Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A fantasy favorite in three parts.

Not too long ago, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Janet Morris. To those not familiar, her main character  Tempus Thales and his Sacred Band,are regular patrons of The Vulgar Unicorn and can be found in the fantasy realm known as Sanctuary. I was an avid reader of fantasy when I was in my late teens and early twenties and would pluck the newest Thieves' World book from the shelf as soon as it arrived at my local book store. To "meet" one of the people responsible for bringing me such great happiness is a thrill. To be allowed to interview that person is just beyond believable. I had to pinch myself a dozen times just getting this post ready. When you are as prolific as Janet Morris and have been around for a bit, you have a few words to say, that is why I am breaking this interview up into three parts. I want you to be able to enjoy the interview, but let's face it, time is a premium and you might skip ahead and miss something if I were to post the entire 8,000 words worth of responses in one post. So, let me introduce one of MY favorites and a person who still makes me feel a bit starstruck despite how friendly, polite, and accessible she has been since our first exchange...Janet Morris.

You have been at this for a while; what are some of the best and worst things about being an author?

Having written by myself, with Chris Morris, and with several others in collaboration, I can say that, not only for me but for most writers who are talented, the answer is the same:  writers write to experience the wonder of the creative process.  The best thing about being a fiction author is the act of creation of the work itself, the transportation into other minds and realms.  Writing fiction for me is writing a door and walking through it, into another place and time and mind; having an adventure in all its scope and beauty and excitement; seeing the world as my characters see it; making discoveries about the human condition and sharing them.  When I write fiction, it seems to me that I cease to exist; the process feels effortless; nothing troubles or concerns me, beyond the story.  For the time I am drafting, I can see three-hundred and sixty degrees around me.  I love being the first to have an adventure, to flesh it out, to explore a concept and a world view.  I love taking concepts out of one context and working with them in another; whether they are philosophical, historical, or scientific concepts, the joy of fusing story and message remains constant.  I love choosing words:  the right word is a gem in the right place.  I most love allowing the invasion of my self by the minds of these characters, who share my mind for the time their book is being drafted.  Metaphysical experiences abound for me in the writing process.  I love seeing the human condition from other perspectives.  Since my characters, once developed, tend to be self-directing, as the story-line and the drafting begins, I love letting go of all but story and translating vision to prose.

The worst thing about being a fiction author begins the moment self-consciousness intrudes, whether in the editing process, or after the book is done.  I hate copyediting and rewriting and proofreading, but do them with maniacal focus:  this part of writing is tiresome and at times dangerous to the integrity of the original thought, since most worthy stories should keep their original pacing and not be subjected to too much revision.

Then there is the experience of learning what effect the work has on others.  One hopes to have a positive effect.  Any writer, secretly or by obvious design, wants to change the world, expose evil and grapple with it, create a framework for diverging views.  Sometimes this results in a good reaction from readers, sometimes bad.  Sometimes people are too hidebound to be comfortable with the writing that Chris and I do.  Reader/reviewer reaction can be unpredictable, especially in nonfiction or science-related fiction or fantasy, where controversial themes and political issues may come into play.

 What are some of the lessons you have learned as a writer that caught you off guard?

I learned that all readers are not equally endowed.  My work is challenging and meant to be so (that’s half the fun – saying what needs to be said without concern for conventions), but one hopes that the reader, with the help of the characters, can leave their prejudices behind and look at life through the characters’ temperaments.  Some readers simply cannot or will not.  An example?  In The Sacred Band, we use the word “man” often where modern speakers might substitute “humanity” or “humankind” or “people.”  This is purposive:  in the culture we’re writing about, women and men are not equal but for specific exceptions; this is correct for the 4th century BCE or before.  Some readers choose only work that supports their political prejudices, and would prefer all characters to be modern characters with funny clothes who share their current political views:  that’s not what we do.  It’s not what members of a healthy society should do; a healthy society requires an understanding of its history and constant self-examination and self-improvement, not endless endorsement of its prejudices.

Reviewers and readers who are not open minded always surprise me.  Readers have different levels of skill, and although no one can write a book that satisfies everyone, if a story is worth telling it is worth telling well, as simply and clearly as possible while not sacrificing story values.  That said, some readers are more experienced (that is, literate) and better prepared than others; no book provides the same reading experience for any two readers.  I write at the level my story needs, in the voices that the characters and stories require.  I don’t dumb down and I don’t pull punches, because what I get when I draft is what “happened.”  A really good story is a metaphysical entity, not simply words following one another across a page; a great story evokes entities that “live” in the writers and readers minds.  Think we’re wrong?  Think of the effects that religious stories have had across epochs and how many have died for and from the literal application of the metaphorical teachings they enshrine.  For a reader who doesn’t want to go somewhere unfamiliar and be immersed in different minds and different ethos and thought-processes, but prefers to have their pre-existing assumptions validated, my books are not always suitable.  Although I have learned this, now know this and expect it, I wish it weren’t so.

What can you share about your writing process with new or up and coming writers?

My process is deep immersion:  Before I start to write, and throughout the writing process, I spend a great deal of time learning ninety percent more about the characters, story, and context than I will actually transmit to the reader.  Thus for me the process of developing character, pacing, and story are fused.  This is so partly because my characters don’t tromp into a room and spit out plot; rather, they react as living people might, each one uniquely:  sometimes they err, sometimes they succeed, but they have divergent perspective on events and their conflicting world-views drive the stories.  I take notes, often phrases meaningless to others, which key a context or a large amount of detail or an image or vision.  I alternate among reading nonfiction about some aspect of the story; or developing a general world or context where characters will act and interact; or finding emotional drivers unique to each character.  I try to master the subject area and the history of each character so that the characters speak with authority and, when they speak, they have something memorable and useful to say.  Often I ride in the car or lie on the bed with paper and pen and take notes when the characters start to coalesce.  A character such as Tempus, who arrives in one’s mind fully formed and says and does things that are surprising, comes straight from the Muses.  With those characters, I simply trust the story’s sense of itself and write down what comes.

When I work with emerging writers, I tell them to start at the beginning, go to the end, and stop.  I tell them to establish challenge, drama, character, voice and setting from the very first lines – not to write until they’ve found those things.  I tell them not to write as they are learning the world and characters, while nothing happens:  that’s work the writer should do but not what the reader needs to read.  I tell them to make me care about what happens as immediately as possible.  I tell them that every time they begin a new paragraph they should ask themselves “And then what happens?”  Often the milieu is a character, and the writer must always develop that milieu in the reader’s inner sight, and in their own, with unique imagery seen through the eye of the narrator, whether writing in omniscient or in tight perspective.

If the core of the story is “live” for me (meaning that it will provide characters, emotion, drama and a plotline), I can see with my inner sight that something is moving, even if blurrily, in that mental space where I develop story.  I only work with ideas that give me this sense of movement, snippets of scenes, phrases or bits of dialogue when I first get the idea.  I never “construct” a story by detailed outline beforehand; rather I decide where the story will take me and some general dramatic tensions, then let myself and the characters have the fun of figuring out how we get there.  Therefore, I tell writers not to over-think the outlining process so that the writer knows too much more than the characters about how the story will unfold and risk the story becoming mechanical or stale.  The writer must allow unforeseen events and plot twists to occur, and generally help the story grow as an organic work; this means that the writer develops plot and drama throughout the writing process as the characters bring the story to life.  I also tell writers who are obsessed with science or world-building or hardware issues that these do not make a story:  only the characters and what befalls them make a good story.  Since the human mind naturally organizes facts into story form, all people know a good story when they hear one.  There are only seven plots, so it is said, but there are manifold stories told and yet to be told.

I tell writers to beware creating cardboard characters whom they can push through a predetermined obstacle course.  When I see pieces written this way, usually they are pieces that were accepted based on an outline, and are filled with incondite prose and careless, uninspired description.  There is no unimportant word in a story:  word choice and sentence structure convey emotion and uniqueness of viewpoint, which in turn are inextricably linked to a gripping story.

You have a very character-rich world, how do you keep tabs on them all?

They do it, or there’s no story – or there’s a story but the uncooperative character isn’t part of it.  My characters are such that, in most cases, what one character would say or do in response to stimuli is completely different than what any other character would say or do.  Although I may vacillate when initially deciding which character should take the viewpoint in any section of a work where a group of characters are present, all my characters “know” who they are and what they’ve been doing while the story focus was elsewhere.  Once in a while, a character will refuse to do what I want and I must learn why, or substitute a different character, or I’ll need to make a deal with a character, such as:  “Stay in the background in this piece and I’ll let you be a major player in another piece.”  This usually occurs only when I have a potentially “big” character in a small role.  I did that with Cassander in The Sacred Band and subsequently gave him a major role in the Fish the Fighters and the Song-girl.  Sometimes characters will warn me if I am in danger of getting off track or of crowding their growth.  In the first Tempus story, “Vashanka’s Minion,” I wanted Askelon to be the mage who arrives in Sanctuary by boat.  Tempus rode down to the dock in that first draft, took a look at Askelon, recognized him (Askelon had been a major character in another tale, “An End to Dreaming”) and said, “Get out of my story; it’s not big enough for both of us.”  I ripped out the scene, substituted Alain Aspect, and made a deal with Askelon to come to Sanctuary in the next story.  From that subsequent entry of Askelon in “Wizard Weather,” things went very well, over many stories.  As I said, when this happens, it’s when one or several “big” characters are being written into a piece for the first time.  Once I’ve worked with a character awhile, I know what sort of space the character needs to develop.  For instance, I inherited Gyskouras and Arton from Lynn Abbey, who simply wanted a pair of “place-holder babies, not characters.”  The two infants grew up in the background of my various stories, becoming substantial characters for me, and then warranted more substantial roles, which they now have in The Sacred Band and after.

Tomorrow will be a feature on the vast library from Janet. I suggest you clear some space on your bookshelf.

Can't wait? Here are some links now:
































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