Princess of Prose: Alethea Kontis

Alethea Kontis
Alethea Kontis

My guest today is New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis. She co-wrote the Dark Hunter Companion with fellow New York Times bestselling author Sherrilyn Kenyon. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple professional publications, such as Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Realms of Fantasy. Not only that, but she’s published a children’s book titled AlphaOops: The Day Z Went First, with a sequel upcoming. Besides her fiction, her essays can be seen at several professional magazines and have been collected in book form, the first volume of which is called Beauty & Dynamite.

Check out her website at http://www.aletheakontis.com

David Steffen: I’m sure you answer this question all the time, but I have to ask: your name is so unique. Is there a story behind it?

Alethea Kontis: “Alethea” is the Greek word for “truth.” As all Greeks know, words have power. My name is as much of a curse as it is a blessing, especially when my grandmother continually reminds me to lie to her friends about my age. (Sorry, Nana!)

My mother discovered the name as the family settled down to watch “Kung-Fu” on March 15, 1973 — my older brother’s 9th birthday. (West is currently a 4th-degree black belt in Taekwondo.) In that particular episode, Jodie Foster played a precocious girl named Alethea Patricia Ingram.

I discovered the details of this event only a few years ago…after I had already been a buyer at Ingram Book Company for over six years. Oh, yes. Words have power, my friend.

David: You’ve written so many essays, and I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve read. They flow so naturally that they’re effortless to read, yet at the same time are very focused on each particular topic. Do essay ideas just slap you across the face, demanding to be written or does it take a more concerted effort? How does essay-writing compare to fiction-writing?

Alethea: I was raised in a family of storytellers. And when I say that, I mean that we put most voice actors and stand-up comedians to shame. You only have as much time as everyone plans on sitting around the dinner table, and you only have the floor for as long as your voice carries over everyone else’s…so whatever you choose to impart to the group, it better be GOOD. Every time I sit down to write an essay, I imagine myself around that table. As long as I have the floor I’ve got to have a great beginning, I’ve got to keep my audience engaged, and I can’t take forever to get to the point.

Someone asked me once if one needed a diverse and interesting background to be a writer. I think everyone has a diverse and interesting background; writers just exploit theirs. Everyone has stories to tell; you step in them like puddles every single day. For whatever reason I seem to have this abnormally remarkable life — these are just the stories I step in.

David: Do you prefer to write by yourself or with another writer (like the Dark Hunter Companion). What sort of unique challenges or benefits arise when working together?

Alethea: The Dark-Hunter Companion is the only collaboration I’ve done to date. Sherri and I had a unique arrangement with the Companion that could have been as much a disaster as it was a triumph. I started out with a stack of novels, a notebook, a glorified outline, and an anticipated word count. I re-read the whole series (many for the 3rd or 4th time), took notes, and then wrote the entire encyclopedia as if I was just another smart-mouthed character in the Dark-Hunter universe. I handed the manuscript over to Sherri, who then pulled out some spoilers, put in some teasers, and altered a few things that could only be altered by She Who Keeps Entire Worlds in her Head.

When I got the manuscript back for copyedits, our writing style blended so perfectly I honestly couldn’t tell where my words left off and hers began. Everyone was pleased with the end result — the fans most of all. It was a fascinating experience.

David: What do you think has been the most significant event to advance your career?

Alethea: My life suddenly flashes before my eyes: My parents telling me I couldn’t major in English. My English teacher telling me no child would want to read my fairy tales. My friend Gail telling me to just write my picture book idea “so you can read it.” Orson Scott Card telling me to just write the novel. Tom Piccirilli taking me to task when he found out I hadn’t submitted a finished manuscript. Kevin J. Anderson slapping me in the face when I denigrated my own writing.

If I had to pick only one event, it would be the Baen dinner in the fall of 2003, where David Drake found out I lived only a couple of miles from Andre Norton and ordered me to go visit her. “She has no idea what she means to this industry,” he told me, and he was right. My correspondence and friendship with Miss Andre is something I’ll treasure forever.

David: What is your favorite thing about writing?

Alethea: Making my mother cry.

When I wrote stories as a kid, making my mother cry was a mark of excellence — I knew then that I had something powerful. My mother was always my first reader and (“get a real job” major aside) my biggest advocate — up to and including calling a particular university and bullying them to accept my application essay despite the fact that I was a few hundred words over the limit. (I was accepted to said particular university, but ultimately could not afford to attend.)

While at Boot Camp in 2003, I called Mom from the campus of UNCG and yelled into the phone, “ORSON SCOTT CARD SAID I’M A GREAT WRITER!!!” I could not have offended her more. There was silence on the other end, and then a very cold, “Alethea, we’ve been telling you that for years. So now you’re going to believe some guy just because he’s some big fat best-seller?” It was then that I officially realized my mother hadn’t actually been spoon-feeding me a load of crap, as most mothers are wont to do.

She forgave me. Six years later, she’s still my first reader. And she still tells me every time I make her cry.

David: Do you have a particular writing process you go through for every story, from story conception to drafting?

Alethea: Because I was raised a storyteller, I’m what they call an “Athena writer” — the stories all but spring fully-formed from my head. I mentally work through my plot points and dialogue and edit as I write. The words need to be in order, and they need to be the right words.

As a result, when writing fiction I average only about 500 words an hour and only a few thousand a day at my most productive. But I rarely go back and rewrite, and my first drafts are very, very clean drafts.

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

Alethea: Do the thing that scares you.

David: What’s the last book you read? Your favorite book? Your favorite author?

The last book I read (all the way through): The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, by Leanna Renee Hieber. (For the record, I loved it.) Favorite book and author — ha! I could no sooner choose a favorite star in the sky.

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Alethea: Last movie I saw: UP. I think I only cried more after seeing Big Fish.

David: I know you’re very active on the convention circuit. What upcoming convention appearances do you have planned?

Alethea: I’ve just finished six weeks of the heaviest schedule I’ve ever had (including Penguicon, Mo*Con, Hypericon, and BEA). The rest of 2009 is fairly light — I’ll be at Necon in July and, of course, Dragon*Con on Labor Day weekend.

David: What do you like best about conventions? Do you suffer from stage fright–if so, how do you get up there in front of all those people?

Alethea: I’m a raging introvert, but I have no problem with stage fright. My Aunt Ernestine (actress Ernestine Mercer) taught me how to say “TA-DA!” when I was a baby — a feat I had turned into a lucrative acting career by he time I was eight. I was on stage all through high school…which trickled down to only helping out on student films in college…and then after I graduated, the hermit took over and I slipped into borderline agoraphobia.

All it took was one panic attack in the grocery store for me to say, “NONE OF THIS NONSENSE, PLEASE!” From that point on, I concentrated on consciously participating in a healthy amount of social activity and pulling myself back out of my shell. I am definitely not the mealy-mouthed frump I was five years ago. Five years from now, people will have to put on sunglasses just to look at me.

David: Any convention stories to share? Strange people you’ve met?

Alethea: Ha! Plenty. There are…um…more than ten in Beauty & Dynamite alone. My very first convention was Dragon*Con in 1996. From the minute I showed up on the front steps, it felt like I had come home. And all those misfits I’ve met? They’re all as close as family now. I love every single one of them. Some of them even dubbed me their Princess, an honor I have accepted with all the appropriate grace and aplomb. I now have a collection of tiaras…but that I blame on Jill Conner Browne.

David: Do you have any newly published stories or soon-to-be-published stories that we should watch out for? If so, what can you tell us about them?

Alethea: This year, keep an eye out for “The Giant and the Unicorn” in Shimmer Magazine’s steampunk Clockwork Jungle issue. I’ve got “The Witch of Black Mountain” coming out in Apex’s Harlan County Horrors anthology and “The God of Last Moments” in Maurice Broaddus’s Mo*Con anthology. I’m also working on a piece for Doug Warrick and Kyle Johnson’s Nick Cave anthology…which I really need to get home and finish. And, as always, keep watching the blog for the next humorous installment in the Adventures of Lee.

David: Any exciting works-in-progress in the pipeline right now? What can you tell us about them? Can you give us any sneak peeks at any of them to pique our interest.

Alethea: I’ve just finished the unabridged, novel version of “Sunday”, my fairytale novelette that appeared in Realms of Fantasy in October 2006. If you’d like a sneak peek, the story is available on the Anthology Builder website.

David: I’m keeping a running “wish list” of guests for interviews. Is
there anyone in the speculative fiction industry you would love to see
interviewed?

Alethea: Ha! I’ve been interviewing folks for the Ingram Genre Chicks column for over five years now, so every time I think of the answer to that question, I just hunt down the prospective victim and interview them. Neil Gaiman? Charles Vess? Anne McCaffrey? Easy-peasy. What I love best are the interviews that surprise me. I go back and re-read Naomi Neale’s (aka Vance Briceland) or Joe Hill’s answers whenever I need a pick-me-up. Heck, Edmund Shubert’s still makes me laugh so hard I cry. I know I’ll never look at penguins the same way again.

