My guest today on “Chatting with the Pros” is an award winning and best selling author who has written countless novels and over 56 national and international best sellers. A majority of his works fall into the science fiction or fantasy genres, but he writes across many genres. In a recent introduction for “The Big Idea: Kevin J. Anderson“, an article about the latest release in his short fiction collection, Selected Stories, John Scalzi calls him, “one of the most prolific authors working today”, and one look at his immense book list on Amazon would leave no doubt that this is an accurate assessment. (You can find my review of selected stories here). He’s written a lot of books, 56 of which have hit the national and international best seller lists, and he’s been writing for many years, and I’m sure we will find his knowledge and experiences enlightening. Please help me welcome Kevin J. Anderson.
Kaye: You have written at least 56 national or international best sellers. What makes a good story in your mind?
Kevin: People want to read a good story with an exciting/interesting plot, a well-developed setting, and engaging characters. Make it a story you WANT to read, with clear prose and action. I don’t like muddled, glacial-paced stories where the prose is just too precious.
Kaye: Why science fiction and fantasy? Why not western or romance or mystery? What’s the attraction?
Kevin: Well, I’ve also written plenty of mysteries, and some of my work has been set in the old west, and most good stories have a strong romance component (though I don’t write category Romance or Westerns). I like to tell an interesting story, and I move around a lot among genres, even though I am primarily known for science fiction or fantasy. I grew up in a very mundane small town in rural Wisconsin, and I was captivated by SF/F from an early age, because it showed my imagination what was possible. I wanted to go to exotic places, whether they were filled with aliens or dragons. Science fiction took me to a much wider universe. (And as a skinny, nerdy kid with glasses and a bad haircut, “romance” wasn’t much of a possibility, so I stuck with spaceships and swords.)
Kaye: You wrote several Star Wars and X-Files novels. Is it difficult to immerse yourself in someone else’s settings and characters enough to pick up a thread and run with it in the same tone and writing style? How do you go about getting yourself into that mindset?
Kevin: It’s no more difficult than trying to immerse yourself in the old west or ancient Japan for a historical. A writer’s job is to absorb the story, characters, voice, and setting. I was already a big fan of Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, and Dune, and I enjoyed going to work in those universes. In each instance, I would completely surround myself with the property — whether that meant watching the Star Wars films over and over again, or the episodes of the X-Files, or repeatedly rereading DUNE and its sequels. You pick up the manner of speaking, the “look and feel” of the world, and you make it into your own story.
Kaye: You’ve done several collaborations, including books of the Dune series, with Brian Herbert and the Clockwork books which you collaborated with Neil Peart, drummer for the band Rush. What is the biggest challenge when collaborating on a book?
Kevin: You both need to have the same vision for the book—which means a LOT of talking and brainstorming ahead of time—and you both need the same work ethic (so each partner puts in the same amount of time and effort…a tortoise and hare collaboration will just cause a lot of friction), and you need to be flexible. There’s never only ONE way to write a sentence or describe a scene. I would never want to collaborate with a diva!
Kaye: Do you belong to any writing organizations? If so, which ones? Do you feel your membership in these writing organizations have been helpful in your writing successes? How so?
Kevin: I belong to the Horror Writers Association (and edited three anthologies for them, the BLOOD LITE series), IAMTW (International Association of Media Tie-In Writers), and SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, although some of their recent decisions have made me so upset that I would not renew my membership if I wasn’t already a lifetime member. The problem with such organizations is that you can become to engrossed in the politics and bickering that you forget your real purpose, which is to WRITE.
Kaye: You’ve written several series, including Saga of the Seven Suns, Dan Shamble P.I. and the Clockwork books? Are any of your books stand alone? Why do you lean toward series?
Kevin: I’ve written many standalone books. The one I just finished last week, a vampire/serial-killer thriller STAKE, that’s not part of a series. But I like to tell big stories, and once you’ve done all the effort of world building and character building an entire universe, you want to spend some time. To me, a trilogy is perfect — a beginning, middle, and end, with enough room to tell the story and describe the world in all its glory. Pragmatically speaking, it’s a much better decision commercially to build a series, because readers will want more and more, and each new book will help sell copies of previous volumes. Can you imagine if A.C. Doyle had stopped after writing only one Sherlock Holmes story?
