Craig: Which is your favorite type of story—apocalyptic (we’re seeing the collapse), or post-apocalyptic (the collapse has already happened)—and why?
Peter: Again, tough call. I’ve seen both done very well. I’d toss in that there’s also recent post-apocalypse where people remember “the world before,” and there’s the far-post-apocalypse stuff—I’m just making these names up, by the way—where generations have passed and people don’t remember television or cars or light bulbs. Or maybe they’re just things of stories and legend, from the long-ago days before the dead walked and the living were forced to live in the trees…
I’d have to say post-apocalypse. Most apocalypse stories tend to be very similar because people will react in a lot of the same ways. It doesn’t matter if the danger is zombies or a falling asteroid or Skynet declaring war. The survivors in all these stories tend to be doing a lot of the same things when it all goes down. I think the interesting variety comes afterward, when writers play with all the different balance points people find afterwards.
Craig: What is your approach to writing? How do you complete a novel?
Peter: I’m a drafts person. I try to get a first draft out as quickly as possible and then polish it in rewrites. I start with a very rough outline, a few of the big story beats, and then I just fuel up my inner child with some sugar cereal and start writing. My first draft of -14-, the book coming out next summer from Permuted Press, was just under 150,000 words and took me just under three months. I wrote for a magazine for several years, and I still write for a couple websites, and one thing being a journalist instilled in me is the need to write now. There’s no waiting for inspiration or being in the right mood—it’s a job and it has to get done. So I try to write about 2000 words a day, every day, and sometimes hit three or four.
Usually by the fourth draft I’m willing to show it to a tight little circle of friends and loved ones who are very trusted, very experienced, and very merciless. They will find the flaws I can’t see, no doubt about it. I rarely go past a sixth draft. I believe writing is rewriting, but I also believe a lot of the time rewriting can just be procrastination. By draft six I’ve had three serious passes and three hard polishes. It should be ready to show a publisher by now.
Craig: What are the key elements to a great story, and how do you approach them?
Peter: I don’t think I know “great.” I know “very good,” and like the man says, 80% of the time that’ll work 100% of the time.
A very good story has characters I’m interested in on some level or another. It’s set in a world I can understand, if not in the specifics at least in the basics. It’s got believable goals for the characters and reasons I can comprehend and relate to for why they want to achieve those goals. It’s got obstacles in the way, and those obstacles are just as real and motivated (in their own way) to stop the characters. Most bad stories tend to fail, I think, because one of these elements becomes too fantastic or incomprehensible. Or just doesn’t exist.
Jim Shooter, a comic writer and editor, wrote a great little piece decades ago when he was the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. He said that every good story has three parts—it establishes the norm, it introduces conflict that disrupts the norm, and it has a resolution that establishes the new norm. Then he showed how “Little Miss Muffett” is a perfect story. I’ve always remembered that column.
Craig: What makes a great character?
Peter: Again, great is tough to say. I think what makes a good character is a lot like a good story. I have to be able to relate to them. Probably even more important, I have to believe in them. They need to act, react, and sound like real people. That’s the trick. If I can believe in a character and identify with what they’re feeling or thinking, then by extension I have to believe in what happens to them. That’s always been King’s success. He creates believable people that we all can relate to, and then he pulls the rug out from under them. We believe in the people, so we believe it when they stumble and land in that big puddle of blood and alien flesh…
Craig: What are you working on? What can we expect next from you?
Peter: I think the next thing people are going to see from me is probably the e-book version of THE JUNKIE QUATRAIN. It’s four interlocking/ overlapping short stories that form a decent-sized novella. They were originally written as bonus material for Audible.com’s ZombieFest this summer, and came out with audiobooks by Bryon Morrigan, Eloise J. Knapp, and Ryan C. Thomas. Oh, and with my EX-PATRIOTS. Permuted Press bought the print rights and is going to put out all the stories together. So if anybody missed one or two of them, here’s the big chance to get the whole thing.
After that is -14-, a mystery-horror-genre novel which will probably be out next summer. That’s under the editorial knife at Permuted right now. And I’m currently working on EX-COMMUNICATION, the next EX-HEROES sequel, and if I get it done in time it might be out in time for Christmas 2012.
Craig: Thanks for joining us, Peter!
Peter: Many thanks! Hmmmm. I should probably get back to work…