Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration
by Alexander Slagg
Craft Conversation with Arlene Marks, author of From First Word to Last: The Craft of Writing Popular Fiction
The original thinking behind Reflections from the Well was to share my take on writing and the creative process, and also be able to include what other writers make of our interesting and colorful journey into the creative dimension. In that regard, I’ve done plenty of sharing myself.
I now have an opportunity to present something different, a recent exchange I had with writer and editor Arlene Marks, author of the recently published From First Word to Last: The Craft of Writing Popular Fiction from Legacy Books Press. As her responses to my questions reveal, Arlene is a treasure trove of insights into the art of writing fiction. I hope you get as much out of this conversation as I did.
Arlene, the subtitle of your forthcoming book includes the word “Popular,” as in you are guiding readers in how to write popular fiction. Can you elaborate on what that means to you? Is that in opposition to “literary” fiction, or just fiction that is widely read?
When it comes to quality of writing and storytelling, there is no difference anymore between popular and literary fiction. Readers of both kinds of novels expect and appreciate stories that are well written and compellingly told.
That being said, popular fiction is storytelling that is responsive to readers' tastes and expectations – popular as in "of the people." Publishers of genre fiction tend to pay attention to reader feedback because fans of a certain genre buy a lot of books. Giving fans what they want will make an author widely read – in other words, popular.
What are the most common stumbling blocks that you see writers struggling with and how do you suggest getting around them?
Fiction writers struggle with many different problems, but the most frustrating is writer's block. Over the years, I've come to understand that when a story grinds to a halt, I need to shift mental gears and put my subconscious to work. I take a break from the keyboard, read a book (soaking up the author's use of imagery, diction, syntax, etc.), tackle a difficult logic problem, do some crocheting or mindless housework, hop on the treadmill…drink lots of water (it's good for the brain)…and wait for that Aha! moment when I know exactly how to continue the story and can't wait to write the next scene. Sometimes the story just needs a good shake to get it moving again: a scene rewritten from a different point of view or relocated to a different setting.
If the block sets in before you've begun writing the story, that's a different problem, also quite common: procrastination. I used to experience it as a university student. After researching diligently for an essay, I'd have a stack of notes a foot high and not the slightest idea how to organize them or what to use for a thesis. I was overwhelmed by possibilities and missing submission deadlines. So I reversed the process: thesis first, then research only what's relevant to the thesis. And it worked.
Years later, I was writing a novel about a burnt-out firefighter (no pun intended) and arranged to spend some time talking with the captain at the local fire station. Because I already had my superficial theme (This is a story about a firefighter on disability leave who is forced to act when fire engulfs the resort where he is staying.), I was able to ask specific rather than general questions, end up with a manageable amount of relevant information, and begin writing the novel immediately. No excuses, no delays.
I like what you had to say about how character, plot, and setting overlap and influence one another. It gave me a fresh perspective on how to better frame scenes so that I’m covering all the story elements I need to cover. Can you elaborate on how these different story elements influence one another?
Because the people, places, and events in real life are inextricably tied together and constantly affecting one another, the interdependence and interaction among character, plot, and setting is what creates the illusion of reality in a work of fiction. The people, places, and events in your novel may not actually exist, but the reader wants to be convinced that they could. You need to show the reader characters who have been shaped by past experiences, settings that reflect the influence of human activities or choices, and plot events that follow a chain of cause and effect, just as in real life. Characters also need to be aware of and responsive to their surroundings and to the changes and events happening around them, because that's how real people behave. Characters influence plot and setting; plot influences character and setting; and setting influences plot and character.
I took a lot away from the chapter titled “The Dimensions of Life.” It really clarifies the different levels that characterization operates at. Can you elaborate more on this idea?
If you want the reader to care about your main character, then he or she has to seem real. The character has to walk and talk, of course…but real people do much more than that. The character has to imprint and influence the surroundings. This is the physical dimension of a character. The character has to demonstrate recognizable human emotions, by speech and actions and reactions. This is the emotional dimension of a character. And the character has to show the reader a logical thought process, either in dialogue or internal monologue. This is the psychological dimension of a character.
When I make a revision pass at a story to deepen the characterization, what I'm doing is ensuring that all three dimensions are present in any character I want the reader to identify with and care about. If the protagonist is late for an appointment and stubs his toe on the sofa leg while searching for the mate to the shoe he is already wearing, I might have him knock over a chair as he dances around in pain (physical dimension), curse loudly in anger (emotional dimension) and decide that his girlfriend's dog has just stolen its last piece of footwear (psychological dimension).
As a writer, do you find your stories driven more by characters and characterization or by story themes and ideas? Most creative writing teaching tends to focus on characterization. Is there anything wrong with starting with a theme and building the story outward from that?
I have always advocated knowing what you're going to be writing about (the superficial story theme) before beginning the process. However, I have found that underlying themes—those important messages that readers often get from works of fiction—live in the author's heart and mind and cannot help being expressed, consciously or unconsciously, in whatever stories he or she produces. So there is nothing wrong with having an underlying theme at the forefront of your mind as you develop the plot and characters of your novel. Many powerful stories have been built this way. There is also nothing wrong with writing a character-driven story (as I usually do) and letting each underlying theme emerge during the revision and editing process, then tweaking the various story elements to bring it into clearer focus. In fiction writing, it isn't a matter of right or wrong, but rather of what works and what doesn't work for each individual author.
In your view, how firmly should a novelist have a plot mapped out prior to writing? Would you ever advocate starting off with no planning whatsoever?
In this as well, there's no right or wrong, just what works and what doesn't. Some authors prefer to draw up a detailed outline, scene by scene, before they begin writing, while others work organically, watching the story unfold on the screen inside their heads and recording what they see and hear. Still others (like myself) combine the two approaches. I start off with a vivid scene, image or dialogue and let the story proceed organically until it becomes too complex for me to keep all the details straight in my memory. At that point, I outline the rest of the plot. I just read a magazine article about a best-selling author who plots out the beginning and ending of a novel and lets the story lead him on an adventure through the middle of the book. There are many different ways to get from A to Z. Each writer needs to experiment to find the one that works best for him or her.
As a writer, I often get caught up in providing the details of a character or a setting. How do you tread the line between providing meaningful details and going overboard with too much description? How do you engage the reader’s imagination without taking it over for them?
I'm one of those authors who 'writes lean' the first time through and has to go back and add descriptive detail to flesh out characters and settings. When I do, I avoid over describing by putting myself into the point-of-view character's head and keeping in mind how the character is feeling and what his or her situation happens to be. This will determine what the character notices about a scene. For example, imagine a woman standing in the middle of a crowded shopping mall. What would she notice if she knew she had a winning lottery ticket in her pocket? What would she notice if she were a single mother looking for her six-year-old son who had just wandered off? What would she notice if she were a mall security officer kept waiting nearly an hour past the end of her shift by her relief replacement? As long as the description is significant and is limited to those details that would leap out at a person in this particular mood and situation, you can't go too far wrong.
Significant detail makes a contribution to the story. It reveals something about a character, or delivers an underlying theme to the reader, or moves the plot along, or establishes the setting, or creates a mood. I've found that on a rising action, two or three significant details interspersed with action or dialogue is usually enough to be effective. On a falling action, when things are moving more slowly, you can provide more description.
What was the last good book you read and what made it good for you?
Most recently, I read Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, and before that The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The Night Circus was a magical story in both senses of the word, with light and lyrical descriptive passages. Ender's Game was a perfectly plotted narrative. It started with a killer hook and kept me turning pages right until the end. I can't wait to read the sequel.
What inspires you to sit down and start writing?
I think my brain must be hardwired for fiction writing. Ever since I was a child, it has teemed with story ideas and interesting characters. Every once in a while, a character and a story come together in my imagination and I can visualize the first scene in detail, with dialogue. That's when I open a new document on my computer and begin writing.
Not all writers are able to live out the romantic ideal of the writer’s life: living off in a secluded cabin with no responsibilities beyond writing every day. You’ve had a wide-ranging career. Can you share a little bit about your writing and teaching background? What kind of experiences shape your approach to teaching writing?
Of the past 40-plus years, I've spent a total of 20 years as a full-time high school teacher of English, literacy and writer's craft, teaching for ten months of the year and writing compulsively the rest of the time. I've also had a full-time and very eclectic professional writing and editing career, including editorial rewrites for Harlequin's Mystique line and the establishment of my own (very small) educational publishing house. I've 'book doctored' and done developmental editing. I've designed and presented writing workshops for children, teens, teachers and interested adults.
I've also participated on writing panels at local science fiction/fantasy conventions and have been an active member of the Romance Writers of America and the York Region District School Board Writers Guild. My focus has always been on demystifying the process, communicating my own understanding of fiction writing as a craft that anyone can learn and practice rather than as an art form requiring innate talent.
Arlene Marks is the author of From First Word to Last: The Craft of Writing Popular Fiction (tinyurl.com/kqhu2c5), published by Legacy Books Press and available through Amazon.com and many fine local bookstores, such as The Book Cellar (www.bookcellarinc.com) in Chicago.