Tag Archives: novel

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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Filed under Miscellaneous, Writing Tips

To Do NaNoWriMo Or Not To Do NaNoWriMo

November is just around the corner and writers everywhere are making plans to participate in the unique program NaNoWrMo — short for National Novel Writing Month. The question is, should you join all those others?

First, a few specifics about the official program. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and November 30. The process is to register at the official NaNo site, then report back at the end of November and download your work to receive official recognition for “winning.” The stipulations include writing a brand new novel, not one you’ve already been working on.

What are the advantages of this program? Everyone I’ve asked who has participated says NaNo works as a form of motivation and accountability. There are forums where writers can ask questions or congregate with others writing in their genre. There are Pep Talk articles and word count badges or scoreboards. In other words, NaNo turns a solitary activity into a community event. Lots of people participate, I suspect, simply because they don’t want to be left out.

In addition, serious writers report they come away from NaNo with the skeleton of a story that they can flesh out in the days ahead. NaNo may not deliver a finished product (let’s face it, only middle grade novels clock in at 50,000 words), but it helps the writer push through until that difficult first draft is either finished or firmly in hand.

With those pluses, what then could be the disadvantage? I see several drawbacks. For seasoned writers, writing between a thousand and two thousand words a day ought not to be too demanding, but the pace doesn’t allow the new writer to collect himself when the story bogs down, to learn what might be the problem, and to discover how to get out of it.

In addition, new writers might be fooled into thinking that their “winning” manuscript is now ready for publication. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fellow editing pal Jamie Chavez wrote a helpful blog post about how good writing takes time to learn. She concludes with this:

A great manuscript is a good first step. But it’s going to take time, grasshopper.

Should someone who has done little to no study of how to write fiction set out to write a novel? Apart from the possible harm of discouragement, I can’t see that it would damage someone’s writing. I don’t know that it will help either unless the writer gets feedback from knowledgeable writers — not from loving family members.

My own writing journey started with an idea and a couple chapters that I took to a writers’ conference. I got enough encouragement that I finished the story and went back to that conference. Again I received positive feedback which led to consideration of publication by a particular publishing house. That might have been the worst thing that happened to me. Though I ultimately received a rejection notice, I assumed from that point on for a number of years that my story was ready for publication because one person showed interest.

As I queried editors and agents and the “not for us” notices mounted, I concluded the problem was my genre (Christian fantasy). It was too hard a sell, I reasoned, because editors and agents weren’t being open-minded enough. After all, there was that one industry professional who liked it.

During this time I was doing some study, but honestly I dismissed much of the writing advice I was receiving because I thought it was too demanding — no one in his right mind could do all the things these writing instructors were suggesting. On top of that, I didn’t understand everything I was reading. Some times I thought I understood, and other times the specialized termonology passed me by. (When exactly did a scene end and where did a sequence fit in? What was a sequence?)

Even though I did revisions based on the few things I learned and understood, nothing changed dramatically in my writing until I joined a critique group and began to get feedback from knowledgeable people who gave me honest criticism.

The relevance of my story is this: essentially I used the NaNo method of writing, though I took longer than the thirty days to produce an entire manuscript. But when I was finished, I didn’t know what to do with the thing I’d created until I got help.

Beginning writers who do NaNo will be at a crossroads when they finish — will they take their baby, which they undoubtedly love, and let the evil eyes of critique partners or some profession freelance editor such as myself tear into it so that they learn how to write by having written badly, or will they try to show it to the world as the next president or beauty queen or star athlete, fully formed, ready to go?

If the latter, NaNo will be a bad experience. If the former, then it has possibilities.

I’ve said often, if I could begin my writing career over, I’d write short stories while I studied the craft and had critique partners give me feedback. For one thing, short stories allow for experimentation. I can write in first person in one story, for example, then switch to a close third person limited in the next story. The two offer me a chance to see which I like better, which fits me, what the advantages and disadvantages of each are. But writing a novel, I’m locked into the point of view I’ve chosen and might not learn until twenty thousand words in that it’s really hard to sustain.

But that’s me. Others may find that hammering out a novel in thirty days is exactly what they want to do. It will give them something from which to work, and it will validate them as writers because they will have finished what they set out to do, and they’ll be NaNo winners.

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Filed under Writing Process

What Goes Into A Plot

A recent article in Writer’s Digest on writing short stories included a succinct explanation about story plots:

    Plots, Aristotle told us, have beginnings, middles and ends, and they proceed through a series of reversals and recognitions, a reversal being a shift in a situation to its opposite, and a recognition being a change from ignorance to awareness. The basic plot of every story — regardless of length or complexity — is: A central character wants something intensely, goes after it despite opposition and, as a result of a struggle, comes to either win or lose.

    – “Letting Plot Guide Your Narrative” by John Dufresne

In a pea pod, there are the basics of a plot and the basis of an outline.

Because I believe it is important to craft our theme with the same skill and attention I give to the other fiction elements, I’ll add that I think it’s necessary to know what it is I want to say before I begin work on my plot.

Let’s say I want to write a book that speaks to God’s faithfulness and Man’s need to trust Him. With that direction in mind, I can craft a character who has an intense want in line with this direction.

Because I have a direction, however, I am not cornered into creating a stock character. I have choices. Do I want my character to be a person who has it all, only to lose it, a la Job? Or perhaps I should fashion a character who has it all except for the one thing he thinks will make his life work. Another approach might be to start with a character at rock bottom who is in survival mode.

There are any number of characters with differing situations who can intensely want something only to discover that their real need is to trust God.

My first major plotting decision, then, is to determine my theme, and my second is to create a character.

I can’t emphasis enough how important it is to create a rounded, believable character, not simply affix a name to a particular gendered individual of a certain age with specified hair and eye color. The more a writer can know about his character, the easier plotting is.

For example, suppose your character happens upon a person in the park lying next to the bicycle path, bleeding, not moving. What does your character do?

Your answer as the writer should depend on what kind of a person you are creating. If your character is a take-charge individual, her first actions will be very different than if she is timid and quiet. Does your character have a medical background or does the sight of blood make her squeamish? Was your character helped by a stranger at some point in her life or was she a rape victim? These and a dozen different personality issues, background experiences, and relational influences will affect what your character will choose to do first.

Once you know your character as well as you can, it’s time to put him into a setting. Yes, before your plotting can get started, you need to know where your character is. Of course, setting also must serve your theme and the character you have created.

If he is poor and desperate, don’t assume that he needs to be on skid row. What if he’s poor, desperate, and living in Beverly Hills? How did he get there and why does he want to stay? What will it take? What does it cost him if he fails and has to leave? Where will he go?

Questions, questions, questions. Ask yourself as many questions as you can imagine. When some answer intrigues you, follow that line of thought and ask another series of questions, especially if it’s concerned with why.

Within those questions you just may have found your beginning.

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Filed under Beginnings, Characters, Plot, Story