Twenty Questions for the Delphic Oracle
(aka: the Esther Friesner FAQ)
click on the arrow to see the answer!
- When did you begin writing?
I don’t remember the first time I actually wrote a story on my own, but when I was three years old I drew a picture and asked my mother to write down the story I dictated about what was going on in the picture.I began wanting to see my work professionally published when I was in 7th grade, if not before.
It wasn’t until years later—after I married, received got my Ph.D., held my first teaching job, and gave birth to my first child—that I sold my first short fiction.
When I tell aspiring writers “Don’t stop trying” I know what I’m talking about!
- Why did you start writing YAs?
I was invited to contribute to the YA anthology, Young Warriors, for Random House. “Thunderbolt” is about young Helen of Troy. One of her myths says she was so beautiful, even as a teen, that Theseus of Athens fell in love with her and carried her off. (Yes, that Theseus, the one who fought the minotaur.) Traditionally, she’s rescued from Theseus by her brothers, Castor and Polydeukes, but I thought she was perfectly capable of saving herself. After all, she was a Spartan, the Spartans had a history of favoring strength in both men and women, and sheer muscle-power is not the only kind of strength. Helen was no match for her captor in a physical fight, but in a battle of wits? Helen-1, Theseus-0.When I received the page proofs for “Thunderbolt,” the cover letter didn’t just say “Please read these proofs, make any necessary corrections, and get them back to us by such-and-such a date.” It said what a hit my Helen was and would I be interested in writing a novel about her?
Would I? [G]
As I worked on Nobody’s Princess, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to fit all of Helen’s story into just one book, so I turned to my editor for advice. She said to give Helen two books, which I did with Nobody’s Prize.
Since the two-book series model was so well-received for both Helen and Nefertiti (in Sphinx’s Princess and Sphinx’s Queen) it looks like we’ll be sticking to it, though there is always the possibility I’ll be able to go back and add a third book to any of the existing series at some point, if the readers want it enough.
- Who are some authors who inspire you?I am probably going to forget someone, because I admire and enjoy the work of many writers, so please consider this a partial response: Terry Pratchett, Joan Sfar (French graphic novelist), Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men in a Boat), Miguel de Cervantes, Colette (Best-known for Gigi, but you should read her short stories about animals; they’re wonderful!), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudyard Kipling, Lucy Maud Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables), Lope de Vega (I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about this Spanish playwright—a contemporary of Shakespeare–who crafted over one thousand plays plus many other works), Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn), Jorge Amado (Brazilian novelist), lots of poets, and many, many, many graphic novelists and creators of manga.
- What did you read growing up?
Everything I could lay my hands on. That includes the Emily Post guide to etiquette. (My parents had a lot of books in the house and they were kept where I could at all of them easily, so I did!) I was especially fond of Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo and read the collections we had until they fell to pieces. I still have them, tattered but loved. My dad was a great fan of Rudyard Kipling’s work and I followed suit. I couldn’t get enough of The Jungle Books and his short stories. I think they’re utter gems. The first book/series that truly became a part of me was the work of Edward Eager, including such fantastic tales as Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, The Time Garden, and above all, Knight’s Castle. This was followed–in terms of making a deep “That’s what I want to do when I grow up!” impression—by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
- What do you enjoy reading now?
I still love to read and re-read really masterful short stories, so See Above (Colette, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudyard Kipling). The same goes for certain graphic novels and manga. I realize this covers a lot of territory, so let me add that you won’t find me enjoying anything with gratuitous, graphic, shock-value-only violence, cruelty, or repetitive plot devices (“Ah, you have defeated the Evil Space-Koala and obtained the four-hundred-seventy-third Mystic Eucalyptus Leaf! Now you must fight the Hyper-Evil Ninja Space-Koala, but be of good cheer, you have only nine hundred thirty seven more Mystic Eucalyptus Leaves to collect in order to save the world!”)
- Do you plan to write YA with female protagonists always?I don’t know. I really enjoy writing the Princesses of Myth series and would love to continue with it. I still have a lot to say about the subject, so while I don’t discard the possibility of branching out some day, it’s not in my immediate plans.
- Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?
