Tactics for improving fiction writing (craft, narrative, characters)
July 31, 2021 4:00 AM   Subscribe

I want to write beautiful, generous, precise, and insightful short fiction. I have a writing routine now, but I don't know how to improve my craft. I would love recommendations on concrete tactics, exercises…and maybe workshops to take (online or in London).

A brief backstory: in high school I read a lot and wrote a lot of fiction (but I never showed people my work and never published). I was dissatisfied with my writing and felt I had nothing to say, so I essentially quit reading and writing fiction for a number of years. This changed in the last year: I'm devouring short fiction and novels, and small plot and character ideas keep on bubbling up in my mind. Now that I'm older, it feels like I finally have the life experience, research skills, and work ethic to say something interesting.

But I feel so immature as a writer. I'd love to know how to improve. If it helps, I'm interested in "literary" fiction, but have a huge fondness for magical realism and sci-fi—I think Ted Chiang and Carmen Maria Machado's short stories are masterful.

Assume that I have the work ethic in place. I've been doing near-daily morning pages for over half a year at this point, and I've been practicing pitching and submitting (for my creative nonfiction and essays). Only humble student publications so far! I would like to be in a position where I am submitting short stories in 2022, racking up rejections—and hopefully a few acceptances.

Where I want to improve:
  • Sentence-level craft: I struggle with writing lyrical, eloquent descriptions that don't feel overwrought. I love writers that have a sense of psychological and environmental ambiance, and I appreciate plots that linger on the small, beautiful details. Two recent examples: Mieko Kawakami's Breasts and Eggs, Dominique Barbéris's A Sunday in Ville-d'Avray (I'm reading a lot of translated works right now). But my descriptions are ungainly and they weigh down my writing; it feels like there's very little plot and a lot of unappealing description. How can I improve this?
  • Narrative: Because I haven't written short fiction for years, I feel really new to…constructing conflict, thinking about maintaining tension and rising action and dynamism in a story. I think I'd benefit from learning more frameworks or ways of thinking about this, or ways of picking apart existing writing to understand how others do it.
  • Characterization: When I was a teenager, I remember seeing these little character info sheets floating around where people would fill out basic biographical details about their characters, likes and dislikes, etc. Do these kinds of exercises work? I am coming up with fairly vivid initial ideas for characters, but I want to get better at expanding on who these people are and what about them (as individuals, in relation to other characters) is propelling the plot forward.
The gap between my work and the work I'm reading feels huge, but I would love to narrow it. I keep on hearing people say you should copy the greats to learn from them, but…what does that mean exactly? I would also love to find a community where I can critique other people's work and receive critique as well. (From my non-writing day job, I've learned that carefully analyzing other people's work has an incredibly positive effect on my own.) How do I find a community? Can I find them through workshops? Any recommendations on workshops (online or in London)?

I would be grateful for any and all recommendations!
posted by w-w-w to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Rachael Stephen annually offers a course called Story Magic Academy which might hit two of your points though explicitly avoiding your first bullet. curriculum info

A good part of her eventual forming that course shows up in her Plot Embryo videos. Though Plot Embryo looks like it focuses on story plot, it instead concentrates on character plot or growth -- usually the protagonist, but can apply to any important characters you need to develop.
posted by filtergik at 5:03 AM on July 31, 2021

The two best ways to improve writing aren't necessarily writing. They’re planning and editing. Are you outlining your stories before writing your morning pages? Are you going back and rewriting after you’re done?

There’s a YouTuber named Ellen Brock who does a lot of writing advice.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:19 AM on July 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First of all, congratulations on working so hard on your writing. That is at least half the battle.

I have taken two online classes from WritingWorkshops.com. One I loved, one not so much. (The teacher I thought wasn't good seems to not be teaching fiction, but if you're worried, MeMail me and I'll tell you who it is.) A lot of their classes are taught asynchronously, so you can be anywhere in the world - the teacher was in Texas, and we had one woman in Australia. I was really worried about taking an asynchronous class (see my previous Ask), but that turned out to be my favorite. I think because we weren't meeting in person, the people who participated really put a lot of time into discussions and commenting on people's work. (Be aware that about half of the class will drop out altogether - that's just how these things roll.)

Pre-COVID, I attended writing conferences, which were very helpful, and that's how I met the members of my current writing group. A regular writing group is really invaluable, but it can be tough to meet people who are on the same page as you and will really commit. I don't know anything about writing conferences in the UK - some conferences now meet online. (Also, Poets and Writers may be too US specific for you in terms of information on conferences, but they have a lot of articles about writing that might be helpful. Perhaps with COVID, they have more on online conferences.)

I have a BA with a concentration in creative writing, and I learned a lot from that. I also taught college essay writing for years (I mention it just to let you know my background). But I've found continuing to take classes when I can and attending workshops very, very helpful. There are also some really good writing books, but which ones are valuable tends to be really personal. The one that helped me the most when I was just starting was Three Genres by Stephen Minot, but it's very basic (and now very old) - at that time I really needed to know about stuff like how to avoid writing cliched stories. A lot of people love Bird by Bird, but the most recent time I read it, I started getting annoyed by the humor - maybe it just doesn't work well for multiple readings. If you have access to a good library, I'd suggest checking out books on writing and seeing if any are helpful to you. (The danger is in spending so much time reading books about writing that you don't write as much as you want to. Ask me how I know.)

My absolute favorite writing podcast is Tim Clare's Death of a Thousand Cuts. He sometimes does analyses of first pages people send him, and they are simultaneously funny, brutal, and full of really spot-on criticism (I figure people who send them in know what they're getting into). He's in the UK, if that matters. My second favorite is Writing Excuses. In addition to providing helpful information, these make me feel more like I'm part of the larger writing community. I'm very much a literary fiction person, and a lot of the podcasts focus on genres I don't work in (fantasy, science fiction, comics), but I find I can still learn a lot from someone who works in a genre that doesn't personally appeal to me.

I kind of regret not getting an MFA and haven't ruled it out altogether, possibly when I retire, but whether they are really worthwhile or just a way for colleges to make tons of money is a whole different can of worms.
posted by FencingGal at 5:20 AM on July 31, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Mary Robinette Kowal, a writer and writing teacher, has a $25/mo Patreon setup where you get to take a class with her every month. I have taken one of her classes in an earlier format, and she's both a very good teacher and has a solid writing community built up around her classes. It's a great way to meet some folks who are also interested in improving their craft as well as get some professional-level instruction.

She's also on Writing Excuses, a podcast that covers the craft of writing. It's been going on for a long, long time now, and you can flip through and pick episodes on topics that interest you, or start here for a structured, year-long course. Totally free, and a lot of fun.

I used Critique Circle many years ago - I did not end up posting much if anything to it, but it turned out to have a lot of stuff that was exactly at the correct level for me to get a lot out of offering critiques. Absolute Write is also a long-standing community of writers where giving and getting crit, as well as learning about markets and talking about craft, is the whole point.

Good luck! I am personally of the opinion that finding a few solid crit partners is one of the very best ways to improve your skills. As well as, of course, writing a lot - and revising, and polishing; just churning out first drafts only gets you so far.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:45 AM on July 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Someone I know who writes short fiction enjoyed the book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, which walks through in-depth sentence-level critiques of Russian short stories.
posted by chaiyai at 9:51 AM on July 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I strongly recommend the free site critters.org. The guy who runs the site, Andrew Burt, set up detailed guidelines for how to write an effective and polite critique. People are expected to abide by those guidelines and he boots people out if they repeatedly don't. So, critters doesn't have the same problem with abusive jerks or tossed-off cursory critiques that some other sites do.

Each week, a number of stories in each genre are posted online and linked from the weekly newsletter. You select the ones you want to work on, and get credits for writing high-quality critiques that you can then use to submit your own work.

I have found that the quality of critters critiques is on average higher than any other online critique service I've tried (including paid ones).

I have also found that approaching critiques in the manner required by the guidelines makes me a better, more focused, reader.
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 10:20 AM on July 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

Keys to Great Writing would be a sound investment.
posted by dobbs at 11:28 AM on July 31, 2021

Best answer: Arvon and Moniack Mhor offer one-week residential writing courses, and if you think you could spare a week some time, I really cannot recommend it enough. I did a week's playwrighting retreat at Moniack Mhor and it was honestly one of the best weeks of my life - I was exhausted by the end because I was so excited by the whole thing that I couldn't get to sleep at night!

It was a bit of a leap in the dark for me - I was at a similar stage to you - had been dipping my toe just a little into writing, but I'd been devouring plays both on the stage and the page, and immersing myself in the world online via twitter and blogs, but had never really met anyone else who was enthusiastic about contemporary British theatre. When I suddenly found myself in a house in the country with two famous writers and a dozen other people who all knew what the Royal Court was, and who Sarah Kane was, it was unbelievably exciting and invigorating. It wasn't just the hours of teaching (though they were great) - it was the conversations, the immersion, the sitting down for dinner with a couple of people who actually lived their lives making theatre and made it seem possible.

AFAIK, Arvon and Moniack follow much the same format - MM used to be part of Arvon but split away, I think partly Arvon's courses were priced at London levels and MM felt that being the Highlands, they could pitch things a little cheaper. Format was: We had two tutors for the week, both professional writers and Big Names in the field. They taught the whole group in the mornings, and then afternoons were one-to-one tutorials - you submitted them a bit of work ahead of time, you got one hour with each tutor at some point during the week, and they'd talk about your work with you. On the days you didn't have a tutorial you could write, go for a walk in the stunning countryside, or just think deep thoughts. Then one evening, a third guest writer visits, does a reading and a Q&A, just to mix things up.

I learned a lot, it shifted my whole orientation to writing, and I made a bunch of long-lasting friendships who have become a important part of my writing community.

Aside from the learning part, two great, quick reads on that gnarly problem where you're reading things you love and noticing how much better they are than what you write yourself (so far), and about what to do when your work is similar to the work of others:
The Taste Gap by Ira Glass
The Helsinki Bus Station Theory by Arno Rafael Minkkinen (written with a focus on photography but easily applicable to all creative endeavours).
posted by penguin pie at 12:12 PM on July 31, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh - FWIW, looks like Arvon courses are mostly online at the moment, MM in-person.
posted by penguin pie at 12:14 PM on July 31, 2021

Best answer: My MFA is in poetry and I started writing fiction later. Once I started writing flash fiction, I really felt like i'd found my place there, and I've had good results publishing it. Yet, writing longer short fiction is still really stressful for me because there are so many parts and so much depends on tension.

I do think having read and written so much poetry helps me on a sentence level with creating compact imagery.

One of the most helpful things I do is take a short story I love (big fan of Carmen Maria Machado here too!) and break it down, really dissect what "moves" it makes, how it uses language, tension, how character develops, everything.

I have a tendency to go overboard reading books about writing and craft essays so am trying just to use standbys. Now Write! is a great book of exercises, as is the 3 AM epiphany.

Lydia Davis gave some good advice that I don't take often enough, which is to get in the habit of making notes on things. The remarkable things, the quirky things, and even the mundane so that if it's raining in your story you'll know how to describe that kind of rain.

Finally? I recently had stories in two publications I'd been trying for years. Both those stories really showed aspects of my personality. Not that I'd suppressed that in other stories, but it was a good reminder that really being yourself and doing what you do well goes a long way. Don't let your voice get lost in the process of refining it.
posted by mermaidcafe at 5:45 PM on July 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What mermaidcafe said regarding poetry is true for me too. I studied and wrote poetry for five years before switching to prose fiction and I found that enormously helpful at sentence and paragraph level.

This doesn't address your individual questions directly, but I wanted to share the thing I learned that helped me the most - go directly to the parts of a paragraph, scene or story that really grab you, or that you connect to on a sensory or emotional level, and write them first. Don't waste time worrying about planning or how it all fits together, or trying to endlessly hone an opening paragraph, literally open ten different documents and write those crucial parts in each one separately - whether they are one sentence or 3000 words long. I can guarantee that in the process of doing that more of your story will suggest itself to you, your characters will start to breathe, and you will have a much clearer idea of what it is you are trying to write.
posted by mani at 2:23 AM on August 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for the advice—I’m profoundly grateful. So far I’ve followed up on:
  • chaiyai’s recommendation for George Saunder’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which is perfect for where I’m at right now. I’ve wanted to dive into Russian literature for some time (I read a collection of Chekhov shorts as a teenager and loved them, but my memory is now very hazy about what I loved). And the way Saunders carefully analyses the moves each writer makes, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, is incredibly helpful.
  • penguin pie’s recommendation to look into Arvon courses. I can’t afford the residential courses right now, but the online courses (especially at the reduced concession costs) seem really great and I might do a short one in the coming months.
  • mermaidcafe‘s recommendation of The 3 AM Epiphany. Very fortuitously, the day after the answer was posted, I was talking to a friend about wanting to take fiction writing more seriously…and it turns out she has a copy of this book from an old flatmate! Which feels very serendipitous.
I’m looking forward to trying out the critique sites people recommended, once I have a passable first draft of 1 or 2 stories.

I’m really interested in the idea of poetry informing prose—I read a decent amount (not as much as fiction/nonfiction though), and a lot of my favourite essays are written by poets, who are clearly bringing a certain evocative lyricism into their prose. I might try to analyse some of my favourite poetry as well and perhaps look into brief poetry workshops in the future.

Lastly, I appreciate the advice on being patient with the gap between taste and output, and the advice to write from what feels immediately and personally gripping.

Thanks again to all that shared thoughts!
posted by w-w-w at 7:54 AM on August 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

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