craft questions

Advice for aspiring authors of fiction

I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited.

It is a great responsibility to read the work of aspiring authors, and it is also a delicate, involved, and time consuming one. When I have a piece of work in front of me, I hold a person’s hopes and dreams in my hands. The wrong word or approach could crush those aspirations.

This is true no matter what the relationship. I exchange work with my best friend, and we both step carefully even though we give each other honest criticism. Over tea I can say to her “This just doesn’t work for me,” or “The transition here falls short” and she will not be crushed, because she knows that I respect her and her work. She can say to me “You just can’t use that name, it evokes too many associations to X” or “You’ve used this image before” or “huh?” and I’ll just nod, because she’s right and I know she is.

But an author who is just starting out may need commentary on many levels. From how to open a story to where to end a paragraph, from word choice to dialog, from story to character. When I teach introduction to creative writing I don’t let my students write a whole story to start with, simply because they will give me ten pages that require so much commentary it would take me longer to comment than it did for them to write it.

I once had a graduate student in creative writing who was very talented. She was writing her master’s thesis — a collection of short stories — under my direction. She had a whole file of stories she said were “junk”, but I asked to see them anyway. She believed that they were junk because a previous teacher had handed them back to her with the words “not worth the effort” written on them. But in that pile of rejected stories (about seven of them) I found four that had wonderful promise. Strong characters in interesting conflicts, but the rest of the story was in poor shape and needed extensive work. Over a summer I worked with her on those four stories. Each went through ten or even fifteen revisions, and she worked them into something wonderful. But it took tremendous effort.

The moral of that story is that the wrong reader can do a great deal of damage; the right reader is just the beginning of a long writing process.

I am sure that some or even many of the people who ask me to read their work are talented. They may need direction and help, and need it very sincerely. If I am not the person to provide it, what other choices do they have?

My strongest suggestion is to make connections to other writers around you. Community colleges often have classes in creative writing. Even if a new writer feels they are beyond the “introduction” stage, this can be a great way to make contact to others with the same interests and concerns. I found my first writing group (an excellent one) through a creative writing class. The other real advantage of taking such a course is this: it teaches you to accept constructive criticism gracefully, something that is often very hard for beginning writers, but absolutely necessary.

If for whatever reason it isn’t possible to take a course, then there are very good writing communities on-line. I highly recommend the authors’ forum at CompuServe, which includes sections where people submit and critique each other’s work, according to genre. CompuServe was very helpful to me when I was in the early stages of writing Into the Wilderness. Finally, I am always happy to suggest two books which were (and still are) helpful to me. The first one because it looks at the nuts-and bolts of putting together fiction with great insight, wonderful examples, and most of all, common sense; the second one because it is hopeful and wise and funny.

Jane Burroway. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 5th edition July 1999. Addison-Wesley Pub Co. ISBN: 0321026896

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. October 1995. Anchor Books/Doubleday. ISBN: 0385480016

Writing is a demanding business, but a rewarding one. It’s hard for everybody; take comfort in that. And then get down to work.

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are we there yet? or, writerly illusions

Karen the Lurker asked me an interesting question a few posts ago: How do you know when you’ve gone over the top?

The discussion was specifically about writing sex scenes, but I’m going to try to answer it in a greater context. It’s one of those questions that people don’t discuss much and here it is: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.
You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding. Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed. Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this. Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start writing again? First you show it to a bigger group of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing: Continue reading…

clarification for Christoffer

Chris is back with some questions that follow from the long post on plotting which people should look at if they haven’t seen it yet.

Christoffer’s questions:

1. It seems as if the outline you mention at the beginning undergoes some fairly heavy changes as it evolves into a book (characters getting killed off, or not, as the case might be), which leads me to believe (perhaps wrongly) that you write the outline before getting down to the nitty-gritty of a, b, c and d?

Nope, no real outline to start with. Just some major plot points, and some idea of where I’m going to end up. However, as I get deeper into the book, I will sometimes pause between chapters and make notes to myself about what needs to happen next, who has got the upper hand and how power is going to be moved to the other side.

I keep track of  tension/power issues in a very concrete way as I write, which is as close as I come to an outline.

2. Also, wouldn’t you have to have the characters ready and waiting to jump into the plot if you work in this manner? Of course, in the Wilderness series you did just that (I gather), but what about minor characters? Do you just thread them in as you go along, or do you develop them first, in order to make them fit better into the pattern?

I don’t plan secondary characters in any conscious way ahead of time. Some characters just get threaded in as things go along, because they won’t be around long. They show up, we have a little conference and I make some decisions about how important they are going to be, and how much print space they need. This is where my love of Dickens shows the most, I think, in that I have a hard time dismissing secondary characters without at least a little attention. Readers who are put off by my long list of characters would probably run off in horror if I included all the secondary and teriary people who float in and out.

Characters who are going to be fairly pivotal, even for a short period of time, I will stop and think about in more detail. For example, there’s a trio of women in Queen of Swords, a middle aged daughter, her mother, her mother’s servant, who are going to be quite important to various plot developments. As I was thinking about them in relationship to each other and to the rest of the characters I realized I was going to have to stop and make notes, which I did. I constructed a brief backstory and timeline, which I’ll refer to now and then when they come into the story.