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WRITING ADVICE: Darrell Schweitzer

Darrell Schweitzer

Darrell Schweitzer is the author of about 300 short stories and the novels The White Isle, The Shattered Goddess and The Mask of the Sorcerer. Along with George Scithers and John Betancourt, he refounded Weird Tales magazine in 1987 and continued to co-edit the magazine until 2007. He won a World Fantasy Award as co-editor of Weird Tales, along with Scithers. Darrell has edited numerous anthologies, including The Secret History of Vampires (2008), Cthulhu’s Reign (2010) and Full Moon City (2010, with Martin H. Greenberg). He has a story collection called Echoes of the Goddess and a historical Cthulhu Mythos anthology titled That Is Not Dead coming out soon. Darrell also has a story, “The Runners Beyond the Wall,” in Weird Tales #360. Below, he talks about the craft of writing.

Tell us about your writing process.

I wish I had more of it. I am doing too many things and really wish I could write EVERY DAY the way so many writers do, but then I have never been a 9-to-5 sort of writer, even when I have a novel going. I once did write two chapters of a novel in a single sitting. I am usually fairly fast when I am going good. My preferred method is to write whole stories or at least whole chapters in a single sitting.

I am old enough to have been trained on a typewriter. I wrote the novels The White Isle and The Shattered Goddess on manual typewriters. It took me a while to fully adjust to computers, because I would often write two drafts, or one and a half anyway, rather than just go through a first draft and mark up a word here and there. I want to retell the story AGAIN, and this process involves pacing and free invention and considerably more than just touch-up. It’s the difference between “Remember that joke I told the other night? Well the punch line should have been this ____” and actually telling the joke again, with your timing and delivery in place. There was a period when I would write the first draft on a typewriter and then take it to the computer, revising it as I retyped it. Nowadays, still, I will sometimes begin a story on the computer, go on for several pages, realize that this isn’t quite working and then stop. I may wait a day or so. Then I will print out the fragment, open a new file, and start over, using the text before me as a rough guide until I have built up enough momentum to leap right over what stymied me the first time, and make for the ending. Usually what was wrong with the first version is that the pacing was off or I had not authentically captured the narrator’s voice (I do a lot of first-person).

You have probably deduced I am not much of an outliner. Indeed, I don’t do outlines. I also NEVER tell anyone in any detail what a story I propose to write is about. Many writers are like this. You need to tell the story on the page (or screen), not verbally, or else you will lose it. On the contrary, though, there are writers like Larry Niven who insist that if an story isn’t worth talking about and maybe worth starting an argument over, it isn’t worth writing. I suspect this is more true of idea-driven science fiction writers, than horror writers who are more interested in atmosphere and texture and often plot by something close to subconscious association. I bet mystery writers are outliners and talkers too, but I don’t know enough mystery writers to be sure. I am otherwise an expert on this subject. I have interviewed over a hundred writers over the past 39 years and almost always I ask about writing methods, even as you are doing now, so I have in effect made an extensive survey.

What are the most important questions to ask before writing a story?

I am not sure we consciously “ask” them but we develop a sense of who is this story about and why does it matter to him/her? The other one is what does this story “sound” like. That is, what is its narrative voice. This is particularly true in first-person narratives, but true in all of them. You will note that, say, The Once and Future King does not sound at all like Titus Groan. The narrative voice is totally different. But that is what gets a story started, a convincing and appropriate tone and voice.

How do you approach research? Do you tackle it before you write, during…?

Well, if I need a specific fact, I will look it up beforehand. If I am writing some sort of pastiche, I will reread the relevant material. Thus when I recently wrote a story set in Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea for an anthology, I reread some of the Hyperborean stories, of course. But that is obvious. Otherwise, I usually write about things I already know something about. If I set a story in a historical era, I will pick one I already know something about. I have written two mystery stories in which the narrator is Pliny the Younger, writing to the emperor Trajan. I am already familiar with the book of Pliny’s letters, and I know something about the period, but I would do such things as look at a map to figure out which cities Pliny was visiting in his tour as governor. I also looked at some guidebooks of Turkey to get some idea of what the landscape of Bithynia (northwestern Turkey) looks like. It wouldn’t do to describe it as forested if it’s desert. I also asked my brother, who lives in Istanbul and has lived in Ankara, to describe the landscape for me.

Much research is actually memory. When you read my story (forthcoming in WT) “He Speaks Through Those Who Do Not Die” you should be able to tell that this is written by someone who has been in the woods at night, in the winter, and done it as a child. Someone who spent all their life in a big city would have to “research” that, but I already knew it.

Since I usually write stories quickly, in a single sitting, any research is done beforehand, except maybe some fact-checking if something doesn’t look right. You also do that sort of fact-checking as an editor. As editor of The Secret History of Vampires I had to find out (because of a reference in one of the stories) if there were still gaslights in New York in the days of Conan Doyle and Houdini, for instance. (We concluded it would be unlikely.)

Everything a writer does or reads is “research.” That is because everything you know or experience can eventually find its way into a story. To mention the Pliny mysteries again, I would not have written about “The Stolen Venus” if I had not known about the multi-breasted cult statues of “Diana” from Asia Minor. I’ve seen one, in the Vatican Museum. I then went on to bend the research a little, hypothesizing that this statue represented a purely Asiatic goddess, who was identified as various Graeco-Roman deities in various places. So my characters encountered this goddess as “Venus” and somebody said, “Yes, they have one of those in Ephesus and call it Diana.”

It is very important when you go out on a limb like that to be correct, or at least cover your tracks. By that line I reassured the reader that I was at least aware that this statue is usually called the Diana of Ephesus. Or, for example, in “The Adventure of the Hanoverian Vampires” (my alternate historical Sherlock Holmes vampire cat story, which was published in Sherlock Holmes MM) I used a German phrase (to describe the wicked Hanoverian pretender, Victoria) and asked someone whose German is considerably better than my own to make sure it was right.

More generally, my favorite sort of research (for historical matters) is material written by people in the period in question. What you’re looking for is the “everybody knows” assumptions from that time and place which are different from our own. You want to know how your characters should think and what they regard as commonplaces of life. You can go as far as Gene Wolfe did in Soldier of the Mist, a novel set in ancient Greece. He learned classical Greek. I myself have never gone quite that far. The one thing I have in common with Shakespeare is that I too have little Latin and less Greek.

How do you combat writer’s block?

Ted Sturgeon (who was an expert on writer’s block, having battled with it for many years) once said that it is often a DOING block. He said if you can’t write, wash the dishes, mow the lawn, do SOMETHING. There are times when I cannot write a story because it has not come to me yet. But I have never been so “blocked” that I can’t write, say, a book review, or this interview response, for instance. It is one thing to create something out of your subconscious. Sometimes you can’t do that just now. But I at least am always able to respond to something. The best thing I can advise is try to avoid commitments for things you have not written yet. The ideal situation is to write the story first, then sell it. This is admittedly harder to do with novels. If your fictional inspiration seems to have dried up, go write non-fiction for a while.

What is your biggest stumbling block when it comes to crafting a story

I suppose I have some difficulties writing to order. I am not quite the sort of writer who can fill an assignment of “Write me a story about A, B, and C by Tuesday.” When faced with that sort of assignment I tend to get silly. Sometimes I get really inspired this way, though. I was once asked to write a vampire conspiracy story. It was for Ed Kramer’s Dark Destinies III, one of a series of anthologies involving conspiracies, new world orders, secret societies, and that sort of thing. I had already contributed the somewhat silly “One of the Secret Masters” to the first volume. Now this third volume was to be about VAMPIRE conspiracies. The result was “Kvetchula,” which is not only one of the (I dare say) best Jewish vampire stories every written in dialect voice by a Gentile, but it also did involve vampire bureaucracies, conspiracies, etc. etc. Oy vey, did my kvetching vampire complain that the coffins were cramped, the Gypsies told lousy jokes, Castle Dracula was such a mess…until finally the Count had enough, nailed her into a box, and shipped back to New Jersey by Transylvanian Express. You would think that this time I really rose to the occasion and saved myself, but, no, the editor told me he ALREADY HAD a Jewish vampire conspiracy story and so turned down mine. Fortunately it later had ‘em rolling on the floor at Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, and the story was published there to great acclaim and merriment.

My biggest “stumbling block” occurs when I find myself trying to write material which is not my own. See my essay “My Career as a Hack Writer” (in Windows of the Imagination) on this. The two real catastrophes of my career have involved novels based on other people’s material. One was a novel written around a calendar done by a famous pair of artists (the project collapsed, leaving me with an unpublishable novel) and the other was a Conan novel, Conan the Deliverer, commissioned by the de Camps, accepted and paid for by Tor, and suppressed ever since when they (entirely too late) changed their mind about the book. Neither of these is likely a great loss to literature. The Conan novel was not a very good Robert Jordan pastiche, and it wasn’t very good Schweitzer either, though there were inventive bits in it. But it mostly involved this muscular cardboard cut-out wandering through interesting landscapes. The one good thing that came out of this was that the story was set in Stygia and the Stygian underworld (the land of the dead, not gangsters) and this got me thinking about Egypt and pseudo-Egyptian settings and, once freed of all constraints, I wrote The Mask of the Sorcerer on the rebound, although Mask has nothing in common with the Conan novel other than imagery evocative of ancient Egypt. (And there is a character named Sekenre in the Conan novel, a Stygian prince, a very minor figure, bearing no resemblance to my boy-sorcerer character. I had cribbed the name from a book called The Literature of Ancient Egypt.)

The calendar novel wandered from image to image. It had a guy in a Buck Rogers type suit with a ray gun AND a girl in a loincloth AND dinosaurs AND wizards AND mammoths wandering around, and I had to try to force all this to make minimal sense. There was one funny bit set in an Atlantean fast food restaurant in which they had a T-Rex slowly roasting on a spit in the middle of the room. Most of it I can’t remember (this was written in the early ’80s) save that it wasn’t very good. I do not respond all that well to being forced to plug in arbitrary images like that. There was even a cute animal sidekick intended for the stuffed toy market.

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

It may have been the one from L. Sprague de Camp who said that the key to writing is “The application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” That is, there is no substitute for actually doing it.

My own advice to writers is to be true to yourself, do not compromise your material, and do not quit your day job.

  1. John R. Fultz
    John R. Fultz10-18-2012

    Excellent advice from a man who has given it to many folks for many years….

  2. Danel Olson
    Danel Olson11-19-2012

    As always from the eminently well-read Mr. Schweitzer, there is much entertaining here, and much that’s insightful. And, you betcha on his “Kvetchula.” I look again at that vampiric jewel every year.

    • Darrell Schweitzer
      Darrell Schweitzer01-25-2013

      Danel — Have you seen the sequel, “Kvetchula’s Daughter” in FULL MOON CITY? My wife Mattie gave me the best line in it, which can be told as a joke.

      So, what does a Jewish mother vampire say when you open her coffin?

      “Go ahead! Drive a stake through my poor heart! You’ve already broken it.”

      • Danel Olson
        Danel Olson03-15-2013

        Priceless, Darrell!

        A press should consider doing a signed deluxe treatment — with artwork — of your Kvetchula stories … or maybe a graphic novel. And you might have a “Grandson of Kvetchula” tale by now. These are horror with perfectly timed, nervy humor … and that’s not often done very well.

        Keep Kvetchula Koming!

        • Darrell Schweitzer
          Darrell Schweitzer03-15-2013

          I had planned on a third one, if I ever got a chance for a humorous zombie anthology, The basic premise is that the daughter, “happily” married off to the werewolf, has a crisis and seems about to toss him over for a zombie. Now THIS am mother can’t stand, even if she is undead. But there is ultimately a limitation here. I am not Jewish. My wife is, as is her family, but even there the only really observant relative I knew well (her uncle) died recently. As as far as Great Jewish Vampire Stories written by Gentiles, I lead the field, but I am aware that I don’t know the culture THAT well and could wear out the joke before much longer. If this ever sold to TV, the series would have to be mostly written by real Jewish writers, not fake ones like myself. I can only crib so much out of THE JOY OF YIDDISH. Oi vey, to coin a phrase, I am torn between the precaution to quit while I am ahead and the desire to go on. So, who wants a story about a Jewish mother vampire recoiling at the prospect of a zombie son-in-law? Let me give it some thought. In the end I will probably fake it one more time. At least my 82-year-old Jewish mother-in-law pronounced “Kvetchula’s Daughter” “funny as hell.”

  3. Danel Olson
    Danel Olson03-29-2013

    Hilarious! I am hoping that 3rd installment comes, Darrell, as I don’t want this fun to drain away. I have to believe the greatest goy writer of Jewish vampire stories isn’t finished with us yet.

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