Five Questions with Award-Winning Author Brad R. Torgersen
by Alex Cabal
Our community liaison Stewart Ah Sing nabbed an exclusive interview with award-winner and Nebula nominee Brad Torgersen for this month's email newsletter. It's a great read--Brad has some interesting insight into the revision process and how long it takes to become successful. If you missed the newsletter, check out the interview here!
Science Fiction author Brad R. Torgersen is a Writers of the Future contest winner, Analog magazine AnLab readers' choice award winner, and most recently a Nebula award nominee for his novelette, "Ray of Light," which appeared in the December 2011 issue of Analog magazine. Brad's also collaborated with award-winner Mike Resnick, and contributed stories to venues like Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. He's within striking distance of the Hugo award and the Campbell award for best new science fiction and fantasy writer at the Chicon 7 World Science Fiction convention. You can read a selection from "Ray of Light" on the Analog website, or purchase the full novelette for less than a dollar on Brad's website, www.bradrtorgersen.com.
We caught up with Brad via e-mail for a little brain-picking about writing awards, breaking through the "pro" barrier, and other writing-related concerns.
Scribophile: You've said in another interview that it took you 17 years and close to 900,000 written words to finally get professionally published in Writers of the Future Vol. 26. Looking back on that time, do you think there's anything you could have done differently to speed the process up? Or do you feel that all those words and all that time were absolutely necessary for you to grow as a writer and end up where you are today?
Brad: I do think there are things I could have done to speed things up.
There is a lot of "empty" space in those 17 years, during which I accumulated almost 900,000 words of unpublished fiction. Like most aspiring writers, I was and am very good at finding excuses to not write. When the rejection slips for short fiction piled up, I told myself I couldn't do short fiction, so I switched to novels. When I crashed and burned on several abortive novel projects, I told myself maybe I wasn't any good at fiction period, so I went through a very long dry spell from 2001 to about 2006 where I wrote very, very little at all. Played a lot of video games. Read a lot of books. Felt sorry for myself and wondered if I'd just been kidding around about my writing. Obviously I wasn't very good, or I'd have sold something already, right? So I think new aspiring writers can do themselves a favor if they realize that procrastination and self-doubt are lethal and will kill your productivity, and thatanything which limits or halts productivity also limits or halts your growth as a writer.
Having said this, I do think there was a certain inevitability to my long delay, if only because I was 18 years old when I conceived of becoming a professional, and at 18 yrs old, hell, even at 28 years old, I simply hadn't lived enough life to be able to write emotionally compelling stories with that mysterious but essential quality called resonance. After I'd been married for over a decade, and after I'd become a father, and after I'd done some time in the military, after, after, after... then I started to get the trick of building stories readers could care about. Before that, I was an okay word smith. I could string words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and it would all make sense and be coherent. But it was prose without heart, and prose without heart seldom sells. I didn't break through until I could make that emotional connection with readers, which couldn't occur until I'd managed to make certain emotional connections with myself through time, maturation, and occasional tough life shit.
Scribophile: Contrarily, it only took about two years for you to go from that first professional publication to being nominated for a Nebula—arguably the highest award a SciFi author can win. How do you feel about that? What do you think accounts for the short move from first-time pro to Nebula nominee?
Brad: I think it's a lot like an iceberg, or maybe an undersea volcano? Everything I am accomplishing now is built on everything I did before. Only nobody ever saw those 17 years nor those 870,000 unpublished words, so the last two years have been a come-from-nowhere phenomenon. Only, not really. Everyone who is successful commercially usually tells the same story: how (s)he labored for years, thanklessly, pennilessly, rejection after rejection and unsold book or story after unsold book or story. Then, boom, finally, stuff started to happen. And as I can tell you from experience, sometimes it happens very fast. And I think a lot of it is just building up a good head of steam through long effort, and when you break the surface you're still chugging away down below. The engine is primed. No magic to it. It's inertia. If you can break through and keep that inertia, you can keep going straight on to the next milestone, the next accomplishment — one right after the other. Though I must confess the Nebula ballot was never on my bucket list. I firmly believe an author should not dream of or plan for awards or awards nominations. They are utterly beyond our control. But hard work? Regular objectives? Weekly or monthly word count? Finishing what we start? These are absolutely within our control. And, I'd say, once you begin to practice and work regularly, and can be consistent, nice things do happen.
Scribophile: Your Nebula-nominated piece, "Ray of Light," is a post-apocalyptic story where humanity is forced to live beneath the ocean to survive. What came to you first about the story, and how did your idea change (if it did) before you were finished?
Brad: The conceit of "Ray of Light" is the theory that the Earth froze solid at least once in the very-distant geologic past. During that time, the planet's atmosphere cooled so much that the ice stretched all the way from the poles to the equator, closing over Earth entirely. This "snowball Earth" scenario was fascinating for me, but I didn't think I could successfully write it as a story until I was presented with the project of writing a post-apocalypse story. Not wanting to do another post-nuclear or post-plague horror tale, I decided to incorporate the "snowball Earth" idea, using the close-to-the-bone story of a small family to illuminate the much larger implications. How would humanity actually try to survive such an event? What could cause it in the first place? What were the psychological and emotional ramifications? Once I began asking all of these secondary and tertiary questions, the story practically wrote itself. And though I was quite pleased with it when finished, I did not expect it to hit home with so many different readers. As stated above, being able to infuse a story with resonance is key, in my opinion. Obviously I did that with "Ray of Light," though the process was largely intuitive. There was very little planning. I just extrapolated a string of events, based on the initial premise. The outcome has been far better than I'd hoped.
Scribophile: More broadly speaking, what's your revision process like? Do you revise heavily, a little, or not at all? If you do revise, what do you find yourself changing most heavily? Is it the structure of the story, its descriptions and characters, or line-editing SPAG stuff? If you don't revise, why not?
Brad: One of the habits I jettisoned in 2006 was heavy revision. Prior to that, I was a relentless re-writer because I firmly believed that revision over successive iterations was the only way to make anything "better." I was disabused of the idea after discussing it with Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith at one of their workshops in Lincoln City, Oregon. Heavy, repetitive revision was actually destructive for me. It limited how much I learned from each new work, and it absolutely sapped the fun out of the creation process. So, I gave myself a practical limit: three passes, and out. Meaning, write the initial draft, do a rough edit, then a fine-tune edit, then call it good and get the story or the book out to editors. Which is not to say I won't tear a story down to the ground and begin again from scratch. This process—what Dean Wesley Smith has called re-drafting—is very different from re-writing. Re-writing I try to limit. Re-drafting? I've sold material I've re-drafted. But that's probably a whole other subject for a whole other discussion.
Scribophile: Writers of the Future winner, Nebula nominee—what's next?
Brad: What's next is a novel contract. Thanks to my success in the short fiction world I've managed to attract the attention of both a top-drawer agent and a top-drawer novel publisher. Many people have been pushing me to write some good books, including my friend and mentor Dave Wolverton (Farland) as well as several others. When I first said to myself, "I will be a professional science fiction writer," I wanted to be like my writing hero Larry Niven: a good short story writer and a good novel writer. I've finally managed to stake a claim to being a good (or at least competent) short story writer. Now the Mount Everest of novel publishing beckons. I don't think I'll be satisfied until I've proven that I can master that challenge too, so that's the next, big step whether I win or am nominated for any more awards, or not. Novels are where the most money is, and novels are where you can spent the most time telling the most in-depth stories too. I grew up reading novels, and had to teach myself over long practice how to successfully write short fiction. Now I am going back to novels, so that my skills can be double-edged: long, and short. Right now the runway lights are lit. I just have to land the damned airplane.
Scribophile: Sounds exciting! Thanks so much for your time, Brad, and for letting those of us still starting out pick your brains for writerly knowledge.