By Randy Susan Meyers
During my (self-guided, self-nagged) courses in my ‘Homemade MFA’ I did many things: I read stacks of books, I read multiple favorite novels with an analytical eye, I participated in multiple writer’s groups and revised, revised, and then revised some more. And, I wrote ‘papers’ for myself, in an attempt to distill down all the fantastic advice I’d gleaned from those book stacks.
What I couldn’t learn from the books was ‘voice,’ ‘passion’ or ‘perseverance’ — that required mining my own soul and level of commitment; what I could learn was those all important, and too often ignored, techniques that make one’s prose more sophisticated. Gathering from all the sources I could find, I make my “Cliff Notes for Fiction Techniques” otherwise known as Common Fiction Issues in Super-Short, Simplified Format.
What’s below isn’t prettied up or served with garnish–it’s my original ‘just the facts, mam.
1) Showing or telling? How much narrative summary do you have? Do you write “He was fuming” or “He kicked the wall?”
“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” Mark Twain
2) Characterization? What’s going on with your character? Can we see her worries, fears, and hopes? How many? We seldom feel one thing at a time. Have you tried a little tenderness? Shown the characters vulnerability? Readers like vulnerability, but beware showing pain laced with self-pity: readers dislike weakness and self-pity; show pain subtly and whenever possible, with humor.
Avoid thumbnails sketches and let character unfold before the reader. Don’t define everything about them the moment they come on stage, start with a bit of looks, and let character’s personality reveal the character, rather than relying on physical sketches. Watch ‘looking in the mirror’ descriptions. Have your characters misunderstand each other at times. Have them answer the unspoken question rather than the one asked aloud. Have them hedge, talk at cross-purposes, disagree, lie, sound human.
What does your character(s) want? What’s the obstacle to the want? What action has your character taken to overcome the obstacles? Are things too easy for your characters—thus tamping down tension and conflict?
“Readers want to be haunted by characters” Jessica Morrell
3) Is your point of view pitch perfect? Keep the camera angle straight. Keep description and observation within character’s point of view: is your Hell’s Angel guy describing the sunset too poetically? Nasty Jack rode along a sunshine drenched highway vs. Nasty Jack rode along the heat-choked highway.
4) Does your dialog hold interest and is it sophisticated? Dialogue: Watch tagging – use the invisible ‘said’ most often. Watch ‘ly’ adverbs or emotional attributions. Replace “Do you still love me?” Maria asked nervously with “You still love me, right?” Maria gripped the steering wheel with both hands.
Could you use more contractions, more sentence fragments, and more run-on sentences? Is stiff dialog really exposition in disguise? Avoid dialect and weird spellings.
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