Author Q&A: Orson Scott Card

Trends in writing come and go. What, in your opinion, should writers keep in mind regarding literary trends?

If you’ve been making a living by following “literary trends,” then by all means keep doing whatever has been working for you. However, when the trend is over, so are the stories and books you wrote to satisfy them.

The good and great writers, the ones whose works still have value even when the copyright date is from an earlier decade (or century), are the ones who wrote what they believed in and cared about, with little regard for trends.

Yes, this custom of ending sentences with periods — that’s a trend that seems to have staying power, you can follow that one. On trivial matters, play whatever games you want.

But if someone has told you that a certain kind of book always has to have a certain kind of scene in it, you don’t have to pay the slightest attention to their advice. Such counsel is only useful for desperate writers who do not trust their talent. And sometimes such desperation is justified — the writer doesn’t have the skill yet, or isn’t picking the stories they’re actually good at.

(And speaking of trends, let no one complain about my using plural “they’re” with the singular “writer” as the antecedent — not if you use “you” to address a single individual. “You” is also a grammatical plural frequently used for the singular.)

You only write at your best, and you only invent your best stories, when you believe in and care about the people, relationships, motives, and events in the story. Anything you plug in to satisfy a trend or to follow someone else’s idea of what you have to have merely guarantees that your work will be that much less honest and that much less heartfelt.

It’s like sending your child off to school with another kid beside him as his designated test-taker. “It’s not that I don’t believe in you, darling,” you tell your baffled child. “But I hear that this lad is very, very good at test-taking, and we want your education to be the very best it can be!”

Your writing instruction books like Characters & Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy are perennial favorites for writers. What do you think makes writers go back to these books again and again?

On dark lonely nights of brooding, I imagine they keep rereading them in hopes that this time they’ll find something useful and true.

But on my better days, I think that these books remain in print, the reason that many writers keep well-thumbed copies close by, is that I give serious practical advice. No literary theories, no fancy art. I start from the premise that a story or novel is not a work of art, it’s the script of a work of art, the blueprint, if you will, which the reader will use to construct the real work of art in their own memory.

When you look at it that way, there’s nothing precious about the text. It’s just like the attitude of play producers during out-of-town tryouts. If a scene or a line isn’t working, you toss it out or move it around.

My attitude is that the text is a tool, which we put in the hands of amateurs to perform every role and build every piece of scenery and provide every stage prop. We need to help them all we can, with such clear explanations of what is happening and why it is happening that they cannot misunderstand. Then I provide a bookful of tools that writers can use to help them make their own tools.

But I give no rules. Or rather, when I do, I make it plain that every rule is breakable. So I don’t just say, “Do this or else,” I say, “Here’s what this particular technique is good for, and here’s what you lose out on if you use it —the cost of the technique. If it’s worth the cost, then use it and then compensate for the cost in other ways. But if it’s not worth it, then don’t use it … even if it’s a technique all your friends admire.”

That’s why I urge so strongly against weird arty choices like first-person present-tense narratives. They’re devilishly hard to manage, and they establish and maintain a level of artificiality that is constantly at war with the need for the reader to concentrate on what’s happening rather than how it’s being written.

But that didn’t stop me from choosing Maureen Power’s “Miracle on Massachusetts Avenue” as a publisher’s-choice entry in the December 2010 of my online fiction magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show (www.oscIGMS.com) — even though it’s written in present-tense first-person! She paid the price, and the story worked. She didn’t break any rules at all — she had a good reason for using the difficult technique, and she handled it splendidly. But I still advise against it, most of the time.

I hope that my giving the explanation for every rule is the reason why, instead of feeling fenced in by my dicta, the writers who use my books feel empowered to find their own way into each story they attempt. I don’t put “do not enter” or “geniuses only” signs on any door. I give the readers a flashlight and warn them it’s really dark in there … but then I unlock the door.

What piece of advice received over the course of your career made the biggest impact on your success and why?

