Erin Hoffman was born in San Diego and now lives with her husband, two parrots, and two dogs in northern California. Her game credits include Dragonrealms, Shadowbane: The Lost Kingdom, Kung Fu Panda World, and FrontierVille. She also serves on the International Game Developers Association’s board of directors, writes for the award-winning online magazine The Escapist, and has had fiction and poetry in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Electric Velocipede, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. Erin’s games have won multiple awards and have been played by over 23 million kids and adults worldwide. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and her first novel, Sword of Fire and Sea, is forthcoming from Pyr Books in June 2011.
What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?
It was frighteningly spur-of-the-moment. I found out about the workshop a week before the deadline–honestly discovered it for the first time, randomly on the internet I think–happened to have a break between ending one job and starting another during that summer, wrote a new short story because everything else I had was either long form or old (or both), and was pretty stunned when I got accepted. I’ve chased down writing advice since I was a teenager, so wanting to go was a no-brainer–the surprising thing to me was that there was a workshop specifically for genre writers. I did know about Clarion but had heard mixed things and didn’t like the format quite as much.
What affect did the Odyssey experience have on your writing?
The effects of specific things on one’s actual writing for me is difficult to track, other than in silly things like I use fewer adverbs (and I already knew that was a problem; it still is). It had a dramatic, distinctive impact on how I plot, which I will value for the rest of my career. It also had a permanent, fantastic impact on my connection with genre writing culture. Whereas before I had felt very isolated by affection for fantasy–which may have had a sort of Spartan focusing value on my determination and production, so it wasn’t all bad–here I had this invaluable thriving community of people who cared about it as deeply and weirdly as I did. (And who weren’t jerks.) That is a genuine treasure.
Congratulations on the forthcoming fantasy novel Sword of Fire and Sea. Tell us about your writing process with this novel.
Thank you! Sword’s process was strange. I’m realizing how strange even now as I’m midway through writing the sequel, Lance of Earth and Sky. Sword started as a novella (which I wrote while going through an insane crunch at work, in spurts from 11pm-2am) for an anthology Mundania Press was putting together. By the time I was done, they read it and liked it but had canceled the anthology and asked if I could expand it into a book. I thought I probably could, but this was about a year before Odyssey 2005 and my life went kind of crazy in the interim. At Odyssey I realized how much I still had to experiment and learn in short form (I’d written only four short stories before Odyssey and would double that in the year after alone), so I focused on that, and didn’t revisit the novel until 2008 or so. This meant that the actual writing of it was spread out across multiple strange periods in my life, with gaps of years in between.
Do you think Odyssey had an effect on how you wrote Sword of Fire and Sea?
Many effects. The ’05 class read a synopsis and one of the chapters from the middle of the book, so I had feedback on the writing itself, the world (they really liked the gryphons, which kind of surprised me!–I’d go on to keep getting that comment), and the characters. I realized I needed to dig a lot deeper both into Vidarian and into ship culture, which wound up being very rewarding–you’d be amazed at how many phrases our modern culture inherits from ship language. Jeanne [Cavelos, Director of Odyssey], very crucially, gave a thorough plot critique to my synopsis and two major things I added are a direct result of her comments. I’d be curious if Odfellows can pick out which ones. 😉
How long did it take you to have Sword of Fire and Sea ready to submit?
Again its timeline is so weird that it’s hard to say. What happened was, when I finally came back to the novel in 2008–Jeanne had advised me that I should finish it in 2005 and she thought it was marketable, which was amazing, but again I worried about work I wanted to do on my actual toolbox first–I needed something to get me back into the ‘world.’ So I wrote “Stormchaser, Stormshaper,” a short story from the youth of Ruby, one of the major characters. This bounced around markets for a while–it’s quite long so there weren’t many–eventually selling to Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Later, unrelatedly, I’d struck up some online conversations with Lou Anders, and he looked up my work, found “Stormchaser,” and asked if I had a novel set in the same world. I did, but it was only at that time about a third finished! So I told him I could get it to him in six months and set about a marathon of finishing the book. I delivered it to him at MidSouthCon in March 2010, and here we are.
How did you go about bringing this novel to market?
Whoops, kind of jumped ahead on that one. I wound up doing something that isn’t prescribed or reliably repeatable. I do think one of the keys to marketing an unsold novel is to think carefully about what the market wants and where it is growing. These were the kinds of conversations I’d had with Lou, about the growing inter-media experience (books, movies, games, TV) that fans now have, and what lessons can be taken from one field into another. Particularly with fantasy, it really seems to help to have a genuine new idea that is relevant to the meme-space of the fantasy audience. Which is not to say that my elemental magic or gryphons are fundamentally new at all, but both had gone away from prominence for a while and recently made a return to the market in new ways, for mysterious reasons. Marketing a book is really about showing you have the right thing at the right time, in a very concrete fashion, not just “a great story” or “compelling characters” or “a magic system.” And it is hard and capricious.
Everyone is talking about how the publishing industry is changing. What is your opinion on these changes?
It seems like we’ve all been having this conversation for years now, since the decline of the midlist starting in the late ’90s, and if we look back further than that there were many gamechanging shifts even earlier (urban fantasy, Robert Jordan, etc., etc.) Publishing seems to be always changing. It does seem that technology is causing a change-acceleration, but I think the important thing to remember is that according to the data what we have are more books being sold and more people reading them. This can only ultimately be good for authors. I think we have to be very careful not to go chasing fool’s gold–and that for instance if you look into Amanda Hocking’s success, it seems like a fluke until you read how relentlessly hard-working she was and how much attention she was paying to the desires of the market. Those things will lead a writer to success regardless of technology (though the tech certainly helped her get discovered faster). I think the most important thing we can do is apply a broad personal stroke of thinking deeply about what we want out of life. (Do we want to write only for ourselves, or do we want to reach and move a large audience? Do we respect readers and what they want and what drives them crazy? Are we willing to relentlessly analyze our own craft and make it better, word by word and line by line?) These things improve one’s odds regardless of what the market does, and so are a lot more predictable in achieving success than getting that one (unsustainable!) shiv-strike of being a tech first.
Do you have any advice for those just in the process of submitting novels right now?
Wow, I’m probably a frustrating example when it comes to that, because I don’t have multiple novels that circulated around looking for homes. My husband Jay (whom I met at Odyssey, but don’t get any ideas) is in that spot, though, and I think he’s doing exactly the right thing (and has some promising stuff happening to show for it). Keep writing. And write new things. Respect the market. Look deeply into your own writing and think about what your major life themes are, and how they intersect with the deep myth roots of genre: i.e., take your rotten childhood and add a dragon. (Of course, don’t really do that.) Find good friends and treasure them. Don’t let the market get you down. Look back at the stuff that’s circulating around and remind yourself of why you wrote it and what you loved about it, and use those things to guide you forward and keep your spirits up. It’s a long, long race, and perseverance–about seeking truth in your work, respecting the audience, and improving your craft–is what wins. Those are all things you can control; try to focus on them and not the dice roll elements. Keep the love close and make good things.
For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.