The Hugo award is the Oscar of science fiction, and N. K. Jemisin has won it four times. Hands down, Jemisin is one of the best writers of our generation (I highly recommend The City We Became). She has a phenomenal course in fantasy and science fiction writing on MasterClass. In 16 lessons, Jemisin teaches writing technique and shares vital business tools for selling science fiction and fantasy and wisdom for anyone interested in becoming a writer. BGN spoke with Jemisin via Zoom about her new MasterClass.
In Lesson 1, you share that one of the reasons you love science fiction was because it allowed you to figure out where you were going. How does it feel to be an afro futurist explorer?
It’s just the way that my creativity runs. I spent my childhood reading science fiction. When I started writing, I wrote science fiction. There was never really a question that I was going to be doing science fiction and fantasy of some flavor or another because there are things that have always caught my attention and attracted me. The idea that we exist in the future was not a thing that I saw in science fiction, except in occasional works like Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, people like that. But it was the thing that I grappled with when I was younger. Of course now that I’m a writer myself, I write what I’m interested in, I write what I want to see. I’m just glad that other people want to see it, too.
During your World Building lesson in MasterClass, my mind broke open and drank up all that wisdom. How did you develop your style of world building?
World building — it’s just a thing that you do if you’re gonna write science fiction. You have no choice. When you’re a young science fiction writer, you usually start by reading books by existing writers. I read Stephen King’s On Writing, Orson Scott Card’s books — I have some issues with his politics but his writing book was actually very useful. Then there are a number of other books that I read on how to write. When you’re a good reader, you read other people’s books and study their techniques to develop your own. I would read people like Octavia Butler and realize that she borrowed from certain kinds of biology and certain kinds of sociology. Her futurism turned out to be a lot more accurate than the future that you see in most science fiction and fantasy because she just was reading the headlines and watching the news. She had a person of color and an oppressed person’s understanding of how America really works. She wasn’t going with the propaganda; she was going with the reality. That kind of thing is something I gained just from reading her work. I’ve read her books repeatedly. I’ve read lots of other books, and then, of course, in my own background, I went to grad school for counseling psych. I was a practicing counseling psychologist doing career counseling and counseling of various kinds for like 20 years, so my experience seeing people dealing with trauma just naturally feeds into my writing.
Which creates nuance and reality. That’s why I feel invited into your novel’s worlds and have a relationship with the people who reside in your mind, which is spectacular.
It’s so easy for writers to get caught up in ego. How can writers let go of ego in order to tell better stories?
Concentrate on the importance of the story. The story has to come first. It’s not about you. It’s not about your research skills. I’ve probably written dozens of really good lines that I write and I’m like, “Oh that’s a killer.” And then in the editing, I realized that line is superfluous. It’s not helping the story. At the end of the day, the overall product that you’re producing is also an act of ego. You want that whole book to hang together. It’s not about the individual lines. We have a saying in science fiction: “Murder your darlings.” The lines that come through that you’re like, “Oh that’s my good one,” no that line may not be useful, so it’s got to go.
In Lesson 2 you talk about “rubbing the serial number off of an existing culture because they’re afraid of creating something new.” I love this quote. Please tell me more about this aspect of writing.
Well, that’s a difficult thing to answer in a quick answer, but what it comes down to is you shouldn’t be afraid of world building. You should not be afraid of coming up with something that you’ve not seen elsewhere. Plus also it’s kind of disrespectful to take people’s culture and, you know, turn it into a prop. That’s really what it comes down to. It’s good writing to not steal from people. Writers are pack rats. We all do that; we all steal. It’s just a question of like, you know, stealing better.
You decolonize science fiction and fantasy. In Lesson 10, you break down where rugged individualism comes from in American storytelling. How has your ability to disrupt that stereotype brought you joy in your storytelling?
To me it’s just what I want to see. There’s no plan that I have and how I do the writing that I do. When I’m talking about these techniques or these decolonization things, this is just stuff I’m going through myself. This is stuff that I do to hopefully help myself become a better writer, things that I find more interesting. I get bored with the same kinds of stories. It comes down to I write what I want to see.
In the later lessons, you get into the nuts and bolts of being a writer. The most powerful part of those lessons for me were dealing with rejection. What is your best tool for living a life as a writer and coexisting with rejection?
Coexisting with rejection is the best tool for living life as a writer. Like I said in my MasterClass, it’s best to treat rejections as achievements. Yay, you submitted something! Yay, you got feedback! Even if that feedback is just a form letter, it tells you something useful. Maybe the market you submitted your work to is a bad match for it; maybe you were way off from the guidelines and didn’t use the right format; maybe you just need to try again. It’s hard to separate yourself from the hurt and disappointment, but you have to try because this business is so full of it that you won’t make it otherwise. So focus on what you gain from every rejection.
Even if fantasy and science fiction aren’t your genre, N. K. Jemisin’s MasterClass is a vital tool for writers to experience. This course will enhance your scope of storytelling. I highly recommend this fantastic online course.
N. K. Jemisin teaches Science Fiction Writing on MasterClass streaming now on www.masterclass.com.
Follow on twitter: @nkjemisin @masterclass
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Jeanine is a Writer, Actor, member SAG/AFTRA, AEA, Podcast host, Producer, CEO VisAbleBlackWoman Productions, Certified Health Coach and Conscious Dance facilitator. Jeanine's mission, centering Black women's stories to preserve our legacies.