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For Fiction Writers

a few bits of advice and why I don't want to give them

· Authoring,writingadvice

Here I am breaking down and posting some fiction writing advice. I have resisted this because I’m not a writer who believes in the efficacy of reading books about how to write. Clue: These tend to be written as money-makers by writers who want to supplement their meagre writing income by capitalising on the aspirations of people who aren’t yet published.

My biggest piece of writing advice is: stop reading blogs about how to write. Get off the internet and do some writing. Every day. Sometimes it will be bad. Reading over and reworking the bad stuff will teach you how writing works.

My second biggest piece of writing advice is: read. If you want to write fiction you need to read fiction thoughtfully. Think about how it works and try to imitate what you like and avoid what you don’t.

So having firmly established my hypocrisy, I will now paste some fiction writing advice below. I’m doing this because I wrote to a student about a draft the other day and realized that I was repeating things I say to students over and over again. These were basics that everyone needs to master, and they don’t always occur to new writers.

So I’ve copied my advice here, after removing all of the remarks that refer to that student’s work specifically. I advised the student to work on four main areas. These are specific skills and insights that many new writers are missing.

I recommend you write a first draft before you read this. Your first draft should be loose and exploratory anyway. It will then be material to which you can apply this advice.

Character work:

This is fundamental, and will affect the following three areas. Is there a strong sense of who these people are as people, beyond who they are in terms of the plot? What, for example, makes Character A and Character B different from each other? Can we hear it in the way they talk? Can we see it in the way they react to things? What is Character C like? How do we hear it in the way they speak? Apart from their situation, what sort of person is Character D?

You’ll need to think about what emotions and general affect (emotional demeanor) make each character pop and feel distinct from the others. Once you do this, your dialogue will also improve.

Pacing and plotting:

Partly, this follows on from the previous suggestion. You’ll need to think about the arc of each of your characters separately. What conflicts and desires drive each one? How will each of these people develop emotionally across the space of the whole novel? All of these character arcs should animate the scenes as people interact with each other.

You can use incidental events and actions to illustrate these drives, conflicts and developments, and to animate your establishing scenes in the early pages. Read back through your draft. Are there scenes which don’t appear to either establish much or move the plot forward greatly?

Also, be sure that, following any events in the plot, you inform the next scene with how the characters would be feeling about whatever has happened previously. Your characters need emotional consistency and continuity.

Finally, think again about the arc of the whole plot and what information and events the reader should get in the first 10% or so (which will be your submission to agents and editors). List these, then pace them out across the early pages. Then also draw the arc of how each character will open out in these early chapters. What do you want us to know and when? Where in these first pages are the big hits? What is each scene doing? Will it carry your reader to the next scene? Will they remain engaged?

This doesn’t mean constant action; it might be lovely writing or intriguing characters which keep the reader going. It might be atmosphere and world-building. Each scene must pay off in some way, though, and it helps to have a look at them separately and ask what the pay-off is in each scene.

Writing: editing at the level of the sentence

Your manuscript should have NO errors in sentence structure and punctuation. Rest your work, read it over, get someone else to read it over and fix ALL of your grammatical and textual errors. It is remarkable how many people do not or cannot do this. You may have to teach yourself the rules. Get Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and use it.

You also need to edit the stretches of heavy narration (too much telling). Cut some of this and then rework your sentences so that they are animated with emotion, not weighed down with too many steps or incidental actions. You will hear this business about showing and telling repeated everywhere. Still, this is the biggest and most frequent mistake new writers make.

A friend and I have a way of putting this. If your character is at the top of the stairs and you want them to be at the bottom, you do not have to take your reader down every step on the staircase.

Dialogue:

Finally, you should read all of your dialogue aloud to be sure it feels and sounds realistic. Having done your character work should make this much easier. Once you have more sense of who these personalities are, it will be easier to hear how they speak. Also think about how your characters sound against each other. When two characters are having a conversation, can you hear the difference between them in their speech? In the kinds of things they say or how they react to each other?

I think this makes a good checklist for fiction writers and I hope you find it helpful.

Now stop reading my blog and go do some writing!

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