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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Tara K. Harper, FAQ:
Fiction and Novel Writing

1.  Why do you write?  -- updated!
2.  Why do you write science-fiction?

3.  Do you outline your stories and do character sketches?
4.  How much rewriting did you have to do on your first book?
5.  How long does it take you to write a book?
6.  Do you write a certain number of words every day?
7.  Do you get writer's block?

8.  Where do you do your best writing?

9.  Where do you get your ideas?
10.  Do you do research for your books?

11.  What kind of experience or education is necessary to becoming a writer?
12.  Which writers have most influenced you?

"I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don't need."            
                                             - Rodin, when asked how he managed to make his remarkable statues

Science and Technical References for writers
Science Notes on virology on bacteriology for writers
Online resources for writers

1. Why Do You Write?

I don't know.  I can tell you that it's not a cathartic; I don't have a muse; I don't force things out; I don't get writer's block.  I just...write.

Writing to me is, well, like music: it's as much a part of my life as breathing.  In fact, I get cranky when I can't write, just as I do when I can't play my violin or piano or guitar, or when I can't get into the mountains often enough (or, according to my husband, when I don't get enough potato chips).  It's as if too many ideas, too many threads of music, words and images build up inside me throughout my days and nights, and they have to blow off at a consistent rate to keep my life in order.

One thing that has surprised me is that I've discovered that I can't write if I don't have adventures.  They are apparently the foundation of all my writing..  I really need them, the amazement, the wonder at something remarkable, like reaching deeply into an elk's neck ruff to feel the inner hairs.  I need the adventure, the fear, the adrenalin rush, the surviving.  My writing slows down to a trickle if I don't have it, and as I get older and more, hmm, sedate and boring, it's harder to find or have the kind of idiotic experiences that my writing really is based on.

I remember, this one time on the coast, in Charleston, Oregon, in December.  Mike Roberts (where are you now, Mike?), a grad student in marine-biology, asked if I wanted to help him collect sea urchins for an experiment (yes, we had a permit).  The only thing was, it was winter, dusk, with rough surf, freezing wind, chilling rain, and another winter-storm bearing down hard on the coast.  Yes, it was stupid to go, but that 1 to 2 hours was a tiny window, the only chance we'd had in two weeks, and likely the only chance we would have for several more because the storms were so harsh that year.  [Continue the stupid sea-urchin adventure, in which Tara and Mike are nearly washed away by a wall of surging ocean, followed by Tara chasing her bunny barn around the back acreage in a blizzard, and getting swarmed by flying ants.]

The sea-urchin adventure, and all the other ones in which something terrifying, grotesque, macabre, or just plain absurd happened to me--they all go into the books in one form or another.  Sometimes I think every scene I write is based on a true story.  It's all toned down, of course.  The reality of one thing like that after another, however much it happens in real life, would not necessarily be believable in the limited context of a novel.  After all, life is as absurd as God's humor demands, but books still have to make sense.

Novel-writing is a highly skilled and laborious trade of which the
raw material is every single thing one has ever seen or heard or felt,
and one has to go over that vast, smouldering rubbish-heap of experience,
half-stifled by the fumes and dust, scraping and delving until one
finds a few discarded valuables.

                                - Evelyn Waugh

Sometimes, it's not a leftover adventure that goes into the books, but just a single image from something I've seen or felt or dreamed--something that blocks almost everything else from my mind.  Like canoeing at midnight on black-glass, flat-calm water, and the only sound being the drip of water off the paddle as I feather.  When an image like that hits, everything connects to it, no matter what else I see or hear or experience.  It hangs in my mind.  To some extent, it haunts me.  It swamps everything else until I express it, in whatever form it requires:  music, poem, painting, book.   That image is everything in the world until it is defined outside of my mind.  I know it sounds artsy-fartsy, but that's the way it is.

So, no, I don't really know why I write.  I only know that I can't write if I don't live.  It's the constant stimulation, the adventures of life that fill me up, and that's what spills out into my books.

The six common traits of successful, creative artists/people

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2. Why Do You Write Science-Fiction?

I think it's because science-fiction offers a sense of hope, a sense of future.  I can look at technology and ideas and ask the question, "I wonder what would happen if..."   To some extent, I don't want to dwell on what was, I want to see what will be.  So I suppose I write SF because I want the one thing that SF, more than any other genre, gives its readers:  the hope and the possibility of a new future.  Even the fantasy novels I've started are explorations of different worlds in which I can explore new sets of rules.

