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Orson Scott Card
Interview by Tina Morgan
The author/editor of more than 60 books, Orson Scott Card is an award winner with a sense of humor and in-depth knowledge of the publishing industry. Join us as he discusses his creative work.
Fiction Factor: Why did you decide to retell Ender's Game from Bean's point of view?
Orson Scott Card: I didn't. I decided to tell Bean's story, and the three chapters that took place in Battle School got way out of hand and became a whole novel by themselves. So much for outlines. I think the parallel novel worked out rather well, but it was certainly not my plan when I started writing it.
FF: How do you feel about schools using Ender's Game in their curriculum?
OSC: I'm always a bit worried when students are forced to read a book of mine in order to get a grade. The danger is that the readers will be hostile to the book because of that, and no story can survive a hostile reading. But so far it seems to be doing little harm, and from what I hear, most students actually end up enjoying it.
If teachers attempt to teach Ender's Game using the standard methods used in literary analysis in the American university, I think they'll be in for some pretty rough times, because I deliberately do NOT follow the tenets of modernism that are permanently enthroned in the elitist ac-lit culture, in which obscurity and coded meanings are embraced and clarity and story are regarded as childish or low class. But if teachers look at Ender's Game or Ender's Shadow as a road into discussing real-world ethical and moral issues, current events, history, and family life, I think they'll be well rewarded by the kinds of things their students discover and care about in the book.
FF: During your book signing, you said that in your earlier works you used violence to show something important was going to happen but now you use more subtle means. Would you give an example of what those means are?
OSC: I use the character's own attitude and experiences to let the reader see how important the events are in the character's life. Instead of having the character smacked in the head with a brick, I have the character smacked with an emotional surprise that only FEELS like a brick. Works better, less blood.
FF: Do you feel this change in your writing came from growth as a writer or from personal experience?
OSC: With time, a writer learns new skills - or learns to trust more subtle tools to accomplish the task at hand.
FF: Your stories are character driven and the focus is not on the settings. How much time do you spend creating your worlds before you write?
OSC: I create the society's rules in great detail, because all the ethical and social dilemmas depend on them. I spend very little time working on the visual milieu, because what character's see so rarely matters in their decisions.
FF: Have you ever suffered from writer's block and if so, how do you overcome it?
OSC: Writer's block is my unconscious mind telling me that something I've just written is either unbelievable or unimportant to me, and I solve it by going back and reinventing some part of what I've already written so that when I write it again, it is believable and interesting to me. Then I can go on. Writer's block is never solved by forcing oneself to "write through it," because you haven't solved the problem that caused your unconscious mind to rebel against the story, so it still won't work - for you or for the reader.
FF: What inspired the names in the Tales of Alvin Maker series?
OSC: I use a lot of occupational naming and the old Puritan virtue-naming, plus your traditional American names and the names of existing historical figures. A few names have separate histories, such as "Alvin," which is taken from Joseph Smith's older brother, and "Calvin," which is chosen merely because it rhymes with Alvin. Peggy is my mother's name and it was fun to use it. While I'm very careful with my naming of characters, and always make sure the names seem to come from a plausible naming tradition, it's not really important that my readers "get" where the names come from.
FF: What pros and cons surround the e-publishing industry, and how do you envisage the future of e-publishing?
OSC: Electronic publishing is great for marginal books. I think peer-reviewed academic, scientific, and scholarly journals should all be converted to electronic publishing, and that all dissertations should be put online as a matter of course. Most university press publications could much more profitably be published electronically, with the expense of printing reserved for books where it makes economic sense.
E-publishing is also a hopeful replacement for the vanishing backlist. But for first-run fiction and nonfiction, people still prefer a tangible book, as well they should. Unless the price of ebook readers comes down to less than the cost of a single hardcover, and unless ebook machines become usable in all the circumstances where one can read a paperback, I see no future for dedicated ebook machines.
Ebook publishing will really take off, I think, when somebody invents microcharging on the internet. The idea is simple enough: Every ISP should be encouraged to subscribe to a single microcharging protocol. When you sign on to a website that participates, you will be notified that reading each poem, for instance, will cost you ten cents, and each story will cost a quarter. This is so cheap that it's not worth stealing, and only the simplest encryptions will be needed. The customer could set ceilings - alert me each time the charges from one site reach one dollar, for instance - so that scam artists could not charge you for every mouse click on their website - but if a story or poem (or writer or poet) got a following, those tiny charges could soon add up to enough money to at least pay for the website.
FF: How did you break into the publishing business?
OSC: I was a playwright for several years, and did all my horrible amateur writing for the stage, where actors and audiences made me keenly aware of what good, clear writing consisted of, and how to construct a scene. Thus by the time I turned to fiction, I already knew enough and had mastered enough of the fundamentals of storytelling that I sold the first story that I wrote specifically for publication. It was called "Ender's Game" and though I had a few missteps after that, and it took me four novels before I actually understood novel structure, almost all my work was published on first submission. Thus I have no stories to tell of noble persistence in the face of rejection. I simply served my apprenticeship somewhere else.
FF: What advice would you give beginning writers?
OSC: For those who are thinking of becoming writers "when they grow up," my advice is: Writers never grow up, so don't wait, start now. The publishers don't care how old you are, they only care if the story is good. And since every writer has about ten thousand pages of utter drivel in them, you might as well start now so you can get a good portion of that out of your way while you're still young. After all, you learn more about writing from writing a 100,000-word manuscript than you ever will from any writing class or writing book (and I say that as a teacher of writing classes and a writer of writing books).
For those who are trying to decide what to major in in college in order to become a writer, my advice is: Why are you going to college? Why would you limit your education in such a way - and at such an expense? Instead, get a real job and have a real life, so you know real people (as opposed to surrounding yourself with academics and academic life, which leads you to write stories in which all the characters are prone to commenting on word choice and clichés, and periodically drop references to Moby-Dick into their conversations). Write your brains out, and whenever you aren't writing, read something - preferably nonfiction books or magazine articles about subjects in which you have never had any interest, since those topics will of course be the ones you know least about. Within a few years you'll have a much broader and more comprehensive education than any of the college grads, and you'll be a much better writer of stories about real people.
For those who think there's some secret that published writers know and unpublished ones don't, or those who believe that it's "who you know" and not how you write that makes the difference, my advice is: You're thinking of Hollywood. In the world of publishing, it's WHAT you know and HOW you write that make the difference - that and the blind luck of happening to submit your work to an editor who gets it. No editor or publisher that's worth anything is going to buy your work because it has an endorsement from a big-name writer or because you happen to know their cousin. There are no shortcuts. If you know how to handle point of view and you end the story that the story's beginning promises, you will eventually sell your work.
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