Shells Chats with author Peter Clines
Since the writing arena at times can be hard, how important do you feel it is for an author to be able to have some humor in their life?
Very important. Until you're up in that top 0.0001%, this is a stressful way to make a living. If you can't laugh about things--and laugh at yourself--now and then, you're just going to go nuts. I love books by Christopher Moore and Eddie Izzard concerts and shows like Archer, Chuck, or Fringe that I know will make me laugh at least two or three times.
I also think some writers go for ages trying to convince people that writing is a real job and that it should be taken seriously (I know I did). In the process, though, they lose sight of the fact that it's completely acceptable to like your job and have fun at it. Writing can (and will) be a struggle sometimes, but if it's some horrible duty that makes you brood and frown and hate life, you shouldn't be doing it. That misery will show in your work.
What is the one thing as an author is your most difficult challenge to overcome?
I don't know if there is one thing. I think there are a lot of little things that shift around and all vie for the top slot. Some days I panic that I've written myself into a corner and will have to scrap dozens of pages. Other days I'm almost paralyzed worrying this new book isn't going to live up to the last one. There are times I need to strap myself down in front of the computer because I want to do something else (the major hitch of working from home-- all your toys are right there!). I can obsess over reviews or worry some idiot's going to post major spoilers on their blog that'll ruin one of my books for anyone who reads them.
I think in the end, the biggest challenge for me, or any writer, is the simple one. Writing. There are lots of people who have ideas, but only a small percentage of them actually do anything with those ideas. Only a small percentage of them finish what they started and only a small percentage of them do something noteworty with it. The challenge is to stay in that tiny percentage and not get lazy. Again, despite what we've seen on Castle, the biggest part of writing is writing, not hanging out with Stana Katic (as fantastic as that would be).
You grew up reading comics and watching cartoons. How do you feel that influenced your writing?
Well, the immediate way it influenced me was that I grew up wanting to write comics. I couldn't imagine anything greater than to grow up and be the person who told the stories of Spider-Man, the Hulk, ROM, the Shogun Warriors and many more. Well, okay, it would be greater if I could've been Spider-Man, the Hulk, or one of the Shogun Warriors (probably Raydeen)...
So they made me start writing early. I had a pile of (very justified) rejections from Marvel Comics before I was thirteen years old (Jim Shooter and Tom DeFalco were both very patient with me). I also think those 22 page comic stories taught me a lot about plot and character and continuity. They were simple stories, but they weren't simplistic stories, if that makes sense. And they taught me a lot about heroism, which I think is important to stories. There's an awful trend in comics that it's better to concentrate on a hero's flaws and failures than the fact that they're a hero. Some folks may praise that as bold and daring, but I can't help but notice comics aren't selling like they used to...
Since you started writing at a young age, how do you feel your writing has changed throughout the years?
God, I hope it's gotten better. Our garage flooded when I was in high school so almost all those early stories were destroyed, but looking at some of the few pages that survived it may be for the best. There are some things that would've been fun to have (the Boba Fett fan fiction novel I wrote when I was eleven, for instance), but for the most part I feel safe saying the world is better off without any of that.
I've definitely gotten better with pacing and flow over the years. Also with action scenes. Probably the biggest, and most important, improvement has been character stuff. No matter how wise and worldly I felt in high school, I just hadn't experienced enough of life to really understand people, what motivates them, and what it feels like to be in different situations. College helped some, living out on my own in the real world helped a lot more.
You write articles about film, the industry and such. Do you feel that has helped you as an author and where can we find some of these articles?
It helps a lot, and in a few different ways. I write reviews for the Cinema Blend website and a lot of material for a magazine called Creative Screenwriting, which you can pick up at any Borders or Barnes & Noble (in the latest issue I've got articles about The Green Hornet, The Rite, and I Am Number Four). I have to sit down at my desk and write, because it's how I make my living. I don't get to put it off because I don't feel "motivated," and that discipline carries over to my fiction. I just sit down and write. It also forces me to be very efficient with my writing.and very conscious of where I'm needlessly verbose. Sometimes I can talk an editor into giving me an extra page if I have some spectacular material, but more often than not something gets assigned at 1500 words and it has to be turned in at 1500 words. It's also gotten me very used to working with different editors, which has made me very conscious of when I need to write "for" a specific audience and also just how to deal with editors and notes--which any professional has to be able to do.
Another way it helps is that I get to interview lots of screenwriters and directors. I've interviewed Frank Darabont, Paul Haggis, Kevin Smith, George Romero, Akiva Goldsman, David Goyer, Mark Herman, Nora Ephron, Orci & Kurtzman -- hundreds of people who also tell stories for a living. And while some of their lessons and tips and methods are very screenwriting-specific, a lot of them are universal for storytelling. Shane Black has some amazing insights that work if you're writing a script or a novel or an opera.
Finally, it's exposed me to a huge amount of storytelling, a good chunk of which I never would've experienced by choice. Some of it's been good. Some of it's been beyond God-awful. But you can work with all of it. I've learned better ways to do things. I've also learned how not to do things, which is a lot more important than some people realize.
If a person wanted to start writing screenplays, what is the one key thing they should remember?
