Over the weeks we've been bringing you exclusive Q&As with publishing insiders from the SF world. They've been offering their tips and advice to would-be SF authors. Some of this material you may have already seen in the pages of SFX magazine if you've been following the Pulp Idol writing competition, but here on the site we've been running these illuminating interviews in full.
This week we're pleased to bring you horror and fantasy author Jeffrey Thomas , author of a great many successful novels and collections, including those set in Punktown (for instance last year's Deadstock). We quizzed him about his writing experience and asked him some practical questions on behalf of those of our readers who aspire to start writing themselves.
SFX: So, that old chestnut: "Where do you get your ideas"?
Jeffrey Thomas: "From every conceivable source. My own life, the daily news, from dreams and the wildest figments of imagination. Some stories are almost autobiographical, while others couldn't be further from my experiences, and of course it's frequently a mash up of both. I think you have to basically channel every thought and feeling through your creative filter. If I go to some cool new place, I can become almost desperate to express that place in written words. When I found out my son was autistic, what helped me assimilate that knowledge was addressing my emotions through the distorting prism of fiction."
"Also, while I don't advocate plagiarism, I don't think there's anything wrong in stealing from yourself. Sometimes you find that you want to elaborate on some idea you brought into play, but didn't fully develop, in an earlier piece. Variations on a theme. For instance, Nabokov's 'The Enchanter' turned out to be an early sketch for Lolita, and Lovecraft's 'The Nameless City' seems to have likewise been a precursor to the novel At the Mountains of Madness. I liken this process to Monet painting his water lilies - one painting on that subject wasn't enough to satisfy his need to express himself on the interaction between light and object."
SFX: How do you grab the reader's attention at the start of a story?
Jeffrey Thomas: "They say you should grab the reader by the throat with the first sentence. That's certainly helpful. A few of my own first sentences that come to mind are: 'On my fifth day in Hell, I found a praying mantis' (from the novel Letters From Hades) and 'Art shot himself in the head' (actually, a man shooting a clone of himself in the head, in the Punktown-based short story 'Hydra'). But I don't believe in concrete rules. Let's be generous and say that it might be desirable to convey more in your first paragraph than simply what the clouds look like that day! Right up front, there should be the first thrust of action of some sort, and not a glut of description, especially so in a short story where you need to use more economy."
SFX: Looking back after your years of being a writer, what advice would you give your younger self writing his first SF story?
Jeffrey Thomas: "Not to let myself become too influenced by the books and movies I love. My first attempts at SF novels were too directly influenced by Planet of the Apes, my favourite movie for many a year (and a good book, by Pierre Boulle, too). It's hard, though, because even to this day I know my inspirations sneak into my work, and we've been brought up on movies, video games and comics in addition to fiction, so these are inevitably going to add their colours to the pallets we work from, too. But you've got to try your best not to rewrite The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, as much as books and movies like those might spark your desire to write in the first place."
SFX: Writing a short story requires a different approach to writing a longer work like a novel. But how different are the creative skills involved?
Jeffrey Thomas: "You do have to write in a different way; not in the sense of compromising your prose style, or compromising anything else – it's not about skimping – but obviously you can't tell some great sweeping saga. You need to choose a handful of purely critical scenes, without the luxury of sprawling at length as in a novel. But a short story doesn't need to lack for power, and I've read plenty that were mightier than many a novel I've read. For that matter, I've read poems that hit me harder than many a novel."
"A short story can be packed with meaning and impact, with the concentrated density of a collapsed star, but should preferably also have a kind of elegant simplicity. You might want to use wormhole-like shortcuts, so to speak, to cut through your limitations for time and space – perhaps by alluding, in a subtle fashion, to that which must be left unsaid. You can let your readers connect some of the dots themselves, but without making them feel you are cheating them of something they need. It's a tricky balance, like adapting a bulky novel to a screenplay, blocking out your most vital scenes. They say writing an effective short story is harder than writing a novel, because of all these limitations, but it's also hard sustaining a long work of consistent quality, so I'd say both are equally difficult and I'm not sure that the skills are fundamentally different. One needs to be a good writer to pull off either form effectively – period."
SFX: Do you have tricks for getting you back on track if you lose the flow of the story? How can you keep yourself motivated?
Jeffrey Thomas: "I look at my stack of unpaid bills.
"Really, though, my main trick would simply be to go back and read the story again from the beginning - maybe after having waited a day or more first to clear my mind. If I want to start a brand new story but nothing is coming, maybe I'll write another story based in an environment I've been to before (such as Punktown, or my Hades universe) where at least I know my way around already. Or maybe I'll revisit some concept I've tackled before, but come at it from another angle. Nothing wrong in that as I've said. I might look at the books I've written before, or the anthologies or publications I've been in, to reflect on what I've done thus far and what I'd like to do in the future. Or I'll read the work of other writers, and if they're good my enthusiasm for their work will often get those fires crackling again, re-inspire my love of the written word."
SFX: What do you think people are looking for in good SF fiction?
Jeffrey Thomas: "Work that is as original as possible in this much-trodden territory, avoiding cliches and movie-isms as much as possible. Although, unfortunately, I think there are those editors who don't have the imagination themselves to see beyond the clones, and readers who themselves feel all too comfortable with the clones, and so there'll always be a lot of stuff we've seen too many times before. Not that one can or must reinvent SF with each story, but I feel that really discriminating editors are going to be attracted to work that has a sense of individuality, at least in style, in its voice, or that adds some new twist to the old tropes. I personally don't want more of the same old same old; I'm jaded, and if you're going to give me dragons, elves and vampires they'd better be of a species I haven't previously encountered. Make me feel I'm visiting a place I've never been to before. Maybe there are similarities - hey, I've encountered Starbucks in Korea and Hong Kong, but there was a lot that was not the same in those places, too, and that mix of the familiar and the exotic excited me. Make me feel like that, when you bring me to your world."
SFX: It seems to be a common complaint of authors that characters take on a life of their own, and often deviate wildly from the original plan. Is that true for you, and how do you deal with it?
Jeffrey Thomas: "It is often true, but actually I welcome when that happens. An outline is only an outline, the story itself is the thing, and if my character is so enthusiastic to flesh himself out and make himself more involved in the story, who am I to get in his way? That just means he has vitality. Why should I rein him in? He's still finding his source in me, however unconscious the process that breathes life into him. I'm reminded of writer Alexandra David-Neel, who visited Tibet in 1924 and learned the secrets of manifesting a thought form called a 'tulpa' - in her case in the form of a fat and pleasant monk. Gradually, though, the monk started to take on a sinister aspect and a life of his own, and she had to work hard to dissolve him again. Brrr. Maybe our characters are tulpas, huh? But let those rebellious tulpas run amok, says I! A scary tulpa is more fun than a jolly tulpa, anyway, if you ask me."
SFX: "A piece of creative work is never finished, only abandoned." Is that true? How do you know when you've revised your story enough?
Jeffrey Thomas: "My father - an artist - told me that about oil painting when I was a boy. There is simply a point at which you stop; you could conceivably tinker and tinker forever, and run the risk of muddling what you have, or losing its sense of flow and freshness. Not that one shouldn't fine tune their work, iron out the wrinkles, and all those other analogies pertaining to perfecting your craft. Some of my favourite authors like Thomas Hardy and Edgar Rice Burroughs serialized their work before it appeared in book form, and I can understand why they would make major changes (particularly if they disagreed with edits imposed upon them) to the fully contained versions. I've polished up stories for their reprinted appearances. I guess there's always something to be changed or improved, but one could get carried away and work on a one story indefinitely. I'm too restless for that, too eager to begin the next one. Ultimately, I think you develop a sense for knowing when that story is ready to leave the nest - but having a deadline to meet can help settle that issue."
SFX: How do you go about giving anything you write a brilliant ending?
Jeffrey Thomas: "Endings are the toughest; harder than beginnings. They must satisfy the expectations you have, hopefully, generated in your reader - not frustrate them, leave the reader grasping at elusive strings. Not to say you can't throw the reader a curve ball, spin them around with a last minute surprise, which can be even more satisfying. I try to ratchet up the tension toward the end, tie up the loose ends... and it's a cliche, maybe, but reading a story is like sex. You want it to come to a satisfying climax after all that foreplay, don't you?"
SFX: Is it a good idea to join a writer's group, a local workshop, or go on a course? Or is it a lonely craft to learn...
Jeffrey Thomas: "I'm all for the lonely craft method. I've never been in a writer's group, and never had the desire for it. Writing to me is an intensely personal process, almost a self hypnosis or meditation, in which I commune with myself, search and discover myself. I can understand where other writers might invite feedback, or affirmation, support when they are insecure or doubtful or stuck, but that's simply not my own individual character. I've always tended to be a quiet, introverted kind of person anyway, so I'm sure your personality has a lot to do with whether or not you want others to actively share in your creative process, and have some impact upon it. I think it also has to do with ego, though. A story is my baby, and the less hands fumbling my poor baby the better. If the baby tends to closely resemble his father - well, he's mine, for better or worse, warts and all."
SFX: What advice do you have for somebody starting out as a writer who's had nothing published yet, perhaps is getting discouraged by rejections? What should they do?
Jeffrey Thomas: "Don't let your discouragement overwhelm you and turn you away from writing; believe in yourself, but don't become so defensive that you aren't willing to understand you could be doing some things wrong. Take advice from those editors willing to give it, or from members of your writer's group if you choose to belong to such, and either accept or ignore that advice as you see fit. Or maybe you're already quite gifted and brilliant and all, but haven't found your way into the game yet. I started out publishing short stories in the small press, and it seems there aren't nearly as many little publications out there now as there once were. But there are web sites that accept fiction, some of them very respected, and wherever you can get your work seen is a start. It will help get you noticed - and it will help bolster your spirits."
"There's no reason why you can't shoot at the grandest markets from the onset - there are those lucky enough to score big right out of the gate; but there's no shame in starting small and humble and slowly building a name for yourself. I still keep all my rejections and I've collected a lot of them, most early on. But in time, the acceptances started to balance them out, and ultimately outweighed them. But even to this day I have my rejections, and as long as I write I always will. It's something you have to accept. But I quickly look past them, and set myself a new goal, and begin the game all over again. If it was too easy, it wouldn't be a challenge, would it? Where would be the sense of accomplishment then? Whether you're just starting out, or looking to publish your next in a string of novels, the idea is always to find ways of improving your craft. Every story should feel like the best thing you've done - until you begin the next one."
SFX: Thanks Jeffrey!
Find out more about Jeffrey Thomas at his personal blog . See you next week on www.sfx.co.uk for more Q&As with novelists and editors.