Interview Transcripts

Mary Rosenblum:  Kay Kenyon wrote for eight years before selling her first novel. Now, with her tenth novel coming out next winter, she likes to give talks on surviving the sometimes long road to publication. “It’s like a marathon race. Many want to be writers and set out to try but most give up. If you can hold on long enough to learn your craft and develop your writing muscles, you’ll get published.” When not writing, Kay encourages newcomers to the field through workshops and a conference in eastern Washington, Write on the River. http://www.writeontheriver.org/    At her website http://www.kaykenyon.com/  you can sign up for her e-newsletter on writing fiction.
Kay believes in character-driven science fiction with strong world-building. Her work explores such themes as biological transformation and the dilemmas of alien contact and cultural change. Her novels and short stories have variously been anthologized, podcast, recorded in audible.com http://tinyurl.com/ovk38Eversions and translated into French, Russian, Spanish and Czech.
She’s spent the last few years writing an epic sci-fantasy series, The Entire and the Rose  http://www.kaykenyon.com/the-series.html. It is the story of a man’s odyssey in search of his family through a tunnel universe with a river of fire for a sky. The first books, Bright of the Sky and A World Too Near received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly. The Washington Post called the series “a splendid fantasy quest as compelling as anything by Stephen R. Donaldson, Philip Jose Farmer, or yes, J.R.R. Tolkien.” The third book, City Without End, came out in February and the series will finish with the fourth book, Prince of Storms next January. Her shorter work has recently appeared in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction-Vol. Two and Fast Forward 2. Her other novels include The Braided World, a John W. Campbell finalist, Tropic of Creation, Rift, The Seeds of Time and Maximum Ice, a 2002 Philip K. Dick finalist.
She lives in Wenatchee with her husband Tom Overcast who loves science fiction, too. They share a home with a large orange cat who prefers to drink from the irrigation ditch for “something extra.”

 

Kay Kenyon: Hi Mary and LongRidge folks!
Very happy to be here. I've recently turned in the fourth book of my series and I feel lighter than air, and with lots of time on my hands (until I start writing again) to bloviate... um, make that offer incredible insights on writing!
Mary, it's a real honor to be on your program. I think of you as the person who knows everything (no pressure) because you understand our industry as few do, and you write fabulous books. I get a bit tired of teachers who aren't publishing. You've got to be in the trenches to know the territory. I hope you'll come back soon to my writers conference in Wenatchee, Write on the River. You were fantastic a couple years ago on the topic of alternatives to mainstream publishing. The world is changing. I wish I could stay as on top of it as you do.
I'm also excited to be on LongRidge because I've heard so much about the program, with friends who are teachers here. I have to admit than when I first heard about LongRidge I was a bit skeptical that a beginner in the field could learn long distance, but I've seen the curriculum now and the teachers. It looks superb as a program. Wish it had been around when I started. Um, I was so clueless, maybe it was!
I stand by to bloviate!

 

Mary Rosenblum:  Oh, goodness, Kay, I'm blushing!!!   Wink  And I'd love to come back to Write on the River anytime. It's a great conference and a lovely, scenic drive. 

 

Dale Ivan: Hi Kay,
Welcome to the forum! I am a student of Mary's here at Long Ridge. I had the good fortune to be in a small round table discussion you led at an Orycon a few years ago on developing story ideas--that was a great little mini-workshop. I still have my notes  Smiley
I'm a big believer in studying the craft of writing and look forward to your thoughts and advice this week on writing fiction. Thank you!

 

Kay Kenyon: Thanks, Dale.
I'm thinking of going to Orycon again, especially since my editor, Lou Anders (Pyr) will be there. I'm a little burned out on cons after going to Too Many last year. So far this year all I have committed to so far are World Fantasy and next month, Diversicon in Mpls, where I'm GoH. I just need to flip a coin on Orycon... now That's a thoughtful approach to promotion!

 

Chrissy:  I just wanted to thank you for the wonderful conference you put on - Write on the River. This was my first year attending (actually it was my first conference ever!) and it came just in time too, my fiance and I literally moved to Washington a month before the conference. I should also thank Mary for posting it on the LR Newsletter, which is where I heard it!
I felt the conference had a great mix of information for beginning writers and writers who've got their feet planted and looking to taking off. And thank you so much for bringing Donald Maass to the conference - his workshops were fantastic and I learned so much!
I'm curious, what prompted you to put on a conference?

