1. Where do you get your ideas? Ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere: from movies, TV, life experiences, books, chance remarks, pictures hanging on walls, etc. The trick is to take something seen or heard or read or feltor whateverand make it your own. For example, I once saw a poster by the artist Keith Parkinson showing a Werewolf necromancer in a swamp raising a skeleton from the depths of a bog. I looked at it for a while, really admiring the artwork, and I wondered just what the story behind the painting was all about. I turned it over and over in my mind, and while doing so, I was asked by John Silbersack, my editor at the time, to give him another Mithgar book. Keith's picture continued to tug at my mind, and finally I wrote The Eye of the Hunter, basing the character of Baron Stoke partially on that picture. Now the cool thing is, when an artist was chosen for the cover of Hunter, the art director picked Keith Parkinson, without ever knowing that his poster had triggered some of the ideas for Baron Stoke.
2. What is your typical writing day like? Well, I usually wake up between five and six a.m., read the newspaper while drinking coffee, ride my bicycle for a couple of hours (covering between twenty-five and twenty-six miles), eat breakfast, come into the computer room, read and answer e-mail and do a bit of net surfingare you bored out of your skull yet?take a shower, and then start writing or doing research for a story at about ten a.m. I usually take a break for lunch and watch the national news while doing so, and then get back to work. Typically, I knock off somewhere between four and five p.m., unless the story is really flowing, in which case I knock off whenever the flow knocks off. I usually eat dinner at about six p.m. Read or veg out in front of the TV. Hit the sack at about nine p.m. or so.
3. How long does it take to write a novel? I typically work five or six hours a day, five days a week (I usually take the weekends off). I produce about twenty five or thirty finished (polished) pages of manuscript a week on the average (sometimes I produce fifty or sixty pages a week, sometimes eight or ten), and my manuscripts usually run some eight hundred pages long. Doing the math, we see that the actual time it takes at the keyboard is about twenty-six or -seven weeks . . . call it six months. However, before I begin a manuscript, I spend a lot of time thinking about what story I'm going to tell, and inputting fragments and notes and bits of dialogue and scenes and descriptions of things and so on and on. So, much time goes into thinking before I begin to write the tale itself. I liken it to designing a software program, where the really good designers don't begin coding right away, but rather they lay out what the program needs to do, then they design the program to do that, and then and only then do they begin to code the program. Well, I design my stories, and then I code/input them. Also, after finishing a story, I like to goof off for a while (which is what I am doing while answering these FAQs). How long does it take to write a story? For me, I write one novel a year, each novel somewhere in the vicinity of 800 manuscript pages, about 200,000 words.
4. What are some of the "tricks" you use while writing? Tricks, eh? Well, you see, I have these million monkeys banging away on a million typewriters Oh, you don't believe me? Okay, here are some of the things I do to make my writing easier: I use month-at-a-glance calendars on which the phases of the moon are shown, and every day I jot down what the main characters did that day. That way, if the characters get separated, and it takes one of them a week to get from point A to point B, then if the other character also is going to point B, and it only takes him three days to get there, then he had better not immediately see the first character at point B. In other words, the calendar helps me keep the characters in sync. It also lets me keep track of the moon, the seasons, holidays, etc., for the characters. I also draw rough sketches of towns and castles and buildings and Dwarvenholts and Elvenholts and other such, so that it's rather easy for me to keep things straight. I also draw maps of various places on Mithgar, and I have a globe on which I have laid out Mithgar. I also keep extensive glossaries, with character descriptions, names of places, spellings, and so on. I keep translations of foreign words and phrases, so that I know what folks said in the foreign tongue; for this I have some thirty foreign-language-to-English dictionaries, ranging from Arabic to Turkish. I also have various really good English dictionaries [e.g., Webster Unabridged III; the Oxford English Dictionary; the American Heritage Talking Dictionary (a CD/ROM)]. I also have a really good thesaurus. I have some unnumbered number of reference books, from castles to arms and armor to Vikings and so on.
5. Yeah, but what is the most important trick you have in your writer's bag? Okay, for me this is it: I always tell myself the main thread of a story out loud as the key ingredient in my story design. Telling it out loud forces focus, rather than having a chaotic jumble of ideas all competing for attention. After I tell the main thread of the story out loud to myself, I write it down, and I use it as a roadmap for when I begin inputting the tale into the computer. What do I mean when I say "main thread?" Just this: say you went to a movie, and two hours later, you came out from the theater and a friend out there says, "What was the movie about? And by the way, I only have ten minutes for you to tell me." Well, you'd compress that two-hour movie into ten minutes, telling the highlights, throwing in bits of dialogue, describing particularly intense scenes, but getting through the entire movie in the time allotted. That's the main thread. It's somewhere between a synopsis and an outline and a description and so on. But the secret is to force yourself to focus on the main points of the story (and for me, it's telling it out loud), and write it down, and use it as guidance, knowing that when you actually begin writing the story, new ideas will occur, new scenes, etc., and you will take detours not shown on your roadmap. When this happens, check out the new ideas to see if they really mess up the story . . . and the way to check it out, is to tell the story out loud with the new idea thrown in to see if the story still works, to see if you need to change the roadmap, leave the map as it is, or throw out the new idea. You may really like the new idea, and to incorporate it you may need to go back and alter earlier chapters, foreshadow events, something to incorporate the new idea. Therefore, the main thread is a living creature, altering, evolving, changing as you go.
6. Are there any don'ts you advise against falling into? Yes. One is: never make it easy on your hero/heroine; and another is: never pull something out of your hip pocket that the reader isn't prepared to accept. You know, I almost never say never, but in the cast of these two "rules," I come close. In the first case, when you make it easy on your protagonists, it becomes boring. I mean, if the hero can simply do everything, is the smartest, fastest, strongest, most magical, most etc., then where is the challenge? It's much more interesting when the hero is totally outgunned, but still manages to pull through. In the second case, if you pull something out of your hip pocket that the reader isn't prepared to accept, then that's when the reader will snort in disgust and throw your book against the wall. For example, say your protagonists are trapped, about to buy the farm, but then one of them remembers that s/he has a magic doohickey that will get them out of trouble . . . and this magic doohickey has never been mentioned in the story until this very moment! That's pulling something out of your hip pocket that the reader isn't prepared for. This means, you gotta tell the reader about these things way ahead of timeit's called foreshadowingso that when the doohickey is used the reader is all set. In my stories, some of the doohickeys are thought to be one thing when they are something else altogether, but the reader has enough information so that when the real purpose of the doohickey is revealed, the reader smacks himself or herself in the forehead and says, "I knew that! But why didn't I think of it?" Those are the very best responses to get from a reader. Of course, sometimes you want the reader to be a bit ahead of the protagonists, and have the reader yelling, "Use the doohickey! Use the doohickey!" That's okay, too.
7. Why does it take so long to go from manuscript to a published novel? Because there are a lot of steps from finishing a manuscript to having a book sitting on the bookstore shelves. There's the editing, where an editor may (or may not) ask for some changes to the story. My editors usually don't ask for much, and even when they do, it's still mine to decide whether or not to actually make the change. For example, when asked if we really needed chapter X in story Y, I said that of course the story flows smoothly without the chapter because that's the way I wrote it, but that later on, the missing chapter would cause all sort of problems, for without it we'd miss foreshadowing several events, that the cover painting is based on that chapter. Needless to say, the chapter was retained. Then there's the copy-editing stage, where the manuscript is carefully checked for spelling errors, continuity errors (like, say, the name was Tipperton in chapter six, but Tipparton in chapter fourteen), punctuation errors, grammar errors, etc. Then there's picking an artist for the cover (this is done by the publisher's art director) and choosing (the editor makes the choice, with some input from me) a scene for the cover artist to make some pencil sketches of, for the art director to look at and confer with the editor (and me) about which is best, what changes might be asked for, and so on. Then there's the book design itself, choosing which font to use, choosing how chapter headers will look, choosing the typeface for the cover and the back cover and the spine, and whether or not to use foil or embossed letters or whatever. Then there's writing the "flap copy" and sometimes seeking cover blurbs from other authors, and sending out manuscripts or page proofs for them to read before supplying a blurb. And there's the scheduling of the sales meetings, where the editor "pitches" the book to the various buyers from the chain stores, as well as to their own sales force. Then there's fitting it into the publication schedule, where it competes on all these fronts with the other books the publisher needs to schedule or has scheduled. There's publicity to consider, such as adds in magazines and in bookstores, and how the book will be packaged for floor displays and other such. There's getting word up on the publisher's web site. In the meantime, the author gets back the copy-edited manuscript and he goes over the suggestions made by the editor and the copy editor, making some changes, refusing to make others. Then the copy-edited manuscript goes back to the editor, and s/he puts it into the typesetter's hands, and the typesetter and publication department produce what is known as "page proofs," where it's like having pages from the final book. These go back to the author, and s/he reads the page proofs very carefully, looking for errors of commission and of omission. Then these "author-corrected" page proofs go back to the editor, and from her to the typesetter, and that's the last stage of corrections before the presses run. And on and on. So, is it any wonder that it takes awhile for a manuscript to be turned into a book?
8. I've always wanted to write a book; what do I need to do? I smile because it reminds me of a joke: X: What do you do for a living? Y: I'm a writer. X: Oh, I've always wanted to write a book. I think I'll start tomorrow. Y: That's nice. By the way, what do you do for a living? X: I'm a brain surgeon. Y: Oh, I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon. I think I'll start tomorrow, too.
The whole point of the story is that writing is like any other profession, one which requires training and skills, be they formally taught or self-taught. In other words, to master the craft of writing you must first master the writing craft. And that means that you need to master the "tools" of writing, for you need to know how to spell, punctuate, paragraph, emphasize, know what a dependent clause is and what an independent clause is, have a sense for tense, know how to choose words which enhance the mood, the emotion, the atmosphere of the scene, know how to keep the scene moving forward, how to foreshadow, when to foreshadow, how to choose among words to pick just exactly the right one, how to see and deal with echoes, how to describe a character, how to avoid an expository infodump by scattering forward, etc., etc. These are all things which you should have learned in English class, in Composition and Rhetoric, in Literature classes, in your own wide reading (in my opinion you need to have read widely throughout other genres, other forms of literature). You need to learn how to think "outside the box," so that there is some creativity in your work and not just the rehashing of old ideas; although old ideas can provide the basis for your writing, they need fresh twists, new perspectives. One needs to know when and where to inject philosophy, when and where to inject poetic phrasing, when and where to inject detail and asides and history and background (and when and where not to do so for it bogs the story down and jerks the tension out of a scene), and how to keep the story moving forward instead of sideways or back. All of this can be learned on your own, and perhaps some have a natural facility for it, but good ideas alone do not a story make; you need to know how to put them on paper in an effective and gripping way. But upholding it all are the tools of writing, tools which you must master.
9. Okay, say I have mastered the writing tools, and now I am interested in writing a story. Do I need an agent? Whoa! How about we get first things first. Have you written a story? If not, why are you at this stage worrying about an agent? Write the story first.
10. Okay, now I have written a story. Do I need an agent? Well, if it's a short story (as opposed to a novel), many agents won't take on short-story writers; the agent simply cannot make a living with the commission from, say, a five-thousand-word story that typically pays six or seven cents a word. Do the math: 5000 X .06 = $300, of which the agent's commission is 15%, or $45.
11. No, it's a novel. Do I need an agent? Okay, first, many publishers will not accept unagented novels, so, in that case you perhaps do need an agent. However, some publishers still accept over-the-transom (unagented) manuscripts. You can find which is which by going to the library and looking in Writer's Market or in Literary Marketplace. They will list some guidelines, which you should follow. These two books also list agents and agencies.
12. I've heard that some agents charge reading fees, and they often recommend that the story is good, but that it needs some "fixing up," and so they recommend a book doctor. So, what about reading fees and book doctors? Lotsa scams out there, kiddo. Look, money should always flow to the author; my thinking is that if you have to pay someone to look at or to "fix" your story, it's probably a scam.
13. What's an agent good for; I mean, how does an agent earn the 15%? An agent is very knowledgeable in publishing contracts, and a good agent will make certain that you get the best terms and won't give away the farm. Also, an agent is known among publishers, and stories they submit to the editors are read before those which come in over the transom. You see, the agent acts as a "first reader," and so the editor knows that at least the story isn't written in crayon on toilet paper by someone who can't spell, has bad grammar, can't punctuate, tells a poor story, etc.
14. How should a manuscript be prepared? Oh, man, there are a bazillion books in the library which tell folks how to prepare a manuscript. (Research is one of the chief tools of a writer; and preparing a manuscript is easily researched.) However, now that I've slapped your wrist, make certain that your manuscript is on 8 1/2 by 11 inch, good white paper (not pink, green, blue, grey, manila, etc., or erasable paper, but plain old white). I set my left and right margins at 1.25" and the top and bottom margins at 1". On each page, in the header in 8 point type, I type the story name, my name, and the page number. In the main body of the story I use a 12 point, Courier New font, double-spaced, paragraphs indented three characters, no extra space between paragraphs, left-justified text. Courier New is a monospaced (as opposed to a proportional) font, and it makes it easier for the publisher to figure out just how many pages the final product will have, which is a cost consideration. All the bells and whistles of today's word processors are more-or-less wasted when it comes to manuscripts. Manuscripts for novels and short stories and novelettes and novellas are really bleak and simple in figure and form.
15. I have this really great idea for a story. How do I keep someone from stealing it? Do I need a copyright? First, ideas alone are not copyrightable. You have to have a story. It's the writing itself which is copyrighted. Second, no reputable publisher steals ideas or steals stories, for if they did, they'd quickly go out of business. Third, with the new copyright law (new? ha! 1978, I believe) as soon as something is written it is copyrighted. However, "proof" of copyright can be obtained by registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can get the forms to do so by contacting the copyright office. (Where? I don't remember, but a web search ought to turn it up.) If your story is published in a magazine or in novel form or in an anthology, the publisher registers your copyright.
16. What's the single most important thing about professional writing? Telling a good story well. That's really two things, though: 1) Having a good story to tell, and, 2) Telling it well. The library is full of books which talk about these things, so go do some research.
17. I have written a story, and I would like you to read it and give me your comments. Would you please read my story? Look, I cannot and will not read your story for three really good reasons: First, my opinion doesn't mean very much. I mean, if I liked it, then you and I would be pleased, but it wouldn't mean any more than that. If I didn't like it, then you would be upset, and that could upset me. Second, the only opinion that counts is yours unless you are trying to get it published, in which case the only opinion which counts is that of the acquiring editor. Look, if you are happy with the tale, then that may be enough for you. If you are happy but want others to read it, then look for a way to get it into their hands, which can range from personally giving them a copy to having it professionally published. If you want to see it in a professional publication, then find that acquiring editor (see Writer's Market or Literary Marketplace or any other number of books in your local library or via an inter-library loan to get guidelines and find publishers). Third, (and this is the most important reason) is a legal one, one my agent and lawyers warn me about. It goes like this: if I read your story and it just happens to be similar to one I am working on, then if I go ahead and have my story published I am opening up myself to a lawsuit. So, do not send me your stories unless and until it is published in a magazine, anthology, collection, pamphlet, novel, game book, etc. I simply cannot read it before then.
18. Here, I've an idea I'll give to you; you write the story and we'll split the profits. Okay? How about we turn that around, kiddo? I'll give you the idea and we'll split the profits. No? You say you are not the writer, but I am? Perhaps so, but you see, the writer is paid for the writing and not for the idea behind the story. Ideas are a dime a dozen (see above, Where do you get your ideas?). So, I'll tell you what: you give me a really good idea plus eleven more really good ones, and I'll give you a dime. :-)
I typically do not answer questions which would be a spoiler for someone who is on a journey through Mithgar. For example, if someone asked me, say, "Are the Chakia really female Dwarves?" or "What is the secret of the Chakia?", I wouldn't answer that question. I mean, it's a great secret, and so I won't reveal it unless I write about it in some future tale. So, if that's your kind of question, forget about it.
19. Is Silver Wolf, Black Falcon really your last Mithgar book? I may write a book of short stories to wrap up some loose ends, but, as I say in the foreword to Silver Wolf, Black Falcon (which can be found elsewhere on my web page), that novel completes the story arc I have been writing ever since I began the series. And anyway, afterwhat?fourteen or so Mithgar books, perhaps the series is ready to end.
20. The War of the Usurper occurred during the story arc; why isn't it one of the novels? The War of the Usurper is a political story, where someone (a usurper) takes the rightful throne of the High King and war results, the rightful heir winning the throne back in the end. The tale, then, doesn't properly fit in this particular story arc, as you will see when you read the entire series as it is currently written.
21. Your stories would make a really great movie, or a really great computer game, or a really great fantasy role-playing (FRP) game. Why don't you . . . ? Whoa! To make a movie these days with the special effects a Mithgarian story would need requires tens of millions of dollars (perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of fifty to one hundred million) to produce. If you'll put up the money, hey, we got a deal. As far as a computer game goes, there have been a couple of nibbles, but so far no one has stepped forward to do so. Concerning a FRP game, Iron Crown did approach me at one time to write a source book for them, but they couldn't afford me. (My own FRP group does, however, set its games in Mithgar.)
22. Will Aravan and Aylis ever get? Hold it right there, lady. That's one of the questions of the type I said I wouldn't answer. I mean, if I said Yes, then you would be disappointed because I spoiled a surprise, and if I said No then you would be disappointed because . . . aw, you get it. It's a lose/lose situation, neh?
23. Do you mind if I set a story in Mithgar? I'd rather you wouldn't, but it's permitted for your own personal use and enjoyment (such as one to read to your family; or to use in a private FRP game). But I would really, really mind if you wrote one for profit and/or public consumption.
24. What about fan fiction (fanfic)? Would you object to stories written by fans and set in Mithgar? I mean, don't other authors allow fans to set stories in their universes and publish them on the web or in fanzines? I realize that there are many folks who truly like Mithgar, and they are caught up in that world, but this is the way I make my living, and I do not want anything written which might compromise my rights to my own intellectual propertiescopyright, media rights, merchandise rights, audio rights, etc. And, yes, other authors have allowed fans to set stories in their universes, but such fanfic has caused any number of writers various problems: for example, Marion Zimmer Bradley had a problems caused by a writer writing in her Darkover universe, where Marion couldn't use a particular fan's idea because the writer of the fanfic wanted to share the copyright, hence jeopardizing Marion's own rights to her universe. Another example: Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has a character named St. Germaine, and a fan used that character without her permission in a fanzine story; Chelsea had to sue in order to protect her trademarked rights to that character, and the fan and fanzine had to print retractions in a number of issues of Publisher's Weekly. A final example: In my own case, a game company used Warrows as one of the races of folks in their game book; they didn't use Warrows as I had made them, but instead really bastardized them in character and in origin. They had to retract and change the name of that race of wee folk. But even had they used Warrows in the true Mithgarian sense, still they would have had to change, for they did so without my permission and without buying the rights to do so (even had they negotiated, I don't think they could have afforded me). Those are just three examples of the problems of using other folks' creations, a major problem with fanfic. Think on this as well: with any writer's creation, there is the original author's idea as to the nature and scope and makeup of his/her universe, and no one else can quite duplicate the look and feel. For example, Robert E. Howard's Conan stories are splendid and thundering adventures. Others have tried to write Conan stories, but no one has duplicated the magnificence of Howard; in fact, they pale by comparison. So my advise is this: Create your own universe. You'll be much happier with the outcome. And you won't step on the rights of others.
25. I am looking for Dragondoom, or The Brega Path, or etcetera, but I cannot find a copy. Can you help me? Occasionally a book of mine is temporarily out of print and hard to find, and in the case of Dragondoom, I have recently gotten the rights reverted to me, and Roc has agreed to reprint it; as to exactly when, that is currently being determined. Too, omnibus editions of The Iron Tower and The Silver Call will also be printed by Roc, The Iron Tower in December, 2000, and The Silver Call sometime in 2001. Until then, after you've scoured not only the regular the bookstores but also the used bookstores for a book you cannot find, you might try an on-line search (see "Links," elsewhere on my web page). Try http://www.bestbookbuy.com (it searches for the lowest price books among several major bookstores, chains, on-line booksellers, etc.; if looking for a used book, click on "used books" section) or try http://www.abebooks.com or http://www.bookfinder.com or http://www.bibliofind.com or go to http://www.barnesandnoble.com and click on the "out-of-print" icon at the right-hand top of the page and use that service. I suggest that you search only on my name (McKiernan, Dennis; or Dennis McKiernan; or however they ask for author's names). The reason for searching only on my name is that they almost always get that right, but often mess up the title of my books (I mean, is it Dragondoom or Dragon Doom? The Vulgmaster or The Vulg Master? Etc.), and computers are so blasted literal minded that they can't reconcile the difference and give you the alternative. What will pop up is a list of all the books of mine which they have in their data base. Search the list and perhaps you'll find what you are looking for. By the bye, all of these websites are here on my home page under the Links section. If a web search fails, you might try going to the huckster room at a local science fiction convention; booksellers there occasionally have some of my books, and the one you are looking for may be among them. Lastly, the local library might have it, or can arrange for an interlibrary loan from a library which does have it.
26. How did you get started writing Mithgarian novels? That's in the About the Author section at the end of many of my books. But briefly, I got run over by a car (while riding my dirt bike during an enduro), and when they put me in a hip-spica cast, which went from my armpits to down over my toes, I decided to write a novel simply to stay sane while in effect living in a cement block.
27. Is that the first professional writing that you ever did? Not really. I was writing for dirt bike magazines before that happened. It was, however, the first novel writing I ever did.
28. Why fantasy? I mean, I've heard you were an engineer, and it seems that fantasy is pretty far from technical writing. So, why did/do you write fantasy? Well, for sixteen hours a day while lying there in cement, I rode, swam, climbed mountains, fought desperate battles against perilous foes, saw fantastic vistas, listened to Elves and Dwarves tell tales to chill the heart or to warm it, and travelled through a wondrous world. All of it, as I said, while lying flat on my back in a cement block. I don't believe any other genre of literature could have done that for me.
29. Have you always been interested in fantasy, then? While growing up, I was an omnivorous reader, reading anything I could get my hands on, from adventure stories to mysteries to westerns to whatever. But science fiction and fantasy have always been my favorites. Too, I really liked fairy tales and Oz books and folk tales and other such stories closely allied with SF and fantasy.
30. Who is your favorite author? Other than myself, you mean? :-) I am not certain that I have a favorite author, but I do have various favorite stories: At the top of my list is JRRT's Lord of the Rings; I also like Patricia McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; I like James Michner's Hawaii and Centennial; Stephen King's Bag of Bones is particularly well written; Thomas Harris' Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs are both good; I also read a lot of mysteries in my spare time, and since I like "locked room" puzzles I like John Dickson Carr stories, for he was a master of these (he also wrote under the name of Carter Dickson and one other name which escapes me at the moment); I like Robert E. Howard's stuff, Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane; when I was a kid, I read scads of pulp magazines, and I did like Edmond Hamilton's and Leigh Brackett's Captain Future stories. But as to a favorite author, I can't single out any particular one, though I can single out particular stories from many different authors.
31. Is there anything else you'd like to tell us? Just this: read my books! :-)
But seriously, folks, if you have any questions, pop onto one of the message boards listed on the first page and fire away, or send me e-mail.