An interview! A first here at Just Book Reading — I promised changes and this interview is the kickoff in that new direction.
First, I want to thank Barbara for taking the time to answer a few questions for me. She’s been incredible generous with her time and I very much appreciate her participating in this little experiment.
Before we get to part of one of the interview, a few words about Barbara. She’s the founder of Mercury Retrograde Press, an entrepreneur, writer, businesswoman and incredibly creative person. Barbara is the author of The Shadow of the Sun, the first book in The Way of the Gods series. Her second book in the series, The Heart of Darkness, is in the works. Her full bio is here and I encourage to head over to Mercury Retrograde Press and take a look around as well.
Part one of the interview will focus on the writing process. And, we begin!
Amy @ Just Book Reading: Let’s start with the writing. Every author has a different approach to the writing process. Can you tell us how you prepare to write and a bit about your process, if there is one? Is it different for each book or do you have a system you try to follow?
Barbara Friend Ish: To call how I proceed a system would be to over-glorify it. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer by nature; as I’ve developed my craft, I’ve leaned to do more with planning, but I will never be the sort of writer who outlines before writing and then sticks with the outline. I’ll never be at all efficient.
I generally start a project with a question. These questions aren’t always intended as story fodder; sometimes they’re just mysteries that intrigue me which eventually find their ways into story. The series I’m working on now, The Way of the Gods, began with questions about the nature of godhood: If gods (note the plural) exist, where would they come from? What would be the source of their power? Once I’ve got a question knocking around in my head, I start reading sources that I hope will provide answers. I begin to work on theories. I suppose you might consider this activity worldbuilding, in the sense that I’m working out the rules and frameworks within which my story will play out.
Meanwhile, the things I’m reading and thinking about begin to suggest characters to me. As writers we know that the protagonist of any story is the one who suffers the most at the hands of the story problem; so the characters and the story problem, which may or may not be the same issue as the question that began this mess, evolve simultaneously. Bits of plot and conflict erupt like popcorn thunderstorms in my fevered little head. Finally I reach the point where I’ve got so much half-formed idea in my head, so much sketched-in plot, that I conclude I know what the story is about and where it’s going to end up, and I start thinking about the place to begin. Once I’ve got that, I jump in and start writing.
I generally write approximately two drafts. I say approximately because I write a first draft, a discovery draft, in a way that seems to be pretty normal: just writing forward, telling myself the story. When I finish that draft, I know what the story is really about, so I sit down and do in-depth analysis and plot planning, and then write a second draft.
My second draft process is not normal. I write generally forward rather than skipping around, but I tinker endlessly with what has already been written. By the time I get to the end of the second draft, I’ll have been over a given scene multiple, sometimes dozens of times. At this point each scene will be as developed as I can make it without input from other eyes, so I don’t do another edit pass at this point. I go to review: my first readers, who typically have already seen chunks of the novel during development, and then my beta readers.
These early readers are invaluable. They allow me to see the story from other angles, detect story flaws and missed opportunities and places where the words just didn’t work the way I thought they did. I take in all their notes and objections, make whatever changes are necessary, and then the book goes to editorial.
Believe it or not, this is a very condensed version of the lunacy. Rather than take over your blog I’ve gone into more detail on my own, here.
Amy: Go read. We’re going to discuss more about the writing process over at Barbara’s blog. We’ll be here when you get back with more of the interview.
Amy: What inspires you as a writer and how do you nurture your creativity?
Barbara: Nurturing creativity is not something for which I should be held up as an example. I’ve done a rotten job of it for myself in the past few years; an ironic contrast to how hard I worked to create a safe environment for creative folk at Mercury Retrograde. All the rules I made there seemed to apply to everyone but me, and that’s no one’s fault but my own.
So, do what I say, not what I do.
What I know I need to nurture my creativity is pretty much the opposite of how we are told professional artists should behave. I’ve participated in workshops for writers that consciously cultivated a boot-camp attitude. The Next Big Thing for writers is the idea—and associated practices—of producing ten thousand words a day. I have great admiration for writers who are able to create art under those circumstances. But those practices are not for everyone, and it is possible to be a thriving professional without them. Productivity does not presuppose misery. For me, the periods of greatest productivity have happened when I’ve put no pressure whatsoever on myself to produce. When I’ve actually been happy, and have viewed the work as a sort of serious play.
