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Why Writing Fiction is Hard

December 6, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 31, 2016

I recently read the essay that opens Garner’s Modern American Usage. The essay had me thinking about a slew of related subjects, as a good essay is wont to do. And one thought I had was that writing fiction is difficult because there’s so much to it. There’s much more to long (or even short) fiction than just a good plot idea. There’s so very much you’ve got to get right and so very little you can afford to get wrong.

Garner focused on differences between prescriptive and descriptive grammar in an essay worth reading on a topic worth exploring. But the difference between the two camps isn’t what caught my attention. He also mentioned that writing well is a skill. I doubt that many would argue such a statement. At the same time he pointed out some of the skills that can be perfected.

And that’s the point where my thoughts went wandering.

Stories can be strong and powerful, but one mistake in continuity, in fact, in balance, in punctuation—one mistake in any element—can destroy the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Whether it’s the absence of an element that should be there, the presence of an element that shouldn’t be there, or a mistake in the portrayal of some element, a single problem in fiction can ruin the reader’s enjoyment of the story.

There are so many ways for a story to go wrong that it’s a true wonder when stories so often go right, when the elements combine to form a believable world of never-before-imagined people and events.

 

Major Areas That Need to Work

~  The story itself needs to be compelling and needs to include a topic or related incidents that readers want to read about. Readers need more than great writing. They need a story they can get into or invest in. Then need a plot that grabs them.

~  All the fiction elements—setting, plot, character, conflict, tone and mood, point of view, pace, dialogue and so on—have to be present, have to be properly balanced, and have to fit one another.

~  The mechanics—grammar and punctuation and so forth—have to be both correct and clear so that the reader can follow without becoming lost or confused.

~  The storytelling—the “relaying” of the story events—has to be entertaining and/or enticing and has to remain consistently so throughout the story so that readers will want to begin reading and want to continue to read through the final page. The readers have to be hooked and stay hooked.

~  And the components of fiction and the mechanics of writing have to work together, not against one another. A writer may have to adapt his typical writing style to better fit the genre he’s writing or to accommodate his audience. What might usually work for the writer may not work for a particular story. For any one story the writer may have to consciously change his approach, his tricks, and even his favorite fixes.

Skills, knowledge, and the ability to adapt are all vital for the fiction writer.

And no element can be forgotten, slighted, or ignored. No element can be a weak link, because a single weak link can undo every strength of a work of fiction.

Even the most awesome plot idea can’t stand up to flat or banal sentences, paragraphs, and scenes.

An example:

Lucky ran out the door. Michael raced after him.

“Lucky, come back,” Michael said again and again.

Michael chased Lucky down the street and into a neighbor’s yard. Lucky stopped to dig, and Michael thought he’d catch him. But as soon as Michael got close, Lucky took off again.

Such a section of text might occasionally work. But every paragraph shouldn’t read this way, a dry, tepid, and color-free summation of common events.

Another example:

Donna Sue stretched and opened her eyes. When she remembered what day it was, she jumped out of bed and hurried to her closet. She pulled on her favorite jeans, second-favorite sweater, and her new boots. Then she brushed her teeth, put on her makeup, and pulled her hair into a ponytail. She pulled the covers up on her bed, not bothering to be neat, and stuffed all the scattered clothing back into her dresser drawers.

She hurried into the kitchen and started the coffee. She stared at the pantry for at least a minute, trying to decide between hot and cold cereal.

Writing such as that in this example will sink any story, even one with a plot to rival the biggest blockbuster in Hollywood.

Is it any wonder that thousands and thousands of books have been turned down by agents and publishers over the years? Is it surprising that even when books are published that we still find some unappealing or without the ability to engage the reader?

It shouldn’t be surprising. Getting every component right is no simple task.

Everyone won’t like every book—we each have our own tastes, after all. But some books don’t quite make it for any reader. Like the movies we want to love but have that meh reaction to, some books produce indifference in many readers.

And that indifference is likely a result of a missing element or two or elements that weren’t fully developed. Maybe what was included didn’t jibe with another element or the writer’s style, the genre, or with any number of other story components.

Garner’s essay mentioned a couple of practices that I don’t often address here at the blog or with writers that I work with—summarizing, following a train of thought, and supporting ideas with evidence. These are writing basics that we’re taught when we first begin to write essays, when we first begin to join sentences and paragraphs into reports.

But just because these are foundational issues of writing (learned long ago by many of us), that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as important for the fiction writer as for the writer of articles and essays. I often think that I’m talking about the basics when I cover grammar rules or the elements of fiction, but the true basics have to do with developing a thought, with writing sentences or paragraphs, and with making connections clear for the reader.

These fundamentals, just like any fiction element or writing skill, still need our attention. When you write, don’t forget to address the most basic writing skills as well as the advanced ones.

 

Time and Skills

Don’t be alarmed or surprised to find that writing fiction takes time and that rewriting takes focused effort and even more time.

If you’ve been a writer of nonfiction, recognize that you need to learn the elements of fiction as well as the genre conventions. If you’ve not developed familiarity and competence with the elements of fiction—with their peculiarities and the relationships between them—you can’t expect to understand how to use them effectively to craft engaging fiction.

If you’ve focused on poetry, understand that you’ll need to work on new rhythms and sentence structures, perhaps sentence constructions that are almost foreign to you. Writing prose and writing poetry require different skills, different approaches, and even a different ear.

If you’ve just come out of school where the focus was on writing essays or even short fiction, allow yourself the time to learn about the peculiarities of long fiction. Give yourself the opportunity and the permission to practice writing long fiction.

Cut yourself some slack if you can’t put together a polished ninety-thousand-word masterpiece of a novel in six months. That’s a phenomenal feat for anyone. Most can’t do it. And there’s no unwritten law that says you have to be an expert or turn out a perfect manuscript in less than a year.

I’m not suggesting that you let problems with your story or your writing slide, that you get a pass if you’re a beginner or just can’t figure out how to make something work. I am saying that you can’t expect to create a perfect story when you don’t know which tools to use and don’t know how to use those tools. I’m saying you need to learn what you don’t know.

I’m saying that writing fiction is hard because there are so many moving parts. You touch one, and they all go wobbling. Therefore you’ve got to learn not only how to manipulate all the fiction elements and the basic writing elements, but you’ve got to learn how a change in one story component affects every other component.

Many times experience is your best teacher for these types of skills. If you actually see what happens when you make a change and then have to work out fixes for the ripple of effects, you’ll quickly learn the types of changes that work and the types that don’t.

You can become a craftsman. You can learn not only how to fine tune each individual story and writing component but also how to finesse multiple components into working together in ways that enhance each.

And you can work on writing skills that give you problems. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with indulging in a bit of training in your weakest areas.

No matter how great a writer you are, you won’t do every task equally well. Not when you begin and not when you’ve been writing for a dozen years. You’ll always have tasks you like doing more than you like doing others.

But you can always work on improving your skills.

So work on dialogue when you need to improve your characters’ conversations. Work on description or transitions or hooks. Work on plotting. But while you’re practicing and learning, don’t ignore all the other elements of your stories just because you have to strengthen one area. And if you’re focusing on the fiction elements for an extended period of time, don’t forget the mechanics and your presentation style.

And while you’re working on not forgetting, remember that you need a tale worth telling too; make sure the plot is interesting. And also remember that real people will be reading your story. Once you’ve got the details of the story in place, you’ve got to make the journey to your fictional world palatable to the reader. No matter how devastatingly awesome your climax, if readers put the book down before they get to it, that awesome climax will mean nothing.

I guess what I want you to take away today is the reminder that writing compelling fiction is difficult. Sure, parts of the process are easier than others, and some writers have an easier time with the entire process than other writers do. But there are both discrete and connected elements that need to mesh with a whole bunch of other elements in order for fiction to work well. And you need to make yourself competent in a whole bunch of areas in order to be able to draw all a novel’s elements together into a cohesive whole.

Fiction writers have to be storytellers and stylists and grammar mavens. They have to know not only how to follow threads but how to lay them out in an enticing manner without being overly obvious. They have to be technically proficient and possess imaginations that range wide. They have to know how to plan more than one step ahead. They need to know how to layer.

They need to understand emotions and how the sense elements contribute to feelings and mood.

They have to be able to see people and locations that don’t exist in our physical world.

They have to learn to appreciate the rhythms and the melody of language, to recognize the different tones and word choices of dozens or hundreds of characters.

Writers have to know characters so well that they can write their actions, reactions, their words and their emotions without a miscue.

Writers have to be able to lead readers through worlds constructed out of words. They have to make readers see a forest or a town or a building appear before them. Writers have to touch the pounding hearts of real human beings through the reactions and lives of fictional characters using only the combinations of letters and punctuation marks that they can create with a keyboard.

Fiction writers have to entice and satisfy and lead. They have to reveal and surprise.

They have to create not only the believable but the arresting and deliver it to readers eager to lose themselves in a world far from their own.

Writing fiction is hard. But it’s also rewarding. And addictive. And so fully satisfying to the creative heart.

Don’t despair if you can’t make a story work on your first or second or third attempt. Work at not only your stories but at making yourself a better writer so that the next attempt will produce more pleasing results.

Go back to the basics if necessary. Learn what you need to learn so that readers aren’t pulled out of your writing by an overlooked mistake. And create fascinating stories for yourself and the rest of us.

We want to explore your astonishing fictional worlds alongside your unique and captivating characters.

We can’t wait to read your stories.

So get writing already.

***

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11 Responses to “Why Writing Fiction is Hard”

  1. I hope everyone takes this to heart and reads and inwardly digests the insights until they become infused in the subconscious, consciousness, and very soul of every writer.
    It is easier to live a long and happy life than to write well.
    Story is everything. Man lives and dies by it. All religions are cast in Story. But many people don’t understand what makes a story. Story is not merely a series of actions begun with conflict and ending with a resolution of the protagonist’s problem. The actions proper must be bound by one action. To paraphrase Aristotle: What gives a story unity is not as the masses believe–that it is about one person, but that it is about one action.

    • Frank, have you written a book on writing yet? If not, why not? You’ve got the knowledge and the skills and a great writing style. Surely you’ve thought about it?

      • So kind of you to ask. I have been working on such a thing for years but for many reasons never feel it’s satisfactory. One version is a short booklet. The other is a long version a la Brooks and Warren’s UNDERSTANDING FICTION and Gordon and Tate’s HOUSE OF FICTION. My love is serious literary criticism. Through the years I’ve read all the serious biggies from Auerbach to Welleck & Warren and James Hall, John Gardener, and most recently James Wood. I’ve evolved a unique way of looking at understanding and writing fiction that is not likely to be taken seriously because of its rigorous approach. People want popular, sometimes mechanical, advice, which is important but not as much as of lively writing. I begin with Aristotle–rather old fashioned in most people’s minds but in fact is most basic. In the times between he’s been lost or ignored. I believe in very close reading and that as Robert Penn Warren said, “Before you can teach ’em to write, ya gotta teach ’em to read. I could go on but will save you from falling into boredom. Just let me say, you’ve added pressure to finish what I’ve been working on before I pass.

  2. Thank you so much for this Beth. Yes, writing in general is very difficult for the reasons you mention here. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve shared it generously.

  3. Pat Garcia says:

    Hi Beth,

    I had to stop what I was doing to let you know how much I appreciate this article. I am still working on my first manuscript, and if someone would have told me that it would take all of those steps that you mentioned, as well as lots of reading and learning before I started writing, I would not have started writing. Writing is indeed hard! Nevertheless, I am so happy I started. I have learned so much, and more than that, I have found my calling, my purpose. Even though it is hard, I wake up with a smile in my heart.
    So thank you very much for the encouraging words.
    Shalom,
    Patricia

    • Pat, I’m so glad that you started writing and that you’re continuing with the pursuit. Nothing compares with finding and following our calling.

      I can’t wait when you leave a comment that says you’ve completed your first novel and begun the next. That’s another wonderful milestone.

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