Fiction Fundamentals


7 March 2015

From Dave Farland:

Of all the topics on how to write, I suspect more books have been written on how to create solid characters than on anything else. So there are a lot of great resources out there on how to create characters, and I can’t even touch on every topic that I would like in the space of an article this short.

Let me just say a few things, though. We are often told that our characters should be “round,” rather than stick-figure drawings. If you were an artist and you painted a picture with stick figures, people would say, “Well, that’s not very realistic. It is hardly recognizable as human.”

The artist tries to create characters who have the dimensions of real people. The same is true with people in stories. They have (but are not limited to) the following attributes:

1) Real people have physical bodies with inherent limitations and strengths. These bodies get hungry, hurt, and have urges all their own. They also have a history of ailments and injuries, various scars, and of course plenty of traits that we may or may not want to include in our tale—including things like foot size, ear size and shape, and so on. Trying to describe some of these traits is danged near impossible.

2) Real people have families and friends. In young adult literature, just about everyone is an orphan. That’s because editors don’t want authors to have to deal with family issues, just focus on the kids. Yet far too often, authors don’t create extended families primarily out of laziness. Similarly, each of us has various levels of friends, business colleagues, people we are attracted to, and people who are attracted to us at some level. We might include in this list of associations things like pets and plants. Does your heroine keep African violets around the house, and tenderly nurse her geraniums? A likeable character is usually one who show kindness to others, who seeks out deep and lasting commitments—even if it is just to her flowers.

. . . .

5) Real people have an internal life, invisible to the naked eye. This is a good category for a lot of things—emotional needs and phobias, ideals, and so on. These might include secret beliefs, hopes, desires. It also includes our own personal way of seeing the world, and includes how we cope with it. Sometimes our personal ideals are at odds with our public affiliations. For example, while most people profess some sort of religion, very often our personal beliefs might vary in some way from the official doctrine of the church that we espouse.

The internal life of a character is of course where we get the “meat” for our novels. A movie can easily capture the exterior of a character, but novels do a better job of capturing the internal feelings, moods, and beliefs. Yet that’s only part of the reason why novels are so popular and are often said to be better than the movies they inspire.

I’m convinced that we have an innate need to get to know one another from the inside out. You see, most people, if you look closely, seem to be rather odd and inexplicable. They act in strange ways and have crazy notions. (I, of course, am the exception!) So we learn quite early to distrust others, to fear them. As a child of four, I recall getting spanked in a grocery store by a cranky old lady. When I went to school, in the third grade I had a teacher who seemed bent on destroying the life of one little boy in our class. A couple of years later, I had a neighbor who tried to trap my little sister in his barn. I was able to stop him, and shortly afterward learned that he was the serial killer who had been haunting our town for years. In other words, people can be strange and scary.

Yet we have a biological impulse to “join the herd,” to find a mate, to interact with others, befriend them, serve them, and rely upon them. In order to do that, we have to learn to understand them, to figure out who is friend and who is foe, and the key to that is understanding why they act as they do.

So we spend a great deal of time analyzing the motives, beliefs, and actions of others. We compare ourselves to them, and sometimes we are changed by them—in ways that are rather dramatic.

Hence, the internal lives of our characters are the most fertile ground that an author may plant his story in.

Link to the rest at David Farland

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When to Stop Polishing a Manuscript

10 February 2015

From author Dave Farland:

Many new writers don’t know when to stop polishing a manuscript and move on to the next. Part of the reason for that might have to do with Ernest Hemingway.

Many years ago, a writer asked Hemingway, “How many times should I rewrite a manuscript?” Now, Hemingway hated dumb questions, so he answered “Oh, at least 60.”

He loved doing that to writers. On one occasion, a writer asked him what kind of chair he preferred to sit in, as if perhaps the brand of furniture that an author had planted his butt on might somehow confer literary genius.

Hemingway answered, “I don’t sit when I write, I stand.” And a generation or writers began to write standing up. The problem with that is that you can go to any one of Hemingway’s old homes or offices, and see the chairs that he sat on.

On another occasion, a writer asked him how long she should wait between drafts when revising, so that she would be able to look at her story “cold.” He suggested that it should be two years.

Think about it. If Hemingway did sixty drafts of a novel and waited two years between each draft, he would have never finished a single book. Don’t listen to bad advice, even when it comes from a genius.

Back when I first began writing, I used an old typewriter. I didn’t like it. I had to really bang the keys hard, it was noisy, certain keys didn’t work well, and the type was uneven. Because of this, doing rewrites was difficult. I’d type out a draft, make extensive corrections on the page with a pencil, and then try to type out a perfectly clean copy.

Using that system, it would have been foolish to repeat the process sixty times. Because of this, in the 1920s and 30s, a professional writer would typically try to learn to write a finished copy in a single draft. It was simpler to write out a nice outline in longhand, and then thoughtfully type out one clean draft, than to retype a piece over and over.

. . . .

Of course with the development of computers, revising became quite easy. My first computer would allow me to put only 2 pages of text on a disk, but by the late 1980s I was able to get first a whole chapter, and then with the addition of a hard drive, an entire novel in a single file. It wasn’t until then that rewriting became so easy that it became problematic.

You see, as an editor I’m looking for stories that have some originality, that carry an author’s own voice, his odd quirks. But when a new writer begins showing a manuscript around to members of her workshop and polishing it further and further, eventually the author tends to lose her own distinct voice. The result is, that the story can become less interesting to me as an editor with every draft.

So the question is, how many revisions does a novel or short story really need?

. . . .

As I rewrite, I try to avoid changing both the voices of my characters and my own narrative voice. Rather than polishing away the differences between voices, I think it’s better to look for ways to heighten the unique characters in the tale.

In fact, on one of my last rewrites, I do what I call a “voice edit,” where I go through key characters person by person to make sure that their voices are consistent.

Link to the rest at David Farland and thanks to Cora for the tip.

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books.

Spectacular Settings

2 February 2015

From author Dave Farland:

When I’m looking at a story, one of the simple things I look at is setting. There are so many aspects to setting, so let’s just look at a few:

1) Is your milieu intriguing? Many authors will set a story in the most blasé of places. Often, the story is set “somewhere in the USA”. While for certain types of stories this may be completely appropriate, in most cases it’s not. It’s as if the writer has suffered brain death and couldn’t bother to come up with a real milieu. In most cases, it helps if you choose a particular place to set your story, and a particular date.

2) Is the world fully created? If you’re using a real-world setting, then “creating” that world is a matter of capturing it—learning its history, culture, and future. It’s not enough just to research a setting, you have to know it, get it into your bones. This usually means that you must travel to that setting and spend some time there. You can’t just blow through Amarillo, Texas and expect to really know the place.

In a science fiction tale, if you want to set your story on a planet, then creating a setting might require you to decide what kind of star system your planet is set in, along with the planet’s composition, rotation, axial tilt, number of moons, type of atmosphere, and so on. You may have to think about how to create alien life-forms, and develop their life-cycles, and perhaps create their histories, languages, and societies. Just getting those kinds of details takes some concentration.

If you’re creating a fantasy world, then you may have to look even further—into creating the flora and fauna of your world, along with cultures and subculture, the magic systems and economic systems, societies, languages, histories, religions, and so on.

So I look at how robust your setting is. I consider how fully developed it is. I ask myself, “Has this author put enough thought into the setting to create the illusion that this is a real place?”

Link to the rest at David Farland

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books

Avoiding Premature Publication

17 January 2015

From author Ann Warner via Romance University:

Forgoing the traditional imprimatur of agents or editors, authors who self-publish become the ones responsible for judging the quality of their work. The problem is that after passing through the creative maelstrom required to write a novel, the author’s judgment about the quality of their story is likely to be flawed.  Rightly or wrongly, the author may be convinced that her story is

A. So wonderful it would make Hemingway weep

B. So dreadful it’s not worth even a penny

C. Probably good enough

A and C are by far the most dangerous choices, because they are likely to result in premature publication.

On the other hand, if the conclusion is B, and the writer overcomes her discouragement, she may then begin to look for ways to improve the story.

I didn’t begin writing fiction until my mid-fifties, when my position as a director of a hospital toxicology laboratory ended abruptly with the closure of the laboratory. While trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life, I received a surprising nudge from my sub-conscious to try writing a story.

When I finished that story, it was, in my opinion, most definitely an A. Every one of its 125,000 words was perfect. Had self-publishing been a viable option at that time, I would have chosen it. Immediately.

But self-publishing wasn’t yet easy, something that was lucky for me, because the novel was most definitely not an A. I began to recognize its B status after a friend read the book (or perhaps only a few pages) and then brought me flowers and congratulated me profusely on writing it. Only later did I realize she’d said nothing about whether it was any good. I still feel an immense gratitude to her for so gently bumping me back to reality from my first novel infatuation daze.

. . . .

I talked a professor into letting me take a senior writing seminar in the MFA program at the university where I was a faculty member. Not necessarily a path I recommend.

I joined RWA and began attending my local chapter’s meetings and writing workshops.

I searched out other writers to serve as critic partners in person or on the internet.

I began querying agents and publishers and learned to cope with the subsequent deluge of rejection.

Most importantly, I started reading books and articles on writing craft, noting specific suggestions I could begin using as I started working on another novel.

. . . .

I gleaned a number of specific suggestions that I began applying during my revision process and while they may seem simplistic, I discovered they had a dramatic effect on the quality of my writing. They included:

Avoid overuse of names in dialogue: “Yes, Cassandra, I see the whale.” “Oh, I’m glad you do, Jonah.” “Of course, Cassandra, I’ll just move out of the— eughhhh!” Etc, etc.

Avoid dialogue tags like she screamed or he yelled in favor of the simple he said/she said and limit modifying adverbs (e.g. she said coaxingly, angrily etc.). Instead “show” these attributes by writing robust dialogue.

. . . .

Storytelling, you see, is a right brain, creative activity. Whether it can be learned is an open question, but it can certainly be enhanced, and I have a two-fold recommendation to help with that enhancement.

First, teach yourself to pay attention to those flickers of inspiration presented to the conscious mind by the unconscious through dreams, daydreams, or random thoughts.  The trick is to catch those quick glints before they fade, and then make a note. Otherwise, they will fade, and you will forget. Guaranteed.

Link to the rest at Romance University

Here’s a link to Ann Warner’s books

25 Must-Read Tips on Plotting from Top Authors and Editors

22 December 2014

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

Plot is story; story is plot. Without something happening, your characters aren’t pushed to grow and you can’t show their carefully crafted complexities.

With a well-formed plot, you pull in the reader with flawless tension handling, robust arcs, and vibrant themes.

. . . .

1. Structure is required in all of art. Dancing, painting, singing, you name it–all art forms require structure. Writing is no different. To bring a story to its full potential, authors must understand the form’s limitations, as well as put its many parts into proper order to achieve maximum effect.

K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel

. . . .

5. The fix for most script problems is to give serious attention to the movement from one narrative moment to the next. The easiest way to understand what a narrative moment is, is to ask two questions: What does this action or this line of dialogue force the audience to question? How does that information relate to previous questions raised by the story?

Clive Davies-Frayne, Why I Don’t Read “How To” Screenwriting Articles Anymore

. . . .

7. Plotting with mini arcs can be a handy tool to break your novel into smaller, more manageable pieces that keep the story moving and the ideas coming.

Janice Hardy, Plot Your Novel With Mini Arcs
8. As you are working out the plot for your book (or, for you pantsers, as you are trying to figure out what happens next,) make a list of all the things that could happen next.

Kara Lennox, The Plot Fixer #8 – Is Your Plot Too Predictible?

9. Make coincidences add complications, not take them away.

Jami Gold, The Green Lantern Movie: How *Not* to Plot a Story

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Writing Dialogue

14 December 2014

From author Rowena Macdonald via Glimmertrain:

Many writers say they find writing dialogue difficult, which I always find surprising, as, without wishing to sound self-aggrandizing, dialogue is the one aspect of writing I find easy. To me, it isn’t that impressive to find dialogue easy. After all, we are primarily verbal creatures, we are surrounded by conversation every day, and most of us spend more time watching films and TV than we do reading books. I am always far more impressed by writers who are able to craft complicated plots, for example, since this is an aspect of writing I find difficult. To my mind, plotting is a superior skill because it isn’t something that occurs in reality: events don’t pan out in a neat, compelling sequence, loose ends are not neatly tied up and much of life is mundane, unsymbolic and random.

. . . .

1. Read it aloud. If it doesn’t sound natural, it isn’t. Make sure it sounds different from prose. Remember, few people talk in complete sentences.

. . . .

4. Don’t write out “ums” and “ers.” They are realistic, but they look cartoonish in a piece of literature. Instead, use ellipses to give the impression of pauses or uncertainty. Ellipses can also be used at the start and end of dialogue, when someone has been talking for a while and is likely to go on awhile, to give the impression of the other characters tuning out.

. . . .

6. If writing dialogue for a character with a specific accent, don’t write it out phonetically, as this can look patronizing and old-fashioned. Use odd syntax and a few choice bits of slang to convey their accent.


Link to the rest at Glimmertrain

Here’s a link to Rowena Macdonald’s books

Cutting to the Heart of Your Story

27 October 2014

From Dave Farland:

Many times as an editor, I will look at a scene and ask myself: “Does this scene belong? Does it move the story along? Does it change the story in new and exciting ways?” Too often, the answer is, “No, it’s wasted text.”

I recently looked at a novel that had a fantastic opening. The problem was, that that great opening didn’t come until fifty pages into the book. Any editor would have rejected the manuscript long before that.

Every single page was well written. The characters were fleshed out, the character’s voices and dialog were convincing, the details of setting were great.

The problem was that those first fifty pages consisted of people talking, relating their backstories, and introducing themselves to the audience, and it just didn’t work.

