Ask the Author: A Q&A with Steven R. Southard

Steven Southard
“I write because I have to, because I’m driven to, because some inner urge compels me.”

Quoth the Raven, an anthology of stories and poems with a contemporary twist on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, features 30 different authors (including yours truly). I spoke with fellow contributor Steven R. Southard, and you can see our conversation below. Read on for what inspires Steven, what it’s like to write both horror and science fiction, and more.

Bio: Having spent time near Baltimore, it’s possible that author Steven R. Southard has somehow absorbed a measure of the still-lingering aura of Edgar Allan Poe. During the night’s darkest hours, by the light of a single candle, Steve pens tales of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and alternate history. His stories appear in more than ten anthologies and one series. The bravest and most curious among you may venture to his website at stevenrsouthard.com, where you may discover Steve waiting, lurking, and well hidden behind his codename: Poseidon’s Scribe.


How did you come up with the name “Poseidon’s Scribe”?

My name is Steven R. Southard. Poseidon’s Scribe is just my job. Since so many people ask, I’ve written a FAQ post about the job. In case you’re wondering, Poseidon is generally happy with my work and the sea god only needs one scribe, so you need not apply

How long have you been writing?

Two answers—thirty years and fifteen years. Thirty years ago, I figured I could jot down a best-selling novel in no time, with no study. I then wasted fifteen years and ended up with an unpublishable manuscript. Fifteen years ago, I got serious about my writing, shifted to short stories and began actually submitting them. And getting published!

What are some of the things you’ve learned as an author?

I learned that I write because I have to, because I’m driven to, because some inner urge compels me. Early on, I thought I was writing to be famous, well-read, and rich, but I was wrong about that.

I’ve also learned which aspects of writing come easily to me and which ones I struggle with.

I’ve learned writing is easy, getting published is hard, and making a decent living from writing is next to impossible.

I’ve learned that books about writing are full of stern advice, but if the advice feels wrong for you, follow your instincts.

Who are some of your favorite writers? What are some of your favorite books?

Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, Arthur C. Clarke’s The Deep Range, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and Larry Niven’s Ringworld.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Study the craft a bit, but write a lot. As you write, don’t be afraid to experiment, to dabble, to reach deep, to explore, and to play at writing.

Follow Heinlein’s Rules for Writers. Follow them for every story you write.

Seek the help that helps you most. For me, that’s a critique group. For you, it might be books about writing, writing classes, writing conferences, who knows what?

I see you write both horror and science fiction. What drew you to each? Do you feel more inspired by one genre versus the other? What similarities have you found between writing both? What key differences have you found between them when writing both?

True, I’ve written both. SF because I like it, but horror only if an anthology wants it and my muse is interested. I write far more SF, and its various offshoots like alternate history and especially steampunk. As a former engineer, I’m attracted to stories featuring technology. Think of SF and horror as two overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. SF is about solving problems through technology or science. Horror is about making readers feel fear. Some stories, of course, are both.

What non-literary things inspire you?

I find inspiration everywhere. I’ve written stories based on a Mythbuster episode, caring for an aging relative, historical technologies and legends, a Thanksgiving dinner discussion, and other improbable sources. We live in a world ideally suited to inspire writers; perhaps that’s its purpose.

What is your favorite Edgar Allan Poe story, and why? If you can’t pick one, what are a few of your favorites and why?

So many, so many … I love the tight and complex rhyming schemes of the poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” I love the precise and scientific nature of his prose in “A Descent into the Maelström” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Tell us more about “The Unparalleled Attempt to Rescue One Hans Pfaall,” your story for “Quoth the Raven.” What made you choose “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” as the story to reimagine? What contemporary inspirations did you draw from to write the story?

I found a book of Poe’s stories and poems at my parents-in-law’s house, and the book contained the Hans Pfaall tale. It’s Poe at his most whimsical, as if he’d somehow teamed up with Dr. Seuss. It’s one of his lesser known works because it leaves too many loose ends and differs from his later writing.

