Monday, February 18, 2013

The 12 Things You Need to Know to Write Fiction

By DeAnna Knippling

I just picked up a copy of The Four Hour Chef, by Tim Ferriss.  Which opened up a box of worms with respect to writing.  The beginning of the book claims to lay down a basis for learning anything--it's a meta-learning primer.  Great!  Except none of the examples he gives are for writing.

The first step is to deconstruct the thing you're trying to learn into the fewest, simplest, smallest number of parts.  The example he gives is learning Japanese kanji, which are the characters that mean words (rather than hiragana or katakana, which are syllables).  It seemed an insurmountable task...until he found out there were only about 2000 specific kanji he needed to learn in order to be considered "proficient."  Which is still a lot, but it's doable.

So I got to thinking: what are the 2000 kanji of writing fiction?

What is the smallest possible unit of fiction writing?  How do you even break FICTION down into smaller, yet still useful, parts (other than the alphabet, obviously)?

After quite a bit of de- and reconstructing, here's what I came up with, which comes down to a) how to write a scene, and b) how to string scenes together.  I challenge you to do the same:  the smallest, simplest number of tools a newbie writer needs in order to write and submit a short story to a professional market.  You don't need to try to cover every possible story.  Just a short story.  Oh, and to make it fun?  Set the instructions up so that the only revision necessary is a manual spelling/grammar check after the first draft is done.

1)      Set up a short story template in proper manuscript format.
2)      Decide what type of story you're writing: using Duotrope or some other market listing, determine the genre/subgenre, the type of setting, the type of story, the type of ending, and the length.  For example, Mystery/cozy mystery, contemporary, amateur detective solves crime, crime is resolved/upbeat ending, 3000-4000 words.  If you're not sure what to pick, go to the highest-paying market in the genre and look at their guidelines and/or read a couple of issues to see what the most common answers are.
3)      Read the Lester Dent master plot formula.   Mentally translate it to fit the requirements of #2.  You don't have to fill in all the blanks before you start.
4)      Determine a particular character, setting, and problem for the opening.  Anything that fits the constraints of #2 will work.  For example, pick three websites you like, and skim the first for a character, the second for a setting, and the third for a problem.
5)      Write from a "he/she" perspective, not from an "I" perspective, and never write anything the character can't sense or think themselves (third person tight POV).  No need to tell the reader "She thought..." "She looked..." etc.
6)      Open every scene by introducing or reminding the reader of the character, setting, and problem (1-3 paragraphs).
7)      Use one scene per plot step.  You can use more than one scene if you break the steps down into sub-steps.  But no more than one plot step or sub-step per scene.
8)      Include all five senses at least every two manuscript pages, but especially at the beginning of every scene opening.   Yes, taste.
9)      In every scene, the character should be worse off than when they started the scene.  If good things happen in the scene, then the reader needs to be aware that things are getting worse elsewhere. 
10)  End each scene with a twist, by increasing danger, by revealing something new about a character or their emotions, by introducing a new plot element (either good or bad).  Or any combination thereof.
11)  Put a break in time between scenes.
12)  End the story by assuring the reader it was worth the character's time to have gone through that whole mess.  This assures the reader it was worth their time, too.

If I were looking at this list the first time, I don't know that I'd work on the steps in this order, either.  Once I knew all the steps, sure, this would be a great order to do them in.  But if I were just starting out, I'd do it like this:

#8.  Pick a setting (#4) and write a description of something in that setting using all five senses.
#5.  Pick a character (#4) and rewrite the description from #8 so it's from the character's perspective.
#9.  Pick a problem (#4) and rewrite the scene from #5 so the character's worse off than when the scene started.  Do this by making the character try to solve the problem and fail.
#6.  Rewrite your scene from #9 so the character, setting, and problem are all hinted at within the first three paragraphs.  If the character thinks about their backstory, then it happens in real time, interrupting the action and making the character gawp around, drooling.
#10. Rewrite your scene from #6 so that the scene ends with a twist or two.
#2.  Decide what genre your problem and character fit in, then look up the top-paying market for that combination and fill in the rest of the blanks for #2.
#3.  Fit in some plot steps based on the Lester Dent outline, as tweaked to fit #2.  Either fill in the whole thing (but be willing to change it) or just fill out the next step.
#11. Break in time before the next scene. Just do it.
#7.  Write the next scene the same way you wrote the first scene, following the plot step or substep you outlined in #3.  If you get to a good twist of one type or another, consider breaking off the scene.
#3.  Keep writing according to the plot formula.  "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." --E.L. Doctorow
#12. After the character solves the main problem at hand, reassure the reader that it was worth it.
#1.  Put everything into a template.

Sadly, this involves a lot of revision; I would only use this order of things as a teaching tool.  It's too much work, and after a few times, you'll be doing most of this automatically anyway.

Obviously, this doesn't cover every possible way to write a story.  And it wouldn't cover every possible short story.  But (aha!) it does cover both plotting and pantsing, so I'm proud of it. 

If I had to guess, the items that would boost your writing the most in the shortest amount of time would be:

#3, picking a solid, time-tested plot formula; originality is overrated by new writers.
#6, opening by nailing down character, setting, and plot right away, without backstory.
#8, including all five senses per two pages (it ends up weeding out a lot of garbage after you do it on a few stories.  No need to overdo it with lengthy descriptions, though).

I'm sure as I go along, this list will change.  I'll learn new tricks, I'll condense old tricks into simpler formats, I'll learn how to explain things better.  A friend of mine has this great rule that helps her write awesome stories, but she can't explain a word of it; she just keeps speaking more...slowly...and....loudly and expecting me to understand.  I know it works, but I have no idea what she's talking about.  I'm sure I have a dozen of those things--things I haven't identified, things I haven't worked out how to communicate.  But here are things that I know, that I know how to explain.

What about you?

About the Writer: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.