Interview: James Patrick Kelly

interview by Carl Slaughter

jim_kelly_thumbSuccessful science fiction author and prolific workshop instructor James Patrick Kelly talks about his passion for mentoring new writers.

(BTW: JPK is an avid user of the Submissions Grinder, a new feature here at Diabolical Plots.)

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT GOT YOU INTO WORKSHOPPING AND WHY HAVE YOU STAYED WITH IT?

James Patrick Kelly: I think the thing that spooks most beginning writers is the lack of input. Or maybe we should call it “on the job training.” We lock ourselves in a closet and try to build worlds out of the thin air. How do successful people do it? More important, how do we do it? Alas, reading craft books about writing is like reading books about how to make love.

Workshopping is a way to measure your progress toward getting it right. You find out immediately what very smart readers have gleaned from what you wrote. The flaws you spot in other writers’ work are often the very same flaws that will distract from yours. Oh, and if you think that eventually you might not need workshops because you’ve learned everything they have to teach †well, good luck to you. I still attend workshops and probably will until my fingers curl up and fall off.

I was going to adult education workshops in the Boston area when I first started sending stuff out. Then I went to Clarion. After Clarion I was so converted to the workshop method that I joined a workshop by mail. I would send a story out to the list and maybe six weeks later it would come back with comments. Later, I was thrilled to be asked to the final incarnation of Damon Knight’s Milford Workshop, then run by Ed Bryant. I went to the original Sycamore Hill workshop and many thereafter. I plan this year to go to Walter Jon William’s Rio Hondo workshop. Oh, and I’ve now taught at both Clarion and Clarion West , the Odyssey workshop, Viable Paradise, and the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA program. And I attend a bi-monthly local workshop, the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop.

Do I believe in the efficacy of workshops? Duh!

 

WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS WRITERS HAVE ABOUT HOW TO CRAFT A MARKETABLE STORY AND HOW DO YOU HELP THEM OVERCOME THOSE MISCONCEPTIONS?

The most common misconception is that of the editor as a fierce gatekeeper eager to turn away all newbies. The exact opposite is the case. Editors are in competition to discover new talent. Being the first to publish someone who goes on to have a long career is, and always has been, one of the badges of honor in the editorial community. I wrote a couple of columns that touched on this for Asimov’s: Part One and Part Two.

Where newbies go wrong, in general, is that they have failed to read their manuscript as an editor would. For example, they are not familiar with what the editor has already published and will send her something very much like the cover story of the March issue, or else they will merely file the serial numbers off the best seller that she published in 2012 and submit a generic rehash. All too often they will not read their manuscript with the care that an editor who is pondering a buy decision would. Are there typos? Are there obvious grammar mistakes? Does the first sentence/paragraph invite the reader into the story?

Having read slush, I will tell you that it is all too easy to make the decision to buy or reject having read just the first page of 80% of submissions.

 

WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON MANUSCRIPT MISTAKES WRITERS MAKE AND HOW DO YOU HELP THEM RECOGNIZE AND AVOID THOSE MISTAKES?

God, where to start? There are so many ways to go wrong, which is why this is a tough profession. Let me just give two:

Over/underpopulation. This depends on the length of the story, obviously, but if there is really only one character in your story, even if she is remembering other characters, then you probably suffer from underpopulation. Conversely, say you are writing a war story, or a family saga and you are going to mention eleven characters by name in a 5000 word story, then you are overburdening the reader and ought to consider culling the herd. Have you ever heard of the three character rule? A story should have three characters: two in some sort of relationship and one who disrupts that relationship.

Slow start, abrupt ending: If you can start with a line of dialogue, do. Nothing puts editors off faster than a writer who spends the first page clearing her throat with weather reports, lyrical nature writing or infodumps about backstory. Conversely, learn the difference between climax and denouement. Too many writers end the plot but fail to adequately end the story.

 

WHAT’S THE RIGHT WAY AND WRONG WAY TO MENTOR WRITERS?

You should really ask my students this. I tend to be blunt but supportive. I see writers who are at various stops on the road to success. Those near the start get more general (and gentle) comments. Those who are close but are clinging to some dysfunctional plot point or character interaction get more specific criticism.

I can be very persuasive when I get into my plot doctoring mode. It’s easy for me to say rewrite the ending, change the point of view or lose the grandma. But I try to remind my students that I am reading according to my own tastes and prejudices. There are many, many popular writers (and styles of writing) that I have no use for. And I don’t need anyone writing James Patrick Kelly stories , that’s my job. So I make the point that I’m not an editor, unless I am. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve urged my workshop colleagues and students to send stories to this editor or that, only to find out that they got rejected.

