Want to paint a perfect painting?
Become perfect, and do what comes naturally.
Robert M. Pirsig
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Writing is a process that begins at conceptualization and ends when the final word is committed to paper. As a process, it involves love for the craft, dedication, a few tears, and more than a dash of inspiration.
For many writers, fiction is the most exhilarating of all. It allows us to explore the vast lands of our imagination and create worlds anew.
Still, as rewarding as fiction writing is, it can be equally soul-crushing. The process entails multiple drafts and even more rejections, which forces a writer to accept the reality that their writing isn't perfect. Of course, no one is perfect, and the only way to get closer is to get out there, make mistakes, and correct yourself as you learn.
If you’re looking for extra guidance, there’s myriad advice out there on how to write, but less on how not to write. With that in mind, below is a list of questions new fiction writers should have answers for, a cheat-sheet of sorts to help you on your writing journey.
Let’s start at the beginning...
You need to make sure you are not in it for the wrong reasons, which depends on your outlook and goals. If you’re planning on publishing an instant classic and buying a yacht, you may be writing for the wrong reasons.
Can writing a book make you rich? Maybe, but it’s unlikely. Consider Franz Kafka, an author so lauded and recognizable that we use his last name as a literary descriptor. But even Kafka’s most Kafkaesque works made him little money while he was alive. Likewise, Marcel Proust, the author of In Search of Lost Time. Now considered one of the 20th century’s most influential authors, Proust made very little money from writing during his lifetime.
Instead, write for joy, for the love of the craft, and because you enjoy it. Fame and cash may result, but they shouldn’t be your primary motivators.
In many ways, reading is training for writers. Can you write a novel without training? Yes, but you’ll write a better novel if you make an effort to train.
If you want to write, you have to read — a lot. It’s as simple as that. Reading broadly is the writing advice that’s most straightforward but the least forgiving. Nevertheless, great writers are always readers, so figure out how to make room for reading in your life.
The good news is that it’s not too late to start and you can make time with tiny changes in your day. Download the kindle app on your phone and read while you wait in line, for example. If you do that for 15 minutes a day, it adds up to 18 extra books a year (I did the math). Get into audiobooks. If you don’t like them, try and learn to. There’s so much reading time you can recover while you’re driving, cooking, doing laundry, and even exercising.
If you’re a writer, reading is essential. You don’t have to curl up for four hours a day in an armchair with a book, though, make reading practical and find time for it.
Great writers understand form, composition, and structure, they unpack a story while they’re reading, and take note of the literary tricks and tools that keep them engaged.
They also have an awareness of the work that has gone before them. All literature stands on the shoulders of giants in one way or another, so knowing how past artists crafted their stories and the tropes they used is always helpful to your own work. Writing is both art and craft, and expressing yourself artistically is a lot easier when you have the craft part down.
A well-known pitfall for new fiction writers is beginning to write a story before figuring out exactly what they want to say. And since they don’t know, readers are subjected to the writer’s unconscious desire to seem smart or insightful but with no clear point to the text. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially when you’re brimming with zest for the written word but little forethought about the project overall.
To avoid it, we have to clearly conceptualize what we want to say in advance, not just how we plan to say it.
Consider this: If stories didn’t help us live better, we wouldn’t remember them. I remember a story about a dad taking his son to the movies. The film was too intense for the boy at his age and he closed his eyes and started to cry. His dad didn’t say “it’s not real” or “let’s just leave”, he put his hand on his son’s back and said, “keep your eye on the hero.”
We watch heroes in stories because they’re going through something real, it doesn’t matter if it literally happened as all fiction involves a suspension of disbelief. Imagine a story focused on pointless details and mired in convoluted writing and another that says something profound about what it means to be human, but does so simply. It captures attention and affects readers, it isn’t based on any single actual event.
Which story feels more real?
Take your time to think about what your central point is, think about what you want to show readers, and how you can use your characters to carry your point.
