Here’s an interview I recently did with a college student for his honors creative writing project. It’s broken down into three sections, one on craft, one on the business of writing, and one on my personal relationship to the work.
1) Where do your ideas for plot/character/setting come from?
Fundamentally, I have a weird brain. I suspect that my neural networks have more cross connections than most, and that leads me to mixing ideas that wouldn’t get mixed in a more neurotypical brain. So, goblins and laptops, or faerie and car crashes, or a thousand other strange things that I’ve either written about or put aside for later use. Often, I’ll get a flash of an idea in a dream: a picture, or a scene snippet, or a bit of magic. That’s where it starts with a flash of insight either waking or sleeping. After that, it’s pretty much methodical construction of a story around the initial idea. For example, take a dream picture, and try to figure out what would have needed to happen to get there. In the course of doing that I generally get an ongoing cascade of new ideas, but it’s really mostly a flash of an idea and then a lot of work making it into a story. Ten percent inspiration, ninety percent applied craft.
2) How often do you find yourself rewriting a scene or reworking a character?
That’s an it-depends kind of question. I start each day by going over the previous day’s writing and smoothing out the prose, but I don’t do a lot of major rewrite at this point in my career. At least not on the fantasy side of my ledger. Something between 75-90 percent of the text in one of my Blade novels was there in first draft, and the ideas, plot line, and character flow are pretty much all there in the rough. But I’m in the midst of writing my 20th novel at the moment, and things were very different 15 novels ago.
Back then, I’d say that about 30 percent of the rough survived to final draft. I’m also still figuring out how to write for children, having recently completed what will be my first published middle grade novel—School For Sidekicks. There, I’d guess 60 percent of the rough survived, but due to major additions that’s only about 40-50 percent of the final version.
3) Does the urge to nit-pick over a specific word or line ever really go away?
I don’ think that it does for those who have the urge, but that’s never been my particular bugaboo. At least, not at novel length. Certainly, I do it when I’m writing poetry or super-short stories. But fundamentally, when I’m working at length I’m a story over sentence writer. That’s partially because I try to write windowpane prose most of the time. I don’t want the reader to notice my sentences, I want them to be clear water that allows the reader to focus on the story. With a novel, you need to get a hundred thousand words on paper more or less. If you’re going to accomplish that in any reasonable amount of time, you have to give yourself permission to suck in the first draft. The funny thing is that when I do give myself that permission to suck, I often find on later reading that the level of the prose is better than what I write when I get too self-critical.
4) What are your ideal conditions for writing (quiet/noisy, alone/crowd, light/dark, etc.)
I prefer quiet and as close to being outside as I can get without having to deal with bugs. I just built a new studio to work in. It’s a tiny room, 8′ x 10′ with windows on three sides, and nothing in it by chaise lounge and a comfy chair with a foot stool. When I look up from my laptop, I’m looking out into the wide world. It’s perfect. Neil Gaiman’s gazebo is a similar space—peaceful and surrounded by green—and I love borrowing it. I _can_ write any place I’ve got enough space for a comfy chair with a footrest and relative peace, but a good view of the world is best.
5) What kinds of writing goals do you make for yourself, if any, regardless of deadlines?
I’m a working writer, which means that deadlines are pretty front and center in my goal structure, so I keep close metrics on wordcount over time. Beyond that, I’m always trying to push myself to try things I’m not sure I can pull off. If I’m not stretching, I’m not growing, and that’s a recipe for creative death. I also try to work across genres, which is why I’ve written everything from humorous fantasy, through horror, to superheroes and hard science fiction. I don’t want to be trapped into writing the same things over and over again like so many writers.
6) About how much time do you spend on writing a full novel?
Around three months of actual writing time, usually over a six month period with lots of time off for thinking and other tasks. I’ve written a book in 95 days, but it’s not much fun to have to push that hard.
7) Do you tend to write a slew of work, then revisit and edit afterward, or edit as you go?
I edit iteratively as I go, but I don’t advise doing it that way. It works great for me, but for most writers it seems to lead to a bad feedback loop, where they keep writing and rewriting the same opening chapters or short story over and over again.
8) When you come up with an idea (plot/character/setting) that doesn’t fit into the section you’re currently writing, how do you keep track of it?
I generally either make a voice note, or tuck in a brief summary down at the end of the book, or send myself an email. Most of the time that serves more as a way of fixing it in my memory than anything, and I may not actually go and look at it ever again. It just helps keep it in my head.
1) How did you end up with Penguin?
The usual route. My agent submitted a book to my editor there. She liked it, made an offer, and I’ve been there ever since.
2) What are the pros/cons of having an agent, and how do you get one?
That’s a huge question, in part because it’s one of the things that’s changing radically in the industry right now. When I broke in, having an agent was pretty critical, and mine is worth his weight in fancy chocolate. He’s excellent with contracts and with pitching editors, which has served me very well. He’s got established relationships with many publishing houses, which means that the contract we start negotiating from is much better than the one an unagented writer would start from. I don’t begrudge him a penny of his fifteen percent. That said, publishing models are shifting radically right now, and that’s changing the relationships between author, agents, and editors. I think there’s still a lot a good agent can do for a writer at the moment, but I’m not sure what the publishing world will like in five or ten years. Also, there are a lot of bad agents out there, and a bad agent is worse than no agent.
Getting an agent has a couple of forks. If you’re a new writer, it’s a pretty set process involving queries and partials and ton of things that are no fun to write. If you’re established, or partially so, things are different. I got my first agent because I was selling short stories and because he repped some other folks in my writers group and was interested in my work. I got my second agent when the first one left the agenting biz and my new agent took over a section of my old agent’s list. If I were looking now, I’d tell friends what I’m trying to sell and ask around to see who’s doing good work in those areas.
3) What exactly does an editor/publisher do, from the author’s perspective?
You could pretty much teach a seminar on that subject. It starts with acquisitions, paying an advance (which means they’re shouldering the upfront financial risk), big picture editing, cover art, copyediting, book design, typesetting, proofreading, publication, wide channel distribution, promotion, legal department, etc, etc, etc. The big ones there that are really hard to do for yourself are editing, risk management, distribution, promotion, and legal, though pretty much all of what they do makes the book better or the author more secure. Things like Kickstarter and electronic distribution are shifting what’s possible in terms of making a successful career of writing, but how much is going to change and how far it will go are open questions.
4) What would be your #1 “Do” and #1 “Don’t” for professional fiction writers?
Do: Act in a professional manner. You need two of three things to succeed in this business. 1) Be easy to work with. 2) Deliver the work on time/be reliable 3) Sell really well/be a freaking genius. 1 and 2 are all about acting professionally, and that’s a hell of a lot easier to control than sales and genius. To quote Neil Gaiman: “People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
Don’t: Fret about the things you can’t control. There is no surer path to a nervous breakdown than to freak about the things you can’t control. Things like how big a marketing push you’re going to get, how well your book will be received critically, how well you sell. Those are all things that we would like to believe we can control, but by and large they are beyond the writer’s control. That’s part of why so many writers get caught up in self-marketing to the detriment of getting the work done, because they believe they can have a much larger impact on sales than is remotely likely. The biggest sales spikes I’ve seen have had nothing to do with marketing, they’ve all been because of art projects I took on for fun that attracted internet eyeballs. Whereas any number of things I did hoping to boost sales have had no discernible effect.
5) Do you feel that the industry requires a career author to work on multiple projects at once?
It depends on how you define multiple projects. It’s pretty much a given that if you’re putting out a book a year you will be working on different phases of several books at once. Drafting on one, editing on a second, marketing on a third. If they’re all part of a series, is that multiple projects or is it all part of one big one? Personally, I like working on lots of things because it keeps me entertained. But I also know writers who have been slowly crafting one big writing project for years to the near exclusion of others—Pat Rothfuss and The Kingkiller Chronicles, for example.
1) What character, out of the ones you’ve written, is your favorite and why?
That’s a really hard call. I love Melchior and Eris and Ravirn in the WebMage books, because they’re all sarcastic and witty and fun to write. In the Blade books, I’m really happy with Aral, and Triss and the buddy cop/marriage dynamic they’ve got going on, and I love writing Kelos and Faran because they’re both such damaged hard-asses. I’m also really pleased with the Dyad in Bared Blade which was very difficult to write because she’s a person with two bodies and three personalities. Foxman and Burnish who are in School for Sidekicks (which will be out next year) were both wonderful fun. Foxman’s an over the top billiionaire superhero, and Burnish is an up and coming superhero daughter of a superhero father who has been badly wounded by the world. There are some others that make the list from works that aren’t yet published as well. If I had to make a choice right this minute, it would probably be Kelos, but that’s because I’m writing him for Drawn Blades right now, and he’s such fun to play with.
2) What is your favorite scene you’ve ever written and why?
I’m going to stick with published works for this, because it would be cruel to talk about things that aren’t out there yet. Given that, I’d have to say it’s a touch call between the farewell sequence at the end of SpellCrash and the final battle and wrap up of Blade Reforged. What I love about the SpellCrash scene is that it was written as the closing sequence of a five book arc, and I actually got the time to say goodbye to each of the major characters fully and in turn. It was bruising to write, but it also let me close that series with closure for my readers. The end of Blade Reforged is all about redemption. Aral wins an impossible fight by accepting that doing so will almost certainly kill him. He lets go of life in order to do the right thing. And, in doing so, he becomes once again what he had been before the fall that put him where he is at the start of Broken Blade. Then, after he has become a sort of avatar of Justice, he is in a position for something numinous to happen restoring him in body as well as soul. I’m really proud of that one.
3) I’ve been following your work since WebMage, and I believe that the Broken Blade series has demonstrated your growth as a writer. Do you feel the same – why? What lessons did you take away from WebMage that you applied to Broken Blade?
Yes and no. A lot of what I’m doing in Broken Blade parallels things from currently unpublished books that were written before or during the writing of the WebMage books. I think Black School, which is one of the unpublished novels written between Cybermancy and Codespell, is as good as anything I’m doing now, and I really hope I can find the right publisher for it.
I’m definitely a better writer now than I was when I wrote WebMage, especially in terms of prose. At the same time, what I was trying to achieve with WebMage is so different from what I’m trying to do with Broken Blade that it’s hard for me to compare them. In many ways, writing humor is harder than writing gritty, which mean I can do things that look more difficult in Broken Blade because they don’t have to be funny too.
School for Sidekicks, which comes out next year, is pure humor for a middle grade audience. I suspect that it’s going to look much easier to write than the Blade books, when the opposite is true.
I’m always trying to improve, and to achieve things I couldn’t with previous books, so in that sense, yes. But it’s not necessarily as linear a progression as it looks to the reader.
4) Has there been any point in your career as an author where you found yourself thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?” If so, what was it?
Not really, but that’s because I’ve had great mentors from very early on. My Writers of the Future win was my third publication, and, through friends I made there, I was introduced to Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch who took me under their wings. I learned an enormous amount about the business and craft of writing from them. And, through them, from Raymond Feist, Kevin J Anderson, and George R.R. Martin among others. I’ve also had great resources through my various writers groups, which include a lot of people who have sold books and stories. More recently, I’ve learned incredible amounts about managing a busy career from watching my friend Neil Gaiman managing what I think of as Neil Gaiman inc. In the last two years I’ve made the transition from being a writer who says yes to every opportunity because I needed the work to being a writer who has begun to say no to things due to time and energy constraints because I’ve become so busy. Neil was incredibly helpful in figuring out how to deal with that.
5) Why do you gravitate towards fantasy fiction, in particular?
It’s in my bones. I’m a third generation fan of the genre, and I was raised on Lord of the Rings and Star Trek and Midsummer Night’s Dream. I love the world of science fiction and fantasy. Part of that is because you get to write about big important things like honor and justice and good and evil without having to be ironic about it. Those things matter enormously to human beings, and f&sf is one of the few genres where you can pull out all the stops and be honest about that.
Why fantasy to a much greater extent than science fiction? Three things. First and foremost, it’s more timeless. Fantasy ages well. Read Shakespeare’s fantastic works, or Lord Dunsany, or Tolkien and you will find that time has mostly been gentle with them. Science fiction dates itself much faster. Secondly, I simply find it easier to write fantasy at book length. I’m married to a physicist and have a good grounding in science. It’s easier for me to suspend my belief for pure magic than it is for science hand-wavium like faster than light travel, or many of the other grand tropes. Third, it generally pays better. There seems to be a bigger market for magic than for science fiction, and as someone who makes a living in the field that’s something I have to consider in focusing my energies.