Fiction is harder than fact, but the Web helps

By Nicholas Pengelley, Published on March 24, 2012

Fiction is much harder to write than fact. I know because I have tried my hand at both. I've written and published academic articles in my fields of expertise, and opinion pieces on political issues. I've also written, and hope to have published, my first novel. The latter was a far, far harder exercise – both in the writing and (so far) publication. At this point I should state that the exercise was much easier than it could have been because of the resources of the Web. More on that below.

Five years ago I decided to write a work of fiction. I'd read hundreds of novels, and I had a PhD – so I'd written a novel length book already. I sketched out a plot, typed "Chapter One" at the head of a blank page and wrote until I had about 120,000 words. Cool, I thought. Now I'll get it published. Those of you who have tried to have a novel published are already laughing. I had much to learn.

I had never attended a creative writing course; never read anything about writing fiction. The first stories I created – about a time traveling law librarian (write what you know, they say) – were, I think, not all that bad in terms of the basic story idea. But that's all. Suffice to say I've put these early efforts down to practice. I learned a vast amount in the process (not the least important being that writing time travel is a recipe for tying yourself in knots). For a start, although enormously satisfying, writing fiction is mentally exhausting. Unlike academic writing, which constantly draws on the work of others, every word has to come from the imagination. Dialogue has to be invented, and made interesting; so the writer is constantly conversing with his imaginary characters. These characters have to be visualized, and the scenes in which they play a part. This is not so difficult if the characters are hatching a plot over a few pints in a pub. It is very difficult with action scenes involving characters in desperate flight, or mortal conflict. To be good, it has to be believable. Creating such scenes from imagination requires a great deal of thought and mental effort – particularly if the writer knows nothing about guns, knives or hand-to-hand combat.

Apart from the sheer creative endeavor, fiction writing is also replete with conventions that must be observed. Adverbs, for instance, are anathema – get rid of anything that ends in "ly". Exclamation marks and italics are for amateurs. The plot should be constructed in scenes, with goals. These should be continually defeated, so the reader is hooked into continuing. "Sequels" are a must. This has nothing to do with writing a series. It means that if, for example, you have a character fall down a well at the end of one scene, the next scene featuring that same character should start with a recap of her feelings and reactions to having fallen down the well. "Said" is the preferred designation for speech, (which must be in the form "John said," rather than "said John"). Emotion should be demonstrated; the writer should not cheat by using speech modifiers – "he said angrily" – the anger should be conveyed through the character's actions. Then of course there's the classic "show don't tell" rule – the trap most novice writers fall into.

These are some of the major conventions, and I have only briefly stated them. There are others. I knew none of them when I started writing. I do now, thanks to having done what I should have done in the first place – sought professional advice and read some books about writing. There are many of these, and much advice is also available on the Web. One source I highly recommend is the website of new publisher Shelfstealers. ALL of their writing tips should be read - and obeyed.

I did know about editing – I'd always edited and proofed my academic writings, and helped others with their work. What I had not absorbed was that it is impossible for the average author to edit to the level required for commercial publication. You become too close to your own work – the eye slides over errors, even glaring errors. A subscription to Autocrit is a partial remedy to this problem. Their software allows writers to input a chapter of text that is then scanned and analyzed for, inter alia, overuse of particular words and phrases, use of adverbs, occurrence of "that", "which" and other words that are commonly overused. No matter how much you edit your own work, you will miss this kind of thing. I also use it for academic writing and have found it invaluable.

Getting others to read your work is a must. If you're at all pleased with what you've written you will want feedback in any case. The first rule here: develop a very thick skin and welcome criticism. The second rule: criticism by people other than friends and family is very much to be desired. Friends and relations will tell you what they think you want to hear – that your novel is the greatest thing since sliced bread. If you believe that, you'll be in for a shock when you start getting rejection emails (hardly anyone uses snail mail any more) from agents and publishers (assuming you get any response – equate silence with rejection). Agents and publishers will almost never give feedback, incidentally. You might approach hundreds of agents and publishers (most of whom are in the U.S.). If you write a good "query letter" – a brief description of your manuscript designed to grab a potential reader's attention – for every ten you send out, you might get one reply asking to read a few chapters or the first fifty pages. For every 10 of those you might get one asking to read the whole thing. Don't get too excited. The usual result is a brief note, many weeks or months later, to the effect that, although your story was great, the agent "just didn't love it enough".

Don't give up. It helps to read about authors like John Grisham who got rejected time and again before they found success. Or the growing number who have self-published then been "discovered". Ignore the statistics. According to Publisher's Weekly there were 5,211 new book deals in 2011. If you think that's a lot, well that's a great attitude to have – don't let it go. Perseverance, a positive attitude and a refusal to take "no" for an answer are essential for an aspiring novelist. Oh, and design your own author website. It's a step on the road and a useful tool in approaching agents and publishers – it shows you're an active marketer of your own work, which is a good thing.

Although writing fiction is harder than non-fiction, both benefit from access to the tremendous resources of the Web. In writing this for LLRX.com I am preaching to the converted in saying this. You routinely use the Web to obtain court decisions, access legislation, government reports, academic articles and so much more. Researching a work of fiction is a lot more fun and leads to all sorts of discoveries. To illustrate, my novel, a political thriller called The Palestine Papers, is set in London (my first "practice" time travel novels were set in Toronto, but I was advised that no one wants to read a story set in this city – for the same reasons no James Bond movie has ever taken place here). I know London well but there are aspects of its geography I don't recall. I need a character to get from St. John's Wood to the Tower of London. It's the work of an instant to call up a map of London, zoom in and work out the best route so I can incorporate some interesting landmarks. This adds to the verisimilitude and avoids criticism from readers who know London. Likewise, I have a scene where characters are ambushed outside St. Paul's. Using Google's Streetview I can visit the scene virtually and determine where to place characters so that it seems realistic.

I know nothing about guns – how to use them, or what type of weapon a given character might use. A few keywords into Google enables me to write knowledgeably about firearms – including, for instance the fact that one "squeezes" a trigger rather than pulls it (Americans are born with this knowledge, the rest of us have to learn it). Likewise fist fighting. I had an idea that a "sucker punch" might be a useful thing for a character to throw but I didn't know what one was. How does someone get knocked out by a punch or a hit on the head so they are not permanently injured, or killed? What kind of bullet wound can be suffered without slowing a person down too much? What kind of drug will put someone out instantly? There are websites devoted to these matters. Explosives too. I had no idea how to construct a car bomb till I Googled it. Of course if I were paranoid I'd be worried that CSIS and the FBI have these sites under observation.

"The Palestine Papers" includes Palestinian and Israeli characters I wanted to have curse in their respective languages (I am familiar with neither). Entering "Hebrew swear words" into Google provides enough possibilities to make the most hardened author blush. A scene in London take place at around 8 AM in the month of December. Is the sun up at that time? If still dark, what phase of the moon is it? Such matters are easily determined, as are travel times and distances between locations - via online railway timetables or Mapquest for road travel. Weather information is easy. Descriptions of clothing for fashion ideas – those hats Kate Middleton has made fashionable, what are they called? How does an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace proceed? How big is a stealth drone? How fast does it fly? What are the crossing points from the West Bank to Jerusalem? What does the main dining room at No. 10 Downing Street look like?

The Web is also a boon for historical information. In one of my earlier "practice" time travel novels, I had a character go back to 1814 and enter a building at night. Not having Dr. Who's sonic screwdriver, she had to have light. What kind of illumination would someone have used in 1814? Lanterns? What fueled the lantern? With what would you light it? Matches? Were matches even invented at that time? No, you'd have used a tinderbox. How? Not to worry, someone has written a Wikipedia article all about it. Likewise with the 1890s when one would have used a flashlight – there's a Wikipedia article about the history of flashlights (so called, incidentally, because at the time one had to keep pushing a button to "flash" the light).

Finding the answers to most of these questions would be impossible without the Web. A visit to an ordinary library would not help. No traditional encyclopedia would have provided answers. The moral of the story, if you plan on writing a novel, understand and follow the rules – they're important and you won't get published unless you follow them. Edit and re-edit and then edit again. Get as much feedback from strangers as you can. Use Autocrit. Let your imagination roam free and be very thankful you live in the age of the Internet (and the word processor).