9 Things About Fiction I Learned the Hard Way (Guest post by @StartYourNovel)

Continuing our series of advice and support articles we’re delighted to bring you an article from JM Bell. We had the pleasure of meeting JM through Twitter many moons ago in the iWriteReadRate journey, and have been enjoying his posts and tweets ever since. Read his article!

9 Things About Fiction I Learned the Hard Way

by JM Bell

1. A book is just like a sandwich.
How do you name a sandwich? ‘Ham on rye’ mentions the ham first. BLT – bacon, lettuce, tomato – leaves out the bread altogether.

Readers care a lot about fillings. The middle part of a story is hard to write because you need variety in your sandwich, but certain ingredients just don’t go together. Like pickled eggs and cranberry jam. (Yikes.)

The closing chapters of a book, and especially the final chapter, have to live up to the promise you made when the reader took her first bite. So a book is a kind of sandwich where the second bread slice, the ending, is slightly more important than the first.

2. Everybody struggles.
Before he died, Franz Kafka asked his best friend to burn all of his manuscripts. Now hailed as a master, young Kafka took a dim view of his own work. You can be a media mogul or a Mogadishu slumdog: self-doubt haunts everyone.

3. Realistic dialogue is not the same as a real-life conversation.
You don’t have an editor sitting by your side at the pub, correcting your grammar and berating you for wasting time on irrelevant gossip. Or telling you to go easy on the preaching.

‘Realistic’ is whatever sounds natural given the circumstances.

· A Greek god wouldn’t talk like a homeless schizophrenic from Glasgow. (Unless he were trapped in his body.)

· A healthcare professional does not sound like a Tai Chi instructor or an insurance salesman. Not while they’re on duty.

· Soccer players tend to be rowdier and speak more freely than Franciscan monks.

· Social and political constraints matter. People living under dictatorships do not express themselves the same way as those who live in democratic countries.

4. Two things are especially hard to write about:
Fighting and dancing. They’re not unrelated. In The Life-giving Sword, Yagyu Munenori observed that you should never give a sword to a man who couldn’t dance.

Protip: Bernard Cornwell writes especially good fight scenes, deploying a number of action verbs (wheel, thump, kick, spin) to good effect.

5. Sight gags don’t really work on the printed page.
Visual comedy needs visuals; try writing a summary of a Buster Keaton film and you’ll see what I mean.

When writing comedy, understatement is a reliable friend. Irony is fickle and elusive; hyperbole, potentially damaging. Handle both with care.

6. Technobabble is the easiest way to date a work of fiction.
I was hooked on Star Trek TNG growing up, and the conversations with a ‘technical’ slant sounded so very complex to me. If you’re going to write about science, you’d better know something about it. Otherwise, it’s reversed polarities all the way down.[1][2]

7. Attack the five senses.
Readers want to see your character, taste the hot cross buns she just baked, hear the phone ringing in her pocket (her ringtone is Dick Dale’s Misirlou Twist), smell her favorite scent (anise) and feel the warmth on the soles of her feet as she stretches her legs toward the radiator on a chilly November evening.

Characters to fall in love with or hate with a passion — that’s what your book needs.

8. Shakespeare was a mash-up artist.
Innovators are simply people who know how to keep their culture alive. Culture devours the new and turns it into the old, and vice-versa. Star Wars is a Greek tragedy/Western/Samurai flick in space. Akira Kurosawa wanted to make Japanese Westerns. Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle rewrote Dante’s “Inferno” as a science-fiction tale.[3]

9. “Write what you know” is dangerous advice.
Instead, I’d go with “Pick an unfamiliar subject and learn more about it.”

And choose a day job that won’t give you carpal tunnel syndrome.


[1] Legend has it that an old lady accosted William James after a lecture and told him his speech was all fine and good, but he should get his cosmology straight: the Earth was a flat disc, borne by four elephants that stood on a turtle’s back.“Well, what does the turtle stand on?” James asked.“Oh, no, Mr. James,” the old lady said. “You won’t get me that way. It’s turtles all the way down.”

[2] Patrick Stewart approached the role of Picard with gravitas and urbanity, and Captain Picard was one of the reasons why I watched every single episode of the show.

[3] They even had a special place for Kurt Vonnegut.
John Magnet Bell is a translator, photographer and blogger. He churns out story prompts like there’s no tomorrow. Follow him on Twitter or Google+ and say goodbye to writer’s block.

What does everyone else think? What things about fiction have you learnt the hard way?

Take a look at our other guest posts:

To Plot or Not To Plot by Terri Giuliano Long

eBook Cover Design Advice from Jan Marshall

iWriteReadRate Interview Series

Weed, Tighten & Shine by Terri Giuliano Long

Don’t forget to visit our website to read our ebooks and get involved in the community: iWriteReadRate.com (click on Beta Site)

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