Recent Lessons In Writing Fiction
Looking over some books on writing, as well as looking over my own earlier writing (just edited into a new anthology release – Hooman Saga: Book One) and got a good look at my progress over the last six months.
Then compared it with a real master (Heinlein) who cut his teeth on the short story (and had to trim his 12K stories down to 6K – saying that this taught him more than anything else.)
And found out some fascinating things worth dropping everything to tell you.
The books I picked up recently were Orson Scott Card’s “Characters & Viewpoints” and Mort Castle’s “On Writing Horror” – both incomplete at this writing but worth relaying the useful data I’ve found so far.
Using MICE to Train Your Author Craft
Card has this “MICE” acronym that stands for four types of stories, and four elements within each story’s telling:
Per Card, they also define what your character will need to become. Because your characters tell the story, usually.
The point I got out of this is that the bulk of my short stories are idea-based, rather than devoted to the worldview (like Tolkien) or character-centric (consider Harry Potter) or event-driven like most thrillers and the early pulp fiction.
The great part is that you don’t spend a lot of time on characters or setting in an 8K story. But the pissy part is that my characters have been doing a lot of talking about their ideas (telling, not showing.)
Now, one key point of Castle’s book for me was found in a short republished interview of Harlan Ellison. Here Ellison made a few great points –
- Writers should learn to write in many genres, so they improve their art (and also become more profitable.)
- Writers control their destiny.
- The secret is staying a writer. Which is hard, and means to keep growing, be flexible, and be able to recognize when the world has gone on and changed without asking your opinion.
- You don’t become a writer, you stay a writer.
The Trap of “Writing to Market” Vs. Trusting Your Muse
This is the point where I quit learning from DW Smith and Geoff Shaw and even Chris Fox. They all talk about how to write to market. And emphasize that as a way to get started. Smith’s wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, had a different take from Smith in her own course about writing the short story. Her take: you write the story and then find where it fits to publish it. In our day and age of ebook publishing, this is as simple as working out the category you should publish it in.
Of course, you can dress it up with covers and descriptions that fit its major genre most closely. Ellison had a different view of Horror writing – that he wrote “fiction of the macabre.” And in that phrase you see that he’s writing closer to Rusch than Smith. Look up Smith on Wikipedia, and you’ll find he’s most known for his Star Trek books. I got onto his courses (which is what he seems to be mostly concentrating on now) because he is advertised as prolific – and I wanted to learn more efficiency in my writing. His courses are pretty good. Once I quit learning, then I was gone. (It was when I could see the difference between his own opinion based on his experiences of what worked for him – and what I could learn by just reading more broadly and continuing to write.) Shaw and Fox both tell you to figure out what the market wants and then write that. Just that. Lots of good tips. But they only take you so far.
The mentors are out there – but courses and books about writing don’t replace the necessary doing.
My writing only “works” when I’m true to the story. Otherwise, it’s drudgery. You have to trust your muse. You have to write what you love and what you’re personally interested in. And I attract the stories that hold the ideas I want to explore. Some are pure romance (“The Ghost Who Loved“) and others are mystery-detective (“The Case of a Cruising Phantom“). And I’ve worked with a larger story that was just continuing action events (“Two Ghost’s Salvation“). The rest have combined elements of romance, mystery, and action through them.
I pick up and work out mastering those three physical plot structures in a way to resolve the ideas I’m struggling with.
And study each of them as a purer form to improve my writing.
Binge Watching TV Series Vs. Reading to Improve Craft
So far, I’ve been pretty content with just watching/listening/binge-ing TV series to see how the characters develop. Or procedurals like “Murder, She Wrote” that become tediously similar every show – you have to simply take a break from them. “Angel” is a nice break, as this is all about his angst. “Buffy” (where his show spun off from) was OK up to the fifth year, where they made her a tragic hero in the finale. (And the last two years sucked after that.) So I don’t know how Angel will come out. For now, it’s decent to watch the character arcs, much like “Star Gate” and its “SG: Atlantis” spin-off.
But I picked up a Robert Heinlein story tonight (“To Sail Beyond the Sunset”) and saw instantly what I’m missing in my prose. Within the first two pages, the heroine spit out enough clues to have you entranced and wanting to figure out the mystery she was involved in. Two pages. (Essentially, escaped an imploding star ship with her cat while seeing a person with their arm blown off, only to wake up nude next to a dead man in a strange hotel room.) Instant murder-mystery. And I don’t know where the detective is on this – yet.
That’s Ellison’s point. If you read typical murder-mysteries, you are usually starting it from the sleuth’s viewpoint. But not Heinlein.
Needless to say, I just pulled my collection of Heinlein ebooks up and sorted them by word count to see how he writes short stories.
Ellison had another worthy quote in that Castle book:
“…there are occasionally writers who deliver something good enough to make wading through the crap worthwhile.”
Shades of Sturgeon’s Law: “90% crud.”
While Ellison was talking about Horror writing, I’ve found that I drop nearly all the books I read within the first couple of chapters. That said, I recently stumbled across a half-decent YA romance preview that is giving a much better example of how to talk through the two lover’s viewpoints than the bulk of the 90210 series I’ve watched/listened to. (The only long-running “romance” TV series that wasn’t also a comedy. But the first year is mostly about teen melodrama and their family angst, so it needs to get to decent romance in the second year, or…)
Learning From Perennial-Selling Books, Not Just “Bestsellers.”
This goes back to finding the perennial-sellers again. The ones that never go out of print. In Western’s, this is L’Amour, Max Brand, etc. Detective-Mystery goes to Poe, Doyle, Rinehart (who also had some short stories). Action is easier – Doc Savage series and the various non-procedural TV series. But the reason for reading is to improve your prose. Anyone can duplicate the six-part hook/four-act-plot/teaser screenplay that is common on TV. But how to get the same pathos, logos, ethos in 8K words is a different skill.
Mastering your craft is continuous per Ellison and others. But the craft goes beyond simply mastering what the current market wants. There is a reason that L’Amour’s books never went out of print in his own lifetime. He mastered his craft into a timeless form – and then continued improving it.
Sure, I liked every story I ever wrote and published. But now I can see where I’ve gotten a lot better than just a few months ago. That’s the core reason for focusing on being prolific. And in writing short to begin with.
A Decade of Writing Forges the Author’s Iron into Steel
I’d say that a decade of writing will prove that you (and I) know what we are talking about. DW Smith made that point – the real pulp fiction writers stayed with it for decades. As have the routine big name novelists. I’ve already seen some “authors” turn over to marketing courses full time when they saw how much more money they made. Just in the past ten years I’ve been self-publishing.
Not that I’m going to continue writing my fiction at the pace I have and will for the rest of this year. Not that I’ll ever quit being prolific, but I have a lot of non-fiction to write and convert into courses. Because this site (where this article originally appeared) is devoted to the system of living sensical. Being able to write and publish viable, profitable content is just one part of one-quarter of that. And is just this year’s challenge. Writing fiction and learning this craft meanwhile.
So that is what I learned recently about fiction writing.
Talk to me in another 10 years and I’ll be able to give you a more refined perspective…
Also published on Medium.