Welcome to the three hundred and thirty-fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with science-fiction, thriller and non-fiction author Ian Miller. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Ian. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Ian: I am a research chemist and I own my own research company in Lower Hutt, New Zealand. I have a range of interests, which are posted at www.ianmiller.co.nz. How I became a writer is a story all in itself. In my first year at University, women students invariably studied for arts degrees and I found myself teasing some that all they did was criticize. If they were any good, they would create. Back came the challenge: I couldn’t think of a plot. I accepted, and came back a couple of days later with sufficient detail they demanded I write it down, so, in the summer vacation, in the evenings I wrote. I got finished and sent it off, I got two rejections, so I gave up. (Two rejections!!!) About fifteen years later I dug up the manuscript, looked at the first few pages and thought, “What awful rubbish!” but a bit further on, it looked OK, so I tidied it up, and tried again. At that stage I was busy trying to promote a pyromellitates industry, and I was getting time on national TV, so I tried self-publishing. That was something of a disaster because the pyromellitates project began to take off (these are used for high temperature plastics) and I got an offer for financing my own laboratory, plus a guaranteed financed work load, but only if I kept out of the media and did no advertising at all. Can you imagine trying to sell books when you are not allowed any public statements? I lost a bit out of the book, but the government, which owned the feedstock for the chemical project ended up by breaking the supply agreement, so the polymer industry fell over too. I soldiered on, but I had quite a bit of spare time, so I could not resist trying to see if I could make it as a writer.
Of course, like everything else I seem to do, that was anything but straightforward. I wrote one novel that had so much backstory it had the material for others, so I decided to write a prequel, about settlement on Mars, but it was really about fraud, and was a preview for the financial crash. Then I heard about the so-called “Face on Cydonia” so I thought I would write about a rock, but just in case…
What happened then was that NASA showed up the rock before I was half-finished, so back to Red Gold. I got an agent, the agent found an editor that seemed interested, but then the editor died suddenly, his replacement cleared his desk via the round file and my agent began to have health problems. The rejection from the publisher included the comment along the lines that the plot was too unbelievable. The plot had three major features: a tangled romance, fraud, and a surprising discovery on Mars that exposes the fraud (and, of course, the resultant tensions). My response was, “How dare that idiot claim my science was unbelievable!” Accordingly I spent the next few years on forming my theory of planetary formation, which I shall publish as an ebook when I can get through the editing.
I am also writing a series of scientific works on how to form a theory. This arose from a request for a book from a major scientific publisher, however I was too slow, the editor changed, and then they found I did not have captive students that would have to purchase it, so it was orphaned. The planetary formation book is the second in that series.
Morgen: You’ve been unlucky but what a start to your writing career. 🙂 What genre do you write?
Ian: I generally write science fiction, but where the science is ‘reasonable’. I have the series I mentioned above yet to be published, and I have published one ‘prequel’, which is really more a thriller. My objective here is to try to introduce to readers how science works because I feel we have a number of issues that have to be resolved, and it would be a lot easier if society could understand how they are supposed to deal with such issues.
Morgen: I’ve always been more of a arty person than science (not helped by my physics teacher at the first parents’ evening telling mine that I should quit physics… which I did at the first opportunity!). What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Ian: I have self-published one fiction and one non-fiction ebook, and will have two more when I finish editing. I write under my own name; my view is, if you are not proud to be associated with it, you should not inflict it on others.
Morgen: ‘inflict on others’ – I love that. Have you had any rejections?
Ian: Yes, I have had rejections. They are disappointing, but all they say is, the other end is not convinced they can make money from publishing it. I just accept that.
Morgen: They are the experts aren’t they? Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Ian: I have only entered one, and that will not be judged until June this year.
Morgen: Oh, good luck with that. 🙂 You mentioned earlier that you used to have an agent, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Ian: There is no doubt a good agent who will work for you is an advantage, but equally a busy agent who is having trouble making headway with your work is probably a disadvantage. I am hoping I can eventually make headway myself.
Morgen: I think only one author I’ve spoken to in these interviews have said that the publisher does all the marketing and even then I know she’s very active on Twitter so we all have to do something. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Ian: I am self-publishing ebooks only, and I do all the work myself. Eventually I am going to have to get professional help for covers. The reason I do the conversions myself is that for scientific material, standard conversions give all sorts of odd results. For my first scientific one, I took weeks of effort just to work out how to do it.
Morgen: I went the Smashwords route first because I was daunted by the 70+ page style guide but in the end it wasn’t that bad and once I’d done one, I had a template for the rest and I’ve just put my first story on Amazon and that was so easy (just changing the font from Garamond to Arial and ‘Smashwords’ to ‘Amazon’) that I do wonder why I didn’t do it at the time (last November). How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Ian: Marketing is probably my main weakness, but I try the social networks, I have a blog where I discuss scientific issues, including issues raised by comments, I have a website, and I do what I can to try to make myself interesting. I doubt that telling everybody you have written a book does much good, but if more people know who you are, and think you are interesting, they might try you out.
Morgen: There are some on Twitter who do nothing but tout their books and wonder why they get de-followed. I mention mine once in a blue moon and should more often, although I will once the novels are online. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Ian: I have three characters that turn up in more than one book, none of which are yet published, so I suppose they are favourites. One is Pallas Athene, the 25th century classical historian, who must use another, Gaius Claudius Scaevola to save civilization from being annihilated in the 24th century; his problem is that he is in the first century.
Morgen: What wonderful names. 🙂 Presumably you chose the titles / covers of your books, how important do you think they are?
Ian: When you self-publish, your word goes. I have no real idea how important covers are. Everyone says they are, but when I buy on kindle, I barely look at the cover, because they all look much the same. That is the trouble with professional covers. They look good, they look professional, but they look the same.
Morgen: A lot of them do, yes, especially within the same genre. I love titles and a bad one might put me off (although I did buy James Patterson’s ‘The Quickie’ but that was partly because it was co-written by Michael Letwidge and I loved their ‘Step on a Crack’. I wouldn’t be put off by a bad cover although if it looked too unprofessional I might wonder whether it would reflect the quality of the writing. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Ian: I am editing my book on planetary formation, and biogenesis. I am also trying to finish my second novel in the futuristic series. This has about two pages to go, but I can’t quite make up my mind what to do with one of the major characters. I could be sentimental, and make her live long and prosper, or I could terminate her, and you could justify each ending. I hope it doesn’t depend on whether I am thinking long term of sequel possibilities.
Morgen: Because you wouldn’t want to do a ‘Dallas’ and bring her back to life. 🙂 Besides if you ‘terminate’ her (I love that phrase) you could bring in someone new. I suppose it depends on whether you (and your readers) are attached to her. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Ian: I write every day. No block, but some days are not very productive, and much of what I write then goes to the trash next day.
Morgen: But it’s all practice. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Ian: I tend to have a sequence of scenes in my mind before I start, then run with it. That means I have a fairly good idea of what will happen to the major characters before I start, but see my previous answer!
Morgen: 🙂 Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names (which I’m guessing you can have real fun with) and what do you think makes them believable?
Ian: I try to think of what I want the character to do, ask myself why this will be a problem, and the answer is usually some sort of character defect. I then ask, what do I need for such a character to eventually succeed. If I do that a couple of times, I have a skeleton of the character, then I try to embellish. One of the things I really dislike about some other writers is they load up the defects so they then need a miracle to get the story completed. Getting them believable is best done, I think, by inserting some “harmless scenes”, where they can express themselves in simple ways, and hence I try to persuade the reader that they are “understandable”.
Morgen: I’m sure they’d tell you (or via the reviews) if they don’t. Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
Ian: I have written one short story that is published, but it is not my preferred form. I have also written a number of scientific articles, articles for bridge magazines, and of course, my book on how to form a scientific theory.
Morgen: It’s funny how we find our niches. I prefer short stories but again I’ve practiced a lot more (100+ stories vs four and a bit novels). I find threading in novels hard but I may make it so. I’m about to edit them so we shall see what stays and goes. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Ian: I do a huge amount of rewriting. When things are going well, I write very quickly, and apart from things like typos, this often stands. However, one of the things I consider a strength is my control of large-scale structure, and when I have got somewhere near the end, I often go back and insert some sub-plots and build up events for minor characters. This needs some adjustments elsewhere. Then, of course, there is a lot of editing to adjust clumsy stuff.
Morgen: 🙂 Do you have to do much research?
Ian: Yes, but I usually try to write about things that I am interested in, so this is not too bad. In Prophecy (yet to be published) I had to do quite a bit of research on 1st century Roman military and imperial actions, which interested me a lot so it was not so much hard work as you might think.
Morgen: Like anything, it helps if you’re interested in it. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Ian: I try to write in third person, with occasional insertions of first person thinking. I have never tried second person, and I had never thought about it until you asked.
Morgen: A lot of people haven’t heard of it but I love it and have written some pieces for my weekly Tuesday Tales projects in it. It’s an acquired taste but I’d recommend having a go anyway. Earlier you mentioned trashing some of your writing, do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Ian: No, but I have destroyed quite a bit. That won’t see the light of day, but I don’t still have it.
Morgen: What a shame. I think I have everything I’ve ever written and although some of it is dire there are pieces that I’ve gone back to and have been pleasantly surprised. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Ian: Back yourself, and be persistent.
Morgen: Absolutely. They say a successful writer is one who never gave up. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Ian: I do write some reader reviews on Amazon, and try to find some who have not been reviewed, or who have very few reviews. I think it is important to try to help others, and hope that someone might help me. I also maintain a blog.
Morgen: Pay it forward. 🙂 What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Ian: Apart from keeping my section under some form of control, which largely involves fighting vegetation, and various exercise or social actions, I like going to some movies, and I also write music, although not very often.
Morgen: Writing lyrics is on my ‘to do’ list but I don’t think I’d write the music too. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber I am not. 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Ian: My only source of writing advice is to read as wide a variety of books as I can. I am against being taught “how to do it” because I think they try to be prescriptive. As an example, I once did University courses in music, including the honours course on composition. The first assignment was to write something based on using a given sequence of notes, and this was hopeless for me. The problem with such courses is that they start off assuming the student has no creativity, and hence has to be given formulae. What happens next is that this kills your individual style. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that the most important thing you can do is to express yourself your way. The downside is you have trouble with an agent. Agents do not want originality – they want something like the latest “big thing”, so anybody reading this may be well advised not to follow my path.
Morgen: I’m all for originality so I’m on your side. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Ian: I am on various Linkedin forums. These have been valuable for finding out things about the writing business, and getting contacts.
Morgen: LinkedIn is great. I’ve met so many wonderful writers that way… virtually, of course, but we all share the passion, determination and compassion. It’s a very caring and sharing profession (that’s surprised me). What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Ian: Writing has one great advantage over other arts, namely you can write about how people deal with problems. Every generation has new problems, so there is always new and original material. For example, nobody should write something now that deals with situations that Dickens wrote about.
Morgen: Where can we find out about you and your work?
Ian: I list my works, and some other stuff, on my website: www.ianmiller.co.nz. Both ebooks are on Amazon Kindle, while my novel is on both Smashwords and its associated companies, and on Readstreet. For Puppeteer: Amazon, Smashwords and Readstreet.
For Aristotelian Methodology in the Physical Sciences (Elements of Theory): Amazon.
I also have a blog (more a science blog than a writing blog) at http://my.rsc.org/blogs/84.
Morgen: I know a poet who loves science so perfect for her I’d say. Thank you, Ian.
Ian Miller was born on the 7th August, 1942 and studied chemistry at the University of Canterbury (BSc Hons 1, PhD) followed by post-docs at Calgary, Southampton and Armidale. He then returned to New Zealand to work at Chemistry Division, DSIR, on recycling, biofuels and seaweed research. In 1986 he set up his own research company to support the private half of a joint venture to make pyromellitates, the basis of high temperature resistant plastics, which, with an associated seaweed processing venture, collapsed during the late 1980s financial crisis. In his scientific career he has written about 100 peer reviewed scientific papers and about 35 other articles and was on the Editorial Board of Botanica Marina between about 1998-2008. Early in this century he had a provisional agreement with a major publisher to write a book on how to form theories. This took a lot longer than expected, the publisher lost interest, however he completed the first part of the project and the first ebook in the series entitled “Elements of Theory” was self-published last year. The second, which is about planetary formation and the origin of life, will be self-published soon, April being the target.
During his first year at University, following an argument with some Arts students, he was challenged to write a fictional book. Following two rejections, this was abandoned, but subsequently, as he began to get some television exposure while trying to promote the pyromellitates venture, Gemina was self-published, only to find as a condition of finance that all publicity for it was forbidden. It was somewhat difficult to sell books without any promotion.
Following the collapse of the pyromellitates venture, he returned to writing fiction, using both his scientific and business experience to write “science in fiction” thrillers, a type of “future history”. This series starts with Puppeteer, set in the near future when both oil and resources are in short supply, when government debts leads to the inability of governments to govern properly and when corruption is widespread. In Puppeteer, one man threatens to detonate three nuclear bombs to get revenge of corrupt officials who have ruined his life, while two others alone can stop him. Further details can be found at www.ianmiller.co.nz.
Update October 2012: The ebook titled “Planetary formation and biogenesis” has been published on Amazon select, while the fictional ebook, where I mentioned I was having trouble finishing and could not make up my mind whether a young woman would live or die was finished and is published. It is called Troubles, and, softy that I am, the young woman lived, but had to go and work in a very remote place for someone she knew had strong feelings for her, both positive, and also negative about the fact she always carried a gun around and knew how to use it. The ending looks suspiciously like it needs a sequel, although I have no immediate plans for one.
I also mentioned Red Gold in the interview. This is a book about fraudulent share floats on the colonization of Mars, and also about greed and envy, and this will be out towards the end of October at Amazon. (I am nearly finished the last “nervous edit”. That means, of course, I am bound to miss something when I publish, but I have to stop editing sooner or later.)
Finally, I have one further blog – this time a writer’s blog: ianmillerblog.wordpress.com.
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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