Squrriel Eyes, discusses his book, his journey as a writer, and self-publishing on Kindle.
DAVID WISEHART: What can you tell us about Squirrel Eyes?
SCOTT S. PHILLIPS: I don’t wanna just quote the back cover copy here, so lemme see: Squirrel Eyes is a funny, painful, and (I hope) somewhat uplifting novel about a guy in his 30s who grew up loving—and wanting to make—movies. He’s spent his whole life in pursuit of The Dream and has finally hit the wall—his career is on the rocks and his girlfriend has left him for another man. Feeling like his entire existence has been a perpetual series of wrong turns, he hatches a mad plan to course-correct his life by returning to his hometown to seek out his first girlfriend and do something he never did: have sex with her. Things never go as one might hope, though, and she lays down a challenge to him that will either wreck him completely or save his life.
DAVID WISEHART: How do you develop and differentiate your characters?
SCOTT S. PHILLIPS: Man, that’s a tough one. I’m not sure how to answer it, to be honest—I hate to say it because it sounds so trite and pretentious, but the characters really do the work for me. For instance, I didn’t know there was gonna be a character named Boone Butters in Squirrel Eyes until he walked into the second chapter. He’s proven to be really popular with readers and now I’m working on a short story about Boone called Roomies, which will be available on Kindle soon.
Elwood Reid once told me that I’m a character guy rather than a plot guy, and I think that’s a good assessment. I’m less interested in the murder (for example) than I am in how the characters in the orbit of that murder respond to the situation. My work has been described as “quirky,” which I guess is a pretty good word for it, but I never approach it that way, like I’m sweating every scene thinking “Quirk it up!” The characters bring that to the table themselves, as dumb as that sounds.
DAVID WISEHART: Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?
SCOTT S. PHILLIPS: Well, I don’t pretend to have any great insight into the human condition—I try to be entertaining first and foremost, and if people come away from my work with more than that, it’s icing on the cake. So my ideal reader is probably someone who’s looking for an entertaining story with some depth, something funny but with an edge. Squirrel Eyes gets pretty dark in places, but people tell me how they were laughing out loud while reading it. The stories in my collection Tales of Misery and Imagination are similar—they range from horror to coming-of-age but I think the key element is entertainment.
DAVID WISEHART: What was your journey as a writer?
SCOTT S. PHILLIPS: I started out as a kid wanting to make movies—that was all I knew. I used to make little Super-8mm monster movies and stuff, and as I went along, I started writing half-assed scripts for them. Eventually, the writing took over and I banged out my first feature-length screenplay when I was 18. I was always intimidated by the idea of writing short stories or novels but once I started working in those forms, I fell in love with them. Unlike a screenplay, which depends on the involvement of a zillion other people, a short story or novel depends entirely on the words you put on paper, and after having some of my scripts ravaged by the Hollywood process, I really like that.
DAVID WISEHART: What is your writing process?
SCOTT S. PHILLIPS: I really dislike writing outlines or treatments—I’ve always preferred to just sit down and start writing. I always have signposts in my head to guide things, and I usually have a fairly solid idea of what the ending is gonna be, but I like to let the characters and events carry me along. I was overjoyed when I found out that a lot of my favorite writers—both authors and screenwriters—work in that same way. As far as the actual process of putting words on paper, I just sit down every day and do it. When I’m writing scripts I aim for five pages a day, with fiction I aim for 1000 words. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it gets the job done.
DAVID WISEHART: What authors most inspire you?
SCOTT S. PHILLIPS: I’m a huge fan of Charles Willeford, Joe Lansdale, and Donald Westlake, but the single biggest influence on my writing is a guy named Chris Miller—he was a writer for National Lampoon back in the '70s, when I was probably too young to be reading National Lampoon. I was really drawn to his turn of phrase and humor, and when I look at my stuff I can definitely see the influence. Miller wrote a story for NatLamp called Tales of the Adelphian Lodge: Pinto’s First Lay, which wound up being the basis for Animal House, and of course Miller co-wrote that script. Back in 1998 I was pitching for a movie—if I remember right it was a remake of Cat People featuring a teenage cast—and for some reason I mentioned Chris Miller. The producer I was pitching to told me Miller had pitched for the same movie. I told her to stop talking to me and hire Miller. The movie never got made, which is probably a good thing, Chris Miller or no.
DAVID WISEHART: What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you'd written yourself?
SCOTT S. PHILLIPS: That’s the toughest question yet. I’d say Sideswipe by Charles Willeford. I don’t know what Willeford’s process was but he was great at throwing his characters into a situation and watching 'em react, rather than letting the plot guide them. Just the way everything rolls along in Sideswipe is incredibly satisfying. Another of his books I love is The Shark Infested Custard.
