Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
An Interview with Rob Chilson
By: Lazette Gifford
©2001, Lazette Gifford
You have been publishing for over three decades -- that's a lot of
different editors and different trends. Are things better, worse or unchanged
for writers since you started publishing? How have the market changes affected
Things are much worse for beginning writers.
My early stories were terrible, and I doubt if any could be published
now, even in ANALOG. John Campbell,
the then editor, wanted stories that showed “some evidence of some thought
about something.” The present
editor, Stan Schmidt, also wants that, but Stan and his readers both want better
writing than I was doing then. There
isn’t that place “to be bad”, as George Burns said of early vaudeville,
also much worse in that publishers now are all conglomerates run by
bean-counters, and no one cares much about books -- not at the higher levels.
Not so in the old days. Ian
and Betty Ballantine formed Ballantine Books partly to make a living -- and
partly because they loved good books. Publishers
still have the names of book-loving founders -- Kipling described Frank
Doubleday as “a large young man,” and wrote approvingly of him.
There are still editors who love books, but they no longer have the
freedom to take risks. In the old
days, a Stephen King was good news to mid-list writers and bottom-feeders alike,
because one blockbuster on an editor’s list would finance scores of
low-earning books by the likes of you and me.
Not so now. When Carl Sagan
accepted $2 million for CONTACT, he slurped up the publisher’s whole budget
for fiction for that period -- money that normally would have bought dozens of
books from dozens of writers.
for the effects on my own career, they have been minimal. I don’t write a recognizable “product” with a
recognizable style or tone -- especially, I don’t write a series.
So I have no reader recognition, and consequently a non-career that
isn’t much affected by the markets. Other
writers have overcome a similar handicap, including two of my favorite writers:
Robert Reed and Bradley Denton. Bob
does it by writing a LOT, he writes fast and (unforgivably) very well. It’s enough to make you consider taking up running.
Brad just does it on quality, since he’s no faster than I am. But of
course there’s no money in it for slow writers.
there’s no money, how do you survive? By
having a day job, of course. And that can be good news. I only write what I feel like writing, and I don’t have to
hack something out to pay the mortgage. Many
of my stories are so quirky they haven’t been published.
May never be.
you have a favorite 'era' during the last 30 years that you considered the best
time to be a genre writer? If so,
what made it so good, and what's different now?
The best time in any field of endeavor is the time when the field is
opening up to new possibilities: in
SF, the Golden Age, when John Campbell redefined SF in the late 30s-early 40s;
the early 50s, when Boucher, McComas, and Gold did it again; the late 60s-early
70s; and the early 80s (the Cyberpunk era).
Now we’ve assimilated all these fresh streams and floated downstream
into the future; the water is getting dull and muddy again.
We tend to rehash the past during such epochs, and they are necessary, so
we can consolidate the gains of the revolutions.
But we don’t now have that genre-wide excitement of the new. (Even people who despise the new stuff are energized by it.
This is a good and healthy thing, and I speak as one who has always been
dubious of wild enthusiasms, especially literary ones.)
At WorldCon we discussed a problem new writers have with POV (Point of
View) in their stories and why you think they have these problems. I found your
reasoning fascinating -- could you reiterate those points for Vision readers?
I’ve seen this problem repeatedly in WorldCon writers’ workshops,
which I’ve been doing for years now. It’s
especially prevalent in media fans who are writing story treatments of their
favorite shows, openly or disguised. Essentially they give us a camera’s eye
view. We don’t get into the mind
of the character in front of us. Worse, there’s no unified Point Of View; the
POV (such as there is) is that of the major series character “on-screen” in
if you’ve read much fiction, you know that’s not how it’s done. That’s
how a movie script or a play is written; we know only what the characters say
and do, not what they think. A good
playwright -- and a good actor -- can give us an astonishing amount.
But they can’t put you, the reader, in the scene.
never forget that afternoon on the Hispaniola, with O’Brien dead and
stiff on the bloody deck, the sails rustling and the water rippling under the
bow (I was raised a thousand miles from the sea), playing a desperate game of
tag around the main-mast with Israel Hands, him clutching the knife he’d
killed the Irelander with and grinning his murderer’s grin, and me just a boy!
No movie or TV show can give you that.
Video is a cold medium -- print is a hot one.
just that sense of being there is exactly what the camera’s eye view
POV does not give you.
funny thing is that the would-be writers who do this are totally unaware of it
until it’s pointed out. And they
are not non-readers! But neither
are they writers, for they have not learned to study the things they
read. Worst of all, not all of them
are media fans. But all watch TV
and movies. People read less,
because they can absorb their pulp fiction visually now.
So they are less aware of literary methods.
You must not only write and throw away a million words, as has been said,
in learning to write; you must read and think about ten million words.
