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How I Spent My Summer Vacation

And every other free minute
for five straight years

After any number of requests to put all our short stories together in one place, the idea began to take on some merit.

When Larry and I looked into the idea we discovered that we had a lot of other short fiction; about ten years' worth.

Ten years? Unbelievable as it seemed at the time, I found the very first story I ever had published (I had sold one story before that, but it wasn't published until the following month). Fantasy Book magazine, September 1985. The story was "Turnabout" which was a Tarma and Kethry story, which is going into another collection. For the record, the first story I ever sold was for Marion Zimmer Bradley's Free Amazons of Darkover "Friends of Darkover" anthology, which was published in December of that year. The story was "A Different Kind of Courage."

Some of these stories are a little grey around the edges, but I include them as a kind of object lesson in writing. Some of the things in them I winced at when I read again—I had no idea of how to write a well-viewpointed story, for instance, and someone should have locked my thesaurus away and not given it back to me for a while! And insofar as the march of technology goes—the earliest were written on my very first computer, which had no hard-drive, a whopping four kilobytes—(that's kilobytes, not megabytes)—of RAM, and had two single sided single density disk drives. I wrote five whole books and many short stories on that machine, which did not have a spell-check function, either. On the other hand, if ewe sea watt effect modern spell-checkers halve on righting, perhaps it that was knot a bad thing. It's just as well; if it had, it would have taken half a day to spell-check twenty pages. So for those of you who are wailing that you can't possibly try to write because you only have an ancient 286 with a 40-meg hard-drive . . . forgive me if I raise a sardonic eyebrow. Feh, I say! Feh!

I held down a job as a computer programmer for American Airlines during seven of those ten years, and every minute that I wasn't working, I was writing. I gave up hobbies, I stopped going to movies, I didn't watch television; I wrote. Not less than five hours every day, all day on Saturday and Sunday. I wanted to be able to write for a living, and the only way to get better at writing is to do it. I managed to slow down a bit after being able to quit that job, but I still generally write every day, not less than ten pages a day. And that is the answer to the often-asked question, "How do you become a writer?" You write. You write a great deal. You give up everything else so that you can concentrate on writing.

There are many fine books out there (the title usually begins with "How to Write . . .") to teach you the mechanics of writing. Ray Bradbury has also written an excellent book on the subject. You only learn the soul of writing with practice. Practice will make you better—or it will convince you that maybe what you really want to do is go into furniture restoration and get your own television show on The Learning Channel.

Here are the answers to a few more frequently asked questions:

 

How do you develop an idea? 

Mostly what we do is to look at what we have done in the past and try to do something different. As for finding ideas, I can only say that finding them is easy; they come all the time. Deciding which ones are worth developing is the difficult part. To find an idea, you simply never accept that there are absolute answers for anything, and as Theodore Sturgeon said, "You ask the next question" continuously. For example: one story evolved from seeing a piece of paper blowing across the highway in an uncannily lifelike manner, and asking myself, "What if that was a real, living creature disguised as a piece of paper?" The next questions were, "Why would it be in disguise?" and "What would it be?" and "What would happen if someone found out what it really was ?"

 

Do you ever get "writer's block" and what do you do about it? 

When I get stalled on something, I do one of two things. I either work on another project (I always have one book in the outline stage and two in the writing stage, and I will also work on short stories at the same time) or I discuss the situation with Larry. Working with another person—sometimes even simply verbalizing a snag—always gets the book unstuck. There is a perfectly good reason for this: when you speak about something you actually move it from one side of the brain to the other, and often that alone shakes creativity loose.

 

How do you do revisions? 

I may revise the ending of the book between outlining and actual writing, but that is only because a more logical and satisfying conclusion presents itself. I am really not thinking of anything other than that. The only other revisions are at the request of the publisher, and may vary from none to clarifying minor points or further elaborating a minor point. In the case of clarification, this amounts to less than 1,000 words in a book of 120,000 or more. In the case of elaboration this usually amounts to the addition of 5,000 words to 10,000 words, generally less.

 

Would you call your books "character driven?" 

I think that is quite correct, my books are character-driven. To me. How people react to a given situation is what makes a story interesting. History is nothing more than a series of people's reactions, after all, and many "alternate history" stories have been written about "what would have happened if." The idea—the situation—is only half the story. What the characters do about it is the other.

 

Do you base your characters on people you know? 

With very rare exceptions I don't base my characters on anyone I know—those exceptions are minor ones, where I'll ask permission to write a friend into a walk-on role. They do come out of my observation of people in general.

 

When did you know you wanted to write? 

I knew I wanted to tell stories from a very early age—in fact, I told them to the kids I babysat for, then wrote them in letters to friends and pen-pals. It was only when I "graduated" from amateur fiction to being paid for what I wrote that I realized I did have a talent for writing—and I had the will to pursue it. That was some thirty years later.

 

Where do you start? 

Plotting is usually done with Larry, and one of the first things we do is determine what the characters will be like, then what the major conflict of the book will be. Then we figure out the minor conflicts, the ways that those characters will deal with those conflicts, and ways we can make their lives even more complicated. The resolution generally comes at that point, but not always; sometimes it doesn't come to us until we are actually writing the book, and we change the way it ended in the outline.

 

When did you start reading science fiction? 

I started reading sf/f when I was about eight or nine. As I recall, it was the "Space Cat" books, followed by something called The City Under the Back Steps, a kind of ant-version of "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids," followed immediately by a leap into Andre Norton, Heinlein, and my father's adult sf. Daybreak 2250 AD by Norton was one of the first things I read, James Schmidt's Agent of Vega was another. Mostly I read Norton, all the Norton I could get my hands on, saving my allowance to order them directly from Ace. Little did I guess I would one day be working for Andre's editor (Donald A. Wollheim)!

 

Who were your influences? 

In order of influence: Andre Norton, J.R.R.
Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Thomas Burnett Swann, Anne McCaffrey, C.J. Cherryh, Marion Zimmer Bradley. As for editors, I learn something from every editor I have. My three main editors, Elizabeth Wollheim, Melissa Singer, and Jim Baen, have been incredibly helpful.

What do you choose to write? 

I write what I would like to read, with a caveat—after thirteen years in the marketplace, I am beginning to get a feeling for things that will sell, so obviously I do tailor what I would like to write to the marketplace. I never wrote intentionally for any particular audience, but I seem to have hit on a number of things that are archetypal in nature, which may account for the appeal. The other possibility is that I tend to write about people who are misunderstood, outsiders . . . people who read tend to think of themselves that way, particularly sf/f readers, so they can identify with the characters.

 

Do you answer fan-mail? 

When possible, we do. We always read it. When mail comes without a self-addressed stamped envelope for a reply, we assume the writer doesn't want a reply; it is only courteous not to waste the time of someone you supposedly like by including a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you want an answer. We don't answer abusive mail, but it does get filed in a special file for future reference. We return manuscripts unread; after some trouble Marion Zimmer Bradley had with a fan-writer, our agent has advised both of us that we can't read unsolicited manuscripts anymore. This is an awful pity, but life is complicated enough without going out and finding ways to add trouble!

 

How do you work with a collaborator? 

Working with collaborators depends on the collaborator. If possible, we work on the outline together until we're both happy with it, then one of us starts, passes it off to the other when s/he gets stuck, and gets it passed back under the same circumstances. It goes incredibly fast that way, and it is the way Larry and I always work, even though he is not always on the cover as a co-writer.

 

Have you ever encountered any censorship? 

I haven't encountered any censorship at the publisher/editor level on any of my books. I have heard rumors of fundamentalist groups causing problems with the Herald Mage series because of the gay characters, but I have never had any of those rumors substantiated. There are always going to be people who have trouble with characters who don't fit their narrow ideas of what is appropriate: I have perfectly good advice for them. Don't read the books. Nobody is forcing you to march into the bookstore and buy it. Actually, I have been considering borrowing the disclaimer from the game Stalking the Night Fantastic by Richard Tucholka—"If anything in this book offends you, please feel free to buy and burn as many copies as you like. Volume discounts are available."

 

What's Larry like? 

I'll let him answer for himself!

 

Misty and I met on a television interview just before a convention in Mississippi; we were both Guests of Honor there. By the end of that weekend, we had plotted our first book together (Ties Never Binding, which later became Winds of Fate), and have been together ever since.

I am an alumnus of the North Carolina School of the Arts, and while there I made some fairly respectable inroads into the world of Fine Arts. However, my basic trouble with galleries was that regardless of the content of my work, it would only reach that segment of the population that went to galleries. I was "preaching to the converted." Couple that distressing truth with an irrepressible irreverence, and my days of wearing black and being morose for my art were limited. I needed giggles, I needed money, and I needed to accomplish something. I had been an sf and fantasy fan for years. When I saw the other people who were also fans, I knew that here was a place to be welcomed, serve an audience, and make a difference through entertainment. Ever since, it has been a matter of matching the message to the medium. Some lend themselves well to text, others to paintings, others to satire or dialogues.

I have been introduced to folks as "The other half of Mercedes Lackey," and there's a bit to that. I've been working with Misty on prose since and including Magic's Price, which I co-plotted and alpha-edited. Incidentally, it was accepted by DAW exactly as it is printed; there were no revisions or mispe . . . misspel.., uhm.., words spelled wrong. Since then I've worked on them all, with heavier co-writing on the subsequent trilogies. I'm not about to steal any of Misty's thunder, though—she is a mighty fine writer without me! Our styles, skills, and areas of knowledge happen to complement each others'. I also get a kick out of hearing old-fogy writers grousing about female fantasy writers, when I've been one for years now. The Black Gryphon was about my fourth or fifth co-written book (silently, with Misty), but was one of the first with a cover credit. Go figure. My future is inextricably linked to Misty, and I would want it no other way. High Flight Arts and Letters is flying strongly, and the best is yet to come.

 

You may have noticed that there is not a lot of really personal information in all of this, and that's on purpose.

Larry and I tend to be very private, and frankly, we find all the self-aggrandizing, highly personal "I love this" and "I hate that" in some Author's Notes kind of distasteful. We've included some historical notes on the various stories, and while I will be the last person to claim I'm not opinionated (see the note to "Last Rights" for instance) just because I think something, that doesn't mean you should. Go out, read and experience everything you can, and form your own opinions; don't get life second-hand from a curmudgeon like me!

 

 

 

 

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