Find Your Writing Tribe

Photo by Letcombe on Flickr.

Since starting this blog in October, I’ve met some amazing readers and writers. It’s been a blast.

It wasn’t until I started talking with other writers daily  — on Twitter, on Triberr, on Goodreads, via email, via IM, ad nauseam — that I realized what a huge impact it had on me. Having a group of like-minded people who support you, and whom you can support in turn, is a truly invaluable resource. A successful “tribe” of writers can pick you up when you’re down, spread the word about your work, and grant you insights you might never have come up with on your own. And you can do the same for them.

So what makes a successful tribe?

They must be writers.

I truly think this is key. Your non-writer friends are great people, I’m sure. But you need someone who understands your passion from within.

For example: my dad is a mechanic. I love my dad. But I don’t have clue one about how automobiles work, nor do I care to learn. When it comes to matters mechanical, I have nothing to learn from him, and he sure has nothing to learn from me. He might be able to relate his frustration to me about some mechanical problem he’s having, and I could sympathize. But could I help him address it? Not really. That’s why to get real help with your writing problems, you need another writer.

By the way, “aspiring” and utterly unproductive writers don’t count in this equation. I know that may sound unforgiving. But more than once, I’ve seen people who don’t write drag down the people who do write by responding with jealousy, dejection, and angst. It can get downright toxic. If you’re anything like me, you have enough trouble just finding the time and energy to get yourself to write, much less someone else.

Now, I don’t mean leave your non-writer friends out in the cold — take them out for coffee or to a movie or something. Just don’t put all your energy into trying to motivate someone else. That’s not your responsibility.

They must have a fresh perspective.

While old friends might understand you on a deeper level than new ones, a fresh set of eyes on your work can bring amazing insights to bear. Someone who doesn’t know your story from a hole in the ground will give you a different reaction than someone who’s been hearing about it daily for the last five years. They’ll see things you may never have seen.

This has payoff from the other end as well. As a reader, I love seeing new works-in-progress from writers I haven’t known very long. It’s exciting to learn more about who they are through their writing, especially when you read something you had no idea was in them. It’s a rush.

They must be supportive, and they must be tough.

Because what’s writing advice without at least one flat contradiction? Being “supportive” is a tricky and sometimes treacherous thing. Unalloyed compliments and cheerleading aren’t always helpful — in sufficient volume, they can be downright destructive. On the other hand, someone who unfailingly lambasts your work isn’t that helpful either.

Ideally, you need people who will be honest without being cruel — people who want your writing career to succeed, and are willing to deliver a few gut-punches to make that happen — but not for the sheer joy of punching. There’s a fine line sometimes between “tough love” and being unnecessarily hard on someone, and if we’re going to support each other as writers, we’ve gotta learn to walk it.

Most of all, I think we need people who understand that as writers, we’re in this together. Writing is, by nature, a lonely and isolating business, which makes finding people you can talk about your work that much more important.

So who’s your tribe?

Fear and Criticism: Walking the Fine Line

Photo by University of Salford.

Inspired by Anna Meade’s recent blog post.

Putting your fiction out there for criticism can be a nerve-wracking prospect. Most writers I know have, at one time or another, believed that their work was no good. Some have frequently considered quitting. A few have never started at all (they’re the “aspiring” writers). A few writers, even some published ones, never leave the safe little cradle of universal praise they’ve built for themselves. Letting fear get the best of you is one of the classic writer pitfalls.

A good friend of mine gave me a great piece of advice back in college. At the time, I was consumed with anxiety over an upcoming astronomy test, and I was terrified I would fail. He rolled his eyes and said “okay, so you fail — and then what? The Earth spins into the sun?” His response, thought not traditionally comforting, shocked me back into a proportional response.

So. You release a fledgling piece of fiction out into the world. A piece that means something to you, something you’ve slaved and worked over. Someone hates it. Someone mocks it. Or, the most likely and painful scenario, no one notices. Your little piece of fiction toddles onto the information superhighway and is immediately run over by a twenty-ton Twitter semi.

What then? The Earth spins into the sun?

Look, setbacks are going to happen. Not everyone is going to like your work. Someone out there might think you’re the worst thing to happen to fiction since reality TV. Are you going to let any of that stop you?

Don’t. Facing the fear of rejection (or indifference) is one of the most important things you’ll ever do as a writer.

The biggest trick will be learning which criticism to take to heart. Not all criticism is useful. Neither is all praise, for that matter. Some of it is just noise, better left forgotten, even when your inner critic is dying to absorb it into your very soul. To grow as a writer, you have to have confidence in your work, but be open-minded to its potential flaws. You have to be mercilessly critical, but not to the point where you compromise the reasons you started writing in the first place. It’s a tricky business, and there’s no clear formula.

The first time I submitted a piece of fiction for publication, I was roundly rejected. That was kinda tough. The second time got easier. I kept practicing, I kept submitting. Eventually, people started noticing me, then paying me. It’s the same thing with flash fiction and Web competitions. The first time, you think no one will care, or you’ll get singled out for mockery. You just have to keep going. Your only alternative is giving up, and let’s face it, giving up is really boring. Persevering in the face of adversity is way more fun.

A great place to begin is to find people you can trust to be tough — readers who know what you’re going for and are willing to tell you when you’re not getting there. But sooner or later, to keep growing, you’re going to have to release your work into a cold and uncaring world.

But don’t worry. The earth won’t spin into the sun. Not today.

Blog Hop Contest!

What’s up, writers?

I’m teaming up with Lillie McFerrin, Angie Richmond and Daniel Swensen for a blog hop, to celebrate our awesome community of blog followers and fellow writers.

What’s a blog hop, you’re wondering? Well, Anakin…

Photo by Luis Beltran

Write a piece of flash fiction, poem, or song (300 words or less) using the photo above as your inspiration. Post it on your blog anytime between now and when the link closes. Every eligible entry will qualify for a chance to win one of the prizes listed below. Links will close for submissions January 30th. Lillie, Angie, Angela and I will then read, debate, and decide on five winners for the following:

1st: Fifty page critique by Lillie McFerrin
2nd: Twenty-Five page critique edit by Angie Richmond
3rd: Fifteen page critique by Angela Goff
4th: Ten page critique by Daniel Swensen (that’s me!)

5th: A copy of Steven King’s On Writing

Winners will be announced February 7th.

Copy and paste the linky code below with your entry. Spread the word! We look forward to reading your take on this amazing photo!

C’mon, do it!

<!– start InLinkz script –>
<script type=”text/javascript”>
document.write(‘<script type=”text/javascript” src=’ + new Date().getTime() + ‘”><\/script>’);</script>
<!– end InLinkz script –>

Sign up here:

Surly Questions: Tristan J. Tarwater

When Tracy McCusker from Dusty Journal first heard of Tristan J. Tarwater, she said: “That is the best name for a writer EVER!” And it pretty much is. Tristan is the author of Thieves at Heart and the upcoming Self-Made Scoundrel, the first two books in the Valley of Ten Crescents series. Thanks for the great interview, Tristan!

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Oh wow. At the risk of sounding cliched, when I was very young. I wrote my first book when I was 7; it was about my brother. I learned to read pretty early on and loved reading and as I got older wanted to do the same thing. Write stories, create worlds. The prospect was very exciting as a child and it still is.

2. What is the meaning behind the phrase “back that elf up”?

Back That Elf Up is a pun; when I first started writing the stories of Tavera and the Ten Crescents I was still used to saving things on disks and those disks inevitably getting corrupted or just flat out destroyed. The netbook I was writing on at the time didn’t even had a disk drive and I was worried about my computer dying so at the suggestion of my Admin (and spouse) I posted all the stories on an invite-only blog to archive them. I figured, Blogger isn’t going anywhere. My computer could get hit by lightning. So they were ‘backed up.’ The elf part is kind of obvious. I’m obsessed with elves, probably from a very early exposure to Zelda when I was younger. This blog was called ‘Back That Elf Up’ to reflect the nature of the thing and when we had to think of a name for the official site I thought, ‘well, this is easy to remember.’ And it is more related to ‘backing up’ other writers and creators, supporting them. So basically, it’s a lot of things.

3. Supporting other indie authors seems very important to you. What do you do to support your fellow indie authors, and what has been your greatest source of support?

I think the biggest support I have been given and have been able to give is advice from other authors. Connecting people however I can and sharing my experiences. Being indie means you can sometimes feel overwhelmed trying to navigate the waters of publishing, trying to find an editor, a cover, where to print, etc. and getting a bit grounded and being pointed in one direction can save you a lot of brain flails. My greatest source of support has been my spouse who has encouraged me to write and celebrated with me every step of the way. My friend Nathan who has read ALL the beta and is probably the only person who knows how Ten Crescents ends. MeiLin Miranda who told me that I could be better, which was kind of a lifesaver. And my editor, Annetta Ribken who is just fabulous.

4. What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

Hmm, it’s a toss up between ‘Just keep writing’ and ‘Get an editor.’ If you don’t keep writing, you’ll have nothing to edit and you’ll never get better. But editing is important. Another brain needs to take it in and let you know what’s up, to put it lightly.

5. You were born and raised in New York City. What sensibilities, if any, have your surroundings brought to the Valley of Ten Crescents series?

When people find out that I grew up in NYC the reaction I generally get is ‘Man, it’s so busy! How did you deal with all those people?’ And people fail to realize that it’s very easy to keep to yourself, to get lost in a sea of people and be alone with your own thoughts. With that many people and neighborhoods, it’s very easy for enclaves of people to follow their own rules, set up their own norms. It’s a place where a lot of people can believe very different things and live very different lives adjacent to one another. Yet with all the dissonance, things keep going.

6. What are the most formative books in your personal library?

Probably the Crystal Cave series by Mary Stewart. I read that as a young person and to this day, I still don’t think of it as fantasy? It takes Merlin who damn near everyone knows about and turned him into a person, which I thought was awesome. It shows the power of time and story by giving accounts of how things really happened as opposed to the flash and bang of myths. I must have read that book so many times. I kind of have a bit of an investment in Arthurian Legend, given my name and all.

7. Tavera, the main character of Ten Crescents, apparently started as a character in a role-playing game. How has she evolved in her transition into prose?

Well initially I heard we were going to play a game so I thought, ‘What would be fun to play? Okay, a rogue, make her a half-elf. One of her ears is cut.” Then you get your stats and try to fit them to the character, trying to think of back story to have the numbers make sense. At some point they diverged because well, characters in books don’t have stats. Their limitations and abilities aren’t numerical. The back story gave her more history than was necessary to kill things and her journey is definitely more emotional than in the campaign. Especially because the party died in a TPK. HA!

8. Who is the titular “Self-Made Scoundrel” of the second Ten Crescents book, and what’s behind the title?

Tavera’s adopted father, Derk, is the Self-Made Scoundrel. It’s a prequel to Thieves at Heart and talks about how Derk goes from being Dershik, the son of a Baron to the man who kidnaps Tavera at the beginning of Thieves at Heart. Like Tavera he spent his childhood at the mercy of other people but starts his story in a very different place. He has help along the way to scoundrelhood but unlike Tavera, he gets it much later on in life and he has his own weaknesses and strengths to work with.

9. Who does your cover art for Ten Crescents?

Amy Clare Learmonth aka Ruby Saturna does my covers and she is just fabulous. I found her on Twitter and I really dig her style, in addition to her just being a great person in general. She actually does a lot of awesome cyberpunk illustration. She’s in DeviantArt as well.

10. What has been the biggest challenge in writing and self-publishing the Ten Crescents series?

Getting attention is very difficult. Especially for myself and my personality. Believe it or not I’m pretty introverted and publicizing the book and the series has been really hard. Getting people to review and take you seriously after all the work you’ve put in is hard. I’m glad I have help from my Admin and for the internet. It’s made getting info about what we’re about and about Tavera way easier.

11. What songs are in your writing soundtrack?

I find that I write best in silence for the most part to be honest. But sometimes when I need to get my brain in a good spot I listen to PJ Harvey (Uh Huh Her) or The Black Heart Procession (anything but the 3rd album). I was listening to a lot of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Lyre of Orpheus and Abattoir Blues specifically) when I first started writing the series so I listen to that as well. And Blonde Redhead is another good one. Kind of moody, stuck in your brain kind of tuned I suppose, heh.

12. What are your top five “desert island” books?

Wow, well. Haroun and the Sea of Stories would have to go on their. It’s one of my favorite books. An illustrated William Blake anthology because I love how he combined his poems and art. It’s just glorious and he himself is such an interesting person. I would bring Sky Doll which is technically a comic by Barbara Cenepa and Alessandro Barbucci because it’s such a killer story with great art as well. I love the mixture of religion, faith, sex, technology. It has a lot. Principia Discordia. And the complete works of HP Lovecraft because I love his writing style and when you’re on a desert island surrounded by the ocean, you need to be totally freaked out by Cthulhu.

