Author Adam-Troy Castro will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He is the author of the novel Emissaries from the Dead (winner of the Philip K. Dick Award) and co-author of the novella “The Astronaut from Wyoming” (winner of the Seiun). His short fiction has been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, and two Hugos. His most recent project is a series of six middle-grade novels that includes Gustav Gloom and the People Taker and the recently released Gustav Gloom and the Nightmare Vault, which bring his total number of books well into the mid-twenties. Adam lives in Boynton Beach, Florida, with his wife Judi and a manic assortment of cats that include Uma Furman, Meow Farrow, and Harley Quinn.
Visit Adam on the Web at http://sff.net/people/adam-troy/index2.html
You write both short and novel-length fiction. Do you have a favorite? Are the tools required different for each?
Depending on its length, a short story can be just a feeling, an idea, a place invoked with evocative prose; a novel has to start somewhere, travel somewhere, and arrive somewhere, and I’ve learned from terrible personal experience that it’s dreadful to get over a hundred thousand words into an epic and then realize you have nowhere for the characters to go. Putting it another way, in science fiction a short story can be a diagnosis. A novel has to be the course of treatment, whether or not the patient is fated to live.
Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take to sell your first piece? What advice do you have for those just getting started, and for those who’ve been at it awhile and are getting discouraged?
I started writing seriously at age 13. I didn’t sell my first short piece until I was 28. I didn’t succeed in selling regularly to more than one editor until I passed thirty. I didn’t succeed in completing a novel until I was hired to do a Spider-Man trilogy in my late thirties; I didn’t start selling novels based on my own characters until I was well past forty. This is not a skill that comes naturally, but the good news is that if you do it right the landmarks accrue. I wince at the prose in stuff I wrote ten years ago and can barely stand to look at the stuff I published twenty years ago. This is a good thing.
The good news is that there’s no deadline. By and large, your rock band has to hit the big time before you’re thirty, because you’d look idiotic launching a career at Bruce Springsteen’s current age. Actresses by and large don’t become stars, or remain stars, past thirty. Nobody wants to book a forty-year-old boxer, Stallone be damned. Yes, you can name exceptions. But they are rarities. But I know plenty of writers who emerged in their forties, fifties, and sixties. Of course, I also know some twerps who had the bad taste to emerge in their twenties, and they refuse to get off my lawn.
As for being discouraged: I agree with Theodore Sturgeon that if you can be discouraged, you should be discouraged. This needs to be something you MUST do. But if the passion ebbs for short periods, that’s a different animal. That’s normal. Go jump in a swimming pool or go out and meet people. See a movie. You need fuel.
Why do you think your work is successful? Was there a point where the light bulb went on, or a fundamental shift of some kind occurred?
My career has been a series of light bulbs going on, some brighter than others. I still remember the thunderbolt, the absolute thunderbolt, that stories couldn’t be just clever ideas, but had to be about something. I knew this intellectually but had not internalized it. I also recall the thunderbolt that surprise endings were usually not worth the trouble and that I should give up the effort I was putting into concocting them. (Sometimes, they arrive naturally.) The light bulbs will go on in varying order, depending on the order in which your own skills develop.
I’ve arrived at that market segment only recently, and despite writing five novels so far with a sixth still yet to come on the current contract, am still learning. I find it uses the same skills, pretty much, except that the sentences have to be simpler. You still have to produce characters who feel real even within the confines of a fantasy world, dealing with problems that are serious to them; I add innocence, which means that they confront some issues an adult could help them with that are brand new to those with less life experience.
My strongest guideline to anybody working in this segment is: don’t worry about going too far. Go as far as the story dictates first, and then be prepared for your editor to worry about what “too far” was.
How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I don’t count the stages, but I freely admit that some of my stuff in print has not gone through enough. Reprint editors have caught howlers. I’m trying to do better.
I am both a plotter and a pantser, at the same time. I worked with an outline on four media novels, and hated it, hated it, hated it. But even there I came up with surprises on a chapter-by-chapter basis.
I have written three novels and three novellas about far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, whodunnits on space habitats and the like, and they cannot be even begun unless I already know the nature of the crime, what clues exist for Andrea to find, how she will follow these clues to the eventual solution, and so on. There are similar planted clues, involving the mysteries of the character’s world, in each volume and in the mega-story of the series, within the GUSTAV GLOOM middle-grade books. I have to know these things going in. The destination is always clear; it’s just the path there designed to invite discoveries in the telling.
Tell us about the process of putting together a collection like Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories. Was this different than publishing a novel? Did you seek out the publisher or did they approach you?
A reprint short story collection is a found object, if the short stories already exist and all that needs to be done is compile them in the proper order (and, at times, fix them). In the case of Her Husband’s Hands, I was contacted by the publisher Prime Books, which had a very specific idea of what kind of stories fit the collection’s proposed tone, and–sometimes damnably, to my point of view, since I want all my children to have a permanent home–what kind of stories didn’t.
You mention that the inspiration for “My Wife Hates Time Travel” (Lightspeed Magazine) came about due to complaints from your spouse. Do you have any advice for writers struggling to eke out time between family obligations?
Be an absolutely rotten spouse and/or parent so that even if you do win the Hugo and Nebula and Pulitzer and Nobel and become an iconic figure striding the zeitgeist like a God, you can watch your traumatized and estranged family sell far more copies than you did with their tell-all memoir describing how you let them live in poverty and borderline starvation while you secreted yourself in your palatial backyard writing shed, maintaining an advanced state of inebriation while you wrestled with your demons.
What do you most look forward to regarding your stint as an Odyssey Writing Workshop guest lecturer? Is there one key bit of advice you like to give to aspiring authors?
1) Being asked questions I didn’t expect; and 2) Read.
What’s next on the writing horizon for you?
I still have one more Gustav Gloom novel to write, but am already peppering my agent with sample chapters and proposals for the next project, which remains to be settled upon.