Writing Questions
Empires of Sand
China Run
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"There are three rules for writing a novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
                                             --Somerset Maugham


Q.  How long does it take to write the sort of books you write?

 A.  I am in awe of writers who can finish a book a year.  I will never be one of them. 

I had the idea for Empires of Sand in the early 1980s.  I wrote 100 pages, and stopped because I didn't know how to finish: I didn't have any idea at all what I was doing.  So I chickened out and put the manuscript away for ten years, when I began again.  From that point it took two and a half years to finish.  China Run took two years of research and writing; Ironfire about three.  Then I stopped writing altogether, wanting to do other things.  In January of 2012 I decided to pick up the typewriter again, and see if it still works. We'll know in a year or so.


Q.  What is your writing day like?

A.  I usually write four or five hours in the morning.  After that I go for a run and eat lunch, and then do research or reading for the next day's work.  Sometimes I go back and review and rewrite what I've done. Or else I go to a baseball game.  I work five or six days a week.  While I'm working on a book my mind never leaves it. 

Q.  What's the hardest part of writing?

A.  It's all hard.  It's hard not losing my confidence when I walk into a big bookstore and realize just how many great books there are.  It's hard doing a tenth draft.  Hardest of all is sitting down to a blank page.  But that's the fun part, too.  

Q.  What's the best part of writing?

A.  It's all the best.  Being master of my destiny.  Being free to create a character who's a scoundrel, and just as free to feed him to the sharks.  Being free to spend a day at the library lost in another world.  Seeing a finished manuscript, and later smelling the ink and feeling the paper of a novel with my name on the cover.  Working with an editor who knows what's best for a manuscript, including how to kick my ass without hurting my feelings.

Q.  Do you have a quota of pages each day?

A.  I used to have a quota of 1200 words, but discovered it didn't work.  I'd do 1000 good words but be brain-dead, and stuff in 200 lousy words for filler, which of course I'd have to remove the next day.  Sometimes--very rarely--the opposite would happen, and I'd write 2,000 or more words because they were there and I could.  So now I work until I've put in an honest effort, done all I can, and that's when I'm finished.  The point is to write something every day, and pretty soon there'll be a manuscript on your desk, covering up the old partly-eaten sandwich.  

Q.  What is your writing background?  How should someone learn to write?

A.  I have a degree in journalism, which taught me something about reporting but nothing about writing.  Then I was in business for some years, in which I wrote scores of business letters, possibly the most excruciatingly bad examples of writing that exist in the English language today--except for everything written by sociologists and lawyers.  The best background in writing, I think, comes from the monkey-see, monkey-do school -- from reading good writers, deciding what it is they've done that you like, and then trying to do the same.  Practice.  Have fun and don't take yourself too seriously.

Q.  What do you do when you get stuck?

A.  My books require a lot of research so if I run up against a creative wall I can spend the day reading, which always gets me inspired again.  I also use a technique called clustering, which is a process of free-association--one word suggests another, and another, until a scene begins to take shape.  A helpful book about this is Writing the Natural Way, by Gabrielle Rico (St. Martin's Press). 

Q.  How did you get published?

A.  I bought how-to books on agents and publishers, and  followed instructions.  I reviewed hundreds of agents and picked five that I thought were most likely to want my work, based on other titles they'd placed and personal things about them.  I was very fortunate to find an agent in that list of top five, although it took her nine months to read my work.  Agents and publishers are swamped with reading.  A new writer's manuscript starts at the bottom of the pile, as it should, beneath the old Sears-Roebuck catalogues and the wadded-up newspaper with the fish bones inside.  But finally it works its way up, and either you get a fresh rejection letter or an agent.  In my case I was lucky and landed Jean Naggar, a marvelous agent and friend.