Diana Gabaldon is the author of the New York Times #1 bestelling, international award-winning OUTLANDER series (including the Lord John Grey novels), described by Salon magazine as “the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting “Scrooge McDuck” comics.”
Here’s what Diana has to say about her newly released novel: I’m thrilled by the advent of THE SCOTTISH PRISONER. I never like to do things I’ve already done, and I haven’t here; SCOTTISH PRISONER is a hybrid novel–something between the “Big” books of the OUTLANDER series and the shorter Lord John ones. It’s set in 1760, and is an adventure/crime/historical novel (with occasional sex and more frequent violence), featuring Jamie Fraser and Lord John in equal measure. If you’d like a brief preview, the first 19 pages are available on Scribd, here:
(It’s worth clicking that link just to read the first line of the book!)
Best of all, Diana will be giving a free copy of THE SCOTTISH PRISONER to a lucky Debutante Ball reader. The contest is open to everyone. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Gabaldon’s Three Rules for Becoming a Writer:
1. Read. Read a lot, read everything. This is where you find out what you like and what you don’t like (and it’s a total waste of time to try to write something you don’t like just because you think it might sell—it won’t, believe me)—and also where you begin to learn the craft of writing.
You read two books in the same genre, for instance, and think, “I like this one a lot, that one, not quite so much. Why is that?” Well, the first one has better characters; they seem realer. Oh? And why is that? Mmmm….I think it’s the way they talk. These people sound like people really sound, and the other one’s kind of wooden. OK. How did the writer do that?
‘Cuz everything a writer does is right there on the page; there’s no way to hide your techniques. <g> If you look carefully and read with attention, you’ll start to see things—for instance, that good dialogue usually consists of short sentences and brief paragraphs, while bad dialogue tends to drone on and have convoluted sentences. Or that good dialogue never tells you stuff that the characters already know—whereas a bad writer will often use dialogue as a way of info-dumping on the reader. That kind of thing.
2. Write. Unfortunately, this is the only way of actually learning to write. You can read all the books you want, and take classes in creative writing, and they may be useful—but nothing will actually teach you to write, except the act of putting words on the page.
3. And the last rule is the most important:
What are the hardest and easiest things about your job?
Putting words on paper.
Smiling at people who want to take my picture.
What three things would you want with you if stranded on a desert island?
A hooded cloak
A really long book
Do you have any phobias?
Yes, I have intermittent—but severe—claustrophobia. I never did, until my first visit to Scotland, when my husband and I visited the tower at Glenfinnan that memorializes Charles Stuart’s landing there. You can go up the stone tower, via a spiral staircase, and we did. While doing this, I had such a horrible attack of claustrophobia that I broke out in a cold sweat and could scarcely breathe. Gasped and quivered when we burst out into the fresh air on top of the tower—and had there been any way of climbing down the _outside_ of the tower, I would certainly have done it.
Since there wasn’t, I had my husband go down to the bottom and promise not to let anyone come up the stairs until I made it down (the stairway was too narrow to pass people). Then I thundered downstairs like a load of freight, making it out in ten seconds flat.
I mentioned this later, to a friend of mine who works as a psychic and Life Coach (as he tells me, most people’s problems are both common, and psychological in origin—and he does have a degree in psychology—but his clients are much more inclined to do what he advises if they think he’s telling them things based on his psychic abilities, rather than simple common sense). Anyway, when I told him that I was astonished that this should have happened, as I’d never had claustrophobia before, he said quite casually, “Oh, it’s not yours.”
Now, mind, I don’t believe in reincarnation, but my friend does. Upon my demanding to know what he meant by _that_, he told me that the claustrophobia belonged to one of my past lives—adding that most likely I’d been walled up or buried alive, and that when I encountered a similar circumstance in the tower, that memory came back.
“Uh…huh,” I said. “Right.” However, I do find it helpful, when obliged to enter something like a very small plane, to tell myself that the claustrophobia isn’t ‘mine.’ I kind of hope I wasn’t buried alive in a previous life, but even if this is no more than a simple mind-game, it does help.
What’s your next big thing? (new book, new project, etc.)
Well, I normally do work on more than one project at once; it keeps me from ever having writer’s block. I learned to do this back in the day when I had two full-time jobs (being a university professor—I’m a biologist by training, with a Ph.D. in <deep breath> Quantitative Behavioral Ecology (it’s just animal behavior with a lot of statistics, don’t worry about it), but had slid sideways into being an “expert” in scientific computation (don’t worry about that one, either <g>; it’s just the use of computers in scientific research—and it’s really easy to be an expert if only six people in the world do what you do, which was my position back then)—and a free-lance writer for the computer press) and three small children under the age of six.
I wrote all the time for my jobs, had for reasons unknown decided that now was the time to begin writing a novel—and pretty much had to keep things moving.
Now, everybody sticks. No matter what I’m writing, I stick two-thirds of the way down the page: nonfiction, essay, fiction, textbook, you name it. The normal thing to do when stuck is get up. Go to the bathroom, get coffee, take the dog for a walk…the thing is, most people who leave their work don’t come back, which is why they don’t finish their books. I couldn’t do that.
So I quickly learned that when something stuck—a grant proposal, say—I should just take the next thing on my work-pile—a tutorial, a software review assignment from Byte—and start working on that. When that one stuck—as inevitably it would—I’d check the first thing. If that was still stuck, I’d pull up the scene of the novel I was working on and work there for a bit. By the time that one stuck, my subconscious would have found a point d’appui for one of the others, and I could go on with that. The whole process, though, kept me sitting there and constantly productive.
I no longer (thank GOD!) write grant proposals or software reviews, but the same principle holds. Therefore, I have a sort of mental work-pile, and while I may be working on one main project—at the moment this is the eighth book in the Outlander series, a novel titled WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD (I hope to finish writing it by the end of 2012—no, there’s no pub date)—I’ll either be writing multiple bits of the book (I don’t write with an outline and I don’t write in a straight line, so can easily do this), and/or will be cycling back and forth with one or more other projects in the pile.
I have, for instance, been writing THE SCOTTISH PRISONER concurrently with WRITTEN for the last year. SCOTTISH PRISONER being substantially shorter and much less complex, I finished that first—it was released November 29th.
I’ve also done intermittent work on Volume II of THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION—that’s nonfiction, which is much less mentally demanding to write than fiction, so on a day when nothing is happening for me, I’ll sometimes turn to that—THE CANNIBAL’S ART (a book I’m desultorily working on, about writing), and a contemporary crime novel (this is about half-done; it’ll move up to the top of the pile, once WRITTEN is done), and occasional short pieces for anthologies. (“Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” is the most recent of these—it came out Oct. 4th in an anthology titled DOWN THESE STRANGE STREETS.)
What is the best perk of your job?
Not having to get up at dawn and go to work. I am not a morning person—in fact, my prime working time is between midnight and 4 AM—and for fourteen bloody years, until I graduated from high school, I’d sit groggily on the edge of my bed at 7:00 AM (the absolute nadir of existence, if you ask me), contemplating the struggle of getting dressed and the horror of being forced to eat (without appetite) the sort of repellent things that people think are appropriate for breakfast (I prefer left-over enchiladas, myself. Or Russell Stover dark-chocolate Coconut Cream Easter eggs. Cereal…blah. Runny scrambled eggs…bleagh), and every single morning I’d swear to myself, “Someday, as God is my witness, I am not going to have to do this.”
As it was, I did it—or some approximation—until the age of forty, which is when I quit my job as a university professor and became a full-time writer. (Mind, I didn’t get to sleep until 9 –my preferred getting-up time—until all the kids finally grew up, but at least my beloved husband—who is a morning person—was willing to hoick them all out of bed, feed them breakfast, and chivvy them into their clothes; I just hauled out in time to take them to school.)
Has anyone ever thought one of your characters was based on them?
No, but they all think the main female character is me. Which is patent nonsense.
Let’s put it this way: I was once having tea with a group of fans, who started talking about Black Jack Randall (a particularly nasty sexual sadist, albeit one with a sense of humour). “Oh, he’s so loathsome…I can’t stand him, he’s such scum…he just makes my skin crawl!” And all the time I was sitting there quietly sipping my Earl Grey and thinking, “You have no idea you’re talking to Black Jack Randall, do you?”
I mean…all of them are me. It isn’t a question of attachment; that’s like asking whether I’m more attached to my left foot than to the back of my head. That said, some characters are much more accessible to me than others; they talk to me easily, and I understand them instinctively, without a great deal of work. Others take much more effort before I grasp their essence.
Naturally, I tend to enjoy the mushrooms and onions more than I do the hard nuts (a mushroom is someone I didn’t intend and wasn’t expecting, who just pops up and walks off with a scene; an onion is someone whose essence I apprehend immediately and intimately, but the longer I work with them, the more layers they develop, and the more pungent and well-rounded they become. A hard nut is just what he or she sounds like)—but they do all come from the same place.
BONUS! Diana talks about her writing process:
WRITING IN PIECES
I don’t write with an outline, and I don’t write in a straight line. (What fun would that be?)
What I need when I sit down to write is a kernel. A kernel can be anything: a vivid image, a line of dialogue, an emotional ambiance, the smell of a fart…anything at all that I can sense concretely. You get kernels from anywhere and everywhere; everything a writer sees, hears, smells, touches, tastes, thinks, or is told forms the mental compost from which ideas sprout in the dark space under your brain (and here you thought it was just termites down there…).
If I come up to my office to work and it’s what I call a “cold” day (meaning I knew how to write yesterday, but seem to have forgotten how overnight), I usually pick up an inspiration of some kind off my bookshelves. (I have thousands of inspirations to hand, ranging from books—mostly books—to toy cannon, silver quaichs full of stones and crystals, a 19th-century cobbler’s hammer, a medieval chessman, a life-sized crystal skull, (well, it’s plastic resin, but you’d never know, and if you’re walking through your imagination, there’s no difference at all), the shell of a giant clam (that’s its genus, Tridacna, giant clam; the shell itself is only about six inches across, though they do get as big as three feet or so (these are the kind of clams reputed to clamp onto an unwary foot and drown the hapless beachcomber, though I don’t know as how there are any reliably documented instances of this), a handful of horse chestnuts, picked on Guy Fawkes’ Day in the UK, a bevy of little glass bottles filled with herbs and potions (I have a peppermint one that’s meant to clear the sinuses, but by and large, you’d do better with a generous blast of wasabi), knives (I love knives, I have lots, ranging from a one-inch penknife that won’t offend the TSA to a Highland dirk that a nice Canadian gentleman made for me), two Jewish “widow’s mite” coins from the time of the Crucifixion, and several feather amulets. (Don’t ask me why, but almost all authors keep feathers in their offices. It’s probably Symbolic, though whether it’s urging your spirit to fly through the medium of words—and you’d have to write a whole lot faster than I do even to work up a decent taxi-way, let alone achieve take-off—or is an unsubtle warning not to be a chicken, I can’t tell you.))
Once I have a kernel in hand—well, in mind—I sit down and write a line or two describing it, as best I can. Then I sit there and fiddle, taking words out, putting them back in, shuffling clauses—and all the time, the back of my mind is kicking through the compost, asking random questions: What time of day is it? How does the light fall? Is the room cold? Did someone just say something? Who’s that dog, I’ve never seen him before…
And—very slowly—things start to emerge, and if I’m lucky, people show up and start talking, and I go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth… I will have been through a scene literally hundreds of times by the time it’s finished, but then it is finished—or at least it’s as good as I can make it. So I leave it alone and go find another kernel.
Now, the next question, of course, is—SO, you’ve got handsful of disconnected scenes; how the heck do you assemble those into a coherent story?
Let’s see <groping for a decent metaphor…it’s not really possible to talk about writing without using metaphors>…
You know how a kaleidoscope works, right? (To save anybody having to Google it—essentially, you have a tube with two or three rectangular mirrors in it, oriented at angles, which make multiple symmetric reflections of whatever colored objects you put at the front end of the tube.) Well, imagine that I have a three-mirrored kaleidoscope: one mirror is the historical plane of reflection—the events, the timeline, the cultural/intellectual milieu, the physical settings and constraints. The second is the plane of reflection that concerns the characters—who they are, their motivations, their personal histories. And the third is my own plane of reflection—the background, experiences, perceptions, and personality that make me unique.
OK. So say I have a handful of these disparate scenes. Placed in the space formed by my three mirrors, they form patterns. And if I rotate the tube (so to speak), this causes the pieces inside to fall into a different relationship to each other, and I see different patterns. Some patterns are naturally more pleasing than others, and I use the ones that seem most aesthetically logical. (Occasionally I do have a piece that just isn’t necessary in the overall pattern, in which case I take it out and hang onto it—it generally “goes” somewhere in the next book.)
Hearing about this process does, btw, often infuriate people who write linearly. I once had a woman sitting on a panel on writing processes with me inform me that I couldn’t possibly do this, because “you have to have a logical foundation! You can’t put the roof on your building unless you’ve built solid walls to hold it up, can you?”
“Of course I can,” I replied. “There’s no gravity in the mind, after all. I can make the roof and just leave it hanging there until I have time to build walls under it. You don’t have to write a book from beginning to end, just because that’s how people will read it.” She Wasn’t Pleased, but the point here is that people’s minds are wired up differently, and a good deal of writing successfully lies in figuring out how your own mind works best, and using it that way. There is no “right” way to write a book. Anything that lets you get words on the page is the right thing to do.
If you’re interested in learning more from Diana, she’s not hard to
stalk track down on the internet:
Diana’s website: dianagabaldon.com
Thank you so much for being with here at the Ball today, Diana! It’s a true pleasure.
[Note from Deb Linda: Okay, I admit it. Diana is my writing hero. When she agreed to be interviewed here, I felt like I'd just downed a two-cherry Manhattan with a chocolate chaser!]
Don’t forget to leave a comment for your chance to win THE SCOTTISH PRISONER. Careful, though. If you haven’t read any DG before, you will get hooked.