Gregory Frost will be a guest lecturer at this year’s Odyssey workshop. He is a writer of fantasy, thrillers, and science fiction who has been publishing steadily for more than two decades. His latest work, the compelling fantasy duology, Shadowbridge. and Lord Tophet (Del Rey Books) was voted one of the four best fantasy novels of the year by the American Library Association. It was a finalist this year for the James Tiptree Award.
His previous novel, Fitcher’s Brides was a finalist for both the World Fantasy Award and the International Horror Guild Award for Best Novel. Other novels include, Tain, Lyrec, and Nebula-nominated sf work The Pure Cold Light. His short story collection, Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories was given a starred review by Publishers Weekly, which called it “one of the best fantasy collections of the year” while hailing the author as a master of the short story form. The collection includes James Tiptree Award, Nebula Award, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and Hugo Award finalist fiction.
His shorter work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Magazine, Weird Tales, Realms of Fantasy, and in numerous award-winning anthologies. His latest short story can be found in Poe (Solaris Books), edited by Ellen Datlow.
He is a Fiction Writing Workshop Director at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA.
Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?
Well, if we mark my “serious” Rubicon as the undergraduate writing program at the University of Iowa followed directly by Clarion (which was far more intensive), then it was six years before I sold my first short story. In that time I’d written two dreadful novels, and lots of short stories that were either marketed and failed or else stuck in a drawer because I was never happy with them, as well as those that were never finished. One of those pieces was a story I’d started directly after Clarion and which I revised again and again over the next six years, and which became the second piece of fiction I sold.
What changed in particular…I’m not sure. I think a process of evolution was going on, but I was the experiment, not outside and observing it, and the best guess I can give you is that while I probably felt stuck in place, I was in fact learning by producing a lot of garbage, making a lot of mistakes. Now that I’ve been a slush pile reader for a magazine, which is sort of being the editor who reads the untested fiction, I’ve seen all the mistakes I made laid bare. But that’s how you learn: by getting things wrong, at the same time as you’re analyzing good writing, figuring out how someone else did it well, and then trying again. If I had to pick one thing, it would be learning how to write beginnings. That’s a major breakthrough by itself.
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?
All of this depends on the work. Shadowbridge went through repeated shaping. What my pal Judith Berman calls her “zero draft”–I probably wrote dozens of those, because that book was channeling out of some deep well of stories and had to be teased into the light. And then in the middle of it, Terri Windling invited me to contribute a book to her fairy tale series, and I set it all aside and wrote Fitcher’s Brides, which was done in three passes, fairly painlessly, and in ten months. The first draft of that took five months. But there I had an armature to work with–a fairy tale structure tested by time; and by accident I’d done all the research into the period and place I was writing about–the 1840s, the Fingerlakes district of New York. And then I went back to Shadowbridge. Almost immediately my father died, and I simply locked up for nearly two years…which was right and truly scary. I was in the grips of an actual writing block: the roiling core of crazy stuff–ideas, images, concepts, “what ifs”–that have been with me simply forever just evaporated. There was nothing. A vacuum. And writers, Carol Emshwiller for one, reassured me that I would come out the other side of it, as she had done, and that what I wrote on the far side of the singularity would be different from before. I’m still the experiment, so I can’t tell you if that part is true, but I did come out. One day it was just “We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.” I went back to “Shadowbridge.
As for revisions, they are so very different from first drafts. First drafts exhaust me after a few hours, and the so-called writer’s high is for me a first draft phenomenon. Revision can go all day by comparison because it’s a different section of the brain, the analytical, editorial section. I expect, as Joyce Carol Oates has said in interviews, that the beginning gets far more revision than the rest of the story, just as the beginning is probably the last thing written. I fear that workshops like Clarion tend to focus on getting you to write a lot of first drafts of stories, but not so much on how to revise those drafts properly; and revision is a skill unto itself, probably the most critical skill of all.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
Social media: Fighting off the allure of the Internet. I’m glad I write first drafts with a fountain pen, because it means I can walk away from the bloody computer, sit me down anywhere with a notebook and dive in. Cory Doctorow wrote an amusing essay last winter about how a writer needs only to devote 20 minutes a day to his craft, thus allowing for lots of social media time. It’s specious, of course, but he’s right that you have to carve out some time. You can write a draft of a novel in a year if you write 20 minutes a day, provided you produce one page in that 20 minutes. But how many of us can sit down, cold, and just flip over to the writing side of our lizard brain and go? I’m sure there’s someone out there going “Oh, I can do that.” Well, it ain’t me.
From vampires in your short fiction to your unique world in Shadowbridge, do you generally form an idea first before you start a story or do characters appear first?
I think the two arrive in some complementary fashion. No idea comes without, for me, a character rolling in either with it or almost immediately after. And I’ve had stories that began with a character and the story emerged out of them. Some are explorations—following a character to find out both who they are and what their story is. I think Leodora was like that for me. I saw her on top of the bridge at the beginning of Shadowbridge with her mask on, the braid of her hair…and I had to find out who she was. Casting back, I feel as if I just followed her quite awhile. But before the first act of that book was completed, I had written the confrontation with Lord Tophet that occurred at the end of the second book. I had no idea how she and I were going to get there, but I trusted that we would. Took a very long time, but indeed that’s where we arrived. I didn’t know at that point that her mother was “alive” in a mirror, what had happened to Bardsham, or what the fates of Soter and Diverus would be. I didn’t even know who Diverus was until I’d placed the two of them–him and Leodora–in Epama Epam. It’s good to be surprised by one’s writing, though.
Your essay “Coloring Between the Lines” (http://www.interstitialarts.org/why/coloringBetweenTheLines1.html) focuses on breaking out of genre boxes, in particular slipstream fiction. What is your advice to beginning writers who want to cross different genres? Should they experiment or work in just one genre? What are the benefits and/or drawbacks?
Don’t listen to me for advice on how to make a heap of money at this, but my opinion is that you should write what you want to write. If you chase after the dictates of the marketplace–what’s hot today–unless you’re really incredibly facile and fast, it won’t be the hot thing by the time you write it (although, God help us, we don’t seem to be able to get rid of vampires or King Arthur). In some ways, I think you’re better off choosing some territory you really want to write in and carving out that space. Bruce Sterling did that with his Shaper/Mechanist universe. He worked it to where he had an audience aware of what he was doing. Then he moved on, moved out. Charles Stross, likewise with the stories collected in Accelerando.
When you’re beginning, you’re likely looking for your voice, a stamp you can put on your fiction. This is the time to try everything. Absorb everything. If you are going to write in the genres, you’re going to have to bring something to the table that everybody else writing in your turf hasn’t done to death already. I’ve got adult students in a night class who want to write fantasy fiction, but they know fantasy and sf only through things like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, so their work is utterly derivative and dated. They have nothing original to bring to the table. You want to write a Twilight Zone story? Then go read some Nabokov or Cortazar. Bring that into your work. That’s going to make it much more interesting and original (which is somewhat my statement on interstitiality). Aim for great art. If you just get a tolerable story out of it, you still shot for the highest mark, the best you could write.
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?
Give yourself permission to completely [mess] up. Get everything wrong. Make giant mistakes. Try things you don’t know how to do. And don’t beat yourself up for it. That’s how you learn. Get it all wrong now so that later you’ll have mastered all these elements and won’t have to worry about them anymore.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
Always. I’m finishing a novel right now, should be done with it before the end of the year (which is good, seeing as how I originally promised it to my agent like last New Year). I just completed a story for a Cthulhu anthology, which I hope is the funniest story in it. I have two stories in the works now, both for projects I was invited to contribute to. There’s a possible third Shadowbridge novel that has nothing to do with the first two, and another novel where all I know is that I have a woman falling through the sky. I’ve figured out who she is, but the story–to borrow from Stephen King–is a fossil I’ve only just started to uncover.
For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.