How to Write Fiction, Or Not ~ BitterSweetLife

Monday, October 08, 2007

How to Write Fiction, Or Not

On Saturday I decided I didn’t have enough going on with school, work, and our upcoming Baby 2.0, so I accepted a friend’s invitation and went to my first “writers’ critique group.”

I had been prepped about how these things work, so I wasn’t overly shocked when the presiding guru, who has had a bunch of books published by Zondervan and such, ripped my short story pretty thoroughly.

He was blunt, opinionated, and widely read. And while he missed the main point of my story, he dished out some valid criticism.

My short story is admittedly weird: a psychological force-you-to-think biographical piece in a fantasy, swords and dragons framework. The battle melee isn’t so much about a gory brouhaha as about casting light on the warrior’s back story. The guru urged me to throw in some stock “fantasy” elements (a big-bellied, red-haired drunk, a grey-haired, beady-eyed conniver, witty repartee between dragon and warrior) and blow up the battle scene so it dominated the story, because “that’s what people read this type of story for.”

I’m wondering if he’s right. When you’re writing for a popular audience, “subtlety” becomes “stupidity” if no one picks up on what you’re doing. You never lose the main thrust of the story with Tolkien or Lewis—or Rowling, for that matter. My approach to fiction may be too intellectual. I need to think about how I ground my characters in clear conversation and lots of scenario detail, probably trade in cryptic for descriptive.

My friend, the one who got me into this mess, assured me that Mr. Published Writer liked my stuff, which is why he critiqued it at length. And to be fair, Writer also had some complimentary things to say, and invited me to come back. I think I will. I’m also thinking that writing stuff that people will actually want to read requires humility, in that you need to serve your audience and consider their expectations, not merely your novel idea for a short story.

Anyone else thought about this?

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Will Robison said...

Anyone else think about this?

Hello?! Sixth Re-write anyone?!

Yeah,it sucks that we can't just stick with our original version and tell everyone to re-read it a few more times and it'll be obvious what we were trying to do. Because, unfortunately, writing is a two way street. While we like to write in a vacuum, the reader doesn't like to read in one. For some reason, the reader expects to be able to understand your story.

Otherwise, they might as well pay $40 and buy the book at a college book store where some professor will tell them what it means and they'll be required to write a midterm essay about it. Of course, if you're really going for that angle, I'm sure there's a great market for edgy college English type writers whose stories are designed to make you think.

As for me, I actually prefer to have someone understand what I was trying to say and so I've gone back five times to actually spell out what's going on. Its kind of like painting The Last Supper and then going back in and labeling all the figures so that the people who view it knows who is who.

Maybe I'll use these comments on my book jacket... ;)

Ariel said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Will. I find myself largely agreeing with you--especially since I always hate paying $40+ for badly-written textbooks.

I'm realizing that leaving too much unsaid, "between the lines," may just be writerly laziness...asking the reader to do more than she can really be expected to do. C.S. Lewis is a shining example in that regard. While Narnia has profound meanings which reward multiple readings, no one is left wondering "what that means" in the middle of the story.

So what's your novel about? Or are you saving that for the dust jacket as well?

John said...

I'd have to go with the advice from my creative writing class via Stephen King's "On Writing." The first run-through, keep your door closed. Write for yourself. Write what you want. Once you go back for revisions, open the door, and look at your story through a reader's eyes. Or if you don't want to do that, you can just be like J.D. Salinger and put your books into a safety deposit box, never to be read by anyone else.

Something tells me there's some sort of advice about no matter what sort of style you go for, someone will want to read it, but I can't remember how exactly King said that.

Also, haven't been on the blogosphere recently and I'm still catching up with entries, but how have you been doing recently?

Ariel said...

Do you write creative stuff, John?

King's approach makes sense. What I wonder is...if you start writing in the closet, does that make it harder to continue writing with the "open door?" The transition can be hard to make sometimes.

In a sense, though, we always have to begin by writing "for ourselves." I guess not everything will make the cut, which is ok--but some of it should, maybe even a majority. Who wants to catch Salinger's syndrome?

there's some sort of advice about no matter what sort of style you go for, someone will want to read it

I think that person is your mom. Not very lucrative, but dependable. :)

Writingwise, I've been trying to figure some things out recently, like what genre/s to focus on and what market/s to submit stuff to. I want to be more intentional.

