Sunday, May 3, 2009

what I've finally managed to figure out about fiction writing

Three years ago, I had just made the decision to completely rework an unfinished piece of light fiction into a more serious work. I knew I needed to formalize this decision in some useful way.

What I chose to do was prepare an article about fiction writing, working out certain ideas I had held for some time without having consciously iterated them. I did no reading to prepare for the project; instead, I just began writing everything I could think of that I found important, almost without stopping. I left the article as-is, and made no later attempt to rearrange the points into a more formal sequence.

Nobody saw this article but me, but that wasn't the point. Placing myself in the role of teacher, which is essentially what I did, proved to be a good vehicle for coalescing various bits and pieces of unspoken wisdom rattling around in my brain. It also helped me muster the necessary mindset to approach the ambitious novel with confidence. (A second, similarly-structured piece addressed other elements such as style, themes, atmosphere, dialog, and story arc).

In other words, for reasons ranging from practical to psychological, organizing these thoughts about the art and craft of fiction writing was an extremely important process for me.

Here is what I wrote:

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· Good fiction writing involves balancing many elements. When everything comes together as it should, the finished piece is a joy for the reader, and a source of great satisfaction to the writer.

· Engage all the senses in your descriptions, as appropriate. After all, we don’t merely see things.

· Vary your sentence length. One long, complex sentence after another can be exhausting to read, particularly if they are clumsy, incorrectly punctuated, or lack fluidity. Conversely, one short sentence after another can feel like a plodding, mind-numbing series of drumbeats. Don’t make sentence length choices arbitrarily, but relevant to your content. For example, a few short sentences in succession can suggest simplicity or urgency. It also gives the reader room to breathe. Yes, this does work. Longer sentences can be employed for more complex, leisurely, or nuanced thoughts or descriptions.

· Think about the sounds of words against each other, the music and rhythms of language. Relate these choices to your story’s content, characters, settings, plot, moods, and themes. Authors place varying levels of importance on this, but in my view it should never be ignored.

· Show instead of tell, if possible. This becomes a key element when assigning weight to the various elements of your work. Telling is appropriate when you are condensing or streamlining certain parts, but showing expands the moment and creates all-important reader immersion.

· Don’t presume that, just because you’re feeling or seeing something as you write, your finished writing will necessarily reflect these things.

· Don’t insult the intelligence of your reader and over-explain what is better inferred. Allow readers a depth of experience through the joy of discovery.

· On the other hand, don’t unintentionally leave puzzling gaps and questions. Proofreading and re-writing sometimes requires a waiting period in the interest of objectivity. Go away and come back fresh.

· Watch for over-used or pet words, devices, and phrases.

· Pay attention to paragraphs. Start and end them with effective sentences. Make your paragraph breaks logical. Paragraphs, like sentences, are a key element of pace. Bring pace under your control to the advantage of your story.

· Learn the basics, either directly or indirectly. There’s a lot of carpentry in writing. If you’re serious about writing, you’ll need to log some study hours on a regular basis. And if you’re interested in experimental or unusual writing styles, you’ll still need the basics under your belt. The only way to effectively bend or break rules is to first understand why those rules are there to begin with.

· Don’t use big or obscure words just for their own sake. This kind of showing off works against the accessibility and dignity of your work, and is a mark of insecurity. On the other hand, there are virtually endless words and phrases at your service to express subtle shades of meaning, so a sound vocabulary is invaluable. Audience must be considered, but even so, be aware of your motives in word selection.

· When beginning a project, give careful thought to the voice of the work. Should it be written in the first person? Third person, past tense? And is it omniscient (all-knowing) or limited? There are many voices; each has its merits, and any writing project we embark on has its optimal voice. Partly because my novel-in-progress is character-oriented, it is written in the third person past, limited (with brief segments of present tense). The reader is inside the mind of each significant character. The reader has no intrusive awareness of me as the writer (although my persona is indirectly painted by the work as a whole, and is consistent). Instead, I write in the third person from within each character’s knowledge and experience. My novel is a set of interlocking experiences. I would recommend doing a survey of works you’ve enjoyed, and seeing what voice was used for each. Try to deduce why various authors chose the voices they did. This is a fascinating sub-topic with many variations not mentioned here.

· Try further strengthening your characters—and in turn, your writing—by bringing a specifically appropriate nuance to your core writing style for each character’s prose, in turn. For example, a scatterbrained character’s text, even when it’s not a line of their dialog, could be written with a hint of a slightly choppy or erratic style. Or, hints of an arrogant character’s pomposity can be made to come through in that section’s prose. This technique furthers the readers’ immersion into each character without the character actually speaking in the first person. I personally find this nuanced third person voice to be the perfect balance.

· Whenever you employ more than one character’s perspective (usually in lengthier fiction), remain within only one character’s point of view for any given scene—no head-hopping. The choice of whose point of view to use for each scene is important. Often, it will be the most important person in that scene—but not always. For some scenes, I find it can be more useful to employ the point of view of a secondary character, making use of their unique ability to observe the scene’s more important character.

· Read, read, and read some more. It’s just as important to read quality finished works as it is to read books and articles about writing. And of course, a writer writes. Write early, write often, and keep at it. Write even when you don’t feel like it, because in the end, it’s all about showing up and doing the work.

· To write a work of fiction is to create your own universe. The tone and internal logic of your universe should be consistent. Humor (for example) can wander in and out of a story as it does in real life. But if your serious work turns suddenly slapstick, you’re in real trouble.

· Find fresh ways of expressing things rather than relying on cliché. But make sure you don’t try so hard to be unique that it looks belabored or jarringly inappropriate, or evokes the wrong associations. Don’t say someone’s hair is the color of scrambled eggs unless you really want to create such a puzzling (not to mention, unpleasant) train of thought... probably not even in a scene about food!

· It's been suggested that the road to Hell is paved with adverbs, and I tend to agree. Choose just the right verb, or construct the right sentence, and you’ll be able to leave most of those adverbs to beginning writers. Verbs themselves are extremely important.

· Write from your own inner wisdom. You know more than you think you do.

· Readers give themselves over to you. They trust you. Don’t betray their trust if you can help it.

September 24, 2006
San Diego, CA

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