Q & A
I'd love to hear any question you have for me. Shoot me an email and I'll get back to you as soon as I can.
The below set of questions and answers are cut from a blog interview I did with Sean Tuohy at Writer's Bone shortly after the release of The Gemini Effect in March of 2015. (I've changed some of the answers to reflect what has occured since that date, and will continue to do so)
1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I always thought about writing fiction while growing up, but never put fingers to keyboard until my late thirties. I was stationed in Alaska at the time, on a 1-year remote tour for the Air Force, and had just finished reading an absolutely horrible horror novel (which would seem like a good thing, but it wasn’t), and I thought, “Sheesh, if this guy can write a novel & get published, I surely can, too!” So, that night, I began the draft of what would become my first novel, titled, The Coming. When I finished it a year or so later, I was sure an agent or publisher would scoop it up right away … but boy, was I wrong! When those first rejections started coming in (including one that was dated the day prior to when I’d stuck it in the mail … that was extra-special!), I was shocked. How could anyone not like this? It’s a great story! Well, it wasn’t. It was too long (700+ manuscript pages for a first novel), and it stunk. I was, however, able to pique the interest of one agent (Anne Collette of the Helen Rees Literary Agency), and for a couple of years (in her “off time”) she tried to help me take the story where it needed to go. After about 100 or so rejections, I finally decided to self-publish through Smashwords. I also decided to enter the novel in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA), and much to my surprise, it actually made it to the Quarter Finals round before getting cut. In 2012, I entered my second novel, titled The Mengele Effect (which I’d written 2003-2005), and it got cut in the first round. Same results in 2013. In 2014, however, The Mengele Effect won the Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror category, was re-titled The Gemini Effect, released as a Kindle First selection in March 2015, and to date (December 2019) ~240,000 copies of the book have gone out the door worldwide. My journey has certainly not been typical, but it has been long. If there’s a lesson in there, I would say perseverance is important, as is the ability to take a step back and realize when something you’ve written needs work … possibly a great deal of work!
2. Who did you read growing up? What type of books did you enjoy?
As a kid, I devoured Star Trek novels as fast as I could (yes, I’m a hopeless Trekkie), along with anything dealing with airplanes and World War II in the Pacific. My dad flew C-47s in the China/Burma/India theater during the war (1944-1945), so anything having to do with the Pacific theater was right up my alley. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered another series that I still, to this day, absolutely love … Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. Then, I discovered Stephen King’s The Stand, and boy was I hooked. I devoured everything he’d written to that point, and became one of his “constant readers”. Then, later, came Tom Clancy. Dean Koontz. Robert McCammon. John Saul. I’m still growing up (according to my wife), and the list continues to grow! Most recently, I discovered Hugh Howey's Silo series … boy can that guy tell a story! He also has a wonderful personal story that serves as an inspiration for all those writers out there who are sitting at their keyboards, wondering if they have what it takes. I've also recently discovered Sam Sisavath's Purge of Babylon series--HIGHLY recommend you give Sam's stories a read!
3. What effects did your military career have on your writing?
Writing in the military is completely different—short, concise, dry and technical, get an idea across, do it quickly … all in order to get a decision maker to make the decision you’re trying to get. Some might argue that the “short & concise” part also applies to fiction, and I suppose it does in an economy of words sense, but military writing reads differently. I would say that organizing/planning skills and knowing how to meet a suspense date are two of the biggest things that the military taught me that directly apply to my writing.
4. What is your writing process like?
I’m not too sure I even have a process! I know some writers are incredibly organized when they start out to write a story—they plot-out the whole thing, keep track of their plot points, stick yellow stickies all over the walls, yada yada yada. I start that way, too (minus the yellow stickie part), but it soon becomes almost worthless as I find my stories seem to take on a life of their own and I end up tossing most of the initial prep work.
What I enjoy the most about writing is crafting a story that someone will enjoy, and remember. If I can take my reader into the world that I’ve created for them, convince them to suspend disbelief as much as they can, surround them with things that touch on their emotions—happiness, fear, excitement, dread—and leave them wanting more when they’re finished, then I’ve done my job. Some people have a hard time suspending disbelief as much as I’d like them to, and that’s okay … they can (and will) find something else to read. For the most part, though, I feel my stories have been well received, and for that, I’m grateful.
The worst aspect about writing is T-I-M-E, that finite commodity we all seem to have too little of. For me personally, I find my writing time falls at about the same time everyone else in the house has headed off to bed. Definitely makes for some late nights & some very EARLY mornings!
5. How much of yourself do you find in each character you write?
Every writer, naturally, includes a tiny bit of themselves in each character—similar fears, wants, desires, strengths, weaknesses—because that’s simply unavoidable. But I think for me personally, life experience counts a little more. For example, I have two daughters; as such, I will never write a weak female character. If I ever have a female character that says, “Oh, just hold me”, someone needs to track me down and slap me silly. My daughters are both beautiful young women, but shrinking violets they are not. They can definitely stand their ground if pressed, and one is even a better shot than I am!
