David Weber is author of the New York Times best-selling Honor Harrington novels, as well as a mind-boggling array of other books. On top of that, he’s a really nice guy who took the time to share a glimpse into his universe.
After a severe injury broke his wrist into 57 pieces several years ago, he started dictating his books using voice-activated software. Despite this hurdle, David says that he averages better than 200 words per minute.
SciFiBookshelf.com: Astounding! David, I salute you. Do you have any advice for aspiring science fiction writers?
David Weber: First, write what you enjoy reading. You’ll do a much better job working on something that interests and excites you than you will trying to produce something simply because you think it might sell, even though it isn’t what you’d enjoy reading yourself. In addition, there’s no one out there who is genuinely unique in his or her reading tastes. In other words, if you enjoy reading it, so will someone else, which means there ought to be a market for it somewhere. Second, accept that if you’re going to try to do this professionally you either need to become a production writer — which means those 16-hour days — or you need to have a day job. Third, complete something before you start trying to submit your work. An editor is a lot more likely to buy a story or a novel, even if it needs a substantial amount of work, if that story or novel exists as a completed whole. The last thing any publisher needs is to commit to buy a book from someone who, it turns out, won’t be able to finish it, and it will help a sale immensely if the person thinking about buying the story knows not only that it ends but that the writer is able to provide a satisfactory end. Fourth, choose who you’re going to submit to carefully. Pick a publisher who publishes material similar to whatever it is you’ve written. Don’t try to sell a story about elves and dwarves to somebody who publishes primarily tech-heavy military fiction. Fifth, when you submit, do it in a professional manner. Don’t use the cover letter to tell the editor what your story is about, and — above all! — don’t use it to tell the editor how great the story is. You can include chapter synopses, outlines, and the entire manuscript to do that, and any professional editor is going to resent having someone submitting an unsolicited manuscript explain that manuscript to her. She’ll make her own judgments on its quality, thank you, and you’re more likely to put someone’s nose out of joint by “blowing your own horn” then you are to influence someone into buying your work. Sixth, after you’ve submitted, stay in touch. In your initial submission letter, tell them that if you haven’t heard back from them in a month, you’ll check back with them. Then, when that month has passed, do check back with them, and each time you check with them, tell them when you’ll check with them again. You need to have some idea in your mind about when you’re going to assume that lack of response means there isn’t going to be any response (and that’s likely to happen, maybe several times, when you’re just starting out), and when that time arrives, you need to send a very respectful note to the publisher saying that you’re withdrawing the book for submission elsewhere.
The truth is that only a minority of writers, in any genre, are able to support themselves full-time as writers, and that’s even more the case for science-fiction, I think, than some others, because science-fiction tends to a smaller readership than a lot of other genres. The good news is that if science-fiction’s readership tends to be smallish, it’s also very loyal . If you produce the stories that people want to read, they will repay you many times over by the fashion in which they will buy your books. Even so, it’s difficult to make a living doing this unless you are able to develop a highly successful series/character and are able to sustain a production rate which is rather higher than in some other genres. That’s just the way it is.
Having said that, the aspiring science-fiction writer needs to remember that publishers are in the business of publishing. They need writers to do that, and that means that if you can write, and if you persist long enough in submitting your work, more often than not, you’ll finally get your shot. What happens after that depends in no small part on how well the first few books go.
And before I leave this topic, let me say that the number one, critical, essential, indispensable element in becoming a successful science-fiction author is the ability to tell stories about characters readers care about. Even the hardest of hard-science science-fiction still has to have characters people care about. The most fascinating plot line ever devised will fall flat on its face if the characters are not believable, or if the writing is unable to convince the reader to accept the story. Editors can do a lot to help a neophyte writer improve technical aspects of his or her writing; I don’t believe any editor ever born can teach you how to tell a story. Especially, they can’t teach you how to tell a story in your own voice. Many people I know have failed as writers primarily because instead of telling the story the way they should tell it, they tried to figure out how someone else — some writer they admire, or whose work they like — would tell it. That’s the kiss of death. People don’t want to buy a low-budget pastiche of someone else’s work. A weak story, strongly told, will be far more satisfying to the reader than a strong story weakly told, and a huge part of telling a story strongly is to tell it in your own, recognizable, unique voice, manner, and style. “Your” voice is going to owe a great deal to the voices of other writers you have read, enjoyed, admired. It works that way. We are all products of our experiences, and if some other writer has a strong impact on you, that writer’s work is going to influence your own. You may find yourself integrating stylistic elements from another writer. You may find yourself avoiding something in your writing because you realized that it didn’t work in someone else’s. And no matter how successful you may become as a writer in your own right, I imagine you’ll still find yourself — as I do — reading someone else’s work and going “Gosh! That was really neat, the way he handled that. I’ll have to remember that.” Don’t be afraid to be influenced by others, but never, ever try to become another writer. Learn from their strengths, avoid their weaknesses, but always do it in your own fashion and your own style.
David Weber’s web site:
And that concludes our weekly series of Wednesdays with David Weber! Many thanks to David and his crew. If you missed any of our previous interviews segments, you can find them all below, including summer book tour dates!