I’m so thrilled to finally get Stephen Zimmer here on my blog! Not only is he an incredible, amazing writer, but he’s a great guy who puts up with my shenanigans way too much (and encourages them. God bless him). He also has a lot of great insight on a lot of different aspects of writing – not only is he a writer, but he coordinates the literary track for Fandom Fest, heads up the con’s blog Fandom Scene, and is one of the three people behind First Rule Publicity. Safe to say, he knows what he’s talking about (and should remember all the nice things I’m saying about him as July gets closer, heh…)
Suffice it to say, he’s a busy guy and I’m lucky to have gotten his attention for long enough to answer my interview questions, so let’s hear what he has to say!
SZ: I always like to say my approach is a bit of a balance between the Plotters and Pantsers, as they say! I do believe, especially when you are writing novels that are part of a series, that some structure and direction is imperative. You really need to know where you are heading with things. Otherwise, it is far too easy to write yourself into a corner.
That being said, I also believe you have to allow for some room to breathe, and new ideas to be added. My style is very conducive to this, as I write in a multi-threaded style involving an ensemble cast (George R.R. Martin is a popular example of a writer that uses this general style).
During the course of writing a story, I often get new subplot and character ideas, and there is always room to add a new character or thread into a an epic-scale novel. That’s one advantage of writing the “big books”, without a doubt! Yet I do have the core elements of the main plotline mapped out, so integrating new characters or threads can be done smoothly because I have a firm grasp on the overall roadmap.
SJ: Bonus question – Do you put on a cape and do a chant before hunkering down to work? Sacrifice anything? Along with your process, what’s your quirkiest writing habit?
SZ: I write on a computer separate from the one that I go online with and do my social media, promotions, and other business on. My writing computer is purposely kept disconnected from the internet. Over time, I’ve found that when I sit down at a space exclusively set aside for writing, my brain kicks into “writing mode” very quickly.
I do listen to music, mainly all varieties of hard rock and heavy metal, when writing, as it forms a background shield against exterior noises, like sounds on the street that might otherwise be distracting. I keep my mobile phone out of the room as well. My focus is 100% on the writing.
Most often, I have a can on Monster Energy nearby that I slowly savor throughout the writing session!
SJ: Are you a meticulous planner or do you believe in the muse? Where do your ideas come from? Do they filter in through your dreams? Do they show up at inopportune times and whap you upside the head? Do they result in a shady deal with a dark power?
SZ: As a matter of fact, my dream world is a huge part of my inspiration when it comes to ideas. The other part is gleaned from observing the world and the kinds of processes that occur in every generation, no matter what technology is available. From those seeking power over others, to those who hunger for freedom, all generations have struggles and conflict. Like Black Sabbath said so wisely, “On and on, it’s Heaven and Hell”. The clash between good and evil, freedom and authoritarianism, and other such wide contrasts takes many forms across the span of history, and this can be reflected in any kind of story you are writing.
The ideas can certainly “whap you upside the head”, which is why I keep an idea file handy to jot things down right after I think of them or dream them.
SJ: bonus question – If your muse had a physical manifestation, what would he or she look like and how would she or he act? Is it a sexy superhero version of Callisto? A sharp-tongued rogue? A reptilian alien? Do they have a catch phrase?
SZ: My muse would be a female with a strong, calm presence. Supportive, yet tough, and always up for adventure. Definitely able to kick rear, but not one to resort to that unless absolutely necessary! LOL
SJ: What’s the book/story that’s closest to your heart? Is there a piece that you clearly feel is a piece of you? Do you play favorites?
SZ: I really feel all of my stories that are out there are pieces of me. It is extremely hard to pick pieces that are closest to my heart, but I can tell you the two most difficult scenes I’ve written. One is in Crown of Vengeance, involving the loss of Janus’ father. It is very similar to what I went through with my own father, and I held nothing back when approaching that scene.
The second most difficult piece to write was “Gift of Light”, my third Harvey and Solomon steampunk story for Dreams of Steam III. It was written after Harry, who Harvey is based upon, passed away in August of 2011, and I found myself working through some very severe grief when I finally started writing this tale. It took me months just to steel myself to do a new Harvey and Solomon story, but in Harry’s honor I was not going to let those tales come to an end with his passing. They are a real tribute to a wonderful four-legged being and member of my family, and I will do everything I can to bring more of them out there in the future!
SJ: If you could only write one genre ever again upon pain of being sacrificed to Cthulhu, what would it be and why?
SZ: Epic Fantasy. Epic Fantasy is what lit the fires of my imagination when I was a child and inspired me towards becoming a writer. It is definitely at my foundation, and it offers an unlimited environment for storytelling. I know I could continue to be happy as a writer even if forced to write in just one genre if it was Epic Fantasy.
SJ: What’s your biggest frustration as a writer? What do you consider the downside, or is there one? Is there any cliché that makes you want to wring people’s necks?
