can geek on about this for hours! The key thing for me is making it all work as a consistent whole. You can have magic in your world, sure, although I don’t personally like to have too much of that, but I still need a fantasy world to actually work properly. You can’t put a city in the middle of the desert, for example, without me immediately wondering where their food and water comes from. You can’t have Irish nobles wearing silk without evidence of international trade, which means foreign traders and the resulting ethnic diversity that they bring. If you have gunpowder weapons, which in Priest of Bones I have, then you need a sufficient level of industry to manufacture the cannon, which means foundries, which means mining, and so on and so forth.

I really don’t like settings that feel like a stage set, where there’s nothing there that the characters aren’t going to interact with. There are things in Priest of Bones like the Temple of the Harvest Maiden on Trader’s Row which is just there because it is, because there’s more than one religion in the world because of course there is, because there would be. In the same way there are black and brown people and children and gay people and old people and disabled people in Ellinburg because of course there are, because why wouldn’t there be?

I absolutely obsess about this stuff if I’m reading anything other than pure mythology, so I went to a lot of trouble to get as much of it right as I could. I’m no historian so I’m sure there are things I’ve missed or got wrong, but I certainly tried to make my setting feel like a real, living country rather than a stage set.

What inspired  Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows, the deity your hero Tomas Piety serves as Priest? (For those who have not yet had a chance to read Priest of Bones, Tomas has this to say of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows: 

Our Lady doesn’t help. Not ever. She doesn’t answer prayers or grant boons or give a man anything at all however hard he might pray for it. The best you can hope for from her is that she doesn’t take your life today. Maybe tomorrow, aye, but not today. That’s as good as it gets, and the rest is up to you.

I build the worship of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows around Tomas’s character. He’s not a particularly religious man by nature, so I had to come up with a faith that he could actually get behind. Some reviewers so far have referred to Our Lady as the Goddess of Soldiers, but she isn’t that. She’s worshipped by soldiers, yes, but really Our Lady is the Goddess of Death. As Tomas also says:

Us conscripts don’t want glory or honour. We just want to not die today. That’s what Our Lady offered, if you were lucky and you fought your balls off.

Worshipping of Our Lady is basically appeasing Death, so She doesn’t take your life today. Soldiers have always been a superstitious lot and Tomas has always had to make his own way in the world, and that’s sort of what I was going for here – the idea that there’s no help in this world, you own your destiny and you can make of your life what you will if you just fight hard enough for it, so long as She doesn’t take your life today. So you offer up a prayer to Our Lady, and go out and take it for yourself. I think that’s exactly the sort of religion that would appeal to a man like Tomas Piety.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

Oh wow, there’s been so much brilliant fantasy out in the last year or two and so much of it from new authors. Big favourites of mine have been the Empires of Dust novels by Anna Smith Spark, The Court of Broken Knives and The Tower of Living and Dying, and also Blackwing and Ravencry by Ed McDonald.

They’re two incredibly different series, but both absolutely marvellous. Smith Spark’s work reads like real mythology, powerful prose designed to be read aloud, while McDonald’s are gritty, noir, magical post-apocalyptic thrillers. I’m currently reading RJ Barker’s Assassins trilogy and enjoying that a great deal as well.

There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers, and everyone is different. The trick is to find your right way to do this, and in my opinion that’s something that only comes from writing, not from reading books about writing.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I’m not honestly a big fan of books about writing. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and thought it was a fantastic autobiography, but his method and mine are so wildly different that I found I didn’t really agree with him about almost anything on the subject of craft. What he does obviously works brilliantly for him, but it wouldn’t work at all for me. My head just isn’t made the same way his is, and that’s fine. I think a mistake a lot of beginning writers make is thinking that there’s one right way to do this, and there just isn’t. There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers, and everyone is different. The trick is to find your right way to do this, and in my opinion that’s something that only comes from writing, not from reading books about writing.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

I think I’ve already been asked just about everything that I’d be prepared to answer in public by this point! I did a speaking engagement in a prison once, and some of their questions were really quite extraordinary: have I ever been in prison? No. Am I a real gangster? No. Have I ever hurt anyone on purpose? Yes. Did I win the fight? Yes.

What’s your favorite charity?

Cancer Research UK. I lost my mother to cancer a long time ago, and my wife has had it twice and been successfully treated both times. Those people are literally helping to save lives.

 

You can find reviews of Peter McLean’s Priest of Bones at Publishers Weekly and at Fantasy Book Review. Peter McLean has a Website, and you can find him on Facebook. You can buy Priest of Bones and Peter McLean’s other books at online retailers including Amazon.com, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, and Apple, as well as your local independent book store.

Interview: Cameron Johnston

Cover of Cameron Johnston's debut novel The Traitor GodCameron Johnston lives in Glasgow, Scotland, with his wife and an extremely fluffy cat. He is a swordsman, a gamer, an enthusiast of archaeology, history and mythology, a builder of LEGO, and owns far too many books to fit on his shelves. He loves exploring ancient sites and camping out under the stars by a roaring fire. The Traitor God, an epic fantasy (Angry Robot, June 2018) is Cameron Johnston’s debut novel, though Cameron Johnston has published a fair amount of short fiction. Cameron (known on AW as CameronJohnston) agreed to set some time aside for an Absolute Write interview.

What’s your elevator pitch for The Traitor God?

The Traitor God is part blood-soaked murder mystery and part grimdark swords and sorcery apocalypse.

Did you have a playlist for The Traitor God?

When writing I tend to find songs with lyrics distracting, so it was mostly a mix of instrumental soundtracks: Lord of The Rings, Conan The Barbarian, Two Steps From Hell, Celtic and relaxing folk music etc. On the other hand, when I’m editing I want something higher energy: Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones, Stay by Shakespear’s Sister, and basically a mix of 80s songs from Queen, The Cure, New Order, Blondie, Europe, Eurythmics, Bonnie Tyler, Tina Turner and a whole host of others.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote The Traitor God? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

I didn’t expect Charra to be such a strong character and play such a large part, or quite how much fun it was to write the interactions of two old friends who are a both outspoken and very black of humour.

I notice some nods in the direction of things Scottish, in terms of the Clans people, and in the way you used an occasional bit of Scots or Gaelic. Where you thinking of particular places in your locations, particularly the catacombs?

In some ways the Setharii Empire is loosely based on the British Empire of the colonial era, being a somewhat unscrupulous trading empire (one reinforced with magical might) that is on the wane. The northern Clanholds and its people are heavily influenced by all things Scottish and the great city of Setharis itself is a fantastical version of the castles at Stirling and Edinburgh, sitting on their high volcanic rocks. For the catacombs below the city I had in mind the sepulchral majesty of the catacombs of the Monastery of San Francisco in Lima, Peru, and also the subterranean catacombs below Paris.

You’ve got some pretty complicated world-building in The Traitor God, what with a world with multiple cultures, multiple deities, a sect of mages and unique magical beasts; how do you keep track of it as you’re writing?

You definitely do need a “world bible” of sorts to keep track of character names, positions, and descriptions (Eye colour! Which side scars are on etc) as well as what various monsters look like and what they can do. It’s always good to have a list of place names and cultural terms, swear words and the like that you can refer back to when needed. In my case it’s all compiled in a simple text file.

What’s your writing process like?

