Dave Creek, a former web producer, is a Kentucky native who lives in Louisville. He’s the author of numerous stories and novels set in the same shared sci-fi universe since 1994. Creek recently took the time to answer some questions:
Wes Platt: How did you get started as a writer?
Dave Creek: After several years of trying, I sold my first story to ANALOG in 1994. I thought the floodgates were going to open. I sold my next story six years later. But since then, I’ve sold over twenty stories there and several others to APEX and various anthologies.
WP: What was your career? And were you able to transition easily to full-time writing or was it something that had to be more of a freelance hobby?
DC: I retired about three and a half years ago from WDRB-TV in Louisville. I was a web producer, writing stories for WDRB.com, and also produced newscasts. Most of my career I was a show producer, but at others times was an assignment editor, tape editor (back when you used tape), and other things.
WP: All your stories take place in a shared “future history”, correct? What made you decide to approach your work that way? And how do you keep it fresh and exciting for yourself as a storyteller?
DC: I’ve always enjoyed other writers’ future histories, such as the Isaac Asimov FOUNDATION series, Poul Anderson‘s stories of Dominic Flandry, and many others. I keep it fresh and exciting by making a rule with myself that I have to learn something new about my characters and/or background with each story. I can’t just recycle elements.
WP: Who do you count among your influences as a writer? What other authors captured your attention when you were younger and why?
DC: Connecting with readers, having them tell me they enjoyed a story. Having a discussion about your characters or ideas is always great.
WP: What’s your process as a writer? Example: Lots of outlines and pre-planning or more freeform, seat-of-the-pants storytelling?
DC: The more I do this, the more detail I put into outlines. I’ve tried “pantsing” a couple of times and I end up going down into a wormhole. But I always keep in mind that the outline is not the story. If I get a good idea along the way, I incorporate it into the outline or change the direction of the outline.
WP: What do you do for fun when you’re not writing?
DC: My wife and son and I are big music fans. In the last few years, with either or both of them, I’ve seen The Who, Roger Waters, U2, Lake Street Dive, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder. My favorite of all time is Yes, which I’ve seen countless times.
WP: Do you prefer independent or corporate publishing? What do you find are the trade-offs of each?
DC: I haven’t been a part of “corporate” publishing, only small presses. My current publisher, Hydra Publications here in Kentucky, is great to work with. I have a lot of input into promotions, cover art, all the aspects of publishing. I put out more than they can publish in a single year, so I self-publish novellas and short story collections and that kind of thing. It’s satisfying, but I hate dealing with formatting. There’s a program called Vellum that’s supposed to be great that I hope to buy soon.
WP: What advice do you have for young writers – or older writers who just haven’t been published yet?
DC: Study the markets if you’re submitting short stories to magazines, whether print or online. See what markets might be best for your story and submit it to the market that pays the most. That will generally also be the one that gives you the most exposure. If you’re rejected at that first one, work your way back down. Don’t fall for editors/publishers who tell you how great the exposure will be in their publication, rather than money. If they don’t have a big enough audience to pay you, they won’t be giving you that much exposure.
As far as books, aim high again. See what traditional publisher might be interested in your work, then submit. You may have to wait as long as a year. If you get tired of waiting, or if your work isn’t commercial enough for the trad presses, go to the small presses. But if that’s what you decide to do, beware of outlets that promise a lot but don’t deliver. No one certifies publishers or editors. Some people who claim to be “publishers” are really printers. And you shouldn’t pay for ANYTHING. Not promotions, not printing, not editing, ANYTHING. Money flows toward the writer.
Or you can self-publish. Then you’re legitimately putting out your own money. You need to hire an editor, though if you have some great beta readers, that can work too. You have to learn how to format or hire someone to do it, and you have to pay for cover art. It’s a lot to do, but it can be satisfying.
No matter what you do, I always recommend checking out writerbeware.com. It’s maintained by the Science Fiction Writers of America, but anyone can check it out. Study the pitfalls other people have coped with, find out who some of the bad players are out there, and just make sure you’re informed.
