► I’d like to change gears a little and talk about your writing history. Your first book with Tor – Old Man’s War – came out in 2005, but you had started releasing novels before that. Can you tell how that came about?
Sure. I had written a novel, just to see whether or not I can actually write a novel. I was in my mid-20s and was about to go to my tenth high school reunion. In high school I had written a whole bunch of short stories and I knew that people would ask me if I had written a novel yet. And it was getting near the time where I had to find out for myself if I could do it. So I decided to write one. From the beginning, I considered it a practice novel. I wasn’t worried about selling it. I wasn’t worried about whether or not it was good. All I wanted to see was whether or not I could write a novel-length story. It was a really relaxed way of writing, not going “This is a really important book” or “This is a masterpiece”, but just saying “This is a silly story about aliens coming to earth to get Hollywood representation”. I had fun with it and discovered that I could indeed write a novel. Then, once I had written it, I thought that I didn’t intend on selling it anyway, so I might as well put it up on my website.
► In a time when the internet wasn’t as much a part of our everyday life as it is now and when doing this didn’t automatically bring with it the suggestion that you could ever turn this into money or a book deal …
Correct. It was in 1999. I just said, “If you like it, send me a dollar.” And over the next five years, until I finally told people to stop sending me money for it, I got about 4,000 dollars, which is not too far off from the first advance for a first genre novel. It was an interesting experience. In a time when PayPal wasn’t invented yet. People had to physically mail me the money. I would go to the mailbox and someone would have sent me a dollar bill. Which I basically used for pizza money.
► You then did it again with Old Man’s War, except that you didn’t put the whole novel up at once.
Yes. After Agent To The Stars I knew I could write a novel. Now I wanted to try writing something that could sell. I decided to write military science fiction, because it seemed like something that could sell. Having said that, I then wrote the military science fiction story that I would read. But when I finished it, I came to the point where suddenly I had to sell it, and by that time I had a non-fiction agent, but no fiction agent. I knew it would be a pain in the ass to get one. I knew it would be a pain to go through the submission process. Lucky for me, I had already published as a non-fiction author, and that thing of needing-to-get-published as a validation of one’s life was not an issue. So the first thing I did was put the book in a folder for about a year, to think about it later. And when I finally did that, I figured I’ll just put it on my website and serialise it. In December of 2002 I would put a new chapter online every day, finishing just before Christmas. A few days later, I received an email from Patrick Nielsen Haden, who is the senior editor of Tor, saying “I read the book on your website, can I buy it from you?”, which was great because it meant I didn’t have to submit it to any publishers. When I said ‘yes’, he asked if I have any other stuff to which the answer was ‘no’, but I said “absolutely I do” and sold him what would become Android’s Dream on the pitch of “man solves diplomatic crisis through the use of action scenes and snappy dialog”. So I went from being unpublished in fiction and not really going out of my way to get published to having a two-book deal. Then things got a little crazy, because it was 2002, still the early days, and people weren’t really getting deals off of their websites. Both Patrick and I had to tell people that this is weird and it will not happen that often and, statistically speaking, you are much better off submitting your books. But everyone likes the anecdotal story. It’s the same reaon why everyone thinks they are going to win the lottery. You’re not going to win the lottery – you just won’t. But someone’s going to win. So why not me? Well, for me, it was an interesting experience, and as a result of it, I’ve had a strange writing career since then. I got in by a fluke – backed up by the fact that the novel was good, just to be clear – but still kind of a fluke. And my career has been fluky ever since.
► Hugo Awards, among others; New York Times bestseller – maybe the way in was a fluke or a freak accident, but hardly the whole career.
► And freak accident describes it quite well. Lets just remind everyone: Back then – only ten, 15 years ago – there was no template on how you might achieve your goal through social media, because back then there was no such thing as social media.
Right. Nowadays, if you write a successful blog, you can get a book deal. Here is a perfect example: What If? by Randall Munroe. He did a comic book series called XKCD and then started writing about weird science, like what would happen if the world stopped rotating, and wrote those pieces on his website and eventually got a book deal out of it. These days, it’s not that unusual for someone to use their blog as a test run for a book deal. Back in 2002, however, there was no indication that this would be a thing that would
continue to happen.
If you’re going to do something with a medium, you should to it to the strength of that particular medium. Tweeting a novel is not necessarily the best use of Twitter.
► Since you have a publisher, you don’t ‘need’ to think of special ways to publish your books anymore, but have you considered different, experimental ways of publishing a novel, just for the heck of it or to see if it works? Something like tweeting a novel, for example – although that has already been done of course.
If you’re going to do something with a medium, you should to it to the strength of that particular medium. Tweeting a novel is not necessarily the best use of Twitter. And I say that advisedly, because over in Japan novels via text are apparently a thing. Also, like you said, there have been people who have tweeted entire novels. But for me, Twitter is Twitter. Use the strength of a medium, rather than trying to take an existing form and shoving it into a particular thing. For example, one of the things I do like to do with Twitter is, when I go on a long plane ride I often do a kind of short story about the gremlin on the wing. It goes back to the Twilight Zone TV show, where they had an episode with William Shatner, who is very nervous about planes and every time he would look out of the window there is that creature that is tearing up the plane. It’s a classic episode, so when you tweet about the gremlin on the wing, people get the reference. I would do things like “There is a gremlin on the wing, being trained by another gremlin on the art of destroying planes” or “There is a gremlin on the wing on strike for unfair labour practices” and so forth. The whole point is that you’re telling the story and people are entertained, but you’re doing it in a sort of episodic way, short and sweet and on the point, which does play into the strength of Twitter. To me, that is more entertaining than taking a whole story and tweeting it one sentence at a time. If someone in my feed would say they are going to tweet their entire novel, I would unsubscribe, because it would mess up my entire feed with these occasional random sentences. And the thing is, I can take the short tweets about the gremlin, compile them and maybe make a book about it, but essentially it is designed to work within the medium.
► Is that what you’re doing with Midnight Star? Not a novel, but a computer game …
Yes, that is actually a perfect example for the mechanism of fitting something to the medium, as opposed to trying to make the medium conform to the subject. It’s a first person shooter game. If you have ever played them on a computer or console, you know what they are. But if you have played a first person shooter on a tablet, well, what they end up doing is creating a joystick or another way of making you navigate through the game on the tablet as if it was a regular computer or console. That’s not paying attention to the format or the medium. It is saying “We know how first person shooters work on console and computer, let’s just port that UI over to the tablet.” Unfortunately, the UI doesn’t work, because a tablet is not a console. When we started creating Midnight Star, we created it with mobile gaming in mind. Here is the tablet – what can you do with a tablet that you can’t do with other things? So you’ll play this game the way you use a tablet, by swiping, by using your fingers, by using the native strengths of the medium. That was fun to do, because it challenges your assumptions about, in this case, what a first person shooter is, what kind of game they are and what they are supposed to be. We had a lot of fun building that from the ground up. In addition to the video game, there is also a graphic novel we wrote to accompany the game, called Midnight Rises. And that was the same sort of thing: It is a graphic novel, but designed for a tablet. For example, we don’t necessarily use the same kind of panels you’d see in a comic book. We are able to make it a lot more fluid. And we have it that the video game and the graphic novel talk to each other. You can do some exploring in the graphic novel and that will affect your load-out in the video game. If you do certain things in the video game, I believe you can unlock things in the graphic novel. Combined, these two elements become a new thing that you couldn’t have unless you were on a tablet. Figuring all that out was a very exciting process for us.
► Leaves the question: Why do it in the first place? It’s not like you are not already keeping yourself busy with your writing, as we’ve established in the beginning.
Why? Why not? Seriously. Why do anything? Part of doing things is trying to see if they work. Or what happens when you do them. Part of it is that you get bored with the way things already are and you want to see what happens when you change things up. So for me, a lot of the reasons for ‘why’ is because … why not? :x:
This interview first appeared in issue no.1 of XCENTS.
featured image courtesy of John Scalzi
Interview by Ewan McGee.