Interview with sci-fi author Charles Stross

clip_image002Charlie Stross is a British science fiction author. I’m a big fan and I was thrilled when he agreed to an interview for this blog. As well as being a great writer, he’s a geek’s geek. He has blurbs from John Carmack (Doom, Quake and now rockets) and Bruce Schneier (IT security guru). We did the interview using Google Wave and this is a lightly-edited version of that discussion. Check out his website and blog. Please buy lots of his books.

You started writing young and you knew you wanted to be a sci-fi writer since age six. Is this a requirement or can people come late to novel writing and get away with it?

I think coming to fiction too early is actually a drawback. Thing is, to some extent fiction is inevitably about the human condition. And how much insight into the human condition can, say, an 18 year old give us? Some, certainly — but enough to sustain our engagement at novel length? That’s rare. Most first novels seem to be written by their authors when they’re in their late 20s/early 30s (and the exigencies of getting through the publishing industry means they seldom show up in print before the mid-30s). I don’t think this is any accident.

There are quite a few writers who only really catch their pace after they hit retirement age and quit the day job. Writing a book is time-consuming, and if you’re busy you may not have time for it.

On the other hand, from a purely commercial point of view, publishers don’t like to buy individual novels — they want to buy your career. A first novel seldom breaks even or makes a profit: they expect to get their money back some way down the line. If you show them a first novel and then say "by the way, I’m 78 years old and it took me five years to write this", you can probably forgive them for wondering how many novels you’ve got left in you.

What gets you out of bed in the morning and in front of the computer/notebook/typewriter that you use to write? Is the paycheck any part of that? (For me, as a commercial writer, it certainly is but there is also some satisfaction in crafting a good sentence or whatever.

Both. And sometimes just the urge to see what comes next; fiction is different insofar as you’re exploring and expanding a universe. There are usually surprises around every corner, and when I’m fully engaged with a story I’m actually reading it to find out what happens next. It’s much the same cognitive experience as reading someone else’s novel — but you’re much more engaged with it. Which is a whole level of reward you (or more accurately: I) don’t get from writing non-fiction.

You have a background in programming. Is writing fiction or, indeed, any kind of writing like writing code? Is it the same bits of your brain? (I used to be a developer of sorts and I think the big difference is that paragraphs don’t crash.)

Yup, there’s a weird subjective similarity between working on a large program with a whole bunch of subsystems that you have to keep track of and APIs between different modules. Sub-plots and story lines feed into the overall structure of a novel; get them wrong, the whole thing becomes unstable or internally inconsistent. Where the processes differ is that human language is nondeterministic and fault-tolerant: human brains don’t crash out with a syntax error if you feed them badly-constructed prose. A compiler is both fussier (it’ll refuse to eat a file that contains typos) and less discriminating (if you get the syntax right, it doesn’t matter if the specifications for the program are junk — it’ll still run) than a human reader.

I suspect that for all the rigorous formalism of academic computer science, actual programming is a process better understood in terms of psycholinguistics and cognitive psychology rather than pure mathematics.

How do you feel about ‘writing gurus’ who claim they can break down the writing process into programming-like steps? How did you learn your craft?

In a word: negative.

Yes, you can write using a method or a script: but I don’t believe you can write original, challenging, or innovative fiction that way.

One of the interesting characteristics of narrative fiction is that there are so many different ways to do it; our languages and cognitive functions are very elaborate. On the other hand, some styles of fiction work better than others, especially when constrained by a medium they’re being written for. "Method" writing is probably most applicable to scripts for TV or film, where the three-act format has a millennial history (dictated by the attention spans of early theatre attendees, I suspect), where the requirements of dialog per unit time are well-established (actors need time on-screen to act), and so on. In text, we’re much free-er to experiment and use different techniques. Film scripts pretty much have to use an omniscient third-person present tense narrative structure; in a novel I can paint the interior life of one or more protagonists if I feel like it (this is near-as-dammit impossible to convey on screen), or indulge in fourth-wall breaking behaviour.

Having said that, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using a writing method — but you need to be aware that the rules are merely there as guidelines, and that it’s perfectly okay to break them as long as you know why you’re breaking them, what effect you intend to achieve.

But I’ve heard of creative writing courses that brainwash their students into avoiding first-person narrative, or present-tense — they want them to do everything in tight third-person past-tense, because "that’s the way we write novels". No, it isn’t: it’s an unadventurous, conservative, timorous way of writing fiction that is relatively easy to master and doesn’t take risks.

Let’s talk practicalities. When do you write? How do you avoid distractions (apart from telling interviewers ‘no phone calls’!)? How do you write – long spells of concentration or short bursts effort interspersed with self-soothing and self-bribery (like me)? Describe your writing environment? Did you ever buy that P11Z – how did it work out for you? What impact do the tools you write with have on the way you write? (For example, do you use an outlining tool or other ways to do the skeleton first?)

My writing habits vary (mind you, I’ve been doing it full time — modulo half a decade as a programmer — for nearly 20 years now).

Right now, I try to avoid distractions by doing the creative stuff on a desktop computer — an iMac — at a desk, and keeping email and IM the hell out of the way; they live on a laptop. Web access is okay (in fact, it’s a useful research tool), but web access doesn’t clear it’s throat and tap me on the shoulder, demanding attention and breaking my concentration.

Tools: on a software level, I tend to be fanatical about cross-platform portability. I dislike Windows, but am able to use it; I mostly run Macs, but keep one foot in the Linux pool. My core tools are: Thunderbird (for email), Firefox (web browser), OpenOffice (office suite), and Vim (text editor). It’s no coincidence that they’re all open source, and run on Windows/Mac/Linux. I want to maintain ownership of my data — my business cycle is so radically different from that of the usual customers of, say, Microsoft, that I don’t want to entrust my writing to any format I can’t to some extent reverse-engineer. (Novels, for example, can remain in print for 30 years if you’re lucky; but your average business document is a fossil at 3. Ditto magazine features.) I’d stick to UTF-8 and RestructuredText files if publishers didn’t have a Microsoft Word fetish — that’s where OpenOffice comes in.

There’s only one software tool that’s tempted me from platform agnosticism, and that’s Scrivener. Scrivener is OS X only (at this time) and a really remarkable tool. It has some drawbacks that drive me nuts (it’s output file format is RTF, without semantic tagging — rather backward), but it’s amazingly useful for untangling/refactoring books with multiple plot threads that have gotten out of control. I used it on the last two Merchant Princes books, and honestly, if I hadn’t, they’d be a mess. Interestingly, it doesn’t impose some kind of theory of how a book should be structured on the user — it just lets you dump a whole pile of data (notes, clippings, chapters, scenes, whatever) into it and then view them in different contexts, tag them, sort them, and resequence them. Scrivener’s rapidly developing a cult following among working SF novelists of my acquaintance; having used it on a couple of books, I know exactly why.

Yes, I have a Vaio P11Z/B. I’m still commissioning it. I’ve got it running my core tools under Vista, which is appallingly sluggish. I’m awaiting a DVD-RW drive so I can back up the Vista system restore partition, and the Windows 7 upgrade pack. Plan is to upgrade to Windows 7, which requires the Vista partition in place. Then I’m going to back up the Vista restore partition to DVD (twice), and install Ubuntu 9.10. Then I have to get the Linux GMA500 graphics drivers working. Once Linux is stable, I can decide whether I prefer Linux (my instinctive choice, purely for security/openness) or Windows 7 (I’m willing to give it a try). But while the Vaio is running Vista it’s only marginally usable.

Now a police thriller / sci-fi book. But do you ever want to write stuff other than Sci-Fi? Does writing your blog and the other non-book writing distract or support your book work?

I’d go mad if I only worked on one thing the whole time. (Most folks work with other people. Novelists, not so much: if you go and hide in an office for eight hours a day, five days a week, working on a project that takes months or years to complete, then after a few years you’ll be a little … odd.) So I try not to do that. I get out and travel, I spend too much time poking around the net, I have a blog (and it’s a high-traffic one; about 1.5 million hits a month, comment threads that routinely exceed a hundred postings), and I try to vary what I work on. If you write a successful novel, your editors (and your readers) will all say, "that’s great, now do me another just like the last one, only different". It takes an effort to push past the automatic requests for a repeat of a successful recipe and do something new. But I can imagine few things more soul-deadening than a successful multi-decade career spent running variations on the theme established by a first novel.

The near-future police procedural is to some extent the result of an experiment. My publishers were a bit wary when, in 2005, I began bouncing up and down excitedly and announced I wanted to do a near-future novel about MMOs ("Halting State"), but HS was that unexpected surprise, the break-out tenth novel. It massively outsold its predecessors and gathered new readers, but I already had three other novels under contract — that’s why it’s taken me so long to get to work on the sequel that my editors decided they wanted within a month ofHS’s publication.

As for stuff other than SF … why would I want to do that? To the extent that fiction is the study of the human condition through contrived circumstances, SF is just fiction with a broader playing field. Mainstream is, if anything, more constrained and cramped. Sometimes constraint is good (insofar as it makes you focus on the essentials), but sometimes it just gets in the way. In particular, if you want to examine the human condition under circumstances imposed by the technological revolution that is rapidly transforming our lives, anything you write will be obsolete unless you start by pitching it fifteen minutes into the future.

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7 Responses to Interview with sci-fi author Charles Stross

  1. Peter Cooper December 10, 2009 at 6:42 pm #

    Really enjoyed this. It’s the first blog post I’ve read in full, without scanning, in Google Reader in weeks :-) I’m not really that familiar with Stross’s work, but he seems like a very interesting guy.

  2. Brandon December 31, 2009 at 1:56 am #

    Read STROSS now! Accelerando is free online and the most audacious SF mind-bender i’ve ever read – and what I like most about Stross is you get the feeling he knows how his deus ex machinas and unobtainium actually work – its all conceivable/probable/possible technology for the most part – based in hard science theory and science fact…. his other works are diverse, from space opera to sci-fi/horror/crime/tech/whatever, but his dark sense of humor and skilled torture of his protagonists is on a consistent level of rare quality….

    • Matthew Stibbe December 31, 2009 at 8:28 am #

      Couldn’t agree more. I’m a big fan of his. Matthew

  3. AndyAndersen January 1, 2010 at 2:14 pm #

    Great interview with some great insite. I will check out the book online mentioned by Brandon before heading to the bookstore for a hardcopy. Sounds like a real thoughtful, down-to-earth(pun) guy. Cheers.

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