Tag Archives: nonfiction

The Uniqueness Of Fiction

brethren-1988-1989Most of my life, including the years I worked as a secondary school teacher, I have written. However, until I decided to write a novel, I didn’t think about the fact that the majority of my writing experience involved nonfiction. I wrote letters, book reports, essays, term papers, and notes to the parents of my students. But fiction? Not so much.

Still, I was confident I could write a novel. Why? Primarily because I knew how to write, but also because I was a reader. I knew stories. In fact, I’d even taught short story units to my classes.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered all the things I did not know about writing fiction. Mind you, as a lit major in college and an English teacher for years and years, I was actually ahead of the game. But when I started in on the story I’d imagined, I had no idea fiction was its own unique animal. In many respects, when considering all types of writing, fiction is like a zebra among horses. Or a unicorn, if the fiction is speculative.

power-elements-of-fiction-seriesSo, what sets fiction apart? The simplest answer is that stories—fiction—must have four elements: a setting, characters, a plot, a theme. These certainly are the basics and each needs amplification—so much so that the first book in The Power Elements Of Fiction series deals with plot structure and the second deals with character development. Setting and theme do feature prominently in the upcoming third book in the series, but not exclusively.

Why? Because fiction techniques are as important as the required fiction elements. Those techniques include such things as point of view, foreshadowing, plot layering, cadence, tone, description, mood, and more.

Early in my writing journey, I read an article in Writer’s Digest magazine that talked about word choices and the importance of selecting the right one to fit the mood, the meaning, the character, and more. I thought, “Pffft, nobody does that! Way too much work.” Well, here I am more than ten years later, advocating for the same thing. In fact, I’ve learned that writing good fiction requires hard work.

Sometimes the writing might seem painstakingly slow. And it’s easy to think, No one will notice if I labor over a better word for this scene than the one that originally popped into my head. While it’s true that readers won’t notice what I did, the converse is true also—they will notice what I did not do. If I’m lazy about my word choices or sloppy with my point of view, readers may be pulled from the “fictive dream” I created and which enveloped them.

That’s the one of the death knells for a novel. Every time a reader realizes the story isn’t real, they’re less engaged, less compelled to keep reading.

A second death knell is to put a reader to sleep. So fiction techniques that help a writer create an appropriate pace and scenes filled with action and vibrant description and interesting characters, are vital to a story’s success.

A third toll of the bell ringing over a failed story is predictability. If the story is clichéd, unimaginative, stale, readers are apt to put the book down and never pick it up. Consequently writers need to begin with a fresh concept and create stories that feel both familiar and new at the same time.

Then, too, the better books stay with readers long after they finish the last page. They may even re-read those books. Why? Because the voice is enchanting or the ideas memorable or important or because the characters deal with timeless questions. Readers think about those books and about the ideas they generated. While the idea of thinking about a subject seems more fitted to nonfiction, certain fiction mechanisms exist that allow the writer to spark deeper thought. However, without the proper fiction techniques, a writer may inadvertently create a story with an essay attached—not something that readers generally gravitate toward.

Finally, fiction can generate emotion in readers. A writer using the right fiction techniques can bring readers to tears. Or to laughter. Writing in such a way that readers feel with and for the characters they’re reading about, requires great skill. Unique skill. Most nonfiction appeals to a reader’s mind. Fiction appeals to their heart.

In the end, I’m glad I took the long road to learn fiction techniques. You see, I wrote a novel and a half before I started seriously studying fiction. I would never recommend that route to anyone else, but as I learned and revised and rewrote, I saw how the story developed into something better and better. I also realized that rewriting, which I’d thought at one point was unnecessary and a waste of time, actually was a vital part of the storytelling process.

I learned that fiction has unique strengths which require unique techniques—ones that a little study and practice can develop. Writers may write, but fiction writers tell stories, and in so doing, we use a different skill set from nonfiction.

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Tighten Your Writing

wrench-899403-mI love contests. Besides reading and feedback from critique partners, contests may be the best means by which my writing has improve.

For one thing, most contests give feedback, either through judges’ scoring sheets or through comments from other participants. Then too, contests provide opportunities to experiment—to try out a new premise or dance a little with a new point of view.

However, the most important thing contests have taught me is how to write tight. You see, most contests have some kind of word or page limit. In other words, you have to tell your story in 5000 words, or 1500, or 100.

One contest I entered, held by agent Janet Reid, was to write a 100-word story which included five words she specified. It’s quite the challenge, I can tell you.

My first version was nearly twice as long as the limit. Next came the editing process. What words were unnecessary? What phrase could I replace with a single word? What parts of the story were needed? All this to meet a stringent word count.

It dawned on me, however, that those questions are ones I should ask about my writing whether or not I’m constrained by contest rules.

Eliminating unnecessary words keeps a story or an article moving. Some unnecessaries are fillers that an author falls back on, often without realizing it—words such as just or even. I even told my writing partners contests were helpful, so I just decided I should enter, too.

Other unnecessaries are built-in redundancies. He stretched, raising up both arms. (Is it possible to raise arms down?) The unopened can slipped from her fingers and fell down on her foot. (Could the can fall up on her foot?)

The next phase of tightening writing is somewhat harder. What phrases can be replaced by single words? Prepositional phrases are good suspects. He touched the screen of his iPad can become He touched his iPad screen.

Hardest of all might be determining what parts of a story or article are or are not necessary. Everything needs to be fair game. Is a particular character adding anything new or is he merely taking up space? Is a particular plot point moving the story forward or is it veering away from the desired end? Is an article example shedding further light on the subject or is it duplicating the point of a previous illustration?

Writing tight takes work, and clearly readers won’t know how hard an author struggled to hone a story or article. What they will know, however, is that they remained interested from start to finish and their minds never wandered—something fiction and nonfiction writers alike should strive for.

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This article, with some editorial changes, is a reprint of one that appeared here in October 2010.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Writing Process, Writing Rules

Nine Nonfiction No-nos

45559_robert82_far_from_everywhereI have to admit upfront—I only picked the number nine because I like alliteration. I’m not a hundred percent sure I can provide nine writerly things to avoid in nonfiction, but here’s my valiant (I hope) attempt.

1. Confusion. People read nonfiction primarily to learn something, to be informed, to increase their understanding. Confusion prevents any of that from happening.

2. Sloppy thinking. Writers of nonfiction need to create a clear line of thinking that readers can follow. Skipping steps or making unfounded leaps to an unearned conclusion will make readers skeptical—either about the writer’s ability or the subject’s accuracy.

3. Disorganization. Skipping from one point to another without some logical order waters down whatever it is an author is trying to say.

4. Outdated or incorrect statistics. Supportive data is not supportive if it is wrong or no longer relevant. When writing nonfiction, an author must do the research and check it twice to be sure it is up to date.

5. Unclear examples. If an author uses an example to illustrate a point, it should do so in an unambiguous way. Questionable examples can undermine the very point the writer is trying to make.

6. Yawn-inducing content. Even in blog posts, writers must aim to write about interesting subjects in an interesting way.

7. Unimaginative prose. No less than fiction, nonfiction needs to use strong verbs and nouns. The author should vary the sentence structure. The writing itself should be high quality—beautiful or compelling, entertaining or riveting.

8. Deceptive or untrue. Readers looking for an expert’s opinion or knowledgeable advice need to trust an author. Consequently no writer should knowingly fabricate information in order to make his argument look stronger. Neither should he use inflammatory vocabulary that will purposefully lead readers to an incorrect conclusion. Sadly, political campaigns all too often resort to this kind of writing—which may be one reason people sigh with relief when an election is over.

9. Plagiarism. Other writers can inspire. A book or article can prompt ideas. But no author should take another’s work and pass it off verbatim as if it is his own.

Nine no-nos weren’t as hard to identify as I expected. If fact, I can think of one or two others, but I’ll save them for another day and give you a turn to add ones you think belong on the list. We can rename the collection Ten Turn-offs or Eleven Errors or something. 😀

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Quotation Marks And Where They Belong

Trunk or BootBy and large, English is English regardless of which English-speaking country a person is from. There are, of course, various words that take on different meanings in different locations, but English grammar remains fairly constant. Quotation marks, however, are a different animal. There is more variation with use and placement of quotation marks than perhaps with any other English language guideline.

In this article, I’ll primarily deal with the American usage and placement, with an occasional note contrasting the difference with what is commonly referred to as the British style. For writers interested primarily in the latter, I refer you to The Oxford Guide to Style.

As you might expect, quotation marks are most commonly used with quoted material. In fiction this means in dialogue.

[Editor’s note: My apologies for the backwards closing quotes in the upcoming sections. Apparently if I use the code to create a red font, the quotation marks curl in the wrong direction. I decided more was gained by using the change of color than was lost by the backwards curl.]

    Example: Should I pack your blue shirt as well as the white one? she asked.

Note, there is a difference between dialogue and “indirect discourse” in which no quotation marks are required. In dialogue, the exact words of the speaker are quoted and therefore placed inside quotation marks. In indirect discourse, the speaker’s words are given in summary, rather than in the precise language he used, and therefore are not placed inside quotation marks.

    Example 1 (a line of dialogue): I’ve seen enough, he said.
    Example 2 (indirect discourse): He said he’s seen enough.

In nonfiction using quotation marks with quoted material means quoting another source in support of a point or to offer contrast to a particular view.

    Example: The author advanced his argument by saying, Act 3 begins in the next logical point on that journey.

The placement of the closing quotation mark is always after a comma or a period. Placement in regard to other punctuation marks varies based on whether the mark belongs to the sentence at large or to the quoted material. (Placement when using British English varies from these guidelines.)

    Example 1 (period always inside the closing quotation mark): She gave him an odd smile and said, I wouldn’t eat that if I were you.
    Example 2 (comma always inside the closing quotation mark): If you finish early, you may go, the teacher said with a wink.
    Example 3 (the question mark belongs to the quoted material): Her new mantra is Must you always go?
    Example 4 (the exclamation point belongs to the entire sentence): How shameful if he had to say, I can’t finish!

Quotation marks may also be used in “unspoken discourse,” commonly called interior monologue in fiction. Such discourse would also include silent prayer or telepathic conversation. When conveying any of these unspoken thoughts, the author may choose to use quotation marks or not. Note, however, that placing these in italicized type is not a standard practice according to the Chicago Manual of Style. (For more information on italicized type, see “Italics And When Not To Use Them.”)

Another common use of quotation marks is with titles of non-freestanding works such as articles in newspapers, magazines, or on blogs; individual sections of books; short stories; poems; and the individual title of an episode of a TV show.

The placement of the closing quotation mark follows the same guidelines as with other uses.

Occasionally quotation marks are required within a quotation. In that case single quotation marks, like this, are used. (Note: British style reverses the order, using a single mark predominantly and employing the double mark when needed inside a quotation.)

Example: Did Mr. McGuyre tell us to read Fog by Carl Sandburg or The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost? David whispered to the girl sitting next to him in the library.

Lastly, novelists may wonder about using quotation marks with epigrams, generally quotes from someone real or fictitious, placed before a chapter or section of the book. In this specialized use of a quote, quotation marks are not used.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments section if I didn’t cover something you’d like to know. Happy quoting. 😀

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