Dave Wolverton: On Breaking Through
Dave Wolverton has published ten novels in the fields of fantasy and science fiction, and has been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards. He's also written media books in addition to gaming books for middle-grade students. Many new writers know Wolverton as a judge for the L. Ron Hubbard "Writers of the Future" contest. He edited the annual anthology before turning the reins over to Algis Budrys. He won the top award in the contest in 1987, an event which effectively sparked his career.
Last summer, he broke the Guinness Book world record for most book signings at one sitting for A Very Strange Trip, which he adapted from an L. Ron Hubbard short story.
Scott Nicholson: When did you first start writing?
Dave Wolverton: When I was a kid, I used to like to read a lot. I discovered fantasy when I was about 15 years old and I read everything that I could, and by the time I was 17 or 18, I was running out of things to read. So I started making up my own stories. I used to have a friend that I worked with, and I used to tell him my stories, and one day he said, "You ought to put this in a book." And I said, "That's a good idea. People probably make money that way." I was pretty much caught then.
I began studying writing and started practicing it, and did it in secret for a few years, working on a couple of novels. When I was in college, I took a writing course, and basically my short stories there started winning contests, and I moved into publishing in about a year-and-a-half. It all came pretty rapidly.
SN: What should newer writers focus on early in their careers?
DW: The first thing you do is focus on developing the strengths that you want. You look at work that you admire, you try to duplicate what others have done with their techniques, you learn how to tell a story. It really depends on what kind of career you want. If you want to be a big, famous writer, you ought to be looking at books that sell large numbers and start looking for common denominators. If you want to write military sci-fi, then you ought to join the military and get some of the life experience that you need to write that kind of book. So I think there's a number of things: developing technique, doing research, studying things that quite often are not taught in any school, and going from there.
SN: What are the challenges and rewards of writing media books?
DW: I don't write anything that I don't want to write. When I did a STAR WARS novel, I did it because I like STAR WARS. I've been asked to do STAR TREK novels, but I'm not particularly a STAR TREK fan anymore. I don't know if I would feel interested in writing one, though I could probably do it.
One reward is just working with a product that you like, working in a universe that you enjoy. With that in mind, I could write maybe XENA or X-FILES, but I don't think there's much else that I would be interested in writing. Some of these things pay very well, and that can help you keep on working on your own projects. It's a good way to help a writer earn a living while he's working on his craft.
A lot of writers look at it as if you're prostituting yourself. If you want to be a writer and you're working in a grocery store, you're still prostituting yourself. You're not doing what you want to do. So you might as well be writing and gaining your skills, and that's the other thing it gives you: getting more experience in writing, getting another book out, and growing your audience a little.
The down side is that you're now competing in the market with media tie-ins, which shrinks your shelf space. That's something that all writers should be worried about. It's getting to the point where many of the independent distributors don't want to handle any science fiction writers. They only want to handle media books. Therefore, it makes it very difficult to break out and sell large numbers. So it's the kind of thing where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.
SN: Could you describe what happens to a manuscript that comes in to the "Writers of the Future" contest?
DW: The first place it goes is to our contest administrator, Judy Young, or one of her assistants. They take the manuscript and they pull off the title page and they put down your name and address and the title of the story in a computer. Then they put the unmarked manuscript in an envelope and write a number on the envelope, and write down the number of the envelope so they can track it later.
Once they've done that, they send them to me. I read through the stories. I look for an opening that will grab me. I usually give a story the first two pages to grab me, and if I don't find a character who has a meaningful conflict, or an interesting setting, or something that involves me in some other way, such as beautiful writing or an intriguing plot line, I won't read past the first two pages. That's pretty standard for the industry, I think. I put the manuscript back in the envelope and send it back to the author.
If there's something that intrigues me, I'll keep reading the story until I find some reason to junk it. If I can find no reason to reject it, then you're going to be a finalist. If I do find one or two things wrong, then you're a semi-finalist or a quarterfinalist. When I'm done, I have six or eight finalists that I send out to the other judges.
That's when Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, Algis Budrys, Gregory Benford, and people like that get them. They go through and number each story, first, second, and third place. When all the judges have finished the stories, we add up the point totals- three points for first, etc.- and the one with the most points wins first for that quarter, and so on.
The stories then come back to me. I write notes to the finalists that didn't win and tell them how they can improve their story. If I don't see anything that they need to do, I send them a congratulatory letter and tell them, "Great, you made it, send this out and it should sell."
At that point, I assign artists to illustrate the prize-winning stories. Then I don't really do anything until it's time to edit the anthology.
SN: Some people link the contest to Scientology because of L. Ron Hubbard, and avoid it for that reason. How do you respond to that?
DW: I've been working the contest for about eight years as coordinating judge. In that time, I really haven't had a problem with the Scientologists pressing anyone to join their church. I don't know of anyone who has ever converted to Scientology or expressed any interest in it. That doesn't bother me.
As for me working with the contest, I wouldn't have any problem working for a group that was Jewish or Catholic or any religion. So I find it hard to disqualify myself on the grounds of religion, even though I'm not a Scientologist. I don't care about religious bigots in other guises, so I just don't worry about it.
SN: What career mistake do you see young writers make most often?
DW: Young writers tend to look at stories and try to win awards and praises from their peers rather than try to sell to a large audience. There's a kind of nice literary story that you see in the magazines sometimes where you go, "Gosh, I wish I could write one of those." Over the years, what I think has happened is in science fiction, we've begun writing more and more for an adult audience that is just a little more elitist than it should be. I've been trying to write my books so that they can be enjoyed by young people in hopes that they can bring new blood into the genre and enlarge our borders. I feel I'm in the minority, and I don't think most writers are doing that very much. It's limiting in their work and ultimately is damaging to the field.
SN: I understand you have some interesting ideas about multimedia fiction.
DW: I'm working with computers and gaming a little on the side. Movies have been the dominant literary form of the 20th Century, and I believe computers will be the dominant literary form of the 21st Century. I've been working on ways of telling stories with multimedia via computer, basically looking at storylines that would be self-editing. You could take a fantasy adventure story and mold it to the audience to fit their needs.
It's an odd field, because it's not quite a movie, it's not quite a video game, it's not quite a book, and nobody knows what in the devil to do with it. But somebody will figure it out. It's not a difficult thing to do, but it's hard to pin down what it is. I just call it "electronic storytelling."
What do you see as trends in the fields of speculative
I like novels. The finest poets in this century have not been selling enough to make a living in the field. I look at storytelling as a whole, and there's a lot of different media. I'm not so much hurt by it as I am fascinated by the possibilities. I would like to work in electronic storytelling, but it would cost two or three million dollars to put it together the way I would like to do it. Not many people want to spend money on that kind of venture. On the other hand, if you're one of the first people into the business, you could be reaping some tremendous windfalls. I look at it more as an opportunity than a difficulty.
SN: What's the condensed Dave Wolverton writing advice?
DW: For a new writer, your best bet is do your best work every time and work your little heart out. Never slow down, never give in. Breaking into publishing is like breaking down a wall. The only problem is you have to do it with your head. Pretty soon you get a hole in the wall and go on through. It's just a matter of persistence.
-copyright 1999 by Scott Nicholson
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