I don’t do big and detailed outlines but I usually start writing already knowing the beginning, the ending, and a few important points I want to hit along the way. Writing regularly does help, however little and however often you can manage it. I like to write a full rough draft before going back to edit and polish it up, but I don’t always write in a linear fashion. Sometimes I get stuck on a particular scene and leapfrog it to write the endings, or an easier/more fun scene that appears later on in the story before going back to it.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I have a small study with book cases at my back, a PC at a desk facing the wall, a globe and a variety of board games and interesting items close to hand. I have a few inexpensive antiquities close to hand, and when I get stuck writing I find holding medieval arrowheads, an ancient Egyptian scarab, a roman coin or a chunk of meteorite will help to stimulate my imagination.

You mention H.P. Lovecraft as an influence. What works by Lovecraft would you recommend for readers who are unfamiliar with his writing read first?

As most of his writing was in the form of short stories, you can’t go wrong with a good collection, and most of it is freely available online as well. I would recommend trying “The Whisperer In Darkness,” “The Colour Out of Space,” and “At the Mountains of Madness” first. I always did have a soft spot for “The Nameless City” as well.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

Way too many things actually! For me the last few years have really strained my book shelves with goodness. Some of my highlights would be: Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames, The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams, Blackwing by Ed McDonald, Age of Assassins by RJ Barker and Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I’ve also been reading my way through the Hellboy and B.P.R.D comics.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

Stephen King’s On Writing is excellent for an insight into a very successful writer’s mind and career with all its ups and downs. I also found Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer and others great for getting the creative juices going.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

“Hi, I’m a big Hollywood producer with a truck full of cash. Would you like a film deal?” Wouldn’t we all like to be in that situation! Or more seriously:

“How did it feel to see your book on the shelves of a book store?” Absolutely mind-blowing to see my book rubbing shoulders with those by writers like Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan.

What’s your favorite charity?

There are many, but I’ll go for Water Aid on this occasion. Access to clean water and toilets is something we take for granted and should be part of daily life for everyone, everywhere.

Cameron Johnston has a Website. You can find Traitor God on Amazon and iBooks, at booksellers and at his publisher, Angry Robot. Here’s the Traitor God page on GoodReads.

Interview: Kevin Craig

Novelist, poet and playwright Kevin Craig, long known as KTC on Absolute Write, set some time aside for an interview, just days after release of his sixth novel, Pride Must Be A Place.

Did you have a playlist for Pride Must Be a Place

Absolutely, I did. I wrote over half of Pride at the 72hr Muskoka Novel Marathon. That’s where 40 writers get together and attempt to write 40 novels in 72hrs. We each collect sponsorship money for the marathon. We raise about $30,000.00 for area literacy programs. Anyway, the playlist for Pride Must Be A Place was made up of seven songs. For the greater part of the 72 hours “Rise Up” by The Parachute Club played on a loop. On the way to the marathon weekend, I talked to Parachute Club’s lead singer Lorraine Segato on the phone. I had sent her an email asking her about permissions and a couple of other things regarding the song and a story tie-in to the band. We batted a few ideas back and forth and I feel as though she helped with the eventual direction of the story. The “Rise Up” song was fuel for the story all the way through the writing of it. Other songs in the playlist were Divine’s “Native Love,” Bronski Beat’s “Small Town Boy,” Dead or Alive’s “Misty Circles” and “I’d Do Anything,” and The Cure’s “In Betweeen Days” and 10:15 “Saturday Night.”

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Pride Must Be a Place? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

There were definitely surprises. The biggest was one of the main character’s arc. Alex Mills was a close friend in a trio of friends that included Ezra Caine, the narrator, and Nettie English. I had envisioned Alex being a totally different character than the one he turned out being. Without giving too much away, he makes some terrible choices along the way and his entire arc changed. He in fact changed the trajectory of the story. What Ezra learns through his interactions with Alex is when someone shows their true character over and over again, there comes a point when you have to believe them.

In 2014 you made the pilgrimage to Camino de Santiago. What can you tell us about that?

My Camino pilgrimage was an absolute life-changer (I’m going back in 2019). I had just completed three years of intensive therapy for childhood sexual abuse trauma. I saw my pilgrimage as a way of shedding the last of my old skin. I made the pilgrimage in a group with seven other peregrinos. The guide, Sue Kenney, was already a friend through my novel marathons. She takes groups twice a year and I always wanted to do it. I was starting my entire life over at the time. I was in a new relationship and I was newly out. The Camino was a way to complete my healing journey. Every step I took was away from negativity and all the old components of myself that I wanted to leave behind. My idea was to walk into Santiago de Compostela a new person . . . a more authentic self. And I believe I accomplished my goal, for the most part. They say the Camino calls to you and that it never stops calling until to you listen and make the journey. That’s what I did. For me, my pilgrimage was the culmination of my healing journey. I just recently wrote a young adult novel set on the Camino. My agent currently has it out on submission. It is close to my heart because the Camino is close to my heart.

What’s your writing process like?
I try to complete my first draft at the yearly Muskoka Novel Marathon. 72 hours with little sleep and lots of coffee. I always write by the seat of my pants. I choose a title first, and when they ring the starter bells at the marathon every July I leap from that title and see where it takes me. No outlines, no preconceived notions. If I don’t finish the first draft in that 72 hour sitting, which was the case with Pride Must Be A Place, my partner helps to motivate me in the following weeks by ordering, say, two chapters by 3pm. I write the chapters, send them to my Kindle and wait for the next request. The whole time I’m writing chapters, he’s editing the ones I send to my Kindle. It’s a process that works incredibly well. He keeps me in the mindset I had at the marathon and I continue the momentum until the first draft is completed. Usually a week or so after the marathon’s completion.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?
I don’t have a work area. I write wherever I am. I feel like I’m talking about the marathon a lot, but since most of the first draft is completed there it comes into a lot of my answers. It’s a chaotic weekend, with 40 writers in such a confined living space. I have a desk there and set up for comfort, mostly. But outside the marathon, I’ll write on the couch, on the floor, in a coffee shop, at the library, in bed . . . wherever. I like when my partner takes me to his sister’s cottage for a weekend with the express purpose of giving me writing time and space. When I write there, I’m usually on the back porch with a full view of the lake. It’s heaven.

Any particular favorite Canadian writers?
Canadian writers? I don’t usually think in forms of countries when it comes to writers, but I do definitely have favourite Canadians. Because he is also a dear friend, first and foremost Wayson Choy. He’s the loveliest person in the world. He has a way of making everyone feel special and loved. And his writing is absolutely beautiful. I loved his Not Yet and The Jade Peony the most. Leonard Cohen’s novels The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers are experimental in style and gorgeous and lush. I’ve also always loved his poetry and song. Mordecai Richler and Miriam Toews would round out my favourite Canadian writers.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

Ooh! Book love! I’ve been reading mostly young adult and mostly contemporary issue books. My faves include Dear Martin by Nic Stone, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Simon VsThe Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, History is All You Left Me and They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. My favourite of 2017 has to be The Girl With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke. In it, the main character accidentally time-travels to 1988 East Berlin via a red balloon and finds herself on the wrong side of the wall. It’s an amazing story . . . and the first in a series called The Balloonmakers. Exceptional!

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?
My favourite has to be The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s about writing, but it’s also about life. I like the way Maugham peppers golden nuggets of writerly wisdom into a narrative of his life, much in the way Stephen King did with On Writing. Maugham is a hero to me because he was a playwright and a novelist. I also do both. The Summing Up gave me  so much. I continue to reread it years later.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

Wow! This one kind of stops one in one’s tracks. I’m certain there is one, but my mind is a blank at the moment. I’ve been outside my comfort zone almost non-stop for the past eight years or so. I feel like all those questions have been asked and answered.

