The Critical Five
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.
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