Fashionably Late to the Party: Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress, best known for her novel Beggars in Spain, recently released her latest novel, Stealing Across the Sky from Tor Books. Those are just two of her 26 novels and you can find her short fiction in seemingly dozens of anthologies and print publications. From the looks of her bibliography, she must have her own parking space as Asimov’s.

You can learn more about Nancy at her official blog,

Nancy, thank you for taking the time to sit with us today. Let’s get started.

Anthony Sullivan: What is your opinion on revisions, re-writes, etc? Is there such a thing as re-writing too much?

Nancy Kress: Yes, one can rewrite too much, and when that happens it’s usually to a writer who is reluctant to send anything out and thus risk failure. I’ve seen students bring the same story to workshops for because “it’s not quite right yet.” But the more prevalent problem is not re-writing enough, either because one doesn’t know how to revise or because the writer can’t see the story flaws. That comes with practice.

Anthony: In your opinion, what are the five most common problems aspirants have?

Nancy: Not writing enough. This is by far the biggest problem. You learn by doing.

Not reading enough.

The ending that does not fulfill what the story promised to deliver.

The long expository opening not in story-time: background or flashback or whatever.

Lack of specific sharp images in the prose, which usually goes along with excess wordiness.

Anthony: What conventions or conferences would you recommend that aspirants attend, as part of their professional development?

Nancy: If it can be managed, an aspiring writer will learn a lot at the six-week conferences: Clarion, Clarion West, or Odyssey. If not, attending a few regional cons big enough to attract a variety of writers is good for hearing various points of view on craft. And some of them run advance-enrollment workshops.

Anthony: Is short story writing essential to breaking in, or can someone work exclusively on novels and still break in?

Nancy: There are natural short story writers, natural novelists, and people who can do both. If you can publish a few short stories, it certainly helps in getting your novel looked at by agents and editors. Also, you learn faster since a short story is much less investment of time while you make all the usual mistakes. But if not, you can still work exclusively on novels, yes.

Anthony: Do you believe in the million words theory; that all aspirants must write roughly a million words before they’re generally competent enough to sell?

Nancy: No. It varies. Robert Silverberg sold his first story. There are a lot of other variables to breaking in besides word count. I didn’t write a million words before my stories started to sell, no where near that.

Anthony: Why do you feel agents have increasingly been made ‘keepers of the slush pile’?

Nancy: Because editors are overworked and harassed by publishers, accountants, and market departments. It’s easier to let agents pre-screen books than to read everything that comes in over the transom. Agents only make money if a book sells, so it’s in their interest to back ones that they think have a higher chance of doing so.

Anthony: Can you offer some suggestions for making the first scene or first chapter in your story leap out at an editor?

Nancy: Get characters , preferably more than one , on stage immediately, doing something, preferably something in which the outcome is uncertain. This means not starting with one character waking up, going through his or her daily routine, or ruminating about the past or future. Use a lot of dialogue, if you possibly can. Make the prose sharp and specific. Hint at larger conflicts or issues to come.

Anthony: You’ve been doing this for so long; is there anything remarkable or significant you personally have learned about writing in the last year?

Nancy: It never gets routine. In the last year I’ve had a novel rejected, won a Hugo, sold a trilogy, written a story I disliked that sold, written a story I liked that did not (so far, anyway), had good reviews and mediocre reviews for the same book. This job never becomes stale.

Anthony: Do you think the industry is easier or harder to break into now, compared to when you broke in?

Nancy: Much harder. There are fewer short-story venues and publishers are more reluctant to take on novels that are not obviously commercial. I don’t think I could have sold my first two novels in today’s market. And I see student work which I think is wonderful but which somehow cannot find a market.

Anthony: Are there any new, significant barriers standing between aspirants and pro status, now, compared to when you broke in?

Nancy: I’m not sure what you mean by “new barriers.” A poor economy always means dropping workers , including writers , viewed as “less productive” of profit.

Anthony: Your novel Stealing Across the Sky is about an alien race that comes to Earth seeking to atone for some wrong they committed long ago. How did you come up with this idea?

Nancy: I never know how I come up with any of my ideas. They just sort of appear one day, and my great fear is that one day, they won’t. I’m not one of those writers who say, “Oh, ideas are cheap, I have a million of them.” I don’t.

Anthony: The novel is written as more of a discovery/milieu story. What sort of obstacles did you encounter while writing this sort of piece?

Nancy: Just the usual obstacles: the beginning, middle, and end. I don’t outline, and I don’t know the ending of anything when I start writing, so no matter the structure, I’m always groping my way blindly through it. This is not an efficient working method, but it seems to be the only way I can write.

Anthony: At what point, growing up, did you know that you wanted to become a writer?

Nancy: Not until I was nearly thirty. I was late coming to the party.

Anthony: What creative influences do you feel impacted your writing style most?

Nancy: Probably everything I ever read. Since my favorite writers are Ursula LeGuin, Jane Austen and Somerset Maugham, and since they seem to have nothing in common, I can’t really give a more precise answer to this question.

Anthony: As an aspiring writer, I go through lulls and manic periods in my writing. What motivates you when slogging through those less than exciting passages?

Nancy: Discipline, plus economic necessity. I’ve been a full-time writer for nearly twenty years, so I’m accustomed to getting up, having coffee, and getting right to the computer. Working at the same time on work days tends to produce more reliable cooperation from the subconscious, that vital collaborator. Also, if I don’t write, I can’t pay the bills. This tends to keep one slogging.

Anthony: The internet has changed the industry for writers, readers and publishers. What has been the biggest change for you?

Nancy: I think the transition to digital from print is only in its infancy. I’ve published on-line at venues like Jim Baen’s Universe, but they tend to fold because no one has really yet figured out how to make much money in Internet fiction. I have work available for the Kindle, including STEAL ACROSS THE SKY and BEGGARS IN SPAIN, but Kindle sales account for less than 1% of fiction sales in the U.S. So at this point, the impact on me has been minimal, but that may change. The real difference so far is that now much of the business side of writing is handled on-line instead of by phone or letter.

Anthony: What changes for the publishing industry do you see on the horizon?

Nancy: Haven’t a clue.

Anthony: I recently read Images of Anna, a story of yours published in Fantasy Magazine. I found Anna to be a very vivid character. How much time do you spend working on a character like her?

Nancy: I can usually do a short story in a week or two. The character, including Anna, almost always occurs to me bundled with the story’s original idea. The details of character come to me during the process of writing.

Anthony: Do you feel you spend more time on a novel character than a short story character?

Nancy: I don’t understand that question. Of course a novel takes longer to write, so I’m spending more time with/on the character. But there is no difference in any pre-writing character study (which I seldom do).

Anthony: What can you tell us about your upcoming projects? I think I heard you had some short fiction coming up in Fantasy Magazine?

Nancy: I usually publish short fiction in ASIMOV’S, and in the last two years I’ve published eight stories there, including “The Erdmann Nexus” that won a Hugo this year. I go in spurts of short-story writing, and that one is played out. Now I’m working on novels.

Anthony: Thanks again for your time, Nancy.

Also, a special thanks to Brad Torgersen and Jennifer Wendorf for your help with questions for Nancy.

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