Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Sharon Shinn

Posted by Randolph Carter on June 26, 2009

fortune and fateAuthor website:

Could you take a minute and explain what Fortune and Fate is about?

It’s the fifth book in the Twelve Houses series, but it’s about a character who played a very minor role in those books, so it’s a pretty self-contained story. It follows a King’s Rider named Wen, who can’t forgive herself for not being able to save the king’s life in the opening days of the war. So she wanders the countryside, trying to atone for that one great mistake by doing small deeds of kindness wherever she can. She ends up rescuing Karryn Fortunalt – the daughter of one of the rebel lords who fought against the king – and then training a guard unit to keep Karryn safe. She’s reluctant to be in any situation where someone wholly relies on her skill and loyalty again, but she gradually gets attached to Karryn, Karryn’s household, and Karryn’s scholarly, sexy uncle…and then it turns out Karryn needs to be rescued AGAIN…

Going back a bit, what was the process like in getting your first book published?

It took forever. I’d been writing about fifteen years before I sold my first book, so I have a pretty deep pile of “practice manuscripts” in the closet. I submitted books from time to time—one publishing house kept a manuscript for two years before finally rejecting it—but eventually I decided to concentrate on getting an agent. I mailed out a couple dozen query letters to agents whose names I’d found in Writer’s Digest; only one of them was really interested, and he didn’t like the first book I sent him. But he liked the second one, and we signed a contract. Still took three years to sell a book, but at that point he was doing all the work and I just sat back and looked at rejection slips! But all the hard work and all the patience paid off…once I sold the first book, I’ve managed to sell a book a year (sometimes two) every year since.

Where do you happen to find inspiration for your writing?

Everywhere. I’ll hear an item on the news and think, “Huh. How would that story be different if it had happened THIS way instead?” Or I’ll be cutting open a piece of fruit and I’ll think, “Would I eat this if the seeds were poisonous and I wasn’t sure I’d gotten them all out?” Or I’ll see a piece of artwork and wonder, “Where is she going, dressed like that?” Most often my first glimmerings of a story idea come from a conversation I sort of “overhear” between a couple of characters. I try to figure out who they are and why they’re arguing or what they think is so funny. Then I work backward and forward from there to figure out how they got to that point and where they’re going next. I do a lot of work in my head before I put the first words down on paper.

Were you a big reader as a child/young adult? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

I read incessantly when I was a kid. I read everything, from “The Three Investigators” mysteries to Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series to the juvenile books by Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton. Some of my favorite books from this time were Carol Kendall’s The Gammage Cup, Jane Langton’s Diamond in the Window, Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. I still reread The Gammage Cup about once a year.

Would you mind sharing some of your literary influences?

Well, I read a lot of 19th-century fiction—Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, Trollope—and I think you can see some of those influences in my writing, particularly the passages that are fairly lush. But I really think I was influenced more by all the genre fiction I started reading as a teenager, from fantasy novels to Westerns and Regency romances. What they all have in common is detailed, believable world-building. (Georgette Heyer does kickass world-building in her romance novels.) Plus all the adventure books left me with a taste for action stories. I don’t know if that’s actually translated to my own writing, which is often fairly leisurely, but I like to READ fast-paced books with an exciting ending.

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

Alas, about the only game I’ve ever played with any frequency is Scrabble. I’m sure I’m missing out on some pretty fascinating worlds, though.

Grind is a term used frequently in gaming vernacular referring to something that is rather repetitive or unpleasant that one engages in in order to progress in the game. Would you say there is grinding in the writing process? Please explain.

There absolutely is grinding. At times writing feels like sheer drudgery. I usually write by the numbers—I try to get X number of pages written in a session, because this makes me feel like I’m making some tangible forward progress on the task of writing a book, which otherwise can feel endless. There are days I sit down at the computer and think, “I cannot write one word, let alone five pages.” I usually make myself do it anyway. You would think that, when you read them later, those pages would feel forced and uninteresting, but I have not found that to be the case. Some days I feel like I’m digging a grave with a teaspoon; other days I feel like I’m shoveling up loose spadefuls of dirt and pitching them over my shoulder with abandon. I can rarely see the difference in the finished product.

Reading through copyedited manuscripts and page proofs, checking for errors, is also a grind. A necessary part of the job, but it can be really tedious. And boring, since by this time I’ve read the story so many times that it barely holds my interest.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

There are several distinct moments that can be absolutely dazzling.

There’s a kind of euphoria I feel sometimes when I’ve just finished writing a scene and I absolutely love it. Especially if I was working on it some night when I didn’t feel like writing to begin with, but I got sucked into the story and the scene just flowed. That’s one of my favorite parts about writing.

It’s also a thrill to see the cover for the first time. (People think writers have input into the cover art, but they almost never do…so, not until it shows up, already printed and stamped with their name, do they have any idea what it will look like.) I’ve been pretty lucky in the covers my editors have commissioned for me, so I’ve almost always been delighted with that first glimpse.

I also absolutely LOVE going to bookstores and finding my books on the shelves. Maybe because it took me so long to get published, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over the excitement of seeing my books in their natural habitat.

And finally, I always love hearing from readers who particularly liked a book. Every once in a while I’ll get an amazing letter—like the one from the woman who said she had been going through a long illness, but as she read the healing scenes in “Dark Moon Defender,” she could actually feel herself getting well. I mean, nothing’s better than that—learning that something you did had a powerful influence on someone else’s life.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

Keep reading, to see what has worked for other writers. Keep writing, because it’s like any skill; it gets better the more you practice it. Find good friends or other writers who will give you an honest critique of your work so that you can improve it; revising is an essential part of writing. Don’t get discouraged, even if it takes a few years to sell your first book. Love what you write, because you’re going to spend way too much time with these characters, in this world, to just produce something that you think will sell to a particular market.

You wake up to a world where your Twelve Houses series has been made into an MMO. What class would you play and why?

Wow, this is a really cool question and I had to think about it awhile. In fact, I like it so much that I want to have my webmaster set up a message board on my site ( to ask my readers the exact same question. They can respond to my response, too. He thinks he can get it set up by early July.

I’d be a mystic, probably a reader. Not a noblewoman—maybe an innkeeper’s daughter. Why? Because I think the mystics who are readers have the most interesting lives—they get glimpses of other people’s souls.

mystic and riderIs there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

If they’ve never been to a science fiction convention, particularly a big one like WorldCon, they should go! They can hang out with other gamers, meet some of their favorite authors, and buy really neat stuff in the dealer room. Most cities of any size also have local conventions that can be a lot of fun. I blow my spending budget for the year on jewelry and books in the dealer’s room—but the real fun is meeting people who like the same kinds of stuff I do.

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