August 14th, 2012

Clarion 2012: Every Brilliant Piece of Writing Advice*

Last week, I graduated from the 2012 Clarion Writer’s Workshop. And everything people tell you about it is true—it’s incredible, it’s transformative, it will make you into the writer you were meant to be, it builds unbreakable bonds with a ton of other brilliant writers. AND you’ll be devastated when it’s over.

As I attempt to process my grief at Clarion’s end, I thought I would transcribe the copious notes that I took during the course of those six weeks.  These, then, will hopefully serve as a hit of what Luke Pebler calls Clarion Methadone for me and my classmates and past grads, and an incitement for folks still on the fence about whether or not to apply. GET DOWN OFF THAT DAMN FENCE!! APPLY. And then make a donation, because every penny helps, and because karma. You have nothing to lose but the bullshit that holds you back as a writer. Don’t think for a second that these 300+ comments can somehow substitute. They can’t. The thing about writing advice is that reading it on the page somehow doesn’t hit you as hard as if someone says it—especially someone you respect and admire a ton.

*  I hasten to add that I’m exaggerating wildly when I saw this is every single brilliant piece of writing wisdom. I missed a TON of awesome stuff, so this really truly is not even approaching completion. This probably represents 1/10th of the marvelous writing advice and commentary that was shared at Clarion. So think of this as the tip of the iceberg, the tiny piece that floats above the surface, and then APPLY TO CLARION 2013. Seriously, this 40+-year-old institution is an incredibly valuable and precious resource thing that needs YOU, but not more than you need IT.

Not only did we have brilliant (famous) writers as instructors, and brilliant (not-yet-famous) writers as classmates, we had brilliant (often-famous) guests dropping by to shoot the shit with us for a couple hours, in exchange for booze and/or adoration. So these quotes came from the following brilliant writers:

Ted Chiang, John Scalzi, Delia Sherman, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Vernor Vinge, Walter Jon Williams, Jeffrey Ford, Greg Van Eekhout, Doselle Young, Karen Jay Fowler, Shelley Streeby, Cindy Pon, Carmen Machado, Chris Kammerud, Lisa Bolekaja, Ruby Obeyeskere, E.G. Cosh, Eliza Blair, Sadie Mattox, Joseph Kim, Sarah Mack, Deborah Bailey, Daniel McMinn, Jonathan Fortin, Lara Donnelly, Danica Cummins, Luke Pebler, Pierre Liebenberg, Eric Esser, and some dude named Sam J. Miller.

So no, this isn’t everything. But it’s a lot of it. Some of it is contradictory. A lot of it is redundant. Some of it is original, and some of it is stuff people learned elsewhere, in other classes or books or from writer friends. Most of it I think is pretty rad advice. Some of it I don’t like so much, or only like in certain circumstances. As we said a lot at Clarion, keep a shovel full of salt ready, because you’ll need more than a few grains. And of course I missed a TON of awesome stuff, so this really truly is not even approaching completion.

One last thing. I ain’t telling who said what. For the following reasons:

  1. All of these quotes are things I wrote down in my notebook, and I’m dense, and slow, so I might have misheard or misquoted, and made people sound dumb, and I don’t want them to be mad at me.
  2. Some people were quoting other people, and I don’t want Writer X to read Writer Y quoted as saying they said the thing Writer X actually said, and then Writer X is mad at Writer Y because dumb-ass me didn’t hear or understand when Writer X said “Writer Y” said this.
  3. Sometimes, unknown-writer-Clarion-classmate A said something ten times more awesome than what famous-genius-rock-star-SFF-writer B said, and I’d hate for folks to gloss over the awesome stuff from my fellow unknowns in the mad rush for the big names. Listen without prejudice!
  4. Sometimes people said stuff in the privacy of workshop that wasn’t intended to be heard by anyone outside the room. While I’ve left out obvious instances of shit-talking, and deleted names where necessary, if it was valuable—or funny—or frank—advice, I’ve included it here with no name.

If your words are here, and you want them amended because they’re incorrect, or taken down, or want to be given credit for them, email me and I’ll amend!!

To make it easier to navigate, I’ve tried to organize these quotes into loose categories.

WRITING 101

“You guys want the real secret to being a great writer? Apply ass to chair.”

“One of the most important things I’ve learned here is that the shit should always hit the fan. THROW SHIT AT THE FAN.”

“Start with the goose bumps.”

“There’s all kinds of possibilities with a dead body.”

“I want your stories to kill people.”

“Sometimes you don’t help your story by not being explicit.”

“One really great strategy of fiction is to find the thing that a character absolutely will not do, and make the story force him to do that.”

“Dialogue is always a negotiation. Someone has more power than the other, or has something the other person wants, or loves the other more.”

“The tightrope of enough detail to help the reader see things but not overwhelm them, it has to become intuitive.”

“The people who need to get you in with a hook are the people who can’t do it with their writing.”

“Everybody’s trying to do pyrotechnics. Do yourself a favor—there’s nothing more powerful than a good story well told.”

“Just because it’s been done a million times before doesn’t mean you can’t do it—you just gotta do it in your own idiosyncratic way.”

“That’s what fiction is, is drama. If it ain’t got drama, you can only go so far.”

“I rarely quote Hemingway, but he said ‘start the story where it starts, or halfway through.’”

