An interview with Simon HaynesMikey 16 comments
This interview happened by complete chance. You see, Simon's younger brother and I were close high school buddies, and it was through the magic of Facebook that I stumbled on Simon a few months ago. It's hardly surprising Simon barely remembers me, after all it's been 20+ years since I last walked into his room to poke fun at him for using a Sinclair ZX81. His brother and I were both aficionados of the 'more desirable' Commodore 64. Though I did think Star Wars was much better on the Sinclair. That said, sorry Simon, the C64 still rules :-)
Back in this decade now, looking at Simon's web page I discovered he is not only a published author, but he's one who has received extremely favourable reviews.
Embarrassing myself with many a loud snort while reading the first Spacejock on my daily train ride to work, I knew this was someone both our audience and contributors would like to hear from as there are many aspiring authors among you.
And so we promised to send Simon your questions and we have delivered. Naturally we put the most interesting ones forward and he has responded with some great advice for aspiring authors and alike.
- How has your life changed since being published?
- Why science fiction and comedy? Do you have a background in science or comedy?
- What advice would you give to anyone starting out?
- Can you make a living from writing this early in your career?
- Are you committed to deadlines or are the Hal books at your own leisure?
- How much freedom are you afforded when composing a new novel? Any restrictions?
- When one or more books become successful, is there pressure to stick to a proven formula?
- How would one craft their writing style in such a way as to target such a wide demographic?
- Do you prepare the storyline and characters, or do you take a concept and just see where it takes you?
- Because most sci-fi publishers will not accept unsolicited manuscripts, how do you get your foot in the pod bay door?
- Do you think it is possible to become one's own literary agent?
- At what point during the exercise of writing a novel can you definitively say, "That's a wrap"?
- Can you tell us why you don't charge for your yWriter software and all your other programs (which are awesome by the way). What led you to that decision?
- In science fiction circles the name HAL is usually affiliated with a certain computer, so I'm guessing Arthur C Clarke is an inspiration to you. From a science fiction writer's perspective, how important are the works of Clarke or other sci-fi authors for that matter?
- What's your all-time favourite question you've ever been asked in an interview? What was your answer?
- Seeing as you have already titled the next 2 unfinished books, does this mean you have already plotted the story lines that far in advance? If so, what can we expect?
- How do you view the role of science fiction in today's society?
- What do you do when you're not feeling particularly creative?
- Aside from the actual writing part, what is your favourite part of life as an author?
- Any plans to write something outside the Hal Spacejock universe?
- What can we expect in the next book?
- Who would be your dream co-author and what would the novel be about?
- What do you get when you cross Simon Haynes with Carl Sagan?
- Can I pitch you my idea for a story?
How has your life changed since being published?
Not in the 'hell, I'm famous' sense. Or, alas, in the 'hell, I'm RICH' sense. Most changes are internal - confidence in my writing, worries about whether the publisher will keep buying my books, etc.
After you're published you realise the mountain you've been climbing all these years is just one in a range which stretches as far as the eye can see. There are always new challenges to face, so you never sit back and bask in the glow of a job well done.
On fame: I get to do school & library visits a couple of times a year, which is fun. I can be famous with 20-30 kids for at least an hour.
Why science fiction and comedy? Do you have a background in science or comedy?
I've always enjoyed satire and intelligent comedy. And I've been a computer nut (okay, geek) since I saw my first home computer (okay, overblown calculator) in 1982.
I like in-jokes - for example, I called the main character Hal Spacejock and I pretend the books are some kind of zany Bill the Galactic Hero romp, but they're incisive and very, very dry. Also, the major character is a robot, Clunk, but I pretend the books are about Hal Spacejock. Love that kind of misdirection - give people low expectations and work really hard to blow them away.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out?
Finish the first draft. And while you're writing it, don't think any of the plot/characters/scenes are going to make it into the finished novel. Just write a load of scenes which vaguely move towards some ending you may or may not have thought up yet.
The secret to getting a novel published isn't in sitting down and writing something absolutely brilliant right off the bat. No, the secret is to write a first draft and then edit it into shape. There's more work in the editing than the writing, believe me. Then, when you're finally ready, get half a dozen people to read it and tell them you want to hear *what they DIDN'T like*. What didn't work, where was it boring, etc.
I do that with every one of my novels, and the feedback allows me to target characters, locations, dialogue, scenes where I've been lazy.
If you don't do this, you could waste five years shopping a piece of unreadable junk around. Isn't it better to have negative feedback from five people than to waste all those years? I think so.
When you finally start submitting query letters & sample chapters to agents, that's the time to work on the next book. It might take a year or more to snag an agent, and I want you to picture this scenario:
Agent: "I really like your work but I don't think there's a market for a ballet-dancing taxi driver with a time travel machine. Do you have anything else?"
Writer A: "No, that's it." Agent: "Oh well. Good luck."
Writer B: "Sure. Do you want to see the novel I've just finished? It's still a bit rough, but --" Agent: "Sure, send it over."
Can you make a living from writing this early in your career?
Not only is that a no, but 95% of all published authors have part time jobs, full time jobs, or worse. Only the really big names earn enough from writing to devote their whole time to it.
Are you committed to deadlines or are the Hal books at your own leisure?
One per year is my goal, although the last couple slipped a month or two. (I had #4 ready for an April 1st release, but the publisher pushed it back to June.) Therefore, Hal 5 will be November 2009 and Hal 6 November 2010.
How much freedom are you afforded when composing a new novel? Any restrictions?
My self-imposed ones are probably a lot stricter than anything my publisher might come up with. I know primary school kids read my books, even though they're written for adults, so I keep them clean. (That doesn't mean I won't stick in a gag like a truck with "R. Soles Smallgoods" though).
I usually work on a rough draft first, then show my editor a plot outline. This is usually a complete fantasy, but we haggle over it until she's happy the characters are doing the logical thing. E.g. if there's the slightest hint some character is doing something because the plot needs them to, she's onto me like a ton of bricks.
When one or more books become successful, is there pressure to stick to a proven formula?
None from my publisher. You see a lot of three-book-series in the shops, but they're usually fantasy trilogies. Hal is different because it's like weekly episodes of a TV show. I've always said I intend to write 15 Hal Spacejock novels - call it a season. I'll stop if they get repetitive though.
How would one craft their writing style in such a way as to target such a wide demographic?
I don't like fancy language, long words, experimental writing, long paragraphs, difficult sentences, etc. All that stuff is the author going 'me! me!' instead of allowing the reader to see right through the words to the story and characters.
I don't put clever little asides in my book (like Pratchett does, for example). I'm invisible.
Do you prepare the storyline and characters, or do you take a concept and just see where it takes you?
Both. I usually start with a rough idea I've been kicking around for a few months or years. (I have a lot of one-line plot outlines in a folder.)
Then I start writing, and usually the plot comes together a lot better when I start writing scenes from the point of view of someone other than Hal or Clunk. The secondary characters are what makes each novel, rather than H&C themselves. They're present, destroying everyone else's plans, but not always the major focus.
Because most sci-fi publishers will not accept unsolicited manuscripts, how do you get your foot in the pod bay door?
Unsolicited manuscripts are not the same as unsolicited submissions, which is something I got wrong to start with. The former is when you print the whole thing out and mail it around. The latter is where you write a short cover letter, a 1/2-page plot outline, and include the first couple of chapters.
Most publishers will accept the latter. None of them want the former. See the agent question below for why you don't want to do either.
Do you think it is possible to become one's own literary agent?
Yes, although it's not an ideal situation. I recommend people get an agent for these reasons:
- You can approach lots of agents at the same time, but only one publisher.
- Agents will respond quicker.
- If you show your novel to all the publishers, you can't then turn around and approach agents. Why? Because they won't have anyone to send your novel to.
- Good agents know the business. They'll know who's buying, and what.
Having said that, please don't sign with a scam agent. There are tons of bad ones out there. See http://www.spacejock.com.au/LiteraryAgent.html for hints on avoiding the bad ones.
At what point during the exercise of writing a novel can you definitively say, "That's a wrap"?
When the final deadline is up. And even then, I'll still try and get changes in.
Can you tell us why you don't charge for your yWriter software and all your other programs (which are awesome by the way). What led you to that decision?
I designed them for my own use, not to sell. I primarily released them to publicise my novels .. after all, having 'Spacejock' on hundreds and thousands of desktops and websites around the world can't be a bad thing.
Over time I just got used to giving the software away, although I do have donation buttons now because people kept asking for them.
In science fiction circles the name HAL is usually affiliated with a certain computer, so I'm guessing Arthur C Clarke is an inspiration to you. From a science fiction writer's perspective, how important are the works of Clarke or other sci-fi authors for that matter?
People generally don't believe this, but the name Hal came about because I wanted something brash and American-sounding. (Sort of Buzz Lightyear-ish, although I began Hal Spacejock in 1994 so that certainly wasn't the inspiration.)
In the books Hal is sort of North American and Clunk is British. Not overly so, since the books are set in the far future and nations have no meaning. I just picture a galaxy where different groups and nationalities can all settle on their own planets, and I keep this idea running by giving people from nearby planets similar styles of names (e.g. mostly slavic, mostly hispanic, that kind of thing.)
What's your all-time favourite question you've ever been asked in an interview? What was your answer?
When can we expect a Hal Spacejock movie?
Seeing as you have already titled the next 2 unfinished books, does this mean you have already plotted the story lines that far in advance? If so, what can we expect?
I have a bunch of ideas, as mentioned earlier. I don't know which ones I'm going to use, though.
How do you view the role of science fiction in today's society?
Today's society IS science fiction. We may not have hover cars and personal robots, but on the medical/computing/scientific side things have rocketed along. (sorry.)
What do you do when you're not feeling particularly creative?
Aside from the actual writing part, what is your favourite part of life as an author?
It's nice to be eligible for groups and associations such as sfnovelists.com - and it IS a feeling of achievement to see your novels in the shops. Telling people you work as a writer is cool, although they usually raise their eyebrows when I tell them it's science fiction, and back away slowly when I mention humour.
Any plans to write something outside the Hal Spacejock universe?
Not at this stage. Every time I get an idea I find I can easily work it into a Hal Spacejock setting. Therefore I have no desire to work on anything else.
What can we expect in the next book?
I'm not entirely sure - I've written 120,000 words and have half a dozen plot outlines of varying complexity.
Who would be your dream co-author and what would the novel be about?
I'm a lousy collaborator, which is why my software is never going to be open source.
I couldn't work on fiction with anyone - perfectionist control freak describes me just right when it comes to my writing. (I'm happy to work with my editor, who describes me as a very good author to edit, but we each have our areas.)
What do you get when you cross Simon Haynes with Carl Sagan?
I used to watch his TV series about 25 years ago, but I hardly remember it. I think he'd tell you some amazing fact and then slip in a double-entendre.
Can I pitch you my idea for a story?
No point. I'm not a publisher or an editor, and authors have absolutely no weight in the decision to publish or not.
I could write you a glowing reference and it would be about as useful as a fishnet umbrella. Hell, Stephen KING could write you a glowing reference, but publishers are only interested in whether a given manuscript is likely to result in prestige for their company or lots of money (or both.)
The good news is that this opens the door for anyone to get published. You just have to write a book which an editor (and the publishing team) believes will find a big enough audience.
Let me pass on a big Thanks to Simon for entertaining us during his busy schedule. If you are looking for some humorous holiday reading be sure to add Hal Spacejock in your Christmas stocking this year. I've already got mine :-)