Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ten Questions for an Author

Considering that we've reviewed two of John Lawson's books; "Witch Ember" and "The Raven", both of which received our coveted five-medallion rating, we figured it was only right to get some feedback from the author for the Odyssey site. We threw ten questions at him, and here is what he said:

Q: Both Witch Ember and The Raven have some pretty out-there imagery and situations in them and there is a darkness to these books that makes us wonder What’s going on inside your head; where does it all come from?

JL: Generally speaking, I derive events and images from the real world, either from historical texts, classical literature, case studies in psychology, or the nightly news. Sometimes, I glean inspiration from other books or movies, frequently in the form of “Wouldn’t it be cool if *** happens?” or “Gosh, it would have been better if…” I know I’m in the presence of a really good book or movie when my mind starts to wander and I start thinking up my own ideas. You know you’re in trouble when you have my rapt attention, because that means I’m bored.

More often than not, my darkest imagery comes from the real world.

Q: How long have you been writing creatively?

I’ve written creatively for nearly 30 years, although I’ve never had anything published before Witch Ember. Back in 7th grade, a teacher must have seen something in me, because she recommended my attendance at a weekend writing retreat at some college. I don’t remember much about the day other than how much older all the other attendees were and how bad the food was they gave us.

In 8th grade, we were given the assignment to conceive, write, and bind our own books. I spent a great deal of time on the details, striving to make it look as professional as possible. After I turned it in, the teacher actually suggested that I had my parents help me do it. My parents were outraged, but I was actually somewhat flattered.

But that was pretty much it. I really didn’t take my writing very seriously and even actively avoided doing anything that could result in any visibility or credit. I focused instead on developing my inner geek through trivial efforts like role-playing games, comic books, and computers until college, where I finally attended another creative writing class. This class turned out to be extremely damaging (the professor was completely out of control), so damaging in fact, that I literally refused to do any creative writing for nearly 10 year.

And then one day, I just sat down and started writing Witch Ember.

Q: I understand that writing is also a large part of your profession; can you describe a bit of what you do?

JL: I am a Principle Technical Writer for Oracle Corporation. I’ve been a technical writer for approximately 15 years. I was also the Submissions Editor for the somewhat successful webzine, which is currently on a semi-permanent hiatus while the webmaster gets his flippin’ act together.

Q: What authors, personalities or fellow artists influence you the most?

JL: From a book aspect, I have always admired David Brin’s ability to convey true alienness in his extraterrestrials. They weren’t just human beings with funny-looking foreheads. You could easily believe that his creatures possessed completely different physiologies, cultures, and thought patterns, and mere humans could never comprehend them. The Uplift War series is some of the best science fiction ever written. I endeavored to try to capture a taste of that in my own creatures, and it is why I’ll never write a story from the point of view of an alf or paqa.

Neal Stephenson is a master of characterization. His characters become real people, saying and doing real things. His work is my model for dialog and personalization. Esmeree never would have existed without Diamond Age’s Nell.

With a simple description of a grove of trees or an old ruin, Robert Holdstock can capture a sense of mythic power and deep time. Read Mythago Wood and be amazed. In my legends and lore and scenic descriptions, I tried to capture a mere shade of his genius.

Aside from his obvious accomplishments, Steven King showed in his Dark Tower series that you don’t need a medieval setting to make fantasy work.

Lastly, there is Gene Wolfe’s New Sun series. If I didn’t happen to know better, I’d assume my writing was derivative of his. His settings and themes were so similar to mine, at times I wanted to correct his work because he wasn’t using the right terminology. As it is, I consider the similarities a happy coincidence, and if he wasn’t an influence at first, he is now.

In artists, I’ve always admired Olivia De Berardinis, HR Geiger, Micheal Parks, and Bethalynne Bajema. And, of course, the three artists who did the artwork for my books: Jason Nunes, Jon “Bean” Hastings, and Walt Moore.

Q: Will the world that Esmeree and Guiromélans inhabit continue on or are you thinking of newer, darker places?

JL: I have lots of plans for the world of Esmeree and Guiromélans; it’s a matter of if I have time to write it all. I currently have a prequel finished and am currently working on another sequel. While The Raven is the chronological sequel to Witch Ember, my current work-in-progress will be my first return to telling Esmeree’s story. It’s like coming home to an old friend.

I also have a fourth book completed that takes place in the same Seven Kingdoms world, but follows the path of different characters.

I am currently seeking representation for both finished manuscripts.

Ultimately, I hope all the threads will come together, but whether or not I have the patience to write all the necessary books remains to be seen.

I currently have no interest in writing creatively about anything else.

Q: What tips would you offer any new authors who are considering the self-publishing route?

