N. K. Jemisin is a Brooklyn author who will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, N.H. Her short fiction and novels have been multiply nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, shortlisted for the Crawford and the Tiptree, and have won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her speculative works range from fantasy to science fiction to the undefinable; her themes include resistance to oppression, the inseverability of the liminal, and the coolness of Stuff Blowing Up.
She is a member of the Altered Fluid writing group, a graduate of the Viable Paradise writing workshop, and she has been an instructor for the Clarion workshops. In her spare time she is a biker, an adventurer, a gamer, and a counseling psychologist; she is also single-handedly responsible for saving the world from KING OZZYMANDIAS, her obnoxious ginger cat. Her essays, media reviews, and fiction excerpts are available at nkjemisin.com.
Her newest novel, The Fifth Season, came out in August, 2015.
From the time you started writing to the time you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece (defined here as short story)? What do you think you were doing wrong in your writing in those early days?
I sold my first short story probably 1-2 years after I seriously started trying to get published in that area. I got serious basically around the age of 30. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to go to Odyssey, but I did end up doing a one-week workshop, which was Viable Paradise, but after that I joined a writing group, and our writing group kind of made up the difference there. So that’s how I got a lot of experience and skill writing short stories–having the group tear them apart and then submitting them. The group got me in the habit of submitting stories, and submitting and submitting and submitting until submission was part of being a writer in my head—and rejections were also part of being a writer in my head. So I’d say it took a year to a year and a half, maybe.
As for what I was doing wrong, I simply had never practiced short story writing. Basically, since I was a child, I’d been writing novels–just because books were what I read, and books were what I liked. I honestly didn’t even read a lot of short stories. Going to the workshop was where I had my “come-to-Jesus” moment about the fact that short story writing can actually help you become a better novel writer. I’d felt like they were two completely different art forms. I thought, “I don’t want to cross the streams; I’m not sure it’s safe for me to learn how to write short stories”–and the people at the workshop were like, “What’s wrong with you?” So then I decided I needed to learn how to write short stories, because they are, in a lot of ways, functionally different [from long form stories]–I was right about that. I got a subscription to Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine; I started reading online magazines. Strange Horizons started up around that time, as well as a couple of others.
I spent a year literally just dedicating myself to reading short stories–getting the rhythm of them, understanding how they worked; understanding how to compress a story, because my brain kept generating novel-length ideas, and understanding how to pick a piece that would fit a short story. You just can’t make a short novel–that’s not how it works. But I also joined Critters. When you post on Critters, the way that it works is that people choose whether or not they want to read your story–in a lot of cases, based on the title and the first few sentences. So it’s a lot like submitting to a slush pile.
If you want a lot of good critiques, you learn how to title your story better and how to start off with a good hook. Critters is an old interface; it still has some clunkiness to it because it was designed back in the 1990s, but it is excellent for figuring out story writing. It’s textual, it’s simple and the process forces you to be diligent, forces you to get better at your hook and your opening, which are crucial pieces of short-story writing. A year of that, plus reading and so forth, helped me sell my first short story.
Why do you think your work began to sell?
Because I got better at doing the things that make a story immediately “grabby” (I have decided that’s a word). I got better at developing a hook, and I started applying that to novel writing as well as short story writing. So a book that I had written before—which was the book that eventually became The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms–I had written that ten years before it ever got published. I wrote it in grad school. (I was procrastinating on doing my thesis. It worked!) But I decided to rewrite that from scratch, using all the stuff I’d learned about short-story writing, and I think it made the opening of the novel much, much stronger than it had been. Because before I had meandered a bit in the hook-y bit, and after a couple of years of short story writing I was like, “No, no, no, this is way too slow,” and decided to get into it on page one. My writing group was excellent in helping me learn how to hone that. We would do things like all of us would spend a month or two trying to write better hooks, or we would throw hooks at each other and say, “Does this sound like it would grab you?” Any setting where you have a lot of writers helping you is where you can work on refining things like that.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
The biggest weakness I have is setting description. I’m not a visual person myself; I don’t like it when other people describe settings and the trappings of those settings too much. I don’t have any trouble mentally conjuring up what something looks like, and so it frustrates me when other people sort of assume I need that help and write up what it should look like, for that reason. So I find myself leaving that out because that’s what I like. The truth is not everybody likes it, and you’re not writing for yourself.
I am ultimately writing to please myself, but if I want other people to read [what I’m writing], I have to think about the fact that other people do not think the way that I think. So I have to push past my impatience and my frustration with that. I make myself describe [setting]. I notice I still don’t include description when I’m doing my zero draft, because when I’m doing my zero draft I’m churning out words. I’m writing what feels good, I’m immersed in the story, I’m telling it as I want to read it. But when I do revisions I watch for places where I am thinking like me, and not thinking like a reader. Then I try to describe the setting in which this story takes place–other people might need to know what that looks like! I’ve just kind of got better at watching for this thing that I know I don’t like to do.
Description and worldbuilding is one of the attractions of epic fantasy for a lot of readers, but I had to figure that out largely because I don’t read a lot of epic fantasy. I’ve read Tolkien and most of the big name authors, or at least tried them, but I have a lot of impatience with traditional epic fantasy as it exists in its bestselling form. That is probably why my writing is so different, because I don’t read a lot of it. I forget the fact that readers are trained to want a certain kind of writing in that genre, so there’s a degree to which I do have to adhere to the standards of the genre–and description is one of them.
Is your “zero draft” the first draft you write?
I think of my first draft as the readable draft–the zero draft is not necessarily readable. It might have chapters out of order because I suddenly realized halfway through that oh, crap, I have to do XYZ thing before I can do ABC thing; it might be missing chapter epigraphs or postscripts, or things like that. The zero draft is what I need to do to just get through [the story] to the end. The first draft is after I’ve done at least a basic revision, and it’s there for other people to read. It’s presentable. It still needs work, it probably still needs revision, but I don’t mind other people seeing it at that point.
Would you tell us how many stages your work goes through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time do you spend writing your first draft, and how much time spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?
With publication I do more than I personally would ever do–there’s the zero draft, which I write for myself; there’s the first draft, which I send off to an agent and editor, and there’s at least one revision I do after I’ve received my editorial notes–the editor will send me usually a five-to six-page letter saying “These are all the things you need to work on; here’s what’s good and here’s what’s bad.” And I will sometimes cry a little, then I will get to work. If I have time, in addition to the editorial notes, I will send the novel to my writing group and get their notes on it too. Then I will do another “overhaul-y” revision—that’s my second draft.
The second draft is where I incorporate all the things my writing group and the editor said. Sometimes my agent gives me notes too, if she’s got time. Then I send all of that off to my editor, who usually will ask for one or two minor changes at that point–I still consider that the second draft—and then that’s off to production. At that point, I start doing copyedits; that’s basically the third draft. Next there is the first-pass publication draft, which is really the fourth draft. Then I have to read it again just for anything missed. That’s still just the fourth draft—spot-checking for typos, and what-not.
When I was looking to become a published author, published authors warned me about this. They said, “Don’t write novels you don’t like, because you’re going to be seeing it 92,000 times. So if you don’t like it, sucks to be you!” Make sure you’re writing something you’ll enjoy rereading. And rereading. And rereading. That’s my advice to everybody. To a degree, you’re going to hate it by the time it’s done. Once the publication process is complete, I do tend to not look at my work again–at least not for a few years, maybe!
Here ends Part One of our interview with N.K. Jemisin. In Part Two, out next Sunday, N.K. Jemisin will talk about the influences on her writing, the importance of critiquing at workshops, and keeping to a specific writing schedule.