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One on One with Steven L. Sears
Screenwriter, Producer and Author
Interviewed by: Rosa Lambros
In this month's AUSXIP Interview Writers Series we are interviewing Steven L. Sears. Steven is well known to Xena fans as the writer and co-executive producer of Xena Warrior Princess, Sheena, The A Team and so many more. Steven has added author to that list with his first novel VilleAnne. Rosa Lambros interviews Steven about the first novel and his writing process!
1. You have many fans and friends here on AUSXIP, and we know a lot about you and your work, but can you tell us something not commonly known about you?
I had six toes on my right foot when I was born. Oh, wait. That was Gabrielle.
Iím not sure how I would answer that. Iím actually fairly upfront with most things in my life. Almost anything anyone wants to find out about me is pretty much online somewhere. HmmÖ what havenít I spoken about? I injured my back when I was seven, so I pretty much spend every day in pain. But Iím used to it now, itís not really a worry. I have a very low pulse (between 39-42 bpm) and blood pressure low enough that I have to tense my legs when I stand to get the blood back up to my head. Iím double joint in several places and I have dislocated my shoulders; 13 times (left shoulder) and 15 times (right shoulder). And, Iíve been incredibly healthy as far as not getting sick. Iíve only had one cold since high school, I just donít catch things. So far, anyway.
Boy, that was boring.
Well, first we have to define the word ďwritingĒ. What you probably mean to ask is what I do when Iím not typing. I ďwriteĒ all the time; I canít shut it off. I am always looking at the world through my strange prism and creating stories in my head.
And, somehow, I continue to function. But when Iím not typing, and when Iím not doing ďlife maintenanceĒ things (such as housework or yardwork), I do whatever catches my fancy at the moment. I have many many interests. Photography, of course, is a huge favorite of mine. I donít go anywhere without some sort of camera. Traveling. Hiking. Looking through old bookstores. Antique shopping. Reading. And, many times, just surfing the internet looking for things to stimulate my mind. Of course, thereís always Julian, Warrior Puppy, to play with.
Iím still getting used to this form of storytelling, so I canít say much objectively about it yet. I try to write in a style that I enjoy reading, so I know I would like it.
VilleAnne is a coming of age story, basically. The world we created is one where Super Heroes and Super Villians exist. The Heroes are sponsored, like NASCAR. The Villains are villains. And the fights between them take place on the streets where the Normals exist. There is a whole commercial and political structure around all this, as the Normals (us) hate the Supers because of their powers, but we also buy their merchandise and we root for our favorites.
The lead character, Anne, has so much pressure on her life that sheís going through a transition. From school to her parents to even figuring out her own sexuality, Anne is at a cross roads. Her frustration manifests itself in an anger that is barely held in check by an inner voice she refers to as ďUberĒ.
As a result of her anger and frustration, and urged on by Uber, she ends up participating in the battles of the Supers. Sheís a Normal, but her unbridled anger allows her to stand toe to toe with them. And, in the process, she and her friends uncover a huge secret that is the key to the world they live in.
Itís not really an easy story to condense into a simple paragraph.
What can you expect from
it? I hope it will be entertaining, exciting and thought
provoking. This is Book One (aka ďVilleAnne; Anneís FallĒ) of a
planned three book set, so much of it is laying down the threads
of the overall story and mystery. Iíve been told the ending of
Book One is very exciting. I tend to agree but Iím a bit
I wish I could read more. I love to read, but because Iím often working on my own stories, I can only pick up books in a piecemeal fashion. Consequently, I tend to read a lot of non-fiction. Right now, Iím reading ďStrong Men Armed; The United States Marines Against JapanĒ by Robert Leckie, a history of the Marines in World War II (I tend to like historical books).
John Adams by David McCullough was riveting (as most of his books are).
One of my favorite authors is Jeff Shaara. He writes dramatizations of historical events, mostly war related. The American Civil War, the World Wars, and so on. I really enjoy how he humanizes the stories by taking the actual events then creating the interactions between the actual historical figures involved. I was so taken by his books that I researched him and discovered he went to Florida State University as I did. So I decided to write a fan letter to him.
And the usual sci-fi favorites, Heinlein, Asimov, etc. So many.
But, obviously, I have to give a shout out to the two authors I have been privileged to work with. Kevin J. Anderson is an amazingly talented and successful writer. The range of his work is staggering and Iíve a lot to learn from him. Peter J. Wacks, my co-author in VilleAnne, has an incredible career which began as a child actor. He, like myself, discovered his love for storytelling and turned that into a very successful career.
I also have a stack of
books on my to-do list, including a few books written by Xena
fans. I swear Iíll get to them one day!
5. Writing is usually a
lonely job, but you've partnered with Peter J. Wacks to write
VilleAnne. What are the pros and cons of co-authoring a novel?
But Peter is an established pro, so I was able to follow along and ask questions when I needed to. We both worked out the story outline together, then he took the first pass at it, laying the groundwork for the chapters. I took over, layering and editing and embellishing as I did. Then he took itÖ then back to meÖ then to himÖ then to meÖ then we both got on the phone and hashed out the final few details.
Ask anyone who has had any experience writing and they will tell you that finding someone you can write with is no easy thing to do. Most of the time, one writer or the other has to have the dominant voice, or the final word. But on rare occasions, youíll be partnered with someone who you trust implicitly. They write with the same tone and approach that you have, but with enough of a difference to stimulate your own writing.
Fortunately, Peter is like that. So the relationship has been good so far.
6. What do you think makes good writing?
I havenít the faintest idea. Great characters, riveting story told in a dynamic and entertaining fashion. Something that makes the reader think without her knowing that you intended to make her think. Something that can make the real world disappear for a while.
The kind of writing that jazzes me allows me to immerse myself into the world between the pages. I always think I can bookmark when I get to the end of a chapter, but find I just have to read the next pageÖ and canít stop. I canít say whether itís any particular style or format, itís just something I know when I start reading it. I like fantastic world, for the most part, but worlds that make sense, with their own consistent rules.
And a unique voice is good. I want to get a sense of passion from the author.
7. Describe your writing environment. Longhand or laptop? Quiet room or some music in the background? Day or night? Tea or coffee?
All my work is done on a computer. Thereís no way anyone, including myself, could read my handwriting.
As to the environment, in my dream world, itís a nice, clean, pristine office with a coffeemaker off to the side, music playing in the background, and a comfortable chair. With Julian, Warrior Puppy, lying at my feet.
In the real world, when Iím working at home, itís in a cluttered office with scraps and bits of notes all over the desk, a cup of cold coffee on a stained coaster, sitting on a threadbare office chair balancing a keyboard across my knee with the aforemention Warrior Puppy draped across my body, forcing me to reach around him to type.
I have, at last count, six desktop computers and four laptops. Just collected over the years. I donít use them all at the same time, so most of them are just leftovers.
I will also head off to a local coffee shop to work. For some reason, I have to have noise around me when I work. Whether itís music, as I have on when Iím in my office, or the white noise of a busy cafť, it helps me concentrate.
Which writing industry? In the world of Novels, hard to say as Iím just dipping my toe into it. I can see certain problems with it and Iím certainly watching the industry change. With the advent of the internet, everyone has a chance to write. The problem is that not everyone is a writer, but all of them think Iím referring to the others when I say that. As a result, you have a landslide of written material that isnít that good. And unfortunately, it dilutes the truly good material thatís out there.
Also, with all that material, there are online publishers that are just allowing it all to be published, since it costs them little to host and, they figure, if one person buys it, itís cash to them. That allows them to pay authors a pittance, destroying the middle class of writers. Youíre either a hobbyist or a super star.
But itís not the companyís fault entirely. Every time I hear someone say they would give away their novel for free ďjust so it would get publishedĒ I want to remind them that they have just set the value of their creativity at zero.
