1. Jon, I usually start by asking the author to tell us a little bit about themselves, but you’re pretty well known, at least to much of the readership of Uprising Review. So instead how about you tell us a little bit about what you value. What values are important to you, in life and in writing?
I talk about this on the blog periodically, and I think what I value is what I choose to talk about. Obviously there’s my family as an exception to that – as I don’t really want them the center of my sorta public readership on the blog, but beyond that: Christ, freedom of speech, and promoting fellow indie authors. Though obviously could drill down into more, I think with those three things right there I have a solid foundation that can encompass most things. I try to keep those three things center in social media and blogging as best I can.
2. Your book just released this week called For Steam and Country is quite different than your other books at least in terms of genre. What made you want to write outside space opera and what drew you to steampunk?
Those who follow me know that I have 4 books written, even though one’s been released so far (and maybe For Steam And Country as well when this is being read). Space Opera is almost always my spot I go to. I really got into Steampunk cosplay in 2011 though, and my wife and I have some really cool costumes that inspired my imagination, along with all the other creative costumes I saw people wearing. I saw that the genre didn’t have much definitive literature to it and wanted to bring it to the forefront a bit. I went for a fantasy world, so readers of fantasy should enjoy this as well.
3. Your work puts you firmly in nerd culture. But it seems, at least to me a nominal nerd, that nerd culture these days means being explicitly left wing. What happened, why is it that most SFF has a leftward slant to it these days? And is there room in nerd culture for ideological diversity?
What I think happened was a certain group got in charge in nerd culture over the past couple generations as folk on the right kinda left that arena and focused on business endeavors. It’s a nichey thing but if you go back to the 60s or before, we did have more voices of different viewpoints, and there wasn’t a problem. As those voices faded and no one stepped up to replace them, it became a lockstep nepotism thing where people hired their friends of like viewpoints, and eventually ONLY their friends of like viewpoints. It’s been going on so long they justify it as “well there’s no conservative artists!” Which is categorically untrue. It is true that they will not hire one and give them a chance though. I think we’re seeing people with independent publishing being an option now, doing their own thing and making names for themselves with good works that totally have a space, if not the space to become dominant in the industry. The bad behavior of the old guard is turning people off to them and making consumers thirsty for an alternative. Hopefully we can find a good balance in the near future.
4. There are a few upcoming publishing houses like SuperversiveSF, Castalia House, and Silver Empire that publish authors whose voices are more right wing, or at least not left wing. Do you think this will make an impact on the industry or are we going against a tide that has been converged too thoroughly by the left to really bring balance to?
All three of these houses are great, and run by great people. What’s cool about them is they really don’t give a crap what your politics are, they want good stories. Naturally the people who gravitate to them are a little more of like mind, but it’s not exclusive. And I think that’s awesome. Freedom is the cause and I think these publishers are succeeding.
5. Are conventions what they used to be for fans, and especially for authors? It seems like the bigger conventions are just overrun with things that are tangential to the topic (like SDCC). Would you recommend that a new author try to make connections with other authors at cons, or is it better to reach out and make contact via the internet?
SF conventions seem to be only authors and aspiring authors for the most part. They’ve really diminished. You get fans at comic conventions and the like more interested in interacting and buying. SDCC is a bit of an exception as it’s a Hollywood promotional tool now, but local comic cons are great and a great place to interact with fans. I recommend going that route more than typical SF cons, and then yes, connecting on the internet as you say. There’s some great groups out there that are happy to have new folk join.
6. How much importance do you put on book reviews? Not just the professional reviews, or reviews that go out in advance, but reviews on Amazon for example. Are they more or less important than those written by professional reviewers?
They’re not magic. But what they do do is people look and say “other people like this.” It’s a psychological thing, and that’s a lot of what promotion is. Big brands sell because people know the brands, know they’re safe because other people like it. It’s a little bit of a looking at marketing as a herd mentality, but it does matter in that regard. If they see triple digits in reviews and it looks mostly positive, a reader immediately sees “oh, this isn’t just some self-published one time thing, this is the real deal”. It’s hard to beat that kind of marketing when people click. Of course, getting people to click in the first place is a whole other story.
7. You mostly write SFF, do you also mostly read SFF, or do you like to branch out? I often tell people who want to write to read within their genre to know what is going on, but the cross pollination of reading other things will help develop a voice. Which do you think is more important?
A lot of other authors tell me they can’t read in genre or they get sick of it. I don’t know, maybe I’m just not there yet (though I’ve written well over a million words by this point), but I love reading mostly what I love – space opera stuff. I actually read very little fantasy, so For Steam And Country is really stretching out for me both writing and what I read wise. When I’m not reading SFF, I read a lot of books about baseball, a lot of the SABR-metric type stuff that you read about, real nerdy deep baseball stuff. I love it. I do some Christian philosophy and then very occasionally I read political or historical stuff.
8. It seems like there are two types of novels in the SFF world today: those that win awards and those that make money. Why isn’t there more overlap? Are awards today all about politics and marketing and kissing enough of the right ass?
It depends. I mean awards are just about your readers being aware of them then being interested in voting. For the Hugos, you have a very specific old guard crowd who is the majority of memberships, and it’s about political content not fun. For others, it’s just what the readers vote for. I don’t pay much heed to them though I do try to get people voting for my stuff for marketing purposes. All it does is potentially expose you to new readers.
9. In my author interviews I often ask what makes a great writer, but I’m going to go a little different here and ask you what makes a great editor and what makes a great publisher? As more and more authors turn to self-publishing what should they look for when hiring an editor?
Gosh. I don’t know that I have enough experience yet to really qualify that. I’ve had pretty pleasant experiences with my editors so far, Jennifer Brozek and Tim Marquitz for each respective book. They cleaned stuff up, told me certain sections that didn’t work to rewrite. They pick out some of my wording inconsistences and all that and both did great jobs at that. I’m too big picture to make much of a good editor myself, I think, more of an ideas and character person, about the feels of everything going on in a story. I think the thing to be careful about is just that someone doesn’t mess with the feel of your work too much by being overly burdensome. It’s your vision, they’re helping clarify.
On the publisher’s front, also been very happy with both Evil Girlfriend Media and Superversive Press. Both run by good people who I consider friends. I think marketing is really hard, and on the indie side, it’s not the forte of these folk as much, and I am pretty adept at marketing, so I’m probably pretty irritating on that front, but I can’t complain. They believed in my work on both counts and are putting it out there, I appreciate that.
10. You’re currently working on a sci-fi anthology. What led you to do that, and do you think short stories are a good investment of a writer’s time? They certainly don’t seem like a wise investment financially, but do they bring other benefits to writers?
I just was talking with the Superversive SF crowd (www.superversivesf.com) and thought I’d help out by doing some work. I don’t think, financially or audience building wise that short stories really are worth it for new writers. Yes it can help you learn to write, yes if you have a story to tell and want to do it for the fun of it it’s a different thing, but anthologies are tough to sell, and a lot of people just buy for the big name authors they know, not all reading all the stories therein. I think from a monetary and audience building standpoint, novels is a better time investment.
11. When you decide what to read, does the author’s politics play a role in buying their book? Do you find yourself boycotting books published by Tor for example or do you try to put aside the author’s views to just enjoy the book?
Not really. I try to give everyone a fair shake. Some of my favorite authors and inspirations like Cherie Priest, Sharon Lee and Elizabeth Moon for example are definitely diametric opposites to me politically, but I love their stories and appreciate their work. I don’t like the boycotting game because I’d hate to be treated that way, so I try not to go there. If someone’s been a jerk to me or my friends though, that becomes something different. Unfortunately that happens because of politics fairly regularly. It’s pretty awful. And at that point, definitely not going to give money to someone who hates me.
12. What is the most challenging aspect of marketing a book in the current year? How does a new author make a name for himself or stand out from the other thousands of books being written and self-published? ‘
It’s ridiculously hard. You have to be marketing constantly. I spend way too many hours a day doing it, and my wife gets really annoyed with how much time I’m on the internet doing just that. Between the blog and social media it’s really consuming, but it trickles in an audience for the books. A lot of people are scared to put themselves out there and just be present in groups online, etc. You just gotta go and keep getting yourself heard. No one will do it for you.
13. What is the most challenging aspect of writing speculative fiction for you?
Questions like this! I’m not sure. I find world building a bit challenging I suppose because I never feel like I have enough details. I map a lot out in advance and do a lot of prep work before I write with notes, outlines, sheets, etc. Perhaps it’s a bit of a compulsion but I always feel I could push it further.
14. We’re often told to write what you know, but who can really “know” something like a steampunk world or a space opera, beyond being familiar with scientific laws? How do you get to the point where you “know” your world well enough to write the story?
Yes. I know airships. 😉
I jest but that goes back to my last answer where I prep out a lot in advance. I’ve got little details in notes that don’t make the book sometimes. Sometimes I write full prequel scenes just to have them down to reference and aren’t there. Or do a different perspective that didn’t make the book. My third book which I’m editing now I had a whole section from a villain’s viewpoint that I chucked out but I wanted to know what he thought. That helps the details that do make the book feel more realistic. It’s a ton of work but I think it pays off.
15. To you what makes for a great character? Aristotle said character is fate, do you believe that the values you put in a character will dictate the plot?
Yes. Values are big. Who they are is big. I really try to close my eyes and get into their headspace. Like worlds, I fill out character sheets for all major characters in advance. Then when I revise I do a special pass where I hit each character and tweak their words, their thoughts, when I’m only in that character’s spot. I find this to be my forte in writing and it’s my favorite part and most time consuming.
16. How much pre-writing do you put into a book before sitting down to write it out? How much research did you do on For Steam and Country?
Answered the majority of this above. I’ll usually have like a 5,000-ish word outline of a book plus all the world building notes, so a lot. As far as research, I did some for my main character’s pet ferret so I could get that behavior down, but other than that because I was making up the world and the airships and gadgets, I just pulled from my head.
17. What do you do to beat procrastination? How do you stay organized when writing?
I’m a bad person to ask about this I’m terrible. I don’t know. I set an hour or two aside a day to write. It’s hard with kids and work and then all the other promoting. Usually I’ve got an hour first thing in the morning for the blog, then an hour for lunch or at the end of the day for the fiction writing. It’s tight, but fortunately I type really fast (fun fact: I’m a classical pianist).
18. What do you think is the role of religion or faith in speculative fiction? How do you incorporate the seemingly innate human need to connect with the divine when in space or in an alternative world?
For Steam And Country was so packed I really didn’t develop that much and I see it as a more secular fantasy society. Star Realms has the Machine Cult, and is briefly referenced – and my big pun joke of the whole book which no one’s come and told me about seeing is that we have the character Joan who hears the voice of G.O.D. and flies around in a ship or Ark as it may be. I tried to telegraph it by making her last name Shengtu, the Chinese word for saint.
I don’t have a ton of religion in the current space opera I’m working on, but my next one has two religions at the center of the conflict. It should be really fun.
19. How should an author approach a difficult subject, perhaps something they themselves find morally reprehensible, and yet they need to (or want to) include in their book? How do you write a character whose actions or values are the opposite of the writer’s, without turning the character into a straw man?
It’s tough. I try to make conflicts where at least I can make the villain’s motivation understandable. I don’t really delve into more horrific elements with them typically because I don’t enjoy much of that myself. My main criticism of sci-fi in the last few years is that it’s been altogether too dark. I try to keep things fun for the most part and don’t feel the need to go there for the most part.
20. What inspires you?
All sorts of stuff. I get really energized to write from conventions, meeting people I really find inspiring. Concerts do the same for me, high emotional energy. Big victories in writing like selling a story gets me writing a little harder in the near term future. God’s given us such a great world with so many wonderful things that are inspiring that there is a little something in everything.