Another Writer's Process – Eric Tozzi

As you may know, I recently contributed to an anthology about time travel edited by David Gatewood with highly successful indie authors of the likes of Jason Gurley, Michael Bunker and Edward W. Robertson, to name a few. The Facebook launch party was also blast thanks to Susan Kaye Quinn.

Eric Tozzi

Eric Tozzi

Eric Tozzi and I kind of considered ourselves to be the new kids on the block in the anthology, even though he used to work as a documentary TV producer/editor for the Mars Exploration Program (!) and I… well I do climate change research for a local trust (but that’s almost as good as being a documentary film producer, right?).

In researching the backgrounds of all of the writers involved in Synchronic, I realized how multi-talented many writers are – in that collection alone, we had a rocket scientist (truly), an engineering physicist, a naval officer, an actor, a screenwriter and an off-gridding Amish farmer (we all know who that one is). In the spirit of exploring the multi-talents and writing process of some of my fellow anthology writers, I caught up with Eric Tozzi to ask him a few questions about his writing and his writing process. Here is our interview:

When did you start writing your first novel The Scout?

I originally wrote The Scout as a screenplay in 2009, but was unsatisfied with it, and put it aside. In November of 2011 I was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a documentary TV producer/editor for the Mars Exploration Program. We were just a few weeks out from the launch of the Curiosity rover. Five months earlier, my father passed away suddenly on Memorial Day. My mother was, at that time, very late stage Alzheimer’s and suffering through an infection. We almost lost her that month, but she hung on. I had spent a lot of time in Bloomington, Indiana over that summer to put my father’s estate in order. Being there in a small town, surrounded by the forest, I immediately thought about the visuals for The Scout—this would be the kind of place it would land.

Back to November, I remember the day distinctly. I was full of grief for the loss of my dad, the slow decay of my mother. I knew that my lead character was going to be right where I was—confronted by great loss and change. Additionally, I had so much information about planetary exploration oozing out of me from being at JPL—there was just no way to effectively put it all into screenplay format. It was then I decided to write a book instead. I sat down in the living room one afternoon, and instead of writing FADE IN, I wrote CHAPTER 1.

For most readers who don’t know me, The Scout is an alien invasion story, but that’s not what it’s really about. It is a deeply personal story about the inevitability of change, about loss, grief, and fighting for loved ones. Much of what you’ll find in the book about the Alzheimer’s stricken mother is very, very close to home for me. I embellished a few things concerning that, but not many. Most of it’s very real. Most of it is about my mom. I should also say that for the book I created conflict between my lead, Jack McAllister, and his dad, while in reality my dad and I were very close.

How long did it take you to write it - first draft to last draft?

Finishing the first draft—which clocked in at 103,000 words—took me 16 months. I took another 6 weeks after that to do an edit. Then I handed it off to a group of test readers—people I knew would give me honest feedback. I had about twelve: 5 men, and 7 women. I offered all of my readers a gift card of their choice for taking the time to read The Scout. I wanted them to know that I valued their time, and their opinions. I asked myself, “what’s in it for them?” So I put out the call for test readers with the offer of the gift card, and I got a tremendous response.

I gave the test readers 4-6 weeks to get back to me. Some of them wrote me back within a few days! They’d read the whole thing and had some specific notes for me. Overall the positives far outweighed the negatives. From there I did another pass, making some adjustments based on all the notes, and then I sent it off for copyediting.

I attended Worldcon in San Antonio soon after that. I had a short film that I directed playing in the film festival: “Ray Bradbury’s Kaleidoscope,” based on Ray’s short story from his book, The Illustrated Man. After meeting so many successful self-published authors, including Hugh Howey, Michael Bunker, and Steve Statham, I decided to go that route. I published the The Scout via Kindle Direct Publishing on October 13th, 2013—nearly 2 years after having begun.

Do you work full time, write full time, a bit of both?

When I began writing The Scout, I was working full time at JPL, so I wrote on weekends and evenings. There came a point—about 40,000 words or so—that I started writing full time, and finished the other 60,000 words in a few months. I would begin writing at 8:00 in the morning, break for lunch at 11:30, then get back to it and work until 5:00pm. I did that Monday through Friday. Some days I wrote even more than that. As I neared the finish line, seeing the last few thousand words in site, I pushed extra hard to cross the finish line. And it felt wonderful when I’d saved the document, and powered off the laptop that day!

I’m no longer a TV Documentary Producer at JPL, but I am working full time in the production business, so my writing time is somewhat limited. I find that I need to make a schedule and stick to it in order to reach any sort of writing goal. My word target goal, when I was writing full time, was 1500 to 2000 words per day. Sometimes I’d do more than that.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve got two books I’m working on: The Zoo, an off world scifi thriller, and a superhero drama, The Greatest Adventures of Mighty Woman. Mighty Woman was with a major television production company for a year, with the intent that they would produce it as a digital series. Unfortunately they weren’t able to get it off the ground, so the rights came back to me. I would still like to produce that one as a series. But rather than wait quietly for another deal to come through, I want to build some more equity in the project. Writing it as a book will be a great way to accomplish that and introduce an audience to the concept and character. If anyone’s interested in seeing the trailer I made for the show, just Google “mighty woman trailer,” and you’ll find it on YouTube and several other video sharing sites.

What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

It’s the freedom to tell a story from my perspective. It’s putting a part of my soul down on paper. Ray Bradbury walked in that freedom, and the little bit of time I got to spend with him as I was making the film, “Kaleidoscope,” really reinforced that concept. As a filmmaker, trying to get something produced can be daunting. You can see the movie, the story, the characters, in your head, but unless someone reads your script or the film gets made, it stays locked away up there. For me personally, when I wrote The Scout, I was directing the film. And I wasn’t worried about budgets, schedules, locations, weather, or how I might composite a complex visual effects sequence. I simply directed each chapter as I would see it and experience it visually and emotionally.

I write with headphones on, and I listen to music, specifically film scores. Orchestral music creates a very powerful mood when you listen to it, separate from dialogue and sound effects. I wrote the Scout listening to several scores that, for me, created the mystery, tension, and action I wanted to infuse in the book. Most notably, Marco Beltrami’s score for “The Thing” (2011), James Newton Howard’s score for “Signs,” and Alan Silvestri’s magnificent score from the original “Predator.”

Most of all, I enjoy stepping into a new world with my characters, and following them around. Sometimes they surprise me, do things and make choices that I wasn’t expecting. They have a life of their own. I love losing myself in the page, and the moment that’s unfolding on the page. Like I’m reading it for the first time.

From Jennifer: Thanks Eric for taking the time to talk to me - I definitely need to start listening to scores when I write.