I'm a big science fiction reader. I also like to watch a lot of science fiction on television. But I have little interest in writing science fiction because it's the type of genre that I like to read when I want to switch off.
The best science fiction or speculative fiction books always have a big idea behind them. They have topics they want to tackle and often explain how these things may change our world for the better or worse.
I love learning from speculative science fiction authors because it's great to hear how they approach big ideas and turn them into a piece of work that readers can enjoy.
That's what this week's guest has done. His name is Gary Bengier, and he is the author of the award-winning speculative fiction or cross-fiction book, Unfettered Journey.
I was fascinated to catch up with Gary because he had another career before he became a science fiction author. He was the CFO for eBay back in the late 1990s. It's fascinating to talk to somebody who had a corporate career but secretly wanted to become a writer and an author.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Gary: You have to have, as they say, 'butt in the seat time.' You have to actually sit down and write. Start planning out that. How many hours, how many days are you going to assign to your writing task? Then track yourself. What is measured is what gets done.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: What should you know about writing speculative fiction? Hi there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. I'm a big science fiction reader. I'm currently reading the book Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. One of my favorite recent science fiction books is The Three-Body Problem, which I read during the pandemic. I also like to watch a lot of science fiction on television and on Netflix, because I'm a little bit nerdy. I don't really have a huge interest in writing science fiction, though, because it's the type of genre that I like to read late at night when I want to switch off.
I find that the best science fiction books or the best speculative fiction books always have a big idea behind them. They have some topic that they want to tackle, what perhaps is a bit of philosophy underpinning the actual book, or maybe they delve into science like AI and also biotech, and explain how these things may change our world for the better or for the worse. I still love hearing from and learning from speculative science fiction authors, because it's great to hear how they approach big ideas and turn them into a piece of work, or a good story, or a novel that readers can enjoy.
That's what this week's guest has done. His name is Gary Bengier, and he is the author of the award-winning speculative fiction or cross fiction book, Unfettered Journey. I was fascinated to catch up with Gary because he actually had another career before he became a science fiction author. He was the CFO for eBay back in the late 1990s, and eBay went public. So, it's really interesting to talk to somebody who had a corporate career but actually secretly wanted to become a writer and an author. After he left eBay and later retired, he pursued that dream. He used many of his learnings to underpin his new book.
My key takeaway from listening to Gary is the importance of measuring your output as a writer. Perhaps this is a learning from the corporate world. But basically, if you have a day job, you're held to account with your goals, your responsibilities on what you do, and what you need to accomplish by a given week or a given month, that's not really much different for writers and authors, except we need to ship words. We need to hit a word count, and we need to ship drafts over to our editors by set date. We also need to meet publication deadlines. Gary gives some practical tips for getting your butt in the chair and doing just that.
I hope you enjoy this week's interview with Gary. If you do, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes store, because your reviews and ratings help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast. You could, of course, share the show with another writer or another friend who enjoys speculative fiction or perhaps wants to tackle this genre themselves. If you have feedback about this week's episode, I'm also on Twitter @BryanJCollins.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Gary.
Gary: Bryan, I'm delighted to be here. Thank you.
Bryan: Yeah, it's really nice to talk to you this afternoon. It's afternoon time in Dublin. I understand you're on the West Coast, so it's early morning for you. I was fascinated to read about your career, because it's not often you meet somebody who's in the corporate world and then decided I'm going to become a genre fiction author. Could you give our listeners a bit of background information about who you are?
Gary: Yes, sure. I spent over 30 years most basically working in Silicon Valley, in a whole variety of technologies, everything from bioscience to chip design, computer peripherals, video over the internet — the technology behind what we're using right now — and then the internet itself. I was Chief Financial Officer at eBay. I took them public back in 1998. I was there through some of the crazy years when the company was growing hairs on fire. So, I hang around until we were several thousand employees and billions of dollars’ worth of stuff being sold. Then I retired and went on to other things, including writing this book.
Bryan: eBay, correct me if I'm wrong, went public back in 1998 or 1999?
Gary: Yeah, 1998. It still is doing a great run around the world. So, helping lots of average folks make a living on the platform.
Bryan: Yeah, certainly. I can imagine it's probably difficult to find time to write back then. But did you always want to become a genre fiction author?
