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The Anatomy of a Wannabe Literary Fiction Writer

by William H. Coles

When readers and publishers fail to recognize and appreciate their work, most literary writers respond by compulsively writing more and revising what they’ve already written. The real failure is not in prose manipulation, but is concealed in who the writers really are, how knowledgeable and intelligent they are, and what fiction-writing deficiencies they carry in storytelling skills. These failed writers believe, mostly erroneously, that simple repetitive changes in wording and syntax, grammar correction, and reformatting are significant improvements. But the real improvement lies in writers (1) finding, as truthfully as they can, who they are, why they write, and what it is about their inner selves that will make their writing valued by readers; (2) developing their mental and emotional resources; and (3) learning and perfecting how to tell significant stories in the prose medium.

To find one’s true self as a writer is not easy. We, as writers, can judge only from our own levels of incompetency. For valid self-assessment, we must mainly rely on the objective microscopy that is provided through honest assessment of us by those we trust. But, we do have self-reliant ways for improvement available: We can examine how our own motivations and desires affect the creation of characters, and then carefully construct characters with their own motivations and desires that relate to the story purpose. In effect, our own motivations and desires rarely, if ever, are right for the story we are creating. It is these characters, embodied with their own worthy personalities, that will effectively drive a plot line and promote experienced enlightenment about being human in the great literary story.

One major barrier to improvement is a writer’s self-absorption. For fiction writers who prefer writing from life experiences and the subjective soup of me-thoughts and me-ideas, advancement in writing great literary fiction with vibrant, unique, story-oriented characters will not come until those authors can dissever themselves from their characters’ actions and emotional arcs. In fiction, subjectivity limits the number and quality of the decisions necessary to create great dramatic fictional stories based on conflict and enlightenment. Therefore, writers must learn to write about what might happen in their fictional worlds, and not what happened to them in their real past (usually altered in some way to qualify, they think, as fiction). It is not easy, and for some it is impossible.

The backbone of writer failure may well be the inability to learn and/or the lack of opportunities for beneficial study. This may not be the fault of the writer. There are few resources to learn fictional prose storytelling that are memorable and significant. Consider these learning sources:

1) Learning in writing groups is the blind leading the blind through a maze of bear traps and landmines. No one would believe a group of briefly educated humans who wanted to be neurosurgeons would get together weekly to discuss the experimental surgery they have been practicing in their garages and basements. Yet, both surgery and writing require study with experts as well as knowledge learned from many intellectual and skilled disciplines over many years. Writing groups, plump with inexperience and discordant ideas, are almost never of any useful value to the serious writer.

2) Learning in organized workshops is the carpenter teaching musicians with hammers and saws to play Beethoven’s Archduke piano trio. Even in high profile traditional workshops, teachers are rarely capable of developing the special talents of an individual writer to achieve creation of an art form (a fictional literary story). Fundamentally, there is no right way that is applicable to all. As a result, many teachers use the wrong tools for the wrong job, and their teaching is little more than useless for the dedicated fiction writer. At worst, the incompetent teacher can, and does, inappropriately humiliate and discourage a talented writer in the workshop setting. And these incompetents often descend into dogmatic pronouncements that stifle understanding and creativity.

3) Learning in MFA programs is not of guaranteed quality, and may not just be mediocre, but detrimental to a writer’s improvement. MFA programs, many hastily formed by universities, colleges, and organizations to maintain relevance and solvency, often hire teachers untrained as educators, and untalented as writers, to teach creative writing. This practice results in suppressing understanding of the complexities of the art of fiction and the vibrant essence of great storytelling. More than a few traditional programs are so inbred by tired, untalented teachers choosing and supporting unimaginative writers like themselves that the writing from these programs takes on a clone-like mediocrity that brands its origin. By default, these educators promote teaching of scholarly nonfiction and pop-culture memoir as fiction, without the quality of story writing equal to that of imaginative fiction.

Creative writing programs labeled as “academic” emphasize lyricism over drama, often prefer obscure to clear prose, and mistakenly believe that a lack of understanding by a reader is the desired result of their own “writer-intellectual” superiority. They teach revision as grammar and syntax, metaphor and oxymoron-excessive prose, rather than the dynamic and suspenseful expression of the desires and conflicts of characters about whom the reader has come to care, like, or at least respect through the story. Some academic workshops digress in education by having students sit around a table holding hands with eyes closed for long silent periods in the hope that images and words will float up from the unconscious, like images sought in a Victorian séance to communicate with the dead. Some highly acclaimed academic workshops spend a week policing manuscripts for point of view inconsistencies, while the needs that should be addressed are imagining effective story structure and learning how to build memorable characters through meticulously crafted, interrelated, character actions in dramatic scenes. In some workshops, a teacher presents a personal memoir story, and then details how to turn it into fiction by shifting the timeline and changing the prose emphasis of certain events. This practice might well derail a student’s progress in learning to write their own great fiction.

