Friday, 10 February 2012
Novel: Shadow Ops: Control Point
Short fiction and non-fiction article listings can be found here.
> What is SHADOW OPS: CONTROL POINT about?
I like to hearken back to Peter V. Brett's blurb of "Blackhawk Down meets the X-Men" to which I always add "Harry Potter joins Delta Force." The core description would be that it's about a special operations unit that uses sorcery. The longer description would add that it is asking the tough question about how the military confronts sudden and dramatic social changes and how rigid bureaucracies shift paradigms when they feel themselves threatened. But the bottom line is that I think it's really damn cool to have SOF operators casting fireballs and I've always wanted to pit a tank against an ogre.
> How has your military experience affected your writing?
It has colored every aspect of it. On one level, being in the military (and being a mercenary and paramilitary civilian in war zones) unquestionably built the discipline and persistence I needed to finish and refine my novels to the point where they could sell in the first place. On another level, working inside a military bureaucracy got me very interested in the inherent rigidity of culture in big organizations. They move slowly and change slowly, and are thus ill-equipped to deal with major, earthshaking societal shifts. The sudden emergence of magic into that scene gives you have a perfect recipe for the kind of cool conflict that drives great stories.
> If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
That's easy. To read, write and speak all languages with perfect fluency. The ability to communicate clearly with anyone, anywhere, at any time would revolutionize my ability to do my job, both as a writer and a coast guard. The writing implications are obvious. On the military side, I would be able to deescalate tense situations with ease and aplomb. So much of operations nowadays cover "human terrain" and involve interaction with civilians who don't speak English. I would have a much better chance of knowing when I was being lied to, or walking into an ambush. I could detect linguistic-cultural nuances that would tip me off to when something bad was going to happen. In short: I could *talk* my way out of situations without having to pull a trigger. When you're in the military, that's a very good day.
> If you could, would you change places with any of your characters?
It's a tough call, but no. Obviously, having the ability to fly, or summon fire, or raise the dead, or freeze anything solid, would be pretty damn cool. But in the world of CONTROL POINT, those abilities put a person permanently outside mainstream society. Even when a Sorcerer is sanctioned, trained and trusted by the government, even when the public is grateful to that Sorcerer for protecting them, those abilities keep him/her apart from the normal world for the rest of his/her life. Anyone who has met me knows I'm intensely social. I love people. I need to be around them. Isolation is rough on me. I don't think I could handle being magically Latent, no matter how cool my abilities were.
> Beyond the matter of length, do you find it easier writing short stories or novels?
Novels, hands down. Short stories don't give me the latitude to fully explore the ideas I want to, and I have a tough time arcing the plot with sufficient oomph without more space to do it. I've sold some short stories in the past, and I still write them from time to time, but they are much more challenging for me. Novellas are easier, but still challenging.
If you had asked me what made me want to write fantasy, I'd have given you a different answer. As for why I wanted to become a writer: this is kind of sad, but it was the only thing I was ever any good at. I like success. I respond to praise and attention. My family was math/science averse, and from the moment I could read, my family drilled into me that the world of letters was where our strengths lay. As my ability to write developed, I was rewarded by institutions (A's in English class, etc . . .). I naturally gravitated towards my strengths. Later on, I discovered that it's really REALLY hard to make a living as a writer. By then, I'd developed the military ethic of cold anger and a need to charge down and choke into submission any challenge that daunted me. People always told me I couldn't be a professional writer. Go ahead, tell me what I can't do. Then stand back while I do it.
> What was the first novel (published or unpublished) that you wrote and how long did it take to write it?
The first novel I ever finished was LATENT, an early version of the book that you now know as CONTROL POINT. It took me about a year or two to write it, and I finished it in 1998. But it's kind of a trick question, because I'd been writing pretty much all my life up to that point. LATENT had some nice points (and the core concept obviously worked because it's what got me a book deal), but I put it aside and wrote two more novels, CLOUD SOWER and TEA ROAD, before finally writing LATENT all over again. That final version became CONTROL POINT. All in all, I think I've been seriously trying to write professionally in genre for about fifteen years.
> What was the hardest scene for you to write?
It's always tough for me to step into belief systems and perspectives that are not my own. I have worked really hard all my life to cultivate a sense of empathy with others, especially those whom I'm charged to fight/bring to justice. It's still tough. When you work in the military/law enforcement (the Coast Guard is both), you become hardened against those you are taught to perceive as "the enemy" or "the bad guys." This attitude will KILL you as a writer, because you can't make compelling characters if you don't empathize with them. There are recalcitrants, weaklings, cowards, whiners and just plain jerks all over the SHADOW OPS series (wait'll you meet Fitzy, or the "No No Crew"), and fleshing them out with the attention and complexity they deserved was seriously challenging for me.
> When and where do you write?
