The Mysteries of Writing Fiction

As I edit Privilged Lives, I realize that there’s nothing outstanding about the way it’s written. I work for clarity and flow, which I usually manage to achieve, but the style is mundane. Competent, but not outstanding. Maybe that’s appropriate for this type of book. It’s near-future science fiction. But as I read it, I find it unsatisfying. It lacks a spark that I’d like to see in my writing. I think that if I wrote something more literary, the lack of style would show up as a handicap.

Most people won’t notice that the writing is a bit plodding and won’t demand that it be something different, as long as the story itself is interesting enough to hold them. It’s the story that’s most important, of course, and the ideas. A reader who prefers action to ideas will get bored very quickly, but I hope that I’ll eventually have a solid readership of people who want to see new ideas and maybe even be challenged in their thinking.

I don’t know whether style is an area where I should make some real effort. Maybe it will develop over time. Maybe I’m obsessing over something that isn’t very important to readers, just to myself and my vague feeling that my writing should have something more.

This ties in with a little exchange I had with a reader. She likes the way the book is developing: “…because the readers start off with as little information as the characters, but little bits and pieces of what’s happening sneaks in.”

And my reply: “I’d really like to take credit for knowing what I was doing when I wrote those chapters, but you’ve shown me that I didn’t have a clue. I’m just glad it worked. Must be proof of the saying that sometimes readers know more than the writer does.

“The funny thing is that not knowing what you’re doing implies that you’re working instinctively. But I work hard to make sure that everything I write is completely logical. So there’s something going on that I don’t really understand.”

We can talk about the basics of grammar and punctuation, more advanced concepts like character development, point of view, structure and pacing, and we can learn to use them. But there’s a lot about writing fiction that remains mysterious. Some would say it’s inspiration or the muse. But I think those words are more appropriately applied to the invention of a story or a character. Once we have the ideas, how much do we really know about what’s coming out of the keyboard or the pen? How much of what we write comes from an unconscious part of our mind that we’re not even aware of? And are there parts that we’re never going to be able to control?


14 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Writing Fiction

  1. I do agree about the mystery. If there were no mystery, I don’t think I’d continue to write fiction. That’s what makes it so much fun.

    About the style issue: this is where a really good editor can be invaluable (and I speak as someone who has done a lot of editing, as well as having been edited). With the benefit of perspective, an editor can help a writer develop that elusive thing we call the writer’s “voice.” Pruning a few adjectives here, changing the rhythm of a sentence there. Sort of like the really expert makeup artist whose ministrations reveal inner beauty rather than masking or changing it.

    1. I do a lot of that already, Audrey. Most of my last drafts work is tweaking to eliminate useless verbiage and reshape sentences so they flow better. What I’m thinking of goes beyond “voice,” but it seems to be too elusive to pin down in a description. I may be reaching for something that isn’t even there.

  2. Part of what I do in rewrites is stretch for the kind of interesting language you feel is missing. It’s often missing in my first and even second drafts, as I struggle toward a coherent plot. But once the plot is there, and characters are developed, I can have the very great pleasure of finding ways to say the mundane in ways that are more interesting. I think of it as adding spice to a dish that is otherwise complete, but perhaps a bit bland. I don’t seem able to always come up with metaphors and similies while finding plot.

    Another technique I use is to write with a complete lack of restraint while doing the first draft. Even if I seem to be going on over long, or getting too colorful, I know these parts can be cut, tightened, honed later. So I try to never edit during this stage, because, on rare occasions, I write something really beautiful then that would be lost if I pulled myself in.

    Don’t know if any of this helps with your process, but I hope it does 🙂

    1. When I write without restraint, as during NaNo, that’s when my writing is the least colorful and interesting. I’m basically a logical, comparatively unimaginative person. My first sentences are often convoluted, excessively long, and have little expression. So what you say about more interesting words really is part of what I’m struggling with. For all the thousands of novels I’ve read over a lifetime, you’d think I would have learned that. But it doesn’t come naturally to me. That’s one reason I think I may be reaching for something that either doesn’t exist or that I’m not capable of accomplishing. Ain’t gonna give up, though.

  3. I’ll throw in my nickel:

    1. Is the physical setting tangible and plausible (given the time setting), and do the characters relate to and interact with the setting?

    2. Do your characters show their “true colors” early on, and are these colors intensified later in the story?

    3. Do your characters react or interact with each other using most of the senses (hear, see, touch, smell, taste)?

    4. Is the dialogue tight and plausible, and matched to each of the characters?

    5. Do symbols and themes add cohesiveness to the story?

    I think these points could be helpful in checking for a strong or consistent style. Hope a point or two helps. 🙂

    1. Very helpful. I don’t pay enough attention to the senses. That’s definitely something to work on. One of the first critiques I ever got was about the lack of settings. I’m working in more descriptions now, but it’s still a weak point. I live very much in my head, so it’s difficult to put my characters in a real world.

      I didn’t really expect to get so many suggestions. You’ve all given me a lot to think about.

      1. Hooray! BTW I’m posting my own “Sensory Psychology Chart for Fiction Writers” on my blog at the end of this month. It’s a chart I developed to help myself and other writers discover and communicate how their characters react and interact with each other using the 5 senses. 🙂

  4. So funny how we all have our own strengths as writers… I always hear, “great description! I can hear/fee/smell/taste exactly what you’re talking about–but where’s the plot?”

  5. “…and my vague feeling that my writing should have something more.”

    My first thought was to flip this around and think about it more as: Isn’t it wonderful that I still have things to explore in my writing? Developing my style might be something I could explore, if I feel like it. Isn’t it great that I’ve made so much progress learning the bazillion other things that I had to learn to get to this point and still have something new to unearth in my writing for my own personal pleasure and satisfaction.

    Loved the comment by the person who talked about how an editor can help you develop your voice. I have never really worked with another person as an editor–frankly I never wanted to waste anyone else’s time since I don’t publish my writing–but now I am very curious how having a consistent objective viewer could shape something as personal as an author’s voice. Interesting!

    1. Hey, never expected you to hop over here. I should feel guilty, but I won’t. We’re both exploring and that’s a good thing. The feeling that there should be something more–that’s part of what keeps me looking forward to the next story, and the next. I’m not sure I’d want to work with an editor, but for different reasons. I want to figure it out on my own, let it grow naturally. I don’t think I could do that if someone else was sticking their finger in it, no matter how gently or well-meant.

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