BUDGIE! Or, Yet Another Twenty-Question Meme

I’m feeling lazy today — not to mention about as insightful as your average episode of Jackass — so instead of something useful, I’m going to steal this meme from Dasia Has a Blog. Yes, it is self-involved blog post day. Okay, more than usual. Look, don’t judge me.

1. As a blogger, what do you draw inspirations from for your posts?

I tend to analyze every piece of media I absorb, so when I’m watching a movie or reading a book, a small part of my brain is always mining for an angle. I feel creatively bankrupt whenever I start a “10 Things Other Bloggers Have Covered Ad Nauseum” list-post, so I try to find something that will be at least a little fresh. Sometimes I might even succeed. Occasionally, I will launch off another blogger’s post. That’s tough, though, because it’s rare one of the awesome blog I read regularly will leave a gap I can fill.

2. If you could swap blogs with another blogger for a post, who would you switch with and why?

I’d be AvaJae, steal her audience for myself, and hoard it like Scrooge McDuck. While giggling and wearing a monocle. Or I would be Chuck Wendig for a day and make a list called “25 Profane Portmanteaus I Just Made Up. #1. FUCKCHOP MONKEYNIPPLES. #2 SHITCRACK PAPSMEAR #3 FECES O’HOULIHAN…” I wouldn’t be as good as he is at it, but it’d be fun trying.

3. If your blog had a theme song, what would it be? Why?

It would be spoken word and it would be this monologue. Actually, I’m no good at the soundtrack question. My musical library is 12,000 tracks large and I could probably adapt a hundred to this blog. Do I go with something ironically funny, self-serious, inspirational, humorously irrelevant? Ugh. I’ll go with Shriekback’s “Lined Up” and you can decide why.

Tired of all this crawling around
Realising the joke was on us
Reaching out to the obvious
Starting with an answer not a question
Our most acceptable businesses
All aligned in just one direction
Organised on the same lines
With one face – one side

 4. What is your writing process for a post?

Coffee, crying, Twitter, typing, eating, editing, crying, cutting, pondering, pasting, Twitter, tweaking, palpitations, posting, pimping.

5. Your blog requires a cute, new, mascot – what would it be?

BUDGIE. Past, present and future are one in BUDGIE. BUDGIE knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again…


6. Do you feel you express your “true self” on your blog?

In real life, I swear a lot more and frequently say really inappropriate things. But I don’t actually get a kick out of genuinely offending people, so that’s not who I am on my blog. All my convictions and angst about writing, though — that’s as real as I can make it.

7. What is your biggest online pet-peeve?

Self-righteous lectures intended to make the lecturer feel superior. Oh, the world is full of big dummies and I’m the only one smart and insightful enough to see the truth, you ignorant sheep! Also, you need to care about the issues I care about, when and how I care about them, or you’re an irresponsible monster who’s part of the problem! I want to vomit in these people’s shoes.

Also, embedded music on websites. I have my own music. It’s playing all the time. When I come to your site and music starts playing out of nowhere, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Please don’t do that.

8. If you could live in a fictional universe, where would you live? Why?

Star Trek, because with the holodeck I could then make all other fictional universes at my whim. Plus, there’d be no money and I’d be all into Shakespeare and tea and self-betterment and shit. Apparently. Ever notice how everyone on the holodeck is into Sherlock Holmes or Alexandre Dumas or Edwardian costume dramas or whatever? How come no one’s into re-enacting episodes of She’s the Sheriff or Airwolf?

9. You’re having a bad day, you’re upset, you’re angry, or you’re sad – what is your go-to comfort?

I play this song. It never fails to cheer me up. EVER. Seriously, people are tired of hearing about it. Before that, it was coffee. Now it’s coffee and this song.

10. What is your favorite inspirational quote?

It would be damned hard to pick just one. Isn’t that what everyone always says? I’d like to be the guy who busts out “There is ONE quote that inspires me and the rest can inhale my farts!”

I’m going to go with a quote by Merlin Mann: “There’s no vaccine against having to suck your way toward sucking less.”

