Notes from a Panel Discussion at the World Science Fiction Convention on “What makes a good story?”
This was an exceptionally good panel discussion in part because it included two writers, a storyteller, and a graphic novelist. Each came at their craft from a very different perspective and all are masters at what they do.
Panelists: Nancy Kress, Robert Silverberg, James Lucas, Bill Willingham
Anecdote: Robert Silverberg: It wasn’t that people were telling him that he could do better it was that the pay got better. He used to not do second drafts. He used to use a typewriter and carbon paper and it would come out salable but he didn’t do second drafts. Then he was asked by Cyril Kornbluth if he did second drafts and was told that it would make it better and now he writes second drafts.
It became harder for him to write the story all in one draft and have it come out well. So he began typing it and then doing a second draft and it came out better. Grammar, repetitions everything was better with the second draft. He wrote a 981 page novel and he typed it out twice. Then he bought a computer– he keys it in and then tinkers with it and now he prints it out. Robert Silverberg smiled at how much easier it was to write on a computer.
Nancy Kress said, it was a bad idea to put Robert Silverberg on a panel about what makes a good story because he gives the impression that it is possible to pump out a first draft and it will be good and salable. What Cyril Kornbluth said influenced Silverberg and Kress thinks this is good and she made a transition after she realized that she needs to think of her stories in terms of scenes. Once she started thinking of stories in scenes then her stories began to sell. This was her first big transition. Her second transition was while in school and she was given a course to teach on writing science fiction. She brought in Gene Wolfe who said that you should bring in two separate problems and let them solve each other and this made her writing richer and deeper. Next came Bruce Sterling. Sterling is a wonderful writer but a brutal critique. He told her that all she was doing was moving decorations around on a moldy cake. She was taking dated tropes and rearranging them and he made her think about other things. He told her that the economics of her story were not working. Her next story was about economics and was much more in depth and worked much better. Her recommendation is that it is a good idea to listen to colleagues and use what you hear.
Silverberg: Lester Del Rey asked why he was writing. He said for money. Del Rey told him he was doing it all wrong and that he should be taking a bit longer and that he should produce stuff of quality and then he would be able to have his stories in anthologies and circulating longer and make more money. Writing a little higher made it so the stories lasted longer.
Lucas: At first he thought that he had to memorize a story to recreate it for an audience. Then he realized that it was kind of dead. And now he reads different versions, does a beat sheet, etc. He learns the stories and then he recreates them. He learns larger stories. He has to do a great deal of work to prepare the story.
Willingham: The lightbulb moment…. He started as an artist and thought that he only wanted to be an artist. The writer was only there to add a few words and was as a safety measure. He started writing because he got tired of having the writer miss and so he started writing more and then he transitioned into writing. He writes in scenes and in the comic book world there is no space to waste. And he uses scenes as well because then he could pick scenes and construct his story. He is constantly asking what is the fewest number of scenes and words that will tell the story and he does not want to waste pages. He calls it decompression. You have to be terse and brutal and slim everything down to the slimmest possible component to tell the story in. The other lightbulb moment– quit wasting space and time and the readers’ time.
Lucas said that he is writing a children’s book and he gets to tell the story to thousands of people and see what works and he has worked through the reiterations.
Can you talk about the thinking process of what is a good story?
Silverberg: Story ideas. Take an established idea and stand it on its head. Take the time machine the time traveler travels and tells his story. What if he cannot come back? Ask questions– who will this hurt? Who will be affected? Science fiction both has a concept and is a human story and you have to consider who will be affected.
Kress: Doesn’t know where her ideas come from. An idea will come to her already tied to a character and there is a situation and she doesn’t know what will happen next. Sometimes she has to consider if the character she is considering is the right character. The thing she finds most useful is that she has to plunge in and start with the first scene. She doesn’t know the ending. She considers what could go wrong. What can get screwed up and what do the characters want in the situation? She believes that if she knew the ending then maybe it would be boring to write. She doesn’t know the endings when she starts a story.
Silverberg, in his quiet smooth way asked, “How many unfinished stories do you have?”
Kress admitted that she has unfinished stories. Sometimes she has to go back and rewrite the story because she has to reconcile with the end. She tries to become the characters and figure out what they might do in the situation. She becomes like an actor. She says that when one creates stories so organically a certain number of stories die.
Willingham: He does not start to tell a story until they start to come together. He isn’t sure where the starting ideas come from. Only time when he really knows where the ideas come from is when he hears something and he gets a new take on something. He is slightly dyslexic and sometimes ideas will come out of the twisting of meaning of ordinary signs and things that he hears. Ideas often percolate and then they just come. Writing a series he just starts and he cannot know where the series is going because it has to continue.
Lucas: He creates stories and he finds stories. He sometimes just wakes up and he has a dream and he just starts writing the story. He often has to write it and see if it is tellable. He also drives all over the place and he will tell ideas to his partner and then he bounces ideas off of his partner and they will develop the stories. Sometimes he will have a show with a theme and he has to go search for ideas and create a show. The themes give him a thing to hang his hat on and organize around.
Willigham: Even though he is not a storyteller on a stage he tries to think in similar terms in that he tries to come up with stories that will entertain as though he were performing.
Lucas: There has to be a reason to tell the story. He needs a lesson or moral to tell a story.
Willignham: Do you feel a need to have a moral?
Lucas: Yes I feel I need to teach something and entertain.
Kress: Those are the not the only two options. Reflecting back the reality is another option. Highlighting world views is another option. Every story of every kind has an implied world. You are trying to reflect back the world.
Willingham: Fringe. The purpose of art is not to tell your audience what to do but show them who they are. To reveal some of what I think of the world is something he tries to do.
Silverberg: He doesn’t believe that a story should be exclusively didactic. A story has to be about something. Take the Iliad. When you read the Iliad you are transformed.
How do you identify a quality of the story or reach that point where you think that the story is good?
Kress: She feels that she has no control over it. Sometimes she knows when it is good and other times she realizes it isn’t. She recognizes when things are good by her own excitement with the piece. When it is good all the forces in the story will converge on a point and it is a point worth being at. She has very little control over her writing and she does not recommend it. It is inefficient.
Silverberg: He knows the writing is good at those moments where he gets an aha moment. He says that when he knows the title of a story then he knows what the story will be about. He starts with titles. He says that when all the strands come together then he knows he has a story. He no longer has to keep such conscious track of things. But he has a very intuitive feel for things and feels he has reached enlightenment. He does make outlines. However, he has had times when the story snuck up on him and then he suddenly realized that the story was not what he thought it was. Once he realized who the real villain in the story was— 500 pages into the novel.
What did your editor say?
Silverberg: Nobody ever noticed.
Kress: Some writers write from outlines and then stitch things together. However Kress doesn’t do this. She writes organically. She creates her characters and then they take over. Connie Willis called her on this because they are characters that she has created. She says that this still happens and she has fallen in love with some of her heroes.
Silverberg: Dyslexia is a useful skill for finding stories. A true professional can find a story to tell.
Willigham: If you are doing a series you have to find the story and keep producing.
Question: You cannot go back and revise. Do you ever wish that you could?
Willigham: Yes this is true and yes he wishes that he could go back and rewrite sometimes. Once he killed off a favorite villain too early and he tries not to have it happen.
Question: What about randomness? This is the new movement in art. Have you used this?
Silverberg: Yes. He used a pencil in the New York Times and came up with the two words angels and computers. He wrote a story from it.