The Geomancer


Kay Kenyon's Latest Newsletter

Still Writing )
Kay Kenyon's reflections on the craft of ficiton with updates on her writing and advice for yours. A bi-monthly newsletter. December 2007
In this issue: Four Things Every Story Must Have Holiday Book List On Work SchedulesKay's Book Among PW's Top 150See You in February

This month I'm working hard on the final touches to Book Three in my series. Being on contract, (and therefore on deadline) is a huge inducement to writing, I can attest!
Nevertheless, I've had time to visit Portland OR for conferences and workshops. The holidays are here, but still . . . wouldn't this be a good time to create some peaceful moments to write, to capture some seasonal thoughts in your notebook?

Just a little nudge, my writing friends, to be Still Writing. By the way, I was thrilled recently to see the new Stephan Martiniere cover for Book Two, A World Too Near! (March, 2008.)

Kay Kenyon

Four Things Every Story Must Have
Kay in Boston

Photo copyright Nomi S. Burstein.

Think of all the things a piece of fiction must have. Who can ever get it all right? For example, we're told to excel at plot, character, setting, point of view, dialogue, backstory, conflict, and style. If it's science fiction, add cool science ideas and scope. This list is long and demanding, and no author gets them all right. But which ones are worth your utmost effort?

Before I go on, let me set the ground rules. I assume you know at least the basics of writing and storytelling. Books, magazines, and the internet abound with advice.To get a sense of the craft, read, read! (See Holiday Books, below, e.g.) So on to the Big Four.

Originality. Publishers look for an exciting premise. It doesn't have to be brilliant, but it does have to shine! Don't short change your writing with a weak or warmed-over concept. Keep digging untill you find an intriguing premise. Think Diana Gabaldon, Outlander series; Kathleen Goonen, Queen City Jazz. Toby Bishop in Airs Beneath the Moon. Not every premise can be as original as: "Dinasaur DNA retrieved from amber." But don't settle for plain.

Vivid Environment. One of the worst mistakes beginners make is a bland setting. This is a real crime in science fiction, of course, but true for every story. We lead modest, safe lives, most of us! For heaven's sake, take us somewhere interesting--such as the offices of a high-powered law firm or a small town in the 1950s. In science fiction especially, a sense of wonder--grounded in vivid detail--is a sure win. It's fun, too. I plan about 60% of a world, and let the next 40% surprise me as I write. Some recent favs in speculative fiction: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell; River of Gods; Brasyl.

Strong Lead Character. We've head this a million times. Give your lead an abiding strength and a nagging handicap. Too much strength and we've got a cardboard character. Too much weakness and the personality lacks charisma. A little of both, please. If you don't give them a special ability, give them a driving desire. For a lovely balance of strength and weakness see Justina Robson's Lila in Keeping it Real.

Conflict or Tension on Every Page. Focus your story around a problem. Out of problems arise conflict. To deepen the conflict sufficiently, 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. You don't need meaningless action to tart up scenes, but you do at least need sustained and escalating tension. That's a high bar. Aim high.

A novel doesn't have to have everything right. Remember Randall Jarrell's wonderful line: "A novel is a narrative of a certain length with something wrong with it." Even so, readers will love a novel with two great strengths. Give them four and you're playing with aces.

Holiday Book List
Shinn cover

Books, books, books for gifts. That's the mainstay of my gift list, and I'm sticking to it. A dreadful statistic came out recently: The average adult spends two hours a day watching TV and seven minutes reading. Let's fight back: Give gifts of books this year, preferably from independent bookstores, but in any case, books! Here are my Fight Back recommendations for recent enjoyable reads.

Mainstream fiction:

  • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
  • This is a tender coming of age story; the best I've ever read.
  • The Road by Cormic Mc Cathy
  • Very dark, but a near-perfect post-apocolyptic tale.


  • The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier
  • A fun summary of what scientists in the various disciplines wish the average person knew. I passed my chemistry class, but I learned a lot!

Science Fiction and Fantasy:

  • River of Gods, Ian McDonald
  • An exotically future India, beautifully written and plotted.
  • Keeping It Real, Justina Robson
  • A fusion of sf and fantasy, with a rock-star elf and a kick-ass heroine.

  • Reader and Raelynx, Sharon Shinn
  • Compulsively readable fantasy/romance. Begin at the start with Mystic and Rider.
  • Airs Beneath the Moon, by Toby Bishop (Louise Marley) Young women learn to ride the fabulous horses of Oc.

On Work Schedules
Kay at computer

No fair skipping this article. I know this isn't a glamorous topic. But if you're not getting writing done, I can almost guarantee that you have No Schedule.

If you're waiting for a free hour or two to write, you're on a course for failure. The world won't beg you to write. In fact, the world with its mundane (and critical) demands will always expand to fill 24 hours every day. And please don't wait for inspiration to strike before sitting down to write. Inspiration almost never shows up ahead of time; rather it arises from the act of writing. Carve out the hours you can for writing.

The picture above is me at my keyboard during my scheduled writing time. All right, me and my cat. But I'm not going to tell you my schedule, because for you, it's irrelevant. I can't tell you the best schedule to have, because it's got to suit your unique circumstances and preferences.

So carve out a tailored writing time and stick with it. If you're just starting out as a writer, it may help write in a paper notebook. It's often easier to give yourself permission to write draft material if it isn't on a computer screen. If you feel empty, write lists of topics. Or journal. Talk to yourself about recent books you've read, and what you loved about them. If you've started a piece of fiction, write the next scene, warming up to it with a quick edit of the last one.

Be flexible, too. If you've made some progress, let yourself quit early. If you haven't, stick with your commitment to those hours. Keep distractions at bay. No phones, no household chores, no email. Remember that it may take you a long time to warm up to your writing session. Don't give up because you are doodling for the first fifteen minutes. Don't chastise yourself because you got nowhere. The next session could well produce a startling insight or piece of writing.

Your success as a writer depends on being faithful to a work schedule. Isn't that sort of a relief, that it isn't about raw talent?

Kay's Book Among PW's Top 150
book cover

A few weeks ago I was thrilled to find that Publishers Weekly named Bright of the Sky among the top 150 books (among 6,000) that they reviewed across all genres in 2007. The story takes place in a tunnel universe next door, peopled by fabulous and dangerous beings. This novel, and in particular its milieu, has received quite a bit of critical attention in the mainstream press as well as from science fiction reviewers. Below is a link to the complete list of PW top picks.

See You in February

These are my winter thoughts about writing fiction. Thanks for letting me know some of the things you want discussed--I'll work them in. Meanwhile, how about a New Year's resolution to set a writing schedule?

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