- How we make time for the things we want to pursue.
- The type of experiences we are hoping to create for our readers.
- How listening to people talk helps us write great dialogue.
I sincerely believe you make time for the things you want to do.
Welcome to the seventh episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I chat with writer Eric Lahti about his writing process, finding more time for the craft and why he writes.
Arthur: On your blog, you mention you started writing five years ago. What made you start writing? And what has been the most rewarding experience you’ve taken from your writing experience?
Eric: In late 2013, I was watching TV and playing Saints Row for the umpteenth time. Something clicked and I wondered if there wasn’t more out there than just watching things happen. I’d had the idea for Henchmen pinging around in my head for a while at that point (although it was quite a lot different from what that book eventually became) so I cracked open Word and started writing. About six pages in, my wife asked me what I was doing. That was a sheer panic moment – not as bad as handing her those pages to read, I hid in my office while she was reading them. Finishing that book was rewarding in and of itself. Writing a book is a big task. Making it not suck is an even bigger one. But the true reward is when someone you’ve never met says, “Hey, I enjoyed that. Thank you.” Even if it’s only a few people that have read it, knowing someone enjoyed it is a great feeling.
Arthur: It sounds like, between Henchmen, Transmute and Greetings from Sunny Aluna, your books take somewhere from a few months to six months to write. You’re a programmer, right? Writing is not your full-time job? How do you find time every day to write and get those books out?
As for time, I sincerely believe you make time for the things you want to do. I’m usually up at about 5am, checking Twitter and doing stuff like that, then work all day. During the week I’m up til about 11 or 12, getting in writing and social media and the all-important gaming (I’m playing Tomb Raider from 2013 right now) or doing after-hours contract programming. My writing time has suffered a bit with my new work schedule – which is why my blog isn’t getting updated all that frequently anymore, but I always make sure I write at least something before I go to bed. Most of the time it’s about 1000 words or so, but sometimes it’s as little as a few lines.
Arthur: So, you get about 5-6 hours of sleep each night? Aren’t you extremely exhausted by the end of a week? Or are you one of the lucky few who can function on that little sleep?
Eric: Yeah, I’m wiped out at the end of the week. I usually try to get a bit of rest when I get home from work, but it doesn’t always materialize. My problem is I start getting motivated late in the evening and wind up writing after everyone’s gone to bed. That means it’s not unusual for me to be up til 11pm or midnight and then back up at 5am throughout the week. I really look forward to napping on weekends.
I like that idea of what’s lying just under the surface. I’m trying to create escapism, where normal things can take on sinister tones and weird stuff is hiding in plain sight.
Arthur: What kind of experience are you trying to create for your readers through your writing?
Eric: I used to love walking behind buildings and seeing what was back there. Strip malls are fun to walk behind because the front is all advertising and flashing lights, but the back is a totally different experience. It’s all dumpsters and silence, the place commerce goes to die, if I were to get poetic. I like that idea of what’s lying just under the surface. The Henchmen series was all about that. You’ve got these folks who’ve gravitated to someone who’s basically a super villain and they’re out for blood. Fate gets in the way and they wind up going in a different direction as the series progresses, but they never really lose that bad-guy edge. I was trying to make them real, though, not just costumed do-badders. I like the idea that someone could read those books and wonder what’s just under the surface of the average person or place. A lot of the places in that book are real, right down the place with razor wire and lethal force signs on it. I stumbled across when I was looking behind the movie theater. I guess I’m trying to create escapism, where normal things can take on sinister tones and weird stuff is hiding in plain sight.
With Greetings, I was writing my love letter to the martial arts movies of the 70s and crime noir books. Time will tell if that marriage worked, but I still think it’s a fun book.
Arthur: What is something new you’re trying to have your readers discover through your stories?
Eric: That’s a damned good question. I wish I had a good answer for it. Usually, I don’t set out with the idea of a theme or a message in mind for the story. That develops as the story progresses and the characters start to take over telling the tale. Henchmen had a strong “rage against the government” feel to it which, honestly, would probably play better now than in 2013. Arise took on religion. Transmute showed that even the bad guys can wind up with worse guys when they find that the end result of Operation Paperclip morphed into this neo-Nazi mess right in the heart of the country. Greetings was largely musings on how drugs and religion can be weaponized.
I’m currently finishing up a new book called Roadside Attractions about a young woman who gets killed in the first few pages and her ghost winds up being an integral part of a long-running conspiracy in Hell even though she’s trapped in a convenience store/museum by the freeway in Arizona. That one seems to be taking on a seriously feminist bent. I’m not sure if any of those are really new things for readers to look at, but I’d love it if someone was driving along I10 or I40 and saw one of those roadside attractions that promises magic and actually found something magical.
Arthur: Does your programming background influence your writing and your stories?
Eric: Sometimes, but not all the time. It’s far too easy to get deep in the weeds with writing programming or computer technology into stories. While it might interest me to wax philosophical about the differences between abstract and static classes, most people will switch their eyes to screensaver and start flipping pages. I try to keep it to a minimum. Henchmen had more of it than anything I’ve done and even those little bits got pulled way back from what they were originally written when my wife told me no one cares about the differences in WiFi specs or how many cores a CPU has.
Sometimes good stuff will sneak in on the first draft, but most of the time it’s in the second pass that things get done.
Arthur: There’s a podcast called A Writer’s Life, narrated by Dan Black. He talks about two kinds of writers: writers who write slow, perhaps by hand, and seek to get near-perfect words on the page the first time. Then, there are writers – like myself – who hammer out the words, trying to make sure their typing keeps up with the racing mind. Which kind of writer are you?
Eric: I just knock that stuff out and fix it when I’m editing. Sometimes good stuff will sneak in on the first draft, but most of the time it’s in the second pass that things get done. I do stop and correct grammar and spelling and try to keep things neat and tidy, though. That probably is my day job sneaking into my writing time. If you write sloppy code, people will call you out on it.
Arthur: Do you do any writing by hand? Or mostly using a computer?
Eric: Almost exclusively computer. I think I’ve jotted down notes on paper a few times, but it’s so easy to lose that stuff. With phones, tablets, and computers being almost everywhere, I find I always have something electronic to jot on.
Arthur: How do you keep track of your ideas? A notebook? Evernote? Google Documents?
Eric: You’re presupposing I do keep track of ideas. I’ve got a text document that I’ll dump ideas into every now and then, but mostly I get an idea and set about turning it into a book. While I’m writing that story, that’s pretty much all I focus on, so I don’t do a whole lot of idea tracking.
When I decide I need to do something, I won’t stop until I get it done.
Arthur: You have a great blog and are active on Twitter, and you write great books. How do you balance it all?
Eric: I’d like to say something motivational like “I work smarter, not harder”, but the simple truth is I’m stubborn. When I decide I need to do something, I won’t stop until I get it done. My blog has suffered this year – partly because I haven’t had much I felt like talking about, but also because I want to use that time for other things. There’s plenty of time during the day, you just have to decide you want to do something and make sure you do it.
Arthur: When you set out to write a book, do you establish who your target market or audience is?
Eric: Unfortunately, no. Which probably explains my meager sales.
Arthur: Why do you write? Do you write the books you want to read? Are you trying to say something with your writing? Or just to entertain?
Eric: It’s probably a combination of all of the above. No matter how hard I try, some little message sneaks into the story. I like to think they’re all entertaining, but it would be nice if someone finished one of my books and scratched away at the surface to find some deeper meaning, but as long as they’re entertained, I feel like I’ve done my job.
You either love writing or you’re going to kill yourself trying.
Arthur: Do you participate in NaNoWriMo and if so, is it beneficial for you?
Eric: I’ve always thought about participating in NaNoWriMo, but that would be a hugely resource-intensive timewise and I’d have to drop a bunch of stuff to make it work. Truth be told, I’m not sure I could knock out 50k words in a month without pulling my hair out.
Arthur: Do you outline? What is this process like?
Eric: Every time I try to do a serious outline, the characters get in the way. I do some minor plotting, basically what a chapter should consist of, but I’ve never managed to do a full outline. The last time I tried I had this great idea about an ending, but as the characters evolved throughout the book the ending just didn’t work.
Arthur: Whether you outline or not, do you plan the story in your books?
Eric: Mostly, but it’s in broad terms. A group of henchmen working to do something bad manage to do it. The God of Dreams escapes and they get pulled back into fixing something they broke. Tearing down the government leaves a power vacuum and being a god isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A man in charge of controlling all the magic on a planet flakes out and someone has to kill him before things get too out of hand. A mysterious new drug gives people religious experiences on a planet where dragons and humans fought two destructive wars. A woman gets killed and her ghost is used a pawn in age-old rebellion in Hell. Stuff like that. The details come out as I write.
All you have to do is listen to people talking and use what you hear.
Arthur: I read Henchmen and the dialogue in the book is fantastic. How did you come to write like this?
Eric: I’ve got an MA in Communication, so I spent a lot of time studying how people communicate with each other. That, coupled with a minor in Theatre, means I spend a lot of time listening to how people talk. Dialogue isn’t really difficult and you can use it to push the plot forward or explain exposition and do all kinds of great stuff that normally requires blocks of text that no one really enjoys reading. All you have to do is listen to people talking and use what you hear.
Arthur: As a writer, or creative person in general, do you ever feel like you’re alone in a field? Or you’re the only one writing and perhaps get discouraged? How do you overcome this feeling and keep pushing forward?
Eric: I don’t know that I’ve ever felt alone in the field, but there are times when I get discouraged. I think everyone gets discouraged, though. Sometimes I look at what I wrote the night before and think, “man, this sucks”. The solution is to get back into it, fix what’s broken, and move on. You either love writing or you’re going to kill yourself trying to force yourself to do something. If you love it, you’ll keep going. Plus, hey, maybe Hollywood will discover you someday.
Next week in Episode #8, w chat with weird fiction writer Paul Huxley and where he finds inspiration for his stories and how he started his own publishing company.