Kaye: Science fiction authors create whole worlds from their imaginations, often with new languages created in their own minds, and you have created many. How do you go about creating a new language?
Kaye: Your work has won many prestigious awards. Which award are you most proud of? Why?
Kevin: Awards are awards, and it’s nice to have them, but I really prefer READERS. That’s what makes your writing worthwhile. It’s not terribly prestigious, but the award I value most is one I received very early in my career, when I received a trophy with an engraved brass plate and everything, naming me “The Writer with No Future” because I could produce more rejection slips than any other writer at an entire conference. To me, that didn’t mean I was a failure as a writer or that my work was awful—it proved that I was more persistent, that I kept trying, kept getting better, and never gave up. I still have that trophy.
Kaye: In addition to being an author, you and your wife, Rebecca Moesta, are publishers at Wordfire Press, but originally you were traditionally published. Why the switch to being your own publisher after being traditionally published for so many years?
Kevin: Survival. No choice. The publishing industry has undergone a tremendous upheaval equivalent to the Industrial Revolution, and I could either be a mammal and evolve or stay a dinosaur and go extinct. I am still traditionally published (four books released in 2018, in fact, and a new 3-book contract from Tor Books for an epic fantasy series), but I also have a lot of backlist titles that were out of print and my fans wanted to read them. So I started releasing them myself with all the innovations of new technology. It’s just another alternative.
Kaye: What does Wordfire press offer as a publisher for other authors?
Kevin: We are nimble and flexible, and we can produce books and get them to market far quicker than a traditional publisher can manage. But when you work with an indie publisher, or if you do it yourself, then you have to do all the work, all aspects of it. It’s another income stream and another way to get your book in front of your audience.
Kaye: Is Wordfire taking submissions? What type of fiction is Wordfire looking for?
Kevin: Not really, I’m afraid. When we are open, we’re looking for established writers who don’t need their hands held, writers who already have their own platforms, fanbases, and marketing efforts because we have to rely on them to do the work that a whole department at a traditional publisher would do.
Kaye: You recently signed on as an adjunct professor at Western State Colorado University and you are a finalist candidate for the director of their Certificate in Publishing program. What prompted you to venture into the world of academia?
Kevin: Actually, I’m now a full professor and I run their Masters program in Publishing. I will start the first group of MA students this coming summer. There’s a LOT of paperwork and bureaucracy in academia! I have taught writing and publishing quite often at countless writers’ conferences and conventions, most notably our own Superstars Writing Seminars, which is just hitting its tenth year. Becoming a professor and teaching at a beautiful university in the Colorado mountains is great, offers a little more stability than freelance writing, and (the bane of all freelancers) it gives me health insurance and benefits I wouldn’t otherwise get.
Kaye: Any writing pet peeves?
Kevin: I don’t like artsy-fartsy stuff, dense prose and opaque plots. Tell me a great story with a cool setting and interesting characters!
Kaye: Creating characters, developing plot, world building – what is the most challenging part of writing for you?
Kevin: Those are all fun, but if I had to choose I would say I have most difficulty with building rich, fleshed-out characters. Plotting and worldbuilding—that’s what I excel in.
Thanks to Kevin for sharing with us today. He’s given us food for thought with some really great answers. You can find more about Wordfire Press here: https://wordfirepress.com/. Kevin and his wife, Rebecca Moesta, head up the Superstars Writing Seminars each year in February, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for those interested in learning the business of writing. If you’d like to become a member of the Superstars Tribe, or would just like more information about Superstars, visit the folowing link: superstarswriting.com. Visit the links below to learn more about Kevin J. Anderson and his works.
Wordfire Press: http://www.wordfire.com/
Join us next month on “Chatting with the Pros”, when I’ll be chatting with romance author Maya Rodale. You can catch the monthly segment “Chatting with the Pros” on the third Monday of every month in 2019, or you can be sure not to any of the great content on Writing to be Read by signing up by email or following on WordPress.
“Doing the MFA Thing”
By Jeff Bowles
The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
When I was deciding to go back to school for an MFA, I noticed that a lot of writers—particularly those working in Science Fiction and Fantasy—looked down on the need to earn a secondary degree in what is essentially a field dominated by outsiders and formerly independent upstarts. Most successful writers have no MFA, after all. They learned to write successfully on their own. Teachers and professors need MFAs, but not writers. That’s the general feeling out there.
