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Interviews by Deborah Walker on Flash and Favorites and Alethea Kontis on Hard Choices

Interviews

Deborah Walker, whose fiction and poetry appear in venues like Nature and Daily Science Fiction, did a new interview with me on her blog (“Interview with Luc Reid — and Free Flash“), in which she brings out questions on flash fiction, favorites, and writing habits. Her blog, “Deborah Walker’s Bibliography,” covers writing and writing resources.

Alethea Kontis, author of AlphaOops: The Day Z Went FirstThe Dark Hunter Companion, and the upcoming fantasy novel Sunday offers Genre Chick interviews at aletheakontis.com where she gets down to brass tacks with some of the most interesting up-and-coming speculative fiction writers around today–but she has an interview with me, too, at http://aletheakontis.com/2011/05/genre-chick-interview-luc-reid-2/ .

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Judson Roberts: “A slave … set upon the path to becoming a great warrior”

Interviews

Judson Roberts is a former organized crime prosecutor and current full-time writer living in Texas. His series of historical novels set among the Vikings, The Strongbow Saga, was originally published by HarperCollins and is now finding even greater success published through Roberts’ own Northman Books. This Codex Blog Tour interview considers violence in novels, Roberts’ fascination with Viking culture, and young adult versus adult fiction.

Your book series, The Strongbow Saga, follows the fortunes of a Viking thrall-turned-warrior. What spurred your fascination with this time period and character?

My first efforts at a novel, which spanned a number of years but did not result in anything publishable, were focused on writing a contemporary mystery/thriller, trying to follow the advice “write what you know”–I’d spent most of my adult life working in law enforcement. After hearing novelist Bernard Cornwell speak at a conference, though, I started thinking about writing a historical novel. I’d been fascinated by the Vikings as a child, and at the time there was very little fiction out there set during the Viking period, so that seemed a likely period to focus on.

I devoted about a year to in-depth research before I even considered beginning to write. That led me to realize that my childhood perceptions of the Vikings, based on such sources as the old Hollywood movie The Vikings starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, had been quite inaccurate. Although many Viking-age Scandinavians did engage, at least occasionally, in organized piracy, they were far from the primitive, fur-clad barbarians of popular perception. I came to realize that they in fact had a highly developed culture that in many ways resembled that of the ancient Mycenaean Greeks of Homer’s Iliad. Moreover, I discovered that much of what we consider today to be concepts, rights, and heritage derived from medieval England had in fact originated with the Viking–things set down in the Magna Carta like the right to a trial by jury, a belief in an individual’s right to freedom, and the concept that even the king (or other central government) was subject to and must obey the law. My plan to write a good story set in a historical period grew into a desire to use that story to portray the Vikings in a more realistic, favorable light than had been done in the past.

Of course, there were challenges in trying to make the Vikings sympathetic to an audience of modern readers, because they did have their dark sides. The Vikings were heavily engaged in the slave trade, for instance. How could the hero of my story have distaste for, and even choose to avoid being involved in, some of the unsavory aspects of Viking culture that the typical Viking would not even question, without making him unbelievable by giving him modern sensibilities? I decided he had to be both a member of the Vikings’ culture and society but at the same time an outsider–a technique that James Clavell used so effectively in Shogun. So Halfdan, the protagonist of The Strongbow Saga, begins the story as a slave, a victim of the Vikings, but through a twist of fate is freed and set upon the path to becoming a great warrior among them.

Did you come up with a particular plan for handling the violence in the books early on, or did you play it by ear?

I didn’t have any plan specifically about violence. It’s very important to me, in this series, to try and portray Viking society and culture as accurately as possible. One of my major research sources has been the Viking sagas. Most of them were put into written form during the early Middle Ages, after the actual time of the Vikings, but they were derived from the Vikings’ strong oral literature tradition. Again, there’s a strong similarity to Homer’s Iliad—both were put into the written form that has survived to the present time centuries after the original stories were first created as oral literature, but archeological and other research has confirmed that there’s a great amount of underlying truth in both the Iliad and in many of the sagas.

What is striking in reading the old sagas is that extreme acts of violence could erupt so suddenly in the Viking culture. It was a fairly violent period of history anyway, and when the Vikings’ touchy sense of honor was added into the mix, it seems that frequently it did not take much of a spark to ignite a deadly confrontation. To draw another parallel, the strong coupling of honor and violence are strikingly similar to the medieval Japanese samurai culture that Clavell evokes so effectively in Shogun. To portray Viking culture accurately, the violent side cannot be ignored, but I tried never to insert gratuitous violence into the story.

Your books were originally marketed by HarperCollins as young adult novels, although my sense is that the series is written with adults in mind first of all. What are your thoughts about the series as young adult versus adult? Is this a meaningful distinction for your work?

When planning and writing the series, it was always my intention to be writing adult fiction. The agent whom I signed with, who was the first agent I’d been able to interest in the book (I had completed book 1 at the time, and had an outline and a very rough, early draft of the next two in the series) after a long and rather demoralizing search, specialized in children’s and teen books, but she assured she handled adult fiction, too. She proved unable to interest any editors of adult fiction in it, though, so after some months asked my permission to try selling the book to young adult fiction editors. I’d never even heard of the term “young adult” before then, but I agreed, and fairly quickly after that she made the sale to the Children’s Division of HarperCollins.

Had my editor there asked me to rewrite the books to make them more suitable for children, I’m not sure how I would have felt or responded. Fortunately, though, she didn’t—she said she felt older teen readers were perfectly capable of reading the books as I wanted to write them, so I continued to write books 2 and 3 of the series as adult fiction. So the “young adult” designation did not in any way affect how I wrote the story of The Strongbow Saga, but it certainly had a major impact on the series in other ways.


Roberts has made an impressively successful transition from traditionally published author to indie self-publisher. In a follow-up interview, we’ll talk about his tactics, expectations, and results in supplanting HarperCollins as the publisher of his own works.

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Lawrence M. Schoen: “Marginally self-aware collections of atoms”

Interviews

Lawrence M. Schoen is cognitive psychologist and Hugo-nominated writer living in Philadelphia, whom I first met 20 years ago when he taught a class in psycholinguistics at New College in Sarasota, Florida, where I was studying for my BA. His stories have appeared in venues like Analog and Andromeda Spaceways, as well as in translation in a variety of languages around the world. This Codex Blog Tour interview delves into the intersection of writing, cognitive psychology, Schoen’s life, and in a way, everything else that matters in the universe.

You have a pretty fascinating combination of careers: cognitive psychologist, small press publisher, and writer, with a past decade spent as a professor and a serious involvement on the side with the Klingon language (that sultry minx). Does this multiplicity of interests work for you? Is there much synergy among these parts of your life?

I like to keep busy. No, scratch that. I need to keep busy. I’m the poster child for that bit about idle hands. Really though all the things you mention, the cognitive psych, the writing, the publishing, the Klingon, they’re all different facets of the meeting points of creativity and language.

At some level I truly believe that all human endeavor is the same endeavor. All art and science is after the same thing. All dreams and efforts are attempting the same thing. Whether you call it trying to understand the world, or finding purpose, or justify our existence doesn’t matter. It’s all commentary, from a single mind, expressed to a mostly indifferent but occasionally intrigued world. This applies whether we’re talking about paintings on a cave wall, a mathematical proof, the lines in a teenager’s diary, or the cutesy names I give to my dog (who this very morning I was calling “vomit puppy”). I don’t want to get all touchy-feely and say we’re all “star stuff” (though we are), but at the end of the day we are all marginally self-aware collections of atoms with opinions and ideas about other collections of atoms. To not find synergy in the actions and directions of a person’s life would be a great surprise.

At a less heady level (which is probably what you were going for, sorry), yes indeed, the different tangents of my life do indeed influence one another on a regular basis. My training as a research psychologist with a particular fetish for language and memory constantly informs the fiction that I write. The fiction that I write colors what fiction from other authors that I edit and publish, and vice versa. My interest in Klingon is fueled by my expertise in language as a psychological construct, by being a genre author and publisher, by appreciating the combination of timing and technology that put me in the right time and place with the right skill set to lead an international effort to work with a constructed language.

Or more simply, I have a really great life!

A lot of your fiction to date has been about the spacefaring hypnotist The Amazing Conroy. What is it about Conroy that is compelling for you as a writer?

BUFFALITO CONTINGENCY, Schoen's latest book

Like many writers of my generation, I grew up reading Burroughs and Heinlein. I like my fiction to have a happy ending. I like to see everything resolved and tied up with a bow at the end, for the good guy (or girl) to win out over the bad, and for the unjust to be defeated. Conroy does that for me. He’s the little guy who wins, not necessarily because of any great attribute he possesses, but because he’s got a good heart. He’s a decent enough guy, despite being a bit of a rogue.

They hypnosis part means he gets to play with people’s reality. This isn’t just fun, it’s also a great vehicle that I need to remember to take better advantage of. Conroy gets to change what people believe, perhaps only for a few minutes while they’re on stage, perhaps in subtler and longer lasting ways. Of course, we all do that every day, but we’re not usually doing it so overtly or deliberately or as a form of entertainment.

And too, there’s a lot that’s autobiographical in Conroy. He wants to be liked (don’t we all?), and he wants to succeed. He wants to be special. He makes mistakes, but doesn’t always see them. He’s the center of his own world — a point that is played up by my always writing him in the first person — but he’s more often a protagonist than a “hero.” He’s a good guy, trying to be better, but he’s flawed. I think all of these factors make it easier for readers to identify with him.

Have cognitive psychology and linguistics offered you any insights into how to write or why you write? Additionally, do they help with characters, stories, or voice?

I used to wish I was one of those authors who claim they “have” to write. Like I’ll go mad or become self-destructive or commit violence if I don’t have that release. Nyah, sorry, that’s not me. But I am fascinated by people, and always have been. That’s probably what propelled me into psychology way back when, the variety of people and their behaviors, the manifestations of their motivations and the choices they make. I do believe that everyone has a story but that most of them don’t have the means to tell it well.

I’m very comfortable writing dialogue. I’m usually pretty good about having different characters sound like different people, and I can be impatient or incredulous with authors who can’t do this. Both sides of that stem from a passion for language that goes back at least as far as being twelve and hanging out with people who were trying to teach me articulatory phonetics and elvish in the same afternoon.

So, yes, my background in psychology and language do have an effect on my characters and my stories, and most definitely on my voice. There are a lot of writers in our field with PhD’s and/or who have spent time as professors. Most of them have degrees in the “hard” sciences, disciplines like physics and chemistry and biology. I was trained using the same tools, the same scientific method as they were, but my subject matter has the added kicker of volition and attitude and the other experimental irritants that go along with consciousness. My worldbuilding is less concerned with getting right the mixture of gases that make up a planet’s atmosphere and more about social structures or language quirks or the impact of alien attributes on memory. For example, one requirement that I gave myself for every Conroy work is that someone in the story has some mental phenomenon that we might label as some form or other of “telepathy,” and that they have to be different every time. This allows me to play with the impact of such a device on the psychology of the people and world around it. If I were a biochemist or an astronomer, I don’t think I’d care about it so much.

What’s your biggest challenge at this point in your life? What quest are you on?

About ten years ago I had a philosophical awakening in my life, and turned myself around. I like to say that I greatly reduced my asshole quotient (though there’s still plenty left) and I became a much nicer person. At the heart of this was the realization that I’d spent most of my life unconsciously sabotaging every relationship I’d been in, professional, social, romantic, you name it. Fortunately, included in that realization was the means to stop screwing things up. As I began rebuilding my life, I made a deliberate choice to stop engaging in zero-sum games. No more of the “for me to win, you have to lose” mindset. Since then, I strive to create win-win scenarios, defining the terms for my own success and well being on ensuring that I bring the other person(s) along with me. It has made an amazing difference.

In the summer of 2009 I turned fifty, and I made another major life decision. As I began to move into the beginning of my second half-century, I acknowledged that I’d accomplished pretty much every goal I’d ever set for myself. I’d been married to a wonderful woman. I’d achieved recognition in my academic field. I’d published a novel. Things like that. Which meant that moving forward at fifty, it didn’t have to all be about me! I’m still writing, more so than ever actually, but with less pressure. Instead, I’m looking for more ways to pay it forward. I’m doing more mentoring. I’m trying to take the things I’ve learned along the way and assist colleague and friends, as well as younger and beginning writers, to achieve their aims and write the stories they want to tell. And you know, it’s incredibly gratifying. More surprising still, is that it’s making me a better writer. Talk about your win-win scenarios, all unlooked for.

I’m not sure where it’s all going to go, where it’s going to take me. In February of this year my wife and I hosted a new writing workshop out of our home. Six writers came together for a very long weekend of feedback, critique, and novel blocking. It was brilliant. It was exhausting. It was incredibly satisfying and transformational. And I want to do it again, every year, possibly twice a year. It’s an incredible feeling to connect with other authors in this way, to be part of a community that helps one another to become better, to share in the creative process so freely. I said it above in answer to your first question, and I can’t think of a better way to end here. I have a really great life!

You can find some free examples of Schoen’s work online, including the story “Mars Needs Baby Seals,” posted for International Polar Bear Day at http://www.lawrencemschoen.com/freebies/ipb-2011/ and his reading of “Sweet Potato Pie” for the Balticon podcast: http://balticonpodcast.org/wordpress/2010/04/bc44-89-lawrence-m-schoen-reading/.

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Kelly Barnhill: “Gifts to the child I was”

Interviews

Kelly Barnhill is a teacher, mom, and writer from Minneapolis. Her stories have sold to magazines like Postscripts, Clarkesworld, and Weird Tales, and she has written thirteen nonfiction books for kids. This Codex Blog Tour interview delves into where she finds time, focus, and inspiration to write, and how her writing complements the other parts of her life.

So you have a new novel for middle grade readers called The Mostly True Story of Jack coming out from Little, Brown in August, but you have a lot of prior experience writing science books for kids (e.g., Sewers and the Rats That Love Them). Does the nonfiction writing help you in writing fiction for kids of the same age group?

Oh, absolutely. My work writing nonfiction for children was something I actually never set out to do. I had written to Capstone Press a year earlier, hoping to do some curriculum work. They came back asking me to write them a couple of books – and very specific books indeed. These books needed to appeal to both boys and girls, they needed to be informative, factual, and funny. They needed a strong voice, smooth readability, short sentences, chunked information, and high interest. I had insanely strict word counts – not only in total, but I had limits as to how long my average sentence length could be, how long my paragraphs could be, how many words could be on each page. It was like nonfiction haiku. But funny. Hardest thing I ever did.

The thing is, that work – that painstaking, back-breaking, soul-crushing work – was probably the best thing I ever did. I became ruthlessly economical. I became much more concerned with voice. I learned to see the humor in everything (now, granted, when you’re writing a book on the history of the sewer system, the humor just, um, flows, but when you’re writing a book on famous hoaxes, or weird rituals, or horrifying medical practices, you’ve got to be pretty flexible and open to humor). My work as a nonfiction writer built me into the writer I am now. And really, it convinced me that I really could write for children. And then I started my novel.

What do you hope kids get out of reading your fiction? Is the most important thing that the story be fun, or are there lessons to be learned, or is the goal something less concrete than that?
I guess I never really thought of it that way. I think, in a lot of ways, people who write for children are secretly writing letters to the person we were as children. I write about loneliness because as a child I was lonely. I write about characters who struggle with anger and disillusionment and the mercilessness of hope because as a child I was angry, and disillusioned – and I knew that hope, while redeeming and sustaining, was also merciless. Hope makes requirements on a person. I write fiction because I want to tell the child that was – the lonely child, the struggling child, the hurting child – that friendship is possible, and love is possible, and hope doesn’t always hurt.

I write fiction to give gifts to the child I was: strong legs, clear eyes, quick hands and wings – wings made of ink, wings made of paper, wings made of pencil shavings and eraser bits. And I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty sure she received them. I’m pretty sure she stepped out, scanned the skies, ran, leaped, and flew.

What has been the biggest obstacle to your writing so far? Have you had to take any special steps to deal with it?

The biggest issue for me right now is time. I teach; I parent; I write. Unfortunately, those three occupations spring from the same place in my heart – which is a bit of a strain. For a lot of years, the entirety of my writing time happened between the hours of four and and six in the morning. At six, the children woke, and my day followed the rhythm of my children. Lately, things have gotten easier – all three kids are in school, and I have the great luxury of working during the daytime. Even still, it is now the rhythm of the story that I have to contend with – and that is a rhythm that is not my own. Because I don’t outline – and I approach story writing in the same way that I approach story reading, that same sense of wonder, expectation and excitement – I often wander down trails that I later have to abandon. Characters emerge, flourish, and disappear. Stories are written, then re-written from memory. It’s a messy process and an unpredictable process, but it’s mine, and I’ll keep it.

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Interviews, Creative Mojo, and Procrastination

Interviews

I just got off the phone, doing a live interview with Mark Lipinski on his toginet.com radio show Creative Mojo about my 2006 book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures. Lots of fun! Yes, my palms were sweaty and I probably sounded more than a little hyper: I’ll see once they post the podcast, which will be available through that Creative Mojo link above down the road (I’ll post when it comes up).  But I enjoyed the show, and was able to calm down a little and focus beforehand by the trick of imagining myself as one of the very experienced interviewees one sees on talk shows–famous actors and directors and so forth. This is similar to the trick of imagining what it’s like to be a college professor before taking a standardized test, which in one experiment helped people remember more facts more confidently.

Mark Lipinski

When I look at the show Mark runs, I have to be impressed. Mark edits several craft magazines and yet does this radio show once a week where he has a number of guests whose work he seems to know well. He clearly had delved into my book with a will and asked some great questions. How do you do that with six people a week? Interestingly, Mark characterizes himself as a procrastinator. Maybe he’s just the kind of person who initiates so many projects, sometimes it’s hard to choose which one to proceed with? If so, he and I would have that in common. I’ve been enjoying the process of narrowing down my focus to one major project at a time, though. More on that in past and future posts.

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Tobias Buckell Writing Motivation Interview, Part III: Bouncing Back

Interviews

Tobias Buckell is the author of numerous short stories and novelettes (many appearing in his collection Tides from the New Worlds); the “caribbean steampunk” novel Crystal Rain and its successors Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose; and the New York Times bestselling Halo novel The Cole Protocol. He is also a well-known blogger, a past Writers of the Future winner, and a fellow member of the Codex writers’ group. Knowing both about his many successes and about the surprising number of difficulties he’s overcome, I asked to interview him about his writing and his motivation through hard times. This is the final installment of that three-part interview.

The impact from your medical condition on your writing time sounds very disheartening, and I imagine things only got more complicated (although admittedly with compensations) when Calliope and Thalia were born. What got you from being depressed and in disorder with your writing schedule to regaining your focus and getting back on track? Was support from others particularly important, or the experience of the work itself, or other steps you took?

Well, the kids took up some time, but they keep you from focusing on yourself to focusing on them, which was a good thing. It was tough from January to September of 2009, but mainly I kept my eye on the prize. I was alive, I got to write a little bit, and starting in September I’d have enough to go back to mostly writing. And I was grateful that even though I wasn’t getting to write as much as I preferred and loved, I still was a freelancer. This meant I had a life where I could work when I had the strength, and sleep when I needed, which was great for that recovery time. In April, with newborns, I was able to have a flexible schedule and be around my kids as much as I needed.

When September rolled around, it was a case of just being excited to do what I loved the most, even though I knew there was this 11 month or so hole in my career.

As a writer you have to love the work, and being inside the work. And that’s what I turned to as soon as I could. I started work on a young adult novel, which was a new kind of project. And it wasn’t due, so there was no pressure. I just hard to work on it every day. Just being inside a novel and working on it, living in that moment, and figuring out for the first time what my new energy levels were like, was a discovery period.

I also took the time to destress myself. I’d pushed myself too hard in Montreal for Worldcon. I ended up in a Montreal cardiac center. And I ended up getting a doctor who told me my condition was like asthma: potentially life threatening if I ignored it. But if I took things easy and built my life around realizing I had it, and then got on with life, I’d probably die of something else first (which was the case of his older patients who had my same heart condition). He told me I needed to not physically or emotionally stress myself out.

So I had a doctor’s excuse now. I negotiated out of deadlines as best I could, and just started focusing on the writing for its own sake. It would get turned in when I turned it in.

That ended up being remarkably freeing and, oddly enough, made me more productive over the next 9 months than I have been since I first wrote Crystal Rain.

Additionally, I read an article about how Asimov used to work. He used to work on a project on a typewriter, then when he’d get blocked or bored with it, he’d switch to another project on another typewriter. He’d keep hopping from one to the other. I started noticing that I used to have multiple day gaps on large creative projects, so I started to wonder, since I had few ‘golden hours’ in me every day, if I could afford to let these periods persist. So I decided during this time to experiment with the Asimov method. I’d avoided it in favor of writing work sequentially due to the fact that when I was a new writer, I always ran into these people who were perpetually starting something new. And never finishing. So I avoided that out of a desire to succeed at being a writer.

But now that I knew I could write a novel, or novella, or short story, I thought, why not take a risk during this recovery period? Everyone knew I was recovering, I’d negotiated out of my deadlines, my career had this gap of a year and was paused, I couldn’t see things being any more messed up. Now was the time.

I started working on that young adult novel called The All Tree, but I also rotated in a novelette I was writing for Audible.com called “The Executioness.” At the same time, I worked in my spare time on a non-fiction book about my journey toward becoming a writer, equal parts biography and manual and advice and random thoughts on writing. In eight months, despite having less energy than before I got sick, I’d written the YA novel, drafted it, made progress on an adult novel I owed Tor, written the novelette, finished a draft of the book on writing, and written a novella for Clarkesworld. Enormously productive for me.

I’ve also been thinking about mastery, and creative mastery a lot, and reading about neurophysiology. I’m starting to learn that keeping a sense of play and fun in creative work is really important, and so both getting out of the fear of deadlines and expectations about career, and just living in the work during that first draft process, is real important. Very directly tying money to creativity actually, and this is now shown by research, can have a very detrimental hit to your productivity. So I’m learning to work on projects, then set them aside as I find myself slogging and slowing down. Then I switch to something fresh and fun. After a while it gets sloggy, and I turn back to the project that’s shiny again, that’s gotten shiny again while I was ignoring it.

So now I feel like I get paid to play all day again, and that means there’s a great deal of enthusiasm and happiness in my daily work day, and also means that I’m actually more productive.

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Tobias Buckell Writing Motivation Interview, Part II: Handling Serious Health Problems

Interviews

Tobias Buckell is the author of numerous short stories and novelettes (many appearing in his collection Tides from the New Worlds); the “caribbean steampunk” novel Crystal Rain and its successors Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose; and the New York Times bestselling Halo novel The Cole Protocol. He is also a well-known blogger, a past Writers of the Future winner, and a fellow member of the Codex writers’ group. Knowing both about his many successes and about the surprising number of difficulties he’s overcome, I asked to interview him about his writing and his motivation through hard times. This is part two of that three-part interview.

 Back in 2008, I was surprised and worried to hear that you’d had a heart attack–while not even 30, I think–due to a congenital condition. Did you have writing plans that were derailed through that period? What effects did the interruption have on your attitude toward your work? And what kinds of things did you do to get back on track: did everything fall more or less easily back into the way it was, or was it more effortful than that?

I actually didn’t have a heart attack, we just discovered that I had a congenital defect with my heart. But the events were certainly as dramatic as a heart attack, and the ER doctor ended up assuming much the same. It turns out I likely have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The quick and dirty is that under duress, my heart fails to fire correctly. I’d been doing some home remodeling, and went to bed exhausted. I woke up four hours later with my pulse still racing madly and having trouble catching my breath. Ended up in a cardiac specialty ward for a week and after they looked at my insides they declared my arteries clean and my heart strong, but that I’d either had pericarditis and the HCM together added up to a dramatic event, or I had just pericarditis, or I had an HCM episode. It’s a somewhat inexact diagnosis, but the best they could offer me. Since my grandfather had HCM, and my mother has it, and they saw very faint signs of the possibility I had it, it’s a good bet I have it!

I was very derailed. I went down for the count in November 2008. And after the event, got a pulmonary embolism (either from lying in the hospital for a week or from the heart cath or something that gave me blood clots) that put me back into the hospital a few days later again for another week. Recovering from both left me exhausted, I didn’t get much done throughout December, January, and February. Between the medical bills and having hardly any energy to work for three months, the financial fallout was really tough.

There were two issues that made it hard to get back on track. One was that some of the medicine I was on really affected me as far as energy. I had maybe two ‘golden hours’ of ability in the day where I was able to work at capacity, down from ten. I really had to plan my entire day around that. And because I only had two hours, I basically had to let a lot of stuff just go. My least paying clients, or freelance gigs, or potential jobs. I just had to let them go and focus on the best paying ones to get through the first half of 2009.

And that meant I got very little writing done, and had to make my peace with it. I wrote a few short stories throughout the year, and worked on the books I wanted to write as best I could. But my highest paying clients were freelance gigs, and I had over ten thousand dollars of deductibles (don’t get sick at the end of a calendar year, right? I had to pay deductibles for two different years at the start of 2009) and then outside bills to pay, plus I’d lost three months of work as I focused on just recovering. It was a pretty rough time.

On top of that, my heart is more sensitive to stress, both physical and emotional, now. So in December, January, and February, I made numerous trips to the ER for chest pain due to the after effects of the pulmonary embolism and events where my heart would go into overdrive. I was also dealing with enormous amounts of depression. I consider myself a pretty physical guy. I like to workout and jog. That was taken from me. I’d been making really good money in 2008 freelancing, and I was struggling to stay afloat. That stress, of course, didn’t help.

