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

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. 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 more likely you are to catch the eye of a literary agent or editor. Banish your ego to the attic of your mind. 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.
  • 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.
  • Show, don’t tell, a la Chekhov – ‘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 consistent in your use of language, tense, perspective, and so on.
  • 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. Listen to John Gardner. Careless shifts in psychic distance can alienate the reader and stop them reading.
  • Favour active voice over passive voice. “The window blew open.” > “The window was blown open by the wind.”
  • Apply an engaging style. For John Gardner, a style should demonstrate the tone and intention of your writing, not your cleverness, nor your ego.
  • Make your voice interesting. Readers come for the voice, says Stephen King.
  • Use active verbs as opposed to passive adverbs. The road to hell is paved with adverbs – Stephen King.
  • Nothing tops “He said” / “She said”.
  • 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 feedback from other readers, writers and editors is invaluable. Your grandmother might love your work, but other readers may not feel the same.
  • Research effectively. Read as widely as you can. Read within your genre and subject area, but don’t forget to read outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself from time to time.
  • Why not take an online course or pursue a degree in creative writing? 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/

Written by Michael Conroy

Image from Pixabay.

Copyright © 2020 Sirius Editorial | All Rights Reserved

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