Blogs by L.T. Suzuki
1/4/2011 6:59:49 AM
For my first blog post to kick off 2011, I like to introduce you to Steampunk author, Ren Cummins. I’d like to begin by having you share a little information about yourself with our readers, Ren. Can you tell us where you call home and what you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
RC: It’s been a long, long road to the northwest. I grew up in California, Missouri and Wisconsin and even lived in Mexico for a few years. College took me out west to Utah and after I met and married my wife (yes, in that order), we moved up to the Seattle area and have lived here ever since. As shocked as I am that I even have such a thing as spare time, I fill that with playing the piano and the doumbek, losing time to the occasional video game, or spending time with the family. Our soon-to-be-ten-year-old loves exploring, so we try to get out and see the area whenever we can. We’re otherwise the worst NorthWesterners ever, because we’ve actually seen so little of what there is up here. Never been whale watching or crabbing, but I love exploring Pike’s Place or the EMP. We’re terrible. It’s otherwise a challenge to narrow down the rest of my interests. I love to be in the kitchen, and really enjoy simply learning new things. Two of my next goals are to learn to speak Japanese and take Kendo. Yes, seriously. I am an odd duck.
Has writing stories always been a part of your life, and becoming a published author a life long dream?
RC: Perhaps more accurately, telling stories has been my life-long dream. Once I realized being an actual superhero wasn’t in the cards (though if it had been possible, I would’ve been Spider-Man), I then wanted to draw comic books, but, as it turns out, I can’t draw that well. So I somehow shifted from that to music, with aspirations of Rock Star hood, a goal which engulfed most of my twenties. Becoming a father overruled that, which brought me back to my college education of writing. Really, the constant thread has been a love for telling and sharing stories. From retelling clever jokes to discussing the myths of old and exploring how they might have come to be, all the way up to the examining of our modern conceptualization of heroes and the heroic nature of mankind… it’s all one big delicious feast, as far as I’m concerned. My daughter told me the other day that they’d been playing a game at school during recess based on the characters from my books, and I nearly passed out from the thought that something I’d written had inspired that kind of childhood involvement. I’m still vibrating from that revelation.
That is so wonderful and must be inspiring for you, too! Now, the Steampunk genre is fairly new in the literary world. Can you explain what is defined as Steampunk and why you are drawn to this particular genre?
RC: This is a topic of much conversation on the Internets – sorry, I just love calling it that sometimes. One of the challenges that Steampunk has had is that it is broad enough to be very many things to very many people. At its core, it’s a sort of Neo Victorianism, the sort of thing seen in movies like the “Steamboy” animated movie, or in recent films like the Guy Ritchie “Sherlock Holmes”. Take a healthy dose of the fantastical books of HG Wells or Jules Verne and write them now, and you’re well on your way. Some of the more obvious elements include the visual elements of goggles, airships and waistcoats, but it goes deeper than that, into an exploration of mankind’s industrial age, and a celebration of achieving marvelous wonders through some of the more elemental sciences. I’ll be honest, when I began to work on this trilogy, I hadn’t set out to pen a “Steampunk Novel” – I was just writing stories that revolved around a world that didn’t use silicone chips and high speed processor computers or even gasoline. My original thought was to just clean it up a bit, and embrace that sense of elegance and refinement which was reflected, paradoxically, in a world that had to burn stuff to keep the lights on. I keep going back to a phrase from Star Wars where Obi Wan Kenobi is describing lightsabers and the height of the Jedi’s presence being “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” To me, that functions as a nice analogy for Steampunk, but it wasn’t until I was halfway through my first draft that I realized I was writing the book in a Steampunk world. And now I can’t see it as anything but. I’ve heard a lot of other Steampunk authors make the same comments, as well, so I guess it goes back to that old statement about how story should drive the genre, and not the other way around.
Your debut novel, ‘The Morrow Stone’, the first book in the Aerthos Trilogy had been nominated as one of the top five titles in the running for the 2010 Steampunk Book of the Year on Steampunk.com. What was the inspiration behind this story and can you tell us a little bit about your main character?
RC: The inspiration came initially from my wife. She really introduced me to some of the creative elements that lent themselves to the early conceptualizations of the books – things like anime and the Final Fantasy video games – but she also sat down with me and came up with the first ideas for the central character, who was initially derived as a teenage vampire hunter named Romany. She’d taken a few cues from a manga series called Gunnm (in the US, it’s known as Battle Angel Alita) whose main character is an android assassin. I ran a dice-based RPG for some friends, and along the way really fell in love with that character, so after the game was over, my wife told me to stop moping around and write the story out. So I stripped out all the rest of the elements that weren’t tied directly to the basic concept of Romany, and it developed quite organically into the world in which it now resides.
I’m intrigued. Tell our readers more about Romany.
RC: Romany – or Rom, as she’s known in the books – is a twelve year old girl who discovers that she’s a Sheharid Is’iin, also called a Reaper by the people of Oldtown-Against-the-Wall. Essentially, Reapers are like the contemporary mythological angels of death, who escort wayward souls off to the realms of the spirit. And though “Death Wears a Pretty Black Petticoat” sounds like a lighthearted little romp through the underworld, I really wanted to balance the occasional lightheartedness that does ensue with the cold hard complexities of that age period. I mean, twelve years old can be brutal even when you’re not a Ferryman.
I love the concept! Without giving away too much, can you reveal what’s in store for the reader when they crack open ‘The Morrow Stone’?
RC: I wrote the book to be enjoyed on several levels – on the one hand, it’s an adventure story, involving several very fun characters, and I did my best to turn expectations on their side every chance I got. I didn’t want to completely Joss Whedon everyone by capping off happiness with sadness, but I do enjoy the idea of deliberately playing off conventionally anticipated dialogue and plot twists in ways I hope are fresh and interesting. Secondly, I wanted to write really interesting and accessible characters: overall, I think a story needs characters who you love and hate, or, even better, love to hate. I love getting feedback from readers about this character or that, where they’re desperate to know this or that about them. And to all of them, I say the same thing: “Wait and see.” It’s not a cruel answer so much as it’s sincere. I don’t always know what’s going to happen to them next, either, so I wouldn’t want to set false expectations.
Lastly, I wanted to include some subtext that addresses questions about society and belief – not telling people what they should think about a certain thing, of course, but at least echoing questions we all have about the world, about ourselves and about how we dream and hope and believe. For me, that’s something I always hope to find in a book I read. I want that kind of thought-provoking subtext to linger after the book is closed, like the aroma of fresh-baked cookies or the smell of rain that stays until well after the clouds have passed. Gentle, but resonating.
Overall, I would have to quote Garth from “Wayne’s World”: I just hope they don’t think it sucks.
The road to publication is difficult at the best of times. Was it difficult for you to land an agent?
RC: Confession time – I’m not represented at this time. I did a lot of query letters when The Morrow Stone first came out a year ago, but unsurprisingly got very little traction off of it; a few requested full reads, but I received plenty of those very polite “thank you but I’ll have to pass” responses. It was my first full manuscript, I hadn’t really built up a serious audience. I really wasn’t even disappointed. I think I would have been floored if anyone HAD expressed more than passing interest. Mostly, I wanted to see how I handled rejection. I remember hearing somewhere about the way you learn if you’re a good salesman isn’t about how you handle your first door, but how you handle the second door. That was fresh in my mind through all the rejections. I had to remember, they weren’t rejecting me, they just didn’t know what to do yet with my book - and that has nothing to do with anything other than the fact that there are thousands of people out there writing books, and, as they say, the toughest part of climbing the ladder is getting through the crowd at the bottom.
I know exactly what you mean. And having been represented by two different literary agents myself, I can tell you now that it doesn’t guarantee publication. It might be a little easier to get your foot in the door, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be published even if a great, successful agent represents you. So do you have any advice you’d like to share with the author struggling to find representation?
RC: My advice for other authors who are in this boat is to not worry about that. Agents will come eventually; the important thing for you to do is to write. Write, write, write. Get better at writing. Write some more. Oh, and read lots, too. Then get something out there, put your name on it, and show the world that you’re not just a person who wants to be a writer, but an actual Writer. My wife kept teasing me about the recurring joke on “Family Guy” where Stewie makes fun of Brian about that novel he’s always “working on.” Write. Finish it. Seriously.
Excellent advice, Ren! Becoming a published author is truly a difficult road to travel. Can you share that moment when you sold your story to a publishing company?