It’s okay if your story happens in space and you have a crazy-smart idea about a new form of human cloning. And it’s equally okay if your story is set on a farm and examines the intricacies of the farmer’s relationship with his wife. So long as you have something to say.
It’s incredibly hard to write in a genre you don’t know and love. When you know a genre, you can follow it when you want and break it to tease the audience. If you don’t, maybe it’s not the right genre for you.
There are tropes specific to each genre and some that are overdone. If you’re a genre writer, research the market to get a better understanding of what your readers are expecting so you can make it fresh. For example, an avid fantasy, science fiction, and romance reader may be tired of sexy vampires and werewolves, love triangles, and convoluted time travel plot points. Make it new.
And if you are writing about a different culture, race, profession, or otherwise, assume there are readers out there more versed on these topics than you. Do your research and have enough respect for yourself, your story, and most of all, your readers, by putting in the extra effort.
Just start writing a draft. What’s worse than having a bad draft? Having nothing at all. Drafts are essential to the writing process and even if you produce sub-par writing, you still have something to work with and that’s infinitely better than nothing. If you’re waiting for publish-ready drafts to appear, you may be waiting a long time.
Try to stop editing yourself as you write and just produce a piece of writing. You’ll be thankful you have something to tweak and who knows, it might be better than you expected.
Hell, create multiple drafts, write like a mad person and then toss the stuff that doesn’t make the cut. Granted, throwing away your scribblings is hard, so distance yourself from your work first, then return and edit your best drafts. Doing so makes it easier to pick up on mistakes and gives you an objective view of your own writing.
Of all the mistakes fiction writers make, this one is the easiest and most fun to fix. When you sit down to write, who are you writing to — the many thousands of people you hope will read your book, or is it your brother one day and your editor the next?
Trying to please everyone can result in pleasing no one. Instead, try to write for a single person, preferably someone you’re close to. Here’s a tip I find helpful: open an email to a person and start writing your book in the email, watch your writing transform from odd and detached to warm and personal.
It’s as easy as that.
Ira Glass offers some famous advice about “the gap.” You see, you have good taste, you wouldn’t be trying to be a writer if you didn’t. The problem is, though, when you go to write, the text never lives up to your standards.
The solution is realizing that crossing the gap takes a lot of practice and a lot of time. Just like anything else, right? Many writers avoid the practice and time commitment because they want to write something “good.”
Perhaps the best advice here is to just keep writing, even if you’re having an off day and your words are more meh than miraculous. Save the “good” for editing. Writing is a correct-as-you-go process and you can’t correct something you’re not doing. If you’re not writing, you’ll never cross the gap and create work that lives up to your standards.
Once your concept is clear and you know what you want to say, it’s time to begin thinking about how you’ll say it. Your opening lines can make or break your story, they can draw readers in or turn them off immediately.
As tempting as it may be, never start your story with a character waking up, looking into a mirror, or any other mundane activity you have in mind. This is a sure-fire way to lose your reader’s interest fast.
The harsh truth is that nobody cares if your protagonist woke up and had cereal for breakfast, except you, and that’s because you've already developed a relationship with your character. To your reader, they're no different than a stranger walking down the street. So, unless your hero has a deadly allergic reaction to dairy, what he ate at 9 am is beside the point.
This isn’t to say you should throw your protagonist off a cliff just because. But it’s key for the first few lines of your story to capture the reader’s attention, make them want to know more about the characters and their circumstances, as well as move the plot forward.
Here’s an example from The Tin Drum by Nobel Prize-winning author, Günter Grass:
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.
These arresting opening lines grab our attention immediately and make us interested in this character. We want to know why they are in hospital, and the eclectic punctuation delivers this narrative stream in fits and bursts that befit the situation. In short, give your reader a reason to care, then just maybe, we can talk about breakfast.
