There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who want to be speculative fiction writers. They pack workshops and conventions, they attend workshops at conventions, they schmooze, and they plan. They write and they submit, only to be beat down by a callous and uncaring system that can't even claim to have decent document control.
But, like newly hatched sea turtles, some manage to reach the surf and swim to the open ocean of their dreams, only to discover that nothing whets the appetite for success like a little success.
Through the voodoo of the internet and the luck of the draw, I've gathered together five new writers who have begun to push their way up into the ranks of the neo-pro. I've also managed to convince both the writers in question and IROSF to allow me to conduct a series of interviews that will track these five during the next few years in the tentative first steps of their tentative careers.
Jennifer Pelland is a thirty-mumble author who lives just outside Boston with an Andy and three cats. She's a graduate of the Viable Paradise writing workshop, and returned several years later as support staff for the 2005 and 2006 sessions. Her short fiction writing credits include publications such as Helix, Strange Horizons, Apex Digest, and the Aegri Somnia anthology.
Shawn Scarber is a Clarion West graduate and has been published in Abyss & Apex: Magazine of Speculative Fiction, AlienSkin Magazine, and Jeffrey Turner's fundamentally Challenged. He lives in Dallas/Fort Worth and works as an application developer. It's been rumored he was reared by giant sewer rats, but they were actually just your average sized armadillos.
Lou Antonelli grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Texas in 1985. He's worked as a journalist since he was in high school. He is currently the editor of a twice a week newspaper in the far northeast corner of Texas.
He began writing fiction in 2002 as a "middle-aged whim." He sold his first story in 2003; he has had twenty-eight stories published since then in fourteen different magazines, including Asimov's, Andromeda Spaceways In-flight Magazine, Alienksin, and RevolutionSF.
He attended his first sf convention when he was forty-six. He sold a story to Asimov's Science Fiction when he was forty-seven; he attended his first fiction writing workshop (Turkey City) when he was forty-eight. He turned fifty in January.
An air-force brat, Linda grew up traveling. She has degrees in computer science, Russian studies, and a master's in earth science education, along with a commercial instrument pilot's certification and a SCUBA certification. When not writing, she teaches tai chi and belly dance. Linda's fiction can currently be found at Yard Dog Press and soon from Fantasist Enterprises Press, Elder Signs Press, From the Asylum Press, and Carnifex Press. In nonfiction, Linda's first article will appear in the 2007 Rabbits USA annual.
She is married to Chris Donahue, an engineer. They live in Texas and have rabbits, cats, and sugar gliders for pets.
Patrick Rothfuss currently lives in central Wisconsin where he teaches at the local university. In his free time Patrick writes a satirical humor column, practices civil disobedience, and dabbles in alchemy. He loves words, laughs often, and refuses to dance.
Dotar Sojat: Of all the ways to spend your time, why writing? And why speculative fiction?
Jennifer Pelland: I'm an extroverted performer type who needs an audience, and the only creative outlet I'm particularly good at is writing. Plus, I'm lazy, so it's a creative outlet I can engage in while sitting on my ass. Although radio theater is almost as lazy, which is probably why I like doing it so much. But that's creative in a much different way. I'm far prouder of my writing than of my silly voices.
As for why I write spec fic, well, I think you should write what you read, and that's what I read.
Shawn Scarber: Actually, that's one of the toughest parts of this pursuit. Making the time to write. You won't find it. If you go looking for time to write, it will remain forever just out of reach. So the question really is: why are you willing to sacrifice time with your family and friends, ruin your career, ruin your health, and put yourself through a process of learning something that only grows harder the more you understand it? Insanity and an over-inflated sense of self. No really, in my case it must be hubris. I'm not one of those people who wrote their first book at three. I started writing about five years ago when my daughter was just a year old. It was at my wife's prompting that I took it up as a hobby. The hobby quickly grew into a complete obsession. Now I can't see myself as anything but a writer.
Lou Antonelli: Well, I've been a journalist for most of the past 30 years, so writing is what I do for a living. Writing fiction is so different from what I normally do that I find it interesting and refreshing. There are limits to your creativity when you're a journalist–you just can't make stuff up.
Linda Donahue: Like most writers, writing isn't a choice. Ideas haunt you, invading your dreams, or worse, keeping you awake until you do something about them. Basically, writing exorcizes the story-demon, you might say.
But most of all, I write because I enjoy it. I love the challenge of putting my hero in a difficult situation, one that on first look, I don't know how to get him out—and then I get to solve my own problem. In that sense, writing is problem solving and I've always enjoyed math, especially proofs, and programming.
But why speculative fiction? It will always be my favorite because for me it's more visually (mentally visual) aesthetic and more stimulating. The concept of "what if" makes us think. And the concept of "if only" lets our imaginations soar. When Einstein made a reference to imagination being more important than knowledge, he's reminding us that knowledge is what we know, what we already have. To create something new requires thinking of something that doesn't exist and then striving to make it.
Patrick Rothfuss: Ultimately I write because I like it. It's fun. I spent ten years working on a trilogy, knowing that the odds were it would never get published. You don't stick with something like that unless you're enjoying the process as much as the product.
I remember sitting in front of my computer late one night when I had a moment of clarity. I suddenly realized that even if I finished the book, I would never, ever sell it. I realized that I had, effectively, wasted years of my life. I just sat there for a couple of minutes, knowing deep in my heart of hearts that it was all pointless. Then I shrugged and went back to typing. What else was I going to do?
DS: Who set you down this path? What are the early influences?
Pelland: I've been a consumer of science fiction all of my conscious life. My father first introduced me to televised SF with late-night creature features and repeats of classic Star Trek, and later he introduced me to printed SF when I started rooting through his book collection. The early influence that looms large in my mind is Star Wars. It was the first movie I got to see in the expensive theater. Normally we waited for movies to come to the dollar theater at the end of the block, but Star Wars was different. Star Wars was special. I dictated Star Wars fanfic into a tape recorder for months after that, acting it out with my younger sister's action figures. Those were the first science fiction stories I remember creating.
Scarber: I guess I read a lot when I was a kid. I loved all the classics. I think it's obvious that you have to be a reader if you want to be a writer, so in a way, I'm sure that's the starting path for most writers. However, when I started writing, I wanted to read more weird fiction. There wasn't much out at the time (at least I didn't know about it). Now it's become pretty popular. I've also run into some wonderful mentors on this journey. I've been a member of the DFW Writers' Workshop for about four years. Prior to attending Clarion West in 2006 it was probably the single most helpful thing on my path.
Antonelli: I never knew any speculative fiction writers when I was growing up. I slouched into this field because I was always an avid reader. My early influences were the same as anyone of my generation—Heinlein's and Lester Del Rey's juveniles were a big factor. I also read Asimov voraciously; not only did I like his stories, but he lived in Massachusetts until 1970 (when I was 13) and was a well-known local figure (I grew up in suburban Boston).
Donahue: I actually had a late start in reading. I lived on Okinawa when I was young and for the first and second grade, I went to "school" in a Quonset Hut and my teachers weren't really teachers. One would put our work up on the wall around the room and expect a bunch of five- and six-year-olds to find our work and do the assignment on the board! The system didn't work so well. After we moved back to the States, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Ratterman, discovered that I had a zero reading comprehension. So I went home with her every day after school and she made me learn to read and write. I didn't actually read much in the way of juvenile books. I started out with teen-reading mysteries and, my favorites, the great classics.
Rothfuss: My mom taught me to read. We read to each other when I was little. My first books were the Pern books. Later there was Zelazny and Beagle...and Tolkien, of course. I read him early on too, like fifth grade.
DS: Novels or short stories?
Pelland: Right now, I'm just writing short stories, although I read a lot more novels than shorts. I read more shorts back when I had a long bus commute to work. It was really convenient to chuck a magazine into my bag, and the short pieces were perfect for my commuting attention span. Now that I work a mere two miles from home, I find that my at-home attention span is more suited for reading novels.
I'd like to write more novels, and am finally going to start in on a new one in February. I'd been hesitant to do so because I'm still unagented, and it's tough to contemplate spending a year or two working on something that might have no chance of getting before an audience. At least with short stories, you can go directly to the editor yourself. With novels, editors are protected from getting anywhere near you unless you have an agent. But since I'm starting to suspect that the novel I'm currently shopping around might not ever attract an agent, it's time to write a new one so I can see if it'll be more palatable.
