The Month of Permuted: Round One with Peter Clines!

Yesterday, I announced the kick-off of the Month of Permuted here on my website, and to start the festivities off, I’m bringing you an interview with Peter Clines, the author of Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots, two very excellent offerings from Permuted Press that can be recapped in three simple words: superheroes vs. zombies. This isn’t your cringe-worthy “let’s turn beloved superheroes into zombies” kind of tale, though; instead, the Ex-books feature superheroes fighting the undead.

I first came across Clines when I read Ex-Heroes shortly after signing on to Permuted Press, and I instantly fell in love with his writing style and storyline. It’s earned him a place on my Recommended Authors list, and I’m thrilled that he’s taken the time to answer a few questions for you guys.

So let’s get the ball rolling, shall we?

Oh! And before I go on, let me add that if you stick with the interview, at the end, you’ll find the official unveiling of the cover of his next book 14, which is due out with Permuted Press in June!

Onwards with the interview!

So, Peter, can you take a few moments to tell my readers a bit about yourself? What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Eat. Sleep. Breathe. Fight crime and injustice from my subterranean lair. Most of the usual stuff people do when they’re not working. I read a lot. I love seeing well-written movies (and sometimes the horribly-written ones). There are a few television shows my lady and I love to watch, although this seems to be the year that most of our favorites are getting cancelled.

I run on the treadmill. I spend a good chunk of the day at my desk so I try to get in a fair amount of exercise, too. My carrot is that I’ve been watching all my Doctor Who episodes as I run, starting with the William Hartnell stuff back in the ’60s. I’m in the Tom Baker years now and I just started “The Hand of Fear” from 1976, Liz Sladen’s last story as a regular companion (Sarah Jane Smith). I had huge crushes on her and Louise Jameson when I was little.

I also have to admit I’m a miniature wargames geek and build and paint a lot of little toy soldiers, tanks, and scenery. I think it’s a good thing to exercise different creative muscles. If a bodybuilder does nothing but curls they’re going to end up kind of deformed. So I like doing stuff that’s about physical structure and color and aesthetics.

How did you decide that the horror genre was the ideal genre for you to write in? Have you written in other genres? If not, are you going to consider branching out to other genres, and which ones? If so, which genres have you already written in?

Ahhh! So many questions!

It wasn’t really an active decision to end up in the horror genre. To be honest, I was terrified of everything as a kid. I didn’t even like looking at the horror books my mom had on the shelves, because I knew there were awful, scary things in them. When I first started writing as a kid, most of my stuff was straight sci-fi or fantasy. It was what I was reading so it was what I copied. It’s a real loss to American literature that my early Boba Fett fan-fiction was destroyed when our garage flooded in tenth grade…

Over the years, though, things just got darker and had more of an evil twist to them. I think part of it was that, in the ’80s, if you wanted to do sci-fi or fantasy elements in the modern-day, real world, you did it with horror. “Urban fantasy” didn’t really exist yet. Fantasy set in the past or some alternate world was plain old sword and sorcery, but if you moved it to the present you got Evil Dead. Sci-fi in the future was sci-fi, but sci-fi set in the present became things like Deadly Friend or CHUD. A lot of Stephen King’s early stuff is grounded in sci-fi and so are Dean Koontz’s books, but they both became established as horror writers. Look at The Stand. The Stand starts out as a sci-fi, Andromeda Strain type story and then moves into classic good vs evil fantasy. So my idea of “horror” got tinged by a lot of that.

I’ve got two future ideas I’d like to do that each have a strong sci-fi element, although one’s also got an undeniable horror element, too. I think most stories aren’t just one thing or another. There’s always going to be threads of comedy or action or romance, and some full-on genre-crossing, too. It’s just about what you’re emphasizing.

I was introduced to your works through the Permuted Press novel Ex-Heroes. My readers, however, might not yet be familiar with the novel or its follow-up Ex-Patriots, which I personally find regrettable. Could you tell them a little about the series and what it is about?

Ex-Heroes is a pretty standard zombie apocalypse story about a group of survivors who’ve managed to make a decent sized base out of a film studio in the middle of Los Angeles. The twist is that a few of the survivors are superheroes. Or they used to be. Some have given up their identities, one’s lost his powers, one’s more or less become a benevolent dictator to make the harsh decisions that need to be made. Essentially, these are the heroes who failed to save the world and now they’re doing their best to save what’s left.

The second book, Ex-Patriots, was sort of a zombie standard. Our heroes survive on their own for so long and then…the military shows up. I see the military get the short end so often in zombie books and films, though. They’re all deserters at best, power-mad lunatics at worst. I just wanted to do a story where the Army shows up and they honestly want to help. If you’re in the military or got friends or family who serve, you know there’s going to be plenty of conflict just between the military and civilian ways of dealing with things–especially considering that, because of the heroes, the civilians are actually in a position of superior power. I’ve received several emails and notes from fans who are on active duty and they were all really pleased to see how I portrayed the Army and the individual soldiers, which made me feel really good.

What do you think sets Ex-Heroes and its sequel Ex-Patriots apart from other novels in the post-apocalyptic/zombie horror genre?

Mostly the names. I gave all the characters different names than the ones in other books.

Seriously, though, I think the big thing is the superheroes, of course. I know a few people (and big comic companies) have touched on the idea of super-powered beings in a zombie apocalypse, but I don’t think a lot of folks have seen the very straightforward idea of superheroes fighting zombies. Ex-Heroes is two very clear, distinct genres being crossed, and I think the simplicity of that appealed to a lot of people.

And I think part of it might be that I didn’t go too bleak. Things are bad, absolutely, but I like to think I leave the seeds of “we can fix this” in the Ex-books. I think that little bit of hope appeals to people. I love a good, grim ending as much as the next guy, but they do start to wear on you after a while, and they are the most common ending in the zombie-horror genre.

Is there a particular author or book that you find influential or inspirational? Who are your favorite authors or, barring that, what are your favorite books?

It’s always tough to name favorites. I think every writer reads and gets influenced by so many people. A little bit here, a little bit there. When I was a kid I read a lot of Alexander Key and Lloyd Alexander, and a ton of comics, of course. I love some of the classics. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alexandre Dumas, and Nathaniel Hawthorne all jump to mind. Dan Abnett writes amazing military/siege scenes that get across the scale of the conflict while staying on a small, personal level. Neil Gaiman does an amazing job of taking mythology and folklore and using them to tell stories that strike us as “true” on a very basic, primal level. I love pretty much everything Ray Bradbury’s ever put on paper, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet him in person a few times.

Also, I know he gets a lot of crap from some folks but I think King is just fantastic. Even in his bad books–and there’s no question he’s had a few less-than-stellar ones–his characters are fantastic. He really is the 20th century’s Charles Dickens, and I think that’s how he’s going to be remembered for generations to come. It’s really hard to dip into the horror genre today and not be influenced on some level by him.

For the writers who read my blog, what do you feel are the most difficult aspects of writing? What advice would you give for writers who want to publish in the genre?

If you want to publish in horror, my first piece of advice would be this. Boil your story down to one sentence, just like a film pitch. Don’t wrestle with it or twist it or make it unnaturally long. Dawn of the Dead would be, “People survive the zombie apocalypse by hiding in a shopping mall.” That’s it. Once you’ve got it, how original does it sound? If it just ends up being, “A group of misfit survivors try to reach a safe zone after the zombie apocalypse,” go back and rethink a few things. It’s not necessarily a bad story, but it’s going to be very, very difficult for that story to stand out.

My other thing would be, and this is going to sound contradictory, don’t try to do something bold and new. It’s amazing how many people I’ve seen–in books and I also used to read for a couple of screenplay contests–who focus all their attention on a new kind of zombie, a new take on the undead, a new rationale for the virus, that sort of thing. Those are fun details, but that’s not something that’s going to sustain a whole story. Especially if the rest of the story is just “a group of misfit survivors try to reach a safe zone after the zombie apocalypse.”

This is a common mistake I see from aspiring writers in a lot of genres and formats. They have one cool idea and they try to write a story from it. But most stories are two or three ideas coming together with some characters a reader can identify with and invest in. The characters are what make the story, not those lone ideas. “There’s a haunted carnival,” isn’t a story, it’s just a plot point. If I combine it with “a bunch of kids and their dog who drive around in a van solving mysteries,” well, now I’ve got a story.

Another one for the writer-ly crowd! You’re one of Permuted Press’s bestselling authors. How do you market your work? What avenues have you found that work best for not only marketing in general but for the horror genre in particular?

You’re going to hate me for this but I do very little marketing. I don’t trumpet my books on thirty different websites or mass mail people or come up with lots of cool ads or anything. I see a lot of people doing that and I actually think it can do more harm than good. It’s so easy to take the shotgun approach these days and plaster yourself everywhere. Yeah, more people might hear about me that way, but I also think a lot of people get turned off by that kind of constant deluge of self-publicity. There’s that cutoff point where you suddenly go from being aspiring author to spammer. I think the biggest publicity thing I’ve done was a trio of trailers for Ex-Patriots. I called in a bunch of favors from film friends, spent a few hundred dollars, begged a few other people to wear costumes, and we shot for a whole day. And even then, those didn’t really take off. They look great, but I don’t think they sold a lot of books. I’m cutting a simple trailer together for my new book, but I think it’s more a teaser for fans than something that’s going to pull in a lot of new readers.

The thing about all the marketing ideas and cross-promotion and networking…at the end of the day they don’t matter. They can only work in the short-term. The thing I need to be putting my time into is writing. If creating well-written stories isn’t the majority of my time, I’m doomed to failure in the long run. I might trick someone into buying my book once with some clever promotions, but they’ll never pick up another one if that first one isn’t good. I think Jacob Kier at Permuted Press could back me up on this, but I think Ex-Heroes was out for the better part of a year before it became a regular bestseller. The thing was, it kept getting sales because people read it, liked it, recommended it (well, most folks…there’s always that guy), and then those folks read it, liked it, and recommended it to more people, and so on. It’s a pyramid scheme, really, but it only works if the story at the top is good.