11. If they were to make a movie based on your life, who would play you, your leading lady/man, your best friend, and your rival?

I’d want to be played by Bradley Cooper. I’d actually be played by Weird Al Yankovic, or maybe Seth Rogen. My best friend would be a hilarious talking cat and my leading lady would be Anne Hathaway. And it would be set in space. And I’d have a space motorcycle.

Actually, the movie would be two hours of Seth Rogen staring at the TV saying, “okay, who’s this asshole?”

12. Do you think the world is going to end in 2012?

No. I find romanticized apocalyptic scenarios nauseating. Not in fiction — but when people start making real-life decisions based on some Biblical passage, it makes me sad. The success rate on prophets predicting the end of the world is 0% over the entirety of human civilization. Take the safe bet and live your life.

13. If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be?

I’d give myself the metabolism of a squirrel.

14. What is your favorite season and why?

Spring, just before summer, when it’s warm but not hot. Bright colors, the smell of rain. Sensory appeals ahoy.

15. You’ve been bitten by a vampire. Would you fight it with all your undead being or would you embrace it for all it is worth?

I’d walk into the sun. Not really into living life as a serial murderer or eating rats. I know, what a joyless, party-pooper response! But seriously, I think being a vampire would be fucking terrible on every conceivable level. You can party all night and sleep all day and all you have to do is kill people to live! Doesn’t that sound great?! No.

16. Have you personally met any of your blogger friends?

Nope. Good talk, Russ.

17. What does your favorite pair of underwear look like?

I don’t remember. Let me grab my binoculars, step outside, and take a peek.

18. Have you ever drank something right from the container in the refrigerator knowing other people will have to drink out of the same container later?

I refuse to answer this question on moral grounds. But seriously, no. Okay, once. Okay, frequently.

19. What is your favorite word and explain why?

Once again, does anybody pick one? “Tacoriffic. Game, set, and match, my friend! This battle of wits is over!”

Here’s a bunch of words I really like:

  • Festoon
  • Globular
  • Perfidy
  • Succulent
  • Terminal
  • Crank
  • Desultory
  • Ample

20. Is there anything you’d like to do different on your blog in the year 2012?

I’d like to continue to find my own voice. My first few posts felt very generic, because I was doing what everyone else was doing, and what the blogging books said I ought to. Believe it or not, I never intended to dispense writing advice at all. Then people started responding to it in very positive ways, and then I found out I liked writing it. So, more of that, I guess.

Okay, that’s all. Thanks for reading, and remember:


Give Back and Don’t Worry

Photo by JD Hancock on Flickr.

A friend recently expressed admiration for the success I’ve had with this blog. I’ve recieved lots of comments from other great bloggers, interviews with some terrific writers, and traffic that dwarfs most of my previous projects. I think he even used the term “rock star,” which makes me laugh, because I imagine Kip Winger hunched over a laptop at a Dunkin’ Donuts at two in the morning, feverishly composing a screed against the barbarous advent of the Danelectro Honeytone.

All the same, I have had a lot of success with this blog, at least in terms of my own satisfaction. I’ve also had good success with social media. I bring this up because my previous forays into social media were so bland and nondescript, I couldn’t even call them disastrous. My last Twitter account had about 50 followers, and about three of those talked to me. My last blog (which, admittedly, appealed to a tiny market) still gets most of its feeble traffic from wildly irrelevant search results.

There was a time when this stuff bothered me. What was the problem? I was funny on Twitter. I was hilarious, goddamn it. I posted cool stuff (well, at least I thought it was cool, Come on, guys, is this thing on? Hello?) I took unfollows personally. I made half-baked attempts at self-promotion and then instantly got dejected when they didn’t pay off. I agonized over my Google Friend Finder widget with its three friends, feeling like the kid sitting alone at the table after no one came to his birthday party.

Now, before we go any further, let me just say: I am not a social media guru or a cybernetic yogi, nor do I aspire to be. I’m just sharing what’s worked for me.

All those things above? Those things were mistakes. If you really want to know the secret of social media success, I think it comes down to this:

Give back and don’t worry.

Dr. Pete Meyers, who has had more success in this area than I ever will, tried to tell me this once, but I didn’t listen. I was young and arrogant. Or old and arrogant. The point is, I was arrogant. Pete’s advice didn’t truly click with me until I picked up Shama Hyder Kabani’s book, The Zen of Social Media Marketing, for work. The author outlines a few simple principles:

1. Be yourself. People can smell a phony from miles off.
2. Don’t be negative. Don’t slander, don’t complain all the time.
3. Follow a couple new and interesting people every day.
4. Promote others more than yourself.

Within a month of applying these ideas, I’d gained more of a following — and more meaningful connections with people — than I did in a year of blasting Tweets like it was open-mic night at the Improv. I found writers and bloggers I liked and promoted their work. I subscribed to blogs and left comments. Most of all, I made it a point never to ask people for retweets, mentions, followbacks, or subscriptions. And if nobody commented on the blog or replied to me or mentioned me in a #FollowFriday or never put me in their blogroll, I just didn’t worry about it.

This approach brought me more success and goodwill than ten times the amount of crass self-promotion ever would have.

Not only that, but I started to see why it worked. I watched my Twitter feed and spotted the people who were clearly only in it for themselves — the ones who auto-tweeted about their book three times an hour, without personally engaging with anyone. The ones who publicly complained that they lost followers, or didn’t have enough followers, or that no one talked to them, or how so-and-so sucked and was a doody-head. I had no real interest in engaging with these people… why would I? And if I was reacting negatively to these things, why would I expect other people to react positively?

It can be tough sometimes to write a blog post that you think is sheer genius, only to hear the sound of crickets. Or to reach out to people and be ignored or rebuffed. Or to champion someone else’s work and get nothing back. But in my experience, these things rarely happen.

Everyone wants a fan. Everyone wants to feel valued and important. Inspire those feelings in others, and most will want to give back. But most importantly, don’t do it because you’re expecting reciprocity — do it because you want to, and the rest will follow.

Give back and don’t worry.

I Always Wanted to Be… a Lumberjack!

A blog post by Rebekah Loper, entitled “If You Couldn’t Write…” got me thinking about what would happen if I really, actually couldn’t write.

The heart of Rebekah’s question is really about secondary passions — about how we would fill the time if some mysterious outside force denied us our writing gift. The question itself has some pretty easy workarounds. Gone blind? Record some audio for transcription. Lose both hands? Get prosthetics, or fall back on audio again. So you’ve been stabbed with an icepick behind the earlobe and have a level of brain activity roughly equivalent to a bottle of Flintstone vitamins? Yeah, your writing days are probably over. But you’ve probably got bigger problems anyway, such as bedsores and routinely soiling yourself. Something plenty of writers are well-acquainted with anyway, am I right? High five!

In my experience, the biggest cause of writers not writing is not unhappy accident or cosmic malice, but writers themselves. We’ll come up with any reason not to write, including concocting fanciful scenarios about no longer being able to, especially in the wee hours when that unedited manuscript japes and mocks us like some unholy psychopomp.

But really, this scenario barely exists in life. Helen Keller wrote twelve books, and she was blind, deaf, and born without speech. Of course, the question doesn’t play as well if you frame it as “well, what if your name was Lazy Q. Lazerton from Lazytown, Louisiana and you didn’t write anything because you were a huge bum and spent all day watching Charmed?” Also, if you really couldn’t write, you’d have serious problems just living day-to-day, much less prospering in some other field, because modern life involves signing a lot of legal documents.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t intend this as a criticism of Rebekah by any means. But this question does seem to occur to writers with alarming frequency. That may just be my perception, but it does seem like writers are particularly prone to this hypothetical scenario.

For example, I don’t see people interview Olympic figure skaters and ask “so, say both your legs were shattered like a pair of sausages filled with peanut brittle that someone whaled against the back wall of a Stuckey’s for ten minutes. What would you do?” Probably Kurt Loder never asked Rick Allen, the drummer from Def Leppard, “so, what are you going to do if that other arm comes off? Like, some guy shoots meth into both eyeballs with turkey basters and comes at you with an industrial sander and wears that arm down to a shiny nub? What then, smart guy?”

The cynical part of me wonders if the question doesn’t sometimes spring from a sublimated insecurity: the thought that maybe our time might be better-spent — that we’re often tempted to just hang it up and get a straight job. I have no proof of this. I just know writers can be a fragile lot at times. I say this as some who has actually set his own writings on fire, so believe me when I tell you I’m not projecting.

