Writing fiction should be easy, I told myself. I can make up stuff as I go along, and that’s fun. It beats massaging hard information into palatable articles or book, like I’ve had to do for non-fiction. Boy was I wrong. Coverting genres, I discovered, is akin to moving to a different country. I remember my face burning with humiliation as my critique group tore apart my first efforts. It’s all back-story. You told it all in five pages, why read the book. Uh oh, POV. Show don’t tell. It doesn’t sound real. Even as I sputtered in my defense, I wrote down their suggestions.
But hey, enough of my whining. The good part is that after a couple of years of inhaling information gleaned from books and conferences, I think I have the Critical Five-- back story, plot, character, voice and POV—boiled down into a few short paragraphs. If you are struggling with these, perhaps my simply put interpretations will help you see the light.
Back story is a character’s reflections about the past. If he or she goes on and on, it’s back story. My research says to work in whatever is necessary a few sentences at a time. I’ve noticed newer books use back-dated sections or chapters written as new action to sneak in reams of back story.
Plot is the bones of the story and everything else is the meat. If a restaurateur served its customers only the bones, they would certainly leave quickly and unsatisfied. The more meat on the bones, the more satisfied your readers will be.
Characters are people with human frailties, just like you and me. When writing as a character, feel whatever joys, fears and insecurities he or she is experiencing at that very moment in the plot. Be in their bodies and carry whatever baggage you have deemed belongs to them into their thoughts and actions. If you’re a man, feel the hair on your arms and the muscles in your biceps throb. If you a woman...well, you get my drift.
Voice is just that. With non-fiction, it’s customary to write the way you might speak to your reader--I envision the reader standing in front of me. Fiction isn’t so different. Instead of your voice, “speak” in your character’s voice with his or her cultural style, as well as any masculine or feminine traits.
POV means projecting one character’s viewpoint at a time, expressing what that person can see or feel from being inside their body. Some rule-breaking is forgiven, but novices need to separate POV with a ***double space or chapter break to indicate change.
The most important thing I’ve learned is the value of the dreaded criticism. In retrospect, if my fiction-writing friends hadn’t been quick to point out my failures, I would have gone along thinking my stuff was great when it actually sucked. I’ll always have problems swallowing criticism, but I’ve discovered that by entering writing contests I can get several experts to review my efforts and suggest changes. The best part is that I can choke on their sage comments in private.
You say you’re going to write a book someday, but let me ask you this, have you started it? A couple of things can keep us from putting pen to paper. The first is procrastination. Make the writing the book a reality by putting it on your to do list. I always said I wanted to write a cookbook, but didn’t take steps to do so until I wrote down the thought. Once I saw it as a task, it became real.
The other is fear of failure. It’s easier to talk about writing a book, than it is to begin one and find you can’t do it. But if you allow self-doubt to prevent you from writing that book, you will have failed yourself for having never tried. So, set aside your excuses and make the book project a go.
New work is always fragile. We’re never sure if it’s good or not. Yet, I’ve found that seeking opinions can be misleading and devastating. It takes a while to sort out the people who will help, not hinder, your progress. So why do it at all. If I had listened to others, I might have given up writing altogether. My husband pooh poohed the first chapters of The Perfect First Mate, almost causing me to trash the whole idea, until I realized he had an ulterior agenda. You see, my working title was Surviving Captain My Way--and he was “Captain My Way.”
One of my best friends told me writing Kitchen Afloat was dumb idea because “boaters never cook, anyway.” Had I taken her comments to heart, this book would not be on bookshelves today. People don’t always think when they speak casually, and the wrong words can pierce our self-confidence.
The most important opinion is your own. Believe in yourself, your ideas, and your ability to communicate. Take writing classes or learn to do your own editing by boning up on grammar rules and understanding what constitutes good writing. There is a wealth of excellent books on these subjects.
When you write, throw the rules to the wind and let your pen or fingers on the keyboard follow your mind where it wants to go. There’ll be plenty of time afterwards to clean up text and grammar. Do whatever works best for you—handwriting or typing. If the written word intimidates you, try recording your thoughts, instead.
Find your voice by experimenting. Keep writing until the words feel natural, not contrived.
When I first began writing a cookbook for my children, it read like a business document. The words were stiff and formal, certainly not the way I would speak. I realized I had altered my writing over the years to suit my job, and it took a while for me to come around to writing down to earth text.
To warm the cold in your writing, be yourself. Envision the people you are writing for as real—I pictured my children. Pretend they are standing in front of you and that you are having a one-sided conversation with them. Look at them in your mind’s eye and tell them stories, ask them questions and then answer them in your text.
If you follow your heart instead of your head, writing that book will no longer be empty talk. It will be a reality. And it will be good, because it will speak to the reader in your style, your voice--the one that’s been buried under all that self-doubt.