Better Storytelling Secrets
Authors discuss their writing techniques. Answers are by Larry Niven.
Hi, I’m Mark O’Bannon. Welcome to this rare look into the secrets of storytelling from published authors.
Today, I’m joined by, Larry Niven, the author of Ringworld, the co-author of The Mote in God’s Eye and Lucifer’s Hammer, the editor of the Man-Kzin War series. Larry Niven has written or co-authored over 50 books. He is a five-time winner of the Hugo Award, along with a Nebula and numerous other awards.
Life as a Writer
How did you get into writing?
Brute force. I wrote and mailed out stories until somebody bought one. It was Frederik Pohl.
When did you first realize that you have what it takes to be a writer?
When I got that check for $25.00. Look, I knew I had stories to tell; I didn’t know anyone was listening.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I do a lot of reading. Sometimes that generates a story. Truth is, I never know. I was shopping at a market when I realized that asking for a demon/wizard/mad scientist’s wisdom would get you the whole mind.
How do you develop your ideas into a story?
Sit down and start writing—usually with an outline.
What kind of stories do you enjoy working with?
Whatever seems to have the shape of a story.
What genres would you like to explore in the future?
I’ve touched most of what calls itself science fiction or fantasy. I have no interest in zombies…or westerns or romance or self help.
Do you work from an outline?
How do you build your story?
Superbly. (Kidding. Its hard work and it’s an art form, difficult to lay out rules for.)
For you, what makes a great hero?
For me, he’s a bit of a tourist. Doesn’t get motion sickness. He’s not smart enough to stay out of trouble, but he’s smart and lucky and agile enough to get out of it.
If one of your characters were to describe you, what would he/she say?
Spends too much of his time sitting around. Sleeps too much. Needs to look around him, to notice things. Needs to write more. And any time he gets sick, so do I.
How much time do you spend researching the setting for your stories?
I generally do the research for fun, and then that generates the story.
What settings would you like to explore in the future?|New exoplanets. Pluto (after 2015.) Earth entering an ice age. And Steven Barnes and I are exploring the time of Conan the Cimmerian.
Do you like to know the purpose of your story before you sit down to write it?
Absolutely. In fact, I prefer to know the ending. Even if I have to change it later.
Do you have any favorite lines from your stories?
Sure. These are just from memory–
“Then my willing suspension of disbelief went all to Hell.”
“Dawson set his foot on the Herdmaster’s Advisor’s chest.”
“Let’s hit the Earth with a cubic mile of hot fudge sundae!”
“Think of it as evolution in action.”
“And all I could see were limits.”
“No bigger than a small moon is the Ftokteek computer.”
Do you have a routine? A certain place to write? Do you listen to music?
I sit in front of a computer. No, no music.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
How do you go about fixing a story?
Fixing it is easier than writing it. I read it over, rewriting as I go, until there’s nothing left to fix.
How do you know when to stop?
When I’m running short of things to fix, that’s when I send it to an editor. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped; he/she usually suggests things to change. I finish a story many times.
Words of Advice
What words of advice would you give to new writers?
Have a story to tell. If you can tell it at a party, it’s good to go.
The Zombie Apocalypse
So, what is YOUR plan for the zombie apocalypse?
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written?
Depends on who I’m talking to. LUCIFER’S HAMMER for mundanes, RINGWORLD for science fiction fans, THE INTEGRAL TREES for pure hard science, DESTINY’S ROAD for an English teacher, RAINBOW MARS for a laugh.
What are you working on now?
LUCIFER’S ANVILwith Jerry Pournelle, publicity for THE BOWL OF HEAVEN with Gregory Benford, SHIPSTAR with Gregory to finish a set of two, polishing THE GOLIATH STONE with Matthew Harrington, a novella about teleportation, and that heroic fantasy with Steven Barnes.
