The thoughts of author C. N. Nevets on fiction writing. Be sure to leave a comment at the bottom with your own thoughts or additional questions!
There are two main ways to characterize my approach to the craft of writing. The first is the lesson I was given as a teenager by the late Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Vonda McIntyre, thanks to the wonders of CompuServe “e-mail.” She told me that, for her, being a writer is the same as being a storyteller. In that vein, the most important goal I have for my writing is to use my words in order to create a space for my thoughts and yours to interplay, as around a campfire at night when your imagination might be inspired to roam the darkness by a tale I was telling.
The second is found in the “Unified Theory of Writing” put forth by literary author Scott G. F. Bailey:
“There is only the narrative, focused now and then through different voices and pushed through a plot. That’s all. Sometimes there isn’t a plot, just voice and theme (which is another aspect of voice).”
I don’t pretend to understand literature well enough to truly internalize everything this means, but probably my most important take away from this is to stop dissecting my writing into little pieces. Those pieces are really just different perspectives on the same whole — and that whole is the verbal expression of a narrative.
I am not, strictly-speaking, a literary writer. I appreciate literature, and I certainly value and aspire to many literary qualities in my writing. At the end of the day, however, I do not think of words in a way that considers them inherently valuable. From time to time, I do select words because of their appearance or their sound, but generally only when the narrative seems to demand it.
Instead, I mostly approach words as a communicator, placing utmost importance on meaning and evocation. Most of the time, I choose words for their meaning, in all the precisely nuanced semantic glory that meaning can be found. Importantly, I do think that meaning is more than lexical. Language has a social and cultural context that adds a layer of meaning — and that may even more than one layer, given that the author, the narrative, and the reader may not all share the same socio-cultural context. Additionally, like the French symbolists of the late 19th and very early 20th century, I think that literature is an art and that words act as ad conjure up symbols, so that they point readers obliquely towards a kind of meaning that cannot be taken in “head-on.”
Two of the most important lessons I’ve learned about being a writer have come from award-winning crime novelists R. J. Ellory and Ryan David Jahn: (1) Don’t be cynical about your chances. Choose to believe in yourself and be persistent instead. (2) Don’t sit around and wait for inspiration to strike or your characters to speak to you, when you can actually use the time to get some writing done.
I work a full-time job in Information Technology, and I teach part-time. I am involved in a variety of volunteer activities. I am a husband, a brother, a son. I am a homeowner. I cannot afford to treat writing like a job, because I don’t have an extra 40 hours a week to give to it. At the same time, I cannot afford to treat writing like an ephemeral thing that comes and goes as it wishes. The secret to writing when you don’t have a lot of time is to actually write when you actually have a little time. Everything else can be dealt with on its own time.
The most important thing is to write, and to take charge of that writing, rather than to allow myself to be at the mercy of fears of rejection or the capricious whims of characters and plots that, after all, I am creating.
It is also critical (though often difficult) to write without fear, not regretting what you’ve taken your chances on. In college writing classes, I unfortunately learned to write with fear. My dark themes and broken characters often made fellow students uncomfortable and my frank style was not to their taste. Their responses were perfectly valid and fine, but I began thinking too much about those reactions when I wrote. It was many years later, thanks to the wonderful folks at the internet communities Flashy Fiction and The Literary Lab that I learned to once again let my authorial voice speak freely without fear. Sometimes that has meant taking critical lumps, but if I were to start regretting what I wrote because of a few bumps and bruises, I would be saying that I wished I’d listened to my fears.
When you write with fear, you may sometimes save yourself a little drama, but you also keep yourself from a lot of pride and the tremendous joy found in creating something honest and real, something that inspires a genuine, personal connection in readers.
One of the questions often asked of writers is they are “planners” or “pantsers.” In other words, do they write outlines and plan out all the details or do they write by the seat of their pants. While I appreciate improvisation and definitely write all my short stories that way, I’ve found it difficult to maintain focus throughout a novella or novel without some kind of structure laid out to remind me of where I’m heading. So I work with a general outline of milestones, broken down usually into chapters or approximately so. I then pants my way between milestones and make adjustments as I go.
My writing can fall into a variety of categories: mystery, fantasy, horror, thriller, literary. My stories tend to be tense, dark, sometimes sad, sometimes scary, but always with a strong element of hope. I explore personality, culture, and relationships. I deal primarily with tightly-defined groups of people in well-bounded local settings within a short, defined window of time.
While there’s nothing wrong with romance or with buddy relationships, I often like to create, test, and prove other kinds of relationships within my stories: friendships across gender lines, found families, functional tolerance in the workplace. Within my relationships, you’ll see a wide range of takes on empathy, mercy, forgiveness, remembrance, charity, anger, and jealousy.
How do I actually come up with ideas for my stories?
I often think about the late science fiction author A. C. Crispin‘s explanation that she starts with a what if. At the time, I was reading her Star Trek fiction and her example was something along the lines of, “What if Spock and McCoy were having breakfast and suddenly an illegal Klingon transmission suddenly came across the com system in the mess hall?” She would start with a scenario in the form of a question and the explore the possibilities.
That style of “improvisational creation through curiosity” is much what like I do, only I overcomplicate it because that’s my usual way of operating. I start with a question, but it’s usually a philosophical or psychological question that I’m curious about. I then devise a scenario that could be used to test that question. After that, I think of some interesting characters to throw into the test together. And then finally, I develop the setting in which the test takes place and “dress up” the characters in some appropriate way.