And now, from Inside the Writer’s Studio,
A Very Special Interview With Van Allen Plexico
It may one day come to pass that you find your brain receding into your skull, each little cell of grey matter feeling unused and unloved. You find that all semblance of the intelligence and common sense you once held has bought a Trans Am, packed up its suitcase, and told you, “It’s not you, it’s me.” You find yourself empty-headed, wondering if you’ll ever taste the sweet, chocolatey flavor of knowledge again.
It sounds like, to me, you need yourself a good think.
I have found that, when this wretched condition hits me, the cure is Van Allen Plexico. He is a professional sage, a professor of political science and history at the esteemed Southwestern Illinois College. He is an author extraordinaire of sixteen novels, numerous short stories, novellas, and articles all touching on science and pulp fiction. He is a master of James Bond, Marvel comics, and Auburn football trivia. He has four awards for his written work, and authors Kurt Busiek and Keith R. A. DeCandido have been so inspired by him that they named characters after him in their own work.
And yet, despite this, he is a humble and easy-speaking soul, willing to chat as well as listen to all who seek to fill their cup from his Fountain of Intellect, which, incidentally, tastes a lot like sweetened iced tea.
It is my honor to introduce an author of awesomeness, Van Allen Plexico.
Van, when did you start writing? What inspired you to start? Share with us your humble beginnings!
I started writing in kindergarten before I could actually “write.” I dictated a long story that my dad and my sister wrote down for me. I think it involved a rabbit. Things never really slowed down after that.
My first professional sale came in 2008, when a publisher starting a superhero novel line bought the first three Sentinels novels I’d self-published a couple of years earlier.
I can’t remember ever not writing (or trying to write). It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. I wrote fantasy and science fiction novels in middle school and started sending manuscripts off to publishers as early as 8th or 9th grade. They were terrible, but they helped me get much of the “bad writing” out of the way as soon as possible.
What has always inspired me is reading great work from other writers. As a kid I loved Roger Zelazny’s Amber books and Larry Niven’s science fiction, as well as Dune and Lord of the Rings. I have always read constantly and then turned around and written my own versions of things I love.
Where can we find your work?
Amazon has pretty much everything, which can be accessed via my site.
For years I wrote columns and reviews for sites such as the War Eagle Reader and Revolution SF, but nowadays I spend my writing time mostly working on novels.
If I may, I feel the need to say to you, “War Eagle.”
[proudly] WAR EAGLE!
Now, it’s time for The Big Self-Publishing Questions!
What moved you to self-publish your work? What was the first work that you self-published?
I was a guest of a science fiction convention in North Carolina in about 2005, and the headquarters for Lulu is in that area. Lulu was one of the first companies to offer printing and binding and shipping services for small press publishers and self-publishers. I’d never heard of such a thing, really. At the convention I met several people who worked there and they extolled the virtues of doing it all yourself (with the help of their company). So I became one of the early advocates of establishing your own publishing company or label/imprint and then using a company like Lulu (or CreateSpace) to do the physical work of printing and shipping the books, as well as getting them up for sale on Amazon and other sites. This was, of course, before the e-book revolution hit around 2010.
So, you really are one of the beginning benefactors of self-publishing!
[laughs] Yeah, I guess so….
The first work that I self-published was Sentinels: When Strikes the Warlord, a superhero novel using original characters based on concepts I had co-created several years earlier with my friend Bobby Politte. We knew no company would be interested in publishing novels about original superheroes (that’s what comic books are for, right?). Bobby and I had made an effort a decade earlier to self-publish stories using those characters, but the technology wasn’t quite there in the mid-1990s. By 2005 it was possible and so I did it.
Can you tell us a little about the process you went through?
Sure! I had to begin the long process of learning how to do every element of writing, editing, and publishing, along with acquiring good cover art and book design. I mostly self-taught myself all of those things, though some I already knew from years of working in graphic design. I developed a template for making the interior of the books look good, found artists whose work I admired and could afford, acquired fonts/typefaces necessary for making a book look professional, and worked out all the little things, like indicia for my company for the book spine.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge in self-publishing?
For me, now, the biggest challenge is publicity and marketing. I feel all the books that come out from my company (White Rocket) look pretty darned professional.
They really do look sharp and professional!
The trick is getting them in front of the eyeballs of customers who would be interested. Amazon helps with that a little, but they have so many new authors and so much material that it’s impossible to reach the vast, vast majority of the reading public. It’s incredibly frustrating to be confident you’ve created a quality product and just can’t find a way to let the paying customers out there find out about it.
What do you like best about it?
My word is law! I make the final decisions and my vision is represented in the product to the greatest degree possible. No one else is able to impose their own particular vision onto my work. Of course, I’ve made plenty of mistakes with things like cover art, logos, design, etc.–but they’re my mistakes (and I learn from them), not someone else’s mistakes that messed up my work.
