Every summer, I help run the Shared Worlds teen SF/Fantasy writing camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC, which is partially supported by an Amazon.com grant. One of the best perks of the job beyond working with talented, smart kids from as far away as Japan is getting to watch the great guest writers in action. This year in week one of the two-week camps we had New York Times best-seller Naomi Novik in to talk to the students. Her latest novel in her popular Temeraire series is Crucible of Gold. In this installment Captain Will Laurence and his fighting dragon Temeraire once again take to the air against the broadsides of Napoleon’s forces and the friendly—and sometimes not-so-friendly—fire of British soldiers and politicians who continue to suspect them of divided loyalties, if not outright treason. This time, though, they’ve been sidelined in Australia only to be brought back to try to broker a peace with powerful empires. Their mission takes them all the way to Brazil, where disaster looms over all.
In addition to a great reading from a story in the Temeraire milieu, Novik gave a presentation that focused on her career both as writer of her own original fiction and as a fan fiction writer. She told the students that she started writing in college. Before that, she had only written some material for Dungeons & Dragons. Writing started as an assignment but “became something I had to do.” Her first serious writing was “Star Trek fan fiction” and was important to her. Fan fic gave Novik three things that she still values today: “community, an audience, and more competition.”
“The world tells us a lot about what we should value,” Novik said. “Ignore what the world tells you—what matters is what you want to spend time on.”
She said she has no set schedule for writing, which allows her to be more productive, especially since “creativity doesn’t always come on command.” Novik gave the students especially valuable insight when she explained that she also doesn’t finish every story she starts. Since beginning writers often worry if they don’t finish most of their stories, this provided some sense of relief.
Novik also referred to the book Outliers, and its assertion that you must spend 10,000 hours (or 10 years of life) learning and practicing something to become an expert. “Falling in love with what you’re doing makes it easier to put in the time.” You also need to have “a taste for good writing, be willing to push yourself, and care about your work.”
She spoke candidly about the challenges of “sustaining a series creatively,” which is why she has chosen to end the Temeraire books after the ninth and move onto something new. But the entire time Novik has been working on the Temeraire series, she has continued to write fan fic—“you don’t have to choose between the two”—and there was an audible gasp from the students when she estimated that she’s written in over 50 fandoms. The students were fascinated by the discussion of fan fic, since many of them write it and assumed they had to give it up to devote themselves to “serious” fiction.
Novik ended her conversation with the Shared Worlds students with more wise advice: “write the story that is personal. I’ve given money back, blown off deadlines [to find my way to that], and that’s a way of being professional, too.”
Beyond being professional and honest, Novik was hugely popular with the students, who were energized and motivated by her great visit.