It might sound as if I’m dismissing this question too lightly, but the true answer is this: Everywhere.I used to think that the rule of Write About What You Know meant I could not write about things I had not experienced personally, but I’ve learned that’s a harmfully narrow interpretation. Think about it: If we could only write about things we experienced firsthand, no male author could have any female characters and vice-versa. All of the murder mystery writers would be in jail. And what about the authors of vampire novels? Have you ever tried to fit a word processor into a coffin?
Writing demands imagination and imagination lets us open our minds to the great What If. . .? I try my best to go through life with my eyes and my mind open, ready to receive new ideas for stories. And they really are everywhere.
I’ve gotten ideas from places I’ve been, people I’ve met, things that have happened to me or to friends and family, things I see on the news, in museums, in malls, subjects I read about in novels, history books, graphic novels, fairy tales, folklore, and more.
None of these need to be huge, life-changing, earth-shaking events, either. Consider these:
Exhibit A: I went to the dentist for a tooth-cleaning and wound up turning my hygienist into a witch who fought evil using enchanted dental floss. (By the way, I told my hygienist about this story and she loved it!)
Exhibit B: I live in a small town in suburban Connecticut. Having read lots of fairy tales, I know that people used to believe (and for all I know, still do) that elves and pixies and gremlins and such were very much a part of their daily lives. If someone vanished without a trace, what had happened? The fairies had whisked them away.
I asked myself “What would happen if elves were suddenly a very real part of life in a town like mine? And what if they were angry elves? What would they do to us and how would we deal with that?” Voilá: Book idea! (And a lot of fun, too. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the wrath of an all-powerful elf-king take vengeance on a P.T.A. bake sale.)
Exhibit C: I knew all the myths about Helen of Troy and wondered if there was more to her than being The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Wouldn’t that get tedious? What was the story behind the myth? Who was the girl behind the Most Beautiful Woman?
You know where that led.
- What are the first steps in your writing process for the Princesses of Myth series?First, I pick my heroine.She has to be someone I’ve read about and whose life contains at least one aspect that captures my imagination. She can come from myth or history or that shadowy realm where the borders of myth and history blur. It helps if her name is familiar to a wide audience, but it’s not a necessity. That’s where I come in.
History or myth should tell us something about her (“Nefertiti was one of the most beautiful and influential queens in the history of ancient Egypt”), but her story should also offer untold spaces (“What was it like for Nefertiti, growing up amid the plots and royal intrigues at Pharaoh’s court?”). I want plenty of room available for me to create my world of What-might-have-been!
Second comes research.
I need to learn more about my Princess and the world in which she lives. Once I feel I know enough about that, I think about how to create an exciting, involving, meaningful story that’s true to her and her times. If she grew up in a society where slavery was a fact of life, it wouldn’t be believable for her to know slavery is wrong automatically. She’d have to have one or more personal experiences that would bring her to that point of view logically and plausibly.
Finally, it’s time to tell her story.
I develop the plot of the book based on who my Princess is, where she lives, how girls are treated in her society, and so on. I ask myself “Could she have experienced this? How?” If I can answer those to my satisfaction, I’m all set!
- How do you do your research?I use both online resources and reference books. For books, I either go to the bookstore or the library or both.
When using online resources, I take care to look up the information on more than one webpage, since some internet sites don’t fact-check.
I love heavily illustrated reference material. It helps me visualize all of the rich details of my Princesses’ world more vividly.I am very grateful to those internet resources that offer lists of names authentic to my Princesses’ cultures. I strive to choose names that are applicable to the time as well as to the culture about which I’m writing. To use a broad example, a girl living in Massachusetts today can be named Jennifer, Lashana, Ashley, Juanita, Indira or Prudence, but only one of these names would belong in a book set in the Pilgrims’ Massachusetts.Research is an ongoing process. I don’t do all of my research before I begin a book. There will always be unforeseen questions that crop up while I’m writing. Let’s say I’m working on a scene where an ancient Egyptian family is sitting down to eat dinner. That’s the point at which I might realize I don’t yet know what sort of food and drink they’d have on the table, or even if they’d have a table!
Back to the bookshelf/library/internet I go.
- How do you handle the demands of meeting deadlines?I take deadlines seriously. A deadline as a commitment that I must honor but it’s also a challenge. Often I’ll try to get the work done ahead of deadline to see if I can beat my best time. When I do, I give myself a reward.Aiming to get a book done early is much less stressful than waiting for the last minute to wrap things up or missing the deadline altogether. It’s the difference between allowing yourself extra time to get to the airport when you have to catch a flight and heading out ten minutes later, running into unexpected delays en route, and finding that the plane has gone.
One of the best ways I’ve found to meet a deadline for a big project, like a novel, is to divide it into smaller pieces. Big projects look overwhelming, so I tackle them one manageable part at a time. I can’t write a novel in a day, but I can write five to ten pages, and they add up. (Did you realize that even if you write only one page a day, you’ll have a novel-length manuscript by the end of the year?)
I allow myself some extra time for those days when I can’t work on my book because something goes wrong. Lots of things can go wrong when you’re trying to meet a deadline: People get sick. Word processors break. The electricity goes out. The dog ate your paper and the cats hid all the pens.
By the way, even when my cats don’t hide all the pens, my personal best time for completing a novel is three months, so if you’ve accepted the NaNoWriMo challenge and succeeded, I congratulate (and envy) you!
- If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? Would it still be something involved with history?If I weren’t a writer, I’d probably be a Spanish teacher. It’s what I trained to do and I enjoyed doing it.Part of teaching Spanish is making your students familiar with the culture and history of the Spanish-speaking world, so I guess you could say I’d still be involved with history. Even if I weren’t writing about it, I’d still want to continue learning more on my own!
- What are the special challenges of writing YA in general and YA historicals in particular?Before I began writing YA I had all sorts of misconceptions about it. I was afraid that there would be too many limitations concerning things like acceptable levels of violence, “adult” language, and all things R-rated. As I discovered, the only limitations that count when writing YA books are: Tell an exciting story about interesting characters.When writing a YA historical, there’s one thing above all I try to bear in mind: Keeping my character true to her time and culture. For instance, slavery was an accepted part of both ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek civilization, so my characters can’t simply turn against it without a believable reason.
Bottom line: I don’t want to write about a modern girl wearing a Nefertiti or Helen costume!
- How do you handle writer’s block?I outsmart writer’s block by working on more than one project at a time. That way, when I hit a wall on a book or story, I go to work on a different one, and when I can’t continue work on that one, it’s either back to the first or on to #3.But I don’t keep hopping endlessly from one new project to another. There’s a big difference between diversifying and dabbling. Diversify and you give your mind a mini-vacation when it’s most needed. Dabble and you never finish anything.
- What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?In a word: Waiting.When I finish a project and send it out to an editor, I have to wait for that editor’s response. Will she like it? Will she buy it? Will she want to see me make some changes? Will she want a lot of changes? The list goes on, and waiting is fingernail-biting time.
Once the book is accepted for publication, I have to wait for the day it goes on sale and everything that comes after. Will the book look good? (Usually the author doesn’t get to choose the cover design.) Will it get good reviews? Will it sell well enough for the publisher to buy my next book? Above all, will the readers be happy?
It’s hard to wait, so I don’t: I get to work on my next idea. It beats just sitting and worrying, and it’s much easier on my fingernails.
- What advice can you give to aspiring authors on writing?Read a lot and keep on reading. See what works in other writers’ books and adapt it to your own work. You can learn a lot from reading your favorite authors, but you can also learn writing how-to’s that are just as valuable from authors whose work you don’t like. Climb the mountain by looking up at the summit, but remember you won’t get there if you don’t glance down sometimes to check for the pitfalls along the way.Do your best to finish what you start. Even if you wind up with a book or story that you can’t stand to re-read, at least it’s proof that you can complete a writing project. You can always re-write it later!
Listen to what others say about your work, even if it’s negative. It might be nothing more than a matter of taste, but if you hear the same criticism made by several different people, it could be valid. Think about fixing the problem they mention.
Listen to yourself, too. It’s your story and your choice as to whether or not you’ll change anything about it. Just be aware that if you refuse to listen to any criticism and won’t change anything about what you’ve written, you might end up with a readership of one.
