Robert Vardeman (who is sometimes called Vardebob) is a living legend in fantasy and science fiction. I am going to borrow directly from Wikipedia for this:
Vardeman’s fantasy series include the War of Powers (6 volumes co-authored with Victor Milan), Cenotaph Road (6 volumes), The Swords of Raemllyn (9 volumes co-authored with Geo. W. Proctor), The Jade Demons (4 books), The Keys to Paradise trilogy, The Demon Crown trilogy, and a British-published trilogy called “The Accursed.” Vardeman is currently involved in the novelizations of the fantasy game series, God of War.
Vardeman’s science fiction works include the Weapons of Chaos trilogy, 3 published books in the “Masters of Space” series, the Biowarriors trilogy, and the stand-alone novels “The Sandcats of Rhyl,” “Road to the Stars,” and “Ancient Heavens.” The 1991 techno-thriller “Death Fall” is a related novel, although works set in a contemporary setting are often not categorized as science fiction.
Recently, I grabbed Bob’s “The Sandcast of Phyl” when he offered it for free as an ebook. We got to talking…
What genre would you like to write a book in (that you haven’t yet)?
I’ve been published in most fiction genres. The nice thing about being a writer is the opportunity to write anything I want (within constraints of making enough $$$ to feed the cats and keep the mortgage company happy). I used to work as a solid state research physicist and some of the stuff done there was definitely interesting, but if I could do a book—not a novel—it would be nonfiction. Not physics stuff, though that could be fun. I write a lot of westerns. Doing a nf book on some aspect of the Wild West would be quite a kick, but what keeps me away is the need to be exacting about sources. A friend, Don Bullis (the New Mexico Centennial Historian), does fabulous stuff. And it takes him years to produce a single volume. Research doesn’t deter me but such an undertaking would require too many years on the same title. I’m fascinated with western mining and railroads. Lots of occurrences in New Mexico have slipped through the (historical) cracks. The silver spike marking the second transcontinental railroad was driven when the AT&SF connected with the SP in Deming, NM. There are lots of choices for a nf book.
Where do your ideas come from? Do you have a standard formula for plots or do stories come to you as a whole construct?
I wonder about the question “where do your ideas come from?” A better question is how do I stop the ideas from consuming me. Everything and anything is fair game for the simplest of sf questions” What if…?
Recently I saw an article about the Swiss (the Swiss!) designing a satellite to vacuum up debris from orbit. In the Tom Swift newsgroup a passing reference to the Hubble set off a long “what if?” chain for me. UN Space policies prohibit salvage. But what if I decided to repair the gyros on the Hubble when they break again? No US shuttle to repair it. So I would repair it in situ, “claiming” it by changing all the communications gear so only I could tap into the results. How would I pay for this? Kickstarter just raised $10m for a virtual watch face company. My Kickstarter would allocate time to universities and businesses with the world’s premier space telescope (which I alone control) A half million for a few weeks of otherwise unobtainable deep space viewing? Bet there’d be a lot of foreign universities willing to pay. But how do I get there? Virgin Galactic will start space tourism flights next year. $200K a seat. Buy several launches, get to edge of atmosphere, then launch into orbit. Several launches to send material to rendezvous with Hubble. Last flight puts me into orbit ==> repair. Return? Virgin Galactic hangs at apogee for about 15 minutes. Rendezvous and ride it down. Oops, working in space and specifically on the Hubble is beyond my ability. How many former astronauts who have worked on the Hubble would jump at the chance to go into space again? And if anyone tries to usurp my “squatter rights” on the ‘scope? It’s wired to blow. As Frank Herbert pointed out in Dune, “The power to destroy is the power to control.”
Then there was the idea I got thinking about commercial airline crashes. And—you see? Ideas pop up everywhere and take on a life of their own.
The ideas or the characters populating them dictate the story. There’s no single plot. That would be boring.
When you start a new story, do you have a title for it? Does that trigger the story?
Sometimes all I need is a nifty title to cause idea fireworks to go off. I recently did a short story, “Memory of Wind,” like that. I had no idea what it meant until it slowly took form and then, ahem, blew through my mind almost fully formed. Other times, I finish a novel without a title. In those cases, the editor is likely to have something better than I could ever have come up with.
Do you see the future of fantasy and science fiction as bright? If so, which authors are driving it?
The future of sf and fantasy is, has been and always will be bright. SF offers hope for the future, a chance to play with “if this goes” ideas to see what to do (and what to avoid) and is generally a literate geek’s crystal ball. We don’t need a fortune teller—just a good writer.
With the advent of ebooks, the field is incredibly fragmented now—and is similar to the exploration that opened the Wild West. No one knows exactly what will work, but one thing is for sure. Traditional publishers will have to change or vanish. The writers exploring these new venues for their work are the real pioneers. Kristine Katherine Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith. Michael Stackpole. Matt Forbeck and Stephen D. Sullivan. All are using Kickstarter to fund projects traditional publishers would never touch.
What themes are being overused?
Any theme can be exciting if done well. I’m not the one to ask about “tired” plots since I would have bet vampires and paranormal romances would have been passe five years ago. My crystal ball is waaay murky when it comes to predicting what will touch readers at any given time. 50 Shades of Gray? Go figure.
Are movies ruining books?
Movies are different. Books do things movies can’t (and vice versa). I love movies. I love reading. (I love reading subtitles in movies.) Because movies are likely best suited for adapting short stories rather than novels, most tackling books will die a messy death. Some work. Peter Jackson’s success with the LotR is a case in point. I haven’t seen the HBO adaptation of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones but since he is writing some of the episodes, I assume it is both accurate and as wildly successful as the novels.
Mostly, also, TV is not a movie is not a book. All have strengths the others don’t (and weaknesses the others can capitalize on.)
Do you see ebooks threatening traditional publishing?
Dead tree books will always be with us. The smell, the feel, the sense of *owning* is powerful. A leather bound volume on my bookshelf can never be the same as an ebook. But ebooks are killing the traditional publishers’ business model. Seldom in history could anyone point and say definitively “this is changing the world.” Gutenberg’s printing press was one turning point and took a century or more to change the world. The industrial revolution was another. It geared on for decades with the change coming slowly. But now anyone, literally anyone, can use the Internet to tap into the totality of human knowledge using nothing more than a smartphone. Even better for writers, ideas that would never find a home with a dead tree publisher can now be put out there for the world to see. If the traditional publishers don’t change (and there are reasons why they can’t—Berkley has a VP in charge of railroads. He oversees 9 miles of tracks in the NJ warehouses. He’ll never give up his empire. What need is there for transporting print books in a virtual world?)
Do you prefer to read established authors or debut authors? How do you choose which ones to read?
Much of my reading, maybe too much, is nonfiction. For those books I tend to hunt out experts in the field or uniquely researched books on a single topic without regard to author. For fiction, I’ve found buying an iPad has increased my for-pleasure reading. Kindle gives away titles all the time. That’s a wonderful way to sample unknown writers. Most aren’t worth a second look, but some are. Writers who have entertained me in the past are likely to again, so, yes, I’ll seek out new titles from them.
What is it about fantasy that appeals to you?
I really don’t like the term science fantasy. A story is either science fiction or it’s fantasy. Fantasy worlds can be built up from a few basic postulates that might fly in the face of physical laws. Seeing where these go, how the (all too often medieval) societies develop, what new and wondrously crazy monsters can be conjured all appeal to me. Basics: there has to be a strong story and characters. I can still enjoy old Arthur Clarke stories even though they are no longer sf (land on the moon? Been there, done that). But the characters and the story telling make them worthwhile. Similarly, fantasies with strong characters and fun plots engage me. And fantasy is never upstaged by progress in science.
Can I get an autographed book? (lol)
yes (but you pay the postage!)
Do you have a group of people that you show a new story to? How much impact can they have on the whole story?
A very few. My son gets stuck with a fair amount of this. He’s got a degree in English that ought to be put to some use <g> Mostly, the beta readers give me an idea how well described the people and situations are. What is clear in my head might not translate well because I have made too many assumptions or simply “knew” and didn’t put that into the story for someone coming in cold.
Do you set yourself a word limit for each book?
This depends on the book. 100K is good for sf. It would be shorter for a traditional western, and up to 150k for an epic western.
Do you have a target each day?
I usually try to do 5-10k words a day when I’m working. Life all too often intrudes, but doing a first draft in 2 or 3 weeks is a decent target.
Do you write constantly or have breaks between books?
I have a severe letdown when I finish a book. It is always a chore forcing myself to get going on the next project, although I likely have any of a half dozen choices. Whichever excites me most is next up.
Do you have characters running around your head? Do they dictate events and their histories to you?
I saw a sign saying writer’s block is when the little voices stop talking to you. True. My characters argue and posture and declaim—and it all gets put into the book.
After so many books, how do you keep them unique?
I figured out a long time ago I would be a terrible assembly line worker. By the end of the first hour I would be tinkering and doing things differently. It has happened too often I have lost a chapter or two. I know what I did but rewriting them always takes me in different direction, no matter how I try to replicate what’s been lost.
What is your biggest (self-imposed) time waster?
The Internet. I recently found blogs and tweets and Frontier Battalion and emails can be cut back and give me 3-4 extra hours a day.
Do you remember the first time you saw your book in a shop?
My heart skipped a beat. I always get a kick out of seeing my books on a bookstore shelf, but now with ebooks, this is a diminishing thrill. Going live on Amazon isn’t the same feel as touching the book (hell, turning its cover face out!) at a bookstore.
Do you read other people’s writing?
Would you read mine?
I do this for a living. I an an instructor for Long Ridge Writers Institute and have almost no time for “freelance” material. At one time I had 200 students. Now it’s down to 50 or so, all budding novelists.
My very first novel, Sandcats of Rhyl, has just been e-reprinted for Kindle, Nook, etc—this is a 35-year-old book and I hope I’ve improved. I have 50 or so other e-titles up. Any would be fine. Big upcoming fantasy book is the novelization for God of War 2, out in Feb ’13. An e-original is Gateway to Rust and Ruin, a steampunk novel. And another high tech thriller e-original is Hot Rail to Hell.