Frequently asked questions, cobbled together from various interviews…
Q: Who were your favorite authors growing up? Which books or authors were most influential? Who are the current authors you read? What is your ULTIMATE favorite book ever(if you have one) and why?
My favorite authors growing up were Heinlein, Clarke, Bester, Asimov, Bradbury, all at various times. I went through a lot of poetry, especially the Romantics. Was addicted to James Bond for years.
I sort of let my wife recommend sf books for me; she reads a lot of them. Teaching sf writing has made it harder for me to read it, because I’m intensely critical. A couple of mistakes and I quietly put a book down and usually don’t get back to it.
I can only think of three living writers whose books I’ll buy sight unseen: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Diane Ackerman, and an obscure poet, Billy Collins, who blows me away every time. I always enjoy Gardner Dozois’s Best SF of the Year collection.
I guess my ultimate favorite book ever, assuming you mean fiction, is Garcia Marquez’s _Love in the Time of Cholera_. I always enjoy leafing through Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, and Ray Carver’s, and have read _Treasure Island_ at least a dozen times.
Q: Do you read a lot?
All the time, but not a lot of fiction.
Q: Where do you draw your ideas from? Are you one of those authors that has an endless supply? Do you keep notes on ideas?
Ideas just come to you. If you don’t get ideas, you can’t be much of a science fiction writer. I do actually have a cigar box labeled “Crackpot Ideas,” and I sort through that every now and then. I always have computer files of notes, more or less organized, for the current novel(s).
I’ve written three books of short stories — INFINITE DREAMS, DEALING IN FUTURES, and NONE SO BLIND — and in the introduction or afterword to each story I tried to say something about how it came to be written. Here’s a list of where I remembered my ideas as having come from:
editorial suggestions — 7
stylistic experiments — 7
personal emotional trauma/experience — 6
personal physical trauma/experience — 6
out of nowhere/just started typing — 5
works of other writers — 4
challenge by another writer — 4
joke — 3
magazine articles — 3
the weather — 2
for the hell of it — 2
cover painting — 1
typo — 1
Maybe it’s interesting that so many of them were generated by editorial suggestions. That’s when a magazine editor calls you up in the middle of the night and says he needs a 5000-word story about the sex life of salami by Wednesday.
Most such stories are done purely for money, of course, or as a favor to the editor, but the odd thing is that they don’t necessarily turn out to be inferior to the ones that originate otherwise. One of my two Hugo-winning short stories, “Tricentennial,” was completely controlled by capricious editorial factors.
Q: What do you do when you experience writer’s block?
When I get writer’s block I try to get around it by writing _about_ the story, rather than writing the story. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you just have to go write something else for a while.
Q: How much do you have to know about a story before you start writing?
I don’t have to know very much about the story to start writing. Just an interesting person in an interesting situation. Often you start writing to see what’s going to happen.
Q: What kind of editing process do you go through?
The editor makes suggestions, and (I guess obviously) they fall into three groups: things that you think will help the story, things that don’t make any real difference, and things that you think are wrong. You thank her for the first ones, usually go along with the second, and dig in on the third.
Q: Have you ever had bad editing experiences? Why or why not?
I’m never wild about changing my precious manuscript, but sometimes the editor _is_ right. I think my worst editing experience was my first novel. (I later found out it was the editor’s first, too.) The viewpoint character was an undereducated Oklahoman, and he spoke like one. The editor changed all of his dialogue into standard English. I changed it back, word by word.
Q: Why choose science fiction as a medium to write in? What characteristics make it right for you?
I didn’t so much choose sf as sf chose _me_ — it was almost all I’d read as a kid, so it was natural to start writing it.
I like the freedom to write about anything. I like making a living at it.
Q: What were some obstacles that you had to overcome when you decided to become a writer, and first started writing?
I really didn’t have a hard time getting started. Seems to be true of a significant minority of writers. First novel sold to the first publisher who saw it.
Q: What are some obstacles that hinder you now that you are an established writer? What do you find most difficult about writing and how do you get around it?
Most of the obstacles are internal. You want each book to be your best shot. You don’t want to repeat yourself or start parodizing yourself, which happened to writers as brilliant as Heinlein and Hemingway.
I don’t find writing difficult. Just slow. I guess the biggest difficulty is distractions.
Q: What kind of advice do you offer writers who are just beginning, or people who want to write?
The old saw “don’t do it unless you absolutely have to” is true enough, if by “it” you mean devoting your life to writing and hoping for success or even a living. Of course if writing gives you pleasure, and you don’t have lofty ambitions, go for it. I think the creation of any art, even mediocre art, helps balance a person; helps him or her understand and enjoy life.
(I fool around with music and painting in this spirit. I’ll never find fame or fortune with guitar or brush, but don’t expect to. Both activities are vital to my life nevertheless.)
Q: Of all the works you’ve written, which are your favourites? Why?
My favorite of my works is the Worlds trilogy, because it’s the most ambitious and best realized. I also am fond of _The Hemingway Hoax_, because it’s funny, in its sardonic way. I’d like to write more humor.
Q: What was the background of THE HEMINGWAY HOAX?
The Hemingway Hoax started out as the result of a casual conversation with an ex-student of mine. He¹d driven my wife and me to an airport, and while we were killing time waiting for the flight, I told him the true story about Hemingway¹s lost manuscripts. In 1923, Hemingway¹s wife Hadley had packed up all of his writings — three years¹ worth — and left the bag unattended on a train. They were stolen.
I commented to my student that someone with a real gift for literary imitation, an old typewriter, and no morals could make a million bucks faking those lost manuscripts. Almost immediately the safer alternative occurred to me: settle for less than a million and write a book about a guy who attempts the fake.
I started the outline for The Hemingway Hoax the next morning, in Tahiti, and finished it on Heron Island in Australia¹s Great Barrier Reef. Then I put it away and resumed work on the book that would become Buying Time.
I wrote most of The Hemingway Hoax at home in Gainesville, Florida, and Boston, but parts of it were written in Austria and New Zealand. Most of the book takes place in Key West, so when I was approaching the end of it I drove down to the island, and finished the book in a hotel room not far from where Hemingway lived.
What is the book about? The subtitle ³A Short Comic Novel of Existential Terror² is accurate. In a way, it¹s a horror novel tinged with ghastly humor, as the apparently insane ghost of Ernest Hemingway murders a helpless scholar over and over; the scholar slipping from one universe to the next each time he dies, in what is apparently a rather unpleasant form of serial immortality. The tongue-in-cheek explanations for how this could happen qualify the book as a science fiction novel.
There¹s also a level of literary comment, about Hemingway as a man and as a writer; about how and why fiction is written and read. To a small minority of readers, this might be the most interesting aspect of the book. I¹ve taken some pains, though, to make sure it doesn¹t slow down the narrative. People who’ve read the book in manuscript all remark about how fast-paced it is. It may be the most ³literary² of my books, but it also has the most explicit sex and the most gruesome violence I¹ve ever written. Nobody will be bored by it.
Q: You do a lot of travelling. Do you write while you’re on the road?
Almost always. Here’s an extreme example — FOREVER PEACE comprises 868 hand-written pages done at 66 different desks — and campfires, cafés, and counters — in twelve states and ten foreign countries.
pp. 1-2 – Shreveport, LA
3-8 – Oklahoma City
9-14 – Minneapolis
15-18 – Weatherford, OK
18-22 – Palo Duro Canyon, TX
22-24 – Portales, NM
24-26 – Roswell, NM
27-30 – Alamagordo, NM
30-33 – Silver City, NM
33-38 – Tucson
39-46 – Catalina St. Pk., AZ
46-50 – Sedona, AZ
50-54 – Flagstaff, AZ
54-55 – Gallup, NM
56-60 – Star Hill, NM
60-68 – Las Vegas, NM
68-70 – Carlsbad Caverns, NM
70-73 – Van Horn, TX
74-82 – Gainesville, FL
82-86 – Bucharest
86-91 – Timisoara
91-100 – Brasov
That’s books one and two. Book Three has Gainesville, then
aboard the USSS Oceanic
BarcelonaSan Jose CA
ParisE. Lansing, MI
Key West, FLAshburn, GA
Seattle, WAColumbus, GA
Cambridge, MA Book Four —
Pensacola, FLLas Vegas
Book Five & Five Plus —
USAF War College, Alabama
In Florida (on bicycle trip):
O’Leno State Park
Suwannee R. State Park
(Lake Seminole, GA)
Q: What’s your sign?
Q: What did you look like as a soldier?
A: This —
Q: And two years later?
A: Like this, man ….
This was some advice to a young writer, discouraged because his two novels were getting nothing but rejections —
I’ve met hundreds of writers over the years, and a significant fraction of them, perhaps one fourth, had success right out of the gate. But the majority endured years of rejection before they made their first sales.
Some of that majority, no doubt, just had to practice their craft until they were good enough to be published. Many of them were perfectly good writers, though, who just had to wait until their number came up. Publishing is a crapshoot. Stephen King wrote three or four perfectly good novels before a publisher accepted Carrie (and of course those novels were later published and became best sellers). The Red Badge of Courage was rejected by almost everyone; Crane was about to burn the manuscript and stick to journalism,when a publisher grudgingly picked it up.
There is absolutely no correlation between early success and literary value. There is a weak correlation between early success and the probability of making a living from writing, but the reasons for that are clear. Reinforcement, gratification.
I’m in the minority. I sold my first science fiction story; sold my first novel to the first publisher who saw it; sold my first play and my first movie. But my most successful novel, The Forever War, was rejected by eighteen publishers before the nineteenth picked it up.
You ask if a person can determine whether or not he has the talent to make a living at writing. The easy answer is no, you yourself can’t determine it. But the question and answer are more complicated than that. At one extreme, you can be a really bad writer and make a living, so long as you can learn how to write a certain kind of book (romances, nurse novels, etc.) and can tolerate doing it day after day. At the other extreme, you can be the best writer of your age, and nobody will acknowledge that until you’re dead and gone. (And while you write, you’ll need a day job or an understanding, employable, spouse.)
Fortunately, there are various intermediate states.
As to workshops like Iowa and Clarion, all you can finally say is that they help some people and are disastrous for some. Most great writers taught themselves, or wound up in a kind of salon situation, regularly chewing the fat with other writers.
All I can do is counsel patience and optimism. When you get a rejection, if it says something specific, do pay attention to it — but remember that editors are only human, and even the best of them are more often wrong than right.
If you have any questions, not so frequently asked, drop me a line at
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