Category Archives: Critiques
I’m in the midst of a rough draft of a novel and it isn’t going well. It hasn’t gone well from day one, actually – writing this thing has been like pulling teeth. I know where I want the story to go, but getting it to go there has been very awkward work. I’ll be honest: the book, right now, is a shambles.
But that’s okay, right? Rough drafts are supposed to be terrible. They are you, the author, dragging together a great steaming morass of garbage into one place that, later on, will be mercilessly revised and edited into something awesome. This is tried and true authorial practice – ask anybody. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
You can take that to the bank, friends.
Let us pursue this question one step further, though: assuming we know that the first draft is going to suck and assuming we are aware that it’s purpose is to collect raw material for future drafts, then how much of the first draft do you need to complete before you abandon it and start over?
Let me give you a strictly hypothetical and in no way actual or currently relevant example. Say I’ve got, I dunno, 50,000 words of a rough draft done. Now, going off what my (hypothetical) loose outline dictates, I’m only a third of the way through (which means the book is shaping up to be too long, but that’s not important right now). However, the first third of a novel really needs to be solid in order to support that last two thirds. I mean, if you screw up getting Luke off Tatooine, how much of a story do you have for the later parts? The worse the beginning is, the less likely anything you set up in the end is going to be useful, anyway.
Now, granted, the remaining 70-80K of novel (well, 100K) will probably have its gems, but they’ll be gems buried in a twisted pile of tubular steel – not exactly useful. If I know what’s wrong with the story now (and I needed that 50,000 words to help me figure that out), why not ditch it and circle back? Strong foundations make for strong middle acts, right?
In saying this, I realize I’m flying in the face of a lot of conventional story-writing wisdom. “Finish what you write,” quoth Heinlein. I know, I know – and it is good advice, too. The thing is, though, the purpose behind Heinlein’s second rule is that, until you’ve written the thing through, you supposedly can’t see what needs fixing. But what if you can? Like, I get it, okay? I see where I made the wrong turn and now I’ve gone down this whole other path that leads to pretty much nothing but tea parties and navel-gazing and I needed to go down this other path, where I’d be more likely to find zombie ninjas and fire-breathing unicorns.
For me, writing a novel is a lot like trying to solve a maze. If you make a wrong turn, do you really draw your line to the end of the bad path? I know this one’s a dead end, folks.
If this were a short story, maybe that would be different – how long does it take to write to the end of a short story, anyway? But a novel? That’s another month or two of my life, slogging through the pages to a conclusion that will probably have to change entirely for the book to work. What an incredible waste of time!
Hypothetically speaking, of course.
If you don’t have small children, you probably haven’t encountered the PBS Kids show Dinosaur Train. Let me tell you about it and why it gives me the shakes while I watch it.
For starters, let me say that it is a wonderfully educational program about the lives of dinosaurs and, more broadly, an introduction to natural history and evolution. It is not doing children any disservice by watching it at all and, indeed, my kids watch it plenty. The show does, however, give science fiction and fantasy writers the heebie-jeebies, and here’s why:
The show’s premise is that a family of Pteranadons and their adopted T-Rex son (no, not the crazy part yet) go on vacations (yes, but wait for it) during which they ride a train (yes, a train) that is run and operated by other dinosaurs (I know, I know) and takes said thunder-lizards on a tour of the land, introducing them to other species of dinosaurs. Oh yes, and just so they can visit dinosaurs from every historical epoch, THE TRAIN TRAVELS THROUGH TIME.
Yes, that’s right: A dinosaur owned, built, and operated time-travelling railroad that takes other dinosaurs on vacations. This is where I start losing my mind.
Here are my questions, world:
1) Why did the dinosaurs build this?
There is no pseudo-modern society in this show, no Flintstones-esque tech, or anything of the kind. Why do creatures with no jobs need vacations? If they have no other visible infrastructure whatsoever, how on Earth would they hit on “let’s build a train?” Even assuming some hyper-genius dino had such an idea, how would they build it with their notable lack of things like tools, mines, quarries, a workforce, and, oh yeah, opposable thumbs?
2) Time Travel? WTF?
