with Robert Louis Smith M.D., MSc,
Author of Antiquitas Lost: The Last of the Shamalans
1. Why did you write this book? What initiated this particular burst of creativity?
I have been interested in creative writing from a very young age. Unlike most physicians, I have always been somewhat of a "left brain" person, and my favorite courses in high school and college were English and the language arts rather than science. As long as I can remember, I have aspired to write a novel that could be appreciated by others. My decision to sit down and start writing was really motivated by two different circumstances. On the one hand, I read the works of some authors (Hemingway and Dickens come to mind) and marvel at their skill for the craft. On these occasions, I find myself wishing I could find it within me to write something as powerful, or beautiful as they have done -- scenes that tells us something important or thought-provoking. This is akin to a painter looking at the works of Michelangelo or Da Vinci and wishing he could create something as beautiful. On the other hand, I have consumed countless books over the years, many of them bestsellers, where I have gotten to the end and thought: I could do better than that! In addition to these factors, I also find writing to be a wonderful escape from the stresses of daily life.
2. Does your story line develop organically or is it a gestalt before you begin?
Both. When I sit down to write, I have a vague impression of the major plot elements and a general idea of how the story might turn out. I also tend to flesh out the characters fairly well in my own notes so I have a good feel for them. But other than this, I don't do any real outlining. I find this helps the pace and suspense of the book quite a lot. I also tend to write the chapters chronologically, rather than focusing on separate subplots then pasting it all together at the end. When writing in this fashion, I can get a good sense of when something exciting needs to happen, or when it is time to give the reader a break from the action, or when I should switch to a different character's POV. Very few creative writing instructors will say this, but I think doing extensive outlining really takes something away from the flow of the book, and can make things too mechanical -- like the author is trying too hard to stick something in there where it doesn't necessarily belong. Another advantage of letting the story develop organically is that you, as the author, often don't know what exactly is coming next until you create that next perfect scene in your mind -- the one that will have just the right amount of tension, and will flow so well from the last. When the author isn't sure what is coming next, the reader won't know either. This is a good thing.
3. What reasons led you to choose an illustrated novel format ?
I am a fan of old fashioned illustrated novels, like Treasure Island, or 20,000 leagues under the sea. I read many of these types of books in my early reading years and always felt that the illustrations added a lot of fun to the story. Though illustrated fiction novels were quite common 100 years ago, you rarely see them these days. With the full page, highly detailed illustrations in Antiquitas Lost (and they are wonderful!), I was hoping to capture the feel of some of these older, classic books that I loved as a child.
4. Do you have a favorite character in the book and if so why?
My favorite character in Antiquitas Lost is the beast named Hooks. He has a checkered past and at first the reader is not sure whether or not he can be trusted. But as we get to know him, we learn that he is loyal, powerful, and helpful in the role of protector. He saves our protagonist, Elliott, on several occasions. He is also frequently childlike in his affections and is generally a likable fellow.
5. What do you like the most about writing?
Writing can be difficult at times, and it is definitely a task to be approached with discipline. However, creating a story -- particularly a fantasy story -- is a wonderful escape from the humdrum of daily life. It is gratifying to develop a scene in your mind and then transcribe it onto paper in a way that communicates your vision to others such that it is enjoyable to them. Completing a novel is also quite satisfying. Finding that others have enjoyed the story you created is the most satisfying of all.
6. Where do your new story ideas come from?
A good creative writing instructor would tell you that ideas for a great story or scene can come from anywhere. Family drama, stressful interactions with others, or even tidbits from the news all have the potential to blossom into an interesting story. The television show Law and Order ran for 20 seasons by simply considering the human drama that might arise from contemporary true crime stories ("ripped from the headlines!"). Another example comes from Michael Crichton, who ingeniously capitalized on news about emerging DNA technologies by wondering what might happen if modern science could find a way to clone dinosaurs from DNA samples preserved in amber. This was a great idea that arose by combining a kernel of information about genetic engineering with an interesting factoid about dino DNA -- and then considering the outrageous possibilities. The key is to find a topic or story of interest and then ask yourself "what if . . . ". For Antiquitas Lost, I set out with the intention of creating a fantasy genre novel, so there were many decisions to be made. The ideas for the flora and fauna of my fantasy world (Pangrelor) came mostly from Earth's Pleistocene era, which is suitably foreign to the modern reader and has also always fascinated me. I populated the world with creatures that I liked reading about as a child: Bigfoot creatures, gargoyles, Atlanteans, Neanderthals, etc. In creating the Salax creatures, I wanted to develop a viscerally terrifying monster that was different than anything that had been done in other fantasy novels. Many of the Salax characteristics, and some of their appearance, was modeled after sharks (though the Salax are strictly forest dwellers). These are just a few examples, but ideas for great fiction can be found anywhere. All you have to do is put your imagination to work.
7. What advice has helped the most in your writing?
For people who want to learn to write creatively, there are endless resources. If you do a search on amazon for "how-to" books on writing, you will find a mind-boggling number of books. I have read many of these. Much of the advice is good, and I think the aspect of these books that is most helpful is the technical stuff. However, once you have a feel for the basics of writing mechanics, the usefulness of these books, at least in my opinion, is finished. I think much of the advice beyond the basics of scene mechanics, dialogue, and that sort of thing, is ultimately not that useful. It is important to remember that YOU are the one creating your story, and the end product should sound good to your own ear. If you get bogged down in the seemingly infinite number of "rules" of writing, your novel will likely come out mechanical and awkward, or sound as if you are trying too hard. The best book I have read about writing was Stephen King's book called On Writing. He discusses many of these issues at length, and I agree with his summation, which basically says to learn the rules, be aware of the rules, then try to forget about them and write your story. Another great resource is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Dave King and Renni Browne.
8. This seems to be your first book, do you have something new in the works?
Indeed, Antiquitas Lost is my first novel, and the responses I have received since it has been published have been quite gratifying. There are many adventures in store for Elliott, Hooks, and the gang. I am well into writing the second installment.
9. Who is your favorite author and why?
There are many authors I enjoy, and for a variety of different reasons. I have never fallen in love with a Hemingway novel, but have always been extremely impressed with his technical ability for the craft. On the other hand, there are aspects of Tolkien's writing style that I don't like, though his novels are among my favorites. So to me there are different ways to be a skilled writer, and my favorite authors are those that combine great (or even adequate) technical skill with stories best suited to my particular imagination. My favorite author since childhood has always been Stephen King. I used to believe he was under-appreciated, but I think few would deny that he has risen to a high level of recognition and merit at this point in his career. Technically speaking, he has mastered the art of character development, and his ability to create great prose has really been apparent in his last several novels. He has always had a gift for creating great stories.
10. What advice would you give for the want to be writer?
I believe discipline is the key to becoming a writer. You must carve out a writing schedule and then stick doggedly to it. Often, you will not like your initial draft, and you must fight the impulse to get frustrated and stop. You can always circle back and work on the mechanics of a weak bit of prose, but reworking a draft is much easier (for me at least) than creating text out of whole cloth. Also, there will be times when the neurons are firing just right, and everything flows easily from your mind to the page. This is quite satisfying when it happens. The key to all of this is to sit down and do the work. You will never experience the joy of creating the perfect scene, or writing that popular novel, if all you do is sit around and stew about it.
© 2011 Robert Louis Smith, author of Antiquitas Lost: The Last of the Shamalans
Robert Louis Smith, author of Antiquitas Lost: The Last of the Shamalans, has numerous degrees, including psychology (B.A.), applied microbiology (B.S.), anaerobic microbiology (M.Sc.), and a Medical Doctorate (M.D.). He serves as an interventional cardiologist at the Oklahoma Heart Institute. He is married and the father of two young children. He began writing Antiquitas Lost in 2003 while studying at Tulane University in New Orleans.
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