On this panel were Gene Wolfe (multi-published award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy), Allen Steele (multi-published award-winning science fiction author), John Krewson (writer for The Onion and short story author), Jim Frenkel (editor at Tor, missing from picture), and Mark Tiedemann (multi-published short story writer and novelist). Combined and individually these men have impressive resumes and are more than qualified to speak on the topic of this hour.
(notes compiled by Jenna Reynolds)
Wolfe started the panel by explaining what he needs to know when starting a story. He needs to know the beginning and the end. He doesn’t need to know the middle. The middle is usually the hardest part of the story. He added that you should start the story at the worst possible time (in the story) and when it’s the worst possible time for you to write the story, i.e. have a headache, etc., because if you can write a story then, you can write a story anytime.
To get started Krewson needs to know what the story is about. Not necessarily what the plot is about.
For Steele a narrative hook is the actual beginning of the story. To him the biggest sin in a story is that the story doesn’t really start until page 5 or 6. The writer is just describing a character or a setting. He says a hallmark of a good story is a good opening line that sucks the eyeballs out of your face and that Harlan Ellison (GOH of MadCon 2010) is the master of the narrative hook. Steele said he learned from reading Ellison how to begin a story, but that Lester Dent, a pulp fiction writer, (wrote the Doc Savage novels of the 1930s), also had the amazing ability of the narrative hook.
Someone (believe it was Steele) also talked about an editor, Damon Knight at Clarion, who had a blue line which he used to indicate the point in the story where the editor would stop reading. Most of these places were on the first page. There is usually too much inconsequential stuff at the beginning of the story because writers have a subconscious desire to put in a lot of stuff that’s not needed in the story. They want to tell everything around the story.
For Steel the first draft you are telling the story to yourself. Subsequent drafts you are telling the story to the reader.
Wolfe added that writers have to be flexible enough to change the ending. You don’t have to throw out the original ending. You can keep the original ending and write whatever happens after that. Have a double whammy at the end. Have a hook at the beginning and a bomb at the end.
Frenkel said there is no one way to write a story. Some writers need to know the ending, and others can’t write if they know the ending. Some writers need to discover the story as they write and some don’t. Some writers get an image or a line or a situation that occurs to them and that gives them an idea for something and they let that take them where ever it goes. Sometimes a rejected ending can be an ending for another story. It can be right for another story.
Steele expanded on this by explaining that he wrote novellas that were intended to be novels. He has had ideas that didn’t work out well in novel form but he still liked the idea. In these cases he cut out a lot of stuff that didn’t work. Labyrinth of Night became a novel. Where Angels Fear to Tread was also supposed to be a novel. He knocked off the first part of the story where the characters were getting on the Hindenburg because he realized it was two separate stories.
Wolfe shared a Kipling story about a storyteller who kills another storyteller for doing it wrong. The point of story was that you can tell a story in any number of ways. Whatever way works for you is the way to do it. If you’re selling everything you write and editors are asking for your stories, keep doing whatever you’re doing. All the information or advice about writing is for when you’re not selling anything.
Tiedemann added that if someone is giving you money for it, then you’re doing it right. If you’re not selling it, you need help. But don’t take what you hear as gospel.
Tiedemann also had a comment on the well-worn advice that writers should write what they know. He asked how can SF writers write what they know when they write about things that don’t exist?
Steele had a bit of a different take on this. He said the operative word is missing….that you should write what you know ABOUT. What you’re interested in, what you want to know or learn about.
Krewson added that he would like to write about more than things than he knows. Most important part is to figure out what part of the story you’re telling yourself and what part you’re telling others. Take out the part you’re telling yourself.
John Lutz (Single White Female movie) once told Steele that he writes the end of his novel first. Then he puts it aside and works his way through to the end. He generally plots out the beginning, middle and the end. The ending is usually not the way he anticipated. It’s usually different.
Frenkel’s advice on the whole write what you know thing is to write about something you’re passionate. You have to remember the reader. Writers should not be having more fun than the reader is. If you’re writing to get paid, you have to be like a well-behaved 5 year old. You have to share. You have to include the reader. You have to be inclusive. Make sure you make it accessible and satisfying for the reader. More important than being satisfying for the writer. You want to have fun when you’re writing, but make sure the reader is having at least as much fun as you’re having. Some stuff is hard, getting readers in and out of rooms, transition, that sort of thing.
Tiedemann said write what you know about the human heart. The rest is research. You should know what it’s like to fall in love, to hate someone, etc. The reader must be confident you know what you’re talking about. A short story is about one moment of emotional completion. That is a good place to start. Will have one emotional arc in a short story from the beginning to the end. What the character is going to feel and convey to you. Takes a lot to focus on what is important in the given scene.
At this point an audience member asked if stories should all have twist endings.
Steele answered that twist endings usually work best with short stories (O’Henry is an example.). Be absolutely sure your twist ending is going to work then do it. Otherwise avoid them.
Frenkel added that the inevitability of an ending of a story is not necessarily a twist.
Frenkel also said that if in regards to your writing if you’re torn between the angel and devil on your shoulder ignore them and finish it. You have to force yourself to finish no matter how good or bad the story is. You can not be a writer if you don’t finish the story.
(Here’s another panel report from MadCon, Worldbuilding 101)