On Being a Writer

There are three questions I continually find myself asked anymore.

1) What made you decide to be a writer?

2) Just how often do you write? (alternately, how do you find the time...)

3) Where do you get your ideas?

On the first, I must honestly admit that I've never been anything else.  Even in the days when I wanted to be a ballerina horse rancher scientist spy, I was putting pen to paper and recording my personal fantasies.  Shamefully, I must admit that my early efforts were aimed at television (yes, I was, *gasp* a media child).  I used to write scripts for my favorite childhood shows (Supercar, Fireball XL5) and inserted myself as a character under other names.  One of my most prized possessions is a rejection letter from Sheldon Leonard that I got when I was fifteen.  He was very encouraging.

I went from writing television scripts to writing mystery novels (all while working on a horror/fantasy decatology on the side).  Alas, my only success in the mystery field was a poem that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1978.

My first nonfiction sale was a true story based on a psychic experience my mother had which I sold at the tender age of eighteen to Fate Magazine.  Meanwhile, drawing on my experiences as a stable bum, I wrote articles that actually got published in magazines like Horse and Horseman and American Horseman.

By the early 80's, I had abandoned the mystery field (in spite of writing a couple of dozen novels and a handful of short stories) and turned to fantasy (blame it on Fafherd and Grey Mouser, if you must).  In the meantime, I became a book reviewer for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, and it was while writing book reviews and the occasional "author interview" piece that I came to realize what I had been doing wrong with my short fiction.  The revelation stunned me, but it got me to thinking about using the techniques that I had learned writing for the newspaper (write tight, write clean) and to use what I learned from reviewing books of short stories.  Most notable among these was Willis Johnson's The Girl Who Would Be Russian," a great collection of character stories.

The results of this were that I made my first sale.  "Sword Singer" appeared in Sword and Sorceress V edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1988).  Fun stuff, except that the only creature in the house to hear the news that day was my dog Rowdy.  While I danced around for sheer joy, she sat wagging her tail and looking at me with that "You going to feed me, right," gleam in her little eyes.  And it was nearly two years after that before I had a story in Appalachian Heritage ("The Story") and three before Marion bought "Harper's Moon" for Marion Zimmer Bradley's FANTASY Magazine.  It's been a slowly growing snowball from there.

On the matter of the second question, how much I write depends on how busy I am.  I can write a chapter or a short story a day if I'm not disturbed.  I can usually produce  full length book in a couple of months or less if I have no distractions.  But of course I work full time, and people who know this seem more interested in figuring out "when " I write instead.  The answer is simple.  All the time.  That's right.  I steal time when I go on breaks at work.  I head home, making notes in the car while trying not to have a wreck (yes, I have a tape recorder, but I hate trying to type out my own dictation).  Once I get home, I hit the e-mail, looking eagerly for those editors who sometimes write me to say, "I want your story...", check out my favorite newsgroups, then go off-line and write.  Sometimes, I make notes when I first get up in the morning, and weekends are the time when my derriere gets numb because I spend a lot of time in my desk chair writing.  I carry a palmtop (a Velo 500, if you must know, and she's a cute little thing) a note pad (more than one, actually) and about a pound of pens wherever I go.

Yes, I have the occasional dry spell.  After I finish writing a novel, I become a zombie (the wine glass of my mind has been drained, and now it must be filled again), and that is when I catch up on books and the boob tube.  And yes, I still have something of a social life.

Ideas.  I get those from reading.  I am a voracious researcher, and find that ideas are everywhere.  I also ascribe to Orson Scott Card's philosophy that one idea does not a story make.  That one must mix and match and meld a series of idea in order to get a story out of them.  Sometimes, I play word games with myself that end up producing a tale ("Wormwood" in S&S 12 came about this way after I heard that line in Hamlet) while other stories are born from my knowledge of old folklore and fairy tales and ghost stories (mostly Scottish in nature).  I get a little miffed when a beginner tells me they can't find an idea, because all they have to so is look, something I refer to as "seeing the invisible."  All you have to do is play "what if, and use your own imagination...

Grammar, style and all that other stuff.  Those are the things you must learn.  And the only way you can learn them is to read.  Not just the good.  Read the bad.  Read cereal boxes.  Read labels on cans.  You must know the rules before you can break them.

And don't even ask me if I consider myself a real writer when I work full time.  I do, and I'll burn the ears of anyone who says otherwise!

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