Author interview: Deborah J Miller

Welcome to the latest SFX author interview, featuring more tips and advice for aspiring writers. Whether you're penning a story for our Pulp Idol 2008 competition, or working on your first novel, we've been able to get a variety of industry insiders to offer their guidance on the writing life.

We continue this week with Deborah J Miller , fantasy author of works such as the new Swarmthief Trilogy (and also the Last Clansman trilogy, in the guise of her pen name Miller Lau). We put our questionnaire about getting into fiction to her.

SFX: What's the biggest mistake that inexperienced writers make when trying to break into the SF scene?
"The biggest mistake is not reading SF. Thinking that having read one Arthur C Clarke book when they were young, informs them of what the genre is like currently. There are so many fantastic SF authors out there now… You always have to bring something new to the mix, something that is essentially you – but in order to do so, you have to know what others are doing."

SFX: How do you grab the reader's attention at the start of a story?
"Dive straight in. Don't spend lots of time 'throat-clearing.' When you're finished with your story, take a long hard look at it and ask yourself honestly whether the first two or three paragraphs could go, without detriment to the story. If they are mostly scene-setting, just cut them down or out – in a short story you don't have words to spare. If they contain vital information or clues, ask yourself if that information could be given in a more entertaining way – 'drip-fed' if you like."

SFX: Do you have a personal tip for overcoming writer's block?
"There are many tricks for addressing the problem of so-called writer's block. Primarily, get words (any words) on page . Yes, very obvious, but I'm really not being facetious here – the act of writing involves moving ideas and information from your subconscious mind to your conscious mind, to that extent, writing can be a learned skill. So, let your mind go, relax, have fun! Nothing is really wasted and you can always edit later… People are often terribly self-conscious about their words, as if they are a BBC announcer or something – just please yourself in the first instance."

"My own secret weapon is a phrase. If I am really stuck on a scene or short story, I type this: 'It was raining.' Rain can be so emotive of mood, so in contrast to mood… I believe some actors employ a similar 'key' method that brings them into 'the zone.' Of course, rain might not work for you… get your own key!"

How much do you need to plan a story, or can you just sit down and bash one out if you've got a good idea?
"The joy of short stories is that they are, essentially, idea-driven. So, to some extent, you can just get a kind of instant gratification. Of course, that doesn't absolve the author from effort on all the important elements of the story, such as characterisation, dialogue and narrative style. But you can get your core idea down, hot and fast and then, re-draft, emphasise aspects of the story you particularly want to draw out, think about pace and view-point and so on."

SFX: Do your characters ever take on a life of their own and deviate from your original intention?
"I'm not sure I really believe in this: I think what's really happening when writers describe this is that their subconscious mind is telling them that they are attempting to do something contrary to the character they have worked so hard to establish… the character will literally be acting 'out of character.' In a way, that's a good sign because it means you are wholly convinced by your own creation. On the other hand, I did have a conversation with an author once who swore she 'lived with' her characters; kind of like ghosts! In summary then, I'd say if you have that feeling, examine it carefully and ask yourself why – it may reveal a forthcoming plot hole."

SFX: Commitment is a personal quality a novelist must need. Can you think of any others?
"A fine balance between self-confidence and self-doubt. Self-confidence and a thick skin, because writing can be a harsh business and anything you put out there can be picked apart/opined upon by anyone and everyone. Self-doubt, because you should never believe you have arrived and can rest upon your laurels. Writing is a process of constant learning, reading, listening and improving. Be your own first critic – but remember to be kind to yourself too!"

SFX: Are there any tips you've discovered for finishing a story well? How do you go about giving anything you write a brilliant ending?
"A strong last sentence. Poignant is always good – make the reader go 'ah' and they'll remember your story."

SFX: Is it a good idea to join a writer's group, a local workshop, or go on a course?
"Yes, very much so. Even if the members of the group are writing vastly different stuff from your own, it's still great to spend time with other writers. Also, writing the exercises which may be set in a workshop can be a good discipline; even if the topic doesn't inspire you at first glance, have a go – you might be pleasantly surprised. I am currently a 'writer in residence', and this sort of role is often attached to an institution but my post has been teaching around writing groups in my two local counties. It has been a great experience and reminded me of the pleasure people do get from the craft – it's been good to get back in touch with that, as when you treat writing as your business, sometimes you forget why you love it so much. Also, I was reminded that people write for a whole host of reasons, not just publication (catharsis, fun, to keep an active mind) and any motivation is just as likely to produce talent as any other and is equally valid. I do encourage all my writers to enter competitions like Pulp Idol, as I think they are a positive experience, even when you don't win…"

Thanks Deborah!

Find out more about Deborah J Miller (and Miller Lau) at her official website here: . Also check out her publisher's site, .

You'll get more author, agent and publisher interviews every week 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!