Craig Shaw Gardner will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He sold his first short story in 1977, and began writing full time in 1987. He has published over thirty novels ranging from his first, A Malady of Magics, to the Changeling War fantasy trilogy, written by “Peter Garrison,” to the horror novel Dark Whispers, written by “Chris Blaine.” Along the way, he’s done a number of media tie-ins, one of which–the novelization of Batman–became a New York Times bestseller. He’s also the author of more than forty short horror and fantasy stories, which have mostly appeared in original anthologies. Gardner has also served as both President and Trustee for the Horror Writers Association.
You write a lot of horror, but you also write humorous and epic fantasy. How do your techniques and approaches change when you write in these different genres?
Every story I write has its own “voice.” I need to find that special approach in order to make that story work. Even with a fully-formed idea, this can be one of the most time consuming aspects of writing just about anything.
I have to find a way to clue the reader into what universe they are entering. I can do this by something as simple as prefacing every chapter with a humorous quotation (as I did in all the Ebenezum books and stories). I can plunge the reader into the middle of an action scene (Never a bad idea–especially with a short story) that hopefully pulls the reader into the story. I can present a character with an internal dilemma. This often works well in a short horror story, getting the reader to identify with the protagonist’s situation before the story opens up to show the larger “reality” of the universe I’m creating. I have to figure out how to juggle the writer’s toolbox–character/plot/point-of-view/setting/theme/etc.–to get the best, and usually simplest, direction to tell the story. And this process is different every time I use it, even with stories that are sequels to other stories!
You have used several pseudonyms in your career. You wrote The Changeling War fantasy trilogy under the name Peter Garrison. Do you recommend up-and-comers prepare themselves for possibly needing a pen name? What are the business reasons for taking on a pen name?
The writing marketplace is constantly changing–at this point, I don’t think anybody knows where it’s going. The traditional publishing POV was to establish a “brand,” so that readers will come back, looking for more of what you have to offer. I have managed to work in four different sub-genres of the fantasy field: (1) humorous fantasy, (2) epic fantasy, (3) horror, and (4) media-related. (I’ve also written some sf and mystery stories, but short stories are read by so few people that they don’t seem to effect that “brand” thing.) Sometimes, this crossover stuff has helped me. The fact that I had written both humor and horror got me the opportunity to write the novelization of the first Batman movie, which became a New York Times bestseller and got me on the Today show. It also got my regular books to sell really well. But when I decided to make the shift into more traditional fantasy, I think that a certain number of my readers became disappointed that these new books weren’t in the mold of the dozen that had come before, and my sales suffered. So I became Peter Garrison, to get away from any preconceived notions of what my books might be.
As a beginning writer, I would concentrate on developing a brand under a single name–unless you were breaking into two fields with very different audiences–say science fiction and romance.
Many writers struggle over how much description to include, which things to describe, and how to describe them. Can you talk about how you make these decisions?
Readers always want to be transported to other places, and these places need a certain amount of description to make them real. But too much description can bog a story down. The simplest compromise is to show description through your character’s point-of-view. The things you show will be more important to the reader because they are important to your protagonist.
Your career spans more than three decades. How have things changed regarding the actual style of writing that editors are buying?
I actually don’t think it has changed all that much. Editorial fads come and go, but I believe a well-written story will sell eventually.
How has the business of books changed in that time?
Once upon a time, everybody thought they could write a book. Now everybody thinks they can publish a book. So the Internet is crowded with a lot of unknown, self-published stuff, most of which is also unedited and unreadable. Writers still need to find ways to differentiate themselves from the masses. Working through traditional publishing is still the easiest method to give yourself validity And by traditional publishing, I mean short story and novel markets that pay professional rates.
Your agent is Jennifer Jackson, and we interviewed her last month. What advice do you have regarding finding the right agent and building a solid work relationship?
Find an agent who knows the markets that you write for. Talk to that agent about what is and isn’t selling. And use that agent to get as much money as you can out of a publisher. You also need to strike up ongoing relationships with your editors whenever possible.
As a guest lecturer at the upcoming Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and critiquing stories. What is the one piece of advice you really want to give to developing writers?
You are your own first reader. You have to enjoy what you are putting on paper before anybody else can.
What’s next on your writing-related horizon? Are there any new projects in the works?
My second collection of stories, A Cold Wind in July, has just been released. This is a book of my horror stories this time around, and it’s the first thing I’ve done to come out as an e-book!
I have a new humorous fantasy under submission to a publisher, and am putting the finishing touches on a longish YA fantasy novel. I am also beginning to put eighteen of my earlier books online as e-books, starting with A Malady of Magicks, which should be available in a month or so.
For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.