Author Business, Fiction, Writing Process

Eight rules for writing fiction that you should definitely break!

Yes, yes…you’re right. There are definitely more than eight rules when it comes to writing fiction; especially in the realm of the fantasy genres (and sub-genres). But I found this article in The New Yorker (from 2013) and it strikes me that the eight rules they picked for their article are eight that I definitely break often…without breaking my stories!

In the wild west of indie publishing it might be tempting for new authors to launch into their projects thinking one of two things:

A. That you have to follow ALL the rules known to fiction authors.
OR
B. That you have to follow NONE of the rules known to fiction authors.

Neither approach has my recommendation. If you follow each and every rule you have ever heard about fiction writing, you are most likely going to end up with a stale piece of prose that will be so rigid and structured (and flat) that nobody will want to read it…unless they are a special kind of individual who likes to torment themselves!

On the other hand, if you follow none of the rules you have ever heard about fiction writing, you are most likely going to end up with a wild, unstructured beast of a story that will fail to provide any useful reference points to your readers. Your fiction will evade all tropes and genre conventions and be of use to nobody. Some rules are good! But I don’t think those are the eight rules hailed by The New Yorker…

Here are my recommendations about the eight rules mentioned in their article…which is published in the humour and cartoons section of their website (although this is not necessarily clear if you come in via google results as it’s categorised as ‘daily shouts’ rather than ‘satire’):

Show, don’t tell.

The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013

Yes we heard it many times. Show don’t tell is where it’s at. Don’t write your story like a manual for household appliances (seriously, please don’t do that)! But you can’t show everything without messing up your pacing, narrative voice, style, and general appeal. So here’s my version of this rule for the modern fiction writer of 2021: show when you can and tell when you can’t. Choose wisely.

Create three-dimensional characters.

The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013

This one tickled me the most! The article literally advises fiction writers to avoid cliché character descriptions by telling your reader how long, wide, and girthy some hard-charging banker character is…as he drives around in his flashy sports car… oh my! You want to avoid cliché character descriptions? Write down the clichés you know of and then find innovative ways of describing the character traits to move you away from the overused descriptions.

I am not saying YOUR version of the hard-charging banker has to be a slim, unicorn riding, sugarplum fairy with delicate wings…but how about not describing the character as ‘hard-charging’ to start with? And what if your banker character was secretly uncomfortable with driving a sports car but too afraid to show it? Wouldn’t that be a lot more interesting than learning about his measurements in 3 dimensions?

Choose a point of view.

The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013

Sounds like good advice – doesn’t it? After all you don’t want to end up head hopping and confusing your readers…? Sure, but there is a problem with this rule which is why I often break it. The point of view from which your story needs to be told is not arbitrary. Depending on what information you need to convey to your readers/ characters to conclude your story, every writer who has ever written themselves into a corner without escape (I have done this many times), will have experienced what happens when you choose the wrong point of view.

First person narrators are a popular choice in YA Fantasy and SciFi fiction but this only really works well if your protagonist has the freedom or opportunity to access every place, character, and knowledge that is essential for moving your plot past all of the crucial landmarks in your story.

Otherwise you might end up having to invent ‘magical’ phenomena, additional characters, work miracles (not very satisfying for your readers), or constantly rework your plot to get out of those pesky corners. You’re not really choosing a point of view…you are matchmaking your point of view with the story you want to tell. Work out what your story needs and learn to use the relevant point of view to your advantage…instead of to your detriment.

Give your characters motivations.

The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013

Now this is among the most problematic pieces of advice in the fiction world. You are led to believe that if you can work out what your characters(s) want(s) you can come up with a great, engaging plot for your story that will have the readers turn the pages to the very end. But have you read any of those stories that are primarily driven by characters’ wants? I have! And they bored me to tears.

One wants cupcakes. Another wants to be with somebody else’s spouse. The next wants power. It’s just what they want. But there is no reason why! I firmly believe that it’s not enough for a character to want something. Whatever it is the character strives for, he/ she/ they must need it.

Think about Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Do you think he just wants the ring? Does he just want to own it? Does he just want its power? If you need to remind yourself, go ahead, I think you’ll find that what Frodo feels in relation to the ring runs much deeper than want. Frodo needs it. The ring calls to him. He is drawn in and becomes increasingly obsessed (or possessed – you choose) by it. Giving it up is painful. Unthinkable.

Figure out what your characters need! And don’t forget that your antagonist must need something that conflicts with what your protagonist needs – otherwise they’re on the same side.

Write what you know. 

The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013

Oh dear. Another overrated piece of fiction writing advice. Please don’t write what you know. It gets boring pretty quickly. I spent years trying to write a novel about what I know and it has resulted in some of the worst stories I have ever written! Everything you know is already so close to you that you will have difficulty writing about it in a fresh and interesting way. Instead, write what you love to read! In my case that’s YA Fantasy (mainly high fantasy).

Find what rocks your socks as a reader…and then write a story within that genre. Write a story you would love to read that is full of the type of characters, plots twists, and conventions that make you love your favourite genre. Chances are it will be well received by readers who like what you like. Be your own ideal reader. It works! Everything else can be researched.

No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader. 

The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013

Problems getting emotional when you are writing? Me too. Does this mean that our readers can’t be moved by our writing? I hardly think so. Comments on my work suggest otherwise. I think this point was thrown into the original article to allow for some comic relief but I really don’t believe this to be valid at all – humorous intention or not.

No need to go slice onions…just have your writing read back to you to check the reader experience. A lot of the emotional response from readers comes from an element of surprise, coupled with effective foreshadowing. As a writer, make sure your works sounds right and that you have the correct setup for the emotion you wish to incite in your readers. The rest is just gimmicks!

Revize, revize, revize.

The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013

I know this might seem like I am being contentious on purpose. But hear me out. Revising your work is a good thing! Every writer’s output needs an edit (or two, or three). What your work definitely doesn’t need, though, is a perfectionist maniac author who is so worked up over the possibility of releasing anything into the world that might feature the tiniest flaw that they never release anything at all.

All stories have flaws. A determined critic can poke holes into just about anything (just look at me picking apart The New Yorker article over here). Here’s the rule you need: write, edit, revise, proofread, then publish. Get your story into the hands of readers (at least beta ones), collect feedback and make your next story better. Write, write, write and ship!

Trust yourself.

The New Yorker, Eight Rules for Writing Fiction, by Teddy Wayne, 6 June 2013

Yes and no. If you are writing what you love to read and your story is shaping up to be the kind of book YOU would buy, chances are good that you are on the right track! But please don’t forget that the question is: does this work of fiction read like the books I love to read? Rather than: do I think the story ideas are similar to other books I have read in this genre? Trust yourself as a reader but beware of your writer-self.

You have to be honest with yourself. Is the quality of our writing comparable to the books you love to read? If the answer is no (or if you’re unsure) listen to your beta readers…by which I mean other people who love to read what you love to read. Be unemotional (I know this is hard) but don’t assume people will love your story just because it’s the right type of story. It also has to look, feel, and read like other stories in the genre and that takes a whole lot of skill. Keep learning.

See ya next time 😉

If you have enjoyed this post and are curious what a story that breaks all these fiction writing rules might look like, have a look at my one-shot YA Fantasy story ‘Shadow Play’ (for free). As always, comments, feedback and further thoughts on this post are welcome. Please share in the comments.

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Fiction, Flash Fiction

Does flash fiction improve your novel writing?

This might seem like a silly question. But hang on, don’t click away just yet. Even though it might be difficult to see a direct relationship between short-form and long-form fiction, the key skills required to be successful in both worlds may be more similar than you thought.

No matter how long or short a story is, at the end of the day, it needs to be well thought out and have an appropriate amount if content. Of course a piece of flash fiction (or micro fiction) will require much less content than a novel. What matters is your ability to come up with the correct amount of content (by which I mean story events or plot) on a reliable basis. That’s the first important skill you need to have to succeed as fiction writer irrespective of word count.

The second skill you need is the ability to create a story arc to guide your reader through the narrative. No matter how long or short your story is, it will need to have a beginning, a middle, and an end…and depending on the type of story you write, it might require a twist (I definitely like a good twist). Flash fiction is an excellent practice ground for learning how to create clear and interesting story arcs. This skill is easily transferable to long-form fiction.

The third key skill you can hone as a flash fiction writer and later use to further your novel writing career is learning how to create a narrative voice. Given the extreme brevity of flash fiction, there is often little scope to introduce, nor describe, your character(s). Learning how to write in a character’s voice helps work around those limitations. Your reader can gain a lot from how a character expresses him/her/them -selves and as much as this helps save words in the realm of flash fiction, once you cross over into the realm of long-form fiction, you are likely to find this useful in avoiding overly descriptive (i.e. boring) narrative sections and info dumps that nobody wants to read.

So, there you have it. Three good reasons to start writing flash fiction immediately. I, for one, have committed to writing one piece of flash fiction per week to hone my own skills whilst I am continuing to work on my debut novel which I am hoping to self-publish at the end of 2021. I will publish my flash fiction on this blog once a week so if you’re interested in following my progress as I attempt to upskill and try some new things, keep an eye out for Friday posts.

See ya next time 😉

If you found this post helpful, are poised to try out some flash fiction, have no idea what I’m talking about, or absolutely can’t see the point of flash fiction, share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Story, Structure, Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

Can you ‘doodle’ your story in 4 simple steps?

We have already discussed the pros and cons of having an outline (or map) to help with closing plot holes, ensuring you have the right number of characters for your story, and that there are enough scenes to tell a satisfying story.

What we haven’t talked about is how to start the outline. I know how intimidating a blank page can be when your story is nothing but a vague series of snippets in your head.

To help overcome this initial anxiety, some people like morning pages. Others keep a notebook and write down bit over time until there is enough material to pull it all together. Unfortunately, neither of these methods has ever been of much help to me.

If you have had similar experiences, you might want to try the doodle method. And it goes like this:

1. Start with a blank sheet of paper (I did mine with the doodle feature in Evernote but you don’t have to be fancy). Take any pen and write ‘story doodle’ at the top of the paper.

2. That’s a good way to cheapen it up a little and reduce anxiety of ruining the page. Expect it to look terrible. Don’t pressure yourself to make this pretty! That’s very important.

3. The put the working title (if you have one) of your novel onto the centre of your paper and draw a bubble around it. Then identify the main themes of your story and write them spaced out around the centre bubble. Draw bubbles around each of these too and connect them to the centre bubble. I like to include a bubble for ‘characters’ but this can be done separately if you prefer.

4. Now start filling in information around each bubble and connect your notes with relevant bubbles (connect notes to several bubbles if applicable.

When you finish you should have something like this:

Story Doodle for the fantasy novel ‘Fearful Magic’ by Josie Cole (@WimpyWriter)

Tadaa! Your first draft outline is complete. This one took about 20 minutes, so perfect if you don’t have much time for your writing. I use my story doodle as a point of reference to help with populating my story grid and character profiles…and when I’m stuck.

See you next time 😉

If you try a story doodle or have a similar (or maybe even better) method to get a story outline started, please share your experience in the comments section below this post. I would love to hear from you.

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Worthless Waffle, Writing Process

How do you get around info-dumping?

One of the more mysterious questions to come across as a writer: why is info-dumping so hard to avoid? Despite my best efforts, I still way too often come across it in my drafts during editing…even though I set out to write with the firm intention not to info-dump…every time!

Oh and by the way, it doesn’t seem to matter how well (or badly) my story is researched. The urge to overpopulate my writing with meaningless detail that no reader will appreciate simply seems ingrained in me.

Whilst I can easily spot info-dumping as a reader (or with my editor hat on), it seems that my unruly writer-self is simply oblivious to it whilst writing is in progress. So annoying!

So, on this occasion I don’t have any advice for you readers out there but I sure hope that somebody more experienced than me might read this and have some useful advice for me on my long and tiring journey.

See ya next time 😉

If you have any good ideas or even success stories to share around how to get rid of (or at least reign in) the pesky habit of info-dumping in novels, short stories, or any other works of fiction, please let me know in the comments below.

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Writing Process

How do you get from an idea to a novel?

The writer’s brain is a curious place. Clutter everywhere! Bits and pieces of information float through the ‘air’, echoey voices of half-baked, faceless characters repeat hollow words in the darkness. Or maybe that’s just me…?

If you’re a writer who is living in less of a Sherlock Holmesian mind palace, I salute you! This is the type of post where I can really only describe how it works for me and you can totally ignore this and merrily walk through the well-groomed park of your own imagination. Enjoy!

My writing process doesn’t start with a scene, nor with a character. It often starts with a vivid, slow-moving mental image:

Snowflakes slowly drift by a window. A black bird (pierced by an arrow) falls from the sky. Here. That’s how my current #story began – as a passing thought. #amwriting

@wimpywriter

To go from this to a novel-length story is a BIG ask. This is where the plotting kicks in. I examine the image in my mind for weeks (and months) and start to spin out the story, characters, scenes, etc. from there by asking questions such as:

  • Why is the bird significant?
  • Who is watching the bird?
  • Why is the season (winter) significant?
  • Does it have to be snowing?

I start answering these questions in my (very rough) story notes and move through my writing process from there.

See ya next time 😉

If you’re intrigued by my method, have something similar (or even better) to share, or think this is just overkill, leave a reply in the comments below.

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Plot, Structure, Writing Process

Write scenes – not chapters!

Before you bite my head off for the contentious title of this post – let me explain. There is actually a really important distinction between a scene and a chapter which I only recently understood and it changed my outlook on writing.

A scene is a sequence of story actions taken by characters within your story. A chapter is a collection of scenes. How many scenes go into a chapter is mostly an arbitrary decision by the writer/ editor/ publisher.

If you bear this in mind, it becomes easy to see why writing in chapters might cause problems for a writer. How can you divvy up scenes into chapters when you haven’t written those scenes first and don’t know how many words are in each of them? Chapters are there for the reader. But for a writer, scenes are your friends.

Following this logic, I am committed to writing all of my stories in scenes and it’s working wonders for coming up with the right sequence of events as it becomes easy to see where there might be gaps in the plot.

See ya next time 😉

If you are also a fan of writing in scenes rather than chapters or if writing in chapters works better for you, leave a reply in the comments below.

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Writing Process

How do you start a novel (in notes)?

So, here we get into debate territory. Popular opinion rules that there are many ways to start a novel. And that’s absolutely true. The following are only a few examples of the different options available:

1. You could start at the beginning, end, or middle of your story (if you already have a rough idea) note down key events and work out what setting, characters, etc. you need later.

2. You could start with a character profile (not even necessarily the protagonist) and then work the story/ setting out from there.

3. You could decide just to write random scenes and discover the story, setting, characters, etc. as you write.

I have tried all of these approaches (and a few others) and none of them have worked for me. The only method that has so far proven successful is a brainstorm of notes where I don’t need to worry about any of the above options.

Try it: start a document and note down whatever comes into your head – be it character traits, descriptions, a part of a scene, a short speech, notes about the world/ setting, or anything else you can possibly imagine. You might be surprised how much of the word-vomit will later jog your brain about pretty much any aspect of your novel. Even a picture can work!

See ya next time. 😉

If you have tested any of these (or the many other) methods to write a novel, share your experience in the comments. We are all learning!

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Structure

Can you write a story without a map?

Definitely! There is nothing more satisfying than writing out into the blue with inspiration dictating the way as you go. Unfortunately this doesn’t work for me. It just seems to lead me to more unfinished drafts as I eventually end up writing myself into a corner with no plausible way out.

So back to plotting it is. For this, my first ever full-length novel, I am using the story grid (a tool that was originally developed for editing books) by Shawn Coyne as an outlining device. Look out or new posts to find out how I adapt this for my own purposes – one step at a time.

See ya next time! 😉

If you you can appreciate the joys (and horrors) of being a plotter (…or a pantser), consider leaving a comment blow.

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Writing Process

Do you need a writing process?

As a child, I knew how to build things. With a little help from my friends, I built castles out of sand, Lego and wooden blocks. I baked mud cakes in all shapes and sizes. I drove and repaired miniature race cars and didn’t let anybody tell me that I was doing things wrong. My imagination was the limit and my imagination was boundless.

I don’t remember when I lost that ability to decide on an approach and follow through (regardless of criticism) but I know it was recent. All of a sudden, the opinion of others seems to matter and the buffet of possibility exudes a rotten smell. I have spent the better part of 5 years trying to write a complete novel. Without success. All because I struggle to make decisions about what to write and how to write it. I have started (and stopped) more projects than I care to remember.

Today, I finally see a way forward: a process! With the right, repeatable process, I am sure I can write a complete novel. So, regardless of criticism, I am officially deciding this process will see me through to the end of my writing adventure and help me make decisions. No backsies!

See ya next time! 😉

If you struggle with decision making as much as I do, or have developed your own writing process, consider leaving a comment below.

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