Matt Forbeck: The Terribleminds Interview

Matt Forbeck is one crazy dude. Crazy like a fox. Crazy like a dude with a powerful brain parasite that serves him and provides him awesome creative powers in its symbiotic grip. What hasn’t Matt written? He’s written novels, games, comics, designed toys, penned whole encyclopedias. I don’t think he’s missing much on his resume except maybe “HVAC instructions” and “Communist manifesto.” Matt’s approach is not dissimilar from my own: write everything, and feed the family doing it. He’s a writer to whom you should be listening. You can find him at Forbeck.com, or @MForbeck on the Twitters. And, should you be so inclined to support his 12-for-12 endeavor, the Kickstarter is live and looking for funds.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Hemingway famously wrote a complete short story in six words to win a bet. It goes, “For sale: baby shoes, never used.”

I came up with a version of my own that features zombies. It goes:

“Brains!”

“Brains!”

“Brains!”

BLAM!

BLAM!

Click.

Why do you tell stories?

I’m a full-time professional writer, so the easy answer is “Money.” That’s not the real reason, of course. If I only cared about money, I’d take up investment banking.

I tell stories because I love seeing patterns in the world and figuring out how to make them as entertaining as I can. Stories are all about winnowing down the information life throws at you, finding the elements that mean something, and then weaving them together into a narrative. Sometimes you get to use those to make up things from whole cloth, but the process is much the same, and I get such a kick out of doing it.

I don’t know if I’d write if I had to do it for free. It’s a lot of work, and it takes me away from other things, like my wife and kids, but there’s no way you could stop me from telling stories.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Have fun with it. If you can’t enjoy writing the story, how can you expect your reader to enjoy reading it? That doesn’t mean every story has to be a rollercoaster ride of laughs, but you have to find a reason to love it. If you do, then others can too.

Got any advice for those wanting to become professional writers?

Stick to it. The worst thing anyone can say to you is “No,” and that’s not all that bad in the end. You’ll get a lot of that at first, and it’ll slack off as you improve your craft and your understanding of what the market (i.e. readers) wants.

Lots of people will tell you not to quit your day job, and I understand that. I never started the day job in the first place, which meant the transition from starving student to struggling writer had not even a speed bump for me. If you’re going to take risks like that, I say do them when you’re young, too ignorant to know better, and have far less to lose. It gets harder later, I’m told.

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

Besides the fact I get to do what I love for a living — which is hard to beat — I adore the flexibility it gives me. I have a lot of kids at home (five, including a 9-year-old set of quadruplets), and being able to work out of my home gives me the kind of flexibility I need to be the best father I can to them. I can’t imagine how I’d hold down a regular job and manage it.

I could tell you all sorts of things that suck about it, but that would be whining about a job I love. I don’t think I could stomach it any more than your readers. It’s a challenge in many ways, sure, but I enjoy the challenges. That’s part of what makes it worth doing.

I have to ask, then: you’ve got quads, for Crom’s sake, so if anybody’s going to have some interesting parenting advice, it’s you. So, cough it up. Don’t keep the secrets to yourself.

I could write a book on this (and maybe someday will), but I’ll hit a few highlights.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We had 30–35 people signing up on a schedule and coming in every week to lend a hand with feeding, diapering, cleaning. People are often thrilled to help out, especially when infants are involved. Most of our helpers were either grandmothers or women who wished they were, and we were happy to have our kids be surrogate grandkids for them all.

Don’t poke the bear. Or in this case, the kids. If they’re sleeping, let them lie if you can help it. Take advantage of it and grab a few winks for yourself. You’ll need every one of them.

Don’t forget to take care of your own basic needs first. You know how when the air masks drop down in an airplane, they tell you to take care of yourself before helping out your kids? Just like that. You’re no good to your kids if you’re passed out and they can’t wake you.

Don’t be afraid to use whatever tools you have at hand. When the quads started ripping their diapers off — something all kids learn to do — we turned to that most trusted fastener: duck tape. For the ones who were just fooling around, we just reinforced the diaper tabs with a couple strips of tape. For our more determined messers, we wrapped the roll right around their waistbands. Then we put them in a sleeper and fastened the zipper with a safety pin.

Whatever works.

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

I could go on about “defenestrate” all day, but it’s not a word that comes up often in daily use. I like “brilliant” for its many meanings, and I probably say “cool” far too often.

For cursing, I usually stick with the classic “fuck.” Sometimes it’s “fucking hell” or “holy fuck” for emphasis. Shane Hensley once told me I use “fuck” like it’s a comma.

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

I mostly stick with beer — I am from Wisconsin, after all — and I love trying new microbrews. My fallback is always Guinness. When I stray from beer, I enjoy tequila and scotch in many varieties.

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

Try John Layman’s Chew from Image Comics. It’s about an investigator for the FDA in a world in which the bird flu has made eating any fowl illegal, and he had to root out illegal chicken operations. To top it off, he has this odd psychic power that gives him visions of the history of anything he eats. It gets weirder and more wonderful from there.

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

Handling a large family has given me a strong command of supply and logistics. If we can hook a shotgunning robot up to an Xbox controller, too, I’d be happy to apply my hard-earned hours of video game skills to the slaughter.

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

Something laced with a drug that induces a deathlike paralysis. Assuming they obey my last wishes and bury me without embalming, I’ll crawl from the grave days later to exact my revenge on the bastards who framed me.

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

I just launched a Kickstarter drive for a mad scheme I call 12 for ’12, in which I plan to write a 50,000-word novel every month in 2012. The first trilogy of these is set in the same world as the Brave New World RPG I wrote back in 1999, featuring a dystopian world filled with superheroes who have been outlawed due to the collateral damage their powers create. It’s a blast, and we’ve already hit our first goal, so I get to start writing in January. There’s still time for other folks to jump in on the fun though.

In addition to that, my next original novel from Angry Robot comes out in March. It’s called Carpathia, after the ship that picked up the survivors of the Titanic. Carpathia also happens to be the name of the mountains in which Castle Dracula sits, and this is not — in my novel, at least — any sort of coincidence.

I’m also writing the Magic: The Gathering comic book for IDW, based on the bestselling collectible card game from Wizards of the Coast. I’m a game designer too, so this is a dream project for me, and I’m having a tremendous amount of fun with it. The first issue ships in December, which is coming up fast.

Add in a few other novels and world-building and game-design gigs, and 2012 may be my busiest year yet.

Okay, you opened the can of worms, now: 12 novels in 12 months? First question is, do you have a brain parasite? Second question is, where can I get that parasite for myself? Third and final question: what’s the motive behind this kamikaze attack on your own bibliography?

I don’t think so (although perhaps my kids qualify). If I do, I’ll have to figure out a way to weaponize it. But not the kids. They’re already dangerous enough.

As for why, I have a number of reasons. First, I like the idea of the challenge. It’s bound to keep me focused on task, much in the same way as a revolver to my temple.

Second, I’ve been wanting to get back to publishing for a while. I co-founded a game publisher called Pinnacle Entertainment Group in the ’90s, and we had a string of hits, including Deadlands (a horror western RPG). I have all these publishing skills I’ve left unused for years, and it feels good to stretch them again. I plan to publish each of the 12 for ’12 novels as an ebook, although my Kickstarter backers have the option of grabbing the books early and even getting them in exclusive paperback and hardcover editions.

I want to pause and say how much I love my current publisher, Angry Robot. Marco and Lee have set up something wonderful there, and I truly enjoy working with them. When I have the right projects for them, they are the first people I turn to. As you’ve mentioned several times yourself, you don’t have to stand up and jam a flag in one camp or the other. It’s not a war. It’s an evolution.

Third, I didn’t want to just dip my toe into the ebook self-publishing waters. Just tossing up a single novel and hoping it sells seems like a recipe for failure. If people love your book, what else do you have to sell them? Some of the most successful ebook self-publishers are authors who bring a stable of out-of-print books back out.

Since most of my novels have been work-for-hire tie-ins, I don’t have a backlist like that to call on, but I didn’t want to wait the years it might take to build up a viable inventory of titles for people to enjoy. Writing 12 novels in a year gives me that wider selection in as close to instant as I can manage.

Will you put aside other work for all twelve novels?

I’m sure that I will, although I can’t say what it might be. As a freelancer, I often only book my time a few months out, and I have no idea what opportunities might come my way while I’m in the middle of the 12 for ’12 project. Honestly, it was one of the worries that gave me the most pause, but I’ll solve that problem if and when it comes up.

At the moment, I’m planning to write the Magic: The Gathering comic and help out on a massive world-building gig next year. We’ll have to see what else might come my way.

Care to give us a hint as to what the other novels will be? Will they all be Kickstarted?

At the moment, I’m planning to Kickstarter them all, but it depends on how this first drive goes. The second trilogy is set in a fantasy noir world I call Shotguns & Sorcery. I’ve already written two stories set in it, the first of which came out in Carnage & Consequences, an anthology the Gen Con Writers Symposium put together for last summer. The second story (which I wrote first) is slated for The New Hero 2, a Robin Laws-edited anthology due out in 2012.

I have many ideas for the third trilogy, but I’m going to wait a bit before I nail down what it will be. One of those ideas might become the fourth trilogy instead, but I’m also considering writing a three-pack of singletons for that, including perhaps some sequels to my earlier work.

That also begs the question: any advice for anybody looking to crowdfund on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo?

Pay attention to what other people are doing and how they go about it. Have a video that connects you personally with your audience. Concoct a reward ladder that people can understand easily. And have a plan for stretch goals if you manage to beat your initial goal right away.

Carpathia is, for the record, bonkers in the best way. I’m going to ask that most sinful of questions but I am compelled as if by vampiric hypnosis: where’d the idea come from?

Carpathia is the name of the ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic. It’s also the name of the Transylvanian mountain range in which Castle Dracula sits. Once you make that connection, it’s not a long leap to mixing vampires and the greatest maritime disaster in history.

The novel winds up being much bigger than that simple description of course, but that’s why you sit down and write the book. If a high concept like “30 Days of Night meets Titanic” was only worth a chuckle, I’d stop there.

Did writing games help inform how you write your fiction? Or are they entirely separate disciplines?

They are separate but related disciplines, like half-brothers who live in the same house over summers and holidays. Games — especially roleplaying games — require you to create settings and characters rife with possibilities for all sorts of action and intrigue. You need to come up with every sort of element to allow and even encourage the players to concoct brilliant stories of their own, but when you’re done showing how to set up the dominoes, you walk away.

With fiction, you get to make your own set of dominoes, line them all up, and then tip them into motion and hope they all fall the way you think they will. Instead of coming up with a world of possible stories, though, you have to winnow all of those away until you come up with the one best story that resonates with you in the strongest way. It’s a whole different kind of challenge, but just as rewarding, maybe more so.

Finally: what’s the toughest thing about writing for the comic book page?

Writing a comic is the most technically challenging kind of writing around because you have to consider the page and format as a rigid framework. For most monthly comics, you have a set 22 pages in which to tell your story, which leaves you with zero wiggle room. In stories, novels, games — even film and TV — you can fudge things around a bit, but comics don’t have the same give.

On top of that, you have to think not only visually but in terms of two-page spreads. You build tension starting at the top left of the spread and work your way up to a climax in the bottom right. Then the reader turns the page for the reveal, and you start it all over again. Compressing everything you want to say and show into those pages can be a real challenge, but watching it all come to life in the hands of a talented art team is a true thrill.

15 comments

  • Love this interview. I saw the 12 for 12 kickstarter project and now I am even more interested in it. I do hate reading your blog though because it usually ends up adding my to my to be read list. Carpathia and Chew… when will I find the time?

    “write everything, and feed the family doing it.” This has become my philosophy as I jump into the freelancing life this year. Can I steal it as my official motto?

  • Being a huge fan of Matt’s work since the Deadlands days I am very glad to see him getting some of the appreciation he deserves. Actually huge fan is not exactly correct. He’s in my top two favourite authors alongside Steven Brust. Yes I know I have odd taste.

  • Thanks again for the interview, Chuck. Challenging questions led to strong answers.

    @Bill: Having too many good things to read is an excellent problem to have. I share that one myself.

    @Ron (& anyone else): You can find the Kickstarter project here: http://forbeck.com/12for12 Thanks for asking!

    @Tony: Thanks, Tony! As always, you’re too kind.

  • Clearly this means you need to create a Super Hero for Brave New World called The Defenestrator! His mutant power is of course throwing people out of Windows. His arch nemesis The Bifracator is slightly more deadly.

  • Duck tape? Seriously, boys? I imagine a tape that “quacks” liberally when removed by sticky little fingers.

    “Duct” – :)

    Otherwise, great as always, both of you.

  • wow, 12 novels. Highly prolific. I know how hard this is, so I have much respect for such an endeavor, and the glorious fool who would embark upon it. Makes my back hurt just thinking about it.

    good interview, thanks guys.

  • 12 books in a year! Meepers! That’s a lot!
    I assume you will have a coffee IV dripping straight into your central line? I assume you’re already used to that since you have 5 kids.
    I’m so excited about seeing your books. I wish you every success!

  • @Ted: I like that notion!

    @TS: A common misconception, which I’ve been guilty of too. Both actually work, but duck is the original. See http://www.octanecreative.com/ducttape/duckvsduct.html for the details.

    @Karen: Color me jealous. I’ll admit, I don’t recall my eldest son doing that much either, but it was much easier to keep an eye on just him.

    @Samuel: Thanks for the support! I just saw my chiropractor today.

    @Ellie: Thank you for the support too! I have my Bialetti pot burnished in and ready to roll.

  • As encouragement, Robert J. Randisi has written on average over the last 25 years 20 books a year under his name, various pseudonyms and ghost work, 27 in 1987 and goes through a handful of keyboards a year.

    I would love to do just what you’re doing. Again, good luck!

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds