On Building A Bridge: Q & A with Daniel M. Ford

Name your favorite books in the fantasy genre

KQVlHCk4Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. When I first read this book I was very much taken with the idea that fantasy was separate from literature and that you couldn’t do both at the same time unless your name was Tolkien. Kay’s work absolutely shattered that notion for me. 

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis. Clockwork robots and alternate history are not, I would’ve said, my favorite parts of the fantasy genre, and then I read this, which became my favorite book of 2015. It grapples with questions of sentience and free will and it made me try to read Spinoza again. Spinoza!

The Black Company by Glen Cook. This may actually be obviously foundational, but Cook tends not to get mentioned in the same breath as Tolkien et al. It may seem odd for someone writing epic, super-heroic fantasy to point to what some call the original grimdark as a favorite, but what I’ve tried to take from Cook (besides enjoying endlessly rewarding story and character development) is to never explain. Don’t turn chunks of your story into bald exposition. Trust the reader to gather the necessary context and trust yourself to put it there.

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero by Larry Hama (and many artists) from 1982-current. Yes, really. Comics designed to sell action figures, turned by Hama into an intensely character-driven story in ways nobody could possibly have anticipated. Character is everything. If you are always interested in the people you’re reading about, you’ll keep coming back.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. This was really only just edged by The Mechanical as my favorite book from last year. This is every grand, sprawling, heroic fantasy epic you’ve ever wanted to read–but it’s also got characters whose eyes are wide open to the limitations of heroism and myth-making. The breadth and scope of this novel would be overwhelming if it wasn’t handled so deftly.

The Chronicles of Amber (especially The Guns of Avalon) by Roger Zelazny. For one, The Guns of Avalon is probably the best title a fantasy novel has ever had. Two, the Amber books showed just how compelling super-powered protagonists can be in a fantasy setting, where we usually don’t think of them being.

Kushiel’s Legacy by Jacqueline Carey. An exquisitely and beautifully rendered set of two trilogies about people who are so deeply devoted to tangible faiths and so true to themselves that they will risk anything, endure any trial, and emerge all the stronger.

One piece of advice for writers tackling a novel-length project.

Write now, edit later. Keep going forward, relentlessly, until you finish the narrative. Then you can go back and fix all the problems you created and embroider or cut as necessary. Imagine you’re building a bridge across a dangerous canyon and you are absolutely not allowed to step back even one foot to work on some previous part of the bridge. Once you get to the other side you can go back and do all the necessary remaining work to make the bridge safe and stable for everyone else. Right now it only has to deliver you to the other side.

Where is your usual starting point–in research, an image, the middle of a story, an outline?

Paladin_Cover_SMWith Ordination I think I had the image that became the cover in mind for a few days–an armored knight kneeling before a luminous female figure–before I started with page one. That page one is now somewhere around page 12 in the final draft. With a book I started working on as a kind of follow up to The Paladin Trilogy I had only the name of the main character. But the most true answer is I start on page one. I do research as necessary. I don’t outline anything ahead of time. Which brings me to…

One piece of advice you never follow and why.

I don’t plan. Ever. I might have a notion of where the story is going to end up, and certain things I expect will happen along the way, but I don’t commit those to paper. I don’t make outlines, plans, index cards, character notes, step sheets, nothing. I wrote The Paladin Trilogy one page at a time with only the vaguest notions of what was going to happen in the next paragraph, much less the next book. I don’t even do any world-building, which is probably odd for a fantasy novelist. I let all of that come out in the story.

I do have a method to this madness; it’s the only way that ever worked. I have dozens of legal pads, notebooks, and at least 3 old hard drives full of story ideas, outlines, meticulous world-building, character sketches, and stop-and-start novels that go anywhere from a paragraph to a couple hundred pages. Eventually it became clear to me that planning, worldbuilding, outlining, creating a big sandbox to mess around in, functioned solely to keep me from doing any writing. Sure they felt like writing! But they are easy. Anybody can have ideas about settings, cultures, fantasy races, anybody can build a fantasy world…but those things are not telling a story, and no matter how meticulously you polish them, they never will be.

Name three commandments for writers.

  1. Don’t let yourself believe in writer’s block. Writing is work. Not exactly like any other work, but not unlike it either. Teachers aren’t allowed to get teacher’s block. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. There are easy days and hard days, but it’s work. Go do it and don’t give yourself an easy out.
  1. Turn off the Internet. Need it for research? Grab your phone for a minute. But then put it down. In another room. Let the writing have all of you.
  1. Seek solitude. This is really just another manifestation of the above, but I can’t imagine writing in the company of others in any meaningful way. Maybe deep down I believe it’s a shameful activity, best engaged in privately.

Favorite and least favorite places to write.

I write in one place, my study. That is a fanciful name for it; it’s a third bedroom with my high school desk, a twelve- year old iMac, and a shamefully extensive action figure collection on shelves. I close the door, put on earbuds, and turn off my computer’s internet connection using a program called Freedom.

The rest of the world is my least favorite place to write, because I can’t get any work done there.

What’s the craziest (worst?) idea for a story you ever had? Did you try to work with it or move on?

Had an idea to collaborate with a friend on a story told in messages between two suburbanite thirty-somethings in a world where Christmas Carolers could enforce the right of hospitality with increasing amounts of force if snubbed. Trying to capture the rising panic as the store of mulled wine dwindles and the cupboard slowly empties of mince pies. Hastily erecting defenses. Trying to keep the pets from giving you away in a dark and still house. That sort of thing.

I wouldn’t say we’ve given it up but we haven’t gotten a lot of traction on it either.

What book is currently on your nightstand?

I usually keep a little stack. Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown is on top. I’m fascinated by Norse/Viking culture and history and was drawn to this book as soon as I saw the title.

Beneath that is Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman. Haven’t cracked it yet, but my wife asked if I was interested in a book about a retired Jewish cop tracking down a Nazi war criminal and was I supposed to say no?

Then Poetic Diction by Owen Barfield. Barfield was a member of the Inklings, the literary, academic, and pub-crawling coterie of friends and colleagues that gathered around Tolkien and Lewis at Oxford, perhaps the most prominent member who wasn’t one of those two. I really only just learned about him after reading a literary biography of the Inklings this fall and it’s been a while since I’ve really challenged myself with any kind of theoretical or analytical reading about poetry and language.

Underneath that is the last three issues of the current G.I. Joe comic by Larry Hama and S.L. Gallant.


Daniel M. Ford was born and raised near Baltimore, Maryland. He holds an M.A. in Irish Literature from Boston College and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, concentrating in Poetry, from George Mason University. As a poet, his work has appeared most recently in Soundings Review, as well as PhoebeFloorboard ReviewThe Cossack, and Vending Machine Press. He teaches English at a college prep high school in northeastern Maryland. Ordination is his first novel. Web: danielmford.com.