Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

Interview:

Writer Quest -- An Interview with Jim Hines

By Russell Gifford
Copyright 2007 by Russell Gifford, All Rights Reserved


Vision was fortunate to catch writer Jim C. Hines for this issue's interview. Jim is the author of the trilogy of stories featuring humorous misadventures of Jig, the runt goblin, now published by DAW Books. Starting with GOBLIN QUEST, which hit the shelves in November of last year, GOBLIN HERO is publishing this month (May 2007). The story follows Jig into a messy situation where if the bad guys don't kill him, his own pals might! The Jig trilogy will close with GOBLIN WAR in 2008.

Another series, this time designed to set fairy tale stories back a few hundred years, is next on Jim's hit list, starting with THE STEPSISTER SCHEME. These are scheduled for late 2008 or early 2009.

 Hines made his first professional fiction sale in 1998 with "Blade of the Bunny," an award-winning story chosen for Writers of the Future XV. His short fiction has since appeared in over 30 magazines and anthologies, including Realms of Fantasy, TURN THE OTHER CHICK, and SWORD & SORCERESS XXI.

His anthology HEROES IN TRAINING, co-edited with Martin Greenberg, is due out in September of 2007 from DAW. So, as you can guess, Jim Hines is a very busy fellow these days!

Jim lives in Michigan with his wife and two children. Vision interrupted him hard at work plotting a sequel to THE STEPSISTER SCHEME, and asked him if he would share some insights on writing and getting published with the readers of Vision. He graciously agreed, and the resulting interview offers some important thoughts for writers everywhere.

Vision: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What started you on this career path? Has your career progressed the way you thought it would?

Jim: I started writing back in 1995.  I had a friend who wrote fantasy stories, and I thought I'd try it myself.  I was in college at the time, and a semester later, I had written a very long (and very bad) fantasy novel about a wisecracking elf wizard.  I had a lot of fun doing it, so I thought I'd keep going.

At the time, I didn't have any real visions for a writing career.  I did think it would be pretty cool to sell a book and run around signing autographs while basking in the adoring glow of my millions of fans.  Mostly though, I just enjoyed writing and wanted to improve and write more.

Vision: Any "if I'd known then what I know now" thoughts? Are there things you could have done that would have made it easier for you to reach this point in your career?

Jim: Be more patient, and have more faith in myself.  I spent a few years marketing Goblin Quest, and then gave up.  There were several top publishers I didn't even bother to submit to.  Instead, I ended up selling it to a smaller press.  Five Star did wonderful things for me, and I'm grateful that they got me started.  But they're a specialty market, and their print runs are far smaller than places like Tor and DAW and Ace.

If not for a fluke of luck, the book would have stayed with Five Star, and that would have been the end of it.  Instead, I ended up with offers from not one but two major publishers.  The book really was good enough.  Had I continued pursuing publishers and agents, it's very possible I would have broken in several years sooner than I did.

Writing is hard.  It's painful and frustrating, and it's easy to give up.  But after what I went through, I believe very strongly in aiming high and sending your work to the top markets.  Sure, there's a greater chance of rejection, and the process can be very slow.  But if you don't send it, you're basically rejecting yourself.

Vision: Any things you can recommend to would-be writers that you think could help them move forward in their careers? Are there skills you should have sharpened, habits you wish you would have developed? Did you have any special background or training that helped you?

Jim: I think the best thing I ever did was to marry a counselor.  Writers are nuts.  If you're not nuts when you start, just give it a few years.  I can't say that my wife keeps me completely sane, but she helps.

I went to grad school and got a Master's degree in English, with a concentration in creative writing.  Those two years taught me a lot about critically analyzing a text, and it did wonders for my non-fiction writing.  I also taught Freshman Composition as a graduate assistant, so I learned a lot about teaching.  But working with other writers in critique groups and the Writers of the Future workshop did a lot more for my fiction skills than graduate school did.

I made plenty of mistakes along the way, but I think the things I got right were to push myself to write almost every day, and to seek out feedback from people who were both skilled and honest enough to offer useful criticism.

