by Agent Zara Cruden (a.k.a. Z the Pun-isher)
Kevin J. Anderson is one of the most prolific science fiction novelists of our day, with more than 50 bestsellers to his credit, an average of five to six full-length novels a year, and the ability to write 756 pages in just six short weeks. Part of what allows Anderson to produce such an amazing volume of premium work is his method of writing, which does not, in fact, include any typing at all on his part.
Anderson explained in an exclusive SVN interview at Worldcon, “I write by hiking and dictating. I have trained myself to be an oral story teller, so I am telling the story, but I outline my stories very, very carefully. It’s like I want to do a blueprint before I build a house … The Dark Between the Stars is 128 chapters long, or something like that, with 34 different viewpoint characters. So, I outlined it in very great detail, chapter by chapter by chapter, and organized it.
“I will take the notes for a couple of chapters, chapters five through nine or something like that, and then I will go out [on a hike]. We live in Colorado, so there’s lots of national forests and national parks, and I will just go out hiking, and I will know what happens in Chapter Five, and I will dictate it … In my mind, it’s several steps shorter than doing all of the process [of typing the manuscript out]. Then, I have someone transcribe it, and then I edit it online to polish it up … The novel I just finished was 750 pages, and 132 chapters, and I wrote the whole thing in about six weeks. I go out hiking every single day, write three or four chapters, then hand it off to the typist who then lets her fingers get worn down because I am dictating faster than she can even transcribe.”
Anderson said of his unorthodox method of writing, “I get inspired by the mountains and waterfalls and canyons … beautiful scenery, and I get to go out and hike all day long, and I get to write, so it’s not choosing one or the other. I get away from the distractions … sometimes I go up where there’s no cell service … I don’t get the doorbell ringing, or the phone ringing, or anything else. I just get to walk and concentrate on my story and get immersed in it.”
Whether he’s working on a Dune novel, one of The Saga of Shadows or Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I. series, or one of his many other projects, Anderson is obviously very passionate about his writing, and is lucky to have found a way to combine his two loves. “When I was writing, and I would come up with a difficulty in my story, whether I didn’t feel I knew the characters well enough, or I didn’t know what was going to happen next, I liked to go out for walks. Like, some people get inspired in the shower, I just like to go out walking and letting my mind wander. Sure enough, I would be a mile away from home and come up with these brilliant, complicated solutions, and by then I would run home to start writing it all down, I would have forgotten most of the details. So, I started taking a digital recorder, actually it was a micro-cassette recorder at the time … just so I could dictate notes. It became so useful. If I’m creating a character, I’ll just walk for a mile and talk about who his parents are, what his interests are, what his hobby is, and what the name of his favorite pet when he was a kid was, just sort of free-associate, and I would gather all those things onto the recorder. I got more and more detailed as I practiced it, and I realized I was sort of writing first drafts. Then, I really did write firsts drafts, but now, I am so well trained in it that what comes off of my recorder is really fairly clean … If you play my original recording it’s like I’m doing a reading of the story. It’s a lot of practice.”
Although this skill may require a lot of practice to master, Anderson has had plenty of time to do so. He has been writing since he was eight, and wrote his first story, “Injection.” He has moved on to bigger and better things since then, publishing more than 125 books. He’s also hiked all 500 miles of the Colorado Trail, and climbed all 54 of Colorado’s mountain peaks higher than 14,000 feet in elevation! Some of his success may be due, not only to his personal style of writing, but to his ability to finish a book without letting other ideas distract him. “I’m a very focused and goal-oriented person. Especially if you have a deadline for your novel coming up, you don’t get distracted, you just finish it.”
Anyone who has ever dreamed of seeing Anderson’s work played out on the big screen should know that they are not alone. “I would love to have it happen.” Anderson has one small stipulation however, “I would love to see it happen, but it has to be the right studio. I’ve had lots of my stuff optioned, or treatments [done], but there are so many complicated steps to go through to get a movie made, and there’s so much money involved, hundreds of millions of dollars of budget, that they don’t just make [movies] lightly. They spend a lot of time with them. I’m hoping, maybe one of these days.”
Having a book adapted into a movie is a lot harder than many people realize: “The author is the low person on the totem-pole. All we ever do is write the story that they make the movie of. Once the studio takes it, then they’ve got their own director, their own script writer, their own casting people, and if, say, John Travolta wants to play a character in one of my books, then they write the whole thing around John Travolta, even if that wasn’t the main character in the book, because he would be the big star in it. I’m okay with that, because the more people that see the movie will turn around and buy the book, and that’s the one that I can by proud of.”
Anderson’s books are set — in fine sci-fi tradition — in altered dimensions. They may kind of resemble our own universe, but never enough to make any definite bridges between them. When asked if he would like to live in the reality that he has created for any of his characters, he responded, “Definitely not. I do terrible things to my characters. You don’t write a story that says, ‘and they lived in a wonderful world and everybody was happy and content. The end.’ That doesn’t happen in a story. Things go wrong in stories. They had a perfect world, but something went wrong, or Godzilla showed up, or the asteroid hit the earth, or the survivors of the zombie apocalypse had to make their way across the world. Characters in books don’t always have peaceful, uneventful lives. I think I would rather live in my own universe, and just commute to some of my other universes that I’ve created.”
Although he may feel sorry for a character that he likes, that won’t earn the character any favor from Anderson. “I’m a huge, complicated plotter, and there are things you [do to] set all the wheels in motion, and this is what happens. There are a lot of tragedies that happen, a lot of romances go wrong, or lots of miscommunications. It all tells a good story, but I feel, when I’m crafting a story, all of the plot lines, characters and settings and everything, when it all comes together, just perfectly, it’s like all of the Tetris pieces falling into place. That’s a real rush for me. Its like, ‘Ah! That’s exactly where that was supposed to go, and that’s exactly who was supposed to do this, and that’s the perfect twist for the ending!’ Sometimes it feels like this accidental winning of the lottery, when everything comes together right. I’ve been working hard for decades writing books, so now I kind of see the Tetris pieces and know how they can all come together right, and that’s what I really enjoy. It’s never like I’m making it up and hoping that it works out at the end. I’m very good at the plotting and the world building, so that it all comes together right, and that’s what I enjoy.”
He may be a master plot builder and weaver, but even a master needs a little grounding sometimes. “[The outline] is my blueprint of the house, and I need to have the blueprint to refer to where the wall goes, and where the electrical outlets go. When you’re writing a 700-page novel, there’s a lot of little tiny details. It’s not just this sequence of events: There are tons of little connecting tissues, and background details, and everything in chapter 110 has to be consistent with chapter seven … It’s like an orchestra conductor, trying to make sure that those instruments play together at the right time. It’s not just a street performer with a flute.”
When he is not busy plotting the demise of your favorite character, hiking and dictating at the same time, or enjoying the sheer bliss that comes from successfully twisting all the different plot threads into a beautiful ball of yarn, Anderson is busy meeting face-to-face with his many fans. “We do a lot of Emerald City Comicon, Denver Comic Con, Dallas Comic Con, these huge fifty- to seventy-thousand-people conventions, and they come up to our table, and they see my Star Wars books, or my X-Files books, or the Dune books … there is something for everybody, and the fans will come up, and I just love seeing their expressions … I’ve had many people say that they’ve learned to read reading my books, or they first got interested from reading the Star Wars Young Adult books, or that the first book that they ever bought was one of my X-Files books, and it’s kind of neat to see that influence that you have on a whole group of fans, and they still remember it. It’s very gratifying.”
Life with fans isn’t all peaches and cream though. People who used to idolize an author can turn against him for doing harm to a character that they liked. Sometimes, the fans get out of hand and do something that is not appreciated, or sometimes they just love the work to much and want to see more of it.
Anderson reports his progress on the newest installment in the hit series, Dan Shamble: Zombie P.I., “Well, I’ve got a lot of fans who are after it. I’ve got the outline written, and the title will be Tastes Like Chicken. I just published a collection of all the Dan Shamble short stories, but then I’ve written two more stories since then. I had to write a Dan Shamble Christmas story, and then Jim Butcher asked me to write one for an urban fantasy anthology that he’s doing. I’ve got the outlines on it, I just have to find the time for it because these are books that I do for myself. I mean, I don’t have a big contract for them that I have to turn it in, so I have to fit it in between my other books. We are looking at maybe Kickstarting the next one to see how that works. I’ve never done that before, but I know I’ve got a hug fanbase for this character, so, we’ll see. I like writing books where I can just sort of be goofy and funny instead of gigantic, serious, end of the universe type of books.”
Any writing at all seems to suit Anderson just fine, and he keeps plugging away at the growing list of demands his fans pile on. Sometimes it is fun just to write for the sake of writing, however, and it is a nice change to see his humor shine through in full force, when his funny bone elbows its way to the surface. Whatever the story though, Kevin J. Anderson is always on top of his game and ready to throw us off of ours with a surprise plot twist. We can’t wait to see what this mastermind will have in store for us next!