Interview questions for “Write Stuff” conference, May 2010

Q:  Why did you decide on the topic “Finishing Your Novel”?

 A:  I believe that novel writing is one of the most difficult things anyone can attempt. The ironic thing is, everyone except writers thinks it’s easy. Several dozen people have made this proposal to me: “Hey, I’ve got this GREAT idea for a book. I just need someone (me, presumably) to write down the words!” 

 Two facts: one, everybody has ideas. Two, it takes about three thousand ideas (give or take a thousand) to make a novel, and they all have to be relevant to the plot, intrinsically sensible, fit into the belief system of the work as a whole, grow out of a previous event or reaction, and lead to the next idea (which can be a plot point, character revelation, thematic element, or something else). What you end up with is a giant macramé of ideas that you have to construct solidly enough so that no holes show. The further along you go, the harder it gets to keep all the ideas working together, developing, growing, evolving into new, increasingly complex patterns.

 This is why finishing a novel is so hard. When most people say they have an idea for a book, what they really have is an idea for the BEGINNNING of a book. Or a hook or twist for the END of a story. But it’s the MIDDLE where you meet the dragons. That’s the part that eats you. 

 But there are ways past the dragons. Most of them are technical, things you can do just by working hard, planning ahead, or being willing to try. Some are psychological, like the idea of embracing selfishness.

 Q: Why is it hard for writers – or people in general – to finish what they’ve started?
1. Lack of preparation.
2. Lack of confidence.
 Part of what I mean by “preparation” is knowing for sure that you want to do what you’re planning to do.  At one conference where I held a workshop, someone presented an idea that was just too small for a novel. Remember, a novel is leisurely, exploratory, organic. It grows, so it needs room to grow. (Incidentally, I told the prospective author about my reservations regarding her story. She got angry and stomped out of the workshop. I don’t know if she ever finished her book, but I haven’t seen her name on the Times bestseller list).

Also, a novel takes a lot of time. I was astonished to read that Daphne du Maurier wrote the iconic Rebecca (voted Best Novel of the Century by the Mystery Writers of America) in “three or four months” (her words). Usually it takes a year or more, but even three months is a long time to spend doing something you really don’t want to do, or writing about something about which you’re not tremendously interested.

 Another part of preparation is knowing what you’re going to write before you write it. I’m really tired of arguing in defense of outlines. All I can say is that I use them. Religiously. When I’m stuck, I outline. Outlines do not deter or lessen my creativity. Au contraire, I find I’m much freer intellectually and creatively if I’m not always worrying about what the next story point is going to be.

 Lack of confidence is more amorphous, and therefore more difficult to alter. I don’t think I’m being a rabid feminist by saying that women suffer more in general from lack of confidence than men. I’m not going to posit all the reasons why that’s true, but one of them is the idea we have that women are born to serve. Our families, our elders, our husbands, and particularly our children. We live in a society in which children rule. Johnny needs to go to Little League, so of course Mom will take him. The novel she’s (secretly) working on can wait. It’s not important, anyway.

 All I’ve got to say about that is that James Joyce made his family (wife, 2 kids) live in abject penury for 17 years while he wrote (and finished) Finnegan’s Wake.
 But I’ve got a lot to say about selfishness.

 Q: During the brainstorming process for your presentation topic, you put forth that selfishness can be an important attribute for attaining success in today’s publishing world. Why is that?

 A: Correction. Not today’s world, and not the publishing world. Just the WORLD. Artists are SELFISH Yes, yes, yes! Oh, how women hate that word!

 Actually, my original topic was “The Selfish Writer”, but I was told to modify the title, since no one wants to think of him/and especially herself as selfish. But here’s the truth: Artists have to be selfish. We must be, because otherwise we would not be permitted to create art (and yes, your unimportant little novel which is constantly pre-empted by Junior’s Little League practice IS ART). Every one of us is told sooner or later  to go get a real job. The fact is, writers have to respect their work enough to give it the attention it deserves. If you only write when there’s nothing better to do, then your work doesn’t mean enough to you. I hate to say it, but you really don’t deserve success.

 What is success, anyway? Only an idiot would think it has to do with how much money you make, and if that’s all you care about, then I’m not even talking to you. This isn’t a job; it’s a lot more than that. I don’t even think of my work as coming from me, particularly. It’s bigger than me. It’s demanding. It’s hungry. It’s harsh. My choice to live as an artist constantly breaks my heart, wanting so much from me and sometimes giving me so little in return. But I’ve learned that I can’t be happy without writing. I don’t even think I can live without it.

 So I don’t think that serving one’s talent – one’s art, or whatever you want to call it -- is selfish. And if it is, I don’t care.

 Q: Your published works represent a range of genres, from nonfiction (DRESSING THIN) to fantasy (THE FOREVER KING trilogy, WORLD WITHOUT END) to spy novels such as the Amelia Pierce books written under the pseudonym Dev Stryker. What are you working on these days?

 A: I have a book with my long-time editor at Tor titled THE PAGAN TRAILER PARK, about a 50-year-old writer who, in an attempt to survive a divorce and the death of her only child, allows the main character in the book she’s writing to take over her life, with some surprising results. 

 I’ve also written something entirely new, a paranormal YA novel I originally titled WONDERLAND, but which my (new) editor (Alexandra Penfold of Paula Wiseman Books, a division of Simon & Schuster) and I renamed LEGACY. It’s about a bright, articulate 16-year-old girl who finds herself in a town filled with witches who have all sorts of special abilities that both help and hinder her as she seeks to unravel the mystery of her mother’s suicide.

 I use the term “YA” like I know what I’m talking about, but actually, I didn’t write LEGACY as anything except a story with a young narrator. The whole YA genre is weird and new to me. Different editors, different agents. I’ve written outlines for two sequels. I figure that after they’re completed, I’ll know whether or not I want to stay on this track.

 As for the future, I’ve been working for some time – years, really, there’s so much research involved – on a novel based on the life of my Japanese grandfather. Every event in his life was shaped by women: his Samurai mother and grandmother, his affair with an Australian free-thinker, his first marriage, arranged by his parents and doomed to misery, the daughter that his mother gave away to a geisha house, his beautiful, aristocratic second wife who dies tragically, his housekeeper, who keeps his large family alive through WWII by using her wit and peasant resources, and his daughters, who have all sorts of adventures of their own. Lots of material there.

 And as for the past: Some of you may know that I took rather a long hiatus from writing. I don’t know why. Instead of writing, I traveled, ruminated, wrote a lot of notes for projects I didn’t begin, felt bad about getting divorced, cooked, moved around a lot… wasted time.

 I regret it. I can’t get that time back. But then, maybe I needed to take the time, too. I don’t know anything anymore, except that I missed writing. It kept me – I don’t want to say sane – connected. Connected to something beyond myself. I’m not religious. It wasn’t God. But it was something that I needed, and need every day.

 So I’m writing again. Starting over, sort of. But don’t we all, always, with every book, start over from the beginning? That’s the nature of art, I think, and artists: Constantly reinventing the world and ourselves through this lonely, terrifying, fascinating journey of the mind. Our books are the notes we take. Sometimes people want to read them, to share our journey. 

 That is the whole point.