Interview With Ferrett Steinmetz

Ferrett Steinmetz
Ferrett Steinmetz

Ferrett Steinmetz has been published in Asimov’s (three times!), Beneath Ceaseless Skies, GUD Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways InFlight Magazine, and Shimmer – specifically, Shimmer Issue #13, for his story “A Window, Clear As A Mirror.” He spent twenty years locked in an ugly writer-hibernation, getting nowhere, until the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop provided the cheat code to his secret writer-power. Later on, he picked up a magic mushroom boost at the Viable Paradise Workshop. He lives in Cleveland with his wife, a game of Rock Band, and a friendly ghost. He blogs entirely too much about his life at The Watchtower of Destruction.

Unicorns keep cropping up in your work. Tell us how “A Window, Clear As a Mirror” came to be.
One of the biggest arguments I ever had with my ex-fiancée was about going to Mars. I said that if there was ever a chance that I could be a colonist on Mars, I would take it in a heartbeat, even if it meant never coming back to Earth. She got furious because that meant that I’d leave her behind, and didn’t she mean anything to me? And of course she meant something to me, but I could never get her to understand that come on, baby, it’s Mars. Chance of a lifetime.

Later on, when I was married, my wife and I made a joke that if the magical portal opened and we could go to fairyland, the other one should just GO. We understood that some things, you can’t pass up. But I thought, “Well, how would I feel if I came home and found she’d gone through the portal, and I was all alone?” And so this story came flowing out.

What surprised me was how personal it got. In the end, this turned into a very personal dissection of what my relationship with my ex-fiancée was like, a kind of love letter and an apology to her all in one, just summarizing everything about what was wrong with us and maybe why I shouldn’t have been quite so eager to go to Mars. We weren’t bad people, but we weren’t the best people together. I think a lot of couples could say that.

Do you have a favorite story among your own?
This one. It was so personal, I was afraid it wouldn’t find a home. Thank God it did – at one of my favorite magazines, no less!

You graduated both Clarion and Viable Paradise; did either workshop benefit you more than the other? How did the experience(s) change your approach to your writing?
Clarion showed me how fractured my stories were, just every single flaw, because I was surrounded by seventeen brilliant writers and they all turned their laserlike eyes at my tales. A lot of people think that Clarion’s all about the instructors, but the instructors come and go – what happens is you’re your fellow students, people as talented as you are, point out all the tiny flaws and show you how the accumulation of lazy shortcuts and errors you hadn’t even seen sap the strength from your story.

And you critique their stories, and in turn see the echoes of things you’re doing wrong. But it’s easier to see when you’re not as close to it. Day by day, you come to realize all the ways you need to improve.

So when I went into Clarion, I thought I was a good writer. When I came out of Clarion, I thought I was a good writer – but who wants a good writer? There’s a thousand good writers. No, you need to be a great writer, the kind of person who breaks hearts, and for that you either need a phenomenal instinct or a lot of training. Or both.

I’ve been working my ass off since then to be great. Ain’t there yet. Not even close. But I’m a much higher quality of good.

If I’d done Viable Paradise first, I think it would have been as mind-blowing for me as Clarion was – simply because I would have had the understanding there of how far it was I had to go. As it was, whereas Clarion taught me about structure and personality, VP really got me into the mechanics of prose and editing – part of that is the magnificence with which Teresa Nielsen-Hayden did her “party trick,” which is to say that she took my manuscript and edited the first three pages of it as she would a professional manuscript, showing me how much could be cut.

Viable Paradise is different because Clarion is six weeks; Viable Paradise is a week. Clarion has a different instructor every week; Viable Paradise has all the instructors there the same week. That shapes the structure. Because Viable Paradise is so short and supervised by the same people, it’s got a very summer camp feel to it; they have a plan and a schedule for you, and you’ll do what they tell you to on pretty much every level from teaching to the nightly relaxation periods. It’s extremely structured, as it has to be. You have only a week. You can’t mess around. And it’s a culture that you arrive in and are indoctrinated into, and you either take to it or you don’t. Clarion, on the other hand, is six weeks of very loose class – you have three hours in the morning for critiquing, and then it’s all up to you. So the students are the ones who create the environment. And you wind up teaching each other a lot.

What that means is that Viable Paradise is great for learning, but it’s not nearly as exhausting as Clarion is – partially because you’ve only got one week as opposed to six, but also partially because you don’t have to go to the effort of creating a society with its mores and structures. It’s all there. Viable Paradise just hands it to you.

