In no particular order:
More of a mantra than a tip. You'll have heard it before - but it's not about the mantra, it's about the interpretation. Write what you know? That's great if you happen to be a vampire or a serial killer or an A list celebrity. Those are the stories people want to read. So if you want to write about something you've not experienced first hand what are you going to do? Make it up, of course. The clue is in the title: 'fiction writer.' Okay, so if you've never sucked the blood out of someone's neck - how do you write what you know? You could either read all the vampire fiction you can get your hands on, and suck the blood out of that, or you can draw on your own real experiences to minimise the fictional made up part.
This is what Tolkien did in his work. He actually describes very little of the action in the most dramatic parts of Lord of the Rings. Hours of CGI on the cinema screen were created from a few descriptive sentences from the book. But the book is massive - I hear you say. True, but much of the action is built up by creating atmosphere and setting the scene, so the two sentences have huge impact. Tolkien describes in detail what the forest or landscape is like, the weather, how it feels to be alone in the dark in a strange landscape. As a seasoned hill walker he would have known this stuff. So even though he is the King of Fantasy, he was writing what he knew.
This is such a useful tip. I guess it came from the theatre originally. When writing dialogue it is very easy to fall into the habit of using questions to reveal plot.
'But Holmes. I don't understand. How did the Vicar conceal the gun?'
'What happened in your early childhood to make you so cynical?'
These can be rewritten to eliminate the hanging question but still drive the story forward with a provocative statement that invites a response.
'But Holmes, how the Vicar concealed the gun, that's the part I don't understand.'
'You are so cynical that I'm sure something must have happened to you when you were a small child.'
In natural dialogue direct questions are rarely used, so using them begins to sound like an interrogation. If you have some dialogue you've written, take another look and see if it has questions you can turn into simple statements.
Writing is a difficult process which requires lots of imagination and hard work. Sometimes a planned scene can become like a huge mountain to climb. Scenes require setting up, bringing in the characters, communicating how the characters feel about the events unfolding and what the event means to them. That adds up to an enormous task. Also it might be just a bit boring to write. Often the best part of writing can be the unplanned part where the outcome is uncertain and the story unfolds under its own momentum. A planned scene can be quite dull to write in comparison. Writers sometimes fudge these big scenes or take short cuts. They engineer events so that the protagonist never meets the villain to battle it out. That cheats the reader of something they expected and were probably looking forward to reading.
The only exception to this rule is when the scene is charged with emotion. When a central character finds out that someone they thought was dead is alive, stepping back a bit or showing only a part of the scene will stop it drowning under a deluge of schmaltz. Don't put a reader through the emotional wringer; look away when a character is given the bad news.
Another mantra. Another difficult to interpret tip. It's easy to fall into the habit of writing news reports. News reports are the stories most of us are reading and hearing all the time. Today a man was run over by a bus. It's a simple story and that's all that's needed to tell it. What can be done to show it? A bus comes down the street and runs over a man. I was crossing the road and a bus ran me over. I was driving a bus and I ran over a man. Your husband is in hospital after an accident. How did it happen? There was a bus, he was crossing the street, the driver had no time to swerve. There was a squeal of tyres and a sickening thud. Traffic came to a halt and pedestrians stopped to stare. The street was buzzing with parked cars and commuters. The man was in a hurry. The bus driver considered his options: sell the car or remortgage his house. He glanced at the picture of his sick child...
News reports provide the minimum information necessary to convey the events. Details are left out. If detail is required it comes later in order of importance and relevance. To 'show' a story all the detail has to be put in, relevant or not. It may not be in chronological order but can be in chunks that slot back together to see the full picture.
Sometimes getting words on paper is like getting a sofa through a bathroom window. At other times the words tumble onto the page like eggs rolling off a tipper truck. This mantra is all about treating the latter case with suspicion. Sometimes rhythm, fluidity and a love of words can lead a writer down a very flowery path. Sometimes the messenger can be so entertaining the message gets overlooked. Another way of saying this would be: it's not how you write, it's what you write, that is important. If you've just filled an A4 page in a matter of minutes and you've used some really sexy metaphors, you've put in a couple of gags and a highly entertaining rant about your pet hate and it's just a letter to your bank manager - you might want to reconsider and hit the delete key a bit.
Oh I love this one. Yeah, I'm going to write a novel. First I have to get to know my audience. See you in twenty-five years when I've visited everyone who might buy my book. No that's just silly. I wouldn't visit them at all - I'd send them a survey. Okay, so you can't really know your audience. All you can do is guess that there is more or less demand for one type of fiction; style; genre; than there is for another. You can look at what's selling and attempt to emulate it. Or not. Where is the fun in that? Good writers want to be unique. They want to be groundbreakers. They want to find the untapped market that will make them a fortune. Attempting to write for some notion of whom or what a reader is, is bound to fail. Readers are all unique and what motivates them to read is hard to pin down.
At school we are asked to write essays and things we really don't enjoy. We're trained to plough on and do it anyway. That's difficult to shake off when we start writing for pleasure. My philosophy has always been not to struggle writing something heavy and to write what I enjoy writing. I figure if I'm not enjoying writing what I'm writing about, no one will enjoy reading it. So if you're finding your writing hard going, ask yourself why. Am I enjoying this? Is this a chore to do? Will my audience get the same level of enjoyment out as I'm putting in?
A young woman once wrote the type of children's book she enjoyed reading herself. It was like the books she'd read as a girl. Her manuscript was rejected many times by publishers who couldn't see past their belief that audiences had moved on to something more contemporary. Eventually she found a publisher who enjoyed the book and knew that it would appeal to both adult and child audiences alike. I'm not sure how much thought JK Rowling gave her audience when she started writing Harry Potter, but there's no arguing with the success of that approach.
It's obvious when you see it written down. I hadn't grasped the concept when I wrote my first novel. As a consequence, the manuscript is now languishing in a drawer and is unlikely to see the light of day again.
How do you make a character likeable? Think of someone you like or admire. List their qualities and the things that make them likeable. Is it their appearance? Is it the way they deal with other people? Is it their attitude to life and the problems they face? Now transfer these qualities to your protagonist.
My biggest mistake was not realising that just because I'd spent months writing a huge piece of work it didn't mean people would want to read it. Yes, I'd written what I enjoy reading, but because I'd written it, I overlooked the flaws in the central character - I liked him and that was all that mattered. Sadly I hadn't communicated the character's good qualities which only I, the author, knew about.
Okay, before you go off and write about a room that kills people, let me explain. Locations need to be given the same attention as characters when they are brought into the narrative. They need a vivid description that gives the reader something to visualise; something that fixes the scene in their imagination. A location description doesn't need to be a dry brick by brick list of what is present. It should be a brief outline of what people would notice about the place first: the scattered debris, the statues of gold, the smell of onions.
Think of some great gothic novels and how the locations seemed to take on their own personality. Wuthering heights, Manderley and Jamaica Inn; they all provided the brooding and oppressive backdrop to the action, lurking in the reader's line of sight like a sinister servant. Hmm.. I think I may need to revisit tip #5.
You've seen those TV programmes where they MRI scan someone's brain and then see which bit lights up when they think about chocolate cake. Hmm, chocolate cake. The same thing must happen when a writer starts writing. It takes time to warm up the brain so that words come easily. If I'm working on something I've already started, I'll go back over the previous day's writing and edit it. I find this is a good warm up and helps keep the flow of the piece going. If I'm starting something from scratch I'll write a piece of nonsense poetry or something I can just discard. Even writing an e-mail can get the brain warmed up. If you need a bit more direction than that try: the pantomimepony writer's exercise generator. It randomly generates small tasks to help you find your muse.
There are many versions of 'the formula.' The formula is a list of things that a story must have; that the characters in the story must do; and the events that must happen. There are a few givens: The story must have a beginning, middle and an end. It would be kind of weird without those. In a lot of stories there will be a final scene just before the end in which much gets resolved. There is usually a conflict, challenge or problem facing the central character that they have to resolve. Often mentioned is the 'Heroic Journey' - the classic plot of myths and legends. Another version is the 'Eight Point Curve.' Following these formulas will create a solid and balanced story that draws the reader in. However, using the formula may also produce yet another version of the same old story:
Hero is living a quiet life. Something bad happens. Hero tries to ignore it and carry on. Something worse happens which the hero can't ignore. They can't go back to the quiet life, but fortunately someone pops up to tell them what to do. They set out on a great journey but, almost immediately, someone bad pops up to warn them off. Never mind, off on his adventure the hero goes. Of course it all goes pear shaped and the hero has to be rescued by someone unexpected. The hero is close to completing his quest but, at the final hurdle, breaks down and says: 'I can't go on.' Then, in a moment of self revelation, our hero realises where he's been going wrong, discovers the power to defeat the villain and probably blows up their secret undersea base. I'm sure we've all seen that movie. Hollywood loves the formula.
The art of writing good fiction is to use the elements of the formula without appearing to do so. The scene where the hero is warned off by the bad guy is a great scene. But why wait for it to come halfway through the story? Start the story there, or leave it until the hero is too deep to go back. Then reveal the scene as a flashback as the hero recalls his decision to ignore the warning.
Use the formula, but use it in ways it has never been used before.