Jul 29, 2009

Keeping an Eye On... Chris Roberson

Chris Roberson is the subject of this week's Keeping An Eye On... interview. Unlike my first two interviews, Mr. Roberson has had no problem making the leap to novels, releasing books like Michael Phelps wins gold medals. In 2009 alone, Roberson is releasing Three Unbroken, End of the Century Book of Secrets, and two Warhammer novels. That's 5 books in 1 year! Not to mention the fact that he also dabbles in comics and manages to crank out the occasional short story from time to time. I only wish I could be that creative. I can write an almost humorous interview introduction once a week, and that's good for me. Roberson manages to not only write, and not only to write a lot, but to write a lot and write it well. Hmph.

Creative jealousy aside, Chris's answers are as plentiful as his work so I won't waste any more space.

SoY: If we are keeping an eye on you, what should be looking for in the near future? What have you been working on recently?

CR: Actually, most recently I’ve been buried under an avalanche of fantasy novels and short stories, the reading I’ve been doing as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards this year. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel (assuming it isn’t an oncoming train), and in another week or so I should be done.

I’m just doing the final rewrites on my next Warhammer 40K novel, Sons of Dorn, which is out early next year, and have written a few short stories the last few months, most notably a piece for Lou Anders’s forthcoming superhero anthology, With Great Power, which was loads of fun to do. Other than that, most of my time this year has been spent writing the scripts for various comic book projects that will be appearing over the course of the next year, all of them for Vertigo Comics. The July issue of Jack of Fables has a guest story from me, featuring the story of how the title character once assayed the role of Lord of the Jungle, and this fall the first issue of a miniseries spinning out of Bill Willingham’s Fables will hit comic shops, Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love. Next spring my new creator-owned ongoing series will debut, I, Zombie, which is being co-created and illustrated by the marvelous Michael Allred.

I’m still doing novels though, of course, and in a few months Harper-Collins’ new Angry Robot imprint will be releasing my secret history novel, Book of Secrets, which is a particular favorite of mine.

SoY: If a reader has never heard of you before reading this, what is the one single piece of work of yours (novel, short story, cave painting, etc.) would you like them to read? (This can be for whatever reason you would like)

CR: I’m inordinately proud of my short story “Death on the Crosstime Express,” which manages to hook into nearly all of my different worlds and series (the alternate history Celestial Empire series, the pulp-inspired science fantasy Bonaventure-Carmody sequence, and a few more that only I know about as yet). Anyone that reads and enjoys that story would probably find something that appeals to them in my other stories and books.

SoY: You’ve managed to write novels at an astounding pace for the last 5 years. How do you keep the words flowing without getting burned out?

CR: I think that switching from one series and genre to another from time to time has certainly helped. If a project begins to feel like a slog, I can go and think about an entirely different one for a while until I recharge my batteries. And the discipline that I learned while writing for years with a day job, needing to produce a certain number of pages every day no matter what, means that now that I’m doing it full time it actually seems like a cake-walk (“You mean I have all day to do this?”).

SoY: What sub-genres are you most interested in? Is there a difference in what subgenres you read and the ones you write?

CR: I love alternate histories, and history in general, and that’s probably related to my attraction to stories about parallel universes. I’ve also always been fascinated by stories that put cultures in contact or conflict that you don’t normally think of as interacting. I’m always drawn to metafictional stories the explore familiar fictional “types” and dig into them to discover what those kinds of characters might actually be like if they really existed. And I love stories that take the biggest, craziest ideas from real science and find the wonder inherent in them, approaching scientific concepts the same way magic is employed in fantasy.

One of the interesting discoveries from my year as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards has been that I do enjoy reading the kinds of stories that I most enjoy writing. And this year I’ve also been gradually coming to the realization that I enjoy writing some kinds of stories more than others. The farther away I move from the things listed in the paragraph above, the less engaged I am, both as a reader and as a writer. The less the world resembles our own, the farther the history is from our history, the less traction I get on a story. Purely secondary world stuff tends to leave me cold, while I can’t get enough of secret histories and things that deal with the intrusion of the fantastic or otherworldly into our own reality.

I don’t know that there’s a handy label to put on the subgenre that I most enjoy, except something clunky like “metafictional secret-historical science-fantasy.” How’s that for a bumpersticker?

SoY: What are your writing habits like? Do you have any peculiar writing habits that somehow work for you but everyone else would find quirky (and/or insane)

CR: I think that every writer thinks that every other writer’s process is insane, to be honest. Mine is particularly strange, though.

Do you know the old adage, “measure twice, cut once”? My approach is more like “measure two hundred times, cut once.” I am obsessive about outlining, and the majority of any writing project is actually spent mapping out in exacting detail in advance everything that the characters will do and say in the course of a story or chapter. Often times I’ll have outlined to the level of paragraph, and know the content of every exchange. By the time I start “writing,” what I’ve produced is something closer to an extremely rough first draft, often times with a first pass at the dialogue already included. But my outlines are always in present tense, and never in the narrative’s “voice,” so the action of writing for me is essentially rewriting my outline in the correct tense and voice. Since I’ve spent so much time working out what happens when, though, when writing I never have to worry about what happens next, but only about how it should sound on the page.

SoY: An incident occurs resulting in your removal from the list of up-and-coming genre stars. What is the most likely cause of that incident? Who do you nominate in your place?

CR: If I go down, I’m taking everyone else with me!

SoY: Describe your writing style in haiku-form.

CR: Mix science, history,
and reconstituted pulp,
then hijinks ensue.

SoY: Every writer has a favorite word. Mine’s plethora. What’s that unique word that tries to find its way into everything you write?

CR: It changes from time to time. For years it was “Edenic,” which cropped up at least once in everything I wrote. These days, I’m not sure what the recurrent word is, which is actually worrying, because that means I’m putting it in all the time and don’t even realize it!

SoY: Years ago you were a part of Clockwork Storybook, a writing group that included Fables writers Bill Willingham and Matt Sturges. What were those early days like before your respective careers had taken off?

CR: Well, to be fair Bill already had a career at that point, though he has rocketed to even greater fame in the years since. But Matt and I, who had been classmates and roommates back in college, and our friend Mark Finn, hadn’t really sold much of anything in the way of fiction. So what was it like? Well, we used to meet every week at somebody’s house or apartment, read stories out loud to each other that we’d done since the previous week, rip them to shreds, and spend the rest of the time talking about how the publishing industry was run by blinkered fools who failed to recognize our genius.

Of course, the real problem wasn’t with the publishing industry, at least not in those early days, but with the fact that most of our stories weren’t any good. But we kept at it, gradually became better writers, learned a little humility, and sooner or later we all started selling stories.

We still get together once a year for a week-long writing retreat, which are always one of the highlights of the year. Meeting every week? We didn’t know how good we had it.

SoY: You are approached to write a tie-in novel in an existing (and your favorite) SFF universe. Which universe is it? Do you take the offer?

CR: Actually, having written tie-ins for Star Trek and X-Men to date, I’ve already gotten to play with some of my favorite fictional universes from childhood. There’s probably still a seven-year-old inside me who would wet himself if offered the chance to write a Star Wars book. But honestly, at this point in my life? My favorite SFF universe is probably The Venture Bros, and a tie-in novel seems like a long-shot.

One of the guiding principles of my writing, actually, is to identify what I loved about other people’s work growing up, and figure out how to capture that same frisson in my own universe.

SoY: What advice do you have for struggling writers? What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

CR: Well, there’s craft advice, and career advice, but it basically boils down to this.

  1. Read everything you can get your hands on.
  2. Write constantly, and finish what you write.
  3. Submit what you write to paying markets.
  4. When rejected, immediately submit to another market, and send a new submission to the market that just rejected you.
  5. Rinse, and Repeat
If you follow those steps, over and over and over again, sooner or later you’ll start placing stories with paying markets. It could take weeks, months, years, or even decades, but if you continue to work at improving your writing ability, continue to churn out finished stories, and continue to submit those stories to market without pause, you’ll break in eventually.

I realize that I should have a caveat at this stage, and point out that I’m talking here about short stories, not novels, but there’s a reason for that. It is much easier to sell a short story than a novel, and much easier to sell a novel once you’ve sold a few short stories. (Which is the point in these discussions when others always helpful point out all of the writers who have sold their first novels without ever selling a short story. Granted. It is possible to break in with a novel, but somewhat rare and extremely difficult.)

As for self-publishing, I don’t recommend it. I did it, as did all of the other members of Clockwork Storybook, and the lesson that we learned was that unless you already have an audience for your work built-up, you very likely won’t be able to sell more than a handful of copies. Are there exceptions? Of course, there are those rare stories of people who self-publish a novel or story collection and sell huge numbers. But for every one of those exceptions, there are thousands of writers who self-published and sold five copies to their friends and family. Don’t do it.
If you build up a significant audience, though, through a high-traffic blog or by being first published by major publishers? Then maybe give it a shot. But until then, I say give it a miss.

SoY: What’s the best thing you’ve read this year?

CR: I’ve read loads of stuff this year, as I said, but the ones I’ve probably enjoyed the most were Daryl Gregory’s Pandemonium, Cherie Priest’s Fathom, Kage Baker’s House of the Stag, Terry Pratchett’s Nation, Jeff Ford’s The Shadow Year, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. The best short stories were definitely John Kessel’s “Pride and Prometheus” and Daryl Gregory’s “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm.”

SoY: [Obligatory pimpage] Is there anywhere online that readers can follow you and your work? [/obligatory pimpage]

CR: Why yes, there is, as a matter of fact. At chrisroberson.net there are scads of free stories to read, and a blog I update (mostly) daily with amusing videos I’ve found online and ruminations about old action-figures, cartoons I like, and superhero comics.

I warned Chris I would use the unicorns if he didn't suggest some pictures. I wasn't bluffing. Let that be a lesson to you all.

But I'd like to thank Chris again for responding to my questions. I encourage anyone looking for a new author to read check out his books even though it's pretty clear he's doing pretty well all on his own.

1 comment:

  1. CR: Actually, most recently I’ve been buried under an avalanche of fantasy novels and short stories, the reading I’ve been doing as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards this year. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel (assuming it isn’t an oncoming train), and in another week or so I should be done.
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