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Nick Nurse on Fiction Writing

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Dear Awesomeduders,

It?s been this particular forum that I?ve been most anticipating, given advance interest in posting here. There seems to be several beginning to intermediate-level writers using this site (I shy away from the term ?young writers? because age is not so much a factor in fiction writing; it is experience that is the determining factor in skill), and I hope that this forum becomes a positive force for lively discussion on the nature of fiction writing of all sorts.

As some of you may or may not know, I am a student of English at a pretty famous university in the States. Of course, it?s not that that lends me any credence when it comes to advice on writing. What lends me any credence whatsoever is the fact that I?ve been writing lengthy pieces of fiction, both novels and short stories, for ten years. I?ve had some little practice at the craft. However, I?d recommend you read at least part of my novel, Tristan?s Redemption (posted here on awesomedude, of course), before you take my opinions with anything more than a grain of salt, because essentially they are no more than just that: opinions. Writing is by its very nature as an artistic endeavor the sort of activity that defies rules and borders; at best, what I would hope to do is offer a few general guidelines that have helped me and hopefully will, in turn, help you as well.

Before I really jump into things, let me point out that I am a firm believer in breaking the rules. I also believe, though, that it is best to be cognizant of some of the various overarching principles that have guided authors for centuries before you go about smashing them to bits. After all, if you know you?re breaking the rules, it?s so much more fun than if you?re just breaking them without knowing any better. Think of it like speeding: if you have no idea what the speed limits on a freeway are, going 80mph doesn?t sound so cool, but when you know you?re only supposed to be doing 60, suddenly you feel like NASCAR racer on crack. That having been said, the point is this: there are a few rules that really really really have stood the test of time. They?re there for a reason. Practice with them until they are second nature. Learn them, internalize them, let them become a part of you that breathes in and out alongside you.

Now, once you?ve done that, break em. Break em all. Be experimental, be different, be wild, be yourself and be unique. No literature would be worth reading if writers weren?t constantly pushing the boundaries of the acceptable. Dante wrote in the vernacular, eschewing Latin in favor of writing in Italian. ee cummings hated to capitalize anything. Joyce broke all the rules when he released Ulysses and, later, Finnegan?s Wake. Our modern era is the era of experimental fiction, and there is no reason that you should not be a part of that.

There is, however, one totally utterly inviolable rule of fiction: be passionate. You must must must absolutely care about what you are writing. I don?t care if you?re doing a modern interpretation of War and Peace in the second-person present tense from the viewpoint of a squirrel watching it all or if you?re copying out a recipe from your grandmother?s secret stash (not that secret stash, people?you shouldn?t be thinking about your grandmother like that anyhow)?make your readers feel your passion. There is no more important rule than that. If you?re not prepared to laugh along with your characters, weep with them, bleed with them and feel their every footstep through the pages of your story, then don?t bore us with the details, cause we?re not going to laugh or weep or bleed with them either. In the world of your fiction, you are God, and if God doesn?t care, who will?

So, what are some of the other guidelines that need to be learned before they can be broken? Well, I?ll add to that in later posts, but here are a few, starting with an easy one:

Grammar is Good

Grammar is your friend. I promise. Please pay attention to proper punctuation, spelling and syntax. Buy a grammar guide if you have to. Or ask someone with a pretty good grasp of English grammar (raises hand) to take a look at it for you. If you really want to, you can always send me your pieces and I?d be happy to take a peek at the grammar and spelling and stuff. But! Do not let any nervousness where grammar is concerned keep you from telling your story. If you don?t remember it all/speak English as a second language/write to frenziedly to care about where silly things like periods go, fine. Write your story!! That is the most important thing. But edit it when you are done if you want to be taken seriously.

Briefly, a few common mistakes:

you?re, your: the first is a contraction of ?you are.? Say your sentence aloud to yourself. If you can say ?you are? in pace of the ?you?re,? then you?ve used the right one. The second is a possessive. If the thing you?re talking about belongs to someone else, than it?s yours.

Examples, at the risk of sounding didactic:

*?You?re such a good fuck.? See how that can as easily be said, ?You are such a good fuck??

*?Your dick is a fascinating shade of periwinkle.? Here, the unfortunate periwinkle dick belongs to someone who probably doesn?t want it. But it?s theirs anyway. And that brings me to my next point:

there, their, they?re: the first refers to location. Use it when someone is talking about where something/someone is located. The second is possessive about a group of people?multiple ?yours?, if you will. Use it when the item(s) belong to a group of someones. The last is a contraction of ?they are,? and, again, if ?they are? can be said in place of it, then you?re using the right one.

Examples:

*?I didn?t know you had so much hair down there.? See, location: down there. Also, it can be used as in this example: ?There are lots of naked men in that room.?

*?It was their dildo, so I had to give it back to them when I was done.? Here, the dildo belongs to a group of, one hopes, rather sanitary individuals.

*?They?re really into farm animals.? Lastly, replace ?they?re? with ?they are? and you?ll see that it works equally well. It doesn?t make the sentence any less weird, of course. But hey.

to, too, two: ?too? expresses two things: a synonym for the word ?also? and an issue of degree, as in, ?you?re too much to handle.? ?Two? is totally self-explanatory. For any other uses, use ?to.? You?re probably gonna be right.

Quotation marks: All punctuation goes inside quotation marks. Always. There are two exceptions: the colon and the semicolon, in a few rare circumstances, go outside. The question mark can as well, but again, only in rare instances. In dialogue, though, the punctuation?periods, commas, question marks and exclamation points?always go inside the quotation marks. So, ?Dude! I never knew you had a third nipple!? is correct, while ?Can I see it?? is not.

Lastly, a personal pet peeve: This is just me, but I really hate it when people use internet lingo, emoticons or ::emotion:: things in stories. This is not an internet conversation. Writing ?hehehehe? or ?LOL? or ?::blushes::? in a story is not acceptable. Ever. Period. All it says is, ?I am a writer who is too lazy to indicate to the reader that I am being amusing, sarcastic, playful or whatever it is this character is trying to convey by lamely writing ?hehehehe? as though this were an internet conversation and not a fictional work I want you, the reader, to take seriously.? Instead of stuff like, ?And plus, he was cute . . . hehehehe!? a writer should say, ?And plus, I thought he was cute, although I was a bit embarrassed that I was so goddamn shallow and insipid, and as a crappy character in an equally crappy fictional story I?m a worthless waste of kilobytes, so I should be destroyed now.? Or, less vehemently, ?And plus, I thought he was cute. Oh, man, even thinking about that makes me blush.? or ?Giggle? or ?Wet myself? or whatever is appropriate.

So much for the easy one. If you can string sentences together coherently, you?re well on your way to being able to write a story. There are lots of elements that go into a story, though. Let me boil them down into three things right here:

*Characters

*Plot

*Diction/Syntax

and for bonus points, I?m gonna add

*Themes

*Imagery/Figurative Language

*Milieu

But with each of those categories comes a whole array of choices. For instance, with characters come these questions?and these are hardly all of them. Who?s the narrator? Is the story in first, second or third person, or a combination of those three? What tense is the story in?past or present, or something else? Which characters need to be ?round,? and which can be ?flat?? (That?s when question marks can be used outside of quotation marks.) Who are my major characters? Who are the minor characters? Who is my protagonist? What is his motivation? Who is my antagonist? What is her motivation? What is my main character?s background? What are his beliefs? What are the backgrounds/beliefs of my other main characters? And so on and so forth. The good news is that when you can answer those questions, you?ll be well on your way to having part two in place: a plot.

Now, before this entry gets any longer, I?m going to cut it short here with the understanding that in my next posts I?ll try to talk about the six elements of a story I brought up above. Of course, questions, comments and friendly criticisms are welcome, and remember as always that all rules are made to be broken. Well, except one. The only rule you cannot break is that you must be passionate about everything you write. So make your characters dance and sing across the stage you create, because in the end it is that more than anything else that will make you a writer worth reading.

Until next time!

NN

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I'd also like to contribute, and I hope that lots of writers (and readers) will check in.

You don't have to have any special qualifications to write. All you need is the passion to write a good story. I can excuse a heck of a lot if the *story* is good.

If you know your spelling and grammar aren't great, get somebody to check it over. -- Are you scared because it's one of "those stories" and you don't have someone you feel safe reading it? -- Are you scared an editor will send it back to you dripping in red ink and mean comments about your characters, plot, grammar, spelling, and weird ideas?

Relax! There are people here who can look it over for you. (Hey, I'm in the closet, and I'm here.)

I edit Perry & Jesse. In real life, I have worked as a proofreader and editor. My college major was English. I'm good at languages too; I speak French and Spanish, but I'm a bit out of practice.

I can also help out in answering questions you might have about putting up stories in HTML web page format.

If you read P&J (and I recommend you do) then you may wonder why it needs to be edited. Easy answer: Because the story is so good that the few errors were annoying. (That was an incomplete sentence, by the way. I only do that in e-mail and on forums.)

A good editor isn't mean. He or she does not rewrite your whole story or cover it in (virtual) red ink. It's the editor's job to support you. Most authors don't have really severe story problems.

If you do get your story back and it's covered in horrible red ink with lots of comments, *don't* give up and assume you have no talent and you're a bad person. Try not to take it personally. Spelling and grammar are things you can learn and improve. You can reorganize and rewrite your story. Even that "perfect" scene you're so proud of, you can rewrite. All writers rewrite. (Just keep the perfect copy and save the new one in another file, buddy.)

If you do get a mean editor who starts telling you that you should change everything and, by the way, your English sucks -- then it's time to find another editor.

It's OK to have multiple people "beta" (edit and/or comment on) your story. That can be really helpful. Listen to what they're trying to tell you.

Also listen to your readers' comments. They cared about your story enough to read it and comment. Their words are passionate because they've invested in the story. That's great! But it can be scary to read them say why they can't stand John doing that to Jack, when you had a good reason for that in the story. Sometimes your readers are right. That's hard to live with. Sometimes your readers don't realize what they're asking for, and that can be hard to live with too. I mean, the story isn't very interesting without a little trouble and controversy. If everybody's perfect and life is beautiful, that's nice, but, well, it's kind of boring too.

Most of all, have fun writing!

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Nick started speaking French there, kinda sorta.

The milieu is "setting the story into place." That's the time, place, and general setting of the story, including its "ambience," which is the atmosphere or feeling of the story, its tone.

While we're on that, please avoid that blasted "mirror" or "laundry list" clich?.

Too many new writers (gay or straight fiction) will start off their stories and the poor character starts off, "My name is John Doe, I looked in the mirror and saw blond hair, blue eyes, a killer smile, a great body, almost six feet tall, 160 pounds, and, gee, I'm unbearably handsome, at only 16!"

See what I mean? Let all those things, uh, "come out" naturally in the story, not all at once. Do the same for the other characters when John meets them. He might notice all that at once, but he wouldn't tell it that way when he talks to his friend about it.

When you tell your story, think of it as telling someone the story, saying it to someone.

(Know the rules, so you know what you're doing and why, when you break them. It's OK to break the rules if you do it for the right reasons story-wise.)

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Amen to all that, guys! I couldn't agree more with everything you have to say.

I have a few more points myself in my dissertation elsewhere. The Dude slapped me around a little bit and made me get off my high horse and alter my original piece (which I wrote in a fit of pique), and upon reflection, I'm glad he did. I think it reads more as gentle advice, rather than a screaming complaint against bad writing on the net.

I don't have permission to post it, but Nick Archer has a similar piece (mentioned in my article), which is much more sarcastic and bitchy -- and a great deal of it is dead-on accurate, too. I confess to having committed a few of his sins in my stories (novels set in either Florida or California; the geeky gay kid who has an affair with a good-looking jock; a rich kid; a traumatic move... Jesus, I must be a bigger hack than I thought!). But at the same time, I like to think I came up with a few unique spins to throw the reader off-base.

In the case of Groovy, the trick there was, it starts off as one kind of story -- kind of a light-hearted, nostalgic rememberance of life in the 60s -- but then gets very heavy and traumatic as time goes on. In the case of Angel, I have a fairly dislikable lead character, who starts off one way at the beginning of the story, then becomes physically and emotionally changed, and gradually changes again to become a very different, more human, honest-to-gosh hero by the end of the story.

I like to think in both cases, I avoided the stereotypes and the clich?s as much as humanly possible. Are there problems with the stories? Sure. But by god, they aren't boring, they hold your interest, the characters are believable, there's some (fairly big) surprises, and each one takes you through a fairly detailed adventure.

I'm not saying every story has to do that. I'm in awe of even amateurs like David Buffet, who are in a class by themselves, as far as I'm concerned. (Although I confess to preferring his first story, Alpha Male, to Control & Kaos, though both are very, very good.) Buffet's stories are much more character-driven, where the story comes out of the people, not so much out of the situation. If you want something to strive for, Buffet's the man, as far as I'm concerned.

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Thanks Blue and Pecman for your comments!

I will begin discussion on finer points of the actual process of fiction writing in the next few days. I have a few things on my plate that are keeping me from writing long diatribes on the subject, so hopefully I'll get to that soon.

Good to see you both here!

NN

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