Ken Stark is a horror fiction writer from Vancouver, Canada, and is living proof that it’s never too late to chase your dreams. After decades of writing only for himself, he decided it was finally time to let the world see inside his head, and what better way to do that than by utterly destroying civilization in his debut novel. With the second chapter of his Stage 3 series due for release soon and more on the way, he can only hope that everyone is buckled up for a wild ride.
Time to chat with Ken!
What are the special challenges in writing a series?
Without a doubt, the greatest challenge in even contemplating a series is going through the effort to map out an entire future, not knowing whether a single word of it will ever see the light of day. Considering the odds, it might just be a tremendous waste of energy, but if it’s published, a reader will want to know that the series is following a game plan rather than just being made up along the way. This doesn’t mean that every single step of the journey has to be plotted in excruciating detail, but you have to at least know where you’re going. In that way, I guess it’s just a magnified version of what every writer faces; tons of work with no guarantees.
What are the greatest challenges in writing short stories?
I love short stories, but they definitely have their pros and cons. A complete story has to be told in the space of what would be a single chapter of a novel, so there isn’t a lot of room for subtlety. But that limitation can work in the writer’s favour, too. A backstory can be summed up in two lines. A character’s motives might boil down to a few words. And it has to be said, there’s a certain rush in being able to weave a tale together in a week rather than the better part of a year.
Do you write under a pen name? If so, can you tell us why?
Actually, I intended to use a pseudonym with Stage 3 in order to keep my anonymity, but when my publisher sent me the cover art for approval and I saw my name splashed across that incredible piece of artwork in big, bold type, the egotist in me took over and I couldn’t let them change it.
How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?
I think horror and I chose each other, and at a very young age at that. I grew up under the shadow of Mutual Assured Destruction and nightly images from Vietnam, and most of my favourite TV shows and movies growing up reflected the zeitgeist of the day. Omega Man, The Day After, Soylent Green, Night Gallery, even scifi flicks like Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run; they all seemed to paint a fairly bleak picture of the future. They weren’t horror per se, but the dark visions of an unknown future fascinated me. I’m not sure if we’re any better off now than we were then, and in many ways the threats have actually multiplied, so though I see immense potential for the future, there remains a nervous burbling in the pit of my stomach that keeps my writing rather dark.
Not yet, no. I won’t say that it will never happen, but so far, my characters are their own people. All of us meet so many people over so many years of our lives, I don’t see a need to capture someone wholesale and drop them into a book. It’s much more fun to pick and choose from that library of traits, and build someone entirely new.
How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?
Probably more often than they should, but that’s when I know that I’ve created a powerful character. More often than not, the story veers off in an entirely new direction and I have to corral everyone together to get things back on track, but I always find that it all worked out to my advantage. Invariably, that momentary insurrection gave the story a more organic flow, and the story is just that much better as a result.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
I don’t draft a detailed outline, but I know the story I want to tell and the specific arcs of the characters, and I certainly know the way I want it to end. Things might arise along the way to alter the exact ending I had in mind, but it only varies by a few degrees, and it’s always better than what I had planned. As for titles, I prefer to let those come naturally. Usually, the words jump out at me as I’m writing a particular scene, and I know right then that I have my title.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
Truth be told, I’ll edit a book into the ground if given the chance. I usually pound out a chapter or two, go back and edit, write a few more chapters, go back again, and continue that way until it’s done. And once it’s done, I’ll go through it again. And again. And again. Honestly, if I didn’t have several people reminding me that I eventually had to finish, I’m not sure I ever would.
Do you have any advice for first-time authors?
My advice to aspiring authors is always the same. Don’t listen to what anyone says, just tell the story that’s in your head. Write what and how and where and when you want, critics be damned. But for the sake of those looking for something a little more tangible, let me tell you what I wish I had known from the start. First, don’t worry about finding an agent. Lots of publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, and you can find lists of them all over the web. So check them out, see the kind of things they’re interested in, and have a look at the books they’ve already published. Second, finish your book before you submit anything. And I mean finish it. Complete, edited and polished. If you send in 3 chapters and they want to read the whole thing, they aren’t going to wait six months while you write the rest. Third, and perhaps most important, write a kick-ass blurb for your book. The person who reads your email will be wading through dozens a day, and that blurb is the only thing that will make yours stand out. And if it intrigues the publisher, he/she knows that it will intrigue potential buyers as well, so that blurb is all-important. Do some research. Look at other blurbs. See what works and what doesn’t, and take your time to get it just right. If it doesn’t take a couple of weeks, it can be better. And yes, it’s that important.
Can you tell us about your road to publication?
Actually, my story should be motivation for every aspiring writer. I wrote a book and spent a year shopping it around with a remarkable lack of success. It was immensely discouraging and I began to think that I was wasting my time, but as I was checking various publishers’ websites, I found several that were looking for a specific type of story. So I set aside the book I was trying to flog and started to hash out the premise for Stage 3. When it was done, I submitted a completed manuscript to one of those publishers, and they scooped it up. And so, I guess the lesson here is two-fold. Never give up on your dreams, but allow for the fact that those dreams might cut a rather circuitous path.
Please, tell us about your experiences with social media. What are your favorite and least-favorite parts of it?
I had next to no social media presence before being published, so I had to catch up quickly. Without a doubt, Twitter has become my favourite because it lets me spread the word on hundreds of extremely talented people every day, and I’ve met some real friends along the way. My least favourite is anything that involves an author’s bio. I’m perfectly happy discussing my work or being interviewed, but seeing the words ‘tell us about yourself’ fills me with absolute dread.
Do you have any grammatical pet peeves to share?
A lot of what I read could benefit from an extra comma here or there, but I couldn’t care less about grammar. Historically, the English language became what it is through adoption, absorption and invention, so as far as I’m concerned, anything goes. I feel perfectly free to dangle participles, split infinitives and hyphenate the unhyphenatable. And no, unhyphenatable is not a word, but it is now…..Dibs!
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
First draft, nothing! I never let anyone see a word of what I’m writing until the whole thing’s done! It’s hard enough putting my heart out there with a fresh coat of varnish, I can’t imagine letting anyone see it all full of holes and dripping with rust.
We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?
The cover is the first thing people see, and in this world where thoughts drift as quickly as the click of a mouse, that cover is more important than it’s ever been. I can’t tell you the number of times someone told me that they picked up Stage 3 because of the cover. Yes, I hear you all screaming that it’s what’s inside that counts, but believe me when I say, nobody’s going to bother looking inside unless the outside draws them in. If you’re an indie, spend the money. It might take a year’s royalties to pay it off, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.
Would you like to write a short poem for us?
In no way am I a poet, but how about the best limerick I can come up with in under two minutes?
There once was a fellow named Ken
who took up his paper and pen
The words that he wrought
weren’t quite what he ought
And the masses cried, “Damn, this again!?”
*bows ponderously, and exits stage right to the sound of crickets chirping in the distance.
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?
I’ve lived in Vancouver for most of my life, but as I said in one of my earlier stories, ‘a man shouldn’t grow old in the same town he grew up in’. I’m thinking Hawaii, or maybe the Mexican Riviera, but definitely someplace warm. I’m open to suggestions…. Anyone?
If you could duplicate the knowledge from any single person’s head and have it magically put into your own brain, whose knowledge would you like to have? And why.
Albert Einstein’s, definitely. He was able to see the fabric of the universe in a way that no one had before, and I would love to have just a glimpse of that brilliance. For a thousand years, humanity envisioned a clockwork universe, and then along came Einstein with a unique vision of it all. Can you imagine the audacity to suggest a century ago that space and time were really one? This meant that the ‘now’ of a someone coming toward us might be centuries different from the ‘now’ of someone moving away from us. It’s mind-boggling to even contemplate, but that unknown patent clerk envisioned it all. Just imagine if that kind of out-of-the-box brilliance was directed at some of the problems we face today.
If you could add a room onto your current home, what would you put in it?
I’m supposed to say books, right? Well yes, of course there would be books, but really, I would love a games room. Wet bar, pool table, big screen TV, comfy chairs, jukebox, room for all my comic books and nerd toys……Actually, that sounds so good, maybe I’ll just add a bed and move in!
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
No, if something gives me pleasure, I don’t feel guilty about it. That probably sounds hedonistic, but in my boring little world, such excess usually takes the form of extra cheese on the pizza or imported beer rather than domestic.
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