Selgin, Peter. 179 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers. Writer’s Digest, 2010.
Peter simplifies writing by pointing out that everything in a novel—dialogue, action, reaction, conflict—stems from character. By thoroughly developing characters before we sit down to write the first draft, we make the rest of the writing and revision process much easier. One of the hardest lessons writers must learn is to get out of their characters’ way. For writing to be authentic—that is, easy to be lost in, convincing, and engaging—it must emerge organically from the characters and the world they inhabit, rather than from a writer looking in from the outside.
Most writing issues can be solved by character development. If a writer struggles with dialogue, the remedy is not to study dialogue but to inhabit the characters more fully, such that they speak in spite of themselves and the writer’s self-consciousness. Dialogue emerges naturally from characters’ personalities, opinions, and attitudes. If a writer struggles with conflict, the remedy is to put obstacles in the way of the character getting what she wants. If a writer struggles with plot, the remedy is not to study plot diagrams and formulas but to live into what happens next in the story. Given the present moment, what is the next choice or decision? The plot practically writes itself. This is when I most enjoy writing—when the writing happens on its own and I’m just there bearing witness to the story being birthed.
If everything stems from character development, how can writers develop complex, authentic characters? Specificity saves characters from becoming stereotypes. Specificity creates characters that have real reactions, thoughts, and interpretations. Specificity immerses readers into the setting and the story.
Good writing makes someone forget they are reading. It lures readers into the fictive dream, from which they’ll wake up hours later and wonder where the time has gone. Good writing does not betray itself as writing—it does not use clever tricks or unnecessary vocabulary, it does not try to impress, it does not like the sound of its own voice. The focus of good writing is the story. The language is merely a tool in service to the story.
Point-of-view is the filter that guides readers’ awareness and tells them where to focus their attention. Because I am such a visual thinker, I imagine writing as similar to being a cameraperson. Through words and an omniscient POV, I might pan across the whole setting, then zoom in on a particular character, then pull back the focus in order to see the broader ramifications of a character’s actions. Close 3rd person is much more similar to 1st person than it is to 3rd person omniscient, as the first two are limited by what the main character knows.
Finally, this book made me ask myself: Why do I write? What kind of a writer do I want to be? Am I in this for commercial success, or for art? I write because I feel blocked and foggy if I don’t. I write because I love the stories and the characters that want to be written. I write because I love seeing my story become more authentic, more real, more evocative and charged through several rounds of revision. I want to sell my books, of course, but I also want to write stories that are worth being told and that are well told.