Q&A Excerpt: Nancy Kress

Photo by Mary Grace Long

Award-winning author Nancy Kress is a 2023 guest lecturer for the Your Personal Odyssey Writing Workshop.

Nancy is the author of thirty-five books, including twenty-eight novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won six Nebulas (for “Beggars in Spain,” “The Flowers of Aulit Prison,” “Out of All Them Bright Stars,” “Fountain of Age,” “The Erdmann Nexus,” and “Yesterday’s Kin”); two Hugos (for “Beggars in Spain” and “The Erdmann Nexus”); a Sturgeon (for “The Flowers of Aulit Prison”); and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for Probability Space). In 2015, Subterranean Press released a 200,000-word volume of The Best of Nancy Kress with a gorgeous Tom Canty cover. Her most recent work is Observer, a novel about the nature of consciousness, reality, and love, co-written with eminent genetics scientist Dr. Robert Lanza.

Nancy is also the author of over a hundred short stories. Her work has been translated into Swedish, Danish, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, Croatian, Chinese, Lithuanian, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, Hungarian, and Klingon, none of which she can read. 

Much—though not all—of her later work concerns genetic engineering. She has contributed stories on this topic to an anthology based on Microsoft’s Advanced Research division and to one created by the magazine ECONOMIST to showcase tech developments in the year 2050, among others. She is on the board of SF Advisors to the X-Prize.

In addition to writing, Nancy often teaches at various venues around the country and abroad; in 2008 she was the Picador visiting lecturer at the University of Leipzig. In January, 2017, she taught a week-long writing workshop in Beijing. Every summer, she and Walter Jon Williams co-teach a two-week intensive SF-writing course in New Mexico, Taos Toolbox.

Nancy lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and Pippin, a very indulged long-haired Chihuahua.

In this excerpt transcribed from a question and answer session, Nancy talks about the importance of persistence, being open to feedback, and character motivation.

QUESTION: What do you think is the most important advice that you can give to developing writers?

NK: A couple of things, if I can have more than one piece of advice.

First of all, and this is gonna sound incredibly simplistic, but it’s true: you have to do it. You have to do it a lot. You have to do it preferably on some sort of a schedule, at least as much as your life permits.

There’s what Damon Knight called the little man in the unconscious, or the little woman. That is, we’re used to habits. You probably don’t have to give a lot of thought to when you’re taking a shower, brushing your teeth, to what you’re gonna do, because that’s the sequence. That’s what you do. And when you start launching the sequence, your body just goes into it.

Your mind, if you write at roughly the same time—and I don’t mean it has to be every day. It can be. But maybe what you have is: you can write early in the morning, and Monday and Wednesday, and you get Saturday afternoon. If you can do that, your unconscious will begin to prepare itself to produce words at those times.

It’s even better if you can work with your biological rhythms. I’m a morning person. I’ve always been a morning person. Even when I was a teenager and we would have slumber parties, I would miss all the good stuff, like the midnight calls to cute boys, because I’d already be asleep. If you are a morning person naturally, then try to write in the morning. I had two kids and a job. I got up at 5, and I wrote before I had to get the kids up to go to school. This meant I was going to bed at 9 every night, and it means that I was, and still am, a dud at parties. But that’s what works best for me.

There are other people that are night owls, and they should try to arrange their lives to try to write in whatever their most productive time is. I know that if you’ve got jobs and families that can be difficult. Negotiate with your partner. Try to get at least a couple of big blocks a week and do it. You have to make sacrifices. I have a friend who is very talented and hardly ever writes because she’s doing so many other things. She could, I think, be a selling writer if she puts her mind to it, but everything else comes first, and so she doesn’t do it.

Do it. That’s my major thing.

The second thing is: be open to feedback. I will occasionally get a student who belongs to the Touch One Comma of My Opus and You Die School of Writing. A critique group or class or beta readers are tricky. Not everybody will understand what you’re trying to do. … If you’re trying to do commercial fiction, there are gonna be people who say, “Well, it’s too simplistic.” If you’re trying to do literary fiction, there are going to be people who say, “You know, it’s really—it doesn’t move fast enough.” You’re never gonna get everybody.

I’m a hard SF writer, and one of the problems hard SF writers have is how much science do you put in and where do you put it. If you don’t put in enough, it isn’t convincing as hard SF. If you put in too much, you lose a whole bunch of people who are bored by listening to quantum mechanics.

It’s difficult. You’re never gonna get everybody. No matter who you get, what you do, you’re gonna displease some people. But try to be open to those people in your critique group or your class or your beta readers who seem to have a feel for the kind of fiction you’re trying to write and listen to their suggestions. That doesn’t mean you have to take them all, and you shouldn’t, but have an open enough mind so that you can improve.

And that’s also true if an editor takes the time to give you some feedback. Pay attention to it. And maybe it’s the wrong editor. Editors make mistakes. God knows editors make mistakes. The Harry Potter books were turned down twelve times, and I’ll bet those twelve editors are really kicking themselves now, but people make mistakes. But if you get a consensus, if you’re in a class and ten people around the table all say, “You know, the ending just didn’t feel right. It didn’t resolve. I didn’t get it. It wasn’t good enough.” Don’t think, “All right, well, ten people just lack the sensitivity to appreciate my ending.” No, think about it. If you get ten people saying that, think about it. Maybe it is too subtle. Maybe it isn’t resolving the things that you set up. Maybe you have missed something important. So have an open mind about criticism and keep doing it. Keep doing it.

I have a 132 rejection slips, most of them, but not all, from the early years. I still get rejected. I have a novel right now that is getting rejected. …

I used to think when I started writing that either you’re in or you’re out. Once you started selling steadily, you were in … and your career would just be a steady uprise trajectory. It’s not. … George R. R. Martin came to speak to our Taos [Toolbox] class a few years ago, and he’s very generous about sharing his own story, and he said that after Armageddon Rag, his SF novel, tanked, he was seriously considering applying for a real estate license and not writing anymore. But he thought he’d give it one more try, and he wrote what he thought was a pretty generic fantasy, which turned out to be the first book of Game of Thrones.

It isn’t that you’re either in or you’re out. Even when you’re in, you can be out. But what that means is even when you’re temporarily out, you can be back in if you keep doing it. You have to want it. It’s not an easy life. … I’ve been a full-time writer since 1990. It’s financially insecure. It has a lot of heartbreak.

The late Gardner Dozois–a wonderful, wonderful editor–once said that writing is like enduring sharp kicks to the teeth, and in a way that’s right because the rejections are hard to take. You put your soul into something. Barry Malzberg, a good friend, told me decades ago, sooner or later publishing is gonna break your heart. And sooner or later, it did. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t pick up your heart, stick the pieces back together with super glue, and keep on going.

QUESTION: My question has to do with … the importance of character motivation or goals within each scene. How specific do they have to be? How explicit do they have to be? Do they always have to be there?

NK: Motivation is really critical, and the more passionately your protagonist wants something, the more powerful your book will be. And it’s your job to convince us they want this, show us how passionately they want it, and let us know what it is that they want. A surprising number of people assume that this is obvious, but it’s not. However, it shouldn’t have to be in every scene because once you’ve set it up strongly enough, we know that this is what you want.

It might change over the course of it. Again I’m gonna use a movie rather than a book because, in my experience, more people are familiar with the same movies than the same books. Look at Star Wars. In the beginning, Luke mostly wants to get the hell off Tatooine. He’s bored out of his mind, and very soon he encounters R2-D2 and Princess Leia. Then his goal, what he wants, is to find Obi-Wan Kenobi. Okay, then he finds Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he gets filled in on the situation with the Empire and the rebels and the Jedi Knights. And what he wants then, passionately, is to become a Jedi Knight and to join in the rebellion to smash the Empire. That doesn’t have to be restated in every scene. It’s implied. It’s there.

Occasionally a scene will have a more limited goal. For instance, when they’re in the trash compactor, their goal, which is pretty obvious, is to survive getting out of the trash compactor without getting squished. I mean, there are some things you don’t have to state. It’s obvious.

But if you have an overriding goal for your character, and we see that he passionately wants this, and we know why—and that’s important, that we know why—then motivation will make a lot of other things fall into place in your fiction. But it’s key. It’s absolutely critical. …

Your secondary characters should want stuff too. Also, your villain should want something, and it should be a reasonable reason for wanting it. It’s not just that he’s a sadist. There has to be a reason he wants it. Hitler had his reasons. They were cruel, stupid reasons, but they were reasons, and they sprang from his beliefs, and that has to be true of your villains too. You have to have them have beliefs and have reasons for what they’re doing that make sense to them, if to nobody else. And let us know what they are. Villains who don’t seem to want anything other than to cause trouble are not as convincing as villains who need revenge, or have a maniacal desire to take over the world, or who feel that Germany was badly treated after World War I—which it was—and they want to restore it to its former glory, or whatever their reasoning is.

NOTE: This transcript has been edited for clarity.


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