The Basic Interview

(The Basic Interview—with thanks to Mike Stackpole for the great idea.)

I used to teach school, and I realize that the Internet has become a fabulous resource, where students can contact and interview many people who were previously unreachable. I’ve been asked for many student interviews, and I’ve been happy to help out, but certain questions come up almost every time. Here they are, with answers. Students, you are welcome to use this information in your reports. If you have questions that aren’t covered here, jump to the FAQ page.

Who are the writers who most influenced you?
J.R.R. Tolkien shaped my love for hero tales. Dorothy L. Sayers gave me a sense of style. C.S. Lewis could take any theological concept and weave a story around it. Diann Thornley gets her medical and military details right. Zenna Henderson has unique characters with believable motives. Linda Peavy, Ursula Smith, Gwen Petersen, and Jo Sykes—published members of my first writers group— taught me concepts such as show-don’t-tell, active verbs, and specific description.

Which is your favorite of your own books?
There are elements in all of them that were very satisfying to write, but if you must have an answer, I’ll say CROWN OF FIRE. I wanted to write that novel for a long time, and everything—the plots, subplots, characters, motives—seemed to fall together in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I wrote for fun in second and third grade, then again in junior high and high school. I never dreamed that I could do it professionally.

What should I study to become a writer?

People. Why they do what they do, how they do it, how they speak, their body language. After that—study just about anything. Everything you learn will make you a better writer (I do not regret getting that microbiology degree. I drew heavily on it when I wrote SHIVERING WORLD). Read widely—you should be writing the kind of literature that you love to read. Read the best—and if you spent good money on a book, but you discover when you’re five or fifty pages into it that it isn’t as good as it looked in the bookstore, throw it away! You’ve already wasted the money; why waste your precious time? Everything you read, observe, hear, and do—it all will become part of you, and your writing.

How much money do you make?

This is not a career for people who want a comfortable income. I’ve heard that for every hundred people who start writing a book, one will finish it … that for every thousand people who finish writing a book, one will sell it. And for every ten people who publish one book, only one will ever publish anything again. I don’t know if any of those statistics are accurate, but they do show how unstable fiction-writing is. The most valuable asset a writer can have is a working spouse. Another valuable asset is a “day job,” something to pay the bills until you’ve sold your third novel and it’s starting to look like you have a career.

But your teacher insists on getting a number, right? Okay. It’s not unusual for a science fiction writer to work for a year on a book and be paid about $5000, if the book is professionally published at all. Writers are paid what’s called a royalty, which is a certain small percentage of the cover price. It’s generally 1-10%, and it will be negotiated as part of your contract. The percentage generally increases (slowly) as you publish more books, if they are successful.

What advice do you have for a beginning writer?

Read the very best that’s written in your chosen genre (genres are types of fiction, including science fiction, westerns, and romance novels). Also read good books on writing, and attend a writers’ conference as often as it’s practical.

Be willing to edit what you’ve written. In fact, be relentless about editing what you’ve written. Until you are willing to change your first draft (often many times), you will never be a professional writer.

Don’t make writing your top priority. This advice runs counter to what most people will tell you—you’ll read in many places that you MUST write EVERY day—but I’m saying that there are more important things in life. Your relationship with God comes first. The time you must spend with your family, and your attention to their needs, is also more important than any job or hobby you take up.

Where do you get your ideas?
Everywhere! The story lines of popular songs suggest characters and plots. I’ve sneaked people I’ve known (good and bad) into novels. News stories, scientific articles, and yes, other novels I’ve read, have all suggested story ideas.

How long does it take you to write a novel?
I’m fairly slow. I like to have just about a year to finish writing a book.

How did you get to write a Star Wars novel?
I was invited by the publishers, first by Bantam Spectra and then by Del Rey. Here’s the way the Star Wars novels come to be: First, a publisher buys a license from Lucasfilm to produce a certain number of books. Then the publisher hires writers to create the books. The publisher AND Lucasfilm must approve the story idea, the outline, and the drafts of these books, and they will ask for changes. The Star Wars characters, worlds, ships, costumes, weapons, and other props are copyrighted ideas, and the copyright belongs to the original creator—George Lucas.

My teacher asked us to send stories we’ve written to authors to get their opinions on them. Would you read my story?
I’m sorry, but I can’t. That would take more of my time than you might expect, and I need that time to work on my next project. There’s also the sad fact that authors have been taken to court for “stealing” other people’s ideas. Since I really do get ideas from everywhere, I have to avoid reading unpublished work. Please explain that to your teacher, and tell him/her that I was a teacher too—and I understand that asking for a pro’s advice sounds like a great idea, but in this case, it doesn’t work.

What do you like most about your job?

There are little things that I like—such as working in my home, in my PJs if I want. There are also much more important things, such as the pleasure of getting to know people who have read and enjoyed my work, especially when they tell me that something I wrote has made a difference in their spiritual life. I also like setting my own goals, and I love the satisfaction of holding a book in my hands, a book I remember as the vaguest kind of idea.

What do you like least about your job?
Starting a new book project is difficult and daunting. It’s also a very uncertain profession. You can’t count on a publisher (or the fans) wanting your next book. The job doesn’t come with certain benefits, such as insurance and a retirement program, that a lot of people get at work.

What are your strengths as a writer?

I’m told that I write characters and dialog well. Because I think that characters are the most important elements of fiction, I take that as a high compliment.

What are your weaknesses as a writer?
I’m fairly slow. I also refuse to include certain ideas, events, and words in my books for the sake of “realism” or “marketability.” Whether that’s a weakness or a strength will depend greatly on your point of view.

Would you come and give a talk at my school?

That is a great honor, but I nearly always decline the invitation. Traveling takes time and money, and I need all of those I can get!