Portland sunsets and a Brass Automaton: An Interview with D. Paul Angel

d_paulangelIn the breaking days of a new indie novella blending Snow White with The Terminator and placing them in a steampunk world, I talked to one of its authors about what it takes to write, about trials and life and dreams, about books and authors that inspire, about his amazing photography skills, about the future and what excitement lies there and of course about Brass Automaton, including a neat little sneak peek behind the scenes! Paul offers very healthy thoughts about the self-publishing scene and delivers some fantastic links to things he loves and respects, so I urge you to check them on the way to knowing who D. Paul Angel is and why you should be on the lookout for his name.

Tell me about your journey in becoming a writer. Was there a particular moment or event that turned you to writing? What was the first story you published online about?

I have enjoyed writing since I was in elementary school.  I loved coming up with stories and letting my imagination run wild.  What I did not like, was having to go back through and correct my work.  So as I was going through the editing, I would cut significant portions of the story during the revisions just to avoid having to copy it over again.  I should add that this was well before personal computers, so everything was written in longhand, with the rough draft in pencil and the final in pen.

We would also have to draw a picture to go with our story, which I also enjoyed, but I would be far too ambitious in my drawing so I would have to rush to finish that too, because by this time all my friends would already be outside playing.  Priorities!  It’s interesting looking back and realizing that I still enjoy the initial flurry of writing significantly more than the tedious work of revising.  (I’m sure I’m totally alone in that too!)  And, more importantly, that my biggest weakness continues to be follow through.  I’m getting there, but I’m still learning the discipline required for the revising (and revising and revising) needed to continue improving.

Which brings us to the first story I ever posted online: Dagger of Delphi It is about the daughter of an oppressive King who is deeply affected by the suffering of her people, and must ultimately choose whether or not to take the throne herself.  Or something like that.  Truth be told I winced reading it, and I’m not wholly sure I even understand what my intentions were.  That being said, I posted it 11 years ago now, and I have grown substantially as both a writer and a person since then.

How do you go about your writing? Do you have a specific place? 

I have desk in my room where I now do most of my writing.  I have had mixed success over the years writing on the couch with my laptop.  It works pretty well for editing, especially with Netflix, but it can be distracting writing first drafts.  So I’m steadily learning how to set aside time every day to write, and make use of the writing space that I have.  It is, again, part of the growing process.

That being said I do some of my best writing in coffee shops, pubs, and Thai restaurants.  I invested in a cheap Chromebook, and it has been great for this- just pure word to page.  There is something to be said for being alone amongst people, and letting the myriad of conversations and crowd’s energy blend into a gentle hum of background noise.  Since I live in Portland, I’m blessed by a stupidly huge number of amazing coffee shops and pubs.  There’s just something about the ritual of writing while enjoying a drink that’s inspiring.  Thai also has a certain magic to it which I discovered quite by accident over lunch.  The heat in the peppers made me eat it slow, and it ended up creating a rhythm between the writing and the eating.  So now I mix in a couple Thai restaurants amongst the pubs and coffee shops.

Outside of writing who is D. Paul Angel? I know you do a lot of photography aside from writing, so is there a particular mood you like to capture and set with your photos? 

As with most of the other writers I’ve been fortunate enough to meet online, I have a dayjob that pays the bills and takes up most of my time.  I’ve been in the legal field as a paralegal for 15 years now.  My specialty is supporting trials and I have gotten pretty good at it.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that trials tend to be all consuming in both time and energy.  Trials can last anywhere from a couple days to several weeks, and the prepping takes even longer.  So when I am working on a large case my ability to write is hugely diminished.  That being said, while trials are exhausting, and mentally draining, they’re still rewarding over all.

Because of the work I do, I have always been vague about my professional career, but I’ve been happy to share most of my creative side online.  The writing is a huge part of that, with my photography being the other significant part of my repertoire.  With my photos I find myself drawn to capturing transitions, textures, light, and scale.  I’ve come to find that there is a lot of beauty throughout the world, even in the most familiar of places and things.  I have uploaded quite a few of my shots to Flickr, and I have been posting a lot on Instagram  too.  Flickr is all the shots from my DSLR, (a Canon T3 for the camera nerds in the audience) so they are higher quality and “bigger” scenes.  My Instagram shots are captured with my phone, so they are “smaller” scenes, and are definitely more found shots, as opposed to the shots on Flickr which I’ve sought out.

In 2016 I made the jump to selling my photos as a member of the Three Rivers Artist Guild in Oregon City, just outside of Portland, Oregon.  While I only had a modicum of commercial success, I learned quite a bit in the process.  I certainly would have liked to have sold more, but my sales did ultimately cover my costs of printing and such.  I even turned a bit of a profit, though only just enough to buy a large coffee, instead of a small.  I’ll sell in the gallery again this year too, and will start selling cards in addition to prints.

Finally, while I don’t have one definitively favorite photo, almost all of my favorite photos are either on my prints page, or my cards page.

Tell me about Brass Automaton. It looks really amazing and that cover art is just fantastic. I read the final, complete version in a heartbeat and I loved it. How did that start and where is it today? 

Brass Automaton was a fantastic experience.  I met Mark through #FridayFlash posts a few years back. He wrote a stream of consciousness story called Beginnings , which he wasn’t sure what to do with.  I volunteered to write the sequel, Overboard, and then he and others picked it up and it became the Beginnings Project.  I wasn’t able to contribute anymore to that story, but we stayed friends via blog posts and Twitter.  Then out of the blue he emailed me about a story he had just written called Brass Automaton.  He had rolled a pair of dice against a table of stories to determine which pair he would do a mashup of.  The luck of the dice gave him Snow White and Terminator, which I found both hilarious and awesome.  So when he asked if I’d be interesting in co-authoring it with him and I jumped at it.

clockwork-apple-new-flattened

“This story happened when His Majesty was still a young man, a huntsman to be precise. It is the tale of a clockwork machine from the future, with a mission to terminate His Majesty to prevent him from meeting his future queen.” Jarvis paused for effect. “Then, she was known only as Snow White.” – Overview for Brass Automaton

We started with us alternating a couple chapters each, but we deliberately had very little communication between postings.  It quickly turned into the writing equivalent of, “Hold my beer and watch this!”  We tried to one up each other with each chapter, but more in terms of showing off than writing the other into corners.  Ultimately, it was all about trying to make it as good as possible, and pushing each other to get there.  At the time I was never expecting we would publish it, (or that anyone would enjoy it so much!) so I wrote with absolute abandon.  It was incredibly fun to write and I’m looking forward to starting on the sequel in the Spring.  This time, however, we’re going to collaborate more and make the chapters flow together more smoothly.

The cover art was all Mark.  He’s got some mad Photoshop skills and put the whole thing together.  It turned out beautifully and I have had a lot of people tell me how much they like it.  (I know Mark is already thinking about the sequel’s cover too!)

How did the experience of collaborating with another writer feel? 

Collaborating with Mark was great.  He’s very easy going but a driven writer, which I needed.  I tend to write in fits and spurts, and have struggled with getting word to page on a daily, consistent basis.  Mark was a huge encouragement, and having him drop his chapters, so rapidly meant I couldn’t procrastinate on mine.  Beyond just originating the story, this project wouldn’t have happened without him, let alone getting it published.

Was it a challenge to create the Brass Automaton universe? Were there any bumps on the road, did you have a lot of different opinions as to how to build up the world and the characters?

The biggest bumps in the road for us came from external sources.  Work and life take a toll when writing isn’t your main support, and we were both hit with extra busy times outside of writing.  We had actually written through about 2/3 of it when we hit our respective walls, and nothing more was done on it for some months.  Then Mark got over his wall, and was inspired again.  I was knee deep in trials at the time, so when he asked if I was cool with him finishing Brass Automaton I didn’t hesitate giving him carte blanche to finish.

The closest thing to a conflict we had was after I finished my second set of chapters.  I thought it was a great ending point, so wrote what I thought was an excellent setup for Mark’s ultimate finish.  I emailed him and told him what I was doing and he did the electronic equivalent of laughing before turning my “climax” into a battle creating far more story to explore.

Which was your favorite character to write in Brass Automaton?

My favorite characters were the Dwarfs.  I got a text from a good friend about their names along the lines of “King Odc? Pypha?  Really!?”  He laughed though when I explained that I hadn’t expected to be published when I wrote it, so I just used anagrams for the Dwarves names. I did the same thing with other names too, like Tenycks for Skynet, or Rennoc Woods which is Conner backwards.  Mark, of course, just took it in stride and ran with it.

My favorite character ended up being Poedy (Dopey of course!).  He had fulfilled the role of comedy relief quite well, and then I gave him a uniquely grim backstory, which also explained his lack of beard.  The chapter where this all comes to a head is my favorite in the book, but I’m deeply biased since it’s one of my best pieces of writing so far.

What do you think a story like Brass Automaton brings to the world of self-publishing today? It’s quite unique, a very rich mixture of fables, time travel and an industrial revolution, plus it manages to create a very feministic atmosphere in an era where it did not exist, so I’m curious how do you think it places in the world of fiction today.

I often read Whatever which is the personal blog of John Scalzi,  a moderately successful SciFi author.  And by “moderate” I mean standard bearer of the industry!  He knows the publishing industry better than anyone else I regularly read, and his first book, Old Man’s War, was originally self-published too.  The biggest thing I have taken away from his insights is how there is far, far more I don’t know about both self publishing and traditional publishing than I do know.

I think Brass Automaton especially is too unique to ever be picked up by traditional publishers, but it’s still a great story that self-publishing has allowed us to share. 

So what I offer here is based on my own, admittedly limited experiences, and I’m sure Dunning-Kruger will be watching me closely.

Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey (the latter of which started life as fan fiction of the former) are both, for lack of a better word, awful.  They are also awfully successful, which reinforces that quality is not necessarily an indicator of success, though I’m talking about their literary quality more so than their technical quality.  In other words, I’m sure they were correctly formatted, typo free, etc., even though their content was lacking (IMNSHO…).  But they obviously resonated with a large audience and were hugely successful from a financial perspective, so when I look at traditional publishing I see that not all variables are equal, nor are they dependent.

A brilliant story with fresh ideas and amazing characters that’s submitted with typos, randomly mixed fonts, and inconsistent formatting isn’t going to make it far enough along to be read to see the gem within the rough rock.  On the flip side, a submission that is technically flawless is likely to pass onto the next step, even if it is more mediocre than not.  Personally I’d think the first example is far easier to work with than the second, but typos have been the bane of my writing since forever, so I may biased.  (Fun fact: Spellcheck’s biggest influence on me has been to make ever newer and more creative spelling errors.)

Ultimately though, traditional publishing is a business which drives financial concerns to take precedence over creative quality.  This is true throughout the entertainment spectrum, which is why we have Transformers movie ever third summer even though its budget could pay for 10+ original, creatively stunning smaller movies- because ultimately far more people will pay to see Transformers than they would to see our 10 odd theoretically awesome movies- combined.  Traditional publishing, as far as I have seen, is no different.

Self-publishing though is an entirely different animal.  There are a lot of people who were rejected by traditional publishers, for very good reasons, who are now flooding Amazon with their works, making it increasingly difficult to find good works amongst the crap.  There are also “books” on the marketplace which are literally gibberish or collections of wikipedia pages as a means of gaming Amazon’s payment schedules.  Needless to say, this makes for a lot more noise than signal.

The reward of self-publishing though is that signal.  It gives a voice and allows an audience to works that would never be seen otherwise.  I think Brass Automaton especially is too unique to ever be picked up by traditional publishers, but it’s still a great story that self-publishing has allowed us to share.  One of the websites I frequent is fark.com, and they have a weekly thread for writers.  They put together an anthology called Heart of Farkness which I helped a teeny, tiny bit on.  The stories vary between great and amazing, and its another example of being able to share stories with the world that would otherwise go unread.

For all the troubles in the world, we live in a Golden Age of arts.  We have the ability to share books, photos, music, movies, and more across the entire world.  You and I live over 6 thousand miles away and yet we have been sharing and enjoying each others works for years now.  That isn’t just unprecedented in human history, it’s truly beautiful.  If ever there was a mechanism for peace and understanding amongst so many diverse cultures it’s this sharing of our artistic souls.  That’s a bit too optimistic, perhaps, but I have seen in my own life that Love beats Hate, and being able to share our own loves makes the world that much better.

What is the Emoji Raiting Guide?

