Michaeline: Lois McMaster Bujold Answers Three (Okay, Four) Questions about the Writing Process

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Today, we’ve got a short interview with Lois McMaster Bujold about the writing process. Just in time for National Novel Writing Month’s first weekend! Lois writes the thrilling tales of the Vorkosigan family, the Wide Green World, and the World of the Five Gods. This week, the third story about Penric in the W5G came out: Penric’s Mission was published on November 2, 2016. (Announcement on her Goodreads blog, here.) Lois is a master of speculative fiction, and her liberal use of romance in these genres makes her worlds rich and real. Grab a cyber beverage from the Eight Ladies Writing fridge, and pull up a seat!

MD: So, National Novel Writing Month is basically about creating a first draft of at least 50,000 words. What’s your favorite thing about writing the first draft?

LMB: Finishing it. (-:

Starting it runs a close second, true. Then, probably, those moments when a sticky knot gets suddenly undone by some neat idea or inspiration that I didn’t have — often couldn’t have had — earlier.

I do rolling revisions — correcting, rewriting, re-outlining, and dinking as I go — because if I don’t get my edits in pretty early, my prose sets up like concrete, and it takes a jackhammer to pry it open. Also, by the end I will be tired and frantic and in no state of mind for careful polishing, still less major surgery. Since I’m usually doing novels or novellas, there’s too much to face, not to mention wrangle and just find, if I save all that till the finish.

This is a shift from earlier decades, when my method was to complete each chapter, print it out, run it past my test readers, and then do little more than make notes on the pages till I circled around for the final run/s. (There’s never only one.) In the past few years I’ve finally gone paperless, so I do a lot more micro-editing along the way now.

I experimented very briefly with trying to go without the penciled-notes stage, as well, but that did not work for me. I still need my three-ring notebook and Number 2 pencil to capture, hold, and organize my thoughts and outlines. Without that prefabricated, tested through-line, I stall out at the keyboard, or the scene or especially dialogue sequence loses direction and disintegrates. (I do changes and additions at the typing-in stage as well, but generally over a connected structural skeleton, if one can apply so solid a metaphor to what is actually a bag of thoughts.)

MD: Since you are working for yourself now, do you find the concept of a deadline useful? I assume you’ve thrown out the “finish one book in XX months” model, but do you use shorter deadlines, such as “one scene by Xday” or “500 words before 6 p.m.”? Or is that kind of “motivation” just not motivating for you?

LMB: I don’t have deadlines anymore, thanks. Lived with and by ’em for decades, done now. The work demands its own completion, and that’s generally motivation enough. If that’s not sufficient, well, maybe whatever it is wasn’t a good enough, or fun enough, idea to be written.

In fact I am something of a, hm, mini-burst writer. Stories at the sharp end of the pencil come to me in scene-sized chunks, usually. Holding an entire scene in my head (well, and in my notes) at a time presses my limit, and I am generally anxious to get it down on the page (screen, nowadays) so I can stop doing so. Only then is enough brain-room freed up to allow me to start composing the next scene. So I can go days (or weeks) without writing anything, and then blast through a scene in a day or two.

MD: You introduced The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey to your mailing list many years ago, and Mr. Earbrass is a writer who is full of superstitions. He always starts his novels on November 18th of alternating years, he has a lucky sweater, he indulges in ritualized pacing and tends to hum “Te Deum“. Do you have any writing superstitions or rituals that you’d like to share with our readers?

LMB: I have techniques and habits, but that’s not quite the same thing. But when I pull out the three-ring notebook and install fresh lined paper, it’s generally a sign that things are about to get serious. Not always — I will sometimes get a few or even many pages of notes before an idea dies, or at least fails to thrive. I keep the notes, but only very rarely does a story idea resurrect itself from the back of the bin. More often, I have moved on, and my ideas need to do so as well.

My other big psychological crutch is running chapters, or sometimes even just scenes, past my long-suffering stable of test readers and collecting comments before moving on to the next bit. The invention of e-mail has made this a much swifter and easier process than back when I was putting carbon copies in the mail. But having someone read and say something, even if it’s just “Cool, keep going,” is weirdly important to give me a sense that this step is solid and it’s OK to go on to the next, now. I suspect I could do without this self-indulgence if I had to, though I’d rather not, but meanwhile, it lets process of writing a long piece be more rewarding along the way. My version of the chocolate mentioned below.

(The Unstrung Harp is a book that grows funnier every time I reread it, as my writing life has gone on.)

MD: If the answer to #3 is “Absolutely not”, I think I should get a bonus question: are there any writing rituals that you’ve heard of that you wished worked for you? (Personally, I wish chocolate were a bigger motivator for me. It seems like a valid idea, but somehow I wind up eating it in a manner independent from my writing habits.)

