Most writers are not famous. For every Stephen King or J.K. Rowling there are dozens, heck, hundreds even, of lesser-known writers who just barely have a toehold in their particular genre.
Most writers do not make a living from their craft. Some lucky few supplement their income. But there are writers, a rare breed of them, who support themselves, who fish the seven seas of genre and reel in the sales, and yet somehow remain not-quite-household names. Mel Odom is one such writer.
Mr. Odom makes his home in Moore, Oklahoma, and his living writing. You may have read some of his stand-alone fantasy (The Rover, The Destruction of the Books, The Lord of the Libraries), or some of his sci-fi (Lethal Interface, Stalker Analog), or perhaps some of his game-based fiction (Threat from the Sea Trilogy, Battletech, Shadowrun), maybe some media-tie in (Blade, Sabrina, Buffy). Maybe you've gone all post-apocalyptic with Apocalypse Dawn.
You may have read him and thought he was someone else.
You may have seen him lay the smack down on a guy next to the Embassy Suites elevator at ArmadilloCon '02 in Austin, Texas.
You might see him at the Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc. 2005 Conference and assume he's making the rounds as oh-so-many writers do, and not realize that he is the keynote speaker.
An enigma. A success. I managed to pry myself into his schedule to ask some hard-hitting questions about the man, the method, and making a living in the always-complicated world of writing.
Dotar Sojat: How many books have you written?
Mel Odom: Between 120 and 130. Not sure.
DS: Do you do short stories at all?
MO: Yes. Every now and then. It's usually for anthologies that I get asked into. But just to write them and submit them to markets...it's too hard to sell short stories. And I'm geared for novels.
DS: Short stories by request! Do you have any idea how many you've written?
MO: Five. Two others were novellas. I also do DVD reviews at audioreviews.com. That way I do something besides write; I have to watch movies! Since I've been using a handheld PC so much lately, I have to go home tonight and do an article for Pocket PC Magazine.
DS: You're also involved in an online spy game of some kind, right?
MO: Spylegend.com? Yes. It's an alternate reality game that Dan Hanttula and I have put together. We spent the last year on it and it went live this January. We've set it up so that players play against each other instead of the computer. It has special missions, video clips, we're really shooting for a roleplaying game between the players. It's MAD Magazine Spy Vs. Spy, at least that's what we're shooting for.
DS: Awards you've won?
MO: Alex Award for The Rover, I was a first runner-up for the Christi Award last year, which is a Christian fiction award, and a Stephen Tyler finalist, and a few other things I can't remember.
DS: I saw where you sold the third Rover book.
MO: Yep. The Lord of the Libraries is going to be out in July. The fourth book has been sold, too. It should be out next year. It's called The Quest for the Trilogy. When it comes out in hardback it will be one book, and three books when it comes out in paperback. There will be adventures in the kingdoms of humans, dwarves, and elves.
DS: How did you get into writing?
MO: I've always written since 3rd and 4th grade. My mom would take me to the library every two weeks. I could only check out five books, so if I got five on Monday, I'd be done by Tuesday or Wednesday, then I had a choice of rereading them or to just write my own adventures. Even when I was in first grade I'd take comic books and re-write them in a screenplay form. "Ironman punches the Mandarin. Ironman says, 'I punched you, Mandarin.'" I've just always written, and I always will, even when I stop selling.
DS: What was the first piece you sold?
MO: It was a Mack Bolan novel called War Born. Sold it in ‘88 and it came out in ‘89.
DS: I get the impression that you do a lot of genre work. Is that all of what you do, or do you dabble in the mainstream?
MO: There is no mainstream anymore. The closest you're going to come to that is guys like Chuck Palahniuk with things like Fight Club. There is no mainstream audience. If you go look at the top sellers of the New York Times best sellers they all fit in the seven genre categories. Everything I do is genre based—publishers feel more comfortable selling it and people feel more comfortable reading it. I've worked in every genre except westerns. Mysteries, thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and romance.
DS: Any particular one your favorite?
MO: Nah. I'm ADHD, so whatever I'm supposed to work on next seems way cool. I'm always looking forward to the next project.
DS: Does the majority of your work fall into one genre?
MO: No, it switches. One year the heavy hitter will be the action adventure, the next it's fantasy. There are a lot of people who suffer in the business because they only do one thing and when they have a bad year for that thing they go hungry. I'm constantly changing. One year game books paid half my income; I wrote strategy guides and the business was really big. The next year it was action/adventure. After that I wrote novels based on licensed products, Buffy and Sabrina, things like that. The last couple of years the Christian fiction has paid real well. This year I'm getting an interesting mix it's just...everything is coming together right now and I'm working everywhere.
