5 Ways to Improve Your Fiction

This week's advice tackles the craft of writing fiction. Whether you're secretly aiming to be the next J.K. Rowling or you just dabble with fiction in your spare time, here are five ideas that will serve you well.
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So I'm back working on my novel again. I'm not going to lie to you; it hasn't been easy.

When I sat down in a café a few weeks back and read through the first 50 pages, I almost packed it in right then and there. When all is said and done, you can read all the "just-keep-at-it" narratives you want (including, most recently, Kathryn Stockett's tale of how it took her 60 tries before selling "The Help"), but at the end of the day, when it's just you and a big, fat pile of revisions staring you in the face, it's really easy to give up.

But I didn't. I'd promised my fiction writing group that I would devote August to revising the beginning of the book. When you really need to get something done, there's nothing quite like making a public announcement to hold yourself accountable.

I also kept at it because I want to see what -- if anything -- comes of this project. And summer is a great time for tackling big things.

And of course, that age-old adage always holds true: the fear of attacking something on your dreaded to-do list is always much greater than the actual task itself.

I've offered tips for how to edit productively before. This week's advice tackles the craft of writing fiction. Whether you're secretly aiming to be the next J.K. Rowling or you just dabble with fiction in your spare time, here are five posts that will serve you well:

1. Beginnings. Over on Copyblogger, writing instructor Jeff Sexton has a great post on how to hook your readers. Drawing on screen-writing guru Robert McKee's concept of the inciting incident, Sexton advises readers to identify, up front, that moment or incident that gets the story rolling and lead with that. Most of us -- including me -- do way too much throat-clearing at the beginning of our stories. Get rid of all that. Don't underestimate what the reader already knows. And always have in mind the final mental image you want your readers to come away with and write toward that.

2. Character. Respecting your audience is also a theme driven home by Becky Tuch over on the fabulous writing blog Beyond the Margins. Like me, Tuch is a recently-converted enthusiast of "The Wire." In her post "What Fiction Writers Can Learn From 'The Wire,'" she notes that what makes this television show work so well isn't just the complexity of the plot and authenticity of the dialogue. It's that the writers consistently use little character traits to illustrate bigger themes (e.g., McNulty's failed marriage to talk about failed institutions more generally). And they also create dangerous characters like Omar Little. A character whose very presence embodies the threat he or she poses to the other characters will be someone readers will be riveted to see.

3. Dialogue. Robin Black also writes eloquently about character and dialogue at Beyond the Margins in a post called "You Don't Say." Black points out that fiction's real appeal is that it allows us to have unlimited access to the thoughts of other people. But dialogue isn't the only tool for accessing those thoughts. Rather, she recommends writing scenes where you have your character think of saying something but then decide against it, have a character's mind wander so that she loses track of the conversation, and/or insert a running commentary of what the character is actually thinking along side the real-time conversation. I've been trying all three techniques lately and really enjoying it.

4. Plot. One of my favorite bloggers on fiction writing is A. Victoria Mixon. Mixon is chock full of useful advice. But I really liked a post she did on plot. Mixon suggests that all novelists place four post-it notes above their desks: one that reminds them of the central "what if?" premise of their story line, one that reminds them of their protagonist's over-arching, all-consuming need, another that reminds them of that protagonist's conflicting need, and one that identifies the protagonist's worst nightmare. So simple. Genius.

5. Originality. There's an old writer's saw that there are really only seven original story lines out there and everything you read or see is a re-working of one of those. That may be so, but if you're hoping to peddle your fiction to an agent or a literary journal anytime soon, be sure to have a look at this list of plots, story-lines, techniques and situations we often see over-used or poorly executed at the Hayden's Ferry Review. Ouch. (Hat tip: Practicing Writing)

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