A Conversation with Dan Ford, author of Ordination by Sheila Lamb

Dan Ford’s trilogy will be released by Santa Fe Writer’s Project in 2016. We discussed his writing process, poetry, and prose.

SL: Your novel, Ordination, the first in the Paladin trilogy, is set to publish with SFWP in 2016. How did you discover SFWP?

DF: I was alerted to it by fellow George Mason MFA alum (and outstanding writer) Rion Scott when SFWP said it wanted to get behind a fantasy series. He knew I was writing one, sent me a link, I sent a query and here we are.

SL:  How long did it take you to write all three? Did you begin writing with a trilogy in mind?

DF: I started writing Ordination in August of 2011, and I just finished the first draft of the third book on March 15, 2014.

I had no idea I was writing a trilogy. I thought I was writing a short novel, perhaps 60 to 80k words in length. Then it started getting longer and more involved, and more characters started sticking their heads up and I thought, “well, why not a trilogy?”

SL:  You have a background in Irish literature. How does that background play into your writing (either poetry or prose)?

DF: I don’t know if it plays into my prose writing. I’m sure, somewhere deep down, the DNA of Irish writers I’ve internalized goes into my prose, but I’m not conscious of it. I’m not about to try and compare my fiction to Joyce or Banville or Toibin or McCann.

When it comes to poetry, I very definitely started out trying to imitate the Irish poets I loved, like Longley and Heaney and ni Dhomniall, at least when it came to formal concerns.

SL:  You write poetry and fiction. Do you have a different process when you’re writing poetry vs. fiction?

DF: Absolutely. Despite having an MFA in writing it, poetry proves more difficult in the generative stage. Ideas often take over the words. I become frustrated with the time I spend and the perceived lack of return on it. I’ve found that in order to really write poetry anymore, I need a project, a specific goal or other piece of writing or stimulus I’m responding to; I can’t just make the words out of my daily life anymore.

I don’t want to give the impression that fiction is easy, but it came much more smoothly this time, once I realized what I was doing. I had a narrative and I knew where I wanted it to wind up after the first couple of months of work. I’ve also read fantasy all my life, and wanted to write it since I was ten or eleven; I didn’t really come to writing poetry until later in college. I felt like writing these fantasy novels, I was allowing myself to have more fun than I ever did writing poetry, and that really, deep down, I was writing what I’d always wanted to write.

SL: What is your mind set or process as you sit down to write?

DF: My process is about as boring as it gets, but it is also tech-aided. I go into the spare bedroom in my house, lock the door, turn on iTunes with headphones on – usually a specific playlist I developed, or something without lyrics – and proceed to waste anywhere from a few minutes to an hour on social networks and web surfing for “research.” Then I utilize Freedom Software; an app that turns off the internet connections on my computer. Then I write. For first drafts I use a distraction-blocking program called Ommwriter; it only runs in full screen and has very few options for fonts or formatting, which causes headaches later on, but it allows me to focus on writing.

The most important part of this routine is that I do it almost every single night. Rarely, I take a night off during the week. I never take weekend nights off; weekends are for more writing, not rest. I try to aim for either time spent (an hour minimum on a late weeknight but more often two, more on weekends) or words written, with a goal of 1k every weekday and 2k every weekend day.

One part of my process that I find baffles some folks that have asked; I don’t make outlines, plans, step sheets, character files, nothing. I sit and write and the story gets where it needs to go. Occasionally at the end of a night’s work I will write a few fragments to remind myself what needs to come next.

SL:  How do you balance writing with teaching and personal life?

DF: You know those triangles with three options around them that are often used in business presentations, typically “Fast, Cheap, or Good: Pick two?” It seems too pat, but I’ve learned that, for me, this is a case where it’s applicable; pick two.

During the school year, I pick writing and teaching. This is not to say I become a complete hermit, but to give an idea; in the spring I play kickball in an adult sports league here in Delaware. After the game, all the teams go to local bars and restaurants that are set up with specials for folks from the league. My teammates always ask me to come to the bar with them, but my answer is always the same; “the book’s not writing itself.” I very seldom go out with colleagues after work. I leave parties early. I decline more invitations than I accept.

During the summer break, I become a little more sociable, but only because I have more time in the day to get the writing done. On occasional long weekend trips, and especially during a few days around Christmas, I leave all the writing behind and party as much I can stand (and probably a little more). I am extraordinarily lucky in all this that my wife is incredibly patient and forgiving of my nonstop need to lock myself away, and that most of my friends, family, and colleagues know why, now, that they see me less than they once did.

SL: Do you have any other projects you’re working on?

DF: I have a few other fantasy series ideas I’m making notes towards. Some are definitely related to Paladin, some aren’t, some might be. I have had a long standing desire to create a webcomic, and I’ve written a lot in that direction, but with a fundamental inability to create visual art, my search for a creative partner there has foundered a bit. I’d like to get content on my blog more regularly. I should probably try to write poems again.

SL:  Any words of advice for aspiring writers?

DF: There is absolutely no substitute for sitting down and writing. You may need to do research, if you’re writing fantasy you may want to spend time world building, writing character sketches, developing pantheons and cultures and even languages. And that is all quite a lot of fun.

But none of it is a substitute for actually writing the story. I run into this problem with students who take my extracurricular creative writing class; I get beautifully thought out worlds with awesome ideas. In a given quarter, I might hear about Vampire hunters flying airships in an alternate history Europe, or Werewolves created as terror weapons by corporate states in dystopian world-cities. I get story settings that meld long-term space travel with Lovecraftian horror, and swords-and-horses fantasy worlds with vast histories, complex pantheons, hand drawn maps, multiple cultures. But the instant I try to get them to channel all of that energy into writing a narrative, most often, they want to give up and move on to a new world build. The problem is that making a narrative in those worlds word by word, moment by moment, is just backbreaking work. That’s all there is to it.

And, ultimately, the one thing you have to do is find a way to get yourself in the chair, to turn away from all the other things clamoring for your attention, and do that work. Habit will help, supportive partners and understanding friends will help, but you have to decide what you’re willing to give up and how hard you’re willing to work. There’s nothing else that’ll do. The only way to be a writer is to write.

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