What’s your favorite charity?
My favourite charity? I’d have to go with two. The YMCA Literacy Services of Muskoka/Simcoe County, which is the organization that receives all the Muskoka Novel Marathon funds every year. The 519 — which is a community centre in the heart of Toronto’s gay village. They have phenomenal supports and programs for the LGBTQ community here.

Kevin Craig is the author of young adult novels and adult-themed coming-of-age novels featuring young narrators. Pride Must be a Place (MuseItUp Publishing, February 6 2018) is his most recent novel. Kevin Craig’s previous titles include Summer on Fire, Sebastian’s Poet, The Reasons, Burn Baby Burn Baby, and Half Dead & Fully Broken. His poetry, fiction, and memoir have been published internationally. Kevin is also a playwright, and has had twelve short plays produced. Kevin Craig lives in Toronto, Canada, and is is represented by Stacey Donaghy of Donaghy Literary Group. You can find Kevin Craig on Amazon and Amazon Canada, as well as Kevin Craig’s website.

Interview: Elizabeth Bonesteel

Elizabeth Bonesteel is the author of Breach of Containment, just out from HarperCollins. Breach of Containment is the third book in her Central Corps SF trilogy (The Cold Between, Remnants of Trust, and Breach of Containment).

Did you have a playlist for Breach of Containment? (I usually ask writers this question, but you are the first to have already answered the question. I notice that you have playlists for The Cold Between and Remnants of Trust, as well as a theme song for The Cold Between on your Website.

I’ll confess I tend to use publication dates as an excuse to throw playlists together, just because it’s fun to do. I don’t usually listen to music while I’m writing, but on the occasions I do, I go for instrumental stuff, usually trance or deep house. I listened to Nick Warren’s Renaissance Part 4 a lot while writing Breach; it’s got a nice mix of melodic stuff and general weirdness. Weird trance stuff is great for the imagination!

There are two more conventional songs that come to mind that fit thematically with Breach, and they’ll both be on the playlist: Snow Patrol’s “This Isn’t Everything You Are” (yes, I am shamelessly sentimental), and KT Tunstall’s “Uummannaq Song.”

The theme song for The Cold Between was written by Richard Tunley, who’s been my writing buddy for years, and is a phenomenal musician on top of everything else. All of his work is astonishing, and when he put that together for me I was absolutely floored. It’s a beautiful piece, and it captures an aspect of that book just perfectly.

Breach of Containment is the third book in a trilogy that you began with The Cold Between, followed by Remnants of Trust. When you first submitted The Cold Between, how much of the succeeding books did you have plotted?

When the book went on sub with publishers, it was pitched as having “series potential” — I’d started Remnants, but only just, because I was wary of getting into a sequel for a book I might not be able to sell. When we started getting responses, editors started asking about my plans for what happened next, so I had to give them what were essentially my high-level notes for the longer story arc. Which worried me a little! I can look at The Cold Between and see the seeds of all of it, but at the time there was a lot I didn’t yet have set in stone. In retrospect, I suspect what was most important to them was that I had more ideas than what was in the one finished book.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Breach of Containment? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

One of my characters — Dallas, who we meet in the prologue — ends up with a much bigger role in the story than I’d intended. After a couple of drafts, it became clear to me I needed another POV character, and because Dallas was already alive in my head, they were the obvious choice. In retrospect I wish I’d have thought of the idea earlier; I grew quite fond of Dallas, and I would have liked to spend more time with them than I was able to in the end.

As to the plot — more than once I’ve had a small plot point grow and wind itself inextricably into the rest of the story, and that’s what happened here. And I can’t tell you what that plot point is! (I’m not trying to be coy — Breach is a tough book to talk about without spoilers.) But it’s a wonderful experience for me as a writer when that happens. Generally it means the book has taken on a life of its own, and it gets much easier to write after that.

What’s your writing process like?

When I first come up with a story, the characters and the universe grow together. I start with one scene, and I think about how my characters get to this point, and where they’ll go afterward. At some point a beginning and an ending emerge. From that a few interim milestones evolve naturally, and somewhere in all of that mess I start writing it down.

I usually use the NaNoWriMo-sanctioned “start at the beginning and write to the end without stopping” method, with one difference: I always write the end, or a scene near the end. The ending of Remnants was written almost immediately after the prologue; that particular scene was always very clear in my head. With Breach, it wasn’t the ending, but a scene close to the end. Having a fixed destination makes it much easier for me to stay on track.

Occasionally I’ll do a little outlining, but never more than two or three chapters ahead. When I revise, I’ll outline the current draft so I can see repetition and continuity errors. But I can’t outline the whole thing ahead of time — too many details change while I’m composing.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I write on my MacBook using Scrivener, although when I need to loosen up a little I’ll work in Pages (weirdly, it feels like less pressure). I use Word when I have to exchange files with someone; it’s an industry standard, and they’ve made some real improvements lately, but I’m never all that comfortable in it.

Usually I write in my living room, late morning into early afternoon. I’ll occasionally decamp to Barnes and Noble, especially if I need focus and am feeling like being at home is a distraction. (Also, there is espresso there.)

I loved reading your memories of seeing Star Wars in a theater as a kid. Do you plan to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in a theater?

Ooo, that’s a hard question. I’m deeply skeptical of Star Wars movies these days, for no other reason than I’m still cranky about I–III and some of those “revisions” Lucas did to the original three films. I thought The Force Awakens was uneven, and I’m unconvinced that The Last Jedi is going to use the parts I liked rather than the parts I didn’t. On the other hand, I loved Rogue One, despite all of the coincidences and serendipitous single points of failure, and I love the idea of Old and Cynical Luke.

So yeah, probably. I may complain afterward, but they’ll suck that $15 out of me. And I’ll never stop loving the franchise.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

I’d say there are two that stuck out for me last year: one was Emmi Intarata’s The Weaver, which felt very Earthsea without actually ripping off Earthsea. It’s quiet and beautiful and moody, and one of the few books I can imagine reading over and over. It’s a really satisfying read.

The other was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which of course is an older book, but I hadn’t sat down to read it until this year. Everyone always talks about how funny it is, and how vivid the worldbuilding, and both of those things are true. But when I finally opened it up, I was in tears by the third page. It’s a deeply sentimental story, and that comes through even with all the humor. I’m also fascinated by the structure of it — the first 2/3 of the book is essentially exposition, but it’s so good and so entertaining that you don’t even notice. It’s an example of doing everything you’re not supposed to do in a narrative and ending up with an amazing result.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I used to collect books on writing. The last one I remember reading was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I remember a section that pointed out reading books about writing was not actually writing, and I suppose I took that to heart! I do think it’s important, though, to be reminded that writing is a craft, a skill that you can hone and improve, whether you’ve been writing for decades or are just taking your first crack at it. I’ve got Stephen King’s On Writing on my TBR pile, so I may start collecting again.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

There was a wee bit of controversy around The Cold Between (the first book). In a few corners of the Internet (and one prominent blog), it somehow got tagged as a romance novel, and as a result there was some backlash since the story doesn’t resolve in a romance-genre-appropriate fashion. But nobody ever contacted me to discuss the issue. So I guess the question I’d like to answer is:

“What’s the deal with that romantic subplot, Liz?”

