If you made good grades in English composition in school—that’s great! Why? Because writing fiction means you will be required to learn when and how it becomes appropriate to break the grammar rules. Fiction-writing is a craft. It has its own rules, and the rules change according to cultural trends, genres, and the market/readers you are targeting. If you are an avid reader, you will have a better sense of what good writing is. There is a saying in the publishing industry, “Good writers read.”
Learn early on to take constructive criticism; it will serve you well. I recommend, if possible, that you take a creative writing course. If not, join a local or online critique group. Family members don’t count as critics. Be sure the group is encouraging and not discouraging. Look for groups that focus on the type of fiction you are writing, such as Science Fiction, Romance, Mystery, Southern Literature, and so on.
1. POINT OF VIEW
The number one tip I can offer a beginning writer is to limit your point-of-view characters to one or two. All too often, I see manuscripts with changing points of view within a scene and even within a paragraph. This is called head-hopping. Readers will feel jerked around and may become confused about who the main characters are. It’s preferable to stay in your main character’s head, or two characters, if both are equally important to the story. Be sure to change scenes or chapters when moving into a new point of view. Learn how to make smooth transitions into new scenes.
For beginning fiction writers, I recommend staying out of an omniscient point of view as it can be confusing and is more difficult to craft than you might think. First-person, third-person, or third-person-close is best for beginners. Learn the pros and cons of each point of view to see which will work best in your story. You may want the protagonist, and therefore the reader, to discern what a lesser character is thinking; if so, you must show it with dialogue and action. There is no “telling” where lesser characters are concerned.
2. BALANCE & PACING
Balance your narration, dialogue, and action. Too many nonstop pages of any of these become tedious. Learn about pacing – how to slow the action or speed it up. Yes, you want your readers to keep turning the pages, but you may not want to wear them out.
3. DIALOG & GROUNDING CHARACTERS
Crafting effective dialogue is a course itself for fiction writers, but one critical point is to ground your characters as they talk. Grounding means showing where they are or what they are doing. In reading manuscripts, I have often found several pages of dialogue with no grounding. Witty though the passage might be, the characters could be floating in air, for all I know.
4. HE SAID, SHE SAID
Keep speaker tags brief. He said, she said. Bob said, Elaine said. If there are only two people in the scene, tagging it once should be enough, and the reader can follow the flow unless it goes on for more than a page. If that’s the case, give another tag, or even better, a beat of action that grounds and/or characterizes the speaker. As with speaker tags, don’t overdo beats of action.
Stay in one tense, past and past perfect (preferable for beginners,) or present. One mistake I often see fiction writers make is a story in the past tense where the author inadvertently slips into the present tense. It is something to look out for in rewrites and self-editing sessions. Don’t worry; it happens to the best of writers.
Make the characters unpredictable. The heroes have flaws, and the anti-heroes have some good in them.
Eliminate adverbs, especially words ending in ‘ly,’ and passive words, which are often overused. There are lists online of words to avoid
8. S, DT
Show, don’t tell is a popular mantra in the fiction writing community. Showing through dialogue and action brings the reader into the story. Telling keeps them at arms—length. Telling is fine for summarizing less important details needed to move the story along, and for balance. But showing is always better to keep the reader engaged. A simple example of show, don’t tell: Sam shrugged and sat quietly. Instead: Sam shrugged. The fact that he shrugged (active) shows us he was quiet. This is also an example of removing an adverb (passive) to make the statement stronger.
Most important, be sure the story you are creating has an over-arching theme that resonates with readers, and that the hero/heroine and the anti-hero/anti-heroine each have strong motivations to create conflict in their interactions. Make the motivations apparent early on and continue throughout the novel.
Best-selling author, and creative writing teacher, James Scott Bell, says, “People don’t read ‘happy, happy land.’” Be sure to keep the conflict going until the resolution happens at the end.
Treat writing like a profession, not a hobby. Expect to put in the time and effort it takes to learn the craft. All well-regarded fiction writers will rewrite several drafts of their novels before presenting manuscripts to their agent/publisher for acceptance.
Request the publisher’s style guide and be sure to refer to it regarding the proper use of suspension points, em dashes, how to write numbers, time, and to learn the latest trend in comma usage. This will show the editor and publisher you are taking the publishing process seriously.
Dudley Court Press
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Contributed by Wendy Dingwall, former CEO and Publisher of Canterbury House Publishing, and author of the Yvonne Suarez Travel Mysteries. Current Fiction Acquisitions Editor of the Canterbury House imprint of Dudley Court Press.