Welcome, Dale. I’m delighted you agreed to let me interview you. What is your book about?
Here is the blurb: Exchange is an alternate history novel where our risk-averse society suddenly has a frontier again, as a series of “Exchanges” temporarily swap town-sized pieces of our world with an alternate reality empty of humans, a wild, dangerous place people can go to start a new life if they’re brave or crazy enough.
With little warning, computer guru Sharon Mack finds herself in a land where sabertooths, giant bears and even more dangerous creatures still roam, fighting giant predators, escaped convicts, and a mysterious cult to rescue her kidnapped daughter before the Exchange ends, trapping them forever.
How long had the idea of your book been developing before you began to write the story?
For this particular book, almost twenty years. I know that because I came across a notebook with dated entries from when I was in my late teens outlining some of the ideas. That’s unusual for me. Most of my stories go from concept to writing within a year or two. I had the idea for Exchange long before I had the maturity or self-discipline to write it.
Is there a message in your writing you want readers to grasp?
I’m not big on putting messages in fiction, but one snuck into Exchange. We live in what my daughter calls a ‘bubble-wrap’ society, one that is obsessed with reducing risk to the point of keeping us from doing a lot of things we want to do and/or need to do. How does that kind of society react to suddenly being in a world that is wilder and more dangerous than the Wild West ever was? A lot of us take the benefits of the bubble-wrapping for granted, but dream about getting away from the restrictions. Unfortunately, the risk reduction and the restrictions are often a package deal. I try not to hit people over the head with that message and you can read and enjoy Exchange without ever noticing it, but it is there.
How has your background influenced your writing? How does your environment/upbringing color your writing?
I grew up in a fair-sized city, but I spent a lot of time with relatives in the country, so I probably write rural life a little more authentically than someone without that experience. I also have a computer background, so there is always a little bit of the techie in my stories. I have to dial that back so it doesn’t get in the way of the story.
What’s your writing schedule like? Do you strive for a certain amount of words each day?
I usually concentrate on one aspect of writing at a time. If I’m writing I schedule myself to write a thousand to three thousand words per day, depending on what other obligations I have. If I’m editing or marketing that’s usually all I do that day.
A group of people from a workshop I went to last July pledged to write at least two hundred and fifty words per day every day for thirty days. We kept renewing that through the end of December and most of us ended up averaging five hundred to a thousand words per day. The two-hundred and fifty words is a small enough amount that you can do it in twenty minutes to a half hour, so pledging to do that is a good way to avoid procrastination. At the same time, the mindset for editing and marketing are enough different from writing mode that I found myself having to work at making the transition.
What was the first story you remember writing?
In fifth grade I wrote the first ten or fifteen pages of a really bad Hardy Boys imitation. It had no plot, cardboard characters, and if I ever get famous I plan to hunt it down and shred it so nobody publishes it after I die.
What is the most difficult part of the whole writing process?
The last five percent of the editing process, the part that gets you from almost the right words to exactly the right words. For me that takes more time than writing the rough draft.
What is the easiest part of the writing process?
For me, the easiest part is writing the rough draft. Once I have characters and a plot outline I can write the rough draft of a novel in four to six weeks and I enjoy doing it. What happens before and after writing the rough draft is far more difficult and time-consuming.
Do you have mental list or a computer file or a spiral notebook with the ideas for or outlines of stories that you have not written but intend to one day?
I write down lists like that from time-to-time, but not systematically. I recently found a notebook with a list of twenty or thirty ideas that I wrote down over twenty years ago. A surprising number are still good.
How many stories do you currently have swirling around in your head?
Way too many. I have two novels with 70-80% of the rough draft finished, at least half a dozen short stories more than half-written, probably a dozen more that I started and still want to complete and a constellation of ideas I’m not letting myself start writing on until I finish the ones I’ve started.
What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?
A good science fiction story starts with a big idea–usually new technology or a unique world. From there good science fiction takes a character we can care about and gives them a problem or a challenge that is caused by the big idea. The challenge needs to be big enough to push them almost beyond their ability to cope. It needs to be big enough that they have to grow in order to deal with it. A really good story has the main character earn their victory, assuming they win. They need to pay a price. Typical ways stories go wrong: Not making the story big enough for the world they are set in or not challenging the main character enough. If nothing bad happens to the main character through the story it’s hard to have a good story. If they just have to do one thing to win and it doesn’t cost them much, it’s hard to have a good story. Good stories come from making your character suffer and dig deep to overcome odds that seem impossible. A good villain helps too, obviously. The trick is to make the villain realistic, smart and justified in his/her own mind while still keeping them the antagonist.
What advice you would give to an aspiring author?
Know what you’re getting into. Writers on TV have an idyllic life. Writing in real life is like the rest of real life. A lot depends on who you know. A lot of very talented writers never succeed because they’re nice people and get jostled out of the way by less talented people with sharper elbows. If you hate corporate politics and see a writing career as a refuge from it, you will be disillusioned. People and companies in the publishing industry are a mix of good and bad, selfish and generous just like people anywhere.
If you love to write, I would strongly encourage you to continue to write. Do understand though, that the market for writers is incredibly, beyond imagining glutted. Never put yourself in a position where next month’s rent and food or even the rent and food six months down the road is dependent on earning money from writing. There are probably a couple of thousand times more stories landing on editor and agent desks than there are slots for them, so as a new writer the odds against any one of your stories getting accepted by a particular venue are astronomical. If you wrote the best story out of a stack of a hundred, you still have only a three to five percent chance of getting accepted. The odds in your favor do go up if you’re persistent, but getting published does take persistence as well as an exceptional story. Do you have something exceptional to say? Something better, more compelling than the vast majority of stories out there?
Becoming a better writer is partly a matter of writing a lot. Raymond Chandler claimed that it takes writing a million words of crap — ten or twelve good-sized novels worth — before you write anything publishable. That’s probably close to right, though you can cut that down somewhat by reading well-written stories. You can also cut it down by having exciting things to write about. That comes partly from life-experience and partly from being a good listener — basically incorporating other people’s experiences. Empathy is a big help too, being able to understand someone with a very different set of life experiences and beliefs.
You can come out of a great English program writing wonderful, flawless prose, but if you don’t have anything to say why should anyone read what you write? On the other hand, if you’ve had extraordinary experiences you can write mediocre prose and people will overlook that because your stories are so vivid and compelling. There is nothing as real as actual experiences and there is a grittiness, a reality to scenes where the author has been there and done something very similar to what they’re describing. It’s very hard to duplicate that without the experiences.
What are your current writing goals and how do you juggle the promotional aspects with the actual writing?
My goal for this year can be summed up as finishing what I started. I have two novels in what should be final edits, two more with the rough draft essentially done and waiting for me to edit them, and two more where the rough draft is 70-80% done. By November I want the first two to be published. I want to be doing final edits on the ones where the rough draft is done, and I want finished rough drafts on the ones that are currently almost done. When I meet those goals I’ll start the next novel.
I tend to do marketing in blocks of time rather than trying to do it at the same time as writing. I have writing days, editing days and marketing days. That fits my somewhat obsessive personality. I’m not sure if it’s the most effective way to get things done.
Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?
I wrote Exchange as a science fiction story, for techie guys a lot like me. I get generally pretty good feedback from that audience, but surprisingly, the people who tell me they couldn’t put it down and want a sequel yesterday are mostly women who rarely read science fiction and are generally more into mystery or romance. I can understand that because the story has a strong female lead and there are elements of romance and mystery, but it did surprise me. As to how to market to that strength, I haven’t figured that out yet.
What do you think the most influential change in book publishing will come from?
The book publishing industry has at least two problems it has to solve. First, how do they find new voices that will sell among the thousands of voices that won’t, and second, how can they find readers in a market that will become increasing fragmented.
The sheer number of manuscripts going to major publishers and top agents makes it extremely difficult to find the stories from new authors that will sell. A lot of the big publishers and agents have apparently almost stopped trying, though they won’t tell you that.
The problem with not finding good new voices is that it sets up competition. Granted, some authors will give up and stash their stories in a trunk, but others will find a small publisher or self-publish. If even the extremely good new voices aren’t making it to the major publishers, then marketing-savvy smaller publishers end up publishing those people and taking market share away from the majors. The marketing power and distribution of the majors can minimize that to some extent, but at least in science fiction we’ve seen small-press books getting major awards and tens of thousands of sales. That’s mostly happening in the larger small presses, but it’s feeding the growth of competitors.
As those competitors ramp up, people have more choices and the market becomes more fragmented. Publishing probably becomes more a matter of finding enough niches for a novel, rather than going for the kind of mass audience the big publishers are going for now.
The impression I get from talking to people in tune with the industry is that book people are increasingly getting forced out of larger companies in the book publishing industry in favor of accounting types, lawyers and general marketing people. That’s a very disturbing trend, but it does open up some possibilities. Depending on how nasty of a non-compete clause the people signed I could see some very talented book people available for smaller companies or available to strike out on their own. I can see amorphous entities forming where a publisher is more a coordinator than anything else. They farm out final edits, then contract out marketing and distribution. I could also see writers or small publishers forming cooperatives for marketing and distribution. A lot of possibilities are opening up, and I don’t know if we’ll see a final shape for the industry for years, maybe decades.
Click here to read an: Excerpt From “Exchange” by Dale Cozort
Click here to read: Three Things Television Tells Us About The Future of Writing by Dale Cozort