Learning Through Writing

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“It’s the writing that teaches you.”
Isaac Asimov

Writers are among the most fortunate of people because they have the unlimited opportunity to learn at their fingertips. Literally. Writers who think they already know everything and write so they can share that knowledge with readers or teach readers what they know are not true dedicated writers. Dedicated writers have an insatiable need to learn more, whether by serendipity, discovery, or deliberate research. When you write, you are driven by questions you seek to answer. Those questions could begin with something as simple as, “What happens next?” and progress to “How did it happen?” and “Why did it happen?” If you want to write in great detail about a family living in Saskatchewan and you want it to seem as realistic as possible, you have no excuse but to learn as much as you can about Saskatchewan, even going as far as visiting the place and spending hours where you want your story to happen. If you want to set your story in medieval France, while you can’t visit medieval France itself, you can certainly dig up as much information as you can about it. You’ll read historical accounts, maybe dig up some historical fiction as well; you’ll research names, costume, culture, politics. You’ll visit museums, talk to historians, look at photographs. In the process, guess what’s happening? You’re learning from your writing process. If you were to write a courtroom drama, you would have to learn the procedures, the protocol, the people involved, the jargon, even specific cases and the laws and statutes involved. Guess what? You’re learning from your writing. Writers who write only what they already know limit their repertoire and, consequently, their readership. If they aren’t learning new things from their writing, neither are their readers.

Writing doesn’t just teach writers new ideas. It doesn’t just expand our perspective. We don’t just learn about people, places, procedures, or things. We’re not just creating new characters; we are exploring the human psyche, the intricacies of life, the depths and heights of emotions. We’re not just passing through places; we are exploring the nooks and crannies and alleys and backstreets of villages, towns, cities, and nations; we are living in a dozen houses and learning how they have become homes or not. We’re not just describing steps or actions; we’re investigating procedures and, more than that, we’re uncovering motives and purposes. We’re not just bandying objects about; we’re learning how objects can take on meanings and become central to actions, to relationships, to life.

Over and beyond all that learning, we are constantly learning more about writing. We learn how to be concise in our language. We learn to choose the exact words to mean something. We learn the nuances of thousands of words along with idiomatic expressions the change word meanings depending on prepositions combined with them or their local color. We learn to hone our sentences to perfection so every single word has a purpose. We learn to become lean mean writing machines. We learn to check our facts and investigate new facts. We learn to make notes, plan plots, design characters. All this from simply writing over and over and over again. What other pursuit can constantly improve us while entertaining us and giving us new adventures with each writing? Need I say why else I want to be a writer?

Write Like an Expert

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At the risk of sending certain words into oblivion or exhibiting them in some museum of dead words, I have to remind writing students longer words are not always the best choice in writing. I have students who think they should not use the same word more than once in an essay and search assiduously for synonyms to replace a single word should they need to use that word a second or third time. There is such a thing as introducing variety in your vocabulary and using the exact word. If there is no alternative to the exact word, by all means, use the exact word instead of using alternative words. If a word can replace a phrase, choose the phrase over the word to avoid the downfall of many a writer: wordiness. If a plainer word exists that more people will understand, use the plainer language. Throwing in exotic, long, fancy words when simple language suffices is more likely to repel readers. Besides, when words are used out of context, you risk conveying the wrong meaning or creating the wrong impression. Probably the best rule to follow in choosing words as you write is to use mainly words in your active vocabulary. When those words are not enough, go ahead and rummage through the rest of your vocabulary. If you still cannot find the right word, then do consult a thesaurus but check your choice for the most apt meaning and usage. When in doubt, search for nuances and implications, because the word you choose could have a special significance or usage. If you are writing in a particular genre, for instance detective, crime, or espionage stories, you need to familiarize yourself with the terminology used within those professions. Not knowing the right lingo reveals you are no expert in that area and the last thing you need is to lose credibility. Yes, there is a Dictionary of Espionage.

You can compensate for your lack of expertise in an area you want to write about by consulting other experts besides dictionaries and encyclopediae. Find someone familiar with the area you are writing about and solicit their advice on technical details. Ask them to beta read your story and help you straighten out your details and terminology. Do your research, whether by reading expert and reliable sources extensively or interviewing expert sources. Read works by writers you admire in the genre you want to write so you can emulate them, if not at least get an idea of the language they use. If at all possible, you can immerse yourself in the environment. If you are writing a cop story, hang around a police precinct, talk with them, get a feel for their language. Unfortunately, there will be severe limitations to how much you can actually witness, as well as how much can be revealed to you or that you can reveal in your stories. We can’t all be as fortunate as Frank Castle who can run around with police detectives and observe them solving crimes in person, using their stories as fodder for his best-selling novels. That’s where the fiction comes in. There will be greater difficulty observing actual detective work, espionage, or even other branches or areas of law enforcement. I have heard real cops say nothing you see in all the tv cop series is anything like the real thing. That’s the cold hard truth. It’s all fiction. Really, if you can’t have a real-life model, all you need is your imagination to craft a meticulously well-planned world with all the details worked out so your characters interact with consistent surroundings. You create the world, you make the rules, you play god. That’s how you create your fictional world.

On Writing: Vividness, Vocabulary, and more on Said

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Vivid descriptions are key to drawing readers deeper into your writing, whether prose or poetry. Your challenge as a writer is to create images and scenes with words, to reproduce intense emotions and experiences with descriptions so your readers can experience what you have. It’s creating vicarious experiences for readers, affording them a glimpse into your world, into your mind. Writers who do not take advantage of the wealth of words available in the English language create their own handicap and limit their writing to the mundane. Besides limiting their potential, writers who do not stretch their vocabularies where the language takes them also limit their potential to teach their readers the beauty and power of language. As a writing teacher, I am committed to helping my students improve their vocabulary because vocabulary is essential to writing. A writer with a poor vocabulary is like a runner with only one leg.

I have written several times about using exact language, especially in writing, and it’s not something I will ever stop writing about. Society is no great help in this regard, especially when it promotes vague language by using words such as “stuff” and “things” for objects, or “nice” and “great” for anything positive. Writing teachers have been trying to teach their students year after year how to use more precise language, more vivid words. After all, writing is about creating images for the reader in words. If your writing cannot provide the reader with sufficient details to recreate the picture or scene you, as the writer, imagined, then you have failed. Let me revisit “said is dead”. If you haven’t yet found enough words more vivid than “said”, here’s a short list of “a” words to get you started.

Acknowledged, acquiesced, added, addressed, admitted, admonished, advised, advocated, affirmed, agreed, alleged, allowed, announced, answered, approved, argued, assented, asserted, assumed, assured, asked, attested, avowed.

As a reminder, I admonish writers not to use a dialogue tag to merely repeat or state the obvious. In this case, I refer to writing a question in dialogue and ending it with a question mark, then using the dialogue tag “she asked” or “he asked”. The use of a question mark to end a sentence, in itself, indicates a question has been asked, hence, the dialogue tag can be dispensed with and replaced with a description of an action or expression, instead. For instance, what do people do when they ask questions? Some might raise an eyebrow or both eyebrows, frown, shake their head, raise their hands to their sides with palms facing up, scratch their head, or rub the back of their neck. As in previous writing, I continue to recommend keen observation of behavior because that is what will give you, as a writer, the images you will recreate in your writing.

On Writing: How Much Detail Do Characters Need?

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“In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations!”
~ Anton Chekhov, Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886

Some of my students have asked me how much detail they needed to include when creating character descriptions or character profiles and I have always told them there is no such thing as too much. In fact, I encourage them to invent as much detail as possible, because those details will make their characters more real. How do you decide what details to include when creating a character profile? I tell my students to look at their characters from different angles: physical, psychological, professional, and biographical.

The physical description is straightforward: What is your character’s physical appearance? You should include everything from gender to height, weight, girth, hair and eye color, skin color, nose, ears, mouth, teeth, hand size, feet size, and so on. While highly detailed physical descriptions do not always play a huge part in stories, they can certainly be part of the main character’s problem, if not the main problem. Otherwise, a character’s physical attributes will affect how that character will interact with other characters or the environment. For instance, an unusually tall character might have to stoop to go through certain doorways, look down when speaking with others, or push back a seat to fit in a car or at the dining table. Physical descriptions should also include any physical defects, abnormalities, or diseases. Not to be overlooked are physical issues or distinctions such as moles, birthmarks, limps, missing fingers, a broken nose.

Character psychology ranges from personality type to personality disorders, phobias, insecurities, likes and dislikes. This would also include habits and mannerisms that distinguish this character, such as nervous habits, tics, stutters, and the sort. Beliefs can also be included in character psychology, as these shape the way people think and act. Our gangly tall character might be uncomfortable with his height and this would show in a slouch or a general discomfort or uneasiness when interacting with shorter people.

I recommend separating professional and biographical characteristics even if a character’s professional description could be included in biography. This helps distinguish a character’s past from present. Biographical details would include information you’d find in a birth certificate: date of birth, place of birth, parents, and birth order. It would also include family history, places lived, educational background, religion, work background, affiliations, achievements, and awards. This is also where knowledge and skills can be described. A character’s professional description would focus on the character’s current job or occupation, skills, and knowledge. This can be significant because a character’s current job could explain a great deal about habits, work hours, milieu, relationships, preferences, economic status, and so on.

Creating characters can be tricky. After all, you are trying to create real people–or beings, as the case may be–on paper through nothing more than words. We know real people are not perfect, so there really is no reason your characters should be perfect. In fact, they will be the most perfect if they are flawed. That is what makes your characters more real, more human. All the best literature in the world, from the age of classics to contemporary times, reveal characters with a particularly fatal flaw which becomes the cause of the character’s downfall. It can’t be just any arbitrary flaw, either, That fatal flaw must be part and parcel of your character’s complex being–just like any human being. The more intimately you know your character, the better you can lead your character through your story. You will also know what your characters will do, how your characters will think, feel, act, and react because you know every little trait and quirk your characters possess. All those details come from a well-written, highly detailed character description. As I also tell my students, whatever you write in your character profiles and character descriptions don’t necessarily have to appear in your story. Your character profiles and descriptions are your guides to how your characters will behave throughout the story, what they think, do, and plan to do. At no time must you feel obliged to dump your whole character description on your readers in one sitting, unless you plan to choke your readers on unnecessary information. Sure, the information might be important, but not all at once. The way to reveal your character to your readers is gradually. We do not get to know any one person we meet in real life in a single sitting. As a matter of fact, it sometimes takes us years to get to know people–and even then, we sometimes never get to really know every little thing there is to know about them. In the same way we reveal the setting in a story as it is encountered by the characters, we should reveal characters in the story as they are encountered, and character traits and details as they would be revealed in real life. Think of it the same way you meet a real person: the first thing you notice are physical details. Their appearance, their dress, their mannerisms. If you are in the same situation, you might discover that person’s professional attributes–what their job is, what skills they have, where they work. As you continue to interact with that person, you discover a little more–maybe a bit of their family, where they live, where they used to work or study. The longer your relationship and interaction, the more you learn about that person. That is just how your readers should encounter and be acquainted with your characters. Of course, there are ways to accelerate the process, for instance, in an interview or a tragedy–nothing reveals character more than a tragic event. This is when people are at their weakest and also when we see just how strong they really are. Regardless of the scenario you create to reveal your character, remember that not everything will be revealed at once. It’s always good to keep some things a mystery. It’s one of the reasons people are interesting.

On Writing: Developing your Fictional World

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Writing fiction requires the creation of the world within which your characters exist. The shorter the fiction, the smaller the world, simply because you don’t have much time to include or describe a very large world in short stories. In fact, one of the limitations of a short story is restricting the action to a single scene. On the other hand, if you write a novel, your world will necessarily be as big as wherever your story takes your characters.

