MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing three times Nebula finalist Bud Sparhawk today. He’s primarily known for his short fiction with heavy and hard science, but also for his humor (in particular his “Sam Boone” series).
Bud, although you have extolled the virtues of outlines, do you think it’s possible to write a great story without an outline?
BUD SPARHAWK: I’m not certain “extolled” is the right word. Certainly I’ve advocated paying considerable attention to a story’s structure – the sequencing of scenes, time frames, and points of view. I don’t think I’ve ever recommended preparing a formal outline where a story is described in detail, point by point.
My own style of writing is to set up the scenes I think the story needs, block in the characters, setting, and time, and then move things around to the way I want to tell the story. Many times I write quite a bit before breaking what I’ve done into key scenes and then add sketch ideas that fill in empty spots. It’s generally a messy back and forth process but it works for me.
VENTRELLA: Have you ever done so?
SPARHAWK: Written a great story or used an outline to write it? All three of my Nebula finalists were done sans outline – just bashing along until they felt complete. I wouldn’t call any of them “great” – entertaining maybe. The one story that I felt was “great” was “Bright Red Star” and which received almost no literary comment, except from David Hartwell who included it in his Years Best SF #14. This story has now appeared in several languages and on audio pubs, which is somewhat of an affirmation. It was my response to some of the hysteria surrounding 9/11.
VENTRELLA: You’ve concentrated almost entirely on short stories and novellas. What is it about the shorter form that appeals to you?
I’ve been blogging about this very subject on budsparhawk.blogspot.com for some time. One of my latest musings dwelled on the differences between novelists and we short people. Although there are clearly differences between the two camps, my conclusion was simply that that some do and some can’t: Temperament, patience, and economic necessity are probably involved in a writers choices, but the mix would vary considerably.
VENTRELLA: Many writers consider short stories to be harder than novels. What is your experience?
SPARHAWK: I don’t think “harder” is the distinction I’d make. Some writers find it impossible to describe anything in a single sentence while I find it difficult to drone endlessly on about anything because I’m always anxious to get to the payoff. In my opinion, brevity always makes a point sharper and I usually edit down to reach that clarity. For example, I recently turned in a 15k piece that was originally 33k in second draft and around 20k in the penultimate one.
When I started writing I could write a 5-7K story in a weekend and once wrote one – “Persistence” – that I later sold to Analog – in an evening. I like to deal with issues or ideas and the short form is ideal for that. Longer pieces deal more with character development or expansion of a situation. I’ve written several as yet unsold novels and have found developing increasing complexity that forces the word count ever upwards tedious, albeit interesting.
Dedicated novelists have told me that they cannot begin a story without discovering that complications arise and they are faced with an irresistible urge to explain, describe, or comment. Then too, other characters come along with their own damn issues, backgrounds, motives and … well, you see how that goes, with the inevitable result is other than short.
VENTRELLA: What usually comes first for you – an idea or a character?
SPARHAWK: The idea or concept, always. I see characters as vehicles that carry the ideas forward, and try to make them eloquent spokespersons for what I try to say.
VENTRELLA: We’ve met at various conventions over the years. Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?
SPARHAWK: I’m just a ham and enjoy the spotlight, talking to fans, and especially having the opportunity to talk writerish with the other pros. I love the readings, especially by unfamiliar writers to me.
VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite convention experience?
SPARHAWK: The random discussions that arise in the hallways or in the dealers room have be my favorite experiences. I hardly ever leave one of these random discussions without a story idea or two.
VENTRELLA: I meet many authors who have gone the vanity press or self publishing route and then wonder why no one takes them seriously. What’s your opinion on self publishing?
SPARHAWK: The line between vanity and self-published has become very thin. Established writers are self-publishing collections, reverted novels, and even original works – all to take advantage of the opportunities eBooks have created. Some non-professionals (another vague term) have been highly successful with their “vanity” publishing. Results are mixed, but in most cases it seems to depend on the degree of self-promotion one is willing to undertake. Social networking seems key to success for both types.
VENTRELLA: Do you think there is a difference if an already established author self publishes new material?
SPARHAWK: If a writer has already established a reputation, then selling new material via POD or eBook should not be a problem. Otherwise you use up a lot of time, effort, and creative juice that could be used for improving your writing.
VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?
The lengthy delays between submission and response, which is an unfortunate consequence of limited staff and/or time available to the publisher. The industry probably needs more underpaid English majors looking for “experience” in the publishing field.
Since most editors now accept electronic submissions I can easily see the day when some maven will design an app that evaluates e-manuscripts on the fly, all tailored to an editor’s preset specifications. That would certainly change the writing game for both writers and editors. Don’t know if this would make the publishers happy or not.
VENTRELLA: What do you like to read for pleasure?
SPARHAWK: Short stories, of course, and mostly SF, but I make an exception for anything by Terry Pratchett.
VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?
SPARHAWK: See above – “Bright Red Star.” Interestingly, I’ve written three more shorts in the same universe, two of which are in McPhail’s anthologies.
VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?
SPARHAWK: I’ve a long novel in penultimate editing, four or five shorts that still need work, and getting as much of my published works into eBook formats as I have time for. The novel deals with the long term effects of human expansion into the universe and what exactly makes our descendants “human.”
VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?
SPARHAWK: It is a puzzle that in these days of instant everything and twittering phrases that short fiction does not sell better. Steven King recently observed that much of the popular long form fiction has little substance but does carry the reader along in an engaging, but superficial narrative thread that provides an immersive experience. Summer reading at the beach, in other words. I find that much of the “epic” fantasy fits this description. Clearly, fantasy in general is not my cup of tea, but there are some fantasy works that rises above the rest – like Laura Anne Gilman’s Vineart series.
VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you?
SPARHAWK: 1. Don’t give up your day job.
2. Put some time aside for writing every day.
3. Learn humility and to accept rejection gracefully.
4. Join SFWA as soon as you can.
VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?
SPARHAWK: Endless rewriting in pursuit of perfection, which can never be achieved. The pursuit of “better” is ever the enemy of “good enough.” A writer should rewrite only until the piece achieves a satisfactory level in their own opinion and, of course, whenever an editor asks.
VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?
SPARHAWK: “Where do you get your Ideas?” to which I respond “a guy in New Jersey sends me two a week for five bucks.”. Ask a silly question …
Seriously though, no one ever asks how the magic is done and the toll it takes on family life, work, and socializing. I wrote for years while holding a fairly demanding job, raising a family, and dealing with the issues of aging parents, yet managed to eke out a few words each night, having them add up to some decent stories and a lot of less than sales worthy. The ideas bubbled up during my non-writing times and, if they were worthy of remembering, finally made it into a story. Truthfully, I have no idea where the ideas come from. I only know how much work it takes to turn them from daydreams to reality.