I met Gary Wedlund in an online writing forum a few years ago. He’s from Hilliard, Ohio, and he writes in many different genres. Historic Fantasy, Zombie Horror, Post-apocalyptic, and Paranormal just to name a few. He writes, he plays music, and he paints. Be sure to stop by here and take a look at some of his watercolors. Absolutely amazing work.
Please allow me to introduce, Gary Wedlund.
Tell us about your writing process and the way you brainstorm story ideas.
Gary: I start my novels with only a germ of an idea. This stems from the concept that there is no way a writer can fully imagine a story while writing out plot in a few short sessions. The plot is best if wrenched out of character and mulled over during the writing. I used to plot things out in detail. I got to the point where I celebrated when the plot deviated.
The ability to do that comes from learning what is needed in order to roll out a story. I feel out when the work has been stagnant and needs to move beyond that point. Predictability is constantly challenged. A thread needs revisited. Tension needs to mount. And when in doubt, I dig a deeper hole.
So, I start off with a germ of an idea. Take, for example, the book I last published, Satan’s Daughter Goes to Pittsburgh. In that work I had a few bare ideas. One was this idea of a very presumptuous young lady who imagined she knew everything about earth, though she’d never been there. On one hand she is used to being outspoken and indulged, but on the other hand, her brothers kick her off the cliff every other morning. So, she gets into her head that her mother is Marilyn Monroe, living in Pittsburgh with Andy Warhol. She has to escape Hell and find her, so Mom can teach her how to be a woman.
I had two pictures in my head. One of her trying to get a mule unstuck so she could run away from peasants chasing her with pitchforks and torches. The second was a picture of her driving a Mac truck through that tunnel leading into Pittsburgh. The tunnel leads to several bridges over a river, and if you make a wrong turn you end up in West Virginia.
That’s it. That’s my whole outline. The mule turned out to be a goat. The Mac truck turned out to be a tractor with a hay wagon. If none of that happened, it meant nothing.
Interesting way of going about fleshing out the plot of an idea. When you develop characters do you already know who they are before you begin writing, or do you let them develop as you go?
Gary: I put an interesting and flawed character into an unusual and troubled space. Simple as that. The fight is to give character arc, and the first struggle in that war is to ensure that your character needs something internal. Sometimes I take my time developing what that is, over the course of the first third of a novel. I’ll then feed a few lines back into the text, reinforcing it and be on my way.
It’s the kind of thing that readers may not notice, but on a subconscious level it is the glue that holds any work together. For example, you can never really find a good ending to a book if you have no character arc. It’s not when Luke Skywalker blew up the death star. It’s when he let go and trusted the force. That’s a pretty stupid internal struggle, but it makes my point. The book was effectively over when he closed his eyes.
In the novel I’m currently working on, the story will be complete when Maggie, my main character, finally trusts a man again.
Any tips on what to do and what not to do when writing?
Gary: Work progresses if you put it into scene and make it compelling. I can’t stress each of those more. By scene I mean lots and lots of meaningful-to-the-viewpoint specifics.
By compelling I mean in every way imaginable. Nothing in your work is allowed to suggest normalcy. Keep the reader interested in the world, the actors, the shifting plot.
Coupled with that is a commitment to the craft, which means to never stop studying the numerous skills that set fiction writing apart from all other forms. Writers do not have to learn the craft right away, but they do need to commit to learning something new every month or so. Celebrate any new thing you learn. In time, that will amount to a lot of applicative learning, and totally up the product. No learning process beats the moment when a writer says, “Oh my God, I’ve made that mistake a thousand times.”
As well, good craft leads to good writing practices that lead to excellent story. This is a lot harder to comprehend, but basically if you can do anything you want on a technical level, your only focus becomes story. As well, if you know the way to shape a story you almost never have to edit more than copy.
How do you go about world-building for your stories?
Gary: I enjoy writing about a real location. Even if it is a fictitious name, I start from a real setting. If you can Google a setting and walk around with the little Google man, do it. What you pick up are tiny details that make a place feel real. You don’t need a lot of them. What you are trying to avoid is a sense of the place being generic or made up. In general, writing is better if it is specific, anyway. It’s not a bush, it’s a honeysuckle.
I’ll research a place to death, gleaning several pages of information, and then just use two or three things. That’s fine. It feels real because it is real. For example, in one book I featured a two block area in Clintonville, a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. I had street names, where the hospital was, how the police cars looked, apartments over business, a note on how the alleys mounded up between the streets, and tidbits like those little two-foot poles that truckers have to avoid while backing into loading zones. Details matter, and if you have a real place in mind you are never lost, even without a map.
The research happens as I write. I don’t stop to look over everything and plot it out. I have a thing come up, look around, pull down a bunch of pages and move on. Everything happens contextually, but that’s easy if I’m grounded. Another good example is the novel I just finished, Runaway Angel. In that book I needed a Chippewa reservation, so I had to move my main character from Ohio to Central Michigan. Fair enough. It became part of the plot.
This approach will be the same even for historic fantasy or for a futuristic work. Things are more the same than we imagine. Even naming characters is in play. If I’m doing a sword and bow medieval fantasy, I can have one group with Germanic-sounding names and another with more Latin names, and the reader is fooled into knowing who is who. We see tons of that idea of robbing from the real world to create the fantasy one in R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.
I love to research for my historical novels. I also read as much as I can even when I might only use a third of the information. Do you edit all your own books before you submit them for traditional publishing or self-publish them?
Gary: Yes, I do most of my own editing, probably because I can.
One question that continually comes up in writer forums is when to edit. Edit continually. I have writing time and editing time. My writing time is usually lunch, for about 600 words, over 45 minutes. My editing time is the entire rest of the day. Before I move on, I edit what I wrote before. My secret tool is a cheap Kindle, which I load my work on, and then take notes, employing the fresh way it shows the work. By the time I have finished a novel, I’ve fully edited the first few chapters several times.
I also pick novels from my unpublished stack and roll through them. While writing a novel (which takes about five months for me), I’ll have edited five or six of my earlier novels, front to back. This goes on and on, picking on every tiny thing, not just mistakes, but quality. If I can make it through 20 pages without picking up a pen, it’s ready after that pass.
My books will have been edited at least six times, and about half of my work is reviewed in my writer’s group, so I get some fresh eyes on a good deal of it.
The new writer has no idea how much of a writer’s time is dedicated to cleaning up the work; it is fulltime. As well, the new writer has fifty times as much to clean up as someone experienced does. Making it harder still, the new writer does not have the incredible luxury of rolling through works, such that you can actually enjoy the work because you’ve not seen it in a while. Editing will be drudgery if you have to fix everything, on all levels, and if you see the same work, over and over again, without break.
Put the work down and write something else. Get back to it later. I have twenty novels in the bin, all edited considerably better than most submissions, and each at least as good as anything I’ve published. That is a huge editing luxury.
The goal is to present the publisher with a book that is so tight that they have nothing much to do. I’ve had editors comment that they’ve had to remind themselves that they were working. That is the best compliment you can get. From the publisher end, it’s amazing how many writers seem to not care. Show the publisher that you care. The first way to do that is to present a clean manuscript.
That isn’t to say that typos don’t slip into my work (I wrote this fast, so there are surely some here). They are inevitable. The point is that any editor will only catch 90% of the junk. Editors will also inject a fresh 10%. Thus, any edit is only 80% clean. If an editor has to fix one thing per page, that’s still, without a doubt, one issue every five pages. (Note that I said issue, because typos are only the surface layer of what makes me squirm.) If they only find one issue per chapter, that’s one blemish every five chapters.
It is certainly worth your time to have someone else edit your work. They have fresh eyes, and even things that are obvious to you get pointed out because you slip by them over the course of eight or nine edits. As well, I hope that my editor appreciates what I am doing, so they don’t kill the voice. If you present bad work, your voice is ignored as they change everything. A good editor is often the person who knows when to leave something alone. The writer has to earn this consideration, as well. There are no greater lines of excuses for bad work than style, voice, artistry. Those have to be earned.
I have had both kinds of editors: One who just murdered my mechanics and voice by not leaving better work alone. Others have been outstanding, allowing my voice to shine, and helping me product a quality piece of work. Ironically, one of the worst was a high-powered editor who has credits on many of the best books in a particular genre. She did her best to make my work into an English-teacher showcase, making me repeatedly cringe as I read over the edits. That was on a novel that the editor said was the smoothest read he’d ever had on his desk. She “fixed” that. I still think it’s the best book in the genre, but the editor was so high profile that they wouldn’t let me veto her work.
One of her pets was to omit any case of the words somebody and couple, in favor of the words, someone and few. The fact that my main character was a farmer and that I actually meant two, didn’t seem to matter. She also thought that action tags still needed dialogue tags, and that the only place to put a dialogue tag was in back, which is insane and majorly counter-productive, negating a ton of skill on my part. So, the bottom line is a good editor is going to be someone who finds the writer’s voice and helps make it happen, as opposed to expressing an agenda that in many cases is just plain wrong.
How are you publishing your writing and why?
Gary: I have used a couple of small-press publishers. They tend to give you credibility, insofar as someone has read the work and given some backing. I think the biggest use for a small-press publisher is the process makes you better. You wonder why all the rejections? In most cases the reasons are many. So, the struggle to get approved makes you a good writer. Anything that comes too easy probably is. I am actually pleased that I got so many early rejections. Those terrible books would be representing me, now. The newer books don’t embarrass me. All of that is a big reason to play the game.
On the other hand, once you have been published, and once you realize how all the I’s are dotted and the T’s crossed, at that point it’s just a game of synergy and luck. That said, you could be the best writer on this planet and never get a bite from an agent or major publisher. They are in it to make a buck, and don’t owe us anything. I mean to say, it’s like pulling teeth to get a first page actually read by the slush editor who is working off a checklist and has one slot to fill from 500 manuscripts. They just don’t have the time. Thus I am a bit jaded, and I don’t think I got into this to spend five hours a day marketing things.
I’m a writer. That’s what I do. At this stage in my career I’d just as soon self-publish. It is no longer an issue of whether the work is good enough. As well, if I make a dollar off any book I sell, regardless of publisher and regardless of price point, I want some lower-priced books out there for people to read. Why not? I make the same amount of money, and it costs the public much less for the same quality and quantity. What it costs is the loss of one outside edit, which has value, but not enough at this point in my writing, and considering my process.
I’ve had occasion to have an agent or publisher make comment about self publishing, in fact. Apparently they think that nobody who self publishes is good. It annoys me, but it’s consistent with the saturation of the industry, today. Publishers are turning their backs on the writers because they are overworked, underpaid, in massive competition, and don’t really have the time for us. You need a synergy unrelated to the work, to impress them.
There are less traditional outlets and a hundred times as many writers as just thirty years ago. This is the golden age of writing. That’s good and that’s bad. As I get older, however, I just want the damned thing in print.
What I realize is how little respect I have for the gatekeepers, not because I don’t understand how they got to be how they are. Just because they no longer serve us well. They have other agendas, above and beyond reading the first damned page! Small press will at least read your first page.
Do you respond to reviews, good or bad?
Gary: Not really. I responded to one from a guy who said he didn’t even read any of the book. He gave it one star because he said he didn’t like the advertisements the publisher put in. I didn’t like the fill either, but shoot, the book had better than normal length and probably the best product in that catalog, so it was never an issue of the reader wasting his dime. Barnes and Nobles didn’t respond to my comment to them, and the review stood, which basically means these review sites have no police at all, like the Wild, Wild West.
I recall that when I first published Zombies in My Hometown, literally every review said they loved the story, but it needed editing (best way in the world to learn that lesson). I responded to one review by saying that I agreed, and was putting out a rewrite, which I did. Those reviews were nasty, but helpful.
Do you prefer to write alone or in the company of other people?
Gary: I can only write alone. I try. Sometimes my writer group has write-ins at coffee shops, and inevitably people ask me questions about their work that consumes the entire time. I don’t mind that, and actually enjoy talking about writing, but I get nothing done. I even have to set myself up in a place where I can’t get distracted, like a restaurant or a library.
Thanks so much for stopping by and answering a few questions, Gary!
Gary Wedlund is the author of the novels Abi Shaman Within, Search for the Queen, The Queen’s Return, Satan’s Daughter Goes to Pittsburgh, The Condotte’s Daughter, Zombies in Our Hometown and Atomic Zombies. He is a founding member of the North Columbus Fantasy/SciFi Write Group. He has been in several rock bands and shows his watercolors in local galleries.
Gary has served in the US Army. He has a BFA from the Columbus College of Art and Design, a broadcast engineering degree from Cleveland Institute of Technology, a teaching certification from Otterbein College and an MBA from the Ohio State University.
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