10 Tips on Writing Fiction

Disclaimer: I am completely unqualified to write this. Under my own name, I’ve written one flash fiction and one novel (that isn’t even out yet). That being said, here are my own ten rules for writing (plus one bonus rule).

  1. Your first draft is never good. “But, what if—?” No, it’s not. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to edit.
  2. For every writing “rule” that’s been concocted, there is a successful author who violated it. This does not mean that author is you, and you would do well to heed those rules anyway.
  3. The value of words is extrinsic. Unless they tell an interesting story or make a good point, no one will care.
  4. Write the genres and subjects you enjoy reading, because a lot of the time you will be the only audience to your work. Also, if you don’t enjoy what you’re writing, odds are that will show through—there’s nothing worse than an author who doesn’t like their own story.
  5. Throw out all misconceptions about believability. The most believable tale in the world is your main character living a perfectly normal life, where nothing ever happens. Throw in something completely unlikely, make your story one worth telling.
  6. The maxim show don’t tell will be thrown around, more often than any other phrase. The meaning varies from person to person, but what it really means is “I noticed your narration”. Narration should be like an invisible friend, guiding your reader through the story but never intruding upon the story itself.
  7. Don’t start editing before you finish. In my experience, this is the easiest way to kill creativity.
  8. Take as long as you need to say what you need to say, and finish. Every single reader in the world can recognize fluff, and most of them don’t like it.
  9. Overarching details like themes are best left for later. They will find their way into the story if you try to write a true tale, but if you attempt to write one with a theme in mind it becomes about ten times more difficult. Unless you’re Ayn Rand and the theme is the main purpose of your story.
  10. Everything—and I mean everything—must have a reason to exist. Your book should tell a discernible story, your chapters should move that story along, and even your sentences should aid the scene.

Bonus: Likeability is important. If you have only one viewpoint character, he/she ought to be someone the audience can get behind. If you have multiple, choose at least one with defensible motives. The flipside of this is, do not make him/her a paragon. All characters in real life have flaws, so yours should too.

 

Agree? Disagree? Think I’m an idiot who has it all wrong? Let me know in the comments below!

30 thoughts on “10 Tips on Writing Fiction

  1. I agree with all of it. And #10 is why I’m having such a hard time editing at the moment. My novel is 161,000 words long – that’s a lot of sentences to fix. 😛

      1. It would have been nice to get it down to 140K, which is the highest I’ve seen a traditional publisher would accept. But with this sentence by sentence edit it’s going up and down, but for the most part it’s staying put at 161K. I’ll keep at it though. I did think for a while about splitting it up. There are two natural breaks in it, but they would equate to two mediocre climaxes at best. I don’t know if I’d get anyone to read it to the end that way. Still, it’s a tough call.

      2. Yeah, I know what you mean. I’ve had the reverse problem (wanting to add more to meet a word count), and it’s pretty difficult. For me, there was just this point where I couldn’t add any more.

    1. I think I see what you’re saying. #1 isn’t written very well (it should probably say something like your first draft won’t be perfect), and #7 can vary widely from author to author. I’ve met a few–and read of a few–who were like me, but that doesn’t mean everyone is.

  2. 1. While a first draft can be “good” it’s important to go back later and edit. But the important part is to edit smartly and critically. Sometimes one can over-edit or revise poorly.

    2. I’m mixed on this. Obviously great writers first learned the rules so that they could break them, but the way you’ve framed this point makes it almost seem like one shouldn’t strive for innovation. I’m guessing that’s not what you intended.

    3. I agree.

    4. I agree, though this point is a bit obvious.

    5. While most stories should be grounded in some reality or logic I agree with this.

    6. Good point.

    7. I partially agree if only because the same applies to me. But imagine others might be alright with self-editing as they go. This might not apply to everyone.

    8. I agree.

    9. I disagree. This might be really good advice for some writers.Though some of my writings were written without consideration for what the theme could be, a number of my poems have been the result of my reaching for a particular theme and examining it (and these poems weren’t more or less difficult to write than my other works though the method was different.)

    10. I agree, sort of. On the surface this seems like an obvious point. “Everything must have its purpose” of course, but then you follow it with “Your book should tell a discernible story, your chapters should move that story along”. This would be good advice for hipsters are wannabee political pundits who insist on dick-waving rather than telling a story, but for everyone else this advice could also make the writing bland. This point in particular comes across as a symptom of those obsessed with A-B-C story crafting, insisting that the plot is of greatest import when in reality it’s the characters that are the most interesting element. If I were to follow this point to a tee then I probably would be reluctant to write a chapter dedicated to examining a character without necessarily pushing the plot forward even though characters ARE the story.

    As for likeability, I guess this is true, but again, to an extent. The most important thing, rather, is whether the character is interesting, not so much likeability.

    I don’t think you’re in the wrong, and some of your points are good and could help some, but the problem with these kind of lists are that there’s simply too many exceptions that could also lead to good writing. This is why I never give writing advice other than for a writer to cultivate his own voice. This almost seems to contradict your second tip, if I am to read that tip at face-value. Any writer with talent has the potential to be great and find ways to break certain rules to their writing’s (and reader’s) benefit.

    1. Wow, a lot to respond to here. First off, thank you for your thoughts.

      1. You have a very good point. As I said in one of the other comments, the use of good was a misstep on my part. I also agree that over-editing is very possible (everything in moderation).

      2. Quite right. The intent was to point out that disobeying the rules for the sake of disobeying the rules is not necessarily advisable.

      7. Yup, doesn’t apply to everyone.

      9. I don’t include poetry under “fiction”. This post was intended to specifically refer to prose fiction—you have a good point, if I’d been talking about poetry. Most poetry starts off with a theme, it seems like (my experience writing poetry isn’t extensive).

      10. I debated even approving your post because of the offensive nature of your point here, but I’ll respond. If I can set aside my ire—yes, you have a point, if it tends toward reductio ad absurdum. The point I was trying to make was not that plot is the only important element of a story, or even that it’s the most important part. I quite agree that characters are essential to a good story, however I maintain (as you seem to agree with) that characterization without plot movement is hollow.

      Overall, you have a great point—and that’s the reason why I’m responding—all these rules must be applied logically. To do otherwise, especially for the sake of drumming up an argument, makes little sense to me.

      “Any writer has the potential to be great.” Very true.

      1. I don’t see how my response to no. 10 was all that offensive. I was just pointing out that insisting on every since chapter and word carry-on the plot tend to be overly-dismissive when it comes to writing that heavily-focuses on characters instead. I make this point because characters are always more interesting than the plot. A plot without characters is very dull, but a book with great characters but very little plot can still be very good. But people who insist on A-B-C storytelling miss this point and the result is the production of shallow, boring works with very little, or original, characterization.

        But you’re right overall in that one must apply your tips, if they choose to follow them, with reason and logic. However, you misquoted me: I said “Any writer WITH TALENT has the potential to be great,” not all writers have talent; they may stumble upon greatness, but they either wouldn’t know it or recognize it but won’t be able to replicate it.

      2. Oh, well in that case I suppose we disagree. I believe writing is a skill that can be learned, or taught. At any rate, thanks again for your thoughts, and the interesting discussion.

  3. Also, with no. 9, there are some writers that would benefit from this tip as trying too hard to get a message across while sacrificing the story could also lead to some very boring writing.

  4. 2. Rules that only the occasional successful author has broken are ones that most writers, especially those who haven’t been published, should follow. But sometimes I see lists of “rules” that include ones that MOST authors seem to “break”, and I can’t say I’ve put too much effort into following those.

    7. I don’t think I agree with that one. If I’d completely finished my first draft before I ever went back and edited, I would have had to do even more rewriting for little or no gain. And editing before I had an ending written certainly didn’t stop me from finishing the draft.

    9. This makes a lot of sense to me. My story definitely has themes that I didn’t have in mind when I started writing it.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts 🙂 You’re quite right, on all points, and I think the fact that you’re considering these rules for yourself is great (one of the worries I always have about lists is people will just apply the advice without thinking critically).

      Seven is really the hardest sell, it seems. It’s about fifty-fifty: some authors can’t edit before they finish, others have no problem with it. I ended up including it in the list, because I really tried to write it from my own perspective, what works for me.

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