Characters, even fictional ones, have to come from somewhere, and making characters feel real requires using a lot from life. The characters are all fictional, but there are traits borrowed from various people I know including myself.
Marion Stein – 7 January 2013
The Back Flap
Lizzie Greene seems to have it all — a great husband, a job
she loves, a baby on the way, even a rent-stabilized two bedroom apartment on
New York’s Upper West Side. Then a random decision leads to a senseless act of
violence, and it all disappears. But what if things had been different? What if
things are different? Could someone be both dead and not dead at the same time?
Is it insanity to believe in mysteries that go beyond human understanding, in
the evidence of things not seen? Lizzie’s sister, her best friend, and
many others think she’s lost her senses, but maybe she’s gotten a glimpse of
something most of us never get to see.
Schrodinger’s Telephone is more for fans of The Twilight Zone than of Twilight.
Schrodinger’s Telephone is a new novella by Marion Stein
author of Loisaida — a New York Story and The Death Trip.
Available only as an e-book. Print page equivalent = 100.
About the book
What is the book about?
It’s hard to explain this one without serious spoilers. A woman gets a knock on the door. It’s the police telling her husband died at 5:25 in a subway station, but the woman is certain she spoke to him at 6:17, and that he was in Central Park. So she has to reconcile the reality of her husband’s death with the phone call that proves he was alive.
When did you start writing the book?
Novellas are far less complex than novels and don’t take nearly as long to write. The idea was developing in my head for a while. Then last May, I was taking a walk, and I realized that by setting it in a pre-cell phone era a lot of the technical issues would disappear. I started a draft shortly thereafter. After working on it a bit, I sent it to a fewbeta-readers for critique. Then life interfered, and I didn’t get back to it until November.
How long did it take you to write it?
I’ve been participating in the Three Day Novel Contest over the past few years. The contest should more accurately be called the Three Day Novella Contest, but that doesn’t sound nearly as dramatic. I didn’t write Schrodinger’s Telephone for the contest, but the contest taught me you could write a 25,000-word story in a short concentrated spurt. I wrote the initial draft and first revisions over about eight fairly intensive days, and sent it to some readers for critique. When I got back to the story in November it probably took about another three weeks to integrate the feedback and revise. Then I let it sit again and worked on proofreading and copy edits for about another ten days in December.
Where did you get the idea from?
Probably from every other alternate reality short story, movie, Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode, etcetera ever written. With fiction, I usually start out asking a question I haven’t figured out an answer to. This leads to other questions. In this case, I wanted to explore what would happen if a character found herself in a situation like Lizzie’s, where she experienced something that could not have actually happened. Do you decide you must have been mistaken? Do you create a new narrative to explain it? How do other people treat you?
Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?
Once I had it in my head, it was clear to me that in addition to Lizzie’s point of view, there’d be another character that was unable to view Lizzie’s experience as anything other than a symptom. I wanted to bring that other character to the point where she could entertain a moment of belief in something mysterious and inexplicable. It would hit her despite herself. I’m not sure I actually accomplished what I set out to with that. Readers will judge. I hope not too harshly.
What came easily?
There were things I knew. I’ve taught in urban high schools. I live in New York. I have a background in social work and know a bit about mental illness and its treatment.
Are your characters entirely fictitious or have you borrowed from real world people you know?
Characters, even fictional ones, have to come from somewhere, and making characters feel real requires using a lot from life. The characters are all fictional, but there are traits borrowed from various people I know including myself. In our household, I’m home early and take the dog for the afternoon walk, and usually prepare dinner. My husband works in midtown and sometimes walks several miles through Central Park to get home. That doesn’t mean they are just like us although there are aspects of both Lizzie and Dr. Warren with which I strongly identify.
We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?
I read a lot, and I tend to read as a writer, constantly looking at what writers I admire do and trying to figure out how they pull it off. To some extent, a lot of what I write is an imaginary dialogue with my betters. It’s hard to look at the particulars of how other writers have influenced a particular story. Hubert Selby, Jr. whose work was a pretty obvious influence on my novel, Loisaida, certainly taught me you can tell a story from shifting points of view — something I do consistently, and that stream of consciousness doesn’t have to be overly challenging to readers. Gabriel Garcia Marquez not only works with many points of view but shifts around time. The first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude is a master writing lesson. The book starts in the middle when the presumed protagonist is about to get shot, then shoots into the past, meanders back to the beginning and moves forward. Grace Paley taught me to ground characters in reality. She said, “Write what you don’t know about what you know,” which is the best writing advice I ever got. I’m also a fan of the unreliable narrator and an essential example can be found in Nabokov’s Lolita. Certainly, I never would have come up with the concept for Schrodinger’s Telephone if not for geniuses like Rod Serling and Philip K. Dick, and while I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I’m sure Lizzie’s travels to the other dimension owe something to Vonnegut’s “unstuck in time” hero, Billy Pilgrim. Another influence on this story was Flannery O’Connor. She was a master of the short-story form and her protagonists always had a moment of realization, which she as a Catholic, considered “grace” and God-given. While I’m a bit more skeptical about where grace comes from, I wanted Dr. Warren to have a moment when she’d entertain a belief in something she couldn’t explain.
Do you have a target reader?
Unfortunately, I write to entertain myself and answer my own questions. I recognize that not everyone will get it. It doesn’t help that each of my available on Kindle works probably has a different audience. Loisaida was written for fans of literary fiction, and especially of transgressive fiction. It was made for readers like me who get off on multiple points of view. The Death Trip was a little bit social satire and thinking person’s science fiction. Schrodinger’s Telephone is a lot harder to pin down. As readers we’re left with a lot of unanswered questions — Did Lizzie actually receive the phone call when she believed she did? As the writer, I say yes she did, but the jury is out on her travel to other dimensions and certainly on divine intervention, so it may not be for science fiction fans, or mystery fans, or fans of shows like Lost who are annoyed when their questions aren’t explicitly answered. The target audience is people who are comfortable knowing that some questions can’t be answered.
Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?
The process is you actually write. You don’t talk about it or hang out social networking. It’s difficult to clear the decks and find time and space to concentrate. I am not a naturally disciplined person.
Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?
Generally, I’ve already seen a lot of the story in my head before I sit down. I will discover other things along the way. I may start with a short informal outline/synopsis, but it’s not extensive or organized and I’ll make changes in it as I go in order to accommodate the different directions I may be taking. Also, because I consider characters important, I may start out with a list of characters, who they are, and their relationships with each other.
Do you edit as you go or wait until you’ve finished?
The three-day process taught me how important it is to just tell the story and let myself go, but usually I wind up doing some backtracking and revision as I’m writing. There are also several drafts with revisions and editing in each one.
Did you hire a professional editor?
If you mean do I use an editor with years of professional writing experience, a master’s degree in creative writing, experience teaching basic writing and experience in having been edited by one of America’s most infamous living fiction editors, then the answer is yes. If you mean did I actually hire someone other than me to edit the work, then I’m afraid the answer is no.
I have nothing against people hiring competent professionals to help them create the best work they can, but anyone can call him or herself an editor on the net, and I think a lot of poor souls are being badly ripped off. Real professional fiction editors who’ve actually worked on books that were traditionally published are unlikely to be seeking freelance work, and if they do hire themselves out, I’m sure their prices would far exceed what most self-published writers could expect to recoup in sales. There’s a massive misunderstanding from readers who complain that self-published books are “unedited.” Often self-published books are just badly written by people who can’t write well and never bothered or were unable to proofread. The reason why they couldn’t get published in the first place was because no editor would know where to start. An editor with any integrity wouldn’t take them on in the first place.
That’s not to say that self-publishers shouldn’t be editing their work, just that if they are not fortunate enough to know an editor who they trust and can afford, there are other options. Getting an MFA meant having both professional writers and fellow students going through my work. I learned how to take critique and use it to make changes. I gained an awareness of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. This enables me to use beta-readers and handle their feedback effectively. I once had a short story edited by an editor best known for shearing work down to its minimalist essence. In the proof he sent me, there were massive cuts. About 40% of my story was gone, but he’d barely changed a word. To this day, I go through my work and ask myself, “What would Mr. Lish cut?” Then I cut about half of that.
As for proofreading, I’ve had competent folks help me, but through my self-publishing journey I’ve gotten better at this. I’ve found a great method that all self-publishers should take advantage of. First I make a high quality mobi file. (There are a plenty of good sites that explain how to do that). Then I load that file onto my Kindle and use the text-to-voice feature to both see and hear my work. Since I can’t edit directly on Kindle, I stop and jot notes, highlighting every error I “see” and “hear.” This is a highly effective way to do both final edits and proofreading. In Schrodinger’s Telephone, I went through the process six times and made a total of over 800 changes. (This was after I thought I’d found everything.) By the end I was channeling Oscar Wilde and putting back the same commas I’d taken out earlier in the day.
Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?
I can’ t listen to anything with lyrics as it gets me too involved in following the songs. I do better with instrumental music, stuff like Philip Glass, but I don’t always listen to music.
Did you submit your work to Agents?
I did shop my novel, Loisaida, around to agents. Neither The Death Trip nor Schrodinger’s Telephone was ever sent to agents. Getting a stand-alone novella published as a book is highly unlikely and very few agents would be interested. There are a few magazines and literary journals that will take on novellas, but publication is not likely in these venues and pay would be minimal. The Death Trip was initially written for the Three Day Novel Contest, and I did subsequently send it out to a few other novella contests (mostly university sponsored). It wound up making me more money as a self-published e-book than it likely would have had it won any of those contests or been accepted by any literary magazines. Schrödinger’s Telephone was my first “straight-to-Kindle” experiment. Novellas are really a perfect form for e-books. Even people who are still resistant to e-readers can stand reading a short work on a screen. They can be sold cheaply because they don’t take anywhere near the same time to write as full length novels, and self-publishing can cut out several layers of middle men.
What made you decide to go Indie, whether self-publishing or with an indie publisher? Was it a particular event or a gradual process?
A few years ago I participated in the Authonomy writers’ site, which was set up as a kind of electronic, slush pile for HarperCollins. I saw really promising works go through a long process of getting agented, and then going nowhere. I saw other writers banding together and self-publishing. I was extremely impressed with Dan Holloway who formed the Year Zero Collective, and people like Larry Harrison and Cody James who published as part of Year Zero. I think it was reading Larry Harrison’s Glimpses of a Floating World that finally convinced me that self-published works could be innovative and even superior to a lot of the tripe being put out by major houses.
Did you get your book cover professionally done or did you do it yourself?
As with editing, I’m not sure “professionally” and “do it yourself” are mutually exclusive terms. I came up with the cover concept — the hourglass with the phones. My techie better half who does web development professionally, including some design, implementation of other people’s design concepts, and video editing, put it together. He added the city backdrop, which is actually perfect for the story.
Do you have a marketing plan for the book or are you just winging it?
With the EXTREME number of self-published e-books, along with various micro and e-book only publishers who aren’t especially picky, it’s harder to stand out even then it was a few years ago. So far, I’m realizing just how narrow my social networking reach actually is. I did come across the very helpful listing on The Indie View of blogs that review indies, and am going down the list looking for bloggers who might be good targets for Schrodinger’s Telephone. I’m happy to gift copies (for now) to readers who will commit to writing Amazon reviews. The rather extreme restrictions on anything resembling plugging on Amazon’s forums is definitely making this harder than I remember its being on my novel. I’m afraid that many of the “promo services” that have sprung up on the web are another means of parting fools and the desperate (and desperate fools) from their money.
Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?
Most people actually do have great stories within them. Very few are actually capable of writing those stories well. At the moment, “indie-world” is mostly hobbyists talking to ourselves and buying each other’s books. Al, you are probably the only one of us who isn’t also a writer, and I’m not so sure you aren’t actually pseudonymously EL James.
Certainly, people writing in particular genres — paranormal romance, certain forms of erotica, thrillers, etc. do better in sales than those of us attempting literary fiction or genre busters.
There’s a ton of good information and advice on the net from people much more successful at this than I am. I would not advise anyone to step into it unless there was solid evidence the work was ready to be published. There are tons of writers’ sites where you can get feedback and critique. It behooves you to learn as much about the publishing process as you can and to own it. There are too many people just throwing stuff up (yes, I mean that) and it doesn’t help the rest of us. Keep your expectations realistic. Don’t quit your day job. Don’t waste money paying people who can’t deliver on their promises.
What are you working on now?
I have a couple of shorter novellas I need to get back to, but what I really need to revisit is a novella I wrote a couple of years ago, Hungry Ghosts, which got honorable mention at the Three Day Novel contest despite being a hurried mess. It needs to be expanded and “opened up” a bit. I’ve got to at least double the length to get it to be a full-length novel, but it could easily be the best thing and most commercially viable work I’ve ever written. Kind of Lolita meets The Lovely Bones for grown ups.
End of Interview: