As fascinating as the instruction Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden gave their writing workshop at last weekend’s FenCon in Dallas was their interaction -- agreeing and disagreeing, watching each other’s back, passionately and amiably interrupting and finishing each other’s sentences. The two are the editing team of Nielsen Hayden for Tor Books.
At this year’s WorldCon, Patrick won science fiction’s Hugo Award for Best Editor, Long Form (an award he’s won twice previously). A book he edited also won a Hugo this year (again, a repeat performance) as have books edited by Teresa. In addition, they teach writing, acquire fiction for Tor, and Patrick acquires and edits short fiction for Tor.com. I’ll stop with that brief summary and let you read the rest at their website, www.nielsenhayden.com/.
For this post, I’m cherry-picking some of their likes -- and how to match them. Since, as in all FenCon writing workshops, there’s too much information for one post, next week I’ll tell you what they don’t want -- what can drive otherwise mild-mannered editors to undergo psychotic breaks during slush pile forays. And yes, finally I’ll get around to telling you what they actually want to buy.
For starters, writers have heard the advice a thousand of times -- “show, don’t tell.” But face it, sometimes we’ve got to convey chunks of information to our readers. “The trick is,” Teresa says, “you want to look for natural occasions for expositions, the natural places people talk to each other. We (only) understand information in a book because it’s attached to story. If you start telling people things before the story starts, they won’t remember it because there’s no place to attach it.”
One of their suggestions for how to orient readers to our fictional worlds is to follow the example of historical writer Patrick O’Brian -- having a knowledgeable character describe the fictional world to a character who knows nothing about it. Being careful, of course, to attach the explanations to interesting and sympathetic characters.
What about another admonition writers hear repeatedly, to start a story with action? “It’s a general statement that’s a couple of occasions away from being true,” Patrick says.
“You can start a story with having somebody set fire to their yard,” Teresa says, “but the next thing that happens better be related to the yard burning.” Otherwise, readers simply become baffled by why they are being giving information without context or attribution. And if readers, like all of us, don’t care, they won’t remember.
What about those strange alien names in our science fiction and fantasy? “Don’t,” Teresa says. In fact, “Don’t try to throw in many strange words of any sort.”
“These are all rules you can break --” Patrick says, before Teresa cuts him off with, “Here’s the ultimate writing rule -- if it works, it’s right.”
And what another perennial problem of science fiction -- explaining how technology that doesn’t yet exist works? “A general rule for writing about how something works,” Teresa says, “is, do not explain. That just invites the reader to argue with you.”
Instead, “explain how it feels,” Patrick says. (Although both Nielsen Haydens keep
a sharp lookout for the illogical, which they’ll discuss in a later post.) Their suggestion is to use what they call a “hand wave” to avoid dwelling on more detail too soon than readers need. Instead of explaining how a worm hole, for instance, works, just say it works and concentrate on side issues such as how long it takes, how it feels, how much freight it can handle.
“Reading is a light trance state,” Teresa says. “Which is why excessive detail doesn’t work,” Patrick adds.
So how much detail is enough? “If your readers are nitpicking the scenery, the train isn’t going fast enough,” Teresa says. Or, instead of showing the details themselves, show the character’s reactions to them. Or, “If you’re having trouble describing something, crop down and describe only part of it. If that doesn’t work, crop down further. And stop short of the inevitable conclusion.”
“The reader will be so invested in it,” Patrick says.
(Next Monday, Team Nielsen Hayden’s dislikes, including people who don’t understand that they both have the same surname, Nielsen Hayden, spelled without a hyphen.)