Words of Wisdom From the Greats

Pictured (closest to furthest): TR Napper, me, Kary English, Steve Pantazis, Zach Chapman, Daniel J Davis

Pictured (closest to furthest): TR Napper, me, Kary English, Steve Pantazis, Zach Chapman, Daniel J Davis

This past week I have been in LA at the Writers of the Future Workshop. I have heard from a dozen different luminaries in the fields of Scifi/Fantasy all about a wide range of topics. Each and every one of them provided deep and useful advice for furthering my career and the careers of my fellow winners. While I couldn’t possibly recap what I learned entirely, I can provide you with some highlights. Note that most of these statements are paraphrased from my notes, so they aren’t direct quotes. Enjoy!

Dave Farland

On concept:

Every idea for a science fiction or fantasy short story sounds stupid when you explain it to someone. Learn to embrace the stupid. The trick is how to make the stupid idea work.

On setting:

Setting comes first. A sense of transport is key. Character derives from setting, so describe it! Use all the senses! Stick in your POV!

On character:

There are two basic ways to make a character likeable: Put them in pain or show that they care about others. You can also make a character fascinating in addition to/instead of likeable. Fascinating characters have some kind of unique power and ability.

Tim Powers

On minor characters:

I ask myself three questions: when did this character last sleep, when did this character last eat (and what was it), and when did this character last change their clothes. That gives me a lot of information about that character that I can use.

On protagonists:

I think it’s interesting to determine what they are *really* good at but resolved never to do again.

On antagonists:

Your villain never thinks of himself as the bad guy.

On Agents

Getting an agent is like getting married: a good one is going to do wonderful things while a bad one can ruin your life.

Doug Beason

On Hard Scifi ideas:

If you want great story ideas, read phys.org.

On Being Authentic in Hard Scifi:

Get your story verified by a scientist. Stay away from new discoveries in narrow fields – they can change overnight. Limit yourself to 1 impossible idea per story, but you can have plenty of implausible ones.

The Best Way to do Hard Scifi:

Write by combining several fields/discoveries in interesting ways. This will dodge the pack of writers who are all writing about the thing in last month’s issue of Scientific American.

Tom Doherty (!)

On the Challenge modern publishers face:

The Challenge is discovery. The internet is great if you know what you’re looking for. However, with 4000 bookstores going out of business, getting somebody to make an impulse buy on a new book or author they’ve never heard of is much harder.

On what to write to get published:

Write from your heart. Don’t follow trends.

Mike Resnick

Slush pile complaints:

Learn to punctuate. Don’t underline (instead of italics, for instance). No thinly-veiled Star Wars/Star Trek.

On story sales:

Learn to sell internationally. Get an agent with a good foreign desk. Resell your work to reprints.

Robert J Sawyer

Scifi, defined:

Science Fiction is the genre of intriguing juxtapositions.

How do you distinguish yourself?

Try to be both socially relevant and entertaining.

Is it worth it to go to conventions?

The cost of entry into the writing profession is tiny compared to other professions. WorldCon is a networking event. This is a community industry and WorldCon is our annual party.

Orson Scott Card

On writer’s block:

Writer’s block is your unconscious mind telling you that what you just wrote is something you don’t believe in.

On where to start:

If you need a flashback to tell a story, you probably started it in the wrong place.

On character motivations:

No character ever has just one motivation. You need to assign motive or your audience will do it for you.

Nancy Kress

How to think of a story’s structure:

Think in terms of scenes. Have two things going on at the same time; have them come together and solve each other by the end.

On world building:

Start with economics – who has the money? Who has the power? What is a crime in this society? Make it consistent with available technology.

On the payoff:

   Some writers seem to think that leaving the story open and letting the audience decide what happens is a good idea. The thing is, the audience doesn’t want to do that.

Kevin J Anderson and Rebecca Moesta

On Professionalism:

 Be friendly and nice. Don’t engage in politics. Don’t review fellow writers. Don’t whine.

On Editors Guidelines:

  Meet your deadlines. Write according to the guidelines. Obey the word count limits.

On Selling yourself:

Publicity is cheap, advertising is expensive. Get interviews, make connections. Don’t pay for ads.

Eric Flint

On breaking in:

Expect frustration for several years. Editors tend towards established authors for financial reasons. Persevere.

The Deadly Trap:

“You must promote your work.” All promotion costs money or time. Often both. The more you promote, the less you write. Be wary. Write more books.

Short Stories or Novels?

Know your own personality. If you feel more comfortable writing short fiction, write short fiction. If you feel more comfortable writing novels, write novels.

Liza Groen Trombi

On Writing Groups

Find the group where you will be the worst author in the group.

On Self-publishing

Remember: if you self-publish on Amazon, Amazon is your publisher. You will pretty much never be able to renegotiate terms with them, either. Be aware of this.

How to get Reviewed

Send hard-copies to editors 3 months in advance. Don’t bother with book trailers – they are passé.


Well, that’s much of it – though not anywhere near everything. I don’t think I’d be able to relate everything that I learned. I can say this, though: this workshop changes how you think of yourself as a professional, exposes you to the challenges of the marketplace with unflinching honesty, and lets you learn from the best of the best. It has been the most profound professional experience of my life, and I am deeply grateful for it.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on April 13, 2015, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts, Fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Congratulations again, Auston! Looks like it was a neat experience! I liked the part about minor characters – I’ll have to remember that one. The bit about self-publishing is wrong, though. Amazon isn’t the publisher if you self-publish, they’re just a retailer. They are also a publisher (just like B&N) so it’s always possible to sign a traditional contract with them, it’s just not required. No big deal, but just thought I’d point it out.

  2. “Find the group where you will be the worst author in the group.”

    I love this!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: