Daniel Abraham is the author of The Long Price Quartet, The Dagger and the Coin Quintet, Hunter’s Run, and The Black Sun’s Daughter (as M.L.N. Hanover). His most recent collaboration with Ty Franck has produced the Expanse Series (as James S.A. Corey), whose latest entry, Caliban’s War, was listed in my top 10 science fiction books of 2012. (Aside: Tor has recently re-released The Long Price Quartet in two omnibus editions, Shadow and Betrayal and The Price of War–if you haven’t checked out this timeless, trope-defying epic fantasy series, do yourself a favor and head down to the bookstore and grab yourself a copy)
First of all Daniel, I’d like to congratulate you on making my top 10 science fiction books list. It’s not an easy one to crack! -) It’s certainly been an amazing journey that led you here. Let’s start at the beginning. Would you say attending Clarion West back in 1998 was a pivotal moment in your writing career? And is attending Clarion something you would recommend to aspiring science-fiction and fantasy novelists? (Aside: this year’s Clarion West instructors include Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Justina Robson, Ellen Datlow, and Samuel R. Delany)
Clarion West was absolutely a watershed experience for me. Before that, I’d been submitting stories for about a dozen years and sold two stories to semi-pro markets. I placed two of the stories I did there with professional markets, and I’ve been selling more or less consistently since then. You can’t argue with a change like that.
That said, I think a boot-camp-like workshop is great for some folks and toxic for others. It turns out I work pretty well under pressure. Not everyone does well in that environment, and there are certainly folks for whom Clarion West didn’t do what it did for me. It’s not strange for people to stop writing entirely after one of these and maybe not really pick it back up for years.
Hunter’s Run was a book that was written and rewritten over thirty years. When George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois handed the book off to you in 2004, what was your first reaction?
The way George made the initial pitch was taking me out to dinner and saying “How do you feel about a three-way with two old fat guys.” So my first response was “You practiced that line, didn’t you?” Hunter’s run was a fascinating project. It started out as a novella called Shadow Twin that was really a collaboration between three very new writers across three decades. Gardner started it when he was very early in his career. George picked it up in the 80s, and I did my bit a couple decades after that. The part where we remade the novella as a novel was a trip. Working with people of that stature and talent can’t help but be learning experience. And we’re all very different kinds of writers, so the end result was, I think, something that none of us would have come up with on our own.
The Long Price and The Dagger and the Coin are epic fantasy, The Black Sun’s Daughter is urban fantasy, while Hunter’s Run and the Expanse series are science fiction. What was it like transitioning from fantasy to science fiction and vice versa? Do you have a preference for either one?
I like them all. And I find the transition from one to another surprisingly easy. The thing for me is that the characters in each story are different, the plots are different, and the diction is different, and once I’ve kind of understood what each one feels like, it’s no different than being around three different friends at different times.
It makes sense to have a different pseudonym for different genres and collaborations–“M.L.N. Hanover” for urban fantasy, and “James S.A. Corey” for your science fiction work with Ty Franck. Do you ever worry that you’re ‘diluting’ your brand by having multiple pseudonyms? I read about the origin of the name “James S.A. Corey” on your blog, but how did you come up with the other names?
I don’t worry about diluting my brand by having different names. If anything, I worry about muddying up my brand by having only one. If Daniel Abraham wrote fantasy and science fiction and urban fantasy, folks wouldn’t know what to expect when they picked up one of my books. Could be anything. Part of making it really easy to buy a book is taking that moment of doubt before you click “buy” away. But a Daniel Abraham book reads kind of like a Daniel Abraham book, an MLN Hanover book reads like an MLN Hanover book, and a James SA Corey book reads like one of those.
If folks care enough to follow up even a little, the whole body of work is pretty much out there. And if they don’t, I’m delighted to have them grooving on the part that moves them.
As to how they showed up, Daniel Abraham was on the birth certificate. MLN Hanover was initials because that makes it not gendered (and I’ve had fans of the series tell me they wouldn’t have picked it up if they’d known I was a guy), three initials because everyone has two, so three stands out a little, MLN because they don’t spell anything, and Hanover because there were a lot of very popular urban fantasists in the H shelf at the time, and cozying up with them seemed like a good idea. I don’t know that any of that actually had any effect, though.
You’ve authored or coauthored four sagas so far. What’s the hardest part about writing a saga, and your latest one–the Expanse–in particular?
The hardest part about doing a really long series like that is having in mind what the big moments are going to be three or four years ahead and building toward them without rushing. There’s a line in the third Dagger & Coin book that I had in the first outline. I’ve known that moment was coming for years, and the temptation to get to it quicker was powerful and misguided. It works where it is, and any earlier would have stepped on it.
On a good day, how much do you write?
On a good day, 3000 words or so. On a bad day, nothing. On a terrible day, 6000.
Do you spend more time revising and editing than writing?
It’s about even, actually.
Your characters are remarkably well-written, real people living real lives within real relationships. What’s your best advice for writing characters?
Put yourself in the character’s place, and see if there isn’t something unexpected that comes out of it. There was this really gorgeous exercise I did one time that was about taking expected situations and finding ways to play against the expectations. The example was a boy who’d just gotten his first girlfriend talking to his mother. The expectation is he’s gong to be reticent, and mom’s going to be well-intentioned but prying. If you turn that around, though – if the boy’s come to mom because he actually wants to talk about it and the mom is the one that’s reticent, you have an equally possible situation that feels plausible because it’s unfamiliar.
We hear a lot about good writing advice. What’s the worst writing advice you commonly hear?
“Show don’t tell” pisses me off. It’s lazy. It means “understanding how to do a summary passage well and when to use one appropriately is hard so don’t worry your pretty little head about it.” It’s condescending, it’s inaccurate, and it gets picked up a kind of gospel and gold standard of good writing by people who then wander around bopping each other over the head with it without understanding what it means. Dramatize the scenes that should be dramatized, summarize the scenes that should be summarized, skip the scenes that no one reads. Knowing the difference is the job.
With everything you know now, having published four sagas, what do you wish you had known going into it? And what have you learned about the publishing side of the industry?
Publishing isn’t a meritocracy. It’s a casino. We do our best to bend the odds in our favor, and then we roll the dice. Sometimes lousy work does very well in the market. Sometimes brilliant writers are overlooked. It’s not fair, and it’s not meant to be. The trick, I think, is to work like a dog, get as many chips on table as you can, and don’t take failure personally. Everyone I know who’s been in the business more than a few years has had their career collapse under them at least once, and usually more than that. And I know George.
Where do you think the science fiction and fantasy fields are headed?
For fantasy, I think we’re going to keep seeing a lot of grimdark for a while. Folks already think that A Game of Ice and Fire is powerful because it’s violent and grim (as opposed to because it’s a work of profound and deeply-felt sorrow, which I think is it’s secret). And then, in time, I think we’ll grow out of that. There are already some people who are reacting against the idea that by being awful, we’re being realistic, and there will, I expect, be more of them.
Science fiction is at a crossroads, and I don’t know where it’ll go. Either it’s going to become more insular and niche-markety with a more and more stringent set of criteria about to say what is “real” science fiction and what isn’t and so go the way of professional poetry and fusion jazz where it stops mattering to people unless it matters to the totally, or else it will start treating accessibility as a virtue and capitalize on the fact that science fiction is the default narrative in every other medium we’ve got going right now except pop music. And most likely both.
Where do you think publishing itself is headed?
I think distribution is in the middle of a sea-change. The power of the author is going through the roof, and the middle men – agents, publishers, distributors, booksellers – are all feeling the pinch. The big questions I see in the next decade or so are whether anyone manages to get a monopoly over some part of the distribution channels (and I’m thinking of the big online retailers as the most likely to pull that off), and how – and if – a writer who isn’t already established can rise above the noise and start a viable career.
Where else would you like to take your writing before all is said and done?
Oh, I have a list. I’ve got three or four crime thrillers, a semi-literary horror novel, a graphic novel, and some YA stuff all simmering in the back. And we’ll see what I have time for, and what folks want to read.
Is there anything we haven’t yet touched on that you think is important in a discussion of writing overall?
That it needs to be fun, or it’s a bad idea. The money’s unreliable and usually bad. The fame is unpleasant and bruising. If the actual process of sitting down, putting words to paper, and fighting to do it better than you did last time isn’t kind of a giggle, there are better ways to spend a life.
Thanks again Daniel for being gracious enough to perform this interview. I certainly learned a lot of new things, and I found your perspective on branding, writing, and the overall fantasy and science fiction industry very revealing! I look forward to future installments of the Expanse series, and all your upcoming work. I’d love to see that crime thriller of yours!