 

Kay Kenyon: Oh, I'm so glad you had a good experience. When Donald Maass agreed to come, I knew he would add immeasurably to the teaching this year. He's really so good with story, isn't he? We had the most attendees this year than ever before, about 160. Thanks, Mary, for helping spread the word!
Chrissy, I started the conference because I got my start with a writers' conference fifteen years ago: the Pacific NW Writers Conference. I loved it, I think, for the same reason you so enjoyed Write on the River; that is, we seldom get the experience of a community of writers--and get personal access to great writing teachers. So I wanted to give that boost to the writers in my valley. I know what it's like to write in isolation... and while nothing can change that fact too much, we can build community. I wanted to have that for selfish reasons, too. I still need contact with other people who actually think writing stories is worth pursuing!

 

Mary Rosenblum:  Kay, you write great stories, strongly plotted, with solid dramatic arcs.  Where do you start?  What is your 'foundation'? 

 

Kay Kenyon: I start with place. Place, milieu, culture.
I began doing this in the belief that science fiction and fantasy stories (let's use abbreviation sf/f) need an extra dose of exotica to feed the genre desire of "going somewhere strange." In a fit of over-achievement, I often would come up with very odd environments, such as an Earth covered in a crystalline information structure (Maximum Ice) that resulted from a runaway optical computer platform based on crystals. I know that sounds a bit corny... I always take it as a challenge to make the lurid believable! Anyway, once I had that whacky concept, a bunch of cultural and milieu ideas fell on me like a piano from a third story window. Lots of noise, not much music. BUT I sure had a lot of fragments to work with.
This kind of explosion of ideas has happened a bunch of times for me when I start with place. One more example: In my latest novels, my quartet, I stumbled on the exotic environment of a parallel universe that tunneled through the Rose (what our universe is called.) Maybe it was some kind of insane thought of bugs burrowing into flowers (I am a gardener)--but in any case, from there I said, well, smart ass, wouldn't the tunnel need, like walls? And a ceiling? Oh ick, too dark and forbidding. But what if the world was huge, and the ceiling was lit up like a fire and then waxed and waned to create night and day.
A piano falls. Six years later, I'm still stunned by the impact of that one moment of insight. (Please don't think these ideas come easily to me. I hunt for places like a shopaholic at Bloomingdale's. I am frequently as dried up as toast. I just try to have faith in my Muse that eventually the magic happens.
Then, what follows are questions like: Who lives there? How was it created? Who comes to visit? What happens? What is the point?
As for what my foundation is for my stories, that is a different question maybe. Place is important, but it's just a door in. You could also use character, a scene that flashes you with hot import, theme, or some plot concept. There are many doors in.
My foundation is the relation of plot to character. I like to think that the way to describe my writing briefly is to say that I writer character-based adventure stories. I am not wholly gripped by stories that are weak on one of those two things. In sf/f the character-based stories are usually written by the literary end of our spectrum, but I believe I do both.
The plot has to be, to paraphrase Bradbury, the footprints of characters. The story problem must strangely, inexorably, motivate, infuriate, or terrify the main character. So, as you've no doubt heard a zillion times, plot is the other side of the coin to plot. To connect these two main components of the story is the writer's first huge challenge. It's worth weeks of work.
Anyway, to begin a book, after getting an inkling of the Place, I move quickly on to ask who it is about and what might happen. I consider these questions a very short while. Then I circle back to the place and noodle in more details. Then back to the protagonist and maybe a quick consideration of the forces of opposition, whether an individual or institution. This process goes on for weeks. The point here is keep moving fast and don't let the cement harden under you. You're still exploring the territory. It's like changing a tire. You don't crank down on the lug nut and move on to the next one. You lightly secure one, rotate the tire a bit, give the next one a few turns, and so on, so that the tire settles in all balanced.
Bear in mind that I am a compulsive planner!

 

Mary Rosenblum:  I totally agree that place matters a lot in SF/F. I see too many student stories with generic Tolkienesque or Medieval worlds and they're total backdrops.  You really START with place, eh?  That's pretty rare, but it sure seems to be working for you. 

 

Kay Kenyon: If writers are having a hard time finding a story, starting with place is a good exercise for mainstream fiction, too, I think.
What is the strangest place you've ever lived? What is the most interesting? Have you ever worked or visited a small enclave that could yield an interesting setting, such as a remote resort (The Shining), a beach community (Dead in Red, Eliz. George), grandpa's farm, a commune, or where you grew up in the 50's, 60's, or 70's. Did you serve in Vietnam? Iraq? The story in those cases doesn't need to be mainly about war; there are other eras, other stories, too.
Setting a mainstream work in a circus, law firm, or the arctic can make your setting become as central to your story as the characters. Some characters will be especially challenged by being strangers in a specific place. Some characters must exist in your milieu. Character is shaped by place. Places spawn life-views, attitudes. So culture too, flows from place, often from the very geography.
Mary, your Water Rites is a great example of a story shaped by geography. And once again, it doesn't matter where you start. Eventually you address Place. Starting with the world is just another maneuver to kick start a sluggish muse.

