Robert J. Sawyer
Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer Shares His Process and Writerly Wisdom
Interviewed by Gene Wilburn
I met Robert J. Sawyer in the mid-1980s before he had published his first novel. At the time we were both writing for the same Canadian computer magazine. It has been my distinct pleasure to watch his career as a science fiction writer unfold with one prize-winning novel after another. Rob is one of only eight writers in history—and the only Canadian—to win all three of the world’s top science fiction awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo (Hominids), the Nebula (The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (Mindscan).
Rob has published twenty-two novels, three short story collections, and has been a frequent speaker at conferences and on TV and radio. His novel FlashForward was adapted as an ABC television series of the same name, for which Rob was also a screenwriter, and his WWW Trilogy (Wake, Watch, Wonder) and his novel Triggers are to be produced for the screen. In addition to his writing and guest appearances, Rob has frequently been a writing instructor and mentor, helping others advance their writing careers.
Most recently, the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association has bestowed on Rob a Lifetime Achievement Award and Rob has been inducted into the new Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Gene Wilburn: Rob, you’re a very prolific and successful author and our readers would be highly interested in knowing about how you approach your writing, what tools you use, how you organize your materials, and any advice you might share with aspiring writer.
My first question has to do with your choice of WordStar, a DOS-based, 1980s-era word processor for your writing. Why WordStar, and do you encounter any challenges running it on today’s computer hardware?
Robert J. Sawyer: In its day, WordStar was the number-one word-processing program in the world, and although it hasn’t been updated since 1992, it still runs circles around Word and its clones. First and foremost, WordStar was designed for ease of repetitive use, not ease of learning. Software today is all about how quickly you can get up and running with it; WordStar was all about, once you know it, how quickly you can do things you’ll need to do a dozen times a day for the rest of your career. In WordStar, you never take your hands off the home typing row—not just input but all issuing of commands is done from there. The notion that a typist would take hands off the home row—the A, S, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, and semicolon row—is madness, but Word and its ilk wants you to constantly do so to use a mouse, or to hit a function key, or to use the cursor pad.
I’m not alone in my continued fondness for WordStar. George R.R. Martin uses it, too. You think he’s taking a long time writing the latest Game of Thrones book? I shudder to think how much slower he’d be if he was using Word!
As for using it under modern hardware, well, it is a DOS program, and the last version of Windows that really got along with DOS was XP, so I still use that. But I run it with 4DOS.COM—now free—as a COMMAND.COM replacement, and with TameDOS, a wonderful console enhancer. The combination works even better than WordStar did on a native DOS system, and flawlessly integrates with the Windows clipboard, USB printers, and so on. I expound at length on the advantages of WordStar over WordPerfect, Word, and other select-then-do bully-me-into-your-way-of-working word processors on my website (sfwriter.com/wordstar.htm).
“My year has more structure than my days, actually. Each of my novels—I’m finishing up my twenty-third right now—takes me about a year to produce.”
GW: Could you describe your general writing environment and daily writing routine for us?
RJS: Well, the beauty of having been self-employed for thirty years now is that I don’t have a daily routine; routine is what a 9-to-5 forces upon you. I go to bed when I’m tired, get up when I’m rested, and write when I feel like it. I actually have three workstations set up in my home: one in my office, one in my living room (so I can see the fireplace), and one in my sun room; they’re all sharing the same files through Dropbox, so I move about during the day as the mood strikes me.
My year has more structure than my days, actually. Each of my novels—I’m finishing up my twenty-third right now—takes me about a year to produce. The first four months are devoted to research specific to that novel: full days of reading books, articles, and so forth on whatever I need to know for the current work. The novel I’m writing now is called The Philosopher’s Zombie, and is about the possibility of complex human behavior without self-awareness, so I’ve been digging into a lot of cognitive science. This is my favorite part of the process; I love research and learning new things.
The next three months are devoted to the first draft. I try to do 2,000 words a day during that stage, and my books all weigh in about 100,000 words. If all went perfectly, I’d have a first draft in 50 days, but with the vicissitudes of life, and doing other interesting things on the side, it tends to take three months to get that done.
So, that’s the first seven months of the year; the next four are spent polishing and revising—draft after draft after draft, honing, rearranging, cutting. And then the manuscript is sent to my editors—one in New York, one in Toronto, and one in London—and I cross my fingers that they’ll all agree on what, if any, changes they want.
The final month of the year is spent with a book tour and other events to promote the novel I’d finished a year previously, which will have just come out at this point. And then the cycle begins again.
GW: You travel quite often to conventions, awards events, speaking engagements, and consultations on screen adaptations of your work. Do you do any writing when you’re on the road, and if so, what portable writing tools do you use?
