When is it time to move on: testing and enhancing your fiction-writing wings – Herta Feely

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By Herta Feely

One of the keys to success when you’re writing fiction is to test your fiction-writing wings. Spread them and try writing a variety of pieces. I mention this, because as an editor I’ve encountered numerous fiction writers with one novel under their belt, and nothing more. They’ve worked that novel and reworked it. And then revised it yet again after one or more editors gave them feedback, but somehow it’s still a cow with five legs or a bird with one wing. It’s simply not ready for publication. And by that I mean you haven’t found an agent or a publisher for it.

At that point, my advice: it’s best to move on. Try writing a bit of short fiction, or even memoir (they essentially use the same skills). For inspiration read literary journals and see what others are writing. Or purchase one of a dozen books on fiction writing and you’ll find all sorts of writing exercises and writing prompts. Picking up the pen (or computer!) and trying your hand at some new material will free you from the noose of that one novel. From the embarrassment of telling your friends and writing colleagues that you are still revising that one story. (You can see them sighing, rolling their eyes, or biting their tongue, can’t you?) Don’t let one novel become your writing albatross. This can be equally true if you’ve been working on a memoir. The same principle applies.

I realize it may be difficult to let go of the dream of getting that novel published after you’ve put so much effort into it. But think of it this way: it was your novel writing primer, and now that you’ve learned so much about plot, character development, scene setting, voice, point-of-view and dialogue, you’re ready to tackle your next work, whether it’s short stories or another novel. Perhaps you’ll switch to memoir. Who knows?

For those of you who find yourselves in this spot, I can commiserate because for about ten years I worked on a novel that was very dear to my heart. It was semi-autobiographical, as many first novels are. And that novel, The Trials of Serra Blue, received the James Jones First Novel Fellowship (with a $10,000 award) and an artist in literature fellowship ($5000) from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. I even had an agent who submitted it to five editors. After they each rejected it, I decided to take the advice of a veteran editor at a major publishing house: “Put it on your shelf and move on to the next one.”

I did. I began writing short stories and beginning another novel. About one-third of the way through that second novel I got stuck. It didn’t seem to want to continue. The path through the wilderness of my imagination simply stopped. The title of that novel is (or was) In Search of Che, about a young woman whose idealism was undermined by some of the realities of left-wing guerrilla activity in Colombia. I loved some of the characters in that story — a poor twelve-year-old boy, a leftist priest, and an idealistic American woman in her twenties — and still occasionally feel guilty that I left them hanging there in the jungles of that Latin American country. Perhaps some day I’ll finish that novel, as you might your novel once you’ve worked on other pieces.

The short stories and short memoir I wrote after abandoning that first novel began finding homes in various literary journals and anthologies. There’s something immensely satisfying and rewarding to receive an acceptance note and then to see your work in print. It makes the writing and work feel worthwhile, even if the audience for your story may be quite small. It is still an accomplishment and an affirmation of your fiction (and/or non-fiction) writing skills.

So let’s back up a second and dive in to further discuss where and how to get ideas and inspiration for your writing, once you’ve moved on from that five-legged cow, that is.

Here are a few ideas:

1. News and feature articles can be a great resource. In fact, the inspiration for my recent novel, Saving Phoebe Murrow, came from an article I read in 2008 in the Washington Post (the primary newspaper in Washington, DC) about a young girl who was cyber-bullied on MySpace and then committed suicide. I was stunned to find out that the “boy” behind the bullying turned out to be a 47-year-old woman! How could she do such a thing? This prompted me to write a novel, with its own plot and set of characters, to find out the answer to that question.

2. Keep your eyes and ears open to the world around you. If you’re sitting in a cafe or walking through a museum or a park, or you happen to be on a bus or in the Tube, make sure to observe the interactions of people. Try to imagine their lives. Anyone who intrigues you, notice the clothes and accessories they wear, the expressions on their faces, their mannerisms, and take a moment to close your eyes and try to imagine their lives; then begin writing a sketch about them. Give them a name. Who are they? Where do they come from? Are they married or single? With children or without? What’s the predominant problem or conflict in their lives at the moment? Could they have just committed a crime? Robbed a bank, for example? What would it take for your character to snap or do something out of the ordinary?

3. Write a scene, with some form of conflict that involves two people and then a third arrives. Write that scene from both of the first two people’s point-of-view and then from the third person’s. This can help you figure out from whose point-of-view to tell the story. I used such a technique for a scene in the experimental phase of writing Saving Phoebe Murrow, which helped me to realize that, to some extent, the novel needed all three of these characters’ perspectives, not only for the story to hold tension but also to increase conflict.

By juxtaposing their perspectives the reader can decide which character they agree with, or even like or dislike. Or they can simply see what each character is thinking and why and therefore develop empathy for all three perspectives despite the conflict between them. Just as in real life, various characters’ views on things may differ, yet each view may be equally valid.

Finally, I highly recommend that you jot down the lines that come to you in the shower, while driving (don’t get into a crash, please!), or in the middle of the night when all you want to do is return to slumber! Those lines are emerging from your subconscious, from your writing muse, and need to be recorded. Otherwise you’ll forget them. I know; it’s happened to me. So carry a small notebook with you wherever you go, or use your cell phone to record the line, but do this and you’ll see how you can take that line as the starting point of a story. Or it might be the last line. In any case, it can help you get launched on your writing for the day. Oh, yes, I almost forgot: be sure to sit down and write. As many days as possible. This too will fuel your imagination and your creative skills. Good luck!

Herta Feely lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, where she reads and writes, and tends to her cats and many orchids. Saving Phoebe Murrow is out now.


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