Elizabeth Bear was kind enough to share her insights and wit in talking about the writing process. Any interview that quotes Kurt Vonnegut is worth the read. Enjoy.
Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book? (If it varies, please keep one project in mind as you answer these questions.)
Elizabeth: It does vary.
A couple of things are consistent–when I’m a third of the way done, I have to stop and go back and rejig everything in the first third so it will support the rest of the book. And when I’ve gotten to the buildup to the climax, I always have to go back and find all the dangling plot threads and write them down so I can figure out what happens and in which order.
Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?
Elizabeth: The part I enjoy the most is finishing. Finishing things is good. Delivering them is even better!
But really, all of it is fun. Hard work, sometimes frustrating–but I try to hold on to the knowledge that at the baseline, I get paid to tell people stories. And that’s kind of cool.
Tamago: How do you know when something is working in your writing?
Elizabeth: I used to be able to tell by the feel, but these days I have to intellectualize it. Fortunately, I’ve built up a pretty good skill set over the course of the last twenty years or so, and my critical faculties get a workout.
But I am rarely satisfied by my own work.
Tamago: What is the longest time it’s taken you to complete a project? The shortest time?
Elizabeth: Blood and Iron took close to twenty years–I started it when I was in high school. I wrote By the Mountain Bound in about twenty days.
Deadlines mean sometimes I have to really force something–which is part of why I can’t always go by feel anymore, but have to engage in engineering.
Tamago: In what ways, if any, has your writing process changed over time?
Elizabeth: I don’t have a particular process. I work very hard not to get wedded to one, or to fetishize my writing habits. I need to be able to write anywhere, any time, under any circumstances. So if one thing isn’t working, I will switch it up and try something else–writing longhand, writing in a different software platform, in a different location, whatever.
Tamago: Do you find that your composing process varies when you write fantasy, as opposed to writing science fiction?
Elizabeth: I find my composing process varies from hour to hour!
Tamago: Do you work alone, or do you participate in a critique group? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages to your approach?
Elizabeth: I used to have a pretty tight critique group; currently they’re all pretty busy, and I’ve been going it alone a lot more often, Of course, everything published has editorial feedback involved.
The advantage of smart readers is obvious: they tell you what’s working and what’s not. The disadvantage is if you listen too intently to everything your crit group says, and try to be everything to everyone. As Kurt Vonnegut said, if you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, you’re going to catch cold.
And possibly get arrested.
Tamago: How many drafts of a project will you write? What do you do in each draft?
Elizabeth: As many drafts as it takes.
Some get one draft and a light polishing. Some get multiple ground-up rewrites over decades.
Tamago: Besides the big firsts (getting an agent, publishing your first novel), what moments have you had that made you think, “hey, I’m actually a writer?”
Elizabeth: Oh, it still hasn’t sunk in, most of the time. I fully expect at any moment that my publishers are going to call up apologetically and tell me it was all a huge mistake and can I please pay the money back.
I hope none of them hear this!
Tamago: What has been your favorite project to date?
I have a deep fondness for Ink & Steel and Hell & Earth… but of course my favorite project is the one I’m working on right now, which is the Eternal Sky trilogy, which is an epic fantasy set in a central-Asia-inspired world. The first book came out from Tor in March; book two is delivered for next year and I am working on book three. I love it madly, and am having so much fun playing in that particular sandbox it’s unreal.