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• Getting ideas
• Finding a great

• Using plot, setting

and dialogue
• Writing scenes
• Developing


Tips from accomplished
fiction writers
Anne Tyler
Robert Olen Butler
Donna Tartt
John Updike
and many others
From the editors of The Writer magazine
Wrlters Relµlng Wrlters
In little more than a decade, the professional writers on the faculty of Gotham Writers’ Workshop have taught
creative writing to more than 40,000 writers. In the process, we’ve mastered a method for teaching the craft of
writing that is accessible, inspiring, engaging, and effective. It helps that every one of our teachers is a
professional writer. Each understands the challenges you face and knows how to help. Perhaps that’s why
we’ve emerged as New York’s leading creative writing school.
Unllne Classes 5elected ªBest ef the Web¨ by
Since 1997, more than 15,000 writers from around the world have discovered
how effective (and convenient) Gotham online writing workshops can be. Each
of our workshops include everything you’d expect in a ‘live’ workshop—lively
lectures, in-depth discussions, writing exercises, and insightful, personal feed-
back on your work. As always, we strictly limit class size to ensure the focus is
on you and your writing.
lnslder 5trategles fer Gettlng Publlshed
Writing a good book is only the beginning. We’ll teach you strategies and techniques for navigating the complex
world of publishing. Our four-week “How to Get Published” seminar is taught online by a true industry
insider—a literary agent. You’ll learn strategies for creating proposals, targeting agents and publishers, rising
from the “slush pile,” and managing your career. You’ll finish the course with an attention-grabbing query
letter and a thorough understanding of the business of writing.
£ssentlal References
Gotham books are essential additions to every writer’s bookshelf.
Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide provides a clear explanation of the
fundamental elements of the craft, writing exercises, a chapter on “The
Business of Writing,” and much more.
“The writing is fresh and full of concrete advice” —Publisher’s Weekly
Fiction Gallery showcases 25 exceptional short stories written by masters of
the craft. It also includes original interviews with Jhumpa Lahiri, T.C. Boyle,
and Hannah Tinti that describe their process for crafting a short story.
“Highly recommended” —Library Journal
When you buy either book, you can save $40 off the tuition for your first 10-week class.
Wrlte wlth Getham Wrlters' Werksheµ
If you are ready to take your writing to the next level, consider Gotham Writers’ Workshop. We offer
classes in more than a dozen forms of writing—Fiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Children’s Books, Romance,
Mystery, Humor, Travel Writing, Poetry, Article Writing, and more. You can even work individually with
one of the 100 professional writers on our faculty.
1e learn mere vlslt WrltlngClasses.cem er call tell-free 1-811-WRl1£R5
1¬L LLAUlN0 CRLA1lvL wRl1lN0 3C¬00L lN N¥C ANU 0N 1¬L lN1LRNL1
Gotham Writers’ Workshop

“Every aspect of each class was
a learning experience. The
instructor made the minutiae as
fascinating as the major subjects.
It was extraordinarily well
taught. I learned much more
than I anticipated.”
– Graham Fuller, Executive Editor
Interview magazine
1AKL ¥0uR wRl1lN0 10 1¬L NLX1 LLvLL wl1¬ 1¬L PR0lL33l0NAL wRl1LR3 0l
ou have an idea, an image in your
mind, that you just have to put down
on paper and develop into something
more. Every work of fction begins with
that frst fash of inspiration.
But then what? Te decisions you face can seem
overwhelming: Should you write an outline frst?
How do you sort out the details of plot, character
and voice? What’s the best way to approach revi-
sion? And once your manuscript is fnished, how do
you get it published?
In this special edi-
tion of Te Writer, we’ve
culled some of the best
advice on fction writ-
ing from the pages of our
and insight from some of
today’s top authors. Tese
writing pros will guide
you through the four main
steps of the writing process: Getting the Idea, De-
veloping the Idea, Polishing the Idea, and Getting
It Published. In addition, you’ll fnd inspirational
passages designed to motivate and energize, plus
snippets of writing advice from Joyce Carol Oates,
Wally Lamb, Julia Glass, Anne Lamott, Stephen
King and many others.
As a bonus, we’ve included a 16-page pullout
booklet with a glossary of publishing terms every
writer should know, as well as recommended writ-
ing books, Web sites and writers organizations.
Taking a work of fction from start to fnish
takes planning, determination and hard work. Te
Writer’s Guide to Fiction is designed to help you
achieve your writing goals—every step of the way.
to success
Editor Jeff Reich
Senior Editor Ronald Kovach
Associate Editor Sarah C. Lange
Editorial Associate Martha Lundin
Contributing Editors Stephanie Dickison, Erika Dreifus,
Melissa Hart, Kelly James-Enger, Sarah Anne Johnson, Chuck
Leddy, Mary Lynn, Marilyn Taylor, Steve Weinberg
Publisher Elfrieda Abbe
Art Director Elizabeth M. Weber
Photographers William Zuback, Jim Forbes
James Applewhite, T. Alan Broughton, Eve Bunting, Mary
Higgins Clark, Barnaby Conrad, Lewis Burke Frumkes, James
Cross Giblin, Gail Godwin, Eileen Goudge, Rachel Hadas,
Shelby Hearon, John Jakes, John Koethe, Lois Lowry, Peter
Meinke, Katherine Paterson, Elizabeth Peters, Arthur Plotnik
President Gerald B. Boettcher
Vice President, Advertising Scott Stollberg
Vice President, Editorial Kevin P. Keefe
Vice President, Marketing Daniel R. Lance
Corporate Art Director Maureen M. Schimmel
Production Supervisor Helene Tsigstras
Production Coordinator Annie Guldberg
Corporate Circulation Director Michael Barbee
Group Circulation Manager Catherine Daniels
Circulation Specialist Valerie Jensen
Circulation Coordinator Maggie Sketch
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Phone: (888) 558-1544, ext. 632
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Advertising Sales Representative Craig Greuel
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Phone: 800-558-1544 Press 3
Outside U.S. and Canada: 262-796-8776 Ext. 818
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Publishing Co., 21027 Crossroads Circle, P.O. Box 1612,
Waukesha, WI 53187-1612. Please include your name,
mailing and e-mail addresses, and telephone number with
any correspondence. The Writer is not responsible for
returning unsolicited manuscripts unless a SASE is included.
The Writer’s Guide to Fiction (ISBN 978-0-89024-807-2) is
published by Kalmbach Publishing Co., 21027 Crossroads
Circle, P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612.
SINGLE COPY PRICE: $8.95 U.S., $10.95 Canadian and
foreign, payable in U.S. funds drawn on U.S. banks only.
(Canadian price includes GST, BN 12271 3209 RT.)
Copyright © 2010, Kalmbach Publishing Co.
All rights reserved.
Wrlters Relµlng Wrlters
In little more than a decade, the professional writers on the faculty of Gotham Writers’ Workshop have taught
creative writing to more than 40,000 writers. In the process, we’ve mastered a method for teaching the craft of
writing that is accessible, inspiring, engaging, and effective. It helps that every one of our teachers is a
professional writer. Each understands the challenges you face and knows how to help. Perhaps that’s why
we’ve emerged as New York’s leading creative writing school.
Unllne Classes 5elected ªBest ef the Web¨ by
Since 1997, more than 15,000 writers from around the world have discovered
how effective (and convenient) Gotham online writing workshops can be. Each
of our workshops include everything you’d expect in a ‘live’ workshop—lively
lectures, in-depth discussions, writing exercises, and insightful, personal feed-
back on your work. As always, we strictly limit class size to ensure the focus is
on you and your writing.
lnslder 5trategles fer Gettlng Publlshed
Writing a good book is only the beginning. We’ll teach you strategies and techniques for navigating the complex
world of publishing. Our four-week “How to Get Published” seminar is taught online by a true industry
insider—a literary agent. You’ll learn strategies for creating proposals, targeting agents and publishers, rising
from the “slush pile,” and managing your career. You’ll finish the course with an attention-grabbing query
letter and a thorough understanding of the business of writing.
£ssentlal References
Gotham books are essential additions to every writer’s bookshelf.
Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide provides a clear explanation of the
fundamental elements of the craft, writing exercises, a chapter on “The
Business of Writing,” and much more.
“The writing is fresh and full of concrete advice” —Publisher’s Weekly
Fiction Gallery showcases 25 exceptional short stories written by masters of
the craft. It also includes original interviews with Jhumpa Lahiri, T.C. Boyle,
and Hannah Tinti that describe their process for crafting a short story.
“Highly recommended” —Library Journal
When you buy either book, you can save $40 off the tuition for your first 10-week class.
Wrlte wlth Getham Wrlters' Werksheµ
If you are ready to take your writing to the next level, consider Gotham Writers’ Workshop. We offer
classes in more than a dozen forms of writing—Fiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Children’s Books, Romance,
Mystery, Humor, Travel Writing, Poetry, Article Writing, and more. You can even work individually with
one of the 100 professional writers on our faculty.
1e learn mere vlslt WrltlngClasses.cem er call tell-free 1-811-WRl1£R5
1¬L LLAUlN0 CRLA1lvL wRl1lN0 3C¬00L lN N¥C ANU 0N 1¬L lN1LRNL1
Gotham Writers’ Workshop

“Every aspect of each class was
a learning experience. The
instructor made the minutiae as
fascinating as the major subjects.
It was extraordinarily well
taught. I learned much more
than I anticipated.”
– Graham Fuller, Executive Editor
Interview magazine
1AKL ¥0uR wRl1lN0 10 1¬L NLX1 LLvLL wl1¬ 1¬L PR0lL33l0NAL wRl1LR3 0l
4 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
To help you “get butt in chair,” as the writer’s
saying goes, here’s an array of short motiva-
tional passages drawn from Te Writer’s vast
archive of articles and author interviews.
Compiled by Sarah C. Lange
So you have the urge. What now? Here’s
some advice on getting your fction project
started from an award-winning writer.
By Susan Vreeland
If you’re contemplating a novel, here are
some key questions to ask yourself before
you start.
By Bharti Kirchner

Where do you fnd ideas worth exploring in
short fction? Te writer shares some of his
idea experiences.
By Tom Bailey
Discover your character’s yearning and you’ll
uncover the heart of your narrative, accord-
ing to this Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and
infuential fction theorist.
By Robert Olen Butler
A top literary agent describes how to craf a
compelling novel by sending your character
on a profound journey.
By Noah Lukeman
It’s long been a subject of writerly debate:
To outline or not to outline? Here, a success-
ful suspense writer lays out what he thinks
are the many practical and creative benefts
of preplanning.
By C.J. Box
Tis writer says he fnds it more fun and
imaginative to follow his instincts and im-
provise his way through a story.
By Larry Tritten
Avram Dumitrescu | 5
Why not look to some classic authors for a
master class in story beginnings?
By Steve Dimeo
A veteran writing duo on how a short story
can hook the reader early and well.
By Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet
A respected novelist ofers advice on how to
use research to fnd and use the information
that can enrich your story.
By Shelby Hearon
Scenes are crucial in a piece of fction, but
ofen hard to do right. Here is some advice
on how to construct these “units of signif-
cant action” that keep your story moving.
By Quinn Dalton
Finding the signifcance behind what hap-
pens in a story is what will give it dimen-
sion. Here are ways to weave theme
throughout your story.
By Paola Corso
Te director of creative writing at Harvard
University and author of an internationally
acclaimed short-story collection ofers fve
ways to fesh out your protagonists—warts
and all.
By Bret Anthony Johnston
Knowing when to accelerate and when to
slow down for curves, as Kurt Vonnegut put
it, is an important part of fction. Here are
some ways to get your story’s timing right.
By Dan Gleason
Setting is much more than mere backdrop;
it can and should add depth to your fction.
By Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet
To help you add emotional truth to your
setting, an accomplished novelist ofers you
a simple, but efective, writing exercise spun
of of A Prairie Home Companion.
By Larry Watson
Fictional dialogue is considerably diferent
from real speech, and it can make or break
your manuscript. Here’s how to get it right.
By Bharti Kirchner
As you may already have learned, short-
story endings aren’t easy. Here are fve tips
on crafing a fnish that will satisfy readers.
By Sharon Oard Warner
From a veteran writer who is just as busy as
you are comes this three-draf approach to
writing a novel in your spare time.
By Kelly James-Enger
Revision means “to see again,” and there are
at least two ways of reseeing your manu-
script: from a distance and close up.
By Sharon Oard Warner
Avram Dumitrescu
Before sending your work out, see if it’s
agent-ready by checking it against these
10 points.
By Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Here are some questions to think about
when seeking representation, from an au-
thor who’s been there.
By Kelly James-Enger
Our writer walks you through how to make
a great frst impression with your query let-
ter to a prospective agent or publisher.
By Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Here are a book doctor’s tips on how to
avoid a boring summary of your story.
By Robyn Conley
Literary magazines are vital breeding
grounds for today’s emerging writers. A
former editor at Ploughshares lists 10 things
you must know about submitting.
By Gregg Rosenblum
From Te Writer’s archive, here is a rich
compilation of advice for fction writers
from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Wally
Lamb, Lorrie Moore, Julia Glass, Anne La-
mott, Jane Hamilton and Stephen King.
Compiled by Sarah C. Lange
Here in one convenient place is a handy
collection of key terms, essential books,
interesting Web sites and useful writers
Compiled by Te Writer staf
6 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Glimmer Train Stories is
represented in recent editions
of the Pushcart Prize,
O.Henry, New Stories from the
South, New Stories from the
Midwest, and Best American
Short Stories anthologies.
Short Story Award for New Writers, submissions welcome during NOVEMBER:
· Open only to vriters vhose tction has not appeared in any publication vith a circulation over ¡,ooo.
(Lntries must be unpublished.,
· Stories not to exceed +:,ooo vords.
· Peading tee is x+¡ per entry. st place wins , and publication in Glimmer Train Stories,
and :o copies ot that issue. 2nd ´3rd places vin x¡oo´x¡oo, respectively.
Fiction Open submissions are invited during DECEMBER:
· Open to AII vriters. (Lntries must be unpublished.,
· Stories not to exceed :o,ooo vords.
· Peading tee is x+: per entry. st place wins , and publication in Glimmer Train Stories,
and :o copies ot that issue. 2nd´ 3rd places vin x+,ooo´xooo, respectively.
Please make all submissions at our site:
We look forward to reading your work!

Order online at
or call 1-800-533-6644
Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. CST (outside the U.S. and Canada, call 262-796-8776, ext. 661).

This special issue provides you with the all-
important information you need to publish your
fiction or nonfiction work. Whether you’re
looking to find success in books, articles, literary
journals or contests, The Writer’s Guide to
Getting Published features expert advice, tips,
markets, and more to help you get there.
This special issue is a must-have for writers. Now
you can have everything you need to know about
writing and selling your work! Learn how to
improve your craft and succeed in the market, as
well as find out what the experts know, and you
need to know, about motivation, strong writing,
and general market knowledge. Don’t miss our tips
for revving up your writing, becoming business
savvy, and moving your career to the next level!
Advice and
for today’s
From the editors of The Writer magazine

’T W
8 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Strive to be ‘good’
“Your career is not your life,” noted sci-f
writer Orson Scott Card at a commencement
address at Harvey Mudd College in 2003.
Tough addressing future scientists, his words
apply equally to writers: “All good work is wor-
thy, and fame is whimsically bestowed. Tose
who bestow fame are rarely fair or wise in how
they bestow it.”
Card, winner of the Hugo and Nebula
awards, noted that it is pointless to strive to
be “the best,” mostly “because being the best
is not up to you.” What matters is being good.
“Being ‘good’ is entirely up to you, regardless
of how others see you.”
—Moira Allen, November 2003
Learn from other writers
Reading nonfction by and about estab-
lished authors can teach you what it means to
live the writing life. For any writer, reading is a
constant source of inspiration and instruction.
“I get the world from reading. I get a look
at other writers’ techniques, the words and
phrases they use to lay a line of text on a line of
feeling,” Susan Cheever says. “I get an escape
from my world into another world, a world of
English manners or a world of war; I get the
most delicious feeling on earth, which is the
feeling of listening to a story—someone has
had the generosity and skill to create a story
for my beneft, and now I am ‘hearing’ it as
I read. In reading, I am in awe of what other
writers have done.”
One important way writers learn is through
critical reading with an eye toward craf. No-
tice how the author achieves particular efects,
such as transitioning through time or develop-
ing characters. Many writers read with pen in
hand, underlining and making notes on what
they’re learning as they read.
“How do people learn? When? Reading is
clearly one of the best ways because so much
of it happens in this secret underground way.
Te lesson becomes a part of the person, and
they don’t even know it’s happening,” author
Aimee Bender says.
Flip through a book you’ve read and fnd an
underlined passage that taught you some as-
pect of craf you’d like to develop for yourself.
Now, give yourself a task related to what you’ve
observed. Here are some ideas:
• Analyze a piece of writing you admire, then
fnd a place in your own work that could ben-
eft from this analysis. Try to employ the new
technique in your own work.
• Notice how an author describes gestures
in such a way as to deepen character. Find a
place in your own writing where you can draw
a specifc and singular gesture that will bring
your character to life.
• Notice how an author begins and ends para-
graphs, chapters, sections and the book. How
can you improve your openings and endings?
Tink of ways to put what you’re learning
to work!
—Sarah Anne Johnson, August 2005
Heed your dreams
“Trust your dreams more than your intel-
ligence. It’s very easy to be an intelligent young
writer, very hard to be a dreamer who trusts
his dreams. I don’t mean the dreams that are
your fantasies; I mean the dreams that bubble
up from your unconscious. Trust the dreams
that wake you up in the middle of the night,
the ones that stir you and move you in mys-
terious ways. Which leads to my next bit of
advice: Try to penetrate the mysteries.”
—Russell Banks, February 2001
Get inspired, get
Find the ‘quiet center’
Some writers fnd focus and fow by per-
forming walking meditations, doing yoga, tak-
ing a bubble bath or working out at the gym.
Exercise: Find a way to quiet your internal
voices and integrate this meditative space into
your daily life. It might be as brief as a 60-sec-
ond interlude of emptying your mind.
—Susan K. Perry, December 2003
Detach yourself from your work
“I think cutting the umbilical cord is es-
sential for maintaining sanity. Te work you
produce is not ‘I’ but ‘it.’ You have to learn
to do the best you can and then, at a certain
point, let go. ... A certain detachment is vital to
survive as a writer. Find a ritual that cuts the
cord and lets the work loose from you.”
—Marge Piercy, December 2001 | 9
GET READY to write.
I am going to ask you to
remember an event from
your past that you’ve always
wanted to develop into a
story. Tink about one line
you might use to describe
the event; you might try
beginning with the phrase
suggested by writing teach-
er Natalie Goldberg. Type
in “I remember the time
I ...” and let your subcon-
scious mind take it from
there. I remember the time
I lost the competition, or
fell down the slide, or got
caught shoplifing.
To help you immerse
yourself in the past, I rec-
ommend taking a moment
or two to just relax. Close
your eyes and take a deep
breath and then another.
Try to ignore the noises of
the outside world as you
work to recapture the noises
of childhood.
Set the scene in your
mind’s eye and remember
what the day was like—was
it morning, afernoon or
evening? What were you
physically doing as the
event unfolded? Were you
outside, inside? Was it
summer or winter? Spend
a moment to recall sensory
details that make the scene
vivid—scents, sounds,
temperature. Imagine the
scene with as much clarity
as possible. In this exercise,
your goal is to capture one
moment from the past in a
brief written snapshot.

