Tuesday, April 22, 2014

CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2: John Otte's Numb

Day 2 of our CSFF Blog Tour! I’m so excited to present this interview of John Otte, author of assorted Christian SF offerings. With no further ado ...

Could you tell us a bit about your background and family life, and how you got started writing?

I grew up in a Lutheran pastor’s family. At least, I did until they found me hiding in the attic.

I’m just kidding. About the attic part, at least. I am a PK, and I grew up in Minnesota. I attended Concordia University in St. Paul, where I majored in theatre, and then went to seminary in St. Louis. Now I’m a full-time Lutheran pastor myself. I married my wife back in 2002 and we’re raising two wonderful sons.

As for my writing, I got started in the fifth grade by writing and illustrating really awful comic books that were basically creative exercises in plagiarism. When I realized that I was (and still am) a lousy artist, I switched to writing novels. In the meantime, I’ve dabbled in stage plays and screenplays, but I’ve always come back to writing novels. It’s been a lifelong dream to get a book published, even back when I was in fifth grade.

What works have you had published? (not restricting yourself to fiction) Articles, short stories? Which one is your favorite? (including works in progress)

I published two short stories back in 2007, and then my debut novel, Failstate, was published in 2012. I published two more novels, Failstate: Legends and Numb last year. I haven’t done much more than that. I hate to say this, because it’s going to sound cliché, but I love all of my books. I really can’t pick a favorite.

Who are your influences as a writer, and why? What Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing? How about non-Christian?

Oh, wow. This is a tough one. I don’t know if I can identify individual influences per se. I haven’t set out to consciously allow certain people to influence me and others to not. I will say that Randy Ingermanson was a great influence on my writing. I’ve used his Snowflake Method for all three of my published books and it’s a life-saver for an outliner like me.

The most influential books for me in terms of Christian thought would be Dr. Paul L. Maier, both his fiction and non-fiction books. Martin Luther too (obviously). C. S. Lewis, but that’s kind of cliché at this point, isn’t it? For Numb, one book that really influenced my thinking was The Myth of a Christian Nation by Gregory Boyd. Fantastic book and very thought-provoking. I’m still wrestling with a lot of his ideas seven years later.

If we’re talking non-Christian books and authors, I love Michael Stackpole’s books, both his Star Wars novels and his unique creations. Everyone should check out his DragonCrown War Cycle books. I’m also a huge fan of Neil Gaiman, and just recently I’ve gotten into Brandon Sanderson and John Green. And Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles.

I could keep going; I could fill a list of all the authors that I love. I’d like to think that I absorb the good stuff, but I’m probably fooling myself. I just love reading!

What sorts of things stir the pot of creativity for you? Music, artwork, certain films, etc. And what do you do when you aren't writing?

For me, I have to read lots of fiction just for fun. I’ve actually discovered that if I haven’t been reading, my creativity will peter out and quit. I’ve even discovered that I’ll subconsciously try to “supersaturate” myself before tackling a new project. I’ll binge-read a whole bunch of stuff and it really pumps me up to get writing on my own.

I will write with music, but I’ve learned that it has to be music without lyrics. I read a study once that said that if you’re trying to write while listening to music with lyrics, the language center of your brain will try to split its attention between trying to gin up words for your writing and deciphering the lyrics of the music. So I’ll usually listen to soundtracks from action adventure movies and the like.

When I’m not writing, I’m usually playing videogames. I love PC games. Lately I’ve really been enjoying a number of indie games by smaller studios or individuals. There’s a lot of creative stuff out there that’s just awesome.

Do you have a favorite place for writing? Do you try to work each day until you're "done," or do you have certain hours, or daily word count goal?

I actually do now! Two places, actually. The first is my local library. Every now and then, I try to sneak away to the library and snag one of the private study rooms. I can shut out all the distractions and just focus on writing. A lot of my upcoming third Failstate novel, Failstate: Nemesis, was written at the library.

The other place I love writing is at a friend’s house. I have a writing friend who hosts a monthly writing retreat. A bunch of us get together for quiet writing time, and then we spend an hour doing critiques of each other’s stuff. It’s a lot of fun and I can get a lot done. As a matter of fact, I’ll be at one of these writing retreats the first day of this blog tour!

You know, I’ve tried doing the word count goal, but what usually happens is I get too stressed out about meeting the goal than writing the right stuff. I’ll tend to wander then, meandering through the plot and scenes, trying to make it “long enough” to meet my goal, and that’s not necessarily smart writing. I’ve also tried to set self-imposed deadlines to get projects done, but that usually only makes me feel guilty when I don’t meet them.

So for now, I write as much as I can each day so long as my “real life” cooperates. And sometimes I need to just take a break so I can recharge.

Do you tend more toward outlining, or do you work with just a general idea of where the story is going, and the characters just tend to take over on the details?

I’m definitely more of an outliner and plot-first writer. Like I said, Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method was an absolute God-send for me. I really call myself a “stepping stones” writer. I need to know where the beginning of my story is, and I have to know what the end is going to be. Then I have to have enough “stepping stones” in the plot, which are basically scenes that I’ve nailed down. What happens between those scenes are kind of left up in the air and I make it up as I go along. There have been times when I’ve tried to write something when I didn’t have enough stepping stones in place, and it was always a frustrating experience.

What are you working on now, if you don’t mind sharing? What do you hope to be working on?

Well, I sort of have a bunch of different irons in the fire right now. I just finished writing the first draft of a non-fiction book I’m calling The R-Rated Bible. That’s going up on a shelf for a few weeks so I can get some emotional and intellectual distance from it. That way, I can do a better job on my first editing sweep.

I’ve started editing a novella I wrote that takes place in the Failstate universe. It features Kynetic and it sits between Failstate: Legends and Failstate: Nemesis. I don’t have a title for this one yet. I hate coming up with titles.

Speaking of Failstate: Nemesis, I’m also waiting on a round of edits for that book. It’ll be releasing sometime later this year, and I’m excited for everyone to see how it’s turned out.

And I’m also gearing up to write a new book about a girl on a generation colony ship. I’m in the pre-writing, mental mulching phase. A lot of ideas are starting to come together and gel, and I’m getting really excited about it.

As if that weren’t enough, I’d also love to do some rewriting on a book I wrote a few years ago entitled Hive. It’s a pseudo-sequel to Numb (same universe, the story takes place after the events of Numb, but they’re not directly related to each other).

The last question is this ... what 3 bits of advice would you give new (or not so new) writers?

First of all, start calling yourself an author right now, even if you’re just starting out or even if you’re not published. A lot of times, unpublished authors tack on modifiers to themselves, like “I’m an aspiring author” or “I’m an unpublished writer.” But that creates a self-defeated cycle. A lot of writing is confidence: in yourself, in your story, in your craft. If you’re putting words to the page (or screen, as it were), you’re a writer. Period.

Now you can take that to the other extreme, where you’re overconfident. I’ve seen people bill themselves as “future bestsellers” and the like. That’s taking it too far. Saying stuff like that comes off as cocky and, quite frankly, amateurish.

Second, sometimes it’s okay to stop. This was a painful one for me to learn, but it’s some of the best advice I ever got.

And here’s how I got it. A number of years ago, I attended my first American Christian Fiction Writers conference (where I was shown the ropes by a wonderful writer named Shannon McNear). At the time, I had been working on a science fiction trilogy for close to six or seven years and I was bound and determined to sell it at that conference.

Things did not go well. I was pretty much crushed in my editor and agent appointments and I was left reeling. Thankfully, I was able to sit down and talk to two published writers: Deb Raney and Colleen Coble. They were extremely encouraging to me and really helped pick up my spirits so I could keep writing.

Two years later, the ACFW conference was being held in Minneapolis and I volunteered to help drive people from the airport to the hotel. One of my passengers was going to be Colleen Coble, and I was so excited to see her again. See, I had spent the intervening two years working and tweaking my sci-fi trilogy, making it even better! And the only reason why I had kept going was because of Colleen Coble and Deb Raney’s encouragement.

So when I picked her up, I told her how much I appreciated what she did for me at the conference two years earlier. She was very gracious, and then she asked me what I would be pitching at the conference. I enthusiastically told her that I was pitching the same story.

She hesitated, then gently suggested that maybe it was time to move on to something else.

I was shocked, but she went on to explain that by focusing so much on this one story idea, I was maybe stunting my growth as a writer. I could learn a lot more if I started a new project and shelved that trilogy for a while.

Her suggestion hurt. I didn’t want to take it, but I once again couldn’t get anywhere with that trilogy. Now I get why; the story has some serious flaws to it and I still haven’t figured out how to fix them. But at the time, I decided that I would try it Colleen’s way. I shelved the trilogy and started a new project.

That project was Numb.

But here’s the funny thing: when I tried to sell Numb after I was finished with it, nobody was really interested at the time. So I once again shelved that one and started a new project. That one was entitled Failstate and it turned out to be my debut novel.

Colleen was absolutely right. If she hadn’t suggested what she did, I might still be tinkering with a project that I originally started fourteen years ago. By shelving it, I was able to write two stories that I really love, one of which has spawned two sequels.

So sometimes, it’s okay to take a break from a project and start something new. Someday I may pull down that sci-fi trilogy from the shelf and give it my full attention, to see if I can’t figure out how to fix the story issues. Until then, I’ll just let it collect dust.

And my third piece of advice is this: don’t listen to advice.

Maybe I’d better explain. When I was first “getting serious” about my writing, I bought Stephen King’s On Writing. This is an excellent book on craft, but in it, King set down what basically amounted to a commandment: Thou shalt not outline! He said that when a writer creates an outline for her story first, the author removes all the elements of surprise. It’s better to just make it up as you go along and see where the story took you. It makes the story unpredictable for you and, by extension, your reader as well.

This freaked me out, because I knew that I liked to outline my stories. I was doing it wrong! Stephen King said so!

Then I read another book on the craft by a man who claimed to have coached a number of bestselling authors. And his advice? Always do an outline! It allows you to work faster and smarter if you do.

I was flummoxed. Stephen King says one thing and the other guy contradicted him. So who was right?

Turns out, they both were. Both men had fallen for an old trap when it comes to giving advice: “Since it works for me, it will definitely work for everyone!” But that just isn’t the case. I have to outline. The few times I’ve tried to write by the seat of my pants have ended in failure and frustration. At the same time, I know people who have to write by the seat of their pants. If they tried to outline, they’d feel too constrained and hemmed in.

What works for one person might not work for you. So listen to the advice of others and then feel free to reject it if it just doesn’t work for you.

Thank you so much, John! Wow, meaty stuff, and I appreciate you sharing your journey.

Tune in next time--that would be tomorrow :-) --for a review of Numb and other tidbits about John! In the meantime, please visit the other participants of our tour:

Julie Bihn
Jennifer Bogart
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Pauline Creeden
Vicky DealSharingAunt
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rebekah Gyger
Nikole Hahn
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Rebekah Loper
Jennette Mbewe
Amber McCallister
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa
Faye Oygard
Writer Rani
Nathan Reimer
Jojo Sutis
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler
Nicole White

10 comments:

  1. This was a really fun interview, Shannon! Thanks for hosting me. :)

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    1. Thank you for providing such thoughtful answers! I could relate to SO much of what you shared. :-)

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  2. Yeah, those all-or-nothing pieces of advice disregard the fact that nothing works absolutely for everyone. I encountered so much bad advice years ago that I eventually disregarded everything. However, as more time passed and my writing seemed out of control, I started heeding and adapting advice that worked for my thinking and creative style.

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    1. It's definitely a moment of breakthrough when we learn to pick and choose. Don't you hate how long it takes to reach that point, though?

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Nice interview. A lot of work has certainly gone into John's work.

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    1. Glad you came by to check it out! And yes, John is one of the hardest-working authors I know. (More on that tomorrow!)

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  4. Really great interview, Shannon and John. I enjoyed the behind the scenes look (which is why I also enjoyed John's post at his site about how the story came about).

    Becky

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    1. I enjoyed that too! I also loved your post today about emotions and our culture ... I tried to post but WordPress was being squirrelly and wouldn't let me. :-P

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  5. Great interview, Shannon! You asked some great questions.

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    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. :-)

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