The first half of a two-hour conversation with Orson Scott Card about his creative process. Part 1 focuses on how he began writing, and the genesis of his famous story “Ender’s Game.”
Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools. His most recent series, the young adult Pathfinder series (Pathfinder, Ruins, Visitors) and the fantasy Mithermages series (Lost Gate, Gate Thief, Gatefather) are taking readers in new directions.
Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts, including his “freshened” Shakespeare scripts for Romeo & Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merchant of Venice.
Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He frequently teaches writing and literature courses at Southern Virginia University.
Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, where his primary activities are writing a review column for the local Rhinoceros Times and feeding birds, squirrels, chipmunks, possums, and raccoons on the patio.
Card notes his family had a tradition of thinking of themselves as writers. Growing up Mormon, there was a practice of creating comedy sketches, called Road Shows, taken from one church meetinghouse to another and performed for others within the diocese. They were usually based on some Broadway show, and required a writer to make a script that would be entertaining. Card’s mother was particularly involved in writing those, but his father also thought of himself as a writer.
In school, Card found out he was good at writing. His first published work was what he calls “a stupid little poem about spring” published in the state-wide educational journal when he was in Grade 4.
In school he mostly wrote poetry or theatrical pieces, not fiction. Through junior high and high school he was known for writing satirical song parodies making fun of his friends. But he didn’t think he would be a writer: he wanted to be an archeologist. It wasn’t until he was in college he realized that while the past fascinated him, he didn’t want to do the kind of dirty, laborious work archaelogists had to do in the kinds of places they had to do them, i.e., far from flush toilets.
He switched to theatre, where he was spending all his time anyway. (Majoring in theatre, he says, is “what you do instead of getting a practical education.”) He’s used that theatrical training constantly since, “always to put on plays that cost me money and never earned me any.”
He thinks the real foundation of his writing was helping his Mom, a secretary, as a clerical helper. He wuld spend hours helping her after work when she was struggling to get something done, collating and stapling while she typed (at 100 words per minute, “like a dream.”
He also did proofreading for her. He was a good speller from an early age and also understood grammar. When he came home from his church mission in Brazil, he needed a job, and got one with Brigham Young University press as a proofreader.
At the same time, he started a theatre company, which did well in terms of getting an audience, but not in terms of making money. He ended up deeply in debt and was desperate to earn “real money.” That was when he decided it was time for him to try writing.
He notes that on his 16th birthday, his older brother and his brother’s future wife gave him two of the Foundation books by Isaac Asimov. “I was so blown away by Asimov’s clarity, and the sweep, the sage, the vision, I thought that I want to write a science fiction story.”
The initial idea that became “Ender’s Game” dates to that time: as his father was driving him to school, he was trying to think of a science-fiction story premise. His older brother was in the Army and had told stories of boot camp and Officer Candidate School. “The idea of training people to command came to mind. How would you do that if you were going to be fighting in a three-dimensional space, piloting ships and so forth when there is no up and down?”
Clearly that would have to be done in free-fall, in outer space, but it would have to be done inside something with walls, so combatants wouldn’t drift away if they made a mistake. And so was born the Battle Room: a cube a hundred metres on a side. Two opposing forces enter from opposite sides and attempt to capture the enemy position. He came up with floating objects called “stars” that could be used for concealment, etc., the number of people on a side (forty plus a commander), and how they would be divided into platoons. He invented the flash suit, to record hits and damage.
But all he had was a setting, not a story. He kept working on building the world over the next few years. Other ideas presented themselves, including one based on psionic/psychic abilities, inspired by his reading of stories by Zenna Henderson. That idea led to the stories that became what is now known as the Worthing Saga.
In college, he turned some of those stories in in creative writing classes, where the teachers had no idea what to make of them. “The teachers are trained to love and honour fiction that nobody wants to read,” Card says. “I wanted to write fiction that I wanted to read.
As an aside, Card says science fiction has never been the majority of his reading, except for a time when he was writing a quarterly review column dedicated to reviewing every short story published in the field. That burned him out on science fiction: he came to know it so well that it took all the pleasure out of reading it. He only occasionally finds a writer who is doing something he hasn’t already read in some form and can’t predict. Instead, he prefers reading historical fiction, although what he’s looking for is harder and harder to find: today, you mostly get historical romance, “sex with more interesting costumes.”
Card said his teacher of what novel should be is Jane Austen, who invented contemporary novel writing by inventing third-person limited viewpoint, and who wrote with such clarity you don’t need to take a college class to figure it out.
“Most of what kills great literature is that we received when required to read it by college professors,” he says. “Reading in an analytical way is an enemy of literature.”
Card says modernism was the in writing that captured university literature classes because it came about just as literature became a subject in university. “These were the cool guys, so everybody had to praise what they did, even when it was embarrassingly bad. And so much of it was, and is, embarrassingly bad.”
He noted university professors tend to say James Joyce’s Ulyssesis the greatest novel in English. “What a crock,” Card says. “The greatest novel in the English language is The Lord of The Rings. There’s no question. It is far more erudite and accomplished.”
He notes Tolkien had learned how to write third-person limited viewpoint, and did it with consummate skill, producing a startling melange of the modern and old-fashioned that becomes a brilliant saga. (In an detailed aside, he explains why he has little use for the Peter Jackson films: by leaving out the Scouring of the Shire, he says, Jackson proved he did not understand the story.)
When he started submitting short stories, Card first sent “Worthing Farm” and “The Tinker” to Ben Bova at Analog. Bova had just taken over from John W. Campbell, who had died. Bova liked the writing but said Analog published science fiction, not fantasy, and he considered stories with psionics in them fantasy.
This gave rise to Card’s oft-quoted observation that, “Science fiction has rivets on the cover, sheet metal, smooth surfaces. Fantasy has trees.”
Needing a science fiction story, and desperate to earn money, he returned to the idea of the Battle Room. During a trip to Salt Lake City with his girlfriend of the time, who was taking her boss’s children to the circus, it occurred to him, “What if, instead of waiting until they’re adults and have all these bad habits, the battle room is for training children?”
He wrote the first sentence, “Remember the enemies’ gate is down,” and at the top of the page he wrote the title, “Ender’s Game,” a play on the phrase “end game” that gave him his character, Ender Wiggins. He wrote the whose story in that session plus one other, in longhand. His mother typed it up, and he sent it off to Ben Bova—who rejected it. He said it was too long (he said it should be cut in half) and he thought the title should be “Professional Soldier.”
Card understood the irony of that title, but it wasn’t catchy. “I would not have a career if it had started with the ‘Professional Soldier’ saga,” he notes.
He didn’t rewrite it right away. He sent it to Galaxy, which kept it a long time and then rejected it. He then thought about what Bova had said. He realized the problem wasn’t that it was too long, it was boring: he didn’t need to describe all the battles, he just had to show enough of them to give the idea of how it worked: how Ender won and how they kept rigging the system. He cut out one battle entirely and a lot of description, about five pages in all, added in some character stuff, and sent the story back to Bova, only two pages shorter than it had been. Bova boubht it, and it appeared in the August 1977 Analog, his first published science fiction story.
Asked if his work as a playwright and director informs his fiction writing, Card says it makes it much better.
Fiction writing, he says, is essentially a form of improv: you’re coming up with dialogue for people, and you’re playing all the parts. He says the experience of being an actor and sustaining a character that isn’t you is vital for a fiction writer, because otherwise all the characters are you, and it become hard to tell them apart.
Characterization didn’t matter in classical SF: Isaac Asimov, for instance, knew the idea stories he wrote didn’t need characterization, any more than Agatha Christie’s cozy mysteries did. More modern mystery writers like Sue Grafton are really writing American literature that begins with the finding of a dead body, and Stephen King writes American literature with “oogly boogly” stuff in it.
“Stephen King took horror out of the haunted house and put it in McDonald’s where it belongs,” Card says, adding that the place where you’ll find a record of daily life in the late twentieth century is in Stephen King and those who followed him, and, among mystery writers, Ross McDonald and those who followed him.
Card has found that it’s difficult if not impossible to write a good science fiction play. It will either be bad science fiction or a bad play, because of the expository burden. “The stage is shockingly ill-suited to worldbuilding,” is how he puts it. Even though he had written hit plays, he couldn’t make it work with science fiction: the exposition simply made them too slow.
When he first started writing a novel he tried not to use his theatrical training. His first novel, a Worthing story, Hot Sleep, petered out at 120 pages even though he had a detailed outline of (he thought) a novel’s worth of material—and yet a friend told him it was too long.
What made it feel long, Card realized, was that he hadn’t given the characters enough time to reveal who they were, and so the reader didn’t care about them. So the very thing he’d been afraid of with his science fiction plays was essential to his novel. “People had to care about the people in the story, so I had to take the time to characterizes.” The world-creation, though, he still did with great brevity.
When he started over, 120 pages in he was only through the first paragraph of the outline.”Now I was writing a novel.”
Card says everything comes to life when he’s writing dialogue. He has to curb his dialogue, because otherwise his characters (like an actor once told him about an early play) talks in quotable quotes. When he started, he says, he was a poet writing plays, and shaped his language too much. Now he strives to make people talk like people talk.
“Ender’s Game,” he says, the original novelette, is really just dialogue and stage directions. It was really his first good science fiction play.
“I knew as soon as it was done that it worked.”