August 11th 2001, I had the pleasure of meeting Lois
McMaster Bujold, at a book signing in Dayton, Ohio. She
spoke for some time about her new novel, 'The Curse
of Chalion' and answered all questions presented to
her. One of which was, 'Will there be another Miles
Vorkosigan novel?' For fans of the series, the answer was:
'Yes'. If all goes as planned, Baen and Ms. Bujold are
expecting the book to be released in the spring of 2002.
The following interview was conducted on-line and not at
the signing. Again I want to thank Ms. Bujold for taking
time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions. She
has a very informative and easily navigated website at: http://www.dendarii.com
Factor: What inspires you to write? Has that changed
since your career as a writer started?
McMaster Bujold: Well, of course I was a voracious reader
first. That's the heart of it: as a writer, to re-create,
for oneself and others, the pleasures of one's own
experiences of reading beloved books. That's why so many
embryo writers start out writing in imitation of their
models. (Me, too. Although my Tolkienesque epic, embarked
upon at age 15 and never finished, at least has the
dubious distinction of having been written in Spenserian
verse, the result of having read The Lord of the Rings
and The Faerie Queene twice that year.) Moving into
adulthood gave me more of an original center of self,
grown through experience, out of which to write, and a
growing desire to write my own stories, not anyone else's.
The aspiration of being professionally published drove
the sort of search for education, critique, and feedback
every writer must somehow obtain, from whatever sources
they can find to hand. Every writer I know is, ultimately,
self-taught; fiction writing is the least regulated
profession in the world.
So I was inspired to write because I love to read, and
because stories pour through my head, welling up
uninvited from wherever these thoughts come. But I do
think that I stuck to the task through the hard parts
because I was also driven by economic necessity, and in
the hope of obtaining some kind of financial security for
myself and my children. I had failed at too many things,
or drifted into dilettantism, for far too long. I had to
make this one work.
The mechanics of writing have, of course, become easier
over time and with practice. Finding the burningly
interesting ideas becomes harder, as I've used up the
ones at the front of the queue, and I don't wish to
repeat myself in terms of either plot or theme.
Your first three novels were bought and published by Baen
books, what prompted the decision to serialize the fourth,
'Falling Free' in Analog magazine?
LMB: I was an old
Analog reader -- I had my first subscription to the
magazine at age 13, back in the John W.Campbell, Jr. era.
So I knew of the possibility of placing book-length work
there, having read and loved its serials myself. I do
very little short work, but I had tried a few short
stories on Analog in the early 80's as I was trying to
break in as a writer. I also submitted Ethan of Athos to
Analog back when it first sold to Baen, and while it did
not sell, I did pick up some useful information on Analog's
serialization length, break-point, and lead-time
requirements. (Less than 100,000 words, multiple break
points needed, and really, really long, respectively.)
Since Falling Free was very much a tribute to the
Campbell-era fiction, as well as being my next chance to
try for an Analog sale, I bundled it up and sent it off
to Stan Schmidt myself, and this time, everything came
together. Baen was kind enough to delay publication while
the serialization ran through, and I picked up a lot of
new readers thereby. I think the exposure I obtained in
Analog was also important for the attention Falling Free
garnered in the following year's awards, since it was
both a Nebula winner and a Hugo nominee. No one can vote
for a work they've neither seen nor heard about.
Did you have an agent when you sold your first three
books to Baen?
LMB: No. In fact, I
had contracted my first seven books before I acquired an
agent. This was bad in the short term, in that I was
really ignorant about contracts, and also had no way to
reach foreign markets. But it was good in the long run,
because when I did finally go shopping for an agent, I
was able to make a more informed choice -- and I was able
to get my first pick, the estimable Eleanor Wood. We
shook hands on my trip to New York City for that Nebula
weekend where Falling Free won, in fact.
One of the things I discovered through this was that one's
early mistakes need not be permanent. As new books came
up, we were able to trade back to Baen for rights I had
foolishly given away; in other words, we used new
contracts to fix the old ones. Although this only works
if one is selling to the same house, I suppose, there are
also other ways early errors can be rectified by a good
agent acquired later.
You have won numerous Hugo and Nebula awards for your
books and novellas are any of these more personally
satisfying to you?
LMB: They were all
pretty great, for different reasons. That first Nebula
was important both to put me on the genre's radar, and as
a boost to my own self-confidence. The dual win, both
Hugo and Nebula, for the novella "The Mountains
of Mourning" was a welcome validation to a work
that I'd written mostly for my own satisfaction, that I
wasn't even sure would pass as SF. Barrayar, likewise,
had some personal and women's themes that I was glad to
see gain acceptance. Mirror Dance was a large,
quirky, and personal book that I was not sure would
"take". I also figured that there seemed to be
a tacit term limit to Hugos, since only one writer had
ever won more than two for best novel, and that Mirror
Dance would have to compete not only against the other
books up that year, but also against all my own prior
wins. The awards ordeal has taught me an important lesson.
The works that I wrote most to please myself, and least
with half an eye on the market, also have done the best.
When you wrote 'Shards of Honor' did you
envision the Vorkosigan series growing to over ten books?
Did you have a preconceived outline for the series or is
each book developed separately?
LMB: When I wrote
Shards, I was working though so many learning curves, I
wasn't even thinking about what might come next. Now, by
the time I wrote The Warrior's Apprentice, the
lure of the series was beginning to take hold; I remember
mumbling some not-quite-a-joke about a decology to my
Baen editors Jim Baen and Toni Weisskopf over a Worldcon
meal in 1986. My structural model for the most
satisfactory sort of series was the Hornblower books;
each volume a stand-alone story that, when put together,
gave the over-arcing biography of a character's life.
This seemed to me to provide all of the pleasures of a
series, the ability to tell a large story over a huge
range, with fewer of the readerly frustrations that go
with not being able to find missing parts in the
bookstore or library at any given moment.
I do not have an outline for the series; each book is
plotted, and by preference contracted, separately. I joke
that I don't know any more about what is happening next
in Miles's life than he does. This also, by the way,
gives me the artistic freedom to walk away from the
series at any time, or to take breaks. I took advantage
of this in 1999 to go a year without a contract and write
my new fantasy, The Curse of Chalion, on spec.
The Curse of Chalion, by the way, is just now
out (August 2001) from a new publisher, Eos/HarperCollins.
Sample chapters are up at http://www.eosbooks.com for anyone who
wants a sneak preview. I'm wildly excited about it. There
are two new interviews discussing it at length, which we've
just posted on my own website at http://www.dendarii.com -- a short,
written one at http://www.dendarii.com/explorations.html and a longer one,
transcribed from a recent radio interview, at http://www.dendarii.com/wtbbl.html
Many of Baen's book covers are very glossy and metallic,
have you had any input on your book covers? Are you
satisfied with the covers and do you think they have
helped your overall sales?
LMB: Covers are an on-going
problem, not least because no matter what you do, you can
never please everyone. I've had lots of input on some
covers, none on others; but my having input has never yet
actually resulted in a better cover, so I've pretty much
given up trying. The foil is more or less mandatory these
days to try to mark a book as "important" --
not to readers, but to the wholesalers, who put in their
orders more by covers and publisher pitches than by
reading the content.
The covers I've had have attracted some readers, and
acted as an impenetrable barrier to others. Probably the
most important thing for a writer's career over time,
then, to gain new readers, is to have a variety of covers.
Unfortunately, this also works against a publisher's
desire to give a writer's books a unified "look"
that they can train old readers to reach for. Go figure.
The cover for the new fantasy from Eos is in a fresh
style for me, I think; it remains to be seen if it
catches any new eyes.
I adore the advent of on-line sample chapters, not least
because they allow my books to sell on the basis of their
words instead of their packaging.
When it comes to promotion, what lengths have you gone to
in order to increase reader-awareness of your work?
LMB: Being my own PR
flack has certainly been educational, although it's also
time and energy consuming. These concerns are at the top
of my thoughts this week because I'm just back from a
short publisher-sponsored book signing tour for The
Curse of Chalion that took me to Portland, Oregon,
Seattle, Washington, and Dayton, Ohio. It was a wonderful
trip, but was it effective? I can't tell. Of course, for
a science fiction or fantasy writer, the first
promotional opportunities encountered are the science
fiction conventions, as a panelist and, one hopes,
eventually a high-profile guest. Be a good guest, and you'll
get scouted by other conventions, and invitations will
multiply. Nevertheless, fandom is a bit of a closed
system, and only represents a small fraction of the book-buying
public. There is nothing more discouraging for a writer
to hear from a fan, eight or nine months after a book has
been published, languished on the bookstore shelves, and
finally been packed up and sent back to the warehouse --
or, in the case of paperbacks, pulped -- than a cry of,
"Oh! You have a new book out? I never knew you had a
new book out! Where can I buy it?"
Lately, on-line activity -- such as this very interview
-- has provided opportunities for writers to get the word
out in a timely way about their books. Baen Books has
been doing some very innovative things with their website
to obtain on-line exposure for their writers. The
publishers' mantra used to be, "Books are their own
advertising". In other words, the only way a reader
could discover a book existed was to see it, already out
in a store someplace. But the internet, for the first
time, has allowed information about books to move
separately from the books themselves; it's getting harder
(although it's still possible) to publish a book in
secret. This, and high-speed net-based word of mouth,
actually allows readers to find out about, and ask for,
books that weren't necessarily pre-chosen to be hot by
the middlemen powers that be.
The real secret seems to be to get the readers to do your
promoting, out of love for your books. There are more of
them, they are more widespread, and they have more time
and, God knows, more energy. Word of mouth is the top
reason books are sold. Alas, it's a form of promotion
money can't buy; you have to receive it as a gift from
heaven. Good covers run a close second, but again, that's
not something the writer can control even when they try.
In my genres of science fiction and fantasy, having
stories in the magazines might be third. Reviews dead
last, except perhaps those in library journals; the
library market is the only one that buys most of their
books from reviews.
debate has been raised in a writing group I belong to,
how important are high profile author blurbs when it
comes to sales of your book? What is your opinion on the
subject and have you ever received praise from another
author or book reviewer that has strongly affected either
you personally or your writing?
LMB: I think that
readers are largely indifferent to blurbs. The place they
seem to be important is during the pre-selling phase,
when the publishers must first sell their books to the
middlemen, bookstores and chains and wholesalers like
Ingram's or Baker & Taylor. Remember, most of these
key people must order books by their packaging. It's not
humanly possible for them to read the hundreds and
hundreds of titles that are thrown at them.
Selling any book falls into two periods. The first phase
takes place months before the book is published, out of
sight of any reader, when the publishers send their sales
people out to take orders from their real customers --
not you and me, but the aforementioned middlemen. Only
after those orders are collected is the size of the print
run set. So to an appalling degree, the level of success
any book can obtain is set before anyone reads it. If
orders are low, the book will never have a chance to find
readers through store placement, or ever get near any
best seller list. It's like a glass ceiling; breaking
through it seems almost impossible.
Good reviews are always heartening, bad ones depressing.
Curiously, the few bad ones manage to be far more
excoriating than the ten or twenty good ones are
uplifting. There's a psychological study in there
somewhere, I'm sure.
you foresee a future in the Electronic Publishing field,
and do you have plans to head in this direction?
LMB: I have no idea how
that market is going to develop. For the moment, I am
riding along with my own print publishers' experiments in
that direction. I don't foresee self-publishing
electronically at this time.
What piece of parting advice would you give to aspiring
LMB: Write what you
are passionate about, rather than trying to write "to
the market". After all, if you try to write what you
think others will like, and its flops, it will have been
an absolute waste of your time; worse, if it succeeds,
people will want you to write more of the same, not what
your heart is set upon. If you love your work, there is
more of a chance that others will too, and you are more
likely to produce your best work -- which will create its
own market, the mad gods of luck and publishing willing.