Elements of Style. On Writing. Plot and Structure. Aspects of the Novel.
Four titles out of who knows how many on “how to write.” Read all the books you want, glean as you go, but one way or another, when you sit down to write, stick to the basics.
Acts I, II, & III.
Beginning. Middle. End.
Plot. Theme. Setting. Characters. Conflict. Climax. Resolution.
However you craft your story, experiment with choice of narrator and viewpoint, twist the plot, cast your characters, satisfy (“I knew that would happen”) or surprise (“I never saw that coming”) your reader, here are a few tips to help with the process.
- Don’t marry your words. The first advice I received from the first keynote address by Steve Berry at the first writers’ conference I attended in 2010. Your sentences may very well be spun gold. But if a beta reader [unpaid test reader of an unpublished work] or critique group member says, “I don’t get it,”—especially if more than one reader says this—then be willing to change. Delete the sentence or that perfect paragraph or even a character. In my most recent book, I killed off three characters while they were still waiting in the wings, because I simply could not make the plot work with them in it: a mother, stepsister, and a roofer named Rob Russell.
- Don’t poke your reader in the eye. As your reader inhabits your story, (s)he is going to interact with your characters, dwell in your setting, invest emotionally in your story. When the end is reached, the reader should not find your characters in an impossible situation only to be told, “it was all a dream.” Likewise, if you have written a sublimely happy moment, it is patently unfair to kill your hero in a car wreck, especially if he had already survived World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, unless it was his idea, since he wanted to pursue other acting opportunities. But then, what’s a Fellowes to do?
- Don’t be inflexible. You are writing for a reader, not for yourself. Be willing to reconsider your preconceived notions about writing. Heed advice on writing for “today’s reader.” We all know that profile—busy, short attention span. For example, I love the long, word-rich sentences of Charles Dickens, and the marvelous prose of Robert Penn Warren, but not everyone does. I have to come down on the page somewhere in the middle of my taste and my audience.
After writing two novels and attending many seminars and classes, I discovered James Scott Bell’s book, Write Your Novel from the Middle, and it transformed the way I wrote. I highly recommend it.