MIND MELD: Shrewd Writing Advice From Some of Science Fiction’s & Fantasy’s Best Writers

Some of SF Signal’s readers are aspiring writers, so we thought we take this week to ask some published writers in the genre to dispense with some useful writerly advice. Here’s what we asked them:

Q: What’s the best writing advice you ever received and who gave it to you?

And here are their collective words of wisdom…

Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg started writing fiction in the 1950s and has since built a remarkable catalog of novels and short stories. He’s won several Hugo and Nebula Awards throughout his career, for both his writing and his editing of numerous anthologies. His entire bibliography is too long to mention, but some well-known titles include the Majipoor series, A Time of Changes, Nightwings, The Book of Skulls, Son of Man, Downward to the Earth, and Dying Inside. Some of his most famous pieces of short fiction include “Hawksbill Station”, “Born with the Dead”, “Sailing to Byzantium”, and “Passengers”. Robert Silverberg was also the recipient of the 2004 SFWA Grandmaster Award.

The best piece of advice I ever got came from Lester del Rey, the veteran writer and editor who, when I was in my twenties, had become a sort of Dutch uncle, or perhaps even a second father, to me. At the beginning of my career in the mid-1950s I had trouble selling my most ambitious stories, the ones that I thought were the best in me, whereas the minor, more conventional pieces sold quite easily to the magazines. There were several reasons for this. The main one was that I was competing for slots in those magazines with the likes of Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, James Blish, Alfred Bester, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth, and other greats of that golden era for the science-fiction short story. What I was writing, at the age of 21 or 22, might have been ambitious but it still wasn’t in a class with what those more mature writers were doing. On the other hand, all the magazines, even the top ones, were constantly in need of conventional 5000-worders for the back of the book. It seemed to make more sense to me to churn out competent potboilers for those magazine editors instead of trying to knock Sturgeon or Leiber or Knight out of the top place in the issue, and very shortly I was earning a nice living indeed writing formula fiction at a fast pace. (I was, in fact, earning more per year than any of my literary heroes by the third year of my career.) By playing it safe this way I was indeed able to pay the monthly rent, and then some. But I wasn’t contributing anything worthwhile to science fiction, and, though I didn’t realize it just yet, I wasn’t even acting in my own best interests.

It was Lester who pointed out to me that I was working from a false premise. “Even if all you’re concerned with is making money,” he said, “you’re going about it the wrong way. You’re knocking out penny-a-word stories as fast as you can, and, sure, you’re pulling in the quick bucks very nicely. But you’re shortchanging yourself, because all that you’ll ever make from what you’re writing now is the check you get for it today. Those stories will die the day they’re published. They won’t get into anthologies and won’t be bought for translation and nobody will want you to put together a collection of them. Whereas if you were writing at the level that I know you’re capable of, you’d be creating a body of work that will go on bringing in money for the rest of your life. So by going for the easy money you’re actually cutting your future income.”

I pointed out that when I wrote at the level I was capable of, I had trouble selling the stories. He laughed at that. It was a temporary phenomenon, he said. Now that my name was established — I had won a Hugo my second year as a writer, and my name was in all the magazines — the editors would pay more attention.

I began to upgrade the product. Everything sold; and, encouraged by the steady acceptance of what I thought of as my “real” science fiction, I moved quickly away from my hack markets, most of which had died off anyway. And, sure enough, I started to get my stories into anthologies, I sold them to British and French and German magazines, I got offers from publishers to do collections of my work. Lester had been right: the quick buck wasn’t the best buck. Simply in terms of a basic goal of making money from my writing, I had taken the wrong track, because junk was never reprinted, and good stories lived on and on. And, of course, even then I knew that I wanted more out of a career in science-fiction than just making money, because I had been a reader before I became a writer, and I had dreamed of writing the sort of work that had the same impact on readers that the work of my great predecessors had had on me. If I simply had wanted to be a hack, I would have done a lot better writing for True Confessions. So I shifted away from the kind of churn-‘em-out stuff I had done in my earlier years, and people began to notice the change. The Hugos and Nebulas and guest-of-honor invitations followed, and, many years later, the Grand Master award — and simply on the financial level I did a lot better than I would if I had, Gernsback forbid, spent my whole life writing potboilers. Probably I would have figured all that out on my own. But Lester del Rey’s blunt words, back there in 1957 or 1958, brought me to my senses a lot faster than would otherwise have been the case.

Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick is the author of 50 novels, 200 short stories, a pair of screenplays, and the editor of 50 anthologies, as well as the executive editor of Jim Baen’s Universe. According to Locus, he is the leading award winner, living or dead, of short fiction. His work has been translated into 22 languages.

Paul Neimark, my first editor and my first collaborator, told me very early on, back in the mid-1960s: you can give up on an editor or a market, but never give up on a good story.

Back in the late 1970s, before anyone in science fiction knew who I was — I’d sold a few million words, but most of them under pseudonyms in the “adult” and Gothic fields — I submitted a couple of science fiction stories about dogs to F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, and Galaxy. Got form rejects from all 4 so fast I knew the editors hadn’t read them. So I said good-bye to their 3 cents a word, sold them to Hunting Dog Magazine for a quarter a word (that would be pretty much like getting a dollar a word today), both stories won the American Dog Writers Award for Best Short Fiction of the Year (1977 and 1978), and I’ve sold then 13 and 7 times since, usually to sf markets, as recently as last month. I did the same with some sexy sf; when the magazines, who didn’t know me from Adam — today they’d take them, no questions asked — said no, I didn’t give up on the stories, but rather on the editors and markets. I wound up selling them for far higher rates to men’s magazines — and again, have since resold them time and again to sf markets.

A piece of, not advice, but information came from Gordie Dickson 35 years ago: if I was good and I was prolific, within 25 years (which seemed like forever back then) I’d be getting a pleasant surprise — a foreign or reprint sale — every week for the rest of my life…and damned if he wasn’t right. I’ve been making better than 52 reprint or foreign sales every year since the mid-1990s (what I call “no-heavy-lifting” sales). Some are big, lots are small. He never promised me a rose garden, just a minimum of 52 roses a year. (Thanks, Gordie!)

Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is a science fiction author noted for his complex and dense prose which is liberally influenced by his Catholic faith. He has won the Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award four times and has been nominated for the Hugo Award multiple times.

“The book is the boss.” I got it from Alfred Bester.

Paul McAuley
Paul McAuley has been earning his living writing novels, short stories and occasional pieces of journalism since 1996. Paul has written many science fiction stories, most of them hard science fiction, including The Confluence Trilogy. His latest novel is The Quiet War, and he’s just finished the sequel, Gardens of the Sun.

Long ago, when I was scarcely out of the egg, Brian Aldiss told me that the key to success was to publish a book every year. Or as Joe Lansdale famously put it, when asked for his single most important writing tip: ‘Put your ass in the chair and write.’ Let’s face it, no one else is going to write your masterpiece, so get on with it. Write every day. I aim for a daily rate of five pages. Sometimes I hit it; sometimes I don’t. The important thing is to do something, each and every day.

Kage Baker
Kage Baker was born in Hollywood, California and has lived there and in Pismo Beach most of her life. Before becoming a professional writer she spent many years in theater, including teaching Elizabethan English as a second language. She is best known for her Company series of historical time travel science fiction.

The best writing advice I ever got was from my first editor, Michael Kandel. He suggested that manuscripts should never be mailed off in the “My God, I’m Such a Genius” blaze of euphoria that follows finishing a book or story. Put it on the shelf for maybe six months, he said, and then have a look at it; you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll find is wrong with it, and you’ll be sooo grateful you caught the obvious flaws yourself rather than having to have some editor (or, worse, reviewer) point them out for you. Given the pace of my writing schedule, I don’t ever get the chance to wait six months these days, but I do find that setting the first draft aside even long enough for me to write something else– a short story or part of another book– gives me the necessary detachment and perspective when I go back to read it over.

Ben Bova
Ben Bova is the author of more than 100 futuristic novels and nonfiction books about science. He first appeared in Amazing in 1960. He has been the editor of Analog and Omni magazines.

I got the best advice about writing that I’ve ever received when I was a teenager working as a copyboy on the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city’s morning daily newspaper. One of the paper’s elder editors took me for a walk around the Inquirer building. Working men were sitting on the front steps of their row houses, reading the evening paper.

“If you want to write for newspapers,” the old man told me, “you’ve got to be able to take the most complicated things happening in the world and write it so that they can under-stand it.”

I never forgot that. Write clearly enough so that anyone who can read can understand your words. Ever since, I have striven for clarity and simplicity of style, especially when I’m writing about complex subjects such as space exploration or global politics or love.

Kit Reed
Kit Reed is the author of Thinner Than Thou (winner of the Alex Award) and many other novels, including Thief of Lives, The Baby Merchant, The Night Children (her recently-released first young adult work), and Enclave, which is being released next week. Ms. Reed has been a finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Tiptree, and the International Horror Guild Awards. She lives Connecticut where she is Resident Writer at Wesleyan University.

The best advice I ever got was from Paul Horgan, who won two Pulitzer Prizes in his long career. It was:

  1. When you send something out, or have a novel being published, always be working on the next thing.
  2. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Sit down to work at the same time every single day. He didn’t work nights and he didn’t work weekends except when there was a time-crunch, and neither do I.
John C. Wright
John C. Wright is the author of The Golden Age Trilogy, The War of the Dreaming, Chronicles of Chaos and Null-A Continuum, the authorized sequel of A.E. van Vogt’s World of Null-A books. His short fiction has appeared in Year’s Best SF 3, The Night Lands, Best Short Novels 2004, The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21, Breach The Hull, and No Longer Dreams.

The best advice I ever received was from two sources. The first was from The Little Engine That Could. When tempted to surrender and fail, the Little Engine merely puffed “I think I can!” over and over again until he surmounted the peak before him. Talent is mostly sweat; let no one tell you differently.

