Author interview: Richard Lee Byers

Are you ready to enter you short SF story in our Pulp Idol competition ? For the last two years, SFX has been running a short story competition, and has given away two volumes of the results on the news-stand. It proved so popular, that we are of course running it for a third year running, and to help you on your way we spoke to a number of people from the SF publishing world to get their insight into the business. What are their tips and tricks for writing fantastic stories? Even if you're not entering the competition, but have aspirations to become a novelist or even a screenwriter, some of the guidance here will be of use to you.

You can read all the best snippets of advice summarised in the pages of SFX magazine, but here online we're uploading a full interview each week. First up is Richard Lee Byers , the US author of over 30 fantasy novels. He writes in the Forgotten Realms corner of the Dungeons & Dragons universe - the Dungeons & Dragons people are the kind sponsors of this year's competition - and more information about his novels can be found at www.richardleebyers.com .

SFX: What advice do you have on how to grab the reader's attention at the start of a story? How do you do this in your work?
"There's more than one way, but for me, the most reliable way is to open with characters in action, doing or saying something interesting. In my experience (I taught writing for a while), a common beginner mistake is to feel that you have to open with exposition, explaining all the background of the story so the reader will fully understand the action when at last it commences. This is exactly backwards. If the start of a story is intriguing, readers will stick with you even if they don't entirely understand it. If the start is dull, as exposition right out of the gate is all too likely to be, then readers will give up on the story no matter how informative you're being."

SFX: What experience do readers get out of good fantasy fiction?
"I suppose that all good fantasy delivers a sense of wonder and the exotic. Beyond that, it depends on the particular type of fantasy. Comic fantasy makes us laugh, adventure fantasy delivers suspense and excitement, and dark fantasy chills us."

SFX: Do you have a tip for overcoming writer's block? Are there tricks for getting you back on track if you lose the flow of the story?
"I've never had writer's block, It's possible that I don't get it because I make myself work on a very regular schedule, just like other people are obliged to work at their jobs. This makes it feel like the natural thing for me to be doing when my routine says it's time for another session. But I certainly have had stories where I got stuck because I didn't know what should happen next. Here are some tricks for dealing with that...
1. If it happens to you a lot, outline. Outlining won't prevent the problem one hundred percent of the time, because sometimes you'll have a plot development that seemed perfectly logical in the synopsis, yet later on, you realize it makes no sense at all. But outlining will help get you to the finish line quite a bit of the time.
2. When you're stuck, reread what you already wrote. You may find you tossed in something early on that can provide a solution to your plot problem. Or, you may find that you're stuck now because actually, the story took a wrong turn a while back. When that turns out to be the case, start again from the point where you made the bad choice.
3. Try writing a letter to yourself about the story. This is a way to get yourself to take a fresh look at it.
4. Try writing the next part in a different way. If you normally work on a computer, dictate it or write it longhand. Again, this is a trick that may start your brain working in a different and helpful way.
5. Give yourself permission to write garbage and just crank the words out, without worrying about the quality. If what comes out is awful, you can always throw it away. But this is another way to jolt yourself into thinking about the story differently, and sometimes the most effective way to learn how the next scene ought to go is to set down a version that doesn't work."

SFX: How do you keep yourself motivated to keep writing when it seems to get difficult?
"Over the years, I've trained myself to keep to my schedule whether the writing's coming easily or not, so for me, discipline takes the place of motivation as the latter is commonly understood. I don't want to suggest that for me, there's no joy in the creative process, or that there shouldn't be for others. That's far from the case. But people who want to complete stories on a regular basis and have a professional career are sabotaging themselves if they think of writing as something they can only do when inspiration has taken them to some exalted state of consciousness. You need to be able to do it day after day and week after week, whether you particularly feel like it or not."

SFX: Does having a deadline help you write, or is it better to have all the time in the world?
"Deadlines help me get projects finished and manage my time so as to have as productive a year as possible. In fact, they help so much that if I'm doing something on spec, I'll often create a deadline for myself."

SFX: It seems to be a common complaint of authors that characters take on a life of their own, and often deviate wildly from the original plan. Is that true for you, and how do you deal with it?
"Honestly, that's not true for me. I generally create characters who are good fits for their roles in the story, and they perform as required. Now, that's not to say that I don't learn surprising new things about them in the course of writing them. I do, and sometimes they end up significantly different than I expected. But not so different as to screw up the plot."

SFX: What advice do you have for somebody starting out as a writer who's had nothing published yet, perhaps is getting discouraged by rejections? What should they do?
"First, you simply have to persevere. Some of the most successful writers in the world collected heaps of rejections before making a sale. It can help you hang tough if you recognize that a rejection isn't some sort of final judgment on your talent. It's simply the statement that one particular editor chose not to buy one particular story on one particular day."

"Second, make an honest effort to learn the craft and business of writing. I hesitate to recommend writing classes and writer's groups, because while there are some good ones, there are some bad ones, too, that will waste your time and even give you bad information. But there are a number of successful fiction writers who've written useful how-to books. I read some of these when I was starting out, and they helped me quite a bit. You might want to check out Writing Bestselling Fiction, by Dean Koontz, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, by Lawrence Block, and Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, also by Block. And by all means, read 'Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses,' by Mark Twain."

SFX: How hard is it to write within an established universe (that of Dungeons & Dragons)? What challenges do you find working within a publisher's guidelines?
"I find that either it comes easily, or it doesn't come at all. With the Forgotten Realms, I've never had any trouble. With certain other franchise universes, I struggled endlessly and never came up with a proposal. And it wasn't because I hated those universes. I didn't. But for some reason, I couldn't make up stories derived from their underlying assumptions. Anyway, I suspect that if you do in fact despise the franchise, you'll have a difficult time coming up with a story that will please its fans, and you may be better off working on something else."

"If you do work on a franchise, it helps to be a flexible team player. If you have a killer idea for a novel set in the Kingdom of the Green Mammoths, and some other writer has already booked the Kingdom of the Green Mammoths for his epic trilogy that year, you need to be able to toss your idea without undue gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and move on to another premise. Also, if your editor asks you for a book dealing with a particular land, situation, or type of character, you want to be capable of cooking up something that fits the parameters. That's how you keep getting new assignments. You need to have a sense of the sort of stories that are likely to fly."

"Many franchises are based partly on big, ongoing conflicts. Your first impulse as a writer may be to write the epic saga of how one of these conflicts gets resolved. But that may well be exactly the story the publisher does not want, because it uses up an element of the setting that could otherwise drive many other novels or game scenarios besides yours. Star Trek, for example, would have lost a lot of story potential if they'd done an episode where they killed off all the Klingons. The longer you work in a setting, the more the folks in charge will trust you, and the time may come when you get to tell a big story that changes the shared universe in a fundamental way. But if that happens, you'll work on your plot in consultation with the caretakers of the franchise, and they'll have to sign off on what you do."

SFX: Who are your personal inspirations - who did you read in your formative years?
"The following is a partial (I'm sure I'm forgetting somebody) list of writers who inspired me when I was a kid. Some of them I have trouble rereading today, but I'm still grateful for the pleasure they gave me back then, and I don't think it's a damning comment to say that some authors are best appreciated by readers of a certain age. Anyway: Fritz Leiber, Robert E Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, CL Moore, Karl Edward Wagner, Lord Dunsany, JRR Tolkien, Jack Vance, A Merritt, Roger Zelazny, Alexandre Dumas, Raymond Chandler, L Sprague de Camp, Dashiell Hammett, Poul Anderson, HG Wells."

SFX: If you could pass on one single tip about writing fantasy to a new writer, what would it be?
"The most important piece of advice is to persevere, but I already said that. So what I'll say here is that it's useful to read widely, and not just in the genre. If you read other types of fiction, you'll pick up tricks that even your favorite fantasy writer may not teach you. And if you read non-fiction, you'll learn interesting things you can use in your stories."

Thanks Richard!

Find out more about Richard Lee Byers at his official website here . Check out our sponsors, and his publishers, the good folk of the Dungeons & Dragons universe .

You'll get more author, agent and publisher interviews every week at www.sfx.co.uk while the Pulp Idol 2008 competition runs. We've spoken to loads of big names from the world of SF writing and they've kindly given us their tips and advice for aspiring science fiction and fantasy authors. Check back here regularly, and also look out for our writing features in the pages of SFX 169, 170 and 171.

We're celebrating a summer of SF reading on SFX this year, so watch out for bonus book-based features in SFX magazine and on the website too!