Greg Wilson and Brad Beaulieu are the founders of a brilliant website called Speculatesf.com (mentioned in my previous blog on Speculative Fiction) which features podcasts about the latest SF books, authors and writing. They were kind enough to answer some questions about themselves, their website and their writing. I know you’re going to love this one…
You both have different writing backgrounds and live in different cities. Tell us a little about how your paths crossed.
GREG: Brad and I first met at the Writers’ Symposium at Gen Con, back (I think) in 2006 or so. We tended to move in the same circles, so we ran into each other on a number of occasions afterwards.
BRAD: That’s right. We had a reading together at Gen Con, which was the first time we’d talked at length. I think I ended up hogging the time because I mis-timed the story I was reading. Somehow Greg got over it and forgave me.
www.speculatesf.com is a brilliant website for readers and writers of SF. What brought about the idea to have these podcast interviews?
GREG: The original idea for Speculate! stemmed from a conversation Brad and I had at dinner one night during Gen Con 2010. We had been discussing Kij Johnson’s short story “Spar,” on which we had a few disagreements :), but I found the conversation so interesting that I thought it would be fun to continue it in another context. I already had podcasting experience from two previous shows, and spoke to a few people about doing some kind of a roundtable or group show—but Brad and I have a number of similar tastes as far as speculative fiction is concerned, and ultimately we connected the best in terms of a vision for the show.
We both had the idea for doing a sequence of episodes on each work we were going to discuss, but Brad was the one who came up with the reader response / author interview / writing technique discussion model, and I think it works very well—especially since we’ve broadened a bit now to do some one off interviews and to look at other aspects of SFF besides simply writing, though that remains our focus.
BRAD: Sadly, Greg’s memory is already starting to fail him. The conversation we had was at a steak house in Columbus, Ohio at World Fantasy in October of 2010. He got the story right, though. Sparks were flying as we talked about “Spar.” It was definitely an interesting conversation, and I was excited to have more, not only to share what I’ve learned about writing, but also to learn from other writers, including Greg. It’s a great venue for our listeners, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say how exciting it is to talk to some of these folks directly. And also, it’s illuminating to decompose stories to see how they tick. All-in-all, I’m very pleased with the format we settled on, because I think it not only gives some idea of what these stories are like, it also illuminates the writer’s mind of the author and it gives Greg and I a chance to flex our muscles while digging into the story for the trailing episode in each sequence.
You’ve interviewed some interesting writers in your 20 episodes. Which has been the most interesting interview?
GREG: This is a tough call, since we really haven’t had any duds—everyone’s been interesting in his/her own way! Kij Johnson provided some really fascinating insights into the writing process, and Pat Rothfuss did a wide-ranging interview about topics from writing to charity work. And Ed Greenwood, whom we just interviewed at Gen Con, was as fun as always. Those are the ones that jump out for me, but really, everyone we’ve interviewed has been great.
BRAD: There have been some very interesting interviews. I love those nuggets of information that come from people that have been writing for decades. (I wanted to say “years” in kindness, but who am I kidding? We look to the masters, and they’ve been at this thing for a while.) The banter between Michael Swanwick and James Patrick Kelly was a lot of fun, not to mention illuminating, but I’d have to give the crown to Kij Johnson. I’m a big fan, not just of her writing, but of how well she understands the craft and is able to pass that along to younger writers. It’s a difficult thing, being witty and instructive at the same time, but Kij always seems to manage it.
How did you get into writing? Was it a natural progression or somewhat unexpected?
GREG: I’d say it was fairly natural for me. My father was a college professor of English, and my mother was a teacher, so I grew up around lots of books (we had a five thousand book library), and the written (and spoken) word was a major part of my childhood. I ended up getting a B.A. in English Education, but then went on to do my Masters and Ph.D in English, since I had decided that teaching in college was my primary “day job” goal. In college I wrote plays, and was reasonably successful in that environment, but it wasn’t really until I was nearing the end of my graduate work that I started to focus on novels. Finishing my dissertation, and then turning it into my first academic book, was a big step for me; if I could finish one book-length work, I could finish two or more, and the discipline I learned in graduate school went a long way in helping me in my creative writing career.
As for what I chose to write about, that was also fairly clear—I read, teach and enjoy all kinds of literature, but speculative fiction is really what first fired my imagination as a kid, and so as I got serious about becoming a novelist writing fantasy fiction was a natural progression.
BRAD: I got into reading fantasy (and science fiction, but mostly fantasy) at a young age. I never thought much about it during high school, though I did write a few fantastic stories for school assignments during that time. I also gamed a lot. I played a metric ton of role playing games like D&D, Villains & Vigilantes, RoleMaster, James Bond, GURPS, and on and on. I loved playing them, but I really gravitated to running the games, coming up with the world and the characters and the scenario the players would go through. It was a lot of fun for me, and it was where my storytelling skills first started to blossom.
Still, I never really thought about becoming a writer. It was more of a “what if,” something so distant from where I was that it never felt like something I could reasonably pursue—like becoming an astronaut, or a world class gymnast. Also, I was in love with computers. I started programming in junior high school, and I never looked back. I got a degree in Computer Science and Engineering, but during that time, writing was still at the back of my mind. I took my first stab at writing a novel in those college years, and I still have those pages. Somewhere. They’re truly horrible, but it was a start.
After college, I started writing a new novel, and this time I finished it. The only problem was it took me seven years to do, and I thought: if I’m going to do this, I’d better dedicate myself to it or just drop the idea altogether. At that point I’d been going to the Gen Con gaming convention for a long time, since my grade school days. I’d gone mostly as a gamer, but I saw some writing seminars, so I started to attend those. This is where I first met Kij Johnson, and she talked about a lot of things to help a young writer get started—going to writing conventions (I started with WorldCon in San Jose in 2003 and World Fantasy in D.C. in 2004), entering contests (I entered Writers of the Future for six straight quarters until I won in 2004), writing every day (a routine I still use today), and many other bits of advice. What you’ll find is that your knowledge and your network will expand like ice crystals, and soon I was attending four or five conventions per year, selling some short fiction, and participating in panels.
In the end, I’d have to say that the progression to a published novelist was somewhat unexpected, but there was always something at the center of me that wanted to write, to share stories.
Tell us a bit about your writing process (if you have one) and how you work from that initial idea to the finished manuscript.
GREG: I can get ideas from anywhere, but typically they come from another creative medium: a television show, a live theater production, a dance performance, something like that (one of my novels, Icarus, came from an idea I had while watching a Cirque du Soleil performance). Once I have the idea I let it percolate in my head for a good while—often months, since I’m usually working on something else at the same time—and develop a good sense of the narrative arc I want to pursue. When I sit down to write, I work out a chapter by chapter outline (which is subject to significant revision as I actually write the novel), then get underway. (I should note that I didn’t outline when I first began writing…but I didn’t finish any novels when I first began writing either! I find that having a chapter outline is helpful not only for keeping me on track as I write, but afterwards when I’m sending it to publishers or working with my agent, as an extended chapter synopsis is often requested by potential publishers anyway.) I try to set larger goals for myself—finish a chapter by the end of this week, finish the first part of the novel by the end of this month, etc.—and that way I can keep on track even if I’m not able to write every single day (which, with a full time teaching job and a family, isn’t always the easiest thing to do).
When I’m done with the first draft I usually step away from the manuscript for a week or more before coming back to it and beginning revision. When that pass is done, I send it off to a couple of trusted beta readers, and then see what else is out there—a workshop, like the Wellspring one Brad ran in 2011, or something similar. Using the feedback I get from all those places I revise again before sending it to my agent and starting the harrowing process of waiting for publishers to weigh in!
BRAD: Orson Scott Card, in his book on writing, Characters and Viewpoint (one of the many excellent books in the Writers Digest Elements of Writing Fiction series), talks about the idea net. We’re trained to let many pieces of information pass us by, but as writers, we have to hone the skill of picking up on those ideas that might be used in our stories—to capture them in a net, as it were. It’s actually quite easy once you get the hang of it. NPR (National Public Radio in the U.S.) is my favorite source for this, but they come from everywhere, including other people’s writing. The key here is to become attuned to those “ah-ha” moments, those “wow, interesting” moments. You know, the ones that make you pause, that give you a small sense of wonder or shock or admiration. In essence, they’re those new discoveries or pieces of someone else’s life that create in you some emotional response. Those are the things that you should hold onto and put in your story journal, the one where you keep all of your story ideas that are only half-formed glimmers.
When I first start working on a story, I’ll go back to that journal and start looking at the things I’ve collected, start playing with them, and see what happens. For a short story, I like to have two or three interesting things going on before I begin, and if I do, I can generally expand that into a story I’d like to tell with characters that mean something to me. For novels, I shoot for more, something like five or six unique, interesting “things” that add to the story. These could be sparks of character, magic, culture, politics, and so on. With novels I like to do one more thing. I like to build the world before I start writing. I use a fractal mapping program that helps to create a world. And this helps to advise me on what resources might be available, what natural barriers there are to travel and communication, and a host of other things that I try to use to my benefit. I used this with my debut novel, The Winds of Khalakovo, and I found it to be extremely useful. The simple “what’s where” of things helped me to frame the story.
Once all that’s done, and I have the basic elements to work with, I plot out the novel. I don’t go into exhaustive detail, but I work out the ending and a few major turning points in the story, and I plot the early part of the book fairly extensively. I refine this roadmap as I work through the novel, stopping every so often for brainstorming sessions. The plot continues to fill in (and advise the parts I’ve already written), and through this iterative process, I complete the book. At this point, I have what I call the zeroth draft. This is something that no one is ready to see, because it’s too incomplete. I go through the manuscript, fixing the things I already know are broken. I also do a polish draft at the same time. And once this is done the true first draft is ready for people to see. From that point, it’s a matter of refining, refining, refining, until the story’s complete.
Tell us a little about your most recently published book. What is it about? (And where can we buy it?)
GREG: The Third Sign is an epic fantasy in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan (oddly, most of the fantasy I write isn’t of the epic variety, but it’s the kind which most interested me when I was growing up, and it’s the kind I most enjoy reading for pleasure myself). From the front cover summary: “Calen Gollnet lives in a tumultuous world. Surrounded by hostile forces bent on its destruction, his country Klune has been free for ten years, having thrown off the yoke of oppression thanks to a small group of heroes known as the Covenant; but the cost of this freedom was great, and the nation’s liberty is becoming tenuous. The Covenant is broken, and Klune is now kept safe only because of a treaty struck between the human king and a race of honorable but xenophobic mercenaries known as arlics who have patrolled Klune’s borders for the past decade. But the treaty is due to expire, and both the arlics and humans are restless, each claiming that they have been weakened by their dependence on the other.
As negotiations between the two sides break down and dark armies gather while politics bogs down the governors of city and country, Calen flees from the army attacking his home city, unaware that there is more to fear than mortal warriors; the appearance of the horrifying Soul Wall and other omens point to the fulfillment of the Prophecy of Return, in which it is said that three signs will signal the return of a great evil. The first two signs have come to pass, but the prophecy is obscure on its final prediction: the tide of the conflict may be changed by the third sign, but no one knows what that sign is, or whom it will favor.
The Third Sign’s unique combination of suspense, mystery, political intrigue and sword and sorcery will draw readers in as they search with the characters for the answer to the most important question: what is The Third Sign?”
BRAD: The Winds of Khalakovo is an epic fantasy. The genesis of the book is actually from a series of postcards of fine art that I picked up in Edinburgh, Scotland. (I posted about it on my website if you’re curious to learn more.) I used that artwork to first generate and then crystallize my thoughts about the book. Initially, I tried not to let any one thing rule the brainstorming I would do from time to time. I didn’t even know who the main characters were at first. I was quite taken by the picture of the three sisters, though, and I knew right away, the moment I laid eyes on the original in the National Gallery, that they would play a major part in the novel.
But in the end it was the picture of the boy with the flaming brand that kept leaping out at me, calling for attention. The artist is Godfried Schalcken, and the piece is called A Boy Blowing on a Firebrand to Light a Candle. This character eventually became Nasim, the autistic savant. As I was studying the characters, I began to realize that this boy was not going to be a point-of-view character, but he was going to be a prime mover. In the end, he embodies much of what Winds is about. The story truly does revolve around him and his unique powers.
The brand that he holds in the painting also came into play. I didn’t know what the magic was going to be about. I hardly had a single preconception about the book going in. I just wanted the artwork to speak to me, to advise me as to what the story was going to be–from the characters to the world to the magic. The boy blowing on the brand got me to thinking about elemental magic, and I realized that Nasim was one who could do this without even thinking. It came as naturally to him as did breathing. That’s a difficult place to put a character, however. As a writer, you have to be careful of all-powerful things, and so I needed something to balance Nasim’s abilities. And this, of course, is where his disconnection from the world came from. Nasim, as written in the book, is often lost. He has difficulty relating to others in even the smallest of ways. This both limited his power and made him in some ways more dangerous and more scary than a calculating villain, simply because of the unpredictability.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Rehada, who started out as a somewhat minor character but grew into the most complex and perhaps the most compelling of my three main characters. Rehada came from Andrew Geddes’ Hagar. It’s another beautiful painting, filled with emotion. I was drawn to the fact that she was crying. I wondered why. I spent a lot of time answering that one question. After knowing that her people were essentially pacifists, I realized that Rehada was not. She felt she had betrayed her people and their ways because she had taken to the path of violence. It was from this, from that one single tear, that the entirety of the Maharraht–the fanatical splinter group that came to embrace violence as a means to an end–was born.
By this point, I understood that I wanted there to be an aristocracy of some kind, and I fairly quickly landed on a culture that was modeled loosely after Muscovite Russia. I don’t remember why, exactly. It might have been that the other artwork reminded me of Russian Czars a bit, but I think the biggest driver here was that I definitely didn’t want something that was centered around western Europe, because frankly that’s been done to death. I wanted something more unique, and I’d always sort of like the mystique and darkness that seemed to hover around that time period in Russia. They’ve always seemed like a hard people, a people that would do whatever it took to survive, but in the same light, they took time to live life fully when they could.
Given that I had the loose guidelines of the aristocracy, the peace-loving, indigenous Aramahn, and finally the will of the Maharraht to do whatever it took to regain the islands as their own, it created a crucible from which the story flowed fairly easily. I spend a lot of time building my worlds so that the conflicts within them come naturally, and that was definitely the case here.
What inspires your stories?
GREG: All sorts of things: people, environments, events, experiences. But my greatest inspiration comes from other creative mediums, and I often get an idea while watching a live performance or production in some other creative field (music, dance, etc.).
BRAD: As I mentioned above, I get a lot from listening to National Public Radio. They have a wide variety of topics, which is great in and of itself, but they’re also in-depth interviews, so they go much more below the surface than you tend to get from other traditional media sources. I also use other people’s writing quite a bit. While I’m reading, I’ll often stumble across things that the author doesn’t explore and I think could be explored to a great degree. Or it could even be something they didn’t mean to say at all, but I took in a certain way. Other sources are just talking with people, listening to their stories. You’ll often find strong emotional touch-points this way, because, well, you’re talking to real people and hearing their real emotions.
Other people’s writing:
A few weeks ago you both attended the Wellspring Workshop, where you spent a week with other writers critiquing and discussing each other’s work. Give us one highlight from your time there.
GREG: The Tuesday Funk reading, hosted by Bill Shunn (who was another workshop participant). The Tuesday Funk reading series has been going on in Chicago for a while now, with an eclectic mix of genres, but the timing happened to work out well enough that most of us were able to go and read from our work and/or cheer on our fellow writers. We had a great turnout, and the whole experience—from carpooling to and from the venue to the reading itself—was a blast. Just about everything about Wellspring was great, but that was a big highlight for me.
BRED: Well, I didn’t just attend the workshop, I organized it and “ran” it (though the “running” of it largely depends on the participants as a whole, not any one person). I felt a bit like the mother hen, and it was nice to see the workshop come together, to see people learn. It was a very gratifying experience for me.
Which author has definitively shaped you as a writer and why?
GREG: Clearly Tolkien, not just for subject matter but scale: he created a world of epic proportions, yet never forgot the smaller, quieter moments that made the epic ones matter. Shakespeare—and his deep understanding of humanity, even those people whom he would have found personally distasteful—was also critically important for my writing. Among more “modern” speculative fiction writers, John Gardner and Brandon Sanderson (Gardner for his insight, Sanderson for his balance) are significant influences as well.
BRAD: Tolkien would have to be my first answer because he was my first introduction to fantasy, epic fantasy in particular. But I can’t say that I want to write like Tolkien. He came from a different time, and while I love reading his books, I don’t find myself wanting to write in the distanced style that was common in his day. The writer that has most affected me from modern times is probably George R.R. Martin. I think he’s succeeded at the epic fantasy like no one else in the field has. The scope of his Song of Ice and Fire is breathtaking, and yet he makes you care about so many of the characters within it. It isn’t merely the majesty of the world or the gritty reality of the story as a whole, it’s the sympathy we have for so many of the characters (even the ones we hated at first) that make it truly unique.
Having some contact with new writers what would you say is a common weakness?
GREG: Impatience. Truthfully most writers struggle with this problem; we all want to get our work out there, and the incredible delays in this business can be enormously frustrating. But the successful authors are the ones who can take the long view, and can keep their anxiety to themselves and their close friends and family. Nothing will torpedo a writer’s career faster than obvious desperation, which manifests itself either as a kind of used car salesman sleaziness or cynical bitterness…neither one of which makes a personality enjoyable to be around. At worst such feelings will drive authors away from writing altogether, which is a shame. A steady and professional author will, by and large, succeed in the long run much more than the desperate hustler.
BRAD: One common weakness is failing to remember that character is plot. I had trouble with that little chestnut for a time, and while I still don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all of writing, I do think it’s very important. In order to really understand the heart of a story, you have to understand the characters, their wants and needs. And that implies all sorts of other things, like understanding their culture, their religion, their personal history and desires and loves and hates. Once you understand those things, the story begins to play itself out, because you know how characters will react when pitted against certain obstacles or challenges or disagreements. I won’t say that it makes the writing of a story easy, but it certainly makes it easier, and in the end the story will be richer for it.
In your experience, what is a writer’s most necessary tool?
GREG: The corollary to the above, patience—but also humility. Learning from the experience of others is enormously beneficial, and if you get the opportunity to learn from and work with other successful authors and editors, jump at it. Such chances to learn are extremely helpful.
BRAD: Reading. In order to write, we must read. It’s important to know what’s come before, and to know what your contemporaries are doing, but I would say it’s most important (if you really want to learn how to write) to read actively. By this I mean you don’t simply read for pleasure’s sake; you read to understand why something works or why it doesn’t. It is through this lens that you’ll be able not only to apply some of those lessons to your own writing, but to read your own work actively. Said another way: a writer has to read as an editor, with an eye towards fixing what’s wrong and accentuating what’s already working. This is one of the most common of laments you’ll hear from writers, that they can no longer read for pleasure, or at the very least can’t do it very often because they slip into editor mode all too easily. Like it or not, this is one of the prices we have to pay as writers.
What advice would you give to writers who are starting out in SF?
GREG: Read, read, read, not just in SFF but across all genres. Look online and go to conferences and conventions; seek out successful authors and editors and listen to what they say—not just for what such words could do for your career, but for what they could teach you about your craft. Then write—a lot—and a lot more. The more you read, write, and listen, the more you’ll be able to understand the conversation that’s been going on in the field for decades, and the easier it will be for you to eventually add your own voice to the discussion. Last: be patient and don’t give up. Patience and persistence will take you a long way, especially if you marry those virtues with a real excitement about your craft.
BRAD: I would urge the new writer to get into a critique group early on. I didn’t have a local writing group, so I went to the Online Writing Workshop and remained there for years while I was honing my craft. Whatever venue you decide to use, be it online or in person, my biggest suggestion is to actively search out your weaknesses. We all have them. Learn what yours are. Workshop your stories. Critique others. Pay close attention to the common threads in the feedback you’re getting. And once you have those weaknesses identified. Work on them. Get advice. And make active attempts to root out those problems, because simply writing is not enough. Writing blindly can reinforce your bad habits.
Also, recognize your strengths. We all have them. Learn what yours are. It’s common to get all sorts of advice on your stories, some of which makes no sense whatsoever to listen to. In fact, they may be very detrimental if taken to heart and internalized. While you’re paying attention to those common threads I mentioned above? Also pay attention to what you’re doing right. I say this not so you can rest on your laurels; I say it so you can accentuate those strengths and make them better. You can even use that knowledge to minimize your strengths in certain stories so that you can focus on your weaknesses. If you’re great with dialogue, write a story with no dialogue whatsoever. If you’re good with action, write an introspective story. And then do the reverse. Write a story that focuses on your strengths, i.e. make those muscles stronger. Hopefully something interesting comes out of these experiments along the way.
If you haven’t been to visit the website yet, I suggest you do. Even if you don’t write SF you will benefit from the discussions of these experienced authors.