Writing Quality Fiction, and the Hard Work of Being a Writer: An Interview with Robert Kent
Robert Kent's Fiction Writing Workshop begins Sunday, October 21, 5 p.m.
Other workshops include: Writing the Horror Novel, The Basics of Self-Publishing, and Finishing Your First Novel (and your second).
What was the greatest piece of advice you ever got about writing?
The greatest advice about writing I ever got was actually bad advice. I won’t name the writer who gave it to me, but he’s a big deal, award-winning author whose work I greatly admire.
He taught a fiction workshop here in Indianapolis years and years ago. He gave me advice for how to “fix” my story that I didn’t agree with. In fact, his criticism led me to discover a better revision (so often this is the real value of constructive suggestions). But because he was a big deal author and I was a newbie, I rewrote my story his way.
Nobody published the story during that round of submissions because it still didn’t work and when I turned the story into another workshop, they hated it whereas the previous workshop had loved it. I revised it again, my way this time, for a third workshop and they loved it.
In addition to learning that quality fiction requires a whole lot of revision and hard work, I learned that no author, however many awards they win, has all the answers. This writer went on to write more stories and win more awards. He gave me lots of other advice that worked very well and taught me a lot about the craft.
And by giving me bad advice he taught me that there’s no one guaranteed approach to writing. We’re all of us figuring this out as we go.
Why do you write?
Because I can’t not write and no one’s stopped me yet. I’ve taken extended breaks from writing, but it calls me and I can never resist the urge for longer than a few weeks.
I tell every student that if they can imagine themselves being happy doing something other than writing, they should go do that thing and be free :) But if, like me, they have to write, they may as well master every technique they can employ to do it well.
What are you working on right now?
I’m polishing the final version of Banneker Bones and the Alligator People, the second book in my middle grade science-fiction series to be published in 2019, and—mild spoiler, I suppose—I’m drafting Banneker’s third adventure.
I’m also doing research for another adult horror novel I hope to write if I ever finish my middle grade books. Writing for younger readers is so much more challenging than writing for adults.
Favorite books or essays about the craft of writing?
I believe the most important book on writing I’ve ever read is Story by Robert McKee. That book changes lives. Grock its fullness. I reread Story every couple years to keep the information fresh and I got a little teary-eyed when the great Robert McKee liked one of my tweets.
And writers should definitely check out Middle Grade Ninja, not just because it’s my website, but because it features interviews with better writers than me, literary agents, and other industry professionals, many of whom have also written guest posts on the craft of writing.
What’s your favorite book, or the best book you’ve read recently? What do you love about it?
I could never pick an absolute favorite, but some contenders for the top spot are The Witches by Roald Dahl, The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling, and It by Stephen King.
Is there a writer whose work provided new understanding of what fiction writing is, and how it can be written? If so, who and how?
I think every piece of fiction I read changes my understanding of fiction writing at least a little, especially the stories that are badly written since they teach me what not to do. One book I read recently illustrated a clear issue in my newest project. Because I saw this poor author mess up, I knew how to fix my story. This is the importance of writers reading: it’s like watching people walk into booby traps in the path ahead of you.
One book I can think of that sparked a debate in my mind I’m still arguing to this day even though I read it when I was a teenager is I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. That book is objectively brilliant and well constructed. It has a singular message and it effectively delivers its shock to the reader and more people have enjoyed it than have ever read anything I’ve written.
And yet, I think it’s too short. Matheson is depicting the end of the world due to vampires, and he barely slows down to enjoy it. There are no long suspense sequences or horrifying moments other than the establishment of his premise and the execution of his admittedly brilliant literary thesis: the last of the human race would be a legend to a new race of “monsters.” Bravo, sir, well done (kisses fingers and blows on them).
And yet, I would’ve spent more time with the vampires and made more use of the fantastic premise, rather than treating the book as an equation with a solution. I Am Legend could’ve easily been a series or at least a longer book with more vampire action. It’s not that Matheson was wrong (blaspheme!). But his story showed me what sort of writer I want to be. All fiction is an author’s preference (hopefully taking into account the reader’s as well), and so it’s essential to read widely to form your own writer’s preference, so you can know the sort of stories you like and want to write.
Why do you like teaching at IWC? What do you look forward to about it?
Teaching a subject is the best way to really learn it on a deeper level. Running writing workshops at the IWC in which the participants email each other every day for five weeks to state what writing they did or failed to do keeps me accountable as well, so that we all hit our writing goals. If the students fall short, I still hit my daily word count due to the pressure of leading the group, so I win either way:)
And it’s been enormously gratifying to hear from students who’ve published their first books after taking one of my courses. I love giving writers the information I wish someone had given to me when I was starting out.
I’ve also convinced some would-be writers that they’re much happier as readers after trying out the writer’s lifestyle as writing is really, really hard. What a tremendous service I’ve provided these students! If they can be free of the notion that they need to write and enjoy the rest of their lives without carrying the guilt of not writing, I’ve done good in the world.
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Robert Kent is the author of the horror novels The Book of David and All Together Now: A Zombie Story, and the novellas Pizza Delivery and All Right Now: A Short Zombie Story
Under the name Rob Kent, he writes middle grade novels such as Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees and the upcoming Banneker Bones and the Alligator People.
He runs the popular blog for writers, MIDDLE GRADE NINJA, which features interviews and guest posts from over 500 authors, literary agents, and other publishing professionals, and was the recipient of Middle Shelf Magazine's Best Blog award. Robert Kent holds degrees in Literature and Creative Writing from Indiana University and owns over 900 Batman action figures. He lives with his family in Indianapolis where he teaches courses at the Indiana Writers Center and is hard at work on his next book..