Gary: Well, I wouldn't describe myself as a genre fiction author at all, but I've had this interest in exploring certain kinds of ideas, philosophical ideas, for over 30 years. Ideas like, what is free will? Do we have it or not? So, after I retired from tech career, I went back to school. I backfilled an astrophysics degree. Then I got interested in some philosophy, and I backfilled a philosophy undergraduate degree. I then went on to get a master's in philosophy focusing on theory of mind, focusing on ideas like what is human consciousness. Those ideas is actually what drove me to want to write this book, to share it with a broader audience.
Bryan: All good science fiction certainly has big questions like that at the heart of us. Had you written much up until you went back to university or college?
Gary: In a business career, you learn to write all the time. That's for a purpose. It's a particular kind of writing. But I took some creative writing classes over the years. So, I've always been interested in writing. But this was different. I had to go back and actually learn the whole craft from the ground up. For example, I bought 100 books on craft writing. I attended about eight different writers’ conferences in the early days just to get a feel for what was going on, what were people thinking.
I would actually recommend both of those steps to all aspiring writers. You have to learn your craft. There's a lot of very good advice books out there. I think it's really important to get out and actually meet other writers, and learning both about the craft and about the marketplace. Because those are two very different topics.
Bryan: Any particular books about the craft that you picked up or read over the years, that's made a big impact on you?
Gary: There was about 100 of them. The process was read three books on plot. Then you're working on your outline, you're working on your book. You're incorporating the ideas. Read several books on character. Read a book about dialogue. Then after you've immersed in that, read a few more in suspense, tension, dynamic tension, character arc. There are so many.
Since I'm writing this particular book, Villains, how do you write villains? There are so many different aspects of the craft. There's a lot of good advice out there. Just, I would say, go out and look for the reviews on books for each of those kinds of topics. But there's probably another 10 more that I didn't name.
Bryan: Are you like somebody who doesn't buy into the stereotype that people or writer focused on numbers and are focused on the written words, that there's no real in between?
Gary: No, I don't think that there's one or the other. Our minds are very plastic. They do lots of things very well. In terms of the writing craft, I do think that there is an illusion about whether you write in an organized way, the planners as they talked about, or the pantsers, those that fly by the seat of their pants. They're sort of waiting for the muse to strike them. I think that the muse is not going to strike you unless you have some good ideas. You're going to write yourself down a cul-de-sac and be stuck. Your plot is not going to be very organized.
What I strive to do is to be one of those writers. You know the writer that when you get into a book, you have the feeling of the writer is holding you in their hands, and that you're going someplace, that you have confidence that the writer is taking you in a certain direction. I think to do that, you really have to know where you're going as a writer.
So, I'm a big fan of the idea of writing a really long outline and thinking about where you're going. Then to be methodical about that. Within that kind of structure, the muse will strike you. Because the creative process is not going to be bound up by that kind of process. You've got plenty of room to be creative. So, that's my advice about process.
As I said, I'm a big fan of Scrivener as a tool, by the way, because you needn't worry about formatting and all that sort of nonsense for a long time. But it helps you to have a visual look at the whole piece of art all at one time. You can look at the structure. You can move around pieces of the structure and think about how they fit. Then as you start writing, you will find that, at least I find, that there's far less of an issue with the writer's block because you know where you're going. Hemingway said leave a little bit at the bottom of the well for the next day. He picked up the pen the next day. You know exactly where you left off, and then you can get going.
Bryan: Yeah, I think he famously used to stop in the middle of a sentence, so that when he would start the following day he'd pick up from where he left off. I agree. Scrivener is great. It has a little bit of a learning curve that can put off some authors. But particularly, for outlining and organizing sections in a big book, it's accents because you can drag and drop chapters and even entire acts.
So, when you came up with the idea for Unfettered Journey, or even to take a step backwards, the concepts that underpin Unfettered Journey, did you ever consider writing them as nonfiction? Do you also thought fiction was the best way to express them?
Gary: No, I thought the fiction was the best way from the beginning. From my philosophical journey, thinking about consciousness, what is the mind? What is that 'I' that's the center of each of us? Those ideas were sort of something that I wanted to explore.
Actually, I wrote a little philosophical book, which is actually called Unfettered Journey Appendices: Philosophical Explorations on Time, Ontology, and the Nature of Mind. That's focused on the professional philosophers. This novel was actually an attempt to bring some of those ideas to a more general audience. So, that was sort of first.
