This is the second half of an interview I did with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon. See Part One HERE.
Here, we continue our chat about writing, techniques, and wasting time. Enjoy.
Something like imposter syndrome happened the first time someone asked me to autograph one of my books. The thought of writing in a book, I thought, was sacrilege.Diana Gabaldon
Me: What is your advice to new writers?
DG: Number one, is read. Read everything and read lots of it.
Reading is first how you determine what you yourself actually like in the way of reading and writing. You’re wasting your time trying to write something that you don’t like or feel an affinity for.
Just because you think it’s popular now and that people want something similar to bestsellers like Gone Girl, it’s not true. That’s not how it works. It won’t be good for one thing and you won’t enjoy writing it for another. It won’t sell, so don’t waste your time.
SideBar: This is really important to understand. What Diana is saying is don’t try and write to the trends. If everything is like a certain popular book it won’t sell. It’s been done. When you write you still need to do you. Read the book. Note the elements that you liked about the book. Like in Gone Girl…perhaps it was the intrigue or was it the characterization or the twist? Incorporate those things into your own writing.
Find out what it is you like to write and it’ll be a much better book.
And the other thing is that reading is how you learn what good writing and bad writing look like.
And third thing is that reading is how you see what the techniques of writing are.
The interesting thing about writing as a profession is that writers do not have any secrets. We totally don’t. Anything we know how to do is right there on the page. All you have to do is learn how to see it, which is not that hard if you read a lot.
Me: Did you ever take any classes?
DG: Well, you have to take a certain number of English classes in college to graduate, so I had one creative writing class in college. I also had one called prose composition, which was really interesting. That was the only one that was actually valuable.
It was very interesting—it had a textbook called “Copy and Compose” which was about sentence patterns. It would have an independent clause with one or two dependent clauses and they’d give you several samples of that pattern, and you were supposed to copy each one out, write it out by hand, and then write your own sentence which had that pattern, but with your own content rather than just substitute words—-so that was very educational because you could see the structure of it.
Me: Do you have tricks to stay centered?
DG: I don’t worry about stuff like that. I don’t see any point in standing in your own way beating yourself up and saying you can’t do this or what wrong with you? I mean—why? Why would you do that?
Me: Many writers do though.
DG: Yeah, but why? I’ve never been able to figure that out.
This partly comes because I am a scientist for a long time and I am objective and I understand what objectivity is and that is actually rather rare.
Me: How many books have you written now?
DG: All told, I’m in spitting distance of finishing the 9th big book in the main Outlander series.
SideBar: Since doing this interview, book nine of the Outlander series was released November 2021
But there are other books—Four in the Lord John sub-series.
There’s a graphic novel called The Excile.
There’re are actually 3 Outlander companions. The first are revised, then the 2nd volume, and a 3rd volume to finish up the series.
There’s a collection called “Seven Stories to Stand and Fall” which is a collection of novellas… some of which I wrote for other anthologies and two of which are originals I wrote for that book.
I think all together there’s fifteen or sixteen.
Me: Where do you get your ideas?
DG: Surely you jest. Writers get ideas from everywhere.
Everything you see, think, encounter…
You know a line of music that gives you an emotional sense and you have that sense of emotional ambiance—you have nothing else, but you remember what that felt like and you’ll use it somewhere along the way.
You have dinner and you see somebody strange at the next table and you wonder…
You know there’s a lady over there [Diana pointed to a table behind us] that has her head half shaved on one side and you can think her dress is not congruent with that kind of haircut– and so is she “trying it on”? or trying a different character than she actually is? Or is there something else to it?
… the thing is that I know that woman and she just had brain surgery.
There’s always more than one explanation, but other explanation could easily lead you to something more interesting.
Me: You write in scenes, but how do you start?
DG: What I need to write on any given day, is what I call a kernel.
It’s a vivid image, a line of dialogue, an emotional ambiance. Anything I can see or sounds concrete in having seen or sensed it, I can sit down and write a sentence about it describing what it is.
I’ll describe it as well as I possibility can and then I sit there and stare at that sentence.
I’ll take words out and I’ll put them back. I move clauses around and write an alternate, then go back to the first one. I’m doing this in the front of my mind as it is purely technical work of trying to make that sentence as clear and elegant as I can.
It will be well balanced, the words will be well chosen, and they’ll achieve the effect I want.
It takes a lot of tinkering and work that also frees up the back of my mind to be asking the subliminal questions–like what time of day is it? How is the light falling? is the room warm? Is the room cold? that kind of stuff that plugs into the scene.
Q: Is that a conscious thing that you do?
DG: Oh yeah, I don’t normally take a lot of notice of it, but yeah, I can. In fact, it’s a party trick
I have about 2500 books in my office. Tactile books are the thing that focus on my type and time period of writing… the books all reflect that and help when I have no ideas. I’ll thumb through and set things in front of my mind’s eye and concentrate and explore.
That’s how I write, and that’s why it takes a long time.
The important thing abut writing is your need to know how your own brain works.
None of them work the same as anybody else’s, and you cause yourself a lot of trouble if you’re trying to write like someone else.
Me: Do you sleep with your characters?
DG: No. I write late at night and by the time I go to bed at 4:30 a.m., I’ve dumped everything I know about them. So I never dream about them.
My husband is a lark.
He likes to get up early in the morning. Not me. I’ve always done better at night. I don’t work in the morning—I have no brain power, whatsoever.
So early on we evolved an equitable system where he’d get up in the morning. He’d get the kids up, feed them breakfast, and makes the lunches, and then he’d wake me up when it was time to drive them to their various schools.
Me: How did you transition from technical writing to fiction? Sounds like you just dove right in.
DG: Yes. I did just that. I had done the comic books… check Nutrition Adventures With Orange Bird.
Me: What are your thoughts on Query Letters?
DG: When I wrote my query letter, I enclosed some of my writing and told them that they wouldn’t find anyone who knows more scientific and technical software than me, and yet I can, at the same time, write to appeal to a broad popular audience.
People freeze up and crumble when asked to write a query letter.
It’s the same problem that they have with reading “how to write” books.
The book says do it this way, but the reader never stops to think about the goal.
The goal is not to produce a query letter that looks like on in your stupid book. Remember that you’re approaching a person who you wish to employ, and who, with luck, will be able to sell your book.
So what do you want to get across to this person?
You want to convince them you have something that they can sell. And also that you can actually write. The entire point of the query letter is to prove you can write. You can usually tell within the first paragraph.
An agent is selling you their experience. They’re selling you as much as you’re selling them your book.
A Couple More Tips…Well, three to be exact.
- My son Sam, is a successful fantasy writer. I told him not to go with the family name of Watkins, because then in a bookstore his books would be at the end of a list and near the floor. You want to be more eye level. He went with Sam Sykes. It sounds good and is more in the middle alphabetically.
2. Read with a critical eye.
If you’ve read two mysteries in your life and you ask yourself which you like better and why—it may be the character or it could be the dialogue. Pay attention.
3. Dialogue: keep your sentences short. And don’t tell people anything they don’t need to know.
Me: Do you have any rules for writing?
DG: Rule #1 is read.
Rule #2 is write, because nothing will teach you how to write like the act of putting words on a paper.
Some people find how-to books helpful, or classess, which is fine if they do.
Writers groups, critique groups, if that’s helpful to you, do whatever helps, but basically nothing will teach you to write except writing.
The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. You may never be good, but you’ll be better.
Keep doing it. It’s important you don’t stop.
Me: Do you have anyone read your stuff before you send it off?
DG: Just my husband. He the second pair of eyes. He has a very good literary eye. I fiddle constantly. I don’t leave a scene until it’s the best I can do. I don’t believe in rough drafts.
Writers fall into two camps which are those who think linearly and those who don’t and tend to have plots and outlines, so forth believing they need a sense of direction.
Me: What drives you crazy about new writers?
DG: Nothing. I love to teach. That why I do writer’s conferences. I do two, sometimes three a year—no more than that. It takes a lot of time away.
SideBar: Diana paused here as though she thought about the question again, and then continued with some observations. Think about them.
DG: You mentioned critique groups and things like that too and where I was contemplating the whole process. I’ve read a lot and am fascinated by writers’ stories and autobiographies. I was just thinking that in all that I’ve read about the life of a writer or their process, I don’t know a single best-selling author who has a critique group.
Does this tell you anything?
Possibly they know they’re good and they don’t need a bunch of yes men.
How would a group of uneducated, unpublished people assist you to be better? Does it make any sense? No.
It’s like politics where people seek out a group to assure themselves of their rightness and their own vision, no matter how stupid it is.
Look at the successful writers. Do any have a MFA? No, they don’t. In fact, I know people with mfas’ and they’re all English professors.
SideBar: There was more chitchat about writing. My niece, Kara, was at the interview too. We ended up having a long talk about how inadequate we can feel as writers’ when we’re told to do things in a certain way… You know the stuff–get up at six am, do yoga for 33.3 minutes, drink 2.97 glasses of water while standing on one foot, now you’re ready to sit down and write.
While I’m being a bit facetious here, it’s true that picky little rituals of others can make us feel we’re doing it wrong–especially if they’re successful.
Keep in mind what Diana said about the need to be you in your writing. Find the process that works for you and then write, write, and write some more.
I’d like to thank Diana Gabaldon for the generosity of her time, opinion, and expert advice. It was a pleasure getting to know her and I admire her writing style and career. Brava Ms. Gabaldon.
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