Most writers would probably agree with me when I say that watching a character grow and develop beyond what you initially envisioned during the life of a story is really a cool thing … they can, and do, develop a life of their own, and may end up not resembling anything about you at all. In my chosen genre, I would count that as a good thing in some cases! ;)
6. What advice do you give to first time writers?
Simple. Write/Edit. Write/Edit some more. Then, write/edit again. And, keep in mind that your writing can always be better—it’s definitely a learning process, and it never ends.
I think a lot of first-time writers believe what they’ve written is really, really good … when in reality, it just might be really, really bad. Like I said earlier, The Coming, in its original form, was really, really bad (which is one reason you won’t find it anywhere!). Even with The Gemini Effect, I learned a TON while I went through the developmental and copyedit process with my editor at Amazon’s 47North, Jason Kirk. I have a post on my blog which describes in detail how Jason and I worked together to take my self-published novel The Mengele Effect—which had just won a nation-wide contest, but still needed some hefty tweaking—and transform it into what it was striving to become; The Gemini Effect.
Two other ways I improved my writing skills were to join a local writers’ group (The Nebraska Writers Workshop), and to try my hand at writing flash fiction.
Joining a writers group was really eye-opening; I was exposed to a number of different genres and skill levels, and found it very rewarding. The most important thing about joining a writers group is to be thick-skinned—be able to accept criticism, and use it to improve your skills. I’ll touch on that again a little later.
Writing flash fiction paid quite a few dividends. While perusing the titles at Smashwords.com, I ran across a short, flash fiction horror story. I read it, enjoyed it, and did a little research. Flash fiction—stories with word counts anywhere between 300 and 1,000 words—seemed like a perfect way for me to put pen (fingers) to paper (keyboard) and give birth to some of the ideas bouncing around inside my misshapen noggin. They wanted out, so I obliged. My initial venture into flash fiction was titled Ripple. I wrote it on a Saturday afternoon, and published it on Smashwords the next day. For me, the magic of crafting short stories began a few hours later, when Ripple received its first review. Two little words. One was "Definitely", the other, "disturbing". With that, I knew I'd hit the exact mark I was aiming for. I highly recommend new writers try writing some flash fiction, as it teaches tight structure, tight plots, and helps a writer learn how to cut all the unnecessary chaff to keep it within a certain word count.
Also, like I stated earlier, learn to have a thick skin. Be willing to accept constructive criticism, and shrug-off the vitriolic criticism that every writer eventually receives. Is this an easy thing to do? No. Not. At. All. Like everything else, it’s a learning process. To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, there are two types of writers - Those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review. The first time you receive a bad review, it may feel as if you’ve just shown your newborn baby to a stranger—that baby is the most beautiful, precious thing you’ve ever seen—and the stranger says, “Wow, that is one UGLY baby! How dare you bring such a horrid creature into my world!” Then, after the stranger vomits a few times (on your shoes), a crowd gathers, they chase you back to your castle with torches and pitchforks, and everything goes up in flames … especially, your confidence as a writer.
One thing to remember is that a review is a message from a reader to other readers—it’s not directed at you. Some authors I know never look at reviews, good or bad. But, if you do, don’t take it personally. Even though someone just called your precious baby ugly, don’t ever let it kill your desire to write, and don’t ever respond. Let me say that again … no matter how badly you want to, don’t respond. Once your story is out in the big bad reviewer world, it has to stand on its own two feet. It’ll get praised, and it’ll get bullied, and you have to stand back and let it happen. An author who responds to a bad review is really no different that a kid bringing a note from his mommy & handing it to a bully: “Johnny is really a good boy, and you need to quit picking on him because you’re stupid and his dad is bigger than your dad, etc.”. It doesn’t help, and may ensure little Johnny gets the crud beat out of him some more. There’s a perfect example how something like this can quickly spiral out of control, and some of you may have heard of it: Google “Jacqueline Hewitt online meltdown” & take a look at the results. The anonymous nature & speed of the electronic world we live in make this kind of occurrence all too likely.
Now, that said, I mentioned earlier that a review is a message from one reader to other readers & it’s not directed at you … let me add, not necessarily directed at you. Some reviewers do direct their messages at you, and sometimes it can be ugly. Those are the ones that—as long as there’s no libel, threats or defamation involved, which might enter the legal realm—an author really needs to learn to ignore. For the most part, I think most readers (and I’m one of them) will discount a review that includes a personal attack against an author. At least I hope so. People do it. Ignore them.
Reviews (good + bad) = Exposure. In the long run, hopefully your story will garner more good than bad. If it doesn’t, then maybe *gulp* some of the bad reviews have a point.
One last thing regarding reviews: If you do get a nasty one, and it’s bugging you, keep this quote from Teddy Roosevelt nearby (it helps):
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
7. Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
Only one? My whole life is composed of random facts! But, if I had to choose only one, here you go, and remember, you asked: Back in the 1970s, James Doohan—Scotty from Star Trek—came to the Northglenn Mall in Northglenn, Colorado, which was close to where I grew up. I took a red shirt, taped some construction paper rank stripes on the sleeves and made a construction paper engineer’s badge which I pinned on my chest, and actually went out in public to meet him. I was 34 at the time. Or maybe I was 11? You decide. ;)