Reader Request Week 2011 #9: Writery Bits ’11
In which I write up some stuff about writing, based on your requests:
If something horrible were to happen to you, is there any writer you would feel comfortable having them finish you work? Or would you want all notes/manuscripts burned, their ashes scattered across the hills of Ohio?
I don’t have any unfinished or unpublished manuscripts lying around, actually, so anyone hoping to collaborate with me after my death will be sorely disappointed. If I die in the middle of writing a novel, then whoever is assigned to finish up the manuscript is going to have to make it all up from that point, since I don’t write down notes or make novel outlines. I have no idea who I’d pick to finish a manuscript. Assuming the book was being written for Tor, I’d let Patrick Nielsen Hayden make that call. I have confidence in his editorial choices.
I’d be interested to know what a professional SF writer makes of the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ science fiction. In academic circles, quite a lot is made of certain writers (Atwood, Dick, Butler etc.) and a great deal less of others–with the latter usually including those capable of making a living from the business. Does this annoy you? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.
It doesn’t annoy me, no, although I’m not sure about the implication regarding “Lit SF” writers not being able to make a living in the business, since among your examples, Atwood has done decently for herself saleswise, and aside from any other commercial success, Butler received a Macarthur Genius Grant, which financially would have put her in pretty good stead. For my part, I don’t really expect my writing to light up the academic world, so I don’t know what the value would be of me harrumphing about how no one has me as the subject of their doctoral thesis, or is teaching me to grad students.
I just read Among Others by Jo Walton, and I’m part way through George RR Martin’s Dreamsongs, and the really cool thing about both of these is that the authors are talking about the books they read as kids, and I’m finding it fascinating. So, when did you first encounter SF&F, and what stuff did you read?
I’m pretty sure the first science fiction I encountered that I knew was science fiction was Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky, which was followed in rapid success by other Heinlein juveniles, plus A Wrinkle in Time, The Martian Chronicles and Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones. That would have been fourth grade or so.
For you, what is the hardest part of the book-writing process, and how do you overcome it?
Starting is the hardest part; if I’m not careful I can avoid starting writing for months. Once I get started it’s never all that difficult. I overcome it by realizing that I have to eat and pay my mortgage, and yes, I’m being entirely serious.
If the phone went one day and it was your agent saying there was a new Star Trek tv show and they wanted to you come on board as a writer, would you? And also, if the phone went and this time it was the BBC wanting you to write a Doctor Who script, whould you want to do that either (and if you did would you use the Daleks)?
No on both counts. I don’t have an interest in going full-time on a TV writing staff, because I have other things I want to do. With Doctor Who, I don’t watch it enough to feel like I would do a creditable job with an episode. One of the things I really liked about the SG:U gig was that I could do it, be useful and still do my own things. That said, I had a standing invite to pitch an episode to them; if we had made it to a season three, I probably would have.
Why are novels always (or close enough to make the exception prove the rule) divided into chapters? For the convenience of the reader? The writer? Because it has “always been done that way”? Because it provides a convenient way to shift the focus or advance the timeline without having to say “Meanwhile…” or “The next day…”? John, do you tend to write chapters of the same length across all your novels?
I think chapters are useful for both the reader and the writer. For the reader, it breaks up a very long text document into manageable chunks, making it easier to fit into life; for the writer, it helps impose structure on the novel and also give the writer a chance to make the reader excited on regular intervals (for example, by ending chapters on cliffhangers). My chapters tend to be a more or less consistent length through each book, although the length of chapters varies from book to book. They do tend to group fall out in either 2k – 4k word groups, or 4k – 6k word groups.
I would be interested in your views on Science Fiction and sexism. One of the reasons I particularly enjoy your work is that women are portrayed as real, capable humans – even main characters. Older SciFi so often has a particularly misogynist bent in women’s roles and with phrases like “rape that” being used as slang.
What are your thoughts about the progression of equality of the sexes in SciFi, and will the genre – and in particular MilSF – become a thought leader in equality, or always face an uphill battle because the dominant author and readership will remain gender-skewed towards maleness?
I should probably break this out into its own entry, and my do so later, but for now I’ll say a) thank you, b) the reason women are portrayed as real, capable humans in my fiction is because I know they are real, capable humans, and it would be stupid for me to portray them otherwise, and c) I certainly hope science fiction continues to get better at how it portrays women in a general sense. I don’t think the genre skewing male needs to impede this; after all, most of my books probably skew male in readership but my at least attempting real, capable female characters doesn’t seem to have hurt them any.
If you were to write an alternate history novel, I’m confident you wouldn’t choose one of the cliched points of departure (South winning Civil War, Nazis winning WWII). So what obscure historical point of departure would you select and why?
You know, I’m not sure I would specify the actual point of departure; I’d just write a contemporary novel in which the world was manifestly different than it is and build out the consequences of that as the story developed. I would know where the point of departure was, of course, I just wouldn’t go out of my way to make it clear and obvious to the reader. I think it might be more fun that way.
Since you have a pre-teen child, what are your thoughts on Athena reading books above her level of understanding. Are there books you can’t wait to share with her that you waiting until she is older? Generally, is it every okay to keep a child from reading a book that is above a level of comprehension?
Athena can read any book she wants to read, as far as I’m concerned, and I’m happy to discuss with her anything she doesn’t know about or understand in the book. When it comes to reading, I don’t think there’s any problem with a kid’s reach exceeding her grasp, because your brain doesn’t grow if you don’t stretch it. I don’t suppose it’s entirely surprising I feel this way.
Which do you think is more important for writers; talent or skill? (Assuming you’d be heavily weighted towards one or the other)
I think they exist in an inverse relationship in that the more you have of one, the less you need of the other, but I’d also note that you can’t only have one and not the other; you do need both. Be also aware that it’s possible both to have a lot of talent and skill, and conversely no talent and no skill. Sucks to be the latter.
Would it make you feel uncomfortable if a reader (who you don’t know) came up to you to say hello while you were out & about? Say, at the grocery store or in a coffee shop…provided that the reader is not interrupting what is obviously a family outing.
No. If they were polite and could take a hint about when it was time to go, then I would be delighted to talk to them briefly, or sign something/take a picture. This has happened to me more than once and it’s been generally a positive thing. But then I am at a level of fame (low) where it doesn’t happen to me often, and maybe that makes a difference. If I couldn’t go anywhere without being bothered, I think it would eventually get to me. I don’t expect ever to get to that level of notability, however. Which obviously suits me fine.