You want to write fiction, but you don’t know how. That’s OK. No one else knows either, because fiction flows from your imagination. Unlike nonfiction, which is grounded in facts, and depends on logic, your fiction wilts and dies if you try to use the same mind state in writing it that you use for writing nonfiction.
Consider that essentially: fiction is daydreaming and igniting experiences in your readers.
Want to write fiction? Get out of your mind
Children are good at daydreaming. If you listened to your schoolteachers when they said “pay attention” you might think that daydreaming is wrong. However, fiction writers know that they daydream their stories to life.
Big tip: it’s not about the words.
In my fiction writing classes, new fiction writers focus on the words. That’s natural, because you’re getting used to writing. However, as we suggest in step 4, below, there are no perfect words. More to the point, if you focus on the words, your imagination will sit in a corner and sulk.
Your basic fiction writing mindset is: dream first — and start with an emotion.
Here are some simple steps to help you to write fiction when you “don’t know how.”
1. Start with an emotion: emotions trigger memory and images
I like this list of emotions from Byron Katie; download the PDF.
If you’re a newbie fiction writer, try spending five minutes a day feeling emotions.
Here’s an example. Feel apprehensive.
Hard, right? You need a situation. Imagine that your boss asked you to take the company’s biggest client out to dinner. The client made a lewd remark to your wife. You hit him. The police have been called.
How do you feel? Do you feel apprehensive?
Just for a moment, imagine yourself in that scenario. How does it feel to be apprehensive? What thoughts go through your mind?
As an exercise, come up with a little scenario of your own in which someone feels apprehensive.
If you spend five minutes a day on this little exercise, you’ll make your imagination stronger, and that’s a good thing for fiction writers.
2. Grab a person, anyone will do
I talked about my favorite character-creation method in Plot Fiction: Fill-In-The-Blanks Plotting For Pantsers:
All you need to create a basic character is an adjective, combined with a noun. The noun is usually the character’s job. Some examples:
- Naive model;
- Bedazzled lottery winner;
- Hardworking hairdresser;
- Jealous chef.
You can come up with any number of these thumbnail “characters” in a minute or two.
Choose an adjective and a noun, and create your character.
Now go back to your list of emotions, and choose one. Let’s say you chose impatient.
Create a little scenario in which your jealous chef (or whoever) feels impatient. Let’s say that the restaurant owner is complaining to the jealous chef that someone left a negative review for the restaurant on a social media website.
Your next step is to keep asking WHY.
3. Keep asking: “why?”
Grab a pen and a sheet of paper, or open a new computer file, and talk to the character you’ve just created. Keep asking him: WHY — you can add “who?” and “how?” too, if you like. 🙂
Write it down, don’t try to do this in your head.
You daydream your fiction, but you also need to write stuff down, otherwise you won’t remember it, sadly. Day dreams are just like night dreams. They can be hugely involving, but the moment they’re over, they start to fade. So get into the habit of dreaming first, then writing what you dreamed.
Keep going, until the story becomes clearer.
Congratulations: you’ve just experienced plotting. Easy, right?
4. Assure yourself that there are no “perfect” words, just emotion
Many authors find that their biggest challenge in writing fiction is getting out of their own way. Avoid thinking too much. Just daydream, and write down the first words which come to you. You can tinker with your words in revision, but not when you’re writing.
When you catch yourself wondering whether “temper” is preferable to “rage” you’ll know that you’ve just jolted yourself out of the fictive dream, in which:
the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it…
(If you get the chance, read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. It’s a wonderful book.)
You DO know how to write fiction: just day dream, and write down your dreams
That’s pretty much all there is to writing fiction.
You can now write a bestseller and get your revenge on all those teachers who called you a dreamer. Have fun. 🙂
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