Please take the following as suggestions for consideration. This is not a Biblical gospel inspired by God. Having worked as a journalist, English teacher and advertising copywriter, these are simply a couple of important lessons I’ve learned along the way that may help you when writing fiction.
1. Be clear
Clarity is your first goal as a writer. If people don’t understand what you are talking about, you have failed in your mission. When you can take a complex subject and make it easy to understand, you have arrived.
For example, there is nothing more maddening than people who write poetry that requires an explanation. This happens a lot in creative writing classes. Someone reads a poem they’ve written and the class spends the next twenty minutes trying to figure out what the writer is talking about. Usually these types of poems are strictly personal in nature, and therefore will make no sense to anyone else in the room but the writer.
When I was teaching high school English I told my students: keep that kind of writing to yourself. Don’t share it. We don’t want to read it. It’s meaningless to us. Keep it in your private journal. When it comes to writing poetry, be universal. Express things that have a deep personal meaning to you, but do it using clear-as-glass language that anyone on the planet can understand, feel and appreciate.
Clarity is everything. If the reader doesn’t ‘get it,’ you’re wasting the reader’s time.
2. Show, don’t tell
Journalists tell. They report what happened. Telling imparts information, which is fine if you are reading a newspaper or a blog like this one.
John Hersey wrote: “Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers the opportunity to live it.”
Creative writers do this by showing rather than telling. A fiction writer does not give you facts, like all good art, they evoke feelings. The good writer does this by providing the stimuli that allows the reader to have the experience.
For example, an inexperienced writer will say, “Jack loves Jill.” You’re telling me these two people are love. I feel nothing. Show us Jack in love with Jill. Show him trembling at the very sight of her. Show him nervously drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as he debates giving her their first goodnight kiss. Show us the beads of sweat that break out on Jack’s forehead as he holds her hand for the first time. These types of details allow the reader to share what Jack is experiencing. We don’t need to be told. We see it happening right before our eyes.
A professor once told me, “A statement about experience is the enemy of investigation.” By this he meant, telling us information gives us the answer and takes away our questions. By telling us Jack loves Jill, we’re no longer curious about these two people. Telling us about their relationship destroys our need to know and lessens the reader’s need to flip the page. Conversely, by showing us what is happening between these two people, the reader is allowed to make up their own mind about the state of their relationship, which keeps the reader engaged in the story.
This might sound easy to do, but it’s not. It takes discipline, attention to detail and the desire to give the reader more than just a whooping good tale.
3. Use narrative sparingly
This is an addendum to #2 above. Though we strive to let our readers live our story, you can’t do this on every page. To move the plot forward every writer uses some exposition or narrative.
When I write a story, I think in terms of ‘scenes.’ The scenes in the story are when the camera is zoomed in close. We see things happening; people speak, action occurs, the story unfolds right before our eyes. This is the good stuff, when you have your reader completely engaged because they’re living in your story.
To get from scene to scene you need narration. Narration is what links your scenes together.
For instance, you write a scene where Jack invites Jill to the prom. She agrees and he goes speeding across town to tell his friend Peter Piper. To keep the story moving, we really don’t need to see Jack getting in the car, turning on the radio or combing his hair in the rear view mirror. This is extraneous detail that just bogs down the plot. It’s best to use a sentence or two of narration to get Jack to Peter’s house so we can get to the next scene, where Peter informs Jack that he saw Jill necking with Little Boy Blue out in the school parking lot. You get the idea.
Some authors, successful authors, write long swathes of narration and we may stick with the story because we’re enjoying the writer’s style. Joseph Heller, John Irving and John Updike can get away with this because they’re masters at their craft and we continue to read because like a fine meal we’re enjoying every mouthful of what they have to say and how they are saying it.
Unless you’re a best-selling author or have a Pulitzer Prize under your belt, I’d be wary of writing twenty pages of narration between your scenes telling us Jack’s family history all the way back to the Bronze Age. If the reader doesn’t see anything happening, if they aren’t experiencing anything, they are likely to get bored and close your book.
Use narration, but use it sparingly to move your reader from scene to scene.
4. String your pearls evenly
For a writer, coming up with a good simile or metaphor is as satisfying as an orgasm.
Metaphor is the broad term for comparing one thing to another. A simile is a form of metaphor that describes one thing ‘like’ another.
Here are some examples from the masters:
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. William Shakespeare
A hospital bed is like a parked taxi with the meter running. Groucho Marx
Holmes looked at him thoughtfully like a master chess-player who meditates his crowning move. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
As you are writing, or after you are done your rough draft and going through the process of re-writing, sprinkle in a metaphor here and there. Don’t pile them up in one sentence after another. If you do it’s like forcing your reader to eat an entire cake when a single slice is more than enough to satisfy.
One professor told me to think of metaphors like pearls. You don’t want them all bunched up together, you want them spaced evenly throughout your story like pearls on a necklace.
Here are some metaphors I sprinkled around in a battle scene in The Wandering King:
The Argives scattered before our attack like a flock of frightened sparrows.
After I cast my javelin our hoplites rolled by me like an unstoppable tidal wave.
As he charged forward, in his eyes I saw the eager expression of a young fool impulsively rushing in to a dance, a dance whose steps he did not know.
The danger in writing metaphors is resorting to tired old clichés. You’ve seen them before.
Cute as a button.
Innocent as a babe in the woods.
Giddy as a kid in a candy store.
There are all the animal clichés; smart as a fox, dumb as an ox, slippery as an eel…
Clichés offer nothing new and are the product of a lazy mind. Writing a good metaphor is being able to relate two things in a new way, which takes work. Some authors have been known to spend hours on one metaphor. When you do come up with one you like, it’s as magical as the excitement in your child’s eyes the first time they see Disneyland.
5. Write every day
Professor Richard Wertime at Arcadia University told us, “You have to write a mountain of shit before you get to the good stuff.”
He’s right. Writers are not born, they are made. You don’t step up to the starting line of your first marathon and win the race without months of practice. Like a lot of things in life, if you want to get good, you have to pay your dues. In writing that means banging out a lot pages that you will ultimately ball up and toss into the wastepaper basket.
I’ve always thought of snow skiing as similar to writing. In high school the first time I went skiing I spent half the day falling down the mountain. But by the end of the day I sensed some improvement. Each time I went, I got better. In skiing the gains were noticeable.
With writing it’s not so easy to see your work getting better. The learning curve is spread out over years instead of days. But like skiing, writing is a self-taught skill. Sure, you can take a skiing lesson or read a blog like this one on writing, but ultimately it’s just you and the mountain. You go it alone and if you do it enough, you teach yourself some lessons along the way.
Don’t expect to write a best seller the first time you sit down to write. Expect to spend years honing your skills. As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “We are all apprentices at a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
Daydreaming is an important part of the creative process. Years ago when putting together a writing manual for a major corporation, I included a brief section on daydreaming. The company questioned it, but to their credit, they left it in.
I’m not talking about daydreaming about your girlfriend or what you’re having for dinner. I’m talking about constructive musing about your fictional story. For me, it’s been an integral part of constructing each chapter of The Wandering King.
For example, I know I want to write a scene about the Pythian Games (there were four ancient pan-Hellenic games, the Olympics being one of them). Who are the players? What events are they competing in? Who wins, who loses? What do the characters say and do?
Whether I’m driving on the turnpike or lying in bed at night, I’m imagining what happens in the next scene that I’m writing. I’m not worried about metaphors or the exact wording; I’m working out the plot in my head. I’m answering the question: what happens? As I lay there daydreaming about the scene, something miraculous happens. Like I’m watching a movie in my head, characters speak, they dance, they recite poetry, they fight and fall in love. Later, all I have to do is record what I’ve witnessed.
A lot of writers, professional writers, sit down and write without knowing where their story is going that day. I can’t do that. I’ve found that I work best when I have an idea of what I want to accomplish that day when I sit down at the keyboard. I may not know the exact wording, but I know who is doing what to whom. I figure all of that out ahead of time, not by creating fancy outlines: but by daydreaming.
Hopefully you find some of these tips worthwhile. If you have some of your own, feel free to share.