The 3 Most Important Elements of Fiction Writing

By Magdalena Ball
Even highly celebrated and well-paid authors miss them. While almost all writers are clear on the importance of plot, there are other writing skills such as a strong narrative voice, good deep characterization, and relevant, subtle scenery description that set a work of fiction apart, rendering it literary or great. In my work as a reader for a small publishing house, I have seen these omissions in nearly every manuscript that has come across my desk.

If these three elements are patchy or not well-controlled, a piece of fiction will be amateurish, shallow, and potentially unpublishable (unless your name is Grisham or King). No amount of exciting plot or poetic description of the surrounding environment will make up for it.

Following is a list of the three most important elements of fiction writing, along with a series of exercises and references to help writers improve in these critical areas.

The very best way to improve your writing in these, and other areas, is to read lots of writers who have excellent control in these areas. They are also referenced. There will always be something subtle that extends beyond writing classes and even articles such as this, and that is the writer’s ear. Extensive reading of good quality literature can help develop that subtle ear for what works and what doesn’t. In the meantime, the following tips will help clarify where the main areas for writing great fiction lie. Hint . . . it isn’t in the plot.

Strong narrative voice

The narrative voice is critical to any work of fiction, and it is probably one of the most overlooked areas of focus for new writers. Vague narrators, uncertain tense, and an unclear voice are all the result of poor narration. A great writer will have total control over his/her narrative, the voice that guides the reader through the story. As Noah Lukeman, the author of The First Five Pages, says: “Viewpoint and narration comprise a delicate, elaborate facade, in which one tiny break of inconsistency can be disastrous, the equivalent of striking a dissonant note in the midst of a harmonious musical performance. The easiest way to ensure you have a clear narrative voice is to write in the first person. This makes your narrator an obvious character, and thereby ensures that, as a writer, you will be thinking about that development.

However, first person isn’t appropriate for all fiction, and it has its limitations, since it ties the work to a single perspective. For third person narratives, the key point is to ensure that the narrator is actually defined as clearly as any other character, regardless of how visible or invisible you want that narrator to be. Any straying from the main narrative voice or mistake in consistency can be a disaster, unless your control and experience are extensive and vast.

A good narrative voice is generally consistent, and doesn’t switch from first (“I”), to second (“you”) to third (“he or she”) person, unless the author is doing it quite deliberately, and it takes great skill to pull off switching narration. In most cases, switching person will destroy a story. More subtle, but equally important is the need to keep the narrative viewpoint consistent. It can be hard work to develop a single viewpoint, and using multiple viewpoints can be complex, with the need for careful, well-crafted breaks between viewpoints and a really clear, plot-oriented reason for doing so. The reader must have a good sense of the narrative voice, including why that voice sees things the way it does, and whose perspective it is taking.

Some tricks to help develop the narrative voice include the following:

  1. Read authors with exceptional narrative control. Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes are among the very best authors for narrative control. Their novels tend to be fuelled by great narrators and characterization, and reading work like theirs will help develop the writer’s ear for what works in narration.
  2. Try re-writing a piece of your own work from a different viewpoint, and noting the effect. You may actually improve the piece, but if not, you will at least begin to understand the impact.
  3. Try creating a profile of your narrator. Write out his/her “back story.” Put together a number of paragraphs on his/her life, motivations, and fears.
  4. Take a paragraph from any great writer’s work. Try a classic like Dickens, Eliot, or Joyce, or some other well respected novelist, and take note of the narrative voice. Now write out a paragraph on the narrator. Describe his/her motivations, past, and the hints that the writing conveys on the narrator’s involvement in the overall story.

References for more information on narrative voice:

http://landow.stg.brown.edu/victorian/art/crisis/crisis4a.html

"Paradigm, Point of View, and Narrative Distance in Verbal and Visual Arts" by George P Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

http://english.tyler.cc.tx.us/engl2307nbyr/narrativepov.htm

A simple but useful guide to the different narrative voices, from Candace Schaefer: http://www.qcc.mass.edu/booth/102/ptview/index.htm

A slide show by Sheila Booth of at QCC Mass — including a complete overview of the narrative voice: http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellibst/PowerPoint/Lect11/sld019.htm

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Jane Burroway, Longman; 8th edition, 2010. ISBN 0205750346

Characterization

Characterization is related to narrative voice, as the narrator is generally a character too. While most writers understand the importance of characterization, and it is not as subtle a skill as the narrative voice, modern bestsellers and genre writing still tend to be plot rather than character-driven, especially in our world of fast paced, instantly gratifying television and film. Cliched, superficial characters are the mark of a poor writer. A great character can save an overly simplistic plot, but no amount of action will make up for unbelievable or shallow characters. A good character has the same kind of depth, complexity, and believability as an interesting person. The reader wants to know more about them; to spend time with them; to imagine their lives beyond the boundaries of your fiction. There are a number of books written about creating good characters (see References below). However, the basics of characterization are as follows:

Ensure that your reader cares about the characters. Solid characters are not enough—they have to inspire strong feeling.

Good characters are complex. A reader’s response to them should also be complex. This means they grapple with the same things real people grapple with—morality, the meaning of life, love, death, time management, etc. No one is purely good or purely evil. The most unloveable protagonist must still have something to make their story interesting to the reader, and believable. Cliched, cardboard characters will ruin the best plot. This means that characters should be well-drawn, and detailed. Their dialogue must align with their history, and every character, even minor ones, must have some sort of history that is discernable by the reader.

All characters must count, and must be related to the meaning and narrative of the story. Extraneous characters who appear and disappear without relevance to the plot will confuse the reader and weaken the fiction.

Characters should sit at the heart of any story. This means beginning, and continuing with characterization throughout the entire story. It is not enough to describe your characters at the start and then forget about it. People are full of contradiction, depth, and corridors to explore. Characters should be too.

Avoid contrived description. Characterization should be woven into the plot and handled with subtlety.

Some tricks to help characterization include:

  1. Pick a passage from great fiction (any of the examples above will do, or anything you might be reading, as long as it is literary), and identify the character. Describe, in writing, his/her back story. How is it relevant to the overall novel?
  2. Do the same thing for a piece of your own work. Take one of your characters and write out a page of “back story.” This is something that isn’t going to appear in your work, but it will form the basis for the things your characters do.
  3. Try writing a few paragraphs of “stream of consciousness” for one of your favorite characters. If you aren’t sure how to do this, try doing it for yourself. Just spend a few minutes listening to the interior voice in your head. Close your eyes and let your mind wander at will, and then quickly write it down as close as possible to how it was. Leave out punctuation and let the thoughts flow, stop and start in the same chaotic rhythm as they do in the mind. If you are still unsure, check out the masters; James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner in The Sound and The Fury; all do wonderful things with this technique.
  4. Try a form of “mind-mapping” for your characters. Place one of their names in the middle of the paper, and draw a circle around it. Now around that circle, place aspects of that person in lines that emanate from the central point. This will give a good feeling for the complexity that makes up this person. Once you have done this, you will have a much better idea of who this character is, his/her motivations, and hidden internal dialogue.
  5. Developing your writer’s ear for what constitutes good and poor characterization is critical for every fiction writer, and the best way to do that is to read fiction by wonderful and challenging authors. All of the narrative masters cited above are also masters of characterization, and there is also Charles Dickens, whose characters tend towards the comic, but never unbelievable, Tim Winton, Toni Morrison, or James Joyce (who can ever forget Leopold and Molly Bloom from Ulysses?).

References for more information on characterization

The Key to Making Your Characters Believable by A.C Crispin

Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger, Henry Holt, July 1990, ISBN: 0805011714

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King. Pocket Books, May 2001, ISBN: 0671024256.

The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft., Douglas Bauer, Univ of Michigan Pr; Enlarged and Revised Edition 2006. ISBN: 0472031538.

Subtle Description of Setting

browne_self-editing_for_fiction_writersMany creative writing classes focus on the writing of scenic description. Good descriptive writing is an excellent skill; however, it can be overused to the detriment of a piece of fiction, especially when combined with poor characterization. An abundance of natural scenery or the telling of a setting, unrelated to the characters, will seem gratuitous and amateurish. Gorgeous scenery is not an error in itself. Descriptive writing can be powerful, creating the setting and backdrop for the work, and providing some very moving passages. However, purely purple prose tends to be glossed over by readers, as an attempt at writing prettily rather than writing meaningfully, and it can actually be quite dull.

Every single piece of description must have some relevance to either the character development or the plot. The classic maxim is to always show rather than tell. Paint the scene, delicately, and let the characters find your scenery for you; let the scenes unfold. Let your reader enter your fictional universe and visualize the setting themselves through scenes, events, dramatization, symbolization, or open ended description in which the reader can participate directly.

Some tricks to help improve scenery description include:

  1. Try to write a paragraph of setting description with no adjectives at all. This will not only create a very vivid, dramatic scene, but will also force you to show rather than tell, as multiple adjectives are at the heart of telling.
  2. Read the following short passage from Kafka’s The Trial(165–6):

    He went over to the window, perched on the sill, holding on to the latch with one hand, and looked down on the square below. The snow was still falling, the sky had not yet cleared. For a long time he sat like this, without knowing what really troubled him, only turning his head from time to time with an alarmed glance toward the anteroom, where he fancied, mistakenly, that he heard a noise. But as no one came in he recovered his composure, went over to the washbasin, washed his face in cold water, and returned to his place at the window with a clearer mind.

    How much of the setting does this seemingly simple paragraph reveal? How much have we learned about both the situation, the character, and the scene? Try and do something similar in a different setting, with a different character (use of your own if you have a story in progress).

  3. As with narrative voice and characterization, read authors who excel in writing good setting. This will, once again, help you develop your writer’s ear for this, and ensure that you can spot purple passages in your own work.
  4. Re-write, re-write, re-write. Julian Barnes has been cited as saying that he re-writes every page something like 47 times. This may seem excessive, but the heart of good writing is re-writing, and this is critical for your setting and description of the environment within your fiction. Cut out anything that seems the slightest bit superfluous. Your writing will be more professional, stronger, and more powerful.

References for more information on description of setting:

http://www.eclectics.com/articles/setting.html

Lori Handeland’s article on setting.

The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. Noah Lukeman, Simon & Schuster, January 2000. ISBN: 068485743X.

The Elements of Style, Strunk & White, Alllyn & Bacon, January 2000 (reprinted), ISBN: 020530902X

The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (14th Edition), John Grossman, University of Chicago Press, Sept 1993, ISBN: 0226103897

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Benni Browne and Dave King.HarperCollins, Second edition 2004. ISBN: 0060545690.

Of course it takes more than a good narrator, good characters, and good, subtle scenery description to make a great piece of fiction, but these three areas will set a great piece of work apart from a mediocre one. The most common error is patchy narrative voice, and all writers should approach this area with some thought and caution, since it is much less well-taught in writing classes than techniques like plot development and characterization. Once again, the best way of becoming a master in these critical fiction areas is by being aware of their importance, and by reading good quality literary fiction, noting always the way the author deals with the narrator, the character development, and the subtle relationship between scenery and character, setting and plot.

Magdalena Ball is content manager for The Compulsive Reader, Preschool Entertainment, and is the author of The Art of Assessment: How To Review Anything. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in hundreds of on-line and print publications.

AWer New Releases!

Congratulations to AbsoluteWrite members Stacia Kane and K.A. Stewart on today’s release of their respective books! I’ve been waiting for the release of both of these books with great anticipation, for what seems like months.

Stacia Kane‘s new book Unholy Magic is book 2 of the Downside Ghosts series. You can read an excerpt on StaciaKane.com. The enthusiastic All Things Urban Fantasy review says:

Like any drug, the first taste gets your attention but its the second taste that gets you hooked. I thought the first Downside Ghosts book, Unholy Ghosts, was an impressive debut, but UNHOLY MAGIC is even better. I am well and truly addicted to this dark, seductive urban fantasy series.

Stacia Kane is singlehandedly writing her very own hot new take on Urban Fantasy, so I’m excited for this next installment in the Downside Ghosts tales.

If you favor an Everyman hero, Fantasy Literature describes K.A. Stewart‘s new book, A Devil in the Details (Jesse Dawson book #1):

Every lost soul needs a champion. Jesse James Dawson was an ordinary guy (well, an ordinary guy with a black belt in karate), until the day he learned his brother had made a bargain with a demon. Jesse discovered there was only one way to save his brother: put up his own soul as collateral, and fight the demon to the death.

There’s a review of A Devil In the Details up at The Best Reviews that tells us:

K.A. Stewart is a welcome addition to the urban fantasy writers with a strong opening entry. Told in the first person by the laconic hero in a sardonic witty voice, readers get to know Jesse up front and in person. Flawed and courageous, Jesse risks eternity to help those who cut demonic deals although by doing so he shortens his lifespan because one day he will lose a fight. A Devil in the Details is a dynamic debut.

You can find an essay from K.A. Stewart about writing Jesse James Dawson on the Penguin Books Website. She writes:

The character of Jesse Dawson sprang to life out of my desire to see an “everyman” in extraordinary situations. He’s your average Joe. He has a house payment, a wife, a beautiful daughter that he spoils. His job is menial at best, and he’ll never be what anyone calls wealthy. Ultimately, his life probably isn’t a lot different than yours.

Until, of course, you throw in the demons. Oh, did I forget to mention those?

If you’d like to know more about how other writers are making their books work—and sell—K.A. Stewart has a recent guest post about building characters on The Other Side of the Story.

So these books are some of what I’ll be reading this month. How about all of you? And if you’re an AWer with a book coming out, drop me a note!

Writing Mysteries, 2nd Ed. A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America

Cover of Writing Mysteries

Review by Ellen Zuckerman

Writing Mysteries 2nd Ed.
Sue Grafton, Ed. with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman
Writer’s Digest Books
April, 2002

“Writing a novel is a long distance run of the imagination…Writers need all the help they can get, wherever they can get it . . . ” (George C. Chesbro, p. 91)

So you want to write a mystery? There are a few things you’ll need for your journey; among them a healthy dose of curiosity and imagination, but nothing so important and helpful as a well-worn copy of Writing Mysteries (2nd Ed.), written by members of the Mystery Writers of America. Everything you’ll need is here, organized into just under 300 pages of collective wisdom, from well-known and not-so-well-known mystery authors.

The handbook is divided into three parts: Preparation, The Process, and Specialties. Part I includes chapters on “The Rules and How to Bend Them,” how and where writers get their ideas, the pros and cons of writing with a partner, and several chapters on research and background, all exploring different facets of these subjects.

Part II, The Process, dives right in to beginnings, middles, and endings, with specific sections focusing in-depth on characterization, creating a series character, using point of view, and developing one’s personal writing style. Discussions on dialogue, pacing, and “clues, red herrings, and other plot devices” lead into the beginning of the end — thoughts and recommendations on plot, revision, agents, and markets.

Part III, Specialties, contains separate and thorough chapters each detailing a particular type of mystery writing — writing short stories, for younger audiences, true crime, e-book mysteries, and even a list of additional recommended reading and references.

