Welcome to the one hundred and fortieth (woo hoo!) of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with mystery / thriller novelist and blogger Tom Szollosi. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the authors further.
Morgen: Hello, Tom. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Tom: I’m a Los Angeles native, and still live in the same town (unusual in this day and age).
Morgen: I can’t say I blame you though, it always looks lovely (and sunny!) when we see it on TV.
Tom: I began writing when I was quite young — I have a vivid memory of my first grade teacher, Mrs. Koyamatsu, walking across the playground with me and several other kids, telling me “Tom, you have a very vivid imagination. You should be a writer.” I don’t know what I’d said that prompted her to say that, but the suggestion really resonated in my underripe young head. I started writing my own versions of “The Hardy Boys” mysteries in longhand at my dad’s desk, and basically never stopped thinking of myself as a writer. Another thing that made the idea attractive to me is that ever since I was very young, I’ve been a stutterer. The idea of being able to sit down and write out what I was thinking was a great deal more to my liking than, say, improv comedy, y’know?
Morgen: I do, and how lucky were you to have a teacher like that. I can’t remember any of my teachers telling me I should be something (although I’m sure the careers teacher would have suggested something – I do know my physics teacher told my parents I should give up physics… which I gladly did at the first opportunity). What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Tom: As a novelist, I tend to gravitate toward mystery-thriller stuff, with an emphasis on what I know, which would include Los Angeles, Hollywood, etc., as a backdrop. I love stories where people are lying and shifty, full of surprising little turns and extremely selfish but understandable behaviour. In other words, reality.
Morgen: I like that… and yes, they make good characters don’t they.
Tom: I wrote television episodes and movies for years, so I’m comfortable with stories involving crime, desperation, and the other trappings of less than desirable (but great for stories!) human behaviour. I’ve done many genres as a screen writer, so there really isn’t an area I wouldn’t explore if I like the idea for the story or main character.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Tom: In 1988 I had a book out called “The Proving”, which was published by Doubleday. Oddly enough, since the rights have reverted to me, I’ve just finished getting it set up myself on Smashwords as an eBook.
Morgen: Well done. I’m just going through that process myself.
Tom: I also wrote a couple of books for the “Ravenous Romance” people, who publish your basic erotic material, but aimed at women, ostensibly. That wasn’t a very good experience, I’m afraid, and I felt as if I was wasting story material, which I really worked hard at, on an audience that didn’t care about it.
Morgen: Oh dear… I wonder if you could do something else with it.
Tom: Finally, recently I’ve self published an eBook I’m really proud of, my novel “The Space He Filled”, also through Smashwords — and by the time this interview is published, also available in soft cover on CreateSpace, which is a division of Amazon.
Morgen: Ooh great, do let me have the details, I could put them up on my books/other-peoples page. 🙂
Tom: Of course I’m still working on more books — at least two in the pipeline of my addled brain — as well as a television pilot called “Eldorado Crossing”, which is being shopped around to producers.
Morgen: Fingers crossed (let me know how you get on). How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Tom: As a self publisher, it’s pretty much up to me to do the marketing, which is new territory for someone used to having agents and managers in the screenwriting trade. Going through the blogosphere (mine is called “bloginafog”, and it’s made available via WordPress, should anyone be interested)…
Morgen: <cheers at the mention of “Wordpress”>
Tom: …and social media marketing such as Facebook and LinkedIn is still a learning process.
Morgen: Ah yes LinkedIn – I see you a lot there. 🙂
Tom: I do like interviews like this one, though.
Morgen: Ah thanks Tom, I do ask rather a lot of questions so I hope you’re still feeling like that by the end. 🙂 Back to your books, are they all available as eBooks? You mentioned briefly earlier on but what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Tom: My work is available on eBooks (even the erotica is, via http://www.ravenousromance.com). I find the eBook experience to be different and kind of fun. It’s too soon to tell if I’m emerging as a success at it, but I’m out there! I do read eBooks myself, yes, on my Kindle. I happen to think, by the way, that the eBook has saved literacy. People are gobbling them up, and therefore need stuff to read, both old and new, in this new model. It’s just about as important as Gutenberg, I think. They’re already outselling paperbacks! And the eBiz is still really in its infancy.
Morgen: Wow. I’d heard hardbacks but that’s amazing. I agree though it is getting people to read more and being a prospective eBook seller I’m all in favour. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Tom: My first acceptance was a weekly column in my High School student newspaper. It was a rush then, and still is. The television shows I’ve worked on (The A-Team, for instance) provided an ongoing thrill ride of amazing acceptance. With my then writing partner, Richard Christian Matheson, we experienced what it felt like to be on a number one show, which in those days probably had more viewers per week than have seen some Shakespeare plays live in the entire time since they were written! It was strange, heady, and utterly misleading! But it was fun.
Morgen: And hopefully still is. Speaking of fun, have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Tom: Anyone who’s written for more than five minutes has had rejection. I handle it pretty well, I think, but it hasn’t always been that way. I now observe the following rule: when I’m ready to let one of my babies go out into the big bad world, I have to be at the point where it’s been reworked and refined so much that if someone doesn’t like it, they’re just wrong. If you can really get to that, where you’ve given it your best shot and you really believe in it, rejection is simply a matter of different people, different opinions, and that’s what makes horse races, as someone once said.
Morgen: That’s a new one on me but I like it. You do seem pretty busy, what are you working on at the moment / next?
Tom: At the moment I’m making changes to my pilot (mentioned earlier). Next I’ll get back into the next novel, a book called “Fat Tuesday”, which is a nice, brutal little revenge story.
Morgen: Ooh hoo hoo, I do like the sound of that. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Tom: Sadly I do not get to it every day, but I try to. A great deal of time is eaten up by marketing (also see above) through electronic and other means. The most prose I’ve ever written in a day was about twenty-five pages (I know, I was in the zone), and the most screenplay pages was thirty. TV makes you fast, but you still have to go back and verify that everything you did came out in English as opposed to gobbledygook.
Morgen: That’s good going. I had to write 100 pages of script for Script Frenzy April 2010 and limped in at 102 (I didn’t enjoy the process – too bitty for me, give me prose any day, sorry Tom). Talking of struggling, what’s your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it?
Tom: Writer’s block, for me, is a rare event. Generally it’s because of something else in my life, and when that issue is worked out, the block goes away.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Tom: Both. Either. I’m very big on structure, so even if I’m just running with it I’m also thinking on a whole other level about how the story’s arc is shaping up and wondering what I’ve overlooked, forgotten, etc.
Morgen: You’re a better man than me (if you see what I mean). I probably don’t think enough but just splurge it then fine-comb it afterwards. We mentioned characters earlier, do you have a method for creating yours, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Tom: I just want them to feel like actual people. What I think makes them believable is their psychological background. In other words, what’s the hidden damage that rules their lives? What event or trauma is actually running things when they wake up in the morning, and influences what they’re thinking and doing the moment they walk into what I’m writing? When you know that, you know your character in terms of what he / she would or wouldn’t say or do.
Morgen: I agree. I think even if you’re writing a short story you should know a lot about your character, more than the story needs, but then you get inside their heads, literally. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Tom: Two or three very close writer friends. I know they’ll be honest because they understand that saying “Gee whiz, it’s really great, Tom!” is basically useless to the process, because you’re never really done until you just can’t stand to look at it anymore, AND you’ve reached the “if they don’t like it, they’re just wrong” stage.
Morgen: But having a family member (I won’t say which one but it isn’t my brother) calling something “horrible” doesn’t help either… I’m just more selective with what I share now, but my editor gets everything intended for eBooks (sales or freebies) and she pulls it apart so she’s invaluable. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Tom: It’s more fully formed, and yet I do a ton of editing. Smoothing and cutting, mainly, unless I decide the whole concept for a scene or story point was off and I have to completely rework it.
Morgen: Ouch. How much research do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?
Tom: Research depends upon subject. Any time you can have specificity in your narrative, it’s great. So you either go digging or you’re writing about something you’re pretty familiar with, so the “research” is conducted inside your own skull. Feedback was at its most interesting after my ex partner, Richard, and I wrote a film called 3O’Clock High, in 1988. The movie was not a commercial bulldozer by any means, but it has developed an almost cult-like following over the years. I have people tell me that they’ve seen it twenty-five times, which is a great deal more than I have! My advice to them is generally, “That’s great, but have you considered getting a life?”
Morgen: 🙂 What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Tom: I like to leave it up to the ol’ subconscious. That’s the best way, for me, to have spontaneity in the work, although I’ve done preparation usually via outlining (which can be as simple as a “beat sheet” of one line summaries of what happens in each scene). Before sitting down to write, a great deal of coffee happens, along with letting the dog out.
Morgen: Mine tends to want to sit on my lap so it’s just as well I have long arms. 🙂 Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Tom: Computer. Paper is just dead tree, isn’t it?
Morgen: Ooh… don’t let any authors hear you say that! Or authors who like books anyway. 🙂
Tom: And making changes is light years faster on a computer. When I first started, I wrote on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and one mistake, mid-page, was my own personal horror movie.
Morgen: Try a manual typewriter that literally ate your fingers every wrong move. 🙂 And I had to learn on it at secretarial college… with carbon paper and no Tippex! Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Tom: It varies. I’ve done all of the above at various times, with the music ranging from ear-splitting to non-existent. Most often, lately, I’ll take silence with distant ambient noise, like whatever’s going on in my house at the time. Like as I write this answer, I can hear my son playing songs by Adele, but I’m not really listening to it.
Morgen: Adele’s often on my list too but becomes white noise (sorry Adele) after a while, although I tend to go for classical if I’m writing writing. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Tom: Third person has been my weapon of choice so far, and I’m pretty comfortable with it.
Morgen: It does tend to be the most popular (certainly with agents etc). Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Tom: I use them if I need them. I really don’t care whether I do or not, or if anyone else does, because they’re just one more tool in the belt — if you need to “tee up” or sum up the story, great.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Tom: Oh God, yes. But it’s all process, all moving toward the next thing that will see the light of day. So eventually, the experience of writing even the bad stuff contributes to the better stuff.
Morgen: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Tom: My favorite (American spelling)…
Morgen: That’s OK, this is an international blog. An editor would prefer your spelling actually, one less character. 🙂
Tom: …is the rush of getting something right, something that surprises me. When the characters start talking and doing things “on their own”, because it’s a logical outgrowth of who I’ve set them up to be, it’s time to break out the champagne. My least favorite aspect of the writing life is the feeling of having left my family to fend for themselves far too much of the time. It’s unavoidable, but I hate it. And so, I think, do they!
Morgen: Oh dear… I’m lucky in that I only have a dog to ignore and he soon reminds me (usually with the loudest toy in his box). You just mentioned being surprised, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Tom: How little other people know about it, understand about it, or, frankly, even bother to think about it. When they ask what you do for a living and you say you’re a writer, there’s this blank moment where you can almost hear them thinking “what the hell kind of a job is that?”
Morgen: Ah well, I’m lucky in that… so far anyway, everyone I know can’t wait until I make a living at it (nor can I). 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Tom: Get enough sleep…
Morgen: Sleep? Oh that rectangular thing in the room next door. Oh yes, we used to be friends once. 🙂
Tom: …trust your instincts, and learn structure. It’s the only thing, other than grammar, that you can really teach about writing. Talent can’t be taught. Wit, ditto. But structure lets a writer have some craft to lean on, and that craft is what liberates the artist sleeping inside.
Morgen: What do you like to read?
Tom: I love Elmore Leonard, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and John D. MacDonald. I also love a writer named Carlos Ruiz Zafron, who wrote “The Shadow of The Wind”, a fantastic novel, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” gives him the permanent keys to the executive washroom of magical realism.
Morgen: I’ve heard very good things about those but not read them myself. <slaps wrist> What do you do when you’re not writing?
Tom: I love baseball and spend a great deal of time fretting over my favorite team, the LA Dodgers. It’s like being hooked on bad dope, but I’ve been addicted since childhood. I also try to socialize, because you can get awfully hermetic doing this.
Morgen: I love hermeticity, I could so do that for a living. 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Tom: There’s a chat group on LinkedIn about how writers can self-promote that I find to be the most valuable resource for someone in my particular situation.
Ah yes, I think that’s how we ‘met’. 🙂
Tom: All the writing books out there have something to offer, but the two best in my opinion are “The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri, and “Making A Good Script Great” by Linda Seger (almost all her advice is equally applicable to fiction).
Morgen: Ooh I don’t know those. I have a couple on scriptwriting (Richard McKee’s ‘Story’ and Christopher Vogler’s ‘The Writers’ Journey’). You said at the beginning of this interview that you’re based in Los Angeles, do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Tom: I have no idea if it helps or hinders. It’s a huge market and a huge field of competitors.
Morgen: True, I guess we just have to keep going. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Oh, you’re very welcome Tom. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Tom: Work, hopefully.
Morgen: That’s all we can ask for. 🙂 Thanks very much Tom. Lovely to ‘meet’ you again.
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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