Greg Stolze: The Terribleminds Interview

Mister Stolze and I share a freelance-flavored past, in that both of us did substantial work for White Wolf Game Studios, and periodically add more to that resume. He’s since done a great deal of his own game design work and, in terms of both games and fiction, was kickstarting his own stories before Kickstarter even existed. You can find Greg at his website here, and Twitter at @GregStolze.

Why do you tell stories?

It beats honest work. In all seriousness, I think this world is a better, brighter place with me as a novelist than as a brain surgeon. Writing stories and designing games are the only tasks at which an objective observer would say I excel, unless you put in noncommercial tasks like “being a loving husband” or “getting lost even when driving to a location I’ve visited dozens of times.”

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Hm, I’m trying to think of something that isn’t just a ripoff of Anne Lamott. I actually cut ‘n’ pasted her article at this link so I could send it off any time anyone asked me for writing advice. Summary version: Don’t be a writer if the process is just an implement of success for you, instead of the reason you do it. If you don’t write the way an alcoholic drinks — compulsively and at the expensive of many other good things in life — you probably won’t go far or like where you stop.

Or I could just rip off Justin Achilli’s advice of avoiding the word “will” like it’s radioactive cyanide. It was part of his grand, glorious crusade against passive voice. Passive voice is when you phrase something as “X happened” or “X was done” instead of the more active “Y did X.” Passive voice sounds all weaselly, like you’re trying to obscure responsibility. “Mistakes were made.” “There were discrepancies in the vote count.” “The body was found in the lake.” Sounds like abashed bureaucrats mumbling into their shoes. Compare with “I made a mistake,” “The vote machines couldn’t make the tallies come out even” or “So there I was, minding my own business and trying to get a picture of a snowy egret when suddenly I find this fucking BODY in the lake!” Mm, engaging!

What’s great about being a writer, and conversely, what sucks about it?

Getting to make stuff up all the time is pretty great. I have a brain like a butterfly, flitting hither and yon and never settling for long. Also, my brain spreads beauty and joy to all who behold it, which is why I’m saving up to have my skull replaced with a clear, strong polymer, probably Lexan(tm). Also, nobody knows where my brain goes in the rain.

What sucks about it? Hm, the publishing industry was a tough nut to crack when I was starting out and is currently undergoing cataclysmic upheavals that could well leave the landscape littered with the shattered corpses of once-proud dead-tree juggernauts. In the shadows of the bodies, nothing moves but tiny, furtive, hair-clad figures composing fan-fiction.

You’re a Kickstarter ninja, always kicking and starting fiction or game projects. What do you like about the Kickstarter model? And didn’t you kind of do this way back when with your “Ransom” model?

What I like about Kickstarter is that it enables my laziness. I don’t have to track who paid me or how much and, if things go pear-shaped, I don’t have to do refunds. They take credit cards so I don’t have to, and provide a nice platform where I can upload my videos and posts without swearing at HTML for hours. They take their percentage, as do the credit card companies, but what’cha gonna do?

The Ransom Model was, in some ways, crowd-funding before it was called that. For me, a TRUE Ransom (as opposed to them bitch-ass frontin’ ersatz pseudo-Ransoms, many of which I have run) works on the notion that “If I get $X, the already-completed work becomes free for everyone.” The D…iS! fundraiser isn’t a Ransom as much as a pre-order. The nice thing about ransoming, especially for short stories is (1) once it’s free, I can point people to links and say, “Look, go there and get free reads. If you enjoyed ‘Enzymes’ or ‘Two Things She Does With Her Body,’ you’ll probably like this next story I’ve written” instead of having to explain what’s brilliant about the story without being able to tell the whole thing. You know how people try to get you to work for free, saying “Oh, you’ll get so much valuable exposure!” — a line that most sober college students can see is bullshit when a guy at Spring Break waves his camera at them, but which inexplicably works some times on artists and writers. Now I can get all the valuable free exposure I want, on my terms, and get paid for it. Also, I keep my clothes on.

Advice for authors or game designers looking to “kickstart” a project that way? Lots of Kickstarter projects out there: any way to stand out?

Kickstarter emphatically DOES NOT CREATE DEMAND. That’s your job. It can turn trust and goodwill into money, but you have to give people a reason to want it. Having a good promotion video and intriguing sell-text will get you partway there, but you also have to hustle your ass off getting the word out any way you can. It’s not like an ATM. Expecting it to do the work for you is like putting a hammer on top of a board and wondering when your scrollwork-engraved cabinet will be done.

What are your thoughts about the publishing industry as it stands — agents, editors, publishers? Is that a road you hope to travel? Or are you all up in the DIY model?

