Writer Wednesday: 10 Questions with Ken Liu

I’ve realized that I know some awesomely brilliant writers. Whether just starting to make a name for themselves or authors who’ve been working in this field for decades, they have insights into writing that I may never have gotten to myself, and I wanted to know more. I wanted their secrets, their advice, the gleaming nuggets of wisdom plucked from their brains. So, I asked a few questions (10, to be precise), and these wonderful people answered. I’ve decided to share these interviews with you because I learned something about writing and you might too.

First up is science fiction author, program, and tax lawyer (yes, really), Ken Liu:

1. You were a programmer before you were a lawyer, and now in addition to that job you’ve added husband, father, and writer. How has your writing changed as you’ve acquired these new experiences? Can you see the effect of your life on your work over time, or has your style remained constant?

I think the experiences of a writer can’t help but show up in his fiction—mutated, transformed, sublimated, disguised—but they’ll be there. You write about what’s on your mind. I thought much more about parenthood after my daughter was born, and the theme of parenthood became much more prominent in my stories. My ideas about the law shifted after studying it and practicing it for a while, and that change is reflected in my stories as well.

I hope that just as we grow more interesting and wiser over time—a notion that some would question—we also become better writers. So I’d like to think that my writing has improved over the years as I’ve learned more about the world and myself. But some things have stayed constant over the years. There’s a certain lens that I view the world through which leaves its mark on everything I write. I have a hard time articulating exactly what that mark is, but even my earliest stories have the same “flavor” as my latest ones.

2. Because you have less time to devote to writing than perhaps someone who writes full-time, do you have to make choices about which ideas you’re going to work on? If so, how do you decide which stories to breath life into?

When I sit down to draft or edit, it takes a while to get the work-in-progress back into my head before I can be productive. Because of this cost for context switching and the many demands and interruptions imposed by the non-writing life, I usually avoid ideas that have a tendency to sprawl all over the place. But some big ideas just refuse to let me go. I’ve been collaborating with my wife on a novel, and now I’m thinking of starting another one by myself. I need to develop processes that will allow me to work on a big idea through short sessions spread out over a long period of time.

3. What was the first story you ever sold, and how would you have written if differently if you had to do it again tomorrow?

The very first story that I sold, “Carthaginian Rose,” was bought in 2002 by Empire of Dreams and Miracles: The Phobos Science Fiction Anthology (v. 1), edited by Orson Scott Card and Keith Olexa. I still like that story, and if I were to do it again today, I think the main thing I would change is the drafting process. Back then, I wrote extremely slowly (it took me more than half a year to finish a first draft for a short story), and I didn’t understand how to work with critiques—I had a hard time telling apart comments that I needed to think about and comments that I needed to ignore. Writing faster and getting better at making use of feedback are two skills I’ve improved since then. Continue reading

Readercon 2011 Recap: Saturday / Sunday (and we’re done)

I’ve previously talked about the books I brought home from Readercon, some Readercon advice on writing an author blurb, and recapped Thursday/Friday.

Saturday morning was breakfast at Panera, then panels:

11 AM Book Design and Typography in the Digital Era Neil Clarke, Erin Kissane, Ken Liu, David G. Shaw (leader), Alicia Verlager. From this I found out that Ken knows quite a bit about the history of the book and its evolution from scroll to codex to ebook, making him officially one of my favorite people ever. This was one of the most informed panels I attended, and I felt that all of the panelists had useful things to add to the discussion. I only wished it were longer.

12:00 PM Daughters of the Female Man Matthew Cheney, Gwendolyn Clare, Elizabeth Hand (leader), Barbara Krasnoff, Chris Moriarty. I tend to avoid panels on women’s issues in fiction, honestly. I’m of the school that we should promote damn fine writers who happen to be women as opposed to promoting women writers and hoping they’re good. I come from an academic background and am particularly informed by the discussion about women’s place in art history, and the (absurd) question which always gets asked, “Why are there no good women artists?” However this panel was excellent both for it’s suggestions for further reader and for the way it didn’t focus on anything other than good writing by women. Notable for this panel was the absurd statement from the audience about how the panel should have done “a little more work” and created an annotated bibliography to hand out (you know, so we wouldn’t have to read anything on our own).

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Readercon 2011 Recap: Thursday / Friday

The drive up to Boston was easy and uneventful save for the sudden realization that I was actually driving through the Bronx. That wasn’t clear from the directions, which essentially said take 95N from NJ to Connecticut, so you can understand why the first time I drove over the George Washington bridge and into the Bronx I was a little surprised. I stopped in Orange, CT, for breakfast at a place called Chip’s Diner, home to some pretty good buttermilk pancakes. That was my halfway point, and the rest of the drive was pretty but boring. I found the hotel with little trouble, got checked into my room, unpacked my suitcase, fell onto the big, fluffy bed, relaxed in the air conditioning, and very nearly fell asleep.

That would have been bad because I was due to pick Don Pizarro up from the airport an hour later. Logan Airport was only 12 miles from the hotel, but I wanted to be early if possible so he didn’t have to wait. Plus, Bart Lieb needed Don to read at the Broken Slate/Crossed Genres reading Friday night, so he insisted that I get up. I shared the elevator back down to the lobby with another woman – we looked at each other, said, “Readercon?” and both nodded. “I’m going to the gym to try to bike off this headache,” she said. “You?” I told her I was off to the airport. “Oh, at this time? I’m sorry,” she said, as the doors opened, and we waved our goodbyes. I wondered at that, got into my car, and for the first few miles I made good time. Switching onto 93 for the other 9 miles of the trip left me in dead-stop traffic. It ultimately took me 50 minutes to travel those 9 miles, by which time, Don’s plane was due to have landed. I finally pulled in, and called – no answer. I got into the terminal, since I had his flight info I knew where I was supposed to be, called again and … no answer. I checked the Starbucks (we’re writers, of course we gravitate toward coffee and wifi) but no luck. Called again and found his plane had arrived late; he was just getting off it now. Perfect! I wasn’t late after all. We found each other easily after that, got back to the hotel faster than I’d made it out to the airport, and after dropping his stuff off, made our way to the hotel bar.

My room was near the Con Suite, which was not, as directions would suggest, out the 6th floor window.

I did mention that we were writers, right?

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New Sale! (Now with added details)

I’m pleased to announce I’ve sold my story, “Call Center Blues” to DAILY SCIENCE FICTION. It’s going through the editing process now and I’ll post a link once it’s live on the site. This is the sale I was so very excited about last week. At 8 cents per word, this is my first pro-rate sale, and it’s in science fiction to boot! Though I don’t want to give too much away, I will say that this story comes directly from my current day job, working in a tech support call center. While dealing with customers who don’t actually want the features they’ve ordered is part of my daily routine, I wondered what would happen if the unwanted feature was me, or someone just like me. “Call Center Blues” evolved from there.

Thank you for all of your support.

New Sale! Shh!

I’ve gotten word today that I’ve sold a new flash fiction piece to a very respected, pro-rate market. I can’t jump around and squee about it nearly as much as I’d like until the contracts are signed and I’ve been told it’s ok, but you can bet I’m jumping and squeeing quietly over here.

All right. Probably not that quietly.

But, I’m so pleased! Details happily announced as soon as I can.