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How I Learned To Write Fiction

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Old 02-01-2006, 12:43 PM
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How I Learned To Write Fiction

This is an attempt to relate how I learned to write fiction, which may not be of any help to novice writers since I suspect that each person learns in a fairly unique way. A few people seem to have a knack (natural ability?) for writing fiction and don't need help from anyone. Of course I hate them after the hell I endured, but that's another story.

I started reading serious literature around age 15. I'm sure that helped me appreciate good fiction writing in general, but I'm not sure how much it specifically helped me become a decent fiction writer myself. Maybe more than I realize, maybe not much. At least I enjoyed reading the novels, short stories and plays. (My interest in poetry was very limited.)

I was a newspaper reporter for several years, beginning at age 19. Journalism taught me the basics of writing clearly and concisely, but I don't think it was the best training for fiction writing. Journalism is NOT literature in a hurry, as some writers have claimed. The best journalism piece I ever wrote or read was not really literature at all.

In my late teens and early 20s I wrote many short stories. They were all incredibly bad and not one was ever published (thank God, in hindsight.) The truth is, as much as I liked reading good fiction, I didn't have a clue how to write it. I didn't know how to create plausible characters or write interesting dialogue. I knew even less about narration and description.

I was missing a quality that is absolutely necessary -- what I now call the fiction writer's perspective. It's a special state of mind that's rather difficult to define, but I'll try two analogies:

*The writer's perspective is holographic. In a hologram each part of the image contains the whole image. The writer's ability to see the whole of his story in each part while he is writing is vital. Otherwise, he goes off on tangents and loses the thread or meaning of the story he has envisioned.

*The Taoist/Zen concept of the uncarved block. The sculptor begins with a shapeless lump of wood, stone or other material. He carefully removes small pieces or whole sections to make his sculpture take form. The artistic creation is what's left. Fiction writing is similar. What you leave out of the story is just as important as what you put into it.

I returned to fiction writing in my 40s, but I had the same problems I encountered when I was youngter. I couldn't figure out exactly how to proceed from a story beginning to its middle and end. I got lost along the way because I still lacked the writer's perspective. But I kept writing anyway, stumbling along in the dark, experimenting, deleting what I wrote and starting over again. I learned patience and persistence if nothing else, but those are extremely important in the process of learning to write fiction.

In retrospect I think my real problem was trying to write like the American authors I admired most at the time -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, etc. Although I had read their biographies, I failed to grasp the lesson that none of them tried to write like the authors they admired. They found their own unique voices as writers based on personal experiences that were very different than the previous generation of authors.

The turning point for me was expanding my reading to authors I formerly thought were beneath my aspirations as a writer. Elmore Leonard in particular was a real inspiration. He broke most of the rules of fiction writing, yet his books were oddly fascinating. The tortured similes of Raymond Chandler delighted me and I thought the dialogue in Dashielle Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" was the snappiest I had ever read. I also read other classic "noir" authors -- Cain, Burnett, etc. and eventually Bukowski.

At one point I remember saying to myself: "Hell, I can do that." It was like a revelation after years of going in the wrong direction.

My first several stories in this new vein weren't all that good, but each one was a little better than the last. I relied on my own personal experiences and I began to develop the writer's perspective. When I started a story, I could see exactly where it was headed in every line I wrote. I didn't outline stories in advance because I didn't need to. I was able to keep it all in my mind while I wrote and between writing sessions.

Suddenly, the drought was over magically. I didn't write like Elmore Leonard or any other writer I enjoyed reading. I simply found my own voice as a writer. Between 1999 and now, I wrote 78 short stories, 3 novels, 3 screenplays and a stage play (also a non-fiction travel book.) Two of the novels and a collection of short stories were published as paperbacks. A total of 28 of my short stories have been published by magazines or in book anthologies. (My latest story publication will soon appear in this online magazine: http://bluemag.com/)

Is my fiction any good? I'm no threat to ever get nominated (much less win) the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitizer Prize or anything as prestigious, but I think 6 of my short stories are as good or better than any tale I ever read. And more than one of my readers has expressed the same opinion. I'm proud of my latest novel, "Terpsichore's Children," but there's undoubtedly some unwarranted conceit involved in that since the story is so autobiographical. The novel is somewhat experimental in format, which is not every reader's cup of tea.

Have I made a living from my fiction writing? No, but neither does the vast majority of published fiction writers (also another story). Despite the disappointing remuneration, I take comfort in the fact that I realized a lifelong dream of becoming a published author with books on the shelves of at least a few public libraries.

At the peak of my frenetic writing pace a few years ago I wrote two short stories per month. I was in a sort of rhythm and good story ideas seemed to flow out of my mind every week. I don't know where they came from one after the other. I suppose I just hit my stride as a writer for awhile.

I don't write nearly as much fiction now. The Muse only makes her appearance once every several months. That's fine with me because I'm not a beginner any longer. I can afford to place my fiction writing on cruise control. I've had a good run so far and I'm willing to wait until I feel inspired to write again. I still have a few more interesting tales left in me and they'll come out eventually.

"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
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Old 02-01-2006, 02:39 PM
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Thank you so much for posting this. I think, whether directly or indirectly, it can help any writer. Reputation points added!
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Old 02-01-2006, 03:38 PM
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very much appreciated, your account of your "jouney" was very interesting. I liked the use of the uncarved block analogy.
One day a man was walking in the woods when he encountered a tiger. He fled in terror and the tiger pursued him. He eventually got to a cliff, climbed down a vine and dangled from it to escape the tiger's jaws. Then a pair of mice came out of a hole and began to knaw on the vine. The tiger growled hungrily the top of the cliff, and the vine was thinning. As it was about to break, the man noticed a strawberry growing from the vine. He ate it and said "Mmm...damn good strawberry".
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Old 02-20-2006, 01:52 AM
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Thank you for sharing your story, starrwriter. I find it interesting - and for me personally, reassuring - that finding your own voice was your turning point, especially since having lately encountered the - new? I am not sure - more structuralist approach to writing, which seems to start with answering a gazillion questions to "establish your story line, characters" and so on and so forth.

I may be totally wrong, naturally, but it seems to me that if the story or stories isn't already there somewhere inside you - like the work of art eventually emerging from the block of raw material - no writing theories or four point character definition or whatever else is offered by that approach will create one . . .

As to writers that actually make a living from their craft, I was once told by a large publisher's editor, that those are probably less than 10% percent of all published authors. Sadly, in my opinion, some of those who do, shouldn't.

Er, the latter comment isn't sour grapes of the unpublished talking, I just find some of the currently best selling authors tedious and repetetive beyond belief. As, to give an example that might explain better what I mean, "cookie cutter" Grisham. Since of you've read one of his books, you really needn't bother with any of the others (not that that he's the only one).
A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. - Oscar Wilde
Saite yuku, Higansakura ya, Chi no shizuku; Shiroi suhada ni, Makana hanataba . . .
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Old 03-25-2006, 08:14 PM
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Thank you for your elegance starrwriter. It`s very refreshing to read the truth today in our glammed up botchery of a society! To qoute another author ``the truth shall set you free...``
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Old 08-26-2015, 04:08 PM
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I found your history by accident and REALLY enjoyed it. I have a similar tale to tell, although you've been more successful than me. Once I quit trying to imitate the writers I admired a 'voice' developed in my work. But I still love those voices. And reread them on a lonely rainy night.

WB is lucky to have you involved.

I'm looking forward to the day when I feel less compelled to write. I know it's coming because I throw ideas away left and right.

Thanks for writing that.

Have a nice writing day.

You're not dead 'til you're dead and when you are you won't know it. So, keep on writing and having fun.

Last edited by wrc; 08-26-2015 at 04:09 PM.. Reason: editorial
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