A Core of Primal Emotions: Writing Advice from Nisi Shawl

Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magainze.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. 



Nisi Shawl co-wrote Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction  with Cynthia Ward.  In Writing the Other, Shawl and Ward  focus on helping writers develop characters across race and gender.  (See Jeff’s citation on page 194 of BookLife. SFWA has a really interesting page on Writing the Other, as well.)

Shawl is also an award-wining fiction and non-fiction writer, known for her rich characterization and stunningly beautiful prose.  Her recent collection, Filter House, was nominated for a 2009 World Fantasy Award and is an ideal place to start reading her fiction.

Below, Shawl talks about some of the best advice she has received and how she used it.



Nisi Shawl:  The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten came in two parts, from two different people.  John Crowley was my Week 6 instructor at Clarion West, and he told my class that we could only write about a character having an experience if we ourselves were able to draw on some parallel experience.  In other words, if our heroine was dressed in male drag and going on a quest through various hostile lands, we ourselves had better have dressed in some sort of drag, at least figuratively, and quested through several hostile locales, whether geographic or social in nature, or through some other analogous sort of landscape.  Because we had to know, at least on an emotional level, what that experience was like in order to write about it.  I based “Blue Lady” on this advice; “Blue Lady” is an unpublished fragment that I hope to expand one day soon.  More to the point, I’ve applied this advice to everything else I’ve ever written, published or unpublished.

Octavia E. Butler also taught at Clarion West.  She was never my instructor, but I did overhear a bit of advice she gave her students one year and adopted it as my own.  She told that class to think of what they most feared and write about that fear.  She emphasized that she wasn’t asking anyone to recount an actual experience they’d had with their phobia.  What she wanted us to do was use the emotional core of those experiences.  Because of this advice, I wrote my story “Momi Watu,” which I sold to “Strange Horizons,” where you can still read it.

Synthesizing these two pieces of advice, I decided that my best writing would come from a core of primal emotions intimately related to the experiences of my characters.

I’ve gotten lots of other good advice: on rewriting, from Geoff Ryman; on stopping and starting writing sessions, from Ted Reynolds; on creating a psychic space conducive to writing, from an author whose name I can’t remember who contributed an article about that topic for the magazine Speculations.

One thought on “A Core of Primal Emotions: Writing Advice from Nisi Shawl

  1. Your internet site appears actually beneficial. Staying a webpage writer myself, I genuinely appreciate the time you took in crafting this document.

Comments are closed.