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[GUEST POST] Deborah J. Ross on Her Apprenticeship With Marion Zimmer Bradley

Deborah J. Ross, as Deborah Wheeler, published two science fiction novels, Jaydium and Northlight, as well as short stories in Asimov’s, F&SF, Sisters of the Night, Star Wars: Tales From Jabba’s Palace, Realms of Fantasy, and almost all of the Sword & Sorceress and Darkover anthologies. Using her birth name, Ross, she has worked on a series of Darkover, under dual byline with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley: The Fall of Neskaya (2001), Zandru’s Forge (2003), A Flame in Hali (2004), The Alton Gift (2007), and Hastur Lord (2010, from a partial manuscript Marion produced during the last year of her life). Forthcoming from DAW are the Darkover novel, The Children of Kings, and an original fantasy series, The Seven-Petaled Shield, based on her “Azkhantian tales” from Sword & Sorceress. She’s a member of SWFA and Book View Café.

An Apprenticeship With Marion

by Deborah J. Ross

I am frequently asked how I came to work with Marion Zimmer Bradley and to continue the Darkover series after her death. Senior author-junior author dual-bylines are not unusual these days, but each partnership has its own story. In this case, the answer lies in our long-established professional relationship. That in itself would be insufficient to produce a smooth collaboration, but through working together, she knew that my natural literary voice would match hers, and she trusted my understanding and love for her special world.

Marion did not inspire me to become a writer. That happened long before I met her. Well before I learned to scrawl my name, I’d made up stories, and once I could form proper words and pictures to accompany them, I began putting together whole books. In my early thirties, just after my first child was born, I hit career burnout and decided to work part-time from home. A friend invited me to join a writer’s group. Although none of us knew what we were doing, I came home from the first meeting so exhilarated that I drafted the story I’d been playing in my head for the last year. No one told me it was crazy to write a novel in 6 weeks with a new baby. It wasn’t very long, and it was utterly unpublishable, but it reminded me of how important writing was to me.

Emboldened, I wrote a letter of appreciation to one of my favorite authors, Marion Zimmer Bradley. To my surprise, she wrote back, three pages of single-spaced typewriting. At that time, the Friends of Darkover held periodic writing contests and published its own fanzine. I sent her a couple of stories and received encouraging comments (and, as I remember, an award for one of the stories and fanzine publication of the other). When Marion began editing the first Sword & Sorceress, she suggested I send her a story for consideration. I was as elated by the invitation as if it had been an actual acceptance, and threw myself into writing the best story I could. It was a modest little story, a respectable first sale. Marion showed me that I could take my writing seriously, even if I didn’t yet know how to do it at a professional level.

When I submitted a story for the second volume, Marion telephoned me. “Now Deborah,” she said, “I’m going to take your story, but I’m sending it back to you for revisions.” With that, I made the leap from all-or-nothing sale-or-rejection to working with an editor. My manuscript returned to me covered in red ink, with comments like, “All thuds are dull!” and “Overwritten.” Don’t fall in love with your words, she was saying, make them serve the story.

Marion didn’t buy every story I wrote, but she read most of them. I was able to finish only a few short pieces a year, one for Sword & Sorceress, one for the annual Darkover anthology, and sometimes one that wandered around in search of a home. More editorial notes followed. I like to think I was improving, but it may also have been that Marion understood when outside critical feedback is helpful, and when the act of writing itself, story after story, is the key to development. She often said that the first million words are practice, and I was well on my way.

Besides writing and editing, Marion taught genre writing, including a weekend workshop on plotting novels that I attended, and she read several of my subsequent novels. About that first one she said, “Now Deborah,” (that was a typical way for her to begin an editorial discussion), “there are about a dozen people in the world who will love how you’ve ended this, and I’m one of them, but you simply cannot get away with setting up one kind of story and turning it into another.”

Perhaps the most valuable advice she gave me during these years was to “play it out,” to not abbreviate or undercut pivotal events but to give them full dramatic scope. Instead, she encouraged me to explore the nuances of each moment.

I’ve heard other writers say that it’s a matter of luck that what they naturally write happens to be commercial as well. It turned out that, for the most part, what I wanted to write and what Marion wanted for her anthologies and her magazine (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine) were very close. This put me at risk of becoming a one-editor writer and of shaping my writing to suit her editorial tastes. I think we were both aware of this. When she rejected my stories, she was always clear that they weren’t right for this specific market and I should submit them elsewhere. When I think of the scope of her own work — from science fiction to occult to sword and sorcery, to fantasy based on opera, or a gay circus story — I understand she was urging me to follow where my interest led me, to not let myself be limited to the genre in which I made my first sale. She taught me that I could explore a lot of different things and tell a lot of different stories.

With my first novel sale (Jaydium, a science fiction adventure through time and parallel worlds, complete with a bit of a love story and gigantic, intelligent silver slugs), and short fiction sales to increasingly prestigious markets, I came into my own. I wrote stories that weren’t suitable for the anthologies Marion was editing but did fit other markets. I read slush for her fantasy magazine, getting a sense of what she looked for and why, and a tremendous respect for the care she took with each submission.

In those early days, before authors had to paranoid about copyright infringement, Marion encouraged other writers to “play in her sandbox,” in her special world of Darkover. These anthologies allowed me to develop a slightly different set of literary skills. Instead of original world-building, I learned to pay attention to what she had already created. In other words, writing in the world of Darkover was very much like researching historical fiction. This wasn’t always easy, as Marion used to say that she never let consistency interfere with a good story. In the end, telling stories set in her world was as much about respecting the spirit of that world as it was reproducing details.

One of the special delights of being part of the fellowship of Marion’s authors was the opportunity to contribute to an anthology in her honor. Because Marion was best known for The Mists of Avalon, the publisher wanted an Arthurian theme. I, on the other hand, wanted to surprise her with some of her favorite things — opera and Cabbage Patch dolls. The dolls posed a problem, but the opera was obvious — I created a medieval murder mystery with a woman detective who channels the history of opera as the investigation unfolds (“Sing to Me Of Love and Shadows” in Return to Avalon, edited by another of “Marion’s authors,” Jennifer Roberson). I was certainly following Marion’s example of not letting details interfere with a good story.

Toward the end of her life, hampered by a series of strokes, Marion worked with in collaboration several other writers. I was one she considered because she had watched me develop from a novice to an established professional. When she asked if I would like to work with her, I was just emerging from a particularly difficult time of my life. The offer was an extraordinarily precious gift.

We discussed the basic details by mail and then I drove up to see her for a face-to-face session. She’d been resting and was on oxygen, but she insisted on sitting up when I came in, and soon we were deep in discussion. I knew she had been very ill, but seeing her made her condition so much more vivid for me. One of my best memories of that visit was watching her “come alive” as we discussed character and hatched plot points. Her eyes “glowed as if lit from within,” to use one of her favorite descriptions, and energy suffused her whole being. I asked question after question and then sat back as she spun out answers. It was as if she had opened a window into her imagination and invited me to peek inside. Her secretary told me that she talked for days afterwards about the visit and how excited she was about the project.

We never got a second visit. She died a month later.

Marion had been a rock, an anchor, an inspiration, a trusted friend, and a guide throughout my literary career. I expected we would have more time to work together, despite how desperately ill she was. I believed in the magic of that last visit.

It was magic. And, although I did not realize it at the time, it was also the passing of the torch.

DARKOVER® is a Registered Trademark of the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Works Trust.

4 Comments on [GUEST POST] Deborah J. Ross on Her Apprenticeship With Marion Zimmer Bradley

  1. Thanks. Deborah.

    What an experience, being Marion’s padawan.

    And I read that first Sword and Sorceress anthology, I remember.

  2. Thanks so much, Paul. It’s a story worth passing on. Marion inspired and encouraged so many writers, and it’s an honor to share my experience of her.

    And I always feel a bit of astonishment that anyone remembers my early work. I felt like such a small fish in a huge ocean. Small fish, when carefully nurtured, turn into dancing dolphins! (Yes, I know that’s biologically nonsensical, but you get the idea!)

  3. Deborah, thank you for sharing your story of collaboration and mentoring by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I also remember her fan zine because she accepted the first drawings I ever published. I illustrated stories in two or three issues of the magazine and learned a tremendous amount about similar tropes to what you describe for writing. Those acceptance letters still make me smile so many years later.

    I think fan fiction writing of the type you describe is an enormously wonderful learning tool because the world is built but must be handled respectfully and with care while our imaginations can build additions to the world.

    Ms. Bradley must have been a terrific teacher as much as she remains one of my favorite authors. I really love your work and have read most of your stories.

  4. Hi Rita, I’m so glad you enjoy my work and appreciate your telling me. Very cool about your doing illos for Marion’s publications. Did you continue your art? And yes (with a big grin) to those wonderful letters!

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