10 September 2009 ~ 8 Comments

Like a Moth to Flame: Jordan Lapp

headshot1-244x300Jordan Lapp is a writer who has won the first prize of the prestigious Writers of the Future (WotF) contest. Only writers very early in their career are eligible: after a few publications you are disqualified. Don’t let the fact that the entrants are mostly unpublished lull you into thinking that winning is easy. Competition is fierce, and winning is a major event which can often act as a launching point for a writer’s career. Past winners have included Nina Kiriki Hoffman, David Wolverton, K.D. Wentworth, Eric Flint, Patrick Rothfuss, J. Kathleen Cheney, and countless others whose careers have all grown in leaps and bounds after winning. Keep your eye out for Jordan.

Besides winning the Writers of the Future contest, Jordan is also the editor of Every Day Fiction, which publishes a new flash fiction story, 1000 words or fewer, every day.

He has also recently attended the Clarion West writer’s workshop, which is an accomplishment in itself.ÂÂ Jordan has blogged about both Clarion West and the Writers of the Future workshop and awards ceremony on his site Without Really Trying.

David Steffen: In your own words, could you tell us a bit about “After the Final Sunset, Again”, your winning story?

Jordan Lapp: Certainly. The central character of “After the Final Sunset, Again” is a creature called the Phoenix, who is a kind of demi-god that exists to further humanity’s goals from the grandest scale right down to the personal level. Every morning a new Phoenix is birthed from the ashes of its predecessor, assembling a personality by copying and internalizing memories from surrounding humans, and is then sent into the world to accomplish specific goals. On this particular day, one of the humans who is “donating” memories dies at the moment of the Phoenix’s conception, thus giving her a sense of her own mortality, something no other Phoenix has ever had to confront. Thus, she eschews her “duties” in favour of finding a way to survive past sunset, thus setting the story in motion.

David: I always like to hear story origins. What triggered the idea for this particular story?

Jordan: Mortality is a recurring theme in my work. I’m fascinated by the tale of the ant and the grasshopper. In the fable, the ant works hard all summer storing away supplies for the winter, while the grasshopper spends the days dancing and playing on his fiddle. When winter arrives, the ant is safe in his home with plenty of food, while the grasshopper is left to starve in the cold. I always ask myself, what if the ant had died at the end of the summer? Would he have envied the grasshopper? In this particular tale, I asked “how exactly can we achieve true immortality”? To answer myself, I created a character with the shortest possible lifespan and had her wrestle with the question.

David: With this huge milestone reached, now what? What are your goals, hopes, dreams?

Jordan: I spoke a lot about this with the judges at Writers of the Future, all of whom are award-winning writers. Universally, their advice was to write a novel. Not a one suggested I keep writing shorts. I’ve now got enough credit to attract some attention, so I should capitalize on it by writing a novel, they said. When people like Rob Sawyer and Dave Wolverton tell you to write a novel, you pretty much have to do it.

David: The last winner, Patrick Lundrigan, submitted 21 times before winning. How many times did you submit before you won? How were your results–had you made semi-finalists and finalist before?

Jordan: My 1st place winner was my 7th entry to the contest. Previously, I had one non-placer, three Honorable Mentions, and two Semi-Finalists. Interestingly enough, KD Wentworth identified the same weakness in both of my Semi-Finalist critiques (unsympathetic protagonist). I worked on this aspect of my craft, and won not long after. I believe my non-placing entry was because I failed to follow one of the unspoken (and unwritten, unless you know where to look) rules of the contest: You must have speculative content on your first page or two.

David: When you dropped this story in the mailbox, could you tell that it was different than your previous entries, or did it feel the same?

Jordan: I actually made myself cry at the end of this story. And I still do every time I read it. This is what we call a Good Sign. I knew it was better than anything I’d written before by a fairly significant margin, but of course, I didn’t have any idea it would place. In fact, when I re-read it after Joni called me to tell me it was a finalist, all I could see were the flaws. Goes to show you that writers are their own worst critics.

David: Has winning opened new doors? Do you get more positive responses on short story submission? Have publishers or agents approached you?

Jordan: Yes and no. “After the Final Sunset, Again” was really a bit of a fluke in terms of story quality. Until recently, I wasn’t sure how to duplicate it. It took a stint at Clarion West to show me where I needed to shore up my craft. I’m only now turning out pieces that I feel equal it in quality.

Attending the workshop has opened more doors for me than the actual story. First, I’m discussing doing a graphic novel with Luke Eidenschink, the illustrator of Matt Rotundo’s story “Gone Black”. When his illustration was revealed, I commented that it was very true to the style you see in graphic novels. He confessed that he wanted to produce one, and he’d written a few stories, but he wasn’t enthusiastic about them. I mused that it would be nice if he could team up with a writer. He asked if I knew any, and the rest is history.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Steve Savile at the workshop, a previous winner. Steve has written 23 novels in the six years since he won, and offered to take a look at our novels once we’d written them. If he likes them, he’s offered to introduce us to a few editors. Many of the other judges made the same offer.

David: At what point in your life did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Jordan: I suppose I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When did I know I wanted to give it a serious go? About four years ago I met Andy LeBlanc, a friend of a friend, and a brilliant writer. At the time, I thought I was good. Andy showed me what good was supposed to be. I’ve spent the last four years trying to equal him. At this point, I still think I have a ways to go.

David: Do you think being the editor of Every Day Fiction gave you insight into how to improve your own writing?

Jordan: Yes and No. Yes, you learn what not to do from stories that you reject in the first paragraph. However, there comes a point where reading slush actually hurts you. For instance, there have been a few ideas that I would have liked to develop that I’ve shelved because I’ve seen similar work in the slush. If I hadn’t edited EDF, I wouldn’t even have known those stories existed and thus been free to develop those ideas on my own. Also, I’m a strong advocate of learning from writers who are better than you. If you don’t know any, read “Best-Of” Anthologies. As a slush editor, the vast majority of the submitted work is unpublishable, and therefore of little good to my development as a writer.

On the other hand, if you’ve never done it, I recommend reading slush. It shows you how you stack up as a writer, gives you an eye on the competition. It also shows you how common vampire stories really are, and that you should NEVER EVER WRITE ONE. My recommendation is to read slush for a year or two, learn all you can, then leave it behind.

David: Now that you’ve been through both the WotF workshop and the Clarion workshop, how has your writing changed? What’s the most significant difference? Attitude? Skill?

Jordan: I was the first writer ever to win Writers of the Future and THEN attend Clarion West. Usually it works the other way around. At the time, I knew that the Phoenix was a fluke and that there was a definite weakness in my writing, but I didn’t know what it was. Turns out my characterization was weak. “After the Final Sunset, Again” had won because the Phoenix was such a strong character. Since Clarion West, I’ve been turning out stories with very strong characters, and I think my writing has improved dramatically as a result.

David: How did you react when you found out you were a finalist? When you found out you’d won?

Jordan: I was on my honeymoon with my wife when I got Joni Labaqui’s message. I made a beeline for my hotel room and screamed my brains out. Apparently, those rooms aren’t soundproof.

I found out that I won while I was at work an interminable month later. I’d practically gone nuts figuring out my odds of placing (37.5%), and evaluating and re-evaluating my story. When Joni finally phoned, I screamed my brains out. Apparently, my office isn’t soundproof either.

David: You also attended Clarion West in the past month or two, an application-based writer’s workshop. Any advice for getting in?

Jordan: This is a fairly tough question. My application story was my Writers of the Future winning story, so that certainly didn’t hurt my application (though they didn’t know it had won when I submitted it). They also ask for an application essay, but admission is judged solely on the basis of that story.

What they’re looking for are writers that are at a place where they know the basics, but need a small push to send them over the edge. To that end, write a challenging story. Have a unique voice. Have something to say. Fantasy is the perpetually undiscovered country. Blaze a trail into the wilderness and stake a claim.

David: Are there any stories coming up in Every Day Fiction that you’re particularly looking forward to?

Jordan: To be honest, Camille Gooderham Campbell has taken over most of the day-to-day responsibilities at EDF. Between Clarion West and Writers of the Future I’ve been run off my feet with writerly responsibilities. My role has become more promotional. To that end, I’m working on a few ideas that I hope will really boost the magazine’s profile.

David: Is there anything you’d like to see more in the slush pile of Every Day Fiction?

Jordan: Original work. Lord, don’t send us another vampire story. You know, we never get enough genre work, or rather, what we do get is generally of poor quality. I suppose this is because, with the amount of space that must be devoted to setting, writing sympathetic characters becomes an exercise in word management. Because of this, a well-written horror, fantasy, or science fiction piece jumps off the page at us.

David: If you could only give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Jordan: Find writers who are better than you are and learn from them. In person is better, but if you don’t know any and live someplace remote, study Best-Of anthologies. Finish everything you write, send your work out, and never give up.

David: What’s your favorite thing to do that’s not related to writing?

Jordan: Spending time with my wife. I was lucky enough to meet a loving, supportive woman who encourages me to pursue my passions. When I’m not writing, we’re generally bike riding, watching movies, renovating our house, and generally laughing our way through life.

David: If you could meet any fictional character in person, who would it be?

Jordan: I can’t think of a single one. The problem is that if a writer is doing a good job, what they’ve created on the page can never be equaled by a face to face meeting. On the page you have direct access to a character’s innermost thoughts and emotions. After that kind of experience, a direct meeting would feel so limiting.

David: What was the last book you read?

Jordan: I’m halfway through dozens of books, mostly by Clarion West instructors or Writers of the Future judges. Of course, the last book I’ve read–as of this interview–is Writers of the Future XXV itself. To be honest, I’ve read several previous volumes and always found a couple of stories that I flat out wouldn’t have picked to be in the anthology, but that’s not so this time. Of course, I’m probably biased, but this year is the strongest one I’ve read. My prediction is that at least one story will find its way into a Best-Of anthology.

David: Your favorite book?

Jordan: I’ve been reading a lot of shorts these days. Of those, “The Monkey” by Stephen King is the only story I’ve ever read that scared the daylights out of me. It was in the anthology “Dark Descent” edited by David G Hartwell which should be required reading for any writer of short fiction. In terms of novel length works, Lloyd Alexander’s “Taran Wanderer” will always hold a special place in my heart. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Card’s Ender’s Game, and The Scar by China Mieville are all excellent for different reasons.

David: Who is your favorite author?

Jordan: I don’t really have “favourite authors” so much as favourite stories. I suppose the last writer to absolutely blow my mind was Stephen King with his Gunslinger novels. One of the greatest things about the first book in King’s opus was the opening line, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger pursued.” That, perhaps, is the most powerful first line I’ve ever read. The whole novel is contained in that line.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Jordan: Ugh. It was “Public Enemies” starring Johnny Depp. The movie was terrible in terms of both the writing and the cinematography. As far as good movies, it was “Once Upon a Time In the West”. Andy LeBlanc and I are making a study of classic films to see what made them work, and perhaps incorporate those qualities into our own writing. I have a feeling you’ll be seeing Western influences in my upcoming work.

David: What is your favorite movie?

Jordan: I have several favourite movies. The Last Unicorn is amazing because I enjoyed it for the artwork and fantasy elements as a child, and now love it as an adult because of its incredible depth. The book, by Peter S. Beagle is an absolute masterpiece. I also liked TRON (I took up a career as a video game programmer because of this movie), The Prestige, The Sixth Sense, and Watership Downs (though the book is far, far better. Maybe the best ever written in the English language). Generally I love movies that are challenging in terms of theme, or that have excellent kung-fu. I suppose in that Venn Diagram, the Matrix lies squarely in the middle.

David: Do you have any works in progress that you’d like to tell us about?

Jordan: I’m currently adapting my winning Writers of the Future story into a novel (in the outlining stages). I’ve also placed work in the Time in a Bottle Anthology, and recently written the foreword of Michael Ehart’s excellent novel “Tears of Ishtar”. Michael is a good friend and excellent writer of Sword and Sorcery a la Howard or Moorcock, and I was flattered to receive the invitation to write the foreword.

David: Thank you for taking the time for the interview, Jordan. I can’t wait to read the new volume of Writers of the Future.

Also, thank you to Frank Dutkiewicz and Anthony Sullivan for your contributions to this interview.

8 Responses to “Like a Moth to Flame: Jordan Lapp”

  1. Amanda McCarter 10 September 2009 at 9:59 pm Permalink

    Great interview! Thanks for posting guys!

  2. Corbin Maxwell 11 September 2009 at 7:43 pm Permalink

    Correction: it’s, the gunslinger followed.

  3. greggarious 12 September 2009 at 10:57 am Permalink

    Congratulations on winning the Grand Prize.
    This was so interesting. I bought the first issue of the anthology, and all the others since. I’ve submitted stories many times, and been to honorable mention (they used to call it quarter-finals) three times. I’ve pondered on what could move me up to the finals, and the advice you received to create more sympathetic characters could help me too. Characterization seems crucial in winning.
    I’m inspired to submit every quarter now till I win. All the best with your novel.

  4. Jason M. Waltz 14 September 2009 at 4:09 pm Permalink

    Cool interview, Jordan. Thanks for cornering him and getting these answers, David.

  5. Jordan Lapp 14 September 2009 at 4:17 pm Permalink

    Thanks guys!

    Greggarious: The grand prize was actually won by Emery Huang. His story was absolutely exceptional sci-fi. I was one of four 1st place winners for the year.

    You absolutely MUST have sympathetic characters in order to win. Great ideas will only get you so far. If there was only one area I’d suggest to work on, it would be that one.

  6. Heather McDougal 20 November 2009 at 10:05 pm Permalink

    Jordan!! Such an in-depth kinda guy! I just ran across this on Google — nice interview, well done.


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