Candace Robb, author of medieval historical books including her Owen Archer series, took a stab at my five questions this month and provided me with plenty new to think about. My biggest takeaway from our conversation? Besides things I learned, I realized I really want to read more of her books! And there are plenty to read, so if you haven’t started I suggest you do. I’ll be digging into another soon. Not that I can know without time traveling, but her medieval world has the authentic feel of someone who has researched it deeply enough to make it her own.
What is your favorite book about the craft of writing? Why?
Candace: I want to mention two, one that was recommended to me by an agent I worked with for a brief time, my first intensive professional relationship: The Craft of Writing by William Sloane (Norton 1979). It’s short, readable, and filled with wisdom from his long career as an editor. His focus is on the relationship between the writer and the reader. The goal is to create an illusion of reality for the reader and not break it, which is why he emphasizes sticking to one POV per scene. The moment the reader becomes confused about who is thinking the illusion is destroyed for them. The second book is Wired For Story by Lisa Cron. She makes use of brain science to teach the writer how to hook readers. Essentially, we read to make sense of our world, to learn what might happen, to try out experiences. Our job is to engage a reader’s emotions. She has great checkpoints throughout. I recommend her clever contents pages for a sense of the book.
Sarah: I had to go and look at the ‘clever contents pages’ in Wired for Story to see what you meant. Wow! The table of contents has practical teasers for each chapter that can be applied right away. This is so great!
What do you like most about writing a first draft?
Candace: As someone who changes course, revises, rewrites, over and over in the first draft, I spend more than 75% of my time with a book in this long stage. I discover the story as I write, jotting down ideas then returning to the beginning when I’m confident I know how to revise it and move forward. It’s a dance of two steps forward, back to base, three steps forward, back to base. Gradually the “base” is farther along in the story. Even so, the beginning often changes in the second draft. So you can imagine that what gives me the greatest joy is that moment when I first type *the end*.
There are other joyous moments along the way, particularly as the story becomes clear to me. I was quite far into the book that’s now with my editor, A Fox in the Fold, when I realized I was wrong about the identity of the catalyst and saw that I’d inadvertently set up a far more satisfying story than what I’d planned. I thought my heart would burst. I wrote like a madwoman after that until, towards the end, I thought I’d written myself into a corner. I knew my sleuth, Owen Archer, would not embark on the path I’d laid out for him. So I sat down with him and asked for his advice. He was more than happy to oblige, sketching out an ending that required I go back a few steps. Everything clicked into the place after that.
Sarah: I loved our conversation about this second part, especially – that you could discover that you, the author, have been wrong about a particular character all along. It was a relief to me, not yet a published novelist, to learn that I wasn’t the only one. And it’s also one of the fun things about writing, to really be in conversation with the characters and the story.
And thank you for the teaser title…I have so much reading to do before I get there 😬
What is your favorite part of revision?
Candace: Once I’ve spun the tale to the end, I read through the manuscript noting places where I want to add more feeling or description of the setting, seed subtle clues, remove what serves no purpose, add a scene that enriches a character. I love the feeling of seeing it all clearly and diving in to realize my vision.
What book (not about writing) are you reading right now or have you recently finished that you would recommend to others? Why?
Candace: I’m reading Robin Hobb’s Golden Fool, the 2nd book in The Tawny Man Trilogy, which is the 3rd trilogy of The Realm of the Elderlings. Each book is long, so each trilogy is a commitment in time, and yet I dread the day when I’ve read all the trilogies, chronicles, short stories and novellas in the series. How can something so time-consuming appeal? It’s the characters, how each and every one is written with depth and subtlety, how they grow and change, how vividly all the various cultures are portrayed, the magic, the politics, the art. As a writer of series myself, I admire her ability to make me care about all of these imaginary people living in an imaginary world and thrill to be reacquainted with them in later books.
Sarah: This had me laughing in part because I love how the word trilogy has expanded over the years, so much that this trilogy of trilogies is almost banal. But I’m glad you pointed to another important element of literature – the potential and the journey for each character to grow and change (or somehow not). I’ve just finished a book (The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa) in which what appeared to be the main character was really a catalyst for growth and relationship building for all the apparent side characters. Now I’m excited to dig into Hobb!
Can you give an example of how you have been kind to someone else recently, in real life or through one of your characters?
Candace: I’ve been inspired by the Dalai Lama’s answer that his religion is very simple, it’s kindness. I try to make that my default in interactions, particularly prickly ones. It doesn’t mean being insincere, but instead finding a way to say or behave kindly, not to wound. It can be a challenge, particularly on Twitter, because snarky comments are fun. So I’m particularly careful on social media, and I write a great deal that no one ever sees.
Sarah: Thank you! I’m so glad you mention that which “no one ever sees.” It’s like our thoughts, isn’t it? Our minds may come up with things, but we need not share them all. It’s why I’ve focused the questions I ask on the positive; not because we don’t have negative things to say about writing but that they are less helpful than the positive. Kindness works the same way.