I’ve cribbed ideas from everything. My best training, though, was as a playwright, because getting people together to read your play out loud is virtually free (unless you’re one of those obnoxious-drunk writers who drive away all their friends). When people read your dialogue aloud, when they struggle through a scene, all the problems suddenly become obvious. In learning how to actor-proof my dialogue and construct effective scenes with proportionate emotions, I learned more about writing than any writing course (including my own!) can ever teach.

I know, you think I’m dodging the question — but I’m not. Because there really is one single piece of advice, which I received on a certain day from a certain writer, which absolutely changed my attitude toward writing and improved every single thing I’ve written since then.

It was in Dean R. Koontz’s first writing book, Writing Popular Fiction, which my friends and I read just at the point when I was starting to sell a story here and there. I can’t quote the book because it wasn’t my copy, but he said, in my words now, this:

There is no “rough draft” and therefore there’s no “second draft.” Knowing you’re going to write a second draft makes you lazy and it makes you lose countless opportunities to improve your story because you skip over the problems, telling yourself you’ll “add that in the rewrite.” Write your first draft as if it were the only draft you’ll ever write, and then leave it alone except to fix typos.

Since then I’ve observed that my best work, my best scenes and events and motives and relationships, almost always come out of the hard scenes, the ones that all writers, myself included, want to skip over — because we’re lazy and scared, a deadly combination.

I’ve also seen, in the work of many friends, clear evidence that rewriting kills. Only the first draft is fresh from your heart and mind. Everything you do to the text thereafter removes if from that gushing fountain of first life and kills it, bit by bit. Think of it as a flow of lava pouring out of an erupting volcano. It’s so hot it can burn you from twenty feet away, but when it cools into final form it reveals its natural shape. You can take the hardened lava and chip at it with tools and make something else of it — but the shape of the living, flowing rock is gone, and it’s cold as … well, as stone.

Literature classes teach “great books” as if they were carved in stone. Well, they may be stone now, but what flowed out of Jane Austen and Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy and William Shakespeare was hot lava to start with.

It was that advice from Dean Koontz, given through his words on a page, that gave me permission to write in my own natural first-draft voice, which is one of the strengths of my own writing — and of everyone else’s who writes this way. Koontz and I have never actually met, though we have mutual friends, and he’s never put a blurb on a book of mine, but he has affected my career more than any other advice-giver.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

What are you doing here listening to me when you could be off somewhere writing your own stories?

What kind of avoidable mistakes do you see new writers consistently make?

The most common mistakes come in picking where and how to begin their story. Too many people believe that old canard about plunging into the middle of the action: in medias res, the way the classic epic poems began. We see it now in the meaningless car chase, where you don’t know who is in either car, so you don’t care whether the fleer is caught or gets away. The lonely sad person crying, as we then flash back through the entire story.

The fact is that The Iliad doesn’t start in the middle of the action, because the “action” of The Iliad is not the Trojan War, it’s Achilles’ refusal to fight because the captive girl Briseis was taken away from him. So the poem starts right at the beginning of that action, and flows pretty much in time order to the end of it.

So I give several tools that writers can use to find, not the exact right opening (there’s no such thing), but an adequate opening, a starting place.

But the flip side of the in medias res opening is the hideous dump-the-trunk prologue opening, where the writer thinks we won’t understand anything unless we are first told these eight paragraphs (or eighteen pages) of really boring, unintelligible, and unmemorable facts.

Beginnings are all about expository flow — getting information from your head into the reader’s head as painlessly and memorably as possible.

If you have selected the right point-of-view character, then you can simply tell us, as it comes up, what the character already knows and is already thinking about, and then bring up each new piece of information as he or she learns it. If you need a prologue, or a flashback within the first chapter, or a long explanation to catch the reader up, you’ve started in the wrong place.

And most — no, nearly all — first novels make one or the other mistake in how the opening of the story or novel is handled.

Many writers have routines or rituals that get them into their creative zone. What does a typical day look like for you?

It begins with waking up, sometime between four A.M. and one p.m. If it’s a good day, then I just finished a project and I don’t feel guilty about not doing a lick of work during the whole day. But if I’ve already passed the writing deadline, then my mind is wonderfully concentrated and I can often do two separate writing sessions of three or four hours in the same day, one of them in the “morning” (beginning somewhere between five A.M. and two P.M.) and the other at “night” (somewhere between two P.M. and two A.M.).

Most of the time, though, I play Civilization II, Spider Solitaire, Cruel, backgammon, or, if I’m feeling suicidal, Tetris. Or I draft my wife to play Ticket to Ride with me on the kitchen table. Or I watch old TV episodes on my Nano or whatever we have recorded on the TiVo. Old episodes of That 70s Show are excellent for putting off working.

It’s amazing how much work I can avoid by doing these things.

Some people need structure and habit to get their work done. I need a complete lack of structure, absolute schedule-freedom, and a desperate urgency in order to accomplish anything. Everybody should figure out what works for them and then use it to get things written. No writer should waste even a tenth of a second wishing that somebody else’s method worked for them. There’s no good or right way to organize your writing day — there’s only What Works.

Is there one thing in your writing life that you can’t live without?

The computer. The second I could afford one, I got onto WordStar on an Altos CP/M machine (that was 1978). It cost ten thousand dollars for printer, monitor, and computer. Nowadays I could buy ten computer set-ups a thousand times more powerful for the same money. But it was worth it, because once you get over the need to print everything out so that it’s “safe” (it is replaced by the need to get everything onto the computer so it’s revisable!), the computer makes it possible to follow Dean Koontz’s advice: You can fix anything at any time without having to retype the whole manuscript or have a bunch of illegible corrections scattered about on every page. You can change a character’s name halfway through a book — heck, all the way through a book. You can insert a vital bit of exposition without having to repaginate. All the things that used to make lazy writers (which is most of us) resist making a repair until the rewrite can now be fixed with almost no effort.

Having said that, however, I must point out that I have always made sure to own a manual typewriter that does not need to be plugged into a wall. Of course, if civilization every breaks down too much, where would I get typing paper? But I still remember how to type on a machine that you have to strike with some serious finger-force.

What are your thoughts on the evolution of the publishing industry over the last couple of years?

A lot of the flap about electronic publishing is rather like Hollywood’s absurd love affair with 3D. It has its uses, but it isn’t going to replace 2D film unless they’re so stupid they stop making it. This is not like the difference between silent and sound films — sound wasn’t annoying and silent films had the constant annoyance of the picture leaving the screen so words could pop up.

E-books and audiobooks don’t replace something annoying with something that isn’t annoying. My Kindle holds hundreds of books and I really like it, but “pages” hold too few words and it’s hard to riff through the pages and find something. It’s also really bad to drop it in the bathtub. My iPod Nano has three dozen audiobooks on it at any one time, and I can listen to it while doing other things, like errands or exercise — but I can’t skim or skip to the end very easily, so it takes the full time to read it. Each medium of delivering the text of a book has advantages, and there’s no reason they can’t all coexist.

The real change is in the way books are delivered. Kindle and other e-books have a strong advantage here, and audiobooks from Audible.com are almost as easy to get and transfer onto my Nano. When I run across a book so rare there’s zero chance that it’ll be in the local bookstore, I can almost always get it from Amazon or one of their affiliates and have it shipped to my door.

But none of these methods offers the pleasure of wandering through a bookstore discovering stuff. The presence of coffee shops (or, for Mormons like me, hot chocolate) turns the store into a haven, a community. They even have wi-fi, so we can sign on to Amazon and order books from them right there in Barnes & Noble or Borders!

Sometimes the free market kills things we wish had survived. I hope that we emerge from this with plenty of great bookstores (because that’s what Borders, Barnes & Noble, Joseph Beth, and many independent stores are), as well as the Amazon.com department store (for that is what it has become) and Audible.com, which stocks far more audio titles than any bookstore can afford to carry. I like them all and I want them all to exist. I think I’m not alone in that wish!

In what way (if any) has your own writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

I’m older. I have more books out there. I also have more people wanting me to come and speak or sign or whatever, since they apparently don’t make the connection that when I’m traveling and speaking and signing, I’m not writing. But that’s OK. I simply say no to most of them and then I can stay home. It would be absurd for me to complain about it — I can remember a time, not too long ago, when I longed for such markers of success.

The important changes are not writing changes. They’re just life changes, and sometimes those changes affect my writing. Typing words into WordPerfect is pretty much what it’s been for a couple of decades now.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing give the changes in the publishing industry?

Self-publishing is what you do when you don’t want to write any more. Because if you’re going to be successful at self-publishing, you have to work hard at the jobs that a good publisher does for you — arranging publicity, distribution, marketing, printing. Since people go into writing precisely because they don’t want a business career, self-publishers are usually lousy at it, and they end up with a garage full of unsold books and a spouse (if they’re lucky) who no longer has any patience with the need for “writing time.”

Instead of self-publishing, set that book aside and write another. Eventually you’ll either write one that a publisher accepts, or you’ll realize that you’re not a very good writer after all, or you’ll realize that your work is simply a niche taste that isn’t economical for a mainstream press to publish. All these outcomes are just fine. If you then self-publish online, and then refer all the two hundred readers who care for your books where they can download them, you’re still a writer and can still find your audience.

Do you have any advice for new writers on building an audience?

Write stories you care about and believe in. Chances are that there are other people who believe in and care about the same kinds of stories — as long as you’re writing them clearly enough that they realize that’s what they’re getting. Word of mouth is still the only effective means of spreading the word, but having the right cover displayed prominently in the bookstores can also give your book a readership jolt.

But the truth is, the only way to build an audience is to keep writing books and getting them published. Book 1 is not a career, it’s not even the start of a career, it’s just the first foot in the door. If your writing is good, and you’re telling good stories, each book builds on the success of the previous ones and your audience grows across time.

Encourage your readers to lend your books any chance they get. I’ve heard of writers who actually get angry at people who borrow books instead of buying them, but those writers are boneheads. A lent book can bring you a lifelong reader. They may not have bought that copy of your book, but if they like what you write, they’ll buy later ones!

What about advice for writers seeking agents?

Agents are, with extremely rare exceptions, perfectly horrible at recognizing great new writers. Agents only know how to sell last year’s bestseller. Editors are the ones whose livelihood and reputation depend on finding new writers who will produce next year’s completely different bestseller. So the publishers that think they’ll save money by making agents do the pre-screening are killing their own future: Agents will weed out and discard the very books that might have made their publishers solvent three years later, and will pass along mostly the books that are just like the books that are already selling. It makes a constant opportunity for new publishers who are willing to read the slushpile, instead of relying on agents.

But what do you do? Write good one-paragraph query letters that provide editors with the two-sentence hook that you see on back covers – get them intrigued with the story. Writing such hooks is a completely separate art form, so maybe you need someone else to write them for you; or you could work hard and learn how yourself. Send letters that simply state the hook, followed by the sentence, “Would you like to see the manuscript?” or even “Would you like to see my query package?”

The editors and publishers that refuse to look even at such a query letter will be out of the business pretty soon anyway. The smart editors are still looking at such miniqueries assiduously: They know that this is how they’ll find the Next Big Writer.

There are also regional presses that would just love to have your brilliant, world-changing book and let it carry them into the big time.

The only agent worth having is the kind of agent you get after you have a contract offer on your first book. Let the editor be your judge; let the agent be your, well, agent, and negotiate a deal that holds onto your foreign rights and subsidiary (i.e., screen) rights without sharing a single dime with your book publisher. The publisher should make their money from the book itself, not from foreign-sale and movie-sale windfalls that by rights belong only to you.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share with aspiring writers?

There are safer ways to earn a living. Steadier jobs. If you can get somebody to pay you to do something else, do that other thing and write as a hobby, in your spare time. You can have a wonderful, prestigious career doing that — while still having food on the table and sleeping under the same roof every single day.

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