Why science fiction?
I think science fiction is the most optimistic genre of writing, because it is about what is possible. Even when it deals with dystopic futures, as it often does, it’s essentially optimistic because, as Marx said, “Everything seems pregnant with its contrary.” The writer would not bother telling a tale of an unavoidable future, so stories about how bad things can become are incantations against their realization. Even that famous pessimist, H.G. Wells, must have had hope that his stories would deflect our trajectory somewhat. Otherwise it’s all just howling in the night. The simple notion there will be human beings centuries – even millennia – from now, recognizable to us as of the same spirit, with similar values, similar emotional needs, is itself a proposition engorged with optimism.
Why fiction at all? What do you think it is that makes a person have to make up stories and write them down?
My formal higher education was first speech and rhetoric, and then later communication, so my earliest serious academic grounding involved Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Since I have a wandering mind, I read the rest of Aristotle, and that was many decades ago so much of it is lost now. But something which stuck with me was Aristotle’s disdain for the study of history, but his deep appreciation for poetry, which for him included drama and what we would call historical fiction. History, he said, was simply a recounting of what “had happened,” a meaningless listing of “what Alcibiades did, and what he suffered.” Poetry, on the other hand, dealt with what was possible, and when it recounted historical events, it did so to reveal what the gods expected of us – what constituted right acts.
I have a better opinion of history than did Aristotle, but in part that’s because we expect more from its study these days than he did. But I’m still with him in believing fiction is a better vehicle for exploring what is possible, and what constitutes right acts. Why? Because it enables readers to put themselves in the place of the hero or heroine, live their struggles and learn their lessons, in a more intimate way than they can with historical figures already passed from the scene. We can imagine knowing Voltaire, but we cannot as easily imagine being Voltaire.
Describe your typical writing day.
I prefer to write in the morning. I’m much more productive if I can start my day with writing, when my mind is still uncluttered. Later in the day it’s harder for me to tune out the distractions, so that’s when I do the more mundane stuff.
When I’m working on a project, I usually start writing in the morning as soon as I’ve showered and have a cup of coffee in front of me. I like to get about 250-300 words down before I stop and have breakfast. Then I spend the rest of the morning trying to hit or exceed my daily target of 1500 words. I’ll do some revision and rewriting as I go, but my target is 1500 net words: today’s final tally minus yesterday’s final tally. If I’m on a roll I’ll keep rolling until noon, but I always like to quit while I still know what’s coming next. That way when I sit down the next morning I can pitch right in, not sit there looking at a blank screen as if I’m hypnotized. If I’m being very good, I’ll write a short synopsis of what I’ll do the next day. I’ve found that writing a synopsis of what I’m going to write next pays off in greatly increased daily word count.
If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Write simple stories about unforgettable characters.
Do you think writing can be taught?
The craft of writing can absolutely be taught. I don’t think the artistry of writing can be, nor can inspiration be taught, nor can you teach someone, by the numbers, to have a unique writer’s voice. Genius cannot be taught, and genius is what separates truly great writers from most of the rest of us, but there are some wonderful writers among “the rest of us.” I think you can learn to be an accomplished writer who reliably produces stories with compelling characters and intriguing worlds, stories which satisfy and enlighten readers, and that’s something worth aspiring to. I don’t think you can learn to be Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, or Ernest Hemmingway.
How did you learn to write?
Here’s how you learn to write (or at least how I did):
First, read. Read a lot and read the best writers you can find, but make it a joy, not a burden. Find good writers whose words you enjoy. Read different writers in different genres, with different strengths and with distinctly different “voices.” Pay attention to what works in their writing and what doesn’t, and think about why that is.
Second, write. Write a lot, write poorly, but write.
Third, read about writing. There are some excellent books on writing. None of them are gospel, but many of them will help. They aren’t magic doorways to success, but they can make the lessons you are learning slowly, as you write, come more quickly and in sharper focus.
Fourth, keep writing until you write better. Eventually you will – some people say about a million words down the road. I don’t know that there’s a magic number. Just write a lot, and then write a lot more.
Some people can write timeless prose their first time at bat. You are not one of those people. Accept it, and don’t beat yourself up over it.
You’ve collaborated on a few books, particularly in your gaming-related work. How does collaboration work for you?
I’ve collaborated on a couple ebooks in Untreed Reads’ “Space 1889 And Beyond” series as well as the game books, and those ebooks are probably closer to what you’re after here. One of those, “Dark Side of Luna,” was a sort of collaboration-after-the-fact with J.T. Wilson, but “Conspiracy of Silence” was a true collaboration, planned from the start, with Andy Frankham-Allen. What made that an easy collaboration was there were two distinct plot threads, with two principal protagonists, which finally met late in the second act. After we roughed out the plot, Andy wrote the Nathanial thread and I wrote the Annabelle thread, and then I wrapped things up after the two thread merged. I did an edit on his chapters and he did an edit on mine, but both of us had written in the series before and so we were already on the same page with respect to style and tone, and we both knew the characters quite well.
One of the things which made the collaboration go so smoothly is that Andy and I write the same sort of stories, what I call (for lack of a better term) “shipwreck” stories. In a shipwreck story, everything starts out on an even keel, then things happen to upset that. There follows an escalating cascade of disasters which the characters are always caught off guard by until, finally, they manage to get mentally out in front of what’s going on, and come to grips with it. The suspense lies in the fact that, for most of the story, neither the readers nor the protagonists know what’s coming next.
I contrast that with what I call “mountain climbing” stories. In this sort of story the challenge facing the protagonists is enormous, but fairly clearly known at the start of the story–this looming mountain facing them which they must climb. From the start the readers and protagonists have a clear idea where everything’s going and (usually) not much question about the story ending successfully. The protagonists usually know how they will accomplish this from the start, but they don’t let the reader in on their thinking. Instead the suspense lies in how the protagonists manage the climb, revealed gradually, ledge by ledge.
By way of classical analogy, Xenophon’s “Anabasis” is a shipwreck story. Arian’s “The Anabasis of Alexander” is a mountain climbing story. A more modern analogy would be “Die Hard” as shipwreck story, and almost any episode of the old TV series “Mission Impossible” as mountain climbing story.
If you could pick one dream collaborator for a story, who would it be?
I think if I answered that right now, it would sound too much like ass kissing. Ask me again when I have a few more books in print.
I will say I think it would be harder for me to collaborate with someone who prefers mountain climbing stories to shipwreck stories, but if it worked, it might make for a pretty good read.
This interview is a companion piece to my interview with Frank over at SF Signal.
Frank Chadwick has designed or written over one hundred games and game–related books. In the science fiction field he is probably best remembered for his work on Traveller and Space: 1889. He also writes military history and his Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) reached number one on the New York Times best–seller list. His debut print novel, How Dark The World Becomes, was released by Baen Books in January of 2013, The Forever Engine, will appear in January of 2014, and he is currently working on the sequel to How Dark The World Becomes. He lives in east–central Illinois.