 

Dale Ivan:  This is a fascinating topic--I haven't thought enough about setting (certainly I've worked on it in the past, but not to this degree). Kay, do you ever consider setting to be a character in your fiction?

 

Kay Kenyon: Well, not exactly. I've heard that phrase used, and I think it means that setting is so influential, prominent, that it adds conflict and meaning . . . but I like to think of setting as the inspiration for plot, culture, and character. Either way, we're elevating setting past the usual background status and giving it more richness at the least... at the most, it bestows a kind of cultural imperative where it becomes impossible to separate the people from the place.

 

Moving on into the topic of building story. . .

Think of all the things a piece of fiction should have. Plot, character, structure, conflict best point of view, dialogue, hook, theme and so on. Presuming that you know the basics of storytelling, which aspects of storytelling are worth the most work? What follows is a list of things that I've distilled from hearing agents and editors lament from the slush pile.
Original premise. Publishers look for an exciting premise. It doesn't have to be brilliant, but it does have to shine. Don't short-change your story with a weak or warmed-over concept. (If you're reading books "like yours" you'll begin to recognize things that are done to death.) Keep digging until you find an intriguing premise.
Strong Lead Character. Give your protagonist a strong identity infused with a believable strength and temper it with a weakness like an inner conflict. We've heard it before, but we're still not nailing it. We turn too easily to the plucky heroine or outraged victim for a strength, and then punt on the inner conflict. Choose characteristics that go against stereotype. Or at least fine one way this person is unexpectedly different from the norm for his/her field. Now give them an internal conflict that cannot be healed. Take the time to think of 5-10 details that you might use to make this person with those strengths, and that weakness believable. So don't just tell us that he'll never get over being the only survivor in a plane crash. Get his guilt onto the page with a few details that are quirky (original) and make us pay attention. The reason you come up with quirky proof of character is that something too tried-and-true will not grab the reader's attention. Just like we see past the familiar neighbor's house, but notice the vulture in the tree in their front yard.
Conflict or tension in every interaction. Focus your story around a problem. Out of problems arise conflict. To deepen the conflict, make sure something terribly important is at stake. Interest in your story will be in direct proportion to the degree of tension on the page. If you don't believe me, read Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction. You don't need meaningless action to tart up scenes, but you do need sustained and escalating tension.
Meaningful scenes. Plan a few big scenes where your plot problem undergoes major change for better or worse. (Try alternating "up scenes" from "down scenes" to keep the reader guessing.) Make these big scenes serve a dramatic purpose where a significant change occurs. The change can be internal only, as with an emotional insight--but unless you are writing strictly literary fiction, try for an external plot change as well. Planning for big scenes gives you a structure of sorts to build your story, and a way of deciding whether this story has legs and is worth writing. Some big scenes might be: the inciting incident, a big Act 1 turning point, the midpoint where the character gets the needed jolt to propel him through the middle of the book, and Act II turning point and the dramatic climax. I'm not saying you have to write in three acts. If you don't use that approach, then draw an incline rising to the top of the page, and a short decline following. (I like this starter idea no matter what my story structure is.) Sketch in scene ideas (using short phrases like "learns of so-and-so's betrayal") for big scenes sprinkled evenly along the way. That way you'll have the skeleton for some big shake-us-up scenes. Then, when you're satisfied with those scene ideas, start sketching in more scenes until the page is too messed up to read. Then write your synopsis.

Pardon the repeat here, but thought I'd mention once more my newsletter "Still Writing":
I send out a bi-monthly e-newsletter on writing fiction. It's free, and every issue addresses questions in the craft of fiction writing. Here's the link to sign up: http://www.kaykenyon.com/newsletter.html

Dani:  Thanks Kay!  I've been lurking this week. I'm not much of a science fiction reader/writer, but I've enjoyed reading the posts on the craft of writing.  You have a nice website, by the way.  Smiley   You indicated that you come to Southern California.  Is that for a conference?  If so, which one?  I live in Southern CA.

Kay Kenyon: Thanks, Dani. As for California, my husband and I have a condo near Palm Springs where we spend some stretches of time because we have children in the area. We're especially keen on family time in the winter.

Mary Rosenblum:  You know, Kay, a lot of novice writers really resist revision.  Who wants to change those words that were so exciting when you wrote them?  Why not leave them be?  Why is revision important, anyway?

Kay Kenyon: That's interesting, Mary, that you say beginners resist revision. I know writers who say that's their favorite part! Because the big fateful first draft is done, and you no longer need to open a vein and give your life blood to the keyboard. Now you can move chunks around, tighten, clarify, lay in foreshadowing, and so on.
Let's get past one thing, though. The need for revision does not mean you failed or are devoid of talent. No one writes great first drafts. After 10,000 hours of writing practice (resulting, perhaps, in a few mid-list novels) you do write better first drafts, definitely. But for these writers, the challenge is to make the good manuscript even better. New novelists must work at getting over the need for validation. It's like a recurring case of hives. I still crave validation, but man, I am so not getting it. (My ambitions may be larger than yours. . . you see, the more you publish the more you Want.) So we must work hard at Stopping Being Insecure. We are writers. We write some things that need lots of work, and we are happy to do the work. We write first drafts that we know are the bulky shape of a statue needing refinement, longing to get out. You are not the next Kurt Vonnegut. You are an-in-the-trenches journeyman writer and you do the work. (OK, you May be the next Kurt Vonnegut, but in that case I am just ever so envious of you!)
We might think of revision as phase two of the writing. It's a natural part of your writing process, not some frantic book-doctor slap dash fix.
So, since we are inevitably going to revise, I recommend not combing the work as you write, fixing metaphors and repairing clunky dialogue. Make a margin note "clunky dialogue" and move on. You may cut that scene. The more you polish that dialogue the more invested you become in having that scene exist at all, or exist in that form that may be fatally flawed.
One of the main reasons revision is an organic part of writing is that you have an incestuous relationship with your own writing. The act of creating a scene sets up a special parenting bond that must be broken for you to evaluate your own work. You might cry at the keyboard or laugh out loud, but it is not likely that reader will. Why not? Because you thought your child was adorable, and you might have been ignoring that high-pitched wail and failed to see people fleeing your child's vicinity. (Mary stop me from these horrid extended metaphors, can't you?)
The only thing that will save you is to let your manuscript rest so that you come to it fresh. The longer the better.
This sets up a conflict inside you, I know. You long to read what you've written so you can feel comforted (read: Validated) that what you have written is good and that you do have talent. Try, try to conquer this tendency! It is universal, and insidious. The only way I keep it at bay is to allow myself to revise (briefly) the previous scene or last few pages before I begin my morning's new work.
Remember that agents' desks are filled with competently written, well-plotted books with quirky protagonists that they intend to pass on. Good enough is the standard that will delay your career launch. Yes, this is all harder than it should be. I mean, aren't real writers able to conjure miracles as they write? I don't know about John Updike and Ian McDonald. I like to think they aren't That much of a genius. Anyway, you can't make yourself more talented. It's like wishing to be taller. But you CAN revise! Hooray! 
Accepting revision and looking forward to it sets you in the right frame of mind to dig deeper into your base material and heighten the book so that it achieves lift off velocity.

Ruthie:  I am a latecomer to writing (53) and have many insecurities about my writing.  I'll be happy to get to the stage where I can validate myself.

Kay Kenyon: Ruthie, yes, I'd be happy to get to that stage, too. The problem as I see it is that while it's beneficial to feel good about ourselves, sometimes that longing can get in our way. For example, if we act too needy at critique groups, people may pick up on the insecurity and not give truthful feedback. I've already said that re-reading one's work can get in one's way by making the work so familiar to us that we can't hope to be objective on the real rewrite, when we're really serious about being open to changes.
So, while I empathize with the need for validation, I am watchful for how it may work against me.
You mentioned your age . . . I don't have anything profound to say about that except for a little story. I was at a small conference where the organizers weren't paying very close attention to their guest of honor. I ended up asking her out to dinner, and she agreed. This writer is very well known in science fiction and fantasy, having not only a big name in the US but an ever bigger presence in Europe. She looked to be about 65 years old. Over dinner she confided to me that she was "done" with her career. She'd been at it for decades, and frankly, she no longer cared. Despite her success, she'd done everything she wanted to, had said everything she felt she had to say. She was looking forward to traveling across the country in her RV.
I came away thinking, "thank goodness I started late. Now I have a career I can do into my eighties, and I won't be tired of writing. Or horribly cynical. Or whatever happens to people who've done something their whole life."
So starting in the middle of your years can be a really smart thing!

Just a few thoughts on the nuts and bolts of revision. This will apply particularly to long manuscripts like novels, but the basis is sound for short stories as well.
Your approach to revision has to suit your temperament, so please look at my advice with that in mind. (I'm sure you don't take any teacher's advice as being handed down from on high--except Mary's of course.  Wink) You'll no doubt adopt a revision strategy based on your preferences and how much time you have and how closely you intend to comb for style. And how rough the first draft is. And how long the piece is!
So here are some tips on the way I revise novels.

Two-three months. Let your work sit for as long as you can. Do not peek at it. Since I don't comb my work as I write, by the time I've finished the first draft, the majority of the novel has already "rested". Letting the work rest helps guard against what I call revision blindness.
Quick read. Read the ms. quickly, making notes. Ask yourself if it makes sense and look for what's missing on all levels.
Four passes. Plan on four revisions.
--The first revision is for structural elements and basic mistakes of fact. Now is the time to write new scenes and reconfigure weak ones. Also consider major plot improvements. Deepen key scenes that must carry heavy freight.
--The second revision is for pacing and macro-level things that you thought of on first pass but couldn't stop for. Read with a merciless view to tightening. Reduce fat. But also: expand where too thin.
--The third is for narrative style, spelling and style sheet consistency, formatting tweaks, and forming chapters (I often do this last, having written my novel in numbered scenes).
--The fourth is for incorporating any useful suggestions from readers.

Narrative style. As you write the first draft, don't fuss with words and phrasing that are part of yesterday's--or last month's--work. If it's your custom to revise a lot as you do the day's work, that's ok (but are you sure you're not putting too much emphasis on how you say something vs. the meaning and tension of the scene?) but then try to let the pages rest.

Scene List. Create a scene list in which you note the important plot developments and themes. Use the scene list to plan the first and second revisions, above. (I print it out and make margin notes on it. This is my best secret!) Also, you can judge pacing problems by looking at your scene list and noting whether the the story problem is forwarding. (For example, no paragraphs with churning emotions we've heard before.)

Readers. Give your readers the manuscript after the second or third pass. Don't ask them to read rough material. Their ability to give you sound advice will be considerably reduced if they are distracted by first draft inadequacies. Remember, it is your scary and wonderful role to decide on how to improve your manuscript. At least take a swipe at a couple hard-core revisions before sharing your work. I know it's hard to wait, but honestly, your readers don't know your intention, your themes, your unique perspective, do they? So hoping your readers will have great insights is giving too much power to others. And you will share your work with critiquers soon, so I caution patience, here.

Dale Ivan:  How do you go about "deepening key scenes?" Do you blank draft a new version, or add to the existing text, or does it just depend? 

Kay Kenyon: This is quite a big topic. It has to do with the experience, hour by hour, that your reader will have... in scenes. But it also has to do with the relationship of that scene to others: does it build, does it follow well, does it build in progressive complications, or is it episodic, static, repetitive?
For key scenes, these questions are critical. You know which scenes those are: where the problem is introduced, big turning points, revelatory points, important events that change the path of the story and the protagonist's chances of success.
I usually don't start all over again but I change a lot. I used to find it helpful to revise onto a hard copy. Now it's directly at the keyboard, but that is trickier.
I begin by looking at these scenes out of order (to try to gain some freshness) and sharpening the goal of the point of view character, making sure the story is clearly advanced, and that each element of the scene is dedicated to the POV's character's goal, either by getting him closer, or pushing him further away. These would not be the scenes to slip in background, weave in backstory, or pointlessly churn in emotions. If it is an emotional scene, let us have a reversal, sharply defined. Make sure that the reader understands the inner meaning of the reversal. A long scene can have several reversals. If things aren't changing in a scene, it is inevitably static. That is fatal to your big scenes.
Are you holding back in this scene? What if the antagonist was more aggressive, calling forth a more dramatic and deeper response from your main character. I'm not talking about flogging the action, but rather revealing your character's depths by testing her more thoroughly. We are too timid with scenes. Ratchet up. Clarify the goal and the excitement or desperation when the action turns for or against your character. And make sure it gets on the page.
We are really talking about conflict. Not the plot's overall conflict, but the conflict at this moment, in these paragraphs in this scene. These small points of conflict keep us reading because we are curious as to how the small conflict will be resolved. So I'm not talking about obvious, violent, phony conflict, but about honest struggles between people with believable agendas whom you as a canny writer have brought on stage to be together in this scene. The tension might be subtle and outwardly gentle while inwardly profound. It is meaningful and surprising.
These big scenes may call for short, quick dialogue that moves rapidly along to maintain a taut pace. This is not the time to over-block the attendant actions of sipping from teacups, or adjusting stances, etc. Perhaps drop the descriptive opening and move right into the on-the-stage happening. I think George R. R. Martin is a good example of opening important scenes with action.
If you are early on in your novel, plan carefully for these big scenes. They are much easier to revise if you have laid the groundwork for conflict, planned a great escalation, and already have your key players maneuvered into position so that they can share the stage.
Ask yourself: What is the scope of the effect in this scene? It could be an effect on the large story problem, an effect on the current issue in front of the protagonist, or an internal turning point that is only seen at the emotional level. Ask yourself: Is the scope of the effect larger than the last big scene? If not, you are not escalating the drama. Once you know what you want to accomplish work hard at getting it on the page.
The need to escalate the drama is a hard lesson to learn. It requires that you not ratchet up the action too fast at the beginning of the story so that you have something left over to build to. But you can't open the novel slowly either, so that means perhaps giving yourself some bridging conflict to keep reader interest at first, so that the story can build to a climax without dissipating its power too early.
Sounds kind of hard, I know. It is hard. But you can learn to enjoy these challenges. If the scene is tepid, make a margin note: Big Scene! Revise! 

