Thanks again to everyone who has been supportive of our three author spotlights this week!
Our final interview is of someone especially close to Joe and I, and we've come to view her as a friend. For me, in particular, she has spent countless hours over the past year plus giving me one on one assistance with my stories, both novels and short fiction. She has been crucial to my personal development as a writer, and has also taught me by example how to be a good moderator of the Writer's Digest SF/F Critique Forum, of which we now are co-mods, where we assist new writers daily. Without further ado, Miss Liz Penn!
After ten years of serious writing, Liz Penn is an ardent reader and speculative fiction novelist, with four completed novels and a handful of published poetry.
How long have you been writing?
LP: I'm edging up to ten years at this point of serious writing toward publication. I did some weak stories and gooby poems when I was a 4-6 grader, (which would make it closer to 13 years) but it was largely for my own enjoyment, and not "true" writing. However, that early writing was how I discovered my enjoyment of writing in general.
Who was your mentor in the early days?
LP: I never really had a "mentor." I was largely self-taught, through books such as Plot and Structure (James Scott Bell) the Writer's Digest Magazine, How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy (Orson Scott Card) and by reading and analyzing my favorite books, taking them apart to see how they made me feel/think a certain way. What I did was take a handful of my all-time favorite books: Sword-Dancer [fantasy] Intensity [thriller] The Taking [sci-fi] and attacked them with different colored highlighters and a small, spiral-bound notebook. I marked descriptions, underlined, jotted notes, etc. Until I puzzled out "oh, that's foreshadowing" ... etc.
What projects are you currently working on?
Phoenix Rising: Book 1 of a projected trilogy that has no name yet. The second book is tentatively titled: Changeling Project, but still in rough-draft stage.
Crystal Fire: Book 1 of the Rim Trilogy [and book 7 of the longer, projected 9 book Crossroads series] This one is the first novel-length work I ever completed, and the first written in my fantasy world of Thared.
Half-Soul: Book 6 of Crossroads series. Still in rough draft stage.
I typically juggle 2-3 "novels" at a time, either adding scenes or editing. And throw in a short story if the muse strikes me. But it's novels that usually hold my interest, and their characters, so I tend to write on those the most.
What is your dream project for the future?
LP: I've always wanted to have the time and energy to devote an entire series of books to my invention of the loquiri and their communities/culture/etc.
Why did you decide to specialize in speculative fiction?
LP: For one, that is the style and genre I typically read. And, as I write stories that are what I'd like to read, then that becomes my genre of choice.
My other reason is more for the flexibility. Most of the time, within my speculative fiction worlds, I can adjust things to my liking, and still get away with it. The idea of fantastic worlds, of extravagant flora and fauna and such, that gets my imagination running full tilt, and only in spec fic can you go "all out" with any idea, wild as it may be.
How much did you write before you found your unique style and voice?
LP: Good grief. A great deal. At first, I did a lot of imitation. It's called "fan fiction" now. Mostly, I wrote about the characters and worlds of others that were fascinating to me, and often used their voice and such. However, as I did so, I found that the limits of their characters and worlds were too constraining on my own imagination as I came up with more side plots and subplots and etc.
Also, gradually from sheer volume of writings-- (I began at 15 min a day, no matter what. Then, after three months, half an hour, then upped it again, and again. By the time I started seriously writing toward publication, it was an hour a day. And now, it's 2-4 hours) --my own voice and style began to peek through. The more I indulged it, rather than listening to other people's writing, the more my voice became second nature.
It took at least a year, maybe two, before my voice was steady and consistent.
Who is your favorite author, and what have you learned from reading his/her work?
LP: Regarding speculative fiction, my favorite author would be a close tie between Jennifer Roberson and J.R.R. Tolkien. I learned from Roberson that a complex world and characters work on layers. Revealing bits of foreshadow, hints of a deeper culture and ideals, can in turn create a sense of depth.
From Tolkien (one of the biggest inspirations for me) I discovered that characters, believable characters that I cared about, could evoke an emotional response from a reader, and that spurring the response in turn was one of the greatest joys of a writer, and a reader. A shared happiness.
Carol Berg is quickly rising in my list of favorite fantasy authors. I've read a few of hers, and found her voice very engaging, and her gutsy way of treating them, i.e. she's not afraid to do anything to her characters, is very enjoyable.
