Deborah Answers Questions on Writing

Renoir sisters readingQ: What advice would you give an aspiring young writer?

A: There are a gazillion tips on how to write, how not to write, do’s and don’ts galore. The best advice I can give to a young author is to fill your life up with experiences. You aren’t fully formed yet, either as a person or as a writer. So go have adventures; read widely; learn a second or third language; play a musical instrument; dance; study cultures other than your own, history, psychology, sociology, comparative religion, music theory. Anything and everything that interests you. Make friends who come from different backgrounds and listen to their stories with an open heart. Fill up your creative storehouse so that you will have something worth writing about.

In school, we learn how to write literate English (at least that’s the goal). We may analyze English literature, but usually the focus on reading comprehension not the mechanics of fiction. That often creates the illusion that we do or should know how to write effective fiction. That’s a bit like saying that because you can drive a car, you know how to build one from scratch. To create an inspiring story, you need a tool kit and skills. The tool kit includes a deep understanding of how and why stories move us, a wide range of life experiences (the raw material), and the basic mechanics of prose narration (exposition, dialog, theme and metatheme, rising tension that leads to climax and resolution, world-building, sympathetic characters, etc.) The skills are how to put together all these elements, when to introduce them or remind the reader, that sort of thing. There are perhaps as many ways of learning those skills as there are writers. Some benefit from reading widely and mindfully across a range of the best literature they can find. Others respond to “how to” books like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction or Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction. Still others do better with hands-on critiques and explanations (when I was a new writer, I had to have things explained to me in words of one syllable).

Q: What mistakes do new writers make?

A: There are a gazillion lists of specific faults in prose (such as grammar and punctuation) or story craft (such as the rise and resolution of tension). A new writer can get so overwhelmed by “dos and don’ts,” she ends up paralyzed.

So I’d like to take a different tack and suggest that new writers learn to trust their readers. Trust them to figure things out. Trust them to read intelligently and sensitively. Most of all, trust them to experience the story for themselves. If there’s a “don’t” here, it’s don’t tell the reader how to feel. Take the reader on a journey that will be different for each reader because no two of us are alike in temperament and experiences. Give them what they need to know what’s going on, but allow the story to flow through them, seen through the lens of their own lives. At the same time, play fair with your reader. That means no surprise out-of-nowhere endings that have nothing to do with the meat of the story. If you set up expectations for one kind of story, hard-boiled noir detective, for example, it’s not a good idea to switch to a fluffy sweet romance. You and the reader have an agreement: “Give me x hours of your time, and this is the reading experience I promise you.” Just as a new writer must learn to trust her readers, she herself must be trustworthy in fulfilling that promise.

Q: How do you build a science fictional world — the prospect is overwhelming!

A: The most important thing to understand about world-building is that not every writer does it in the same way. For some, it’s important to have that world fully realized in every detail and all the technology and science worked out before beginning to write. Others begin with a character or plot idea and let the landscape unfold as they explore it. I’m in the latter camp: I often don’t know what questions to ask when I begin a project, but they become clear to me once I start developing those characters and human dilemmas. I end up pausing to do research and map things out in rough draft or outline stage. I used to feel overwhelmed by the notion that I had to know everything first, and only when I understood my own creative process did I follow my intuition and let my stories grow organically.

P.S. My science fiction has been praised for its world-building. So it doesn’t matter how you get there!

Q: What should I keep in mind when starting a science fiction novel?

A: I’d give the same advice to a beginning writer of any genre, including mainstream. Write the best stories you can. The same principles of effective prose and storytelling apply, no matter what type of story it is. Keep pushing your literary craft. Read the best literature you can get your hands on and critically analyze what makes it work.

Of course, you have to do your homework when it comes to science and technology, but also world-building that includes culture, linguistics, sociology, etc. But so does every writer.

Q: Why are books for young people popular when they’re not well written?

A: I notice that you are referring to the books your kids read. Kids and adults read for different reasons. Children have not yet developed internal critics, they suspend disbelief readily, and they respond powerfully to tropes that leave adults cold. By trope I mean a motif, device, or cliche that has psychological resonance, for example in Harry Potter, you see The Worthy Orphan, The Prince in Waiting (The Chosen One), The Wise Old Mentor, as well as a school story and The Adventures of Friends. Kids also love stories in which the young protagonists have agency, the ability to have adventures they could never experience in their own lives. All of these things are more important to young readers (and many adult readers!) than literary quality.

Q: How do you write a novel?

A: A crucial part of writing a novel is discerning when you have a novel-sized idea, as opposed to one more suitable for a novella or short story. In order to carry the weight of 100K words, the concept of a novel must have depth and emotional resonance. It must be capable of maintaining tension and forward propulsion, and spinning off subplots that enhance rather than distract from the central theme.

Sometimes I’ll start with a notion (or character or line of dialog or scene) and let it play out in my imagination to see how it develops. In the first decade or so of writing professionally, I’d make mistakes, trying to squash a huge idea into 5K words or, conversely, to stretch out a single gem-perfect nugget into many chapters. But I learned by stepping back and identifying the skills I needed. Now I’m usually accurate (and with short fiction, I can tell within 1K words how long the story will be). That said, there are a gazillion ways to structure, plan, and actually write a novel. Since there’s no right or wrong way, only the final product, you can find what works best for you.

Q: What’s the best advice about writing you’ve ever received?

A: The best advice I ever received came from my mentor. She encouraged me to “play it out,” meaning to explore all the nuances and emotional beats of a dramatic scene. Like many newer writers, I built up to those scenes and then rushed through them, thinking that if the action was happening very fast, so should the scene. I thought that I’d set up all the pieces so the reader would realize their importance when they came together. But really, I was selling my readers short. I didn’t realize that the more action, tension, and emotional weight a scene has, the longer it can — and should — be. Readers want to savor every moment, every breath of breathless action. They don’t want to have pages and pages of not-much-happening and then something incredibly important in a paragraph.


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