What You Should Know About Writing Fiction … or Anything at All

‘Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives. The English reading public explains the reason why.’

James Joyce

The novel is the most popular form of fiction, and the UK and US publishing industries rake in hundreds of millions every year. But the realist prose novel is a relatively recent invention. In the pagan past, drama and epic poetry were the dominant literary forms. Anglo-Saxon scops memorised the entirety of the 3000-line Old English poem Beowulf and recited it by fireside, much like the bards of Ancient Greece and Rome, among whom Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid, were enduringly popular. Dante’s Divine Comedy, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote are all key examples of the epic poem throughout the centuries.

Writing, noun: ‘1: The act or practice of literary […] composition […] 2: the occupation of a writer; especially: the profession of authorship’

Novel, noun: ‘1: An invented prose narrative […] usually long and complex [dealing] with human experience through a […] connected sequence of events […] 2: the literary genre consisting of novels’

– Merriam-Webster

The realist novel evolved throughout the Renaissance and European Enlightenment, culminating in 1719’s Robinson Crusoe, which is widely considered the first fiction novel ever written. In the years following Crusoe’s publication, Moll Flanders, also by Defoe (1722), and Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) continued the same trend. Prior to this, however, gothic romances or sensation novels like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Mathew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk and Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho dominated the prose marketplace. But Defoe and Richardson, et al, sought to push the novel beyond the limitations of popular fiction by further distinguishing their work from the sensationalist fare that preceded them. While Jonathan Swift took a different direction with Gulliver’s Travels, an outlandish satire, writers like Defoe aimed to drive the novel towards a more credible, realist place.

Today, golden geese like Stephen King and Margaret Atwood make writing look easy, but the average person frequently underestimates the sheer effort, technique and expertise that go into crafting a stellar piece of writing. According to Graham Greene, he wrote The Confidential Agent in just six weeks while Arthur Conan Doyle claimed to have penned A Study in Scarlet in half that time. Don’t be taken in by such stories, as great writing is rarely so easy. Not all bestsellers are great books, nor are all great books bestsellers.

Writing Essentials

(NB, pay as much or as little attention to the following, admittedly, trite maxims as you wish. Flout them if you must, but be sure to do so in a compelling way.)

Writers have a lot to juggle in their work: everything from grammar to semantics, theme to form, style to subtext. So put your ego to one side and consider our advice. Remember, literary agents and editors are inundated with hundreds to thousands of unsolicited novels, short stories, poems and more on a daily basis. Everyone makes the occasional typo, but learning to edit your work effectively is the difference between success and failure. Imagine how T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land might have turned out without Ezra Pound’s editorial pen.

Stand out from the rest of the literary slush pile. As novelist Joe Stretch says, there are two types of sentences, those that fatigue and those that energise the reader. If you want to make it as a writer in any field, fiction or otherwise, you absolutely must give your reader a reason to keep reading. The greater the polish on your work, the tighter your prose, the more likely you are to catch the eye of a literary agent or editor. The author has final say, but editing is a compromise, which means an open mind is key. Here are our tips:

  • Avoid clichés unless you know what you’re doing. If this is Greek to you, remember, it might fit the bill, but it’s better off in the dog house.
  • Flawless spelling and grammar are essential. It’s the difference between, “Your home is flawless” & “Your home is floorless”; between “I’m eating, grandma” & “I’m eating grandma”.
  • Opening lines are important. They invite the reader into the story, and should suggest an intriguing context or dilemma that hooks the reader, as well as an introduction to your writerly style and crucial sense of voice. If the opening line is off, it can turn readers away before they’ve finished the first page. Don’t forget to drop in your inciting incident at the right time. Usually, it’s a case of the earlier the better, although great writers can keep the reader interested for pages, even chapters, before the real story begins. Then again, all writers are different.
  • Show, don’t tell, a la Chekhov(?)’s mis-attributed quote (Who knows who said it first?) – ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
  • Avoid abstract language. Favour clear, succinct images, says Flannery O’Connor. Be precise with your description when setting a scene. Evoke the five senses, or even, if you like, synaesthesia, to help readers conjure up strong images for their mental play.
  • Be consistent in your use of language, tense, and perspective. Don’t start a paragraph in the first-person present tense only to end it in the third-person past. It’s confusing and clunky for the reader.
  • Moreover, select the right tense for your story. Would it benefit more from being written in the first person or the third? The former could provide a greater sense of urgency to the events described or allow you to inhabit your protagonist with greater ease, while the latter may allow for an ironic distance between narrator and character. Moreover, you could even write in the second person if you want your prose to stand out.
  • Remove every unnecessary word. Stephen King recommends cutting at least 10% of the finished text.
  • Stick to one perspective per chapter & maintain consistent narrative distance from that perspective. Only show us things your character or narrator would be privy to. John Gardner suggests that these careless shifts in psychic distance can not only alienate the reader, but stop them reading too.
  • Favour active voice over passive voice. “The window blew open.” > “The window was blown open by the wind.” There’s a nice clear energy to the active voice that drives your writing forward, but there’s also a place for a more telling, writerly style too.
  • Apply an engaging style, something that, as John Gardner writes, should demonstrate the tone and intention of your writing. Not your cleverness, nor your ego, but the kind of story it is, plus the promise you’re making to the reader to deliver the goods.
  • Make your voice interesting, whether through dialogue or description. This point overlaps with the above too. Readers come for the voice (Stephen King).
  • Use active verbs as opposed to passive adverbs. The road to hell is paved with adverbs (King again). Active verbs, like the active voice, energise your writing for the reader. They create clear, concise images and actions. Readers should never be confused about what is happening, nor when, where, why, how, or to whom it is happening.
  • Nothing tops “He said” / “She said” but a nice active verb can make all the difference too.
  • Give it room to breathe. Staring at a screen or page for hours on end, day after day, will undoubtedly become a chore. So once your manuscript or story is complete, leave it alone for as long as you can, ideally a month or so, before coming back to it with fresh eyes. You’ll see things you didn’t see before.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread.
  • It’s impossible to be objective about your own work, no matter how hard you try, which is why you should always seek out feedback on your work before putting out there. Second opinions can either make all the difference, or none at all, but they’re usually invaluable. Remember, your grandmother might love your work, but other readers may not feel the same way.
  • Moreover, the average reader, especially those who aren’t writers themselves, likely won’t be able to put into words what works and what doesn’t work in your story. A lot of things will go over their heads too, so it’s best to seek advice from like-minded people. If you wish to go down the self-publishing route, professional editors are a must for novels and long fiction, although they tend to be expensive, so watch out.
  • Research effectively. Treat your subject matter with the respect it deserves. Read as widely as you can on your chosen theme. Read within your genre and subject area, but don’t forget to read outside your comfort zone too. Challenge yourself from time to time.
  • Why not take an online course or pursue a degree in creative writing? Sites like Skillshare and MasterClass are great resources, although the latter is quite expensive. Degrees don’t work for everyone, and not all are alike. The world-renowned Manchester Writing School, part of The Manchester Metropolitan University, is a sound choice: https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/english/mcr-writing-school/ for writers looking to hone their craft, but only if you have the time and capital to afford it.
  • Some writers are averse to writing degrees, viewing them as elitist or counterproductive. Our advice is to decide for yourself. For some, oversight from an author-professor is invaluable, but to others not so much. If you wish to pursue a degree in creative writing, by all means, go ahead, but don’t pooh-pooh those that do (or don’t). Everybody learns how to write in their own way, and there’s no one way of learning.
  • You can get the same kind of workshop experience as you would on BA or MFA program from a strong writing group, especially in close-knit circles where writers aren’t afraid to receive criticism. We learn through failure, but be wary of whose advice you choose to take. It’s easy enough to gauge whether someone knows what they’re talking about.
  • Be true to your creative vision, for better or worse. Not everyone will understand your work, so there’s no sense changing the essence of your story because someone didn’t understand it. When it comes to line-by-line criticism, you can’t go wrong listening to informed voices, but don’t alter your story’s DNA without good reason. Editors and fellow writers whom you trust can offer valuable insight, drawing attention to issues or possibilities you might not have considered, but as the story’s author, you, above all others, should know what kind of story it is, and should be, in the first place.
  • Although, that being said, sometimes we writers need a kick up the backside so we can tear down our ivory towers and get our work back on the right track. There are, believe it or not, ideas not worth pursuing or even abandoning. Writing fiction is an art, and you should treat it with the same discipline and determination.
  • Kill your darlings. Potentially even your darlings’ darlings, but never your darlings’ darlings’ darlings, because that would be crazy.
  • Your writer’s ego is by far your greatest enemy.

Written by Michael Conroy

Image from Pixabay.

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