Some Thoughts on Writing Fiction, Part 3

In my previous two posts (here) and (here), I talked about setting up a structure and a process for writing fiction, and I mentioned that the details could be filled in at a later stage. So let’s look now at how one goes about filling in the details and what sort of details they might be.

Here are a few ideas and examples for bringing characters to life. Think about real people you know. What do you notice about them? What do you already know about them?

Marcia wears a ring that’s a little too big for her. She twists it around and around and seems to do it more when she’s upset. I think the ring used to belong to her mother, who died a couple of years ago. Maybe touching that ring gives her comfort.

Not only did I tell you something about Marcia that you can picture as you read, but I gave you some detail about her past and her state of mind.

How do you think your character would react in certain situations? And how do people in your story carry on their lives?

Jack was horrified when he heard that I’d bought myself a dress that cost three hundred dollars. It seemed like such an unnecessary extravagance to him. Jack is one of those guys who knows how to squeeze every penny’s worth out of a dollar. He’s always looking for bargains, and seems to consider it a major victory if he buys something at a deep discount. Maybe Jack is right. He never worries about how to pay the rent or whether he’s going to be able to retire when he reaches 65. Jack has peace of mind. But me — I’ve got the most perfect little dress I’ve ever seen. I’m the one smiling today. So what if I have to skip lunch for the next three years?

You learned something about Jack and you learned something about the “me” character. He’s very frugal and plans for the future. She’s more interested in instant gratification even if it means she ends up paying for it later. (This truly is fiction, by the way. In real life, I’m a lot more like Jack.)

What has happened in the past that helped build each person’s character? What experiences have influenced the events of today?

Melanie stood in her garden looking at the roses. The bushes were full of buds — the promise of bouquets that would soon grace her little house. Every summer, Melanie was overcome by a mixture of sadness and nostalgia. Rick had carefully planted each of the bushes and tended to them like a doting parent. After the divorce, her first inclination was to tear them out of the ground, one by one. But she never could bring herself to do it. And as time passed, she had come to love those roses, which now represented what she and Rick had shared in their early years. It didn’t last forever, but it had been very good.

Can you picture Melanie standing there? Can you see the garden? And now you know that she’s divorced, that it’s been a while, and that she’s mellowed about it. You’ve got lots of information about Melanie in that little passage.

I’m just writing these examples off the top of my head. They’re not Shakespeare, but I hope they show you the type of narrative that adds dimension and the kinds of details that paint a more complete picture for your readers.

What will you come up with?

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Some Thoughts on Writing Fiction, Part 2

I know you’ve been holding your breath waiting to find out what my young aspiring novelist said in reply to my questions (see Part 1) and how I answered her. The wait is over.

Most of my questions concerned the atmosphere in which she writes and whether she’s been doing the necessary prep work. I wanted her to think about what really goes into any serious writing effort. In a nutshell, she told me that she has only written a few short stories before attempting the novel, that her general writing skills need work, and that perhaps these are the main causes of her difficulties. She’s not following a set process or method, but she is trying to apply some sort of organization to the work.

Her biggest concern however, and one which I believe many authors share, is doubt over whether she will ever finish. At times she feels overwhelmed by what she has set out to do. Welcome to the world of writing!

Here’s what I wrote back to her.

Writing a novel may seem like a huge task, and that’s probably a reasonable thing to think. But there’s no magic or mystery about how it’s done. Writing is a discipline like any other art. You need talent, but most of it is just plain work.

You said you’re having a hard time with everything there is to do. The better organized you are, the less overwhelming it will seem. Good organization involves breaking things down into manageable pieces and that gives you control. We already talked about keeping notes for various plot points, characters, and details. That’s an important part of organizing. You also need a method for how to proceed. Here are two possible suggestions:

  1. Start by writing the entire story in outline form. Decide the events that will take place in each chapter. Use bullet points instead of full sentences. The outline becomes your road map. Then go back and write each chapter, filling in the details. Go back again and fill in more about the characters. It’s writing in layers. Each layer adds something to make it better.
  2. Start by writing it as a short story. Write full sentences and include some details about the characters and events, but don’t worry that it isn’t long enough. After you’ve written it as a short story, you can expand it by adding scenes, sub-plots, and more detail. You can add narrative to describe locations and settings. You can elaborate on the characters’ actions and make it more real with dialog.

As for the work itself, here’s where discipline comes in. If you can, set aside a certain period of time each day just for writing. Make an appointment with yourself and don’t break it. Create a quiet atmosphere and clear your mind of everything else. Even if you have no idea what you’re going to write that day, keep the schedule. If you plan to write for an hour and you sit there for 50 minutes unable to think of anything, but in the last 10 minutes you have a great idea and get it down on paper, you’ve accomplished something. It’s not always about quantity.

Don’t worry about correcting grammar and spelling as you write. Get the story and details down. You’ll have to go back and polish (all writers do) but the first and most important thing is to put your ideas on the page. You’ll be surprised how writing flows once you get started.

Have a great resource for grammar and spelling. As long as you know where to look things up, you’ll be okay. Learn from what you’ve looked up and develop good habits. The more you write, the more you’ll learn, and your skills will increase over time.

Keep studying about writing. One of the best ways to do that is to read lots of novels. Choose good authors and learn from them. When you read, pay attention to style. Note how the writer uses dialog and makes it sound natural. Notice how he or she plants information early in the book and then returns to it later, tying up loose ends. Look at the structure and how the story unfolds. Does it take place in sequence, or are there flashbacks? Is one character the narrator, or is the author the narrator? Is there a narrator at all? There are so many things to notice.

Whether you do any of this or not depends on how much you really want to write your novel. Know the answer to that before you start.

I hoped these points would give her a foundation for her work — at least enough to get going. I also offered some ideas and examples for filling in the details that bring a story to life. I will share those with you in Part 3, so stay tuned.

Published in: on January 20, 2011 at 9:30 pm  Comments (2)  

Some Thoughts on Writing Fiction, Part 1

Last summer, I received an e-mail from a young aspiring author. She was determined to write a novel, but was having a problem getting the story out of her head and onto paper. She asked me for some tips. Perhaps what I said to her will interest you.

Before I could offer advice, I needed information. I asked her questions like these:

  • What is your actual experience when you sit down to write? Can you get the first sentence down on the page? What happens then?
  • What kind of atmosphere are you working in? Do you have a quiet place where you can focus? Do you have music or a TV playing in the background? Are you interrupted by phone calls or texts? In short, are you dealing with outside distractions?
  • The first step in writing is deciding what you want to say. Have you thought in advance about all the details that paint a full picture of each character, location, and event? Do you know what your characters look like, what they’re wearing, how old they are, where they live, how they spend their time? Nobody wants to read a story about stick figures. An author needs to think these things through. Are you doing that work?
  • Do you have the plot all figured out? Do you know how you’re going to set up situations, create conflict, connect scenes and characters? Are you prepared to tie up loose ends? Do you have answers for all the questions your reader wants to see resolved? Have you written an outline or a summary, or are you planning to wing it?
  • Is this your first serious attempt at writing fiction? Have you already written some shorter things? Understand that a novel is a huge undertaking and may take months or years to complete. Do you have the patience and commitment required?
  • Are you confident about your grammar and spelling? If not, do you have good sources when you need to look something up?

Writing requires prep work — thinking, planning, decision making — before the first word goes down. Just knowing the kinds of questions to ask yourself will make the process easier.

Next time, I’ll talk about her reply and what I told her.

Published in: on January 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm  Comments (7)