And I had no intention of becoming a teacher. I did, however, have a strong desire to tell stories at a higher level than I was capable of at that time. The thought of going back to school was both exciting and nausea inducing. Like many writers, I’ve got a touch of anxiety and isolationism. Meeting new people, lots of new people, it can be tricky for me. I also knew if I chose the wrong program, it’d set me back in my career rather than push me forward.
If you are considering a creative writing MFA, know there are basically two categories these kinds of programs can fall into: literary and traditional vs. everyone else. I write genre fiction. I’m a hopeless pop culture nerd and it never occurred to me to write anything else. Luckily, that made my decision much easier. Sensing correctly that most traditional master’s programs can get snobby about what and how you write, I knew I needed to place myself among like-minded people. At the time I decided to apply, the early part of 2013, there were only a few programs in the United States that specialized in genre fiction (that is to say, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, Crime; you know, the good stuff). Two of these were clear across the country, and all had a ‘low residency’ requirement, which is just another way of saying students have to live on campus a few weeks of the year.
The third program I found was a fairly new entry into what has since become a growing category of alternative MFA programs and certificates. It was also in my home state, Colorado, about 150 miles west of the little prairie town where I live with my wife. Western State Colorado University is a small but growing mountain college nestled in the Gunnison Valley, absolutely beautiful place, especially in the summer. The setting is rustic, but I’m a rural Colorado guy anyway, so it suited me just fine. Like I said, I was pretty nervous about meeting a whole new group of people, but I was hopeful in the very least that I’d come out of the program a much better writer, ready to take on the literary world in all its many serpentine manifestations.
During the two years I attended Western, I wrote an enormous amount of material, the majority of which I published. Actually, I started publishing it in the middle of my coursework, which impressed my classmates. I’d already been writing seriously for seven or eight years, and that’s kind of a stereotypical calibration mile marker at which point writers ‘stop being just okay’ and ‘start getting good’. Anyway, maybe the timing was on my side. Make no mistake, writers can be a jealous and fickle lot, and many who doubt their own abilities fall victim to popular whims and the nasty habit of clinging to others who, ehem, smell like success. That’s actually a constant in entertainment industries far and wide, so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that nastiness and in-fighting can and do occur in MFA programs.
So while I can honestly say I produced a large amount of quality (and more importantly, saleable) work, the sum total of the experience was perhaps not exactly what I expected. For one, if you find that you’re a bit of a loner—as many authors are—you may consider other avenues. The notion of community is indeed important, but in programs such as these, group dynamics are a factor. You may experience interpersonal drama as the natural course. Heck, you may even participate in it. Some people think competition is good, that it breeds character, dedication, and an overall positive, can-do attitude. I don’t agree. I think it usually brings out the worst in people. The problem is that folks get into the mindset there is only so much success to go around, a grand lie if there ever was one. And really, a high-stress creative environment can only exacerbate insecurities, anxiety, and small-minded thinking. It’s entirely possible you’ll experience nothing of the sort during your time at an MFA, but then again, you may find yourself crawling through a big stinking pile of it.
The other thing worth mentioning is that if you as a writer are prone to overwork or burnout, you may consider getting a certificate or simply attending a really good writing workshop or two. There are plenty of those to go around, and they don’t require tens of thousands of dollar to attend, either. I wouldn’t trade my time at Western for anything. Really, I wouldn’t. The experiences I had, the people I met (even the ones I ended up disagreeing with), shaped me in unexpected ways. Pressure cooker situations can make you better at what you do, but they can also cause a slowdown or even complete stoppage of your natural creative drive. Ultimately, this is what happened to me, though luckily, writer’s block is perfectly surmountable given enough time and patience.
As I’m sure you well know, creative writing can be pretty difficult, especially when we as writers are put into situations or contracts under which we’re required to maintain constant output. But writing isn’t like most other creative professions, in that it doesn’t just require your creativity and imagination, but also your intellect and higher reasoning skills. To string one word after another, continuously, until a fully realized narrative emerges, that’s pretty hardcore, right? So again, if you are prone to periods of overwork or burnout, if you make a habit of pushing yourself too hard or of not being forgiving or gentle enough to allow yourself time to recoup your creative energy, an MFA may not be for you.
Yes, you can teach with one, and that may be the most useful outcome. Not every writer wants to teach. In fact, I think most don’t. But if you’ve been doing this a while, I’m sure you’ve also recognized the very real truth that superstar authors are few and far between, and even fewer simply got lucky on their paths, as opposed to agonizing over their craft for years and years before anyone showed even the slightest interest. So to teach or not to teach? Well, a paycheck is better than an empty bank account under any circumstance, and since reality is (unfortunately) rather persistent, you may find you need to pay some bills before your incredible new urban fantasy novel sees the light of day.
At the time I attended Western State, the school’s Genre Fiction program was still pretty new, and as such, the faculty still had a few things to iron out. This led to an uneven learning experience at times, but as far as a basic academic progress went, I always felt satisfied. Some of my classmates had a bad habit of complaining about certain aspects of our coursework, but I was always of the opinion that you get out what you put in. In other words, I never even bothered second-guessing individual assignments or their value. I simply treated them as writing challenges, opportunities for me to have fun and excel. And I loved to write, so I committed myself to telling the best stories I could, and at least in the short term, it paid off for me.
One thing is certain, if you go into an intense learning environment with a bad attitude, you’re already behind the eight ball. I had a great attitude, though my somewhat imbalanced mental health picture (at the time I suffered from some pretty bad depression) set me apart from my classmates, in that I occasionally needed extra help and time in order to get my work done. My teachers were more than willing to accommodate me, and thanks to them, I graduated on time and with (mostly) straight A’s. I used that lovely piece of frameable paper to bounce myself into some editing and freelance work, but if I’m being honest, sustained productivity become an issue after that. Perhaps I was just dog tired. Can you really blame me?
When all is said and done, the choice to pursue an MFA comes down to what you value and what you think you can accomplish on your own. An intense, focused experience like this can make you a better writer. I know it made me better. But it’s also true that you can get better on your own, through dedication, persistence, and a healthy work ethic. I think I was open and ready for something that allowed me to hone my abilities in a safe, nurturing, and output-driven environment. I’d like to thank all the faculty and staff at Western State Colorado University for their generosity of spirit and willingness to pass on their considerable knowledge and expertise. Don’t forget, folks, this is your story. Tell it how you want to sell it!
Until next time!
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I might be a writer, but I’m also a teacher. Ever since I took my first class – ballet, age 3 – I wanted to teach. I taught my dolls whatever I learned. I taught my maternal grandmother. Beneath the expert tutelage of a child age 5, she learned yoga, tap, jazz, and Spanish. I contribute a lot of my success in Spanish (as in, I passed) to the hours spent teaching it to her. Teaching was what I wanted to do.
I went to college for elementary education. I imagined a classroom of eager faces mirroring my grandmother’s. We would do the best projects and everyone would love learning. I walked in with my arms filled with my favorite books, materials for astronomy models, and a skip in my step.
Instead, I was faced with mandatory testing and parents angry that their child had homework on the night when they watch reality TV. After college, I switched to teaching young adults in a collegial setting. I fell in love with teaching all over again. They were eager to learn. (Well, most of them.) I didn’t have to deal with parents who used foul language while screaming at their kid for using the same foul language. There weren’t days spent learning how to pass a mandatory test instead of mastering the material. Anyway, I digress…
I went from teaching adults at a local community college to teaching adults for a financial institute. On the side, I started teaching classes in one of my passions: writing. Libraries in the area were willing to give me time on weekends or weeknights to teach writing to anyone who wanted to come, free of charge. The classes ranged from general writing tips to fantasy-specific discussions to how to get published.
Still today, even though I’m no longer teaching as a day job, I lead classes at local libraries. The classes are always small and intimate – five people to ten. This gives us the opportunity to have one-on-one discussions and to have the attendees share selections of writing for feedback. Most recently, in August, I got to teach a two-part fantasy workshop to youth for a library summer program. The ideas they came up with were complex and original. They weren’t afraid to write out of the box.
The best part about teaching a writing class is observing the passion in everyone’s face. Whereas my grandmother’s passion came from helping me better myself, these students have a passion for the written word, and I’ll do anything I can to help them expand that passion.
Jordan Elizabeth is a young adult fantasy author. If you’re a teacher or librarian, she would love to talk to you about leading a workshop or giving a presentation. You can connect with Jordan via her website, JordanElizabethBooks.com.