Gregory Frost is sharp.
Everything about him – from his insightful and knowledgeable workshops, to his wry sense of humor, to his taut and tension filled writing style – exudes …um… sharpitude. (Hey, I’m a writer – we’re allowed to make up words). One of his latest short stories, “No Others are Genuine” appears in the October/November issue of Asimov Science Fiction Magazine and quickly landed in my top 20 short stories of all time. Set in 1920s Chicago, it masterfully weaves a pervasive, mounting sense of dread as you follow the protagonist (a young boy in love with his boarding house neighbor) as he discovers the horrible truth about her disappearance. I highly recommend you pick up a copy and check it out.
Greg has been nominee or finalist for pretty much every major fantasy award out there (Nebula, Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, James Tiptree, Jr), runs a fiction writing workshop at Swarthmore College, is an active member of high esteem at the Philadelphia Liars Club, and is a frequent workshop leader at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. His works include the Shadow Bridge series (Shadow Bridge and Lord Tophet), Lyrec, and Fitchner’s Brides, a retelling of the Bluebeard story that the Philadelphia Inquirer book review called “…a deliciously evil literary pastiche that combines high gothic horror with a cracking good Victorian ghost story.”
I ran into Greg after his world building workshop at Rosemont College a few weeks ago…
…and asked if he’d share some of his thoughts on the worlds of Fantasy and Science Fiction and the life of an author in general. Here is what he has to say:
You’ve been writing fantasy worlds for almost 30 years now. How have the markets changed?
They’ve consolidated. What once were a dozen major markets now are something like five. More names have become “brands” (I’m sure there were always such things—Franklin W. Dixon comes to mind—but now just because an author dies doesn’t mean she or he stops “writing” books. I think V. C. Andrews wrote more novels dead than she ever did while living.
Have the popularity of things like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones made things better or worse?
Probably some of both. These massive successes announce that fantasy is alive and well, and still a thriving genre (so much so that it has to some degree overshadowed science fiction); however, the result is often that publishers just want a big bunch of books “just like” the thing that is hugely successful. Which is ridiculous. J.K. Rowling staked a claim. It’s hers. And George R.R. Martin has probably written the best massive epic fantasy that’s been done. Fan-fic imitators aside, why try and do it again? Go off and create something nobody’s ever seen before, unless you happen already to have a massive fantasy doorstop lying around. It’s akin to the fallout from The Da Vinci Code, where authors who had Knights Templar novels they had been unable to sell even for a few thousand dollars a couple years earlier suddenly found themselves with five- or six-figure advance offers for the same damn book. But anyone who decided at that point to write such a novel likely discovered that train had left the station by the time they finished it. That said, I’m happy to see Ms. Rowling and Mr. Martin succeed, because what they wrote (and continue to write) mattered to them.
You often pull real-world myth into your work, how important is establishing a world and a mythos for a fantasy author?
I think if you’re going to go down the fantasy rabbit-hole, you are obliged to embrace some things that perhaps contemporary authors don’t have to deal with so much. And one of those is world-building. You need to know how your world works. How your magic system works if there’s magic. Who has extraordinary abilities and who doesn’t. I mean, if everyone in your world can work magic, then it’s not that special. If only a handful can, then they might have power or they might be hunted as dangerous. That in turn means you have to think about how a society will evolve in which that is the case. Societies are organic. They peel off the previous society, are often reactionary to what preceded them. It’s advisable you think about this. Likewise, if the people in your fantasy world drink coffee for breakfast, then where does it come from? In science fiction, you’re not only looking at the organic societies preceding yours, but also you’re extrapolating out from ours right now. Mind you, probably 80% of all these things you figure out will never appear as such in your novel or story; but all of it will inform your story, will guide your writing. You’ll discover things about the people inhabiting your world by working out the interconnectedness of it.
What is the appropriate punishment for someone who uses the phrase “sci-fi” (or worse “scify”)
Death by hanging? “Sci-fi” is what people outside the literary genre of science fiction call it. That includes film and TV people. In umbrage, I imagine, to this consistent slight (it’s often expressed with an air of condescension; you’ll note for instance that SF author Harlan Ellison never allows the words “science fiction” to appear as categorical terms on his book covers), the term “speculative fiction” got coined, to raise the literature out of the muck. But it’s still science fiction, or SF. “Skiffy” is a term SF author Michael Armstrong coined many years ago in response to the whole affair. God knows what SyFy denotes other than ignorance on somebody’s part.
Who do you recommend among the new crop of fantasy authors?
You presume that I read widely in the genre. In truth, I am quite ignorant of probably the majority of the new crop of fantasy authors. There are a number of fantasists I feel are under-represented, however. Mary Gentle, M. Rickert, Christopher Barzak, Theodora Goss, Ysabeau Wilce, Nathan Ballingrud, Christopher Rowe—those are just off the top of my head. I’ll likely think of 15 more as soon as I send this off.
What are the common mistakes you see new authors make?
Other than not working out their ecology of the supernatural (as I believe Gardner Dozois coined it), not making the beginning of their story or novel work properly is perhaps the most common mistake. I’ve said in a few essays and in classes I teach that I think every story has two beginnings: the one you write to get into the story, and the one the story itself needs. The one getting you in is often you telling yourself the whole story, or profiling the character we will be reading about—in essence, you providing information for yourself, depending on what’s lacking and your particular methodology (author Darrell Schweitzer calls this a “mumblesheet”). The one the story needs is never that one, and the mistake a lot of beginners make is, they leave that great heap of expository landfill right there in the doorway, clogging the whole thing up. Readers need to know almost none of it, and what they do need probably can be slid into the narrative as you go along. Start with the simple idea that “things are not as they seem” and proceed from there.
Any advice for getting butts in the chair and hands on the keyboard?
Do whatever you have to do to trick yourself into it.
Try to start writing before you’re awake enough to think up excuses not to.
Or convince yourself that you’re just going to write today for the hell of it. It’s no big deal. You can always throw it out if you don’t like it. But go ahead and do it, just to see what happens.
Set word or page limits—whichever works for you. Set aside half an hour a day for writing, and pick a place and make that place sacred to your writing. That means that how ever much you whine and bitch and run yourself down elsewhere, when you sit at your sacred writing spot, whether that’s in a coffeeshop or at a kitchen table, that self-defeatist crap stays out. No whining while you’re writing.
Or reward yourself for a good day’s work. Jonathan Maberry pays himself money when he fulfills his day’s writing objective.
And throw out MS Word. Go find a text-writing program with a full-screen feature so that you blot out everything: emails, browsers, and games in particular. Turn off your internet connection.
Or you can be like me, and go all 19th century on writing tech…which is to say, I write my early drafts in notebooks with a fountain pen. Just try and check your email with that.