Thursday, March 23, 2006

Chat With Scott Virtes

I'd like to thank Scott for a wonderful chat. I think we all learned quite a bit, and it was a ball.

Here are his sites, blogs, and other links:

Some of his most recent stories can be found at:

For those who missed it, and those who'd like to re-visit what was said, here are some highlights:

Renee-mod: While snooping to prepare for this chat, I read that you get some of your inspiration from dreams and odd ideas that just come to you. When these inspirations come, are they usually ripe with detail, ready for plucking (so to speak), or impressions, that you bring to life with details as you write?

scottv: As time goes on it seems like there is a stream of images in front of me. Almost solid. Started as daydreams a long time ago. The process is a matter of pulling elements out of the stream. For serious works, I follow serious links. For funny stuff I might pull out the most absurd things I can find. All depends. Every length of story has slightly different rules. After doing enough of them, I can usually guess the length before I begin. It's more like channeling weird "world we live in" energy. Though I can outline if I feel the need.


Renee-mod: What comes first, characters or plot?

scottv: Actually I have a heap of stuff about characters.

Typically there's the idea. Then picking characters that will make it an interesting trip. Sometimes the characters will take a trip I wasn't expecting. If their ideas are better than my original plan, okay. Otherwise I smack 'em into shape. Simple characters just need a few basic rules to guide them, and need to stick with them.

There are a few simple questions to ask, like where do they come from, what's their attitude, and what do they want? That's past, present, future. Enough for most short stories.

You can get some fun combinations with very little effort. Maybe a car salesman named Bob who can't remember his childhood, he's always trying to sell something, but he really wants a family. Or a pizza delivery guy from Canada, will talk your ear off if you let him, his goal in life is to prove that there are no conspiracies. Simple enough on the surface, but complete enough to feel whether there's a story or not, whether they're a good fit.

Almost any dull character can be spiced up by using quirks. There's a well-known improv exercise called "party quirks" where you pull weird behaviors out of a hat, and try to act them out -- the host of the party tries to guess your quirk. Lots of fun. Everyone has quirks, and there are so many to choose from. You can instantly set the humor level of a story by choosing the right quirks ... such as "likes to kick people", "can't stop laughing", "gets stuck in a loop".

Or a tale can become surreal by using other quirks: "thinks she's a bridge", "married to a block of cement", "only speaks to silverware." Just some rough examples. Plenty of stories there.

My big inspiration (Roger Zelazny) once wrote that none of his characters has more than 3 actual traits. Wow.


dayna: Thanks, Renee. Scott, you mentioned daydreams and dreaming...without getting too far off track, do you lucid dream?

scottv: They're mighty lucid to me.

My night dreams often get edited right before my eyes. I'll die in a train wreck. Rewind. Find a door. Die anyway. Rewind. Stuff like that. Sometimes I'm more tired when I wake up.

What's nice is that almost any phrase can pull out a thread of dream. All I have to do is focus long enough to catch 'em.

A few of my dreams have had closing credits, even. Though most of the time they're the closing credits from the Simpson's. Really. I recognize the font. Then Yeardley Smith scrolls by. Ends with Utit Choomuang. I don't know all the names in between. So they're just a blur. Brains are funnnnny things.

dayna: In the editing you you do that yourself, consciously?

scottv: Actually, it's not so much my character in the dream that has any control. It's my editor half that just puts me through hell. It does feel very conscious. I like waking up in the middle. Then I get pretty much full control.

georganna: I dreamed in print (text) when I was a full-time news reporter.

scottv: I believe it. When falling asleep, my brain plays solitaire or some other inane PC game classic. Or chess games, when I'm playing that a lot.


TexasRed: I've written a few shorts and I draw off people I know to find little quirks that would make a good story....What is your favorite way of getting a story line?

scottv: Good q, AC. They mostly hit me over the head, or come out full-blown when I'm walking around the block. There's a sort of soup of unformed things. I let ideas stew in there until they find enough meat. When they're ready they make themselves known. Possibly the strangest method known, but that's me.

TexasRed: Good way to keep the excitement that makes a story work! thanks


georganna: With all this going on in your head, do you keep notes, a writer's journal or something; or are you of the "if it's good I'll remember it" school?

scottv: georganna: I had a journal from 1981 to about 1990. Ran about 660 pages before fizzling. I can always go back there, pull ideas out. But they're not "complete" ideas, just cues to things I meant to say. Actually it was slightly longer. Now that I think of it. When I turned the page and wrote 666, there was a blackout that lasted two days. So it did go a bit longer. Now I have a blog so I can torment everyone.

Renee-mod: I've read the blog...interesting stuff there.

scottv: BTW. Most of this "streaming" behavior is the sign of a poet.


Renee-mod: You have such a creative and expressive personality. Who or what do you believe inspired that?

scottv: Good q, Renee. Tricky one. Let's see... Okay, I think it was inspired by being left alone for long periods of time and drinking heavily in college.

I know, you want something better. Just teasing. It's just that there are always words and scenes waiting to jump in, see?

I've read about 2000 books I'd say. I can either read them to enjoy them or read them as editor-boy and find flaws, or sometimes I can just see the whole underlying structure and all the trickery.

I think the "flow" is out natural state and if you let it everyone will force you to stop. Kids are creative. The creativity gets beaten out of them. Very sad. Totally backward.

You'll find I disagree with almost every single thing our society does. We've forgotten all the good stuff. We've even forgotten how food works. Kill the TV's, please.


dayna: I was wondering about the wide range of stuff you write... do you think that's a unique trait, for a certain kind of writer?

scottv: Not really. You'll find that most creative people do more than one thing.

It's just TV and the ridiculous forces pushing people into careers than makes it seem otherwise. Most actors can play music, or write, for example. It's nothing strange. But the media plays it down, telling them they're only allowed to act. That's a tough force to reckon with.

I think it's good to experiment. Until you try a lot of things, you may be missing the things you're best at.

In my case, it's more like having a plan B for my plan B, job wise, but the creative stuff is the ultimate goal.


Renee-mod: Amazon now has different programs, which seem to be great for promoting book sales. You have two stories in the new .49 Amazon Shorts program. (One Mistake at a Time , The Goblin Saint ) Could you explain how that works?

scottv: Amazon Shorts is one of those odd things that nobody knows how it will work yet.

Amazon opened a department for short stories, typically 2000-8000 words, to be sold for 49 cents each. Author gets 20 cents per sale. Standard arrangement.

It's potentially a high exposure place to be. You have to have one book for sale on Amazon to qualify.

They started off with known writers like Greg Bear. Looks like a few hundred little-known and self-published people (like me) have bust in there and clogged up the works. So they may come out with more qualifications soon.

Thanks for the links, Renee. Those are two funny (a.k.a. weird) tales. I'm only going to post funny stuff there. The provide a free blog for promotions.

Renee-mod: You are quite welcome.

scottv: They have a 9-page contract, and ask for promotional blurbs and all, so that's quite an exercise. Didn't know I didn't have all that stuff till they asked for it.

Renee-mod: Have the shorts helped with book sales? Or are they intended to?

scottv: All sales are hard to pin down. Amazon amazingly has no tools to let me see my page hits or sales. So it's hard to advertise. I think my personal appearances are still the best boost to sales. There I know exactly what sold. Anywhere else there's a smokescreen of one kind or another.

Renee-mod: that's too bad...tracking sales can be so helpful


scottv: I have to admit my story collection is self-published. the stories had already been published, so I wasn't cheating. I just needed something of mine to sell to people.

Renee-mod: That makes perfect sense to me.

scottv: Without the book, I used to go to shows with heaps of magazines. Nobody's going to buy a whole zine for one story from some guy they just met. The collection was a necessary step. The new collection ("Blank Spaces") is being published by a small press. Just like if I did it myself, but this way I have to listen to all the delays. grr. weird biz.


Renee-mod: Your publishing success rate is quite impressive. Some here have no experience with publishing, and some don't really know how to start. Could you please explain the method that you use to publish your work?

scottv: Sounds like fun. Again, I've tried a little of everything. Regular publishing, self-publishing, ebooks. Mostly because I don't want to talk about stuff without experience. ebooks are dead right now, except for a few rare cases like Hope's library. Self-publishing is usually done as a cheat, with no real results. I'll dance around that fire for now.

Audrey_S: Really? I thought ebooks were growing.

scottv: A typical ebook sells under 100 copies. With heavy marketing, a few do well.

Well, ebooks on how to write ebooks are still the top. But yeah. Still, folks have a dreamy-eyed impression of the whole thing.

It's like anything else. If you just write it and throw it on a web page, it will just sit there. Nobody will know about it. There are all kinds of skills that go into making a buzz.

There is bound to be a comfortable reader someday. And the market may spike.

Audrey_S: Do you think ebooks glutted the market? People discovered they could make them on their own without a publisher, and flooded the market?

scottv: Yes, there is a flood factor. Like blogs, it's easy to make an ebook, spew it out there and think the money will just roll in. It's just not the reality for most of them.

The big holdup has been the lack of a comfortable way to read the things. I think the typical ebook buyer gets to about page 10 and then finds something else to do.

Now there are markets trying to cram stories and poems onto cell phones. Again, it's hard to believe anyone wants to read things that way.

When it's too easy to publish, a lot of people will rush unfinished things into "print". A lot of really amateur writing out there, souring the whole pool.


TexasRed: What is your favorite genre to write in and why?

scottv: Ah, AC. Tricky stuff, there. Each genre works best in certain lengths.

I love sci-fi, but all my sci-fi ideas are novels or trilogies. For short stories, I do a lot of experimental and surreal works. Dream works (a.k.a. mythic realism).

I enjoy poetry because it can touch every genre with the same kind of brush strokes.

I'll go with "sci-fi" as the final answer. If only there was time. 11 novels stuck in my head in that genre.


Renee-mod: I understand that you are bothered when you see writers looking for, or being advised to take, a short cut to publishing. Could you give an example or two of the misguided short cuts you've noticed, in order to help our members sidestep a possible pitfall?

scottv: I'll take a swing at it. There are no short cuts. If something is too good to be true ... and similar babble.

Really, though. Most beginning writers think their books are finished, and thinks they're great. It's good to be enthusiastic. But typically our first 3 or 4 novels are just practice.

It can take years to find a voice. But then you've got all your old drafts out there on Lulu or wherever, and it can be embarrassing.

Another factor is ... if a reader doesn't like your current work, they can just write you off for good. You need to satisfy them. And while they may not be too discerning (it seems), they deserve the best you can do. Short cuts can backfire.

I know a few writers who have had 5 or 10 books published by the big guys, and still couldn't make it.


Renee-mod: If you were teaching a group of talented writers :) how to publish the absolutely wonderful stories they had already written, what one or two things would you most want them to understand about the business?

scottv: Good Q, R.

I'd go with basic method of submitting your work, how to find the "right" markets, explain rights vs copyrights.

How to grow a thicker skin. A.k.a. how not to let little things ruin your day.

I have to practice this, since I may be talking to some local college classes soon. I think those are the big basics.

That, and watch out for shortcuts unless you realllly put some planning into it.

Rights vs copyrights is such a basic thing. Yet there are startup amateur publishers who obviously don't know it. Can you really be in a business and not know anything about it? Weird.


Audrey_S: Could you tell us about your acting experiences?

scottv: oh, acting. Very odd story.

I was looking for some little no-budget film project here in town, heard about the tryouts for a "sailing movie with Russell Crowe".

Normally, Hollywood wants pretty people, so I can safely ignore most auditions.

But this time they wanted "men who look like they were in the navy in the 1800's". I'm a Scottish long-hair, and that fit fine. So I went.

Out of 1600 candidates in 30 countries, I ended up as one of the 50 crewmen who were there every day. The "core group".

We had extensive training in guns, swords and stage fighting. No acting classes, though. The director made life so realistic we were pretty much living the parts.

I looked like someone else and acted like someone else for six months.

Audrey_S: Giving you good experience for the next "sailing movie" to be made.

scottv: Ah, Audrey, sailing movies are rare. But there are rumors of a Viking epic.

Audrey_S: Or the next Pirates of the Caribbean.

scottv: Peter Weir is in Europe filming a WWII German spy who was a stage magician as a cover. Russell's expected another boy, then he goes to the Mediterranean to whomp on Carthage ... but maybe they'll be back here someday.

We were given priority interviews to be in Pirates 2 & 3. I had to turn it down.

Audrey_S: Oh no! What a shame.

scottv: Why? Disney's notoriously cheap. They wanted exclusive use of our bodies for 18 months, but couldn't guarantee more than 6 weeks of work.

Just like in publishing, you gotta know the market, watch for potholes.

Acting ... cont'd

After seeing how a movie production works, I found that everything about screenwriting made sense finally.

So I got some of the guys together and started an improv acting group, where I learned what little I know about acting ... i.e. that I'd rather be directing!


Renee-mod: As an editor, what do you look for in a submission?

scottv: (putting on editor's hat)

Editing is an odd affair. You'd think it would be easy to find 10 good stories in a month. I could almost stop right there.

BUT, you get junky pages you can't even read, folks who insult you in the cover letter, most opening paragraphs put you to sleep ... You get writers who chew you out if you try to say something helpful on a rejection. You ask for horror and they send you muppet-like things on mars. Or you get story after story about people killing themselves. That's not horror. That's just depressing. Or a story's rolling along just fine, and the main character drives into a tree for no reason. And they promised you a surprise ending right in the cover letter!

Basically, at least pretend you read the guidelines.

Know the genre. And the sub-genres.

Don't act like I'll change the whole focus of my anthology just for you. It happens. That's just weird.

Be friendly. Write a good story. Good stories are pretty obvious early on. Most get dumped after half a page.

If you want to have a editor's night sometime, it could be fun for all.

Renee-mod: That is something to really consider...thanks

scottv: Renee - the "people" factor is really big.

If there's no cover letter at all, it just feels like a pile of work.

Other folks will try to wow me with bizarre little contests & stuff.

Fact is, if the editor doesn't recognize your name, you can't make them like it. The story is the thing.


Renee-mod: Scott, is there anything you want to say before we close up for the evening?

scottv: Final words ...I'm always the "odd guy". But that comes with the territory. You have to find a voice and figure out who you are, then all your work will benefit from it. I think I have the "poet brain". But I found a way to apply it to other things. Be creative!


At 8:24 PM, Blogger Jolie said...

Scott says e-books are dead? Don't tell that to the folks at Epic. Erotica authors and erotic romance authors are selling their e-books so I don't know where he gets his facts.

At 8:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jolie,

I really think it depends on the genre. In some genres, ebooks are booming. In others, there is nothing happening. Erotica, romance and self-help (especially for writers) are three of the genres that seem to be doing very well.

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ebooks in my opinion are far from dead.

Building An eBook Empire


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