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Fiction Q&A

From 10 tips to "simultaneous" solutions to the truth about writing-your-family consequences, Nancy Kress answers readers' questions.

Top 10 Tips
What are your top 10 writing tips for fiction writers?
—M.A., Rhode Island

Dear M.A.,
Every writer would answer this differently, so let me start with a caveat: These are the things I personally have found to work.

1. Write regularly, even if you must do it in small chunks of time. Often people think, "I can't accomplish much without three-hour blocks, and I only have a three-hour block once every two weeks." This will almost always guarantee failure. Fiction needs continuity, which means that when you return to a story in progress, you should be able to remember what's happening in it and why you were excited about writing it. Try to find at least a half-hour every day, if at all possible. Between sessions, think about what you want to write next, so you can jump right in.

2. Write the kind of fiction you love to read. If you read mysteries voraciously and seldom touch literary fiction, it's silly to try to write for The New Yorker. Take advantage of both your reading experience and your genuine passion.

3. Don't wait for inspiration to strike. The Muse is, alas, too capricious to rely on. If you wanted to play basketball, would you miss practice because you "didn't feel inspired"? Write no matter what your mood. Sometimes the act of writing creates inspiration; sometimes not. Some days writing sessions will go better than others. Those are simply facts of the writing life.

4. Be willing to rewrite. It's possible that what you wrote in a white-hot passion is perfect. More likely, it's not. Put it away for a while, and then look at it with as much detachment as you can muster. Then act on your detachment to fix whatever weaknesses you find.

Since You Asked:

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5. Be willing to listen to informed criticism with an open mind. This is even harder than listening to your detached self with an open mind. But often, informed critics (this doesn't mean just anybody) can spot weaknesses in your writing that you cannot. Avoid becoming defensive. Consider carefully whether they might be right.

6. Read a lot. This is crucial. I know established writers who don't read much fiction anymore, but I've never met a writer who didn't read voraciously before he began writing. If you don't love stories enough to read them, how will you write them?

7. Don't follow market trends; tell the stories that matter to you. Writing horror because horror is hot is self-defeating for two reasons. First, by the time your book is written and read by an editor, the market may have shifted. More important, the best you can hope to produce is an imitation of what's already been. Any writer's most important asset is her individual vision of people, events and their meaning. Work on developing that, and your writing will have a sincerity that imitation cannot match.

8. Set your opening in story time, not in flashback or background exposition. You have about three paragraphs to convince an editor he should keep reading your short story, three pages for your novel. Some readers decide after an even smaller sample. So start by making something interesting happen in the story itself, and save exposition, background and flashbacks for later on.

9. Try to become your characters as you write. Think like them, feel like them. This is the best way I know to create characters that are authentic and consistent. Many great writers have used it. (Gustave Flaubert said, "I am Emma Bovary.") All good writers are internal chameleons.

10. Don't be discouraged by rejection at your career's start. It's the norm. How long does it take to become a professional pianist? You, too, need time and testing to learn your art.

Same-time submissions
Is there really ever a circumstance where a manuscript should not be simultaneously submitted to multiple publishers? If your work is accepted for print by a publisher who had stated that it refuses simultaneous submissions, what's the harm? By the same token, if the same publisher rejects it, you are ahead of the game with other publishers. Or so it would seem.
—Thanks,
—Russ Wayne

Dear Russ,
Multiple submission is a no-no because if an editor decides to buy your story, he does not want to be told that it's unavailable because another editor beat him to it. The editor reasons that he's invested a lot of time in reading and considering your manuscript, and he's only willing to invest that time if he knows he can have it. It's possible that two editors will want the same story or novel, and they will confer with each other if one is told the property has already been sold (this happened to me 20 years ago, when I didn't know better). The result will be that both editors will be reluctant to read any of your future work.

Sequential submission means that a manuscript may take years to sell. Writers understandably resent this. The best course is to send out the manuscript, try to forget about it, and occupy your mind with writing the next one.

A sweetener: Once you're published, editors look at your subsequent short stories much faster. And for novels, the option clause in your contract usually obliges the publishing house to decide on your next book within 60 days.

Family consequences
I've written a historical novel based on the events around my grandmother immigrating to the United States. Some of these events might be considered embarrassing, shocking or just too personal by family members. What are the consequences if I succeed in getting my book published?
—J.H., Ohio

Dear J.H.,
It depends. Libel laws vary by state, but some general principles apply everywhere. Is your grandmother or the other major characters in your book still alive? In most states, you must be breathing to bring a libel suit. Is your grandmother a public figure? You have a lot more leeway writing about a public figure without "invasion of privacy" than in writing about a private citizen. Is what you're writing true? If it is, it's not libel (although it may still be "invasion of privacy"). Is it "malicious"? If not, it's not libel. Probably you are legally safe from unpleasant consequences if you publish your family history. Private consequences are another matter. Will your family be more pleased to be immortalized or more angry at being exposed? Only you know the answer to that, and how much it matters to you. I would say, "Go ahead." Good stories should be told.

Nancy Kress' most recent book, Probability Moon, was written regularly in small chunks even on days she didn't feel like it. Kress is also the author of Beginnings, Middles & Ends and Dynamic Characters.

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