In all fairness, I also think I got helped a lot by the simplicity of my idea, as I mentioned a few minutes ago. Ex-Heroes is about superheroes versus zombies. You open the book and that’s what you get. Classic heroes fighting classic Romero zombies. I think people like radical new ideas, but sometimes they just want the basics. There’s only so many times you can go out and have a mesquite-smoked sirloin patty garnished with goat cheese and pine nuts on a croissant. It’s cool, but eventually you just want to have a cheeseburger.

Besides Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots, what other works do you have available right now? Can you tell us a little about them?

Between Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots I wrote a mash-up novel called The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe, also available from Permuted Press. It came out of the cross-genre craze Pride & Prejudice & Zombies started. I decided I didn’t want to do something silly or bizarre, though (nothing against those books). I wanted to tell a serious story. Or as serious as possible when I was adding werewolves and Cthulhu into a classic of English literature. So I spent months doing research and studying Defoe’s prose and then I sat down and wrote a perfect, early 18th century horror novel in the language of that time. The downside, unfortunately, was that I wrote a perfect, early 18th century horror novel in the language of that time. Not a huge market these days, as it turns out. One critic included it in a list of mash-ups, and she essentially said “it gets an A+, but even with werewolves and Lovecraft…man, Crusoe is still a slog to read.” I’m proud of it, though, and all nine of the folks who’ve read it have liked it.

There’s also The Junkie Quatrain, which is four interwoven short stories that form a novella (more or less). That started out as some bonus material for Audible.com. They were doing a big ZombieFest promotion last summer with all their new Permuted books and they wanted to add on something extra to a few of the titles. They asked Jacob Kier, Jacob asked me, and I wrote four stories that intersect and overlap. It’s another post-apocalyptic world, but this one’s only just collapsed in the past two months. The monsters in these stories are infected people called “Junkies” because they twitch a lot and just babble nonsense…at least, when they’re not killing people to eat them. It was also fun because I got to take a character who appeared in a lot of my earlier, unpublished stuff, polish him up a bit, and make him the star of his own story.

What are you currently working on right now?

Right now is Ex-Communication, the third book in the Ex-series. I’m about two thirds done with it. It wraps up a lot of the threads that got left hanging in Ex-Patriots, a few of which people probably don’t even realize are hanging threads. It’s been taking forever because I keep getting pulled away onto other projects, and as the third book I want it to be fantastic. Once that’s done, I’m hoping to dive into that sci-fi/horror thing I mentioned a while ago. I’ve also jotted down a couple notes for a potential fourth Ex-book, but I’m not quite sure about it yet.

What can we expect to see next from you?

The next thing people will see is 14, also from Permuted. I think it’s scheduled for early June. It’s kind of a cross-genre survival-horror-mystery novel about a guy who moves into an old apartment building and starts to notice odd things. Little mysteries that all start piling up and leading to bigger and bigger mysteries that stretch back over decades. It’s also about getting to know your neighbors and building a community. The feedback I’ve gotten from the dozen or so folks who’ve read it has been very positive, and all of them were pleased that the book kept them guessing. Craig DiLouie–he of The Infection and The Killing Floor–got to read an advance copy and he called it “LOST in an apartment building,” which I thought was pretty high praise.

I’m trying not to say too much about it, though, because I don’t want to risk spoiling some of the mystery elements before the book’s even out. I’m a big believer in experiencing a story the way it was intended, rather than getting a bunch of random elements out of context and judging it off those. I know it’s an uphill battle and a ton of unavoidable spoilers are going to come out once the book starts getting reviewed, but I’m hoping most of them will be smart enough to avoid stuff from the second half of the book, where things get…interesting.

And lastly, where can readers find you online?

I’ve got a Facebook fan page that I check at least twice a day (even with this crappy Timeline nonsense). I try to keep it very casual, and there’s just as likely to be discussions about Disney’s abysmal John Carter marketing or the latest episode of Fringe as there is about my own stuff. As I mentioned above, I’m not really about the hard sell and that’s worked for me so far.

I’ve also got my cleverly-named blog, Writer on Writing, where I talk about…well, writing. Not getting agents, marketing, networking, or the “indie revolution.” Just about writing. I share some little tricks I’ve learned the hard way (so you don’t have to), and mistakes I see a lot from aspiring writers.

A big thank you to Peter Clines for dropping by for an interview!

And now presenting, for your enjoyment, the grand unveiling of the cover for Clines’ upcoming release 14, coming in June 2012 from Permuted Press!

Is that awesome-looking or what? I personally can’t wait to read it, and I hope everyone else is looking forward to getting their hands on it too!

For those of you unfamiliar with Peter’s work, you can check out his author page on Amazon.com for a list of his currently available works. I personally recommend…well, all of them!

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2 Comments on “The Month of Permuted: Round One with Peter Clines!

  1. Great interview! Love your approach Peter, and I agree that’s the way to go. Grow organically by word of mouth. Too many folks standing on rooftops and shouting, “Buy my book!” these days.

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