Emotionless characters are boring. Being composed and being emotionless are two separate things, though. It’s fine for a character to not be expressive. What is not okay is for a character to move throughout the story without any reaction to events or surroundings.
Characters who never fail are also staid. A strong character is not strong because of their inability to fail, but rather their ability to find strength in weaknesses and overcome obstacles. Watching a character fail a couple of times makes any wins all the more gratifying. It shows growth, and growth is essential to a well-rounded character.
Or, your character can be a flawed individual who doesn’t grow and overcome in the traditional sense. Consider Barbara Covett in Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, a bored older woman with a penchant for manipulation and a classic unreliable narrator. At first, Barbara doesn’t seem too bad, but as we read on, her arch observations and assuredness bely her true intentions.
We might not like Barbara by the end of the novel, but she certainly isn’t boring.
Can a story be written without conflict? Yes. Can a great story be written without conflict? Perhaps, but it’s significantly harder as something has to drive the story forward.
In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin “conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life: relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.”
And these behaviors are conflicts in their own right. When you’re choosing your story’s, remember a struggle that’s easily resolved is hardly better than no struggle at all.
Of course, there is another school of thought that prioritizes characters over the plot. Here too though, your protagonist’s course sets out their conflict for the reader. It’s not always about the ideas, the scenes, or the cool things that happen. It’s often about people.
Listen to your characters and stay true to them. Sure, you might want them to blow up a nuclear reactor, but is that really what they’d do and how will that affect your overall plot? There’s a balance then between character study and well-crafted, plot-driven narrative — hitting it is difficult for any writer.
A significant rule of a good improv scene is ‘why today?’ The audience won’t invest if they don’t know why something has to happen today — you need higher stakes to reel them in.
The same is true for writing. So often, I see scenes that could happen any old day, and it’s boring. For every single scene, ask yourself why today? The easiest way to find it is to think about what your characters want, that’s where the magic is.
Writing good fiction isn’t all about the where and the what, it’s also about the why. Why these people, why now, and why here? It all has to matter.
Genre writers may be especially guilty of this as some genres require extensive world-building, and it’s oh-so easy to get carried away.
Blocks of exposition, however fun to write, can be off-putting to readers. Like excessive flashbacks, it disrupts the pacing of the story. Instead, tell us about the world in stages, we don't need to know everything at once, and try to reveal the entirety of the world without erasing its inhabitants from the narrative. In the end, the reader needs to interact more with the characters than with rustling autumn leaves.
Think about alternative ways to deliver narrative exposition. For example, you might choose to begin your story in medias res (in the middle of the plot), and bypass any initial descriptions of the characters’ world. Homer’s Odyssey is a prime example of using in medias res to good effect.
At some point in your writing career, you will hear the phrase “show don’t tell.” If this is the first time you’ve heard it, welcome to the club and consider this your initiation.
Telling refers to the writer’s use of language to state facts, summarize, or create exposition to reveal information to the audience. The sentence below is an example of when telling is acceptable:
Prince Henry was second in line to the throne.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with telling when used correctly. It keeps the story going without placing too much focus on details that don’t drive the plot along but give readers insight into the characters’ world. Its use becomes problematic when a writer chooses to tell the character’s actions and emotions. Consider the below:
Tina was upset listening to her family lecture her. She did not want to listen to it anymore, so she told them to leave her alone. And though she angrily left the house, she found pride in the fact she had silenced them.
In fiction writing, the reader should be immersed in the events as if the action is happening in real-time. When we refer to showing, we mean the writer manipulates language in such a way that description and action become first-hand experiences that elicit emotion and stimulate the reader’s senses.
Let’s rewrite the above with some added action:
In the midst of her family’s lecture, Tina yelled above their thundering voices. “All of you leave me the hell alone.”
The room quickly fell silent.
Then, with her head held high, Tina stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind her.
The rewrite presents details for the reader to visualize the scenario and deduce for themselves the characters’ emotions. Showing is important, but telling has its place too. In the same way one is careful to not wear sandals in a blizzard, or snow boots in summer, be mindful of when to show and when to tell.
Stilted dialogue means that your characters’ dialogue sounds stiff and unrealistic. It often happens when we try to make our characters sound perfect, instead of imitating actual speech. Let’s say we have two friends who have been apart for years, the language used should reflect the relationship and the events taking place.
Below is an example of this scenario with stilted dialogue.
“How are you?” John asked.
“I am fine,” Jane replied.
“It has been so long since we last met up,” John said.
“I missed you,” Jane replied.
“Me too,” John said.
It reads like two robots pretending to be humans, but it’s an easy error to correct by adding contractions and descriptions between dialogue tags. Let’s do a rewrite and make them sound like actual friends.
John’s grin slipped to his ears. He pulled Jane in for another hug and asked, “How’ve you been? How’re you now?”
Jane buried her head into his coat. He smelled like old spice and cigarettes. Like precious memories. “I’m fine,” she replied.
“Now that I’m back after a million years.”
“A million and one,” she corrected.
He chuckled. “Let’s have dinner.”
Still clinging to him she added, “I missed you.”
He smiled even brighter. “I missed you too.”
Little changes to speech and how you present it can affect the tone and atmosphere of your work significantly.
No one minds a good backstory. Backstory gives the history of the fictional world or the character’s life before the story's start and is most commonly achieved via flashbacks. While inserting past events does interrupt the order of the timeline, it provides context for events in the main story and reveals character motivations.
Unfortunately, it’s often handled poorly. Sometimes it’s inserted too early in the story, resulting in confusion for readers as to time and place. Other times, it happens too frequently and the constant shifts from past to present may make following the story tiresome.
It's best to treat flashbacks like salt. Use enough and it's enjoyable, but use too much and it’s unpalatable.
An exceptional story can have a crappy ending. As we’ve seen with the Game of Thrones series — some may never forgive the author — it’s very possible. A plot that took two or three-thousand words to develop cannot be resolved with one sentence. Likewise, the main conflict of a seventy-thousand word book cannot be resolved within a page.
Take the time you need to properly conclude your story. It doesn’t have to be the ending your reader wants but it should, based on the information you’ve provided, be an ending that makes sense overall. It is probably a good idea to have your ending in mind early in the process, so you don’t have to do anything abrupt or out of character to accomplish it, and looking back, it will feel as if it were inevitable.
If you want to write fiction, buckle up for some rejection. It’s not personal, it’s a gift. To grow as a writer, we need to burn off a lot of what we already are. Rejection and criticism are our best friends.
Neil Gaiman has a quote I use all the time:
“Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
When you get feedback that something isn’t working, listen to it, but don’t necessarily accept their solution because, as Gaiman says, it’s probably not the right solution.
For example, if someone tells you one part of the story was confusing it doesn’t mean they don’t “get” you, it means you’ve confused the audience. You need to figure out how to make things clearer.
Frame criticism as a gift. It hurts, but so does exercise and many people learn to love that! Likewise, if you can learn to love the sting of criticism, your work will be stronger and you’ll be on your path to being unstoppable.
Self-editing is a dangerous game, sure, read back over your work and remove all the bits you’re unhappy with or dislike. But it could be an error to assume you’re capable of fully editing your own work. Even the world’s best-selling authors rely on editors, and quality developmental editing can make all the difference between a text that dazzles and a dud.
You will likely find yourself asking “How do I know if I’m a good writer?” Subjectively, you can’t. However, with objective feedback from professional editors, you can certainly get a better idea.
Dig deep, fellow writers, and good luck!
I am an entrepreneur, writer, photographer and programmer based out of Chicago, IL USA. I have several of my strongest interests featured on this site, including my deep dive in to story telling and the arts. I love to really dissect and figure out how to make things work, and to share what I have found with you.