In the world of screenwriting, there are similar problems. But the biggest one is the status of the writer in Hollywood. Although nothing happens until the writer creates that script, the writer himself is not very well regarded. They are the least compensated in the creative triad (Actor, Director and Writer) and have few rights in regards to production. If their work is great, everyone else claims that they had a part in it. If the final movie is bad, everyone finds the writer the easiest to blame.
The audience hardly even knows the writer exists. Ask anyone on the street to name their top five actors, they will do so without a problem. Ask them to name their top five directors, again, no problem. Ask them to name their top five screenwriters. CricketÖ cricketÖ. cricketÖ. Unless the writer is also a director or actor (or famous novelist), they will be hard pressed to come up with one or two.
Itís a collaboration of efforts from everyone, but if it ainít on the page, it ainít on the stage. I wish more people understood that.
Yes to all. At the moment, the original VilleAnne series is slated for three novels, though Peter and I believe we have enough story for four or five. But the important thing about VilleAnne is that we are creating a world, the alternate world of Supers and Normals, which will manifest itself in books that center around other characters and in other times. We have already had our first short story (written by Mark Ryan) which takes place in the VilleAnne universe and will be included in another anthology series. But we are already planning two initial anthology books made up of short stories, ALL set in the VilleAnne universe. Those anthology books will have stories written not just by established authors, but also people you might not expect to write short stories. Screenwriters, Producers, Actors and Actresses. And, yes, some recognizable names to our fans.
Peter and I designed VilleAnne to be multi-platformed from the beginning. We are currently exploring our graphic novel options with a few publishing companies. We have kept the possibility of webisodes in mind as well as full blown film scripts. Television is a natural for this alternate world and, like my graphic novel STALAG-X (co-created with Kevin J. Anderson), I intend to push it into that world as soon as I can.
Of course, we have to
see what the public thinks of the novel first. Letís not put
the horse behind the cart.
10. How do you connect
with your readers to make them aware of VilleAnne (and the next
books in the series)?
In the film and television world, the studios and networks did all that. I didnít have to worry about it too much. But the amount of travel these authors do, for book signings or conventions, is staggering. I think I used to do three conventions a year when I was working on Xena. For VilleAnne, I did three in one month alone. Other authors do one ever other week for most of the year.
But VilleAnne is being published by Wordfire Press, which has a very high presence in fandom and the convention circuit. Their publicity will be in high gear for the series of books.
And, of course, interviews such as this.
VilleAnne is in an
alternate world, sci-fi fantasy. But itís also in a bit of a
young adult dramatic genre. I donít think most authors choose a
genre. They write what they feel passionate about and others
label the genre for them. In television, I was known as a
strong female action writer. Truth is I was, and always have
been, a character writer. Whether itís in sci-fi, fantasy, or
just the day to day of the real world, Iím a character writer.
This will sound so clichť, but life inspires me. Everything I experience becomes part of the larger question of ďwhat if?Ē Iím just wired to question things and create stories about them. I create scenes in my head when I shop, cook, shower, or do anything. I like to make people feelÖ. something. And to do that, I have to feel things myself. So I create little mini-fantasies that I can play in. I hear the voices and play my roles in little world scenarios that donít exist in the real world.
Iíve often said that
what I do would have had me burned at the stake 500 years ago.
I try not to get too wrapped up in compliments about my work, though. For one thing, they embarrass me. And Iím just not wired to think in those terms for my work. I write what I love and if you enjoy it, youíve already paid me a compliment.
As for harshest criticism, that doesnít really apply to me. Criticism only hurts if itís a truth youíve denied yourself. I take criticism as a classroom, a chance to learn something and improve. There are diplomatic ways of delivering it and not so kind ways, but I try to strip away the attitude to get to the source of the critique. So ďharshĒ is just in the delivery. Whatís important is whether I can learn from it.
And, believe me, NO ONE is a tougher critic on myself than me.
Peter and I have also discussed a specialty cover edition which we are referring to as the ďBlood CoverĒ. Weíre still working that out, but it will be a limited run edition.
15. Anne Oakley is a formidable character, but I find it's easier to describe her by focusing on who she is not rather than by trying to explain who she is. Anne is not one of the heroes, but she's not on the side of the villains either; she's not a Super, she's not a normal Normal, and she's not even a Tool; she is a woman, but some mistake her for a young man, and she plays the part willingly... I could go on forever, but the thing is labels simply don't fit her. Who is Anne? What makes her unique?
Nothing. Thatís the cool thing about her; for the most part, sheís not unique. Anne is an amalgam of many people and traits that Peter and I have seen. Thereís a lot of angst in her life, but most people have frustrations in their life. She has aspirations that are unfulfilled. Again, as most of us do. She questions things in her life and in herself. Havenít we all done that at one time or another? She has parent issues, she has financial issues, she questions her direction in life.
All we did is heighten
those things by balancing them on the tip of a pyramid at the
Oh, and she also knows martial arts. She never intended that to be a weapon, but itís come in handy.
Outline. Definitely outline. Have to know where youíre going, at least in an overall sense. And if youíre working with a partner, absolutely mandatory. You both have to be on the same page, so to speak.
When Peter and I originally started outlining the story, VilleAnne was supposed to be one novel. In fact, a short novel. But the more we played with it and mined it, we realized it was becoming larger than we expected. By outlining it, we could see the flow of the story and where we needed to break it down into the three volumes it has become.
So the first volume
outlined easily. The second volume is, probably, 80% there
right now. Weíll tie up the loose ends on that and tighten it
up. Volume three is about 50% there. But thatís not unusual
because there will be things that will change in the second
volume which will affect the third volumeís structure. So no
point in locking it down just yet.
In VilleAnne, a few characters have emerged from relatively mild intentions. Anneís next door neighbor, Aubrey, is one. The creative intention for her character has expanded and become much larger than we had planned. There are a few more characters that took control of their own destiny as we were writing them, but I canít talk too much about them because they might (or might not) expand much more in the second volume.
Darkest Knight. She is a very organized and fixated Hero, but she has a repressed sensuality which affects every choice she makes, whether she knows it or not. Anyone who cosplayed her would have to have a powerful presence, exuding intelligence and sexuality without playing to it. Not as easy as it sounds. I find her fascinating.
As I already mentioned, there are a series of books and anthologies planned for VilleAnneís world. Depending on the success of the series, look for it to be expanded into other venues, such as graphic novels and, hopefully, film.
The graphic novel that I wrote with Kevin J. Anderson, STALAG-X, will be published August of 2014 (which means soon). Thatís an initial series of six issues, one per month. But in October, a three issue hardbound STALAG-X book will be released for bookstores, with another hardbound book released with the final three issues sometime later. And since my home turf is film and television, STALAG-X is already being pursued as a film and television project at a few studios. Hopefully there will be more to report on that later.
I just signed my contract for my non-fiction book ďTHE NON-USER-FRIENDLY GUIDE FOR ASPIRING TELEVISION WRITERS Ė Experience and Advice from the Trenches.Ē Yes, thatís the title. As implied, this is a book primarily for those aspiring to write for Television. But itís not an instructional book, it doesnít teach you how to write. Itís a book of the questions Iíve gotten and answers I have given to people who asked for my advice. So look at it as having lunch with me and being able to pick my brain about things. I donít have a publishing date on it yet as itís just been signed and has to go through the editing process.
There are several other projects I am working on right now, but they are still in the early stages. Thereís not much to talk about just yet, but some of them are intended for the film/television arena, and others are intended for the novel and graphic novel world.
VilleAnne will be keeping me busy for a while.
Thank you to Steven for a wonderful interview! Go grab yourself a copy of his book - all the info is below.