Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Alien Views:
An Interview with Wen Spencer

Interview by 
Lazette Gifford
©2003, Lazette Gifford

Between the time we did this Interview and the publication, Wen won the John W. Campbell award for best new writer!  Good work!

 

en Spencer's science fiction books in the Ukiah Oregon series (Roc Books: Alien Taste, Tainted Trail, Bitter Waters and the upcoming Dog Warrior) have introduced readers to both an unusual character and an interesting alien subculture grounded in the world as we know it.  Moving through plots filled with mysteries -- after all, the main characters are detectives -- these books pull the readers into an increasingly complex mélange of real world and alien.

The success of her first books has brought Wen more contracts, and readers can look forward to a stand-alone SF novel, A Brother Price, to be published by Roc in 2004.  Her fantasy novel, Tinker, will be released by Baen Books in November, 2003.

Check out her website at http://www.wenspencer.com for more information on her books, convention appearances, and more.

Oh, and do watch out for the mice -- there's no telling who they might belong to...

 

Vision: In your series of books, Alien Taste, Tainted Trail and Bitter Waters, you have created a unique character in the form of Ukiah, who has lived through some interesting circumstances.   How much of the character came to you before the plot of the story? 

Wen: Ukiah originally was a role-playing character for a MIB-like game called Stalking The Night Fantastic.  The MIB organization had found him while on a Bigfoot investigation and raised him in a school for 'special' children, ala X-Men.  Max was a divorced newspaper reporter and Ukiah was his photographer.  In the game, Ukiah was nothing more than a wolf boy living on his own.  After a few stabs at trying to write Ukiah as he had been for the games, I decided to ditch all the game trappings and just keep the core personality, what I liked so much about him. 

At that point I decided that while I didn't want Ukiah to be living alone but I also didn't want him living with Max (which cast Max too much into the 'father' role).  Mom Jo was a logical answer to "Who would find and raise a wolf boy?"  I had decided that I wanted Max to be widowed (more sympathetic to female readers) to keep his life simple.  To keep Mom Jo from falling into the role of Max's love interest, I wanted to give her a partner.  A male partner would have competed for Max's position of "father-figure," so Mom Lara came into being.  Because Ukiah's job is dangerous, I gave Jo and Lara a daughter and hints that Ukiah hadn't taken well to being supplanted as baby of the family.  While it's never said directly, Ukiah's moms had been concerned about the sibling rivalry because of Ukiah's wild nature and relived that Max offered a way to get Ukiah off the farm and focused on something other than the loss of his mothers' focus. 

I think subtlety makes the characters deeper and make them more interesting.  When you explain everything out, you run the risk of making it seem that's the "entire" character, that they have no other angles to them.  By hinting at more but not going into it, you create "shadows" to make the character appear deeper.     

 

Vision: The Ukiah Oregon books are unusual, even in the world of SF.  Can you tell us what inspired you to write them? 

Wen: At the risk of seeming too commercial, I have to admit that I decided to write ALIEN TASTE after hearing a near-future SF author talk about how much money he was getting in film options.  Previously I had written a space opera (which was a learning experience on how not to write a novel and how not to revise a novel) and a fantasy (how not to write a trilogy.)

 

Vision: Do you feel the inclusion of a romance (or romantic) sub-plot is something essential to books in other genres? 

Wen: To me, a character isn't real until they are grounded by a host of relationships, romantic and non-romantic.  I roll my eyes at the typical private investigator's stereotype, where they have a handful of acquaintances, but are otherwise loners.  Yes, this makes a series easy to write, but I think of such people as not very interesting.   While they don't make appearances, Max has a brother and nephews and cousins, Mom Jo has a huge extended family, the moms have a wide circle of friends, and Indigo has a large family.    

 

Vision: Your first books have been SF, and you have a stand-alone sf coming out in 2004 titled A Brother Price.  But I see that you have a fantasy book coming out soon as well.  Was it difficult to change from the sf genre to the fantasy one? 

Wen: Because I tend to think more characters than plot, my writing is more about people than if it's SF or Fantasy.  I don't try to limit myself because of the genre.  In Ukiah, I deal with the spiritual.  In Tinker, I talk about quantum physics.  As in terms of writing, I think Tinker was easier to write, only because I have so much fact checking with Ukiah, where in Tinker – because it's set thirty years in the future and on another world and has magic – I can make so much more up.    

