An Interview with Bruce Holland Rogers: Writing in Spite of It. 7/2/03

Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

Bruce Holland Rogers

Yow! That's a hot microphone!

Mary Rosenblum

Yep, better be careful, Bruce!


Hello, all! Welcome to our professional connection. Scheduled a day early, since I have to be out of town!


Tonight, we're visiting with Bruce Holland Rogers, VERY prolific short story writer


and author of Word Word, an excellent book on writing and staying sane!


Something we could all use.


Bruce Holland Rogers is the author of over 100 short stories. His


non-fiction book Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer helps


writers to meet the psychological challenges of writing.


Bruce, welcome!


We're glad you're here!

Bruce Holland Rogers

Thanks, Mary. Good to be here.

Mary Rosenblum

I'm wondering Bruce...I know you as a SF and fantasy writer.


What other genres do you work in?

Bruce Holland Rogers

I'm all over the literary map, which can be something of a problem in marketing


my work to a single audience. I have published literary, horror, mystery, and romance fiction


in addition to the SF and fantasy you know me for.

Mary Rosenblum

Wow, that's quite a list!

Bruce Holland Rogers

Some genres are represented by more work that others, of course.


Not much romance.

Mary Rosenblum

I'm curious.


Do you write romance as a man or as a woman?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Ah. There's a story in that. I submitted a story to Woman's World


with a male PoV and my own byline. And the rejection letter was long and MADE NO SENSE.


and I tried to read between the lines. The magazine said that male PoV was okay


but I had never seen anywhere that they wanted male bylines. And I had never


seen a male byline in the magazine. So I changed the byline to Brenda Holland and


resubmitted. And had a check in a month. Nothing but the byline was different.

Mary Rosenblum

Ouch. I guess that's a lesson in the market!


So do you write often as Brenda?

Bruce Holland Rogers

It's a lesson in being flexible, too.


I have written only the one story as Brenda.

Mary Rosenblum

I'm chuckling, though.


Maybe I'll try switching genres next time I get a rejection.

Bruce Holland Rogers

Sometimes I don't know what genre I've written in until I see who buys the story.

Mary Rosenblum

Now this is an interesting topic. Just how DO you decide what your genre is?


Or your market, anyway?

Bruce Holland Rogers

I think what you read is your first clue to your preferred genre


but questions of market are a little trickier. I like to say that there are two strategies for


marketing: from the heart, or from the head. From the heart, you write what you love and then


look for a market. From the head, you identify the market and then write to it. Both work.


Hi Bruce. How do you entice an editor in a query letter?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Rupbert, a query letter is a sales job. I'd say, though, that in writing fiction, the query letter


is only trying to entice the editor a little bit, just enough to say, "Sure, I'll look at some samples."


So the main message that I think you want to convey (and we're probably talking about a novel here, right?)


is: "I know what kind of book you publish, mine is that kind of book, and I have completed it."


For short fiction, you just send the story.


Non-fiction queries can often be much more detailed.


How about magazine articles?

Bruce Holland Rogers

My experience is mostly in fiction or in book-length non-fiction, but my sense is that


with a magazine, you want to make clear that you read the magazine and that you KNOW that.


what you are proposing fits in with what that magazine publishes month after month.


And, of course, you make the topic interesting!

Mary Rosenblum

That's the key, of course!


So Bruce, I know that a lot of the students at Long Ridge


and the website regulars have a real problem with deadlines and just plain


getting words onto the screen.


Why do you think that is?

Bruce Holland Rogers

I think we get in our own way.


A big part of being blocked or just bogged down


relates to how much is at stake for us psychologically. We're doing the work of our hearts, we're


potentially exposing something of ourselves. We may be rejected, and not just by editors!


As I say in Word Work, one big part of the answer to many kinds of blocks is Atomization.


There's a motivation mantra that we don't know about yet.

Bruce Holland Rogers

Rupbert, I'm not sure which thing you're referring to, so I'll say more about atomization.


Atomization is breaking time, word count, or ambition into smaller bits.


