Welcome to the sixty-ninth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre author Benjamin Gorman. 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 Benjamin. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Ben: Well, the simple story goes something like this: Boy moves from San Diego to Cincinnati during eighth grade. He does not adjust well, and decides to hide in books.
Morgen: That was me when I was younger (Stephen King)… only I wasn’t a boy… obviously… or Stephen King (he’s what I read back then… a lot).
Ben: When his English teacher assigns a short story, he turns in the first 60 pages of a novel and decides he could write the books he loves to read. He spends the next 20 years learning that the quantity of prose does not equal quality, and studying how to craft the kinds of books he enjoyed escaping in so much. That’s the simple story. But then, simple stories are all-too-often deceptively simple stories. A more honest version of how I came to be a writer would require my whole autobiography, because I’m not just a writer (I’m a husband, a father, a son, a high school English teacher) but almost every part of who I am is intimately connected to writing.
Morgen: Me too. Live and breathe. (Ben’s on the right in the above picture by the way… started young hasn’t he :)). OK, only kidding.
Ben: The connection to my job is pretty straightforward. The love letters I exchanged with the woman who would become my wife are a little less obvious, but certainly relate the two. The fact that my mom was taking dictation for my earliest stories really makes a lie of the simple version of the story.
Morgen: Oh but I like that idea. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Ben: My first completed novels were Sci-Fi. Then I tried and failed at horror. Then I had some really bad luck: I wrote a book about some Old Testament miracles taking place in the modern day and being covered up by the government. I finished it right before 9/11, and afterward it would have read like a crazy conspiracy-theorist defence of the 9/11 hijackers. Disheartened, I went to what I knew; since I teach high school kids, I wrote a couple YA novels. My most recent novel is commercial fiction for adults, and I’m really proud of it. It’s been very well received by both friends and strangers on authonomy.com (a site where you can get feedback and try to move your way up onto the desks of the editors of HarperCollins) and I hope I can get an agent and some editors to share in my excitement and put the book in front of some eyeballs.
Morgen: Oh great! I have a couple of things on authonomy but haven’t put in so am not getting out and I now have different plans for the things I put on there (note to self: pull stuff on authonomy). What have you had published to-date?
Ben: So far, I’ve only had a couple short stories published, which is frustrating because short stories really aren’t my strength. I still have the copy of the literary journal from my university somewhere, and I was pretty excited to see my words in print, but now short stories are a means to get my name out there to try and get my novels published.
Morgen: Absolutely. I’ve gone full circle. Success with short stories then wrote novels but my heart was in the shorts (and I’m told it’s what I’m best at) so after a few agent rejections (a dozen) I’m converting aforementioned novel into a connected anthology and the short story into one of a themed anthology. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Ben: I’ve completely bought into the idea that branding is best done when it seems unintentional. I tweet frequently (http://twitter.com/teachergorman) and blog (http://unapologetic-conjecture.blogspot.com) but I don’t use them to push my writing as a product. Instead, I want to enjoy those media and produce something that readers enjoy. Then, if that magical day arrives, I’ll be able to say, “Um, by the way, the book drops on X date and you can pre-order on Amazon now,” without coming across as a total hack. I’m also trying to connect with other writers and folks in the industry, not just because I want to get an agent and a contract, but because I still have a lot to learn about how this industry works, how it’s changing, and the writing craft itself.
Morgen: That’s exactly what I’m doing. At the moment it’s 100% useful / interesting information 0% something to sell but when I have something it’ll be no more than 90% info and 10% sell – there’s nothing more off-putting than someone who has nothing to say but where to buy their stuff (and why a lot of people de-follow on Twitter). From what you say I assume you don’t have an agent just yet. Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Ben: I am interested in finding an agent. I follow a handful on Twitter and on their blogs, and one thing I’ve learned is that they have very complicated, difficult jobs navigating the ins and outs of an industry I don’t fully understand. I know a lot of writers want to go it alone, but I just don’t see the upside of holding onto 15% of nothing.
Morgen: It’s great to have both options. Some of the other interviewees have tried the agent route and are going it alone (probably with the hope of still being picked up – Amanda Hocking being an inspiration). What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Ben: I love acceptances! Whether it’s a short story or a request for a partial or a blog interview…
Ben: …I feel like celebrating. When I was starting out as a teacher and got to know a few burn-outs, I made my wife promise me that if I ever lost my love for the job she would force me to quit rather than teaching poorly for a paycheck. Luckily, that hasn’t happened. I love teaching. I think that same kind of vow should be made by writers. If I ever get to the point where I’m no longer excited about the chance to connect with readers, I should be forced to quit and take up something more solitary like… What’s more solitary than writing? Lighthouse operator? Death row inmate? Writers who aren’t excited about being read should probably be try one of those two professions.
