The following is the transcript of an on-line chat with C. Dale Brittain that took place in the fall of 2002, sponsored by the Coffeehouse for Writers website. "Gitar slinger" is the host, and C. Dale Brittain is "Daimbert 2002."
gitar_slinger: Welcome to the Coffeehouse for Writers Author Chat with fantasy author C. Dale Brittain. Tonight, Dale will be answering your questions about her work and her experiences with the craft and business of fantasy writing. Here's a question just to get things rolling. What's the first step you take when it's time to write your next novel?
daimbert2002: The novel comes to me rather than vice versa. Usually I see a scene, and then have to figure out why the context.
gitar_slinger: How do you organize and develop your thoughts and ideas into a completed novel?
daimbert2002: By writing. Writing makes you figure out what you wanted to say. Then, of course, there's the rewriting.
gitar_slinger: Oh, you mean the work part...
daimbert2002: Well, talking to somebody ahead of time can also clarify one's thoughts. But writing is work. Don't let them tell you different.
gconwill: Why did you leave out the Pope and archbishops in 'Bad Spell in Yurt' and your consequent novels?
daimbert2002: I wanted to make it clear that this wasn't really exactly medieval Christianity. Besides, I wanted to draw a contrast between organized magic, which is centralized, and the church, which isn't.
gconwill: The one in your world, you mean?
nyliramedur: How long does it take you to complete a novel, start to finish, including rewrites? on average.
daimbert2002: It takes probably roughly a year to write a novel. This is of course approximate. It can take as little as 3 or 4 months or as long as several years.
gitar_slinger: Have you ever found yourself stuck on one?
daimbert2002: Sure. I get stuck all the time. "Apocalypse" took about 3 years. If you write a page a day you can write a novel in 1 year. But nobody writes a page a day. It's either more or less.
aheinsma: How many hours a day do you spend writing?
daimbert2002: Again, it wildly varies. Because I have a full-time job, writing is for odd hours and weekends. When I'm trying to make progress, I push myself to write 2 pages a day (say an hour or hour and a half).
smileyface123123: Do you freewrite the complete first draft before doing any rewrites?
daimbert2002: Computers are fun. You can write, rewrite, or any combination thereof all the time, together. But I do try to get through one draft before *massive* rewrites.
merlot2050: Do you ever work on more than one novel at a time?
daimbert2002: Yes. It's less efficient, but I do it. The advantage is that if you get hung up on one story, you can fall back on the other.
shanaara: How do you get your character to come alive? I have trouble relating the emotion on paper
daimbert2002: Don't talk about how they "feel." Talk about how they react. For example, rather than saying, "He was nervous," say "The fingernails dug into his palms until they bled."
daimbert2002: Hope you guys are getting something out of this--the questions are coming hot & heavy! (which is good)
gitar_slinger: I can always slow 'em down, Dale! Speaking of massive rewrites, how massive is massive?
daimbert2002: Massive is like printing it all out and then moving the parts around. Or deciding that you need a different character. Or a different boffo finale.
gitar_slinger: A word to our members: Dale writes a mean boffo finale!
daimbert2002: In "Mage Quest," in the first draft I had no more ideas than the characters did what was happening when I first wrote it. Sometimes it helps to write an outline *after* the first draft, so you know what you're working with.
gconwill: What impels you to write? What is your major source of inspiration?
daimbert2002: My real inspiration is human interaction, imagining different versions thereof. That and medieval history. Because I'm a medieval historian, I know what real people did in the real Middle Ages. Writing fiction fleshes them out. Fiction writing allows you to imagine what it would be like to be somebody different.
daimbert2002: I also write fiction because I want to read stories that are just like what I would like to read, if that makes sense. If it doesn't make sense, try this: Don't write what you think other people want to see. Write what you yourself want to see.
gconwill: How much does real life play in what you write?
daimbert2002: Lots. I haven't personally done most of the things my characters do (for one thing, I write fantasy). But I can imagine a "virtual" version of real experience. Situations from the real Middle Ages get into my stories a lot. "Count Scar" is actually fairly close to the real Middle Ages.
daimbert2002: When I was little I used to have a running dialogue in my head, commenting on what I was doing. Except of course instead of walking to school, I'd be undertaking a dangerous mission.
gconwill: What about life today?
daimbert2002: I've written (though not published) fiction written in the present. It is always based on my own ideas of what's what, but I can't help it, I have to jazz it up a little. Even if one were writing fiction based on real-life experiences, I think you'd want to clarify the issues, simplify, etc. That's what fiction is good for--you can tell the story of your life (or whatever) and this time it makes sense and comes out right.
daimbert2002: As humans, we are, I believe, hard-wired to want things to make sense. And as members of a universe of random events, they usually don't make sense. That's why we need stories. Telling stories or reading really good stories, they're all ways to make things make sense and come out right. I've put plenty of things that have happened to me into my stories, but no one who knew what really happened would ever recognize them.
daimbert2002: I assume all of you are trying to be writers? If you're an unpublished writer, don't think your life revolves around getting published. Three-quarters of the fun of writing is the writing itself. This is not to deny that being published is great, because it is. But it won't make you rich, and it's not the reason to write.
moeva_99: So for you, what makes you a writer? Did that question make sense?
daimbert2002: A writer is who I am. I've been a writer since 1st grade. I've only been a published fiction writer for the last 11 years. What makes me be a writer is a love of words and a belief that words can express important issues.
shanaara: Yes...I want readers to get the full reaction, to mentally become a part of the story..Is there a special time of the day that is more comfortable to write certain character or plots? for you.
daimbert2002: As for writing at certain periods of the day, I seem to get a burst of energy about 10 at night. But I think every writer has to figure that out for yourself.
aheinsma: What are your favorite fantasy books that you've read?
daimbert2002: "Lord of the Rings" remains my alltime favorite fantasy. Of the more modern works, I especially like George R. R. Martin
smileyface123123: Do you ever suffer from writer's block, and if so what do you do about it?
daimbert2002: Sure I get writers block. Everybody gets writers block. It's the result of not knowing what happens next in the story. The way I get around it is to show someone what I've written so far and ask them to "guess" what happens next.
moeva_99: That's funny.
daimbert2002: Or sometimes it helps just to take a break, to work on something totally different for a few months. Sometimes I'll write the first few pages and only come back several years later.
moeva_99: How many projects do you have going at one time? How do you stay/keep organized?
daimbert2002: Goodness knows how I keep organized. I guess I keep it all straight in my head. But I wouldn't recommend that for everyone. Some people like to have separate folders and things.
smileyface123123: How do you go about inventing a new world in fantasy writing?
daimbert2002: Well, "Yurt" just showed up more or less as it is now, including the telephones. But on a deeper level, try to think of some aspect, then ponder what the results of that would be.
daimbert2002: For example, in "Count Scar" magic is studied by the priests. This makes religion a different sort of proposition. For creating a good fantasy world, it also helps to know a lot of real medieval history. Tolkien was a medievalist, of course If you're creating a fantasy world, make sure it's your own world, not just somebody else's with a few twitches.
merlot2050: When writing fantasy, where do you go to sanity-check your more far-fetched concepts? I have this feeling that people will scrutinize my work for scientific accuracy.
daimbert2002: Well, "Count Scar" is full of real medieval history. "Voima" is full of real medieval mythology (and some social history). Yurt isn't really the real medieval period. The advantage of writing fantasy is that it doesn't have to be accurate!
daimbert2002: The reason one studies real medieval history is not to make one's fantasy accurate, but rather because real history can think of better plots than you can.
nyliramedur: Who, other than Tolkien, would you say influences your writing (author or otherwise)?
daimbert2002: I'm probably more influenced by mystery stories than by other fantasy authors. Tony Hillerman, for example--it was from him that I got the idea that for the last 100 pages you don't go to bed.
nyliramedur: Don't go to bed?
daimbert2002: Sorry, the "don't go to bed" means that when the reader is 100 pages from the end, thinks they'll just read for a minute and turn in, and then they can't. Because of the exciting boffo ending
gitar_slinger: You've done that to me. A lot. <grumble>
daimbert2002: I've also read a lot of John Dickson Carr (mystery)--English country house mystery.
aheinsma: Do you have a favorite phrase or line that you've written?
daimbert2002: My favorite line I've written is the opening of "A Bad Spell in Yurt": "It wasn't a very big kingdom, but I wasn't a very good wizard." This line came to me literally in a dream.
shanaara: The hardest thing for me ..are the reaction I want my character to play, and sometimes I blush, and scare myself...does this happen to you?
daimbert2002: Sure. Characters like to trick the author. Well-drawn characters take on a life of their own. They don't always take direction well.
daimbert2002: If you find that your characters have their own ideas of what they are going to do, it's usually best to run with it. Most people read fiction for the characters, so if they've become real enough to have their own ideas, go for it. Sometimes you will want the characters to do something, and they will refuse. This is tedious all around.
