I was recently approached by a reader on Wattpad and asked if I might answer some questions about writing and inspiration. I was glad to oblige. While he was only posting his replies to a DelTech internal system as part of a school assignment, I am reproducing Sameul’s questions and my responses here. Thought you might like to know how my crafty mind works…
How do you come up with ideas for your stories?:
In most cases, ideas for my stories come from the news, movies I’ve seen or other stories that I’ve read. I’ve even gotten inspiration from artwork or photographs. One story I developed came about because of two important news events that both happened in New York City. One was the closing of the city’s biggest garbage dump and the story of a garbage barge from New York that sailed around the United States because nobody wanted it. I created a story about an environmental disaster in New York that forced the sanitation workers to kill garbage monsters. It was pure sci-fi stuff that was influenced by films like Aliens. ZAK CORBIN came from a combination of places: old Superman cartoons, Japanese shows about big robots, photos of the old 1939 New York World’s Fair, and posters and illustrations from the 1940s and 1950s. There are lots of ideas out there, it’s just molding them into a story with great characters and plot that’s the difficult part for me.
Do you use real scientific principles?:
Yes and no. I was a huge astronomy buff for awhile and I tried to design “new planets” using reasonable theories about planet size, location, atmospheric mixtures, food chains and so on. Real science has its uses; it gives what you’re writing a strong foundation. But science fiction takes the implausible and makes it real; at least in the confines of the story. In ZAK CORBIN, there are scientific advancements mentioned that weren’t available or not around for decades. Things like commercial space travel and flying personal transports. We’re only seeing the start of these things now.
Do run it through your head about how the machine, like the robot in Zac Corbin, works?:
In the story, I wanted Corbin robots to have a distinct advantage over other robots. I imagined robots as they are today. A Roomba vacuum cleaner is a real robot that uses the “bump-and-go” method to find its way around a room’s interior. So I thought to myself, “how can I improve on that decision-making process?” I decided that a Corbin robot has the prioritron circuit, a decision-maker that determines how a robot should act in response to certain situations. Now, the whole thing is WAY WAY more complicated than I make it sound in the book. Pogo would have to recognize that a person was in danger–how exactly would that work? People trip and fall all the time: sometimes even deliberately. How would Pogo be able to distinguish between that and say a person who was in serious danger? That’s the science fiction. Pogo just “knows” what to do. He’s more of a character than a real robot.
What got you started on sci-fi?:
I was a “latch-key” kid–both my parents worked and I would come home from school to an empty house. I grew up on a lot of cartoons and fantastic stories on TV. I watched Japanese anime cartoons like “Gigantor”, “Marine Boy”, “Speed Racer”, Star Blazers” and “Battle of the Planets”. I watched shows like “Star Trek”, “Space: 1999” and others. I read a lot–my mother was a library administrator and my father was an architect (just like Zak’s parents!) I wanted to be in those fantastic places, driving really cool cars or piloting amazing aircraft. So I created my own stories. Star Wars was the icing on the cake. I was a teenager when that movie first came out–the perfect age. After I saw the movie I just thought to myself–I can do this! I can write these stories too! And maybe people would even want to read them. It was just a matter of creating my own original stuff.
What’s your opinion on steampunk? I think its cool:
Yes, steampunk is definitely cool. It’s become a very popular category. The interesting thing about steampunk is that is crosses over with other genres and categories of fiction. You can have a steampunk romance, steampunk vampires, steampunk zombies. I’m a huge fan of “retro science fiction”–stories that take place in the past and use the technology and historical persons of that time. When you write about the past, you submerge yourself in the period: how people dressed, how they acted and spoke. You do a lot of research just to get the period right. You also get to break “the rules”. What happened in history doesn’t necessarily have to actually happen that way. If you’re interested in YA steampunk, try Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan series. Those stories take place around the outbreak of the First World War, but the technology and events of the period are seriously changed.
When you first started did you feel unpopular because not a lot of people were reading Zac or was a hit from the start?:
It was very disappointing that even after placing as a semi-finalist in the Amazon contest, I could not get agents or publishers interested in reading ZAK CORBIN. Agents and publishers have very specific needs based on what they think the market will want. If a story meets that need, they will pick it up very quickly. We all know what’s popular now in YA. It’s figuring out what’s “next” that makes being a writer AND getting published very hard. I did not feel unpopular though. As a writer, I love to weave stories. It’s a childhood love. I’m very close to my characters: Zak, Lisabeth and the others. I’ve also been writing for a while, so I measure success as the number of people who actually pick up the story and respond back. A writer wants to communicate with his audience. I’m very pleased to see ZAK has so many reads and comments on Wattpad. I had no idea it would delight so many people. I really do appreciate it when folks message me or comment.
What do you do when you hit writers block?:
Real life is full of annoyances and stress. When writing a scene isn’t an escape for me, then it becomes a chore and I find myself blocked. I also get stuck on scenes that don’t “flow” or “feel right” for the characters. I’m starting NEPTUNE’S FURY, the next ZAK CORBIN book, on Wattpad. I actually tried to write this story all year long, but after so many false starts, I threw up my hands and decided it wasn’t working. So I pushed it aside and found something else to write until I was ready to come back. I have one or two other stories I work on. I also fiddle around with new ideas. But I really want to complete NEPTUNE’S FURY.
Do [you] plan out the whole plot or make it up as you go?:
I used to outline every chapter or sequence in a story before writing it. I did this for ZAK CORBIN and other works. Lately I’ve been writing “seat of the pants”; writing and directing the characters without knowing exactly what’s going to happen. I have a beginning, a little of the middle and the finale of NEPTUNE’s FURY in my head but very little of it is written down. It’s in my head, just waiting to spill out. Sometimes music helps when I’m composing a scene. I’ll hear a piece of music from a movie soundtrack and it gets me thinking.
Do you consider yourself scientifically smart?:
Actually, no. I don’t think I have the depth of thought about science like Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) or Margaret Atwood (The Handmaiden’s Tale). I am a dramatic person–I understand the underpinnings of a great story. Much of my experience and inspiration with science fiction comes from great writers. Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” is the best place to start if you want to understand robots in stories. He contemplates many different concepts. So it makes sense that if you want to comprehend the future, you would seek out books that cover those topics.
What’s your advice to other writers?:
Good characters, conflict, thematic ideas, world-building, all of these ingredients leads to a good tale. Read more than science fiction–as a college student I studied literature, the classics, and wonderful authors like Twain, Dickens, Steinbeck and Austen. Go outside your comfort zone. Go to sections of the bookstore or online stores you wouldn’t normally go into. Yes, I read “50 Shades of Grey” to better understand why it was so popular. I still don’t. Studying your topic always helps. If you want to write about the 1939 New York World’s Fair, read about it. Want to know more about George Tesla or Thomas Edison? Start reading about them. There are others who’ve already gone down the path you’re about to take. It always helps to read the peers in your chosen writing genre or category. There are tons of YA books besides the really popular titles. Try reading some obscure titles or ask for recommendations. You may be surprised and … inspired.