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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Fiction Writing 102

So, in case you're wondering, my novel-writing isn't going so well. I'm trying, but man, it's tough. Things are crazy busy with the holidays, but that's only part of my problem. I've discovered what a "bleeder" I am - I write very slowly because I want every sentence to be perfect, even on the first draft. I'm trying to write as fast as I can and not "bleed" over every line. It's tough. Plus, I'm plagued by self-doubt - Why does everything I write sound so dumb? Why are my characters so stiff? Who's ever going to read this piece of crap? And so on ... The weirdest thing is that I can read someone else's book and tell you exactly what's wrong with it, but I'm having trouble making my own idea work. I've said to myself a million times, "I could've written that and much better, too," but can I, really? I'm not so sure anymore.

A funny: The other day, my 7-year-old daughter asked me to read a story she's been working on. She told me, "Mom, I know that parents always tell their kids that everything they write is good, but I want you to be honest. Do you really like it? Is there so much description that it's boring? Or is there not enough description? I really want to know and I really want to be a published author. Do you have some, you know, editor friends who would look at it for me?" How is it that she, at 7, is so thick-skinned and self-aware when I, at 33, cringe at the thought of anyone actually reading my pathetic attempt at fiction?

ANYWAY, the thing that's been great about this process is that I've been reading some really helpful writing guides. They've helped re-teach me the craft of fiction writing. My favorite so far has been How to Write A Damn Good Novel, but I know there are more great ones out there. Anyone have any recommendations?

All this rambling really is leading up to a book review, I promise. Here goes ...

(Teensy tiny image from Barnes & Noble)

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham is exactly what it says it is - 38 chapters on errors many writers make on the road to publication. As a novelist (according to Wikipedia, he wrote the book that inspired The Apple Dumpling Gang - I used to love that movie!) and writing professor, he looks at book creation from the standpoints of students, beginning writers and professionals. If you're expecting the book to reveal the great mysteries of what publishers really want, you're going to be disappointed. Bickham focuses on the basics: clear story goals, tight plot structure, dynamic characters, etc.

The most instructive chapter for me is 27: "Don't Criticize Yourself to Death." The following really gave me something to think about:

The most common formof lethal self-criticism, it seems to me, is often heard in the young writer's wail, "This story I wrote is really dumb!" Or, "This whole plot line is dumb!"

What writers who uter such lines are relaly saying, I think, might be paraphrased as follows: "This is the best I can do, but I'm deathly afraid it isn't slick and clever enough, and therefore you are going to think I'm a stupid person for having written it."

Such fears are as much a part of writing fiction as headachs, wads of crumpled paper on the floor, and rejection slips. When you write fiction, whether you realize it or not (and at some level you probably do), you are risking revelation of your dreams and deepest emotions. It's frightening to reveal yourself this way, even indirectly. Further, the act of writing is tied very close to a person's ego structure; I have seen students shaky with even a brief paragrpah of factual material. "Criticize my work, criticize my personal essence," the feeling seems to be. The most humdrum piece of writing somehow represents the writer's worth as a person sometimes. Small wonder, then, that the writer of a story or even (horrors!) a novel often gets worried sick - literally - about whether the reader may think it's dumb. Because if it's dumb, the writer is dumb. And if the writer is dumb, he is also, ipso facto, worthless, an object of potential ridicule ... doomed.

Thus, it's perfectly natural for you to worry that some character or bit of dialogue or plot line you just wrote may be "dumb."

It's natural - but it's also dangerous ... So stop it. (77 & 80)

While I didn't find Bickham's book nearly as entertaining as How to Write A Damn Good Novel, I still found it instructive. The chapters are short and to-the-point, but still cover a lot of ground. Much of what he says, especially about scene structure, reminds me of another of my favorite writing books, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing by Evan Marshall.

Like How to Write A Damn Good Novel and The Marshall Plan, Bickham's book was written in the pre-Internet years. I wonder how the CyberSpace Age has changed the craft, if at all. What's your opinion? And what other writing books should I be reading?

What I'm finding from all these books is that writing fiction really is a no-brainer. Follow the formula and voila! You've got yourself a book. All you published authors make it look so easy ...

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: G

To the FTC, with love: I bought this one with my own hard-earned money, and I didn't make it reviewing books. Actually, I didn't make it at all ... my husband did. And not by book blogging, either.


  1. I am just the same way when it comes to writing. Everything I've written (which isn't much, unfortunately) is complete rubbish. I think I need to get some writing books. The only one I've read was Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. It was helpful, though I think I've forgotten everything I read in it.

    P.S. I'd love to read anything you wrote!! Your posts are always so good.

  2. I wrote 5 sentences of a fiction novel once. What seems so easy when criticizing some of the crap that gets published suddenly seemed insurmountably difficult.

  3. Robyn Carr wrote "Practical Tips for Writing Popular Fiction" in 1992. It's also great basics and fun to read, besides.

  4. I'm the same way- I want to stop and agonize over every single word, juggle every sentence and paragraph until each one conveys exactly what I want to say.

    And that's totally the wrong way to do it.

    I've finally gotten past that in my writing, at least this time. Every time I catch myself wanting to stop and pore over every comma, I stop and force myself to plow forward- I can fix it later. Rewriting and editing will happen later. Right now, I'm writing the skeleton, and I can flesh it out totally when I come back.

    It's working so far. 68,000 words and counting. :)

    As for writing books, I read "How Not To Write A Novel" earlier this year and LOVED it (come to think of it, why didn't I review that?!?!?). Not only did it help me realize a character was nothing but dead weight, it was hilariously funny. Highly recommend it!

    Good luck and keep writing!


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