Live Blogging Joe Haldeman

12: 10

Joe Haldeman is talking now about typing vs. digital tools for creative writing.

Took typing as soon as he could in school — only boy in the class of girls — thought, “this is the life for me.”

Some time people have illusions that the book rules the writer — but once it did work that way for me — as if the book were guiding me “first this finger then this finger.”

When I wrote the forever war in the ’70s, and I didn’t have air condition — I’d go to a pizza joint and write on a clip board, and then in the evening I’d go home and type.

But when I started this book ultimately called “buying time in America,” — I realized I wrote as much per day and sometime even more if I wrote in longhand as if I’d keyboarded.

I realized I actually enjoyed it more. I was on my 4th computer by then — but I realized that hte distraction of the computer and the web was more than I needed when I was trying to concentrate on novel.

So for the next 20 years — I’d write on my porch in Florida in longhand without lights, just my fountain pen and some notebooks — bit spiral 8/11 inch books.  Those are the books — we’re looking at Marsbound, Earthbound…I was in a store and saw Earthbound brand notebooks, not superstitious, but still..

Shows us how he plans the book out in the notebooks — outlines, notes, conceptual diagrams and “Samuel L. Delaney in a book lined study.  Junot Diaz told me that he’d seen my picture in a book — he remarked on Chip Delaney’s. He’s a remarkable looking man, Santa Claus looking, crazed expression, and I had to use him in this book as a minor character who lives in one the last real bookstore in this world of the book.

12:19:  talking now about writing a trilogy — last novel has to carry a lot of narrative weight.

He talks now about using his diagrams etc. — they seem more like aids to thinking than real plans.

He writes very slowly — a page to a page and half a day, “but that’s enough for a novel every year or year and a half.”

To get a feel for how a character looks like — he gets casting books from Hollywood, so when  he say, needs a black man as a character he’ll look at a hundred pictures of black men between 20 and 40 to get a feel for what his character might look like.

Now he shows  his everyday notebook that he carries around — then he found a notebook for drawing as well as text (draws a lot of his thoughts….)

He shows a drawing, beautiful, of the split reed section at St. Martin in the Fields.

12:23 — complains he doesn’t get up as early anymore “sleeps in till 5:30 now.”

He gets up, does his email, eats breakfast, and then gets on his bike and chooses one of nine coffee shops in which to write that range froma 4 to a 14 mile or so loop.

He doesn’t go to the same one — doesn’t want to become a regular and have people talk to him.  “Real determining factor is the pastry.”

In Boston as opposed to Florida — not as much choice.  To many coffee shops dominated by young mothers with children banging on spoons.  So I’m starting out in Arlington, moving into Somerville…need some place having good coffee.  I don’t mind noise — a din of talking. But if I can hear one person talking to another and get what they are saying — that’s hard.

12:25.  Gay Haldeman is “my portable brain.”  She types up the manuscript about every twenty pages…every hundred pages or so he binds into a spiral bound book.  That becomes his reference.

He reads that every 15 – 20 days.  By the time he finishes each book, he reads the book about 50 times…which is why “I have a reputation for not needing a lot of copyediting.”  That’s also, Joe says, his personality.

Now, Joe says, he’s trying an experiment with Macspeech software.  Fascinated by what the software can do and fascinated by its mistakes.  The mistakes it makes can give you ideas for the story — the mistakes are often rhymes or homonyms…”I’ll take ideas whereever I can get them.”

“I diagram everything.  (shows a large sheet — maybe 20 by 24, covered in bubbles and text and lines.)

Had to write a story for a festschrift.  Opened up a text and got the phrase “good likeness,” and so wrote down “bad likeness” — and then went on, getting quotes and word, and placed them on an outline…after an hour and a half of playing with this, having fun, and came up with the story “Sleeping Dogs.” (Title check to come — I’m not as fast as Joe.)

Shows another diagram — much neater, from a book that was 90 percent done — and to be sure he covered all the bases on one character, he made this diagram — what he cares about in daily life, what are his internal concerns –and used the diagram to organize this part of the process.

12:31:  when I teach Sci Fi at MIT — he gives out first a random assignment, starting with a book called “The Science in Science Fiction” — and assigns one student time travel and so on.  This year he did “psychotropic drugs” — he made a diagram to put himself to the same test, and worked out a character to whom such drugs are central, but not in the obvious way.

Shows us 3 cups of coffee worth of text…will finish the story over thanksgiving.

Problem with writing short stories is you have to stop the freight train that is the novel, then write the short story for a while and then go start up the freight train again…and that’s not a useful use of energy.  So short fiction comes between books– and sometimes there is not between.

Talks about doing books on spec, and how he got hammered…publishers just sat on it till Joe got hungry enough.  Selling the book first, on a synopsis and a couple of chapters — the publisher has to pay to see the rest of the book.

Works — as long as you can finish the book. If you can’t — they get very irritated.

Sometimes towards the end of a book, you’ve closed off the possibilities and so you can sit down and write the only thing that can happen.  In a trilogy — that’s a quarter of a million words.  I’ve known the emotional ending of the trilogy for months — not the plots, but plots take care of themselves. I’m a writer who writes about character.

(Gay says — tell them about the pens.) Joe says — I have two dozen pens — I can’t walk past teh Bromfield Pen store without going in to see what they have — it’s a sickness, but no worse than stamp collecting.

When writing — he changes pens at the end of the day so he knows where he stands.  Lots of pens and lots of inks.  I went down to Bromfield last week and bought two new loooovely colors of ink that I’ve never tried.  A green that is just like dollar bills (“I could branch out…”) and a royal purple.

12:39 Q and A — Do you write your 250 words and work them over during the day? No — I write about 5 % of the time, and the rest is spent looking at the paper.  I get transported into the world of the writing.  I’ll think about a sentence, and I’ll get maybe just the main clause, and then a few minutes later another clause willl come along.

I draw a lot — begin with the eye and go down to the toes…and get one line for a whole drawing.

Q:  What about plot — how do you choose your path.  A:  I take care of it mostly while working on the notes. When I’m writing the text, I dont’ think that way, and I just wait for the text to come.  In the afternooon, I’ll be writing about the novel, about the work I’ve done — for a 75K word novel, I’ll write 30K of notes.

Think about it this way: left brain thinking in the notes, right brain on the text.  I don’t know how it happens — a concatenation of experience and random…I don’t know cosmic rays.

Q:  You remind me of when I hand wrote everything.  It makes me think that I’ve lost the intimate connection with words…

A:  it may be that slowing down to handwrite has an impact on your thoughts.  I’ll write 250-350 words by hand of the text, and a 1000 words or more typed in notes, blogging, student responses. THat’s easy writing.  The hard kind of writing is the stuff that comes from nowhere.

Q:  do you type up or database the handwritten notebooks and sketches.  A:  I keep a rough archive.  Universities want my archives — and I have 2 warehouse rooms in Florida full of mss and correspondence and papers and 2 rooms in my house waiting for some poor graduate student…:

Follow up Q:  Don’t you want your notebooks accessible in digital.  A: limitation — need hypertextual linking to organize all the ideas and details in the notebooks.  I can see that tool.  My brain is that way – I have the relationship between  5 or 6 books in my head right now.  I can see that especially in writing a trilogy. My brain is working like a time machine — why did I make a character do that in the beginning.

This will, Joe says, probably be my last trilogy (did one before.)

Funny how this became a trilogy.  Started out as a novella, called “The Mars Girl.”  Thought that I should expand it into a young adult novel (never wrote a YA novel before) wrote it up and sent it to a top YA Sci Fi editor — and got rejected, first time in 30 years.

Thought, maybe I’m not a YA writer.  So did the obvious thing — made the heroine older, gave her relationships, sex– which never hurts the sales of a novel…

And then, on a train, working on a computer because you can’t use the pen on Amtrak for the bouncing.

So I’m going on tap, tap tap, closing in on the end, and then I thought, “I have to write a sequel.”  Didn’t want to — but had to. Then as he worked on the second synopsis, he realized that there had to be a third one…and he committed a trilogy, where he could have had a two week novella.  There goes 5 and 1/2 years.

Now starts to talk about the process of selling the book. He says: some of your most important writing is for an audience of one. Not jsut trying to sell your editor, you are trying to save her some work, so that she can use your work at sales conference to sell the book to the house.  Editors like that — and then they work for you. (INTERPOLATION:  This is the Word, folks.  Believe it.)

Q:  What about the problem fo making promises on the book when you don’t know yet what it is really going to be.  A:  The editor knows that the pitch is a sales document, the ending can change. “It’s only a novel. It’s just whatever goes through your head.”

I did get into a minor problem, Joe says.  I needed money — and my agent got me a contract to do 2 Star Trek novelizations.  You read fan lit, and your write plots for movies as novels.  I hadn’t seen the shows — I was in Vietnam while they were going around the galaxy — but I did my research and I had fun with it.  But between novel one and novel two got his first big advance for an original sci fi novel (his second); tried to ditch the second…and Paramount said no, and I had to do the second one.  It took 9 months instead of 3 and I hated it. It’s horrible to write a novel you  hate.  “Here comes f***king Spock again…and so on.”   Weirdly, many people who’ve read both say the second one is better.  (I felt I had to do a perfect job, because I didn’t want Paramount to say I was doggin it (my epithet, not Joe’s)

Q: do you listen to music while writing. A: no, not even when writing a business letter.  I love music too much, it interferes with my thinking.  (Joe says he used to perform…and it may be too much.) He tells us Harlan Ellison puts on headphones with hard rock on — “I don’t know how he does it.”


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3 Comments on “Live Blogging Joe Haldeman”

  1. dcs Says:

    The image of “coffee shops dominated by young mothers with children banging on spoons” is hilarious and spot-on. Somerville has some excellent coffee shop options. True Grounds is pretty quiet during the day and their coffees are great.

  2. Batocchio Says:

    Thanks very much! The Forever War is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, and Haldeman’s Vietnam experiences certainly shape its feel. I’m always interested in hearing about other folks’ writing processes, and have been surprised to hear even many screenwriters say they write in longhand first.

    Haldeman also provided one of my all-time favorite war stories, which I used to kick off a long post a few years back:

  3. mrtoads Says:

    Thanks – this is very neat! The Forever War is one of the books I re-read at odd moments as the mood strikes me, like Courtship Rite and Rex Stout’s Wolfe stories. I need to get a hardback copy, though – my old PB has many of the pages falling out now. Oddly enough, I haven’t read any of Haldeman’s other work. One of these days.

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