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Author Eric Barnes on Publishing and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

You'd think that one's post as the CEO of several major metropolitan newspapers throughout Tennessee, and author of multiple science fiction novels, would make the road to publishing an easy one. But Eric Barnes, host of Behind the Headlines on WKNO TV and author of four novels, including his most recently published post-Apocalyptic foray, Above the Ether, admits that it's a little more complicated than that. Here's his advice for how writers can navigate the labyrinthine terrain of publishing without giving up, selling out, or letting rejection letters be the final word.

Author Eric Barnes
Author Eric Barnes. Photo by Andrew Breig

Tonya: Our readers are a mix of indie authors and authors who have gone through more traditional publishing houses. What is your advice about the publishing process (either indie or traditional or both) from your experience?

Eric: For the kind of novels I write, the publishing process is, to say the least, difficult. It's slow-moving and convoluted. That's not a criticism of the publishers who've published my books. It's simply a comment on the reality of a very complicated business that has been in the midst of massive change for a few decades now.

First there was the rise of big, corporate publisher, which bought up and combined many of the long-time independent publishing houses. Then there was the rise of massive chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. That was followed by the arrival of Amazon, a disruption that only continues as readers shift to e-readers even as independent bookstores increasingly find ways to thrive.

In the midst of that, there are so many writers throwing so many manuscripts at a shrinking number of publishers who have a dramatically smaller universe of stores in which to sell those books.

And meanwhile, the very process of assessing a manuscript is mind-blowingly slow. For fiction of some level of seriousness – I hate the term literary fiction but that's all there is – there's no way to fairly assess a manuscript with(out) spending quite a bit of time on it. Put another way, it takes hours (sometimes many, many hours) to read a book, no matter how quick a reader you are.

That's even before you get to the incredible cost involved in editing, designing, printing, distributing and selling a book.

The process, in other words, is a labyrinth. It's slow, by necessity. And it's all built on a business model that leaves little room for error.

Tonya: Where did you get the idea for your newest book, Above the Ether, and how long did it take you to write it?

Eric: The idea for Above the Ether came from my previous novel, The City Where We Once Lived, which is about a city that's been abandoned and the few thousand people who have chosen to live there. The city in that novel has been devastated not by a plague or some virus, but by bad decisions, inattention, abandonment. All animals have fled, all the plants and trees have died.

The main character in City assumes that everyone, everywhere lives with this sort of death of plants and animals. But toward the end of the novel, a new person comes to the city. And, very offhandedly, he tells the main character why he's fled his home and come to this city.

The animals that left this place, they didn't all just die. They went to other places. Like the city we are from. Huge packs of dogs. Feral cats. The failed efforts of the city to wipe them out with poison, so many dead animals that they had to leave carcasses in piles on corners and overflowing from dumpsters and still the animals roamed the street.

The City Where We Once Lived by Eric Barnes

And so I decided I wanted to write a book about that other city, and other cities and places like it, that were going through some kind of slow-motion disaster. Again, not plagues or runaway viruses or zombie apocalypses – just places dealing with the everyday decisions that we make or are made for us.

Tonya: A lot of successful authors have a daily word count goal or specific method of getting a book written. Do you have either? What does a typical writing session look like for you?

Eric: I need to write every day to be effective. I can't wait till I "feel the inspiration." I have to schedule regular time, consistency, in order to be writing frequently enough that I'm either at my desk when I feel inspired or the consistency itself generates more and more inspiration.

Because of this, if I know I won't be able to write tomorrow, I will struggle to write today. Because if I can't write tomorrow, but today's writing goes badly, I will be incredibly frustrated.

The reality, of course, is that I can't write every day. So I try to find stretches of time – 2 weeks or 4 weeks or sometimes as many as 6 weeks – where I'll be able to write for at least an hour most every day. That way I feel like I'll have some consistency, a routine, that I can rely on when writing goes badly. Which it does.

I don't set a word count, just this goal of building a routine, but I do count words. I might write 100 words, I might write 1,500. But the goal is to write consistently.

Also, I mostly write in the morning, usually from 5:30 to 7:30, then I'll read and edit what I've written in the evening.

Tonya: As CEO of several newspapers, you obviously have other obligations beyond writing novels. What is your advice for authors struggling to get a novel written when it isn't their primary occupation?

Eric: It can be a nightmare. Writing is time-consuming and, at its worst, maddeningly frustrating. For me, I just have to be hyper-scheduled – down to the hour and minute of the day – as far as when I write, when I parent, when I see friends, and so on. It's hard on the people around you. You just have to accept that, as do they.

The economic reality is that, for what I write (and, honestly, for what most fiction writers do), it's exceedingly difficult to make a living off of novels. For many years, this meant I was personally at war with the two sides of my life – my writing life, and my day job. That wasn't healthy. Over time, I found a way devote enough time to both that they coexist much better.

Tonya: What is it about the post-apoc/dystopian subgenre of Science Fiction that fascinates you most and do you have any favorite authors who write it?

Eric: I grew up reading a lot – almost all – of Kurt Vonnegut's novels and non-fiction. I loved how he could circle into and around science fiction, even as he was writing painful, funny, beautiful and deeply serious books. But I also read a lot of serious, entirely "real" fiction that I wanted to emulate, especially work by Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and others.

But then there were three books I read over a number of years – For the Time Being by Annie Dillard, and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridien and The Road – and I started wanting to write differently. I'd always like complicated, multi-character narratives. My first two novels, Shimmer and, especially, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful, both had multiple narrators and a way that I could use the multiple narrators to shift time and place.

Now I wanted to write with more "unreal" elements. More that was made up.

With both The City Where We Once Lived and Above the Ether, though, what I did not want to do is write post-apocalyptic novels where there'd been some sort of war or plague. Not that there's anything wrong with doing that, I just felt like, first, that had been done. And second, I wanted to shine more light and attention on decisions we make now and the outcomes of those decisions.

Tonya: Do you have any specific advice for a writer interested in publishing in the post-apoc/dystopian subgenre? Is there any trope that's been overdone or any new slant publishers are looking for?

Eric: I really don't know what advice I'd give. For better and worse, I'm not a writer who can write toward what publishers want or need. I have to write a story that interests me, which means taking a massive risk on whether that novel will also be of interest to a publisher. Twice, I've misfired and written novels that ultimately didn't get published. But I don't regret writing those manuscripts. Had I not written them, I wouldn't have written the ones that followed.

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