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Transcript for Episode 2.11

Key points: Write what you love. Name your characters to resonate with the genre. Watch for the upcoming flood of readers. Start with setting, because characters grow out of it, then let your plot grow out of your characters.

[Brandon] And because we’re not that smart, this episode we’re going to ask questions of Dave and let him do most of the talking. We will probably chime in because we are insatiable blabbermouths and we can’t stop talking, but mostly we hope that we’ll be able to make…
[Dave] Stop. Talking.
[Brandon] Dave talk. All right. First question for Dave from me — publishing advice for new authors. Writers wanting to break in — what is your top publishing advice in just the short period of time, in a couple of minutes.
[Dave] Okay. Top publishing advice: first, write what you love. When I first wrote my… what I wrote my first book, I wrote a book called On My Way to Paradise, which was a cyberpunk Latin American kind of novel. And my publisher then said, “What do you want to write next?” And I said, “I want to write a big fantasy.” And she said, “Well, you’re a science fiction author, you can’t write fantasy. You’re a best-selling science fiction author, most people take 20 years to get where you got with your first book.” So they didn’t let me write fantasy. I started writing fantasy after 10 years as a birthday present to myself. Last year, I asked my agent if I could do a science fiction novel. He went to my editors, they said, “You’re a fantasy author. We will not accept any science fiction from you whatsoever.” So I guess my first thing is pick your rut.
[Howard] Is this why you have two names?
[Dave] It is. That’s part of why I have two names. I’m two different people. I’ve got more names in the offing…
[Howard] That’s a horrible thing that your editors have done to you. Can I just say that? That’s awful.
[Dave] It happens in every field. If you are an actor, and you play villains, then you play villains, you’re not going to be the romantic hero. My daughter gets upset because as an actress she’s always cast as the brat, the snotty superior sorority girl, or something like that.
[Brandon] At least in writing we can change names. You see a lot of authors do it. Michael Crichton did it. You see a lot of authors jumping names to do things like that.
[Howard] well, Iain Banks does it, but he’s Iain Banks when he’s writing novels and he’s Iain M. Banks when he’s writing sci-fi, or maybe it’s the other way around, I’m not sure, but at least he’s kept his name.
[Dave] A number of authors do it. There’s reasons beyond that though. Because if you keep your name and your trying to write into different genres, let’s say that you’re selling 50,000 books in science fiction and you’re selling 100,000 books in fantasy, and you start switching off — what happens is the next time that you write a fantasy novel, the bookstores are going to order the same number of science fiction books that you sold before and you just cut your sales in half in your fantasy, so you don’t want to do that.
[Brandon] Theoretically, they should be not doing that, but…
[Dave] But they do it.
[Brandon] counting on them…
[Dave] It happens. They can’t always be right.
[Howard] So your editors in this case are protecting you from dumb book store buyers?
[Dave] To a certain degree, yes.
[Dan] One of the other reasons that I have heard of for using a pseudonym is to remind your editors how good you really are — that it’s not your name selling the book, it’s actually your talent.
[Howard] Okay, I’ve derailed this…
[Brandon] Dave uses a pseudonym, people have asked about pseudonyms. It’s good to have a person who uses a pseudonym answer that question.
[Howard] I wanted to know the answer. I’ve been wondering for years.
[Dave] I’m fine. And besides, this is the day for you people to ask Dave questions, so you can ask me any questions you want.
[Brandon] Okay, what’s your Social Security number?
[Dave] 542…

[Dan] Well, I have a question. It’s a totally unfair question, because I never know how to answer it. But every time I speak in a high school, it’s the first question I get asked, so here you go. How do you name your characters?
[Dave] How do I name my characters? I look for names that resonate within the genre that they are in. By that I mean let’s say that you’re writing a fantasy story and it’s a medieval fantasy. Now you know that in a medieval English fantasy set in something like the Middle Ages that you are not going to have a character named Juan and Gregorio wandering around the countryside…
[Brandon] Watanabe! There’s your writing prompt!
[Dave] So you choose something that sounds like a character… you can use Tom instead of Juan, you can probably use John. But if you start looking at fantasy names, they’re all made to sound alike or to sound similar. How many girls do you see who are named things like Kira or Kara — it’s just almost probably 70, 75% of the names that come up in fantasy start with a K and end with an A. So you look for something that resonates within the genre. That’s all I look for.

[Brandon] Next question. State of the publishing industry right now in sci-fi fantasy. Any words of wisdom for authors on it? A lot of people are saying publishers aren’t buying anything. Should authors just give up?
[Dave] First of all, right now, the state of science fiction and fantasy is this. Fantasy got overbought for a while and a lot of publishers are pulling back on that, making it a little bit harder. Conversely, they are more interested right now in publishing science fiction [background woohoo] so I’ve been seeing some renewed interest even in old titles and things like that. There are always publishers who will pull back there’s a lot of talk about a publisher that announced that they were temporarily not buying. Most of the time publishers do not announce that they are not buying. They just stop buying. They just talk among each other and say we’re not going to buy. It was basically a dumb decision on the part of one of their corporate executives who probably was the one who got fired today. In any case, what it all comes down to…
[Howard] You’re being very careful not to mention any names or anything like that.
[Brandon] Don’t get him in trouble.
[Howard] I won’t.
[Dave] The thing is, we are authors, we have to work for these people. My God, what are you trying to do to me? Seriously, the person that you offend may be your editors three months from now, so try not to offend anybody. It was a bad decision, but… water under the bridge, probably. So… question?

[Dan] Yes. I want to follow up on the state of the industry question and ask for predictions. You can look at the past 10 or so years of the market and say boarding school books for young adults were really huge after Harry Potter and I think that’s kind of dying off and the paranormal romance seems like it’s on its way out. Do you have any idea what the next literary fad is going to be?
[Dave] Should I tell you? Well, look at the numbers. If you look at it right now, young adult fiction has just been going gonzo. Anytime anybody writes a young adult book, it seems like it’s going up before an auction. That’s a great sign to me because it means that there are a lot of young people who are being exposed to fantasy, to science fiction, and whatnot. And I think that what we are going to see is… how shall I say it? I think we’re going to see a rebirth of fantasy in the next five years. I think you’ll see it just explode. And I’m talking about adult fantasies like Lord of the Rings, that kind of thing. I think that’s going to be a big genre.
[Howard] So the people over the last 10 years… the kids who’ve been reading the Harry Potters and…
[Dave] the kids who’ve been reading the Harry Potters and things like that, they are…
[Howard] they’re going to grow up and they’re going to want to be reading…
[Dave] They’re primed and they’re going to say, “You know, this world is really a nasty place. I’d like to get back and read a really fun fantasy.” Whenever you have a recession like what we’re going through right now, they often say that writing is a recession proof kind of industry, and even if you look at some of the stores… we’re seeing companies that are saying okay, our sales are down 7% but not our fiction sales. Our fiction sales are up 1%. That kind of thing. That’s a really strong indicator that we are pretty recession proof. People aren’t going on vacation, they’re not going to Mexico, they’re going to stay home and I’m going to get at least a book while I sit here so I’ve got something to read.

