Interview: Graduate Scott T. Barnes

ScottBarnsSessiom-70Scott T. Barnes is the winner of the Writers of the Future Award and a graduate of Odyssey. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the anthologies Gaia: Shadow and Breath Vol. 3, History and Horror, Oh My! and Kevin J. Anderson’s Pulse Pounders II. He is also the author of Rancho San Felipe: A Story of California One Hundred Years Ago, an illustrated fourth-grade reader. He edits the online magazine NewMyths.com. His complete bibliography can be found at www.scotttbarnes.com.


You attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2008. What made you decide to attend Odyssey? You also took two of the online Odyssey Workshop courses. What made you decide to take them?

Well, I didn’t get into Odyssey the first time that I applied in 2007, and so I applied a second time…

Honestly, I don’t remember how I first heard about Odyssey, but somehow I did and heard that it was a very serious program for helping aspiring sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writers up their game. I had wanted to apply for some time, but given as it was a six-week commitment, timing had to be right. Finally, I found the perfect time to attend—right after getting married! No better way of making a good impression on a new wife than leaving her for six weeks.

I took the online classes because my impression of Odyssey was so positive. Both were fantastic. If I had the time, I would take an Odyssey class every year.

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

Odyssey was better than I could have hoped for. It really took me through the nuts and bolts of writing in a practical way. (Practical as opposed to entirely theoretical.) I tell people it took me from being an aspiring writer with some talent to a “semi-pro” writer.

I have taken many classes since Odyssey from various instructors, but even the best of those feels like a review or possibly an expansion on what I learned there.

The residency was great to force all of us to focus on writing and critiquing. Of course we developed friendships, some of which I maintain to this day.

When and how did you make your first sale?

I made three or four sales before Odyssey, around 2006-2007. My first sale at what we call “pro-rates,” which is 5 cents/word in venues with decent circulation and history, was when I won second place in the Writers of the Future contest in 2013. Since then I have been paid 5 cents/word two more times and have sold over a dozen stories. I also published a children’s book with a local heritage center which is now used in local schools.

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

After Odyssey there are no weaknesses!

More seriously, my biggest weaknesses are deadlines and discipline. If you have a busy life it is very difficult to prioritize writing.

Let me back up. It is ALWAYS difficult to prioritize writing. I have discovered that as my life gets busier, now with two children and a full-time job, I get more disciplined and accomplish more in a shorter amount of time. But I have far less time.

If you notice that the word “time” repeats a lot, it is deliberate. Time, time, time, time. That is the bugbear that cannot be vanquished. We can only optimize and eliminate the unnecessary.

So it’s always difficult.

You are the editor for NewMyths.com, a quarterly e-zine of speculative fiction. What are the most common problems in the manuscripts you receive?

You know those manuscripts that editors are always mocking, the ones that are formatted incorrectly, that start with “It was a dark and stormy night,” the ones with no plot and no character and terrible dialogue?

I never see those.

Most of the manuscripts I get are pretty good.

This is what editors hate. Terrible manuscripts are great—I can reject those in seconds. Fantastic manuscripts are even greater—I get sucked in and cannot escape until the end. I’m already preparing the contract by page 2.

Both are equally rare.

Most manuscripts are pretty good and it’s difficult to choose between them. They waste a lot of the editor’s time because we have to read a long ways before discovering a reason to reject the story.

Let me say that if a story is really original and reasonably well-written, it will find a publisher. There is very little I see that is truly original.

Secondly, if some aspect of the writing is exceptional, even if the story has been told many times (i.e. not original except for author voice), it will find a publisher. The “exceptional” aspect can be anything: setting, character, dialogue, sense of dread, use of the senses, beautiful prose, etc.

If you have one or more exceptional aspects to the tale and write a tale that is original in some way, with a little patience you will probably sell it for pro rates to one of the top magazines.

New Myths is a good “secondary” market. We pay 1.5 cents/word and get around 1,000 submissions per reading period.

Don’t be afraid to send your work to the best markets first. Also, don’t get snobbish or neglect the secondary markets. I’ve heard from several writers who published in New Myths who saw things like permanent increases in sales of their self-published work, increases in blog traffic by five or more times, and so forth. Nothing is guaranteed except that any publication gets you more publicity than no publication.

And more money.

Which subgenres do you see way too much of? Which subgenres do you not see enough of?

Fantasy is much more common than science fiction, and hard science fiction is rare indeed. I don’t get nearly enough flash fiction. Because I like to have a mix of stories in New Myths, if you send me a halfway decent science fiction flash story it will probably get published.

Re-workings of fairy tales are very much in vogue. That is the only thing I get too much of. However, for some reason many of these are well written and I have no choice but to accept one per issue.

What have you learned as an editor that you apply to your stories?

Being an editor is one reason I continue to take classes post-Odyssey. Since most submissions are “pretty good,” I have realized that I have to write better than “pretty good” to have any shot at regular publication.

I have also learned that the editors tend to drop out at breaks. These can be space breaks, chapter breaks, changes in POV, etc. Even the turn of a page can be a danger zone. If I can avoid creating an artificial break I will do it. If I must put a break of some kind in the story I make sure the cliffhanger/hook is a strong one.

Finally, I avoid italics. It’s a pain to transfer formatting, and italics are hard to spot. Give your editor a break and avoid communication by formatting when possible. Instead, use language.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

I am currently engaged in two major projects. The first is an oral history of my dad. I have finished most of the interviews and need to begin editing things. This is a follow-up on an oral history I wrote of my grandmother called Alice Barnes—Gold Mines and Apple Pies.

Second, harking back to what I said about deadlines, I am on the third quarter of the Stanford Online Novel Writing program. This is a two-year course where you are supposed to come with an idea and leave with a finished novel. A friend took the program and indeed, after two years and a lot of work, he had a finished novel in hand. So far I have about 5,000 words of novel and maybe 25,000 words of notes, outlines, character sketches, and so forth.

Finally, New Myths Publishing is busy reprinting some of my previously published short stories (“Charlotte’s Cove” is available now online and in print; covers have been made for two other stories), and we are getting ready to re-release some classic science fiction novels by Robert Enstrom.

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