Beginner’s Guide to Fiction Writing

August 3, 2009

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There are plenty of great guides to fiction writing on the market. Many of them are written by authors who are much more accomplished than myself. However, my advice is free, and today I share it with you. Of course, this is not a comprehensive guide, but just a few tips.

  • Write – This seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? However, it is easy for life to get in the way of your best intentions. Set aside some time to focus on writing, and try to write a specific number of times each week. For many people, finding time to write 365 days of the year is not realistic. However, perhaps you can try two or three times per week. It is not necessary to write a story from start to finish – feel free to skip around. I use [BREAK] to note points in the story that have not yet been written (so if you ever encounter this in one of my stories, you have found an “oops”). This helps reduce writer’s block, as you can just skipped to an unblocked portion and return to the blocked portion when the block has dissipated.
  • Know your genre– Read several books (or stories) within your genre to get a good feel for concepts that work and don’t work. For example, novels tend to describe events more richly than short stories – short stories typically have to get to the point much more directly, simply because they have less words with which to work. Here is an example of a scene, with one version written for a short story and another written for a novel.

    Short story: Kirsten walked across the room and turned on the lamp.

    Novel: Kirsten’s scarlet stilettos drummed out a melodic series of clicks as she strode purposefully across the marble floor. When she arrived at the mahogany table in the corner, she flipped the switch on the ancient lamp. The compact fluorescent bulb fluttered for a short moment before realizing its full potential and bathing the room in light.

    Clearly, this is an overly dramatic example, but you should see the point. If you consistently use “short story” descriptions in a novel, you’ll have difficulty achieving much length – and your readers will find your work a bit boring. On the other hand, if you’re trying to write a 500 word short story and drop in lots of “novel” descriptions, you’re going to run out of words long before you reach the climax. You just took 11% of your alloted words just to have a girl turn on a lamp!

    Additionally, concepts that work in mysteries may fall flat on their face in a romance novel. In general, familiarity with the genre will help you improve your writing style.

  • Work on the technical aspects– There are a lot of tricky aspects to writing. Dialogue is one of the more difficult. Until recently, I have always punctuated dialogue incorrectly – and even now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you find a lot of errors in how I handle dialogue. It’s also important to avoid becoming repetitive. Once again, our friend dialogue pops up as a potential problem area. Let’s review a couple of examples.


    “Hi, Ted,” said Fred.

    “Hey, Fred,” said Ted.

    “The weather sure is nice today,” said Fred.

    “Yes, it certainly is,” said Ted.

    “Great game yesterday,” said Fred.


    “Howdy, Ted,” said Fred.

    “Hey, Fred – how are you doing?”

    “Not so bad. The weather sure is nice today.”

    “Yes, it certainly is,” replied Ted.

    “Did you see the game yesterday? What an exciting finish,” exclaimed Fred.

    The first conversation suffers from a couple of problems. First, it is too name heavy. When you have two characters speaking to each other, it is not necessary to identify them every single time they speak. It is, of course, a good idea to to identify them periodically over the course of a longer conversation, to avoid having the reader lose track of who is speaking. The conversation also suffers from excessive said-itis. There are a lot of ways to describe someone speaking. Exclaimed, replied, questioned, squeaked, whispered, and shouted are the tip of the iceberg.

    Paying close attention to the writing of others can assist you greatly in writing better dialogue and handling other technical issues. You can also check the self-help section of the book store for grammar, usage, and style guides.

  • Names – It can be difficult for a lot of writers to generate names for their characters. For my short stories, I often grab the names of my friends. I am careful to not use a full name – only a first or last. This allows me a lot more flexibility with my characters – I can have a character go on a murderous rampage without causing my friend’s name to pop up on a Google search for serial killers. There are actually books on the market devoted to how to develop characters, and some of them include names for characters. A good book of baby names will also work quite nicely. If you want a really good free source, you can always utilize the census data, which lists first names (broken out by gender) and last names in order of popularity. You probably don’t want to print the entire list though – the last name list has nearly 90,000 names.
  • Share – Share your writing with others. This might meant showing a couple of close friends, or it might mean broadcasting to a potential audience of millions via the internet. Not only will this give you a stronger feeling of accomplishment, but many people will offer constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is a great tool to indentify strengths and weaknesses in your writing.
  • Have fun – The vast majority of you are not going to become world famous writers. I’m not trying to burst your bubble; this is an unfortunate statistical truth. (For those of you who do become world famous writers, could you signed me a signed first edition?) Thus, if your only goal is to make millions off your writing, you might want to shift your focus. The journey is more important than the destination.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Evan
    Aug 03, 2009 @ 12:11:03

    Nice tips. I find that dialogue is the hardest part. I also have a tendency to go overboard with adjectives and adverbs. I read somewhere once that instead of referring to something as “an old curtain,” for example, that you should instead describe the curtain, so the reader “feels” that is is old without spelling it out. Of course, that might be a silly example and could lead to overkill. And, as you point out, it depends on what kind of writing you’re doing (novel, short story, etc.).
    .-= Evan´s last blog ..10 Pain-Reducing Steps to Take Before Upgrading to Windows 7 =-.


  2. kosmo
    Aug 04, 2009 @ 21:52:14

    I really have to work to write in “novel” style – I always want to race ahead in the plot.

    The “old curtain” comment makes a lot of sense.

    “The once-white curtain had been yellowed by the sun, whose rays peeked through the holes in the tattered fabric.”


  3. Pondrin
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 23:58:44

    Great tips Kosmo! Having the rough idea of your story line and revising are important to be able to write better. Most importantly, you must enjoy yourself during writing!


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