It’s a Jungle Out There

Finding my way in the thicket of advice for new fiction authors

There’s no shortage of advice online for fiction writers. Indeed, rather the opposite.

I see novice writers on Twitter obsessing over whether they are telling when they should, in fact, be #showing? What about adverbs: are we allowed adverbs? How many per paragraph? Does my inciting incident have to come before page 10? Is my writing sufficiently inclusive — but not culturally appropriative? What’s my genre? How many comps do I need for a synopsis? Sex in YA fiction: yes or no? Is 250K words too many for a first novel? Can I write it in the second person, future perfect tense?

There’s nothing wrong with this seeking and proffering of advice. The problem lies in the corollary: sifting, evaluation, often rejection.

Any piece of advice offered to a writer needs to be viewed suspiciously from all angles like an apple in the supermarket. Unlike with the apple, the writer can — must — take a bite, give it a good chew before maybe spitting it out on the figurative floor of the metaphorical Fresh Produce Department. Without the cashier calling Security to deal with a disturbance in Aisle Two.

Precious individuality

The spitting-out of advice which is not necessarily unwholesome, but not to the writer’s individual taste, or doesn’t contain the nutrients his or her metabolism can process right now, seems to me an important part of the learning-to-write-fiction process.

Without it, our individuality risks being crushed — and we all end up writing the same way:

Every short story shall begin in media res, in a Midwest diner, where our blue-collar protagonist orders a coffee, reminisces over Mary-Beth or Billy-Joe from high school; then who should walk in the door but … . Snippets of backstory are cast on the waters of the dialogue like bread to hungry ducks — but not too many, because we’re showing, not telling, remember, and too much bread, sorry exposition, is b-a-a-a-a-d.

We’ll give the reader just enough information to piece together what in tarnation is going on here … then confound their expectations with a deft twist and voilà!

The outcome of this formulaic approach is the sort of story which engages us intellectually to the same extent as a sudoku and leaves as much of an emotional wake. It assumes that our only focus is plot, and we don’t actually give a flying fart about the rich fabric of the world in which this happening occurs.

Then there’s the earnest genre novelist, regurgitating tropic elements of every novel they’ve ever read in that genre onto the page. If it’s fantasy, let there be orcs and/or elves; if it’s Gothic teen horror, behold the pale-skinned, dark-haired MC who is not-like-other-girls/boys/werewolves …

Of course, these are caricatures, and perhaps unkind; yet the normative influence is real, pervasive and damned difficult to disregard. It can smother the individuality and the joyous experimentation which should be any novice writer’s gift to literature.

Striving for balance

Fortunately, I’m an arrogant bastard … and looking at the matter objectively, have nothing to prove, no consequences to my likely failure as a fiction writer. I’ve made a complete arse of myself many, many times. What does one more matter?

Yes, well, that’s all very well in theory. Under the bravado my ego is as fragile as the next writer’s, and these are my deepest fears and fantasies that I’m casting onto the page. It stings when people intimate that, well, that was a bit boring, wasn’t it?

How to get the balance right between self-indulgence and self-restraint? Between overweening arrogance and spirit-crushing humility?

Sorry. I don’t yet have a convincing answer to that one.

The best I can come up with is: put my work out there a lot; obtain a lot of reactions, a lot of advice. Accept nothing as canon: acknowledge each individual perspective with grace, but a grain of scepticism. Keep an eye out for recurrent criticisms from different quarters, because these might be the gold-bearing seams worth mining.

Other literatures, other paths

It helps, I think, hope, to be widely read — far outside the realms of the contemporary North American novel, or the post-War British novel for that matter. Other languages, for example, have other literary conventions.

Obsessing over extraneous adverbs seems less important when you realise that acclaimed novelists in German can get away with a sentence per page, with the main verb tucked away somewhere at the end, and a chapter of mixed dialogue and narrative with no dialogue tags and no fucking inverted commas whatsoever.

Thus, you get to page fifteen and realise that it’s not Opa Hermann who has the nineteen-year-old girlfriend but his granddaughter Sophie. Then you have to go back and read the whole bloody first chapter of the novel again — the novel, which is printed in 7 pt Garamond on what appears to be toilet paper.

Even seasoned German editors miss the occasional substitution of sie (she/they) for Sie (formal you) in the thorny thicket which is German prose. German readers are expected to work for their entertainment, and maybe that is not unreasonable.

Looking elsewhere: medieval Icelandic saga writers required their readers to absorb genealogies over five generations and glean psychological insights from heavy silences and the occasional raised eyebrow … in order to understand why Björn just buried his axe in neighbour Egil’s head.

But I digress. What was the bloody point, Steve?

Oh, yes. This:

There are many, many ways to write fiction. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Be brave.

wood; trees | author image

Thanks for reading!

If you are looking for genuinely useful advice and support in your fiction writing, I wholeheartedly recommend Alison Acheson’s Unschool for Writers on Substack.

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