The second source was from an essay by Ursula K. LeGuin, where that talented and accomplished author revealed a fact that was crucial to my ability to maintain a sense of perspective during the long years while I tried to tell my first short story. She said that the average number of submissions to magazines before an unknown author makes his first sale is one hundred tries. That is, let me emphasize, the average: which means if someone, let us say, Lester Del Rey, makes his first sale on his first attempt, then someone else, let us say, Ray Bradbury, will make two hundred submissions or more before his first sale. This little fact prevented me from falling into the temptation of surrender. When I had submitted dozens of stories to dozens of magazines and had accumulated 90 rejection slips or so, instead of despairing, I said to myself, “Ten to go.”

By cosmic coincidence I sold my first tale on exactly my one hundredth submission: a story called “Not Born a Man” to a tiny magazine called Aberrations. I was paid seven bucks and a courtesy copy of the magazine. While we are on the topic, let me tell you the worst bit of writing advice I ever received. It was from a short piece by Robert Heinlein, the Dean of Science Fiction himself.

Heinlein’s rules for writing were professional and simple. “1) You must write. 2) You must finish what you write. 3) You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand. 4) You must mail your story to an editor who will pay you money. 5) You must keep it in the mail until someone buys it.”

Rule number 1 and 2 are paramount and cannot be over-praised. The Dean of SF is exactly right. Rule 4 and 5 are paramount and cannot be over-emphasized. The Dean of SF speaks words of wisdom more precious than gold, more to be treasured than refined gold.

Rule 3 is just bad advice.

Perhaps if you are a writer who is so tempted to rewrite and rewrite that you will never post your manuscripts in the mail, by all means, obey rule 3; better to send out your first draft than to send out nothing. Perhaps if you are a weak-willed writer who listens to teachers are writer’s workshops that tell you to rewrite and rewrite until all your adjectives, as well as your personal style, are gone, by all means, obey rule 3; better to send out your rough and uncut diamond, provided it sounds like you, than to cut and polish and re-cut and re-polish until there is no stone left.

But if you are a professional, go through as many drafts as you need to create a workmanlike product. Don’t be a perfectionist: that way lies madness. But, by thunder, if you do not rewrite, then you are stuck with whatever your first instinct puts on the page. Heinlein had good first instincts. Do you? Good instincts or not, your first draft is likely to be unpolished, awkward, and gaping with plot holes you forgot to establish in chapter one, and plot threads you forgot to tie up in a knot by chapter twenty.

It is clear enough what comes of following Heinlein’s advice. Reading a Robert Heinlein novel is like reading a first draft.

While he from time to time writes a tight, well-plotted novel (for example, see Door Into Summer or Citizen Of The Galaxy) Heinlein’s typical output is merely a disorganized mess without plot, plot-twists, or character development, and the events in one chapter could have been moved to another with no change in wording. (See, for example, Glory Road or Podkayne of Mars or Farmer in the Sky or Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strange Land). Glory Road comes to a conclusion, and then dribbles on for three or four more chapters. Each chapter is perfectly good, but has no connection to what goes before. Podkayne has a subplot concerning a bomb smuggled onto a spaceship that goes nowhere and means nothing, and ends in a pointless death and a pointless speech by Uncle Tom. Each scene is memorable, and speech is stirring, except that it is irrelevant, if not contradicted, by what the author previously established. Farmer enjoys well-written and interesting scenes that bear no relation to each other. Starship Troopers is preoccupied with speechifying about civic virtue, but there is no plot. Stranger starts out as a police-state thriller and wanders into being a satire against organized religion: it could have made two different and perfectly fine novels. Somewhere in the middle is a scene about art appreciation that goes nowhere and means nothing.

Now, on the other hand, Heinlein not only sold these books, but won plaudits and awards for them, so take my caution with a grain of salt. On the gripping hand, A.E. van Vogt wrote tightly-plotting thrillers of cosmic wonder without a wasted scene and barely a wasted word; J.R.R. Tolkien rewrote and rewrote until magic shines from his pages.

Obey Heinlein’s rule number 3 if and only if you have Heinlein’s knack at charming characterization and if and only if you find a market for meandering, plotless, charm-driven stories.

Don’t fall into the trap of rewriting if it means you cannot finish your work. That is a fine rule. But can you imagine a craftsman in any other craft being given the advice of Heinlein’s rule 3? “Carpenters! When making a chair, never remove and re-cut a bad leg, except at a supervisor’s suggestion! If the legs are uneven, tell the customer it is a rocking chair!”

Marc Gascoigne
Marc Gascoigne is Publishing Director of Angry Robot Books, metallic masters of SF, F and WTF. They will launch in July 2009. Oh yes they will.

Ah, advice. So often given, so rarely heard. But let’s be honest, there’s so much of it about that it’s hard to listen to any of if. One only has to read a couple of “How to Write” books to be so brimming with wise maxims and useful pointers and good intentions as to feel positively obliged to go back to bed instead.

That said, there was one phrase I always had on a Post-It stuck to my monitor, one thing I always attempted to follow. I can’t recall where I picked it up from, or if it was distilled from months and years of panicked deadlines because I’d spent weeks making the first page the most polished opening in history. It is this simple instruction: GET IT DOWN, CHANGE IT LATER.

My very favourite piece of advice, though, remains that classic from Larry Niven. When he was asked this same question, his reply was along these lines: “The best advice I was ever given was by my father. He took me aside on my 21st birthday and said, “Son, here’s a million dollars. Don’t lose it.”

Ah, if only…

Jeff Carlson
Jeff Carlson is the author of the internationally acclaimed sci fi thrillers Plague Year and Plague War, which is currently shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award. A fan and a student before he became a writer, Jeff soaked up so much writing advice that he cut off his ears and mailed them to Harlan Ellison.

I get hate mail and I’m proud of it. The best trick I ever learned was to look at your critics like you would your characters. What are their motivations? Why the heck are they so upset? Allen Steele and James Rollins don’t know that they taught me this lesson, but I’ve been lucky in finding friendships with long-established pros – and I listen to them like they’re my characters, too. Long after they’ve actually stopped talking, I’m still echoing through their words in my head.

Yeah, I hear voices! I’ve trained myself to wonder if I got things right. Was there another meaning? What if so-and-so had said something else instead? As a writer, this obsessive behavior is a strength. As an everyday person, sometimes it’s a bummer.

The first high-profile review of Plague Year was a big fat thumbs-down and it’s still plastered all over the net. In fact, it’s the first thing you see on the book’s Amazon page. Wonderful. It’s like having it etched in a bazillion pieces of stone. The critic used words like “ingenious” and “timely” to describe the book, but she clearly wasn’t a fan of action-adventure novels. Plague Year is about a nanotechnology prototype that gets loose and devours all warm-blooded life below 10,000 feet. Mayhem ensues. Her final summation was “though well-written, the heroes’ lengthy journeys slow the story to a pace almost as tormenting as organ-liquefying micro-machines.”

Dude, that’s way below the belt! It’s not even professional – it’s a look-at-me-I’m-very-clever piece of cruelty, and on a prominent platform to boot. I freaked out for days. Remember, this was my first foray into the cold dark piranha-infested waters of book reviews.

Since then, of course, I’ve had the last laugh. Plague Year is in its fourth printing. Film rights have been picked up. Audio rights. Foreign rights. All of this is wildly gratifying – and a little bird told me who wrote that sneering critique, a would-be “literary” type who’s writing reviews because she can’t seem to get her own Very Deep work published. That’s called frustration.

It’s inevitable that some people won’t like your work. Books are extremely subjective. Such is life. Fine. But don’t pee all over my “beach read” end-of-the-world novel because it’s not The Great Gatsby. For Pete’s sake, the cover says “The next breath you take will kill you.” It’s clearly meant to be fun, not English Literature.

But I get hate mail. One lady fed the book to her dog, took pictures of Spot with a mouthful, and sent the jpgs to me. Why? Beats the shit out of me. Neurochemical imbalance? Sometimes you can only speculate.

Another guy got angry because the two main characters are a Hispanic and a genius Jew, and one of the villains is white. He wrote to say the book is “a steaming pile of liberal propaganda.” That’s laughable. If anything, Plague Year has a rather libertarian buy-your-own-guns-and-don’t-trust-the-government flavor, simply because the geopolitical scene devolves into a thousand fragmented little pockets of hungry, half-mad survivors. I did not write my post-apocalyptic thriller with a secret agenda – I just happen to know non-white people. The world is full of them. If your mindset is so small you’re threatened by heroes who aren’t squeaky white Aryans, well, jeez, I’m sorry, try to get out of the house more.

One last example. About a year ago, I remember, my wife and I had one of our rare chances to get out at night without our kids. We love to hit the sushi bar and try to see a movie full of exploding helicopters since it’ll be on the big screen. She wasn’t into I Am Legend but said she was enthused about the new Nick Cage sequel. We’d enjoyed the first National Treasure. I jumped online to find showtimes for National Treasure II, and here are the top-level reviews that popped right up on the theater’s home page. Yep. I wrote ‘em down. (Nice job of marketing tickets, btw.)

“Wears out its welcome pretty quickly.”-Los Angeles Times

“Just wants to entertain, not break new ground.”-USA Today

“Generally less stimulating than yesterday’s Sudoku.”-Variety.

Ouch! We almost bailed. But she really didn’t want to see Will Smith’s end of the world; she gets plenty of that home, listening to me; so we enjoyed a few plates of hamachi and salmon and walked over to the theater.

“Hilarious and entertaining.”-Diana Carlson. That’s what she would have written. We had a good time with National Treasure II, which wasn’t The Godfather and didn’t pretend to be. What the heck is up with these pretentious chowderheads trying to ruin things for everybody else? They’re jaded. I get it. Being forced to loll around scribbling notes about one movie after another is, I’m sure, hard labor. Maybe our expectations are too low since we don’t get to the theater often.

This is not to say that I’m not open to feedback. I’m always trying to improve my work, but it’s important to get into the head of whoever’s putting you down. Or up. Why are they saying what they are? Is it something you can really use or are they wasted on Cheetos and self-delusion?

(That’s right. I said it. Cheetos are evil.)

As a writer, it’s awesome to strike a chord. Sometimes it’s just the wrong one. People are varied and interesting. That’s why I’m writing in the first place.

Michael A. Burstein
Michael A. Burstein, winner of the 1997 Campbell Award for Best New Writer, has earned ten Hugo nominations and three Nebula nominations for his short fiction which appears mostly in Analog. Burstein’s first book, I Remember the Future, is available from Apex Publications. Burstein lives with his wife Nomi in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, where he is an elected Town Meeting Member and Library Trustee. When not writing, he edits middle and high school Science textbooks. He has two degrees in Physics and attended the Clarion Workshop. More information on Burstein and his work can be found on his webpage and blog.

I actually have a story to tell about this, and it’ll take a while, but I hope readers will enjoy it.

Back in the early 1990s, when I was learning how to write science fiction short stories, I read every book and article on writing that I could get my hands on. I read far too many books to list them here, but I will note that Lawrence Block and Damon Knight both offered excellent advice in their writings on writing.

But I wanted more than just books. I was eager to find some sort of personal critique for my stories.

So it was in either 1993 or early 1994 that I enrolled in a writing workshop taught by John Ordover at the late, lamented Science Fiction, Mysteries and More bookstore. At the time, John worked as the editor in charge of the Star Trek books at Simon & Schuster. Before I had met him I had read about him in Locus, and for some reason I had created a mental image of him as a sophisticated Britisher, wearing a tweed jacket with patches and holding a pipe. The truth is that John is a down-to-Earth witty New Yorker with a penchant for humor and for friendly argument. He’s also a perspicacious editor, who bluntly tore apart my fiction at a time when it desperately needed to be torn apart.

The workshop lasted for four sessions, and I don’t recall much in the way of specific pieces of advice. But I do recall one piece of advice that John gave me, advice that this day I feel was worth the $50 price of admission. And now, with John’s permission, I pass that advice along for free.

“I have a question I want to ask,” I said at the beginning of the second session.

“Go for it,” John replied.

“You know how an editor will sometimes send you a personal rejection note with suggestions to improve the story, but clearly doesn’t want to see the story again? I’m not sure what to do. Do I revise the story per the editor’s suggestions before I send it to the next market? Or do I just send it to the next market, since it’s not going back to the editor who made those suggestions?”

“Well,” John said, “that depends. Do you agree with the suggestions? If so, make the changes. If not, don’t bother.”

I looked up, but didn’t actually see the light bulb that I thought for sure must have appeared above my head. In retrospect, the answer was obvious, but at the time, it was a revelation.

My question, of course, had been prompted by that very situation. An editor had rejected one of my stories with a personal note indicating a flaw that he had found in the story, but it was clear that he didn’t want to see the story again. And like Hamlet unable to act, I had been frozen when it came to the question of what to do next with the story.

John’s advice basically boiled down to one question: do you agree that making the change will improve the story? If so, then you’d be foolish not to make the change, as you presumably want your stories to be as good as possible. But if you don’t think the change will improve the story, then there’s no good reason to make the change.

In retrospect, I probably froze because the advice I’d always heard before was to keep sending your stories to market after market until they sold, and never to rewrite except to editorial order. This is part of Heinlein’s Rules on Writing, which you can find, along with some excellent commentary, on Robert J. Sawyer’s website at http://www.sfwriter.com/ow05.htm. In fact, Rob even makes John’s point for me again, when he says in his comments on Rule Five: “If the rejection note contains advice you think is good, revise the story and send it out again. If not, then simply turn the story around: pop it in the mail, sending it to another market.”

Here I was, unsure of whether or not to rewrite the story, since the editor did not want it back. And what John Ordover taught me was to trust my own instincts, and to be true to my own vision of the story. Generally, editors aren’t trying to ruin the stories submitted to them by writers. If an editor requests revisions, it’s usually because that editor sees a way for the writer to improve the story and wants it back better. And if an editor rejects a story but with suggestions, it’s because the editor sees something in the writer, if not in the story itself, that the editor wants to encourage.

So as not to keep anyone in suspense, in the end I took the editor’s advice, rewrote the story, and sent it out again. And it sold to the very next editor who saw it. As for the editor who rejected it? I sold a later story to that editor as well.

John, thanks for the advice. It was well worth the $50.

Patricia Briggs
Patricia Briggs is a fantasy author with numerous books that include the Hurog duology (Dragon Bones and Dragon Blood), the Raven duology (the award-winning Raven’s Shadow and Raven’s Strike), and the Mercedes Thompson series.

Honestly, the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given, wasn’t exactly directed at me. A writer writes. It’s from the movie (which everyone, but especially writers, should see) Throw Mama from the Train. Write often, write a little or a lot. Write every day. Don’t expect great prose for the first draft. Great turns of phrase, characterization or descriptions usually happen when you least expect it — and very seldom when you plan on it. The best way to learn how to write (and how not to) is to write.

A second, very good piece came to me from Mark Ferrari (who was then a terrific artist beginning to write, and is now a terrific artist and writer). He advised writers not to sit down to “work”, because “work” comes from the wrong part of your brain. “Work” is for when you are editing. To write, you need to sit down and play. I use that a lot at SF Conventions.

The third piece –because, there always have to be three pieces, don’t you know — is read. I don’t think anyone ever gave me this advice. It just seemed intuitively obvious — but for some odd reason I have met a lot of people who want to be writers, who don’t read. I can’t imagine why you’d want to be a writer, if you don’t love to read. Okay. There are writers who don’t read a lot, and a very few of them are even good writers. But most of the successful writers I know read. A lot. Reading can give you a fine sense of pacing, cue you into why a scene might not be working right, and keeps you from unsuspectingly revisiting overdone plot lines — as well as a host of very useful other skills. Read outside your genre. Read good books. More importantly — read bad books. What makes a book work? What makes it not work? Why do you love your favorite book and didn’t make it through the one your friend recommended or Oprah loved? Every fantasy writer needs to read Terry Prachet (any and all) and probably Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel to learn all about fantasy clichés and realize that while they are powerful (and thus became clichés) they must be used with extreme caution.

Alan Dean Foster
Science fiction and fantasy author Alan Dean Foster began his prolific writing career when August Derleth bought a long Lovecraftian letter of Foster’s in 1968 and published it as a short story in Derleth’s bi-annual magazine The Arkham Collector. His first novel, 1972’s The Tar-Aiym Krang, began his long-running series of novels of the Humanx Commonwealth, many books of which feature the much-loved characters of Flinx and his mini-dragon Pip. He is also known for the Spellsinger fantasy series and a host of novelizations. His latest book is Quofum, which sets the stage for the final book featuring Pip and Flinx.

When discussing the mss. of my first book, The Tar-Aiym Krang (which he liked but could not buy because he was “bought up” on serials for the next two-three years), John W. Campbell admonished me that “no one sympathizes with superman”. Note the lower case. What Campbell was advising was to be careful never to make your hero/heroine too powerful or too omnipotent. Writing advice that J.K. Potter and Tolkien, among others, clearly and instinctively understood.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the author of the Retrieval Artist series. Her new novel, Duplicate Effort, the latest Retrieval Artist book, will appear in February from Roc. Her novel, Diving In The Wreck, based on the novellas “Diving into the Wreck” and “The Room of Lost Souls” will be published by Pyr later this year or early next year.

I don’t remember exactly how this was phrased, but it came from Frederik Pohl, Algis Budrys, Gene Wolfe, and Jack Williamson at the workshop in New Mexico where I met my husband Dean Wesley Smith.

They all said my fiction was competent enough, but I wouldn’t be good unless I took risks. And that meant going deep into the story, and not being afraid of the topics I brought up.

Boy, that sounds easy. It isn’t. I was hurt by the competent but not good phrase, and that spurred me almost more than the positive constructive advice at the end of that little paragraph.

Matt Hughes
Matt Hughes is a Canadian author of science-fantasy and crime fiction who now lives wherever his secondary career as a housesitter takes him. He has won the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada, and has been short-listed for the Aurora, Nebula and Derringer Awards. His novels and stories regularly make Locus Magazine‘s annual recommended reading list. His latest novels are Template and Hespira: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn.

I didn’t get it in person, in fact, I don’t even remember where I saw it, but the best writing advice I ever got came from Elmore Leonard. His ten rules for better writing. I put them on my hard drive where they remain to this day. Here they are, with some commentary.

1. Leave out the passages that readers love to skip. (Those would be the ones you worked hardest on).

Like Leonard, I’m pretty much of a minimalist when it comes to description. I believe devoutly in the reader’s power of confabulation — the in-born human ability to take a few details (picking the right details is the author’s job) and turn them into a complete picture. The more the reader puts in, I think, the greater the identification with the story.

2. Never open a book by describing the weather.

3. Never open a book with a prologue. They are usually boring.

These two go together. At the heart of every story is a conflict. The conflict has a starting point. That’s the thing to put on the first page of the manuscript. Start your story where the story starts. Setting and mood, the two things most often conveyed by weather reports and prologues, can come later.

4. Never describe the physical appearance of a character with details that the reader will soon forget.

I rarely describe what characters look like; it’s far more important to describe what they do. I’ve sold entire novels, and quite a few short stories, with virtually no description of the protagonists, and never had a complaint. One of those stories won me the Canadian equivalent of an Edgar.

Here’s my typical mode of character description: “Angie Tedesco comes out of the kitchen, a compact man with hands too big for comfort. The guy behind him, about the size of the Marine Building but made of harder stuff, has an aluminum softball bat. He’s rolling the wide rack of his shoulders to loosen them up.”

