As a subscriber to numerous magazines (both print & online) and newsletters, I am constantly being offered writing aid, help, and advice. Correction. I am constantly being sold writing aid, help, and advice. Register today and save 30% on an all-exclusive, one-time webinar How to Write Fiction Like a Pro. Last chance to purchase Sam Canwrite (but you can’t)’s bestseller Back to the Pit! Seven Reasons This Book Won’t Help You Achieve Your Writing Goals and Reach National Stardom. Do I sound bitter? I’m not, actually. In fact, I often feel that I should be buying these books, that I should be attending these seminars. But then I stop and wonder if Agatha Christie was ever offered tutorials on structuring plot, or if Charlotte Bronte ever got invited to attend a lecture on character development, or if Mark Twain ever purchased a book entitled The Essentials of Comedic Writing.
Somehow, I doubt it. The question then becomes what did these past greats have that we don’t have? Is it possible to learn the craft of writing through trial and error? Do I need to fork over large wads of cash to become a better writer? (Says the sucker who spent thousands on a graduate level writing degree). In all seriousness though, much of what I’ve learned about the process, I did in three ways:
1. By writing
2. By reading
3. Critique groups (both in and outside the classroom)
To clarify, when I say “reading” I typically mean other novels, though I’ve come across a limited number of useful guidebooks as well.
Recently, I’ve begun my novel’s fifth revision, and believe me when I tell you that only now (after more than a year) have I fully begun to understand what it takes to write a book. My point is this, for the most part I’ve ignored the gimmicks and gadgets and I’ve set about figuring this writing thing out on my own. And trust me, I’m still no expert. But I will share with you what I’ve learned about the art of writing fiction based purely on my own experiences:
Chapter Segmentation: If I look back at my novel’s initial draft, the chapters have no delineation. It’s essentially a giant brain dump. I start and end in random places, sometimes right in the middle of the action. Some chapters are three pages long, others are fifteen pages long (which is often OK to do, so long as it’s effectively planned out; mine were not, of course). Last spring my thesis advisor told me that I ‘bury my gems.’ In other words, I stick the great, terse, one- liners that would otherwise make fabulous chapter openers/closers in the middle of the third paragraph in.
I’ve learned to write my chapters as mini-stories within the bigger story. Each chapter should be able to stand on its own, but remain linked to the overall big picture. It’s sort of like an episode of Mad Men or Breaking Bad—each episode has its own conflict, but often draws from previous conflicts or prepares for future conflicts. My chapters are now sorted into segments with strong openings and closings. Together they make up pieces the story is made of.
The Scene Shuffle: Anyone who writes with serious intent knows that many, many, words that are written will never see the light of day. This is one-hundred percent true. The first draft of my book has scenes the second draft never became acquainted with and so on. I’ve learned to distinguish which scenes make the cut, and which ones don’t. Often the slashed content adds nothing to the broader purpose of the story. Sometimes it disrupts the flow the action, causing the reader to literally ‘halt.’ Other times it is just weak and ineffective, and isn’t worth revising. Plus, in other cases, a major plot point gets reversed or altered and then these scenes simply become irrelevant. This is a very important skill to master. It says a lot about the final outcome of the book. I haven’t mastered it yet; I’ve just gotten better at it.
I’ve also learned to identify my ‘pivotal’ scenes and slow…them…down. Another key piece of advice I got from my thesis advisor was that I tend to rush through my biggest, most dramatic scenes. It’s as if the content matter (that I, myself, created) makes me queasy and I just want to move away from it. I now know that these scenes are what make a book memorable. So write it over…again, again, and again.
Characterization is a broken record: This is key: in order to really get a character’s thoughts, feelings, motives, and even personality across to the reader, you must beat it like a dead horse. The reader needs constant reminders of your characters’ obsessions, their desires, their needs. If an 18-year old female protagonist is yearning for acceptance from her absentee father, I need to hear her say this throughout the story many times over. Casually mentioning it the beginning won’t suffice. She needs to bemoan this yearning. She needs to have flashbacks. She needs to discuss it with her friends. She needs to act a certain way and say certain things in her father’s presence. She has to physically attempt to please him and fail over and over again. Otherwise, she’s just a stick figure no one can relate to or feel something for.
Research first!: Any research that needs to be done for the story (i.e. a character has a medical issue, the setting is World War II Russia, etc.) should probably be done ahead of time. At least in my case, I will not write one word of my next novel until I’ve done a fair amount of research on the book’s topic. What I am finding as I revise my current novel is once the words are down, the characters are created, the plot is structured, and the tension is building, it’s a lot harder to insert facts, statistics, and other likely observations in the midst of an already thriving scene. It’s not impossible, but it’s more difficult. If research is done prior to writing, then the revision process is simply fixing text that is already accurate.
Time is on your side: It takes many drafts to fully understand the world you’ve created. Writing is a journey of discovery (perhaps the best part), but at some point, a destination must be reached. That being said, once it is clear how the story begins, develops, and ends, can the proper adjustments be made. Seeds can be planted, characters can transform, and connections between this and that can be made. It is a process no doubt, and there’s no use in rushing.
I don’t know if I can call these tidbits I’ve just shared advice, or if they are merely the realities of the writing process. They aren’t even necessarily facts, unshakable truths about fiction writing—or any writing for that matter. Instead, I’ll call them lessons I’ve taught myself, lessons that have presented themselves to me (with help, of course) as I’ve grown as a writer. I didn’t unlock these pearls of wisdom by attending a single class or reading a book on craft. And while I am truly not knocking these tools created to help writers, the truth is, they are worth nothing if the writer herself doesn’t put them to use.