May 11th, 2015

Things That Might Be Wrong with Your Fiction

Guys, I really do try not to be a snark-head, and this post is not intended that way. It’s just that I read a lot of fiction–stories in journals and magazines, big name novels and collections as well as those from unknowns, plus the literally 100s of fiction-contest entries I’ve judged. From this reading, I have categorized in my head a number of foibles authors of fictions often seem to have. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to fix published work and the people who run contests do not let you call up the non-winning entries and let them know where you think they went wrong. Sometimes I use what I have learned in creative writing classes, but since I am not currently teaching, I have no one to share these insights with. I do want to share–and offer some potential solutions. I’ve stayed away from problems I feel like a lot of writing advice thingums cover–like overusing research and having one-note secondary characters–in favour of stuff I haven’t seen covered too much.

Please (please please) do not assume that I am making this list under any kind of impression that I am a flawless writer. Ahahaha. It’s just that other people’s problems are far easier to spot than one’s own. I am actually writing this post as procrastination against my own writing. Yeah, I’m pathetic, but let me help you!

1) What happened: You started your project with the central character and you did a lot of free writing, character sketching, and thinking to explore who this person is. You feel you know what he or she would wear, think, eat, and imagine every second of most days. When you started writing the story or novel, you were able to write quickly and easily because you were so thoroughly in the shoes of your protagonist, but what you ended up with is very long and rambling, because you kept getting stuck spending pages  on how the character feels as s/he, say, walks to the bus stop and realizes the bus is late. All of this minutiae is helpful in learning who this person is and why what happens to him/her matters…and yet people do claim to have been bored while reading.

What went wrong: I ran into this a lot with the young writers I taught in high schools, but you also see it with grownups and even published books. In my humble opinion, what is happening here is mistaking process writing for product writing. Authors often do need to know everything about their characters; readers very rarely do. It can be very useful to free write about your characters’ childhoods in great detail, for example, because that’s going to reverberate through their later lives and a reader will be able to feel it–without there being a word about the actual childhood on the page. It can be very hard, especially for students doing a writing assignment or adults with limited time to believe that they’ve written hundreds or thousands of words for themselves, not for an audience–but that’s often the way we write.

What to do: Sometimes, we just need to write the block of wood, then carve the story sculpture out that. So do it–write about every teacher your character had in grammar school and describe her whole house and all her friends. Then go back through what you’ve written and figure out what the story is about and trim it down so that most of the text is in service of that story. I don’t know your writing process but a random shot: maybe colour coding would help? Running a coloured highlighter down the page beside the text, switching colours when you switch content. Maybe green for dialogue, blue for action, yellow for character introspection. That can help show you schematically where cuts might be needed. You might also need a trusted and literary friend to go through the manuscript and note everything that doesn’t really need to be there.

2) What happened: You wrote a story that circled around a secret–a character’s hidden past, a mysterious crime –without knowing what in fact the secret was. You wanted to experience the mystery along with the characters and when you got to the end you were pleased to come up with a fascinating denouement and the secret has now been revealed to both you and the characters. However, you weren’t able to make the ending 100% line up with what came before–some characters’ actions don’t make sense given what they knew at the time, and other “mysterious” action has no real point at all now. You might have a character who knows the secret truth seemingly lying in interior monologue, or someone acting clearly counter to their own best interests for no real reason.

What went wrong: This is not a failure of writing–writing to find out what the ending is a totally fun thing to do–it’s a failure of editing. Really the first example is, too, but it is much harder to see when you have too much extraneous information–it should be obvious to an author when some information in the book is actually wrong in the face of other info therein. And I feel several really big-deal books were published in the last few years with this sort of thing not yet worked out. I read and read, excited by good writing and an interesting plotline–I was eager to figure out where all the pieces fit and get to the end…and never really figure it out. Apparently no one cares about this sort of thing because I look up the reviews of the books and my issues go unmentioned, but I still think writers should try to fix them.

What do do: Reread your manuscript once you know the ending ad make sure everyone’s actions make sense given what they know and what their goals are even if the reader won’t know these things until the end. You may need to make a chart of who knows what when, and what their goals are, if your plot is particularly complex. Really, this is just an extension of the challenge of writing any long fiction–make sure desires, personality traits, problems, and pleasures play through throughout the book. You can’t make a character who hates ice cream in chapter 3 gobble down a bowl in chapter 7, and you can’t make a character who knows who the murderer is throughout the book have a long internal debate about who might have been the killer.

3) What happened: You based your book or story on real events that happened to you and/or people close to you. Initially you thought that you’d either just tell the story as it happened or, if you got uncomfortable with writing some personal details, lightly fictionalize and make up things to replace what seemed best kept private. It turns out both these strategies are challenging, as more details make you uncomfortable than you thought, plus some people in your life have asked you not to write about them. The fictionalizing isn’t really working out either, as it hard to make things up when you know what really happened–it just feels like lying. So you’re ending up with a lot of holes in your story–big jumps in time and event where you skip over what you don’t want to talk about. You’ve also eliminated a lot of characters at the request of the people who inspired those characters–so it feels like the people who remain in the story live in a sort of social black hole. Yet another problem arises when real events were somewhat convoluted–people showing up even though they weren’t involved, multiple locations for reasons that are irrelevant–and you’re wasting a lot of time trying to explain all this stuff.

What went wrong: A humble guess–you might be too close to the events, emotionally or in time. It’s really useful in a therapeutic sense to write out important or traumatic events in your life when you are close to them, but it’s really hard to do that artistically in a way that a reader can understand and empathize with. It’s tough to walk the line between writing that you have no feeling for and writing that you have so many feelings for that it impedes your process.

What to do: For most writing problems, I would say one solution is to have a wise friend read it over and see what they suggest, but that might not work here if you are very emotionally invested in the work–criticism of plot and characters might come into your brain as criticism of your life and friends/family/self. Waiting is the cure here; eventually you will have some perspective on what is germaine to the story and what you can safely leave out or fictionalize. You need to be able to see what you are writing as something for strangers and work to make it what it needs for them to be affected, involved, empathetic. As long as it’s something you’re writing for yourself, beautiful and important as it may be, it will be hard for others to access. Writing is always a small act of generosity–you are giving a story to your reader. Wait until you have enough emotional strength to be generous to your reader.

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That’s all the tips I have for now, anyway–I’m sure there’s loads more ways to solve these problems than what I’ve mentioned, and lots of other problems besides these. What are you seeing in stories and novels that you’d like to fix?

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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