But I just kept my head down, tried to pay off bills as I could. I wrote as I could. My wife had twins that April, which, for a month or two, sucked up a great deal of time as we went through the initial newborn phase. But once we fell into a schedule with the twins, and I slowly got better, and inched ahead, I turned more and more toward the writing again. I built up a buffer of cash so that in October, almost a year after the event, I was able to devote most of my day to writing fiction once more, and have been since then.

A number of interesting things have come out of that whole experience. Wouldn’t want to do it again, though!

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Tobias Buckell Writing Motivation Interview, Part I: Desire, ADHD, Flow, and Going Public

Interviews

Tobias Buckell is the author of numerous short stories and novelettes (many appearing in his collection Tides from the New Worlds); the “caribbean steampunk” novel Crystal Rain and its successors Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose; and the New York Times bestselling Halo novel The Cole Protocol. He is also a well-known blogger, a past Writers of the Future winner, and a fellow member of the Codex writers’ group. Knowing both about his many successes and about the surprising number of difficulties he’s overcome, I asked to interview him about his writing and his motivation through hard times. This is part one of that three-part interview.

You’ve made mention in interviews of your Mom giving you a little box of words to play with and talking to you about reading when you were young. Has her influence, or the influence of other family members or teachers, especially influenced your desire to write?

Well, mom was instrumental in getting me to become such an avid reader. She taught me how to read at a rather young age, and since we didn’t have TV on the boat I grew up on, I turned to reading a lot. She also helped me out by not really putting much of a stop to what I read. She let me read whole books almost right out the gate.

The box of words obviously helped. I would sit and play with the words. Laying them out into sentences, like fridge poetry. All of that steeped me in words and books and what not from as early as I can remember.

But as for writing, I think mom always figured I’d be a librarian due to my love of reading all the time, rather than an actual writer!

Then it sounds as though the desire to write is a more personal thing. What attracts you to it? What’s so appealing about writing that you can go back to the keyboard day after day and get new words down?

I like living in imaginary worlds, or daydreaming. I daydream a lot. It might come out of my being ADHD, I don’ t know. Most people grow out of what they call ‘childish’ daydreaming. But I never stopped, I never let it get grown out of me. When I was a kid I loved to escape and read about other places and other worlds, and daydream about them. I just never stopped, and over time started mentally escaping to worlds I’d built.

I was the kid who played with Legos all through my life. It was cool as a kid, then as you hit older grades it stopped being cool and I kept playing with them anyway. And then somewhere in college it got cool again, according to others. I just never cared all that much. I liked making stuff up.

Your mentioning ADHD brings up an interesting point: you have attention-related problems, yet you have written successful novels–not just once, but repeatedly. On first blush the two wouldn’t seem compatible. Is it that you become immersed in your story, and under those conditions the attention problems go away? Or do
you work around them? Or something else?

ADHD comes with an either/or switch. You’re highly distractible in one mode, and then go into long bouts of hyperfocus in another. The hyperfocus is often what throws people from diagnosis, as ADHD people tend to get an intense bit of work done in that stage. However, it’s hard to manage, and once broken, you’re out of it.

For example, I just spent eleven hours working on a project yesterday, all of it straight through, because once I got everything loaded up into my head I was completely absorbed by it. That’s not unusual. [Related Willpower Engine article: Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated]

My writing habits tend to reflect my need for quiet and focused time. I write from midnight to four am. No one calls, emails, or interrupts me during that time. If I get into a focused mode, there are no interruptions, and if I can just latch onto something, I usually will go all night. It’s rather intense. [Related Willpower Engine article: Handling Distractions by Managing Responsibilities, Devising Rules, and Erecting Barriers]

ADHD also helps my creative side. Research is fun. Wikipedia is ADHD crack. I can click around, jump from subject to subject, and just absorb interesting stuff. It all bubbles up later. I’ll see a show about ships made of ice, and then something else equally weird, and it’s all just undirected exploration that feeds the loam of the imagination.

You mentioned in an interview a few years ago that you started your blog “as a way to initially force myself to write and submit short fiction by being in the public eye.” Has being so visible had a consistent effect on your drive to get more writing done, or to complete projects you’ve talked about?

Yeah, it was a sort of ‘perform in public’ sort of thing. I wanted to share my journey on the path to being published. Knowing that people were out there rooting for me already, before I was even published, helped me keep at it. [Related Willpower Engine article: Kaizan on Whether It Helps to Announce Goals Publicly

So is having people out there rooting for you helping you by encouragement? Accountability? Both? something else?

A little bit of both. The third leg to that stool is the fact that we know that people who write down their goals are more likely to accomplish a chunk, if not all, of those goals. Particularly if they are goals within your control (ie: you can’t say, I’m going to have four short stories published in major magazines this year. But you could say, I will write four short stories and submit them repeatedly to all the major magazines, sending them right back out if they’re rejected, this year). [Related Willpower Engine article: One Good Way to Judge Goals: S.M.A.R.T.] With the blog and living live, a bit, you get all three pieces: encouragement, accountability, and defined goals. It helped me a lot in the beginning.

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Writing Motivation Interviews, Number 1

Interviews

I’ve recently been asking writers I know who have broken through and made pro writing sales a set of twelve questions about their motivation, experiences, and challenges. Writing is a useful thing to look at when talking about self-motivation because in many ways it is a solitary kind of work that requires a lot of inner drive, and sometimes keeping that drive on track isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Here’s one of those interviews.

Writing (the person pictured is not the interviewee, by the way)

1. When did you start writing? How long have you been at it?
I was one of those over-achievers who was telling stories even before I learned my ABCs – there are cassette tapes to prove it.  My computer archives stretch back 20 years, to when I was 8 and my parents bought their first personal computer; one of my pre-computer stories (written on my parents’ typewriter) survives but I’m not sure how old I was when I wrote it.

2. What kinds of things do you write?
Any and every sub-genre of fantasy, with some science fiction and historical non-fiction thrown in the mix.

3. What writing accomplishments so far mean the most to you?
Being published for the first time, hands down, means the most!  Discovering my name was an entry in library catalogs like worldcat was pretty awesome, too.

4. How much writing would you say you have done so far in your life? Can you estimate hours, pages, or number of words?
I used to organize my stories by page count, up until Dec. 2008 (and the hard-drive death of the laptop I was using then); a quick guestimate from my recovered files archive yields approximately 3690 pages.  I joke that was my million words of crap [Luc’s note: Orson Scott Card has suggested that as a rough estimate, we all have about a million words of crap to write before we hit our stride as writers] as that’s also about the time I started getting serious about being published (and started getting positive feedback from pro markets.)  Only the best of my works in progress and story fragments got brought forward onto the new computer, so I’ve got approximately 680,000 words now, of which probably half is new material since Jan. 2009.

So at 250 words/page, I guess that puts me at ~1.2 million words.  (Note: this is only my fiction.  I’ve written at least another 700 or so pages of non-fiction during college and graduate school, but that’s another type of writing entirely.)

5. What kinds of messages did you get from important people in your life when you were young about what you were capable of and what was possible in your life? Did you feel supported, rejected, ignored, encouraged, misunderstood, pushed?
My parents always supported me 100%, and I have vivid memories of moments in which my teachers were equally encouraging and helped me to improve my writing.

6. What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to experience so far as a writer–a really difficult project, a really painful rejection, a setback or delay … ? (Feel free to mention more than one)
I went to a summer program on creative writing when I was seventeen and discovered that my writing instructors didn’t like science fiction and fantasy, which was pretty much all I’ve ever written or wanted to write.   As part of the program we were supposed to submit our stories, so I subbed around some literary fiction (that I thought was crap and my instructors loved), got back a bunch of form rejections, and then was quite relieved to wash my hands of the whole experience.

7. When that thing happened, what did you do? How did you respond?
It sounds hokey, but I realized I had to be true to myself in my writing – I had to write the kinds of stories I liked, not the kinds of stories other people wanted me to write.

The experience also pretty much killed my initial attempts at getting external validation for my fiction, and I just wrote for myself for the next 4-5 years.  I didn’t start seeking professional publication again until I graduated from college.  Since my writing improved immeasurably over the course of those years, this was probably a good thing for editors everywhere.

8. Why do you write? Why not let someone else do it? What keeps you going?
The voices in my head won’t let me stop… yeah, only slightly joking.  I have an incredibly active imagination and sometimes the only way to get an idea or a character out of my head is to write them down.

9. What kinds of things help you write more? Music, a deadline, reading something good someone else wrote, your own success … ?
I sometimes get inspired by music and reading stuff by other people, but the thing that gets me to write the most is when I’m procrastinating doing something I really don’t want to do.  I also have a competitive streak which means, if I’m in the right mood, sitting down to a group writing session can make me incredibly productive.  But when all’s said and done, there’s nothing like a deadline to make me actually sit down and finish/polish what I’ve started writing.  I absolutely hate missing externally-imposed deadlines, so it’s my best motivator.

10. What kinds of things get in the way of your writing or make you write less, other than life obligations like job and family? Do you do anything about these obstacles?
I write less when I’m going through free-reading binges (e.g. in the past week I’ve written less than usual, but I’ve also read 15 novels).  Unless I have a deadline, I usually just read myself out and then go back to work.

I also tend to want to write less when I know exactly where a story’s going – I’m a complete pantster – for which my main remedy is butt-in-chair.  If that doesn’t work, then I start playing around with alternative viewpoints, spin-off stories, or even extra world-building, to rebuild my enthusiasm for the project.

11. Has anyone–a parent, teacher, mentor, role model, spouse, nemesis, editor, etc.–been especially important in your success so far as a writer? If so, what have they done for you?
I’m going to have to give credit to my dad, who wouldn’t stop nagging me about this “Orson Scott Card Literary Boot Camp” thing one of his coworkers went to and insisted I send in a writing sample.

12. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far about being a writer–not about the things you write, but about the task of writing them or the role of being someone who writes?
Finish what you start.  When I first started writing, I never finished anything.  The first couple of stories that I made myself finish were crap.  Then they got slightly less crappy.  Then the ending started to be half-decent.  Then I actually sold one of them (though I was asked to re-write the ending)!

Photo by Chapendra

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Black Belt Motivation: An interview with Gordon White (part II)

Interviews

Here is part II of excerpts from my interview with 6th dan black belt Gordon White, where we pick up with him traveling to Korea during college to push his Taekwondo training to the limit. You can read part I here, or read the full interview on this page.

Testing for 3rd dan

Testing for 3rd dan

 An all-you-can-train buffet
So, I landed in Seoul, Korea in late summer, 1991. I got set up in the dorm, and I attended practice 4 and sometimes 5 days a week (20 – 30 hours a week) [in addition to academic work].

I woke up every morning in Korea ready to hit the ground running for whatever Taekwondo experience I could get . It was hard. I got homesick, and some cultural things freaked me out (it was not uncommon for the coach to discipline the students with a baseball bat across the back of the legs), but these obstacles were squashed by desire to work and excel at Taekwondo. I guess it’s like being hungry and not feeling like there is enough food in the house–and then you go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, your eyes get big, and you dive in, knowing there is more food here then you are ever going to be able to eat, but you still want to get your money’s worth: that is what my year in Korea was like. There was more Taekwondo there then I could ever consume in a year, but I tried.

When the stakes rise, so do the expectations
I started to feel some pressure to perform, however–it was completely unintentional–but I got loads of letters from the Blue Wave. Everyone was very proud of me being in Korea and training hard, but the expectation was that I was going to come back and mop up the competition at the Nationals. I came home from Korea to attend 1992 nationals, there was a big fundraiser to get me there, and everyone expected me to do well … but I didn’t. I fought OK, but lost my second match of the day. It was very disapointing, and while I knew that no one was disappointed “in me,” many people were still disappointed for me. I headed back to Korea to finish out my final months at Yonsei–interestingly, still very motivated and excited to be there …

Nationals1997 Gordon White at Nationals in 1997

Simplifying … and winning
When I got back to Vermont, I was happy to be home but anxious about the upcoming year. I needed to focus on school again, but I still had my heart set on doing well at nationals and attending Team Trials. I had set a goal for myself to attend a world-level event and place. Considering I had only placed at nationals once, this was a pretty big step.

Some changes in how I was living helped: I moved back home, I didn’t re-open my Taekwondo School, and I only worked weekends. The following year, I placed at Nationals, and went to Team Trials and placed second, earning a spot on national B Team, and was picked to represent the US at the World Games in The Hague, Netherlands.

My goal was to make the US Team, but that was not all I was motivated by. I loved Taekwondo, loved how it made me feel, loved the people in it and the relationships I had with them. All these things played into my motivation to continue to train, get better, and simply do my best, had there been no competitive aspect to Taekwondo. Had my only real motivation been competitive, I don’t think I would have been so involved in the Blue Wave Association. I was very close with Master Twing. When he got sick with cancer, he asked that I become president of the Blue Wave Association, not because of my physical ability, but because he knew that I wanted the Blue Wave to be successful, to grow and continue to be a positive influence in people’s lives.

SummerCamp04

Part of the Blue Wave Taekwondo Association in summer of 2004

From competitor to teacher
[Lately] I have been busy getting the Taekwondo fall schedule up and running, attempting to solidify a new working relationship with an equipment supplier, getting the details straight for the Black Belt Conference taking place in November, and trying to secure a location for Winter Camp 2010. So “why” I do it is something I often ask myself and I am not sure I have a good answer for.

Transition from competitor to teaching was a natural process for me. As I said, I always imagined myself teaching, and teaching was something I did for a long time. Grandmaster Lee and Master Twing worked with me and expected me to help spread the information, and I think from the start it was very rewarding to teach, and I also felt responsible, Taekwondo was something (I felt) had given me so much, and this was my duty to give back.

In 1998 I fought at the Massachusetts State Championships. I had 3 fights to win the division. It was a lot of fun, I fought well, and when it was all over, I told Calvin (my wife) that I was pretty sure that I was done competing. I knew what it took to get to a high level of competition, and also what it took to stay there. It has to be your priority, your job to train and compete, and something inside me said that I’d had enough. It was around the same time, however, that I was getting very excited at the prospect of teaching and having my own school. I felt ready to teach: I felt like I had a lot of experience and depth and could be a good instructor. Having Master Twing’s overwhelming vote of confidence simply reinforced what I was feeling. Teaching, running a school and building the Blue Wave was the next place for me to place my passion for Taekwondo.

It’s interesting: you often hear that teaching is such a selfless job, you have to put the students first, but honestly it’s not entirely selfless. Teaching has made me understand Taekwondo far better then if I had just remained a practitioner. I think this is what is part of the motivation for me. I still get something from it, so there is still a selfish element. The satisfaction comes in seeing the school grow, watching the student progress and the competitor’s performance improve. There is a certain amount of pride in knowing that you have something to do with it. You share in the success and failure of every individual in the gym. The ups are wonderful, and downs equally disappointing.


Find more videos like this on The Blue Wave Taekwondo Association

Master White demonstrating a kicking technique to students in 2007

What keeps the fires burning
I often wonder if I should give up some Taekwondo–have more time to relax, more time with my family, etc. Right now, this is what I am doing, and as long as I get up in the morning and more often then not am looking forward to the Taekwondo tasks ahead, I will probably keep doing it.

So the point is that yes, teaching is about the students, building the Blue Wave is about the members, and coaching is about the athletes, but it is impossible to give these things 110% without it fueling you back, keeping you excited about what you are doing and giving you knowledge and experience that adds to the person you are. I don’t know, some day I might have the same type of revelation that I had in 1998, and it will be time for what is next, but right now, I have to finish this email: Junior ATP [Athlete Training Program] starts up tonight, and I’m excited to work with my students.

Photos and video courtesy of Gordon White.

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