10 March 2014 ~ 0 Comments

Interview: James Patrick Kelly

interview by Carl Slaughter

jim_kelly_thumbSuccessful science fiction author and prolific workshop instructor James Patrick Kelly talks about his passion for mentoring new writers.

(BTW: JPK is an avid user of the Submissions Grinder, a new feature here at Diabolical Plots.)

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT GOT YOU INTO WORKSHOPPING AND WHY HAVE YOU STAYED WITH IT?

James Patrick Kelly: I think the thing that spooks most beginning writers is the lack of input. Or maybe we should call it “on the job training.” We lock ourselves in a closet and try to build worlds out of the thin air. How do successful people do it? More important, how do we do it? Alas, reading craft books about writing is like reading books about how to make love.

Workshopping is a way to measure your progress toward getting it right. You find out immediately what very smart readers have gleaned from what you wrote. The flaws you spot in other writers’ work are often the very same flaws that will distract from yours. Oh, and if you think that eventually you might not need workshops because you’ve learned everything they have to teach †well, good luck to you. I still attend workshops and probably will until my fingers curl up and fall off.

I was going to adult education workshops in the Boston area when I first started sending stuff out. Then I went to Clarion. After Clarion I was so converted to the workshop method that I joined a workshop by mail. I would send a story out to the list and maybe six weeks later it would come back with comments. Later, I was thrilled to be asked to the final incarnation of Damon Knight’s Milford Workshop, then run by Ed Bryant. I went to the original Sycamore Hill workshop and many thereafter. I plan this year to go to Walter Jon William’s Rio Hondo workshop. Oh, and I’ve now taught at both Clarion and Clarion West , the Odyssey workshop, Viable Paradise, and the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA program. And I attend a bi-monthly local workshop, the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop.

Do I believe in the efficacy of workshops? Duh!

 

WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS WRITERS HAVE ABOUT HOW TO CRAFT A MARKETABLE STORY AND HOW DO YOU HELP THEM OVERCOME THOSE MISCONCEPTIONS?

The most common misconception is that of the editor as a fierce gatekeeper eager to turn away all newbies. The exact opposite is the case. Editors are in competition to discover new talent. Being the first to publish someone who goes on to have a long career is, and always has been, one of the badges of honor in the editorial community. I wrote a couple of columns that touched on this for Asimov’s: Part One and Part Two.

Where newbies go wrong, in general, is that they have failed to read their manuscript as an editor would. For example, they are not familiar with what the editor has already published and will send her something very much like the cover story of the March issue, or else they will merely file the serial numbers off the best seller that she published in 2012 and submit a generic rehash. All too often they will not read their manuscript with the care that an editor who is pondering a buy decision would. Are there typos? Are there obvious grammar mistakes? Does the first sentence/paragraph invite the reader into the story?

Having read slush, I will tell you that it is all too easy to make the decision to buy or reject having read just the first page of 80% of submissions.

 

WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON MANUSCRIPT MISTAKES WRITERS MAKE AND HOW DO YOU HELP THEM RECOGNIZE AND AVOID THOSE MISTAKES?

God, where to start? There are so many ways to go wrong, which is why this is a tough profession. Let me just give two:

Over/underpopulation. This depends on the length of the story, obviously, but if there is really only one character in your story, even if she is remembering other characters, then you probably suffer from underpopulation. Conversely, say you are writing a war story, or a family saga and you are going to mention eleven characters by name in a 5000 word story, then you are overburdening the reader and ought to consider culling the herd. Have you ever heard of the three character rule? A story should have three characters: two in some sort of relationship and one who disrupts that relationship.

Slow start, abrupt ending: If you can start with a line of dialogue, do. Nothing puts editors off faster than a writer who spends the first page clearing her throat with weather reports, lyrical nature writing or infodumps about backstory. Conversely, learn the difference between climax and denouement. Too many writers end the plot but fail to adequately end the story.

 

WHAT’S THE RIGHT WAY AND WRONG WAY TO MENTOR WRITERS?

You should really ask my students this. I tend to be blunt but supportive. I see writers who are at various stops on the road to success. Those near the start get more general (and gentle) comments. Those who are close but are clinging to some dysfunctional plot point or character interaction get more specific criticism.

I can be very persuasive when I get into my plot doctoring mode. It’s easy for me to say rewrite the ending, change the point of view or lose the grandma. But I try to remind my students that I am reading according to my own tastes and prejudices. There are many, many popular writers (and styles of writing) that I have no use for. And I don’t need anyone writing James Patrick Kelly stories , that’s my job. So I make the point that I’m not an editor, unless I am. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve urged my workshop colleagues and students to send stories to this editor or that, only to find out that they got rejected.

 

TIPS SPECIFICALLY FOR ASPIRING WRITERS?

Umm †Get into a workshop? Read the stories/novels bought by the editors you want to sell to? Send stuff out? Don’t give up?

And it’s never too soon to start thinking about your Hugo acceptance speech.

 

Carl_eagle

Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

 

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

 

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.

 

Leave a Reply