Lifewise, Lindsay and I are expecting baby2 any day, and we're stretched kinda thin, waiting...can't wait for him to arrive, but the suspense is getting to us! Add to that the usual school, jobs, etc., and that's life these days. Thanks for asking.

I trust you're doing well?

Will Robison said...

I was listening to someone talk about writing recently (can't remember where I heard it) but they said that somewhere around the fifth draft is when you start to figure out what your story is about. I'd say I'm almost there. A good exercise in that regard is to try and explain your story in one or two sentences. If you can't, then you still don't know what your story is about.

I've learned two things in working on my novel. The first, and most important, is that I am the author and anything I write will still make me the author. Therefore, if I change the story, the story is still mine. Giving yourself permission to change the story is the single greatest gift a writer can receive, because we all tend to get so caught up in our own creative powers that we tend to think that each word is engraved in gold, never to be changed or altered in any way. Once you get past that point, it just frees you up to do the work of a writer without any of that guilt.

The second, and more important thing, is that there are no Extra Features in a book. If its not all there on the page, it doesn't exist. So, if you have some point you're trying to make, then just go ahead and make it. While subtlety can and does exist, it should still be very clear as to what you're being subtle about.

Hence, five rewrites... and counting. But cheer up, you're a much better writer than me, so I wouldn't worry about it. You'll grasp it eventually and then you'll stop wondering how to write and you'll just start doing it. And then you'll join that great fraternity of writers who spend all their time wondering, okay, now how do I make money doing this? ;)

littlepeace said...

I think one has to pay a certain amount of attention to what "the public wants," perhaps, but shouldn't be unduly concerned with it. If one merely writes what other writers have written, only with different characters and in different settings, the public will eventually figure it out.

So, a). Without having read the story in question, I don't think you should rush out to put all the standard fantastical cliches in it, and
b). I think you should read Bird by Bird. :)

N8 T8 said...

I think it is important to listen to your audience, but put what they like to read in your terms. If people want action, there's millions of action stories. If the audience wants action, then give it: in your voice, in your styles, with your limits. You, as the author, get to choose what is protrayed and what is not. Bending over backwards for their every wish is not going to build you a fan base. At least, it hasn't for me.

People appreciate it when I take their wishes and honor it to a point. But sometimes I choose to ignore comments, and other, more experienced writers have commended me because of it.

Ariel said...

Great comments on this thread! Thanks, all.

Will, I like what you were saying about taking up the radical freedom that comes with being The Author. When the story becomes sacred, it's all over. I have some stuff that I'll have to drastically change, maybe even kill off a character or two, if I decide to rewrite.

I think one has to pay a certain amount of attention to what "the public wants," perhaps, but shouldn't be unduly concerned with it.

True...I guess that's the balance you have to aim for. Not that it's easy. Libraries are stocked with disappointing books because authors forgot who they were writing for and indulged in lengthy exploration. It can be a tough trick to turn.

This is the second time you've recommend Bird by Bird, so I'll break down and start looking for a copy. Thanks for the tip.

think it is important to listen to your audience, but put what they like to read in your terms.

Another good distinction. So, to create a case in point... I know people like to read about "spirituality" in a way that shouts immediacy and points them directly to Christ, but I'll only be successful in accomplishing that when I write w/ my own voice.

No "copying" Donald Miller, John Piper, Flannery O'Connor, whoever. Not even C.S. Lewis. Of course, that's not saying we shouldn't be informed and influenced by great authors when we write... (yet another distinction).

John said...

Well played on the mom comment. I definitely misquoted King, what he said was something like, no matter what you write about, as long as you have good writing skills and you write about the truth, someone will want to buy your book. Nevertheless, that might not be too many people, or it might be a lot.

I do write some creative stuff, but most of the time, I get stuck with too much work to do, so I just sleep instead. I just handed in a creative writing assignment, but I haven't found out whether or not the teacher liked it.

I heard about the baby, Lindsay was supposed to be due on the 9th, right? In any case, I'm sure everything will be all right. I've been praying for all four of you for a while now.

I'm doing decently, although I've been busy because two of my classes (both of my languages, French and C++) have a test like, every other week. I also have to deal with all of my other work, and my role in Students For Life. Add into that potentially budding romances and a friend that wants to write a screenplay and produce it with me, I've got a lot on my plate, haha.


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife