Space Cowboy: An
Interview with Justin Stanchfield
Stanchfield is a talented and eclectic writer who is as equally at home with
children's stories as with gritty science fiction and fantasy tales. His
work has appeared in such diverse venues as Boy's Life, Cicada, Sofa Ink
Quarterly and Ideomancer -- and he has upcoming stories in Black Gate and
Aeon. His sf and fantasy stories blend realistic characters with
well-imagined locales and fascinating plots that place his characters in
positions of danger and decision. Do they rise to the challenge? Read a few
of his stories and find out how a master storyteller crafts a tale.
Justin is a long-time moderator at Forward
Motion for Writers where, besides creating the daily writing exercises, he
shares his knowledge about the skills needed to successfully place stories.
He also answers questions about writing for the young adult and children's
In real life, Justin lives on a cattle
ranch in Montana with his wife and children and an unnamed number of
cattle. His life on the cattle ranch has lent his work a unique perspective
on life and the use of technology. It has also given him a sense of
character introspection that is often missing in modern science fiction and
Visit Justin's website at
Tell us about your publications! What have you got out at the moment
and where can we find it?
Iím sort of between publications at the
moment. It seemed like 2005 was a good year for stories that had been
sitting at one magazine or another to finally appear in print. In fact,
some of my highest-profile appearances were last year, including a
novelette in the June issue of Cicada. I havenít counted lately, but
Iíve had over eighty stories published in one place or another. Back
issues are still available for Black Gate #8
http://www.blackgate.com/bg/issue8.htm and Aeon #5
http://www.aeonmagazine.com/currentissue.html . I even had a short
story reprinted by the Russian magazine Esli Fantastika, which is the
first time any of my fiction has ever been translated into another
language. Also, the inaugural issue of Sofa Ink Quarterly that just
came out in December has a story of mine. Itís always fun to have a
story appear in a first issue! There are also quite ezines with stories
archived, such as this one at Dark Energy:
http://www.darkenergysf.com/stories/GrayFootpaths.htm , and also a
couple stories for sale at
What genres do you write in, and why? And would you like to try your hand at
tend to switch back and forth between science fiction and fantasy,
with the occasional foray into dark fantasy Ė Iím never quite sure
where the drawing line between Ďdark fantasyí and Ďhorrorí is. I
also write a lot of action/adventure for kids, which is fun. My
first published story, in fact, was an aviation adventure that ran
in Boysí Life. I love history, especially the Bronze Age and
Neolithic periods, and one of these days I intend to try my hand at
historical fiction, though it might be tough keeping the speculative
elements out. Seems every idea I have winds up with some weird angle
Who has influenced your writing?
Everybody. I try to steal from the
best! <G> Iím kind of an obsessive reader. I find an author I like and
then read everything I can find of theirs, at least until I get hooked
on somebody else. I have entire bookcases filled with C. J. Cherryh,
Anne McCaffrey, Heinlein, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Ray Bradbury, and
Ernest K. Gann, who wrote the novels ĎMasadaí and ĎThe Aviator.í Not
that you could tell it from my own writing, though. Those people know
what theyíre doing. I just blunder along and occasionally luck into
something that seems to work. Right now Iíve been reading a lot of S.L
Veihl, Jack McDevitt and Robert Metzgar.
The original Star Trek series was also
an influence, though in a round-about way, since I never actually saw an
episode when it was in production, but only knew it from the James Blish
adaptations that Bantam put out in the seventies. Those scripts,
presented in short story form, gave me access to a lot of great writers
I might never have otherwise encountered, especially as an eleven
year-old. Writers like Robert Bloch and Theodore Sturgeon. While my
schoolmates had football players as their childhood idols, mine were
Harlan Ellison and David Gerrold!
How have cattle ranching and the area in which you live affected you as
probably seems like a strange juxtaposition, a cattle rancher who
writes science fiction and childrenís stories on the side. I know I
get a lot of strange looks when people find out I write, and even
stranger looks when I tell them what genre I work in! But, I canít
imagine doing anything else. And yes, ranching has definitely
influenced my writing. Some of the stories Iíve done, such as
ďLooking For CharlieĒ which ran in Boysí Life, or ďThey Call It
RodeoĒ in Sofa Ink Quarterly, are based on things that happened here
on the place. But itís influenced me in a lot of other ways, too,
such as knowing how to deal with harsh environments or adapt new
technologies into old niches. And of course, working with livestock,
especially horses, makes it easy to add little touches of realism to
stories set in pre-industrial worlds, or even distant futures where
travel is primarily by horseback. There are more subtle things too.
Living in the mountains helps keep things in perspective, the sense
that the world is far vaster than what we sometimes perceive, and
that, despite all of humanityís accomplishments and blunders, weíre
still pretty insignificant against a backdrop like this.
Do you see the Internet as a good tool for upcoming writers? How should
they be using it, if it is?
Definitely! The Internet, for all its
faults, is an incredible resource, especially if you live somewhere
isolated, or have difficulty using more traditional research methods.
Itís so easy Ė almost too easy, sometimes Ė to find quick facts or
figures on some minor little problem that you might otherwise let slide
or cut from the story. I live forty miles from the nearest public
library, so you can imagine how often I use Google. And, of course,
there are so many writing related sites online, places like Forward
Motion or Ralan.com, that an Internet connection has become practically
Writing is, by its nature, an isolating
endeavor, and having a sense of community with other writers, somewhere
to trade ideas or just complain about things non-writers donít
understand, can make a lot of difference. I wasnít on-line when I
started writing, and for the first couple of years I honestly thought I
was the only person in the world getting as many rejection slips as I
did. It was a revelation when I finally did get connected and discovered
rejection was the norm even for experienced authors. And then, of
course, thereís email. Itís hard to imagine that even as recently as six
or seven years ago, most dealings with editors and publishers were
handled by post office, and any exchange might take weeks, not hours or
days, to handle.
Obviously, there are caveats, too.
There arenít any fact-checkers on the Internet, and an awful lot of
erroneous information is lurking out there for the unwary. And, despite
the sense of comradeship that most of us share, sooner or later, if you
post to message boards or chat-rooms, disagreements will arise.
Flame-wars, in my estimation, are quite possibly the most outlandish
waste of time a writer can engage in. Rather than sitting down and
working, you suddenly find yourself arguing with someone you have never
met, probably never will meet, and absolutely have no chance of changing
their mind. And, even on the best of sites, the occasional troll wanders
in, someone willing to shoot their mouth off just to stir up controversy
then hide behind the anonymity the net offers. Take it from someone who
has had his share of heated discussions, flame wars are about as
productive as shouting at the wind.
Do you find belonging to Forward Motion, and helping to moderate the
site, has helped you with your own writing?
Absolutely. Being a moderator at
Forward Motion has been a big plus for my own writing. A lot of the
questions Iíve been asked as a moderator have made me back up and
examine things I might have taken for granted. The on-line classes Iíve
taught have been especially invaluable. Itís amazing how much you do
without really thinking, such as your approach to description or plot
construction. Explaining to others why you do certain things a certain
way forces you to look at your methods and technique, and invariably
improve them. And, of course, there are those daily exercises. Youíd be
amazed how many plot ideas Iíve come up with while trying to figure out
what the next dayís installment will be!
Has writing changed who you are or how you see the world? Are there
themes that matter most to you?
sure it has. To write effectively, you need to be honest, both with your
potential readers and with yourself. I once had an editor reject a
manuscript with the words ĎDig deeper.í At the time, I was confused by
the response, because I thought what I had written was good, and on the
surface it probably was, but it lacked emotional depth. So, I went back
to work and wrote a story that exposed some of my childhood fears,
things I probably wouldnít have acknowledged otherwise. And, that story
I canít really say if there are themes
I consciously try to express, but it seems like a lot of my stories
involve personal responsibility, or characters struggling to Ďdo the
right thing.í Then again, thatís probably the most common theme in all
of literature, so apparently Iím in good company. I also like to explore
themes that involve frontiers, no doubt a by-product of where I live,
and time-travel is something Iíve returned to over and over. The idea of
being able to step into the past, and possibly change the present, for
better or worse, is to me an idea that is practically inexhaustible.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Has your career progressed
the way you thought it would?
I remember as a little boy, maybe four
or five years old, sitting on my momís lap and dictating a Ďbookí to
her, so I guess I was bitten by the writing bug early, though I donít
recall any single defining moment. Iím a member of the notoriously bad
local theater group, the Crazy Coyote Players. We put on a couple plays
every year to raise money for the grade school, and to save money on
royalty fees my brother Matthew and I started writing the plays we use.
From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to short stories. I did
take a correspondence course from the Institute of Childrenís
Literature, and that made a tremendous difference. My instructor, Mary
C. Ryan, who has had books made into television movies for Disney,
really taught me how to structure a short story. In fact, my first sale
was a class project, which she prompted me to submit to Boysí Life.
I canít really say that my career has
progressed the way I expected. Nine years ago, after that first sale, if
you had asked me what I thought the future held I would have had a
totally different answer. I made four pro sales that year, two to Boysí
Life, one to Cricket and one to a magazine Algys Budrys was editing
which, sadly, folded before my story ran. Maybe that made it seem too
easy, because I actually expected to go from there to selling to the big
SF magazines, and then straight into novels. Now, almost a decade later,
I have yet to sell anything to one of the digests, such as Analog or
Asimovís, and while Iíve written six novels, I seriously doubt any of
them will ever see print. Still, Iíve had my share of good luck, so Iím
Are there common mistakes you see new writers making? What suggestions
would you give them?
the biggest mistake I notice new writers making is using the
too-formal style taught in school. It works fine for business
letters or reports, but not for fiction. Fiction has to flow
naturally, and it takes a lot of practice to make your narrative
seem effortless. Of course, everyone has to develop their own style,
but there is no substitute for reading, both in and out of the genre
you want to write. Compare your own work to the writers you enjoy,
really examine it down to a sentence by sentence level, and see how
it stacks up. Lately, Iíve been listening to a lot of audiobooks,
and that has made me take yet another look at my own stuff. One of
the best ways to gauge your work is to read it out loud. The ear can
pick up clinkers the eye quite often misses.
