Interview With M. David Blake

M. David Blake lives in Hillsborough, NC with his wife and daughter. By day he is a stay-at-home father and househusband. In college, he utterly flunked a study of science fiction, and before college, he periodically reassembled the shattered skulls of murder victims. Currently he serves as an associate editor for Stupefying Stories, and a slush reader for Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. He is also participating in the Clarion West 2012 Write-a-thon.

1.  What’s the most interesting fortune you’ve ever received from a cookie?

A few months ago I received one that read, “An alien of some sort will be appearing to you shortly!” How could I not love it? I am, after all, a science fiction writer. And, true enough, within days I had written a new alien story.

2.  What kind of job required you to reassemble the shattered skulls of murder victims?

During the late ’80s and early ’90s I assisted a forensic pathologist… and there were all sorts of other interesting experiences associated with that period. Ever ransack the pockets of a dead mobster, while blood congeals on his Italian loafers? I have. Although these are the sort of unbelievable details that cause a lot of folks to do a double-take, they happen to be God’s honest truth.

3.  How did you, a science fiction author, flunk a college course dedicated to the study of science fiction?

At the time, I wasn’t a very good student. I was one of those who coasted through a lot of my education without really having to study, because I’ve always been good at learning whatever I needed for the exam, and then retaining anything useful. And yes, I regret that now; if I could relive that part of my life, I would certainly spend a lot more time on the studies I neglected! The difficulty with this class was that I’d been a science fiction fan from a very young age, and so I mistakenly assumed that I knew a lot more about the subject, as a whole, than I already did.

And there were certainly some impressive gaps in my knowledge. I could quote vast swaths of the history behind the Golden Age, and the progression of the New Age, but the genre relevance of, say, Italo Calvino or Margaret Atwood, had entirely escaped me. And they were doing things with speculative fiction that tied in to a much larger backdrop than I’d even considered.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, I flunked the science fiction course because I didn’t do the work, and I didn’t take it seriously at the time. I don’t blame the instructor for flunking me, either. In retrospect, I have a lot of admiration for his patience, because I must have come across as a pigheaded know-it-all.

4.  What is the difference between science fiction and speculative fiction?

Answering that puts me in danger of sounding like a pigheaded know-it-all again… but on a technical basis, here goes: “Science” fiction generally involves, to some degree, an examination of the real world, with a “what if” twist thrown in. Now, it could be a variant of the real world with which we’ve had experience, or the real world if certain rules or occurrences were altered, but if the real world assumption is a difference from established experience, there should be some logically plausible explanation for, and justification of, the shift. “Speculative” fiction isn’t constrained by the need for such justification, and is sort of a catch-all term for fantasy, science fiction, horror, or anything else that examines the world as it isn’t. Clear as mud? I hope so, because I just made that up.

5.  Do you prefer hard scifi or soft scifi? Can the two be combined?

I prefer interesting science fiction. If it deals with a lot of nuts-and-bolts/eyedropper-level detail, then it still needs to be interesting. If it goes poking around in the head, or the heart, or the machinations of men, then it still needs to be plausible. You can certainly have stories that successfully intertwine the two.

Now, there’s another, popular definition that treats “hard” science fiction as the one that actually uses Science (with a capital “S”), and “soft” science fiction as the one that relies on Handwavium (without any real science at all). So if you are asking whether it is possible to mix those, the answer is that it’s more difficult, because the Science has to be both strong enough to convince the skeptics while accessible enough to appeal to the dreamers, and the Handwavium appealing enough to engage the dreamers without being so fanciful that it severs the suspension of disbelief.

6.  What is your editing/rewrite process?

When I am using a computer, I tend to do a lot of editing as I go. The story will be flowing along quite nicely, and then I’ll think to myself, “Oh, I should alter that phrase and fix this character’s motivation,” so I’ll scroll up a few pages and do so. I still do a bit of that when I compose longhand, because otherwise I’d lose the thought, but the focus is more on getting the narrative onto the page with the premeditated intention of revising as I transcribe the work.

In either case, I frequently pause to examine what I’ve written, and to read the work aloud. Doing so gives me a better feel for the flow, and helps me to weed out redundancies or awkward phraseology.

Once a draft is completed, I’ll re-read the entire work aloud, with an ear for the overall feel of the piece.

7.  What is your favorite electronic or digital writing tool?

I’m not sure that I have a favorite electronic tool. I’ve written stories at my desktop computer while using OpenOffice, LibreOffice, Notepad, and Wordpad. I’ve also written on my wife’s laptop, using Pages. “When the Pupil Is Ready” was composed a few miles skyward, as I returned from Worldcon last year, to distract myself from the screaming infant seated a few rows behind me on successive legs of the flight… and that one was written entirely in the Notes app, on my iPhone.

Lately I’ve been focused on more non-electronic writing, so I picked up a Bluetooth keyboard to use with my iPhone for portable transcription. That way, if I hit a snag or a slow spot in the current work, or the coffee runs low and I can’t think to continue the plot, I can still get some of what I’ve already written into a digital format for subsequent refinement.

8.  What is your favorite non-electronic writing tool?

Any of my fountain pens. Between those I already owned and the generosity of my father-in-law, I now have a fair assortment of them.

A few years ago, Joe Haldeman showed me how he composes all of his first drafts in ink, and that probably planted the seed for what I’m doing now. I’d used fountain pens frequently through high school and college, but gradually shifted to computers for convenience. The pens had been gathering dust.

And then I was suddenly hit with an idea for a novel, with the simultaneous knowledge that I won’t have a lot of time to just sit in front of a computer this year. My daughter is getting ready to start kindergarten, as well as piano lessons, and she is already on a local swim team. In our household, I am the stay-at-home parent. That translates to a lot of running-around-town time, and I needed some way to compose a sustained narrative whenever I had a few moments free, without having to find a power source or boot up an operating system.

That’s when I remembered the fountain pens. I ordered a few bottles of ink (Noodler’s Hunter Green and La Reine Mauve, for the curious), and a refillable leather journal (from Oberon Design), and took them along when my wife and I visited Kauaʻi this past May. I started the novel on a lanai in Koloa, and those non-electronic implements are continually with me now.

9.  What is the most persistent distraction from writing?

There are two: the Internet, and my daughter.

When my computer isn’t being used as a compositional tool, it offers plentiful temptation to browse the various forums in which I participate, and an immediately accessible venue for research of any conceivable subject.

My daughter is, by far, the more adorable of the two distractions. She loves to read, and to play games, and she is now able to whistle. Sometimes I am distracted just listening to her whistle, trying to identify the tune. My success rate isn’t very high yet, because she’s only been doing it for a few weeks. But she definitely picked that up from me; my wife uses my whistling as an emotional barometer, to keep track of my moods.

10. What is your ideal writing environment? Have you ever been able to create it?

Years before I discovered that’s what it was, my ideal writing environment already existed. It is the house in which my grandparents raised my mother, and in which I spent some of the happiest years of my own childhood. More importantly, it is the one place in the universe that has always felt like home. I just returned from a week there, where I’d isolated myself to get settled in to the novel.

11. Do you have a blog? How do you use it?

My personal website is VintageSeason.com, and I use it much less frequently than I should. If I don’t get too distracted by writing, I’ll try to update it in the near future. The site has a blog functionality, and hosts a brief FAQ, as well as a few blog entries. When “Absinthe Fish” made it onto the Locus Recommended Reading List, and then the annual Locus Poll & Survey, I also added downloads for the story in a variety of formats. In general though, you might say that I use it very ineffectively, for someone who spends as much time online as I do.

12. Where did the name Vintage Season come from?

“Vintage Season” was a novella written by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, and first published in the mid-’40s under one of their shared pseudonyms. I encountered the story when I was fairly young, and the notion that there could be “vintage” seasons, in which for one, brief moment everything was right, and beautiful, and approaching perfection, resonated with me. But then, most of their work resonated with me. Kuttner and Moore’s marriage was one of the most beautiful romances in the genre, and their writing is spectacular.

For anyone interested in learning about their remarkable partnership, I’d highly recommend the new collections from Haffner Press.

13. What social media do you use? Do you combine your personal and professional or keep them separate?

Originally, I was very much opposed to the idea of social media. It wasn’t until “We Don’t Plummet Out of the Sky” was published, and I started taking myself seriously as a writer, that a friend sat me down and said, “Look, if you are going to be a writer you need some way for your readers to connect with you. Start a Facebook page NOW.”

So I did. The original page is still there, and gets infrequent additions, because I regard it as strictly for publication-related news. If one of my stories gets an exceptionally good—or bad!— review, I’ll link to it there. If I make it onto a reading list, or a ballot, I’ll mention it there. Writing stuff.

But my wife cornered me a few months after that one started, and said, “Look, Facebook won’t let me link to your writer page as my husband. Start a personal Facebook page NOW.”

So again, I did. And to my surprise, I started connecting with people. Writers, editors, and even readers started interacting. And when Google+ got started, I signed up for a personal page there as well, which is where you and I first encountered each other.

The personal pages receive a general mixture of stuff. While they catch all of the writing-related updates, they also receive periodic photos, rambles, witticisms from my daughter, and occasional posts to benefit or promote other writers. During the nomination period for this year’s Hugo and Campbell ballot, I used them to host frequent thumbnail reviews of newcomers who were eligible for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, because even though I was eligible for that one, to me it made more sense to spotlight some of the other folks whose writing seemed notable, and who attracted my interest.

14. What was the process of publishing “We Don’t Plummet Out of the Sky Anymore” on Smashwords? Would you use Smashwords again?

That was purely an experiment. “We Don’t Plummet Out of the Sky Anymore” was written as an entry for an online challenge, hosted by Bruce Bethke, and the requirement was to come up with the advertising copy for a flying car. I lost the challenge, but Bruce loved the story… and it was the first complete story I’d written in a number of years, at that point.

I knew a lot about the history of science fiction, but by then I also knew that a lot of my “knowledge” about what readers wanted was badly out-of-date. Adding the story to Smashwords was sort of a litmus test, to see whether anyone would read it. When I first offered it there, I had no idea whether anyone would care, and I certainly didn’t expect that folks would still be downloading and reviewing it over two years later.

The reality of Smashwords publication is that the vast majority of works hosted there receive little notice. That’s not a critique of the works themselves, one way or another. If you dig around, you’ll find plenty of gold, as well as plenty of dross. My assumption was that if the story could garner more readers than my immediate circle of friends and family, it could be regarded as a moderately favorable indicator. I figured if I made it to two hundred downloads, that meant the story was good enough to try sending a few other submissions to the traditional markets, with the hope of slowly earning an audience.

I wasn’t at all prepared for the response. Word-of-mouth carried the story to more readers than I’d ever expected to reach. A few months after it hit Smashwords, “We Don’t Plummet” was picked up for the original print version of Stupefying Stories, quite fittingly edited by Bruce Bethke.

So would I use Smashwords again? It’s possible, down the road, that I’ll add other things there, but self-publication was never my goal, nor my ideal. I’m old school in that regard; my professional models hit their heyday in the forties and fifties, and the notion of reinventing the wheel doesn’t hold the same fascination for me that it might have, if I’d had a different background.

15. What is your position on the Self-publishing vs Traditional publishing debate?

I think it’s important for each writer to pursue the path that is right for her/him, without worrying about the ideology any other writer might espouse. If you want absolute control over your words, and if you are both willing and able to put forth the extra effort (and possibly investment) necessary to produce professional material for self-publication, then self-publication might be the best choice for you. On the other hand, if you want a wider reach, and the associative perception (right or wrong) of an editor having already sifted wheat from chaff, you may be happier if you pursue traditional publication. It’s easy to find proponents of either didactic.

Personally, I feel it’s a mistake for content creators to assume they can be as effective without involvement from the professional curators of that content. Everyone does not possess the same gifts. Some are better writers, and some are better editors. Some are better at marketing. Some are best at pulling strings to bring everything together, as facilitators of the whole. Use your strengths, and believe in them, but also acknowledge your weaknesses. Once you do, it will be easier to recognize areas in which you should rely on the strength of another.

A few minutes ago I learned that Terry Goodkind will be self-publishing his new novel. Good for him! At the same time, without the fan base accumulated through traditional publication, his self-published novel would be statistically unlikely to create any major ripples. After all, self-publication is an ocean, and there are an awful lot of stones being tossed into those turbulent waters. I suspect, although no details have yet been confirmed, that he is still working with some sort of editorial team.

On a personal level, I’d say that trad-pub is not dead; far from it. But trad-pub is going through a necessary transition, and the end result is anyone’s guess. I suppose that makes me an optimist, because I still believe this is an incredible time for any new writer to pursue traditional publication.

16. How did “Absinthe Fish” travel from mere thought to publication?

That’s another thing you can blame on the Haldemans… or, specifically, on Joe’s wife, Gay. At the same time I initially wrote to Joe, before we ever met, I started working on a letter to Spider Robinson. This was while his wife Jeanne was sick, and she transitioned before I finished the letter. And then, suddenly, it felt highly inappropriate for me to be sending this fanboy letter to Spider, because, well, he’d just suffered the sort of loss that no one wants to endure, and even though I am frequently dense, I didn’t want to be insensitive.

Gay reminded me of Spider’s own advice about dealing with grief, and the proper application of sympathy: “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased—thus do we refute entropy.” Then she told me to go ahead and write him.

A few days after she and I spoke, I started writing a story, rather than a letter, for Spider. A small attempt to refute entropy, by remembering that nothing good is ever truly gone. And even though the story was very short—only 1500 words, total—I probably spent more time on that one than anything I’ve written to date, including this novel.

Of course, after writing it, there was still the question of what to do with it. I sent it out, and one of the best editors in the industry sent me a beautiful letter explaining why he couldn’t use the story. He was absolutely right; it wasn’t the right sort of story for his magazine, or his readers. But on the strength of that rejection letter, I sold the story the very next day.

When the story appeared in Bull Spec, we were graced with an incredible bit of serendipity. Lois Tilton reviewed an advance copy of the magazine for Locus Online, and recommended “Absinthe Fish” before it even hit the newsstands. As a writer, that may have been my very first “over the moon” experience.

