My top 10 tips for fiction writers

Here are my top tips for writers. They aren’t rules; they are points to think about. I’ve listed them in order of importance. Enjoy!

1. Determination: work hard. If there was one crucial point it is this: determination. You do deserve to see your novel in print, and having it sell well. But you need the will to push yourself through hours of tapping away on your keyboard, ugly re-writes, years of reading as a writer, and most importantly, remembering your goal. If your goal is to publish your novel, then don’t let anything stand in your way.

If Lauren Kate, author of the Fallen series and the Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove, received over 100 rejections before making it big, and Kathryn Stockett was rejected 60 times for her bestselling début novel, The Help, then you deserve to be up there too. Have a mantra, have a reward, if that works. The one rule that you don’t get to choose is quitting (that should be in no writer’s possibilities).

Determination Wallpaper

Image by via Flickr

2. Think about doing a creative writing short course or moving on to an accredited certificate, diploma or degree. Creative writing courses are the best way of developing your skills if the course is practical. For that reason, I can’t promote TAFEs enough (this particular TAFE in the link is from Melbourne; you can look at it as an example). TAFEs are focused on learning skills and using them in a practical environment (with your peers). Universities are fantastic for expanding your knowledge further, deeper. At the least, you’ll come out a better writer. So, imagine the best possible scenario! But if such long commitments are too much to dive right in to, consider online courses (ultra convenient) or hour-/day-/week-long classes. If you like them, you can always step up your education.

3. Learn fiction writing techniques. Some of the most helpful hints I’ve learnt are 1) show, don’t tell; 2) use the 5 senses; 3) delve deep in developing characters/plot; and 4) write by scenes. Let me flick through these ideas quickly. I’ve linked you up for each one (because one sentence won’t be enough).

Show, don’t tell: show how the character reacts to their environment — whether that be with another person, to physical objects, or avoiding an issue/a particular setting. (i.e. don’t tell your reader that Jim is angry. Show what he does so the reader can imagine he’s angry.)

Use the five senses: Let the nervous high school girl feel the thickness in her throat as she swallows, smell the residue of pencil shavings on her fingers as she bites her nails, rub her forehead so many times that her skin becomes oily — put yourself in the character’s place even if that means closing your eyes or creating a similar scene.

Delve deep in developing characters/plot: make characters have unique quirks that individualise them; create at least two, preferably three sub-plots; study the three-act structure.

Write by scenes: scenes need to have at least two subjects (people, animals) and both should have a want and a need (want is what the character thinks they need to achieve; need is what they should learn to actually overcome the conflict). My links for fiction writing has the best sites for this.

4. Start from the character and grow your story from there. Evoke emotion, give them an inner and outer conflict. People care about other people, so don’t open your novel by describing the breathtaking landscapes of a remote island in Micronesia if it doesn’t involve a character. Create character contradictions (a woman’s mother grew up poor and grounded by rules to survive, so when this woman becomes a mother herself, she teaches her children in the same ways because it’s the only way she knows, even though she hated her mother for the things she did). This contradiction makes ‘perfect heroes’ seem real. Grab personality aspects from people you know to form original (not clichéd) characters. Watch people in conversation — what are their gestures? how does someone speak or act when they are anxious? — and apply it to your dialogue.

5. Finish your book, then follow these three stages of editing: structural (also known as substantial), copy/line, then proofread. If we are talking about putting together an outfit for a party, then a substantial edit looks at if you have enough make up on, how having that much or little make-up affects the look of your dress and you as a whole, what the length of the skirt says about your thoughts, how confidently wearing your dress changes expectations, etc. So in your novel, you need to address issues such as conflict, plot, characters, wants, needs, tension, and other major issues that affect the novel as a whole. This is done first because there is no point re-writing a scene if it doesn’t raise tensions, or show us more about the character/plot. Remember, if you are deleting entire scenes, creating new ones and cutting and pasting scenes elsewhere, then you are doing the ‘structural’ edit perfectly!

Copy/Line editing is next because it looks at paragraphs and sentences and how they work alone and in relation to what precedes and follows it. In this stage, you look at clumsy sentences, confusing wordings, unnecessary repetitions, clichés, etc. Note that if this is the first thing you look for when doing a re-draft then, you need to back up a step to the structural/substantial edit.

The last stage, the proofread, looks at fixing grammatical errors. It’s a final review to make sure the sentences are error free.

Creative writing class-fine arts center (40269...

6. Join a writer’s group or have critique partners. There isn’t a writer in the world who can identify objectively everything needs to be fixed up in their manuscript. After two, eight or twelve drafts, that is impossible. Having critique partners who either love reading the genre of your novel or are learnt in the craft of fiction writing (or both!) gives you an expert critique. Love the criticism, because if someone is taking the time to read your work for free, it’s because they care about helping you improve your work.

I know how scary it is handing out work for the first time, but once I receive mountain loads of advice for improvements I feel so much better that my prospective agent/publisher hasn’t seen all those problems.

7. Know your weaknesses and push yourself to become an expert on the topic. What better way is there of overcoming what holds your novel back than by working at it? Work at keeping your anxieties down and the more you push yourself to understand (do exercises, do practical tips) the more you’ll be able to create a better version of your novel and even more so for future ones you’ll write.

8. Network and have a website. Having an online presence is more important than ever. Remember when you weren’t sure on THAT book? What did you do before you bought it? You Googled the author. A cheap and effective option is starting a blog. If you create quality content and work at networking so people are aware of what you do then you help your career. 1) People find you when they search for a query. 2) Agents and publishers know that if you have the book they want, you can market your work (and you already have an audience because of that blog, remember?). 3) People are interested in what you do and will trust your site — vital for non-fiction writers and for readers who want more of what you do. Create friendships with fellow writers and help them as much as they help you.

Afterwards book cover

9. Read about how the publishing industry works — what’s ‘hot’; what’s ‘not’. This is less important but still great advice. You need to know what agents are interested in taking on. You should know what publishers are looking for in new manuscripts. Learn if your vampire, young-adult fiction novel is still in high demand. Or maybe you’ve written something like Afterwards. Understand if there’s a gap where your thriller (about two people who spend the novel in out-of-body experiences, trying to save their physical bodies) fills a gap in the industry.

10. Never give up. Keep going: there is no other option. When you’re still getting rejections, expand/re-do the previous steps. Find different critique partners if your current ones aren’t helping you as much as you’d hoped. Continue on to TAFE or university if you liked your short writing course (because you can never stop learning). Read more on the craft of fiction writing and analyse the novels you read with this knowledgeable eye for detail.

Now comes the most important part: what are your tips/suggestions? I’ve compiled this list so you, my loyal readers, have one point of reference (opposed to 10 tabs open, which consequently crash your browser). Please leave your comments below and I can discuss and add your thoughts for my future posts!

26 thoughts on “My top 10 tips for fiction writers

  1. The fiction techniques you tell about— those are some great things to keep in mind. I usually get into too much detail while writing leaving no scope for the reader to ‘read between the lines’. As Einstein said, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
    Thanks for your ideas!

  2. Great post, it’s fantastic to have all of that in one place.

    You asked what our tips would be and there’s only one that I would throw out there, and it’s been immensely important both in my career designing games as well as writing: Never fear the delete key!
    Often when a paragraph isn’t working despite constant tinkering it’s because I’ve fallen in love with a particular sentence or turn of phrase (same for game mechanics). In those instances I force myself to add a bunch of carriage returns and rewrite the paragraph from scratch. Once I’ve done that I can compare, and to date I’m not sure that I’ve ever NOT taken the rewritten one even though it lacks the snippet I thought was so integral before.

