Marjorie M. Liu and Kelley Armstrong Have a Conversation About Writing

In my neverending quest to get other people to do my work for me completely selfless attempt to bring interesting writers and their books to your attention, because I love you, here’s something new for you, and we’ll see what you think: Two authors chatting with each other about their new books, and about writing.

Today’s two authors: Marjorie M. Liu and Kelley Armstrong, both New York Times bestselling authors of paranormal fantasy, each with new books out today: A Wild Light, which continues Liu’s “Hunter’s Kiss” series, and Waking the Witch, which does the same for Armstrong’s “Otherworld” series. Their topics: Writing styles and process, and how those relate to their new books.

MARJORIE M. LIU:

Kelley, I’d love to talk to you about writing styles.

One thing I love and admire about Waking the Witch is how tightly it’s plotted.  It’s fast, cut lean, and every word counts.  Once I started reading, it was incredibly difficult to put down — I felt the momentum, a gathering of strength in the story and characters — and the ending!  I did not expect that at all, but it was perfect.

I’m still figuring out how to write each new book, but do you have a process that you’re most comfortable with?  When you’re sitting down to write a novel, what’s the one piece of the puzzle that you need to set in place before everything else tumbles onto the page?

KELLEY ARMSTRONG:

Marjorie, my writing style does tend to be fast-paced.  I consider it taking my weaknesses and trying to put a positive spin on them <grin> I’m not good at description and setting.  Nor is my prose rich and poetic.  It’s very much a bare-bones style with the focus on action and dialogue.  If I can avoid the temptation to meander (or at least cut all that in edits!) I can turn it into tight pacing.

It’s funny, though, because after years of being praised–and sometimes criticized–for the pace of my books, now that I’m writing for teens, I get comments like “it was kinda slow starting” or “some parts dragged.”  Their expectations are different from many older readers, and it’s like a splash of cold water, waking me from that complacency of thinking I know what my strengths are.  It makes me take a harder look at the parts of my writing I’ve brushed off as “oh, but I know I’m good at that.”

One thing I admired about A Wild Light is the depth and richness of your writing.  Your prose is very lush, but you still keep up the pace and the action, which is a rare combination.  Do you feel that’s your natural style?  Or something that’s developed over the years?

As for process…

After seventeen books and countless pieces of short fiction, my process still changes.  I think now, though, that it’s “shaking things up” rather than refining the process.  Sometimes I’ll have a ten page outline.  Sometimes, I’ll have two paragraphs.  I’ll write long-hand for two books in a row, then switch to direct keyboarding for the next two.  But the one thing I must have in place is the main character.  Nothing works without that.  If it’s a new character, she’ll be refined over the course of the book, but when I sit down to start page one, I need to feel I know this person well enough to slip into her skin.

So I’ll toss the same question back at you.  What do you need in place before you start?

MARJORIE M. LIU:

Regarding style…

You know, when I was a freshman in high school, reading Borges and Neruda, and Allende — all of them were a revelation to me.  Which sounds dramatic, but sometimes you read works that shake you up and show you a new world of words.  I didn’t know stories and poetry could be written like that.  I hadn’t thought about the color of language, or how words could evoke a place, or person, or the soul of that person.  I internalized that in a very deep way.

But that was good and bad, because there’s a fine line between being lush and being overwritten, and I know I cross that line more often than I’d like.

My style has evolved over the years — and it’s still changing.  I experiment a lot, trying to be aware of the words I use, and how fragments and structure can affect the feeling of a moment.  For example, in the beginning of The Iron Hunt, I use mostly sentence fragments to tell the story.  It’s sharp and hard, with a particular rhythm.  That was intentional, because I was trying to evoke urgency and vulnerability — winter, death, solitude — a particular immediacy.

I’m writing another book (not part of the Hunter Kiss series) that is very bare-bones.  I’m really stripping my language down — focusing mostly on action and dialogue, and nothing else.  I don’t know if that will stick when it comes time to write the next Hunter Kiss novel, or if it’s the series itself that evokes a certain style.  I think it’s the latter, honestly.

And my process always changes, too!   Each novel I write has a different temperament, and requires a different approach.  I can’t explain it…sometimes the words come easily, and the ideas just spark fire — but then there are the days when I’m banging my head against the wall, and I’m reevaluating this and that, and how I write — and I tell myself that maybe an outline will help, but then I outline and I have to throw it out — and so on.

Like you, though, I HAVE to know the main characters.  I need to be right inside their hearts.  The journey spills out of that.  I also need to have a good first sentence in place.  Even if it changes over time, having a really strong, powerful beginning creates a certain momentum that I use to propel me forward into the story.

It is interesting, though, how writing for a different audience forces us to reexamine our craft and storytelling.  That happened when I moved from writing just romance to urban fantasy — which was a harder transition than I thought it would be — and then it occurred again when I began writing comic books, which is a completely different style altogether.

5 thoughts on “Marjorie M. Liu and Kelley Armstrong Have a Conversation About Writing

  1. In my opinion, it gets harder with each book. For me, I feel like I have to push myself harder, to achieve more with each book I write.

  2. About that first sentence … As a longtime reader, student of literature and writer myself, I am continually appalled at the weak opening sentences AND titles I see all the time. Folks, these things are immensely important.

    Having said that, I hasten to add that I am well aware these are sometimes taken out of the hands of the writer and decided by publisher minions, particularly the title.

    Sometime the publisher is right. There’s that story that Margaret Mitchell wanted to call her novel Mules in Horse Harness (or something very much like that) and her publisher said, “How about Gone with the Wind instead?”

    Lyle Blake Smythers

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