Jeff is a writer of many things who just recently got back from the Paradise Lost Workshop. I also once ended up owing him (and delivering) a severed toe but neither of us remember why. You can follow him on Twitter and he can be lured with cheesecake.
Minerva Zimmerman: So you’re back (From Paradise Lost)! Tell me ALL THE THINGS!
Jeff Petersen: I am. Paradise Lost 5 was a blast. I haven’t been to San Antonio since I was a kid, so it was fun to see the Riverwalk as an adult. I tell you what, that place is NOT OSHA compliant. I almost got pushed in the river a couple times.
MZ: Is it bad that I imagine you were playing a ukulele while almost falling in the river?
JP: I would never put my ukulele in danger like that! Heaven forbid. It was safe in the room, and only came out at night, in the relative safety of the Con Suite
MZ: Awww, but this ruins my images of you doing a Texas Troubadour impression. MY DREAMS ARE CRUSHED.
JP: I forgot to buy boots and a cowboy hat too. I have crushed all the dreams.
JP: Apart from all the new friends and great critiques of my opening chapters, it’s like I didn’t get anything out of it.
MZ: Hehe. So tell me a little bit about the workshop. I’ll admit I’m not really familiar with it or who teaches it.
JP: Sean Kelly and his wife put it on every year, and they bring in a few professionals in the writing business to give lectures and do story critiques. This year we had Delilah S. Dawson, Chuck Wendig, and Robert Jackson Bennet, who were all fantastic.
MZ: oh damn! You were at THAT! I saw some of the stuff on social media.
That sounded like a blast.
JP: There may have been some debauchery and revels.
There were definitely churros, ukulele and Cards Against Humanity.
MZ: Were they non-disappointing churros? I worried about the churro you wore as a hat. There’s nothing more dangerous than a disappointing churro.
JP: Honestly, they were disappointing churros from the flavor and texture perspective, but they worked well as hats
MZ: That is the saddest thing.
JP: I also had disappointing flan. For a place so close to Mexico, the Mexican food is surprisingly hit and miss.
MZ: I found tex-mex had better sopapillas. I’m surprised about the churros though. Generally things involving frying were better.
JP: I did have an excellent pan dulce. It was moist and delicious.
MZ: You also recently became Oregon-adjacent geographically.
How are you settling in food-wise?
JP: I’m basically a Carebear Cousin to the Oregonians. I’d say I’m the friendly manatee with a piece of cheesecake on my tummy. And also in my tummy.
I’m actually quite happy with the food choices I’ve found. The Mexican is less expansive than San Francisco, but I’ve found great Indian and Chinese food
And they have about 200 kinds of apples in the produce store
MZ: and they all taste different
JP: I have only eaten 3-4 different kinds. I’m a little intimidated.
MZ: Yeah they really should give you an apple fact sheet when you move
It’s like when you move to the Oregon Coast they give you a copy of Goonies and issue you a Black Lab
“Not a dog person? DOES NOT MATTER. HAVE A LAB”
JP: Am I supposed to have picked up a dog? What kind do you get in Washington?
MZ: I think you’re OK where you are. It seems to be a coastal thing. I mean otherwise the neighbors don’t know how to refer to you around here because no one learns human names. Only dogs.
plus you have kids, so they can refer to you by children.
JP: Some of my neighbors don’t have kids or dogs, so I have to call them by their actual name.
MZ: ooo awkward.
JP: It feels funny
MZ: Oh, right, writing. We should probably get back to that before we talk about dogs and tacos for an hour. So what was something new you learned at PL?
JP: That’s tricky. I’m not sure if it was a much learning something new as being reminded about things I needed to focus on.
MZ: That’s important too
JP: I got a lot of good critiques, and when they all remind you to keep increasing the tension, it’s a pretty good time to torture your characters a little more
MZ: It does feel a bit like you’re a fictional sadist sometimes, writing.
I mean you have to basically start bad and get worse, and then make it almost better… and then pull the rug out.
JP: It’s an odd feeling. You like your characters, and ultimately you want them to succeed at their quest, but if you don’t make it a challenge, the story isn’t satisfying.
MZ: I want to say it was Jim Butcher who said that each book is basically the “Worst Day” for that character in a given time period.
so you have to show how it isn’t this bad all the time without actually showing it? Basically by having the characters react the way you would when shit goes terribly wrong.