I can say that when I write (whether it's in SF or a different category), I am not trying to be philosophical just to expound on yet another sociopolitical idea.  When I make points in my stories, I do so because I couldn't write a book--or anything else--without having something to say or explore.  To me, life is illustrated by stories, and summarized by thoughts.  No story can really be told without making some kind of point; and a summary by itself is a platitude.  But if I wanted to focus on platitudes, I'd write sound bites, not books.  If I wanted to expound on philosophy, I'd write essays, not novels and stories.  I'd rather write about the vision, the image, and the adventure of it all than simply dress up another politically correct or incorrect viewpoint as a novel.

I have been working on a few mainstream fiction ideas for novels, but since I already have 48 SF/fantasy novels started, the mainstream fiction is sitting rather low in my list of priorities.  Too much else to do.

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3. Do You Do Outlining and Character Sketches for Your Books?

No. While I'm sleeping, I use dream-control techniques to replay scenes, swap characters in and out, change and refine dialog, and explore science or image ideas. By the time I wake up, I usually have the story pretty much as I want it.

While I write a book, I might also write down histories of the basic characters to make sure that I keep in mind the motivations, dreams, fears, successes, etc., of each character.  In that respect, I do character sketches.  However, the characters themselves are already developed, at night, in conjunction with the dream-story which defines the book.

For example, Wolfwalker and Shadow Leader were a single dream I had almost 25 years ago.  (I remember dreams for a long time.)  When I wrote that dream up, the storyline split logically into three sections or books.  In 1990 and 1991, the sections ended up being published as two books.   Storm Runner was a dream I had years after the original Wolfwalker dream.  Lightwing is half a dream, but  Kiondili's story is really two books; I just haven't written the other half.

Cat Scratch Fever was, in the beginning, a dream of music and grief.  It then developed (same night) into two dreams, one right after the other as an exploration of slavery--emotional, physical, mental. Cataract was a complete, fast dream, full of action flashes and action replays, pushed forward by a loss I could not resolve.  I redreamed one part of that story over 150 times to refine the expression of a single sequence.  What I accomplished in a few minutes of dreaming would have taken me months to to do consciously in the daytime.

As for outlining itself, I've never been able to do it. I don't seem to think in a linear fashion--or if I do, it's an unconscious process that manifests itself in what appear to be intuitive jumps from one idea to the next.  When I was still in schools that required outlines for writing projects, I simply wrote the paper or story right off the bat, then created an outline to match it and turned that outline in.  Later, I would hand in the paper or story as scheduled.  I do understand what an outline is.  It's just that, for me, an outline is not an effective writing tool.

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4. How Much Rewriting Did You Have to Do on Your First Book to Get It Published?

Before agreeing to send my initial manuscript to any publisher, my agent requested significant revisions, including lengthening the story from 60,000 words to 80,000 words.  After I made the revisions, he asked me to consider folding that story and the next one together.  Sigh.  So I rewrote the story yet again to fold the first book into the second, leaving the third book stand-alone.  I then experimented with folding all three stories together into a single book.

In the end, my agent had three ways to present the stories to a publisher:

  1. as three separate novels.
  2. as two novels, with the first two combined into one book.
  3. as one novel, with all three stories combined into one book.

The editor at Del Rey didn't think the middle story was as stand-alone as the first and last stories.  With all three combined into a single story, the book would have been too long for the publisher to take a chance on a new author.  So Del Rey chose option B, which resulted in the best-selling novels, Wolfwalker and Shadow Leader.

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5. How Long Does It Take You to Write a Book?

Haven't a clue.  Currently, I finish about one book a year, but I work on a dozen or more at a time.  I have 48 novels started (dream-sequence/chars written down, or up to three chapters written up on each one).

I read recently an author's statement that it's common for new authors to take a year to write each book.  I've also heard some people brag about being able to write books in four weeks or less.  And I know many writers who are still writing books which were started twenty years ago.  Seems to me, however, that it's not how much time you put into a book, but rather what you put into a book that's most important.

You can be a Mozart-writer and simply have every piece of the story in your head before you begin writing. Or you can be a Beethovan-writer and develop a theme from utter simplicity into genius.  Or you can be yourself and write in your own style in your own time, on evenings and weekends, after work, between classes, after the kids have gone to bed...  Some writers who write a book in three weeks are out of print in three days.  Some writers who write a book in a few weeks hit on yet another best-seller.  It's not the time you take, but the way you take the time to write that ends up most important.

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6. Do You Write a Certain Number of Words Every Day?

No. If I don't feel like writing, I don't write.  I've heard many people say that they write six or eight or ten pages a day, whether they feel like it or not, but that method seems like a waste to me.  The few times I tried to force myself to write, I threw away everything I did.  I see no point in wasting time forcing out something that won't work in the first place--or in forcing out something that will have to be rewritten so much that I'd have been better off if I had thrown it out.  Me, I'd much rather use that time to interview a physicist, work in a neuroscience lab, or teach my niece violin.

For the same reason, I don't keep a journal.  I do write (sometimes sparingly, sometimes extensively) in empty books when there is a vision, a particular thought, a poem , whatever, that needs to be expressed.  However, I doubt that most people could tell what I did on any particular day by what I wrote in a book.

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7. Do You Get Writer's Block?

No. I have so many things to write, in so many different areas that, when it's time for me to percolate on one book or piece of music, I simply move on to the next and keep working.  I'll come back to writing the first story when that story is once again ready to be told.

There's nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.

      - Red Smith

I move on to other things when I'm percolating on one story for two general reasons:

  1. So I can let part of my brain think on what I was doing--this helps me make sure the storyline is really going in the direction I meant for it to go.
  2. So I can write down the other images/music/ideas I've had since then--which helps me make sure that those images and ideas don't get lost.

You see, it is living--researching, adventuring, exploring, learning--that gives me more impetus to write than anything else.  Waiting around for something to happen--for the ideas to somehow create themselves to break a block--that's a waste of life.  Ideas are like teeth: when they're ready to come out, they'll wiggle around and let you know.  Trying to pull them out with brute force merely makes a mess.

When I do need to percolate an idea, it is always because of one of these reasons:

  1. I haven't figured out the detail of what should happen next.
  2. A character was set up wrong in the beginning of the book, and so he cannot act as I want him to now.
  3. I have gotten distracted by something that doesn't belong in the story.

However, although I don't get writer's block, there is one thing that must happen before I can write anything: I must understand the music that is the essence of that piece of writing.  Essentially, I must compose the music for each story before I can start writing anything about that story.  

And yes, I dream the music--or the theme or impression the music should give me--as well as the plotline and characters.  The music actually comes first, then the image or vision that is the essence of what I want to say in the book.  From the music and image rise the dream-story, and from the dream-story I write the book.  Sometimes I dream the music and image without a story, and then, years later, dream the story that articulates that music.  

For example, Cat Scratch Fever was a piano sonata, called Desert Night, before it was a novel. Cataract is a violin-piano duet.   Wolf's Bane (1997) is a piano nocturne that filled my head for months before it allowed me to turn it into words. For me, if the music isn't there, the words will never flow.

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8.  Where Do You Do Your Best Writing?

I do my best writing in three places:  at night in the dark, in my office at home, and in my outdoor mountain office.

I've learned to write fairly neatly in the dark by hand, and that's when most of the kernels of the stories come to me.  I keep several large notepads and pens by the bed for this type of writing.  I prefer to write on engineering pads--you know the ones:  they are a green, reversed graph paper that feels as if it's just made for creating things.

My official office is "kick-a--" according to those who have braved its clutter.  I'll admit that it's a bit...full.  However, I did dust several of the shelves when my editor came to visit.  My only real concern with the office is that there is probably too much weight in the room.  I'm not sure if it was the pianos or the bookcases that did it, but the floor sags when you walk on it, and the bookcases sway out from the walls as you walk by.  It can be a bit unnerving if you're not expecting it.

My outdoor office is the one I take up to the mountains.  In good weather, I take two tents:  one for sleeping, one for working.  The sleep tent is a 4-season tent that has kept me dry even when I was in the path of flooding, and which has room for the dog (why do dogs always take up twice as much room as a human?).  The work tent has the advantage of large windows so I can freeze while I'm looking out at the lakes and mountains and trees and sleet.  In really cold snow or storm weather, I use one large tent and wrap myself in my sleeping bag while I write in order to stay warm while working.  And if you're thinking of making a similar setup, may I suggest building a portable fireshield for rain and wind?  Especially in Oregon--at least where I go--rain, wind and sleet are a problem.