Dale Ivan: That's great advice  Smiley  Thanks!

Kay Kenyon: One of the problems rife in revision is the "Can't see the forest for the trees" issue. We just can't seem to address the bigger issues, so we fuss with style and other smaller matters. We end up with perhaps a very well-written piece that doesn't have wings as a story.
Believe me, I have this problem, too.
To counteract the tendency to miss the big picture, I ask some diagnostic questions that might not be very organized, but which I think of as doors into the heart of the story, and therefore paths to diagnosing fatal weaknesses.
Some of these questions are:
What is the controlling idea? I've heard this called theme and armature and "point of the story". The concept here is that if you don't have a point, how do you know what to include and when you're off track? When you have a point, your whole story can be heading toward proving your point. We still need to subtle, it is true. The reader ideally remains blissfully unaware of the theme, but deep down, they get it. Teacher/filmmaker Brian McDonald gives the example of theme (armature) for the film Tootsie: "Being a woman has made you a better man." I've heard one should have a clear sense of this point when one begins, but I have doubts. I believe sometimes--and this is true especially for novels-- the theme comes into being as you write. So think about the most compelling events you've written about so far and ask yourself if they are beginning to cohere into a theme. If so, tighten your story, paring away digression and heightening your theme.
How can I upset the reader's expectation? Create reversals, sharpen them. Readers love to be surprised! They are far more canny than you might imagine in predicting what you as author are going to do. Fool them sometimes.
How can the problems on the surface hook the characters' inner selves? Delineate the emotional reactions. Make these surprising emotional reactions. You have withheld some material about your central character, haven't you? Surprise us now. Besides, the central character is changing, so there is a great opportunity to surprise the reader with his reaction.
Is the climax as big as it can be? This is one of the most powerful diagnostic questions. It will lead you to amazing places. The climax controls the middle of the book. It isn't in the middle, of course, but it is where we're headed. Therefore if your climax is not dramatic enough, then the chapters leading up to it won't be steep enough. We'll be in flat territory, if that makes sense, and we must be climbing upward (plot escalating.) If you feel your book is a bit flat, try to imagine a rewritten climactic scene where the protagonist is tested beyond anything she could have even imagined at the beginning of the saga. This is the crucible, the fire that will show us what she's made of. What she has grown enough to endure. This is her character arc. She started with some competency, but the opposition has progressively thwarted her, teaching her to be smarter and stronger in pursuit of her goal so that by the time you're at the climax, she must sacrifice something that was unthinkable at the beginning. Do you think this is too over-the-top? We want some subtlety of course, but most writers are far too timid in what they put their characters through. The other side of this effort is to make sure its believable. So we rewrite the climax, the change the ramp-up chapters to meet the new heights, and then we show the character development all the way from the beginning so that the climactic scene feels true, no matter how horrific.
How can the character care more? Don't give us ennui and hesitation, except, perhaps, at the very first pages. Make the main character and secondary characters passionate about what they want. This will drive your plot in cool ways, and makes believable that amazing climactic scene I spoke of, above.
Of course all of these questions are very useful to ask as you are planning your novel. But after you have a first draft, ask them again!

By the way, I want to let you know that I send out a bi-monthly e-newsletter on writing fiction. It's free, and every issue addresses questions in the craft of fiction writing. Here's the link to sign up: http://www.kaykenyon.com/newsletter.html

Mary Rosenblum: Ah, Kay, I'm so glad that you're talking about writing for real!  So many myths about the writing life float about out there. I love the one about how you can lounge around in your pajamas and maybe type a few words when you feel like it...and make a million bucks!   But that's not how it is, is it? 

Kay Kenyon: Yeah, I know what you mean, Mary. I've been really bitter since I found out that the writing life was not like that!
This topic is vast. Galactic scale insecurities bombard you like the background radiation of the universe. The industry can be cruel. Friends get publishing contracts and leave you in the dust. Sometimes a book you've been working on off and on for fifteen years must be consigned to a box under the bed. It feels tragic. Hell, it IS tragic. You get three rejections in a row; your mother reads your story and says, "It didn't work for me." Your MOTHER! I mean, insult to injury. I could go on, but Mary is frantically waving at me and making strangling motions with her hands.
OK, I'll calm down. But suffice it to say, if you feel blue or bummed, this is the chat for you!
Let's just start with something easy. The pajamas. Never type in your pajamas. How can your keyboard take seriously someone who is writing in pants with an elastic waistband? I hope you see my point here.
Also, a certain professionalism is in order. I mean, people, let's have breakfast and brush our teeth and wear something that you can answer the door in. You are a Writer, not a dilettante, or a blogger.  SmileyYou want to signal to your subconscious that you take your craft seriously. Therefore you will also report to work at more or less the same time every day, right? If you are compulsive like me, you feel rather guilty to show up a tad after 9:00 a.m., my start time. Guilt is helpful. A little shame is in order when the temptations are everywhere, suggesting that perhaps one could file one's nails before hitting the keyboard. And that can lead to a full-fledged manicure, or dead heading the rhodies.
So carve out a writing time and stick to it. If you fear the blank page so much you find yourself shuffling through the old bottles of nail polish at 8:55, tell yourself that you won't begin writing In earnest at 9:00, you'll give yourself a quick warm-up by making a list of the three best books you've read lately and what you loved about them. That will put you in an inspired frame of mind, unless it intimidates you to do that exercise; then you must come up with your own, I-look-forward-to-putting-butt-in-chair warm up exercise.
Of course then you must dive in and start work whether you are inspired or not. And content yourself with writing drek until you are really warmed up, which may not come for forty-five minutes during which time you will start imagining that you will never get published and what would happen if you died right now and someone found this ridiculously inadequate scene on your computer screen? And speaking of death, is that mosquito bite on your forearm really a nascent tumor?
Those of you who feel that I am making these mental tortures up obviously don't need to read this thread. You are way too emotionally healthy.
There is more to say, Mary, but this should get the conversation rolling. Are you out of your pajamas yet? I mean, it's 11:24! Group, let's hit the clothes racks!

Jenna 2008:Wow.  Kay and Mary, I am lovin' this thread. 
Seems like there is nothing harder than sitting at my desk when there are no interesting plots swirling around my head like little birdies, waiting for me to pluck one of out of the air and turn it into an interesting story.  Most days I'd be happy with one damaged little plot-birdy wanting me to write a eulogy.  Roll Eyes
So, you professional writers have this problem too?  Huh...who knew? 

Moosie:  This is great stuff Kay. It makes me think that perhaps I have what it takes. This, and the fact that many literary greats were/are alcoholics. Start at 9 am, right? (Was it because they didn't get out of their jammies, or vice versa?)

Kay Kenyon:  Jenna, I'm so glad you mentioned lack of a plot. That's kind of a different situation, or at least calls for a different solution.
If I don't have a plot, sitting at the keyboard would only lead to frustration. Plots don't show up at 9:00 or even 10:30. I have to sneak up on plots much more indirectly. I noodle in a notebook for about an hour, then leave it. I decide to think about plot during my morning walk. I have an idea while weeding the garden, no matter how small and go inside and write it down. I keep a tiny notebook in my purse in case an little idea hits me. I read nonfiction books that might relate to some interesting possibilities. Nonfiction books on related subjects, no matter how distantly related can spark an idea.
I have a particularly hard time finding inspiration for my next work. You can't force it by working 6 hours at a time at it.