Good times.

David: Alethea, thanks for taking the time to answer all my questions. It’s been fun. I’ve been meaning to make it to some cons this year. If I end up making it to Dragon*Con I’ll be sure to look you up on the event list. I would love to meet you in person!

Interesting advice…

<This has previously been printed on my personal blog: http://www.anthonysullivan.net/?p=157>

When I first started this writing thing I often read that it was a lonely craft. So many people wrote about how they felt like no one really wanted them to succeed and that if they did succeed, no one would notice. I thought this was interesting but dispatched it as not my problem. Well it has become my problem. Maybe it’s just me but I feel that more and more, no one around me really cares about my writing. It is frustrating.

Sam Hidaka over at JBU linked to an interesting, albeit old, blog post by Nancy Fulda.

Lately I’ve felt my writing is worse than it was when I started. I’ve noticed boring characters, plot holes and questionable prose more and more frequently, so much so that I’ve been somewhat lax in my eagerness to write. I’ve still knocked out a short story per week but my zeal has been somewhat tarnished. There is no worse feeling than busting your tail to get better at something and finding evidence that you are doing just the opposite.

Nancy seems to think that this is actually a good thing. Read her blog post to learn how she thinks that as we improve at something we may feel like we are getting worse because we are learning to better recognize the mistakes that we make. Nancy has an interesting blog with lots of helpful bits of information and inspiration.

Now I just have to work on recognizing how to fix those mistakes that I can see so readily now.

A Year in Rejections

It was 1 year ago that I sent out my very first submission, my first novel to Tor. And what a year!

1 novel finished before the year started.
19 short stories written to completion within that year.
31 venues received my submissions.
91 rejections on those stories.

Almost to the century mark for rejections. Lately the trend seems slightly more positive–I’ve actually gotten a few “almost” replies, and one that’s being held for consideration for an anthology. I’m hoping that’s a continuing trend and not just a shallow peak. Here’s hoping! Who knows what the next year will bring.

I am a little bit curious what the big 3 digit rejection will be, the big one oh oh!

“Beats” in dialog

Just like “he said”/”she said”, beats can be used to good effect as speaker attributions. A beat is an action or description in the middle of dailog in a story. But both can be used too often, and in the case of beats, beats that are too generic can get old fast.

Unique mannerisms are less likely to get old. nods and smiles have their place, but if someone is nodding/smiling/scowling after every single line, it may be too much. If no one ever has any facial expressions, that’s probably not enough.
Keep in mind, if the dialogue is between just two people, you don’t need an attribution after every line. You can assume that the speakers are alternating, in which case you can have 3 or 4 (short) dialogue paragraphs with no attribution and it can flow very smoothly.

To me, beats serve three main purposes:
1. attribution: lets you know who is saying what.
2. characterization: actions speak louder than words, this can betray a lie, show nervous habits, convey more subtle communication between characters, any number of other things.
3. pacing. A longer beat conveys a longer moment of time between speech.

An example of beats used for pacing:
Alice glared at Tom and slapped the countertop with her hand. “Tell me what you know.”
Tom didn’t look up from the dishwater. “I can’t.”
“You can’t? That’s baloney and you know it. This is important. You could save her life.”
He rinsed a handful of silverware and set it in the drainer with a clatter. “It’s not that simple.”
“What’s not simple?”

Once Alice and Tom start talking, she has no beats because she doesn’t hesitate. As soon as he speaks to her, she has a response. She’s very upset at Tom, and she isn’t pulling her punches.
Tom, on the other hand has beats before both of his lines, and long ones at that. The beats slow down his responses, giving the impression of hesitation without actually saying “he hesitated”. The second beat is longer than the first, implying a longer hesitation. His words make it clear he doesn’t want to talk, and his actions support that by slowing his pace.
In this case the particular actions aren’t even that important. Are clean dishes vital to the story? Probably not. He’s fixating on them, using them to try to delay the conversation.

Also, a related point about point of view. To me, I want to see the story through the eyes of the character using the prose as a lens. What I mean by that is that so many things, down to scene descriptions, and in this case, beats, are opportunities to characterize.
In the case of my example dialogue, whoever is the protagonist notices Tom’s actions in close detail during the argument. Let’s say Alice is the protagonist. She notices when he sets the handful of silverware down because she’s eager to continue the argument and she’s frustrated at his hesitation. If she was just asking how his day was, she might not be scrutinizing every detail of his dishwashing. In that case I might have used different things for beats, something appropriate to the occasion.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

wolverineX-Men Origins: Wolverine was an okay movie. It had its moments, in particular I liked some of the casting choices, but overall it left enough continuity questions and major plot holes that it really just bothered me.

