The Fiction Writer’s Toolkit
I love books on writing. I have so many books on the craft of fiction writing that the shelf next to my computer slightly sags in the middle. I can almost hear it groan as I add another great book to my collection. I’ve read them all with a highlighter and sticky notes. I’ve typed pertinent passages into Word documents and saved them for reference. And when I re-read them, I always find a new technique I can use for my works in progress. These books have become part of my fiction writing toolkit.
When we compiled this issue, we had one goal in mind: to create a virtual reference library, just like my bookshelf or yours, full of free information that fiction writers can use right now. A toolkit filled with techniques, exercises, and how-to advice for almost every aspect of fiction writing. So, we picked out the very best articles we could find to bring to you! We have everything from how to use dialogue tags in your story to how to speed up or slow down the pace of your scenes. We have advice from best-selling authors such as Debbie Dadey and Jodi Picoult. We have advice from literary agent Kathleen Ortiz. We have articles on setting and description, voice, scenes, plotholes, and a 5,000-word article on self-editing. We’ve created a virtual toolkit for fiction writers to reference time and time again.
And just like I do with the books in my library, we urge you to copy-paste notes into a Word document, print out articles and highlight passages, bookmark your favorite articles on social bookmarking sites to save for later, and revisit this issue when you need advice or inspiration.
When I first started building my collection of writing books, a non-writer friend came over one day and commented on my library. “Why do you have so many writing books?” he asked. “I thought it was something you were either born with or not.” Yeah, it was a bit rude; but he wasn’t a writer, so what did he know? I went on to explain that writing wasn’t something we were born with. We had to learn how to write our first sentences in grade school. It’s like anything else. Sure, you can hit the keys on a piano, and it will produce sounds, as awful as they may be; but you have to practice every day just to play one song. And a lot of that practice is repetitive—downright boring at times. You have to learn how to read music, practice the scales, stay on time with the metronome, and play the same melody over and over until you get it right.
The same thing can be said about writing—especially fiction writing. Learning how to create fascinating characters, construct a riveting plot, write realistic dialogue, build meaningful scenes that move the story forward, orient the reader with setting and description, and edit yourself into print is not an easy task! It takes a lot of practice, dedication, and love of writing. It takes a lot of reading—both books in your favorite genre and books and articles on the craft of writing. It takes a lot of feedback and critiquing from fellow writers. And ultimately, it takes a desire to see your work published. That desire should keep you striving to be the best writer you can be no matter how many rejections you receive in the beginning. No one can craft a best-selling novel on her first try without practice.
Even best-selling authors like J.K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, and John Grisham received numerous rejection letters before publishing their first books. Stephen King got so many that he used to nail them on a spike under a timber in his bedroom. So if you love to write, and I know you do, keep that fire burning and fan the flame with practice. The key to being a successful writer is persistence. This issue will provide you with a fantastic set of tools you can use right away in your fiction. It’s your writer’s toolkit!
Ready to get started? We have a great issue for you.
A big, warm thank you goes out to our freelancers and staff members:
We welcome back freelancer Kerrie Flanagan and thank her for her article, Writing a Strong Story: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. Many writers have problems with at least one of these elements. Maybe you struggle with where to start your story or how to craft a beginning that hooks the reader, or you may have a sagging middle and need help building tension, or maybe you’re having trouble tying up loose ends. Why not get help from the pros? Kerrie interviews successful authors—Debbie Dadey, Cricket MacRae, Laura Resau, Jeanne DuPrau, Jodi Picoult, Amy Kathleen Ryan, Kathryn Cushman, and Jonathan Kellerman—who share their best advice and techniques for crafting a strong work of fiction that keeps a firm hold on readers until the very last word.
When you begin your story, there are two questions that readers ask: Where am I? And why should I care? Readers need to be oriented right away to believe in your fictional world. But how can you do this without boring them with exposition? We welcome back freelancer Darcy Pattison and thank her for her article, Where Are We? Using Setting & Description in Creative, Yet Crucial, Ways. Darcy provides you with a step-by-step technique and some sensory exercises that will help you orient your reader without them even realizing it—simply by changing a few words!
One of fiction’s basic building blocks is a scene. A scene is like a little story within your larger work. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It has a specific goal in mind that will help move the story forward and/or reveal something about your characters. Strong scenes are essential to any story but can also be difficult to create. To help us through all the intricate parts of crafting a scene, we invited back Sue Bradford Edwards who walks us through each step in her excellent article, Creating Scenes. Sue covers scene basics, beats in a scene, beginning a scene, ending a scene, foreshadowing, tying it all together, difficult scenes, and what a scene won’t do. This is definitely one to print out and highlight! There’s a lot of information in every sentence.
What about voice? We know that voice is the key to creating an authentic story, and we know it’s what agents and editors look for in manuscripts; but how do we “find” our own voice? We welcome back Cathy C. Hall and thank her for her lively article, Voice: Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!, featured in The Fiction Writer’s Toolkit Slam column. Cathy knows that voice is not a lost key waiting to be found, and discovering your own true voice can be prompted through reading, writing, and arithmetic. No, we’re not talking math here! We’re talking about numbers—reading hundreds of books and writing thousands of words. She also chats with WOW! readers to find out which books contain the best examples of voice and shares some great exercises and resources to help you bring your voice to life.
One topic I seldom see covered as a whole is pacing. Pacing is the rhythm or tempo that determines how fast or slow a story reads. If your pacing is off, it could ruin an entire story! But how do you know when to slow down or speed up your story? And exactly how do you do that anyway? We welcome freelancer Julie Momyer to the WOW! family and thank her for her excellent article, Pacing: Finding Your Rhythm, featured in The Fiction Writer’s Toolkit Slam column. Julie provides you with a number of techniques you can use as brakes or accelerators, including narrative, dialogue, description, internal monologue, and backstory. She also shares examples of how you can pace your paragraphs by alternating sentence length to create a beautiful rhythm. Not to miss!
Want to use law in your story? No matter what genre you write, adding a bit of law could enhance your story. We welcome freelancer Donna Ballman to the WOW! family and thank her for her article, Using the Law in Your Story: Characters, Plot, and Professions, featured in The Fiction Writer’s Toolkit Slam column. Donna shows writers of all genres—romance, children’s and young adult, sci-fi and horror, and comedy—ways they can weave law into their stories. She also explains what types of legal professions your characters could perform and why they would make great observers or witnesses. And if you’re writing a mystery, whom might your murderer want to kill off besides lawyers? She has some great suggestions and reasons why.
This is a wonderful article to reference the next time you want to incorporate law into your story, and it just may spark some new ideas, characters, or plot twists!
Speaking of plot, have you ever read a book or short story and something is either blatantly wrong or just doesn’t seem right? Most likely, you’ve hit a plothole. We welcome back freelancer Gayle Trent and thank her for her article, Avoiding Plotholes. Gayle says plotholes can occur due to insufficient research, unexplained character behavior, inconsistencies, structural weakness, or too much “authoring” and not enough storytelling. In her article, she examines each of these plotholes and shows you how to avoid them. She also highlights well-known characters that change their behavior and provides examples of ways to make it work...without jarring your readers out of your story. This is an excellent article full of lots of takeaway!
One of the most important skills, if not the most important, you must learn in fiction is how to edit your own work. It can be painful to cut complete passages of your wonderfully written prose, but if it doesn’t move the story forward and/or reveal something about your characters, then it’s time to dirty up the cutting room floor. But even more than just cutting or checking for grammar and punctuation mistakes, you need to evaluate every part of your story: narrative, dialogue, characterization, setting, plot, voice, etc. So where do you start, and what should you be looking for? We welcome back freelancer and contributing editor Annette Fix and thank her for her in-depth article, Red Pencil Round-Up: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.
Annette shows you how to edit your manuscript step-by-step and polish every aspect of your story before you submit it to an agent. This 5,000-word article is a wealth of information and a must-read for any writer—no matter where you are in the process! Not to miss!
For a different take on the craft of fiction writing, we’ve invited literary agent Kathleen Ortiz of Lowenstein Associates to answer our 20 Questions. WOW! columnist Marcia Peterson interviews Kathleen about what she’s looking for in manuscripts—particularly the children’s and young adult genres—common mistakes in queries and submissions, and even craft elements like plot and voice. Kathleen also shares her tips for building an author platform through social media and what she looks for in an agent-author relationship. Plus, she’s a blast! You’re really going to enjoy this interview. Kathleen is also our current flash fiction contest guest judge; so summer contestants, you’re in for a treat!
And if you write flash fiction, we have further advice for you! We thank WOW! columnist LuAnn Schindler for her insightful article, The Contest Conundrum: What Are Flash Fiction Contest Judges Looking For?. If you’ve ever entered one of our contests or are thinking about entering, this article takes you behind the scenes of a flash fiction critique. With the permission of a flash fiction writer, we share a sample story and walk you through the critique process. You’ll see how judges score entries, examine content components such as universal story pattern, and what they look for in technical aspects. Learn by example from this article, and then get to work crafting your flash fiction!
One of the trickiest aspects of writing fiction is creating realistic dialogue. Even trickier is figuring out how to incorporate dialogue tags to add depth to your story. Too many and you’ve just killed your piece and ruined its flow. Too little and you have “talking head” syndrome. We thank WOW! columnist and contributing editor Margo L. Dill for her excellent article, How to Make Dialogue Tags Work for Your Story. Margo shows you how to use dialogue tags to set a scene—so you can keep the action moving and give readers a sense of place. She also shows you how to incorporate dialogue tags to reveal a character’s appearance, to tell who is talking and what he or she is doing, and to share inner thoughts—which is one of the strongest elements of fiction. Not to miss!
Margo also interviews Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni for our Inspiration column this month. Chitra is an award-winning author and poet. Two of her novels, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart, have been made into films. Her short story collection, Arranged Marriage, won an American Book Award. In today’s interview, Margo chats with Chitra about her latest novel, One Amazing Thing, and the inspiration behind it. Chitra volunteered to work with Hurricane Katrina refugees in 2005; and a few weeks later, she experienced a similar situation first hand—Hurricane Rita came through Houston, and she had to evacuate.
This experience led her to write One Amazing Thing, a novel where nine men and women of diverse backgrounds are trapped in an Indian consulate after a devastating earthquake hits. Chitra also shares how she kept track of nine extremely different characters when writing, the research that went into her novel, how she kept the pace moving while still including plenty of setting and description, and what keeps her motivated and inspired.
We also have a photo essay for you! As a fiction writer, you know just how important a good writing group is. We depend on them for support, networking, and providing an honest critique of our work. In her photo essay, Writing Groups: Fiction Writers Wanted, Margo L. Dill takes you behind the scenes of some fascinating writing groups in her area. She shows you what it’s like to attend a “critique-nic”—a picnic and critique session rolled into one, a critique group that meets at Borders, and a “shop talk”—where writers meet to discuss or learn about a subject that relates to the writing craft. Come join the fun! This essay may inspire you to attend one of these types of events if they’re available in your area or create your own!
And last but not least, I’d like to thank WOW!’s contributing editors Margo L. Dill and Annette Fix for making this issue an absolute pleasure to read.
On to the issue...enjoy!