Eric Flint answers your Frequently Asked Questions….
QUESTION: How long does it take to write a book?
ERIC: That basically depends on three factors:
1. The length of the book.
2. The type of book it is.
3. Whether I’m writing it solo or with a collaborator (or collaborators).
Length is the most obvious. Novels are made up of words, and the more words in a given novel the longer it’s going to take to write it. My novels, thus far, have ranged in length from about 110,000 to 180,000 words. The shortest being The Philosophical Strangler and Rats, Bats & Vats; the longest, 1632. Although that’s about to change — The Shadow of the Lion, now nearing completion, is going to be well over 200,000 words long; probably closer to 250,000.
(I might mention here that writers gauge the length of a book in a different way than readers. Readers think of length in terms of pages, but for an author that’s almost meaningless. The number of pages which a given number of words translates into varies wildly, depending on many factors determined by the publisher, not the writer — fonts, leads, margins, etc. So writers talk in terms of words, because that’s the only fixed absolute quantity.)
How many words do I write a day? Well, that varies a lot, depending on the type of book it is, as I’ll explain in a moment. But I don’t write every day of the year, anyway. Not even close. Writing, for me, is “burst work.” When I dig into a novel, I will write just about every day until the book is finished. Never less than 1,000 words. Once or twice — as many as 10,000 words. My average per day runs somewhere in the 1,500 to 3,500 range. Once a novel is finished, I will then take a break of anywhere from two weeks to two months, basically in order to “recharge my batteries.” During that time I occupy myself with editing work, writing short stuff, rewriting a draft produced by a collaborator, developing plots or settings for later novels, etc.
The critical factor which determines whether I’ll average 1,500 or 3,500 words is the type of book it is. Some novels, like alternate history, require an enormous amount of research. Since there’s no way for an author to research everything prior to starting a novel, the research continues all through the writing process. Naturally, that produces a much slower pace. While I was writing 1632, I would often take an hour to write a single paragraph — most of which time was spent checking the facts which went into that paragraph. It took me four months of solid, uninterrupted writing to finish 1632 — i.e., an average of 1,500 words a day.
With a book that’s well into a series, on the other hand, everything changes. By now, after completing five novels in the Belisarius series, I really don’t need to do much research except occasional items, usually geographic in nature. I’m just so familiar with that historical setting that I can almost write in it as easily as in one of my own completely self-designed fantasies. On the last two Belisarius books, I probably wrote an average of 3,000 words a day.
Fantasies — at least, fantasies entirely of my own design like the Joe’s World series — require no research at all. (As opposed to the Heirs of Alexandria series, which is as much alternate history as fantasy.) Still, I probably don’t write the Joe’s World stories faster than 3,500/day, if that. With those fantasies, a different problem is posed, which is figuring out the twists of the plot in that rather peculiar universe.
The third factor is whether the book is being written in collaboration with someone else, and, if so, who that someone else is. But I’ll take that up in the next topic.
Before I leave this one, however, let me add the following. The most important thing for a writer is not really speed so much as stamina. Whether you average 500 words a day or 5,000 — and I know successful authors at both ends of that range — the key thing is to write every day, day in and day out. At least while you’re working on a book. (Most writers do take breaks between books, although some don’t.)
500 words a day is only two pages of manuscript, approximately. That doesn’t seem like much, but… if you actually do it, day in and day out, you can finish a novel in six to eight months. If you can write 1,000 words a day, you’ll finish in three or four months. The big problem that most would-be writers run into when they try to write a novel-length manuscript is simply that they “run out of gas.” There’s really no way around it. Writing a coherent story that long simply takes a lot of emotional and intellectual energy and stamina.
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QUESTION: How does it work when you collaborate with others?
ERIC: There is no “standard way” in which two or more authors collaborate. It depends entirely on the partners involved and how they like to work together. A good collaboration, in my opinion, depends mainly on two things.
The first, so obvious it wouldn’t seem to require mention — but it does — is that you get along well with your partner. Being on friendly personal terms is pretty much critical. I won’t go so far as to say that no collaborations have ever worked between people who disliked each other… but not many, that’s for sure. The friendship may be closer or more distant, but it pretty much has to be there for a collaboration to work well. As my friend and collaborator Dave Drake once said to me, with his usual dry wit: “It does not bode well for a collaboration when you discover, halfway through it, that the first thing you do every morning is check the obituary section of the paper in the hopes that your co-author’s name will be listed.”
The other is that, with a little experience and “shaking down,” you and your partner(s) learn what method of work seems to suit you best. This learning process can get a little rough, at times, which is why friendship makes a big difference. Friends can growl at each other, now and then, when someone steps on someone else’s toes, without any big deal being made of it. The absence of friendship is likely to make those occasional little growls turn into… something else.
Mind you, it’s a complicated process — because it’s just as likely that a collaboration will turn into a friendship as the other way around. Of the five people I’ve collaborated with, on one project or another, two of them were friends before we decided to collaborate (Richard Roach and Dave Freer), two were completely unknown to me other than by name prior to the start of the collaboration (David Drake and Misty Lackey), and Dave Weber was a casual acquaintance. Collaboration between writers is a very close relationship in many ways, and so if you do get along it will most likely turn into a real friendship. That’s been my experience at least, with Dave Drake and Weber and Misty. (And if you’re beginning to notice that there are two many damn Daves in my life, so have I. I keep insisting that two of them have to change their names — any two, I don’t care — but the stubborn louts have so far resisted this perfectly reasonable proposal.)
So. How does it work? All I can do is tell you how my collaborations work.
It’s probably the simplest with Dave Drake. Here, the division of labor is clear cut. Dave develops the story setting and background, as well as a detailed plot outline. I then write the book. Simple as that.
Well… not quite. Although Dave doesn’t do any actual writing, I do discuss the progress of the novel with him frequently when I’m working on it — probably two or three times a week — and we think through together any problems I’ve encountered or changes I think might improve the story. I always send him the opening section of a novel just to make sure I’ve gotten off on the track he thinks is right, and he always reads the entire manuscript before it goes anywhere else. Then, after discussing it with him, I’ll incorporate whatever changes he wants in the rewrite.
As a rule, there aren’t many. Dave, like me, believes a writer has to be given a lot of leeway to shape a story to fit their particular writing style. So he will almost never advance any proposal except in the form of a “modest suggestion.” Which, heh, I learned to take as good coin very early on in our collaboration. Unless I really feel strongly about something — which, to be honest, I can’t recall ever happening — I will incorporate any change Dave suggests without demurral. And, on the other side of the coin, ever since the Belisarius series (which Dave plotted before he knew me) Dave will solicit my opinion on what aspects of a new story he’s developing I might particularly prefer or not. And, there too, I advance my opinions diffidently. Dave’s developing the story, not me, and I feel he needs as much leeway in that process as he’s always given me the other way around.
It works awfully damn well. Partly, because it suits both our temperaments. Dave enjoys plotting; I don’t. I can develop a plot, of course — if I couldn’t, I couldn’t be a writer in the first place — but that’s easily the part of creating a novel I enjoy the least. Mostly, I approach a story by getting myself into the minds of the characters. And what I really like to do is just write. So Dave hands me an excellent setting and plot outline — for my money, he’s as good a plotter as any in the business, and way better than most — and I just sit down and start happily churning out the tale. We’ve now produced five novels together following that method, with more than that coming in the future. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
With Dave Freer, the relationship works pretty much the other way around — sort of. There, in theory, it works like this:
Our first two collaborations were based on story ideas initially developed by me. In the case of Rats, Bats & Vats, on a short story I wrote many years ago; in the case of Pyramid Scheme (which will be published this October), on a plot outline I developed. We then, working together, developed a very detailed plot outline. Dave then wrote the entire first draft of the novel, and I wrote the second draft. My second draft involved some expansion of the story — maybe by 10-20% — and a lot of minor polishing, embellishing, etc.
Compared to my working method with Dave Drake, in short, Dave Freer and I don’t maintain as sharp a division and we alternate writing. But, broadly speaking, we still each come in at different stages of the process. And, just as is true with Dave Drake and I, there is clearly one person who is the principal writer of the book. Me, in the case of a Flint-Drake novel; Dave, in the case of a Freer-Flint novel.
Misty Lackey, on the other hand, prefers to mix it up at all stages of the game. So when Dave and I work with her, we follow a completely different method. Basically, we all do everything together. We hammered out the basic plot outline for the four-book Heirs of Alexandria series in the summer of 2000. Misty already had a sketch of it — the basic idea of the series came from her — which the three of us chewed on and expanded through the course of a weeks-long and massive email correspondence. Then, when Dave came to Chicago from South Africa for the WorldCon, Misty came up for several days from where she lives in the Midwest and we spent those days at my house just outside Chicago pulling it all together on Misty’s trusty laptop.
And then we started writing. I didn’t do any writing on the first draft of Shadow of the Lion, which is the first book in the series. That was written, about evenly, between Misty and Dave. I came in on the second draft, which when finished — we’re right in the middle of it now — will wind up expanding the first draft by about 33%. That new writing is being done fairly evenly by the three of us, with me concentrating also on being what you might call the fussbudget and nag of the group, pestering everyone else that this chapter isn’t right and we need a new chapter over there, and we really oughta change that over there. Misty calls me the “self-appointed coordinator.” I think she means that in good humor… (Hope so, anyway.)
In later volumes of the series, we’ll probably be mixing it up even more now that all three of us have gotten a better sense of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s becoming more and more common for all of us, as we write a section of the story, to just insert a little note to the effect of “Misty/Dave/Eric, you should write this part, I’ll skip over it.”
My collaboration with Richard is almost impossible to describe, because it really doesn’t fit any normal “pattern.” Richard and I began the Joe’s World story as college kids, over thirty years ago. Off and on over the decades which followed, we’d haul it out and do some more work on it. Then, in 1992, I finally decided to buckle down and start writing seriously. I dragged the old manuscripts out of the file cabinet, bought a computer, and wrote the complete first draft of Forward the Mage in January and February of 1993. I did it without even telling Richard I was doing so, until I’d finished the draft, because we’d had so many false starts over the years that I didn’t want to stir him from sleep until I was sure I actually had something.
Then Richard and I worked together to produce the second and final draft, which I’m expanding and polishing a little right now — expanding my draft by some 33%. Most of the new material involved the character of the artist Benvenuti, who has always been for thirty years Richard’s principal character in the series.
The reason it’s hard to describe the collaboration is because while, on the level of actual writing, I do the lion’s share of it, Richard has always been completely entwined in the development of the story since the beginning. Unlike myself, Richard is not a professional fiction writer. He writes quite a few rough drafts of many chapters, which I will then rewrite and incorporate into my own stuff. Then we chew on it and think about it, after which I’ll write the final draft while he works on something else.
When the time finally came, a few months ago, that this thirty-year long partnership had to be translated into the precise language of legal contracts — a partnership which Richard and I have taken for granted our entire adult lives — we had to decide how to “officially” categorize the collaboration. After talking it over, we decided the fairest system was to list Richard as a collaborator on the two novels out of the five in which Benvenuti figures as a major character, and call the other three solo novels by Eric Flint. But the reality is infinitely more complex. Since contracts involve a division of money, the system we came up with is fair enough to both Richard and me. But, on what I consider a more important level, this story is — as it has always been — as much Richard’s as mine, regardless of which book you’re talking about.
Which is probably as good a place as any to end this long answer to a simple question.
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QUESTION: How does a collaboration work?
ERIC: Any way it works, that’s how, just as long as it does.
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QUESTION: How complete do you make a plot before you write it?
ERIC: Again, that mostly depends on whether I’m writing alone or with a collaborator — and, if I am, which collaborator.
My own plot outlines lay out the basic action and developments of the story in “blocks.” At the outline stage of a novel, I think in terms of “parts” rather than chapters. The basic parts of the story are all there, and well designed, but I make no attempt to develop the “fine detail” which will go into each chapter. I leave that for the actual writing.
Dave Drake’s plot outlines are a lot more extensive than mine — at least twice as long — but he, also, does not try to develop it all the way down to the “chapter level.” Dave tends to think of a story as a flowing unit rather than a series of “acts,” the way I do. So where my own plot outlines will literally be organized “part one, part two, etc,” Dave’s plot outlines read like an unbroken essay — a prÃ©cis of the novel rather than a diagram of it.
Dave Freer, on the other hand, really likes to have a very well developed plot outline before he starts writing, and so his outlines will get into a lot of the page-by-page “nitty gritty” of the story.
Misty seems to pretty much share my approach to plotting, but, as always with good collaborations, there’s a lot of give and take. What I think is going to happen with all of the books in the Heirs series is what happened in the end with the first one: the plot outline develops in stages, with the three of us producing a “rough outline” and then fine-tuning it as we get closer to the writing.
Which method works best? In truth — any of them. The real secret to a good plot isn’t in the details anyway. It’s in two much more critical things:
1. Is this a good story in the first place? One which will “grab” a reader?
2. Is the basic logic of the plot all there?
The first is almost impossible to explain, because being able to “smell” a good story is one of those aspects of being a writer which is genuinely creative and not something I’d have any idea how to “train” someone to do. So I’m not going to say anything more about it.
The second thing is the critical one. The biggest mistake people make when they try to envision what a plot is in the first place is that they usually think of it as a sequence of events. This happens, that happens, etc, we get to the end.
That’s not a plot. That’s a description of what happens to you every day — which, as a rule, has no particular rhyme or reason to it other than the routine of daily life. The simplest way to understand the distinction is to ask yourself this question, as you’re climbing into bed to go to sleep: “What was my day about?”
Answer: With a few exceptions — the day you get married being an example — your day wasn’t “about” anything. It just happened, that’s all.
But a story must be “about” something. A good one, at least. There’s has to be a point to it. That “point” needn’t be anything especially profound or earthshaking, but it damn well better be there or you don’t have a story to tell — and if you don’t have a story to tell you won’t be able to develop a real plot in the genuine sense of the term.
In essence, a plot is the architecture of a novel. It’s the logic of events (largely driven by the nature of your characters) which connects the beginning of the story to the end in what is sometimes called a “story arc.” In theory (if rarely in practice) every single thing that happens in that novel — every sentence — should be part of the architecture of the story. It should have a purpose. If a character bumps into a casual acquaintance in the course of the story, there should be a reason for it. (As there almost never is in the real world, where most of our daily encounters are completely casual and accidental.) The reason can be almost anything — so long as, in some way, it acts as a “link” connecting the beginning and end of the novel.
That’s a plot. And the logic of it is what matters, not the depth of detail. The latter is basically just a function of the different writing styles of different authors.
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QUESTION: Do you write sequentially, from beginning of the plot to the end?
ERIC: As a rule — with first drafts, at least — yes. But with one major modification:
Most of my novels are “multiple-viewpoint” stories, where I am following several major characters, not just one. In most — not all — multiple viewpoint stories, one or two of those characters is the “first among equals.” To give an example, the Belisarius series has many important viewpoint characters. But Belisarius himself is clearly the “first among equals,” and, of the rest, Antonina just as clearly occupies pride of place.
Writing a multi-viewpoint story is the way I generally prefer to write, as opposed to single-viewpoint. (And when I don’t, as in The Philosophical Strangler, it’s because I’m writing with a first-person instead of third-person narrator, which automatically gives you a single-viewpoint story.) Whether to write single or multi-viewpoint stories is entirely a matter of a writer’s style and preference. Excellent novels have been written both ways. To give examples, Robert Heinlein usually preferred a single-viewpoint story; Frank Herbert’s Dune is multi-viewpoint.
There’s no “right or wrong” involved. But — each approach has its dangers. In the case of a multi-viewpoint story, the big danger is that the “keel” of the story — which follows the adventures of the “first among equals” — can break if it’s overloaded with too many sub-plots.
Having excessive and uncontrolled sub-plots is the most characteristic weakness of a writer who, like myself, prefers to write multi-viewpoint stories. And so I am careful, as I write a novel, to structure my writing in such a way as to eliminate that danger as much as possible.
In practice, to use the Belisarius series as my example, what it means is this:
What I write first is the Belisarius “keel” of the story, skipping over as I go all the chapters I have set aside for other viewpoint characters. Only once I’m satisfied that I have the Belisarius line of the tale pretty well hammered out and that it will serve me as a good and heavy “keel” — which usually means having at least 2/3 of that part of the novel written — do I go back and start writing, from beginning to end, all the chapters I skipped over.
In essence, yes — I write from beginning to end. But I adapt that to fit the particular needs of a particular book
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QUESTION: Do you use a computer for your work?
ERIC: Hell, yes. I’m old enough to remember the “good old days” of manual typewriters and spending 80% of your time making painstaking corrections with white-out on carbon copies. No thanks. Like the “good old days” usually turn out to be on close examination, t’weren’t what they was cracked up to be. Computers sometimes drives me to a frothing rage — especially when they gobble up an entire chapter for no rhyme or reason — but they beat the alternative by a country mile.
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QUESTION: What’s your best book?
ERIC: I think I’m probably the worst person in the world to answer that question, so I’m not even going to try.
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QUESTION: What novel have you personally enjoyed the most writing?
ERIC: I honestly couldn’t say. I’ve never written a novel I didn’t enjoy writing, and I don’t intend to change that in the future. To be honest, I’m really not sure I could write a story I didn’t like.
Each novel has its own pleasures. For sheer fun, there’s nothing like the Joe’s World stories for me. But there’s a different (and in some ways deeper) satisfaction in writing my alternate histories, or the Heirs series, or straight SF like Mother of Demons — and yet another great pleasure in writing fast-paced adventure novels of the kind I write with Dave Freer.
Ask someone with a lot of kids which one they like the best. You’ll get the same answer. (Gawd, I hope so, anyway…)
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QUESTION: Which genre do you feel is your best to write in?
ERIC: Within science fiction and fantasy, the only sub-genre I would stay away from is “hard” science fiction — and, even then, only if the science involves the physical sciences. I’m not a biologist, but I know enough of that science (and can pick the brains of many of my friends who are professionals in the field) to feel comfortable incorporating a lot of biology in some of my novels (as I did in Mother of Demons). But I simply don’t have the technical training to tackle the kind of “hard SF” stories that some writers can.
My own real strength, both by virtue of background, training and personal inclination, is with stories that focus on what you might call the “social workings” of a given setting. That straddles a very broad range of both science fiction and fantasy, of course, and my writing has been and will be found primarily there. If I were to pick a “center of gravity” for myself as a writer, it would probably be the Heirs of Alexandria series I’m writing with Misty and Dave. That combines alternate history and what I tend to think of as “hard fantasy” — i.e., fantasy which is tied fairly closely to a “realistic” and historically rooted setting.
And having said that, I will also cheerfully point out that I’m lying through my teeth because the Joe’s World stories could probably best be described as surrealistic fantasies, and Misty and Dave and I are about to embark on a new project which is unadulterated — and shamelessly so — pure space opera.
What the hell, I’ll write damn near anything except “hard SF” of the type I described. A good story is a good story, and there’s an end to it. Consistency, as the man said, is the hobgoblin of little minds.
And that’s enough for now. I’ll answer other questions as they come in.