Our interview with Stefan Vučak
- Can you share your journey to becoming an author? What inspired you to pursue a writing career?
I first turned my hand to writing short stories. I wrote and gave them to friends, thinking they would share my passion in what I created. Not always so. I yearned for the day when people would walk past a bookstore and see my books on display. Vanity? Perhaps, but the fire burning deep within me that compelled me to write also made me want to share the products of my imagination. Making my way in the world after college, pursuing a professional career in IT, I did not have the time to indulge that passion. However, the fire to write never went out, although I did allow it to die down a few times, frustrated at not being able to find a publisher or agent for my first opus. I learned painfully that publishing is a savage game, and publishers are not keen to accept my books just because I wanted to see them in bookstores. Despite all the setbacks, I managed to write several books, releasing them through an eBook outlet. When I had enough pushing my IT career, I devoted myself full-time – well, almost full-time – to writing and helping other authors navigate through the writing, editing, and publishing quicksand.
- Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, or did your passion for storytelling develop over time?
I always wanted to write. When I came across an illustrated book of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a kid in primary school, the printed word fueled my imagination ever after. In high school and university, I breezed through essays and writing assignments, puzzled why some of my classmates struggled. Books, of course, particularly science fiction, got my formative ideas factory churning. I figured if others could write short stories and novels, so could I. It did not seem that hard. I could not have been more wrong.
- What was the first story or piece of writing you remember creating? How has your writing evolved since then?
Empire Builder, my very first short story, and I remember it with a fond smile. I sent it to Analog. I sent several stories to Analog and other magazines. In the process, I accumulated a nice collection of rejection slips. I did not know how to properly format a manuscript, initially typing everything on a mechanical typewriter, which predictably made editing somewhat difficult and undoubtedly accounted for my rejection pile. Many short stories and books later, Microsoft Word, a heaven-sent tool, helped me become my own harshest editor/critic as I slowly mastered the fluency of writing and storytelling.
- Are there any specific authors or books that influenced you early in your writing journey?
Ah, that is one question no author should be asked to answer, as there were many who shaped my writing. In my green years, I went through old SF masters: Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Niven. They were definitely influencers, especially with my short stories. However, when I began reading authors such as C.S. Forester, Mary Stewart, Michener, and others in their genre, their writing style came to have a great impact on me, showing me depth and techniques I have not observed or considered before. They all helped find my ‘voice’ and styles.
- How do you approach the process of generating new ideas for a new book, and translating them into fully-fledged stories?
My IT training instilled in me a discipline I apply to writing. I don’t have a methodology to generate ideas as such. They come to me as possibilities distilled from everything I experienced in life to which I add a dash of my imagination. One idea will intrigue me enough to develop it into a short story or novel. I am a firm believer in structuring my writing. Many authors claim they have a flash of inspiration, sit down, and start pounding on the keyboard. I cringe at such an approach, having reviewed many amateurish results. I first jot down dot points to expand an idea, develop a basic plot, do some research, profile my main characters, then work to produce a detailed outline if I’m dealing with a novel. This gives me a skeleton that supports the flesh of all the twists and turns. Of course, my characters sometimes do and say unexpected things, but I often let them get away with it … within limits. It adds to the fun.
- What challenges did you face when you first started writing a full-length novel, and how did you overcome them?
Having read lots of books, my imagination on fire, I knew I could produce novels that were better than some I read. All in my nebulous mind, of course. Like with everything, writing techniques, grammar, using the English language, can be taught. What cannot be taught is how to apply these skills that produce a flowing story or novel. That takes practice, determination, perseverance, and belief I can do it.
One of my first challenges was to learn how to set up a manuscript in a format publishers and literary agents demanded. My first effort at writing a novel involved using different colored A4 paper, single spacing, no margins, and no header. I am comforted that no one will ever see that work. When Microsoft Word came along, I had those basics well in hand, and the software made life much more comfortable. The next major hurdle was mastering how to write in a style easy to read, and to become my harshest editor. That took a long time, but I think I have it beat now.
- Can you describe your typical writing routine? Do you have any specific habits or rituals that aid your creative process?
I am a morning person, and is my most creative and productive time of day to churn out new pages. Sometimes, though, I find myself in a receptive evening mood and turn to my writing pad. I always write original material on a pad, then transcribe it to the computer, doing light editing along the way. I tried writing directly into the computer, but it simply doesn’t work for me. After some twenty pages or so—depends how I feel at the time—I go through the new material and do hard editing.
This is followed by printing the pages and going over them visually. I am constantly amazed at what my eye catches doing this, having missed things looking at the computer screen, my mind having tricked me, automatically ‘correcting’ a blooper the eye sees. When the novel is finished, I print out everything and do another edit, then leave the thing for a couple of weeks before repeating the whole thing. By the time it is all done, I am heartily sick of the whole thing. Publishing the novel is a relief!
