Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Jeff Strand Interview

Ah, it's been a while, I'll admit.  I've had a number of things on my plate that have conspired to monopolize my time and pull me away from posting on my blog.  But, the past six weeks haven't been entirely idle, and now you can see the fruits of that labor:  an interview with bestselling thriller/horror/comedy (or, what I liketo call "thrormedy") author Jeff Strand.  In addition, he was this year's Bram Stoker Awards Master of Ceremonies, as well as a nominee for his novel Dweller.

Jeff talks about his writing process, but more importantly, he moves us into the third quarter of the year, where I will focus on the editing/revision/submission process in the yearlong series "Inspiration to Publication".  I hope you enjoy reading about his process as much as I did during this interview.

The Accidental Author:  In a recent interview with F. Paul Wilson, he stated that the line between horror and hilarity is very thin.  However, with books like The Sinister Mr. Corpse, you like to blur and smudge that line into what could be described as horror comedy.  What inspires you to meld horror and comedy?

Jeff Strand:  Any genre I wrote in would be melded with comedy. So if I decided to become a romance novelist, I'd write romantic comedies, and if I did mysteries, they'd be comedic mysteries. It was never a case of "Eureka! If I combine the elements of a comedy with the elements of horror it will create a glorious reading sensation!" but rather my natural desire to write funny stuff combined with my love of horror fiction.

AA:  Speaking of The Sinister Mr. Corpse, let's talk about Stanley Dabernath.  Is he at all based upon anyone you know (that you are willing to admit), or is he a complete conjuration?

JS: Fortunately, he's a made-up character. It would suck to have to actually hang out with him. It's a traditional character arc--he starts off as an obnoxious creep, and by the end of the book is significantly less of an obnoxious creep--applied to a guy who happens to now be a resurrected corpse. There's also the theme of being famous without actually having any real accomplishments of your own, but that wasn't based on any particular celebrity.

AA:  This seems like as good a time as any to start talking about the writing process.  This year, on my blog, I’m devoting the entire year to an arc of interviews I’ve titled “Inspiration to Publication”, and I’m currently in part two:  the actual process of writing.  Focusing further on Stanley Dabernath, did you have a real sense of his character in its entirety before you set out to write the novel, or did he significantly evolve as the story arc progressed?

JS: I had a pretty good sense of him from the beginning. Without throwing a great big spoiler out there, I can say that I knew how the book was going to end, so the story was all about taking Stanley from the kind of person he is in the first chapter to the kind of person he is in the last chapter. It's a very character-driven book, so all of the plot twists were to support Stanley's growth as a human being...even though he's a zombie.

But that's all in a general sense. Though I had the major character beats mapped out, and they didn't really change while I was writing the book, there were a lot of smaller things that I came up with as I was writing. You're supposed to be rooting for the guy, and you're supposed to feel that there's genuine peril, so while I was writing I came up with the line at which his wisecracks stop. It wasn't planned out beforehand. For example, there's the early scene where the scientist is being sadistic and showing Stanley the pictures of when he was dead. That's where I said "Okay, at this point Stanley is no longer able to use jokes as a defense mechanism."

So there was certainly character development that happened while I was writing, but overall I knew where the character was going.

AA:  This is actually quite interesting, because I recently interviewed your friend F. Paul Wilson, who basically allows the plot to mold his characters.  Do you tend to let your characters' needs for certain types of transformative steps dictate the action in the plot (in general)?

JS: It varies from book to book. For example, I didn't write Wolf Hunt so that I could explore the emotional growth of George and Lou; I wanted to write a kick-ass novel about two thugs chasing a werewolf! Same thing with Benjamin's Parasite, which was not inspired by "I wish to write about the inner journey of Benjamin Wilson," but rather "What if this guy had a really horrible parasite inside of him, and it was totally screwing with his mind and body, and dangerous people who wanted the parasite were chasing him across the country?" Memorable characters are always important, but books like Fangboy and Mandibles are very much plot-driven.

Kutter is on the other end of the spectrum: a vicious serial killer finds a lost Boston Terrier, and his unexpected love for the dog gradually changes his life for the better. My personal challenge in writing that book was to start with a character who was completely reprehensible and unredeemable...and see if I could make the reader like him by the end.

Dweller was a mixture, because the premise (a boy befriends a forest-dwelling creature that lives behind his house, and the novel follows their friendship from childhood to old age) was pure character. But the book was sold before it was written, and the publisher wanted an outline. For me, outlines tend to be "Here's what happens in the book" rather than "Here's what's going on in the characters' minds" so I took a character-based premise and turned it into a plot-focused outline.

