Author and editor Paul Witcover will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He is the author of five novels, most recently The Watchman of Eternity. His collection of short fiction, Everland and Other Stories, was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award. He has also been a finalist for the World Fantasy and Nebula awards. With Elizabeth Hand, he created and wrote the DC Comic Anima. He was a writer for the serial novel Tremontaine, set in Ellen Kushner’s Riverside universe, for three years. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and can be found online at paulwitcover.com.
You were the science fiction and fantasy editor for iPublish.com; you edited novels for Del Rey Books, TokyoPop, and Night Shade Books; and you offer editorial services. What has such extensive editing taught you about your writing?
They are very different pursuits. I think my writing informs my editing more than the other way around. That is, as an editor I try to keep in mind the writer on the other end of the manuscript: what they intend, what they have invested. I try to be very sensitive to that. As an editor, I want to be invisible, helping the writer achieve their vision for the book, which is exactly what I want as a writer from my own editors.
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?
I revise as I go. Each day, I begin about 5-10 pages back in the manuscript and work forward from there. At times, if it becomes evident that revision is necessary, I will go back and do it. But other times I’ll simply flag such revisions for the next draft. I write in order, from the beginning to the end—though those points may change as I get deeper into the novel and it becomes clearer to me what I’m actually trying to write. That is not always evident at the outset! In fact, it’s usually not. Because of my method, my first drafts are really palimpsests of successive revisions, so once I finish a draft, I feel that I’m usually further along than writers who simply write all the way through. I’ve tried to do that but just can’t work that way. Subsequent drafts usually have to do, first, with structural issues, including plot and character, and then with fine-tuning my prose. I probably go through two or three drafts after finishing the first draft.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
That’s a great question! To be honest, I think the greatest weakness in my writing at this stage is simply not having enough time to do it. I’m dependent on freelance writing, editing, and teaching income, and this negatively impacts my writing time. As for other weaknesses, of style and craft, nothing leaps out. It’s not that I consider myself perfect in any area of writing, but I don’t think in terms of problem areas that I need to address. I do the best I can with what is given to me, with what is in front of me. I’m always learning, always trying to get better, setting my compass by those writers whose work I most admire.
Your most recent two novels, The Emperor of all Things and The Watchman of Eternity, are historical fantasies in the clockpunk genre. What were some challenges of writing historical fantasy?
The biggest challenge for me was the history. What to use and what not to use. What historical and technical information to include, how to include it, and where to include it. Recently on Twitter, William Gibson wrote something that really spoke to me: “The longer I write fiction, the more I see the order of the information as profoundly crucial at any level…” In a weird way, I think it doesn’t really matter what kind of fiction you are writing. The challenges surrounding the order in which information is presented to readers, which obviously includes information that is withheld or even known to the writer but omitted altogether from the narrative, are the same across genres of fiction. Tolkien faced the same problems in this regard as, say, E. L. Doctorow. Fiction is an information-delivery mechanism. Perhaps that sounds dry. But information—and science has taught us that everything can be encoded as information—properly delivered can produce epiphanies of the heart and mind.
You are one of several authors who worked on Ellen Kushner’s Tremontaine, a collaborative storytelling experience offered through Serial Box. What was it like working with the other authors on this project? What advice would you give for collaborating with other authors?
It was a load of fun, and we produced something I’m very proud of! I hope readers will check it out. When working with other writers—I’ve collaborated with Elizabeth Hand as well—what I’ve found to be essential is to put ego aside. Normally in the writing process, especially during the initial draft, ego is a writer’s friend. It keeps us going. Makes us daring. Fills us with the dreams and delusions necessary to sustain the often tedious and discouraging everyday process of writing! After that initial draft, in my opinion, ego becomes less important for a while. More apt to lead writers astray. But in collaborations, you’ve got to keep your ego in check right from the start, or rather place it firmly in the service of the story, and let its normally rigid boundaries kind of expand to include your collaborators. All for one, one for all. I don’t mean, by the way, that I view writers as competitors if I am not collaborating with them. I don’t practice or approve of that model of being a writer at all.
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?
Well, if told you that now, I wouldn’t have to show up later! But seriously, I think the most important thing developing writers can do is read a lot, as widely as possible, and write as often as possible, preferably to a schedule.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
Yes, I’m working on something new right now. If all goes well, it will be done by the time of my stint at Odyssey, so perhaps I’ll be able to talk about it in more depth then. But I don’t really like to talk too much about projects I’m in the middle of; I find that doing so takes the wind out of my sails.