Douglas Wynne: The Terribleminds Interview
A little while back a gent named wrote me and asked me to read his novel for purposes of potential blurbage. I was very clear with him as I am with those who ask that question that I am bogged down in the mud of my own my work and it’s not likely I’ll get around to it but send it anyway, blah blah blah. He sent me a copy. I read the first page. Then, next thing I knew, I was 30 pages deep. That book was The Devil of Echo Lake, and that gent was Douglas Wynne. Here he is. Find him at his site here, or on the Twitters @Doug_Wynne.
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.
I’ll give you a sequel to the story Margaret Atwood answered this question with when you interviewed her recently, but I’m picking it up a few hundred million years later…
Once upon a time there were tribes of monkeys who hurled their own excrement at each other to declare territory. Sometimes, when the shit slinging failed to make the point, they would even stain the ground with each other’s blood to mark territory. After many millennia of this sort of thing, one of these tribes acquired the magic of language—probably by eating strange mushrooms that blasted open new parts of their brains—and they started using words, symbols, and excretions of ink to declare their territory. We’ll call this tribe, The Pen Monkeys.
Then, one day, under great pressure, the Pen Monkeys did something truly amazing; they used their pens to scratch out equations that enabled them to build a rocket ship. Within this gleaming phallic shaft, they at last escaped the gravity of their bloody little planet and ventured out beyond the finite resources they had always squabbled over. These brave, bold monkeys soared to the moon, a luminous orb that their ancestors had mistaken for a god. And upon landing, they planted a flag to declare it their territory.
Why do you tell stories?
I probably have a narcissistic drive to defy death and leave a mark declaring my psychic territory.
I tell stories because I love chasing an idea down the rabbit hole and seeing where it goes, and I also just seem to be built to play with words, to try and sculpt ideas with them. I suck at math, but words and me get along well. Most days.
Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:
Don’t wait and don’t stop. Okay, that’s two. It’s two-for-one day.
Don’t wait for the perfect idea, don’t wait until you’re sure of how to tell it, don’t wait until you know how it ends, don’t wait until you’re a better writer to start telling the story you want to tell.
Work will inspire ideas. Work will find a way forward, and work will make you a better storyteller and a better writer. Waiting won’t.
And then, when no one wants what you’re selling, remember that you are the only one who can stop you. Keep working on something new while you keep polishing and pitching something you believe in. Don’t stop, and don’t wait.
What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?
Probably the idea, so popular today, that you should leave out or cut everything that isn’t totally essential to the fast forward motion of your plot. Great stories, even very short ones, are enriched by some of the same details and sidetracks as real life. The advice is insidious because on one level, it’s pretty solid, but taken too far, it’s harmful.
What goes into writing a great character? Bonus round: give an example.
A good character has to care about something, but a great character should care about more than one thing. That’s where conflict comes from. I don’t much care for the bi-polar conflict of what the protagonist wants vs. what the antagonist wants. I like characters—even minor ones—who have a variety of concerns, who need to make hard choices and figure out their values because they can’t have everything and something significant is at stake. That’s what life is like.
A recently read example for me is the narrator from Stephen King’s 11/22/63. He spends 700 pages fucking around in the 1950’s and trying to help (but often hurting) all kinds of people he meets along the way toward possibly preventing the Kennedy assassination. He falls in love with the era, and he falls in love with a woman, but none of it felt tangential to me. It felt compelling because he’s a guy who cares about things big and small.
He’s also made interesting by a character detail that contradicts all of that evident caring, and it’s dropped in the first sentence of the book: he doesn’t cry.
Where does The Devil of Echo Lake come from? Why that book?
After playing in bands and then working as a recording engineer, I knew I had things I wanted to say about music and the music business. I wanted to explore the tensions and temptations that musicians often deal with: egotism vs. empathy, art vs. industry, and even the fine line that a creative person might straddle between paranoia and the truly paranormal. It helped me to sort out some of my own unresolved issues in an entertaining way.
The book feels, for lack of a better term, very authentic — you were a musician, yes? Got any good rock-and-roll stories?
Yeah, they’re all in the book. Seriously, I threw every rock and roll anecdote I’ve ever heard or lived through at the wall in writing Echo Lake. Then I cut a lot of it out to focus the story, but there’s still a fair amount of dark rock humor in there.
After my band broke up, I decided to infiltrate the music biz by going undercover as an assistant engineer at a big studio, hoping to meet A&R guys and producers and give them my song demos. It didn’t work out, but I got a great book out of the experience. There were some Spinal Tap moments. My first day on the job, I got to watch a fresh faced British rock band light up with glee when they arrived at the studio and were handed a wad of cash by their producer. Their unanimous reaction was, “Greenbacks! Right, let’s go buy a motor bike and a gun!”
Describe the road that Devil of Echo Lake took in terms of getting published.
I thought the book might be ready for a publisher after the fourth draft (WRONG), so I spent a couple of years sending out query letters to agents, and collecting rejections. It can be weird trying to asses a book’s weaknesses when people are rejecting on the basis of maybe the first five pages, maybe the first fifty. But I do recommend that first time novelists go through the grind rather than rushing to self publish. For me, the process really refined the manuscript, especially the opening section. I kept polishing and trimming it until there were more requests for the full manuscript, and more rejections with detailed notes. That really helped.
Then I started submitting to a few small presses. JournalStone was open for submissions to their 2012 Horror Novel contest, and I liked that they just wanted the full manuscript without any awkward query or synopsis in which I try to demonstrate that my story isn’t a cliche without spoiling the plot twists and secrets that make it unique.
The Devil of Echo Lake tied for first place, and they signed me to a three book deal. Ironically, right before signing with JournalStone I finally had an agent interested, but by then I didn’t really need one.
You seem to want to write across multiple genres — what is the value of that, and what is the danger?
I guess I’ll soon find out.
I’m pretty confident that most of what I want to write will fit comfortably under the horror umbrella. But I don’t want to repeat myself, and I think the value of trying different sub genres is that I won’t get bored. Hopefully, neither will readers, but the danger is probably that if you like what I did last time, you might not get more of the same.
However, as a reader, if I like an author’s voice and vision, then I don’t really care so much about genre, I’ll follow them. China Mieville is a great example of that. He has written steampunk, detective noir, weird western, sci-fi, etc. But it all has his indelible stamp on it because when he plays with a genre, he never does the predictable thing with its tropes.
Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!
I can’t believe I’m going with a TV show, but for my money there is no better story banging around out there right now than Breaking Bad.
And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?
I like “cunt.” I like how the sound of it has a concave quality with a bit of suction and punch that mimics the meaning. And I like that it might be the only curse left in American English with such power that it’s still used very sparingly.
Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)
Guinness! And yes, Wynne is an Irish name.
What skills do you bring to help us win the inevitable war against the robots?
I wish you had asked about the Zombie Apocalypse because I have a few years of training in Samurai sword under my belt. True fact. But if it’s robots, don’t look at me… we’re fucked. Maybe I can convince them that they need humans to produce rock n roll.
What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?
My next book is almost finished. It’s a crime thriller with some historical elements related to WWII and the Japanese American internment camps. It features a really scary serial killer, a family in jeopardy, and much higher body count than my first book.
After that, I want to write something that’s firmly rooted in the dark fantasy end of the spectrum. I have a notebook full of big, intimidating, controversial ideas I need to grapple with for that.