[Brandon] I know a lot of the readers want this one so I’ll ask of you. Quickly, how did you break in? What’s your story?
[Dave] Well, my story is that I started with writing contests. I was in college, I wrote my first little short story, I got an A on it. And our teacher announced at the end of the class that there was going to be a writing contest in the school. And I went and erased my name off of the paper and dropped it into the box — made it so that it fit their format. And I won 50 bucks. Which wasn’t very much money, but then I thought, I spent seven hours writing that story — I made seven dollars per hour. What if I wrote a better story and I won 1st place? What if I had worked three hours harder and had won that 400 bucks?
[Howard] Where were you at college?
[Dave] I was at Brigham Young University.
[Howard] Who was the teacher?
[Dave] Eliza Bell. That was her name. I don’t know if she’s there now. I think she’s retired now. So the next year my goal was to try to win 1st place in a story contest. And I wrote several short stories and sent them out and won 1st place in several contests. In fact, the four stories that I entered I won 1st place in all of them including the grand prize for the international L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest which was a big contest. And at the contest, Robert Silverberg was one of the judges and he really liked my story. And he called up Terry Carr and he said, “We should offer this guy a hard soft publishing deal when we get to the awards ceremony.” So I had heard about this something in the offing. He worked with a company called Donald I Find. Well Robert Silverberg quit Donald I Find about four weeks before I went to the awards ceremony. And then Terry Carr died of a heart attack about a week before. So I was pretty depressed. But I got to the awards ceremony — we had it on top of the World Trade Center. We had Isaac Asimov there, we had Mark Hamill who was Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, we had lots of other luminaries, and it was really great. But while we were there, I was approached by just about every editor in the field at the time. I had eight different editors hand me their cards and say they wanted to see my first novel proposal. Which I just happened to have in my suitcase, but I didn’t have eight copies, I only had three copies because I was just not that optimistic.
[Howard] Did you give out all three?
[Dave] I didn’t. I decided not to play favorites. Instead, I called an agent the next morning. I called Virginia Kidd and she said, “Well, I haven’t taken a client in 10 years, but James Tiptree Junior just committed suicide yesterday and I’ve got an opening.”
[Howard] Your story is paved with death…
[Howard] The trail of blood that led to your success…
[Dave] But she got me a three novel contract with Bantam books about three days later. So that’s how I got started.
[Howard] You’re not recommending that others follow this particular path, are you, because it’s so fraught with…
[Dave] It is fraught with difficulty, but I learned a lot by trying to write for contests. Because I started looking at my… I said who is going to be judging this contest and then I would go read their writings and I would find out what that editor or what that writer liked in their own writing and then I would say, “Okay, I’m going to have to use more metaphors in this story, for example. This person really likes top-notch metaphors.” Or maybe I’m going to have to have more action. And I started learning to write to an audience. And then you get to things like Writers of the Future where you’ve got 12 potential jurors and it’s a mess. You’ve got to start saying how do I write for a really broad audience. It was a good learning ground, and I made lots of money doing it.
[Howard] I won a $50 prize for a short story at Brigham Young University once.
[Dave] Good! Which contest?
[Howard] I don’t remember. It was 1991, though. It wasn’t a very good story, though.

[Brandon] I’m going to ask you another question here, and this is a little unfair… I heard you answer this while we were on book tour and I thought it was a great answer, so I’m going to ask it here so that our readers can hear it.
[Dave] Now I’m going to totally end up with a different answer this time.
[Brandon] I keep saying readers and I mean listeners. I love you guys. Not you guys. Those guys listening. [oh…] I love you too… just from a distance. How do you begin a book? Do you start with characters, do you start with plot, or do you start with setting? When you are planning one?
[Dave] When I’m planning one? I almost always start with setting, and the reason I start with the setting is that my character is going to grow out of his setting. I mean, if you are living in a medieval fiefdom, you’re going to have a certain education level, you’re going to have a certain economic standing and social standing and whatnot. And then my plot has to grow out of my characters, so I have to almost take that order every single time.
[Brandon] All right. Well, any other questions you guys got for Dave?

[Brandon] All right. Your writing prompt is Juan and Watanabe are in medieval England…
[Dan] Juan and Gregorio Watanabe…
[Brandon] Juan and Gregorio Watanabe are in medieval England. The difficulty is they actually belong there. Why do they belong there? What is their story?
[Dan] Excellent.
[Howard] On your mark, get set, go.

Current Mood: filling in
Current Music: Save A Horse (Ride a Cowboy), Big & Rich