Creative Colleagues: Elaine Cunningham

Elaine Cunningham

Elaine Cunningham

Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

I don’t recall the details of my first contact with Elaine Cunningham, but it was probably an email exchange while I was editing Dragon. We met at Gen Con later, but it was such a brief meeting during a busy con that neither of us remembers it clearly. Most of our friendship has existed in the aether of the Internet as we conspire, commiserate, and exchange the occasional outline or manuscript.

When James Sutter first talked to me about Pathfinder Tales, he made it clear I couldn’t have the first book so long as Elaine was available. I accepted that because, well, Elaine Freakin’ Cunningham makes a bigger impression than Dave Who? Gross. If it had to be anyone but me, I was glad it was Elaine. We’d been chatting for months about what kinds of stories we’d like to tell in Golarion once the deal was in place. She gave me great feedback on my outline, and I tried to return the favor.

When the schedule had to change because of Elaine’s Year from Hell, she was supportive of Prince of Wolves coming out first and later of my helping her finish Winter Witch. We often talked about doing a collaboration on purpose afterward, but one of the many things we have in common is that we both like to lead. Thus, we shall never dance.

In case my sardonic wit (another thing we have in common) muddies my point, let me make it clear: Elaine is one of my favorite humans not only because her writing inspires me to try harder but because she manages to maintain a dark humor without becoming one of those tedious naysayers. Also, whenever she shares stories of her family, her love for them makes me feel like I’ve known them all my life, even though I’ve never met them (except possibly one of the boys during that brief, distracted meeting at Gen Con). You can see why she’s good with characters in fiction.

Anyway, after years of begging off, Elaine finally answered five hard-hitting (not really) questions about writing. And lo! They appear henceforth:

1. I think I can guess the answer, but what do you love most: plot, description, dialogue, or narration? And which do you hate the most? How do you balance the delight of working on your favorite with the agony of fighting with your nemesis?

Dialogue is the most fun for me. When the writing process is going well, it’s basically eavesdropping: I sit at the corner table, listening to these people talk and writing down what they say. But those moments are fairly rare. Most often, I revise and revise and revise until the flow of conversation feels right. It’s a bit like tuning a harp. It takes time, but the process of getting each string precisely in tune so that they all work together is very satisfying.

I know you’re thinking that plot is my least favorite part of writing, but plot isn’t really a nemesis; it’s more like a frenemy. Plot is the hardest part of writing for me, and where I’m most likely to make mistakes, but in many ways it’s also the most creative and rewarding aspect. Recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this issue. Going forward, I’ll be spending more time on the outline stage and getting feedback from Trusted Readers before I begin the actual writing process. Some people start a novel with a highly detailed plan; others make things up as they go along. They enjoy the exploration and discovery and surprise. While I fall into the second category in terms of inclination, it’s not the best tactic for me.

But to address your question more directly, narration is what I like the least. Specifically, I hate doing transitions, especially getting people from one place to another. I deal with this aspect mostly by minimizing it, using scene breaks and short chapters to instead of writing narrative that, if I were a reader, I’d just skim or skip over entirely. Leonard Elmore advised writers to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip, and for me, that’s narration.

2. Since you’re a trained musician, I’m always expecting to see more references to song and instruments in your work. But do you find that music influences your writing in other ways? Do you think in terms of meter, orchestration, crescendos, and so on? Do you have solos and duets, then full orchestral accompaniment?

Actually, I try to keep music OUT of the writing process. People often ask if I listen to music when I write. I don’t, and frankly, I don’t think it’s a good idea. On the one hand, the emotion and energy of the music can carry you along while you’re writing (provided you can split your attention, which I can’t do), but on the other hand, what you write needs to convey that energy and emotion to a reader who does not have the benefit of your writing soundtrack.

I don’t think in musical terms while writing because language has its own rhythms and timbres and musical nuances. Layering on melody tends to reduce prose to lyrics, which, no matter how good they might be, can seldom stand alone.

That said, I do have one particular bit of “sound track” for my Songs & Swords novels. There’s mention of a song called “The Greymist Maiden” in Elfsong. It’s a ballad written by Danilo Thann. I never did write lyrics for this, but there is a melody, which also functions as the “love theme” for him and Arilyn Moonblade. It plays in the back of my mind when I’m writing or thinking about them. Does that translate to the page? Probably not, but I’m fond of the tune and I enjoy “hearing” it every now and then.

Cover by Victor Leza

Cover by Victor Leza

3. You’re also a big fan of Polish myth and legend. While I know you’ve got something along those lines percolating, has it slipped out into your previous work? And in what ways to real-world myths and legends influence your fantasy creations?

People who’ve read the Pathfinder novel Winter Witch might remember that Declan Avari’s mother, Pernilla, created elaborate landscapes with layers of paper in shades of white and off-white. This was inspired by wycinaki, a Polish paper cutting folk art style.

Slavic folklore was also central to Windwalker, a Forgotten Realms novel set mostly in the land of Rashemen. Then there’s “Vasillssa’s Doll,” a short story in the anthology When the Hero Comes Home 2. Vasilissa the Fair is actually a Russian folktale trope, but there’s a lot of overlap and similarity in the various flavors of Slavic folklore.

Real-world myths and legends are central to my love of fantasy. Some people entered the genre through Tolkien, or the Dragonlance novels, or video games. Mythology and folklore was my point of entry, and they remain my primary inspiration.

4. You’re a tremendously supportive critique of colleagues’ work, yet you’re immensely hard on your own writing. What the hell is wrong with you, anyway? Seriously, when are you able to flip the switch to appreciate your own writing? Is it simply dependent on mood? Or is there a creative way to find that perspective? 

There’s a line between self-editing, which is necessary, and negative self-talk, which can be crippling. Admittedly, I don’t always do a good job of staying on the right side of that line. I like your notion of “creative perspective.” That’s vitally important. I’m finding that can stay on track if I focus on this outline, this scene, this passage, this particular word choice, rather than on what I think and feel about myself as a writer. That’s the sort of thing my inner critics like to talk about. When they start to chime in, I don’t engage them. I used to try to disprove them by, for example, putting a stack of published books next to my computer as a visual reminder that I have, in fact, written something that was considered publishable and could probably do so again. But inner critics are like internet trolls; debate only encourages them. It’s a better idea to just let their words flow past you and then get back to work.

Everyone has doubts, fears, and so on. Depression and anxiety disorders are fairly common among writers. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to deal with these things—and most other issues, for that matter—is to focus on developing good habits.

That’s a major focus for me right now. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been studying habit acquisition, writing about it, and working with a couple of programmers to develop a system of online tools. It has been a transformative process. Getting healthy was a first and necessary priority, but that accomplished, I’ve begun shifting focus back to writing.

And that leads to one more tactic I’ve started to incorporate. Most habits are private affairs, but I’ve come to realize that I have been TOO private about my writing process. Talking to other writers, comparing manuscripts, checking in on progress—these things can be very helpful during those times when the dark wood is darker than usual. Within the next month or so, we’ll be beta-testing GIDIG, our habit-acquisition website (no apps yet, but those are coming…), and I hope to recruit some of my colleagues to beta-test a writer’s group.

5. We both love humor and bestow it on our characters, but we also know humor is subjective. How do you know when a comic line or scene works? How do you know when to cut it? Perhaps most importantly, how do you know how to suggest another writer revise a comic bit?

Wow. Okay, this is a tough one, but I’ll toss out a a few random thoughts.

Humor “works” in different ways. Some things are funny because they’re surprising—they set up an expectation and then subvert it. Humor can be found in absurdity, which includes irony and satire. I enjoy these forms of humor immensely, and I’m especially fond of word play, so this is where I tend to focus. Physical humor is not my favorite brand of humor, but some writers can pull it off. I’m not a fan of shock humor or put-down humor, so those forms of humor don’t work for me.

Now, about the revision process. I find that if I’m uncomfortable with a line, it’s usually a good idea to cut it, even if I’m not entirely sure why. The same goes if I find that I have to work too hard to make a bit of dialogue fit. “Kill your darlings” is good advice in general, but it’s probably more applicable for humorous lines than for any other aspects of writing. Also, I find that it’s a good idea to let humorous passages sit for a while and then come back to them. Something that strikes you as amusing at a particular point in time might not hold up. Read the humorous section out loud to get a sense of pacing. If you can, have someone read the passage (silently) and watch their face while they’re reading.

I haven’t run into this issue during the editing/critiquing process very often, but the few examples that come to mind are usually problems of pacing or voice. Sometimes I’ll point out that a phrase doesn’t quite ring true for a character. And every now and then I just don’t “get” a bit of humor and ask for a clarification. That’s it. No suggestions, no “this doesn’t work.” I think it’s helpful for a writer to know that their intent isn’t getting through, and I leave it to them to decide whether to a) revise or b) decide that I’m a humorless Philistine who doesn’t know comedy from kumquats.

Mosey over to Elaine’s webpage.


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