. . . .

1) Do your characters do anything, or do they just think? Too often, I will see scenes where characters just sit and think about what has happened. “How did I get in this mess?” The chances are good that this kind of scene is garbage. You’re trying to lead up to the action when you do this. Instead, let characters think while they are in action.

. . . .

3) Two characters have a conversation—but nothing changes. Very often I see conversations that seem to be rather maid-and-butler, where one character says, “Gee, Bob, you know I think we have a major problem,” and the other says, “Yes, I agree.” That’s all a waste.


Link to the rest at David Farland

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books

Creating Characters and Grading Research Papers

11 October 2014


From Roger Colby at Writing is Hard Work

This week has been hectic.

The 11th grade research paper was due and I have been in the middle of grading them. Such is my life.
However, in the midst of this, I have been thinking about what makes excellent characterization as I construct my newest character driven novel series.

In Orson Scott Card’s book Character and Viewpoint, he states that when creating characters, writers must ask three questions: “Who?” “So What?” and “Huh?”

What Scott Card means by this is that we first must answer who the character is, why the reader should care about the character and then finally the writer must remove all doubt about whether or not the reader should follow this character throughout the writer’s narrative.


I put together a few tips of my own that will address Scott Card’s questions concerning crafting characters, and I hope they help you as well:

Real World Avatar –

I found a neat little feature on Scrivener used for character creation that allows me to insert a picture of my character in order to reference that particular character. This has allowed me to peruse Google images for an actor or actress or even concept art (for aliens) that would be a visual representation of the character I am creating. For my main character I envisioned Benedict Cumberbatch (if my book were a film) and so I inserted a picture of that actor on the character biography page. This helps me answer the “who” because my main character (if my book were a movie) would be played by Benedict as my first choice.

Curious Development –

The character must have something happen internally to them in the plot that drives us to follow them to the end of the novel. If we do not create these curious developments we will find our readers leaving half-way through the novel to find something else to do. This requires us to create some kind of secret about the character that is only hinted at throughout the core of the plot and then revealed later. This element needs to be a mind-blower, something that probably might be out of character for them, but not enough that it defies logic. Life itself is not logical at times, and if we can translate that to text, we’ve done our job as novelists.

Well, now that I’ve shot out these few tips for the week, it’s off to grading the rest of the research papers. I only have seven left.


Read the rest here.

From Guest Blogger Randall

6 Tips for Writing Minor Characters

28 September 2014


I’m sure most writers know how to craft a major character; they understand the importance of their leads and that they should occupy the most page space. Yet every story needs supporting characters. Today, it’s all about the minor players, those characters we see briefly and yet are so well written they’ll stick with us.

. . . .

Give them a reason for being there. I know it’s tempting to flood your pages with all the colorful characters your mind can dream up, but if characters have no role to play in the plot, they need to go. Remember it can be a small part, or even an addition to the subplot, but they should serve a purpose.

. . . .

Tie them to a fixed place or single role. Context helps readers keep characters straight. If you confine the minor character to a single location or the same job the reader is more likely to remember them. Keep that helpful teacher at school, or make confusion over seeing the teacher in a new context part of the exchange.

. . . .

Although great minor characters help every book, in series books they become an even bigger asset. Put simply, minor characters make your world building feel real.

Link to the rest at From

Keeping it Fresh

30 August 2014

From author Dave Farland:

When you’re writing a long novel, sometimes as a writer you feel that you are getting stuck in a rut, that your prose has become repetitious, so it is important to find little ways to vary your work.

Most often, writing teachers will suggest that authors write sentences or paragraphs (or even chapters) of varying lengths.

For example, Ernest Hemingway is often considered the “master of the short sentence,” but in every story that he writes, when he gets up to the place where a thematic climax comes in, he will suddenly write long sentences—as long as three or four hundred words even.

. . . .

Anyone who has ever suffered through bipolar disorder knows that even a single protagonist can suffer through violent mood swings that seem to have nothing to do with what life throws at them. Thus, a character may be on top of the world one day and suicidal the next. So the emotional tone in a novel can vary widely, too.

I’ve seen authors who struggle to put in characters who are wildly different, so that each person is highly individual, and that can be fun, since it pushes you to really delve deeply in order to create interesting characters. Thus, you can look at the works of Arthur Conan Doyle in Sherlock Holmes, and find many interesting characters with odd habits, unusual costumes, and so on.

Sometimes you can simply alter your style in small ways to good effect. In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the author will go for fifty pages of dialog where the beats—the character’s internal thoughts and the descriptions of the external settings and character actions—are all skillfully interwoven through the dialog.

Link to the rest at David Farland and thanks to Eric for the tip.

Here’s a link to David Farland’s books

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