This was second. In Unfettered Journey, I set it in the near future, which is in the year 2161, 140 years in the future. It's a hard science view of the future. What I did that for is because then the setting, it's less likely to go get old and be outdated. It let me explore many of these ideas in more detail. So, that's the reason why speculative fiction. But I think you mentioned this is cross genre. It's an adventure and love story, just happened to be said in the near future.
Bryan: I understand the book covers themes like, will AI cause the most changes to our lives in the future? What happens when robots produce everything, and how can we find meaning and purpose when this type of reality comes through?
Gary: Yes, exactly. So, it's a hard science view. It's informed by the fact that I had the fortune to participate in so many of these really important technologies that are driving the way life is today. As I think about how these come together, quite honestly, I think that speculative fiction, science fiction, many writers don't do that very well, because they aren't as familiar with for many technologies. So, so much of science fiction gets it wrong. Imagine if you wrote a science fiction book before 2007 when the iPhone came out, your story is probably not very realistic even today, right?
Bryan: Unless it says Star Trek in the 1960's, so it can kind of preview the iPhone.
Gary: But then you have Star Trek, and so you have faster than light spaceships. So, that's not going to happen. It's well known that Einstein's theory of relativity is well-established. So, we're not going to be able to do that. We have an odd idea about the future driven by The Terminator. The robots are going to kill us. So, we're going to upload our brains. Lots of silly nonsense, that it's just isn't going to happen.
I was looking at the future and thinking what's highly likely? With that as a frame, actually, there were enough interesting issues that I think we realistically as human beings will face. So, with that as a backdrop, I think for this particular future for humans, this next century is going to be driven by two kinds of technology. One is bioscience, which is going to change an enormous amount of things. We're going to live longer. We're not going to live forever, I don't think. We're going to cure lots of diseases. We're going to be healthier later in life.
But the second technology is actually the one we will notice more. That will be the impact of the AI and robotics. Because I think you can look at what's happening in robots already. If anyone's seen the dancing robots in the Boston Dynamics videos on YouTube, it's obvious that this is going to continue. We're now following the war in Ukraine, and look what drones are doing. We can imagine that the military will spend lots of money to make robots more and more practical for the battlefield. So, I think it's highly likely — if not inevitable — that in this century and century and a half, we will have robots walking around among us. So, that's a reality. What is the world going to be like when we've got lots of robots, and then fewer jobs?
Bryan: Speaking of robots replacing jobs, do you worry that robots will replace authors?
Gary: Well, they already are trying. Have you seen the AIs that write books now?
Bryan: I've tried some of the AI software for short articles. It's okay. It's not going to win any awards. It's helpful for writing a headline or something very simple, but you couldn't write an entire novel with it just yet.
Gary: Yeah, exactly. That's a good question. Will it ever happen? Well, that gets to one of the themes in my book. Will AI and robots actually ever be conscious? Will they ever be sentients, having true feeling, consciousness? Will they be like us in that way? Many of the philosophers of mine have some serious doubt. There's something called the 'hard problem of consciousness.' We're not even anywhere close to understanding consciousness. So, that's a deep and difficult problem. So, one of the things I post in my book is, "Will robots ever be conscious?"
Bryan: Those are all big ideas, Gary. When you were outlining Unfettered Journey, you described you like to write really detailed outlines. Could you walk us through that process and how long that normally takes you, and what it involves?
Gary: Yeah, as I mentioned, I like Scrivener. I happen to be a person that I'm visual. Seeing it on the page is helpful. Seeing them, the story and the outline, in a way that you can actually look at the whole piece is important. Scrivener helps you do that.
Then thinking the next level down to what are the main themes you're trying to bring about, thinking about your characters, and where do they appear. Then outlining each of your characters and thinking about what they're doing, how do you interact? Then really importantly, you're down to the scene level. What scenes do you plan to have in your work? Thinking about scenes then, what are you trying to accomplish with each and every scene? Because if the scene does not have a really important purpose, then leave it out.
So, I actually found that each scene had three or four different goals in mind. In an outline, I would write those goals. I want to advance this part of the character's emotional journey. This is going to advance the character arc. This one's going to demonstrate how these two characters are foils for each other, et cetera. There are lots and lots of goals you have for each scene. This is going to cause this particular kind of conflict. This is going to foreshadow something else that happens later in the book. When you start doing it that way, you realize what an intricate puzzle it is to write good fiction. That's what makes it fun, actually.
Then once you start doing that, you got a really strong outline. It does a couple things. It lets you sit down and actually be able to write methodically. Then the characters start waking up in the middle of the night and whispering in your ear, "No, I'm not going to do that." They start talking to you. So, there is this tremendous amount of creativity that comes out at that point. I did not find that the process of trying to outline and be planful about the scenes in any way impacted negatively the creative process.
Bryan: Did it take you long to get from that detailed outline to a polished first draft or a draft that you could send to an editor?
Gary: Well, it did. Then I think another step that I would highly recommend to writers is that you have to have, as they say, 'butt in the seat time.' You have to actually sit down and write. Start planning out that. How many hours, how many days are you going to assign to your writing task? Then track yourself. What is measured is what gets done.
In that process, I found, well, life intervenes. So, I didn't write as much as I wanted. I'd hope to get something done this month, but a little that got done. When you do that process, then you start to see the number of words you've written on the page increase, and you start to measure that. That process, I think, was tremendously helpful, too. So, that intense process took a year and a half for this book.
Bryan: Were you writing at a set time and for a set amount each day?
Gary: No, what I essentially did is that I outlined my calendar against when I was going to write. So, I planned a few weeks ahead. Then sometimes that happened, and sometimes it didn't. But just that structure really did help push along the word count and the number of scenes that were finished. So, you need at least that minimum structure.
Bryan: It makes sense. So, you spent a year and a half on the outlining and the first draft?
Gary: Right. Intensely, yes. Then over a year, from that point, on the editing, I found dozen beta readers, various friends. I actually printed up what looked like real books and gave them to them. They marked them all up for me. Then when those came back, I had sort of draft one and a half. Then I went—
Bryan: Did you use a bespoke service, or did you use Amazon to do proof copies? How did you—
Gary: No, I just did a fairly inexpensive knockoff. It can be a half dozen bound copies service. Those are very inexpensive.
Bryan: I'm just curious. Because when you write a science fiction, it's fair to say that not everybody will love reading science fiction. I love it, but some of my friends if I gave them a science fiction book, they wouldn't know what to do with it. So, did you go out and purposely pick people in your social circle who you knew enjoyed the genre?
Gary: No, I just picked friends that I thought would be willing to invest the time, because that's a big-time commitment to actually have someone read it.
Bryan: It is, yes. To read a book that big, it is. How did you handle getting feedback you didn't agree with or conflicting feedback? Because what I found when I use beta readers is, some people will say things that's well-meaning or well intentioned, but it's not actually anything you can do anything with. Then if you compare their feedback to someone else, one person says, "I love this bit." The other person says, "I hate this bit." You're left wondering, what do I do?
Gary: Well, as the author, you're in charge of your work, ultimately. So, you thank everyone for all their time and all their helpful advice. But you just don't necessarily take it all. So, you're trying to synthesize all that. Then that's just the first step.
At that point, then, I engaged using some professional editors. Quite a number of them, actually. The good news and the bad news in the industry today is that the number of major publishers is diminishing. They keep on buying each other. It's actually a very bad business.
Bryan: It's a big case in the United States at the moment, the antitrust case.
Gary: Exactly. Yes, we won once by another one. So, we get down to the Big Four from the Big Five. Again, it's a bad business. From a business perspective, what they've tried to do is do acquisitions, acquire the next guy, fire half of the editors, make the other half that are left work twice as hard. What that does mean for the writer is that if you want to take the traditional route, which is spend the time to find an agent, which could take you a year. Then spend the time to have the agent try to rustle up a major book deal for you, which could easily take another year, if it's successful at all. So, rather than take that time—
Then if you do that, unfortunately, the problem is that the editorial support you have through a major publisher is far less than what you used to have 20, 30 years to go. But you can actually buy those editors off the street. There's an enormous number of freelance editors that are available, and fabulous people.
Bryan: Yeah, I've used Reedz. It's quite good. You can find editors who worked for some of the Big Five or now Big Four publishing companies, and work with them for $1,000, or $2,000, or $3,000, depending on the length of your manuscript. But I'm curious. Just go back to something you said there, you worked with several editors. Most authors might work with one editor, and then a proofreader. What made you enlist the help of several editors?
Gary: What did is that I found that I loved the process. I found it kept on getting better. As an example, at one point, I had three editors and myself, in a Google doc, going through the manuscript, essentially a line at a time. We had a good time. It was tremendously fun. Because as the author, it's your work. You're spending time talking about it. At least, if you are open to taking advice, then you can have a little back and forth read on that work. It kept on getting better.
Bryan: A lot of authors would find that stressful — to have a couple of different editors giving feedback at the same time.
Gary: Yeah, well, I found it tremendously fun.
Bryan: Oh, wow. So, how long did the editing process take when you have feedback from that many people?
Gary: Let's see, it took almost a year.
Bryan: Okay. Wow. So, how many revisions did the book go through?
Gary: I personally went through it. This is a long book. This is 140,000 words. I went through it 20 times in detail, at least.
Bryan: Well, it worked. The book has several awards, and it has some great five-star reviews.
Gary: Well, the book has won 10 different book awards. It's now out in eight languages.
Bryan: Did you arrange for translations yourself, or did you know translators in those different languages?
Gary: I did arrange for myself. I have found some friends in academics that could direct me to some other folks that they thought were really outstanding translators.
Bryan: What made you pick the countries or geographies that you picked for those translations?
Gary: I just looked at the most important languages for literature in the world. You start at the top. We went with the eight languages. I didn't get Chinese. It was too difficult to find a literary Chinese translator. Quite honestly, my book would probably be banned in China anyway. So, I wasn't sure that it would ever get in the country. But I think that those languages cover far more than half of all of the literate languages where you find the vast majority of books written.
Bryan: So, you have German, Spanish—
Gary: Italian, French, Japanese, Brazilian, Portuguese, Russian. I even have a British English edition.
Bryan: Nice. I'm impressed. Did you get different covers for different countries?
Gary: No, I found actually through the editors, and you sort of get meshed into that world. So, there's lots of people that know each other. So, through that, I was able to find both a wonderful book cover designer who happened to be in Copenhagen. I found a layout designer who happened to be in Switzerland. I'd like to keep a standard iconic look to the cover. So, only the title changes.
Bryan: Interesting. The book has been out for a while, as 2020. So, during the pandemic, are you busy working on a follow up?
Gary: No, one of the things I will suggest to writers is, this is a lot of work. The industry is a really difficult industry. The figures I've found are roughly there are something on the order of 4,000 books that come out every day. So, with that enormous flood of books, I think that writers should write what you are passionate about. Write what you know. We don't need another genre book that's like all the others, at least in my opinion. Because the world is flooded with those. So, you can spend enormous amount of time, and that will disappear into that whole wave of other books that are coming out.
How do you make yourself different? How do you write a good book, a great book? I think you have to write about what you're passionate about. So, I have this one really, I think, big idea that has to do with consciousness, with free will. Ask some important questions. I do that in the context of the future, to ask how does one find meaning and purpose in this technological world? So, that's why I wrote this book.
Bryan: Okay. Great. Are you writing anything else, like a different type of book or a different topic?
Gary: Well, I'm still quite busy with the marketing. There is writing, and then there is marketing. In fact, one of my favorite writers’ conferences in the US is one that was in Boston called The Muse and The Marketplace, which deals with those two aspects. I will caution aspiring writers that it's an enormous amount of work to think about the marketplace.
Whether you find a traditional publisher or not, you're still going to have to do so many of the same steps. You're going to have to build a writer platform. You're going to have to figure out how to market it yourself. You're going to have to be out there in front of folks. Now, these days, you need to be fast with a whole lot of tools. You're going to need a website, whether you get someone else to help you do it, or you are involved yourself. You're constantly doing something on the book. It's a huge learning curve to do all that stuff.
For all writers, don't think that just because you've finished the book, you're done. Otherwise, if you just think the publisher is going to take it, forget about it. It's going to disappear down the black hole and end up in number 2 million on Amazon.
Bryan: Good advice. Gary, where can people go to if they want to read your book or learn more about you?
Gary: Yeah, they can go to my website, garyfbengier.com. I also have the websites in a dozen countries, whether it's the UK — with co.uk — or Germany, Italy, France, Japan, Portugal, et cetera. You can find the book on Amazon and in bookstores, wherever you buy books. Because it's on Amazon, it's through IngramSpark around the world. So, Unfettered Journey.
Bryan: Thanks, Gary.
Gary: Thanks very much.
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