Because stalking is (technically speaking) a crime, I’m channeling my interest in writers into a series of interviews, the first of which you’re reading now.
You’ll soon discover I’m covering a lot of ground; you’ll hear about life as a science fiction novelist, screenwriter, memoirists, essay writer, etc.
A mix of the serious and the irreverent, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy making them.
An Interview With Walter Jon WilliamsWalter Jon Williams is a talented science fiction writer whose work, as people sometimes put it, has trees in it.
A professional writer since 1979, he’s been nominated for (and won) science fiction’s most prestigious awards, and one of his earliest novels (Hardwired; 1986) helped launch the cyberpunk movement.
In the years since, Williams has covered a lot of literary ground within science fiction, writing everything from cyberpunk to a mystery to an award-winning short story collection to Deep State – his just-released near-future thriller about a government agency manipulating social media to foment revolution in a foreign country.
Just as Deep State released, the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt erupted, and suddenly, Deep State read more like a “how-to” guide than science fiction novel.
It’s a remarkable story — both his career and Deep State’s giddy intersection of reality and fiction — and we’re happy to have Walter Jon Williams here to tell us more about Deep State, his career, his writing habits — and his work teaching writers at the Taos Toolbox Writer’s Workshop he founded.
Q: What’s it like to see Deep State — your work of fiction — playing out in real life in Egypt, Tunisia, and other locations?
I watched individual scenes from my book played out on CNN. It was all pretty startling.
But when all’s said and done, I was confident that those scenes would be played out somewhere. I just thought it would happen a few years in the future. So I was surprised, and not surprised.
Q: Has the timing affected sales of the book? (Sub-questions: did you buy lottery tickets, and will you warn me if your next book involves uprisings against bloggers? Thanks.)
I have no idea if sales were affected. All I can say is that no overstuffed sacks of fan mail have started appearing on my porch.
Q: I Googled the book, and it appears — oddly — that few media outlets beyond science fiction sites noticed that you neatly predicted the future, and even had the foresight to release your book just as things hotted up. Did you see more media attention than it appears? If not, was that disappointing?
Nobody outside the field gives a damn what science fiction writers think or do.
My publisher’s publicist tried to get the book some traction with major media outlets, but it went nowhere. I’m just a writer, I’m not qualified to have thoughts worthy of anyone’s interest.
If I were only a movie star, they’d have been all over that book.
Q: You’ve been active in Role Playing Games (RPG) for many years, and Deep State seems so carefully plotted that it really could serve as a template for an “online” revolution. How much did your game-playing experience help? Was this a case of “write what you know?”
The first book in the series, This Is Not a Game, was based in part on my experiences writing an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) some years ago.
ARGs ask theirs players to develop a certain skill set. They have to analyze evidence, use and break codes and ciphers, solve intricate puzzles, sort through raw data for crucial evidence, find hidden motivations, and sometimes go out into the real world on missions.
What I realized is that these are practical intelligence skills. And that’s how Deep State was born.
As for plotting, I just happen to have a knack for it. I create tricky plots in books, I create tricky plots in games. (And I teach this skill, by the way, at Taos Toolbox.)
Q: In Deep State, I sensed an almost paternal attitude towards Dagmar (note: the lead character is a sci-fi writer, gamer, etc — perhaps a young, female version of our interviewee). Dagmar is a richly drawn character, and is that because she’s so similar to you?
One of the reasons I’m fond of Dagmar is that she’s Of My Tribe. She’s a writer and a science fiction and gaming geek, and she’s surrounded by the kind of quirky characters that regularly pass through my life.
And while it’s true I’m fond of Dagmar, my being fond of a character is not always a good thing for that character. Characters that I’m fond of spend a lot of their time finding themselves caught up in dangerous plots, ducking assassins, getting into bad relationships, and being saddled with severe neuroses.
In my books, you really want to be one of the spear carriers. That’s the route to the happy, trouble-free life.
Q: Your characters remind me a little of Roger Zelazny’s; compelling, but they’re hardly angels (Dagmar blew up a person; Cowboy shot down a shuttle filled with medicine [while we cheered], etc.) Do you start writing with fully formed characters, or do they just emerge from the final draft with all the rough edges in place?
I generally have an idea about the sort of character I want to write when I start. And I tend to put the character under severe pressure, because that’s the way a person’s character becomes obvious to the audience.
Cowboy didn’t want to shoot down a shuttle filled with medicine, he wanted to live, and he wanted his friends and his culture to survive. The decisions he made were not only crucial to his character, but illuminate his world, because they show us how ruthless his world is.
Dagmar didn’t intend to blow someone up, she intended to do something else, and she’s carrying that knowledge along with her like a splinter edging ever-nearer her heart.
Q: Your career as a fulltime writer began in 1979 (approximately a bazillion years ago). Since then, you’ve written a lot of very different genres within the science fiction universe; is that mental wanderlust, or is there another reason?
I’ve always been afraid of repeating myself. I don’t want the writing or the work to get stale.
There’s also an element of kid-in-a-candy-store here. Science fiction provides a galaxy’s worth of possibilities and ideas, and I like to explore them all, and— better yet— grab whole handfuls of different ideas and smash them together.
Q: Would you have been better off financially if you’d colored within the lines, and say — written a half-dozen sequels/homages to Hardwired?
I would have been better off for a while— right up to the point where people got tired of reading Hardwired books. Then my career would have gone off a cliff.
As it is, I’ve remained creative and productive and happy with the work, and if I go off the cliff, it will be on my terms.
Q: You’ve also written screenplays. Was the transition difficult?
It was a bumpy ride. I had to realize that characters in screenplays have no inner life. They have nothing but what the audience sees and hears. As I’m used to writing characters with a strong inner life who relentlessly examine their lives and problems and try to work out solutions, I found it difficult at first to make the adjustment.
So the trick is to show the audience what the characters are doing, and hope you do it in such a way as to suggest the process that led them there. It’s pretty tough.
Q: In a post on your blog, you mentioned your career “hit the skids” for a few years. What happened, how did you handle it, and what did it take to recover?
(The answer is long and detailed and requires way too much inner knowledge of publishing, so let’s just skip it.)
Q: On your blog, you said you were making your backlist available as ebooks. How close are you, and what have you learned about the process?
I’m a few weeks out from putting the first ebooks out into the world. What I’ve learned is that it’s an incredibly tedious, technical process.
Though I’m having fun reading works of mine that I last read in page proofs decades ago. I keep thinking: ‘Hey, this kid is pretty good!”
Q: In an interview, you said you’d love to see the publishing world “burned down” so something better could rise from the ashes. Are you more or less optimistic about the industry today?
Publishing bumbled around for decades with a 5% return on their investment. They could have done that forever, but then publishers got bought by conglomerates who demanded a 15% return. “Fire everyone who isn’t making us 15%!” Which is most everyone.
They made the editors stop editing books to make them better, and turned them into company executives that spend most of their days going to meetings and working with spreadsheets. Now writers are hiring freelance editors out of their own pockets because they know their work won’t get edited at the publisher.
And the editorial assistants got sacked by the budget cutters, which puts more pressure on the editors, and makes it even less likely that books will be edited properly.
Publishers also pay New York rents on their offices, which in the age of the Internet is just dumb. It used to be that New York was a useful idea, because they could share resources like printing plants and a pool of freelance copy editors. But now it’s all done electronically, they could do it from Des Moines and cut their overhead by three-quarters.
Now admittedly they’ve got long-term leases on all that office space, but they could sublet.
Q: Some writers are abandoning traditional publishing for self-published ebooks; others are finding a second wind for their backlist on ereaders. Are ebooks fueling the fire that will “burn down” the publishing industry?
It’s certainly adding tinder to the fire, though the immediate threat is to agents— if the writers start publishing their own stuff online, how do the agents earn their 15%?
But the problem with online publishing is the same problem you’ve always had with self-publishing: who is the gatekeeper? Who is there to tell you that this product is worth reading? In traditional publishing, that’s done by the editor and his company. If it’s on the shelf at your local bookstores, that shows that someone thought it was worth spending company resources on this product.
Right now epublishing is best for the backlist of established authors. Though there are a few writers who have found a big online audience without the backing of a traditional publisher, for each of those successes there are ten thousand pieces of whaledreck available online that no one will ever read.
It’s not a Brave New World yet, but it may be around the corner.
Q: Roger Zelazny’s jewel-like short stories hooked me on short fiction, and your Green Leopard Plague was one of the best collections I’ve read in years, yet you’ve repeatedly stated that writing short fiction is a one-way ticket to a room at the Y. Do you see the potential for digital publishing to offer a solution to this unfortunate reality, or do people simply refuse to buy short fiction?
The current market for short fiction in SF is the best since the collapse of the American News Company in the 1950s wiped out most of the magazines. (Hey! I know history!)
The online magazines are largely responsible for that. Many of them pay professional rates, and some pay better rates than the print magazines.
That said, a writer still can’t make a living writing short fiction. For me, it’s an indulgence, and I write short stories in the full knowledge that every word loses money I could be earning writing novels.
Q: Writer Jo Walton suggested you were one of sci-fi’s underrepresented writers when she said: “This might be because Williams is one of those writers who everyone infuriatingly takes for granted.” Charlie Stross said “Walter is one of the science fiction field’s secret treasures.“
To be blunt, I tend to agree, which leads to a difficult question: are there elements of publishing and publicity that you don’t do very well — or wish you did better?
The thought that I’m underappreciated is deeply attractive to me, as I’m sure it is for all authors.
And I wish I were better at self-promotion than I am. That said, there’s not that much self-promotion that can be done from a place like New Mexico. There are, like, fifteen people who read SF here, and I already know them.
What I need is a claque. I need people not to suggest, but to insist that everyone read my books. Whenever someone’s talking about a book he liked, I need someone to say, “Well, that book’s okay, but you really need to read Walter Jon Williams!” I need skywriters to write WALTER JON WILLIAMS IS AWESOME in the sky above every major city. I need to appear on some major talk shows. I need some significant rap artiste to write a song about me, and to find some rhymes for “Williams” while he’s at it.
I need the Pulitzer Prize. I need a genius grant. I need the winning Power Ball. I need a Ferrari Enzo. And I want some waffles — RIGHT NOW!
Q: In the above vein, ever consider wearing a meat bikini?
Make a cash offer, we’ll talk.
Q: You’ve said you received a $10K/book advance for your first three-book fiction series, which you sold in 1979. It’s interesting to note that a lot of today’s first-time authors won’t even get that much (and we’re not talking about inflation-adjusted dollars either). What are your thoughts about the state of fiction writing today, and the potential for young writers to succeed?
It’s a lot harder now for new writers, because it’s all about the numbers. If you don’t generate significant sales right away — if you don’t earn that 15% profit for your company — then your career gets tossed away with yesterday’s pizza boxes.
Of course it’s easier to start over once you’ve been published — you know people, and odds are they’ll know that what happened isn’t your fault.
At Taos Toolbox, I tell my students not to beat themselves up over it, and to have their next pen name ready. Having your career collapse is just part of the job, these days.
Getting Words On Paper
Q: Could you summarize your writing process (how do you write; how do you organize a novel; how do you avoid going off the rails on page 183; leave off the part about beating your head against a wall)?
I outline and research obsessively. I know the ending before I start. (On one three-book series, I knew the final sentence.) Sometimes I have the whole thing in my head, and sometimes I have things scribbled on 3×5 index cards, which makes it easy to rearrange scenes as needed.
I keep logs of characters, places, descriptions. I do as much in advance I can in order to make the writing process as smooth as possible.
Sometimes it still goes off the rails, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that I did everything possible to avoid it.
Q: Which writing tools do you use, and are you a stickler about them, or largely word processor/editor agnostic (and are any mandated by your publishers)?
I use a ten-year-old version of WordPerfect, which is still superior to any version of Word. Publishers insist on Word, generally, but I can convert.
Q: Can you relate any endearingly eccentric writer habits (see “Meat Bikini” above)?
If I’m low on energy when it’s time to work, I’ll put on loud music and dance. It gets the heart pumping. If anyone ever offers to show you videos from the hidden webcam, decline.
Hot For Teacher
Q: After several decades as a working pro, you founded The Taos Toolbox writer’s workshop; a two-week long master class for those hoping to break into the upper reaches of science fiction and fantasy. What compelled you to take on teaching?
I realized that after a certain amount of time in the field I’d learned a lot, and I was compelled to start teaching it. I have a whole host of tricks that work for me, and I have a pretty solid knowledge of the business by now.
I want to pay forward to the next generation of writers. They’re going to have a tougher time than I had.
Q: Can you describe the perfect Taos Toolbox student (let’s assume “wealthy and free-spending at the bar” are givens)?
If they’re wealthy, they can fly me to wherever they are, a tropical paradise for preference, and I’ll give private lessons!
Ideally, you want a mix of talent, ambition, and humility. Humility is necessary for the learning process— if you don’t think you have anything to learn, you’re not going to learn anything. And the students are going to have their work critiqued, so the ability to take constructive criticism is a necessary one.
Talent and ambition, besides being required for success in this business, are also a part of entertaining me. But if you can entertain me, you’ll probably be able to entertain plenty of other people.
Q: You obviously see a lot of young writers (most of whom aren’t beginners); what mistakes do novice writers/novelists keep making over and over (and…)?
Getting hit by inspiration, writing the first 100 pages, and then stalling out. That initial burst of inspiration won’t carry you through a longer work, you have to come up with a reason for writing, every single day, until it’s done.
Not planning ahead, which leads to 200 unnecessary pages in the middle of the book before the narrative gets back on track.
Not working out secondary and tertiary consequences of the idea. (If there’s no oil left, nobody’s going to be able to ship you those fresh out-of-season strawberries.)
Creating lots of interesting characters without giving them anything to do.
Creating an interesting story enacted by dull characters.
Buying the new car before they sign the contract.
(That last one is really pretty dangerous.)
Q: Is the business of publishing part of the Taos Toolbox, and how are you handling discussions about digital rights, ebook royalties, self-publishing, etc?
We go into rights, royalties, and career tracks in some detail.
Q: In my original email, I told you that simply participating in this interview would make you more attractive to women. I dare say we’ve succeeded.
Ladies, I’m waiting. (Looks at watch, taps foot.)