World creation is not simple and becomes less so as the world expands. You need to know every single detail of your story world, whether it is modeled after a real setting or completely fictitious. The easiest way to do it is, of course, to pattern your story world after the real world you know. Whether it is a single room, a house, or a whole village, you can create your story world with better details than if you have no idea what the story world looks like. Is your character a teenage male? Pattern that after your teenage son or nephew or brother’s room. Is it an old house? Use your grandparents’ house or some old house in town which you have access to. Is it a museum? Visit your local museum. Do you want to use a complete village? Get a map of your village or some little village you want to use, rename the streets, change the names of the commercial establishments, put in your landmarks, and voila! You have your own village. You can add or remove buildings as you need, but regardless of the changes, you will have a complete setting where your characters can come alive. It’s a little more difficult if you’re writing fantasy and creating a whole world because you don’t have much to go by. Despair not! All you need to do is take a detailed geographical map of a particular area, region, island, country, or continent. The geographical map will give you a land with the physical features you want. Throw in forests, add a few more mountains or water systems and you’ll have a wonderful land your characters can explore and adventure in. As usual, I advise students to take advantage of the Internet. Get your maps from Google maps or Google Earth. You can also use Google to explore specific areas by using street views or searching for photographs that give you incredible details of nearly any place in the world. The Internet also provides you with boundless information on architecture, history, culture, anthropology, economics, technology – just about everything you need to create your own world in such minute detail the information could overwhelm you. Unlike the past when writers were limited to write only what they knew or imagined, writers nowadays can travel around the world and experience different cultures enough to include that in their stories. Your biggest problem will be how to become more selective, what to include, what not to include, and how to make use of the information you gather in your writing.

With the glut of information available on the Internet, writers can be overwhelmed and end up creating an information dump. Beginning writers, in particular, need to restrain themselves from including every bit of information they write when developing their setting. This is often the case with my writing students, who have felt so attached to the settings they developed, they felt compelled to include everything in their stories. The point of creating detailed settings prior to writing the actual story is to know the setting so intimately your characters can walk through them blindfolded–or, at the very least, not walk right through a wall another character just bumped into. Creating a detailed setting description helps you create consistency in the physical environment so it is clear your characters are moving around in the same space. What you should not do, however, is to describe the whole setting before the story begins. As far as I am concerned, the best way to describe your setting is to reveal it as the characters encounter it. If your story begins in the bedroom, by all means, describe the bedroom, but don’t go ahead and describe the rest of the house until your character leaves the bedroom and moves through the house. If your character stands at the bedroom window and looks out, by all means, describe the scene outside the window, but don’t describe what the rest of the neighborhood is like. If your character eventually goes down into the basement, don’t describe the basement until your character goes there. That way, you will never be in danger of dumping a load of irrelevant information on your readers. You will have less of a tendency to digress, as well. The same rule of thumb should be applied to other characters in the story, as well. Do not describe them or introduce them until your active character meets them or encounters them. It’s a good way to keep your readers involved and keep your writing focused.

A Writer’s Vocabulary & Tips for Improving Yours

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Have you ever read a literary work and wondered at the range of vocabulary used within the work? Sometimes, the hardest thing for writers is finding the exact word, that perfect turn of phrase that conveys precisely what is meant. Sometimes, the exact word is elusive and understandably so because we do not always have that word in our vocabularies. Ideally, as writers, we should expand our vocabularies so we have suitable words at our fingertips, ready to convey the slightest nuance of meaning to our readers. Unfortunately, we might not all be equipped with encyclopedic memory or dictionary-like vocabularies. Lexicographer and dictionary expert Susan Dent posits the active vocabulary of an average English speaker is about 20,000 words, with a passive vocabulary of about 40,000 more words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words in current use, 47,156 obsolete words, and 615,100 definitions. This suggests that each word, on the average, might have up to three definitions and we know, sometimes, those definitions are not always related. Research also reveals reading fiction widens our vocabularies more than non-fiction, simply because fiction uses wider vocabularies than non-fiction. It’s highly likely, therefore, you have a larger vocabulary if you are a wide reader of fiction. If you want to expand your vocabulary, I always recommend reading fiction. Not only is it enjoyable, it’s highly educational as well.