LMB: I wish anything worked. It would be so great just to be able to switch on inspiration at will. Well, there’s the old hard way — research reading, acquiring new experiences, travel, museums, living one’s life . . . . Only a portion of my research reading ever pays off, but since I don’t know in advance which portion it will be, I need to do it all. This is not exactly a suffering, mind.

Thanks again for your time and words! The ebook, Penric’s Mission, is up at e-sellers now, and you can find more information about National Novel Writing Month at nanowrimo.org.

We talked about earlier ebooks in the Penric W5G series here:

https://eightladieswriting.com/2015/07/04/michaeline-description-part-two/

(I rave about Lois’s A Civil Campaign, and at the end, give a serendipity alert that Penric’s Demon is coming soon. Link to Lois’s Goodreads Blog.)

https://eightladieswriting.com/2016/06/25/michaeline-lois-mcmaster-bujold-answers-three-questions-about-self-publishing/

(Lois gives us an interview about self-publishing her second ebook, Penric and the Shaman.)

(Curious about Edward Gorey’s book? Earlier this year, I had a great writing week, which I attributed partly to priming myself with positive things. It’s just a short step from the science of Predictably Irrational and Thinking Fast and Slow to Mr. Earbrass’s lucky sweater. The link I put in this post to the story still seems to work, as of November 2016. Check out the post for more lucky ideas and the link.) https://eightladieswriting.com/2016/01/30/michaeline-prime-results/

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15 thoughts on “Michaeline: Lois McMaster Bujold Answers Three (Okay, Four) Questions about the Writing Process

  1. Thanks for the peek into the process of a successful writer. I love the idea of running chapters/scenes past beta readers as they are written, to make the whole process more rewarding along the way.

    • It was a huge “a-ha!” moment for me when I read that. You know, that’s how I wrote in junior high: I had this soap opera going on in the back of my math notebook for a few weeks, and I’d write when I’d got my work done, then it’d get passed around to several people (I don’t know who all!), and I’d get praise, and sometimes some comments that served as spurs for the next installment. (-: All I remember is a 14-year-old getting pregnant and having her baby in the girl’s locker room. The opus, alas, was lost in a fire, and probably went up in a very special blaze of cattiness and sexual overtones.

      But yeah, best writing times of my life! Why don’t we do that? I’m a little scared, to be honest, to put crappy work out to you guys. But . . . if I approached it in the spirit of the writing sprints . . . let’s pursue this a little further. Maybe we can get a plan in place for a Serial Subscription Program in time for January 2017.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Lois, and thanks for sharing this Micki! I am behind on reading, so plan to download Penric’s Demon to take with me to a writing conference next week. I’m also behind on my NaNoWriMo word count, but I’m suspicious I’ll spend more of my down time reading this book than working on my own ;-).

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Ed. I loved the first two (well, I love everything Lois does), and have been slightly irritable to friends and family because Duty has come ahead of Reading this weekend. Mama’s going to be happy this evening, though, I can tell you that!

      • I finished it late last night (too late, but no way was I going to stop). I really enjoyed it and I can’t wait to find out what Penric gets up to next. Plus (bonus!) my story brain is whirring this morning. Off to get some words down now in case it wears off 😉 .

        • OMG, I just finished it 15 minutes ago! Sigh! Whee! Cliffhanger ending, but honestly, we can pretty much imagine how things are going to end, can’t we? I loved it. And that first chapter/scene/section. OMG. Totally like something out of Robert McKee’s Story. Very much a reversal on so many levels.

        • Normally I hate cliffhanger endings, but I really liked this one. It’s not about being bludgeoned into buying the next book to find out what happened, it’s a friendly promise of more fun to come. An invitation to the next party. As you said, whee!

  3. Thanks for sharing your process with us, Lois! Most interesting how you use pencils and three-ring notebooks—whenever I use physical tools (not just computer tools), I feel like I’m surely the last writer on earth to do so. It’s always fun to learn how others work, and I look forward to reading this latest.

    • Isn’t it nice to have outside confirmation that “weird old trick #37” works? I love reading about writers’ processes, and then trying out something that catches my eye. The trick may not work, but in the process, I get some writing done.

      Tricks aside, I think Lois nailed three very important things: 1) feed your muse with experience and research, 2) the idea should be one that self-motivates and wants to be completed, and 3) the best reward is when your reading friends say, “Hey, that’s pretty cool!” Better than chocolate, better than coffee, better than a half an hour on the internet.

      I think the work I need to do is to move to the “needs to be completed” mindset. I have good ideas that want to be done. How do I write like I’m running out of time? (Like Hamilton.) I do write every second I’m alive, but that’s mostly throwaway lines on the internet. I need more urgency, more of a sense of my own mortality, I think. For some reason, despite all evidence to the contrary, I think I’ve got all the time in the world . . . .

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