Author Interview — Steve Cook

Once again Poseidon’s Scribe has landed a fascinating interview with a fellow author, who has a story appearing in the anthology Avast, Ye Airships! Today’s interview is with Steve Cook.

Steven CookSteve Cook is a part-time writer, part-time teacher, currently dialing down on the latter so he can focus on the former. He’s married and lives with his wife and cat in London, England.

At last, the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: When and why did you begin writing fiction?

Steve Cook: I began writing fiction in 2010. It was my first year working as a primary school teacher and I had prepared as much as I possibly could during the Christmas holiday. Then, the first week back in January, we had a record snowfall for the area and the school was closed. We happened to live opposite a Starbucks, which meant we were basically in there every evening. I just grabbed my netbook and took it over there and started to write, funneling all the readiness and energy into that instead. I rattled along writing chapters of a pretty terrible book idea, and then got into NaNoWriMo in a big way. That’s been responsible for most of my output over the last six years.

P.S.: What are the easiest, and the most difficult, aspects of writing for you?

S.C.: The easiest aspect of writing for me is world-building. I probably spend too long on it, but it pays off when you can write something in that suggests a deeper, richer world beyond it. Short stories and flash fiction that flesh out the world are something I really enjoy doing. The most difficult aspect of writing is editing, without a doubt, and I get round it by showing my stuff to different people. Everyone has a different thing they look for: my wife is a designer and illustrator, for example, and she really focuses on the visual design of what I write.

P.S.: What genres have you written in, and do you have a favorite?

S.C.: I’ve written mainly fantasy and science fiction. I enjoy both of them! Most of my fantasy writing in the last year or so has been for the Dungeons and Dragons group I run; they’ve been playing for the best part of three years now. I’ve been doing a lot of writing for Noctis Point, which is the book I’m working on right now. It’s set a couple of hundred years into the future, and it’s really fun to take technology from today, or even theoretical technology, and apply it to that setting.

AvastYeAirshipsP.S.: You wrote “The Clockwork Dragon” for the Avast, Ye Airships! anthology.  Can you tell us a little about that story?

S.C.: “The Clockwork Dragon” is a story about some privateers working under contract to retrieve an artifact; they’re ex-pirates, so it’s not long before treachery and greed overcome the captain, who teams up with the cook and absconds with the loot. It’s up to the first mate to track them down in a chase in the skies of Ireland and Scotland. Like most of the fiction I write, it grew organically from one image, one scene: a giant clockwork dragon, bellows for lungs, canvas wings and so on, hovering over an airship in lashing rain. I actually own a clockwork dragon miniature, and it has made an appearance in our D&D game!Clockwork Dragon

P.S.: You participated in Nanowrimo last November.  Was that your first nano?  What was that experience like?

S.C.: I’ve been taking part in NaNo since 2010. I honestly can’t remember how I came across it, but it’s brilliant. It breaks up the writing into bitesize chunks and even gives me a little chart to let me know how much I’ve written, what my average is, that sort of thing. It also helped me to come across other local authors in the Milton Keynes area; several of us met up towards the end of the 2010 NaNo to write together. I didn’t make it the following year, sadly; a combination of a lack of enthusiasm in my story idea and a crazy work schedule meant that I fell short by a considerable distance. In 2012, I wrote Poisonroot, and built the world that my D&D group plays in, so that’s constantly being worked on. In 2013 I cheated slightly and wrote ten short stories set in the world of Poisonroot; that was even more fun because I got to play with different styles and techniques within the same body of work. I actually completed two NaNo projects in 2014, because I did Camp NaNoWriMo earlier in the year. That was the first version of what would eventually become Noctis Point, the bulk of which I wrote in November 2014. Finishing my most recent NaNo was a close run thing; I was working as a teacher still, and we had the inspectors come in. We had four days of twenty-hour work days, and writing just wasn’t a priority any more. I had to write 12,000 words in two days to finish. My NaNo author page is here.

P.S.: From your website, it appears you are into Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs.)  Do you find that helps your fiction writing, or takes time away from it?

S.C.: Definitely it takes time away from it! I’ve played a lot of MMOs, but for the last eighteen months I’ve been playing a lot of Final Fantasy XIV. It’s a real timesink, but it’s also a way to talk with my friends and be social. My wife and flatmate both play it as well, so there’s always something going on. There are some wonderful little bits of writing that are inspirational, but mainly I’m in it for the music, which I listen to when I’m writing.

Murder MatchesP.S.: You recently collaborated on a product called Murder Matches.  It looks like a murder story told from eight different points of view.  Can you tell us more about that?

S.C.: Nana Li is a good friend of mine, and incredibly talented. She had been working on an idea inspired by designer matchboxes, and wanted it to be a murder mystery where each matchbox contained a character profile or statement which, when put together, would help a reader solve the mystery. I love things that twist and I’m a real fiend for puzzles, so it was awesome to work with her on this. I can’t give away too much for fear of spoiling the mystery! Writing the characters was fun, as each one had a different voice. It was a real challenge, giving away a couple of clues in each one while at the same time trying to suggest a motive for everyone. We’re working on a sequel for release this year.

P.S.: What other authors influenced your writing?

S.C.: I’ve read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, which is pretty much all I write. For fantasy, authors such as Trudi Canavan, Stephen R. Donaldson, Tolkien, Tom Holt, Terry Pratchett, Raymond E. Feist and Peter V. Brett have really inspired me. On the science fiction side, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Baxter, Stel Pavlou, Iain M. Banks and Dan Simmons are really high up on the list. I’ve read quite a lot of John Courtenay Grimwood’s cyberpunk books as well. The truth is I’ll read pretty much anything going! I can see little things that have inspired me from all of those authors, flairs or personal touches that strike me as being from that particular style of writing, but I try wherever possible to have my own style.

P.S.: What is your current work in progress? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

S.C.: Noctis Point is a science fiction story set a couple of hundred years in the future. Through war and economic collapse, the Earth has eventually been united into an Empire, which has begun to reach out to the stars for colonization. In the process, it has encountered an alien race living on the moons of Jupiter; imagine spider-centaurs and you’re halfway there. These ‘Spiders’ are initially peaceful, but things quickly turn bad when they ambush a delegation from Earth during peace talks, and battle lines are drawn. Another faction involved in all this is the psychs, living on Mars. They are humans who have evolved psychic powers when they turn sixteen, and more of them are beginning to appear every year. Partly in fear of them, the Empire has ordained that they should live on Mars, in a base known as Noctis Point, where they will be trained in preparation for joining the Empire’s armies as elite soldiers. The story follows two main characters: Alex, a boy who manifests the power and is sent to Noctis Point to train; and Imperial Princess Ariadne Cutter, the daughter of the Emperor, whose role as her father’s spymistress leads her into a terrorist plot that could have grave consequences on the war.

P.S.: Please tell us about your podcasting activities.

S.C.: I run a once-weekly podcast, Pocket Fiction, where I read either a short story or part of a longer piece. Up until just recently it’s been my own work, which has been really useful for me, but I’m looking forward to working with some of my fellow pirates in the anthology. I’m always looking for people to collaborate with, and producing Pocket Fiction is genuinely fun. Having more time recently has allowed me to go for better production values as well. I built a little recording booth and I’ve begun to add sound and vocal effects to deepen the immersion even further. Pocket Fiction is available on the iTunes store, but I also upload each week to Tumblr and to YouTube, where each video is played over a roaring fire. That was one of the initial ideas I had for the podcast; that it was tales told around a campfire, something to make you feel warm and relaxed.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers?

Steve Cook: Tell people who you trust to give you honest feedback that you’re writing; they’ll help you and support you, and hopefully you can persuade them to read your work. Sometimes it’s good to plan stories out, but more often than not I find the characters somehow wrest control of the story away from me halfway through and we diverge. It’s ok for characters to be different on paper than how you initially imagined them. Probably the most useful thing I do is read my stuff out loud; having to read each word finds every mistake, every awkward phrasing, and sometimes you pick up on things that you would otherwise have missed.

 

Thanks, Steve! I’m sure you’ve enticed my readers to visit your blog, follow you on Twitter, and visit you on Tumblr.

Poseidon’s Scribe

Author Interview — Libby A. Smith

When you’re on a hot streak, go with it. I’ve been interviewing some fascinating authors lately.  Today I question another author who contributed to the anthology Avast, Ye Airships!, Libby A. Smith.

Libby A SmithLibby is a two-time winner of the Little Rock Free Press’ Literary Contest. She lives in Little Rock with her three cats.

Libby’s stories have appeared in Caliber Comic’s “Negative Burn” and “Dominique: Protect and Serve,” Hanthercraft Publications’ “Tandra” and “Dragonroc” universe comics and website, and Shanda Fantasy Art’s “Atomic Mouse.” Most recently her story “Newcomers” appeared in the Short Short Story issue of 4 Star Stories.

Here’s the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: When and why did you begin writing fiction?

Libby A. Smith: I’ve always known I was going to be a writer. My first poem was in a local newspaper when I was around 7 years old. I don’t recall seriously writing fiction until I was in college. I went on to earn a BA in English with an emphasis on creative writing.

P.S.: What are the easiest, and the most difficult, aspects of writing for you?

L.A.S.: The easiest aspect for me is writing dialogue which leads to developing the characters. I love people watching which really helps me “keep it real” no matter how strange the story itself is. There’s very colorful real life characters everywhere. Normally, I also am speaking the dialogue out loud when I write. This helps me determine how “real” it sounds.

The hardest part of writing for me is knowing where to start the story. I’ve learned to relax about it and just start writing. Many times what I intend to be the story’s end turns out to be the beginning.

AvastYeAirshipsP.S.: You have a story, “Plunder in the Valley,” in the anthology Avast, Ye Airships! Without spoiling anything, can you tell us a little about the story, and what inspired you to write it?

L.A.S.: The inspiration for the story came from the editor reminding me I had about 24 hours to submit a story! Truly! The year was a rough one, ending with a friend being found dead on Christmas Day from natural causes. He was a huge science fiction fan and had written a few stories. I was just drained physically and emotionally. When faced with the deadline, I recalled a partial story I had in my files which my friend loved. Although I ended up completely rewriting it, the original rough draft provided good “bones” and the tone I wanted.

In this case, the characters created the plot. I grew up in a small yet fast-growing town with a fantastic oral history and many colorful “old timers” around who were still going strong. Some welcomed the newcomers to town, some didn’t. Although not based on specific individuals in this case, they provided the soul to the characters and story. I’d describe it as “country humor Steampunk.”

P.S.: I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. Country Humor Steampunk sounds fascinating and original. What other genres do you write in?

L.A.S.: “Plunder in the Valley” is definitely steampunk even if it is different than the norm. When I have a story to tell, I don’t really worry about genre unless it is intended for a specific market as in this case. I’ve written southern lit, gay & lesbian, poetry, comic books, science fiction, comic book scripts, and fantasy. I’m sure I’m leaving something out!

P.S.: Are you interested in writing a sequel to that story, with some of the same characters?

L.A.S.: Definitely! It’d be a lot of fun if I get the opportunity to do so.

P.S.: What is the audience you’re aiming for in your stories?

L.A.S.: It depends on the story. But even when it seems rather specific such as ‘gay & lesbian,’ I want my work to speak to others. After all, there’s a universality to the emotions we all experience.

P.S.: What other authors influenced your writing?

L.A.S.: Every author I’ve read. The biggest single influence is Maya Angelou. I recall reading  “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in around fifth grade and realizing she was once a little girl in Arkansas. That’s when it dawned on me that I could really be a writer and I didn’t have to live in a big city.

I’ve never thought about this until now but another would be Lois Lenski. She was my first “favorite writer” when I was in second grade. She’d traveled the country visiting different areas to research her books like ‘Strawberry Girl.’ They told the stories of what it was like to be a child in different areas and situations. Each time  I read one of her books, I thought, “Wow! This could be me if I’d been born there.’

Yes, it is odd that they aren’t science fiction or fantasy authors. Quite a few did and do influence me like Stephen Donaldson, Arthur C. Clarke, and so forth. But a good story is a good story no matter the genre.

P.S.: What is your current work in progress? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

L.A.S.: To be honest, nothing! I’m also an actor and have been auditioning a lot lately. This is on top of a full time day job and being extremely involved in my church’s music ministry. I have bits and pieces of stories started as well as formulating in my head, I just haven’t serious started working on any particular one.

Yet.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers?

Libby A. Smith: Remember to live. Making a living only from writing is very hard and, believe me, it becomes too much like work. If you find another way to make a living wage, you’ll find writing is easier since you don’t have to worry as much about the yucky things like shelter, food, a working computer, etc. I used to hang around science fiction conventions with a group of folks about my age who’d also just broken into “published writing.” Those who quit their day jobs eventually stopped writing from the stress of surviving. I kept plugging along in the mundane world and am still writing.

If all you focus on is writing, you aren’t living. Your stories and characters will be less “real” because you aren’t experiencing real life. You need to mingle with people or at least get out and observe them. Ease drop in public places such as grocery stories. Go to a park with a snack and just watch people around you. Volunteer somewhere that gets out and among people other than your immediate family and friends. Hang out occasionally with others outside your writing buddies. You can’t write believably about the world—or any world—without going out to discover what makes life an adventure.

Every person is a character in a story. Every life event is a plot. Everyone truly does have a story.

 

Thanks for inspiring the readers of Poseidon’s Scribe today, Libby! Fans can find out more about Libby A. Smith on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Poseidon’s Scribe

 

January 23, 2015Permalink

Dear Arthur C. Clarke

Though you’ve been dead these past eight years, you live on in your stories.  That’s true for me and for millions of others.

ClarkeThroughout my life I’ve read many of your works, including more of your short stories than I can remember, and the following novels:  Childhood’s End, The Deep Range, 2001:  A Space Odyssey, 2010:  Odyssey Two, 2061:  Odyssey Three, Rendezvous with Rama, Rama Revealed, The Songs of Distant Earth, and The Hammer of God.

I recall purchasing your book 2001:  A Space Odyssey (or maybe my dad bought it) just two weeks before the movie was due in the theaters of my childhood town for the first time.  I was about ten years old, and determined to finish the book before seeing the movie.  Finish it I did, and I enjoyed the book much more than the film.

At that time, the year 2001 seemed a long way off, and fantastic things would happen by then.  To a boy growing up starry-eyed in the Sixties, the future appeared extraordinary.  Your books helped me see it that way. More than most authors, you conveyed the pure wonder of a scientific future.

That’s what comes through for me in your tales, the positive vision of science as a way to solve man’s problems, and to explore.  You even believed science could solve political problems.  In The Songs of Distant Earth, you depict human societies living under a utopian “Jefferson Mark 3 Constitution,” suggesting a political evolution toward better government.  In Rama Revealed, you show an alien race with enormous military power but a staunch unwillingness to enter into conflict.  The reason becomes clear when one of the aliens says their politicians can declare war, but anyone voting for war is put to death.  Strong disincentive, indeed!

Another thing I learned from reading your work is that aliens might not be bent on invading.  When many other authors wrote of aliens attacking Earth, you wrote about creatures who either helped mankind (Childhood’s End), led mankind on series of strange advancing paths (the Odyssey books), or completely ignored us (the Rama series).

It’s possible that your novel The Deep Range influenced me, in some subtle way, to serve in the submarine force.  That story took the Old West struggles between cattle ranchers and crop farmers and set it under the sea, where whale herding competed with plankton farming.  Science fiction stories with an oceanic setting are rare gems, for me.

A reviewer of my stories would be hard-pressed to find your influence on my writing.  However, your fiction has been described as technical and the style as somewhat dry at times.  As a trained engineer, I strive to include sufficient technical detail so that people can understand how my gadgets work.  My fellow critique group members say the details sometimes get in the way of the story-telling.

Like you, I’m enamored of the science.  I love it, and can’t help including a sense of awe and wonder in my tales.  There will be those who grasp that, and those who skip those paragraphs and feel unfulfilled by the rest of the story.

That said, thank you so much, Sir Arthur, for passing the wonder to me.  In 2010:  Odyssey Two, Heywood Floyd asks, “What’s going to happen?”  Dave Bowman answers, “Something wonderful.”  That says it all, or so it seems to—

                                                         Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

December 1, 2013Permalink

Conveying a Sense of Wonder

One of the things that drew me into fiction as a child was the sense of wonder I experienced when reading certain fiction, notably that of Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke and later science fiction writers.  The question is, how does a writer evoke that in readers?

First, let’s try to define it.  The book Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction defines it this way:  “a feeling of awakening or awe triggered by an expansion of one’s awareness of what is possible or by confrontation with the vastness of space and time, as brought on by reading science fiction.”

Although often associated with science fiction, that emotion needn’t be.  Rachel Carson’s book The Sense of Wonder was about sharing a love of nature with a child.

I like the associate with childhood.  To children the natural world is new, and they experience that sense of wonder more often.  Then it fades as we age and it takes more than mere nature to astonish us.  Here’s an example of that fading-with-adulthood phenomenon.  How many times have you heard the finale of the William Tell Overture (the Lone Ranger theme) by Gioachino Rossini?  Ho hum, right?  But do you remember the thrill of that first time you heard it?  Can you image what audiences of 1829 felt the first time that finale ever played, anywhere?

Up until Jules Verne and authors who followed him, adults most often experienced the sense of wonder in religious contexts, or in fantasy literature.  Through his writing Verne showed the world what engineers and scientists of the time were bringing about—a better understanding of the natural world, and the amazing things man might do to achieve his ends.  Verne showed readers something new and vast, and it had nothing to do with God or dragons, but with people.