So there you have it — everything you’ll need to know to write a mystery — from the inkling of your first clue to the portrayal of the hero/sleuth your audiences will clamor to read about again and again. The best of the best are here — Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, Tony Hillerman, Michael Connelly, Stuart Kaminsky, Sara Paretsky, Joan Lowery Nixon, Lawrence Block, and a host of other unique voices to guide the beginning mystery writer on the journey from idea to publication. With humor and honesty, a varied assortment of very different writers share their thoughts and even some of their “trade secrets” in this excellent writer’s resource. Every aspiring mystery writer should have a copy of Writing Mysteries within arm’s reach.

Ellen Zuckerman is a writer and former special education teacher. Her recent writing credits include book reviews for FictionAddiction.NET and AbsoluteWrite.com. She enjoys writing about literature, education, disability advocacy and health issues and is available for various writing projects. You can find her on Twitter as @Runnergrrlie

Paranormal Roundtable on Suvudu!

Mark of the DemonNeed a remedy for the late-winter blahs? Suvudu announced they’ve got your cure. They’ll be hosting a live round-table discussion of Paranormal and Urban Fantasy. See the website for details:

On February 17 (at 4pm EST), we’re bringing in some of the hottest voices in Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy for a round-table discussion and we’re going to be bringing it live! Use the quick form above to sign-up for a one-time email reminder for the event, then sit back and prepare for the heat!

Here’s a list of participants; Suvudu’s roundtable will host some of the hottest writers in these enormously popular genres:

Kelley Armstrong – KelleyArmstrong.com |@kelleyarmstrong on Twitter

Diana Rowland – DianaRowland.com |@dianarowland on Twitter

Jenna Black – JennaBlack.com | @JennaBlack on Twitter

Lucy A. Snyder – LucySnyder.com | @LucyASnyder on Twitter

Carolyn Crane – AuthorCarolynCrane.com |@CarolynCrane on Twitter

A Quick Note

Just wanted to let you guys know I’m down with the flu, right now. On the mend, but still not anything like functional.

In the meantime, just in case you didnÆt realize these resources are out there, let me direct your attention to these two writing-related and markets-listing sites that can save you hours of chasing around on the Web:

Duotrope’s Digest

Duotrope is a subscription-based service for writers and artists that offers an extensive, searchable database of current fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and visual art markets, a calendar of upcoming deadlines, a personal submissions tracker, and useful statistics compiled from the millions of data points we’ve gathered on the publishers and agents we list.

Ralan.com

“provides up-to-date listings of markets in the speculative genres only. It started in 1996 as a way to find markets, organize writing links, and share this information with other writers. Soon those other writers started helping back, pointing out new markets and noting changes in listed ones. This two-way interaction continues. Today there other sites that provide literary markets and links, but thanks to all of us, Ralan.com is still, to many, the most up-to-date in its field.”

Resources like this are often found through word of mouth, and it’s a privilege to get to point new writers in helpful directions. I’ve used both of these sites, especially for fiction and poetry markets, and found valuable, up-to-date information. When I can, I support the tremendous amount of work they do, via paypal.

Hopefully, you’ll find them as helpful and worthwhile, in pursuit of your own markets.

How to Write Your Novel and Still Have Time for Sex

By Rob Loughran

Not time for only sex; but for all those things we are obligated to do on a regular basis: job, family, exercise, finances, changing the catbox. I just used “sex” in the title to get your attention.

The first step in writing your novel is to realize no one but you can write it. A writing teacher friend of mine begins each of her seminars by placing a pencil on 300 sheets of paper and saying, “Novels never write themselves.”

The second step is realizing that a novel isn’t written all at once. Let’s dust off some math skills. Say your book will be 80,000 words. At 250 words per page, that’s 320 pages or a page per day for 10.66 months. Allowing five weeks for research and outlining, writing up some character background, etc., that’s a novel in a year. If you started writing today, one year from today you could be printing out your novel while scouring your market guide for publishers.

That’s simplified, of course: you must rewrite.

But you’ll also have days when you write 500, 750, or 1,000 words. Jack London wrote 40 books by adhering to this simple principle: A daily writing stint of 1,500 words, every day, before breakfast. Ralph McInerny, author of the Father Dowling mystery series, mainstream novels, and books on religion and philosophy recommends getting a give-away-calendar from the auto parts store and hanging it in a prominent place. Then start writing your prescribed-daily-quota (PDQ) and don’t go back to rewrite until your first draft is complete. Every day you reach your quota, you X out that day on the calendar. That Xed out calendar will provide a visual, daily reminder to yourself of your novel’s progress. And a blank week or two will goad you out of procrastination.

Adhere to your daily stint and you’ll have a novel PDQ.

To Outline or Not to Outline?

There’s the story about the backyard inventor who worked for years on this machine that featured electrical and gas engines; wires, screws, bolts, and buckets of every size. One day his neighbor popped his head over the fence and said: “That’s a magnificent creation. What’s it do?”

The inventor smiled and said, “I don’t really know.”

Obviously, this anecdote dictates the need for an outline, but, conversely, Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Who’s right? Should writers depend on creativity and spontaneity or plan as meticulously as an engineer? The answer (as to most of life’s dilemmas) is somewhere in the middle ground. If not a strict outline you should at least have a plan that includes genre, length, historical era, basic character sketches, and a short plot summary. All of which you can follow strictly or abandon when those all-too-rare moments of inspiration dictate that the story must take this direction.

