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Eleven Things I Know About Fiction Writing
1.Just show up. At least half the battle is getting your ass in the chair when you’d rather be hanging out with your kids or drinking or playing guitar, or when you’ve got stuff to do for work that’s really, really important. Go into your room, shut the door, sit down. Turn on the computer. Write something.
2.When you have a good writing day, reward yourself. Have a cocktail! Smoke a cigar! When you have a bad writing day, seek comfort. Have a cocktail. Smoke a cigar. At least you tried, and there’s always tomorrow. If you beat yourself up over the bad days, you’ll never finish anything. Most writing days are bad, but you need them to get to the good days.
3.Forget writing what you know. Most of us don’t know much of anything first-hand that isn’t boring. We know working in a cubicle, we know walking the dog, we know going to the supermarket, we know sleeping and watching TV. Instead, write what interests and entertains you. If it doesn’t interest or entertain you, it’s going to bore the hell out of everyone else. If it does interest you, there’s a chance it might interest other people, too.
4.Do a little research when you have to. Google makes it incredibly easy to find out practically anything. Also, travel! Talk to people! I’m lucky because I can get student researchers to work for me for free, but it’s really not that hard to do it on your own, and it can add a lot of texture to a book.
5.Don’t get too hung up on research. You can always tell when a writer’s fallen in love with a piece of information they’ve discovered—they’ll describe how a gun works in minute and boring detail, or walk you through a complex legal or technical process they obviously find fascinating, but which interrupts the story and leaves the reader flipping pages, looking for the next bit of action or dialogue. Use only those morsels of factual information that can make the story funnier or more interesting or more real, and that keep it moving forward. Never stop the action to tell the reader an important fact. Don’t let your characters talk like technical manuals unless they’re the kind of people that talk like technical manuals.
6. If the weather plays a part in the story, or if your story’s set in a place that has interesting or atmospheric weather, go ahead and write about the weather. If the story’s set in southern California where it’s always sunny and seventy-five degrees, only write about the weather if your main character yearns for snow.
7.If you’re good at description it’s fine to spend a bit of time on it. Tuck it in where there are pauses in the dialogue. Think cinematically—the long shot, the close-up, the panoramic view. Keep it short, though—the reader’s waiting for the characters to say and do something interesting.
8.Don’t confuse plot with story. Even though I write crime fiction, I don’t really care about plot: plot is just the calendar of events—what happens in what order. Story is what the characters do—what they think about, what they say, what they eat, who they have sex with, who they fight with, whether they get what they want.
9.Story is born from character and conflict. Get the characters right, give them an interesting conflict, and story takes care of itself. Sometimes you won’t really know who your characters are until you’re a hundred pages in—that’s fine. That’s what first drafts are for.
10.Stories are made of scenes. A good scene needs a monkey. Which is to say, two characters talking while standing (or sitting) in a room, or walking down the beach, or riding in a car, aren’t usually enough to make an interesting scene. No matter how funny or interesting or important the dialogue is, the scene will still be boring if that’s all that’s going on. But if your characters are driving down the freeway and trying to talk about something important and there’s a monkey leaping around the car’s interior, flipping the headlights on and off, honking the horn and pooping in the ash-tray—then you’ve got a scene. Of course, not every scene can have a literal monkey in it, so you have to find the particular “monkey” that’s right for your particular scene—something for your readers to look at while the characters talk.
11. Great writers write great sentences. If you can write a good sentence, you can write anything. If you can’t write a good sentence, everything you write is going to suck on the most fundamental level, no matter how great your ideas are. You can write bad sentences—and horrible, stilted dialogue—and still get rich as a writer (I won’t name names here, but you know who I’m talking about), but that will be your legacy. You’ll be that guy who was essentially a hack but lucked into a formula that happened to sell at a given point in time. Don’t be a hack. Write good sentences.