Lately I’ve been going back to my fiction novel and writing again, which has been like revisiting an old friend and finding that nothing has changed between us. Or rather, something has changed, and that something is me. Like meeting a true friend that you have been separated from for a while, re-encountering writing has been the reestablishment of a solid relationship but with the additional element of my own personal growth.
Reflecting on how my writing has evolved, I thought on what spurred its growth these last few years. Maturation as a writer is more than growing older and increasing in skill; it is also a matter of discovery, often a very personal and internal discovery. I think the maturing of my writing and my story has been because I have gradually begun to practice what I preach. Here is what I have been preaching these long years:
Tips for Fiction Writing:
TIP 1: Write what you know in the deep sense
Everyone says write what you know. I don’t think it is as important to write literal things that you know, like football and office work; a good few hours of research and fact-checking from someone who’s in the know can dispose you to write about anything. It is the internal affairs of plot and character that demand more intimacy. Write about real emotions you have felt. Write about real dilemmas you have encountered. As great as a science fiction novel is if the author really knows about cosmology, what really sets a good book apart from the rest is the emotional and psychological intimacy that the reader has with either the world or the characters.
TIP 2: Write what you love, but not what you like.
It is important to write about something you can be passionate about. First of all, it makes the writing process a lot easier. It also makes the book better because the reader can tell when an author is bored. If you are bored, your reader will be bored. Passionate writing by an impassioned person on the other hand can make mediocre material appeal to an otherwise disinterested reader. To draw an analogy from music, look at Bob Dylan. Let’s be real, the guy sucks, but he’s got so much heart that he makes it work.
On the other hand, you need to be brutal. You need to murder your brain children sometimes, or at least ground them to their rooms for a while. Writing is not a place for wish fulfillment and personal fantasies. For a great example of what not to do, see the Eragon books by Christopher Paolini. No one wants to read about your horny fantasies of making love to an elf (at least no one respectable. Yes, readers of Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m talking to you! No, I will not take it back!).
TIP 3: Don’t worry about publication, but worry about communication
As a struggling human being that needs to survive, you need to get published and make money. However, as a writer (and we are a strange subhuman species), your first survival need is to write and write well. Don’t worry too much about publication while you are writing the story. Tell the story you want to tell, and tell it well. Telling a story is about… well… telling a story, so tell your story.
I am going to draw three examples from film (maybe I should use literary examples, but I’m also a film guy, so these examples come easily) to illustrate the two wrong ways to approach storytelling, and the one right way.
EXAMPLE 1: Avatar. Avatar is a fun movie. It is also a bit of a sellout. Director James Cameron is in general a bit of a sellout. He pumps his movies full of expensive special effects and gimmicks to make money at the box office. Somehow he lucks out and wows his audience. Maybe an even better example is the Star Wars prequel trilogy, which was not quite as successful. It’s great to want to make a lot of money, but the cream of the crop are those narratives that just want to tell a good story.
EXAMPLE 2: The Tree of Life. This is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. It is also one of the most elusive and esoteric. It’s great filmmaking but not great storytelling. When you write, you can be brilliantly beautiful and thought-provoking. That’s important. However, don’t completely forget your audience. You want to make those beautiful ideas comprehensible unless you’re a total snob.
EXAMPLE 3: Silver Lining Playbook. This one is fresh on my mind since I just watched it recently. It tells the story, tells it compellingly, and gets out. Amazing. And it tells a deep and personal story. It doesn’t compromise on the grittier elements of the story, which makes its romance even better. It is a risky film since it breaks the typical rom com mold, but it works because it tells a good story.
TIP 4: Don’t try to be literary, but read literature
I still struggle with this one. We all want to be the next Hemingway or Dostoevsky but it is so easy to try too hard. What separates Hemingway from you is, frankly, genius. Hemingway came effortlessly to Hemingway However, writing is unique in that it has no child prodigies like math or music. There are no Beethovens or Will Huntings of literature. The genius of literature is developed over time.
How do you develop literary genius? Beyond practicing, be well-read. I am currently writing a fantasy trilogy, but I want it to be literary (unlike the whole of post-Tolkien fiction). So, instead of reading paperback fantasy, I read Herodotus, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche. I’m not Tolstoy yet, but reading him certainly helps.
TIP 5: Don’t try to write in your characters’ voice, but learn how they think
Allow me an analogy from acting. Some actors get onstage or on camera and say the lines in the voice of their character, acting like their character. Then, offstage or off-camera they are themselves. This works for some people (Tom Hanks), but the majority of really exceptional actors methodically become their character, on and off stage/camera. I think a good writer is also a good actor. Don’t pretend to be your character, be your character. Don’t pretend to be medieval (George R. R. Martin), be medieval through and through (Ken Follett). Do or do not. The only kind of trying in writing is trying too hard.
TIP 6: There is no such thing as writers block, but it happens anyway
This is one I learned from Frank Herbert, the author of Dune. Writers block just means you don’t feel like writing. Buck up, tighten your belt, grow a pair, and just write. Nine times out of ten the simple act of writing will put you in the mood to write. Even if it doesn’t, there isn’t a significant difference for most people between their writing when they are “inspired” and when they have “writers block.”
TIP 7: Let philosophy and history govern, but not imprison
I’m a philosophy major, so I’m really into the underlying ideas of a story. And I think this is a good thing, as it adds depth to my writing. Dostoevsky’s characters are to some extent manifestations of his philosophy, and Frank Herbert’s characters are to some extent pawns of political and social ideas. However, despite the ideological purposes they serve, the people in these stories are still real. The balance is found in making characters motivated by their own personal philosophies, and having these philosophies correspond with whatever idea you want to get across. That way, the idea that the character “serves” comes from within, and not from the heavy and preachy hand of the author.
TIP 8: Don’t try to be gritty, but be gritty
Again, the big trick with fiction writing is to not try too hard. Don’t be gritty because it’s cool; be gritty because your world is in fact gritty or the personal story you want to tell must be gritty.
TIP 9: Don’t try to be romantic, but be romantic
Same thing. I think it is perfectly fine for a writer to be sappy or flowery, as long as it is natural sappiness and natural floweriness. If the critics hate it (“ugh, so much purple prose”), screw them! Minimalism in literature is a modern fad. However, if you are being flowery to sound like Tolkien or because you want to write the novel version of Titanic, tread carefully. Write romantically because you think the world is romantic, not because you want to sound like a romantic author.
TIP 10: Don’t worry about being original; rather, always tell the truth
I’m quoting C. S. Lewis here:
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
This is the ultimate rule of fiction in my opinion. Good writing is about a kind of stark honesty. Unfortunately, it’s also something you have to figure out on your own. “I can show you the door. Only you can open it.”
I hope that was helpful. To all you fellow growing writers out there, happy trails!