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Turning The Tables: [SFFWRTCHT] Interviews Bryan Thomas Schmidt

As most of you know, Bryan Thomas Schmidt regularly interviews authors, editors and others for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat (#sffwrtcht) both live on Twitter and here at Grasping For The Wind. However, he’s always been reluctant to use that platform to promote himself. We thought it would be interesting to turn the tables and ask him the same usual questions he asks the guests on SFFWRTCHT. So here’s an interview with Bryan, whose second novel, The Returning, came out June 19th, his second major release this year.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt

(c) Bryan Thomas Schmidt

A sequel to The Worker Prince, which won Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best SF Releases last year, in The Returning, new challenges arise as Davi Rhii’s rival Bordox and his uncle, Xalivar, seek revenge for his actions in The Worker Prince, putting his life and those of his friends and family in constant danger. Meanwhile, politics as usual has the Borali Alliance split apart over questions of citizenship and freedom for the former slaves. Someone’s even killing them off. Davi’s involvement in the investigation turns his life upside down, including his relationship with his fiancée, Tela. The answers are not easy with his whole world at stake.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of SFWA.

SFFWRTCHT: Where’d your interest in SFF come from?

BTS: Well, I was always creative and a dreamer. I would make up these elaborate stories in my head or play around on the piano tapping out my own compositions at a very young age. My mother says I never played with a toy the same way twice and recalls my getting frustrated when the toys couldn’t do what I imagined them doing in my head. But the apex of my passion for science fiction and fantasy and my love of storytelling was seeing Star Wars in 1977. My cousin had already seen it twice and was jumping up and down for me to go. I thought the title sounded rather dumb but we went and it blew me away, pretty much changing my life forever. To this day, the fight aboard the rebel ship that opens that movie is one off my favorite movie scenes ever. After that, I read and watched whatever I could find from Star Trek: The Original Series to Planet Of The Apes, Disney’s The Black Hole, Battlestar Galactica, and whatever I could get ahold of. Besides early Star Wars tie-ins, which introduced me to Alan Dean Foster, an amazing author, I also read Tolkien’s Middle Earth books (The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings) which my dad owned, and then read James Blish’s Star Trek books, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, etc.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors and books?

BTS: Well, Robert Silverberg and Timothy Zahn are probably my top two. Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle is amazing and still blows me away and I love the whole Majipoor Cycle. Zahn’s Heir To The Empire revived my passion for Star Wars, and then I discovered his other work in The Quadrail Quintet, Deadman Switch and more. Orson Scott Card’s Ender books are favorites; Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series; also Mike Resnick, especially his Africa stories and the Chronicle Of A Distant World trilogy. It’s been thrilling to have Mike become a friend and mentor. I still love Jules Verne and H.G. Wells a ton. This list could go on and on, especially in science fiction and fantasy so let’s mention some stuff in other genres: I loved Doyle’s Holmes books; Laura Ingalls Wilder; WEB Griffin and Tom Clancy; John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks,  Ridley Pearson and David Morrell.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you develop an interest in writing and how did you pursue that? Classes? Workshops? Learn on your own?

BTS: I’ve had a long and complicated journey. I have been writing since I learned the alphabet and was able to hold a pen. My friend Chris Marshall and I wrote fanfic for John Peterson’s Littles children’s books and then I got into making up storylines for my favorite shows like Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, Battlestar Galactica, etc. I even created my own TV show and wrote 13 episodes in high school. The pilot script of that, District One, won me my first writing award. Most of my formal study in storytelling came in film school at both Carnegie-Mellon University and California State University at Fullerton, where I finished my B.A. in Communcations-Radio/TV/Film and then went to work for a company that made documentaries for shows like Biography on A&E and The History Channel. Along the way, I became the person who analyzes and takes up studying whatever interests me, so when I finally decided to write that novel, the one I’d been carrying the idea around for since I was a teenager, I picked up books on craft and learned by trial and error. Later, I did a few workshops, critique groups, etc. I also wrote three nonfiction books which never got published but that was fertile learning ground for sure. And I had a screenplay in development with a Disney executive which never got made but still, collaborating with him in rewrites was a learning process. Additionally, I attending Lovewell Institute For the Creative Arts in high school and cowrote my first play then served as writing instructor there for several years helping others do the same. I learn more from teaching, which I adore, than anything else I do in life. It’s amazing.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you involved in Cons or fan costuming as a kid?

BTS: No. Cons were weird things where people went around in costumes all day wanting to be called “Zorn.” As odd as I was, I wasn’t into that. I did costumes at Halloween and in theatre but not much else. Now I love Cons and think of them totally differently but that’s what I saw on the news back then that kind of scared me off. Plus, I was really introverted then, unlike now, and didn’t feel comfortable in crowds of strangers. It was safer and more fun to stay home and play in the worlds in my mind all day.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did you write before making your first sale? Did you start with shorts or novels?

BTS: 25 years? Or do you mean since I started? I actually sold the second novel I wrote, which was The Worker Prince, the story I’d had since I was a teenager. But I wrote it in Fall 2009 and sold it at the end of 2010 after many revisions. The next book sold as a sequel. In between, I started to get a few short story bites and sold my first anthology as editor, Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales to Flying Pen Press. That came out in April, headlined by Mike Resnick.

SFFWRTCHT: What drew you to space opera? What are the core elements of good space opera to you?

BTS: I just did a blog post in this blog tour for Moses Siregar on this, actually, and also discussed it in posts for Mary Pax and Jamie Todd Rubin. I think space operas need high stakes: the end of the world or something close. They need heroes we can believe in who are imperfect but fighting for right and to overcome their own failings. A large cast of characters and a large setting, even if it’s one world, it should have many different places which we encounter, and I think you need some political and personal scheming with good twists and turns. Lastly, you need lots of action and fun gadgets, ships, etc. Those are the tropes I think most people expect from space opera. Beyond that, I’d say it shouldn’t take itself too seriously. It’ll never be Shakespeare, but that’s okay. It should be great fun and good escapism and that’s what keeps people coming back again and again for more.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you usually start with characters or plot?

BTS: I’m a plot guy but there has to be a central character of some sort to help me get grounded. Since I tend to pants it rather than outline, it gives me a way to launch into the story and get it rolling while I get my bearings and get the mind working. Combined with that, I like to have some idea of the setting and key conflict as well as the three to four major turning points. I still think three-act structure like a screenwriter.

SFFWRTCHT: Where’d the idea for the Saga Of Davi Rhii come from?

BTS: The idea was thinking in terms of a Star Wars-type feel and an epic take on the Moses Exodus story of the Bible. Originally I planned to just retell the biblical story in that science fiction setting but as I got into writing it, I decided it was less interesting (too predictable) and less fun as a writer to strictly retell the story, so I began making it my own. I made the enslaved Vertullians Christians who knew the Moses story and held it as part of their past history, and that gave me the freedom to parallel the story in some ways while making it my own in others. That also changed it from one Michener-sized book or TV miniseries (my original concept) into a trilogy of books.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a bit about the setting, cities and world please. What inspired its creation and aspects?

BTS: There are three things I held onto for 25 years before finally writing it. The opening line of The Worker Prince “Sol climbed to the top of the rise and stared up at the twin suns as they climbed into the sky;” the name Lord Xalivar as antagonist; and the idea of a prince and military pilot who discovers he was born a slave and helps fight for freedom. From there, I had two suns, as you can see, so I wanted to build a system around that. My friend Mike Wallace, who is much better at science than I am, helped me sort out the planetary sizes and orientations as well as environments in seeking to create the thirteen planet system and then decide which worlds would be the best settings. So Legallis and Vertullis became the primary settings but I venture to more in each book. Having so many planets in a large system gives me a lot of ground to cover and a lot of room to play. I’m not a hard science fiction writer. I use lasers in space, FTL drives and such. But I did try and get the distances between planets, travel times, and the effects of gravitational pull from two suns on planets to be a part of the story in some ways. I don’t go into great detail but that does have its effects and I used terraforming as well.

SFFWRTCHT: The Worker Prince really told the basic Moses story as far as a prince, Davi Rhii, discovering he was born a prince and secretly adopted, finding his birth family, and then fighting to free the slaves. You didn’t have an actual exodus though. What happens in book 2, The Returning?

BTS: Well, it’s a spoiler but obviously the slaves fought for freedom in the first book and won, so they are trying to integrate as full citizens into society and discovering what that means. And one aspect of that is that some people still struggle to accept them as equals and disagree with their being given that status. So there’s conflict over that and there’s someone assassinating Vertullians either as revenge or protest or both, no one’s sure. Davi Rhii has old enemies, including his Uncle Xalivar and military academy rival, Bordox, who are coming after him and may be trying to kill him. And Davi also has a fiancée now and the relationship struggles and adjustments that come along with. The story unfolds as a bit of a murder mystery/thriller and I really tried to write a story that just takes off and never lets up with lots of surprising twists and turns.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use Scrivener or other “writing software tools”? Write to music? Any rituals?

BTS: Did Patrick Hester make you ask that? Just kidding. Actually, I use Microsoft Word as I always have with spiral notepads for notes and such. I outline a chapter or two ahead, just a rough one sentence of each scene and the characters as well as which plotline it needs to address (might be more than one), and I rearrange those outlines freely as needed. I just like to have some idea of where I’m going and, especially with sequels, there’s so much to keep track of and tie together that I had no choice. I tend to write complicated plots, multiple POV characters and arcs, etc. I don’t have many rituals except perhaps that I like to write on paper sometimes and then type it in so what’s in the computer is second draft. It help me organize thoughts and gets me away from the computer, which I spend a lot of time at with editing and other duties all day anyway. I do like soundtracks when I write. They are about the only music I will put on because anything with lyrics makes me want to sing along and distracts me. I don’t use music very often though. Sometimes I write with the TV on and wind up blocking that out as I do.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like—specific block? Write til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?

BTS: Well, being unemployed full time for 26 months, it’s odd that I wouldn’t just write all day, I suppose, but my most creative times for writing are 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. So I do most of my actual writing during those times. Editing and polishing I do well in between as well as social media, blogging, and other things. I do keep a list of tasks and goals I need to stay up with because I juggle a lot of stuff, from interviews to blogging to editing, copyediting, proofing, etc. and my reading duties for SFFWRTCHT usually require six books a month which need to be read cover-to-cover.

SFFWRTCHT: You get compliments for strong dialogue and action. Any tips on how to approach those?

BTS: For dialogue, I have to hear it in my head as I write it. It needs to sound like people talking so I tend to imagine conversations and, sometimes, even talk out loud to myself. It’s what I’ve always done and, of course, screenplays are mostly dialogue, so I got a lot of work developing that when I was involved with film school, etc. For action, I have a Timothy Zahn book handy for reference, but I also picture that like a movie in little montages or clips. I imagine the various POV and the various actions and responses and then try and block them out on the page in the parameters of POV, etc. which are needed in a novel. I also try and keep it short. Action scenes are not the place for infodumps. But the most important rule for any writing to me is enter the scene as late as possible and get out as soon after as you can. If you start in the middle of the action or close to it, you will have a pacing and adrenaline rush feeling for readers that really helps add the tension and drama you want to those scenes and the entire book.

SFFWRTCHT: Are there any plans to do more with this world?

BTS: I actually have a couple ideas, including a kid’s book of Yao, Davi and Farien as kids when they first meet and a YA series of their adventures before the current saga. Whether I’ll ever get around to those, who can say. I have a few more short story ideas as well. Short stories have been a useful tool to expand the universe and backstory for me and really helped shape the novels. One of those is an ebook prequel called “Rivalry On A Sky Course” which first appeared in Residential Aliens magazine online. The other is a story set twenty years after these books which I wrote for Space Battles.

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

BTS: I am just finishing my first epic fantasy novel, which I actually wrote the first draft of in 2010 soon after finishing the first draft of The Worker Prince, then set aside and didn’t get back to until this year. That is a trilogy with a medieval society moving from an age of faith and magic to an age of science and reason. Steam tech is coming into its own, so they have the traditional feeling setting in some places with the addition of airships, steamships, and guns in the larger cities which control science and technology. I have several anthologies in the works as editor. My first children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids is due out very soon and I am working on a science fiction chapter book series as well for Middle Grade age. I have a few short stories in the hamper as well plus a sword and sorcery novel about Belsuk the Half-Orc and a noir detective SF time travel story about Tommy Falcone, both of which are half first drafts right now. So I think I’ll have plenty to keep me busy. I also have my first print magazine sale coming out with a story called “La Migra” about illegal immigrants from Mexico who get abducted by aliens and mistake them for Border Patrol. Also a comedic science fiction story due out in an anthology co-edited by SFFWRTCHT regular Jaleta Clegg as well.