Serious play? I will try to explain. I need—I think most people, and creative people especially, feel this too–to feel the work I’m doing is important; that it matters. It can verge on a spiritual practice. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I view what I’m doing, on both sides of the desk, as art: not entertainment to be consumed and forgotten, but work that will have impact on the people who receive it, that will stay with them long after they set down the book. The ideas I’m exploring matter to me—and, conversations with readers suggest, to people who enjoy my work as well. This sense of making art, of doing something that matters, is for me the first prerequisite of a healthy creative life.
Other needs include a quiet, safe space in which to work (though early in my career I wrote at a desk in my children’s playroom, wearing headphones and listening to ear-bleeding alt-rock to drown out all but the noises that required my attention)—and the sense that I’m not stealing time from someone who needs it more. I go to great lengths to create the feeling that the world can’t see me when I’m in my writing space. I need that sense in order to be able to write true, without worrying about what this person or that will think about the story as it evolves. Because the minute I let those sorts of concerns into the room, I must abandon making art, because art stripped of unflinching truth is popular entertainment. And the big-box stores are full of that already.
What inspires me as a writer: questions; mysteries. All the things I can’t quite understand, and that includes topics ranging from the grand unified theory of physics to the inner workings of my husband’s mind. My ideal story includes both those topics, which is why I work in speculative fiction: this genre has been described as the literature of ideas, and in many cases it’s only through the tools available to us in genre that I can get at the ideas I want to explore.
Amy: Into every book goes a bit of research. What type of research do you enjoy the most and what’s the most interesting fact you’ve come across?
Barbara: When you work in spec fic, more than a bit of research! They used to say in Department of Defense contracting (and maybe they still do, but I don’t know) that the plane wouldn’t fly until the documentation weighed as much as the aircraft itself. At least for me, every paragraph on the page is the result of at least the same amount of research material read.
I love the research that lights up my imagination. There are people who delight in digging into original source materials to find the least atom of data; I prefer broader sweeps of information. I like to put totally unrelated ideas together and come up with unpredictable results; I like to read history or science or esoteric literature or any of a dozen other topics and follow the little sparks of ideas that emerge–into story ideas that not only will no one else ever have, but which I wouldn’t have at any other point in my life.
It’s hard to isolate a single most interesting fact, because there are so many. I think my favorite ideas are tied up with the word egregore, which is an esoteric concept signifying a thought construct: literally, something that never existed until someone thought it up, and which would cease to exist in the absence of people’s belief in it.
Modern currency is an egregore. Those pieces of paper we exchange for food at the grocery store are worthless, except that we all agree they have value. The electronic currency that threatens to replace it is more esoteric yet.
I can’t be held responsible for what will happen to your mind if you follow the concept of the egregore through its various applications to its logical conclusion. But I can guarantee it’s an unforgettable ride, and that’s why it’s arguably my favorite.
Amy: I know you have a few pets, cats, I believe. While I don’t have any cats myself, I know a few with very strong personalities. Do any of their personality traits ever show up in a character? Also, do you have pics to share? I’m a sucker for pet photos.
Barbara: I am a cat person. I cannot recall a period during my adult life that was longer than a couple weeks during which I didn’t do the bidding of at least one cat. Presently I am slave to two cats: brothers and littermates Fergus and Niall.
(Fergus is fluffy; Niall is not.) Because I live in the part of Atlanta that is frequented by coyotes, their idea of the great outdoors is my second-floor deck. But they spend their days protecting me just the same.
I’ve known writers who reincarnated their pets as characters. I’ve edited books in which that happened, though I’m not going to out those writers here. But for the life of me I can’t draw any substantive connection between any cat I’ve ever known and any character I’ve ever written.
For what it’s worth, it’s the same with the humans in my life. Although I know people who would tell you they were the inspirations for certain aspects of certain characters in my work.
Amy: Thanks, Barbara, for talking about your writing process and sharing photos! We’ll be back on the 27th with part two. Join us on Friday.