Fiction Writing Workshop 1: How to Think

The view from my first writing workshop, the Sewanee Young Writer's Conference

The view from my first writing workshop, the Sewanee Young Writer’s Conference

With the first week of my writing intensive coming to a close, I already find myself viewing writing a different way. While I am learning so much about the craft and process of fiction writing from my professor, I am inadvertently learning even more from my classmates. It’s not the kind of learning you’d expect, though; I am not begging them for book suggestions, nor am I writing notes as I read their stories, preparing to steal lines, characters, settings. No, I am learning from them simply because I am learning how they view fiction, and–surprise, surprise–it is not the way I think of fiction.

I didn’t realize that people could think of a literary genre so wildly different from one another–which is a silly oversight on my part. If people can argue about human rights, they can argue about anything. Because my beliefs are being contrasted against a board of people, I have been forced to refine and question my own literary dogma. What do I believe about writing, reading? Why do I create? What is fiction’s purpose?

Of course, I already have my thesis, my defense against writing in my section entitled Why I Write, but this is a genre-specific treatise. One of my goals for this course was to become more comfortable with fiction, and my newly articulated theories have certainly done that, especially when coupled with the realization that writing new things scares everyone.

  • I write fiction because I believe in the power of a story, something made up, as being more reflective and more true to our own lives than any nonfiction can possibly hope to be. When released from the constrains of reality, storytelling has the potential to discover emotions and beliefs we didn’t know existed within us. That, and I like to make things up.
  • I read fiction for catharsis. I read about things that aren’t real in order to feel real emotions in a safe, private place, then close the book and be done with them, if I so chose. Or, to open the book again and again and see that emotion change, a reflection of who I am now and how I see the world.
  • A good story is not solely composed of good things. As in, not all stimuli is good stimuli. So, a story can be “action-packed” and full of a million descriptive words, but if it lacks a purposeful structure, meaningful characters, and a “so-what?” factor, it can still come off as flat. Especially if the ending of the story is tied off in a neat little bow, constricting the reader from carrying the tale any further, and essentially shutting the book on itself.
  • Good fiction is more than a story. Too often, people equate “feeling things” and being made to think we good, provocative fiction. However, all literature should make you think; all literature should make you feel things. If you’ve left a book or a story and feel the same as when you’ve started it, the writer has inherently failed in her task. Good fiction, or even great fiction, takes emotion and discovery to a new place, a place the reader has never been before.
  • Let sleeping dogs lie. Remember that when you are a famous author (and that is what we are all secretly hoping for when we plunk out stories on our sleek laptops), you will be interviewed. People will ask you, “What does this mean?” and “Are the literary critics right?” You could tell the interviewer at Harper’s, “Yes, this character is based entirely on my mother. Yes, she really did put that cigarette out on the couch, starting a fire.” Or, you could be a good author and keep your trap shut. Let biographers find that stuff out; let universities clamor for your notes and manuscript drafts so that they can read between the lines.
  • If you feel the need to explain it, write it again. Now ask yourself, why do I want to tell people all my secrets? The biggest reason is confusion: your readers don’t understand something, say character motivation, so you feel the need to justify it. Your fiction, however, should speak for itself. That is what is so magnetizing about fiction in the first place: mystery, discovery, and drawing conclusion for yourself as a reader. There are in turn two probable causes of the confusion, and both are easily fixed: cause one, you were too hands-off as a narrator and simply need to give your readers more information (easy fix: add a few sentences of explanation); cause two, you are basing this world and these characters off your own life, and are therefore constrained by reality, so your fiction lacks continuity and sense. This is the bane of my young, vivacious existence. This is exactly what fiction is not: your own life. of course, you can steal pieces of it, but if you ever find yourself thinking that an event or a character can’t happen in a story because it would or has not already happened in your own life, stop right there, attach a brick to your current story, and drop it in the ocean.
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