In the work tent, I use a folding boat chair (fishermen know how to be comfy) set on a crate--the crate holds my tie-downs, oil, and other truck sundries.  I use a roll-up slat table to hold the laptop and keyboard, and three deep-cycle marine batteries to power the laptop.  I can run for about 18 days at 7-8 hours a day off those batteries.  I drive an old pick-up truck, so there is plenty of room to carry water and choose locations that would otherwise be unacceptable for an extended stay.  Currently, I can pack around 30 gallons of water in my jerry cans, so I can stay out until the power goes and still have enough to wash my hair and clothes.  As for food, I cook, prepare and package what I can before I go, so that I can do everything out of one small pot--it saves fuel for cooking and clean-up.  And of course, there are always fish and berries.  If I'm really lucky, my husband will come up to the mountains to find me (in warmer weather) and bring me ice so that I have a few more days of fresher foods.  Basically, when I'm writing, I don't come back until I run out of power, water, or kleenex--and not necessarily in that order.

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9.   Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Okay, this begins like a nonsequiteur but it really is the answer.

Most people dream when they sleep. I, instead, have nightmares.  Not bad dreams--nightmares.  Every night. Without fail.  Four or five vivid, distinct, extended, lucid, storylike nightmares, which are sometimes replayed in my mind a hundred times before I wake up. My parents said I've had nightmares since I was born, but I don't specifically remember any nightmares earlier than when I was two years old.

I also have night terrors, which are much worse than nightmares, but which don't occur very often.  And I still occasionally get bad dreams, but they are quite light, compared to the nightmares and terrors, and I can sleep fairly solidly through them.

What has night to do with sleep?

        - John Milton

At any rate, by the time I was 10 or so, my mother got tired of the nightmare game and began teaching me dream-control techniques. From there, it took me about a year to get the hang of turning a wake-up-sweating-and-screaming nightmare into an I-can-sleep-through-most-of-this nightmare.

 Since then, I've honed the techniques so that I can dream several dreams at once.  On a good night, I'll have four or five complex dreams at the same time, usually with one being the major nightmare, and the others being offshoots (I call them sidebars--like the boxed-text of related issues you see in magazine articles).  The offshoot dreams either explore concepts brought up in the nightmare (such as an SF idea, a music theme, the texture of a piece of cloth, a statement someone is making which I just can't accept; etc.), or the offshoots are completely separate nightmares.   On a bad night, I'll have more than one major nightmare at the same time, and I'll have difficulty keeping myself from waking up.  (I may not like sleep, but I still have to have some.)

At this point, I can replay almost any dream.  I can change characters in the dreams, tighten up dialog, swap scenes, increase tension or make the pacing of the action more appropriate.  I can explore a science concept, or create an alien race on the side.  Sometimes, I'll redream a sequence 150 or more times in order to get it exactly the way it should be.

I can dream from the perspective of everyone (not necessarily humans) at the same time, or I can dream through the eyes of one character in particular.  I can redream the same sequence from the perspective of someone else the next time around.  I can dream within dreams, within dreams, within dreams.

Yes, my nightmares include elements of my life--things I've seen or experienced, symbolism of issues that are unresolved, whatever.  In this respect, I suppose my nightmares are not only my dreams, but also my visions.  They give me music and image and expression for things I couldn't articulate during the day.  And, horrible as they can be at night, they remain vivid, lucid and clear at dawn.  I write them down, and they then become some of the concertos, the poems, the stories you see in print.

I did have a nice dream once, when I was twelve.  Someday, I hope to have another.

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10.  Do You Do Research for Your Books?

Yes.  My husband calls it the R&D phase of my writing.  Out of each year, I spend approximately six months researching the science and ideas I have for several books.  This usually means studying sciences, interviewing and working with scientists and other professionals; developing scenarios and testing them out.  I correspond with professionals from around the world.

Not all my research goes into each book.  Some technology simply isn't appropriate for this or that story.  But knowing more detail about what I want to describe allows me to put it in place now, so that it can be developed later.

Some professionals who have helped me with technical details
Technical References for Writers - Invaluable science and technical books, journals, etc.

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11.  What Kind of Experience or Education is Necessary to Become a Writer?

In college, any major except writing!  

   ---Not really, but here's the problem:  you need a broad background in a variety of subjects in order to have enough to say to be an interesting writer.  Majoring in writing may help you learn the craft of writing, but it won't make you an interesting person with interesting things to say.  Being a writer isn't about writing.  It's about having something interesting to say about life, and that means knowing about and being able to express life.  Writing is simply the tool by which you express life.

So as for college, sure, go ahead and major in writing, but combine it with something else--preferably lots of something elses.  Some basic requirements:  history, history, history, economics, basic sciences (physics, chemistry, biology), psychology, politics, anthropology....  I chose history, physics, and mathematics for my three "elses," but also had a lot of psychology and marine biology.

Have I continued with my education even though I am a pro writer?  Yes.  In the past 15 years, I have studied software engineering, computer science, electronics, and AI.  I have also studied herpetology and forestry.  Currently, I am studying genetics and forensics.  I have used in my fiction writing every field I've ever studied--I think a writing career is one of the few careers that makes that possible.  

Are there different types of writing majors?  Of course.  The usual three are:  journalism, creative writing, and science/technical communication.  I recommend majoring in journalism.  This is because journalism is the only major which teaches you to be concise, well-organized, accurate, to write under deadlines, to have something to say, to identify and take out ideas that clutter or obscure your point, and so on.  Journalism teaches you the craft of writing.  Journalism also provides enough writing experience throughout the degree that you can't help but learn to see stories all around you and understand how to present them.  This is an invaluable tool as a fiction or nonfiction author.

Creative writing classes will hopefully teach you something about style, characterization, alliteration, cadence, and other writing tools.  Creative writing is more about expressing yourself than about having something to say.  If you get a good teacher, it will also be about having something to say.  One caveat:  Creative writing classes can be extremely frustrating because the other students are often used as your readers, and that can create interesting and painful experiences.  At its best, a round-table writing class can be a difficult exercise in restraint and in being thorough.  At its worst, a round-table class is an exercise in ego, revenge, and idiocy.  I've heard from more than a few aspiring authors (and pros) that their round-table experiences destroyed their confidence.  It can be a useful experience, yes, but keep it in perspective.  The people critiquing you in a round-table class are almost always as inexperienced as yourself.  Consider them readers with chips on their shoulders, not objective editors.

Science and technical writing classes will teach you something about clean writing and will give you a fall-back skill.  If you need a job, it is fairly simple to get one as a science or technical writer.  There is always a demand for good tech writers, and the salaries and benefits are quite good.

Basically, any experience is good experience for a writer.  Make for yourself an interesting life or achieve some insight and/or wisdom.  Those things can be as or more valuable than any class in writing.

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12. Which Writers Have Influenced You the Most?

Hard to say, because I read so much.  Shakespeare, certainly, because his words live.  Chaucer, because of what I didn't like and what he said about his culture.  Anne Bradstreet, because of who she was in spite of when she lived.  Faulkner and Steinback, of course, because of the depth of their characters.

Nietzsche and Kant and other philosophers because they whine so continuously and yet sometimes still have something to say.  Lao-Tse, because water is life and death, hardness and softness, stillness and action (oooh, I love philosobabble!).  The Bible, because of what I can and can't reconcile, and because the translations through the ages are fascinating.  Thomas Jefferson, because he touched minds, not just emotions.

Jim Kjelkgaard and Walt Morey, for capturing my childhood.  Kipling, because he was magic. Keats, whose living hand still clutches.  Steven Crane, Charles Olson, Ezra Pound, because they are mirrors.  Afanasy Afanasyevitch Fet, because of the power in his sky and ocean.  Plath and Levertov and Sexton, who know/knew the border of dark and light.  Dickenson, whose paper-dry skin still sheds itself in my mind.

Taniguchi Buson, who captured the essence of an image.  Watson and Crick, who captured a part of the future.  Pauling and Feynman and Dyson and Einstein, who fired my imagination.  And finally, the anonymous NASA writers who sent packets and packets of information about satellites and space probes and moon missions to a little girl who dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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