Author of “Where Art Thou, My Love?” (Other)
What are some of your literary influences?
As a kid, I read a decade or two behind my times. So I grew up with Asimov and Clarke, Heinlein and Lieber. I read all the classics of SF and fantasy, but four writers truly engaged my imagination: Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, Barbara Hambly, and C.J. Cherryh.
I got absolutely lost in Vance’s Planet of Adventure tetralogy. Reading it was the first time I finished a book and immediately started reading it again, and I’ve read those books some ten or fifteen times to date. I can open any one of them, in Swedish or English, read two sentences at random, and know exactly where in the story I am. The adventures of Adam Reith fueled my daydreams for years.
Then I found Roger Zelazny’s Amber. High adventure, fast pace, big stakes, lots of opera, and a big, big world. This was what fantasy and science fiction was all about. The great, the grand, and the grander. Good versus evil. Heroes, villains, and scoundrels, sometimes all three at once. And if I hadn’t found Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, I would probably have grown up to be a hack-and-slash writer.
But Hambly had something beyond Vance and Zelezny: shades of gray, and regular people. Dragonsbane is pig farmer fantasy. Low fantasy, for high stakes. Yes, there’s a hero. But not a hero, really, just a man trying to protect his people. By poisoning a dragon. And chopping off its head with an axe while it’s stunned. All gore, no glory.
And when it comes down to it, the story isn’t about the dragonsbane John Aversin, but rather his wife, the witch Jenny Waynest. And while I’d read Le Guin before I found Dragonsbane, it was this later book that got me thinking about the meaning of courage, what living a good life means, and who is a hero.
And, of course, C.J. Cherryh, with her Company universe and Foreigner universe. Where every trope of heroic SF is turned on its head and people are people. This was anthropological SF, about people, whether human or not. The space ships and fights were there, but as background.
And I’d like to think that my own writing is like that, fantastic adventures with real people. I may not be skilled enough to pull it off, yet, but I’m heading there.
Are there themes that you find recurring in your work?
I don’t really think in terms of theme. To me, the best definition of theme is from Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing, which I came across a mere six months ago: a theme is the unifying idea in a book, and it can be as simple as “big monsters are chasing us” (or “In Space, No one Can Hear You Scream”.)
This, to me, is the key of writing a tight story: stick with an over-arching idea, and make sure that everything you put into the story somehow ties into the idea. It doesn’t matter if Barry Hotter wins the Mr. Universe beauty contest if that doesn’t help him figure out his place in the world, or how to defeat the bad guys.
As for the literary definitions of theme, well, I’m not much for literary. I simply don’t get it. To me, great literature is stuff that goes KABOOOM!!! in the night. . .
What keeps you going when the writing gets hard? What bring you joy?
Running away. No, just kidding, although it’s a bit too close to the truth for comfort. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was ten years old, but made the mistake of measuring my beginner’s first drafts against the polished prose of pros that I was reading. That comparison made me think that being a writer was forever out of my league and my talent.
Fortunately, the dream didn’t abandon me when I abandoned it. I kept wanting to tell stories, in my head if not on paper. And once I found enough courage, I managed to start putting them on paper.
Nowadays, I try to measure my progress, not myself. How many words I’ve written. How many stories. How many submissions and how many rejections.
And I try to find the fun in writing. Gamification works wonders for me, and I’ve boosted my writing with Habitica (a gamified to-do list) in the past. Today, I use 4TheWords, an old-school RPG that’s driven by the words you type. Want to kill that monster and get that loot? Well, I’d better type the required 500 words before the timer runs out.
I know this isn’t for everyone, but it gets me going in the morning.
What are you working on right now? And which of your stories would you recommend to someone new to your work?
At any given time, I’ve got some 50 projects in development hell, to borrow a term from scriptwriting. These are stores that I haven’t trunked or trashed but just sort of put to the side. They’re not hopeless, but they’re broken enough that I don’t quite know how to move forward with them.
But my stories usually either come together in one fluid thought that flows out of my brain and onto the paper, or they get stuck half-way.
Recently, I’ve started making progress on plotting my way out of bad storytelling. I’m not a plotter, and probably never will be, but I have started to learn to boost my pantsing with a supporting scaffolding of actual plot.
As for where to start; I’ve got a few stories available on Daily Science Fiction, and in Nature Futures, which I’m proud of. And also “The Bed of the Crimson King,” in Grimdark magazine (available as a free podcast).
You mention in your “On Writing” section that you passed “Where Art Thou, My Love?” to your regular critique group for feedback. How did they react to the idea of writing a short story from a detailed prompt?
I’m fortunate to have found a great critique group (this one goes out to all you Robots, you rock!) Without them, I’d never have learned as much as I have, as fast as I have. Their support and feedback has always been amazing, and I owe them whatever little skill I have managed to develop.
And they reacted to “Where Art Thou” in their usual way: “Fil, I think there’s a story here, but I have no idea what it is. But there’s Mickey Mouse, right?”
Asking them to crit based on the prompt was an interesting exercise for all of us, I think. It really brought home how incredibly skilled they are, in that they managed to see what I failed to achieve, and make the story a thousand times better.
Once more, you guys rock!
You can read Filip Wiltgren’s story in Metaphorosis Magazine, “Rowboats: A Cautionary Tale of Linguistics,” for free online.
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