Virtually every blog post I’ve ever written has been related to content marketing in one form or another. Today, I would like to switch gears and chat about fiction writing. As I’ve managed to complete a full novel and I am halfway through a second one, I feel as if I can offer some insight into this world.
When you start out it is easy to be taken in by the advice you hear and begin to believe you must match Tolstoy or Faulkner to even have a hope of being published. Considering the dross currently populating book stores and online outlets, I can assure you this isn’t the case. If and when I ever join the ranks of the ‘bargain bucket books’ in a bookstore I will write about that but for now, I will focus on some popular advice regarding the writing of fiction that is taken as Gospel when it really shouldn’t be.
Show Not Tell
This is a ‘stock’ agent reply to prospective novelists and it means you should focus on showing readers details instead of merely telling them.
‘John hated his job because it was boring and unfulfilling’ – Telling
‘Even two cups of coffee failed and as the clock struck 10am, John felt as if his cubicle walls closed in like a coffin. His only solace were the crazed drawings he created in between the completion of yet another form in triplicate.’ – Showing
The trouble with showing is that a simple detail can be transformed into a complex paragraph or even several pages. Sometimes, it is better just to say someone is having a cup of tea rather than describing the colour of the cup, the brand of tea and milk, whether or not the character is lactose intolerant and a lengthy discourse on how slave labour was the reason for the tea being in his cup and how his guilty conscience pricked him whenever he took a sip.
If you want ‘descriptive’ writing, go read Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake and then wonder why you have a migraine and a fierce hatred for literature. The photo below is actual text from Finnegan's Wake, I dare you to exclaim this as genius. I dare you to read it without utter bemusement!
Your Completed Manuscript Deserves Recognition
It sure does and literary agents will ‘recognise’ the fact you wrote it and will then probably reject it. Now don’t get me wrong, it is a significant achievement since an estimated 97% of people who begin a fiction novel fail to finish it (even the likes of Hemingway have unfinished work). Unfortunately, literary agencies and publishers couldn’t care less if you write 100 novels; the bottom line is that your novel needs to be ‘commercial’.
This is the bad news. The good news is your writing will improve as time goes by. A surprising number of successful writers have written poor quality novels at the beginning of their careers but the rejection and subsequent feedback they received ensured an improvement in their writing skills. Ultimately, you’ll need to develop a thick skin because your first attempt probably won’t be published. It will take a while before you really get into your writing groove but once you do, rest assured what you produce will be a significant improvement.
You Must Obey The ‘Rules’
This one drives me absolutely crazy. I recall a publishing class during my time in college where the lecturer basically said a novel had to be written ‘in a certain way’ in order to sell. While this may explain the increase in dreadful muck that is being passed off as ‘writing’, it is shocking advice.
Whatever happened to the freedom of expression provided by writing? Even a quick skim through Internet blogs and forums reveals a multitude of people who actually believe this to be the case. As an example, you are supposed to remove all adverbs from your writing; at least in the first chapter from what I gather. Therefore, you can’t use words like ‘extremely’ or ‘quickly’. The result is angry writers who just quit.
It’s essential to note these rules are just ‘guidelines’ to assist you in the editing process. They are not Commandments and failure to adhere to these rules does not mean the grammar police will come around and give you a heavy sack beating. I will continue to examine the world of fiction advice in future posts and hopefully you will discover writing a novel isn’t quite the Odyssey (or even the Iliad) many believe it to be.