Category: How to Study Fiction

How to Study Fiction, Part 10: Scenes, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Scenes are the building blocks of your fiction.  If you can turn out a nicely crafted scene, readers will forgive almost any mistakes you make (except when it comes to characters–like killing them off or making them act out of character).

Scene issues at this level:

  • Second-guessing whether a scene is “finished” or “good enough.”
  • A feeling that something is missing but not knowing what.
  • Information delivered at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
  • Author intrusion and rants.
  • Disorganization.
  • Dragging chapters.
  • Characters spending a lot of time talking to each other about stuff they already know.

One of the major issues with a lot of writers’ scenes is that they are poorly organized.  The writer knows that a certain amount of information has to be delivered to the reader, but sticks it in willy-nilly.  Or the writer might not put in all the information the reader needs at all, thinking that hiding information will increase the drama and tension of the scene.

(We won’t get to tension in writing until later, by the way.)

Here’s something that most beginning writer books won’t tell you:

Structuring a scene properly will take care of a lot of problems that sound like minor problems…but that you can never seem to fix.

If you’re getting feedback on your scenes being:

  • Boring
  • Talky
  • Full of too much description
  • Ranty
  • Confusing

Then it may be that you’re just not telling the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it.

And the way to fix that is through the structure of your scenes.

Basic scene structure, coming right up…

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How to Study Fiction, Part 9: Reading, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues (post-reading!):

You’ve read the book.  Now what?

I’ll go into more depth about specific techniques as we go through the other elements of what you’re studying.  For example, when we talk about pacing, I’ll explain how to drill down into how to study pacing in what you read.

But for now, the long and the short of it is:

Type it in.

If you want to know why something works or doesn’t work, the first step to analyzing it is to pop yourself out of the dreamland that is reading, and move behind the scenes.  This is incredibly hard to do.  Good writers are brainwashers, creating an almost inescapable spell over your attention span.  If you try to read something in order to study it, you may pick up some things subconsciously, but you’ll probably fight against it.  “No!  I’m breaking the rules!”

Typing something in lets you stay conscious and awake, but doesn’t break the connection to your subconscious.  Your subconscious learns whatever it’s going to learn (and learns it better, too, because of the extra time you spend with the text), and your conscious brain gets to make observations.  It’s the difference between taking a bullet train over the landscape and walking on foot.

You cover a lot less ground, but it’s ground that you know in the soles of your feet.

Do you have to type in the entire book?

No!

I recommend that you type in:

  • Whatever element you’re currently studying, from several books that you enjoy.
  • Openings.

As you’re moving into intermediate writing, the biggest priority most writers have is that their openings are terrible, start in the wrong place, are boring, or have a lot of action and no reason to give a crap.

Type in the first section, or maybe the first 1000 words, of anything you enjoyed reading after you finish it.

Even if you do nothing else from this series, this is the thing that’ll put you ahead of most of your compatriots after a few books.  If you’re looking for “the big secret of writing success,” this is it.  Type in openings for a while.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 8: Reading, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues:

First, what to read.  You have a number of options.

  • Read deeply, that is, inside the genre/subgenre you’re most likely to write in.  This will give you the deepest views of the tropes involved in your genre, but will not help you write work that appeals to readers outside your genre or across genres (per se).  You will be at far less risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, but you will miss out on mining other genres for stories that your genre hasn’t used to death.
  • Read broadly, that is, across genres.  This will give you a better idea of the concept of “story” in general over time.  It puts you at higher risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, and at first will confuse a lot of issues when it comes time to write in your own genre, but will pay off more later, as you’re able to identify different reader types and what they want.
  • Read for mastery, that is, studying the masters of fiction in order to steal their techniques.  The general idea is to read books from a writer who is a current bestseller, publishing for at least 15 years a book a year, but only the books that have been published in the last ten years.  You, too, would like a long-term, bestselling career with a book a year coming out.  You, too, would like to use the latest techniques for getting this done–not techniques that went out of style in the 1950s.
  • Read with focus, that is, with some other emphasis than merely genre concerns.  This is something you can use to stay within a genre as a reader but not get stuck in a rut of reading what you always read.  For example, you might read only books written by authors of color, or from the 1930s, or from Japan, or simply a “best of X genre” list.  This often can uncover a prejudice or shortcoming in your own writing.  However, this is also a great way to make yourself hate reading.  People usually read for comfort, and this kind of project is almost deliberately uncomfortable.
  • Read for research, that is, digging into books that will help provide background inspiration for what you’re writing.  The benefits are obvious, but the drawbacks are many.  Not only can reading too much research material hamper your efforts to make the material you’ve researched flow naturally into a book and prevent you from writing at all (the research rabbit hole!), but reading solely for research can prevent you from achieving any other goals.  No depth of genre, no sense of story, and no questioning your assumptions.  Be careful with this.

Personally, I tend to mix up all of these, because I read quickly and can afford to spread my reading time around.  I also read for pure pleasure, but again, this is because I can afford to.

It may be highly beneficial to take some time and learn how to read faster.  This can help you read more books, but can come at the expense of fully enjoying the books you do read.  On the other hand, learning how to fly through books that you hate but need to understand can be a real benefit.

Personally, I do most of the techniques listed in this article, at Lifehacker.  It isn’t just about reading faster, but about preventing reading fatigue.  I often switch between a difficult and a pure-pleasure book to keep myself refreshed, or take a break on the really hard ones and cruise through a bunch of mindless websites.

And yes, I find that holding my thumb along the side of the paragraph I’m reading totally helps.

As a side note, in order to find the books you need for any of these projects (anything other than “pure pleasure”!), just google “Top 100 Books of X.”  For example, you might google “Top 100 books of science fiction” or “Top 100 books of alien invasion science fiction” or “Top 100 books of all time” or “Top 100 books of authors of color,” or “Top 100 books of the French Revolution,” or whatever.

Google will give you a number of top-whatever lists, whatever the number happens to be.

Next time:  You’ve read a book and you have all the feels.  Now what?

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How to Study Fiction, Part 7: Reading, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

What to read, how to read, and how to start studying it.  Every professional writer seems to have the same kind of advice:  Read more.

But you could read the back of the cereal box all day and not get better as a writer.

So…what?

Reading issues at this level:

  • Being unsure of what one’s reading goals should be versus what you’re trying to achieve as a writer overall.
  • Being unsure of how to understand why you felt about a book the way you did (either to love it or hate it).
  • Feeling like reading someone else’s book choices is a waste of time.
  • Feeling like you’re missing something and you don’t know what.

When you’re reading as a reader, you basically only have one goal:  to please yourself.  One’s pleasure as a reader isn’t something you should ditch as a writer, either.  Sometimes I wonder if learning what you love and don’t love about a book isn’t 80% of the work of improving as a writer anyway.

However, when you’re a writer, you have some additional tasks as a reader that need to be met:

  • Understanding the genre(s) you’re writing in.
  • Understanding how stories work on a primal level.
  • Identifying what elements of storytelling you enjoy in a practical (“So that’s what is missing from my stories!”) kind of way.
  • Getting at the roots of what makes stories valuable for readers.

Being a professional reader (which is kind of an aspect of being a professional writer!) means both understanding what best fits your own tastes and why other readers read what they do.

When you hit that point, you no longer roll your eyes at bestsellers you don’t like.  Instead, you start going, “So people like book X because it gives them Y.  I like Y, just not how it’s done here…why not write Y in my own way?”

Getting better as a reader is about half the raw data that you need in order to decrypt what makes a book good or not.

Where does the other half come from?  More on that in a bit.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 6: Words of Wisdom

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

I’d like to take a moment to interject something that came up in the middle of writing these posts.

I talked to multiple other intermediate- and higher-level writers on this topic, and what they mainly wanted writers going through a transition from beginning to intermediate writing to know was:

  • There is no finish line when it comes to learning about writing.  You will never run out of things to learn or relearn.
  • You will need other writers for sanity and support and getting better as writers more than you can imagine.  Invest in networking.
  • No words are wasted; nevertheless, there is an immense power in throwing out words.
  • Being able to write on command is an essential part of growing as a writer; “mood” can go to hell.  If you can’t write on command, you’ll never get in the zone where writing is easy.
  • On the other hand, you can’t rate everything about writing in terms of words per minute, or dollars per word.  Part of the journey here is becoming as much “yourself” as a writer as possible.  In other words, writing isn’t just craft; it’s an art.
  • You can’t see the patterns in what you write and what you love to write without a body of actual, finished work.

They also made a lot of smartass comments, but I’ll skip those 🙂

I felt like the journey from being a beginning writer to an intermediate one was very emotional and transformative.  There were days when something in my subconscious was running in overdrive so hard I could barely process the world outside me.  I went through terrible mood swings on a regular basis–great writer, terrible writer.  Great writer, terrible writer.

I believe that any field that is sufficiently complex and creative has a kind of process like this–cooking, music, woodworking, programming, martial arts–where you move away from the limitations and structure of following rules and head out into the wilder territories of, “We’re not sure, but try this…”

I firmly believe it’s a kind of magical process, and should be respected as such.  That is, a lot of work that occasionally produces sparks of something that are more than what they came from.  It’s wonderful.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 5: Productivity and Speed, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Resources related to productivity/speed issues:

  •  Look for good general productivity, happiness, and habit-changing books and websites, like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or Eat that Frog.  They often talk about how to practically juggle conflicting priorities.
  • Look for good writer’s habit books, like The Artist’s Way or Bird by Bird, not to teach you how to write so much as to teach you how to survive the long haul as a creative person.  These books will help you dig down to your emotional fears about writing.
  • Sign up for a writing challenge that will definitely stretch you from your current habits, like National Novel Writing Month, in order to test your skills.  It doesn’t have to be NaNoWriMo, and failing one just means “this is not for me.”  Don’t harass yourself about failing any writing test.  Identify why you didn’t succeed, and look for a different writing test.
  • Start tracking your word count using different periods of time:  five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, etc.  When your words per minute peak, you’ve found your ideal writing session time.  (You can often string several shorter sessions together, with a short break to refill a cup of coffee between them.)  If you are totally against wordcounts, you can track pages per day–or stories per month.
  • Look for good books on building writing speed, like 2,000 to 10,000: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love.
  • Make a note of any distractions that occur in your writing sessions and decide how to get around them.  To block selected sites on the Internet, for example, try Freedom software.  Make part of your writing routine handling distractions before they can occur.
  • When you write a piece of fiction, allow yourself to spell-check the work and look it over one time to review for missing pieces, oopsies, or extraneous pieces.  After that, send it to an editor for submission or a freelance editor to get it ready for indie publishing.
  • You don’t have to be perfect.  Intermediate writers are still better than 90% of wanna-be writers.  You are writers.  But, well, you’re not master artisans yet, and nobody expects that you magically turn into ones.
  • Other technical issues should be addressed later in the series 🙂

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How to Study Fiction, Part 4: Productivity and Speed, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle productivity/speed issues:

  • Discovering and resolving fear issues around writing (I’m not good enough, I’m taking time for myself when I have too many other responsibilities, etc.).
  • Discovering what triggers writing techique-based distractions and using focused study to progressively resolve them.
  • Discovering when a story is “finished.”
  • Controlling your physical environment.

It’s important to probe into any emotional issues surrounding writing.  Finding a practical balance is never easy, but if you don’t start making a space for your creativity, you’ll suffer.  You’ve made it this far; by definition, you’re someone who needs to express themselves creatively, even if you don’t get off your ass and do it.

Other sources of “writer’s block” come from technical problems–the principles of writing at an intermediate and higher level.  The rest of the series will help start breaking those technical problems so you can start studying whatever problem is the priority of the moment.  Tackling one writing problem at a time will help make the process seem less overwhelming.  I hope.  Once I figured out that there were a lot of things to master, then tackling a couple of key elements helped me write a lot faster.

Finding out when a story is “finished” is an act of faith at every level of writing.  People often rely on beta readers, editors, and other “gatekeepers” to tell them whether a story is done or is good enough.  However, most “gatekeepers” aren’t professional, master-level writers, and are mostly just telling you whether they, personally, liked the story or not.  Learning writing techniques at an intermediate level will tell you whether your story is finished or not.

Your physical environment when you write has to allow you to write for your ideal amount of time without anticipatible distractions.  My idea amount of time is ten minutes, a short break, repeat for about three hours; yours might be “until this novel is done, I mean, no sleep or anything.”

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How to Study Fiction, Part 3: Productivity and Speed, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Productivity and speed are key issues for intermediate writers.  If you can’t get your butt in the chair and the fingers typing, you’re not going to get much accomplished–and it very quickly becomes obvious that you’ll need to practice a lot if you want to get any good.

Practicing faster and more regularly will automatically make you a better writer.  You don’t necessarily have to write ever day.  Whatever works for your brain to output more words is the right way to do it.  But, conversely, if your beginner writer routines aren’t regularly increasing in words,

that is the wrong way to do it.

And your excuses can suck it.

Productivity/speed issues at this level:

  • Having the discipline to sit down and write without being distracted.
  • Staying focused during writing.
  • Finishing what you start.
  • Getting what you finish out into the market.
  • Building writing speed.

The main block to productivity is fear.  We fear that we’re not good enough and we don’t deserve to take the time to learn how to write.  We fear that we’re wasting our time.  We fear that we’re taking something away from the ones we love.