I have a horrible, horrible psychological block regarding agents. I mean, I’ve sent in my share of query letters — to be brutally honest, probably a little less than my share, but I’ve struck out every time. I take it too hard, and when the rejection arrives, I ask myself “Why did I piss away all that time and hope and effort researching the agent, finding out what she likes, crafting the approach letter, editing the approach letter, then spend 2-3 months biting my nails before the brush-off? I could’ve written, edited, promoted and self-published a $500 short story in less time, with less heartache AND been happier with myself.”

It’s a phobia. I used to feel that writing an agent query letter was like eating a piece of my own death. Now I feel it’s more like eating death, vomiting it up, eating the vomit, shitting it out, and then somehow eating my own shit-death-puke. Which is not the agents’ fault. I’m sure many of them are lovely, lovely people. But life is short. Approaching publishers directly is just as bad. I met a local publisher personally, gave him my card, shook his hand, spoke politely with him after his talk to my writer’s group and, afterwards, shyly sent an email about maybe, possibly submitting a novel if he wanted to see it. That novel is “Mask of the Other.” I’m quite confident that I’ll have it available for sale before he ever gets back to me.

Add in the current publishing climate, and there are days when getting an agent looks like hiring an interior decorator when your house is burning down. That said, I’d love to have someone else do all the editing, layout, promotion, marketing, shipping and distribution for me. Still. Here we are. It would have been nice to have had the option, I guess.

What are the differences between writing game material and fiction? You prefer one over the other?

It’s the difference between making a guitar and playing one. When I write game material, I’m trying to be some kind of invisible helper elf, enabling others to create their stories and do what they want. When I write fiction, I’m telling the story exactly the way I want it to go (mostly). Both have their charms. I loved writing stories even before I started gaming, but gaming loved me BACK before fiction really did.

You are a storyteller with children. Having only a four-month-old, I know that’s not easy-peasy-diaper-squeezy, so: how the fuck do you do it?!

Set manageable goals. Understand that writing is going to take a hit. Personally, I found a place near my house where I could park my toddlers for something ridiculous like $4 an hour each at the Eola Community Center. Now the rules were that I had to stay in the Center and they’d come and get me for diaper changes, and they wouldn’t hold a kid for more than two hours at a stretch, but if you plan ahead, you can get 1100 words written in an hour. Now, of course, they’re in school all day. So just work towards that, Chuck.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

I’m kind of partial to “Ah.” Also “fuck-pole,” which I think is underutilized.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

In the summer, I like a G&T like this: Fill a tall glass with ice, crush a quarter lime in it, fill that with tonic (the kind with quinine) almost to the top, then a double-shot of Tanqueray on top. Stir and drink. But when I ran out of gin and didn’t want to run to the store, I replaced the gin with one shot of Grand Marnier and one shot of Jose Cuervo tequila. I called it the “Grand Killya,” but don’t let that stop you from trying one.

Or you can go with two scoops of ice cream, a tiny drizzle of chocolate sauce, a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream and a shot of Frangelico hazlenut liquor in a blender. Smoothy-fy it and drink on the back porch while trying to get a grip. I call that one “Home-Made Prozac.”

In the winter though, I’ve been trending towards aquavit — it’s like liquid rye bread that makes you sleepy.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

For writers, I recommend Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler… even though it’s distinctly aimed at you, the reader. No, literally: The book is written in the second person, and details your adventures as you try to get your hands on an unmangled copy of ‘Italo Calvino’s new novel If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler…’ It hilariously explodes the book trade, publishing, literary analysis, the entire reading experience and especially, especially writing. There’s a wonderful scene where two writers find out they’re at the same resort. One’s a highbrow literary lion who agonizes and thrashes over every line, every word, every phrase. The other’s a bestselling thriller-monger who “produces books the way a vine produces pumpkins.” There’s a beautiful woman reading by the pool, and each of them is agonized by the thought that she’s reading the OTHER writer’s book. That, in my experience, is the literary life compressed into a single image.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable zombie war?

I’ll be honest with you Chuck, most of my training has emphasized hand-to-hand combat with humans, paying particular attention to ligature strangles. Sure, I did some Okinawan kobudo back in the day, but I suspect I’d be best used keeping the survivors from turning on one another. You know, some sort of “Are you going to give Katy her Skittles back or do I have to put you in the sleeper hold again?” kind of arrangement.

You’ve committed crimes against humanity. They caught you. You get one last meal.

