Contrary to popular belief, the ability to write — and write well — comes with practice, patience and mastering basic literary mechanics. For both, experienced and beginning writers of fiction, getting words down on paper in a cogent and compelling manner can often turn into a harrowing experience. Often, fiction emerges from the fortress of a writer’s mind — where it once nestled safely — as a radically transformed creature, a far cry from what the writer originally imagined.
Writing is dirty, difficult work. There’s really nothing glamorous about sleep deprivation, anxiety and constant self-doubt. It’s a full-time job that requires commitment, investment, and respect. However, a de facto rulebook — a Bible for struggling authors — does in fact exist in different variations.
Given below is a general style guide for learning and improving the craft.
1. Read, read, annotate
“I encourage writers to read voraciously and pay attention to what they’re reading,” says Shehryar Fazli, author of Invitation. This is a cardinal rule, especially for fiction writers: devour books not only for content but also style, language, structure, dialogue, plot mechanics and characterisation. Mark it all up, annotate viciously (use a pencil if worried about defacing the book). This is learning by example; rest assured, writers who don’t read will never be read.
2. The age-old adage: ‘show don’t tell’
Perhaps the most crucial tip. Inexperienced authors take to narrative explanations to ‘reveal’ information, as opposed to letting it unfold organically. Sticking to a third person limited narrative allows the story to speak for itself through character development, action, dialogue and plot.
3. Plot mechanics
Although the plot need not be linear (meaning, it doesn’t have to follow an A to B progression; start at Z or X and retrace), maintain the reader’s interest. Conflict engages the reader; without which the writing becomes dull and listless. Hurl obstacle upon obstacle at the protagonists.
Model your characters after real people. It’s important for them to ring with a chord of truth; ask yourself ‘are they human/relatable? Do they have faults and dramas that make them accessible to the reader?’
Read it out loud. It should sound real; if the dialogue doesn’t sound real enough, cut it out.
6. ‘Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting’: Jonathan Franzen
Avoid excessive verbiage. This is a crime of the beginner, trying to disguise inexperience with modifiers and descriptive overkill. Read Ernest Hemingway. Know how to respect language and use it sparingly: one carefully selected word or phrase does the work of paragraphs.
7. Don’t describe scenery
Limit descriptive language to the absolutely necessary. Describe a pond only if it’s essential to the plot (say, someone drowns). Similarly, avoid the obvious: for example, writing ‘blue sky’ is unnecessary and blatant. Readers already know the sky is blue and that it exists. Instead, write about clouds darkening to foreshadow conflict or a plot twist. Moreover, avoid writing ‘weather’ unless it’s absolutely necessary (a tornado is about to demolish the protagonist’s home).
8. ‘Don’t wait for inspiration, discipline is key’: Esther Freud
You’ll get nowhere without a routine — inspiration only goes so far and isn’t readily available. Set daily hours and a word limit (500-1000 per day) and stick to those hours.
9. ‘Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving’; Neil Gaiman
The writer should avoid editing until and unless a substantial amount of writing has been produced (say 50 to 80 pages for longer fiction, 10 to 15 for shorter ones). Otherwise, the writing gets interrupted.
10. Know when to stop
As is the case with any regular job, the employee eventually comes home. After meeting the daily quota, put the work aside and give it no thought. Return to it with a fresh perspective.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2011.
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