About the Author
Larry Niven is the author of Ringworld, the co-author of The Mote in God’s Eye and Lucifer’s Hammer, the editor of the Man-Kzin War series, and has written or co-authored over 50 books. He is a five-time winner of the Hugo Award, along with a Nebula and numerous others.
The Niven File
Born April 30, 1938, in Los Angeles, California, USA, to Waldemar Van Cott Niven and Lucy Estelle Doheny Niven (now Washington.)
Raised in Beverly Hills, California. Hawthorne Public School (Beverly Hills,) Cate School (Carpinteria.)
California Institute of Technology, September 1956 to February 1958. Flunked out after discovering a book store jammed with used science fiction magazines.
Honest employment: gas station attendant, summer 1960.
Graduated Washburn University, Kansas, June 1962: BA in Mathematics with a Minor in Psychology. Half the university was scattered to the winds by a tornado a month after I left. They later gave me a D. Litt., an honorary doctorate in Letters.
First story publication: “The Coldest Place”, Worlds of If, December 1964.
Met Marilyn Joyce Wisowaty at the Nycon World Science Fiction Convention, 1967. Married September 6, 1969. No children. We reside in Chatsworth, California.
I have written fiction at every length, and speculative articles, speeches for high schools and colleges and conventions, television scripts, political action in support of the conquest of space, graphic novels, and a couple of comic book universes. I’ve collaborated with a wide variety of writers.
Science fiction conventions. Role playing games, live and computer. AAAS meetings and other gatherings of people at the cutting edges of science. Comics. Filk singing. Yoga and other approaches to longevity. Hiking and racquetball.
Saving civilization and making a little money. The defense of Earth against incoming giant meteoroid impacts. Moving mankind into space by any means, but particularly by making space endeavors attractive to commercial interests.
In 1980 Jerry Pournelle talked me and Marilyn into hosting a gathering of the top minds in the space industry in an attempt to write a space program for the Reagan government, with goals, timetables, and costs. The Citizens Advisory Council for a National Space Policy met four times during the Reagan Administration, and twice since, for harrowing three day weekends. Attendees have included spacecraft designers, businessmen, NASA personnel, astronauts, lawyers. Adding science fiction writers turns out to be stunningly effective. We can translate! We can force these guys to speak English.
We’ve had some effect on the space program. SDI (Space Defense Initiative, or Star Wars) was drafted at our house in Tarzana. In ’93 we watched the DC-X fly. It was a toy version of a single-stage ground-to-orbit spacecraft, and the Council generated it. Our design lost out to the Skunk Works’ X-33, but the Council caused the revival of the X Program itself.
I grew up with dogs: Keeshonds, the breed my mother raised and shaped for sixty years. I live with a cat, and borrow dogs to hike with. I have passing acquaintance with raccoons and ferrets. Associating with nonhumans has certainly gained me insight into alien intelligences.
I’ve written on computers since 1978.
Hugos (or Science Fiction Achievement Awards) for “Neutron Star”, 1966; RINGWORLD, 1970; “Inconstant Moon”, 1971; “The Hole Man”, 1974; and “The Borderland of Sol”, 1975. Nebula for Best Novel: RINGWORLD, 1970. Ditmars (Best International Science Fiction, Australian) for RINGWORLD, 1972, and PROTECTOR, 1974. Japanese awards for RINGWORLD and “Inconstant Moon”, both 1979. Inkpot, 1979, from the San Diego Comic Convention.
On the Stands:
THE DRACO TAVERN, 21 ultrashort stories
FLEET OF WORLDS with Edward M. Lerner
JUGGLER OF WORLDS with Edward M. Lerner
INFERNO, with Jerry Pournelle, re-issue
INFERNO II: ESCAPE FROM HELL with Jerry Pournelle
THE BOWL OF HEAVEN with Gregory Benford
THE MOON MAZE GAME with Steven Barnes
STRANGE LIGHT with Lisa Snellings-Clark
Other work clamors to be written, as if I had the time. Greg Benford has challenged me to return to short stories, and I’ve done that.