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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Tips for Better Fiction, part 1

I whipped up this handout for my writing class at the Somerville Skillshare. Part 2 coming next week (or maybe the week after.)


Be a voracious (and indiscriminate) reader.
Begin by reading everything you can get your hands on, not just the genre you’re interested in writing. As you read, pay careful attention to what does or doesn’t “work” for you. Let the book and its author teach you how (or how not to) tell a story—for example, to learn about plotting, read a lot of mystery and suspense novels even if you’re not interested in writing mystery yourself. Whether or not it’s a “good” book, and whether or not you enjoyed it, you are learning your craft.

Ask yourself, “What if…?” and see where your imagination takes you. To paraphrase Roald Dahl, those who believe in magic will always find it—but that said, don’t be too earnest or serious about this process. The magic happens when you’re too busy having fun to notice it sneaking up on you.

…And enjoy the balance between play and work.
A writer is always working, and never working. You get to live inside this neat little paradox!

If you can stop and notice the vivid details all around you, your descriptive writing will grow crisper and more evocative in kind. (For instance, lately I have noticed a person outside the State House wearing a teddy bear costume and playing a keytar. There’s no way I’d settle on “street musician” when he or she has given me that much to work with.) Which leads me to my next point:

Keep your pen and journal (or at least a piece of scratch paper) with you at all times.
You never know when you’ll see something strange or overhear a priceless piece of dialogue you can build a story around. Even if you’re just going to the bathroom, something cool might spontaneously occur to you while you’re in there!

Experiment with work habits, styles, and techniques to figure out what works best for you.
It’s always fun to read about what works for writers you admire, but there’s no sense adopting someone else’s process or “rituals” hoping for the same success. Also keep in mind that your habits and pet rituals will probably evolve over time, or vary from one project to the next.

Cultivate a sense of urgency.
Fall in love with your story, especially if it’s a novel. Give your project the very best that’s in you. Don’t worry, there’ll be more where that came from! And on that note:

Take time to “refill the well.”
When you’re “stuck” or just in between projects, get away from your desk and reconnect with whatever gets you excited about life. Go to an art museum, see a play, read up on a topic that intrigues you, or meet up for coffee with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile. I guarantee you that somewhere, sometime—as long as you’re not looking for it!—your next great idea will tap you on the shoulder.

Invest in your characters.
If your protagonist isn’t as real to you as your own best friend, he won’t feel real to your reader either. Like a real-life friend, your protagonist should have a personality abundant in both virtues and flaws—but even if he’s deeply flawed, make sure we still care about him.


For more tips and frank talk on the writing life, check out my blog entries tagged “useful writing posts.” I’d love to hear your suggestions for future entries!

1 Comment to Tips for Better Fiction, part 1

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    April 1, 2014 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t realize that you take your journal with you even into the bathroom. No wonder you fill them up so quickly 😉

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.