But again, the most meticulous of outlines or the most profound artistic inspiration are squat if you don’t plop your butt in that chair and write.

How to Plop Your Butt in That Chair and Write

Okay, let’s take out pencils and a piece of paper.

Seriously, this is the hands-on part. I want you to make a list of the activities that you perform on a daily basis. Try to come up with 20 items. Include job, commuting, chores, school, leisure activities, etc.

Now give each activity a 1 if it’s CRUCIAL, a 2 if it’s IMPORTANT, or a 3 if it’s something that can be put on a BACK BURNER. (Example: 1=writing stint, 2=clean office, 3=watch “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Don’t just read this– try it.)

Okay, you’ve got 20 or so items ranked in value. Go back through your list and circle all the items you awarded a 2. Now, take these items and make them either a 1 (CRUCIAL) or 3 (BACK BURNER.) From my example above, I would take “clean office” and either do it now, or put it off until tomorrow, not on whimsy, but with good reason! If my office were so filthy I couldn’t write or perform another CRUCIAL item (i.e., make the car payment to avoid a late charge) it becomes a 1. If my office were merely in its normal state of dusty disrepair, but I could pound out a writing stint I’d make it a BACK BURNER item and attend my daughter’s soccer game.

Now, here’s the true impact of this exercise: Did you do it? If not, what does it say about your determination to finish that novel? Please go back and do it. And remember, the circumstances of life are constantly changing. Use this tool as often as you need.

Simple timesavers can add to your productivity. Wake up twenty minutes earlier or go to bed twenty minutes later. Twenty minutes! Not even half-an-hour! Use that extra time to write or do chores or bookkeeping which will free up time to write. That translates into more than two hours a week, more than one hundred hours in a year.

The television is a thief. Don’t blow it up; but do turn it off for an evening and see what you accomplish. Try watching just the second half of football and basketball games. Stop watching reruns. They’re reruns.

While commuting, use a tape recorder to plan chapters or polish dialogue. Listen to books on tape to learn from other writers.

Utilize “aggravation time.” Instead of fuming while waiting to pay for groceries, mentally compose a story about the person in front of you with thirteen items in the ten-items-or-less line. What color trailer does she live in? How many cats does she own? Which brand of canned cheese is her favorite?

If you’re blocked or stuck write a letter or a limerick. Just get to writing anything and it’ll get you back on that yellow brick road.

Mum’s the Word

Don’t show anybody your novel until it is finished, rewritten, and polished! The only result of “What do you think of my opening chapter?” will be doubt, second-guessing, and insecurity. Maybe it’s too wordy or sketchy. People will point this out to you. But you would have discovered and fixed that on a subsequent rewrite, right? Or worse, the person you’ve appointed Ebert will say she really liked it; it was nice.

Trust your judgment.

But there is a huge difference in hearing advice from a fellow writer and from Auntie Sarah. If there is someone whose opinion you value and honesty you can count on, then please avail yourself of his or her input. My wife (who is a voracious reader, but breaks into a sweat when writing anything longer than a Christmas card) and I have worked out a system. She sits sipping tea or wine while I read in a flat monotonous voice (you want your words, not your inflection, to have the impact) from my stuff. At any point where I lose her—for whatever reason—she starts snoring and I mark that spot in the manuscript. I trust her and don’t take offense. And she’s usually right.

Okay, she’s always right.

Remember what Gene Perret said, “Nothing is written until it’s rewritten.” Don’t pass an uncooked book around indiscriminately. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Cover of Bill Henderson's Rotten Reviews ReduxOne essential book to keep by your keyboard is Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections. Here’s a sampling: an 1844 review of Huckleberry Finn: “A gross trifling with every fine feeling—Mr. Clemens has no reliable sense of propriety.”

An 1814 review of Gulliver’s Travels: “Evidence of a diseased mind and lacerated heart.” From a rejection letter of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: “I think it is only a matter of time before you reach out into more substantial efforts that will be capable of making some real money as books.”

There will always be hope for your novel; get it written.

Novelist R.K. Narayan stated, simply: “You become a writer by writing.”

Pep Talk

I hate pep talks.

I was always mystified and confused when coaches demanded 110%, so this isn’t a RAH RAH, YOU CAN DO IT! snappy pep talk.

Just the opposite.

How would you feel, one year from now, if your novel were still a misty someday-dream with not a single word written? Project ahead five years. You still haven’t finished (have you even started?). How does that make you feel?

Ten years?

Now, think how you’ll feel, if when you finish this article, you put a calendar on the wall, and by this time next week see five or six X’s?

Then a month’s worth?

A year’s worth?

Writing instructor Lew Hunter wrote:

We all have talent. How we use it and don’t use it is what the game is all about in writing and in life itself. We must not get beaten down by those who choose to simply take up space on this planet, by those whose lives risk counting for nothing.

Rob Loughran’s mystery novel High Steaks won the 2002 New Mystery Award. He blogs at The Foul Mouthed Bard.

My Father’s Models

By James D. Macdonald

My father, W. Douglas Macdonald, was a chemical engineer and an electrical engineer. Most of his life he worked for building materials companies, including Glidden Paint, US Plywood, and Eucatex. He died entirely too young—at 72, of congestive heart failure secondary to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; that is to say, smoking killed him. (Note to everyone: If you smoke, quit right now.) I miss him very much.

That was his professional life. His hobby was model making, specifically ships and model railroads. He won contests in the 1920s for his model railroad cars. Back when I was young, he let me help him with his model making (talk about your fatherly love: the help of six-year-olds can be a challenge). That was where I learned model work, which I still enjoy.

All the arts are related, model work and novel-writing not excepted. Both of them center on making a world in miniature, a false seeming that convinces the viewer/reader of its reality.

Herewith are some lessons I took away from my father’s model making, and use in my own works:

  • No matter how good your model is, it won’t be perfect. No matter how much praise you get, no matter what awards you win, you’ll never be able to look at that model and see anything but its imperfections.
  • No one counts the rivets on a moving car.
  • If you suggest detail, the viewer will add his own details.
  • Painted plastic, painted wood, and painted metal all look the same.
  • A frame makes the model seem more real than it otherwise would appear.
  • Don’t put things square on bases; use diagonal lines. They suggest motion.
  • Let the paint dry before you touch it.
  • Sometimes the best model for a thing is the thing itself: Nothing looks so more like a load of coal in a hopper car than crushed coal in a hopper car.
  • It isn’t a model until you add people. Before that, it’s a clever machine, perhaps, or a toy. Characters bring their own reality with them, and pull the person looking at the model into the story. Your models tell stories; if you have a car that’s got mud on it, or rust, or scrapes and dents, it has a history. The viewer won’t know what the dent came from, but he’ll know that the car has been places and done things, and subconsciously won’t think of it as just an object from a model maker’s workbench.
  • If you can’t see the world you can’t model it.

*  *  * 

I haven’t built model railroads, though I love doing model ships and model houses. 

Herewith are some exercises for all of you; they’re not too expensive, and again (I promise!) they will help you with your novel writing. (Or, anyway, they’ve helped mine.) 

First off, get yourself a nice HO scale paper model house. Two I’ve done are Cut and Assemble Victorian Cottage and Cut and Assemble Victorian Shingle-Style House, both by Edmund V. Gillon, Jr., both published by Dover. Of the two, the latter has the greater story possibilities. 

Build one of the houses. In the building of it, add one interior room. (If you want, you can open doors and windows with your X-acto knife to give other people a chance to see it, or not.) Note: While the instructions don’t say to do so, paint the insides of the chimneys black! If you leave them white, the illusion is broken. If you blacken them, the illusion is strengthened. Remember: Anything that doesn’t add to the illusion, detracts from it.

Now place the model on a base. Landscape it. (Landscaping can cover a multitude of sins.) Spring, summer, autumn, winter scenes all have different feels.

Add people. These tell your story. If you put in a group of folks having a garden party, the model tells a different story than the model that has a police car and an ambulance pulled up out front of the house, with detectives, dogs, uniformed police, and a stretcher with a sheeted form being wheeled out through the front door.

Don’t skimp on the people. In my model of the shingle-sided house, one figure (of several) cost more than the rest of the materials combined. I found it in a hobby shop, and knew that this was the figure I needed. The more realistic the little plastic people, the more real the entire model will appear.

Another thing: In my father’s models there were always hidden details, stuff that only the model maker knew about. These things made the model real to him, and if it was real to him, it would be real to the viewers. For example, once we made a model of the submarine USS George Washington. This was a plastic model with a hinged side that could be opened to show the interior. One of the interior spaces had a door that led to the food storage reefer. My dad built and painted scale model hams, hung them in the walk-in refrigerator area, then continued with the model, sealing that area off where it would never be seen.

Also: Even if a viewer can only see three sides of the model house, he will assume—because he knows what houses generally look like, and because you made the angles correctly—that there is a fourth side. This may not be true—you may not have a fourth side on that model house, but the viewer will supply it.

The viewer will also supply an interior to that house, even though the interior may quite literally not exist . . . that’s why I suggest that you build at least one interior room in your model house. You will know that it’s there, and your knowledge will be transmitted to the people who see your model, through your increased confidence.

Similarly, if you know who your heroine’s best friend was in fifth grade, and where she went on vacation in the summer between fifth and sixth grade—even if you never show these things to your readers—your character will be consistent in her later actions in the story that you’re telling.

That’s it. Learn to see the world. Discover that tree trunks aren’t brown; they’re grey. See how the same basic, off the rack things, when arranged in various ways, with you choosing the arrangement, make different, unique, artistic stories. Discover that when you mix paint for your Pullman cars using paint chips taken from real Pullman cars, that they look too dark—you have to lighten the paint to make it look right. Looking right is more important than being right.

The models don’t look like much until you have them all put together, landscaped, populated, and framed. Then . . . they’re magic.

James D. Macdonald and his frequent collaborator Dr. Debra Doyle have written many books together. Their books include the Mageworlds series (Tor) and the Circle of Magic series (Troll Books), as well as Lincoln’s Sword, Mist and Snow and The Apocalypse Door. Macdonald has been known to cross out dictionary definitions and write in his own, and he displays a mutant talent of making opinions sound like facts. He teaches at the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop for sci-fi and fantasy writers. You can find James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle’s Website here.

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Why I Write Commercial Fiction

By Steve Fey

I’ve always liked to write stuff. In elementary school I made up some awful bit of drivel about a baseball team, which is now lost to posterity. Posterity should send me a thank-you note. By junior high school, now known in most places as middle school, I was skipping doing my homework in study hall in favor of reading everything I could find by Poe, Twain, and the prodigious science fiction author for youth, Andre Norton. Besides lousy grades, this habit helped give me a broader perspective on life than that of most of my small town friends. That perspective was helped along in high school by an English teacher who forced me to learn to spell, and also forced me to read all sorts of “good books.”

You know “good books,” don’t you? Things like Withering HeightsThe Scarlet Letter, a few plays such as Macbeth. I was becoming “an intellectual.” Fer sure. And I got to read poetry, too. Robert Frost, Robert Browning, Robert Burns (lot of poets named Bob, apparently), Sandburg, Nash. There was some good stuff in there. College reinforced my earlier training. Even though I wasn’t an English major, I took a lot of literature classes. That’s where I found out what Huckleberry Finn is really about (and no, it isn’t a racist book at all), and first read John Fowles, Leo Tolstoy, Camus, and other living and dead authors. A lot of them I really liked reading, too.

I even read The Lord of the Rings when Tolkein was still alive to write dust jacket notes for the books. The books, so far as I’m concerned, are better than the movies, because you don’t need to have read the books previously to enjoy reading them.

I watched lots of movies, too. That’s relevant to what I’m saying because I now write scripts for movies. I love movies as much as I love good books. ThereÆs nothing I like better than a book or film that’s so good that I lose myself in it for a time. A great movie to me is one that I don’t deconstruct on my first time seeing it. If the movie is only good, I check my watch for the timing, analyze scenes, and otherwise distract myself from the fact that the film isn’t totally engrossing.

I learned about deconstruction in college, too. I remember the play We Bombed in New Haven, where the actors step out of character right in the middle and introduce themselves. I just loved that device. Very intellectual, isn’t it? The trouble is, most people in America have never heard of We Bombed in New Haven. That includes most of the people who have heard of, for instance, Lethal Weapon or The Matrix. Neither of those movies has ever been accused of being overly intellectual, but both have outsold the intellectually superior Bombed by maybe a couple of powers. What, you might ask, is wrong with people?

Well, that’s an entire thesis, or library, of an answer. Whatever it is, an author should remember that he or she is a person, too. So, whatever’s wrong with people is, gasp, wrong with the author as well. Consider an arena where intellectuality is more honored than in the United States of America: Europe. I’ve seen some movies from Europe that I really thought were terrific. German cinema is famous for innovative techniques in storytelling. France has produced some of the finest comedies ever written. It’s good to be an artist and intellectual in Europe. They’ll honor you there, much like some American musicians find appreciation on the continent that they never receive back home. It’s a paradise for “good” art.

“So, the problem is?” I hear you asking. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of top-selling movies in Europe are American. Not indies that were discovered at Sundance, but the big ol’ studio-produced, crass and commercial films like . . . well, how about Lethal Weapon and The Matrix? It’s true. In the home of honor for artists, where you can hear people criticizing the crass commercialism of American film, the stuff that gets watched is just that crass commercial product. How on earth can that be?

It may not satisfy a hard-core English professor to hear this, but “great literature” that remains popular for centuries follows the same rules as do commercial movies. There’s a mythological construct that underlies all good stories, in fact. If you want to see it in its least disguised form, read The Odyssey. If you don’t think that book would be a commercial success if it were written today, then you have missed some things in (or never seen) such films as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Frankly, folks, the same things happen at the same point in each of those stories.

Don’t believe me? Well, at 26-2/3 percent into a story, the hero (protagonist according to Aristotle) is thrust irrevocably into strange territory. Up until that point, there was at least a theoretical way out of having the adventure. At that point, there is no longer a choice. Guess what happens at just that point in Huckleberry Finn? If you guessed that Huck, Jim, and the raft drift right past Cairo in the fog, you’re right. Huck’s stuck now, and has no choice but to go on down the river. Mark Twin not high literature enough for you? Then consider one young Dane named Hamlet. I think most people consider Shakespeare to be “good” literature, after all. At that point in the play, the young hero, in a passage including the line “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” declares that he is going to set things right. No more wavering soliloquies now: he’s going in.

See? The Bard of Avon used the same timing scheme as Mark Twain, and as the writers of popular movies. Is that so bad, after all? I really like Shakespeare, as a career writer I mean. You know what he was really after? Do you think he sat down one day and said, “Hey, I think I’ll write a play about the dangers of revenge, with a great moral message for future generations to heed.”? No, he did not. He wanted juicy roles for himself and his friends, he wanted to please his Queen, and most of all he wanted to pack the house so he knew where his next pint of ale was coming from. He knew the rules for creating a popular story, too. So, while he certainly did create some great literature, he’d have considered that a happy accident. As evidence of that being the case, consider that he threw his stuff away, and it was his friends who saved it and got it published. Three cheers for his friends, but my point is that Will was writing commercial fiction.

And that’s just what I hope to accomplish as well.

Steve Fey has been writing throughout a lifetime of doing other things for a living. A few years ago he turned his attention to screenplays, of which he has now written five and has one in the works. Since the conventional wisdom holds that anything after the fifth one should be salable, he’s feeling optimistic.You can visit Steve Fey’s website

Tips for Avoiding Total Disaster as a Novelist

By Kris Saknussemm

The problem with “should” advice is that it’s either something you already know, i.e., your diet should include more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis—or it’s something really difficult (like consuming more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis). Based on my own stumbling, fumbling experience, I offer the following list of things I would strongly advise aspiring and despairing writers not to do. I doubt that simply by avoiding these pitfalls you will be guaranteed international fame and fortune, but I’m confident that you will at least escape many unnecessary frustrations and defeats, so that you can be fresh for the really poignant failures and setbacks that will either make or break you—and with any luck will do a bit of both.

Tip #1. Do not spend years gathering interesting material—odd quotations, overheard remarks, colorful phrases, bits of trivia, weird statistics, and obscure facts in the hope that you will one day find a story to contain them. I ended up with a figurative warehouse of such stuff and I can tell you now with considerable confidence that the larvae of the human botfly bore into the skin and gorge themselves, emerging as centimeter-long maggots, while a Joshua Hendy nine-thousand horsepower steam turbine delivers a cruising speed of 16 knots at 78 rpm. There is nothing wrong in knowing that if left underwater for years brass gives off a bright verdigris stain or that the first birds of paradise shipped back to Europe had their legs chopped off to facilitate packing, but the collection of details is like any acquisitive habit—potentially obsessive. You can end up with a novel that reads like the Gospel according to St. Matthew translated into the Duke of York Island language and a response from the publishing industry reminiscent of a deserted poolroom on the shore of Sheepshead Bay. Put bluntly, burn your notebooks and clear your head.

Tip #2. Do not spend years experimenting with different forms of writing and various intellectual follies such as cut-ups and verbal collages, intricate multiple person narratives, dream stories, recipe books, anatomies, imaginary academic theses, and the like. Yes, it’s true that some of the world’s most interesting literature has elements of these forms—but that was then and this is different. If you are serious about getting a work of fiction published today you need quick, sharp answers to the following questions: In what section of a bookstore or retailer’s website will your book be found? Which authors can your work be likened to? What’s your novel about in three sentences or less?

Tip #3. The Puritans believed in covering the body for modesty’s sake. Yet they developed a sexualized fascination for the ears of women and the noses of men. My point? (See Tip #1) In apparent restriction there is unexpected release. Dickens created over 800 individual characters and laid down some of the most intense cultural satire in English—but his writing really came into focus when Wilkie Collins hipped him to the detective story. I struggled for years trying to find a form for my writing, flitting around like a Ulysses butterfly. The moment I gave myself permission to write an action/adventure story, things started falling into place. Modern art has provided artists with unparalleled and some might argue paralyzing freedom. Don’t waste time trying to create a new form. It’s given to very few people in any medium to do that—and many of their achievements end up looking like legless birds of paradise later. A seemingly simple repetitive musical style like the blues has proven capable of expressing the full spectrum of human experience and has inspired countless variations and mutations. Give yourself over to an established structure and follow its guidelines, and suddenly interesting points will emerge to surprise you.

Tip #4. Read your work aloud, ideally to some willing victim, but at least to yourself. Storytelling began as an oral form and the ear (however erotically appealing) has a trueness to it that will reveal what’s working and what’s not in a more immediate and decisive way than simply scanning the page. This discipline will also slow you down psychologically and bring you into more intimate contact with your story. In the end, it will take no more time than reading back a page silently.

Tip #5. Ignore all reasonable sounding advice like “write about what you know,” “read as much as you can,” or “try to write every day.” If you need to hear this advice you are in the wrong game. But more important, reasonableness won’t get the job done. One day in an ice-stricken back alley in Boston, I saw a fat little Irishman beat the daylights out of four larger, stronger assailants. When it was over, and it was over astonishingly quickly, he brushed himself off and said simply, “I had to get unreasonable with ’em.”

Unless you are willing to face the unreasonable in yourself—unless you are willing to entertain some strange notions (and deal with them when they stick around)—unless you are willing to get lost, confused, and even terrified—then what you’re doing won’t have any meaning. The famous device of conflict upon which all stories are supposed to hinge starts within the writer. You are all the characters in your dreams and so too with a novel. You can’t put your creations into jeopardy or into embarrassing or miraculous situations without going there yourself, and that is not a sensible ambition for a grown person to have. As a writer who has made more mistakes than most, my goal above all else is to be very, very unreasonable.

Cover of Kris Saknussemm's novel Private MidnightKris Saknussemm grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but has for a long time lived abroad, in the Pacific Islands and Australia.  A painter and sculptor as well as a writer, his fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as The Hudson Review, The Boston Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters and ZYZZYA. You can find  Kris Saknussemm on the Web at krissaknussemm.comKris Saknussem has  an Amazon author page