Tag Archives: stories

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

Love What You Write

disappointed_manI don’t generally use this space to write inspirational pieces. For the most part, I assume someone who is reading a blog offering writing tips is probably already motivated and doesn’t need too much sideline cheerleading from another writer.

But for most of us, there comes a time when we start to wonder what it is we’re doing. Whether it’s agent rejections, tough critique group responses, contest failures, low sales, a scathing review, few blog post comments, dwindling followers–need I go on?–there will come a time in our experience that we might get discouraged and wonder why we’re writing.

It’s at those points I believe that we writers should focus on what we love. We should write what we love, but more than that, we should write it so that we love it.

Most often the writing advice we receive is helpful, but there can come a time when it all seems conflicting or vapid or repetitive.

I’ve been in groups before in which one person praises the very thing that another person rips apart. So which view is right?

I’ve also seen critiques that are so bland, they are meaningless. “This is nice” might be the worst comment of all. Or “It’s fine.” How is a writer to learn, grow, improve from that?

Then there are the comments that continue to be the same no matter what your write. “Needs more description,” or “the character’s voice isn’t strong enough”–week after week, no matter what changes you make, the comments remain the same.

It’s possible, after a time, for us to write ourselves in circles, trying to fix all the problems others point out in our work. And it gets discouraging, so much so that some writers might consider stepping aside and letting go of their dream.

It’s at that point that I think we need a little inspiration, and it comes from what we love. We writers generally made the decision to tell a story we love or discuss a truth we believe in. In other words, we had a passion for communicating something with others. In times of discouragement, then, it’s important to focus on that story we love, on that truth we believe in and ask if we still want to communicate it with others.

But that’s really writing what we love. This post is about loving what we write.

In those times of discouragement, it’s important to love what we write. That can be hard to do when we have the voice of critics running through our heads as we read our work. But at some point, we need to decide if the critics are right or not. If they’re right, then we need to do the hard work and revise our story or our article until we love it.

What if the critics are not right? One thing I’ve learned about writing feedback–well, two things: no piece of writing is ever perfect and if someone says there’s a problem, they may not be right about how to fix it, but they’re probably not wrong about the fact that a problem exists.

I think there are far too many writers out there who simply have not done the hard work and yet think they are ready for a publisher. After all, I was one of those writers. I went through the process of joining a critique group, growing from their feedback, and eventually receiving glowing comments. I was going to conferences and placing in contests. I was ready! Except I wasn’t. There was still more hard work for me to do.

But here’s the thing. Even as I am doing the hard work to become a better novelist, I still love the story I’m writing. That, I think, needs to be the baseline to which we return. Some stories can get so gummed up by all the changes this agent or that editor or critique partner has suggested, that we stop loving them. Maybe those need to be put aside for a time. Maybe we need to pick up something else, something that expresses our passion, and tells the story we love in the way we love.

Maybe then we will remember why we write and we’ll recognize our own voice again.

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Filed under Revision, Writing Inspiration

Books That Last

Not every book is intended to last. Some writers are perfectly fine writing fast and hard for a market that craves another one just like the other one. Surprisingly, however, even books that don’t intend to last sometimes do.

Nancy Drew comes to mind. Good stories. Fast reads. Formulaic plots. Yet, in the face of many an imitator and many a ghost writer, Nancy Drew has lasted. Why?

I think two factors come into play: tension and a larger-than-life character.

Nancy Drew was a smart, independent teenage girl long before Title IX came into being. She lived an exciting life that many a young girl dreamed of living. And not much has changed. Today’s liberated women have become enslaved by the things men have been bound by for years — busy-ness, bosses, the mortgage. So the take-charge Nancy, the clever, self-sufficient sleuth, still resonates.

Unfortunately, it’s the plots that suffer in these mysteries. No archenemy steps up to be Moriarty to Sherlock Drew. And yet the authors found ways to create tension. Nancy or her friends, captured and tied up. How will she or they escape this time? A hidden staircase, a mysterious letter, a secret in the old attic. Will she find the clue she needs? Tension. Each story utilized something of the unknown and something of the dangerous to create suspense.

The questions aren’t deep, but there is no doubt what Nancy Drew’s goal is, so readers hold their breath and cheer her on. The problem is in remembering any of the story the next day, or next week, or next month. But despite the formulaic nature of the plot, Nancy Drew books are still around.

Too many stories suffer plot problems while also lacking a character that resonates or tension that propels the action. These are the books that will not last. Some of them may actually be initial commercial successes, but unlike Nancy Drew books, no one will be buying them forty years later.

Some authors actually aim to write long-lasting books. These must have an added dimension: depth. There’s a point greater than entertainment to the writing, though entertainment is surely a by-product found in abundance.

And what creates depth? Ideas. Ones that make readers turn the story over and over in their mind for days after they reach the last page. Depth isn’t achieved by telling the reader what to think but by giving them a reason to think about the ideas central to the story.

These are the books that can stir readers to believe or hope or try. They go beyond showing the lives of the characters and the events of the story to showing the reader how he is to think and to live. In other words, they have impact.

If books with depth are to last, though, the ideas have to be timeless and universal. They have to connect with their readers year after year. A story, then, like The Octopus by Frank Norris, about the abuses of the railroad in nineteenth century America, may have resonated in its day to its target audience, but fifty years later or a continent away, it makes little impression.

In summary, books with larger-than-life characters and an abundance of tension can last. Add depth and the books that last can impact readers for generations.

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