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December 21st, 2008

Advice to Young Writers

Charles Tan has kindly given me permission to post what I like of the interview he did with me for the Nebula Award Site.

I'm not sure how much of the complete interview would be useful, but I wanted to put up this bit because (I realize on re-reading) it pretty much describes what I did when I was learning to write in high school and college. The writing courses I took were great on grammar and exposition and using specific examples and developing a coherent argument, but they weren't so good on writing stories. Mostly, I taught myself to write fiction, by imitation and experimentation and talking over stories with similarly circumstanced friends--most significantly nineweaving, with whom I had a weekly writing date in Harvard Square for years and years and years, and without whom I never would have written Through a Brazen Mirror or any of my early short stories.

Anyway, here's the money question:

Having taught in various workshops, what advice do you have for writers who are starting out?

Read, Write, and Live.

No, really. The best way to learn to write is to read consciously. Once you’ve devoured a story or a novel because you love it and want to know what happens next, read it again with a critical eye and figure out what made you love it. How are the scenes structured? What do you learn in each one? How did the author plant information about the world, the backstory, the characters? Compare beginnings. Compare endings. Look at how the sentences go together. Do this a lot. There will be a point where you find yourself doing it whether you want to or not, but that’s fine. You’ll get over it. And you’ll have learned a lot about the craft of writing.

Write a lot. Give yourself exercises. Write descriptions of people you see every day, trying to convey who they are and not just what they look like. Write short narratives that aren’t really stories. Write stuff from odd points of view: a doorknob, a dog, a kitchen spoon, a woman (if you’re a man), a man (if you’re a woman). Read your writing aloud—to yourself if you’re shy, to your pet if you have one, to your best friend if you trust them. It’ll train your ear and let you know when your prose is clunky and when it flows.

Live. Since you’ll probably have to get a day job, remember that work-place politics, however unpleasant, have a lot to teach you about group dynamics, not to mention dramatic tension. Travel whenever you can. I’m not talking Paris or Peru here (although that’s nice, too). I’m talking a part of town you haven’t visited before. Without a map, preferably. Talk to people on public transportation and listen to what they have to say. This is often easier if you pretend to be someone you’re not. Go see live theatre, even if it’s your little brother’s high school production of Oklahoma. Community theatre, even when bad, can teach you something about characters and pacing. Sit in a park or café or diner or public square and people watch. Take notes. Fiction, no matter where or when it’s set, is finally about human beings interacting in the face of fear, danger, boredom, grief, persecution, or an invasion of giant ants. Technology is grand, but it’s human beings, fallible, often weak, noble, base, interesting human beings, who invent and build it.

Then go read some more. Non-fiction, too. Biography, history, books about sushi and embroidery and biotechnology and the movie industry and what ever else catches your fancy. It’ll all come in handy sooner or later, and it’ll give you something to read on the plane or the bus while you’re traveling. If you’re not taking notes. Or starting a story.

Dredyls and Magic

I'm hopelessly behind, I know.

Mostly, I've been seeing The Klezmer Nutcracker. I adore being Support Staff, handing out programs, greeting those audience members we know (Friday night, that would be maybe 1/2 of them), running errands as necessary. I also love seeing plays multiple times. I have visions of being one of those old ladies one used to see ushering in theatres, wearing black dresses and sensible shoes and cackling from the back row.

Need I say that I lovelovelove The Klezmer Nutcracker? The first act is the most changed from earlier iterations: a squabbly family party to a comic T, all snotty siblings and fussy parents and the heroine wanting to go upstairs to read her book, but her mother won't let her. They SO don't get her, but I do, you betcha. I was her, many years ago.

Given the demographics (and general pre-literate age) of the audience (I don't believe a single child at any performance was over 7, and most were 3-5, with the occasional 2 year old freaking out at the demons), I'm not sure there was anybody other than the director, Ellen, rm (who came to the 11 o'clock on Friday), and me who identified with Sara. But at least they'd all seen a fantasy reader as Heroine and been encouraged to laugh at people who care too much about what other people think, and that's not a bad thing.

Ellen was wonderful, to my extremely critical eye (hey, it's part of my job description). Cape management, gestures, remembering not to hold the dreydel in front of her face, words, staying out of the dancers' way in the last scene, all perfect. It's not a heavy dramatic part, and mostly she's playing herself with the gravitas turned up a notch and the irreverence muted, but it works beautifully. And she gets more comfortable and playful with each new performance.

I'm off now to usher at the 11 o'clock. There are 3 performances today, but I'll just be doing the first and last. I have to spend the rest of the day in a cafe, finishing the revisions on my Uglies article. Because I really, really, really need to get this thing out of my house before the 25th.

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