Interview: Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear will be a guest lecturer at Odyssey 2011.She was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She’s the author of over a dozen novels and seventy short stories, recipient of two Hugos, the John W. Campbell, and the Sturgeon Award. In her spare time, she enjoys falling off of rocks and cooking needlessly complicated food. She’s previously taught at Clarion West and Viable Paradise.

She lives in Connecticut with a Presumptuous Cat and a Giant Ridiculous Dog.

Looking over your bibliography, your writing success seems to have made a major leap between 2000 and 2003 (one short story published in 1995, one in 1996, two in 2000 and four in 2003, increasing every year thereafter, and various awards won virtually every year beginning in 2005, including two Hugos and a John W. Campbell award). What happened between 2000 and 2003 that took you to the next level?

Well, in 2001 I got laid off in the wake of 9/11, and I had to do something to fill the time, so I started spending hours every day writing. Also, at about this time I joined the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and found a peer group of writers all working feverishly towards breaking in. Those two things between them helped me bootstrap myself to professional-quality output.

Basically, before 2003, I wasn’t a very good writer. But I was a very motivated one, and I had found a group of people who could teach me what I needed to know. And, being unemployed, I had unlimited time to practice.

That thing about needing ten thousand hours of practice–or more–really is true. And it has to be mindful practice, with reinforcement and critique. Otherwise one just grooves the mistakes in more deeply.

The peer group I fell in with at that time got me writing and revising and submitting. It’s old advice, but it’s the best advice.

Can you talk about how you got your agent Jennifer Jackson at the Donald Mass literary agency? What is the benefit of having an agent versus representing yourself?

Jenn was a social acquaintance before she was my agent, but I still “got” her through the query/partial/full process. She actually rejected the first book I sent to her; she agreed to represent me with the second, Hammered, which was actually the fourth complete novel I wrote.

(See below, advice on “write the next book.”)

What is different about planning, plotting and writing a short story as opposed to a novel?

Short stories are a very constrained form, as different from the novel as from the poem. Novels have room to digress, to wander a bit, to bring in supporting themes and subplots. A short story pretty much has room for one internal conflict, one external conflict, one thematic arc and one character arc, all of which need to support each other.

Short stories are all about discipline. And a killer exit line. Novels are about the journey.

Other than that, I think it was David Hartwell who made the famous comment about a novel being a work of fiction longer than a short story, and flawed.

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?

This is, you realize, an unanswerable question.

It depends. I’ve written books in twelve years, and I’ve written them in six weeks. I’ve had thirteenth or fourteenth drafts published, and third drafts. I’ve rewritten entire novels from the ground up, sometimes repeatedly, and I’ve had one or two I pretty much nailed on the first try. I’ve torn out half a book and started over.

I don’t write in a particularly linear fashion, and I tend to under-write, so my final drafts are often around 15% longer than my first drafts. I have to go back and put in visual description and exposition and setting and transitions, because when I’m trying to get the plot down, I just throw scenes at the page willy nilly.

But I don’t have a single, sacred process. I believe that there are no fast rules in storytelling, just a whole bunch of techniques that may or may not work in any given situation. The more techniques you know, the more situations you have control over. I also believe in using the simplest possible technique in any given circumstance. It’s more elegant, and it’s less of a burden on the reader.

But sometimes you really do need that ability to stunt write. And it’s nice to have it when you need it.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

I’m trying to learn to open stuff up and make it more accessible and linear. Apparently I don’t conceive of story the same way most people do, and I’ve been working since–oh, 2002 or so–to figure out ways of making at least the top layers of what I’m doing as straightforward and transparent as possible, without losing the stuff that (to me) makes a story worth telling.

Many of your stories, including the forthcoming novella The White City from the New Amsterdam series, are set in what you call “counterfactual universes” (sort of like alternate histories but with the laws of physics altered). Can you describe the research you do when writing a novel set in an alternate history or counterfactual universe?

Well, New Amsterdam and its associated stories is the only really “contrafactual” narrative I’m working on–although I may be working up another one soon. Some people call them alternate histories, but to my mind, they’re really not, because an alternate history postulates some basic change in history without bringing in an Impossible Thing. New Amsterdam has magic, therefore it’s not an alternate history.

I also write historical fantasy, in the secret history subgenre–the Promethean Age books are that. Basically, they postulate that magic is real in our world and has affected our (real) history in concealed ways.

As for research–I swim with research. Constantly. I probably read twenty or thirty million words of history and original sources for the Elizabethan books. For New Amsterdam, I read everything from Varney the Vampire to histories of Moors in Spain. But it’s not as if science fiction doesn’t require crushing amounts of research either.

A career in writing is really very much like being a grad student forever. You’re always behind on your reading and sweating an insane deadline pileup… or you’re starving. Sometimes both!

I really recommend original sources where you can get them. And don’t be that guy who reads one book and then bases a whole novel or trilogy around it. That inevitably comes out thin.

You mention in an interview with Subterranean Press (summer 2007) that alternate history is generally classified as science fiction, while counterfactual universe stories are classified as fantasy. The recently released Chill seems to straddle these two genres. How do you bridge the marketing gap between fantasy and science fiction?

Chill is neither contrafactual universe nor alternate history. It’s a science fiction story set on a generation ship, in which some of the tropes of fantasy are used. But there’s no magic in those books–it’s all SFnal, and not any weirder than stuff that Stross and Banks use without blinking. Calling an A.I. an angel does not make it magical, anymore than calling a computer program a daemon or a wizard makes it diabolism or thaumaturgy.

Because I’m using terminology from fantasy, however, it comes across as a genre blend.

All the Windwracked Stars would be a better example of a blend of fantasy and SF. It has magic and hoverboards, nuclear weapons and flying horses.

Fantasy and SF have been passing ideas back and forth since the very beginnings of the genre. Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, James Tiptree–all of them played with fantasy elements. There are certain largely fantastic tropes that are grandfathered in to science fiction–telepathy, say, or time travel, or faster-than-light travel–but really it’s all a giant muddle and you decide which marketing category a book belongs to by what’s on the spine.

The existence of that muddle is why we have a marketing category that represents the outliers in science fiction–the boundary cases, as it were. We call it “hard” science fiction, and part of the game there is tight engineering.

But then, I tend toward the idea that SF is a subgenre of fantasy–one with tightly limited physical rules, more or less based in the real world. But really, what makes Gun, With Occasional Music SF rather than fantasy? Basically, some handwaving about where the talking animals come from.

I’ve heard it said that it’s fantasy if it has a unicorn in it, and science fiction if it has a rocketship. Rocketships trump unicorns, though, so once you have a rocketship the only way to turn it back into fantasy is to add the Holy Grail.

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?

That depends on the needs of the writer, I think. No two of us are alike; we all have different strengths and weaknesses. But the best general advice *I* ever got was given to me by Steve Brust, who said, “The hardest thing any writer will ever do is finish a novel. It will probably be terrible, but that’s okay. Because if you can finish one, you can finish two, and the second will be better than the first.”

Quite a few Odyssey graduates are at the point you were in 2003, just breaking into the “pro” markets as defined by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, with several short story credits in the smaller markets and possibly a book contract or agent. What advice do you have for them for self promotion? Any dos and don’ts from personal experience you could share with us?

I think self promotion, by and large, is something that writers engage in to make themselves feel better while they’re waiting helplessly to find out how the book is going to do. I am of the school that believes that the best thing you can do to promote yourself is write the next book.

Oh, and one big don’t. Don’t make a nuisance of yourself. If your blog consists of nothing but endless plaints to buy your books, eventually everybody is going to wander off. Make it interesting. Remember that your best advertisement is word of mouth–the more people genuinely enjoy your books, the more they will tell their friends.

Charlie Finlay said something to me when I was coming up. “There’s always room for excellence.”

That is the simple truth: Often, the solution to all one’s publishing woes is simply, “write better.”

And don’t worry too much about rejection. I still get rejected. It’s part of the job.

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