AN INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT NICHOLSON, March 2000
This is an interview done with Scott Nicholson done while I was hosting a weekly internet chat at Cybling.com. I hosted the chat for a couple of years until the interest began to wane. At that time, the internet was growing by leaps and bounds and this was a way for the fans to get together and discuss the events of the week or a new writer or book that they felt needed more attention. Chats could run from five to fifteen – sometimes more depending on topics and time – and usually lasted for two hours
Scott Nicholson won the Writers of the Future in 1999 with his short story “The Vampire Shortstop”. He wrote six novels for Pinnacle (THE RED CHURCH, THE HARVEST, THE MANOR, THE HOME, THE FARM, and THEY HUNGER) that were moderate sellers and has branched out to comics and screenwriting. He lives in North Carolina and has been compared to Sharyn McCrumb and Manly Wade Wellman. His latest novel, THE SKULL RING is forthcoming as is SCATTERED ASHES, a short story collection. DIRT is a comic in the old EC vein and there are three issues of it available with at least one more on the way. Go to Scott’s website, www.hauntedcomputer.com for all the details.
Baryon: How does having a baby affect your writing time?
Scott Nicholson: Well, the big change is that everything is so much more important. I don't write first thing in the morning anymore. My daughter gets that time, at least when she's awake. Now, I have to be much more productive with shorter periods of time. Other than that, I don't let having a baby be an excuse not to write. I read in an interview where the child of a famous writer, now a writer himself, talked about having to tiptoe around the house while growing up so as not to break the great writer's concentration. That doesn't sound like any fun to me. I may not ever be a famous writer, but I'm sure as heck going to be a good dad.
Baryon: You were a finalist in the 1997 WOTF awards, why did you enter again?
Scott Nicholson: In some years, the editor of the annual anthology will choose a few finalist stories to flesh out the contest volume. This is done both to make a stronger book and to sometimes give a little encouragement to someone who's getting close to being good enough. The way the rules are set up, finalists can keep entering until they either place in the contest or are no longer eligible (meaning they have finally sold three pro stories or a novel). In 1997, there were five published finalists. The next year, there were none, because many of the winning stories were longer. The strange thing is that three of those published finalists from '97, Ron Collins, Amy Sterling Casil, and myself, were prizewinners the following year. That had never been done before. I believe I was a quarterfinalist with my first entry, was a finalist with my second, my third failed miserably, and then I won first prize in my fourth attempt, all spread out over twelve months. The money is so good at the contest that I was determined to keep one of my better stories in the running as long as I could. What's funny is that when Dave Wolverton called me to say he wanted to publish "Metabolism" in the anthology, my wife could tell from my smile what was happening. It was my first sale. Afterwards, I went upstairs, took my rejection slips off the wall, and sat down and counted them. One hundred and five.
Baryon: Did winning the WOTF contest help your confidence, or were you positive you would sell eventually?
Scott Nicholson: The quarter I won, I figured I had a good chance, because "The Vampire Shortstop" was the best story I'd written to that point. But I'd already sent in my entry for the next quarter, just in case! I'd already decided that I was going to keep writing, win or lose, rejections or not. The contest offers many benefits for the new writer. The most important of all is that your story is judged anonymously by legendary speculative fiction authors such as Dave Wolverton, Algis Budrys, Anne McCaffrey, Tim Powers, and more. Since you are competing against other new writers, the "name game" isn't a factor as it is when submitting to the top professional magazines. It's the ultimate level playing field, in my opinion. I can't say enough about the great people at Author Services, Inc., who run the contest as part of the L. Ron Hubbard estate. They treat all the winners and published finalists to a week-long writer's workshop in Hollywood with almost all the expenses paid. I consider it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I was lucky enough to experience twice. Winning the contest doesn't automatically mean you have it made. Some past winners have never written another story. The Establishment doesn't really recognize the award as a major accomplishment, perhaps since so many past winners have disappeared beneath the waves. But looking back over the fifteen years of the contest, about five or six writers of each class fight their way onto the bookshelves and into the popular consciousness. It's always the ones who were determined to write, no matter what. Kevin J. Anderson entered unsuccessfully about forty times, and never did win. He refused to quit, and now is one of the most successful science fiction novelists around. No one wants to be a new writer forever. I'm still crawling and will soon take my first teetering baby steps. Maybe someday I'll be able to walk, all the while dreaming of running.
Baryon: Your winning story has a unique twist to the vampire story. How did you come up with it?
Scott Nicholson: I don't believe in Muses who magically make people better writers. But I do believe that the subconscious mind is a whole lot smarter than the conscious mind. I woke up with the words "vampire shortstop" in my head, went to the keyboard, and wrote the story straight through, in about six hours. I didn't outline, plot, or plan a single word. In my rewrite, I probably changed maybe five sentences. As far as I can tell, the anthology editor, Algis Budrys, changed a grand total of one word. I'm surprised the story came out as well as it did, considering I knew absolutely nothing about what I was trying to say. Everything just fell into place. It was basically a gift from what Jung called the collective unconscious, a story that had already been told somewhere, and all I had to do was set it down. I re-read it a while back and found some minor flaws with the character voice, but it was the best I could do at the time. Oddly enough, I don't seek out a lot of vampire fiction. Lots of sex, a gaunt complexion, never grow old, I mean, where's the downside? A little angst, maybe? So if someone had told me I'd ever write a story with a vampire in it, I'd have laughed. I do take several liberties with the traditional lore, though, which is part of the fun of the story.
Baryon: Are you a baseball fan?
Scott Nicholson: I grew up playing it, and of course collected baseball cards and comic books back when they were cheap and not such serious collector's items that you were afraid to touch them. I'm coaching Little League for the fifth time this season, and have been lucky enough to coach my son three years. The coach in my story does contain more autobiographical elements than do characters in any of my other work. I don't follow the major leagues too closely anymore. I don't think baseball is a metaphor for Life, which instantly brings to mind some boring George Will essay. But Little League is a great microcosm of the adult world, the whole political scene, the social strata, the doting parents who sometimes expect too much from their kids. I've seen parents make their kids cry, right there in front of the whole team and a stand full of people. I've seen the clumsiest guy on the team turn into the hero more times than you'd think.
Baryon: Who are your favorite writers?
Scott Nicholson: William Goldman is tops. I'm so impressed with the way he can capture characters, add detail, and put in the subtext while never losing any of the pacing or plot. The man understands STORY in all its forms, all its genres. Look how skillfully he manages such disparate subjects and styles as he covers in MAGIC and THE PRINCESS BRIDE. He's a great screenwriter, too, and even his nonfiction work is fascinating. I actually study him the way some English Lit students have been condemned to study tedious and long-dead writers.
Orson Scott Card is certainly one of our greatest living storytellers. Not only that, he has a passion for history that few can rival. Ray Bradbury, I believe, is the one modern speculative fiction writer whose work will be studied in college literature classes this century. He is a master of language, imagery, poetics, about as close to Shakespeare as anybody I've read.
Of dead writers, Steinbeck, Twain, Daphne du Maurier, and Shirley Jackson are my favorites. Other writers I admire, for varying reasons, are Sharyn McCrumb, Kevin Anderson, Stephen King, Douglas Clegg, Neil Gaiman, Jack Ketchum, Ramsey Campbell, Ira Levin, Dean Koontz, and Frederik Pohl. The best book I read last year was Stewart O'Nan's A PRAYER FOR THE DYING. I'm starting to enjoy crime fiction from such greats as Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard, and I'm entering a phase of craving Jim Thompson's work. Then there are a whole lot of exciting new writers coming up from the small press and through webzines. I wish I had more time to read. Unfortunately, most of my spare time has to be spent on writing.
Baryon: Have you gotten to meet any of your favorite writers yet?
Scott Nicholson: I've been pretty lucky there. In my job as a journalist, I get the opportunity to interview writers when they come through the area. I've interviewed Scott Card twice and Sharyn McCrumb several times. I post a lot of interviews on the Ghostwriter portion of my web site at www.hauntedcomputer.com/ghostwr.htm I got to meet many great writers at the 1999 World Horror Convention. And of course, the Writers of the Future workshop bring out a bunch of legends such as Jack Williamson, Tim Powers, Robert Silverberg, Jerry Pournelle, and more. Through the miracle of the Internet I've met a ton of other writers, most of whom are new like me, and it's a lot of fun to share that journey. Some of my best "friends," I've never even met.
Baryon: Are you going to hit the convention circuit any time soon?
Scott Nicholson: I attended a lot of panels at World Horror Con and got something of the flavor of the whole horror world. It's a lot more, well...normal than I would have thought. I was a guest at the last two StellarCons, though those are more oriented to gaming and media sci-fi than to authors and readers. I also do presentations at the Appalachian Writers Conference since it's in the region. I'm hoping to attend one of the biggies this year, either the World Fantasy Convention or Chicon. The only way I can justify the expense of Chicon is if I'm fortunate enough to make the final Campbell ballot. .
Baryon: Do you think Ebooks are a valid option to the printed book and would you publish there?
Scott Nicholson: My forthcoming story collection THANK YOU FOR THE FLOWERS will be released as a trade paperback in October. It will be published by a regional press, and I've had a free hand in cover design, layout, and the rest. I work at a newspaper, so I know people who can handle all those elements. Basically, I just give the publisher all the bills and the finished book. I don't know if I'd ever want to be that involved again, but it's been a great learning experience, all the way from rounding up blurbs to working with the cover artist. I think I understand why it takes one to two years to get a book from typewriter to bookstore, at least in traditional publishing. Now, of course, with the Web, you can publish it as you type it. I'm still reluctant to try to break in through e-books. I think it's a hard route right now, and the waters are muddied by some less-than-notable work. It may be easy for a writer to have a novel accepted, but then what? You still have to convince people to buy it, often without the face-to-face sales pitch you could use in physical bookstores. Print-on-demand seems to offer a more positive opportunity, but it's still in its infancy. That said, I am watching developments with great interest. Douglas Clegg has had remarkable success giving away e-serials while still protecting and even enhancing the commercial value of the books. Other established writers are trying the "free" route. I've given away a couple of stories to e-zines, and my publisher and I are considering releasing my collection as an e-book in the spring of 2001. I never say never, but I'm still trying the traditional career routes at this point.
Baryon: How does it feel to be a Campbell finalist?
Scott Nicholson: As of this writing, I don't know if I'm a finalist or not. I consider myself an extreme long shot. If I were lucky enough to make the final ballot, I would feel greatly honored, especially considering the high caliber of the competition and the list of past Campbell winners. I don't worry a whole lot about awards. Those are largely out of the writer's hands, and I've learned in life to only worry about the things that are in my control. That means, of course, more work, more rewriting, more persistence. Jim Van Pelt has done a fantastic job maintaining a Campbell Award web site. It's a great place for readers and fans to discover new writers. The site is at www.sff.net/campbell-awards. .
Baryon: Your next project is a horror anthology; do you prefer it to science fiction?
Scott Nicholson: Shhh, you just said the dirty word! Actually, THANK YOU FOR THE FLOWERS will be marketed as "suspense and imagination," since it is divided between fantasy, horror, and mystery. There is nothing in it that I would consider pure science fiction. It would be unfair to label it solely horror, though I certainly love to use ghosts in my stories. The difference is that my ghosts are just as likely to be the heroes as to merely serve as plot tropes. They're not always designed to scare, though if that happens to the reader, fine. To me, the mysteries of love, death, and faith, and the relationship between the three, are the most interesting things to write about. As one of my ghost characters says to a person who is about to commit suicide, "Hey, you can learn a lot about life from a dead guy." I still write some science fiction, I just haven't been as successful at selling it. That's okay. Every story is a learning experience, especially the failures. I'm still too busy working on the fundamentals of writing to worry about what types of stories I should focus on.
Baryon: You've had considerable success recently in placing your short fiction, and you've written a few as yet unpublished novels. What different disciplines are required for the short and long forms? And would you recommend new writers start with short stories to learn the craft?
Scott Nicholson: The fact that I've yet to sell a novel probably makes my advice somewhat dubious. But I believe if you want to be a professional fiction writer, it ultimately means writing and selling novels. I started a novel almost immediately after I decided I wanted to be a writer in 1996. I was working on short stories at the time, but having something that I could return to day after day really kept my seat in the saddle. That novel was pretty terrible, and I probably didn't learn much except endurance. I threw about three-fourths of it away and rewrote it. That's when I started feeling like I was getting somewhere. Even though the novel was still poor, it was better. I'm always working on a novel. I love having that world to escape to, that mental problem that must be solved. I've heard lots of different approaches to the novel vs. story debate. Some say master the story form, work your way diligently up through the small press into the big magazines, and then write a novel when people have noticed you. It does seem a more viable method in the field of science fiction than in other genres. But then you see most of the books that are on the shelves are by writers who have never written a short story. One thing I would never recommend is doodling away in notebooks all day long. To me, that doesn't teach you the discipline that the forms require. You might as well be sitting in a coffee shop and talking about writing, for all the good it will do you.
So I guess I would say try to write both stories and novels at the same time. And if you start a novel, finish it, even if it seems doomed from page fifty on. Fighting through those weak spots will be what makes the next novel stronger. Plus, if you've written a novel, you can have a lot of fun and learn about the business end of the publishing world by trying to market the thing. And when someone says, "Someday, I'm going to write a novel," you can smile smugly, though hopefully you will be secretive about it. At least until you sell one.
Baryon: What else do you have planned for future offerings?
Scott Nicholson: As usual, I have a novel out at a publisher and a different novel at an agency. I am rewriting a third novel while also developing it as a screenplay. I wrote that novel in 1998, and in my early rewriting I've already realized what glaring mistakes I made in the first several drafts. Hopefully, that means I've learned something since then. I have a story called "The Way of All Flesh" coming out in Altair #6 in August. "Scarecrow Boy" will be the lead story in Lore #10. "In The Heart Of November" will appear in a young adult anthology released by Tundra Books this fall. "Skin" will appear in the anthology NORTHERN HORROR, which I understand is a little behind schedule. "Constitution" will be reprinted in the Australian magazine Winedark Sea. "The Vampire Shortstop" will be reprinted in W.P. Kinsella's anthology BASEBALL FANTASTIC, due out this year. I have a couple of other reprints out on webzines. All told, I have four stories coming out in Canada and two in Australia this year. Now I'm setting my sights on England. I want to write another novel this year, and I also have a goal of writing at least a short story a month.
My plan is to write ten novels, and if I can't sell any of those, I'll take the hint. Overall, though, rejections don't matter that much to me. While I intend to eventually make a living at this crazy business, I'm not putting in my notice at the day job anytime soon. After all, baby needs a new pair of shoes.