So, say they manage (somehow) to build a railroad system. How does time travel get involved? What, did aliens come down and give it to them? Did some human go back in time with a time-train and give them ideas? Why would they even think to do this? Dinosaurs don’t have fossil records – there are no archaeologist dinosaurs. THEY WOULDN’T KNOW THERE WERE OTHER TIMES TO VISIT!
3) What do they buy tickets with?
Mom Pteranadon buys tickets for the kids when they go places. What does she buy them with? Does she get change? Where does she stash said change (they don’t wear clothes)? How much do they cost? What use is the money anywhere else? If this is some kind of self-contained currency system (like the tokens at Dave and Busters), how does she buy in? Maybe the tickets are free, but again, then, why the hell is this being done?
4) Why is the Conductor wearing clothes?
No other dinosaurs wear clothing. None. What is with this guy? Even assuming somebody had the idea for clothing, what purpose would it serve? Dinosaurs are exothermic, so it isn’t like it would keep him warm, precisely. Of course, we also get back to the question of who makes the damn stuff. Is there a dino-tailor somewhere?
5) What happened to predation?
When the family meets an apex predator (like a T-Rex), why does the scene never end with the family being devoured? What’s going to happen to this family when their T-Rex “son” grows up and eats his “sister?” Why doesn’t anybody talk about this? How are they all still friends, dammit?
My Working Theory
So, retain my sanity, I have developed a working theory, here. It’s a bad one, but still:
Okay, take for granted that the dinosaurs can talk to each other – that’s just a gimmie. Turns out all paleontologists are wrong on that for some damned reason or we’re dealing with a hyper-intelligent subset of the dinosaur population that had a monolith dropped in their midst or something. Anyway, in the midst of their prehistoric savagery, in pops Doctor Emmett Brown on his – you guessed it – his time travelling train. Now, they’re stuck in the Cretaceous Period with no train tracks and, therefore, no way to get up to 88 miles an hour and out of there.
The solution? Well, they make contact with these hyper-intelligent dinosaurs and screw up history something fierce by teaching them to build a train system. “But what’s in it for us?” ask the dinos. Doc comes up with a plan to create a kind of dinosaur utopian state wherein these hyper-intelligent dinos agree to only feed upon their less intelligent brethren. Doc leaves them with a means of scientific discovery (a duplicate train), a framework of an economic system, and a basic social order in exchange for him, Clara, and the boys escaping back to modernity.
The only question left is this: Did Doc tell them about the asteroid? Did he?
Somehow, I think not.
- I’d like to thank Elisa Birdseye and the Adams Street BPL for hosting me for my “Building the Fantastic” talk and reading. It was tons of fun to get to cut loose with a captive audience about things I’m passionate about. I hope to be able to do it again sometime.
- If you haven’t bought Writers of the Future Volume 31, you’re missing out. Don’t listen to me, listen to Dave Farland.
You may have all noticed that I won’t shut up about this story competition I won (preorder the anthology here! It’s awesome!). Well, for one thing that’s because the release date for the anthology is May 4th, which is also known as “this Monday,” and I’m working my little heart out here trying to make that launch a success, and this blog is probably the best way I have of doing that. That’s not all, though. I’m also trumpeting about this thing because I’m damned proud of myself and of my fellow winners, all of whom are spectacularly talented and all of whom deserve to get noticed by the reading public. This anthology is one of the best ways for our names to get “out there,” and I’m going to try and make the most of it.
However, you lovely people are probably tired of all the publicity yakkity yak, so I’m going to take a page from my friend, Martin Shoemaker, and have substantive discussion about how my winning story, “A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration,” came into existence.
First, listen to the dulcet tones of Mr. Scott Parkin reading the first few paragraphs:
Michelangelo once said that his sculptures weren’t things he made so much as uncovered – they had been there all along, hiding in the stone just waiting for him to chip the extra bits away. I feel that way about my story, too. I didn’t so much “tell” this story as “find” it.
The world of Alandar and, most particularly, the West is a place I have fashioned slowly over the course of more than a decade of world-building. When I create a world (and I am always creating worlds, mind you), they begin as broad, historical narratives or epic mythology – they are unpopulated, as it were. I start with the big (How does magic work here? What are the dangers of this world? Who holds the power and why? What are the world’s religions and creation myths?) and narrow it down until I get so close that, suddenly, I find I need characters to have the place make any sense. That level is usually right about at the “what kind of jobs do people do here” and “what do people eat on a daily basis” point. All of that little stuff, you see, is informed by the bigger stuff. Think of it this way: why do you eat hot dogs at a baseball game? Here’s a food imported by Germans (and adapted for American tastes) being ritually consumed at a sport descended from cricket and made popular in the late 19th century. Seems odd, doesn’t it? Yet, you can trace those things back to large religious and political movements which are themselves side-effects of things like geography, climate, and biology.
So, here we have the city of Illin. You can read my full treatise on the city and its environs here, if you’re so inclined, but in brief, Illin is a city built on the tip of a swampy peninsula commanding the outlet of a major trade river. It was designed as a way to control and limit the access the Kalsaari Empire (political and religious rivals to the Western nations) had to Western trade routes. Gradually, this city and principality became more militarized. As it is poor in material resources and arable land, it remained a poor nation propped up by its neighbors as a kind of buffer state. It has been invaded many times over the centuries, but this past time was by far the most successful and destructive invasion the Kalsaaris ever implemented. To win, they used sorcery in a way unseen in millennia. To win it back, the West did the same. Who was caught in the middle? Illin and, most particularly, its poorest citizens (i.e. the people who always pay the highest price when wars are fought).
Now, that’s just the tip of it all – there’s a hell of a lot more, but most of that world-building stuff never makes it to the page. It just exists in the back of the author’s mind, ready to be accessed if needed, but mostly there to fill out the picture of the place in the author’s mind. I’ve been to Illin, to the extent that anyone has been. I’ve run role-playing games with my friends set there. I’ve written poetry about it (bad poetry, mind you). I like to think I know how it smells.
But that’s just a city, not a character and certainly not a story.
In our workshop out in LA, Dave Farland (aka Dave Wolverton) said something that really struck me. He talked about how setting makes character and story more than anything else, so he always starts with the setting. I realized that I, also, do that (I just didn’t fully realize it). It isn’t until I have world that I feel like I could live in that I figure out who actually lives there. This is where Abe comes from. What would a young man from the Undercity think of his world? What would he want? How would he try to get it? All of these questions can be answered if the world is well-developed enough. And they were.
What’s interesting about the end of this story, though, is that I put the story down – trunked it, basically – for almost a year without an ending. I just couldn’t think of one. I’d painted Abe into such a corner that he was basically doomed (this, incidentally, was something Tim Powers told us was a good way to go, so, again, I was accidentally doing something right!). I had to put it down and walk away. When I (finally) came back, the end was as clear as day. Just goes to show you how fickle the imagination can be sometimes.
As a final note: for fans of The Saga of the Redeemed, this story is set about 12 years or so prior to Tyvian’s day and, obviously, in Illin and not Galaspin/Freegate. Yes, the man in the tooka den is Carlo diCarlo (a younger, thinner Carlo, though). Yes, that does mean young Tyvian (about twenty years old) is somewhere in Illin at that exact moment, doing something untoward. Yes, I do think of these things. Maybe, someday, I’ll tell that story too. Illin, though, does not give up its secrets easily.
Upon the advent of the latest Star Wars Trailer, I feel this is apropos.
There’s that moment when you’re watching Empire Strikes Back, right near the beginning, when you hear the hum and roar of the Echo Base hangar and watch Han cuss out Chewie for taking something apart he just tried to fix, when you realize: I love these guys. And you do. You want to live with them; you want to sling up a hammock in the Falcon and ride along for their adventures, no matter where they lead, because Han is awesome and Chewie is like the best friend you never had and you want to know what the inside of that ship smells like or how the air on Hoth feels against your cheeks. It is at that moment that, against all reason, the world of Star Wars has you. Your heart is in your throat for the rest…
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Hello, loyal readers!
Just dropping a brief note for you folks here: tomorrow morning, bright and early, I’m off to the City of Angels for the Writers of the Future Workshop and Gala!
What does this mean for me? Well, I’m going to be hob-nobbing with the scifi and fantasy elite and getting an award for being awesome.
What does this mean for you? Well, no blog posts for the next eight days, at least. In the meantime, busy yourself by purchasing Book 2 of the Saga of the Redeemed, BLOOD AND IRON, on pre-order. Also, do it now – it seems that Harper Collins (my publisher) and Amazon are about to get in a bit of a squabble, so best buy while the buyin’ is good!
Anyway, wish me luck! I’m off to meet my destiny!
It should come as no surprise to any of you that I love Star Wars. It has shaped me as much as any other work of art or literature I can name and viewing its films (specifically episodes 4-6) count among my oldest and fondest memories. Which is why I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to say to you:
90% of modern Star Wars franchises are no good.
Yes, yes, yes–there are notable exceptions, and I can’t claim to have read all or even most of them. That said, since Return of the Jedi, though, I have only seen/read a tiny handful that do true and honest justice to the original. Of those, the best I’ve seen is a current Saturday morning cartoon on the Disney Channel called Star Wars Rebels.
What does it do right, exactly? Well, to do that, perhaps it is easiest to explain what I think everything else has done wrong.
Misconception #1: The Star Wars Universe is Inherently Fascinating
Incorrect. Sorry guys, but it just isn’t. One of the errors made by most of the Expanded Universe and by all the prequels is the presumption that we actually care that much about the continuity and complexity of the Star Wars Galaxy. Folks, there really isn’t much there to be fascinated with.
No, I mean it! What’s the one thing that everybody complains about in Episode1? It’s that the primary conflict is over a trade dispute. “Trade Dispute?” we scoff, “how boring is that?” Well, you know why it’s boring? Because we don’t give a crap about the Star Wars Universe. We. Don’t. Care. If we did – if we actually found the Star Wars Universe interesting all by itself – we would be riveted by a tale about a trade dispute. We would be aghast at the predations of the Trade Federation and proud of the noble people of Naboo. However, since we don’t know these people from Adam, we don’t give a shit.
The world of Star Wars has always been one of larger-than-life stories and over-the-top settings that really require no practical explanation. It’s a city in the clouds – that’s all that really matters! The world is just a colorful, exciting backdrop to what happens with the characters, which is really where it’s at. The good Star Wars out there knows this.
In this regard, Star Wars Rebels does a great job – it gives us fun and engaging characters with just enough backstory to make us love them and keep us watching. The world exists only as backdrop, not as main show. You don’t need to know much of anything about Star Wars to enjoy it, and those things it does reference are only relevant to the characters themselves.
Misconception #2: The Rebellion Against the Empire is So Done.
No, no it is not. Star Wars was made great by telling the story about a team of underdogs who took down a big evil Empire. Every other story that has tried to tell something else has been missing something essential. This is related to misconception #1: we thought the Star Wars universe has other, better stories in it, but it doesn’t, or not really, anyway. It always, always comes down to stormtroopers bearing down on our heroes as they try to find some desperate avenue of escape. The Jedi of the Old Republic? Boring. The Clone Wars? Boring. The New Republic and its flavor-of-the-month villains? Boring!
Every one of those stories is trying to recapture that lightning in the bottle when it was Han and Chewy and Leia and the droids against the whole Imperial Fleet, and it never quite works. Star Wars Rebels simply shows us the rebellion again, except from an earlier point in its history and with a different group of freedom fighters. It works, because it is doing what we originally loved all over again.
Misconception #3: Lightsaber Battles are Inherently Interesting
I sometimes wonder if people who say this actually watched Episode 2 at all. There were about a billion lightsaber duels in that movie and they were all spectacularly dull. The reason? You need context for battles to be interesting. Just fighting some random guy for the heck of it is not interesting. Darth Maul? Who is that guy, anyway, and why do we care that they’re fighting with him? We don’t.
Go back and watch the lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke in Empire. It wholly lacks the kung fu acrobatics of the modern lightsaber fight, but it is twenty times more riveting than any other. Why? Because we desperately care about Luke and we are actively terrified of what Vader has planned. Without that context, we just don’t care.
Again, Star Wars Rebels does this well. We come to care about the characters before they go into deadly duels with the villains (whom we also know and despise).
All this, coupled with solid characters and fun action sequences and broad, larger-than-life storytelling makes Star Wars Rebels my favorite Star Wars franchise in ages, despite the occasionally clunky dialogue and mid-level CGI animation. It’s fun, and that’s what Star Wars is supposed to be: fun and fast and painted in broad strokes.
You know, just like a Saturday morning cartoon.
I’m in my local newspaper.
This is especially cool because it is a newspaper actually printed on paper and stuff. This makes it likely my mother will read it because, to her, it will be a real thing. Everything online is imaginary, you see.
(just kidding, Mom.)
In all seriousness, the interview was great and this is a wonderful piece. Go and check it out!
I quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols:
Let us finally consider how naïve it is altogether to say: “Man ought to be such and such!” Reality shows us an enchanting wealth of types, the abundance of a lavish play and change of forms – and some wretched loafer of a moralist comments: “No! Man ought to be different.” He even knows what man should be like, this wretched bigot and prig: he paints himself on the wall and comments, “Ecce homo!” But even when the moralist addresses himself only to the single human being and says to him, “You ought to be such and such!” he does not cease to make himself ridiculous.”
Today’s news has brought to my attention two things of which I feel you lot ought to be aware. First, there is Indiana’s terrible, terrible law just passed by the state legislature, known as SB101, which would basically allow establishments to discriminate based off of sexual orientation or religion. Second is this app called CleanReader, which is an app that would censor out naughty words from books.
I’m going to be frank: if neither of those things bother or offend you in any way, it is very unlikely we can be friends. Sorry.
Fortunately, the writing and geek community at large is with me on this one. GenCon is threatening to leave Indiana if SB101 is passed into law, while Joanne Harris and Chuck Wendig have some very pointed words for the creators of CleanReader. As you can imagine, Wendig’s argument is rather…vivid.
But so what, though? So what if Wendig says “fuck” a million times? They are his words and he gets to say them and that, so far as I’m concerned, is the end of the conversation. This extends to Indiana: so what if somebody likes to have sex with their same sex? So what? What, it makes you uncomfortable? Who gives a shit if you’re uncomfortable? You know what? People who sneer at gay people make me uncomfortable, yet you don’t see me parading laws through Congress to make pricks like Jerry Falwell inadmissible to Pizza Hut. If I own a restaurant and some little shit comes in spouting racist bullshit and makes distasteful jokes about gay people to his buddies, he still gets to buy food there. Yeah, he makes me uncomfortable and I don’t like him, but it’s a free country. So long as he does no actual harm (like harasses other patrons) and commits no crimes, he gets to stay.
I try not to wax political on this blog – not my purpose – but some discussion of morality is apropos to my book (The Iron Ring – see sidebar), so I’m going to wax moralistic for a spell.
Bear with me. Nietzsche, I feel, has a good argument (up to a point): Who the hell appointed (insert group here) as supreme arbiters of what is right and wrong? Now, both sides of our political and moral landscape are operating under the assumption that the other is the group inside those parentheses. Liberal secularists think that Christian conservatives are trying to dictate our behavior and vice versa. The thing is, though, that the things each side are trying to control are different. Speaking broadly, liberal secularists wish to make it illegal for people to inflict harm on others in the form of prejudice, discrimination, and mistreatment. Conservative Christians wish to make it illegal for people to act or behave outside the bounds of what they consider to be proper. Yes, there is some variation there – neither side is like that on 100% of the issues – but the characterization, I feel, is generally fair.
Here is the operative difference between those two positions and why, for the most part, I take the side of the liberal secularists: One is defending people against actual harm, and the others are defending themselves against feeling icky. The first category is what I would categorize as legitimately moral and the second I characterize as illegitimate morality. Seeing two dudes making out does you no harm – none, zippo, nada. Letting those two dudes file taxes jointly and letting them inherit each other’s property and letting them adopt children also does no one any harm (seriously – zero evidence to the contrary). So, other than the fact that certain people behave in a way that irritates your virginal sensibilities and contradicts some words you got written down in some book you think is from a god, we aren’t actually talking about anything important. Sure, you can still believe these things (and maybe make me feel uncomfortable about it), but you can’t force everybody else to stop making you feel icky. No.
What you can do, however, is prohibit people from harming others. What constitutes harm? Well, harassment, social discrimination, prejudice, and abuse based upon sex, creed, race, or orientation. Censorship of an author’s work without consent. Curtailment of public discourse. Physical incarceration or financial penalties on the basis of the above. That is not okay. You do not get to make me into a criminal or pariah just because I make you feel icky or uncomfortable. Nobody is saying you have to buy my books, but if you do, you are going to have to read about all the gay sex and profanity I feel is appropriate to the story. Suck it up, cupcakes. You don’t like it, then I guess that’s fine – don’t read my stuff. It’s a free country.
For now, anyway.
I was interviewed recently by my local newspaper regarding The Iron Ring (psst! Buy it! Review!) and also about my win in the Writers of the Future Contest (pre-order!). It was a great interview and the reporter did a really thorough job (I’ll post here when the article is in print, never fear). I enjoyed it immensely. One of his first questions, though was a question I get a lot and a question, that, I imagine, a lot of writers get asked. The question was this:
Does it hurt when you get a rejection?
Everybody wants to know this. They hear famous author X had their brilliant manuscript rejected Y times and they wonder “how did they keep pushing? How did they know to keep going?” The odds of being successful as a writer seem so bleak, so hopelessly improbable, that each rejection seems like it ought to be another nail in the coffin of your authorial aspirations. Yet, somehow, we press on. So, again: doesn’t it hurt?
This question, I feel, has an answer in two parts. Firstly, yes, it does hurt. It hurts less and less the more you are rejected, mind you – you build something of a resistance to that unique kind of pain – but it always knocks you off your kilter a little. The longer you’ve had to wait for that rejection and the more of yourself you’ve poured into the thing being rejected, the worse the pain. It ranges from something like a slap to the face to a full-on punch to the guts so hard it makes your breath whistle through your teeth.
The second part of this answer goes like this: It doesn’t matter if it hurts. Anybody seriously considering writing knows that it is not a path to fame and fortune. Pick any ten authors out of modern book store and at least eight of them still have day jobs. They take up all their free time writing not because of the glory of it all, but because they simply must write. They aren’t going to stop just because somebody said they stunk. They’re going to get back on that horse to get knocked off again. And again.
Even if you do get to the “yes” and score yourself a book deal or get an award or something (so, like me), you haven’t succeeded yet. You aren’t done. The real work is just beginning. I’ve still got a day job and I’m working on two separate novels at the same time. In the next two weeks, I need to read 3 novels, grade about 140 pages of student work, teach full time, and turn around the revisions and final copy edits of Book 2. I’ve also got a wife, two small children, and a dog who deserve a little attention. At some point I should sleep and perhaps eat.
And I haven’t, by any stretch of the imagination, made it.
Some people seem to think that writing has some kind of finish line, that it’s a race you can win and then stop. That isn’t how this works, folks. You aren’t writing to win a race. You are writing because you love running. You can’t expect to stop.
This reminds me of a little story I read in Nick Evangelista’s The Art and Science of Fencing. It goes something like this:
A student of fencing traveled a great distance to meet with a great master to see if he had what it took to be great. The fencer showed the master everything he knew, pushing himself as hard as he could. When he had finished, he waited to see what the master would say.
“You do not have the fire.” The master said.
This was like a dagger to the student’s heart, but he could not contest the word of a master. The student gave up the blade and moved on with his life, eventually prospering in business.
Years later, the student encountered the master again. He took the opportunity to ask him how he knew he lacked “the fire.”
The master shrugged. “I didn’t, but if you did have the fire, it would not have mattered if I said you did not. You would have continued learning, no matter what I said. That is the fire.”
I think I have the fire. To be a writer, I think you need it. Rejections be damned.
Hey, you! Yeah, you, with the face and the arms and such – I’ve gotta message for you, my good human! You are invited to attend an awards ceremony and reception in sunny Los Angeles for the Writers of the Future Award!
No, seriously, you can all go. Yes, you have to wear pants. Or a dress. I guess a skirt is okay. No shorts – c’mon, man, have a little self-respect. “Black-tie optional” doesn’t mean “I can come in a tank-top and yoga pants.”
Anyway, dress code aside, you can come see a bunch of up-and-coming young writers (<cough> ME <cough>) and illustrators receive a fancy award, give a little speech, and get talked up by more established writers. Then, afterwards, there’s a book signing and a party! You’d get to *literally* rub elbows with big name authors like Dave Farland! Sweet, right?
Anyway, the information is on this here flyer:
Got it? You coming? Want to find out what a good hand-shaker I am? Welp, you know where to find me!
Also, in related news, C Stuart Hardwick continues his quest to interview this year’s winners. Check them out:
And more to come, too!