Why is Writing Fiction so Difficult?

by Matthew Lowes

Years ago I taught a creative writing course, and I began the first class by writing a mathematical equation on the board. I suggested that the great difficulties of writing fiction could be understood through this equation. It was partly just a way to shock students into thinking about and seeing something in a new way. But the equation itself was a result of my own inquiry into the question: why is writing fiction so difficult?

At first consideration, it doesn’t seem like it should be. A friend of mine once remarked when I complained about some writing difficulty: “What’s the problem? Just make something up.” And indeed, in some sense this is good advice. He was only joking, but his comment actually helped solve my problem. When all is said and done, we are just making up stories. But like any good lie, you would like it to be believable … and like any good truth, you would like it have an impact. And to do this, you have to keep your story straight.

A piece of fiction may start with a character, a setting, an event, an image, or any number of things or aspects of these things. The story then builds with another thing and another thing and all the interactions and connections of these various elements. For the sake of argument, let’s call each one of these things, be it big or small, a story point.

The first one is easy. Take anything — the queen of a small island that is sinking into the sea … a young artist sent to the front lines of long and futile war … an ancient city on the edge of the desert … a fleeting glimpse into a stranger’s eyes — or just make something up. Like flashes from half-remembered dreams, these points bubble up from the subconscious, and a thousand stories begin to form.

One point, however, does not a story make. You have to add another point and another and another. And not only do the accumulation of points have to build tension and conflict, but they also all have to somehow exist harmoniously with each other. Each point that you add forms another connection, not only with the previous point, but with all previous points. And it turns out you can express this with an equation.

What this shows (I think … I worked this out with some help many years ago) is that for each new point added, the number of connections increases by a number equal to all the previous points. So with two points you have one connection; with three you have three; with four you have six; with seven you have twenty-one; and so on. By the time you reach fifteen points there are over a hundred individual connections. It doesn’t take a math whiz to see that the number of connections increases exponentially as you add more points.

Furthermore, this equation is only accounting for single direct connections to all other story points. If you want to count all possible connections through other story points, the numbers get truly astronomical — mind boggling! But you get the idea. There’s a lot to keep straight as you move forward. Luckily, it seems our minds are somewhat tuned to do this narrative processing work. Nevertheless, in any given story, and especially a novel, there’s a lot to keep track of.

And that’s just the telling a good lie part. If you want to include the good truth part, we’re going to have to add another dimension — a dimension composed of layers, consisting of all these same points on the level of theme, voice, writing, metaphor, character change, plot structure, mythic underpinnings, and so on and so forth, up to and including the ineffable.

That’s why writing fiction is so difficult.

Musings on Breathing Life into a Heartless Villain, by Pamela Jean Herber

 

What makes for a memorable antagonist?

I’ve been having trouble with the antagonist in my current novel-in-progress. She’s boring. I have a decent handle on how she operates in her world, and the role she plays in the story, but she feels more like a mathematical formula than a human being. What to do?… Go out in search of a villain I’m excited about who has similar traits to my antagonist.

An intriguing historical villain

In my travels through books, the Internet, and my own memory, I found a deliciously evil woman from the early 1800s who grew up in Bauzelles, France. Her name was Thérèse Humbert.

As a girl, Thérèse was betrayed by her own father. He had raised her to believe she and her family were wealthy aristocrats. When the truth came out upon her father’s death that she was not of nobility, and wouldn’t be inheriting great wealth, Thérèse was robbed of a station in society she believed she was entitled to. Without legitimate means to claim her place, she resorted to her father’s game. Fraud.

She continued to tell the tale of her family’s aristocratic standing. She was able to obtain credit based on soon-to-be received wealth, piling up huge debt buying a lifestyle that gave the appearance of wealth. Along the way, Thérèse’s husband, and her father-in-law covered her debts as best they could, perhaps to protect their own reputations. She convinced bankers to allow debts to go unpaid for long after they were due by weaving story after story of an impending inheritance and a favorable marriage by her sister.

Eventually, Thérèse was arrested, tried, and imprisoned, but not until after she had wreaked havoc on the hopes, reputations, and livelihoods of numerous family members, friends, and business associates. These unsustainable ways lead Thérèse to betray her younger sister in the very way her father had betrayed her.

With only a brief sketch of Thérèse’s life, I’m hooked.

What makes Thérèse Humbert such an interesting character?

