Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Edward Willett Interview, Part 3

Robert: I'm always interested in a writer's process. Some writers write by just sitting down at the keyboard and letting things develop as they may; at the other end of the continuum are those that don't set pen to paper until they have a completed outline, a white board filled with timelines and thematic analysis, and a stack of index cards detailing each character, his/her growth, and their interaction with every other character. You've mentioned that Marseguro grew out of a scene you developed in a workshop, but that it was also the first time you sold the synopsis before writing the actual book. So where does your process normally fall on that continuum, and /or can you talk a bit more about how you wrote Marseguro.

Edward: The fact I sold Marseguro from a synopsis didn't really change my process too much. I always sit down and do a rough outline, just so I know where the plot is going to go before I start. I'll usually make quite a lot of notes about the world and the characters before I start, too. To create the synopsis, I just put all that stuff into one file and polished it a lot more than I would if it were for my own use.

Once I start writing, though, things certainly do develop as they may. Terra Insegura, the Marseguro sequel I'm working on now, is a case in point. I realized I needed to add a new viewpoint character fairly early on so that I could provide the reader with a view on some things happening in orbit while my other viewpoint characters were all on the ground. But once I created that character, he had to have his own agenda, and that agenda has now, as I approach the end of the book, forced me to completely replot the last 20,000 words or so. I don't mind, because I think it's an improvement over what I originally put in the synopsis, but I didn't realize it was going to happen when I created the character several weeks ago now.

And I think the last bit I wrote on Terra Insegura, just yesterday, may have some serious ramifications for my expected ending, as well, so again, despite having put a fairly detailed synopsis down on paper to sell the book, I'm also just sitting at the keyboard and letting things develop as they may.

The other thing about my process is that I write a complete first draft, and only then go back and rewrite and rearrange and polish. I very rarely back up and rewrite anything at this point: I just want to get a mass of words in place, so I have something to go back and shape. Even when I realize I've missed something important, I don't go back in the story during this stage of writing: instead, I just write a note to myself right in the text and carry on, something like: NEED SCENE DEFINING RICHARD AND EMILY'S RELATIONSHP ON MARSEGURO PRIOR TO MISSION, to give you an actual example.

Robert: My next question was going to be if your characters ever surprised you, but I see you've already answered that one. So I'll ask instead, is writer's block ever a problem for you? Or does it all pretty much flow from the outline? How long does it typically take you to write a book like Marseguro?

Edward:Depends on how you define writer's block. I can be a terrible procrastinator, which I suppose is a form of writer's block, but once I actually make myself sit at the keyboard, words come very easily. I sometimes think they're absolutely terrible words, and there always comes a point during the writing when I think the whole thing is a hopeless mess and who am I kidding?, but I've learned to push through that. I just tell myself I'll fix everything in the rewrite.

Asor how long it takes me to write a book like Marseguro...longer than it should. If I could work on nothing but fiction, I think I could do 3,000 to 5,000 words a day, which would give me a first draft in less than a month. In an ideal world, I'd then have time to share it with some first readers and gather feedback, then a leisurely month to rewrite the whole thing. But in the world I actually live in, I manage more like 1,500 to 2,000 words a day on a good day, so it takes me more like two months to write the first draft, then I rewrite as fast as I can to meet the deadline that I've already had extended slightly...

Either way, though, I guess it boils down to about three months or a bit more to produce the mansucript I give to the editor. Editorially suggested rewrites, on Marseguro, then took another four or five weeks.

Robert: You're complaining about 2000 words a day and three months to write a novel? You need to talk to those of us who have been grinding away on the same manuscript for 12 years! :-)

So out of all the words in Marseguro, which is you favorite bit? Your favorite scene, or your favorite piece of dialog?

Edward: 'm rather partial to the scene in which the killer robot chases Emily and Richard into the lava-tube caverns of Sawyer's Point, because it was fun to write, because Sawyer's Point is named after Rob Sawyer, in whose class the book began, and because its a mutated version of one of the first scenes I wrote, back when I was trying to make the tale fit into a short story.

Robert: Yeah! Killer Robots! Anyone who knows me knows that I am always advocating for more killer robots in Canadian SF. No, honest!

But it really is a good scene and a crucial one in the development of Richard's relationship with Emily, and in his own development. So let me just clarify for readers, these are not stupid Hollywood killer robots, but decently literary killer robots.

I'm not helping am I?

But it brings up a serious point. Both Lost in Translation and Marseguro are actioners, with strong narratives and strong characterizations, but you still manage to pack in a lot of literary value: complex ethical issues, the evils of intolerance and prejudice and the importance of karma, that you mentioned earlier in this interview. So how consciously do you balance those two elements? Does it all just flow out, or do you have to work in the outline to get the right balance of killer robots and philosophical content?

Edward: 'd have to say that the killer robots come first, then I add in the other stuff.

I'm interested primarily in telling a good story. That's where the action comes in. I love space battles and killer robots and all that good old space opera stuff. But when it comes to the characters, I try to make them as much like real people as I can. The mixture of realistic characters with extraordinary events is automatically going to bring up complex ethical issues, just as it does in real life. We all struggle with our conscience every day as we choose what actions to commit. Sometimes the choice is clear-cut, sometimes it's a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. Sometimes we do something in the heat of the moment we bitterly regret later, but we still have to live with the consequences of our actions. All these things should apply to fictional characters, too, no matter how speculative the situations in which they find themselves.

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