Archive for the ‘interviews’ category

What the Hell Are You Doing In There? My Writing Process

September 25, 2013

This week over on Just Book Reading, I’m having a stimulating conversation with Amy that’s all about me. And who wouldn’t like to get together with a friend for the purpose of talking about oneself in a sustained fashion? I’m flattered that she thinks I’m interesting enough to inflict such an interaction on her readers, and (of course!) I’ve been enjoying the conversation.

Like so many people who read and write deeply, Amy asks questions that beg for huge answers. I’m trying not to completely swamp her blog, so I’m doing the Reader’s Digest version of one of my answers in the interview on her blog and a fleshed-in version here. For readers who came here from Just Book Reading, you’ll find the first three paragraphs here are the same as the first three paragraphs there. After that comes all the lunacy I spared the tender readers of that blog. 🙂

In the interview, Amy asks,

1. Let’s start with the writing. Every author has a different approach to the writing process. Can you tell us how you prepare to write and a bit about your process, if there is one? Is it different for each book or do you have a system you try to follow?

To call how I proceed a system would be to over-glorify it. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer by nature; as I’ve developed my craft, I’ve leaned to do more with planning, but I will never be the sort of writer who outlines before writing and then sticks with the outline. I’ll never be at all efficient.

I generally start a project with a question. These questions aren’t always intended as story fodder; sometimes they’re just mysteries that intrigue me which eventually find their ways into story. The series I’m working on now, The Way of the Gods, began with questions about the nature of godhood: If gods (note the plural) exist, where would they come from? What would be the source of their power? Once I’ve got a question knocking around in my head, I start reading sources that I hope will provide answers. I begin to work on theories. I suppose you might consider this activity worldbuilding, in the sense that I’m working out the rules and frameworks within which my story will play out.

Meanwhile, the things I’m reading and thinking about begin to suggest characters to me. As writers we know that the protagonist of any story is the one who suffers the most at the hands of the story problem; so the characters and the story problem, which may or may not be the same issue as the question that began this mess, evolve simultaneously. Bits of plot and conflict erupt like popcorn thunderstorms in my fevered little head. Finally I reach the point where I’ve got so much half-formed idea in my head, so much sketched-in plot, that I conclude I know what the story is about and where it’s going to end up, and I start thinking about the place to begin. Once I’ve got that, I jump in and start writing.

I am never, ever writing the story I think I am. But I don’t know what the story will turn out to be until I write it, and none of the work I do before I begin typing is wasted. Some of it will wind up on the page; some won’t. But it’s all part of the cloud of possibilities in my imagination.

In some ways this is the most delightful part of the process for me: I just follow the characters through the problem every day, dying to find out what they will do and discover, who they will turn out to be. I’m telling myself the story. Only when I get to the other end, complete this first draft, do I know what story I’m writing.

This is where the craft portion of the process begins. At this point I’ll do plot and character analyses, chart the overall plot as well as character arcs against the models that fit the story types I’m working with. I am likely to wander off and read literary criticism during this phase, because it helps me think. I’ll also take the time to do a better job of fleshing in my world—especially if it’s an alternate-world setting, but even with stories set on present-day Earth, there are details we can choose to bring in or emphasize that make the story work better. This, too, is likely to necessitate more research. I’m a knowledge junkie.

All these exercises help me see where Writer Brain got it right on the first try and where the story could be stronger. I’ll sketch out a very detailed plot plan, down to the beat and scene level, and plug it into a project file in Scrivener (www.literatureandlatte.com). I set up all those chapters and story nodes, those beats and scenes, as individual components in the project file. I use colors to track point-of-view threads and important subplots; I subdivide the whole thing into acts. I’m sure all this activity looks crazy from the outside, but I find it really helpful not only for plot development but for times when I start rearranging on the fly in the middle of the second draft.

Tired yet? We’re not even getting started. At this point I write the second draft in Scrivener. I don’t mean that I plug in stuff I wrote earlier and write glue; I write an entirely new second draft. I find that I write a much better second (or subsequent!) draft if I go back to zero and type new words into the file. Sometimes, when I feel I really nailed a scene on the first draft, I’ll have that file open on another screen for reference. Sometimes I’ll use entire sentences or even paragraphs. But mostly it’s new material—because this time I know what story I’m telling (or so I think) and my Muse, my Writer Brain, won’t turn on, dig in, show up for work, whatever you like to call it, unless he knows he gets to play again. And if I don’t get out of his way and let him re-tell the story, he’ll just phone it in.

I write sequentially again this time. That’s because I know what story I’m telling now, but characters are still developing, and they will continue to surprise me. The farther I go into the draft, the farther away from the plot I’d planned and the scene notes I’ve made I find the story wandering. It’s very common for me to get to a point, during the second half of this draft, where I’m writing all the plot points I’d planned but they mean completely different things than I expected. All of this means I must follow the characters from scene to scene, because the way they’re developing will continue to influence the story.

Everything continues to evolve. I’ll rearrange the order of scenes on the fly, particularly for continuity among points of view or because the way a character is developing changes how a subplot unfolds; I’ll add chapters or scenes I hadn’t planned or remove things that no longer seem important. Frequently I’ll remove plot points I had planned to use to present an idea or piece of information–because Writer Brain has already handled it much more efficiently than I’d planned. I’ll go back into earlier sections when something I figure out in later chapters ripples backwards in the plot. Sometimes, when I’m working with an alternate world, I’ll rearrange timelines because of mechanical issues unique to that world, such as complications in getting from Point A to Point B.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the process of developing this draft, I’ll start slipping my first readers (I have two, because I won the First Reader Lottery) chapters. Sometimes it’s beginning-to-end; sometimes, when I’m writing threads that don’t come together for a long time, I’ll develop and hand off a thread for a sanity check. Notes I get from my first readers may cause further redevelopment. Sometimes a novel in progress looks like the Scarecrow after the Flying Monkeys, and the only place it exists in any recognizable form is inside my head.

Finally I reach the end again. I don’t type THE END or -30- the way we’re supposed to. I’m too neurotic for that. “Works of art are never finished, only abandoned.” That was Warhol, I think. Now I have to go look it up.

(Hah! It was the poet Paul Valéry. All hail Wikiquote…)

People who have written far more novels than I will tell you that it is compulsory at this point to go over the whole mess yet again. To let it sit fallow for at least a month. By the time I get to this point I’ve been over each scene and subplot so many times that I know I’ve gotten the whole thing into the best shape I can achieve alone. So my first readers will review the complete mess, I’ll address whatever notes they give me (they tend to be light at this stage, because the first readers have typically seen big chunks of the novel already)—and then the novel goes to beta readers.

A hundred years ago, in a different lifetime, I worked in both software and advertising. I spent years laboring under the delusion that this beta reading phase was analogous to user testing and focus group research, and every objection from every reader constituted an error on the writer’s part. Later I began to realize that every reader reads a different story, because each reader brings her own past and imagination and baggage to the experience. That all I can really take away from beta reading is a collection of reactions and suggestions, some of which will trigger eureka moments for me and others which I must set aside as peculiar to that particular reader. Knowing which is which is the hard part, and it requires me to work through my own baggage to do it.

With notes from beta readers in hand, I sit down and decide what changes should be made to the novel. Sometimes it’s little stuff: word choices, a sentence that confused people. Sometimes new material, scene length or longer, is required. I’m likely to jump around on the light stuff, because it feels as if I’m knocking stuff off the list; but for big chunks and stuff that will ripple through the plot, I work sequentially again. If there are a lot of changes, I will dig back into the whole thing at the sentence level again to ensure continuity.

Finally the novel is ready for editorial. I’ve had the privilege of working with editors who are friends on both my novels. Brett Shanley, who was the editor for The Shadow of the Sun, used to come over and sit in my kitchen with me, and we’d go over notes and argue about punctuation for a few chapters, and then get together a few days later and do it all again for the next set. When we lost him two years ago, it was a huge blow to me: not only as a friend, but in my creative life. I still work with him sitting on my shoulder, still think about how he would address a problem in the work.

Anna Branscome, who is my editor for the forthcoming The Heart of Darkness, is even more hands-on: she’s already read a draft of about half the novel, and she plans to come in and start working at the sentence level with me during the beta phase. She spends just as much time looking askance at my punctuation hooptydoodle as Brett did, but I am intractable in this regard. Well, mostly intractable. Sometimes they win those arguments. But otherwise I am a very cooperative editorial subject.

I know, from life on both sides of the desk, that every author-editor pairing is different. I’ve had the privilege of some terrific relationships with authors I’ve edited, but I am most grateful for the relationships I’ve had and have with my editors.

After editorial, of course, the book goes to design, to print, to the world. There’s creativity in those jobs, too; but it’s creativity of a different sort. A topic for another day.

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The Next Big Thing

November 27, 2012

Last week, the gracious and generous Dave-Brendon De Burgh tagged me in the Next Big Thing meme that’s going around. This is a really fun way to discover writers who are new, or at least new to you, and I am most grateful to him for inviting me to play.

Now that I’ve been tagged, I’m supposed to answer the interview questions and tag several more writers. In the spirit of “new, or at least new to you”, I’ve tagged three writers at various stages in their careers:

Leona Wisoker is hardly a new writer, though she may be new to you. Her third and fourth novels, Bells of the Kingdom and Fires of the Desert, will be coming out under the Mercury Retrograde label this spring. She’s got an almost cultish following for her Children of the Desert series. And I appreciate her taking the time to play this game with me.

Rod Belcher is a new writer: his debut novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, will be published by Tor in January, and it’s already lighting up Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Romantic Times, et al. In fact he’s so new that his website and blog won’t be live until the end of the week…so I am just linking to the Facebook page for his novel for now.

Rachael Murasaki Ish is, like so many of the writers participating in this meme, as yet unpubbed–at least as a writer. I happen to know she’s got That Thing We Can’t Teach in Writing Workshops, and I’m looking forward to her getting her fiction to the point of publishability. Having worked with her in other professional contexts, I know she has the tenacity necessary. (And did I mention that she and I have a book together coming out this spring? For that one she’s wearing her Visual Artist hat. But more on that anon.)

I hope you’ll click through on those links and discover some exciting artists. In the meantime, here are my answers to the interview questions:

What is your working title of your book?

The Heart of Darkness

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Short answer: Everything in World Myth, 398.2 in your library. I started hanging out in that section roughly 6 months after I could read things longer than your average Dick & Jane adventure.

Long answer: This book is the second of a series, The Way of the Gods. I started writing this series because I wanted to explore the nature of godhood. (What makes a god a god? Where does the god’s power come from? What does his existence mean?) Along the way, inevitably, the story also explores the nature of power, the definitions of good and evil, the dichotomy between science and religion, and the tension between honor and exploitation. And the nature of addiction.

The first book of the series, The Shadow of the Sun, introduces the reader to Ellion, a defrocked wizard and deposed monarch who wants nothing more than to redeem himself. But when an opportunity to do that arises, he runs as fast and far as he can in the opposite direction, because redemption will come at the price of confronting all the mistakes he made ten years ago. The problem follows him, as problems will; and he takes on the charter of protecting Letitia, rising monarch of the Danaan nation of Fiana, from a renegade wizard who is trying to take over the part of the world Ellion left behind.  Along the way, he will find it necessary to confront the past he’s been avoiding–and find his assumptions about the gods and the world around him up-ended.

The Heart of Darkness picks up where The Shadow of the Sun leaves off. The title refers to a magical operation that’s critical to the unfolding action–and also to the Joseph Conrad novella of the same name. Like Conrad’s hero, Ellion–and other characters as well–find it necessary to travel into the unmapped interior, the wild places where the rules are suspended, and find the deep truths revealed there: truths both about the world and about themselves.

What genre does your book fall under?

You’d find it shelved as Epic Fantasy. But none of the other Epic Fantasy books trust it. They think it’s a party-crasher, and it’s going to start some kind of trouble. They’re right.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I brought my first readers, Mark and Rachael, in to help me brainstorm this one. I’m the only writer I know who doesn’t automatically “cast” all their characters. And I’m pretty sure we can’t afford all this talent for our imaginary movie. But we had a great time!

In the interests of space, I’m just going to list our casting choices here. We went into more detail on Tumblr, here.

Ellion — Matt Bomer

Letitia — Natalie Portman

Iminor — Jared Padelecki

Nechton — Robert Downey, Jr.

Tella — Charlize Theron

Leahy — Matthew McConaughey

Rohini — Olivia Wilde

Amien — Peter O’Toole

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

One sentence? The book is going to weigh in at over 200K words! Ahem.

When Ellion becomes a pawn in the tug of war between the old gods and the new, he begins to realize that the truths he has spent his life upholding may not be true at all, and the order he defends may be unjust.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The book will be published by Mercury Retrograde Press.

Full disclosure: I am Mercury Retrograde’s publisher and editor-in-chief. Fortunately I know that the publisher who edits her own work is a fool, and I humbly submit to colleague Anna M. Branscome during this process.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Hmm. The first draft of this novel was one part of the ridiculous 330K-word, 3-month orgy of writing that produced the first draft of the entire series over ten years ago. As a standalone, the first draft took maybe 6 months to develop. (It was considerably shorter; I am a better, deeper writer than I was then.) The current draft has been in the works for about 18 months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s a really rough question: it’s hard to answer without sounding or feeling arrogant, inflated. Within spec fic, one might draw comparisons between my series and Julian May’s The Golden Torc and the other books in that series; I’ve had people compare it to Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber series and The Mists of Avalon. Thematically, I’d shelve it near Dan Simmons’s Hyperion and Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster series. And, maybe, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Professor Tolkien: I adored his books. Can’t tell you how many times I re-read them. I will say that some of the covers fell off, and those were covers from a nicely-produced boxed set. But for all the beauty and magnificence, there were things I wanted to argue with: among them, the unquestioning acceptance of the feudal ideals that the entire heroic literature tradition brings us. And, while I’m arguing with the master, the easy definition of Good vs. Evil. (This is the part where people will argue with me, and I accept all those arguments as valid. I’ve held them at cons beyond counting. But still I reject the notion that the world, even a fictional world, is divisible into the Good, the Evil, and the Corrupt.)

The Bible: because once you’ve angered all the Tolkien fans out there, the only bigger target is the Bible’s fanbase. No, that’s not the reason why. Because it’s wild and self-contradictory and huge and one-stop shopping for all the ideas a reader needs to unravel the Western canon, as well as an intellectual kleptomaniac’s dream. Because it begs the reader to ask the question Who or What Is God and then argue with herself about the answer.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Magic. There’s a lot of it in this book. Not the hand-wavey fairy-dust kind of magic, but real, there’s-physics-behind-this magic with roots in traditions that go back for centuries and serious implications for the society that has to deal with it.

Gods. Plenty of those, too. They are not nice people. But they are interesting.

*

This was a fun excursion. To my surprise, I especially enjoyed “casting” the novel–figuring out which actors should play the parts. And I had fun putting that Tumblr post together. Thanks for inviting me to play, Dave-Brendon!

Interview and sneak preview on Darkcargo

May 2, 2011

Today on the Darkcargo blog, nrlymrtl and I did a Q&A on The Shadow of the Sun. She asked some stunningly penetrating questions, mostly about the philosophy and craft behind the work. I found the interview amazing on two levels: the questions she asked led us to discussions from which readers who enjoyed the work might get new levels of insight into their own reading; but people interested in writing craft in general rather than this work in specific might also find new ideas to take home. I had a great time dialoguing with her, and I appreciate the depth of thought that went into her questions more than I can say.

Also, at their request, I passed along an excerpt from the second volume of the Way of the Gods series, War-Lord of the Gods, which the Darkcargo editors included at the end of the post. All you really need to know about that excerpt is that Ellion is having his worst day yet, and that’s saying something. 🙂

It’s all typical Darkcargo: so much more than we expect from review blogs. Stop by and check it out!

Interview on the Pendragon Variety podcast

April 29, 2011

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of getting up early to talk with the Ladies Pendragon of the Pendragon Variety podcast about publishing, writing, and a variety of other geekish topics. Thanks to the miracles of Skype and podcasting, we were all able to do the interview in our pajamas, with favorite hot morning beverages in hand. Well, at least most of us did: Adryn lives in Japan, and it was evening for her.

We had a great conversation! We covered a lot of very interesting territory, discussing the publishing industry, small press, and the choices available to writers interested in publishing their work; promotion, publicity, and distribution for books; the experience of working with an editor before a book goes to press (spoiler: my editor is Awesome); and a variety of other topics of particular interest to writers of SFF.

I met Scribe and Raven at StellarCon, where they were recording panel discussions and interviews of interest to SFF writers; since then I’ve enjoyed a few of their episodes, which blend practical information for writers with discussions of their writing journeys and the things they’re learning along the way. If you’re a SFF writer, you owe it to yourself to check the Pendragon Variety podcast out. Besides, how else are you going to get to listen to me talk shop for an hour without running into people dressed like Storm Troopers?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 😉

Click through and listen below:

Pendragon Variety –Episode 30–Interview with Barbara Friend Ish