Morgen: When writing I’d say there’s nothing more technically solitary than writing (lighthouse operators have the seagulls and inmates have each other) but then we have our characters so we’re probably as accompanied as… teachers? Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Ben: I’ve received lots of rejection letters over the years. Though sometimes curt, they’re always polite and generally have a “it’s not you, it’s me” vibe, but receiving them is never pleasant. I remind myself that there’s a guaranteed way to prevent rejection: Write something so good they can’t say no. Then I get back to work.
Morgen: Speaking of which, what are you working on at the moment / next?
Ben: Now I’m working on (and really enjoying) a dystopia for adults about the aftermath of a second American civil war. It’s dark and violent and heart-wrenching, and I think the reader will care deeply about what happens to Cassie, one of my first female protagonists. I’m also about halfway through a YA retelling of Don Quixote. I set in a modern high school and flipped the genders of all the characters. There’s still quite a bit of humor, but the source material, in our post-Freudian world, takes on a much darker tone because insanity isn’t something to be laughed at, but pitied. I think both of those have promise.
Morgen: They certainly sound like it. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Ben: I write every day, but I don’t get to write fiction every day.
Morgen: Writing is still practice. 🙂
Ben: I try to teach my students that all writing, whether it’s email or Facebook or Twitter, is a chance to practice and hone their skills.
Morgen: Great minds think alike.
Ben: I remind myself of that when I don’t get a chance to work on my novels. My wife has given me a great gift in that she values my writing and lets me sleep in on the weekends, so on Friday and Saturday nights I can write from dusk ‘til dawn.
Morgen: Wow. I just live with a dog and I’m pretty sure he’d let me do the same if it wasn’t for my body clock… 6am regardless. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Ben: Writer’s block is a real affliction. Anybody who’s ever stared at a blank computer screen for an hour knows that to be true. But it’s curable. I’ve learned some tricks. I’ve tried free-writing, sometimes even gibberish a la Jack Torrence in The Shining.
Morgen: Ah, yes, classic Stephen King.
Ben: I’ve had better luck just switching to other projects. There’s always something that needs editing, and sometimes the gloom that sets in when you can’t write can be turned into the kind of critical eye needed for catching that clunky sentence that slipped through. A bigger challenge than traditional writer’s block is distraction. It’s too easy to flip over to email or Facebook when the going gets tough. I try to go through my email before I write to take care of that temptation, then remind myself that Facebook and Twitter can wait until I’m finished.
Morgen: I do that, but don’t set a time limit and all of a sudden it’s midnight and beyond. 🙂 Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Ben: I’ve done both. Plotting is a good remedy for writer’s block, too. When I can’t figure out how to make one chapter work, I can spend some time on the plot outline, and sometimes that solves the problem. Some of my novels have grown very organically, but I find that I have to do more revision afterwards if I didn’t plot them out beforehand.
Morgen: And I guess it depends on the story and how much the characters take over. Speaking of which, how do you create your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Ben: I use books of baby names (and baby name websites, now) for first names, then look through the lists of the most common surnames by country to find names that seem to fit my characters. As for their other characteristics, I make lists and remind myself that I need to know the characters better than my readers do, so I make a point to produce more information about them than will ever get into the book.
Morgen: I should do something like that more often. I’m fixated on the name Elliot at the moment and would call all my male characters that if I could (and have my female characters with that surname; possibly stems from an old school friend who does). Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Ben: That’s been a challenge, actually. I write with my wife in mind, but she’ll be the first to admit that she doesn’t give very good feedback. She knows that her opinion is too important to me for her to be the one who is brutally honest. My best readers were my students. When I was writing YA novels I’d give them to my Creative Writing students, a chapter at a time, and let them tear them up. It was editing practice for them, and I tried to model how to take criticism. They made those books a lot better, then gave me a lot of encouragement to get them published.
Morgen: Groups are great for mixed feedback as I often find that one person will dislike something and say a reason you’d not thought of (but then it can also get tricky if someone else loves it) and if you can target it to the right age group that’s even better. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Ben: I edit. And edit. And edit.
Morgen: You should write humour. 🙂 What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Ben: I wait until my wife and son are asleep, finish email and anything related to work, then put on some music and start hammering away. I take a break every couple of hours, and if it gets light out I know that the quality of the writing has probably diminished to the point where I should go to sleep.
Morgen: But at least it’s down there. You can always edit it when you’re more compos mentis. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Ben: I write everything on the computer. My handwriting is terrible, and I just can’t write as quickly as I want to, which frustrates me as I try to get ideas out onto the page. It’s dangerous to write on a device that’s plugged in to the internet. There are so many distractions floating around in that evil cloud. I’ve read about writers who unplug their computers from the internet and shut off their Wi-Fi to avoid that, but I love the immediacy of the research at my fingertips.
Morgen: Oh me too (latest example was checking the spelling of ‘compos mentis’; I didn’t get it right!).
Ben: I look at maps, find quotes, check facts, even use online translation when I need something in another language, and it’s great to have all that so readily available. It’s an issue of discipline. I completely understand why people want to stay away from their computers as they compose, but that doesn’t work for me.
Morgen: And it sounds like you enjoy the researching aspect… it’s not my favourite although I do love the internet. You mentioned music earlier, what sort of music do you listen to when you write?
Ben: I need to know the lyrics backwards and forwards, so that they don’t distract me. I’m not a big fan of instrumental music. I’m a words guy, after all. Plus, I like to sing along with the music. Sometimes I even sing while I write. But it has to be something I can sing without thinking about the lyrics anymore. That means I’m more inclined to listen to that U2 song I’ve been listening to since I was a kid than the new State Radio song I just bought on iTunes, even if I like the State Radio song better.
Morgen: I don’t think we have that over here. Presumably your family are light sleepers or you have a big house. 🙂 What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Ben: I’ve tried 1st, 3rd omniscient, and 3rd limited, and I tend toward the latter. It allows me to give some description of the character but stay very close to them. I’ve written a couple novels where chapters stay with one character, but the book jumps from one to the next. I find that gives the characters more depth than a more distant narrative voice, and makes the reader sympathetic to their conflicting motives. A great revision exercise is to take something and write it from a different perspective. I use that to see if I’m choosing the most effective perspective for the story.
Morgen: I’ve set that sometimes in our workshops. It’s surprising what a difference it makes. Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Ben: I used to use prologues and epilogues, but I found that I tended not to like them in books I read, so I’ve abandoned them. Prologues can work as hooks, but they often left me feeling teased. Epilogues, in my own writing, were spaces where I answered too many questions, tied things up with too neat a bow. Now I often find my hook by cutting to it, and find a stronger ending by cutting away too much resolution.
Morgen: I always thought I’d stay clear of them but used a prologue in novel 2 because I thought I needed it. I’ve since reanalysed it and thanks to one of my writing group (during our recent 3-hour drive to Winchester Writers Conference) I’m taking out some of the coincidences (there were too many), thereby losing a thread of the story which will probably mean it ends up as a eBook novella. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Ben: Oh, I certainly hope so! I’d love to write something so good that someone would be inclined to look into my past writing, but I think all they’d find is that I used to really suck and I’ve been working hard for years to get better. I don’t think that would be any great revelation to anyone.
Morgen: Unless you go back to it with a practiced mind and realise that it wasn’t that bad and did something with it. 🙂 What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Ben: As an unpublished author, my biggest frustration is that people aren’t reading my work. I have fantasies about fame and fortune like everybody else, but those really are more related to my mortgage payment than my writing. As I writer, I really want to be in communication with readers, both through the work and about the work.
Morgen: Hopefully this will be a help a little. It is a lot of work getting your name out there but if you can do it alongside your writing then it’ll be worth it when you have something published… and have an audience to see it… and you’ll hopefully have fun in the process. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Ben: I’ve experienced a handful of those moments where I reread a bit of my own writing and am surprised by how much it affects me, as though the words came from somewhere else.
Morgen: I know, doesn’t it, especially if you’ve left it a while. It’s great going back to something and forgetting that you’ve written something so great (or so dire, but then you just tweak it until it’s great).
Ben: A psychologist named Csíkszentmihályi coined the term “flow” for that state of complete immersion in, and perfect focus on, a project. When I’m in that state, sometimes I feel that the story is being told to me. When I was younger, so much of my focus was on writing a lot of words, and in that state of flow I’d produce thirty or forty pages at a stretch without getting up from my chair. Now I place a lot more emphasis on quality over quantity, so when I achieve that state I occasionally come back to the work and am surprised by a particular sentence or turn of phrase.