Arthur C. Clarke was another science fiction author who captured the sense of wonder better than most.  He carried the science far beyond Verne did, and showed a future humanity achieving, through engineering, the capabilities of gods or wizards.  It was Clarke who said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

For writers seeking to induce the sense of wonder in their readers, then, how do you do it?  I think there are four elements involved:

  • A “thing” that is new in some way, or an old thing in a new context
  • A powerful description of that thing, emphasizing its newness
  • One or more characters confronting the thing
  • A depiction of the awe felt by one or more of the characters.  How does the thing make the character feel?  Again, you’re striving to recreate in words the amazement a child feels for something new.

If you do this well, if your characters are compelling, if the thing is truly worthy of awe and you’ve described it and your characters’ impressions well, then your readers will feel the wonder of it right along with the characters.

In my fiction, I strive to create this sense of wonder, most often in association with technology.  Many of my stories are historical, so the characters see something outside their experience, but not necessarily beyond that of modern readers.  I confront my characters with such things as a flying trireme, a clockwork lion, a giant mechanical elephant, a steam-powered oared galley in the 1st Century, and steam-powered human limbs (coming soon).

Is there anything to this “sense of wonder” stuff, in your opinion?  Have you experienced that feeling from reading fiction?  Have you tried writing it into your fiction?  Leave a comment and let me know.  Wondering about the answer to these and other questions, I’m—

                                                           Poseidon’s Scribe

November 18, 2012Permalink

A Stroll through My Mental Library

Why would you read a blog post containing a list of writers who influenced me?  My aim is to provoke you to think about (perhaps even write down) the list of those who inspired you.  It’s a useful exercise.  Perhaps the most important part of the exercise is to describe those writers as well—what they mean to you.

Come on, walk along beside me now through the library of my mind.  The shelves have all the books I ever read.  My apologies for its small size; a busy life interferes with reading, unfortunately.  But I’m trying to read more.  For the purposes of today’s tour the books have been arranged by author, and we’ll be viewing busts of the more prominent ones.  Engraved on the pedestal of each bust are the author’s name and a few words describing his or her works.

Ah, I see you noticed the 30-foot high bronze statue just within the entrance.  Kind of hard to miss.  Yes, that’s Jules Verne.  I’ve read most of his works that have been translated into English.  His Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the only book I ever re-read, and I do that every couple of years.  That book inspired me both to join the submarine service and to major in naval architecture in college.  To me, he represents scientific accuracy, exotic voyages, high drama and adventure, and a glimpse of a time when technology seemed on the verge of making everything possible for the first time in human history.

Over here is the bust of Isaac Asimov.  I’ve read only a fraction of his published work but it’s still a lot, both fiction and non-fiction.  The words engraved beneath his name are scientific accuracy, easy-to-read writing style, clever ideas, and love of wordplay.

Walking along, we’ve come to Arthur C. Clarke.  To me, he too symbolizes scientific accuracy, but also an optimistic view of mankind’s future, and various ways we could deal with aliens of far greater and different intelligences.

That bust there depicts Robert Heinlein.  Hard-edged style, a strict morality, a libertarian viewpoint, and success through struggle are the hallmarks of his writing, to me.

Watch your step; this area is not well lit.  Here, take my flashlight.  That bust you just bumped into is Ray Bradbury.  He has the most poetic prose of any author here—a flowing style that seduces you into his stories with the sheer magic and power of the words.  Then he often slaps you hard with some dark and twisted surprise.

And that one over there is Ayn Rand.  She’s the only woman on the tour; I wish there were more.  Her writing is characterized by emotional power, uncompromising philosophy, and a deep belief in human freedom coupled with strict ideas about how to live one’s life.

We’ve come to the bust of Larry Niven.  Amazing ideas, compelling characters, and the most well-thought-out aliens of any author in the library.

Here we are in the Children’s section—quite dusty, I know.  This next bust looks a little strange, with no discernable features.   Maybe you don’t recognize the name, Victor Appleton II. It’s a pseudonym used by many authors.  I grew up reading the Tom Swift, Jr. series written by the various “Mr. Appletons.”  With fondness I recall the high adventure, the marvelous inventions, and the use of science to solve problems.

One more and I think we’ll wrap up the tour.  Clive Cussler’s bust bears the following descriptions on beneath the name on its pedestal—engaging adventures set at sea, a writer with an easy-reading style that really puts his characters through hell.

That’s enough for this trip.  Perhaps we’ll continue the tour in a future blog post and examine busts of authors we missed.  I should mention you won’t necessarily see the influences of all of these writers in my own stories.  Also, I don’t necessarily agree with the viewpoints of all of them—I just enjoy reading their books.

Thanks for stopping by for a tour today.  Hope you enjoyed strolling through the mind of–

Poseidon’s Scribe