Photo of Nina Kiriki Hoffman, author of Spirits that Walk in Shadow. Interview on Writing.

Interview with Nina Kiriki Hoffman: Writing Tips, YA Fantasy and Sci-Fi

You’re an award-winning writer of fantasy and sci-fi. Can you tell us what drew you to this particular genre?

I have loved magic since I was a child watching Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and after-school cartoons. I bought lots of magical books from the Scholastic Book Club, and checked others out of the library. Two of my brothers were practicing magicians. I wanted the real thing, so I started writing my own stories about ghosts and magic when I was around twelve.

What drew me to the field were the endless possibilities. I wanted magic powers! If I couldn’t have them myself, I could invent people who had them and see what happened.

What is your approach to plotting–do you outline in detail or do you let the story come to you as you go along?

I usually start with characters, an interesting setting, and a strange situation, and the story builds itself as I write. If I get stuck, I take a creative nap and wake up and journal freely to find out more. I also get great ideas in the shower.

How do you generate story ideas? Do they just announce themselves to you, or do you have a way of ‘prompting’ inspiration?

I often start with story prompts! As a teacher, I’ve been developing ways of prompting other people to write as well. I’m working on a book called The Story Cookbook that includes many roll-ups, inspired by early exposure to Dungeons & Dragons in the late seventies.  Roll a 20-sided die and get ingredients for a ghost story; a fantasy story; a fairy tale; a dystopian story; an urban fantasy; a monster; a witch; an alien. Each roll-up will net you five ingredients, and once you have ingredients, your mind builds connections.

Sometimes a prompt will come from an open anthology call. Sometimes I get stories from a weekly event run by the Fairfield County Writers’ Studio, Carol Dannhauser’s Write to Prompts, where she gives a first sentence, I write for fifteen minutes, she adds a second ingredient, I write for fifteen minutes, a third ingredient and I write another fifteen. Then I have enough of a story to finish and polish.

Sometimes I just want to write free-form and see where that takes me.

Your YA novel, Spirits that Walk in Shadow, was nominated for several awards. What is your advice to writers crafting stories for a young adult readership?

 My advice to writers who want to write YA is: read widely in the field, especially the newest novels coming out. The field is expanding, exciting, and more inclusive than it’s been in the past. 

I found a list of best YA books of 2021 here.

And there are other lists online! Or ask a librarian, or just browse the shelves.

Another good research tool is to talk to young people. I’ve had the privilege of doing writers’ workshops with motivated teens. It’s great to find out what they’re interested in, what they want to read, and what they want to write.

Being young has changed so radically since my ancient childhood that it’s a foreign country these days. One way to handle that is to write period pieces. 🙂

I’ve also found it instructive to check school schedules online. Look for your local school district and find out what kinds of classes kids take, how long they last, what a week looks like. If you know any middle school/high school teachers, interview them, too. If you have children of your own, ask and observe.

What should writers remember as they go about worldbuilding in fantasy and science fiction? How do you avoid info-dumping?

To build a world, I’d recommend looking at Patricia C. Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions.

There are so many things to consider! Wrede has built a fabulous and informative list of things to think about.

Once you’ve made major decisions about culture, geography, government, transport, daily life, make a story (or a series) bible — a list of people and events and locations you can refer to as necessary so everything is consistent. Technology, climate, clothing, customs, magic systems, whatever will be important in the story or book.

Write some short stories set in your world to get to know it. Figure out some historic events — wars, earthquakes, border changes, plagues — and decide how far in the past those things are, and how they shifted your civilizations.

Get comfortable in your world, but maybe don’t overdo it. You want to be excited about visiting there again and again.

One avoids info-dumping by viewpoint. What does your character notice? Usually anything that’s changed in their normal environment. A few details of where they are, what they’re doing, what they expect to do next, and what happens to change their plans will do. 

Remember to engage with all your character’s senses, not just visual but sound and smell, sense of hunger, temperature, comfort level, anxiety level, mood. 

What your character perceives and expects and how they respond to events will build the world in the reader’s mind.

If you were to give writers one golden rule, what would that be?

Yeah, no, sorry. I don’t have one golden rule to suggest. Four rules would be: Read. Write. Observe. Think.

You began your writing career some time ago. What do you think has changed the most over the years in the world of writing and getting published? Is it harder or easier now for writers to make their mark?

Traditional publishing has changed, and nontraditional publishing has expanded widely. When I started selling stories forty years ago, I had no access to the Internet. There were no cell phones. We learned by going to workshops (I went to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop in 1982) and science fiction conventions and talking to people. People published their own fanzines, but if you wanted to reach a wider audience, you sent stories to national magazines, and books to traditional publishers, and then you waited and waited and waited to hear back.

I think the biggest change is the Internet. Now we can communicate much more easily. We can find things out faster, including finding markets. Submissions are so much easier now that we don’t have to weigh every story and figure out the postage to get it there and back. One doesn’t have to buy an annual market list that goes out of date before the year ends; one can go to the publisher’s website and find guidelines and where to send things.

People can also self-publish much more successfully! There are so many online classes to help writers learn. It’s a wide, wild world out there, full of pitfalls and promise.

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