Never give up. Keep on writing. If you want to get published, keep sending out your manuscripts. Keep growing as a writer and as a person. It can be tough going, but if this is what you truly want, hang on!
Finally, love what you do. It’s all about the writing itself. Sure, it would be nice to become as rich and famous as J.K. Rowling, but if that’s the only reason you want to get published, maybe you should find another path to fame and fortune. Ask yourself: “If I’m never a best-seller but I’m still proud of what I’ve written, can I still be happy I became a writer?” If the answer is “Yes,” you’re on the right track.
- Have you traveled to all of the places you write about?No, I haven’t. I’ve been to many places but not to Greece (for Helen) and not to Egypt (for Nefertiti). I’d love to go to both places some day, especially to the Greek islands!Luckily there are so many excellent research resources available that I’ve been able to write about Greece and Egypt without having been there. However, I know that some day I will see the publication of a future Princesses of Myth series that takes place somewhere I have visited!
- What about advice on getting published?Pretend that you won’t get published.Weird advice? Maybe, but there’s good reason for it. If getting published is your one-and-only life-plan, you might become desperate to be published, and that’s the worst thing you could do. It will turn you into the helpless target of all the scam artists eager to prey on aspiring authors.
Do you want to let them take advantage of you? Do you want to let them profit from exploiting your dreams?
I didn’t think so.
So have a backup plan. You will need to have another job to support yourself while you are trying to get your work published, and even after you make your first sales. Provide for the necessities like food, shelter, health insurance, and clothing, as well as reserving funds for the things that make your life enjoyable, be it music, travel, theater, or just being able to go out for pizza with your friends. It’s hard to focus your mind on your writing if you’re worried that you won’t be able to pay the rent!
If you bear this rule in mind, you won’t get scammed:
MONEY FLOWS TOWARD THE WRITER.
(And a tip of the hat to James D. Macdonald for coining “Yog’s Law,” above.)
In other words, when it comes to becoming a professional writer, you should be the one being paid, not the one paying to see your work in print.
(What about literary agents? They get paid only after they sell your book to a publisher. Then they get a percentage—usually 15-20%–of the advance they earned for you. For anyone offering to represent your work and help you get it published under any other terms, refer back to “Yog’s Law.”)
To see lots of specific examples about all the different ways scam artists try to profit from aspiring authors, read the Writer Beware page of the Science Fiction Writers of America website.
The money (and pride) you save will be your own.
- How can I contact you?That depends on why you’d like to contact me.I enjoy hearing from readers, but my writing time is limited, so I’m no longer able to reply to e-mails.
Most e-mails I’ve received contained one or more of the following:
a. Readers’ comments about and reactions to my books
b. Questions about when the next book/series will appear
c. Questions about writing, research, and many other subjects connected to the Princesses of Myth series in particular and being a writer in general.
So, even though I can’t keep up a writing career and a non-writing life and replying to e-mails, I’m happy to say that this website will step in and neatly cover A., B. and C. for us both, plus a whole lot more!
For A. Check out my blog, which will accept monitored comments.
For C. Look no further! This FAQ page is the place where I’ve tried to answer the most common questions I’ve received over the years.
Want to send me a letter? You can send it here:
c/o Children’s Publicity
New York, NY 10019
You might also want to check out the Random Buzzers online community. It’s a good place to interact with other readers like you, to talk about the books you love, and sometimes to win prizes! I’ve done a number of guest appearances there and really enjoy it.
- Do you make public appearances?I make them and I enjoy them. I do bookstore signings, school visits, library talks, and attend many science fiction/fantasy conventions.a. How can I find out about where and when they’ll be?
I will be posting this information in my blog and calendar, so keep reading to see if I’ll be coming to an event near you.
b. Can an appearance at my local school or library be arranged?
Yes, it can! Teachers and librarians should go to the following website which has all the details: http://www.randomhouse.com/teachers/authors/appear.html
- What’s next?All sorts of things! I’m looking forward to keeping readers up-to-date on my blog, to running contests, to talking about future books, and to sharing snippets of my work-in-progress.Nobody’s Princess is only the beginning. We don’t need the Delphic oracle to know that there are plenty of adventures yet to come.
Some images courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrhayata/