INTERVIEW: Talking Shop with Hugo-, Nebula-, and Campbell-Award Nominee Brad R. Torgersen
Brad R. Torgersen is a healthcare computer geek by day, a United States Army Reserve Chief Warrant Officer on the weekend, and a Science Fiction and Fantasy writer by night. He has contributed stories to multiple professional publications, including Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Russia’s ESLI magazine, Poland’s Nowa Fantastyka magazine, as well as several anthology collaborations with Hugo and Nebula award winner Mike Resnick. His fiction has been nominated for both the Nebula and the Hugo awards, and he is currently nominated for the Campbell award. Brad is a past winner of the Analog “AnLab” readers’ choice award, and the Writers of the Future award. Married 18 years, Brad lives in northern Utah with his wife and daughter.
I had the good fortune chatting with Brad in the week leading up to the Nebula Awards Weekend. We talked a lot of shop:
Jamie Todd Rubin: What was your reaction when you found out that “Ray of Light” (Analog, December 2011) had been nominated for a Nebula award for Best Novelette?
Brad R. Torgersen: I was quite amazed, really, given the fact that Analog magazine and Analog authors don’t get the bulk of the prestigious awards nominations. Nevertheless, I was proud. My friend Eric James Stone had been nominated for and went on to win the Nebula for a novelette he had published in 2010, so to be representing Analog on the Nebula ballot in 2011 is an honor. I am keeping the Analog end up, so to speak. That my story would also go on to be nominated for a Hugo award was a double whammy. I am sure it’s got to be a clerical error! Somebody will rectify the mistake soon. I am certain of it. (grin)
JTR: Analog, as you point out, doesn’t get many of the big nominations. By my count, however, you have had 4 stories published in Analog, with a few more on the way. What is the appeal of Analog that makes you want to write for it as frequently as you do?
BRT: I was heavily into technothrillers and military science fiction as a teenager. Tom Clancy, Allan Cole, Chris Bunch, etc. Then I got my hands on some Larry Niven stories – via his two brilliant omnibus connections, N-Space and Playgrounds of the Mind – and I was blown away. Larry hooked me on hard science fiction. So naturally when I began looking into the short SF fiction markets in the 90s, Analog attracted me as both a reader and an aspiring writer. I still like Analog, all these years later. And not just because they publish me routinely. I like Analog because it publishes the sort of science fiction I most enjoy.
Of course, having a friendly editor helps when it comes to submitting stories. If the story is explicitly sci-fi, with rare exception, Stan Schmidt sees it first. And with rare exception (these days) Stan buys it too. Of course, I have to give full disclosure: before selling my AnLab (Analog readers’ choice award) winning story, “Outbound,” to Analog in 2010, I’d gotten many dozens of rejections from Stan previously. It took me a long time to work my craft level up to the point where Stan would take a chance on me. Now that he’s confident in my stories, for his readership, it’s a very mutually beneficial author-editor relationship. I therefore do a lot of writing with Stan and Analog deliberately in mind. It’s a superb thing seeing my stories regularly in the pages of the English world’s oldest and most highly circulated science fiction magazine.
JTR: In “Ray of Light” what’s left of humanity–after mysterious aliens have blocked the light of the sun on Earth–have been forced to survive on the ocean floors, beneath a thick layer of ice that spans the world. I don’t want to give away the ending for anyone who hasn’t already read it, but I did wonder: we never learn anything more about the mysterious aliens? Do you know about them? Have you considered writing a sequel? Certainly how you ended the story leaves room for many possibilities.
BRT: I already have a couple of sequels planned, but I am afraid none of them do much about the aliens in the story. I have some specific thoughts about these aliens: who they are, why they did what they did, but I won’t be revealing much in successive stories set in this universe. It may come around to me taking “Ray of Light” and any sequels, and packaging them as a novel project for a major publisher. That might be the ideal time to peel back the tinfoil on the enigmatic, lethal aliens. Otherwise, for now, I am more curious about the state of the Earth and the people who’ve survived the freeze-over. I could easily write a dozen stories about them. And may do just that.
JTR: There are three things that really jumped out at me in “Ray of Light.” First was that initial reveal when we learn just how few survivors there are. Second was attempting to grasp the hardships involved in living at the bottom of the oceans, given the circumstances. And third–which brought goosebumps when I read it–was the sunrise. That last, in particular, was a powerful and climatic moment in the story. As a writer, I wondered two things when I got to that part: first, do you know where you are going when you set out to write the story? And second, do you write linearly, or do you jump around? I could see wanting to write that climatic scene from the start, but holding off to allow the emotion to build up to the proper pitch.
BRT: When I write short fiction, I am almost always doing it by the seat of my pants. I may have a somewhat nebulous path for the story in mind, but as often as not, the story jumps off the path at the earliest opportunity, and I tend to let the story show me the way, as opposed to trying to force the story back onto the path. When I do that, usually, I don’t think the story turns out to be nearly as good as it otherwise would be.
Many writers simply can’t work like this. I think it’s different strokes for different folks. I will also say that when I write anything longer than about 30,000 words I absolutely need the guideposts and safety net provided by an outline. Again, the story can and will jump off the path. But whereas my short fiction can generally arrive at a decent conclusion of its own accord, my novel length work requires structure and channeling, otherwise I reach the middle of the book and realize it’s a steaming heap of divergent characters and events, and I trunk the manuscript in despair.
Book or short fiction, I always write linearly. I’ve occasionally tried to write later portions first, but 95% of the time I am writing things in sequence. Even if the story has time shifts, as “Ray of Light” does. That way I start to get glimpses of the ending as I pass the halfway mark, so that by the time I am into the second portion of the story, the ending has largely suggested itself and I can proceed quickly and with confidence. Much of the fun (for me) in writing short fiction, is that I literally don’t know the ending until… I know the ending? Does that make sense? I am therefore telling the story to myself as much as I am telling it to others, and I can generally gauge the potential emotional impact of the ending on the audience by how much emotional impact it’s had on me. When I did the first draft of “Ray of Light” and I read it back to myself, whole and complete, I felt very good about the evolution of the story. Almost none of it premeditated.
JTR: You have a fascinating checklist for personal success a writer. It is a kind of slow-but-steady progression to full-time writer status. (And interestingly, awards like the Nebula are not part of the list.) You are creeping up toward that milestone “makes his first professional novel sale.” You’ve indicated that you’ve written at longer lengths. Have you already written a novel? Do you find you are more comfortable with longer form over shorter form (or vice versa)?
BRT: Since 1995 I’ve written at least half a dozen novel manuscripts, all of which crashed and burned. I am a seat-of-the-pants writer by instinct, and I’ve managed to make it work for me at short fiction length. But it’s never worked for me at novel length. Book after book, I tried to navigate through the story on inspiration alone, and it never worked. Ever. I would either ground to a halt halfway through, unsure of where else to go and realizing that I had all these sub-plots and characters flying around in all these different directions. Or I got to “The End” and I realized that while I’d managed to more or less reach a place I could call finished, there was no coherent arc in the manuscript. Just a series of events, action scenes, and characters jumping around — but without pacing, without a beat, and none of it moved towards a definable climax that tied back to the beginnings of the book.
Last year I appealed to Dave Wolverton for help. Dave was one of the judges who gave me a glowing critique of my first Finalist (non-winning) story from Writers of the Future — a story which eventually sold to Analog and won that magazine’s readers’ choice award. Dave’s got his fingerprints all over the careers of bestsellers like Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyer. Dave’s also close to me geographically, in that we both live in Utah. So after I’d seen him talk at Writers of the Future in 2010 and after I’d seen him give presentations at the Superstars Writing Seminar in 2011, I went down and took Dave’s “Million Dollar Outlines” workshop. To break myself of the belief that I couldn’t write successfully with an outline — I had until that point strongly resisted outlining — and to teach myself the essentials of how to build, not just a competent outline, but an outline that would yield a book that could sell well and attract and satisfy lots of readers.
I’m currently working on a re-draft of a project I took to that workshop. It’s definitely been a learning curve. I’ve discovered that the skill-set I developed for writing good short fiction is incomplete when applied to doing a novel. So I’ve had to develop an additional skill-set that is, while complimentary to my short fiction skill-set, rather different. I ought to have the re-draft complete this summer, and since my short fiction track record has gotten me the interest of both a major agent and a major publisher, I am optimistic that if I’ve applied the lessons I learned at Dave’s workshop successfully, the book can do well for me.
In terms of comfort, short fiction feels easier because it’s… shorter! If I screw up a short piece, I’ve only spent a few days on it at most. No big whoop. And I can always go back and retrofit it in a short span of time, once I get additional inspiration about what I didn’t do right in the first place. A novel is a whole other Oprah. Bigger, longer, more complicated. Screw up a book… well, like I said, prior to doing Dave’s outlining class, I’d turfed about half a dozen books. All of them irrecoverable. That’s a very scary and disheartening thing — to learn that a manuscript you’ve worked on for weeks or months, is essentially toast. Armed with Dave’s wisdom, I am fairly confident I won’t ever have to go through that again.
BRT: Right now Mike and I have three stories out. You named two of them. The third is actually our first, called, “Peacekeeper,” which is the lead story in Ian Watson’s anthology, The Mammoth Book of SF Wars. That particular collaboration came about for two reasons. One, I wore my U.S. Army dress blues to the Writers of the Future gala in 2010, and two, Mike Resnick just happened to be the Contest judge who presented me with my trophy and shook my hand before I proceeded to the podium to give my thank-you speech. A few months later, Mike got an invite from Ian for the book. And since Mike’s not got a military background and seldom (if ever) gets solicited for military science fiction, he remembered me from the gala and decided to invite me to work with him — I had military chops, and some writing game too.
Mike’s not only a devilishly good writer, he’s also a hell of a nice guy. He’s made it his mission to work with aspiring and new authors in the genre. The list of writers he’s worked with is now up over 50 names, at last count. But Mike (by his own admission) also likes to work with “kids” who can pull their own weight. I’d not only won Writers of the Future, but I’d sold three stories to Analog magazine. So I think Mike felt like it wouldn’t be him doing all the work on this one. Which is not to say there wasn’t a learning curve. You don’t collaborate with the all-time leading Hugo nominee (who has won a bunch too) without getting schooled. Thankfully Mike is a gracious and patient mentor, and though I think I did make us both put in more time on “Peacekeeper” than either one of us initially anticipated, Mike and I felt satisfied that the story — when completed and sent to the editor — was a good ‘un.
The biggest thing I’ve learned from Mike is that all the technically correct details in the world don’t matter if the reader has no emotional hooks upon which to hang a hat. For that first collaboration, every time Mike came back to me with edits or suggestions he said, “Well okay, you’ve got the military flavor and authenticity down pat, but why should I give a damn what’s happening to your character?” I think getting the reader to give a damn about a character — or characters — is essential. But on that first collaboration, I kept striking out. It wasn’t until I put the protagonist through an emotional change combined with personal trial and evolution, that things really sparked to life. Mike and I went through a somewhat shorter revision period on our next one — same issue, different story — but by the third collaboration Mike didn’t have to do very much “handling” at all. And let me tell you, when a man of Mike’s stature slaps you on the proverbial back and says, “Good work, kid, you’re doing better,” your chest swells up and you get misty-eyed and you suddenly feel 8 feet tall.
JTR: You seem to have developed a system that works really well for you–and despite awards not counting in your definition of success, you have already received nominations for a Nebula, Hugo and Campbell early in your career. What advice would you give to aspiring writers hoping to match your impressive accomplishments?
BRT: I never made the awards or awards nominations part of my plan, because I believed (and still believe) that you cannot make something a goal when it’s entirely beyond your control. So my advice would be to only make goals which are within your control to achieve. If you’re saying to yourself, “My goal is to win the Hugo award for best novel,” you’re liable to be setting yourself up for disappointment or failure. Because you have no ability to effect that outcome. But if you’re saying to yourself, “This year I will write and finish one novel, and I will send it to an agent, or a publisher,” that’s a goal entirely within your grasp. You are dependent on no outside factors coming into alignment in order for you to finish the book or send it out to an agent or an editor. The goal is 100% achievable, provided that you have discipline and don’t flake out on yourself.
To that end, I would suggest that productivity is 90% of everything. You can’t send out your work if you’re not writing with at least some kind of regularity, and you can’t get published if you don’t send your writing to people who can buy it, and you can’t be nominated for (or win) awards if you’re not getting published. New writers usually spend more time talking about writing, or reading books on writing, than they do actually writing. Been there, done that. I learned that nothing could replace sitting my butt in the chair, pushing away the distractions around me, and typing. So the chain is write > submit > publish > awards nominations (maybe) > awards (maybe.) This is also true if your ambition is to be a bestseller. That’s very much beyond your control. But you’ll never even give yourself a chance to be a bestseller if all you ever do is talk or think about that book you want to write, without actually writing the book.
I would also add that I think it’s important to find solid professionals who can help you along the way. In my own case I’ve had several excellent mentors. Allan Cole was the first. Then came Dean Wesley Smith. Eventually I did some of Dean’s writing workshops with his wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and she became a mentor too. Then Mike Resnick. And then Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. And also Dave Wolverton, whose insight on what makes blockbuster novels and movies tick, has been revelatory. If I’d never had these people communicating with me and encouraging me and pointing out ways for me to improve, either on quality or quantity, I am quite sure I’d still be unpublished and forlorn about ever becoming a professional writer. So new people need to get out of their shells, go to conventions, sign up for workshops, and make connections with the professionals whom they (the new writers) aspire to be like some day. In my experience, this has been far, far more valuable to me than any writing group I’ve ever been a member of. Being around and talking to the big pros keeps your bar set high, and in my case having a high bar is always a positive challenge: it lets me know I’m not done yet, there is always more work ahead, and it spurs me to keep going and making new plans and setting new goals.
Filed under: Interviews
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