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7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Nancy Kress

Author Nancy Kress (TOMORROW’S KIN) shares seven things she’s learned in her forty years of writing—from the roles of editors and writing instructors, to the ups-and-downs of a writing career.

7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” (this installment written by Nancy Kress, author of TOMORROW’S KIN) is a recurring column where writers at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction, as well as how they got their literary agent—by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

My first story appeared in print in 1976. Forty years later, as my thirty-fourth book is about to appear, it sometimes feels as if I haven’t learned very much about this peculiar business of creating lives on paper and selling those non-existent lives to others. But when I sat down to write this blog, I discovered that I had learned a few things after all. Here are seven of them.

This guest post is by Nancy Kress . Kress is the author of thirty-three books, including twenty-six novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won science fiction’s highest awards: six Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Kress’s work has been translated into Swedish, Danish, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, Croatian, Chinese, Lithuanian, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, and Klingon, none of which she can read. In addition to writing, Kress often teaches at various venues around the country and abroad. TOMORROW’S KIN, released in July from Tor/St. Martin’s Press, is a science fiction novel of a pandemic, aliens who are not what they seem, genetic engineering, and a desperate race to avoid global war. 

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1. Editors may be demi-gods but they are not gods.

I’m calling them “demi-gods” because, like Zeus’s numerous off-spring, they hold power to affect writers. Editors can buy your novel or not, push it hard at editorial meetings or not, determine how much you get paid for your sweat, blood, and tears. But they are not omniscient. They make mistakes, rejecting manuscripts that go on to be bestsellers, buying those that tank. Your editor can be your champion, partner, even friend—but she does not determine the long arc of your career. Only you have that much power.

2. You have to be better at the start of your career than later on.

This seems completely counterintuitive. But after several books, you’ve established a name and a fan base. Those things result in an editor’s reading your manuscript with a built-in bias toward it. In the beginning, you lack that advantage. So if a story or novel is being rejected, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. It may just mean that you are being judged by a harsher standard than established writers. Happens all the time.

3. Writing is like having sex.

Some days you sit down at the keyboard, on fire, and fireworks ensue. Sometimes you are only mildly interested, but as the scene builds, it gets really exciting. Other times you start strong, but then interest fizzles. All this is normal. Tomorrow will almost certainly be different. Don’t divorce your story.

4. You have very little wordage to interest an editor.

Publishing houses and magazines alike get a lot of submissions. Reading through them can be a chore, and so editors decide quickly whether they wish to read on. You don’t have much time to create interest. So polish that opening, and then polish it some more, until it shines.

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5. Most writers’ career paths look like roller coasters.

Up for a while, with strong reader response and rising sales. Then something happens with the next book—it doesn’t work as well, or it does but the market has shifted, or your editor leaves or dies or becomes a minister instead (I know someone this happened to), or you’ve tried a different genre and your fans don’t follow you—and it doesn’t do as well. The roller coaster dips. This is normal. Even George R.R. Martin, author of the phenomenally successful A Song of Fire and Ice fantasy series, has said that after a previous book tanked, he thought his career was over. It wasn’t.

6. Writing teachers can only spot talent.

A good writing teacher can see from a student manuscript that the aspiring writer has a feel for language, a sense of the dramatic, an interesting character, or any of a dozen other tip-offs that talent is present. What he cannot tell is how much perseverance, resilience, and commitment the writer will have over time. I teach often, and some students I have pegged as future successes have never published anything, while others who did not stand out in class have gone on to build enviable careers. Which is why I never, ever answer the question, “Do you think I can make it as a writer?” The only honest answer is, “I don’t know.”

7. A pro makes sacrifices.

If you wanted to be a professional pianist, or basketball player, or clothes designer, you would expect to have to practice. Writing is no different. And since practice takes time and nobody gets more than twenty-four hours each day, usually something else, or several something elses, have to go. Decide what can’t be sacrificed (sleep, your kids, earning money to pay the rent) and what can. Then give up what is necessary to obtain that precious writing time. No, it’s not easy—but you can do it. I know you can.

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