Fantastic interview with fantastic Fantasy Author! Go Carol Berg!
Welcome to The Talkative Writer’s guest post with American fantasy author Carol Berg.
Carol majored in mathematics at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado, so she wouldn’t have to write papers. But somewhere in the middle of a software engineering career, she started writing for fun. The habit ate her life. Carol’s epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. They’ve been read, so readers tell her, on five continents, on a submarine under the Mediterranean, in the war zone of Iraq, and on the slopes of Denali.
Her newest novel, Dust and Light, is the first of a new fantasy/mystery duology about a sorcerer who draws portraits of the dead. Publishers Weekly calls it “a captivating and satisfying fantasy epic” and RT Book Reviews names it “outstanding.” Carol lives in Colorado…
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I’ll sound a little cocky for a minute here. Forgive me. But I write great characters. Man, that sounds so arrogant, doesn’t it? Well, I work my ass off on my characters, in fact my entire way of writing is built around them. My stories are character driven.
What does that mean, exactly? I feel like the term is misused quite a bit. Most people think it means the story is about the character. No, that’s a character study. Character driven, as I define it anyway (there are no hard or fast rules here, people), means the characters drive the story. The choices the characters make determine what happens in the story. Since I never plot my novels, I simply let the character’s motivations, their dreams, their desires, their internal needs, even obsessions, tell me how the story will go.
So how to make these characters come to life and tell their stories? I believe the most important thing is to make them unique, distinct from each of the other characters you write. Clearly define who they are. Let’s step back and give an example. I’m a self professed Star Trek nerd, both the Original Series and The Next Generation and spin-offs. While TNG is my favorite show of all time, I wanna talk about two characters from TOS to help define what makes distinctive characters.
Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are the two most iconic Star Trek characters in existence. Why is that? Because they are so well defined and readily identifiable. Everyone knows who Spock is. Pointy ears, uses logic, bam, you got a character! Now, lucky for us, they spent time to develop him and flesh out his characteristics and Spock has become one of the deepest, most intriguing characters around. What’s great about Spock is that you can always count on him being Spock. Many times in TOS his stubborn, block headed logic is often what saves the day.
Then we have Kirk. Arrogant, wicked smart, womanizing, risk taking Captain James Tiberious Kirk. This dude doesn’t mess around. He takes risks, improvising whatever it takes to protect his crew and his beloved ship. We know we can rely on Kirk do what is necessary to protect The Enterprise, being a cocky bastard along the way. I could go on with these two but you get the idea.
So how do we do this as writers, how do we make our characters well defined and memorable? The first step is making them distinct. Hell, that’s most of it. I know there’s a big desire with many writers to fit a character into an archetype, like Wise Mentor for example. Gandolf is a wise mentor. I’m not a big fan of doing this. At first. If your character turns into this over the course of the story, fine. But trying to fit them into a box before you even know them is a mistake. This leads to clichés.
What kind of person are they? Are they angry? Shy? Cocky? Arrogant? Passive aggressive? Get into their head with their point of view and find out. Then discover their motivations, why they do what they do, and what they want to happen in their life. Are they bitter, disillusioned? Full of hope?
What kind of dialogue they use is another huge step towards defining them as characters and also making them distinct. Character dialogue must be different with each character! This is one of the must frustrating things I ever experience as a writer, to see vastly different characters speaking with the same words and same patterns of speech. Listen to how people talk in real life. There are different dialects, word usage, vocabulary, educational levels with each character written. Display this disparity and your characters have a chance to feel real.
There’s more, much more, and I’ll leave it for another post. Fitting these characters into a story, where each of their individual motivations vie for control of their world, while all the others attempt to do the same? This is where real conflict arises and thus, exciting stories.
In the last eight years, since around the middle of 2005, I’ve written ten full novels, three screenplays, one teleplay and several short stories. In total, I’ve cleared well over TWO MILLION words in that time. That’s right, 2,000,000, with six zeroes. Impressed yet? Don’t be. I have no social life.
And if you are asking how I’ve been able to knock out so many words, I have a very simple answer: I chose to do it. That’s all it is. If you are a writer, or aspiring writer, you must chose to do it. If you aren’t writing everyday than you are choosing to do something else with your time. It’s that simple.
Sound harsh? Too bad. That’s reality. I know it’s a daunting task, to write. Everyday. Over and over. But there is a certain amount of conditioning involved, much like exercising your body, that must be put into daily writing. The discipline I gained from being an athlete for most of my life has paid dividends now as a writer.
I took much of the structure of my daily writing from Stephen King’s On Writing and I can’t recommend this non-fiction book from the master of horror highly enough. There, I used an adverb. Ironic because King hates them. I agree but I couldn’t resist in this case. His 2,000 words per day output is the way to go. Read the book. It’s motivating, it’s inspiring. Before then I had written two novels that I never finished. Once I finished King’s book, I haven’t stopped writing since.
Let me be more specific. The same as Stephen King and another horror writer Dean Koontz, I never plot. I have an idea, one that most times has been simmering and gestating within this head of mine (look, it ain’t pretty but it works) and must be unleashed to the world. I make notes and then come back to them later. Sometimes they are good ideas, some times crap. The ones that stick, that twist and turn in my mind over and over are the ones that stay and become novels.
It’s funny because before I ever finished a single one I thought I only had so many inside me ready to write. And once I completed those that would be that. No more. The opposite has happened. The more I write, the more ideas I have. Various series expand and grow on their own. It’s awesome.
So back to being specific on the day to day. I write every first draft in notebooks by hand. Yep, I’m old school. I write ten pages a day, roughly 1500 words. Not quite 2K but oh well. The first draft can be harder because I don’t know where it’s going so ten pages just feels right to me. It’s a nice clean number. Then I let the book sit for at least a couple of months. That’s right, I don’t read it right away. Never. It’s a bad idea so don’t do it! Most of the time I leap frog novels, i.e. I write one until it’s finished, begin writing another a week or so later then go back to the first with a fresh perspective.
For the rewrite I do it all on the computer, 2K per day, everyday. It’s easier because I know the story now after having told it to myself in the first draft. Second draft is telling he story to the world. Then I try to get as much feedback as I can and do a third draft polish, checking for “wishy washy” language and typos. This part is a pain in the neck but I’ve made my peace with it. It’s part of the process so must be done. I do more polishing after that but you have to be careful with too much. Sometimes you must sit back and declare, it’s finished!
So, what are you waiting for? Go write!
People always ask writers where they get their story ideas from. I always say, “I only write what the voices tell me to….”
That’s pretty much true. Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard once stated that when he wrote Conan stories the massive barbarian was behind him while he typed, holding an axe to his neck, forcing him to dictate his life story. The stories were there, whole and developed, ready to be plucked off the tree once they were ripe. I feel the same way, that stories are already living on their own, floating in the ether, ready for writers to discover them and flesh them out for readers to enjoy. Or lambast. They don’t always come out right.
If I had to pick the two most influential writers for me as a novelist I would say Robert E. Howard and Edgar Allan Poe. Each created a new genre never before seen. Poe is credited with created the detective story and fans of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie have him to thank for all the hours of enjoyment reading those characters inspired by Poe’s Dupin. Howard created the sub-genre of fantasy called Sword and Sorcery. And Poe was the progenitor of so many horror writers there are too numerous to mention here. Poe was the King of Goth.
Both were brave men. In this current age where branding yourself as a writer of a particular genre is paramount to sell books, to go against the grain and write outside what your readers or publisher expect is dangerous. You take the chance on alienating your audience with “something different.” Well, boo-hoo. I respect writers who take risks and not only cross genres but write outside their genres when the Muse moves them towards something different. What’s the big deal? I’m influenced by a lot of things. Books, movies, television shows, video games, people I meet, friends I’ve known from the past.
A good story is a good story. I write about people. The particular genre is simply the setting, with familiar attributes within that setting that, when written well with characters and their story first and foremost, only enhance the story we are attempting to tell. Simple. Genres are a way to categorize these stories so the marketing people know where to put them on the shelves. And to make it easier for the reader to find but I feel like it’s too indoctrinating. Break out, people! Yes. Break out and read something you never thought you would read before.
And all you writers, break out and read outside your genre for the betterment of your own writing. It will give it depth and trim away clichés associated with the genre you find yourself writing in. Your influences do and should come from a variety of sources. It will only make your writing better.
I had the pleasure and luck to hear Ray Bradbury speak in person a few years ago at the Venice Beach Library in Los Angeles. When his family moved to L.A. as a young man, he said he got most of his “education” at the library. He went there and read. And read and read and read some more. Then, inspired by such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, he began to write. I think it’s really that simple for a lot of writers, myself included.
I’ve always loved to read. This was in part instilled in me by both my parents. My mom would encourage me to read and also read to me when I was very young. My dad had a ton of books lying around the house and after he died it was with a sense of impeding excitement that I picked up books he owned and read them. I connected with him through these books more than I ever did while he was alive. He read the same words I did and that became a very special ritual to me.
Like most fantasy authors, I discovered The Hobbit and its legendary sequel The Lord of the Rings when I was young, twelve years old. I read The Hobbit and immediately devoured Lord of the Rings right after. It changed my life. I became, in that fell swoop, a complete and utter Fantasy Geek.
I continued my education by reading every single fantasy and science fiction novel I could get my hands on. Forgotten Realms, Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Piers Anthony, I read and read and read some more. I filled my brain with creative content. I went to college for four years at Indiana University, graduating with a B.A. in English in ’99 but this formal education is a mere trifling compared to the countless hours I’ve spent devouring other people’s stories and learning from them. Edgar Allan Poe, combined with the grit and power of Howard’s tales of the mighty Conan the Commerian, were the biggest influences on my own style.
I never realized this until I finished my second novel, Exile. All those gothic undertones, twisted corridors, dark, dank hallways and madmen, the Undead come to haunt the living, themes of insanity and murder, all came from Poe while the action I invigorate my work with comes from the visceral punch of Howard. I have read much more from other writers but no two can be said to have inspired my sense of the macabre in a greater way.
What allowed me the discipline to write everyday? To crank out ten novels in a little less than eight years? A combination of a few things, turning thirty years old one of them. They sense of “what am I doing with my life?” came into play and motivated me to get serious about my writing. Like many writers, it began with spurts and false starts. Before I completed and published my first novel there were two that I never finished. In hindsight I am thankful I didn’t finish them because they were not very good. Full of clichés, mediocre writing and poor structure, they did allow me to get some of that nonsense out of my system. You can’t be afraid to be bad when you write. At first, most of us are crap. Work through it, get better, keep working. Hemingway said all beginning writers should toss away their early work and I agree with him. Use it as a testing ground to improve.
There were some books on writing that helped me educate myself further, most notably The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and On Writing by Stephen King. Cameron’s daily pages got me conditioned to write everyday and King’s tool box and structural coaching helped give me a way to do it all. Two thousand words a day until it’s done, that’s how I do it. I’ll go into greater detail in a later post about my routine for writing but suffice it to say you must read a lot and write a lot. That’s huge. Plus, reading books on writing and watching videos with other writers talking about their work or joining online writing communities, all these help and at the very least through osmosis you will gain something.
But nothing helps develop your craft more than the act of creating it.
I’ve named this blog “Monsters and Magic” because I believe these two elements are a common component to the fantasy genre. Too general? Then add the idea that fantasy adventure also contains a temporal condition that does not include a contemporary setting and you’ve got what makes fantasy what it is.
Are there fantasy stories that take place in a current time period? Certainly. But let us make the distinction this is more urban fantasy, a sub genre that seems to be gaining momentum. I have no problem with it, but I feel the classification demands a clearer set of rules governing the specifics of fantasy adventure. American Film Institute recently did a list of the Top Ten Fantasy Films of all time and the list included It’s a Wonderful Life and Back to the Future. Incredible films for certain and there is the fantastical within these stories but this is the not the fantasy I write nor would they be classified as such by most of the writers within this genre currently working today.
So let it be said Fantasy Adventure is what I mean; Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones are current examples. The Forgotten Realms fantasy setting, Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy, these are the foundations of the pure fantasy worlds which are populated by both the mundane, man with a sword, and the magical, giant with a club, wizard with a staff.
I’ve always loved monsters, in any shape or form. One of the first words I ever uttered was “mono” rather than “mom”, as this was my word for monsters, the only approximation my two year old mouth could speak to call out to the world what excited me like nothing else. I loved monsters and still do. Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, are all classic examples. At its most basic level, this fascination with the macabre and all things horrific adds to the depth that good fantasy adventure can and does well.
Within the science fiction genre, we discover this element of horror as well. Think of Alien, The Terminator, two sci-fi films that develop the idea of a ravaging monster; the alien, the terminator, these unstoppable killing machines that can only be stopped by our hero’s great resolve. Tolkien was smart enough to inject monsters into his fantasy world as well. Trolls and orcs, goblins and the Balrog, an unstoppable killing machine from the depths of hell only the stalwart wizard Gandalf can confront. Whereas one genre, science fiction, utilizes science and technology to battle their monsters, fantasy heroes must use the magic of a wizard or the strong arm of a knight to strike down their foes. But make no mistake, these monsters are the enemy and for each genre to use their individual tropes to best effect, the heroes must function within the rules of their particular world.
So that it is Science for the future ‘space man’, Magic for the fantasy wizard. These specific tools allow our heroes to conquer their enemies but I believe the specific genre is a mere trapping. A good story is a good story and my novels, while fantasy adventure in the strictest sense (along with strong elements of horror), could take place anywhere and at any time and work well.
So if you have some monsters, demons, orcs, ogres, goblins, trolls, what have you, and magic, wizards casting spells, weapons imbued with powerful properties that science today says is impossible, all taking place in a fantasy world not of a contemporary nature, you’ve got the basic structure of the fantasy genre.
In the future I will break down each component in greater detail and why they are important to distinguish this genre from others but this is the basic understanding of what makes fantasy the genre it is.