JL: There are many options nowadays open to authors who are looking to self-publish. Some publishers are better than others. I believe the key is to go into the relationship with your eyes open. Do your research. Go to "Predators & Editors" and "Writers Beware" and other author advocacy sites. Find out what publishers are scams and what are legit. Protect yourself, and choose your self-publisher carefully. And if you are an author that hopes to one day be part of the mainstream publishing community, you need to come to terms with some hard facts:

  • There are probably very good reasons why your book wasn't picked up a publisher or agent. Until you address those issues, you'll continue to run into the same problems.

  • Only vanity or subsidy publishers charge their authors fees. If a publisher claims they are "traditional" but tries to charge "reading fees," "processing fees," "editing fees," or any other kind of fee, run awaaaaay.

  • No matter how many sales you earn, self-published books do not count as publishing credit in the eyes of publishers.

  • There IS a stigma attached to self-published books. So if you seek a mainstream publishing career, you need to be aware of that. The agent, Nathan Bransford, wrote a very good blog post on the subject:

Q: For our fellow authors out there, who are always looking for tips on improving their writing, what would you tell them? How would they overcome writer’s block, for instance, or make their work more professional? Do you write on a schedule, or other discipline?

JL: I don’t recommend people follow my writing methodology. I’m a mess, and I’m mental.

I rarely do rewrites (and critics of mine might point and say, “Ah-HAH!”). The words I type into the word processor are frequently the final version, or very close to it, and I’ve almost never deleted large chunks of text and had to start over because I had written myself into a corner or because it just wasn’t working. For the most part, I don’t do much exploring as I type. When I sit down to write, I already know what is going to happen, and it’s just a matter of transcribing it onto the screen.

Creative writing instructors (including my much-loathed professor) would say this is exactly the WRONG thing to do. The process of free-flow writing and rewriting is part of the creative process. The reiteration and rearrangement of thoughts is what helps the author’s imagination massage and digest their thoughts. Like sifting wheat from chaff, it helps you bring what works to the top and to discard the rest.

I think I do that to a degree, but I have internalized the process. I am always thinking about the next scene. I roll it over and over in my head constantly. While driving, while showering, while watching TV, during important conversations with my wife. I explore the scene, play it out and see what happens. Then I do it again but change something and see how that changes the outcome. Over and over I do it, and I know when I’m done because my subconscious won’t let me move on until it is.

As I said, I’m mental, and I don’t recommend this process for anyone.

So in a sense, my writing might appear very stream-of-consciousness. But in another way, it is very meticulous. My books are long by intent. Their structure is by design, not by accident (or due to lack of plot control by a junior author, ahem). Three parts of 10 chapters each, with a prologue and epilogue, for a total of 32 chapters. I conceive of each chapter as a mini-event, with its own arc, its own climax. Each part of 10 can stand alone as well, and the 3 parts combined consist of the story as a whole. It is within that maze-like structure that my unconscious is allowed to run like a rat. So far, it’s worked out pretty well for me.

Q: How long did it take for you to complete each of your books?

JL: Witch Ember and The Raven each took about a year to write. The publishing process took a little while longer. Now that I have children, it’s become harder and harder to find time to write, but I still hope to have about a 1-2 year turnaround for new books.

Q: Both Witch Ember and The Raven are outstanding examples of a well-edited, self-published book. What is your editing/proofreading process?

JL: First off, I got a degree in Career Writing and a certificate in technical writing. I am a professional technical writer and editor (careers quite popular among the author set, so I know I’m in good company).

I am a compulsive editor. Upon completion of a new chapter, I proofread and edit it before starting the next one. Upon completion of a part of 10, I proofread and edit it as well. And finally, once the book is complete, I copy-edit it twice: once forwards, and once backwards. Editing a book backwards, line-by-line, is a great way to proofread because it removes all context from the reading and helps you focus only on the grammar, syntax, and punctuation.

Q: Finally, tell us more about your future projects, ideas and inspirations. What new John Lawson works can we look forward to?

JL: I intend to explore as much of Esmeree’s world and story as I can without becoming tiresome. I appear to be establishing a pattern where each book explores a different piece of geography. Maybe once I’ve visited all the interesting places, I’ll consider doing something different.

One thing I considered would be traveling 1000 years into the future and checking out how things have changed.

Thanks John Lawson! We can't wait to see you publish next!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Still Here, Albeit Occupied and Harried.

I am still here, I am still reading (although slowly) and I took a break from Self-Published works to read "Good Omens"; and another work by SM Stirling. I will resume reviews soon.

An author interview is possibly forthcoming; barring the *Outlook Express Disaster has taken that away permanently as well. Speaking of the Outlook Express disaster; I lost a good 26 previous queries which I had stored in a special folder... so if you submitted a query for a review, please resubmit just in case.

*Something mysterious happened with my Outlook Express where it simply decided it wasn't going to bear the burden of my huge mail storage a moment longer, and it completely crashed; taking the whole archive with it. Of course, I had it set to clean up my msn mailbox every time it downloaded mail, so there's nothing stored on hotmail. ::eep::

I learned my lesson and my apologies for the inconvenience. Please direct your anger towards Microsoft.