JP: Nobody wants to see the character pick up their mail and watch TV all day because they have nothing going on. They have to fight a dragon.
MZ: Right, and I think it helps to take it one step further and start the scene where the protagonist has just tripped with a dragon over them.
JP: We want to see people trip and get up and still win, despite the difficulty.
MZ: Also making the reader ask questions is SUPER important
so the very first line of a story needs to give the reader a question they care about answering.
JP: My readers usually ask, “What is Jeff smoking, and where can I get some?”
MZ: Lol, I don’t know about that :)
JP: Spoiler alert: it’s whisky, and you don’t smoke it
JP: Well, technically the distillery might smoke it
But I don’t.
MZ: Well, I like to think the first scene the reader needs to ask “Who is this? Where are they? What are they doing?” and CARE about answering them… and the author needs to sort of dribble clues without outright answering them until a new question has been asked.
and that’s how you drag the reader through at the pace you want them to go
JP: That’s one of the things we talked about at PL, every time your characters answer a question, that should bring up a new question, or complicate their life in some way. Delilah also gave a talk about how to write a sex scene, which I highly recommend, if you get the opportunity.
MZ: Did she talk about counting legs?
Legs are like the worst in sex scenes or fight scenes.
JP: She talked about counting hands, but the basic premise is the same.
MZ: I don’t recommend writing either kind of scene in public.
I’m always trying to block it out by moving my body to count limbs…and it has to look completely stupid.
JP: Maybe that’s why I like adding squids to my books. The fighting scenes are much easier to block out when you have essentially unlimited legs.
MZ: I have not tried this.
JP: I wouldn’t recommend it. Let’s keep squids my thing. I can’t have everyone writing squid books
So you’re working on YA book right now?
JP: It started out YA, but it has since settled comfortably into Middle Grade
that’s fun, but hard
JP: I’m also half way through a New Adult RomCom, which is an entirely different animal, and fun in its own way
MZ: Oo! I’m excited to read that
I mean, anyone I somehow ended up owing a severed toe to, is exactly the person whose RomCom I want to read.
JP: It’s tricky going from young and innocent to tawdry and adventurous. I don’t think I have a severed toe in either book, but I do have severed tentacles in both.
MZ: oh my.
please don’t send me a severed tentacle… the dogs will get into it and that would just be a mess.
JP: I have no intention of writing any romance for the squids, just to make that clear. They’re comic relief and possible face-eaters exclusively.
MZ: Also, I am SO looking forward to your kids getting old enough to wonder why their Dad has a severed toe.
This is how family stories get started.
JP: Never chop wood without shoes on.
I like to teach my kids valuable life lessons young.
JP: I still have all 10 toes, just to clarify for the readers. All 11, actually
MZ: Right, this one is extra. I found a donor.
MZ: Is there anything else you want to make sure we talk about?
JP: Word of mouth book recommendations. Write reviews for books you like, and tell people about them. I want to recommend Omega City, a great MG adventure I just read about a group kids who find a secret, underground city and explore it while being chased bad guys. It has a distinct Goonies feeling, which is awesome.
MZ: Ohh cool! Yes. I’d say I pretty much read 90% based on recommendations at this point. And reviews do matter. And it doesn’t matter when you do them. Share what you love.
JP: I love the genre fandom. It’s great to connect with people who love the same things, and it’s the best way to find more things you love.
MZ: Exactly! And the more people you meet the more likely you are to find new things like other things you love
JP: One of the presenters at PL was Marko Kloos, who writes Military SF. He self published a book, and the word of mouth went crazy and he sold about a billion copies in the first few months. So recommendations can make all the difference.
MZ: We all hope for that too :)
But honestly, it’s enough if one person finds it and loves it.
JP: I wanted to borrow his lightening jar, but he’s still using it, so I guess we’ll all have to make our own.
Especially if that one person is an agent ;)
P.S., I’m looking for a good agent.
MZ: I’m glad you had a great time at PL. It sounds like a great experience. And if you get an agent off of this you have to let me know, cause that would be awesome.
JP: I absolutely will. And I’ll buy you a whisky.
MZ: Agents: Seriously if you’re looking for good writers, let me know. I can hook you up.