A Conversation With Janny Wurts (Part Two)

by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, June 2002

I'd like to talk a bit about the Empire Trilogy that you wrote with Raymond Feist. How did that collaboration come about?

Cover of Daughter of the Empire
 by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts
 by Janny Wurts
Click here
for ordering information.
Ray asked me, then badgered me, and on it went, until I caved in. Seriously? He had this idea with a starting scene, and a finishing scene, and a woman protagonist. He had no middle, and he felt he needed a woman's point of view to make the idea work. If you ask, he will tell you that he had designed Tsurani politics to explain the fact that the war tactics as written in Magician were illogical. Now, he needed to do some machiavellian thinking to show how that system and society actually worked.

He had read Sorcerer's Legacy, and based on that, felt I had something to contribute. I cheerfully kept telling him I could supply ideas, give him insights into a woman's viewpoint as much as he wanted, until one day, I realized, hey, this would be a fun story, and maybe I would enjoy working on it. So we sat down in one afternoon at a World Fantasy Convention and hammered out the plot for Daughter of the Empire and its sequel, Servant, in one sitting. When we'd finished the first one, we realized the story had to encompass Mistress, as well, because the assembly of magicians would not stand for one woman having such power.

The story encompasses a big tapestry, but the main thread is that one woman inherits ruling power through a family tragedy, and her enemies are great, and her supporters are few. She must either contend, or be destroyed, and to save her ancestral name, and her children, she ends up changing the entire fabric of her culture.

Yours and Ray's writing styles are quite different -- as a practical matter, how did the collaborative process work?

We began with that outline, then each of us wrote those chapters that interested us most. We exchanged the drafts electronically (by modem) and then, each of us overwrote each other's chapters several times. That's why the styles and the ideas mesh so seamlessly -- we both worked on all parts of the book more than once, and because the overwrites were done electronically, we never actually saw what words or phrases got axed, and what concepts got augmented or expanded. Months might go by before we saw that drafted chapter again, so we had no real tight attachment to what had shifted.

The best thing we did was to agree on paper beforehand how we would handle conflicts, and who had the last word, so to speak -- that way there were no blurred lines. When we had a head on, I wanted it to play this way, and he wanted it to play like that, we just dumped both ideas and came up with a third alternative we both liked. In fact, some of the most incredible scenes were those where we had to redraw the perspective.

I'd like to touch on your other successful career as an artist. How did you first get interested in painting? I understand you are self-taught?

Janny at work in her studio.
Janny at work in her studio.

I always loved to draw, as much as I loved to tell stories. At the time that I began to conceive the Light and Shadows series, the fantasy art was all very much in the style of painter, Frank Frazetta, and Howard's Conan the Barbarian. I admire Frazetta's genius, he's a brilliant artist. But the muscled barbarian and the half naked babe just didn't match the concept I had for my story. I decided, in my naiveté, to just draw the covers myself! Little did I realize what an enormous undertaking that would grow to become. It took massive determination, learning to draw with the necessary finesse, and without formal schooling. I did a lot of evening figure drawing classes! I went to a lot of museums, and I shamelessly looked at what other professional illustrators were doing. They appear as guests at conventions -- I attended and picked their brains! I went endlessly back to the drawing board, and when the time came, I dragged my portfolio on the train to New York. I actually was hired to paint covers for three or four of the major publishing houses. By the time I sold my early novels, I was already recognized as a professional illustrator.

For anyone who thinks drawing is a total mystery, I can say with some authority that every drawing that amounts to anything begins with a scribble. You just have to train your eye to learn which lines to erase, and keep on refining until the mess shapes up. Practice will grow whatever ability you have at the start. But that first scribble is always an act of sheer courage.

The knowledge of how to paint is available -- in books, in paintings in museums the old masters have done, in art schools, and in the minds of those are already accomplished at drawing and painting. Self-taught simply means going out there and tracking down that body of knowledge, and sticking with it until you learn to recognize what works best for you. Much like writing, there is no one way, or one technique. Drawing well is a mechanical skill -- doing it with originality and skill means staging off that foundation and finding something of yourself in the way the line and the form arrange themselves on the canvas.

It is quite unusual for an author to be allowed to do the artwork for her own book covers. What led up to your selling your first book cover?

I did a painting a month, again and again and again, for about five years. Then I dragged those paintings to exhibits at SF conventions, hung them beside the professionals, and told myself the hard truth. Then I went home and painted again, striving to bring my work up to that standard. As the work reached a certain level of expertise, I sent out portfolios to war gaming markets, magazines, and book club art directors, and sold originals at convention art shows. When I had a certain amount of success in the small markets, finally, I took it the next step, and approached New York. I had to keep pushing -- one doesn't break in overnight, at least, I wasn't the new genius on the block. I had to keep showing my work until serendipity struck -- simply, I was in the right place, at the right time when a publisher needed a cover painting now, and the first three artists they called were too busy. There I was, with my portfolio, and a piece that ran along the lines of what might suit -- so I got my first cover job. Courage is required to break into the art field. Persistence. Excellence. You have to hold all three cards, keep going, and just handle the trail of disappointments by going back and doing the next painting better.

If you aren't in love with the idea of doing artwork, you're just going to wear out. I had this dream, and it would not die -- and I refused to believe the odds, that I couldn't achieve what I wanted if I just got real, and did the work. To paint the covers for my own books, I had to go the distance and meet the standard that the industry expected.

How did you meet your husband? How did your artistic collaboration on The Fionavar Tapestry book covers come about?

Janny Wurts and husband Don Maitz.
Janny with husband Don Maitz.

I met Don at a convention, in front of his Second Drowning painting. We knew each other for about ten years before we finally tied the knot. It was worth the wait -- by then, we knew what we wanted, we were both established, and neither one of us expected to "make life perfect" for the other. It was more like taking two independent careers and putting them under one roof, to exist side by side. Nobody's work was "more important" and neither of us was expected to cater to the other's deadlines. This can make for interesting times -- lends piquant spice to "who's cooking, or who's shopping tonight" -- but at least I can attend his art openings, and usually have one painting hanging myself, and he can attend my writer's functions, and be an active part of the picture. Nobody gets dragged along, and nobody's window dressing. How could we not be pleased?

The Fionavar Tapestry covers came about because Guy Kay asked for us, specifically, to work together. I personally love Guy's writing. There are few authors for whom I would pause on a novel to illustrate, but he's one. When this came up, I was delighted with the idea -- and Don enjoyed it too, once the project got underway. This painting was done as one painting, for all three books -- the original can be viewed on my website, under Collaborative Worlds of Janny Wurts and Don Maitz. Check out the link, if you're curious.

What is the greatest challenge in collaborating on an artistic project, whether writing or painting? Is there a special mindset you have to get into? Perhaps a putting of ego aside?

To collaborate, you have to let go. The outcome will not be your work anymore, but something else altogether. You will not control it. It is going to be different. If you can handle the idea that the concept will go its own way, and be other than what you expect, then you're in line for a successful partnership. You need to respect your partner -- know their strengths and also know your own -- and just step in and let the synergy happen. The peril is in getting too attached, or trying to hang on to your private identity. If you can't free wheel and just let things happen, let that juggernaut go its own way, you will be miserable. Sometimes the tightest friction that arises in the collaborative process gives rise to the most transcendent bits of inspiration. The trick is to look for the silver lining, not get sucked into the mire of arguing.

Cover of The Wandering Fire (The Fionavar Tapestry, Book 2)
 by Guy Gavriel Kay, Cover Art
by Janny Wurts and Don Maitz
Click here
for ordering information.
I always enjoy the result of collaboration, but certainly I would not, if I didn't choose my partners carefully. The idea of passing drawings back and forth, or sending drafts back and forth, and not breathing over your partner's shoulder while they do their bit of genius is important. Don't watch! Just walk in and look at the recombination that happens, and go for the good stuff that has arisen. Then take the weak areas where you can see room for improvement, and buff them up, knowing your partner will be right there after you, doing the same thing where their strengths lie.

Expect a difference, I think, is the key.

One unfortunate side effect of the rise of the Internet is the rise in copyright and trademark infringement. As an artist and author, have you experienced copyright infringement first hand?

I don't know of anyone who's ducked this one, if they're published. Most infringement is just plain enthusiastic ignorance -- folks don't realize what they're actually causing. They just love the work and want to share it. For those who are crusading for the cause that all information should be free, the results are a bit more contentious.

If information should be "free" then indeed, we should have a society in which food is "free", housing is "free", taxes are not necessary because everybody shares, and we all go home happy. The idea that I get to write all day, and that I might receive a fair living in return is somehow an affront to society, is dangerously-sided thinking. Look at the poverty stricken areas of the world, and show me the great literature that was written by the homeless, or the dispossessed? Great ideas might be inspired by misery, but great literature does not spring from an empty larder. Nor could I, personally, write a series like Wars of Light and Shadow "on weekends". Sorry. The time it takes, the effort, is too intensive. I work all week and most of my weekends and evenings anyway! Peril's Gate was done in a year and a half of solid, every day at the desk work -- many times until the wee hours of the morning. I'd like to say that my horses get ridden all the time -- but they don't. Sometimes the intensity of the story, or the hours that are needed to make a painting just won't allow outside pursuits. I make this choice because the importance and meaning of the work itself eclipses those outside interests.

If I am to spend my life weaving a creative legacy for others to enjoy, I need to feed and house myself, meanwhile. If information must be "free" -- my bills don't get paid, it's that simple. I would not expect a farmer to "give me his crop" because "food is a necessity and should be free" any more than I expect any of these crusading folks to go to work nine to five, and not receive any wages for their day jobs!

Janny at a book signing
Janny at a book signing.

The publishers are not enemies who hoard literature or ideas, either. They are simply the system we have evolved to get those ideas distributed at large. Their profit margins, in icy fact, are not very large. To attack them by undermining their revenues is simply destructive -- it will only result in books with lower numbers and lesser profit margins (much of SF and Fantasy, by the way) to be dumped off the list. Why not, if those sorts of "information" crusaders feel so strongly, invent a new system that is fairer, but is not sabotage of a stripe that will, in the end, destroy the very source of the creativity they wish to disseminate?

If I could have a "free living" and make my books "free" on the internet, how would these crusading infringers know they were there? It is the very system of publishing and distribution that makes a work widely recognized to begin with! Well somebody paid the production costs, and the printing presses, and the employees who edited, copyedited, bound and boxed these books, and somebody drove the trucks to distribute them. Somebody shelved them, and manned the counter to sell them. Creation of a book required many hands! All this was done at the risk of not making a penny, since nobody's yet designed a system of predicting which books are going to sell. How in the world can all this team endeavor be "free" because somebody feels they should not have to contribute the purchase price of a book in return for all this honest effort, shared out over many people, and many jobs, and many resources?

Is it really that "information must be free" or is it actually, that somebody is annoyed that they are asked to contribute something (namely a bit of cash) in exchange for the privilege of sharing an idea that did not, absolutely, just "happen for free." Did they ever stop to think that what they pay for a hardback barely covers the cost of dinner for two at a restaurant? And a paperback is barely the cost of a lunch? That's a bargain, really. I can't write a book in two hours. It actually takes a year (for a simpler concept) and well beyond a year for a Light and Shadows novel. This book doesn't only have to take care of my grocery bill -- it must cover the salaries and overhead of all those people who publish the book, market it, and house the shelves to sell it.

I am not an angry person at heart -- I do what I do because I love it. I am not in it for the money, but for the fascination and the exploration of bringing a thought into existence, that others might choose to share it. For those who are the enraged among the infringers, I would ask: why are they so angry that they must strike out and hurt me and even, belittle my effort and that of others, to make demand their "due right to have information for nothing?"

For those who are the blissfully ignorant who just love the work -- it's not their site that's the trouble. It's the person who lifts the work from their site, maybe uses a bit of Photoshop, and reworks a piece, then calls it theirs, and sells it, or puts it up on some cause that I can't in good conscience endorse. It's what happens to my work when my name is taken off, and it is plagiarized into something else -- and then it comes back to me, altered. Sometimes an unscrupulous infringer might sell it, and inadvertently, violate a rights contract I have already signed for that piece, promising exclusivity. Now, I am caught in breach with a publisher, and the mess is none of my doing. That's the hurt and the hassle I might be exposed to, by the "harmless" infringer's "good intentions."

I think it boils down to a matter of integrity and respect. If an infringer swipes my work, actually, they are just cheating themselves -- substituting my creativity for their own. And if they developed their own, wouldn't we all be enriched? In stealing my voice, they have silenced their own, and this, above anything, is a saddest loss of them all.

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

First, you have to write. If you don't, your dream dies with you, and that is the only lasting failure there is.

Second, go buy the book Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, published by University of Oklahoma Press. It's the only book I've seen worth mentioning that can teach you an on page understanding of how to assemble a work of fiction. There are no substitutes that come close, that I have ever encountered. This one's the "bible."

"If you aren't in love with the idea of doing artwork, you're just going to wear out. I had this dream, and it would not die -- and I refused to believe the odds, that I couldn't achieve what I wanted if I just got real, and did the work."
Third, when you create - do not try to destroy at the same time. You are either drafting (creating) until you have a story, then after that, you are editing (destroying). The two processes are diametrically opposed. If you try to "perfect" while drafting, you will only choke yourself down. The voice that wants to be critical MUST be turned off when you are setting down a new idea. Only after that idea is set down will you realize what you have, and know how to apply critical thinking to it to polish its form. If you don't have the "steam" to work, or you can't seem to get much done, or stuff keeps arising that won't let you write, recognize that this is simply self-pity. Cut the excuses, quit procrastinating, and get back to business. Tell yourself the truth: if you really wanted to write, you'd do it in coffee breaks, in lunch hour, or commuting to work on the bus or the train.

Forth, your process will be your own. Don't expect other people's systems to work for you -- explore until you find yours, no matter how crazy it may seem to someone else.

Fifth, even the very best writers and painters have been rejected! Not everybody on the planet is going to love everything that is written or drawn. It's sheer arrogance to hold the belief you must please every reader, and at the outset, an editor is just an experienced reader with the power to buy what they like within the limits of what they believe they can sell. I moderated a panel, once, with editors and agents on it, in which I asked what was the most embarrassing manuscript or author they had ever rejected, and the list of famous books, award-winning books, was a revelation!

If you go the route, and you get rejected by everybody, it's not over unless you quit. First throw that tantrum, and get past the hurt. Clear that mess out of the way. When you are calm, get objective, fast: successful people are those who are willing do whatever it takes to make their dream happen! They know that carrying a chip on the shoulder only weighs down and snowballs a failure. They have, guaranteed, failed before, at something, and they have learned to get back up on their feet and keep marching. There are no magical exceptions!

Here's how: If you've done the rounds and been rejected, the most important question you must honestly ask yourself, and then answer, and then respond to, is Why? Was your idea just not solidly crafted? Did it lack suspense? Did it lack inventiveness? Did it fail to conclude, or winnow off onto tangents. Was it just too much like somebody else's story that's already out there -- not original in cold fact. Or was it great, but simply not commercial? You must examine this, and you must discern the gritty truth with whatever degree of uncomfortable accuracy -- because that truth will be paramount when it comes to taking the next step, which is where do you go from here?

Cover of Grand Conspiracy by Janny Wurts (The Wars of Light and
Shadow, Book 5
Click here
for ordering information.
If you've answered honestly, you will know what must be done. Do you refine your craft, do you deepen or flesh out your idea, do you reorient toward another marketplace -- maybe you aren't writing fiction, but non-fiction, in fact! Maybe what you're doing is terrific, but it's not commercial. A commercial publisher only buys where they can turn a profit, so quit beating your head against that particular wall, and try another. Maybe you are writing for kids, not adults, or vice versa. Maybe you are better suited for doing news, or reporting. What gift were you trying to offer in this body of work, and for fiction, did it really entertain? Did it fascinate? Or were you too afraid to rip out what you really felt? Did you mute your voice and hold back out of fear? Was what got on the page distanced, watered down, too bland to be engaging? Writing is about taking those risks! It requires an intimate exposure that's going to draw on your courage. If you did that bit well, then what are you trying to say, and did you say it with clarity? Did you say it with panache and sparkling interest, and, did you say it in words that are up to professional commercial standards?

More: if you are writing fiction, you had better be able to cut off a page with scissors, ANYWHERE in the story, and be able to answer this question: "what is at stake?" If you can't answer that with burning passion, there is no jeopardy to your plot. If your characters are not in pursuit of an outcome that is driving them, you don't have a story!

Janny in Tasmania
Janny in Tasmania.
(Photo by Don Maitz)
Last, go back to the drawing board, write a new story, or rewrite the old, and get it out there and try again.

For those who wish to explore this subject in more depth, I have written material on this subject, made permanently available (yes, for free!) to any aspiring writer and aspiring artist. As well as tips and advice, my website includes a page of proof reader's marks, and sample draft pages and preliminary drawings, even sequential shots of cover paintings in progress.

Click here to return to the first page of the interview.