From Classroom to Space Opera
Today we are having a conversation with Rolf Nelson, the author of The Stars Came Back, which has just been optioned by an indy filmmaker. Rolf is a fellow AoSHQ regular, and I am excited to hear that his good news.
Book Horde: Tell us a bit about yourself?
Rolf Nelson: My “day job” is that I’m a teacher, or at least trying to be. Being an honest and non-liberal teacher is hard when schools aim to make left-wing snowflakes and I think truth is more important than dogma. Previously I worked at Microsoft doing tech support.
BH: How did you get into writing?
RN: My kids love to read, but I didn’t like what was available for my kids that was currently published, so I decided to give writing something better a shot. I was a stay-at-home dad for a little while,so I wrote. I published it as a series of short installments on the blog of a friend of mine, Joe Huffman, which helped to gain a readership to buy when I finally published. I took the feedback seriously, and after I finished it I hired an editor to help buff it up a bit. I also hired a local graphic artist to do the cover and a few pieces of internal art. I was finally able to publish in Jan 2014. By March I’d sold about 2000 copies, peaking in the mid-teens on Amazon’s mil SF sales ranking.
RN: I think visually. I’d imagine how a scene would look on-screen or in real life. What’s going on in a person’s head is a mystery. So, I started writing visual only scenes. I quickly recognized that the basic screenplay format was useful, but after researching how to do it “right” and writing more than 10k words that way I knew it wasted a huge amount of space, far too much for an ordinary book. So I modified it so I could compactly write what was important – scene, actions, dialog – to develop the story, plot, and characters. It allowed for ambiguity on motive, foreshadowing, and more with a consistent view and no need to get into the messy parts of people, their thought process. It let things that might be imagined to the imaginations, while painting minimalistic but sufficient pictures.
BH: Do you prefer writing screenplays to novels?
RN: I don’t really see the difference, other than length. A typical screenplay is ~20k words. TSCB is about 165k words, after my initial editor convinced me to whack a scene with about 5k words. I’m comfy either way. The biggest reason for the one-star reviews was format. So I’ll mostly use that going forward.
BH: What happened next?
RN: At that time I was starting to become aware of the upheaval in the SF writing/publishing community, in part by reading the Ace of Spades book thread, but also by reading the PJ Media Friday Book Plugs, VoxDay’s blog, and several others.
In March (2014) Vox made a blog post about indie versus self publishing. It was unclear what might be best for me, so I emailed him. In reply he asked me to send him my manuscript, which unbeknownst to me he farmed out to a couple of slush-readers. The replies he got back were rather unusual (one: “hate the format”, two: “good story, hate the format”, reader three “LOVE IT, GET IT, NOW!”), so he looked into it further, and a few days later he gave me a call. Shortly thereafter we’d signed a deal.
RN: Yes. Part of the publishing deal was that I rewrite it into conventional prose. It was an excellent exercise, and we (the editor and I) also did a little bit of scene rearranging to make things better. But because it’s so long, only the first half was published as a physical book, Back from the Dead. The AI ship had been “resurrected” and was back as a player among the living (humans). The second half will be released eventually. But I’m a small fish in a small startup that rapidly gaining some huge names, and I’m honored to be among them in even a small way. Future will likely be written in ordinary prose.
BH: Oh good! I don’t like reading plays, personally, so I’m glad there’s a novel version. Do your students know you’ve written a book? What do they think?
RN: Yes. Some of them are surprised and want to look it up immediately. A few have bought it and read it. Some wonder why I’m teaching if I’m a writer – a brief explanation of the numbers involved clarifies exactly why it is. Most find it interesting and surprising. But most find my work with explosives (look up “Boomershoot”) to be more interesting. Or as I describe it to the administrators when telling them I need a few days off “I’m attending an applied high-energy phase-transition exothermic chemistry and physics workshop.”
BH: What other stories do you have published or in progress?
RN: I also have a short story in the Mil S/F anthology Riding The Red Horse called “Shakedown Cruise.” In 2015, because of the kerfuffle in the industry, I was a Rabid Puppy nominee for the John W. Campbell Best New SF writer award for 2015. (Shakedown cruise was the official reason, and the story included in the Hugo packet). I came in dead last in the final vote :-). But as far as I know, none of the others on that ballot have been offered a movie deal. :-) :-) :-)
BH: So, how did you get noticed by a filmmaker?
RN: Long story short, via the comments in Vox Day’s Blog, Vox Popoli.
BH: What’s the plan for the movie?
RN: Michael Neal is a small indie movie guy in VA, so we’re not expecting to raise millions and make a Big Hollywood (tm) production. “The Stars Came Back” is about 165k words, or about 16 hours of movie if shot as-is. So we aim to make a small portion of it that would make a good stand-alone movie and proof-of-concept that will be fine on its own (various dist channels to make money on it), but might be able to be leveraged into more money for a larger-scale production. It could easily be turned into a mini-series or 3-6 movies.
webpage (and FB page) he’s put together for the movie is just the start. He’ll shoot a promo trailer and put it on theGoFundMe page. How much we make will depend on how much can get raised initially. If most of Vox’s readers, and many of the Book Thread readers, and some of the Instapundit readers (I think I can wrangle a plug there, and yes there is a fair bit of overlap) and enough conservative blog readers each chip in a few bucks he can do a lot. I think it will be fun to work with him. He’s already run some actor headshots past me to see if they looked like the character I had in mind, and wants to work with mostly conservative/leaning actors and crew to bring the non-hollywood-esque story to life with people that share the ideals.
One weird detail – it seems to be attracting some attention from India, and I’ve received an email from the vice-chair of the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada asking if maybe we can help one another out in some way. Considering one of the main characters is Sikh, and is both respectable and a total bad-ass character, I’ll likely see what the possibilities might be. It would be a seriously strange, but funny, twist of fate to become a Bollywood hit.
BH: I know from the blurb that The Stars Come Back is science fiction set in space, but what kind of story is it? What sort of readers will like it?
RN: It’s classic Space Opera. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, the good guys risk it all to win, and literally take no prisoners while paying a high cost. It’s for people that think America is a force of good in the world, who think humans have vast potential, who think that faith is not a subject for derision (it’s not overtly or heavy-handidly pro-Christian – monks are good guys, the bishop is a bad guy, meaning they are human and imperfect, but it’s definitely pro-faith).
If you want manly men, feminine women (plenty of both to go around!), a place where marriages are applauded and only occasionally have shotguns involved, and bad-ass AIs who are sick and tired of taking shit from the universe, it’s for you. If you don’t want to read about angst, tortured pronouns, or soft-core porn in space, this is for you. If you want a victory to leave the enemy’s head on a pike atop a pile of bodies cut down by determined men while the women prepare for their (hoped for) return, if you root for the badly outnumbered and slightly quirky crew to win friends and influence people by being just that tough, this is for you.
BH: How amazing to write your first book and then just two years later have the possibility of seeing it on screen! What words of advice, encouragement, or warning do you have for writers just starting out?
RN: When writing, of course you need a good story, believable and relatable characters, a solid plot. But you also need an eye toward the audience. Think “why would anyone like this story?” What’s in it for the reader? And you need a marketing plan. How are you planning on getting yourself noticed among the million or so new books published each year? How are you going to build an audience to buy it when you hit the “publish” button, and know that more than your immediate family and two co-workers will buy it? If you have a thousand twitter followers, how many of them will buy? I’d guess 1% or 2%. That will push it into the top 100 in mil-SF for a day. OK, then what?
BH: Any parting thoughts before we wrap up?
RN: You can’t sell what you don’t write. So start writing! But don’t write for the money. Write because you have a story that someone beyond your immediate circle will care about enough to pay for.
BH: Thank you so much for spending time with us. Best of luck in this exciting project and I expect to hear more great news from you!
RN: With any luck, I’ll have a lot more exciting news to give. Thanks for the interview!