- How do you develop and bring your characters to life? Are they ever inspired by real people or experiences?
Ah, my characters, my family, friends, and villains. I love them all, even the bad guys. I created them, so a part of me is in them, which sometimes makes me reflect on what darkness lurks inside me.
When I started to write, my characters had simple personalities, behavior, and not much depth. I relied on action to carry the stories. As I matured and accumulated knowledge and experiences, my outlook on everything deepened, and so did my characters, becoming far more lifelike and complex. Sometimes a novel requires fast-paced action that doesn’t demand a deep philosophical character. Other works require more depth.
How do I bring my characters to life? Once I have a plot and understand fully who does what to whom and who gets paid, the main characters tend to define themselves. I take each one and build a profile sheet that describes most everything about them: height, weight, color of eyes/hair, distinguishing features, mannerisms, likes, dislikes, hobbies, personal world outlooks, etc. This not only ensures consistency when I use that character—I hate novels where the author tells me a character has blue eyes in one chapter, then brown eyes in another—it helps keep him or her alive in my mind as someone real. We get to be quite close, especially when they start talking to me at night. Should I see someone about that?
- What role does research play in your writing? How do you strike a balance between authenticity and creative freedom?
I believe doing solid research before starting any new novel. For short stories, that may not involve much, but I feel it is still necessary to avoid making careless blunders. Depends on the story, of course. Whether the subject matter is history, politics, or geography, I strive for accuracy. With science, accuracy within current understanding is essential. However, I have no problem extrapolating from known theories to something credible that might be developed in the future. I guess this explains my dislike of fantasy and magic. When things get tough for the hero or heroine, wave that wand or snap the fingers and the problem is resolved. I see that as a copout by a writer who cannot resolve a plot problem any other way. Creative freedom, or imagination, is what gets the story written, but I believe it must be anchored in a believable setting.
- Do you have a favorite genre or style to write in, or do you enjoy experimenting with different forms of storytelling?
I started my writing life with science fiction. Blame it on the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea book! Over a number of years, that produced eight novels in the Shadow Gods Saga. I thought if I branched into contemporary thriller, drama, military fiction, I would have greater traction getting accepted by a traditional publisher. No such luck, but I haven’t given up yet. I love to explore different genre and have my main characters adopt unique personalities. With F/X-26, the main character isn’t at all likeable and is a pretty mean, but as the story evolves, so does he. I don’t usually adopt female characters, as I don’t really know how women think. However, after doing some research, I felt comfortable in that space … somewhat. My readers can best judge whether I got it right.
All my novels are written in third person, but several of my short stories are in first person. The latter format is much easier to write in, as proper use of third person is a lot of hard work, but I feel far more rewarding.
- Have you ever been inspired by a dream, a conversation, or a fleeting moment to create a story? Please share an example.
An interesting question, as one particular dream resulted in a short story, Lifeliners that ended up as a major novel. Some years ago, I finished reviewing a book about a female vampire, a genre I don’t favor much, as the topic has been hashed to death—pardon the pun. Nevertheless, the book’s theme and the whole concept of vampires got me thinking. That night, I had a particularly vivid dream. Not about a traditional vampire sucking my blood, but a person who took energy by touching me. It is known that all of us have a bioelectromagnetic field, and in my dream, that person connected with me to drain energy from me to sustain himself. I pushed that concept in a different form that ended up in my latest book, Night Sirens.
- Do you have a favorite character that you’ve created? What makes this character particularly special to you?
One of my favorite characters is Terrllss-rr, a Scout Fleet officer in the Serrll Combine. I enjoyed developing him through eight books in the hard SF Shadow Gods Saga. The other is Thomas Meecham who first surfaced in Cry of Eagles, my debut contemporary political thriller. He is a hard-bitten FBI agent thrown into situations by his superiors and expected to solve them with minimal fuss.
Terr is special because I gave him a plausible, although non-conventional attribute. On a mission that went horribly wrong, to regain his memory, unable to speak, he must confront the Gods of Death. He walks away with the ability to kill by touch, or at a distance by discharging what looks like lightning. Endowed with such power generated many internal conflicts for him: give into temptation and allow Death to walk, or show restraint where it would be better for everyone if somebody died.
Meecham’s character makes me smile as I gave him situations that challenged his skills, beliefs, and competency. Throw in a dash of romance, he is a lifelike person who uses training, smarts, and raw ability to overcome problems without becoming dazzled by his successes.
- Can you share a memorable interaction or dynamic between two of your characters that you particularly enjoyed writing?
Here is a starting segment from my new novel, Broken Rose.
“Mason laid down his knife and fork on the heavy green tablecloth, the crumbed veal and fries before him forgotten. The glare he gave the imposing figure of his father across the table would shrivel anyone else, but not the granite personality of his old man.
“One word of encouragement, that’s all I ever wanted, but you couldn’t bring yourself to give me even that little bit! You always found fault in everything I did.” He slowly shook his head. “I never understood what it took to please you,” Mason added bitterly, hating to spoil what started as a great evening, but he simply could not take it anymore, or maintain a hollow façade of congeniality. The possibility of an eventual confrontation always cast a dark shadow over his otherwise bright days. To maintain a semblance of family peace, he pushed back what he knew to be the inevitable moment. Well, no longer.
His mom blanched, her large green eyes wide in astonishment, brushed a blond streak along the right side of her flowing hazel hair, and cleared her throat.
“Don’t, ‘Now, Manny’ me, Mom!” Mason shot back with a withering glance. “Every time you think I’m wrong, you side with Dad! I’ve had it with both of you.” He shoved back the chair and threw the maroon cloth napkin on the table. “If you can’t accept me for what I am, then don’t accept me at all. I need some fresh air.”
“Sit down!” Nikola Adamov grated in a stern Navy voice. Twenty-six years since he resigned as a lieutenant commander, he still retained command presence.
Even as a kid, Mason found his father’s personality difficult to cope with. When his father came into a room, he dominated, and his words were law that precluded argument or dissent, something Mason silently rebelled against. He should have stood up to him years ago. After all, he inherited some of his old man’s genes. There were many things he should have confronted years ago, he acknowledged glumly.
Mouth tight, fists clenched to hold back a torrent of emotions he kept bottled far too long, wanting to let them vent in unbridled rage, he slowly sat on the edge of the chair, back straight, openly hostile, not in a mood for another personality dissection, which he’d had many already. He should walk out to regain some personal perspective, unencumbered by his parents’ patronizing blanket of condescension and self-righteousness.
Nikola dabbed his full lips, neatly folded the napkin beside the plate in a habitual gesture, and settled back his muscled 174cm frame. Black eyes probed Mason beneath dark eyebrows not touched with frost. His short-cropped hair still a lustrous brown. A powerful man with a daunting presence even when sitting relaxed, his look now bore thunder clouds. Mason set his mouth, determined not to be unnerved, regardless of what happened.
“You claim I never gave you a word of encouragement?” his dad rasped softly.
Mom laid a soothing palm on her husband’s forearm. “This isn’t the time, dear. Let’s not ruin—”
Nikola shook her off. “This must be said.” He focused his gaze on Mason. “Who pushed you through school? You were ready to enter university at fourteen if it were not for our tight-assed academics and their rigid curriculum. Nevertheless, at eighteen, you managed to get a BSc and a master’s in a three-year accelerated course. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t kicked your lazy butt out of the comfort zone you hid yourself because you figured you were too damn smart to study. You’d be a deluded bum now if I hadn’t been on your case.”
“Lucky me,” Mason muttered.
“That’s right. Lucky you. You’re smart, I’ll give you that, but even in grade school you became dazzled by your genius and set yourself up to fail. You didn’t need encouragement. You needed a spike up your ass to get you moving, which I gave you in spades.”
- How do you handle writer’s block or moments when inspiration seems elusive? Do you have any strategies for overcoming these obstacles?
Here I am, sitting at my writing desk, chewing the end of my pen, staring at the notebook, wondering what the hell to do next. The words just don’t want to come and my mind is a blank slate. I have a detailed outline, damn it! I shouldn’t get stuck. It is a sunny day outside and I just remembered that piece of weeding, mowing, tree pruning, and garage cleaning. Perhaps it will clear my head and lead to inspiration—anything but think about that cursed piece of writing!
I must face it. A procrastination demon has gotten to me and poisoned my mind.
Every writer must accept that sometimes things just don’t flow no matter how much you strain and spin your mental wheels. So, what to do? Let the demon control you because it’s the easy way out, or roll up your sleeves and tackle the problem? If the words won’t come, they won’t come. A cup of coffee or something stronger may lubricate the old brainpan and get things moving.
Everybody hits a snag that grinds your writing to a stop. That’s the price we pay as writers. The goal is to avoid the big potholes in your plot. However, taking the easy way out by procrastinating will not get that page or chapter written. To build steps that get me out of that pothole and start writing again, I find it useful to revisit my detailed outline, then check what brought me to a full stop. I focus on the plot thread that has unraveled or is really a dead end I never tied up—the cause of my procrastination—and review what needs to be done to weave it together with the main threads. That might be simple sometimes. It also may require redoing or deleting parts of my work. Focus on the plot before you start writing and you will not have to agonize over those procrastination demons. Well, not as much. Eventually, the words will come again.
- What do you hope readers take away from your stories? Is there a particular message or feeling you aim to convey?
Mostly, I want readers enjoy what I have to give, have an occasional smile, and a moment or two that gets them reflecting. When they get to the last page, I like to think they will nod with satisfaction … then go buy one of my other books! When I write, I want to have fun and enjoy what I created. If readers get the same feeling, I am satisfied.
I never write anything with an underlying purpose to provide a ‘message’. I have an idea, wrap a story around it, and then tell it. Simple as that. If there is any message, it is an accidental byproduct of my characters’ experience, good or bad.
- What advice would you give to aspiring authors who are just starting their writing journey?
If there is one thing I learned over years as a writer, if anyone is contemplating taking this on seriously, he or she should be prepared to spend many lonely hours with a pencil and paper, and sitting behind a computer screen. There will be disappointments, frustration, angst … and moments of sheer exhilaration and satisfaction when the words flow and the creative process produces something wonderful. Writing is a gift, but it can also be a curse. Once bitten with the urge to create, there is no cure.
These days, it is easy to self-publish, and outlets such as Amazon and IngramSpark are replete with good books. Unfortunately, they are also full of amateurish efforts. Most authors dream of finding an agent and a traditional publisher. However, traditional publishers rarely take on new writers, always keeping an eye on the bottom line. They are running a business to make money, not cater to hopeful authors. It is tough, but that is the hard reality. Another tough reality is the ongoing need to market and promote your book. Writing fills my soul, and marketing empties it. So, while searching for that agent, self-publish, but write as a professional!
In my opinion, to become a serious writer requires discipline and dedication. Most of all, it requires that a person has a fierce flame of creativity burning inside that demands an outlet in words. Without that desire, a wannabe author might as well take up golf.
- How do you approach the process of submitting your work to publishers or pursuing self-publishing? What has been your experience?
Whether submitting to a publisher or self-publishing, the process is the same—being professional. Publishers and self-publishing platforms have specific submission formatting requirements. Every writer must be familiar with them before making a submission. Ignoring the requirements means an instant end in the slush pile.
One thing I strongly recommend to every author is to have the work proofread or edited by someone reputable. How to find such a being is another story. All of us are fallible, and I cringe when I see basic typos and poor word usage in a self-published novel. A writer may think it is okay to present a sloppily formatted Word document to an editor. The editor will fix everything. After all, that’s why the writer is paying big bucks. Don’t do it! It demonstrates lack of discipline, and may demonstrate the quality of writing. Being a professional writer means approaching every aspect of writing and publishing with exactness.
- How has the publishing landscape evolved since the first time you began writing, and how do you adapt to these changes?
Many chair experts have prognosticated the downfall of the printed book industry, taken over by tablets and smartphone downloads; even virtual reality in some distant future. There is no doubt that self-publishing has made a huge dent in traditional publishing, allowing authors to publish their work in an otherwise very closed publishing environment. In turn, traditional publishers were forced to adapt and make books available in eBook and audiobook formats. Regrettably, I have seen several bookstores shut their doors, which is sad, and makes me wonder what youngsters read these days, if anything. However, self-publishing has also provided unrestricted access to wannabe writers to publish less than desirable material that in turn has given self-publishing an unwarranted tarnished image.
Despite advances in publishing technology and formats, I believe printed books will be with us for a long time to come. Will they one day disappear entirely? The trend suggests this might happen, but there has been a resurgence in printed magazines and newspapers everywhere, which bodes well for traditional and self-published books.
Emergence of Artificial Intelligence applications, such as ChatGPT, will undoubtedly influence how some writers will go about producing a short story or novel. Will AI replace human creativity? My belief, AI it will become a valuable support tool, but one that cannot truly create a novel with all its twists and turns, character differences, dialogue, or generate emotions. In some future, perhaps, but for a long time yet, AI algorithms and knowledge databases cannot ‘create’ without that human quality and flare impossible to reduce to an algorithm.
- Are there any exciting projects or new directions you’re planning to explore in your latest book project?
My current project, Broken Rose, is somewhat of a departure from what I have previously written. Although I explored heavy personal interactions in Autumn Leaves, my current novel will delve much deeper into relationships, look at love, dealing with family dynamics, and emotional setbacks. Broken Rose will be people-oriented without ‘action’ I employed in my other novels. To an extent, it is an exploration of ‘self’ set against demands of keeping a professional career and achieving a meaningful relationship strewn with thorns. It has been a challenge to write the first sixty pages, as I felt a correct beginning must set an appropriate mood and setting for what is to follow. In a way, it is unknown territory for me, and I am looking forward to seeing where my main character will lead me.
Night Sirens is available from Amazon.