Moosie, I often wonder if writers are all that tortured, or if we're just amazed that any one who drinks a lot can accomplish Anything. (And therefore those examples become famous poster children for the artistic temperament.) I am such a lightweight that if I have one glass of wine I am totally unable to muster the brain cells to write fiction.
I think it's important for writers to admit the psychological difficulties of writing. Not that they are going crazy, but that depression, self-doubt, discouragement and envy are rift and simply must be dealt with.
Mary, I had a writing teacher, Roger Sale at the University of Washington, who said, "In the smorgasboard of the writing life, the prime rib never comes." I think he meant that we often start with humble material and make it great. Writing drek may indicate that we need more training or that we're flogging a story that isn't really in our heart... but it so often is just warm up.
I had a beginning writer ask me with some agony whether her doubts about her project could be overcome. Was she wasting her time? She had so many stories, was this one the right one?
I didn't have a good answer. This is part of the reason we need to strengthen our emotional health. Writing is fraught with uncertainty. The only way out (and it's not the ultimate answer--there are not ultimate answers here) is to keep learning, attending classes, reading great novels in your chosen field-- and writing every day, or as many days as your work and family life allow.

Dale Ivan:  Kay, I really appreciate your insights. I've been writing fiction for a very long time without success--while I've had some nonfiction published, no fiction. I realized about a year ago that I hadn't succeeded in a more fundamental way. I hadn't written a story or novel that really worked. (Basically no real conflict, just a lot of what I came to call narrative kinesis. And that realization led to my attending the 2008 Willamette Writers Conference in Portland for a single day, which led to my taking a workshop from a local author, which led to my learning about a class he was teaching in the fall on evaluating your own fiction. That in turn led to my taking another class from him, taking workshops from other authors, and most important, enrolling in Long Ridge! I've really come to appreciate focusing on the process and craft of writing fiction.
I still want very much to be published and share my stories and novels with readers in print but what I can influence is my own writing process and mastery of craft. I have a lifetime's worth of writing practice ahead of me.

Kay Kenyon: You are heading down the right path! Many, many writers never study craft, and this usually results in failure with publishers. There are times when a writer has such an instinctive grasp, and gets ahold of such a timely or original idea, that they appear to have gone it alone, without teachers. I think this is somewhat rare. It certainly wasn't the case with me. While I would have liked to have been such a lucky individual, I've found the study of the writing craft to be endlessly fascinating, and even now, just about the hardest thing I do. I may have published nine novels, but I'm still learning. I'm still doing a dance with readers--figuring out how much to reach out to my audience vs. just writing what I want.
That topic is one that splits the writing community, btw. There are passionate spokespeople for writing what's in your heart exclusive of the marketplace. I don't mean to set up a false dichotomy: that the answer is either yes or no. It is surely a continuum, a gray area. But when you think about it, most books on writing are consciously or unconsciously based upon what the author believes people want to read. I pay attention to that. I believe, in case anyone is wondering, that I can write a thousand different stories, and writing one I think people will read does not compromise me.
Um. Don't know how I got on that topic, exactly!

Kay Kenyon:  Since this is my last day with LongRidge, I thought I'd tell you a little about the writers' conference I'm involved with, Write on the River in Wenatchee, WA. We get approximately 130-150 attendees. In 2010 it will be held on May 15 and 16.
We bring in some of the top writers in the field to teach one hour fifteen minute workshops; on Sunday we provide a half day intensive workshop. Our topics focus on both fiction and nonfiction, both literary and commercial. In 2010 we will cover: writing for children, several novel topics, the essay, memoirs, nonfiction books, poetry, historical fiction, alternative publishing and topics from our guest editor and agent. Workshop leaders are invited from throughout the Pacific Northwest and have included Earl Emerson, Mary Rosenblum  Wink, and Donald Maass. Our past keynote speakers have included Timothy Egan and Elizabeth George.
Every year we invite an agent and an editor to hear pitches for books, have a signing for authors, find ways to encourage networking, and hold a reception at the end of the day Saturday to provide a last chance to exchange contact information and meet people.
Yes, Wenatchee WA is a long way from anywhere! It is a three hour drive over the mountains from Seattle and about the same distance from Spokane. That's part of it's attraction--a totally focused weekend. But if you get enough inspiration and are ready to relax, that time of year is usually warm and sunny over here, and there are many recreational opportunities, including mountain biking, hiking, tours of local wineries.
Write on the River: www.writeontheriver.org

Moosie:  Sad to see you go, Kay. It's been very informative. Thank you!

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