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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight On Peter Clines

When Peter Clines and I first met, we swung from pipes twenty plus feet over the stages at the San Diego Repertory Theater. Hanging by our knees, upside down, we hung, circuited, and focused lights for theatrical productions. Now - more than a few years later - Peter still works with story, but instead of watching it unfold on the stage, he puts it on the page.

Author of the genre-bending novels, Ex-Heroes, Ex-Patriots, and The Eerie Adventures of The Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe, all available through Permuted Press, Peter also writes articles and essays about screenwriting, Hollywood, and using modern technology ... like dictionaries. His blog, Writer on Writing, is chock full of useful info, funny observations, and tips for writers of all levels.

Peter's novels are available through clicking this link.

His short story, The Hatbox, can be read online at The Harrow

Not shy with words, I've split Peter's interview into two parts. First, Part 2. Scan down to the previous post for Part 1.

The Interview ... Continued

How did you develop your relationship with Permuted Press? 
Like everyone says to do, I started small.  Mundane again, sorry.  I saw a submissions call for an anthology they were putting out (History is Dead, edited by zombie master Kim Paffenroth) and submitted a short story.  I didn't get in, but I found their message boards, lurked for a while, and eventually started contributing to the different topics (some would say passionately contributing on some topics...).  When they announced their next anthology, Cthulhu Unbound, I was right there.  And this time I got a story-- "The Long, Deep Dream"--in the second volume.  Then I got a story into a later anthology, The World is Dead, also edited by Dr. Paffenroth. 

One of the advantages of a smaller press is they're a bit more approachable.  I'm not saying it's any easier to get in, because a small publisher is still a publisher and they've got standards and financial considerations just like the big guys.  But it's usually easier to bounce an idea off someone.  Permuted Press holds an online chat every Thursday night, and Jacob Kier, the publisher, drops in pretty regularly.  So I had a chance to talk with him a few times, and when I finally pitched the idea of Ex-Heroes to him it was something we'd loosely discussed before, the idea of superheroes fighting zombies.  He's since admitted that he didn't think it was an idea that could be pulled off, but if I was willing to write it he'd be willing to look at it.  At which point all the pressure was back on me and I had a very stressful summer of 2008 as I tried to write a book between dozens of magazine articles.  

One of the great things I got from journalism was the need to write.  You don't wait to feel inspired, you don't get to take time off, you have to write now and you have to have it done by then.  It wasn't my first attempt at a novel, by a long shot, but I knew I only had a limited window and I knew it had to be perfect!  And I still don't think it was perfect, but apparently it was good enough for Jacob to buy it and start talking to me about a sequel.  In early 2009 we were talking about Crusoe.  And we've talked about a few things since then. 

You publish in both paperback and ebooks, how has ebooks impacted publishing and writing? First, in all fairness, I have to point out that I'm not publishing anything.  I'm just writing.  The fact that my stuff is in paper/electronic/audiobook format is entirely the doing of Permuted Press.  There are a ton of authors out there who are great about getting their stuff into different formats--I'm not one of them.  I've just been very lucky to be associated with a big enough small press (so to speak) that all those things are done for me.

That being said... Okay, you've really asked two separate questions, and it's a topic I tend to pontificate on, so I'll try to give solid answers and be concise...  Wish me luck. 

As far as publishing goes, ebooks have had an undeniable impact, but I'm not so sure it's as great as some people think it is.  This technology has come along when the market's already in a huge state of flux because of the bad economy and the loss of one of the three major book retailers in the country (which I think is more from over-diversifying than anything else).  Plus there's print-on-demand which has changed things for individual authors and for a lot of smaller publishers.  So ebooks are changing things, absolutely, but to attribute everything that's happening in the industry right now to some sort of technological/ "indie writer" revolution seems a bit myopic to me.  

For example, someone showed me an article recently that said mass market paperbacks are on shaky ground right now and might not be around much longer.  And one of the factors of that was ebooks, yes, but they also cited the huge loss of shelf space with Borders gone and also the lack of sales in general because of the economy.  Folks haven't been grabbing a cheap paperback for the beach or their commute.  The same article also brought up, though, that people have predicted the end of the mass-market paperback for over thirty years now for a variety of reasons.  I'll point out people started predicting "print is dead" after the creation of radio and that the movie industry was dead after the creation of television.  The publishing industry is trying to find a new balance point and nobody knows what that point is going to end up being.  Nobody.  If anyone did know the future, they wouldn't be in publishing, they'd be buying lottery tickets between horse races.

From the writing viewpoint, I think this is a very freeing time, in some senses, and a time of fantastic opportunity, but it's also a very dangerous one.  Let me put it this way...  It's become very difficult in Hollywood right now to make a living as a screenwriter.  The market got flooded a few years back and it never really recovered from that sudden influx of new screenwriters who all thought they were going to move to Hollywood and make a quick million with a screenplay they polished off over a long weekend.  You still hear about so-and-so making a million-dollar deal, but you don't hear about the 95% of screenwriters who are making forty grand or less a year.  That's managing-a-Target money.  Probably less after reps take their cut. 

Now, a ton of people are going to read this interview and think "Wow, I'd love to make forty grand a year writing.  Heck, I'd do it for half that much!"  And that's the problem.  Hollywood's flooded with wanna-be writers who are lowballing each other for every job they can.  It's become a race to the bottom, and producers won't pay someone to write a draft when a thousand people are offering to do it for free.  All those writers think this will lead to getting paid for the next draft, but guess what?  There's a thousand people offering to do the next draft for free.  And the one after that, and the one after that.  

I've met people who have worked for years on stuff for no pay at all because they're convinced next time someone's going to offer them money.  But once you've established you'll work for free, why would anyone pay you?  Especially when there are a thousand other people willing to do it for nothing?  So working for free has become the norm and a whole class of employment has essentially vanished.  If you can't pay the bills... well, you can't write for a living.  And if you have to get another job to pay the bills, you're cutting into your writing time, so you've just drastically reduced the odds of writing for a living.

This is what I'm talking about when I say this is a dangerous time.  The publishing industry is in flux, there are thousands and thousands of people who see the web and ebook technology as their big chance to "get in," and they're already creating that race to the bottom mentality.  If writers aren't careful, we're going to destroy the career we all want so badly. 

I know this makes me sound kind of negative and I don't mean to.  I just see a lot of parallels right now between publishing and the gold rush in the late 1800s.  There were a lot of people who screamed "Gold!" and urged everyone to buy a pickax, run into the hills, and start hitting rocks.   That was all you needed to do, because there was so much gold!  So tens of thousands of people rushed to California thinking this was their big break, and the majority of them died penniless in the mountains.  Heck, whole towns died because they put all their eggs in the wrong basket.  There really was a lot of money to be made, but in the end the ones who came out ahead were the ones selling the pickaxes, not the would-be prospectors.  

That didn't sound much better, did it?  I'll stop talking. 

What are you working on now?
At the moment I'm putting the final polishes on a novel called -14-.  It's... well, it's a bunch of genres crossed together (there's that damned term again...).  It's the biggest thing I've ever done, and I had to cut almost a quarter of it just for publishing reasons.  Part of it is about community and the lack of community you often have in a city, especially in apartment buildings.  And a large part of it's a mystery, and the mystery is what helps a bunch of people in this particular apartment building to come together and form a community.  I'm trying not to talk about it too much because the downside of mysteries, especially today, is that too many people are spoiler-happy and determined to figure things out ahead of time.  Then they get fact X out of context and render a judgment.  Then that fact's weaker even in context because it was known ahead of time, so the mystery as a whole is weaker, and suddenly "really cool" has become "ahhhh, finally."  So I'm trying to keep this one as quiet as possible... 

Once that's done--probably by Halloween-- I'll be starting Ex-Communication, the third Ex-Heroes book.  So there's chocolate-marshmallow cereal in my future.  And Jacob Kier and I have talked about a few projects for Permuted after that, assuming the world goes on past 2012. 

Final Words of Wisdom:
The best thing any writer can learn to do is admit something they wrote isn't that good.  I've seen a lot of people fail because the stuff they sent out just wasn't ready to go.  It could've been fantastic but they didn't want to admit it wasn't ready or do that extra bit of work.  So they sent it out when it was just okay, and then they got angry that okay wasn't good enough.  The first thing I got in front of an agent really should not have gone out.  The first thing I ever sent to a publisher really should not have gone out.  They weren't ready.  I can see that now even if I couldn't then.  Stephen King didn't get a five million dollar advance for the first hundred-thousand words he wrote.  Barry Bonds didn't get fifty thousand the first time he swung a baseball bat.  Gordon Ramsay didn't get a hundred dollars a plate for the first meal he cooked. But the reason they eventually did is because they were willing to admit their early work wasn't good and they needed a lot more practice and experience.   

And sometimes something's never going to be good enough.  I know one guy who's been pushing the same manuscript for over a decade.  Hasn't written anything else because he's convinced this manuscript is going to sell.  So he's been pushing that one manuscript for longer than my entire career as a professional writer.  You've got to wonder what he could've done if he just put it away and moved on. 

So that.  And always brush your teeth after eating sugar cereal. 

That's all I've got for wisdom.

Spotlight on Peter Clines

The Interview ... Part One
Your work is described as crossing genres, how would you describe your work?
Adequate?  I think adequate's a good description...  Entertaining, hopefully. 

It's a tough question to answer.  The stuff I'm best known for, the Ex-Heroes
series, is zombie fiction crossed with superhero fiction, but I also wrote a book called The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe, and that's a literary classic crossed with H.P. Lovecraft and a dash of werewolf.  Cross-genre is one of those terms that's absolutely correct in most cases but also doesn't really tell you anything.  I mean, a rom-com is cross-genre, but I don't write rom-coms.  Plus I think most really good writing tends to cross genres on one level or another.  Salem's Lot is the halfbreed child of Our Town and Dracula.  Michael Crichton pretty much invented the techno-thriller.  Lee Child took the western character of the mysterious stranger and made him a retired Army MP, but still has him riding into town to help solve problems.   One term I've heard a lot lately is "speculative fiction," and I think that's a great term.  I tend to write in the genre of "what if this happened..."  And that covers superheroes, zombies, werewolves, Cthulhu, space travel, time travel, the end of the world, and a lot of other neat stuff.

So really, on one level, I'm just a little kid going "Hey, you know what'd be really
cool...?"

How do you approach writing a novel compared to a short story or magazine article?

It's really three different things.  Well, two things and something else...  A lizard, maybe.  Magazine articles are very structured, which can be freeing or frustrating, depending on the material.  It's freeing because you start with so much of it done. For example, when I wrote for Creative Screenwriting
I knew I'd have a short summary of the film, I'd have some key process questions, a few specifics about the film, maybe an experience question or two--and a lot of this is going to end up being quotes from the interview.  Wham, bam, done.  I'd do the interview and work all the answers into place.  The frustrating part is sometimes, in the course of the interview, something really cool comes up and there's just nothing to do with it.  Sometimes you can beg and plead with an editor for more space, but that means taking space away from something else.  So usually this article is 1500 words, period, and if something doesn't fit it doesn't fit.  There were times I could polish off two articles a day once I'd transcribed the interview, and sometimes I'd beat my head on an 800 word piece trying to figure out how to include good material there just wasn't space for.  I got to interview Akiva Goldsman once and he had some wonderful, really brilliant observations about genre material and sci-fi vs fantasy.  I think I used two quotes from him in the final article.

Short stories are easier for me.  You've generally got a bit of flex room, size-wise.  The joy of them being a smaller, more concise tale is that they tend to come together pretty much fully formed.  You have characters, a situation, a conflict, and you've got it.  It's really rare for me to start a short story and not already know how ninety percent of it's going to go.  I've got one story coming out called "Mulligan," and once I had the basic idea and the characters it took me about two days to get a very solid draft.  One of my earliest sales was actually a first draft.  It got edited a bit by the publisher, but the story that sold was a first draft I wrote in about six hours.

For novels, I tend to scribble a lot of notes to myself when I'm working on whatever happens to be my current project.  I end up with a very, very loose outline of character sketches, dialogue, ideas for different moments.  I try not to do too much past that because I think sometimes an outline can be limiting.  It's good for screenwriting, where you have to be much more focused and usually have a very strict deadline, but I think in a novel you get a lot more out of it if you give yourself the space to be creative.  It's the difference between having OnStar map out your entire route and just saying "Road trip-- we need to be in Boston by the 15th."  Either way you've got the same beginning and end, but you'll get a lot more out of the trip when you've got the freedom to stop and see Graceland, the biggest ball of twine, the Sunsphere, and all that.  In every book I've written so far, there's something that only came out of it because I had room to explore within my rough outline.

Once I start writing, I try to do at least two thousand words a day, every day.  Sometimes when things are going well I'll hit four or five thousand, but two's the minimum.  My goal is to get a first draft done, because I think on this scale it's a lot easier to revise something than it is to try to get it perfect the first time.  Sometimes this even means skimming over something for now.  I don't like getting bogged down looking up how big a blue whale is, figuring out what day of the week Memorial Day falls on in 2013, or coming up with a reason for character A to get a pistol from character B.  If something's deathly important to the plot, I've most likely already got it figured out before I started this draft.  If it isn't, then there's no reason it can't get polished later.  The goal is to get the first draft done.  That means the second draft can be polishing and fact-checking, and the third draft is trimming and cutting.

Oh, and one other silly thing, speaking of "my approach."  This sounds ridiculous, I know, but just before I start a new project I go out and get a box of cereal.  Something with chocolate or marshmallows, preferably both.  It's become sort of a tradition.  It just lets me start three or four days in a little kid mindset.  I think it's really important for a writer to keep that sense of creativity and wonder we all had when we were little, when a lot more things were really cool (as I said before).  I think if you can't look at things with those fresh, innocent eyes, you're going to have an uphill battle as a writer.

Plus, it's a great reminder to get a new toothbrush.

Writing is part art, part craft, part business, how do you balance these different areas of being a professional writer?

Art's a tough one, because on some level we all want to do things that get recognized on a higher level than "an entertaining read," but we also need
to do things that sell.  Perfect example is that book I mentioned, The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe.  It came out of the cross-genre craze (there's that term again) that  Pride & Prejudice & Zombies started.  I decided I didn't want to do something silly or bizarre, though, I wanted to do a serious book... at least, as serious as possible when you're introducing werewolves and the Cthulhu mythos into one of the classics of English literature.  And I'd like to think that, on an artistic level, I succeeded.  I wrote a perfect, early 18th century horror novel in the language and prose of that time.  The downside, from a business point of view, was that I wrote a perfect, early 18th century horror novel in the language and prose of that time.  And those really aren't selling these days... as I found out.

As for business...  Well, total honesty, I completely suck at the business end of it.  Can I say suck?  It's really the best word.  I don't have an agent but that hasn't really been a detriment so far.  I'm horrible at self-promotion.  I could probably be a lot more aggressive about marketing.  On the other hand, though, I see so many aggressive self-promoters who get annoying really fast.  I'd like to think some people enjoy the fact that I can--and often do--talk about something besides "buy my book!!"  I also think some folks get so obsessed with promoting themselves they forget they need something to promote.  I try to make sure the business side is always the minority of my time.

And I guess that leaves craft.  Which is the toughest because it's an ongoing process.  There's never going to be a point where I can say "NOW I know everything there is to know about writing."  There's always new tricks to learn and new traps to fall into.  I think it was in Neil Gaiman's Sandman
that one of the characters says something like "being immortal hasn't made me wise, it's just given me more time to make new mistakes." (As a side note, Peter introduced me to Neil Gaiman back in our theater days, for which I'm very grateful)

The main way any writer gets better at the craft is sitting his or her butt down in a chair and writing.  You can read all the how-to books and go to seminars with gurus, but at the end of the day the only way to improve the craft is to write.  Those other things help at first, but I think they quickly become a hindrance more than anything else.  If you're spending more time reading books about how to write than actually writing, you're doing something wrong.  So, mundane as it sounds, I try to write every day.  Sometimes it's a focused effort, other times it's blog articles or notes for future projects.  I also read tons of stuff, good and bad, in all different genres, because there's always more to learn from experience than from instruction.