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    Interview with Patricia C. Wrede

    Discussion in 'Insights & Inspiration' started by Spherical Time, Dec 13, 2006.

    Patricia C. Wrede is a fantasy and science fiction writer. Her works include Magic & Malice, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and the Young Adult novelizations of the first three Star Wars Episodes (I, II, III).

    Spherical Time: When you write a book, do you follow a pattern or specific method? If so, can you describe was it is?

    PCW: Not really. I do some research and maybe make some notes, I write a plot outline, I start writing. Then I throw the plot outline away, because what I've written has nothing to do with it, write another plot outline, and keep on writing. Then I throw that plot outline away, do another one, and continue further.

    Spherical Time: How much planning do you do when you write a novel? How much background work do you have accomplished before you start writing a book like Dealing with Dragons or one of it's sequels?

    PCW: "Dealing with Dragons" was a prequel, so its plot was pretty much set when I wrote it. "Talking to Dragons" was strictly make-it-up-as-you-go. Every book is different. Sometimes, I do a lot of research and upfront planning; sometimes, I write several chapters and then stop and do some research; sometimes, I just write the whole thing. There are some fairly obvious reasons why something would fall into one category or another -- the Enchanted Forest books are set in a fairy-tale universe, and I've been reading and loving fairy tales all my life. For those books, my "research" had already been done. For something like "Mairelon the Magician" or the Kate and Cecy books, that have a semi-historical setting, I needed to do a lot more research. For the first Mairelon book, I did a lot of the research in advance, because I knew it would be needed; the first Kate and Cecy book was done as a game, where it didn't matter if we got things wrong, so for that one, the research and corrections came later.

    Spherical Time: I'm most familiar with your Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and one of the things that struck me deeply about those books were the amazing characters. How do you come up with your characters, and how do you write them with such vivid detail?

    PCW: This is another one of those things that everyone does a little differently. For me, they mostly walk into my head. I don't sit down and work out their hopes and fears and motivations and personalities and then start writing. I get to know them as I write, the same way you'd get to know a real person. Which isn't to say that I think they're real; it's more that I'll be writing a scene and get to some point where just about anyone would offer their guests something to drink -- tea or coffee or whatever. And I'll stop for a minute and think, what would *this* character offer? Would it be tea and coffee, or hot chocolate, or Mrs. Chill's Super Phospate, or what? Once I've done that, I know a little bit more about that character, and that affects how I make the next decision that comes up.

    Spherical Time: What motivates you to write? Where do you find inspiration?

    PCW: Writing is where my income comes from, so asking "what motivates you" is like asking anyone else what motivates them to get up and drive to work every morning. It's my *job*. I have to do it to pay the mortgage and feed my cats. It's exactly the same sort of problem that any self-employed person faces.

    Inspiration doesn't have as much to do with writing as most people think. If I waited around to be inspired, I'd never have written as much as I have. A lot of the difference between a professional writer and a would-be writer is that most professionals write *even when they don't feel like it.* Because it's their job. Inspiration is lovely when it happens (and there are certainly one or two curve-wrecking writers out there who are inspired all the time, and who can thus get away with writing "only when they're inspired"), but most of us can't count on it to pay the bills.

    Spherical Time: The Enchanted Forest books deal primarily with playing on fairy tales and twisting them to bring out new ideas. How did you come up with the new ideas from the old stories?

    PCW: Fairy tales follow a pattern -- it's always the youngest son who succeeds in the quest, for instance. The pattern is the first thing you think of when you think of fairy tales -- "Once upon a time there was a goosegirl..." "Long ago and far away there lived a prince..." All I ever did was look at the pattern and then think about other options that didn't fit the traditional expectations. It's a technique that's recommended in a lot of writing books: come up with ten or twenty alternatives for what could come next. The first three to five are the obvious things that anyone would think of, the things that fit the pattern: Once upon a time, there was a prince, a princess, a woodcutter, a poor widow. But after five or six tries, you start running out of the automatic obvious things, and you have to start reaching for other options: Once upon a time, there was an investment banker, a housewife, a modern dance instructor. It's mostly a matter of how you look at the world; once you get in the habit of reaching past the obvious, automatic, default assumptions about what things are and what's going to happen next, you do it all the time.

    Spherical Time: As a beginning writer, what kinds of challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

    PCW: Learning to write whether I felt like it or not was the first and biggest, and it's ongoing (though it's a little easier now, because I know from experience that it works). That one was serendipity -- I'd managed to get about half a novel written over the course of four years, fiddling with it only when I felt like it. Then I changed apartments, and had to pack everything up, and when I did, I realized how much I already had finished, and all my Swiss-German ancestors rose up in my head to tell me I simply wasn't allowed to waste all that effort by not finishing it. At about the same time, a good friend found out I was working on a book, and he wanted to read it, but he refused to read it until it was finished. So I just started working on it every day, whether or not I felt like it, in order to get it *done*. I wrote the last half of the book, and did all the revisions and the final re-type (this was before computers) in six months. And by the time I was done, it was so obvious that I got so much more written by working even when I didn't really feel like it that I couldn't kid myself about "being inspired" any more.