One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie happened in just the first few minutes, where it shows Wolverine and Sabretooth fighting in every American war since the mid-19th century, each of them of course in period uniforms and with grainy photography of each era.

Overall it was okay, but some of the character motivations were thin at best, there were several characters that were clearly only included so they could be part of merchandising later on. That aspect wasn’t as bad as X-Men 3 (thank God) which included dozens of characters that were only on camera for seconds, just long enough to say their name and show their powers.

The movie follows James ( who we know in later movies as Wolverine or Logan) played by Hugh Jackman and his brother Viktor (who later becomes Sabretooth) played by Liev Schreiber. Never mind that Liev Schreiber looks nothing like the Sabretooth of the first X-Men movie. You would think that they could have at least died Liev’s hair the sandy brown color, but apparently that was too much to ask. On the other hand, Liev did make a good Sabretooth, albeit one who didn’t look right. And apparently mutton chops are a genetic trait–their dad had them in the opening scene, and both of them have them as adults also.

Anyway, it follows their lives as brothers, and how Wolverine became Weapon X with the adamantium laced skeleton that makes him nearly indestructible. Together they join a strike force led by William Stryker, who you might remember from X-2. You might also remember Stryker having a southern accent which is oddly absent from this movie. Despite that, I did like the casting choice for Stryker. He had a very smooth convincing voice which is perfect for the character.

The action was good, but there was just too much of it sometimes. A movie about Wolverine has to have lots of action, but he pretty much ended up fighting every character he meets, even if they are on the same side. Granted, this is a tried-and-true comic book tradition, throwing two “good” characters together and making them think they’re enemies for an episode, and then they’re shown to be friends at the end at which point they apologize and unite against the enemy they both came to fight. But just because comic books use that device doesn’t mean that movies should.

I really liked Ryan Reynolds character, but he wasn’t in enough of the movie to make it worthwhile. He had some good wisecracks while he was on screen though. And it was good to see Dominic Monaghan, though his role wasn’t a huge one.

Keep reading if you’ve already seen it or you don’t mind some spoilers

SPOILER ALERT
SPOILER ALERT

But there were some MAJOR problems. First and foremost–the final scenes take place on Three Mile Island, and the action actually ends up causing the meltdown. That’s a bit contrived but not the worst plot device I’ve ever seen. But the thing that bothers me is that NONE of the characters suffer from radiation poisoning whatsoever. Wolverine has some excuse for this, because of his healing factor, perhaps he’s immune to radiation sickness. Stryker, however, is entirely human, he was on the site, and not only does he survive the movie, he’s alive for X-2 that happens maybe twenty years later with no apparent ill side effects. Explain that to me! Did the makers of the movie really not realize that a nuclear meltdown is not a healthy thing to be around.

Another MAJOR problem–they didn’t do their chemical research. At one point in the movie, someone uses a drug to fake a death, to supposedly slow their heartbeat down so it’s unnoticeable. That’s fine, but the drug they used was hydrochlorothiazide, which is not a heart medication, it’s a diuretic. That’s right, all it does is make you pee. (Thanks to my wife the pharmacist for pointing this out). The only way it could affect your heart, and even this is a stretch, is if you peed so much that you lost too many electrolytes and your heart went into arrhythmia, which is not what happened here. Two minutes with Google could have given them a medicine that at least slowed down heart rate–that’s just lazy!

Another big one–the use of adamantium is inconsistent. In X-2 I believe it was an alloy, not a pure metal, and once it hardened it was impossible to melt again. But in this movie Stryker finds it in it’s hardened form and yet is somehow able to use it as if it wasn’t–continuity error! Then Stryker creates a gun that shoots adamantium bullets, and assumes they will be able to puncture Wolverine’s skull–but you need something harder than adamantium if you want to puncture it!!

Another big continuity error–in this movie Stryker has the ability to steal powers from one mutant and give them to another mutant. If he knows how to do this now, he should know how to do it later in his life, but somehow he doesn’t in X-2. He’s the sort of man that would use any weapon in his arsenal whenever he can–I doubt he would have held back in X-2 if he knew how to do it.

When is a Writer a Writer?

This was inspired by a Facebook post where someone said “not everyone who calls themselves a writer is a writer”.

When is a writer a writer?
To write: to form (as words) by inscribing the characters or symbols on a surface.
So whoever puts symbols surfaces is a writer? No. Writing does not make you a writer, or anyone who is literate would be a writer. A person would become a writer when they pay with a check or write a grocery list. That’s writing, not Writing.

