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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Hugo/Nebula-Winning Author Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress‘ latest novel is Flash Point, a young adult science fiction story about a teen who takes a job on a virtual reality TV show that’s more than she bargained for. A former columnist for Writer’s Digest, Kress has been nominated for and won one Hugos and four Nebulas. She’s currently nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award and Nebula for her novella After The Fall, Before The Fall, During The Fall. Her novels include The Probability Trilogy and The Sleepers Saga, which includes Beggars In Spain based on her award winning novella. And she’s written writing books for Writer’s Digest and more. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Omni, Galaxy, amongst others, as well as several year’s best anthologies. Along with Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Mike Resnick, she’s headlining the colonist science fiction anthology, Beyond The Sun, coming in July from Fairwood Press. She lives in Seattle with her husband, fellow writer Jack Skillingstead, and a spoiled toy poodle, Cosette. She can be found online at, on Twitter as @NancyKress and Facebook.

SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?

Nancy Kress: At age fourteen, I had a boyfriend who played the piano. I was supposed to hang adoringly over it. I’m tone deaf. So instead I pulled books off his father’s shelves and found Clarke’s Childhood’s End. That hooked me on SF.

SFFwrtchtSFFWRTCHT: Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?

NK: I’ve always been inspired by Ursula LeGuin. I think she walks on water.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?

NK: I started writing at nearly age thirty. Pregnant, isolated, a toddler at home–I wrote stories to keep from going nuts.

SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn the craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?

NK: Trial and error. And I’m still learning — it’s a lifelong process.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with shorts stories or novels? How long before you made your first sale?

NK: I started with short stories. It took a year to make my first sale, and I’d sold three before I even knew fandom, SFWA, etc. existed.

SFFWRTCHT: You just released Flash Point and have a second book under option. Where’d the idea for Flash Point come from?

NK: I never know where my ideas come from. They always feel like gifts, and like most writers, I’m afraid that someday they’ll stop.

SFFWTCHT: Flash Point is about a girl who takes a reality TV job to provide for her grandma and sister and gets more than she bargained for. A near future science fiction tale, it’s set on Earth in a world where the economy has gone down the tubes and your protagonist, Amy Kent, has been raised by her grandma. How long did the novel take to write?

NK: The novel took about nine months to write. I usually do one novel and a bunch of short stories per year.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about Amy and her family.

NK: Amy is sixteen, adult in this near-future world. She tries to do the right thing–unlike wild sister Kaylie who steals and has issues.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you plot your stories out ahead of time or write “by the seat of your pants”?

NK: I write by the seat of my pants, with my heart in my mouth that it won’t work, and a bunch of other clichés.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look lik? Write `til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?

NK: I write mornings, always. If it doesn’t get written by noon, it doesn’t get written. For a novel, about 2,000 words a day.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or silence?

NK: My writing tool is coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. No music. I have low-rent musical taste–country and Broadway–and their stories interfere with my stories! Write on a fixed schedule–say, three definite times a week–so your unconscious gets used to cooperating then. Give up other things if you have to–the bowling league, the coffee klatsches, the TV.

SFFWRTCHT: Is there any difference to your approach in writing YA vs. adult? Different goals? Vocabulary?

NK: YA and adult novels are pretty much the same except that YA has a faster pace, which means less description.

SFFWRTCHT: Your career was launched with the success of Beggars In Spain, which won you a Hugo. You later converted it to a novel. It’s the story of a genemod a woman named Leisha Camden who’s sleepless and is stuck between two competing worlds. Where’d that idea come from?

NK: This one I know where it came from: envy. I invented the Sleepless because I need a lot of sleep and resent that.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you always envision a novel version or expand it later?

NK: I never envision novel versions of my shorter work until the work is done and I think “Oh, there is more to that story!”

SFFWRTCHT: How long after the “Beggars in Spain” novella was completed, did you make that decision to turn it into a full length novel?

NK: I expanded it about six months later because I felt the story wasn’t anywhere near done.

SFFWRTCHT: You said you don’t outline but when it comes to series like the Sleepless trilogy do you wing it or have some plan?

NK: The Beggars trilogy was “winging it” but the Probabilty trilogy, which involves more hard science, was not. That was planned.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a bit about the Probability trilogy. A star gate is discovered?

NK: The Probability series is space opera: wars with aliens, ancient artifacts, a solar system with political tensions, and weird science. To write it, I relied heavily on Brian Green’s Elegant Universe, and then I invented a fifth force to go with gravity, weak, strong and electromagnetism. Complete with its own messenger particle, etc. Much math.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you join a writers group when you first started writing? How did/do you get feedback on your works in progress?

NK: Over the decades, I’ve belonged to a couple of writer’s groups. An excellent way to try out stories on actual readers. Now I have my husband and best friend read manuscripts before they get into final shape.

SFFWRTCHT: Steal Across the Sky: Aliens appeared, built a base on the moon, put an ad on the internet to request 21 volunteers to Witness?

NK: The aliens in Steal Across The Sky are atoning for a crime against humanity 10,000 years ago. But they won’t tell us what it –instead they want to show it to a bunch of human volunteers. And they do. My editor said that Steal Across The Sky was the first of my books that made her cry. (She didn’t mean the sales numbers. I hope.)

SFFWRTCHT: Many Science Fiction writers have dabbled or tried fantasy but you are more resolutely SF. Why not fantasy?

NK: My first three novels were fantasy. Then I got interested in Science Fiction. I don’t know why. Nothing about my career has been planned.

SFFWRTCHT: Steal Across Sky has really interesting idea at its core! Where did that idea come from?

NK: The core idea of Steal is as old as mankind: Is there more after this world? An afterlife, for instance?

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your favorite form of writing?

NK: Novellas. If I had my druthers, I’d write nothing but novellas. Long enough to create a real world but short enough for one plot line. Most of my awards have been for novellas. But you can’t make a living that way.

SFFWRTCHT: You also were a columnist at Writer’s Digest and have written writing books and taught craft. Does that inform your writing?

NK: I teach writing often because I like it. I don’t know that it helps with my own writing (it takes time away) but I like it. I’m just back from a writing cruise, Sail For Success: four-days in the Bahamas with classes and shore excursions!

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any tips for getting past writer’s block?

NK: I don’t get writer’s block, but I know people who do. Best advice: Go back to the last place you were excited about the story and rewrite from there. Much writer’s block is just reluctance to keep going in a direction that isn’t working for the story.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

NK: The best advice was from Bruce Sterling, who criticized a story of mine as having implausible economy. “Follow the money,” he said. The worst advice I ever got was “Quit. You can’t make any money at writing.”

SFFWRTCHT: When you write, do you research as you go along or do lots of research before starting a story?

NK: I do the hard science research first because I’m not trained and must do that. The other research I do as I go along or later.

SFFWRTCHT: Have you done much collaborating? How do you approach that or does it depend on the collaborator?

NK: I have collaborated three times and none of them have been among my best stories (or theirs). I think I’m not really a team player.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve done writing, teaching, what about editing?

NK: I don’t think I’d be a good editor. I don’t like to reject people.

SFFWRTCHT: Does your approach to writing short stories vary from that to writing novels? Or is it similar?

NK: A short story is a sprint: intense, focused. I do them quickly. A novel is a slog, with interruptions to live my life.

SFFWRTCHT: How many plot lines make a novel?

NK: The number of plot lines depends on the book. If you’re me, about three. If you’re George Martin, about thirty.

SFFWRTCHT: What is your sense of the Science Fiction field’s changes and evolution over the course of your own career?

NK: When I started writing, science fiction was important and fantasy the little cousin. Now, the opposite is true. I know editors who won’t consider science fiction.

SFFWRTCHT: Has the environment for female writers in science fiction and fantasy changed over the years? How? Good or bad?

NK: I came into the field after the rush of women in the 70’s that opened up speculative fiction, so I haven’t noticed much change since then.

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

NK: Next week is putting out an anthology called RIP-OFF! Each writer took a classic first line from literature and wrote a brand new story to it. I chose “It was a dark and stormy night.” Fun to write!

SFFWRTCHT: Is there a dream project you’ve always wanted to do that hasn’t gotten off the ground?

NK: No. If a dream project occurred to me, I’d drop everything and write it! In a way, writing is not about “dream projects,” dreams being airy and insubstantial. The goal of stories is to make the airy solid.

About Bryan Thomas Schmidt (68 Articles)
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and Hugo-nominated editor of adult and children's speculative fiction. His debut novel, THE WORKER PRINCE received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club's Year's Best Science Fiction Releases. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. As book editor he is the main editor for Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta's WordFire Press where he has edited books by such luminaries as Alan Dean Foster, Tracy Hickman, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Jean Rabe and more. He was also the first editor on Andy Weir's bestseller THE MARTIAN. His anthologies as editor include SHATTERED SHIELDS with co-editor Jennifer Brozek and MISSION: TOMORROW, GALACTIC GAMES (forthcoming) and LITTLE GREEN MEN--ATTACK! (forthcoming) all for Baen, SPACE BATTLES: FULL THROTTLE SPACE TALES #6, BEYOND THE SUN and RAYGUN CHRONICLES: SPACE OPERA FOR A NEW AGE. He is also coediting anthologies with Larry Correia and Jonathan Maberry set in their New York Times Bestselling Monster Hunter and Joe Ledger universes. From December 2010 to June 2015, he hosted #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer's Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter as @SFFWRTCHT.
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