The Tuesday Interview – Author Henry Vogel
Science Fiction writer Henry Vogel pays us a visit in this week’s interview ~
Brant Guillory, 14 February 2017
The new book is titled The Undercover Captain and is the second book in the ‘Captain Nancy Martin’ series. It’s a standalone space opera adventure, as was book 1, The Counterfeit Captain. In the new story, which picks up three years after the main events in book 1, the Terran Federation Navy reactivates Nancy and attaches her to an undercover investigation into the disappearances of large groups of teenagers and young adults all along the Federation’s rim. Joining a female special agent, she goes beyond the Federation’s borders searching for slavers. Instead, she finds evil beyond her darkest nightmares and is presented with a very literal deadline for solving the mystery.
The Nancy Martin series is contemporary with my ‘Matt & Michelle’ books. Nancy was originally a supporting character in The Fugitive Heir (Matt & Michelle book 1). A friend asked for a story featuring Nancy, so I spun her off into her first book. I hadn’t planned on a second book featuring Nancy, but the idea for The Undercover Captain came to me while I was writing the third Matt & Michelle book (The Fugitive Snare, releasing in May). When I got seriously bogged down in the M&M book, I put it aside and wrote The Undercover Captain. Taking that break was just what the other book needed. I finished M&M book 3 pretty quickly after I returned to it. As for what’s coming next for Nancy, I’d like to write at least one more book featuring her—something to give her some closure—but I don’t have anything else beyond that desire, right now.
My four-book (so far—I have ideas for at least three more) Scout series of planetary romances is also set in the same universe, though about five hundred years earlier than the other two series. I have also written the first book in a new space opera series set in an entirely new universe. It’s titled The Recognition Run and is tentatively slated for an August release. I’m currently working on the second book in that series and have the basic idea for the third.
Some folks just start writing; others meticulously plan every plot point with detailed outlines before they any words go on paper. Where do you fall on that spectrum, and how has that changed over time?
When I start a new novel, I always have the beginning and an ending in mind. After that, I just try to connect the two.
In writing circles, this is referred to as the ‘pantser vs. plotter’ debate. A ‘pantser’ is someone who ‘writes by the seat of their pants’ (there are some writers who morph that into ‘panzer’ because it sounds better). Those writers start with a basic idea and dive directly into writing the story. I prefer the more high-minded sounding ‘writing into the dark’ to ‘pantser,’ but this is how I work. You can find lots of debates about which approach produces better stories and some can writers get really pissed off when other writers don’t recognize the brilliance of their own approach. I think it’s a stupid argument, since there’s no single right way to write a novel.
When I start a new novel, I always have the beginning and an ending in mind. After that, I just try to connect the two. Most of the time, my ending turns out quite different from what I originally had in mind. The new ending is always, without exception, far better than my original idea. So, even if I change my writing method and start plotting everything in advance, I doubt I’d stick with an outline beyond the first quarter of the book.
Do you start out with an ensemble of characters that you build stories around? Or do you add the characters as you need them while the story unfolds?
I usually start with one or two characters and build the cast from there. In the Scout books, I began with David and Callan. In the Matt & Michelle books, I actually began with Matt fairly well developed, but no other even moderately detailed characters. For example, I knew Matt was going to team up with a girl, but she was originally going to be a street thief. I’m not sure exactly when that all changed, but it was somewhere in the middle of the second chapter, mere pages before Michelle first appeared.
Some of my favorite supporting characters—including Nancy Martin—just grew out of the needs of the scene I was writing. I needed the leader of a starfighter squadron and felt a woman would work better in the scene than a man. I am quite pleased with how Nancy turned out, too, since I’ve had many women tell me how easy it was for them to empathize with her.
Even characters I know I’m going to need are fairly abstract until I started writing them. I’m tempted to give examples, but if the readers haven’t read my books the examples wouldn’t mean anything. (Please go read my books!)
You’ve got a few different sci-fi series out there – the Scout series, the Fugitive series, this one. Do you set out planning to write a full series, or are you after individual stories and then realize there’s more to tell?
When I started writing my first book, Scout’s Honor, I was simply aiming to complete one novel. By the time I got to its end, I had an idea for the next one. I also figured I’d come up with an idea for a third one before I finished the second one (which I did).
Parts of The Fugitive Heir—mostly the opening scenes—were originally going to be the opening scenes for Scout’s Honor. By the time I actually started writing the book, I’d come up with a different opening and a totally different main character. I liked the opening and the character I didn’t use, though, so let it simmer. By the time I finished Scout’s Duty (Scout book 3), I had enough to start the first M&M book. M&M wasn’t supposed to be a series, but I liked the characters so much that I just had to send them on more adventures.
Some folks might remember you from some of your comic book series 20+ years ago. Why the shift from Southern Knights, X-Thieves, and Flare to more narrative sci-fi? And as a side note, Flare is responsible for one of the greatest comic-book sound effects of all time – “POIT!”
First, I only wrote a few Flare adventures, and I was under contract to Heroic Publishing for those. Credit for “POIT” probably belongs to Dennis Mallonee, Flare’s creator.
I love writing comic books and would happily take them up again. The problem is that you have to have an artist before you can have a comic book. I know plenty of artists, but none of them can afford to work for sweat equity. Conversely, I can’t afford to pay the artists to do work-for-hire. Until I can get around that situation, I probably won’t do much work in comic books.
Prose has the distinct advantage that it only requires a writer. Plus, with the advent of digital publishing and print-on-demand, it’s incredibly easy to publish a novel. I only need an artist for the cover and there are lots of cover designers / artists out there.
One of your other writing projects was the Cliffhanger-250 blog. How did that materialize, and what’s the current status of that one?
The idea of the Cliffhanger 250 was to make me write a novel—even a very short novel composed of 101 incredibly short chapters, almost all of which ended in cliffhangers. I forced myself to a 250 to 300 word limit per chapter, beginning with a resolution to the previous cliffhanger and (usually) ending with a new cliffhanger. In a way, it was a lot like a prose version of an adventure comic strip.
What it accomplished was creating the writing habit. I used the obligation I gave myself to post new material every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to keep me going. Making each little chapter into its own publishable project made it possible for me to keep my focus small rather than letting myself get overwhelmed by the idea of writing an entire novel.
I don’t update the Cliffhanger 250 site any more, having moved to a more versatile website that lets me easily advertise my books and post my latest writing. I’ve also slowly increased the length of each ‘chapter,’ moving from the original 250 words to 1300 to 1500 words. As a result, the action is less frantic and the characters have more depth.
Most book lovers know the “big names” out there – George RR Martin, RA Salvatore, Terry Brooks, etc. Who are some smaller names that you enjoy reading? Who are some writers that have influenced you over the years, and what have you taken from them to incorporate into your own work?
I’ve read books by all three of the authors you mentioned, but I’m not a huge fan of any of them. I love almost everything by Lois McMaster Bujold and am a particular fan of her Vorkosigan series (with the exception of her latest one, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which was well written but boring). Larry Coreia writes fun, action-packed books, as does Timothy Zahn. If your only exposure to Zahn is his Star Wars novels—which are excellent—I suggest you check out his other work. There’s Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett, of course. Their planetary romance novels form the original inspiration behind the Scout series. Beyond them, there are young authors Jonathan Stroud and Jack Campbell and, honestly, too many more for me to name.
As for influences, I credit Gary Gygax as the biggest one. Not Gary’s writing style, since I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his novels, but Dungeons & Dragons. I learned most of what I know about storytelling from being a gamemaster. I hardly ever use adventure modules—there weren’t that many when I started playing back in the ‘70s—and am an extemporaneous GM. When you’re making stuff up as you go, you either get good at generating ideas on the fly or you fail miserably. I’ve running games for over 40 years and currently have three different groups, so I think it’s safe to say I didn’t fail miserably.
A GM gets immediate feedback from his players, which helps you learn what works and what doesn’t. It also makes you critical of your own ideas. I can’t count the number of times I tossed out what I thought was a minor detail but which caught my players attention. Someone (usually my wife) says, “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense. We’d better find out why they did that.” That forces me to come up with a logical explanation for that throwaway detail that’s suddenly the basis for an entire adventure or even an entire campaign.
That is where I learned to create stories. Writing is just the act of recording stories so others can read them
What’s next off the desk? What’s stories are in progress, or already plotted and waiting for the time to write them?
I guess I’ve already mentioned this once, but I’ll revisit it.
In May, I wrap the Matt & Michelle series with closure on the main story arc concerning the treatment of psychics by the Terran Federation. I’m pleased with the trilogy and where it ends. Right now, I don’t have any plans to write further Matt & Michelle adventures, but you never know.
Next up is what I’m calling the Recognition series. It was actually inspired by the rather poorly received movie Jupiter Ascending. I’ll admit that I rather enjoyed the movie, but I thought the Wachowskis screwed up by trying to do too much in the movie. In particular, the bureaucratic montage where Jupiter gets her title recognized really didn’t work for me. I thought a much more interesting and exciting story could have been told about this unknown woman fighting for survival while also working to claim her rightful title. I also think it’s hard to go wrong with a vast interstellar kingdom with lots of ruthless infighting among the nobles.
I wrote the story I wished Jupiter Ascending was. Beyond the interstellar kingdom and a young woman trying to claim her title, my novel has nothing in common with the movie. As I mentioned earlier, I am currently working on the sequel, which I’ll follow with the third book. That will complete the Recognition story arc, but I’m planning at least one book featuring a pair of supporting characters from the series.
What should we have asked you, if we’d known what to ask you?
Perhaps something for any aspiring writers who are reading this? For instance, this is the point where someone who wants to write but hasn’t started yet usually asks, “Where do you get your ideas?” Writers always respond, “Ideas are easy.”
I remember wondering the same thing before I started writing and hating the answer every single writer always offered. Now that I’m one of those writers, I also say ideas are easy, because they really are. The difference is that a part of my mind is always watching for story seeds. It’s always mulling dozens of different inputs before combining bits of each input into a story idea. So, what new writers need to do is train their brain to come up with ideas. I did that running D&D games ages ago. There are other ways to do it—simply sit down at a keyboard and start typing whatever comes into your mind, for instance—but role playing games have the added advantage that they’re fun.
I also recommend reading various books on writing and story structure–I particularly liked The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler (no relation). But, the single most important thing new writers must do is write. There are people who talk about writing and are always ‘working out the kinks’ in their brilliant idea. These people want to have written but don’t want to actually write. Ignore them. Take no advice from them. They aren’t writers. The cliché is ‘writers write,’ but it’s also the truth.
Thanks for the time, and good luck with the next books!