Holly LisleAs a writer, you'd probably like to be more focused, to avoid the distractions of Facebook, email, and, potentially, children more effectively. You might also like to spend more time working on building a large platform, without stealing any time away from your creative writing, of course. And you'd definitely like to get published.

Today, I'm talking to author Holly Lisle about how to avoid distraction, build and manage platforms,  and handle the boons and banes of publishing. Holly Lisle is the author of more than thirty novels as well as several books about writing. You can find links to her fiction and writing instruction at hollylisle.com and follow her on Twitter (@hollylisle).

Thanks for joining us, Holly!

So you've been a full-time, professional writer for more than twenty years, and I'm sure you've picked up a few tricks. How do you push through the “butt in chair” parts of writing, stay focused, and keep from getting distracted? 

I’ve developed a great system over the years, which includes carefully defining my goals, working out precise small steps to achieve them, setting priorities and deadlines for each goal and step, and then working my way through the steps.

When I feel good, I have tremendous creative energy, and can do enormous amounts of work by my sticking to my system.

UNFORTUNATELY, I have migraines, which have gotten worse over the years, and in the last few years I have added to the fun by developing intermittent severe vertigo and its concomitant symptom, icepick migraines, (which are just really special,) and as a result, sometimes my carefully planned schedules die an ugly death in the face of the annoying reality that I am not invulnerable, programmable, or separable from the physical demands of my own existence.

When I’m healthy, though, I can’t pretend that I suffer any great difficulty getting butt in chair and getting work done. I love what I do, and doing my work is a constant source of interest, challenge, and entertainment for me. I don’t procrastinate about doing what I love. (Taxes and paperwork are another story.)

What do you think is a good balance between description and story?

This is such a funny question. Writers frequently think there’s some magical percentage of standard description they can tack on to “the good stuff” that will make their work great—or at least acceptable. But what most writers mean when they use the term description is a deadly dull enumeration of the features of a location, character, or important story object… and no matter how you enumerate features, the result is going to be mind-numbing, pointless, and a drag on the story. There is NO amount of such writing that can be shoehorned into a story without damaging it.

I teach what I call “active description,” which is what I write, and which is the only way I’ve found to get people to actually read description rather than skimming over it while searching for the next “good stuff.”

Active description requires the writer to think hard about the objective of the scene he’s writing, create conflicts based on the setting or other descriptive elements, and then write the conflicts INTO the description.

I want to encourage everyone to get your book, Professional Plot Outline Mini-Course, which I loved. Can you give us a brief summary of how you plot your books?

Sure. I figure out the length of the story I want to write, then estimate the length each scene will run (my raw estimations are frequently off, and I find myself having to replot in the middle of many of my books—including WARPAINT, the one I’m finishing now).  I divide the estimated scene length into the estimated story length. The result is the number of scenes I’ll need to write to complete the book.

I then write out one sentence describing the characters, action, conflict, and point of the scene for each scene.  The trick is in finding useful things to put into these sentences—and I teach one variant of that trick in the Professional Plot Outline Mini-Course.

When my scene sentences are done, I write the book.

You're a prolific novelist, but you also manage a successful writing website. Do you find the audiences overlap, that your books and articles about writing encourage people to buy your fiction?

Not so much. As I explained in one of my courses, the difference between readers and writers is the difference between people looking to buy houses, and those looking to buy hammers with which to build houses.

Readers are house-buyers. They want to buy something ready-made that they can settle into and enjoy, and they do not welcome you handing them a hammer and saying, “Show me what you can do, Sparky.”

Writers are hammer-buyers. They want the best tools you can offer them, and they generally don’t want to go anywhere near YOUR houses, in case the way you build rubs off on them and changes their image of what they want to build.

I never considered this when I starting putting together my websites. I was building stories that interested me, but how I built them also interested me. And because of the way I work, I don’t talk much about the details of what I’m writing—to me, that drains the excitement out of finishing work, and leads to “leaving my fight in the gym.” So most of what I talked about was HOW I wrote, which had no effect on the fiction I was actually writing fiction-wise, and sometimes actually helped me figure out workarounds for writing problems I was facing.

The end result, though, has been that I ended up creating two almost completely separate audiences.  There’s a bit of crossover, but I wouldn’t put it above 10%.

Speaking of your platform, how do you find time to manage your website and write fiction with such a high level of excellence in both areas?

I’ve been building this stuff since 1987-ish, when I started writing a newsletter for my first writers’ group. I still had some of the articles I wrote for it tucked away when I got my first website, and because I wanted to learn HTML, I used the free site SFF-Net gave me to build a writing site. (My friend and former student Lazette Gifford had already built a fiction site for me.)

Over the years, the site has gotten bigger and bigger as I added to it, spun it off into several other websites… and that proliferation I’ve pared to the handful I have now.  Those several will be down to JUST two—HollyLisle.com and HowToThinkSideways.com—as soon as I can move services and classes I provide on the other sites to my teaching site.

But as for how I find time? I don’t. My websites are important to me, so I make their upkeep part of my work schedule.  I make time, which is what you have to do for anything that truly matters to you.

As with my writing, I set goals, break the goals down into component parts, deadline out the parts, and then work my plan.

Writing comes first in my day, because I’ve discovered my creativity can be battered by frustrating web design problems, complicated student support issues, the logical dissection of process necessary for writing non-fiction, and unfortunately, the occasional nasty email. I’ve learned not to give anyone the opportunity to ruin my work day.

Some of your posts have been quite controversial. How do you handle critics, both in your fiction and on your website?

The controversial posts on my site weed out the people who won’t like my my fiction or my courses. I’m the same person in my fiction and courses as I am in my site articles and on my blog—and l look at presenting the core of who I am and what matters to me for FREE to people who are going to hate me a favor to them—sort of a public service—AND a favor to me.

If potential readers or potential writing students know they can’t stand me or my work because of the free stuff I’ve posted, they won’t waste money buying my courses and my books. This is a kindness to them.

And I won’t have to listen to them complaining about how they wasted their money on this book or this course written by the terrible person who has the temerity not to agree with their opinion of the importance of the purple spotted monkey weasel to the universe, or whatever opinion they hold that I don’t. This is a kindness to myself.

So how to I handle them? I don’t. If they make asses of themselves on my site, I’ll delete their posts or remove them, but beyond that, I don’t care. They have every right to whatever opinion they hold. They just don’t have the right to stomp up and down scream about it on my site.

Last question: can you tell us an industry horror story? What's the worst thing you've had happen to you or that you've heard happen in the publishing industry?

I have two, and both contributed directly to the fact that, while I still have an agent and could no doubt still place books with publishers, I’ve moved to publishing myself.

The first horror story came when I wrote my novel Hawkspar for Tor, and came in over the agreed-upon 200,000 words. My editor told me that at that length, Tor would have to publish it as two books.

So I cut, rewrote, swore a blue streak, and managed to bring the novel in UNDER my 200,000-word contract, at 190,000 words. I sent the revised version off to my editor.

She came back with the information that Tor wanted an additional 55,000 words removed.

Now, I write tight. I am not given to flowery language, and Hawkspar was an adventure story with no padding left.

I went over it again, and ended up telling her I could not find another single place to cut. I asked her if she could—and IF she could, to let me know where so I could make the cuts.

I then heard from her occasionally that it was taking longer than she’d thought, but she’d get back to me.

Only she never did. Instead, she quit Tor, and I got a copyedited manuscript from my new editor, who didn’t bother to introduce herself, and who told me I had a handful of days to turn the copyedit around.

Which was when I discovered my previous editor had cut the book by the mind-bogglingly stupid process of simply removing every scene from my hero’s point of view… and in the process removing the entire plot of the book and reason for its existence.

I fought a long, hard, angry battle to save the integrity of my story, and I won, and the book was published the way I wrote it. But it was an ugly fight and a miserable time.

As for the second story, it’s MUCH shorter.

I sent in my second YA fantasy novel to Scholastic on time. My editor approved the book. Scholastic then spent six months making excuses about how my check was working its way through accounting, while my credit went down the toilet, we lived on beans and pasta, and I eventually wrote Create A Character Clinic, and published it on my site for my readers, just to get money to cover bills.

Scholastic then told me they’d like to see my third novel in the series, but let me know through my agent that I’d have to take a massive pay cut to write it. I declined.

Between Tor and Scholastic, I discovered that I was much better off working for myself. So that’s what I’ve done ever since.

Thanks so much for your time, Holly!


I like Holly's idea of active description. Let's give it a shot. Holly says:

Active description requires the writer to think hard about the objective of the scene he’s writing, create conflicts based on the setting or other descriptive elements, and then write the conflicts INTO the description.

To practice that, first, describe a setting for five minutes. This could be your surroundings right now, a setting in your work in progress, or an imaginary setting from the realms of your imagination. Then, write conflict INTO that setting for ten minutes.

When you're finished, post your practice in the comments section. And as always, if you post, please be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.

Have fun!

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

Share to...