How did you become a writer? When I was six, my dad took me to see STAR WARS. In 1977, kids weren't exposed to a lot of complex narrative. There wasn't cable, there weren't VCRs. I'd never experienced a story with nonlinear telling, multiple PoVs, etc. It set my brain a-fizz. I rushed home, stapled together some scrap paper, and trimmed it to approximately mass-market size. Then I wrote out the Star Wars story, as best as I could remember it, over and over, like a kid practicing scales. It felt *amazing*. I declared on the spot that I would be a writer.
When I was 12, I wrote a fanfic Conan novel. Again, it felt *great*.
At 16, I started sending my stories to magazines. At 17, I sold one.
At 26, I sold one to a "pro" market. At 32, my first novel came out.
At 36, I quit my day-job.
If there's one thing that made me a "writer" and not just a guy who manages to turn out some fiction now and again, it was getting into the habit of writing every day, whether I felt "inspired" or not.
People had told me that this was important all my life, but it took me about 15 years to actually take it seriously and realize how magic it was.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). I went to SEED, a great alternative high school in Toronto where anthologist, writer and editor Judith Merril had once-upon-a-time set up a writing workshop on the lines of the Clarion workshop. Though she did this ten years before I started school there, the workshop was still going, thanks to the English teacher there, Harriet Wolff. That format really worked for me.
Judy Merril was still around, serving as writer-in-residence at the science fiction reference library that she founded (then called the Spaced-Out Library, now called the Merril Collection). She put me together with a group of other writers called the Cecil Street Irregulars and we continued to workshop in much the same format. Some of the other writers from that workshop include Karl Schroeder and Dave Nickle and Mike Skeet (and, more recently, Peter Watts and Madeline Ashby).
In 1992, at 21, I went to the Clarion Workshop, where I had a number of excellent teachers. There was one piece of advice that galvanized me, though: James Patrick Kelly praised me for being very clever and excoriated me for being merely clever and not tapping into the emotion that underpins real fiction. It took me five years to figure that out.
I was also particularly struck by Damon Knight's account of how he'd written a novel quickly by skipping the "boring parts" that connected the "fun parts," intending to go back and fill those in later. When he went back to fill those in, he realized that good books don't have boring parts, and he was done.
Finally, my Clarion experience exposed me to AJ Budrys's notion of a "7-point plot outline," which has stuck with me as the minimum narrative trick necessary to get people to read along no matter what.
After Clarion, my most serious influence has probably been my editor at Tor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who has an absolute knack for finding the two or three really key places where a story can be moved just a few inches one way or the other to make it all SNAP together.
When and where do you write? When I'm working on a fiction project (or a major, multi-day nonfiction project, like a paper or a book), I set a daily word-count target and write it "first thing" (which is to say, first thing after I've gotten up, gotten through the overnight correspondence, cued up the day's blog posts, fed the family, dropped the kid off at day-care, picked up mail at the PO Box, gone to the office, done my backup, watered the plants and emptied the Roomba). I just apply ass to seat and fingers to keyboard and write it.
I spend a lot of time on the road (and used to spend more) and I burned out the habit/addiction to requiring anything apart from a keyboard and a moment in order to write. I wrote a novel last fall at 2K words/day, which was really punishing, especially since I was on a ton of book-tours in Germany, Switzerland, etc, through that time. Basically I sat down and typed every time I had a moment where someone wasn't asking me to talk to them. I'd get up and type, type in the breakfast room, type in the taxi, type while waiting to give a lecture, type on the way back to the taxi, etc.
What are you working on now? In the past 15 months or so, I've finished three novels and a nonfic book, as well as about 4 novellas, 4 shorts, and a major nonfiction paper. Now I'm dealing with a lot of "production" type stuff on these -- copyedits, revisions, etc.
I'm about to start work on a novella for Neal Stephenson's anthology aimed at inspiring people to get involved with private space exploration. Mine's about Burning Man hackers who build a 3D printer that can run on gypsum dust, who modify it to work with lunar regolith. They land it on the Moon and spend the next generation or so directing its action from Earth, while it prints out a lunar habitat that their descendants can occupy.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Five years' worth. Right after Clarion. Couldn't finish ANYTHING. Ended up seeing a hypnotherapist for a few sessions -- a really good guy, not at all woo-woo. He was a GP-turned-ER doc who then took up psychiatry before moving into clinical hypnosis. Four or five sessions and I was writing like a fool. A year later, I won the Campbell Award for best new writer at the Hugos.
What’s your advice to new writers? Write every day. Habits are things you get for free, without requiring any special work. Set a daily word target. Make it small. 75 words a day is a novel a year. Finish in the middle of a sentence, so you can type three or four words the next day without having to be "creative." Don't get in the habit of only writing when there's some ritual that's been satisfied -- the right music, a clean apartment, whatever.
Especially don't get in the habit of writing while smoking or boozing. Don't hook the thing that makes you sane and whole to something that's killing you. Write even when you feel like it's shit. You can't tell what's good and what's bad while you're writing it. Don't ever rewrite until the whole thing is done. Once you start thinking about what you're writing, you lose the ability to stop writing it.
Bio: Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger -- the co-editor of Boing Boing (boingboing.net) and the author of the bestselling Tor Teens/HarperCollins UK novel LITTLE BROTHER. His latest novel is FOR THE WIN, a young adult novel; his latest short story collection is WITH A LITTLE HELP.