Friday, January 13, 2012

An Interview with Novelist Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Recently, I read The Worker Prince, a book by Bryan Thomas Schmidt about a young man raised in a powerful household, only to discover his heritage isn’t quite what he thought it was. As he discovers his true parentage, he is faced with the decision of how he will live his life with the new knowledge he has. It’s a fun science-fiction read with a touch of Star Wars and a touch of the story of Moses in it. 

I had the opportunity to talk with Bryan about his book and his writing. Hope you enjoy what Bryan has to share. 

Tell me, Bryan, how did you develop your idea for The Worker Prince? I heard the idea came to you at a young age. Did you start doing stories, jotting down notes, world-building, etc., from a young age? Or did this idea sit on the back burner for a long time before you decided to pull it out and write it? 

I had the idea of a Star Wars type of Moses saga when I was in my teens and planned it as this giant Centennial-esque TV miniseries for multiple hours, etc. At that time, I also wrote the ideas for characters, including the names Sol and Xalivar. I had a lot more but those and Luna, which became Lura, were the only ones I still remembered when I came back this story later in life. (Somewhere in my garage is a box with those notes from my teenage years, but I didn’t have a clue where to look.)

In any case, I went on to work in TV and film for a while, pursued music, got a Masters, and so on, until one day I had a failed novel under my belt. I was studying craft and knew I wanted to try again but not with that first story. I needed something new, so I went back to the Moses Meets Star Wars idea, and four months later I had a completed novel. That was my first draft, of course, but that was November 2009, and finishing it was a really cool feeling.

What was the easiest part of the writing process for you? What was the hardest part? Why? (For example, I’m great at dialogue, not so great at world-building and description.)

Well, it went surprisingly fast for a guy who didn’t know what he was doing. The hard part was figuring out how much work it needed, what that was and doing it. That and writing queries and synopses. Lord, do I hate those! But I digress. Dialogue has come easy for me since film school. I was always told I have a gift for dialogue. And the characters came easily enough, although they evolved over time, of course.

Description is the part I don’t do well. In screenplays, you’re taught not to write it. But in books you need it all—and it needs to be very visceral, emotional, and visual. Much of the time, that stuff gets added in during the second draft for me. I did it in multiple drafts on The Worker Prince, but now that I’m further along in craft, I can usually add description into the second draft and make just a few tweaks later on. I’m doing that draft now for The Returning, which is the sequel to The Worker Prince.

Second is science. I am not a gifted scientist or mathematician. And I don’t care that much, to be honest. What I want are great characters you care about, a plot that keeps you on a good ride, and writing that makes you laugh, cry, get angry, etc., at the right moments so that you walk away satisfied that you were well entertained. But if you’re writing science fiction, other people will care about the science and math, so I had to get some help. A friend who is good with it helped me work out the details of my solar system—where the planets would be, how they rotated, how much time it takes to travel between them, how their location would translate into geography, and so on. It’s not enough to make it hard science, but enough that people will say okay, that’s a reasonable guess.

What type of plotter are you—seat of the pants, detailed outliner, in the middle? What plotting tools work for you—note cards, snowflake method, etc.?

Pantser. Pants around ankle. Dive in and just see what happens. (Telling people that keeps them from touching my drafts, see?)

I do, however, outline the next chapter as I go—just an idea of what scenes I think will be in it and what order I’m shooting for. I do a single, one or two sentence description, and maybe a character list if I know someone has to be there or someone needs to be revisited who I keep leaving out. That’s pretty much it.

Writing sequels, I’ve had to do a bit more planning, because when you write a series, you have to tie in to the existing stuff and you have to leave loose ends for the next book. But I’m still mostly just seat-of-the-pantsing it.

The Worker Prince weaves science fiction together with the Biblical story of Moses. Did you want to write a SFF story first, then realize that the Bible provided a good story to mirror? Or did you start by wanting to write a Christian novel, and then came to decide on SFF? What kind of challenges or surprises did you face as you wove the Christian elements and the SFF elements together?

The Moses story has been done. And done again. And done yet again. That wasn’t the case when I dreamed it up. Ten Commandments was the big one back then. Now, we have Prince of Egypt, the Superman movies, and a bunch of stuff that all used Moses as models. So, the first decision I had to make was how closely I wanted to follow the story.

I made the decision to tie my story to Earth, with colonists in deep space but originally from Earth. Then I realized if I made one group Christians, the rest of the story would fall into place because the actual Moses story would be part of their prehistory.

But that being the case, I knew if I just followed the Moses story to the letter, my characters would predict it. “Hey, we know this story.” So instead, I started diverging from some of it to mix it up. It kept the characters guessing, upping their tension and the story’s drama, and it keeps the reader (and the pantsing writer) guessing too.

I didn’t have any trouble weaving Christian and SF stuff together, partly because I use so little science and partly because the desire to explore is natural to man. Christian missionaries have gone everywhere and no doubt will one day be sent into the stars. So that motivation is not foreign. And every culture as we know it has religion and faith elements, so that’s not difficult. It fit together nicely.

As far as being Christian, I am NOT a fan of Christian fiction. Way too much of it is crap—preachy crap. Way too much of it is cheesy. I wanted to write about real bad people and real flawed heroes with problems, but I wanted to do it in a way that I’d enjoy and that lots of people who aren’t Christian would enjoy. So I worked very hard to weave in those elements while avoiding preachiness, or even being a proponent of one way of thinking. I thought, just lay it out there, let the characters believe in it, present it well, but let readers do with it what they will or what the Holy Spirit will.

Can you talk a little about the publishing process? How did you go about getting The Worker Prince into print? Any lessons learned that you'd like to share with other writers?

I first hired independent editors at my own expense to help me whip the novel into shape, and then I sent out around 45 queries to various agents. Only three agents requested it, and they all turned it down.

So I wound up sending it out to slush piles at big and small presses. And in mid-2010, I started to get interest from three publishers. All three wound up making me offers and giving me editing notes. Finally, I went with the one offering the best deal.

I studied up to negotiate. When I asked for something, I tried to have something to give back that was good for the publisher. And I approached it as partners, not antagonists, while still sticking to my guns to get the right contract. And I got a really good one. But I have studied books on contract law and specifically book contracts and consulted with IP and other lawyers for a decade before this, so I had some advantages most writers might not have. Most should hire an IP attorney, and in the future if I’m working on bigger deals and I don’t have an agent, I will too.

Tell me about The Returning, the sequel to The Worker Prince. What's it about? Is it the final installment of the story, or do you anticipate writing more in the series? Or perhaps you plan to write different stories in the universe you've created?

The Returning is book two, and there will either be three or four in the series—I’m not sure exactly until I parse the story ideas I have for the next book, The Exodus. In any case, it’s a universe I could do a lot with, so there really is no limit, it’s all arbitrary, but I really do want to have a good cycle that closes. I want to go back and do a YA prequel series, actually. That interests me.

But The Returning is the story of what happens after the fight for freedom in The Worker Prince and how the two societies deal with the aftermath. Some forces are not happy with the previous outcome, and they try to undermine things and seek revenge. It gets very complicated and messy for our hero and his family and friends. In fact, several beloved characters do not survive for Book 3. But that’s all I can say without giving away spoilers for both Worker Prince and The Returning.

Thanks for the interview, Bryan! Readers, if you would like a copy of The Worker Prince or if you’d like to find out more about Bryan, visit his website.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Writers, let me know if this interview was useful and interesting to you. And I'm sure if you have other questions for Bryan, we can persuade him to stop by and answer them.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.


  1. I don't do description well either. My first draft is always the barest of bones. I like the fact there is a Christian theme to this book. It's already on my list!

  2. Well I used real religions in my world building is what it comes down to. There are alternatives as well. I just thought since the story of Moses is one of bigotry and ideological bigotry as well as racial bigotry, it would be interesting given the present contemporary context to explore it with real religions. Hope you enjoy it!

  3. Great interview. I especially like the way he negotiated--bring in a solution, not just a problem.


  4. I hope you enjoy the book too, Alex. Stop by after you've read it and share, if you can.

    Joanie - I know! Isn't that a great idea? I'll have to do a blog on negotiation tips sometime. I think it would be useful for life in general, too, and not just writing/publishing.

  5. So glad to see Bryan here, too! I have been following him across social media and reading his blog for several months. He's one incredible author!


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