In my life, I’ve been in love with multiple people, but I only married one of them (the right one, of course). I wanted this book to include an important, healthy, loving relationship that was not destined to last forever, because relationships like that exist and are important to many people’s lives. And yes, that’s a spoiler, but I’m still surprised that readers can get through Chapter 3 and believe that these two people will somehow wind up together. To me the endgame of that aspect of the story is never a mystery.

None of this is particularly controversial, of course. Strong romantic subplots in SFF are legion. Had the book not been mis-genred here and there, I doubt anyone would have remarked on it at all. It does please me that Trey is a character people connect with; I have great affection for him myself. I left him in the right place at the end of that book. I know what he’s been up to since, and if it ever makes sense, I’ll write about him again.

What’s your favorite charity?

I’d probably say the SPLC or the ACLU, because unless people can be heard, it’s impossible to make changes in the world.

Elizabeth Bonesteel began making up stories at the age of five, in an attempt to battle insomnia. Thanks to a family connection to the space program, she has been reading science fiction since she was a child. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and various cats. Elizabeth Bonesteel has a Website, and a blog. You can also find Elizabeth Bonesteel on Facebook and Twitter.  

Interview: Spencer Ellsworth

SPENCER ELLSWORTH’s short fiction has previously appeared in Lightspeed MagazineThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Tor.com. He is the author of the Starfire Trilogy, which begins with Starfire: A Red Peace. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three children and works as a teacher/administrator at a small tribal college on a Native American reservation.

Did you have a playlist for Starfire: A Red Peace?

I am one of those awful superfans who has an insane backlog of Radiohead bootlegs. (2006 Bonnaroo, amiright, Head Heads?) There’s something about the layers, the flirtation with epic proggy bits, and especially the trancelike quality of Radiohead’s music that makes it perfect for writing space opera.

What’s your writing process like?

It really depends on the project. When I conceive of a project, I generate ideas in all sorts of ways — sometimes by blocking it out with action figures (Star Wars when available. Calico Critters work too). Sometimes I start by handwriting, and sometimes by writing the scenes that pop into mind first.

Generally I’ll draft something readable in Scrivener, and when I reread the first draft, I know that certain parts lag, or just land with a thud. Sometimes I’ll just have long sections represented by a bracketed words, a la [ACTION SEQUENCE HERE]. So I’ll write whatever new bits I need either in a separate document, or just handwrite them. Then I’ll go through the book and “stitch” the new material into the old.

For me, the key part of any writing is this: keep the inner editor & the inner writer separate. Even when you’re drafting new material, draft it cold. While the inner writer drafts, send the editor off for a (mental) drink. While the editor stitches things together and trims them, let the writer go for a (mental) walk. They cannot work in the same (mental) room together.

Red Peace is the first volume of a trilogy. How do you keep track of reoccurring characters and back story?

This trilogy is short — each book is about 200-300 pages total — which is the first step to keeping track. I don’t have as many moving parts as Tolkien did. I made a list of new words and new names (and missed some; thank goodness for the style sheets my publisher sent)! Once I got a paper copy of the first book, I could stick Post-Its on particular scenes to cross-reference. (Not dog-ear, for that is the way of the heathen.)

I try not to kill too many trees, but there is something about print. It sticks in your head. The brain remembers the solidity!

There are a number of different religions depicted in Red Peace. What inspired you to use religion as an instigating influence?

I love this question! For some reason, even though religion is a motivating factor in 95% of major human interactions, a lot of people leave it out of their science fictional/fantasy worlds. And even when it’s there, it’s so often played for fundamentalist villains.

The galaxy in the Starfire trilogy is . . .  a rough place. Giant space spiders live in the Dark Zone and will eat your suns and planets, so the intergalactic government constantly need an army to fight said space spiders. The army is made up of “crosses,” genetically engineered soldiers. The government’s line is that the crosses are not sentient. The crosses disagree.

This would cause serious cognitive dissonance with people who genuinely believe in a God who creates sentient life. Did God not create the crosses? Why, then, do the crosses think and feel and demand recognition as sentient life? I knew that various religions would take various positions on this one. The main characters, cross and human, all take various positions informed by their faith.

And of course, there’s a death cult with a giant zombie wasp.1)

One must have a zombie wasp these days (Spencer Ellsworth).

Any advice about how to plot?

Character creates plot, and plot creates character. Once you have a person in your head, and you know how they need to change, and what will force them out of their comfort zone, the plot is just a method of taking us through their journey.

You want to avoid contrivance, but you also want to avoid scenes and activities that don’t change the character. If it has to happen for the sake of the plot, but it doesn’t do anything to advance the character, it’s the wrong scene.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I have a standing desk I put together from surplus shelving and 2x4s I got when my neighbor disassembled his carport. I have a ton of books, piled on a shelf, on top of each other on the shelf, and on the floor. And way too many Transformers on display.2) Did I mention I like toys (Spencer Ellsworth)?

You work as a teacher, and you’ve got a young children. What advice do you have for parents who want to write regarding time management?

Pick your writing time, and show up. As long as I can write from 5:30 to 7 every morning, projects get done. Also, have a supportive partner — and take care of them. It’s just as important to make sure you’re making dinner, cleaning up, & taking the kids if applicable.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

I really loved Michael Livingston’s Roman fantistoricals The Shards of Heaven and its sequel The Gates of Hell. The writing is just absolute crystal clear, and brilliantly powerful and the action sequences OH DUDE THE ACTION SEQUENCES. I love Nicky Drayden’s first novel The Prey of Gods, which is a super-gonzo wild explosion of fantasy and SF ideas, set in near-future South Africa.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I think every writer only really needs one book about writing. There is a time when you are really ready to learn from one book, and as long as you find a good book, it’ll open up the process.

For me, it’s always been How To Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey, AKA “no, not that James Frey.” It’s got a really clear breakdown of how to map out characters’ journeys and use dramatic tension, clear prose and powerful dialogue to raise the stakes.

You’ve attended several different writing workshops. What advice would you give writers trying to decide if a workshop will be helpful (any workshop)?

I’ve attended several — and been rejected from many more! Shortlisted even, but never got in. Always your bridesmaid, Clarion.

Be aware of two things: most working writers went to some kind of workshop, but they didn’t all go to the cool shiny big-ticket one. A workshop is what you get from it. I attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp in 2005 and I’m ashamed to say I really did not get much out of it because I didn’t put much in.

I got a lot more out of Viable Paradise 2010 because I went there hungry and ready to step up.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

I want to know why drywall isn’t reusable. Doesn’t that seem incredibly wasteful?

Okay, seriously, I’d love to be asked about my “low culture” influences. My favorite writers of all time are Octavia Butler & Shakespeare, but I’ve also read every Transformers comic that came out in English since 1984.

What’s your favorite charity?

It’s not strictly a charity, but if anyone wants to help me & my friends and students out, please, please consider a recurring donation to the American Indian College Fund. I work at a tribal college, and we are a favorite target for budget cutters. A lot of students depend on AICF to get their degrees.

Spencer Ellsworth has a Website. Spencer is also on Twitter. You can find his short story “When Stars Are Scattered” at Tor.com.

References   [ + ]

1.

One must have a zombie wasp these days (Spencer Ellsworth).