The “what if you couldn’t write” question is, for me, an oblique way of saying “well, what if your life were totally horrifying?” I’m a storyteller by nature. I have to tell stories. I’ve been known to edit the truth[1] from time to time, not to obfuscate facts or deceive others, but to enhance dramatic symmetry. When I’m not writing, I’m reading. When I’m not reading, I’m playing role-playing games and telling stories that way. When I’m not doing that, I’m watching movies or television and picking them apart. Stories are my life. If I could truly eat, live and breathe stories, then I’d pretty much be Mr. Creosote.

So if someone came along and took that away from me, it’s hard to imagine what I’d be doing with myself. Probably making Youtube videos dubbing voices over my cats and pretending they’re wacky roommates in a 1980s sitcom. But see, that doesn’t sound as good as “I’d become a child psychologist” or “I’d manufacture wheelchairs for injured Olympic figure skaters.”

I guess what I’m saying is: I’m glad I can write, because I’m pretty sure I’d miss it.

1. Yes, I mean lying.

Surly Questions: Michel Vaillancourt

To kick off Surly Questions for 2012, it’s my privilege to bring you an interview with Michel Vaillancourt, author of The Sauder Diaries: By Any Other Name. Thanks for the terrific interview, Michel!

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Hmmm.  Funny question that.

I knew I wanted to -write- around 12 – 14, which is when I was caught up with Anne MccAffery and Robert Heinlein.  I’ve had stories in my head ever since, which is why I was so heavily into table top role-playing games in my youth.  I still am, to a degree.

Want to be a -writer-?  Hmmm.  You know, I still don’t think I’ve made a conscious decision to “be a writer”.  I’m a storyteller at heart, and right now, instead of doing spoken word presentations, I’m writing them down and putting them out in eBooks.

Is writing The Big Calling In My Life, the way I know some writers feel it in theirs?  No.

2. Why steampunk?

Steampunk fascinates me on a few levels.  Something I heard Phil Foglio say at Steamcon was that “Steampunk fiction is about when technology can save humanity.  It isn’t the problem, it is the solution.”

I agree with that.  In my opinion, Steampunk fiction is inherently hopeful.  The right man (or woman) with the right perseverance and the right science at the right place could change the world for the better.  It is about people doing incredibly cool things at a point in time when when no one knew what the boundaries were and they seemed to be on the brink of revolutionizing the world.  Everything was within the realm of possibility; everything was within reach.  That’s pretty empowering.

3. What do you think sets the Sauder Diaries apart from other steampunk fantasy?

**chuckles** This is going to sound odd, but I really can’t comment, because I haven’t read much Steampunk fantasy/ fiction.

Having said that, I’ve tapped into something other than existing books for my creative process here.  I’m a fan of the overall Steampunk movement itself;  two trips to Steamcon in Seattle, spending time with the local Steampunk group in Halifax as I can, listening to the music, following folks on blogs and Twitter who are “living the scene” and such.

I guess what I have done is spent a lot of time researching the Steampunk community and tuning in on what themes seem to resonate within it by being part of the community.  This is a book for Steampunks, by a new member of the group. As opposed to being someone who wrote other stuff first and then that thought this might be a neat setting to try.

4. Any relation to Michel Vaillancourt, the Canadian show jumper born in Saint-Félix-de-Valois, Québec in 1954? Or is that just a coincidence?

Wow, you’ve done your research!  As far as I know, there is no direct relationship.  However, my family only really has its geneology traced as far as when we first arrived in what is now Quebec.  It’s possible that there is a connection on the France side of the trip.  If there is, I am unaware of it.

5. What songs are in your writing soundtrack?

My listening music tends to be based on my mood.  Sometimes, I just want quiet.  I either listen to Steampunk music from groups like Abney Park, Vernian Process and Vagabond Opera, or I listen to trance/ electronica from Tiesto or Armin Van Burren.  Other times, I listen to atmospherics like Brian Eno’s “Music For Airports” or “Music for Films”.

6. I’m told you have a strong military / technical / engineering background. What, if anything, has that brought to your writing?

Well, certainly, it has allowed me to add a level of detail that I might not otherwise have.  My father, for example, ran steam boiler systems on warships as an engineering officer… I spent a lot of nights as a kid sitting at the table watching him with a sliderule working on his training homework.  We’d talk about what he did and he’d explain to me how it all worked.

So, the part where Hans notes that it is possible for the metal of the boiler to catch fire and start burning unstoppably?  Yeah, that’s real.  Spray water onto it, and it burns -hotter-.  My dad has seen what’s left of boiler rooms where that has happened.

7. How big a role does reader feedback play in your writing process? What’s the biggest change you ever made because of something a reader said?

I have re-written entire chapters or moved chapters around based on reader feedback.  Originally, the “The Sauder Diaries – By Any Other Name” was released as episodic fiction, on Scribd, as each portion was written.  So as readers told me what they liked, I did more of that.

One of the most extreme examples is the scene at the lake between Hans and Annika.  That was re-written five times, based on my closed test reader group.

Another example is the good Doctor Koblinski. He was supposed to be essentially a one-scene character who was irrelevant to the long-term plot. His job was to be an authority figure (a medical doctor) that Hans would be able to believe in the face of what Captain Blackheart was telling him.

The fans, however, were enamored with him and insisted he had to stick around.  I had tremendous feedback at the release of Chapter One that everyone loved his wit and clear common-sense.  And again in Chapter two, when he got a bit more air time.  By Chapter 3, the Doctor was around to stay.

8. What’s the single best piece of writing advice you ever received?

“Shut up.  Don’t tell me about your story.  Go write it down.  If you tell me about it, you’ll be satisfied and you won’t need to do anything.”

Thank-you, Nick Jequier.

9. What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media and the Internet in general?

A serious amount of “we know you can” gets traded around.  When it feels like I’m on Mission:Impossible, someone I know gets a break, a shot of good news, a great review, or something… they Tweet it, Facebook it, Blog it, whatever… and I get a shot of “whoo-hoo” that helps keep me moving.

So, I try to give back into the “Can Do” pool whenever I am able.

10. Who are the most inspirational people in your life when it comes to your writing?

Well, when I tripped over the works of Anne McCaffery and Robert Heinlein in my ‘tween years, they literally changed my world and got me writing.  I’d say they are my literary heroes.

I’ve been very fortunate to have Chantal Boudreau as a mentor in the process of getting from “story” to “novel”.  She has been wonderfully encouraging as well as open about her own experiences as an author and a trail breaker.  She’s the one that first really got it through to me that The Sauder Diaries was a publishable work.  She’s been there for me to talk to and compare experiences with whenever I just didn’t have answers or direction.

Another person that really got me where I am now was my grade 10 English teacher.  She flatly refused to accept anything but my best effort in my essays and compositions.  That’s carried over in anything I do in writing.  She also gave me a love of Shakespeare;  there is a nod to that and to her in the second book in the works.

11. How close is the second book of the Sauder Diaries to completion?

Another funny question.  It depends how you count it… “The Sauder Diaries – A Bloodier Rose” is currently at about 78300 words, with about two more chapters to write.  Because of the way I write — I edit as I go, because I hate leaving junk behind me — its pretty close to good.

However, it still needs my internal team’s two edits/ revisions before I even show it to my publisher and their editors for a two-pass edit.  My preference would be for mid-May to hit the virtual shelves.

12. What’s next after Sauder Diaries?

Well, as I have said elsewhere, that is partially going to be dictated by the fans.  I figure that after “A Bloodier Rose”, the world of “The Sauder Diaries” has at least four more complete stories in it that bear telling, if the fans want to hear them.

I’m also currently tinkering with a short story tentatively titled “After Three Degrees and One Percent”.  I’ve also got a SF story I’d like to do called “Marshal Station – The Dustpilots of Mars”, and a swords-sorcery called “Revenant”, but both of those are a ways away.

All of that said, one of those quotes that has always stuck with me was by Canadian singer Corey Hart.  During an interview, he made a comment to the effect that if a singer doesn’t have anything to say, they should shut up.  Hence a decade gap between his last two albums.

I sort of feel the same way about my writing.  Once the third “Sauder Diaries” is out, we’ll see if I feel like I still have something to say.

13. And now, the cliched question: your top five “desert island” books?

1.  SAS survival manual for desert islands
2.  “Space Chronicles” by Neil Degrasse Tyson
3.  “The Harper Hall of Pern” compilation by Anne McAffery
4.  “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” by Robert Heinlein
5.  A blank leather bound journal, like the ones my wife makes.  (I’d have to be able to write)