Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Interview with SF author, Paula Stiles

It is my privilege to interview a talented up and comer here on Science Fiction and Other ODDysseys. Please meet spec-fic writer, Paula Stiles.

Your list of published works is impressive. In how many markets have you been published?

Thanks! Though I know other people who are far more impressive than me; that's for sure. So far, I've sold 21 stories to 20 markets, and one co-written novel, "Fraterfamilias", with my friend Judith Doloughan, who sadly died last year. I don't even want to try to count the number of nonfiction articles, columns, blogs and whatnot. Those are in the hundreds at this point, probably.

What’s your favorite market? Why?

Hub Magazine from Britain. I've sold two experimental stories to them that nobody else would touch. Also, I actually like reading their fiction. It takes risks without taking itself too seriously. And they do some hysterical, no-holds barred reviews of Brit genre telly. Very different sensibility than what you see in the North American spec-fic markets.

How many stories do you write, on average, per year?

24-6. I shoot for 24, usually end up with a couple more for some special anthology or other that pops up. Plus at least one novel for NaNoWriMo and at least one script for Script Frenzy.

What is the largest number of rejections one of your published stories has had before being sold?

Twenty-two. It had a vampire in it and according to most print-horror short-fiction editors, vampires are passé, even though half the horror section in my local book barn seems loaded with sexy vampire hunters and there are these popular movies like Twilight (God help us) and Let the Right One In, not to mention all the TV shows. But no, vampires are out. Never mind that the vampire in my story was an antagonist and everyone agreed that the protag was highly original. I'll probably be able to sell the book I've written about that protag fairly easily, though.

A friend of mine has had equal trouble selling a historical vampire story and we giggle together over the irony. We've also sworn to leave vampires alone from now on. They just don't sell. Not in short fiction, anyway.

How many stories do you have out making the rounds at markets right now?

43 stories and 1 book. And I have a spec script that I have to send back out.

What has been your biggest publishing triumph?

Oh, the Writers of the Future sale, "Snakes and Ladders", definitely. I made the most money on that one and probably got the most publicity. It really is the big deal they say it is, though no one sale will ever make or break you.

How many hours do you spend writing per week? Do you have a daily BIC (but in chair) quota you hold yourself to?

You know, that's a really tough question--I'm not sure. At the moment, I often spend a lot of time in front of the computer, ten or twelve hours in a day and I don't really take days off--I just have days where I get more done and days where I get less done. Or maybe I decided to go down to the beach to clear my head and catch a swim, or go see a movie with a buddy, or go out to dinner, or something. I'm with Stephen King on this one. I write on big holidays and then lie about it because, you know, it's what I want to be doing. Nobody's got a gun to my head here. So, I'll pretend I didn't write when I did.

People think you're sad when you spend a holiday writing stories and I'm like, 'No, this is my passion.' It so happens that I'm good enough at this that I like to do it all the time and somebody actually pays me for that sometimes. But you know, if it weren't for the fact that the rent has to get paid, too, I would do it for free. I actually have to make myself stop at the end of each day and go to bed.

But a lot of my computer time is business stuff like email or promotion or just plain goofing off. For example, I just spent the past week or so heavily promoting this new Mythos 'zine/faux newspaper my friend Silvia Moreno-Garcia and I are putting out called Innsmouth Free Press. I've been setting up pages on MySpace, Facebook, Livejournal and now, I've got addicted to Twitter, as if jonesing for Supernatural wank on IMDB wasn't bad enough. Man, that Socksamillion cat blog is like cybercrack, though I have to say that Twitter is amazingly good for setting up a fast promotion.

People tell me about how high my production is and how efficient and a hard worker I am and you know, I don't see it. I really think I'm a pretty lazy sod. I've never been a particularly fast worker, either. I like to see which way the chips are falling before I choose where to roll. I don't type particularly fast and if I can do something in a thousand words that others would do in twice that, I will. Cut out extra words? Why write them in the first place?

So, I'm very efficient in that way. I dislike make-work writing with a passion. Life is so short and I have a list of things a mile long that I won't ever get to, let alone the stuff I still intend to do. I'm not going to waste what time I've got on the pointless stuff if I can possibly help it.

But I really have to trick myself into writing--play music, watch a DVD or tape that has a character who works for what I need, look up some fact, this or that. I know that sounds odd, but I have to get myself into a mood or set a deadline (more often) and just grind it out. Weirdly enough, I'm cursing the process and hating it about 70% of the time I write, yet I'm still glad I did it afterward. And I actually seem to write better when I just grind it out, telling myself the entire time, "This is poo! Utter poo!" and doing it anyway. There's some weird connection to my subconscious that happens and all sorts of original monsters sneak out into what I'm convinced at the time is utterly pedestrian. I read it a few weeks or months later and I'm thinking, "Who wrote that?! Sure wasn't me!"

In the end, I think I end up actually writing maybe twenty hours per week after all the futzing around, but I need that extra time to get settled into it, even if I spend that time working some job for someone else. I'm efficient that way, too, multitasking.

What are your favorite themes?

Madness; revenge; outsiders; deadpan and apparently ordinary heroes dealing with bad situations and stupid people with equal snark; black humor (the blacker the better); the id; cross-cultural issues; contact with the mysterious, with the divine. Actually, I'm kind of obsessed with different cultures and different languages. I get really sick and tired of the same old white, Anglophone, straight, western cultures you see again and again, especially in hard SF.

I also like to pair up men and women a lot, though not always romantically, and have about gender parity on protags. You stick a man and a woman together in a situation and it sparks things off right away. We're a bit alien to each other as it is, so there's always a potential for conflict, misunderstandings...it's just a different thing than if you have two people of the same gender. And I also do a lot of cross-generational stuff. Again, more potential for spark, for conflict I guess, there.

I like to write a lot about the divine in the world. It's annoying because if you want to do that, you usually can't sell it. The only people who might want it are the Christian spec-fic mags and they don't exactly want a story that takes pagan beliefs seriously, for example, instead of as just a backdrop or deus ex machina for your fantasy story....Everybody else wants a secular viewpoint, ignoring the fact that "secular" is all about western JudaeoChristian values, but with God and angels replaced by "aliens" or "highly-evolved humans" and all the magic and mystery sucked out of the world. Yee ha. No.

From what sources do you draw most of your inspiration?

Probably the three biggies are music, non-fiction history or science books and movies/TV shows. You would not believe the number of films that had a great premise and screwed it up where I've merrily stolen that one good idea and done my own take on it. And apparently, my worldview in my writing is so eccentric that it's too different from the source material for anyone to ever notice.

But I also draw my ideas from art--I love Native and cave art and have a lot of it on my walls. I also have a collection of unusual stones--fossils, ocean jasper, quartz, things like that. For some reason, looking at and feeling the odd patterns can get me going whenever I'm stuck.

I also structure my writing year around writing challenges--Short Story in a Week with Other Worlds Writers Workshop, Script Frenzy, NaNoWriMo, those things. And I have my own revision challenges and deadlines. I find deadlines strangely inspiring. They give things a much-needed structure and urgency: "Oh, that needs to be done now."

What writers have influenced your love of SF and your writing?

Robert Heinlein, Lois McMaster Bujold, Stephen King, Herman Melville, H.P. Lovecraft, Will Shakespeare, Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson. Those kinds of folks.

What are you working on now?

The second week of SSIAW [short story in a week](I finished three stories for week one), a textbook that's due in May, some book reviews, and a column for Fantasy Magazine on why Dean Winchester is going dark in Supernatural. I anticipate some fan-screams over the latter. For a character who is deliberately portrayed both by the writers and the actor as unstable and seriously edgy, he sure has a lot of fans who are dedicated to whitewashing him and making him look like a pussycat. A big man-eating pussycat, maybe. I dunno...

Has social networking helped with branding yourself?

Oh, yeah. Look, social networking is just free promotion. And you need that these days. Promotion used to be really expensive. That was before the internet and before publishers basically decided they weren't going to pay to promote their writers anymore. Now, a lot of publishers expect their writers to promote them. So, being able to do it for free is a real godsend for us writers and small-press publishers/editors.

Also, it helps you get to know fans and fellow writers and editors and such. The active spec-fic writing community, even the overall professional writing community, is really quite small. I reckon it's like any other artistic community--actors or scriptwriters in Hollywood or Vancouver, for example. Everybody either knows or becomes aware of each other after a while.

It's also helpful in dealing with fans. I don't think this strict divide between "celebrities" and fans as if we're two different species is very healthy. I have several friends who basically "found" me because of my work. So, I don't get these writers who moan about their fans. I'm sufficiently obscure that I can field those who track me down pretty easily. My life is much richer for meeting fans of my work, not least because everybody seems to have a different favorite story and doesn't like every single thing I write. I figure that means I must be writing a good spread of different stuff.

Have online writing groups helped you?

Oh, sure. I think they're very useful as long as they're well-managed. The poorly-managed ones can become snakepits. I'm currently involved with OWWW for the past six years and The Pit at Permuted Press for a year and a half.

Do you also have beta readers or face to face groups you attend?

I have some friends I exchange stuff with by email. Not face to face, though. Even with my RL friends, we exchange things by email. Much easier than hard copy.

What advice can you give a novice writer?

Keep writing, revising and sending things out there. Have a plan with what markets you submit to (don't expect to sell to them on the first try, though it can happen). When you write something, don't polish it forever. Finish the piece, revise it, send it out the door. Don't mess about.

Be careful whom you insult. Metawank over big issues in the community can be lots of fun, but not when you're making enemies. On the other hand, there's a little thing called "free speech" that most of us have in our respective countries. You're entitled to that. Just choose your battles carefully. And never send a hostile reply to a rejection note. Unless the editor wants a rewrite or to otherwise continue the conversation, your only reply to a rejection should be another sub sent according to the market's guidelines.

We’ve all heard this response from time to time when we tell people we write SF: Oh, science fiction. I used to read that a lot when I was a kid.” What’s your response?

A shrug and, "Yeah, I get that a lot." To quote Tim Roth in "Lie to Me".

Okay, so their tastes changed; they don't like SF anymore now that they can drink legally and vote. And I think most romantic comedies are stupid. My idea of a chick flick is Aliens or Terminator 2 because they both have tough female protags. So? I just don't see why it matters to your average Joe that I like SF. Different strokes for different folks.

I grew up when it definitely wasn't cool to be an SF fan, let alone a female one. I'd read and write spec-fic from an early age and my teachers would look at me as if I'd grown five heads. Didn't help that I was seven grades ahead in language arts from second grade onward. I've grown impatient with this idea some people have that their opinion matters in what I choose to read or watch. Sure, I love to share fiction with others. I think that fiction is a shared experience--hence the existence of fan groups in the first place. But I don't respect anyone who thinks it's appropriate to put down someone else just because they like rocket ships or superheroes or saltgunning ghosthunters, or whatnot.

Do you have a day job? Do you find it hard to balance work, family and writing?

My day job is basically freelancing at the moment. Has been for a wee while. It's hard because freelancing to get by requires a lot of work, so even when you're not writing, you're thinking about it. But I do try to stay in touch and respect the people in my life. And when I don't, they bang down my door. They know me. I've disappeared into the African bush or somewhere in Spain on some research trip for extended periods of time without a second thought. I'm very self-sufficient and if people don't want me around, I'll just go off and do my own thing. So, between that and me being rather shy in real life, I tend to have people seek me out rather than the other way around. I don't like to bother people. I kind of have to be invited to do that. It's something I have to work on. We're all ongoing projects.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

Reading, travel, music, going to movies and dinner with friends, animals. Right now, I have two cats. Would have dogs and a horse again if I could. I've been to Africa, Europe, all over North America. I like to see new places and try new things, even if it's just walking around the neighborhood. I like to walk a lot. I love swimming, especially in the ocean. If I had some money, I'd get another horse and recertify in diving. And get a telescope. I've been an astronomy buff since childhood. I also love history, archaeology and paleontology. I love aquariums, museums and zoos and have worked at all three.

And I like watching television. Didn't have one growing up and various other times, so I'm not one of those people who worry about it rotting their brain. It's a cheap form of entertainment and there's a lot of experimentation going on right now, especially on cable and in Britain and Canada.

What’s your ultimate dream for your writing career?

I'd like to make a decent living at it where I was writing mostly fiction or nonfiction about fiction and history. But with time to do other stuff.

Thanks so much for taking the time to share some insights with my readers.

Now, dear readers, hustle on over to my LJ blog, Science Fiction and All Things Lavrattian, where Paula is guest blogging on the topic: writer collaboration.

No comments: