Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Most Important Thing

The most important thing you have to do with the opening of your story is bring it to life.

Make it go zing.

If that doesn’t resonate with you, then maybe so far you haven’t managed to do it. When you do, you’ll know.

There’s no rules for doing it, other than perhaps The Rule of Art, which is of absolutely no help at all. The Rule of Art: Make it Happen. (I made that up.)

I have a theory that you can make any sentence seem profound by writing the name of a dead philosopher at the end of it. —Plato

[Got that one online.]

The Rule of Art: Make it Happen. —Convivius The Uncertain

Even when you follow perfectly the Rule of Art, there are those who won’t like it. This doesn’t matter. Getting good grades from readers at an online writers’ site might feel good, but in reality it’s a meaningless exercise, because those readers are (by and large) neither successful agents nor active publishers. To put it another way, they aren’t buyers. They don’t write checks.


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So You Think You Want Rules

There’s nothing wrong with a piece of fiction so long as it works for the reader. That is the gold standard for fiction. I present as my evidence “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan, which appeared in The New Yorker. It’s written as if it were a government operations manual more or less in the form of 140 character tweets. And it’s pretty ground-breaking and brilliant. Of course, as with everything, not everyone thinks so. But that’s true for all matters of opinion, isn’t it? I would also point to contemporary sitcom TV, where the old conventions of pov and the fourth wall have largely been dispensed with.

Do you think Samuel Beckett’s agent read Waiting for Godot and then asked for a rewrite, telling Beckett the characters keep forgetting what the other guy just said and repeat themselves too much?

IMHO there are a lot of things about writing fiction that are very good ideas. There are guidelines and there are techniques that are very much worth knowing. There are conventions that are often found in genre fiction. These things aren’t secrets, but one does need to go to some effort to seek them out and then figure out to apply them. This is stuff worth knowing. They generally aren’t taught in English lit courses. And they weren’t taught at all in the “creative writing” course I took in college.

Most people figuring out how to write fiction are accomplished readers. They read so easily that what they read seems (if they read good stuff) effortless. Naturally this leads to the next logical thought: how hard can it be to write this stuff that’s so easy to read? So they sign up at an online writing site and start asking questions. Which is perfectly fine so far as it goes. But you’re not going to get a grounding in the guidelines, techniques and conventions of creating fiction, and especially key questions like “why do readers read fiction?” just by asking the odd question here or there. Unless you happen to hit on the question “Why do readers read fiction?” and stumble across some people with good answers.

IMHO a writer can learn a lot more about these things from actually trying stuff out on the page, exactly the way Jane Austen did than from asking a question here or there. I think this is so because the writer is probably going to have to write a million words before she has a lot of facility with this stuff, so she might as well get busy.

But that’s just me and how I think about this stuff. I’m certainly open to better ideas.


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When you ask it this way: “Which description is best?” you ask a meaningless question. Or one that anyone may answer with any sort of opinion. Unlikely that this will be helpful unless you’re goal is  to take a poll and not try to figure out how description best serves fiction.

Maybe ask rather “What do you want a description to do?”

One notion with fiction is to tell the story by causing the reader to picture things in his or her mind as if a movie of the story were taking place.

If you think of it this way, then one of the ideas of how to write prose is to make it “transparent,” so that the reader doesn’t really notice the words flowing past—the words don’t interfere with, confuse or slow down the movie-making process taking place in the reader’s mind.

A description can still be vivid, such as

guitar notes struck the air like silver dimes.

Which is from that classic of imagery and metaphor, Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron’s all but forgotten first novel.

A line like that is certainly striking, but its effect on the reader’s mind is why it is so good, taking something that’s auditory and making it visual as well. Is that what effective imagery always does or only sometimes does? Just asking.

A good thing to read on the subject of how to describe stuff in fiction is Stephen King’s essay Imagery and the Third Eye, Google it.

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Your Opening and the Great Unwashed

Instead of looking at this opening or that opening, why not start by defining the basic problem: How to open a crime story that’s going to include some kind of crime-solving person (a detective probably)?

There are two basic choices: a) the way it’s usually done or b) something different.

Robert B. Parker always does a. His detective is amused and amusing, laconic, ironic, insightful and easy to be with for the length of a novel. The writing is minimalist, what David Mamet might call “uninflected.”

The woman who came into my office on a bright January day was a knockout. Her hair had blond highlights and her fawn-colored suit appeared to have been hand-sewn by Michael Kors. She took off some sort of fur-lined cape and tossed it over the arm of my couch, and came over and sat down in one of my client chairs. She smiled at me. I smiled at her. She waited. The light coming in my window was especially bright this morning, enhanced by the light snowfall that had collected overnight. She didn’t seem dangerous. I remained calm.

Is there a simpler way to say “She smiled at me. I smiled at her. She waited.”? Does the author give the slightest damn what any literary maven may or may not think of his style? Is he interested in doing anything other than telling the story in an entertaining way?

And the ultimate test: does the reader want to know what happens next?

Note that although the narrator is quite taken with the knockout-ness of the woman, yet the description of her is sparse. Parker knows that if you say “knockout with blond highlights and oh, by the way, probably rich as hell” the reader will fill in the rest in his or her own mind.

Another point: who is more likely to have the sort of problem that piques the typical reader’s interest, that sounds like the most entertaining: a) an old woman, her coat wrapped around her like a shroud, clutching a rosary or b) knockout with blond highlights and oh, by the way, probably rich as hell? Hint: How many newsstand copies does People Magazine sell each week and who are the people that People Magazine is all about? Does this make you consider your personal opinion of people who like People Magazine? Why buys the most genre crime fiction, People Magazine readers or The New York Times Review of Books readers? I don’t know the answer, but I’m willing to guess. Hint: the NYTR has a circulation of 135,000 and People a circulation of 3.5 million.

If you’re going to write a villanelle, you must write a 19-line form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain, with two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines.

Now, you can write any damn thing you please, but if it don’t follow that form, it’s not a villanelle (or not a correct villanelle).

If you’re going to write a crime story, make it entertaining. If it’s not entertaining, it’s not a good genre story. If the reader reads the first couple paragraphs and does not find them entertaining, the chances are not good the reader will be motivated to spend $9.99 or $2.99 or $0.99 in order to be allowed to continue to read. I’m sorry about this, but it’s not my fault. It’s the crazy upside down world you’ve chosen to inhabit. I agree, you deserve better and more, but that’s the way it is.

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