    Thanks for all the great tweets and blogs :)

    • I wrote this post before I had heard of The Delete Key phenomenon. I apply this liberally now (let’s hope not too much or else there is something tragic in that loss). I agree that often when something sounds wondrous it shouldn’t be in a novel. The writing should feel secondary to the story.

      Thanks for reading, Paul. (I have a character in my ms named Paul, so it’s weird thinking of your name differently lol)

  3. Great post. I love following you through twitter. You always have something beneficial to say especially for a novice like me! All your points are great and things I’m always thinking about.

    • Yay! Thanks. This is funny to hear because I still feel like a novice. I only started Twitter in November 2011.

      … Okay, we’ll it felt like yesterday, even if it is 7 or so months ago.

      Thank you so much for reading my post!

  4. I found a link to your post on #amwriting, and I decided to blog about your post here.

    By the way, I found your tip #7 most interesting and helpful. A lot of people don’t want to work on something they don’t think they are good at. But with practice, that all can change. Very uplifting post overall!


    • Thank you for taking the time to read and chat about my post! What a compliment! :D

      I realise that my weaknesses are what makes my manuscript less enjoyable. That’s why I like reading every critique from a range of people. People who hate what I’ve written (only 1 so far) are able to give me an insight to what I do worst. Then I stop hiding from my fear and decide what I can do to improve my manuscript.

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  6. I have copied and pasted all of that. Particularly nice is to know that what I’m doing at the moment has a name; it’s a structural or substantial edit. I kind of feel as though Inow have permission to continue until the chapters are all back in place because I know I’ll start over again (on Rewrite No8) and try to make the language natura, beautiful and flowing using all the criteria you listed as top tips! I have been compiling a top ten attributes required by an author on my blog, but have only had two suggestions. Determination was one of my first suggestions, now it’s going in to the list for sure.

    • Hi, Evie. I’m glad that you’re focusing on a structural edit first. Want to hear really sad, devastating news? I started with copy/line editing. I know. I don’t know how this happened. I was so naive.

      Still to this day, I believe an author has a better chance at getting published if they have loads of determination. Skills are so easily taught in comparison to trying to motivate a writer. It’s a hard gig.

      Hope to hear from you again soon. Thanks!

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    • Awesome! Writing is my alternate world. Mm … maybe I spend too much time ‘there’. Lol.

      Check out my latest post on my ‘Art of Writing’ sessions if you think I’ve missed any of your queries and you want to know more!

    • It’s weird how some things aren’t difficult to do but having someone/something lay it out to see makes things clear?

      When I try to make a new food dish, for example, if I look at the recipe, the anxiety of understanding and then baking the damn thing to perfection gets me worked up. But if a friend talks me through it, suddenly, the steps all make sense! I mean they were there all along, but it’s nice having it laid there easy and simple.

      I’m not sure how this post turned out, but I’m glad it made it a little more like a-friend-talking-through-the-recipe for you.

      Thanks for your support :)

  10. This post has been really helpful Rebecca. I have always wanted to write, but never imagined that I could earn a living from it or at least become famous. Recently I started a writing course to learn how to write more effectively and fluently. What I have discovered is that I am longing for the lifestyle of the writer. Not the fame or the money, but the search for that creative spark and sharing ones thoughts with the world. Since I have begun the writing course, I have started to think more about places that I can see, books that I could read and I am watching, listening to the world more intently. So reading your tips has confirmed to me that I am on the right path. My current occupation is so goal oriented( social media marketing consultant), so I am grateful that my writing is about getting in touch with my creativity and learning to share my words so that new worlds will be brought in creation through my writing. I am looking forward to reading more of your writing.

    • I’m glad that writing has helped you discover what makes you happy.

      I agree that I listen and watch what’s around me in a more analytical sense. I want to discover more and learn as much as I can so that I am able to create my character’s world. For me, writing allows me to understand people better. I’m sure other writers, like yourself, feel that enlightenment when you create a novel and you learn more about reality by writing lies (fiction).

      Thank you so much for your comment.

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