Author interview time!
This month, I’d like to introduce you to a short story author, William Spencer. William and I are members of a writing site, and he always has good advice to share. He lives in San Diego, is married with two children and two grandchildren. For ten years he ran his own communications consulting business, and before that he was the national creative director for KPMG’s employee benefit consulting practice. And, he loves classical music.
Hey William. Thanks for stopping by for a quick chat. I’m looking forward to hearing your ideas on writing.
The three stories mentioned in your bio, one is sci-fi, one is experimental, and one is a contemporary social-issue story. What’s going on with you and genres?
My starting point isn’t genre. I don’t think about genre—I don’t know, maybe I should. I get an idea for a story, or just for something I want to write, and whatever genre it happens to be in, that’s how it comes out. But for me, the story is everything. This might be because, for me, writing is a hobby so I don’t feel any constraints, and partly because of my personality. Another factor is probably my background in commercial copywriting, writing for magazines and newspapers, science writing, writing whatever the client wants.
Confidence is probably part of it. I’ve faced the keyboard so often wondering if I’d be able to make sense of the interview, the new product, the latest assignment… and after this happens a bunch of times you realize yes, there’s always a way, and so you become confident that whatever it is, yes, there’s always a way. So at this point, nothing really feels foreign to me.
Interesting way to look at things. I can put that to use. Your contemporary social-issue story, “In the System,” how did you come to write it?
It started with my annoyance at California’s “three strikes” law of a few years ago. The law: with conviction on the third felony, the mandatory sentence is 25 years to life, period, that’s it. It’s such an arbitrary, knee-jerk and mindless reaction to very complicated situations involving human lives. So I carried that little annoyance around with me for a number of years, until the central character, Angel, occurred to me, together with the situation he might get himself into.
Then as I worked on it, some things from my own life came to mind so I stuck them in where they seemed to fit. For example, I used to play golf with an attorney who worked out and surfed and once mentioned that he thought the human body was a temple, one of those off-hand remarks that someone like me remembers. So when I needed a public defender, I used that.
And somewhere I came across the online name “rubytips.” It probably referred to nail polish or something innocuous. So when I got to that part of Angel’s life and needed her, Rubytips came to mind and I put my own spin on the name. One very unfair thing I did was invent an assistant District Attorney who was a little bit bent because that’s what the story needed.
I’ve never met or known of any assistant District Attorney who either looked like my character or behaved that way, so any aspersions the story casts on the criminal justice system are unwarranted collateral damage, and I apologize for any hurt feelings, except the kind of thing I describe probably has happened.
The editor said the main reason they took the story was they liked the characterizations. This surprised me because I never thought very much about the characterizations or thought they were at all unusual when I was writing the story. I just thought okay what’s this guy like, what’s she like, and so on. Who knows what the hell an editor is going to like.
What are you currently working on, and what is it about?
I’ve currently got a story making the rounds, it’s been rejected a bunch of times and is pending at five publications. It’s got all my very best stuff in it, both in the writing and also in terms of the technical aspects. The rejections have been–
Wait a minute, what do you mean by the technical aspects?
For, what I think of as the technical aspects are things that don’t involve putting words on paper, but rather are the decisions about how to proceed with one thing or another. For example, at the beginning, a writer decides whether to write in first person or third or second. This is a technical choice like a plumber decides to use copper tubing or galvanized steel. Let me give you an example from the story I’m talking about.
The first section has what I hope is a bunch of interesting things going on, but mainly it is a foreshadowing of the scene that’s coming that is the flashback, the core of the story. So I got the first part written, and I then faced the problem of how to begin the flashback scene. I thought about it, and the old writing axiom occurred to me, the one that says always start a scene as far into it as possible.
I knew what was going to happen in the scene, so I went through it in my mind thinking about where would be a good place to start it. I got to the very end of the scene in my mind, and I thought, that’s it! So I started the flashback at the very end when the main character leaves the room and the hotel room door closes behind her. For me, the inside joke is that you can’t start a scene any further in than when the scene ends.
Could we read that part?
Sure. Here’s how the flashback scene begins:
Tuesday of last week she’d come out of the hotel room, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Beach, the heavy door swinging behind her, the lock clicking into place with a steel-embedded-in-oak finality. It was like the last sound that echoes through a theatre at the end of a good noir picture. The audience is hushed, then the sound of that clicking lock breaks the tension and everyone can let out the breath they didn’t know they’d been holding.
I did it that way because she’s an actress and she dramatizes things, but I think I got lucky with it. I think the imagery is vivid enough so that the reader doesn’t have a chance to consider that she’s being invited into a scene that is beginning at the point where the scene ends.
Thanks for that. You’ve had stories rejected, does that influence you at all?
Yes, some of the rejections have been interesting. Several editors have said the story is not right for them, but do send other submissions. With one of these editors, I sent them another piece and they accepted it right away. So that story maybe paved the way to some extent.
The story I’m talking about is called “An Actor Prepares,” which is the same title as Konstantin Stanislavski’s famous book. It takes place over a period of about an hour or so, with one flashback, and the central character is an actress who is having a seriously bad day. I put an epigraph at the beginning: “Stanislavski had his ideas. Here’s another.”
An epigraph is something I do when I think I have a good one. I think it’s fun, and in the case of this story, I wanted to acknowledge upfront I was swiping the title. If the epigraph works, I think it helps set up the story for the reader and helps justify it for the editor. I think Roy Miller at Furtive Dalliance probably took “What I Done” because of the epigraph, which is almost as long as the story: “Scientists and other brilliant and serious adults assume that if we ever get visitors from another planet they’ll be like them: brilliant and serious adults. But what if they turn out to be dorky guys just goofing around?”
Do you let a story stew – leave it for a month and then come back to it to edit, or do you start the edits as soon as you type The End?
I’ll revise a story and revise it until I have it as good as I can make it, then I’ll sit on it for awhile, sometimes for quite a while. Fairly often I’ll have a story I think is finished, but I’ll get little twinges about this or that, usually, stuff that needs to be fixed, then I’ll get into it and sometimes do a substantial re-write of sections, more than a revision.
I don’t work from an outline, but usually, I do have in my head a good idea of where I’m going. When I don’t know the ending, that means that particular story is probably going to be substantially revised. I have written an unpublishable novel and wrote it the same way—what Brandon Sanderson calls “discovery” writing, but all the way through it I had a good idea where I was going and what the ending would be.
So “discovery” for me seems to be the stuff that simply pops up in your mind as you’re going along, and the form and structure I know ahead of time, though usually I don’t have much in the way of notes or outlines. When I had copywriting assignments when I worked for a living, I found that often writing end first was a good idea. When you do that, you know exactly where you’re headed. Then when you get there, you can always change or tune the ending.
How are you publishing your writing and why?
I’m sending stories out to literary publications, both print and online, using Duotrope. According to them, there are over 8,000 publications to choose from, and it seems to me they have a pretty good system for keeping track of what you’ve sent where, and so on, though I know there are other systems some people favor.
I’m doing it because it’s kind of fun to do, and the stories go somewhere, not just sit on my hard drive. I’ve thought at some point in the future I might bring them together into a collection, and at that point, the prior publishing might lend credence to that, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. The other thing that happens is, when you’re writing for an editor, it seems to impose an additional layer of responsibility on me to try to make a story something someone might want to read.
Do you proofread/edit all your own stories before you submit them, or do you have someone who does it?
I’ve worked for newspapers and magazines and so on, so I feel confident about doing my own proofing and editing. I have run manuscripts through autocrit.com, and I think services such as that are invaluable in helping a writer get a handle on his bad habits and various proclivities and tendencies that are unconscious to the writer but apparent to the reader.
Lately, I’ve taken to sending stories to my older sister, who is a retired English teacher, but lots of times I ignore her advice. She always wants everything exactly the way it’s supposed to be, with semicolons instead of commas. When was the last time you read a short story that had twenty semicolons in it?
How funny? Your sister can’t help herself. She taught that for too many years to just throw it all away now. For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or traditional paper/hardback books?
I’ve been using a Kindle for about seven or eight years, and just bought my second one, an Oasis. For me, the most attractive thing about these devices is the ability to read a sample of a book you might be interested in. It’s also helpful in being able to read the opening pages of as many books as you want in some genre you’re interested in. This seems to me to be a significant way to get an understanding of a large swath of books in any given market for someone interested in writing for that market.
I’ve also transferred some of my own stories onto my Kindle, and found that when I read them on the Kindle, they had a different look and feel to them—it was more like reading the story for the first time. It’s probably a good way to proofread.
What a great idea! Do you have any advice for other authors on how to market their books?
If anyone is interested in sending out stories to various publications, I think it’s helpful to have several stories finished and ready to go, not just one. This way if an editor rejects a story but liked it enough to send you a note about it, right away you can send that editor another piece.
Also on Duotrope, some publications are marked “Fledgling,” meaning they are relatively new start-ups. My impression is these pubs are generally more welcoming than some of the old-line magazines. I’m not interested in marketing, so I don’t do any. Since I don’t have any social media accounts, I’m not there, either (you can find me IRL).
I’d like to close out the interview with a couple of personal questions. What is your favorite quote?
There are so many good ones, it’s hard to choose. There have been so many wise people in the world who have said so many insightful things. But I guess if I had to choose one, it would be something I read a long time ago that Picasso is supposed to have said:
“Reality must be torn apart in every sense of the word. What people forget is that everything is unique.”
For me, I found this applied when I went out of the country, to a non-Western city, Saigon or Hong Kong or Bangkok. There’s nothing ordinary about them that first day. Then if you stay out of the U.S. for a few months, when you come back you see again how everything really is unique, before the newness fades and it gradually becomes ordinary and hum-drum again.
How about your favorite movies?
Again, there are so many great ones. But I have DVDs of “Red” and “Blue” by Krzysztof Kieślowski (had to go to Google to find that spelling—these questions are like a test!) and every year or so I take out one or the other, watch it and have a good cry. Well, not actual tears, but that’s the feeling.
Can I be excused from class now?
Yes, you may. 😉 Thanks so much for letting us take a peek into your world. I really enjoyed having you.
William L. Spencer has published fiction and non-fiction in the San Diego Reader and West Coast Review (Simon Fraser University). His short story “In the System” was published online by Uprising Review in 2017 (pen name Carlos Dunning). The short “What I Done” is in the Spring 2018 issue of Furtive Dalliance Literary Review available on Amazon, and a piece of experimental fiction, “The Bastard Died On Me,” is online at SoftCartel.com. Spencer is a winner of First Place for Fiction (twice) and First Place for Non-Fiction from the San Diego Writers and Editors Guild, and First Place in the Ursus Press short story contest. He edited “Across This Silent Canvas” by Hubbard Miller. He is retired and lives in San Diego.
Click on the images for links to his work: