Sarah Zettel on Writing for the Long Haul

Like many long-haul writers, Sarah Zettel has written in multiple genres: science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, young adult, and short fiction. The first book of her American Fairy trilogy, Dust Girl, was one of the most original faerie novels I’ve read, and its sequel, Golden Girl, was just released. She joins the Long Haul series to talk about writing as a learning experience—in all senses of the term—and about reaching beyond that which we already know.

Oh, No! Not Another Learning Opportunity!

If you write, you are constantly learning. You’ve got no choice. I don’t care how detailed and careful you are in your outlining. Every new project is a fresh start, and one of the first things you’re going to find as you’re starting is how little you know about the characters, the plot, the setting. You might, if you’re especially lucky, find you don’t even know how to write the damn thing. You don’t know if it’s really a short story with ambitions to be a novel, or a novel that really just wants to be a little novellita of some kind.

This is the joy of writing. This is the terror of writing. This is the single inescapable fact of writing.

It’s also, on the surface, one of the major contradictions, because we’re all told to write what we know. But how can you do that when with each project you’re finding out, yet again, everything you don’t know, and never did?

As I go along, though, I find I’ve become less and less a fan of that bit of advice. First of all, it strikes me as restrictive, because it requires you to start your process of creation by setting your sights no further than the consciously familiar. As someone who grew up in a little ticky-tack, all white suburb, I would have keeled over with boredom if all I did was write about what I thought I knew at the time. Second, it’s impossible. It is only by the process of actually writing that you sort out what you really know about a given project from what you really don’t know. So, hampering yourself from the outset by following a quotation rather than your personal interest is adding unnecessary weight to what it already going to be an intense intellectual and emotional journey.

Instead, I go with another aphorism — follow your passion. Write about what excites you. What do you love now? What do you burn to know more about? What you know will surface, whether you want it to or not. But if you set out to delve into what you’re passionate about, you’re travelling light, not heavy. You’ll move quickly into the hard work, and when you hit the point where you’re bogged down—and you will hit it, trust me—you’re less likely to succumb to the exhaustion that produces writer’s block, and more likely to dive into learning whatever fact or technique is going to get you out to the other side so you’ve got yourself a complete work.

This is not easy, especially when you’re writing with an eye to selling. There is so much advice out there, so much temptation to try to write what appears to be popular and so many really bad books that clearly completely enthralled the author who wrote them. To actually strip it all down to just what you’re interested in, and ignore all that, along with any residual feelings of “nobody else is going to be interested in this” is difficult. And when you get past all that, you’re still going to be confronted by your own ignorance about how exactly this particular project needs to be written.

So what do you do? What I’ve been trying to do—and it is hard—is embrace my own ignorance, and my own learning process. Every book is new. I’ve done this kind of thing before. That is, I’ve written and sold 25 novels. But I’ve never written or sold one in this exact way, not with these characters, and not in this exact setting and maybe not with this editor, if I’m lucky enough to find an editor willing to buy. I’m a different writer at the beginning of this book than I was at the beginning of the last one. At the end of this book, I’ll have changed again. I’ll have learned something about the art and craft writing during the process of creating it. I’ll have tried new techniques. I’ll have learned new facts, about science, history, sociology, travel, something, anything. Everything. The act of creating this work will leave its mark on any future creations. That’s way cool. That’s way scary.

That way’s writing.

Sarah Zettel‘s first novel, Reclamation, was published in 1996 and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her Bitter Angels won the Philip K. Dick Award for best science fiction paperback in 2009, and she’s also had books deemed New York Times Notable and ALA Best Books. Her novels include the American Fairy trilogy, the Vampire Chef mysteries, the Paths to Camelot series, and the Isavalta series. She also publishes under the names C.L. Anderson and Marissa Day.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts:

Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

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