Interview: Jason S. Ridler

Jason S. Ridler has published over thirty short stories in such magazines and anthologies as Not One of Us, Nossa Morte, Big Pulp, Crossed Genres, Flashquake, New Myths, Necrotic Tissue, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Chilling Tales, Tesseracts Thirteen, and more.His popular nonfiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Dark Scribe, and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. Visit him at his writing blog, Ridlerville, http://jsridler.livejournal.com, Facebook, and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayRidler

Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep?
I was pretty dedicated, if terrified, even from the beginning. My time was limited, since I’d started writing seriously in the same year I started my Masters in War Studies (1999). After the MA, I took a few years off from grad school and wrote a lot of fiction while teaching and doing research. It took two years to finish my first awful novel. Then I wrote a pretty good fantasy-suspense novel in about six months, and almost finished a YA novel before my Ph.D. course work started in late 2003. At first I aimed at a story a month. Then the goal was a thousand words a day, five days a week, with revisions done on Sunday. If I could get that done, I could “goof off” and work on a short story, which was also great fun, even if most of these efforts were craptastic. The novels never sold (though one got a nibble from an agent) but I sold a few short stories.

What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?

I’d hit a wall. I was overworked and burning out from grad school, so I stopped writing for about four months. I’d sworn I’d never do that, never make excuses to “not” write. But as heroic as that tough-guy image of the writer is, real life is tougher and burn out is real. All the stuff I’d write while exhausted was lifeless and limp, dead creatures created by a tired mind. I thought a workshop might help me refocus, re-energize, and get back on track.

Odyssey interested me much more than Clarion, because the program was open to a variety of genres. Clarion has, to my mind, a SF heart with fantasy leanings, but little interest in horror. Jeanne, the director of Odyssey, had a rich background in horror as well as science fiction and fantasy, and I had been writing a lot of horror or dark fantasy at the time. I wrote the best story I could, a quiet but painful tale about the cruelty of children called “Loose Strings,” and managed to get in.

How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?

I learned how to think about stories as pieces and wholes, and had a better sense of how to improve. I learned that revisions didn’t have to be torture if you adjust your thinking to “I’m going to make this good story better” from “this is the worst story ever and now I have to fix it.” I discovered where my strengths and weaknesses were. That I sucked at endings, but folks liked my characters. I was shocked that everyone thought I had a “noir” vibe in all my stuff, but it made utter sense because I’m a huge Jim Thompson junkie. Folks seemed to think I had a knack for writing about kids or teenagers, or about emotionally heavy subjects. I picked up on themes in my work that recur and change shape.

It was incredible to have that kind of feedback, on a regular basis, to help me think about stories, my stories, and writing in general. I left Odyssey armed and loaded with tools to improve, and a sense of confidence. Even in the wake of my burnout, I knew that if I stuck to my guns, and kept working, I would improve and sell my work. And I did. I sold the first post-Odyssey story I wrote, based on an exercise Elizabeth Hand provided, and I got paid a pro rate. Ever since, I’ve been selling more stories each year than the year before.

Can you describe your Odyssey experience? What surprised you most about Odyssey?

Odyssey was a joy. Hard work, sure, but understand, I’d just come off of working seven jobs while going to grad school. The idea of six weeks of learning about story craft from Jeanne Cavelos, Jim Morrow, Liz Hand, Trish Cacek, Sheila Williams, and Steve and Melanie Tem (who were absolute gems, and very gracious with their time with me), was bliss, mana from heaven. I slept five or six hours, wrote until my hands were sore, stayed up all night to finish a story (“Billy and the Mountain”) that I eventually revised and sold to David Morrell (author of First Blood and the creator of Rambo), made friends and colleagues for life, had a blast laughing every morning with my roommates, Justin Howe and Scott Andrews, as we talked about stories, movies, and genre junk. And I met Erin Hoffman, my future wife! I loved every minute. I came home stoked, ready to kick ass and take names.

Perhaps that was the biggest surprise. I know a lot of people are exhausted after Odyssey, and need time to digest the absolute cosmic ton of knowledge that Jeanne crammed into us . . . but I was the opposite. I hit the ground running and pummeled out story after story to apply what I’d learned, terrified I might lose it as my doctoral work ramped up. I literally cannot say enough good stuff about Jeanne and her workshop. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Period.

Besides attending Odyssey, you have participated in the yearly alumni program called The Never-Ending Odyssey (TNEO). What do you get out of that experience?

Tons. The first two TNEOs, I worked for Jeanne. First, I was the moderator for the short story crit group, and I created a little programme where we not only read and critiqued our own fiction, but also read and critiqued professionally published stories that had a particular strong story element (plot, character, suspense, etc). We took them apart to see how they worked. We read Donald Westlake, Gary Braunbeck, David Morrell, Joe Lansdale, Margo Lanagan, Shirley Jackson, and Christopher Rowe. It was a lot of fun, and I think we all learned a lot.

The next year, I was the chief moderator of TNEO, the year Jeanne introduced the new “Master’s Class” ethos. It was an honour to work with her on making that programme succeed. We studied “plot” with lectures, seminars, exercises, and other tools. Tough work, but worthwhile.

In 2009, I participated just as an attendee, and that was fun, too. And in all three years, I got critical feedback on stories I might not have otherwise written (TNEO helps you write to deadline). I’ve sold at least one story written for TNEO (“Retreat into Victory” at Dark Recesses), and many others have come close. I find the crit circles and lectures helpful, too, though naturally there is some variation.

You have become something of a legend among magazine editors for the number of submissions you manage to send in. What is your personal timeline for writing short stories?

Really? You kind folks talk about me? Neat!

Honestly, it depends. I think I can get a good draft out in a week or two now. I challenged myself to do this kind of production speed years ago: a story a week for a month, a story a week for three months. This year, some friends and I did The Seven Days of Flash Challenge. We all tried to write a single piece of flash fiction a day for a week. I even sold one of those ditties to the good folks at Brain Harvest, a two-fisted fable called “Grudge Match.”

But the harder truth is stories take as long as they take. The story I consider my personal best took two years to get right, and I had to get advice from a mentor of mine to make me feel secure enough that it was on the ball. I would not have rushed that story for anything. Writing it fast would have killed what was special about it. And, sadly, it has yet to sell.

One of my recent favorites, “Iron Horse in the City of Stone,” was written in about three weeks, though it was a challenge to write because the story was created using my wife’s way-cool “Steampunk Story Generator” for the third Homeless Moon Chapbook. The Homeless Moon is a writers group I belong to, and each year we do a chapbook of themed stories. This year was steampunk and the stories are steamtastic! (Check them and the story generator out here.). I also had to do some research on the Great Game for Central Asia to get the cadence and details right (it’s set in Central Asia during the Russian Civil War), but it was still less than a month (my old average), even with a couple rounds of revisions, from start to finish.
So, sometimes it’s a day, sometimes a month, sometimes years. I’m always eager to challenge myself and experiment, especially regarding story production. I find it helps me improve my craft. But the two week to a month average is probably normal.

How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?

Again, it depends. Usually, I spend a few days doing my version of outlining, a dialog with myself about the story (a technique described by David Morrell in his terrific book The Successful Novelist). I sketch out what I think the story is about, asking why this, why that, until I find the heart of the tale, its main theme, whatever. After that, I try to write a draft as fast as possible. On average, that’s five days, sometimes longer. Revisions can range from a little bit of touch up, to a week, to tearing out the pieces of the story and using them in new stories.

In fact, one of my constant challenges is having too many stories in a single tale. So it’s usually about cutting back and focusing. I try not to let anything go to waste.

I also try to change up my process now and then, to experiment and grow. After suffering another case of burn out a few years ago (a pattern I am trying to change), I shifted my entire process for months because it wasn’t working. Instead, I used music and “free writing” to generate story material in a way I’d never really considered before. If folks are interested, I wrote an essay about the experience called “Hearing the Music” at the Internet Review of Science Fiction. I even sold one of those experiments, a YA flash story called “Charlatans and Magi” to Flashquake.

One of the many curses and blessings of writing is there is no “one best way.” Or as Kipling noted, “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!” I keep that in mind if I find myself in a jam.

Some people would argue that if you write too fast the writing quality goes down. How would you answer that?

Sure, it can happen. I’ve done it myself. But it’s not an absolute. And spending a decade on a single short story does not ensure it will be a master work, either. I even tried this once, spending months and months on a short story so that it was perfect–and all it was, really, was a polished cure for insomnia.

There are many examples of fast writers whose work has quality. Stephen King writes double-quick and has a few accolades to his name (and some duds). Joe Lansdale keeps a good clip and has a career I envy and work that’s both popular and critically successful, even if he’s written some stuff I don’t care for. Ray Bradbury still writes like a fiend, and is a legend. He was the first writer I’d read who suggested you write a story a week for a year to get the bad words out and the good words in, and then keep writing a story a week!

Writing fast has some clear advantages, too. You can generate a lot of stories over a shorter period of time, and thus increase your probability of selling. No guarantees, but there never are. And we improve by writing more, so why not write more and get better at a faster clip and also increase the chance of sales with more finished stories? From a career standpoint, that has value.

Writing fast can also help you outrace your internal editor, develop your voice, and allow you to experiment and take more chances because you’re not terrified of failing (you can always write another story, and you’re not going to lose a month). Short stories in general are great labs for experimentation, and working at a fast clip works well with that ethos, I find.

Also, and this is my punk rock roots showing, I like stories with rough edges and dirty fingernails. I find perfectly polished stories in a lot of magazines lack what my friend Scott Andrews calls “kwan,” that distinctive flavor or voice that a writer can bring to the table. They’re too “pretty,” too Stepford Wives of Genre. I like my edges ragged, I guess. Writing fast, with what Bradbury called “Gusto” but I call “Machine Gun Enthusiasm,” helps keep that ragged edge, I think. The songwriter Paul Westerberg perhaps summed up this point best for me, when describing one of his best albums. “This is rock n’ roll recorded poorly, played in a hurry, with sweaty hands and unsure reason. How it sounds, what it says, who played what, is irrelevant. It feels right. This is my blood.” I feel the same way about writing fast.

Still, while I think any writer can improve the pace at which they work, no one writes at the same speed as anyone else. And sometimes, pushing yourself to write fast can lead to crap, or only working with your first ideas (instead of your best ideas), or even burnout. Also, there’s some false machismo in writing fast that one should avoid. Some writers make me look like a slug swimming in peanut butter, though compared to others I’m as quick as a greased ninja. I’ve made peace with the fact that I don’t need to be fastest scribe on the planet. I just have to write the best Ridler stories I can. Slow, fast, whatever. That said, I’ve got an aggressive enthusiasm for writing stories, so I usually try to write fast first. So far, I’m getting good results.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

Besides a comedic level of bizarre spelling mistakes in first drafts (I’ll never live down writing “sizzling friars” instead of “sizzling fryers”)? Controlling my love of the hyperbolic, that’s one. I remember at Odyssey, Jeanne said, gently, “There’s something called subtext. You might want to look into it.” Ha! She was right, of course. If you write aggressive and relentless stuff without a nod to dynamics and pacing and building up mood and tension, your work can be atonal. Sometimes that’s fine. But I’ve worked at putting subtlety, nuance, dramatic tension, and other dynamics into my work. I love Hemingway, and he does a lot with omission, with subtle inference instead of hammering at you. So I’ve tried to add that to the tool box.

Also, I’ve got a masochistic desire for writing “non-genre genre stories.” That is, stories that try to evoke the feeling of fantasy, SF, or horror, but don’t use fantastical elements. I’ve written three of them, and I get the same reaction from editors: “Great stuff, but the genre element is MIA, so . . . no dice!” I fear those tales might never find a home, but I love ‘em anyway.

How do you keep track of all your submissions, rejections, and publications? Any tips on handling this?

I use a wiki site to keep track of my short fiction. One page has things like stories that need to get back out to the slush, a tally of stats like rejections and sales, information on upcoming anthologies, and suggestions of future markets for my hobo stories. Another page has a list of all my stories and where they’ve been sent and rejected. Another page has a list of all the markets that I think might like my work. I put a little + sign next to the ones that currently do not have something from me, so if I need to find a market, I just do a find/search for + signs and I can navigate the list (it’s pretty big).

I do this because I have about 44 stories currently in the market, and if I didn’t, I’d keep sending stuff to markets that have rejected that story, and piss off an editor. Not cool.

My only tip is to be consistent. Make it a routine. I brew up a coffee, grab a banana, and work at getting my stories in new markets. Tasty!

I heard amazing quotes at TNEO about the number of rejection slips you received in a given period. Rather than spreading rumors, what is the real story?

Ha! Well, I hope one day my number of sales becomes the talk of the town, but until then, here’s the skinny. In 2008, I collected 243 rejections. In 2009, I collected 246. Just about five hundred rejections in two years. This number skyrocketed when my production numbers shot up from a story a month to four stories a month. Not all of those stories got into the slush, but many did. My personal record for rejections was eleven in seven days. OUCH! It hurts just to remember it.

But my sales are up, too. I sold five stories in 2008, and eleven in 2009. I hope to beat that record this year and keep this forward momentum going. What’s funny is that not all the sales are coming from “new” stories. Some are from stuff written years ago, before Odyssey even.

The key here is persistence. Every Sunday, I try and get my hobo stories back on the slush train to find work. I only ever pull a story if I don’t like it. And that persistence is paying off. While many argue short fiction is dying, I’m finding it a vibrant time of development, though not without tragedies.

You [Scott T. Barnes, editor of New Myths at http://www.newmyths.com] have bought two of my stories (“Salvation” and “Anodos Amongst the Elves”), and New Myths didn’t exist when I wrote either tale. I’ve sold multiple stories to Crossed Genre, Nossa Morte (sadly, no longer with us), and Big Pulp. All of them have bought newer and older stuff, and they did so because I didn’t give up on stories that had received multiple rejections. The first story I sold that had my “voice,” if you will, was “Blood and Sawdust,” a tale about a fat vampire in an underground fight club. It was rejected twenty-one times before it found a home.

Recently you blogged about an interview with Richard Matheson on the Dark Dreamers interview series, noting that most of Matheson’s best ideas came from watching “bad movies with a neat premise,” taking the good and using the bad to generate “cooler stories.”

As you said, “[This] might explain why a lot of writers I love have a penchant for art and art forms that can be thought of as junk, Z grade entertainment. I’ve also found that trashy stuff usually has some underlying current of value that appeals to the senses, something that’s bigger than the obvious. Lots of writers claim junk culture as a source of inspiration. Ellison, King, Lansdale come to mind right off the bat.”

What ‘junk’ makes Jason Ridler’s muse tick?

The obvious one is pro wrestling. I love and hate just about every aspect of it: the carney roots, the weird lifestyle, the fantasy and reality colliding, the inversion of competition becoming cooperation in a bizarre combat art, the wild versions from around the world, the body-altering drama of drugs and the tragedy of so many wrestlers today dying before they hit fifty, let alone sixty.

So far, I’ve sold two tales of rasslin’. “Skullduggery at the Junction,” my retelling of the Minotaur myth, is set in the 1920s, when pro wrestling goes from a real fighting art to a sneaky con game. “Showing Light” is a future tale of wrestling, and how extreme it will be for those trying to keep up with body modification. It will be out this year in a near future SF anthology called 2020 Vision.

But there’s tons of great stuff that people hate that I dig and works its way into my stories: punk rock, comic books, role playing games, and Star Wars being the top of the pops. Unlike many other writer, I did not grow up wanting to be a writer, or reading lots of books and getting a childhood education in Tolkien or Heinlein or King. I guess it is safe to say that I got my early doses of iconic mythology from other media and art sources, so I owe Vince McMahon, George Lucas, Gary Gygax, Stan Lee and The Replacements a life debt (cue the Wookiee!).

Any plans to write novels?

Indeed! I’ve finished three since 2009, and I should have a fourth done by Christmas. Golly, that sounds like a lot, don’t it?

They’re all over the map: a fantasy/crime novel, a YA fantasy, and a dark fantasy/alt history. Next one is going to be my take on the thriller, which means it will be more punk rock than gumshoe. I also aim to write the Ender’s Game of professional wrestling novels in the near future. I also have a hankering to do some work in the steampunk mode, with a sword and sorcery vibe. And there’s this martial arts western I want to do . . .

So, yeah, novels, novels, everywhere. Just got to stay focused, pick my targets, and do the best job I can. Just like with the short stuff.

I can’t imagine anyone as driven as you without an ultimate goal in mind. Care to share it with us?

The dream is to support my family and my interests by selling fiction and nonfiction (I still love history and am working on two historical projects). Novels are the way to go, even if times are tough, so that’s the focus right now. But the goal is to support my family while generating the best career in fiction and nonfiction as I can manage, to write the books and stories I want to read and generate as wide a readership as possible. I’m aiming to do it with all the blood, sweat, toil and tears I’ve got.

To make the goal into a dream, I’m aiming to write two books a year for as long as I can, as well as 6-12 short stories. So far, it’s worked out. Not easy, but not impossible. The minimum remains 1000 words a day, and if I’m really cooking 2000. But none of this would be possible if not for the love and support of my wife, Erin, who works exceedingly hard herself (and her fantasy novel Sword of Fire and Sea will be coming out this June from Pyr Books! How awesome is that?). I’m forever grateful she believes in me and my work.

To conclude: if I can turn the goal into a dream, great. If not, I’ve still got a body of work behind me that was a blast to write and, hopefully, great reading for as many fans as I can steal. The only way this will happen is if I keep writing my heart out and remember the wise words of Winston Churchill. “Never Give In.” Huzzah!


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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