Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Space Cowboy: An Interview with Justin Stanchfield

Interviewed by Lazette Gifford
© 2006,
Lazette Gifford


Justin 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 markets.

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 fantasy.

Visit Justin's website at http://www.sff.net/people/justinvs

 

Vision: 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 www.fictionwise.com .

Vision: What genres do you write in, and why? And would you like to try your hand at any others?

I 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 attached.

 

 

 

Vision: 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!

Vision: How have cattle ranching and the area in which you live affected you as a writer?

It 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.

 

Vision: 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 indispensable.

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.

Vision: 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!

Vision: Has writing changed who you are or how you see the world? Are there themes that matter most to you?

Iím 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 sold.

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.

Vision: 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 not complaining.

Vision: Are there common mistakes you see new writers making? What suggestions would you give them?

Probably 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.

Vision: 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.

Vision: 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. <G>

Vision: Can you give a few pointers on the differences in writing for children, young adult and adult markets?

Outside 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 age.

Vision: 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.

Vision: 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 Dreams 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.

Vision: 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 http://www.sff.net/people/justinvs