Tag: q&a

An Interview with Patrick O’Duffy, Part III: playing in someone else’s sandbox

I’m back! And so is the vastly talented Patrick O’Duffy. And okay, yes I know, this week’s update is a day later than expected, and for that you can blame some feverish work last night on balloon research and some Nicolas Cage-inspired… stuff (it’ll all becomes clear next week, I promise). In this final installment, I dig into Patrick’s back-catalogue of work and bring the conversation around to one of our shared passions… and no, it’s not Rugrats cosplay.

HG: I understand that in your deep, distant past you did extensive work writing role-playing games. I know my way around a handful of odd-shaped dice, and my 20-year-old self would see that as a near-ultimate writing job (my 34-year-old self also sees it as pretty cool too, I should add). Were there particular challenges to writing, and worldbuilding, in a shared universe?
POD: There are definitely challenges to working in a shared world, and the biggest one is probably that you do have to treat it like a ‘world’. I’m not much of a one for worldbuilding; I like just making things up that I think would be fun or interesting and then justifying them later – or not at all. But when you enter a shared creation, like the World of Darkness or Thieves’ World, you don’t have that luxury – you have to answer to a higher authority (the publisher or IP holder) and you have to play nicely with the other writers and creator using the same toys. You do some of that by, you know, swapping emails and asking questions, but you also do it by treating the fictional construct of the setting as more of a real thing – poking at the corners, doing research, working your way back and forth the chains of consequences that attach to your ideas. Worldbuilding becomes more of a necessity, and so writing with others becomes more work than writing by yourself.

That said, it can be rewarding work, because it forces you to think things through and extrapolate, which can be fun and valuable. But I don’t know how much of that I could do for long periods these days. Which bodes ill for my chances of ever being given a major comics property to write, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s an inordinately good segue to my next question. Seeing as you have played with licenced properties before, have you ever had the desire to pitch to one of the majors of comics publishing? You blogged extensively about comics last month over at POD.com, so you’re clearly a fan of the medium.
Oh hell, man, you cannot imagine how much I would love to write me some comics. I think I read my first comic at about age 8 – I’m pretty sure it was about Batman, because what else could explain my lifelong obsession with the character? – and I knew right then that I wanted to write them. Or maybe draw them. Or, I don’t know, spit out the paper to be printed. Anything, as long as I was involved.

So yeah, I’d love to write comics. Any kind of comics. I love superhero fiction to pieces, and I have a bunch of concepts I’d love to pitch to Marvel or DC. But I won’t, or more to the point I can’t, because neither Marvel nor DC accept unsolicited pitches these days. They’re closed shops, and I get why they’re closed shops, given that fans have been submitting pitches since five minutes after Superman hit newsstands in 1939. They just hit a point where they had to stop the flood – and, of course, protect themselves from claims of stealing ideas.

It’s still frustrating, because godDAMN do I have pitches, albeit mostly Marvel ones these days (stupid DC reboot) and mostly ones with incredibly limited sales potential. I mean, I think a series about Spider-villain the Trapster turning state’s evidence and trying to give up the life of crime (and failing) is compelling, but Marvel need to sell that comic to other people as well, and the evidence suggests that most readers do not particularly want that. So my pitches stay in my head, or my hard drive, or occasionally get thrown up on Twitter for laughs, and I just keep on with my own stuff and occasionally cry in the dark while surrounded by Avengers action figures because no-one else understands me.

The alternative is go away from DC/Marvel and hit a smaller company, or indeed strike out on my own. That’s very tempting, and something I’d like to explore one of these days. There’s a real advantage on working on an established character, in that the audience has already done the heavy lifting for you – they’ve already decided to care about the character and their history and context. So comics work outside that umbrella takes more effort, but at the same time is (I imagine) more rewarding and has more potential to tell different kinds of stories. And that’s where you see so many of today’s exciting comics series, like ATOMIC ROBO, CHEW and the jaw-droppingly amazing LOCKE & KEY.

There have been a couple of times over the years that I’ve talked to artists and made vague plans to work together, or at least talk more, that never amounted to anything at all. Mostly that’s been my fault. But I really hope that once I finish the next project, increase my visibility a bit more and get some coherent ideas down, that it might finally be the time when I can hook up with an artist, come up with a script and put together a comic book, whether in print or online.

