Wednesday, April 10, 2013

10 Nancy Kress on How To Get Out of the Slush Pile

by Nancy Kress

Like most writers, the beginning of my career featured an impressive pile of rejection slips. They seemed unending, like snow in January (I lived in Buffalo, NY; those blizzard-scene commercials for snow tires were all filmed in my driveway). Nothing I tried got me out of the slush pile.

Until something did.

It sounds simple, but what moved my stories from slush pile to sales was this: I learned to write in scenes. Previously, I had been letting my stories just pour out of me as I visualized them. Often the hero or heroine seemed to be simultaneously telling his story, acting in it, and reacting to it all at once, in whatever order sentences occurred to me. I was planning the arc of my overall tale, but I was not planning the shapes of individual scenes.

The scene is the building block of commercial fiction (it may or may not be of literary fiction, which has its own requirements). A good scene is almost a mini-story in itself, with its own purpose, shape, and ending. Here is what I learned about writing scenes that finally made my stories salable:

• A scene must have a definite purpose, which is to advance the plot, deepen characterization, or—preferably—both at once. Before you write a scene, you should know what it is supposed to accomplish, and how.

• The shape of an effective scene is this: First, it orients us in time and place (How much time has passed since the last scene? Are we in the kitchen or outside on the patio? What does it look like?) The scene introduces a question we want answered (What will the heroine decide to do now? How does this new piece of information change things?) Finally, it finishes on some sort of slightly rising note: another question or a heightened emotion or a new complication or a change of situation—something to keep us reading into the next scene.

• Every scene should contain some tension. This might be tension between characters, within a character, or inherent in a situation (a bank robbery or kidnapping, for instance, is automatically tense.)

• Dialogue is the heart of most scenes. Yes, sometimes you will write a scene of a person alone, and sometimes your characters will interact in other ways (fighting, kissing, hiding from each other, hiding the evidence, hiding their true feelings). Mostly, however, they will be talking. Think about this: when you, as a reader rather than writer, skim a sort-of-but-not-very-interesting book, what do you usually not skip? The dialogue. Build your scenes around good dialogue and they are naturally more interesting and vivid.

As time went on, I began to write novels, and then writing in scenes became even more important. FLASH POINT, my YA novel from Viking (2012), was laid out in scenes as I wrote it, pretty much according to the above guidelines. The opening scene, for instance, began with two paragraphs that show Amy, the protagonist, already tense at an interview:

“All the other girls were better dressed and prettier than she was.

“Was dress going to matter? Was prettiness? Of course it was—it always did. But how much, here and now? What were the interviewers looking for, anyway?”

Paragraph three establishes the setting, “A bare, ugly concrete room in a warehouse close to the waterfront,” making us wonder what kind of interview would be conducted, with hundreds of teen-age girls, in such a setting.

By paragraph four, Amy is talking to another of the interviewees, Violet, who will become an important character in the novel. Violet is funny, self-assured, and kind, both a competitor with Amy and an eventual friend. Their conversation helps readers understand both girls.

Finally, the end of the scene leads us to the next one by having Amy proceed through a door to the room where the actual, still mysterious interview will be conducted. The last two sentences raise the stakes as we learn why Amy is so desperate to get this job: her grandmother is dying. If I as writer have done my job correctly, readers will now keep turning pages, eager to know what the job is, whether Amy will get it, and how it will change things for her.

Sometimes, of course, a scene will differ from this general plan. A character is by herself, thinking over her situation, and there will be no dialogue. Sometimes a scene is a “bright spot” in the novel, in which a character thinks she has triumphed (she is mistaken because we still have 200 pages to go), and joy will replace tension. Sometimes it’s already clear where and when the action is taking place, and you don’t need to establish the time or describe the setting. In general, however, this is how successful scenes look. And you must always know why you are writing this particular scene, its function in your novel as a whole.

As with all advice from all authors, mine is neither a hard-and-fast rule nor useful for every aspiring writer. Different ideas about writing “spark” different people’s imagination. But this is what has worked for me through twenty-five novels—and I hope it is also of use to you.

About the Author

Nancy Kress is the author of 26 books: sixteen science fiction novels, three fantasy novels, four short story collections, and three books on writing. She writes often about genetic engineering, as in her most widely known novel, BEGGARS IN SPAIN. Nancy’s most recent book is STEAL ACROSS THE SKY (Tor, 2009), an SF novel about a crime committed by aliens against humanity 10,000 years ago – for which they would now like to atone. Published last year were NANO COMES TO CLIFFORD FALLS AND OTHER STORIES, a collection from Golden Gryphon, and DOGS, a terrifying bio-thriller from Tachyon Press.

Nancy’s fiction has won four Nebula Awards, for “Out of All Them Bright Stars,” “The Flowers of Aulit Prison,” “Beggars in Spain,” and “Fountain of Age.” “Beggars in Spain” also won a Hugo. Nancy won her second Hugo in 2009, for the novella "The Erdmann Nexus." In addition, “Flowers of Aulit Prison” garnered a Sturgeon, and the novel PROBABILITY SPACE won the 2003 John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Nancy’s fiction has been translated into nearly two dozen languages (including Klingon).

In addition to writing, Nancy frequently teaches at various venues: Clarion, writing festivals around the country, the arts center Writers & Books in Rochester, NY, and – most recently – as the Picador Guest Professor at the University of Leipzig in Germany. Nancy Kress lives in Seattle.

Nancy's Website
Nancy's Blog
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About the Book

Reality TV meets a chillingly realistic version of America—and the fame game is on!

Amy had dreams of going to college, until the Collapse destroyed the economy and her future. Now she is desperate for any job that will help support her terminally ill grandmother and rebellious younger sister. When she finds herself in the running for a slot on a new reality TV show, she signs on the dotted line, despite her misgivings. And she’s right to have them. TLN’s Who Knows People, Baby—You? has an irresistible premise: correctly predict what the teenage cast will do in a crisis and win millions. But the network has pulled strings to make it work, using everything from 24/7 hidden cameras to life-threatening technology to flat-out rigging. Worse, every time the ratings slip, TLN ups the ante. Soon Amy is fighting for her life—on and off camera.

Buy Flash Point on Amazon
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  1. This was great I have often herd that a chapter should be thought of as a short story. This was another way to look at that theme. Plus always nice to hear from someone who made it to the other side. :0

  2. Thanks for this. I too feel scenes are the building blocks of a story, though I sometimes think I take it too far and need to summarize more often. This guidance will help me decide when a scene is really extra and therefore when to skip it in favor of a quick summary of what happened there. Thanks!

  3. Great information. Since I feel more comfortable writing short stories, I've use this technique to squeeze the book out of me. I tell myself, you can write a short story now just think of the scenes as a short and write, girl.

  4. Thanks for the great advice. I have a few scenes that aren't really doing much for my story and I'm going to look at them in light of what Nancy says a scene needs to do.

  5. I used to make that mistake too, until I started studying craft books and I had a light-bulb moment. Thanks for the great post, Nancy.

  6. I have been reading Nancy's advice in writer's Digest for years. Always worthwhile.

  7. Love this advice! Author Jody Hedlund gave the same advice, and I swear, it made a huge difference for me. Thanks! And Flash Point sounds awesome.

  8. I totally agree with you that scenes are the key trick: they're visual and fast-paced, everything you need for a best seller! Well done, very clear and useful, thanks for sharing.

  9. I had a similar experience when I wrote a screenplay first and then tried crafting a novel from the script.

  10. My husband and I just had a conversation today about how to revise scenes. He made the astute observation that every scene almost needs to read like a short story.


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