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The Examination: A Q&A with Hannah R. Orlove
by Namaste (namasteyoga)
at December 2nd, 2010 (06:12 pm)

Happy snowy December to everyone. (Some of you seem to be having it snowier than others.)

I wanted to bring back some profiles of writers and their work as a whole, and we've got one here with hannahrorlove. You can find others by clicking on the "author profile" tag. To suggest other writers to interview, please drop me a note in this post.

hannahrorlove has been exploring the world of House through fanfic for more than five years now, and has shown an ability not only to explore the characters in canon angles, but also to take them into new realms, such as in her fic Left Of West in which Wilson and House are still remarkably Wilson and House, yet it's Wilson with wings.

Wilson – who else could it be? – waved at him before beginning his descent. He flapped slowly and spread his wings out, keeping his arms close to his body while in the air and moving his elbows up and legs out just before landing. House gave a low whistle of appreciation at the sight of Wilson’s wingspan; with the sun behind him, it was easy to see where the muscle and bone ended and the leathery skin that made up the bulk of the wings began. The blood vessels were illuminated, giving the appendages a dull red tint. When Wilson walked, he favored neither his left nor his right ankle. The medical part of House was pleased with that.

“I thought it was you,” Wilson smiled, hands on his oddly-shaped pack’s straps instead of in pockets.

“I’m sure everyone looks the same from a hundred-fifty feet in the air.”

“Well, that is the altitude dictated by the official handbook.”

“First a secret store, now a handbook? Nice setup you’ve got going.”

Wilson laughed and gestured at a nearby bench. “Want to sit down?”

House declined, opting to continue some stretches while Wilson sat – not perched, sat, on his ass and everything – on the backrest. “So what is this, then?”

“What’s what?”

“Your coming here. I’m not going to buy that you were hanging around in the hope that I’d show up.” House switched to his right leg. “That you were in the neighborhood making a delivery and happened to see a brown-haired guy out running and thought it was me, maybe, but it’s still pretty unlikely.” He watched as Wilson unzipped his pack, flipped through its contents, and pulled out a piece of paper that turned out to be a receipt for a delivery from a local notary public. “Okay, then.”

“I was tempted to look you up in the phone book, but this seemed like a better idea.”

“People make the greatest expressions when you surprise them, don’t they?”

“For some reason, it rarely occurs to anyone to look up.”

Hannah has shown an interest in challenging both herself as a writer and the readers' perceptions of what can be done with fic. She takes on some questions here, but feel free to ask more questions in the comments. You can find many of the stories archived under the memories in her LJ, here.

What sparks a story idea for you? A specific scene? A plot? A snatch of conversation? Meta discussion online?

Basically, anything. When it comes to fic, it typically comes from knowing the characters well enough to look at things from their point of view, or make a decent extrapolation as to how they’d react to certain actions and events – maybe a prompt on a claims table, maybe looking at a gallery of photographs, maybe a song’s particular turn of phrase. Sometimes it’s wondering why an idea hasn’t been dealt with in the canon, like where Wilson hid House’s guitar at the beginning of the fourth season, sometimes it’s shamefully self-indulgent, like House eating loquat jam, and sometimes it’s perplexity that nobody’s written this idea as far as I know of, like House getting the supremely ironic superpower of telepathy.

Meta discussions can provide a spark, like the telepathy idea. I tend not to come up with plots wholesale, and do my best to develop them from small ideas to the point where they can sustain a reader’s attention throughout the piece. I try not to turn down any source of inspiration, no matter how absurd they might be at the time, since I can get a lot of mileage out of ideas that first make me giggle, since when I stop giggling I tend to take a moment and start to consider how I could pull that idea off. Which is when the magic happens.

I'm totally going to cheat here, and use a point you brought up in your author's commentary for Left of West (which I'll also link to because I think your comments on the importance of world building in AUs is a good one. but I don't want you to have to repeat it all here). Namely, you say that you draw inspiration from bad writing as well as good. How did you get started on that idea, and can you talk a little more about what you mean by that?

I think I read about getting inspiration from bad ideas in one of those interviews professional authors give when people ask them about their creative processes, but I can’t cite anything word-for-word for that. It could’ve just come from reading the summary of a book or movie and wondering how the base idea got turned into the end product. For example, the plot “tiny, secluded Satanic cult terrorizes accidental visitors” could’ve been a fantastic horror movie, but instead it became the Mystery Science Theater classic Manos: The Hands of Fate. Patton Oswalt has a hilarious and foul rant on the movie Death Bed: The Bed That Eats People and how someone not only got the idea, but started the screenplay, finished it, and got it made into a movie with a theatrical release. If the guy who wrote Death Bed can see his way through a project like that, I know I can come up with something better. I just need to get my butt in the chair and do it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be low-budget horror, either: I mocked James Cameron’s Avatar all the way through and left the theater wanting to write about any of a half-dozen good narrative ideas that were in the movie but got pushed aside for more special effects.

What I mean by that phrase is to use that curiosity, perplexity, frustration, anger, irritation, or even good old-fashioned jealousy to push myself to work on something that I know will be better than what I just came across. Even if it doesn’t come out the way it was in my head, I’ve still managed to make something.

Can you give some samples of the types of both bad and good fiction that inspire you? Either fandom related or non-fandom.

The bad fiction that inspires me tends to be stories based on good ideas that didn’t manage to work as well as they could have. My go-to example is James Patterson. There’s a lot of fanfic out there that falls into this category, too.

My honest example is myself. I’ve written some absolute crap – I remember what I spent time on in junior high, high school, and the beginning of college, and I remember thinking they were the best things ever and looking back on them, my God, they were terrible. There are some great ideas and images I came up with, but at the time I didn’t have the skills to make the best use of them. So there’s a lot of embarrassment when I think about most of my back catalog. I use that embarrassment to push myself to write better almost as an apology for putting that stuff out there in the first place, like I have to make up for it and prove I’m worth someone’s reading time. It’s fairly irrational and I’m aware it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it seems to be working, since I’m still going at it.

Good fiction that inspires me tends to be stuff that moved me to the point where I want to make something myself in order to make someone else feel the way I did. The opening pages of Mystic River might have the best establishing character moment I’ve ever seen. I still remember where I was when I first picked up High Fidelity. The Man Who Fell To Earth is always heartbreaking no matter how many times I read it, and the same is true for Bridge to Terabithia. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay made me happy I could read. The Tale of One Bad Rat blew my heart wide open. Say what you will about him, but Stephen King knows how to tell a story.

Lately, it’s been the lack of fiction that inspires me: I’ll think of an idea for a story, look for it and come up empty-handed, wish someone else had thought of it first so I could go read it, and then sigh because I have to write the story if I want to read it, so I’d better get started.

What's the hardest part of writing for you?

Starting and finishing. Figuring out the right way to enter the story, and deciding on the correct way to end it. The stuff in the middle is just a matter of sitting down and putting words together in the right order. Stressful, cerebral, and solitary work, yes, but straightforward.

What's the easiest?

Getting new ideas and working on the stories I’ve already got going. It’s very easy to rewrite scenes and plan out the action when it’s all in my head.

You've been writing House fanfic almost from the beginning (2005 anyway. I'd make a comment about how you were just a child then, but to some of us, you still are. I'm jealous.). How has your writing changed since those early days? Have you ever wanted to go back and make changes? What do you think when you re-read some of them?

It’s gotten better. Flat-out, it’s gotten better.

I don’t go back and reread my old stuff all that much since it embarrasses me so much – Bill Watterson likened reading old comics he wrote to seeing old photos of himself in yellow pants: he knew he was responsible for that but can’t remember what went into his decision. I feel that way about my old stories. I know there’s good stuff in them, but where I am now I wouldn’t be able to rewrite them without starting from scratch. So yes, I do want to go back and make changes, but I’d rather keep moving forward and keep writing new things.

You've played with AUs, not just by giving Wilson wings, but with supernaturally powered characters in "An Issue of Bioethics" for another instance. Do you start out with an AU in mind from the start, or does some AU aspect naturally present itself as an integral part of the story plotting?

Oh man, that one. What a flashback.

To answer the question, both. It depends on what occurs to me when I’m thinking about ways to tell a story. I start working on an idea and do my best to figure out how to tell that story; sometimes I start with the AU idea and sometimes an AU will be the best way to tell that story. “Bioethics” is part of a shared universe that’s grown to encompass about a dozen fandoms at this point and was already established when I started working on that individual story as a way to bring the show into the mix. When I started “Uniforming (Made To Seem)” I wanted to write something where Cameron ended up as an emotionally resilient and independent individual, and doing so through an AU seemed like the best idea at the time.

How do you overcome writer's block?

I understand I’m blocked because I’m having difficulties putting together the right words for my current project, whatever the reason, and do my best to avoid letting frustration over the block get to me and focus on the process of putting more words together. Usually a block comes when I can’t figure out how to tell the story, so I try to step back and figure out another way of telling it, like starting later in the timeline or switching the point of view or just doing the whole thing all over again. If a block comes because I’m too frustrated and wound to focus on writing, then I need to step back and figure out how to feel like I’ve got my feet under me, like sleeping more or waiting until the semester’s over.

I like going to the movies – big summer action movies with lots of chases and explosions are great, since I can let my mind wander. Art galleries and photography books are excellent, as are long walks in parks and bike rides out to the edge of town. Browsing libraries and bookstores, especially nonfiction and reference, is a good trick. Never underestimate the power of just going outside for a few minutes or getting some exercise, and weightlifting clears my head right out. Cooking never hurts. Writing longhand in a notebook always helps, no matter if I’m struggling with something or not, and doing so with a cup of coffee in a local café is nearly addictive in its sheer Bohemian vibe.

And to get on my soapbox for a moment, I really don’t like the term ‘writer’s block.’ The phrase only goes back to the nineteen-fifties. It’s not that people don’t get blocked on creative projects in one way or another – it’s not always a matter of following the directions on the back of a package of chocolate chips to get cookies. But to say writing is so different from painting and sculpture and whatnot that it deserves its own specific phrase presents an incomplete view of human artistic efforts. I don’t think it needs its own name – just for people to say they’re blocked if they’re having trouble working on something.

Any idea how many of your titles were suggested by REM songs? Speaking of which, how easy is it for you to come up with titles? (I myself tend to say: "I guess I'll call it this" for lack of a good idea.)

Almost none of them – maybe four or five at most. The reasons I use REM songs are that one, I think it’s a band House would like, two, the back catalog’s big enough I can pick a song that fits the thematic mood of the piece easily enough and then get a phrase from that without repeating anything, and three, the first story I that wrote where I got a sizable number of responses was titled with an REM song, so I decided to stick with it after that.

Since I pick the titles after the story’s done and don’t like to repeat song choices, it’s not all that hard. I just go through the albums, see which songs I haven’t used yet, then find one that gets the mood of the piece and pick a lyric – What You Could is one example, and Under The Honor is another.

You've written fics in other fandoms. (Most of them prior to House, I believe.) What is it that draws you to writing in any given fandom? Is there a specific character or type of character that attracts you, an interest to explore some avenue the original work didn't take?

Oh, I still do! If I get an idea I know I can see through and I have the time to work on it, then I’ll write it, no matter what the fandom. I just happened to focus on House and Wilson for a while.

I tend to be drawn to characters with personalities and traits I find compelling, like moral complexity, a particular way of seeing the world, and individual narratives in the context of the larger story. For fandoms, again, I’m interested in stuff I can work with – maybe an idea canon didn’t tackle, or something I flat-out think is nifty enough to try, or maybe I like the idea of adding the fandom to an ongoing project. So I basically go for things I can work with.

What do you look for in fic that you read?

Something said in a new way, either a plot I haven’t come across or an old idea given a new perspective. Something that I know is going to push my buttons in a good way. Something that has an idea I wouldn’t have thought of or wrote the idea in a way I wouldn’t have considered.

Do you have any other challenges you've laid out for yourself for future writing projects?

Publication comes to mind. For fic, I’m working on a long piece that’s very firmly grounded in reality and interpersonal conflicts, which is something new for me. After that, I guess I’ll do whatever seems like a good idea.

Thanks! Opening the floor now to questions from others out there. Hope you folks were as inspired here as I was.


Posted by: Topaz Eyes (topaz_eyes)
Posted at: December 4th, 2010 05:21 am (UTC)
House closeup

You always have great characterization in your stories. Do you find it easier to write the characters in an AU fic, or in an in-verse fic? Do you approach them differently?

Posted by: Imaginary Researcher (hannahrorlove)
Posted at: December 4th, 2010 09:40 pm (UTC)
Allison Cameron - hollow_art

I don't find one situation easier than the other. I always know the characters have to be recognizably themselves as established by canon, whatever the extenuating circumstances, and both AU and in-verse fics call for emotional fidelity. If the characters aren't believable, the story flat-out won't work - unless the work doesn't involve characters at all, in which case we've moved into some sort of existentialist European comedy.

Whether or not a story is in the universe of the show as presented by Shore and company or something I'm making up, the characters need to be seen as they are in the canon. If the story's circumstances are that much more extreme, such as the addition of superpowers, then if the characters don't behave as they do on the show - and if their further development isn't rooted in those personality traits - then however flashy and fancy those powers are, the story will fall on its face. If the story's circumstances are in line with the show, such as House and Wilson playing pranks on each other and their departments, then readers will look at the work with more scrutiny since it's much closer to canon - so if the characters aren't recognizable as we know them within the preexisting circumstances, then readers will cry foul that much faster.

My approach is always the same. Whenever I write a fic, whether it's an AU or in-verse, I need to ask myself What do I know about this person? and How would they deal with what happens next? If I can't answer those questions well, then I know I need to stop and rethink what I'm doing.

Posted by: pwcorgigirl (pwcorgigirl)
Posted at: December 6th, 2010 03:06 am (UTC)

Something I always notice about your fic is how your characters are attuned to the natural world. It's not something one things about with House canon, which is mostly urban and indoors, but I think it adds a subtle richness and note of realism to your writing. How does that element come to be there?

Posted by: Imaginary Researcher (hannahrorlove)
Posted at: December 6th, 2010 03:45 am (UTC)
Rodney McKay & Radek Zelenka - zaneetas

I actually hadn't noticed that myself! It must have sneaked in when I wasn't paying attention. I'm going to have to be on the lookout for that now.

My best guess is that I included those things because they're details I tend to be aware of, making this a case of an author's unconscious thumbprint.

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