Sunday, August 23, 2009

Seven Questions with VAN PLEXICO!

Today we sit down for seven questions with science fiction, pulp and superhero author Van Plexico. Van is the author of a number of books, many published by his creator owned imprint White Rocket Books, including the popular series of Sentinels superhero novels. In addition, Van is the creator of the acclaimed fan website Avengers Assemble! and editor of the Assembled! series of fan guides to the Avengers.

1. You've had quite a busy year so far, with four new books coming out simultaneously. What can you tell us about them?

It was mainly a coincidence that they all hit within a couple of months of each other; one had been in the works for over four years! One is a classic Sherlock Holmes anthology in which I have two of the shorter stories. It's a fun book from Airship 27 and has been selling shockingly well so far. Getting to emulate Conan Doyle and play with Mycroft Holmes and other great Holmes characters was enormous fun.

Another book is the new volume in my ongoing Sentinels superhero novel series, THE SHIVA ADVENT. It's the beginning of a new, more "cosmic" story arc and again features great interior art by Chris Kohler. Some interesting new characters appear and some of the older ones... well, let's just say this series represents my attempt at a "Babylon 5" saga of super heroes and you can probably guess what that means for some of the characters!

There's also my stand-alone, longer-form SF/Fantasy novel, LUCIAN: DARK GOD'S HOMECOMING, which I wrote in the style of a Roger Zelazny "Amber" novel but which I'm told by some readers is more reminiscent of Jack Vance and his anti-heroes. Either comparison is fine with me! Airship 27 put it out as well, with cover and interior art by Ingrid Hardy.

And finally there's ASSEMBLED! 2, our second commentary book ("our" being we Jarvis Heads of that looks at Marvel's Avengers in both serious and humorous lights. (Full disclosure—some of my favorite parts of the book were contributed by Scott!) The profits from both books go to the HERO Initiative charity for retired comics pros in need. And of course we got Tom Brevoort to do the Introduction, which was a bonus.

2. You've achieved a lot of success through the avenue of self-publishing, with your White Rocket Books imprint expanding to publish works from other creators. How will your recent deal with Swarm Press to have them pick up your Sentinels line affect White Rocket?

The Swarm Press deal has been entirely positive with regard to White Rocket Books. I have to admit it was odd that for a while White Rocket, which I founded, was publishing books written by other folks--
but nothing by me! But the Swarm deal has meant increased visibility for the Sentinels books, without question... And I think it's meant greater legitimacy for them, too, in the sense that it's not just me or a few other readers saying they're worth your time to read; in Swarm we had a very successful small press outfit-- people who are supposed to know what's "good"-- stepping in and saying how much they
liked the books and how much they wanted to bring them to a wider audience. That meant a lot to me personally. I spend a huge amount of time plotting and writing the Sentinels books and it helped validate that to a large degree for me.

In sum, I'm a writer in Swarm's stable, as well as in Airship 27's, and I keep those relationships separate from my role as editor of White Rocket, where I try to do the best job I can for the other writers and editors there.

3. Since Sentinels is a superhero story, translating it into comic book form would seem like a natural move. Do you have any plans to publish comic adaptations of Sentinels?

That is probably the number one question I get about the Sentinels. Everyone wants to see it as a comic book. But the thing is, I'm doing it as the "Babylon 5" or "Aubrey/Maturin Master & Commander" saga of superheroes, where the real payoff is in the long-term changes to the characters and in the grand arcs playing out over many volumes. To condense that down to 22 pages of comics... I've never been sure it
would work that way. I fear that it would be "just another superhero comic," losing the thing that I believe most makes it special—the long-term saga aspect. (Or, keeping with the B5 analogy, you'd end up with the comics equivalent of a TV movie like "River of Souls!") Just because the characters happen to be super heroes doesn't mean the storyline itself best fits the comic book medium. (Which, I grant you, seems like an odd thing to say!)

Doing a straight adaptation of the existing books wouldn't be of much interest to me, either. Would folks line up to buy a comic that merely copied an existing television show, for example? No-- they want the "new season" of BUFFY, not a comics adaptation of the existing ones. So I've been trying to come up with a more limited Sentinels storyline that would work in the six to eight issue range while still keeping most of what makes the characters and their stories special to me.

And now, after more than three years of deep thinking on the subject, I believe I finally have one ready. So--as soon as I find an artist willing to work on it with me, whom I feel is a good match for the characters and the story, you will finally see comic books of the Sentinels from White Rocket!

4. The second volume of your fan guide to Avengers, Assembled! 2, just came out. How is this book different from the first volume and what can we expect to see in the third book?

The first volume was centered around the organizing concept of "eras in Avengers history," based on the creative teams on the book. For example, "Lee/Kirby" or "Shooter/Perez." That worked very well, but it didn't do much in terms of the characters themselves. So this new volume (2) looks at the Big Three of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America in great depth and detail, along with the big two baddies of Kang and Ultron (plus a few other special features). That leaves volume 3 (coming early next year, I hope) covering all the other noteworthy Avengers, from the Beast to the Vision and the Scarlet Witch to the Pyms and Hawkeye, all the way down to D-Man.

Different writers contributed different chapters, and each brought different insights and sensibilities to the table. Consequently, some of the features are extremely technical and in-depth, while others have a more whimsical approach, and still others are downright hilarious. The wide range of tones and approaches, I feel, makes for a more entertaining reading experience than you would get from, say,
sitting down with a volume of the "Official Guide to the Marvel Universe," which gets pretty darned dry after a short while.

We will also continue to include extra sections on topics such as AVENGERS FOREVER, YOUNG AVENGERS, the Marvel prose works, and so on. Also, Kurt Busiek contributed a chapter for Vol. 3 in which he discusses his feelings about his legendary run on AVENGERS alongside George Perez. That alone should be worth the price.

5. The Assembled! line of fan guides came about as an extension of your website; as a result you've been called "the most famous Avengers fan in the world". What's it like being so well known as a fan that you had a character in Iron Man named after you?

It was certainly great fun for a long while, as when the comics shop guy in Singapore said to me, "You're THE Van Plexico?!?" Hah. And it probably helped me get a foot in the door with getting the Sentinels books out to potential readers and getting me a spot here and there on the convention circuit before I'd had anything published. These days, however, I'm trying to get my own creative career up and running, and sometimes I worry that being so known as a "fan" might actually hurt my reputation as a fledgling "pro." (To whatever degree that's true of me so far.) We'll see...!

6. You're also well known for your convention presence. What does your upcoming con schedule look like and what other projects do you have coming out in the near future?

I've had to scale back my convention appearances the last year or so, what with having a new baby girl to help take care of. But there are a few cons I simply cannot miss. Next up is the massive DragonCon in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, which has invited me as a Guest for the past two years (something I am insanely grateful for!). This will be my 13th DragonCon overall (12th in a row) and I wouldn't miss it for the world. I have a lot of good friends there and many of them are now faithful readers of my work, as well! (Bless you all!)

After that is the local St Louis con, Archon, followed by ImagiCon in Birmingham, AL, early next spring. What a great convention B'ham is putting on now! I recommend it highly. And then Windy City Pulp Con in Chicago and Pulp Fest in Ohio in the summer, where I get to hang out with other neo-Pulps writers from Airship 27 and other publishing houses that are trying to revive the classic pulps in new tales.

We're also hoping to make a family trip to San Diego for the Big One (SDCC) next summer. We shall see.

New projects? Quickly: ASSEMBLED! 3 will round out our look at the Avengers in early 2010... The next Sentinels volume, WORLDMIND, should roll along sometime in the spring... Two new volumes of a brand new "throwback" space opera character and his adventures should be along sometime next year from Airship 27. Those books are written in the "Space Patrol" / Flash Gordon vein, and I did a great deal of editing work on both volumes (which include a 45,000 word novella of my own). I also co-created a sort of sword-and-sorcery character whose anthology I'm editing for Airship 27, and I have a story in an upcoming 1930s air combat pulp anthology. That's all stuff that's been in the works for a while; I'm also trying to get moving on some new projects. We'll see. Always busy!

7. Lastly, for those people just starting out, what's one specific storytelling technique you use that you could share with a new creator to improve their work?

Rather than try to come up with a specific storytelling technique, I'll simply talk about a couple of approaches I take that tremendously help me with my own work. Maybe they'll be of assistance to others.

One is that I am a stickler for technically correct writing. I do my best to write "clean" first drafts, which makes for less work later and makes for a more professional-looking product when you're finished. I would be embarrassed to hand over a "finished draft" of a story or novel to an editor that I knew would require hours of copy editing work. Certainly there are plenty of places for a writer to use artistic flair and clever writing effects-- I do so all the time. But at the core, your writing needs to be technically as sound and correct as possible in addition to being interesting and entertaining and original.

The other (and the more controversial) approach is that I OUTLINE like crazy. I outline more heavily than any other writer I know. My outline for WORLDMIND (the next Sentinels book) is already 37 pages long, and I've yet to start writing the book itself! I outline like this for several reasons:

1) I find it easier to sit down at the computer and write when I generally know where the story is going next, and why. If I'm unsure, I'm hesitant to sit down and try to force it to go somewhere. Thus the book or story takes forever to write, because I'm pacing around and worrying rather than writing.

2) Outlining helps eliminate storytelling and continuity errors.

3) Outlining allows me to insert all sorts of (what I hope will be) clever little bits early on, which I can then pick up on later in the book, or in subsequent volumes. Lots of readers have commented on how they'll notice something in the Sentinels books and then, maybe two books later, they'll see a callback to it and they'll go, "Oh yeah! I remember that now! So THAT was what that was about!" That's a lot of fun to do as a writer.

4) Outlining keeps things moving in a logical and consistent direction, rather than randomly and against the natural instincts of the characters. The characters have to dictate story, not the other way around; I find that breaking everything down at the beginning allows the story to flow naturally from the characters. (I admit that this requires you to know your characters pretty well at the start, but there are many ways to achieve that, such as writing little vignettes or short stories with them beforehand, in order to get to know them better and to more fully understand what they would do in a given situation.)

Some writers react very negatively to my above talk about outlining by arguing that outlining takes all the "surprises" and fun out of writing for them. While I sympathize, first let me say that I do leave plenty of wiggle room for surprises and changes of plans all along, as needed. I never handcuff myself to an outline; it's like a roadmap, and you can exit off the Interstate at any point and take an alternate route!

Perhaps some writers have excellent memories and can keep in mind every little thing they want to pick up on later, but I can't do that. I have to nail it all down ahead of time. The fun comes in laying it all out, providing the dialogue and character moments that put the flesh on the bones of the story. Frankly, to me, and with all due respect to my fellow writers-- if you can't bring yourself to even sit down and write without the absolute surprise of not having any idea where you're going as you write, then perhaps you aren't as professional of a writer as you could be.

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I tend to outline the scenes of the book, but only in a macro sense. I don't try to outline the scenes themselves. This frees me up to improvise but safely, so that the story still goes where I need it to. Only if I get really stuck on a scene will I start trying to outline it first.

Agreed about the characters taking charge of the story. It's a lot of fun when that starts happening. And I have definitely got a hold of a character by featuring them in a short story first.

Looking forward to all your books, Van. And I'll be sure to see you at ImagiCon in Birmingham next year.

I also outline and keep extensive notes when I am writing a novel. It just gets too confusing from a plot perspective otherwise. Plus, I'm not always writing (or able to write) when I get an idea, so I have to jot down notes before I forget the latest brainstorm. Inevitably, these notes collect to the point where it's an outline anyway.