Open your eyes, set a
timer for three to fve min-
utes, and write up the event
as you remember it.
I remember the time I ...
Looking at the bit you
have just written, have you
focused on one truth above
all others? Have you includ-
ed telling emotional truths
as well as historical ones?
First drafs ofen focus on
the historical accuracy of an
event. Take a couple of min-
utes to add some precise
details about the emotional
and responsive truths you
hold to be self-evident.
Use the historical event
of the moment captured
above and envision the
scene from the viewpoint
of someone other than
you. Tis could be a fam-
ily member, a friend or a
stranger. Consider how
his or her viewpoint might
alter the details of what you
observed, how viewpoint
might change perceptions
and descriptions of the
event. You can still use the
frst-person viewpoint, but
make that character a per-
son distinctly diferent from
yourself. Now set the timer
for three to fve minutes and
write about the same event
you’ve described before,
only from another charac-
ter’s viewpoint.
Imagine a character,
someone you’ve never met,
confronting your event.
Take a moment to discover
what your character wants
from life and right now.
How does the event you
want to write about confict
with your character’s desire?
Dramatic tension in fction
ofen concerns these incon-
gruities. What does your
character fear most or work
to prevent from occurring,
and how does the situa-
tion you’ve described afect
the character’s actions and
motivations? Set a timer
for three to fve minutes
and write.
Sometimes, when we’re
writing about our past, we
let our characters become
passive, perhaps remember-
ing our own roles as keen
observers in history. Identi-
fying a character’s motiva-
tions and tying in desire to
events, confict and crisis
is one key to writing com-
pelling fction.
—Leslie What,
November 2004
Transform your past into fiction
10 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Stake a claim to writing
“Stick with [writing] no matter who says
what. Believe in yourself. If you determine
you are a writer, walk through the world as a
writer. Claim that. People will try to tear you
down. Ignore them. It takes courage.”
—Anne Rice, February 2001
Sounds from the heart
Westerners are big on divisions, beginning
with the division between heart and mind. In
our society, when we call a person a “bleed-
ing heart,” we are implying that the person is
soppy-brained. If you have a big heart, you lack
good sense. But in certain Eastern languages—
Japanese, for example—there isn’t a division
between heart and mind—the same symbol
can stand for both.
Take the word idea in Japanese. You form
the word by putting the character for sound
over the character for heart—so an idea is a
sound from the heart. And if you add an extra
symbol for heart to the character for idea,
you get a verb that means to remember. So
you could think of memory as calling forth a
sound from your deepest heart.
When I write, I know that what I write is
from my kokoro—that is, from that place in-
side myself that is both mind and heart. ...
Te writer belongs to her readers, even her
most critical ones. She has given her heart and
Avram Dumitrescu
mind to them. It is her fervent hope that they
will return the favor—that they will give their
hearts and minds to the book she has written.
Each of us has the responsibility to write out
of our own kokoro, our own heart/mind, so for
each of us that will be a unique contribution, a
gif that only we can make.
—Katherine Paterson, March 2003
An exercise for the discouraged
Cut up your manuscript—no, not on the
word processor, but in real life, randomly, with
real scissors—and play around with the story
parts. Te randomness is important here. It
will help wean you from lines you think you
can’t separate, plot points that appear immu-
table. What happens if Mark fnds out about
the jewelry box before he gets fred? What if
the cat runs away at the beginning rather than
at the end?
Be brave. Try something nutty. ... And re-
member that in order for your story to appear
seamless, you frst have to make the seams.
—Monica Wood, November 2000
Think positively
Here are some positive self-statements to
counter automatic negative thoughts you may
have about your writing:
1. Negative: Tese rejection letters prove
that my queries stink.
Positive: I can use the examples in my writ-
ers guide to improve my new query.
2. Negative: Writing is too hard.
Positive: Even my worst writing is a step
toward sharpening my skills.
3. Negative: I never get anywhere with my
writing goals.
Positive: I will complete today’s writing goal
of 600 words.
4. Negative: My mind is a complete blank.
Positive: My other “blanks” have ended in
breakthroughs. Writing will help my subcon-
scious to generate a new idea.
5. Negative: Tis deadline is impossible.
Positive: Today I can draf 10 paragraphs
and prepare the sidebar resource list.
6. Negative: My work is hopelessly mediocre.
Positive: Steinbeck said the same thing
while writing Te Grapes of Wrath. Give your-
self a break.
—Katherine Hauswirth, January 2003
Know when to break the rules
What a rule about how to write means is
not: Do this and do not do that! Period!
It means: All things being equal, your
chances of writing a successful story if you fol-
low this rule are 10 (or 20 or 30) times greater
than if you do not follow this rule.
Naturally, it pays to follow the rules, pro-
vided you always remember that there exists
that one chance in 10 (or 20 or 30). Ten, if
you feel strongly enough so that you want to
do something against the rules, don’t feel that
you’re breaking the law, that your typewriter
will be confscated, that other writers will cut
you when they pass you in the street, that edi-
tors will have you arrested. If you’re prepared
to take the long shot, go ahead and break the
rules. Sometimes you’re right!
—Isaac Asimov, June 1957
No one’s immune to bad reviews
Writers tired of bad reviews can feel better
knowing they’re in good company: Even the
greats received less than fulsome praise.
Witness the review Mark Twain received in
1896 from the London Guardian for Tom Saw-
yer, Detective. Afer praising Huckleberry Finn,
the reviewer notes that “If Mr. Clemens had
been wise, or had preferred his reputation to
‘the very desirable dollars,’ he would not have
attempted to resuscitate” Huckleberry.
“Te whole story is poorly conceived and
badly put together; even Huck’s inimitable
refections ‘on man, on nature, and on human
life’ have a second-hand, machine-made air,
and the mystery is of the most conventional.”
Te reviewer wraps up by suggesting that
most of the material should not have been
dragged “into the light of the bookshops.”
In 1882 a reviewer for Te Atlantic Monthly
wrote of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:
“Te only proftable point of view from which
Leaves of Grass can be regarded is one that,
while giving distinctness to the serious error of
unclean exposure and to the frequent feeble-
ness of form and style [that] reduces large
portions of the work to tedious and helpless
prose, leaves our vision clear for the occasional
glimpses of beauty that the book discloses.”
Te reviewer went on to suggest that the
seminal work is “not the startling novelty
[that] many, including the poet himself, have
assumed it to be” and found much of the
work “weak, repetitious and blemished by
inanity or afectation. Te absurdities, the
crudities, in which Whitman indulges are
almost unlimited.”
Yet the magazine still found gems amid
the dross; it considered “To a Locomotive in
Winter” to be “the fnest embodiment of the
grandeur of applied mechanics which Ameri-
can poetry has yet produced,” and noted that
“the sentiment of democracy, of manliness, of
hope for humanity is something to be valued.”
Still, the review concluded, “the book cannot
attain to any very wide infuence.”
—Moira Allen, June and November 2003
Jump-start writing with words
Unusual words ofen come in handy break-
ing writer’s block. Next time you fnd yourself
wondering where to take that story or novel,
think about how you can weave a particular
word into your writing. Ideas might start fow-
ing again. And your screen might start glowing
or ink might start fowing again. Here are a
few words you could experiment with in one
of those moments:
SCHADENFREUDE pleasure derived from
someone’s misfortune
ANOMIE a condition in an individual or
society characterized by a breaking down of
social norms
REPINE to be fretfully discontented; to fret
QUIETUS a fnishing stroke; release from life
CONTRETEMPS an inopportune occurrence
INQUILINE an animal living in another’s nest,
burrow, etc.
CINGULAR encircling, girdling, rounding
EXIMIOUS excellent, distinguished
FETOR stench
NITID bright, shining
—Anu Garg, December 2003
Stalling techniques
Writers aficted with procrastination
can take heart: Tey are not alone. Ann Patch-
ett, who won the £30,000 Orange Prize in
2002 for her fourth novel, Bel Canto, wrote in
Te New York Times that “Te thing I really
don’t want to do is start my ffh novel, and
the rest of my life is little more than a series
of stalling techniques to help me achieve my
goal.” She admitted having restored her oven
to “showroom cleanliness,” having cleaned
the closets of her sister and mother, and
having walked the dog “to the point of the
dog’s collapse.”
Te prewriting stage of a novel, Patchett
said, is the happiest time for her, a time when
“the novel in my imagination travels with
me like a small lavender moth making loopy
circles in my head.” Tat unwritten novel,
she said, “has more promise, more beauty,
than I have ever seen in any novel ever written, | 11
12 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
because, sadly, this novel is not written.”
Ten comes the time every writer dreads,
“when I have to begin to translate ideas into
words. It is there that the lovely thing in my
head dies.”
Fortunately, the joy of actually fnishing a
novel is nearly as blissful as the joy of making
one up. “Te days I spend in either of these
two states are so sweet, they easily make the
rest of the process bearable.”
—Moira Allen, January 2003
Relish your ritual
Nearly all professional writers have their
own daily prewriting ritual. For example, some
awake early, eat a hearty breakfast of exactly
the same foods every single writing day, and
then take a second cup of cofee to their com-
puter. Some exercise frst or routinely reread
what they wrote the day before. Te beneft
of these writerly rituals is that they accus-
tom your body and mind to write. Much the
way one salivates at the smell of fresh-baked
cookies, the mind both relaxes and focuses
in toward the writing task when the familiar
ritual is enacted.
Exercise: Consider how you direct your at-
tention inward to your imagination. Are your
prewriting activities conducive to focus or
simply distracting? Devise and repeat a ritual
that includes an ordering of your environment,
such as clearing your desk, shutting of the
phone’s ringer, and paying attention to your
eating and drinking so you aren’t bothered by
bodily needs.
—Susan K. Perry, December 2003
Odd jobs of writers
Te stereotype is that struggling actors wait
tables to make ends meet. Well, struggling
writers need to make a living, too. During the
Renaissance, a writer might have been lucky
enough to fnd a royal patron. Today, most
writers have to work during the day and do
their writing in their free time, at least until
they hit it big.
How have famous writers of the past
dealt with the difcult issue of supporting
themselves fnancially? Marrying rich is al-
ways an option, but hardly a practical one.
Te variety of odd jobs held by famous writers
is eye-opening.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist William
Faulkner (1897-1962) was one of the worst
postmasters in the history of Oxford, Miss.
Appointed in 1921, he spent the next three
years playing cards, writing, drinking and
generally neglecting post-ofce duties. As
one customer remembered it, Faulkner
“would sit in a rocking chair ... in the back of
the post ofce and was continually writing.”
He’d read magazines and then throw them in
the garbage undelivered. Afer several cus-
tomer complaints and a letter from a postal
inspector accusing him of neglecting his du-
ties, Faulkner resigned.
Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
once worked as an advertising copywriter in
New York City before his frst novel made him
“the voice of the Jazz Age.” Starting in early
1919, Fitzgerald earned $90 per month writ-
ing jingles for the Barron Collier advertising
agency. His plan was to make his fortune in
New York, get his fction sold, and marry his
sweetheart, Zelda Sayre.
Zelda initially refused to marry Fitzgerald,
he received dozens of rejection letters, and he
was unhappy writing advertisements. His most
successful assignment was for a laundry in
Muscatine, Iowa: “We keep you clean in Mus-
catine,” Fitzgerald wrote. At night he polished
of Tis Side of Paradise, which would make
him rich. Years later he’d tell his daughter that
“advertising is a racket.”
George Orwell (1903-1950), who penned
1984 and Animal Farm, worked as a policeman
in Burma (now Myanmar) in the 1920s, a job
he came to loathe. Burma was a British colony,
and Orwell hated being part of the apparatus
that oppressed the native Burmese population.
Unable in good conscience to continue, he quit
to become a writer.
In the ’30s, Orwell worked at a bookstore
in London, but doing so eroded some of his
love for books: “As soon as I went to work in
a bookshop, I stopped buying books,” he later
wrote. “Seen in the mass ... books were boring
and slightly sickening.”
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), the creator
of Sam Spade and the “hard-boiled” detective
novel, worked as a Pinkerton detective for
several years before writing Te Maltese Falcon
and Te Tin Man. Te nature of detective
work—staking out houses, tailing suspects,
gathering information, reading fles and writ-
ing reports—became the basis of Hammett’s
later literary success.
Starting out at $21 per week, Hammett
became a fne detective. A fellow Pinkerton
once described him as “tall, thin and smart
as a trap.” In 1921, Hammett was assigned
to work the case of silent-flm star Fatty
Arbuckle (only Charlie Chaplin was more
famous), who was accused of rape. Hammett
trailed prosecution witnesses, and Arbuckle
was eventually acquitted, though his reputa-
tion never recovered.
All of these writers went on to have highly
successful literary careers afer leaving their
jobs. Writers with dreams of quitting their day
jobs can fnd some solace in that.
—Chuck Leddy, November 2005
Get out and get inspired
Get out of the house, the cube, the shed in
the backyard of the farm you’ve been renting
in Vermont. Go sit at some bar you’d never
be caught dead in. Go see some art done by
someone you’ve never heard of. Bring back
the magical, mythological concept of the
muse. Te more you are enmeshed in your
surroundings, the better you’ll be at under-
standing how writing fts into your human
helix. Your words are an integral part of life’s
structure—but only a part. Live life. Write
better. And enjoy yourself.
—Anthony and Paul Tedesco, January 2001
The space in between
For a long time, I thought the ideal writ-
ing space would be “a room of one’s own.”
Trough trial and error, I discovered the ideal
writing space is not a room of one’s own or the
freedom to write all day long, uninterrupted
by children, telephone calls, outside work or
household chores. It is whatever works for you
at the time. Listen to the quiet voice inside that
says, “Write this down,” or the loud voice that
shouts, “Enough! Time to do something else!”
For if you respect the spaces between writing,
then writing will respect you. And you will
never be at a loss for words!
—Angela Lam, August 2001
Lose your perfectionism
Te fear of being imperfect keeps many
would-be writers from ever completing any
work. Rest assured that most successful writ-
ers produce numerous drafs and toss out
page afer page of less-than-superior work
before they’re satisfed they’ve done their best.
Te key is to not let all those required edits
paralyze you into giving up on the process.
Pulitzer Prize-winning fction writer Robert
Olen Butler likes to tell audiences about all the
work he did prior to ever getting published:
“I’ve got fve unpublished ghastly novels, 40
unpublished dreadful short stories, and 12
god-awful full-length plays.”
Exercise: When you delete paragraphs from
a story or novel you’ve written, move them to
another fle (or keep the cut snips of paper).
At the end of the week, count up all the words
you wrote, used or not, and celebrate your
productivity. Or the next time you fnd a “mis-
take” in something you’ve written, see if you
can fnd a way to use it.
—Susan K. Perry, December 2003
Count your successes
“A writer has many successes: Each new
word captured. Each completed sentence.
Each rounded paragraph leading into the
next. Each idea that sustains and then de-
velops. Each character who, like a wayward
adolescent, leaves home and fnds a life. Each
new metaphor that, like the exact error it is,
somehow works. Each new book that ends—
and so begins. Selling the piece is only an
exclamation point, a spot of punctuation.”
—Jane Yolen, March 2001
1. Have faith—not cynicism.
2. Dare to dream.
3. Take your mind off publication.
4. Write for joy.
5. Get the reader to turn the page.
6. Forget politics (let your real politics
shine through).
7. Forget intellect.
8. Forget ego.
9. Be a beginner.
10. Accept change.
11. Don’t think your mind needs altering.
12. Don’t expect approval for telling
the truth.
13. Use everything.
14. Remember that writing is dangerous
if it’s any good.
15. Let sex (the body and the physical
world) in!
16. Forget critics.
17. Tell our truth, not the world’s.
18. Remember to be earth-bound.
19. Remember to be wild!
20. Write for the child (in yourself and
in others).
21. There are no rules.
—Erica Jong,
December 2003 | 13
14 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Susan Vreeland
o you have the urge to write a
novel. Where to begin?
Much commercial fction
begins in the writer’s mind as
a story idea or plot, and then
characters are invented and
shaped—or rather misshaped
and stretched—to ft the precon-
ceived story. Not a good approach.
Instead, consider starting with a character.
He could be someone you’ve observed, or
someone who emerges from a particular time
and place. Mull over that skeletal personality
until he develops fesh; i.e., characteristics,
attitudes, issues and, most important, says
Robert Olen Butler, intense yearning (see page
17). With this approach, you’re more likely to
produce a more literary novel.
Henry James’ advice to beginning writers is
sound: “Try to be a person upon whom noth-
ing is lost.” Here’s an example. A writer friend
attended a dinner party during which a wom-
an began choking violently, while her husband
went right on telling a story without paying
any attention to her. My friend got a whole
novel out of that glimpse by posing questions
about it. What sort of marriage was it? Why
was the man so intent on his story? Tat’s the
“fesh” that you build up, like a sculptor start-
ing with a metal armature and adding clay.
An artifact might suggest a skeletal char-
acter. In Girl in Hyacinth Blue, I traced an
imagined Vermeer painting through history,
building up the stories of people who encoun-
tered it by giving them yearnings.
Many new writers begin with autobiograph-
ical material. Beware. Exact truth rarely makes
good fction. An autobiographically based
novel still must have fction’s basic elements:
believable, sympathetic and complex charac-
ters; intense yearning; obstacles to its fulfll-
ment (i.e., confict); a concrete setting in time
and place; a narrative arc (in simple terms: an
inciting event, confict and resolution). True
lives rarely provide this.
If you’re intent on writing from your own
life, you might use a diferent time period. My
story “Crayon, 1955” began with two actual
but discrete events from my life, but I made
them happen simultaneously, which created
an entirely new dynamic requiring exploration
and invention beyond mere memory.
Search deeply for those issues in which your
truest self resides. Don’t hoard them. Shoot the
whole wad.
Now, is your emerging concept a novel or
a short story? If the concept can be presented,
developed and resolved in one moment, it’s
a story. If there’s only one confict, or if only
a few characters are needed, it’s most likely a
story. Conversely, if the main character and
her accompanying yearning and issues have
sufcient complexity that new aspects of them
will require length to be revealed in all their
multiple dimensions, it’s probably a novel.
Don’t borrow an easy plot or stock character
from movies or television. Originality is vital.
Susan Vreeland
Susan Vreeland’s books include Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The
Passion of Artemisia and Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Starting that
NOVEL | 15
By Bharti Kirchner
ccording to an ancient proverb, the
journey of a thousand miles be-
gins with a single step. Crafing
a novel, with its related phases
of germinating the idea, getting
ready to write, beginning,
persisting and completing,
does indeed seem that long
and arduous. Following are some tips for fel-
low travelers.
myself to this long expedition until I’ve had a
glimpse of my protagonist, the particular crisis
she’s in, and the place where she is rooted. Tis
may be only a glimpse, but it’s enough to get
me psyched. I also ponder a few other essen-
tials before writing.
novel are you writing? Literary? Commercial?
Genre? Young adult? Familiarize yourself with
the conventions of your category.
WHERE’S THE CAMERA? Tat is, who’s tell-
ing the story? Te narrator presents events
from her perspective. Te tone, drama and
emotional focus will difer depending on your
choice of narrator. Nor does the narrator have
to be the protagonist—think Gatsby.
To outline or not to outline. Tis question
bedevils many writers. (See pages 28-33.) Per-
sonally, I prefer not to be constrained by an
outline. I discover the story a piece at a time,
with little attempt on my part to control the
characters, and relish the element of surprise.
Other writers like the structure an outline
ofers. Tey write a synopsis, sketch charac-
ters and map out scenes. Decide which camp
you’re in.
the voice is one of my earliest preoccupations.
Voice is the manner in which the story is
recounted. It comprises words, the rhythm of
sentences, metaphor and simile, symbols and
imagery, and the details you use. Rather than
be straightforward, for example, you could
make your voice dense with attitudes, insights
and nuances.
Don’t confuse voice with style. Your writing
style can be chatty, sarcastic, humorous or
sophisticated. Choose the style appropriate for
your story and stick to it.
DON’T GET TENSE. Should you use the
past tense or present? In my latest novel, I’ve
written the narrative in the present tense and
any backstory, such as a childhood incident,
in the past tense, making for an easy transi-
tion. In previous novels, I employed past tense
throughout, letting writer and reader look
back at the drama together.
Many writers fnd the past tense easier to
handle. Present tense, though, has the beneft
of ofering a powerful, in-the-moment feel.
MAIN POINTS. What points do you want to
make in your novel? What should the read-
ers remember as they close your book? Not
everything will be apparent initially. As I
began my latest novel, I was haunted by one
issue, domestic violence, but in writing further
I discovered other issues, such as the masks
even our loved ones can wear.
DEPARTURE. You’ve now assembled the
components. It’s time to begin your journey.
Bharti Kirchner
Bharti Kirchner of Seattle, a frequent contributor to The Writer,
is at work on her fifth novel.
Plan your
Plan your
16 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Tom Bailey
t was the winter of 1991 when I
heard a harrowing report over the
radio as I drove the long, snowy
stretch of I-81 in upstate New York.
A father had accidentally shot and
killed his son on the frst day of
buck season. When he saw what he’d
done, he turned the gun on himself.
It took me another year and a half to come
to terms with the complexities of writing a
short story based on the report I’d heard. What
stuck with me was my initial reaction to the
news of the tragedy, the horror and deep sad-
ness that I felt, the questions it brought.
It seemed to me there were any number of
ways a father might react to this accident. Who
was this father? Why would the event compel
him to turn the gun on himself? Such a reac-
tion seemed to me to speak volumes about
the kind of man he was, the kind of father he
believed himself to be. Te idea for the story
came as a situation, a news report on the radio.
Te impetus to write was driven by the ques-
tions I had about the father, my need to know
who he was and why he’d done what he’d done.
Ideas for short stories can come from any-
place, at any time. In my collection Crow Man,
none of the ideas for the 11 stories came to me
in exactly the same way. I wrote “Te Well,” for
example, straight out of personal experience.
I, too, spent an entire sweaty, mosquito-ridden
day digging beside a bayou, searching for a
wellhead we could not seem to fnd. I conjured
“Te Archaeological Society of Dancing Rabbit
Creek” out of the pages of a history book on
Sunfower County, Miss., I was then reading.
One of the photographs showed two skel-
etons that had been excavated from an Indian
mound. Staring at the picture, fascinated at the
idea of them being buried side by side, I saw
them reach across the span of pages to join
hands. Te idea for “Jackie” began 20 years be-
fore, when I was in college. I carried the rumor
I’d heard of a coed who’d been gang-raped at a
fraternity party around inside me for all those
years until one day, looking through a year-
book, seeing the face of a woman I’d gone out
with back then, I was reminded of the story.
Tat woman wasn’t Jackie, but her face sparked
a memory. It gave me the idea.
Ideas for short stories are everywhere. Per-
haps the important thing, then, isn’t in know-
ing where to look for an idea, but in how to
look. Stay tuned for those things you see and
hear that leave you with lingering questions.
Your idea for a short story is your need to know
something about a character or a given situa-
tion so deeply that it compels you to write.
Tom Bailey
Tom Bailey teaches creative writing at Susquehanna Univer-
sity in Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Cotton Song.
• Crow Man: Stories by Tom Bailey
• “The Habit of Writing,” a chapter
by Andre Dubus in On Writing Short
Stories, edited by Bailey. Dubus offers
his views on where ideas come from
and how to go about developing them.
• “Write a Short Story!,” a chapter
in Bailey’s popular book A Short Story
Writer’s Companion.
By Robert Olen Butler
earning is always part of fc-
tional character. In fact, one
way to understand plot is
that it represents the dynam-
ics of desire. It’s the dynam-
ics of desire that is at the
heart of narrative and plot.
Many failed manuscripts
of students and aspiring writers show a lot of
talent—contained characters with problems,
attitudes, opinions, sensibility, voice, person-
ality, all of those things, and ofen a wonder-
fully evoked milieu to boot. But none of those
automatically carries with it yearning. Te
dynamics of desire can be utterly missing from
a story that is rich with all of those things.
James Joyce appropriated from the Catholic
Church the term epiphany. An epiphany liter-
ally means “a shining forth.” He brought that
concept to bear on the moment in a work of
art when something shines forth in its essence.
Tat, he said, is the epiphany in a story.
What I would suggest is that there are two
epiphanies in any good work of fction. Joyce’s
is the second, the one ofen called the climax
or crisis of a story. Te frst epiphany comes
very near the beginning, where the sensual
details accumulate around a moment in which
the deepest yearning of the main character
shines forth. Te reader responds in a deep
visceral way to that frst epiphany—and that’s
the epiphany missing from virtually every
student manuscript I’ve read.
It is an element also, of course, missing from
much published fction. Various stories you
read may leave you a little cold, distanced—
you may admire, maybe you have a kind of
“smart” reaction—but nothing resonates in the
marrow of your bones, and the reason is that
the character’s yearning is not manifest.
Te yearning I’m talking about is diferent
from what you fnd in much popular fction,
even though you cannot fnd a book on the
bestseller list without a central character who
clearly wants something, is driving for some-
thing, has a clear objective: I want to solve the
crime. I want to kill the monster. I want to go
to bed with that woman or that man. I want to
win the war. You name the genre. Every story
has a character full of desire.
But I’m talking about yearning on a difer-
ent level. Instead of: I want a man, a woman,
wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a
stake through a vampire’s heart, a literary desire
is on the order of: I yearn for self, I yearn for
an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I
yearn to connect to the other.
The epiphanies of yearning
Desire is the driving force behind plot. Te
character does something in pursuit of that
yearning, and some force or other will block
the attempt to fulfll that yearning. Te char-
acter will respond to the force in some way, go | 17
Te driving
force behind
18 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
round or through or over or under it, and con-
tinue the pursuit. Tis dynamic beneath the
story is plot: the attempt to fulfll the yearning
and the world’s attempt to thwart that.
Most of the time, good fction comes out
of an inspiration that includes an intuition
of yearning. In your unconscious, in your
dreamspace, a character presents herself to
you. She is a product of your own deepest
white-hot center, but she is an other. When she
presents herself, there will probably be a place
involved, or an external circumstance, perhaps
even a moment in our history—a crash, a
war, the death of a mother—not your mother,
understand, but the death of this character’s
mother. Tere will probably be an event that
comes to you somehow, which summons her
up. Tis character is summoned into your
unconscious. You recognize her there, those
luminous events and places surround her; but
however vivid she seems to you, you may not
yet be ready to write her story if the yearning
is not there. For me, the thing that triggers the
moment in my unconscious when a character
is ready to speak or be spoken of is a fash of
intuition about that character’s yearning. What
is it at her deepest level that she yearns for?
Until a character with yearning has emerged
from your unconscious, I don’t encourage you
to write.
But perhaps you have a character pressing
himself upon you, and you don’t feel that intui-
tive connection to his yearning. Try to wait for
it. But if it’s just not coming, you can begin to
write in the way you have done in most of your
manuscripts so far—moving around in the
problems of the character, trying on the voice
of a narrator, exploring the character’s attitudes
and opinions and reactions. However, it is
crucial you understand that this isn’t the work
of art you’ve commenced to create. It is a kind
of line-to-line rumination. You must realize
that all you’re doing here is keeping your eyes
and ears open for that whif of true, dynamic
yearning in your character. At the moment you
get that whif, you stop writing this thing and
put it away and never look at it again. Once
you have that link to your character’s yearning,
only then does the real work begin.
The dynamics of yearning
So then you need to re-enter your charac-
ter’s world afresh and dream your way into
whatever it is that might upset the equilibrium
of that world. You will seek what is called the
inciting incident. Tings are in balance in the
world of this character, and then the equilibri-
um is upset by the inciting incident. Tis does
not necessarily have to occur within the story;
it ofen doesn’t. But somehow the world of the
character becomes unbalanced, and this chal-
lenges whatever it is that the character deeply
yearns for. And this is how things begin.
Following the inciting incident is the
OUTSIDE THE club car
window, flat desert nothing as
far as the eye could see; endless
stubble in level light. They were
still two days short of Arizona.
Eleanor sipped an early aperitif,
perspiring jagged rings on the
armholes of her pongee suit. Lau-
rel was skimming a Commerce
Chronicle, occasionally coughing
a discreet, dry cough. He had
taken off his jacket, self-deprecat-
ing, murmuring, “When in
Rome ...” and in pin-striped vest
and four-in-hand he looked
crisp, compact.
Under the rhythmic chug of
the train ran a thinner sound, a
continuous screech of metal on
metal that put Eleanor in mind of
rending silk. She felt this image
through her abdomen as if the
track were a single tear all the way
back to Maryland. A copy of
House Beautiful lay in her lap,
and she read, “No nation has
studied homebuilding so persis-
tently and long as the English,
and consequently none has
arrived at anything like such gen-
eral excellence.”
This sentence had nothing to
do with her and could not logi-
cally be met with grief. But the
raw lot of her unbuilt house rose
in her mind, overgrown with lush
creeper, a stand of oak. She had
spent the better part of a year
imagining, then sketching, a
facade in that little Baltimore wil-
derness, and a layout she knew so
well that she could walk it out on
the ground.
She was losing everything.
Everything in memory and all
that never was to be; and things
the more poignant because she
hadn’t noticed that she cared for
them. The wood planes in Dad-
dy’s warehouse, her hand patting
along the shelf as she told over
their names by heart: plow, bull
nose, dado, beading, rabbet, slit-
ting. Who ever would have
thought she’d grieve for the planes?
—From Cutting Stone
by Janet Burroway
Yearning for place
point of attack—these terms are commonly
used in connection with plot, but I think it’s
important to remind you about them in regard
to yearning.
Te point of attack, which introduces the
confict—the particular manifestation of a
character’s yearning—is an important notion
because when you write a story, you need to
make sure that something is at stake. It doesn’t
need to be an external thing; it must have
inner magnitude, though. Your character’s
yearning is deep and important; you need to
treat it with respect.
Te inciting incident and point of attack
may occur at the same moment or separately.
Te inciting incident, for example, may occur
before the story begins.
To use a dramatic analogy: In Hamlet, the
inciting incident is the murder of Hamlet’s
father, which has occurred well before the cur-
tain’s rise. Te point of attack is the appearance
of the father’s ghost to Hamlet.
Confict can be internal or external. An
external confict pits the character against the
natural world, or society or other characters.
Te internal confict exists between or among
various aspects of the character’s own self. I
think it’s rare that a literary work touches the
deepest realms of human experience without
presenting some sort of internal confict. Ofen
in the most exciting literary works, an internal
confict runs parallel to, or resonates through,
some larger confict in the external world. Tat
interaction between the inner and the outer is
a unique provenance of narrative. No other art
form can really grasp the interaction between
the external and internal worlds as fction can.
Three examples of yearning
I want now to give you some examples from
literature of this slippery, evasive, most impor-
tant thing called yearning. What follows are
three diverse works by three wonderful writ-
ers. Let’s look at them in terms of yearning.
Te frst piece (page 18) is the opening of
Janet Burroway’s novel Cutting Stone, set early
in the 20th century. Eleanor, our point-of-
view character, and her husband, Laurel, are
on a train heading west. He has tuberculosis.
Tey’re going to Arizona for his health; he’s
taken a job there as a bank manager. Notice
the yearning is not addressed here explicitly,
but the frst epiphany happens very early.
“Outside the club car window, fat desert
nothing as far as the eye can see; endless | 19
JULIE BROKE up with Con-
nor in the middle of a swamp.
Julie silently revises: not exactly
in the middle, not knee-deep in
rotting leaves and dubious brown
water. More or less on the edge;
sort of within striking distance.
Well, in an inn, to be precise.
Well, not even an inn. A room in
a pub. What was available.
And not in a swamp anyway.
In a bog. Swamp is when the
water goes in one end and out the
other, bog is when it goes in and
stays in. How many times did
Connor have to explain the dif-
ference? Quite a few. But Julie
prefers the sound of the word
swamp. It is mistier, more
haunted. Bog is a slang word for
toilet, and when you hear bog you
know the toilet will be a battered
and smelly one, and that there
will be no toilet paper.
So Julie always says: I broke
up with Connor in the middle of
a swamp.
There are other things she
revises as well. She revises Con-
nor. She revises herself. Connor’s
wife stays approximately the
same, but she was an invention of
Julie’s in the first place, since Julie
never met her. Sometimes she
used to wonder whether the wife
really existed at all, or was just a
fiction of Connor’s, useful for
keeping Julie at arm’s length. But,
no, the wife existed all right. She
was solid, and she became more
solid as time went on.
Connor mentioned the wife,
and the three children, and the
dog, fairly soon after he and Julie
met. Well, not met. Slept together.
It was almost the same thing.
Julie supposes, now, that he
didn’t want to scare her off by
bringing up the subject too soon.
She herself was only twenty, and
too naive to even think of looking
for clues, such as the white circle
on the ring finger. By the time he
did get round to making a sheep-
ish avowal or confession, Julie
was in no position to be scared
off. She was already lying in a
motel room, wound loosely in a
sheet. She was too tired to be
scared off and also too amazed,
and also too grateful. Connor was
not her first lover but he was her
first grown-up one, he was the
first who did not treat sex as some
kind of panty raid. He took her
body seriously, which impressed
her to no end.
—From “The Bog Man”
by Margaret Atwood
Yearning for meaning
20 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
stubble in level light.” Tis is our frst image.
We have not yet placed the point of view, al-
though we will shortly see that this is Eleanor’s
perception and see the landscape as revealing
character. What’s missing there? First of all,
there’s no home, no house, there’s no place to
live here, and—interestingly—there’s no verb.
Very quickly, the yearning for a place in the
world becomes clear. In a world where there is
no place, there is no life, and so the very part
of speech that signifes life and movement is
missing from the frst image in the book. A
pseudo-sentence—even, ironically, a semico-
lon, as though there were sentences on either
side, but it’s grammatical nonsense—displays
the fact that there’s no verb, no life. I talked to
you about the organic nature of art, everything
echoing everything else. Tis is a wonderful
example of that.
“Tey were still two days short of Arizona.
Eleanor sipped an early aperitif, perspiring
jagged rings on the armholes of her pongee
suit.” A silk suit, pongee silk. And what we
now see is this arid place and a woman out
of place, displaced but in the refexes of a life
that is about to change. Sipping “an aperitif.”
I dare say the word had never been spoken in
Arizona in 1914. Laurel “skimming a Com-
merce Chronicle”—again, it’s as if they were
sitting in their parlor, whereas in fact they’re
being carried far away from the life of their
past. And Eleanor is conscious of that. We’re in
her point of view, so we understand that she’s
aware of the jagged rings of sweat. Laurel’s frst
comment is “When in Rome”—facile patrician
use of a cliché, just because he’s taking of his
coat. He’s still dressed in his pin-striped vest
and four-in-hand!
We hear the train running, and the very
movement of the thing carrying her away sug-
gests—what?—the rending of silk. Silk already
represents the life that she’s lived, and it’s being
rent apart, and then she’s all the way back
to Maryland. It’s House Beautiful she reads,
talking of homebuilding in England and,
meanwhile, the desert is all around them. We
fnd that she has an unbuilt house—and this
is where the epiphany of yearning is strongest.
Because her grief is not just for aperitifs and
silk dresses. In fact, her potential is separate
from her privilege—and where is that potential
found? In the intense memory of something
very concrete, very sensual, very specifc: her
father’s wood planes. And then comes that
wonderful verb, her hand patting along the
shelf, touching these planes and knowing the
rich, various names of them. As we see that
potential for something of the hands, of build-
THERE WAS no hope for him
this time: it was the third stroke.
Night after night I had passed the
house (it was vacation time) and
studied the lighted square of win-
dow: and night after night I had
found it lighted in the same way,
faintly and evenly. If he was dead,
I thought, I would see the reflec-
tion of candles on the darkened
blind, for I knew that two candles
must be set at the head of a
corpse. He had often said to me, “I
am not long for this world,” and I
had thought the words idle. Now I
knew they were true. Every night
as I gazed up at the window I said
softly to myself the word paralysis.
It had always sounded strangely
in my ears, like the word gnomon
in the Euclid and the word simony
in the Catechism. But now it
sounded to me like the name of
some maleficent and sinful being.
It filled me with fear, and yet I
longed to be nearer to it and to
look upon its deadly work.
“Well, so your old friend is
gone, you’ll be sorry to hear.”
“Who?” said I.
“Father Flynn.”
“Is he dead?”
“Mr. Cotter here has just told
us. He was passing by the house.”
I knew that I was under obser-
vation, so I continued eating as if
the news had not interested me.
My uncle explained to old Cotter.
“The youngster and he were
great friends. The old chap taught
him a great deal, mind you; and
they say he had a great wish
for him.”
“God have mercy on his soul,”
said my aunt piously.
Old Cotter looked at me for a
while. I felt that his little beady
black eyes were examining me,
but I would not satisfy him by
looking up from the plate. He
returned to his pipe and finally
spat rudely into the grate.
“I wouldn’t like children of
mine,” he said, “to have too much
to say to a man like that.”
“How do you mean, Mr. Cot-
ter?” asked my aunt.
“What I mean is,” said old Cot-
ter, “it’s bad for children. My idea
is: let a young lad run about and
play with young lads of his own
age and not be ... am I right, Jack?”
—From “The Sisters”
by James Joyce
Yearning for knowledge | 21
ing something new, we see that potential in
her. She grieves not for her parlor and her silk
dresses, but for the planes—that’s where the
yearning comes through clearest. If you com-
bine that moment with the devastating desert
image in the beginning, her yearning suggests,
ironically, her potential for the rougher parts
of life and the challenge to come.
Tere’s nothing analytic here about yearn-
ing; it is manifest in every detail. I yearn not
only for a literal home but also for a place in the
world—a lack refected in the empty landscape.
Now read the opening from Margaret
Atwood’s short story “Te Bog Man” (page 19).
Understand that in everything you read
here, there’s an organic coherence among
the details, built around a character with a
dynamic yearning. Julie’s yearning begins to
manifest itself how?—by revising everything.
Everything is qualifed. She makes a statement,
revises it, backs out of it, deromanticizes it. But
then returns to it. At once, we see this inner
confict going on. She wants to uplif, to re-
write romantically; then she wants to debunk,
to go back and see things with brutal clarity.
And this process keeps repeating. More or less.
Sort of. To be precise. Well, not even. What was
available. Well, not met. Slept together. Ulti-
mately, there’s a moment when we learn what
has kept her with that married man: He took
her body seriously.
Te point of revision is to fnd meaning.
You revise to clarify the meaning of some-
thing. You understand, I’m doing this terrible
artifcial thing, to be forgotten instantly, giving
you a little analytical summary to show what’s
going on here in the moment. Te moment is
the point: Her attachment to Connor comes
from the moment she knew that he took her
body seriously. Te yearning is to fnd mean-
ing and appropriate relevance in her life.
Te third example (page 20) is from James
Joyce’s story “Te Sisters,” from Dubliners.
It seems to me evident from the very frst
sentences what this young man’s yearning is.
A man is dying, and our narrator has care-
fully watched the process “night afer night.”
Te passion, the yearning, is in that phrase
instantly. It’s vacation time, and this time the
old man has sufered “the third stroke,” and
our narrator is still walking past that window,
studying the lighted square of the window
“night afer night.” Of course, the deep connec-
tion the dying man has with our narrator is
immediately clear as well. “He had ofen said
to me, ‘I am not long for this world,’ and I had
thought the words idle.” Te suggestion of an
ongoing relationship—that the dying man
had been his adviser and confdant, and even
that the narrator had taken his words with a
grain of salt—all represents a kind of inti-
macy between them. Te impact of this man’s
process of dying is clear, too, in the words our
narrator repeats to himself. Te deep connec-
tion, as it turns out, between the narrator and
this priest, and the institution and worldview
with its mysteries that the priest represents, is
refected in our narrator’s focus on the words
that he says sofly to himself, not only in the
“paralysis” that the man of God now sufers,
but in the defnition of gnomon, which is “an
interpreter, a pointer,” and simony, which is
the buying and selling of religious pardons.
Tese words take on a kind of personality, as
he says that the words sounded to him like
“some malefcent and sinful being.”
When the narrator gets home, he keeps his
own counsel and is very quiet, but he is criti-
cal of the adults that surround him, his aunt
and uncle and old Cotter. Te adults contend
that you can learn too much; that you really
need not pay attention to the dark and serious
things of the world; that, as Cotter says, educa-
tion is bad for children because their minds
are so impressionable. All of this adds up
organically and deepens our understanding of
the boy whose hunger for learning, and knowl-
edge of the darkness and the seriousness of the
world, whose very impressionability leads us
to identify with him.
While I’ve used these passages to show you
some fne expressions of yearning, I caution
you that this is a secondary way of respond-
ing to literature, and that this philosophical
articulation of these characters’ yearnings
runs counter to the ways we are meant to and
do respond to them in a story. For such good
writing needs no such analysis. Te yearning is
inherent in every detail of image and voice, in
every moment of the narrator’s experience.
Robert Olen Butler
Robert Olen Butler, author of 16 works of fiction, won a Pulit-
zer Prize for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain.
Excerpted from From Where You Dream, a book of
lectures on the creative process, © 2005 by Robert
Olen Butler, and reprinted with permission of the
author and Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
22 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Noah Lukeman
s a literary agent, I’ve read 50,000
manuscripts in the last fve years.
Te memorable ones have one
thing in common: Te char-
acters journey in a way that
leaves the reader feeling
satisfed. Part of the writer’s
task, then, is to plot a satis-
fying journey. But what does that mean?
Te destination is never as important as the
journey itself. Telling a story is not about giv-
ing away information, but about withholding
it. Te information itself is never as important
as the path you take in disseminating it. It is
while traveling this path that the readers will
fnd the most satisfaction in your work.
To begin with, the writer must create char-
acters on the verge of change, characters who
will, in some way, be unrecognizable by the
end of the work. Ripe characters.
Still, why is it that a character might journey
in a highly visible way, might travel 20 coun-
tries and age 50 years, and yet we might not
feel moved? Conversely, he might journey in
the smallest, least noticeable of ways, and we
feel utter satisfaction. Te answer lies in the
nature of the journeys. Not all journeys are the
same. Tere are the overt, easily recognizable
“surface” journeys, such as losing a job, getting
a promotion, moving to a new city, falling in
love, getting married or having children, but
beneath the surface there are also the inner,
less recognizable journeys that I call the “pro-
found journeys.”
Understanding the diferences between the
two will help you create a compelling novel.
Profound journeys
to and interact with others all day long, but
rarely do we hear them or take them for who
they are. Instead, we create an image of who
we want them to be. For instance, we might
unconsciously skip over their faults. We can
wear blinders for many reasons: An employee
might, out of fear of security, refuse to see the
fraud taking place at work; a soldier might
refuse to see good in his enemy. Sometimes a
character, indeed, sees problems or faults but
then justifes, dismisses or diminishes them.
Seeing other people for who they are is not
as easy as it may seem. To wake up one day
and remove your blinders and acknowledge
something for what it is (especially if it has
been harmful) is, at the same time, to acknowl-
edge that you had been wrong all along. Te
abused wife wakes up and realizes what a jerk
her husband is; the cult member realizes his
group really is a cult.
While realization about others is a profound
journey in its own right, it is still only a partial
journey. Te abused wife might get rid of her
husband, but a year later fall back into the old
relationship, or fnd a new one that is as abu-
sive; the cult member might fnally leave, but
might end up in a new cult a year later. Break-
ing the symptom does not necessarily break
the pattern. To do this, the person would need
to embark on an even more profound journey:
that of self-realization.
SELF-REALIZATION. Te character who
embarks upon the journey of self-realization
will not only realize his group is a cult, but
will go one step further and recognize that
something inside of him led him there. Te
battered wife will not only realize her husband
is abusive, but also will realize she has always
been attracted to abusive relationships. Tese
Create complex
characters will take personal responsibility for
the relationships in their lives. Once they reach
this point, they might set new limits, not allow
certain treatment anymore. Tey are coming to
a realization of who they are and what they’re
really worth.
It is possible that self-realization can be trig-
gered from within. Te ponderous thinker or
recluse might come to self-realization through
his own eforts; but ofen self-realization is
triggered by an outside source, such as the
words of a teacher, friend or clergy. Something
clicks, and one understands something deep
within oneself.
Action based on realization
It is one thing for the character to real-
ize that she has a pattern of bringing abusive
relationships into her life; it is another for her
to make a conscious efort to change her life’s
pattern, to say “no” when she needs to—to
take action based on her realization. Readers
will get satisfaction from the realization alone,
from, say, an employee realizing his own com-
pany is crooked; but they will get greater satis-
faction if, as a result, the employee decides to
quit. A character can feel remorse, think kind
thoughts and have a powerful self-realization,
but at the end of the day, when it comes time
to make a judgment on this person, we are
lef only with his trail of actions, like dots on a
map. One could even argue that a realization
without action is not a true realization.
To determine if your character might take
action, you must frst take into account the
depth of the realization. Has your character
changed beliefs afer only a one-hour speech?
Or has he changed beliefs afer having spent
four years educating himself on an issue and
carefully pondering it? You must also take
into account your character’s personality. Is he
whimsical and easily impressionable? Or is he
stubborn and hard to infuence? A person who
is constantly attending New Age seminars and
comes home as a changed person once a week
won’t surprise (or satisfy) us if he comes home
changed yet again. On the other hand, the man
who has ranted against New Age philosophies
his entire life, but then one day decides to at-
tend a weeklong retreat, will satisfy us greatly.
Tis man has journeyed.
Not going back to the old way of doing
things is also a form of action. Tere is a great
temptation for the former alcoholic to return
to alcohol, the former gambler to return to
gambling. Since we are creatures of habit,
saying “no” to an old way of doing things is a
powerful journey in and of itself.
Taking action based on realization is the
most profound of all journeys. At the end of
Avram Dumitrescu
24 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
such a journey, one is lef with an entirely
diferent character, unrecognizable from the
character he had been—unrecognizable even
to himself.
Obstacles to action
Is it fair, though, to completely discount a
character’s realization if the character doesn’t
subsequently take action based on it? Can
there be any mitigating factors? Shouldn’t we
also take into account whether the person has
the disposition, willpower or ability to act on
his realization?
Action isn’t always easy. Terefore, we can’t
necessarily invalidate a realization just because
it isn’t followed by an action. Sometimes, other
characters will try to sabotage your main char-
acter’s desire to act with comments like “this
isn’t you,” or “this won’t last,” or “you’ve tried
this before” or “you’re going through a phase.”
Tey resist because watching someone trans-
form is scary; they might be lef with a new
person and have no idea where they’ll stand
with him. Tey also might begin to worry if
everyone else in their life might change, too.
Suddenly, life becomes much less secure.
A girl who is raised in a religious family and
realizes one day that she doesn’t believe in her
religion might continue to stay where she is
and still go through the rituals, or she might
leave her environment. Given that the approval
of her entire family and neighborhood is at
stake, to leave would show great strength of
conviction and character, but to stay would
be understandable. Does her inability to leave
make her realization any less of a realization?
It is possible for there to be a discrepancy
between realization and action—in fact, there
ofen is. Instead of hurrying to resolve this
discrepancy—by having your character in-
WHY DO readers need a
journey at all? Why do we crave—
even demand—it of our charac-
ters? By attempting to understand
this need, philosophically and
psychologically, we might, as writ-
ers, be in a better position to sat-
isfy it. There are many reasons.
Here are four:
Inspiration. In some
instances, we want to be inspired.
If we are told simply that A is
president of a company, that will
likely have little impact on us as
far as feeling we might reach that
position, too. But if we watch A
rise from an entry-level position,
climb through the ranks, over-
come adversity—watch his jour-
ney—then we can visualize his
path and perhaps feel that we
might do it, too. It is the journey
that allows us to connect the dots
from the impossible to the possi-
ble, that can inspire us to take the
same path.
Catharsis. Aristotle said the
chief function of art is to purge
the audience of pity and fear,
the two lowest emotions. The
audience could then return to
normal life pitiless and fearless,
ready to tackle anything. For Aris-
totle, the catharsis is the very rea-
son for art.
Such a catharsis would be
impossible without a journey.
Readers need to go through the
ups and downs, experience the
traumas, revel in the successes;
they need to live vicariously and
finish a work having purged their
own fantasies, ready to return to
normal life.
Change. Life can quickly
box us in with its routines, habits
and obligations. Think of your
day today; it was probably fright-
eningly similar to yesterday.
The more settled we become in
our jobs, homes, towns, families
and friends, the harder it can
become to envision a different
life. More often than not, change
can feel more like a fantasy—
something that happened in
the past or might one day hap-
pen again.
This is why we get a rush the
first week on a new job, in a new
house, with a new girlfriend, hav-
ing a new car. We are reminded
that change is possible. It is an
affirmation of free will.
As we watch others change, we
also see what is or is not accept-
able for ourselves, what we hadn’t
considered. The journey helps
fulfill our need for change.
Purpose. There are few
things more satisfying in life than
a sense of purpose. It can bring
the worst enemies together in a
common cause; it can propel
people to work 18-hour days for
years; it can cause a man to care
for his mother for 20 years and
not give it a second thought.
People want to rally behind
a cause, want to be a part of
building something. A country
comes together in no greater way
than in a time of calamity. If there
is a flood or bombing, help pours
in from all over the country.
Workers will stay on hand for
months. Just as in life, purpose
gives us the greatest satisfaction,
so, too, on the page, satisfaction
comes with a purpose inherent in
the journey.
Why is the journey important?
stantly take action—you might use this to your
advantage and prolong the discrepancy, thus
creating one of the most profound forms of
tension. Te character knows what the proper
action is, but is unsure whether she can take it.
She battles herself.
Tis discrepancy can also be the source
for a moral dilemma. What if someone comes
to a realization of wrongfulness, but is forced,
due to external circumstances, to continue
his evil actions? Take the Jew who, at gun-
point, is forced to help the Nazis if he wants
to spare his own family’s death. Where should
the greater loyalty be? To family or to strang-
ers? When are wrong actions acceptable?
What price will he pay? How are wrong
actions justifed?
It is possible, too, that one can never re-
solve the discrepancy between realization
and action. In fact, your work could be a
study of the difculty (if not impossibility)
for most people to take action. A person can
realize his company is crooked and never take
any action. You could leave it at that, leaving
us with the partial satisfaction of his having
had the realization. Tere are other ways
you might make up for it and create satisfac-
tion, even with his never taking action. We
will, for instance, get a partial satisfaction
over watching him torture himself under the
burden of his wrongfulness. Tis self-burden
can, as mentioned above, be used to segue
into various psychological neuroses, even in-
sanity—or suicide—and the work can become
less about his taking action and more about
the burden of inaction.
Surface journeys
A surface journey is one that is recogniz-
able to all, a traditional, accepted marker of
growth and progress, like losing 50 pounds,
climbing within one’s company, or falling in
love. Tese journeys serve great purpose—they
are journeys the reader can understand, relate
to, point to if quizzed about the character. Is
he associate editor? Editor? Senior editor?
Does he make $35,000 a year? $45,000? Tese
journeys can easily be mistaken for profound
journeys. Tey are not. Surface journeys are
much easier—and more comfortable—to get a
handle on than the profound journeys of real-
ization, internal identity, belief and resolution.
Profound journeys, ironically, ofen are
viewed as less substantial, less permanent, al-
ways shifing, subject to change; whereas most
surface journeys, like the gaining of a house,
are considered more permanent, more stable.
Te tragedy of human life is that we allow our-
selves to be distracted by surface journeys and
mistake them for profound journeys.
Possessions and rank come and go, and ul-
timately it is the internal journey that remains.
If handled properly, though, the surface jour-
ney can be a pivotal tool in leading a character
toward a profound journey. Here are seven
common surface journeys that can help bring
about a character’s change:
ROMANCE. Given that it is the task of the
writer to create quick—and believable—
character arcs, romance can be one of the
most powerful tools. Romance can change a
character’s life instantaneously—and, equally
important, do so in a totally believable way.
A character who meets someone and starts
dating will suddenly spend a lot less time with
family and single friends. Indeed, it will im-
pact his life in ways he cannot even conceive.
How does the romance change the character’s
relationships with family and friends? Does he
now spend more of his time at her place? At
new places? Among new friends? Of course,
a journey needn’t always be positive, either. A
negative journey can have just as much—if not
more—impact. Is he going through a separa-
tion? A divorce?
It is ofen, unfortunately, the negative sur-
face journey that prods people to refect, and
it more likely will lead to a profound journey.
When the relationship ends, perhaps he is lef
with a big hole in his life and can refect on
who he is without her, on what is truly impor-
tant to him. For some, a negative journey can
become a positive one; for others, the resulting
epiphany becomes unbearable. In the latter
case, the character might be doomed to repeat
the pattern.
MATERIAL GAIN. Tis surface journey is
powerful in that it can also happen overnight
and change a character instantaneously.
Indeed, the journey of material gain alone has
sustained entire works.
Someone who comes into a huge inher-
itance, or wins at Lotto, will watch her life
change (at least on the surface) overnight.
She can now buy the house, the car, travel
the world—she no longer has to work! Her
day-to-day schedule will change. Her time
will be free to spend as she chooses. Te
illusion is that the person’s inner life will
change, too; but sadly, this is rarely the case.
Whether material success truly changes some-
one’s life will depend on whether she | 25
26 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
uses it as an opportunity for inner growth.
FRIENDSHIPS. Friendships can change a
person’s life. Indeed, some friendships can be
stronger than family relationships. In the busi-
ness and political worlds, friendships (“con-
tacts” or “relationships”) can translate into
millions of dollars.
Friendships are a powerful surface journey
in that they can, believably, happen anytime,
anywhere, and change a character’s life from
the start. Is the friend a positive or negative
infuence? Does he encourage the character to
broaden his horizons, read new books, listen
to new music, visit art museums? Does he rope
him into fghts? Conversely, enemies also can
have a great impact on a character.
PHYSICAL. Changes in the body can cause
a powerful surface journey. It is something
everyone can relate to (and struggles with
personally), and it has the added beneft of
changing the physical appearance, which many
people equate with identity. Indeed, the getting
in shape or training of a character has alone
been the crux of many works (Rocky). Does
your character gain 20 pounds of muscle?
Become a champion swimmer?
Illness, too, can provide a fast and believable
arc. Your character can start out healthy, get
diagnosed with cancer, and die within a short
period of time. Or he could be diagnosed from
the beginning, fght the cancer, and get better.
He could lose a limb in war (Born on the 4th of
July), or he could be in an accident and lose his
memory (Regarding Henry).
Physical changes have a special impact
on the reader. Tey can be a means for one
of the more profound journeys. What does
he learn about himself? Does he learn that
he can transcend bodily handicaps? Does he
start to question who he is without his fully
functioning body?
KNOWLEDGE. Te search for knowledge is a
noble endeavor and can provide, at least on the
surface, the basis for a character’s journey. In
Te Chosen, the Hasidic boy’s gaining secu-
lar knowledge is dangerous and disapproved
of, and is used as a catalyst for his doubts
about his own community—ultimately, it is
what makes him leave. A character can gain
a formal education, learn a new language or
skill—such as plumbing, carpentry or comput-
ing. Te knowledge journey is unique in that
it complements most of the other surface jour-
neys. For instance, the man who works toward
and gains the law degree will also be working
toward material gain.
STATURE. Rising in a company ofen means
an increase in salary (material gain), but it also
means an elevation of position or stature. If
an important executive rises and a newspaper
runs the story, rarely will the newspaper extol
him just because he gets a raise; rather, it will
mention his elevation in rank or stature. Mate-
rial gain can come from nearly any source, but
stature is a collective recognition that is usually
harder to come by. It is ofen an acknowledg-
ment of power over other people, one of the
highest forms of power there is.
Generally, such a journey is prized, since
it is long, slow and not easily won. Indeed, if
someone reaches the top without such a jour-
ney, the reaction will ofen be skepticism and
resentment. Tink of the owner’s son who be-
comes vice president afer having only worked
a year. Tis journey is something many people
take great pride in, and they will gladly labor
on lowly ends of the ladder for years so they
can boast of how long and hard they worked to
get where they are.
Can gain in stature lead to one of the
profound journeys of realization? Doubtful.
Rarely will a middle manager sit back and
refect on the days he was a stock clerk; rarely
will the CEO want to refect on his days as
vice president. For most, stature ofen feels too
tenuous to have the security to sit back and
refect on how things were. Tey had rather
forget those days and see themselves as they
are now.
Loss of position or stature, however, will
likely lead to realization. Te danger of being
elevated is that people create an image of the
elevated person. Tey inherently want role
models, want to imagine that the people they
are answering to are greater than they are, if
for no other reason than to justify why they are
subordinating themselves. If enough people do
this long enough, the elevated person might
start to believe it. When he comes crashing
down, he will be in for a tough realization.
He will be forced to realize his true identity
is not one and the same with that temporary,
elevated position. He might realize the danger
of getting caught up in the glory of stature and
get back in touch with who he really is. What
their work will begin, but not as
many know how it will end. A few
writers write the last scene first,
and some writers work back-
wards, but for most writers the
idea of such an approach is un-
nerving. Many writers just have a
great idea for an opening, or a
great idea for a character, and
want to let the work evolve. And
isn’t that what they’re supposed to
do? Isn’t a work supposed to
evolve out of a character?
Wouldn’t it be wrong to force a
character to follow a precon-
ceived path, to fit into a precon-
ceived ending at any cost?
The answer is yes and no. It is
true that a work should evolve
out of a character, but at the same
time, a writer can also run into
danger if his character wanders
aimlessly with no destination, if
his work doesn’t build and con-
cludes with no resolve.
True, you should not force
your character into an ending at
any cost; but at the same time,
don’t set him off running with no
destination. This destination can
be vague. It can change. Many
writers fear that having an ending
will box them in. On the con-
trary: By virtue of having it, the
character can become more cre-
ative within its confines.
It is like putting your charac-
ter on a train to California. If he
decides to get off in Arizona,
that’s fine. If it turns out he should
settle there and never get back on
the train, that’s fine, too. But he
never could have known about
Arizona if he hadn’t gotten on
that train for California—if he
hadn’t had a destination in mind.
If having one final destination
for the work is too intimidating,
you can start by breaking up your
story with several smaller desti-
nations. You might plan a series
of mini-journeys. Where might
your character be by Chapter 4?
By Chapter 10? Also, you needn’t
think of destinations solely in
terms of circumstance; you might
also think of them in terms of
internal character growth. What
insights will he have reached by
book’s end? In fact, it is always
preferable to have an internal des-
tination as opposed to an external
one. An internal destination will
create the external circumstances
to get him there. An external
destination will force the charac-
ter to a place where he may or
may not be able to reach the
desired internal destination.
Destinations are important.
But so are beginnings. In fact, in
one sense it is even more impor-
tant to pay attention to begin-
nings since, when people think of
journeys, they naturally think of
destinations. Beginnings are
nearly always overlooked, or
taken for granted.
A strong beginning can define
an entire journey. Think of some-
one who wants to get out of the
ghetto; someone who wants to get
out of debt. These people aren’t
thinking of destinations as much
as they are getting away from
their beginnings. Where does
your character begin? In a lousy
job? In a bad neighborhood? On
a deserted island?
Obstacles are one of the most
helpful tools at a writer’s dis-
posal—they help prolong any
journey, cause conflict and aid in
suspense. For each of the types of
journeys, consider what could
stand in the way of your character
reaching his destination.
On beginnings and endings
changes will he make as a result? How will he
start his life over again?
FAMILY. A character who starts out with
no children and has three by the end of the
work will (at least on the surface) be a difer-
ent person; so will the character who gains
a brother (by birth or marriage), a sister, an
uncle, a cousin. While family feels like the
most permanent thing in the world, it is, in
fact, always changing. Tere might be births,
deaths, marriages, divorces. A character
might have a huge family and spend all his
time with them in the beginning, but not
spend any time with them in the end, be-
cause the family disowns him, or his wife
pulls him away.
For the most part, family is not something
one can easily escape, and one learns that if
he is to live with certain family members, he
must look inside and come to realizations
about himself and others. In this way, the sur-
face journey leads to a more profound journey.
Noah Lukeman
Noah Lukeman is a literary agent based in New York and
the author of several books on the craft of writing, including
The First Five Pages, The Plot Thickens and A Dash of Style.
He has also written an e-book, How to Write a Great Query
Letter, which he has made available for free to writers. To
download it, go to
Excerpted from the book The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways
to Bring Fiction to Life. Copyright © 2002 by Noah
Lukeman. Reprinted by arrangement with the author.
For more information, go to
28 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By C.J. Box
et me begin with a caveat the
size of an Angus cow: What
I say is not going to work for
everyone and isn’t intended
to be the only proper way to
construct a novel. But outlin-
ing my books in advance has
now worked for me through
10 Joe Pickett suspense novels with G.P. Put-
nam’s Sons. I think it ofers plenty of creative
benefts for the writer, as well as psychological
and lifestyle advantages, and there are pluses as
well for an author’s agent and publisher.
So, without further ado, here are seven
reasons why I outline:
SO I KNOW THE ENDING. How many times
while reading a novel do you get to that point
halfway into it when you start to have that
niggling fear in the back of your mind that the
captain—the author—isn’t sure where this ship
is headed? Sometimes, the vessel is righted
and you sail home. Other times, what occurs
is akin to a literary shipwreck, i.e., everybody
dies, or the conclusion comes from lef feld, or
a character is introduced at the last minute to
tie up the loose ends, or a coincidence occurs,
or the story simply ends, leaving the reader
wondering what just took place and why. Tis
isn’t fair.
My guess is that when this happens—when
the ending just sort of falls apart or drifs—it’s
because the author didn’t know what the end-
ing would be when he or she sat down to tell
the story.
I’ve talked to many authors who choose to
work this way. Many times, it works well for
them. Tey create characters and “see where
the characters take them.” Sometimes, no
doubt, this approach works amazingly well.
But I wouldn’t recommend it.
I’M UP TO. Here’s where outlining becomes
a very practical consideration as well as an
artistic one. Simply put, my editors want to
know what the novel is about before approving
it. Tey should want to know that. So should
my agent, but for other reasons. None of them
demands the 60-plus-page outline described
in the sidebar (on page 30)—that was my
choice—but all want to know what the story
will be about.
For a number of years I was blessed with
a great editor, Martha Bushko, formerly of
Putnam’s (and am currently in good hands
with editors at Putnam and St. Martin’s Press).
Martha was enthusiastic, extremely skilled and
a perfectionist. She was more than an editor in
that she was a partner in the process. She knew
my characters as well or better than I did,
and watched out for them. She also suggested
developments, and she was rarely wrong.
In my novel Winterkill, for example, she
suggested several new scenes where Joe and
his wife, Marybeth, discuss what’s happening
around them. Tese are intimate moments
that shed light not only on the action that’s
taken place, but how that action is afecting
them and their children. Tese scenes also
give them an outlet to vent, argue and reveal
to the reader how raw their emotions are. Te
Pro & con:
Te advantages of
suggested scenes increased the tension in the
novel, as well as provided a more complete
portrait of the characters.
Because of my detailed outlines, Martha was
able to suggest improvements in the overall
plot as well as faws in sequence or logic before
I’ve made them in manuscript form. Tis
helped us both and improved the novel from
the outset. I’d much rather make a funda-
mental improvement in the structure before
blathering on for a few hundred pages.
If my agent, Ann Rittenberg, knows the
story from the outline, she can suggest changes
or improvements as well. Te outline gives her
enough to go on so that she can approach pub-
lications with possible excerpts, audio-book
companies, or TV and flm producers who
might want to option or buy the novel.
SERIES. Obviously, there are good things and
bad things about writing a series of novels.
Characters can get stale over time, or lose their
appeal. If the characters change too much,
there’s the risk of alienating the reader who
was attracted to them in the frst place. If they
change too little, they start to defy credibility.
When I outline, it is easier for me to objec-
tively advance the story lines of the characters
in the Joe Pickett novels than it would be to
try and remember all of them in the heat of
writing. By outlining, I can remember to insert
past characters—or at least mention them—in
the current novel. Otherwise, I might forget
them and anger a reader.
In my frst novel, Open Season, there is a
brief and outrageous funeral scene in which
three outftters are buried—as per their request
—in a four-wheel-drive pickup. A crazed local
minister named Cobb, who is also a survival-
ist, conducts the eulogy. When I needed a local
conduit in Winterkill for some misfts who
come to Saddlestring, I started to invent a new
character before I remembered Rev. Cobb. Be-
cause he was already established (somewhat)
in the series and was perfect for the role, I
brought him back. He plays an important role
in the new novel.
Another aspect of continuity is that I’ve
made the conscious decision to age my char-
acters at least a year with each novel. Although
Avram Dumitrescu | 29
30 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
this has little efect on the more mature
characters, it certainly impacts the children.
In Open Season, Joe’s daughter Sheridan was
7. By the end of Winterkill, she’s 11. So she
thinks diferently, and looks at the world dif-
ferently. In the outline, I note her changes and
outlook—Yikes! Sweet Sheridan is showing
symptoms of being a sarcastic pre-teen!—at
several junctures throughout the new novel.
I need to know where the story is headed. I
don’t even begin the novel until I know that.
While the story arc and even the conclusion
can always be changed (see next reason), hav-
ing the plot and denouement in my mind (and
in the outline) means I know where I’m go-
ing. An outline also helps prevent signifcant
changes of tone within a novel that may be the
result of writing angrily on bad days, or lan-
guidly on days when the writer feels relaxed.
I remember coming home from the ofce
afer a bad day and working on a chapter in
Savage Run in which Joe Pickett encounters
a local lawyer/rancher who has been giving
him trouble. In the encounter, the usually
mild-mannered Joe was snarly, aggressive and
confrontational with his nemesis. I loved the
action and emotion in the chapter, and felt
a kind of release. Te next day, while cooled
down, I reread it and saw that if I kept the
scene, it would force the novel in a whole new
direction. So it never appeared in Savage Run.
portant. Simply because the outline is com-
NOW THAT I’ve spoken my
piece about the virtues of doing
an outline, here’s a look at the real
thing. I’ll describe how I outlined
my suspense novel Winterkill.
The outline is 68 pages long,
which is roughly 10 percent of the
size of the eventual finished man-
uscript. That’s a very long outline.
Written on the first page of the
outline is the title, Winterkill,
and underneath that in a smaller
font, A Joe Pickett Novel.
It all began with a single idea,
also noted, which is: “During a
series of winter blizzards, victims
and outcasts from some of Amer-
ica’s worst episodes (Waco, Ruby
Ridge, Montana Freeman stand-
off ) band together and move into
Joe Pickett’s Bighorn Mountains.
Tragedy results.”
This is followed by a one-
paragraph premise that lists the
other themes of the book, the
conflict that will take place, the
time of year when the story will
unfold, and the questions that
will be posed and answered. The
prose is more purple than it
should be.
Next is a cast of recurring
characters from previous novels
with a sentence or two updating
each, as well as a few words about
their underlying motivations.
This is followed by a longer list
of characters who will be intro-
duced in Winterkill. Following the
name of each character is a physi-
cal description, her age, how she
will propel the story, what her
agenda is, and maybe a line of
dialogue to establish the rhythm
of how she speaks.
Then there is a page of bul-
leted backstories—individual
threads of story lines to advance
throughout the novel. These are
as simple as “Missy Vankueren,
Joe’s mother-in-law, returns for a
prolonged visit because her new-
est husband has been indicted in
an Arizona real estate scandal ...,”
or “Joe becomes more disillu-
sioned with his job; the bureau-
cracy and politics.”
Sixty-two pages ensue, ending
with a page devoted to acknowl-
edgements. The pages begin with
Chapter 1, which is no more than
the heading followed by several
terse paragraphs of action,
description or dialogue. On it
goes through Chapter 32. In
many cases, there is no more than
a line or two per chapter. Other
times, the “chapter” is three or
four pages of extended dialogue.
The backstory threads mentioned
earlier weave through the chap-
ters in a font or color that sets
them apart from the main story.
There tends to be more text in the
beginning of the outline and at
the very end of it. The middle
chapters seem a little vacant, as if
waiting for company to move in.
The outline is written sporad-
ically over two months in Micro-
soft Word on an iBook laptop
computer. It’s on the hard drive
with backup on a disk that I
take back and forth from home
to office.
The novel is written over the
next seven months directly onto
the outline itself. Eventually,
when it’s complete, the original
outline no longer even exists
(although a copy of it does, just in
case). When one reads the novel
in manuscript form, there is no
indication that somewhere
beneath the text was a very exten-
sive outline. And to some degree,
the finished product may be
strikingly different from that
original outline. Or not.
But it’s what gets me started
and keeps me on track.
A look at C.J. Box’s outline for Winterkill
pleted doesn’t mean the story can’t be changed
midstream for the better. It doesn’t mean the
conclusion can’t be changed if another, or bet-
ter, ending emerges. Sometimes while writing
there is an unanticipated, almost giddy eureka!
moment that makes the entire story lurch in a
wholly diferent direction, changes the tone, or
simply adds richness. Let this happen.
No doubt, some great, timeless novels have
been created when the author had no idea
what would happen. For some writers, this is
the very essence of the creative process itself
and the reason they write in the frst place.
And it’s perfectly fne. But it doesn’t work for
me. It also doesn’t work, I propose, for many
readers. Readers have invested their time
and money and want a worthwhile experi-
ence in return. Rarely, I would guess, does a
reader want to spend much time or energy on
something aimless, no matter how well writ-
ten. Writers who want to indulge themselves
should go to a spa instead.
With a detailed outline as my plan, I’m less
likely to go of on tangents. Or if I fnd that a
minor character has stepped forward and is
threatening to take over a big part of the story,
I can yoke him back in line.
In Winterkill, I introduced a new character
to the series named Nate Romanowski. Nate is
a unique mountain-man type with a mysteri-
ous Special Forces background. He’s a great
character, full of surprises and violent pos-
sibilities, and he entered the story with such
impact that the novel could have easily become
a story about Nate instead of Joe Pickett. Later,
I went back and toned down his entrance,
brought Joe in to smooth things out, and got
back on track.
Like most people, I have an extremely busy
life. With work, family and social obligations,
time for writing is precious. So when I create
some time, I don’t want to waste it staring at a
screen, waiting for inspiration. With an out-
line, I can start in immediately where I lef of.
I know what’s ahead. I can get right to work
and polish it later.
C.J. Box
C.J. Box of Cheyenne, Wyo., has won critical praise for his
10 Joe Pickett suspense novels. The first, Open Season, won
the Anthony Award, Macavity Award, Gumshoe Award and
Barry Award for Best First Novel. | 31
Why I don’t do
By Larry Tritten
few years ago, an editor asked me
for a brief introduction to a story of
mine in a science-fction anthology.
I wrote, “It was one of those sto-
ries that evolved from a sentence
I wrote spontaneously and with
no forethought when I didn’t
have an idea for something to
write. Some people say that stories have to be
carefully preplanned, that you need a map, as
it were—but I think they can be explorations
of discovery, that all you need is a compass and
a machete.”
Tat story, which I’ll return to later, turned
out to have the appearance of having been
tightly and intricately plotted, but in fact I had
no idea at all where I was going as I wrote it
or how it would end. Te story defned itself
32 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
as it evolved and took shape. I didn’t have a
map, but I did have a compass and machete,
which is to say, a writer’s instinct and a sense
of direction. I don’t write everything in such a
completely extemporaneous way—sometimes
I have a rudimentary idea and sometimes a
skeleton of the structure is there at the start.
What I like about the extemporaneous
method is that it’s more fun to write such a
story. Try it. Write a sentence spontaneously
and then just keep writing, trusting your
instinct. It’s creatively exhilarating to test your
ingenuity and versatility in this way. Open
the dictionary to a word, any word, and start
the sentence with that word. Afer a page or
so, like a traveler who has taken a wrong turn
in the road, you may fnd that you’re lost. But
like a traveler, you’ll go back and fnd the right
road. Trust yourself. And enjoy the unexpected
scenery as it unfolds. Lewis and Clark didn’t
know exactly where they were going, and nei-
ther did Columbus. Teir journeys were ones
of discovery, undertaken without guidebooks.
If Dorothy had had a guidebook on her way to
Oz, she could have avoided the anthropomor-
phic apple trees and poppy felds, but the trip
would have been much less exciting.
It may be you’re the kind of person who
needs a guidebook, an outline. But I recom-
mend at least trying it the other way. I remem-
ber being taught in school that a writer prop-
erly outlines his work. But from the moment
I read the prefatory quote in Ray Bradbury’s
Fahrenheit 451, I was inclined to resist writing
in the traditionally prescribed ways. Te quote,
by Juan Ramón Jiménez, is: “If they give you
ruled paper, write the other way.”
Te rulemakers would have you believe that
without a plan, you risk chaos. I suppose that’s
true if you aren’t clever and resourceful, in
which case you probably shouldn’t be a writer
to start with. Te rulemakers also overlook
the fact that improvisational jazz and “improv”
comedy have a high and respected profle in
the world of art and entertainment. Tese
forms test one’s imagination in experiment-
ing improvisationally with music and comedy.
Tere is absolutely no reason why it cannot
also be done with fction, or with any kind
of writing.
Te anthologized story I mentioned at the
start is “Te Fine Art of Dreaming,” and the
opening sentence it evolved from is: “We were
an odd but compatible trio.” When I wrote
that sentence, I didn’t know who the members
of the trio were, but by the time I fnished
the frst page, I had discovered that they
were a critic, a freelance data correspondent
(whatever that might be!) and an anatomical
machine. Te next thing I knew, the critic had
a job reviewing the dreams of sex criminals for
a magazine titled Sex Dreams. Tis was an in-
ventive concept, but I still needed a story—i.e.,
confict and resolution. Using my instinct for
story development, I had the critic discover
in the course of his job that dreams are theatri-
cal productions of a sort, staged in the minds
of people by beings elsewhere using the rough
material of the memories, impressions and
perceptions of the individual dreamer. From
that twist, I found my way cautiously to a
neat surprise ending that evoked the discov-
ery by the story’s narrator (a friend of the
critic’s) that these beings were seeking a state
of universal deep sleep for mankind in order
to provide optimum theatrical exposure for
their most ambitious productions. Te story
was published in the anthology Pulphouse: Te
Hardback Magazine and was reprinted in the
magazine Weird Tales.
IN A MARCH 2002 inter-
view, The Writer asked the late
Evan Hunter—aka Ed McBain—
about outlining. Hunter was the
author of more than 90 novels,
including (as McBain) more than
50 of the popular 87th Precinct
novels. Here’s some of what he
had to say:
“[I’m working now on] an
Evan Hunter novel with a rather
complicated family in it, and my
outline consists, of course, of
their ages and their dates of birth
and when they married whom
and how many children they have
and all that stuff, but it also high-
lights important events in the
lives of the guy and his sister, who
are the two lead characters. And
it’ll be just a headline ouline—
‘1987: She goes to India following
the drug trail,’ whatever. ...
“You know, I will often write
myself a sort of letter on paper,
saying, ‘OK, now what have we
got? Here’s where we are, here’s
what we don’t have, and here’s
what we have to learn. And here’s
what we have to look at and
examine and see where it’s going.’
It’s like a heart-to-heart talk
with myself.”
How the prolific Evan Hunter did it
Another story I wrote in a similar fashion
began with a much, much more challenging
frst sentence ... the strangest one I could come
up with in my desire to test my storytelling
skill: “Tey found the Anthracite Cowboy in
the Bad Habit Saloon in Breakneck, drowning
bluebirds in root beer and eyeing the cleav-
age of a tart who sat at a card table across
the room, blowing soap bubbles from a little
plastic wand.” Tis one turned into a some-
what surreal futuristic Western, and writing it
was like an exercise in breaking in a rhetorical
horse. I found myself giving the Cowboy of the
opening sentence a job tracking down some-
one in an abandoned Western theme-park
town called Pine Box, inhabited by Western
fgures from movies, literature and legend
in the form of “individeols” (semiplasmic
video beings). Tis led to various adventures
culminating in a typical Western showdown in
which the Cowboy kills John Wayne and has a
sexual liaison with Dale Evans. Before riding
of into the sunset, so to speak.
A favorite among my more than 200 pub-
lished short stories, “Green Roses” took shape
from the following spontaneously written
sentence: “In his forty-fourth year, Fantocinni
learned all there was to know about pain.” I
wrote the sentence as a parody of some of the
downbeat opening sentences of stories by Ber-
nard Malamud. Having written it, I went on
to give a laundry list of Fantocinni’s bad luck,
including the loss of his wife and business. His
bad luck, I decided whimsically, was inficted
on him by a demon who wanted to play Mo-
nopoly with him (envious of his reputation as
an ace player), the stakes being the restoration
of his previously happy life.
As I was writing the story, I became aware
that it was something of a parody of Ingmar
Bergman’s flm Te Seventh Seal, in which a
knight plays chess with Death. Te interest-
ing thing is that I had never seen Te Seventh
Seal but had absorbed a sense of the story
from reading about it. I don’t know if the flm
ends happily, but my story does. At the start, I
didn’t know what type of story “Green Roses”
would become but, as it turned out, it wound
up in Te Year’s Best Fantasy Stories (by way
of publication in Te Magazine of Fantasy &
Science Fiction).
Such improvisation is no doubt more fun
when you’re writing science fction or fantasy
because those genres give the imagination
more latitude, but the method can apply to
mainstream fction as well.
And aside from the fun, there is the advan-
tage of never having an excuse for not working
because you don’t have an idea. Te ideas can
be materialized impromptu, just as a magician
pulls scarves, fowers and doves from thin air.
If you think you need a preconceived idea and
outline before you proceed, you can waste any
amount of time.
I ofen balk at describing writing as work,
because the process of writing has always
seemed to me more recreational than labori-
ous. On the other hand, the job of being a
freelance writer can be no less rigorous than
the task of Sisyphus, not because the writ-
ing itself is hard, but the job conditions (e.g.,
many low-paying and slow-paying markets)
can be tough. Outlining a story exacerbates the
element of work in writing. I remember being
bafed in school when we were being taught to
diagram sentences. I didn’t understand how to
do it or why it was necessary, and I refused to
show any interest because it interfered with my
natural enthusiasm for writing.
I guess we were being taught the rules of
grammar, but I resisted learning them and to
this day have no idea what a preposition is. I
wrote easily and clearly without learning those
rules and am, I suppose, the equivalent of
someone who plays music by ear.
I also remember handing in a creative-
writing assignment in high school that went so
much against the grain of the assignment that
the teacher called the piece “outlandish.” She
would surely have been astonished to know
her outlandish student would one day write for
Te New Yorker, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, Travel +
Leisure, Te North American Review and Te
New York Times.
Tese are all, of course, personal observa-
tions. You may work better with an outline.
In any case, I suggest that you try winging it,
trusting your instincts, and see how much fun
the dance of writing can be when it’s com-
pletely unfettered.
Trust yourself. Don’t let the rules inhibit
you. Writing can be like hang gliding toward a
rainbow—or like a clinical fight into space ...
strapped in and monitored by machines. Enjoy
the fight.
Larry Tritten
Larry Tritten of San Francisco is a prolific, multigenre writer
who has published more than a thousand pieces. His credits
include Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Playboy and
National Geographic Traveler. | 33
34 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Steve Dimeo
tart with a bang, not a whimper.
Tat play on T.S. Eliot’s famous
line from “Te Hollow Men”
ofers fction writers good advice
for two major reasons: A bang-
up opening to the narrative not
only hooks the reader, but also
helps focus the writer’s tone and
intent on what follows. Noted writers have
long afrmed just how crucial the opening is,
as I will point out. But the best way to master
a good opening is to see how classic authors—
who ofen get short shrif these days—have
done it best, and then to ofer some common
techniques we can all use.
Te most common mistake that we writers
make, especially in our frst drafs, is to back
into the tale and wait too many pages to start
the real story. Even Stephen King admits this
shortcoming in his book On Writing when
he says that “especially near the beginning
of a story,” he has “a tendency to fail.” Tis
is a common mistake in so-called “literary”
stories, where openings that provide extensive
expositions, descriptions of setting, or char-
acter details do not advance the story or its
point soon enough. Te readers and editors at
publishing houses would be the frst to admit
that the openings in their pile of slush-pile
manuscripts can ofen dictate whether the rest
is worth reading.
To make sure the readers persist, we have to
pique them with questions worth answering.
Static, trite descriptions can mean death to any
tale. Te writer-manqué Snoopy in “Peanuts”
comically attests to that with his unvarying, “It
was a dark and stormy night,” an irreverent rif
on 19th-century British writer Edward Bulwer-
Lytton’s penchant for just such beginnings.
Regardless of the genre, some kind of
mystery—a “night” of sorts—must be implicit
in the opening lines. Tat is true for fction
of any length, from the shortest short story to
even an epic novel. As the late John Gardner,
author of such unusual novels as Grendel and
Te Sunlight Dialogues, explained in Te Art of
Fiction, “Page 1, even if it’s a page of descrip-
tion, raises questions, suspicions and expecta-
tions; the mind casts forward to later pages,
wondering what will come about and how.
It is this casting forward that draws us from
paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter.
At least in conventional fction, the moment
we stop caring where the story will go next, the
writer has failed, and we stop reading.”
Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Law-
rence Block seconds this notion with humor in
Telling Lies for Fun & Proft when he says, “Te
worst thing about the openings of most stories
by new writers is that they take more time get-
ting started than an old Studebaker on a cold
morning.” He concludes that “most efective
openings do several things at once. Tey get
the action going, set the tone and establish
the problem—and while they’re at it they may
sketch a character or two, convey some impor-
tant information, take out the garbage and sew
Opening | 35
a button on your cuf.”
Julie Checkoway, an author, editor and past
director of the Associated Writing Programs,
cautions in Creating Fiction that the writer
should be tantalizing at the start but not say
too much. She uses the Victoria’s Secret catalog
as a paradigm: “Te challenge facing the story
writer—and the model in the lingerie ad—is to
imply a great deal about what happened before
(‘I was once dressed’) through exposition or
implication (‘Tere are my trousers on the
foor’) and to imply, as well, what may happen
once the curtain closes again (‘I will soon be
undressed. See how my bra strap is slipping of
my shoulder?’) but—and this is important—to
remember to keep the reader’s attention totally
and completely focused on what is happening
right now in the present action of the story or
in the moment of the photograph (‘Look at
me. Look at me. Look at me now!’).”
What the masters said
Te preference for beginning incisively
doesn’t stem from our era’s impatient penchant
for “sound bites,” the tendency to have every-
thing summed up in a Madison Avenue-hype
sentence or two, as a news article must do. Nor
is a catchy opening, as many think, merely the
province of pulp fction. Edgar Allan Poe—
literature’s frst major mystery writer—also
emphasized early in the 19th century that
an opening not only should set the stage for
what’s to come, but also help identify the “sin-
gle efect” a tale intends to deliver. As he wrote
in his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
Twice-Told Tales, “If his very initial sentence
tend not to the outbringing of this efect, then
he has failed in his frst step. In the whole
composition there should be no word written,
of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not
to the one pre-established design.”
Avram Dumitrescu
36 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Does Poe abide by his own principle? Any
of his most famous tales prove that he prac-
tices what he preaches. Note, for example, how
he begins “Ligeia,” his most complex story:
I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or
even precisely where I first became acquainted
with the lady Ligeia. Long years have since elapsed,
and my memory is feeble through much suffering.
Poe has begun by setting up the mystery
of the very frst meeting with Ligeia—and the
narrator’s possible unreliability in the account
that follows.
More modern literary giants have also fol-
lowed this lead. John Steinbeck, who despite
his otherwise fascinating narrative style could
stop a story dead with character description,
however colorful, recognized the importance
of a mysterious beginning in some of his better
tales. “Tularecito” (“little frog”), for instance,
the story of a deformed, half-witted character
similar to Lenny in Of Mice and Men, starts
out like this:
The origin of Tularecito is cast in obscurity,
while his discovery is a myth which the folks of the
Pastures of Heaven refuse to believe, just as they
refuse to believe in ghosts.
Te mystery is immediate: What made
him “mythical”?
Or take Ernest Hemingway’s opening to his
story “Te Snows of Kilimanjaro”:
“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he
said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
We don’t know who “he” is, for one thing,
nor do we know what is “painless” or what “it”
is that’s “starting.” Excellent hooks!
Even the long-winded, ofen convoluted
William Faulkner applied this mysterious ap-
proach in his most famous short story, “A Rose
for Emily”:
When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole
town went to her funeral: the men through a sort
of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the
women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of
her house, which no one save an old manservant—
a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at
least ten years.
We wonder frst why Emily has “fallen” and,
because no one has been inside her house for
so long, what has changed there.
Even in the 19th century, no less a writer
than Charles Dickens, who straddled both the
popular and literary worlds, created some of
the most famous openings ever. Here is his
timeless beginning of A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of
times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of
foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the
epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it
was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of
hope, it was the winter of despair, we had every-
thing before us, we had nothing before us, we were
all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct
the other way—in short, the period was so far like
the present period, that some of its noisiest author-
ities insisted on its being received, for good or for
evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Grabbing the reader
So while mystery of some sort must begin
a story, what are some other techniques to
arouse the reader’s curiosity? Here are fve:
In the hands of a skilled writer (not Snoopy!)
who knows what she’s doing, opening with a
description can lull a reader into a complacen-
cy that can make the shock to come even more
startling. Shirley Jackson does this in “Te Lot-
tery,” her still ofen-anthologized short story
frst published in Te New Yorker in 1948:
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny,
with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the
flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass
was richly green. The people of the village began to
gather in the square, between the post office and
the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there
were so many people that the lottery took two days
and had to be started on June 26th, but in this vil-
lage, where there were only about three hundred
people, the whole lottery took less than two hours,
so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and
still be through in time to allow the villagers to get
home for noon dinner.
Te story begins sweetly, with what seems a
typical, small-town ritual. It belies the horrify-
ing surprise that the lottery ends not in a win
but a loss—a random stoning by villagers.
A skilled opening, of course, can unsettle
the reader right at the outset, as Poe did in
1839 in the famous opening of “Te Fall of the
House of Usher,” even though it ventured dan-
gerously close to the “dark and stormy” cliché:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless
day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds
hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been
passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly
dreary tract of country, and at length found myself,
as the shades of the evening drew on, within view
of the melancholy House of Usher.
‘CAMPFIRE,’ OPENING. Related to the “estab-
lishing shot” technique used in movies, this
one opens with a narration as we might hear
it beside a campfre or hearth. H.G. Wells uses
this approach in Te Time Machine (1895):
The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient
to speak of him) was expounding a recondite mat-
ter to us. His grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his
usually pale face was flushed and animated. The
fire burned brightly, and the soft radiance of the
incandescent lights in the lilies of silver caught the
bubbles that flashed and passed in our glasses.
James Hilton takes the same approach at the
start of Lost Horizon (1933):
Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning
to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts
old school friends who have met again as men and
found themselves with less in common than they
had believed they had.
As in “Te Lottery,” a comfortable frame-
work can be deceptively enticing as the tale —
or storyteller—grows more unsettling.
ELATION. Note how Joseph Heller did so in
Catch-22 (1961):
It was love at first sight.
The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell
madly in love with him.
Even Margaret Mitchell’s classic, Gone with
the Wind (1936), surprises us with an opening
that doesn’t quite evoke a Vivien Leigh:
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men sel-
dom realized it when caught by her charm as the
Tarleton twins were.
Hemingway does even more at the start of
Te Old Man and the Sea (1952) by immedi-
ately setting up the protagonist’s dilemma:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff
in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four
days now without taking a fish.
nique has the added beneft of increasing the
immediacy and therefore the “reality” of the
story that follows. Probably the most notewor-
thy example appears in Vladimir Nabokov’s
Lolita (1955), which opens with an “authentic”
introduction by the “editor” to this “memoir”:
“Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed
Male,” such were the two titles under which the
writer of the present note received the strange
pages it perambulates. “Humbert Humbert,” their
author, had died in legal captivity, of coronary
thrombosis, on November 16, 1952, a few days
before his trial was scheduled to start.
If that isn’t enough, the memoir itself hooks
us like this:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin,
my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a
trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three,
on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
THINGS.’ Trow the reader into an initially un-
clear event that will slowly play out in the full
story. Hemingway uses this approach in “Te
Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Edith Wharton relies
on it in her tale “Aferward” (1909):
“Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never
know it.”
The assertion, laughingly flung out six months
earlier in a bright June garden, came back to Mary
Boyne with a new perception of its significance as
she stood, in the December dusk, waiting for the
lamps to be brought into the library.
Te reader slowly learns, and Mary realizes
only aferward when it’s too late, that the “one”
is the ghost to whom she has unwittingly sent
her husband.
Steve Dimeo
Steve Dimeo, of Hillsboro, Ore., has published nonfiction
and award-winning fiction and poetry in both literary and
popular national magazines. This article originally appeared
in the August 2003 issue of Willamette Writer. | 37
38 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet
rnest Hemingway once said
the difculty of starting a new
story could be easily solved:
“All you have to do is write
one true sentence. Write the
truest sentence you know ...
then go on from there.” We
can’t get very far into writing
unless that frst sentence says exactly what we
want, focuses the rest of the piece, and propels
us forward. As Robert B. Parker said, “Te frst
fve pages lead to the second fve.”
You must write and rewrite, polish and edit
not just the frst sentence but also the story’s
opening pages until they are perfect. Oh, you
don’t have to put of the entire rest of the story
until perfection is achieved, but you must peri-
odically revisit and sharpen.
We’ve put together some steps that will help
you get your story of to a good start, make
that all-important frst impression, and catch
an editor’s eye.
make a reader care about your charac-
ter by making him human, like Holden
Caulfeld in J.D. Salinger’s Te Catcher
in the Rye:
If you really want to hear about it, the first
thing you probably want to know is where I was
born, and what my lousy childhood was like.
Tese lines make Holden come across as a
bit brash—but eventually he’s likeable because
he seems to be opening up, allowing us inside
his head and revealing to us his personal se-
crets, such as why his childhood was lousy.
In “Miss Brill,” Katherine Mansfeld gets our
attention with an unforgettable character:
... Miss Brill put up her hand and touched
her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again.
She had taken it out of its box that afternoon,
shaken out the moth-powder, given it a good
brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little
eyes. “What has been happening to me?” said the
sad little eyes. Oh, how sweet it was to see them
snap at her again from the red eiderdown! ... Little
rogue! Yes, she really felt like that about it. Little
rogue biting its tail just by her left ear. She could
have taken it off and laid it on her lap and stroked
it. She felt a tingling in her hands and arms, but
that came from walking, she supposed. And when
she breathed, something light and sad—no, not
sad, exactly—something gentle seemed to move in
her bosom.
CREATE CONFLICT. William Blake once
wrote that “without contraries there is
no progression.” Writers could para-
phrase the Romantic poet and claim
that “without confict there is no progression.”
Confict places obstacles in the protagonist’s
path to a goal. Sometimes the confict is physi-
Get of to an
cal (e.g., another person), but the more intense
conficts are mental, emotional and spiritual.
Establish the confict early and the reader will
be your Sancho Panza, whether you’re tilt-
ing at windmills or jousting with love. Our
story “Te Death of Doc Virgo,” which was
published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,
starts with this emotional confict:
You know, it’s been eight years since high-
school graduation, and this is the first time I’ve
been back to Woodhole. Too many painful
Genre writers ofen begin a story by
placing their protagonist in immediate
peril, so that right of the bat readers
have a rooting interest. We opened “Who’s
Jody?” (from our collection Bloody Ground)
with the line, “He seemed to be falling to his
death.” Who is falling? Will he be saved? We
started “A Fair Rate of Exchange” this way:
In a kidnapping the hairiest moment is the
exchange. The kidnapper is most vulnerable, the
victim most likely to be hurt, and the victim’s fam-
ily is most on edge.
Tis paragraph sets the reader up to expect
a kidnapping and an exchange and to wonder
what will happen.
Tis technique works because you
momentarily thwart the readers’ ex-
pectations. Your audience is expect-
ing one thing, and you give them another, so
they want to read on to fnd out why things
are so topsy-turvy.
Silas House opens Clay’s Quilt with the line,
“Tey were in a car going over Bufalo Moun-
tain, but the man driving was not Clay’s father.”
What is happening that particular day that the
father is not behind the wheel?
presents the opposite of what is expect-
ed. Te surprise is totally unexpected.
Perhaps the undisputed champion of
surprise is Franz Kafa for this memorable
opening of Metamorphosis:
When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning
from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed
in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
Sherwood Anderson once wrote a
story whose title, “I Want to Know
Why,” sums up another major ap-
peal that writers use. We are a little bit like
Alice, who fnds Wonderland “curiouser and
curiouser.” Judge for yourself from the frst line
of the Sandra Brown novel Te Alibi whether
or not you want to keep reading: “Te scream
rent the air-conditioned silence of the hotel
corridor.” Of course you want to keep turning
the pages. You’ve got to fnd out who screamed
and why.
Te mystery opening preys on the human
desire to know more. It’s a major force in mak-
ing us keep going in a story, in causing us to
stay up late to fnish even a bad book because
we just have to know what happens.
TV show 24 popularized a surefre
technique from the thriller genre.
An entire season would take place
during one 24-hour day, and to reinforce the
importance of time, a clock was periodically
superimposed in the corner. Te clicking
clock intensifes the mystery in the following
example from one of our stories:
Roskolnikov gently inserted the pacifier in his
fitful baby’s mouth, kissed his daughter on the fore-
head, then went back to the delicate assembly
spread across the dining room table. If he could
just get it finished tonight, in five days a major
American city would feel the effect of the dirty
bomb that would make it uninhabitable for per-
haps 30 years.
Not only must a mystery be solved, but it
must be done within a specifed time limit.
USE THE four Ws below to create an
opening for two of the following: a mystery,
romance, horror or sci-fi story.
Who: a disfigured man
What: always wanted to paint beautiful
Where: New York City
When: turn of the century (you choose
the century)
—H.B. and C.S.
40 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Tus, the stakes are raised. While the moving
hand of time is a convention of thrillers, it can
also be used in serious stories and romances.
In the previous example, the heroes of the tale
have only fve days to save the United States,
while at the same time readers are intrigued
by a paradoxical father who is simultaneously
loving and hating.
or other literary devices to get the
reader’s attention. But use them spar-
ingly. Here’s an example from a story
we wrote: “At the conclusion of the homecom-
ing game, Roy’s face was covered with mud
and victory.”
ers choose to engage their readers by
opening their story with a scene that
is designed to create a specifc mood
or atmosphere, as in McKnight Malmar’s
“Te Storm”:
She inserted her key in the lock and turned the
knob. The March wind snatched the door out of
her hand and slammed it against the wall. It took
strength to close it against the pressure of the gale,
and she had no sooner closed it than the rain came
in a pounding downpour, beating noisily against
the windows as if trying to follow her in. She could
not hear the taxi as it started up and went down
the road.
Often, writers fail to hook
readers because their opening
suffers from expositionitis: It con-
tains too much dull exposition,
some that doesn’t matter, some
that could be action or dialogue,
and some that comes out later,
causing repetition. Note below
how much material is excess bag-
gage that is certain to keep the
reader from being engaged.
Just as we had arranged
on our cells, I met her at
Branningan’s Bar & Grill. It
was late spring after we had
both just come home from
college. I hadn’t seen her in
nine months, and it had
been a long and tiring day
working for my father.
I had to wait almost an
hour. The waiter got tired
of refilling my water glass
and even stopped asking
me if I was ready to order.
At 6:30 as the last strains of
Moon River faded from the
adjacent piano bar, she
came waltzing through the
doors, looking exactly like I
remembered her.
She sat down across
from me and we started
chatting like the old friends
we were. When Jenn told
me she was going to spend
the summer hitchhiking
across the country on big
rigs, my heart wedged in
my throat like an oversized
olive, and I wished I could
be anywhere else. Where
was a good defense mecha-
nism when you needed
one? So I asked her if she
was “semi serious.”
“Don’t use your famous
humor to disguise what you
really feel, computer boy,”
she said, ordering us Bud
Lights. “Why don’t you
join me?”
I blurted out the first
thing that came to mind so
she wouldn’t know what I
really felt. “Dad’s expecting
me to put my computer sci-
ence major to good use ...”
“Your choice, Glynn. It’s
our last summer before we
enter the Dilbert world.”
Her green eyes dazzled me
as though I were looking at
two perfect pieces of jade.
“You can either put mem-
ory in someone else’s
machines, or you can make
your own memories.”
In the following passage,
we got rid of all the unnecessary
exposition and got right into
the action.
When Jenn told me she
was going to spend the
summer hitchhiking across
the country on big rigs, my
heart wedged in my throat
like an oversized olive.
Smiling to cover my dis-
comfort, I asked her if she
was “semi serious.”
“Don’t use your famous
humor to disguise what
you really feel, computer
boy,” she said, ordering us
Bud Lights. “Why don’t you
join me?”
“Dad’s expecting me to
put my computer science
major to good use ...”
“Your choice, Glynn. It’s
our last summer before we
enter the Dilbert world.”
Her green eyes dazzled me
as though I were looking at
two perfect pieces of jade.
“You can either put mem-
ory in someone else’s
machines, or you can make
your own memories.”
—H.B. and C.S.
More than the reader wanted to know
Consider that in fewer than a hundred
words, Malmar fashions a familiar scene
(coming in out of a bad storm) but selects
words that charge the scene with a feeling of
foreboding, and even danger. For example, the
wind and the rain are personifed as menac-
ing creatures (with words like “snatched” and
“slammed” and “trying to follow her in”),
imbuing the scene with a nightmarish quality.
Te addition of the last sentence suggests that
the unnamed female will, perhaps, have to face
the would-be intruders alone. And all of this
Malmar brings of without a single mention
of fear or danger! Tus, the single paragraph
manages to accomplish at least three things:
It draws us to the character, creates a chill-
ing mood, and foreshadows the violence that
will ensue.
In “Hills Like White Elephants,” Heming-
way begins his story by setting an atmospheric
scene at a train junction in Spain:
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were
long and white. On this side there was no shade
and no trees and the station was between two
lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of
the station there was a warm shadow of the
building and a curtain, made of strings of bam-
boo beads, hung across the open door into the
bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl
with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the
building. It was very hot and the express from
Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped
at this junction for two minutes and went on to
USE DIALOGUE. A creative-
writing teacher once told us what
he considered the most intrigu-
ing opening line that he had ever
run across in a story:
“Whoever put their hand on my knee,” said the
Queen as the banquet began, “better remove it
before the wine is served.”
We’ve always wondered if the wine was
served with the next course or somewhere
down the line.
As writers, we can learn something from
those afer-dinner speakers we’ve all en-
joyed. To steal our attention from that last
bite of cheesecake, they open with “A funny
thing happened to me on the way ...” or they
recount some engaging anecdote from their
past. Te very best of these speakers always
tie that opening to the subject of their talk.
Likewise, efective fction openings can come
in a variety of forms and lengths: Sometimes
you can hook your readers with a word or a
single image; sometimes you might use an en-
tire scene. But remember, the opening, regard-
less of the form you select, should not only be
engaging, but should reel them into the rest of
your story.
Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet
Based in Richmond, Ky., Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet have
collaborated on such works as short stories, movie scripts,
scholarly articles and books. Both Foundation Professors of
English and co-directors of the Teaching and Learning Center
at Eastern Kentucky University, they published their first arti-
cle in The Writer in 1984. Their book New Growth is an
anthology of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction collected
from some of Kentucky’s outstanding new talents, and was
published in 2007 by the Jesse Stuart Foundation.
• Guide to Fiction Writing by Jill Whitney
• Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan
• Mooring Against the Tide by Jeff Knorr
and Tim Schell
• Three Genres by Stephen Minot
• What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela
• Writing & Revising Your Fiction by Mark
• Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
Care to read some memorable open-
ings that will stay with you for a while?
Following are a few suggestions from our
reading experience.
• The Centaur by John Updike
• Congo by Michael Crichton
• Moby Dick by Herman Melville
• Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
• A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
—H.B. and C.S.
42 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Shelby Hearon
veryone expects nonfction to
be chock-full of facts. In the
bestselling saga Seabiscuit,
journalist Laura Hillenbrand
researched the history of
the three men who brought
a small and awkward horse,
grandson of Man O’War, to
glory, starting back in the years when the frst
automobiles began to replace the horse and
buggy and continuing through the Depression.
She has eyewitness accounts, original letters,
newspaper stories and extensive documenta-
tion of the start of the automotive industry, the
terrible life of jockeys, and the breeding and
training of thoroughbreds.
In a similar way, the fction writer must
collect an abundance of rich and varied facts
in order to create a believable and compelling
story that comes to life on the page.
Here are four rules of fact-gathering I swear
by, and write by.
Go where your story is set, walk the
ground, eat the food, listen to the talk,
read the local paper, take rolls of flm,
and take notes. Getting facts secondhand is
similar to getting your information about the
moon from a website on phases of the moon.
You can read the scientifc information on the
positions of the moon, Earth and sun, and
yet end up with nothing close to real, nothing
like sitting on the edge of a hillside watching
a sliver of the moon rise over the pines or,
sleepless, staring out your upstairs window at
2 a.m. and watching the full moon slide out
from behind the clouds. You have to gather
facts through your own eyes and point of view,
because what you notice, what resonates with
you personally, will be what stirs the emotions
and actions of your fctional people.
I’ll give two examples from my own re-
search. Some years ago, I set my novel Five
Hundred Scorpions in Tepoztlán, a Mexican
village near Cuernavaca, about which I had
already read three scholarly books, written
over a 40-year period. I even had a map of the
streets and marketplaces for my expatriate
Virginia lawyer to explore. But when I arrived
at the actual mountainous town, in the heat
of summer, what struck me instantly was:
Tere was no wood anywhere. Te towns-
people made charcoal to sell from their trees.
Poor homes had dirt foors and reed doors;
rich homes had quarried stone foors and
heavy metal doors. No wood. And that fact,
in the course of the novel, gave the presence
of a heavy wooden cross inside the church
more signifcance.
Another example of frsthand observation
came while working on Hug Dancing, set in
Waco, Texas, which was, in my university days,
a very small, very Baptist town.
In the ’90s it had become part of the cen-
tral-Texas technology boom. A careful reading
of Waco’s daily paper and strolls around its
streets gave me another glimpse into how the
infux of scientists had altered the city. Of all
the divergent groups that moved there, the Ko-
reans alone had been taken into the fabric of
the town. I knew that my story would have to
take place within the Presbyterian Church, be-
cause of the long alliance of this congregation
with the Koreans, and my narrator became a
pastor’s wife.
Tree wonderful contemporary novels
illustrate how facts, at frst of seemingly little
importance and almost randomly acquired,
can, when repeated in diferent scenes with
more emphasis and deeper import, become
what move the story to its satisfying fnish.
Te narrator in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was
raised in Pondicherry, India, where his father,
once a hotelier, ran a zoo. And so he grew up
familiar with the many animals enclosed there-
in—the late-sleeping elephants, seals, big cats
and bears; the early-rising baboons, macaques,
mangabeys, gibbons, girafes and mongooses.
Only later do we see how desperately every
scrap of knowledge he’d learned became a mat-
ter of life and death, when he was stranded in a
lifeboat with an adult tiger in the middle of the
Pacifc Ocean.
In Getting Mother’s Body by Suzan-Lori
Parks, Billy Beede, pregnant and living with
an aunt and uncle in a rundown trailer in a
dusty Texas town, took some pride in the
fact that her mama, Willa Mae, dead now six
years, was buried according to her wishes
wearing her genuine diamond ring and real
strand of pearls. Her present concern being
to locate the daddy of her child, who had
promised to marry her, the matter of her
mother rested on the back burner. But when
the family learned that Willa Mae’s burial
spot was about to be plowed under for a
supermarket, the aunts, uncles and cousins
all headed for the plot. Unearthing the
jewels became central to Billy’s survival plan.
Te author’s inclusion of realistic details
concerning life in dry, small-town Texas
Avram Dumitrescu
44 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
and a real cemetery about to be covered over
by developers lends her story immediacy, and
makes Billy’s panic believable.
Finally, in Mark Haddon’s amazing frst
novel, Te Curious Incident of the Dog in the
Night-Time, the rigid rules of the autistic
narrator, 15-year-old Christopher, a British
schoolboy, seem arbitrary and both sad and
funny. Trough detail the author shows: why
Christopher is good at remembering things;
why he likes Sherlock Holmes but not Arthur
Conan Doyle; why he hates yellow and brown;
why fve red cars in a row means it is a super,
super day; why he is a whiz at math; and why
he likes dogs better than people. Yet as the
mystery Christopher is writing (and living)
develops, all these unconnected facts lead him
not only to its solution but also to an unex-
pected solution in his own life.
Readers of fction like to learn something,
care about someone, and be surprised by the
way things turn out—just as they do in their
own lives. Using such well-placed facts is one
way to create those experiences for them.
DETAILS. Sometimes, a single ob-
ject will become a sort of shorthand
symbol, a talisman, for the central
wrenching confict of your novel. In Life
Estates, my novel set in South Carolina, Sarah,
the narrator, treasures her peach trees. I visited
orchards, picked a dozen varieties in the rain,
tried out recipes that showed of the taste of
each, learned that peach trees must be beaten
with newspapers to help them grow strong—
all without knowing why the luscious fruit had
become so central to my story. But then, when
Sarah produced three special peach desserts
for her best friend, who was dying, and the
ailing woman felt not grateful but unloved
because she had not been given her favorite
chocolate treat, I could see that the argument
over sweets really had to do with the anguish
of leave-taking.
In my novel Ella in Bloom, linen dresses be-
came an emblem of my narrator’s vain eforts
to please her mother. Hearing of her sister’s
death, Ella stole a linen dress from the vast
closet of a wealthy client whose fowers she
watered—so she would not be an embarrass-
ment to her mother at the memorial service.
Later, she scoured the thrif shops in Old Me-
tairie, La., near New Orleans, where she lived
a makeshif life, for a Moygashel linen dress to
wear home to Texas for her mother’s birthday
celebration. (And for this I must have tried
on a dozen such garments to get the weight of
the fabric, some sense of the previous owner,
the awkwardness of checking price tags.)
And so linen dresses became the symbol, the
totem, of all the love that Ella wanted and
could never get.
THINK YOU NEED. Te marvelous
nature of fction writing is that you
don’t know what you’re looking for
until you get into your story. I have several
times amassed prodigious piles of clippings,
overheard conversations, photographs and
notes made on-site, without knowing which
details I might later need to use. I met my
new husband while doing research on heart
transplants, having watched an actual pro-
cedure in Houston. I met and grew deeply
attached to four dogs while studying the ardu-
ous socializing required for guide dogs, going
to puppy socials, watching the nerve-racking
evaluations, and slogging through the hun-
dreds of pages of the puppy-raising manual.
For Te Second Dune, written not long afer
I’d moved to Texas, I studied fossils, collect-
ing gastropods and pelecypods from the dry
limestone escarpment near my back door that
once had been the bottom of a great Creta-
ceous sea.
What did I need all that information for
—on heart surgery, on dogs for the blind, on
ancient life? I didn’t know until my people
came to life on the page, and then I saw that
the heart that was transplanted in that novel
was not a literal one; that there are a lot of
experiences you can use to describe loss, and
that giving away an animal you have raised
is one; and that for a woman trapped in the
expectations of marriage, perceiving the world
in geologic time can be a great escape.
Shelby Hearon
Shelby Hearon, the author of 15 novels, has received many
awards, including the Texas Book Festival award for lifetime
achievement. Her latest book is Year of the Dog. She lives
in Burlington, Vt.
By Quinn Dalton
ne of the most common
problems I encounter
when working with
writers or wrestling
with my own work
is the use of scenes.
Ofen, scenes don’t pro-
vide information I’m
interested in knowing, or fail to provide even
the most basic information—such as who is
in the room or when the action is happening.
So, in this article I’d like to focus on creating
scenes that contain everything they need to
advance our stories and keep our readers en-
thralled until the fnal line. Te key questions:
What are scenes, and what should they do?
How do you get into—and out of—them?
How do you assess whether a scene is doing
the work you want it to do for the story?
The scene defined
Tis is my defnition, born of many frustrat-
ed hours spent trying to fgure out why a story
or a section of a novel isn’t “working”: Scenes
are units of signifcant action that provide new
information and advance a story.
Compelling scenes, whether two lines or 20
pages, contain the following elements:
SETTING. We know when and where the ac-
tion is taking place, and the main players.
NEWS AND/OR ACTION. New develop-
ments occur, new information is revealed.
We learn something about our characters and
their situations that we a) didn’t know before | 45
Set the
A TYPICAL scene is ren-
dered in stages. Here’s a checklist:
Setting is typically pro-
vided at the beginning stage.
Explanation: If you’ve handled
setting, you’re ready to proceed
with the rest of the scene. Journal-
ists must get the “who, what,
where, when” into their first para-
graph. You can do everything but
the “what” in a line or two—the
“what” is the action of the scene.
Tip: Establish basic info
quickly, preferably in the midst of
the action. You might start with
dialogue, as in: “ ‘Carrie, could
you help me lift this table?’ my
sister asked me the next day,
when she decided to leave her
husband without even a note.”
News, action and conflict
come in the middle.
Explanation: News and action
overlap—sometimes the action is
one character’s decision to reveal
crucial new information—and
conflict is necessary regardless of
what happens.
Tip: This is where you deliver
the “meat”—the significant action
or information that ups the stakes
for our hero. Get right to the
interesting stuff. Don’t “save” it.
The setup comes at the
end of the scene.
Explanation: Once you’ve
given us a bit of a cliffhanger with
your setup, you’re “out.”
Tip: Ask yourself: What new
information have I given? Have I
increased the suspense/stakes?
Writing your way through a scene
46 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
and b) are interested in knowing.
CONFLICT. Te desires of the main char-
acter(s) are being thwarted in some way.
SETUP. Te closing of the scene leaves us a
little smarter but still wanting more.
The scene at work
Scenes have a beginning, middle and end.
Tey “show” us events in real time, like a mov-
ie. In fact, one of the best writing classes I ever
took was screenwriting. We had to frst “map”
our stories on index cards. Each card provided
the setting, time and characters involved and
a sentence or two about what happened. Tere
was no room for beautiful descriptions to set
emotional tone, or long ramblings of the main
character. Tat stuf was called narration. It
wasn’t a scene, because nothing was happen-
ing. If you couldn’t flm it, you couldn’t write
it. A scene was like an equation:
Scene = setting + characters + action we want
to see.
Te “action we want to see” was critical.
You could have two best friends gossiping at a
café all day, but will anyone hang in there for
the whole conversation? No. We viewers—and
readers—want the action. Tat’s why the index
cards were so helpful. If you couldn’t stay
interested in one or two sentences of action,
there was little point in writing it.
Does this mean that, for us fction writ-
ers, action is king and narration is now a bad
word? Should we now give up all our previ-
ous ways of coaxing out stories in favor of the
index card? No. I have never started a story
using index cards, because usually I enter a
story with a character’s voice, and I keep writ-
ing to fnd out his or her story. But the key
word is “story.” Story is built on scenes, which
contain compelling action. Eventually, no mat-
ter how much you love a character’s poignant
childhood memories or brilliant philosophy of
life, you will have to decide whether that great
writing really advances the story.
I use the index cards when I’m stuck on
an in-progress story. Recently, I used them
to map a story that had some real lulls and a
slow start. I’d suspected this but had sent it out
anyway. An editor echoed my suspicions and
gave me another chance. (You’ll see what I did
in the sidebar on page 47.)
Scene ingredients
Let’s elaborate a bit more on what a scene
should give us:
SETTING. Give us basic info about where we
are, when the action’s taking place in relation
to earlier events, and who’s taking part.
NEWS. Deliver new information we care
about. For example, a character might reveal a
secret: “Aunt Tilly had dozens of lovers; didn’t
you know?”
ACTION. Advance the action in meaningful
ways. Why don’t we follow a character through
an entire workday? Because most work is
boring. Tat’s why we’re paid to do it. If we see
a character at work, it should be because he’s
stealing fles, has overheard something, gotten
fred, etc. Give us only the critical moments.
CONFLICT. Keep raising the stakes of the
main confict. I make this a separate point to
emphasize that scenes shouldn’t just be circus
acts, where the stunts become increasingly
death-defying but don’t build to a climax. Ac-
tion can’t be all fash and no build. Confict is
driven by characters’ desires. It is the fam-
mable glue that holds everything together and
simultaneously threatens to blow it apart. Each
AS A spin-off from my discussion of
“scene ingredients” in the main article,
write a scene using the prompts below in
20 minutes. Feel free to change or add in
your own details.
Setting. Night at a gas station in char-
acter’s hometown, to which he has just
returned after a long absence. (What has
he been doing? Why did he leave?)
News/action. A woman pulls up at the
opposite pump. He thinks he recognizes
her but can’t tell in the dark; she was his
first love in high school, and he never
really got over her. (What does she look
like? How has she changed? Is she alone?)
Conflict. He wants to talk to her but
wonders how she’ll react. (Why? How is
he different now, in terms of his past or
how he looks, etc.?)
Setup. They have a conversation and
she tells him something he didn’t expect
to hear.
Outcome. Starting from scratch, with
no particular attachment to these charac-
ters, you should be able to create a level
of tension that keeps you—and your read-
scene should advance the confict by making
things tougher on the characters so we keep
wondering how they’re going to get through it.
Tis is true for the most intimate love story as
well as the scariest action tale.
SETUP. Leave us knowing and wanting more
(except afer the story’s climax, where readers
hope to be both surprised by the ending and
yet satisfed, happy ending or not). Te mean-
ingful action and new information delivered
in every scene should allow us to know the
characters better and care about what happens
to them next.
Common problems with scenes
We’ve covered what scenes should do, so
let’s talk about what they should not do:
MEANDER. In real life, events ofen don’t
add up and people seem to talk aimlessly. But
scenes always have a purpose. For example,
dialogue isn’t just people talking. Tere’s a
nonverbal level that also reveals character mo-
tivation and confict. What are people doing
as they talk? What are the internal reactions of
characters, depending on whose point of view
the scene is written in? If your characters really
are just chatting about the weather, then there’s
no confict and no interest. Cut that scene.
EDUCATE. Sometimes we try to be teach-
ers or travel guides rather than storytellers. A
character drives through exhaustively de-
scribed scenery or fxes a car for several pages,
yet this talent doesn’t help or hurt him. Infor-
mation for information’s sake should be cut.
FAKE IT. Ofen, we write what looks like a
scene when summary would do just as well.
Let’s say our character is picking up beer at a
store. Unless he gets carjacked or sees a well-
known judge with a woman who isn’t his wife,
etc., we don’t need to “see” the beer run; it can
just be mentioned, if necessary, when getting
us into the next important scene: “Tat night
he stopped for beer on the way to Lola’s house.
He was only fve minutes late, but she was
already gone. Why hadn’t she waited for him?”
Now we’ve got something to work with.
I’ve edited a lot of scenes, and understand-
ing just what a scene should do is part of the
challenge. Te process I’ve described has
helped me. I hope it helps you, too.
Quinn Dalton
A resident of Greensboro, N.C., Quinn Dalton is the author
of a novel, High Strung, and two story collections, Bulletproof
Girl and Stories From the Afterlife. Her work has appeared in
a number of anthologies. Web:
COMPELLING scenes put you right in the
action—where readers want to be. Compare these
two opening passages and decide which one holds
your attention better.
Passage #1
Sometimes you can point to one event—
a job interview, a car breaking down—that
pushed your life in another direction, for bet-
ter or worse. In the case of Aideen, it was
running into Mike in the fall of 1982 at
Michigan State. It came down to a decision
between two postgame parties, her room-
mate convincing her to go to one instead of
the other. Maybe Mike and Aideen would
have met up another way, but maybe any
other meeting would not have had the
same impact.
I remember Aideen wondered about that
once, one night after we had closed the Beer
Mart and Mike was home putting the kids
to bed.
Passage #2
I met Aideen on my first night working
at Mike’s Beer Mart. Mike was her husband.
I was in my last year of an education major
at the extension campus, and I’d gone a dif-
ferent way home from classes one day and
saw the place after he’d just opened, and
when I stopped in, he asked me if I could
start that night.
A freak October storm had iced every-
thing over. I was stocking Schlitz when
Aideen pulled into the Beer Mart to say good
night. Their three kids were in back, the lit-
tlest in her car seat. The boys were strapped in
on either side, wearing matching spaceship-
dotted pajamas. “He just started,” Mike said.
In roughly the same number of words, a lot
more work gets done in Passage #2. We know more
about the characters and their current situation. In
Passage #1, we don’t even know the sex of the nar-
rator or his relationship to Mike and Aideen.
Compelling scenes
48 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Paola Corso
hen asked what
their short story is
about, writers ofen
recite a chronology
of events because they
equate plot with theme.
But it’s not the who, what,
where and when but the
why that gives meaning and elevates your writ-
ing to a thematic level. Finding the signifcance
behind what happens in a story will give it
dimension and resonance.
So how do you take a thematic abstrac-
tion and make it accessible to readers with-
out spelling out too much or leaving them
clueless? Te key is to incorporate ideas
and attitudes so they’re organic to the story
rather than imposed. No reader wants to feel
an author is preaching to her with all the an-
swers. What we can do, however, is raise
the right questions in our stories. As play-
wright Friedrich Durrenmatt once said, “A
writer doesn’t solve problems. He allows them
to emerge.”
Tus, the goal is to illustrate theme through
literary devices rather than belt out a thesis
statement. Besides, if we’d rather convey our
ideas using a direct approach, we can write
an essay. We’ve got to show, not tell. Write
with a direction, not an agenda. In doing so,
you will allow theme to evolve out of the story
elements—the characters, confict, setting, im-
ages, dialogue, etc.—so that it’s earned rather
than contrived.
Here are some steps to help you incorpo-
rate theme into your story so that it will be
thought-provoking as well as register an
emotional impact. And if you do your job well,
not only will readers be engaged in your story,
they’ll go back and reread it to contemplate its
deeper meaning.
Put some meat on your theme by
feshing out your characters. Con-
vey your ideas and pose your ques-
tions through the names you give them and
physical appearance, what they wear or how
they move.
For example, Sherwood Anderson’s story
“Hands” explores the salvation of touch
and features what he called “grotesques,” or
psychologically isolated people, such as a
schoolteacher with the frst name Wing who
touches his students with his futtering,
bird-like “nervous little hands.” Tis is mis-
understood as being erotic. He’s run out of
town and lives alone, afraid to get close to
people for fear his expressive hands will
betray him again.
can be illuminated through dialogue.
Not just what is said, but how it’s
said. And let it come out of the pre-
dicament rather than put words in your char-
acter’s mouth. Tis way dialogue will sound
natural, not like an author’s message over a
Take the theme of judgment and language
in Tobias Wolf’s story “Bullet in the Brain,”
which is set in a long bank line minutes
before closing, where a harsh book critic
overhears “stupid conversations.” Wolf uses
dialogue to reinforce the violence of language.
Many of the quotes have critical adjectives
such as “Damned unfair” and “Unforgivable,”
or ironic statements such as “How nice” or
Give your story
“Oh, bravo”—until a man with a pistol tells
everyone to “Keep your big mouth shut.”
Despite the warning, the critic can’t help
heckling the robber—who’s holding him at
gunpoint—with his acerbic wit, as if he were
critiquing a book or flm, and he is shot to
death. Each line of dialogue is like a bullet
fred from someone’s mouth before a real one
is fred from a gun.

