Vision: A Resource for Writers
How Much Do You Want What You Want?
An Interview with Holly Lisle
Holly Lisle is well known in the fantasy genre market. With over twenty published novels, she's been a steady name on the shelves for several years.
Now, however, she's branching out into a new genre. Midnight Rain will be on the shelves in early November, but you won't find it in the fantasy section. This one is a mainstream suspense novel, though there is a paranormal thread.
Holly founded Forward Motion eight years ago, and then stepped away from the site last year to pursue more time with her family and writing. She still posts workshops and articles for writers on her site (like the one we borrowed for this issue's workshop), and occasionally stops by FM to post.
Vision: Let's start by telling us about your new book MIDNIGHT RAIN (ISBN: 0-451-41175-7) and why you made this move to a new genre.
Holly: MIDNIGHT RAIN. Hardest sale of my life, and a suspense story in its own right.
I've been writing this book in one form or another since 1993. It was this secret project that I played with a few pages at a time as a way of keeping myself working when I got stuck on other things (referred to in The Perfect Busman's Holiday -- http://hollylisle.com/fm/Articles/feature7.html); it started out as THE POST OFFICE BOX BOOK, a working title and story based on something I discovered while standing in line in the post office in Laurinburg, North Carolina, to take back mail that didn't belong to me, and when I dumped the Post Office angle (which I still intend to use some day, because it's cool), it became PHOEBE RAIN, after the main character. Or just PR. Over the years, everything changed but the main character, Phoebe Rain. I wrote. I re-wrote. I showed what I had to my then-agent when I'd been working on it for a couple of years, and it blew him away. He said it would be my breakout book. But I had a lot of contracts with Baen, and a lot of deadlines, so I was still only working on it a few pages at a time when I could. Over the years, I'd move forward a few steps, show him new sections, and make changes to the earlier sections based on his comments, but I wrote a lot of other books in those years -- books for which I had contracts -- and it was just this little on-spec side project of mine, so I made slow, slow, slow progress.
My career went up, and I stopped working on MIDNIGHT RAIN at all -- I had too many other things to do. The SECRET TEXTS Trilogy was coming out, I was finishing up VINCALIS, my then-agent and I were getting ready to sell a new massive stand-alone fantasy to Betsy Mitchell at Time-Warner, which was planned to come out in hardcover.
And then Betsy moved to a new house. The new Aspect editor at Time-Warner didn't want the massive new fantasy. Betsy, at her new house, wasn't interested in bringing me along. My then-agent tried selling the fantasy a couple of other places. No dice. I tried pitching other fantasy ideas. Then other SF ideas. No chance. Okay, I thought. Maybe a change in genre. I pitched other books in other genres. And nothing sold. Nothing.
My career went down. My career went way, way down. Nobody was interested in my books, my then-agent stopped returning phone called and started doing the one-week delay on answering e-mails, and I realized that I was in real trouble. More than twenty books out in my name, and I was looking around for anything that would pay the bills. I finished up VINCALIS. About a year into this downward spiral, wonderful friend of mine, Sheila Kelly, offered to introduce me to her agent, and I said I didn't really think a new agent would fix the problem. I kept pitching, everything kept falling flat. My then-agent had quit submitting the massive fantasy, wouldn't submit the romance stuff to other places, told me I needed to come up with something new. Thinking that living under a bridge was going to be my next new thing, I asked him if he still believed in me, if he still had faith in my work. He sent me an e-mail telling me that he did. But that he didn't think TALYN was the book that was going to get me back in the game.
He'd been my agent for eleven years. Neither of my marriages lasted that long. I wanted to have one agent throughout my career.
But I believed in TALYN. Heart and soul, I thought that book was going to be something special. Something amazing. It WAS the book I thought could get me back in the game. Someone, I thought, would want it. And from my agent's lengthy e-mail, it was clear to me that he either didn't see TALYN that way, or in spite of what he was saying, we'd been through too much desperation and hard times, and he'd lost faith in me. I finished up the WORLD GATES trilogy, and officially had nothing new to work on. No contract. No hope of new money.
So about a year and a half after she first asked me, I told Sheila, "Okay, let me talk to your agent."
Robin Rue. We talked. I liked Robin. I knew she'd been amazing for Sheila, she sounded like someone I could work with. So I sent her the outline and sample chapters for TALYN, plus a handful of other things I'd put together that had been shot down. She called back, liking what she'd read, and said she'd take me. I ended my relationship with my former agent. He was very nice about it; it broke my heart, though.
Robin had the romance stuff and TALYN, which I thought were my strongest work; I told her to tell publishers I'd change my name, to do anything she had to do -- just sell something for me. This was the last gasp at full-time writing for me, and I kept telling myself that I'd had a good run. If my new agent couldn't sell any of the projects I'd sent her, I'd find something else to do part-time and write on the side. We were strapped, alternating partial payments on electric with partial payments on water, and it was, in every sense, last innings. The game was just about over, and I was at the plate, bases loaded, two guys out, and with two strikes.
I decided while I was waiting to hear from my new agent, Robin Rue, that I was going to finish MIDNIGHT RAIN. The damned thing had been sitting on my hard drive forever. I set myself a tight, hard schedule, got up at between five and six every morning, rewrote everything I'd done before, moved on to brand new material, and had about seventy percent of the book done when Robin called with the first good news I'd had in a couple of years. She'd sold TALYN as a romantic fantasy to Anna Genoese at Tor at full length (250,000 words), to come out in hardcover. And along with it, she'd sold BOOK 2, on no outline or anything -- it was to be another 250,000 word romantic fantasy. Tor was going to give me a shot. I had a contract. I would get paid again. No box under a bridge for us, at least not right then.
Here's where the baseball analogy falls apart. Because having hit one out of the park at the last possible second, I then got another at-bat. Because I took a couple more weeks, finished the now-titled on-spec novel MIDNIGHT RAIN, revised the hell out of it, and sent it to Robin just to see what she thought. I didn't know what it was, couldn't describe it, couldn't fit it into a genre -- but it felt pretty good to me. Halfway through reading it, she called me up, so excited I couldn't believe my ears. Based on the first half, she said it was exactly the book she would have given anything to find on her desk.
Well, that was based on the first half. The second half sort of got strange, because it was at heart a fantasy novel, and one of the odder ones I'd ever written (which, considering what I've written since 1991, was saying a lot); and when she called me back, it was with a bemused note in her voice. She thought MIDNIGHT RAIN felt like it was trying to be a mainstream novel, though she had reservations about the second half, and she was going to send it out to some hardcover mainstream houses, letting them know that this was an odd project and that the author was open to revision.
Everyplace she sent it to turned it down. A week after the last turn-down, she was working out places to submit for a second round when the editor at Putnam who'd read it in the first round, David Highfill, called her back about it. Said he couldn't get the characters out of his head, they'd stuck with him for a week, and he wanted to have another editor take a look at it. Which is when Claire Zion got it. She liked it enough to think she might like to buy it, but it wasn't ready. Would I be willing to put together a new outline on-spec detailing revisions I would make if she bought it?
Damn straight, I would. David wanted to stay involved in the process, too. So Claire and David both sent long lists of problems they had with the story and suggestions for changes, and I came up with an outline that addressed each issue. Both of them were enthused, and Claire took the book and the outline of proposed revisions to the head of the division, Kara Welsh. Who didn't think it would work. Shot it down. Ouch.
Back to the drawing board. Claire let me know that she still wanted the book, but that she'd only get one more chance to submit it to Kara, so it had to be perfect the next time it went in. Would I revise the outline again?
Yep. I went one better, and totally rewrote the outline, as if for a book that didn't even exist. Put everything I had into it.
Claire thought the next outline was a huge improvement, and was excited about it. But we both knew the next 'no' would be the last one, and by this point she really wanted to buy the book, so she sent it to an editor at the mystery division there to get input on the mystery portion of the story. The mystery editor came back with a lot of queries.
I completely rewrote the outline again. Put everything I had into it one more time.
Have I mentioned that I was getting discouraged? I was. With my previous agent, I'd just been through a huge round of on-spec revisions for a project that I was eventually told I would have a contract on by the end of the week, and which then didn't sell, and this was starting to feel very familiar. I sent in the outline, and told Robin if it got shot down, at least we had something pretty solid for me to work on before we sent MIDNIGHT RAIN out again.
And it wasn't like I didn't have some breathing room. I had contracts again, and due dates. I got started to work on TALYN.
A week or two later, Robin called me back, telling me she had bad news and good news. Claire had bought MIDNIGHT RAIN, and an unspecified second novel. Heart in my throat, I asked what was the bad news? Oh, she was just kidding about that. No bad news.
Okay, twice in my life I have hung up from making a sale, stood in the middle of the floor, screamed like a fool, and jumped up and down because I didn't have enough space to run in circles. The first time was when I sold my first novel, FIRE IN THE MIST. The sale of MIDNIGHT RAIN, my twenty-fourth novel sold, was the second.
During all of this revision, as well as the writing -- and then rewriting -- of the book, MIDNIGHT RAIN went from being a fantasy novel with a strong romantic/suspense theme, to being a mainstream suspense novel with a strong fantasy/romance/paranormal element. The story changed, the protagonists remained the same, and certain core elements that _were_ the book to me kept it on track and kept my faith in it strong.
What I finished with could very well be the breakout book that my first agent thought it could be way back in 1995, when he first saw it. It is nothing like that book anymore. And it's better. I pushed myself to do things I didn't think I could do with this story, and I mostly accomplished them. There's an old saying that every book is the failure of a perfect idea, and there's a lot of truth to that -- but with this book (and with TALYN) I've come closer to getting that shimmering, ethereal idea down in physical form than I've ever done before.
I'm damned proud of MIDNIGHT RAIN. I'm holding my breath, not counting chickens, trying very hard just to focus on the current work and let it go to be whatever it's going to be. That's hard, though. This is a new field for me, a whole new ballgame. My first at-bat. It's hard not to pray for a home run.
Vision: What are the biggest differences between romantic suspense and fantasy genres?
Holly: In regards to romantic suspense, depends on who's writing them. Romantic suspense doesn't have to have a paranormal or fantasy element at all. At heart, it's a romantic relationship complicated by danger to the protagonists. And fantasy ... well, trying to define fantasy is like trying to nail Jello to a wall. The definition of a genre that can contain works by JRR Tolkein, Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain, Ursula LeGuin, Charles deLint, Richard Adams, Lewis Carroll, Laurell K. Hamilton, Terry Pratchett, Frank Baum, Peter Beagle, Guy Gavriel Key, and all the books I've written ever might as well start and stop with the inclusion of pages and a cover of some sort. (And now that we have e-books, even that's not inclusive enough.)
In regards to just this one particular book, MIDNIGHT RAIN, the one real difference was that I had to make the fantasy element more grounded in the real world. Every change that I made in each revision of the book aimed at doing that. The romance and the suspense were already there, and those parts of the book changed very little in comparison with the fantasy element.
Vision: You also have a new fantasy book coming up, TALYN (ISBN pending -- probable pub. date Aug. 2005). Do you intend to move away from the fantasy and sf genres and go entirely to your new work?
Holly: No. My brain thinks in fantasy. To start writing books that don't include elements of fantasy, I'll have to get a new brain.
Ideally, depending on which books will pay which bills, I'll work in two parallel streams; mainstream novels with a romance/fantasy/paranormal/suspense flavor, and fantasy novels like TALYN that continue the thread of my previous work; every book I've ever written has included both fantasy and a romantic element, since that's what I have fun writing.
Throughout a writer's career, the writer is always comparing old work to new work, trying to figure out what went well, what went badly, and why. And always, you hold in your head this list of the handful of books you've written that are your favorites. The ones that, if you got to choose which books would be remembered after you were dead, you would be remembered for having written. (At least I do. Maybe that's morbid.)
I had something new happen when I finished TALYN. I realized that I'd written a book about which I could say, "If I could have only written one book in my career, _this_ is the book I would have written."
That may change in the future, of course. I intend to keep learning, to keep experimenting, to seek out stories that are even stronger, deeper, and richer. When I'm eighty, it would be wonderful to look back and recognize TALYN as the real start of my career as a fantasist, rather than the high water mark. But if everything came together for me just this once -- well, it _did_ come together once.
Vision: Are there still other genres you hope to write in the future?
Holly: I want to do two things with my writing. One: I want to tell good stories, and so far all the stories I've wanted to tell have had elements of myth and magic and the paranormal in them. I don't see that changing; I think that's simply how my mind works. Two: I want to make enough money telling stories to keep doing it as my full-time job. It's one hell of a fun job most days, and your worst day writing is basically happier than your best day doing codes on gunshot victims and battered wives and little kids pulled from car wrecks and other disasters, which was a recurring theme in my previous job.
So I intend to keep telling the stories I want to tell. If I have to switch genres to keep telling them, I'm okay with that. Genre is window dressing -- I'll figure out how to write stories I can get excited about in any genre. If I have to change my name to keep making a living at that, I'm okay with that, too. I love to tell stories, and I need to get paid to support my family; I'll go where I have to go to make those two things happen.
Vision: What authors influenced you and how?
Holly: While everything I read -- and I read a lot -- influences me, a few authors have actually changed me. I'll mention just one here.
Mark Twain is my biggest influence for a number of reasons. He managed to tell the truth in his writing, and to do it with grace and wit and compassion. He spun yarns that captured the life and people of an era, and made them breathe so fully and so richly that, more than a century later, we know them, and understand them, and like them. They are us, angels and devils alike.
He dared to say things no one else had the courage to say. If there was a kid in the crowd shouting that the Emperor had no clothes, well, that kid was Mark Twain. Yet he pointed out the failures of humanity not as someone who despised people, and not as someone with clean hands standing atop a hill, but as one of the people himself -- someone who knew how hard it was to do the right thing, and who acknowledged that he, too, had sometimes failed.
He wrote in the language of the day; he did not feel the need, like his contemporaries, to be elegant or to write to academia and the applause of the critics. For that reason (along with the fact that he told truths that are still true today), his voice is still clear and sharp after more than a century, while his more elegant, stylish colleagues have become footnotes.
For me, Twain's influence distills down to three dictums: Write fiction that tells the truth about people who matter confronting problems common to us all; have the courage to confront the wrongs of the world, but remember while doing it that I'm an equal, not a superior; skip the stylistic frills in favor of simple substance.
Those are the dictums by which I'm doing my best to live.
Vision: Why did you start Forward Motion, and why did you step away?
Holly: I moved to a place where I didn't know anyone, I missed my old writer's group, and I wanted to be able to talk about writing to others who loved it, too. I wanted to pay forward to new writers for help I received while I was learning how to write professionally. And I received a fair amount of e-mail on my fledgling writing site from people who sounded like terrific folks, and even though they were spread all over the world, they seemed like people who would like each other.
When I discovered free message board tools, I put one up on my little writing site, and suddenly those wonderful people who had been e-mailing me had a place where they could talk, not just to me, but to each other, about writing and what they were learning and what they were struggling to learn. The community grew, the writing site grew, and for a while it operated on "living room rules" -- basically that the people who were there were my guests in an extension of my living room, and as long as they behaved as guests ought, they were welcome.
But more people came, and more people still. Success breeds success, and word gets around. Living room rules weren't enough anymore, so I set out to create a culture where people focused on helping each other, paying forward, writing rather than talking about writing. Where people accepted that everyone had something valuable to contribute, where beginning writers and professional writers were both accepted as writers.
Creating this culture wasn't an accident. It was a deliberate, time-consuming process. I read every book I could get my hands on that referred in any way to developing communities on the web. For a while, during the dot-com bubble, a lot of those books were available. I read books about how to run writers' workshops, and drew out schematics on how these processes could be transferred to an Internet-only venue. I wanted FM to be something special; I wanted it to be a place where writers would feel welcome and where people would treat each other decently and accomplish the goals they'd always dreamed about but that they had never before, in many cases, dared to attempt. I wrote membership rules, and then I started enforcing them, all aimed at creating those cultural memes that would make the community what I wanted it to be. I asked for people to tell me what they wanted to see, what they wanted to do, what sort of help they needed, and I spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure out how to provide those services via a keyboard and pixel delivery system. I bought and read books on interface design and web usability, and I spent hundreds of hours designing interfaces, testing them for simplicity and ease of use, getting feedback from community testers, putting those interfaces into place for trial runs, refining them, starting all over. I wanted to make the community a place where people could come in, land with one click in the right spot to find out what we were about, and then wander around to see what we offered -- and still find their way back to Home when they wanted to ask questions and get answers. I studied the psychology of color, and did long-term experiments in how interface color affected the tone of the community itself. The Vibrant Orange Community (remembered with a shudder by a great many site veterans) had the best and liveliest tone and managed to be the most upbeat, and seemed to get along the best, but I finally had to concede that people logging in from work would have a hell of a time disguising that particular interface as anything corporate. So I switched it over to duller corporate-ish colors. While I was doing this, I also answered questions about writing, and tried to help writers figure out ways to get where they wanted to go. I ran contests, taught classes, did crits, invented our first sets of pips as a self-reward system, got into debates, pissed people off, made friends.
Eventually the community got too big for me to oversee by myself, so I started looking at members who exemplified the best characteristics of the community as a whole, and I asked them to become moderators and help run the place. My career hit the nightmare bump, and for a few years I had to ask for donations in order to keep the doors open. The community became financially self-supporting.
Somewhere along the way, the cultural values became self-propagating; older members were showing newer members what it meant to pay forward, members began challenging each other to progress, people treated each other decently (or were removed). It became what I'd hoped it would be, and more.
I'm hugely proud of the Forward Motion Writers' Community, and of my role in its creation. It's a beautiful place.
As for why I walked away? Well, reread that long, long paragraph about me doing community design, and community rule-writing, and rule-enforcing, and teaching, and discussing writing, and realize that when I started this, I didn't know HTML, and when I finally walked away, I could code HTML with my eyes closed and had set up SSI pages and could work with PHP and Perl and Unix and I knew a whole lot about community dynamics and Internet protocols that would allow me to enforce community rules, and dozen of other things that I'd never planned to explore.
And then remember that while I was doing all of this, I was also homeschooling two teenagers and writing books full-time, and I also had a baby. By the time the baby reached school age, I knew I wanted to homeschool him from the start. He is a high-maintenance child. Plus, I needed to put more time into writing. Something had to give.
And the community didn't need me anymore. It was alive, it was a wonderful place full of wonderful people, I had managed to pay forward in the way I had hoped I would. Handing over the keys to Zette and leaving for good was a brutally hard decision. But it was the right one.
Vision: Do you think the Internet is more of a problem than a help for writers?
Holly: The Internet is magic. Nothing less. A person sitting in the middle of friggin' nowhere with a connection to the Internet has at his fingertips the most astonishing repository of human knowledge the world has ever known. Some of it is garbage, some of it is nonsense -- but a hell of a lot of it is pure gold. And for the first time in history, this isolated seeker of knowledge can get immediate feedback from people in every discipline and every walk of life to help him decide on his own _which_ bits are garbage, and which are genuine gems. The Internet has taken the voice that was once held only by the rich and the powerful and given it to anyone who can type. The truth is no longer hostage to money, power, and special interests -- it's available for anyone who cares to put in the footwork.
If you doubt this, listen to the monopolies who once held the keys to the cage start squealing when the bloggers get going.
From a writer's perspective, the Internet can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. You want to have a writer's group, but you live fifty miles from anywhere? Not a problem. You want to find out how police investigate a crime, but you don't know anyone to ask? Not a problem. You want to find out what it's like to be a scuba diver, or a stripper, or a rodeo star, but you live a million miles from where any of those folks practice their trades? This is where you go to learn what you need to know, and where to find the resources to find out even more.
What writers do with this resource is a matter of personal choice and personal responsibility, and it all boils down to these two questions: What do you want? How much do you want it?
If you want to write for a living, then you'll find ways to use the Internet to make that happen, and you will find ways to avoid the influences and temptations that will keep it from happening. If you want to write for fun, you'll find people who share your values, and you'll find ways to help each other reach your goals, too. If you want to say you're a writer but don't want to actually write, well, you'll use the Internet as an excuse for not doing what you claim you want to do.
What you put in is what you get out.
Vision: What mistakes do you see new writers making?
Holly: Every mistake that's ever been made. But that's the exciting thing about being a new writer. You don't know a damn thing, but you learn. We all did.
Vision: How much preparation work do you do before you start writing? Has working in a new genre created a different approach?
Holly: I've gotten more relaxed in my worldbuilding approach. I don't have to have the whole world nailed down before I can start writing anymore. I'm much more willing to build on the fly, and just keep a running database of what I've done. If I were better about keeping up with the database, my life would be MUCH easier. I always have a map. I generally have a couple of characters I like. I usually have a main story thread that I intend to follow, and some idea of where the thing will end. All of these are subject to change, except for the map. Maps are my rudders.
As for working in a different genre? No, it hasn't changed my approach. I'm still meticulous to the point of irritating myself, I'm still a detail fanatic, I still do all the footwork. It's storytelling, and process is process.
Vision: How do you manage to stay on track when the writing work seems overpowering?
Holly: I remind myself that the bills don't care whether I'm having a bad day or not. That isn't always enough to keep me on track every day, but on a week-to-week basis, it's effective.
Vision: Is there a point when you are writing a novel that gives you the most trouble? How did you get past that part?
Holly: After twenty-four novels, I have to say that I have now had trouble with every single issue that exists in the novel-writing process. Not, thank God, all in the same book. If you want to know what I've had trouble with and how I've dealt with it, I have over a hundred thousand words of free articles in the Writers section of my site (http://hollylisle.com/fm/) detailing each problem and the solution I came up with at the time. These are what worked for me AT THE TIME. They may not work for you. They may not work for me if I try them again. But for one brief, shining moment they were golden, and you may find them of some use.
Vision: What is your favorite part of writing?
Holly: On good days I love it all. I love all the pre-story dithering. I love that first blank page. I love the first line, the first chapter, the unfolding story, getting to know the characters, having them come to life of me, being surprised by mid-book twists, careening toward the ending with trouble coming thicker and faster, nailing the ending. I love revising. I love sending the damned thing in. I love working with editors, figuring out ways to make the story better, doing the copyedits and galleys, seeing the cover art, holding the new book in my hand and sniffing the pages and touching the cover.
On bad days, of course, pretty much everything sucks.
Vision: You have written about some extraordinary characters. How do you go about creating them? Do you have any favorites?
Holly: Mostly, I let them talk to me. I start typing, asking them questions, letting them give me answers. These interviews are in first person, I don't censor the results, I don't edit, I just let the subconscious have its fun. (This sounds bizarre -- but it's a form of role-playing, and I've found it highly effective.)
As for favorite characters: Gair and Talyn (the protagonists of TALYN) have become my favorite characters, especially Gair. After them, probably Cadence Drake of HUNTING THE CORRIGAN'S BLOOD, Phoebe Rain of MIDNIGHT RAIN, and Dayne Kuttner of SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL.
Vision: With an entire new genre to play in, what changes do you see in your career and how you work?
Holly: I'm not predicting anything. I've had a couple of big, bad bumps on the rollercoaster now, and I've realized that any appearance I give of being in control of this process -- to myself or anyone else -- is utterly illusory. I'm going to write the best stories I am capable of writing, I'm going to work like hell to find them an audience. Anything else that happens is beyond my control.
Vision: If a family member or close friend told you they intended to be a writer, what would be your reaction -- and what advice would you give them?
Holly: Heh. My twenty-one year old daughter and I write together via IM most days. My nineteen-year-old son writes stories and screenplays, and we discuss plotting problems and ideas over the phone (he's away at college at the moment). I'm teaching my six-year-old son how to world-build and develop characters. I think it's the greatest job in the world. The only general advice I've given my kids is, Does what you're writing now move you toward where you want to be, or away from it? (Both of the older kids write too much fanfic, both of them want to go pro. The younger one is still deciding between becoming a superhero or a ninja warrior.)
Vision: Anything more you'd like to add?
Holly: Same question, for you reading this right now. Does what you're doing move you toward where you want to be, or away from it? If you're moving in the wrong direction, ask yourself how much you want what you want. You might discover that what you thought you wanted isn't what you really want after all.
But if it is, then focus and persistence trump talent in any career. If you know what you want and are willing to learn about the work, are willing to force yourself to improve, and are willing to tough out rejections and learn from each one, you'll find a way to reach your dream.
It's worth it.
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