Two Pieces of Advice for Fiction Writers

Taking a break from writing always proves to be a good thing, despite feeling guilty for doing so—that’s a subject I’ve written about on here a few times now. However, that isn’t the topic of this post. Instead, my unintended time away from the blog gave me time to mull over a few other bits of writing advice that, despite having already talked about on here and on my bookstagram, bears repeating. One is abstract and the other is more practical. Both are principles I keep coming back to regardless of what stage of writing I’m in, or how much I think I’ve learned the lesson. There’s always more to learn.

1. Don’t think in terms of characters vs. plot

An earlier post titled “The False Dichotomy of Plot vs. Character” covered this idea in more detail, which I recommend reading for a better understanding of why I stopped thinking of stories in this way. All story elements are intricately connected. An uneven relationship between plot vs. characters in your story is a sign that something is lacking and incomplete—often in the area you think is actually strong. If you plot is lackluster, then you don’t really know your characters (or perhaps your story world or theme) as well as you should. If your characters are flat, that means your plot (and theme, for that matter) is going to suffer even if it’s technically sound.

To reuse one of my analogies, characters are nouns and plots are verbs. You have to have both working together in a way that’s meaningful and comprehensible to have the main structure of a sentence. Pitting these two story elements against each other in the way we speak about them separately impedes the process of finding the proper symbiosis between the two. Ditching the dichotomy gets rid of one hurdle in an already complex and difficult process.

2. If something isn’t working, go back

Writing, like thinking, has a flow of ideas. The more you learn to conceptualize ideas in your head and then communicate those ideas clearly through words, the easier it becomes to immerse yourself in the process and continue it with few, if any, interruptions. A big part of mastering communication (and I mean mastering as a life-long process) is learning how to aim so you can hit the target you want. To continue that metaphor, your mental muscles have to get used to how to load the arrow, how tightly to pull back the bow, how to judge the distance between you and the target, how to move your fingers to allow a clean release. Any failure to hit the bullseye can be traced back to some miscalculation at the beginning—a movement that was too quick or too slow, or forgetting to account for the direction of the wind, or maybe even using the wrong equipment for the distance.

What does any of that have to do with writing? Whenever I come to a scene or chapter that just will not work, there’s always an issue with the scene before it, or the scene before that one, or the opening of the chapter—or a chapter or two I wrote earlier. If I set up a scene correctly, everything that needs to happen follows naturally. If I re-evaluate the events leading up to the trouble spot and then change them to better “aim” at what I need that part of the story to hit, then the ease returns and I’m able to continue on with the story. Sometimes finding the solution is easy, or sometimes it takes weeks to sort out the issue. Regardless, if you’re stuck, reevaluate what you’ve already done and see if you miscalculated. In those cases, backtracking is necessary to move forward again.

.

Alright, your turn: what writing advice do you think is important enough to bear repeating?

Advertisement

Taking Breaks

.

If you’re at all like me, you don’t like taking breaks from your projects. I’ve always been a “work first, play later” sort of person, and when I decide to undertake a task I like to exert a reasonably high amount of energy toward it, finishing it with as much speed as possible while still doing a good job. When those projects have an artistic bent—and this is especially true when it comes to my writing—that tendency becomes exponential. And sometimes I am capable of superhuman bouts of typing, finishing thousands upon thousands of words in a day. There’s one notable instance where I finished two whole chapters in one day (and I write fairly robust chapters). Those days, however, are almost always followed by a creative crash—a day or two or several where I’m lucky to eke out a few hundred words, and the ideas that previously flowed like water rapids are reduced to a dull trickle, like a leaky showerhead.

I’ve come to use variations of a phrase over the past few years: “it isn’t all-or-nothing.” There aren’t just two extreme options for how to go about doing or thinking of a task, project, or abstract concept—you don’t have to stop driving entirely just because you don’t want to go 15 MPH over the speed limit. You don’t have to adopt an extreme moral stance in order to oppose another extreme stance. Most of the time, I don’t have this problem; most of the time, I like to think I’m moderate in pacing myself, in having reasonable expectations for productivity, for balancing work and play. There isn’t anything innately wrong with saying “work first” as long as you do eventually allow time for “play later.” And normally I do! Yet I resent the “play later” phases of the creative process where I’m forced to take a break—whether by other life responsibilities, burnout (usually self-imposed), or the natural ebb and flow that comes with making art. No person can be “on” all the time, and attempts to do so—attempts to go beyond your limitations—do not produce better results.

