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.
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.