way to illustrate theme is to give your
characters’ ideas and attitudes space
to breathe. Create a setting, mood or atmo-
sphere that’s a good home for the theme you
wish to explore.
One of the stories in my book Giovanna’s 86
Circles, which examines the theme of fnding
the magic in everyday life, is set in a hospital
laundry with a morning low of 99 degrees. I
describe how blinding clouds of heat travel
from the dryers, how workers sweat so much
they wrap cold rags around their heads to
keep from fainting. Not only did I choose this
setting because I worked in such a laundry
and experienced the heat; it’s also a good place
for a worker to imagine she sees something
extraordinary through the veil of steam, since
the story explores the necessity of dreams to
relieve stress at work.
Your characters’ struggle can raise
thematic questions. What is the signif-
cance of what they want? What actions
do they take to fulfll their desires? What ob-
stacles are in their way? How do they react to
these obstacles?
Consider Mary Hood’s short story “How
Avram Dumitrescu
50 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Far She Went.” Te title conveys the signif-
cance of just how far a granddaughter and
her grandmother’s relationship goes from
misunderstanding and hatred in the begin-
ning to the love and respect they have for
each other at the end. It also suggests what
lengths they must go to get there. Not only
is this story a superb example of the domino
efect, with one action creating a reaction
that causes another action, and so on, until
they escalate into a dramatic fnish; each con-
fict is also a point on the map that charts the
thematic distance traveled in order for these
two to get close.
symbolic object isn’t just an object in
a story that is enriched with theme. It
represents something larger than itself and is a
shortcut to meaning.
Tere’s a crucial moment in Mary Robison’s
story “Yours” about coping with death when a
married couple is carving Halloween pump-
kins. Te jack-o’-lantern faces, along with the
comparison made between hers and his, reveal
character and how one spouse accepts she will
soon die while the other is flled with anger
and self-hatred.
BASED ACTIONS. What your characters
do can help activate theme. Tey can
be literal actions or symbolic actions,
subtle or grand, that put your theme in motion
as well as your characters.
Dino Buzzati’s story “Te Falling Girl”
comes to mind. It illustrates that life is a
journey by having a girl take the plunge from
the top of a skyscraper. Te building is like
a time line, and the foors she passes on her
descent are windows for viewing the process
of aging.
TO WORK. Perhaps the handiest
way to add a thematic layer to your
story is to give your characters some
time to refect on all of the points I’ve men-
tioned earlier. Give them an internal life.
Let them ponder who they are, what’s been
said, what’s the problem, where they are,
and what they’ve done. Of course, this isn’t
a mental billboard that fashes in their mind
with a generic theme summed up as if it
were inside a fortune cookie. Tese are epiph-
anies that are specifc to your characters, dis-
coveries with thematic resonance that they
and only they can make in the context of
their circumstances.
Paola Corso
The Montserrat Review named Paola Corso’s story collection
Giovanna’s 86 Circles one of the best of 2005. Her latest
book is Catina’s Haircut. Web:
One of the short stories in my
book Giovanna’s 86 Circles,
which explores the theme of find-
ing the magic in everyday life, is
set in a steamy hospital laundry.
My first paragraph was descrip-
tive but didn’t mine the signifi-
cance of the setting as a place to
dream. Here’s what I started with:
The morning low was
ninety-two degrees, but the
temperature in the hospital
laundry room started to
rise as soon as steam
escaped from the open lids
of washers and spread
when the wet loads were
carried over to the dryers.
I expanded the setting and
created a place where a worker
could use her imagination, since
the story explores the necessity of
dreams to relieve stress at work.
Here’s what I added:
The laundry room had
no ceiling or floors, noth-
ing ahead of me and noth-
ing behind. All I saw were
the feet I stood on, laced up
in my new Converses for
gym class, and the cloud
that kept passing through. I
imagined I was in the heav-
ens, standing on the wing
of an airplane because I
wanted to feel the breeze
from being in flight, to fly
away from the rows of dry-
ers, each one a rotating cir-
cle of heat. As if one
burning sun in this world
wasn’t enough.
Passage yields a deeper meaning
By Bret Anthony Johnston
ne of the biggest mis-
takes my fction-writ-
ing students make is to
turn out fawless char-
acters. Tey give them
perfect marriages, great
looks, money, brains
and exquisite taste in
wine, literature and art. Tey think this makes
their characters lovable. Quite the opposite.
Readers resist and retreat from such pro-
tagonists. Characters should be likeable, yes,
but perfect? No. To be fully developed, char-
acters need to be fawed. Ironically, from the
point of view of the reader, perfect characters
are the ones with all the imperfections because
we can relate to them. Good writers under-
stand this.
Here are some steps to help you create
fawed characters readers will love.
VULNERABILITIES. Tis is of the utmost
importance. Your focus can be on
physical or emotional vulnerability,
but it has to be intimately tied to the character.
What makes her sad, embarrasses her? What
frightens her, what does she regret? What mi-
nor or major trespasses has she committed?
Tink of Emma Bovary. We empathize
with her not just because of her mistakes, but
because of how heavily those mistakes weigh
on her, how her constant grappling with them
leaves her so vulnerable.
WANTS. What’s at stake for the pro-
tagonist in your narrative? What does
he stand to gain or lose by the story’s
end? Te goal or the object of desire—and for
that matter, whether or not the goal is even
achieved—is markedly less important than
how desperately the character wants it. Once
your characters have tangible, understandable
desires, the reader will happily spend hours
and pages with them.
In my short story “Te Widow,” the main
character is a middle-aged widow who just
learned that she has terminal cancer. For the
frst 10 failed drafs of the story, I thought she
wanted to recover and that the story wouldn’t
work. I thought it was another failed narrative.
Finally I realized I had her desire all wrong:
She didn’t want to recover; she wanted to die
so that she wouldn’t have to live without her
husband. Once I knew that what she most
wanted was to spend the afernoon arranging
her funeral, the story wrote itself.
It’s important to make the desire as specifc
as possible. Believe it or not, a character who
wants world peace is far less compelling than
one who craves a gourmet dinner.
Afer you fgure out what the character
wants, emphasize it throughout the story. From
the frst line, readers should feel the charac-
ter’s desire coloring every action, description, | 51
52 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
memory and conversation. Te more that char-
acters want something, the more we like them.
OR HER WEAKNESS. One way for the
character’s faw to come through is in
dialogue. Have him or her describe
another character or situation. Te trick is to
realize the reader always learns more about the
character ofering the description than about
the character (or object) being described.
For example, of the countless aspects to fo-
cus on while describing a car, why does a char-
acter focus on a broken CD player? What does
that tell us about the character? Tat music is
important to her, that she still holds a grudge
against the person who broke the stereo, that
she focuses on the negative? Any or all of
these might apply, but we, as writers, have to
understand that although we’ve only learned
one thing about the car, the description stands
to reveal many things about the character.
Tere’s a telling moment in Te Great
Gatsby when Nick Carraway struggles as he
tries to describe Daisy Buchanan’s voice. Fi-
nally Gatsby says, “Her voice is full of money.”
In just a few words, Fitzgerald reveals so much
about both speakers—Gatsby’s experience and
confdence along with his desire for Daisy,
which makes him vulnerable; Nick’s inno-
cence, insecurity and lack of social standing.
of the writer is to become her charac-
ters. Your goal falls more in line with
that of a method actor than that of a
reporter, so you have to strive to see the world
through your main characters’ eyes. What de-
tails and events will your character focus on?
Many authors get into serious trouble by
writing as an author, instead of writing as a
character. Your job is to inhabit your charac-
ters’ lives, not report on them. Lose the burden
of being clever or lyrical in your writing—un-
less your character has a clever outlook or a
lyrical voice—and check all of your beliefs and
desires at your writing-room door.
with the previous steps, will ultimately
reveal your character’s essence, and
once we know who your character is, we’ll love
her. Start a proverbial clock ticking backward
at the beginning of every story, and put your
main character in the tightest spot you can
HERE ARE two exercises to help you cre-
ate deeper, more affecting characters:
ONE As part of your prewriting regi-
men, construct a character sketch with the
following interview questions. The goal
is to mine your imagination. Don’t worry
about your prose. Short, fragmented an-
swers are fine, but if you find your charac-
ter is given to long-winded ramblings, let
her ramble.
• What does your character most want?
(For this answer, try to be as concrete as
possible. Give your character a tangible
desire—such as a new pair of earrings
or a new house or a child—as opposed
to more abstract ambitions such as love,
world peace or racial equality.)
• What is in your character’s wallet/purse
that others would be surprised to find?
• What excites your character?
• What (or whom) has your character lost?
What does she stand to lose?
• What is your character’s favorite curse
word? (Though it need not be an actual
curse word; it would be revealing to
learn a character’s favorite “bad” word
is “drat,” or “shoot” or “good grief.”)
• What is your character most proud of?
• What does your character most regret?
Once you’ve completed these questions,
reread your answers through this lens: Your
character has just lied to you. Of the previ-
ous answers, which one did your character
lie about, and why? What, finally, is the
truthful answer to the question?
TWO Make a list of five to 10 habits you
don’t approve of, or which many people
don’t approve of. For example, your list
might include: stealing, heavy drinking,
overeating, lying, bigotry, adultery, etc.
Once you have your list, pick a few of
the traits and apply them to your current
character, or create a character who em-
bodies them. The goal is twofold: to make
your character likeable by focusing on his
or her “shortcomings,” and to write without
judging your characters.
imagine. Understand that we know characters
most deeply through their actions, so what the
character fnally does (or doesn’t do) in the
story will show us who she is.
Returning to Step 2, show the reader to
what lengths your character is willing to go to
achieve her desire. Put a loaf of bread in front
of an impoverished character. Does she walk
away afer the shopkeeper says he doesn’t give
handouts, or does she steal it? Again, the result
of the action is far less important than the ac-
tion. What matters is how the action relates to
what we already know about the character.
Tink of that heartbreaking moment in Ken
Kesey’s nearly perfect novel One Flew Over the
Cuckoo’s Nest when McMurphy sits beside the
unlocked hospital window and refuses to leave.
Remember, the only thing this man wanted
from the moment he walked onto the ward is
to leave, and now, with absolute freedom just
outside the window and certain destruction
inside, he chooses to stay. Action, or lack of
action, ultimately defnes your characters.
In every story, try to put so much pressure
on your characters that they have no choice
except to take some kind of action.
Tese steps will help you fully develop the
people in your fction and make them memo-
rable, because they are fawed. In the end, they
will win over your readers’ hearts and minds.
Bret Anthony Johnston
Bret Anthony Johnston, director of creative writing at Harvard,
is author of Corpus Christi: Stories and editor of Naming the
World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. In 2006,
he received a National Book Award honor for writers under
35. Web:
If you’re like me, you would love to burst the
bubble of Shay Jordan’s perfect world.
Shay Jordan had been voted Prom Queen,
twice. She wondered if there was a place for
this on grad school applications. She hoped so.
The crowns sat on her bookshelf, next to the
silver frames showcasing a photo from each
dance, and she liked to point them out when a
new sorority sister came into her room. She
was surprised by how many girls thought Craig
looked like Tom Cruise; there was a resem-
blance, but Tom Cruise was so short, and Craig
had played varsity basketball every year of high
school. They’d been dating for four years—
they’d met at Homecoming their first year of
high school, when she was a cheerleader—and
they would get married after graduation.
She was going into med school while he’d
go on for his MBA. Probably Harvard, for both.
The father of one of Craig’s fraternity brothers
was Dean of Admissions, so things looked
promising. Sometimes she indulged herself and
tested out the title. She’d say, “Pleased to meet
you. I’m Dr. Shay Jordan.”
In the second draft, a vulnerable Shay emerges,
one you can empathize with.

Shay Jordan hated her name, and she
dreaded writing it on her grad school applica-
tions. She envied the Janes and Debras of the
world. Those seemed names that you could
grow into, and transcend out of. With a name
like Mary, you could surprise someone.
With her grades, though, getting accepted
to grad school would be the biggest surprise of
her life. It wasn’t that she disliked learning, she
just didn’t like school. She didn’t like her soror-
ity, which she only joined on behest of her
mother, who’d been a member centuries before,
and she didn’t like walking to class with her
boyfriend. (Everyone called her boyfriend T.C.
because he looked like Tom Cruise; unfortu-
nately, Shay had never found the actor attrac-
tive.) She’d rather stay home with a book and a
pint of ice cream than listen to her blowhard
professors hold forth on why Emma Bovary
had her affair. Because she was bored. Like me!,
Shay had written on her mid-term. Then,
because she knew her professor wouldn’t get it,
she stopped attending that class. She hoped
he’d fail her, because the last thing she wanted
was two more years of people telling her what
to think.
She wanted to write her own novels, craft
fictional stories of lives more interesting than
hers. She wanted to dream up women who
would puzzle professors for centuries. ... On
her next grad school application, she listed her
name as Emma Woolf.
Is your character’s life too good to be true? | 53
54 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Set the
By Dan Gleason
ake out all the parts that
people don’t like to read,”
the late, great Kurt Von-
negut advised us years ago
when we were his students.
“Get people turning the
pages fast ... but know
where, when and how to
slow down for the curves.”
Tis great American novelist ofered this
wonderful advice when he was teaching at
the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop
more than 30 years ago and I was a student
in his class. He was talking about pacing and
how essential it is to good writing, especially
in fction.
About four years later, Random House
asked me to cut a manuscript of mine from
500-plus pages down to about 330 pages, for
reasons of pricing. I was mifed at frst, but I
did the work, and realized when I was fnished
that my cutting had produced a far better book
than the longer version. Te editor said it was
“paced better,” which may have been only the
second time I’d heard about pacing.
Te following steps may help improve your
understanding of pacing and how to put it to
work in your own fction. Be aware that pac-
ing your fction may require adding copy in
the right places—the “slowing down for the
curves” part—or, going the other way—step-
ping on the accelerator.
PACE. Tink about this in relation to
the piece of fction you are working on. As
you’re directing your movie, your camera pans
over the city of Los Angeles. You are showing
the viewer (reader) a lot of detail in a short
time—millions of people in one shot that lasts
a few seconds.
Similarly, in his novel Blind Date, a collec-
tion of episodes in the life of Russian photog-
rapher George Levanter, Jerzy Kosinski also
paces quickly—covers a lot of detail quickly
—in setting a scene to take place in a camp
for teenagers:
Located deep in the country on the bank of a
river and surrounded by dense forest, the camp
gave teenagers a respite from the cities so recently
ravaged by war. ... During the five-hour journey,
Levanter and Oscar, the boy who had rescued his
things, became friends. Oscar was a year older
than Levanter and about four inches taller. ... He
was pleased that he was assigned to the same
twenty-bed bunkhouse as his new friend.
panning the long view of Los An-
geles, you need to home in on a focal point.
Your camera may frst pan over a particular
neighborhood, and then focus on one house
(to provide more detailing). You then may
have to slow it down even more as you have
the camera look into a window of a house for
a tight shot of a man sitting at a breakfast table
at 7 a.m. eating Cheerios and drinking straight
whiskey. Ten you may “iris in” (a movie term
for an extreme close-up) on his trembling
hand. Te pace is slowed.
A page or so further into Blind Date, Kosin-
ski must also slow the pace down to provide
details of an important scene:
PACE | 55
One day Levanter and Oscar strolled past a tall,
good-looking girl with blond hair pulled back in a
single braid. Oscar remarked that she could be an
ideal blind date, and if he encountered her walking
alone in the city at night, he would break her eye.
Breaking the eye was what he called rape, he
explained. Noting Levanter’s surprise, he admitted
that he had been raping girls and women for three
or four years, and by now had raped several dozen.
Kosinski and great writers like him know
when they need to move over the action
quickly, and when they must slow down. But
they slow down only when they have scenes
and details that they know will captivate the
reader while revealing important details.
Let’s say that you have someone run-
ning, being pursued, and he runs into
his old neighborhood, where he hasn’t been
since he was a teenager. You may want to show
some of the scenery to keep the scene vivid,
but remember that things are moving fast.
Read the passage below and then, on your
own, before you read my second example,
rewrite the passage to pace it better.
As the young man was pursued at full speed,
he found himself in his old neighborhood, and a
YOU CAN learn more about the art
of pacing by taking a story of your own
and pacing part of it differently. Look for
a revealing detail that you may not have
developed to its full potential, or material
that can be developed into a revealing
scene. Rewrite with the newly developed
material and then compare the old and
new versions. You’ve now slowed down
the reader, and you need to decide if it
is worth it.
Avram Dumitrescu
56 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
lot of thoughts came back to him. He noticed
the candy store where he used to love to hang
out and the swing where he had got his first
kiss when he was nine years old on a warm
summer evening. He rounded the corner and
climbed over old man Wilburn’s picket fence,
which had never been painted, and then he
cut through a yard cluttered with tin cans
and old lawnmower parts that barely had any
grass on it.
Now take a look at my revised example of
this passage:
As the young man was being pursued at
full speed, he found himself in his old neighbor-
hood. He raced across the street past his favorite
candy store, dodged the swing where he’d gotten
his first kiss, then climbed over old man Wil-
burn’s unpainted fence and through a scruffy, clut-
tered yard.
Keep in mind that you have someone
being chased and the action should be moving
fast to match that stepped-up pace. You do
not have the luxury of stopping and going into
long descriptions.
HERE IS a scene from my
short story “A Friendly Game of
Pool.” Two men are in a pool-
room. One of them, a con man
named Ace, has set up a game
with a roughneck pool hustler
named Tiny, who is anything but.
Ace knows he can’t beat Tiny, but
he’s discovered that Tiny lets his
suckers win the first few games to
lure them into a big bet. Ace, who
only wants enough money to get
out of town, shows up in a suit
and tie to create the illusion of a
man with a lot of money to lose.
In the first draft, I paced it too
fast. It needed more details to
show an intense and very impor-
tant scene and more tension.
Instead of paying off
after each game, Tiny had
explained, house rules
required that the money
stayed on the rail until one
man either won it all or lost
it all. Ace was stunned.
Tiny suggested they play
best of five for a grand.
Ace had no choice but to
say yes.
He told Tiny he had to
make a phone call. Tiny
told him there was a pay
phone on the wall, and
eyed the money on the rail
as Ace edged closer to the
stack of bills. Ace said, “I’m
hungry. I can’t play on an
empty stomach.” He took
another step toward the
bills. Tiny moved a step
closer as he did. He told
Ace that they had food at
the counter and a pay
phone on the wall.
Feeling boxed in and
unsure what to do, Ace
said, “I’ll beat your butt,
then I’ll get something to
eat. But I get to break.”
Ace leaned over the
table, eyed the rack, but
instead of breaking, he let
the cue stick fly at Tiny’s
head and in one motion
grabbed the money off the
rail and ran out the door.
Tiny gave chase, but
Ace outran him after four
or five blocks. He finally
made it to the bus station
and caught the first thing
I added several details, includ-
ing an exchange of dialogue:
“What say we play best
of five for a thousand dol-
lars?” Tiny said.
Ace paused and tried to
think of a way to get the
money. It was about mid-
way between him and Tiny
and there was a clear path
to the open door, some
twenty yards away.
Ace told Tiny he
needed to make a phone
call and took a step toward
the money. Tiny took a step
toward the money from the
other side and said, “Pay
phone right here on the
wall. I got change.”
Ace took another step
toward the money and told
Tiny he needed to get
something to eat. Tiny, in
turn, stepped closer to the
money and said, “Got chili
dogs right up front.”
It was here I stretched the
scene out by describing the sweat
running down into Ace’s collar
to the knot in his throat, and
when it gets really quiet, I add a
squeaky fan that sounds louder
and louder as Ace wonders how
he is going to get the money and
get out of there. I show details
of the scene where Tiny chases
Ace while Ace makes several
turns down side streets and ducks
into alleys before he finally loses
the big fellow, finds the bus sta-
tion, and gets a ticket on the first
thing leaving.
2 hustlers hustling each other | 57
DETAILS. Few writers were better at
vividly describing people and scenes
than Raymond Chandler in the classic
detective novels he wrote a half-century ago.
Chandler was a master at detailing his world
through the ever-observant eyes of his famous
shamus, Philip Marlowe. But Chandler knew
when the action allowed him to provide those
details. For example, from Te Long Goodbye:
At eleven o’clock I was sitting in the third booth
on the right-hand side as you go in from the din-
ing-room annex. I had my back against the wall
and I could see anyone who came in or went out. It
was a clear morning, no smog, no high fog even,
and the sun dazzled the surface of the swimming
pool which began just outside the plateglass wall of
the dining room ...
Marlowe is sitting there waiting for a client,
and it allows the author to do a little dance
and show us how observant Marlowe is, and at
the same time lets Chandler do what he did so
well, which was to provide vivid descriptions.
SENTIAL. Chandler didn’t just describe
things for the sake of description.
Te details he added lent themselves to
the action and the shaping of characters who
were essential to the story. Here is another
example from that same chapter, in that same
dining room:
... and right then a dream walked in. ... She was
slim and quite tall in a white linen tailormade with
a black and white polka-dotted scarf around her
throat. Her hair was the pale gold of a fairy prin-
cess. There was a small hat on it into which the
pale gold hair nestled like a bird in its nest. Her
eyes were cornflower blue, a rare color, and the
lashes were long and almost too pale.
It was necessary for Marlowe to describe the
woman above in great detail because she was
going to be a key character in the story; oth-
erwise, why bother? Characters who are little
more than window dressing require only a few
details, such as “a tall, angular man smoking a
fat cigar.”
YOUR DETAILS. Vonnegut also warned
us not to slow down the pace to pro-
vide our readers with grocery lists of
descriptions. “If you do that,” he said, “those
grocery lists better be awfully good, to stop
the whole story to tell us.” He said we’d be bet-
ter of trying to work in details as we moved
the story along. Rather than say a woman is
wearing a plumed hat and white gloves, have
the wind blow the hat of her head, or have
her remove the white gloves as part of the
moving action.
Let’s go back to Chandler again in the
opening scene of Te Long Goodbye. Trough
Marlowe, Chandler is introducing a character
at the same time that he is setting the stage
for confict.
The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lonnex he
was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside
the terrace of The Dancers. ... He had a young-
looking face but his hair was bone white. You could
tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline,
but otherwise he looked like any other nice young
guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too
much money in a joint that exists for that purpose
and for no other.
Te girl sitting in the car next to the drunk
says, “I have a wonderful idea, darling. Why
don’t we just take a cab to your place and get
your convertible out. It’s such a nice wonderful
night for a run up the coast ...”
The white-haired lad said politely, “Awfully
sorry, but I don’t have it any more. I was compelled
to sell it.” From his voice and articulation, you
wouldn’t have known he had anything stronger
than orange juice to drink ... “For eating money.”
Chandler describes the character while
moving the story along. Terry Lennox’s dia-
logue tells us a lot about what kind of fellow he
is, but also what condition his life is in, which
sets up confict.
So, as Vonnegut and Chandler would agree,
you can put your foot on the pedal and speed
up, or slow down for the curves. Tat is what
he meant when he said the secret to good writ-
ing was to “take out all the parts people don’t
like to read” and get the readers “turning the
pages fast,” but also to know where, when and
how to slow down.
Dan Gleason
A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Dan
Gleason of Tucson, Ariz., regularly publishes fiction and non-
fiction in national magazines.
58 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet
any stories fail to
capture the reader’s
interest even though
they have a clear
point of view, well-
rounded characters
and an interesting
plot. What’s miss-
ing? One key element writers ofen overlook is
setting. Tey treat it merely as backdrop.
Actually, setting can be so much more efec-
tive if it is thought of as a literary Leatherman,
a multipurpose tool. When used properly,
setting serves the following fve functions that
will help you create engaging fction.
Establishes verisimilitude
Every time you begin a story, you open a
doorway into a new world. If you want read-
ers to step through that entryway, then you
must make that world believable. Ofen, even
a single, well-thought-out detail can convince
readers that a fctional setting is real.
For example, to encourage our readers to
enter the fctional Clement County in Ken-
tucky, we began “Slave Wall” (Ellery Queen
Mystery Magazine, July 2000) by describing the
protagonist crossing a rickety one-lane covered
bridge typical of rural Kentucky, which led
into a world where time hadn’t caught up to
the 20th century. Tis detail also helped our
readers cross over from their reality to ours.
Another technique for bringing audiences
into an actual location, for instance, is to pick
just one recognizable landmark. Have you
ever noticed how many movies and TV shows
open with an establishing shot of the Golden
Gate Bridge, the Eifel Tower or Niagara Falls?
While the establishing shot is primarily visual,
an efective setting in fction—regardless of
where it appears—appeals to other senses and
grounds readers in the familiar. Here are some
examples of details that evoke a place:
SMELL. Burning rubber at the scene of an
accident or the pungent odor of disinfectant
that permeates a hospital.
SOUND. Te din of the crowd at a sporting
event or the irritating drip of a leaky faucet in
a cold-water fat.
TASTE. Te acrid taste of smoke in a burn-
ing building.
TOUCH. Te feel of a sof leather sofa in a
posh apartment.
PHYSIOLOGY. Te bone-chilling cold of a
playof game in Green Bay, Wis., or the gut-
wrenching hef of salt-water-drenched cargo
on the docks.
Te more senses you appeal to in your set-
ting, the more you draw your reader into your
story. Note how William Faulkner opens his
short story “Barn Burning”:
The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s
court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy,
crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded
room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from
where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-
packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin
cans whose labels his stomach read ...
Without the luxury of a recognizable real
setting, Faulkner must use a spate of sensory
details to make his post-Civil War general
store believable. Te nail keg and tin cans ap-
peal to sight, the cheese to smell, and the cans’
shapes to the kinesthetic sense. Te net result
is verisimilitude, convincing the audience of
the reality of the situation.
Location, location,
Creates mood and atmosphere
When you invite people into your home,
you try to create a dominant impression of the
way you live. Proper use of setting can do the
same for you as a writer. Like a good decorator,
you want to control your readers’ responses as
they enter your house of fction.
A proper use of atmosphere suggests to
readers how they should react to fction. It
hints at whether the work is to be taken seri-
ously or comically, realistically or romantically.
Efective writers use it to play upon their read-
ers’ emotions.
One of the great masters of mood is Edgar
Allan Poe. Note how the opening lines of “Te
Fall of the House of Usher” establish a feeling
of foreboding:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless
day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds
hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been
passing alone on horseback, through a singularly
dreary tract of country; and at length found myself,
as the shades of the evening drew on, within view
of the melancholy House of Usher.
How does Poe achieve this eerie efect?
Basically by not appealing to the senses. First,
his narrator can see little (it’s a cloudy day) and
hear nothing (“soundless”). Te narrator has
no companion and, with the absence of sense
impressions, is entirely alone. Instead of de-
scribing the sky, the narrator points out that he
is below the “heavens” (by suggestion, hell is
also below the heavens). Poe stresses it is also
at the end of the cycle of day (late afernoon)
and the cycle of the seasons (fall). Nothing is
described as growing—i.e., death is all around.
Te audience’s response is conditioned to be
much like the narrator’s—life is “oppressive”
and “dreary.” Tis is not a setting where you
would expect something funny to happen.
Shows character traits
Te minute you enter a home, you form
an impression of its occupant. What kind of
person occupies a living room littered with
fast-food cartons, clothes draped over chairs
and sofas, newspapers and magazines strewn
across the threadbare rug? Maybe, instead,
it’s a well-dusted drawing room with every oil
painting hanging straight, fresh-cut fowers
spilling out of crystal vases, and objets d’art
competing for attention. Is the initial impres-
sion the same?
Suppose you want to create two teenage
sisters who are very diferent. You could start
with a description of their bedrooms. In the
dim light of one, you detail walls covered with
Marilyn Manson posters and the cacopho-
nous blare of a boom box. In the other room,
you have sunlight streaming in, illuminating
a poster of Amy Grant, a single cross and a
collection of candles. Notice that even though
neither sister has yet appeared and you have
not made any declarative statement about
them, your reader still has a pretty clear idea
about their contrasting natures.
Setting suggests a great deal about char-
acters’ personalities and goals. It becomes
particularly important to characterization
when you tell your story in the frst person.
Te things you choose to have your narrator
notice in the setting ofen let your reader know
a lot more about the character than he knows
about himself.
A classic example of this self-characteriza-
tion through select detail is found in Ralph
Ellison’s story “Battle Royale,” which became
the frst chapter of Invisible Man. In it, Ellison’s
naive high school senior is invited to a smoker
thrown by Greenwood’s white movers and
shakers. To emphasize the African-American
teenager’s lack of awareness—the crucial
point of his character—Ellison has him ofen
describe the scene’s characters and events not
in clear focus but as hazy. Te ballroom is
“foggy with cigar smoke,” and when the strip-
per begins her act, he limns “the smoke of a
hundred cigars clinging to her like the thinnest
of veils.” Eventually, the narrator is literally
blindfolded, then bloodied so he can barely
see. Ultimately, when the narrator delivers his
speech on the necessity of humility, Ellison’s
blurred description of the setting insures that
readers can’t help but understand what the
naive narrator does not—that he is a victim of
white prejudice.
A writer’s selection of setting works basi-
cally the same way in third-person stories.
For instance, in our story “Te Turning Point”
(Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, July 1980),
we carefully chose detail to paint the portrait
of Professor Geofrey Lyons. On his ofce
walls are a medieval cross of gray porcelain,
an arbalest, a quiver, a pewter tankard and a
60 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
tarnished shield from the Battle of Agincourt.
Tis shows that he is a man lost in the past.
Serves as character
Handled correctly, setting can even play a
variety of character roles in your story. Te late
19th-century naturalists pictured the environ-
ment as a potent force—a Darwinian beast
stalking human beings and savagely defeating
them. In the hands of Jack London and Joseph
Conrad, the snowscape and the ocean were
insurmountable characters, the strong who
survived. While the sea in “Te Open Boat”
is certainly the backdrop for the entire tale,
Stephen Crane chooses to give it a larger role.
Te four men in the boat fnd themselves talk-
ing and listening to the waves, thinking about
them, and fghting the sea’s attempt to drown
them. Te ocean is an antagonist, the major
adversary preventing them from reaching their
goal, land.
On the other hand, in Dances With Wolves,
the Western frontier becomes a companion, a
friend that has sustained life for generations.
As a result, the Native Americans pray and talk
to it reverently.
In Southwest fction, the desert frequently
has a life of its own. In Louisiana, it’s the
swamp. In the Northwest, it’s the rain forest.
You might consider writing a story in which
the setting becomes a character, perhaps a
rocky crag (Maine), a cave (Kentucky) or level
plains (Kansas).
Enhances plot
Maybe the most overlooked function of
setting involves the story line. Used efectively,
setting can play any of the following plot roles:
FORESHADOWING. “Barn Burning” begins
with a makeshif trial set in a general store,
where Faulkner has the 10-year-old protago-
nist focus on two visual details of the setting—
a can of ham with scarlet devils on it and a can
labeled with the silver curve of fsh. Tese sen-
sory details anticipate the young boy’s confict
between evil (deviled ham) and good (the fsh
being the ancient symbol of Christianity).
BUILDING TENSION. In “Te Law of Life,”
London has his Arctic setting get colder and
colder as the abandoned Old Koshkoosh draws
closer and closer to death. And in “Te Child
by Tiger,” Tomas Wolfe describes a blizzard in
the background to parallel the impending acts
of insanity and violence about to attack his
peaceful North Carolina town.
Storm,” as Ben is about to murder his wife,
author Malmar McKnight manipulates the set-
ting by having the thunderstorm outside reach
its height. Poe has a whirlwind appear when
Madeline falls upon her brother Roderick and
the House of Usher falls into the tarn.
stories, afer the dark night of danger is fnally
over, does the storm dissipate, the birds sing
and the sun rise to signal to the reader that
things will now be better for the protagonist?
Conversely, to stress disillusionment and
despair at the end of “Te Swimmer,” John
Cheever stands the protagonist, Neddy Merrill,
in front of his home. It is dark outside and
the house is empty and decaying, much like
the narcissistic, self-indulgent lifestyle Merrill
has led.
Setting can serve you well as a tool in fc-
tion writing. When you read over a scene and
feel something is missing, don’t overlook this
important element.
Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet
Based in Richmond, Ky., Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet have
collaborated on such works as short stories, movie scripts,
scholarly articles and books. Both Foundation Professors of
English and co-directors of the Teaching and Learning Center
at Eastern Kentucky University, they published their first arti-
cle in The Writer in 1984. Their book New Growth is an an-
thology of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction collected
from some of Kentucky’s outstanding new talents, and was
published in 2007 by the Jesse Stuart Foundation.
LIKE MOST tools, setting is not very effective
until you’ve learned how to use it. Here are some
basic instructions for getting started:
• Think of setting as more than a physical
backdrop for your story.
• Each time you are about to use setting, think
about the overall effect you want to achieve.
• Select a few choice details rather than a huge
general quantity. Remember, less can be more.
• Try for a variety of sensory details. Don’t
depend solely on the sense of sight.
• Consider multiple functions for your fic-
tional setting. While you’re achieving verisimili-
tude, for instance, you might also be foreshad-
owing your story’s climax and/or helping to
develop character.
—H.B. and C.S.
How to create good settings
By Larry Watson
few years ago, I taught a class using
the annual Best American Short
Stories collection. In our discus-
sions, we tried to answer the
question: What made those sto-
ries better than others? Again
and again we reached the
same conclusion: In the best
stories, setting—time and place—was not only
carefully rendered but inextricably entwined
with plot, character, theme and even style.
Ten came the question: How can we in-
corporate setting into our stories and novels to
give them the dimension, meaning and believ-
ability that the best fction so ofen has?
I began by looking at my own fction to see
how I had tried to answer that question for
myself. I found that in Montana 1948, White
Crosses and Justice, for example, I was ofen
writing about communities based on those
I grew up in. Tey were fctionalized, to be
sure. I did, however, feel I had to be true to my
emotional memories and incorporate what
seemed to me the spirit of both time and place
into the fction.
In the wake of these discoveries, I devised
an exercise that I hoped would not only help
students envision setting, but would lead them
to develop plots and characters about which
they had special, perhaps intimate, knowledge.
As a way to help them get started in writing
about their hometowns, I asked them to use
as their opening a variation on the words with
which Garrison Keillor begins his wonderful
weekly monologue on A Prairie Home Com-
panion. “Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake
Wobegone, my hometown.”
Afer a discussion of the various ways the
concept of “hometown” could be interpreted,
the class set to work. Initially, all they had to
do was write the frst 10 pages of a fction that
started as Keillor’s did (and then eliminate his
sentence once their own draf was complete).
Te assignment worked beautifully. From
that prompt, many students went on to create
fction more original, detailed and moving
than anything they had previously written.
And it’s not difcult to understand why: Tey
were writing about what they knew.
Tat insider’s knowledge gave their fction
authority and credibility. Almost instinctively,
they knew how people in that town, city,
neighborhood or region walked and talked.
Tey knew what citizens held dear and what
they feared. And they frequently knew a few
of their community’s secret conficts—ground
as fertile as any for fction. Of course, we spent
time discussing various strategies for convert-
ing experience to fction.
Tere’s no reason this exercise—or a varia-
tion—can’t work for you. By looking back
to that neighborhood you grew up in or the
alleys you rode through on your bicycle, to
the backyard patio where someone broke your
heart over a glass of wine, you might well fnd
not only the settings but the subjects for your
fction. And these could be the unique and
powerful stories only you can tell.
Larry Watson
Larry Watson teaches creative writing at Marquette Univer-
sity in Milwaukee. His latest novel is Sundown, Yellow Moon.
No place like

62 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Bharti Kirchner
f you can talk, you can write
dialogue. Right? Wrong. Fictional
dialogue difers considerably from
real speech. You omit greetings
such as “Hello” and “How’re you
doing?” unless they have signif-
cance. It is best to avoid pointless
exchanges of information such as,
“I’m going to the store.” And above all, you
don’t let a character make a statement for no
reason. Good fctional dialogue has color and
style, expresses a character’s attitude, makes a
point, advances the story line, and feshes out
the characters.
Consider this passage from Ann Patchett’s
novel Bel Canto, in which the guests at a lavish
party are being held hostage.
“Someone needs to sew up that cut,” Messner
said. “I’m going to call in a medic.”
“No medics, no sewing,” General Alfredo said.
“It was never a pretty face.”
“You can’t leave him bleeding like that.”
General Alfredo shrugged. “I can.”
Do you see how much this short interaction
diferentiates the characters and has the reader
wanting to know what’ll happen next?
It is crucial to get the dialogue right. Liter-
ary agents and editors, on opening a manu-
script, examine the dialogue closely. Even if
the plot works, characters are well-developed
and the setting is vivid, they may read no fur-
ther if the dialogue doesn’t ring true. “I don’t
take on a manuscript which might be oth-
erwise competent if the dialogue isn’t there,”
agent Liza Dawson says.
Why is dialogue so important? In real life,
we get to know a person from the way she
acts, as well as what she says and how she
says it. In fction, we ofen ascertain a char-
acter’s age bracket, education level, culture or
ethnicity and mental state from her speech. A
character doesn’t come alive until she speaks.
Verbal interactions between characters help
the reader understand each and get involved
in the scene. A scene, which is a miniature
story involving two or more people at a certain
point in time in a particular setting, is where
dialogues take place. A full-length novel can
contain 50 or more scenes, which gives the
writer abundant opportunity to use dialogue
as a technique.
In my early fction writing, I ofen struggled
with dialogue. Te scenes seemed forced and
the speeches stilted, and the characters fre-
quently argued without purpose. As I trained
myself to listen to the characters more, dis-
cover who they were, and allow them to speak
for themselves, the task became less daunting.
Here are some tips and techniques that I
have gathered over the years.
IN ITSELF. Tis language is diferent
from the one you use in narrative
prose. It has its own rules and rhythm
and is tightly focused. You don’t necessarily
answer a question but, as ofen as not, you do
go of on a tangent and start a fresh topic. Tis
keeps the reader in suspense.
For example:
“You weren’t in school today. Where were
“Is there anything in the house to eat?”
Te language of dialogue exults in short,
snappy sentences that disregard grammar con-
ventions, yet sound natural and meaningful.
Here’s an example from Martha Sherrill’s novel
My Last Movie Star:
“Clementine!” He bursts into a smile.
“Enchanting dress.”
“Nice car.”
By avoiding the tag lines (he said, she said),
the author allows the conversation to fow
more smoothly.
combination of attitudes, vocabulary,
subject matter, hopes, dreams, life
experience, view of the world and
other factors that distinguish a character and,
therefore, his speech. When a writer creates
a distinct personality—and this comes from
knowing the character intimately—a distinct
voice emerges.
In Julia Glass’ National Book Award-win-
ning novel Tree Junes, an artist who draws
timidly and needs reassurance speaks thus:
“I like to draw people on the ferries. Portraits
—that’s what I like doing best. I refuse to believe
the portrait’s finished as something vital, some-
thing, I don’t know ... provocative. I think there
must be new ways of getting inside a person and
sort of eviscerating the self. Artwise, I mean.” She
looks up. “Listen to me: ‘artwise.’ Like I’m still in
“Voice is more important than dialogue,”
ofers Laura Kalpakian, author of Memoir
Club. “Te writer has to hear the voice before
the characters’ dialogue will ring true. Editing
requires skill that can be learned. Ought to be
learned. But voice is something true, that you
hear as much in your heart as in your head.”
Fiction, as you know, is built upon
confict. If your critique group insists
that your manuscript lacks tension,
look into the dialogue. You can build drama
there using fewer words than in a stretch of
action or exposition. Confict doesn’t neces-
sarily mean an argument between people. It
can manifest itself as a test of wills, such as
a civilized conversation in which each par-
ticipant is secretly determined to thwart the
other’s agenda.
Also keep in mind that during a stressful
moment, a character speaks her mind and
reveals secrets she otherwise might not let
out. Let us look at an example from Pico Iyer’s
novel Abandon, in which the female character
is a tormented California soul:
“I had some mango juice ready for you. Almost
three hours ago.”
She looked down.
“A whole meal, actually. More than that.”
“I am sorry,” she said, and her arms were
around him, her head buried in his shoulders as
she sobbed and emptied herself out completely.
“I always blow it.” The force of her self-impa-
tience heartbreaking to see. “I always do. Every
time someone shows the slightest interest in me, I
push them away.”
Leave out facts that wouldn’t be ex-
pressed in a normal exchange, such as family
history. It makes the dialogue sound unnatu-
ral. Ask yourself: Do the characters know this
information already? Is it more for the beneft
of the reader? If yes in either case, convey the
facts indirectly.
Here’s an example: “As you know, Sylvia,
my daughter was an A student in college and
a sprinter, but she lost a leg in a car accident,
and is staying home now. ...”
Instead, ofer the background information
via the listener’s thoughts, as follows:
Poor Alice. Single mother. On top of a full-time
job, she’s taking care of her teenage daughter who
lost a leg. “Anything I can do to help?” I ask.
BESIDES THE examples given in the
article, are there other authors whose
dialogue you should study? The following
were frequently mentioned in an informal
survey of writers:
Margaret Atwood, Arthur Golden, Ste-
phen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Elmore
Leonard, Elinor Lipman, Larry McMurtry,
Rohinton Mistry and Carol Shields.
—B.K. | 63
You can also let backstory come out of in-
teractions between characters. In this exchange
from Alan Furst’s Blood of Victory, notice how
much we learn about the characters:
“You are quite pretty you know.”
He laughed, made a face.
“No, it’s true. What are you?”
“Mixed breed.”
“Oh, Spaniel and hound, perhaps. Is that it?”
“Half Russian aristocrat, half Bolshevik Jew. A
dog of our times, apparently. And you?”
“Burgundian, mon ours, dark and passionate.
We love money and cook everything in butter.”
She leaned down and kissed him softly on the
forehead, then got out of bed. “And go home in
the morning.”
Before constructing dialogue, consider
the scene’s objective. How does it move
the story forward? How do the char-
acters feel about the particular circumstance?
What are each person’s secret agendas, fears,
wishes? Are they hiding something? Each line
of dialogue must achieve a purpose, such as
spurring a character to act and thus moving
the plot forward, or pointing to a larger issue
ahead and giving the plot a twist.
In my book Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and
Discoveries, the protagonist, a proprietor of a
struggling pastry shop, is ready to confront her
chief baker about her wish that he put in more
hours. Before she can, the conversation takes a
diferent, foreshadowing turn:
He slides a bottom crust onto each of ten Pyrex
pie plates, his face a mask of concentration. That
done, he looks up. “Lately I’ve been wondering
what I want out of life.”
Such philosophizing is hardly an optimistic
sign. People don’t venture the great questions of life
when they’re bubbling in happiness. “What do you
mean?” I ask.
... “There’s a missing element in my life, one
that screams at me and tells me to get off my derri-
ère and do something about it.”
... He adds, “Lately I haven’t been sleeping well.”
Later in the story, when Pierre quits his job,
the reader is prepared.
Other tips
Read the dialogue aloud or ask a friend
to do so. Pay attention to spots where the
reader trips or it sounds stilted. Or use a
tape recorder.
During revision, make a hard copy and
highlight a character’s dialogue with a marker.
Does it ft the character? Has he altered his
diction depending on the situation, place
and audience, while retaining his voice? Do
we understand his motivation? Repeat the
process with other important players, color-
coding each.
Such a painstaking process before submit-
ting can pay of. Dawson says an agent or
editor can help fne-tune other elements of
a manuscript—the plot, for instance—“but
dialogue can’t be faked. I can’t help fx it.”
Bharti Kirchner
Bharti Kirchner has published four novels and four cook-
books and written for Food & Wine and The Seattle Times.
Too much dialogue and too
often. If the characters talk too much,
the pace of the story is accelerated and
readers can’t relax. Balance your dia-
logue with narrative details and action.
Characters that sound alike.
Vary the voices so they’re recognizable,
even when the speaker is not explicitly
identified. Make effective use of gram-
mar, formality or lack thereof, subject
matters, and the quantity of information
each speaker shares.
‘Out of character’ speech. This
happens, for example, when, without any
warning, a sweet gentle person has an
emotional outburst. To make it believable,
you must expose the character’s motiva-
tion earlier and build up her emotional
state over a number of pages.
Speech that goes on and on.
Pare it down and see if it still makes
sense. Have one speaker interrupt anoth-
er to break up what threatens to become
a monologue.
Muddled speech. A character
shouldn’t shoehorn several disparate
ideas into one burst of speech. Readers
may not be able to absorb it all. Be lucid.
Overediting, being too precise.
Be sure you don’t edit the color and
emotional content out of a character’s
speech. Add an occasional unnecessary
phrase to make it seem like real life.
64 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
How to get
on your endings
By Sharon Oard Warner
ell me a story,” my sis-
ter Lisa used to say. As
children, we shared a bed
for a time. At 11, I was
her elder; Lisa was only 4.
“Once upon a time,” my
stories began. Tese words
were easy and comforting
to utter, and without fail they evoked a story
both pleasing and entertaining. Ofen my sister
dropped of to sleep shortly afer I began, so,
on the next night, I might start up where I lef
of or begin a wholly new tale. Such a luxury
this was—to have a rapt audience and no real
reason to conclude what I’d begun.
Every semester I ask a new group of stu-
dents to tell me a story, on the page, with a due
date and a grade. Most ofen they begin with
energy and enthusiasm, but somewhere down
the line the stories and their authors start to
lose steam. Many are prone to “not fnishing.”
Arriving late to class and a little breathless,
they shrug their shoulders and shake their
heads. “It was coming along so well,” they say,
“but I have no idea how to end it.”
Tey want help. Tey want ideas from me
and from their fellow students. Tey’re willing
to let any or all of us resolve their narratives,
just to keep from having to do it themselves. If
worse comes to worst, they’ll start a whole new
story, assuming mistakenly that ending some
other story will be easier than fnding a way to
fnish this one. Not so. Te problem is larger
than any one story. Endings aren’t easy. Tey
require patience, persistence and the willing-
ness to look deeply into our material.
So, how do we take control of our endings,
you ask. Well, when I taught at the Nebraska
Summer Writers Conference, I had the op-
portunity to inquire into the subject with a
number of accomplished short-story writers.
Teir responses are woven into these tips:
not to do is easily dispensed with and
amusingly cataloged in a book by
Jerome Stern called Making Shapely
Fiction. Just as it’s wise to avoid opening your
story with a ringing alarm clock, so it’s recom-
mended you be wary of last lines like these:
“He slowly drew the thin razor across his
wrists” or “It’s not a bad place to live—warm,
dry, and nice padded walls.” Novelist and
short-story writer Deidre McNamer advises
writers not to “wrap it up and seal it tight.”
Endings like the ones above trivialize the story
and its characters. Instead, McNamer says,
“Keep going until you feel yourself and your
characters to be in the shadowy presence of a
new story.” | 65

66 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
YOUR ENDING. If carefully studied,
your opening paragraphs will ofen
reveal the story’s most satisfying
conclusion. Or, interestingly enough, you
may discover that you’ve lef something out
of your beginning that may ofer the key to
your satisfying conclusion.
In recent years it’s become customary for
short-story writers to think in terms of an
epiphany, which originally meant “a shining
forth.” James Joyce borrowed this term from
the Catholic Church and applied it to short
stories. Te term has come to mean something
akin to a revelation or realization. Te epiph-
any marks a moment in the story, generally
very near the end, where the character—or
the reader—achieves a new understanding
brought about by the preceding events. Tis
moment of truth need not be dramatic, but it
should be signifcant.
Robert Olen Butler, winner of the Pulitzer
Prize for his short-story collection A Good
Scent from a Strange Mountain, has identi-
fed a second epiphany, one he discusses in
his recent book on writing, From Where You
Dream. (See excerpt on pages 17-21.) “What I
would suggest,” Butler says, “is that there are
two epiphanies in any good work of fction.
Joyce’s is the second, the one ofen called the
climax or crisis. Te frst epiphany comes
very near the beginning, where the sensual
details accumulate around a moment in which
the deepest yearning of the main character
shines forth.”
writers to fnd at least a provisional
ending from the frst draf forward. As
Aristotle observed so long ago, the essential
element of narrative is the arrangement of
incidents. A story is defned as having a begin-
ning, a middle and an end. Far better to end
your frst draf badly than not to end it at all.
Tough it’s tempting to show a partial draf to
others and ask for their suggested conclusions,
it’s not advisable. Te story is yours, afer all.
Why give up the most important part of the
process to others?
During the frst draf, one simply gropes for
an ending and hopes to improve upon it the
next time around. Try writing a new ending
from draf to draf. Conclude with an image,
say, or a snatch of dialogue, a gesture or a
thought. Cast about. Don’t be afraid to write
something foolish or overly dramatic. You can
always retract it later.
Short-story writer Lon Otto says the
most satisfying endings are those that
focus a step or two away from the
story’s central confict. A physical scene, a
LOOK TO the stories you love for solu-
tions to your problems with endings.
Review some of your favorite stories,
both classic and contemporary, paying
particular attention to openings and end-
ings. Make notes on what you discover.
What promises do the openings make,
and how do the endings fulfill them?
Generally, you’ll find that the endings keep
the promise, but not in the way readers
might predict.
Do these stories end with reflection, ex-
position, an image, a snatch of dialogue?
How does the ending contribute to the
mood of the story? Does it shift or change
the mood? How so?
Now look to your own stories and make
some comparable notes. It may be tempt-
ing to begin revising the first story you pick
up, but I advise you to wait until you’ve
finished an inventory of your recent work.
What promises do your openings make?
(Here, you’ll want to consider subject mat-
ter, mood and conflict.)
Robert Olen Butler calls humans “the
yearning creatures of the planet.” Does
your protagonist yearn, and if so, for
what? How does the yearning propel the
story forward, and how does the ending
fulfill it?
Do you close the door on your story
too soon, before your readers are able to
glimpse “the shadowy presence of another
story”? Or do you end too late, after “the
last breath”?
Do your conclusions always hit the same
note? Are you in a rut? If so, cast about for
ways to vary your endings. Trace one of
your stories backward to the moment when
it might have gone in another direction.
Take a new path toward an unexpected
destination. Surprise yourself!
—S.O.W. | 67
piece of dialogue, some sort of action, a refec-
tive passage: However the story ends, Otto
advises not to “clamp down too tightly on the
core confict.” He compares a story’s closing to
the ringing of a bell. “It rings longest when it’s
held most loosely. But held. I think the ending
has to hold the story.”
RIZE. Some endings are simply too
preachy and didactic. Tey tell the
reader what to think about the story,
and most of us prefer to draw at least a few
of our own conclusions. “End before the last
breath,” advises Jonis Agee, the author of a
number of story collections. Writers want
their stories to be appreciated and understood.
Don’t overexplain; by doing so, you underes-
timate the reader’s intelligence. It’s better by
far to leave something unsaid, and to leave of
in a way that invites the reader to complete
the thought.
Tere are no easy answers to the question
of endings. Asking the hard questions of
why the story matters and what it means to
you can shorten the process and increase the
chances of discovering a resonant resolu-
tion. Remember this: Only when the story’s
meaning comes clear does a satisfying ending
become possible.
Sharon Oard Warner
Sharon Oard Warner, a professor at the University of New
Mexico, is the author of Learning to Dance and Other Stories
and the novel Deep in the Heart. She recently completed a
second novel, Sophie’s House of Cards. She is founding di-
rector of the university’s Taos Summer Writers’ Conference.
In my short story “Signs of
Life,” published in the Spring
2003 issue of Prairie Schooner, a
teenage daughter presses her
mother into fortune telling.
Through a reading of tarot cards,
the daughter hopes to test her
mother’s prescience and reveal
a secret.
Following are the last lines
from a late draft, which I found
unsatisfactory in their rhythm
and depth.
“I wanted to protect
you,” her mother admits,
slipping around to the
other end of the table to
collect The Empress and
The Fool, then handing
them over to her daughter.
“Too late for that,”
Sophie says with a small
laugh. She pinches the
cards, yellow sky to yellow
sky, and holds them steady
above the fragile founda-
tion. Her hands are per-
fectly still, waiting for the
right moment.
Even after finding the right
place to conclude, I often spend
considerable time and energy
fine-tuning the final lines.
Among other things, the pub-
lished version that follows makes
clear the revelation of the secret—
Sophie’s pregnancy. It also reveals
the mother’s internal response,
her ambivalence, and her affec-
tion for her wild child of a daugh-
ter. The sentences have been
polished, the cadence corrected.
I try not to let go of a story
ending until it resonates for me as
the writer. If I’ve done my work
well, it will resonate for the
reader, too.
No one is less interested
in the future than a middle-
aged woman, than this
middle-aged woman. Still,
her heart lifts a little as she
says the words: “If I had to
guess, I’d say you’re preg-
nant, sweetie.”
Sophie pinches the
cards, yellow sky to yellow
sky, and holds them, trem-
bling, above a fragile foun-
dation. She doesn’t look
up, but she gives a slight
nod. “I think you’re right,”
she replies.
Get the right rhythm
• Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction
Writing by Debra Spark
• Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for
Intermediate and Advanced Writers by
Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren
• From Where You Dream: The Process of
Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler
• The Sincerest Form by Nicholas
• The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories
by Contemporary Writers and How
They Work, edited by Andrea Barrett
and Peter Turchi
68 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Kelly James-Enger
t’s a dream of many writers to have
time of—say, six months or a year—
to fnally have time to write that
novel that’s been brewing for years.
Te reality, though, is that most of
us can’t take months away from our
jobs, families and daily lives.
Te solution is to write your
novel in your spare time using a three-draf
method. Te frst step is to plan for success.
Set a goal for your novel and write it down.
Do you want to fnish your frst draf in six
months? A year? Two years? Ten determine
how you’ll do that—by writing a page a day, a
certain number of words a day, or for a certain
time period each day. Commit to your writing
time in your daily planner or calendar. Once
you’ve made that commitment to yourself and
planned how you’ll accomplish this admittedly
large task, you’re ready to start writing.
Draft #1: Write like a shark
Have you seen Annie Hall? Tere’s a scene
near the end where Woody Allen and Diane
Keaton are on a plane. Allen’s character real-
izes the relationship is over and explains his
epiphany like this: “A relationship, I think, is
like a shark, you know? It has to constantly
move forward or it dies. And I think what we
got on our hands is a dead shark.”
What does this mean for writers? Keep
moving. Keep writing. Don’t let yourself
get blocked or stopped while writing your
draf—you’ll lose valuable time, momentum
and motivation. Can’t think of the right word?
Need to add a statistic, quote or example? If
you get stuck, type the letters “TK” (meaning
“to come”) and keep going.
Novelist Robert B. Parker is credited with
saying, “I can’t edit a blank page.” Get the
words down. Don’t be afraid to write a lousy
frst draf. You can make it beautiful later.
Draft #2: The big cleanup
Afer you fnish your frst draf, take at least
a couple weeks of. Ten come back to the
manuscript with fresh eyes and read it all the
way through. Make notes about your overall
impression—things like whether the story
fows smoothly, the balance of dialogue and
exposition, and overly repetitive scenes.
Next, go through the story scene by scene.
Each scene should either move the plot (or
subplot) forward and/or help develop your
characters—ideally both. If not, consider cut-
ting it. Te second draf is where you clean up
the mess of your frst one, eliminating subplots
and unnecessary characters and addressing all
TKs. Now your novel is almost ready to go.
Draft #3: Where every word counts
Don’t rush this last step. Take the time to
go through your novel word by word. Read
it aloud to identify awkward language and
missing or unintentionally repeated words.
Afer you’ve worked your way to the end, fne-
tuning and changing a word or two here and
there, your masterpiece will fnally be ready
for submission.
Kelly James-Enger
A contributing editor at The Writer, Kelly James-Enger of
Downers Grove, Ill., has written two successful novels with
this method, Did You Get the Vibe? and White Bikini Panties.
Getting it
By Sharon Oard Warner
easoned writers are of two dis-
positions: the drafers and the
revisers. A few become indif-
ferent toward these activities—
they’re both willing drafers and
revisers, and that is, of course,
the sought-afer state.
Almost all of us begin as
drafers. Te process of writing draws us and
holds us in our seats. Later, once we have a
readership, even one as small as a writers
group or a devoted spouse, we shif our focus
from process to product, and this shif is nec-
essary to our development as artists.
We become revisers. We learn the habit
and discipline of revision, which is the most
important part of the writing process. Even so,
almost all of us will admit to a lingering prefer-
ence—either we fnd it difcult to move on or
difcult to begin again. Tese preferences are
partly due to personality: Some of us will live
in the same house for a lifetime, while others
crave new scenery on a regular basis.
Revision means to see again. And there
are at least two ways of perceiving—from a
distance and close up. Te frst step in revis-
ing a novel is to achieve some distance on the
draf at hand, what is referred to as large-scale
revision. Here you concern yourself with
the architectural integrity of the structure
you’ve created and consider questions such
as changes in point of view, the need for ad-
ditional subplots, and alternative beginnings
and endings. In Te Writing Life, Annie Dillard
uses metaphors to illuminate the process of
writing a book. My favorite is the house:
The line of words is a hammer. You hammer
against the walls of your house. You tap the walls,
lightly, everywhere. ... Some of the walls are bear-
ing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall
down. ... Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall
that has to go. It cannot be helped. ... Knock it
out. Duck.
Find ways to gain perspective. Try doing as
Tobias Wolf does: Move the furniture out of
the living room and spread your manuscript
across the foor like a deck of cards. He moves
chapters around and then scenes. He stirs
things up, opens a window on the story, and
lets a breeze rush through.
Stephen Koch suggests that writers who’ve
fnished a frst draf consider writing a scenar-
io, a “short but detailed précis or paraphrase
of the story that’s been forming.” Note that the
story is still “forming.” It isn’t all there yet, so
it’s not time for small-scale revision.
Small-scale revision is fx-up work, the sort
of thing you do when you buy a house and
replace the kitchen cabinets. Small-scale revi-
sion is prettifying, and in a novel that means
developing scenes, reducing some scenes to
summary, and adding description and detail.
Afer small-scale revision comes editing.
Editing is touch-up work, where you’ll attend
to matters of style: paragraph and sentence
structure, clarity, concision. Don’t get ahead of
yourself. What’s the point of spackling a wall
that’s going the way of a sledgehammer?
As much as possible, separate these ac-
tivities rather than doing them concurrently.
Whatever you do, try to complete one project
before starting a new one.
Sharon Oard Warner
Sharon Oard Warner teaches creative writing at the Univer-
sity of New Mexico and is the author of Deep in the Heart. | 69
Te stages of
70 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Jordan E. Rosenfeld
side from selling a manuscript to a
publisher, there may be no other
experience as heady as the rush
that accompanies the comple-
tion of a manuscript. Yet how
do you determine when a
manuscript is ready to with-
stand the probing eyes of a
literary agent, which typically is the frst step
on the twisting road to publication? Here are
10 points to check of before your manuscript
ever leaves your desk.
does a book of publishable quality
reach that stage without numerous
revisions. Revision tends to have a
ripple efect; you change one little thing and
make necessary a world of others. Tough
revision is diferent for each writer, you might
fnd it useful to put your manuscript through
the following four drafs: First, you simply get
the story down. Second draf: You clean up
essential language, voice and grammar issues.
Tird draf: Address plot and its complica-
tions. Fourth draf: Look at character depth
and themes.
If you haven’t put your book through at least
three drafs of some kind, then set that guide-
book for literary agents down until you have.
writer has blind spots, which makes
criticism a necessary evil. It’s impor-
tant to get feedback from fellow writ-
ers whose work and practices you respect and
resonate with—a feedback circle—and with
whom you can exchange your work regularly.
Where you fnd them—local writing groups,
university classes, online writing workshops,
etc.—is not as important as whether they are
reliable and capable. It’s useful to go in with an
idea of the type of feedback you seek so that
you don’t waste anyone’s time. And remember:
Unless you’re related to a writer, family mem-
bers don’t count.
I suggest a minimum of three people (and
please, don’t show them your frst draf!) be-
fore you can comfortably say you’ve gotten
enough feedback.
STRIKE A BALANCE. Scenes are impor-
tant building blocks of good writing.
In scenes, events and actions are dra-
matized in a fctional version of real
time, thus drawing your reader directly into
your characters’ experiences. If your manu-
script is well-balanced, you will have a healthy
ratio of powerful scenes to narrative summary.
If your manuscript is summary-heavy, you’ll
lose readers—and this, one hopes, will be
something your feedback circle will point out
to you in time for you to fx it.
than bad writing, there is nothing
that turns an agent of faster than fat,
stereotypical characters—usually easy
to sum up in glib, one-line references like “the
punitive nun” or “the drunk cowboy.” Some-
times, writers fall into the habit of writing fat
characters to hurry the plot along. You need a
villain, so you throw in an unredeemed, solidly
bad character who is a stranger to the sim-
Put your
manuscript to the
plest forms of kindness. Te problem is, even
criminals and power-hungry megalomaniacs
possess a stitch of humanity. Similarly, nobody
is all good.
Another version of the fat character is
simply a bland one—one you haven’t explored
very well and who therefore appears to be bor-
ing or easy to forget. If you have any of these
characters in your fction, you need to either
fesh them out or cut them out.
tricky beast in fction. Some writers are
just naturally good at storytelling and
can take multiple threads and weave
them together seamlessly. Most of us, however,
struggle with this crucial element of storytell-
ing. If there are any unexplained holes in your
plot, or places where you opted for an “easy
explanation,” perhaps in the form of a “tell-all”
monologue by the antagonist at the end, then
you want to stew longer on your plot.
every book is plot-driven. Yours may
be a character-driven, literary book
that lingers on its language and spins a
gorgeous atmosphere out of words. If so, voice
is crucial to your work and a powerful way to
capture an agent’s attention. Voice is that reso-
nant, memorable combination of syntax and
character personality that snaps right of the
page. Tink of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at
Tifany’s or Tyler Durden in Fight Club. If you
feel that your characters’ voices are indistinct,
or worse, if two characters “sound” similar,
work on this element.
CLEAN UP CLICHÉS. Te problem with
clichés is they’re so familiar, much like
a comfy pair of jeans, that you might
not even notice them in your writing.
Tis is another area in which to rely on your
feedback circle to help you clean up. If you
use a lot of them, don’t despair; each cliché is
actually an opportunity for you to bring fresh
energy to your work, and when you’re done
replacing them, you’ll be amazed at how your
work comes to life.
TRIM THE ADVERBS. When you are
convinced the manuscript is fnished,
do a search for adverbs and dialogue
tags. Adverbs are a delight to use be-
cause they’re so colorful, but they are more fun
for the writer than they are for the reader. If
you can cut adverbs by one-third and see them
as reminders to dramatize an action instead,
you’ll strengthen your writing considerably.
STOP TINKERING. If you’ve ever had
poison oak or a rash, you know how
terrible the urge is to scratch the itch,
even though it will only make it worse.
Tis is a good analogy for the urge many writ-
ers have to keep tinkering with their work afer
it is done.
Afer you have checked of the previous
items, the surest sign your manuscript is truly
ready to go out to an agent is that you do not
fnd something to tinker with every time you
go through it. Now, some writers would say
this is impossible, that the process of revision
never really ends; but if you’re just tweaking
because you can, or out of fear of sending it
of, it’s time to let go.
the world of agents is still a bit
nebulous to you, the time to ac-
quaint yourself is before you seek
representation. While most guides to literary
agents list thousands of names, there likely
are only a few hundred who are right for your
work. You’ll need to research the kind of work
they represent and see if it matches what you
write. Visit each agent’s Web site and pore
over guidelines to be sure an agent is accepting
new clients.
Beyond that, you need to know if the genre
you’re writing in is glutted and oversold, or if
there’s still room for your unique angle. You
want to get an idea of where your work stands
in the existing marketplace so that you don’t
face a wall of disappointment when you try to
land an agent. Even if the market seems unable
to bear what you’ve written now, hang onto it
and work on the next thing.
If you found that even one of these items
sent you back to revise, then you’ll want to
wait to seek an agent until it’s fxed. Finally,
when you’ve done all of this and then some
and you think you’re ready to send of the
manuscript, wait at least one more week so
you don’t overlook any detail in your hurry.
Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is the author of two books for writers:
Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a
Time and, with Rebecca Lawton, Write Free: Attracting the
Creative Life. Web: | 71
72 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
By Kelly James-Enger
ome writers prefer to sell their
books themselves and pocket
the 15 percent commission
most agents charge. But like me,
others prefer to let their agents
handle the task of selling books
to publishers.
Here’s how I see it. First, a
good agent is likely to know much more about
the publishing biz than I do. She knows editors
at diferent houses, their likes and dislikes.
She’s familiar with their lists and is up on im-
prints and new lines. She knows what’s selling
now, what’s not—and what’s likely to sell in the
future. A good agent also has experience nego-
tiating and working with editors, and almost
certainly can get a better deal than I can.
As a former lawyer, I can understand what
the language in a book contract means from
a legal standpoint, but that doesn’t mean I
understand its signifcance—for example, if
the publisher is requesting a certain type of
foreign-language rights. What are those rights
usually worth? Is the contract reasonable for
the industry? Is the royalty percentage stan-
dard? Is it better to be paid a smaller percent-
age on gross sales or a larger percentage on
net sales? I don’t know the answers to these
questions, and I want an agent to represent me
to make sure I get the best deal.
When seeking an agent, I suggest starting
with a general guide like Jef Herman’s Guide
to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents.
Consider these questions:
• Does the agent represent your type of book?
• How long has the agent been in business?
• Is the agent in New York City? While not re-
quired, it’s a plus when it comes to face-to-face
meetings and keeping tabs on the industry.
• Is the agent in the Association of Authors’
Representatives ( Mem-
bers are expected to follow its canon of ethics.
• How many clients does the agent represent?
• What’s the agent’s business philosophy?
Sound like someone you’d like to work with?
Next, go to the bookstore and research
books similar to your own. Check the Ac-
knowledgements sections, where authors ofen
thank their agents and editors by name. Ten,
locate and send query letters out to the top
picks on your list, asking if they’d be interested
in seeing your manuscript (for fction) or pro-
posal (for nonfction). It’s faster and cheaper to
send letters rather than complete manuscripts
or proposals; if the agent wants to see your
work, then you can send it to her.
Once you fnd an agent who is interested,
ask how she plans to sell your book. Why is
she interested in you? How much contact does
she like to have with clients? Ask her to send
you a copy of her agency agreement for review.
Once you have a book deal, your agent
functions as an intermediary between you and
the publisher. She will negotiate the contract,
taking a hard line when necessary—allowing
you to focus on writing the book and main-
taining a friendly relationship with your editor.
An agent who believes in your work and has
contacts and experience can make an enor-
mous diference in your writing career.
Kelly James-Enger
Kelly James-Enger, a contributing editor at The Writer, is a
veteran freelance writer and book author.
Tips on fnding an


By Jordan E. Rosenfeld
any writers fnd the
idea of writing a
query letter for their
fction manuscript
daunting. Afer
all, the query is a
writer’s frst contact
with prospective
agents and publishers. Just like a blind date,
there’s a lot riding on this frst impression. It
can make or break your chance of getting your
work published.
Fear not! With practice you can write a frst-
rate query that will engage the reader. Here are
a few steps to help:
Research agents and editors
Once you’ve fnished a book-length fction
manuscript—a novel, short-story collection
or novella—there are two primary avenues for
getting published: agents and editors at pub-
lishing houses. Both require a query letter.
Te most reliable way to get into print is
with an agent representing you. Tere is only
a handful of publishing houses that accept
manuscripts from writers who are not repre-
sented (although many small presses will).
Te fction query is an entirely diferent
product from the longer nonfction proposal.
Every agent and publisher has specifc guide-
lines for what kind of information you should
include in your letter.
Terefore, before you query, you need to do
some homework. First decide whom to con-
tact. A good place to begin your search is in
Jef Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors
& Literary Agents. Tis reference lists literary
agencies and publishing houses, and ofers
some insight into what they’re seeking.
Make a list of agents or editors you fnd
who have worked with authors whose works
resemble yours in some way and who are open
to unsolicited queries.
Next, do an Internet search to fnd the Web
sites of the agencies and publishers on your
list. You can usually fnd submission guidelines
online, or you can request a copy by sending a
SASE to the publisher.
Tese guidelines are gold mines for writ-
ers because they tell you all you need to know
about the submission process, including
whether you can query by e-mail as well as
regular mail, and how much time to expect
between your submission and a response.
Many Web sites also include such valuable
information as the biographies of individual
agents and editors, including what kinds of
books they represent, who their clients are,
and what kinds of material they are seeking.
Craft a professional query
Agents and editors are extremely busy
people who contend with thousands of sub-
missions from eager writers hoping for repre-
sentation and publication. Tus, the industry
standard is that a query letter must get to the
point quickly and with elegance. All the ele-
ments of the query letter (see illustration, next
page) must ft into one page, forcing you to be
succinct. Tis is an audition for your work, so
make your query complete and engaging.
Your letter should include these key points:
OPENING. Keep your introduction to a
couple of sentences. Address the agent or
editor by name; never use “To Whom It May
Concern,” which shows that you have not done
your homework. Identify that you are seeking
representation for your book and list the ap- | 73
Te fction query
74 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Dear [agent’s or editor’s name]:

Your agency has long been on my radar for commitment
to quality literary projects with commercial backbone. I
also was struck by your comment about looking for books
“with heart.” I feel my novel Self-serve, which is 80,000
words, f ts those criteria. I have enclosed the f rst 50 pages,
per your guidelines.

Self-serve follows 28-year-old Ziba Mashouf, the mis-
matched half of a set of twins, a female mechanic and a
conscientious objector to her father Faraz’s pressure to
marry and act “like a woman should.” She daydreams of her
long-absent mother returning to save her from her father’s
stern ways.
Ziba’s “perfect” twin sister, Marjan, reveals that their
mother did not abandon them as their father has led them
to believe. Af er a terrible f ght with her father, Ziba sets of
to her mother’s last known whereabouts, seeking the truth.
Armed with a tape recorder and her wits, Ziba plunges
headlong into the secret her father has kept from her and
learns a new def nition of family along the way.
I am the host of Word by Word, a literary radio program
on NPR af liate KRCB; I hold an MFA in creative writing
and literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars. My
f ction has appeared in Night Train, Opium magazine and
the St. Petersburg Times.
I have enclosed the f rst chapter and a SASE for your
reply. I would be glad to send you the entire manuscript at
your request. I look forward to hearing from you.
A query letter should include
these key elements. Jordan E.
Rosenfeld snagged an agent
for her novel, Self-serve, with
this one-page letter.
proximate word count.
It doesn’t hurt to have a
reason why you have selected
that particular person, as long
as the reason doesn’t sound
like lip service. If you got the
name of the agent from a
respectable writer or friend,
use the name.
MIDDLE. In this section,
you write about your novel.
Remember that you are sell-
ing your idea. Terefore,
try to write the pitch with
as much favor and char-
acter as you wrote your
book. Te pitch should
refect the style and tone
of your manuscript.
Start with a hook
or description of what
makes your book excit-
ing, unusual or diferent.
Why should someone
else want to read it? If you can answer these
questions, you’re on your way to having a hook
that will make an agent or editor eager to read
your manuscript. A hook can be anything
from an unusual character to a fresh idea, to a
compelling psychological theme.
Afer the hook, describe the body of your
novel. What is the main plot? What situations
or crises arise? You may think it’s impossible to
include all of this in a few sentences, but you
can do it.
Ten you need a few lines to give some
idea of your novel’s resolution, without giv-
ing it away entirely. You need just enough to
show that your story has a good, sound narra-
tive arc.
ENDING. To the agent or editor you are a
stranger; all they know about you is what you
tell them. In your last paragraph, list your
credentials. Do you have publication credits,
teaching experience, writing degrees? If you
have many publications to your name, list
your strongest qualifcations, not all of them.
If you have a platform that will help you sell
your manuscript, such as a radio show or
motivational-speaking engagements around

the country, do men-
tion those. If you have a Ph.D. in molecular
biology but your novel has nothing to do with
that topic, that’s not a necessary credential.
Your goal is to make yourself sound like a
competent, practiced and professional writer.
If you have no writing credentials, then
keep this section short and refer to anything
that might help explain why you wrote the
novel. If you have any professional member-
ships, you can mention them here.
In the closing, give a rundown of what ma-
terials you’ve included, per their guidelines.
Using these steps will help you compose a
short, well-written query that is more likely to
be read and will increase the chances of getting
your manuscript in the door.
Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Jordan E. Rosenfeld of Morgan Hill, Calif., is a fiction writer,
freelance journalist, editor, and author of two books for writ-
ers: Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a
Time and, with Rebecca Lawton, Write Free: Attracting the
Creative Life. Web:
By Robyn Conley
ost novelists un-
derstand the need
for a well-written
summary of their
book to entice
editors and agents.
Writing such a
summary, how-
ever, isn’t easy. During my many years of free-
lance editing, I’ve discovered that a great many
writers have trouble crafing the kind of engag-
ing synopsis that can land them a contract.
And no wonder. Tey’ve just bled their
hearts, souls and intellect into their keyboards,
creating believable characters and authentic
plots that will captivate their audience. Afer
all that, who wants to spend more time paring
their masterpiece into a greatly minimized ver-
sion? Nobody, of course. But that extra efort—
written in your best writing style—is what will
make the diference when your work is fnally
considered by a publisher or agent.
Don’t be bland
Let’s back up a moment to something I just
said: Always, always, use your best writing
style in the synopsis. Most writers learn this
crucial step too late in the synopsis/submis-
sion/rejection loop. I know this because it is
my book-doctor’s shoulder they search out
for help and cry onto when they’ve received a
dozen or so rejections.
My favorite part of the writers conferences I
attend is the time I’m able to sit down and visit
with new writers. I critique pages from a dif-
ferent one every 15 minutes. Te sessions have
helped me realize the need for quality synop-
ses. Most conversations go something like this:
“I don’t get it,” a frst-time novelist says. “My
critique group tells me they love my style, that
my characters are solid, and the plot is good,
but I never get a chance to submit my whole
book. Te publishers don’t seem interested.”
“Hmmm ...,” I say, mimicking other doctors
from the beginning of time. “Let me see your
frst chapter.”
She complies, and afer I take the chapter’s
pulse by reading a few sentences, I have to
agree with her. Good writing, good voice and
style, good confict. “Do you send this of with
your synopsis?”
“Yes,” she nods, “when they ask for sample
chapters. But many editors and agents just ask
for a synopsis.”
“True. ... Still, I usually recommend sending
a frst chapter along with it. Did you bring a
copy of your synopsis?”
She pulls pages from an envelope and I read.
Aha. Here’s the problem. “Tis sounds like a
book report,” I say.
Her eyes squint in confusion. “I thought it
was supposed to be a summary.”
“Yes, it is, but it needs to refect your style,
which is well done in your chapters. Tis syn-
opsis sounds like a letter from a CEO, listing
the attributes of his recommended intern.”
Afer conversations like this, we spend
the rest of our time together going over what
makes a synopsis a selling tool, not simply a
summary of a book’s people and events.
I wish I could say that these encounters
were few and far between, but it’s not true. So,
to say it once again, the synopsis must refect
your best writing style.
Write a stand-out
76 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Signs of weakness
Next, you’ll have to keep an eye out for any
warning signs of a weak synopsis. What are
some symptoms of a sick synopsis? Weak start-
ing sentences are chronic in mediocre work,
and I’ve seen some scary ones in my time.
Here are just a few:
“In Chapter 1, the reader will fnd ...”
“Tis book’s protagonist is 52 years old and
an alcoholic.”
“My book is 75,000 words long and is set in
medieval times with a gruf main character.”
If you are writing chapters of your novel in
that style, will anyone want to read much of it?
Why would an editor or agent be interested in
considering the complete work if the frst thing
they read is a synopsis in such poor condition?
And don’t be fooled into thinking that if
you stick the synopsis on the bottom of your
submission, the editor will read it afer your
sample chapters. Many editors and agents I’ve
schmoozed with at conferences say they ofen
read synopses frst to check if the story line
is something that catches their interest. Tis
means that if your selling tool is bland and
businesslike, that editor or agent might never
move on to your chapters.
Character and conflict
How do you work your best style into the
synopsis? Easy. Remember that every solid
story must have a believable character in con-
fict. We believe in characters when we feel and
think with them. Not in them, but with them.
Tat’s the key. And that element has to be ap-
parent in the opening of your synopsis, just as
it is in the opening of your novel. Readers need
to become one with that main character from
the frst few lines of your novel. In a synopsis,
it has to happen immediately.
Tink of the movie previews you sit through
in theaters before the feature flm begins. In
the brief minute or two that those trailers run,
you’ve seen virtually the entire movie. Tey hit
you fast, make an impact and leave you breath-
less. To shake an editor’s interest, that’s what
your synopsis must do.
When considering character and confict,
it’s ofen difcult deciding what to include
and what to exclude in your synopsis. At this
point, it’s helpful to remember the basics: who,
what, when, where, how and why. In the movie
previews, you never meet every character, just
the main players—and sometimes you never
know any names other than that of the main
character. We are, however, carried along by
essential images or scenes.
Keep that in mind when crafing your syn-
opsis. Do let us know the main character and
his or her confict and any necessary highlights
or turning points in the character’s growth and
plot line. If other characters are essential, use
their names. But if they are relatively minor,
think instead about using words like “friend,”
“father,” “sherif” or whatever the relationship
is to the main character. Doing this will keep
you from needlessly cluttering the synopsis
with names.
Details, details
What other elements are essential? Well,
a little mood and local favor never hurt a
synopsis, although too much can kill its mo-
mentum. It’s always best to choose a minimum
number of setting details, and only when they
enhance the character or confict. A mere men-
tion of a town and state helps set the scene
without going into long summaries of the
character’s surroundings.
Many writers ask, “What about dialogue?”
Isn’t it fun to read dialogue? Quoted words
are indeed the life of your work, whether it is
a novel or an article like this or your synop-
sis. So, yes, you can use dialogue, in small
amounts, and when it ofers a punchy insight
into your character or reveals a plot twist. Do
it sparingly in a synopsis, in places where it
will have the most impact.
Other writers ask, “Does a synopsis have to
be written in third person?” Certainly not. As
a matter of fact, Denise Vitola, author of the
MANY NOVELwriting contests require a
one-page synopsis along with sample chapters.
When my clients call or e-mail, whining about
how in the world they can cut their book down to
a single page, I tell them, “Think back-cover blurb
with a resolution.” This calms them enough that
they realize it can be done if they retrain their
thinking to imagining a beefed-up pitch line.
If, when you are chatting with a fellow writer,
you can share the main idea of your book in a few
sentences, then you can successfully construct a
one-page contest synopsis. Study some back-cover
blurbs in your genre, then work on a similar struc-
ture for your novel. Be sure, however, to include an
implied resolution.
Synopsis for writing contests | 77
popular Ty Merrick novels, encourages novel-
ists to try writing a synopsis in frst person,
especially if their novel is written in frst per-
son. A major advantage of frst person is that
the reader is immediately thrust into the main
character’s emotional and physical perspective.
One major disadvantage is that we can only see
and feel from that character’s perspective.
Writing in third person allows for a wider
view of the whole story, which may be a neces-
sity if your novel has various point-of-view
characters. Synopsis writing for a multiple-
viewpoint novel can be a little tricky, but just
remember to include the minimum perspec-
tives required to give a solid overall summary.
Now, if frst- or third-person point of view
isn’t complicated enough, some writers worry
over using past or present tense. I’ll make it
simple for you. Use present. Te reason is the
immediacy of present tense. Every emotion,
every action comes faster, feels more power-
ful, more potent. Tat’s how you make a strong
impression with an editor or agent.
In the past, a few of my clients who write
only in past tense in their novels have had
trouble switching to present tense in their
synopsis writing. Not a problem. I tell them to
go ahead and write it in past tense, then afer
they’ve fnished, go back and switch all the
verbs to present tense. Voilà. Tey now have a
perfectly constructed present-tense synopsis.
Tere is one other crucial element needed
in a synopsis that many writers ignore. Give us
the resolution of the story. Some writers don’t
want to “give away the ending” in a synopsis.
Listen, the publishing professionals who read
your synopsis are the ones who need to know
that your character has successfully worked
his or her way out of the confict and into a
resolution. Leaving that element out of the
synopsis hurts your marketability. Would you
buy a story from a frst-time author if he or
she hadn’t bothered to show you the ending?
Neither will today’s savvy editors and agents.
A fnal note about what to include and what
not to include: If you bring a person or plot
point up in the synopsis, it must be carried
through to a resolution. You can’t drop a tidbit
in and not follow up on it. Tat’s why it’s so
important to select only what’s paramount to
the character and confict of your novel.
You also have to remember routine format
issues when completing a synopsis. First and
foremost, do your homework to learn any
preferences of the editors or agents you’re
querying. If they have no specifc guidelines
for you to follow, then use the easy-on-the-
eyes industry-standard format, which means:
Double-space your synopsis, use Courier or
Times Roman font in 12 points, and don’t go
over 10 pages of text.
Page amounts can vary from two to 10
pages, depending on the length and complex-
ity of the work. Most commercial romances or
Westerns won’t need more than fve pages, but
a more complex historical novel or thriller can
go up to 10 pages.
Another mechanical issue I must emphasize
is the fnal read-through. Go over your synop-
sis again, looking for all the things I’d look for
if you paid me to do it. Here’s a quick checklist:
• Circle those passive verbs and whip them
into better action verbs.
• Search for any “ly” words and see if they’re
the best descriptive choice. Maybe you can
replace them with stronger words.
• Check for too many details of setting or char-
acter, empty phrases and anything else that is
not needed in a synopsis. Slash them.
• Eliminate all typos, misspellings and gram-
mar problems.
• Keep the length of your synopsis in propor-
tion to the length of your novel.
Synopsis writing is not a writer’s favorite
chore, but it’s important. I hope my sugges-
tions and checklist make it a bit easier for you.
Robyn Conley
The author of Be Your Own Book Doctor, Robyn Conley lives
in Baird, Texas. Web:
• Written in present tense
• Ranges from two to 10 pages, depend-
ing on length of novel
• Double-spaced, in a 12-point Courier
or Times Roman font
• Contains a beginning, middle and end,
with the who, what, when, why and
how of the story given quickly
• Written in your best writing style
• Can include brief dialogue, if it’s
• Must contain a resolution
By Gregg Rosenblum
e’ve all heard the mir-
acle stories of authors
plucked from obscurity
and launched to meteoric
success, but most writers
don’t get their frst stories
published by Te New Yorker,
and don’t go from unpub-
lished to Pulitzer overnight. Te high-paying,
high-profle “slicks,” such as Te New Yorker,
Te Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s, represent
only a fraction of the fne writing created every
day, both by established authors and undiscov-
ered future stars.
So where are most of today’s short sto-
ries and poems published? Look at any Best
American Short Stories or Te O. Henry Prize
anthology, and many, if not most, of the stories
will be from literary magazines. Tere are
literally hundreds of these small-staf, small-
budget magazines providing showcases for
work that deserves to be read, and serving as
vital breeding grounds for emerging writers.
No, you won’t get big paychecks from literary
magazines or become an immediate house-
hold name, but many great writers began their
careers with these publications, honing their
writing chops, building their reputations.
Getting published by a journal is a very
competitive process—for example, Plough-
shares receives 1,000 submissions each month
from all over the world. A handful of impor-
tant tips, however, will help you give your
work the best chance for publishing success.
So here are the 10 things you must know about
literary magazine submissions.
neglect to consult a magazine’s sub-
mission guidelines, you run the risk of
your submission not even being read.
When I was managing editor at Ploughshares,
I received manuscripts every day from authors
who should have, but didn’t, look at our
guidelines and consequently sent submissions
outside our reading period, stories much too
long for us, previously published work, sub-
missions via e-mail, etc.—all work that, even
though it might be good, won’t be considered.
Protect yourself. Always be sure to take a look
at a magazine’s submission guidelines before
sending in your work.
First and foremost, look for the reading pe-
riod. Most literary journals have at least a few
months each year when no submissions are
accepted—this gives the staf a chance to catch
up with their backlog. Ofen this down time is
during the summer, because many journals are
afliated with colleges, but reading periods do
vary. Don’t send your work when the editors
78 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Tips from an | 79
aren’t reading! It’ll just get sent back to you
unread, and your time and postage will have
been wasted. Other important details to check
are maximum word limits, whether simultane-
ous submissions are accepted (see Tip No. 7),
average response time, payment information
and, of course, contact information.
Guidelines can be found in a number of
places: in guidebooks such as Te International
Directory of Little Magazines & Small Presses,
in an issue of the journal itself, and, online,
most easily at the publication’s Web site.
READ THE MAGAZINE. Te best way to
get a feel for a magazine, and to see if
your work might be compatible with
the magazine’s aesthetic, is to read
an issue or two. Ask yourself: Is this a qual-
ity publication? Do you enjoy the writing? Is
your work as good as what you’ve read? Is this
something you’d want to be a part of?
If purchasing a sample issue, keep in mind
that with circulations averaging only 1,000 to
2,000, literary magazines can be hard to fnd
in bookstores. If you can’t fnd a copy, try the
magazine’s Web site for a single-copy purchase.
Of course, buying a sample copy of every
journal to which you might submit would be
too expensive. A magazine’s Web site can be
a great way to get a feel for the publication
without buying an issue—ofen a few samples
of fction and poetry are available online.
may hear otherwise, but I do believe
that a brief cover letter should be
included with your submission. But
please don’t agonize over it! Keep it simple.
Some writers lose sleep over how to draf the
perfect cover letter—the letter that will grab
an editor’s attention and make her believe
that what she is about to read absolutely must
appear in the next issue of the magazine. But
remember, the story or poem itself is what the
magazine is considering. Attempts to “sell”
your submission to an editor in the cover
letter almost always backfre by coming of as
amateurish. Don’t summarize your story or
quote from it; don’t use hyperbolic marketing
language to describe your work; don’t try too
hard to be funny or clever or odd; don’t use
weird fonts in an attempt to stand out.
So what do you say? As an editor, I found
a cover letter handy as a reference for contact
information and brief author background. If
you have published articles, graduate degrees,
or teaching or workshop experience, be sure
to mention them. If not, don’t worry; just a
plain “Tank you for considering my story for
publication” is fne.
CLEAN. It may seem elementary to dis-
cuss manuscript formatting; afer all,
it is the writing itself that ultimately
counts. But any sloppiness—poor grammar,
typos, odd fonts and margins, faint photocop-
ies—are distractions that pull the reader away,
however temporarily, from the appreciation
of the work. Is an editor going to throw away
a great story because of a typo? No. But with
so many other submissions competing against
yours, you need to present your work in the
best possible light.
For standard short-story formatting, use
a 12-point font and double-space your lines.
Print on only one side of the page. Set your
margins at 1 inch on every side. On each
page in the header, include the page number,
your name and the story title. Check care-
fully for typos and missing pages—you’d be
surprised how many manuscripts I received
with pages missing! For any submission
longer than a few pages, mail it fat in a
9-by-12-inch envelope.
Finally, always include a self-addressed,
stamped envelope (SASE) for a response; if
you don’t, you won’t receive a reply.
BE READY TO WAIT. Te Ploughshares
staf, when I was there, consisted of
two full-time editors, two part-time
editors, two volunteer interns and a
handful of volunteer readers. Don’t forget, this
small group received 1,000 submissions each
month. Because of budget constraints, nearly
all literary journals have very small stafs. So
long waits for a response to your submission
are not unusual. Response times vary, but
waits of three to fve months are typical. And
because literary magazines appear only two to
four times each year, if your story is accepted,
it may take another six months to actually see
your work in print.
Be patient! Long waits can be annoying,
but the ratio of staf to submissions means it
takes a long time to give each submission the
fair read it deserves. My advice is to send the
submission, keep track of when and where it
was sent, and then try to forget about it. Keep
writing. Te reply will come—it just might
take a while, unfortunately.
OK, it’s been over fve months, you
haven’t received a reply, and the maga-
zine’s guidelines say its response time
is “up to fve months.” You don’t want to be a
pest, but you’re worried your submission may
have slipped through the cracks. Is it appropri-
ate to query the magazine? Sure. Send a letter
inquiring about the status of your manuscript,
including the original date of your submission
and the name of your story or poem. Don’t
forget to enclose a SASE. If an e-mail address
is readily available, then a polite inquiry by
e-mail should be fne.
Wait until the response time has come and
gone before sending a follow-up; if no re-
sponse guidelines are given, then fve months
is a good rule of thumb.
SIONS. Let’s do the math—if it takes
fve months to receive a response,
and you send the story to 10 literary
magazines before getting that coveted “yes,”
that would be 5 months x 10 submissions = 50
months. Over four years! Te question, then,
is whether it is acceptable to send the same
submission to more than one magazine at the
same time. It depends. I do agree that because
of the slow response times of literary maga-
zines, simultaneous submissions are necessary.
Not all magazines, however, are willing to
accept a submission that is being concurrently
considered elsewhere, and their rules should
be respected. Check the submission guidelines.
If the magazine says simultaneous submissions
will not be considered, then a submission there
should be exclusive. Otherwise, go ahead and
send to fve or six markets at the same time.
As a courtesy, mention in your cover letter
that your manuscript is a simultaneous sub-
mission. Keep careful records of when and
where each submission is sent. If your story is
accepted for publication somewhere, it is your
responsibility to immediately notify everyone
else who has your submission that it is no lon-
ger available. A simple letter saying you need
to withdraw it from consideration is fne.
Every time an editor picks up a sub-
mission, she wants it to blow her away.
But she also knows that this doesn’t
usually happen, and that there’s a large bin
of submissions waiting to be read. Te harsh
reality is that most work does not get read in
its entirety. An editor will stop reading if she is
confdent the story is a rejection, and it usually
doesn’t take the entire manuscript to reach this
decision. I tell you this to impress upon you
the need to make your work as strong as pos-
sible from the frst to the last word. If you’ve
written a story that becomes fantastic on page
4, chances are that page 4 will never be read.
REJECTIONS. With so many submis-
sions to read, literary magazines don’t
have the time to respond personally to
each author. Don’t expect to receive comments
on your work; most submissions receive only a
form-letter response. Keep in mind, therefore,
that any personalization is a positive sign. It
sounds crazy, but yes, there is defnitely such a
thing as a “good” rejection. Literary magazines
reserve their personal responses for authors
who they feel deserve encouragement. Even
a handwritten “Sorry, but thank you” means
your work has impressed a reader enough to
merit some extra attention.
I considered myself a talent scout when I
was reading submissions. I wanted to connect
with authors who showed potential. If I found
work that I didn’t think we should publish but
showed the spark of special talent, I would
ofer an encouraging rejection because, per-
haps a submission or two down the road, that
author would send me something I loved.
published in a literary journal is
a matter of perseverance and pa-
tience and yes, even some luck. It’s a subjective
process, and what doesn’t appeal to one reader
may be loved by another. Don’t be discour-
aged if you’re at the beginning of your career;
editors know that lousy stories can come from
authors with a long list of publications, and
great stories from complete unknowns.
Te best way to succeed is to never stop
writing. Be your own tough critic; always look
to improve. Send your submissions out, then
get yourself back to that desk chair and start
over. Focus on your craf. You may collect a
pile of rejection slips, but remember that great
writing always fnds a home.
Gregg Rosenblum
Gregg Rosenblum is the former managing editor of Plough-
shares. His fiction has been published in Confrontation, The
Florida Review and other literary magazines.
80 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Jane Smiley
“Focus on your work rather than your
career. I taught writing for a long time, and
I used a lot of revision to break down the
students’ resistance to revising their own
work, and to get them really fascinated with
their own stories. You can be a writer for your
whole life and be happy if your own work is
fascinating to you, but if you’re always think-
ing, ‘What’s happening to my career,’ then your
writing life, your relationship to your work,
has a lot of ups and downs. But if you can write
your own work and love it, and love to do it,
and be fascinated by it, then, in my experience,
your career will take care of itself.”
—From an interview with Lewis Burke
Frumkes, May 1999
Wally Lamb
“Te frst thing a writer should do is detach
themselves from the fantasy of bestsellerdom.
Engage in the process of writing, bring patience
to the job, and know that writing is more
about grunt work than inspiration, and that
revision is the real writing.”
—From an interview with Lewis Burke
Frumkes, October 1998
Joan Didion
“Te most important and hardest thing for
any writer to learn is the discipline of sitting
down and writing, even when you have to
spend three days writing bad stuf before the
fourth day, when you write something better. If
you’ve been away from what you’ve been work-
ing on even for a day and a half, you have to
put in those three days of bad writing to get to
the fourth, or you lose the thread, you lose the
rhythm. When you are a young writer, those
three days are so unpleasant that you tend to
think, ‘I’ll go away until the mood strikes me.’
Well, you’re out of the mood because you’re
not sitting there, because you haven’t had that
period of trying to push through till the fourth
day when the rhythm comes.”
—From an interview with Lewis Burke
Frumkes, March 1999
A.S. Byatt
“Stop when you are in the middle of some-
thing that you know the next bit of and are
excited by it. Ten you can take it up again the
next morning. Tat keeps the continuity going.
... If you stop when you know what you are
going to write next, then you do not have the
blank page facing you.”
—From an interview with Lewis Burke
Frumkes, May 1997
Joyce Carol Oates
“Remember that writing is a craf; it’s not
an experience like an emotion. It’s not like
going to a psychiatrist and delivering yourself
of emotions. It’s made up of text, the text has
paragraphs, the paragraphs have sentences,
and all of this has to be coherent and as beauti-
fully composed as you can make it.”
—October 2001
Jonathan Franzen
“I constantly remind myself that there is no
hurry. If I work hard and get nowhere, it’s still
a day well spent. It doesn’t have to be done this
year or even next. When you live in fast-paced
times, that’s a hard thing to know. Remember
there is plenty of time, and don’t accept some-
thing if you think you can do better.”
—February 2002
Paule Marshall
“Recognize that writing is a lifelong ap-
prenticeship, that you are always learning how | 81
Master class for

to write. One of the things that will help you
tremendously is to commit yourself to staying
the course.”
—September 2002
Natalie Goldberg
“A deadline puts you up against the wall.
Tat’s how I do all my writing. If I don’t
have a deadline from someone else, I make
a deadline.”
—From an interview with Scott Edelstein,
December 2001
Robert B. Parker
“Finish it. Te idea isn’t the trick; the execu-
tion is everything. Any story will do as long as
you execute it well.”
—January 2003
Anne Lamott
“I don’t have the kind of confdence you
might assume. Te diference between me and
a lot of people who would want to write is that
I do it anyway. I do it with fear and loathing
and trembling and a lot of really bad thoughts
about how it’s going to be received.”
—April 2003
Daniel Silva
“You have to fnish something. I think
there are a lot of people who can write a cou-
ple of good chapters. When I sold my frst
novel, I had a full manuscript. It didn’t look
a lot like what I ended up publishing, but I
think it’s important to write and fnish, re-
gardless of whether it’s published. It’s such a
satisfying feeling.”
—September 2004
Julia Glass
“You do have to start with what you know,
but if you stay with what you know, you’re go-
ing to be writing in a tunnel. I say, write what
you know but also write what you want to
know, and pretend you know a lot more than
you really do, and do your research later.”
—November 2003
Anne Tyler
“I always say that family life serves the
same useful purpose as those high-rise fres in
disaster movies. It throws people together at
close quarters and allows their true characters
to emerge. And unlike mere friends, family
members can’t very easily give up on each
other and walk away; they have to stick it out.
So there you have the perfect breeding ground
for a plot.”
—From an interview with Bethanne Kelly
Patrick, April 2004
Lorrie Moore
“You should write something you would
never show your parents. ... You have to ven-
ture into something that’s kind of threatening
and kind of forbidden and taps into family
energies and secrets and things. You have to be
braver. ... You can try out anything here. Don’t
be safe.”
—From an interview with Joel McNally,
December 2005
John Knowles
“I don’t think any writer is ever ‘written out.’
It seems to me that the dullest-seeming life in
the world provides material for masterpiece
afer masterpiece. What fails isn’t material or


Wally Lamb Jonathan Franzen Paule Marshall
82 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction | 83



Julia Glass Anne Tyler Daniel Silva
experience but energy, the imaginative energy
to dig down deeply into your subject, where
the truth about it lies, the artistic energy to
form what you fnd there as it should be formed,
and fnally the brute physical energy ... to put it
in words on paper.”
—July 1962
Jane Hamilton
“Every detail you include for the character
has to be psychologically true to that character.
And that’s something you can only accom-
plish with time. You can write something and
think it’s terrifc and really be married to the
sentence—and get distracted by the fact that
the detail in that lovely sentence doesn’t really
ft the character. So you have to be very careful.
Care and time will prove to you whether those
details actually work. God, I’ve come to agree,
is in the details.”
—From an interview with Pegi Taylor,
January 2001
Elizabeth Peters
“If the protagonists of the novel are prop-
erly conceived, they will behave consistently
and comprehensibly.
“... Just because a character is consistent,
however, doesn’t mean his behavior should
always be predictable. In fact, seemingly
irrational behavior makes a character more
realistic; real people don’t always behave sen-
sibly either. Yet if we examine the true motives
that govern their behavior, we fnd it is not
inconsistent, that we ought to have anticipated
it. It is the author’s task to establish this. Te
reaction you want from a reader is a shock
of surprise, followed immediately by a shock
of recognition: ‘Oh, yes, of course. I ought to
have realized ...’ that despite her constant criti-
cism of her son, Amelia would kill to protect
him; that though Emerson complains about
his wife’s recklessness, he is secretly amused
by and appreciative of her courage; that while
Ramses sounds like a pompous little snob, he is
as insecure as most children.”
—April 1994
Donna Tartt
“Character, to me, is the very lifeblood of
fction, and creating character is one of the as-
pects of writing that I love the most. I love the
tradition of Dickens, where even minor walk-
on characters are somehow alive. To create
character, I think, takes a sharp objective eye
but also an intuitive intelligence, receptiveness,
a willingness to make oneself blank in order to
perceive clearly. People are endlessly diferent.
One must see them as they are without project-
ing one’s own values on them.”
—From an interview with Sarah Anne John-
son, August 2003
Sidney Sheldon
“Make your characters live, make them real.
If your readers do not empathize with your
characters, your story, no matter how clever,
must surely fail. Make them love your charac-
ters or hate them. Let the reader be envious of
them or repelled or fascinated; but make the
reader believe. Tere is only one way to do that:
You must believe.”
—November 1980
Caroline Leavitt
“Action is character. You’d no more want
to get involved with a real person who just
stands around doing nothing than you would
with such a fctional character. People moving,
doing things, striving for goals, are living. But
life is three-pronged, made up of the past, the
present and the future, time schemes you need
to be aware of.
“You never meet people in a vacuum. People
don’t spring out at 20 or 40 like new postage
stamps. Tere were things going on in their
pasts, forces and memories that continue to
drive them. A character’s past defnes his pres-
ent, shapes his future, and can give motivations
for behavior that might be less than admirable.
Tis sense of time also helps to move the story
along and give life to it.”
—March 1983
Stuart Woods
“Plotting is a process akin to jazz improvi-
sation: You establish a theme, then improvise
on it. I do this on a chapter-by-chapter basis,
planning the events that take place, then im-
provising the writing. I begin this improvisa-
tion with a situation (i.e., protagonist discovers
skeleton) and build from there.”
—May 2004
Mary Higgins Clark
“Te plot, like the foundation of a house, is
the structure on which all else is built. No mat-
ter how glib the writing, how enchanting the
characters, if the plot doesn’t work, or it works
only because of fagrant coincidence or seven-
page explanations at the climax, I believe the
book is a failure. But where to get the idea?
Easy. Pick up your local newspaper. Te odds
are that on the frst page or two it contains
news of at least one homicide, an aggravated
assault, a bank robbery, a mugging, a jailbreak.
Tere also may be a recap on a criminal trial
that merits national attention, an update on a
series of unsolved murders, and an item about
the child who has been missing six months. In
other words, material for a dozen short stories
or novels.”
—September 1980
Stephen King
“Imagery does not occur on the writer’s
page; it occurs in the reader’s mind. To de-
scribe everything is to supply a photograph in
words; to indicate the points which seem the
most vivid and important to you, the writer,
is to allow the reader to fesh out your sketch
into a portrait. ...
“Good description produces imagery. Te
next question that always comes is, ‘How do
I know what details to include and which to
leave out?’ Te answer to the question is sim-
ply stated but more difcult to apply: Leave in
the details that impress you the most strongly;
leave in the details you see the most clearly;
leave everything else out.”
—October 1980
Shirley Jackson
“In every story there comes a time when
you have to let your reader know what some-
thing looks like. With description, you must
never just let it lie there; nothing in your story
should ever be static unless you have a very
good reason indeed for keeping your reader
still; the essence of the story is motion. Do not
let your chair be ‘a straight chair, with no arms
and a hard wooden seat.’ Let your heroine go
over and take a frm hold of the back of a
straight wooden chair, because at the moment
84 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
Mary Higgins Clark



Donna Tartt Stuart Woods | 85
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86 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
it is stronger than she. Naturally, it is assumed
that you are not going to try to describe any-
thing you don’t need to describe. If it is a sun-
ny day, let the sun make a pattern through the
fence rail; if you don’t care what the weather
is, don’t bother your reader with it. Inanimate
objects are best described or used in motion:
‘Because his cigarette lighter was platinum, he
had taken to smoking far too much.’ ”
—January 1981
Sara Paretsky
“Te more you treat your fction as if you
were a method actor, the better it will be. I
try to imagine myself in V.I.’s situation in such
a way that I feel it physically, and then I de-
scribe those physical sensations as best I can.
Are my palms wet and tingling? Are my knees
trembling? Am I dizzy? Ten V.I. is feeling
that, and the reader should experience what
she is feeling.”
—October 2003
Nevada Barr
“I consider myself to be a professional
sponge. I try to absorb everything on a visceral
level, because I can look up any facts and
fgures I want. I try to absorb what everything
feels, tastes, smells like, what it does to me
emotionally and physically, so I can put that in
the book and people can go there with me.”
—June 2004
Erica Jong
“Edit. Edit. Edit. Scrape of the dirt so that
the diamonds can shine. A lot of writing is
knowing what to take away. Compose with ut-
ter freedom and edit with utter discipline.
“Te two processes must be divorced from
each other. Horace once said that a writer must
keep his piece nine years. In our instant-grati-
fcation world, where novels feed on headlines,
nine years seems like an eternity. Still, let some
time elapse between initial composition and
fnal editing. When you come back, you will
see it with fresh eyes.”
—December 2003
Chang-rae Lee
“Be kind of stubborn about your writing
and be very critical of it. I know immediately
if the younger and beginning writers that I
meet are not good writers, because they tend
to like their stuf. Most every professional
writer I know is very critical of their mate-
rial, even afer it’s published, even afer it has
won prizes, because they’re constantly looking
for other possibilities to push their form. So I
would urge writers to be skeptical of what they
do and to keep pushing. [Don’t] try for the
easy mark.”
—August 2005
Paul Theroux
“One should not have a death grip on one’s
work; one should be able to see it as a whole,
complete it, look at it as if it belonged to some-
one else, abuse it, change it completely, recast
it and—with all of this—take immense joy in
the destruction, or changing. One should be
objective enough to know if it is terrible; and
if one’s writing does turn out to be terrible,
one should know enough about butchery to
squash it like a fat stupid mosquito and quietly
start again.
“All I am saying here is that, in spite of what
people say, books are not little kiddies. One
should not be gentle with them. It is needful
Nevada Barr Erica Jong


Sara Paretsky

Advice and inspiration for today’s writer
to make 2010 your best year ever p. 40
December 2009
r n


On building from ideas and details
“Voice and point of view are closely intertwined; therefore, it’s the hard-
est thing to teach. ... Don’t look for your voice; just say things as clearly
and as vividly as you can say them, and that will be your voice.” p. 20
Use rumor to reveal
your character’s true
nature p. 36
Inventive new-word
sites of er story ideas
and inspiration p. 26
A story writer learns to love conflict and action p. 15
FOR YOUR WORK p. 47, 53
WRITER p. 24

computer problems—and

how to fix them p. 38
When and how to connect with editors
on Facebook, Twitter and other sites p. 8
your character’s true
nature p. 36
Inventive new-word
sites of er story ideas
and inspiration p. 26
A story writer learns to love conflict and action p. 15
When and how to connect with editors
on Facebook, Twitter and other sites p. 8
and inspiration
A story writer learns to love conflict and action p. 15
on Facebook, Twitter and other sites
Advice and inspiration for today’s writer
10 CO

and the best ways to resolve them p. 22
November 2009


STEP BY STEP This versatile element of storytelling can add depth and drama,
foreshadow what will come, and help develop characters p. 28
• 5 WAYS to improve your use of setting p. 32
• HOW TO f nd the soul of a place p. 34
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty,
wet hole, f lled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor
yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to
eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
“It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green,
with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. T e door
opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable
tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and f oors tiled and carpeted,
provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—
the hobbit was fond of visitors.”

