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More good advice from Clarion

In an earlier post, I reported some of the good advice on writing I heard from the first three instructors at Clarion: Holly Black, Larissa Lai and Robert Crais.

Now I’ve had time to report some good things I learned from the instructors in the final three weeks. I have the sense that I didn’t do as good a job with them, partly because I was so much more tired during the second half.

From Kim Stanley Robinson:

  • Information is not boring per se. Something is interesting if it’s interesting.
  • Character flaws are not the same thing as story flaws; it’s not the story’s job to make the character a better person.
  • Pay attention to the speed of the narration, from broad summarization to detailed dramatization. You can manipulate it even within a single paragraph.
  • "Skip the boring parts." (–Damon Knight)
  • Look for the things you can do in fiction that a movie cannot do.
  • Never publish work you do not fully endorse and like; readers will not give you a second chance.
  • Some experiments in form everyone should try:

    • Unreliable narrator.
    • Camera eye (third person exterior).
    • Present tense.
    • First person POV from the other gender.
    • Systematic variation in sentence structure (long vs. short sentences, deliberate run-ons, fat paragraphs, etc.)


  • "Don’t move too fast or too often" (– Gene Wolfe)
  • "Don’t point at thin ice." (If you are doing something dubious (i.e., not believable), don’t highlight it.)
  • "Where everything is possible, nothing is interesting." (– H. G. Wells)
  • The willing suspension of disbelief will go only so far.
  • Since a first-person narrator is almost never a writer, s/he doesn’t need to follow the structural rules to which you would otherwise rigidly adhere.
  • Damon Knight always asked, "Who hurts?". That’s the heart of the story.
  • Each scene must, in some way, add to the story’s information load.
  • In a first draft, don’t wait to know enough before you write. Write the first scene, then do some research, then write the next scene, do some more research. Each stage will give you new ideas.
  • For every casual murder in your story, you are condemned to write 500 pages on the victim’s family.
  • Put 100% of what you know about a subject into a story, but imply that it’s only 10%.

From Paul Park:

  • One marker of good fiction is the sense that the story is bigger than the writer’s plan.
  • "Flat" characters (who do not change or show off different aspects of themselves, during a story) are not necessarily a bad thing. They are often the most memorable characters, having the clarity of a photograph.
  • Think of titles as things that relate to endings.
  • The problem with adverbs is that they are superimposed interpretations from the top — they are explanations, usually redundant.
  • It should be the perception of the POV character that drives the reader’s perception of the location/space.
  • You can make anything utterly credible simply by asking yourself, "What would it be like?"
  • If you are disciplined in your own mind about visualizing the space, leaving no corner unexplored, then the sense of place will come naturally as the characters move around that space, via the details the characters themselves notice.
  • Don’t tell the reader things before s/he’s likely to care about them.

From Elizabeth Hand:

  • Using more eccentric characters gives you a leg-up, because it makes the reader interested in the character to begin with. But beware of doing it with too many of the characters, because of "weirdo fatigue."
  • Blogs and small-town police blotters are great sources for characters.
  • You can almost trace a plot in terms of characters’ binary decisions, moment-to-moment-to-moment.
  • Characters need not be sympathetic to be riveting.
  • Some advice from Elmore Leonard:

    • Never open a book with weather.
    • Try to leave out the part that readers skip.


  • American readers love to learn about stuff — they love information.
  • From Gardner Dozois: "A story depends 70% on its last line."
  • A future, secondary or speculative universe needs to be imagined in all of its ramifications, as the spice in Dune or the androgyny in The Left Hand of Darkness. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, it’s "turtles all the way down."


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