Hold on tight! It’s time for a journey into the mind of Pat Scaramuzza.
Tamago: When do you remember wanting to become a writer? Do you remember the first thing that you wrote?
Pat: The first fiction I wrote was for an English class back in 7th grade. It was based on a D&D campaign. The teacher was impressed although she didn’t like my handwriting or swearing.
I wrote stories for fun for years. I joined alt.devilbunnies — a shared universe about evil, toe-eating rabbits — in 1994, and that lead to dozens of great stories and collaborations.
But the first story that got me on the road to publishing was a Magic: The Gathering story I wrote for fun, titled _Starfish Wars_. I posted it to the MTG newsgroup on Usenet. An editor at Inquest magazine saw it, liked it, and paid me 10 cents a word to publish it, adding great artwork! That’s the moment that convinced me to write professionally, because obviously publishing these stories of mine would be easy. HAHAHAHA.
As a side note, that editor offered to hire me to write an ongoing column in Inquest. Because I was young and naive and going through a divorce at the time, I turned him down. That was probably the third worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life. (My marriage being the second worst.) The lesson I learned there was when an opportunity comes up, grab it.
Tamago: Who are your writing influences?
Pat: I really don’t know. As a child I read widely, but as an adult with too much knowledge about how books are made I read sporadically and am too harsh a critic. If I look at my bookshelves and give you author’s names, they would be Heinlein, Vernor Vinge, Alfred Bester, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven and so on. But I also read a lot of comic books, and should put Gaiman, Ellis, Chris Claremont and Reed Waller on the list as well. It’s all jumbled together in my brain, now.
Tamago: As a writer, you play around in many genres. Do you have a favorite? Why or why not?
Pat: I never stray too far from science fiction. I’ve dabbled in magic realism (_Indefensible Positions_) and paranatural horror (_Chipper_), but I like explaining how the world works, so even my magic systems have strict rules and a full history. Because I am a scientist in my day job, I tend to look at the rules of the universe and how they can be bent to achieve an effect. That perspective lends itself to speculative science.
I do like to vary how ‘hard’ — or realistic — my science fiction stories are. _Genocide Man_ is pretty hard sci-fi, and while I’m working on that I also have a prose novel in progress that’s soft, squishy, fun science fiction.
Tamago: You also publish a web cartoon. Tell us about that.
Pat: I have two webcomics, both of which I write and draw. One comic is finished Indefensible Positions. It’s a magical realism story that examines the value and role of myth in the modern world, with a superhero slant.
My current webcomic is Genocide Man. It’s a hard-science look at issues coming up in the 21st century, especially genetic engineering and biowarfare. It’s also funny. Yes, I’m writing and drawing a humorous comic about genocide and global pandemics. That’s the kind of challenge which I like, and which has kept me out of the really good magazines.
Tamago: Why did you apply to Taos Toolbox? What did you take away from the workshop?
Pat: That’s a long story. The distilled version is that I needed a better statistical sample of opinions about my work. (Scientist, remember?)
The long story is…I agonized over applying to Taos Toolbox. I had already been to Viable Paradise and I had concerns over how helpful they were. Of the four instructors who read my stories there, two of them returned the manuscript with no markings — they said that there was nothing to correct. I walked out of VP thinking that I was on the cusp, that I had real talent, that my ascension into true published author status was imminent and inevitable.
Then nothing happened for five years. Oh, I wrote three novels in that time, but I couldn’t get a damn thing published.
I was worried. Did the instructors at VP inflate my ego to fool me into thinking I got good value out of the workshop? Was that the workshop’s true purpose? (I will say that I got good, harsh criticism out of Elizabeth Bear, for which I will love her forever.)
There are only three possibilities: I’m not good enough, in which case the instructors at VP lied; I am good enough but not ‘pretty’ enough — my damaged brain creates stories that mainstream people do not enjoy — in which case I should probably quit; or I am good enough and pretty enough, but the only way into the industry is to get lucky.
I decided that I needed another sample of opinions before I could get an honest assessment of my work. Clarion is too long for me to take off from my day job. When I looked at Taos, I saw one author that I had read a little from (Walter Jon Williams) and one author, Nancy Kress, with whose stories I had a history of finding fault. A few years back I got into an email exchange with Sheila Williams, the editor of Asimov’s Magazine, for continuity flaws in one of Nancy Kress’s short stories. (Sheila agreed with me that there was an error, and suggested that I become an editor. Thanks, Sheila, but no thanks.) So I was very nervous about going to Taos and meeting Nancy. That kept me from applying for a couple years.
But one year I decided to take the plunge. I sent them what I considered my wildest story, one that I was sure they would hate: _Platinum Donkeys_. But they accepted me. And I am happy to say that Nancy is a wonderful instructor, and I need to read some of her novels to erase my memories of her one bad short story. Walter was amazing also, and he isolated the true problem with my writing, my tone.
As far as I can tell from my experience at Taos, I *am* good enough; The VP people were telling the truth. I may have some problems being pretty. The tone of my stories is flavored by my outlook on life — I can find amusement in genocide, for example — and that may not appeal to mainstream readers. I need to work on that. But the lessons at Taos also convinced me that luck is a huge part of the industry, and I need to stay in the game until lightning strikes. I can do that. I’m as stubborn as I am crazy.
Tamago: What advice would you give to a writer thinking about going to a workshop?
Pat: There is a common wisdom about critique groups that they come in three flavors. One type supports your ego. They may not help your prose, but they will give you the moral boost you need to keep writing. A second type of crit group supports the writing lifestyle with advice about finances, how to work, etc. The third type of crit group is focused on improving your writing.
When you go to a workshop like Taos, you need to understand that it will involve all three styles of critical support. You will get your writing dissected and improved. You will get professional advice about finances and work habits. And yes, you will get your ego pumped. Don’t let it go to your head. Focus on the lessons that you need, and try not to get distracted by the other lessons you sit through. Be a bulldog — latch onto what you need to learn, and don’t leave that workshop until you learn that one thing. Also remember that sometimes, learning what you need to learn is the lesson you need most.
Tamago: What is your favorite book or story that you’ve written so far? Why?
Pat: I love them all like children, although there may be one or two disappointments in the family. The one that trips my triggers, though, is _Platinum Donkeys_. It was my experiment with discovery writing — I just set up the characters and situations and let them spin, without outlining like I normally do. PD is hooked into my brain stem and I can’t stop thinking about it, years after it’s been finished. Of course, that also means that it’s my most fringe work, with a tone that is completely unpalatable to the mainstream, and so it may never find a publisher. If I decide to experiment with self-publishing, I may start with that story.
Tamago: What’s with the pseudonym?
Pat: Heh. A long time ago, I entered the internet by engaging in conversation on a newsgroup oriented towards sex. (This, if you’re counting, is my first worst mistake.) I chose a name that fit that newsgroup. Now that name is all over the web, and although it is not obviously sexual in nature it’s still an embarassing bit of my net history. I don’t want my real name connected to my pseudonym in a search engine, if at all possible. I’m not doing anything untoward with the name these days, but white collar hiring departments can overreact over these things.
Of course, when and if I get an agent and publisher I’ll take their advice on whether to publish stories under my real name or my more-visible pseudonym. I wouldn’t mind coming completely out of the pseudonym closet. But as Mark Twain said, for business reasons I must preserve the outward signs of sanity, at least for now.
Tamago:Where do you hope to be in five years with your writing?
Pat: On the Hugo awards stage? 🙂 I have no delusions — I am one of those writers who writes for validation. I have a damaged psyche, and I want to be told that my weird perspective is useful to the rest of the human race. I don’t care whether I make money from writing, or whether my name is known; I only want my creations to be accepted and loved. So my end goal is an award nomination. (Winning is too unlikely to hope for; I’m not pretty enough to win a beauty contest. But a nomination would validate my damaged brain.) That’s also why self-publishing is, in general, not for me.
But in five years? I hope to have a novel accepted by a publisher and in pre-press by then. If I measure my career in readership numbers, I hope to have 10,000 in five years. That’s the beginning of a midlist writer’s career, or a solid webcomic readership. In five years I should be able to manage that. I also hope to be finishing up _Genocide Man_ about that time.
Tamago: Do you have a dream project?
Pat: I’d love to make trilogies out of the novels I’ve already written. I already have their titles and rough outlines planned, but so far I’m following the advice to not write the second book in a series until the first one is sold.
In prose novels, a story I always wanted to write was one I started at Taos, _The Summer of Brass and Flowers_, a steampunk story set in 1969. Picture Jimi Hendrix on a brass guitar at steampunk Woodstock. Walter told me that too many people in the story are still living and would sue if I wrote the novel. He’s probably right. Although I have been considering contacting those people and asking permission, or possibly for an interview…
In comics, I always wanted to revamp Power Girl. I think I could make the character make sense again, and turn her into an iconic hero on the level of Wonder Woman. But DC exercises way too much editorial control of their writers, to the detriment of the characters and story, so that will never happen.
Tamago: Where can readers find more of your work?
Pat: As Pat Scaramuzza, you will not find anything I have written. I’m saving that name for professional publishing, unless the publisher prefers my pseudonym, which would be fine by me.
Under the pseudonymwhichmustnotbenamedonthesamewebpageasmyrealname, you can read my webcomics at indepos.comicgenesis.com and genocideman.com. You can find a few fanfics and alt.devilbunnies stories under my pseudonym, but they’re embarrassing little tales that I just wrote for fun.
I do not put my prose stories out for free, and I’ve only sold a few to obscure magazines, so my prose is just not available. But if anyone ever wants to be a beta reader, announce that in a comment and you will have my undying thanks. Aside from that, readers will only be able to enjoy my webcomics and hope that a publisher notices me. Wish me luck!