Welcome to the fifty-sixth of my blog interviews with novelists, short story authors, poets, directors, bloggers, scriptwriters, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with author of speculative/alternative history/science fiction Stoney Compton. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello, Stoney. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Stoney: From my earliest memories I have been fascinated by graphic images. I vividly remember trying to draw a truck when I was in kindergarten and being absolutely pissed that it didn’t look right.
Morgen: An early perfectionist.
Stoney: The only classes I really liked in high school were art and American history. After an enlistment in the Navy I went to college and majored in Art and American History and Education. Minored in anthropology and sociology. While working on a second degree I was offered a job with the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks (I was going to college at the University of Alaska, Anchorage) to create a comic book for Athabascan teens that touted careers in the health fields. The job lasted two years (they kept me on after the comic was finished) and became an in-depth saturation in another culture. I loved it. Fast forward a decade or so and I was in Juneau supporting a wife and two kids doing freelance graphics and doing fine art in my downtown studio (my ex-wife also had a steady job with benefits which helped a lot!). Alaska ran into a down period in its perpetual boom-and-bust cycles and my freelance contracts all dried up within a 48 hour period.
Stoney: I had to give up the studio and move my etching press and painting gear into a closet in the three-bedroom house we shared with a sister-in-law and her daughter. All graphics work vanished. Since my then-wife and sister-in-law both had jobs, I became the care giver for my toddler son and niece. With no creative outlet I rapidly went feral.
Morgen: Oh dear.
Stoney: Then I came across the Writer’s of the Future, Volume 1 anthology. After reading all the stories and understanding it was a contest I decided, “Hell I can write this good!” So I started writing. I entered the WOTF contest at least eight times. I received an Honourable Mention and an excellent critique from A.J. Budrys. I rewrote Whalesong and sent it back – only to find that once rejected they wouldn’t look at the same story again.
Morgen: That does happen.
Stoney: So I submitted it to Robert Silverberg for his UNIVERSE 1 anthology and he accepted it.
Morgen: Even I’ve heard of him. The closest I get to fantasy is… no, maybe not, this is a family ‘show’.
Stoney: My very first fiction sale!
Stoney: I finally came in second in the 4th quarter of the 1993 WOTF contest. Eric Flint took first prize.
Morgen: What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Stoney: I write speculative fiction / alternative history / science fiction mostly. I also wrote a mammoth historical fiction novel that has been turned down by over 100 agents due to its length. So I am going to self-publish it.
Morgen: Did you try John Jarrold here in the UK? (http://www.johnjarrold.co.uk “Literary agent specialising in genre fiction, script doctor and freelance editor”) He’s actively looking (although fussy) as was at the Verulam Writers’ Circle’s Get Writing Conference both times I’ve been there (Feb 2010 / 2011).What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Stoney: Russian Amerika came out in April 2007, and the sequel, Alaska Republik came out in February 2011. I was working in Bellevue, Washington when Russian Amerika came out and I kept going to the Barnes & Noble down the block from my office looking for it on the shelves. Finally I asked about it and they said I could buy a copy and they would get it for me. I got rather pissy with them and stormed out. I wrote a letter to the manager and then I received a call from their advertising manager. It finally ended up with them putting the book on their shelves and doing a book signing on our office boardroom. About two weeks after that an artist friend emailed me that her husband saw it in an airport bookstore, which really made my day.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Stoney: I am a bit of a tyro when it comes to marketing. I just designed bookmarks for my historical novel (Treadwell, A Novel of Alaska Territory) and had a thousand printed up. I attended the Historical Novel Society annual conference in San Diego, California in mid June. Next year it will be in London and I would love to attend! I was on an alternate history panel with Harry Turtledove, Ann Chamberlain, and Christopher Cevasco. Great fun. I have also attended dozens of science fiction conferences as a “pro” and panellist.
Morgen: I bet that was fun.
Stoney: Beyond that I carefully tout my work on Facebook (but not too avidly – it turns people off), address any audience possible and get the odd interview here and there. I know I need to do more, but I still have a day job with an impossible commute, so I tend to write in my spare time.
Morgen: You have some? Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Stoney: As mentioned earlier, I was a winner in the Writers of the Future contest. That was an absolute blast as they brought us all to Hollywood, California for a week-long writer’s workshop reminiscent of Navy Recruit Training.
Morgen: They taught you writing in the Navy?
Stoney: We met a lot of people in the field and Frederick Pohl gave me my framed award. Very giddy.
Morgen: I would be too (I dated a guy who was a big fan of his, and Larry Niven, Arthur C Clarke etc).
Stoney: Sean Williams from Australia was also in our group as was Elizabeth Wien. And, of course, Eric Flint.
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Stoney: No. I have queried over 140 agents for one of my four manuscripts I am still flogging. My work doesn’t seem to suit. As I said earlier, I am going to self publish my historical novel and am seriously considering doing the same with two science fiction works and an adventure story. From what I can gather agents are mostly interested in large advances and contracts with large publishers.
Morgen: And I’d say especially more so these days.
Stoney: With publishing changing and the advent of eBooks and Print On Demand services available, a writer can now get 40% or more of the cover price and in the long run it’s royalties that count. Why should I give away 15 or 20% to an agent?
Morgen: Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Stoney: Both of my novels were published by Baen Books who was one of the first, if not the very first, publisher to offer eBooks to the public. My royalties include electronic sales. So far I only read printed books, and have an extensive library which I have shipped from Alaska to Colorado to Washington state to Nevada. It’s a good thing I love them so much.
Morgen: Wow. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Stoney: It was one of the happiest moments of my life. And yes, it is still a thrill to have an ms accepted. Now I preparing to put my work out there on my own hook (Pullo Pup Publishing is my legally registered business) and acceptance or rejection will be on a daily basis by people who read. Stay tuned.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Stoney: Hundreds. I used to save them to perhaps paper the wall in my bathroom but decided I didn’t need the negative reinforcement, especially in there. Now I just shrug. Having said that, I only send off odd things now, like flash fiction or contest entries. No novels – I’ll publish them myself.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Stoney: I have been preparing Treadwell for publication. The Treadwell complex was four mines on Douglas Island, across Gastineau Channel from Juneau. The gold ore ran beneath the salt water channel to a depth of 2,700’ and was the most modern, cutting edge hard rock gold mine in the world. It caved in two weeks after the US entered WWI, and a week after a serial killer escaped jail. I decided the three events were connected, threw in a German saboteur and fictionalized the life of the Pinkerton agent who tied up the case on the (also German) serial killer.
Stoney: I told you all that in order to say this; I have used about 50 period photographs of the area and the mines to add verisimilitude. I am waiting to receive permission (and the inherent bills) from the Alaska State Library and the University of Washington Library Special Collections. In the meantime I am teaching myself InDesign as I format the POD version. I plan to publish in POD and various versions of eBooks at the same time. I had been putting the finishing touches on a sf ms, Level Six, which starts with an archaeological dig on an alien planet about 2,000 years from now. Since I put it on hold to prepare Treadwell, I have used spare time at work to put together an outline for a sequel to Level Six. The outline is now finished and when I finish this interview I will go back to work on both of them.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Stoney: I work on writing every day in some manner. Sometimes it is research and right now it is mastering InDesign. I think the most I ever wrote in a 24 hour period was 3,500 words. On one holiday (3-day) weekend I managed 9,000 words. I love it when the words flow like that.
Morgen: Oh me too, I’m fortunate that I’ve been a secretary for 20+ years so can type quickly. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Stoney: I don’t get writer’s block per se. I’ll hit a point where I’m not sure what happens next and just stop on that story and work on a different one. I think people who suffer writer’s block are obsessed with one story at a time and therefore have a far too narrow focus that stifles their creativity. Most of them can’t help it. Beer also helps.
Morgen: Southern Comfort or Bailey’s in my case. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Stoney: Until plotting out Return to Kiana, the sequel to Level Six, I had just taken an idea (Level Six started out as a dream) and ran with it. That’s probably why I write two to four things at a time. The plots are always milling about in the back of my brain and when I hit dry spot on A I just go back to B and take off because by then I have figured out the next scene.
Morgen: This is what most of my interviewees do and it clearly works. How do you create your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Stoney: Usually I have a good idea of my protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses, but all of my characters evolve as I go through the process. Often I Tuckerize friends or people I served with in the Navy, or worked with. Most of my antagonists are named for people I don’t like or something close enough to their name that they will recognize it (assuming they ever read the novel) as will others who worked with us. The bottom line here is: NEVER piss off a writer! I try to give my characters distinct personalities as well as aberrations.
Morgen: I like that. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Stoney: My wife, Colette. She has a theatre, dance, and choreography background and she is an excellent critic. More than once she has suggested plot changes, new characters, or character adjustments that were spot on. I’m lucky to have her in my life.
Morgen: I hope she reads this. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Stoney: Having a day job with an insane commute gives me time to think about my work on a number of levels. Part of my job at the 6th Combat Training Squadron, Nellis AFB, Nevada is operating a control booth for classes taught in a large auditorium. All of the presentations are PowerPoint and some have embedded videos. When a video comes up I kill the lights in the auditorium and bring them up again when the video finishes. Some classes have up to 20 videos; some have none. But I need to be in the booth when the class is over and I bring up the next class on the syllabus. So I sit there between videos and outline stories or read history books for research. By the time I drive the 50 miles back to the house I know what I want to write. I eagerly anticipate the day I can quit my day job and only write for a living. I think that might be sooner rather than later.
Morgen: That sounds great. I have a job where it’s manic or quiet so I do writing-related stuff in the latter, making up for missed lunch breaks in the former. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Stoney: Mostly outline on paper, sometimes I write out whole scenes in longhand. But when I compose the ms it is on a Macintosh computer. I’m a hardcore Mac bigot.
Morgen: I’ve been a Mac user since June 2010 and although it has its quirks, I wouldn’t go back. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Stoney: I change the POV in every chapter, moving through the cast of characters as I build the story. I use third person almost exclusively with the rare exceptions of dropping an omniscient line here and there. He had no idea how important this act would be later.
Morgen: This reminds me of, probably my favourite, film ‘Stranger than Fiction’, who most people have never heard of (despite it having Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Queen Latifah etc) but I could watch in a loop.
Stoney: Writing in the first person is something I reserve for my “literary” works, which are exclusively short stories that mostly I’ve never submitted. Writing in the second person seems smarmy, too in-your-face for the reader. Some people have used it to great effect. I don’t think I would be one of them.
Morgen: I think it works for short pieces Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Stoney: Oh yes! Sometimes when I think my current work is too pedestrian I look at one of those early manuscripts (dot matrix printing and all!) and shudder. That early crap keeps me honest. I think I have electronic copies of everything I’ve written since 1987 and paper copies of the things I wrote prior to that. (Which isn’t much.) One of my writer friends told me the first million words you write should be consigned to the trash immediately as it is all garbage. I can’t argue with that sentiment.
Morgen: I think it was Ernest Hemmingway who said that you get good when you write your first million (I’m there or not long past).
Stoney: But I keep the work anyway, it’s like mine tailings; there still might be some gold in there.
Morgen: Absolutely, I think it’s a pity if anyone deletes / shreds their unique work regardless of how bad they think it is at the time. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Stoney: I love writing, especially when the words and ideas flow and I can go for hours. The least favourite aspect is lack of enough time.
Morgen: If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Stoney: How much it means to me on a personal, emotional level. Once I started writing I embraced my sense of self as writer and reinforced it in any manner possible. The last vehicle license plate I had in Alaska was a personalized plate that read: NOVLST. My current Nevada plate reads: SFWRITR.
Morgen: You’re lucky. UK plates are more regimented and those that spell something; the closest we’d get is probably WR51TER would legally have to be spaced properly e.g. WR51 TER which kind of loses them impact, although many personalised reg car owners ‘forget’ that little detail.
