Mercedes Lackey

How did you become a writer?

Like the majority of the writers I know, I always made up stories. It made me very popular as a babysitter, to the point where I actually had to turn down jobs! You might almost say these were my first paid writing gigs.

I was first published in my junior high and high school literary magazines, and continued to write through college and beyond, discovering fanfiction shortly after graduation. In the early 80s I made up my mind that I was going to try to get professionally published, and began submitting seriously. Although my first sale was to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Friends of Darkover anthologies, my first published story was in Fantasy Book magazine around 1982.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

Influences were Marion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, Vera Chapman, Theodore Sturgeon, Alan Nourse, Tolkien, T.H. White, and Thomas Burnett Swan. C.J. Cherryh became my personal mentor around 1982, and probably shaved about five years off my development time.

The Well-Tempered Sentence and The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon.

The best general book on writing that I have found is Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing.

When and where do you write? 

I'm a night owl; my writing day starts about 6 PM and ends about 6 AM, although some of that is devoted to answering email, writing answers on, a little for hobbies, and about a 2-3 hour slot of sharing TV, dinner and bird-time (we have a dozen parrots) with my husband Larry Dixon. I have my own office at the back of the house where it is quiet, I use two monitors, one of them huge, with a zero-gravity chair and my keyboard on a lap desk. There is generally a parrot with me most of the time; they usually pretty good about staying out of the way, although I have lost about half a dozen wired mice to someone dashing down off my shoulder to snip a wire if I'm not alert.

What are you working on now? 

An Elemental Masters book, The Case of the Spellbound Child for DAW, an "Elves on the Road" book for Baen, tentatively called Shattered Silence, a classic fantasy for Disney/Hyperion Briarheart, and a superhero teen book, ECHO High.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

I don't believe writer's block exists. I believe (and my experience bears that out) is that "writer's block"--when it's not mental exhaustion due to overwork or depression--is merely your subconscious telling you that the direction you had planned to take next in your book is the wrong one and putting a stop to the writing process before you make some major mistakes that will ruin the book. It could be you are forcing the plot to go in a direction that is neither satisfying nor logical. It could be that in order to make a plot point you are forcing characters to act out of character, or forcing them to make decisions that are on every face of it, stupid ones, without having a good reason for them to make those stupid decisions. But whatever the reason for the "block" is, all you have to do to break it is to back up in the manuscript to the last place where you were writing freely and make an analysis of where you've been to that point and a new decision about where it should go from there. Once you start writing freely again (including if you have to go all the way back to the beginning) you'll know you are back on track.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

From C. J. Cherryh on reading the manuscript of my first book: "Commit trilogy."

What’s your advice to new writers?

It was at a writing seminar given by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury where I heard him say that every writer has a million bad words in him; you just have to keep writing until you get them all out.

What Ray Bradbury meant by this is quite simple: writing, like anything else, takes practice; coming up with ideas takes practice as well. That's not intuitively logical — after all, it doesn't seem that you need practice to think — but learning to write is rather like learning mathematics. You are literally exercising a whole section of your brain that you haven't used a great deal before. When someone starts to learn higher math, he needs practice in the problem-solving skills before he can start getting the answers right on a regular basis — learning to write is the same sort of function, applied to words.

So don't be discouraged that you can't just sit down and write, straight off; you've got to actually establish physical neural pathways that haven't been there before. You're going to fumble around and get "wrong answers" for a while (that's the "writing the bad words until they're all gone" part) until you're consistently getting "right answers" (good prose).

The three legs that fiction stands on are: characters, setting and conflict. You may have been told that before, but not what that means. Now we come to the "figuring out what to write" part, the part that people mean when they ask, "Where do you get your ideas?" What they really want to know is "How do you recognize an idea that can be used as a basis for fiction?" Ideas themselves are everywhere, quite literally. The trick is to recognize them for what they are.

Here is an example: you and I are driving down the road; the wind is clearly blowing toward us, yet just ahead of us, a piece of battered cardboard seems to lift off the ground and skitter across the road at a right angle to the wind, just avoiding our car, quite as if it were alive. You say, "My goodness, look at that! You'd almost think it were alive!" and think no more of it. But an idea has just passed right through your mind. I, the writer, who is used to recognizing an idea that can be used in fiction, think, Well! And what if it were alive?

Here is the key to recognizing and using ideas — a principle taught by another genius among science fiction writers, Theodore Sturgeon: "Ask the next question." Ted considered this such an important principle of writing that he had a symbol made — a capital letter Q with an arrow coming out of it horizontally — to remind his students that this is the fundamental basis of writing. He even had it made up as a pendant and wore it.

And this is where ideas come from. Everything that happens in your life can have further questions asked about it; everything in history can have further questions asked about it. To take my example of the cardboard above — once the question "What if it was alive?" is asked, and answered by the assumption that it is, the next question is "What would it be?" The answer to that would lead to further questions: "Why is it there?" "What does it live on?" "Where did it come from?" "What would happen if someone found out that it was a living creature and not just a bit of rubbish?"

