This week, I follow up to last week’s advice to new writers. Whether you’ve been writing two decades or two seconds, it’s critical to keep working to get better. Here’s a few pointers I’ve learned along the way.
Length. A story should be as long as it needs to be to tell the whole story – and no longer. Start scenes late, finish early, and start in media res (in the middle of things) to cut out the dead weight. Avoid repetition like the plague. But at the end of the day, take the time you need to tell the story well. Don’t rush, and don’t slow down.
In a related note, Target Your Market. Do your research – if the magazine needs a story under 5,000 words, don’t send them one over 20,000. You’ll look like an idiot. Same deal for anthologies; if it’s a themed anthology about puppies, odds are they aren’t going to like your slasher piece. Even if you include a puppy. Ditto for novels – which according to my latest discussions with agents, in most genre fiction need to be between 60,000 and 90,000 words. (There are exceptions for things like epic fantasy. Again, do your research.) My first polished novel was rejected by everyone – and I do mean everyone – because it was 120,000 words in a genre than wanted 80,000. Go figure. I’ve also had things published for “fit,” i.e., how well they worked with the theme or the tone of the book as a whole. If it fits, you’re more likely to be picked than if you have the best story in the world.
How do you reconcile the two? Well, first, you write lots of stories. Some will be long (read: complex) and others short (read: relatively simple). You’ll develop a style, and if you’re reading widely (like you should), you’ll start understanding where your style and your work fits in the market. Or, the short cut, you can write a story specifically geared towards a specific publication, theme, or style and send it in. This approach had sold a lot of my friends’ stories. On the novel front, planning how long your novel will be in advance helps you decide how complex to make your outline. Your final product may be not be exactly the length you set out for, but it will be close. You can make up the difference in revision.
Writing is not a one-step process. As you’ve doubtlessly gathered from the discussion above, a finished story takes more than one step. At minimum, you need to have at least one step where you plan (in great detail or large strokes) what you’re going to write – prewriting. Then, put pen to paper or hands to keys and finish a rough draft. Finally, after time and distance, revise the project carefully. Most writers also have a stage where they get the opinions of outside readers to help them revise a second, third, or fourth time to make it perfect. There’s a surfeit of unpolished, unrevised work out in cyberspace like soggy noodles in our salads – don’t let your work be part of the glut.
Story structure is everything. If you want to write a story, it needs to look like a story, not a poem, not an essay, not a diary entry. Stories are made up of scenes, and have beginnings, middles and ends. The beginning introduces the situation and asks questions, the middle complicates the questions and puts the heroine under tests, and the end fulfills the story questions for good or for ill. As a general rule for page count, the middle should be longer than the other two sections – although by how much is a personal decision. Scenes are things that happen in a specific time and place, and they themselves have beginnings, middles, and ends, just like movie scenes. Every scene should have a purpose or purposes – although beware of piling too much onto one scene.
Conflict (and reaction to the conflict) is the engine that drives your story. It is totally, absolutely essential to fiction; without it, you have a pleasant conversation with pleasant people – and no story. Okay, so what is conflict? Conflict is two people having a fistfight – but that’s its weakest form. When two people (or beings, or sentient objects) want opposing things, they clash. They yell. They scream. They enlist Aunt Edna to put a snake in your bed – which makes you scream and run and go get involved in the conflict. The key to good conflict is two (or more) strong characters who each want something badly. It’s the obstacles your character faces trying to get to her goal. A lot of beginning writers make things too easy on their characters, and lose out on great opportunities for conflict. If you’re getting bored with the story or if it isn’t working, ask yourself, how can I make this worse for my main character? Who else could thwart him?
Beware the info dump. A lot of early science fiction had a section near the beginning where the writer told you everything there was to know about the characters, the world, and what happened up to this time. This section was called the information dump – and, if you’re writing past 1976 (and maybe even before), it’s the clear mark of an amateur. Instead, start your story in the middle of things. Bring up information naturally as you go. When Jon sees Darcy, Jon may naturally think a few sentences about Darcy and their time together. Or, their conversation might naturally bring up their dog Spot’s trip to the vet by asking about his health. But, unless you have a truly, truly brilliant reason why not, avoid info dumps in narrative and in dialogue. Period. No one talks to their friend telling them reams of things they already know. So find a way to put it in naturally. For example, the first time the character brings out his magic axe would be a great moment to give us a snapshot of how it works and how it feels. At a social event, your character’s social standing and huge riches will come up in the way she’s treated by others. Use the moments to fill in backstory naturally, as it becomes relevant. And, unless it’s critical, limit it to only those moments. If it’s critical, find a way to show us or to make it come up naturally. I’ll say it again: infodumps are death.