Nnedi Okorafor at the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest providing tips on how to start writing.

The Sport of Writing by Nnedi Okorafor

Originally published in Writers of the Future Volume 29, this article written by Nnedi Okorafor provides useful writing tips on how to start writing and even more specifically how to start a story. She discusses her personal story beginning with a career as a professional tennis player and how this provided her greatest writing lesson learned. Nnedi explains the battle she fights when beginning a new story, when facing the dreaded blank page and her ultimate triumph that has made her one of today’s most successful fantasy writers.

“The Writers of the Future experience played a pivotal role during a most impressionable time in my writing career. Everyone was so welcoming. And afterwards, the WotF folks were always around when I had questions or needed help. It was all far more than a mere writing contest.” —Nnedi Okorafor

When I was sixteen years old, I learned one of the greatest lessons I could learn as a writer. This was four years before I wrote my first creative work, so I didn’t know this at the time. I was barely paying attention, really. I was too busy trying to win. I was in San Diego, California on the hot tennis court, Wilson tennis racquet in hand, Reebok tennis shoes on my feet. These were from my corporate sponsors, but I loved their products, too.

I was playing in one of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) junior national tournaments. These were where the top young players in the country battled it out. I wasn’t a top seed. Neither was my opponent. I don’t even remember her name. However, she and I were evenly matched and for this reason, our match was long. Where most tennis matches took about an hour, ours had stretched to five and a half.

I’d lost the first set 6–7, won the second set 7–6 and because of this, we had to play a third. The score was 6–6 and we were playing a tiebreaker. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky or a person on the sidelines. We had no audience. Both of us had flown to California alone, so neither of us had parents there to watch.

Regardless, we were two teenagers at war, slugging that ball back and forth, diving for drop-shots, acing serves, really digging into the root of the sport.

All the other girls had finished playing their matches. Everyone but the officials at the front desk had gone home for the day. Finally, after about five hours and forty-five minutes, I won the match. There was no burst of applause. I hadn’t advanced to any namable position like the finals or the semifinals. I didn’t scream or fall to my knees with elation. And if I had, there was no photographer to catch that moment.

Nevertheless, I felt I’d reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro; I experienced the purest form of success. This had nothing to do with winning and everything to do with loving the game and playing it well after being blessed with a formidable opponent. She and I shook hands and then sat in the shade and drank lots of water. We didn’t talk. We had nothing to say. We went to the front desk and reported our score. That was it.

Nearly a decade passed before I realized the lesson in this experience. Just as in sports, when writing creatively, if you don’t love the craft and art of it, you’ll never experience this pure form of success. Yet when you do have this love, you realize that pure success does not come from fame or fortune, it grows from that love.

Too often athletes and writers are seen as being on opposite sides of the spectrum, culturally, socially and in practice. The seed of this separation is planted early. In elementary and high school, there are “the jocks” who are the athletes and “the nerds” who are the academics (this group more often than not includes those who seek to and will become creative writers). Writers are stereotyped as sedentary people who loathe exercise; their movement is in their heads. Athletes are stereotyped as being anything but academics and thinkers. It is brains versus brawn.

How to Start Writing

Both groups miss out on valuable lessons by being so separated. The fact is that there are many parallels between the worlds of sports and creative writing. In my experience, they are nearly interchangeable. They are both forms of craft and art. Since I am speaking to writers, I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned from sports that are perfectly applicable to writing.

One of the greatest lessons is how to gracefully, bravely face fear. I remember vividly those matches where I had to play against someone ranked just below me. These were matches where I had nothing to gain and everything to lose. One of the unique things about tennis is that it is a very mental sport. The best player does not always win. All it takes is a small distraction and next thing you know, you’ve lost.

For example, I was playing a girl in a tournament when I was about fourteen. I was winning easily. I’d won the first set 6–2 and I was up 5–3. I was about to wrap things up. Then during one of the changeovers (every two games you switch sides), I noticed her left hand. It was prosthetic. I was only about fourteen years old and this killed my concentration. I went on to lose the match because I couldn’t stop looking at her hand and marveling at the fact that she could compensate so well.

Loss of concentration is not the only type of mental struggle when playing someone ranked below you. I was immature and highly competitive and such matches sparked sharp nervous fear. Despite this, I had to go out there. The walk out to the court was like a death sentence. The warm-up was torture. When I began playing the first point, I would find that I had to either curl up and lose or stand up and fight.

This is a battle I fight when beginning a new story when facing the dreaded blank page. There’s a voice in my head saying, “There’s nothing there! How can you create something from nothing? Where do I begin? There’s no instruction manual or guide I can Google.” That blank page is like the opponent who has everything to gain from me and nothing to lose.

Though I feel this fear every time, I have never walked away from it. I stand and face the monster, then I dance with it and it is exhilarating. “If you fear something you give it power over you,” says a North African proverb. And if you conquer that fear, you are rewarded with power and joy.

For one year, between the high school tennis season and my first (and only) year playing college tennis, I joined my high school’s track team. I went on to win over twenty-two medals and compete and place in the state championship in multiple events. My best event was the 400m. This race was once around the track; it is the longest sprint. Whenever I ran this race, something peculiar happened. I’d black out from the hundred-meter mark to the three-hundred-meter mark. Then I’d return to myself in that last hundred meters. The sound of the crowd would burst back into my ears as if it had been on mute and I’d speed up all the way to the finish line.

How to Start a Story

At first, I was disturbed by this blacking out. These were moments where I had no control of what was happening. However, after winning a few races, I learned to stop questioning and just trust in it. This is something I’ve applied to writing many, many times. Practically every successful story I’ve written grew from a “blackout” moment where I would fall into a creative zone. During these times, no matter how hard I try, I cannot recall how I came up with what I wrote. When I first began writing, these moments scared me. I didn’t like the idea of not knowing precisely where something came from or how I wrote it. Nonetheless, many novels and short stories later, I’ve learned not to question, fear, deconstruct or try to remember these blackouts.

