I was pleasantly surprised back in July at OSFest, the Omaha Science Fiction Society’s inaugural convention, when I met another genre author from around these parts named Matt Rotundo. We sat on a couple of panels together, wherein I discovered that this guy I had never previously heard of was racking up quite a number of significant short fiction sales in the top genre markets, most notably Writers of the Future and Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show. Then we happened to cross paths again at World Con, where–seriously–everybody in the genre publishing industry goes, has gone, or should go, and he was kind enough to introduce me around a little, being a bit deeper into the industry than I am. Matt has been writing for a long time, but now seems to be at the jumping off point in his writing career, or, at least, in mid-jump. That, and his brain is a tremendous databank of science fiction and movie lore. I wouldn’t recommend a trivia contest against him.
TH: Can you give a brief description of your career arc as a writer/author?
MR: Let’s see . . .
I started getting serious about my writing around 1989/1990. Over the next several years, I wrote a handful of short stories and two novels. One of the short stories — “Alan Smithee Lives in Hell” — took second place in the 1997 Science Fiction Writers of Earth contest. In 1998, I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, New Hampshire. In addition to learning a great deal and establishing invaluable contacts with fellow writers, I made my first sale there. Warren Lapine, then the editor of Absolute Magnitude, was a guest instructor during the final week of the workshop. He read my story “Black Boxes,” liked it, and asked me to make a few changes to it prior to publication. The story appeared in issue 15 of the magazine.
In 2002, I won a Phobos Award for “Hitting the Skids in Pixeltown,” which later appeared in the Phobos Books anthology of the same name. I also sold my novella “Ascension” to Phobos, which appeared in the anthology Absolutely Brilliant in Chrome.
I’ve since sold short work to various magazines in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. My novelette “The Frankenstein Diaries” appeared in issues 8 and 9 of Intergalactic Medicine Show, and I took first place in the Writers of the Future contest, for the first quarter of 2008.
TH: What is The Story of Matt? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick?
MR: I’d like to think of the Story of Matt as an epic series, stretching out over decades and beloved by millions.
In truth, it’s probably a fairly decent rough draft.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
MR: I was very young–maybe eight or nine years old. I wrote a little fairy tale called “The Elephant and the Cheese.” It covered a page and a half. This was the first time in my life I’d ever filled a page with writing. That seemed like a major accomplishment to me.
Up until that point, I had dreamed, as many children do, of being a fireman or a policeman. Then I thought I’d like to be a scientist. But “The Elephant and the Cheese” helped me see that writing stories was what I wanted to do with my life. The realization came to me with such force, such absolute certainty, that I’ve never had occasion to doubt it.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never a see the light of day, like the five novels the author had to write before he could get to the good one. Do you have anything like this?
MR: Sure, I have a trunk–although it’s actually some space in my office closet. My first novel is in there, along with a few short stories. These are pieces that I’m either not happy with and don’t know how to fix, or that have been rejected by most available venues, or a little bit of both.
That said, I rarely trunk stories. It feels too much like giving up, and that’s just not in my nature. There’s a fine line between bone stubborn and stick stupid. I think I crossed it about eight years ago.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Are there some unrealized accomplishments that you’re striving for in the near future?
MR: Definitely. Unrealized accomplishments at this point include landing an agent, selling a novel, and maybe winning a Hugo or Nebula.
I should point out, though, that while these are all aspirations of mine, they’re not personal goals. I don’t believe in setting goals that are beyond your control. Whether or not I ever sell another story is something over which I have little influence. What I can control is how well I write, how much I write, and how well I market myself and my work.
TH: What is your monthly writing output?
MR: When I’m drafting, I do 20,000 words in a month. This is actually a recent development. Prior to 2007, I would have thought such output impossible for me. The first draft of my first novel took me eighteen months. For the second novel, the first draft took two years.
My friend Ken Scholes inadvertently inspired me to try harder. He wrote the first draft of his first novel in a matter of weeks, despite his doubts about whether could even write at that length. If he could do that, I figured, I could certainly improve my historically glacial output. And I have. Last year, I wrote a first draft, 80,000 words, in four months, then did a rewrite in two. I just completed another first draft, 100,000 words this time, in five months. I’ll set it aside for a few weeks, then attack the rewrite and have it done by the end of the year.
Writing quickly is a way of outrunning your internal editor, the guy in your head telling you that you’re an untalented twit, that you’re wasting your time. And I’ll tell you something else I’ve learned: you can write crap quickly or slowly. So if it’s going to be crap, why slave over it for years when you can get it done in months?
TH: What are some of the things that most inspire you?
MR: In a general sense, I could say that I find myself inspired by music, or by a brilliant book or movie, or by the examples set by colleagues, friends, and loved ones.
If we’re talking about the things that inspire my stories–wow, that’s hard to answer. Inspiration comes at me from a lot of different sources. Many of my stories are inspired by articles in the newspaper, or by current events. One of my novels traces its origin back to a conversation I had with a classmate in my junior year of high school, and to Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Another novel’s inspiration came from–I kid you not–a video game.
Whatever the source, my stories usually grow out of some unusual (to me, anyway) aspect that sticks in my mind–or catches in my filter, to borrow a metaphor from Stephen King. Here’s an example: “Ascension” was inspired by the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster, in which eight climbers–two of them seasoned veterans who had summitted the mountain many times–perished when a snow storm stranded them near the peak. I remember watching a news program about it, and as the story unfolded, as more and more people died on the mountain, while others suffered the effects of severe frostbite, hypoxia, and high altitude pulmonary edema, I found myself wondering about the bodies. It’s something that was never mentioned in the program. No one was talking about any efforts to get the remains off the mountain, so that they might be shipped home to the families. This made some sense; it was certainly hard enough just getting the survivors down. But still, I kept wondering, “What about the bodies? Did they just leave them there?” As it turns out, the answer was yes. Later, watching another documentary on ascending Everest, I saw footage of climbers moving past human remains. One person commented that the mountain was the world’s highest graveyard.
That struck a chord with me. It’s no coincidence that “Ascension” opens with a climber coming across a corpse in the snow.
TH: A lot of genre writers might be hungry to know more about the process by which you built a readership. What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work?
MR: I actually don’t consider myself to be very good at self-promotion. It’s a skill I’m just now learning. But I’ll tell you what little I know.
Even if you’ve never sold a story, you still have a readership to build–namely, among editors and publishers. On this front, the best you can do is write well, be professional, and keep submitting. I wish I could tell you there is some shortcut, but there just isn’t. Editors will come to know you through the fiction you submit to them. At WorldCon a few years ago, I was introduced to Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s. The first thing she said to me was, “Please keep sending me your work.” She recognized my name from the slush pile, you see.
When you have published work to promote, be sure to attend conventions and make yourself visible. (You should go to conventions, anyway, because they’re fun.) Don’t be shy about trying to get on program. Ask for readings and signings. Even if a reading gets just one person interested in your work, it’s worth the effort.
Familiarize yourself with the basics of publicity. Don’t rely on your publisher to push your work, especially if it’s a small press. Those houses simply don’t have the resources for it. You should know how to notify the local media about any upcoming book releases. You should be visiting area bookstores and letting the staff know that you’re a local author. This is especially true, I think, for independent booksellers, but don’t ignore the chains.
And of course, the Internet has revolutionized self-promotion. This is one of the aspects I’m still learning. I keep a blog at LiveJournal that gets updated at least weekly, and am in the process of setting up a website. I still need to investigate the power of social networking sites like Facebook. One of the latest promotional ideas I’ve been seeing, which I find really neat, is to put together a “book trailer” and get it on YouTube.
TH: Have you reached the point at which you feel you have “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances? Do you recall how that felt? If not, how do you plan to get there?
MR: Have I “made it?” Heavens, no. I don’t even know if I’m within shouting distance.
Then again, I don’t really know what “making it” means. Every time I reach a milestone, such as winning Writers of the Future, I start focusing on the next one. I was ecstatic to win, of course, but the elation passes, and I have bigger fish to fry.
That might come across as a little blasÃ©, so let me just say this: I fully realize that many aspiring writers would love to be where I am now. Heck, eighteen months ago, I would have envied me. But as Jay Lake has put it, every time you achieve some new milestone in your writing career, you trade up to a different set of problems. They’re good problems to have, I suppose, but they’re still problems. Even if I were to become a full-time novelist, I would still have new goals to achieve, new challenges to overcome.
It also helps to recognize that in this business, you really are only as good as your last book. Plenty of writers have made major impacts with their first few works, only to fade back into obscurity again. So in that sense, I don’t believe anyone really “arrives.” It’s healthier to think of it as an unending process.
Here’s where I am in the process today. Tomorrow, I hope to be elsewhere.
TH: Have you set a goal for the time at which you’ll make the transition to full-time writer? Why or why not?
MR: No, I haven’t. Again, I don’t like setting goals over which I have no control. The best I can do is keep writing, keep striving for improvement, and keep submitting. The rest isn’t up to me.
TH: Where do you see your writing career, looking back from fifteen years in the future?
MR: Assuming I’m not dead, the only thing I can say for sure about fifteen years from now is that I’ll still be writing. I’d be happy with fifteen new novels under my belt by that time. Good ones, preferably. I’d like to think I would have sold one or two of them by then, too.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
MR: Writing is an art. Publishing is a business. I take care to distinguish between the two.
When I’m working on a story, I focus solely on making it as good as I am able. Only after I’m done with it do I start to think about marketing it.
But when I do bring a new story to market, I am as professional as I possibly can be. And it’s really not that hard. Proper manuscript format is easy. Creating your own professional letterhead is easy, especially these days. Business cards are easy. Keeping track of your submissions and sales is easy. Avoiding boorish behavior, both online and at conventions, is easy. Even so, it amazes me how some aspiring writers either can’t or won’t do these things. I have no sympathy for such people. They are amateurs who are hell-bent on remaining that way.
If you don’t take your own work seriously, how can you expect others to do so?
On branding–I’m not sure what my “brand” is. At this stage in my career, I can only hope my brand stands for quality. Perhaps in the future, it might develop into something more specific. That would be for a publisher to decide. So long as it’s something I feel is not too limiting, and so long as I’m doing work I’m proud of, I don’t have a problem with that.
TH: The behaviors you describe of perpetually failed amateur writers really strikes home, in that they are some of the big delineators between amateurs and true professionals. As one example, I read slush for The Harrow, an online horror ‘zine, and it astonishes me how many writers lack a basic understanding of manuscript format. Did each one of these professional practices come with a price, or are you one of those blessed with the ability to learn from others’ mistakes? Did you learn all this at once or was it an incremental process?
MR: Basic manuscript format was something I learned before I started submitting, thank goodness. Some other practices took a little longer. I struggled with cover letters for a bit, occasionally lapsing into chattiness or attempts at cuteness/humor before accepting that simple professionalism is the best way to go.
My submission process was something that took me a while to nail down. In the early days, it was enough to simply flip through my rejection slips to see where a story had been, and then through a copy of Fiction Writer’s Market to find the next potential venue for it. But eventually I reached a point where I had too many stories circulating, and keeping track of them all became a logistical nightmare. I also got a little more picky about where I submit (never again to non-paying markets, for example), and I needed more recently updated information than I could get from an annual guide. I finally designed my own marketing database, which has been wonderful tracking tool. And these days, I get my marketing information from online sources that are focused on genre fiction, like Ralan and Market Maven. These refinements have enabled me to keep better track of my stories and to streamline the entire submission process.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
MR: I’m currently working on a couple of novels–Petra and Petra Released–that might be the beginning of a series. That’s assuming anyone is interested, of course.
I have upcoming stories in Cosmos, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Tales of the Unanticipated, and Writers of the Future Volume XXV.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
MR: Hmm . . . let me tell you story.
As I mentioned, I attended Odyssey in 1998. Harlan Ellison was a guest instructor that year. To be honest, he was the main reason I went.
I got a lot out of the entire workshop–including my first sale–but one moment during Harlan Week stands out for me. You see, I had harbored these fantasies about being “discovered” by Harlan, in much the same way that Dan Simmons was–that he would recognize the brilliance of my work, which in turn would open all kinds of doors for me.
Didn’t quite work out that way.
To say Harlan is tough to please is an understatement. (I know that many people loathe his teaching style, such as it is. But just for the record, I would do it again in a heartbeat.) In addition to the lengthy and often difficult critique sessions, Harlan pushed us to write a story a day, at least for the first few days. It was an emotionally and physically draining week for all of us. As it wore on, I began to joke that we were involved in some sadistic sleep-deprivation experiment. To be fair, though, Harlan pushed himself as hard as he pushed us.
My particular low point came midweek. I wasn’t at all happy with my story for that day. Although it hadn’t been as badly savaged as others had, it had been a failure, and I knew it. I had fallen on my face in front of my colleagues and Harlan Ellison. It became clear that my dreams of “discovery” weren’t going to happen. And I still had to write another story for the next day.
I despaired. That evening, for the first time in my life, I considered quitting. Maybe I just didn’t have the stuff, and never would. It would be easier, even sensible, for me to walk away from it all. These dark thoughts were alien to me, but in my state of mind, they had their appeal.
And even in that moment, there was a part of me that just couldn’t let it go. Whether continuing made any sense or not, whether I would ever succeed or not, I knew that giving up simply wasn’t an option.
I wrote the next story. And the next morning, I felt a little better. Not great, mind you, but better. We never got around to critiquing that story, but it’s still one of my personal favorites.
So maybe that’s my best and worst moment, all rolled up into one. I guess if Harlan Ellison couldn’t knock it out of me, nothing and no one can. I’m a writer, now and always.
TH: I spoke about Harlan Ellison briefly with Matt Wallace during our interview, specifically the snippet that’s up on YouTube called “Pay the Writer.” I would probably envision having him critique a story as an experience akin to accepting a manicure with a chainsaw and saying “Thank you, sir. May I please have another?” How far am I off the mark?
MR: Not too far, I guess–but talking about how harsh Harlan can be hardly paints the whole picture. He can also be devastatingly funny. And he is as effusive in his praise as he is damning in his condemnation.
But the bottom line, at least for me, is his sincerity. If I had thought for one moment that he was being cruel simply for its own sake, I would have walked out of that workshop and never looked back. But Harlan cares an awful lot about the craft of writing. You can only hope to have a writing teacher who is that dedicated.
It seems to me that his teaching style forces you to become better, whether you want to or not. Let’s face it: as writers, we have a tendency to fall in love with our own crap. Harlan’s critiques are like a slap in the face–intended not to hurt, but to get you to snap out of it, to fall out of love with your crap.
Ultimately, that’s the job of any writing workshop or critique group–to help you get better at what you do. Harlan takes that responsibility seriously, and well he should.
TH: Thoughts on the “Pay the Writer” segment?
MR: Oh, I agree with him, at least in principle. I’ve heard him make that point before. Really, “Pay the Writer” is just Harlan’s personal take on Yog’s Law: money flows toward the writer. We do not pay to have our stuff published; people are supposed to pay us.
Of course, there are those who make some of their stuff freely available as a way to increase sales. Nothing particularly new or innovative in that; even drug dealers will give you your first taste for free. Harlan’s done it, too; check his website if you don’t believe me.
Some, like Cory Doctorow, have expanded on this concept. But there’s a difference between people who use Creative Commons licensing as a means to an end and those suckers who give everything away because they don’t know any better. There are plenty of scammers out there willing to take advantage of their ignorance.
Pick whatever business model works best for you. But know what you’re doing, and why. And don’t be a sucker.