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How to write fiction for today's readers

(Who am I to say? See Am I any good?)

The rules you can break

Write what you know.
I don't buy it. Have you read Kurt Vonnegut?

A story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
These days the really short ones have no middle. It saves time. Readers already know the middle. They're smarter that we think.

The Principal of Minimalism

Most of today's successful fiction, especially short pieces (short stories, short shorts, flash fiction, etc, and ALL poems) are ectomorphic: trim, fascile, athletic. They read "lean and hungry." This is dictated by the vastness of available material, and the associated atrophying of attention span.

They are also point-blank. Here's a quote many editors have used: Good writing is meant to be understood, not decoded.

So we get to the point fast. We don't waste the reader's time. We know that after reading 50-100 bloated, spiritless, or poorly assembled words, he'll flee the premises. At least we hope he will.

How to write lean

I'm going to use a sample of my own writing as a guide, and simply hope that I've earned it. It's ninety eight words: water. 1 I'd like to suggest six rules:

1) Use as few adjectives as possible

water has six: wettest, broadest, sharpest, twelve-year-old, rising, setting.

2) Use even fewer adverbs

water has one: suddenly.

That leaves nouns and verbs. (Articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc, are the vital nuts and bolts.)

Consider the line "He flies." Varying the noun, you get "John flies," "The guy flies," "The man flies," and perhaps "Dumb ass flies." The thesaurus at thefreedictionary.com gives a few more synonyms for man: "adult, grownup, male, bachelor, beau, fellow, " etc.

Generally, there aren't many nouns to choose from for a given context, and the one you pick must accurately name something. This doesn't leave much room for natural selection in the evolution of a sentence.

That leaves verbs. Varying the verb in "He flies," you get: "sails, flutters, flits, flaps, floats, dashes, takes flight, takes off, flees, buzzes, soars, hovers, solos, jets, glides, slips by, slips away, escapes, makes off, absconds, whooses, zooms," etc. The list seems not to have a clear end.

Verbs have a peculiar universality. This means, I submit, that they can be mixed, matched, swapped, clustered and re-invented. water has eighteen of them. Three are stacked up: "cavorted slithered swam." And so I say:

3) Pick the best verbs you can think of


I agree with the well-known axiom: it is best to use clear, short, action verbs. This still leaves plenty of ways to stumble onto an extraordinary line by tinkering with its verb.

A word about words- the English language has a bonanza of verbs, in addition to being ubiquitous. If you know English well, then you're like me:  lucky.

4) Use a thesaurus


I'm in favor of cheating. If you don't want people to know you use one, don't tell them. I make heavy use of thesauri, hardcopy as well as on-line. (Did someone just say thesauri?) They're astonishingly powerful. (For example, the previous sentence originally was, "They're amazingly powerful." amazingly? I sound like that tiresome commercial for Dragon Speech Recognition.)

If you don't find synonyms you like, you can go on word odysseys anyway, often arriving at whole new premises.

Corollary to 4:

If you're going to surf, surf a thesaurus or dictionary. Pictures are for tourists.

(5 and 6 are for poems)

5) Forget about rhyme, it's meter that counts.

meter=sound, so sound test a new poem. "Recite it while marching around in your livingroom," to quote Alan Gann. Your words will tend to fall into synch with your steps, as you hear the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables. It takes a kind of musical ability. A good story teller has an ear.

Here's how water's third and forth paragraphs evolved. What was:

    who had the wettest cannonball
    broadest swan dive
    the sharpest jack knife

became:

    who had the wettest

    cannonball
    broadest swan
    sharpest jack

I cut and rearranged, so all three lines would have the same metric beat: CAN-non-ball / BROAD-est-swan / SHARP-est-jack. I don't care if readers wonder what a "broad swan" is. Meter is king.

6) Remove all Punctuation


This one is for true purists. I can make it work about half the time. When you don't even have commas or periods, the only demarcation devices remaining are line breaks and paragraph breaks. You learn to use these wisely. You must make the words fly on their own, without punctuation "training wheels."

It can be a fight between meter and clarity, but when you nail them both, most readers will appreciate your perfect construction and fly over the words, just as you yourself were finally able to do.


1. water is the "flagship" of the Midwestern Male Adolescence  Vault.


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