How to Start Writing Fiction Stories That Grab Readers
All of these books and all of this practice finally started to sink in.
My stories that I wrote last week and yesterday continue to be crap that I need to publish anyway. They are perfectly good for what I knew then, and are the best I could write. But today, they are crap. That’s how you learn.
You have to write daily, read daily, promote daily. And somewhere in there, keep reading legitimate books about writing craft.
Of course, it doesn’t really sink in until you get some decent books and work to figure out what the hell they are saying. And you have to throw a lot of books away, even if their other books might be decent.
How to Learn Craft from Brand Name Authors, not Alsoran’s
I began to look up the author bio before I would read their book. And see if they didn’t also have a teaching career on the side. If they only wrote one or two books on writing and made their living otherwise from writing alone, then the book might be OK. Books like Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Dean Koontz’s “Writing Popular Fiction” and Ray Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing.”
I’m looking forward to Orson Scott Card’s “Characters and Viewpoints” and may drop anything else I’ve started to pick that up, because it may be reflected in what I am about to tell you.
That said, there are two books which have made my short list otherwise: Ben Bova’s “The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells”, Sue Grafton’s “Writing Mysteries”, and Mort Castle’s “On Writing Horror.” (Those last two are compilations.) And I might pick up Robert Lewis Stephenson’s “The Art of Writing” just as a side check.
Then the rest of the now 212 books in that stack should go through a simple scan/skim process to see if they can contribute anything.
The difference is in whether you are studying a genre fiction author, or a bestseller brand author.
That said, I got the Patterson videos and saw that it was a vanity project, not really contributing anything new. He doesn’t tell how he is so prolific or how he got that way. He just talks. King’s book is much better, so is Bradbury’s.
Big Books and Small Books
As D. W. Smith said, there are “big books” and “small books.” The big books are from the bestseller brands. The small books are the genre fiction. Even though a guy might have written 80 novels, if he still has his professor job in some college/university, then it’s not a big book author. Sorry. It shows in how he writes his non-fiction.
The attitude that should come though is a “been there, done that, and here’s what I think works for me.” The books that thank a lot of other authors for where they compiled their data (and only King and Bradbury are on their list) is just another also-ran. They were in the race and ran behind the big book authors. They ate the dust of the bestseller brands. And many, many others ate their dust and still do. But that doesn’t mean I need to. I’ll get up where the air is a bit cleaner, thank you.
I just want to get the basics down quickly. Because I see that most of my training will come from two areas: writing (a lot) and reading (just as much.) There are no short cuts to these. If you want to learn a genre, read the big books in that genre. Sure, read the current genre small books, but just to pick up what the audience is saying they want.
The three areas I have narrowed down to are the three physical plot structures: mystery, adventure, romance. I’ve covered this before (at that link.) But I’ll write in each of these structures to see what happens and how to make these work. Until I figure that I’ve got the basics. And then I’ll push into some sub-genres where there are a lot of buyers and I can get a cut of the action there. All in this first year of the Great Fiction Writing Challenge. And then keep going for a couple of decades or more after that.
How to Throw Away Perfectly Rotten Books
Use your Editor Mind. If they don’t grab you in the first 5 pages or so, dump them.
This is what I learned again last night. Crappy fiction doesn’t get any better. Lousy openings don’t make a book better. You aren’t mining for raw material here. You don’t have to be patient. Remember Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of all that out there is crud/crap.
I’ve suffered through collections of short stories until I got disgusted. If I could, I would have thrown that book across the room. But it was on a tablet, so I just deleted if off the device. I wanted to study the tropes of a paranormal sub-genre (werewolves) as I am in the middle of writing about some (you’d have to ask my muse why…). But the editing was a bunch of crap. They through a ton of various and assorted stories and styles and structures. They put tragedies right next to successes. And I put it down more than once. But my mistake was not throwing it away after the first put-down. Because it was crud.
Great books will snag you at the beginning and drag you straight through. Like Louis L’Amour – you can only take a break in the middle of a chapter. (So I’m hunting up his collections of short stories.)
You’ll find that they narrow down to certain areas – like the Writer’s Digest series “Elements of Fiction Writing”. These tend to be more “non-crud” than the rest of my stack.
The Three Main Elements to Master
In every first act of any story, there are three elements:
- Problem (“conflict”)
The trick is how to tell these. Consider it a love triangle. They all interact with the reader and each other.
What I know now is that the reader most wants to identify with the character. And everything has to come through the viewpoint of that character. His actions and attitudes toward his environment will introduce the reader into that world, pull him in deep, and not let go.
It all has to be through that character’s viewpoint. Your second chapter will (probably) introduce his love interest. And the villain comes in there somewhere, probably as a mysterious creature. Those last two are auxiliary characters, the story is about your main one.
By the actions and attitudes of your main characters, you see the world around them. You have to look through their eyes and describe what you see. But it’s all show, not tell. Actions speak louder than words.
Earlier, I told about how to train your inspiration (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.) Now, I say that you need to interview your character, to wrestle with him and have him tell you what he’s looking at and what his problem is. Write your character inside out. Look through their eyes and write what they see, what they feel.
Your character, setting, and problem are all defined by each other. In a romance, one of the first things I learned was that it’s really all about the woman. Her setting has to be appropriate to her character, or it will be a comedy. How the character uses the resources he/she has in their environment will shape that environment. People like character-driven plots, not plot-driven characters. You’ll find that the character shapes their own environment, just as we individually do in real life.
All of this is by writing into the dark, not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’re going to get there. The first action is to ask your character, “What are you looking at, and how do you feel about it?” Then write it all down. Have you-as-the-character walk around and get busy dealing with the problem “you” are experiencing. Then write it all down. If “you” need something, push along and get it or fail in trying. Again, if you aren’t involved in your writing, neither will your reader.
If you just sit there and talk, you’ve got a narrative, but nothing dramatic. And go back to that Lester Dent model. Before you get done with the first act, the main character has to get into a heap of trouble, and then get out of it in the first part of the second act. He’s got to have learned something from that failure.
That will lead him to try something else and fail at it, but learn some more. Then he starts taking it to the villain and usually barely escapes certain doom, but once more he places himself in even more dire situation, a crisis and climax, then solves everything and wins the day.
All of this is reading the story that wants to be told through the eyes of that character.
And that is all I know right now from where I’ve studied and practiced up to this point.
Here’s hoping your writing is improving just as well – or better.
Study those links above, and they may help..
PS. Here’s a link to an author who narrowed the best craft books down to five – in his opinion. He tells why those books worked for him. (I was looking for that Algis Budry’s book…)
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Also published on Medium.