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How to Write a Damn Good Book


Stephen Graham Jones (lives here) wrote something the other day that made me want to write, in a good way.

It’s called Ten Obvious Truths About Fiction.

Here’s the last list I read on the same topic: Frederick Barthelme’s 39 Steps

I’m going to ‘copy and paste’ Stephen Graham Jones’s ten obvious truths and see if I have anything to add.

1. The reader should never have to work to figure out the basics of your story.

2. The reader is smarter and more sophisticated than you think.

I like this 1-2 punch. First Stephen Graham Jones implies that your story needs to be simple enough for anyone to figure out without trying hard. And then he implies that the reader doesn’t necessarily need the basics of your story spelled out. Right from the start he’s calling to mind the image of a tightrope walker. Your story has to be, on the one hand, straightforward, laid out for everyone to see at a glance, and, on the other hand, your story has to respect the reader’s intelligence.

3. Readers expect a story to keep the promises it makes.

4. Each page needs to hook the reader all over again.

It’s not enough to present the reader with a host of promises at the outset and assume that is going to keep the reader committed until the end. You have to continuously hook the reader, and a lot of times the hooks are new promise that the reader expects you to keep. Again this conjures the image of that tightrope walker, high up there, walking on a wire you can’t see from down here it’s so thin, but it’s there, festooned from that building over there to that building over there. See it?

5. Readers are reading in order to be taken somewhere else.

6. Make sure the key scenes actually happen on the page.

Here there’s no tightrope walker. Here there are two separate bullet points: (a) Readers are bored of real life. When they commit to a story they want it to take them elsewhere. This place doesn’t have to be completely different from our shared reality, but it would benefit from having a few departures, understand? If trying to tweak reality in small ways while still maintaining the makeup of reality, this again becomes the job of a tightrope walker. I think Amelia Gray is the modern-day master at ignoring the ostensible laws of our physical universe. (b) Remember those promises you made? Most of the time those are loaded with the potential to culminate in high drama (relative term: your high drama may be very different from mine). These extreme points (whether maximums or minimums) on the lifeline of your narrative should be rendered in writing. It isn’t enough to allude to them in passing, or have them happen offstage. You must confront them head on until their resolution.

7. Readers are very aware of contrivance.

8. Readers can tell when you’re trying to be smart on the page.

These seem like one ponytail with two braids. Or something like that. Idioms are my Achilles Heel. But seriously, contriving plot is one way of trying to be smart on the page. It’s a contrapositive: All contrived stories are trying to be smart, but not all smart stories are trying to be contrived. I remember the first time someone said a story I wrote felt contrived in parts. I actually didn’t know what contrived, the word, meant. After the person explained the definition of contrived, I understood what it meant, and I could see how my story was contrived, and ever since then I stay away from contrivance, which, in itself, can be a contrivance.

9. Readers expect any given piece of fiction to adhere to the rules and conventions they’re already accustomed to.

First off, this is kind of vague. The rules and conventions of our physical surroundings or the rules and conventions of your typical narrative? And besides, if the reader is smarter and more sophisticated than I think (#2), why do they want me to conform to their preconceptions of their surroundings/narrative arc? Can’t they handle some deviation, and where do they get these preconceptions from? Surely these preconceptions differ across the board. At the same time, is this somewhat redundant rule (#2 and #9) simply meant to emphasize how important it is to satisfy the reader? Or perhaps rule #9 is a tribute to the other obvious truths about writing fiction, according to Stephen Graham Jones. Readers expect your narrative to adhere to this set of rules. To be honest, if you’re capable of following these ten truths, I think your book would be entertaining and read. At the very least, it would refrain from falling into the many pitfalls strewn over the field of fiction writing.

10. Readers don’t go for endings that are vague.

This is when Stephen Graham Jones refers to the tightrope walker. I think the reason I like this particular list enough to write ~1000 words about it is this last rule, rule #10, especially when Stephen Graham Jones writes: “It’s a tightrope act we as readers love to watch. And you fall sometimes, sure, that’s part of it. But sometimes you don’t.” Reading those last three sentences made me experience, at least a little, what it’s like writing a book. It is a tightrope act, yes, but what really got me going was the idea that readers like watching us walk that thin line. Readers are aware of our tightrope walking from page 1. We do it using more than words, more than images, more than parallels and symmetries, more than timely intersections, more than self-obliterations, if we’re going for that, we walk the tightrope using self-assurance, confidence.


March 26, 2012 6:13 pm

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