17. What can you tell us about the new novel you’re working on?

It’s a young adult piece, which is something I’ve never tried. As for genre, I was originally thinking of it as a fantasy piece, but the deeper I go into this world the more science I see underpinning the structure. Call it a science fantasy, then, which indirectly references your earlier question about “hard” versus “soft” science fiction. Yes, this one involves some Handwavium, and  also some of the soft sciences, but there are a few nuts and bolts under the hood.

Whether or not I can pull it off remains to be seen.

18. Tell me about Stupefying Stories.

Orginally, Stupefying Stories was a one-shot print anthology, edited by Bruce Bethke, in the late summer of 2010. The entire project was an outgrowth of The Friday Challenge, which was Bruce’s blog/website, on which he posted weekly writing challenges.

Last year, Bruce decided to revive the concept, and asked if I would come on board as one of the associate editors. His original plan was to continue as a quarterly print anthology, but after a short time shifted it to an electronic publication, with the rationale that we could pay the writers more, and publish more frequently, without the overhead for physical inventory. The schedule shifted to monthly, which we maintained for the first four issues, and has currently settled into a bimonthly rotation.

My understanding is that we’ll still try to get back to a monthly schedule, but this is the real world. We each have obligations we must pursue outside of strict editorial duty. And that is also one of the reasons Stupefying Stories is designated an “anthology series,” rather than a “magazine.” We need to shift the schedule for a few months? Okay, each volume is released when we feel it is ready, and good, and worth bringing to market… but that also means we aren’t obligated to push one out the door if it’s not ready. Our obligation is to the readers, in making sure they are satisfied with the product once they are able to purchase it.

19. What is it like to be a slush reader for Fantastic Stories of the Imagination?

Vastly different from the Stupefying Stories experience! For one thing, the staff of Stupefying Stories is spread across the country, and we tend to communicate electronically.

Fantastic Stories of the Imagination is edited by Warren Lapine, who has been at the helm of a remarkable assortment of magazines and anthologies, and who lives just a few hours away. Over the past year, Warren and I, and a handful of other excellent individuals mentioned on the dedication page, got together numerous times to spend evenings reading slush, and sorting the good from the bad. Or, in some cases, the “almost, but not quite” from the “at least two of us think you should read this one next.”

Ultimately the final decision on each inclusion was up to Warren, but as first readers we served as a buffer zone, to make sure he was receiving the best possible candidates for inclusion. And even so, his plate was pretty full. Warren is well known enough in the industry, and pays enough per word, to attract attention any time he announces a new project.

On a professional level, if you are a writer, and if you have an opportunity to read slush for any major publication, I’d recommend it. Part of making a good impression with your submissions is simply not making foolish, obvious, and/or arrogant mistakes. Once you’ve seen a number of those mistakes cross your desk, and the negative impression has registered, you’ll be more aware of them, and able to avoid them, in your own behavior.

20. Who shot first, Han or Greedo?

Technically, the Imperial forces fired on Leia’s ship first. But in the Mos Eisley Cantina, it seemed fairly clear to my young (at the time) eyes that Han was the only one to fire a weapon during his interplay with Greedo, and I regard George Lucas’ decision to “clarify” the exchange as a mistake.

Now, I’ll readily admit that as creator and curator of the film franchise, Lucas had the right to revise his vision. After all, Ridley Scott did a remarkable job with Blade Runner: The Final Cut, and Peter Jackson’s extended presentation of The Lord of the Rings was a cinematic tour de force; why should George Lucas be deprived of the same privilege? Alan Dean Foster’s novelization was entirely vague on the specifics, and later references to the event could arguably be treated as self-referential mythologization, if one wanted to be pedantic about it… so for a moment of devilish advocacy, let’s suppose Greedo really did shoot first. Would that be so bad?

Of course n—okay, I can’t answer that way with a straight face. Han Solo started out as a reprobate, and in order for his later development to have meaning at all, those character flaws shouldn’t be undermined. Even if Lucas claims that it was always his intent for Greedo to be perceived as shooting first, as an emotional participant in the drama, I still need that ambiguity in the framing. To date, I haven’t managed to sit all the way through any of his special editions, and I don’t see any need to do so, either.

The shortlink for this post is http://wp.me/p1qnT4-OD

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About AmyBeth Inverness

A writer by birth, a redhead by choice.
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3 Responses to Interview With M. David Blake

  1. Pingback: Maker Faire tomorrow! Free RPG Day, too! M. David Blake is interviewed! Exciting things! « Bull Spec

  2. Great interview! I agree especially with his take on self-pubbing vs. traditional publishing. I get asked that question of which I use nearly every time I share my career with someone, and it’s amazing how many people automatically think that self-pubbing is the optimal route to go now, but it’s not for me, because I recognize that marketing is not my strong suit. It really depends on the person and what they want to get out of sharing their writing with others.

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