Tag: fiction writing

Actually possibly good writing advice

Rahul Kanakia has a post up about his rules of thumb for writing fiction. They’re pretty good, and I’m going to try to follow them.

I’m gratified to see that at one point he remarks: “This is probably bad advice for you, but it’s great advice for me.” So few advice-givers seem to be self-aware enough to admit that.


On the thrill of writing fiction

[T]hat sense of life, that feeling that I’m telling myself a story—you’d think it’d be something very easy to conjure up—what I mean is that you’d think after a while it would come more easily, and I’d be able to conjure it up whenever I sit down to write—but the opposite is true—that feeling becomes harder and harder to capture—and yet when you do—when you actually grab hold of it—the feeling is so astonishing, because it really is nothing like reading a story. Reading a story is a dream within a dream compared to the writing of a story. There’s just something so real about a story that you write yourself. It lives inside of you in the way that no other story can.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

On writing toward an ending

“As I closed in on the first draft of a novel, I wrote toward an ending I’d held in my mind for months. It was a quiet climax in keeping with the, ahem, literary nature of my novel. I knew that when I finished the draft, I’d have to smooth out the road between, say, pages 75 and 300, maybe even rewrite them completely. But that final scene was divine. Tears would probably fall to my keyboard as I wrote it, and readers, in turn, would weep.

“Instead, when I reached my perfect ending it was dead.”

—Kate Leary recounting a familiar experience here

Types of footnotes and endnotes in fiction

Fiction Example Type
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

On this hint, attempts have been made to construct elaborate migratory charts of the sperm whale.*

*Since the above was written, the statement is happily borne out by an official circular, issued by Lieutenant Maury, of the National Observatory, Washington, April 16th, 1851. By that circular, it appears that precisely such a chart is in course of completion; and portions of it are presented in the circular. “This chart divides the ocean into districts of five degrees of latitude by five degrees of longitude; perpendicularly through each of which districts are twelve columns for the twelve months; and horizontally through each of which districts are three lines; one to show the number of days that have been spent in each month in every district, and the two others to show the number of days in which whales, sperm or right, have been seen.”

Scholarly or pseudo-scholarly; informational.
Watership Down, by Richard Adams Several footnotes explaining the language and culture of the rabbits, informing us, for instance, that “Rabbits can count up to four.” Ditto.
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov Actually more like line-by-line commentary than actual endnotes. A vehicle for the story; an expression of obsession; also humorous.
The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth

[…] Halfway
Through the third act, her dextrous digits,
With small attempt at camouflage,
Engage in passionate petrissage
Along his thigh. John squirms and fidgets.

A footnote defines petrissage as “massage by longitudinal rubbing and latitudinal squeezing.”

Informationally humorous.
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace Too many endnotes to quote, and a few footnotes as well. Disorienting, decontextualizing, delinearizing, and also (I think) disguising where the end of the book is going to fall; often humorous.

Revising vs. editing

Don’t mistake revising for editing. Editing is often small, tiny, and eradicating. Revision can be large, grandiose, and sweeping.”

—Amina Gautier (x)

I’ve never been good at these distinctions, but this makes sense. Rewriting > revising > editing > copy editing.

On a writer’s obligation to their parents

“I often wonder what my obligations are to my parents when it comes to my writing. I assume most people would say I’m not obligated to sugarcoat things, that my primary responsibility is just to do my best to create characters that are three-dimensional and rendered with empathy. Often, when I’m awake at 3:00 a.m., I tell myself I’ve accomplished that goal, that many readers have told me they feel the characters in my book are drawn with compassion. This fact, coupled with the fact that my book is fiction, usually makes me feel better, but there are times when nothing I tell myself allays the guilt.

“In a recent review of [the author’s collection of linked stories] Outside Is the Ocean, Paul La Farge called Heike, my fictional mother, ‘one of fiction’s great bad mothers.’ […]

“People who know my mother have told me the risk of showing her the book isn’t worth it. They think the chances are low that she would see the portrayal of Heike as nuanced and compassionate, that it is likely she would latch onto one of the less flattering moments in the book, without registering the overall arc.”

—Matthew Lansburgh (x)

Another vote for daydreaming as preparation for creative work

“When I’m at the desk formally writing, there isn’t a second when my fingers are not moving. Rapidly. Percussively. There’s not a second of ‘gee, what would I like to do now’ or ‘darn, I am stuck.’

“There are a bunch of reasons for that, but one of them is because I write so much in my head while I walk that I am typing from something that is already there, that is given somewhat new form—and entirely new components can arise—as I sit at the desk. But on top of that, my entire process has become more compact because for dozens of hours each week, I’ve been writing as I do something else. And, consequently, writing is easier for me, an extension of the very biological necessities of my existence, like breathing oxygen or sweating when I’m hot.”

—Colin Fleming (x)

On writers’ use of social media

This is an interesting short essay, and I think I agree with much of it, particularly this line: “If something matters to you, don’t treat it lightly—it’s not arrogant to care about your own progress.” But I’m not sure about this bit of advice:

“Limit what you share on social media. It’s not a platform that rewards merit alone. If you use it as a feedback mechanism, you’ll get false positives and false negatives. Not every 15-year-old with a 2500-dollar DSLR is a photographer, and not every 18-year-old with a blog is a writer. 25.6 thousand followers don’t make someone an artist. The value of art is not a matter of public opinion. Young people are taught to sell themselves. Don’t, and don’t buy everything other people sell. Keep your eyes on your own plate. Work until the work speaks for itself.”

It seems to me that social media is almost essential these days for new writers, not because it hones their craft (though it can) or because it gives valuable feedback (though I think it can), but simply as a marketing tool.

On the most important part of writing fiction

“[T]here is something in the texture of the words that conveys longing. It’s in the diction, the punctuation, the rhythm, and the cadences. It’s in the way the camera’s eye notices detail and conveys information. The progression of sentences in a novel is also the leading edge of a consciousness, and unless that consciousness is animated by powerful concerns, the novel falls flat.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

On the assumptions that are considered universal

Cecilia Tan on certain parts of the literary establishment: “The power to ‘show, not tell’ stemmed from […] writing for an audience that shared so many assumptions with them that the audience would feel that those settings and stories were ‘universal.'” (Found via this.)