WP: Name some modern authors whose work you enjoy and share why they appeal to you.
DC: I love Jason Sanford‘s use of language, N.K. Jemisin‘s fantasy worldbuilding and strong characters, Nnedi Okorafor‘s Binti stories for a progressive take on alien contacts and worldbuilding, and Rosemary Claire Smith‘s time travel stories featuring dinosaurs. There’ s lot of great stuff out there right now!
Thanks so much to Dave for sharing his thoughts and experiences! I’m always interested in hearing from other writers and their perspectives, so feel free to reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wes Platt: It’s an understatement to describe you as “well-rounded” – storyteller, songwriter, teacher, media expert. When did you first fall prey to the writing bug, and why?
Paul Levinson: Thanks! I’ve always been the kind of person who, when I really enjoy something as a consumer, and love it so much that it becomes a part of me, I can easily see myself becoming a producer or creator of that, too. I loved everything I read by Isaac Asimov in the 1950s, and it seemed quite natural that someday I would be writing science fiction, too. I felt the same way about nonfiction and rock music. Fortunately I didn’t feel that way about nuclear physics.
WP: You helped teach online classes in the mid-1980s through Connect Ed – years before the internet became mainstream and really made it practical to reach a wide range of students. How does it feel having pioneered that technology? What did you learn then that you apply now?
PL: I’ve always valued time – that is, I think we don’t have enough of it, to do the things we want to do. It always occurred to me, as a student and then a professor, that the time it took to travel to a class was usually a waste of time. It would be much better if I could just teleport into that class. In effect, that was the foundation of Connected Education – Connect Ed for short – which my wife and I founded. We had students from more than 40 states in the U.S and 20 countries around the world. It didn’t matter where they and the professors were located. I apply that lesson all the time now – every time I write an idea, or even a story or article, on my smartphone. I can not only tweet but put up a blog post, publish a book on Amazon, any time I want, wherever I may be. That’s a boon to any creative spirit.
WP: It feels like our media diet is hyper-saturated, especially thanks to our smartphones keeping us connected to apps like Twitter, Facebook, and even traditional news outlets such as the Associated Press. Where do you see this going from a technological evolution standpoint? Is a media singularity imminent?
PL: I don’t think we’re hyper-saturated with media, or suffering from information overload. We’re suffering, to the contrary, from information underload, or not having the best navigational tools to get the information we need, to avoid fake news, etc. Our social media are sources of freedom and accuracy, if we know how to use them. As for media singularity, I don’t see it as a problem – our media and AIs are not even remotely like human intelligence. We control our media and not vice versa. In the future, I expect we’ll have even better access to the media than we have now. We may have chips embedded in our earlobes or wherever, which would free us from having to carry our phones. We’ll be able to shut them off, just like our phones, whenever we wanted to be disconnected. In the 20th and now the 21st centuries, our media have increasingly allowed more people from more places to get their ideas into the mix. That’s the future of our species, both on this planet and beyond into the universe.
WP: What was it like working with Wolfman Jack during your years as a music producer?
PL: I had more fun working with Murray the K, because he was someone I had enjoyed as a DJ since I first heard him on WINS Radio in New York when I was a kid in the late 1950s. But it was great working with the Wolfman, too. What I did for both was put together sets of songs – Murray called them “segues” – for example, “I Fought the Law,” “Indiana Wants Me,” and “Gotta Get a Message to You” as a “law and order” set, and sometimes much longer series of songs that told a story. I also wrote and recorded a song for Murray – “Murray the K’s Back in Town” – which you can hear any time now on Spotify. And the second and third articles I ever had published – which was back in the 1970s – were about Murray (2nd article) and Wolfman (3rd article). The first article was a defense of Paul McCartney, against a dyspeptic critic.
WP: Who are some storytellers that influenced you early on as a writer?
PL: Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov, and Isaac Asimov, first and foremost and always. I thought his Foundation trilogy was the best fiction of any kind I ever read, and still do. Asimov’s robot stories are still unparalleled in terms of their logic and philosophy of mind and life. And his The End of Eternity is the still best time travel novel I’ve ever encountered. In addition to his ideas, I always found the sheer clarity of his writing, not to mention its abundance, to be an inspiration.
WP: What do you get out of writing – besides paychecks and accolades? Why do you do it?
PL: I find writing as satisfying as talking, and I love to do both. There’s something especially magical, though, in putting your ideas into written words, and seeing them sail off into the world at large, to be received, collide with, sooth, coax, set on fire, inspire, whomever those words may touch. I write every day, all the time, and I can no more easily go with a day without writing than I would without eating or even breathing. Writing is the way I connect to the cosmos. In its own way, it is as profound as having children and grandchildren, which is wonderful and magical in a different but superbly related way.
WP: How did you get into podcasting and what have you enjoyed most about that kind of outlet?
PL: Podcasting for me is the verbal equivalent of writing. It serves exactly the same purpose in my life and work. I’m also a singer and songwriter – you can listen to dozens of my songs on Spotify – and podcasting is also for me the talking equivalent of singing. I don’t prepare too much for my podcast. I just start talking about whatever subject I want to talk to the world about. I always wish that I had more time to podcast – but usually writing takes precedence.
WP: How do you define success as an author?
PL: I see many kinds of interrelated indications of success for a writer. Even moving one reader – who lets you know how much she or he enjoyed your novel – is a very meaningful kind of success. But, sure, sales are important. Up until about 10 years ago, having a publisher believe in your work enough to publish it was crucial, too. I’m proud of the novels I’ve had published by Tor, and the stories in Analog, Amazing Stories, Buzzy Mag, etc. But now it’s so easy to publish what you want on Amazon that an author can reach readers directly. Other important kind of success for me: having my work become the basis of a movie or a TV series. The Chronology Protection Case, a short movie made by Jay Kensinger (now on Amazon Prime), based on my novelette in Analog, brings me great pleasure, and I hope to see more of this done with my work. We’re shopping around a pilot for a TV series, The Genesis Virus, a new Phil D’Amato narrative written by me, J. Charles Sterin, and my wife Bettina Vozick. (D’Amato is the protagonist in “The Chronology Protection Case,” and in my Locus-award-winning first novel, The Silk Code, etc.) I also have a script for one of my best-known novels, The Plot to Save Socrates.
WP: What are some of your fondest memories about serving as a past president of the SFWA? What do you think of where the organization is now (adding video game writing, for example)? And where do you think it may go in the future?
PL: I succeeded Rob Sawyer as President, and it gave me great pleasure to implement some of the great ideas he brought forward and worked for, such as a Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Script. On a personal level, it was extraordinary meeting and having dinner with Daniel Keyes – with his wife and my family – when I brought him to New York to give him the Author Emeritus Award in 2000. Politically, I enjoyed going down to Washington and being interviewed by the FTC about why SFWA thought a Barnes & Nobles / Ingram merger would not be in the public’s interest. I think SFWA’s in great shape now, with an innovative and hardworking administration which is working harder than ever for writers, with book events, story bundles, etc. Indeed, I see more energy and vitality in the organization now than ever before, and I enthusiastically approve of important steps into the future that SFWA has taken, recognizing the place at the table for self-published authors and video-game writers. I expect SFWA to continue to be a leader in safeguarding and promoting author’s rights, recognizing the advent of new kinds of publishing – such as on the Amazon Kindle – etc.
WP: Share some current authors whose work you’ve enjoyed (assuming you’ve had some spare time to read between all your other projects).
PL: I’ll give you three: Three Laws Lethal by David Walton – not yet published, a brilliant thriller about driverless cars and the profound, life-and-death philosophic questions they raise. The Mindtraveler by Bonnie Rozanski (2015) – one of the best time-travel novels I’ve read in years – actually, one of the best time-travel novels, period. Red Moon by David S. Michaels and Daniel Brenton – I’ve always wondered why the Soviet space effort fell apart in the 1960s, and this novel provides a breathtaking science fictional account. And here’s an Honorable Mention: Prophecies of the New World by Royce Sears (2016) – a rich, anthropological tapestry, encompassing everything from Native Americans to outer-space aliens.
Thanks so much to Paul for sharing his thoughts and experiences! I’m always interested in hearing from other writers and their perspectives, so feel free to reach out to me via email at email@example.com.
Jason A. Holt, board game writer and translator, is fluent in Czech and lives on a remote Montana cattle ranch. He’s worked on the Galaxy Trucker board game and is author of the Edgewhen series of fantasy novels. His first Galaxy Trucker novel, Rocky Road, was just released! Holt recently took the time to answer some questions:
Wes Platt: How and when did you discover that you wanted to be a writer?
Jason A. Holt: Let me just say that I hate the way writers answer this question, because the answer is always something like, “When I was in second grade, my poem got published in a teachers’ newsletter. I got paid two dollars, and I’ve been a writer ever since.”
It’s so intimidating. I was several years out of grad school before I seriously sat down to write novels. How can I compete with someone who’s been a professional writer since second grade?
But the truth is, I always loved creative writing when I was in school. I wrote for the student newspaper at Montana State University. I just forget all that stuff when I start comparing myself to other writers.
And, yes, I did get paid 2 dollars for that poem I wrote in second grade.
WP: Share some writers whose work you enjoyed growing up.
WP: What was your first tabletop gaming experience?
JAH: My mom got sick of playing Candyland, so she taught me Cribbage and Yahtzee when I was five. I’ve been a gamer ever since.
My first role-playing game experience was when an older kid showed me the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. A while later, my aunt gave me a bookstore gift certificate for my birthday and I knew I had to buy this:
Strictly speaking, though, I don’t remember my first tabletop experience because we usually played on the floor.
WP: Do you prefer to be a player or a GM? Why?
JAH: Back when I was playing regularly, I loved being the GM because I wanted to build worlds, make up stories, delve into characters’ back stories, and generally be in charge. Those are exactly the same intellectual muscles I use in writing novels, so now I’m grateful when someone else is willing to run a game for me.
JAH: Czech game designer Vlaada Chvátil was my boss when we worked for a Moravian computer game company. We had this RPG that needed a story. Vlaada wrote the story in Czech, and I translated it to English so we could pitch the project to investors. That game never got made, but when Vlaada was looking for someone to translate his board game rulebooks, he asked me. I’ve been working with CGE since before they were CGE.
WP: What do you enjoy about Galaxy Trucker?
JAH: In cardboard, I love building a great ship, rebuffing everything that threatens it, and finishing the flight with lots of money. Against the AI in the app, I have a lot more trouble, but I like the way the app streamlines everything while still retaining that tactile feel of building a space truck piece by piece.
I like that rule because it acknowledges that some players set their own victory conditions.
WP: Congratulations on the release of “Rocky Road”, the new Galaxy Trucker novel! How did that project come about? Can you describe the process of developing a story like that within the parameters of someone else’s intellectual property?
JAH: Well, I don’t think Galaxy Trucker: Rocky Road is like other gaming tie-in fiction. I asked my friend if I could write a novel in his universe. He said that would make him very happy. So I wrote this thing straight from the heart, and only once I had it written did we start dealing with details like Who is going to publish this?
I’m the guy who wrote the English-language version of every rulebook and I also worked on the app, so I knew the setting pretty well. The only worldbuilding element Vlaada asked me to change was the ship-building scene. I had written it more like it is in the game, and he envisioned something more chaotic. So I rewrote it, and I think it works great.
I’m used to working with Vlaada as the presenter of his ideas, but that wasn’t really the dynamic this time. This time, the ideas were mine, and he was the editor of my novel. He’s a great editor. He had a lot of story suggestions which made the book better.
WP: Is writing a full-time occupation or do you have a day job? What’s your day job, if you have one?
JAH: I also write the Edgewhen series of fantasy adventure novels.
