Monday, April 28, 2014

The Xs of Fiction - Guest Editor Beth Hill

We’re getting close to the end of our A-Z Challenge! Unless we want to discuss xylophones or x-rays or x-rated books, we needed to cheat a bit on the letter and make an eXception. Our guest today is one of our blog favorites, editor eXtraordinaire, Beth Hill, to talk about the “Xs” of writing fiction. ~Kat

Fiction writers face many rules, some detailing what to do, others detailing prohibitions, maybe even exclusions.

Some rules come from the wider world of writing, proven rules that make all communication easier. Some rules come specifically from the world of fiction. And many rules come from the experience gained by the long chain of writers who wrote before us, shared so we can call on the know-how of those who’ve already made the mistakes and learned how to correct them.

I don’t want to lay out rigid rules today, certainly not all the do’s and don’ts of fiction. Let’s instead look at options to strengthen both story and story-writing skills. Consider these the Xs of fiction.

Gain experience
Write often. Write more than you’ve written in the past. Read in the genre you want to write. Read in genres you have no familiarity with. Study successful fiction.

Become an expert
Master an area or a topic that you like and then master an area or topic that gives you fits. And then master a topic you know nothing about. These areas can be writing related—dialogue, pacing, subtext—or simply topics that appeal—landscaping, the Boer Wars, space travel. Expand your knowledge.

Follow links from one topic you study to the next. Don’t always be content with surface knowledge, though that may be all you need for a writing project. Give yourself the opportunity to delve deep into topics and follow even the most tenuous of links between topics.

Don’t explain
When you write, don’t insist that characters explain why they do a particular action. Simply show them in action and allow the reader to draw her own conclusions. Keep readers actively involved by giving them just enough so they don’t get lost and enough that they’re tempted to figure out what’s going on before revelations are uncovered.

Go easy on the expletives
No, not the cussing kind, the grammatical kind. There or it followed by forms of the verb to be can leach power from a sentence, especially when used again and again or to open new scenes or chapters. They can also add unnecessary words. Example: There was a boy racing down the lane vs. A boy raced down the lane.

Expose character weaknesses
Show characters’ limitations in action. Make fictional people real by giving them weaknesses that work for the story, that add to the story.

Express emotion
Show characters as emotional people touched by what happens around them. Show that actions have impact, that they change characters. Show that actions and the words of others touch characters’ hearts and drive them to respond and maybe even retaliate.

Extend invitations to the reader
Hook the reader on page one, giving her a reason to read the opening pages, and then keep her hooked. Make your story opening an invitation to your fictional world. Entice and intrigue.

Create extraordinary characters
Make your main characters memorable. They don’t have to be a Superman, but they should have quirks or behaviors or emotions or desires that make them stand out from every other fictional character.

Write extraordinarily well
Learn the basics, learn more than the basics, and don’t be satisfied with being mediocre at any of the writing elements. Expand your skills.

Take some scenes to the extreme
Push events, reactions, and emotions. Surprise characters as well as readers. Be bold and not timid.

Exaggerate character problems and solutions, but without falling into obvious caricature.

Keep in mind that there are always exceptions to every rule. Figure out how and when to break rules in ways that create memorable fiction.


Beth Hill is a freelance fiction editor who loves the creative power of words. You can find her online at A Novel Edit and read other writing and editing tips at The Editor’s Blog.

Kat's "X" Book List
Strapless by Deborah Davis: Biography. The story behind the famous Madame X painting by John Singer Sargent, a tale of art and celebrity, obsession and betrayal.

Three Weeks with Lady X: Eloisa James. A duke, a lady, a romance
Author X: The Inner Secret. Click the "author X" link to learn more about the mystery of who this author was.

Cartoon Pencil With Cross Mark Image courtesy of chanpipat /
Abstract Colour Pencil Image courtesy of tigger11th /
Man Writing With His Pencil Image courtesy of Boians Cho Joo Young /


John Philipp said...

Ah, Beth. I've missed your fine words of wisdom. Once again you've provided me with food for thought. Thanks.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great advice. Being an attorney, I have to really watch against having my characters explain themselves too much.

Kat Sheridan said...

Good morning, Beth, and welcome back to Over Coffee! You always offer such good advice, and your blog is becoming a destination for so many folks (including me!) And isn't it just so true that it's those pesky exceptions that always get me into trouble! LOL!

Bish Denham said...

These are all excellent "rules" to learn.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Beth, some great points. I like the thought about showing your characters weaknesses. We all have them and so should our characters.

Great to see you here again!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Those are real and living rules to follow!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That last one is funny. Always an exception.

readwriteandedit said...

Sia and Kat, thanks for having me here. I loved working on the Xs.

John, it's good to see you.

Natalie, many of us have to watch those explanations, me included. We so much want our readers to understand that we want to include every detail. But readers pick up quickly, so a barely expressed detail is sometimes all we need to include.


readwriteandedit said...

Bish and Diane, I hope they aren't too "ruley."

Alex, you know it's true. Exceptions and what we can do with them make writing fun.


cleemckenzie said...

A very extensive list! Thanks for posting it. I'll keep it and refer to it. Really!

Kat Sheridan said...

CLee, for the best advice, stop by Beth's blog on a regular basis. I'm always learning something new!