Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Common Writing Questions Part 3

 This is the third installment of my take on questions that pop up frequently on online writing sites. The previous two can be found here:


Scene breaks: What are they, and how do I designate them?

These represent breaks in time or place (for instance, when you don't want to include a description of traveling from point A to point B). They're also used when you switch point of view character within a given chapter. In published novels, they're usually indicated by a blank line or a fancy little symbol, but in standard manuscript format, you simply type a # and center it.

Should I outline before writing or "pants it"?

This is really a matter of personal preference. Some people can't write a thing without a solid outline, some are inveterate pantsers, and many are somewhere in between. I tend to need to pants my first draft, but after, I'll outline in order to organize my thinking about what needs to be revised and rewritten. Some people pants some projects and outline others. Whatever works for getting a finished draft on the page. Finished drafts can be rewritten, revised, and polished.

Should I practice with short stories before trying a novel?

There's a lot to be said for this approach. Short stories are less intimidating and faster to write, and they can help you practice your writing chops. And it certainly doesn't hurt to have some writing credits when you're trying to sell your first novel. But if the novel isn't what an agent or editor wants, then all the publications and awards in the world probably won't help. And if you don't enjoy writing short fiction, then trying to force yourself to write it can be like hitting yourself with a hammer.

For a little perspective, there are plenty of successful novelists who never sold any short fiction prior to selling their first novel, and there are successful short fiction writers who have never published a novel. Short fiction and novel length are very different in some ways, and the skill sets don't always overlap perfectly.

Do what works best for you.

Should I try something bold and experimental for my first novel?

Most people will tell you no because you have to crawl before you walk (and there is plenty of disagreement about what actually is bold and experimental anyway). But if this advice means you're not writing that story that's been burning to get out for years and are trying to force something simpler that doesn't grab you, then it's not much good. The question is, how tolerant are you of frustration? How willing are you to rewrite, maybe even re-conceive a project if it doesn't turn out the way you planned or if your critiquers all tell you it gave them whiplash to try and read it?

Another thing to consider is what style of novel have you read the most of. If you have a penchant for literary fiction, then writing a fantasy novel that incorporates techniques that are more common in literary fiction might come very naturally to you.

Should I finish a first novel draft before revising or revise as I go?

Another personal taste thing. There are some revision writers, but consider that a lot of novels never get finished because the writer gets hung up rewriting and polishing the opening chapters. A crappy first draft is revisable, whereas a story that exists only in your head is never going to be perfected.

Showing versus telling. What does it mean?

It's the difference between writing a narrative summary of an event or emotion, and actually immersing your reader in it. And while we're often reminded of the importance of immersion, a novel that shows everything that happens in lavish detail would be excessively long and very slowly paced. There's a place for telling or summarizing, and there's a place for showing.

Example of telling:

I rushed across town but was late to the play. The usher wouldn't let me in until intermission. This made me sad because my date would think I'd stood him up.

Example of showing:

I dashed through the streets, dodging holiday shoppers and ducking though every alley. But when I arrived at the theater, the usher shook his head and pointed to one of the seats in the lobby. "Sorry, ma'am. Play's started. I can't let you in until intermission."

Tears pricked at my eyelids. Tom was probably sitting in there next to an empty seat, wondering why I'd stood him up. "Damn."

Notice that showing and telling exist on a continuum, and if you want to be ultra nit picking, everything we do in writing is really telling (since we are using words and not using a camera). But some word choices will depict a scene or immerse the reader more fully in the emotions and experiences of your character than others will. Telling/summarizing isn't always bad, either. Sometimes we should skim over things that are needed to connect the dots between the important stuff in a story. The thing you should really ask yourself is whether or not you want to present a series of events, words, thoughts, or emotions as if they are happening in the story's here and now, or do you want to summarize them for the reader.

Swear words in secondary-world fantasy. Are they okay? Are they required?

Yes, but they're not mandatory. There's an entire spectrum of approaches that work here, from Tolkien, who used none, to Jordan who made up his own swear words, to Scott Lynch, whose characters drop plenty of F and S

bombs. Many modern fantasy writers have characters with more contemporary, and often profane, voices, but not all do.

This article is an amusing dissection of the topic.

What is a query letter?

This is essentially a professional communication that is intended to convince an agent or editor that you've written a novel that's well-written and interesting enough to be marketable. The point is to get them to want to read the opening chapter and (hopefully) get sucked in.

Generally, queries consist of 1-4 short paragraphs, and are 250 words or less (shorter is better). They should be written in third person, present tense, and are not attempts to summarize the entire plot, but they should address a few basic questions.

1. Who is your protagonist?
2. What does he or she want?
3. What major obstacle must be overcome to get this?
4. What happens if he or she fails (the stakes)?

Janet Reid's website Query Shark is an invaluable resource for writers who are trying to hash out a query, as is the Absolute Write's Water Cooler's Query Letter Hell subforum (which is pw protected, so I can't link it here directly).

What is a plot synopsis?

This is a longer (usually one page to ten pages, depending on an agent or editor's stipulations) summary of your story's main arc. Like the query letter, it should be written in present tense and third person, but it is supposed to
reveal the main crisis and resolution, and the ending of the story, not just set up the major breaking point.

Here's a decent rundown of what a plot synopsis is.

Why don't my friends/loved ones all want to read or provide feedback on my stories?

This is a common question newer writers have. Think about the strain it might place on a relationship you cherish if someone asked you to provide an unbiased review of something they'd poured their heart into, and you didn't like it. Then there's the fact that reading and critting a story, let alone an entire novel, represents a huge investment in time and energy, and most people who don't write themselves won't know how to give useful feedback anyway. Better to join an online or offline writer's group or critting circle.

There' also simply the chance that your friends and relatives aren't big on reading, or don't care for the kind of story you're writing. Do you really want your fantasy-hating brother to tell you whether or not you've written a good fantasy novel (unless, perhaps, your goal is to write fantasy for people who hate fantasy)?

A great site for people who write fantasy to discuss writing-related issues and to give and receive critiques is Fantasy-Writers.org.

If I dislike reading fiction, can I still write it?

This one puzzles me more than the others, I have to admit. First of all, why would you want to create something you dislike? I want to write, because ever since I've been tiny, written stories have been a source of delight to me. But that's me, and I suppose everyone is different.

To answer the question, though, of course you can write fiction if you don't read it. No one's going to stop you. But I think an enjoyment of reading (and doing a lot of it) is pretty darned important if you want to read fiction that very many other people will want to read.
One of the more puzzling attitudes I've encountered among would-be writers

The basics of storytelling, the rhythm and flow of language, and the fundamentals of grammar are things people have varying knacks for. And of course we can all improve greatly on our basic talents by studying craft and practicing it. But a lot of what feels intuitive to me as a writer, a lot of the things I feel (and have been told) I do fairly well are things I've picked up from reading a ton of fiction and non fiction both.

I suppose there may be a very occasional literary prodigy out there. But I suspect that the overwhelming majority of skilled (let alone successful) writers are also voracious and enthusiastic readers.

So this is it for now. Does anyone have any other questions or thoughts on the answers to such? 


  1. I'm with you on not understanding the I-don't-like-it but-I-want-to-write-it attitude. Though that said, there is a great poem by Marianne Moore that begins "Poetry / I too dislike it: there are things that are / important beyond all / this fiddle." (http://m.poemhunter.com/poem/poetry/) which could be seen as a similar attitude...but really isn't :)

    Good breakdown of common questions (though I have to say I never mind writing a synopsis :p ).

  2. And of course, there are so many different kinds of poetry too. I often say I don't care for it, because I don't buy books that are filled with nothing but poems. I prefer stories and characters to words that are just there to be pretty as a rule. Yet when I think about it, there are many poems I do love, because they actually do tell stories, or because they make me laugh. And I often enjoy hearing poems read aloud.

    So maybe some people who say they don't like to read novels are just very selective about the kinds they like. Or they think of novels as the things they were forced to read back in school rather than the things they're more likely to read for fun.

  3. Just wanted to mention, for any folks who may not know, the term "pantser" refers to writing "by the seat of your pants" or writing without a preparatory framework or outline. As Ms. Wagner mentions, writing as an outliner or a pantser is something that tends to run on a spectrum and is up to the individual writer to decide what level of either or both works best.

  4. Thanks for clarifying that, Nick. Because, yes, jargon can be confusing.