I have long been an admirer of Gene Wolfe, not only for his writing, but for his character as a human being. He is a fine example of a man with a towering intellect and an incredible ability with words…who is nevertheless a singularly decent and humble human being who works to express himself clearly and assumes that you are very smart as well. If I am half the man Gene Wolfe is, then I feel I’ve done all right in life.
Today, while taking a break from work on the Nondescript (It’s going very well, thank you), I was reading a Gene Wolfe interview, which I had read before but felt like reading again. You can read the entirety of it here, on the Sci-Fi website, and you should. But toward the end, he discusses writing and advice for new writers, and I’m going to share it here. It is, all of it, very wise. So what the heck. People who participate in NaNo get inspirational letters from authors like Naomi Novik. You fine folk participating in the Tea Debacle get an excerpt from an old Gene Wolfe interview. It could be worse.
Tell me what you think about it.
So what advice do you have for new writers starting out and trying to get published?
Wolfe: Oh, tons of it. As I say, I have taught numerous writing courses and it’s very hard to give general advice because you need to know what the people are doing, where they’re coming from, what they’re trying to do. In the first place, they need to read the type of material that they are trying to write, written by good writers. In other words, if they are trying to write short stories, and I think any new writer should write short stories, then they should find good short stories and read a whole lot of them and keep on reading them. Secondly, perhaps most obviously, they need to write and rewrite and revise. I think new writers frequently have the idea that they write the first draft and that’s it. The thing that goes on so often with new writers, beginning writers, is that they write a story and when they come to the end they are finished. Then they pick up a collection by Neil Gaiman , say Smoke and Mirrors, which is a swell, swell short story collection. Gaiman is a fantastic writer. And they read something in there and they compare what they have written to that, and they realize that theirs is nothing like as good.
Well, in the first place Neil Gaiman has been doing this for 20 years or more, maybe more. I don’t know. In the second place, what you’re reading is probably Neil Gaiman’s fifth draft. And they started in June and what they’re reading is their first draft. They have to realize that it’s only in bad movies that somebody becomes an overnight success with no preparation, no nothing. I wish I remembered what actor it was I saw interviewed on TV. The interviewer was saying, “Well, you are an overnight success.” And he said, “Yes, overnight success takes 15 years.” And that’s about right. Somebody gets into it and they knock around for 15 years or so, and suddenly they do something really that’s outstanding and everybody says, “Who is the new guy?” Well the new guy is some guy or gal who has been knocking around for 15 years. Generally speaking.
You have to think about what you’re writing. So often I read stuff by people and they have not thought about what they’re writing and I catch myself. It all goes down smooth and it looks just great. I come back to it later, and I read it, and I say, “Oh, my God. This will not work. This is not flyable.” I have a very intelligent 19-year-old woman who has been writing since she was 12, who occasionally sends me stories and things to read. And I have a look at them and try to get back, and too often I come back and say something like, “But you’re having this person watched by bowmen, and it’s pouring rain. In 30 seconds their bowstrings will be wet and their bows will be useless. And she says, “Oh, I didn’t think of that.” You have to think of that. You have to think of that stuff.
I read a very nice story a while back, laid in 19th-century Paris. Part of it concerned a stage dagger which had fake blood concealed in the handle, so that when one actor appear to stab another actor, blood appeared to come out and it would look good on the stage. And one character tells another that there is a pint of blood in the handle. In the first place you cannot possibly get a pint of liquid in the handle of the dagger. Come on, it’s completely unrealistic. And secondly, the 19th-century Frenchman in Paris is not going to measure the quantities of fluids in pints. That’s an English measure. He would use metric. He would give it as so many cubic centimeters of blood. As soon as the writer writes that kind of thing I’m ready to drop the book and kick it across the room, because he’s not thinking about what he’s doing. It’s not a matter of research. Anyone can look at a dagger in a museum someplace and see that it won’t hold a pint. And anybody with any intelligence ought to know they use the metric system in continental Europe.
You need to get your head straight on what [you’re trying] to do. You have to realize, for example, that plot is like salt in a stew. You need salt. You certainly don’t need too much. Too much plot will kill you dead. If you don’t have any plot at all, you may be able to get by if you’ve got enough pepper and garlic, and so on. Okay. But if you’ve got too much plot add more meat and more potatoes and more carrots and more celery, until you have this enormous plot full of stuff … until you’ve written a five-book trilogy. You need to understand that the idea for a story is basically an idea for an ending.
