Learn Before You Write

Monday, January 15, 2018


I belong to several writers’ organizations that have email listservs for asking questions of other members. Recently, one woman sought guidance on how to get started writing fiction and asked for recommendations about classes, retreats, and other ways to learn the craft. One person recommended a specific online class, but the next person essentially vetoed that. The second person told her to just sit down and write it and then find some beta readers or a critique group to read it. Her response seemed to accept that advice, but it also highlighted her naivete. (I won’t give the details because I don’t want to embarrass her.)

Yes, if you want to be a writer, you have to write. That’s so obvious that it always surprises me when people feel they have to say it. But you start by writing short pieces and exercises, not with a book you hope to publish. Especially if it is fiction.

I just finished reading several middle-grade novels—all self-published or from small publishers—written by people who don’t understand how fiction works. The authors knew nothing about point-of-view or showing versus telling or how to make dialogue sound natural. And if I hadn’t been reading them as research, I never would have finished. I certainly won’t be buying anything else by those authors.

Experience has shown me that it is much harder to write fiction than nonfiction. Obviously, all nonfiction should create interest and flow well, and those types labeled creative nonfiction (e.g., memoirs and biographies and anything that tells a story) can be closer to fiction than to other nonfiction offerings. But creative nonfiction aside, most nonfiction is read for the information it contains, not for how it is presented.

Novels are different. Fiction readers don’t want information—they want an escape. A successful novel brings them into the story with the characters to experience what the characters experience and feel what the characters feel.

That’s what the fiction conventions are designed to do. A consistent point-of-view (single or multiple) helps readers identify with the characters and experience the story with them. A sudden POV jump breaks that connection. Showing helps readers see the world through the characters’ eyes. Too much telling distances the reader from that world. Dialogue that uses tags improperly makes the entire scene feel stilted and unrealistic.

So my advice to the woman on the listserv is to take classes and read books and attend conferences on writing fiction.

Then sit down and write.

1 comment:

Gordon Stamper said...

Great advice, Kathryn!

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