“If we don’t know something important, there should be a reason we don’t know it.”

“Even if your person’s a shit, there’s gotta be something appealing about him.”

“If you want to be published, and publishable, you gotta be the best writer you can. And you can always be a better writer.”

“Always know what your protagonist’s central character flaw is. In this story, you have a character who is emotionally shut down, and passive, and doesn’t know she’s feeling emotions.”

“All literature is about romance—yearning for something, and maybe not getting it.”

“The things that bother readers aren’t necessarily wrong, they’re the things that raise questions you don’t want them asking.”

“Readers create the character from the outside, not the inside. The writer does the opposite.”

“Writing first drafts that are really out there helps you get past your censor, and they often become more exciting.”

“This is 10 pounds of story in a five pound sack.”

“TV/film’s lean mean 5-page scene doesn’t work in fiction—you need depth, fiction is what’s below the surface. As fiction writers we can’t use Hollywood shorthand.”

“Sometimes you polish a story’s surface so much that there’s nothing else.”

“Reading stuff you don’t understand the first time is really good for you. Reading something you don’t like can teach you more about writing than something you love and vanish into like a warm bath.”

“When you find yourself in love with a particular scene or moment, you have to find out why.”

“A common way to structure stories is: ESTABLISH NORM. UPSET NORM. COMPLICATE & ESCALATE. CLIMAX. RESOLUTION.”

“Whenever you think you’re going to create a really strong character by putting “I” at the beginning of every sentence, you’re digging yourself a hole. It’s actually harder to bring “I” to life.”

“When it’s broken, you don’t always have to fix the whole thing. You can fix half—you just have to know which half. And that’s not always easy.”

“The problem with people is they have beer and they want egg in it. Things are good and they’re unsatisfied.”

“Opening the vein is where the best writing comes from.”

“You have to write things you genuinely are not sure about.”

“Frequently, your back brain is wiser than your front brain.”

“You left yourself a lot of hints that I don’t think you even know about.”

“You have to figure out what scares you in this story.”

“If you can’t tell your story in a one-page pitch, you probably can’t tell it period.”

“The kid mind is responsible for the cool shit, the fear, the sense of wonder. The adult mind is responsible for things like ambiguity, nuance, etc. I do better tapping into the kid mind.”

“I always write my endings first. For a piece of short fiction, the ending leaves a huge impression on the reader. You need to support that with everything that came before. Endings are not as important in a novel, because so much more is going on. With a story it’s crucial.”

“Making a story work better for the people you believe to be your audience might make it work worse for other audiences.”

“It doesn’t need to be heavy. It can be a delightful romp where she also learns something.”

“With no twist, no turnabout, and no surprises, the story will leave the reader pretty flat. It doesn’t have to be huge. Sometimes a character thinks something will be a very good thing, but it turns out to be terrible. Or they think something is bad, and it turns out to be good in a surprising way. We need a reversal of expectations.”

“I start my writing day rewriting everything I did the day before, and that’s how I get the muscles warmed up. And I never end my writing day with the end of a scene, because then I start cold the next day.”

“Your readers will forgive a lot if you tell them what the character wants—even if it isn’t very nice.”

HOW TO MAKE THINGS FUNNY. 1: Deadpan. People inside the joke aren’t laughing. 2: Distance. Charlie Chaplin said life seen in close-up is a tragedy, in long shot it’s a divine comedy. 3: Not too caring! Don’t make the characters too sympathetic. 4. Opposites Go Boom. 5: Piling on. 6: Everyone Has an Agenda. 7: Repetition. 8: Every moment of dignity should be punctured.

“To make a setting come alive for the reader, invoke at least 3 of the 5 senses. Taste and smell are the most vivid.”

“Rule of thumb: stories begin when their problems become critical for the protagonist.”

“Tell me enough so I can stop worrying about what’s going on, and start worrying about what’s going to happen.”

“Having a character misread a key piece of information can help redirect the reader.”

“One place you can hide the key to the plot is on the first page, when readers aren’t oriented yet.”

“In-cluing, AKA Heinleining, is when you don’t infodump, you just show the tech or whatever working.”

“Infodumps are not necessarily something to be afraid of, but you have to earn them.”

“When we don’t understand what’s happening, or the world we’re reading, we fill in the blanks from what we already know—some other fictional world that seems pretty close. This can be dangerous, so you have to give people enough information to convince them otherwise.”

“Each event, especially the big and tragic ones, have to feel as if they could not be other than they are.”

“Read your story out loud – it is a completely different way of understanding it.”

“Concrete grounding and detail help us follow you through the zany.”

“Action scenes are hard. It happens fast, so our impulse is to write it fast. But we need to know where we are, what’s happening, how people are responding, are we winning, etc. Because the writing has to accomplish and present ten things at once, it in effect slows time down significantly.”

“The beginning is where you buy trust to spend later—if things are clear at the start, the reader will be more likely to keep reading if/when things get less clear later on.”

“The key moment in a revenge narrative is when the character realizes that revenge has become the most important thing to them, and says “I don’t care about me, fuck everything, I will burn the world to the ground to get you.’”

“There are four reasons people commit crimes, in fiction: Love, Lust, Lucre, Loathing.”

“I won’t mind being manipulated, if I love where you bring me.”

“If you leave the door open by raising a question, you have to make sure I can’t answer it in the wrong way, because I’ll cling to it like a weasel.”

“You will meet wonderful well-meaning people who want nothing but the best for you and are trying so hard to make you the best writer you can be—whose advice you absolutely never ever take.”

“Present-tense can feel really immediate, but because it makes it so hard to have distance and reflection, the character can start to feel numb.”

“I use first-person present-tense for distancing, because you can create a slightly dreamlike state. It reduces affect, distances us from emotions.”

“Talking about a project out loud helps your brain process the information differently, which can help you figure out what’s wrong.”

“If you’re making an argument in a story, you almost have to make the opposite argument, so that the reader gets there on their own.”

“Research is like an iceberg; 90% of it you don’t see, but it’s the foundation on which the rest of the story is built.”

“Don’t feel the need to infodump everything you’ve learned in your research about a foreign culture, or convince readers you’re being respectful, because that can come across as exoticism.”

“Battle scenes need to change the course of the narrative—or what’s the point?”

“Sex in a story needs to advance or change plot or character, the more of those the better.”

“In a romantic relationship, a power imbalance is dangerous. It can get creepy, fast, unless the powerless character has SOME fundamental strength or power that makes the relationship real and complex.”

“Romance is an engine of tension that has nothing to do with plot.”

General Romance Progression: Meet Cue. Acknowledgement of Feelings. Deeper Moment. Dark Moment. Resolution.

“In real life, the pettier a crime is, the more forgivable. In fiction, it’s the opposite. Tipping a waiter is just about the worst thing you can do—but theft is so forgivable it’s often shorthand for awesome.

“The emotional impact of an ending is strengthened the closer together you resolve the relationships and the plot.”

“In a short story, you get ONE of the following three things to be complex: structure, character, world. Unless you’re [FAMOUS AUTHOR]. [FAMOUS AUTHOR gets two.”

“Don’t be afraid to just say what something is.”

“A nice way to make me “buy” complex technology and a rich world is to just give me a great character whose dilemma shapes and filters the world, and focus on that.”

“Don’t just rely on your writing. Which sounds strange to say.”

“The story can be chaos, and know it, but there has to be a thread pulling the reader through.”

“Checkerboarding—screenwriting term for intercutting necessary background information and detail with dialogue and character development.”

“Stories about death are always stories about life.”

“Shit can always get shitter.”

CHARACTERS

“The thing that makes us follow a terrible character is when they want something. Ripley is so convincing because he wants these things so bad, and he makes us want them for him, even when they’re terrible things.”

“A story is the most important moment in the character’s life. This is where they change, or fail to change forever.”

“People are people, and they’re really simple. What they want is simple, no matter what else is going on.”

“Giving up is not tragic, it’s pathetic.”

“Ask yourself: are these the right characters for this story? And vice versa.”

“He doesn’t need to be sympathetic, but he needs to be comprehensible.”

“Cold, emotionless, calculating guys is a trope that can only take you so far.”

“I love stories about sinners who discover themselves by going in the wrong direction.”

“When you write about sinners, you’re writing about everyone.”

“Just because it’s a motivation for you doesn’t mean it’s a motivation for the characters.”

“How the character responds when the rules are bent or broken helps us understand the rules.”

“A choice between a really good love interest and a flat boring one is not interesting. Even the really good one needs to be really bad for the protagonist.”

“I don’t have a problem with vile human beings as protagonists, though I recognize many readers do.”

“The story is about what the character wants, and how they do or don’t get it, or how that  changes.”

“Loving someone and showing weakness/hesitation are the best ways to get a reader to connect to a character. Giving someone attitude is the best way to show activity (vs. passivity).”

“Characters whose lives or situations are in jeopardy are more interesting than those who remain stable. Characters who experience extremes of emotion are more interesting those who are placid.”

“You really cannot give the climax to someone other than the protagonist. He or she has to protag.”

“You can trick people into thinking someone is the protagonist when they’re not—but when you make that switch, shocking as it might be, you must always switch from the one with the less interesting story to the one with the more interesting story—so the reader says ‘ah yes, of course.’”

“False protagonists get climaxes too.”

“Even horrible self-awareness can be appealing. The very truthful narrator with a lot of insight, telling us how terrible they are, that can be compelling.”

“The moment that a character learns that magic is part of their world, when it was not widely known before, has to have a solid reaction—and it has to feel fresh.”

“There’s a lot of pressure on female characters in romantic/sexual/transgressive situations to feel guilt. That’s the easy—and incorrect—choice.”

“A character’s lowest stakes are his own life, because if they die nothing matters. The highest stakes are his emotional investments. In Die Hard we don’t’ worry that he’ll die as much as we worry whether he’ll save his marriage.”

“If your character is making the same choices as everybody else, they get to be unexamined. If they’re making difficult choices, you have to examine them because we need to be able to get there with you.”

“If you’re going to fulfill the character’s Want Line in a straightforward way, you better give them—or the reader—an extra kick in the ass.”

“If you would enjoy sitting next to a character at a dinner party, they’re an acceptable unlikeable protagonist.”

“Every choice you make has to make the character’s last decision more difficult.”

“If I’m not rooting for anyone in a story, because everyone is terrible, I’ve checked out.”

“Characters can lie to themselves, tell themselves they’re doing something terrible for X reason, but we need to know or find out it’s Y reason, usually because they hate themselves.”

“If you give each of your characters their own lie, that makes them more interesting and distinct.”

“Let the inexplicable be the inexplicable, and focus on your characters.”

“For a while I’ll follow the story in spite of not really seeing the character, but eventually I’ll get lost in the details.”

“She feels like a thin person, and the house feels like a thin space. We need more decoration.”

“A complete shit would be someone you can at some point ALMOST identify with, who’d then surprise you with some heinous shit.”

“Why this monster, for this character, in this story?”

“Suicides of main characters tend to be an easy way out; it’s rare that I find a case of that being earned.”

“Your character can go to heaven, but he brings his baggage with him.”

“][me and Ted Chiang, whom I consider to be the greatest living science fiction short story writer]

[me and Ted Chiang, whom I consider to be the greatest living science fiction short story writer

CLARION ITSELF

“At Clarion, I got validation. I found my tribe. I found out there are other people like me. Who

are interested in SFF like me. Even now, with social media helping people find their tribes other

ways, Clarion for a lot of people marks their formal entry into the SFF community, feeling part

of it in a way they were not before. They reunite at conventions. Schmooze with people from

other classes.”

“We are here to help each other take risks.”

“Most people can’t just leave and say, ‘well, that was cool.’ Lots of people’s lives change, because they’ve spent six weeks working on the thing they’ve always wanted to—and becoming the person they’ve always wanted to be. You don’t have to sally forth and live up to the Clarion name right away. You might need to take some time to figure out what it’s done for/to you.”

“The comments you get in this—or any—workshop, you’re going to be ignoring a lot of them.”

“When I was a student at Clarion, I thought, “MY GOD! I’M GOING TO BE TAUGHT BY [FAMOUS AWESOME SFF WRITER], WHO TAUGHT [OTHER FAMOUS AWESOME SFF WRITER] EVERYTHING THEY KNEW!” And in the end of course I ended up not taking most of [FAMOUS AWESOME SFF WRITER]’s advice.”

“While workshopping, when more than one person wants to speak, the one with more crazy in the eye wins.”

“You could write the best story in the world, and we’ll tear it to pieces.”

“None of us are winning the fucking Nobel Prize this week, so let’s get that straight right now.”

“Sometimes the most helpful piece of advice is one you can’t take, but that makes you think hard about what you don’t want to change, and why.”

“In the immediate aftermath of Clarion, the critical part of your brain will have superpowers, but the writing part might not. You have to learn to shut the critical brain off until the re-write.”

The iconic and very SFF Geisel Library, where I spent an inordinate and glorious amount of time.

The iconic and very SFF Geisel Library, where I spent an inordinate and glorious amount of time.

THE WRITER’S LIFE

“Developing a distinctive prose style is important, but more important are your own fascinations, obsessions, and the way you look at them.”

“For most of us, life seems long still. At a certain point it will feel short. Our time here is limited. What do you want to say, while you’re here? You don’t’ have to be weighty and solemn—you can be funny, humor has enormous value—but write memorable humor. There’s plenty of comedy you remember, vs. what you laughed at and then forgot about.”

“I prefer to steal from my friends.”

“We all have our own writerly tarot decks, the characters we keep coming back to who reflect our obsessions.”

“If we weren’t obsessive we’d be in a different business.”

“A lot of writing success is luck, but you have to show up for the luck to happen.”

“Use your friends for feedback.”

“The alchemy of collaboration behind a graphic novel is what makes it exciting.”

“If you’re honest, and about what you’re about, you’ll spark best with the people who spark with that, and drive the people are not about that away.”

“I’ve been ridiculously lucky, but I also write every day.”

“After a year of being an editor, I went back to the stuff I had published before and thought was hot shit, and was shocked. Of the 80 columns I wrote, maybe 3 were things I would have accepted—and two of them needed major work.”

“There’s obvious advantages to blogging—keeping your name out there, building an audience—but at a certain point it requires scheduling. My brain forces me to write creatively for 3-4 hours, and then says ‘now we kill zombies.’ Which might mean video games, or business stuff, or blogging—which is kinda muscle memory. Doing it allows other parts of the brain to light up while the fiction part wanders off. Like tub-thumping. When you do it with your fiction it’s like ‘uh-oh, the brain-eaters got them.’ Blogging lets me talk about what’s important to me in a way that won’t be coherent or productive in fiction.”

“A blog is a performance. I might talk about personal stuff, but I’m presenting a very small part of me. And people feel like they know you, through your blog. Someone said sometimes it feels like 10,000 people have a crush on you.”

“The first time you write a novel, or anything, my advice is to give yourself permission to try one thing (be 100,000 words, for example, or make people cry) and not succeed at anything else with it. Just so you can master that one thing, and put it in your toolbox.”

“Authors hate the ‘where do you get your ideas’ question, because the answer will always be unhelpful. I basically have 7-8 ideas germinating in my head at any moment, gestating til one of them drops.”

“Writers who do readings often forget that they’re performing. Not just reading what they wrote.”

“Fail early, fail often.”

“You have to be willing to be bad in public, to be a writer.”

“There’s an enormous appetite in the market for the same stories being told over and over again. Writing that is not trivial. But you see connections no one else sees. That’s your role as a writer. You’re here to write that story no one else can write.”

“It may take you a while to figure out how to fill that empty pace on the bookcase, for the stories that were missing from the world before you. If what you’re saying is really new, it may take the world a while to figure that out—for you to find the audience of people who share your fascinations. They will get what you’re saying, and they will never have read that fascination before. Only you are interested in it, and only you can articulate why it’s interesting.”

“Think about writing for something other than money. Pursue a writing career in which money from writing does not sustain you. To live a life as a writer, and as part of the SFF community, you can get the good parts of all that without making a living—because when you do, you have all sorts of pressures to write what isn’t what interests you most. Not the book you want to write, but a sequel to your most successful book.”

“There’s that old adage about ‘nobody says on their deathbed, ‘I wish I spent more time at the office.’’ Not too many writers lie on their deathbed and say “I should have written that Transformers tie-in.”

“Quoting Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life: ‘Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment… Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

“There’s people out there who want to read your stuff, they just don’t know it yet.”

“Practice what I call ‘targeted befriending.’ You read someone, you love their writing, go tell them that. People like to hear that. Often when you like someone’s writing, you like a lot of thing in common. So start talking, and soon they forget you were their stalker and they think that you’re their friend.”

“How should writers use social media? Well, if you don’t like it, don’t do it. If  you don’t like Twitter—or Facebook—or blogging—but think you should use it because someone tells you you should, it’ll show. People won’t like it. Neil Gaiman likes it, and so he’s good at it. Cory Doctorow likes it, so he’s good at it.”

“On a daily basis I sit down and tell myself, it doesn’t need to be any good, that can come during the edit.”

“Sometimes with critiques you can start fixing what’s not broken.”

“Far and away the most important part of being a writer is persistence.”

“Writers have a funny tendency, when there’s a plot or logic or character flaw in the story, to draw attention to it. [AWESOME FAMOUS WRITER] calls it, “you can’t fire me, I quit.”

“Most writers are excellent eavesdroppers.”

“Some of the downsides of a professional writer’s life: a lot of writers are bitter, bitter people, and you’re forced to spend time with them. The first real writers I met, who included people like [AMAZING SUPERSTAR SFF WRITER], did not make me think that being a writer would involve knowing very many pleasant people. It was such a relief to meet [OTHER AMAZING SUPERSTAR SFF WRITER] and realize some people actually were not crazy.”

“The ones who aren’t wonderful don’t want to hang out with you anyway.”

“People behave pretty well now. When I first came into the field, the generation before was all just drunks. People used to throw chairs, have fights at conferences. The drunken male-ness of the field was especially hard on the women.”

“Conventions are a social space, great for meeting people, NOT great for asking them to read your book. Have a conversation, hopefully it goes well, and then write to them later.”

“Writers are often pulled towards things they know are wrong with them, or difficult for them, so you shouldn’t be surprised if someone who writes passionately about social justice turns out to be profoundly self-centered.”

“… but far worse than the great writer who turns out to be an asshole is the wonderful person whose writing is shit.”

“Some people don’t believe in it, but I like the world where literary quality is so subjective that there really is no Good or Bad.”

“The hardest part of transitioning into a writer whose primary source of income is their writing is that you lose your hugest hobby… your mental health depends on your ability to find hobbies and things to do…. Think about it being something you can NEVER MAKE MONEY OFF OF, or relate to your writing.”

“I, and a lot of writers I know, spend about one day a week reading/critiquing/corresponding with my writer friends. That’s 1/7th of my total time—being a resource for your brothers and sisters is hugely important.”

“People will tell you what’s wrong, and they will most likely be right. They will tell you how to fix it, and they will most likely be wrong.”

“You can never write the thing you think will bring you fame and fortune, because you can never predict that. The stuff that hits is the stuff where the writer said “this is the secret of my deep dark heart,” and for whatever reason it resonates.”

“Fans hate a companion piece. They want a sequel that is a real sequel.”

“A lot of the time, fans want the same book over and over again—and eventually you reach a point where that’s not what YOU want.”

“You can sit down one day and spend three hours writing the thing you REALLY don’t want to be working on, that’s an agony to get through. And then you can sit down and write the thing you’re super-in-love-with…. And when you go back later, not be able to tell the difference.”

“The greatest thing about being a writer is access to free books.”

The divine Ms Holly Black, giving a reading at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore.

The divine Ms Holly Black, giving a reading at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore.

ON GENRES: SCIENCE, SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, HORROR, YOUNG ADULT, MIDDLE GRADE

“Science fiction writers tell the most extravagant lies in order to get at primal truths.”

“You can say some really important shit with speculative fiction, and I think you should do it. That’s what gets bought.”

“I’m going to call everyone out on their tropes and stereotypes. Because I think they’re boring.”

“Good horror is honesty. The monster is a reflection of real things, and real character issues.”

“I don’t like mediocre, but I like awful. Awful often has good stuff you can exploit.”

“I don’t like the Midwest much, but Midwest fandom is awesome.”

“The styles of thought needed to work in the 21st century are radically different from the past—there’s great pressure to lower our attention spans.”

“Human nature is changing and will continue to change. Surprisingly, human nature is getting nicer. There’s research that indicates humans are self-domesticated.”

“Genetic change since the rise of civilization is actually faster than before.”

“40 years ago, SFFWA had 200 members, and only 5 of them were making enough money through their writing to not need a day job. Now it’s 1700-1800, but the percent of people who can sustain themselves by their writing is about the same.”

“The genre as a whole has a very Pay It Forward ethos. As a community structure, there really isn’t anything like SFF, for looking out for and helping each other out. But it can also be like high school at times.”

“I say with love that we’re not the most socially-well-adapted people on earth. That can make interpersonal relationships difficult.”

“Given how much horror there is in actual war, you need to ask yourself what you add to it by adding the supernatural.”

“There’s a tendency to add a genre element to a story whose strength lies elsewhere—often because it can see better in genre markets. Those markets often respond strongly, positively, because of the other strengths, but it often doesn’t serve the story well.”

“This is the kind of horror story that doesn’t start out as one. It needs to start with total normality, and we go to the horror with the character.”

“With any speculative fiction that explores new technology, you have to ask yourself, what kind of person would take advantage of this technology in what way?”

“Most SFF is on a scale between naturalism and expressionism. Naturalism asks, ‘with THIS outlandish premise, what would happen? How would people realistically react?’ Expressionism is about internal conflicts and feelings becoming external. In more expressionistic worlds, your characters have to avoid asking the questions or examining the edges of your fantastic elements, or it falls apart—because the story is a metaphor for some kind of blindness we have in real life”

“How integral is the speculative science/fantasy element to this story? Without it, how different would this story be? A lot of people say it’s fine to have a story with a speculative element that doesn’t materially affect the plot. I realize that’s one school of thought, but I like speculative elements to help do something you can’t do any other way.”

“SF has a community like no other. At conventions you’ll wind up going out to dinner in a huge group with some pretty big-name writers. And you’ll regularly find yourself inside of absolutely mind-blowing conversations. That’s the kinda community it is. People have so many shared interests, and they like to talk about them. There’s not the same huge division between readers and writers that exists in other fields of writing.”

“Sometimes it’s helpful when writing fantasy to step back and ask yourself, if there were no fantasy in this, what would it be about?”

“SFF is a very tight-knit community, and you are now part of it. It’s a strange network—you know one person, you hang out with them, you’ll meet someone new. And awesome.”

“Science fiction and fantasy is a great vehicle for reflection on us as a culture, especially the wonderful things and the things that are not OK.”

“SFF is never JUST metaphor, but the metaphor is always there. It’s a problem if you’re not sure what the metaphor is.”

“Numinous magic is any in-world supernatural elements that are intuitive and emotional, vs. more concrete magic systems with rules.”

“There’s so many problems with putting a bunch of monkeys in a can in space.”

“In fairy tales, bad things happen to children. It’s part of why they’re effective. And the kids either die or come out of it with something new.”

“How would your speculative concept exacerbate or shatter existing societal and interpersonal divisions?”

“If you have it a speculative idea, you should always chart it out to its most extreme derivations, just to see if it works.”

“Strategic management types talk about a PEST analysis: what are the Political, Economic, Environmental, Social, and Technological consequences of a certain new development? That’s useful in fiction, to run through the ramifications of your world-building decisions.”

“I feel alive when I read or watch horror. It relates to my life the way romantic comedies do to my friends.”

“Orson Scott Card said that in SFF, metaphors are off-limits. Similes are OK, though.”

“You can do anything in YA. Literally anything. Some things might limit your audience, however, but remember that everything limits your audience.”

“People say Harry Potter starts out Middle Grade and ends up Young Adult, but that’s not really true—his concerns stay Middle Grade. He doesn’t want to get high behind Hogwart’s, or stress about sex.”

“Middle Grade tends to have higher stakes, like saving the world, while YA is about saving yourself or your friends. Teens connect more to the personal journey.”

“Young adult novels are about peer group relationships—mostly middle-grade is about family relationships—mostly.”

“YA has fewer male protagonists because boys tend to either stop reading after middle-grade age, or go straight to adult books.”

COMMON MISTAKES

“Too often, female characters are just female-shaped objects to whom things happen.”

“You have a lot of white-room syndrome, where I can’t picture the setting at all.”

“The Star Trek problem: your tech/fantasy is so great it automatically solves whatever plot problems arise, which can be unsatisfying, but not necessarily. If the physical obstacles are not huge, the emotional obstacles have to do a lot more work.”

“He was the closest character to a real human being, and even he wasn’t there yet.”

“This story took off, and it forgot to pack.”

“This story has a bad case of The Narrator Is Two Eyes and a Mouth.”

“It’s very common to want to withhold information from the reader to create tension, but you’re not writing jacket copy. You have to do it some other way.”

“This is kind of a Fuck-It story, where the character keeps saying “fuck it” to all the things he used to value, all the secrets he used to keep. So if that’s the case, he has to REALLY say FUCK IT.”

“In stories where the consequences come, they come because the character deserves it.”

“It’s fine to write the draft where you’re just trying to get everything down on the paper, so you know what the story is and who the characters are—but make sure you know that’s what you’re doing, and that you have a plan to hack out all the excess.”

“This is a great story, but only half of it is on the page. You have all the answers, and you think you’re creating mystery when what you’re creating is confusion.”

“Because she feels sorry for herself, we do not feel sorry for her.”

“Activist oversimplifications are rarely the best or freshest way to discuss a problem. Don’t just say “a world without water,” show me what water scarcity means.”

“I’m old-fashioned; I still want at least one character I can root for.”

“It’s a problem when your narrative keeps telling me something is good, but I find that something really disturbing or unhealthy or bad… if I don’t buy it, it creates conflict, and that can break the story.”

“This is a PG13 story, and I want the R-rated version. You need to find the price he is most terrified of paying—because that’s what he has to pay.”

“You’ve given us a world of all surface, like writing about the Vietnam War by describing the uniforms.”

“There’s this romanticized notion that what you need to get you through horrific trauma is a bit of kindness… and that’s just not true.”

“This story is like a beautiful mansion, with lots of boxes full of cool stuff that we never open. And there’s nowhere to sit.”

“I wanted all the feelings.”

Enormous raven chilling with me on the 7th floor of the library.

Enormous raven chilling with me on the 7th floor of the library.

SFF TROPES

“Always ask yourself: what does this magic system say about THIS world, and THESE characters?”

“Any time you do a monster that is culturally familiar, like vampires or werewolves, you need to establish the rules quickly and efficiently.”

“People say, ‘ooh, unicorns and zombies, it’s so great…’ well, fucking WHY? People are squeeing over it and it makes me fucking sick.”

“Unlimited time travel solves too many problems; it renders fiction unworkable.”

“The laws of physics surrounding the impossibility of time travel seem to be set up to prevent us from creating paradoxes, or from finding out we don’t have free will.”

“Pinocchio-becoming-a-real-boy stories can be happy or sad, because there’s great joy associated with being human, and great pain associated with being human as well.””

“Day logic is like in Harry Potter, you say lumos and the lights go on, it always works the same, it’s like science. Night logic is more metaphorical, more intuitive, and therefore it can be a lot harder to write because you have to dedicate so much space to giving readers the info that they need, and that can get in the way of character development, etc.”

“In an alternate history, we need to know the point of divergence.”

“Your readers shouldn’t be wondering if it’s a dystopia or not. Tyrannical governments aren’t scary if the tyrannical government has solved all our problems. The big questions are, is there war? Poverty? Hunger? That’s how you can spot a dystopia.”

“You can learn a lot about a fictional world by having a character look up at the sky.”

“When I’m reading a world-building story, I’m asking myself ‘well, who’s the guy who works at Starbucks in this world?’ Most world-bulding starts with one caste/community (warriors, kings, priest, etc), because that’s an important way to build it out, and something young readers especially are very attuned to.”

“Ghosts are tough. Ghosts lead consequence-free lives, because the worst thing that could ever happen to them has already happened to them. What are your goals when you’re dead?”

“Magic needs a system, and it all needs to hang together. You need to be able to intuit one rule from another, and when we learn a new one it needs to make sense AND be surprising.”

WRITING EXERCISES

Character Interviews. Have someone sit you down and ask a bunch of questions, and answer them as your character. It’ll help you figure out stuff you need to think through, to bring them to life more. This can be scripted or unscripted. Works especially well if you’re really tired and silly.”

One Sentence Autobiography: Sit in a coffee shop and write a one-sentence autobiography for everyone who walks in the door.

Breaking Your Magic System. Have everybody ask you a question about your magic system that they think you don’t know the answer to—can anybody use it? has it been regulated by governments? etc—if you can’t answer one, your magic system breaks and you need to fix it. Writers and gamers are the best people to be part of this game.

Scene Checklist. Be sure you can answer the following questions about every scene you write, before you start to write it. Who is in it? Why? Whose POV? Why? How does the scene advance the story? How does the scene advance our understanding of the characters? Has the setting been described? Has anything changed since the last scene set in this setting?”

Classmate Lisa Bolekaja watches the sun set on the last night of Clarion.

Classmate Lisa Bolekaja watches the sun set on the last night of Clarion.

PUBLISHING

“For an impossible thing, selling a first novel is pretty easy. It’s impossible to write a novel, but people do it. It’s impossible to get an agent, but it happens all the time. It’s impossible to sell a first novel, but people sell first novels. It’s impossible to get a contract on a second novel if your first one doesn’t sell well, but people do.”

“One of the things that’s really frightening about being a writer is that you know where you are now… but you don’t know where you’ll be in the future. And that’s scary.”

“People do judge books by covers. It’s the single most important piece of marketing that will be done for your book.”

“30 years ago, there were 500 different distributors for books. Stores didn’t like dealing with that whole mess, so they said ‘we only want to deal with a couple of you, fight it out amongst yourselves.’ Then came decades of bloody corporate strife. And now there’s like 1 or 2 distributors out there. We’re in another transitional moment now, where formats and ideal lengths are being upended—but nobody knows how to do it right.”

“Most movie option deals are pretty crappy. $5K up front, $25K if a studio bites, $250K if the thing goes into production. Michael Crichton said “if your book is 400 pages, the script is 40.” 90% of your words get default thrown out. I have a producer whose whole job it is to hold my hand. She deals with the nervous authors.”

“I worry less about the movie being terrible than I do about it being successful—cuz that will impact me more as a writer. If it’s a success it’ll sell well forever, 20 years after the film came out, Starship Troopers still sells 400 copies a week. If it’s a huge flop, $300M to make and has a $30M opening weekend, I’ll never sell another movie in Hollywood ever again.”

“[FAMOUS TERRIFYING RICH MAN] bought Harper Collins to publish his friends—throw multi-million-dollar advances to people like [FAR-RIGHT AMERICAN POLITICIAN] that never stood a chance of earning back.”

“In the early 80’s, the average SFF book by a guy you never heard of in mass market paperback sold 75,000 copies. By the 90’s, that same average book by a writer you never heard of would sell 10,000 copies.”

“Write what you care about writing. Then think of what label you’ll put on it to mke it sell.”

“If you’re going to go Hollywood, do it in your 20’s. By your 30’s it’s too late. Because Hollywood is run by children.”

“In publishing, you never get a promotion within your own company in publishing. You have to jump ship.”

“You never want to be hot. You want to be warm. If you’re hot, you can drop.”

“Literary contracts are not written in legalese, it’s kind of a hand-me-down 19th-century formal writing that will baffle most lawyers who don’t specialize in that kind of document.”

“I don’t know any disagreeable agents. They’re all very charming. Because an agent is charming doesn’t mean they’re right for you.”

“Unfortunately you can’t hire an agent to help you negotiate with your agent.”

“500 to 600 queries a week is normal at many agencies.”

“Stay networked, stay current, don’t be obnoxious.”

“I began to sell professionally when I learned how to write good outlines. A good outline isn’t a descriptions of what happens, it is its own story.  Start with a hook. Slot in backstory only when it becomes necessary. Use brief evocative charcter descriptions. Point out tensions and say what the conflicts are. Use present tense. Describe character arcs. Twelve pages tops. Create conflict in the editor’s mind, and then resolve it.”

“Rule Number One of being a writer: money flows to the writer. If anything else is happening there’s a problem.”

“One of the surprising things about being a professional writer is that you travel a lot. More than you think you will And you talk to people. A lot. When I found out all that was part of being a successful writer, it was the biggest bait and switch ever. I was furious. There hasn’t been a single weekend this summer that I’ve been home.”

“Lots of writers complain that their publishers don’t tour them, because that’s great promotion and drives sales, but touring is incredibly draining.”

“These are all good problems to have, and it sounds weird to complain about it, but they all add up and take up your time.”

“An agent’s #1 goal in life is to find great writing. Their #2 goal is to empty their inbox.”

“1/3 of agented authors got theirs through blind queries, 1/3 through personal connections… the last 1/3 is more complicated.”

“Your dream agent, whoever they are, is someone you have never met—so, often, ending up with your dream agent doesn’t really work out.”

“You never want to sell your world rights, ever.”

“You write the book that you as a reader most want to read, but can’t, because it doesn’t exist. And it might be a best-seller if enough people like you are out there.”

“Publishing is very nontransparent. They won’t tell you anything, but if you appear to know what you’re talking about they’ll be so shocked they’ll spill everything.”

“Good questions to ask your publisher, to show them you know the business and to make sure you’re part of the conversation surrounding how your book is sold: What is my co-op? What placements, table, end caps? Are you offering dumps? Am I a lead title? What’s my sell-in to Barnes & Noble?”

“Publishers have a tendency to treat authors like children, like they’re protecting you from the truth, which is why if you ask how you’re selling they’ll say “fine,” no matter what. I don’t know why that is—but if you show them you’re knowledgeable and savvy they’ll feel like they can be honest with you. Even agents will often not share information with you, because they think you don’t want to know. Show him/her that you do.”

“You want to know you can pick up the phone and call your agent and get a call back. If you can’t, there’s  problem.”

“Barnes & Noble can still approve covers.”

“Books change covers because the sales weren’t where the publisher wanted them to be.”

QUIRKY CRITIQUES AND BRILLIANT ANALYSES

“You haven’t earned the chill.”

“Lovely imagery, but too much of it. I was looking for the key and I couldn’t find it.”

“I can’t reconcile flying on a plane in the same story as getting a gift from the sun and the moon.”

“Trees represent evil in this story, but in other places they represent good, and I found that unsatisfying.”

“I may be confused by the mechanics of what’s happening, but never about what you’re trying to tell me.”

“This is a story that teaches you how to read it while you’re reading it. It says, ‘check your knowledge of story/structure/character/logic at the door because that’s not what I’m doing.”

“This may not be the direction you ultimately want to go, but I think you should take it there to see what happens.”

“This story warmed the debauched cockles of my heart.”

“You have to earn your Nazis.”

“Toning it back will paradoxically make it more powerful, because it will be believable.”

“You broke my heart and you made me hungry, all at once.”

“I read all this stuff, and I feel this thing, but I don’t know how or why.”

“Vivid imagery and great writing, but no point of entry for me—it’s like watching a great movie with the sound turned down.”

“You have a really great story here, but you seem determined not to tell it.”

“I feel like I went to  really good 3-D movie, but I didn’t get the glasses.”

“This story is like a good punch in the face.”

“I’ll believe cities growing out of people’s bodies before I’ll believe people won’t organize into groups and governments to protect themselves and exploit others.”

“Yay for princesses rescuing themselves, but double Yay for boys having feelings.”

“Right now this feels like friendship fan fic.”

“Way to rip out my heart and feed it to me, again.”

“This story ALSO ripped my heart out and fed it to me, but this time the bus boy came and took the plate away before I was finished.”

“You can’t mix the cake batter too much.”

“How to make a story more madcap? Throw Mormons at it.”

“Tropegasm!”

“Your dialogue tags get saggy.”

“I was doing a lot of hand-wavium in this story.”