merlot2050: Do you complete a manuscript, including rewrites, before showing it to anyone?
daimbert2002: When I'm writing, I usually show it to my husband every 30 pages or so. Then we have a big story conference, and I may rewrite some at that point and may not.
daimbert2002: It's no use being shy about your writing. Especially if you hope to get published some day, you have to overcome silly self-consciousness. Of course, I wouldn't show somebody who didn't already love me something that I thought was still pretty rough.
gitar_slinger: I've noticed that the cover illustrations on all six Yurt books were done by different artists. As author, did you have any input in the selection of these artists? How are they generally selected? And which one is your favorite rendition of Daimbert?
daimbert2002: I'm actually fairly pleased with all my covers, though I had a grand total of zero input. Authors are considered the last people on the planet capable of saying something intelligent about cover design. Daimbert looks a whole lot like the picture on "A Bad Spell in Yurt", except he never wore a hat like that in his life. He doesn't look anything like the wizard on the cover of "Wood Numph & Cranky Saint"
gconwill: How would you say your real-life religious life has played a part in what and hoi you write? Did you know Tolkien was a ver devout Catholic?
daimbert2002: Yes, I knew Tolkien was Catholic. What is funny is that the LOTR universe has no organized religion at all in it! I think the religion in my books is there because I'm a medievalist. I know how important religion was in the real Middle Ages. I've always disliked books that either try to create a world with no organized religion at all--which just doesn't happen--or else make the priests scheming hypocrites.
nyliramedur: How many times were you rejected before you were published the first time?
daimbert2002: It's hard to say how many times I was rejected. Everything I sent to a publisher for 24 years was rejected.
nyliramedur: Well that makes me feel better
daimbert2002: Then I wrote "A Bad Spell in Yurt," decided this was the best thing I'd ever written, and sent it off. One publisher rejected it, and Baen took it after requesting some rewrites.
gitar_slinger: Do you want to elaborate on the scheming, hypocritical priest theme?
daimbert2002: If you've read my stories, you'll know that Joachim is the opposite of a scheming hypocritical priest. On a more general level, religion is a part of the human experience, and deserves to be taken seriously like anything else.
daimbert2002: Of course in a way I cheated in the Yurt-universe. You really can't be an atheist there, because miracles really do happen in a blatant way. In "Count Scar" you've got something more like the real Middle Ages, where people think about death a lot and worry about their souls, but never attain certainty. On the other hand, a lot of the miracles in my stories are taken straight out of medieval miracle stories.
moeva_99: Your first 7 books were published by Baen, your latest by Wooster. Why the change?
daimbert2002: I switched from Baen because they and I got bored with each other. Wooster Book is a small press--my chance to get a large-format book and higher quality binding, but less national exposure.
gconwill: How much an advantage do you think it is if you like to illustrate as well as write what you write? Does it give you something of an edge over other writers?
daimbert2002: It might in childrens' books. In adult books, the publisher has its own illustrators. Remember, the cover's purpose is *not* to illustrate the book. Rather, the purpose of the cover is to attract people enough so that they will pick up the book from the shelf and hopefully buy it. So the cover is actually an "ad". This means that the publisher might not trust the author.
gconwill: I'm talking about how Tolkien's books come fully illustrated. That's the kind of thing I do. All through my fantasy and children's stuff.
daimbert2002: Tolkien is different. If you sell 50 million books world wide, then the publisher thinks about illustrations.
gconwill: So, a fully illustrated equivalent of an untried author would be a hard sell, to say the least?
daimbert2002: So-called "adult" fantasy almost never is illustrated. If you told a publisher your stuff needed pictures, their first thought would be that it would cost them too much. Children's books are different, but if it's aimed at 15 years or older, then they aren't interested.
gconwill: It all amounts to the amount of ink spent.
daimbert2002: No, art costs a lot more than just more ink. It's the layout that's the real issue, plus the illustrations are prepared for press differently.
gconwill: thank you. Your advice is well placed.
daimbert2002: This might be a reason to go to a small press rather than a commercial publisher.
digitalliz: do you spend a set amount of time each day writing?
daimbert2002: I don't write a set amount of time.Maybe I'd be more productive if I did. In the summers, when I'm not teaching, I try to write a certain number of pages a day, but I don't worry about time. For people who try to make a living writing, the usual goal is 3 pages a day, 7 days a week.
gitar_slinger: You've mentioned that your first book, "A Bad Spell in Yurt," was sold to Baen without using an agent. Is this something that anyone can do? We've all heard the old saw that it's not what you know, but who; did you have to take advantage of a prior relationship? If not, how did you manage that?
daimbert2002: About half the SF publishers, including Baen, will look at unagented submissions. Check in Writers Market. They'll tell you pretty clearly. I didn't know a soul at Baen when I sent them "A Bad Spell in Yurt." Whether you have an agent or not, the book has to sell itself.
daimbert2002: In some ways it's harder for an unpublished writer to get a decent agent than to find a publisher willing to read what you've got. And a bad agent is much worse than no agent. In SF, about 50 first-time novelists are published a year, that's one a week. They have to find them somewhere, so they do read their slush pile.If you go with a questionable agent, you're trapped, you can't sell your own story yourself, and the agent may tie it up for years. A good agent won't take your book unless they're 100% sure they can sell it, whereas a publisher will say, what the heck, let's at least look.
aheinsma: Are there any books on the process of writing you would recommend?
daimbert2002: There are a jillion of them. Read them all. Read "how to write SF" (or whatever else you're doing). Read books about sentence structure (Strunk & White). Libraries always have big sections about how-to-write. Check them all out. They'll balance each other out.
merlot2050: Did you ever keep working on a novel you believed in and finally get it accepted?
daimbert2002: Well, I believed in "Bad Spell" and got it published.
gitar_slinger: And it's all been smooth sailing from there?
daimbert2002: Sometimes if something just doesn't seem to be getting anyone's attention as a publishable book, it makes sense to write something else. Remember it took me 25 years from when I first tried a publisher with a novel manuscript to "Bad Spell's" publication. I tried lots of other things in the meantime. And even now I wouldn't say I've got "smooth sailing." Sure, the first novel is the hardest to sell, but I haven't sold in big enough figures to make the publishers gather around.
nyliramedur: Do you listen to any music while you write? Is there any medieval music that you would recommend?
daimbert2002: I like to listen to music while writing--music that doesn't have words. I love all medieval music but can't write to Chant because I know Latin and therefore understand it. Hildegard of Bingen (late 12th century woman composer) is great. Get the real stuff, not the jazzed up version. I can write to Sibelius and Vaughan Williams.
gitar_slinger: Nyliramedur, look for anything in the Hesperion series for a good introduction to all kinds of early music.
moeva_99: What do you do to promote yourself/books (besides chats) and what has really worked for you?
daimbert2002: I like going to things like Book Fairs, where readers can meet lots of authors. As an SF writer, I also go to "cons" (conventions) and appear on panels. Self-promotion is hard, though, because you need to access 1000s of readers. A webpage helps.
daimbert2002: The publisher is *supposed* to promote you. But how much effort they put in depends on how much they think they can make.
shanaara: do you use any writing software or other programs
daimbert2002: Other than basic word-processing, I don't use "software." I don't even like the way Word tries to critique your spelling and sentence structure. I turn that off.
gitar_slinger: Word is often wrong! LOL
gconwill: How's working your day job while working as a writer compare? You don't see many writers doing that. But then I don't know many writers whose stuff has been published.
daimbert2002: Most writers actually have a day job. You have to--almost no writer makes over 10K a year from writing.
gconwill: really? So it's actually not about the money, like you always hear?
gconwill: That's a relief. I feel a lot less guilty.
daimbert2002: Besides, I think you write better if you can take the mental time to make your stories as good as you can.
merlot2050: Is it OK to invent a world, but use familiar plants and animals as such in the environment?
daimbert2002: Sure, use familiar plants and animals. All "real" myths ("Song of Roland," for example), are set in a world that looks just like ours, with bigger than life people and magic.
moeva_99: Do you use storyboards?
daimbert2002: Nope. No reason not to, however, if they work for you.
daimbert2002: Any more questions? Or are we winding down?
gitar_slinger: We can call it done whenever you're ready, Dale. I'm sure we can keep you up all night otherwise.
gconwill: Thank you so much for having us "over".
nyliramedur: Thanks for your time.
daimbert2002: Good to talk to all of you!
aheinsma: I really learned a lot from this chat! Thanks.
moeva_99: Thank you
merlot2050: Many thanks! G'night all.
gitar_slinger: Let's wrap it up then. Thank you so much, Dale, for spending this time with us. You've been very kind and informative.
daimbert2002: Good night one and all. This has been fun.
gitar_slinger: Remember to read her books if you haven't already!
digitalliz: I enjoyed chatting
daimbert2002 left the room.
gitar_slinger: Elvis has left the building. Goodnight, all!