Nancy Kress, one of my teachers from Taos Toolbox, has graciously taken the time out to answer some questions about the writing process.
Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book. Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?
Nancy: I do have a regular process. For the first draft, I write non-stop, ignoring mistakes and changes of heart and general inconsistencies, just trying to get the story down. The second draft is a major rewrite: moving, eliminating, or adding scenes. Fixing major inconsistencies. Sharpening the foreshadowing, since now that I have an ending, I know what it is I am trying to foreshadow. Draft three is a clean-up, addressing minor inconsistencies and fiddling with word choice. Then I give the ms. to my husband to read. If he has suggestions–and he usually has good ones–my fourth and final draft is to incorporate those. Then the story or novel gets sent off.
Tamago: I remember at Toolbox you suggested that you could see about two scenes ahead when you wrote. What sorts of methods do you use to plot a story?
Nancy: Two main methods. First, I try to become my characters, feeling my way from the inside about what they might do in the situations I’ve put them in. Second, I use two questions to create the incidents that make up a plot: What does my protagonist (and also all the other characters) want now, at this point in the story? What can go wrong now, at this point in the story?
Tamago: Do you research any of your projects?
Nancy: Yes, of course. If the story is hard science, I must research hard, since I’m not trained in science. But for even if it is a very short, soft-SF story, there are usually details to look up: How much does a Labrador retriever weigh? How high is a professional basketball hoop? What altitude does a jet fighter reach? Those are all details I’ve needed for actual stories.
Tamago: Do you have a favorite story or book that you’ve written? If you do, tell us about it.
Nancy: I’m very fond of my thriller, STINGER, which concerns the introduction of a genetically altered virus into the USA. The book got good reviews, including in some prestigious places, but it did not do well. Because my name was on it, it was shelved with the SF (which it is not), and so my intended audience never found it. So it sometimes goes in publishing.
Tamago: Recently I read an interview in which you said that you felt most comfortable as a writer of medium length material. What do you like about writing novellas?
Nancy: They are long enough to create an alternate world (future or fantasy), but short enough to need only one plot line. A novel, with its braided subplots, is much harder for me.
Tamago: You have written many excellent books on writing. I’ve found your advice on writing character invaluable. What sort of procedures do you use to make your characters live so well in your scenes?
Nancy: First — thank you! As I said before, I try to become the characters I’m writing: If I were this person, how would I feel? What would I say? What would I do? It’s akin to what actors do on stage.
Tamago: Are you involved with a writing group, or do you get feedback on your drafts in another way?
Nancy: No writing group; my feedback comes first from my husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and then for novels from my agent.
Tamago: Do you discuss your initial ideas or drafts with others? Why or why not?
Nancy: I never discuss initial ideas or work-in-progress, not even with Jack. An unfinished ms. is a fragile thing, an idea even more so. At least for me. I need to develop it, change it, write it without any outside opinions. This is also why I don’t collaborate on fiction. Not really a person who plays well with others. Also, I run with scissors.
Tamago: How do you know when something you’re writing isn’t working?
Nancy: Sometimes I don’t know, which is why I have some crappy stories in print. But usually, if I’m reluctant to work on a ms., it means there’s something wrong with it. When a story IS working, I’m happy to sit down at the keyboard with it each day.
Tamago: After the initial break-in moment (your first book, agent, or assignment), what are the moments/accomplishments that you feel define you as a writer?
Nancy: That’s a hard one. The reading and publishing public seems to define me by BEGGARS IN SPAIN. Or else by my awards. Sometimes I get defined as “a female hard SF writer,” perhaps because there aren’t a lot of us. But none of those is what makes me feel like a writer from the inside. For me, the best part about writing is the moment when a story takes off, I’m IN that story’s world, and nothing else exists, not even my own identity. It’s like flying is in dreams. It’s wonderful.
I think we all like to fly in dreams, Nancy. Thanks for that wonderful image.