Jessica Reisman posted recently about how there’s any amount of advice out here on teh Intrawebs for beginning writers, but not so much of it for those who have been publishing for awhile. I’ve been thinking about this, and about the fact that when I do interviews, one of the questions that tends to come up most frequently is “What’s the best piece of advice you can give a beginning writer?”
This phenomenon seems to me to be one of those things that occurs naturally. If you’ve got to the point where your fiction is selling, you probably have a good grip on what you needed to learn to get to that point. You’re equipped, in other word, to tell someone less experienced a thing or two: how to write in scenes, maybe, or build up conflict, or push through a first draft of a novel.
Writing about what you’re grappling with in the present is more problematic. As we move into the later phases of artistic development–next level skills, they’re sometimes called–we run the risk of either writing about something we haven’t really figured out yet or perhaps just being opaque, inaccessible.
On the commercial side, once we’ve stopped talking about breaking into short fiction markets or chasing agents, what are we going to talk about? Contracts, maybe? But the problems start getting specific. Issues with this agent, clauses in that publisher’s boilerplate… stuff that affects your bank balance and business relationships, not necessarily the things you’re going to want to post at loquacious length about.
So there’s general talk about pushing through difficult stretches and life crises, a little discussion about busting writer’s block, and… what else? I recall an Elizabeth Bear post I really liked, about how she was moving on to learning progressively tougher (for her) stuff. Was that last year? Anyone remember? The Jay Lake link I posted yesterday, about how he’s reining in his draft speed, felt like it was about a next-level issue. Is there a difference in the “just be persistent” encouragement we give to a newcomer and the “soldier on, soldier on” speech we dispense to a writer who’s sold three books but who can’t interest anyone in their fourth? Is there something about character or plotting that’s general enough to make a good post but so advanced it’ll spark growth in someone really seasoned… a Cory Doctorow, say? A Connie Willis?
None of us would probably admit to thinking we have it all down, and I know I have a ton to learn about how to write more gooder. If you’ve seen any useful process or craft posts out there that seem like they’d really hit home for established writers, I’d be interested to hear about them.
In the meantime, and apropos of nothing, here’s a White Crowned Sparrow.
Public Service Announcement I:: The writing workshop known as Reconstruction still has spaces available. Oz Drummond has a blog post with all the info here. The short version: Your stuff could get critiqued by Jack McDevitt, Mark Van Name, Steve Miller, Mary Robinette Kowal, Lawrence Schoen, Matthew Rotundo, Tom Doyle or Carl Frederick.
PSA II: Buy art to help Terri Windling: Terri Windling has reduced prices on her art so she can raise money to help with a family member’s medical expenses. Here’s info on the Big Painting Sale, and here’s her Etsy store. Buy now, buy hard, buy often.
Gone to the Dogs: I mentioned the pit bull who lives across the road in a passing way some time ago, generating much chatter. He tends to get tied up out on the porch of his home, and sings his woe for hours, usually in the midafternoon. Anyway, I caught him in mid-song a few weeks ago.
It took me a few days to identify the source of his peculiar strangled yowling, and I confess my initial reaction was relief that it a) wasn’t a baby and b) he didn’t live in the apartment directly below me. So–a few of you suggested I call someone, but I’m letting it sit. In the past I’ve called the SPCA about dogs who were in similar-but-vastly-worse conditions, only to end up sucked into a bureaucratic tangle that got the dog (or in one case the captured baby crow and its aggressive, freaked out parents) a frustrating-for-me pile of less than nothing. One of my cafe buds is their next door neighbor; I’ll ask him if he knows Pitty’s peeps.
In the meantime, he’s out there with a comfy blanket to sit on and a decent amount of slack in his leash, he’s not frying in inescapable direct sunlight, and he has water. There’s only been one occasion where he’s been out there longer than a couple hours in the afternoon. They didn’t have him out there this weekend, when it was ninety degrees out.
Jay Lake on the virtue of slowness in writing: Fast writing is not bad writing. But it’s not the best writing.
TOR.com’s Urban Fantasy Spotlight continues: “Olga,” by C.T. Adams is a crackin’ good ecofantasy, and there’s still time to win a bunch of very cool books if you comment within the contest thread by noon today!
Kay Kenyon sold her first novel, The Seeds of Time, in 1997 and followed it with six stand-alone novels (including Maximum Ice and The Braided World, which I reviewed for Locus), before embarking on the four-part sci-fantasy series The Entire and The Rose.
The latest installment in this series, Prince of Storms, was released in trade paperback July 1st. The lead title, Bright of the Sky, was one of Publishers Weekly’s top books of 2007. The series has twice been shortlisted for the American Library Association Reading List awards. Kay will sign books with Louise Marley at U Book Store in Seattle on August 5.
I began by asking Kay to tell us something about herself and this series:
I write novels. I am on my 12 or 13th novel. Funny how you always think you’ll know how many you’ve got, but after awhile they blur. I am a compulsive writer. I don’t know if I’m a writer because I’m compulsive or the other way around.
In an effort to have a more normal life (marriage and housekeeping for a large, awfully picky cat still doesn’t do it) I started a writing conference and organization, and I pour a lot of energy into that. Write on the River is a May literary conference and year-round writers’ organization for Eastern Washington. It gets me away from the keyboard and helps me connect with real carbon-based units. Other than these things, I play golf, keep a fanatical rose garden (don’t ask) and raise asparagus and raspberries and assorted edibles.
Most recently, I have written a series called The Entire and The Rose. It’s about two universes, one of which thinks it’s the only one (thus “the Entire”). The other–ours–is named after a flower.
I call the series sci-fantasy because it is science fiction with a fantasy feel. The universe where most of the action takes place has a seamless interface between advanced technology and the natural environment, making the rules of the world appear almost magical. It is also a quest story, so that gives the series a fantasy pace and framework.
This series, a quartet of stories, has received by far the best reviews of my career. I am grateful but confused by this. Did I finally figure out what people really want to read, or did I lurch forward into some master-space where I suddenly knew how to turn a phrase and give people fever dreams? I don’t know. The last book of the series, Prince of Storms just came out in trade paper. Also, all the books so far have been Endeavour Award nominees.
I have been writing for a living almost my whole life, but not always, alas, fiction. I’ve had a bunch of jobs writing TV and radio commercials, press releases, technical documents, and newsletters. Then I hit a big decade birthday and decided that I’d wasted enough time writing technical stuff and ad copy, and asked myself if I wanted to end up at the end of my life having only written totally lame things.
So I scared myself into writing a novel. I launched immediately into the project–because honestly, how hard could it be?–and then failed to sell the thing. After that, I started to go to writers’ conferences and study with pros. My next book was The Seeds of Time, and it sold 30,000 copies, which I was told was pretty good for a newcomer. So I was a fast learner.
(Yeah, I am ducking saying how old I am. But I’ve been selling novels for almost fifteen years.)
You seldom support yourself with writing fiction. That’s the truth, as unwelcome as it may be. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to have a high-paying job anymore. My husband indulges my pursuit of stories.
I couldn’t quit writing and be happy. As I said, I am a compulsive writer. There’s a reason for the compulsion: fiction writing is a singular and amazing rush, a monumentally satisfying pleasure, the most fascinating interaction with one’s own mind and the minds of readers–who are willingly entering into your fictive creation and believing it. And I would want to sell life insurance why?
Fantasy and science fiction have always been my playground. Paranormal, a touch of horror, the usual ancillary fields also compel me. I’m so glad you didn’t ask why I write in this genre–because I’ve answered that question a hundred ways and never been totally convinced I had any idea what I was talking about.
It took me about eight years to break into publishing. I wrote that unpublishable novel that I mentioned, and then spent a few more years writing a 150,000 word novel that did sell, but only after being passed on by most of the big houses before being picked up by Bantam. My commitment to writing was fierce in those days. (These days I’m less fanatical.) Nothing was going to stop me.
I must admit that breaking in was a harrowing experience. I had almost given up hope when my agent called to announce the sale: “They want your book, and it’s a two book deal, so I hope you’re got another one.” Looking back, this must have been the most ecstatic day of my life. Eight years is a long time to wait.
I was bowled over by the generosity of other writers. I expected the world of authors to be a clique of sorts, and I ended up making deep friendships that mean the world to me. So that was a big surprise. I wasn’t in it for the people, but I might almost say that that is the main thing I got. I mean, I’ve had ferocious ups and downs career-wise, but my friendships in the industry have been steady. I also was pleasantly surprised by the relationship with my agent, Donald Maass. He has taken a strong hand in guiding my career and been a valuable collaborator on story concepts.
A more unpleasant surprise: I didn’t expect that my novels would end up being seriously dark. My darkest stories didn’t find a wide readership. I had to look carefully at the darkness and let a little light in.
I think that those who say “you must always write what’s in your heart” are a little dreamy in their focus. Since this is a topic that often generates argument, let me explain. “Heart” is not different from “mind,” for starters. If by “heart” we mean emotional truth, well that is processed through the mind, and is naturally laced with strands of logic and experience. So there is no sacred place from which our stories spring that is other than our minds.
Once we’re off the high horse of “heart,” we can look at the issue as how much the writer should be influenced by the marketplace. I think it must be a mix. I’d argue, not so much for the marketplace (which sounds like following fads), but for writing the most entertaining story you can wrestle out of yourself. That means analyzing your premise, milieu, and plot to see if it can reach a wider audience. A little adjustment–or even a big one–can teach us to be more flexible and inventive. And our careers tend to be longer.
Now it feels like I am sailing just above the fray. That is, I’ve weathered so much, and I have come to a point of mastery that is the highest I can claim. I know that sounds conceited, but all I mean is, this is my best dance. The words spill out, the scenes flood my mind, the books blossom. Even if they don’t take the world by storm (although I think my next one will!) I am entranced, seduced, happy. Whatever happens.
Kay Kenyon can be found on the web at her official site, Writing the World, on Facebook, and, finally, on Twitter. There’s also a terrific review of Prince of Storms here.
The individual introductions to short stories are one of my favorite things about reading single-author collections. The stories themselves are delightful in their own right, of course, but I love it when the author gives us an extra glimpse into what was going on when a given piece was written. It’s a little like getting to unwrap a high-end truffle; there’s an extra layer of ritual before one settles down to enjoy. With that in mind, I’ve decided to put a bit of that kind of love into the short fiction area of my site. What will accumulate, I expect, is a cluster of notes about the writing process, all tied to the various stories I’ve got sprinkled out and about the Web and in print.
This is my first foray into this territory–I hope you enjoy it.
“A Key to the Illuminated Heretic”
In 2001, I met Charles N. Brown at Norwescon and he asked me to start reviewing books for Locus. For the next three years I did four, five, even six books a month for the magazine–the ARCs flowed to my door, a glorious river of words. This was not long after I’d first encountered Harry Turtledove, and his unforgettable How Few Remain. I was in love with alternate history. I inhaled the series spawned by How Few Remain, and the Worldwar series. Happily, none of the other Locus reviewers seemed inclined to wrestle me for the AH, so for a couple of glorious years I didn’t just get my Turtledove fix. I got it all: Kurt R.A. Giambastiani’s awesome The Year the Cloud Fell saga, Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood, Hannibal’s Children by John Maddox Roberts… it was like falling into a cave full of pirate loot, literary doubloons for history nerds.
Naturally, all of this stimulated my writerbrain to start considering the prospect of writing some AH of my own, which in turn drew me back to one of my oldest historical passions–Joan of Arc. I started reading, and noodling, and reading some more. Maybe twenty history books later, I had a fine amateur-historian grasp on Joan’s short personal history, a reasonable grip on that little slice of the Hundred Years War, and the perfect point of divergence. I didn’t have a hook though, or any kind of grasp of the story. I started it a few times… and abandoned those openers. A few of my best pieces have gone this way, with three or six or even twelve failed starts. Then again, some of those same failed starts have gone nowhere… at least so far.
Joan of Arc
As all this cogitation was taking place, Harry was producing books. Lots of them! Books, delicious books, and I was reading them all for Locus. As a result, I’d gotten to know Harry in that distant, online, ‘we’ll meet at a con one day, huh?’ way. One spring we were back-and-forthing about something, and he asked: would I like to submit something to Alternate Generals III? In six weeks?
With the fiery impetus of a short deadline and the ubercool prospect of writing for Harry dangling before me, I dropped everything and started scribbling. I wrote draft, longhand, over pots of mint tea at a vegetarian Indian place on the Drive; I wrote more at Mosaic Creek Park. I got “Heretic” drafted, workshopped, revised, rerevised and off just barely in time… and a week later, I got what was the fastest acceptance I’d ever had. (It may have been my first electronic submission: this was 2003, and things were still going out in hard copy a good deal of the time.)
