Interview with Sharon Lee

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am honored to be interviewing Sharon Lee today. Sharon Lee is, with Steve Miller, the co-author of seventeen novels, most of them set in the Liaden Universe (R). She’s been executive director, vice president and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Creating believable and unique characters, free from cliche, is often a difficult chore. What process do you use to develop personalities for your characters?

SHARON LEE: Creating believable and unique characters is hard to do only if you concentrate on the notion that you-the-god-author are creating characters. The story isn’t about you, after all; it’s about them. If you approach a character as if you were meeting someone for the first time; ask them gentle, probing questions, display an interest in them, find out what they want — no, what they really want — it becomes surprisingly easy to write about them in a believable way, because you’re writing about people you know, not about ciphers you’ve invented.

I look at some of the “systems” for creating characters that are offered to writers, and I wonder if I’m the only person who had an imaginary friend when I was a kid.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a preference between writing science fiction or fantasy? Is one easier than the other?

LEE: There’s a false either-or here. In terms of the work required of the author, science fiction and fantasy are exactly the same. The work is: build a believable world, populated by characters people care about, who have [a] compelling problem(s).

I think, rather than fantasy or science fiction being easier or harder to write, that some stories are less and more challenging to tell. AGENT OF CHANGE, for instance, was fun and easy to write — we had the whole thing up and out the door in three months. Of course, it was our first novel; we didn’t know it was supposed to be hard. CARPE DIEM, our third novel, was difficult to write — looking back, that would have been because it was the first book where we actually had to buckle down and do continuity — which is, of course, key to writing a long series in the same universe and dealing with at least some of the same characters. Not that we knew that, then, either. We were learning by doing.

More recently the Fey Duology — DUAINFEY and LONGEYE — were difficult to write, not because they were fantasy, but because we were building the world around us at the same time we were becoming acquainted with the characters. And a book that I thought would be very difficult to write — MOUSE AND DRAGON — practically wrote itself.

VENTRELLA: How does your collaboration with Steve Miller work?

LEE: After seventeen novels and mumble-mumble short stories, I’d say it works pretty well, thanks.

Let’s see… We talk out the story-in-progress between us and role-play key scenes — kind out acting out the first draft. Usually, but not always, I do the first written draft — because I type faster, not because Steve is too Grand to undertake the work.

Some books are more one than the other of us. Because of that, and because there are two of us, each book that we write together has a traffic cop. The traffic cop is usually the one who brought the project to the table, and holds a third vote, in case of a tie. Instances of ties have been pretty low — I think we’ve each used our third vote once.

Because we do write character-driven fiction and because the story is about them, not about us, we tend to resolve most points of disagreement by studying on what the character would do and/or want. That exercise unties most knots — and it’s notable that, in the two instances where the tie-breaker was invoked, the point of disagreement was a plot issue.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever had something published and then regret it, wanting to make changes?

LEE: Certainly, there are books that I wanted more time with; that’s one of the trade-offs you make, when you’re writing to a contracted deadline, as opposed to writing on spec. Nobody cares if you take ten years to write a book on spec[ulation]– it’s your baby and you don’t have to let it go until it’s perfect. Or ever.

A book under contract, though — that comes with encumbrances: a deadline; a target word count; a place in the publisher’s schedule; a cover artist . . . A writer with a book under contract simply writes the best book she’s capable of writing at that point in her career, and within the constraints set out in the contract. Then, she does it again, with the next book.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about what you’re working on now. (Is that GHOST SHIP?) Give us a hint! We want a scoop here!

LEE: Not much of a scoop, I’m afraid, since I’ve been talking about it on my LJ, but — yes! GHOST SHIP; the long-awaited “book after I DARE” and, coincidentally, the “book immediately after SALTATION,” is our current writing project; it’s due at Baen in August. I don’t have a firm publication date, but surely not before spring or summer of 2011.

VENTRELLA: Even established authors need to promote themselves these days. What do you do in that regard?

LEE: We do interviews 🙂 We do book signings. We send out the Liaden Universe (R) InfoDump (an electronic newsletter), which has over a thousand subscribers. Hard-core fans can join the Friends of Liad, a social and discussion list has been running for, oh, a dozen years or more, I guess, most recently under the able management of Scott Raun.

Conventions. . .We go to science fiction conventions, yes, to promote our work, but also because . . . we like to go to conventions.

In terms of social networking, both Steve and I have Live Journal and Facebook accounts. I prefer LJ to Facebook, mostly because I’m an introvert and Facebook is just too “noisy.” Twitter doesn’t hold much appeal for me, as you might imagine.

However a writer decides to promote their work, the key is that they should enjoy it. If you (universal you) go to conventions, or do book signings — or tweet — and you hate it, you won’t be happy, and the people who have come to see/tweet/hear you will notice that you’re not happy, and will assume, y’know, because most people are nice, that it’s them. Plainly, you don’t want people to think that they’re making you unhappy; so you want to interact with them in an environment where everyone’s comfortable.

VENTRELLA: You had to trademark your Liaden Universe(R) to prevent its misuse. How did that come about (if you are free to discuss it)?

LEE: I can say that we had an internet stalker who was bent on mischief, and the best protection for our work was to trademark it. We made the decision because the laws governing trademark are in general more thoroughly understood, should the mischief have gone to court, than copyright.

I certainly don’t advise all authors to go to trademark; it’s a non-trivial expense and one’s trademark needs to be “protected” in ways that copyright doesn’t demand. And in most cases — absent an active mischief-maker — copyright is perfectly adequate protection.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the publishing industry is much different now than when you began? If so, how?

LEE: A lot of things are different about the business, but I’m not sure that the publishing industry has changed that much. Well, let me take that back. There are fewer publishers, with fewer imprints; fewer print magazines; the distribution system has imploded a couple of times; and the megastores want to dictate what gets published in order to maximize their profits.

OK, I guess the publishing industry has changed. Another change is the rise of smaller presses, to fill the void left by the consolidations of the bigger houses. And the willingness of practically everybody except the big houses to experiment with this internet thing for fun and potential profit.

VENTRELLA: What’s the biggest mistake you see new writers make? And what is the biggest piece of advice you would give to an unpublished author?

LEE: The biggest mistake. . .lack of research. Now, granted, the internet is full of disinformation, but it’s also full of good information. A new writer who is serious about becoming professionally published needs to find reputable sources that will teach her how to achieve her goal.

It may not be easy for a brand-new writer to figure out at first which sites are disreputable, or offering false information. Reputable sites include: The Association of Authors’ Representatives, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, specifically the author information page and Writer Beware.

The biggest piece of advice I would give an unpublished author . . . Have patience. And no, that is not easy for me to say.

VENTRELLA: Who are your favorite authors?

LEE: I think Laura Anne Gilman is perfectly charming; and I’m quite fond of Jim Morrow. Elizabeth Moon is lovely, and . . .

Oh . . . wait . . .

One of the downsides of pursuing a career as a writer is that writing cuts into your reading time. I used to have a three-book-a-week habit. I still have the habit, but I don’t have the time to indulge it.

Writers who influenced me, back when I was reading everything I could get my hands one, like a one-woman locust swarm? CJ Cherryh, Isaac Asimov, Anne McCaffrey, Poul Anderson, Georgette Heyer, Ian Fleming, Dorothy Sayers, Daphne DuMaurier, Frank Yerby, Mary Stewart, Rex Stout, Paul Gallico, Elswyth Thane, Charles Dickens, Carl Sandburg, Agatha Christie, Samuel Shellabarger, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Thorne Smith, James Thurber.

To name a few.

Nowadays, I read new books when I can, but I’m too scattershot to have a favorite author to read. In the last year, the novels I’ve read that have really stuck with me as good reads were FLESH AND FIRE by Laura Anne Gilman, SHAMBLING TOWARD HIROSHIMA by James Morrow, THIRTEENTH CHILD by Patricia C. Wrede.

VENTRELLA: Why do so many authors have cats?

LEE: Because cats keep you humble.

VENTRELLA: And finally, of all your work, what are you most proud? For what would you like to be remembered?

LEE: LOL! I’m not done yet.


Dinner with Steve, Sharon, and my wife Heidi

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

One of my blog readers (Stop laughing! Seriously, I do have some!) said that he appreciated the focus of this blog — helping aspiring writers with advice and examples — but wanted to know more basic information. For instance, he asked, how do I get ideas?

I recall reading somewhere that same question being asked of Isaac Asimov who responded with “How do you not get ideas?”

Most of the times ideas come from a “what if” scenario, especially when you’re writing speculative fiction. Everyone’s played “what if”. My writing has followed that pattern.

I read a lot of fantasy fiction. A common thread in many of these is The Special One who has some prophecy to fulfill and goes through a rigorous training in order to meet their destiny. Think of “Star Wars” for instance. With ARCH ENEMIES, I began with “What if they got the wrong guy? What if he was suddenly thrown into the adventure and didn’t have all those years of training and preparation?”writing

With THE AXES OF EVIL (the sequel, due out early 2010), I asked “What if he was faced with three prophecies which contradict each other and had to solve all three?”

Those were just the starting points, of course, because then the fun was throwing in the monkey wrenches. I love plot twists and turns and surprising my readers. Usually, that just involves looking at my outline and saying “Things are going smoothly in this part. What can I do to mess it up?”

Basically, the adventure should never be too easy and should never be predictable. I dislike books and movies where I can figure out what’s going to happen next, so I try my best to avoid cliches like the plague. (That was a joke.) My readers have told me that they really like the “Whoa! Wasn’t expecting that!” sections of my books, and the “How the heck is he going to solve this problem?” that isn’t revealed until the very last minute.

Doing that well takes preparation (which I have discussed in an earlier blog entry) because in order to work, all the clues have to be in place. Pulling something out of a hat at the last minute is a cheat and feels like one, especially if you’re writing a book with magic. I’ve seen too many movies and books where the solution is something magical: The “All you had to do was click your heels three times” ending doesn’t reward the hero in the slightest. Take Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” — the hero Prince is fighting the dragon. What an exciting battle! How does he defeat the creature? Oh, the three fairies come in and give him magic. Yawn, boring.

I like my heroes to do something special and unexpected yet completely in character. To be honest, that’s one of the hardest parts of writing, but also the most fun.

In THE AXES OF EVIL, there is a scene where a werewolf who can only be destroyed by a silver dagger through the heart must be killed. There is an elaborate plan laid out in which the the four main characters, armed with two silver daggers, attempt to accomplish this feat. But that’s too easy. Things go awry and soon Terin (the cowardly hero) gets stuck in a room full of werewolves with no weapon whatsoever. “This is great!” I thought. “This is exactly the situation I want.” Of course, it took me another month to think of a solution, but it’s much more satisfying and surprising than if there was just a great battle and the hero managed to stab his enemy.

I was recently given an assignment to write a short story “using pirates and magic.” Arrr! I love pirates! I had no idea for a story, however, so I just began thinking of typical pirate props — parrots, ships, peg legs, treasure maps and the like. Treasure maps led me to “X Marks the Spot” and being the lover of puns I am (oh, you can’t tell that from the two previous book titles?) this quickly became “X Spots the Mark.” What if the treasure map was a fake and the pirate was merely a “mark” for the scam? That began the adventure, but it didn’t lend itself to much of a story — until I brought out my monkey wrench.

Once THE AXES OF EVIL is finished with its editing (that will be the subject of another blog, I promise), I’ll begin work on BLOODSUCKERS: A VAMPIRE RUNS FOR PRESIDENT. The idea for that began when I heard someone refer to Congress as a bunch of bloodsuckers and I thought “Hey! What if….”

Bottom line: My technique is to start with the “What if”, come up with a basic story, and then throw as many unpredictable barriers in the way of my heroes as possible. This does not work for all types of fiction or all types of writers, but seems to keep me happy with my storylines.

Next week: back to interviews!

Ideas aren’t everything

More than once, I have been approached by someone saying, “Oh, you’re a writer? Listen, I’ve got a great idea for a book. Tell you what, I’ll give you the ideas and you’ll write it and we can share authorship.”

Are these people coming to me because I am not a successful full-time author (yet)? Would they approach a famous writer with the same request?

I’ve actually had one person get upset at me when I refused, as if I had turned down free money. “Don’t you understand? I’m going to do all the hard work; all you have to do is write it down.”the-writer2

Obviously, these people have no idea what it means to write. Everyone has ideas; I have more book ideas than the time I have to write them in. And I expect everyone reading this has ideas as well.

Expressing those ideas? Not everyone can do that.

As a lawyer, I see the same thing in court. Some attorneys are much smarter than I am yet don’t go to court very often and don’t know how to present their arguments. Having control over your words is not an easy skill to acquire.

God knows, I am still trying to acquire it in my writing. Some reviews for ARCH ENEMIES spoke of the great plot twists and character development while at the same time noting that the writing was still rather pedestrian.

Hey, give me a break; it was the first novel I ever wrote. I’m just thrilled it was at least good enough to get published.

But it’s true. The sequel (THE AXES OF EVIL, expected to be published late this year or early the next) is a big improvement over the first. I’m learning each day that little tweaks here and there can make huge differences in the story.

A few months ago, I attended a writer’s workshop that pushed this further, and in the last week J. Thomas Ross, a professional editor, while once more admiring my story and characters, reduced the first two chapters of THE AXES OF EVIL to bits, making points about my writing style that seem so obvious that I slap myself and say “Why didn’t I see that?”

It’s kind of like when I learned to play guitar. I was justly proud of myself, and the bands I played in as a teenager were not bad, but in retrospect amateurish. It took years of practice and playing until I felt really confident. Writing is the same.

This blog is meant to help those writers who, like myself, are just starting out and making mistakes along the way. I learned early on that coming up with a good story is not enough. I am still working on the second part: the writing. And I probably will always be working on that part.

When I think about this topic, I am often reminded of my favorite author, Charles Dickens. I read PICKWICK PAPERS years ago, and had an epiphany at one point. Dickens was describing Pickwick’s meal and dinner conversation, and at the end of the chapter, it hit me that nothing had happened. Nothing in that chapter pushed the plot forward or developed the characters in new ways, but I couldn’t put it down. Dickens, being such a master writer, had kept me enthralled writing about nothing. Ideas aren’t everything.

Very few authors can accomplish that, but the very best can come close. And that’s the lesson for today: The best ideas in the world are meaningless if you cannot express them in a way that makes people want to read them. And that’s a skill that you have to learn.

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