SZ: Biggest frustration as a writer is the absolutely chaotic publishing climate. To give it a more positive tone, I believe it’s only going to get worse! hahaha
There are no gatekeepers anymore, which might seem like a good thing at first glance, but there is also the fact that there is an avalanche of new releases flooding the market every month. I can say with certainty that a large percentage of these new releases are not being put out there with professional approaches.
Good self-publishing means you should treat it like a publisher would, in terms of making sure you have professional level editing, layouts, cover art, and promotion/marketing. However, so many do not want to take the time and effort, and spend the necessary money, to do this, and what it results in is a flood of sub-standard material that makes it that much harder for those who do give it all they’ve got to have their work seen and considered.
Even more annoying is the undeniable fact that there are many “writers” out there who see the eBook world as a get rich quick scheme. Even if the fact remains that making a living as an author is getting harder than ever, you still have droves of individuals flinging new titles up with a priority of getting rich.
I don’t see things easing up in these areas either, unfortunately. It is something that those who do things right, and put a huge investment of time, research, and effort into their work, are going to have to deal with for years to come.
SJ: If you had to be stuck in one of your own books/stories for the rest of your life, what would it be and why? If you had to stick a loved one in one of your own books, what would it be and why? An enemy?
SZ: For myself, probably the Fires in Eden Series, as that was inspired by my own personal, Narnia-like fantasy of stepping out of the mundane world we live in and going into a fantastical, medieval-esque one where magic and the supernatural are boldly present.
I haven’t thought about where I’d place loved ones or enemies too much, but it would be hard to pick as all of my worlds, except for the setting of my Hellscapes short stories, have both daunting and pleasant environments and elements. As for the Hellscapes stories, I’m not sure I could consign even my worst enemy to such a fate. Then again … LOL
SJ: Do you think it’s possible to develop a sure-fire recipe/formula for success as a writer? Would you want to, or does that compromise the art or the fun of it?
SZ: No, I don’t think there is, or ten million writers would be doing it. You can take a room full of writers who craft the very same kinds of stories, who are relatively equally skilled, and who all do everything right in promotions, and one will succeed tremendously while all the others struggle. Sometimes it is the worst writer in the room who succeeds.
Put it this way, there are many writers who have much better writing with stories on the same themes as 50 Shades of Grey, yet the latter is a major press hit. The hard truth is that sales are not a measure of quality. There is a luck factor in what becomes a trending item, and many fantastic, brilliant works never get attention. As such, the idea of a sure-fire recipe for success is in the realm of the fantastical, I’m afraid! LOL
SJ: Everyone has words of wisdom for young writers, so I’m not going to ask you about that. With a few unknown writers becoming success stories, a lot of people seem to think it’s an easy career choice. What would your words of wisdom be to these people?
SZ: In terms of people thinking this is an easy career choice, they are paying attention to the couple of success stories and ignoring the tens of thousands of newer writers who are struggling. It is kind of like the way Lotteries work on people’s minds. There are a few that strike it, and the lure of being one of those few is strong on the vast majority that do not get the winning ticket.
This is the most difficult of the entertainment industry fields to making a living in. It is even harder than making a living in the movie or music worlds. The only thing you can control is working to be the best writer you can be and presenting yourself and your work as professionally as possible. Beyond that, there is a luck factor involved.
Put yourself in the best position possible for that luck to find you. Strong books and good promotion will serve you well in that regard. But you had better have a passion for being a storyteller at heart if you intend to do this for the long haul.
SJ: It seems like everyone likes to gang up on certain genres as being inferior, less meaningful, or cheap entertainment (especially if it’s speculative in nature). Make a case for the genre you write.
SZ: I have given public speeches and written essays precisely on this topic, but it all boils down to the fact that speculative fiction does two very important things. It gives you the broadest range possible for your imagination, as there really are no creative boundaries in speculative fiction, and it also gives an incredible writing challenge.
To bring the fantastical things to life, a writer must bring a reader to an effective suspension of belief. With fiction of a non-speculative nature, a reader can reference or go find the kinds of things depicted, whereas they cannot draw a reference to dragons, werewolves, or starfighters in their day to day lives. The art of making those latter things believable, when the reader has no frame of reference in their own life experience, offers writers a tremendous literary challenge. I feel this is strongly overlooked when evaluating the literary merits of speculative fiction.
SJ: What do you want people to instantly think of when they hear your name or your work mentioned?
SZ: An idea of quality work that contains heart, and has lots of effort and care put into it! That’s what I want my name brand to represent!
SJ: Please tell us about your latest/favorite work or a little bit about what you’re working on right now. It’s plug time, so go for it!
SZ: Right now, I’m working on the fourth Rising Dawn Saga novel. I’m also finishing a batch of new short stories, including tales for the Chronicles of Ave, Annals of the Rising Dawn, and Hellscapes collections (fantasy, urban fantasy, and horror respectively). I’m also working on the first book of a new cross-genre YA series, and readying to sketch out something a little longer than a short story for Harvey and Solomon (hint hint!). Later next year I hope to get a new Fires in Eden Book out as well. As you can see, things will be busy!
To learn more about Stephen Zimmer, check out his links!