Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Connie Willis, a science fiction/fantasy writer, spoke in the Scheuer Room on the evening of March 6, 2007. The recipient of six Nebula Awards and eight Hugo Awards, Willis has penned an impressive collection of stories including “Lincoln’s Dream” and “The Doomsday Book.” Willis was invited to do a reading from her novel-in-progress, “All Clear,” as well as answer any questions from students about the writing process.
The night began with Willis introducing one of her common plot devices: Time travel, specifically at Oxford. In this future, Oxford has developed a program to send historians back in time to obtain a different perspective on historical time periods.
In “All Clear,” four historians are sent to London during World War II. The title refers to the single clear note played after a raid was over. Though many novels have been written about the time period, Willis stated that most of them were about the actual fighting of the war. She wanted to tell stories about “parts of the war people didn’t know about.” She gave an example of using inflatable tanks and mimicking tank tracks using lawn mowers to fool the enemy into thinking there were more soldiers than there really were. She expanded on an example in the novel where the tanks were inflated on the land of a farmer who owned a bull. The bull charged at the “tank” and popped it resulting in shock and then uncontrollable laughter by the farmer and the soldiers. Incidents such as these served to “get the civilian’s aspect of the war.”
Willis then proceeded with a reading from a chapter of “All Clear” which started with the complications of trying to start and drive a car and ended with a character getting stuck in a measles quarantine.
During the question and answer session Willis revealed that she was anxious to finish the novel and had already started writing the ending and then would move backwards. She brought to light the sheer amount of rewriting the process required; for the one chapter she read, there had been 83 drafts.
She revealed that while great ideas for a story are very important, “how you tell it” holds equal if not greater weight: “I write about disasters and catastrophes. I’m interested in how people work when the chips are down. I believe some people perform very badly but some people perform extraordinarily and it gives me hope for the species.”
She also pointed out the amount of research needed for a single scene or action. She gave an example of a woman visiting a priest and a surprising amount of questions needed to be answered: Would a woman even come to a priest? Would she go alone? How would they interact? Could the priest go to her house?…etc. Then for specific actions such as a woman riding a horse: What would she wear? Gloves or mittens? Would she use a spur?…etc.
The mysterious and sometimes frightening role of the subconscious was discussed when parts of an individual end up being revealed in writing and Willis gave a technique that garnered a fair amount of nodding from faculty members within the audience: “If your father dies, don’t write a story about your father dying. Write about a circus…or ancient Greece and it will be about you father and it will be so much better.”
On using old plot ideas, she deferred to William Shakespeare as the perfect example of using the same “two star crossed lovers who die in each others’ arms” idea over and over again but transforming it from a straight tragedy to a comedy and in doing so, makes it seem fresh.
She concluded with a personal story of how she dealt with the inevitable rejection one must face when entering into the field of writing. Every time she sent her work out, she prepared another envelope complete with a stamp to another buyer or market so when the work was rejected and sent back, she would simply revise it or come up with a better idea and send it right back out again. There was a moment, which she describes as one of her darkest, where she checked her mail box and was faced with a large pile of every single work she had sent out that had been sent back, rejected. However she still had envelopes left and just kept going. Look where she ended up.