Interview: Bryan Thomas Schmidt on editing “The Martian,” and life as a writer

"It is the life experience that makes the most difference. I lived, I travelled, I had adventures, I learned. All of those are far more invaluable to me now."

Bryan s Headshots-bryan-0002The Martian is not only shaping up to be an incredible movie, but based on Andy Weir’s self-published novels, it is another example of how self-published novels are gaining more and more traction in the literary and entertainment industries. One of the people behind The Martian’s success is Bryan Thomas Schmidt, the editor hired by Weir to get the novel ready for the masses.

With years of experience and several dozen publications under his belt, Bryan Thomas Schmidt allowed ScifiPulse to interview him about his career, his thoughts on editing, and life as a writer. You can learn more about him by visiting his homepage.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were your favorite stories that you think impacted you the most?

Bryan Thomas Schmidt: Star Wars is the major movie event that opened my eyes to the power of storytelling and made me want to tell stories. It was this movie with a dumb name that my cousin had seen six times and insisted I see. I went, and the opening scenes a board the rebel ship as it is invaded is still one of my favorite sequences in all the franchise. Thing came alive I never would have imagined and I was never the same.

But Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg is the seminal book for me. The worldbuilding, the characters, adventure—I read it cover to cover as fast as I could. I think my parents thought I was a teenage boy entertaining himself in his room in less proper ways, so to speak, but I was reading this book my sister had given me that I hadn’t even asked for or wanted. A bookstore person recommended it, and to this day, it remains a treasured book I revisit every few years. It’s even more meaningful now that Robert Silverberg has become a friend, colleague, and collaborator.

Yanes: When did you know that you wanted to become a professional writer and editor?

Bryan Thomas: I have always been creative. My mom says I never played with a toy the same way twice. And I would orchestrate these play periods with friends in grade school, acting out movies or TV shows like Emergency! Or CHiPs as we played together. Elaborate scenarios and adventures that I had in my mind which we acted out. So I think it was a natural progression.

And I began by writing fanfic for The Littles series of children’s books about little people with tails who lived in the walls of human homes with a friend of mine, then I moved on to my own stuff. Becoming a professional was a dream that I didn’t realize until 25 years later, but that was where it all began.

Yanes: How do you think your higher education has helped you in your career? On this note, given the vast number of writing resources out there, do you think someone needs to go to college to become a professional writer?

Bryan Thomas: Besides teaching me to research and put thoughts together and meet deadlines, probably only a little. The grammar knowledge, etc. is invaluable as an editor, of course, but my education and my present career are not intricately connected. I am not using my theological studies degree and my communications degree has contributed an understanding of three act story structure and screenplay writing and storytelling elements, but beyond that, doesn’t tie in closely.

It is the life experience that makes the most difference. I lived, I travelled, I had adventures, I learned. All of those are far more invaluable to me now. Learning how to be a project manager, administrator, how to speak publicly, how to entertain and perform, how to touch an audience, grab them and keep them going—making them laugh when you want, feel what you want, etc. Networking and how to present one’s self and meet people and how to connect and have confidence to ask for opportunities. Those things are far more important than my actual degrees have been.

Yanes: Your debut novel, The Worker Prince, was released in 2011. How did it feel for this book to have such a great reception? Reflecting on the reviews you got from it, how did this feedback change how you developed your next project?TWP WFP front cover

Bryan Thomas: Every time a book is well received, it is a thrill, of course. This one sold 1500 copies in six months from a micro press, which was very impressive numbers. I was gratified by the reviews and the attention and grateful, honestly, for the opportunity to tell a story that I had dreamed up as a teenager, 25 years later.

But as a first book for me and the publisher, there were some struggles. Book 2 had release issues and delays and never really took off and the series faded. So I never finished the series. WordFire Press and Kevin J. Anderson gave me an opportunity to relaunch the series. So I wrote book 3, the Exodus, and went back and revised and polished The Worker Prince and The Returning, book 2, and they will be rereleased in Author’s Definitive Editions starting in November with The Worker Prince.

The blurbs are exciting for this version, too, with one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Maberry, calling it a blast and asking me to read more. So I have high hopes that maybe new readers will discover it and give it a chance on a far larger scale and that old fans will revisit and follow up on the rest of the series. Time will tell, I suppose. But one can hope. The Saga of Davi Rhii is a hopeful series and with a few exceptions, I try and to be a positive guy.

Yanes: You are often described a speculative fiction writer. To you, what does speculative fiction mean?

Bryan Thomas: I am described more often as an editor than author these days, so this was amusing. Speculative fiction is fiction that uses speculation as core element to the stories, plain and simple. The most common genres mentioned and tied to it are science fiction, fantasy and horror and various subgenres therein.

Speculative fiction gives authors and readers a chance to examine contemporary issues through the eyes of other worlds and cultures far from us and ask important questions, consider important issues in light of that, and perhaps in a less in-your-face or threatening way, find answers. The Worker Prince, for example, is an adventure story, and readers often compare it in feel to the original Star Wars, but it is also the Moses story set in space and examines persecution and bigotry against people for their religion and ideology, and since we see some of that going on these days, it asks relevant questions and proposes relevant problems and solutions, I hope.

Yanes: Given that you write for both adults and children, how do you approach writing for these different age groups? Do you have more fun writing for one age group over the other?

Bryan Thomas: Well, you have to consider vocabulary, content, tone, lots of things depends on the age group. For example, with chapter books, you should have only 3-4 more words in the longest sentence than the reader’s age. So you based that on 8-12 and limit to 16 words, kind of thing. I enjoy both but I feel a bit more freedom writing for adults because I can really just worry less about what they will understand, vocabulary, and sentence length, and just let my passion flow on the page. But both are quite a pleasure or I wouldn’t do them.

Yanes: In addition to being a writer, you are also an editor. When working as an editor, how do you separate a client’s work from your own creative instincts? On this note, how do you normally approach a work that you are about to edit?

Bryan Thomas: I approach it with instincts of a practiced analytical mind really, as obvious and obnoxious as that may sound. I don’t read SFF for fun anymore. My mind won’t allow it. I am too trained to analyze. I have to go outside genre to read for fun. So depending on the type of editing: story/development, line, copyedit, proof that I have been hired for, I work accordingly, turn on track changes in MSWord and go to town. I always pay attention to author voice and look for ways to help them tell their story better. As a writer, I am pretty clear on staying out of client’s ways and not rewriting stories or imposing my own ideas but helping bring out and clarify what’s already there. And there are negotiable edits and must do edits. I make those clear as well and why.

Yanes: You edited The Martian. As a self-published novel it is one of many success stories in which someone published a story online and made it big. Before someone decides to quit their day job, what advice would you offer to aspiring writers who are thinking about self-publishing?

Bryan Thomas: Hire an editor like Andy Weir did. Not necessarily me. Though I am open to clients. Andy knew he needed help making the book better and we worked on everything from clarifying characters to making science more accessible to descriptions of settings, etc. He also needed help with formatting since he had published it on the web and had no idea about such things. But at least he knew he needed a professional eye and it was worth the investment. To me, that is what determines a person with long term career vision from someone trying to get famous or make a buck quick. You want to be a pro, treat it like a business. That’s my best advice.

Mission Tomorrow cover 2 largerYanes: What are you currently working on that fans should keep an eye out for?

Bryan Thomas: Sequels to The Worker Prince. The Returning, which releases in Author’s Definitive Version from WordFire this Spring and The Exodus, the brand new third volume, out next Summer to conclude that trilogy. I just completed Galactic Games, an all-star Olympics theme scifi anthology due out next Summer during the Rio games which features George R.R. Martin, Mercedes Lackey, Seanan McGuire, Gene Wolfe, Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick, and more. And there are several more anthologies coming, including the Speculation K.C. anthology for Kansas City World Con next summer which has stories by Heinlein, Niven, and other luminaries.

Yanes: Finally, what are some of the next big milestones you want to hit in your career?

Bryan Thomas: I’d like to sell a novel to a New York house next, maybe a chidren’s book as well. Also, to hit a bestseller list. Hoping that happens with a couple collaboration anthologies filled with New York Times Bestsellers I have in the works. Beyond that, I want to start making a decent living. I am getting by but things could and should be more solid. Be nice to stress a little less over every dime. If I could get any of that to happen, I’d consider myself on the right track for sure. And if the bestseller thing doesn’t, just want to sell enough books publishers keep wanting more. That’s what matters.

Remember, you can learn more about Bryan Thomas by visiting his homepage.

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