2. Did I mention I like toys (Spencer Ellsworth)?

Interview: Melinda Snodgrass

Melinda Snodgrass is the author of many SF novels, including the Circuit and Edge series. She also writes for and is the co-editor with George R. R. Martin of the Wild Cards series. She served as the story editor for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and wrote several episodes for ST:NG and other shows. An expert equestrian, Melinda Snodgrass splits her time between New Mexico and California. In Evil Times (July 2017) is the second book in her Imperials series, preceded by The High Ground and followed by The Hidden World (2018). Melinda Snodgrass has a Website as well as a blog, and you can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Did you have a playlist for In Evil Times?

I have been listening to a lot of Mozart piano concertos and Beethoven cello sonatas and Saint-Saens Piano concertos. I was classically trained singer so I tend to favor classical music though I am beginning to enjoy more pop music now.

What’s your writing process like?

I get up each morning. I look at my outline and I know what is up next to write. I try to write every day, but writers are always writing. Dialog is spinning through our heads, we’re eavesdropping on diners at neighboring tables, etc. The other thing I do is each morning I reread the previous days work, and edit and rewrite. That means I’m fixing as I go and putting myself back in the space where that novel and its characters live. I also can’t jump ahead and write a scene that I know is coming. I have to experience it in real time with my characters.

How different is it from your perspective to write for TV vs writing for print?

I actually write my books using a lot of the tricks from screenwriting. In fact I believe my time in Hollywood has made me a much better novelist. For example, I will cut from a line of dialog and have that line finish in the next scene spoken by another character. I try to have every scene and every chapter hand off to the next one like a relay runner. I almost always start in the middle of a scene rather than do all that — knock, knock, come in, thank you for seeing me captain, etc. And my books are very dialog heavy. I have to remind myself to fill in all that boring description. (fill in gif of irony here)

In your Imperials Saga, you’ve got a society with an aristocracy and lines of inheritance and family inter relationships. How do you keep track of reoccurring characters and back story?

I use Scrivener which is a wonderful program that keeps things beautifully organized. They have sections for characters, places, research. With every book I keep track of any new characters, adding them to the list, and I update the status of returning characters. Okay, so Delia is married and her two kids are now this age and one’s at The High Ground. That sort of thing. Every phrase that is unique to the books ends up in the research section. All the planets, descriptions of them, capital cities are listed in places.

In addition to the human culture of the Solar League, you also have a number of non-human species with their own cultures and history. How do you manage world building? That is, did you work out the world building concepts, for instance the cultures and aliens first, or as you went?

I had a pretty strong idea of the traits of the various aliens. I knew the Cara’ot were master traders, and genetic engineers. I knew the Isanjo were functionally high steel workers, the Flutes are highly skilled in mathematics. Truthfully I cheated a bit though I’m going to have to address this in book four since I have an alien view point character. Because the aliens are a conquered people their own religions, cultural norms, etc. have been suppressed by their human rulers. Most of them claim to worship human gods, particularly the Christian god, they don’t have to accept the limits female participation in business because they are considered less than, but in most ways they try to ape their conquerors. It’s just safer that way.

Although I’ve only read the first two books of the five-book series, it’s pretty clear you have a plan for the journey and a destination. Any advice about how to plot?

Plotting is my favorite thing to do. And yes, all five books are worked out and the final scene of the series is already laid out. I start with a cork board and 3×5 or 4×6 cards and multi-colored pens. (You can also use a white board, that’s what we used on Star Trek but it’s hard to make changes or move scenes. I prefer the cards.) Anyway I put up cards detailing Teaser, and generally 3 acts though some longer books can be 4 or 5 acts. I then assign a color to each major character. I then put down the final scene of the book. Because if I don’t know where I’m going I can’t get there. I then generally put in the teaser. The hook that convinces someone to buy the book. I then put in the final scenes of each act. The exciting revelation that puts the heroes deeper in a well or changes up the game, etc. I then fill in the big scenes that get me to those act outs and the climax. The reason I use different colored pens is so I have a visual cue that I’m losing track of a character or another character needs to be cut back. Sometimes you discover in the early plotting stages that you don’t even need a character because you can’t keep them on the board. For a screenplay I would have every scene blocked out. For a novel I can’t do that, but I lay out all the major scenes or what I call tent pole scenes.

[Editor’s note: Melinda Snodgrass has an excellent post about “the teaser, the hook, the opening scene of a book” on her blog.]

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I hate clutter so my space is very orderly. I love writing from my home in NM because I have a breathtaking view out my window. In L.A. I’m in a cubby hole and I really hate it, but right now my life is lived in two places. I generally have music playing, but not vocal music because I was trained as a singer and I start listening to the lyrics rather than writing. I keep a cup of coffee or tea at my elbow and sometimes a small sweet. More because it gives me something to do with my hands when I’m thinking about a sentence or a scene.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

I adore Emma Newman’s Split Worlds series; Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaign series, Paul Cornell’s London Falling books. I have to read a lot of Wild Card stories from our writers who I help edit so I don’t get as much time to just read for pleasure as I would like. I also find myself sick of words by the end of the day so I often play a video game rather than read. Or watch TV because that is homework for me.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I actually don’t because I sort of stumbled into this. Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman is good. I liked Steven King’s book On Writing, but I don’t agree with him about just feeling your way through a book. I think plotting — being an architect as my friend George R.R, Martin puts it — is essential if you have to write on deadline, and especially in Hollywood.

What’s your favorite charity?

I have a number of them. I donate to Planned Parenthood, I’m an investor making micro loans with Kiva, I donate to Heifer International. I sponsor girls through Child Reach, I’m an ACLU member, The Horse Shelter in Santa Fe. I have a page on my Website called Doing Good. If a reader makes a $25 or more donation to any of the listed charities and sends me proof of the donation I will send them any book of their choice autographed. I pay the postage too.

 

Interview: Alice Loweecey

Baker of brownies and tormenter of characters, Alice Loweecey recently
celebrated her thirtieth year outside the convent. She grew up watching Hammer horror films and Scooby-Doo mysteries, which explains a whole lot. When she’s not creating trouble for her sleuth Giulia Driscoll or inspiring nightmares as her alter-ego Kate Morgan, she can be found growing her own vegetables (in summer) and cooking with them (the rest of the year). Her fourth Giulia Driscoll Mystery The Clock Strikes Nun will be released on May 30. You can preorder now at Amazon or B & N.

Did you have a playlist for The Clock Strikes Nun?

For The Clock Strikes Nun, I discovered white noise on YouTube. Those sleep recordings that mask outside noises. Did you know there are more than a dozen haunted house white noise recordings? They have crackling fire, thunderstorms, ghost sounds, howling wind. They’re great atmosphere. Plus they really do mask things like rugby on the TV. I like sports as a kind of white noise, but haunted houses were perfect for this book.

How did you become interested in fascinators?

Alice Loweecy with fascinator

I’ve always liked vintage fashion and jewelry and I’m fortunate to be able to wear hats. Except baseball caps. I look awful in those. When I turned 50 I decided I wanted to try a fascinator. I spent a week or so on the black hole that is Etsy and found my first one. I was going to wear it as a confidence booster for my first-ever Bouchercon panel (9 am) and take it off afterwards. But everyone started recognizing me in it and I loved wearing it. Thus a style was born. I have five now. Chiki Bird Hat Studio is amazing! I tell her the theme of my current book and she creates a hat for me.

Do you start out knowing “who did it,” or do you discover it as you write?

I write gigantic anal-retentive outlines, so I usually know who did it, but characters are ornery creatures and sometimes they take over the story. For The Clock Strikes Nun I knew who did it from the start. For the next book in the series, I wrestled with the outline for at least a week longer than usual until I realized I was trying to make the wrong person the villain. Once I let that go, the story fell into place.

What’s your writing process like?

Every single free minute is either at my keyboard or at my trusty three-ring binder. I work full-time and deadlines don’t care if you’re tired or want to watch a Saturday night horror movie. Even fifteen minutes is enough to write a few paragraphs or edit a page. I learned this years ago when I was shuttling my kids to soccer games and band practices.

How do you keep track of reoccurring characters and back story?

Excel spreadsheets are my life. Each book has a giant spreadsheet with multiple tabs. Character charts, research, backstory, outline. I also use Scrivener for its corkboard and web page cache features.

Any advice about how to plot?

I’m a tactile writer. I work best with pen on paper or fingers on a keyboard. I always start with a character. My first step is to open a blank spreadsheet and brainstorm. There’s no pressure this way, and my characters reveal all kinds of personal information as I type, especially the villains. They love to talk. Doing this in a Word doc is probably easier, but I started out this way and it frees my mind because my fingers go into auto-pilot.

While I firmly believe the best way to plot is the way you’re most comfortable with, I’ve recommended my method to several new writers as a jumping off point.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

It depends on the season. We have a small koi pond in our back yard. In the summer I sit out there as much as possible with a three-ring binder and a fountain pen. When Buffalo weather does its thing, I plant myself on the couch with either the binder or my laptop. If the words aren’t flowing, I switch from one to the other.

Enquiring minds want to know; whats in your binder?

In the front of my binder is a hard copy of my outline. Then 30–40 blank pieces of paper. At the back are hard copies of all the character charts and any backstory. Everything I need for an extended stay in the sun.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

A Line in the Sand (Jesse James Dawson #5) by K.A. Stewart. I’ve devoured every one of these in a single sitting and am salivating for book 6.

When Falcons Fall by C.S. Harris. Another terrific series, with a riveting antihero.

There’s also manga, which I read for relaxation. The current series I’m reading are Bungo Stray Dogs and The Ancient Magus’ Bride. So much fun!

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

Save the Cat! (Blake Snyder)
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne & King)
Zen in the Art of Writing (Bradbury)
Writing the Breakout Novel (Maass)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Lynne Truss)
The First Five Pages (Lukeman)

Save the Cat! is a screenplay book, but it made me look at characterization in a whole new way. When I read Maass, my takeaway was his advice to think of the worst thing you can do to your MC, and then do it to them. I applied that to my then-unpublished horror novel which had piled up an Eiffel Tower of rejections. It changed the MC’s motivation and made her darker and more obsessed. The book sold.

What’s your most memorable fan mail?
Fan mail is the best, but this one stood out because I could practically hear its tone of voice. It began, “I want you to know I don’t like to read! I finished all three of your books in one weekend. When’s the next one coming out?”

I replied “Sorry not sorry” and named a character after this fan in the next book. I smile every time I tell this story.

What’s your favorite charity?

A local organization, Buffalo City Mission. They’ve been helping the homeless for years. They also have a women’s shelter.

Alice Loweecey has a Website. You can also read more about her books on Facebook and Goodreads. Sometimes, she Tweets

 

Interview: Marko Kloos

Marko Kloos is the author of the Frontlines series of military Science Fiction and a member of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards consortium.

Born and raised in Germany, Marko now lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two children. Their compound, Castle Frostbite, is patrolled by a roving pack of dachshunds. Marko Kloos has a website. His latest novel Fields of Fire (Frontlines Book 5) is due February 28, 2017 from 47North. 

Why did you self-publish initially?

I used to be dead set against self-publishing, but when I finally went that route with Terms of Enlistment, it was sort of a measure of last resort. I had pinged every agent and publisher on my list, and run out of places to send the manuscript. At that point, I was tired of the submission/query treadmill and figured that if I don’t put it out there myself, nobody would ever read it. So I published the novel through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. I figured I’d see how it would go, and move on to other projects in the meantime.

Did you handle the book production yourself when you self-pubbed?

Yes, but it wasn’t very difficult. I bought a commercial license for cover art I wanted to use and uploaded the ebook to KDP and iBooks. My writing software, Scrivener, can compile ebook formats, but in KDP’s case, it wasn’t even needed because you can upload the book as a Word document and let the Amazon software handle the conversion. (I did compile the book in all current ebook formats to have on hand for direct sales.)

Did you plan to involve the Lankies (aliens) at the start or was that something that occurred to you later?

I didn’t have the idea for the Lankies until I was in the middle of writing Terms of Enlistment. But once I knew I needed aliens to fuel a conflict for more than one novel, I wanted to subvert the “bug war” trope and make humanity the bugs, so I knew I would need unusual and formidable aliens, vastly bigger and stronger than individual humans. Everything else just came out of that requirement.

How do you track the back story data (i.e. weaponry and station names, etc.)?

I keep a whiteboard in my office with data for the current novel in progress. I also have notebooks for all the ancillary data that comes with writing novels in a military SF environment: ship classes, hull numbers, lists of names for key unit members, and so on. And I still contradict myself and list the same ship in different books with two different hull numbers. (It has only happened once, and the copyeditor caught it, but it was definitely a “d’oh!” moment. Keep detailed lists and refer to them often, kids.)

Did you have a playlist for Fields of Fire?

I did! I have a playlist for every book. For Fields Of Fire, it was a lot of video game soundtracks, particularly the Halo series, and the soundtrack for Mad Max: Fury Road. (Terms of Enlistment and Lines of Departure were written to the Battlestar Galactica soundtracks from the first few seasons. Angles of Attack was written to the M83 soundtrack for Oblivion and other assorted electronica.)

I know you’re going to be writing for George R. R. Martin’s Wild Card consortium. Can you tell us a little about that?

George asked me to join the consortium in late 2015, and I was both elated and terrified at the same time to be invited into such an experienced and talented group of writers. My apprentice piece, if you will, was a novella called Stripes, which will be part of a Wild Cards novel called Low Chicago, out next year from Tor Books. Since then, I’ve played with more ideas for characters and storylines, and I’ll be contributing more stories to the Wild Cards universe in future books. Wild Cards is out of my usual wheelhouse, but it’s a really fun world to play in, and having to work with the constraints of someone else’s sandbox is a great creative challenge.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I have an office in the back of the house, between my kids’ bedrooms. It has just enough space for a chair, a big desk that can be turned into a standing desk with a button push, a bookshelf, and some whiteboards, brag trophies, and movie props on the walls. (I rented an office in town for a year, but it didn’t work out as well as I thought it would, so I moved back into my home office last year. It’s much easier to get up and running in the morning if you don’t have a 40-minute commute.)

I wrote the first two Frontlines books in longhand with a fountain pen, but the current publication schedule means that I only write longhand occasionally now—a chapter here and there, just to mix things up. But most of the time, I write directly into Scrivener on the laptop. For the longest time, I used a Macbook Pro, but the latest iteration had me underwhelmed. The current laptop is a Surface Book, which has a detachable screen that serves as a tablet in a pinch. For software, however, it’s always Scrivener, whether I write on the PC or the Mac. It’s an indispensable tool for me when it comes to structuring a novel and keeping track of the flow and beats of the story.

I know you used to have full-time munchkin wrangling duties; any suggestions about time management for writing parents?

Writing while parenting full-time is rough. To be able to be productive in that sort of setting, you need to let go of ritual and forget about writing when you’re “in a creative mood.” Kiddo goes down for a nap, you have an hour or two to crank out as many words as you can, even if you feel like taking a nap yourself. No special setups or circumstances allowed—it takes too long to get your special writing tea and fill your special writing pen with your special writing ink. I’ve written hundreds of pages on playground benches while the kid was running around and playing on the swings. Get a notebook and a pen, something that doesn’t need a charged battery or a power cord, something you can stuff into the diaper bag on the way out of the house. Writing while parenting will teach you how to make the absolute most of your limited time, and you will learn to be able to write anywhere with any tool at hand.

Why dachshunds?

Because they are a lot of dog in a low-slung package. Smart, stubborn, tenacious, ferocious little killers, admirable in their single-minded pursuit of small prey and kitchen scraps. Of all the dog breeds I’ve ever owned, dachshunds have the most distinctive individual personalities.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

The two novels that stick out in my head immediately are N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth books—The Obelisk Gate. It’s a fiercely inventive fantasy/SF mix with terrific world building and believable character and social dynamics.

I’ve also been on a bit of a YA binge. I read Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall and then tackled her entire backlist. And Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake blew my socks off—it’s an apocalyptic narrative taking place during the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and it’s written in a sort of “shadow tongue” that mimics Old English. The first few pages will seem bewildering, but then you get into it, and it’s a mind-bender. (The audiobook is considerably easier to get into, because the narrator already parses the spelling for you.)

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

My favorite books about writing aren’t so much about technique and nuts-and-bolts stuff as they are about general mindset. Stephen King’s On Writing is great, of course. But the best “How To” writing books I’ve read are Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, and Spider, Spin Me A Web.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

“Which dessert is best?”, to which I would have to answer, “Crème Brulee. Always Crème Brulee. It’s the perfect union of texture and flavor.” (Although a good tiramisu is a close second.)

What’s your favorite charity?

I have a lot of fans who are in the military or not too long out of it, so the charity I’ve picked for my own fundraising efforts in the past is called the Semper Fi Fund. It assists wounded, critically ill, and injured service members and their families. They do much-needed work, their administrative expenses are low, and their accountability and transparency ratings are very high.

As of this posting, Marko Kloos first four Frontlines books are on sale for Kindle in anticipation of the Fields of Fire release. I read the entire series over the course of a week, and enjoyed them for their characterization as much as for the story. 

Interview: Joe M. McDermott

Joe M. McDermott is the author of seven novels and two short story collections. His latest novel, Fortress at the End of Time, comes out on January 17, 2017, from Tor.com. He holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA in Popular Fiction from the Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine

What made you think of using a monastic system in a universe with clones and an ansible in The Fortress at the End of Time ?

I think too many of the futures that I read about create a strange sense that everyone’s soul is going to the same place when they die, and theological controversies only exist in that they help the plot along or not. Spirituality is such a wild and wooly field of human energy, and I hoped to try and capture a sense that faith and organized religion and atheism and agnosticism will all still be rattling around people’s heads even when we’ve extended our reach into the Sagittarius Cluster.

Did you have a playlist for The Fortress at the End of Time?

I wrote much of the book’s first draft longhand while working at a bookstore. We played, mostly, the local public classical radio station. I recall a lot of Edvard Grieg, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Beethoven

What was it like attending the Stonecoast Program MFA program and working too?

It was interesting. I think that a low-residency program is a much better approximation of what a writer’s life is going to be like upon matriculation than the traditional dedicated, full-time program. As a writer, we have to be masters of time management to keep our lives functioning while we are also running these odd side careers in the corners of the day.

Any advice for other writers about time management and juggling life, work, and writing?

White boards are very useful when you’re trying to keep organized. Also, technology can help a lot. I find Google Docs really useful, because I can access any file anywhere I happen to be, so I can be working a little if I’m sitting in a waiting area, or sitting in my office. Anywhere with Web access becomes the place I write my next thing.

I notice you regularly write sonnets and post them to your blog. Why sonnets?

Sonnets only pretend to be poems. They’re paragraphs, really, but prettier.

Who is your second favorite sonnet poet (after yourself)?

e.e. cummings.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I’m restless. My work environment will be whatever room or coffee shop or library I’ve set up in at the moment. Getting stagnant happens if I linger too much in one spot. I’m in a room that we’re calling my office, for now, but it’s more like a giant pile of books and art supplies next to a desk that happens to have the computer on it, today.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

I just finished Jerusalem by Alan Moore and it’s a breathtaking masterpiece that ought to win some awards, if folks are brave enough to soldier through it. It’s gorgeous, and wildly inventive, and tries to rewire what a narrative is and does, and I love that. It’s full of unforgettable lines, scenes, and ideas, like a massive feast of setting and theme.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

I’ve read a few that I thought were okay, but only one stands out above the rest: Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer is the best of the bunch. It’s the textbook for the class you wish colleges offered. The inclusion of the visuals really enhances the text in surprising ways, and helps shift the notes of the text around in unexpected ways. Vandermeer is a modern master, and his erudition and cohesion and constant doubting on the subject of writing is immense.

What’s your favorite charity?

I often donate to the SFWA Emergency Medical Fund, because I am uniquely aware of how precarious American healthcare is, at the moment, for artists. I also regularly donate to the Catholic Church’s refugee work, and a local no-kill animal shelter, where I got my own wonderful pup who had been rescued and nursed to health off the local shelter’s kill list by this very charity: San Antonio Pets Alive!

Interview with Scott Hawkins author of The Library at Mount Char

Scott Hawkins is forty-five and works as a computer programmer.  He’s been a member of AbsoluteWrite since 2006.  He lives in the Atlanta suburbs with his wife and seven dogs. The Library at Mount Char is his first novel. Scott has also been instrumental in keeping Absolute Write’s server running for close to ten years now.

What was different about writing and publishing a novel versus writing and publishing a technical book?

Just about everything was different. For me, writing the technical books was very much like writing a couple dozen research papers back-to-back. That can be satisfying in its own way, but it’s not really the sort of thing I’d do for fun.

cover of Scott Hawkins The Library At Mount Char
Scott Hawkins. The Library at Mount Char

When fiction writing is going well I think it’s the best thing ever. I wrote the bulk of The Library at Mount Char over a period of maybe three months, in the summer of 2012. It was all I could think about. I was burning vacation days. On weekends I’d get up at two or three in the morning and write until six at night. In that period it was like the floor dropped out from under me—I was totally immersed, and I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up.

That said, there was a pretty long preparation period leading up to those three months. That part had a lot in common with technical writing. It was very much a “drink coffee and stare at the screen until drops of blood form on your forehead” process.

What’s your writing environment like ? (Where do you write? What tools ?)

I just moved into a new place with a semi-finished room in the basement. That’s where my office is.  I work on a Windows 7 PC. I can’t really type on a tablet or laptop—my hands are too big.

Scott Hawkins' writing space

Mount Char was done with MS-Word, a spreadsheet, and a bunch of Miquel Rius spiral bound notebooks. Miquel Rius makes great stuff—the only place I know to get them is Amazon, but they have plastic covers and color coded graph paper. I use Uniden micro-fine rollerball pens (black ink) and/or Pentel 0.5 mm mechanical pencils with HB lead for handwriting notes.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with Scrivener. It’s got some neat features, but I’m not completely sold on it yet. Probably this is just inertia because I’ve been using MS-Word for so long.

What’s your writing process like? Are you an outliner, a pantser, do you keep notes on characters . . .

I generally start by trying to make up random scenes without worrying too much about how it all fits together. I don’t work in order. With Mount Char, the first couple scenes I came up with were a guy going out for a jog, and a neighborhood picnic that went bad. Those ended up pretty much dead center and near the end, respectively. I also do little character sketches, or notes on setting, stuff like that. When I’ve got around forty thousand words of scenes that feel like they have a pulse, I lay them out and try to arrange them into some sort of narrative.

Then it’s a question of adding connective tissue to hold the scenes together, and polishing.  Does each character want at least two things, preferably conflicting things?  Do they sound distinct from each other?  I try to make sure that no one likes anyone else—remember how in Empire Strikes Back every time two characters came on screen they’d hug, or whatever?  I hated that. I thought the first Star Wars where they all hated each other was a much stronger script.

I also try to be absolutely ruthless about cutting stuff that doesn’t work. The slush pile does not give a crap how much time you spent trying. The only thing that matters is whether it works. I have literally 70,000 words of different versions of the first chapter of Mount Char.  That’s not an exaggeration. I worked on nothing else but that one chapter for something like six months.

The last thing I did before submitting Mount Char was cut.  The completed draft came in at something like 155,000 words. I read somewhere that the upper limit for a first novel is 110,000 words.  That turns out to be misinformation, but the exercise of cutting helped the book a lot. I eventually got it down to 125,000ish, and it was much, much stronger. Going forward, I’m going to make a point of cutting every first draft by twenty percent.

Does it feel different to you to write code versus writing story?

Oh yeah, totally different.  They’re complementary skill sets, I think—I can get done with a long day of programming and be totally rested and ready for some fiction work. The reverse is true as well—I’ve been a full-time writer for the last few months, and I’ve noticed an itch to do Javascript on the weekends.

What do you wish you had known before you wrote The Library at Mount Char that you know now?

I’m surprised by how strongly the advance readers have reacted to the violent scenes. That was a blind spot on my part. Violent scenes just don’t bother me at all, not in movies and certainly not in fiction. To me they’re sort of like Christmas decorations—they help set the stage, but they’re pretty much emotionally neutral. The evidence indicates that that is not in line with majority opinion.

My agent had me tone down a couple of scenes before we submitted it to editors, and my editor had me tone down a couple of others. I figured that if they both agreed the violence was a problem I should probably listen, but I was privately a little worried that the end product would be hurt by being too watered down. That was a miscalculation on my part.

I think the ability to write viscerally horrifying stuff is a useful tool to have in the chest.  I’d argue that violent scenes tend to focus the reader’s attention in a way that few other things can. But going forward I’m going to make an effort to be more aware of the likely effect a scene is having in an average reader. Stuff that I think of as a 5 or 6 out of 10 might seem more like an 8 or 9.

That said, even knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have toned the violence in Mount Char down much more. Not all books need to be PG-13. There’s plenty of PG-13 entertainment available, and I may well write some of it myself in the future. But this was a violent story. If I hadn’t alienated a few people in the telling, I think I’d be doing it wrong.

What kind of background reading or research did you do for The Library at Mount Char?

Well, in the early stages I watched a lot of femme fatale movies—Malice, The Last Seduction, Body Heat. You can kind of see that influence in the first couple of chapters, but it didn’t really play out the way I was initially expecting. It never does, honestly. For me research mostly just confirms that the brilliant idea I thought I had was in fact kind of dumb

But it is fun.

Is there a soundtrack or playlist for The Library at Mount Char?

As a matter of fact, yes.  You’re the first person to ask that.  I’m really not a very music-oriented guy, but I have seven dogs, all of them big.  A lot of times when I’m writing I like to put on something to drown out the ongoing squirrel alerts.

I have exactly one song per chapter, and I listen to it on continuous repeat—usually for several hours at a time. I like it loud. My wife has asked that I do this with headphones on.

The chapter where you meet the librarians was Tusk, by Fleetwood Mac. The chapter where the burglar gets introduced was Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodman. The big fight between the protagonist and the antagonist was Dead Man’s Party, which I’m pretty sure I’ve heard more times than Danny Elfman at this point. Crazy on You by Heart—the live version—got a whole lot of play. Towards the end I made an MP3 that had just the first 45 seconds or so, and listened to that on repeat.

And just because I really want to know, is Petey OK?

As it happens, I’m working on a short story for my Website that answers that very question.  SPOILER ALERT.

Petey’s fine.  He ended up with a lady in Detroit who’s taking good care of him.

Any particular books about writing that you’ve found helpful?

Dozens. I’ll buy any on-writing book that I see.  Some are better than others, but I always learn at least a little something.

Far and away the very best one I’ve found is Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. If you want to write commercial fiction I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Maass is himself a successful literary agent, and he puts out a lot of writing books.  They’re all good.

A couple of my other favorites are the Art of Fiction by John Gardner, and Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress.

I also think it’s important to learn about the business side of things—that’s what brought me to Absolute Write in the first place. Janet Reid’s blog and QueryShark are both excellent for getting a feel about how the business works.

What have you read in the last year or so that you were impressed by?

For fun I read a lot of nonfiction, business books and biographies. There’s one about the collapse of Enron called The Smartest Guys in the Room that I really liked. Michael Lewis’ latest, Flash Boys, was interesting. Regardless of whether you’re a Mike Tyson fan, I think everyone will agree he had an interesting ride. His biography Undisputed Truth was a good read.

As far as fiction, The Girl With All the Gifts had an interesting take on zombie stories. There was a novella written by Stephen King and Joe Hill together called “In the Tall Grass” that was as good as anything I’ve seen from either of them—they were not screwing around with that one. That is a horror story.

Last year I picked up one called The Orphan Master’s Son at the airport, of all places. It’s kind of a fable about modern life in North Korea. It won the Pulitzer Prize. My God that book is amazing—it’s like getting hit by a sledgehammer every twenty minutes. It’s absolutely pitch black dark, but everyone who aspires to put words in a row for a living should read it. That is how it is done.

What do you wish someone would ask you that they haven’t?

“So, Scott, can you tell us a bit more about your wife’s role in the process?”

Thanks for asking! My wife Heather truly is a key player in this, and I rarely get a chance to give her props. She’s not a writer herself, but she reads a ton, probably more than I do, and she can point out the exact paragraph where something stops working. That by itself is ridiculously valuable, but it’s also true that she isn’t one to mince words. I’m one of those people who if you say something like “this is good, but” I often don’t hear anything after the ‘but.’ So having someone with a good eye who’s prepared to be, ahem, candid, is a gift from the angels.

When she and I first started dating I had a first-draft-ish version of my third novel. I kind of weaseled her into reading it. She made it maybe twenty pages in, then it set it down. Eventually I asked her what the problem was and she said “well, the first bit was okay, but right about here—” points to a particular page “—it started to suck.”  That’s more or less a direct quote.

I said “hmm.”

Then she said “fix it and I’ll take another look.” We went back and forth for a while about what, exactly, was sucking, then I took another pass. Eventually it got to a point where that book got a bit of love from agents—not quite enough to take me on as a client, but I did have a couple of “send me what you come up with next” golden tickets.

I gave her the draft of Mount Char on Labor Day a couple of years ago.  When she said it was good, I knew she meant it.  And when she said the third act sucked, and I needed to fix it, I knew she meant that too.

What’s your favorite charity?

My guest dogs come from We Are Rescue. We Are Rescue is a no-kill animal rescue organization

You can read more about The Library at Mount Char at Boing Boing, and Kirkus Reviews. And here’s Scott Hawkins at Whatever.

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