Benjamin is another author I’m looking forward to chatting with at conventions. He’s quite thoughtful, as you’ll see. Also, he said he really liked “Where Enemies Sit,” my story in For a Few Credits More, so clearly he’s a smart man.
Interview: Benjamin Smith
What is your quest?
My favorite stories are the ones that feature cool characters in an awesome setting, fighting against the odds with their fists and their wits. And you can find that in just about any genre, but especially in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. I started off reading Arthurian legends when I was a kid, and playing games like Final Fantasy II (IV in the correct numbering system) and Betrayal at Krondor for the PC. When I learned that Betrayal at Krondor was based off a book series by Raymond Feist, that’s what got me into reading as a full-time hobby. Looking back on it, the world of Midkemia is still my go-to example of what world-building looks like, and it’s what I try to emulate with my own stuff.
So, yeah. Cool characters in an awesome setting. With the Four Horsemen Universe, we’ve already got an awesome setting, so that’s half the work right there. It’s my hope that the characters and situation I came up with in “Return to Sender” are cool enough for the readers to enjoy! And if they do enjoy reading about Jackie and her Justin Timers, then let Chris know! I’ve got some good stuff already in the works.
Writers that I really enjoy include Raymond Feist, Brandon Sanderson, Larry Correia, Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Dan Abnett, and — more recently — Mark Wandrey, Kacey Ezell, Marisa Wolf, Kevin Ikenberry, and the rest of the 4HU crew.
What is your favorite color?
I’d like to think I strike a good balance between action, dialogue, and description in my scenes, even scenes that are sometimes little more than the characters sitting around a table formulating a plan. By mixing a little bit of action and description into a conversation, it keeps readers engaged and makes the scene seem more alive. If all you’ve got is dialogue, it’ll basically just be talking heads in a white space. But, if you put too much description in, you’ll either wind up with paragraphs describing how a chair looks or loads of background information that’ll grind everything to a halt. A lot of writers call this the dreaded exposition dump. I try to describe just enough for the reader to get a sense of where and who, then through action and dialogue fill in the what and why.
What is the average flying speed of an unladen paint brush?
My biggest failure early on was not pushing the emotional envelope far enough. I’m pretty laid back and reserved in real life, so tapping into extreme emotions (Whether sadness or rage or whatever) can be a little bit of a challenge. I thought it would alienate readers, and yet that’s what readers are wanting. It wasn’t until I read David Farland’s “Million Dollar Outlines” (Gimmicky title, but whatever) that I realized just how important emotional connection was in stories. I’d never really thought about it, but it was what I was most interested in as a reader.
I’ve gotten better about it in my more recent stories, but I think a huge reason why a lot of my earlier stuff went through the submission/rejection mill was because of this weakness.
My advice for anyone dealing with this is: take a risk! If a character needs to fly off the handle or fall to pieces, write it to the max, then dial it back in editing if you need to. When it’s raw, it’s real. And when it’s raw, it can be refined.
What are the powers of your personal Holy Hand Grenade?
I’ve always heard that I’ve got a knack for dialogue in my stories, so I try to play to that strength. Rather than focusing on a lone wolf character, stories will usually feature a team of at least three individuals, most likely more. Witty banter between different characters makes scenes a joy to write, and hopefully to read as well!
That said, my rough drafts tend to be dialogue heavy, so any editing is usually spent trimming out unnecessary dialogue and creating a better balance between description and action.
I spend a lot of my pre-writing time coming up with backgrounds and personalities for a story’s main characters. In “Return to Sender” I’ve got fairly extensive backstories figured out for the lead character Jackie Warren, her right-hand man Marcus, and the team sniper Sayra. It’s my hope to flesh the others out as the story progresses, and to add in some new characters. In addition to a dropship pilot, I think Jackie’s team needs a dedicated driver for when they’re on the ground, not to mention a finance guy and logistics expert.
Another thing I try to nail down early on in story planning/writing is the flow of the plot. Larry Brooks writes about the 7-point plot format in his book “Story Engineering,” where he describes 7 key points in a narrative that have to occur to achieve a dynamite plot. He’s not the first to come up with this idea (K.M. Wieland talks about it, as does James Scott Bell, etc), but he was the first one I read where it really made sense to me. And once I started planning out my stories a bit better, more of them started getting accepted.
- Favorite Muppet? Do Rigel and Pilot from Farscape count as muppets?
- Crunchy or Creamy? Crunchy chips. Creamy soups.
- Favorite Sports Team? The Midway Monsters from Mutant League.
- Cake or Pie? Cake serves as a vehicle by which buttercream icing gets into my body.
- Lime or Lemon? Lemon on fried catfish. Lime in pie.
- Favorite Chip Dip? Hot Bacon Cheese Spread. Can’t be beat!
- Wet or Dry? Both. Dry rubs for home-smoked ribs and pulled pork, then slathered in barbecue sauce once at the table.
- Favorite Musical Performer We’ve Never Heard Of? Does Hatsune Miku count? She’s a little on the artificial side, but what singer isn’t these days?
- Whisky or Whiskey? Bourbon-infused chocolate pecan pie. Oh, and barbecue sauce.
- Favorite Superhero? All-Might from My Hero Academia.
- Steak Temperature? Gray enough to know it’s dead, pink enough to be edible.
- Favorite 1970s TV show? Dukes of Hazzard
- Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall? Fall.
- Favorite Pet? (provide pictures if you want) Long live the Calico Countess!
- Best Game Ever? For console RPGs, gotta be Chrono Trigger for the SNES with Final Fantasy VI and Shadowrun as close second and third. For PC RPGs, my favorite is still Betrayal at Krondor by Sierra, followed by Baldur’s Gate and its many clones (Icewind Dale, Planescape, etc).
- Coffee or Tea? Sweet iced tea, and nothing else.
- Sci-Fi or Fantasy? If I can only have one, then fantasy. Anything from sword and sorcery like Conan the Barbarian or Record of Lodoss War, to epic fantasy like Wheel of Time or Mistborn, with some urban fantasy like Dresden Files or Monster Hunter International. I like pretty much all of it. With sci-fi, I prefer the action-oriented and character-driven rather than the overly technical, and fantasy elements never hurt. Warhammer 40000, Shadowrun, Star Wars (Before the prequel and sequels). Basically, I like to know how a hyperdrive or ion cannon works, but not if entire chapters are spent dissecting one, unless it’s integral to the plot.
What question(s) would you like to ask me?
1. What’s your pre-writing and writing process for short stories and novels? I’m always refining mine, so any tips would be helpful!
Rob’s Answer: If I have a setting or a theme, I wallow in it for a week or two if I can. I started doing this with different medieval poetic types. I have written a bunch of SCA scroll texts, which I usually write in a poetic style to reflect the recipient’s persona. So, I might get one that would want a Shakespearean sonnet followed by something in Norse drottkvaett and then maybe something Mongol.
Whether or not I was familiar with the genre, wallowing in it helps make the writing process flow. Every genre or culture has word choices and rhythms that are sort of expected. Not having them jars me as a reader, so I believe it’s important to other readers. It would be like going to an Italian place and finding they’d never heard of basil.
What I’m looking for in any short story is a bit of a twist. The ending has to be at least a little unexpected. The writer who did the best in my opinion was Randall Garrett. Once I have the twist, and the feel, it’s merely a process of putting words into that particular hole.
Novels are trickier. I usually start by creating a few interesting characters and a situation they have to deal with. I’m not good at outlining, but part of character creation is my expected end result for those characters. I don’t lock myself into those endings, because sometimes the story demands otherwise. I had a character in I Am a Wondrous Thing that I designed to be a longer term character but, uh, well, uh, I could never figure out a way not to kill them.
2. Mind giving us a tag line for your story in the “Luck is Not a Factor” anthology coming out next month? I really enjoyed “Where Enemies Sit” in “For a Few Credits More.”
Rob’s Answer: Thank you very much. I’m actually awful at taglines. I tend to explain too much. So, just for a change, I’ll try to explain too little.
“A Sword for Striking”: What story will your choices tell?
Tell me again where we can find your stuff?
- My blog is at BenjaminTylerSmith.com, and there you can find links to the short stories I’ve had published over the years, as well as updates for the couple of books I’m working on. I try to post a few times a week (The operative word is “try”), mostly about books, audiobooks, games, and anime. Feel free to post comments! I’m always happy to discuss whatever I write about, or to take the blog in different directions.
- I’m also on Facebook as Benjamin Tyler Smith, and on Twitter as @BenTylerSmith. And I’m following Chris Kennedy’s guide to indie publishing by getting my Amazon author page up, so you can find me there, as well.
- A few of my most recent publications can be found in the following places:
- “Return to Sender” in Tales from the Lyon’s Den in the 4HU. Sci-fi action. “When an emergency weapons delivery goes sideways, a young and tenacious arms dealer stops at nothing to save her team, her client, and her bottom line.”
- “A Salt on the Rise” in Issue 30 of On the Premises Magazine. Dark fantasy, in my own universe featuring an undead city called Necrolopolis and all the shenanigans that go on within its walls. “An overworked necromancer struggles to prevent a war between opposing factions of undead.”
- “Bag of Tricks” in the Sha’Daa: Toys horror/dark fantasy anthology. This one is also dark fantasy, about a magician who wields magical paints and holy .357 magnum rounds against demons and mindless college kids threatening to destroy his hometown.
- And while it is still seeking publication, my short story “Ash-Eater” (Set in the same fantasy world as “A Salt on the Rise”) earned itself a finalist spot in the 2018 Baen Fantasy Adventure Award contest. So, if you enjoy “A Salt on the Rise”, please look for “Ash-Eater” to appear somewhere at some point in the timeline! Wish I could say something more definitive, but it is getting shopped around.
And where can we find you?
Barring any sudden life changes, you’ll always find me at LibertyCon in Chattanooga, TN. It’s a bit of a drive, but well worth the journey! It’s where I first found out about the 4HU, so that alone makes it worth the journey!
Do you have a creator biography?
By day Ben earns his bread keeping track of the dead with digital cemetery maps, and by night he corrals the undead into whatever story he’s working on next. While the focus of his writing is typically in the realm of fantasy, he has a taste for science fiction, and the more action-packed the better. Married to a saint of a woman, ruled by a benevolent calico countess, he can be found at BenjaminTylerSmith.com.
Final question for you: What should I have asked but did not?
The lightning round should include the greatest of all internet questions: “.45 or 9mm?” I can only assume you didn’t include it because it’s largely a rhetorical question, as .45 is the one true answer. (Rob’s Note: I’ll add it in the next version)
And the obligatory “What are you working on now?” question is always a good one. To answer that, I’m working on an unnamed Jackie Warren novel. In it, the fate of an entire planet will rest in the hands of our young, yet resourceful arms dealer. This has not yet been accepted, and I haven’t even completed the proposal for it yet. But, it’s in the works, and if the Lord is willing, the book will get finished and hopefully there will be more to come!
I am also working on a novel set in the aforementioned Necrolopolis universe. It will be titled “A Soulful Job” and the tag line is: “Souls are vanishing from the city of the dead, and it’s up to an overworked necromancer to find the culprit before he gets the blame!”
Thanks to Benjamin for taking the time to answer my questions.
If you have any suggestions or comments about this interview format, let me know so I can keep tweaking it.
Also, thanks to you for reading. If you’re interested in any of the other interviews I’ve done, you can find them all here: http://robhowell.org/blog/?cat=326. If you are a creator, especially an independent creator, and you want to be spotlighted in a future interview, email me at email@example.com.
Finally, if you want to join my mailing list, where I’ll announce every interview, as well as what’s going on in my life, go to www.robhowell.org and fill out the form (Name and Email Address) or drop me an email and I’ll add you.
Have a great day.
Author of the Shijuren-series of novels
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