One of the things that I have wanted to do with my blog is give my thoughts on movies, TV shows, and other things that catch my interest.  I started with the old, traditional star rating from 0-4 stars.  I know most ratings are now from 1-5 stars, but there are some efforts out there for which even a single star is too much!  As I started working with it though, I found that the number of stars wasn’t really indicative of my thoughts.  Zero stars are easy.  Same with four, but what differentiates a one from a two, or a two from a three?  Instead I came up with my own emoji ratings.

This way I could break things up into what I think are more helpful categories.  It helps differentiate between something you’ll be happy to see versus something that you should absolutely see.  On the lowest end it also helps distinguish between the bad, and the so bad its awfulness angers my blood and makes baby Jesus cry.  Where it really helps though is in the middle ground.  Those things which are flawed, but still worthwhile, versus those things which are basically more flaw than not.  It also allows me to differentiate why something is bad, helping to explain whether it just failed completely, or if it was bad because of poor decisions.

I’m always on the hunt for fresh titles and so are many of the people who come across this blog. What book recommendations do you have for us? 

My current read is The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World’s Most Amazing Number by Mario Livio.  (It’s a loaner from @ganymeder, another friend from the #FridayFlash world and twitterverse, and yet another reminder of the amazing connections our world now offers.)  The books traces the history of phi, one of those magical irrational numbers like pi, only it is seen far more in patterns.  It’s been a great read so far, and I’ve been really enjoying nerding out on it.

I tend to oscillate between fiction and non-fiction reading, with the bulk of my reading being done on the bus to and from work.  I just finished a re-read of Harry Potter, which reminded me once again  that J.K. Rowling is truly a God amongst mortals.  After I finish The Golden Ratio I’m going to read Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars trilogy.  It’s basically the Star Wars movies written as Elizabethian plays, and I’m really looking forward to it.  When I’m done I’m going to share them with a theater friend of mine to see if they want to try and and produce them.

In addition to all this, I want to start making a concerted effort to read more self-published books, and in particular read more works from women and minorities.  I had never thought about how white male centric almost all of our popular culture is because, well, I’m a white male.  I have never lacked for representation, and I have now come to see how vitally important it is.  (And another way to bring our cultures together too!)  There were three things that really brought this to life for me, with the first being the work and studying my ex-wife (and still dear friend) was doing on social justice issues.  It has really opened my eyes to so many of the inequalities that I had previously been so blissfully unaware of.

Then, with these thoughts percolating there was a post on Scalzi’s Whatever blog about reading only women and minority authors for a year.  In thinking on it I realized just how white, male centric my reading had been.  It was driven home even more I had a story idea that I was thinking of writing as an Epic Poem.  To stay true to the form I wanted to write a prologue as a sonnet asking my muses for guidance.  In a clever twist I decided to have my muses be the authors who had most influenced my own writing.  As I began compiling the list, I realized they were all white males.  While there’s no disputing that Asimov, Adams, Heinlein, Voltaire, and so on were deeply talented and influential, the Venn Diagram of their worldviews is basically a circle.  So, I’m (finally) learning how reading authors from with diverse backgrounds, and significantly different knowledge and experiences than me, can greatly help to expand my horizons.

While we’re on the subject of books which book and why is your all-time favorite? 

As for ye olde “book on a desert island” question.  My all time favorite book series is Douglas AdamsThe Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.  It is insightful, funny, and uniquely imaginative.  We lost a rare gift with Adams’ passing all too soon, but his works have influenced me far more than anyone else.  To tie this all together, I’d share one of my favorite insights of Adams’, from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, since it is such a fantastic metaphor for privilege.  It’s one of the opening scenes in which the Electric Monk is on a horse lost in his own world of thoughts, while the horse is only thinking about the Monk, setting up a line about the difference in thoughts between when you are being sat upon. And not.

Are there any new projects you’re working on right now or looking forward to?

Always!  I have far more ideas than I do time or, realistically, ability right now.  I’ve already talked with Mark about the sequel to Brass Automaton and we’ve agreed to start writing this March, and we’re going to forego the oneupmanship in favor of stronger collaboration.  We’ll still alternate a pair of chapters at a time, but we’re going to work out the major plot points ahead of time and talk about things as we go so we to make the chapters flow better on top of everything else.

I’m also working on my own SciFi adventure novella. It desperately needs some rewriting, but I think its story is both unique and intriguing (though I may be biased).  Ultimately I think I’ll be able to forge a larger story from it that would span 4 novellas altogether (give or take).  But, I have to take one step at a time and get this one finished first.

I also have a humorous short story I’ve been working on that was originally submitted, and rightly rejected, from the 2016 Heart of Farkness anthology.  I’ve improved it considerably since then and it’s just about done.

I’ve also been doing some beta-reading and editing work of late too.  It’s amazing how much easier it is to see what needs attention, and how to fix it, in other people’s works than it is in your own!  One of the books I edited is going to be published this summer.  It’s a history Boeing’s 737, written by a friend of mine who flies them for Southwest Airlines.  It was challenging, but a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to reading the finished book.

Down the road I have a couple ideas that I think would make great Graphic Novels.  The first is a humorous SciFi story idea which is the one I was originally thinking of writing as an Epic Poem.  I really do think it will do better in a graphic format.  It’s open ended and is driven by a cast of diverse, quirky characters who must save the world by going from quest to quest to quest.  It also makes use of the venerable Greek Chorus structure as an added bonus (thought they’ll simultaneously be affecting the story and breaking the Fourth Wall).

The other story idea is closed, and far more serious in nature.  It’s all the more important now too in light of how fake news stories affected voters in our last election here in the US (and Brexit too apparently).  It explores that our reality is necessarily framed by what we are told, and that what we grow up with is “normal,” regardless of the reality.  It’s also SciFi in nature and revolves around a “Millenial Ship,” on a thousand year journey to a new planet.  While there really isn’t a shortage of Colony Ship stories, my vision is rather darker, and more unique than those I’ve read.

Further down the line, much further, I have an idea for a very complex novel, which I don’t quite have the technical skills to pull off yet.  I’m roughly outlining it as inspiration strikes, but definitely need more writing experience before I can pull it off the way I feel it needs to be told.

Outside of fiction I have been working on a tabletop wargame.  It is meant to be super easy to play for people with little to no gaming experience.  It uses a chess set for the pieces, construction paper for the terrain, and dice.  A lot of dice!  It’s called DieLuck’s Chess and true to its name relies upon extensive dice rolls.  I’ve completed the second draft of the rules and am working on finalizing it so I can send it out to playtesters.

Finally, perhaps even more far afield from the normal, I’m writing, for lack of a better descriptor, a framework for religion, spirituality, and/or philosophy.  I have always been fascinated by religions, spirituality, philosophies, and the universality of all cultures that there is something beyond our mortal realm.  So I’m trying to articulate a framework for people to think about life, and its decisions, amongst the myriad of our emotions and experiences.  The idea is for it to work for anyone, regardless of their own personal beliefs, or lack thereof, in a higher power.

You were and still are a part of the #fridayflash community. What’s the first thing any aspiring writer should know about flash fiction writing?

That it is awesome and amazing and why aren’t you already doing it?  It is a fantastic tool in honing your writing skills.  Constraining yourself to a wholly self-contained story in a 1,000 words or less is far more challenging than I originally thought.  So many times I’ve written out what I thought was a simple, straightforward story only to look down and find that I’m less than halfway through and already over 1,000 words.  It really teaches you what words are truly invaluable, and what needs to be cut- no matter how great a line it is.

It is also an rewarding way to explore different genres, practice dialogue, or any other technique you want to hone.  In my #FridayFlash’s I’ve written SciFi, Fantasy, Humor, Horror, Mystery, Satire, and I’m sure others which I’m now forgetting too.  I’ve also used it to practice writing with sparse descriptions, as well as utilizing it to explore the possibilities afforded by more complex sentences, more vibrantly colored adjectives, and an aggrandizingly exaggerated vocabulary.

The other great thing is the community.  While I haven’t post a #FridayFlash in awhile, unfortunately, it truly is a great way to get feedback on your works.  It will also help you learn how to give positive, usable feedback to others.  I’ve met a lot of great people over the years through reading other people’s posts and getting thoughts on my own.  Almost every person I’ve met in this community  has been both encouraging and helpful, with people tailoring their critiques to the writer’s skill level.  Indeed, most of them I still keep in touch with via twitter, and it’s inspiring to read how they’re all doing with their own writing.

You can find Paul at these links:

dpaulangel.com 

Twitter

Amazon – Brass Automaton

Instagram

Flickr

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