Probably 10 years ago I was at a con in Michigan somewhere, and I was sitting on the floor in a room party with a bottle of beer and talking to a circle of friends. And I had people come up to me, various different people, and offer me a story idea. Not only were none of these ideas original, and believe me, none of them were, but they were not really story ideas. They were opening situations. You cannot start writing, or you should not start writing with just the opening situation. Yes, it would be interesting if someone made a deal with the devil that allowed him to be believed by anyone who heard him talking providing he talked between midnight and 1 a.m., but that is an opening situation. To have a real idea, you have to say where am I going to go with this? And that was what [these people] did not have. Not that I would have taken what they were supplying anyway, because as I said these weren’t original ideas. Once you get accustomed to generating ideas, it’s a matter of selecting which ideas you’ve got time enough to work on and not of brainstorming to try and get new ideas. Plot is not an idea. Plot is what happens in the course of the story. The idea is what is the story about. Where is it going?
I did a big thing for the last class I taught on how to develop the plot of Cinderella, and went through the process. You know, the prince is going to rescue her. Rescue her from what? Well, from her family. She was despised by her family, and so on and so forth. And we worked through it and we got the whole plot of Cinderella in terms of some guy brainstorming a story to a friend. That stuff is easy because you look at what is, what they need, what they’re trying to do, whatever it may be. And then what can go wrong.
OK, here is a mad scientist in a castle in Europe and he has discovered the means of reanimating dead flesh. OK, what is he going to do? How is he going to demonstrate this great discovery to the world? Well, he has a reanimated corpse, but he can do something far fancier than that. He can make up his own individual out of reanimated parts. OK, now what can go wrong with this? Now you’re up and running. What can go wrong? Obviously when he’s got this new person that he reanimated, the new person may not be as cooperative as he assumes. And so on. Characterization is absolutely essential. All these things are really absolutely essential. You’ve got to have them, just like you’ve got to have a left front wheel and a right front wheel. People think that it’s hard, and because they think that it’s hard they won’t do it. Have you noticed that?
Wolfe: You characterize in brief by showing the character acting, speaking or thinking in a characteristic fashion. And you do not characterize by telling the reader this person is brave or foolish or ingenious or what have you. You show the person being ingenious. You show the person being brave. You show the person being foolish. And you never tell it at all. It’s so easy to say and it’s almost impossible to get people who are trying to write to actually do it. When I taught Clarion West in Seattle, there was a guy there who I will call Bob. Believe me, his name was not Bob. He should have been the best writer in the group. For one thing, he had already been through Clarion East. He was getting up in his high 30s. He had been writing for a long time and you would think this is going to be one of the top people. He wasn’t, and the reason he wasn’t was that when he wrote a story and had to introduce a new character, he stopped everything dead and he lectured anywhere from half a page to three pages about this character. Who he was, where he came from, what he looked like, what he liked to eat, what his relationship with other characters had been in the past, what his motivations were, how he dressed. At the end, I was the last week instructor when I was at Clarion West, and I got this last story from Bob, and I read it through, and he was still doing the same damn thing. He was using these to tell the reader how they should feel, in his opinion, about this character. And I said, “Look, Bob, I’ve been here a week. I know the five instructors. I know they are all good writers, except for the one editor who is a good editor, and I know damn well that all five of these people have been telling you not to do this. And I know that I have been telling you not to do this all week. Now it’s Friday and it’s the last day of Clarion, and you are still doing it. Why are you still doing it?” And he said, “Well, I think we need that.” Well, what do you do?
It sounds like he wasn’t listening.
Wolfe: No, he was listening. He wasn’t agreeing. He knew what everybody was telling him, but he had an inner certainty that this is the way that it should be done. And you couldn’t get through that.
Did that disillusion you then?
Wolfe: No, it made me realize that it is easy to tell people how to write and extremely difficult to make them believe you. The most recent class I taught, which is now a year and a half ago maybe, I went and gave two lectures to very wealthy posh Chicago suburb to people who wanted to write. And these are well-educated people, largely with too much time on their hands. At the end of it, I gave them my whole spiel and we workshopped stories, and I gave them one of my stories that we workshopped. At the end of it, I had them coming up to me and saying, “Well, look, you said not to do this and so and so does this in this story, so why can’t I do it?” And what they’re basically after is getting my permission to write badly. You know, yes, so and so does it. No, you shouldn’t do it. So and so can sell the story for whatever reason it may be. Maybe so and so is sleeping with the editor. Maybe so and so’s story is good enough in other respects that the editor buys it anyway. But what good is it to you if I tell you, “Look, you can do all this bad stuff in your story.” Are you going to write to the editor and say, “Look, I have Gene Wolfe’s permission to write as badly as the story is written” [laughs]. The editor is going to have a hearty laugh and throw that letter in the round file, and probably throw the story in the round file too, and then say he never received it when you say why didn’t you send the manuscript back.
It’s so tough to tell people, to get people to believe, if you want to do it successfully, these are the things you have to do. That’s like somebody who goes into a store and buys a violin and decides to play it my way. No. There are thousands of talented musicians who have played violins and they have worked out the way that you play a violin to play it well and be able to produce all the various notes that you want to produce quickly and purely. And if you say no I just want to sit with the violin across my lap like this and not bother with putting rosin on the bow, okay. You can do that. But you are never going to get a job playing the violin.