I recently attended a writing workshop with Kim Stanley Robinson via the Locus Writers Workshop series. The workshop was in Oakland, California (where I live), near the Locus offices, and Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite authors. Signing up was a no-brainer.
Over the course of the day, Kim Stanley Robinson (who goes by Stan) was generous and helpful. His advice was insightful, and sometimes counterintuitive. And there was a lot of it; he’s written for decades and has no shortage of opinions on craft, the writing life, MFA programs, and reviewers. I took copious notes.
Five weeks after the workshop, with time to synthesize, some of that advice stood out. Here are some of the highlights:
- Pacing. This was Stan’s biggest focus, in terms of writing craft. He contrasted the breakneck, action-filled Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan plots to the glacial but equally gripping pace of Proust’s novels, which include numerous thoughts and impressions. He emphasized that a slower pace, that includes the internal perspectives of the characters, is something that cinema can’t do. He encouraged us to experiment with elastic pacing over the course of a story, speeding up over less interesting bits, and slowing down for pivotal moments.
- Prose vs. cinema. Adherence to the “show don’t tell” advice can lead some writers to take on an overly cinematic style, describing only what happens externally, and unnecessarily avoiding both character internality and useful summary/exposition. At the same time, experimenting with a strict “camera eye POV” can be a useful writing exercise.
- Plot. Stan suggested we try to maximize both drama and believability. When you have an idea, interrogate the idea – consider how would it really happen. Though not every story needs to be completely realistic – some stories are waking dreams. Never point out or draw attention to the thin ice (low believability). Skate fast over thin ice. (I was surprised by this point because Stan’s work is so obviously well-researched – but ultimately every science fiction writer needs to make some things up)
• With practice and perseverance, you can get published and have some kind of writing career. But there’s no way to force blockbuster success; there’s too much luck involved.
• It’s much better to have no agent than a bad agent. Don’t take on an agent that tries to edit your work. Be cautious and meet a potential agent in person before entering into a contractual agreement.
• On being a full-time writer (vs. having another job): Don’t do the crash and burn thing, don’t write or die. There’s no shame in the part time job. Life needs to be paid for. Don’t starve. He’s seen a lot of people jump off financial cliffs and just crash.
• Stan was writing a novel called Green Mars but was worried it would be too long; he was several hundred pages in, and the characters hadn’t yet arrived on Mars. Sharing that concern with his agent, his agent replied “Stan, we call that a trilogy.”
• On Iain Banks: In contrast to Stan’s messy, incomplete first drafts and laborious, multiple subsequent drafts, his friend Iain Banks had a different style. From January through September he would drive to various locations in Scotland and hike the hills, thinking about his next novel and taking a few notes. Then, from October 1st through the end of the year, he would sit down and write a nearly perfect first draft.
Things Stan Dislikes:
• MFA programs. Most writing programs teach three truisms that aren’t consistent — 1) write what you know, 2) find your voice, 3) show don’t tell. Stan’s take is instead to 1) write what you suspect, 2) find your narrator’s voice, and 3) use exposition sensibly.
• The New York literary establishment. Stan admitted he has a big chip on his shoulder in regards to how genre fiction is artificially segregated from literary fiction, and generally looked down upon by the NY literary scene.
• Fantasy. Stan isn’t a big fan of fantasy. To sum up his feelings, he quoted H.G. Wells: “Where anything can happen, nothing is interesting.” Some of us protested that most fantasy is not “anything goes,” but from his point of view, creating a system of rules for magic becomes pseudoscience, or the bureaucratization of magic.
• Read and write poetry, even if you’re bad at it. It exercises a different part of the writing brain (than prose).
• Keep a list of every book you read. When asked why, Stan said “I don’t know!” But on further reflection, he finds it to be a valuable practice for knowing where your head was at during a particular time, what influenced you.
• Don’t be a writing prima donna, demanding special conditions for your writing to occur. Fit your daily writing in, despite the daily pressures of life. Have a writing routine, but also be flexible and adaptable. Make it work.
There was much more than this. Someone else who attended the workshop might have an entirely different set of impressions. I should also point out that I may have gotten some things wrong, that what I remembered or wrote in my notes might not have been what Stan intended to convey. But I think I got the gist of most of it. And I found the workshop as a whole to be incredibly valuable and encouraging.
If you get a chance, I’d encourage authors to check out the Locus Writer’s Workshop series. The next one is December 9th, with Gail Carriger, on The Heroine’s Journey.
J.D. Moyer lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, daughter, and mystery-breed dog. He writes science fiction, produces electronic music in two groups (Jondi & Spesh and Momu), runs a record label (Loöq Records), blogs at jdmoyer.com, and tweets from @johndavidmoyer. His stories have appeared in F&SF, Strange Horizons, IGMS, and Compelling Science Fiction. His debut science fiction novel The Sky Woman was recently published on Flame Tree Press.
Want to take a writing class but don’t have the time or travel money? Check out the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which offers live and on-demand writing classes aimed at fantasy and science fiction writers.