Interview With Jason M. Hough

Jason is a former 3D Artist and Game Designer, developing such titles as Metal Fatigue and Aliens vs. Predator: Extinction.  Currently he works at a Fortune 500 company designing software that uses machine-learning techniques to make smartphones more efficient.

 After leaving the game business he sought a new creative outlet and decided to try writing.  What started as a hobby in 2007 quickly became an obsession.  In 2011 he sold his first novel,  The Darwin Elevator, to Del Rey, along with a contract for two sequels.  The trilogy will be released in the summer of 2013.

Jason lives in San Diego with his wife and two young sons.  In his spare time he builds elaborate train tracks with his boys, and frets about deadlines.

1. What kind of work did you do in the Game Industry?

I started as a 3D Artist in the mid-90’s, but quickly became a Game Designer. This entails coming up with the game rules primarily, but also designing the worlds, missions, levels, monsters, weapons, characters, and so on. I learned a lot, and worked for (and with) some incredible people. I really think the skills I picked up making games have helped me as a fiction writer. By this I mean learning how to populate a fictional world and fill it with conflict. But perhaps just as importantly, I learned a healthy respect for the amount of hard work and dedication required to go from an idea to a finished product.

2. The stereotypical gamer geek lives in his parents’ basement and can’t get a date. How did you end up with awesome kids and a gorgeous wife?

Allow me to hop on my soapbox for a moment! Honestly, I don’t think that stereotype has had any meat on it since the late 80’s. The geeks have inherited the earth! These days I suspect more jocks and frat boys are home living in their parents’ garage after graduating with degrees for which there are no jobs. And if you think jocks aren’t geeks, just ask one about their Fantasy Football league and listen to how they talk about it. Spoiler: It’s no different than me talking about D&D.

When I was a kid, simply using a computer marked you as a nerd, and god forbid you told anyone you used a modem to login to BBS’s and chat with other computer nerds. Today of course that’s called Facebook, and you’re a freak if you don’t do it.

Of course, there’s still stigma for certain things, for reasons I can’t fathom. Even amongst the geeks (which is just about everyone now). For example, this summer the three top movies will be Spider Man, Batman, and The Avengers, and yet if you are seen reading one of those comic books in public people will probably still snicker and picture you in your parents garage. These are the same people who go to midnight showings of these movie. And that’s a shame.

As my dearly departed friend Kevin always said, “Let your geek flag fly!”

Okay… off my soapbox. To actually answer your question, I met my lovely wife on a BBS I dialed into with a modem. Seriously! I agree she’s gorgeous, but she’s my equal in nerdiness.

3. Have you ever been mistaken for one of the Mythbusters?

Yes! But only because I was dressed as one. My friend Lionel is the spitting image of Jamie Hyneman, and I can do a passable Adam Savage if I grow out my beard, so we’ve cosplayed as the Mythbusters a few times at ComicCon. I think we did a passable job, but I was really shocked at how many people thought we were the actual guys. In a way I now know what it feels like to have that kind of fame. We had people walk up to us who were so excited they could barely talk, they just mumbled things like “love you guys”, “oh my god”, and so on. I truly thought one girl was going to feint, and this was after we assured her we were not the actual guys (she didn’t believe us).

A little CosPlay, Jason M. Hough (left) with friend Lionel English. Photo by Heidi English

4. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen at a Con?

Wow, tough question. Actually, one of the most interesting thing to me is how things have changed. I’m talking about San Diego Comic-Con specifically. I started going in 1986, when it was a few thousand people, almost entirely males, and all about comic books. Today, despite the continued jokes about nerds in their parent’s garage who never get laid, Comic-Con is the biggest event in town, and all it takes is one visit to realize the crowd is almost an even split of men and women from all walks of life. I love it.

One of my favorite con moments was at World Fantasy in 2010. It takes place at the same time as the World Series, and I found myself sitting in the bar for three hours with Guy Gavriel Kay, one of my all-time favorite authors, watching the game and talking baseball the entire time. I never would have pegged him for such a huge fan of the sport, and it was actually quite nice to just hang out and not talk about writing, his books, or anything like that. Otherwise I would have been just like that drooling, almost-feinting Mythbuster’s fan.

5. What was your favorite celebrity encounter?

My brother once threw an entire Big Gulp at Axl Rose, does that count?

I haven’t met many celebrities, but at ComicCon this year my wife and I met George R.R. Martin at a party thrown by Random House. As we’re both huge fans, that was very special, though brief.

6. What still-living author would you most like to meet?

That’s a really tough question. I’ll go with Stephen King, but I could have easily listed any one of a dozen others.

7. What panels will you be on at WorldCon?

Assuming the schedule holds, I’ve been picked for three panels and I’ve listed them on my website (www.jasonhough.com). It’s worth noting that when I put my name in the hat for panel appearances I thought my first book would be out this coming February, and that I’d have advance copies to give out, covers to show off, and all that. But the date has since moved to July. Hopefully my fellow panelists won’t kick me off the stage as a result!

Originally I signed up for the panel “So you wanna be a writer”, which is a mix of debut-authors like me who are in the middle of the publication process, and established authors who’ve been through it multiple times. It’s the perfect panel for me, and I’m looking forward to it. They’ve also added me to two other panels. One is on committing to writing a series, and I think I add to the conversation but I’m certainly no expert. The last is about religion and spirituality in sci-fi. That one I’m nervous about, not only because the subject matter is one that can lead to controversial topics, but also because I feel like I don’t have the resume for it compared to my fellow panelists. We’ll see how it goes, though!

8. How much writing did you do before The Darwin Elevator?

I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but not much. In 2001 I started writing a sci-fi novel, and over the course of the next six years I completed exactly eight pages. The problem was I would only write when I felt like I was in the perfect state of mind for it. And even then, I’d spend most of that precious time revising those eight pages.

When I heard about Nanowrimo in 2007, it sounded like the perfect thing to force me to get off my butt. So I did a practice novel for Nanowrimo in 2007, then a few screenplays just for fun. In the summer of 2008 I came up with the idea for DARWIN, and started it for Nanowrimo 2008. Then I just kept going, and finished the first draft a few months later. It wasn’t until October 2010, after a few revisions, that I finally decided to see if I could get it published.

For any of your readers who are unfamiliar, Nanowrimo is “National Novel Writing Month”, where people from all over the world attempt to write 50k words of a novel in one month. I think it’s a great way to try the life of a writer and see how you like it. It taught me that the only way to be a writer is to write — every day, no matter what mood you’re in.

9) Besides NaNoWriMo, what other writing workshops or events have you participated in?

I’ve done Script Frenzy a few times (sister event to Nanowrimo, but for screenplays). Beyond that, I joined a read and critique class at San Diego Writers Ink., a local non-profit that serves the writing community here. Fun class, and I learned a lot of my rookie mistakes in the first few sessions, but soon after I realized that such groups are not really for me. Once you get past the basic problems with your writing, it becomes hard to tell what is actionable feedback and what is just the personal style or tastes of your group.

10. How was your agent search different from how you thought it would be?

I heard so many warnings about years of rejections and frustration that I figured it would be like that. Amazingly my experience was the exact opposite. I started with just one query to the agent at the top of my list (Sara Megibow), expecting to get a terse rejection and hopefully learning a bit in the process. But she asked for pages. Then she asked for a full. And then she called me and said “No. Well, maybe.” She wanted to see some changes to the book before she’d take it on. The changes were big, but I thought about her comments and came back to her a few days later with a new opening chapter that I thought addressed her concerns. I sent that on a Friday, and she emailed me Saturday to offer representation. On Sunday we chatted on the phone for over an hour and talked through all the gory details. I knew then I’d made the right choice and agreed to be her client.

I’m sure a lot of luck was involved, but if I can offer advice to anyone else looking for an agent: Do your homework! If you follow Sara on Twitter, she does a thing every Thursday called “10 queries in 10 tweets”, and it’s frankly amazing how many are a PASS for the simplest reasons. I probably did get very lucky, because I doubt I’m that talented, but I also truly believe I landed my agent on my first query because I picked the right agent, and sent a mistake-free query. At the very least that’s how I got past the initial hurdles to a request for pages. Once you get to that part, all that matters is how good your book is.

Signing the contract! (Photo by Jason Hough)

11. What input do you have as an author towards what your books’ cover art will be?

The pat answer that you always hear is actually true: none. But it’s not as bad as it sounds, at least it hasn’t been for me.

Technically you get none, in the sense that the publisher is not obligated to consult you at all. In fact they can change the title of the book as well. The reason is a bit cold, but I’ve learned that it’s a valid one: generally speaking, authors don’t know sh!t about what sells books. You might know what sold some book you liked five years ago, but that’s ancient history in the publishing world. The art department and marketing folks at the publishers know what they’re doing (at least the reputable ones), and ultimately you have to trust them to make the right choice for your work.

However, and I’m just speaking for myself here, my ridiculously awesome editor Michael Braff has been gracious and thoughtful concerning my preferences and opinions, and has kept me in the loop through the entire process. We’ve exchanged numerous emails on what we like, don’t like, and artists we admire. He’s gone above and beyond what he’s obligated to do.

Though I can’t share the covers yet (it would be impossible, they’re not done), I can tell you that Christian McGrath has been signed to do all three covers. I’m elated about this choice because I think he’s amazing. You can see his impressive body of work here: http://chrismcgrathart.squarespace.com/illustrations/illustration/

Early next year I plan to do a series of blog posts that chronicle the process of coming up with the cover, ultimately revealing all three final paintings.

Darwin Elevator concept art, Image by Kelli Davis. Not actual cover art.

12. How quickly will the three books in The Dire Earth Cycle be released?

Del Rey has decided to launch my series in rapid fire style, so all three books will come out next summer (July, August, September according to the current plan). I have a blog post about their reasons for this if anyone is interested. Suffice to say, it’s how they launched Naomi Novik and Kevin Hearne, who have both had great success, so who am I to argue?

13. Is there any real science behind the elevator in The Darwin Elevator?

In the sense that a space elevator is an actual thing people are working on, yes. However, when I started writing the books I kept hearing how the technology required would be next to impossible for humanity to create. This sparked an idea in me that perhaps we didn’t build it at all, but instead some distant alien race sent a ship here which built the thing top-down. As such, the space elevator in my book is of alien construction, and so is somewhat of a mystery. However the infrastructure around it is all human built — climber vehicles, space stations, etc. which is all based on relatively well known concepts. One of the basic premises in my universe is that, other than a few breakthroughs, technology hasn’t advanced much beyond where it is today, mostly due to a continued backlash against science and the consumption lifestyle that fuels so much of today’s innovation pace.

14. What kind of research did you do for The Dire Earth Cycle?

Only the minimum required. I don’t say that to be cheeky, either. A while back I took a writing class — scratch that, a plotting class — given by Robert McKee called “STORY” (excellent class, by the way. I encourage any aspiring writer who has the means to take it before he retires). In the class he talks about writers who spend too much time doing research, or who are already experts in some aspect of what they are writing about, and the problem is they don’t know when to shut up. So his advice, which I took, is to only do the minimum research required for the story you want to tell.

Never the less, I’ve tried hard to make sure everything is based on sound science, I just don’t spend a lot of time explaining the details.

“But Jason, you’re supposed to write what you know!” That’s another thing McKee talked about. He said what that phrase really means is to write what you know to be emotionally true. Anything else you can look up.

All that being said, my research for the books has covered everything from space station materials to sewer construction methods, from tandem-parachuting to the caloric value of various fruits & veggies. I even had a former FBI agent take me to the gun range for an education in firearms, something I’m personally not interested in at all but I still wanted to be able to write about with some knowledge. It wouldn’t surprise me if my Google search history probably has landed me on one watch-list or another.

15. Why did you choose Darwin, Australia for your setting?

This is actually also related to your previous question. One aspect I really floundered on was the space elevator itself — or more to the point, its location on Earth. When I started picking locations for the books, I’d read that a space elevator has to be “near” the equator. I never bothered to look up just how “near” near was. So I was spinning the globe around and saw Darwin, Australia, sitting there just below the equator. I fell in love immediately with the location simply because of the connotation the name brings. The Darwin Elevator — how could I resist that for a title? However, recently I had a freak-out moment when I read somewhere that space elevators have to be ON the equator. Like, exactly on. This was a big oh sh!t moment for me since it’s way too late to change the setting for the book. My editor assured me it was no big deal, but I couldn’t leave it alone. So, I found a research paper commissioned by NASA back in 2001 or so concerning space elevators, and contacted the author with my conundrum. To my surprise and delight, he replied to my email not 10 minutes later and said “Relax, you don’t need to re-write your book.” He did give me some details and specifics that will probably result in a few tweaks, but it’s nothing major. The main thing is that the elevator cord wouldn’t leave the planet going straight up, instead it would be at a slight angle and gently curve until it was in line with the equator (well above the atmosphere). I slept well the night after I got that email!

Worth noting: I was recently reading another book that had a space elevator in New York City, which I think is too far off the equator to be feasible, but honestly it didn’t detract from the story for me one bit — and I’m obviously more knowledgeable than the average reader in this area. This reinforced for me my own attitude that the story is more important. Getting it right is also important, but in a genre that is full of impossible things like time travel and warp drive, I figure describing a space elevator as going straight up from Darwin isn’t the end of the world (nevertheless I’m going to try and fix it, but there might not be time).

16. Where any changes suggested during the editing process that you were reluctant to make?

Another tough question. No, not really. Some chapters we deleted because they weren’t germane to the story, but they’ll probably get released as bonuses on my website later. There were other things that I probably would have left alone if I had no editor, but part of the reason for working with a publisher is to have a professional editor guiding you. So I think in just about all instances I took his feedback to heart and made the changes. One example was a romantic relationship, where the man was in his thirties and the woman recently turned eighteen. I felt in the context of the world such an age discrepancy would no longer hold the kind of social taboo it does today, but it made both my editor and his assistant a little uncomfortable. They suggested I change it just slightly so that she was 21. In this case her age didn’t really matter much to the overall story, so I agreed.

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

I’m an avid user of Scrivener (http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php), which is the best writing software on the planet (and I’ve tried ALL OF THEM). But I’m also keenly aware that in the end it doesn’t really matter. People should use whatever works best for them. If that’s MS-Word, go for it and may god have mercy on your evil soul. Heck, George R.R. Martin uses Wordstar on an MS-DOS machine. Why? Because it’s what he’s used to and it provides everything he needs.

For me, Scrivener is the way to go for reasons that are hard to articulate. But in a nutshell, it makes managing a gigantic project easy. Where Word takes almost 2 minutes to open one of my books (and this is on a very fast computer), Scrivener not only opens it in seconds but I’m literally dancing around the project all the time with no lag at all. I have one project file that includes all three books, and I can search across the entire trilogy in the blink of an eye. I can also do things like view just one character’s chapters, or look at all the scenes that take place in a certain location. Cutting chapters, re-organizing them… all these things are trivial in Scrivener.

I could go on all day… just get Scrivener, try it for the free 30 days they give you, and I can almost guarantee you’ll spend the 40 bucks for it.

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

Reading aloud. I print 50-page chunks and go park my car by the ocean. Then, highlighter in hand, I’ll read my stuff aloud. Anything that I trip over, anything that sounds weird, I mark up and fix later.

On a similar note, about a year ago I started listening to audiobooks. The time I used to spend reading is now divided between my kids and my writing, so audiobooks in the car is the only way I get to read these days. I truly feel that one side-effect of this is that it’s made me a better writer, as I now find that when I’m writing I can hear the words in my mind, almost removing the need to do a separate read-aloud.

19. What are some fun ways to come up with character names?

I use a lot of tricks, but one favorite is to look up sports teams from the nationality of the character in question, and randomly try combining player’s names. I don’t know what it is about athletes but they tend to have cool names. Wikipedia is a great tool for this. I recently had a character from Malaysia, so I looked up their national women’s cricket team and plucked a first and last name from their roster of twenty years ago. Of course, you have to be careful not to use names that are uniquely associated with star players. I wouldn’t recommend having a character called Ichiro Jeter or Peyton Farve, for example. To a non-sports fan those may seem like pretty good names, but many would groan and roll their eyes.

20. Who shot first, Han or Greedo?

Greedo. Before you lynch me, I say that only because that’s what George Lucas says, and it’s his universe to ruin. Han should shoot first, it’s completely in character for one of the greatest movie characters, and he did before the mothra-flipping edits. But for whatever reason Lucas felt the need to change this. Most likely he wanted to make Han more likable. Mistake or not, though, they are Lucas’s films. I didn’t complain one bit when Ridley Scott did the director’s cut of Blade Runner and fixed up all the replicant miscounts, removed the horrid narration, or added the extra hints about Deckard’s replicant-ness. Those were good changes, in my mind.

That being said, Ridley at least called it a director’s cut, and the original theatrical release was included in that box set for comparison. Lucas seems hell-bent on pretending the old versions never existed. In fact he has no intention of ever giving fans the original releases. I think that sucks.

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

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About AmyBeth Inverness

A writer by birth, a redhead by choice.
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2 Responses to Interview With Jason M. Hough

  1. Mike Paulson says:

    This was a great interview. Thanks so much for sharing it with all of us. It never ceases to amaze me how many writers got their “real” start into novel writing during NaNoWriMo. I look forward to Jason’s novel release next year!

  2. Pingback: SciFi Q of the Day: Off-Equator Space Elevators | AmyBeth Inverness

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