Some fiction writing advice, please

So I know the real answer here is “Everyone has their own method, you need to find your own.” I know I know. Still, I’m interested to hear what works for people.

I can be a decent writer of poetry and nonfiction. But when it comes to fiction, for some reason, I am at a loss. I have fine ideas, and I’m not lost when it comes to plotting etc. It’s just the wordcraft for lack of a better word. The writerliness, or something. Basically, each sentence I write, I look at afterward and think “God that’s a clunker!” The whole time I’m writing I’m thinking “Geez this is just awful! Who would read this?”

It’s not because I underestimate the quality of my own writing. It’s seriously bad. There’s this cleverness and readability* that good fiction writers have that just doesn’t happen for me at least on a first pass.

As an undergrad I flirted for a semester with the idea of majoring in Creative Writing, and my Fiction teacher seemed to have a high opinion of my stuff. Looking back, somehow, I was better back then. Not good, but better. I don’t know how I lost this quality I above called “this cleverness and readability”, but I’m hoping I can get it back with practice.

And so my question: Given that my goal is to develop this difficult-to-describe quality of “cleverness and readability”, should I just keep writing the clunky prose, finish out the story as awful as it sounds to my inner ear, and then try to get it sounding better through the rewrite process? This way I’d get the story out and have something to work with. But on the other hand, should I instead work on each sentence carefully as I write it the first time? Not with the expectation that I won’t have to rewrite it, but with the expectation that what I have to work with after the first draft will at least be something worth working on?

Something I’ve noticed about good writing that I enjoy is that these authors are able to use striking metaphorical imagery in ways that seem natural, not at all “inserted” into the text. They turn out to seem the best and most natural way to describe what they’re describing. That’s something I’d like to learn how to do. But can it be learned?

No, by the way, I won’t be showing you any examples of my horrible prose.

*By “cleverness” I don’t mean any kind of self-conscious smugness or anything like that. I just mean being able to write masterfully and interestingly.

A book I would strongly recommend is Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. He lays these concerns bare with masterful ease. I would say don’t worry about seeming smart so much as honest or convincing.

That sounds about right. I didn’t mean to give the impression that good writers “sound smart,” rather, there’s something about them that is smart, that I feel I used to have some measure of when writing fiction, and which I find I simply do not have anymore.

Trying to be honest sounds like a good first step–a good thing to remind myself I ought to be doing.

Which leads to me needing to do that thing they always say you need to do… “find my voice”… :wink: Sounds hard! :stuck_out_tongue:

Out of curiousity, how much time do you spend on your fiction writing? Are you working on it every day?

I do well at non-fiction (or at least I did in my long ago college days) and I believe I know what you mean about writing with “readability”, which is something that has come very easy to me. What does not come easy , besides poetry, is well developed characters and dialogue- the two things I value most highly. I tend to write from plot point to plot point and while it’s often very readable, I never feel that it is particularly inspired.

What I do is try to do, is to write 2k words a day- I mean just pound it out. Don’t edit it, just do it. It is a little embarrassing to admit, but as I’m letting my Nanowrimo work sit and stew, I’m working on fan fiction that is awful. It’s cliched and silly and definitely self indulgent. But every once in awhile, I write a shiny sentence, or work out a dialogue in an effective, easy on the ears way. I start to feel when it’s right instead of forcing it.

I got the idea from Stephen King’s On Writing, that you just have to show up at the same time every day, pound out your words and hope the muse shows up. I’m pretty new to the habit, but so far I’ve been happy with the journey, if not the results :dubious:.

Well, different things work for different people, but in general I don’t think this is a good way of doing things. Trying to play the editor and the writer simultaneously is a paralyzing exercise in frustration. I find myself slipping into it sometimes; focusing on the minutiae of each sentence makes it really hard to pay attention to the flow of my ideas, so the overall cohesiveness of my writing tends to suffer. In addition, the structure of each sentence individually is not independent of the higher level considerations, so often you’ll wind up with sentences that are well-constructed in themselves, but stick out badly when the work is read in its entirety.

I’d liken it to trying to optimize your code before you’ve compiled and profiled; it’s an unnecessary effort, it damages clarity and cohesion, and it’s not even a fair trade-off since the results are not usually very good anyway. :stuck_out_tongue:

In my experience, the best way to improve is to just keep writing. Don’t be afraid to write crap. (I write lots of it!) Quantity over quality is absolutely the operative principle. Just get words on the page, over and over and over again, and allow yourself to write badly. You’ll find that focusing on sheer volume will give you a greater scope for creativity and self-improvement, even if a lot of the stuff you write will never be fit to see the light of day.

Another thing that’s important is to read constantly. Read lots of books in many genres by many different writers. Find authors whose style you like and read them again and again; as an exercise, try to imitate them. Maybe try reading some bad books as well. Nothing bad can come of broadening your literary horizons. :slight_smile:

Also, remember that the goal of writing fiction is to tell a story; you can have scintillating prose, but if there’s no narrative magic going on, the result won’t amount to much. Obviously, you need both good ideas and good writing to tell a story well, but the prose is not an end in itself.

I think it is for people like you, Frylock, that NaNoWriMo was created. I think the reason you’re unhappy with your prose is because - as you say - you’re thinking it’s awful the whole time you’re writing it. If you just keep writing and not worrying about the quality of what you’re producing, you’ll a) get it on the page and b) loosen up, so your writing will probably reflect that lack of self-consciousness.

Now, my favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut, who has always said that he made sure that every word of every sentence was in the right place on the very first draft, and when he stepped away from the typewriter his novel would be more or less as it was when it went onto the shelves.

But my other favorite author is Neil Gaiman, who apparently goes through several drafts to get each story right, sometimes entirely ripping up the original premise. His recent Newbury Award-winning children’s book was 20 years in the making because it just took him that many rewrites to get it right.

So, different strokes for different folks. In terms of metaphor and other figurative language, which you mentioned specifically, I find that for one thing, a lot of the time it’s not necessary, and that it should really only be used when plain English will not suffice to create the mental image that your readers need. Comparing the unfamiliar to the familiar. Or sometimes it’s comparing something unfamiliar to your protagonist with something he recognizes. It will feel natural because it will be needed in the text.

Of course, I’m just an amateur, I’ve never had anything published, and while I think my prose ain’t half bad, my plots are sort of nonexistent. So everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt.

I do a lot of parody work and I find I have a similar situation as the OP. People are amazed at how well I can come up with a funny version of a story that has been told already.

It’s for the same reason as the OP, it’s the idea and mapping of the story.

Here’s what I would suggest the OP do.

First of all to write better fiction, READ fiction. Then take a well known book or part of one, and rewrite the story. What if XXX happened to the character, and change the storyline.

This isn’t the stuff that will get published but it will get you used to dealing with the way plot works.

Also don’t worry about writing complete things. Write smaller parts and keep those. A smaller two or three page short story can always be woven into a larger book as a side plot.

I’d say yes. Flow, word choice, imagery and the kinds of things you are talking about can always be adjusted and improved as you rewrite. It’s better to get the ideas out when they are coming, I think, instead of getting hung up trying to find the perfect word in sentence two. And yes, those same things can be learned. I agree with the recommendation that you keep reading.

Based on your OP (admittedly, not fiction), I’d say your writing style is fine. You need to not be so self-conscious and self-critical.

There are, indeed, fiction writers who pour over every word. They often come across as self-indulged, deliberately “arty” etc. There are wonderful fiction writers who are simply great story-tellers, the words flow from them. And there’s lots of inbetweens. So, my suggestion (in addition to the other good ideas here) is to just do it. Start with, perhaps, a short story, and don’t go back and wordsmith until you’ve finished telling the whole story. THEN, you can go back and worry about each word or phrase.

Yes. Finish the story. Worry about the quality of prose in the editing.

Probably not – you either have the knack for it or you don’t. But that shouldn’t be a hindrance. There are plenty of great writers who don’t do this.

For me, I long ago discovered that I can’t write in the same way that my favorite authors write. I don’t have much knack for metaphor, not a great imagination, and certainly can’t do the complex narrative tricks that I love to read. That hasn’t stopped me from publishing over 40 stories in paying markets over the years.

Write however you find you’re able to write, and don’t worry about others.