At a time when hot air balloons were new, Poe captivated readers with a story of a journey to the Moon by balloon. Knowing that some readers might actually believe it, Poe kept the story light-hearted and farcical in tone (the balloon’s gas-bag is made from newspapers!). He intended to continue the story in subsequent installments and never did.

The story begged for a sequel that ties up the loose ends, so I wrote one.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share with us?

I’m writing the second in a planned series of alternate history stories about Brother Eilmer of Malmesbury Abbey. He’s a medieval Benedictine monk who creates technological inventions far in advance of his time. My first such story was “Instability,” which appeared in the anthology Dark Luminous Wings, and was based on an actual recorded event.


You can find Steven’s books on Amazon.

Connect with Steven on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Check out Steven’s interview with me on his blog!

Back from Dublin

Last week, I visited Dublin for the first time. I’ve never been to Ireland, period, so I was glad to start in one big city that had so much to do, that we still had things we didn’t see or do even after staying there for a week. We ate a lot of brown bread and drank a lot of whiskey. We heard a lot of seagulls and walked along a lot of cobblestone streets. It was a wonderful trip.

dublin writers museum

One thing I found appropriate was the proximity of our hotel to the Dublin Writers Museum. The museum is a bit small — two floors — but a must-see for any literary travelers. The museum has letters, first editions, audio recordings, photos, and more from some of Ireland’s most famous writers, including James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

My favorite display was the case devoted to Bram Stoker. The case housed a first edition of Dracula, along with other old copies. The museum came with an audio guide, and the entry for Stoker included a reading of the “Children of the Night” passage. I grinned from ear to ear as the narrator spoke. I’m due to give Dracula a reread.

bram stoker's dracula

My only critique is that the museum was focused almost entirely on men. Some women were featured, but not many. I understand the earlier years will have more men than women, but I also believe more women could’ve been found to be showcased. The museum certainly has room.

The museum is taking a step to rectify this by putting together a special exhibit on women writers. A nice step, though I do hope they’ll reconsider the current name of the exhibit: “Ireland’s Other Writers.” Come on.

the women's room dublin writers museum
Really?

There was plenty of non-literary fun to be had as well. My husband and I visited many pubs. My favorite was The Ha’Penny Bridge Inn near the River Liffey. The patrons were friendly, the drinks were great, and the walls were filled with poetry.

the mouse on the barroom floor
One of my favorite poems.

We also took a day trip to Northern Ireland. The tour was focused on Game of Thrones filming locations, including the Dark Hedges and Ballintoy Harbor. We also visited Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s a wonder to behold. It’s filled with rock walls, stepping stones, marshy shores, and hills to climb. Give it a visit if you find yourself in Ireland or Northern Ireland for sure.

The Dark Hedges

the dark hedges

giant's causeway
Giant’s Causeway

giant's causewaygiant's causewaygiant's causewaygiant's causeway

ballintoy harbor
Ballintoy Harbor

ballintoy harbor

cushenden caves
Cushenden Caves, where Melisandre gave birth to the smoke monster in “Game of Thrones.”

cushenden caves

cushenden caves

I’ve been back for almost a week, and I still miss waking up to the sound of seagulls. I hope to return sooner rather than later.

rainbow in dublin

Your First Idea

Every story is different, and every time I start a story, the process is a little different than it was before. As I write, though, I find that certain truths keep cropping up again and again. One I’ve been reflecting on lately is how you should almost never go with your first idea.

I’m not talking about the whole idea. Usually this first idea introduces characters, locations, a basic conflict, and once you set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), a rough outline from beginning to end. It’s this first outline that, in my experience, should almost never be kept by the time you’re finished — especially the ending.

There’s the simple reason that stories evolve as they’re written. I often find that I have ideas for what my characters are like, and then they surprise me as I write them. They tell me more about themselves and how their stories will end. More often than not, I’ll be led in the right direction. Trust yourself as an author to know when the story is spiraling and when the story is falling into place. You’ll see it as a reader, just of your own work as opposed to others’ books.

Despite what movies like Stranger Than Fiction imply, though, writing isn’t all magic where the characters come to life and tell you everything you need to know. At the end of the day, you are the writer and you’re exerting control over your narrative. And I highly suggest using this control to steer yourself away from your first idea as you start to see new ideas popping up along the way.

I dwell on this because, more often than not, our first idea is based on something we’ve read before. It’s not necessarily something that’s clichéd (though it very well might be), and sometimes, something we’ve read before can work in a new narrative we’re crafting. But something we’ve read before is very likely something that someone else has read before too. There’s comfort in familiarity, but there’s more reward in being shocked. If you surprise yourself as you write, then chances are, your readers will be surprised too.

As an author, I find great satisfaction when I give a brief synopsis of a story, and someone guesses something entirely different from how it turns out. I get even more satisfaction when they guess my first idea — one that has since been changed. It tells me that they’ll likely experience the same journey I had while writing it, one that I hope is as satisfying for them as it was for me.

I would give examples from my work … but that would spoil the ending.


Another universal truth I’ve found with each story is having to contend with sloppy writing on the first draft. It gets a little better each time, but there are still times I’ll start a draft and end up with sentence fragments, clichéd metaphors, and crappy endings. Never finish with your first idea or your first draft!

A lot of readers for Please Give thought it would end differently — not the same as my first idea, but the same as my second idea and, ultimately, the idea I didn’t go with. See if the same happens to you: the book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Thanks for reading!

Texting in Text: How Do We Write Dialogue that’s Typed?

I’ve been thinking about text messages in stories lately. My next book has texting, though I’m having to remember what it was like to write text messages in 2004. I also laughed really hard at two jokes in Barry, a new show on HBO that’s quickly becoming a new favorite; and both jokes involved texting.

Texting has become its own form of dialogue. I’ve seen it portrayed in various ways — and with various results — on film and in print. I find it fascinating to see how it’s depicted, and am also curious if we’ll ever see an agreed-upon format in the future.

Texts are written, and italics are usually used to denote writing. I do this myself. It’s easier to type and means less fiddling around with fonts (fonts that may not even remain in an ebook if someone changes their Kindle settings). I do this for handwritten notes, emails (especially since I just include the body of an email — I don’t like including email address, sender, subject line, time sent, etc., but that’s for another blog post), and text messages.

However, I found that using italics for text messages isn’t always so simple. Please Give uses text messages second only to spoken dialogue in terms of how the characters communicate. I love writing dialogue, but lines of quotes read very differently when they become lines of italicized text — especially lines of italicized text that need to indicate a back-and-forth without constantly writing, “She texted ____. He texted ____” (I find that tedious, and thankfully, it hasn’t appeared too much in the books I’ve read — not nearly as much as excessive “she said/he said” lately, which is also for another post).

My solution was to try and only do this for three or four lines if I needed to, or to put in the few (or sometimes several) minutes it often takes people to text back and to keep the responses short. One of the questions I had for my beta-readers was if it was clear who was speaking to whom and who was texting to whom. They all said yes, and I hope that other readers agree!

But writing the act of texting is a challenge, and while I’ve seen smooth integration of text messaging in books, I have yet to see a universal format. One book I read put the entire exchange into a centered block denoted by each sender’s initials. It read like a chat screen, and while it made the exchange very clear, it seemed a little odd placed in the middle of regular text in the book. The book I’m reading now denotes text messages in its own line, and in a fixed font that’s smaller, bold, and in a colder font. It’s also very clear, and while momentarily a distraction, it flowed more seamlessly than the block of chat-like text. It flowed like what text messages are: dialogue.

As a reader, what formats have you seen in books for text messages? Are there any you prefer?

As a writer, how do you incorporate text messages into your stories?

Whether a reader, a writer, or both, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!


As a P.S., I wanted to talk a bit about texting in TV and in film. That’s something I’ve watched with great interest, from both my communications and film studies perspectives. Texting as dialogue onscreen seems to be evolving, even though there still isn’t an agreed-upon format. Most movies and TV shows seem to have moved away from characters reading text messages out loud, which is a blessing — it had the same lack of naturalness as the one-sided phone conversation where the person onscreen repeats whatever (we presume) the person on the other end said.

A popular form for a while now — and still in use sometimes — was to put the text messages on the screen, sometimes like typed-out subtitles and most often by text windows popping up on the side like Pop-Up Video. I found this awkward and weird, but something that couldn’t really be worked around — much like fixed font text messages in a book.

More shows and movies, though, seem comfortable just showing someone’s screen with the text message on it. This is easier to do with bigger phones and clearer, more colorful screens; and I prefer this method. Text messages aren’t spoken and they also aren’t word bubbles like dialogue in comics. If we can see the phone’s screen, we should. As I mentioned above, I recently saw this used to great effect on Barry, which in addition to just showing the iPhone screen with texts, incorporated some of iPhone’s text message features, like confetti falling over the screen when a celebratory text is sent (and the text message the confetti accompanied was a very dark thing to celebrate). I look forward to seeing how communicating text messaging in stories continues to change over the years — or given technology’s current pace, over the coming months.

A Rundown on Dialogue

A couple weeks ago, I posted a Q&A between myself and Evelyn Duffy, my editor. There was one question she asked that was cut from the final post:

In all your work that I’ve read so far, your characters do best when they have someone to talk to — you rely on and use dialogue extremely effectively. I find that many first-time authors struggle with dialogue. Do you have any tips for them?

I do have some tips. I cut the question, though, because as I answered it, my answer became quite lengthy and I decided to share it via blog post.

I love writing dialogue. I love it so much that sometimes I have to watch myself if a manuscript starts to look more like a straight-up script. But writing dialogue helps me understand what my characters think, do, and feel more than any narration I write on the first attempt.

I think one reason dialogue is difficult is because the nature of speaking is so different from the nature of writing. You can think about how you speak and how you react to what’s spoken, but that’s all one sided. A conversation is between two, and writing is a solitary craft.

As such, I recommend one tactic that you can do in the privacy of your own home and one I find to be very helpful: talk to yourself and pretend that you’re speaking to someone else. Ask yourself questions and answer them. Do it out loud, even if it’s just muttering to yourself. Do it at home or somewhere alone so you can really let loose.

This is helpful because talking to yourself is what you do when you write dialogue.  You’re creating a conversation between two (or more) people whose thoughts, feelings, motivations, and personalities are all in your head. By talking out loud to yourself, you’re practicing this in the more natural form of speaking instead of writing.

This also helps with what I think is the biggest hurdle to writing good dialogue: writing reactions as opposed to explanations. The clunkiest dialogue I’ve read (and written) is dialogue that narrates. I took an electronic media writing class in college, and one of our assignments was to write commercials. One of my professor’s cardinal rules was to never have the characters serve as the spokespeople. They should speak like normal people, and only the spokesperson — ie, the voiceover — should describe and sell the product.

This is applicable to fiction and dialogue. The narrator describes the story, but the characters live it. They live it by speaking within it like everyday people. And to speak like everyday people is to listen and react, not narrate and explain (well, not only explain — more on that later). No one likes talking to someone who only explains and never listens or responds to anyone but themselves. No one wants to read that someone either.

As such, I find that dialogue is always better when the next line is a direct build from the previous one, as opposed to just being the next step in advancing the story. I see lines of dialogue as stairs. Stairs build up, but rest on the edge of the previous one in order to climb. So do good lines of dialogue. This can come in the form of a question or clarifying statement, or some form of “Oh, I know — I do [blank] and this is how I do [blank] uniquely.” Sometimes I see an opportunity for jokes or tangents in response to a line, and add them even if they don’t advance the plot or reveal anything important. Not all dialogue has to. It does, however, need to sound natural (and it helps if it’s funny — even dramas or dark stories need good jokes).

calvin-conversation
Calvin may have been off-the-mark on conversations, but he does have some good advice on writing dialogue. Try not to have your characters interrupt each other too much though (unless they’re fighting — that’s more realistic).

Dialogue is at its least natural when it’s narrating — and this is where my final tip may be a little infuriating, because it will sound like I’m negating that observation. It’s the narrator’s job to explain things like setting, internal thoughts, and background. But sometimes, these things are better left to the characters to share via dialogue.

Now, I don’t think this should happen with prolonged explanations and backstory. It’s very, very easy for a character to start talking about their history and have them sound like a James Bond villain waxing on about their evil plans. If a character is going on and on, maybe consider giving that character their own section narrated from their point of view (whether first or third person). Such monologues can also be broken up by another character reacting — asking questions, saying what they think or what they would do, etc.

But no matter how it’s broken up, if a character’s background is being shared or revealed, it’s best to let them do it themselves. I find this applies whether or not a story is in first or third person. Narration should explain things about the protagonist (or, if switching focus/points of view, the person that is the focus in that section or chapter). But anyone else should speak for themselves.

I witnessed this particularly when writing Please Give. It’s told in first person, from Beth’s point of view. One of my most common revisions was to go back to a scene where Beth explained everything about everyone, and change it so that everyone else spoke for themselves instead. This made Beth seem more realistic, since she was no longer psychic and all-knowing about everyone else; and it also resulted in more realistic dialogue and narration.

This was especially true in Chapter 2, where Beth is at a staff meeting and listens to three nonprofit presidents — Mary Chau, Justin Moore, and Sally Wood — give presentations. In the first draft, Mary and Justin didn’t speak much on paper. Beth narrated their backgrounds and their organization’s backgrounds, leaving very little space for their own words. In turn, Beth’s narration both explained their history and her thoughts on them. This was clunky and didn’t read realistically at all. It read like an article or a blog post summarizing a presentation.

But narration shouldn’t be a summary, and dialogue helps it to not be one. This was the case with Sally, who spoke more even in the first couple drafts. She spoke for herself, and Beth’s narration was mostly in response to what she was saying — a reaction as opposed to an explanation. It flowed much better, and I realized that in order for the chapter as a whole to flow better, I needed to extend the same courtesy to Mary and Justin.

So, I went back and let them say what Beth previously described. They spoke about just enough history to sound like a presentation, as opposed to narration in a book (much like you want your make-up to look like you’re not wearing any, you want your dialogue to read like it wasn’t written). And rather than serve to explain, Beth’s narration broke up these lengthy speeches with her responses and thoughts — which in turn served to clarify and fill in the context for what they had to say. Because she had reactions as opposed to explanations, the scene read more realistically to me — and it did so because these explanations became a form of dialogue between Beth and the people speaking.

Dialogue is an effective tool, and one that many writers seem to fear the most. I think this comes from thinking too hard about what should be said or how what’s said fits into the narration as opposed to the narrative. At the end of the day, dialogue should fit into a conversation, not the narration. So let your characters loose — let them speak, let them react, and let them converse until it’s time for the narration to come back in. You can always go back and whittle the conservation down in a second or third (or eighth) draft.

And, try talking to yourself. Trust me, it works.


I’ve talked a lot about talking, but if you want to read a little more, I’ve shared similar advice on the blog before — namely, on talking to yourself in the form of interviewing yourself.

I also recommend checking out the actual conversations between me and Evelyn Duffy. It’s a conversation in two parts: Ask the Editor and Ask the Author.

Thanks for reading!

When It’s Hard to Stay Positive

I am, in general, a positive person. In situations where I don’t know what could happen, I try my best to think that the good outcome will happen. This is especially helpful in writing. Writing is a deeply personal endeavor that many of us want to share and put out in the world. I think that writers have to maintain some positivity to do that, because otherwise, it’s an endeavor that feels less personal and more lonely.

But I also think it can be hard to look at thoughts from other writers and see nothing but blinding positivity. Oh, keep going! It’s all for you! Don’t worry what people think. You do you! It’s all a step forward! Granted, that line of thinking is much more helpful than the other end of the spectrum, the slew of negativity that makes you wonder why anyone writes in the first place. This is one of the reasons I try to stay positive online. I want to add a hopeful voice, to encourage others and myself to keep doing what we love.

But to all things there is balance. I know on the days I’m feeling down — not angry, not petulant, but down and discouraged — that reading nothing but positivity can almost make me feel worse. It makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong, that I must be a failure because I’m not harnessing the power of positive thinking. I forget that feeling blue is not only okay, it’s part of the process — and it’s also part of being human. It’s easy to forget that, though, when I’m trying to cheer myself up; and even harder to remember in the face of relentless positivity — especially from myself.

So, for myself and for anyone reading: despite my general positive feelings towards writing, there are days when it is hard. There are days when I click “Submit” and feel like my work is going into a void where once someone reads it, they’ll reject it. There are days I check in on Submittable and see entries I sent several months ago still listed as “Received,” telling me they didn’t even open it; and I wonder why I even bothered. There are days I write and feel like every word is crap, that the stories only make sense to me and maybe should be kept to myself. There are times I look at the rejections in my binder and think they’ll be all I ever see. There are days that the sadness is so deep that it takes every ounce of energy to open my drafts and type one word, two words, one sentence. Sometimes I don’t write anything at all.

It’s normal to feel this way, and it’s okay. It’s okay to want to cry sometimes, or to sometimes worry that writing is a dream that will only be dreamt. Everyone does this, and as a writer, I appreciate seeing a writer at any stage, aspiring or successful, admit to the days that they feel that sadness, when they feel discouraged and limited. Because we also see that they keep going.

I won’t end this entry with a jolt of positivity, as I think a little melancholy is okay and even necessary. But I will say this: keep going, any way you can. Feeling sad is normal, and when I feel that way and still try to do what I love, it helps me along through the fog.

Writing in Seasons

Fall is my second-favorite season (spring wins because it’s warmer). One of the things I like about it is the sense of calm that comes after summer. Summer is typically busy — a good kind of busy, as it’s filled with trips and barbecues and movies and hours of light — but as evidenced by all those and’s, it’s still busy. As the weather cools, it’s easier to pause for a moment and sit in a chair with a cup of tea.

It’s also easier to pause and write. I write all year, but during the summer and spring, I find it more difficult to write anything long. I finished the first draft of Please Give in April, and sent it for edits in June. I thought I’d spend the time it was with my editor working on my next novel.

I thought wrong. It was a prolific stage, as I finished five short stories and started another, longer one between April and September. But it was prolific in a somewhat manic way, as I wrote in short story bursts as opposed to one long, lingering novel (though there were times when pounding out pages of Please Give felt like anything but calm and lingering).

Fall is back, and so is the book. I’ve been revising it for the past few weeks, and of course, I got ideas for my next novel once my current one was back in my inbox. And, I not only got an idea for the next one, but an idea that would turn the unfinished, longer short story into a proper novella — or maybe even a novel, once it’s done. Two novels to work on, and I’m still revising the first one. Thanks, brain, for having such a great schedule.

In all seriousness, I am starting to wonder if fall and winter have become my novel-writing seasons, while spring and summer are the seasons for short stories. Fall and winter do lend themselves beautifully to a book. It gets darker earlier, which puts me inside with my laptop. There are a flurry of activities with the holidays, but it still feels slower than the onslaught of Things To Do that comes with the excitement of the weather warming up and my winter hibernation coming to a close.

All year, there is a lot — and all year, there is a lot to write. It seems for me at least, the time of year dictates how much I’ll write until the story feels complete.