Normally, I set my alarm for exactly 8 hours from when I turn off the lights (but I'm lucky to sleep for 4 of those. I have intense insomnia). I get up, PT (Physical Training), shower, then grab my laptop and walk to a nearby coffee shop. I listen to movie soundtracks (lyrics distract me) and write until the late afternoon. Then I head home, do my errands and writing-business-that's-not-actual-writing and get back to more real writing after dinner in the evening. I mentioned before how social I was. Even though I'm not talking to people (headphones are in), being around people helps me a lot. I can write a little at night in my apartment alone, but doing it all day would seriously depress me. My existence is solitary enough as it is.
> What’s the best/worst thing about writing?
The best thing is precisely what you'd think it is: watching your work succeed. I just finished up doing a panel and book signing at New York Comic Con and I am still coming down off the high. [Editor's note: Mr. Cole answered these questions in November, just after Comic Con.] Genre nerd fans are the best, because they establish a direct intimacy with the author in a way that no other group of fans does. This is because most fantasy authors come up out of fandom (I certainly did), so we all have the same secret handshakes and inside jokes. It was like being in a convention center with a hundred thousand of my closest friends, some of whom were actually there to see me, and were getting jazzed by what I was doing. That is priceless.
The worst thing is the uncertainty and the pressure. Professional writing (especially genre writing) is incredibly financially uncertain. If it weren't for the reserves, I'd have no health insurance, no steady income, and would probably be homeless. As it is, I still can't rest on my laurels. As soon as one series is under contract, you have to be thinking about what your next writing gig is going to be, even as you work on completing the one you sold. I don't need to tell you that publishing is facing a unprecedented period of uncertainty right now, and sometimes books go out into the marketplace and fail for reasons nobody understands. Being an author is also rather public. Being successful (again, especially in genre writing) depends on making strong connections with fans. If you go to a convention or write a blog post and come off as a jerk, you've blown it. We have a saying in the military: "one hundred atta' boys are undone by a single aw' shit." Add that to the pressure to make EVERY book the best book ever written, and you are in an environment that's unforgiving to say the least. Mess up at a day job, and you may get a scolding from your boss. Mess up as a writer? You're done.
> What is something you didn’t know about the publishing industry before you had your first book published?
(I've actually blogged about this too) How much I would be responsible for on my own career. I had this crazy notion that a big, New York publishing house would swoop in, take over, and the only thing I'd have to do is write and turn in my writing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even with a major book deal, a writer is largely responsible for their own editing (and I mean from the creative right down to the proofing), marketing and publicity. Publishers bring a LOT to the table (I don't thumb my nose at self-published authors, but neither do I think it's a particularly good idea), but in the end, it's YOUR book and YOU have to be willing to put in the attention and hard work necessary to make it a success.
> Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?
It's all about the quality. A lot of beginning writers (and I was guilty of this) put the cart before the horse. They focus on image, or social media presence, or networking at conventions. All of that is important, but it is the sizzle. The steak is a dynamite book that people can't put down. The only way you're going to write one of those is by focusing on your craft and writing and editing and writing and editing until you want to drop dead. Go to conventions infrequently (still go, just not all that often), make your connections and do your grip-n-grinning, but be sure to be talking to pros about how they tackle character development, plot problems and narrative arc. If you have to be better at one thing in writing, make that one thing character development. People are at the heart of every story, and understanding people is the most important skill a writer can have (see my concerns about empathy above).
> Any tips against writers block?
Yes, cowboy up and get to work. Writers block is crap. It doesn't exist. Sit down and write. You wrote crap? Too bad, so sad. Chuck it and start fresh. Lather, rinse, repeat until you are producing good work. All writers have uninspired days. But writing is just like PT. I've said this in other blog posts. Your body is binary, it knows 0 or 1. It either gets the exercise it needs to develop like you want it to, or it doesn't. It doesn't care if you're tired, or unmotivated. Your novel is the same way. Blocked? Write anyway.
> How do you discipline yourself to write?
I have an internal drill sergeant who screams at me, tells me that I'm a worthless failure, and that if I can't cut it he's got a line of people around the block waiting for my job. I know, I know. It's neurotic and weird, but it works. Brandon Sanderson has a famous quote where he imagines a cubicle chasing him - the consequence of failing as a fantasy writer. I keep that in my head too. But the bottom line is that this is where the military background helps tremendously. I've spent years in an environment where my needs don't matter. Everybody has a job to do - you suck it up and do the job, even when you don't want to, or you suffer the consequences. You're not special. You're not precious. You're here to work. Well, my job is to write. I bite down and get it done no matter what.
> How many rejection letters did you get for your first novel or story?
My first ever short story was rejected by every professional market I sent it to (I limited myself to SFWA pro-paying markets - just $0.03/word at the time). Even back then, I think there were only 10 or so markets around. I think I amassed a total of around 200 short story rejections before I started focussing on novels. Each of my novels that didn't sell received only a single rejection, from my agent. By then I was serious, and knew that if it wasn't impressing him, then it wasn't ready for prime time. I didn't bother sending them to other agents (I didn't want anyone else to represent me), and I didn't bother revising them unless he felt it was fixable. This is because by then we had become dear friends and I had developed an unshakable faith in his ability to make good calls on manuscripts. That faith was ultimately rewarded by his selling my SHADOW OPS series.