For all-time reading, I thoroughly enjoy Dean Koontz. His unmistakable voice and descriptive flair are alike enjoyable to read, but I especially enjoyed learning his love for English as a language. From him, I learned that careful use of words and phrases, kept in some restriction, can make even one sentence "pop". I also found that poetry can have a feature within prose. Portions of his novels are often written in iambic pentameter (though unrhyming).
How has your current employment affected your writing?
LP: The best way retail has affected my writing is character development. I meet new people everyday, either the co-workers (who each have unique ways of speaking, background, appearance, quirks) and also angry/happy/mostly angry customers--who express their angers with all sorts of expressions...
I keep a notebook at work in my locker, and during breaks and lunches I jot down notes. Sometimes, I try to fantasize what their lives are like, who they'd marry, things like that. I have plentiful material to glean ideas for future characters from. In fact, one of the minor villains in one of my urban fantasy novels (Veiled Memory) had most of her personality and quirks drawn from an annoying co-worker. (Not that I'd tell her that.)
How has being part of a critique group affected your writing?
LP: It has allowed me to see that what I write is not just enjoyable to me, but also to other readers. That's the main thing that really boosted my confidence level in my writing. It's good to like your own writing, but even better to find out that a group of people from all different backgrounds, and even places--like Canada--still enjoy the stories I spin, makes it easier to keep going.
Also, writing is a lonely business. Always has been that way. Having other people who understand the quirks and twists of a writer's mind--such as having a character "argue with the author" -- and not be considered a little loony, is a nice feeling as well. It helps to know you're not alone in the world.
What is the best advice you've ever received? What is the worst?
LP: The best advice would have to be the quote that I've seen repeated in multiple places: "Write a book that you would like to read". Every story that I write holds my interest, has characters that I want to see struggle and fail and succeed, and worlds that I'd like to visit. The nicety is that, those things that interest me, also often are enjoyable to readers as well, and that your enjoyment of the topic and etc shows in your writing. When someone does not enjoy what they're saying, when it's written strictly because they must, it shows in the writing. When someone truly loves and enjoys the storyline and characters and etc, it shows. You can hear it in their voice.
The worst. That one I know right away. The adage, "Write what you know." It is true, and yet not true. If you write what you know, what you're familiar with, then certainly there's strength to what you say, because you're familiar to it. However, how many speculative fiction writers have met a dragon? Or gone to a different planet?
That advice balked me in my writing for nearly a year. I struggled to write anything that included more than my fairly limited sphere of direct knowledge. That meant, no sword-fencing or trips to another state/country/planet for my characters, no fantastic creatures or unique cultures. It blocked me up for quite some time. I would tell new writers, and even old ones, that yes, writing what you know has its place, but don't restrict yourself to that box. The muse needs her freedom to work properly.
Many of your novels are collective, meaning they are grouped into trilogies and/or a series. What types of challenges do these present, and how have you overcome them?
LP: Continuity. That's the biggest problem I have to keep close watch over. It is very easy to lose track of who is where, or what time it is, or what has already happened, when you write in a series, especially a longer, more complex styling. My urban fantasy, two books, each around 70-80k words, were much easier to keep track of. And they still had plot holes and continuity issues and minor changes as I wrote book 2. But my longer typical fantasy, with nine books in the series, some already written, some being rough-drafted, has far more problems and changes.
One of the important things to remember is that, whatever "rules" you place in book 1, need to hold true, or at least mostly true, all the way through the books. There is nothing more irritating than being told that, for example, to perform magic you need these components in book 1 of a series, and in book 6 suddenly find out that these other components that the MC has been lugging around for four books can also create magic, specialized magic. Or something along those lines.
Make sure you know where you're headed. For the entire series. If you know how the whole thing is going to end, then each book should in some way point toward that final stage.
One of your strong points is descriptive wording. You have credited this technique to your different areas of study (writing poetry, using themes, etc). Any tips on how to be effective?
LP: Less is more. You don't need to give three pages of descriptive prose to describe a bar. Most people have been in somewhat the situation or place that your characters are. Rather, drop a few basic lines to set the scene, then spend your descriptive word on showing how this bar or this hotel or this place differs from what's expected.
