Holly Lisle is a well-known name among fantasy readers. She’s sold over 30 novels since her first in 1991. And not only does Holly Lisle write fantasy, she also writes mystery and suspense.
I first met Holly as a reader, thoroughly engrossed in her book, Talyn, and hungered for more. Then I found her on the web and discovered she had a plethora of advice for writers on her website. And not only advice, but online classes. So last year, I signed up for “How to Think Sideways Novel Writing Course” (HTTS) and learned so much, my head is still reeling, but my manuscripts are improving by leaps and bounds.
At the beginning of this year, I signed up for “How to Revise Your Novel” (HTRYN) and now I’m learning the ins and outs of editing my own work to publishing standards.
Now she has a new class: Crash Revisions: How to Revise a Novel in Seven Days. Designed to help writers meet editing deadlines. Holly says “it’s happened to her once with a full-on NYT bestseller’s slot and promo budget at the prize. In Crash Revisions, you become the pro who doesn’t blow deadlines.”
Holly has been such a positive influence in my own writing; I wanted to share her with other writers. Here Holly answers some questions about writing and fantasy writing in particular:
PAT: You have some excellent writing classes for writers and I know these take a tremendous amount of time. Why do you do it when you could just write your books? And what do you get out of doing the classes?
HOLLY: I love to figure out how things work. I am constantly changing and improving on the techniques I use to write my own work. Sure, I could keep all my dissection and analysis to myself. But a long time ago I discovered that it’s as much fun to help someone else figure out how to do something that’s been driving them crazy as it is to do it yourself. At least it is for me.
I have a tremendous amount of fun showing other people how to turn their writing from an itch they can’t quite scratch to something that excites them, compels them, drives them—and satisfies them when they get the results they want. I love the e-mails I get from students that start out with “IT SOLD!” or “I finally finished a whole novel for the first time.” Or, “I’m sixty years old, and from your site I found my dream again.”
Life is short. What we love matters. Making our lives what we want them to be instead of what we just sort of tripped into matters. For me this is as much philosophy as fun—I have found joy and delight and an endless series of entrancing mind puzzles (sometimes called frustrating challenges until I figure them out) from writing fiction. Because I value writing, because I value the inalienable human right to the pursuit of happiness, and because I know that others who share my love of writing can get more joy from it if they understand how writing works, I’ve chosen to share what I know.
Or the short version. I write because it makes me happy. I teach…because it makes me happy.
PAT: When did you start writing for publication and what was your first book?
HOLLY: I started writing with intent to publish on January 1st, 1985, when as my New Year’s resolution, I resolved to finish a book before I turned 25. It’s one of only a few New Year’s Resolutions I remember keeping—I finished that one with a couple weeks to spare. I sent the book around, and it got shot down by everyone. The first book I sold wasFire in the Mist in 1991. The mathematical reader will note that it was a beastly long time between when I first started sending stories around and when I finally learned enough to sell them. I earned my writing stripes with a large man’s shoebox overflowing with rejection slips…more than 100 before I got my first, “Yes, we want this,” accompanied by a check.
PAT: How long did it take you to write your first book and how long does it take you now?
HOLLY: That first horrible novel that never sold (and three cheers for the good taste of editors on THAT) took me around eight months to complete, working sporadically. It was, when it was done, around 60,000 words long.
Currently, I can write about 250,000 words of completed first draft in that amount of time, and the quality is worlds better. You work. You learn. At least you do if you’re paying attention.
PAT: Why fantasy?
HOLLY: Frankly? Because I was writing and getting rejected for hard SF. I had I managed to make excruciatingly expository technical, and dry. Hard SF was what I loved, but I didn’t have the skills yet to make it sing. Mercedes Lackey suggested that I try fantasy, “because it’s easier to sell.”
I gave it a shot. Wrote Fire in the Mist, sent it out, and it sold the first place I sent it (Baen) one month after sending it, and went on to win me a Compton Crook Award for Best New Writer. (Which sounds so impressively like a prodigy, until you get back to that seven previous years of writing and crashing, and that shoebox with its hundred-plus rejection slips.)
I found a genre in which I could use the elements of science fiction that I loved, but disguise them as magic, and people liked what I wrote because the magic was full of wonder, but it still followed strict no-cheating rules, and it made sense. And because I had finally learned how to tell a story.
Since then, of course, I’ve sold SF, romantic suspense, paranormal suspense, YA, and other genres—I don’t believe in confining myself. I choose to write stories that interest me about characters that fascinate me, no matter what genre the stories might fall in.
PAT: If you had to advise an aspiring writer in just a few sentences, what would you say?
HOLLY: Persist. Persist. Persist.
Know you will fail, and when you fail, learn WHY you failed, and continue planning and working to succeed.
Don’t talk about writing. Write.
Don’t show unfinished work to anyone.
Don’t show finished work to non-writers.
Get your opinions, not from friends and family, but by sending your work out to editors.
An endless stream of rejection slips means you need to learn more. So learn more.
Never assume you know enough. I’m still learning, and I’ve been writing with intent to publish for about 25 years, and publishing for about 18, with more than 30 novels sold in that time. Writing is a puzzle you’ll spend your lifetime unlocking. You will never know it all; you will never know enough. You can always be better, and figuring out how to be better is part of the thrill and joy of the job.
But most of all?
PERSIST. The only writer who truly fails is the one who quits.
PAT: Who is Holly Lisle? What is your typical day like?
HOLLY: Who am I?
I’m a woman who decided to make my life matter, to pursue what I loved, and to turn my dreams into reality. Once I did that and figured out how I did it and how to keep doing it, I chose to become an advocate, confidante, and teacher for dreamers who dare to accept that their own dreams have value _because they value them_—not because anyone else does—and to pursue the challenge of moving those dreams into the realm of reality through the pursuit of learning and the intelligent, focused application of hard work.
Quite simply, if you don’t think your dreams are important, why should anyone else?
If you won’t face alone the certainty of frequent failure in the hope of eventual success, why should anyone else waste time encouraging you?
The road to making your dreams come true is a path of skinned knees and bruised egos. Every person who has traveled it before you has faced the same daunting trek—and has had to go a good part of the way alone. You learn to enjoy the challenges and train yourself to discover lessons from each fall, or you don’t ever get where you want to be.
I don’t pretend any of what I teach is for the lazy, for those who don’t want to learn to think better and more clearly, or for those who want to simply wish their way to success. What I teach is for people who value learning, who grin when challenged, and who enjoy pushing themselves and seeing how much they can accomplish. These folks always discover they can do much more than they ever imagined.
I love watching them discover it.
And as for my work…I don’t have a typical day, but I do have certain things I need to accomplish in each one.
I write for about four to six hours. I answer e-mail for from half an hour to three hours. I outline the next section of the next thing I’m going to write for about half an hour to an hour. I research non-writing business-related learning (I’m currently teaching myself business skills), or work on one of my websites, or brainstorm a new story for about an hour. I spend time answering questions for the courses I teach on my private writers’ community web-board, writing a writing tip of the week for my newsletter, and in other way keeping in direct contact with other writers. The rest of my time is private—for my family and me.
In other words, my work days are long, but varied and interesting, and my life is filled with work I love and people I love. It was worth all the skinned knees and bruised ego it took to get here. And I still have such a long way to go.
PAT: What are you working on now?
HOLLY: I’m writing the course How To Revise Your Novel right now.
I have students taking the course just a couple lessons behind me as I’m writing it, which is sort of like being on a treadmill with 300 runners right behind you on the same treadmill. You don’t dare fall down.
And I’m doing something experimental. I’m writing a novel live online, and posting the raw, unedited first draft here: http://TalysMana.com and http://talysmana.com/what-is-a-first-draft/
I finished out my last contract last year, and after 33 novels written to someone else’s deadlines, I decided I would take a year or so and write one to only MY specifications before I went looking for a publisher. (Besides, and off the record, publishers pay SO much more when you have a completed novel to sell them than when you have three chapters and a synopsis. And occasionally they’ll fight with each other to get the book, besides.)
PAT: I asked Holly if she had any ties to Texas and she said that her English teacher, Jim Rose, is now a senior principal at a Texas school, the Lubbock-Cooper South Elementary School. Holly kindly allowed me to get in touch with him and ask him about Holly the student.
Jim was Holly’s College Preparatory English teacher in a rural school near Lisbon, Ohio, when Holly took his class. I asked him about Holly and her high school days:
JIM: She was an outstanding member of a class where the competition was rigorous. Students had to read and report on classic works in addition to making top grades if they wished to earn A’s or B’s. Her parents were more intellectual than what was common in a blue collar school, and it was passed on.
With affection, I recall that Holly wore something of a thin “nerdish” attire back then. She searched for the right words, even if they were multi-syllabic. My favorite recollection comes from a day when my wife brought our first-born son to school. Although a fine looking youngster, he was something of a “chunk” back then. When Holly picked him up, her face showed surprise, and she exclaimed, “Oh my! He’s quite……substantial…, isn’t he?” Since we have maintained infrequent communication over the years, I still remind her of that on occasion. Obviously, though, her search for diction has fruited.
She was curious and courageous. Teaching herself to play a standard guitar in only a few weeks, she agreed to perform in front of her peers. They were appropriately impressed, as was I.
In spite of her intensity, she was always wonderfully polite yet determined. She questioned questionable information and challenged us when she felt led to do so. I always admired her for that.
So, in conclusion, yes I saw her talent back then. Even a blind man would. She was/is articulate, literate, musical and artistic. No doubt, she has lived up those expectations. I am extremely proud of her and count it a privilege to have been a part of her life.
PAT: Thank you, Holly and Jim, for your time and for sharing so much great information.
You can find Holly on the web at HollyLisle.com and her workshops are How to Think Sideways, How to Revise Your Novel, and her newest class, Crash Revisions: How to Revise a Novel In Seven Days.Her bibliography is at http://hollylisle.com/author/bibliography.html.