 

Vision: Is A Brother Price set in a new sf background from the Ukiah Oregon stories? 

Wen: Yes.  It's a world totally separate from ours where genetic defects skew the population to a ratio of about ten women to every man.  I didn't want to do an alternate history.  What I wanted to focus on was the society created by these biological forces, not what such constraints would do to our own history. 

Basically, I read several books – and saw a few TV shows – where women rule over a utopia that is disrupted when a male influence is introduced.  I wanted to show that we're human first, and our sex doesn't make us better or worse, that we're equal.  A world run by women will be just as screwed up as one run by men because you have human nature dealing with limited natural resources. 

Not to say, however, to say that the story is a dry rant on sexual issues.  It's much more like Jane Austin mixed with Mark Twain, done in a style of a regency romance, only stood on its head.  The hero is Jerin, a young man about to be sold to his sisters into a marriage of their choosing so they can afford a husband for themselves.  (The 'brother's price' is basically the money Jerin's sisters will receive from his wives.)  His storyline is very focused on the romance as he goes through his 'Season' while his love interest, Princess Rennsellaer, hunts down smugglers and river pirates in thrilling gunboat battles. 

 

Vision: Can you tell us about the new fantasy book, Tinker, as well? 

Wen: Tinker ROCKS.  I'm very excited about this book.  Tinker is about a girl genius inventor who lives in futuristic Pittsburgh and runs a salvage yard.  Only Pittsburgh is being shoved into an alternate dimension with magic and elves.  It has tons of way cool stuff: hoverbikes, spells, elves, machine guns, oni.  I had lots of fun writing a borderland story where the humans tried to deal with it in a modern human way – by sending in the scientists. 

 

Vision: Did you always want to write science fiction and fantasy? 

Wen: Always.  The desire to be a SF&F writer happened when I was so young, I don't remember the start.   In fourth grade, I wrote this play for my class to perform for the entire school.  It was Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer versus the Grinch.  In high school I was submitting short stories to magazines like Omni and Analog.  I remember as a twelve year old, begging my mother for bonded paper and a typewriter for Christmas.   

 

Vision: How long had you been writing before you made your first sale?   

Wen: Alien Taste was my first professional sale.  I sold it in 2000 when I was 37.  While I always wanted to be a writer, I was detoured by life a good bit.  I got married when I was …think, think, think…22, and a lot of energy went into making that work and staying out of bankruptcy.  After our son was born, my husband started to work for a dot.com startup, where he was working like 60-70 hour weeks, often working 24 hours in a desperate push to make a launch.  While his schedule basically made me a 'single mom' of a hyperactive autistic child, it also inspired me to work as hard as he did.  So when my son finally started to sleep more than four hours of night, I would start writing from his bedtime until I dropped of exhaustion, every night. 

 

Vision: Was your first novel sale made via the slush pile, or did you have an agent? 

Wen: I had actually written three novels.  The first I never got to the polished stage, but it was an important learning lesson on how to write a novel, how NOT to revise a novel, and when to walk away from a failed project.  The second novel I sent off to slush piles and did the waiting game, which was very disheartening.  When I finished the third novel, I decided I wasn't going to deal with the slush piles and did a focus effort into getting an agent.  It wasn't as hard as I expected it to be. 

 

Vision: Can you tell us what happens after a writer makes a first sale?  What kind of work does this entail after you get the good news? 

Wen: You get the call.  "Roc wants it and a sequel."  "Yes."  "I haven't given you the terms."  "I don't care.  Yes."  Bounce, bounce, bounce – for like two weeks.  There's a surprising silence from all other parties concerned.  Get used to it.  After you say 'yes,' you get a contract in the mail that you sign and mail back.  After that, nothing for months.  The editor is now reading the manuscript for any revisions she might want (currently a stunning number of SF&F editors are female, TOR being the only bastion of male editors I can think of.)  The revisions might be anything from "clarify this sentence" to "rewrite the entire last chapter."  Once you address the revisions, you print off a clean copy and mail it your editor – or email the rtf, depending on time and publisher.  

After that, it goes to the copyeditor, who fixes all grammar changes and attaches more questions.  These questions are more along the line of "you say green eyes on page 4 and blue eyes on page 235, which is correct?"  Baen doesn't send you a copy of the copyedited manuscript – they email you any questions-- but Roc does.  You read through to see if the copyeditor actually understood what you were trying to say and didn't misunderstand and change the meaning.  At this stage, you're not allowed to rewrite, which is hard.  Also it can be months between sending in the clean copy and the copyeditor getting back to you.  Get used to waiting.  The easiest way to deal with the time lags is to focus on the next project. 

One thing you can do to make everyone life easier is to make up your own style sheet prior to mailing off the manuscript.  This will have the correct spelling of everyone's name (Raymond Kraynak), street names (Centre Avenue, Duquesne Blvd), and made up words (Hu-ae, Blissfire.)        

After the copyedits are finalized, it goes to the typesetter.  She sets the manuscript up into the page layouts that will be sent to the printer for printing.  When she's done, you get the galley.  You read over the page proofs, looking for dropped commas, wrong words, any mistakes.  You can't rewrite.  You've got like 7-14 days to read over the pages and return them. 

Sometime in all this, you might be asked your opinion on what should be on the front cover, what should go on the back cover, and requested bio information on yourself.  Generally, however, the author has very little to say on anything that goes on the cover.  At some point, you'll get a cover in the mail and you usually either squeal and dance around or call your mate and cry.  If there's some mistake on the cover, say so IMMEDIATELY, as it's going out to bookstores for them to pre-order.  I'll guess that I get covers like six months before the book is released.  Once you get the cover, you should start considering promotional options: postcards, business cards, bookmarks, and book signings.  Bookstores need to be contacted months ahead of time to set up a signing, so if your book is coming out in June, start setting up book signings in January.  Also start the conventions near you immediately, building awareness in the SF&F community is important.  Get a web site.  If nothing else, this will distract you from the MONTHS before the book actually arrives in the mail. 

Advance Reader Copies – ARC – are actually generated during the time you're going over the galley.  You should get at least one, but ask for more and send them to your local newspaper and anyone you know that reviews SF&F books for a major source.  While newspapers don't need a huge lead time, the magazines might need up to six months to go from writing a review to actually appearing.  Some magazines don't like printing reviews on 'old' books since shelf life on mid-list books tends to be only like three months.  They want their readers to be able to go to the bookstore and buy the book, so if the book is already out, they might not review it. 

Finally, finally, the release date hits and your book is in the stores and you have the whirlwind of activity to promote it.  Hey, you took years to get this point, shouldn't you give the book every chance to succeed?  Yet, you probably have a contract (or least an option) on the next book, so you got to keep writing.  Welcome to the life of a professional writer.          

 

Vision: You have a good grasp of background for your books.  Did you visit the locations?  How much of it is imaginary? 

Wen: One reason I set so many of my books in Pittsburgh is that I lived there twenty years.  I know it very well.  Usually I write the plot out with very minimal description, and then I visit the area or get someone to photograph the area for me.  For TAINTED TRAIL, I researched Pendleton relying heavily on the Internet.  Once the book was three quarters finished, I flew out to Pendleton and toured all the locations.  Once home, with like a thousand photographs, I wrote up the descriptions of the various locations and tweaked some of the actions.  The farmhouse in BITTER WATERS is based on a place that my family used to do haunted houses in for Halloween, just down over the hill from the Evans City graveyard.  (It's since been leveled.) I kept the description but moved the location fifty miles east.  Eden Court is Elm Court, a real house in Butler featured in the book THE ARCHITECTURE OF BENNO JANSSEN.   

TINKER was a departure in that while I did some of the usual research/photographs descriptions, much of it was entirely made up.        

 

Vision: What are your feelings about sequels and series in books? 