RC: For me, there were two points thus far in publishing that really just made me feel like it was Christmas morning: the first time I held a printed copy of my book in my trembling little fingers, and when I found out that Flying Pen Press was going to publish it. Actually, the second one is still sinking in, so maybe I can’t yet entirely crystallize that sensation. But for the first one…wow, I just stood there in my front room, holding the book in my hands, and felt like I was finally web-slinging my way through lower Manhattan, looking dashing in my Spidey suit and ready to fight crime. Aside from the moment I first met my wife and the first time I held my daughter, it’s right up there with those transformative moments you remember forever. I just kept thinking to myself, “wow, this is really happening.” I produced a full length CD over ten years ago, and it never did this to me. I guess I should’ve taken that as a sign.
I’m curious about your writing style. Are you one of those disciplined writers who must dedicate a certain time each day to producing so many words, or are you more relaxed and tend to write when it strikes your fancy?
RC: I can already tell this is going to sound like a common thread here, but I’m a little bit of both. A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, I suppose you’d say. I like structure, and there’s something to the concept that a kite is only going to stay up in the sky if it has a string to hold it down. I try to write every day – even if it’s a few hits on Twitter or a short blog post. My day job involves a good bit of technical writing, so even though it’s not the same as fiction (there are many who would argue that point, however), it still keeps my WPM up and requires me to focus on word choice and sentence structure, which means less worry about the technical aspects when I’m writing a book.
Still on the subject of writing styles, are you a plotter or pantser? The readers would like to know if you tend to plot out your story line in great detail or if your writing is more organic with the characters and events unfolding as you write.
RC: Heh – “pantster” - love that. Actually, again, I’m a little of column A and B. My outlines have gotten increasingly larger, with pages and pages of reference material waiting for me before I write page one. In fact, I wrote the outlines for books 2 and 3 before I’d even finished book 1. But at the same time, books sometimes surprise me, as well. Sometimes, what I expected to have happen doesn’t happen at all, and sometimes things happen that I didn’t even imagine originally. Going back to my earlier “kite” analogy, I believe there has to be a certain amount of organic growth to the story as well as a firm structure. You do have to know where you’re going in order to get there, although sometimes the journey isn’t what you initially expected it to be. I find that this approach helps me make it through the occasionally difficult process of writing, because I’m just as curious to see what will happen next as I hope the readers will be when I’m done. I think every writer needs to find what works for them. Each book so far has been easier, even though I’ve also found that I keep setting the bar higher as well. But even though the first casualty of every war is the plan, you still need that plan in one form or another.
Some authors meditate, others need to fuel up on coffee or listen to music. Do you have any rituals, ones that can be shared with the readers, that you must do before you hunker down for a writing session?
RC: I try to keep it as simple as possible. Since adding a desk and comfy chair to my process – with a suitable number of visual references on hand to put my mind into the characters, I prefer a Starbucks (sorry, product placement was unintentional) triple grande white chocolate mocha and I plug in a playlist on my [insert generic electronic media device company name here] and start to write. I try to make my playlists specific to only writing, so that it triggers this Pavlovian response in me. Currently, I’m using the Murray Gold “Doctor Who” soundtracks. His music is so immersive and evocative of the sort of range of adventures that I’m trying to write that it’s a perfect counterpart and companion for working. Plus, it’s very thematic music, so all it takes is the first few measures and I’m off and running. The downside to that is that, now, when I turn on an episode, I’m overcome with the need to write. And, actually, maybe that’s how it should be. (I feel the need to express a little personal geekdom here when I mention that the new season of Doctor Who will have two stories written by Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman, Doctor Who, and Murray Gold, all at once? Is that even legal in the states?)
At one time or another, most writers hit the wall and their work stalls because of the dreaded writer’s block. What do you do to get around or over this mental wall to resume writing?
RC: I would like to say I believe Writer’s Block is a lot like Bigfoot, except I’ve never seen Bigfoot. I used to act for a while, too, and every night – without fail – I’d stand there backstage before my cue, and I’d suddenly forget my opening line. Like, just, totally deer in the headlights forget it. And my heart would stop, my mouth would hang open, and it was just at that moment that I’d get my cue and go on stage. But every night, I’d say the line. Every time. The show must go on, right? Well, one of the main differences between that stage fright and writer’s block is that no one’s watching me staring at my laptop while I wait for the words to come. Other than that, the secret is to just go on stage, you know? I’ve broken through those blocks enough times now to just accept it as a pause while my mind resets itself and figures out where to go from there. If you wait, and the next words don’t come, set it aside and write something else until they do. You know how you lose your credit card, checkbook or remote control, and the moment you get them replaced, THAT’S when you find the old one? That happens to me so much when writing. In a nutshell: when you find you can’t write, write anyway. Write anything. Just, write.
Who is your favourite author and how has he/she inspired you to write or influenced your writing style or choice of genre?
RC: I have a lot of favorites, really. From Kahlil Gibran to Warren Ellis to Neil Gaiman to Stephen King to Robert Fulghum. Oh, and Shakespeare, TS Eliot and e.e. cummings. And Dr Seuss and Maurice Sendak. It depends on my mood, really. But one thing they all inspired in me was the idea of voice. Of letting yourself speak through your characters. Of remembering that every word counts, and that it’s okay to break the rules if you can also show you know how to follow them, as well. In high school math, we did a section on “informal proofs” where we had to spell out establishments of congruency or whatnot between two geometric shapes, using regular paragraph forms to utilize the mathematical formulas. On the surface, not so interesting. However, we were left to our own devices as to how exactly to do that. So I made mine into adventure stories, from spy fiction to pure fantasy tales, like the one where Prince ABC and Lady DEF wanted to marry, but the King told them they would only have his blessing if they prove they were congruent enough, and I think it involved the Pythagorean Dragon or something odd like that. It made me see how much I enjoyed just doing my own thing, speaking in ways I wanted to speak. I originally thought I’d need to go out and craft a voice that was unique to me, but in the end, I’ve found that if you just write what you want and how you want it, that part will happen organically.
What is the most profound discovery you’ve made in terms of your writing and how it has touched the lives of others?
RC: An old friend of mine just finished reading “Reaper’s Flight”, the second book, which goes into a lot of the history of the world of Aerthos (the setting for the books), and specifically the division between the people who hold the power of Science up as the end-all/be-all against those who feel the same way about Magic – referred to as “Arts” in the books. He noticed a lot of similarities there with the struggles that individuals all over have with finding their way through faith and reason, which is something I’d considered initially but hadn’t originally intended to really sink so very deeply into. But he was really touched by the way the books approached it – which is to say, they don’t preach, they don’t tell you what you’re supposed to believe, and that, at the end of the day, neither side is really the “bad guy” in these debates. Really, one of the thrilling adventures we all face in life is coming to terms with what we all individually (and at times, collectively) believe in – and I’m not talking specifically about religion or spirituality, but beliefs in general. Those are hard things to narrow down and figure out, but the journey and the process we follow to finding those things out are what makes us all unique and pretty awesome creatures.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned on the road to publication?
RC: I’d have to go back to college for this one. Literally, but not physically. I had a college professor – he was that one everyone feared, because he could recite Chaucer from memory and reminded me a bit of an older William Shakespeare (I’m extrapolating here, since I never actually met Shakespeare, young or old) and he would hammer at me during our classes, tearing apart pretty much any answer people would give, but he seemed to take particular delight at tearing apart mine. I made one comment about the Beta Male concept in wolf packs to the main character in Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, and he spent two full class sessions ripping it apart. I’m not even joking. He started up the second day with “You know, I came upon another reason to disagree with Mister Cummins’ ‘wolf pack’ idea, and here it is…” It’s always a delight when your fellow classmates all give you that “wow, man, I feel for you but I’m just glad it’s not me” expression.
I spoke with him after the semester was over and he asked me what the one thing was I took away from his class, and I told him it was that I would never again think I was so right about anything that I might refuse to see it from another perspective. He clapped his hands – really! – and said that was it, exactly. He went on to tell me he’d loved my observations but was worried that I was going to get too cocky about it all and muck up my potential to continue learning. That idea has stuck with me all along, and has helped me both when I feel too frustrated or too confident.
What are you reading now, and how did this particular book make it onto your to-read list?
RC: I’ve got several books cracked open right now, and I go back to them whenever I don’t have the words flowing. Been reading “Boneshaker” by Cherie Priest, who has now worked her way onto my list of people I’d like to have coffee with. I keep picking up “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman, even though I’ve already finished it, but just because he has a fantastic way of rubbing you in fairy dust, soot and powdered chocolate and not making you care which has left more of its mark on you. Also on the top of my pile are the Walking Dead graphic novels by Robert Kirkman. I just got a kindle for Christmas (I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to sound like a commercial here), so now I have dozens of books already loaded up and taunting me with their siren whisperings. I love comic books as well as traditional fiction, so I’m happy enough to read something by Ed Brubaker or Brian Michael Bendis as I am to read anything else; I think a big dangerous sinkhole is when people limit themselves to a single genre. I have trouble focusing on a single medium!
What do you foresee in your future over the next five years and do you hope to branch out from steampunk into other genres? When can your fans expect the third book in your trilogy?
RC: I’ve got a few spoons in a few pots at the moment, in fact. I’m just now at the halfway point in book three, “Fall of the Shepherd”, so it should be out in the first half of 2011, crossing fingers. Books one and two will be reissued as second editions, so some more work will be going into those as well. There are two other trilogies planned out for the setting, but I want to step away and let the characters breathe a bit before I put them through any more wringers. Additionally, Flying Pen Press will be keeping me busy by working as a Managing Editor for a new Sci Fi imprint that’s under development. Matt Delman, the ME for their Steampunk line is also organizing several anthologies this year, and I’ll be submitting for those, too. Ahead of that, I have a few other series designed, but my next creator-produced story will be a contemporary gothic fantasy involving demons in Portland. Very excited about that one.
What a fascinating interview, Ren! Thank you for sharing in your writing experiences, advice and your novels. For more information about Ren Cummins and the Aerthos Trilogy, check out:
Follow Ren on Twitter: .rencummins
Where to buy the book: http://www.amazon.com/Ren-Cummins/e/B0030M9QXC/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1293642735&sr=8-1
(paperback and kindle)
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kc dyer Interview & Enter to Win an Autographed Novel! - Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Bev Katz Rosenbaum Interview - Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Writing Tips I Learned from Terry Brooks - Tuesday, November 17, 2009
An Interview with Tamara Sheehan - Monday, November 09, 2009
YA Author Loreena M. Lee Interview - Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Why Do I Blog About Other Authors? - Thursday, October 29, 2009
Critique by Author Jack Whyte - Tuesday, October 27, 2009
BookCamp 2009 - Monday, October 19, 2009
Participating at VCON 34 - Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Therese Walsh Interview - Tuesday, October 06, 2009
Interview with Debra Purdy Kong - Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Twitter – The Power of the Tweet - Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Part Two: Publishing in a Foreign Market - Tuesday, September 15, 2009
An Interview with author Christopher Belton - Tuesday, September 08, 2009
Part Two of the Caroline Leavitt Interview: - Thursday, September 03, 2009
An Interview with Author & Book Reviewer Caroline Leavitt - Tuesday, September 01, 2009
An Interview with Kathleen Bolton - Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Interview with author/artist Scott Kessman: - Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Interview with author/artist Scott Kessman: - Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Part 2 of the Kim Falconer Interview - Thursday, August 13, 2009
An Interview with Kim Falconer - Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Part 2 An Interview with Alan Baxter - Thursday, August 06, 2009
An Interview with Alan Baxter - Tuesday, August 04, 2009
If You Write It, They Will Come (buy it)… Not! - Sunday, July 26, 2009
Lori A. May: Author Extraordinaire - Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Merits of a Writers Conference - Sunday, July 19, 2009
Part 2 Publishing in the Digital Age - Thursday, July 16, 2009
Publishing in the Digital Age - Monday, July 13, 2009
Writing Tips for the Novice Novelist - Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Flog the Blog - Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Do's & Don't of a TV interview - Saturday, June 27, 2009
Mortality & Writing - Friday, June 26, 2009
The Art of Editing 101 - Tuesday, June 23, 2009
How To Write When Suffering from Bad Memory Retention - Saturday, June 20, 2009
Finding Inspiration from Others - Thursday, June 18, 2009
To Blog or Twitter... - Tuesday, June 16, 2009