  • The fact that Thérèse’s father betrayed her makes her need for money and status believable and heartbreaking. Her actions were still unconscionable, but I sympathize with how she became capable of them.
  • She betrayed her sister in the same way she was betrayed. Wow. Just wow. This makes me worry for not just the family, but for all the descendants, and especially the sister. Will it be possible for her to break the cycle?
  • The younger sister could not have been deceived without the support of family members who knew the truth. Thérèse could not have successfully defrauded so many people without the support of her very victims: family, friends, and business associates.

In light of what I’ve found, what can I try out on my antagonist?

  • Provide a single and traumatic event that drives her need for money and status.
  • Show that her daughter is at risk of falling into the same patterns of behavior.
  • Populate the story with a network of people that support the antagonist.

The villain in the story doesn’t breathe on their own. The person the villain was before the damage, and the people in the villains’s life who have retained their compassion, they are the ones who bring the villain to life.

It was a Dark and Stormy Sunday Afternoon

by Christina Lay

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I’ve written about how I tend to be a fast writer, a “panster” who plunges ahead at a furious pace and sorts it all out in an excruciating second draft. On writing retreats, I often irritate the hell out of fellow writers with my ability to completely ignore craft and grammar in order to get the words down (little do they know half those words are adjectives). My first draft motto might be “Damn the plot, full speed ahead!” Fingers flying, I am in the zone and happy as a hack-writing clam, if clams had fingers.

However, in the grey of long Sundays spent with ass glued to chair, I too experience the inevitable quagmire of a story gone wrong. Then every word is like passing a gallstone and every scene is as flat and grey as Iowa in January.

I’m fighting with a story now. Or actually, I’ve just finished fighting with a story, which is why I can glibly write this post and tell you all of my profound writerly epiphany, hard won in the trenches of poorly planned story crafting.

Like any writer, I fight with my craft and doubt my abilities. I slog, I wail, I gnash my teeth. But I keep writing. It’s a compulsion I’ve learned to live with and it works out in the end. Recently, I made the decision to stop working on a novel in progress in order to finish a novella with a rapidly approaching deadline. I would take a break, I told myself, whip out 40K words in two months, and then return to the novel and wrap it up in my usual take no prisoners fashion. No problem, right?

Wrong. Upon returning to the neglected story, I found myself sitting and staring at the page as precious minutes, hours and weekends ticked away with very little activity in the finger area. The characters had stopped speaking to me. The plot was a mysterious shambles. What had I been thinking? I couldn’t remember. My notes gave me no clear direction. It was agonizing. Life piled up, the house fell into disarray, but I had to spend every “free” moment slogging through this mess of a book.

It got so bad at one point I briefly told myself I could just walk away. Finish it later. Maybe it’s too broken. Maybe I should cut my losses and run.

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I haven’t had this pernicious thought in years. I have come to recognize it as the voice of doom. I shrugged it off, but it got me to thinking. Like any writer, I have a veritable library of unfinished first drafts. I even have unfinished third and fourth drafts. Some deserved to be abandoned, others not so much. The one thing they all have in common is that when the going got rough, I set them aside to work on something new and shiny.

I have quite a few decent starts, and I’ve gone back to try to finish them, and it just doesn’t work. The juice, the fire, the whatever-made-it-exciting-in-the-first-place, has fled. And that is why getting restarted on this current project was so damn hard. I shut off the flow (for good reason, purely innocent and all) and nearly killed the story. This was at three-fourths of the way through, over 50,000 words. In olden times, I might have quit. But now I’m what you might call a professional writer and I know my editor is waiting for this book. So I pushed on. Toiled. Had nightmares. Sank into a depression. Wondered if the ability to write had finally petered out. All of it. But I didn’t quit and today I am looking at the downhill slide toward the end. One more chapter and I will get to begin the hellacious rewrite. What joy. What rapture.

So my epiphany is “don’t quit”. Hmmph, you might say. Not terribly profound. But think back on all the unfinished projects. Are there good reasons they remain unfinished, or is it because the going got too damn hard? Be honest. Be tough. If you really do have to take a break, because you’re say, giving birth or have been accepted into NASA’s space program, make sure you leave yourself good notes, and try to stop in the midst of some thrilling action, to make it easier to jump start the flow when you get back.

I know so many good writers, really good writers, who never seem to finish anything. There is always the bright and shiny, the exciting, the better, the not-so-damn-hard, calling to us. There is even the dreaded siren call of maybe I’m not cut out to be a writer. But if you truly want to finish a book, or story, or poem, you’ve got to do the slog and wrestle the demons of doubt to the ground.

