Cthulhu, Sherlock Holmes, and rock bands. If you like any of these things, then, yeah, you're in the right place. I had the chance to talk with author slash musician slash all around cool person Jim Avelli (A Spider's Vow, Baker Street Irregulars Volume 1) about his latest projects. We'll start with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Your short story, The Scarlet Study, was recently featured in Baker Street Irregulars Volume 1 published through Diversion Books, edited by Michael A. Ventrella and Jonathan Maberry (yay!). Can you tell us your writing process on this?
Sure! It’s the same process I use for longer work, just a bit more condensed. I start in a plain, marble notebook, like the ones kids use in school. I find that it’s easier to get things rolling along when you’re not worried about edits and timing and things like that, and you can just sketch out your idea in the sloppiest way possible. My notebooks are full of cross outs, scribbles, sticky-notes to myself and some rude drawings.
Before I even get near the keyboard, I work it out here.
Then, when I have a notebook version that stands up to some basic attacks, I’ll start drafting for real. The whole rest of the time is spent tweaking and polishing, because any big problems would have come out in the notebook by now. This is where I start grinding off the sharp edges, sealing the leaks and polishing the shiny parts. Eventually though, I have to let go and hand it off to an editor, and this is the part of the process that a lot of writing teachers forget to mention. You need to develop the ability to say “Done.”, let go of the reins and move along to the next project. For some writers, that’s the hardest part.
As a reader, what is one of the most fun aspects of the Holmes canon? If someone is newer to the world of Sherlock, where should they start in general?
Doyle did a great job of capturing the feel of the time in his work, that’s what I like the most about reading Holmes’ stories. The newspaper articles, the smells from the bakeries, the crunching gravel of the long driveways and all the little details pull together to build this model of nineteenth century London in the head of the reader. It’s true that too much detail will put people to sleep, but I feel like Doyle found a good balance of setting and story-telling.
For a new reader, I would suggest starting with a short story called “The Engineer’s Thumb”. It’s not a difficult read, and the nuts-and-bolts of it are not so dated as some of Doyle’s other work, so it’s more easily relatable to a modern reader. There’s also a good deal of deduction, dead-ends and chasing down of suspects, which makes it a good example of Holmes’ adventures. I think it’s a good starter.
My own first Sherlock Holmes read was “Hound of the Baskervilles”, which turned out to be a terrible introduction to the series. “Hound” was written at a point in Doyle’s career when he wanted to be done with Holmes, but there was pressure from the public and his publisher for Holmes to keep going. The story breaks with Doyle’s usual format in that Holmes himself is left in the background for most of the tale, and it’s a longer work than most. Not much good for a first read. Later on, I came to appreciate it.
You recently published your novel, A Spider's Vow, the first book in a trilogy. Can you tell us your writing process for outlining a trilogy?
This project is much bigger in scale, but it’s not much different than writing short fiction. I start with my trusty notebook and fill it with scribbles and mistakes. Once it’s able to stand on its own, I start drafting. It’s like sketching something out on a huge sheet of paper, then zooming in and detailing later. The difference comes in the need to look at the Big Picture while I’m working each part. It’s difficult sometimes, but I have to keep in mind the ultimate goals for each character or location, even if their current situation is something totally different.
For example, if I’m writing a car chase that needs to end up at a train station, I have to do the chase right, or it’ll seem like filler. I have to focus on the details of the chase, but I can’t lose sight of the station. If I do, the chase will go on and on, winding up at some random location that I don’t need. Then comes the dreaded re-write. It’s that same approach to a trilogy, but the train station is a book or two further away. That’s also why I usually start at the end, and work back from it. If I start with an ending in mind, I’ll have everything I need to get there from the front.
Who are your biggest influences, and what tips have they shared that has recently inspired your own writing?
Unfortunately, most of my favorite writers are long gone, so they aren’t sharing much advice these days. Lovecraft’s work influenced my own tremendously. The way that he illustrated with words and let loose his imagination was something I’d never seen before at the time I started reading him. It’s mostly his “Dream Cycle” that caught my attention, the Unknown Kadath and the Randolph Carter stuff. There’s some amazing imagery in there. Apart from Lovecraft, Herman Hesse, Twain, Rowling and lots of others have influenced the way that I like to tell stories, but I can’t only take cues from writers.
The “Evil Dead” series is near and dear to my heart, not just because I loved the films as a kid--it also stands as an example of what you can accomplish if you dedicate yourself to a project. In 1979, when they were making this movie, people told Sam Raimi and his friends that they were wasting their time. They were just a bunch of students throwing buckets of fake blood around in the woods, but they did it like professionals. They worked hard and strategically to make this film happen, so it did. People still watch it today, and all the sequels. That’s inspiring to me.
You're also a musician and have played in multiple bands. How do you channel this into your writing?
Playing in bands, since I was about 16 years old taught me to enjoy collaborating with other creative folk. I love to put ideas together with other writers to see what sparks the engine and where it might take the story. Writing doesn’t have to be a solitary pursuit. If you find some good people to jam with, see where they take you.
Right now, I’m working with a friend of mine on something that I hope will become a graphic novel. It’s still in the early stages, but there’s a ton of potential. That’s something that I’d never considered doing, until this other guy brought it up. We were just jamming and now, I’m into a new medium entirely. So many writers go about their work alone because “that’s how it’s done”. Yes, it can be done in the traditional way, but it doesn’t have to be.
Where to from here? I don’t know, and I can’t wait to find out.
Be sure to check out Jim's website: