Interview with Martin Shoemaker
Joshua Sky Interviews SF Writer Martin L. Shoemaker
Omni had the opportunity to speak with Martin L. Shoemaker, multi-award winning author and professional programmer. His short story Today I Am Paul was nominated for a Nebula Award and he has won much accolade in the span of his six year career. Martin has written for publications such as Analog, Galaxy’s Edge and Clarkesworld. He has a number of upcoming projects, including several novels.
JS: You have a unique origin story as a writer, one that a lot of people can take inspiration from. Please, tell it again.
MARTIN: It's actually a story about what not to do. I've been telling stories for as long as I’ve been reading, I started submitting my first stories when I was 14. And it got a rejection from Asimov Magazine. And I did not understand what this meant, but it was basically a personal rejection which they were trying to encourage me to keep at it. All I knew was that it was a rejection. And I gave up. Somewhere in my early 20's - I had another story and I sent it out to Amazing. I sent it to them and it came back with a rejection. And I said this is too much work and I gave up.
This pattern repeated a couple times over the years.
And then, when I turned 47, I was still feeling this urge to write. And I wrote what I thought was a first chapter of a novel and showed it to my brother-in-law, who is the kind of reader who keeps writers in business. He looked at and said, that's not a chapter, that's a short story. Send it out!
And so I did. This time, when it didn't go, I sent it to a different place. And I started reading blogs and entrees from different writers talking about the business. And I kept trying more things. It also gotten easier because people were starting to accept electronic submissions. And I kept trying for a good part of a year. And it was still not going anywhere. But I'd been reading essays by authors, and instructors and editors, and mentors and they had been trying to teach the world other ways of doing the writers business. And they were teaching heavily of Heinlein's rules, one of which is the controversial number three -- don't rewrite except to direct editorial order. Just write it and send it out. You have to trust that your stuff is good. If you thought it was worth writing, than trust that it's worth sending out.
And finally I said, I'll give that a try. I had a story I wrote over Thanksgiving one weekend. Knocked out 14,000 words and sent it off to Asimov. I also kept Heinlein's fifth rule: Keep it on the market. Keep sending it out. Every Saturday, I would look through my pieces and see what wasn't sent out and I would find a market for it. And I was getting nowhere.
I gave myself to the end of the year. And on December 31st, the last day of the year, my rejection comes from Asimov. I said, okay, it's the end of the year, I'm going to see it all the way to the end, so where I can I send this today? So I searched the markets, and I found Writer's of the Future. I didn't know much about it, I knew it was a contest, and I noticed that they had a quarterly deadline, and I noticed it was the end of the quarter. So, I submitted.
In the meantime, I dropped my writing. Then Writers of the Future called and told me my story was a finalist for the first quarter.
I said, "What?!" I had literally forgotten my story was out there. And I said hmm, okay, I should investigate this. I learned about the contest, signed up for the forum, and a month later my story wasn't a winner, but writer Jerry Pournelle loved my story. He thought it should've won, which encouraged me to continue.
That's when I gave up on giving up. Where I decided that there's some potential here. I had to just stop letting fear stop me from continuing. And that's all it took. That was the change that was missing. It wasn't very long after that that I made my first sale to Digital Science Fiction. Followed by a few months later by a sale after that, followed by an invitation and acceptance to a literary charity anthology, followed by my first sale to Analog. Eventually I placed third in the Writers of the Future contest. All because I had realized that what I was doing wrong had nothing to do with the writing, but everything to do with giving up.
JS: Fast forward to today, I know you had some recent successes. You were up for a Nebula Award, and won a few others, correct?
MARTIN: In this year there was the Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award. My Story, Today I am Paul, won that. I also had won the Rogue Star Award, overseen by Joseph Malozzi, showrunner of Dark Matter and before that Stargate.
JS: You won an Analog Award too, didn't you?
MARTIN: Yes. I won the Analog Lab Award for my novelette Racing to Mars.
JS: Since you've restarted your endeavors, how long have you been active as a writer?
MARTIN: For my modern era, six years I've been actively trying to sell stuff.
JS: Do you have regrets about starting late?
MARTIN: I just do not generally think of terms of regrets. Do I sometimes wonder where I'd be if I hadn't given up at 20? Yeah, but I also wrote a lot of programs in that time that I was proud of. On top of that, I look at what I've accomplished in the past six years, and I hate to even say this, because I try to have humility. But in six years, I've come a long way. I talk to other people who have had later, and successful takeoffs. And it seems that this is a pattern. Not for everyone of course, because there are no guarantees, but starting late seems to lead to a faster takeoff. There's a lot of reasons I could argue for that. When you’re older, you had lots of time in life to build up experiences to be able to throw into stories.
Another is that you had lots of time in life to get comfortable communicating in writing. If you've had a long career, you've already done a lot of communication. I think there's a confidence level also. When you start older, you're comfortable in your skin. You're comfortable with who you are, and therefore the stories you have to tell.
JS: Talk about your process. From my understanding and this is coming from someone who drives on the 405 everyday, you've transformed your commute into gold.
MARTIN: My process today, is in the morning, if I don't have a story that I'm not already working on. I'll think, what do I want to work on today? I'll put some ideas together. When I get in my jeep to drive to work, which is almost an hour commute for me. Sometimes with bad weather, traffic can be longer. I turn on my dictation app on my phone and I just start talking. Talking and talking, until I get to work, or run out of things to say. Then, on my way home, I do the same thing. So yes, I've turned my commute into gold, or lemons into lemonade. I've taken two hours, and found a new way for me to write fiction. And I'm doing this now, even more heavily than typing at the keyboard. Every story I've sold in the past three years was a dictated story.
JS: What’s your output been like with this process?
MARTIN: Between June and August, I dictated two and a fraction novels, a screenplay, a couple novellas, and three or four short stories.
JS: You don't write anymore? In terms of sitting down and composing at a keyboard?
MARTIN: Transcribe and cleanup. I won't say I never write, but it’s become much more natural for me to do it through dictation. This is another lesson I learned - getting out of your way to tell a story. And dictation and starting late have helped me with that. You know what stories are, you know how to tell a story. What happens when you sit down to write is that so often you think about what you're supposed to write, rather than letting that story that's in you to come out.
JS: Who are the writers who influenced you?
MARTIN: Niven & Pournelle. Harlan Ellison. Jack McDevitt. Tolkien. Barry Longyear, writer of Enemy Mine.
JS: Who are your mentors?
MARTIN: Mike Resnick. I'm incredibly proud to claim him as a mentor. Mike really believes in paying it forward, and helping new writers to get in, just like writers back in his day helped him get in. Early this year, he decided that I'm one of his writer sons. So I take some pride in that, which means that I'm learning some lessons and making them happen. I have an awful lot of foreign sales for my story Today I Am Paul, because I paid attention to him. He's been telling new writers to do this all the time. So I tried it, and all of a sudden, bing - bing - bing - here comes three foreign sales, now I'm up to seven, with rumors of an eighth, but we're waiting on that one.
And David Farland and Tim Powers, who all do incredible, work as Writer of the Future judges and workshop teachers.
Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta are another inspirational team, as well as Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. They teach workshops, and write a lot about the business on their respective blogs. A whole lot about what I learned and my approach to writing comes from them.
And finally, Sarah Hoyt. Sara blogs about writing pretty much, close to seven days a week.
Surprisingly my mentors are more business than craft.
JS: In your story, In its Shadow, you deal with science and faith coming into conflict. Are you of any faith, do you think science and faith can coexist?
MARTIN: It's an interesting question, because I didn't want that story to go that way. But I'm into the notion that once your premise is set. You follow it. Once you've set how rules in your story work, you follow it. You don't go changing things just because you want the story to go some other way. You follow what the implications are of your premise. And that story started with a premise that couldn't possibly work. We've seen first contact stories, where we discover alien existence, I thought, what would it do to a culture, if from the very moment they were sentient, they were aware that they weren't alone in the universe? What would the results of that be? And as I sat down to write that story, I realized, they can't realize that. They don't have the concepts. They do not have the notions yet that there are other worlds yet. They would have to see alien life as something else. So it became a science versus religion debate, though it was absolutely what I didn't intend it to be. It became echoes of 2001.
JS: Are you of faith? Do you think science and faith can coexist?
MARTIN: Unquestionably there are scientists of faith, so I do believe they can coexist, because there are two different types of questions being asked. One is a question of how things work, the other is asking about meaning, and why.
JS: Do you categorize yourself as a hard science fiction writer?
MARTIN: I aim for it. I don't hold myself to that as a rigid standard. Hard science fiction is not a single definition. There are a lot of people with different definitions. For some, if there is even the slightest stray from known science, then they think it's not hard SF anymore, that's space opera. I'm not that dogmatic about it.
JS: I noticed some crossover in some of your stories. Would you say that you're stories are in a shared universe?
MARTIN: Not all of them. I have a general universe that I'm calling Blue Collar Space. And almost everything I've published in Analog is Blue Collar Space.
JS: Can you explain what that term means? Did you coin it?
MARTIN: I didn't coin it, but I was probably the second to use it. If you search the web using that term, you'll find me. For me, Blue Collar Space is about ordinary people working and getting dirty and solving problems and getting jobs done and living and reproducing, having a good time, and dying. Normal average blue collar life, except they’re doing it in space. Sooner or later, space is going to have to have more than just PHD test pilots, because essentially, astronauts are all highly, highly specialized. Eventually we'll have average people – although average people, who are sloppy, are going to die quickly. So it is going to self-select average to above average people who are really, really good at what they do. Good enough to survive in different situations. So basically it's blue collar people who are capable of living in new and dangerous environments, making a home there.
JS: Would you ever want to branch outside the genre of sci-fi?
MARTIN: I would certainly like to, although, I'm trying not to. I'm trying to stay close to sci-fi. I think I'm reaching closer in terms of the awards I've won that I can probably have some flexibility now and then.
JS: So you want to write fantasy?
MARTIN: I have some fantasy ideas I want to write.
JS: I understand there is some interest in Hollywood to adapt your works like Today I Am Paul. How far along are you in this endeavor? Are you interested in writing for the screen? Would you prefer that you're work be adapted, and you stick to fiction from the comfort of your home?
MARTIN: That's a tough one. Right now it's all pie in the sky. Yes, I've had three different contacts regarding Today I Am Paul. One of them went to an exec at a studio. They said it was a little short, which I agree with. The other two I haven't heard much from it. I don't know if anything is going to come of this.
JS: I notice that your programing certainly influences your writing. Many of your short stories start off with a technical problem, and circles a protagonist who has to solve it.
MARTIN: I think you have understated the influence. When I'm deep into coding, I can see all the pieces around me, and how they tie together, in terms of my mental eye. That's also how I write. I have a model of the world and story in my head that I become immersed in.
JS: How do you feel about the sci-fi publishing market? Do you think it's overcrowded, or that there's plenty of room for everyone?
MARTIN: There are different approaches. One is to look at the markets that are out there. Are they staying afloat, and how much are people buying? Right now we sort of have fluctuations. Which if you look back at the history that's pretty normal. Back in the 40s, 50s and 60s' we used to have tons of markets, much more than now. So in some ways it has shrunk. But we still have many markets emerging all the time. So, they come and they go. You could argue that it’s growing.
But the other side of it is something much more examined on the indie side, which is that readers can read faster than we can write. And the voracious readers just want more, more, more. And I believe from everything that I’ve seen that the demand is not being filled yet. Especially since the demand is not short fiction, the demand is novels.
JS: In theory, you can create your own market by creating an anthology or publishing your own novels.
MARTIN: Mhhmm. Dean Wesley Smith did that. He has his own magazine where he publishes his short stories and their reprints.
JS: Do you ever plan on becoming an editor in your own right? Would you ever want to put together an anthology?
MARTIN: Someday I will be stupid enough to do that. I've talked to friends who do it, and they tell me what's involved. And I realize that I do not have the skills to pull that off. I do not know enough about how to do that. But then I keep coming up with cool ideas for anthologies and I say “somebody ought to do that.” And my editor friends say, “I don't want it, I think it's a good idea. You do it.” Sooner or later, one of em' is gonna talk me into it.
JS: Do you eventually want to make a hard transition into novel writing, fully focusing on that?
MARTIN: Mostly focusing on that, but not totally because I like the short fiction, but your impact, your sales potential, your growth potential is better in the novel.
JS: “The novel is king.” Alfred Bester said that.
MARTIN: But that can change too, because right now, there's a real interest in shorts because people have short chunks of time to read on their phone.
JS: What are you working on right now?
MARTIN: Immediately, at the moment, I just sent out a sequel to Today I Am Paul.
JS: When are you sending that to me, buddy?
MARTIN: All right, I'll get you a copy. I was asked to write a story for a Christmas anthology for literacy featuring a Today I Am Paul Christmas story. And I am also writing a novel, starting with Today I Am Paul, and ending with an even bigger bang than that, and hopefully a middle that keeps you going along the way.
JS: The tough part of being a sci-fi writer is that so much of the technology you dream up can be just around the corner, or already here. Your idea might not be that new, because technology is catching up that quickly.
MARTIN: That's the advantage that the fantasy, or horror, or science fantasy, or space opera writer has. It is a challenge for those of us who choose to stay in the solar system. In the Earth Mars system. And try to stick to relatively realistic technology. Man, they can turn around and invalidate this at any time. Any time. Or, they could be way ahead of my schedule. In fact, you will have to work really hard, to find any dates in any Blue Collar Space stories.
JS: Your space marines story for Galaxy’s Edge, Pallbearers, was great. Do you plan on writing more military SF?
MARTIN: I don't, because I don't have the military background. But it sneaks up on me. Honor Guard, snuck up on me, I had no idea I was going to do a mil SF novella. I have another project called Debts to the Fallen, a MilSF novel that might become a series. That one is deep in the transcription queue.
JS: What advice would you have for novice or new writers?
1) Don't give up like I did.
2) Don't give up like I did.
When it comes to writing, more than anything else, people expect that you're either good at it, or not. You don't even see that for other types of artists. There's this myth of talent. You either have it or you don't. No. You might have something, and people look at it, and think you have talent. But you aren't going to have a career unless you're willing to put in lots of time on making it better, and learning how to find an audience.
Another tip is if you are scribing sci-fi and fantasy, then you should be entering the Writer's of the Future contest every quarter. It is more of a community than a competition.
The purpose of the contest is to encourage new writers. Anyone who is a pro is not eligible.
And Trust yourself. People are so afraid that they are overconfident, that sometimes they are under confident. You might fail, but at least you tried. Try again.
JS: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.
MARTIN: Oh, I'm honored. It's really gratifying that you have the interest.