There is a side of creativity that defies logic. This is the side that is no longer craft, but art. Imagine driving your car. Now, remove your hands from the wheel. Or imagine running. Now, shut your eyes. Now trust that you will not crash or fall. These are mystical moments for a mystical practice. Both athlete and writer are better off accepting these moments, welcoming them, even seeking to evoke them.

When life happens, certain emotions can cripple progress … like rage. There is one particular tennis match where I was being eaten alive by rage just before I went out onto the court. It was the state championship and I was tired of everything—the constant matches, nosy reporters, trash talking and pressure.

I felt burned out and generally angry at my existence. I just wanted to go home and sleep.

Instead, I had to play a girl who was just below me in rank, one of those “everything to lose and nothing to gain” situations. However, instead of letting that hold me down, I went out there and focused my rage to a razor-sharp edge. Then I used this weapon to demolish my opponent in a half hour. I beat her 6–0,

6–0, acing nearly every serve. I didn’t care about winning; I just wanted to get off the court so I could go relax.

Rage and writing can be enemies or friends. One can be so angry that she walks away from the page because she can’t focus enough to write. The words fall apart when she looks at them. Her eyes cloud with tears so that she can’t see them. The angry throb in her head is too loud for clear thinking. Or one can use that rage to sharpen her pen. Rage can be a great blade sharpener. It doesn’t feel good but it’s burning inside you, so you might as well use it. Don’t let it stop you from producing; channel it into your work instead. Let it serve a purpose. Produce something positive.

My Greatest Lesson

Possibly the greatest lesson that I took directly from sports and brought to writing was stamina. The stamina needed to practice day in, day out and then prove one’s worth in a tournament or track competition is the exact same stamina needed to navigate one’s way through the mental and physical obstacle course of finishing a novel. My days of training for the nationals and state championships helped me tackle the challenges of my first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker. Right after I sold this novel to Houghton Mifflin, my editor asked me to change it from third to first person.

On the tennis court, I’d tell myself, “One point at a time.” When writing, I tell myself, “One page at a time.” One of my favorite Nigerian proverbs is, “Little by little the bird builds its nest.” I used this proverb to create Nnedi Rule Number One: Don’t look a novel in the eye until you are done with the first draft. Focus on the journey, not the destination. This is the best way to reach your destination. Understand that the journey will be tough, perilous and sometimes painful. Never give up, but be willing to change and listen. Finish what you start. I’ve written over twenty novels and there has only been one that I have not finished.

The body and the mind are deeply connected. Writing is a mental and spiritual art but there is a physical side to it, too. One must have the stamina to sit and focus for long periods of time. There’s the physical act of the fingers flying across the keys or the hand holding the pen as it dances across the paper and the mouth moving as it exhales the story. Part of my own writing process includes working out at the gym. My muse sends me many of my finest ideas while at the gym, sweating and breathing hard, blood pumping. Exercise keeps my body fit and I therefore have more energy to burn writing.

It’s all connected.

Nnedi Okorafor

Dr. Nnedi Okorafor is a speculative fiction novelist of Nigerian descent. Her novels include Who Fears Death (winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel), Akata Witch (an Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), and The Shadow Speaker (winner of the Parallax Award). Her children’s book Long Juju Man won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa. Her short story “Windseekers” was a Writers of the Future Contest finalist in 2001 and was published in Vol. 18.

Dr. Okorafor holds a Ph.D. in literature and is a Full Professor at the University of Buffalo, New York (SUNY). She became a Writers of the Future judge in 2013.

Find out more at:

Alicia Cay certificates

How To Start Writing

I have always known that I am a writer. With the kind of knowing you feel deep in your bones and emanates from the very core of your being. And as writers must do, I write. Although that wasn’t always the case. How to start writing…

A Writing Contest

About eight years ago my Mom returned from a trip to Los Angeles with a couple of books she had gotten for me. One was the coffee table book, L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future—The First 25 Years, which she had even gotten signed by someone. The other book was the contest’s most recent anthology at the time, Volume 27. My Mom encouraged me to read about the writing contest and send in a story. Somehow she knew it too, before I had ever written a purposeful word of fiction, that I was a writer, and I just needed a nudge in the right direction. I appreciated the gift, thanked her, and promptly tucked the book away on a shelf. I don’t think I even cracked the binding.

A Writers’s Journey Begins

Three years later my Mom passed away, and it took another two years for the haze of grief to thin enough for me to realize, it was time to begin writing. But where to start? As if in answer, a writer showed up in my life and took me under his wing. He introduced me to the world of writing, showed me where to begin, and even took me to my very first Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention. Now, I had heard about the contest from those books my Mom had given me, but at the convention something happened that was going to change the direction of my entire life. I met a previous winner of the Writers of the Future writing contest who was kind enough to share her experience with me, and that, as the old saying goes, was all she wrote. I decided right then and there I was going to start writing, enter the contest, and win! This meant that I, who had never written a short story before in my life, now had a month to write one and get it submitted before that quarter’s deadline.

My First Story

The first thing I did when I got home from the convention was to dig out those books my Mom had gotten me, and I began to pour over every word. I learned everything I could about the contest itself, and began to read and study the stories written by previous winners. I even studied the contest judges, previous and current, reading at least one book or story from each of them.

I managed to get a story written and submitted by the end of that quarter. Two months later I was rewarded for my efforts with an Honorable Mention. I haven’t missed a quarter since.

Twelve Quarters Later

Twelve quarters and many stories later, I have attended other conventions and met other Writers of the Future winners, all of them kind enough to offer a word of encouragement or sign their story in one of the volumes I have collected. I also attended one of David Farland’s wonderful writing workshops, where he taught us how to bring our stories to life and immerse the reader into our worlds. A few of my short stories have even given way to novel ideas (pun intended), and I’m working on those now. Of course, I always make sure to get a story entered into each quarter of the contest as well.

I am beyond grateful. This contest started me writing and it has kept me writing. It gives me a deadline, and a goal worth achieving. Plus, there are those cool certificates that show up in my mailbox and keep me encouraged—nine Honorable and Silver Honorable Mentions to date—such a treat! The contest also pushes me to continue to improve my writing, and not only my writing, but in my life too. I had to come out of my shell to learn how to network. I’ve found other writers to talk to, I’ve made new friends, and I’ve become part of an awesome writing group. All of these things I have reached for because there was a need for it—because I want to be a better writer, and because I am going to win this contest. To do that, I need to write a story worthy of those who have come before me, and whose words grace the pages of each new Writers of the Future volume.

Oh, and that signature in the Writers of the Future book that my Mom gave me? Turns out she got Kevin J. Anderson, one of the contest judges, to sign it for me. So yeah, Kevin got to meet my Mom. Lucky guy.

Alicia CayAlicia Cay has had a loyal love affair with books since she could read, collects quotes, and suffers from wanderlust. She currently writes short fiction, has had two of her stories published in SF/F anthologies, and is working on her first novel. Alicia lives in Denver with a corgi, a cat, and a lot of fur. Follow her writing and traveling adventures at:

Dave Wolverton and Algis Budrys

A Different Kind of Writing Workshop

David Farland with Algis Budrys at the Writers of the Future workshop in 1991

When L. Ron Hubbard initiated the Writers of the Future contest, he knew that there would be awards and publications for the winners. As Algis Budry, the first contest administrator put it to me, “He wanted to make sure that this helped launch new writers. That it gives them publication and some notoriety, along with enough prize money from winnings and publication so that a new writer could invest in his or her career by purchasing a new computer, doing research, and so on.”

But he wanted more for the new writers. He wanted them to meet and mingle with real professionals, people who had struggled and made their mark on the field, and he wanted to do that in the context of a writing workshop.

So a different kind of workshop was envisioned. They knew that the authors who won would already be good writers—maybe even incredibly gifted and talented writers. So a decision was made early on: We’re not going to go back over the basics. We aren’t going to teach the writers yet once again how to polish a sentence.

How to Become Writers

It was reasoned that each of these writers would have learned to write, at the very least, a professionally sellable story, and probably a great story. So what do you teach a writer who already knows the basics of how to write?

The answer was to teach them “How to become writers.” In other words, teach them how to move from being an armchair quarterback and to get into the game.

You see, people have a lot of odd ideas about what writers do. They imagine that we go to scenic mountain resorts and type out a manuscript, then deliver it to an editor to great applause. What most people don’t know about writing is this: Writing can and should be hard work.

So a workshop was created to give advice that would be perfect for taking budding new writers into the professional arena.

Algis put the lesser amount into the workshop, and so I will cover his offerings briefly. He suggested that in the mid-1980s, most new authors weren’t being taught how to plot a novel or short story. He was right.

Plotting a Story

Throughout the 1930s to the 1980s, many in the mainstream were rejecting the idea of literature that they felt “relied upon plot.” Such literature—which included things like romance, mysteries, and science fiction—were called “genre literature,” and were not considered worthy of study. Certainly, in many creative writing programs, plotting was something that was never taught. In my school, Brigham Young University, several professors refused not only to teach how to write genre literature but demanded that students not even read or study it, since it was unworthy of emulation.

Now, it didn’t matter that the most popular stories in the world were well plotted, or that “genre authors” very often outsold literary authors a thousand copies to one. Nor did my teachers realize that their notions were antiquated and had been proven wrong in other mediums. For example, in poetry when many of the beat poets were suggesting that poets ought to revolt against form in writing, Robert Frost famously silenced them by saying that “Writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis without a net.” In short, it makes the artist weak and sloppy. His real answer to them, though, came in his own magnificent poems that used rhyme and near-rhyme so effectively that the rhyme schemes became invisible, so that you could read one of his poems in a natural voice and not discover until after you stopped and studied the poem that it was a perfect sonnet.

In short, Algis’s argument in favor of form is simple: A formed story can be more powerful than one that has no form. So he decided to talk about form in the workshop. How do you write a plotted story? He chose a simple adventure plot, and advised writers on how to handle it. As he put it, “This isn’t the only way to write a formed story, but if you use it, you can make an entire career using this basic plot line.”

So he taught authors how to write a simple story. You can learn about his structure in an article called “Writing to the Point,” which is available from Wordfire Press. It is one of the most insightful little books on plotting you’ll ever find.

When Algis wrote it, I don’t recall ever seeing any other book on plotting—and I looked. I was researching the craft heavily, and I really wanted to know. Eventually, I became an expert on plotting myself, and you can read some of my insights into it in my book Million Dollar Outlines, where I teach not only how to create a plot, but also teach enough advanced audience analysis so that a writer can figure out how to write a bestseller.

Of course, in the past thirty years, I’ve seen a number of other fine books on plotting come out, and they are readily available now.

Becoming Your Own Muse

L. Ron Hubbard wanted to talk about more than just plotting, though. He wanted to talk about a lot more. He wanted to talk about where ideas for stories come from, and how to generate them off-the-cuff, so that if an editor calls you looking for a story or a novel, you can compose the tale in a matter of a few hours, rather than agonizing over them for years.

So Ron contributed articles like “The Manuscript Factory,” where he emphasizes that an author is a factory that produces manuscripts for a living. If you aren’t producing, you’re like a factory that has shut down.

He also contributed articles like “Magic Out of a Hat,” where writers learn to draw upon their broad experience in travel and in learning various vocations so that they can “write what they know.”

Most writers are insular people—folks who make their friends in books, so that they have little in the way of first-hand experience to draw upon. But the most successful writers in science fiction have been people who have studied engineering, worked in the military, become doctors or researchers.

In short, his advice can be boiled down to “live a large life.” As a teen, Ron left home to travel the world, becoming a photographer in China, joining the Explorer’s Club, learning to fly a plane and pilot a ship, and eventually joining the military. All of his experiences became fuel for his stories.

So he designed exercises to help writers identify some of their own unique experiences. Maybe the author has worked as a cop or a prison guard? Maybe she’s been through an ugly divorce? Maybe he was abused as a child? All of that can add details and realism to a story.

And of course, he suggested that we keep learning. Ron designed exercises to help people learn how to go start up conversations with strangers, or how to research information at libraries.

In short, I think that he would say that the person who refuses to live life, to go out and experience it, to examine it, is probably not going to go very far.

Oh, yeah, and there is that productivity thing. I remember in college hearing a quote from an ancient Greek philosopher who said that if he could go out and come up with a perfect sentence in a single day, he felt gratified. It was enough.

But that’s foolish. One sentence a day won’t do it. Instead of writing one perfect sentence in a day, I’d rather write twenty pages of damned-fine scenes, and with some jobs, it might take more. A real writer sometimes has to roll up his sleeves and get to work. If a producer needs a hundred-page screenplay in two weeks, you write it in two weeks. I recall writing a Star Wars book at 3 a.m. and feeling exhausted, so I put in another two and a half hours before I caught some sleep.

All of that “Sitting around and waiting for the muse” is tripe. Real writers become their own muses.

So Ron suggested that we have our winners compose a story in a day. For many writers, that seems undoable. But most of our writers discover that not only is it doable, it becomes an essential skill.

The Point of the Writers of the Future Workshop

Last of all, L. Ron Hubbard wanted to expose the winners to some of the wisdom of the best current writers in the field, so on the last couple of days of the workshop, the authors get to hear from and hobnob with our contest judges, where they learn the industry secrets and gossip that you won’t find in any writing books.

The entire workshop is a big and exhausting event, and it is sometimes hard on some of our winners. For example, early on, Algis and I had to decide how to start the workshop. We might have people flying in from all over the world on a Monday. Some of our winners might have flown in from places like Australia, or London, or South Africa. They’d have terrible jetlag. So we considered giving them that first night off, but when we talked to students, most of them were excited to get started.

So we decided to introduce them to the workshop that first night in part so that our winners would be able to get some work done.

But we felt that there was something far more important that happened: When we introduce the students to one another on that first night, they always get together and begin to talk, to compare notes, and to socialize. They bond, and in effect, they often begin to become best friends for life. We’ve even had couples marry.

So if you win the contest, and you’re jet-lagged that first night, and I call you in so that we can all introduce ourselves, blame me. Sorry, you might lose a little sleep, but you’ll gain something more.

Really, what I want to emphasize is this. The point of the Writers of the Future workshop was never to “teach you how to write.” Instead, the goal was to teach you some more important skills, like “How to succeed as a working writer.”


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

David Farland winning Writers of the Future Contest in 1987

Prize Writing—Three Things to Know

Contest judge Frederik Pohl presents Writers of the Future Award to David (Wolverton) Farland, 1987

As many of you know, I got my start by prize writing. While I was in college, I won third place in my first writing contest and decided to see if I could win first place in a contest. I spent a year honing some short stories for various contests, in between my studies, and sent them out in the autumn of 1986. Within a few weeks I discovered that I had won not just one, but all of the contests that I had entered. One of the judges at Writers of the Future, Robert Silverberg, liked my story well enough so that he shared it with some editors, and this led to a three-novel contract with Bantam Books. I’ll always be grateful to Bob for that.

So I promised a couple of people on the list that I would talk about prize writing. If you think about it deeply, everything that you write is really for a competition. You’re competing for publication with other writers, for promotional monies from the marketing departments of various publishers, for literary awards, and of course for your reading audience. So these posts really apply to any writer. When you think about it, it would seem that there isn’t a lot that you can do in order to win a prize. Thousands might enter a competition, but only one will win. However, there are some things that you can do to increase your chances dramatically.

These things include:

  • Get to know your judge’s tastes.
  • Aim your story straight at your judges.
  • Make sure that your story is presented well.

This all might sound easier than it is, but let’s take this one step at a time. Your first step is to get to know your judge’s tastes. Now, if you’re talking about a contest judge, this person might be a teacher at a local university. The best way to gauge the judge’s tastes is to read anything that they’ve written. If your judge has written short stories, look at the age of the protagonists, the themes that the judge covers, his or her use of language, and so on. This will tell you whether the judge values crisp dialog over brilliant metaphors, slow pacing versus fast, and so on. Pay particular attention to the themes. If a judge has a penchant for writing about stories that deal with death, for example, you might realize that your story will hit them harder if you feature a death scene.

In some cases, you’ll have a panel of judges. For example, there are more than a dozen judges at the Writers of The Future. So if I wanted to win that contest, I’d look at the mix of writers. How many write only science fiction? How many write fantasy? What do each of their tastes seem to be.

One easy way to gauge their tastes is to look at past stories. You could read the grand prize winners from each anthology. By doing so, you’d begin to notice some patterns.

You can of course do this same thing with any publication. You could go to editor’s panels at science fiction conventions and listen to editors talk about their favorite books out. You could go to Publisher’s Marketplace on the internet and find out what each one of those editors has bought.

It’s really quite easy to learn the tastes of one solitary reader. If you’re facing a panel of judges, the task becomes more complex, but it is possible to write a story that will average out to be a winner.

So start studying!


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

Larry Niven at the Writers Workshop

Tell Me a Story by Larry Niven

I can’t help you sell your early work in the 1980’s. To enter the field my way you’ll need a time machine set for 1964. That’s when every novice was trying to write New Wave, except me, and an ecological niche was left wide open.

I can’t tell you how to write, not in a thousand words. I’ve been telling what I know as fast as I learned it for twenty-two years. My collaborators now know everything I do. I’ve spoken on panels and published articles on writing. Is there anything left to say?



If you want to know that the story you’re working on is saleable, try this: I tell it at a cocktail party. I dreamed up “The Flight of the Horse” one morning, outlined it that afternoon, and by that night was telling the tale to a clutch of cousins. I held their attention. I didn’t miss any points. I kept them laughing. The noise level didn’t drown out anything subtle and crucial. Then, of course, I knew how to write it down so I could mail it and sell it.

I told the sequel the same way (“Leviathan!”) and sold it to Playboy for what was then fantastic money.

This makes for good memories. It’s also a useful technique.

Some of the best stories simply can’t be told this way, and I can’t help you write those. Nobody can. They are rule-breakers. Try some early Alfred Bester collections. But any story you can tell as a cocktail/dinner conversation, without getting confused and without losing your audience to distractions, is a successful story.

So. You want to write a story, and be paid for it, and know that it will be read? You want that now, no waiting? Tell me a story. Tell your brother/wife/cousin/uncle a story: tell anyone you can persuade to listen. Persuading is good practice: you need skill with narrative hooks. Watch for the moments where you lose your listener; watch for where you have to back up and explain a point. Your audience will tell you how to write it. Then you write it.

You won’t need this forever. You’ll learn how to tell the tale yourself.

(My normal audience in the beginning was my brother. Thanks, Mike.)

As for the untellable story, that one depends on subtleties of phrasing or typographical innovations … that one you can postpone. You won’t have the skills to write it for a few years anyway.


We working writers, we’re not really interested in reading your manuscripts. We can be talked into it, sometimes, via the plea of relatives, or sex appeal, or someone to vouch for you.

Do you know how difficult it is to persuade, say Ray Bradbury to read one of your stories? Have you tried yet? You’d be a fool not to, if you’ve got the nerve. An hour of a successful author’s time could be worth a lot to you. What he says will apply to most of your stories.

Ray turned me down twenty-two years ago. He said he didn’t have the time, and he was right.

But we can be persuaded. So here you are, a novice who’s sold a few stories or none, and somehow you’ve talked an established writer into reading one of your stories. What do you do then? Give him your worst story, the one that most needs improving?

A novice writer did that to me when I was also a novice. He told me so after I told him that if I could think of a way to make it saleable, I’d burn it.

Give him your best story! The best is the one most worthy of improvement. It’s the one where your remaining flaws shine through without distractions, and you’ve picked the man who could spot them.

This shouldn’t need saying, but it does. I’ve heard counterarguments. Look: even if you’ve sold one or two, they just barely passed; they could have been better. You know that. He knows how.

(But don’t bother Ray. A thousand novices have broken their hearts trying to write like Ray Bradbury. He has a way of implying a story in insufficient words. It looks so easy, and it can’t be done.)


If the story you’re telling is a complex one—if the reader must understand the characters or the locale or some technical point to understand what’s going on—then you must use the simplest language. Your reader has his rights. Tell him a story and make him understand it, or you’re fired.

This is never more true than in hard science fiction, but it never stops being true.

If you don’t have anything to say, you can say it any way you want to.


Do your research. There are texts on how to write, and specialized texts on how to write speculative fiction.

Learn your tools. (For instance: the indefinite pronoun is “he.”) You can create imaginary languages, but it’s risky.

Always do your research. One mistake in hard science fiction, in particular, will be remembered forever. Remember: you’re on record.


Start with a story. Tell yourself a story. Are you in this to show off your stylistic skills? They’ll show best if you use them to shape the story. Calling attention to the lurking author hurts the story. The best character you ever imagined can be of immense aid to the right STORY; but if he’s getting in the way, drop him.

A good stylist really can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse; and he’ll be forgotten in favor of the average yokel who had just brains enough to start with silk.


Don’t write answers to bad reviews. It wastes your time, you don’t get paid, and you wind up supporting a publication you dislike. Granted it’s tempting.


Every rule of writing has exceptions, including these, and I’ve broken many.

You’re not good enough to do that yet.

This article by Larry Niven was originally published in Writers of the Future Volume 2.


Larry Niven

Larry Niven

Larry Niven was working on his master’s degree in mathematics when he dropped out to write science fiction. He broke into professional SF writing in 1964 and has been going strong ever since. Now a giant in the world of science fiction, he is best known for his Known Space future history, a still-growing series of more than thirty novels and stories. Ringworld, the most famous of these titles, won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards. He later co-authored a series of novels with fellow judge Dr. Jerry Pournelle, including the celebrated national bestsellers The Mote in God’s EyeLucifer’s Hammer and Footfall. Larry Niven received the L. Ron Hubbard Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Arts in 2006. He has been a Writers of the Future judge since 1985.

man doing research

Analyzing What to Write

When you decide to write a novel, screenplay, or any tale at all, you should look at a number of things:

1)  Do you like the basic concept? If you aren’t excited about a novel, chances are excellent that you’ll lack the energy to finish it. Your subconscious will rebel at the idea, and you’ll sit wishing that you were working on another project. So you have to find story ideas that thrill you. You want to write from the heart. If you don’t, you’ll just be going through empty motions.

2)  Will the story sell? You should look at the story and ask yourself, “Is this story marketable?” If it is, how marketable is it? Seriously, you might find yourself with an idea that really sounds fun to you, but which just won’t sell in the current market. For example, back in the 1920s there were a lot of magazines that featured “Thrilling Pilot Stories.”

Maybe you decide that it’s time to start a new trend, and you write a screenplay about Ulysses Samuel Adams—a bush pilot in the Everglades who has rousing adventures that feature drug smugglers, alluring swamp goddesses, the Fountain of Youth, and a dinosaur. So you spend a month writing and polishing the story. Seriously, where are you going to sell it?

The story might be fun—incredible even—but if you’re looking to make a living, it probably needs to be something that you can take to market.

So you need to understand the markets. This means that you must survey your field before you ever write a story.

This means that if you are writing a book, you will go to your bookstore and look at the books in your field that are doing well. Look at the following things:

1) How long is the book?

2) What is the reading level of my audience?

3) What are the standards of taste? For example, how much violence, profanity, sexuality, and so on is acceptable in this field.

4) Who published the bestselling titles in this field?

5) Who are the agent and editor that brought this book out?

6) When was it written? (If it wasn’t within the last five years, the information may be dated.)

7) What is the sex and age of the major protagonist?

8) Who are the viewpoint characters?

9) What are the ages and sexes of the secondary viewpoint characters?

10) What is the primary emotional draw for this book? (Wonder, romance, humor, horror, mystery, adventure, drama, etc.)

11) What are the secondary and tertiary draws?

12) What kinds of settings do the bestsellers of this type of book have in common?

13) What kinds of conflicts do they have in common?

14) What kinds of themes do these tales explore?

15) What kind of tone do the bestselling authors put across?

There will, of course, be some variation even among bestsellers, but you will find a lot of similarities, too. For example, bestselling thrillers almost always have male protagonists. Romance novels have female protagonists, but the “fascinating male” is what the protagonist seems to dwell on. In young adult novels, the protagonist is almost always 16, while in middle-grade novels the protagonist is normally 14.

In short, before you write anything, you need to take an adequate survey of the field. What’s “adequate?”

The agent Richard Curtis once addressed this topic, and he suggested that if you as a writer haven’t been reading in a field for 10 years just for enjoyment, you’re probably not grounded well enough in your genre to break in. The person who reads just one novel and then wants to break in with something similar is likely to be very disappointed.


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

Defining yourself

Defining Yourself

I’m going to talk a bit about audience analysis. It’s always good before you begin to write to really understand who your audience is and that their needs are so that you can better meet those needs. But it’s also important to understand who you are as an author, and what it is that you want to achieve.

Yesterday I was helping an author write a query letter, and as I did, I was thinking, “Now what more can I say about his book? What sets this apart from other books in its genre?” Those are the same questions that I ask myself anytime I’m looking at a query letter, but I don’t just ask them about the book. I ask them about the author.

A few years ago, an author I knew flew to New York to be interviewed by the legendary agent Al Zuckerman, the founder of Writers House Literary Agency. As they spoke, Al suggested that the author “define his niche in the marketplace.” For example, you might say, “I’m the John Grisham of Middle Earth.” By that, you might mean that you’re writing political/legal thrillers in a brilliantly devised fantasy setting. Is there a market for such books? Maybe. And if you think of a potential mixture that excites you, one that energizes any agent or editor that hears about it, you can instantly command a fortune in advances.

For example, years ago my former student Dan Wells mentioned that he wanted to be the “Stephen King of young adult fiction.” I thought that was an odd and interesting combination. Yet when his first novel, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER came out, it earned him huge advances overseas and led to the start of a brilliant career.

So you as an author, when you prepare to write a book, might consider whether you want to brand yourself.

Just as importantly, you might want to look at your novel and brand it. What does that mean? It means that you set goals for your story—goals that have to do with understanding how it fits in the genre and what kind of qualities you want to achieve. When I began the Runelords series, one goal that I set was simple. I said, “I want this to start out like a traditional medieval fantasy, but by the time that a reader finishes the series, I want them to realize that there is nothing ‘traditional’ about this.” So I set out to work on biological world creation, magic systems, and so on in ways that I hadn’t seen before.

In a similar way, when I wrote my novel On My Way to Paradise I set a list of goals. At about spot number twelve I wrote, “I want to write the best battle scenes ever put into a science fiction novel.” Now, I had a lot of other goals, ones that were more important. But I was gratified when I got a gushing review from one young man who seemed not to notice all of the other cool literary things that I did: he just talked about the mind-blowing fights which he described as “the best battle scenes ever shown in science fiction.”

So ask yourself the questions: “What kind of writer am I? What do I want to achieve that is similar to some of the bestsellers of all time? How am I going to carve my own unique niche in the world? As I write this coming book, how will it help reach that goal, or does it take me off in the wrong direction? What kinds of goals do I want to reach with this novel?”

As I set my writing goals, I find that it’s best if I actually write them down, turn them into concrete, specific goals.

Give it a try!


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

The Long Road

The Long Road

My last post was on “giving up.” I brought up dozens of books that got rejected over and over again, only to finally sell and either win major awards (like the Nobel Prize) or make millions of dollars.

I then received numerous letters from authors who have been looking at the hard times for writers at the moment and have been thinking about just that—giving up. In fact, one of them, fantasy author Dan Willis even wrote a blog about how he has been thinking of contemplating authorial seppuku.

Just remember that breaking in often takes years. Once you break in, it may take several more years to “go big.” My old friend Anne McCaffrey was an excellent example of that. She wrote several novels and literally decided to quit for good when one of them finally went big and led to a phenomenal career.

So just breaking in often takes years. The general rule is that it takes about six or seven years from the time that you begin writing to the time that you get published.

It often takes a new author another seven years of perfecting their skill before they go big.

Sometimes you do well the first time out. One of my students, Stephanie Meyer, did just that, as did Dan Wells. But for most of us, it takes much longer before they have a hit.

With my friend and student Brandon Sanderson, we went on book tours together for four years—sometimes spending as much as a month on the road—until we got to the last book in his Mistborn series. He was feeling pretty discouraged at the time. But when Robert Jordan passed away, he was asked to finish up the Wheel of Time series. Everything turned around for Brandon in a matter of weeks. Curious readers turned out in droves to buy the last book in his Mistborn series, and they discovered something that I’d known from Brandon’s first day in class—here was a wonderful writer!

Brandon is now a #1 New York Times Bestseller.

Another student, James Dashner, was struggling as a small regional author. He couldn’t make a living at it. So he needed to up his game in order to go national. He did just that, and now his Maze Runner series is one of the biggest hits of the decade. Allie Condie, another local author that I know, recently did the same with her fourth novel, Matched.

So these things can take time. How much time? Ten years ago I was working with a little green-lighting company in Hollywood called Entertainment Business Group. A couple of producers came to us with a novel that they wanted to turn into a movie. I read through it and gave them some advice, talking about art direction, how to position the movie as more of an adventure than the novel portrayed, adding beauty to it, using the low gravity on the planet to turn the hero into more of a “superhero” and so on. My friend and business partner David Cuddy went a bit further and even wrote a script for them. Their movie was going to be a tough sell, I thought.

It took ten years for John Carter and the Princess of Mars to be released.

I don’t know what struggles and setbacks the producers went through, but I know that it had to have been tough. After all, it took ten years.

But that’s actually pretty fast for a big film. The average movie takes longer than that to bring to life.

The entertainment business is tough. The road can take you over nice hills but will often lead into deep valleys where there’s no light at all. Keep going.

Developing an audience takes times and consistency. Nearly everyone who has ever had success has also met with one bitter disappointment after another.


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

dart board


I’ve just finished reading through thousands of stories for some writing contests—a job that has taken several weeks. It would take longer, but of course, I don’t always have to read an entire manuscript in order to know that it is not publishable. In looking at stories and determining just why they aren’t publishable, I can usually narrow the reasons down to a few common mistakes. One of the most prevalent reasons for rejection is that the author uses imprecise language—and so says nothing at all.

Consider the following sentence: “He moved through the trees.” Now, try to visualize that. Do you as a reader see what I’m imagining?

I guarantee that you aren’t.

Maybe you can visualize something, but chances are almost nonexistent that you will be able to draw close at all. You see, the nouns and verbs are all so generalized that we can’t get a handle on anything.

Let’s start with the subject of the sentence: “He.” What am I supposed to visualize? “He” could be just about anyone—a six-year-old boy out on a camping trip, an escaped slave trying to evade the hounds, or a hunter down in the Amazon rainforest. I’ve read stories this week where “He” turned out to be an astronaut, a dragon, a robot, a lion, or various other creatures. Do you see how the word “He” doesn’t really communicate anything at all?

An author is like a radio transmitter, while the reader is the receiver. As an author, it’s your job to send out clear signals to the reader. A “vague” word is a fuzzy signal, one that is unlikely to be deciphered.

Now, there are usually three levels of specificity to nouns. A very general noun, “he,” might refer to something that is male. We can then become more specific by putting the subject into a subcategory, such as a convict, priest, explorer, and so on. That’s not much better, but it’s a start. To really be specific, we need to get to the level of individuality, the third tier on the specificity chart. We need to know that we’re talking about Bubba Perdot, a 15-year-old Cajun alligator hunter who was born and raised in a shack on the Black River, outside of New Orleans.

Let’s move on to the verb, “moved.” There are dozens of ways to “move.” You can be conveyed on a vehicle or an animal. You can hike. You can stagger, stalk, stumble, race, fly, hop, roll, ski, and so on. The word “move” doesn’t tell me anything at all about how your character is moving. So let’s get back to Bubba. Let’s have him poling a pirogue.

Now consider the object in the sentence, “trees.” There are all kinds of trees in this world, and depending on the story that you’re writing, this world might not even be the one that you’re writing about. I was born and raised in Oregon. When I think of trees, I immediately think of Douglas firs—a nice evergreen. But I’ve seen evergreen forests in China where the trees have a very alien appearance. I have a friend who was born a few hundred miles south, and so when she thinks of trees, she’s imagining giant redwoods. A person from the high mountains might imagine groves of aspen, while one from Virginia envisions live oaks. The word “tree” is so vague that it is useless. So you have to name the types of trees. Let’s have Bubba poling through a cypress grove. Now, if you’ve ever been in a dense swamp in Louisiana, where you find yourself boating along narrow channels, you can understand how Bubba might be thought of as moving through the trees. You might object and decide that he’s really floating over the water. He is actually doing both at the same time.

Yet even to have him moving through a specific kind of tree is a cheat. If you want to do this right, you may need to go to the exact spot where you are setting the tale and describe it with great care. You see, when you go into a cypress swamp, there are dozens of species living together.

But do you see how much better you communicate when you are precise? Sending out clear signals will solve most of your communication problems. It may be that your reader isn’t adept at receiving those signals.

The person who writes an opening sentence that reads “He moved through the trees,” has told me nothing at all.

In order to bring a scene to life, you have to be specific. Years ago, I recall reading a description of a dog, written for an assignment. If I say the word dog, you can’t envision anything. A dog can be a big black Newfoundland, or an English Spaniel or a silver fox. But even those descriptions are just second-level generalities.

In order to really create a particular dog in your reader’s mind, you have to get down to details. Most people only managed to give a general description of the subcategory that the dog belonged to. But one young woman described a coyote that she saw foraging in her garbage can in the mid-morning. The coyote was female, a young mother, with distended breasts that swayed with every move, and patches of hair chewed off by her hungry pups. The author described the hunger revealed by the coyote’s emaciated form, the determined way that she picked through tin cans and tore at wrappers, trembling and frightened all the while. When the author read her paper, there was no doubt in my mind that this was one particular dog. If I ever happened to see that coyote while out on a walk, I would probably even recognize her, and think of her as an old friend.

That’s your goal, to choose specific details that bring your tale to life.


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

superhero breaking through the page

Breaking into Comics

Comic-book writing is about telling a story in pictures, with words supplementing the visual storytelling. No matter what story genre you work in, comic books convey, through pictures and words, action, movement, and drama—a “larger than life” excitement. You should learn comic-book techniques and terminology and use them. I’d suggest that you read Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner to learn the conventions of the medium.

