Why-Wisdom for Fiction Writers

Notebook paper with pencil writing whyI was sitting in church the other day, listening to the sermon with my usual rapt attention, when I realized the minister was saying something about “why,” as in ultimate reasons. I suppose he was making a religious point of some kind, but my mind immediately leapt to fiction writing. Why, indeed, write fiction?

There are two bones to pick here, I think. The first is why you, dear reader, pursue the wordly way. The second is, why are you writing this particular piece of fiction?

Why Write?

To write, you’ve got to have the basic need to create. Not a longing or a hankering, but an itch you can never scratch enough. For a writer, this undeniable yen is fundamental; without it you’ll give out.

As for words, you may be instinctively drawn to the power of story and language like a yellow jacket to a picnic, just because of the way your DNA is wired. You may have a psychological need to write because of your life experience. Or maybe you just don’t have any place to paint, so you’re making do.

This first Why is the seed of your mission as a writer. Your raison d’écrire informs your choice of subject, your tone, the type of stories you choose – everything. If you know what it is, you can make those choices with more intelligence and better results. And when you get tired of the whole business, you can go back to Why #1 for a shot of ambition.

Why Write This?

The second Why, regarding why you are writing a particular piece, gets you to your theme. Theme is the thing you’re trying to demonstrate or prove in your novel. In a romantic comedy, that might be “love prevails, even for goofy people.” In something tragic, your theme might be “people can and will be noble, even when doomed.” If you really want to say something with a particular piece of fiction, that’s your theme, your second Why. Knowing the statement you want to make in your story is another thing that will keep you going when the batteries of enthusiasm run low.

Theme may not reveal itself to you right away. In my own case, I started writing Thin Spots because I thought the idea would be fun to develop into a novel. That’s no theme, though, and I may not figure out what it is until I’ve finished the first draft and re-read it. But that’s just the screwed-up method of a nascent novelist. You are far more clever than I, of course, and will figure out your theme, your Why for this particular piece, up front.

Why-dle Dum and Why-dle Dee

You may find that Why #1 and Why #2 influence each other. Writing a particular story may lead you to insights that change your overall reason for writing and, as I said earlier, your overall reason for writing is sure to influence the types of stories you choose.

Why Think About Why?

I suppose you could go your entire writing career without thinking about the Whys at all. Personally, though, I like living with as much awareness as I can, because that leads to better decisions. Knowing my Whys, as I’ve pointed out, also gives me additional resources to fall back on when my writing energies flag.

That’s all. I could write more, but I can’t think why.

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Observation for Fiction Writing – Lift Your Head!

Observation signI’m in the Phoenix airport, waiting on a flight (what else would I be doing there?) and it seems like the perfect time for a blog entry. It also seems like the perfect time for a nap, but I’m thinking of you, dear reader, so here we go.

Today I am reminded of the importance of observation. Airports are great places for watching people and planes are great places for chatting with total strangers, should you have a chatty seatmate.

I am a sort of shy, introverted person – which probably explains why I choose to spend so much of my free time alone in a room or coffee shop, pecking at a keyboard, so usually when I have a chatty seatmate on a flight I try to bring the flow of small talk to an end as quickly as politely possible.

But this day was different. My seatmate on the flight I just left was a little blonde woman with sloping shoulders from bad posture and a shortage of front teeth. Her expression mixed depression with confusion, so, ungenerous swine that I am, I leaped to categorize her as a nut.

She began to chat and I was all ready to go into shut-her-down mode when I thought, wait a minute. Maybe there’s a character to observe here, or something to learn. So I chatted back.

It turned out she was travelling to her mother’s home in Ohio because said mother had just passed away. She had pulled herself together on short notice and hopped on a plane. So there’s your depression. She hadn’t flown since 9/11, she said. So there’s your confusion. Then she talked about job troubles and moving west from Atlanta, her brother’s shortcomings in handling the situation with their mother, living in Rio de Janero as a teenager and working for a Denmark-based company, to name a few. How much I would have missed if I had blown her off!

It just goes to show you that it’s important to lift your head up from the keyboard on a regular basis and observe – heck, even engage with – the great big world. And I don’t mean just people – birds, buildings, grass, rocks, storefronts, flowers, garbage, everything – is waiting to plant its seed in your creative little brain. I’ve been neglecting to do this and I’m glad I broke loose of my blinders today.

I also like to think I gave a grieving woman somebody to talk to when she needed it. I hope so, anyway.

Fiction Writing in a Hurry… or Not

HurrySometimes I get in a hurry…

Eleven-thirty!

Okay, time for writing break. (Most people know this as lunchtime.)

Wait, the boss has sent an instant message. He’s a good guy, I want to do a good job for him. Stop. Think. Write reply. Done.

Eleven-thirty-two! Omigod. Two precious minutes flushed.

Grab laptop, thumbdrive, shove them into the briefcase. Stupid laptop won’t go. Shoooooovvve! There.

Eleven-thirty-three. Crud.

Speed-walk to the elevator. Punch the down button over and over to make it come faster.

Get on the elevator, press the P1 button to parking over and over to descend more quickly.

Trot to the car, throw in the briefcase, realize I have forgotten my reading glasses. Screw it, I’ll squint.

Peel out and make the five-minute trip to the library or coffee shop. Why do I change location? Too much distraction at the office, what with the demands of gainful employment.

Eleven-forty!

Pray one of the two tables at the library is unoccupied.

Luck! First table is free. Sit. Rip laptop from briefcase.

Where is the stupid thumbdrive? It should be in this pocket, but it’s not.

Root, root, root in briefcase, find thumbdrive somehow enfolded in checkbook. Arg.

Hand are now shaking from a combination of morning caffeine and hurry-stress. Some difficulty plugging in thumbdrive. Come on, stupid laptop, boot, boot, drat you, boot.

Need to do a free-write to focus. No, forget it.

Look at the last sentence written. Do no further review. Just start writing.

See Craig write. See Craig write fast.

See Craig get stuck. Is this right? What happens here? Crud.

Open up the novel plan and check. I have wasted five minutes on a tangent, and not a good one either. See Craig delete text.

Eleven fifty-five!

Write stuff. Hate it all. Repeat.

Alarm dings. Time to return to the office!

Peel, dash, elevator, desk, reboot stupid laptop, have brief lottery fantasy, back to work.

Sometimes, I take my time…

Eleven-thirty! Time for writing break.

Wait, the boss has sent an instant message. He’s a good guy, I want to do a good job for him. Stop. Think. Write reply. Done.

Eleven-thirty-two. No problem. I’ll just do what I can do today. Persistence will win my battle.

Pack the laptop in the briefcase, taking three seconds to reach in and jiggle things a bit so the PC slides in. Put the thumbdrive in my pocket.

Stroll to the elevator, press the button once. Smile and nod to passers-by.

Down to the car, off to the library. Wave to the librarian and sit down at the table. Unpack, boot up. While the laptop starts, take minute for breathing meditation.

Check the novel plan to see what’s on tap for today. Reread a few pages from the previous day’s work to get grounded. Free-write for a couple of minute to get the gears greased.

Linger over the first words, letting today’s pace come out on its own. From there, write as quickly as possible without rushing, pausing to look up once in a while.

The alarm dings. Look over today’s production. Not bad, either for quality or quantity.

Back to the office. Smile as I open that first email, because I’m a good worker.

And I get to be a writer, too.

So… which do you choose?

Fiction Writing Lessons: “Afraid” by Jack Kilborn (J. A. Konrath)

book cover for novel afraidI’ve just finished reading Afraid, by J. A. Konrath, writing as Jack Kilborn. It’s a corking yarn that I’d classify as light horror reading, if there can be such a thing. I managed to cull a few writing lessons from the book, which I will now share for you edification.

Straightforward plot. Afraid proves that a novel doesn’t have to be super complicated to be effective. A group of five psychos-turned-by-science-into-super-soldiers arrives in a remote small town. The psychos perpetrate some seriously unsavory hijinks on the townsfolk, thus bringing themselves into conflict with the good guys. The good guys, a few townspeople with the luck and pluck to fight back, eventually win the day, but not before weathering some of the most harrowing abuse imaginable. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but not much.

Lesson: Don’t make your plot any more complicated than it has to be (but don’t make it any less so, either).

Well-defined characters.  I’ve read things in which the characters are very hard to tell apart. Konrath/Kilborn avoids this by giving each character distinguishing characteristics both physical and psychological. The sheriff is old, near retirement, and nursing a lifelong grudge against his brother. The primary female character is a pretty blonde who works hard to support her son, to whom she is totally devoted. The largest member of the psycho squad is seven feet tall, built like a Sherman tank, and has the IQ of a walnut. These characteristics and more are often drawn with action and dialogue, rather than outright description.

Lesson: Distinguish your characters physically and psychologically, and do it with action and dialogue as much as possible.

Vivid imagery. Afraid delivers a lot of its horror with vivid images of terrible acts you might never have even thought of. The straight descriptions, which are necessary, are mixed in with related action and the combination often hits you right in the gut. Notice in the following example how physical descriptions, character actions and internal dialogue combine to hammer home the horror Note: If you don’t like horrific images, don’t read the excerpt.

Something hit Fran in the chest, bringing her back to the present, making her flinch. It clung to her shirt. Warm and wet, like a towel. What was it? What had he thrown at her? She shook her shoulders, but it didn’t move. Fran needed to let go of the shelf, needed to release her hands so she could knock off whatever— The flashlight came on, pointing at her. Fran looked at her chest and saw something red and rubbery and shredded hanging there. Something wearing Al’s walrus mustache. And then the light went off. Fran screamed. She screamed and screamed and then her paralysis broke and her hands opened up and she batted Al’s face off herself, arms flailing out as if she were being attacked by a swarm of bees. (Konrath, J.A.; Kilborn, Jack (2012-09-30). Afraid – A Novel of Terror (p. 41-43).  . Kindle Edition.)

Lesson: Use multiple techniques to build imagery that hits home.

In brief, some other lessons from Afraid are:

Use suspense by pressuring the good guys. Things keep getting worse and worse for the good guys and the bad guys keep popping up even when you think they are done for.

Save the day in an interesting way.Yes, amid all these crazy soldiers and suffering townsfolk and bravery and bloodshed and stuff, there’s a monkey running around and he turns out to be the key to salvation (almost… heh, heh, heh…).

Add a touch of romance. Two of the good guys fall in love, or close to it, during all the mayhem. Their existing, suppressed feelings for each other are galvanized by the crisis.

Put in a kid. Few things elicit sympathy like a good kid who is having a hard time but doing his or her best to cope. There’s a boy in Afraid who manages to be admirable without being depicted as a short adult.

Sacrifice. In the end, the sheriff sacrifices himself to complete the salvation of the other good guys and end the psycho-soldier threat. It’s a poignant touch that makes the book’s conclusion memorable.