 

TIPS SPECIFICALLY FOR ASPIRING WRITERS?

Umm †Get into a workshop? Read the stories/novels bought by the editors you want to sell to? Send stuff out? Don’t give up?

And it’s never too soon to start thinking about your Hugo acceptance speech.

 

Carl_eagle

Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

 

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

 

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.

 

Jeanne Cavelos and the Odyssey Workshop

interview by Carl Slaughter

student_interaction1 Jeanne Cavelos is a writer, editor, scientist, and teacher. Her love of science fiction led her to earn her MFA in creative writing. She moved into a career in publishing, becoming a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she created and launched the Abyss imprint of innovative horror and the Cutting Edge imprint of noir literary fiction. She also ran the science fiction/fantasy publishing program. In addition, she edited a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. In her eight years in New York publishing, she edited numerous award-winning and best-selling authors and gained a reputation for discovering and nurturing new writers. Jeanne won the World Fantasy Award for her editing.

Jeanne has had seven books published by major publishers. Her last novel to hit the stores was Invoking Darkness, the third volume in her best-selling trilogy The Passing of the Techno-Mages (Del Rey), set in the Babylon 5 universe. The Sci-Fi Channel called the trilogy “A revelation for Babylon 5 fans. . . . Not ‘television episodic’ in look and feel. They are truly novels in their own right.” Her book The Science of Star Wars (St. Martin’s) was chosen by the New York Public Library for its recommended reading list, and CNN said, “Cavelos manages to make some of the most mind-boggling notions of contemporary science understandable, interesting and even entertaining.” The Science of The X-Files (Berkley) was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award. Publishers Weekly called it “Crisp, conversational, and intelligent.”

Jeanne has published short fiction and nonfiction in many magazines and anthologies. The Many Faces of Van Helsing, an anthology edited by Jeanne, was released by Berkley in 2004 and was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award. The editors at Barnes and Noble called it “brilliant. . . . Arguably the strongest collection of supernatural stories to be released in years.”

Jeanne created and serves as primary instructor at the Odyssey Writing Workshop. She is also an English lecturer at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, where she teaches writing and literature.

She talks to Diabolical Plots‘s Carl Slaughter about getting into the trenches with writers.

More information about her and the workshop:
www.jeannecavelos.com.
www.odysseyworkshop.org.

Cavelos Sawher
(Pictured here with author Robert J Sawyer.)

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHY ASPIRING WRITERS?

JEANNE CAVELOS: As a writer critiquing other writers while getting my MFA in creative writing, and then at Bantam Doubleday Dell, working my way up from editorial assistant to senior editor, I found that I loved working with writers, helping them to make their work the best it could be. Identifying the strengths and weaknesses in a piece, and coming up with possible ways to address those weaknesses, is a lot like
solving a puzzle. For me, this is extremely satisfying. And when the light bulb goes off for the writer, and he revises the piece with this new understanding and radically improves the work–I am so happy for his success. I love helping writers to improve. So when I left publishing to make more time for my own writing, I wanted to continue to be able to work with writers. That’s why I started Odyssey.

 

CARL: WHY A WORKSHOP?

JEANNE: A writer usually can’t make dramatic improvements to his work by writing on his own. You can improve, but progress tends to be slow. To make dramatic improvements, you generally needs three things: first, a greater understanding of the elements of fiction and the tools and techniques that allow you to manipulate them in a powerful way; second, practice using these techniques; and third, feedback to reveal whether you are successful in using the techniques.

The Odyssey Writing Workshop focuses on providing these three things. We spend about 2 1/2 hours each day in lecture and discussion, so over the six weeks, we cover all the elements of fiction, pitfalls to avoid, and techniques that can create powerful, memorable stories. Daily writing exercises, as well as writing your own stories, help you put these concepts and techniques into practice. Then the workshop provides feedback on how you are doing.

Often writers, working alone, will read books on writing, but that knowledge won’t be incorporated into their work. There is great power to devoting oneself solely to one’s writing for six weeks, hearing lectures on writing, writing, reading the work of others and providing feedback. Doing all of these at once helps to incorporate the concepts and techniques into one’s writing process.

 

CARL: WHY ON SITE INSTEAD OF ONLINE?