As we know, self-publishing has its detractors. How do you respond to them?
I tell them that they simply don’t understand where publishing is today, and where it has been for several years now. The days of “vanity presses,” where someone paid a printer a large sum of money up front to simply print a bunch of copies of their book, for no one to buy, are mostly over. Self-publishing is not vanity press. The author pays nothing up front. Self-publishers create a product (a book) and offer it to customers. If customers order a copy, the printer and/or seller (Lulu, CreateSpace, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) prints and ships the book to the customer and then pays the author a cut of the profits.
Many times I’ve had people at conventions ask me, in total sincerity, “How much do you pay to get your books published?” And I respond, “How much do you pay your boss to let you come to work every day?” I then follow that with, “It doesn’t work that way. I do the work, and I get paid for it if customers think it’s worthy and something they’d like to own. I don’t pay anyone.” The exception to that is paying an artist in order to get the best cover art possible. However, some self-publishers and small press publishers make arrangements with artists for no pay up front and a share of profits later. It’s all up to the preferences of the people involved.
What is your advice to authors who are considering self-publishing for the first time?
Make sure it’s right for you. You have to be willing to do all of the work yourself, unless you have people willing to do parts of it for you (for free, for a share of the profits, or for an up-front fee). Those parts can include proofreading and editing, cover art, book design, and so on.
Some authors are much more comfortable giving up their own control of the property in order to have greater distribution via a major or mid-level publisher. I’ve done both, and unless the publisher is willing to invest an inordinate (and probably disproportionate) amount of effort into promoting your particular book over everyone else’s at their company, you can do just as well or better on your own.
The key, though, is to be thoroughly professional, in terms of writing, editing, proofreading, cover design, and presentation. If you aren’t willing or able to do all of these things in a top-shelf manner, you will likely end up with a less-than-professional product. Customers can smell a bad product a mile away and you won’t do well with it. In that case, you might be better off looking to sign a contract with a small or mid-level publisher (at least to start), and let them handle it. But be aware that the competition for such spots only gets more intense every day.
Save your fork and plate for pie! It’s time for our favorite part of the interview:
The Sludge Pile Lightning Challenge!
Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to re-write the following text in the style of your favorite author. This text has been taken directly from the user manual of the Holmes HEH8031 Space Heater:
This heater is hot when in use. To avoid burns, do not let bare skin touch hot surfaces. If provided, use handles when moving the heater. Keep combustible materials, such as furniture, pillows, bedding, papers, clothes, and curtains at least 3 feet (0.9 m) from the front of the heater and keep them away from the sides and rear. Extreme caution is necessary when any heater is used by or near children or invalids and whenever the heater is left operating and unattended.
Van has chosen to write in the style of Roger Zelazny.
The baying of the hounds roused me from my nap on the sofa. Instinctively I looked about the room for a weapon, or anything that could be used that way.
Louder, now. The dogs were outside the mansion but seemed to be approaching rapidly.
No weapons lay within reach. My sister had done a fine job of clearing out the library before she left me there, hours earlier. All I could see were books—books she likely had never cracked open a single time. Nothing else on the walls; no ceremonial or antique swords, no fireplace pokers; not even a letter-opener.
The dogs were right outside the French doors now, and I suspected its framed glass panels would scarcely check their advance.
Nothing to use to hold them back. Nothing, nothing… .
There. On the floor behind the sofa.
Flora had left the space heater running but unattended, despite the obvious warnings on its label to avoid doing such a thing.
Quickly I snatched it up, holding it by the cord, allowing it to dangle in front of me. Carefully I swung it about, revving up in speed. It was about a foot square, made of metal and plastic, and blazing hot. I’d noticed the label cautioned users to avoid allowing it to touch bare skin.
I intended to touch some skin with it very soon now.
In a crash, the dogs came barreling through the French doors, sending a shower of glass shards at me. I could see them now, and they weren’t actually dogs, but some kind of twisted demon creatures on four legs, shot straight out of Shadow.
Fangs bared, they advanced.
Shielding my face from the still-flying glass fragments with my left arm, I swung the heater out wildly with my right.
They leapt backwards, out of the way, then whined and snapped at me. I swung the heater again.
The creatures must have been sensitive to heat. I hadn’t made actual contact with any of them before they yipped at me one final time, turned-tail, and retreated back through the jagged opening they’d just created.
I looked at the little heater dangling by its cord in my right hand, and I smiled. Those creatures should’ve known to use extreme caution when near a Holmes HEH8031. But of course they couldn’t read. And, this time, it had cost them.
All photos courtesy of Van Allen Plexico.