When most people speak of a writer, they are speaking of someone who has written something in particular, especially a book. But does one become a writer simply by writing a book? I’ve written a book. Does that make me a writer? It’s sitting in submission at a publisher at the moment. I’ve written more than a dozen short stories, does that make me a writer if none of them are published? What about a writer who’s been too afraid to show his work to any other person? Are they still a writer, or does their fear of rejection take away that title?

Does someone have to like your writing to make you a writer? What if you’ve shown your writing to some people, but none of them have enjoyed it in the slightest. Must we seek a seal of approval to call ourselves writers, or should this writer declare his title regardless if anyone cares for his work?

Are you a writer once published? Most people would agree that people who make their primary income from writing are writers. But what if you’ve published a single short story? What if you’ve been published only at semi-pro markets? Token markets paying a half cent a word? No pay at all? Does that make you any less of a writer? Many of history’s greatest artists were not appreciate in their time, does that mean they only became artists post-mortem? Until then they were just losers with paintbrushes, and somehow became artists as a side effect of decomposition?

When the subject comes up, I tend to call myself an “aspiring writer”. Not because I really think there’s much difference, but because that one word avoids the inevitable and awkward follow-up question: Where can I see your work? But once I publish a short story, is that the time to call myself a writer or do I need a longer bibliography? Perhaps there should be stages of writership, novice, apprentice, journeyman, master, grand master. I could try using these as my writing career develops, but unless these terms go into wide usage, people will just think me a weirdo. Which is fine, I am a weirdo and proud of it, but the terms don’t provide clarity if no one knows what they mean.

Once a writer, always a writer? What if I won a short story contest in grade school and never write again? Does that mean I can always carry the title? If people ask, I can show them the story collection with the byline “David Steffen, age 7”. Does that entitle me to call myself a writer? What of J.D. Salinger, who has not published an original work since 1965? Most people would call him a writer because his wild success of “Catcher in the Rye”, but what if the book had been less successful? What if it had been a single short story? Would he still be considered a writer today?

Many similar questions apply to painters. Monkeys can manipulate paints on a canvas, but does that mean that monkeys are artists? I suspect that painters would be insulted by the idea–no lower species could be capable of art. Yet I’ve seen some abstract art that looks remarkably similar to monkeys fingerpainting. Does that mean that that artist is not an artist because a monkey could do the same?

Cinematic Descriptions

A common trait I’ve noticed in many stories written by many people who’ve never written before (and I wasn’t exempt, I wrote my share of these)–cinematic descriptions. Movies have an advantage in a certain way: you get descriptions for free. In just a moment you can show a scene that would take pages and pages to describe adequately in words. The stories I like the best use the narration as a filter to see through the eyes of the protagonist.

I think the reason many beginners try to write that way is that they want to describe the scene exactly as they see it, to make sure the reader sees exactly what they do. But a reader doesn’t HAVE to see the same things as the writer. Each reader brings a little something of their own when reading the story. It’s sort of like never stepping in the same river twice.

Trying to imitate cinema in prose rarely works very well, IMO. Prose can never imitate cinema well in this respect, and concentrating on this weakens the other aspects that prose can be better at. Cinema allows you to watch amazing events happen, but well-written prose allows you to experience it. Instead of describing every detail of a scene, describe only those details that the protagonist would actually notice. Several birds with one stone that way, characterization and description, as well as pacing. A person walks into a building they’ve never been in before–what do they see? A warrior might note the number of guards and their weapons, their level of alertness, and so on, in order to judge the military preparedness of the castle as a whole. A thief might note the number of windows, count the candlesticks, shadowy corners. An aristocrat would notice the material and cut of other people’s clothing, to judge their relative social worth, might note the furnishings as a measure of status but would be very unlikely to note the servants at all. A peasant who’d never been in a castle at all would be overwhelmed, noting fragments of everything but not quite understanding the relative importance of one versus another. If all of these things were described by the same person, then you 1. probably spent so much time describing it all that the pace has been totally killed. 2. have lost an opportunity at characterization, because describing everything is as bad for differentiating character as describing nothing.

Also, using the amount of description for pacing is a useful tool. A thief running from guards in hot pursuit is going to notice much less than a thief casing a potential target. This might seem obvious, but I’ve critiqued a lot of stories that halt in the middle of an epic battle to describe a scene or describe backstory, so when this happens I picture the character standing in one place and staring into the depths of his memory. Oddly, these stories never end with his reverie being interrupted by a sword through the gut.

Google Precedence–number 5

Just for fun, I did a Google search for my name to see where I rank these days. I’ve now moved up to #5, and even passed up one of my unsavory name-doppelgangers that has thwarted me for a long time–the web page is titled “Is David Steffen and elitist bigot?”

1. President, Biomedical Computing in Texas
2. convicted murderer from a case back in 1983
-I think I can safely say that I am absolved of all guilt in this case–I was less than 2 years old.
3. Generic WhitePages.com search for my name
4. Internet Broadway Database (IBDB)– a fellow who works in marketing
5. Me!
6. Is David Steffen and elitist bigot?

A Dozen Story Ideas a Day: David Farland

Dave Farland
Dave Farland

<This has previously been printed on my personal blog:
http://steffenwolf.blogspot.com/2009/05/interview-with-david-wolverton-aka.html
And also on Fantasy Magazine:
http://www.darkfantasy.org/fantasy/?p=4189>

I’m delighted to introduce David Farland (aka David Wolverton), New York Times bestselling author who has published nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels, including the Runelords series (which I highly recommend). In addition to that, he’s served as the coordinating judge for the Writers of the Future Contest.

You might also know him from his email blog “Daily Kick in the Pants”, through which he gives motivational tips, insights on writing, and helps us see the ins and outs of the writing business from the point of view of a highly successful author.

You can check out his website at http://www.runelords.com/

David, thanks for stopping by.

David Steffen: You always seem to have the answers on how to establish yourself as a successful writer. Was there ever a time when you found yourself ready to hang up the typewriter? How did you handle it and get back on track?

David Farland: I’ve never felt in despair about my career. I love to write, nd I’ve always thought that if there was anything else in the world that I wanted to do, I’d just do it, too. For example, when I was young I went to school to study medicine. I thought that it would be fun to be a genetic researcher or a pediatric physician, then write my novels on the side. Unfortunately, I would have needed an endowment of stamina to do it. (For those of you who have read The Runelords, you’ll get the joke!)

Seriously though, I did go through a fit of depression a few years ago, and went through my “midlife crisis.” I found out that Prozac doesn’t help most men, but Welbutrin does.

David Steffen: You’ve given aspiring writers endless tips to help get their careers started. If you could only give a single piece of advice, what would it be?

David Farland: Be persistent. It’s your career. If you really want to be a writer, make time to practice, to hone your craft, and just do it.

David Steffen: Where do your story ideas come from? Do you see stories everywhere you look and you just have to pluck the ones that appeal the most? Or do you have to sit down and actively say “I’m going to think of something new to write today”?

David Farland: Ideas come to those who look for them sometimes, but other times they just hit you. A twist of a phrase, a powerful image, a news story, an insight from a child–anything can set you off. I have at least a dozen story ideas per day, I suppose. I can’t write even a hundredth of them. So I just siphon.

Yet even with all of that, I find that I sometimes have to go searching for good ideas to fit a particular story. In short, you never get to rest.

David Steffen: In particular, what was the first idea that came to you for the Runelords series? A character? An idea for the magic system? The world itself?

David Farland: With the Runelords, I knew that I just wanted to write a big fantasy at first. I wanted my series to appeal to medieval fantasy readers–the Tolkien crowd–but I also wanted it to be different from any other story. So I had a basic idea for the world. I knew that it was going to be medieval, and that it would have plenty of large animals and monsters. In short, it is covered with megafauna, much as the United States was twelve thousand years ago when dozens of breeds of mammoths and mastodons roamed here, along with cave bears and sabertooths and dire wolves and all of those other cool animals. So I knew that I wanted to make my world similar to other fantasy worlds, but there are no glorious elves in it, no dwarves or orcs. I wanted my own creatures.

But what really set me off was the magic system. I wanted to create a new kind of magic for my world, and I knew that it had to be different and mind-blowing. I spent months looking at various magic systems used throughout history, and then one day the whole concept of wizards drawing attributes from vassals–glamour, brawn, wit, grace, sight, hearing, etc.–just literally seemed to fall right out of the sky.

David Steffen: I find the endowment system in the Runelords series particularly interesting, where a donor or “Dedicate” can permanently grant an attribute to a recipient or “Runelord”, and that link lasts as long as they both live. Where did the idea for this system come from?

David Farland: Well, when I was researching magic systems, I knew that I wanted to write about one that had something of an economic base. There needed to be a price for the magic.

But you know, you can’t really tell where these things come from. I mean, I didn’t base it upon anything that I’ve seen. I pondered dozens of magic systems, and then one day it hit me. I think that I might have had an inkling of it when I was watching a show where a calf got branded. My mind went, “You know, they used to brand slaves like that, too.” And I thought at the time, I wonder if it would be interesting to write a fantasy novel where people got branded as part of a magic system.”

It was just a fleeting thought. I was in Scotland a few months later, traveling down a road past Innessfree, when a friend asked, “Could you imagine what this must have looked like 2000 years ago?” I recall reading from a Roman historian who complained that on one night, some 40 men were dragged from their beds and eaten by wolves. He said, “The only thing worse than the wolves are the wild Scotsmen themselves!” I was thinking about that, and suddenly my subconscious said, “Hey, I’ve got your magic system!” and the whole complex system–along with the first novel in the series–just popped into my head at once.

David Steffen: Do you have any guesses who the next big up-and-coming big name writers will be, from your recreational reading and from your role judging stories for the Writers of the Future contest?

David Farland: Well, in fantasy it will be Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss. I know some excellent new writers who are coming along, but they’ll have to get their books written and sold first.

David Steffen: What was the last book you read? Your favorite book? Your favorite author?

David Farland: I just listed my two favorite new authors. I don’t want to choose between them, since I like them both. I know I should have done it years ago, but I’m reading Eragon right now. My favorite living author right now is still Orson Scott Card, overall.

David Steffen: How about the last movie you saw? Your favorite movie?

David Farland: I saw the latest Terminator last night, but it wasn’t nearly as good as Star Trek. I need to go see Angels and Demons this week. There are a lot of good movies coming out this summer.

David Steffen: How did your writing career get started?

David Farland: Actually, I began writing heavily in college, and my career took off after I started winning writing contests. I entered my first short story in a little contest and won third place. When I was done, I thought, “Wow, I spent ten hours on this story, and I won $50. That’s $5 an hour. Maybe if I worked a little harder, I could win first place in a contest.”

So I spent some time thinking about how to win writing contests, and then wrote several short stories. I entered six different contests, and won first place in each of them, including the Writers of The Future. When we went to New York for the awards ceremony, a number of the judges had already gushed to various editors about how good I was (Thank you Robert Silverberg, Orson Scott Card, Algis Budrys, and Roger Zelazny). Half a dozen editors approached me, asking if I was interested in submitting novels. Not only was I interested, I’d packed a novel proposal in my suitcase! Within a week, I had a three-novel contract with Bantam Books.

David Steffen: What was the single most significant step you took to advance your career?

David Farland: You know, I realized after I’d written my second book that my real last name, Wolverton, always put my books on the bottom shelf at the end of the rack. That was terrible placement. So I decided to begin writing under a pseudonym. That was tough to do, given that I was hitting at the top of the bestseller lists for science fiction. But when I moved to fantasy, my publisher allowed me to do it. I think it was a smart move.

David Steffen: What convention appearances do you have planned?

David Farland: I’m trying to decide whether to go to DragonCon in August. I believe I’ll be at World Fantasy Con in San Diego in October, and then I’ll probably go to Life, the Universe, and Everything at Brigham Young University in February.

David Steffen: What’s your next publication that we should watch out for?

David Farland: My next novels are Freaky Fly Day, Book three of my Ravenspell series, which comes out in September from Covenant Books. I also have a historical fiction novel that deals with the Willie Handcart Company, in which Mormon pioneers crossed the prairie in 1856, facing tremendous hardships. Here’s a link for that one: http://davidfarland.zenfront.com/books/in-the-company-of-angels.html. I also have the eighth book in the Runelords series coming out in October, called Berserker Lord. You can see the cover in the art section at www.runelords.com, and you can order a signed/numbered copy of the book by emailing davidfarland@xmission.com.

David Steffen: What are you currently working on? Can you give us a sneak peek?

David Farland: Yes, I’m actually reading galleys for Berserker Lord, and you can read the first couple of chapters on www.runelords.com. I’m going to put up a new feature on my site that I’m thinking about calling “Over my shoulder,” where you will be able to read what I’ve written recently, and I’ll explain why I made the choices that I’ve made.

David Steffen: How did you react to rejections when you started writing? How has that changed over the years?

David Farland: My reaction has always been the same. I try to figure out why I got rejected, and then I rewrite and try harder!

David Steffen: Do you tend to write in a certain environment? For instance, some people say they write better with particular kinds of music, or can only write if they have an hour or more of uninterrupted time, or like me, they tend to do their best in the morning just after they get up.

David Farland: I find that I do my best writing in the morning. It’s important to be comfortable, so I write with a laptop while sitting in an easy chair. I tend to like it to be perfectly quiet, but sometimes I write with music playing softly–instrumental soundtracks from movies like Lord of the Rings, or possibly some classical music. To tell the truth, that’s always difficult. I like to rock out.

But I write best if I have long blocks of time to focus. For that reason, I usually take writing retreats a couple of times a year. I like going to Mexico, but with all of the problems there lately, I’m thinking about heading off to Alaska in a couple of weeks.

David Steffen: David, thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this interview. Now I need to catch up reading on the rest of the Runelords series so that I can be ready for the new release.

Also, thanks to everyone who assisted me in the interview process, including A.W. Sullivan, Jordan Lapp, and Joey Jordan.

What Lies in Wait Beyond the Next Branch

Just some philosophical musing today at the approach of an important anniversary.
One week from tomorrow (June 5th) is the 1 year anniversary of my very first story submission dropped in a mailbox. It’s also my 5th wedding anniversary, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.

I started writing fiction in 2007, and jumped right in, diving head first into writing a novel with no prior experience writing fiction, no critique group and rare feedback from anyone. I finished a rough draft of that novel last year. Over that whole year I hadn’t even considered writing short stories. If you want to make it big, I reasoned, you’ve got to aim high. Book royalties, that’s the key. Once I finished writing the entire book, I polished the first 3 chapters to the best shine I knew how, wrote a synopsis for them and dropped them in the mailbox addressed to Tor. Their website at the time estimated 4-6 months for reply to slush, so I figured I had time to polish some more chapters before I had any chance of hearing back from them. I figured most places will take at least as long as the time estimate they give you. Right? Wrong!

I had their rejection in my mailbox 12 days later, a grainy photocopy of a form letter: “Dear Submitter”, “signed, the editors”. Now what should I do, I thought. Not that many places even take submissions of just 3 chapters + synopsis. Many places require you to work through an agent. Many others require an entire manuscript. I found another publisher that would take 3 + synopsis, Elder Signs Press, and sent it off to them. Once that was out the door I decided I needed a change in tactic.

Since novels take such an ungodly amount of time to write, and since so few publishers will take 3 chapter submissions, I decided I’d better get writing something shorter. So I wrote up my first short story, originally titled The Long-sought Purpose of the Divining Man. It was filled with almost constant exclamation points and semi-colons as I’d had a secret love for these punctuations. It was very long and had all kinds of problems, but of course I thought it was great.

I made my very first story post to Baen’s Bar, the critiquing forum associated with Jim Baen’s Universe. It took me quite a while to work up the courage. What if someone steals my work? What if someone rips my story apart? But I sucked it up, because quite frankly, their money was among the best pay in the short story biz. And of course, the good Barflies there told me what they really thought of it, pointing out all the problems that they could find. “Wow, this is harder than I thought”, I said, but at the same time was delighted to get prompt and knowledgeable feedback not only from fellow writers who were more experienced than I, but from the slush readers Edith Maor, Gary Cuba, and Sam Hidaka.

I’ve used Baen’s Bar both to give and receive critiques since then and have yet to see its equal. The critiques I’ve received there have helped me grow as a writer much more quickly than dogging through it on my own. In the year since I started writing shorts I’ve learned 10 times what I learned the year before trying on my own.

I also found other useful writing forums like the Writers of the Future forum (where I met Anthony Sullivan among others), and Hatrack River forum where I began wonderful friendships, discussed the ins and outs of writing and of the publishing business, and just had a great time.

More recently I’ve started grabbing writer friends on Facebook, which has been fun. Many of them give frequent updates about tour dates, publications, and you can just interact with them for fun too. It’s been awesome. Before you start talking to these people it’s easy to put them up on a pedestal and think of them as some sort of strange otherworldly being that can pull prose out of their ears unbidden, but they’re folks just like you and me (albeit talented ones).

Anyhoo, I sent that ESP novel submission out over 300 days ago now, and have queried at 6 and 9 months without even an acknowledgment in return. How different would my writing career be nowadays if I had sent that first manuscript off to ESP instead of Tor. I probably would never have started writing short stories, so I wouldn’t have come across critique forums like Baen’s Bar. I never would’ve made the awesome friends I’ve made, and I would be left slogging through the revisions of that novel (or ones of a second novel) with little or no feedback to help me understand what works in stories and what doesn’t. ALL it would’ve taken would have been a different address on that one envelope, and this would be so different.

I’m glad I addressed that first envelope to Tor, it set me on the path I’ve traveled to be where I am today.

Now I just need to get back to revising that novel! Such a daunting task now that I have a pretty good idea what I like and don’t like about different stories!