This week the Bite-sized Fiction Blog is talking to science fiction author Tony Peak from his home near the New River in southwest Virginia. Peak is the author of twenty short works of fiction, a novella, Beethoven’s Tenth, and eight published novels including the Audible Original, Signal, and the Eden Trilogy released this past summer by Aethon Books and available everywhere. He’s an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, an Associate Member of the Horror Writers of America, a contributor to Medium, and a prolific commentator on music and pop culture.
We spoke just after he sent the first novel of his new trilogy Redshift Runners off to his agent at Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency and just before he started his next project. He’s always writing. We talked about that, the business of fiction writing, beta readers, and his awkward first steps to becoming a successful author.
Bite-Sized Fiction has edited the conversation for length and clarity.
BITE-SIZED FICTION (BSF): When did you start writing and why?
TONY: I didn’t get started writing seriously until 2008. Before that for years I always thought I would write but when I was in college I wrote a few novellas, some Greek mythology stories type stories. They’re really terrible – they’re as bad as they sound – but at night school, they told me that maybe that’s what you should do. I kind of took that to heart but it took me a few years.
I always wanted to write a Knights Templar novel. I got all these books on the Crusades, learned about Islam, and of course then it became fantasy with Sumarian demons and what not, so it was just nuts. I called it Knights of Baphometand of course it never got published, thank goodness. I wrote that in 2010. It was the first novel I wrote.
BSF: That’s when you got serious.
TONY: It started out with, if I want to take this seriously, let’s write one short story a week. It doesn’t matter what the length is 1,000 words or whatever and it doesn’t matter what it’s about. And I did that throughout 2008. I wrote one short story a week. A lot of it was garbage really. I wouldn’t show it to anyone, but I don’t really think you’re supposed to show anyone at that stage. It’s the formative stage. You’re in the chrysalis; you’re growing. And one of the stories I wrote my second year of writing got published. It was a little horror story. That clinched it for me. That gave me the motivation and confidence I needed to say, hey, maybe there’s something to this. It would be a few more years before I tackled a novel and a few more years before my first novel was published in 2015.
But that’s how it started, at least once a week I’d sit down in front of that computer screen, and I’d write a story. It didn’t matter what it was. I would probably hate it a week later, but it was just the act of getting it out.
Because I love to write. You have to love to write. You have to love what you’re doing.
BSF: You are the most disciplined writer I know. How do you find the discipline to write?
TONY: What works for me is to go to bed thinking about what you’re going to write about the next day. It’s like subconsciously it’s there, and when you wake up the next morning, you’re just ready to pop on that. That works for me. You just got to sit down and do it.
I think of it as exercise – the more you do it the more acclimated your body is to it. Whereas with writing the more often you do it, and you exercise that part of your brain, the easier it is when you sit down at your desk, and it flows out of you. I’m at that point now.
Especially if it’s something you’re really passionate about, which you should be if you’re writing about it, but I sit down, and it could be a blank page, or where I left off the previous day and it just starts flowing. There’s very little effort. I’m fortunate that I don’t suffer from writer’s block. I can always put something on that page; not all of it is good, but I don’t have any trouble writing.
BSF: Do you write first thing in the morning?
TONY: I’ll get up and shower. Have breakfast. I’ll take my dog out. She’s right here next to the desk. I’ll make sure she gets breakfast. And then I’ll just get at it. Especially if it’s a first draft. I’ll just attack it until it’s done. The revision is a little more leisurely. I’ll take my time a little more but the first draft I get at it. And the earlier in the morning the better. I don’t mind writing at night, but I feel like as the day has worn on my mind will get tired and fatigued. I can see a difference in the quality of the writing and I’m like, okay, now I’m just creating more work for myself later.
BSF: What’s your biggest criticism of your own writing?
TONY: Only one criticism? I could give you a list.
I wish I could write the big ideas and themes that inspire me to write whether it’s Arthur C. Clarke or Ursula K. LeGuin or Frank Herbert’s Dune. Because those are the writers I really admire. I wish I could write something like that that can capture people’s imaginations on different levels. I feel like in the past I was too action-oriented, but it was fun to write. It’s easier to write, for me, that sort of thing versus sitting down and trying to write something that’s more cerebral. I don’t feel like my work is cerebral enough as much as I would like it to be. Like Rachel Swirsky or Ted Chiang and people like that. I can read their work and I’m just flabbergasted, and I think, “This is genius, and I would love to write like that.”
So, that’s my biggest criticism. I may have the discipline and I may have plenty of ideas, but at the end of the day, I wish I could do that.
BSF: What’s your favorite thing about your stories?
TONY: That maybe a harder question to answer. I’m my own worst critic.
My favorite thing about my writing is brevity. I think I get to the point quicker. I try not to bloat the story. I try to get right to it and that’s about pacing. These days it’s really rare for me to write something longer than 320-350 pages and that’s on purpose because I try to tighten it. Let’s get to the essence. Let’s not have fifteen characters, let’s have five. Let’s strengthen those characters and not have moments of author indulgence, “Well, I’ll put this in the story because I like that in real life.” I’ll ask does the story need it. Little things like that. I guess that’s one thing I pat myself on the back for, I try to stay focused on what the story is about and move along.
