Though unpublished as yet, his vibrant, vivid fantasy The Shonri Tales and thought-provoking SF can be found to read for free on Writerlot.
He’s sure to find a home for his work soon, I should know, I’ve read it and it’s marvellous. I heartily recommend you go to Writerlot and check him out.
I’ve asked him some terribly interesting questions (cough) and he, in true SpecFic author mode, has answered them thoroughly and with fascinating depth.
Over to you, Steve!
SG: Thanks for the opportunity to run stuff up the flagpole and throw monkey waste at it until it sags to the ground limp and listless as a banker’s ethics.
RW: It’s a pleasure to chat with you. Now, you’re a grudging convert (rather like myself) to the necessity of social media and not yet very heavily exposed (ahem) so let’s start with a pocket history of you, your writing, and what it was that made you decide to finally chase that publication dream with serious intent.
SG: I’m more a grudging convert to social media as a marketing tool. “Hey. We’re friends right? Please buy my stuff.” I know it’s needed, I know it’s near essential, but I still don’t like it. The term Social Marketing makes me twitch in much the same way that the term Evolutionary Psychology makes me come out in a rash. They are both examples of words that really should not be jammed together.
And I’m not sure I would be any good at it. I like to chat rather than blog. You will find me pontificating on forums and the like, but it is not my primary purpose for being there. I’m British, self-publicity is what X-Factor contestants do because they haven’t got any talent.
A potted history of me?
Welsh by birth and inclination, late forties, been around a bit. Done a bit of this and a bit of that and sometimes a bit of the other just for laughs. A massive disappointment to anybody who ever had the misfortune to try to teach me anything. One of Thatcher’s refugees, I left South Wales in the mid-80s because of her slash and burn economics (strangely, bugger all grew in the wake of that devastation. Not sure why…oh…now I remember, the banks were going to sort it all out). I lived in the South East of England for a while, went to New York for a bit. Always worked blue-collar jobs, because I worked to live rather than lived to work. Now back home in South Wales.
Like a lot of writers I’ve always written, but sometimes I lost sight of the prize — usually because I was squinting through the smoke and giggling. I’ve always had the ability to tell a story, but I didn’t have the relevant technical skills. Rather like a eunuch at a sperm-bank I was lacking vital equipment. I could always tell a story orally but my written prose was somewhat flaccid.
I realised my short-comings about 15 years ago I suppose. Just as well, or I’d be another deluded writer throwing badly-written nonsense at the net in the full belief of my brilliant (and totally non-existent) writing skill. I’m not sure that I would have gone snake if somebody had pointed out my shortcomings, but I might have. Luckily, I pre-date the internet and had the chance to learn to take the craft seriously, but to try not to take myself seriously. Humility is a vastly underrated quality in a writer. With that in place I could start to learn the difference between its and it’s and all those other pesky little grammar and punctuation rules.
Oh and to all those people who think the apostrophe should be discarded. Yeah, you’re just showing your ignorance there, so it would be better (for both you — because you sound like an idiot — and the world — because the damn thing is there for a reason) if you just shut the hell up and learned to knit macaroni.
Where were we? What is making me chase the publication dream with serious intent? Oh that. Nothing to do with me. The ones to blame are the writers I have met over the past few years on forums and the like. Writers I respect for their skill and talent. Writers who are mostly — like me — unpublished, but who are also — like me — committed to the craft. So you lot are to blame. Not my fault, no ma’am. Innocent I is, guv’nor, it was them others.
RW: Share with us the inspirations behind your work. Are you a Heinlein, seeking to make social/political/religious commentary, or are you simply being playful with your ideas and seeing what thematic subtexts present themselves?
SG: The second one. Right, onto the next…(RW: Ahem!)…what…you want more? (RW: Oh yes indeed.) Oh okay, if you insist.I’m not a fan of the thematic subtext upfront and thrusting its groin into the reader’s faces. I think it tends to screw with the story-telling.
Truth should be the primary focus of a fiction writer. Not factual truth, but emotional truth. I write speculative fiction so my stories are usually entirely made-up. However, I try to make the interactions between characters, between the characters and the environment, between the world and its inhabitants as truthful as possible. What the hell is the point of writing them otherwise?
Stick a theme in there and you have put a prism between the writer and the story. Instead of the white light of truthful writing, you get the fractured light of message writing. “See, she has this scar on her face, because I am trying to show the inhumanity of a patriarchal society.” “See, he did that because I am trying to show that good intentions can lead to disastrous outcomes.” “See, they talk like that because I am trying to show that ignorance is not the same as stupidity.” Why not just give her a scar, let him make a mistake, create the dialogue, because it’s truthful. The subtext and theme will take care of themselves. They are going to be there no matter what you do. And if you try to impose one from without, you might obscure the one that comes from within.
Leave themes and subtexts for the scholars and critics to discover. They love that stuff. It’s their reason for existence after all. The writer’s job is to write something worth reading. The scholar’s/critic’s job is to cut it to shreds under the light of whatever fashionable laser beam they cleave to.
Don’t think like a critic or scholar when writing. You’ll only get blinded by the light of your own magnificence or pierced by the light-sabre of self-doubt. I think metaphors are supposed to be out of fashion these days, aren’t they?
RW: I know you’re a pantser, so forgive this sacrilegious question: Do you ever start with an fully fledged idea, however solid or vague, or is it always that blank page and unlimited horizons?
SG: It’s not a sacrilegious question, just a dumbfounding one. Ideas? Yes. Plots? No. (RW: Interesting to note that pantser ideas come minus plot – I find sometimes I get the plot with the idea – not always, but often, then I just need to make the whole thing work, which is the hard part ) I live with a head full of ideas. The occasional character blundering around up there waiting for me to find a story to stick them in. The occasional scene up there complete, blinking like a pulsar marking time until I write the rest of the story. Loads of jangling bits and bobs, trivial pursuit knowledge mixing and mingling, forming connections, creating driving forces for stories. But of plots there are none.
I’ve said this before, though people tend not to agree with me, but I think pantsers, seat-of-the-pants writers, organic (though that is a tad vainglorious) writers are natural plotters. I rarely even think about where a story is going. I simply know that if this happens then this happens and if I let the characters do THAT then the whole story is heading for a corner surrounded by paint, so I had better throw THAT into the mix to make damn sure my little cat-herd of characters will have to do THAT, which at least leaves me some options.
Writing for me is all about giving characters options in the first half of the story and then taking them away in the second half, until the story can only have one possible ending. It can be a messy process, but I don’t have a choice so I live with it.
Outliners, plotters, organised (though that makes them sound like accountants) writers, I believe are naturals at creating characters. I don’t really know of course. I only really know that if I try to outline my characters become flat and lifeless, because I am forcing them into a plot. Therefore, I assume that outliners are capable of adjusting and tweaking characters to fit the plot without losing the essential humanity which makes those characters live on the page. It’s a great talent to have. I wish I could do it.
RW: You dabble (sniggers) in writing scifi. I read recently that, with progress the way it is these days, the job of modern science fiction writers will be to fictionalise current advances rather than to make predictions of future innovations. What are your thoughts on that, do you agree that science fiction can no longer seek to predict the future?
SG: Dabble? Dabble? (RW: Okay, so no dabbling. Note my lack of contrition. ) I’m a speculative fiction writer and I see it all as a single continuum without any false barrier in between. Yes, there are differences between Science Fiction and Fantasy, but they both come from the same place.
Writing near-future Science Fiction is fraught with difficulty these days. We are in the middle of the wave of revolutions in science, in medicine, in technology, in politics, in economics. Pretty much everything is changing around us and it is very hard to see where the world is headed. Even traditionally published Contemporary Fiction writers will find their stuff dating in the two years between the writing and the publication. It is easier to set a story a millennia into the future than to set a story next year.
But I don’t agree with the contention that the role of modern Science Fiction is to fictionalise, or contextualise, current advances in science and technology. That is still the role of Contemporary Fiction writers (and they could do themselves a favour by actually learning something about science. Oh and if a ‘literary’ writer wants to aspire to writing SF, then they really should read some of the classics of the genre so they don’t go reinventing the wheel in the form of a square).
The role of Science Fiction will be what it has always been: to help figure out our place in the Universe. (RW: Your opinion mirrors mine. It seemed a ludicrous thing to posit but then it was speculative journalism, which seems to specialise in the ludicrous…)
RW: Which book/books you’ve read would you say struck your creative wellspring the most; the ones that lit the fuse and the ones that made you realise what the fuse had been lit for?
SG: I suppose I may be different from your average writerly type because I came to reading quite late. Among the first goggle-box generation, see, I lived in a house full of books but I was more than happy to ignore them in favour of a flickering black’n’white screen. But once I did start reading I pretty much started writing. I had always told stories, now I simply started writing them down. So the book that ignited the fire was (I think it was called) Rupert the Pirate which taught me to read properly when I was nine or so. I think the teachers might have helped too.
Once I learned to read I was voracious. The first books I remember reading for the sheer pleasure of it were the Classic Lensman Series by EE ‘Doc’ Smith (which is exactly how I always refer them because that was on the cover). I remember it well, sitting in an exam at age 11, finishing early, asking the teacher if I could read a book after handing my paper in (because I couldn’t leave the room). He smiled and said yes, obviously (in retrospect) expecting me to pull out a textbook to revise for my next exam. I rummaged around in my satchel, pulled out Grey Lensman, and lost myself in the world of Kimball Kinnison and the Galactic Patrol. I think the teacher muttered sommat, but I was too busy reading about space marines with anti-matter hand grenades to listen.
It’s an interesting question, which book made me realise what the fuse had been lit for? Truth be told, I’m not sure. I read so many books. I worked my way through my Da’s books, the entire Science Fiction and Fantasy stock of the local library, the entire Western section, the entire Thriller section. I read all my Mam’s Romance novels, hell I even read the entire Chalet School Series. I read the Morte de Arthur and the Illiad, I read…anything that I could get my sticky little fingers on. Pretty much your average writer in fact, albeit I started late and had to catch up.
What made me realise what writing was for? Hmmmm….I think I always knew to be honest. SF is full of philosophy and sociology, full of ideas and cultures. Everything is taken apart, examined to see how it works, and then put back together again in a slightly different way. I’ve always pretty much thought of fiction as being about examining the world, about not trusting received wisdom, about trying to see what it is really all about.
But good old Pirate Rupert, he showed me the way.
RW: You’re a traditionalist with regards to getting published. Following long-term unsuccessful attempts to be represented or published traditionally, would you consider self-pubbing as a viable route to achieving your publication goals? If so, what would be your main concerns/apprehensions?
SG: Traditional publishing still has a lot to offer the writer. Firstly, there is the corroboration that you can write from an independent source prepared to put their money where their mouth is. Never forget that. That is very important to a tyro writer. There is also the editing, the marketing, the design, the typesetting, all the stuff that traditional publishers do so well. Okay, traditional publishers may be on the back foot right now, they may be scrabbling around to find a business model that works, but those skills still remain and they still remain relevant.
You can, of course, hire an editor, a cover designer, a marketer, a typesetter (formatter?) but the important thing is that you will be paying them. They will not be employed by somebody else to turn out a marketable novel. They will be employed by you to turn your novel into something worth reading. You will have to trust them, choose them, learn to tell the difference between a charlatan and a tradesperson. That is akin to stepping into the snake-pit, naked, smeared with snake pheromone, and dancing a come-and-get-me dance. It is not the easy option.
However, with agents becoming publishers, despite the obvious conflict of interest. With the horrendous contracts now being written by some publishers and agents to tie a writer’s entire output to them until seventy years after the writer’s death. With the sheer lack of vision being shown by some of the conglomerates (the unblinking lidless eyes of the bean-counters shining down commercial blandness and filling the book-shelves with the stultifying atmosphere of risk-averse, me-too, cookie-cutter fiction). With all that going on and, even though I want my stuff edited by an objective professional and all the other blessings of the traditional publishing house, self-publishing looks more and more attractive and it is a viable route these days.
RW: As an, as yet, unpublished author, what is your take on the current publishing climate? Do you find it alarming or inspiring the way it has begun to fluctuate with such dynamic change?
SG: A bit of both really. It is inspiring that the global marketplace is opening up to writers. No more territories (they won’t last long). Writers empowered and no longer at the mercy of the people with the keys to the distribution chain (though if Net Neutrality fails then it’ll be welcome to the new boss who is the same as the old boss and less interested in quality).
The gates have been getting tighter and tighter, the gatekeepers more and more judgemental, the path to publication more and more twisted, for years. How could it not be a good thing that writers can now get their work out there?
Well. There are a lot of good, well written, well edited, well produced, self-published ebooks out there. There are a great deal more badly written, unedited, poorly produced, unmitigated dross being self-published every day. That is not going to change. There will always be people who think shoving rubbish up on a website entitles them to call themselves writers. There is an awful lot of rubbish music out there on the web, there is an awful lot of rubbish video out there on the web, there is an awful of rubbish out there on the web, why should writing be any different?
This clamouring cacophony of clap-trap will make it difficult to be discovered in such a crowded market place. The internet is crying out for ‘discovery’ sites, for curator sites, for somebody to step in and sort the finished product from the feedstock. And then of course the technology of ebooks is brand-new. It is not mature technology. There are competing formats out there. Novels are not computer games, they will not sustain more than one format long-term. There will need to be a format that works across all platforms, it will need to be robust and not controlled by one conglomerate, it will need to be licensed to all. Ebooks need the equivalent of the blue-ray standard for movies. I can see two major road-blocks to this and they both begin with A.
But the marketplace will decide. Readers will not put up with wading through rubbish to get to the stuff they actually want to read.
RW: Do you think ebooks are going destroy print publishing, as has been predicted, or do you believe that the craze will settle and they’ll become just another mass sales weapon in a publishers artillery?
SG: Ebooks will most probably destroy paperbacks as a viable product. They may well also take the place of the slush-pile. But I don’t think they will destroy print publishing. Being printed on paper by an actual publisher will most likely bring real kudos to writers in the future, because it will mean that readers want to own the book as a physical, not a digital, object. But throwaway paperbacks, airport novels and the like, they’ll disappear into the digital realm.
Hopefully, ghosted sleb stories will slither back into the black hole of inane -chatter they crawled from a few decades ago and exist only as blog sites for the hard of thinking. Though…I ain’t holding me breath. If ebooks do take the place of the slush-pile then they will remove a lot of the risk from the process of publishing. If you know a book is selling well as an ebook then where is the risk involved in offering the author a contract. So publishers will have to add more value than just saying, “Okay you can write, here’s an advance, here’s some editing, please arrange your own marketing.” Those days are disappearing fast. Writers sell an exclusive licence to publish a particular book. Publishers will have to prove that granting them that licence is worth it to the writer.
The worm has turned and it’s got its kicking boots on. Publishers should utilise what they have in abundance amongst their staff: passion. They have people working for them who love books, who blog about them for fun, who read omnivorously. Publishers also have instantly recognisable brand-names. The net needs curator sites, filters, ways of getting good books in the hands of readers. Don’t set up all-you-can-eat, join-our-forum-and-beat-the-slush-pile, back-slapping forums. Those aren’t for readers, those are for wannabe writers. They are not the same market. Set up a simple site that simply says, “We think this book is worth reading.” Not only books published by you, but self-published books too. Because then publishers will have something to offer writers that might make it worth the writer’s while: visibility.
RW: In today’s market it seems that the more work you produce the greater your chances for success. Would you consider churning out vast quantities of work if that’s what it takes, or do you prefer to take your time and make each work of the finest quality no matter how much it impacted your possible success?
SG: I’m skint. I’ll happily write like a demon. The thing is ebooks bring in more options now. You can sell novellas, even single short stories, you can sell serials and series, you can sell standalone novels, you have so many options about how you write a story and you can mix and match all those options in anyway you see fit. You can cross genres, you can write under different names, you can sell your entire backlist forever and update it from anywhere. Very few of the old rules (which only really came into being in the last fifty years or so) still apply.
Also I don’t equate writing slowly to writing carefully. Take care, do your drafts, polish the writing as much as you can, get it beta-read, get it edited, do everything in your power to make the writing, the story, as good as it can possibly be. You don’t want to be selling dross after all. But don’t self-indulgently waft down the river on a punt, drinking pimms, and talking about the difficulties of your plot for seven years.
In all things moderation (well not all things) and moderate speed is normally good for a story.
RW: You’re a member of the fabulous writing collective Writerlot (as am I). Do you think such writing collectives are a more powerful way to become visible?
SG: God I hope so. It certainly should in a rational world. If a reader likes a particular writer’s style, then they should look around a site made up of other writers that their favoured writer respects. I’d have thought that was obvious.
The only marketing that really works long-term is word of mouth. I think a writing collective like Writerlot should garner some word of mouth as time goes on. There are some stunning talents on that site. It’s early days, we haven’t really got out of beta yet, but it’s getting there. And the writing is consistently good.
I have found sites on the web that I return to again and again. These are the beginnings of the aggregation sites, the curator sites, the filters, that the net needs. Go to this one place and you will find a great piece of writing uploaded every day. Writing collectives like Writerlot are the future of free writing on the web. IMHO of course.
RW: Final question for you (stop sighing with relief Mr. Godden!). If you were forced at gunpoint to choose your favourite thing to write, what would it be?
A gun wouldn’t be enough. Now the threat of a sex-change (down to the genetic level) that would do it. I like women, I admire women, I don’t think women are either inferior or superior to men, but I wouldn’t want to be one. So under the threat of losing my predilection I shall make the choice.
I’d have to say The Chronicles of Illiath, where my current WIP Kinless is set. (Yes, the world has a name now, though I am unsure of Chronicles, it ain’t Narnia, and it really ain’t Covenant or Riddick, but what can you do? It’s gotta have a name.) Now that I’ve finish the first draft of Kinless, which means I am doing all the world-building stuff to make it easier to maintain consistency in later stories, what’s not to like? A world where gods walk, demons stalk, and ghosts talk. A world where people do what they do and some do great things despite themselves while others do appalling things just because they can. A dark age world of shield walls, constrained magic, and two moons that shine silver and red upon the land and play their part in the dramas. Beta readers have called it dark, gritty, tragic. Bit of a shock that, I just thought it was obviously the way things would be. Mind you, they have also called it (usually in the same critique) funny, romantic, and inventive, so it’s not all doom and gloom.
Yeah, the world of Kinless. That would be my choice. But then: I’d have to forego the delights of Fumigation for the Soul, a novella about a man who travels the multiverse searching for God and closes the circle of his own life in the process.
The Song of Infinity, where a high tech special forces soldier fails to save the life of his lover, is horribly tortured, and then the universe collapses.
The Cusp Stories, set in a bar that sits on an infinite thoroughfare where literally anything can walk through the door.
RW: So… everything then?
Ah bollocks, just call me Steph. I do so like the infinite multiverse as a playground. Some people think that the multiverse is a bunch of parallel worlds all slightly or extremely different to this one. That just shows that they haven’t thought about infinity deeply enough. In an infinite multiverse there would be an infinity of worlds identical to this one down to the last sub-atomic particle spin, there would be an infinity of worlds where only the spin of a sub-atomic particle differentiated them from this one, and then there would be an infinity of worlds where gravity is different, where time runs backwards, where I’m female and like it (though according to Tiresias that does have its compensations). An infinity of infinities where an infinite variety of things could happen. Understandably scientists dislike this idea. They like finite, they like borders, they like to think they have a chance of understanding the world. But for writers it is an infinite playground.
How could I give that up?
Can I go write now?
RW: Hah, like this was painful… apart from the enforced sex change… thanks for answering my dire questions, Steve (er… Steph) – was good to talk with you!
Look out for one of Steve’s awesome CUSP stories popping up on my blog in a few days time! You can find Steve (as I mentioned above maybe once or twice ) at Writerlot or you can hunt him down on Twitter, where he likes to banter, share titbits of fascinating info about the publishing world and other subjects that catch his interest and generally take the piss out of me (gotta love it ).