How to Write Good Fiction

How to Write Good Fiction

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  1. Whenever I read an autobiography of a fiction writer who describes himself glowingly, I instantly stop reading and refuse to buy his books. For me, humility is one of the most important qualities in truly good writing, and someone who is in love with himself obviously spends little or no time in self-reflection. Of course, there are the standard tidbits of advice when it comes to fiction writing, such as write about what you know, and research what you don’t know, blah, blah, blah. Sure, this is important when it comes to writing fiction novels, but you’ve heard it a million times, so let’s explore other avenues.

    My favorite fiction incorporates four basic elements common to every paragraph, or at least those more than a single sentence in length; these fundamentals are poignancy, humor, excitement and fascination. I try my best to integrate these elements into everything I write—and let me tell you, it isn’t easy. However, you will probably find that if you can include these qualities successfully (and preferably subtly), your readers will find it hard to stop reading your stories.

    Poignancy: Many writers may overuse the good old tearjerker, but it’s an effective tool. The main thing to avoid is overdoing it, laying it on too thick. I find it’s best to suggest something touching, to “show it rather than tell it” and let the reader fill in the blanks with his imagination. One thing to remember is that if you keep squeezing the lachrymal glands too much, you’ll turn off half of your readers (the men, for the most part), so don’t lay it on too thickly and wherever possible, combine it with one of the other three elements.

    Humor: Everyone likes to laugh. Even the old curmudgeon you think of as humorless will periodically find comedy in his everyday life, if only at the expense of some clumsy oaf. If you make your audience laugh, they will keep reading. Of course, this is about the hardest thing to do when it comes to writing. As either Donald Wolfit or Edmond Gween said on his deathbed (no one seems certain as to who coined the phrase), “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” If you lack a sense of humor, it may be impossible for you to make your audience laugh. The only advice I can give is to write every paragraph with great care, then go back and rewrite it. Once you’ve done that, rewrite it again and again until you’re happy with it, then put it on a shelf for a few weeks and read it again. If you aren’t as happy, keep rewriting it. I will often go through a couple dozen rewrites before I’m happy with what I’ve written—and then there’s always room for improvement (which leads back to what I wrote about humility).

    Excitement: Any piece of fiction can use some excitement, even a sappy romance or a travelogue. Give your audience an occasional thrill and they will want more and keep reading. I have found that my favorite authors often incorporate humor with horror, which I believe is an excellent combination. Some of my favorite revolting scenes in literature were peppered with dark comedy that made me cringe while laughing—and it kept me reading.

    Fascination: Enchant your audience. If they feel a sense of mystery and thrall, they will want more and continue reading. Awe is a powerful tool in writing, and it’s about as hard to achieve as humor. Again, my only advice is to rewrite often and choose every word with care. If it takes years to complete your book, who cares: it may be a masterpiece upon whose royalties you can live for the rest of your life, which is better than pounding out four or five mediocre novels a year to a small, semiliterate but devoted audience.

    Every paragraph should include at least one of these elements; better yet, incorporate them into every sentence wherever possible. The most important thing when it comes to writing is to grab your reader, and then to hold on to him, keep him wanting more until the end of the story and leave him hungry to read everything else you have published.

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