Friday, July 23, 2010

Ted Chiang On Writing

Here's an interview with science fiction writer Ted Chiang on writing. An excerpt:

Were there any formative experiences that led you to become a science fiction writer?

Probably the most formative experience was reading the Foundation Trilogy when I was about twelve years old. That wasn't the first science fiction I had ever read but it's something that stands out in my memory as having had a big impact on me. Reading Asimov and then Arthur C. Clarke when I was twelve definitely put me on the road to being a science fiction writer.

When did you actually decide to go pro?

It depends on what you mean by going pro. I started submitting stories for publication when I was about 15, but it was many years before I sold anything. I don't make my living writing science fiction so in that sense I'm still not a pro. Writing for publication was always my goal, but making a living writing science fiction wasn't. When I was a kid I figured I would be a physicist when I grew up and then I would write science fiction on the side. The physicist thing didn't pan out, but writing science fiction on the side did.

How has being a technical writer affected your fiction writing?

I can't recommend technical writing as a day job for fiction writers, because it's going to be hard to write all day and then come home and write fiction. Nowadays I work as a freelance writer, so I usually do contract technical writing part of the year and then I take time off and do fiction writing the rest of the year. It's too difficult for me to do technical writing at the same time as fiction writing - they draw on the same parts of my brain. So I can't say it's a good day job in that sense, but it's a way to make money.

Could you give a walk-through of your writing process?

In general, if there's an idea I'm interested in, I usually think about that for a long time and write down my speculations or just ideas about how it could become a story, but I don't actually start writing the story itself until I know how the story ends. Typically the first part of the story that I write is the very ending, either the last paragraph of the story or a paragraph near the end. Once I have the destination in mind then I can build the rest of the story around that or build the rest of the story in such a way as to lead up to that. Usually the second thing I write is the opening of the story and then I write the rest of the story in almost random order. I just keep writing scenes until I've connected the beginning and the end. I write the key scenes or what I think of as the landmark scenes first, and then I just fill in backwards and forwards.

How do you classify your writing? I feel like it's a kind of philosophical fiction, because it's actually making people think, waking them up and making them wonder about things.

That's one of the things that science fiction is particularly good at, that's one of the reasons I like science fiction. Science fiction is very well suited to asking philosophical questions; questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how do we know the things that we think we know. When philosophers propose thought experiments as a way of analyzing certain questions, their thought experiments often sound a lot like science fiction. I think that there's a very good fit between the two.


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