RJS: Absolutely! I’d be doomed if I didn’t write on the road; I’m very good at writing on airplanes—I love a nice four- or five-hour flight.
I’m a huge fan of what are called netbook computers—a class of small, cheap laptop computers pioneered by Asus, but also for a while with models from Acer, HP, and Dell. Sadly, all of those manufacturers have abandoned that form factor. I own seven Asus Eee PC 1000HE units, all bought used or refurbished off of eBay; they’re well under $200 a unit, and if one gets damaged, lost, or simply wears out, I swap in another. Also, if I frequently travel somewhere, I keep an external monitor, ergonomic keyboard, and mouse in a friend’s closet in that city, and use them when I’m there; I have three such caches set up currently.
GW: Your novels are considered hard science fiction, based solidly on existing science and its projections into the future, and you’ve said a large portion of your time is spent researching and learning about the science that forms the background of your work. What tools do you use for note-keeping and organization?
RJS: In my 30s and 40s, I managed to keep most of it in my head; now that I’m 55, I find it harder to keep track of it all mentally. I honestly don’t think our brains slow down much as we age, but evolution hasn’t given us the sort of optimized, scalable search algorithms that Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with for Google: the more we know, the longer it takes to retrieve something. And so these days, I use Evernote to manage a lot of my research. It’s about ninety percent of the tool I want it to be, and it does keep getting better. I’m a premium subscriber, mostly because I want to support them, but the free version is entirely adequate for most writers. I use so many computers that I simply refuse to incorporate any software that requires per-machine activation into my workflow: Evernote’s chief competitor is Microsoft’s OneNote, but that requires licensing per machine, and that is so last millennium.
GW: Do you use production/project management software to manage your time?
RJS: No, I use the old-fashioned method: guilt. I finally felt guilty enough about not having answered your interview questions, Gene, that I decided today was the day! Same with everything: the to-do list is always longer than I want it to be, but the triage is based on which things I can knock off the list that have been gnawing at me.
“…the tiny, character-driven bits, the quieter scenes, the epiphanies, are often what the reader remembers most; they’re the heart and soul of your writing…”
GW: Is your approach to novel writing that of a plotter or a pantser (an organic, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach) and what tools do you use for organizing your plots?
RJS: A traditionally published novelist’s career goes through three stages. At the beginning, the only way to sell a novel is to have written one: no publisher is going to buy an unfinished manuscript from a newbie. Then you transition to getting contracts based on outlines: you have to have plotted it out, in some detail, to show the publisher you’ve got a viable notion—so, in mid-career, everyone’s a plotter, whether it’s their natural inclination or not. Then you reach the point where your publisher basically says, “Hey, how about another novel?” And you say, “Okay,” and off you go. At that point, you can go back to being a pantser.
I don’t like outlining, but I always regret not having done more of it at the outset. Outlining is great for the big moments—the president is shot!—but hard to do for the tiny moments, and yet the tiny, character-driven bits, the quieter scenes, the epiphanies, are often what the reader remembers most; they’re the heart and soul of your writing, and they’re the least amenable to working out step-by-step in advance.
So, call me a pantser. That said, I have long been a software junkie, and I’m always looking for something to give me an edge. When I was a teenager, writing my first stories, before the personal-computer revolution, I plotted on 3×5-inch index cards, because that’s what the how-to-write books said to do (and it’s still how most scriptwriting is done). I’ve looked for good software solutions in that vein, but the problem is 3×5 index cards are inefficient, in the same way that the old dBase II database structure was inefficient: you had a fixed amount of space for each field—500 characters, say—and every field took up the same space, whether the actual content was just a single word or a whole paragraph.
So, I like Writer’s Blocks by Ashley Software. Instead of fixed-sized blocks, it uses blocks that size vertically to fit the actual text, making better use of your screen real estate. The downside is that, to do that, you have to have your blocks organized in columns not traditional rows. But I like that program very much.
I also have an iPad Air, and on it I use the app prosaically called Index Card by a developer named DenVog. It is knee-deep in skeuomorphic design, which is an outmoded approach: ruled pink and blue lines on its index cards, which look and behave exactly like the physical things. But it does a better job on the iPad than any of its competitors.
GW: How important do you think it is for an aspiring writer to be well-read in the genre he or she is writing in?
RJS: It is crucial, because your audience is well-read in that genre. Every beginning science-fiction writer thinks their ideas are new and fresh. It was Earth all along! Their names were Adam and Eve! Every beginning mystery writer thinks, ha, I’ll show them all—I’ll write one in which the detective is the murderer, or in which the butler really did do it. You have to know the field you’re working in. If traditionally publishing, you’ll never get by an editor if you don’t, and if self-publishing, you’ll become a laughingstock.
GW: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block, or do you consider writer’s block a myth?
RJS: Not only is it a myth, it’s a pernicious myth that writers foisted upon themselves. We’re storytellers, and we sold the public on the story that, oh, you, there, Mr. School Teacher, you have to work even if you don’t feel like it, and you there, Ms. Corporate Drone, you have to put in lots of unpaid overtime just to stay afloat, but, we, the writers, have this get-out-of-jail-free card. Sorry, can’t work today—or tomorrow, or this year—because I’m blocked; the muse isn’t with me. Come on!
GW: When your works are adapted to screen, and you are involved in screenwriting, what tools do you use for formatting your work?
RJS: Sometimes I’m involved, sometimes I’m not. For FlashForward, I was consultant on every episode and wrote one of the episodes myself; for the Triggers feature film that’s in development, I’ve written the screenplay; for the adaptation of my novels Wake, Watch, and Wonder, I’m attached to write the pilot and executive produce.
The industry standard for scriptwriting is a program called Final Draft. It does an adequate—no better—job of formatting a screenplay, but it’s a terrible word processor, with only a skeletal set of features. I wrote my own scriptwriting macros for WordStar, and with them I can blast through writing a screenplay much faster than I can with Final Draft.
There’s a standard plain-text screenplay-markup format called Fountain, which, of course, to protect its market position, Final Draft doesn’t support. But a wonderful program called Fade In Professional does, and so I output from WordStar to that for final formatting of scripts. Fade In is usable on as many computers as you own, unlike Final Draft, which thinks Hollywood writers should have twenty cars and eight bathrooms but only two computers. In the end, if the producer wants a Final Draft file, Fade In exports flawlessly to that format.
GW: How do you track and organize the business side of your writing? (submissions tracking, accounts payable/receivable, contracts pending, scheduling, promotion, legal, etc.)
RJS: Honestly? By doing none of it myself. For almost twenty years now I’ve employed my wife full-time as my salaried assistant. She does almost all of that stuff for me. I was losing two days a week to the administrative overhead of keeping my writing business going; now, I spend all that time actually writing. Of course, I also have agents in New York and Hollywood, and lawyers in Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles whom I call on as the need arises, and an excellent accountant.
GW: You’re a writer who relishes technology. I noticed at a few of your book-launch readings over the years, that you often use handheld devices to read from, rather than from the book itself. What device do you currently use when giving readings?
RJS: Yeah, I’ve been doing that for over a decade, starting with reading from a Palm OS device. I like to gesticulate when I do public readings, acting scenes out, and you can’t do that if you’re holding a paper book in two hands. As for reading from a manuscript, with so many words on the page, most authors are afraid to look up at their audience, lest they lose their place. The small screen of a handheld is ideal for public readings.
I export my novel manuscripts into ePub files and load them into iBooks, and read from my iPhone 5s. iBooks isn’t my favorite e-reading app—Kobo is—but for this particular application it’s a good choice. The key is to have a program that displays a full screen of text, then displays the next full screen of text—it has to page through the document, not scroll through it.
GW: Many new writers are considering self-publishing their work to try to build a following and to get noticed. You’ve always followed the traditional route of agents and publishers for your work. What is your opinion about self-publishing for a new writer starting out?
RJS: The landscape has changed enormously in recent years, and I have many friends and colleagues who are self-publishing now. The high e-book royalty rates are appealing, and the immediacy—finish a book this morning, have it on sale worldwide this afternoon—is likewise appealing. But discoverability is the problem: there is a flood of self-published material. No matter which path you choose—or a hybrid combination—the chances of success are, sadly, small.
GW: Do you have any advice for writers seeking an agent?
RJS: Well, the easiest way is to get an offer from a publisher then phone or email your agent of choice and ask if he or she will represent you. But then there’s the catch-22 of getting an editor to read an unagented submission. So the standard career path is to establish your credentials—either through short-story sales, building an impressive online platform such as a popular blog, or being a recognized expert who wants to write in your area of expertise—and querying agents; it actually works.
GW: Do you have any advice for writers negotiating a contract without an agent?
RJS: One word: don’t. The big-five publishers have different boilerplate for agented and unagented authors, and the one presented to unagented authors is rapacious in the extreme. Also, you’ve got no clout; agents bring the clout of their ongoing pool of business dealings with that publisher to the table.
GW: If there were a single piece of advice you could give to new writers, what would it be?
RJS: Tell your stories. Don’t worry about what the market is looking for, don’t write in somebody else’s universe, don’t do a knockoff of somebody else’s book. Write the things that are uniquely yours with as much clarity and passion as you can, and trust, with seven billion of us on this dustball, that there will be thousands who will embrace the work that you alone can offer the world. ■
To learn more about Robert J. Sawyer, visit his website: sfwriter.com.