As stories go, “Heretic” remains one of my personal favorites. At that point in my life, it was among the best things I’d ever written, and when I revisit it, I’m still satisfied with how it came off. I remember it as a breakthrough, as the first time I felt as though I’d brought off precisely the emotional effect I was striving for. The process of writing it was unique, too, because I had done all that research. It was a ludicrous amount of reading, considering that we’re talking about a 9,500 word novelette. But wow! Historical fiction sure feels easy when all the big facts you could possibly want have been poured into your brain, when they’re just waiting to spill out onto the page.
This is my ideal model for research now: read as much as I please on whatever’s interesting, and hope the noggin will be crammed full right when someone asks me for a story, NOW. It hasn’t happened again, not yet. I don’t mind the “I’m chugging along and now I suddenly I realize need to learn more about X,” model, but the sensation, with “Heretic,” was magical. It’s probably as close to omnipotence as anyone can hope to get.
Time passed, Alternate Generals III came out and “Heretic” got good reviews; it made the Nebula Preliminary ballot that year, and got shortlisted for the Sidewise Award. I have thought occasionally of writing a follow-up, at novel-length, set in a Jehanniste present, but I have never quite found the hook–I haven’t even gotten as far as a false start. So that idea is very much on the backburner.
Here’s a snippet:
Frontispiece: Joan of Arc stands chained in a horse-drawn wagon, wearing a black gown. Leaning against a pair of nuns, she seems almost to swoon. Her right arm is portrayed as bones without flesh. The horses’ ornate curls and gleaming teeth lend a ghastly note, and blackened angels border the image.
The scene is easily recognized: the Maid’s debilitation, the nuns, and especially the cloud of larks above serve to identify it as Joan’s journey to the trial that ended her 13-year imprisonment for heresy. It was at this “Exoneration Trial” that she encountered Dulice Aulon, the Jehanniste artist responsible for the holy pictures on which the codex illuminations are based.
“We mustn’t face the King in battle.” Joan had the light, clear voice of a young woman, even after her years in prison and the hard decade since her release. She’d asked one of the new archers, a girl of perhaps seventeen, to cut her hair, and a few broken strands of silver hair clung to her neck. The rest lay at her feet, bright in the glow of the dying fire.
“Not fight Charles?” Hermeland was incredulous. He was a badger of a man, with a dramatic, pointy face and remarkable speed with a sword. “We must turn his army back before it unites with the force of mercenaries coming up from Rome. If you can’t see that–”
“Can’t see it? Who ordered us to turn north, days before anyone knew the King had pursued us into Burgundy?”
“You–” he began, and as her brow came up he corrected, “your Voices.”
Tor.com’s Urban Fantasy spotlight continues and there are goodies on offer–if you post a comment here by Tuesday, you can win a grab bag of books (including, possibly, mine). There’s an editorial round table discussion on the heroes and heroines of paranormal romance, a story, “Olga,” by C.T. Adams and many other intriguing and delightful goodies.
I’ve spent this morning experimenting with my various electronic gadgets, by way of podcasting my own novelette for this TOR.COM spotlight. “The Cage” is eight thousand words long and takes over forty minutes to read, so naturally I did a few shorter dry runs, testing out bits and pieces of equipment. For one of these tests, I used the six-minute snippet that I read far and wide at Broad Universe Rapidfire Readings in 2009. That’s right, folks, I am finally making good on my promise to record and post the Indigo Springs sex scene. If you don’t mind a few spoilers or you’ve already read the book, you can listen to it by clicking here.
I do have a Rapidfire-sized snippet of Blue Magic, too, and I will post that in the not too distant. It’s not nearly as (cough) romantic.
It’s hot out. I live near a busy street, and I’ve had the windows shut as I made recordings, so that there wouldn’t be too much road noise. A side bonus of the fact that it’s ninety-plus degrees in my office is that the cats didn’t feel a need to contribute–Rumble, in particular, punctuated my last podcasting attempt rather ferociously.
Now I’m going to crack some windows and try to get this place ventilated before I venture out in search of library books and fresh fruit.