–From T e Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Worth the effort “Over time writing clearly becomes a discipline ... . Good stories
are worth any work they require, and a strong narrative gathers
a kind of joyful weight I’d hate to do without.” p. 58
JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS On f nding a way into a story through a voice, not an idea p. 18
FOR BEGINNERS Avoid the 10 worst
habits of writers
p. 13
5 TIPS for giving a
valuable critique
p. 36
COPYWRITING What to do when your
client hates your copy—
and other challenges p. 38
FREELANCING How to f nd, sell and
write true-life features
p. 26

and the best ways to resolve them

and the best ways to resolve them

This versatile element of storytelling can add depth and drama,
foreshadow what will come, and help develop characters p. 28
5 WAYS to improve your use of setting
• HOW TO f nd the soul of a place
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty,
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty,
wet hole, f lled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor
wet hole, f lled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor
yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to
yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to
Avoid the 10 worst
habits of writers
5 TIPS for giving a
for giving a
valuable critique
COPYWRITING What to do when your
client hates your copy—
and other challenges p. 38
How to f nd, sell and
write true-life features
p. 28
5 WAYS to improve your use of setting
HOW TO f nd the soul of a place
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty,
wet hole, f lled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor
yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to
yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to
eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
habits of writers
valuable critique
COPYWRITING What to do when your
client hates your copy—
and other challenges
How to f nd, sell and
write true-life features
October 2009
Advice and inspiration for today’s writer
12 Mystery
missteps you
want to avoid
p. 33
How to write
about friends &
family without
losing them p. 13
using the 9 elements
of behavior p. 28
Read this primer
before you sign on
the dotted line p. 40
Why memoir involves
‘true’ stories and
necessary lies p. 38
5 TECHNIQUES from a veteran novelist on writing a great
opening that pulls readers into your story
Making a character ‘real’
“Writers take what they need and put it all into the blender.
You turn it into your own smoothie and pour it out.” p. 20
A good way to start
“A story is a good way of easing your way into something and
deciding whether it’s a long or short narrative. T ree of my novels
have started as short stories.” p. 58
Making the commitment
“You need time to make mistakes, you need days to mull and get
little down on paper, you need time on both sides of you to feel
truly free.” p. 24

U.S. and Canadian
markets looking
for YOUR work p. 49
3 top authors on
Hook your readers
at the start p. 30
7 W
to develop a strong relationship with editors p. 35
opening that pulls readers into your story
Making a character ‘real’
“Writers take what they need and put it all into the blender.
You turn it into your own smoothie and pour it out.”
A good way to start
“A story is a good way of easing your way into something and
deciding whether it’s a long or short narrative. T ree of my novels
have started as short stories.”
Making the commitment
“You need time to make mistakes, you need days to mull and get
little down on paper, you need time on both sides of you to feel
truly free.”
ook your
at the start
he start
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88 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
to say this because, while some writers are
capable of writing well, all writers are capable
of writing badly.”
—March 1968
Mark Haddon
“Remove yourself from the picture. Put
yourself completely at the disposal of your
characters, your situation, your story. Don’t
give in to the temptation to show of or to
indulge yourself. No one is reading the book
to fnd out about you. Quite the opposite. A
good book will help the readers fnd out more
about themselves.”
—February 2005
Alexander McCall Smith
“Control the ego. Te ego gets in the way
of writing, and people who are inclined to
be autobiographical in their writing or too
concerned about their personal reaction to
the world actually are going to fnd it difcult
to develop good writing. You have to put the
ego to one side and train yourself to observe
other people and get involved with the reality
of other people. It’s amazing how many people
don’t do that. Stop worrying about yourself
and immerse yourself in the other. Listen to
what other people are saying.”
—November 2004
Barbara Delinsky
“One of the questions I’m most frequently
asked is whether I create the plot before the
characters, or vice versa. A natural follow-up
to that question is whether star players are
created before the supporting cast. My answer
to both questions is the same: It depends on
the novel. Te general assumption would be
that major characters are created frst and
minor characters are added as needed, rather
like salt and pepper, for favor; yes, this is what
happens most ofen. But there are exceptions.
I am currently plotting a book with another
small-town setting, and I actually have half a
dozen members of the supporting cast already
chosen, while I’m still grappling with the ma-
jor theme of the book and, hence, the identity
of the stars.
“Neither way is right or wrong. What is
wrong is if a writer gets so hung up on which
should come frst that he or she is stalled and
can’t write at all!”
—December 1998
Jacquelyn Mitchard
“I know people who have splendid stories in
their heads, but they won’t sit down because
they don’t know where to begin. You can begin
with ‘Once upon a time’ and go back later and
fnd out where the story truly begins, because
it will show you where it truly begins.”
—September 2005
Carl Hiaasen
“Technically, the way I start is usually with,
one by one, a cast of characters I’m sort of fd-
dling with in the back of my head and then on
paper—characters I’d like to get on stage and
see what happens.”
—June 2003
Kazuo Ishiguro
“I realized [while reading the beginning of
Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Tings Past]
that as a novelist, you did not necessarily have
to tell a story by going from one solid, well-
built scene to the next. You could actually
Mark Haddon Jacquelyn Mitchard


Chang-rae Lee

r | 89
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90 | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
mimic the way memory runs through some-
one’s mind. You can have a fragment of a
scene dovetailed into a scene that takes place
30 years later. You don’t have to have whole
scenes. You can make references to things and
come back to them later.”
—From an interview with Lewis Burke
Frumkes, May 2001
T. Jefferson Parker
“Before starting a new book, I make a
deal with myself. It doesn’t involve character,
atmosphere, structure or setting. Rather, it’s an
agreement I make with my reader, something
to keep me honest over the long haul of writ-
ing a novel.
“Here are my rules when I begin.
“One: Write as well as you can, never down,
always up to your readers; do not pander; do
not cheat; do not be dishonest. If something
rings false to me, it will surely ring false to my
reader, too. Treat that reader with the same
respect with which you treat yourself.
“Two: Make sure that what you’re ofer-
ing your readers is worth the several hours of
reading it will take. You can make a thousand
promises to your readers in the opening pages
of a book, and you will have to make good
on every one in a surprising, satisfying and
believable way. Deliver. Afer all, your pact
implies that your readers will leave the novel
somehow richer. Give your readers the bargain
of a lifetime.
“Tree: Don’t be afraid to entertain: You
are writing popular fction, not an instruction
manual, a position paper or an essay.
“Four: Leave your readers with a feeling of
something experienced, not just something
read. Give them an emotional reality. Make
it impossible for them to simply chuck your
book into the wastebasket when they’ve fn-
ished reading it and grab the next one. Make
your novel linger, haunt, last.”
—February 1997
John Updike
“Try to write in such a way as to give oth-
ers pleasure. My belief and the kind of writer
I’m attracted to is a writer who gives pleasure
—the prose writer who does a little more than
what is strictly called for to deliver the image
or the facts. I’m not a very fast reader, so I
like to open up a book and feel some whif
of poetry or of extra efort or of something
inventive going on, so that even read back-
wards, a paragraph of prose will yield some-
thing to the sense. I’ve just tried to write in a
way that would entertain and please me, if I
were the reader.”
—From an interview with Leonard Lopate,
July 2001
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
“I like my novels to be open-ended. I want
readers to be thinking of what the characters
might be doing beyond the pages of the book.
Tat to me keeps the reading experience of a
book alive.”
—From an interview with Sarah Anne John-
son, March 2004
J.A. Jance
“Tat’s the real secret of writing—creating
something that is logical enough to be be-
lievable and magical enough so that readers
will care what happens to the characters in
the story.”
—January 2004


Alexander McCall Smith Carl Hiaasen J.A. Jance
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From the editors of The Writer magazine
Key words and
phrases you
should know

• Essential books
for your library
• Useful Web sites
to bookmark
• Notable groups
you can join
Amount a publisher pays a writer
before a book is published; it is deducted
from the royalties earned from sales of the
finished book.
Agented material
Submissions from literary or dramatic
agents to a publisher. Some publishing
companies, especially larger ones, accept
agented material only.
All rights
Some magazines purchase all rights to
the material they publish, which means
they can use it as they wish, as many times
as they wish. They cannot purchase all
rights unless the writer gives them written
permission to do so.
Contract, written or oral, between an
editor and writer, confirming that the
writer will complete a specific project by a
certain date and for a certain fee.
Back matter
Section after the main text of a book, in-
cluding index, bibliography and end notes.
Book outline
Chapter-by-chapter summary of a
book, frequently in paragraph form, allow-
ing an editor to evaluate the book’s content,
tone and pacing, and determine whether
he or she wants to see the entire manu-
script for possible publication.
Book packager
Company that puts together all the ele-
ments of a book, from initial concept to
writing, publishing and marketing.
Author’s name as it appears on a pub-
lished piece.
Copies of a writer’s published work,
often used by editors to evaluate the
writer’s talent.
Column inch
One inch of a typeset column; often
serves as a basis for payment.
Manuscript pages before they are set
into type.
Copy editing
Line-by-line editing to correct errors in
spelling, grammar, punctuation and incon-
sistencies in style. Differs from content
editing, which evaluates flow, logic and
overall message.
B | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction
you should know
Legal protection of creative works from
unauthorized use. Under the law, copyright
is secured automatically when the work is
set down for the first time in written or
recorded form.
Cover letter
Brief letter that accompanies a manu-
script or book proposal. A cover letter is
not a query letter (see definition).
Date on which a written work is due
at the editor’s office, agreed to by author
and editor.
Complete version of an article, story
or book. First drafts are often called
rough drafts.
Electronic rights
Refers to the use of an article in elec-
tronic form, rather than hard-copy for-
mats. The term is not very precise, and it is
a good idea to pin down exactly what the
publisher means by electronic rights, and
consider what rights are reasonable to
allow considering the fee, advance or roy-
alty amount being offered.
Fair use
Provision of the copyright law allowing
brief passages of copyrighted material to
be quoted without infringing on the own-
er’s rights.
Article that is generally longer than a
news story and whose main focus is an
issue, trend or person.
Brief item used to fill out a newspaper
or magazine column; could be a news item,
joke, anecdote or puzzle.
First serial rights
The right of a magazine or newspaper
to publish a work for the first time in any
periodical. After that, all rights revert to
the writer.
First North American serial rights;
refers to the specific right to use an au-
thor’s work in a serial periodical, in North
America, for its first appearance. There-
after, rights to reprint the work remain
with the author.
Author of books, articles and speeches
that are credited to someone else.
Hard copy
The printed copy of material written on
a computer.
A modest, token fee paid by a publica-
tion to an author for a submission.
Internet rights
Refers to the rights to post an author’s
work on a website, and possibly to distrib-
ute or allow the distribution of the article
via the Internet. See also electronic rights.
International reply coupon; included
with any correspondence or submission to
a foreign publication; allows the editor to
reply by mail without incurring cost.
Kill fee
Fee paid for an article that was assigned
but subsequently not published; usually a
percentage of the amount that would have
been paid if the work had been published.
Lead time
Time between the planning of a maga-
zine or book and its publication date. | C
False accusation or published statement
that causes a person embarrassment, loss
of income or damage to reputation.
Little magazines
Publications, often literary journals,
with limited circulation whose content
often deals with literature or politics.
Mass market
Books appealing to a very large seg-
ment of the reading public and often sold
in such outlets as drugstores, supermar-
kets, airports, etc.
Listing of the names and titles of a pub-
lication’s staff members.
Abbreviation for “manuscript”; mss is
the plural abbreviation.
Multiple submissions
Also called simultaneous submissions.
Complete manuscripts sent simultaneously
to different publications. Once universally
discouraged by editors, the practice is gain-
ing more acceptance, though some still
frown on it. Multiple queries are generally
accepted, however, since reading them
requires less of an investment in time on
the editor’s part. Writers should inform
publications if their query or manuscript is
a simultaneous submission.
NA rights
North American rights; Sometimes
appears as 1st NA; refers to the right to
publish the North American appearance of
a piece of work, leaving the author free to
market other appearances of the same
work elsewhere.
On speculation
Editor agrees to consider a work for
publication “on speculation”—“on spec”—
without any guarantee that he or she will
ultimately buy the work.
One-time rights
Editor buys a manuscript from writer
and agrees to publish it one time, after
which the rights revert to the author for
subsequent sales.
A newspaper opinion piece, usually
printed opposite the editorial page, that
expresses a personal viewpoint on a timely
news item.
Describes the submission of unsolicited
material by a freelance writer; the term
harks back to the time when mail was
delivered through the open window above
an office door.
Payment on acceptance
Payment to writer when a manuscript
is submitted.
Payment on publication
Payment to writer when a manuscript
is published.
Pen name
Also called pseudonym. A name other
than his or her legal name that an author
uses on written work.
Line-by-line review before publication
to ensure error-free copy.
Public domain
Published material that is available for
use without permission, either because it
was never copyrighted or because its copy-
right term is expired. Works published at
least 75 years ago are considered in the
public domain.
D | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction | E
Q-and-A format
One type of presentation for an inter-
view article, in which questions are
printed, followed by the interview sub-
ject’s answers.
Query letter
Letter—usually no longer than one
page—in which a writer proposes an article
idea to an editor.
Rejection slip
Printed note in which a publication
indicates that it is not interested in a sub-
Reporting time
Also called response time. The weeks
or months it takes for an editor to evaluate
a submission.
Reprint rights
The legal right of a magazine or news-
paper to print an article, story or poem
after it has already appeared elsewhere.
A percentage of the amount received
from retail sales of a book, paid to the
author by the publisher. For hardcovers,
the royalty is generally 10 percent on the
first 5,000 copies sold; 12
⁄2 percent on the
next 5,000 sold; 15 percent thereafter.
Paperback royalties range from 4 to 8 per-
cent, depending on whether it’s a trade or
mass-market book.
Self-addressed, stamped envelope,
required with all submissions that the
author wishes returned—either for return
of material or (if you don’t need material
returned) for editor’s reply.
Slush pile
The stack of unsolicited manuscripts in
an editor’s office.
Subsidiary rights
Rights that are subsidiary to the right of
a publisher to use an author’s work: foreign
rights, audiobook rights, motion picture
and television rights, etc.
Tear sheets
The pages of a magazine or newspaper
on which an author’s work is published.
Unsolicited submission
A manuscript that an editor did not
specifically ask to see.
Vanity publisher
Also called subsidy publisher. A pub-
lishing company that charges an author all
costs of printing his or her book.
Web rights
See Internet rights.
Work for hire
When a work is written on a “for hire”
basis, all rights in it become the property of
the publisher. Though the work-for-hire
clause applies mostly to work done by reg-
ular employees of a company, some editors
offer work-for-hire agreements to freelanc-
ers. Think carefully before signing such
agreements, however, since by doing so
you will essentially be signing away your
rights and will not be able to try to resell
your work on your own.
Refers to the right to publish an article
anywhere in the world (however, this right
may be limited by other wording in a con-
tract to publication in the English language
only, or in print only, or in electronic form
only, etc.).
Writers guidelines
A formal statement of a publication’s
editorial needs, payment schedule, dead-
lines and other essential information.
The business of writing
ALL EXPERIENCE LEVELS, edited by Timothy
Harper (St. Martin’s Griffin). A complete
guide to freelancing. Includes planning a
writing business, how to write a magazine
query, how to decide if you’re ready to go
full time, and what you need to know
about contracts.
KETING by David Cole (Allworth Press).
Helps writers understand the publishing
business and book marketing.
YOU WRITE by David Taylor (Peak Writing
Press). Tips on writing great queries, get-
ting assignments and working with editors.
by Judy Mandell (John Wiley & Sons). Top
editors from Esquire, Parade, Ladies Home
Journal and other periodicals discuss the
business of magazine publishing and offer
tips for breaking into the market.
ASSIGNMENTS by Jenna Glatzer (Nomad
Press). Practical advice on starting and
maintaining a freelance writing career.
WRITING SUCCESS by Linda Formichelli
and Diana Burrell (Marion Street Press).
A different take on freelance writing,
aimed at helping you to prosper by “break-
ing the rules.” Also check out the second
book in the Renegade Writers series:
Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell (Mar-
ion Street Press). Includes examples
of successful query letters and advice from
magazine editors.
Elizabeth Lyon (Perigee). You’ve written
your novel. Now what? Pick up this book
for a step-by-step guide to getting it pub-
lished. Also see Lyon’s A WRITER’S GUIDE
TO NONFICTION (Perigee), which takes
you through the steps of writing essays,
memoirs, self-help and other nonfiction
articles and books.
Bowerman (Fanove Publishing). A blue-
print for building a freelance writing busi-
ness, focusing on writing for corporate
clients. Also see Bowerman’s THE WELL-FED
Publishing), with advice for writing better,
finding new markets, building your busi-
ness, and making more money.
for your library
F | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction | G
The craft of writing
ING, edited by Paul Mandelbaum (Persea
Books). Offers insight from each of the 12
authors on the writing process.
Norm Goldstein (Perseus Publishing). The
style guide of choice for reporters and edi-
tors at newspapers and many magazines,
organized in magazine form.
(Anchor Books). This classic, down-to-
earth guide for writers is witty and wise.
ed. (The University of Chicago Press). Ref-
erence guide for writers and editors, in a
recently revised edition.
by Lynne Truss (Gotham). Witty and
chatty book by an English grammarian on
proper grammar and punctuation.
Plotnik (iUniverse). A compact and acces-
sible guide that shows readers how to ex-
press their thoughts and feelings in writing
and speaking.
William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (Pear-
son). “No book in shorter space, with few-
er words, will help any writer more than
this persistent little volume,” says The
Boston Globe.
David E. Sumner and Holly G. Miller
(Blackwell Publishing Ltd.). A textbook
that teaches you everything you need to
know about writing for magazines.
Olen Butler (Grove Press). Provocative lec-
tures on the creative process by a Pulitzer
Prize winner. Its theme: why fiction must
come from your dreams and how yearning
must be the driving force behind plot.
DREN’S BOOKS, 4th ed., by James Cross
Giblin (Writer’s Institute Publications). A
treasure trove of information for writers of
both fiction and nonfiction.
POETRY CIRCLE by Molly Peacock (River-
head Books). This volume, which explains
how and why some poems work, is a valu-
able guide for those who write poetry and
those who read it.
AND GET IT PUBLISHED by Barbara Seuling
(Wiley). Covers all the basics of writing
for children.
by Brenda Ueland (Graywolf Press). A gem
full of inspiration, instruction and refresh-
ing advice, such as why women who do
too much housework should neglect it for
their writing.
Jacobi (Indiana University Press). The art
of article writing is demystified with Jaco-
bi’s hands-on and practical approach.
Jacobi provides numerous examples of suc-
cessful articles to illustrate his points.
Robert Boynton (Vintage). Offers 19 inter-
views with journalists such as Gay Talese,
Susan Orlean and Jane Kramer. Discusses
craft, research, inspiration and interview-
ing techniques.
Gardner (W.W. Norton & Co.). A must-
have for aspiring novelists, this book is the
product of John Gardner’s 20-year career
as a fiction writer and creative-writing
teacher. Also see Gardner’s THE ART OF FIC-
WRITERS (Vintage).
CRAFT by Stephen King (Pocket Books).
Advice and reflections on the writing life
by one of the bestselling authors of all time.
NONFICTION by William Zinsser (Harper-
Collins). A must-read for beginners, but a
worthwhile, wonderfully written refresher
course for more experienced writers. Also
see Zinsser’s WRITING TO LEARN (Harper-
Collins), which focuses on how to write
clearly about any subject.
(St. Martin’s Press). A commonsensical ap-
proach to plotting—one that begins with
an intimate knowledge of characters, then
moves on to creating conflict and suspense.
VERSE by Mary Oliver (A Mariner Origi-
nal, Houghton Mifflin). The Pulitzer Prize-
winning poet’s guide to writing metrical
verse. Essential in any poet’s library.
ION by Tom Bailey (Oxford University
Press). Bailey walks you through the ele-
ments of writing a short story, including
character, point of view, plot and setting.
He also pays attention to voice, literary
techniques and the idea of fictional truth.
(Times Books). Introductions by John
Darnton and Jane Smiley. Each volume
contains more than 40 essays from The
New York Times’ insightful “Writers on
Writing” column.
from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop
(Bloomsbury). This volume covers all the
bases, including creating characters, focus,
point of view, description, dialogue, pacing
and voice.
(Houghton Mifflin). Often used as a text-
book in creative-writing courses, this book
discusses “the essential techniques of fic-
tion and how they function.”
(J.P. Tarcher). Cameron’s bestselling book
is the bible on creativity for many artists
and writers.
(Henry Holt). Even if you have no fear of
writing, Keyes’ book is filled with wisdom
and encouragement for writers.
CREATIVE LIFE by Alexandra Johnson
(Anchor Books). Shows how writers such
as Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, Katherine
Mansfield and May Sarton have used jour-
naling to enhance their writing.
WHY I WRITE by George Orwell (Pen-
guin Books). Contains four lengthy essays
with some of the greatest writing advice
ever offered.
WRITE MIND by Eric Maisel (J.P.
Tarcher). Maisel lists 299 things writers
should never say to themselves and coun-
ters with what they should say instead.
These short affirmations can give you a
jump-start when you need it.
Goldberg (Shambhala Publications).
Worth reading for the exercise on “timed
writing” alone. Goldberg takes a refreshing
Zen approach to writing, offering both
inspiration and instruction.
WRITING SPIRIT by Lynn Andrews (Jef-
frey P. Tarcher). Advice and encourage-
ment from a “mystic.” Includes unconven-
tional methods such as drawing a Writer’s
Wheel to see your work in a new light.
Mary Pipher (Riverhead Books). Focusing
on nonfiction writing, this book provides
inspiration and practical tips for those who
want to use their words to effect change.
H | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction | I
Absolute Write
Hosted by Jenna Glatzer, author of Out-
witting Writer’s Block (Lyons Press). For all
types of writers, from freelancers to screen-
writers. Includes articles, courses and mar-
ket information.
The Academy of American Poets
Features essays on poetry, biographies
of more than 450 poets, texts and audio
files of hundreds of poems, poetry news
and events.
American Society of Journalists
and Authors
America’s “leading organization of
independent nonfiction writers.” Member-
ship includes market information, a refer-
ral service and workshops.
Arts & Letters Daily
Links to hundreds of news sources,
including daily highlights of the best arti-
cles, reviews and essays.
Association of Authors’
Searchable database of literary agencies.
Provides free, searchable access to clas-
sic fiction, nonfiction, poetry collections
and reference books.
BNET’s FindArticles
Search and read millions of articles
from more than 700 publications.
Book publishing news, statistics and
resources for authors, agents, booksellers
and publishers.
Common Errors in English
Should you use “who” or “whom”” Find
out on this site, where the differences be-
tween oft-confused words are explained.
Cool Stuff 4 Writers
Offers fun gifts for writers; also features
author interviews and articles on writing.
Fiction Addiction
Provides resources for fiction writers
and readers, including how-to articles,
author interviews, book reviews and more.
to bookmark
Fiction Factor
Online magazine dedicated to the craft
of fiction writing.
Freelance Writing
Industry news, as well as job and net-
working opportunities for writers, PR pros
and researchers.
Freelancers in the media, finance, IT,
marketing and sales fields can post their
resumés and create portfolios for employ-
ers to browse.
International Trademark
Is it “laundromat” or “Laundromat”?
Search the Trademark Checklist to find the
correct usage for 3,000 registered trade-
marks and service marks.
Search for definitions, homonyms, ant-
onyms and rhymes.
Journalism Jobs
A popular resource for print and elec-
tronic media jobs, with a database of resu-
més for journalists.
Kid Magazine Writers
Devoted to writing for children’s maga-
zines; includes market guide and articles.
Library Spot
An award-winning research tool for
writers and others, with links to hundreds
of library and reference sites.
Job board and resumé site for mainly
New York media jobs, including print
and TV, plus industry news and network-
ing opportunities.
Merriam-Webster Online
Check your spelling, find synonyms,
translate words from English to Spanish,
and view the word of the day with this
online dictionary.

National Novel Writing Month
Every November, writers are urged
to craft a 50,000-word novel in 30 days,
with the encouragement from everyone
at NaNoWriMo.
National Writers Union
The “only labor union that represents
freelance writers in all genres, formats and
media.” Membership includes access to
education, grievance, networking and
employment resources.
Provides links to hundreds of maga-
zines, newspapers, government agencies
and more.
The New York Times Newsroom
Hundreds of links in various categories,
maintained by The New York Times for use
by its staff.
Publishers Weekly
Book publishing news, features and
reviews. Subscribers to Publishers Weekly
magazine have complete access to the site.
J | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction | K
Find addresses, editor contacts, circula-
tion data and more with this searchable
database of 150,000 print and electronic
magazines, journals and newsletters.
Query Tracker
Search for agents, organize and track
your query letters, and interact with other
writers on the site.
Easy access to hundreds of reference
sources, from maps and dictionaries to
libraries and quotations.
Romance Writers of America
Information about RWA membership,
contests and conferences to help the aspir-
ing and published romance writer.

Science Fiction and Fantasy
Writers of America
News and advice about reading, writing
and publishing science fiction and fantasy.
The Writer Beware section posts informa-
tion on literary scams and problematic
publishers and agents.
Smart Writers
Focuses on children’s books; features a
monthly journal with the latest news in
children’s books.
Society of Children’s Book
Writers and Illustrators
News, events and resources for chil-
dren’s book writers and illustrators, hosted
by the largest children’s writing organiza-
tion in the world.
SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists
and Writers Network)
Offers links to research sources, pub-
lishers, printers and the media, and up-to-
date market information.
U.S. Copyright Office
News and information related to copy-
right law, including registration forms, reg-
ulations and copyright records from 1978
to the present.
Web del Sol
A “literary arts new media complex”
featuring links to literary publications,
chapbook collections, original fiction and
writing programs.
An online community for word lovers;
features the A.Word.A.Day (AWAD)
newsletter that boasts more than half a
million subscribers.

WorldWide Freelancer
News, resources and a monthly news-
letter for writers working abroad or selling
to foreign publications. Features two inter-
national market databases.
The Writer’s Almanac
Hosted by Garrison Keillor, this site is
updated daily with a poem and the day’s
literary and historical notes.
Writing World
A wealth of information for writers,
including hundreds of articles, extensive
publishing links, a contest database and a
“Writers Wanted” section.
Academy of American Poets
584 Broadway, Ste. 604, New York, NY
10012. 212-274-0343.
Nonprofit organization that supports poets
and promotes poetry appreciation. Spon-
sors several book awards and National
Poetry Month; organizes poetry events and
readings. Membership open to all; benefits
include subscription to American Poet, dis-
counted admission to Academy events, and
subscription to monthly e-newsletter.
Dues: $35 and up.

American Society of Journalists
and Authors
1501 Broadway, Ste. 302, New York,
NY 10036. 212-997-0947.
National organization of independent writ-
ers of nonfiction, promoting high stan-
dards of writing. Benefits include referral
services and a monthly newsletter with
confidential market information. Member-
ship is open to professional freelance writ-
ers of nonfiction; qualifications are judged
by the membership committee. Call or
write for application details. Hosts annual
writers conference. Initiation fee: $75.
Dues: $195.
The Authors Guild
31 E. 32nd St., Fl. 7, New York, NY
10016. 212-563-5904. www.authorsguild.
org. The largest organization of published
writers in America. Membership offers
access to website-building software for
writers, with discounted site-hosting fees,
free reviews of publishing and agency
contracts, access to group health insurance,
and seminars on subjects of concern. Writ-
ers who have published a book in the
past seven years with an established pub-
lisher, or those who have published three
articles in general-circulation periodicals
in the previous 18 months, are eligible for
active membership. Unpublished writers
with a contract offer may be eligible for
associate membership. First-year annual
dues: $90.
Horror Writers Association
244 5th Ave., Ste. 2767, New York, NY
10001. Organization of
writers and publishing professionals dedi-
cated to promoting dark literature. Spon-
sors the annual Bram Stoker Awards.
Membership benefits include mentoring,
conferences, online courses and monthly
newsletter. Membership levels exist for new
writers, published authors and publishing
professionals. Dues: $65.

International Association of
Crime Writers, North American
P.O. Box 8674, New York, NY 10116.
you can join
L | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction | M
Promotes communications among crime
writers worldwide, encourages translation
of crime writing into other languages, and
defends authors against censorship. The
North American branch also sponsors con-
ferences, publishes a quarterly newsletter,
Border Patrol, and awards the annual Ham-
mett prize for literary excellence in crime
writing (fiction or nonfiction) by a U.S. or
Canadian author. Membership is open to
published authors of crime fiction, nonfic-
tion and screenplays. Agents, editors, crit-
ics and booksellers are also eligible to
apply. Dues: $60.
International Women’s Writing
P.O. Box 810, Gracie Sta., New York,
NY 10028. 212-737-7536.
A network for personal and professional
empowerment of women through writing.
Services include six issues of a 32-page
newsletter, and a list of literary agents and
independent small presses. Also offers
publishing services, access to a group
health insurance plan, reduced rates at
writing conferences, referral services and
events, including an annual summer con-
ference at Skidmore College in Saratoga
Springs, N.Y. Any woman may join, re-
gardless of portfolio. Dues: $30 and up.
Mystery Writers of America
1140 Broadway., Ste. 1507, New York,
NY 10001. 212-888-8171. www.mystery Works to raise the prestige of
mystery and detective writing, to encour-
age the reading of mysteries, and to defend
the rights and increase the income of all
writers in mystery, detection and fact-
crime writing. Each year, MWA presents
the Edgar Allan Poe Awards for the best
mystery writing in a variety of fields. Open
to writers who have sold a mystery, sus-
pense or crime book, and professionals in
allied fields. Affiliate membership open to
unpublished writers. Dues: $95.
National Association of Science
P.O. Box 7905, Berkeley, CA 94707.
510-647-9500. Promotes
and helps to improve the flow of accurate
information about science in the media.
Anyone actively engaged in the dissemina-
tion of science information is eligible to
apply. Members must be principally in-
volved in reporting on science through
print, TV or other media that reach the
public directly. Dues: $35-90.
The National League of
American Pen Women
National Headquarters, Pen Arts Bldg.,
1300 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C.
20036. 202-785-1997. www.american Promotes development of
the creative talents of professional women
in the arts. Membership is through local
branches, in the categories of Art, Letters
and Music. Dues: $55.
National Writers Association
10940 S. Parker Rd. #508, Parker, CO
80134. 303-841-0246. www.national Full-service organization
assisting writers in everything from manu-
script formatting and editing to contract
suggestions, networking, and medical and
legal services. Awards cash prizes in five
contests every year. Referral services, con-
ferences and financial assistance also
offered. Dues: $35-$85.
National Writers Union
256 W. 38th St., Ste. 703, New York,
NY 10018. 212-254-0279.
Works for equitable payment and fair treat-
ment for freelance writers through collec-
tive action. Offers contract and agent
information, group health insurance, press
credentials, grievance handling, a quarterly
magazine, sample contracts and resource
materials. Membership open to writers
who have published a book, play, three
articles, five poems, a short story; or the
equivalent amount of newsletter, publicity,
technical, commercial, government or
institutional copy; or have written unpub-
lished material and are actively seeking
publication. Dues: $120-$340.
Outdoor Writers Association of
121 Hickory St., Ste. 1, Missoula, MT
59801. 406-728-7434. Non-
profit organization of outdoor communica-
tors. Referral services and conferences.
Dues: $30-$150.
PEN American Center
588 Broadway, Ste. 303 New York, NY
10012. 212-334-1660. Hu-
man-rights association created to defend
freedom of expression, promote literature
and foster international literary fellowship.
Defends writers in prison or facing impris-
onment for their work, runs public literacy
programs, and offers grants and loans to
writers. To be eligible for full membership,
a writer must have published two literary
books or one book of “exceptional distinc-
tion.” Benefits include a subscription to
PEN America, access to medical insurance
at group rates (not available in all states),
discounts to PEN programs and more.
Dues: $20-$100.
Poetry Society of America
15 Gramercy Park, New York, NY
10003. 212-254-9628. www.poetrysociety.
org. Community of poets and readers who
promote poetry on a national level. Spon-
sors Poetry in Motion, which places poetry
on public transportation, annual poetry
awards and poetry events nationwide.
Membership open to all; benefits include
discounted admission to PSA events, sub-
scription to Crossroads: The Journal of the
Poetry Society of America and 10% dis-
count on PSA online store items. Dues: $25
and up.
Professional Writers Association
of Canada
215 Spadina Ave., Ste. 123, Toronto,
ON M5T 2C7. 416-504-1645. www.pwac.
ca. National nonprofit organization for
freelance writers. Offers a comprehensive
package of benefits and services to support,
develop and expand the careers of its 600
members. Benefits include publications,
work leads and professional discounts.
Dues: $40-$240.
Romance Writers of America
14615 Benfer Rd.., Houston, TX 77069.
832-717-5200. Non-
profit organization for writers in the U.S.
and abroad interested in romantic fiction.
Offers conferences and awards, including
the RITA for a published romance and the
Golden Heart for an unpublished manu-
script. Dues: $10-$85.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Writers of America
P.O. Box 877, Chestertown, MD 21620.
Fax: 410-778-3052. Pro-
motes the professional interests of science
fiction and fantasy writers. Presents annual
Nebula Award for excellence in the field.
Publishes the Bulletin and SFWA Hand-
book for members (also available to non-
members). Any writer who has sold a work
of science fiction or fantasy is eligible.
Dues: $60-$80.
Sisters in Crime
P.O. Box 442124, Lawrence, KS 66044.
Fights discrimination against women in
the mystery field, educates publishers and
the public about inequalities in the treat-
ment of female authors, and increases
awareness of their contribution to the field.
Membership open to all: writers, readers,
editors, agents, booksellers, librarians.
Publishes a quarterly newsletter and Books
in Print membership directory. Dues: $40.
N | The Writer’s Guide to Fiction | O
Society of American Travel
P.O. Box 3948, Parker, CO 81034. 866-
934-4094. Represents writ-
ers and other professionals who strive to
provide travelers with accurate reports on
destinations, facilities and services. Active
membership is limited to travel writers and
freelancers with a steady volume of pub-
lished or distributed work about travel.
Dues: $130, plus application fee.
Society of Children’s Book
Writers & Illustrators
8271 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA
90048. 323-782-1010. An
organization of authors, editors, publishers,
illustrators, librarians and educators; for
beginners and established professionals.
Offers referrals, conferences, grants pro-
gram. Full memberships are open to any-
one who has had at least one children’s
book or story published. Associate mem-
berships are open to all interested in chil-
dren’s literature. Annual awards: Golden
Kite Book Award, Magazine Merit Award.
Dues: $85.
Society of Environmental
P.O. Box 2492, Jenkintown, PA 19046.
215-884-8174. Dedicated to
improving the quality, accuracy and visibil-
ity of environmental reporting. Serves
1,200 members and the journalism com-
munity with a quarterly newsletter, annual
and regional conferences, EJToday news
digest service, TipSheet e-newsletter, com-
prehensive website, awards, mentor pro-
grams and membership directory. Dues:
Society of Professional Journalists
3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN
46208. 317-927-8000. Serves
the interests of print, broadcast and wire
journalists (10,000+ members and 300
chapters). Services: Journalists’ legal
defense fund, freedom of information
resources, professional development semi-
nars and awards. Members receive Quill, a
magazine on current issues in the field.
Also promotes ethical reporting. Dues:
Western Writers of America
1665 E. Julho St., Sandy, UT 84093. Open to profes-
sional writers of fiction and nonfiction on
the history and literature of the American
West. Promotes distribution, readership
and appreciation of the West and its litera-
ture. Presents the annual Spur Award for
distinguished writing. Hosts a convention
each June. Dues: $75-$150.
Writers Guild of America
East: 250 Hudson St., New York, NY
10013. 212-767-7800.
West: 7000 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, CA
90048. 323-951-4000. Rep-
resents writers in motion pictures, broad-
cast, cable and new-media industries,
including news and entertainment. To
qualify for membership, writers must meet
requirements for employment or sale of
material. Dues: Paid quarterly, based on
percentage of the member’s earnings in any
of the fields over which the guild has juris-
diction. Check with organization for initia-
tion fee. Publishes Written By, a monthly
publication for screen and TV writers on
the entertainment industry.
Writers’ Union of Canada
90 Richmond St. E., Ste. 200, Toronto,
ON M5C 1P1. 416-703-8982. www.writers Provides support and resources
for professional writers of books, and
advocates on their behalf to the Canadian
government and others. Offers Web pages,
reading programs and various publications
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