Don't treat your readers as if they must be spoon-fed every scrap of knowledge and description to grasp what's going on. Most readers are quite capable of picking up clues and creating a scene in their own mind. In fact, they prefer to imagine on their own. When it comes to fantasy creatures, or aliens, yes, it is good to be detailed because this is something they likely have no basis for in their mind. But if you're describing a seedy bar, or perhaps a villain's lab, use just enough to set the scene and give an impression. Nothing more. I sometimes like to call it... evoking. You're trying to create a "sense" of a place, it's atmosphere, but not the place itself. Because the rest will come.
Where do you draw the line on description to avoid purple prose?
LP: Besides the craft of using themes--which is a whole discussion in and of itself--the quickest way to make sure you're not overloading the reader with description is my "rule of three".
Pick three things you wish to describe in a room, or scene. What three things in this hotel/bar/planet/inn do you, as the author, want to be emphasized, given a place in the midst of the scene? Try to use only three senses to bring them out. Though it makes a world or scene rich when you describe what they see, hear, feel, taste, and smell...it can become annoying and even nauseating if it is repeated throughout a novel with every moment, as if you were eating chocolate cake for every meal. Instead, use three senses at first.
Even the typical place for purple prose, the night sky or sunrise/sunset, apply the rule of three. For a sunset, do we want to bring out the sound of the crickets, the chill of the night, the color of the sky? Then don't also describe the trees in the wind, nor the pattern of clouds, nor a bird's chirp. Stick to the crickets, cold, and colors. Nothing more.
The more time you spend describing anything, the more emphasis you place upon it. Pick and choose what you wish to emphasize, and leave the rest alone, giving it perhaps a one sentence or less mention. For example, in one of my urban fantasy novels, Hungry Waters, I spend several paragraphs describing a hotel room where the MC is staying (and where, in the future, several plot events/scenes occur), but when the MC goes to the bathroom to clean up, I dashed off one quick line about the place. Because nothing else occurs in the bathroom. There's no need to emphasize that place, nor describe it into ad nauseam.
What have you learned about the publishing industry in the past year?
LP: That it's much harder to break in, even with good writing, than I thought. Also, that even with stellar, perfect writing, if the editor happens to be in a bad mood, or the assistant just doesn't like the name on your manuscript, anything at all, they can easily turn it down, even if you had perfect punctuation and spelling and the plot for the "Great American Novel." And on the flip side, I've seen novels published that I'd be ashamed to put my name upon if they were mine (though I'd certainly accept the royalty check).
Recommended websites or blogs?
LP: As far as publishing goes, Query Shark and The Rejectionist are both excellent resources.
Websites for writing would first be, obviously, Writers Digest, namely the forum that I frequent. I've met many good friends and fellow writers there, and sometimes my editors or beta readers as well. That feedback is very important to a writer, once their voice is stable and they're prepared to take the heat, as it were.
Others are more like resources. I use bing.com very often to pull up images of places that I'm setting my novels in, or imitating if it comes to speculative fiction. Behind the Name is superb for finding character names, though I do have a mild fetish with having the names of my characters tied into their personalities or roles in the book. This blog here is good for writing tips and woes and etc.
Which do you prefer: hardcover, paperback, or e-books?
LP: Paperback. I am rough on my books, as I like to take them anywhere and everywhere, reading them while I'm eating, or traveling, or at a doctor's appointment, or...etc. Hardcover, though a little more hardy, won't usually fit in purses or laptop cases quite as easily.
And I absolutely despise e-books, so I have no intention of making the digital switch. There is nothing like holding a book in your hand, the scent of ink and paper, the thrill of turning pages to read more. E-books tend to make my eyes burn and water, and lacks the emotional connection somehow. It's why I typically do the detailed edits by printing out my manuscript. It's easier to edit on a hard-copy then on a computer screen.
What is your number one writing-related goal for 2010?
LP: Finish this draft of Phoenix Rising. That novel has been rewritten enough times, and the characters are interesting enough to me, that they need a chance to be queried finally. And that means finishing the edits of my novel to at least my partial satisfaction.
Thanks so much for your insight, Liz! And thank you everyone for your patience. My apologies for the weirdness earlier and the delay. I still don't know what happened, but everything seems to be in order now. Please notify me if something looks funky, though. Thanks!