Turning Loose The Tiger: Writing Advice from 15 Fiction Writers

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


Advice is as much about timing as it is about content.

For instance, I spent all of last fall planning out a novel.  I spent most mornings buried in index cards, slips of note paper, and even a spreadsheet or two.  I had this novel so planned out that the outline is more than half the word count of what I expect the final draft to be.  I had a lot of work done, a lot of enthusiasm for the project, but… I had hit a wall and not written a single full scene, not done anything with the material for almost two months.

When the novelist Robert Randisi and the story writer Marthayn Pelegrimas were in town recently, I figured I’d bore Marthayn with my unwritten (but well-documented) masterpiece.

Marthayn listened politely until I finished, then she said, “Just write it already!”

Oomph.  No BS.  Straight to the point.  Marthayn’s like that.

I was knee deep in the actual writing by the time Bob and Marthayn left the next morning. I’d heard that particular advice before, but the timing was just right this go around.

All in all, I like getting advice, good, bad, or indifferent.   And I love getting writing advice, especially good writing advice.

Writing advice happens outside the actual writing.  It gets you thinking about what you’re doing and can really turn on your internal editor, really put you in the editorial mode. Sometimes that’s just what you need.  And sometimes it’s the last thing you need.

Again, it’s about the timing.

“Working as an editor,” said C. Michael Curtis, who has been the fiction editor at The Atlantic Monthly since the early 1960s, “I’ve learned to recognize many of my own mistakes [in the work of others] — such as sentences that threatened not to end, and promiscuous use of adjectives and adverbs.   Unfortunately, I now tend to edit my own work as I write, which sometimes means endless rewriting and near-paralysis.  I now need to get better at turning loose the tiger, letting the work flow, without a backward glance, knowing that I’ll be able to root out the repetitions and awkwardnesses later on.”

Turn loose the tiger and let the work flow, without a backward glance.  You can’t beat Mike’s advice!

And it fits pretty well with Marthayn’s advice, too.

Since I was a kid, I’ve loved discussing writing, reading about writing, learning about writing, and, eventually, teaching writing…  loved it almost as much as the actual writing.  All in all, I spend about ten months out of the year in the classroom, teaching writing and literature classes.  That’s a lot of talking about words on the page, a lot of advice swapping.

As Jeff VanderMeer and I have begun to plan in earnest for the 2010 session of Shared Worlds, we thought it would be interesting to gather up as much advice as we could about writing, to get a variety of writers to talk about the craft of fiction writing – in general and in terms of specific craft elements.  Over the next few months, I will be posting the round-up articles on some aspect of the fiction writing process.

Today’s article includes comments from fifteen writers, including Michael Bishop and Kathe Kuja, both of whom will be visiting writers at Shared Worlds this summer.

Feel free to comment at the end of the article or to suggest topics or authors you’d like to hear from.

And, if you want my advice, share what you read here with other writers, especially young writers.  The world needs more stories, and that means we need more writers.


What is the best piece of general writing advice you’ve ever received?


Don Bassingthwaite is a Canadian novelist who writes dark fantasy.

Probably the simplest and most practical piece of writing advice I’ve ever had comes from a high school English teacher, Mary Jane Decoste. Her signature criticism on essays was “So what?” What that boils down to for me is to make every point count. If something is meant to be significant, make it significant. Make it mean something.

Michael Bishop is a writer of speculative fiction.

The best advice I’ve ever received about writing comes from Ursula K. Le Guin, who advised, quite simply, “Write.” I’m paraphrasing, but her rationale for offering this advice centered on the fact that would-be tuba players never ask, “How can I learn to play the tuba?” because the self-evident answer is “Pick up the tuba and do your best to play it.” Would-be writers, on the other hand, seem to think that there is some secret password that will admit them to the sodality of writers, when, in fact, all that will get you there is writing and testing the result against your own ear. One could pick nits with this advice, I’m sure, but I regard it as sound. Certainly, you will never produce even the first line of a haiku if you don’t sit down and . . . write.

Victoria Blake is a fiction writer and the founding publisher of Underland Press.

The best piece of writing advice? Keep writing. Don’t settle for what comes out on the first draft. Investigate what’s on the page. And remember that fiction writing has more in common with ditch digging than it does with painting. There’s just a lot of dirt to move out of  the way.

Johnny D. Boggs is a writer of historical fiction and the president of The Western Writers of America.

Ten years ago, Max Evans, author of The Rounders, The Hi Lo Country, Bluefeather Fellini and many other works told me, “Writers only have so many words in them.

So whatever you’re writing, make sure it’s what you want to be writing, because there’s no guarantee you’ll get to write anything else.” Those words struck me, because at that time I was writing pretty much pot-boilers because that’s what my publisher wanted. No literary breadth.

So I started pushing out, finding new publishers, writing more what I wanted to write, character-driven, historically grounded fiction. Max pretty much changed my career, and I’m indebted to him for that.

Elizabeth Cox is a novelist, poet, and short fiction writer.

The best piece of writing advice had to do with the value of persistence: to be persistent in the discipline of writing, and to be persistent in the publishing world.  (In other words, don’t let the times of being knocked down get to you.)  But the real persistence comes in the act of writing- working and reworking a story, or novel, or poem.

Paul Crilley is a Scottish-born fantasy novelist living in South Africa.

When I was 15 or so I wrote to Terry Pratchett. he told me to write 500 words every single day. No excuses. As he said, you don’t expect to become a boxer without training or practicing, and it’s the same with writing. You have to put the time in.

I also wrote to Margaret Weis, and she told me that it takes either a million words or ten years to become a writer. For me, the ten years thing was pretty much spot on, as I sold my first short story when I was 26. Pratchett’s advice made me want to write every day. (I don’t think I quite managed it every day. I tried, but life obviously got in the way.) And Weis’ advice taught me to make sure I was in this for the long haul. There were no short cuts.

Ed Greenwood is a prolific Canadian writer, best known as a fantasy novelist and game designer.

Start writing. Now. And keep at it; write something every day. Revision is writing, remember. Get something written. If you spend forever planning or dreaming (or posing at “being an author”), you will produce nothing, and will have wasted writing time that can never be regained. There are no prizes for speed, but there’s no reward at all for doing nothing.

Writing is (or should be) a never ending learning process, so if you don’t put in the time at it, you won’t get better at it.  I have followed this advice for years, which is how I’ve written or co-written over 180 published books in 30 years, as well as publishing literally thousands of articles, reviews, short stories, scripts, poems, plays, screen treatments, web features, and more.

John Jeter is a novelist, journalist, and owner of The Handlebar, a small music venue.

Show, Don’t Tell. It took me nearly 20 years to figure out what it meant. I gather that what it means is – use specific, sensual details to paint a portrait of place, character, etc. That is, rather than saying: “It was raining,” write: “The rain dropped like millions of ashen water balloons” – something you can see, identify with, even touch, smell, hear, a detail that engages one if not all the senses. I’m still working on that.

Story arc. Story shouldn’t be episodic and the “arc” should fit the story, not the other way around, otherwise the structure will become forced, contrived. The arc should flow with a natural (and in the hands of geniuses, seamless) stream from first-tension/setup to middle to climax/denouement to end. Still working through this advice – need improvement.

Scene 12. I learned this one at a writing camp. “Scene 12” is the one scene in the novel that tells us why we’re here, what the major theme/issue/tension of the story is. (“Scene 12” comes from the deconstruction of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, in which the novel is dissected into scenes, and Scene 12 is the scene in which McMurphy, playing cards in the asylum, is told by one of the patients that he gambled and lost, that he’s never going to get out of the place.  It comes about 50-70 pages or so in the book.) In Journalism, it’s called the “nut graf” — usually the third or fourth paragraph – and it tells the reader why the story’s important, urgent, and what’s going to happen.

Character.   Have your character, especially main character, do something (I saw this online.) So many characters are just “thrown” into situations. They need to be active, involved, engaged, rather than just a passive or accidental piece of the story.

Jaleigh Johnson is a fantasy and romance writer.

The best piece of general writing advice I ever received was to read and never stop reading, both inside and outside my chosen genre.  When you’re reading, you’re learning.  I forgot that advice for a few years, but nowadays I make sure I always have a book on my nightstand, and I try to read a little bit every night, even if it’s only a page.

Kij Johnson is a poet and speculative fiction writer.

The most important advice I have gotten came from Jim Gunn just last year: Whatever else it is about, science fiction should reflect on the human condition. All fiction should, but writers of SF/F have the gifts of our genre: we can discuss humanity as a whole, and reality is not our restricting variable.

Kathe Koja is a writer of young adult fiction.

[The best advice was] to take my work seriously: thank you, Clarion and the great Kate Wilhelm.  It’s what changed me from a shoegazer writing for the trunk to a professional. To take your work seriously means to treat the process with respect – all the steps, from writing to publishing; to give it your best, give it your first priority, and never give it up.

Jeff LaSala is a speculative fiction writer and editor.

Write—a lot.  If you haven’t the time to sit down and hammer out hundreds or thousands of words per day, just do it in small doses.  When I first started writing as a kid, I had dozens of stories started but never finished.  When I hatched on a new idea, I didn’t wait; I just started writing with no idea where it would go, even if it meant abandoning my previous story.  But it didn’t matter.  It got me used to the pattern of articulating my thoughts in a written form.

It seems too obvious, doesn’t it?  Just write, because procrastination still comes easy no matter how much you love the art.  A writer writes.

Ari Marmell is a novelist and game writer.

This was initially given to me by a creative writing professor in my sophomore year in college, and repeated to me multiple times since then (most recently by, of all people, Jim Butcher, on Twitter, resulting in a very Beatles-fan-girl like squeal on my part). It’s been phrased in multiple different ways, but ultimately, it’s this:

Write what you want to write. Do not worry about what other people are writing. Do not worry about what’s popular. Do not worry about what other people might think/say about your writing. Do not worry about the people who somehow think that the creativity that goes into genre fiction is somehow “wasted.” Do not worry about trying to make a “mark” or a “change” to whatever genre you’re working in. Your task–your only task–is to write whatever you find most exciting to write. Anything else is going to result in a more unpleasant process that produces an inferior work.

Marthayn Pelegrimas writes science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fiction under her own name and as Christine Matthews.

The best piece of general writing advice I ever received was: “Just write it!”

Somewhere along the way, I got the idea in my head that there was only one “perfect” way to write.  I was convinced that every comma and period had to be in the right place and every word had to be the perfect word. Well, there isn’t such a thing as perfection in life and certainly not in writing. And I was lucky enough to run into a writer who laughed when I told him about all the preparation I was making, getting ready to write.

“Stop standing on the edge of the pool thinking of how you’re going to swim to the shallow end.  Just jump in and swim,” he said.

So I just sat down and wrote.  It wasn’t perfect, it never will be…but I did it.

Ken Scholes is a speculative fiction writer.

Write, revise, submit, repeat. It’s the only magic bullet that works. I saw it work when I put it into practice and my career took off.

Come Monday, I will be posting stories of the worst advice many of these same authors have received.  Meanwhile, post a comment below and keep an eye out for Spotlights on Nisi Shawl and Marly Youmans.

6 thoughts on “Turning Loose The Tiger: Writing Advice from 15 Fiction Writers

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