Fiction Writing Tips
Version 1.3 (19 February 2013)

So you've decided that you want to write fiction; and you are finding that you need a little help. Here are some tips to help you out with your writing.

Check out Writing Books!

Go to your local public library (you have a card, don't you?) and go to the 800 range (Dewey Decimal System) or the PN3355 range (Library of Congress System).

Check out every single book you can possibly get your hands on. This cannot be stated enough. There is no single book that will turn your writing into world-class award-winning writing. You can however study them to learn what the most common pitfalls are in fiction writing and how to avoid them.

There are a couple of good books which I found, and they are in no particular order:

Don't be afraid to check out books that aren't related to the genre of writing that you plan to do. Even though I plan to write science fiction, I found On Writing Horror: Revised Edition by Mort Castle a pretty interesting and useful book; because many of the conventions and ideas present in horror are present in other genres.

Fanfic...the dirty little secret of writing well.

One of the most common adages told about writing is that you need to practice a lot to get good at it, along with having your work critiqued by as many people as possible.

The easiest way to get a lot of critique is to post bits of your work online.

However, that causes a problem due to “First Sale” rights. If you post your magnum opus online for all to read in an internet forum, then...publishers will not be interested in buying it.

Yet, at the same time, you need something you can disseminate widely for critique on your writing style or grammar, because one of the fastest ways to end any relationship is to nag your significant other endlessly on what you’ve written that day.

This is where FANFIC comes riding to the rescue. There’s a market for it online, and it’s ultimately disposable at the end of the day.

Another hidden benefit is because fanfic focuses on existing characters who have already been characterized in other mediums (Printed/Film/Television), you can skip the characterization part of writing, as everyone interested in your fanfic will already know what James T. Kirk or William Adama look like, along with bits of their backstory.

This lets you focus on storytelling rather than telling backstory; so you can learn which parts are important to a story, and which aren’t.

Check out other storytelling mediums!

It’s worth checking out books and websites on scriptwriting, because much of the same issues that novelists have to deal with are also dealt with by scriptwriters, albeit in a much tighter and compressed form. A novelist can take a dozen or so pages to ‘set up’ a main character; while a scriptwriter is limited by the “one page is a minute of screen-time” rule of thumb in fleshing out his characters.

The Script Lab (http://thescriptlab.com/) is a pretty decent website for this kind of information, in particular these pages:

Endings and Beginnings
(http://thescriptlab.com/screenwriting/structure/the-outline/72-endings-and-beginnings)
Character Questionnaire
(http://thescriptlab.com/screenwriting/character/creating-characters/23-character-questionnaire)
Your Hero: Top Ten Rules:
(http://thescriptlab.com/screenwriting/character/character-roles/41-your-hero-top-ten-rules)
Your Hero: Top Ten Rules Expanded:
(http://thescriptlab.com/screenwriting/character/character-roles/959-your-hero-top-ten-rules-expanded)
The Hero's Objective: Part One – The Spine
(http://thescriptlab.com/features/script-tips-applied/1103-heros-objective-part-1-spine)
The Hero’s Objective: Part Two – The Opposition
(http://thescriptlab.com/features/script-tips-applied/1118-heros-objective-part-2-opposition)
The Hero’s Objective: Part Three – The Connection
(http://thescriptlab.com/features/script-tips-applied/1142#content)

Use the right level of Immersion!

Simon_Jester on StarDestroyer.Net said it best about immersive names for your story (in a Science Fiction context):

“I think it's best to reserve immersion for proper nouns (personal names, ships, places, and the like) and behavior (eating raw meat), while using English for nouns meant to convey some concrete, describable concept (names of political parties, classes of warships, official titles).
I want to say that “Admiral Boogagax fought the Nibble-Pibblies to a standstill, destroying six star cruisers and earning a commendation from the Senate, in a motion led by the Militant Party.” Not “Gavest Boogagax fought the Nibble-Pibblies to a standstill, destroying six Gazorninplatto and earning a Freglik from the Broooza, in a motion led by the Hippa-Baliki.”
Because then you have to wonder: “What's a Gavest? Is destroying six Gazorninplatto impressive, or unimpressive? Is a Freglik an award, or a death sentence? What the hell's a Broooza? And whose side are the Hippa-Balik on anyway?”

Plan your Stories Out!

While there are one or two people in the world who have enough natural talent and learned skill to be able to bang out a 200-page novel and have it coherent and consistent without any writing aids, you are not one of those people. Proper preparation will avoid heavy rewriting.

Characterization

Decide who the main characters are going to be, and then write a thumbnail biography that fits on a 3x5” card for each one. This will help you keep their “voice” consistent throughout the story.

Other genres, such as horror fiction benefit from giving everyone in the story a sketch bio, so that you can plan their actions when the Ungodly Horror Is Unleashed Upon The World™. It may turn out that a minor character has exactly the right kind of background needed to defeat the Ungodly Horror™.

Story Outlines

Story outlines range from just a page of scribbling or detailed plot treatments spanning dozens of pages. Essentially try to do the story's narrative from start to end, with each chapter getting a few paragraphs detailing the events that occur.

Quality is not exactly needed for the first draft of the outline. You'll have time to clean that up later. Something along the lines of this would work well for a Space Opera:

CHAPTER FIVE
Princess Llewellyn and her entourage arrive on the Red Furred Wolfoid homeworld. They see the Wolf Emperor and are given a tour of the Palace Gardens. The White Wolfoids try to assassinate them with a bomb.

CHAPTER SIX
Political fallout occurs in the Human Confederation from the White Wolfoid assassination attempt on Princess Llewellyn. Cries for war on the White Wolfoids become louder....

For the second draft, you can pay attention to whether the major events in the story make sense and can be tied together. With each draft, add increasing amounts of detail to the draft. By the fourth draft, you can start cutting characters who are extraneous to the plot.

Do you really need that Prussian Captain who appears in just two scenes in your story so that a major character to obtain a brace of duelling pistols? Can't you combine his story role with another character for simplicity? You can always rework the background details you did for the cut character and use it for a later book.

Back Story...or know when to stop.

Years ago when I was younger, I spent an inordinate amount of time detailing the backstory of a fanfic using an established alternate history series right down to detailing the pistols and small arms that minor powers such as Hungary or Romania had, instead of writing stories.

It’s easy to get sucked into “just a little more detail”, and you end up chasing that tail, instead of focusing on what’s important.

Now that I know more, I would have stopped the detailed backstory of that long-ago fanfic at just the munitions of the major world powers; and just handwaved away everything owned by the smaller powers as either “lend leased” aid from the great powers or invented it as needed – ‘ornately engraved small caliber automatic pistol’ covers a lot of bases and can apply from anything from a .25 ACP to .32 ACP, allowing the reader to use his imagination to fill in the blanks.

Furthermore, too much detail may destroy the story, because there’s only so much plausibility you, as a lone person can do. There’ll be someone out there who either knows more about the subject than you, or has an insight you totally missed.

An approach that might work out well is to start out with the basics of what you absolutely must have in the story.

Consider the case of Twilight, which has to have Vampires and Werewolves.

So you start with Vampires.

Vampires existing in your story implies that they must feed to stay alive going from long established mythology on them.

As a writer, you then ask:

“What would the world be like if Vampires existed and had to feed off human blood?”

which in turn leads to:

“What would the police reaction be to a ‘serial killer’ that drains bodies of human blood?”

You then run each major question and the questions it raises down a few levels of implications.

At some point, you need to stop doing sublevel after sublevel of questions upon questions, because ultimately, you are trying to write a story, not a metaphysical treatise.

The level you stop at depends on genre, mood, and tone of your story.

If you’re doing bizarre absurdist comedy, you can throw implications completely out the window. Does anyone complain about the physics of the old Warner Brothers Roadrunner vs Wiley Coyote cartoons?

If you are writing a ‘grim and gritty’ universe in which realism has a higher priority, then you’ll need to sit down for a while so that your story won’t make the reader stop reading after a few dozen pages and ask “Wait, why isn’t X or Y happening?”

Character Speculation as Information Dumping

One possible way to dump a lot of information into a story without it being outright recognizable as infodumping would be to have the characters speculate and discuss among themselves:

Example A:
Aliens, where they discuss in the MedLab what’s going on at Hadley’s Hope, and brainstorm possible lifecycles for the Aliens.
Example B:
Ghostbusters, where Venkman, Spengler, and Stantz are sitting around and puzzling out what’s really going on in New York City, via laying out the evidence they have (so far), talking it over, and speculating on what it might mean.

I haven’t tried this route in my own stories, but one possible danger I can see is that you don’t make clear what is character speculation and what is the omniscient voice of the narrator. Additionally, you shouldn’t make your characters too smart.

Remember, they’re speculating on extremely limited information available to them; and they might have gotten a crucially important bit of information wrong.

The Importance of a “Luck Meter”

It's plausible to have the hero of a story survive a improbable charge against a fortified enemy position and then kill scores of bad guys as he fires from the hip with a belt fed machine gun.

The still-living existence of Medal of Honor, Victoria Cross, Hero of Soviet Union, etc recipients after their acts is proof that someone can beat the odds no matter how stacked they are; but there are very very few double VC and HSU's alive.

A good idea for your story-writing notes would be to keep a 3x5 index card (or appropriate substitute) around for your main characters and mark it up as you feel appropriate each time you place them into a truly critical or dangerous situation.

Once the “Luck Meter” has gone too high, you should have them suffer a catastrophic failure which could be a totally botched mission that ends up with them in a North Korean prison for a year before they're exchanged for another spy; or they get shot in the kneecap which results in a lifelong disability for the rest of the book series.

Keep in mind that Otto Skorzeny, one of the most character shielded men in World War II carried out essentially only four major operations during the course of the war, which were:

Even with the best Character Shield in World War II, Skorzeny only managed a 2-1-1 scoring streak.