There are a number of jobs available in the comics field. We’ll look at each one. But I should warn you: Competition for these jobs is fierce, but if you’re good, you can always find work. As a literary agent, I once had a young, enterprising writer send me story after story, pleading for me to be his agent. Finally, I gave in, and a couple of years later we made his first sale. I went on to represent him through his next seventy sales. You may have heard of him: his name is Ray Bradbury. About the same time, another young writer submitted a story to Thrilling Wonder Stories, hoping to win the $50 prize in its new writers’ contest. He won that prize and many more in later years. His name was Alfred Bester. Another aspiring writer opted instead to submit his entry to Astounding Stories because an acceptance would pay about $75. It became the first sale and the start of the literary career of Robert A. Heinlein. Even the big names have to start somewhere. Don’t let a little competition intimidate you.


Warner Books editor Brian Thomsen, actor Mark Hamill, DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz, and Rosemary Wolfe applaud the winners.

Warner Books editor Brian Thomsen, actor Mark Hamill, DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz, and Rosemary Wolfe applaud the winners.

Comics writers are the storytellers of the medium. Before writing for an established line, you need to do your homework. You need to become familiar with a character’s history, habits and voice before you can write about that character. The idea is to retain continuity so that your depiction of the character doesn’t vary with how others have shown him or her. As a new writer, you probably won’t be able to make major changes in a character, give them new powers, or kill them off.

You will need to submit your proposals in the form of a springboard, a single-paged, typewritten, double-spaced story concept. Never submit a full plot or script. If you can’t convince the publisher that the idea is something they should publish using a springboard, then you’ll find yourself doing a lot of extra work for nothing.

Your springboard should give the basics of the story. It should probably begin with a “hook” or “high concept”— a compelling, one-sentence description that tells how your story will be unique and interesting. Beyond that, the springboard contains a beginning where an engaging conflict develops and characters are introduced, a middle where the protagonists struggle to overcome the conflict, and an end that resolves the conflict to the readers’ satisfaction. But most importantly, the events you describe must affect the character in a way that we will care about. To make us care, you must tap into universal emotions.


The pencillers are on the front line of creating the images for a graphic story. Pencillers submit their work by showing several pages of comic art in order, progressing a story through a series of pictures from panel to panel and from page to page. The story should move along clearly and dynamically. It’s usually better to draw a story well in traditional block panels rather than to try complex layouts or gimmicks.

The penciller’s samples should show strong basic drawing abilities. You will need to be able to show not only characters and expressive faces, but anything that your characters will see on the street: buildings, animals, machinery, aliens, trees, clouds. You should show a basic understanding of composition, perspective, and anatomy. You should be able to draw people in different poses and costumes—from children to senior citizens.

It’s best for the penciller to be well-trained as an artist. Don’t rely solely on comics for your inspiration. You should work on life-drawing and take some general art classes. Try to draw everything you see, all the time.


A comic-book inker’s job is to add depth and clarity to a penciled picture without obscuring the penciller’s work. The inker puts on black spots and varies the weight of lines to give the page variety and give each panel its three-dimensional effects.

Knowing how to tell a story is an important part of the inker’s job, and the best inkers generally know how to draw well. A good inker will recognize when pencil lines need to be omitted from a drawing. They will also know how to isolate foreground objects from the background by giving each object a varying “weight.”

Inkers submit their work by making photocopies both of the penciled work and the work that they have inked. The inker should try to submit inked work from more than one penciller. If you don’t have access to pencilled work from a friend or professional, you can usually get samples by writing to the publisher where you will submit the work.


The comic-book letterer’s job is to handle captions, draw word and thought balloons, create balloon shapes, draw panel borders, letter the titles, and give the credits and sound effects.

The letters should usually be uniform and easy to read with enough “breathing room” between the letters and lines. You should show all types of lettering—from word, thought, electric (jagged edge) and whisper (dotted line) balloons to sound effects.

You can submit your lettering samples on full-sized penciled pages. To get sample penciled pages, you can write to the publisher where you will submit your work.


The colorist interprets the drawing and tells the story by adding depth, mood, dramatic effects, and clarity.

In order to make sure that each character and object in a scene is clearly visible, the colorist will frequently need to color things differently from how they would appear in real life. The colorist will also use theme colors to establish a mood for a piece.

Since standard comics color guides are coded to match a chart of the colors available to a publisher, an important part of the colorist’s job is to mark up the color guides.

Colorists should submit several pages of fully colored and coded comic-art photocopies. Once again, if you need samples of comic art to color, you can normally get these from the publisher. You should also find out from the publisher which brand of dyes or colors they use as their standard.

Finally, liberally adapting Robert A. Heinlein’s three rules of writing (which also apply to artists):

If you are a writer, you must write!

You must finish what you write!

You must submit your finished manuscript to a likely market—and if it’s rejected, keep on submitting it till you’ve exhausted all possible markets!

Here’s looking forward to seeing you in print!

Julius Schwartz
May, 1993

This article was originally published in the L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume 9 in 1993.


Julius Schwartz

Julius Schwartz

Julius Schwartz had a long and distinguished career both in science fiction and in comics. He was the co-founder of The Time Traveller, the first science fiction fan magazine, and helped organize the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York City, 1939. He was the co-founder of Solar Sales Service, the first literary agency specializing in science fiction and fantasy, and represented such notable authors as Alfred Bester, Robert Bloch, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Edmond Hamilton, Manly Wade Wellman, and Eric Frank Russell.

Heis credited also with ushering in the “Silver Age” of comics. He began editing comics at DC in 1944, and worked there continuously for 50 years, editing such lines as Superman, Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League of America, and Strange Adventures. He won some of comics’ highest awards: four Shazams, three Eagles, an Inkpot, an Alley, and a Jules Verne. When you read the biographies of the authors and illustrators in this volume, you will find that many of them cited their love for comics as the first inspiration that led them to careers in speculative fiction. Perhaps only then will you recognize the profound effect Julius Schwartz has had on us all.