5. Use exclamation points sparingly.

I’m pretty sure I’ve never used one except in dialogue, and even then only when people are shouting.

6. Never use another verb instead of “said.”

I break this rarely. Sometimes I used “told” or “asked.” But to all you struggling writers who are worried that “said” becomes repetitious, relax; the reader’s eye passes over it, just as it passes over the punctuation.

7. Never use an adverb to modify “said.” The tone of the dialogue should be contained within the dialogue itself.

Indeed. Simple to say, hard to master. But Elmore Leonard’s dialogue is the best in the business. He knows whereof he speaks. Study him.

8. Never use a colon or semi-colon in dialogue.

Except if you’re working with that rare character who commands such erudition that he or she actually would speak in perfectly formed paragraphs. I never quibble about my character Henghis Hapthorn’s punctuation. He’s a much better judge of when to use a semi-colon than I am.

9. Don’t change your writing for the critics who know nothing about writing.

Yes. Write the way you write, the way the material and your own processes demand. Be who you are.

10. Tell the editor not to let the copy-editor mess with your punctuation.

But first read “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” by Lynn Trusse.

Walter Jon Williams
Walter Jon Williams is the author of over 25 novels (including the Hardwired series, the Dread Empire’s Fall series, Voice Of The Whirlwind, and Implied Spaces) and numerous short stories. He has won the Nebula award twice (for “Daddy’s World” “The Green Leopard Plague”) and has been moninated for the Hugo award for both his novels and his short fiction.

I learned to write in a kind of isolation. When I was trying to break in I knew other writers, but none of them were writing the sort of thing I wanted to write, so the utility of their advice was limited. I probably made every mistake except for bad manners. (Note to the beginner: calling the editor names is a -bad- thing.)

So my advice to the beginner is not to do any of this in isolation. Network as much as you can. There are workshops like Clarion that will introduce you to real editors and writers, there are conventions, there are online workshops that are free. You can try to form your own local workshop, though you will have to find people willing to give you honest, informed critiques. Publishers have web pages that will tell you what they want, and more importantly what they -don’t- want. The Science Fiction Writers of America have -tons- of free advice at their web site, sfwa.org.

The amount of information available to beginners now is scary, and you may have to pick and choose carefully. But at least you won’t be alone.

Liz Williams
Liz Williams is a British science fiction author who has been twice nominated for the Philip K. Dick award. She’s been published since 2001 and is probably best known for her Detective Inspector Chen series of novels.

The best writing advice I ever received was in reading the autobiography of Dylan Thomas’ sister in law, Nicolette Devas, who wrote that if you are continually making excuses for why you are not writing, you will never write.

James Patrick Kelly
James Patrick Kelly is the author of a slew of novels and short stories including Burn, Look Into the Sun, Strange But Not A Stranger, Think Like A Dinosaur And Other Stories, and The Wreck of the Godspeed. His numerous short works include the Hugo Award-winning “Think Like A Dinosaur” and “Ten to the Sixteenth to One”. He is also co-editor with John Kessel of three anthologies: Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, and the upcoming The Secret History of Science Fiction. He also writes a column for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

While not exactly advice per se, something that Damon Knight used to write on my manuscripts – and those of many other aspiring writers – has stuck with me to this day. He would scrawl who cares? in the margins. While on the face of it, this might seem like pure snark, I ascribed the best of intentions to my mentor whenever he inflicted this dreaded question on me. It was meant as a challenge to my assumption that the story I was telling was interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention. What stake did the major characters have in the outcome of the plot? What was the significance of that outcome in the world of the story? Could the characters act to influence that outcome? Or if the who cares was applied to a specific passage, I understood that I was being invited to justify it. Was the amount of story time I was devoting to a particular description or scene commensurate with its importance to the story.

Now Damon had read more than his share of broken stories, both as an editor and as an alpha workshopper, so his boredom threshold was perhaps lower than most. But he understood all too well the capacity of writers fall blindly in love with their own purple prose, their twisty plots, their needlessly quirky characters and obscure research and ideas never before explored in print (for good reason). Writers thus blinded by their own cleverness will never see their readers yawn, peek at their watches or turn to their computers to check their email. And I never interpreted his who cares? to mean that nobody in their right minds would ever give a damn, but rather that I hadn’t yet done the work necessary to make the thinking reader care. So maybe this particular bit of Damon’s wisdom might be summed up this way: Writers need to consider all the things they can do to lose their readers. Then maybe they shouldn’t do some of those things.

Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi has been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and is the winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Award for best sf short story of the year. Free sample stories from his collection Pump Six are available at http://windupstories.com/pumpsix/.

“Never pay for your meals.” – James Patrick Kelly

13 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Shrewd Writing Advice From Some of Science Fiction’s & Fantasy’s Best Writers”

  1. What a great Mind Meld.  So many interesting nuggets of information for the rest of us SF writers to assimilate and use.  Like Matt did with his ten rules, I think I might save this whole thing to my hard drive for future reference!

    Thanks SF Signal.

  2. Matt Hughs says thoughtfully what Elmore Leonard says brusquely:

    7. Never use an adverb to modify “said.” The tone of the dialogue should be contained within the dialogue itself.

    I must say energetically and vehemently that I will not obey this rule. Indeed, I have taken a vow (which I spoke zealously) to the Great God Finuka to break this rule as often as possibe, so that in every manuscript I send to editors, I will add additional adverbs to describe dialog. 

    • He said loudly, “Look out!”
    • He said softly, “Look out…”
    • He said ironically, “Yeah? Look out, there.”
    • He said calmly, “Look out there.”

    My point is that even if this advice were good, it does not apply to situations where the dialog by itself does not convey a tone of voice. That is why adverbs were invented.

  3. Matt Hughs:

    Just another comment on him, the dialogue in his Hapthorn books is some of the most hilarious ever. I love the stories, really the exchanges between characters, and can’t wait for the next.

    He could publish a 2000 page book on the character with little or no story and I’d buy it instantly.

     

     

  4. JCW:  it’s probably easier to follow Elmore Leonard’s advice if you happen to be Elmore Leonard, a distinction to which I cannot aspire.  He does right the best dialogue ever.

    TheAdlerian: Thank you.  The next one is Hespira, coming from Night Shade, at long last, in February.  Unless I have once again been misled into undue optimism.

     

  5. Thank you, John C. Wright, for tearing down Heinlein’s Rule #3.

    The best advice I ever received was from a friend of mine, an incredible guitarist named Chris Simmonds. When we were both teenagers, I was frozen because I’d have great scenes in my head but I had no idea of plot or beginning or ending and I couldn’t write a thing. Chris told me to write down what I had. Ridiculously obvious. Ridiculously liberating. Twenty years later, I still write like that, whether it’s a story, a business letter or an e-mail. I write down what I have, add to it when I have more, and stitch it all together at the end. It gets me past the problem of where to start. It gets me writing.

  6. Thanks to all of the authors participating in this question.    You’ve helped me to achieve another ten minutes of successful procrastination.  Yes!    

  7. What a great idea. It’s not that I haven’t heard a lot of this but it’s always good to have it reinforced. And the personal experiences really drive the points home– especially about the number of times to expect a rejection slip.

  8. “JCW:  it’s probably easier to follow Elmore Leonard’s advice if you happen to be Elmore Leonard, a distinction to which I cannot aspire.  He does right the best dialogue ever.”

    Matt Hughs: Good point. I think that only one person on Earth happens to be Elmore Leonard, or two, if we count his evil twin brother, Dark Elmore.

    My personal pet peeve with this particular form of advice is that I have often either misread what an author wrote because I assumed a tone of voice which the author did not actually describe — because he was avoiding the use of adverbs. It make the text less clear.

    We are not writing screenplays.

    I don’t understand this modern fetish against adverbs. As if you were told to avoid all puncutation marks: the words alone should describe where the pauses, parenthetical comments, and the rising tone of voice of questions and the sharp tone of voice of exclamations will fall! Mr. Leonard is uttering a humbug.

     

     

     

     

     

  9. Matt Hughes,

    It’s my pleasure.

    Believe it or not I identify with Henghis. I’m a psychotherapist and have the tendency to talk a bit like your character. Of course I know I lapse into this mode of speech and can find amusement in myself, so when I read your stories I laughed my head off.

    I’ve read thousands of books and, other than by Voltaire, a hero of mine, I’ve never been so tickled. I certainly hope as many come to enjoy your books as I have.

  10. To John Wright:  The point is that if you need the adverb, your dialogue is not portraying character or feeling on its own.  If your characters are behaving phycologically realistically (which is of paramount importance) then they are forcing themselves into the readers’ imaginations, because humans have power over other humans.  Whenever you use an adverb, you are being authorial.  This is true of any “ad-word”. 

    For example, “My leg is on fire,” he whispered.  Not, he said quietly, his voice nothing more than a rasp of breath.  Often if you need an ad-word, you haven’t found the right word.  That’s why you have to modify (or extend in any way) the one you’ve found. That process is tantamount to the author stepping in and holding up a queue card.

    Whenever you are authorial, you are suffocating your work.  As Gene Wolfe and Alfred Bester said, “The book is the boss.”  A good story comes alive, and it no longer belongs to the author.  It belongs to the characters.  I’ve never forgotten an Elmore Leonard character.

    Thank you everyone for the excellent advice.  This page is a novice writer’s gold mine.  I’ve not seen so many of my literary heroes lined up before anywhere, ever.

  11. John Wright is right about adverbs. Real people speak in words and sentences that have wildly different connotations depending upon the way in which they’re said. Wm. Luke Everest breaks one of Leonard’s rules (never use any dialog tag other than “said”)in order to prove another of Leonard’s rules. That’s cheating. But thanks for the clear and concise elucidation of both of your points!

    For more on this and other fiction-writing issues you might want to check out my blog, devoted entirely to the art of creating fiction, at: http://www.victoriamixon.com

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