General Fiction Writing Tips

  • Write in the Cracks
    This is such a major issue that I once wrote and sold an entire article about it.  So many people say “I don’t have time to write” when what they really mean is “I don’t have a big chunk of time to devote to writing”.  It was a stumbling block for me too, until I finally realized I didn’t need a big chunk of time.  And neither do you.  Each of us has many “lost moments” in a day that we can put to better use writing.  You’ll be surprised at the difference those moments can make when you stop letting them fall through the cracks.  Carry a notebook and pen with you, and write whenever you find yourself with nothing to do for a moment; whenever you find yourself waiting for something else.
  • Avoid “enemy words”
    As someone who loves words, I had a hard time considering certain words enemies.  They really are, though!  Watch out for empty words in your writing.  All forms of “to be” can be really empty–the worst is the word “was”.
    It took me years to come around to the realization that adverbs are enemy words.  So when you are editing, check how your sentence would sound without the adverbs.  If the meaning isn’t changed, cut them.
  • Do Character Sketches
    I really can’t emphasize enough the difference this will make.  Every writer has a different approach for their character sketches, so experiment until you find the one that works for you.  I start with something almost like a rap sheet; basic traits like height, age, hair color.  After that I start exploring personality, background–anything that comes to me.  Even if it doesn’t seem relevant.  Trust me on this one–even if the things you write in your character sketch never make it into the finished piece, you will know your characters infinitely better, and it will show.
    Most of the time, however, quite a few things you discover in your character sketches will turn up in your finished piece–sometimes so many that it will surprise you.  Often major plot elements will be decided or influenced by these.  Ultimately though, what it comes down to is this–you are asking your readers to care about a group of imaginary strangers.  If you don’t care enough to find out about these people, why should they?
    I have a whole page on character development here.
  • Write What Catches Your Fancy
    Many times writers are told to stick with their current project until it is finished, no matter what.  There is a certain amount of value to this advice, and for some people it is golden.  A significant number of us don’t work that way, though.  An unfortunate truth for many is that when you force yourself to write something it comes out sounding just like that–forced.  And for me personally, anything that I have to force myself to write is going to be far from my best work.
    So if this piece of conventional wisdom doesn’t work for you, toss it out.  It is perfectly okay to have multiple works in progress (just check out my works in progress page!)  Variety is the spice of life, after all, and there is no reason you can’t have variety in your writing life.  You will need a certain amount of organization to keep all your works separate.  Moreover, you will need to allot a certain amount of time at the beginning of your writing session to read back over your last few pages if you are returning to a work you haven’t written on recently.
  • Keep a Continuation Plan
    If there is only one piece of advice on this page that you take with you, please let this be it.  The problem with words that are still in your head is that they are like computer data that is still is RAM–until you save it to hard copy somewhere, you are going to lose it as soon as the system shuts down.  A continuation plan will save you on two fronts.  First, you can use it to write down ideas for your story–things that you want to have happen “later on”.  You can be as general or as specific as you need to be, knowing that when you reach an appropriate point in your work you can come back and incorporate what you wrote–something that otherwise might have been lost forever.
    You can also use your continuation plan at the end of each of your writing sessions.  How many times have you had to stop writing when you had a clear idea just how your next few paragraphs should read–only to get up the next day (or whenever you get time to write again) and find that those perfect words are gone, and you have no idea what you intended?  This can be a double-bummer if you follow the widely-given writer’s advice to leave your work mid-sentence so that you can easily pick up next time.  Don’t count on it!  Especially if you haven’t worked on that piece in a while, you may find that even that half-completed sentence is cryptic, and you are stuck.  Use your continuation plan at the end of each writing session to jot down your notes for what you were going to write next.  This will blend in well with reading back over your work–each time you sit down to write you are naturally going to scan over your continuation plan first.  This will get you back into the “mood” of the piece.
  • Read Your Dialogue Aloud
    Honestly, this is a good idea.  How do you know if your words sound natural if you’ve never heard them?  Unless you are writing high-fantasy or some other genre with strict language guidelines that aren’t necessarily common English, read it aloud.  This will give you the best impression of whether you are writing natural speech, or stilted, contrived artifice.
  • Brainstorming
    Sadly, this is becoming a lost art.  It’s very useful, though, and I strongly advise you to give it a try.  It will help you come up with new aspects for your piece, while making those you already have easier to see.  How can you lose?There are many different techniques for doing a brainstorming diagram.  I prefer the classic cluster approach; you should experiment until you find what works for you.
    As an example, I’ve posted my original brainstorming diagram for Concerto for Three.  This is the real thing, unedited, so it may be a little sloppy.  It is also a scanned image, so you may need to allow a moment for it to download.  Click here to view the image.
  • Outlining
    This is a tool often considered similar to brainstorming, but it can help you in different ways. While a brainstorm diagram is good for seeing hidden connections and elements of your story (thus helping you generate new ideas and elements that suit the context), an outline is great for showing you the overall view of your story. In a few pages, you can have your whole novel laid out, start to finish, showing the major events in the order they will happen.
    Of course, I said “major events”, but you can make your outline as detailed as you want. The only advice I would give you is that sometimes too much detail in your outline is simply too much detail–I once wrote an outline that detailed every event of a book, even summarized most of the dialogue, and by the time I got finished, I had no interest in actually writing the book. The outline said it all. (It seemed like a good idea at the time!) So you’ll need to experiment, see what works for you. I’ve uploaded the first page of my original outline for Concerto for Three here.
  • Keep a Timeline
    This can be important, especially for longer works. If you are writing a piece that spans more than a few days, it is an enormous help to yourself if you keep a timeline showing what things happened on what day. You don’t need to contrive dates for your story–simple “Day One”, “Day Two” headings are fine. Keep a list of major events that happened on each day, then if at some point later on you need to reference how much time has passed since X occurred, it will be a simple task.
    I have to confess that I don’t have one of these for Concerto. My excuses; first, the novel moves very quickly (as the excerpt implies) so it really doesn’t span that many days. Second, the mood of Concertois such that the characters’ (and reader’s!) sense of time is blurred and compacted, and keeping a timeline would have been detrimental to that effect.

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