Biography of a Writer: in three parts
Originally written in 1999; revised and updated 2008
I remember writing my first story when I was in fourth grade. The tale dealt with the adventures of a pirate dragon, who was misunderstood by the humans who lived in a nearby village. In sixth grade I wrote and illustrated a childrens book about a puppy, called "Spotty Gets Lost." It is safe to say that the illustrations were the most creative element, and fortunately there was a happy ending. In seventh grade I wrote a sequel, "Spotty Goes To The Beach," inspired by my familys trips to the Oregon coast.
Children are assigned writing projects in school all the time. Certainly my own children were given writing projects and writing workshops in their classrooms.
So the question remains: why do some people keep writing and indeed get obsessed with it? How did I become a writer?.
Im not sure how well any of us can reconstruct what we did and more particularly why we did it. When I was a pre-teen, my brother and I drew maps and then devised stories set in those places. Later, in junior high, we designed a space ship and signed up kids in our classes (he was a year older than me) to be part of the crew. I was going to be the astrogator, the made-up word for stellar navigator. In retrospect, I suppose that writing fiction is a form of navigation: Im the person who pilots the reader through the plot.
Writing appealed to me as a teenager because, in part, it was a way to explore other worlds, to live for a time in a more exotic landscape. Just about anything was more exotic than the small town in Oregon where I grew up.
Without question, the biggest influence on my reading and writing as a teenager was J.R.R.Tolkiens THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which I read in or around eighth grade. Few of the many stories I wrote over the next four years bore much resemblance to Middle Earth, but all of them without exception took place in fantasy or science fictional worlds. In fact, Id lump them all together as fantasy worlds, no matter whether the setting was the as-yet-unknown future or the forever-unobtainable past, because the science fictional worlds as much as the fantasy ones were about exploring a universe far beyond the one I lived in.
I wrote my first major project in 9th grade in tandem with my then-best-friend, Dawn H: we drew maps and wrote stories about two pairs of adventurers, meant to be as ribald and provocative as fairly sheltered small town girls could imagine. I note in retrospect that these initial heroes were male--nothing against male heroes, as I write them all the time, only that in those days we assumed that to be a hero you had to be male.
In 10th grade I wrote a long story about traveling musicians in a fantasy world. In 11th grade I began my first extended world building project, for a land called Thedeth that included wizards, winged horses, the earliest iteration of the Eika (called dragonmen), a map, and a glossary of over 1000 words, although I didnt know enough about grammar to build an actual functional language.
My first extended novel-length piece I wrote during 11th and 12th grades, banging out much of it over the summer on a typewriter. It was set in yet another world, and detailed the stories of three princesses who leave the palace and have an adventure (and romance). Female heroes at last!
The most characteristic feature of all these early projects was that I rarely finished them. I have multiple file folders full of half starts and false starts and notes and ideas, most of them, quite honestly, not particularly original, but none of them a waste of time: its this constant working through of the process that lays the foundation for serious work later.
In college I finally finished a novel, one set in the world of Thedeth, called WHEN WINTER COMES. It currently resides in a trunk in my attic. The fairest thing I can say about it is that it shows promise. I also wrote (and finished) a novella about a young noblewoman who is taken captive, and I began a more ambitious project, a fantasy re-telling of the Roman invasion and conquest of Britain, in which Britain is an island called Clywegnte and the Romans are called the Hentir.
This project was a watershed for me: for the first time, I did actual research on a historical period in order to build a world that had greater verisimilitude than a fantasy world made up out of generic whole cloth. For instance, at one point the main character, on his way home, crosses a stretch of marshland by following a causeway built through the marshland to carry foot traffic; in the fourth Crown of Stars book I describe a similar causeway constructed through fenlands, although in this case its built out of wood, not of stone.
I also made extensive notes on the history of the world, and, also for the first time, wrote selections from the literature of the world to scatter throughout the text. I consider this unfinished novel to be my first real exercise in serious world-building. The actual writing is no better than one would expect, but the world building still holds up after all these years.
Also, in this unfinished novel a theme crops up that has been present in everything Ive written since: a sense of the historical process. The main character, Jasomme, is a boy of 18 who will experience the initial conquest as well as the (ultimately futile) resistance; his experiences lead him to become, in the Roman way, an historian, the first known among his people, and as an old man he writes a history of the conquest.
A sense of history pervades my writing, this idea that nothing is static, that things change, and that actions have consequences and those consequences, many of them unintended, lead to further choices and actions. All of my books explore this understanding of life. Even writing this small essay examines the flow of history, the sequence of events and choices that led me to become a professional writer.
The Next Big Step
The genesis of JARAN cant be understood without peeking into my file cabinet, which contains several file folders of material labeled Rhui. My brother Karsten and I spent a lot of time in secondary school drawing maps of a planet called Rhui, writing mock correspondence between various fleet captains and administrators, and naming the other planets in the system as well as outlining a basic history of its colonization.
JARAN grew in part out of this material and in part out of various books I was reading at the time (the last year of college and post-college), such as "And Quiet Flows the Don," by Russian author Mikhail Sholokhov, and--of all things--a western by Clair Huffacker called "The Cowboy and the Cossack." In fact, were you to read the latter book, you would discover one clear parallel, or borrowing, that I made from the latter book: when an experienced hand shows a greenhorn just how much the greenhorn doesnt know by taking him scouting. As they sometimes say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
I wrote the first draft of JARAN in 1981. Its really pretty unreadable, and while the basic story is recognizable, the truth is that I needed ten years to turn that basic sound idea into a real, workable novel with depth and complexity.
Over the next ten years, at various times and between working on other projects, I wrote seven drafts of JARAN. The seventh draft I sold to DAW Books in 1991, after which, at the direction of my editor, Sheila Gilbert, I revised the novel for an eighth time.
In other words, usually the "secret" of success is simply hard work, and not giving up. Together, those add up to Persistence.
Meanwhile, frustrated by my inability to sell JARAN (and it was a good thing I didnt publish any of those earlier drafts!), I worked on other novels. The summer after I finished JARAN, I wrote one of its sequels, then titled HIS OTHER SON. When, in 1992, I rewrote this sequel, giving it the title THE LAW OF BECOMING, I threw out that entire early manuscript and wrote the book over from scratch. It is a completely different novel (and a much better one).
I tried to sell both WHEN WINTER COMES and JARAN in the early 80s, without success. In time, I decided to work on something completely different, a space opera with a lot of action. I specifically set myself goals with this new project: I wanted to write about a protagonist who wasnt particularly introspective, who acted before she thought, and I wanted to work on pacing, the ability to make the story move forward quickly.
I wrote what became the first Highroad novel, A PASSAGE OF STARS, and outlined a trilogy based on the anthropological concept of coming of age rituals in which a young person first leaves the group, then exists in a liminal phase (outside the boundaries of her world), before finally reentering her world as an adult (that is, with a new role to play in her society). [If you want to read more about this process, try Victor Turners THE RITUAL PROCESS.]
This idea of tackling a different element of craft in each new project has become part of my writing process. Like most writers, I have strengths and weaknesses as a writer. At the time of writing A PASSAGE OF STARS I consciously chose, as I have done ever since, to pick one element of writing, such as pacing, style, or dialogue, at which I wasnt very good and focus on improving in that element for the project. In retrospect, I cant always remember which precise element I worked on during any given project, but I do feel as if my craft has improved slowly but steadily over the course of my career.
I also learned at this time to listen to the compassionate and ruthless criticism of others. Fantasy and historical novelist Judith Tarr read the first draft of A PASSAGE OF STARS and sent me 2-3 pages of cogent, and harsh, criticism. After recovering from my shock, I realized what a treasure trove of information she had so kindly offered me (after all, she wasnt getting paid for her time; she had read the book as a favor to her then-agent).
Criticism from readers with a sharp eye is priceless, no matter what stage of the writing process youre in and no matter how good you may or may not be. Equally, however, criticism from readers who dont respect the basic content or who persist in placing themselves into the writing process by telling you what you ought to be writing rather than where the text isnt communicating to the reader is not of much use to a writer. Its important to learn to tell the difference.
The re-written A PASSAGE OF STARS got me my first professional sale. I had managed to get an agent, and in 1987 said agent sent A PASSAGE OF STARS to Betsy Mitchell at Baen Books. Mitchell didnt want A PASSAGE OF STARS but she did buy an as-yet-unwritten fantasy novel on the basis of an outline.
Thus, my first published novel was actually--if one counts the sprawling and unfinished novel I wrote in high school--the sixth novel I wrote.
Eighteen books and three kids in twenty years: Dont try this at home!
I got the news of my first professional sale the same month I found out I was pregnant. For me, books and babies are inextricably intertwined. I cant imagine one without the other, or vice versa. Years and years ago, back in the dark ages, those few women who did write (or who wished for a career in any field) were usually told that they had to choose between books and babies (or a career and a family). Fortunately, thats usually no longer the case.
Would my life be easier if I had chosen to have children and either not write or put off writing until my children were grown, or if I had chosen not to have children and devote my life to writing? Certainly.
But I refused to make that "either-or" choice. Nor would I accept the idea that I could only do one or the other. Its hard to know if I would have been a better parent if I hadnt also been a writer, although I know that at times when the frustration or, more commonly, the boredom of raising small children overwhelmed me, writing was my sanity.
I do know that being a parent has made me a better writer.
Let me hastily note that, to paraphrase Ursula Le Guin in her wonderful essay about motherhood and writing, "The Fisherwomans Daughter," [published as part of the collection DANCING AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD] I dont think mothers ought to write (unless they want to) or that writers ought to have children (unless they want to).
Each person needs to find that path in life that will work for her, if shes lucky enough to have a choice. I try never to forget that many people have no such choice about which road theyre going to take, and over the course of my career Ive attempted to write about the varying degrees of freedom people have and how they adapt, conform, or rebel.
A quick bibliography will suffice to summarize my work in the last twenty years:
I wrote THE LABYRINTH GATE in 1987 while pregnant with my daughter; it was published in December 1988 when my daughter was a little over a year old.
During 1988 I revised A PASSAGE OF STARS and wrote REVOLUTIONS SHORE. I wrote THE PRICE OF RANSOM in 1989, finishing about three quarters of it while I was pregnant with twins and finishing it after their birth. As I sometimes quip, the book was due in August and the babies in October, but the babies arrived in August and the book was finished in October. These three books, comprising the HIGHROAD trilogy, were published in February, July, and October 1990.
In the fall of 1990 I did a major rewrite of JARAN--this counted as the seventh revision. DAW Books bought JARAN in the spring of 1991, after which I did a final (eighth) revision.
I then tackled the book whose working title was THE BARBARIAN YEAR, which was published as the two-part THE SWORD OF HEAVEN (Part One: An Earthly Crown & Part Two: His Conquering Sword). The first draft amounted to about 1400 pages, which were subsequently split into two volumes even though it is a single novel. Because I had been making notes on this novel for ten years before I wrote it, it wrote very quickly indeed. I call it my "Mozart" novel because of the speed it flowed out of me: 1400 pages in nine months. Of course, I subsequently did revisions (as I always do), but overall THE SWORD OF HEAVEN is probably the "cleanest" book Ive ever written. Its two parts were published in March and June 1993.
Not surprisingly, I followed my "Mozart" novel with my "Beethoven" novel. Writing THE LAW OF BECOMING (another title change, this time from HIS OTHER SON) was like hacking through the jungle into unknown country. It was both a challenge and a pleasure to write, precisely because it was such a difficult work to get on the page. It did take me longer than any previous work to write, and because of that THE LAW OF BECOMING didnt come out until October 1994.
At this point I set my sights on two new projects: a major collaboration with fantasy authors Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Robersen, and a fantasy series. Ive written elsewhere that I needed a break from the Jaran series so that it wouldnt go stale. I have to admit that I didnt expect the break to last this long; I still have more novels to write in the universe of the Jaran.
Ive written elsewhere about the collaboration with Melanie and Jennifer. THE GOLDEN KEY was published in the USA by DAW Books in the fall of 1996, by Pan/Macmillan in the spring of 1997, and by Goldmann, in a German translation taking up three volumes, in 1997-98. It was also published in Russian and Hebrew.
As soon as THE GOLDEN KEY was turned in, I got back to work on KINGS DRAGON, the first of the Crown of Stars fantasy series. I had written a portion of this novel some years previously, and now I did extensive revisions and finished it. After that, I wrote PRINCE OF DOGS. The most interesting aspect of writing PRINCE OF DOGS happened when I got about two thirds of the way through the first draft and suddenly realized that I had never dealt with the fall out from the Eika takeover of the city of Gent. I went back to the beginning and added the story of Anna, the refugee girl, to echo the story of Sanglants rescue.
THE BURNING STONE proved a difficult book to write because during its composition my family spent six months in a small town in Mexico while my husband did field work for his dissertation research. Because of its length and because of the complications involved in living in a foreign country, the novel took me longer to finish than I had hoped or expected. For that reason, it didnt come out one year after PRINCE OF DOGS but rather 14 months later.
As readers know, the subsequent books in the Crown of Stars series took a long time to write as the storys complications grew, and then, of course, I had to weave them all back together again for the finale. I wrote much of CHILD OF FLAME in Copenhagen, Denmark, while my spouse was a guest lecturer at the University of Copenhagen. Adicas inspiration (and progenitor) is a young woman dated to the Bronze Age whose remains lie in the National Museum. She was buried with the clothing and ornaments that Adica is described as wearing in the book.
THE GATHERING STORM followed, although by the time it was published we had been forced to move to Hawaii because my spouse had taken a job here as a forensic anthropologist at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. I then finished writing Crown of Stars in a single huge volume which was so large it was split into two volumes for publication: IN THE RUINS and CROWN OF STARS.
By this time I had already begun working on the Crossroads Series, so SPIRIT GATE, its first volume, was published fairly quickly after CROWN OF STARS (#7). The second book, SHADOW GATE, was another extremely difficult book to write both because of its somewhat darker content, exploring the ramifications of war and slavery, but also because I once again ran up against the most unexpected aspect of writing professionally: it never does get any easier. Indeed, in many ways it gets harder with each book.
I had an idea, when I was an aspiring writer dreaming of getting my first novel published, that once I worked full time writing it would flow like a river, easy and fresh. Little did I know that in fact writing professionally is more like the trip of the African Queen, in the Bogart/Hepburn movie of the same name: much harder work than I ever thought it would be.
That mirage, "the perfect novel," keeps receding into the distance before me, and I keep pursuing it, knowing that it is a mirage and that in the end I just have to do the best I can with each novel. So, if youll excuse me, Ill get back to dragging my boat down that river.