I was invited to speak to a group of high school students about fiction writing.
Here’s what I plan to say.
At my first ever writing retreat in Ashland, Virginia, two voices shot out of my head and I could barely keep up with the back and forth dialogue they were having.
The two people were a mentally slow young woman and her domineering Southern mother. The young woman had taken a baby girl from someone and brought the child home on a local bus. Horrified, the mother was yelling at her to take the baby back to the parents.
I had no idea where these two people had come from. Much less the weird premise. But as they snapped at each other, I realized I had a knack for dialogue.
However, once I got home from the retreat, I soon found out, that’s all I had. I knew nothing about the craft of writing fiction.
Over the past years, I’ve become a better writer, and after several tries at short stories and another novel, I’ve almost finished a young adult novel. I also want to add that at a certain point, I kept running off into tangents and not sticking to a storyline so I hired an editor to help me with this current novel. After working with him, I now understand how to structure a novel, and I think next time around, I’ll be able to do it myself.
Here are some tidbits that have helped me along the way.
Writing is hard for everyone. Except maybe Joyce Carol Oates.
Main characters are everything. Think Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter or Jane Eyre or Jo March in Little Women. A reader wants to feel something about the characters. We root for certain characters. We despise a character. We fall in love with a character.
But creating that memorable character takes lots of trial and error.
I often struggle with my characters starting off as caricatures. I tend to exaggerate their quirks and mannerisms. In order to get to know my characters better, I write a backstory about them. Even if I don’t use most of it, I’ll feel more confident about what they say and do.
Here are just a few of many ideas for character development. What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?
What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
Setting is important. It helps the reader feel grounded in the story. It can also establish the atmosphere or mood of the novel or story.
An example of setting. “A sea-green sky: lamps blossoming white. This is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud.” From Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
Vivid imagery brings a story to life. Here’s a great example. “Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.” From The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
I once interviewed Michael Curtis the fiction editor of The Atlantic magazine, and I remember he said he liked stories with forward motion. That he liked things to happen. And I agree with that.
I try to keep sentences varied. Short. Long. Medium. Short. It helps with the reading flow.
And the same goes for dialogue, description and action. Write a bit of one, then a bit of the other.
I try not to use adverbs. They weaken rather than strengthen one’s writing.
A lot of writing boils down to making decisions. Do I put this sentence here or there?
With dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. You’ll be able to tell if it rings true or not. Also, sit in a coffee shop and listen to people talking. It’s usually not a straightforward conversation. People don’t always mean what they say. And even sneak a peek at their body language for some additional information.
It’s super intimidating to think the whole world is going to read what you write. So scale it down. I like to pretend I’m telling my story to a good friend.
Cover up the computer screen. That way you can’t self-edit as you go along, and it will help with the self-critic we all have inside of us.
I’m not good about this one. But it’s important to put your work away. Then come back to it a few days or a week later and observe it after some time apart from it.
I’ll close with the words of Eudora Welty. “A writer needs to sit down and write. Then inspiration will follow. No art ever came out of not risking your neck. And risk — experiment — is a considerable part of the joy of doing, which is the lone, simple reason all [writers] are willing to work as hard as they do.
The open mind and the receptive heart — which are at last and with fortune’s smile the informed mind and the experienced heart — are to be gained anywhere, any time, without necessarily moving an inch from any present address.”
A few great resources for fiction writers:
War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
On Writing by Stephen King
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner