"So you Want to Be a Paperback (and hardcover) Writer....?"
In a new feature we are calling "What's that job all about?" We will explore various careers. Some, you may not have even heard of. Today, we have the pleasure of presenting our interview with Ilsa J. Bick, author, child psychiatrist, and all around nice person.
1) Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, here’s what the blurb for Draw the Dark, my new YA paranormal mystery, says:
Ilsa J. Bick is a child psychiatrist, as well as a film scholar, surgeon wannabe, former Air Force major—and an award-winning, best-selling author of short stories, e-books, and novels. She has written extensively in the Star Trek, Battletech, Mechwarrior: Dark Age, and Shadowrun universes. Her original stories have been featured in numerous anthologies, magazines and online venues. Ilsa's YA paranormal, Draw the Dark, was also a semifinalist for the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (as Stalag Winter). Ilsa currently lives with her family and other furry creatures in rural Wisconsin and across the street from the local Hebrew cemetery. One thing she loves about the neighbors: They're very quiet and come around for sugar only once in a blue moon.
That’s pretty accurate. I should probably add that I’m old enough to know better, but that makes me sound, you know, decrepit.
Mainly, I make stuff up and, sometimes, they pay me for it.
I’d love to say that I’ve ALWAYS wanted to be a writer, but that would be a lie. I’ve always been a storyteller, though. Mainly, I told myself stories when I did chores. Helped pass the time. The only actual writing I did was really bad epic poetry in high school and college.
I didn’t start writing anything resembling fiction until I’d been a doc for a couple years. By then, I’d already gotten bored a couple times, mainly during my residency, so I went back to school at night and got a degree in literature and film studies. For awhile there, I was a shrink and wrote a ton of academic articles on film and television. I had fun; the articles gave me a great excuse to watch movies and TV; and I presented at places like the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on a show I LOVED: Star Trek. (Yes, I admit it: I am/was a Trekkie. No, I do not have Spock ears; Spock just never floated my boat. Yes, I do know how to do the Vulcan salute, and I can do that with both hands, so I guess that makes me bilingual. Sorry, there’s no such thing as a Vulcan Death Grip—but don’t think I haven’t been tempted.)
Somewhere in all that, though, my husband pulled me aside and said something like, “Why don’t you stop writing these articles and write a couple stories?” I don’t remember what I said—probably something very original like, what?—but about twelve, fourteen years ago, I started writing. Had no idea what I was doing. Just did it, and yes, I started with something I knew: Star Trek. I wrote six books—three Trek, three non-Trek—and about thirty stories, all deservedly unpublished. I got so many rejections, I could’ve padded a couple mattresses (and I still get plenty of rejections).
Anyway, I got discouraged. I mean, after two, three years, I was no further along than when I started! So I was going to give up when I saw a Trek contest for fans called Strange New Worlds. Basically, anyone who wasn’t a pro could enter. So I figured, fine, I'll write one last story, send it and forget it.
So I did. My family went away on vacation; I stayed home for a week, went to Borders, drank gallons of coffee, and wrote a story. Pen and ink. Took me about three, four days. Typed it up, sent it, forgot it. Didn’t write another speck. Let my word processor rot.
The day before Thanksgiving, I get this call from the Pocket editor, and he said, “Congratulations, you won Grand Prize.”
So that was my first publication, first sale—and it was a prize-winner. Bought myself a new refrigerator with the money.
3) What is one thing that would surprise us about being an author? What is your work schedule like when you're writing? How long does it take you to write a book?
Oh, there are so many surprising things, I can’t name them all.
First off, though, writing requires discipline and HARD WORK! (Okay, not as hard as a handling a classroom of eighth-graders—still.)
And writing is a lonely business! There’s no muse! There’s no magic; there are no shortcuts or formulae. Words don’t just appear on a page, and you fail way more than you succeed, at least at first (although I still fail plenty).
Oh, and if you think you’re going to earn a living at first? Hah! A pro rate for a story is . . . wait for it . . . three cents a word. You read that right. Three cents. Most of the time, it’s less. (Books are different, but even a book sale isn’t huge. Until this past year, if it hadn’t been for my long-suffering husband, I’d have been living in the middle of the street and eating tofu and air.) Hang around waiting for that muse to strike, and you’ll starve to death.
Here’s the thing about writing: if you’re going to actually earn a living or get yourself published, writing is a job. Now, it might be a part-time job at first—I was part-time until 2005—but it’s still a job, and the job description goes something like this:
That is: Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard—By Yourself, Buddy.
That means, when you go to your job, you’re at work. I used to tell my kids: unless there’s fire with flames or that boo-boo involves arterial blood (sorry, a slow ooze won’t do), then I’m working.
All writers are different in terms of how they structure their time. My typical workday—and we’re talking since I began full-time writing—begins at 8 a.m., six days a week and sometimes seven, if a deadline’s looming and I’ve been a doofus with my time.
Then I write until I meet my daily goal. What’s a goal? Well, for some writer’s it’s "x-number of words"; for others, x-number of pages; and still others, x-number of hours. Me, I go by number of pages. Unless I’m at the very beginning of a book (when, honestly, getting those first pages onto a blank screen is like taking out my tonsils with a fork), I write twelve pages a day—and I stay there until I get those 12 pages.
Sometimes, that means I work four, five hours; sometimes that means I take a break at the five-hour mark, go exercise, make dinner for my husband so he doesn’t eat a cat, and then go back to work.
How long a book takes depends on what type of book you’re talking about, and then factor in thinking time, outlining time, research time. Failure time (because you will fail; not everything you write will—or should—see the light of day).
Everyone’s different, but I tend to think and then outline a book. That can take as little as a week and as long as a month and once, it took me two months by the end of which time I was climbing the walls, I wanted to write so bad. (I’m not the kind of writer who can write short stories while also researching for another book; my brain just won’t cooperate. Now I do write short stories but many fewer than I used to. Normally, I’ll let myself write a short story between books. Then send it, forget it; turn it around when it’s rejected.)
Once I start the actual writing-writing, though, I aim to finish a book in about three months. Sometimes less, depending. (I once wrote a Mechwarrior book in six weeks because another writer crapped out, but I don't recommend that. On the other hand, I know pros who can churn out a book in a week. If I had to, I guess I’d figure a way, but it’s just never come up.)
4) What would you tell a high school student who wants to be a writer?
You mean, besides read, read, read and write, write, write? Well, I’m not any kind of expert, and there are tons of very good books out there on this (my favorite is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft [Scribner, 2000]). But here’s what I’d tell you. Do everything King says—(oh, and everything Robert Heinlein said: http://www.sfwriter.com/ow05.htm) and then a couple more.
First off: Learn from pros. Don’t take creative writing classes.
Don’t major in creative writing.
If, somehow, you end up in a creative writing class taught by a non-pro, plug up your ears and go la-la-la-la-la very loudly until they throw you out.
Learning how to use a writer’s tools isn’t something you learn in some university classroom unless the teacher just happens to be a professional writer: a published, professional writer. Going to workshops put on by WELL-PUBLISHED PROS is way different than sitting through a class by someone who’s sold a couple stories to a literary magazine about five people have heard of, or—maybe—published one book and sold ten copies, all to his grandmother.
Think of it this way: If you needed an operation, wouldn’t you like a surgeon who’s done a ton of operating? Whose patients have actually, you know, survived?
Why should your education as a writer be any different? Why would you NOT want to take a workshop with a pro, someone who actually earns a living doing what you’d like to do yourself?
When you take a class, you are writing for a grade. You are writing to please one person. Not only that, you’re paying to please that person.
That is not the same as paying to please a published pro who may, yes, tear you to shreds (writers can be ruthless). That is not the same as pleasing an editor who will be thrilled to pay you for the privilege of sharing your work. (I’ve actually had one editor apologize for not being able to pay me more.)
Unless your teacher is, say, John Grisham or Stephen King or any other highly successful writer, just what do you think you’re going to learn in a creative writing class? And, yes, before you ask: I have taken seminars with people like Tess Gerritsen and Michael Palmer; I’ve listened to writers like Lee Child and James Patterson and Nora Roberts and a bunch more besides. Two of my mentors— a husband-wife team, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch—have sold about two hundred books between them. Have they torn up my work? You bet. Did it hurt? Uh-huh. Did I get upset and pissed off? Yup. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, though—and I still learn things from them because the other thing about being a writer is: you’re always learning from other writers, every day.
Second: Go to where the writers are. (No, no, not your local writers’ group, unless it just happens to be populated by PUBLISHED, PROFESIONAL WRITERS. Most groups aren’t; in fact, most groups are death because they’re filled with insecure, unpublished, envious, very snarky writers who will KILL what you write. Writing can not be done by committee.) Go to conventions. Go to signings and listen to presentations. Take workshops.
Third: If you’re going to be a writer, put your ego in a box. I mean it. You think I’m joking? Not a chance. In fact, Mine's an old earring box that says "Ego Box" on the side and that sucker sits right on top of my computer, so I have no excuse not to use it.
The thing is, ego has no place in writing because, trust me, plenty of people will hate what you do. They will tell you that your writing stinks—often because it does. As with any kind of art, showing your stuff to other people—editors, principally, but certainly other pro writers in a pro workshop—takes guts.
Just remember: most of the time, it’s not about you. (If you really believe it is about you, then feel free to tell them where to go—unless you’ve been a total jerk.) It’s about what you wrote. If you ask the right people for help—pro writers that you trust—then you need to be able to listen when they say you’ve made a mistake. Now, you’re still responsible for yourself; they’re giving you an opinion that you are free to ignore because no one has the right answer a hundred percent of the time. But if you’ve asked for an opinion, it’s not their job to make you feel good. You want to feel good, get a dog. (Don’t get cats to feel good; cats only care about you if you might die and forget to feed them.)
Above all, if you want to be writer, remember this: have fun, enjoy the ride and buckle your seatbelts.
To learn more about Ilsa Bick, check out her website at www.ilsajbick.com
To purchase Ilsa's book Draw the Dark (from Amazon) or from Indiebound Draw the Dark
Other Authors of interest: Dean Wesley Smith Kristine Kathryn Rusch
We would love to hear from you, especially after you read Ilsa's book. Please leave a comment or contact me directly at Paul@morethangrades.com or stop by at MoreThanGrades.com