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Q&A With Nancy Kress

Read an exclusive Q&A with Nancy Kress, author of Elements of Fiction Writing: Beginnings, Middles, & Ends.

You’ve been writing for decades. Have you seen any shifts in the way novelists plot their stories in recent years? Have trend shifts affected plotting conventions?

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Plotting is a highly individual activity. If there are “trends” in plotting I am unaware of them, with one possible exception: Young Adult novels. The plots in YA have gotten edgier, more graphic, and darker in the last decade or so.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

Two messages: First, write more. Getting good at this takes practice, just as in all the arts. Second, dramatize your scenes, rather than relying on exposition. Readers want to see, hear, feel, smell the action of your story, even if that action is just two people having a quiet conversation.

What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?

Oh, there are so many! One would be closing your mind to feedback and criticism. Defensiveness interferes with growth as a writer.

Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?

Listen carefully, consider suggestions even more carefully, and if you disagree, present your disagreements without getting upset (not always easy). Also, be as patient as you can in waiting to hear from editors, who have very busy schedules. Not, however, infinitely patient; sometimes you have to remind them that you and your work still exist.

Do you have any advice for new writers on building an audience?

Only the timeless advice: Write fiction that people want to read. I don’t really think that the mall signings, postcards mailed to libraries, etc., have much effect on the overall numbers.

What should writers keep in mind regarding trends in publishing?

Electronic platforms—Kindle, iBook, etc.—are increasingly important. Hold on to those rights if you can. But no matter who gets the money, work to get your books onto those platforms.

What do you feel is the biggest accomplishment of your career?

I don’t think there is a single one. Some books have been more successful than others (notably Beggars in Spain), but as I write my books, I’m intensely involved in all of them. The process, not the results, have to be the reason a writer writes. Otherwise, creating a four-hundred-page novel is just too daunting a task.

You began writing somewhat by accident—as a hobby while caring for your small children at home. How did this beginning have an affect on how you developed as a writer and how your career developed?

I don’t think it had any particular effect—what matters is not how you begin, but how you go on.

Over the course of your career, which aspect of story have you struggled with most: beginnings, middles, or ends? Why?

Middles. The beginning usually comes to me clearly and all at once. By the time I reach the end, I know what will happen (if I don’t, the piece is in deep trouble) and I’m steamrollering along. But in the middle I’m sometimes uncertain what should happen next and am just trying to muddle through.

You’ve written while caring for your children and working full-time. You now write full time. What has each type of writing life taught you?

Full time is better. However, it does take more discipline. Nobody structures your time except you.

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

It was advice from science fiction writer Gene Wolfe, who said about short stories: “Have two different things going on in a story and then at the end have the two things impact each other.” I have done so ever since.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?

Coffee. Without coffee, nothing gets written. Period.

In what way has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

Again, electronic versions of my work have increased in importance. But the writing part (as opposed to marketing) is pretty much the same: I write the stories I get interested in.

Which part of the career is hardest for most writers: the beginning, middle, or later when they’re an established author? Which has been most challenging for you?

The beginning is the hardest emotionally, because everything one writes gets rejected. And rejected again. And yet again. Persistence is required. The rejection never goes away entirely, but when it’s balanced by some success, it’s easier to bear. Or maybe one just develops a tougher hide.

Which part of the career has been most fun and rewarding for you?

When a story is flying along, and I’m so into it that my “real” world goes away, it can feel magical. I cease to be, my desk and computer ceases to be, and I am my character in his world. Psychologists call this a “flow state,” and it’s better than publication, money, awards, fame.

What advice do you have for writers in each stage?

Persist. In all stages. Also, read a lot. It’s from reading and living that the creative well is replenished.

About the Book

For more tips on strong start-to-finish storytelling, check out Elements of Fiction Writing: Beginnings, Middles, & Ends by Nancy Kress.

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