L.E. Rodriguez, author of dark fiction and fantasy shares some thoughts on his work, his writing and advice for other writers.
Luis, tell us about yourself, what you’re working on and where you see your project(s) heading?
While some authors like to concentrate everything they have on one project at a time, I found out a while ago that I can’t do that. I have to go where my Muse (imagine the Absinthe Fairy from the movie “Moulin Rouge”) takes me. So I’m constantly diverging (read: getting sidetracked). But I, usually, find my way back to my original project, especially if the characters are pushing me.
So, at the moment, I’m tightening (never-ending process) a manuscript for a conference I’ll be attending where I hope to find an agent, publisher, or at least a sympathetic ear to hear my sad story of “The Boy with the Great Book that He Can’t Sell.”
But, after that, I’ll be working with a friend and fellow writer (add dancer, director, producer, international slam phenom and all around great guy) Quentin Talley, trying to get a short story of mine, “Old Black Men” to the stage. I am also switching gears to write some good ol’ Science Fiction. A new story called “Robotix.” Every writer should have a good group of people to use as a sounding board for new ideas and my group have all given me the thumbs up on this one.
Writing is, by its nature, a solitary activity in which, if you’re good, you’re pushing yourself, constantly challenging yourself to write at the bleeding edge of your skill. Anything less and you’re just wasting time, anything more and you’ll sail off the edge of the map into waters where “there be dragons.” So I find it good to have people, writers and more ordinary folk, around to keep me balanced.
When you were growing up, what writers influenced you most and who do you look for inspiration from now?
Hmmm. Tough question. Mostly because I don’t remember much of anything before a few weeks ago. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I have an amazing memory for the stories I’m crafting but almost no memory for the “real world.” But from what I recall:
Edgar Allan Poe
Ursula K. Leguin
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (The Dragonlance Books–I probably own 40-50 of this series)
Hermann Hesse (Demian and Siddhartha)
Nevil Shute (On the Beach–only book to ever give me nightmares)
My number one influence was my mother, who was and is a stunningly accurate grammatician with a vocabulary that puts mine to shame. A favorite game of ours was one saying a word and trying to stump the other as to its meaning. To this day, I’ve only gotten her twice. The greatest compliment anyone has ever given me on my writing was the day I read a story to her and asked for her comments. Her response, “Son, you’ve passed the point where I can help you.” Yeah.
Would you take us through a typical writing day for you?
If only I could write full time, who knows what a “typical writing” day would be for me. But the majority of writers are struggling artists like myself (at least I keep telling myself I’m not the only one) and those few who get to write all day every day are just fortunate anomalies. So, as a writer with work and family and friends with which to contend, I find the time when I can. I write best when I can hit that perfect mental state, which I find usually comes at around 11pm. So I’ve blocked out 10pm to 1am (I do have to get up for work every morning) to write. I usually write for about an hour, the first half of which is normally garbage. But then, when my Muse is smiling, I get the wind in my sails and the next couple hours can be fabulous. If it doesn’t come after an hour, I usually switch off my computer, pick up a book and spend some time reading and pondering my story, letting things rearrange in my mind so that next time it will come out better. Which leads into our next question about the dreaded “writer’s block.”
Like so many maladies, I don’t fully understand it. I don’t think I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block: an inability to write anything worthwhile. True, there have been times when I wanted to write something and it didn’t come out right. But, like I said, I work on so many different projects at a time that there is always something I can write, from a simple Note on my Facebook page to any number of stories I have going. At this moment, I have somewhere around 60 different stories in various stages of completion so no, I don’t ever get writer’s block.
If I absolutely have to have something written by a certain time (i.e. a deadline) then that works even better for me. I’m one of those people who work best under the gun. The only advice I can give to those who suffer from this terrible affliction is: regroup, get away from your work for a little while and come at it from a different angle. When in doubt, kill someone off.
I’ve heard you speak about the differences in fantasy and other genres. Would you describe fantasy and compare/contrast it to science fiction, mythology, and speculative fiction?
Had to hit me with the tough questions, huh? Alright, Fantasy is a subtype of “speculative fiction” in which fantastic events or characters play a part. Magic, talking animals, races such as dwarves, elves, kender, merfolk and fey folk are just a few of the staples of the Fantasy genre. Fantasy is “speculative” because it poses a “what if” scenario on a world scale. Science Fiction, also speculative fiction, is the other side of the coin. Instead of magic to bend the rules of reality, sci-fi uses technology. Otherwise, the two are very similar. (However, it’s a pet peeve of mine that they are always combined in bookstores when they are so clearly separate genres).
Fantasy can have mythological aspects, like human interaction with gods, titans, or spirits, but myths are usually ancient archetypal tales extolling virtues or providing warnings. They are separate from folk tales in that myths are usually based on actual beliefs or religions of a culture, where folk-tales are usually popular stories passed down through the ages but without any religious or deep-rooted belief system behind them.
Modern Fantasy traces its heritage from myths to folk-tales to fairy tales (codified folk-tales shaped more recently; think Bros. Grimm stuff). Then came the father of the genre J.R.R. Tolkien who took the scope of myths, the real-world insights of folk-tales and the creatures and races of fairy tales and created the first true epic fantasy novel to reach wide recognition.
But Fantasy has differing levels of involvement, from the “world building” of Tolkien to the more subtle shifts in works like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which is clearly fantasy, though much of it takes place in our own world. One need not venture far from the path to find fey-folk in the fringes.
Fantasy writing is often about world building, not just character building. How do you approach building a new fantasy world? What are some of the elements that you consider?
First and foremost, I consider what I’ve seen before. What’s been done? What’s been done to death? Then I try to see how I can do something different. I read a book and think, “I wish they would have done this.” Then I grab my pen and start writing. What if they had done this differently?
For instance, in my current fantasy series, The Deserts of Sorrow, I was very bored with the euro-centric worlds I was seeing. It’s always some psuedo-medieval world of knights and armor and flute music. Blah! So I created a world populated by a seafaring people ranging in hues from very pale tan to extremely dark-skinned. My characters are dealing with rifts and prejudices based on skin-tone, just like many of my readers, but they are in no way “black people.” It’s a totally different world with different ideas about propriety, different cultural backgrounds, and even different languages.
Another fantasy staple that’s been overdone is the male-dominated stories. I wanted a world in which the founders of nations and even the most powerful deities are female. Not all of them, but enough so that there is no discrimination based on gender. I mean, why do you need dwarves to be fantastic…a world without gender bias is pretty “speculative” as is.
How does gender and culture shape a character’s life in fantasy writing, what type of conflicts do they have?
I think I touched on this in the last question but I will say one more thing. Since we, as writers, can shape the world in which we place our characters, we can create specific situations to test them. But a “conceived” character will react in their own way, regardless of what we, as the writers, want them to do.
There are two types of characters: conceived and contrived.
Conceived characters come fully formed, with thoughts, mannerisms, ticks and habits all their own. If you’ve ever written any type of fiction, you know that certain characters will come full-blown and will insist on being written a certain way. That’s just the magic of the craft.
Contrived characters are far more malleable and should only be used as secondary characters. These the writer has to fill in. So the conceived character may be in a diner ordering coffee, reading a paper. The waitress who serves him/her is contrived, inserted to fill a role and never to be heard from again (unless she’s actually a conceived character waiting to be born…hmmm.) So the writer has to actually think, who is this waitress? How old is she? Does she snap her gum when she talks? Do her feet hurt? Is she starting her shift or ending it? Does she like her job or despise her boss? All these things will influence how you write her, especially if she has dialogue.
When you’re not writing, what are your favorite ways to relax?
I’m proud to say that I am a student of mixed martial arts under Scott Shields here in Charlotte. I study American boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Like many creative people, I sometimes have a problem turning my brain off. But once the bell rings and someone is trying to punch you in the face, your forebrain shuts down, all speculation ceases and your mid-brain, the primal brain kicks in. This is the best way to relax I’ve found. My favorite line from the movie Fight Club, “After fighting everything else in your life has the volume turned down. You [can] deal with anything.”
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read, read, read. Join a writer’s group full of people who write better than you and listen. And always, always, write the book you most want to read. If, in the end, you’re left with a story you really like, then you’ve succeeded, whether it ever gets published or not.
Never be intimidated by someone who’s been published or won a prize for their work. There are no “real writers.” Everyone writes their stories the same way, one word at a time.