I’ve been working on novels for as long as I’ve been working on board games. Neither is a hobby, but I’m not sure which is the day job. Now that the novelist and the board game writer have merged, I guess it doesn’t matter.
WP: How do you describe success as an author?
JAH: I measure success financially, as does the main character in Galaxy Trucker: Rocky Road. This is one of the reasons she’s so messed up.
I have to say, though, when a board game reviewer posts a photo of our latest rulebook and gives it the caption, “CGE rulebook writer Jason Holt strikes again,” I feel pretty good.
WP: Do you prefer the nuts and bolts of rulebooks or do you feel more at home writing fiction?
JAH: Well … CGE rulebooks can be quite a bit nuttier than a normal nuts-and-bolts rulebook. And even a straightforward rulebook like the one we did for Tzolk’in is fun to write. But if all I wanted to do was write rulebooks all the time, I’d be looking for more freelance work instead of writing novels.
If I had to choose either novels or rulebooks, I’d miss the other one. I’m lucky I get to do both.
WP: Share some current writers whose work you currently enjoy.
JAH: After Brandon Sanderson finished Robert Jordan‘s Wheel of Time, I decided I never needed to read epic fantasy again because I had finished the best possible epic fantasy ever. But Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive has really gripped me.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of P. G. Wodehouse. I guess Wodehouse hasn’t been current for a long time, but he’s still the best humor novelist in the English language. There’s no way I can compete with him. … But I guess my goal was to write a funny novel, and I did. So what if some other jokers are funnier?
Thanks so much to Jason for sharing his thoughts and experiences! I’m always interested in hearing from other writers and their perspectives, so feel free to reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wes Platt: When do you first remember wanting to write?
Steven Campbell: I first started recognizing that writing was an actual thing in middle school, I believe. We were given assignments to construct sentences out of vocabulary words for homework. I would write stories, instead. It was about the only homework where I went above what was requested. The stories would be funny and include classmates as characters. Every day, the kids would pass around my homework, reading it and laughing. I couldn’t understand why other kids didn’t do the same thing when it got me a lot of attention and popularity. Every once in awhile, some other kids would attempt to do the same thing and inevitably their stories weren’t very enjoyable. It took me a while to realize that making stupid stories required “some” level of talent.
In 7th grade we had to write essays as one of those Determine Your Future standardized tests. I heard later that the test was abandoned because kids had such trouble with it. All the kids were very nervous about taking it. I received a perfect score. I only remember one of the essays, but I recall my whole process. I knew adults would be evaluating the test, so I wrote specifically to that audience. In one essay, we were supposed to propose a new school club or sport. I came up with the idea to make a Young Corporate Raiders Club. It was a riff on the 80s and Reaganomics. I didn’t truly appreciate the humor behind it, only being 13 years old, but I had heard enough late night comedians joking about it that I could make a funny story.
At some point, we also had to take a computerized test that would recommend future careers to us. Two careers were recommended to me. One was journalist. I asked if it was possible to get “writer” as a result and they said that wasn’t even an option. So a computer program thought I had some kind of ability in that arena long ago.
I submitted my first short story for potential publication when I was 16. I suppose I had wanted to write a bit before that. But there was a long period of time when I didn’t know what writers were. At least not as a profession that someone could embark upon.
WP: Describe any notable experiences you’ve had with rejection and what you learned from that.
SC: So much rejection! For some years, I kept every single rejection letter I ever received. They were on a long nail hanging above my bed. The sword of Damocles. I was sleeping one night and was awoken by the stack of papers finally proving too much for the nail and falling down and hitting me. And let me state it was like a two-inch nail. I’m really glad I started submitting young and kept at it. It thickened my skin to an unbelievable degree. I think that’s the biggest takeaway I got. I’m kind of surprised that older writers can be so touchy. How did they ever survive those early rejections? My favorite rejection was for my first book-length work that I wrote in my early twenties. In short, the letter said that not only was my writing bad, but I was a bad person for having written it. First of all, I was amazed that it was a personal letter. I’ve seen hundreds of form rejections so I would always take extra time on an actual rejection that was written by a human. I stood there reading it. Then I read it again. Then I burst out laughing. Just thinking about it today makes me smile. It’s hard to imagine receiving a harsher rejection letter and it’s the favorite one I ever received. I think you need to have that kind of attitude if you want to be a writer. For any piece of writing, probably 99% of the planet will dislike it. That still leaves about 75 million people who might enjoy it. If you can sell that much, you’ll be well off.
WP: Did you read a lot as a teenager? What kinds of fiction and particular authors drew your attention?
SC: In my early teens I don’t think I read much. I played a lot of roleplaying games and read comic books. Then I rushed into reading all at once. When I was a teenager, there was a huge independent comic book explosion. That pushed the mainstream comics to get edgier and a lot of graphic novels came up. So I spent a lot of time and money on that. I was into pulpy fantasy and science fiction when I started reading short stories and novels. There were a lot more fiction magazines back then and you could spend an awful lot of time reading short stories and novelettes and novellas. When I look back on that period, it seems like every month I’d discover some new subgenre and would just devour it. Like I remember getting into pulp short stories of the Great Depression. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard stuff. Weird Tales. Then I would discover something else and read whatever I could find. This was all before the internet so it was a lot more difficult to actually find things and related works. You couldn’t just click a page and research all the influences and related material. You had to go to the library or used book stores or comic shops and take what they had. I’d do that a lot. I’d go into a used book store and try something out, then go back and buy up the whole shelf. A comic I really enjoyed was Dave Sim’s Cerebus. Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men. Frank Miller and Alan Moore on whatever. Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time) put out a bunch of Conan novels in his earlier career and I enjoyed those. TSR (Dungeons and Dragons) had a book division and I read a lot of those. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series was great. Gaiman’s Good Omens led me to Terry Pratchett and Gaiman wrote a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy guide and that led me to Douglas Adams. I liked the old Fighting Fantasy/Choose Your Own Adventure books which were a brand new concept at the time, computer games not having made a strong presence yet. I discovered hard science fiction with Niven and Asimov and got really into that. There was about a year when I was 19 that I read every layman’s book on theoretical physics that I could find. But mostly my teen years I was into lots of action.
WP: Like me, it seems like you had a lot of fun incorporating storytelling into your classroom as a student. I wrote a crazy serial space soap opera starring kids on my bus when I was in high school. How did this go over with other students for you? And what did teachers think?
SC: I touched on this above. I was one of those kids that teacher had trouble with because I used teachers as straight men to my jokes. They often would ask the class questions, “What does this tell you?” And if you’re fast on your feet, you could get a lot of laughs. My writing was one of the only times they let me get away with stuff. I didn’t remotely follow the instructions but I was writing so much material that they figured it was okay. When assigning homework, they would say how long our writing had to be at a minimum. I would ask how long was the maximum.
WP: So I understand you’re a dog person! Why? What’s great about dogs in general – and your dog, specifically?
SC: I’m a dog person because I have a dog and he takes up a tremendous amount of time and energy. In general, I think I’ve become a more boring person because I spend so much time with my dog. I don’t have as much time to do drug running or overthrow governments like I used to. (I’m just kidding, FBI.) Dogs are simple creatures. I think I’m a relatively simple person. The transition to high school was tough for me. Not that I think I was tremendously unpopular, it’s just that all the cliques and backstabbing was something I could never understand. I played sports and I was in the gaming club and the chess team. And members of each of those groups kept asking me why I hung out with those “other” people. I really enjoyed my youth and one of the great things about kids is that they are so non-judgmental. You stick two kids in the same room and walk away for a minute and they’ll start playing, regardless of backgrounds. So I appreciate dogs because there isn’t a lot of subterfuge. If my dog is hungry, he’ll tell me. If he wants to play, he’ll play. My dog is an Alaskan Malamute and he’s unbelievably strong. I live at the beach in California so he looks a bit out of place, but he’s a really gorgeous dog. He’s got all his papers and his parents were show dogs. My breeder, for whatever reason, supplies at lot of the classic rockers of the 70s with malamutes. I think my dog is related to the dog of Gene Simmons of KISS, among others. I just came back from the park and my dog, Sasquatch, spent a good ten minutes wrestling with dogs 1/3rd his size. He’s very gentle when he needs to be. Because of my dog, I probably smile and laugh about 50% more on any given day than I did before I had him. Of course, I also get annoyed probably 25% more. He’s destroyed two remote controls, a laptop computer, my carpet, and countless other things.
WP: What inspired Hard Luck Hank and the world he inhabits?
SC: I got the name Hard Luck Hank from submitting stories to fishing magazines. Like I said earlier, I would get into all kinds of odd writing. I wrote to a fishing magazine about the idea for some stories where nothing except bad stuff happens. The editor wrote me back and said he liked the idea and I should submit some. I got so excited! My future was clear. I’d be a sportswriter. I wrote a few articles and never heard back. They probably realized that I was a teenager and not a very good writer.
The genre is a hodgepodge of tons of different things I read when I was younger. I tried my hand at writing nearly every genre at some point or other. I think that’s valuable in that you learn what you are good at and what you enjoy writing. Just about everything I did would inevitably have some comedy in it. I tried writing a horror once and it became a horror parody without me intending. The problem with pure comedy, I found, is that it doesn’t age well and it often doesn’t stand up to repeat exposure. If you hear a joke and laugh your head off, it’s very unlikely you’ll react the same on the second or third or tenth hearing. I made the decision early that I wasn’t going to write strictly comedy, because it doesn’t have legs. I like the craziness and dark humor of things like Hunter S. Thompson and Bukowski and Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut.
I used to love comic books and HLH takes some sensibilities from that genre. I also like violence as humor. Not Three Stooges slapstick, but more realistic. I grew up with Star Wars and had a pile of action figures and toys, so that kind of science fiction was always appealing. I stumbled upon old noir short stories and potboilers that led to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and I came up with the idea to hang a mystery as the through line. I’m not such a big fan of Detective, like the butler did it, but I enjoy the hell out of noir.
And I guess lastly, I don’t like bullies and don’t care much for heroes. Even as a kid, I really disliked that Tom of Tom and Jerry and Wile E. Coyote and Elmer Fudd and such, could never win and were the perpetual bad guys. The so-called good guys in those cartoons were usually arrogant pricks and I always wished the bad guys could win. I like the fact that Hank is kind of a sad sack character, a reluctant hero, and not the nicest or smartest of guys. He’s an everyman even though he’s an alien mutant.
WP: What surprised you most about trying to break through with comedic space opera?
SC: Well, I can’t say I was tremendously surprised, but no one wanted it. No one was remotely interested on the traditional side of publishing. No agents would look at it. No publishers cared. No one. Just saying it was “science fiction-comedy” closed so many doors that I stopped saying it was comedy. Every once in awhile, someone would ask if it was like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I would say, “not really,” and that would be the end. It was very frustrating to put so much effort into a novel and not be able to get anyone to even look at it. I had several agents straight up tell me that the people who like science fiction don’t like comedy, or at least don’t like to mix the two. There simply isn’t a track record for it, so in a way I can understand their reluctance.
WP: How do you define success as an author?
SC: I think it’s the American tradition to define success in terms of money. If someone says they’re a successful [any profession], you’re going to likely assume they are doing well financially. If someone told me they were a successful parent, I’m probably not going to think that their child is currently serving time for murder. It is a limiting definition, but I still associate “successful author” with money. I was talking with another writer at a convention a few years ago and I asked him, “how many people do you think are professional writers here?” He said, “a professional writer is someone whose spouse has a real job.” That was very depressing, but there is a lot of truth to it. Writing has always been a hard gig. If you want fortune, you’ll likely have an easier time robbing a bank. If you want fame, you’ll have an easier time robbing a bank and getting caught.
A side effect of me developing thick skin to reviews and rejection, is that I don’t place a lot of emphasis on insults OR compliments. I mean, people have told me for decades that my work was no good—or at least they weren’t interested in publishing it. Now that I’ve started to get fan emails and decent reviews, it’s hard for me to say that my critics are suddenly right.
Ultimately, you have to enjoy writing. I wrote unsuccessfully for a tremendous number of years. The majority of my entire life. I didn’t stop writing because of rejection. When I was younger, I met a lot of fellow wannabe writers and I got the sense they were doing it for the “wrong” reasons. I came up with a test to determine if someone was, in my opinion, a real writer. It’s a very sci-fi scenario:
The future you travels back in time from your deathbed. It’s you, aged 112 years old. You have tubes sticking out of you, you’re wasted away, in a hospital gown. The future you explains that he was given a chance to travel back and give you one piece of information about your future life. He says you will NEVER sell any writing. You will NEVER earn anything but ridicule and scorn from your writing. He then says, do with this information what you will, and disappears. Somehow you are certain that future will come to pass. Do you keep writing?
I would often see a pained expression on the faces the people I asked. Many were very honest and said they wouldn’t continue writing. I know for a fact I would, because I did. So while I consider the term “successful author” to be a specific definition, I think it’s important not to grade yourself on that, because it is an elusive goal.
WP: What’s your writing process?
SC: I grew up around a forest and used to go walking pretty much every day. I did a lot of daydreaming during those walks. Some of those daydreams would turn into ideas that made it into my professional writing. There’s something about doing physical activity, but routine, that kind of frees your mind to wander. I still go walking late at night to try and think and I carry my phone and make audio notes. I used to scribble on paper, but I can’t read my own writing and I can make a lot more complicated passages if I just talk. I have to walk at night because there are too many distractions during the daylight.
I stumbled across something else when I was a computer programmer and had to travel for training classes. I would go to some hotel in the most boring area of Silicon Valley and I had nothing to do. Stuck in a hotel, staring at the walls, I would write. I wrote an unbelievable amount of material in that dead time between classes. So now I will try and check myself into a hotel for a week when working on an outline. I landed on Las Vegas as one of my go-to cities. You get a five-star hotel for cheap, the city runs 24/7 so you can nap, wander around at 3 in the morning, get some food, go back and write. You can exist on whatever schedule you want. And when you get too burned out from writing or reading, you can go downstairs and be mindless at cards or slot machines or a show.
As for my writing schedule, I write whenever. I don’t believe in setting page or word goals. I think that is counterproductive. I know a lot of people do that. But building novels is like building a house. If you’re really not into it and you force yourself to create some arbitrary amount of material, it won’t be your best. And then you’re going to have to build on that substandard foundation. And then build on it some more. Then your evil twin brother that you wrote in just to get 2,000 words, becomes a major character and is putting people on train tracks and getting amnesia. Rewriting all that later is vastly harder than waiting an extra day until you’re motivated.
WP: Share some modern authors whose work you enjoy and why!
SC: Oh, I’ll have to go through my Amazon queue. I’m just going to rattle some off here. Some of these I read before in paperback and was just getting a digital copy, but all of these were ones I really enjoyed. It’s not in any order.
I’ve gotten a lot pickier in my reading as I’ve gotten older. It used to be that I would finish everything I started. Which meant I would have some books sitting around for ages because it was such a chore to read them. Now, if a book doesn’t click with me, I move on. I buy a lot of books that fit that category. It’s not that they are bad, it’s just not entertaining or inspiring me. Sometimes I don’t even know why I liked a particular work. Recently, I stopped reading one book and started another. At first my rationale for why I didn’t enjoy the first book was because it didn’t speak to me and my life. I couldn’t relate. But then the second book I read had almost exactly the same setup and I completely enjoyed it. Sometimes it’s just the style or tone that doesn’t jive with my sensibilities. But I’m merely one reader in the world.
Thanks so much to Steven for sharing his thoughts and experiences! I’m always interested in hearing from other writers and their perspectives, so feel free to reach out to me via email at email@example.com.