“Love Doctor, I wanted to ask you, and you probably get this a lot, but do you have any tips for fiction writing? –internetnawab”
OH DO I……. Since I have so many thoughts about this, I figure this will be a multi-part track that wraps up with a post linking to other good advice and whatnot.
I’ve been here more than once. How do I start? (for starters) *Shia LaBeouf voice* JUST DO IT.
Seriously. 100% serious. Just start writing something. Don’t wait for the Perfect Beginning™. All you have to do is start somewhere.
Okay, reality check time, I guess. Sure, you might have snatches of daydream here and there (excellent! Write. It. Down.), but more often than not, you want to get a feel for your characters before you do any sort of serious writing (or daydreaming) because, let’s be honest, your characters are going to drive your story more than any intentional plot. Besides, almost everyone knows how to write a plot. Reading anything has given you a sense of what plots are like. You don’t really need advice on plots themselves, but what people, in general, need most advice about it how to facilitate that plot. Which, might I say, is absolutely through good and proper character development.
Okay, Selene, where do I start?
Personally, I find that filling out questionnaires (like those you find on charahub.com) can help you dig deep into the parts of your character that make them… well… your character. Example questions include:
- What kind of clothing do they like?
- How does the existence of ghosts affect their personal views on the afterlife?
- Least favorite food.
as well as an assortment of other questions and biographical form fills with options to insert pictures (of your own or of inspiration) to link to your character sheet. (This is also very good for DnD, trust me.) But there is one downfall. Charahub fails to dig deep into the emotional meat of a character, instead scratching at the surface and symptoms of something greater.
By this, I mean questions like:
- What does x think about when confronted with thoughts of death? How do they deal with it? Does x ever get confronted with those thoughts? Why or why not?
- What would x do when confronted with [insert scenario]? Why?
Like the Turing-esque Test in Bladerunner, almost, where Rachael almost flips her lid about the question with the naked lady. “Is this to see if I’m an android or a lesbian?” or something of the like. (How would I know? I’ve only seen the movie like eighty times.) TL;DR: Make them human.
Once you have a group of gen-you-wine real boys, then you start looking at a fully fleshed out beginning… usually. If you’re like other mortals. As always, I’m pulling from books and websites, but I’ll try to give you as many affordable options as possible.
Beginnings also need interest and intrigue, but most importantly, they need investment. If your readers aren’t invested by the first few pages, they’re going to put your book back on the shelf or regret buying it on their whatevers. This is something I hadn’t thought about too hard until I read The Emotional Craft of Fiction, which I talk about below. Essentially, what the section covers is that, sure, you need to generate a hook, but that’s usually the easy part. Everyone has a little bit of that in them already just like plot. What you need to do is have what Maass calls the “one-two punch,” which is having just as much emotional intrigue as plot intrigue. Readers want to identify with your characters so just let them do it… And by that, I mean let your characters grow into natural things – let them feel actual human emotions. Let them swear at a stubbed toe. Let them be giddy. Let them feel things that we all feel. And for godssake, don’t do an exposition wall.
What the beginning always needs is that investment and intrigue, and if you douse your reader in the world with walls of text describing every single detail of the room they’re in, your reader won’t care about the potential for feeling things. They just want to skim through, more than likely. Instead of that wall of text describing your super intricate world, interlace it with anticipation. Mix in some excitement from your character(s). Fold in some of that good good emotion that human beings want to feel.
Now, I’m personally one of those people who drives through the beginning of something four or five times before I’m satisfied. Never once have I met someone who’s been happy with their first first chapter draft, so don’t be afraid to scrap it and start over. Don’t be afraid to keep parts your really like and trim away the rest either!
Last note before the Resource Zone, don’t start writing your novel for other people. Write for yourself. Other people’s interest will wax and wane, and if you write for them, you end up pinning your self worth on others, which is…. not ideal for the writing process and continuing what you started.
As much as it pains me to say it, a useful thing to do is look around at Reader’s Digest tidbits like 5 Wrong Ways to Start a Story and 8 Ways to Write a 5-Star Chapter One. But remember, half the time, the writers for RD are old fogies who don’t get to make the rules, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking that these are the only ways of writing. They aren’t.
Other excellent resources include anything written by actual authors describing their processes, editors talking about common problems, and getting general consensus from forums, and reading a lot in general. For example, The Write Life website has great resources filled with articles including The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents, A Simple Question to Help You Figure Out What to Write, and Don’t Feel Guilty, Freelancers: 4 Reasons to Love Coffee Shops (which is just a silly example, sure, but every article is filled with at least one nugget of goodness to help you on your way.)
Another excellent resource are tumblr posts! There are writing advice blogs and writing blogs like this one everywhere (though, I know this one is a good one because it’s run by me, the Love Doctor). One such informative post is by an excellent writer that offers a lot of general advice for writing based on tutor recommendation and personal thoughts, and I’ll put this in the end post of this series again probably.
Also! Don’t be afraid to google what you’re looking for: best ways to start a novel, what not to do when starting a novel, etc. Don’t be afraid to look for what NOT to do because that’s just as helpful as looking for what TO do.
What people would consider one of the major handbooks for fiction, Wayne C Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, can be found here (at least parts of it. You know how google books is.) This book, because of when it was first written, has a lot of outdated information, but other parts stand the test of time, this is coming from a literature professional and Love Doctor, so trust me. Price: 20-30 USD (new), 3-18 USD (used)
Another excellent resource is (again, unfortunately published by RD) The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass, which can be a little gross from time to time with phrases like “I know I’m a Mr. White Privilege Baby Boomer who shouldn’t identify with these characters, but I do anyway” (a paraphrase, but barely) and the occasional casual transmisogyny and sexism, but all around, if you can get past it, has a fairly decent message with tons of examples from modern and classic texts as well as prompts and questions regarding each subject it covers. Price: 11-16 USD (new), 3-10 (used)
A personal favorite is, of course, Stephen King’s On Writing. I have it in my car, and I’ve read it about once every couple of months. It’s made a huge difference in my life because of the way it approaches writing as not a collection of successes but a collection of failures that leads to success. Or at least, that’s what I get out of it. Price: 8-15 USD (new), 6-14 USD (used)
A gift has also been there for me for a very long time, which is Revising Prose by Richard Lanham, which guides your reading into becoming something else gradually through personal application in which you have to spend less time revising by changing the way you write but also how to revise once you have it going on. The downside is that apparently this book is prohibitively expensive, but if you have the thirty to sixty bucks to blow on it, go for it. It’s transformative but at a heavy pricetag. Price: 50-60 USD (new), 25-50 USD (used)
Now again, this is the first part of many, and I probably won’t put as many books at you over and over again, but I’ll definitely reference things from time to time. Hope this starts out answering a very, very big question.