My penultimate session in writing courses always includes tips on how to improve writing style and formatting your work. One way to improve your writing is to review your word choices, identify weak, imprecise, or indefinite words and phrases and replace those with more picturesque and exact language.

The vocabulary of younger generations seems to be narrower than it ever was, with colloquial usage and catch-all words replacing more exact language. What is more appalling, yet, is how mass media has picked up on the use of weak language, settling for imprecise expressions rather than looking for the best word. As writers, there is no excuse for you to settle for the most common, most innocuous words that pop into your head. Some of those words involve adjectives modified with qualifiers or quantifiers. Nearly every adjective modified by “very” can be replaced by a more precise word. For example, “very small” = tiny, minute, minuscule, diminutive, petite, microscopic; “very big” = large, huge, humongous, gigantic, massive, colossal, vast, tremendous, monumental; “very dry” = arid, parched, dehydrated, withered, shriveled; “very tasty” = delicious, delectable, flavorful, mouthwatering, ambrosiac, luscious. These examples are, by no means, exhaustive. That is why a dictionary and a thesaurus are a writer’s best friends.

Prepositional idioms are often redundant and don’t deliver the same effect as a singular word. For example, “get up” can mean stand, rise, arise, awaken, advance; to “lie down on a bed” means exactly the same things as to “lie on the bed”–there is just no way to “lie up”; “go forward” = advance, proceed; “climb up” = ascend; “climb down” = descend; “shut down” = shut, close, terminate, end. I could go on and on with lists of words that can be replaced with more precise and more picturesque language. In fact, I could probably write a book or two or three filled with such replaceable words. In the meantime, check your friendly dictionary and thesaurus. If you don’t have a print copy handy, there’s always the Internet. A simple word search will give you multiple sites giving you not only synonyms and antonyms but usage as well. Who said writing was easy?

Improve Your Writing through Observation

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Writing is as technical and scientific as it is creative. Yes, even when you write creatively, there is no end to the use of scientific methods. Those of you who remember science classes will recall the scientific method requires (1) observation, (2) questioning, (3) hypothesizing, (4) experimentation, and (5) conclusion or generalization. We use the same skills when writing creatively. How? Let’s begin with observation. Writers observe the world around them, probably more so than any other people. It is from observation that writers find topics to write about. From observation, writers are able to create detailed descriptions of just about anything. How else would you describe the expressions on a person’s face who receives news of a tragedy—the widening of the eyes, the jaws dropping slightly or more, the blank expression of being unable to comprehend, and then the realization of the actuality. You watch people as they react to different situations and then ask yourself: Does the recipient accept the news, understand it, control emotional responses? Or does the recipient break down in shock, express denial, anger, depression, pain, or anguish? What emotions are expressed or shown? How are the emotions expressed? Some emotions might show similar facial expressions and body language but there are universal similarities in the way people react and the way they express emotions. The next thing you do is make certain predictions or guesses. What will the person do next? Why did the person react that way? What about the news affected the person so much? Experimentation might not be a very evident step, but when you explore the different reactions to the same situation, change certain factors—maybe where or when the news is delivered, or who receives the news, or how the news is conveyed—you could come up with several possible situations you can play around with. When you know how your characters will respond and commit that to your story, you will have come to a conclusion. The whole process of creating stories involves the exact same process in a gazillion permutations and each combination will be a different story. That’s why you’ll never run out of stories to tell.

On Writing: Good vs Good

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The best stories don’t come from “good vs. bad” but “good vs. good.”
~ Leo Tolstoy

One problem writers have is determining what thematic conflict to use in a story. Stories can universally be classified according to theme, the most common of which is good vs. bad. Since the inception of literature as an oral form, themes revolved around the hero, who eventually epitomized things a culture considered good, and the enemy or villain, who eventually represented what was bad or evil in a culture. Hence, the clansman who returned with a bear or a lion was the hero who brought home food to the clan while defeating the predatory, monstrous, man-killing beast, which came to represent evil. The hero could be the warrior who defeated the leader of an aggressive tribe or the mother who saved her child from the threatening rapids of a swollen river. It’s not difficult to see how attributes of good and evil can be assigned to the character elements involved. These characteristics were transferred to different characters, including the popular animal characters in fables.   Fast forward to contemporary literature of the 21st century. As early as the latter half of the 20th century, the term “hero” was replaced with “protagonist” and the “enemy” or “villain” was called the “antagonist”. This most likely had to do with the influence of a growing political correctness that demanded a greater sensitivity to the use of derogatory terms. It suited literature well because, quite often, the antagonist could not be defined because of the very familiar man vs nature conflict. Also, because the enemy might not be nature but also might not be human, what used to be man vs beast soon became man vs other, the “other” being anything from beast to monster to alien to technology, e.g., machines, robots, and computers. The rise of anti-heroes and reluctant heroes as very real characters also made it easier for literature to adopt the “protagonist” label—the central character in the story, around whom the plot develops. The concept of the anti-hero fits well with the idea that not all struggles or conflicts are between good and evil. This was a simplistic way of looking at the world proposed by religion: anyone who followed the church and its rules was good, anyone who did not was bad; by extension, any character who practiced the values espoused by religion was good. As such, characters were written with characteristics of what was considered good and righteous, or strove to achieve those traits. The moralistic tale Pilgrim’s Progress was just that: a Christian’s journey through temptations and tests that strengthen his Christian faith and values. Realistic literature later on dispensed with the notion that characters were either good or bad, instead revealing the inner workings of the human psyche. In truth, good people sometimes do bad things and bad people also do good things. That’s the reality: people are complex. So when complex people are portrayed facing complex situations that mimic real life and encounter other characters who are just as complex, literature suddenly becomes much more interesting and exciting. I still believe people are basically good. Those who are truly evil have mental and psychological aberrations as a result of some faulty wiring in their synapses that prevent them from deriving satisfaction of pleasure from positive experiences. The basically good ones are those who face reality, encounter other good people and don’t always agree in varying degrees. It’s those little conflicts from day to day heightened to literary proportions that give writers a bottomless reservoir to draw from.

Afraid to Submit? Here’s Why You Should!

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You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.
~ Isaac Asimov

Everywhere you turn, you’ll hear similar advice: send your work out and be persistent. You’ve heard all the stories about how many times some of the best-known writers have been rejected. We all need to face the truth. There will always be rejection out there. Consider the odds: hundreds of thousands of people who want to be writers sending their manuscripts to several hundred reputable publishers around the world—yes, reputable. We all want to be published by the big five or whoever is on top of the publishing heap at the moment. Many times, it’s not even possible to get near one of those publishers because some of them will only deal with agents. So you’re stuck with publishers on the periphery. Again, because of all the people who believe they’re great writers and have just the work that will be the next bestseller, even those publishers are swamped with manuscripts for review. It’s no wonder it takes upwards of three to six months before you even get a response. Publishers also are extremely selective about the genres they publish. They like to maintain their image and tend to look for work that fits what you might call their “product lines”. Some publishers will only pick thrillers, others only science fiction or fantasy, still others only romance. Bigger houses might have several different lines, brands, or labels to suit a variety of genres. I’d like to think, despite their niche, most publishers are always on the lookout for manuscripts that will win prizes or top the bestseller lists—or both. If it’s a bestseller you’re after, you don’t necessarily need to aim for a prestigious literary award. In fact, many bestsellers will never have medals on their covers, but their authors probably don’t care. Bestsellers come and go and most stay on top of the lists until the reading public fancies a new book. Sure, sometimes a lot of marketing hype goes into the resulting sales, but I like to believe you can’t keep a good book down. The authors just have to make sure the books get out there by all means possible. Look at it this way: a rejection letter can be a badge of honor. It means you tried!

