Tag Archives: Wes Platt

[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] The Boy in Brown #amwriting #storytelling

The result of my sixth #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Enigmatic, Entropymanor, and comics creator David Napier. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about 20 minutes:

The discombobulated devil chicken staggered across the damp cobblestone street, and the boy in brown followed.

“Come back, chick-chick!” the child called after his clucking quarry, his reddish-blonde curls wet from the now-misting rain. He waved the iron skillet over his head. “Let me hit you some more!”

“Fenrin!” The shriek came from above and to the right, where two shutters clattered open and a broad-faced woman stared down, red-cheeked, at the child. “Drop that skillet at once and leave the poor rooster alone.”

The boy hesitated, watched in frustration as the ruffled bird disappeared around the corner toward the Mercantik Bloc. “Awww,” he grumbled.

“Whose skillet is that, anyway?” His mother asked, eyes narrowing.

“I found it,” he said, not looking up.

“There you are!” Old Jasper Boots, wiry silver hair puffing around his mostly bald head, limped onto the Trade Road from Sway Alley. He waved a knotted oak cane at Fenrin, demanding: “Give that skillet back to me right this very moment, you conniving sneak-thief!”

The woman in the window gawked and snapped: “You watch what you call my boy, you rotten drunk!”

Boots stopped to poke his cane in the direction of the window. “Get a good man to raise that silly-haired mutt of yours, Gillen Monstep, maybe I wouldn’t have to call him anything!”

Her eyes widened. She ducked out of view.

“Better run,” Fenrin advised. He knew that look well enough.

“Skillet, boy,” the old man urged.

“You’ll be sorry,” the child warned him. Again. He knew perfectly well why his mother had such a difficult time with relationships. She often ended them. Violently. Something he expected a wise old crack like Jasper Boots to know too.

But wisdom didn’t always amount to intelligence. The old man was still standing on the street, shaking his cane at the boy, when the kitchen knife slammed into his right shoulder.

He stumbled backward, a baffled look on his face as he gingerly tapped the hilt of the knife jutting out. His mouth fell open, then he looked up at the window to see Gillen Monstep holding two more knives just like it – one in each hand.

“Next one goes in the other shoulder,” she said calmly. “After that, I give your other leg a limp.”

“Lunatic woman,” Boots whined.

“I told you to run,” Fenrin said, raising the skillet over his head. “But now I want you to stay right where you are.” He took a step toward the old man.

Jasper Boots turned and limped away as quickly as he could. The boy ran after, shouting, “Come back, chick-chick!”

“My boy,” Gillen said with a smile, setting down the knives and closing the shutters.

[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] Night at Remembrigans #amwriting #storytelling

The result of my fifth #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Colchek, Enigmatic, Lamia, and Azureus. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour and a half:

“Breadsticks?” the harpy asked, sliding the wicker basket across the table toward the dumbstruck treant, who stared in horror at the basket.

“Cannibalism,” he rasped.

“I ordered the chicken,” the winged woman with the beak-like nose snarled. “Do you see me whining?”

They sat in a dimly lit corner booth in Remembrigans, which most people agreed was nothing more than a front for the Pineapple Upside Down Mob, but likewise didn’t care as long as the lolo wine kept flowing and Fiffen the Were-Chef served nightmare cuisine.

The treant, who called himself Birch, grunted in disgust as he pulled a brown twist of dough from the basket, dipped it in some kind of black gravy that looked like the ichor of a dying Soul Spider, and gnawed on it with bark teeth.

The harpy, who called herself Shrewd, crouched on the cushion of the booth, clutching the end with the talons of her feet. She smiled as Birch started eating, but kept one hand on the holstered slugthrower and the other on the hilt of a throwing knife. Her amber eyes took in the crowd, scanning for threats.

Birch followed her gaze. “No one knows. You worry too much.”

Of course, like always, he was wrong. First, he saw Soup sidle in through the North Arch, his wet, leathery flippers equipped with neutralizer pistols. Then his own cousin, Salad, whose canopy of green had gone more orange and brown in recent years. The treant with the crossbow lurched in through the South Arch, knocking aside a grumpy-looking Nar-lamb. The Nar-lamb turned with his mouth open, ready to bleat a few choice curses, but ceased and whinnied apologies instead.

FInally, through the double doors of the East Arch, the oozing slug in charge of the Pineapple Upside-Down Mob slithered in and brought the music, amiable chatter, and high-stakes bargaining to an absolute standstill.

“Shrewd!” Fudge Pop roared as the crowd parted before him. “You’ve crossed me for the last time!”

The harpy drew her knife and pistol. Birch fumbled for the fighting staff slung over his shoulder.

Shrewd assured Fudge Pop: “Don’t know what you’re talking about. You got your money.”

“Fudge Pop don’t take croats,” Soup burbled through his gills as he aimed his neutralizers at the harpy and her treant companion.

“Yeah,” Salad rumbled over the sight of his crossbow at the pair. “Who does that?”

“Right,” the mob boss said, pointing a slime-dripped digit across the room at Shrewd. “Those coins might’ve been worth something on Earth in the 11th Century, but they’re just ballast here in the Bleak.”

“Croats?” The harpy shrieked as she scowled at Birch. “You paid them in those old metal shavings? You idiot!”

He opened his mouth to protest, but never got a word out before the blast from her pistol punched through his trunk above his eyes and into the pulp of his thinkbud. He sagged back in the booth. A hundred people in the pub raised their mugs and shouted “Timber!” in unison.

Fudge Pop eyed Shrewd with understandable suspicion. Salad, on the other hand, seemed ready to fire a few bolts into her chest. “Not just yet,” the slug insisted. “I want my payment.”

Shrewd nodded at the red Coleman cooler on the booth next to Birch’s corpse, which was already losing leaves and peeling bark. “It’s all there.”

Soup flapped his floor fins back and forth until he arrived at the booth. He used his bottlenose snout to nudge open the cooler. He peered inside. Looked toward Fudge Pop. Gave a series of squeals and squeaks, then said: “Nice-looking blueberries.”

“Picked them myself,” the harpy assured him. “Birch whined about it the whole time, called it an atrocity and a war crime.”

Salad lowered the crossbow, but said: “He wasn’t wrong. Those are…”

“Delicious,” Fudge Pop replied, glowering at Salad. “Those little blue children are a tasty treat, so rare in the Bleak. Don’t you agree?” He glanced toward the rotting treant with half a breadstick dangling from its mouth. Salad said nothing more.

Soup closed the cooler and collected it under one fin.

“All good?” Shrewd asked the mob boss.

“For now,” the slug said.

[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] Two Ledges #amwriting #storytelling

The result of my fourth #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Craig Pittman, Colchek, and Gareth Harmer. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour and a half:

The Herbert drifted above the dark forest of thick green grass stalks, a fat red ocarina of metal and ceramic bristling with guns under a cloud-scudded blue sky.

But the only music this vessel played was a fusillade of death and destruction, raking the Weedlands below. One volley exploded scant yards away from Rachard, his face scarred years ago by his first encounter with one of the thousand other Skybellies in the Greater Fleet. Shrapnel tore a hole through his gray Greatest Infantry uniform sleeve, but left him unhurt as he rolled down a ridge, through a rain-swollen gulley, over a cliff.

He landed on his side on a ledge about ten feet down the chasm. Lost his grip on his gunny sack, which tumbled into the shadows below. He heard it thump, peered into the dimness, thought he saw it on another ledge some twenty feet farther down.

He’d climb back up with his rope and hook, but those were in the pack. He’d radio Copse 227 for a gyro, but the transmitter was in the pack.

So now all he could do was wait and pray for help.

***

“Got a gray whale incoming,” reported the sensors officer on the bridge of the Herbert.

Commander Toltec smoothed the front of his crimson Greater Fleet uniform jacket and gave a curt nod before turning his attention to the viewport. Another Skybelly, plump and gray and lethal as the Herbert, sweeping in from the northwest.

“Redirect cannons,” Toltec ordered the weapons officer.

“All of them?” First Officer Clemeni sounded indignant as she rose from her station and turned to stare at the commander.

She’d only been his second-in-command for three weeks, replacing Immons, who had died in a mortar blast from the Sacama at the Battle Over Sandfall Watch.

Toltec didn’t appreciate her penchant for insinuating his incompetence. He had shown patience the times it happened at Night’s Rise and the Bloody Knife Hills. He could brook no more, he thought, lest he risk a loss of confidence among the rest of the crew.

“Identify that Skybelly,” Toltec demanded of the sensors officer, keeping his eyes on Clemeni.

The answer didn’t surprise him in the least: “The Sacama, sir.”

“The Sacama,” Toltec repeated. He glowered at Clemeni. “Redirect ALL cannons,” he told the weapons officer. Then, to his first officer, he said: “The insects in the Weedlands are of no concern with a true threat like the Sacama looming. Question my orders again and we’ll see how well you can fly.”

But Clemeni wouldn’t let it drop. “With all due respect, Commander, the Grays on the ground should be given no quarter. The Sacama could be part of a diversion. You’re playing right into their trap.” She took a step closer to Toltec, adding, “I’m not suggesting that we focus all our weapons on the Weedlands, but perhaps devote only half our cannons to the Sacama?”

The enemy whale grew larger in the viewport as the Sacama and Herbert closed distance between each other.

“They’ll be in range in thirty seconds,” the weapons officer announced.

“I won’t have it,” Toltec seethed between clenched teeth, staring at Clemeni. He told the weapons officer: “Lock all cannons on the Sacama and fire at will while nav takes us on a Peregrine Loop. Engage!”

The Sacama had other plans, it seemed, slowly breaking away in a broad arc in an apparent effort to evade any oncoming salvos from the Herbert. Bright sunlight flashed off the gray ceramic coating the metal of the enemy vessel’s hull as she angled back to the north.

An alert klaxon wailed just before the sensors officer reported: “Missile fire from the Weedlands, south and southwest.”

Toltec’s stomach sank. “How many?”

“All of them, I think,” the sensors officer replied. “One hundred and fifty.”

The weapons officer called out: “Deploying countermeasures!”

“Oh, excellent,” the sensors officer said. “Down to one hundred and twenty.”

“Time to impact?” Toltec asked. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Clemeni now, but he could feel her eyes on him. She’d been right. Now his pride may have doomed them all.

“Eight seconds to impact.”

***

Rachard watched at first in awe and then in abject horror as the Herbert struggled and failed to avoid dozens of incoming missiles as they homed in on the blood-red Skybelly, burst through the hull, and shattered the craft into so much flaming junk.

Flaming junk that suddenly plunged toward the Weedlands.

“Sha-sha.” He gasped the vulgarity with the reverence of a prayer as he hunkered down, hands over his head, head between his knees, eyes closed, waiting for death to come.

Something heavy struck him, he smelled wet canvas and fuel fumes, and then darkness came.

***

Maybe, Alenna Clemeni thought as she awoke on her back on a rocky ledge, I could’ve handled that better.

The Weedlands on either side of the gorge blazed with the last vengeance of the dying Herbert.

Maybe she should’ve asked Commander Toltec for a private audience instead of calling him out in front of the bridge crew. Maybe she should’ve drawn her service weapon and shot him in the head, saving all the worthwhile lives.

And maybe he could’ve listened to her. Maybe he could’ve given his ego a back seat to common sense. The war, going on seven years now, held few surprises for the combatants. Numerous Skybellies before the Herbert, both the red and the gray, had fallen for the same trick.

Eventually, the Sacama‘s commander might have a bad day and meet a similar fate.

She felt a fierce pain in her left leg. Broken in the landing, no doubt. Her bag, which she’d managed to snatch in the few seconds before the Herbert blew apart, should hold a splint kit.

Her fingers crept along the surface of the ledge until they touched canvas. She found the strap and tugged the sack onto her stomach.

It was gray and bore the double boot logo of the Greatest Infantry.

***

“Are you gramand kidding me?!” A woman’s voice, shouting from somewhere below Rachard’s ledge.

He wasn’t dead.

And now he wasn’t alone.

And he was wearing a hat? No. Not a hat. A sack. He rolled aside, clutching the strap, and worked his way into a seated position against the cliff wall. He looked down at the red canvas sack with the winged logo of the Greater Fleet.

Rachard leaned over the edge to look down at his companion in peril. He shouted: “Got your bag! Seems you’ve got mine, eh? Neat trick. Tell me there’s not a God, now, bloody red heathen!”

“If she exists,” the woman below snapped back, “she’s an ironclad bitch to do this!”

He tried to ignore the obvious blasphemy, instead venturing: “Well, he does not suffer from a lack of irony, to be sure.”

***

She opened the gray sack and dumped the contents on the rough stone of the ledge. Some ration packets, a canteen, a coil of rope and a hook, a transmitter encrypted for the infantryman’s biometrics, and seven gold-foil framed holy icons.

“Maybe I can pray to the magic sky ghost to fly me out of this hole,” she mused bitterly.

***

Rachard rummaged through the Greater woman’s bag, carefully setting each item next to him as he proceeded: a canteen, a splint kit, a handful of ration packs, a transmitter attuned to the fleeter’s biometrics, and six bottles of painkiller pills – perhaps intended for an unholy suicide ritual mandated by the heathen commanders to avoid capture.

“Who doesn’t pack rope?” the soldier groused.

***

“Throw my radio up,” the man on the higher ledge urged Clemeni. “Cushion it with ration packs, tie the rope to it, and throw. Easy, right?”

Right, she thought. Give up my food and the rope. Give him a means of reaching the enemy commanders so they could rescue him and either kill or imprison her.

“Drop my radio to me,” she countered. “Much less trouble.”

***

Given the glorious promise of Heaven or imminent threat of burning Hell, Rachard would never surrender that radio into the hands of an enemy who would see his people exterminated.

Just a few minutes ago, after all, she’d been aboard the notorious Greater Skybelly Herbert, gazing down at the Weedlands in atheistic condescension, blithely scorching the world with cannon fire.

“Stalemate, I suppose,” he said, with a weary sigh.

***

Clemeni grunted at the zealot’s foolishness, the sort of blind, stubborn devotion that justified their subjugation.

It always baffled her that people like him could put all their faith in a mystical, unknowable sky ghost, while proving so reluctant to bow under the undeniably real blistering onslaught of the Greater Fleet. She didn’t begrudge the soldier’s beliefs, really. She just hated the haughty insistence that it somehow made his people better than hers and gave him some grander destiny.

She knew better. Her father once told her a truth that she carried with her to this day. He’d beaten Clemeni’s mother for the last time after Mom accidentally burned the Givna warbler. The lawkeepers had arrested him once, but it hadn’t been enough. So she, at age thirteen, had gutted him with a meat fork.

As he lay dying, he muttered: “Little by little…we all become monsters.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked the man on the ledge above. “Pray your way out of this?”

***

Rachard felt sorry for the woman. And that reaction surprised him. The godly commanders of the Greatest Army had taught the troops to fear and despise the faceless heathens arrayed against them by the Prince of Darkness. He should quietly condemn her to the waiting Abyss and turn his thoughts inward to contemplation and meditation.

But now, even in a situation where they must depend on each other for a chance at survival, she belittled his faith in an obvious attempt to make her feel better about the grim situation.

“You’re not helping,” he said. “But, to your point, at the very least, prayer would not *hurt*. My name’s Rachard Limn, by the way.”

“Oh, I don’t give a gramand’s shit who you are,” the Fleeter snarled. “I just want to get the muck out of this chasm and back to my people.”

At that moment, a pair of gyrocopters whirred into view from the north and south over the conflagration caused by the Herbert‘s demise. One of the spindly vessels bore the gray colors of the Greatest military, while the other was a soot-smeared red of the Greaters.

“I suppose God answers prayers of all kinds,” Rachard muttered.

[OTHERVIEW Q&A] Steven Campbell

Steven Campbell first came up with the idea of Hard Luck Hank in the 1990s as a pitch for articles in a fishing magazine. Now Hank’s the star of Campbell’s series of comedic pulp sci-fi stories. Campbell recently took the time to answer some questions:

Steven Campbell

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 jointhesaga@gmail.com.