For instance, instead of sitting down to write six hours, I sometimes set a kitchen timer


and write for 15 minutes. It's less intimidating than six hours. And I never begin a novel or even


begin a chapter. Rather, I begin a page. Atomizing ambition means that rather than setting out


to write the Great American Novel (or Great Canadian Novel), you set out to write a so-so novel


that you can, draft by draft, make better...eventually great!

Mary Rosenblum

Bruce, I think these are some of the soundest words I've ever heard


because I know the idea of those 350 pages was utterly daunting when I first contemplated a novel


but page by page...what do you know? I got to the end!


Baby steps being better than no steps at all.

Bruce Holland Rogers

Yes, and we never write more than a page at time, do we?

Mary Rosenblum

Well, I keep trying! :-)

Bruce Holland Rogers

Yes, gskearney. Baby steps on the page and off.


I was recently a guest writer at the Odyssey fantasy workshop in New Hampshire


where I was asked about "When the lightbulb went on" for me and I knew how to write


and I have to say that the lightbulb doesn't just come on. It glows dimly. You keep writing


and it gets brighter year by year. In this art, this craft, we are always learning. That's


one of the great things about it! Though it would be nice to achieve mastery and have it over with!


Doesn't work that way, though.


You offer a neat service on your website, a short story subscrition. I'm curious as to how this5i is being accepted. It looks exciting.

Bruce Holland Rogers

Gerald, my short-short story subscriptions at have 315 subscribers


as of today. (A new story is going out tonight.) I'm really pleased with the success of this


service. Since I write in a variety of genres, this is one place where I have an audience that comes


along whether I'm writing a western story, a mystery, SF, or a literary story. Or something weird


and experimental. The service brings me a modest (very!) income, and then I can still


publish the stories conventionally. Many of you may know that quite a few good literary magazines


don't have 315 subscribers, so while the service isn't a HUGE success, I feel good about having


a reliable readership for my newest stories, three times a month.

Mary Rosenblum

I have to say, Bruce, that your short story subscription REALLY intrigued me


since it seems to be something of a new market...the online anthology always in progress.


and I have two questions. First, do you promote it elsewhere besides your site?


And second,


don't you have problems with magazines that want to acquire e rights?

Bruce Holland Rogers

First answer: I promote the site in various ways. The oddest one is this. I go into the subway


here in Toronto, or some other public place, and I wear a sign that says "Local Writer Writing Locally. Read Free Samples.


And I work on my computer, since writing is portable and I like doing it in public places anyway.


Strangers come up and read my stories, and sometimes they walk away with a card about


the subscription service. And sometimes they tip me. :-) Seriously. And one time


a man who I think was under a religious vow of silence gave me a gift: a perfume sample in a vial!


More traditionally, I have started to get some reviews of the site, and at least one non-fiction writer


wants to write a feature story about it. That will be great publicity if it works out.


Second question:




If I haven't already established an editor's policy in this matter...


I query about submission, disclosing how many subscribers I have, that this is a paying service, etc.


And some editors don't want to look at the stories, considering them already published.


Others feel that 315 emails do not constitute competition for their readership, so those are the editors


to whom I choose to send my work.

Mary Rosenblum

Bruce this is one of the strangest and coolest promotions I have ever run into! I am laughing! I think you need to write a book about the 'subway anthology' myself!

Bruce Holland Rogers

I have done the subway thing here in Toronto


and in the Netherlands and in England. When I return to the U.S. in August, I expect to keep doing it. It's fun.

Mary Rosenblum

And I have had a question from the audience about 'erights'. Those are 'electronic rights'...the right to publish on the internet and on for example, CDs.


Are you serious--you wear a sign?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Yes, doodledorry, I wear a sign,


which is a good opportunity to say this about publicity:


It's best to do only the sorts of publicity that are fun to you. I like this kind of.


street theater. I like to write in public places. Not every day, but now and then.


And if I didn't like playing such public games as an artist, then such efforts would be


counterproductive. I wouldn't be having fun. I might even dread writing. So when it comes


to publicity, it's important to know yourself. And if there is no kind of publicity that you enjoy


then I think it's fine to decide that a publicity-driven career is not for you. Just write.

Mary Rosenblum

Do what works for you, in other words! I have to say that, while I write in public at times,


such as airport waiting rooms!, I hadn't really thought of it as promotion


but it's true that when I hear an interview with an author and I like that person


I'm more likely to buy her book, so if I talked to an author and she handed me a card


with a website address, or even a pub list, I'd be more likely to go seek her out.

Bruce Holland Rogers

Mary, if I were waiting for a plane and in the same waiting area was a novelist with a little sign and


a list of her titles, I'd likely talk to her. If the books were something that interested me, I'd be quite


likely to look for them the next time I was in a store. If she had one with her, I'd probably buy it!


And there's always the chance that the sheer audacity of her sitting in the airport


advertising her wares would bring other publicity. It's an interesting news story, I think,


the writer who writes between flights.

Mary Rosenblum

No kidding. So all of you out there with a pen and pad, or a laptop, keep this in mind! :-) IF you enjoy this kind of street theater. (I do, too, Bruce)


LOL.The subway story is great! Plenty of characters there


What's one way you have improved descriptions?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Rupbert, I'd say that there are two main things I have learned about good descriptions.


The first is to stop and think about all five senses. Deliberately inventorying what a character


is experiencing in every sense might not always yield something you want to use for each sense,


but we do tend to emphasize some senses over others. Yet it may not be a sight or sound, but


a smell that gives the reader the emotional impact of a place. The other thing


is to think of description strategically. What is the logic of the order in which you are


presenting descriptive details? From left to right? Top to bottom? General to specific? Small to large?


If you think in terms of strategy like this, it helps you to clarify for yourself (and the for the reader)


what impression it is you're trying to convey through your description. That is, not just


the details, but the essence that the details add up to.


I had some good news today.


A magazine in Japan published a translation of my story, "The Dead Boy at Your Window",


which is my favorite story, the one that I hope will outlive me and be read years after I'm gone.


Unfortunately, they translated it without permission! So I'm happy, but want my money! :-)

Mary Rosenblum

Free PR! :-)


Please give us an example of inventorying the character's experience of a scene? I think I'm lost!

Bruce Holland Rogers

Doodledorry, what I mean by that is this:


Let's say that you have your character opening the door to the spooky cellar.


The character is going to sense the blackness of that cellar before deciding to step down into the gloom.


So the inventory is what you do as the author: What does character see? Hear? Feel? Taste? Smell?


You may not have an answer for "taste," for instance. But you ask the question anyway. That's


how you take an inventory. And maybe the character was just eating a hot dog. Maybe that's useful


to setting the scene, that the character licks the corners of his/her mouth and tastes mustard. Does


the cellar smell damp? Musty? Okay, but try to be more specific. Does it smell like rotten wood?


Wet stones? You ask these questions for each of the five senses, then pick those few details to


actually describe. You inventory for yourself, then give to the reader only those sensory details


that evoke this particular dark cellar. Make sense?

chatty lady



Congratulations on the Japanese 'publication!

Bruce Holland Rogers

Chatty Lady, the night crawlers are a great example! Very specific!


Thanks, Rupbert. I'm happy about it, and I will collect my yen eventually.


If any of you here want to try the short-shorts by email for a month.

Bruce Holland Rogers

I'll happily extend a trial subscription. Just write to me after the chat at That's


one month free. Kind of like "Your first dose is free." J


Thank you--that is a great example.

Bruce Holland Rogers

Glad I could clarify, Doodledorry.


Why is writing so hard? Sometimes the words flow and sometimes they just don't...or they're ALL awful!

Bruce Holland Rogers

What's even worse, Rachel, is that often we can't tell when the words are awful.


That is, sometimes the words flow and are bad. Sometimes they feel awful and seem awful

Bruce Holland Rogers

and a week later we look at them again and realize that they work is pretty good. I think...


that we're so often poor judges of our own writing quality as we work that it's a good policy


to never quit for the day just because the writing feels sucky. Sometimes good stuff comes hard.


Sometimes the writing that feels brilliant...isn't. So being in the habit of writing anyway helps.


