Writing Habits: Michael A. Stackpole

Welcome to Writing Habits, Season 2!

Writing Habits is an ongoing series of mini-interviews in which I talk to creators and writers not about their books, or current works-in-progress, but about what they do to get the job done. I must admit, I’m the kind of person that likes nothing more than sitting down and writing out a really good list, so when it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing – routines, habits, schedules, goals and targets, you name it – I get a real buzz when I talk to professionals about how they do it. Of course, there are no easy answers and quick fixes and magic solutions for those of us working to build a career as a writer, but such insights are valuable, and this topic is often overlooked.

Last year I had the pleasure of speaking to a number of my favourite writers, and you can read about their Writing Habits here. I also spoke to two important novelists – SF-horror-thriller maestro and New York Times Best-seller Scott Sigler, and the new queen of steampunk-romance Gail Carriger – in more detail. You can hear them, and me, here, and on iTunes.

So without further ado, let’s kick off Writing Habits 2010 with a name that will be, I hope, familiar to a lot of you.

Please welcome Michael A. Stackpole!

Michael Stackpole has been in the business of writing since the late 1970s, working first for the gaming industry before moving into game-related novels such as the Battletech series from FASA. Michael is perhaps best well known for his work in the Star Wars universe, as author of the acclaimed X-Wing quadrilogy, I, Jedi, and the New Jedi Order. Outside of Star Wars, Michael has worked in the fantasy genre, most notably with the DragonCrown War and Age of Discovery series. A New York Times best-seller and veteran of the publishing industry from both writing and editorial/production sides, Michael is a staunch advocate of the digital future of publishing, and currently releases serialised short fiction via his website and the iTunes app store, and his views and perspectives on the shifting state of publishing can be often heard on The Dragon Page –  Cover to Cover podcast, which he co-hosts. Michael also teaches writing occassionally, and produces The Secrets, a regular paid-for newsletter detailing writing tips, techniques and exercises to help writers improve their craft.

It’s no exaggeration to say that it was Michael Stackpole that really got me into writing. I’ve written all my life, and had worked on a variety of short stories which were sometimes good, sometimes bad, with seemingly far-off dreams of one day writing a full-length novel. After a few pitch rejections, I discovered The Secrets (via the now-defunct podcast), which completely transformed the way I looked at writing. Writing went from being just a hobby on the side to what I do, something which I now take seriously and, dare I say it, professionally. Without The Secrets, I wouldn’t be working on my third novel, Empire State, I wouldn’t have this website and be typing this blog entry, and I wouldn’t be introducing an author with such personal importance to me as Michael Stackpole.

Mike, I owe you one!

Michael A. Stackpole

Scottsdale, Arizona (just outside Phoenix)

What do you write?
For the most part I write science fiction and fantasy. I’ve written over 40 novels, and more short stories than I care to count. I have also written games, computer games, screenplays, graphic novels, articles, reviews, and pretty much anything that someone will pay me to write. I don’t really have a preference for novels over short stories, I tend to like all of these things. They present different challenges, which I enjoy, and by doing a mix of things I avoid being bored. I am very enthused that digital publishing is going to allow writers to be doing a lot more and different stuff. By being able to go direct to our audience, we can avoid some of the difficulties of the distribution bottleneck.

One of the things that I’ve been experimenting with on my webpage has been serial storytelling. This is writing a story specifically to be serialized, by breaking it down into thousand word chunks and delivering them over a month or month and a half for free to my readers. The advantage here is that if I have an idea for a story — especially a story based on timely news bits — I can have it out and up while it is still relevant. In terms of making money, when you have a serial story which is one of several stories dealing with a particular character, the older stories go for sale while the newer stories are being run for free. Readers who really like what you’re doing will go ahead and buy all the back story for that character. Since this process cuts out the middleman, authors can afford to sell their work for less and actually make more than they do now through traditional publishing routes.

What are your writing habits?
My writing habits are not as stringent or efficient as having churned out a lot of words might indicate. I tend to work from outlines, but I maintain flexibility so the story doesn’t get stagnant or stiff. If the characters are beginning to balk at what I thought I wanted them to do, I generally figure out what’s best for the story which means what’s best for the characters really, and let the story moves in that direction. One thing I always try to make sure happens in any story, is that at least one character grows.

In terms of my work schedule, I tend to be fairly fast. When I’m on deadline I will have two writing sessions per day. One will be in the morning, then I’ll take a break for lunch and errands, and have a second in the afternoon. I usually can grind out a chapter in each of those sittings, which for me means turning out 2500 words at a time. That would mean 5000 words a day, which would let me finish 100,000 word novel in roughly 3 weeks. I have written novels that quickly. I prefer not to. But I’m comfortable with that pace when I have to hit it. The most words I have ever done in a day is 10,000 and those were days when I was wrapping up a novel and had a lot of information crowding my skull.

I tend to spend a lot of time developing ideas for new stories and new worlds. I use standard wire bound notebooks for jotting down ideas, drawing maps, making lists and charts: all the little development work necessary. Those same notebooks serve when I’m writing as the place where I jot down notes on each chapter about characters, incidents, things I have to remember and even the stray phone number from phone calls I take while writing. I even use them for jotting down notes when I’m in the editing process especially concerning things I have to remember to put into the next story for the next novel.

What software or tools do you use?
I work on a Macintosh so a lot of the tools I have will be familiar to folks on the Mac but perhaps not on the PC. For word processing I use OpenOffice. I used to use Microsoft Word, but for some reason it stopped working for me recently. OpenOffice seems to do everything it did pretty well. I also use a program called NoteBook for the Mac which helps me organize some basic data for a story. One great advantage to this piece of software is that it automatically indexes things. While I have not yet used it on any long projects, I anticipate being able to transfer material from my paper notebooks into it and then just print the contents out and put them in a binder complete with an index. This ability to index will be invaluable especially in a long series.

I’ve also just started using MacSpeech Dictate, which is the equivalent of Dragon NaturallySpeaking for the PC. This software allows me to dictate and have the computer translate my voice into written words. The difficulty of writing fantasy and science fiction using the software, is that made-up words do not translate very well. This is especially true for words which are compound words, made up of two common words or words for which you wish to have a special spelling. ‘Wurmwright’ is the current bugaboo in the novel I’m writing now. The software constantly renders it as ‘worm right’. There are ways around that, I need to work with the software more to get more proficient in that regard. But for correspondence (and interviews) the dictation software speeds things up a great deal. I anticipate being able to dictate some stories which are set in a more contemporary world and are written in first person. It looks like that would pick my speed up by about 50%.

In terms of everyday walking around, I always have my iPod touch with me and it has a notebook, so I can make notes on it. On long trips I tend to bring one or more notebooks and will use them to jot more extensive ideas down. For me it’s kind of a process of trying to find the perfect interface between practicality, portability, and be able to make the gadget geek inside rather happy.


Michael Stackpole, thank-you very much indeed!

Michael’s website is stormwolf.com, where you can find his blog, The Secrets newsletter, and his ongoing serialised fiction projects. The Dragon Page – Cover to Cover is an essential podcast for any writers and readers of science fiction and fantasy, featuring views, opinion, reviews, interviews and discussion of new release. Episodes come out once or twice a week, and can be found at dragonpage.com or on iTunes.

For fiction in print, check out Amazon and any good bookstore. Michael’s Legends eBooks for the iPhone and iPod touch can be found at the iTunes store.