How did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I didn’t. I never, ever wanted to “be a writer.” I wanted to write. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to get these blasted characters out of my head and nailed down on paper so I wouldn’t have to keep thinking about them.
Being a writer is something that happened as a result of writing, almost by accident. It was never my goal. My goal was always to finish the current story, and then come up with something even cooler to write about next time. Publishing and making a living were afterthoughts.
At what point in your life did you think you could actually make a living from your writing?
About five and a half books in. That is, I had written and sold five novels, of which two (I think) were somewhere in the production process, and I was partway through the next book, which I was about to send off to my agent to sell. My first book had earned out by then, and I think the second had, too, so I had variable royalty income from those, plus the known amounts I was getting as the second- or third- partial advance payments on the two that were in the production process. This meant I had a pretty good idea what my writing income was likely to be over the next year or two.
At that point, I’d been thinking about quitting my day job for a few years, so I’d been building up a savings account in anticipation. The idea was that I’d have enough cash to get me through a dry period or two, and if it ever dropped below six months’ living expenses, I’d start looking for a new day job (figuring that six months would be long enough to find one). I’ve had to dip into that fund several times over the years, but it’s never gone below the six months line (knock wood).
So if you’re asking when I started thinking about quitting the day job (and planning and preparing to do so), the answer is some time around 1983, roughly two years before I actually quit and went full-time. It didn’t become a serious possibility until I had the income and the bank account in place, which took two years to get fully set up.
When you work with fantasy, how is it different from something like realistic fiction?
I wouldn’t know; I’ve never written anything that wasn’t fantasy. I did try once, but one of the characters turned out to be a wizard in Chapter Two, and I gave up.
Still, I think I can say a little more than that. The basics of writing are the same, regardless of genre: style, viewpoint, dialog, characterization, plot, etc. Sometimes there are genre conventions that are important and that can expand or limit the range of techniques that are available to the writer in that genre, but by and large, effective writing is effective regardless of content.
Worldbuilding and background tend, I think, to be a bit more important in speculative fiction in general than in so-called realistic fiction, simply because one can choose to set realistic fiction in places that the reader is likely to be familiar with already, and which therefore need much less development in the story. That’s about all I can think of, though — and it’s not a hard and fast rule. Lots of realistic-fiction authors set their novels in places that their likely readers will consider exotic (whether that means New Orleans or Tokyo, Los Angeles or Paris, Moscow or Sydney). Part of the point of doing so is to give the readers a chance to image places that are strange to them, which requires just the same sort of in-story background setting as any SF story.
What are some of the criteria you look at when first starting a piece?
Sometimes, there a business considerations that dictate what comes next; for instance, if I’ve signed a contract to write a trilogy, then when I finish the first book, the next piece is going to be Book #2. Or if my agent is trying to re-sell some of my out-of-print backlist, sometimes it is easier if I promise to write a new sequel. Or I need to write something to fulfill the option clause in a contract before I go on to what I really want to write next.
But apart from a couple of multi-book contracts, business considerations haven’t come up terribly often for me, so the main thing I think about when I’m deciding what to write next is, “Is this a story I’m interested in writing?” Since I usually have anywhere from three to twenty possible stories for which the answer to that question is “yes,” the next question is “Is this story insisting on being written now?” If one of them is, then that’s the one that comes next. Usually, there isn’t any one piece on the list that’s at critical mass and/or chomping at the bit to get going, so the next questions are “Which story(s) are almost ready to move forward and/or can be gotten to that point with the least amount of work? Or which one(s) will be the most fun to play with, even if they’re going to be a whole lot of work to get moving?” and “Of the stories that appeal to me and that I think I can get moving, which one(s) does my agent think she can sell most easily in the current market?”
That usually whittles the list down to one or two titles, at most, and if I still can’t decide, I flip a coin.