Interview with Tamora Pierce
Re:Fiction: Tell us a little about your earliest days of writing. What age were you? What kind of fiction did you write? How was it received?
Tamora: I began—it depends on how you calculate such things. I won a writing contest for a local paper in 4th grade and wrote a 20-page retelling of Sleeping Beauty in 6th grade. A few months later my father caught me “telling stories to myself” and suggested I write a book. He even suggested a theme I would like (we shared a lot of reading) and gave me permission to use his typewriter. That’s when I knew he believed in it, so I began to write the stories I wanted to read: adventures with girl heroes. I didn’t finish any at first—that would come much later.
Re:Fiction: When did you realize you’re serious about pursuing a writing career?
Tamora: Not until my senior year in college. I had a very bad case of writer’s block in high school and my freshman and sophomore years, and it wasn’t until after my senior year that I believed again I might be a writer.
Re:Fiction: What was the first piece you ever got published? How hard was it to get your first acceptance?
Tamora: Technically, my first published piece was that 4th grade essay for the local paper—“What Christmas Means to Me.” (I have always reeked at titles.) Next came “Student Teacher” for a women’s romance magazine.
I was on pins and needles for any submission – I was on full scholarship, and I needed the validation of being published. (The same in 4th grade, really.)
Re:Fiction: How do you approach a new writing project? What kind of preparations do you make?
Tamora: Years beforehand, I get an obsession with a time, a topic, an occurrence, or a subject, and I pursue it as hard and as far as I can—books, movies, pictures, people with knowledge of it. Eventually this pile of knowledge connects to others and to characters I have in mind, and I begin to consider these characters in relation to the material I have been obsessing over. I try different combinations to see what works. Once I have a skeleton plot (more typically plots, since I write series) and a basic cast of principals (including opposition), I approach my publisher to pitch the idea.
Re:Fiction: What are your writing habits? Do you have daily or weekly goals? Do you have regular hours? A regular workspace?
Tamora: I used to have writing habits—a set number of pages a day (2 in the beginning, 5 on average, 7-10 near the climax) on bad days break for 20-30 minutes, then butt in chair and no getting up until 1-2 pages are done. Write every day while home. I can’t work while traveling. Then things went haywire with the 5th draft of Numair’s first book (5th!! My normal maximum is 2-3 drafts) and I lost all discipline. I’m slowly trying to get it back. I have an office where I do most of my work for a couple of hours in the morning and then after 3pm. If I’m doing rewrites on manuscripts, I can work on my couch or at the dining table.
Re:Fiction: How do you slog through the challenge of writing a full-length novel? What keeps you going? How do you keep the passion alive?
Tamora: Well, that’s the word, right there: “slog.” Some days it’s like pulling teeth. Some days you toss everything you did the week before. Some days you have to surrender your gaming device to a responsible adult to get anything done. And some days you’re there hammering/scrawling on the page as fast as you can go, cackling, “Good stuff! Good stuff!” I entertain myself first. I have to want to know what my characters will do next or what will happen next—if I’m not fascinated, my readers won’t be, either. I don’t write messages. I write about people doing things that will interest readers as much as they interest me.
Re:Fiction: Do you ever run into writer’s block? If so, what do you do to overcome it? How well does it work?
Tamora: I used to. The worst time, I could only wait it out. I tried other kinds of writing, of course, but for my own fiction I could only wait. Sometimes I blocked because I was worn out—when I had a difficult day job, or after finishing a book draft. Then I waited a bit (or got a new job). And sometimes it was a character refusing to do what I had plotted. Then I had to realize what the problem was, and do what the character wanted me to. It always worked out better anyway.
I worked out more concrete ways to deal with blocks as well: Introducing a new character who changes how the other characters interact; going from 1st person to 3rd; having a disaster of some kind happen (car accident, disease, war—anything to shake people up and show their true selves).
Re:Fiction: Tell us a little bit about publishing bestsellers. What does it take? How can a writer help make it happen?
Tamora: There’s no way to tell if you’re writing a bestseller unless your last 5 books have been bestsellers, and even then it can hit you over the head. You can only do your absolute best, listen to your editor but make your own decision, and try to be as true to yourself and your readers as you can. Don’t write “what will sell.” Don’t write “on trend” unless you genuinely like it and can bring your unique vision. Writers who write what’s popular often come in just as the trend is losing steam and editors are looking for something else. Write your own vision as honestly as you can. You’d be surprised how many others will be open to your unique vision.
Re:Fiction: What is the best tip you can give to new and intermediate writers in general?
Tamora: Keep writing. If one idea gives out on you, go to work on another. The more you do, the longer your work will get, and the better it will get, until you’re finishing projects. Write what entertains you. That will keep you working on a project.
Re:Fiction: What is the best tip you can give to new and intermediate writers in your genre(s)?
Tamora: Keep writing! Everything I just wrote above applies. Also, for both, you know those times when you become obsessed with the American West, or tapestry work, or Catherine de Medici, and you read/watch/find everything you can about those topics for 6-8 months, when suddenly you must learn how to ride Western style, or play Spanish guitar, or spin using a hand spindle, and all the books/CDs/pictures etc. gather dust in your closet and your family and friends say you have no follow-through? That’s your mind laying up ideas for the future. For my fantasy novels I have drawn on the French Foreign Legion, drug wars, epidemic disease, the American war in Vietnam, medieval England and Europe, professional wrestling… You get my drift!
Any time you’re stuck for an idea, think back to those old obsessions, however unrelated they may seem. I guarantee, something there will strike a spark!
Tamora Pierce, thanks so much for sharing your experience and wisdom with us writers!
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