Vision: The first book in your Goblin series, GOBLIN QUEST, featuring Jig the runt goblin, arrived on the shelves last year from DAW. When did you develop this storyline? How long has it taken to reach the point of actual publication?

Jim: I wrote GOBLIN QUEST at the end of 2000.  I spent the next few years collecting rejection letters before selling it to Five Star, a small publisher that produces very nice hardcovers for the library market.  Their edition came out at the end of 2004.  Then, after a bit of messiness and sheer dumb luck, my agent and I sold GOBLIN QUEST and GOBLIN HERO to DAW.  So it was about six years from writing the book to seeing it in the bookstores.

Vision: Your newest saga of Jig Dragonslayer's life, GOBLIN HERO, is due out this month (May 2007) again from DAW. The preview I read looks fun and funny, but Jig is in the middle of a mess! What's the trick to keeping people reading a series? Or is it more challenging to keep it interesting to you, the author?

Jim: One of my biggest fears is that the series would become stale or repetitive.  I think it's important to allow the characters to change and grow.  Jig will always be a cowardly little runt, but he learns a lot in the first book, and it wouldn't be right to pretend otherwise.  He's gained some new powers and earned a bit of prestige, so people treat him differently.  Not necessarily better, mind you, but differently.  Which means GOBLIN HERO has to tell a different story than GOBLIN QUEST.  Likewise, the third book will tell a very different story than the first two.

Everything has consequences.  I try to give each book a true ending as opposed to a cliffhanger, so that if I'm hit by a bus tomorrow, I won't leave my readers feeling ripped off.  But there are always unanswered questions, and each new book builds on the consequences of what came before.

Vision: Was this the first continuing series you've written? Did it start out as a series when you first conceived of Jig's story? How many more stories to you see in Jig's future?

Jim: GOBLIN QUEST was originally a standalone novel.  I had no idea if it would sell, or if it would be successful enough to warrant a second book.  But Jig and his fellow goblins are a lot of fun, and I kept asking myself questions . . . like how would the other goblins treat a runt who actually survived an adventure?  At this point, DAW has purchased three books: GOBLIN QUEST, GOBLIN HERO, and GOBLIN WAR.  I've also written four goblin short stories.

I have no immediate plans for more books in the series.  As I mentioned, I don't want things to get stale or repetitive.  I also don't want to be "that goblin guy" forever.  On the other hand, the end of the trilogy leaves Jig in a very different situation, one that has a great deal of potential for fun and exploration.  (Fun for me, at any rate.  Jig will probably hate it.)

Vision: The Jig Dragonslayer stories certainly have large amounts of humor, and seem very accessible to all ages. Do the stories reflect the vision of the story you started with, or did the humor evolve over time? Did you purposely feel you'd written a story that could be enjoyed at many age levels, or is that just your nature?

Jim: I had no particular age group in mind when I wrote the story; I just wanted to write from the monsters' perspective, and I loved my nearsighted goblin runt character.  I've been a little surprised at how the book has been received.  My youngest fan (that I'm aware of) is seven years old, but I also have great grandmothers telling me how much they enjoyed the book.

The humor has definitely evolved a bit.  GOBLIN QUEST has a fair number of gaming jokes.  That wanes a little in the second and third books, as the stories become more complex.  But they're goblins, and goblins are always fun.  Humans shake hands as a gesture of respect and friendship.  Goblins do it to check how much meat you've got on your bones.

Vision: You mention you have written four goblin short stories. Are those published, or soon to be published? Are they Jig stories? If so, where would someone find these?

Jim: Don't you know it's dangerous to ask a writer to promote his own stuff?  But since you asked. . . .

"Goblin Lullaby" came out last fall in the DAW anthology FANTASY GONE WRONG.  In a lot of ways, that one was my favorite.  It tells the story of baby Jig (inspired by my then-four-month-old son).  It also introduces a few of the characters from GOBLIN HERO, and even sets a few elements into place for GOBLIN WAR.

A short story named "Goblin Hero" will be out Very Soon in BASH DOWN THE DOOR AND SLICE OPEN THE BADGUY.  This one tells how Jig and his fire-spider Smudge first met.

"The Haunting of Jig's Ear" will be out later this year in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.  The title is self-explanatory, if a bit goofy.

Finally, I sold "School Spirit" to the Wizards of the Coast anthology MAGIC IN THE MIRRORSTONE, which is scheduled for 2008.  That's the only goblin story that doesn't include Jig.  Instead, we follow Veka and find out what happened to her after the events of the second goblin book.

Vision: Your bio says your fiction has appeared in thirty magazines and anthologies. Thirty? Over five years? Ten years? No matter which, it seems like a heck of an achievement! So, your writing career obviously did well in the time between 1998 and the book. Can you talk about that a little bit? And where did "Blade of the Bunny" fit into this apparently very productive output? 

Jim: "Blade of the Bunny" was my first professional sale. I came away from Writers of the Future with the naive expectation that all of the top markets would now be fighting over me.  After all, I was a Writers of the Future winner!  Sadly, most editors turned out to be perfectly willing to reject a WotF winner.

I've always aimed high with my short fiction.  My first submission to Fantasy and Science Fiction was back in 1995.  (After 41 submissions, I still haven't cracked that market.  But someday Gordon Van Gelder will send me a contract, darn it!)  Anyway, my approach was to send my stories to all of the top markets and work my way down until I sold it or ran out of markets.  This meant I could have 20 or more stories out at the same time, which was a good feeling.

Around 2002 or 2003, I changed strategies.  I wanted to build a name as a writer, and that meant I needed to get into the pro markets where you had much wider distribution.  At the time, SFWA defined pro markets as those paying 3 cents/word, so I adopted that as my cutoff point.

The effect was immediate: I got started collecting even more rejections.  But it worked for me.  I had to push myself as a writer, and I gradually got to the point where I was writing well enough to sell to places like Realms of Fantasy or Sword & Sorceress.

These days I'm not doing as much short fiction, and I'm not quite as militant about pay rates.  I sold one of the goblin stories to Andromeda Spaceways because I love those guys, and it's a fun magazine, even if the pay rate is significantly less than F&SF.

Vision: So, is the short fiction market still the way to 'break in?' (Since you still went the way of the small press, it does not sound like it was a huge help to you getting into the novel arena? Or not? Did it help you get an agent?)

Jim: Write what you want to write.  None of the agents I talked to knew anything about my short fiction work.

I do think short fiction can teach a lot about the craft of writing.  You learn dialogue and plotting and character development and world-building, and it's far easier to rewrite and analyze a 4000-word story than it is a 100,000-word novel.  At the same time, novels and short stories are different beasts.  Writing a short story won't teach you how to juggle a novel's worth of subplots, or how to foreshadow events six chapters ahead of time, or how to control pacing over 20 chapters.

I don't think short fiction is the path to novel success as much as it used to be.  Short fiction can certainly help, of course.  A query letter that mentions sales to Asimov's and Analog is going to get a closer look by a would-be agent or editor.

Someone who works as an agent or editor would be a better person to ask, but in my opinion, the best way to break in as a novelist is to write a really good novel.  And if that doesn't work, write a better one.  (In most cases you'll also need to learn to write a really good query letter.)

Vision: Besides heroic and humorous fantasy, what genres do you write in, and why? And would you like to try your hand at any others?

Jim: My novels with DAW are all quirky fantasies.  My fourth book, THE STEPSISTER SCHEME, is a bit more serious than the goblin trilogy, but it's still a lot of fun.  I've written much more widely in my short fiction, though.  I've done the occasional science fiction story, dabbled in horror, and done everything from classic sword & sorcery to the alternate history piece I'm working on right now.  I do like to push myself to try new things, but I also have a lot of fun writing lighter, humorous stories.

Vision: Who has influenced your writing?

Jim: Um ... everyone?  Even when I hate a book, I try to learn from it, if only to say, "I have to make sure I don't do that."  I love Ursula LeGuin's skill with language.  I love the way Spider Robinson evokes a sense of wonder in some of his books.  I love the way Peter David can put humor and tragedy on the same page, and make you feel them both.  Zelazny does a wonderful job with the sheer marvelousness of his worlds.  Julie Czerneda has taught me a lot about developing better alien characters.  And from Snoopy of Peanuts fame, I've learned to persevere through rejection.

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

Jim: I've run a fair number of writing workshops at conventions and such over the years.  A lot of the things I see most clearly are mistakes I make myself.  Starting the story too early is a big one.  One of the suggestions I make most often is to cut the first 5 or 10 pages.  In a novel, sometimes I cut an entire chapter or more.  The beginning needs to grab and hold a reader's interest, especially if you're a new writer.  If you're Stephen King, people will keep reading because they trust you.  For a new writer, if you don't grab the editor after the first page, they may not read the second.

Vision: Do you see the Internet as a good tool for upcoming writers? How should they be using it, if it is?

Jim: Like a lot of things, the Internet can be both a wonderful tool or an awful one.  At a bare minimum, I believe every author needs a professional-looking web site with contact information.  It doesn't have to be big and fancy, but if someone wants to pay you $100 to speak at a local college or interview you for the local paper, you want them to be able to contact you.

In terms of promotion, I've posted the first chapters of my books, as well as some "Easter Eggs" and deleted scenes.  I maintain a presence at LiveJournal and MySpace, as well as some Yahoo! Groups discussion lists, all of which give me the opportunity to interact with readers and writers.  The down side of all this is that time spent online is time not spent working on your fiction. . . .

It's easy to go overboard with promotion, which can alienate the very people you're trying to attract.  MySpace pages that are absolutely nothing but a commercial tend to annoy me.  Lots of authors will also spam mailing lists and discussion forums with information about their books.  "Oh, you're talking about pizza?  Well, the protagonist of my book, MARY SUE AND ME eats lots of pizza, so you should all read it!"  I've had far more success simply being myself, chatting with folks, and letting them ask me if they're interested in learning about my books.

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

Jim: The most obvious change is that it's harder for me to read a book or watch a show without critiquing the writing.  For a while, I couldn't sit through a movie without muttering about foreshadowing or poor character development or how the writers were deliberately manipulating our sympathies.  I've gotten a bit better.  I still do a lot of analysis, but I've learned to keep my mouth shut and not bug everyone else about it.  Mostly.

As for themes, family has become much more important to me over the past years, and I'm seeing that reflected in my writing.  The Stepsister Scheme will be dedicated to my daughter when it comes out, and one of the themes of the book is three women creating a new family after escaping the nastiness of their old families.  The short story I'm currently writing has family dysfunction dripping from every page.  (It also has elves with semi-automatic weapons, but that's not really thematic, just nifty.)

Vision: What is your average day like? Do you write every day?

Jim: I took a job for the state back in 2001, because I knew it was the kind of job that would mesh with my writing goals.  It's a lower-stress position, which means I'm not mentally burnt out at the end of the day.  For six years now, I've used my lunch hour to work on my writing.  I can do close to 1000 words during lunch on a good day.  (Let's not get into what the bad days are like.)

I have two young children at home, which means it's difficult to write in the evenings or on weekends.  If I'm on a deadline, I can usually squeeze in an extra hour here or there, but the lunch hour has been my primary writing time.  One hour a day, five days a week can add up to a lot of words over the course of a year.  As long as you're consistent, you'd be surprised at how much writing you can get done.

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?  

Jim: Goblin Hero, the second book in my goblin series, just came out on May 1.  We're hoping to get Goblin War into bookstores in early 2008.  DAW will also be publishing The Stepsister Scheme in late 2008 or early 2009.  I'm hoping Stepsister will be the first in a new series of butt-kicking fairy tale princess books.  I'm disavowing any knowledge of the Disney fairy tale movies, and going back to some of the earlier stories.  Cross those with Charlie's Angels, and you'll get a rough idea what the books are like.

For the future, mostly I hope to keep on writing.  And if I'm very fortunate, readers will keep on buying what I write.

Vision: Thank you for taking this time for this interview. Any last words you'd like to say to our readers?

Jim: I want to say thanks to Lazette for inviting me to come talk to your readers.  To everyone, I generally hang out over at http://jimhines.livejournal.com or http://www.jimchines.com.  Stop by and say hello!