After 20 years as an editor in New York City publishing houses, I heard a lot of things. I even read a book proposal from a woman whose life was transformed after she met Tom Cruise.
Over and over, I come back to the simple advice I heard the best fiction editors (I was your garden-variety non-fiction type) say to their writers:
1. Chronology is your friend.
Start at the beginning and tell the story through to the end, just as if you were telling a friend. Only the most skilled of writers play with time and pull it off: Don De Lillo wrote Falling Man going forward in time, didn’t like it, and rewrote the book in reverse, making 9/11 the last event. Don’t try it at home, kids.
2. Limit your characters and make them vivid.
Dickens was Dickens because he could invite whole cities into his books and keep all the names and attributes straight. Tolstoy excelled at that as well. This will probably be harder for you, so focus on your handful of characters and make them memorable. I’ve read books whose plot still fails me, but a character stands in my mind’s eye still. That is success in writing.
3. Stolen from Stephen King: Adverbs are not your friends.
While I cannot make a citizen’s arrest for overwriting, I want to. Leave adverbs behind. In fact, be stingy with your adjectives. These are words that carry emotional connotations that you should achieve through the story’s action or choice of detail. Which leads to #4.
4. Detail is the soul of fiction.
Pick up a Chekhov short story. On the first page, he’s so completely described the room and it’s occupants on one page, you are now present in rural Russia with peasants, feeling the steam from the pot of potatoes and seeing the poverty in their clothes. One page and you are in their world.
5. The details you choose is what makes you great.
Part of the joy of reading a book is one intellect bouncing against another, even if the two are not in the same room. A writers choice of detail focuses the work and shows a reader new possibilities for thought and life. Look there, not there, and the entire story changes.
I’ve overheard many more things and have some thoughts of my own. I’ll throw up some more here soon.
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