Every person has a limit of creative endurance. Including environmental reasons, there’s only so much mental, emotional, and spiritual energy one can devote to a project each day before you lose your sharpness and focus and instead drift off into vague, perhaps mediocre territory. Part of growing as an artist is learning where your cut-off is, then balancing that with the discipline necessary to overcome moments of procrastination, perfectionism, and laziness that can pull us toward the other extreme. That’s not a new idea, either broadly or personally. I’ve had enough of those superhuman writing days to recognize they can’t be sustained, no matter how much I want to do so. I also know that distance from a project for longer stretches of time give new perspective, especially when taken between the writing and editing phases. But lately I’ve been struck by just how beneficial micro-breaks are, too.

Here’s an example. A few weeks ago, I had a nagging feeling that a recently finished chapter wasn’t right. There wasn’t anything blatantly wrong—I’d even followed my outline—but I couldn’t shake the feeling, especially as I went on to other chapters that built upon those events. So I went a walk, and realized during the walk what the problem was (turns out I needed to cut the chapter entirely). So I went back, quickly fixed the problem, and continued writing without issue.

Why haven’t I built in such “moments of clarity” before, if they’re so useful? At the very least, a diversion of attention gives your mind a chance to breath before its next bout of exertion—and at most they may save a lot of trouble and creative blockage by solving a problem sooner rather than later. If the goal isn’t incredible word counts but consistency—for consistency is the key to success—then the discipline of writing on a regular basis also needs the discipline of knowing my own limits, and implementing breaks that help me overcome them. The idea of not taking any breaks except for when all energy is depleted is as silly as thinking I could exercise intensely for three hours without stopping to get a drink or catch my breath—and do so every day of the week on top of it. Who could last one day with that sort of routine? What benefit would come of it? Good stewardship of time and talent requires finding that balance—don’t slack off, but don’t run yourself into the ground, either. Writing, after all, isn’t all or nothing.

Rating the Openings of My Favorite Nonfiction Books

.

Welcome to part 2 of my book opening analysis series! The first post covered 15 introductory paragraphs from my list of 4-5 star rated book, so this post will be the same format but for 8 nonfiction books instead (most are historical biographies or memoirs). Sometimes nonfiction books have the reputation of not being as stylistically compelling as fiction reads—perhaps because we forget just how many genres of nonfiction exist—so I hope this post is not only helpful for writers but also proves that there are quite a few interesting and beautifully-crafted books that aren’t about other worlds.

Continue reading “Rating the Openings of My Favorite Nonfiction Books”

Rating the Openings of My Favorite Fiction Books

.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that writing openings is hard. One might say it is the best of times and the worst of times.

Alright, alright, I’ll stop. But even putting aside wordplay, openings are difficult, whether you’re dealing with fiction or nonfiction. That’s why I thought it’d be fun (and educational) to analyze the openings of my top-rated books to 1) see examples of techniques that hook readers from the first sentences and 2) see that great stories don’t always have the greatest openings.

Continue reading “Rating the Openings of My Favorite Fiction Books”

Outlines: The True First Drafts

I love all aspects of writing. That doesn’t mean I always like them (nothing worthwhile is easy), but I’ve found that I truly enjoy each stage of the writing process when I’m in it. The early stages of brainstorming and research and planning bring a rush of excitement, intrigue, and adventure into the unknown; drafting reveals a depth of unforeseen discoveries, the slow and meticulous carving of stone to reveal statue and the satisfying burn of strengthening muscles; and editing clarifies and sharpens, leaving something beautiful once the sting of its blade has dissipated.

Continue reading “Outlines: The True First Drafts”