Wen: Sequels are HARD to do.  I enjoy writing stand alones much more, but sequels sell better, so they're what I'm doing.  With a stand alone you can really wow the reader – everything is so new and nifty.  In a series, you have to repeat yourself because it's the same world and the same characters, and while you try hard for new and different stuff, you've got these cement blocks of 'same' tied to your writing.  Also back-story becomes a problem.  You need some for those readers that pick the second or third book up first, but at the same time it really doesn't belong in THIS book.  Yet back-story is easy, it's already figured out and familiar, so it wants to landslide into the current story.  You've got to resist hard from using it, and when it does bury the current plot, shovel it all out because it blocks up the clean storyline. 

 

Vision: Who are some of the writers who have inspired you? 

Wen: Kipling.  I loved the Jungle Book.  Mary Stewart, not only the Merlin series that starts with the Crystal Cave, but her romance mysteries like Moonspinners.  Lois McMaster Bujold and C. J. Cherryh for SF, Tony Hillerman and Dick Francis for mysteries.  

 

Vision: What is your work day like? 

Wen: I currently work too much.  I get up and write all day, pause for dinner and time with my husband and son, then write into the night.  Some days I nap in the middle, let my husband deal with my son, and write until the wee hours of the morning, basically creating two work periods in one day.  I'm behind on my deadline and hope to stop this insane schedule soon.   

 

Vision: As a new writer, how do you deal with marketing your work?  Any suggestions on what works? 

Wen: Unfortunately, new writers get very little promotion.  The first step should start before you sell the book.  Go to conventions, try to get onto panels to get experience, and look into joining a speaker's group, so you can get up in front of an audience and talk.  You will be reading in front of group sooner or later, so do it now to get good.  Network with other new writers; those on the verge of breaking out now are the ones that will be your 'brat pack.'  Most established writers are willing to talk at conventions about any writing subject you have questions on – just don't hand them your manuscript.  The same goes for editors and agents.  You can ask if you can mail it to them later, but even I can't hand a manuscript to my editor – even one she's bought and is late – at a convention.   

As I said earlier, promotions start long before the book hits the bookstores.  One trick I've done is searched on books similar to mine and find where they are reviewed, and then emailed the site and ask if I could send them a copy to review.  (Your publisher will send out a limited number of review copies on your request, but if they won't and you can afford the cost of book and postage, it's well worth your effort.) 

Postcards are great, fairly cheap way to push your books.  I have the printer listed in my blog entry on promoting.  (www.wenspencer.com)  Oh yes, a web site is a must.   

 

Vision: You spend time on-line at various sites.  Does this help you with your work?  If so, how?  What other benefits do you find there? 

Wen: Well, first off, when you're home alone, day in and out, you get lonely.   I moved to Boston two years ago, so all my friends are long distance, and that gets expensive.  FM's chat has been great to thrash out plot problem NOW instead of waiting for friends to get home from work.  Any guilt I have of hanging out online is banished when I promote my work and get new readers.

 

Vision: I see that you have a couple short stories coming out in an anthology, but you seem to mostly write novels.  Do you intend to write additional shorter material in the future? 

Wen: The skills used in short story writing are similar to novel writing but are different enough that you can be good at one and not be good at the other.  If you're a natural novelist, then it really doesn't pay to force yourself into a short story mold.  I think in novel form.  Sometimes a short story springs out and attacks me, but normally I can do a quarter of a novel in the time it takes me to spin a short story out of nothing.  If ideas come, or if I have the time to pour into them, I'll write short stories, but I plan to do novel from now on.  The short stories give me more exposure to new readers, but otherwise aren't worth the time and effort.

 

Vision: What suggestions can you give to writers who are hoping to break into the current market? 

Wen: Write what you like to read.  Write a lot.  Develop a thick skin to rejection, especially when dealing with magazines.  That market is so crowded that it's like playing the lottery.  Professional writers, my editor and myself included, get rejected routinely.  It's one of the reasons I didn't bother to force myself to write short stories, but instead jumped into novel writing.   

 

Vision: Is there anything else you'd like to talk about? 

Wen: My current pet project is the ALPHA the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Writing Workshop for Young Writers run by the Pittsburgh area fandom.  (http://www.dpsinfo.com/alpha/ )  Last year we had twenty teenagers, ages 14-19, from Oregon to Wales, attend the ten-day workshop.  We're doing it again next year and will be looking for applications soon.   

Visit Wen Spencer's Web site at www.wenspencer.com