But you asked WHY?


So the answer to that question is: Because it matters to us. Because writing is


the work of our hearts. And that's a good sign. If it's always easy, that means you've run out


of creative challenges. In that case, your work is probably going to seem repetitive very soon.

Mary Rosenblum

Hear, hear!!! Applause applause! Bruce that's VERY wells put. I wish I had a penny for every word that felt AWFUL as I wrote it! But often, that word was part of my best work!

chatty lady

Thank you so much and I'm sure I speak for us all.


Whats harder for me is when you think they're really good and just can't seem to make your mark....get published.

Bruce Holland Rogers

Ah. Boy, do I know what you're talking about there, Chatty Lady...


I have been there, and in some ways I am still there when I write something


that I think is special, and I just can't find the right editor for it. One thing that consoles me


in such times, and I write about this in Word Work, is the "heart sufficient goals" that are, deep down,


the stuff that I'm REALLY writing for. A heart sufficient goal is one that you control, that you


know that you can reach by your own efforts, and it's something that would be worthwhile to achieve


even if you weren't published or weren't recognized or...whatever. So, for instance, just doing the


work of your heart, work that you love, writing that is about the things that matter to you


can be a heart-sufficient goal. Knowing what those goals are, having written them down, can be


consoling when a painful rejection comes. And they're almost all at least a little painful!

Mary Rosenblum

That's a very good idea, Bruce -- to write down you goal when you complete a story


so that you can remind yourself why you wrote it when the 'no thanks' arrives!

Bruce Holland Rogers

Goals of all sorts are very helpful.


Writing them down is one key.


Having several different kinds of overlapping goals is another key


(things you control, things that depend on others, likely things, pie-in-the-sky goals).


And the biggest key of all to setting goals


is to have a buddy to share them with, someone with whom


you review your past goals, celebrate ones you have achieved, officially let go of ones


that no longer matter to you, and set new goals based on what you want NOW.


In your book, you describe relationships and writing. Is it


difficult if you are compatible with a non-writer?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Rupbert, each kind of relationship


writer with writer or writer with non-writer


has its own challenges.


A non-writer sometimes won't understand the particular oddball behaviors


that another writer will recognize and respect. "I'm writing!" "But you're just staring out the window!"


"Yes! That's writing!" is an example.


On the other hand, with two writers in one relationship…


Well, in the book, I say it's like a household where there's no adult supervision. :-)


Bruce, what is your attraction to the short story vs. the novel?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Janp, I love them both.


But I must say that I find it especially seductive


to be able to finish a work in one day, or three days, or a week. (You never know with stories


which ones will come in a sitting and which will give you days of trouble.) But then again, with


stories, you're starting a new project, finishing, and having to start again. With a novel, you have


the security of waking up every day for weeks or months, knowing what you're going to work on!


So the main reason that I've written so many stories is probably that I've had an easier time


publishing my stories than my novels!

Mary Rosenblum

Now that's an honest assessment, Bruce! :-)

Bruce Holland Rogers

We all respond to reward!


I have an assignment and did 3 interviews for it, but now I can't seem to get past the brain block to write it - ideas?


Do you create your website yourself, and how much time do you spend on it?

Mary Rosenblum

Sorry, Bruce.


Didn't mean to hit you with two questions a once!

Bruce Holland Rogers

That's okay. Diane2, getting that first draft down


is exactly the sort of thing that will respond to atomization. So here are two concrete suggestions


for you. The first is to tackle first sentences. Get a bunch of articles to help jog your ideas


about the various ways in which articles can be started. Then set out to write 10, yes, ten,


first sentences for your own article. Some might use the same strategy that you see in other


articles, or you may come up with your own ideas for a first sentence. Now, you are


atomizing the amount of writing by just concentrating on one sentence at a time, but you are also


atomizing ambition, because each sentence is just one of ten job candidates interviewing for the


job of first sentence. It's likely that before you have written all ten, you'll have one you like. (Write


ten anyway. You may find one you like even better.)