    Spherical Time: When you published your first novel, did you use a literary agent, or did you submit directly to the publisher? At the time, how extensive were your writing credits?

    PCW: I had zero writing credits, and I submitted through the slush pile; I didn't get an agent until I was well into writing my third novel. I'd been *trying* to sell short fiction, because I thought that's what you did, to build your writing credit so you could sell a novel. It was just about the worst writing advice anybody ever gave me.

    Writers come in three sorts: natural short story writers, natural novelists, and the rare few who are ambidextrous, who can write at any length with equal facility. Everyone *wants* to believe they're one of the rare few who can do any length with equal easy, but hardly anyone is. People whose natural length is the short story find short stories easy to write well, and often have trouble learning to write novels; people who are natural novelists are the other way around.

    I'm a natural novelist. Short stories are very, very difficult for me to do well -- back when I was trying to break in, I kept getting rejections that said things like "This sounds like Chapter 3 of a novel" and "This sounds like the outline for a novel." Short stories are *different* from novels. There's some overlap in technique -- they generally both use dialog and transitions and characterization and so on -- but the structure and pacing is completely different. And it is much, much easier to sell a good novel than a bad short story, or even a mediocre short story. I wasted *years* trying to write short fiction, because I thought I needed writing credits and that was how you got them, and every one of those short stories was *awful* (as a short story; at least one has been recycled into a novel, where it did just fine). But my first novel sold, and so did my second. I sold my first five novels, and *still* couldn't sell anything short. My first "short story" sale was 16,000 words long -- practically a novella! I had to learn to write by writing novels, because that's what came naturally to me, and only then was I able to apply it to writing short stories. I have friends for whom it worked the other way -- they sold tons of short stories right off the bat, but had a terrible time adjusting to writing novel-length.

    The odd thing is that I see a lot of beginning writers now, and almost invariably, the ones who are natural novelists think they should be writing short stories "to get publication credits," while the ones who are natural short story writers think they should be writing novels "because there's more of a market." It's as if they're all trying to make learning to write even harder than it already is, as if they think that if there's anything easy about what they're doing, they must not be doing it right.

    Spherical Time: You wrote the young adult novelizations of the Star Wars movies. Can you tell us anything about how you became involved in such a prestigious franchise?

    PCW: How I got involved was, the senior editor at Scholastic Books called me up one day and said, "We've just got the license to do the YA novelization of the next Star Wars movie, and we think you'd be a good person to do it; would you be interested?" And after I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said, "I'm interested; talk to my agent." Why they picked me -- you'll have to ask them. It was an amazingly good experience for me. I'd had reservations; you hear terrible stories about the ways writers get treated by Hollywood studios that don't care about books at all. But the Lucasfilm people were terrific to work with. They did their best to give me all the material I might need and to answer all my questions (sometimes the answer was "George hasn't made that up yet"), even if they really didn't quite understand why I would want to know something like that.

    Spherical Time: How do you like to write? Is there a certain place or time of day that you most like to concentrate on your writing? When you work, do you type directly into a computer or do you write out your work longhand first?

    PCW: I have a very erratic schedule, and I like to keep my options open. So I write whenever I have an open slot in the day, and with whatever is to hand. Things work best when I do a session in the morning and another one later in the day, but that isn't always possible. I prefer to work on my computer or my laptop (which I sometimes haul to the library or a cafe, just for a change of scene while I'm working...and to get away from the phone), because I've been touch-typing since I was 16 or 17, and I type much faster than I handwrite. But I still write by hand if I'm somewhere that I can't use the computer.

    Spherical Time: Your fantasy work contains many strong women characters, like Cimorene and Shiara from the Enchanted Forest books and Kim from the Magic & Malice books. Do you feel that women are well represented in fantasy and especially science fiction publishing?

    PCW: I don't think it would hurt at all to have a few more. There are getting to be more women at the highest levels in publishing, but there still aren't many in absolute numbers. The mix is a lot better at the editorial level. I don't think it matters much whether the name on the cover of a book is male or female; a lot of people don't pay a whole lot of attention to that, frankly. Though I do find it telling that Lois Bujold has more than once startled fans who had been misreading her name as *Louis* Bujold for five or ten books.

    Spherical Time: Many writers are also voracious readers. Is there anything that you've recently read that you would like to recommend?

    PCW: Most of my recent reading has been research for the current project. I will mention Lois Bujold's "The Sharing Knife," and I also enjoyed Alma Alexander's first Worldweavers book.

    Spherical Time: What is your favorite phrase?

    PCW: You mean one I over-use? I don't know; if I knew, I wouldn't over-use it.

    Spherical Time: Do you have any further advice to aspiring writers?

    PCW: Write a lot. Read a lot. Know your tools: sentence structure, syntax, grammar, punctuation. And have a life -- it's hard to make anything sound interesting on the page if you aren't interested in anything *but* the page.
     
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