Tips on how to write fiction

Tell a story. But how?

Humans love stories. “Once upon a time…” immediately engages us.

I don’t know why; I’m not sure anyone does. But if you just list facts or events, you will lose your audience quickly. If you tell a story, in which one thing leads to another,

The Jerk

reveals a conflict, and ultimately resolves in one way or another, you hold their interest.

This is easier to do in a blog post or a short story than in a book. Plotting a story “arc” is more difficult when you want to fill 150 pages than if you are trying only to fill one or two. Of course, the short story is an art of its own, and one that is not easy to master. But the book-length story requires logic and intuition. What will engage the reader? What will cause them to care about the people and events of the narrative.

We long for familiarity; we want our stories to follow a pattern we recognize. Evil is punished; good is rewarded; virtue is its own reward. We can be held and entertained by violations of these conventions: We can sympathize with the professional assassin, who only kills bad guys, and want him to “win.” We can feel for the prostitute with the heart of gold.

We expect consistent chronology; first this, then that. Flashbacks are ok, but we need to be anchored in the timeline, or we’ll get confused.

Chekhov,  the renowned Russian short-story writer,  said, “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” The story sets up expectations for us, and we feel frustrated if they are not satisfied.

How does a narrative become a story? Here are some ways:

  • Chronology. “I was born a poor black child,” says Steve Martin in the film, “The Jerk.” The chronology continues from there. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” says Charles Dickens in the opening to “A Tale of Two Cities.” We set a stake and continue.
  • Causation.  It all happened because…
  • A question that must be answered. “How was she killed? There was no weapon in evidence, no mark upon her body. Yet it was clear she had not died of natural causes.” Our curiosity is piqued. How indeed?
  • A promise: “Although you have never written a sonnet, by the time you’ve completed this slim volume, you will have written one.”

I work mostly with non-fiction writers. Yet the story is just as important in a work of non-fiction as it is in a work of fiction.

What’s your story?


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Flavorwire: Advice from 10 prolific writers

JoelTrainsAuthors is mostly about non-fiction. But this advice (which came via Copyblogger, whom I thank) is useful to all writers.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Build a web

He wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in six days, but he wasn’t in too big a hurry to mind the web of “sound patterns” essential to the delicate art of constructing sentences, which he elucidates in the first chapter of his 1919 essay collection, The Art of Writing:

Music and literature, the two temporal arts, contrive their pattern of sounds in time; or, in other words, of sounds and pauses. Communication may be made in broken words, the business of life be carried on with substantives alone; but that is not what we call literature; and the true business of the literary artist is to plait or weave his meaning, involving it around itself; so that each sentence, by successive phrases, shall first come into a kind of knot, and then, after a moment of suspended meaning, solve and clear itself. In every properly constructed sentence there should be observed this knot or hitch; so that (however delicately) we are led to foresee, to expect, and then to welcome the successive phrases. The pleasure may be heightened by an element of surprise, as, very grossly, in the common figure of the antithesis, or, with much greater subtlety, where an antithesis is first suggested and then deftly evaded. Each phrase, besides, is to be comely in itself; and between the implication and the evolution of the sentence there should be a satisfying equipoise of sound; for nothing more often disappoints the ear than a sentence solemnly and sonorously prepared, and hastily and weakly finished. Nor should the balance be too striking and exact, for the one rule is to be infinitely various; to interest, to disappoint, to surprise, and yet still to gratify; to be ever changing, as it were, the stitch, and yet still to give the effect of an ingenious neatness.



Randy Ingermanson on the future of publishing

I love Randy’s writing. He is my favorite writing teacher for fiction. He invented something he called, “The Snowflake MethodRandy Ingermanson,” and even has software to back it up. It matches my structured approach to non-fiction.

I found his recent thoughts on the future of publishing on his blog. I agree with all of them, and many pertain to non-fiction as well as to fiction. Here’s a teaser and a link:

The Future of Publishing

The world of publishing is currently going through massive turmoil. Some people believe that the rise of e-books is going to be the biggest single change in publishing since Gutenberg’s invention of movable type.

I’m not a prophet nor a seer nor clairvoyant. But I do have my eyes open, and in this column, I give you my best predictions for the coming years. They may be right. They may be wrong. Either way, one thing seems certain: Huge changes are coming.

I offer these predictions to suggest ways you might plan for your future. I’m using them to plan for mine.

Prediction #1: E-books Will Surpass P-books Soon

I define a “p-book” to be a book printed on paper. Click here for more

Your book is you

I just got the latest issue of Writer’s Digest; it’s one of the few magazines I still receive in the mail, and only because it was a package deal with their websites. And I must admit that the kinesthetics of a physical magazine still offer me something pleasant, despite the inconvenience of not having it electronically.

A hot issue: Truth in memoirs. After several scandals (look up authors James Frey and Frank McCourt and throw in “Oprah,” and you’ll get the gist), the subject of “embellishment” of stories that are ostensibly true has gotten a lot of attention.

But let’s cut to the chase: ALL writing is false, in some sense, no matter how journalistic or scientific. It is false in that it perforce tells only part of the story. There’s going to be a range of “truthfulness”; if you invent people or events claim truthfulness, don’t be surprised if you get called on it.

Yet whose memory is perfect? Even with notes or recordings? And what “facts” are significant? Is it better to write, “The color of our family car was blue, or maybe grey; actually, it may have been dark green. I’m not sure…” or “Dad pulled the blue Buick into the driveway, and threw his suitcase into the back seat”? Well, what do you mean by, “better”? The latter moves the action along; the former may be more truthful; but what are you trying to accomplish?

Most of my clients are writing books to establish their professional credibility. I encourage them to include some autobiography, so that readers can get to know them–and perhaps like and trust them. To that end, I suggest judicious storytelling–not to mislead, but not to draw attention to imperfections.

Ultimately, your book represents you. Your integrity, or lack thereof, will be examined, largely by the evidence you provide–and how well it matches what people may find on the Internet. Think about that when you plan what to write.

Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake” software for fiction 80% off until Friday midnight

I don’t write fiction (at least, not intentionally). But if I did, I would use Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. It’s like a fractally refined version of Joel’s BookProgram. Randy, besides being an accomplished author, is a physicist/programmer. And he has written software to make it as easy as possible to apply his method to writing. (“Easy as possible” does not mean “easy.” Writing fiction is not easy. “If you want easy, buy cotton candy,” says Randy.) Anyway, until Friday at midnight PST, the software (which runs on Mac, PC, Linux) is $20. If the thought of writing fiction has ever crossed your mind, you owe it to yourself to buy this. Go here.


What is it?

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down. More is getting behind NanoWriMo in a big way. Watch the site for interesting stuff!

Non-fiction is NOT fiction

An invitation to what looks like a great fiction-writing course came in today’s email, with a “sneak peek” at one of its lessons:

Trust Yourself

As a writer, you have to keep all of the elements of craft in your head at once. But, as Bell suggests, “if you are trying to think of them as you write, you’ll tense up.” To this end, it’s a good idea to NOT think about these elements too much as you write your first draft. Tune out your inner editor. Allow yourself to take risks; write freely and without inhibition. Trust your instincts.

The important part is that your hand keeps moving, writing paragraph after paragraph, scene after scene, page after page. After you’re finished with your first draft, then you can go back and polish it, paying attention to the elements of craft, refining your characters and their motivations, heightening the conflict, and reorganizing the structure.

Sign up today for Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing and take advantage of the 20% off any September and October course by using coupon code SEPT209 at checkout.

(I left the sign-up info in because it looks like a good course–and because I want to balance my use of it as a negative example.)

This is NOT the way to write great NON-fiction. This is the way to write non-fiction slowly, painfully, and unproductively. It may be cathartic, or have other benefits, but it is just what my methodology (Joel’s BookProgram) was designed to remedy.

To write non-fiction well and quickly, you do the following:

  • First create your structure. The structure bears your message.
  • Within the structure, remember that “the diamond is your friend.” This tells you exactly what your structure must do to serve your message–and thus, your reader.
  • You do NO writing until the structure is COMPLETE. Then you ZipWrite, quickly and easily.

I’m grateful to Brian Klems, the Writer’s Digest Online Community editor, for giving me the opportunity to verbalize this clear contrast between great fiction writing and great non-fiction writing.

Great writing advice

(Find out how to make your own book with help from a book publishing company.)

Writer/teacher Holly Lisle has this excellent advice, which works for non-fiction as well as for her fiction-writing audience:

Only write the good stuff.

That seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?  Clearly you don’t want
to write bad stuff.

But I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read a post or a
blog or heard a writer say, “I can hardly wait to get through
this chapter so I can write the one I’m excited about.”

Have you ever been there.  Found yourself dragging through a
scene you’ve told yourself just HAS to be in the story because
if it isn’t, the story won’t make sense… but you’re not having
any fun at all writing that scene.  The good stuff is up ahead
somewhere, and you’re writing toward it.

Here’s a little secret.  What you’re hating to write, your
readers will hate to read.  If it’s dull for you—who in
theory at least love your story because it belongs to you—
it’s going to be twice as dull for them.

Your readers can only love what you have loved first.

If you’re having a miserable time writing the scene, stop yourself.
Look at the scene.  Something is wrong with it.

Write this somewhere in front of where you write:

If I’m not having fun with this scene, neither will anyone

Write with joy,

P.S.  If you’re really struggling with scenes, I can help you.
Here’s the link to the system I use to create scenes I WANT to
write and have fun writing:

Holly Lisle

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“In Which I Ruin Rashomon For Everyone, Forever”

The amazing Kurosawa film, Rashomon, is a study in and of ambiguity. I’ve experienced it a couple of times, and have been left amazed, perplexed, and unsatisfied. This analysis by Matt Shepherd, complete with powerful diagram, doesn’t bring ultimate satisfaction–but it does fascinate and edify. Enjoy!

This is for writers of fiction

My focus is non-fiction, and especially the kind that serves the needs of individual professionals–“solepreneurs.” But I encounter many people who want to write fiction. If you are such a person, I highly recommend you sign up for the ezine of Randy Ingermanson, creator of the “Snowflake Method” for writing fiction. Follow the link in this blurb:

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the
Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing
E-zine, with more than 16,000 readers, every month. If
you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction,
AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND
have FUN doing it, visit

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing
and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

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