The other advice comes from a practice Calvin Trillin used to do. When he had all of his notes


together for an essay, he would write what he called the "vomit draft." This term refers to both


the manner of the writing and its quality. Just get it down! Even if it's awful. It's okay for the first


draft to suck. It often does! Or as I sometimes put it, "It doesn't have to be good. I has to be




Second question.


I do all of my own web site design. Nothing fancy. I just want it to be readable. And I don't


spend much time on it. Finishing another story will do more for me as a writer


than having a spiffy web site!


I hope I've answered the article-writing question with enough detail to be helpful!

Mary Rosenblum

I think most of us...myself included...could stand to write 'It doesn't have to be good. It has to be done!' on a banner and hang it over our desks!

Bruce Holland Rogers

I actually


had that as a sign on my computer at one time. At about the same time


I was writing a work-for-hire novel. So I had a sign about that project which said


"I am an angel in disguise writing a holy text in disguise."


My wife came into my office


looked at the sign


looked at me


looked again


and said, "Good disguise!"

Mary Rosenblum

By the way, I read Word Work all the way through...I wrote a blurb for it! And it is full of the kind of helpful and concrete advice that Bruce is offering here. It's available on, and in my opinion, it's worth the money. And I'm laughing at the holy text for hire!


I'll remember that!


Bruce, I'd like to talk a bit about you, if I may.


Is there a novel in your future?

Bruce Holland Rogers

At the moment


I'm working to get ahead of my deadlines


with the short-short stories so that I have a chunk of time


to devote to my long-time-in-progress novel, STEAM. I hope to finish that novel


later this year and get it into my agent's hands.

Mary Rosenblum

Is that a SF novel, Bruce?

Bruce Holland Rogers

No. For a variety of reasons, my agent and I have decided


that now would be a good time for me to emphasize the literary side of my identity.

Mary Rosenblum

AAAh...literary mainstream, huh?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Yes, but with fantastic elements. The novel


is partly set in an imaginary world, and it's a novel about manic depression and steam engines.


So call it literary fantasy, maybe?

Mary Rosenblum

ooo, spooky. Well, fantasy is definitely crossing over into literary. Yeah, I think literary fantasy works


better than magic realism!

Bruce Holland Rogers

I have an essay on the web called


"What Is Magical Realism, Really?"


I think the term gets thrown around quite loosely,


but it refers to a particular subset of literature. Or _could_, anyway, if the term weren't being applied


to anything that's a tad fantastic.

Mary Rosenblum

Drat. I didn't know. I did a Forum on it last Friday. So what is your definition?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Um, I'm tempted to say, "Look up the article!" :-)


But in essence, it depends on the operation of some real belief system. That is, MR is fantasy


that reflects someone's view of how the world Actually Is. That's the short version.

Mary Rosenblum

That's pretty much the same as my definition. :-) Just checking...


And I would have looked up the article...and will, now, thanks.


Missed it, I guess.

Bruce Holland Rogers

It appeared in Holly Lisle's magazine, Vision.

Mary Rosenblum

Ah. I'll see if I can search for it.


Did you do the illustrations for the web version of the story, "The Dead Boy at Your Window"? Do you often illustrate your printed work?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Gerald, I am a pretty sorry visual artist, so, no.


The illustrations for "Dead Boy" on the web are by Alan M. Clark, a World Fantasy Award winner.

Mary Rosenblum

I love Alan Clark's stuff.

Bruce Holland Rogers

He's a great human being, too.

Mary Rosenblum

He illustrated one of my stories, too. An Asimov piece.

Bruce Holland Rogers

Alan is


my emergency writing crisis backup resource. That is


when I am living in Eugene, where Alan also lives, if I am having a really bad


writing day, just can't get going, I can go to his house and write at his kitchen table


while Alan paints in his studio. Just the fact of sharing space with another artist


(one who will say at the end of the day, "So what did you work on?") can be energizing


and encouraging. Writers can cultivate such friendships


with artists of all sorts. Just a matter of finding the right, like-minded soul. :-)

Mary Rosenblum

Good advice...although not everyone has an artist neighbor. So are you moving back to Eugene one of these days?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Holly and I will return to the west coast (and the U.S.) at the end of this month.

Mary Rosenblum


chatty lady

Do you think being published in a reputable magazine is o.k. even when all they offer is exposure and several free copies, saying it will help you get recognized?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Chatty Lady, that is a really good question


and it's one where I would come down in a different place from, say, Mike Resnick


who says: If you publish for less than professional rates, you aren't being professional. My own


perspective is that no one knows better than you


what your needs are, what will keep you going as a writer. I will say that usually


when someone touts the great exposure you will get, they're generally exaggerating. Some, anyway.


But there's exposure. There's money. There’s prestige. There's the question of whether or not


you feel "real" as a writer if you're hitting your head against the wall and not seeing your work in


print. So really, it's your call to make. And I don't think there is any wrong answer.


It seems like a support group is pretty important.


It's hard to find those souls:)

Mary Rosenblum

Any suggestions, Bruce?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Well, LochNessMummy, it is important that you get a sense of support from somewhere


and as social animals, humans usually get that sense from other humans. And, Rupbert, it is


true that just the right people can be hard to find. But they don't have to be writers.


They can be other people who value art, or who value pursuing your own dream. We've spoken


about Alan M. Clark, and Alan frequently starts up groups of people, creative folks of different sorts,


who come together once a week and do a sort of show-and-tell. It's not like a critique


group, it's more of just spending a couple hours sharing what we've been working on. Writers


read manuscript pages aloud. Painters show their paintings. Musicians play new songs. And we


are all free to ask questions that are appreciative, such as, "How did you come up with that idea?"


Unless you're living on a very small island

Bruce Holland Rogers

or in Nunavut, Canada...

Bruce Holland Rogers

you can probably

Bruce Holland Rogers

find some group of like-minded people who can emotionally support your ambitions.

Mary Rosenblum

Good advice! And


we're getting to the end of


our time. I have a last question here.


I like the way you have described many ways to unblock the block--any more ideas?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Doodledorry, believe it or not (and depending on your personality)


sometimes the best thing for a blocked writer is a deadline! So one thing to experiment with


is making an agreement that by a certain time, you will read aloud from your finished work. Now,


this is one of those things that works for some writers and is disaster for others. So try it out!


Do you always try to finish what you're working on, or do you sometimes put down one project and pick up another when you're blocked?

Bruce Holland Rogers

Aha! GSKearney, you are touching upon


the various procrastination styles


that I write about in Word Work. Putting one thing down to work on another


is often related to the "tactician" style of procrastination. And, yes, I do it! It's my weakness, and


I'm working on the habit of limiting how many things I am allowed to have on the "back burner." On


the other hand, this style can sometimes WORK for you if you do always get back to the thing


that you put down to work on something else. Sometimes, if it feels like playing hooky, you'll get a lot


done on project B for avoiding project A, and maybe have more fun than if you had just set out to


work on B!


Thanks, Bruce, this was a great forum. I've learned several things that will be helpful to me. --gk


What are your thoughts on contests? Selective ones.

Bruce Holland Rogers

JanP, the short answer is that contests can be worthwhile, but I strongly favor ones that either don't charge


an entrance fee, or else offer so much recognition that you just can't resist. In general

Bruce Holland Rogers

contests don't offer a whole lot more than ordinary publication. (There are exceptions.) So

Bruce Holland Rogers

you might as well go the route that doesn't charge reading fees!


Thank you both very much. This has been immensely helpful


Great thank you for all of your helpful ideas.

chatty lady

One thing you are is an excellent typist, fast and no errors. I salute you!

Bruce Holland Rogers

Thank you all!

Mary Rosenblum

Bruce, thank you so much for coming, tonight!

Bruce Holland Rogers

My pleasure.

Mary Rosenblum

This has been very informative, and I hope you'll come back again!


Great thank you for all of your helpful ideas

Mary Rosenblum

I think you were a big hit, Bruce!

Bruce Holland Rogers

I'd love to, Mary. Thanks for having me. Good night, everyone!

Mary Rosenblum

Good night!


Looking forward to seeing you back in OR.

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