DS: You're able to go where the winds blow.
MO: That's one of the things my agent said, I can really see what's coming. I work ahead of the curve. I'm more aware of the market, the bigger market, than most writers are. They specialize in one area and I look all across the board. I look at what makes certain genre works and determine what I can do in that genre, then I look for a publisher and editor who would be interested in what I'm doing. I can't do everything, but I find something to do in every genre. I guess I specialize in knowing my own limitations.
DS: You do a lot, you do the writing, coach baseball—
MO: Basketball too, game design—
DS: Husband, father, teacher. How do you find the time to write?
MO: I don't; I make the time. Everything that's important to me I make time for. Life isn't convenient. It's not supposed to be lived conveniently, in my feeling. People try to, so they can neatly package things, but in my life everything I do spills into everything else.
The main thing is to try to get it all done with the least amount of headaches. There are times I have to concentrate on family for a while, or work for a while, or teaching for a while. Last week I had to cancel a Wednesday writing class because my Little League team got bumped due to a make-up game and it was our first game and I had to be there for the kids. I had to call my students and tell them I couldn't make it, and I coached my team. Sometimes, I hope, everybody is glad to have me, but sometimes life gets inconvenient. And that's the thing about life: you can try to do very little and never be inconvenienced and not inconvenience anyone, or you can lead a big life and it will be inconvenient for you and everybody that's involved in it. There's no way around it.
DS: Do you have a methodology to your writing?
MO: I make sure I have a plot I like with characters I like. And make sure before I start writing that I know my outline, because if you don't know where you're going your book is dead in the water.
That's one of the things I teach in the class at Moore/Norman. We try to plot a book in three hours, they come up with the characters and the situations in the first hour and a half, and then we outline the story in the next hour and a half. To show it can be done. Before you start writing, before you start writing an article or a short story, you need to write a skeleton "these are things I want to cover; these are the things I want to bear down on." For me that makes me successful because once I have the outline I believe I can do it at that point.
DS: This next question may be kind of weird. You have a big writing resume, but you seem to have a low profile as far as the writing fame meter goes. If you were to recommend books, the books that you really feel are "your" books...
MO: Well, The Rover. Everybody seems to enjoy it and it has a lot of me in it. The first Apocalypse Dawn book. Goose, as a father, as a guy, I think carries a lot of how I look at life and my faith-based issues and stuff like that. I don't know, I've got so many different parts!
With what I've lived and seen and what I show other people. I don't even know who I am. As far as what's important, what's the biggest thing? I love being a teacher and a coach and a writer. It's all a composite.
DS: And what books really capture your style?
MO: I can't...that's a hard one. I write in so many different genres and to do that the style has to change, the voice has to change, the tone changes, the characters change. When I write fantasy it is very frivolous to a degree, like in The Rover.
DS: Until we get a close look at the goblin slave trade operations and people are dying left and right.
MO: Well yeah, but there was more of that in the sequel, The Burning of the Books and in the Quest for the Trilogy we go back to the original voice and mood.
DS: Now who, or what, are your influences?
MO: Robert Howard, yep. All the pulp stuff. Shelves and shelves of it. Lin Carter. At the library I just read tons of it.
DS: Present and future works. What are you working on now and what's in the pipe?
MO: I'm working on a new Rover book.
DS: That would be the fifth book?
MO: The fourth. I'm working on a Christian fiction thriller series about the NCISN, the Navy Criminal Investigation Services. I've got romance novels in the pipe, I'm still finishing up a young adult series and am working on a middle grader fantasy novels. And I think, I think, that's it for right now.
DS: So how much work is that?
MO: About a year and a half. I've also got a new series I'm working with Kim Doner on a juvenile series we're calling The Voyages Cycle.
DS: And you also got some calls today so more things may come up.
MO: I hope so; otherwise you're sitting at home doing nothing for a while.
DS: You have the coveted position of writing for a living. What do you think of it, the writing life?
MO: Well, there's times I hate it. When you're knee-deep in contracts you feel great about it. You've got money coming in, you feel like you can make more money. But when contracts get thin, you start worrying about, gee, am I going to work again. It's the same as any business, a barbershop or restaurant: what if people decide someday they won't come in anymore?