Come up with the questions and answer them, and you have a story. Perhaps that example is a bit too fantastic for you — so let's go down the path that a romance writer would take with a new example and a similar set of questions. Let's say you and I are walking through town, shopping, and we see a couple quarreling about his flirtations with another girl. Perhaps you are embarrassed. The romance writer will immediately think, "Why has she chosen to have this fight in a public place?"

The answer to that must again lead to more questions (let's assume that she wants to embarrass him in front of his friends). "Has he a habit of infidelity?" "Is she going to leave him (or he leave her)?" "What will she do next?" And so on through a romance story that could lead her into trouble (getting involved with someone dangerous), into adventure (deciding to get away from it all on an exotic holiday), into danger (if she finds a new boyfriend and the old one turns out to be obsessed about her and becomes a stalker) or into nearly anything that interests that particular writer. The setting can be moved out of the present day altogether and into the past, making it a historical romance. Remember that you are writing fiction; you have to get your mind out of the habit of thinking "Oh, that couldn't possibly happen" and into the habit of asking "What if it could?"

Now we come to the first part of the "fiction equation" — character. You probably know your neighbor, a relative or your best friend pretty well, certainly well enough to base a character on him or her. Or you know the kind of person that you would like to have as a best friend. Or you have a pretty good handle on what you think makes someone despicable. There are your characters. Now use them, with all those "next questions."

What if your neighbor has secretly nourished a broken heart over a lost love for years and suddenly that lost love reappears? What if he's been secretly building bombs in his garage? What if he's really an alien? What if he's really a magician (so that's how he keeps that exotic sports car running!). What if he wins a lottery prize? How would that change his life and would it be for better or worse?

Remember that although you determine how your character reacts to these situations, you have to keep those reactions "within character." For example, a swine isn't likely to become suddenly altruistic. Charles Dickens took Scrooge through an entire life-shattering set of experiences before he became the jolly benefactor of Tiny Tim!

Someone who is timid by nature, when confronted with a terrible situation, is likely to fold up. If you want him to face it, he'll probably have to be in a situation where he cannot escape and has to deal with it alone. Someone who is a hopeless romantic when confronted by an unpleasant reality is either going to ignore it (with disastrous results) or have to face it for the first time in his life (with results that will change him irrevocably). You do manipulate the reactions of your characters (driven by your what-if questions) and you add to your pile of what-ifs to be answered with a pile of "how will he handle this?" questions.

Now you determine the setting. All of these can be placed into the setting of your choice and it is the setting that determines the genre. Put your character and his or her problems into a space station and it becomes science fiction. Put it on a ranch in Texas and you have a Western. Put it in 1850 or 1066 and you have a historical novel.

The setting you choose becomes part of the questioning process; obviously a Norman knight is not going to get email from his lost love, and a ranch in Texas isn't going to be a place where your hero is going to be shopping for a high-fashion wardrobe. When you have the setting, your research will give you more directions on where to take your hero and his problems, for the setting will help give you a framework to put the characters into.

Lastly, conflict. I've implied conflict in "Ask the next question." It's no good having a book full of lovely, agreeable people doing pleasant things; no one will read it. Furthermore, real life couldn't be farther from that! Even in the best of families there is conflict; if it doesn't come from inside the family, it comes from outside. There are problems with money, problems with neighbors, problems with weather. There are all the little domestic disasters that have the potential (for a writer who asks what-if) to become more than a "little" disaster.

Of course, if you'd like to inject a bit more excitement into your characters' lives, you can always do so by injecting major conflict. The classical sources of conflict are "man against man," "man against himself" and "man against nature" and you don't have to confine yourself to using just one in a book. Have your major character coping with a hurricane or a killer blizzard (man against nature) and undergo a major revision of his personality (man against himself).

Or drop two of your characters in that same hurricane (man against nature) and have them fighting about how to cope with it (man against man). Have one of your characters so unhinged by something that someone has done to him (man against man) that he hits someone with a lorry, then in a fit of remorse, revises his own character (man against himself).

There you have it. Now comes the hard part: gluing yourself to a chair and doing the actual writing.

Mercedes Lackey was born in Chicago, Illinois on June 24, 1950. The very next day, the Korean War was declared. It is hoped that there is no connection between the two events. 

In 1985 her first book was published. In 1990 she met artist Larry Dixon at a small Science Fiction convention in Meridian Mississippi, on a television interview organized by the convention.

They moved to their current home, the “second weirdest house in Oklahoma” also in 1992. She has a dozen pet parrots, four cats, and 3 peafowl and “the house is never quiet.” She has over 135 books in print, publishing about four a year, alone or in collaboration, and some of her foreign editions can be found in Russian, German, Czech, Polish, French, Italian, Turkish, and Japanese.

Mercedes Lackey has many series as well as stand-alone novels, including Valdemar, the Secret World Chronicles, Hunter, 500 Kingdoms, Elemental Masters, SERRAted Edge, Elvenbane, and Obsidian Mountain series from Disney/Hyperion, DAW, Baen, Tor and many others.