Charles de Lint's first question, when I asked if I could interview him for "Trends in Publishing," was "Interview moi? Whatever for?"
Hmmm. Perhaps for his lengthy list of awards, which include the 2000 World Fantasy Award for Best collection? For his respected and renown "Books to Look For" column in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine? For the thousands of people who rush out to buy his mythic fiction and horror novels?
What intrigued me most about his perspective is his warmth and idealism. It's easy to find friendly people who write genre fiction… friendly but cynical people. Charles says things like "I want to touch the heart of the world and make it smile"—and means them. Here's what the nice guy who doesn't finish last has to say about our industry.
N. – How did you get started writing reviews?
C. –It was in the small press, and for two reasons. The first is that I just like to yammer on about things I like. I make a point of rarely reviewing bad books because it's too easy to do so, I don't feel like reading them all the way through in the first place, and since there are so many good books to talk about, why waste time being negative?
Secondly—and this was early in my career—it was a deliberate attempt to get my by-line out there. I wrote a lot of reviews for free, just to have my by-line become more familiar to readers, and hopefully editors, in the field.
Why do I still do it when the pay's not great and I'm as busy as I am? Well, I still like to yammer on about things I like, and let's face it, as an entertainment junkie (which I've pretty much always been), it's a great kick to get an advance look at something. The free books don't hurt either.
N. –What is the major difference you notice between what gets published now and when you first started writing?
C. –These days (and it's been this way for a couple of decades now, with no signs of abating), it seems that every book is inevitably part of a series, as though there's no way to tell a story in one book. But you know, when I read these books, the ideas never seem so big that they need to sprawl out over multiple volumes.
I don't know who to blame: authors for writing them, publishers for acquiring them, or readers for snapping them up. I just find it sad we have all this excessive verbiage. Maybe word processors and computers are to blame.
It's not that I'm against connective stories, or even revisiting a locale or characters. But I do want these things to stand alone. And I want to be able to try a new book without the need to read a half dozen other titles to know what's going on. And worst crime of all: to leave the reader hanging at the end of some 500pp with a "continued in book x..."
I don't buy these books. I rarely review them. But they continue to be written and sell, so I'm obviously in a minority here.
N. –Is genre-bending work more difficult to sell than a piece that fits smoothly into one genre?
C. –I don't think writers should be worrying about commercial concerns or where their book fits in the market when they're working on it. Write what's interesting to you, what keeps you intrigued, with characters you care about, in the kind of story that excites and surprises you. Then worry about marketing it.
Yes, publishers want something fresh and new. So do readers. But both of them also want it within familiar confines until you prove otherwise. Trying to second guess the market will only drive you crazy.
It's probably a naïve conceit, but really, if you're not writing what you want to write, then why bother? There are far easier and more lucrative ways to make a living.
N. –Have you read any wonderful, recent books or stories lately? What, and why would you characterize them as "wonderful"?
C. –This sort of ties into the above question. A wonderful book is one with characters I care about, with the kind of story that intrigues, excites and surprises me, and with a writing style that, while it doesn't get in the way of the story, still has its own individual voice. How do you develop the latter? By a lot of writing, telling the story as honestly and straightforwardly as you can. The more you work at it, telling a story in your own way, the easier it will be for your voice to develop.
Some recent examples from my own reading would include, in no particular order:
|Gil's All Fright Diner
||A. Lee Martinez (Tor Books)|
|Four and Twenty Blackbirds
||Cherie Priest (Tor)|
|Child of a Rainless Year
||Jane Lindskold (Tor)|
||Holly Black (Simon & Schuster)|
|The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl
||Tim Pratt (Bantam)|
||Neil Gaiman (Morrow)|
||Charlie Huston (Ballantine, 2006)|
|The Brief History of the Dead
||Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon, 2006)|
|Two Trains Running
||Andrew Vachss (Pantheon)|
||Lisa Tuttle (Bantam)|
|The Forgotten Man
||Robert Crais (Doubleday)|
|The Ice Queen
||Alice Hoffman (Little, Brown)|
N. –What's the best advice you've ever gotten about writing? About getting published?
C. –Dean Koontz told me early in my career to always make sure I turned in the very best work I could, because later on in my career, those books would be money in the bank in terms of reprint editions. And he was right. Those early books do get reprinted and you get paid for them all over again, often more than you initially did. But later on down the road, do you really want some half-assed older book to be published under your name? The older books might not be what you are capable of today, but they should be the best you could do at the time, so that you're happy to see them republished, rather than so embarrassed by them, you'd rather they were simply forgotten.
And I don't remember who it was, but probably the best advice I ever got was to only write what I really cared about. That way, even if it didn't sell, I'd still have enjoyed the process of telling the story.
As for getting published, it's been a long time now since I was starting out and everything's changed about the market. I'm not the best person to ask, especially because I still naively believe that cream rises to the top; that if one writes a good book, it will find a home. I know that's not true. I know there are many wonderful books languishing unpublished, and lots of crap that gets into print, but nevertheless, I can't seem to rid myself of that idealistic hope.
One thing hasn't changed, and that's for a young (or unpublished) author to be mentored by an established author. Many of the latter can be generous with their time, but it's important to not be too pushy with them. The mentoring process depends on a certain affinity between the two that can arise simply from enjoying each other's company. The best way to get a mentor, is to go to places where writers gather, such as conventions or writing groups, and just be yourself—which, hopefully, is personable and pleasant. Talk to the writers or editors at the parties, buy them a drink in the bar, whatever. The point is to make friends first—or at the least, friendly acquaintances. Shared interests help. But there's no explaining when it clicks, or when it doesn't, anymore than it does between any two people who meet in whatever circumstances they might meet.
Now when I say "mentor," I don't mean that the established writer will, or even should, critique the novice's work. It's more that they will become the novice's champion, helping them bypass the barriers that seem to rise so high between a new writer and the publishing world. Unfortunately, the happy circumstances that leads to this sort of a relationship can't be forced. One simply has to put oneself in the sorts of situations where the possibility, at least, exists.
N. –Do you have any predictions for trends in publishing in the next 2-5 years?
C. –I hear this sort of thing bandied about all the time and I really think its irrelevant. As I mentioned above, writers should concentrate on writing about what they care about, and readers...well, no one knows what the next phenomenon will be. It always seems to come out of the blue, and is the more delightful for that.
I really thought that e-books would take off, but they still haven't, and I even find myself reading them less than I did a few years ago. Of course, I'm reading everything less than I did a few years ago, except for research material. But life has become so hectic that where I used to stand waiting in a check-out line, reading on my PDA, now I simply enjoy the momentary sloth of being forced to do nothing as I wait my turn at the cash.
N. –Do you believe that a writer has any sort of obligation to his audience?
C. –Only one: to not put any barriers between what you're saying and the reader. In other words, make the effort to engage the reader, not impress them with your cleverness. But that only holds true if you're trying to have a dialogue with your readers.
Let me be lazy here and simply quote from one of my writing workshop handouts:
There's nothing wrong with having something to say and writing only for yourself—this is the kind of writing one finds in diaries and journals. When the only reader will be yourself, it makes no difference how you put the words down, since no one else will be reading it. Your writing can be as simple or convoluted as you wish it to be. You can use a typewriter, a pencil, a pen, a crayon—whatever you want. You can forgo all the rules of grammar.
N. –What are you working on, fiction-wise?
If you want to communicate with others, however, it's vitally important that your work be "reader friendly." In other words, that what you want to say can easily be understood by the reader. This doesn't mean your writing has to be simplistic; only that you shouldn't put any barriers between your work and the reader. This means you should know how to type so that you can present your work as clean copy. And you should learn and follow the basic rules of writing, spelling and grammar.
At some point you might wish to break the rules to get a certain effect, which is fine. Many of our best writers break the rules from time to time. But it's imperative that you know the rules before you break them.
C. –I'm always working on a number of things at the same time. I'd rather only have one fiction project on the go, but deadlines don't allow for that. So at the moment, besides working on my review column for Fantasy & Science Fiction [Magazine] and an essay about fairy tales, I'm working on my next novel for Viking while doing research and taking notes on a number of others: a novella which will be part of an anniversary celebration for Firebird Books, my next novel for Tor, and a couple of short stories that I've promised various editors.
You'll notice I don't describe any of these projects. That's because I never talk about my writing. If I talk about it, I'm less inclined to write it.
And now it's time to get back to that writing...