The Breeders occurred in my brain about forty-two seconds after I saw the National Organization for Marriage’s 2008 ad campagn equating gay marriage to “a coming storm.” I immediately found it humorous that anybody could think I (as a homosexual) was a threat to society’s wellbeing. I tend to think that hate and prejudice are much worse than two people simply sharing love together, and so I wondered how it might be for two heterosexuals in a future where they are part of the stigma-stuck minority. From there, it became a game of finding relatable characters and rationalizing the plot. What would the main conflict be? How could I successfully sell the idea of homosexuals figuring out how to reproduce? What would the punishment for natural heterosexual procreation be? About a year and a half later, I had a manuscript ready.
The Breeders deals with some pretty prominent social justice issues. What was your approach to striking a balance between politics and story?
I believe art can always have the potential to move people in new, unforeseen ways. My intent with The Breeders was, first and foremost, to keep people entertained (I don’t like when fiction reads like a chore). I knew early on that I didn’t want it to be a “message” book, and my original idea was to make it a pure comedic satire about a “Stepford-gay,” sexually reversed future. Once I started rationalizing the ins and outs of this world, however, the story turned toward much darker territory, and it demanded I tackle the issues mentioned above. There were some risks, particularly with the idea of demonizing homosexuals. The National Organization for Marriage was already doing that in real life, and if I didn’t strike a balance, I would piss people off in all the wrong ways. I proceeded with caution, but ultimately I decided to side with the story, not with my worries about how people might react. This enabled me to take a neutral stance on all the political aspects and simply use them as tools for plot and character development. The result actually balanced out my vision for the book—that it would exist on its own terms and not be trying to do anybody any favors.
Fiction can be a difficult nut to crack in the market, but Publishers Weekly called your prose “solid” and your story “unforgettable.” What was your strategy for writing the story effectively?
With fiction, it’s important to paint vivid pictures that will make people forget they are reading words. I’m an ex-film and screenwriting student, and I tend to visualize my stories as finished movies, complete with shots, edits, emotional beats, and sound design. (In fact, my first drafts often lack descriptions for the other three senses—touch, taste, and smell.) When I see the story broken down into these elements, it helps me put it all in order.
Some advice: As your visions become words on a page, allow your sentence structures to vary. Use synonyms when a word appears too often or too close to itself. Cut any passages that don’t move the story forward. Also, try to give everything a proper context so that it feels believable. When character actions or plot developments come out of left field without proper setup, readers will know (or at least surmise) that you didn’t think it all the way through. Every little thing in the book should be logical. This doesn’t mean you can’t surprise readers or even piss them off by throwing in a few curveballs—it simply means that all surprises and curveballs should be make sense within the world you’ve created.
You were on the fence with self-publishing. In fact, we know you were getting some notice from agents, but in the end chose to self-publish anyway. Why did you choose to self-publish instead of continuing to try going the traditional route?
For six years, I had been dead set on getting a traditional book deal. I was one of those writers who thought validation from industry professionals was paramount to true life happiness and career satisfaction. It just so happened that by the time I started querying literary agents with The Breeders in 2011, self-publishing was starting to become acceptable–not quite shot in the foot it used to be. I had two full manuscript requests within my first ten agent queries, so I knew the book had something going for it. But my gut was telling me something interesting: This book was a test of the market and your storytelling abilities to begin with. Why not follow that test through by publishing it and seeing what happens? Once I looked at it that way–as an experiment and an opportunity to learn–my interest in querying literary agents dissolved. I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders, because I no longer had to wait to prove myself (or not) as a writer. I knew it was the right decision, so I dove in head-first.
In your July 9, 2012 feature in Publishers Weekly indicated, the “control” authors are granted in self-publishing can be a double-edged sword: You have control, but any mistakes will be glaring. Tell us about your experience with this!
With self-publishing, you either pay for quality control, or you do it yourself (and please, for your own sake, never attempt to do this!). Paying for proper editing isn’t cheap, and even when you do, it’s unrealistic to expect perfection. I had three professional editors work on The Breeders, and after they were finished, I still found errors, passages of lazy writing, and story elements that needed to be changed. I ended up line editing for myself in many spots, which was mind-numbing.
In the end, I read the book as many times as it took for me not to get tripped up over word combinations, sentence structures, and story-related flaws. Once I was able to read it cover to cover without wanting to change anything, I knew it was finished. Even after that, I still had to correct a few typos!
I almost worked myself into the ground while publishing The Breeders, and it wasn’t always pleasant. Still, I strove for only as much perfection as the story allowed, given my publication time frame. I wanted to be a credible author, which meant I had to release a book that was indistinguishable from my favorite traditionally published books (in context of my own writing and storytelling style). I’m sure the book isn’t actually perfect, but it’s my 119% best effort. I’m convinced it wouldn’t be any better were it the product of a traditional publisher. That’s a great feeling!
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