Writing Tips from Nancy Kress, Hugo-and-Nebula-Award-winning sci-fi author

“Every story is a war. Scenes are the battles.”

I came to a humbling conclusion yesterday.

While I am proficient in the English language—I can tell a participle from a predicate, grammar-check a presidential speech, and play the synonym game all the livelong day—I actually know next to nothing about the writing craft.

…which explains the crippling insecurity and near-constant writer’s block. 

How did I reach that conclusion? I spent five hours in a small room with nine other aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers and Nancy Kress, the renowned science fiction author whose works have won six coveted Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards.

It was a workshop sponsored by Locus, semi-pro science fiction magazine headquartered in the San Francisco Bay area, which has itself won no fewer than 30 Hugo Awards over the years for excellence in the field of science fiction publishing. We aspiring writers all got together at a long table and grabbed some tea and coffee and snacks. Then, in reverent awe, we watched Nancy—a short, friendly woman with black hair, twinkling eyes, and a wry sense of humor—as she introduced herself and then began to list narrative modes and the different types of scenes on the whiteboard. And then, at Nancy’s behest, we put our fingers to our keyboards (or our pads of papers and pens, if we were going low-tech—and I was) and wrote.

And I’ll be danged if what I wrote there in that room wasn’t some of the best writing I’ve done in my life.

William Faulkner Andrew Timothy Post science fiction writer
Okay, okay, maybe not William Faulkner good. But still…

I’m not going to regurgitate everything I learned in that workshop, dear reader. Nancy Kress has her trade secrets, and she flew all the way down from Seattle to share them with my ragtag little band one rainy (then sunny) Saturday in San Leandro. What I will do is give you a selection of pithy quotations and talking points that Nancy brought up during the course of the workshop, for there were many.

Keep in mind that Madame Kress has been writing since 1976, and attained widespread acclaim in 1991, so she knows a thing or two about the biz. That being said, these are her opinions, and she’d be the first to tell you that quite a few other writers might not agree with her on certain subjects. As ever, writing remains an extremely subjective and personal pursuit, and what works for one writer might not work for another.

Now that we’ve got those nasty disclaimers out of the way, on with the quotations! Full disclosure: most of these have been paraphrased because I was taking notes with a pen and paper and can’t write that fast. But they’re as close to what I heard as I could get ’em.

On scenes: “A scene has a shape and a purpose. Either it advances plot or enhances characterization, preferably both at the same time.”

On dialogue: “Your goal is to make your reader a fly on the wall, a witness to the story.”

On setting: “The best way to describe setting is to show a character interacting with it.”

On description: “Description should be brief. Two paragraphs maximum, and even that’s pushing it. One paragraph if possible. Sneak it in.”

On action: “Action is description in motion.”

On point of view: “Any story can be told from any point of view.”

On choosing which point of view to write from: “Pick the person your story will hurt the most.”

On opening scenes: “You have three long paragraphs to get a reader’s attention. With novels, it’s a couple of chapters. Polish, polish, polish!”

On ending a scene: “Scenes have shapes. Most scenes should end with a rise. A rise is anything that makes us want to move on. It could be anything. The introduction of a new character, the revelation of a new piece of information, or even an increase in lyrical prose.”

On planning: “I don’t know the whole story when I start writing. Ted Chiang has said that he can’t start writing unless he knows the last sentence of the story. I could no more do that than fly. But it helps to know [what’s going to happen] a few scenes ahead.”

On flashbacks, summary scenes, and “expository lumps”: “Before using any of these, you have to create a need to know in the reader.”

On climax: “Every story is a war. There are winners and losers. The events and scenes are the battles. And [at the climax], the protagonist must have agency—he must be present, and he must do something significant.”

On fiction: “The two questions that drive all fiction are ‘What do these people want?’ and ‘What could go wrong?'”

On the writer’s job: “The basic task of a writer is to translate a multimedia event into a linear event.”

On staying motivated: “Writing is like sex. Some days it’s explosive. Some days you’re not really into it at first, but then it gets better as you go along. Some days it starts strong and then it just fizzles out. You might have three sessions’ worth of fizzles, but then the fourth session just might be explosive. You can’t judge your writing ability by only one day.”

I filled up a Mead composition notebook with Nancy’s tips, tricks, and advice, and I’m going to put it to good use in the coming days. Some of the writing exercises I did during the workshop may even spin out into full-blown short stories! I’ll definitely be submitting to Locus more frequently, too.

All right, that’s all I’ve got for today. It’s my wife’s 30th birthday, and I owe her some serious brunch. Get off the Internet and get writing!