Morgen: Definitely quality over quantity. Even in a novel every word counts (especially so in something short). If a paragraph or section can be removed without altering the rest of the story then it can go (or perhaps be used elsewhere :)). What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Ben: I start out my Creative Writing classes by talking about the difference between Art and Craft. Art may have some intangible, ineffable aesthetic quality that’s beyond our conscious control, but I would tell any aspiring writer to focus on the craft of writing. That’s what we can control, and that’s where our energy pays off.
Morgen: Practice, practice, practice. What do you like to read?
Ben: I just finished Blood Meridian. I love Cormac McCarthy’s work. As good as Blood Meridian was, I think The Road is my favourite novel of all time. But my tastes are varied. This summer I’ve also read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars trilogy, and reread The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I also went back to some old-school YA, Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and found that it has a lot to teach a modern YA writer. I know I’m not the first to say so, but YA is still underappreciated, and I think the cross-over appeal to adults hasn’t been maxed-out.
Morgen: I love Douglas Adams’ sense of humour. “Brain the size of a planet…” and all that. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Ben: Podcasts are great. There are some good ones where writers are interviewed, but one of my favorites is Slate’s Audio Book Club. As a listener, you feel like a fly on the wall in a good book club where some very smart people describe what works and doesn’t work for them as readers. That’s helpful information for any writer.
Morgen: Listening to podcasts are how and why I started my own. I used to listen to anything writing-related but then was so inundated with new episodes that I cut back to my favourites although I’ve been running out recently so may go in search of some more. 🙂 In which country are you based, Ben, and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Ben: I live in the US, but in a very small town in rural Oregon. Once I would have seen this as a hindrance, but I think the internet has broken down a lot of those walls. Once upon a time I thought I’d have to physically go to New York and knock on doors to get published. I’ve come to believe that the internet allows agents and editors to find quality. I’m going to go up to Portland for the Willamette Writers Conference, and I’m hopeful that I’ll make some good connections there, but I genuinely believe that if I can learn to write well enough, I’ll get a nibble on a query letter. Maybe I’m deceiving myself, but it’s empowering to believe that this technology has put the opportunity (and the burden) in my hands, and that publication isn’t an accident of geography.
Morgen: I wouldn’t have so said these days, no. It is about presenting the right genre (and good writing of it of course) to the person and if you do your homework for the latter then that will certainly help. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Ben: I’ve had a positive experience with http://authonomy.com, a sort of wiki where HarperCollins has crowd-sourced their slushpile. Writers read and rate one another’s books by putting titles in their digital bookshelves, and the ones that rise to the top will be read by the editors of HarperCollins. It would take a large investment of time and politicking to get a book to the top of the list, and I’d rather use that time writing, but even the little effort I’ve put in there has resulted in some great feedback from writers around the world, and my novel has climbed pretty quickly without much effort on my part, which gives me confidence in the project.
Morgen: Oh well done! I’d done the same with http://youwriteon.com to the point where I had little time or energy left for doing the same thing with http://authonomy.com which isn’t a very good excuse is it?
Ben: I’ve also enjoyed the #amwriting community on Twitter, and Johanna Harness, who created the community and runs the amwriting.org site, has asked me to write a couple posts for her, including a short story that will be up at the end of July. #amwriting is how I found you, Morgen!
Morgen: Yay! I’m rubbish at hash-tagging my posts. (note to self: become less rubbish) 🙂 Johanna and I do follow each other on Twitter but I hadn’t realised there was a community behind that one.
Ben: The best support and training I’ve received in years came from the Oregon Writing Project, a chapter of the National Writing Project. NWP is a government grant-funded program hosted by universities where teachers come together to study writing instruction and to work on their own writing. Teaching writing and doing it aren’t the same thing, but they definitely inform one another. The group I worked with at Willamette University not only helped me become a better writer, but because a writers group demands such openness, they quickly became friends.
Morgen: Me too. I’ve belonged to mine for over six years and run it for three (when the crime novelist Sally Spedding moved to Wales) and they are friends, I’m very lucky. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Ben: I blog at http://unapologetic-conjecture.blogspot.com, Twitter at @teachergorman, and my most recent novel can be found on authonomy.com at http://www.authonomy.com/books/33157/and-lo-god-took-his-coffee-black
Morgen: Thanks Ben, good luck with finding homes for your novels. It can be an uphill struggle but you definitely sound determined. 🙂
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