Scarber: Both. I've written two novels. They will forever remain trunked. One I wrote in a massive fever pitch. I think I learned a lot from writing it. Mostly about what I didn't know, which is helpful. The second novel attempt was full of sophomoric philosophical statements. It was also only about 60k, but I'm glad I never attempted to send it out. I've written quite a few short stories, but haven't really made an effort to market too many of them. My plan is to write about five more short stories and then go for another novel. This one will be a bit more traditional fantasy. I'll actually try to sell this one.
Antonelli: Short stories so far. I like the short form (logical given I write newspaper articles for a living). But I feel you're not considered a "serious" writer until you start cranking out books, and I'm working on my first novel outline.
Donahue: Both. I'd really like to write and sell mass printed novels. But the current market is really hard to break into. Short fiction is hard enough to sell. And so, while I have one novel sitting with an editor and another (co-authored with Julia Mandala) that will be circulating after the final clean-up, I'm mostly working on short stories and novellas.
Rothfuss: Novels. Everything I write is either a long novel, or a short poem. I don't seem to have a middle gear. I'm very fortunate that I ended up with an editor who isn't afraid of a long book. The first book in my trilogy is a quarter million words and a little change. You could kill a man with it.
DS: You've all enjoyed some modicum of success. What are your successes and how did they come about?
Pelland: I made my first two pro sales back-to-back to Strange Horizons, and that is probably the high point of my career, which is vaguely depressing, since that last sale was in January of 2003. Since then, I've made a decent amount of small press sales. Apex Digest has been good to me, and their readers seem to like me. In fact, Jason Sizemore, the editor of Apex, was the editor to solicit a story from me. I'm also getting some attention for my story in the second issue of Helix, which is gratifying. Helix's editor, Will Sanders, has also been very good to me. He's also solicited stories from me, plus he's made sure to shine a spotlight on my story in issue two so I could start racking up the Nebula recommendations. So while I'm still nowhere near a critical success, I'm starting to get people in my corner.
Oh, I suppose it was also quite gratifying to be chosen as one of the pilot program mentors for the Speculative Literature Foundation's online mentoring program. Knowing that someone thought I would be able to impart useful knowledge to fledging writers was a nice ego boost.
Scarber: I've had a few works published. Two that I'm very proud of. One is a short story I wrote during my sophomoric philosophical stage, and it can be found in Jeff Turner's Fundamentally Challenged anthology. Jeff's a local writer and screenwriter, a regular modern day Renaissance man, and he accepted the story with requests for very few changes. The second was my sell to Abyss & Apex. I've always loved the stories in Abyss & Apex and had it at the top of my list of places I wanted to see my work published.
Antonelli: When I first began to write and submit short stories in 2002, I realized Gardner Dozois was the most respected magazine editor at the time, and I set myself a goal to sell him a story. I wrote up a storm–at some points I had as many as six stories in his slush pile (and he noticed that). Amazingly, I achieved my goal–he bought "A Rocket for the Republic" in March 2004 (it was published in September 2005).
I also wanted to sell a story to the Australian publication Andromeda Spaceways In-flight Magazine—I liked their attitude—and a few months later I also pulled that one off. In what was a wonderful coincidence, both were published at almost the same time in July 2005.
Overall, I've sold twenty-eight stories in three years, and I've gotten eight honorable mentions in the last three editions of The Year's Best Science Fiction, the anthology edited every year by Dozois.
Donahue: At this point, I have several sales to small presses. Some fantasy, some humor, some horror, a historical fantasy, and even an SF-horror-humor story. Next year, if everything goes according to schedule, I'll have stories in five anthologies and one chapbook come out. Right now, my only pro sale is in nonfiction, a pet article in the 2007 Rabbits USA annual—it's from the same publishers as Cat Fancy and Dog Fancy.
My stories can be found at Yard Dog Press: The International House of Bubbas anthology; Flush Fiction, an anthology of flash fiction: and The Four Redheads of the Apocalypse chapbook.
2007 should have these coming out:
From Yard Dog Press, a story in the Houston We've Got Bubbas anthology, and a chapbook- A Man, A Plan (yet lacking) A Canal, Panama —as a special note, I got this chapbook slot as a prize from Yard Dog.
From the Asylum Books: Loving the Undead — A romance-zombi story!
From Fantasist Enterprises: a story in the Bash Down the Door and Slice Open the Bad Guy anthology, and a novella in the Blood and Devotion anthology.
From Elder Signs Press: My husband and I have a story in High Seas Cthulhu anthology.
From Carnifex Press: Vermin — a horror anthology dealing with vermin. This one is slated for late in 2007, so it could get bumped into early 2008.
Rothfuss: I had a short story published in Volume 18 of Writers of the Future back in 2002. Well...I pretended it was a short story. In reality it was just an excerpt from my as-then unpublished novel.
The Writers of the Future contest was great. It was my first real publication and my first external validation of my skill as an author. Also, I made some ridiculously good money, and attended a wonderful workshop run by some excellent writers. I learned a lot about the industry over that week, and my anthology mates and I still stay in touch.
DS: What is your dream goal in writing spec fic? Short of that, what would you be happy with?
Pelland: I want people to find my novels on the shelves of major book stores. Honestly, I haven't bothered dreaming much beyond that. Well, okay, a movie deal would be spiffy. But right now, my dream is simply to have a few novels out there.
Scarber: Dream goal? Well, I guess knocking Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind off the top of the sales charts would be great, but otherwise I'll probably be happy if I can make a decent living as a novelist. Short of that, I'm happy where I am. I'm in the process of learning an incredibly difficult craft. I don't even think I'm close to being a master craftsperson yet. So though my goals are a bit lofty, I'm not going to try any shortcuts. I'm going to earn my way up by writing and failing. I want to be a master storyteller. However long that takes, I don't care. I'm here for the long haul
Antonelli: It would be nice to do something to help this country. With my background as a journalist and a Christian, I wonder whether I could help explain or reconcile differences in our culture that seem to be tearing American society apart. With all the technological change in the world, perhaps an sf writer might be best positioned to explain things to the public at large.
Failing that, making some money to live more comfortably would be nice.
Donahue: I don't dream big—a big part of me is a realist. So, my "dream goal" is simply to sell well enough that I can keep writing and publishing stories and novels as long as I live. Given how hard the market is, that's a hard enough goal. To be suddenly famous and make tons of money would always be great—but highly unlikely. Writing, as it is true for anyone in any of the entertainment or artistic industries, simply doesn't pay well—not on the average.
Rothfuss: Rich and famous professional writer. I'd like to show up a book signings and have girls rush the stage like they used to at Beetles concerts.
What would I be happy with? I'd settle for either rich or famous, I suppose.
Seriously though, I'd like to teach have people read my books and like them. I'd like to create a world people like to visit, and characters they will love. Also, I'd like to make enough money to pay off my student loans and buy a second pair of shoes.
Finally, I'd like the university where I teach to wise up and let me teach a writing class now and then, or maybe a literature class about faerie tales or speculative fiction. Right now I only teach Freshman English, and even though I love teaching, the grind of freshman papers is wearing me down a little.
DS: And how far toward that dream goal do you think you are at this time? 50% there? 5% there?
Pelland: It's hard to say. I thought I was 50% there when I nearly landed an agent last summer, but he's since dropped me, so I think I'm probably back to 10% or so.
Scarber: I think I'm five years into it. Maybe a few more because I attended Clarion West. Workshops like that aren't the best thing for some people, but I think it gave me a few more years experience in a very short period of time. I've noticed some writers seem to think it takes about ten years of hard work to break in. So maybe I'm 75% in? Who knows? This is like running a race against yourself without knowing the distance. You can either keep running, hoping that the finish line isn't too far ahead, or you can quit and walk off the track. Well, you can also stop for a breather from time-to-time; I don't think that counts anything against you but time. Otherwise, I don't know of an accurate way to measure my progress.
Antonelli: Less than one percent.
Donahue: That's a hard one to answer. For one—a big part of my goal is to keep writing and selling until I die. Ergo—a part of that percentage is directly related to my life span, and frankly, I'd rather not dwell on that aspect. But since my goal is also selling novels on the mass market scale, I'll have to say 0%.
Rothfuss: Well, I'm neither rich or famous yet. So I guess I'm at 0%. But it does look like my first novel (from the trilogy that I thought would never sell) is going to be making a big splash. I got starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal. There's even been talk of a movie deal. Fingers crossed.
DS: Tell me a little about your current projects.
Pelland: I'm about to start work on an alternate present/future novel, and since it's still so new, I think that's all I want to say about it publicly. I've also just finished a fantastical SF novelette that I'm about to hand to my writing group.
Scarber: I have a few stories I wrote while at Clarion West I want to get revised and sent out to a the pro markets. One might get into an anthology, but I haven't got a confirmation on that yet. Then I have about five new stories I want to write. I'm using these stories as laboratories to see if I can make certain craft techniques work. If they work, I'll feel more confident about jumping into the novel. Or should I say, The Novel (TM), because it feels that way.
Antonelli: Well, like I mentioned earlier, I am working on an outline for what may be my first novel. Since I am so comfortable in the short form, it took me a while to come up with a plot outline that would run to 60-100,000 words—but I think I have one now.
Donahue: I try to keep several projects going—but in different stages.
I usually have one short story in first draft, another in revision, and another in planning. I'm working on two different collaboration projects and am trying to work in time to revise another of my novels for submission.
Ever since Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movie renewed the public's interest in pirates—there are a number of very interesting pirate anthologies coming up in the future. I'm hoping to write and submit to as many of them as I can, as I've always had an interest in pirates. Two of my childhood faves dealt with piracy. And, my chapbook is a pirate tale.
Julia Mandala and I are reading through our collaborative novel for a "hack, slash and burn" treatment where we take out anything that isn't necessary as it can and generally does slow down the story. Since this is a fantasy-humor, we really don't want it to read "leisurely" but "snappy."
Another project is developing my part of the outline for another collaboration—this one with my fellow Apocalyptic redheads: Julia Mandala, Rhonda Eudaly, and Dusty Rainbolt. We're working on a larger scale sequel to the chapbook that'll be a novel. While we're each writing our part of the story from our character's pov—the pieces will eventually be put together not as four discrete story units (as it was in the chapbook), but woven together like a multi-POV novel. It'll be called Apocalypse Now! (with a heart as the exclamation point.) We already have the cover. Since we are the cover models for the characters, when we shot the pictures for the chapbook, we did some for the sequel—as we've been planning that for some time.
Rothfuss: I've got the first book of my trilogy coming out in March of 2007, the Name of the Wind. All my energies will be focused on that for a while. The other two books will be coming out one per year after that.
In terms of very recent projects...But in these last months I haven't had much time to work on getting the second book ready for publication. I never knew how much time and energy it took to do publicity. Websites, interviews, scheduling conventions and signings, those things have been my real recent projects lately. It's like another part-time job.
DS: Over the upcoming year, what goals would you like to accomplish?
Pelland: Land a frakkin' agent. Getting a book deal would also be lovely, but that's not anything I can control. I can only control the agent hunt. If the agent currently reading my full manuscript doesn't take me on, then I might stop trying to sell this one and start the agent search all over again once my next novel is ready to start making the rounds.
Scarber: I'd like to get those five stories completed and out to market. I've also started sending my stuff to the Writers of the Future contest. I'll try to keep sending there as long as I'm eligible. I'll be pleased if I can get a draft of the novel done in 2007, but I'm not going to rush it. It's like I want to spend the time I need on it, but not too much time. I should get it written and ready to go to an agent in a year, because I know that's the turn around time for just about every other novel I'll write.
Antonelli: I'd like to sell a story to Sheila Williams, Gardner's successor at Asimov's, and also break into Analog. I'd like to get to where I can sell stories consistently to the major mags. Also, since I was published in Asimov's I'm eligible for the John W. Campbell Award. I received five nominations last year and made the report issued by WorldCon. It would be great if I had a shot at making the Campbell ballot, so if you have a WorldCon membership for this year (or last year) VOTE FOR ME (pleeze...)
Donahue: I'd like to sell two books—the one with an editor and the one Julia and I will be sending out. And I'd like to sell at least one story a month to someone—anthology or magazine. And, it'd be nice to actually win one of the top three places at a Writer of the Future contest.
Rothfuss: I'd like to get to know more pro writers. I've been pretty isolated growing up in central Wisconsin. I'd also like to get into the convention scene more. I love participating in panel discussions, doing readings, and running workshops. I'd like to travel around and meet with writers groups and do that sort of stuff.
DS: Given all the problems and difficulties, what makes you think you'll succeed as a writer?
Pelland: Nothing makes me think I'll succeed. I regularly ask myself, "What happens if you've done all this work and you end up getting nowhere?" And then I pour myself a glass of whiskey, hug a cat, and watch Velvet Goldmine so I can get back to my happy place.
Scarber: Nothing. This is a real leap of faith. However, I understand there's a process to this. It's not a sure thing, but it's a path a lot of published authors have taken. I'll follow that path. The Path, by the way, is to publish short fiction in as many pro markets as you can and then write a novel and land an agent. I know there will be setbacks. I know there will be failures. I'm just going to embrace the journey and try to enjoy every minute of it.
Antonelli: Considering how many people try and don't accomplish what I already managed to do, I feel like I'm a success already.
Thankfully, I learned to write as a journalist, so I've never had to worry about the mechanics.
Now. To be a BIG success, I've got to consistently come up with ideas that resonate with the readers.
Donahue: You mean succeeding in meeting my "dream goal"? Well, I don't think (in the sense of know-absolutely or assume) I'll succeed. I don't think I'll fail either. I don't know and I don't dwell on the unknown. You can't sell your writing if you don't send it out. So, I do what I can. I write. I send it out. I cross my fingers. And sometimes, I get a sale.
But, like I mentioned, I have to write. So I'm going to. If I'm going to write anyway, I may as well send it out.
Rothfuss: Reader responses. People love the book. They come up to me and say, "I don't normally read fantasy, but I love your novel." I've come home to find people sitting outside my house, wanting to get the next piece of the manuscript. My editor says she hasn't read heroic fantasy this good in 30 years. I trust her. She knows what she's talking about.
DS: A lot of people just don't "get" speculative fiction. Outside of your own work, of course, what book or short-story would you recommend to someone like that to sway their opinion?
Pelland: Octavia Butler or Douglas Adams. Butler was the master of getting to emotional truths in her writing, and the SF elements were just her way of staging the scene to get to those truths. And Douglas Adams makes SF fun. Laughter is a gateway drug.
Scarber: I think that depends a lot on the person. If they don't get it because they normally only read Literature, then I'll probably point them to literary works that are a lot more like speculative fiction than most Literary readers are willing to admit. Italio Calvino, Audrey Niffenegger, Margaret Atwood and even Ayn Rand are all authors writing (or who have written) speculative fiction. If the person in question is willing to read their works, then there's no reason they shouldn't read Jeffrey Ford, M. John Harrison, Maureen McHugh or Paul Park. The list of speculative fiction authors who are writing better stories with better prose than their mainstream counterparts is huge. I normally put the people who don't "get" speculative fiction into the BSG camp. I've heard people say that the new Battlestar Galactica isn't science fiction. If you ask them why, they'll tell you it's because they like it—and they don't like science fiction.
What they don't understand is that science fiction isn't Star Trek—and don't get me wrong, I love Star Trek, but it and Star Wars are our two biggest evangelists. Most people assume that if they don't like vanilla or chocolate, then they just don't like ice cream. When they could pick up a little Gene Wolfe or Matthew Stover and get flavors like dark chocolate covered coffee beans in toffee or clove vanilla with butterscotch swirls...hmm, yummy.
Antonelli: Any classic short story by Asimov. His writing was always clear and engaging.
Donahue: Usually, it all comes down to what someone likes. Often, when someone who doesn't read spec fiction says they don't like it—it's because they didn't read the "right" book for them. So to recommend a book requires that you know what they want—do they really read for character? Then a plot-heavy book or a book where the world building is so extensive it can overshadow the rest, won't be to their liking. Readers who really want a complicated plot where they can't second guess what's going to happen won't generally like straightforward story lines or easily pegged characters. So, to recommend a book, you have to not only know the other person's tastes, but be well enough read to find a good match. It's all a lot like a dating service.
Rothfuss: Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or American Gods. Tim Powers' Declare or Last Call. Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn.