Photo copyright Nomi S. Burstein.
Think of all the things a piece of fiction must have. Who can ever get it all right? For example, we're told to excel at plot, character, setting, point of view, dialogue, backstory, conflict, and style. If it's science fiction, add cool science ideas and scope. This list is long and demanding, and no author gets them all right. But which ones are worth your utmost effort?
Before I go on, let me set the ground rules. I assume you know at least the basics of writing and storytelling. Books, magazines, and the internet abound with advice.To get a sense of the craft, read, read! (See Holiday Books, below, e.g.) So on to the Big Four.
Originality. Publishers look for an exciting premise. It doesn't have to be brilliant, but it does have to shine! Don't short change your writing with a weak or warmed-over concept. Keep digging untill you find an intriguing premise. Think Diana Gabaldon, Outlander series; Kathleen Goonen, Queen City Jazz. Toby Bishop in Airs Beneath the Moon. Not every premise can be as original as: "Dinasaur DNA retrieved from amber." But don't settle for plain.
Vivid Environment. One of the worst mistakes beginners make is a bland setting. This is a real crime in science fiction, of course, but true for every story. We lead modest, safe lives, most of us! For heaven's sake, take us somewhere interesting--such as the offices of a high-powered law firm or a small town in the 1950s. In science fiction especially, a sense of wonder--grounded in vivid detail--is a sure win. It's fun, too. I plan about 60% of a world, and let the next 40% surprise me as I write. Some recent favs in speculative fiction: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell; River of Gods; Brasyl.
Strong Lead Character. We've head this a million times. Give your lead an abiding strength and a nagging handicap. Too much strength and we've got a cardboard character. Too much weakness and the personality lacks charisma. A little of both, please. If you don't give them a special ability, give them a driving desire. For a lovely balance of strength and weakness see Justina Robson's Lila in Keeping it Real.
Conflict or Tension on Every Page. Focus your story around a problem. Out of problems arise conflict. To deepen the conflict sufficiently, make sure something terribly important is at stake. Interest in your story will be in direct proportion to the degree of tension on the page. You don't need meaningless action to tart up scenes, but you do at least need sustained and escalating tension. That's a high bar. Aim high.
A novel doesn't have to have everything right. Remember Randall Jarrell's wonderful line: "A novel is a narrative of a certain length with something wrong with it." Even so, readers will love a novel with two great strengths. Give them four and you're playing with aces.
Science Fiction and Fantasy:
No fair skipping this article. I know this isn't a glamorous topic. But if you're not getting writing done, I can almost guarantee that you have No Schedule.
If you're waiting for a free hour or two to write, you're on a course for failure. The world won't beg you to write. In fact, the world with its mundane (and critical) demands will always expand to fill 24 hours every day. And please don't wait for inspiration to strike before sitting down to write. Inspiration almost never shows up ahead of time; rather it arises from the act of writing. Carve out the hours you can for writing.
The picture above is me at my keyboard during my scheduled writing time. All right, me and my cat. But I'm not going to tell you my schedule, because for you, it's irrelevant. I can't tell you the best schedule to have, because it's got to suit your unique circumstances and preferences.
So carve out a tailored writing time and stick with it. If you're just starting out as a writer, it may help write in a paper notebook. It's often easier to give yourself permission to write draft material if it isn't on a computer screen. If you feel empty, write lists of topics. Or journal. Talk to yourself about recent books you've read, and what you loved about them. If you've started a piece of fiction, write the next scene, warming up to it with a quick edit of the last one.
Be flexible, too. If you've made some progress, let yourself quit early. If you haven't, stick with your commitment to those hours. Keep distractions at bay. No phones, no household chores, no email. Remember that it may take you a long time to warm up to your writing session. Don't give up because you are doodling for the first fifteen minutes. Don't chastise yourself because you got nowhere. The next session could well produce a startling insight or piece of writing.
Your success as a writer depends on being faithful to a work schedule. Isn't that sort of a relief, that it isn't about raw talent?
These are my winter thoughts about writing fiction. Thanks for letting me know some of the things you want discussed--I'll work them in. Meanwhile, how about a New Year's resolution to set a writing schedule?