Interview by Shara Saunsaucie White
Patricia Bray will be a guest lecturer at the Odyssey Writing Workshop this summer. She is the author of a dozen novels, including Devlin’s Luck, which won the 2003 Compton Crook Award for the best first novel in the field of science fiction or fantasy. A multi-genre author whose career spans both Regency romance and epic fantasy, Patricia has had her books translated into Russian, German, Hebrew and Portuguese. She is a two-time co-chair of the Southern Tier Writer’s conference, and her articles on the writer’s craft have appeared in numerous publications, including Broadsheet, Nink, STARbytes and RWA’s Keys to Success: A Professional Writer’s Career Handbook.
Patricia lives in upstate New York, where she combines her writing with a full-time career as an I/T professional, ensuring that she is never more than a few feet away from a keyboard. Her latest novel is The Final Sacrifice, the concluding volume in The Chronicles of Josan, which was released by Bantam Spectra in July 2008. You can visit her website at http://www.sff.net/people/patriciabray/.
Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What do you feel you were doing wrong in your writing in those early days?
I started writing in 1993 when I joined a group of local writers who’d banded together to form a critique group. I wrote a first novel which received faint praise and numerous rejections, and then a second novel which was a finalist in RWA’S Golden Heart competition in 1995. That novel caught the eye of an agent, who then went on to sell it to Zebra and the rest is history. (Where history is six Regency novels, one Regency novella, six fantasy novels and counting.)
In retrospect, I wasn’t so much doing things wrong, as I needed practice doing things right, and finding my unique voice.
Why do you think your work began to sell?
Honestly? Because it was good enough. A London Season wasn’t a perfect book, but I was doing enough things right that I caught the eye of an agent, and then an editor. I’d mastered the basic tools of the writing trade, and produced an interesting story with engaging characters. Just as importantly, it wasn’t the same story as everyone else was telling — I caught their attention with the tag line, “A classic English love triangle between a man, a woman, and a sheep.”
You started out writing Regency romance and then shifted to writing fantasy. Can you talk about that transition between genres? How do you think writing romance helped you write fantasy? Were there any drawbacks from moving from one genre to another?
I’ve always been a multi-genre reader, and from the start I saw no reason why I couldn’t be a multi-genre writer as well. I started off writing Regency romances because I loved the genre, and at the time there was the perception that it was easier to break into romance than it was in science fiction.
After writing Regency romances for a few years I began to chafe under the restrictions of the genre. I wanted to tell bigger stories, and explore new themes, so I stole a few months between contracted books to write Devlin’s Luck, which I shipped off to my agent. As I was writing the last of my contracted Regencies Bantam bought Devlin’s Luck and voila I was off on a new career.
Switching genres meant starting over in many ways. I couldn’t count on my established fans to follow me into this new genre, so I had to find ways to connect with this new readership. It was as if I was a first time author all over again, which was both fun and terrifying, just as it had been the first time around.
How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?
Story ideas live in my head for months or even years before I put the first words down on paper. As an example, I wrote the first chapter of Devlin’s Luck and then set the story aside for four years, until I felt that I had matured enough as a writer to be able to do justice to it.
The idea for The First Betrayal began with a single page I’d written on vacation, just a quick description of a man standing next to a lighthouse on a tiny barrier island. That character lived in my head for several years, as I gradually fleshed him out. By the time I opened a new file and typed CHAPTER ONE, I not only knew who Josan was and how his story started, but also the key turning points and how his story would end.
As far as the nitty gritty process, this varies by book. In general, I start each day’s writing by revising the last section that I wrote, which helps me get back into the flow of the story. After finishing writing for the day I’ll print off the new material I’ve just written so I can mark it up for revision. Once I’ve finished a chapter I’ll send it off to my first readers for their comments.
By the time the book is complete, each scene has already been revised two or three times. I’ll do one or more complete passes to polish the story, and when I’m convinced it’s ready, I’ll send it out.
Because I do so much prewriting in my head and generally work from an outline, my revisions tend to be lighter than some of my friends who have been known to complain of having to rip out entire subplots or characters who only reveal their true natures after two-thirds of the book is already written. Then again, I’m the kind of person who always prints off two sets of driving directions and compares them against each other before leaving the house, while my friends belong to the “hop in the car and see where it takes us” school of road trips.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
Time. I’ve been juggling a demanding day job and a writing career for the last dozen years, and it never gets any easier. Over the years I’ve used different strategies to make time to write, and one of the hardest things to realize is that the strategies need to keep evolving as my life keeps changing.
You’ve just finished your second fantasy trilogy. How does it feel to draw these epic tales to a close? Do you ever want to give into temptation and string out these stories beyond three books just so you can stay with the characters?
Writing a series is a bit like marrying someone with a large family. You’re going to be living in close proximity with these characters for years, so you’d better enjoy spending time with them.
I wrote Devlin’s Luck as a standalone book, but when it was finished I knew that Devlin’s story hadn’t ended and there was more to tell. I put together an outline for the next two books in the trilogy, and was thrilled when Bantam made an offer for all three books. By the time I’d finished the trilogy, I’d completed Devlin’s story arc, and had delivered an ending that was as emotionally satisfying for me as it was for my readers.
After three years spent working on the DEVLIN books, I was ready to tell a different kind of story, and thus The Chronicles of Josan was born. This was planned as a set of three books from the start. By the time The Final Sacrifice was finished, I was happy with what I’d accomplished, and felt that I’d done all I could with Josan’s character arc. There’s the possibility that there may be a spinoff series featuring Lady Ysobel, but that’s very much on the backburner at the moment.
As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?
Writing isn’t something you master, it’s a craft that you’ll spend the rest of your life working on. There’s always something new to learn, always something that you could do better. The trick is to never get comfortable and to keep challenging yourself.
The second bit of advice is to enjoy what you write. Don’t chase after the latest fads, don’t twist yourself into knots trying to write someone else’s story. Write from the heart, write what you love. In the immortal words of Ben & Jerry, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects? Will you stick with the fantasy genre, or are there any other genres you’d like to explore?
My agent asked me the exact same question :). (My agent, by the way, is the incomparable Jennifer Jackson, who knew when I signed with her that I was planning to be a multi-genre author and has always been extremely supportive of my career choices.)
Currently I’m splitting my time between two projects–a mystery/fantasy proposal that’s making the rounds of New York publishers and a more traditional fantasy story.
Keep in mind that my reading tastes aren’t limited to romance, fantasy, and mysteries, and neither are my story ideas. I fully intend to write space opera one day, and I’d love it if Cold War spy thrillers made a comeback. I don’t define myself by genre–I write the stories that I need to tell, and worry about genre labels when it’s time to sell them.