Don't. Harsh as it sounds, that's what they should remember. The odds are horribly against you. People latch onto those one-in-a-million success stories and think writing a screenplay can be a casual, weekend thing. It's a brutal industry that's very, very hard to achieve any kind of real success in. Several of my friends and acquaintances (and my girlfriend) are professional screenwriters, and I see so many of them grinding their teeth all the time. You'll have much better luck and less stress buying lottery tickets.
However, if you can't think of anything else you want to do with your life and you absolutely must write scripts, then the advice is just like any other writing. Write something good. Edit it and rewrite it. Get some honest, impartial feedback on it. Rewrite it again. Then go over it one more time. Spellcheck it with your eyes and a dictionary, not with a spellcheck program that will nut sea misused wards that are still spilled rite (case in point). Maybe most important--never write for free in Hollywood. Biggest mistake anyone can make, but so many people think it's "their way in." Your first job almost always sets the standard for what comes after it, so if you're going to take assignments for nothing... well, you've probably just described your career arc.
You have written some short stories. If you had to pick a favorite character, who would it be and why?
Just from short stories? I'd probably say Bill Barnett, the noir detective in "The Long, Deep Dream," a Lovecraftian story I wrote for Cthulhu Unbound 2. It was so much fun writing a Humphrey Bogart-ish character in old Los Angeles. I'd love to use him in another story, but it'd be tough.
Where can we find some of these short stories?
Well, I just mentioned Cthulhu Unbound 2. There's a period zombie story called "The Hatbox" which is free to read at The Harrow online journal. I've also got stories in the Timelines anthology from Northern Frights Publishing, The World is Dead (edited by zombie maestro Kim Paffenroth), and I just recently found out my story "Mulligan" got into a new Permuted Press anthology called Times of Trouble.
Ex-Heroes is a popular book amongst horror fans. How did you come up with the idea for Ex-Heroes?
It was a two-pronged inspiration. One was reading a very hyped zombie-superhero miniseries that, in my opinion, completely missed the target. It was still popular with lots of people, but it got me thinking about the story I'd hoped to see and the things I would've done differently. Right about this time I was setting up my office in a new apartment and stumbled across all these old sketchbooks from high school and grade school, all packed full of superheroes I'd created back then. The two ideas cross-pollinated in my brain, I started playing around with it, and one of the first things I wrote was the chapter titled "The Luckiest Girl In The World." I wrote about a hundred pages of character notes and a few more chapters, and I realized this was a real story. I'd just sold two shorts to Permuted almost back to back, and I was a regular on the message boards there, so Jacob Kier (the publisher) knew who I was. I bounced the idea off him, he said he'd be interested, so then I actually had to write it.
You also have a book out called The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe. Can you tell us a bit about it?
It's a mashup, like a lot of other books that have come out this past year or two. Unlike a lot of those books, it isn't going for comedy (not that there's anything wrong with that). It's a serious rewriting of Robinson Crusoe as a Lovecraftian horror novel, done in the style of Daniel Defoe. It's been gratifying to hear that--except for some of the very obvious bits--it's hard to tell where Defoe's writing ends and mine begins. Someday I hope to see someone do a big list that counts up all the different references in it.
What was kind of amazing was discovering how little I needed to change once I got into it . To paraphrase a much better writer, it took only a tiny nudge to push Crusoe out of the light. Did you know Crusoe spent two years enslaved by Moorish pirates? Or how many of the major events in his story line up with the full moon? Or that the savages were sailing out to perform eerie rituals on his island? All this stuff is in the original book--it's not mine. You could read this horror version and still probably get a B on most tests or exams.
And Amazon keeps switching the title around for some reason. No idea why.
Are there any upcoming projects you can share with us?
Well, Ex-Patriots, the sequel to Ex-Heroes, went in to Permuted about two weeks ago. It's under editorial scrutiny now and should hopefully be hitting bookstores later this summer. I've got a contract with Permuted for another book which is still a bit under wraps. It's kind of a survival horror/ mystery/ urban fantasy/ sci-fi thing, set in present-day Los Angeles. There's a few more genres mixed in there, too, but naming them would spoil some of the fun. I'm trying not to talk about it too much, because I love surprises and twists. I don't even want to risk guiding people down certain paths of thought, if that makes sense. I also just got offered another deal, a chance to do a set of intertwining short stories in a post apocalyptic setting, but the details are still getting hammered out on both ends. If that happens, though, those should be out before the end of the year.
Where can people find out more about you?
My web presence is pretty meager, but what I have I try to stay very current with. There's a Facebook fan page I set up (so I can keep my personal page just for close friends and family), and I generally post there at least once a week and try to respond to any notes anyone leaves. I'm also announcing a contest there in the next week or two. You can also see a picture of me trying to look "authory" with a tweed coat and Spider-Man tee shirt. I also have a blog called Writer on Writing (I didn't spend much effort on the title) where I tend to prattle on once a week about writing. Not about secondary stuff like agents and cover letters and contracts and all that, but about the primary stuff. Character, dialogue, action, structure, genres, and so on. Just a lot of lessons and information I've distilled over about three decades of learning how to do this. It won't all work for everyone, but I think most people who are serious about it will find one or two useful tips there.
Posted by Shells W