The most important thing in fiction writing is a compelling story. There are a number of ways to achieve that--character, plot, writing, etc--but it's the most important thing.

And no one can tell you how to do it.

Seriously. No class, no workshop, no blog by any agent (no matter how awesome) can make your writing compelling to others. It is, or it isn't. Period.

But what those other things can do is help you avoid mistakes that everyone makes when they aren't thinking. J.A. Konrath judged a short story contest back in June, and he's got some guidelines about how not to write a story. His list is all examples of things that writers do that slow a story down or make it feel like every other story out there. Prologues, dreams, a character waking up, weather...all things that happen over and over and over again, and are almost never a good idea.

My favorite? "Do Not Start A Story With A Setting Description." The funny thing about this edict is that one of my most favorite books in the world is East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which starts with basically a whole chapter of setting description about the Salinas Valley, where the story takes place.

That's the point, really--you avoid these mistakes until you're John Steinbeck, and you don't have to anymore. And even if you become John Steinbeck, you still don't need to start with a description of setting; I always skip that chapter anyways. :)


How do you know when you're John Steinbeck and can break some rules? Ha ha. Do you wait for people to tell you or is it something you just know?

I agree with your points but not surprisingly, I have some thoughts on the matter. Some of the items you mention do get in the way of plot but every now and then, some of them are even more interesting than the plot and worth the diversion. Not often, heck, not even a lot of the time. Done properly, it can work. I still get comments from friends/readers about the weather descriptions in my book. Funny thing is that I really did not set out to have so much weather in the book but then I thought that since the book progressed month by month, folks who don't live here might like to see exactly how people who do live here feel about the weather. I did try to connect the weather to the story in some fashion (i.e., blank winter snow and Mohammed Atta's trail going cold) so as not to completely leave the plot. Not sure if I succeeded all the time but as I wrote, those sections actually became something fun for me to write and I figure if I'm enjoying writing it, perhaps somebody will enjoy reading it.

I guess I see the danger as a book being all plot (The Da Vinci Code springs to mind) and very little else. Such books are very fun to read but nothing sticks, you know what I mean?

It's a fine line, that's for sure. Follow all the rules and you might end up with a cookie-cutter book that nobody remembers five minutes after they read it. Break too many rules or break them badly and you might end up with a real piece of junk.

It should come as no surprise to you that I want to break some (not all) rules just to see what happens. I'm super-bored with formulaic writing these days. Even when it works, it's so noticeable, isn't it? You read along and you say "let me guess, this is going to be a red herring and then the author will leave us hanging here for a bit and so on and so forth."

Perhaps really good writing is when you don't think about the formula or the rule-breaking at all.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 12:44:00 PM EDT  

Newer Post Older Post Home