“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” —Ernest Hemingway
If you’re like most fiction writers, you must surely agree with Hemingway. Writing can be a real bloodletting at times. You give it your all, but your brain freezes. Your story or novel is just not working out – the characters are flat, the scenes are flat, and the plot is going nowhere. You sure could use a strategy or two, something that makes your fiction live and breathe.
But writing fiction is a complex act. To weave the many intricate threads of character into a unified whole takes great artistic skill. To do so with multiple characters inside a unified plot calls for even greater artistic skill. you’re like most fiction writers, you must surely agree with Hemingway. Writing can be a real bloodletting at times. You give it your all, but your brain freezes. Your story or novel is just not working out – the characters are flat, the scenes are flat, and the plot is going nowhere. You sure could use a strategy or two, something that makes your fiction live and breathe.
So what strategies can you use to improve your writing chops? What’s the one thing that will make your fiction improve tenfold?
We asked five successful authors to isolate one key thing related to craft or process. Five writers, five key things. That’s for starters.
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Five key strategies
1. Make your character yearn!
For Rebecca Johns, author of The Countess and Icebergs, you should develop an “epiphany of yearning.” For this principle, she draws on Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, in which “he compares the ‘shining forth’ of understanding or insight that happens at the end of a story (the classic Joycean epiphany) to a similar event at the beginning of a story – the revelation of characters’ deepest longings, usually for a place in the world where they belong.”
In Johns’ creative writing classes at DePaul University, she reminds her students of The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy’s inner yearnings are revealed in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The song is an example of a heroine’s “deepest struggle, usually the question of what kind of future she imagines for herself and where that imagining might take her,” says Johns. That said, while Dorothy opens the movie yearning to go “over the rainbow,” she ultimately realizes “there’s no place like home” and desperately wishes to return to Kansas. This internal change is very common in fiction, Johns explains, when a character finds herself shifting “often to a place that is very different than the one she’s in at the beginning.”
But how do you make this yearning come alive and give it the emphasis it deserves? Johns recommends going for in-depth, concrete character development: “It takes a deepening of perspective and an attention to sense detail to really bring it to life and let the reader feel the character’s longing. It also doesn’t have to point toward the future; it can also look backward toward a lost past.”
Handling the story structure is essential, she says. It’s important to establish the yearning early on, posing a question, and to keep in mind that “the story is never over until the question of that yearning has been answered in some way.”
Then you’ve nailed it: “The moment the character answers that question is the moment the character quietly exits, and the story comes to a conclusion. In a real way, the yearning creates the story,” says Johns.
2. Choose the right point of view!
According to Lori Rader-Day, author of Under a Dark Sky, selecting the right point-of-view character is crucial to good storytelling.
“Point of view forms the basis of a story,” she says.
For instance, will this character know important story details, and how will she know them? “How (in mystery writing, perhaps, more than in other genres) will your character learn and reveal information the reader needs to know?” she asks.
Also, will the reader want to view the various events in the story through this particular character’s lens? According to Rader-Day, if you’ve chosen a character your reader wants to inhabit, your story has a good chance of grabbing readers: “The character is not just the camera pointed at a story but the persona through which the reader will live the story,” she says. If you choose the right POV character, “the pay-off is huge for the reader’s lived experience of the story.”
But how can you be sure you’ve chosen the right point of view character? “There is no one right way,” says Rader-Day, but you can improve your chances if you do some experimenting. “Try a character’s point of view, try again, introduce another character’s perspective, be willing to go out on a limb and then have it break off. If the way is blocked, dig deep and diagnose why. Do you need more voices? Fewer?”
“You may have to kill off some darlings” in the end, says Rader-Day. But it’s worth it if you can identify the best lens, that just-right perspective on the world of your story or novel.
3. Take an acting class!
Having acted extensively in local theater productions, Grant Tracey, editor of North American Review and a fiction writer, highly recommends it. Tracey is presently in a non-traditional actors’ workshop that meets weekly. “I learn to place myself in the shoes of others, to bring out aspects of myself that may be repressed and to invest in each scene, to be as real and authentic as possible. In a word, I’ve enhanced my empathy for others. This is invaluable for a writer.”
If you want to write solid fiction, says Tracey, get deeply into the heads of your characters, locating yourself where they are: “Give your characters agency, and your stories will never be predictable.” For more on this principle of agency, he recommends Ron Carlson Writes a Story, in which “the author suggests letting each character speak from where they’re coming from, outside of the narrative’s controlling voice. Carlson believes that when you let each character breathe, trusting in who they are, they will surprise you and take your story in new directions.”
