What I’m learning about writing fiction


I’m learning that the best stories are with characters built upon the framework of someone you know, the best struggles formed of those you know from within your own experiences.

Unless you are a supremely talented, naturally gifted story teller, novels aren’t so much written as constructed, or as Sol Stein would put it, grown.

Who I’m learning from

Sol Stein. He is the master. No one knows novels better. Right now I’m reading his book How to Grow a Novel. I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads.

It starts a bit slow, but by its ending chapters it reveals itself for the enormously helpful work it is. He uses real author’s written examples all through the book so you can learn by watching them in action, mistakes and all. Towards the end he gives you check lists, steps to ensure you are on track with each phase. Stein also wrote Stein on Writing, which includes a chapter on his Triage method of revision. I expect this will be quite potent and look forward to reading that how-to as well.

Lisa Cron. Her tutorial Story Genius is well laid out to help the amateur become a pro. I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.

I’m slowly following along as I construct my story scene-by-scene, which I place in large index cards (Sol Stein’s idea). She is absolutely meticulous and patient in how she takes you through each step of novel building to make sure that everything ties together through the protagonist and ensures that external events don’t overwhelm the internal life and motivations of that character driving the story.

Meg Files. Her book Writing What You Know was a revelation to me by page 45. I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. It spurred some therapeutic writing about my own pivotal life experiences, which has helped me get in touch with my own fictional character’s innards and motivations. It is a great book to read the moment you realize you’ve gotten stuck in growing your story and need to pay attention to your own stories.

I previously read Orson Scott Card’s little book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, which I also recommend. He emphasized writing shorter forms before attempting to deliver a full novel. Good advice. The genre periodicals, now mostly online, can be great doors to open up entry of new authors to a waiting audience of readers. Still, I have to keep building a bigger story and find the short version therein. I mostly write short stories for practice and need a refreshing diversion from my main effort.

Some important writerly stuff I’ve learned.

Yes – writerly. It’s a Sol Stein term referring to elegant turns of phrases, fresh similes and metaphors that make a story fleshy and alive, springy like moss in the wake of your footsteps. We can stay colloquial, but still dance with the language.

Let the creative mind simmer. It’s not trapped in a pressure cooker.

It takes time. Be patient. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

So far I’ve had some good instincts affirmed by such powerful voices as Sol Stein. That feels good. He says fiction shouldn’t be written on deadlines. I’m glad I decided not to force-fit a short story into a contest earlier this month.

Creative writing has to be guided with consideration of a story’s depth and roots, as well as its surface features.

Lisa Cron says creative genius must be kept on a leash. Creative outpourings of inspired writing often aren’t. Be skeptical of them. Those are often times of a touch of the ‘fever’ of creative euphoria as words and actions and new directions spontaneously fall out onto the page, but which lead the core story nowhere.

Leave amateur tendencies behind to write a story that will stick with the reader rather than be quickly forgotten.

Sol Stein has pointed out some of my early negative tendencies: melodrama and over-eager gratifying of reader curiosity (or solving protagonist problems too quickly). Melodrama uses threats, death, injuries, explosions, shocking events, etc, to ply the reader for false sympathy or surface excitement before you’ve let them get to know your main character (or the person getting killed or maimed).

Lisa Cron calls these “a bunch of big, eventful, unusual things that happen.” They might build some surface tension, but don’t constitute a story. Events have to have meaning to the humans in the story. If they do then they can have meaning to the reader.

Never give the reader what they want.

Sol Stein says that. Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? Instead give them surprises, things they didn’t see coming. This does not mean the reader won’t be satisfied at the end and very glad they read the story. It just means they won’t see the outcomes and solutions ahead of time, just like in life.

This means let problems get more complicated before solving them. If we present a challenge only to solve it quickly, it is not only unrealistic, but it deprives the reader of their experience. That is what I enjoy so much about Sol Stein’s guidance. Early in How to Grow a Novel he implores us to consider the reader’s experience. They come to a story to experience emotions, people, places they’d never be able to in their own lives. Doing so might even inspire their courage to have real life adventures. So we don’t want to cut that short, because we didn’t let our creativity simmer long enough to develop complexity in the telling of the story that hides somewhere in our minds.

I hope this had given any writers out there some books for putting your stories on track. I’d love to see a whole new generation of ecofiction authors out there creating Solarpunk and visionary fiction worlds and stories to help us re-imagine our future on spaceship Earth.

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