The first thing to do, if you’re not getting the writing done that you have the time to do, is address any possible sources of fear.

Other blocks to productivity include just not knowing how to use a particular writing technique (or usually several)!  For example, if you don’t know how to structure a scene, you won’t know whether you’ve written a good one or not, and your subconscious may resist moving forward, either to finish what you’ve started or to move your work into the market.

A third level of issues generally relate to one’s physical environment.  Are you being interrupted?  Are you able to keep the world outside your door?  Do you need music to stay focused?  Are you comfortable?

 

Just sitting down and admitting that sitting down to write is hard is…kind of a relief, actually.  When you first start addressing your difficulties, they seem overwhelming; as you pick them apart, though, it usually comes down to a very few things that are bringing you down, but that your brain doesn’t like to think about–so it seems like it’s a million things going wrong when really the million things are just your brain kicking up excuses.

 

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How to Study Fiction, Part 2: What to Study?

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

UPDATE:  I’m rearranging some of the pieces in the list below, both to move things around and to add more things! Please excuse the contruction!

I’m going to assume that you’re an intermediate writer (as discussed in the first post of the series).  We’re going to start with…what to study.

In some cases, you may have no idea what I’m talking about.  In others, you may have heard completely contradictory advice to what I’m going to set out.  In still others, you may do things completely differently.

That’s all okay.  In the beginning levels of writing, writers tend to see the world in terms of rules that they follow–and assume that if they follow the rules, they should be able to sell their work.

But the idea that writing has rules or even guidelines that need to be followed is a false one.  Writing has readers who need to be entertained.

And that’s it.

But that’s kind of a master-level approach to writing, and the implications are too many and too varied and require too much experience to simplify the process down to that level for most writers.

So we slice up writing into pieces, quite artificially and randomly, in order to make it easier to talk about.

Here are my slices for the purpose of this series:

  1. Productivity and speed
  2. Reading
  3. Putting a character on the page
  4. Putting a setting on the page
  5. Conflict and beats
  6. Beginnings and endings
  7. Story structure
  8. Plot
  9. Pacing
  10. Depth
  11. Editing and feedback
  12. Ruts and comfort zones
  13. Identifying strengths and weaknesses
  14. What is story

In each of these slices, I’m going to try to break down:

  • What the issues are at the intermediate level.
  • Some techniques for studying those issues.
  • Other resources related to those issues.

If you have more techniques and resources you want added, contact me–I’ll add them to the posts if I think it’s appropriate.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 1: Welcome to Intermediate Writing!

New series!  I’ve been studying fiction with a scalpel and a jeweler’s lens for a few years now, and I’ve found it immensely helpful.  I’m going to cheat a little and use most of a post that I typed up for the pacing series, which you can find here.

The issues are the same 🙂

When writers first start out, what they’re mainly aware of, writing-wise, is conflict.  This is when you sit down and start writing a scene and go, “This is two people fighting about something, how exciting!”  Let’s call that Level 0.

Beginning writers have started to be inundated with English classes; they often have a set of rules and guidelines that they have to follow (in order to pass the class).  They have learned that the vague mush of conflict can be split into categories:  character, setting, plot, grammar/punctuation/clarity, repetitiveness, style, mood, atmosphere.

Intermediate writers are starting to break off from the early categories and rules.  (If I’ve ever told you that every writer has to break at least one rule in order to become a good writer, you’re moving into this category.  It’s a gradual process.)  They have a decent grasp on the basics.  They are starting to think about things like tension, depth/opinion/voice, pacing, and condensing repetitive things instead of removing them.

Advanced writers are starting to mess with their readers, and they’re starting to put the pieces back together, so that character = voice = style = plot = mood = everything else.  Genre, and screwing with genre, is a big deal here.

And master writers don’t give a damn about anything but screwing with the reader.

The issues that I’ve been running across lately are people moving from beginning writer to intermediate writer–and having no idea that there’s anything between “beginning” and “master.”

Why am I not getting published?  Why am I not getting published in the top magazines in my genre?  Why is XYZ shitty writer getting published and paid millions of dollars and not me?

That’s the kind of complaint/attitude I’m seeing.  Partly, it comes from 90% of all writing advice being focused on beginners–because that’s where 90% of all writers are at, and where 90% of all writers seem to drop out.  (I have no exact stats on that!)

The writers saying these things are decent at the basics for the most part, and may shine at one or two of them.  But they don’t really have a clue that there’s more to learn.

Let alone how to learn it.  More on that coming up.

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