Transcripts

 

Writing and Collaborating with Deborah Wheeler Ross 7/31/03



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

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Hello, Mary. I'm here and very excited to be with you all.

Mary Rosenblum

Hello, Deborah! Our guest speaker has arrived, and in just a moment, we'll get started here!

senicynt

IGood! I have my whole Darkover stack right here! LOL

Mary Rosenblum

I'm chuckling. I think you have fans present, Deborah!

Deborah Wheeler Ross

That's terrific! Darkover has been a special world to so many people, me included...

 

I've tried to honor Marion's vision, not only in the world she created, but the =type= of story she loved to tell (and read) and the things she cared so passionately about. Fortunately -- or perhaps this is why I was chosen to continue the Darkover series -- those things are dear to my own heart. That's one of the differences between my Darkover novels and "fanfic." I was already established in my own right, I wasn't starting from scratch. I'd published 2 novels and 5 or 6 dozen short stories, some of them in prestigious markets, before I began work with Marion.

Mary Rosenblum

Writing as Deborah Wheeler, she published two sf novels, JAYDIUM and NORTHLIGHT, as well as short storie in ASIMOV'S, FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, STAR WARS: TALES

 

FROM JABBA'S PALACE, SISTERS OF THE NIGHT, and almost all of the SWORD & SORCERESS and the DARKOVER anthologies.

 

Her most recent project was a Darkover trilogy with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley: THE FALL OF NESKAYA (DAW 2001), ZANDRU'S FORGE (DAW 6/03) and A FLAME IN HALI (forthcoming 6/04).

Mary Rosenblum

Welcome, Deborah! I've been looking forward to tonight's visit!

senicynt

When the creator of a series/planet like Darkover, passes away, How are later stories made without impinging on the originators work? I know there are several anthologies of Darkover stories written by fans.

Mary Rosenblum

That's a good question, Deborah. What are the legal boundaries?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Marion and I worked together on the general outline for the trilogy I've been writing. I'd prepared a detailed outline for the first volume, and then we had a marvelous brainstorming session. So that's the beginning. I've tried not to "rewrite" any of her central characters, although they do appear in the periphery. For example, Romilly from HAWKMISTRESS, makes a "guest appearance" in ZANDRU'S FORGE. This may change when I tackle completing the 3 partial manuscripts Marion left. Another aspect is to study carefully how she developed each character and setting, just the way you would do historical research .

 

Second part: legal aspects: everything I write gets reviewed by Marion's Literary Trustee, as well as her editor and agent. I work on subcontract, so the copyright belongs to the MZB Literary Trust.

Mary Rosenblum

Thanks, Deborah! So did you have to learn her 'voice'? By that I mean her style, word choices, etc.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Actually, not much, because mine (for fantasy anyway) is so close to hers. Sometimes, if I'm writing a scene she's already touched upon, I'll take phrases from her work. Her style tends to be a bit more formal than mine.

senicynt

ooo! Zandru is out now?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Yes, it came out in HB in June. You should be able to find it at any major bookstore.

sailor

Can you describe how collaboration works?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

I think there are as many different ways to do collaborations as there are writers. In my case, Marion and I were friends and she was my editor (for Darkover anthologies, SWORD & SORCERESS, and also her magazine. We knew each other professionally very well.

 

My fiance, Dave Trowbridge, wrote 5 sf novels with Sherwood Smith. He did the techy stuff and battle scenes and she did the character and plot. So she'd write a chapter and put in "here Dave creates a military victory" and then email the chapter to him to finish. They both polished it.

Mary Rosenblum

That's an interesting way of doing it, Deborah!

Deborah Wheeler Ross

I also wrote a short story with Lisa Waters for one of the Darkover anthos. She had the plot idea but, for personal resons, wasn't up to the prose.

 

So she sat in the big pink chair in my office and spouted ideas, while I sat at the computer and typed as fast as I could. Her writing style was dialog based, so I was always having to stop her to fill in description and narrative.

Mary Rosenblum

Sounds as if your strengths suited each other there!

Deborah Wheeler Ross

I had so much fun with my story, "Goatgrass" in STAR WARS: TALES FROM JABBA'S PALACE. The editor, Kevin Anderson, wanted us to "braid" our stories together, so each writer sent an outline to all the others.

 

As it turned out, I was personal friends with about half of them (I tend to be very friendly with other writers, as I love to schmooze), so we got together and created a mystery. I wrote a scene in which my character finds a dead body in the kitchen of Jabba's Palace

 

and then the cook (Barbara Hambly) and the pigfaced guard (Bill Wu) stumble in and discover it. We all laughed so hard as one hysterical incident followed the next. Was worth it to have the Lucas folk be stiff-necked about details.

Mary Rosenblum

Sounds like fun, actually!

sailor

Writers usually work solo. Did you or Dave find it difficult adjusting to working with a partner and coordinating schedules?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

We aren't living together, although we go on writer's retreat together, coming up in August. We have somewhat different writing habits. I love to have other writers around; the energy keeps me going and it's wonderful to have someone who UNDERSTANDS and can leave me alone or talk through a knotty problem.

senicynt

A Literary trust. What kinds of people comprise a trust like that? Other famous authors, lawyers? Fans?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

The MZB Literary Trust owns her copyrights and does things, like write subcontracts and pay royalties..

 

Her Trustee is actually a cousin, Ann Sharp, a neat lady very committed to preserving Marion's literary heritage. So the Trust acts in her behalf in business matters.

Mary Rosenblum

Was it set up before she died, Deborah?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

I think so, since she had been ill for so many years.

Mary Rosenblum

Actually, to interject something here

 

all writers need to think about what will happen to their work if they die.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Or if they divorce!

Mary Rosenblum

Then it's VERY critical!

paja

Reading Neskaya was my first trip to Darkover. I LOVED it. Was there scientific foundation for the weapons?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Thanks, paja. I think Marion envisioned laran weapons that were analogs of napalm and nuclear materials, also biological and chemical weapons.

 

The rest I made up.

Mary Rosenblum

Nice job of it, too! :-)

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Thank you Mary. That's high praise, coming from you!

doodledorry

How do you protect your writing in case of death or divorce?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

My literary copyrights are part of my estate. When I divorced from my first husband, I insisted that the copyrights be part of the Final Judgment. He didn't fight me because he didn't take my writing seriously.

 

Dave and I are considering a pre-nuptual agreement regarding our respective copyrights.

 

That sounds callous, but it's actually a gesture of mutual respect as writers.

Mary Rosenblum

To amplify a bit...I have literary executors named in my will;

 

my agent and a writer friend who is authorized to complete unfinished work.

 

It's a good safeguard.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Thanks, Mary. I hadn't thought of that, but as I have to rewrite my will, I think it's a great idea!

Mary Rosenblum

You should also specify who gets the royalties! My sons do, in my case.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

As your heirs, wouldn't they in any case?

Mary Rosenblum

Probably, but it's spelled out.

doodledorry

I am just sticking my feet into sci-fi, with a computer story, told from the computer POV. Do you have any suggestions for me to look at to help me establish my frame of mind before going into this?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Great question.

 

It actually reminds me of a story about Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier.

 

Hoffman had had dental work done without anesthesia to prepare for a role and he proudly informed Sir Laurence, who said, "My dear boy, you will simply have to learn to act".

 

So I think the question of how a writer gains insight and sympathy for even a silicon character speaks to the basic process of imagination.

 

How do you create any character?

 

What a great opportunity to create an entirely novel and weird state-of-being universe!

Mary Rosenblum

Don't forget, Doodle, it's YOUR world!

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Doodle, do something wild and new, not what has been done before!

Mary Rosenblum

You know, I'm getting a lot of questions about rights and how to 'pass' your work to heirs.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

.. about which I know very little...

Mary Rosenblum

But I think a lawyer will have to answer these, folks. So I will find one and invite him to speak here

 

and we can ALL find out what we own and what we need to protect!

 

Stay tuned!

senicynt

I think I've read nearly every novel on Darkover and several anthologies. Which ones are your favorites and why? Characterization? Plot? Place? Setting?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Thanks, senicynt. I think my all-time favorite is HERITAGE OF HASTUR. I cry every thing I read it.

Mary Rosenblum

It sounds as if the characters are what interest you, Deborah? Is that so?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Yes, for me that is true. I have heard readers speak of how much they want to go to Darkover, but that's not as true for me.

 

Maybe it's because I live in a redwood forest near a beach? Also, I'm quite happy to be a woman in 21st century California, not Darkover!

Mary Rosenblum

When did you actually begin writing?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

4th grade!

 

And wrote the beginnings of novels and lots of short stories through high school, poetry in college.

 

Then when my oldest daughter was born, two things happened. I became friends with Marion and met her in person by doing security for one of her Fantasy Worlds conventions (I studied kung fu for about 25 years)

 

and I joined a women's writing group. Got so excited after the first meeting that I wrote out the story I'd been telling myself as I fell asleep, a short novel in 6 weeks. Utterly unpublishable, but it got me started!

 

Then Marion started editing the first SWORD & SORCERESS and said she'd look at what I sent her. And she bought my first story.

 

For a number of years after that, I had small children, wrote 2 or 3 shorts and one unpublishable novel per year. Marion bought the shorts. I knew I was in danger of becoming a one-editor writer

 

so I joined a local writers workshop and really pushed my craft beyond her (fairly narrow) taste in fantasy. Eventually, I sold my first sf novel to DAW (JAYDIUM) and a story to F & SF. Those were my first big successes.

doodledorry

Did you use a journal or just start writing?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Both! Actually, x 3. I have a personal journal and a writing journal.

 

I use the writing journal to scribble ideas, character sketches, flow charts for plots, outlines, maps. It's a wonderful stewpot! I should add that I'm very visual, so drawings, maps and diagrams all help me to stay oriented.

Mary Rosenblum

Cool! I have a question. Does a fantasy world HAVE to include magic?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

I have to think about that. I think it's part of the definition of fantasy that there is some departure from the laws of physics, etc., of the world as we know it.

Mary Rosenblum

I was trying to think of all the fantasy I"ve read

 

and they are clearly on other worlds...but most if not all do seem to include magic.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Whether that is magic or not, I'm not sure. Certainly, it usually is. But you could do something really wild which wasn't magic.

kplano

I haven't read many SF novels. Is there a distinction between SF and Fantasy novels?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

As I just said, fantasy "breaks the rules" of the world as we know it

 

with a few exceptions (faster than light travel and telepathy) sf doesn't. But some sf can feel very fantasy-like.

 

Darkover is actually sf that reads like fantasy because of the use of mental powers, feudal society and low level of technology. I'm not sure if Keyes novels -- the ones that began with NEWTON'S CANNON -- are sf or fantasy?

doodledorry

What would you say are the characteristics that define Sci-Fi?

 

I always thought sci-fi had to happen in the future?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Doodledorry, absolutely not!

 

Alternate history or dystopic present-day sf, for example.

 

how about time travel to the past?

Mary Rosenblum

Or modern day experiments with genetic engineering gone wild?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

That no one in the unsuspecting populace knows about... yet.

kplano

Please define dystopic. I am unfamiliar with that word.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Think of "utopia" as an ideal world, then "dystopia" is a world gone bad... like with pollution, war, etc.

doodledorry

But then does sci-fi normally have a high level of tech?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

. No, it doesn't have to. That's the old "rockets&rayguns" approach. Since the 1970s there has been so much wonderful sf which is "soft," low-tech, people oriented,

 

for instance, a story set on a pastoral planet, or in the wilderness.

 

Just about anything Connie Willis has written classifies.

 

Just ask the question, "What if..." and go from there!

Mary Rosenblum

Anne McCaffery's Pern stories are SF, but set on a planet far in the future. The tech is very low.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Right, and they feel like fantasy because of the costumes, the social conventions and power structure and telepathy with the dragons.

shirley

When you say short..... how long is a short?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

There are word length requirements for short-short, short, novelette, etc. I think short-short is less than 2K, short is to 7500, and novelette runs to 12500, but it might be longer. Novella goes to about 40K and after tha it's a novel, but it's hard to sell one under 80K these days.

Mary Rosenblum

Novelette is 17,999 by SFWA standards, Deborah. fyi

senicynt

I like the 'anthro' SciFi's alternative ways at looking at how a society functions with or without technology.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Me, too. One of the pleasures of writing in the genre is I can construct a world to highlight some aspect of the human condition which interests me, put real people in it, crank up the pressure and see what happens!

shirley

Has writing using a pen name been a problem for you?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

I haven't actually ever done that. Wheeler was my former married name and Ross is my birth name, which is my legal name now.

 

It probably creates all kinds of problems for librarians, but there were other reasons for the literary name change.

 

For one thing, I went through a personal crisis in 1996-1998 and could barely write, so there are over 5 years between my last sf novel as Wheeler (NORTHLIGHT) and my first Darkover novel.

 

Many writers use different names for sf and for fantasy. I can go into why, if you're interested.

doodledorry

Where would you classify a story about soldiers in a desolate land searching for terorists--only to discover, at the end,that they are in the USA searching out these bad guys -- sci-fi or fantasy or something else?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

I don't see anything in that question which suggests it is either. Why is it not mainstream thriller?

Mary Rosenblum

More money that way, Doodle! :-)

 

Deborah, this is a good place to ask how you generate an idea for a fantasy

Mary Rosenblum

or SF story.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Okay. People ask where I get my ideas and the truth is that my mind is jumping with them all the time.

 

Barbara Hambly jokes that the Idea Fairy leaves little packets under her pillow each morning.

 

Something appeals to me and I just let my imagination run with it... what's the coolest thing that can happen?

 

I love to do that while I take long walks. At some point, the idea takes on a life of its own and I have to get to work.

 

I like to have a beginning situation (driving force/goal/quandary), some sense of where I want to end up, and a couple of interesting characters.

 

Next most important are 'plot points." that's when the momentum spins around and the story heads off in a different direction. Like Luke Skywalker discovering the bodies of his aunt and uncle and deciding to go off with Obiwan Kenobi.

 

I think it's important to noodle around with what pleases you, gives you delight and pleasure.

Mary Rosenblum

How much do you outline a book before you begin? Or do you?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

For the Darkover books, I do. Partly because they have to be approved, and I'm on a tight timeline because I also work fulltime and have a teenager at home. I can't afford writer's block, and the outline keeps me on track.

 

They run about 5 pages single-spaced. On the other hand, I think it's important to write stuff that's "taking a flying leap off the edge of reality" with no idea where I'm going. My creative soul LOVES improvisation!

paja

I'd like to know why someone would use differing pen names for fantasy and sci-fi?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

It's mostly cold business factors. Fantasy sells much, much better than sf right now, and the big chain bookstores have a huge influence over how many books get printed.

 

So if you've been writing fantasy and have good sales figures, then do a sf novel which, no matter how brilliant, will almost certainly sell fewer copies, the computers at Barnes & Noble will decide you're in a nosedive and order far fewer of your next novel (of any kind).

 

Since you don't want your fantasy print runs to be lowered by your sf, the current conventional wisdom is to use different names. Some writers also use them for mystery or Romance, for instance.

Mary Rosenblum

Alas, much as we would wish otherwise, sales numbers are critical realities and determine a lot of career decisions for publishing writers.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Print on demand offers an interesting alternative

 

because those figures don't make it to the bookstore chain computers. It will be interesting to see what effect POD and electronic publishing has on the current situation.

paja

Does the type / flavor of the pen name make a difference in how the market responds to it?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

I strongly doubt it. The days when a glamorous name or a woman having to write under a man's name are long since behind us.

 

Having said that, one of the best reasons I've ever heard for having a pen name is that there was another writer in the same genre with an almost identical name, whose career wasn't doing well!!

Mary Rosenblum

What should new writers avoid doing? In terms of story craft, I mean.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Hmmm... imitating someone else's successful work, because what's on the bookstore shelves was bought 2 or more years ago.

 

Writing what isn't true in your own heart.

 

Then there are the usual bugaboos like telling instead of showing, hideous dialog, all the things in the Turkey City Lexicon.

senicynt

Wouldn't Barnes & Noble know your other pen names?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Senicynt, they don't seem to have figured out who is the same person. That's because it's done by computer!

sailor

If you write a short story query letter and the editor wants to see the story on spec, what is an acceptable time lag before you send the finished story?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Sailor, that depends upon the market. You can find out typical market response times on various online sites.

Mary Rosenblum

Actually, Sailor, if the editor asks to see your story, I would send it NOW, before she buys a similar story from someone else!

kplano

Is there always a good side and an evil side in SF or Fantasy? Does the good side always win in a successful story?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Sorry, I misunderstood the question. I agree with Mary totally. Priority mail, before the editor forgets, too! They read a LOT of stories.

 

I think the best fiction of any variety is in shades of color, not black and white. I hate characters who are either totally evil or so good they're unbelievable.

 

I'd rather have flawed heroes or heroic villains, ambivalent moral issues and endings which are both sweet and sad.

 

As to whether good must win

 

I don't think that's necessary for a meaningful, moving story. Does good triumph in HAMLET or MACBETH? Or does the tragic hero take us to places in the human psyche that we cannot find by living happily ever after?

 

Good fiction transcends rather than wins.

Mary Rosenblum

I agree, Deborah!

 

You told us about all those unpublished novels you wrote when you first started out. What kept you going in the face of those rejections?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Blind hope? That if I DIDN'T write them, they'd rattle around in my skull, shrieking ever more loudly?

 

Marion told me that the first million words were practice, so I thought I was doing pretty well when I sold # 6 or maybe it was 8?

 

I also had a lot of encouragement from other writers, including established ones. I will be forever grateful to Cynthia Felice, who read that first mishmosh with such sympathy and kindness.

 

She told me that Harlan Ellison had actually encouraged her first efforts (which is quite something, given his reputation for curmudgeonry) and she was honored to pass it on,

 

which I have done in my turn. Some writer whose name escapes me said that in order to be truly great, you had to give yourself permission to be truly awful. I pasted that quote in my writing journal and read it every day!

Mary Rosenblum

That is a good quote and very true, I suspect.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Good writing takes chances,

 

which means you have to go out on a limb sometimes, not knowing whether you'll fall on your head or fly.

senicynt

What are you working on now?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

I'm finishing up the rough draft of A FLAME IN HALI to get it off to my editor this fall. (It needs another revision badly, too!)

Deborah Wheeler Ross

I'm also starting to work on an original fantasy series based on a series of short stories I wrote for SWORD & SORCERESS, set in a world based very loosely upon Romans and Sythians... sorry about the caps, it's my keyboard.

Mary Rosenblum

Cool! I like those stories.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Yeah, and I'm going to have an Attila the Hun character come charging through the whole shebang, too!

senicynt

;-) Willing to give any Hints about Hali & Zandru?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

. ZANDRU'S FORGE is out in hardback, deals with the friendship between Varzil the Good and Carolin Hastur and how they created the Compact

 

with the son of Rumail Deslucido, Eduin, lurking about, trying to fulfill his father's command to avenge the deaths of King Damian and company.

 

A FLAME IN HALI follows Eduin and Dyannis Ridenow, Varzil's younger sister, up to the fire-bombing of Hali that resulted in universal adoption of the Compact. If you haven't read ZANDRU, I don't want to give too much away.

kplano

Seems to me Fantasy characters have strange names, like in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. How do you come up with the names for your characters in your books?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Kplano, I have a book of baby names and I circle ones that appeal to me,

 

but I also try to have rhythms and combinations of sounds which are different for different cultures. I think the names in STAR WARS are terrible. Really, Amidala = amygdala, a part of the brain. Gets me every time.

Mary Rosenblum

I'm chuckling. But I defy you to show me Zandru in your baby book!

Deborah Wheeler Ross

no, Marion made that one up.

Mary Rosenblum

Is there one piece of advice you'd like to share with writers...something to really keep in mind as they set out on writing careers?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Believe in yourself and the truth of your vision. Work hard on your craft, which is the vehicle which will transmit that vision into the hearts and minds of your readers.

kplano

Would a Fantasy character be unbelieveable if he or she had a common sounding name like David or Jane?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

kplano, why not? Especially if it fits the world you've created. How about a fantastic Jane Austen universe? Those names would be perfect!

Deborah Wheeler Ross

On the other hand

 

don't put them in a fantasy world based on medieval Japan!

Mary Rosenblum

No kidding! LOL

 

You know, the one drawback to live chat interviews

 

is that you can't sign autographs afterward! :-)

 

I'm so glad that you could be here tonight, and I hope you'll come back sometime.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

I invite your readers to drop by my website: www.sff.net/people/deborahjross... and send me an email!

paja

Deborah, thank you so much. Fall of Naskaya touched something unknown deep inside me. I came away from that book believing in myself and with a hunger to write. Thank you. Now Mary's pruning the tree growing from your seed. God's blessings to you both.

Mary Rosenblum

Wow, Deborah! What a testament!

 

And Paja is one of my students and a very good writer, too.

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Thank you so much, paja. Please write to me and keep on writing your own stories, too!!

Mary Rosenblum

So when will the next book be out, Deborah?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

We're aiming for summer 2004, which is why I need to get the draft to my editor this fall. Then I'll do revisions to her editorial comments and turn in the final draft Dec or Jan 2004.

Mary Rosenblum

Hardback?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Yes, hardback. Paperback of ZANDRU should come out at the same time.

paja

Where would I write to you, Deborah?

Deborah Wheeler Ross

deborahjross@sff.net

paja

Thanks.

Mary Rosenblum

And thanks for coming, Deborah!

Deborah Wheeler Ross

Goodnight, everyone. KEEP ON WRITING!

Mary Rosenblum

We'll let you get back to writing yourself!

 

Goodnight!

 

See you here again, I hope!

 

Deborah is one of the warmest and most supportive writers I know.

 

If you get a chance to visit with her at a SF or fantasy convention, or at a signing, do say hi. Thanks for coming all, and good night!

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