Huh. I hadn’t actually considered that as a goal until now. And now I can’t get it out of my head. Thanks for that.

Anytime, man. Now, for my final question I’ll ask perhaps one of the most inane questions possible about that medium: are you Marvel or DC? (Or Dark Horse, Image, &c.?)
Which bring us to what may actually be the trickiest question of all. For some historical perspective: if you’d asked this to me as a teenager, I would have said Marvel (with a bit of DC); if you’d asked me as a 20-something, I would have said DC all the way; if you’d asked me in my 30s, I would have been roughly half-and-half Marvel and DC, plus some Image on the side.

These days, I kind of have to say ‘Make Mine Marvel’, like they did back in the 80s, but without the exclamation mark. Part of that is that Marvel are in a creative high point right now and have been for like 6-7 years – not perfect, by any stretch, but constantly putting out some terrific titles. Part of it is that DC, on the other hand, is at perhaps their lowest creative nadir in their 75-year history. They have some good titles, certainly, but the DC reboot, the continual dwindling of Vertigo’s range and experimentation and this whole dreadful ‘Before Watchmen’ bullshit, along with some utter fuckheadery in their editorial and publishing wing, make so much of their output boring at best and unreadable at worst.

But the good news is that there are so many other independent comics and publishers out there right now, both in print and digital formats, that you could read nothing but great comics morning to night and still never crack open a Marvel or DC book. Image are in a place of unbelievable creative strength and diversity right now, for example, and IDW are also publishing some amazing books. There’s never been a better time for comics than right now, there really hasn’t.

Plus, you know, Grant Morrison on Batman. Win-win.

Oh, I’m with you there. Any time I get to see Bruce Wayne team up with El Gaucho, bat-hombre of Argentina, has got to be a victory for popular Western literature.

Batman and El Gaucho in… SCORPION TANGO!
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An Interview with Patrick O’Duffy, Part II: e-publishing and digital afterlives

Welcome back faithful readers! As promised, we return today to my continuing interview with Patrick O’Duffy, author and blogger extraordinaire. A couple of thousand words into the interview, I finally bring the conversation around to Patrick’s latest release. Parkinson, I ‘aint.

HG: You self-published your latest novella The Obituarist, not to mention Hotel Flamingo and Godheads, as an e-book. I’m a near-Luddite when it comes to e-books, but your championing of the format has done more than anything to make me consider moving away from the heavy tomes that currently fill my shelves (and cupboards, and boxes in the attic). If you pardon the terrible pun, was there a specific e-piphany that attracted you to electronic publishing?
POD: I started getting interesting in e-books at about the same time everyone else did, with the explosion of the Kindle and other e-readers as viable platforms. Before that point I was interested in digital writing simply because I spent a lot of time on the internet, but it never seemed like something that could replace physical books. E-readers changed that, and are still in the process of changing that; they’re making us reassess the importance of how we package and deliver stories and whether that matters as much as the stories themselves. I don’t think physical books will vanish entirely any time soon, but they’re likely to become more like artefacts and precious items than mass-market objects.

What attracted me to e-publishing as a writer, first and foremost, was the way it made shorter works more commercially viable. Suddenly the idea of publishing a novella, or short collection, or a single story or essay became a genuine possibility, because you were freed from much of the financial weight of having to pay for paper and printing. Paper and printing are usually a smaller part of a book’s budget than editing and typesetting, true, but they still cost a fair bit and they don’t become that much cheaper if the book is short. Having written primarily short stories and a novella, the idea of getting those out there into a market, even if it was a smaller one than usual, was very appealing – and when I sat down to try it, it was easy. Which is the other attractive point – there’s very little effort required to e-publish when compared to print publishing, which is probably why so many people do it. And as a very lazy man – and an impatient one who doesn’t want to sit through 6-9 months of editing, typesetting and shipping – the immediacy of seeing my work up on sale within minutes is incredibly appealing. Instant gratification for the win!

There are a lot of evangelists who say that e-publishing, and especially self-e-publishing, is the way of the future, and speak scornfully of publishers as ‘gatekeepers’. I don’t have a lot of time for that. Different projects demand different processes and goals, and I have plenty of ideas for books that I want to see as hardcopy books from major publishers with big marketing budgets. But e-publishing allows me to have a second option, one that’s immediate and easy and personal, and that has a lot of appeal. It’s certainly something I think writers should investigate and experiment with to find out if it works for them as another way of telling their stories.

I love the concept of the ‘social media undertaker’ in The Obituarist. And, I should add that you can officially consider yourself in the same ranks as Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Just the other day, I read an honest-to-goodness legal paper discussing the concept of the ‘virtual estate’ and the need to have an e-executor to wrap up your online affairs just as someone winds up your financial affairs. Goddamn prescient, man!
Thanks for the compliment, but I’m not as prescient as all that! I first had the vague idea of a ‘social media undertaker’ about three years ago, and even at that time there was a little bit of action happening around the concept, especially as more and more Facebook users began to pass away. By the time I’d actually sorted my ideas out and written the book, the ‘digital afterlife industry’ – yep, that’s what it’s called – had become a fully-fledged thing. I turned up a lot of different companies and services when I was doing research, and there are certainly more coming.

Still, I think I’m one of the first writers to take a main character from that world. And if I’m not, well, I’m just gonna pretend that I am.

In any case, I really only scratched the surface of the whole concept, and in many ways gave it short shrift because I was also exploring a crime story. In the sequel – and there’s definitely a sequel on the cards – I’d like to give more focus to the digital afterlife aspect and look at some of the ways society is coping (or not) with the concept. Plus, you know, some fight scenes.

Awesome, everything works better with fight scenes! Especially Jane Austen novels. Or wait, is that zombies? Anyhow, notoriously daft though it is, I need to ask: how do you develop your ideas? Do you start with a character, a scenario, a line of dialogue, or any and all of the above?
I tend to start with a basic premise, which is sometimes something relatively coherent, and at other times may be just an image. (For example, ‘social media undertaker’). That sits in my head for days/months/years until some other basic premise occurs to me and I realise there’s an area where they overlap, and then that overlap starts to generate ideas. The best times are when there’s both overlap and tension – when two ideas fit together but not perfectly, so you can explore the fit and the contradiction. With The Obituarist, it took me a long time to find that second half of things; I spent ages poking at it from a more speculative-fiction angle and it just wasn’t gelling. It was when I saw a news idea about credit card fraud that the identity theft element occurred to me, and that immediately slammed itself into the undertaker concept and the story began to take shape.

Once I have that core, dynamic premise, the next thing I think about is structure – not just how long the story will be but how it’s paced, how it would flow, where it should move back and forth. I often draw a lot of inspiration from unusual structures, because stories unpack themselves into new shapes to fit that skeleton. The Obituarist‘s structure isn’t anything too unusual, but I decided I wanted to adopt the double-plot (‘A-plot/B-plot’) style that is common in crime stories, where two storylines intertwine and cross-pollinate until they both resolve. That made me see that I needed two plots to carry the two premises, and that they had to have enough pacing wiggle room that the story could go back and forth fairly regularly between them.

The last thing is the voice, which brings along with it a lot of the character detail and the prose style. Usually that emerges from the premise, but sometimes it comes from elsewhere. Because there’s a broad streak of Chandler in The Obituarist, I knew I wanted to go first-person, but I also wanted a voice that would question and gently tweak that style without going so far as to deconstruct it. Voice might not seem like something that shapes an idea, but it absolutely does – the way you tell the story has a huge impact on the story you decide to tell and where it goes, because you want a story that gives that voice an opportunity to be heard.

And then once I have those three things I tend to mull them over for a while, get drunk and play video games instead of writing, forget half the great ideas I had but didn’t bother writing down and eventually start writing once the idea stops twitching.

That Chandler-esque streak is certainly there, and, without trying to pigeonhole it into a genre, The Obituarist certainly owes something to the classics of crime noir. In addition, and like a lot of your writing, there is a definite streak of black humour in there. Do you specifically insert humour into a story, or does it just emerge in the telling of the tale?
Hey, I’m more than happy to pigeonhole The Obituarist as a crime story, even though it’s more soft- than hard-boiled. Like the poached egg of crime.

Humour is complicated, because I’m not a very funny guy, nor am I someone who likes comedy much. Well, I like stand-up, but not so much comedy in books/movies/TV. I certainly don’t think I can write comedy, at least not for more than the length of a very short story, because it all starts to get laboured and strange and eventually I feel embarrassed and give up and delete the file.

But what I can do is tap humour briefly and shape it through a character’s voice and viewpoint so that they are funny. That’s a lot easier, because almost everyone can be funny in short bursts, and short bursts is all we ever hear of a character’s dialogue (or probably should be). Again, it comes back to voice and how important it is in developing an idea and a narrative, because everything is carried to the reader by the story’s voice – which often also means the voice of the characters, especially in a first-person piece. Kendall Barber is a clever guy, clever enough to know when he’s over his head, and a great way to communicate that was to let him be a smart-arse every now and then, and then to have some other characters act like smart-arses (or at least arses) in turn – and from that came some pretty amusing exchanges and observations, things that felt not just funny but honest.

So in the end, I didn’t deliberately try to insert humour; I deliberately tried to write characters that had a sense of humour, and then let it emerge when they interacted. Which is where most of the good comedy in stories comes from.

A number of readers have commented on the humour in The Obituarist and that it really worked for them, and that’s been a huge relief and ego boost. It was a lot of fun to write those moments, to play with them briefly and then get serious again. I hope I can do it as successfully next time.

Next time: Hugh digs deep into Patrick O’Duffy’s CV, then casts aside any pretensions of serious interviewing and nerds it up.

An Interview with Patrick O’Duffy, Part I: secret origins and self-identification

It can often be a little surprising – counting on your fingers, checking off birthdays, parties and random life events – when you realise just how long you’ve known someone. Like, for example, the inestimable Patrick O’Duffy. Author, blogger, famous-cat owner, I have been following the exploits of POD since the heady days of LiveJournal (everyone here remembers LiveJournal, right?). We have travelled in similar orbits for many years, sharing a degree of communal history via friends and friends-of-friends. We are close enough for me to buy him a drink and ask after his cat’s health without sounding too much like a weird stalker, but not so close that we have a weird intertwined history that involves 4am bonding sessions and anecdotes of activities that are, in the cold light of day, both highly immoral and most likely illegal. (That said, he does owe me a Pogues duet at karaoke from circa 2008, and if you knew how bad I sound after a few Black Russians then you could probably tick both the immoral and illegal checkboxes).

I say all this because when bloggers talk about people they know in real life, it may create expectations of a blinkered viewpoint. But when I say that Patrick is an author, and a very good one at that, it’s because you really do need to check out his work. His prose style is clean, sharp and often darkly humorous. His latest work is The Obituarist, which you can purchase here as an e-book. He also has a fantastic blog, which I have personally found to be an invaluable resource as I’ve progressed along my writing journey. It includes helpful hints on why to avoid adverbs or limit flashbacks, and just what NaNoWriMo actually bloody means.

Suffice to say that when he agreed to be interviewed by me, I must say I was a little stoked. Patrick was exceptionally generous with his time, and as such this will be the first of three installments, with the entire interview running just shy of 5,000 words.

HG: You have such an impressive list of writing credits to your name, it must be hard to think of a time when you weren’t ‘Patrick O’Duffy, Masked Vigilante Author’. What set you down the path of writing as a career?
POD: ‘Impressive list of writing credits’? I think you do me too great a service with your praise, but thank you. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time more than once, and to find a niche where I was able to develop my skills and ideas while still getting paid for it. I still have a long way to go before I can think of myself first (or even second or third) as a writer, or to say it about myself at parties without someone snickering, but I’ve also achieved more than a lot of other writers and I feel happy and grateful for that.

Like a lot of writers – oh shit, I just called myself one and I said I wouldn’t – I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t writing or wasn’t trying to write. There’s a point in childhood, I think, when you suddenly realise that the story you’re reading is something created, something that another person actually invented and put down on a page. Some kids make that breakthrough and decide that that’s what they want to do, and I’m no different; I started trying to write stories when I was 10-12, I think. The idea of doing that as a career probably came shortly afterwards.

But let’s get out of childhood and more concrete. I started writing in earnest in my early twenties, and my work was by and large terrible, and that’s okay because the point of early writing is to set yourself a bar that you can then work to raise again and again. By about, hmm, 25 I was ready to consider writing as a career; by 30 I was capable of actually getting paid for my work every now and then; by 40 I could, more often than not, write stories that had genuine value to them. I think. Anyway, the point of all this is that there’s rarely one thing that sets you off on that path; it’s that slow progression of desire and development, an inability to stop thinking ‘hey, I could write about that’ and the eventual need to stop thinking and actually do.

I have a fondness for rough drafts and noble failures (hence my weird love for Alien 3 – I can’t quite explain it, I’m a sick man…), so dare I ask, what was the first, bad-but-good story you remember writing?
I believe it was a short story about an mountaineer who discovered a crashed spaceship on Mount Everest, learned that the Yeti were in fact alien survivors trying to get home, and then had the breakthrough discovery that the ship’s desperately needed fuel was in fact dark chocolate, which he had plenty of in his backpack.

I was eleven when I wrote this story for a school English assignment. I handed it in six weeks late – and that, at least, has been my modus operandi ever since with regards to deadlines.

I could go on to list a number of other stories I wrote in school, including my grand epic SF novel where a psychic barbarian hero crosses dimensions from his atomic-wasteland Earth to fight off the secret alien invaders of our future. I didn’t get very far into that one, despite being very, very serious about writing my first novel before I was sixteen. Possibly because I was working in longhand in an exercise book and I suspect I might have lost it – or just not been able to read my own handwriting.

Still. I have a computer now. Maybe I should go back to that story one of these days.

Was there a certain point that you self-identified as an author, or is it something that’s crept up on you?
Sometimes, but not all the time. It depends on how much I feel like I’m achieving, how much I’m writing and how much of my time gets sucked away by my day job or by playing video games. I think that ‘author’ isn’t a title you can wear full-time unless it’s what you do full-time; you actually have to be putting in the work regularly and often to wear the mantle, just as you have to, I dunno, play football a whole lot (and get paid for it at the same time) to call yourself a football player. If it’s been two years since your last game, you’re not a football player anymore; if you haven’t written anything in ages, you’re not an author right now. But when I’m working hard on something, when I finish something, when (most importantly) other people are reading what I’ve written… then yeah, those are the times I actually think of myself as an author. And it’s a pretty cool thing to call yourself.

As work on my own Great Unpublished Novel continues ever-so-slowly, I’ve found myself subconsciously shying away from elements that I don’t consider to be a strength of mine – like writing convincing dialogue that doesn’t sound like raw exposition, for example. Has there been anything you’ve really tried to hone over the years in your writing career, whether it be more/less/different something?
Yes, but before I answer that I’m going to talk about the things I don’t do well. And there are lots of things I don’t do well, and a lot of my writing comes out of trying to be better at those things.

I’m not very good at comedy, so I wrote The Obituarist and tried to bring more humour into my prose. I tend towards a certain voice (a bit snarky, a bit self-aware, a bit emotionally detached), so I’m writing Arcadia as an attempt to get into a completely different voice and write from a POV that is very unlike my own. I tend towards the ornate and overly-clever in my prose style, so I’m writing the YA fantasy Raven’s Blood to push me into writing in a cleaner, more declarative style for at least one book. Hell, I wrote Hotel Flamingo as a weekly serial in an attempt to force myself to write on a regular basis and to a regular target.

For a lot of projects, I don’t start with the stuff I think I’m good at or that I want to hone, I start with my weaknesses and problems. I deliberately set out to write stuff that isn’t easy and is going to cause me problems. Because those are the projects that will force me to make an effort, rather than writing on autopilot, and I think my work will be better if I have to push myself to get it right.

Not that I’ve really done the experiment of just writing something that comes easily. I probably should. But I think I’d feel as if I was cheating.

Self-flagellation aside… If there’s any one element of craft I’ve really tried to develop over the years, it’s the ability to craft an evocative turn of phrase. Let all the plot and characterisation fall to ruin, but if I can lay down three words that bring an image or concept to life in the reader’s mind, then I’m happy with that. Although, to be honest, I’d probably rather the plot and characterisation were good too. But anyway, that’s been my main focus for a while, because it seems to me that the possibility of evocation is something that is unique to prose. Movies and comics have to show you what you see, but prose can simply suggest it, and do it in such a way that you get not just a visual but a emotional, philosophical or visceral dimension to it as well.

I’m not so arrogant as to suggest that I am good at this, mind you. Just that it’s what I really try to be good at. But I try to be good at it in every project, and so it becomes the thing I put as my foundation, rather than the thing I’m trying to perfect or hone. Because if I can’t get this down, then I’m not going to get too far with anything else.

Next time: Hugh asks the incredibly patient Patrick O’Duffy some questions that actually relate to his latest book.