Here’s part 2 of the Q&A with author Scott Fitzgerald Gray, author of the extraordinarily good We Can Be Heroes (you can read my review here). If you missed Part One… well, click on that link. He’s a very smart author. Did I mention that I liked his book? Wwe both appear in the short story collection Dreams in Shadow, and we’re both members of the Monumental Works Group, along with a number of other indie authors (that’s how I was lucky enough to score this Q&A).
6. I suppose what I’m getting at is that when you place a story in the real world or a near-analogue, not only do you have to keep your details accurate (or, as you say, accurate-ish), but you also have to overcome the reader’s knowledge of how the real world operates. In a fantasy setting or science-fiction setting, you can say, “The space cops are too far away for this to happen–they just can’t cross the light years in time to be a help to the heroes,” or “There’s no way the City Guard would be able to tackle the reborn Children of Van-Sthar, and besides they’re a mercenary company anyway, so of course it makes sense that they’d let the protagonists handle the outbreak of hellspawn.” In real life, we all say, “But the police stand their ground! What about the National Guard? Where’s the army?” You mitigated all those concerns very well, I thought–and I can’t say more for fear of spoiling your book–but how hard do you have to work to cover those bases?
SFG: It was fairly excruciating, actually, but ultimately in a good way. When I’m writing, my initial pass through the text is very rough. I lay down complete sections and go back and tweak and rewrite and all that, but I also freely leave big holes in the text where I know roughly what needs to happen, but I’m not quite a hundred percent sure how it’s going to happen or how I want to write it. I then go back through a second pass and fill in the missing bits on the strength of having a stronger understanding of the whole narrative as it comes together. Like you, I don’t want to lay down only spoilers, but — As it happened with We Can Be Heroes, one of the things that I consistently skipped over was tiny little problems like, “How do our plucky high-school protagonists go on the run in a stolen paramilitary vehicle and avoid notice, when that sort of thing should really attract a whole hell of a lot of attention from the cops and the army and the media?”
Having read the book, you knew that there are multiple sections involving moving the aforementioned stolen paramilitary vehicle while avoiding any observation, which took a long while to write because I did everything short of actually stealing a large paramilitary vehicle myself and recreating the story to see how it held together. That process of building up the more “out there” details of the narrative that should inspire the real world of the story to go absolutely crazy, then having to go back and figure out how to keep things from going crazy was a huge challenge. But at the same time, it made the book much stronger because that was what eventually drew me toward one of the most important philosophical foundations of the story — the idea of what it means to try to hide in a world that’s under constant surveillance. Which is to say, on some level, the challenge for me of making the story fit the parameters of the real world kind of echoed the challenges that the characters faced trying to navigate the hazards of that real world. And as a writer, I like those kinds of challenges.
Those sorts of “police/army/WTF?” questions you cite are a constant aggravation to me in fiction, as are the related quasi-real world “Why wasn’t Gotham City put under federal martial law several super-villains ago?/SHIELD has all those quinjets, shouldn’t they maybe use them when the aliens attack New York?” questions that arise from time to time. As a writer, I don’t think it’s ever acceptable to simply gloss over verisimilitude problems. I think such things underline a real failure in basic storytelling mechanics, wherein writers focus all their imagination on setting up the Exciting Big Picture, but fail to understand that making the Exciting Big Picture Make Some Kind of Freaking Sense is the more important test of imagination.
7. That’s an excellent point. Too many writers do focus on the Awesome Big Picture; it is, after all, those Big Pictures that shove the story from an idle idea in the back of our minds into the burning mission to describe that picture. For my own work, the Big Picture that started the whole series was revealed in Book 2 of Oathbreaker, when Alton discovers that his knowledge is not what he thought it was. That was the first scene I wrote, and it has never changed as the fundamental picture for me of the underpinnings of my world. I am going to go out on a limb here and say the same thing is true for you: your Big Picture is the anchor of your story, and the details of the story change in order to fit that image. Is that true for you? And if so, what pitfalls have you encountered in writing around your image? If not, how did changing that picture alter the course of your story–and did it change the kind of desire you had to write it?
SFG: True in every way for pretty much everything I’ve ever written. Early on in the process of figuring out my own way around writing and storytelling, I tripped across that very idea — a thing that I came to call “the point of entry” when I was teaching writing. The point of entry for a story is the reason you write the story; it’s the thing you’re constantly working towards through every paragraph and every draft. Sometimes it’s concrete — a specific scene, a climax that you know has to happen, a moment of maximum change in a character. Sometimes it’s a moral lesson or theme. Sometimes it’s just a sensibility or a vague feeling. But the important thing is that it’s the writer’s personal connection to the story, and it’s a thing that should always be kept firmly in mind and heart as the story unfolds.
And though in some cases (as with you and Oathbreaker), the Big Picture and the Point of Entry can kind of orbit around each other, my experience has been that in a lot of cases those two aspects of story can hide from and even work against each other. And as such, it’s always useful for a writer to constantly revisit this idea of “What makes this story real to you?” We Can Be Heroes is probably a good case in point, insofar as the Awesome Big Picture was always pretty clear — the gaming backstory, the action, the high-tech derring-do, and all that. Those things were always clear and sharp in my mind, and I wanted to write a story that would resonate as a kind of love-letter to my geek adolescence so badly I could taste it. But it wasn’t until I really started digging into the story that I realized that as important as those ideas were, they weren’t what the story was really about for me.
What the story was really about for me was the relationship between Scott (the semi-autobiographical narrator of the piece) and Molly (his erstwhile sort-of girlfriend and console gaming goddess). Talking about “changing the picture,” I had actually tried and failed a couple of times previously to beat the story of We Can Be Heroes into shape, because I inadvertently focused too much on the cool geek/SF elements. In its earliest solid incarnation (a point when it was actually a screenplay project), the story focused almost exclusively on the tech and treated the character core of young gamer-geek friends as a kind of group protagonist, whose goals were entirely focused on getting out of the trouble they find themselves in in the book. The Scott and Molly story was there, but in the background, and it wasn’t until I forced myself to look past the cool flashy bits and think about what the story really meant to me that I realized that the Scott and Molly story was my point of entry into the story — and that I’d been effectively hiding from it in favor of how much fun I was having writing the high-tech thriller that the character story is built around.
8. Does Molly exist, or was she wholly created? As a continuation of that point, do you knowingly allow to your characters to accrete characteristics of people you know? That is, how do you work in the influence of people on your life, and how conscious are you of painting in that influence… and how do you know when you’ve gone too far and created a caricature?
SFG: On the advice of counsel, I’ll answer the second half of the question first, by saying that for the most part, across all of my screenwriting and the vast majority of my prose fiction, I rarely ever draw on impressions or characteristics of real people for characters. Certainly, little things slip in from time to time, like I can probably pull out individual lines in certain pieces and say, “Yeah, so-and-so said/did that once and I thought it was hilarious/emotionally devastating/otherwise memorable, so I stole it.” But for the most part, the characters in my fiction tend to be wholly made up with occasional anchor points only to my own life. Not to say that my work is overly autobiographical, because it’s not — but inside most of my characters, you can usually find a bit of emotional resonance or an inciting incident or two that has a direct line to me. I think there are lots of different approaches to writing, but the one that’s always driven me is the process of asking questions, then answering them — so for better or for worse, many of the questions underlying my fiction have originated in my own life.
But having said all that, the one big exception to that rule is, of course, We Can Be Heroes, which steals shamelessly not only from my life but from the lives of the various friends who’ve been deconstructed and rebuilt in a gestalt fashion to create the characters in the story. With We Can Be Heroes, the idea of building a kind of literary paean to my life as an adolescent was always one of the primary goals of the book, so letting a specific group of real-life friends of mine map themselves onto the group of friends in the book was a very calculated exercise. And having done it, I think I’ve probably exhausted my interest in doing so to the point where there’d be no point in trying to do it again. The question you raise about knowing when you’ve pushed too far and have crossed the line from character study to caricature was one of the hardest things to deal with in the book, because every little anecdote, every bit of characterization, everything drawn from real life had to be weighed on the scales of “Well, I think that’s freaking hilarious/dramatic/whatever because I was there when it happened, but is anybody else going to care?” I expect that people who write from real life a lot would have to deal with that constantly, and with all respect to those writers, I’m so much happier just making crap up.
But as for Molly — Like all the other members of the group of high-school friends at the center of the story, Molly is a gestalt character incorporating little bits of different people. For the most part and from different angles, Molly might possibly maybe just look a little bit like different ex-girlfriends, and almost-girlfriends, and girls who were just friends who have passed through my life (often at high speed). But first and foremost, Molly is inspired by a lovely lass named Colleen, who for reasons beyond understanding has insisted on remaining my significant other for a little over twenty-one years now. Not “inspired by” in the sense that the darker elements of Molly’s story are Colleen’s story (because those darker elements are wholly fictional, just in case anyone’s wondering). But “inspired by” in the sense of how the character feels to me, and how she sees the world, and how the sense of undeserved joy that feeds into Scott along the boundary where Molly intersects with his life is what ultimately inspires him to stop being such a complete dickwad and put some effort into figuring out that life, rather than just complaining about it.
9. On a more generic question, what sorts of sources do you use for inspiration? To make this more specific, what were the non-life-experiences you drew on for creating We Can Be Heroes: web pages, books, movies, and so forth. Secondly, what sorts of materials are you using for inspiration on your current project? This is a sneaky way of trying to figure out what your current project is, I should add.
SFG: For a generic answer, mostly fiction. I love reading history and literary analysis, and I like engaging with the real world for as long as it’ll put up with me, but reading other people’s stories has always been the most important catalyst for my own imagination. I read, I go “Whoa!”, I’m inspired, I write — that’s a fairly standard cycle for me.
For a specific answer as regards We Can Be Heroes, you need to set off the maximum-strength WARNING: GEEK ANECDOTE AHEAD claxon because the direct inspiration for the book was a painting by legendary SF artist Chris Foss, which itself was the inspiration for a kind of free-form RPG created by friend Mitchell in high school, which is the inspiration for a particular game played within the book, which became the inspiration for writing the book. The Foss piece in question appeared in the 1981 Best of Omni Science Fiction No. 2 (sitting on the bookshelf across from me even as I type), and was originally the cover for the Perry Rhodan novel Quest Through Space and Time. That crazy six-wheeled ATV hyper-tank was called the Avenger, which became the Vindicator because all the single-word Avenger-based domain names were already taken, and that’s all I can say about that without calling spoiler alert.
During the actual writing of the book, William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the works of Philip K. Dick were always fairly well placed in the back of my mind, for the way both those writers explored the difference between what it means to be alive and what it means to merely appear to be alive. The works of mathematician Roger Penrose were also a bit of foundational inspiration for the book, specifically his theories of quantum consciousness, which I think are pretty cool despite the scorn they regularly draw from the neuroscience community. On a very different wavelength, the work of Harlan Ellison provided a bit of a leg up on the narrative voice of the book, which tried to balance a kind of wise-ass egocentricity with some real emotional revelation, in a way that Ellison does better than pretty much any other writer alive.
For a specific answer as regards current projects, I like to always have a lot of current projects on the go, but my primary current project is a big novel (hopefully the next major book I release) — the first of three big novels with the overall series title “Bladelord.” In the course of channeling inspiration for that project, I’m rereading Guy Gavriel Kay’s books from Tigana through Last Light of the Sun, rereading the early Song of Ice and Fire books en route to reading the last two for the first time, and reading The History of the Medieval World by Susan Wise Bauer and The Mythic Dimension by Joseph Campbell. Additionally, I spend a lot of time flipping through my anthology A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales and making notes. I’m also listening to the Skyrim soundtrack an awful lot.
10. When you write, do you have a standard process? Do you outline, plot, or otherwise plan your stories in minute detail, or do you hand-wave at the minutia and focus on developing the larger points? I know that it’s frequently easier for me to write down the broad strokes and come back to fill in the little details later, or to add ideas as I write, but I recognize that not everyone works this way. So: Are you a planner, or are you a dasher?
SFG: I am the most hardcore advocate and evangelist for outlining that you’re ever going to meet. I live and breathe outlining. I love outlining, and not just in the sense of “I know that outlining and thinking about structure are valuable writing tools so I do those things out of a sense of obligation to my work”, but in the sense that I enjoy the process of outlining just as much as I enjoy the process of crafting words. I outline everything, starting at the top level of breaking down the “act structure” of a long-form work, then digging in to sketch out the flow and form of chapters, then down to the level of breaking scenes out with random bits of dialogue and detailed description.
We Can Be Heroes was a bit of an anomaly because I did a lot of the initial outlining work when the story was supposed to be a screenplay project. But as a representative example, my novel Clearwater Dawn runs just about 98,000 words — and was built on a foundation of outline and notes that totals about 25,000 words. For me, the process of outlining runs alongside and concurrently with the process of exploring the world of the story through notes, which is where you lay down all the different ideas you might possibly pursue in a story, so that you can eventually focus in on the best ideas. Writers like John Irving talk about the importance of building up the world of the story, which is the process of note-taking and writing around the story. And though I’m not as dedicated as Irving (who, in an interview I read some time ago, talked about writing around his stories for years sometimes before starting to write the actual story), I believe that exploring the world of the story outside of the story is the best and only way to properly and fully bring a story to life.
But having said that (which I know I’ve said before in this piece; I love to contradict myself, apparently), I’m also a firm believer that as writers, we need to constantly challenge ourselves. I love outlining, but that means I can pretty easily grow dependent on it, to the extent where I break down and outline even my short fiction. So starting late last year, I specifically set out to write short fiction in a much more free-form way than I ever have before. Starting with only a rough idea of character and setup, I’ve jumped into the writing with absolutely no idea where the story is going — or in some cases, without even knowing what it’s about. Though it might seem trite, I took advantage of the story idea generators at www.seventhsanctum.com as a starting point — not because I have any shortage of ideas of my own, but just because I specifically wanted to see what I could do from as far as possible outside my comfort zone.
The most recently written of the fantasy stories in my Tales of the Endlands series — “The Game of Heart and Light”, “Daeralf’s Rune”, and “The Twilight Child” — were all written that way, and the experience was excruciating. But I learned a whole hell of a lot about my own process as a writer as a result, and about the necessary balance of outline and free ideas. Because for me, even with the paradigm of writing from outline, the process of writing is about giving ideas free reign, and about never being afraid to go off in new directions. A lot of writers get tetchy when they talk about how they never outline, or outline only roughly, because they can’t handle the idea of letting an outline hold them back from their wildest creative impulses. But an outline is never meant to be followed slavishly. Rather, an outline is a road map that sets out the lay of the land and the route you’ve chosen to take through it. And yeah, you’ll change that route as you go — but having made the map is the best way to make sure you know where each possible new direction might take you.