When I first began submitting stories,
the advice I was given was to send a manuscript to the best paying
market, and when rejected there, send it to the second best market and
continue to work your way down the list. I no longer do this. While the
Ďtop-downí system does make sure your work is seen by a lot of editors,
the cost of doing it that way mounts up pretty quickly. My own approach
is to send a new story to one or two of the big magazines, the ones
whose guidelines best fit that particular story, and if it doesnít sell
there, rather than waste time and money sending it to the other pro
markets, I will look for a semi-pro magazine where it has a better
chance of selling. Otherwise, any profit the story might eventually make
is eaten up long before it ever sells.
What is your average day like? Do you write every day?
One nice thing about ranching is that
there is no such a thing as a typical day. You never know from one
moment to the next whatís going to happen! Of course, that also means
itís hard to keep any kind of a schedule. But, I still write at least an
hour every night. For me, this means getting up around midnight or one
oíclock and working until about three AM. During this time, I work
strictly on writing, either the current work-in-progress, or revisions,
and not let myself get distracted into research or answering email or
any of the thousand other things that can divert a writer from actually
getting something done.
Youíve cracked some big magazine markets like Boyís Life. Whatís the
secret? What would you recommend to writers interested in placing stories in
big name magazines?
I wish I knew what the secret is,
because God knows I would put it to better use! Sales seem to come in
streaks, followed by long dry spells. Why this is, I have no idea, but
itís something other writers have noticed as well. And, quite often the
stories Iíve liked the most when I wrote them werenít the ones that sold
to the big magazines. Still, looking back, the ones that did manage to
get into the bigger markets were stories that had a deep emotional
content, that old Ďdig deeperí factor rearing its ugly head once more.
Can you give a few pointers on the differences in writing for children,
young adult and adult markets?
of content, the biggest difference in writing for the various age
groups is length. Contrary to what most people might expect, writing
for children is actually more challenging than writing for adults. A
typical kidís story will run below two thousand words, and might
even be limited to a thousand words or less. Literally, every word
has to count. Young adult markets offer a little more leeway as far
as length and subject matter are concerned, though they still
generally ask for more compact stories than you might find in a
mainstream magazine. Stylistically, I really donít adjust how I
write when Iím working on something for younger readers. Kids are
smart, a lot smarter than we give them credit, and quite often they
pick up subtle things in a story or book that an adult might miss.
Iím constantly amazed when I listen to my daughter (sheís in the
fourth grade) explain the books she is reading, and how deeply she
gets into the story.
Of course, not every topic interests
every age group, and that is probably the key to writing for kids. Reach
back and remember what you were interested in as a ten year-old, or a
twelve-year old, or a teenager, and try to write with that in mind. One
guideline Iíve always tried to hold is to never write something for a
particular age group that I would not have read when I was that same
You've also made sales to some small press companies. Tell us about those
stories, and if you like working with the small press companies.
I love the small press. Small press
editors are publishing their magazines, whether print or electronic, as
works of love. And this love, this excitement about the project, filters
into the writer/editor relationship. The downside of having work appear
in a small press publication, obviously, is that it wonít be seen by a
large audience, and wonít be considered for awards or reprints in
Ďyearís bestí anthologies. To me, this is a minor concern. I know some
writers who would rather not have a story published at all than to sell
it to a semi-pro magazine or small press anthology, but Iím definitely
not one of them.
What do you have coming out that we should look for? What sort of things
do you plan, or hope, to write in the future?
I should have a story in Aberrant
http://www.hd-image.com/aberrant_dreams/ sometime this month, as
well as one in Neometropolis.
http://www.neometropolis.com/ I also have stories pending at Black
Gate and Interzone, but have no idea when they might run.
For the foreseeable future, I hope to
just keep plugging away at this craziness. Occasionally, I get fed up
with the constant string of rejections and decide to hang up my spurs,
but come that midnight; I wake up anyhow and wind up back at the
keyboard. The same goes for novels. Every time I finish one, I tell
myself ĎNo more! Stick to short stories that at least have a chance of
selling.í But then, eventually, I get an itch to try my hand at another
one, so I probably will start a new novel this year, though whether it
will be aimed at adults or kids I havenít decided yet. One thing I am
actively trying to do is force myself to write stories under 6000 words,
because there are so many more markets available for that length. The
problem is, for me anyhow, the natural length of most story seems to
hover between 7000 and 9000 words, and that really limits how many
magazines are willing to look at it. Maybe I just need to practice
shutting up more.
Thank you for taking this time for this interview. Any last words you'd like
to say to our readers?
Just thank you. Thank you not only for
interviewing me (this really has been a thrill) but for putting up with
me as a moderator at Forward Motion! <G>
Visit Justin's website at