Creating Excellence in Fiction: a comment to a student

Thanks for your comment. It seems you have all the experience and material to do great work, and you have an authorial attitude as to how to approach and present your material that will serve you well as you continue. As you write, it can be helpful to seek a clear purpose for what you write, not just the novel (or short story) but for every chapter, paragraph, sentence, even word choice. Looking at broad purpose, you’ll come up with a theme and meaning for your writing. Try to make it as clear as possible: dependency destroys lives, incest is immoral, seeking truth is important to human existence, etc. More than one is often involved, but only one should dominate for excellence in most works.

Then, as you seek purpose in shorter context, you can carry broader purpose and theme, but you’ll be looking for specific, story-related purposes: Does this sentence advance plot, build character, create images, clarify timeline, assure consistency in voice, etc.? All this may seem superfluous, but the habit of thinking like this helps strengthen the writing and the storytelling. It relates to (as you noted in your comment) creativity and imaginative thinking to write great prose stories. Nonfiction is different. In nonfiction, authors make their points through relating to and describing real events and real people, and depending on accuracy of occurrences to evoke reader reaction, events and people that have caused an emotional response or some enlightenment that has changed (the author’s) life. So in nonfiction, creative imagination is curtailed to the presentation of story material rather than creating story material for specific story purpose–a purpose that will produce an emotional reaction or intellectual enlightenment in the reader through objective story action and conflict/action/resolution. The nonfiction writer is evoking emotional reactions and intellectual enlightenment through abstractions (“I hate” rather than in-scene action that shows the hate emotion, for example) and is prone to move a reader through narrative discursive rumination. This is often perceived as an author writing from the soul, but it is frequently not as engaging or readable, nor does it have the impact of objective in-scene revelation through creative imagination. There are exceptions for certain stories to be told, but failure to recognize the principle frequently results in inferior writing and storytelling.

I applaud you; it’s a hurdle you are already addressing. You have the skills and the heart to use your valuable (and exciting and significant) material to maximum advantage. I want to emphasize that to achieve significant responses with your writing, don’t resort too often to telling what it meant to you, how you perceived your world experiences, or how they caused your reactions. Instead, explore all the elements that make you feel the way you did and do. Almost always it is best to seek to fully understand your reactions, analyze the causes for those reactions, and then pursue the knowledge (as you already are!) as to how the great writers learn to make readers feel the way they, the authors, want them to feel. Of course you will use life experiences (all writers do). Just don’t be a slave to those experiences so opportunities to create significant stories through imaginative characterization and storytelling are ignored.

Storytelling and craft are the tools for significant story success–authorial human understanding of generations of story material; effective narration; consistent and unique voice(s); purposeful dialogue; uninterrupted engagement; objective decisions about desires, motivations, and emotional responses; and readable prose. These produce reactions that are different from memoir and nonfiction, and usually, although harder to achieve, give better results with respect to what you–and all authors, I think–want to achieve. From your comment, I know you understand this and are on the way to achieving it. I wanted to support you and wish you the very best as you proceed.

All the best, WHC