On your web site you list some very simple rules to follow when writing
Do you think that there are any rules that you followed when you started writing
that might be outdated for today's new writers?
The major changes have been on the marketing side.
And of course nowadays you can use naughty words and even talk about
“grown-up things” which we couldn’t do in SF, and even in mainstream, when
I was learning. Though that had loosened up by the time I started publishing.
So that is a change to our advantage, though we often haven’t used it
to good effect.
no, writing per se is as always, more art than science. The rules really don’t change much, maybe because people
don’t change much. As for
“experimental” fiction revolutionizing the world, or even fiction, I’ll
believe it when I see it adopted in “Archie Comics”.
I mean that -- think about it.
do you like about writing SF and fantasy -- or any other genre?
The thing I like best about SF/Fantasy is the readership.
They’re keen -- they’re like hounds on a scent.
You drop a word, a phrase, and they’re on it.
“The door dilated,” as Heinlein famously wrote, and Harlan Ellison
instantly knew he wasn’t in Cincinnati any more.
So you don’t have to explain things to them.
You just drop a hint here and a hint there, and the reader puts it
together into a picture of the world you’re trying to convey.
Mainstream writers have no such bag of tricks, except at the very top of
the literary line, where they use indirection to hint at emotional subtleties.
Self-conscious literature of the sort that’s written by and for
professors could make good use of our techniques to present an aberrant picture
of the world, one of their main concerns.
is serious about the real world around us, and is aware that it has changed, and
I like that. Most “serious”
mainstream novels, especially literary ones, would read the same if all the cars
had running boards. They are not aware of the changes in our society in the same
way as SF (and when they exhibit any awareness, it’s always negative; no
change is for the good). Fantasy,
the real stuff, is aware of our relationship with our myths, and our emotions
toward these symbols. It can point
out things other fictions find hard to deal with.
Although with the importation of “magical realism” from our Latino
friends (“The good stuff is always foreign,” say the critics), mainstream is
opening up in this area.
You have done a few collaborations, especially with William Wu. Can you tell us
how you worked together, and what you would suggest to others who might want to
collaborate on stories?
Well, Bill & I were lucky, in that we happened to be very compatible.
Not only did we like each other (a plus, but not necessary), but our
themes and moods meshed well. He
writes a deceptively simple style, and I also can write with a simple surface.
He’s very good at character depiction (and very economical, he can do
more in a phrase than most can in a paragraph), and he taught me much.
We also were lucky in that we shared a house for a year or so then, and
often went on long car trips to conventions.
So we had extended opportunities to brainstorm stories.
I generally functioned as idea man, but not always.
Our early stories were old ones I’d failed on, but still thought had
potential. Later we dreamed them up
together. One story idea was given to us by Stan Schmidt, who got it from John
and I were operating on about the same level of expertise on writing qua writing
-- Bill writing well consistently and me less so.
About then I started collaborating with Lynette Meserole (now Lynette
Burrows). She was at a much lower
level then, and was rather in awe of me (that didn’t last). I remember making a conscious decision never to use my
supposedly greater expertise to bulldoze her, which I might have done.
I remember when we were going over our first story, and she hesitantly
said that she had a problem with one sentence.
I saw that the sentence was “super-erogatory” and struck it out with
one bold swoop of my pencil. I
still cherish my memory of the expression on her face.
She says she learned a lot from me, but I learned as much from her.
(Your words aren’t sacred -- writers have to learn that over and over.)
ignore criticism. (Obviously if
we’re talking reviewers, friends, relatives, etc, you have to make
allowances.) But criticism from
fellow writers on any level of expertise, and from casual readers with no
emotional investment in your writing -- if they have a problem with
something, you must think about it. Even
if you make no changes, be aware that you’re going to lose some of your
readers here, and decide if it’s worth it to you.
collaboration, you must be compatible in mood and theme, and to a lesser extent
in “style” (you should never worry about your style, just tell the story).
You need not share politics or religion, but there must be large areas
where you do agree. You must not dislike
each other. You must be able to
trust each other. (Example:
I had not upgraded, so Bill’s computer wasn’t talking to mine when we
did our last collaboration. He did
the last draft, and totally rewrote the ending, sending me a copy on a disk I
couldn’t read. He had told me
generally what he’d done, but I never read it till it appeared in print.
I had no problem with that. Writers,
including me, find it easier to trust someone with their money or their spouses
than with their words, yet I found I can trust Bill.)
IMPORTANT: Listen to everything
your collaborator says, especially if he/she has trouble articulating what’s
wrong. Writing at the final level
is a verbal process, but composition is a right-brain activity like all other
art forms. It has to be
communicated in grunts, but don’t let yourself be fooled -- he/she has
surfaced something important.
are your thoughts on writing groups? Are there any differences between "in
person" or on-line groups that you've noticed?
I’ve never been involved with online groups, so I can’t comment on
them. Holly’s site is astonishing, and seems very successful.
An earnest student can learn in almost any environment, and I would have
committed serious crimes, when beginning, to be allowed to join something like
still hosting the group Bill, Lynette, and I founded years ago. Perhaps you’d
like a few words about it. First,
nobody “runs” the group. We use Clarion rules -- no cross-talk, the writer
being critiqued does not answer till the end of ALL critiques unless asked a
specific question, etc. We read MSs
for 2-3 hours, and then start critiquing. We
each take a different color pen, sign and date page 1 in our color. and write
comments on the MS, mark up typos, etc. (We
also disagree with each other in the margins, sometimes hilariously.)
worked in WorldCon and other convention workshops, and talked to lots of
writers, I am aware that there are bad groups out there.
They fall into a couple of main types:
First, the kind dominated by one person, sometimes a published writer,
sometimes a large-ego fan, whose word even on critiques is law and nobody
disputes it. With this kind of
group, you’re not getting a group’s input, only one person’s.
Second, the kind dominated by wish-fulfillment would-bes who want to be
respected as writers without doing the hard work.
If you find yourself in either kind of group, get out.
If you can take some serious writers with you, go for it. (You will be hated, ostracised, and lied about by the
suggestions would you give to new writers?
Think of it as a cheap and wonderful hobby, which may eventually
bring you money -- even respect! You
can do it with a clipboard and a pen (that’s how I got through high school).
Even if it goes nowhere, even if it is read by nobody but yourself, your
writing has value, and will be far more important for you than almost anything
else in your life -- I except only your family as more important.
Even if you merely write a journal, even if you write musing, personal
essays, your writing is immensely important.
Take it seriously.
also take it lightly: play with it.
advice: you should use “the
little book”, Strunk & White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE.
Make sure you know how to form the possessive of Charles, and when (and
when not) to put the apostrophe in “its”.
(And why did I put the period after the apostrophe in the previous
sentence?) I learned the “its”
rule in grammar school, about 3rd or 4th grade.
What’s the plural of TV? (Hint: TVs,
never TV’s -- look it up). Read
Stephen King’s ON WRITING. Read a lot of books on writing, put ‘em on your
shelf, go on trying to write. Next
year, read the books again.
apparently attend a few conventions during the year.
Do you think conventions help with a writer's career? If so, are they
equally valuable for beginning writers and established writers? Or are they
really just a social event -- a chance to meet with friends and fans?
All of the above.
helps for editors to have a face to put to the MS coming in the mail. It helps
for writers to meet or at least see the editors.
It helps for beginning writers to go to panels on writing or the business
of writing. And when the beginner starts appearing on panels, assuming he/she is
not a total jerk who alienates the audience, it helps to have readers say,
“Hmm, he/she sounds knowledgeable (or enthusiastic, or whatever)” or “Hmm,
sounds like a good book/story -- must try to find it.”
This last applies to established writers too -- there are always folk out
there, especially young ones, to whom you’re not established.
of course, writing, even with a collaborator, is a lonely business. It’s just
you and the blank slate. To meet
other writers, to meet readers, to meet people who share your craziness -- that
alone justifies going to cons.
What do you have coming out that we should look for?
What sort of things do you plan, or hope, to write in the future?
At the moment, nothing is forthcoming.
I have two projects going and another on the back burner.
One is the “Prime Mondeign” stories, set on Earth 60 million years in
the future. “The Gardiners” on
my Web Page, “The Hestwood” referenced in my biblio, are both “Prime
Mondeign” stories. I hope to
write a few more stories in this sequence, and then shop them around as a
sort-of novel, where the Earth (First World) at that time is the true central
other project is much more long-range. It’s
an Oz-like series of childrens’ books. I
mean to write all 16 of them in first draft before starting to offer them to
publishers. I’m partway through
the back burner is another novel set in the same background as “Black as
Blood”, which is probably my best book.
you for taking this time for this interview.
Any last words you'd like to say to our readers?
I wish you hadn’t told everybody how long I’ve been doing this,
especially me. I hadn’t realized
it’s been so long -- I don’t feel a bit tired, I could go on as long again.
And the good news is, that (if you’re any good at all) you keep on
learning and growing all the time. It
never stops. That’s why writers live so long.
--Think of the brilliant Japanese artist Hokusai.
Nearing a hundred, he said, “Nothing that I drew before the age of
seventy-five is worth taking into account.”
Save a place for me, Hoke! And I’m nowhere near 75!
Look for Rob's book
*Cover by Charles Keegan*
And read an excerpt at his web site http://www.robchilson.com