JEANNE: Odyssey does offer online classes each winter. They are focused on specific writing topics and aimed at writers of a particular skill level.
We hold live class sessions via Web conferencing software, to create the most immediate, interactive experience possible. Writers have found these very helpful.

But they aren’t the same as being in the “Odyssey bubble,” as the class of 2013 called it, an intense, private place filled with writers and
focused on writing, where the outside world does not intrude. Just getting away from “real” life is a huge help in putting all one’s energy toward improving one’s writing.

 

CARL: WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM YOUR MFA IN CREATIVE WRITING THAT HELPS YOU AS A CRITIQUER?

JEANNE: I became much more aware of style and learned the different ways to manipulate words and sentences to create different effects. That was extremely valuable. Many genre writers don’t have style very high on their list of things to think about, so I try to make them more aware of their style, of the choices they’re making, and then offer them some other possibilities that may be more effective. For example, many developing writers use a similar sentence length throughout, when instead they should be manipulating sentence length to better support the action and emotion of each moment.

 

CARL: WHAT DID YOU LEARN AS AN EDITOR THAT HELPS YOU AS A CRITIQUER?

JEANNE: I learned a great deal as an editor. Reading submissions reveals many common weaknesses of developing writers, so I am very aware of them and can point them out in a critique, as well as warn writers away from them in advance. For example, starting with a character sitting and thinking about his life, or standing and thinking about his life, or driving and thinking about his life, indicates the writer has started in the wrong place and doesn’t understand the requirements of an opening, or how exposition (background information) should be incorporated into a work. Working with writers on manuscripts that we were going to publish taught me how much better a good piece can become with revision.

 

CARL: WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS WRITERS HAVE AND HOW TO YOU ADDRESS THOSE MISCONCEPTIONS?

JEANNE: Writers at different levels of development have different misconceptions. Many of those who attend the Odyssey workshop arrive thinking that they know almost everything about how to write and the techniques to use. They are mainly looking for feedback on how well they are incorporating that knowledge into their work. From what they’ve told me, within a few days, they realize that there is a huge amount they didn’t know. Then they get very excited and start soaking up as much as they can.

 

CARL: WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON WEAKNESSES WRITERS HAVE AND HOW DO YOU HELP THEM OVERCOME THOSE WEAKNESSES?

JEANNE: The most common is lack of a strong plot. This usually arises because a writer starts a story with no idea where it’s going, writes a draft, and then declares the story done. There’s nothing wrong with starting without knowing where you’re going. But if you start without knowing the end, chances are the story will lack unity, focus, a strong character arc, and a strong plot. So once you know the end, then you probably need to toss out everything else and figure out what the beginning and middle ought to be, to lead to that end. Most writers, on hearing this, become more open to planning ahead and trying to discover the ending before beginning the draft. I explore different techniques with writers to try to find the right one for them.

Another common problem is writers who don’t want to let anything bad happen to their protagonists. By discussing other stories that they enjoy, and the bad things that happen to those protagonists, I try to help them see the necessity of suffering. Something important needs to be at stake for the protagonist. He needs to struggle and be challenged by the events, and if he is lucky enough to have a happy ending, he needs to pay a price for it. Many writers have weak or flat characters in their stories. The characters have a couple of superficial characteristics, and that’s it. The main character lacks a feeling of depth, of hidden dimensions, of reality. There are some great techniques writers can use to add depth to a major character. One simple method is to use the Johari Window on your character.

Often the protagonist is a stand-in for the author, and since most authors spend a lot of time sitting around, thinking, and writing, their stand-ins tend to be passive. Many writers just need to learn that the protagonist needs to have a goal that he is struggling to achieve. Even if the goal is sitting on the couch, there must be obstacles and other forces he must struggle against to stay on that couch.

 

CARL: HOW MUCH EMPHASIS DO YOU PLACE ON A WRITTEN CRITIQUE VERSUS NOTES ON THE MANUSCRIPT VERSUS ONE ON ONE SESSIONS?

JEANNE: All of these are important components for learning and improving. One-on-one meetings are invaluable, because they allow us to discuss larger issues that haven’t come up in critique, to address questions, to chart progress and remaining challenges, and to discuss how changes to the student’s writing process have worked and explore new changes to make. It’s also important for me to connect personally with each writer, to understand his needs and do what I can to help him.

 

CARL: HOW MUCH EMPHASIS DO YOU PLACE ON PRODUCTIVITY VERSUS QUALITY, HOW MUCH ON REVISION, HOW MUCH ON CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, PLOT STRUCTURE, STYLE/VOICE, ETC?

JEANNE: Students at the workshop need to submit six pieces of fiction over the six weeks (and two before the workshop begins). This requires a greater level of productivity than most students have achieved. But they rise to the occasion and produce some amazing work. I think it’s very important to be writing each evening, after hearing the information in the lectures that morning. This helps the concepts to be incorporated into the student’s writing process. Writing multiple pieces allows the students to try and try again to incorporate a particular technique or make progress with a certain element. And that’s exactly what they need to do. Quality sometimes suffers as students become exhausted–you will never work harder in your life than you work at Odyssey–but sometimes the greatest breakthroughs occur at a 3 AM writing session.

I strongly encourage revision, since in my experience most writers don’t revise nearly enough. Students can submit revisions of pieces they previously had critiqued. I encourage them to submit a revision to a different audience. For example, if they had the initial version critiqued by the entire class, they could have the revision critiqued privately by a guest lecturer, or vice versa.

As for character development, plot structure, style/voice, all of the elements of fiction are important to a powerful, unified story. I would say I stress plot and character a bit more than the rest, since they are the building blocks, and if they’re not working, it’s hard to have a successful story.

 

CARL: DO YOU RECOMMEND AN OUTLINE AND CHARACTER PROFILES FOR EVERY STORY, ESPECIALLY NOVELS?

JEANNE: Every writer is different, so I would have different answers for different writers. But unless you are a genius at instinctive plotting, it would be unwise to write a novel without some sort of outline, even if the outline has just four lines, specifying the beginning of the novel and the end of each of your three acts. Still, some writers are unable or unwilling to work with an outline, and that’s okay; it just means they need to be willing to do *lots* of revision. A useful tool in these cases is to outline as you go. Write a scene and then add a line describing what happened in it to your outline. Then you will have an outline when you finish your draft, and you can examine it and see how to strengthen your plot.

I find character profiles overrated. They are helpful for some writers, but in most cases, writers create elaborate profiles and then they start writing and the character behaves in an entirely different way. I think you need a basic, core sense of who the character is, what he wants, and why he wants it, before you start writing. Beyond that, I think the most helpful thing for many writers is to note different traits or facts about the character as they are writing the story.

 

CARL: DO YOU EVER REWRITE A PASSAGE FOR A WORKSHOP STUDENT? IF SO, IS THIS STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE OR LAST RESORT?

JEANNE: I will rewrite a sentence, but not a passage. Rewriting a passage would feel like telling the author what the story should be. That’s not my job. My job is to try to figure out what the author wants the story to be, and then offer feedback and suggestions to help him make that story as strong as possible.

 

CARL: WHY ALLOW OTHER WORKSHOP PARTICIPANTS TO CRITIQUE STORIES? IS SOMEONE QUALIFIED TO CRITIQUE IF THEY HAVE NO EDITING EXPERIENCE, DON’T HAVE A DEGREE IN CREATIVE WRITING, AREN’T FULL TIME, CAREER WRITERS?

JEANNE: Most Odyssey students these days have critiqued a fair amount before arriving at Odyssey. But whether they have or not, it is a key skill they need to develop to improve their own writing. Many authors think that critiquing someone else’s work is a favor they do for the other writer, so that the other writer will critique their work. Nothing could be further from the truth. Critiquing someone else’s work helps you to develop your critical writer’s eye. It helps you to analyze a story and figure out what is working and what isn’t working. It allows you to come up with possible solutions to improve the weaknesses. Once you do this for long enough, you can begin to apply this critical writer’s eye to your own work, seeing the strengths and weaknesses as if it’s a piece written by someone else, and coming up with solutions to solve your problems.

Critiquing is also a great help in that it forces students to apply the theories and concepts discussed in class to actual stories. For example, when they realize that a story isn’t holding their attention and that they don’t care what happens, they are forced to step back and try to understand why. Then they see that the protagonist isn’t struggling to achieve a goal, and they realize–in a way much more powerful than me just telling them this in class–how important it is for the protagonist to have a goal and to be struggling toward it.

Going back to your question, I don’t think people need any particular qualification to critique. They need to know and follow the guidelines of the particular workshop. And the more they know about writing, the more specific and helpful their critiques will probably be. But most anyone off the street can read a story and say whether he likes it or not, and that’s valid criticism. It’s not terribly helpful, in that it provides no specific direction for the author to take to improve the story, but it is honest.

 

CARL: IS SHOW INHERENTLY BETTER THAN TELL, IS ACTIVITY INHERENTLY BETTER THAN DIALOG, ARE ACTIVITY AND DIALOG INHERENTLY BETTER THAN NARRATIVE, ARE FIRST, SECOND, OR THIRD PERSON INHERENTLY BETTER THAN THE OTHER TWO, DO YOU HAVE TO OPEN WITH THE MOST DRAMATIC SCENE AND THEN REWIND, DO YOU HAVE TO LIST THE CONTENTS OF A ROOM OR DESCRIBE A CHARACTER’S PHYSIQUE OR CLOTHING, DOES THE STORY HAVE TO ORGANIZED LIKE A 3 ACT PLAY, ARE DREAM SEQUENCES AND INFO DUMPS INHERENTLY WEAK TOOLS, ETC?

JEANNE: Wow–that’s a lot to cover. You’re listing a bunch of writing principles that some people assert, so let me talk about principles in general. There are many principles by which stories work. A protagonist should struggle to achieve a goal. A protagonist should have an internal conflict and an external conflict, and the internal conflict should be resolved before the external conflict. The story should lead to a permanent change in the protagonist. And so on. Many successful stories follow these principles. But there are also many successful stories that break one or more of these principles. So saying that you must do something, or that one thing is better than something else, is needlessly restrictive. Sometimes to serve the story, you need to break one of these principles. You can do whatever you can get away with. What is most important is that you know the principles and mindfully make the choice to break one of them, because it is necessary for the good of the story. Breaking a principle usually means you take away some pleasure that the reader expects to have when reading a story. That means you need to offer the reader a pleasure of equal or greater value to make up for the one you’re taking away.

So if a story is entirely dialogue, for example, and you are taking away the pleasure we would normally have of feeling like we’re in a particular place and experiencing vivid sensory impressions of it and of the characters, then you must offer us something else in exchange, such as incredibly tense dialogue and layered characters, and dialogue that perhaps evokes sensory impressions, so we have something to picture as we’re reading.

As for what the specific principles are that writers should usually follow, I disagree with many of those in the question. Showing is important and should usually be used much more than telling, but each has its place and purpose, and you need to use each when it serves the story. Similarly, action, dialogue, and narrative all have their purpose and should be used where necessary to serve the story. Each POV has its strengths and weaknesses (and first person is horribly overused by developing writers), but you need to choose the best POV for the story. The most dramatic scene should almost always be the climax, not the opening. Starting with the most dramatic scene and then rewinding tells me that the rest of the story is probably boring. Descriptions need to be used when they serve the story. Three-act structure is great for many stories, but not for all of them. Dream sequences and infodumps are usually not good ideas and I discourage them, though some writers can make them work.

 

CARL: HERE’S ONE I HEAR A LOT: THOU SHALT NOT CHANGE THE POV IN THE MIDDLE OF A SCENE. IS IT REALLY CONFUSING TO THE READER TO CHANGE THE POV IN THE MIDDLE OF A SCENE?

JEANNE: Yes, it usually is. If you have established at the beginning that you are writing in an omniscient viewpoint and dipping into the heads of different characters, then it’s fine to continue to do so throughout the story. The problem is that it’s difficult to do this gracefully. You need to establish the voice of your omniscient narrator, establish the location of the POV “camera,” and then move the camera so smoothly and effortlessly that the reader doesn’t notice what you’re doing. You would approach the character, move into the character’s head, spend however long you want there, then slowly move out, move toward another character, and so on. C. S. Lewis generally does this well in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE. But you’ll find many more examples of it being done poorly, which leads to the reader being confused or not feeling settled in the scene.

 

CARL: ANY NEW PROJECTS OR SERVICES AT ODYSSEY? ANYTHING ON THE HORIZON?

JEANNE: We’re working on a couple of things that I can’t talk about yet, but I hope will offer some great help to writers. Right now, in addition to our summer workshop, we offer winter online classes (which will be announced in October with application deadlines in December), a critique service so you can get professional feedback on your manuscripts, and many free resources, including monthly podcasts, blog posts, writing and publishing tips, a newsletter, and more. You can access all of these through our website.

We also were able to provide three scholarships to Odyssey workshop students this past summer, due to the generosity of an Odyssey graduate, and it looks like we’ll be offering those scholarships for future workshops.

 

CARL: WHAT DO YOU RECOMMEND FOR WRITERS WHO CAN’T AFFORD A WORKSHOP, CAN’T GET LEAVE FROM WORK, CAN’T TRAVEL, ETC?

For many people, attending a six-week in-person workshop is just not possible. I used to get many emails from writers in the situations you mention, asking Odyssey to offer them something to help them improve their work. That’s why we started the critique service in 2006 and the online classes in 2010.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.

Interview: Carl Frederick

interview by Carl Slaughter

CF1Nebula nominee, frequent Analog byliner, Writers of the Future first place award winner, 2 time Phobos Fiction Contest winner, 6 time Analog Readers Choice Award winner, Odyssey graduate, and longtime Critters member Carl Frederick is camera shy. As you can see from the photo, even his pet cat is shy. He likes cats and dogs and they are prominent characters in many of his stories. Frederick is known for his hard science stories. He’s had 40 plus short stories published in Analog. Lately, without letting up on the hard science stories, he has delved deep into character driven stories and even literary science fiction. Or rather, stories with strong character development well blended into the hard science element – and vice versa.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Is “Trojan Carousel” your first novel?

CARL FREDERICK: It’s the third or forth. I’m not sure. And as for my first two novels, I’d sort of like to forget that I’d written them. They say a writer needs to write a half million or so words of crud before the good stuff can get out. I think I’m well past that number now.

 

TOSHIBA Exif JPEGCS: The main characters are boys in a science school. Does this mean YA is the target audience?

CF: Partially, yes.

But the Harry Potter books were a sea change. Up until then, books with kid protagonists were indeed read by adults, but with a sense of embarrassment. Now, post Potter, adults can read such books even in public places. So ‘Trojan Carousel’ is also aimed at adults who might like reading about kids.

Most of my short story output has gone to Analog Magazine which is not generally perceived as a YA magazine. But I believe it is. Most of the stories therein have the sense of wonder, the avoidance of bored cynicism and sophistication, the optimism, that IMO characterizes the world view of kids.

Thinking about it now, I guess I consider ‘Trojan Carousel’ a book for bright kids or for physicists (who in many ways are like bright kids).

 

CS: Why a novel about preteen boys?

CF: Richard Feynman speculated that if kids were introduced to quantum mechanics concepts at an early age, they might (unlike physicists in general) be completely comfortable with those concepts. Exploring that idea is one of the thrusts of the novel.

 

CS: The adults are minor characters. Why not have them more involved in the plot? Why not have them more involved in the lives of the boys?

CF: I wanted the book to have something of the flavor of ‘Lord of the Flies’: Kids’ lives unconstrained by adult supervision/control. I also wanted the book to reflect the ‘school story’ genre. Arguably the finest example of same might be ‘Stalky and Co.’ by Kipling–one of my favorite books when I was a kid. The three boys in ‘Trojan Carousel’ who are dorm-mates parallel the three study-mates in ‘Stalky’.

 

CF2CS: Identify the themes of the story and explain, without major spoilers, how those themes are addressed.

CF: Outwardly, the book is about kids (aged twelve or thereabouts) in two schools on one campus: one (The Amdexter School) a traditional posh faux British boarding school and the other (The Feynman Elementary School for Advanced Physics) is for super-bright science and math kids. The two school populations coexist on friendly terms at the start. But then due to a clash of cultures, things gradually turn bad, leading to a war between the boys of the schools.

The subtext is modern science and how we interpret it, and also on the nature of scientific inquiry.

I acknowledge that this is a poor answer to your question. But I think an author is the very last person to consult about the themes in his writing.

 

CS: One of the main characters dies. Why is this necessary?

CF: Oh, gosh. I tried very hard not to kill him. But I couldn’t make the book work with him remaining alive. And his death allows the protagonist to deny the death somewhat in the way of ‘SchrÃ’ dinger’s Cat’, i.e. he’s not dead (or alive) until observed as such. That interpretation, by the way, is not what SchrÃ’ dinger intended. He proposed the cat paradox to show that in some instances quantum mechanics gave unrealistic answers. He considered that a problem with the science.

 

CS: Science exercises are sprinkled throughout the book. How do these science exercises serve the story?

CF: They’re not exercises, exactly. And they’re at the back of the book. In a number of chapters, when the reader gets to the end, s/he can continue the science discussion in the chapter by going to the back of the book where the chapter continues. Or one can skip the back of the book and simply continue with the story. The ideas of quantum mechanics are interwoven throughout the novel, and I wanted the reader (if desired) to be able to appreciate those ideas–to appreciate the wonderful and beautiful weirdness of quantum physics.

 

CS: You’re known for your hard science stories. Why not a hard science novel?

CF: I think it IS hard SF, maybe very hard SF. I consider much of what is called hard science fiction to be actually science engineering. I don’t see many science concepts in SF and I wanted ‘Trojan Carousel’ to be about science. I think the novel after ‘Trojan Carousel’, ‘Wizards of Science’ is much more in the traditional mold of a hard SF novel.

 

CS: Lately, you’ve been writing more character oriented stories. What’s the explanation for this and will the trend continue? Have you had any success marketing these types of stories? Any success marketing “Trojan Carousel?

CF: In addition to doing physics, I’m also an engineer in the fast moving electronics industry. And compared to high-tech industry, book publishing is very slow. I’d say even compared to the movement of glaciers, book publishing is slow. I don’t have the patience for it. So I’d decided to self-publish e-book versions for Kindles and Nooks. The problem there is getting noticed. I found I didn’t have the stomach for self-promotion that self-publishing seems to require. My e-book sales therefore, are not exactly stellar. Occasionally nice things happen though. Last year, after one story of mine in a series came out in Analog, someone in Germany found the other stories in the series in the Kindle version. S/he bought them and a few hours later, bought one of my novels. By the next morning, s/he’d bought everything I’d written. And a few days later came another sale (presumably to another person) from Germany. But there it stopped. No chain reaction, unfortunately. But it was neat finding I had a fan.

In general though, I think most of my sales come from people stumbling on my titles. My best selling title is a short story collection, ‘SF++ Science Fiction Stories for Linux Geeks’. I rather imagine the buyers had been looking for technical books about Linux.

I’m considered a successful sf short story writer. But ‘successful short story writer’ is rather an oxymoron. Very few can make a living doing it. I guess I write because I want to be read, not to make money from it–although some money would be nice.

To answer your question about marketing ‘Trojan Carousel’: very little success, mainly, I think, because I don’t do any marketing.

 

CS: Most of your stories are in Analog. The longtime editor of Analog recently retired. Will that affect your relationship with the magazine? Will you branch out into other markets?

CF: I know and like (and have long worked with) the new editor. So I hope my relationship won’t change. But the previous editor, Stan Schmidt, is a physicist, as am I. And I believe we physicists think differently and have different reading tastes than ‘civilians’. So the new editor’s reading preferences might be less similar than previously to my writing preferences. I hope I’m wrong.

As to new markets, I admit that yes, I am looking for them.

 

CS: Any more novels in the works?

CF: Several. I’m working on one now, ‘Duplex Alpha’. It posits that world and science problems have become too complex to be addressed by the human brain. But evolution has come to the rescue by bringing forth a new type of identical twins who (by their ‘twin language’) can to a large degree think as one (an extreme example of ‘two heads are better than one’). They are feared and oppressed by the establishment.

I also have the sequel to ‘Eridion’ (a space opera) in the works.

 

CS: Do you run all your manuscripts through the Critters Workshop? How does the feedback affect your revisions and how do the revisions affect the marketability of your stories?

CF: I rely heavily on Critters and run all my short stories through the workshop. I rewrite heavily based on the critiques and believe that, in all cases, the rewrites have resulted in greatly improved stories. I do weigh the critiques based on the critiquers. Some of the critiquers hate everything and seem to just like to tear down writers and writing. Some seem to have just started learning English. Some write absolutely incomprehensible critiques. But most are terrific. And many find ideas in my stories that I didn’t even know about. I don’t know what I’d do without Critters. I write individualized thank yous to every critiquer of my stories.

And speaking of thanks, thank you, Carl, for giving me the chance to discuss ‘The Trojan Carousel’. Because of the (optional) back of the book chapter continuations, I regard the novel as something of an experiment. I’m very fond of the book and still, when I think of the aforementioned death, my eyes tend to mist over.

While yes, it would be great if people bought the e-book (or any of my books) for Kindle from Amazon, I’m more concerned with readership than with income. Accordingly, if readers of this interview want copies, I’d be happy to provide them by e-mail. Readers can go to my website, click on e-books and further click the book title and then click on the ‘e-mail for free copy’ button.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.