Stoney: When I meet someone for the first time and they ask me what I do, I always say “writer” first and then talk about my day job. Another surprise was how many people are fascinated at meeting a “real” writer. I think it’s a desire that all literate people have somewhere in their psyche and meeting a writer reinforces the validity of that desire. I could be wrong.
Morgen: I don’t think you are. They say we all have a book inside them but some of us just act on it. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Stoney: Write. Write about what excites you – if you know nothing about it, do the research. Write. Believe in yourself. Write. Embrace rejection or you will never enjoy success. Learn that a good, honest critique is like gold – you know what you want to say, but is your reader hearing the same thing? Understand that when someone criticizes your writing, they are not dissing you, they’re telling you something about your story that you can fix. Develop a very thick hide. As long as they spell your name right, reviews don’t mean anything. Write. Rewrite. Persevere – if you give up you’re just another failed writer.
Morgen: Absolutely. I can’t imagine doing anything else now, even if I’m never published again (although I feel, and am hoping, that I’m only just getting warmed up). What do you like to read?
Stoney: History, historical fiction, adventure, science fiction, speculative fiction, biography, the occasional mystery and western (James Warner Bellah was a genius!), and a good amount of literary fiction. There is just so much fine work out there it is hard to find time to do it all justice.
Morgen: Yep. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Stoney: I’ve become addicted to LinkedIn.com “What’s the best way for writers to promote themselves?” I rarely add anything, mostly lurk. My writing-related web reading all depends on what I am doing at the moment. I try not to go haring off through the web but sometimes it can’t be helped if my curiosity is whetted.
Morgen: I’m pretty much the same. I respond if I feel I can contribute to the email comments as they come in, and occasionally start my own thread. In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Stoney: I am in the United States. So far touting my work hasn’t been a problem. Of course I’m reined in at the moment waiting for the legal rights to images before I start shamelessly pushing Treadwell down everyone’s throat.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Stoney: Pretty much just LinkedIn.com which has elicited some very good information. I am educating myself about eBook publishing so I need all the help I can get.
Morgen: Me too. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Stoney: My website, http://stoneycompton.com is the only thing I have out there at the moment. It was put together with one of those plug and play sites. I also need to learn DreamWeaver. Being a graphics person, I know how I want the site to look and it’s not there yet.
Morgen: It looks pretty good to me; clear and simple. Some sites try too hard and then take too long to load so a viewer moves on. I used to use DreamWeaver and got on well with it (although I tended to type the html and then check it in DreamWeaver – I’ve forgotten most of it now). The software I use for my website is pretty rubbish (free with the hosting of it) so I’m pulling most of the content over to the blog and leaving links on it where I can. I find the advantage of a website over a blog is that the content is more static but if I had to give up one, there’d be no contest.
Stoney: I did an interview with Baen.com about Russian Amerika a few years ago. Toni conducted a nice interview.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Stoney: It depends on the writer, of course. I choose to believe that the future holds good things for this writer. I am very excited about the projects I have under way and I’m not about to give up and go back to painting. (Although I do keep seeing landscapes just begging for a canvas.)
Morgen: Me too. I have canvasses in the loft although most of my drawing is just that; pencils over paints any day. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Stoney: Just this shameless plug: Treadwell, a Novel of Alaska Territory is the first volume in the Gastineau Channel Quartet. The years covered are 1915 to 1917. Thane, The Assassination of Warren G. Harding covers 1921 to 1923 (Thane was another gold mine – there were over a hundred operating gold mines in a fifty mile radius back then), Douglas, The Great Fire is set in 1935 to 1937, and the final volume, Juneau, The Plot to Kill FDR covers 1942 to 1945. There will be reoccurring characters as well as lots of new ones. (I will totally understand if you edit out the last response.)
Morgen: Not at all. Be as shameless as you like… letting people know what you’re doing is partly why you’re here.
Stoney: Oh and to say that I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to be on your blog. You’re incredibly industrious!
Morgen: Well thank you very much (and you’re welcome). You’re not exactly a couch potato!
UPDATE: I picked up ‘Russian Amerika’ recently (yes, in the UK!) and although it’s not my normal genre it’s good to read different work isn’t it? I’ll let you know what I think. :)
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
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