Writing fiction, whether it be fanfiction or original fiction, is a hobby that has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity. I might attribute this spike in popularity to the recent success of some mediocre and terrible books, but that’s a rant I’ll have to save for later. Another factor influencing this trend is the ability to self-publish. Unfortunately, self-publishing has no quality control, and is really just the dead-end for a deadbeat writer, like a basketball player resorting to coaching primary school kids. The ultimate goal has, and always will be, to be published by a real publishing house with the means to distribute your book and pay you royalties (as opposed to self-publishing where you pay to get your book published).
Anyway, I’m a regular on a number of writing forums and have given quite a few hopefuls some advice ranging from advanced writing concepts to simple techniques. Since it’s inevitable that there will be a large increase in self-proclaimed writers (or god-forbid, authors), I figured that it was in my best interests to compile a quick 5 tips so that the stuff I’m reading in the future will – hopefully – be a little less crappy. Keep in mind these tips apply for all fiction but not necessarily academic writing – so those of you who need to do short stories at school can also boost your marks with these tips.
Fiction Writing Tips:
1. Grammar: Surprised? You wouldn’t believe how many stories are plagued by basic errors. Well this actually includes all basic English syntax. Please, if you’re going to write, make sure you have a high level (if not perfect) of spelling, punctuation and grammar. It’s infuriating trying to read something that looks as if it belongs to a primary school student with an F in English. It’s worse when you call yourself a writer with that kind of English. Not only does poor syntax distract from the story, it is really just a sign that you don’t care or are not good enough to be writing.
2. Consistency: This one is more applicable for longer stories (like novels) but should be a logical aspect of any piece of writing. Keep it consistent. If you say your main character is a red-headed girl, don’t turn her into a blonde. That should be obvious. The hard bit comes when you have a world and landscape that you need to keep consistent. Directions, environment and physical features need to be the same throughout the text. For this, I like to keep a little document that quickly summarises these things (for example: City X, west of City Y, Forest of the Lost in between, mountains to the north, etc.). Even more difficult is your characterisation. You need to be firmly aware what kind of character you’re creating so you don’t end up with the melancholy introvert being the party animal – and so you don’t end up with an entire cast of characters that are exactly the same. This relates to the category below.
3. Characters: Some of you may have heard the term “Mary Sue” before. A Sue is basically a character that is unrealistic within the mechanics of your fictional world. The more things your character has that defies reality, the closer it is to a Sue. For example, in a medieval world, your character would be pushing it if he was a cyborg with laser weapons. If your character is a beautiful girl who is good at all sports and a professional in all fields of science and knows how to overpower trained hitmen whilst also being loved by every guy she meets, then yes, you have a Sue and you’re also probably projecting some of your insecurity on to your own character.
The key to characterisation is focusing on a few key personality traits and making that character unique. Your story will be more realistic and there’ll be more depth to the environment if there’s a wide range of characters with their own unique identity. This is very difficult to achieve and is something I’ve always had to struggle with, but your goal is to avoid having a cast of characters that are identical to each other. If you remove the names of your characters and judge them solely by how they act and talk, can you tell the difference? Mannerisms and key personality traits are an advanced set of writing techniques that you can incorporate into your characters to make them stand out from the others.
Remember, humans are unique, you need to demonstrate this through your characters.
“If everyone is Han Solo, then nobody is Han Solo” – Cleveland Brown Jr.
4. Pace: There’s a term in writing known as “purple prose“. It basically means over-the-top flowery writing. I remember an amusing quote from a writing website that described purple prose as if the writer had made love to a thesaurus. The reason why purple prose is bad is because it kills all sense of pace in your story. You can’t capture the heat of a battle when you’re describing birds chirping and what not. Let me demonstrate:
“The soldiers formed up ranks and stared each other down across the no-man’s land. Two veritable walls of steel and flesh were about to collide in a bloody clash, but Hero couldn’t feel any fear as he only felt beauty. A swallow dipped across the divide and, as if sensing impending danger, pulled up quickly in a graceful arch. As they men charged, Hero could see the morning’s dew glistening on the grass, and the little shimmering lights that were flung through the air as the soldiers trampled past. The gentle kiss of the breeze was a direct contrast to the blood curling war cries and the sounds of death, and as he drew his elegant long sword, he could see deer bounding away in fear.”
Ok, so I’m not very good at purple prose because I instinctively shy away from it, but the point is – why is Hero noticing all this random crap when he’s about to enter a life-or-death situation? Wouldn’t it be more realistic and appropriate for him to be noticing his emotions and those of the terrified men around him? There’s no sense of urgency when you’re describing random things that are irrelevant to the matter at hand.
So, how do you create pace? Well, first avoid irrelevant details. If you’re writing a scene, focus on the purpose of that scene and write in a way that builds the scene and makes it stronger. If the purpose of this scene is for Hero to end up surrounded by the enemy and the corpses of his friends, then go for gritty and write the damn scene. No one cares that there was a gentle breeze kissing him, but they do care what kind of emotions were rushing through Hero, as well as the fighting itself. Second, play with sentence length. Length can play a huge role in creating pace, and even using sentence fragments is acceptable (though technically incorrect English, sentence fragments are a writing technique to generate pace). For example consider this: (By the way, “c.f.” means “compared to”)
“He could smell smoke and turned to see fire bursting through the windows to blossom out across the walls, consuming the manor in a blazing inferno.”
“He could smell smoke and turned to see fire bursting through the windows. Flames blossomed across the walls and consumed the manor in a blazing inferno.”
“He could smell smoke. Turning, he saw fire burst through the windows. It blossomed across the walls and consumed the manor in a blazing inferno.”
“He smelled smoke. Turning, he saw fire burst through the windows. It blossomed across the walls and consumed the manor.”
Hopefully you can see the difference, if not between each example than between the first and last. Essentially, short sentences create impact and a sense of urgency. The first example feel as if the character is just standing there observing this fire whereas the last example has a sense of urgency. Sometimes this means going easy on the adjectives. Just remember, sometimes pace is more important than description.
5. Diction: In writing, diction is essentially your choice of words. You can make a huge difference by avoiding obscure, generic words. Examples of these words are: good, happy, take, read, walk, look, thing, and book. Now let me explain – first, these words are often unavoidable and are perfectly good words in the right context. However, when you’re trying to add that extra sheen to your writing, you should attempt to substitute these words where applicable. The reason is because these words lack detail and emotion. What kind of book? How does she take the book? Is there any emotion when she takes it? When she reads it?
Here’s an example from one of the forums: “She took the pieces of paper and read over them.” Now I’m going to transform this sentence, step by step, keeping in mind the main concepts in diction – focus on detail and emotion.
“She took the pieces of paper and read over them.”
“She took the papers and read them.”
“She snatched the papers and read them.”
“She snatched the papers off his table and began to read them.”
“She snatched the treatises off his table and began perusing.”
“With keen anticipation, she snatched the treatises off his table and began perusing.”
As you should be to see, we’ve turned a generic sentence with no detail or emotion into one that conveys a sense of urgency and excitement. “Snatch” instead of “take” creates pace and anticipation. “Treatises” instead of “papers” tells us the nature of this anticipation is probably due to an academic discovery. “Peruse” instead of “read” tells us how absorbed the character is and heightens the sense of excitement, as well as conveying a bit of disbelief.