You can get a lot out of either. But Clarion has the strength of creating a customized culture that’s tailored to your writing habits, which can be incredibly empowering. or it can go completely awry if the people aren’t supportive. It didn’t at mine, I trust my Clarion-brothers with all my heart, but I can see where that sort of power could go wrong.

Viable Paradise, on the other hand, is very strong but it’s largely going to be about what the instructors teach you.

Either is good. If you have one week, you’re probably going to learn more at Viable Paradise in that one week than you would in the first week of Clarion. If you have six weeks, though, Clarion’s going to drain you but you’ll come out a better writer. Some people need a year or two to recover from it, though.

What piece of writerly advice do you wish someone had given you? What piece of writerly advice did someone give you, and you wished you hadn’t listened to?
They’re both kinda the same, actually. Pre-Clarion, I used to be what I called a “strict Kingist” – which is to say that I think that Stephen King’s “On Writing” is one of the best books on how to write stories, and I followed his advice very closely. I think not overly plotting your stories is good, letting your subconscious do some of the work, and I think he’s got a good eye for how to lead someone down the path to find their own power.

BUT Unca Steve is a two-draft kinda guy. That’s great, because he has the instincts to get most of it out in draft #1. As it turns out, I’m considerably less talented than Stephen Frickin’ King (who knew?), which means that I am actually a four-to-six draft kinda guy, and I have to revise a lot more heavily than he does. (“A Window, Clear as a Mirror” was six edits from start to acceptance.) Paying attention to Unca Steve’s process there meant that I really didn’t pay attention to the skill of revising. It took a Clarion to shake me out of that.

So my advice is this: Every piece of writer advice is what works for that writer. Some of them are not going to be for you. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. (Some people are first draft people. I fear and envy them.)

In case you’re interested, now I’m a Protestant Kingist. And Ken Rand’s “The 10% Solution” is now my apocrypha.

You took part in Nanowrimo this year. What did you learn about your writing (the good and the bad) over the course of November?
Hard to say. I’m not done with the novel yet. 🙂

More seriously, it’s that I’m learning a novel is like a short story for me in that it’s a lot bigger – I have to spend more time thinking about setup. In my short stories, I go, “Oh, wow, that’s a great idea!” and revise six paragraphs. In a novel, I have the same “That’s a great idea!” and there goes a chapter. The energy is good, but it means I’m retreading the same initial 20k words, and I hope I don’t get stalled here.

What authors, if any, have had the most influence on your own writing?
That’s usually the short-hand version of, “Who do you write like?” – and the answer is, honestly, that I don’t know. I could say that Stephen King’s influenced me a lot, which he has, but Lord knows whether I write like he does. and who hasn’t been influenced by Unca Steve? I’d say Alan Moore as well – I wish I could write prose half as well as he did during his Swamp Thing run, or Miracleman – but again, it’s not like Alan Moore (or his pal Neil Gaiman) are uncommon answers.

Kij Johnston, Ray Bradbury, Ken Follett, Stephen R. Donaldson, Harlan Ellison, Madeleine L’Engle, Theodore Sturgeon. Oh, Good lord, I could be here all night. The real answer is probably closer to “Which writers are influencing your style this week?” in which case it’s Scott Westerfield and Suzanne Collins.

In this case, I’m gonna say I’m hewing very close to Bradbury here. Or so I hope.

Have you ever read a short story and wished you had written it? If so, which story was that?
“There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury. How did he make me feel sorry for a house? Such beauty. That, or “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss” by Kij Johnston. I wrote like her for three months after that.

I believe in ________.
Harvey Dent.

Writing well requires _______ and _______, but could use less __________.
Writing well requires TALENT and PERSEVERANCE, but could use less WHINING BY AUTHORS WHO FEEL INADEQUATE EVERY TIME THEY GET A REJECTION. I count, especially, myself.

What are you currently reading, bookwise?
Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants. It’s a fascinating exercise for a writer. I keep thinking, “This dialogue is stilted and it all sounds the same, the descriptions are hackneyed, the sex is almost perfunctory” – and yet I keep eagerly devouring each chapter. Ken is an absolutely brilliant writer (Pillars of the Earth is one of my favorite books ever), and yet he breaks the classic accepted rules of what good writing is.

It’s a solid reminder that good writing really has only one rule: make your reader turn the page. And oh, oh, he is so good at that.

Your favorite song to dance to on Dance Central is…?
Hee! Currently, I’m addicted to the damn thing, but my favorite song is Jay Sean’s “Down.” I may one day break out the “Brown Sugar” on the real dance floor.

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