AA:  When you are writing a novel, do you have a tendency to revise “on the fly”, that is to say, do you revise while the draft is still in progress, or do you wait until the entire work is complete to go back and make revisions?

JS: Oh, I'm constantly revising while I write. I don't really do official second, third, fourth, etc. drafts. When I type "The End," the book is pretty much done except for a final polish, but I've been rewriting and editing throughout the entire process. 

AA:  When you sit down to write, are there any “staples” that you require, whether it is copious amounts of coffee, background music, or some other item that helps your writing process?

JS:  There is usually caffeine involved, though it's in Red Bull or Mountain Dew form rather than coffee. No background music--I need relative quiet to concentrate. There's no special time of day that I write or anything like that...the only consistent schedule is that the closer I get to my deadline, the more I write. The deadline for my next book is August 1st, so I will write much less today than I will write on July 31st. Beyond that, I don't have any weird elements that need to be in place to write!

AA:  Let's go back in time a little bit (I didn't tell you I had a time machine, did I?).  What is your earliest memory of your desire to write, and when did you know that you wanted to write professionally?

JS:  The desire to write goes back so far that I literally can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer. And I always wanted to do it as a career, though when I was in grade school my work really wasn't up to professional standards. I started submitting my work when I was in high school. Back then and through college, I mostly focused on writing screenplays (I wrote a dozen and sold zero) and then in my early 20's I began writing novels. And that's where I've mostly stayed, because I know I can sell a novel or a short story, whereas something like a screenplay or a comic book script is a crapshoot.

AA:  I know that you do a good amount of self-publishing.  Do you think this is the true future of publishing?  Do you think that legacy publishing will survive, or will it be one of those cute nostalgia things like vinyl records?

JS:  I have no idea, which is why I'm playing both sides now! For my next three books, one is with a large publisher, one is small press, and one will be self-published. I think there are advantages to both, and I don't think one is going to destroy the other anytime soon. The fourth book in my Andrew Mayhem series is going to be self-published (the e-book edition, at least) because I'm marketing it to an existing fan base, and a publisher really can't get the book much wider distribution than I can get myself. I might as well keep total control and receive significantly higher royalties.

For my upcoming Young Adult novel...well, I'm out of my area of expertise and the publisher can offer a lot. I want them to worry about the cover and getting the book into stores and getting the reviews, and I want a vicious cold-blooded editor to hack it up.

I plan to continue both methods, depending on what makes best sense for an individual project.

AA:  In terms of publishing through any method, self-publishing or otherwise, how do you know when a book is ready?  Do you have friends or other authors who provide feedback?

JS:  By this point, I have a pretty good handle on what's working or not, but each book goes out to five or six readers, who hunt down those last pesky typos and continuity errors and offer general feedback. Though they're all fans of my work, it's a good mix of the people who like the "serious" stuff versus the ones who like the comedies, so I always get a wide variety of reactions.

I'm known for turning in very clean manuscripts, so the process for self-publishing a book isn't much different than when I hand it over to an editor. I'll have more test readers, and they'll have time to give it a leisurely read, and I'll add a couple more intense read-throughs to my usual process. There's some great editing in the small press, but also some not-so-great editing, so I've gotten used to taking responsibility for the final product!

AA:  Do you encourage writers just entering the field to explore self-publishing?  Should they seek out an agent?

JS:  They can explore it, a little, but when you're starting out, you're probably not producing material that you'll still be proud of in a few years. Self-publishing gives an author a lot of power and ends those long, frustrating waits for your work to make it through an editor or agent's slush pile...but it also makes it very easy to get published before you're ready. When I finished my first novel, I thought it was awesome. Now, the idea of somebody actually paying for that piece of crap, even 99 cents, fills me with horror. I am very, very, very, very glad that the Amazon/Smashwords model did not exist back when I was writing terrible books, because I would have used it, and now I'd be sorry.

So, yeah, I think authors should try to find an agent, if only because it forces them to spend more time perfecting their craft. And also, for every newbie writer whose first book is making them thousands of dollars a month in Kindle sales, there are many more who are selling a few copies a month, if that, and wondering what the hell happened.

AA:  Finally, if you had one nugget of wisdom for someone who is toying with the idea of transitioning from “writing for fun” to “writing for fun AND profit”, what would it be?

JS:  Write a lot. If you're Jonathan Franzen you can spend a decade on a novel, but if you're trying to make a living at this without being a NY Times bestseller, you need to build up a body of work. This doesn't mean to crank out garbage as quickly as you can, but you should always have something else in the pipeline.

Jeff Strand is the author of a bunch of novels, some serious, some not so serious. You can visit his Gleefully Macabre website at http://www.jeffstrand.com.