And then you write. Slow, fast. Doesn’t matter. Just don’t quit.

Five Ways National Novel Writing Month is Improving my Writing, by Pamela Jean Herber

For those of you who are not familiar with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it is an annual event scheduled for the month of November, which is hosted by nanowrimo.org. Hundreds of thousands of people across the globe accept the personal challenge to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in 30 days. This year I succeeded for the eighth time in ten attempts. Along the way I’ve learned a few things about how to work toward quantity and quality simultaneously. These are the first five that come to mind.

1. Maintain Mad Typing Skills

It’s only obvious that typing speed and accuracy will help in pounding out those 50,000 words. However, my ultimate goal is to write a story of value to myself and others. So, I maintain a skill level that renders typing to the instinctual level, where I’m not thrown out of the land of story to search for a key or fix a typo.

2. Exile the Censor

Even with mad typing skills, the words can come haltingly. This is where I tell myself that no one ever has to see anything I write. Even then, sometimes it’s uncomfortable to come face to face with my own raw thoughts and feelings. Allowing my imagination to flow freely through my fingers has taken practice. Writing as fast as possible has proved to be the most effective way for me to get over myself. The benefits are great here, not only in word count but in connecting more fully to my inner storyteller.

3. Set the Timer

Timed writings serve multiple purposes. First, by starting out with short sprints and increasing them, you can build stamina, get your brain into writing shape. Then by setting the timer to the same length for multiple sessions and then switching to another, you will develop a sense of the relationship between word count and speed. Also, by maintaining a habit of timed writings your words will gradually take on shapes that fit the time lengths.

4. Write to Constraints

This is where the fun part begins. By now you are able to write with such velocity that you can dial it back to focus on story. Start by giving yourself random prompts to write to, either to a specific time length, or simply allow the words to determine the length. This is not easy for me. I’m still strengthening my ability to take multiple elements such as character and setting and place, and insert them into the story place in my mind. But it’s getting easier. Once you’ve achieved competence at impromptu story writing, you will be on your way to writing to an outline.

5. Transition from Time Chunks to Story Chunks

Here we are at number five, where the previous four come together. I like to think of this as the place where I inhabit the time-word count-story continuum. Now, instead of focusing on timed writings, write to story chunks. These can be scenes, chapters, whatever. The chunks might be loosely defined or highly specified. They might come directly from the outline to your novel. The timer isn’t off limits here, but may not be necessary.

Use these five practices to remove obstacles to putting words on the page, and to tune your imagination to your inner storyteller. Then go out, or stay in, and write the best shitty first draft of a novel you can.

Is a Sentence a Story?

Is a Sentence a Story?
By Cynthia Ray

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It is said that Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) and called it his best work.

There are contests and websites dedicated to the one sentence “story”. Is one sentence a story? A haiku perhaps, an engaging thought or intriguing question, but is it a bona-fide story?

There are anthologies of 55 word stories, and books of 500-word fiction. They are interesting, artistic and sometimes haunting and beautiful, but when I  settle in on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a good book, I turn to longer, in depth, even rambling books, trilogies and Russian novels.

Is the one sentence story a sign that our attention span as readers has shortened, or have we simply added and expanded to the craft, playing with words in new and fun ways?

In my writing group, I got feedback on the length of my stories, and it reminded me of the fable of the three bears. Some were toooo long, some were tooooo short, and a few were just right, and it made me ask, “Is there a perfect length for a story?”

Some short stories were perfect in their 500-word essence. Others required 10,000 words just to get started. It made me think of the creative process; when I start a story, I don’t know how long it will be. I’ve started out to write a novel and ended up with a 3000-word short story, and I’ve started with a short story that turned into a much longer project.

In the end, word count is just another aspect of story telling, to be considered along with tone, theme, conflict, plot, characters and everything else. It is not that important to focus on, except when we don’t get it right. A story that is too long or short can leave your reader feeling bored, or unsatisfied, without knowing why.

As Neil Gaman said:

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How Do I Pitch MY Genre? by Eric Witchey

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How Do I Pitch My Genre? by Eric Witchey

After teaching a class, volunteering to help Timberline Review sell subscriptions, and signing my newly launched novel at this year’s Willamette Writer’s Conference, I was walking along a hallway minding my own business and wondering if I could get back to my room to take a nap before I had to face another room full of 100 people. A personable guy said hi and caught my attention. He was a volunteer gate keeper outside the pitch and critique room where aspirants bring their hearts and souls for fine tuning before presenting them in ten minute chunks to agents and editors looking for commodities from which to make a living. Making eye contact, I became aware of my surroundings and realized that the room was understaffed and several people were waiting for a chance to get what might be critical advice. So, I volunteered to take a few pitches and help hone them.

Mind you, there’s actually plenty of help for this kind of thing. The conference ran pitch practice sessions before the conference. They ran pitch practice sessions at the conference. Most of the people pitching had practiced with friends, family, and crit groups. And, as a last chance for final revision and preparation, the conference had a pitch practice room, into which I walked.

I sat down, and the kind people at the conference showed four nervous writers my way—one at a time. I had fifteen minutes to help each.

The four writers had been coached to provide half-page synoptic summaries of their books, and each showed up with pages that did that. The idea, as I understood it, was to give a sense of genre, of character, of content, and of market potential.

Well, that list seems pretty obvious to most people. After all, a science fiction adventure isn’t the same as a historical romance, right?

Wrong.

What was not so obvious is that these people were terrified and clinging to every bit of advice they had ever been given in the hope that it would touch the hearts of jaded professionals and give up a result that would change the writers’ lives and let them connect their hearts through their words to the world.

Can you say, “TERRIFIED?”

One had a fantasy romance. One had a historical novel. One had a non-fiction book on how to talk to kids about sex. One had a cryptobiography. All had decent concepts that could fly in the market. Mind you, I hadn’t read the stories themselves. I only had access to a few pages of pitches and the problems the writers had encountered in trying to sell their stories.

So, we got to work.

In three of the four cases, I realized I didn’t have much to add to the long-form pitches the writers had honed. However, I did have the communication consultant skills and personal experience of 25 years of freelance work. So, I gave all three exactly the same thing.

Emotion.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, I pitched my first novel—a novel that later sold in Poland, but that’s another story. While practicing with my good friend Gail McNally (no, not the actress), I was proud of what I had done and of the fact that I had memorized my pitches cold. Gail listened kindly—eyes closed, nodding, pinching her nose. When I was done, she said, “That might work if you put the emotion in.”

Huh? Obviously, she had missed something because I knew it was a brilliant pitch. After all, I had read about pitching. I had talked to other people. I had carefully crafted my pitch. I had a 30 second pitch, a three-minute pitch, a full page pitch, a five-page synoptic outline, and a full synoptic outline. I was freaking loaded for literary bear.

What the hell does emotion have to do with selling the product?

So, long story short, I lost the argument and rewrote it all with an emphasis on character emotional change.

My first time pitch nailed an editor and let me choose between several interested agents.

Why? I now know it was because stories are not about things or events. Stories are about how people change emotionally and psychologically. Things and events only facilitate the changes.

Yes…. The things and events have to be “interesting and unique,” but they are only truly interesting in that they are connected to emotional change.

So, I helped each one of my three fiction charges fashion a one- or two-line pitch that captured the three Cs:

Character, Conflict, and Change.

You could say it is really only two Cs because Character is really made up of an emotional/psychological state, and Change is really just the character as they appear after they change because of the conflict. So, really, it’s just Character, Conflict, and Character, but that’s a bit confusing and doesn’t really sound right in a culture that likes to think in threes.

Essentially, we put our heads together and came up with statements like:

Soul and psyche torn down to nothing by the murder of her family, outcast 1940’s gay homemaker Millicent Monroe faces insurgent Nazis in the Iowa farmlands and consequently discovers deep connection to the community, land, and country that persecuted her.

Okay, that’s not really one of them, but maybe I’ll write that book. We’ll see.

Anyway, three of the four walked away with a similar statement and some communication consulting advice about how to speak, how to make eye contact, when to pause, and how to manage the transition to their larger already prepared pitch.

One, however, didn’t. That one makes the other three all the more interesting. The fourth person had career as a sex education lecturer, consultant, and therapist. She had a values-neutral book about how to talk to kids about sex. Her problem was also emotion, but it wasn’t the emotion of the book and characters. Her problem was that every time she pitched the book, people’s “sex stuff” came up and interfered with their ability to see the product she offered. Her problem was that she needed to disarm her audience’s emotions in order to allow them to look at her work.

That was interesting, so we worked the same problem from the opposite direction and provided her with language that identified her platform and established a context in which the content created result for the readers who bought the book. We brainstormed keywords that would frame the conversation in terms of platform, product, and market. I also recommended that she add an additional agent I knew to her pitch list.

Results?

Over the following couple of days, one-by-one, each of the four sought me out to share their excitement and success. Each one hit—and not just once. They all got requests from every agent and editor they pitched. All of them.

Why?

Here’s the bit that isn’t as obvious. These writers had been prepared by professionals to walk in and deliver fairly lengthy pitches that made use of the time available—ten minutes. Those pitches might have done fine by themselves without my help. However, agents and editors don’t take pitches in order to hear the story that takes a book-length manuscript to tell. The take pitches to filter the masses through sieve in order to find the writers who control character and story. If a writer truly controls the craft of presenting character and story, then the writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly.

Conversely, if a writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly, it is likely that they control craft well enough to deliver story. When a writer succinctly states the emotional core of character, the conflict that changes them, and the new emotional makeup of the character, agents and editors hear much more than is stated. The result is that they sit up, quite literally, and start to ask questions that can only be answered by reading the manuscript. So, the pitch creates a conversation that leads to a request for pages.

In the unique case of the non-fiction writer, the emotionally charged material wasn’t the problem. The problem was to help people see the product rather than let their emotional response to product become the primary experience of their encounter. It is really a mirror image of the same problem.

But it’s different for different genres, right?

Nope. Genre doesn’t matter on the heart and story level. Never has. Never will. Genre is marketing category. Yes, you don’t pitch space opera to a commercial woman’s fiction editor. Don’t be entirely daft. However, genre isn’t story. Genre is only a taxonomic label for expectations concerning things and events. Sometimes, genre influences the mix of techniques used for telling a story, but genre has nothing to do with heart and soul and hopes and dreams. The story comes from the writer’s heart and seeks to touch the reader’s heart. Pitching is about letting a potential buyer know that the writer understands heart and controls story craft well enough to deliver emotion to the reader.

-End-

The Art of the Overwritten First Draft

IMG_6383By Lisa Alber

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m the master of writing bloated first drafts. I like to tell myself that it’s all for a larger cause. There’s a saying attributed to everyone from Ray Bradbury to Robert Heinlein to Elmore Leonard that it takes a million written words to become a competent writer. If this is true, then I must have hit the magic number by now.

And so …

I’m here to tell you that you, too, can become a competent writer just like me!

Want to hit your million words toward competency? Yeah? Then do what I do! Write morbidly obese first drafts. Savor all those words marching their way across the page toward your mastery. Delight in the fact that whereas other writers underwrite their first drafts, by the time you complete yours you will have so much to work with you won’t know where to begin. Imagine the thrill of deleting whole paragraphs, pages, and sometimes scenes!

It’s fun. Join me! Enjoy the thrill of puffy, self-indulgent, sometimes melodramatic drafting!
IMG_6381To help you on your quest toward the magic million, I give you my tips and tricks for overwriting your first drafts:

  1. Do it like a kindergartner: Don’t just show when you can show and tell. That’s right, go ahead and let the character expound on his plan for trapping the bad guy before you have him actually do it. Never mind that this spoils the suspense, bring it on!
  2. Don’t use one sentence to describe how a character feels when you can have her endlessly obsess about how everything bad in her life comes down to her mother. When in doubt, over-analyze!
  3. Do hit the reader over the head with the same point about your character’s traumatized past in 50 different ways, with each way more eloquent and poetic and beautiful than the last.
  4. Do add extraneous subplots that go nowhere but showcase your wondrous talent for “quiet moments.”
  5. Don’t forget long-winded metaphors triggered by weather. Ripping winds and lashing rains are especially useful for sinking into the descriptive abyss.
  6. Do use every moment in every scene to show everything. Don’t let a chance slip past when you can expand a simplIMG_6382e narrative statement into a full-blow Moment. Yes, capitalized.
  7. Don’t forget to have your characters over-react, thus inciting pages and pages of scrumptious dialog.
  8. Do use the same delicious words over and over on the same page. Words such as “scrabbled” and “molten” are fun — make them bleed on the page!
  9. Throw a party! It’s never too late to invite more characters into the story even when they don’t forward the plot. I bet they’re the ones with the wittiest one-liners!
  10. Last but not least, do it like I do and blindly feel your way through the plot, digging into those false starts and trying-to-find-themselves scenes. Munge on, my friends, munge on!

Stay tuned, next time I’ll be bringing you “Self-Tortured Revision for Dummies,” in which you too can detest everything about your so-called competency as you polish a 500-page white beast from hell into submission.

P.S. Afterthought: I forgot to mention, Do include dopey redundancies such as, “She picked up the vase with her hands …” You know, as opposed to picking it up with her feet.