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How can you get your foot in the publisher’s door? 

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Trevor Richardson is a man of many creative talents. He writes. He runs a literary website. He designs book covers. He creates and edits videos. All of these abilities stem from a passion for creating and a willingness to work hard to craft his skills.

Richardson is the author of American Bastards and the editor of the website The Subtopian. He has two more books on the way: Dystopia Boy and Honeysuckle & Irony.

Today Mash Stories begins a three-part interview with Richardson. In part one we talk about writing, getting published, networking and exercising your creative muscles.

Josh Flynn: What inspired you to create The Subtopian? What was your initial vision?

Trevor D. Richardson

Trevor D. Richardson, Writer & Founder of The Subtopian

Trevor Richardson: When editing my first novel, American Bastards, I ran across a word that I did not remember writing: “subtopia.” At the time of that writing, I thought it was an invention, the idea being a place just beneath a Utopian society, as in a “sub-par Utopia.” Hence, subtopia. It turns out that I hadn’t so much invented a word as misused it: “subtopia” was a British term relating to suburban sprawl. The concept of a place between two indefinite fates – Utopia or Dystopia – appealed to both my political and sociological interests as a writer and my fascination with science fiction. That, in the end, became, for lack of a better word, the manifesto of the publication.

The result: The Subtopian uses the website to mine awesome fiction which we then take to print at the end of each year.

What we look for is just that intangible element of “fun” or “cool.” You just know it when you see it.

Josh: You are also a writer. Can you tell our readers a bit about your novel American Bastards? What subjects or themes are you drawn to as a writer?

Trevor: Well, American Bastards is my first novel, but I actually have two more coming up behind it. My

american bastards second, Honeysuckle & Irony, was just released through a little publishing company in Washington called Rainy Day Reads and takes on ideas like labour rights, gay marriage, and racism, but through an allegorical telling of Americans discovering the existence of mythological creatures like Bigfoot, mermaids, and centaurs living on our soil, which we promptly force to join the work force. My next book, Dystopia Boy, which is due out later this summer, is a science fiction story about America’s need for absolute security and surveillance which escalates to the point of putting thought-monitoring devices into people’s minds and tracking us through a vast network of hidden cameras.

I like to write about a certain dichotomy that is evident in my country, this push and pull between culture and efficiency, of valuing experience or valuing wealth. It’s the one thing that is common in all of my work and something I dedicate a great deal of time and thought to, both in my personal life and at Subtopian.

As for American Bastards, I started that book when I was 20. I remember having a brief discussion with Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, at one of his readings some years ago and he told me that there are some things in Fight Club that he finds downright embarrassing. At the time, I was shocked to hear that, but it made a kind of sense when he explained himself. He said that:

“You take so much time writing a novel, so much life and experience happens to you along the way, that you’re not the same person when it’s finished. To look back one, two, even three books later is a bit like looking at your high school year book. It’s nostalgic, sure, but it’s also a load of embarrassment.” Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club

Josh: How do you divide up your time between your own work, running The Subtopian, and other endeavours? What advice do you have for writers on time management and juggling multiple projects?

Trevor: My number one message, above all else, is that you do not rely on “inspiration” or “your muse.” For me, it’s total hogwash. There is one thing I always say and I’ll say it here:

Imagine how difficult it would be to learn how to ride a bike if you only tried when you were in the mood. You’d never get very good at riding. Train. Work. Sweat. Get mad. Write total crap if you have to, but write and do it on purpose. I view writing as athletic: you have to push through the pain, push past that wall, and keep moving. The more you do it, the easier it gets. I am able to juggle so many different projects because I have worked hard to get to where I am. It used to take me days or weeks to get an idea down on paper, but for the most part, now, I can write an article for Subtopian in a single evening.

Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech called “The Strenuous Life.” In that speech he mentioned that the downfall of America will be the pursuit of luxury over work. He said that this country was made great by struggle and hard labour and that we should only view luxury as a reward for such work, not as the end goal in and of itself. Such a lifestyle would result in the breakdown of our national spirit, the decline of innovation, and the degradation of our standing on the global stage. This, I fear, has started to become true. However, Teddy didn’t just mean manual labour; he made room for other things by specifying that you can labour at art and science just as much as bricklaying, and that we should be doing that. I try to take this to heart and pursue my work with as much drive and focus as the men who sculpted Mount Rushmore. This may sound lofty or egotistical, and if so I apologise, but it’s the only way I know how to describe it.

The other bit of advice I have, which is along the same lines, is that your writing voice and your speaking voice should be at least somewhat similar. If you’re concerned that your manner of speech would not translate well to the page then simply improve the way you talk. It may seem kind of funny or backward, but if you focus on being articulate in your daily life then you are, in a way, practising your writing on your friends and family. When you sit down to write that articulation is already present in you and will be that much closer to the surface when you choose to write.

Here is some advice for creative people struggling with time management: if you can devote thousands of hours to keeping up with your favorite shows or screwing around on Facebook then you clearly have the ability to focus on something for long periods of time. Channel that same energy, that same obsessive behaviour, into improving yourself and your work and watch the results. Succeeding at writing, art, music, or anything creative is about sacrifice and determination. It has far less to do with talent or inspiration than you are typically told. Don’t wait for something magical to gift you the power to write a novel; do it because you insist and aren’t taking no for an answer.

Josh: You recently designed the cover and interior for your upcoming book Dystopia Boy. Do you suggest writers learn other skills such as design, editing, and video work? What are the benefits and why are additional skills needed in this day and age?

Trevor: Diversify. That’s the way to succeed. If you think you’re going to be able to quit your day job just because you wrote something cool, you have a lot to learn. I recently heard a quote from a comic artist, Rick Ellis, who said if there is anything else you can do and be happy doing, do it. His point is this is hard work and there is way more to it than just being able to tell a story.

I got into design as a means of supplementing my income because, even with three novels under my belt, I still have to work my day job. Turns out I really love designing books and, after all this time, I just get them. I get what they need. So I do that on the side and it not only helps me earn a little extra income, but it puts me in touch with all kinds of interesting, useful people.

Josh: Due to your design work and the relationship you built with the publisher, you were also able to sell a previous manuscript to them. Can you talk about the importance and benefits of building relationships in writing and how beginning writers can get started networking?

honeysuckleandironyfrontTrevor: I published Honeysuckle & Irony because I knew the publisher. I had been doing cover art for her company for a little while and remembered this old manuscript I had lying around. I asked if she wanted it, sent it over, and she read it overnight. The next day we were signing contracts. The point is, I got to side step that whole “query letter” process because I was already behind the lines, so to speak. The publishing world is much more tight-knit than you are led to believe. Most book deals don’t get struck up through letters and queries and email, they’re struck over coffee and beer when colleagues are hanging out. So go find a way to get some contacts and watch the doors open. Edit for people, volunteer as a proofreader, do art if you can, just get in there in any way that suits your abilities.

Look at it this way, the dreaded query letter is the best way publishers have found to get to know a total stranger without reading impossibly long letters or just blindly reading a manuscript that they may have no interest in. Until we figure out a better way (and for whoever does this, let me know because I want to use it) the letter, the literary cold call, is the best we have. However, they are impersonal, often dull, and are wrought with potential footfalls and mistakes for the young writer. When you know someone personally, or can get recommended personally, it takes out the need for that literary cold call. For this reason, the need to associate with your peers is crucial.

Writing a book is typically a very solitary process, but selling one is the total opposite. If you can’t figure out how to come out of your shell, or leave your study, or get out among writers and publishers, you’ll likely never get past the famed rejection letter. It’s that simple. I wish someone had told me that ten years ago: I could probably be on book six by now instead of book three.

For me, the best way to do that was starting The Subtopian. I was continually faced with the same refrain from agents and publishers: you write well, but you don’t have a place in the current market. I finally hit this crescendo, a kind of breaking point, where I said, “To hell with that, I’ll just go make my own market.” The Subtopian is the result of that decision. I wanted to create a place where writers and publishers and editors could commingle and draw from each other’s resources. The idea, for me, is that on my own I have very little resources to work with, but if a dozen or a hundred people like me got together we could bypass the whole system. We could be a movement. So, yeah, start your own magazine, or better yet, email me with an idea and let’s work together. I’m not joking.

We just concluded a writing competition where The Subtopian has selected twenty-five stories that were all written independently of each other but will all fit into a complete narrative when pieced together. The Subtopian Press, our publishing company, is putting this out as a book and we’re having the work performed on stage by a local theatre troupe. This is just one example of how you can do something awesome if you put the right minds together. Nothing could be more important for a writer.

Thanks for joining us for part one of our interview with Trevor Richardson. Come back next week when we talk about how writers can learn editing from reading and improve their own writing from editing others’ work.

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A writer and journalist, Josh Flynn is Mash Stories’s official journalist and one of the main blog writers. His essays, stories, and articles have appeared in The Indianapolis Star, Nuvo Newsweekly, Slam Magazine, genesisNerdSpan, and Punchnel’s. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshflynn.