1. How do story ideas come to you; in other words, how do the muses work for you?
I don't know if there's any single answer to this. I'm a firm believer that good ideas are everywhere, and all you have to do is recognize them. Since I write full-time, I can't really wait for the muses to come down and tap me on the head. You have to learn to recognize a good idea and then learn to develop it. You draw from your experiences, but you also draw from your desires and dreams. Often you synthesize all three. I just sold a story called "The Terminal Solution" to an upcoming Daw Books anthology. The entire story resulted from a dream.
If you want to be a writer, newspapers, magazines, and current headlines are great sources for story ideas. If you open a newspaper and can't come up with at least ten good story ideas, you're in the wrong business. Walk into a bar on any evening and observe the people; there's a story idea behind every single one of them. Go to a museum and open your ears; every object there has a story to tell.
I know a lot of beginning writers guard their story ideas like they were treasure, but they're not. Ideas are a dime a dozen. No one's going to steal your idea, and even if they did, what someone else wrote with that idea would be totally different from what you write with it.
I used to keep an idea journal, a little book in which I wrote down ideas for stories. That's not a terribly bad idea, but over time I've learned that the really, really good ideas don't get forgotten.
2. Do you have a special routine when you're writing, or can you just sit down at a computer and start typing?
Mostly, but not exclusively, I write at night when things get quiet and I know I'm not going to have to spring up to answer the door or run some errand. This is particularly true of novels. I like to have all my notes and research books near at hand. I've got kind of a cockpit arrangement of three desks and two computers in my office. There's also a television and a stereo. I have those on sometimes just for background. Once I start, I promise myself that I must get through a minimum of one scene. That may be two pages long or it may be ten or more. But that one scene must be done before I quit working. If I'm really cooking, I may write more than the one scene, but the one scene is pretty much a rule.
With short stories, I'm more flexible. I sometimes like to take my laptop to a coffee shop and work there. Writing is pretty solitary work, so it can be fun to get out sometimes and work among people. I can work at conventions this way, too, or in a park, or in the car on a road trip (if the light on the screen allows). Again, though, this is very dependent on the kind of story and the amount of research required to write it. I could never have written "The Terminal Solution" in a coffee shop. Too much research and too many notes to constantly reference.
3. Who are your literary influences?
This is always a tough question, and I'm never sure if it is really relevant to anything since no two writers ever really write that much alike. Some writers will instantly rattle off two or three names when asked this. But I have an M.A. in literature. I've been reading as long as I can remember. People blink when I say William Shakespeare and Robert Howard are both influences on my work, but they are. So are William Blake and Fritz Leiber. So are Robert Frost and H.P. Lovecraft. So are Emily Bronte and Carolyn Cherryh.
I do owe special thanks to Wilson Tucker, Carolyn Cherryh and Frank Robinson. I consider them mentors. But they don't write at all alike, and I don't write at all like any of them.
4. Generally how long does it take you to write an average novel? How many different revisions do you usually go through?
I once wrote a novel (NIGHTWATCH, TSR Books) in four months. Recently, I contracted to do that for a brand new series (DRAGONKIN, Ibooks/Simon&Shuster) and discovered it was a huge mistake. Some books take a lot more research, and the writing takes a lot more care than with others. And sometimes real life just intervenes. During the writing of DRAGONKIN, I contracted encephalitis, and the recovery made me late with the book. I'm writing its sequel, TALISMAN, now, but I broke my right arm in May. I'll never again contract to write a book in less than six months.
I revise as I go along, sometimes heavily. Books are organic. No matter how you outline and plan them out, they surprise you by offering new directions and new possibilities, and often at the most awkward points in the story. Now if you're asking about drafts, as opposed to revisions, the answer is two. I write the entire first draft, revising as I go along. When that draft is done, I go over it once more, rewriting again where needed, checking continuity, and making any final changes. I don't touch it again until my editor has seen it and made suggestions. It's the same for short stories.
5. How do you deal with writers-block?
I don't really believe in writers' block. I do believe in depression and deal with that from time to time. Health issues, family issues, real life in general, can frequently steal from the energy I would otherwise expend on writing. It can slow me down or stop me altogether. But it's important, to me at least, to recognize that the problem isn't in my writing, but in these other perfectly natural and normal experiences that everybody must deal with from time to time -- engineers, telephone operators, janitors, everybody.
The thing about writing is that there's no way to report for work and just "go through the motions." No way to coast through the day. When real life conspires to keep us from working, it's easy to just stop. We give it a name as if it were a diagnosable disease or syndrome or condition -- "writers' block." Sounds terrible, horrible, terminal. It even makes us feel special. Janitors don't get "janitors' block, do they? Teachers don't get blocked. Just writers!
Sorry, but I don't buy it. If you feel blocked, look for the real root causes -- depression, health, personal relationships, etc. Then deal with those issues, or learn to work around them. If you're really a writer, you'll write.
6. Out of everything you've written, which would you say is your favorite; which gives you the most satisfaction of a job-well-done?
Wow, this is like asking which of your children do you like best and think is prettiest! But I guess the novel that's dearest to my heart would be SHADOWDANCE. And right beside it, my newest novel, DRAGONKIN. They're very different books with different target audiences. SHADOWDANCE is a very dark, sensuous fantasy. It has a passionate, almost cult-like readership. DRAGONKIN, on the other hand, is completely different in tone and achieves a good balance of dark and humorous moments. It has a broader appeal that I think will speak to both adult readers and younger readers.
When I look at my short fiction, I think my personal favorites are "Keepers of Earth," which appeared originally in an anthology called SILICON DREAMS and was picked up for Silverberg's 2001: THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION OF THE YEAR, and "Toy Soldiers," which is out now in another anthology called FUTURE WARS. And although it's not available yet, the aforementioned "The Terminal Solution." I'm very, very pleased with it.
One of the things I like about writing short fiction is that you can take the opportunity to try so many different kinds of writing -- time travel, military sf, alternate history, comic fantasy, etc., and often readers are willing to go along with you.
7. Do you have a favorite character that you've created?
With DRAGONKIN, a couple of side-characters seriously threatened to rise up and steal the show -- A hummingbird named Bumble and a reclusive, artistic dragon named Ronaldo. They grew so much during that book and demonstrated such pathos that I wound up carrying them over into TALISMAN. From the comments I've seen in reviews on Amazon.com, other readers are falling in love with them just as I did.
I should also mention a character called Frost. She was the main character of my first three novels (FROST, SKULL GATE, and BLOODSONGS), and I thought at the end of that third book I was done with her. But recently, after fifteen years, I wound up bringing her back in a short story called "The Woman Who Loved Death" (SPELL FANTASTIC, Daw Books, and reprinted in an omnibus edition of the Frost stories called NIGHT'S ANGEL from Meisha Merlin Books). The publisher of Meisha Merlin has expressed interest in a brand new FROST novel, and maybe when my schedule allows, I'll do it. I'd like to. I'm just not sure there's that much of an audience out there anymore for good sword-and-sorcery fantasy, because there's been so much really bad s&s published in the last decade or so. But maybe. I recently optioned the film rights to all the FROST material.
8. What do you think makes a good fantasy author?
A broad background, a willingness to research like crazy, and the ability to open up their imaginations. But there are also less tangible skills. More so than with science fiction or mysteries, a good fantasy writer needs an ear for language. I think it also helps to have read a lot of good fantasy to see what's been done before.
Note, that "a good fantasy author" is not the same as a "marketable, best-selling fantasy author." Some of the biggest-selling fantasy in the bookstores these days is also some of the worst, most derivitive drek I've ever tried to read. Shrug. Call me jealous.
9. Can you tell us what you're currently working on and when you expect it will be available in bookstores?
During and after a battle with cancer, I vanished from the bookstores for a couple of years. I had some short stories out, but only a handful. This past year, though, my career has kicked back into full speed. DRAGONKIN, the first novel in a new series, just came out in June. I'm working on the sequel, TALISMAN, now, and will launch immediately into the third one, which is called UNDERSKY. Hopefully, both books will be out in 2004, but I'm going to have to work fast, as I'm behind schedule.
With those out of the way, I'll return to Fritz Leiber's world of Lankhmar for SWORDS IN THE STORM, which is half-done now.
ARCHITECTS OF DREAMS: THE SFWA AUTHOR EMERITUS ANTHOLOGY,which I edited, was also released in June. I probably have the dubious distinction of being the only author to have two books released the same weekend as the new Harry Potter novel.
I continue to write short stories, also. I've already mentioned "The Terminal Solution." I've also just sold "Princess Injera versus the Spanakopita of Doom" to Esther Friesner's next CHICKS anthology, TURN THE OTHER CHICK. And later this month, I have to get cracking on a new "Spyder and Alliyah" story for next installment of the new THIEVES WORLD series.
All three of those should be released sometime next year.
10. Random quote or piece of advice you'd like to share to end this with?
How about if I just thank everyone who's bought and enjoyed my work over the years, and also thank anyone who might try my work as a result of this interview? Writing is a crazy, up-and-down business, and one learns to really appreciate the readers and fans that support the field and support his or her work. I'm always delighted to meet or hear from them.