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Excerpts from Patricia McKillip's 1998 Lecture
On Theme, Outlining, Research, and Revision

copyright © 1999 Patricia A. McKillip

On Critiques:

Student: Between the time you finish a book before you send it off to the editor, do you have anybody read it?

PM: I used to. But now my agent reads it and he's worked as an editor himself, and he's got really, really, good suggestions so I tend to trust what he says about something. Usually not. I don't have friends who I bring chapters to and have them sit around and analyze it. Partly because I never know quite what I'm doing while I'm writing anyway and partly because sometimes the act of somebody else looking at what you've written just makes it vanish somehow. You don't want to go to that place anymore, you want to go someplace else that's secret. That's probably something left over from my childhood. You know, I lose concentration on it when someone else looks at it.

Student: If [people in a critique group] say something drastic needs to be done, how seriously do you take it?

PM: I take it very seriously. I think that readers know what they want, they're good critics. If they get bored, if they get sleepy, then I should know about it. And I should do something about it. And I think I feel that way because I'm such a critical reader of my own work. I step back from it all the time, looking at it and if I find myself nodding off in a paragraph, then I know instantly something is wrong. [laughs]

On Prevailing themes and the writer's life influencing their work:

I suppose things like that do come out. I'm generally not aware of them until they actually hit me. I could be three quarters of the way through a novel or close to the end before I really realize what the novel is about. So I don't know if that's being driven or just being dragged. [Sometimes] I simply don't realize what is there until it sort of demands to be looked at. I do know for many years that I thought that writing fantasy had nothing to do with me, that I was just telling stories, but now I know that's dead wrong. They have a great deal to do with the writer.

On Outlining:

I don't outline. I make suggestions to myself every once in a while when I've got something complex coming up ahead and I just want to put things in order. But I don't necessarily feel obliged to follow that. Sometimes if I'm starting a chapter I'll stick a couple of notes in the margin. But I realize fairly early along the line that if I outline something extensively I feel like I've already written it and I don't want to bother to write it anymore. But I know that's simply not true of a lot of people, they work from outlines, they recommend it, and it works for them, and I figure whatever works for you, you should do it.

On Revision:

What I do is reread and reread and reread to make sure it sounds like what I want to hear. Sometimes I write some really stupid things that I'm not aware of and my editor and agent will jump on me and say this is really boring and I'm going no, it's not, it's wonderful.

No, it's boring. And it takes me two or three months to actually see what it is, or it takes a life twist or something so that I can hear what is wrong with it.

On Research:

I tend to do more research into whatever it is that intrigues me about the story, which usually is some kind of mythology or an underpinning of fairy tale or a symbol that I can't figure out why it is in my head.

On Schooling:

I think it [matters]. In the sense that I read things in early English, like Beowulf in the original language, things like that. And it took me far deeper into language than I would've gone otherwise.

Thanks for dropping by!...

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Updated Nov 30, 2002
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