While my manuscripts to do not sit in drawers eating their heads off, they might be standing around in neat rows in several file folders in my computer, pretending to be many things besides words. Sometimes they’re soldiers at attention, not unlike the Royal Guards of London, their tall fuzzy hats standing above everything. Other times, they’re fashion models sashaying down digital runways, their loops and tails flouncing and bouncing about with a sassy attitude. There are days they’re tiny tots let loose in a playground, jumping from one play contraption to another like vivacious little monkeys let loose from their cage. And then there are the days they’re rapidly multiplying bacteria building teeming colonies that eventually turn on each other until they all calcify into crumbly chalky patches in my hard drive. I’m convinced they take on a life of their own and rewrite themselves when I’m not looking at them so they seem like complete strangers when I visit them in their virtual abodes. I might take one or more of them and try to whip them into forms palatable to readers besides myself but it’s a losing battle because my words tend to have minds of their own. One day, I will drag them out of their comfortable beds and push them out in the world to find their paths the way grown children should and hope they find their own homes elsewhere. Maybe they’ll bring me back grandchildren.

Writing the Truth

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One of the things many of my short story writing students seem to find most difficult is writing fiction based on fact. They try to fit a real story into a short story plot without changing a thing, but want to use the true story as the basis of their short stories anyway, because they want to explore why it happened, help others understand the situation, or just share it because it was interesting to them. The hardest thing to explain is that they do not need to stick to the truth when they are writing fiction. In fact, many times, the truth might seem stranger than fiction. Many things don’t make sense, especially when the writer learns about the story from several different sources. Probably the hardest thing to teach aspiring writers is how to sift through all the details they think they should include to find the greater universality—the truth they want to really write about. Quite often, writers might start out without even knowing what truth they are writing about and go about it in a roundabout way. In fact, we are surrounded by stories, a great deal of them worthy of writing. However, we might not always have enough information to write the story. Thankfully, there is such a thing nowadays as microfiction. If we can’t write that novel, we can find publishing platforms for stories under 1,000 words. All you need to start with is a single event. As a writer, it’s your job to fill in the details that led to that event and the details that ensue from that event. If you were a journalist or a researcher, you would be looking for all the people involved, uncovering motives, personalities, histories. You would look at what happened to the people involved, how each of them felt after the incident, what they did, what they thought, what it did to their lives. Because you’re writing fiction, however, instead of looking for the facts before and after your story event, you weave the stories, inventing lives for each of the characters, giving them motives, personalities, histories so your readers know your characters intimately. You create an ending after the event, allowing your characters to somehow triumph over their situations even if it did not happen that way in real life. You devise some form of closure so your readers will have closure, because readers need that—even if their closure happens several books after the first. When that happens, you can celebrate your success in producing a series.

We know that the universal truth conveyed in timeless stories—the classics—is something we seek as writers. To plan a story around this universality is usually not as easy as it is to write about an event and discover the universality from that. The value in starting this way is that the writing can be more spontaneous and less forced. What is important is that the story itself is sound: in plot and structure, language and imagery, characters and motivations. As you develop your story, you need to weave in elements that resonate with the rest of humanity, mostly by working around powerful emotions: love, hatred, triumph, despair, fear, greed, ecstasy. These are what make stories interesting. If your characters don’t feel any of these, your readers aren’t likely to feel much for them, either. You need only read an anthology of short stories from any cross-section of history to find all these emotions. You need only read the winning stories from contests over the last handful of years to get a feel of the emotions that litter fiction and you will understand what makes fiction universal. Everything else can be invented. What will stand out and touch the readers are the emotions. Those are your greater truths.

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