Meeting a Legend: L.E. Modesitt Jr.

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(Edit: Mister Modesitt sent me an email asking that I clarify a couple things, which I am more than happy to do – as I said, I was relying on my own memory here.  So I have gone through and -fixed- errors, using strikethrough in red so you can see where I messed up and bold italics where he has corrected me.  Enjoy! ~P)

Meeting a hero is a curious thing.

My family hails from Chicago, so we are supporters of Chicago sports to this day and no matter where we live. When the Bears won the Superbowl, had the Superbowl Shuffle and were all around celebrities in the ’80’s, we were right there cheering them on despite being 2000 miles away in California.

Fame has a way of changing a person, twisting them. Look at all the tabloids if you need proof.

My Uncle, a brick layer in Chicago back in the day, had the opportunity to work on Walter Payton’s home. Thrilled, he was also very nervous. After all, this was Walter Payton. My Uncle would see him every day (Payton was retired from football when my Uncle worked for him), coming and going. It took him a little while to screw up the courage to say anything other than ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’ to the Superbowl champ. When he did, he was delighted to find that he was just a guy, and a very nice one at that.

They chatted several times, got an autograph or two – overall a really fantastic experience for a fan.

modesittI had a similar encounter last Saturday at a local Barnes & Noble when I had the chance to chat with one of my favorite authors, L.E. Modesitt Jr.

If you are unfamiliar with his work, check it out on his site. To say that he is prolific is an understatement. An understatement of an understatement. The guy really does write a LOT.

I’ve told the story before and I’ll retell it again here briefly; I took a job that moved me to Tennessee in 1999. Bored, lonely and traveling all the time, I rediscovered fantasy and scifi books and began reading a lot. With an eye to find authors who had multiple books or series of books, I came across Modesitt on a sojourn down to a local Knoxville bookstore. His shelf had a lot of books in it. Me being me, I checked the inside cover to see where I should start. That ended up being ‘The Magic of Recluse’. I read it ravenously and was immediately hooked.

I went back to the bookstore and bought the next couple of books in the ‘series’ (Recluse is stretched out over thousands of years and rarely shows the same characters in more than two books) – ‘The Towers of the Sunset’ and ‘The Magic Engineer’. The rest is history, so to speak. I have continued to purchase his books when they come out (he has something like 40 books out there people!), so when I saw a notice that he was coming to town to do a reading and sign books (he has two new ones out in hardcover – ‘Imager‘ and ‘Haze‘), I just had to meet him.

He was older than I imagined him being. I’ve never looked for any photos of him online, so I also wasn’t entirely sure that he was male either (I don’t read the acknowledgements in books most of the time – if I had, I would have known he was a guy).

He sat at a very small table, covered in a green cloth with two piles of his books laid out for people to snag and have him sign. Behind him, arranged on this massive book case/display, were all of his books. There were a lot of them, some paperbacks, some in hardcover. Dressed in a dark shirt with a bright blue tie and floral patterned silk vest, he somehow brought to mind Mr. Myxlplyx from Superman – I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the impish grin and twinkle in his eyes whenever someone asked him a question – which seemed to quite genuinely delight him.

I arrived early, but there was already a crowd. Not a lot of people, not what I expected anyway – just about 20 of us sitting in chairs arranged around the table classroom style. Modesitt was taking questions, preferring that over reading excerpts from his books.

“I’ve heard people read and I’ve heard them read well. I do not read well.”

I’m gonna quote him as best as I can recall but it might be paraphrasing in the end. I apologize folks – it’s the best I can do.

He took a lot of questions and, as I said a second ago, seemed genuinely delighted to do so. He was very warm, intelligent and open. He tells a story as well as he writes them, a tricky thing that, and every question triggered a story. I am not much of a reader myself, so I imagined that this was similar to how one of these things would go were I sitting on the other side of the table, which I probably will be someday. Working without a net, he told a wonderful story regarding J.V. Jones, another favorite author of mine. Said she was absolutely drop dead gorgeous and, at an event where they were billed together to do a signing, most everyone came simply to stare at her.

“They could care less that I was there. They all wanted to see her.”

I was able to ask several questions as the rest of those gathered seemed a bit timid. I always waited, politely, during the lull before putting my hand up – didn’t want it to seem like I was hogging all his time. Luckily, this seemed to illustrate that it really was okay to ask questions as others started to pipe up, which further delighted him.  I also liked that my questions elicited nods and “oh yeahs!” from those around me.

When asked about the state of the publishing industry he said he was worried. “I am one of the lucky ones. Thanks to you guys, my fans, my sales have stayed steady. Now, they aren’t increasing but nor are they decreasing, and that’s important. I think technology is catching up to us. Ereaders and the like – these need to settle down and people need to become used to them and then maybe we’ll see some stabilization.”

When asked, “You seem to publish two books a year. How do you do it and still have a life?” This was from me. Smart ass through and through (the ‘life’ comment).

“I write two and a half books a year and have for the past fifteen/twenty years. I have six children. I started writing when the last left the house. That’s important to remember.  I wake up every morning when the alarm goes off at 5:45 am. I get up and I walk the dogs. Then I make breakfast for my lovely wife who has an 80 hour week. I go for a quick run (2 1/2 – 4 miles in the hills), then return home and take a shower. I sit down at the computer at 7 am between 8:30 & 9 am and I stay there, writing, until between 7 and 9 pm. Every day.”

When asked about word count, he said, “Around 25,000 words a week Generally around 2,500 words a day. That doesn’t include my blog or the occasional forward or acknowledgment in someone else’s book.”

Wow. Just – wow.

Like me, he doesn’t outline his books beforehand. “I don’t do outlines, no. I have my own style of writing. There’s no wrong way, really, if it works. Before computers, I would write in bursts and not in order. I kept accordion folders and I would write the chapters or pieces that it made sense to write, and then I would stick them in the appropriate order in the folder – this one goes here, this one goes there – so I might write chapter 1 today, 4 tomorrow, 3 the next day. Of course, computers make it much easier now.”

Something he said really stood out in my mind. “I have three books in stages of development at the publisher right now. In this business, you have to stay ahead of the curve unless you want to starve.” Important, that bit. He also mentioned working on another book right now and has plans for another one to come soon.

The guy is a monster!

Every author has stories about the process of getting published. Modesitt could look back on his own stories with amusement now, but I’m pretty sure it was frustrating for him at the time. He said that he started writing short stories and putting them out there to get them published. He did this a lot. He received a positive letter from Jim Baen Ben Bova and doubled and tripled his efforts, which prompted Jim Baen Ben Bova to eventually send him a rejection letter saying, “Stop sending me short stories – I am not going to publish them.”  This crushed Modesitt, until he read further.  “You are a novelist trying to cram novels into short stories. Go write novels!”

Which he did.

He also was ‘published’ many times before a book hit the stores. According to the story he told, a publisher bought his book, then folded. Another one bought his book, then the scifi/fantasy division was closed down. Then it was bought again and that place stopped all projects unless they were from established authors – so he had a pretty up and down start, which seems to be similar in all the stories I have ever read of authors attempting to get published.  This all lead up to his being published at TOR, where he remains to this day.

The question was asked by a teenager: “What advice do you give to young authors today?”

“Read. Read everything you can. I receive so many magazines each month that my postman groans under the weight of them all. Read things out of your comfort zone, stay up on technology and science – especially if you are going to write science fiction. You have to understand what it is you are writing. If you’re going to go to college, don’t major in English Literature – major in something else, have another interest, something else that you can draw from in your writing. Yes, learn how to put a sentence together properly, but you don’t have to major in it.”

He had more to say on that subject, I simply fail at remembering it all and for that, I apologize.

Lastly, he said this: “I am grateful for my fans. I have very intelligent fans who read my books and keep reading my books and I thank you for that.”

Okay – so, what’s my take away here? (This is what my boss always asks me at the end of a meeting or a group meeting – ‘What’s your take away?’ – in other words, what stood out to you?)

First off – if you’re gonna write, then write. Ditch the excuses, ignore all the distractions. Sit down and write.  No one can force you to do it except you.

Second – if you say you are a novelist, write a novel. Once it’s done, don’t kick back and think that you’ve made it – write another one. And another – keep writing, keep honing your skills.

Third – Be who and what you are.  If you’ve been trying to write a novel and it just isn’t working, then maybe that’s not what you should be doing – try short stories or flash fiction or novellas.

Last, if you do get published and you do have fans – remember that they are the ones who make it all possible. If they aren’t out there, reading your stuff, buying your books, well – you won’t be a published author for long, now will you?

~P

2 comments for “Meeting a Legend: L.E. Modesitt Jr.

  1. October 5, 2009 at 8:07 am

    Great piece, thanks for sharing. Wish I was there.

    So did he mean that he didn’t start writing until the last of their kids had left the house for the world? Or for school each morning? Either way seems like he’d have to be 70 to manage to write all those books with 6 kids (which he doesn’t look). 25,000 a week, that’s crazy, the man must have some incredible focus.

    • October 8, 2009 at 9:18 pm

      I think he was writing before the kids left the house, but he joked that they're growing up and leaving gave him more time to devote to writing. Think about it – you have kids, right? You have to find that sweet spot between taking care of your family and writing, right?

      And, yeah – he does. I was joking when I said it felt like he published 2 books a year, but it turns out, he does. Insane.

      ~P

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