Things Writers Ought to Know About Their Writing

From The LitFest Blog, August 2019
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In his classic book on writing, The Art of Fiction, the novelist and academic David Lodge says that, ‘The golden rule of fictional prose is that there are no rules.’ Before you decide that anything goes, I would urge you at least to find and learn some basic principles of writing and apply them in your work.

You might want to give some thought to the following questions as they relate to your book or story.

Have you maintained the promise of the premise?

You’ve hooked us in with the set-up to your story or novel, and we’re excited about seeing how it will develop, but then you change tack completely, dropping that idea, and taking forward a new one without satisfying our curiosity about the first.

Here’s an example. A premise might be: What will happen if two ‘friends’ who are constantly sabotaging each other go on a road trip across the UAE? We are probably expecting high jinx and some imaginative backstabbing from these two protagonists. But the story proceeds as follows: When the friends overnight at a Dubai hotel, Friend No.1 has difficulty communicating to the receptionist that his Internet isn’t working, and it’s driving him insane. Friend No.2 laughs at Friend No.1’s frustration. The story ends.

What happened to this promising story about frenemies?

It’s good, and also important, to surprise your readers with incidents they didn’t expect, but it’s unfair to cheat them completely out of the conflict you had initially promised. It’s also a missed opportunity for you as a writer to explore the quirky relationship between your characters.

Whose story is it? Do you even know?

Yes, of course you can have multiple narrators and a cast of thousands in your book, but are you sure your readers will be able to navigate their way through quite so many protagonists? Who in your story should they identify with or care about?

Bear in mind that having multiple protagonists will require multiple plots or sub-plots. Your story can risk becoming so complex that you lose your motivation trying to write it. If you’re having problems finishing your novel, this could be the reason.

Try focusing instead on a single protagonist and collapsing several superfluous characters down into just one character. If all else fails and you are determined to take forward this unwieldy saga, at least provide us with a list of characters or a comprehensible family tree to guide us through it. Hilary Mantel includes both a ‘Cast of Characters’ and a genealogical table in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Elena Ferrante, in her four Neapolitan novels, includes an ‘Index of Characters.’

And, do make sure your family tree and the contents of your novel actually match. Remember that any changes you make within your novel will have a knock-on effect, so keep a note of everything you need to check when re-drafting.

Should you write a long book or a short book?

A writer at one of our workshops once told me that her fantasy novel kept getting longer and longer. It already weighed in at around 200,000 words. This was, she said, because she kept thinking up more and more sub-plots. This is one instance when having an outline – and an overview – might have helped.

If you are a writer without a set of successful publications under your belt, a publisher will be apprehensive about spending time, effort, and money to publish and market your very long book. They’ll do it for Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, and George R.R. Martin, but will they do it for you?

How about dividing that one book into three and trying to clinch a three-book deal? Or how about trying to produce one short book of quality rather than one massive tome that rambles on through eternity?

Books

Do you know what your book is about?

You should know your work well enough to be able to tell an agent or publisher about the genre of your book, about its themes, and its likely audience. Mixing genres is fine, so long as you understand why you are doing it.

A writer I worked with recently explained to me that her book did not fit any genre or adhere to any one style of writing. She probably wasn’t far wrong. Her book was a mixture of literary fiction, non-fiction, romance, crime fiction, poetry, history, religion, and self-help. She was actually writing several different books.

It helps to think about who might want to read your book, and to focus it accordingly. It is probably only as you re-read and redraft your work that you will find out what you are really writing about. That, when it happens, will be a very sublime ‘Aha!’ moment.

Written by Janet Olearski

Janet Olearski is an author and writing coach, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. She is often surprised when she finds out what she is really writing about. It’s not always what she had originally imagined. Read more at: http://www.janetolearski.com

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