But that's just the nature of life. Do I worry that I'll stay employed? Yeah, it's a natural human preoccupation. At the same time I do everything I can to make sure I'm employed and get more going on. In truth it's about the same as having a job anywhere else. There are a lot of people I know who lose their jobs when there are cutbacks or the company moves. But I can do a lot more to make sure my job stays in place.
DS: Now, you do a lot of ghostwriting, too. What can you tell me about that?
MO: I can tell you I do it; I can't tell you who I do it for. That's part of the nature of the ghostwriting. Contractually you cannot talk in a public forum about what you do. Publishers can know what I do, to a degree, but the general public, no. Contractually, I can't tell people the name I write under in the romance genre.
DS: Do you like doing the ghost writing?
MO: There's always a check! I have kids, they eat, I watch them eat more every day.
DS: Is it just a money thing then?
MO: In the early days it was just a money thing. I looked at it as proving I had the skills to do it. At this stage of the game I've got to be interested in the project. If I'm not interested I can't do a good job and will hate it the whole time I'm doing it.
DS: So it's a money and challenge thing.
MO: Well, also you have to remember in ghostwriting somebody is coming to you and wanting you to write in a property, and it could provide an opportunity to write in a field you've never been in before. And then you can go to editors, who are in the know, and say you've written this kind of book and they realize that you do more than they thought you did.
DS: Can we talk about media tie-ins for a second?
MO: I love media-tie ins.
DS: I keep hearing that there are a lot of people in the industry who don't like them. They claim, in the big picture, all these Star Trek books are choking out unique voices. Your take?
MO: My take on that is that the media tie-in is aimed at people who want more than the TV show can give them. They want a larger experience, more than twenty-two episodes a year.
You may have a show that goes under, but the books still come up. Star Trek Original series, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, they're still doing new books for those. They'll do Enterprise books after that series is cancelled. You still have a lot of exposure to those worlds that the fans want. CSI is another show that has transgressed the TV boundary, CSI, CSI: Miami both have book series, CSI: New York won't be far behind. They provide a deeper, richer experience than you would get on television.
I think it is very good because I think it attracts people who don't normally read. They take television viewers and entice them to read and when they read all the TV tie-ins they're going to pick up new authors. I don't think its choking out original fiction. I think a lot of original fiction is very hard for more novice readers to get their head around. With media tie-ins you've already got the look and feel of the world and characters.
DS: Writers often take beliefs from different cultures and mythologies and expand them or set stories in them. How do you feel about writing Christian-based fiction knowing so many people believe in it?
MO: You don't believe in it?
DS: Uh...I'm not going to make this about me, Mel.
MO: Well, see, I do believe it. I do believe that there will be a rapture and that the apocalypse will happen. What you're talking about, let's get it in a nutshell, is if you believe in God. I do. I raised four kids for two and half years on my own, but not by myself.
I get to write about family issues and faith issues that I don't have a forum for in most other fiction. I get letters from military guys, housewives, about stuff I've written in those books that have really touched them. They go, "Gee, I never knew how this was expressed, that other people thought the same thing I do, I thought I was alone in the world." In those books I touch on divorce and alcoholism, things that are not often touched on in most Christian fiction. Things unpleasant in the Christian world, which a lot of people have gone through. Most Christian writers don't write about those issues; they're too busy trying to write about perfect Christians. I write about those of us who've fallen, who've gotten scuffed up by life and still believe anyway.
Case in point: I went to the interview at Tyndale and came back not knowing if it went well or not. I was at loose ends; didn't know what to expect. I got back to the airport, got in my car and was driving out, dark, rainy, and noticed that the license plate on the car right next to me was FTPRNTS. I called my agent the next morning and told him about it, he thought it was shorthand for Fort something. But it's a reference to the famous story about the man looking back over his life and seeing two sets of footprints during the good times and one in the bad and he asks God why he abandons him during the bad times and God answers that he didn't abandon him, he carried him.
For that to be on the vehicle next to me on that night, and the next day to get notification from Tyndale that I was in...How could you not believe? Now I'm creeping you out, aren't I?
DS: No, I'm—
MO: As far as what Heaven's going to like, I don't know. As far as what form the rapture is going to take, I don't know. When it's going to happen? I don't know. But believing that there is something more than what we are right now? Oh yeah. I'm very comfortable writing in that environment. I grew up in it.
DS: But along with the Christian writing you also do a lot of fantasy, like Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and settings with polytheistic pantheons. How do you reconcile the two?
MO: Faith is one thing, fantasy is a different thing. When you do Christian writing you're trying to entertain and teach a faith lesson. With fantasy you are primarily trying to entertain. I don't really see a contradiction. With faith-based projects you work on the faith issue, with fantasy you work on the entertainment. There are a lot of people who have strong Christian beliefs but they're still actors, actresses, alcoholics. It doesn't limit you.
DS: Thoughts on the business of writing? People keep saying that it is getting harder and harder, conglomeration and—
MO: See, I've been in this business for seventeen years and I've been hearing that same line since before I got into it to begin with. If you're determined and talented and willing to work at it, I think you're going to find a way. I've seen people come in after me, and I've seen people leave ahead of me. It's determination of what you want out of this business and whether or not you are willing to learn.
I saw an interview with Bruce Springsteen and he talked about the fact that most of his songs, and most of the things that creative people write or sing, is all about the things that happened to them before the age of twelve. And I don't disagree with it, but I think the mark of a true writer, of a true entertainer, is that they write about everything after, too. There are so many people I see who want to write a certain kind of novel and for five or fifteen or twenty years they write the same thing. Trees can't just pick up their roots and move, but they will bend to get to the light, and the ones that survive do that. The writers that don't survive are the ones trying to grow in the shade—not willing to adapt.
In order to be successful in this business you have to learn a lot about the business and then find the places where you can thrive and grow. Three things:
- Learn to sell yourself.
- Learn a lot about the business.
A lot of the mystery writers were sci-fi writers back in the '60s and '70s. Sci-fi no longer holds an interest for them, or they didn't keep track of the science. So they progressed on to mysteries and at the age they are now they want to write about characters and the problems in society. It's a natural outgrowth for them: back in the '60s they wrote about changes in society that needed to be made, and now instead of writing on a cultural level, they are writing on an individual level. That's my take, for what it's worth.
DS: You use the internet for marketing and for your spylegend.com, but do you see any future for online books and things like that?
MO: Yeah, there's going to be a lot of that around. Dot coms that are short story places, script writing places. There is a place called Ellora's Cave, it started out as women's romantic erotica, it has a special name that I can't remember—
DS: Smut, if the covers are to be believed—
MO: No...steam-something. There are several writers, Angela Knight, Mary Denise Davidson, several writers came out of that, which is only electronically published. Last year at DragonCon there were lots of publishers who flew up, but the Ellora's Cave people drove up in their own airbrushed Winnebago and spent thousands. They are making a ton of money at the site. And it's all electronic. People are paying for and downloading these stories that they can't get anywhere else. Now traditional publishers are becoming aware of it. You've got to be aware of the market and Ellora's Cave was one of the first to recognize that women wanted these kinds of books.
DS: But with the Ellora's Cave example, they were doing something that traditional publishing wasn't doing. With the internet anybody could start their own fantasy publishing website. What good does that do?
MO: Any publisher can take your book and publish it; does that mean it makes money? Everybody is taking a risk. If you risk electronically there is less outlay of cash. For a publisher to take a book, put it in physical form, and put in pockets all over the U.S.—that's a tremendous amount of cost. Who incurs the risk? The publisher does. People forget that. Yes, the writer takes a lot of time; they write in between working another job and all the other things they do. Maybe they have gotten far enough along to get a part-time job to spend more time writing.
The publisher is out there day to day risking capital, not the writer. The writer risks time; the publisher is actually risking the money and people keep forgetting that. With electronic publishing there is not as much risk. They've already got their website paid for. They've got the software that lets them take Visa, American Express or whatever they take. They don't incur any big charges except for their monthly maintenance fee and depending on their set-up that could be next to nothing.
DS: Do you think that in the five or ten years the internet side of publishing will get more attention and, well, respect?
MO: Yeah. Because there are already electronic comic books that go up every three days or every week. Frank Cho puts up Liberty Meadows. They are published first in newspapers, then he waits and puts it up for free on the webpage. The newspapers can't use them again; they're done! They get first publication rights, and by putting it on a website he stays in the public eye. Electronic publishing will get bigger and bigger. Will print go away? No. No way. It will never go away. People love books. You can't put a webpage on a shelf and look at it. You can't take a webpage to the beach—well, you could take a rocket reader, but if something happens to a book you lose five or six bucks, you drop the reader into the bathtub and you lose several hundred.
DS: You wouldn't want to use your Pocket PC as, say, a cup holder.
MO: You can't balance the coffee table with the rocket, but a paperback will fit perfect!