The Five W's of Fiction Writing

Welcome to the portion of the writer blogging program where I use a well-established cliche to give you a good idea of what makes for compelling fiction! But first, a warning:

I don't know why, but I think this owl has the inner voice of Steven Wright.
I want to caution new writers against reading too many things like this. Some people get off on telling writers how to write. I used to, but I'm not quite so hot on it anymore (that being said, I hope anyone Googling my old writing advice finds something useful). These days, I feel greatly disinclined to lecture writers on all the things they're doing wrong, for the same reason I don't freelance edit much anymore. When it comes to art, I don't want to be the sage on the stage. I want to be down in the trenches with people growing right along with them. While I will always hold opinions as to what makes good writing good and bad writing bad, I think creators need to spend some time on their own exploring their creative space. I do think writing blogs and seminars and such can be valuable, but only if they foster excitement and the desire to go forth and create rather than squish writers into some kind of mold.

I have attended some great workshops on how to find voice and build worlds, and neither of them contained the word "don't." This is important, because when you start don't-ing people all the time, it starts to feel like a "rule." And rules and art make for very strange bedfellows. I've seen too many good writers succumb to "the rules" in my time, and I've read too many books that display technical prowess while at the same time failing to do the #1 thing I think every single book out there should do: making me give a fuck. I don't care how pretty and interesting your sentences and settings are. If I don't give a fuck, I'm not reading. And inspiring readers to care is really where your artistic sense comes in. I don't want to stomp on your creativity. I want to give you a reason to celebrate it.

With that out there, I'm going to use the Five W's (the Who, What, When, Where, and Why) of fiction writing. Really, they're a series of questions you can ask yourself to help you write a well-rounded story. Some of the questions will look at your actual work, some of them will look at you as an author. That's because there isn't a whole lot of separateness between the art and the artist. This might not all come to you right away, but the more you write, the more it's going to seep in and change you, the way water changes the shape of rock over long periods of time, and eventually you're going to be aware of these things without even thinking. But even grizzled and jaded veterans can stand to learn something new, too, so er'body pay attention.

1. WHO are you writing about?

Some of the best characters ever...
It's in the #1 spot for a reason. Whether you're a reporter or a fiction writer, if you don't know who you're writing about, you're not going to have a whole hell of a lot to say that's worth a damn. Your characters are the most important things in your story. Let me repeat that: THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS. It seems obvious, but so many people forget this. I have forgotten this too, and I often need reminding. Authors are a one-person band and so it's easy for us to get more enveloped in the concept of the story, the setting, the time period, the science and machinery. By the the time all that other stuff is developed, the character just becomes this shapeless avatar that moves at the writer's direction and succeeds or doesn't succeed according to the demands of the plot. The author hasn't told us anything about them, hasn't let us into their heads, hasn't given us a reason as to why we should trust this person to carry us through the story or be invested in their outcome. People sometimes confuse character development with info-dumping or back story. In my view, a character is a real person. A real person's present actions are often informed by their past ones. Some say you shouldn't put any of that in. I say bullshit. I say cram in as much as you can and then later, when you go back and reread, you can cut out the things that feel draggy or aren't actually germane to the story. All of our thought processes are retrospective to a certain extent, especially when you consider things like motivations. For instance, I'm going to be very cautious about opening the door when a stranger knocks on it if one time I was attacked by a couple of rogue vacuum cleaner salesmen. Maybe if your character is feeling trepidation of some kind when the doorbell rings, you relate that feeling to a past experience so we get a little more understanding about this particular person and her motivations. Because you know that in real life, if you've just survived an attack of some kind, when you hear a doorbell ring, the first thing YOU'RE going to be thinking about, even a little bit, is whether or not the person on the other side of that door is a good or a bad egg.

I'm not saying you should spend page upon page on a person's background, but you damn sure better be ready include relevant information that informs a character's present actions and decisions. It takes time and patience to do this. You have to ask yourself a lot of questions about your character. Turn off that voice of your plot trying to hurry you along, because plot is an asshole who thinks it has a schedule to keep but is really just a loudmouthed narcissist that thinks it's more important than it actually is. Okay, sure, yes, get to your plot. You'll have to eventually. But more importantly, tell the story of your characters, paint in those fine details. Make them feel like real people, and no one will ever forget them. Spend a good bit of time learning who you are writing about and people will love your story.

2. WHAT do you write?

Oh you had a unicorn astronaut erotica story in mind? I just wrote it...
This is your story in a nutshell. What's it's all about. Of course that's going to be important, but I love the saying that the late and great Roger Ebert used when he talked about movies (and it applies just as well to books): It's not what it's about. It's how it's about it.

In other words, I try not to be so concerned about originality. People like to hem and haw about original ideas and things that are "derivative" (I hate that word. Every time I hear it, I punch an orphan--no lie). You know how many books and movies are out there about robots and vampires and dying kids and cheating husbands and murderers and wars? There are only so many ways to present conflict. There is nothing new under the sun... EXCEPT your own storytelling DNA, something that is unique to all of us. It's our voices and our "mannerisms" and our characteristic way of combining words into rhythms and sounds that no one else quite has. Joe Hill, for instance, may write horror and he may have some of his dad Stephen King's knack for capturing the surreal and macabre aspects of everyday life, but he is still very much Joe Hill. You sit both of these men down to write a story about a scary clown or a killer pandemic, and you will not get the same two stories. No one else could have written It or The Stand. And that's good to keep in mind if you have a scary clown or killer pandemic story to tell. Maybe this concept is REALLY speaking to you and all you have to do is open your skull and let the thing splat out of your forehead onto the paper (metaphorically, of course). But then you hear of another author who is kinda sorta telling the same story. Or you hear that nobody wants to read zombies and vampires anymore or that your concept was part of a fad that died out six months ago.

DON'T let this discourage you (oh crap, I said "don't", but when it comes to this I don't care)! Story ideas aren't unique, but you are. I can guarantee that as long as you aren't plagiarizing, your story is a special snowflake. All this is to say that if you're feeling that idea burning a bright flame in your head, WRITE IT. That story is going to be a hell of a lot better than some perfunctory thing you wrote because you wanted to cater to the fickle whims of the market in an effort to get your name out there. The What of it all is what's getting you off most at that moment. It's the mojo.

3. WHEN do you write?

There's twiddling thumbs, and then there is this
This isn't about period fiction or setting or anything like that. This is about the "when" of your habit. Everyone has a rule for when you write and there are two schools of thought here. Some writers write every day, even if they don't want to. Even if it they feel all they're doing is "shoveling shit from a sitting position" (Stephen King, again...you can't escape the man's wisdom there), because it's possible that what they write is never as bad as they think it is. In fact, it could be downright great. I've surprised myself that way a few times. Others think you shouldn't force it. If you're not feeling it, it's like sitting on a toilet to take a crap when you don't have to (Chuck Palahniuk there, at least paraphrasing), and eventually you're going to start to resent the process and then not do it at all.

Neither of these things are wrong, precisely. However what's true of both of them is that if you're going to be a writer, you DO have to do the work. The shit doesn't write itself. I've gone sometimes two months without writing a word of fiction, particularly after I've just finished a big project, but I gave myself permission for that the same way someone gives themselves a little vacation once or twice a year. Writing is like any other job. You really should take breaks once in awhile. Do something else. Live a little. I need that time away to let the inspiration storage tanks in my brain refill. I need time to clear the old world out of my head so I can start something else with a blank slate. But the caveat is that I DO eventually have come back. It's not just some "okay I'll write whenever" kind of thing. It might be for someone who writes as a hobby, but this is my job. No one can do a job like that, I don't care if you're writing books or writing prescriptions. Do it long enough like that, and you're fired. I spoke recently about my mind being in kind of a fuzz and that I've been spinning my wheels a bit trying to get something done. The thing is, I still had to sit down and try to write. Didn't matter if it was working on a short story or one of the novels I have going. I couldn't just do nothing and cry about how nothing was turning out. I actually had to try. Some days it works, some days it doesn't, but at least I'm plugging away at something. Career writers should be writing every chance they get. But you should also not feel bad for taking a little step away to regain your perspective if the walls are closing in. The only thing that separates writers from dreamers is that writers write. I'm sure someone's coined that already, but whatever.

4. WHERE do you write?

Step into my office...
I crack myself up sometimes. I have an office now. When I moved into this house, I was most excited about having my own work space. I painted it up all nice. It has all all my great things in it, like my coconut monkeys and my Living Dead Dolls pencil sharpener and my Sigmund Freud action figure and my Attack of the 50ft Woman poster. It also has my awesome Whiteboard of Ideas. Don't get me wrong, I do spend a good bit of time in there. I record podcasts in my office. I do a lot of editing in there too. But lately, for the last couple writing projects, I've found myself right back on my laptop in another room. I don't know why this is. Maybe I just like writing with my feet up. It could be a lighting issue or something more mystical happening with the energies in my living room, or some other horseshit. Who the heck knows? The where of writing is where you need to be in order to free your mind and devote it to the matter at hand, even if it's only for an hour a day. Whether it's a Starbucks or your library or your bedroom with the door closed and the phone ringer off. Whatever. Make that time to go where you need to go, so you can go where you need to go.

Now to address the family and friends of writers, because this is equally important: give the artist in your life a little space. If you're creating an environment that is toxic and not conducive to someone's creativity, please stop. Don't sit in a room and talk endlessly to someone who has a word document open and is clearly trying to type in it. Don't get mad when someone has to turn off their phone ringer for an hour or two a day so they can get some work done. Don't interrupt the process. We're not out to completely monopolize the time of everyone else, but all we are asking is a little breathing room and consideration for the monumental effort it sometimes takes to get into the zone. If you don't believe me, just ask Jack:

5. WHY are you writing? Or why AREN'T you?

Sometimes internet cliches can be profound
Ask yourself this every so often, especially if things aren't going great. But even if they are, it's not a bad idea. Living by rote tends to take its toll after awhile, no matter what your profession. Life is a dynamic thing and you can either move with it or be moved by it. Hopefully you're not doing this to get rich, because yeah... bad idea all around. Maybe your direction and ambition has changed. You haven't gotten the big book deal you dreamed about when you started this whole thing, or your indie sales have been in the dump, and you've gotten a few bad reviews on top of it and you just feel like a hack. Sometimes these are phases that you go through and get over in due time, but if it's been a year or more that you've felt miserable as an author, maybe it is time to ask yourself why you're still doing it. Do you feel that it's because you've already committed so much time to the process and you don't know how to move on without having a whole lot of accomplishments to show for it? The ego can be an unmerciful mistress sometimes, resistant to change, but that's no reason not to challenge it.

On the flip-side, say you've been wanting to write for a long time, but you haven't yet. Why? What's stopping you? Are you feeling overwhelmed by the commitment or the details involved in telling a story? Are you feeling a little guilty because you were raised to believe that telling stories is for little children and that you should be doing "real work?" Do you feel like there just aren't enough hours in the day, especially when you have kids or a day job or other things getting in the way of you giving yourself that time you need to do anything that brings you pleasure? Even if you're a regular writer who hasn't written for awhile, it's a good idea to assess why you don't want to write. Maybe the idea exhausts you. Burn out is for real and you should attend to it. Whatever the reason, it's a good idea to subject yourself to this sort of reflection every so often. Maybe you don't want to answer "why" because it could mean facing some truths about your present and future circumstances that you're not ready for yet. But eventually you're going to get miserable enough that you're not going to have much choice and the answer is going to be staring you right in the face. Either way, I hope the answers result in change for the better.

And that goes for all these questions. I hope they help you dig a little deeper.