Author Interview: Em Lehrer

UPDATE: I think I have finally figured out how to make the “Like” button work consistently, so if any of Em’s reader’s find their way here, you can now “Like” this post.

Em Lehrer is the author of a novel, a movie script, and several short stories. She is working on her novel Candy Wrappers, the first book in The Gravestone Chronicles. She has also has a fun blog that’s oriented toward writing. In particular, check out her fascinating author interviews section, but watch out for the addiction factor; I almost got sucked into archive-gorging there for hours. I recently had a chance to throw some interview questions at Em.

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1. What writing habits are most effective for you?

Writing habits are tricky. When I get into it, I find myself writing for an hour or two every day, usually at the same time every day. Then, if I skip a day, I’m thrown off and I need to force myself back into the habit.

I always find that having a word count goal per day helps me keep on track. If I know how many words I want to get down in the document, then I have something to work towards, and I’m able to stay more focused in my hour or two of writing per day.

2. Do you have any advice about the craft of writing for writers or aspiring writers?

I think the most important advice is to remember your own voice. Every writer has a slightly different writing style, and that’s what makes them special. It’s okay if your writing doesn’t read like your favorite authors, that’s what makes it unique.

Another thing to remember is that no writing is perfect on the first try. Don’t get discouraged because your first draft isn’t perfect. Edit and rewrite and work on your manuscript until you think it is perfect. Then get an outside opinion or two. You learn through your mistakes, and every attempt at writing is another lessoned learned.

3. What’s a fact about you that your readers might be surprised to know?

This is a tricky question… I don’t think there is much about me that is surprising. The most interesting thing about me at the moment is where I live; which is in Dominica, a small island in the Caribbean. I’ve been here for four years and am moving back to the USA this fall for school.

4. Tell me about your current working novel, Candy Wrappers, the first book in The Gravestone Chronicles. What was the original idea behind it?

Candy Wrappers has been a work in progress for a long time. I originally had the idea back in sixth grade, when I drew a picture of a monster creeping out from under a cabinet and grabbing a candy wrapper from under a rug. The idea has much evolved since then and I started writing the actual manuscript in March.

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The running idea is a girl (currently named Malia, but that may change) goes to her summer home after the murder of her parents to say her final goodbyes. While she is there she discovers that demons may actually exist, and they may be the real reason behind the death of her parents.

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5. What do you primarily care about in your writing? E.g., story, good prose, characters…

Most of my stories start with a plot, which more often than not comes to me at some random time for no apparent reason. I do my best to develop the plot first, and the characters and setting etc. fall into place.

When I’m actually writing, I do my best to watch my writing. I tend to get very ‘heavy’ and do my best to keep my writing ‘light’ (if that makes any sense at all). Other than that I just let the words flow and fix up anything I don’t like in the editing.

6. What’s the best thing about writing/being a writer?

Probably the fact that I can create anything I want and bring it to life through words. I think that writing is like magic; absolutely anything is possible. That, to me, is amazing.

7. What reaction(s) do you hope your work inspires in your readers?

There is nothing in particular I try to instill in my readers. My main hope is that readers enjoy my writing, and are able to get lost in the world that I have created (in a good way of course).

Thanks for the interview, Em!

You can find Em at these other sites:

Her blog, Keystroke

On Twitter

On Facebook

Her podcast

Don’t Develop a Style

An unfortunate piece of advice is to tell aspiring writers to develop a style. Aargh! No no no no no! That’s the LAST thing you should be doing. You can’t help having a style any more than you can help speaking with a particular accent. It’s literally not possible.

Now your writing might suck, but not because you don’t have a style. Maybe it SUX because you don’t understand subject-verb agreement or when to use apostrophes. Maybe it SUX because you try to be funny but aren’t, or are funny unintentionally. That equals SUX. It’s also true that lots of stuff that sux, sux in the same way – e.g., a lot of people don’t, in fact, know how to wield apostrophes – but what matters is the fact that it sux, not (only) the fact that it sux in a way that’s similar to other people’s sucky writing.

That’s a different problem from not having a style. If you’re “trying to develop a style,” you’ve got it all wrong.

Writing is a human mind on paper, and reading that writer’s work takes you into his/her mind. It takes you into their world. Borges was pure imagination and intelligence; his prose was crystalline (even in translation this is obvious) so you could perceive the ideas with no distractions. Heinlein was optimistic and folksy, and his amusing dialogue (after his first few stories) conveys this. Susanna Clarke is very English, at least from this American reader’s point of view, and is interested in what England circa 1800 would have been like if the old, dark fairy tales had been true. She explores this in the style of a novel of around that time. (Hence the comparisons to Jane Austen, if Austen had been on acid.) Bester was all about intense, driven characters, and his relentless, flooring-the-gas-pedal pacing is part of a style that matches his subjects. Lev Grossman, in The Magicians series, takes you into what magic would actually be like if actual North American twenty-something hypersmarties actually got their hands on it. He presents his fictional world with asides about particle physics and cellular automata, the way they’d view it. And so on.

The point is: If you self-consciously “try” to develop a style, you’re muting your own unique view of the world. DON’T DO THAT! Let your own style, your own take on things, flow out of you naturally. It’s one of your few items of stock in trade, and the only one on which nobody else can compete with you.

You don’t have to limit yourself to one kind of work. You can (and probably should) write humor and drama, etc. But your kind of humor story and your kind of drama story should – must, if you are to be any good – be yours, naturally yours, not the result of you trying to do something other than write naturally, the way [insert your name here]’s mind writes.

A Vision: Fantasy Unchained

No world-building except that necessary for the story.

Fantasy does not need complicated genealogies, fully-worked-out artificial languages, or laboriously detailed history. Freed of such distractions, fantasy flies. Fantasy is
Unencumbered
Unrestrained
Unchained.

Q: “So you’re on a crusade against world-building?”
A: Not necessarily. There’s no need to choose one approach; that would be like saying that a toolbox should have either a hammer or a screwdriver, not both. However, one might suspect the detailed world-building era was just that, an era, a historical episode in fantasy and the other world-building genre, science fiction.

Think of the best-loved world-building works in fantasy and sci-fi. In fantasy it’s The Lord of the Rings and in sci-fi it’s Dune. The reason people admired the world-building in The Lord of the Rings was that it was the first work in fantasy to feature such detail, and Dune was, if not the first, one of the first in sci-fi to feature it. That is, a lot of the appeal was the novelty. More than half a century after The Lord of the Rings, and more than a third of a century after Dune, the novelty has worn off. At least, the super-detailed world-building should be allowed to lie fallow for a while.

Also, world-building has become a self-indulgence of some authors. It is a self-indulgence when a story that could unfold in 350 pages unfolds in 500 due to the inclusion of unnecessary background. I once flipped through a fantasy novel that described mourning rituals at funerals in excruciating detail. It was utterly irrelevant to the story. There is something almost masturbatory about it. It is especially pitiful when the author obviously thought, “By God, I spent 100 hours fleshing out this world, and I am damn well going to get some use out of that 100 hours, so I’m going to shoehorn in the names of all 68 of my fictional religion’s deities if it kills me!”

In constructing my fantasy setting I could have dumped a kiloton of material from my area of expertise, which is relevant for world-building, into the novel. But why? It would hurt the pacing and really, would just be me showing off.

There is a venerable notion that “Human beings live by the stories they tell.” You have never heard “Human beings live by the fictional elf languages they create.” There is a reason for this.

If I’ve done my job the way I wanted to, I grab you by the hair and take you on a divebomb from the front cover to the back cover. You barely remember to breathe or blink, let alone be detained by the heroine’s genealogy.

Querying and Entropy

Information theory tells us that the more information there is in a text string, the less compressible it is. Similarly, the better a novel, the more it resists being summarized. Of course, in information theory, “information” is maximized when the string is completely random. Hmmm, that’s not how we use the word “information” in everyday discourse. Straddling both meanings, the less predictable the string/novel is, and the more there is going on in it, the more resistant to compression/summarizing it is. A good novel will surprise you.

But better novels are written by better writers. Better writers might be more skilled at summarizing, as well as writing novels. Er, maybe. Overall, it seems likely that the difficulty of summarizing a brilliant novel overwhelms the better skill.

Me: “I’m having a hard time writing a query I’m happy with.”
Claude Shannon: “Fantastic!”

Tight writing II

Another problem with “writing as tightness” is that it would prevent the writer from surprising the reader. This is because, if writers only included vital details, eventually readers would figure out that every detail is vital. This would let them anticipate things that were supposed to be surprises.

An example: Suppose that in the last ten pages of your novel, it turns out to be vital that the hero knows how to speak Russian. You must set this up earlier in the novel to avoid a deux ex machina, so on page 30 you mention that when he was in college, your hero took Russian language classes. Now your readers know that this will be vital later, because they know you only include vital details. Thus they anticipate the rabbit you were hoping to pull out of the hat later. In contrast, suppose you’re not a devotee of the “only vital stuff” theory. When you mention that your hero took Russian language classes, you also mention that he took a classes in English Lit, Music Appreciation, etc., and that when he was in college his favorite beer was Imperial Stout. Because you’ve hidden the essential in the inessential, the reader cannot anticipate your surprise.

One might respond, “But then all that other stuff is essential: It’s essential for surprising the reader.” Certainly. But that’s different from being essential to the plot. This is the whole point: Things that aren’t essential for the plot may be essential for other important elements of the novel. I could tell the same story actually writing on page 30, “By the way, reader, at the end the main conflict is resolved due to the fact that the hero knows Russian.” Yes, it would be the same plot, but it would be a very different novel. It certainly would be a different experience for the reader, who would be denied suspense or surprise.

Tight writing

Writers frequently admonish other writers and aspiring writers to omit everything that doesn’t advance the story.  This is bad advice, as one can see by imagining what would happen if anyone ever actually followed it:  Every novel would be a half page of bullet points.

Take Gone With the Wind.  Margaret Mitchell was so wordy!  The novel would have been better if she had written this:

• It is 1861 in Georgia, USA.  A young woman, Scarlett, is in love with Ashley.  (Ashley is a man; this isn’t “hot girl-on-girl action!”  More’s the pity.)
• Ashley loves her but they can’t hook up because he’s engaged to marry someone else.
• The Civil War starts, disrupting everything. Scarlett goes to Atlanta and Ashley goes off to fight the Yankees.
• A scoundrel named Rhett Butler occasionally bumps into Scarlett in Atlanta.
• Scarlett has romantic feelings for Ashley and Rhett (though she takes a long time to admit to herself that she feels anything other than annoyance for Rhett).
• The Union forces invade Atlanta and Rhett helps Scarlett escape.
• Scarlett returns to the plantation where she was raised and through sheer determination ekes out a hardscrabble living.
• She marries Rhett Butler, but she treats him poorly and he leaves her.
• Scarlett, the consummate survivor, faces the future knowing that it will be hard but that she will abide.

There!  So much better than that redundant pleonastic bundle of excessive surplusage that is the original version!  It hits all the crucial plot points, while taking up less than a page.  Imagine how much lower the publisher’s printing costs would have been if they had pared it down to that.  Didn’t Mitchell have an editor?

Ok, sarcasm off.  What’s stupid about this approach?  Well, what’s stupid is this:
The point of telling a story is… telling a story.  Presenting a list of bullet points is not telling a story.  Also, the purpose of telling a story is, above all else, entertainment, that is, the pleasure of the reader.  Telling a story is entertaining (if it’s done well).  The only way to make a list of bullet points entertaining is to include a reference to hot girl-on-girl action.

A good example of a writer who ignores the silly advice to axe everything that doesn’t advance the plot is Neal Stephenson.  Stephenson includes anything and everything that pops into his little head, provided it’s entertaining.  For Stephenson, a plot is merely a structure upon which to hang entertainment.  And it’s a good thing, too, or we’d miss Jack Shaftoe’s syphilis-induced hallucinations of singing skeletons (Quicksilver), a description of a witch’s sabbat that our hero blunders into (Quicksilver), and a duel at dawn, carried out with spare cannons from a warship (The System of the World).  We also occasionally get some beautiful prose, as when a man enters a church in Quicksilver and the sun shining through the stained glass windows turns them into “a matrix of burning diamonds.” Story-wise, do we actually need singing skeletons or a matrix of burning diamonds?  No.  But they make these works more enjoyable, which is the point.

Stephenson is something of a maximalist, and I am not suggesting that most authors should try to emulate him.  The point is, you can pull off a hell of a lot of digressions from the main thread, as long as you pull them off with pizzaz.

World building: It doesn’t have to be a pointless masturbatory self-indulgence

Scott Lynch:

…when you have an interesting city you want to set a story in, you cheat your worldbuilding to support the existence of that city, you don’t just woefully hang your head and leave the city out because you forgot to draw enough farms on your map or something. I’m not at all a fan of the “begin by simulating the tectonic plate movements of your fictional planet several billion years before the story begins” style of worldbuilding; as far as I’m concerned, you write what you want to write and you shuffle things around ex post facto to support them. Or you just don’t fucking explain things at all– the mere existence of your big beautiful boondoggle should, in itself, imply that somewhere, somehow, something makes it all work, even if that background detail isn’t important to the story.

Indeed. Do we demand that the author of a fictional world pause to establish that there is enough plant biomass to produce all the oxygen the people are breathing?*

When the author needs to make sure that things are working internally consistently, it typically should be “off-stage” so the reader isn’t detained by it. An example: I have a work in which some of the people have a very low mortality rate from natural death. In order to make sure that the population dynamics wouldn’t drive them to a population of 100 billion in short order and lead to uncomfortable encounters with Dr. Malthus, I had to put limits on their reproduction rate and establish some ways that they might have non-natural deaths. My thoughts on this are archived in a file that has a differential equation and a couple of difference equations describing the population dynamics. But you never see the equations in the novel, of course. It’s in the background.

Larry Niven mentions a similar point about his novel with Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye. In N-Space Niven mentions that the faster-than-light drive in that novel was supported by a page of differential equations in the authors’ notes. They didn’t feel a need to include the equations in the novel.

For some reason differential equations keep popping up here. The point is not differential equations; the point is that the default setting should be to either just assume that the world functions, per Lynch above, or do the intellectual work to make sure it functions but leave that work off-screen. You must do some explaining about some things, but don’t explain unless you have some specific reason to.

*Actually, yes, when it comes to Dune, Hoth, and Tatooine. On desert or frozen worlds, where is the plant life that produces oxygen for those people? But the point is, you needn’t worry about such unless a particular feature of your fictional environment makes it necessary.

So you wanna be a writer?

Man, you’re lucky. Writing has no barriers as there are with, e.g., movies. You don’t need studio approval and tens of millions of dollars to write. You just need your brain and something to write with. Your creativity is unlimited; it doesn’t matter whether you’re thinking of a couple of hipsters talking in a coffee house or a six-headed dragon attacking a castle. The cost is the same, essentially zero, and it’s constraint-free! It’s the best possible situation for creating your ideal work.

Head ➞ Desk

I just noticed that in a query letter I sent to a few agents I had “crises” where I should have had “crisis.” Ouch. Now I look like an idiot who doesn’t know the difference between the singular and the plural. Is it a big deal? Yes. While agents read so much slush that they might skim past such a mistake without noticing, they read so much slush that they are looking for any excuse to reject, so if they notice it…

In my day job I’ve been on a hiring committee for a position that had 170 applicants. I was looking for reasons to weed, and some of my colleagues on the committee were absolutely brutal: Rejecting people for comma-that-should-be-a-semicolon stuff. When you’re on the crowded side of the market, you can’t give them any reason to reject.

I am, however, patting myself on the back for one thing: I only sent that version of the query to three agents. This is exactly why I didn’t send a single version of the query to more. There’s always the possibility of an error that you’ll catch after sending something out.