Welcome back to the conclusion of our interview with Richard Ellis Preston, Jr., author of Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders, the first book of The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin.
Read part one here.
AA: Continuing our conversation, everyone seems to have a different journey to seeing their works in print. What was your publishing experience like?
RP: Well, I have over a decade of screenwriting stories about Hollywood agents and pitching scripts to studios, and many years of pounding doors and pavement with no success in the A-list department, but my book publishing experience was a lighting strike. Once I wrote the first book in my Romulus Buckle series, I was prepared to query agents starting with the big dogs and working my way down.
I have an old friend named Julie Kenner who is an extremely successful writer and she offered to open a few doors to agents for me, agents who she thought might be interested in my steampunk story. Two of the three agents passed, but the third, Adrienne Lombardo, made me an offer of representation. She was a brand new agent at Trident Media Group, which is a large Madison Avenue agency, and I became one of her first clients. She submitted the manuscript to her top half-dozen publisher choices in January of 2012 and one of them, Amazon’s new sci-fi imprint called 47North, made a 2-book deal offer in March.
It all happened very fast. So far I have had a great experience with the editors and author team at 47North. Adrienne has since moved on to other things but I still consider her a friend. My new agent at Trident is Alyssa Eisner-Henkin and she has been attentive and great as well.
AA: For the aspiring writer, what lessons did you learn about having an agent and editor, their feedback, and your writing?
RP: I had several Hollywood film agents and my experiences varied from good to terrible. I would say that you want to find an agent who is determined to become a real ally, someone who is invested in the long-term development and advancement of your career as an artist rather than somebody who just wants to fire out your work and see what might stick. That is difficult in the beginning because you are thrilled to be signed by any legitimate agent willing to bring you on.
And make sure you get involved with a real, legitimate agent—check their credentials and verify them if they are small operations—there are a lot of pretenders out there who will waste your time and even get you into legal trouble. You should never have to pay a real agent or a real publisher a single penny.
Anyway, due to my film experience I am used to having my work dissected and rehashed in rooms full of producers, actors and directors because a screenplay is not a finished thing and a movie is truly made by committee with the director in the lead (this experience wasn’t as bad as it sounds—most of the time there was plenty of support and praise for my work as well). I developed a thick skin regarding being ‘edited’ and learned never to take those suggestions personally.
With my books I have been lucky enough to have highly intelligent people with great respect for my stories working with me: Adrienne and Alyssa as my agents, Alex Carr as my editor and Jeff VanderMeer as my development editor. How Alex managed to hook Jeff VanderMeer in as my development editor I shall never know, but I am grateful to him for it. Jeff has an amazing capacity to measure the balance of a story, an insane respect for the author (he, of course, is a highly accomplished author himself) and a great sense of humor which softens the edges of his knife.
I have learned a lot from all of these people and improved my craft as a writer because of them. If they are good at what they do then their ideas and suggestions are always designed to help make your project better—being too insecure to deeply consider what they offer only hurts you in the end. Have good people around you (I was lucky that way), respect their feedback and weigh it seriously.
AA: If you weren’t an author, what else would you be doing now?
RP: Well, most authors have day jobs. I am a dad and I work in broadcasting. I know you are asking what I would be doing instead of writing and I don’t know—I have always loved writing. I always thought being a tour guide in Europe would be fun.
AA: What do you do to keep a balance between writing and the rest of your life?
RP: I try to compartmentalize the writing, to write for a minimum of two hours in the morning where I can become completely lost in it in the early hours before my children wake up. I used to be a night owl and I enjoyed writing very late but as I have gotten older I have gravitated to the morning routine. I am a big believer in the idea that your subconscious chews on all sorts of ideas and problems during the night so getting into writing mode right after waking up allows you to tap into that source while it’s fresh, while your brain is still partly stuck in the dream state which evaporates as the worries and stresses of the day beat you up.
AA: Do you talk much with other writers and other artists to compare notes, have constructive critique reviews, and brainstorm new ideas?
RP: No. I think my years of screenwriting experience at the committee table taught me that I am truly built to be a solo act. I loved the brainstorming of partnerships but now I want to tell my stories all my way, all inside my personal vision, and that was a big reason why I moved to novels. If I fail at novel writing I want to go down swinging my own sword. I do have family members who read my later drafts but right now I have no interest in creating stories in a group of more than one.
And just to add, the developmental edit process is very much a brainstorming and a partnership because you are dealing with big-picture issues such as structure, pacing and overall story and character arcs, generally, so there is plenty of discussion, idea-bouncing and critique at that stage.
AA: How have you and your work grown and changed over time?
RP: I think (I hope) that I take big leaps forward in my craft with every book I write. I believe that I am a much clearer and cleaner writer now than I was five or even two years ago, and that I am less concerned with any personal ‘style.’ I have learned a great deal working with Jeff VanderMeer, such as making sure I keep a POV character more present and richly involved in every scene.
AA: Writer’s block happens to everyone and can be rather frustrating. What is your solution to overcoming it.
RP: I don’t really believe in writer’s block, or maybe just the word ‘block.’ I think we suffer from personal distraction or laziness in those instances, which I suppose is a form of blockage, or more specifically the negative anti-creative force identified as ‘resistance’ by Steven Pressfield in The War of Art. I try to turn out a chunk of work every time I write, even if I know it is all garbage, because then I have turned the problem over to my far more capable subconscious which will find a way to do it right later on down the road. For anyone suffering from issues involving the writer’s life and getting writing work done, I would highly recommend both Pressfield’s The War of Art and Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife.
AA: Most of the authors I’ve talked with have some type of day job and that writing is their other job. What has that situation been for you and how has it helped/hindered being a published writer?
RP: I have a day job in broadcasting and I am Mr. Mom for many hours a day as well. Sometimes I feel hindered by it but that is always the result of my failure to take advantage of the time I do have to write than from a lack of opportunities. Jeff VanderMeer breaks your day/week/year down for you in Booklife (he held a day job for most of his writing career as well) and when you apply the paradigm to your own life you can see that you have ample time and opportunities to write if you commit yourself to the schedule and discipline it requires.
Most writers, even the greatest ones sitting alone in their Paris apartments with a bottle of wine and a poodle, do not write anywhere near all day. They write for a few hours and then leave it, allowing the subconscious to work on the problems until the next day’s pass. But they are also consistent, disciplined and ruthlessly protective of their writing time. I believe that if a part-time writer is able to apply these same rules then they can achieve something close to a full-time writing life. I have both succeeded and failed at achieving this, but I keep on trying.
AA: Do people outside the regular reading, steampunk, and convention communities recognize you for Romulus Buckle? What kind of reactions have you received?
RP: The book has not been out a month yet and no one, steampunk or not, has ever recognized me. The book gets reviews and reactions ranging from raves to ‘mehs’ to all out pans. I guess that is the fate of all art.
AA: Looking beyond steampunk, writing and working, what other interests and topics fill your time?
RP: Being a dad, mostly. I don’t watch television much any more, though I will spend time on XBOX – very bad. I am a huge history buff and I am very slowly chipping away at a Master’s degree in that subject. And I am aghast that I have never seen an episode of Game of Thrones.
AA: What other fandoms are you part of in some way (as a fan or other participation)?
RP: I was a massive science fiction geek in the 70’s, long before it was fashionable like it is now. I sort of straddled the world of jock and geek—I was the only assistant captain of the high school hockey team in the D&D club. I cut my teeth on Verne, Wells, Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury and I saw Star Wars 36 times during its first theater run. I am a huge fan of Star Trek, Star Trek:TNG and the first three Star Wars movies. I am also an Indiana Jones fanboy, though the 4th movie really disappointed.
AA: That’s really great to be the combination of jock and geek, and a good role model for others with similar interest, showing that they need not be polar opposites. How do those interests influence your work?
RP: If you read my Romulus Buckle series I think you can easily see the influence of Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as the fun old C.S. Forester and Rudyard Kipling stories and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, which is best known for Master and Commander. I wanted to write a fun, swashbuckling adventure series about a crew on a (air)ship of war, and I took from all of these examples I love and more to help build the skeletons of my characters and stories.
AA: Any final thoughts to share with our readers?
RP: Just to say that this is an exciting time for steampunk. It seems to be growing by leaps and bounds and the open-form nature of the subgenre welcomes people and allows them to approach it from almost any angle (hence the many splinter “punks’ such as diesel, clock and alchemy). I am thrilled to be a tiny part of that.
Thanks, Richard, for the interview! We’re looking forward to the sequel and hearing more about the rest of the series.
While we are waiting for Engines of War, please keep up with Richard on his website.
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