Whether or not you take an acting class, do strongly consider taking an “actorly” approach to writing, recommends Tracey. “Scenes are often about conflict, about people trying to get what they want,” he states. “Follow these impulses, desires; see what’s emerging here, and let your characters speak freely. They will give you what you need if you give yourself over to them.”
According to Tracey, when you get into your characters, you capture “the open destiny of each moment,” with conflict certain to occur: “When you let characters speak freely, outside of pre-plotted destinies, they will fill your scenes with a series of deflections, bumping up and pushing against one another. Their objectives will give them something to fight for.” Not that all scenes are “fight scenes,” says Tracey. They are broader than that, revealing conflicts of many kinds, reflecting some of the deepest needs ordinary people have. “Often a character wants to be understood, loved. What are they willing to do to reach the other person? What tactics will they try?” Compelling scenes reveal people as “vulnerable, wounded.” In the best scenes, states Tracey, you can “play the shifting moods of people connecting and disconnecting.” Scenes make fiction come alive. For Tracey, thinking like an actor allows one to get deeply involved in living, breathing human beings. Positioning yourself outside of characters from an authorial stance can yield lifeless fiction.
4. Draft first, revise later!
“You must figure out what you are trying to say before you can improve upon the delivery, and that’s what the first draft is for,” says Laura McHugh, author of Arrowood and The Weight of Blood. She acknowledges that you may feel the need to revise as you write, but personally she’s found that revision works best if she has a full draft before her. “When I first started writing novels, I spent too much time crafting beautiful sentences and scenes that I would later cut in revision. I would get mired in a frustrating loop, rewriting the opening chapters again and again in an attempt to perfect them rather than moving forward with the story.” Based on false starts like this, McHugh says, “The story skeleton is the important part; the language and details can be fleshed out later. The payoff is less wasted time, and hopefully a quicker draft.”
Any writer can follow this advice, states McHugh. It’s just “a matter of discipline, of forcing yourself to keep moving forward until a scene or chapter or draft is complete.” To do this, she recommends three effective strategies:
- “Some writers use tricks, like tilting the computer screen so they are not tempted to read and re-evaluate while they are writing.”
- “Set reasonable word-count or page goals and stick to them. If you think of something you need to go back and change, make a note and address it at the end of the session, so as not to disrupt the writing flow.”
- “Skip over small issues that threaten to stall your work; often, such trouble spots are more easily resolved when you return to them in the next draft.”
5. Respect plot!
Well, that is, if you’d like to make decent money on your fiction, says Mark Wisniewski, author of Watch Me Go, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. “If you want to survive financially as a creative writer (as opposed to needing to be a teacher of creative writing), I’d say the one best thing to do would be to improve your ability to – before you begin drafting a single sentence – outline the plot of your novel.”
Follow this two-step process, he says:
Study plots that sell.
Devise your plot similarly.
“First, read numerous novels that have sold well (check sales ranks on Amazon to know which have) and outline the skeletons of their plots as you read. Ignore the pretty writing; ignore the voice; simply read along briskly while hunting and jotting down plot twists,” he says.
“Second, create an outline for your own novel using roughly the same ‘storytelling moves’ – and please do note immediately here that, by this, I do not in the least mean plagiarizing,” he cautions. “I mean learning in general what book-buying readers of a given genre expect twist-and-turn-wise, including how many twists and turns book-buying readers expect.”
It’s good advice from a pro on how to grab an agent, an editor, and a readership for your first commercial novel – and, with any luck, more to follow. But what about workshops where “fiction with complex plots” isn’t encouraged?
In that case, Wisniewski, who attended the UMass-Amherst MFA program, graduated from the UC-Davis master’s program in creative writing-fiction, and has since published plenty of literary fiction, advises that “if you’re in an MFA program or a writing workshop of any sort, your workshop instructor (who might be a poet or a writer of memoirs or of short stories or of literary novels that fail to outsell their advances) might not be a novel-buying reader – and therefore your workshop instructor might not know (or care!) a whole lot about plot.”
It’s the difference between marketability of the literary novel, which might go light on plot and heavy on character, and the mainstream, or even upmarket, novel that ultimately must appeal to readers looking for a heavy dose of “good old-fashioned storytelling.”
What’s the lesson? Choose your market well. Know the game. Commercial publishers must sell books to stay in business. A necessary condition – if not a sufficient one – for marketability at a commercial press is a strong, well-crafted plot. Ask yourself: Will your literary novel sell a reasonable amount of copies in the mainstream market? If not, perhaps you’d do well to consider one of the many small presses.