Interview with Gary Cuba
by Jaime A. Geraldi, staff writer
Writing keeps you very busy during retirement, can you give any advice for authors on how to utilize their time better so they can write more?
Actually, I’m less busy than you’d think. The way I see it, retirement is a great excuse to procrastinate over just about everything. After forty years working to deadlines in my previous engineering career, I think I’ve earned the right to put things off! There’s always tomorrow to take care of all that stuff. I like to keep my life uncomplicated.
That said, it has been my experience that a person can be amazingly productive when there are lots of things that need to get done. Sort of like the old shibboleth, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” I used to be a lot more productive back when I was under that kind of pressure. You simply figure out ways to accomplish more via multitasking, rearranging, making snatches of time to do the things you really like to do. Just don’t jeopardize your day job when you do that, is what I would advise. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
The other thing I wanted to say is that unless a writer is trying to crank out three or four novels per year, I think the words “write more” may be slightly off the mark. Sure, you need to write a lot at the beginning (and study a lot) to learn the craft. I certainly did that in my first year of writing. Proficiency in any endeavor requires oodles of practice–some say 10,000 hours’ worth of effort to approach mastery. But anymore, I don’t even start writing a story unless I know what the beginning and end will be, who my characters are, the general sequence of scenes and events, and what I want my underlying “message” to be. I’ve wasted way too much time in past by not having that clear enough in my mind. At this point, for me, the fun comes in doing the middle parts–people getting from point A to point B.
Do you have any helpful hints or tips on how to spark inspiration when our thoughts and ideas come to a screeching halt?
Listen to other people talking about things they’ve been thinking about, or stuff that’s happened to them. Seriously. There are thousands of great “true stories” out there that are stranger than fiction. You only have to grab them and “dramatize” them in some way.
Honestly, though, I’ve not got a creative bone in my body. (Well, maybe a teensy, tiny one down in my right foot, nestled amidst the other hundred bones down there.) The great majority of my story ideas are sparked by my wife. She comes up with some truly unusual stuff. Her view of the world is totally unlike anyone else’s I’ve ever met. It works well for us. (But she’ll never, ever allow me to use her name in a byline!)
I understand you are not a blogger, why do you think it has become so popular nowadays, and what makes a well-maintained website more beneficial? Is there even much of a difference?
I dunno. I see way too many blogs that are, well, nothing but blah, blah, blah. Who cares? I had (and continue to have) my own website (http://thefoggiestnotion.com), one which I created well before this “blogging/social networking” stuff became widespread. I only update its front page when I sell a story. The other 108 pages are non-fiction things that I pumped out before I took up fiction writing (ie, prior to 2006). It was fun to compose, but to upgrade to a regular blog format now? As the “complete hobbyist” writer, I simply don’t feel the need to do that at this juncture.
That said, if you are well-known enough to have fans, or have published novels (either traditionally or via the self-pub route), I think it’s “expected” and likely important for you to have a good public presence. No one else is going to do a whole lot to promote your writing, after all. I know that all publishers appreciate you doing that, also.
Thing is, I have little of interest to talk about publicly anymore. My wife does keep pestering me to get my “my-space-in-your-face” book page up to speed and presentable. I’ve resisted to this point, but I guess someday I’ll have to do something there, if only to make her happy. I generally tend to think people are putting the cart before the horse in spending so much time on these things. Sure, if you’re really serious about establishing a future writing career, go ahead and reserve your web domain name. It’s cheap and it can’t hurt. You may even need to use it someday.
Do you have a favorite food or beverage that can jump start your creativity when writing?
Like I said above, the “creativity” part comes before I write. But when writing? Beer and cigarettes, in copious quantities. Once you know what you want to say, the writing part is easy. Especially if you have your personal “style” down pat (or, I should say “styles,” since I have 2 or 3 different ones I make use of). I can put out a whole lot of words in just a couple of hours, so long as I know where I’m going. If I did that every day . . . gee whiz, that would equate to six novels or more a year! Sad to say, I’m not into novels. Nor am I that prolific, generally.
With all of the advanced technology available to us today, do you jot down your notes or thoughts with good old-fashioned pen and paper, or do you peck away at the keyboard before you forget?
I maintain a story idea file on my PC. I even half-assedly update it once in a while. My hands are a bit too shaky and arthritic these days to produce legible longhand.
Is the competition tough out there, or do you think there’s room for everyone to give writing a shot?
Short answer? Sure it’s competitive, and sure you should give it a shot. If you fail, what penalty do you pay? None. It’s not like an editor is going to send his mob friend Vinny over to your house to break your thumbs for having the audacity to send him a mangy dog. He’ll forget your name five minutes after he’s read your story (unless you send more dogs to him every damned week). And it’s not like you’ve exposed yourself naked in public. I’m a true believer that any decently written story that is creative and original can sell. It might take a lot of time and persistence in finding that one good market fit, that one editor out there who’s on your same wavelength. But it will sell. I think many people worry overmuch about writing technique and artifice, rather than the story itself. Just be yourself; that will make it honest.
Longer answer, and forgive me for “waxing sublime” here. I think it’s important to bring this discussion into a sharper perspective:
Once you begin to sell stuff, you begin to see the same names reappearing in your buying markets’ Tables of Contents. You begin to get the feeling that the “feeding population” out there may not actually be as big as you think. Just a few hundred “regulars.” (Much less so in the pro markets.)
I like to look at this as the “90% scenario.” I can’t recall if I’d seen this somewhere else before, so I’ll claim it as my own for now. It may encourage some, and discourage others. Consider this as reflective of short genre fiction writing only.
The numbers and percentages I use here are more or less arbitrary. But I don’t think they are hugely out of line. My own experience base is short fiction writing, mostly genre, some mainstream. I’m also coming from this after having been a lowly slush reader at a couple of pro genre markets.
The current world population is close to 7 billion people. Let’s say that a billion of them have “given some thought” to writing –> 1,000,000,000
90% of them will never lift pen to paper (or fingers to keys) –> 100,000,000 will.
90% of those folks will never finish anything they start to write –> 10,000,000 will.
90% of them will never overcome their fear of sending a completed work of writing to an editor to be considered for publication, at any market –> 1,000,000 will.
90% of them will quit after receiving their first rejection –> 100,000 will keep trying.
90% of them will never produce a work good enough to be accepted for publication at a paying market –> 10,000 will.
90% of them will never sell anything at a “pro-level” market –> 1,000 will.
90% of them will never reach “Grand Master” status –> 100 will.
So what is to be gleaned from this? I know lots of writers, many of them “neo-pro” by virtue of having sold at least one story to a pro market. The vast majority of them, in private, still suffer from “impostor syndrome”–thinking that their sale was a fluke, and they’ll never be able to repeat it, and they are pretending to be somebody they’re really not. And why wouldn’t they adopt this attitude? Self-doubt can be found all the way up and down the line. Fact is, non-writers simply don’t understand just how many moments of rejection we suffer through. It can really wear a person down. For me, it’s about 700 of them over seven years of submitting–but then, there are those near-70 short fiction sales at paying markets. And once in a while, a pro sale. Plus, my acceptance ratio has improved every year I’ve been at it. That’s what keeps me going.
Metaphorically, writing is like scaling a mountain. As you conquer each one of those “90%” plateaus listed above, you get a wonderful vista. It can take your breath away. But it’s fleeting, because you have to traverse the next step. It’s painful, it hurts, and you may want to give up. But the peak looms above you. The only thing that keeps you going is knowing what you’ve already achieved, how far you’ve already come. It’s something to rejoice in! You are in rarer and rarer company as you ascend each step. For me, that’s all it’s ever been about: The Challenge.
The Anniversary Gift and Fixing Falls are just a couple of your most recent published stories. Can you tell us a little about them, and what else can we expect from you in the future?
[Jaime, these stories have been sold (to Stupefying Stories and Andromeda Spaceways), but not yet been published. You may wish to adjust your wording to reflect that: “…recent story sales.”]
Sure, because I think it will make a good point about using your personal life experiences to spark stories–and also why you should never “self-reject” your own writing.
“The Anniversary Gift” spun off from my dismal experience with getting a new cook-top installed in our kitchen a while back. The whole fiasco was a comedy of errors–mostly on my part. I pushed the story into an over-the-top place, with a loving “handyman” husband surprising his wife with a nuclear-powered home cooktop that he’d ordered from North Korea. The installation goes from bad to worse, but it all ends happily. A pretty goofy caper, all in all.
I wrote “Fixing Falls” very early in my writing career, back in 2006. It explored the spiraling pit that people can fall into after love is lost. In writing that one, I dredged up the debilitating internal emotions I felt way back in 1972, when my first marriage ended in divorce. I sent “Fixing Falls” out a few times early on, but came to feel that it was too old-fashioned, boring and dopey. In other words, I “self-rejected” it, and chalked it off to “writing practice.” Big mistake. For reasons that I won’t explain, I decided to re-circulate it recently, and it sold to Andromeda Spaceways (where I’d sold three stories previously). This was seven years after I wrote it! And that wasn’t the only 2006 original story I’ve sold this year. One went through 23 submissions before it found a (very tasty) home.
Keep faith in yourself and your writing, is what I’m trying to say.
What’s next? The future? My most recent sale was to Daily SF (“Pavlov’s Final Research”), which will appear there at some point in the future. That was after 34 consecutive rejects from them. Guess I finally wore ‘em down. That’s what it takes sometimes. And then? Well, I always try to keep at least twenty stories circulating at any given time. I try to be patient. They come home, I coddle them and commiserate and coo at them, then send them back out to seek their ultimate destiny. It’s what writers do, after all.
Jaime, thanks very much for letting me flap my gums for a while. It was a real pleasure for me.