Academic workshops and courses also fail to demand a writer have a thoroughly understood purpose for writing a story as well as, on a construction level, all the prose elements of that story. This results in picking at prose when the writer hasn’t decided what he or she is really writing about, and how he or she will achieve a story purpose. It is almost unarguable: Failure to find and build purpose in storytelling makes coherency of a prose fictional story with effective characters, plots, or emotional arcs unlikely. And, it is not uncommon that the poorly educated, poorly trained teachers who are allowed the privilege to teach creative writing are guilty of:

(1) Ignoring emotional character development for the ease of plotting from life experience.

(2) Accentuating the cute, the bizarre, and the shocking (which have only temporary effects on value in story telling).

(3) Failing to develop author understanding of the human soul, its flaws, and what really is responsible for its strengths.

(4) Ignoring the value of sophisticated narration.

(5) Thinking that lyricism alone can sustain great story effectiveness.

(6) Learning from popular textbooks on fiction writing, which–with a few significant exceptions–are often writing efforts of poor writers with teaching appointments or responsibilities who write the learning of fiction as Lego instruction, with rigid rules and inflexible actions; like assembling a bicycle from parts while reading a fold-over slip of paper with fine print instructions and a diagram on Christmas morning. Some of these authors write texts composed of famous authors’ stories with personal, short, subjective-value comments, but with little to no insight into a writer’s process.

Quality fiction as an art form has especially suffered from the high profile, traditional MFA programs where graduation almost guarantees publication of the work generated in the program. The published work is rarely quality writing or storytelling. Once published, eager, unaware readers perceive literary fiction as obtuse in meaning, boring, and with pseudo-intellectual ideation. Many dedicated readers have turned away from reading literary fiction for enjoyment (and agents refuse to try to sell it), while the authors from these programs read to fellow graduates or a small group of readers who admire writing credentials and rationalize that the quality is better than it is. The detriment to fiction as an art form has been significant, and for the writer seeking to achieve their personal best, MFA programs can permanently derail that possibility.

With so few valuable or easily accessed resources for learning available to the fiction writer, only one reliable way to learn emerges. Each writer must discover from those authors who have gone before, what it is about the writing of a successful literary art form that will be useful for their own careers as contemporary writers. It’s not just copying a favorite author’s style, either. It’s mastering understanding of knowledge, intellect, the environment and opinions (and attitudes) of the author’s times; the emotional complexities of the author that affected the writing; the associations with other writers (examples: Bloomsbury group, Shelley’s Swiss mountain writing buddies), and the effects of societies mores (Examples: Austen, James, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Forester, Chekhov, Flaubert).

Authors need to be curious. How did they do it? Then, what can I learn from them so I can do it? How can I, based on what I’ve learned from others, create fiction that engages, entertains and stimulates thoughtful responses about human existence? One key question has to be addressed repeatedly with each work studied: What were these authors’ purposes in writing? One dominant purpose persistently stands out for all: to tell a story where something happens that is meaningful and entertaining to the reader. And without exception, successful fiction writers write to please a reader, not all readers, but specific readers seeking enjoyment through reading. Now, the beginning writer must learn, not only how to construct sentences and paragraphs, but how stories and the creation of stories in the prose medium can be best created to please a reader. It’s the way they imaginatively form and narrate a story. The craft of prose, although vitally important, is secondary.

Many unsuccessful writers fall into the trap of first person point of view, the path of least resistance that leads to mediocrity in many stories from a failure of the author to form a story in the most pleasurable and significant way. This is often disguised memoir writing, even when authors believe they are imagining a story, because writers insert themselves into the story to become the first person storytellers.

The night our baby died, I’d been watching Survivor, turned off the TV, and tiptoed back to the baby’s room. The door was open. The moonlight filtered in through the window near the crib, and I could see from the way her feet were caught in the twisted blanket that she was motionless. I ripped off the blanket. Her skin was pale. Her eyes opaque and unblinking. She was dead.

Look at a different narrator approach to the same scene (also overwritten for contrast).

The moon was almost full in a cloudless sky, and all but the brightest of the infinite stars were dimmed by the cold pewter light that filtered through the window into the nursery, creating weak lifeless shadows of the newly decorated, painted chest of drawers on the white shag carpet. Karen opened the door noiselessly. Cindy was asleep; there had been no sounds over the electronic monitor from the nursery to their bedroom. The blanket in the crib was wadded and covered the small lump of a child. She placed both hands on the edge of the crib and looked down. She stripped off the blanket. Cindy was motionless, face up with one leg caught at the ankle in the space between two crib slats.

Or another.

“Check Cindy,” Karen said sleepily, her head buried in her pillow.

“You go,” Henry said, the blanket pulled up to his eyes, his back to his wife.

Karen turned away from him. “I always go.”

Henry put his feet on the floor and felt for his slippers. “Goddamn it,” he said.

Karen was acting a little too prima donna-ish for him. Okay. She’d had the baby. She said it often enough. She was bitter and depressed, and she thought it was his time to suffer. But it was not right to aim her frustrations at him. She’d slipped into a victim mentality placing blame on him, as if he were a stranger who had raped her.

At the end of the hall, he listened at the half open door to see if Cindy were awake. There was no sound, and he entered softly, his heart now beginning to feel the joy he always felt when he was near his daughter. She had recognized him on sight for the past few months, a smile lighting up her face. Last Saturday she’d said “Da Da,” for the first time, before she even said “Ma Ma.” He shuffled to the crib. Cindy lay face up, her mouth parted, her lips still.

These examples show how alternatives need to be tried to be true to the story. But none of the above could be used for a story; they are not quality writing. The characters have not been developed in the mind of the author. Reader identification with well-developed characters is an essential perquisite for: dialogue that shimmers with the appropriate thoughts and attitudes of the character for the moment, setting that supports plot and characterization, and accurate prose choices that support the story as a whole. These elements need to have formed characters and meaningful plot in place, followed by revisions that are purposeful and directed.

These examples represent a necessary process of trial and error that is limited by first person narration alone because of restrictions in the narration. First person narration produces tethered imagination, limitations of distance, dominant internalization, limited point of view, and troublesome credibility problems for a reader. It requires extension of suspension of disbelief, and often contributes to inferior storytelling and poor quality fiction. Yet, it is amazing that more than almost three quarters of all contemporary “fiction” stories are written in first person. Admittedly, it is, after all, the easiest and most natural way for a human to tell a story, but for a large number of stories, it is not the most effective path to great, memorable fiction as an art form.

In general, great writing is less doing and more thinking, and the study of great fictional prose stories that need to be dissected not only for technique, but also to comprehend the thinking and planning used by those who have created lasting stories in different ways. A writer must learn how prose can effectively transfer ideas and emotions and enlightenment to the modern reader. Each great writer is different. Every reader is different. Every individual student’s learning will be different (exciting potential).

A great writer’s success is specific to each work, so learning to write by copying the prose of a great writer, which is advocated by some teachers, is not helpful. Instead, learn what are the opportunities of great fiction for memorable and significant story telling: the accuracy of word choice; mechanics of humor in prose; writing with drama and conflict; the elements of mystery, and how those elements differ in literary fiction and drama. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of stage drama and film for effective storytelling, and what about prose can make it superior; how to write in scene and in the moment; understand the complex development of narration of story in prose and how to overcome the almost constant difficulties in story presentation; how syntax affects story result; how to create imagery that is more than a still life; and understand sentimentality and sentiment, objective and subjective prose.

There are few academic or private teachers who are teaching the complexities of fiction at levels that will make a talented writer emerge. However, self-analysis and self-learning from successful fiction writers develops a writer’s skills to the maximum.

Writers also need the time and opportunity to live and fail, and to fail often. Few writers working full time without freedom to think will ever write great fiction. Fiction writing is a serious, time-consuming art form. Busy people don’t have the time to develop the skills, and their energy is drained by the consistent, monotonous requirements of their work. And it is rare for hobbyists who write occasionally to create great literary fiction. Writers must have time and the will to develop soul, to think about metaphysical questions that plague us throughout life, and why we are cursed with no answers. Many great writers are tragic figures (Wolff, Faulkner, Hemmingway). Some are insane (Poe), alcoholics (Cheever), victims of inexplicable injustice (Shelley), or invalids (Chekhov [TB], O’Connor [Lupus]). For many of these, their flaws and their worries seem to have driven their intellect to search for explanations, a process that would then benefit generations of readers through their prose.

Of course, drinking a lot or planning suicide are not sure ways to great writing. But it emphasizes the need for living one’s life so that in imagining literary fiction of merit, there is something to stimulate the imagination. Great blues musicians have said, you can’t play the blues unless you suffer: lose your woman or man, lose your job, go to the electric chair, get trouble in the mind, find out your love is cheating on you, pop your guitar string. Maybe it’s true of writers, too. What are the experiences writers have that stimulate great fiction worthy of study by any student of the art form?

The ability to write great literary fiction is not a genetic gift given to anyone who can learn to read and write. The talent for great writing is, however, probably inherently in some and not others. And for those who have the gift of creating great stories, they will be able to create those stories only with extensive learning, tireless practice, persistent self-assessment, and a career-long desire to improve.


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19 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Wannabe Literary Fiction Writer

  • andre harris

    I agree that looking at the MFA courses they really can’t offer me any help, I think there are some decent poetry teachers out there of very high standing, because poets don’t make any money from their writing, but it seem the fiction writers are mostly hacks or they give very basic instruction.
    I’ve cracked the problems of writing prolifically I’ve read all the books on standard technique rules, now I want some hand holding to take me through the process you talk about. I’m wondering if the answer isn’t to follow, at least on your own, the program of a traditional English literature degree where great works are studied and to read literary criticism (although I loathe that). Ray Bradbury said he used the structure of the grapes of wrath in his book the martian chronicles and Aldous huxley told him it was poetry – it surprised him but he said that is because he loved above all to read the great poets.

    • admin

      Absolutely agree. A very effective plan in an age where available resources don’t seem to measure up, for the most part. Study of the greats is enjoyable, and useful. Ask: How did they do that? Would love to know how you fare. All the best, WHC

  • Danji

    I would have liked, perhaps, to see a good example of the scene description… I’ve noticed that this happens often in this website – an essay will criticize a certain technique without providing alternates. Though I understand there is no one “right way” to write, it would be nice to have a better example to look to.

  • Miranda

    Good points, all. Honestly, the best thing I did for my fiction writing was quit my writer’s group. Truly the blind leading the blind. Worse, however, was the constant critique of unfinished pieces, before ideas were given time to develop and time for layers to be added.

  • teach

    I agree with your statements and think that some of the writers you interview on this site are guilty of being affiliated with MFA programs while being terrible writers. (Woe to the Ohio State MFA student. The Bright Forever by Lee Martin left a “Blight” Forever infesting my fiction palate.) I think the problem is that MFAs have become the primary source of sustenance for many writers and so they use these programs to secure a teaching gig in order to continue to inflict their crappy prose on readers everywhere.
    I would like you to go one step further and name the offending MFA/writer impostors whose work you deservedly deride.

    • admin

      Thanks for your comment. I can’t bring myself to name names for fear of personal subjectivity contributing to unfairness to some that may not be justified. But my experience–I’ve taken over sixty workshops in the last twelve years–convinces me the quality of teaching and talent of writers teaching is so mediocre and so widespread that a talented fiction writer today is quickly and often permanently derailed on his or her quest to good fiction writing and storytelling. On most days, I think it’s sinking quality literary fiction into an archaic art form perceived as unreadable. Again, thanks. WHC

  • Tim Chambers

    It’s been a while since I visited but I found someone had clicked through from my site to yours, and it reminded me of your existence.

    You’re in fine form here, Bill. In response to Mendota, I would say that you seem to have enough experience of writing programs to when their helpful and when they are not.

    I think the proof of your argument lies in the fact that your way has produced the great writers of classic works, and it still remains to be seen what the MFA programs can do. I certainly have not been impressed with the stuff I’ve seen coming out of those programs. Nor the stuff of those who teach in in them. Credentials can only do so much. Most of those writers need seasoning.

  • A Ernest

    I do not believe that setting out with the definite intention of writing literary fiction will necessarily get you there.

    The writing was a bit contradictory, especially when the author says extrapolating your life into fiction won’t always work, yet he gives the tragic life experiences of a few successful literary writers as a reason for their successes.

    • admin

      Your comments are accurate. 1) But is it ever the definite intention to write literary fiction that doesn’t get a writer to excellence in the art form? And if you believe the intention to write literary fiction blocks other available ways of learning fiction, consider carefully what is available (as I have, I submit, over the last fifteen years, bio) and what that does to writers’ abilities. Few fiction writers will achieve excellence, sustainability, widespread acceptance. Those who have the potential must climb to levels of skill and understanding that are difficult to find in print or in the classroom. 2) Re examples, it’s not that life experiences are presented, but more as to how they are presented. Most of life’s tragedies reach success, in a literary art form, by the author fictionalizing the story through dramatization, rounded character development, and intense knowing of theme and meaning. Thanks for taking the time to comment. WHC

  • mendota

    I’m not really sure I got anything out of this essay. I see a lot of unsourced, unvalidated criticisms of formal writing education and not a lot of insight.

  • Eric Gainer

    As someone looking to find their “sea legs” in an ocean of writing D.I.Y. paraphernalia, this article was exacting in detail and encouraging all at once. I’ve made my list now and intend to follow these benchmarks on my journey. Many thanks.

  • Peggy Cartwright

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this essay. I have endured workshops, classes, just about everything but an MFA program as I have noticed exactly what you said… after that, publication, and I don’t want to be published merely because I struggled through boring classes again. My stories are from my imagination, not my life — my attempts at memoir are my life, separate things.
    Thank you for all your interesting work.