The Artist as Master: The Fictional Process

This is my final post in this series. My intent has been to make the case for Fiction as Art. To that end I have expressed my thoughts on the definition of art, the search for aesthetic absolutes in fiction writingthe neuroscience of creativity, and finally, mastery of craft. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing this series. 

The most creative imaginings in any media will never find an audience if the artist isn’t able to master the craft. A painter must transfer his image to the canvas, a musician must master his instrument(s) and a writer must master Young artist painting an autumn landscapethe written word on the page. Without mastery of the artist’s media the world will never enjoy and appreciate what the artist has to offer.

As a writer our task is to pen a vivid and fictional dream. Through our words we make the reader see the setting, characters, and events. We do not tell our reader but give them images that appeal to their senses. Anything that takes the reader out of this experience, awakening him from the “dream,” counts as a mistake and the writer must hone her skills to avoid these errors. Whenever the reader thinks of you—the author—or the writing, you’ve made a mistake.

Learning this craft takes many hours of writing, rewriting and editing. When I wrote my first novel I was possessedString orchestra performance with the story and wrote nonstop until I finished it with little care to craft. My proficiency level with the written word was of the college/masters thesis level and I figured I had sufficient vocabulary and grammar skills to complete the task. I consulted novels I had laying around for the proper way to write dialogue and I used many online resources to learn the fictional process. That’s when I discovered there was a lot more to writing effectively and efficiently than I ever imagined.

Frustrated young writer having writer's blockI won’t presume to tell you how to write and if you’re looking for guidance please read our archives as we have a host of posts to suit your personal style, most notably our pantser vs. plotter methodologies as we can count some of us on either side of the debate.

The more I explore fiction writing, the more complex and multi-layered it becomes. I’ve compiled a list of quick tips from countless sources to help you hone your craft and many are outlined in more detail in our archives, so feel free to browse.


Writing Tips

Before Your Write:

  • Read, a lot, especially in your genre.
  • Analyze stories you love.
  • Know the three-act structure.
  • Know the Hero Model.
  • Practice writing dialogue.
  • Cultivate your voice. Know your narrator. Practice in first and third person and past and present tense to see what feels right.
  • Consider your theme: life and death, redemption, sacrifice, rebirth, destiny? It should infuse your story with richness.
  • Decide on a setting that is vivid and realistic, even if you make it up.
  • If you’re using a real-life location, research it and see it for yourself if possible.
  • Don’t write for the market. Tell the story that’s in your heart.
  • Make an outline even if it’s sketchy. Some need it before they can write a single word, others not. It will provide you with a roadmap, should you get lost.

While You Write:

  • Exploit the human condition.
  • Use real life. Jot down anecdotes that get your attention. I got delayed in an airport recently and wrote down one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years. One of my characters will benefit from it.
  • Use unusual detail. Give your character a bizarre ailment or a crazy backstory. Your reader will remember a character has a lisp and couldn’t give a hoot about his hair color.
  • Characters are flawed. Tell us what’s bad about your hero and what’s good about your villain.
  • Remember that your reader likes to slip into your characters so avoid lengthy detail, which will make this more difficult. Rely on action and interactions to define your characters.
  • Use lots of obstacles. Make your characters suffer which will make the victory more satisfying.
  • Consider pace. I tend to write at a fast pace because I cut my teeth on YA novels. In order to keep teens tuned into your story you need to be plot and action focused. Description is the death knoll for a YA book. Use fight scenes, love scenes, think conflict, conflict, conflict!
  • Symbols and imagery can create a beautiful story but take care in crafting them and where you place them. Use alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphor, and other literary devices to make your sentences sing and dance.
  • Focus on building tension, then give it an unexpected twist.
  • Consider subplots and tangents so that there’s a lot happening at once.
  • Throw in a red herring to send your reader down a dead end.
  • Blur the lines of your genre. A drama can have funny moments and a thriller can have a bit of romance.
  • Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your reader, let them follow the dots and trust that they will arrive at the destination.
  • Let readers use their imaginations. Provide a few choice details and let them fill in the rest of the canvas with their own colors.
  • Use descriptive words that engage as many of the readers’ senses as possible.
  • Remember your character must change. Transformation is key to any great story.
  • Make the ending satisfying. There’s nothing worse than sticking with an author for three hundred plus pages only to feel unfulfilled at the end. You need emotional and intellectual payoff. I’ve actually thrown a book at the wall under circumstances such as these. (Ill-advised if you’re using an e-reader.)

After You Write:

  • Don’t confuse rewriting with editing. Rewrite your story for accuracy in details, story holes and the like, then edit for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The fewer typos in your final draft, the better.
  • Think lean and mean, cut every unnecessary word—kill those darlings!
  • Find beta readers: a critique group, a fiction workshop, or hire a professional. And listen to them!
  • Never send out a rough draft. I made this mistake big time. I thought I had a polished draft and got lots of interest from agents on the story premise but got killed by the same comment repeatedly: “No thanks, it needs serious editing.”

 But the most important tip of all is: Have fun! If you’re not enjoying yourself, fiction writing is not for you.

Good Luck!



Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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