James Stephen Talks About Why He Writes
James Stephen (who writes under the name James A. Conan) was one of the first people I met when I started in Centennial College’s Publishing program. We immediately bonded over the fact that we are both kind of (to be honest, extremely) crazy. It didn’t hurt that I was helping him out in our publication design class. As we got to know each other, I learned that Jamie was a passionate writer who enrolled in the program because he had a lot of relevant work experience. The more I got to know him, the more I was inspired by his drive to write stories and get them published.
Still, I couldn’t understand how he got a story from an idea in his mind to a published piece. As Camp NaNo approaches, I keep thinking that I need to learn more about other people’s writing processes. Who better to learn from than a friend who has almost a dozen published works? After reading his most recent story, “A Midsummer’s Day Trip”, I decided that he was the person I needed to interview next. Today, we sat down together nd I learned more about what his publishing experiences have been like.
An Emotional Train Wreck
BRIANNA BENTON: Where do you get your inspiration for speculative fiction stories?
JAMES STEPHEN: For “A Midsummer’s Day Trip”, it was sort of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher meets this graphic novel series called The Goon by Eric Powell—I thought that the two ideas meshed really well in my head, so I turned it into a story about a paranormal general contractor.
Other science fiction comes from whatever concepts jump into my mind. I’ve learned that the concept isn’t enough and I need to focus more on storytelling. For instance, I wrote a story (that has taken me a long time to get published) about what I call a Cerebromax Parlour—a dream induction Total Recall-type place where you can live any fantasy life that you want in your head. None of the editors that I sent it to really clicked with it. They said that they way I described it was cool but I needed more of an actual story in this story.
So I rewrote it from the perspective of a woman working there: she’s a writer, she gets to write these dreams. She’s working this job because she’s depressed after someone she loved killed himself. She spots a guy who keeps coming in to try to be with his dead wife in his head. She sees the readouts on her screen and realizes that he’s about to kill himself so she goes off to confront him. The story sold after I was able to make it more human.
BB: Once you have the story, how do you come up with your characters? Are they based on real people or do you make them up?
JS: A little of both. There are always terms or phrases or expressions that I see in people that make it into the work. I have painted some, occasionally, unflattering pictures of my exes (as every writer does) and some occasionally flattering pictures, which are me being like “I miss you!” I’m an emotional train wreck, that’s why I write.
The first draft of any piece is just you telling yourself the story, so the characters don’t really have a life yet. For that draft, you’re just writing the things they’re going to say and then you go back and give them personality. I ask, “How is this character more than just words on a page? What action or quirk can I give them to make them seem real?”
BB: After you have finished writing, what steps do you take before submitting a piece of work for publication?
JS: There are a couple of drafts. I’m really lucky that I have an aunt who is a professional freelance editor, and has been donating her time to my work since I started. I’ll go over it myself, then send it her. She’ll do her thing and send it back to me for a rewrite to accept or reject changes. I usually accept because they’re almost always obvious things that I missed because I was too in love with my own work. I think I’m a genius until it comes back covered in mark-up and I’m like, “Well… shit.”
Then there’s always the actual market research. I used to do a lot of sending stuff off blind to see what sticks. Now I’m answering more anthology submission calls. Most of it is just waiting around. And rejection. I try to rewrite each story a little bit after it gets rejected. There’s always ways that the story can get better over time. It’s perfectly normal for it to take a couple of years for the story to get published because the wait times for rewrites and hearing back from submissions.
BB: How has your writing impacted your life? How did this drive you forward into publishing?
JS: I started writing because I didn’t really know what else I wanted to do with myself; publishing was an extension of that. I wrote the novel manuscript, that I still haven’t gotten published, partly to deal with the grief of my grandmother dying. I was getting stuff ready for her funeral, looking through old photo albums and I saw this picture of her as a young woman in rural Alberta, jumping a river on a horse with a rifle over her shoulder. And I was like, “Wow… She really lived a long time and did a lot of cool stuff. I’m going to write a novel because I’ve been wanting to do that and I’ve been putting it off.”
After I finished the novel, I was really proud of myself but no one wanted it (because no one knew who I was and it wasn’t very good—it still wasn’t more than a first draft). So I said, “Okay, I have to be an actual writer and write short stories, have a website, and be involved in this process on several levels for people to take me seriously.” It all just kind of spiralled out from there.
The decision to go into publishing was a direct result of that. One of the things that I thought would make me a better writer was doing a little editorial work, so I got the slush reading gig with Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. Eventually, they liked me enough to make me an Editorial Assistant. That process of going through stories, telling people what I liked and didn’t like, and, occasionally, discovering something really great made me realized that I wanted to do this with my life.
BB: What are your publishing goals for the next five years?
JS: My goals are getting the novel published and to write more novels. There are still a couple of short stories in progress, and a few in the trunk that I want to get published but still have to rewrite. I think I’m at eleven published short stories so far, with one pending, five more that are written that I want to place, and three more still in progress. I currently have another novel I’m working on. I just want to keep chugging along and not stop.
As for my career, I plan to do an internship at Cormorant Books. After that, I want to get to work for a medium-to-large sized, editorial driven, independent press with an interest in speculative fiction. I want to build my own list and help expand Canadian speculative fiction. We can make more of this thing.
BB: As a slush pile reader, writer, and publishing student, what advice do you have for new writers trying to get published?
1–Edit one million times. I’ve seen a lot of things that were obviously a first draft. I’ve seen a lot of stories that were just an idea—like a piece of science fiction technology or a fantasy creature, but the story wasn’t more than that one concept. It wasn’t fleshed out. I’ve been guilty of this in my own work many times.
2–Editing is your friend, but make sure that you don’t submit your manuscript covered in markup. The fact that I can often see that a writer didn’t accept or reject changes, and didn’t look at it particularly closely before submitting, makes me take it a lot less seriously. Don’t get so excited that you forget to be thorough.
3–Don’t write bad sex scenes. Good sex scenes are few and far between. There are a lot of mediocre sex scenes. I have a particular threshold for this as I’ve read a lot of bad ones in fantasy stories. Don’t use the phrase, “She milked him for his seed” to describe the sex act. It’s happened. I gagged.
4–Persistence, because when you’re starting out, 99% of the responses you get from magazines, publishers, and agents will be rejections. Develop a thick skin. It’s part of the deal. Keep writing lots. The first draft is always garbage. Do it again, do it better, repeat until famous.