Two beer-boiled elk sausage bratwursts with horseradish mustard, one with carmelized onions and sauerkraut, one plain, each served on fresh-baked, lightly-toasted split french rolls. A bottle of Jhoom beer and a G&T as described above. Home-Made Prozac for dessert. Yeah, if I’m going to get a dose of Edison’s medicine, I’m not bothering with a balanced meal and I’ll want to be as smashed as possible.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

Let’s see. SWITCHFLIPPED is out now, that’s right here, and I’ve been shilling that all the livelong day. The fundraiser for Dinosaurs… in Spaaace! is ticking down and I’m hoping like hell that makes it. It’s making me anxious, so I’ll probably go for shorter, smaller and cheaper stuff for a while — perhaps drumming up the cash for a SWITCHFLIPPED print run.

After I clear those decks, I’ve got Mask of the Other, which I’d call a “military horror novel” — a squad of US soldiers stumbles across the wreckage of Saddam’s occult weapons program in 1991 and gets entangled with the Cthulhu Mythos demimonde. Within that frame, it also deals heavily with modern-day ghost towns. Parts are set in Varosha — pictured in these links:

http://woondu.com/images/strange/varosha-ghost-town-cyprus/varosha-ghost-town9.jpg

http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielzolli/2440928047/

http://greekodyssey.typepad.com/my_greek_odyssey/images/2007/04/12/forbidden_zone_2.jpg

Varosha’s a neighborhood in Cyprus that was abandoned during the Turkish invasion in 1974, and during the occupation, the Turks just fenced it off and said, “No one goes in or we shoot them.” Other parts are set on the island of Hashima:

http://amazingtourismtraveling.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Ghost-town-Hashima-Island-Gunkanjima-japan.jpg

http://static.omglog.com/uploads/2009/10/hashima-island-decaying-city-photos-555×371.jpg

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-yw3j8kNsVyE/TctfQGbxhyI/AAAAAAAAEuw/iKpeMUUTUoE/s400/hashima01.jpg

…which was basically a town built on top of a coal mine on an island the size of a few football fields. It was very suddenly evacuated and abandoned… in 1974.

That’s all true or, at least, internet-true. I asked myself, “what would make people abandon cities on islands in 1974?” and came up with some HPL-style answers. That’s the novel.

Way off on the back burner, I’m thinking of open-developing a new set of RPG mechanics and ransoming out polished versions of them in a sort of “fantasy science” setting — nice short chunks, maybe 10,000 words like the REIGN ransoms. That might work better than big stuff like D…iS! That project’s called HORIZON, so keep an eye peeled.

11 comments

  • A favorable mention of my favorite book on my favorite blog. My brain lights up like Vegas when someone else talks about If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler. You’ve made my day, gentlemen.

  • Dammit!

    Chuck, you forgot to ask Greg where your pants are. That’s one of my favorite questions in your interviews.

    But, of course, you could have been wearing your pants during the interview. In that case, I would be thoroughly disappointed in you for trying to act normal.

    • @Chad:

      This is the “Second Round” of interview questions (though I will concede that this interview is missing the Tell Me A Story question, but if Greg answers it today I’ll append the post). I figured the “pants” question would become redundant and so it is replaced with zombies and last meals.

      Mmm. Zombie last meals.

      — c.

  • I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Unknown Armies fan (and a Reign fan, but not as virulently) and SWITCHFLIPPED sounds right up my alley. I always enjoyed your short fiction in the UA books, Greg, especially the story about the Comte which opens…Postmodern Magick? The one set in Rio, anyway. Great stuff. Your idea for a story based on Saddam’s occult weapons program is an inspired twist on the usual W.W. II fare, so I’ll be on the lookout for that.

    Speaking of UA, what are your impressions of that time when you look back? Best of times? Worst? Are you happy with where it came to rest?

  • @Chad – Chuck’s pants BETTER be on his scrawny white behind where they belong…
    @Dave – Glad you’ve enjoyed UA. My impressions looking back are quite positive: I made a good impression, wrote good stuff, connected with fans, didn’t lose my shirt or get screwed with my pants on. That’s about 100% as far as game projects go. There’s stuff I’d do differently now — I mean, I HAVE learned some stuff and honed some skills in the last 13 years — but by and large, I’m happy with where it is. As I’ve said before, if I wake up with a genius idea for “where UA needs to go next,” I’d jump on it… but that hasn’t happened for some time. I’d rather leave it in a good place than Lucas it up with something like “UA Episode 1,” y’know?

  • Very nice interview. I always liked Greg’s stuff with White-Wolf (especially the Vampire: The Requiem novels and that endcap in Danse Macabre). I’ll definitely have to check out the other stuff as well.

  • Howdy, gents! I dispute Greg on only one topic: Favorite Calvino book. Mine’s Invisible Cities. That aside, great advice from Greg and great curation from Chuck.

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