DAVID WISEHART: How have you marketed and promoted your work?
SCOTT S. PHILLIPS: I’m still trying to figure that part out. Last year at Bubonicon, a local science fiction convention, I saw an interesting panel by Bob Vardeman and Pari Noskin Taichert on self-publishing and self-promotion. Pari made a good point that it’s a mistake to get carried away trying to promote yourself in a zillion different ways and that you can fall into the trap of spending all your time promoting and wind up not writing new material. She suggested picking three to five things you enjoy and using those for promotion. I write movie reviews and other stuff for a website called Cheese Magnet, so I promote my work there. The other two methods I’ve been using are Twitter and Facebook. I find Twitter to be mostly useless but I’m probably doing it wrong. I get a better response from Facebook but you’re limited in both of those cases by how many followers or friends you have.
Right now I’m focused on trying to get my stuff reviewed in more places—something that will (I hope) bring some new eyes to my work. I’m also fortunate enough to be involved in an anthology called A Career Guide To Your Job In Hell, which I co-edited with Bob Vardeman. We both have stories in that book, along with a fellow I call “The other Scott Phillips” (he wrote The Ice Harvest), Victor Milán, John Jos. Miller, Nathan Long, Brandie Tarvin, Axel Howerton, and Scott Denning. I’d be lying if I said I weren’t hoping to ride the coattails of those authors.
DAVID WISEHART: Why publish on Kindle?
SCOTT S. PHILLIPS: Speaking as someone who’s dealt with both the movie industry and the publishing industry, I can tell you three of the biggest frustrations that exist in both:
1: You’re dependent on someone sitting on the other side of a desk to decide your work has merit.
2: It can take freaking FOREVER for #1 to happen, and even if it does, it can take just as long before your work is seen by the public.
3: Assuming you’re lucky and you get published or produced, you have to hope like hell you don’t get screwed on the money.
Publishing via Kindle removes all three of those frustrations. After I finished writing Squirrel Eyes, there was a little flurry of enthusiasm for the manuscript, including a weird situation with an agent at William Morris who read it and called me to gush over it. He went so far as to call me “an exceptional writer,” and asked if I could expand slightly on the relationship between the main character and his brother. I did as he asked, sent the book back to him, then heard nothing but crickets chirping. I finally got the agent on the phone and his attitude about the book had taken an about-face—somewhere along the way something shiny distracted him, or who knows what. At any rate, he had lost interest, so I tried submitting the book to a couple publishers but you never know when or if you’re gonna hear back on that sort of thing. You could spend a decade shopping a book around and never get anywhere, or you can make it available on Kindle right now.
I still hear some established authors griping about self-publishing and how it opens the floodgates to crap, but I don’t buy that for a second. I’ve read plenty of lousy books that were released by so-called “legitimate” publishers. These same authors who pooh-pooh self-pub will say that you’re not a “real” writer, but again, that’s a bunch of garbage. If you applied that same criteria to other mediums then by their terms John Cassavetes wasn’t a “real” filmmaker because he self-financed and even self-distributed many of his movies. And Dave Sim isn’t a “real” comic book writer/artist because he self-published Cerebus, one of the most acclaimed series in comics history. As far as I’m concerned, the proof is in the pudding.
DAVID WISEHART: What advice would you give to a first-time author thinking of self-publishing on Kindle?
SCOTT S. PHILLIPS: First: stop thinking and start doing. My best advice is to face the learning curve and control as much of the process yourself as possible. You can find stock images that you can use for covers or you can take photos yourself if you have a talent for that sort of thing. An artist buddy of mine, John Howard, did the cover for Unsafe On Any Screen, a collection of my movie reviews, and another friend of mine, Greg Freeland II, is doing the cover for Unsafe volume 2. Learn to use Photoshop or a similar program. As for the content of the book, I can’t figure out MS Word worth a damn but Greg turned me on to Pages, and that program is a dream to work with. To be honest, once you get the basics figured out, it’s incredibly easy to get your book whipped into shape for Kindle. Seriously, what are you waiting for?
DAVID WISEHART: Thanks, and best of luck with your books.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott wrote the screenplay for the cult action flick Drive and wrote several episodes of the CW Network's Kamen Rider Dragon Knight. He has worked in many capacities in the movie industry, including sound editing, make-up FX, cheeseburger-fetching and even marched around the New Mexico hills in the classic flick Red Dawn. Perhaps most importantly, he once performed as stand-in for the legendary Lemmy in a Motorhead video.
Scott can be found online at www.cheese-magnet.com, where he writes about movies and monsters and anything else he thinks is cool.
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