BSF: Your stories take place on the arms of galaxies, in purgatory, Proxima Centauri, and such and yet you deal with contemporary life issues like substance use, environmental collapse, questions about leadership. How do you balance the message you want to get out there with dynamic story telling?
TONY: The idea and the characters have to come first. (When I started) the setting would come first but now I think about the people and the issues and what’s happening to them and then what setting can I put that in to make it interesting. In the Eden books I put in concerns with different cultures, how do these people survive this apocalyptic collapse? As for the balance, I wish I had been better at it earlier on but I’m assuming it’s like anything else, the more you do you it, the more you work at it, hopefully, the better at it you become.
It’s also helpful to be self-aware of your work and offer yourself constructive criticism without being too hard on yourself. For me it boils down to focus on the story and characters first, and world-building second.
What drives the story is the characters. If you don’t have the characters, you really don’t have a story. Why do they react the way they do? Why should I care? That’s what I go for.
BSF: How do you feel about beta readers?
TONY: I’ve used beta readers but not as much anymore. I feel like I used them to get to the point where I had enough confidence where I had no need for a beta reader – and confidence, not arrogance, but confidence where, okay, I said what I wanted to say with this now I can send this out.
It can be helpful when you’re starting out but also, you’re getting all these opinions and that can be overwhelming. You try to please all these people but that’s not right, you should only please yourself, not your editor, not anyone, please yourself. You have to like that story because if you don’t like the story why even tell it. Once you release these stories into the wild, it’s no longer your story. It is in terms of copyright but it’s going to be interpreted in so many ways whether you like it or not. So, when it comes to that process of creating it, it has to be what you want it to be.
I want to say, you may feel like you need a beta reader. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just another tool in the toolbox. There’s nothing wrong with using one or not using one.
BSF: I stopped using beta readers because they started telling me how they would tell the story rather than pointing out plot holes or sharing their knowledge of Winchester rifles or whatnot.
TONY: I hate to say it this way, but it feels like training wheels. Once you learn to do it yourself and you feel more confident, you kind of set that aside. I mean Stephen King still has his beta readers. One of them is his wife and that’s great to have but we don’t all have someone that’s willing to do that chore and give you the most objective view possible. Most people they think they’re helping you out. They think it’s constructive criticism, but it ends up being here’s how I would tell the story. Let me change your voice. Let me change everything you want to say in this story and instead say what I want to say.
BSF: Speaking of Stephen King and big-name writers, it’s such a crowded market that it makes me wonder if the days of the million-copy bestseller are over. There are more books out there, but fewer best-sellers.
TONY: I think it’s great. I know a lot of people will look down on Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing, self-publishing and all that, and that’s bonkers because it has its pros and cons. The pros are that anyone can publish their work, there’s no “gate keepers.” You can do your own editing, get someone to design a cover, put it on Amazon and hope for the best. Or you can go with traditional publishing, which will do all that for you. I think many of these traditional publishers were slow to adapt to the changes in book formats. It used to be all you could find on Kindle was self-published works. But with self-publishing you have to promote your work and I think one of the problems today is the negativity.
BSF: Regarding the reviews?
TONY: These days you have to be on social media and promoting yourself. And I think, am I a writer or am I a social media person? It’s so important. The more reviews a book has because of the algorithm the more it pops up in the search and that’s one reason why reviews are so important.
Then you got the online trolls like in Goodreads. Someone doesn’t like your social media post and they just one-star your book whether they bought it or not. They haven’t curated that well at all so, you run into that. I think you’re right. The days of the best-seller are ending. You have your tent pole names in the industry, but for the rest of us it does look like those chances are going away. That doesn’t mean that the work has suffered, but it’s that the internet has opened the doors to a lot of people. Plus, I think the publishing industry pays less than they did years ago, they publicize the works less unless you’re a big name. It seems that unless it’s a shoo-in for their profits, they don’t seem to really care.
BSF: Advice for novice writers.
TONY: I feel like writing advice is such a mix-bag. I think once you become something of a veteran of fiction writing and you develop your own style then other people’s advice – well you shouldn’t use this or write shorter sentences; write this, write that, all of this can be ignored. Learn the rules and then you break the rules, I feel works well for writing.
The best piece of advice I can give any writer is to be tenacious. Don’t ever give up. If you love doing this, if you love storytelling, don’t give up just keep writing and keep sending it out there. You’re going to get depressed; you’re going to get frustrated; you’re going to hate it sometimes because you might not get the success you want or the readers you want, but ultimately it has to be because you love it. Be tenacious.
There was a dry spell where I wondered whether what I was doing was worth my time. I knew then, I wasn’t going to give up. If this one doesn’t sell that’s okay, I’ll write another one. I’ll just keep knocking on that door until someone answers.
I tell people all the time, the surest way to failure is to give up.
BSF: Thank you, Tony. This has been great.
TONY: Thank you.
Here’s a little bonus video clip of our interview. And if you have a question for Tony Peak, put it in the comments below and BSF will get you an answer. In the meantime, get more content at TonyPeak.net or click on this link to go to his Amazon page.
Buy the Eden Trilogy from Aethon Books and look for his next series coming in the summer of 2022. And don’t forget to leave that review.