THE FOUR-STAGE METHOD FOR WRITING FICTION NARRATIVE

    A Way to Take You From Drab or Quiet to Can't Put It Down

by Michael Neff

What's one of the best ways to ensure a publishing contract? Master the art of writing fiction narrative, of course. But what does that mean, and are you sure yo
u know the difference between relatively quiet fiction narrative and verve-packed narrative? Are you setting your standards high enough? Are you aware of the level of craft and attention to detail that will make you a great writer with not only a solid career, but a huge number of conference appearances wherein you can, with little effort, and in front of hundreds of people, act like a legend in your own mind?

Writers set standards for themselves, often ignorant of how high the standards need to be raised in order for them to be as competitive as possible in this current marketplace.

Rather than tell, let's show examples of how to take somewhat ordinary, perhaps even vaguely interesting narrative, and make it as competitive and energetic as possible by adding imagery, metaphor, emotion, more active verbs and better sentence structure.

And BTW, for this exercise we're going to channel Ray Bradbury and Eudora Welty at the same time in order to reach a final stage of pretty damn good. And don't let this freak you. They learned the hard way and took their lumps and rewrote a thousand times just like everyone else!

Beginning with a hypothetical chunk of speculative-fiction narrative. Could this be a first draft? Let's hope so. The imagination needs a boost and the passive voice is obvious. No emotions or tension either, therefore characters flat. The writer would also benefit by injecting a bit more meaningful detail, e.g., regarding "his future meal" and the "colorful glimmer" and other.

THE ORIGINAL CHUNK

(isn't everyone named "Meghan"?)

Meghan and Father usually set the traps together, because it was Meghan who had the knack of following animals to their habitat. Father was blind to it--he could never see the trails that marked the passage of his future meal. But to Meghan, it was, and always had been, part of what her eyes could see. The newer the path, the easier she could see it.

As a toddler, Meghan had quickly learned what the signs meant: little leavings, like drops of water. Besides the wetness and the small size of the drops, there was a sort of colorful glimmer to each one. She could tell at a glance the difference between a human and an animal, or between the different species.



MORE IMAGINATION AND COMPLEXITY ADDED

(a decent second draft -- good enough for authors with a huge fan base)

Senna and Father usually set the traps together, because it was Senna who had the knack of seeing the paths that the animals they wanted were still using.

Father was blind to it--he could never see the thin shimmering trails in the air that marked the passage of living creatures through the world. But to Senna, it was, and always had been, part of what her eyes could see, without any effort at all. The newer the path, the bluer the shimmer; older ones were green, yellow; the truly ancient ones tended toward red.

As a toddler, Senna had quickly learned what the shimmering meant, because she could see everyone leaving trails behind them as they went. Besides the color, there was a sort of signature to each one, and over the years, Senna became adept at recognizing them. She could tell at a glance the difference between a human and an animal, or between the different species, and if she looked closely, she could sort out the tracks so clearly that he could follow the path of a single person or individual beast.



INJECT ACTIVE VERBS AND REFINED SENTENCES (see "To Be" Or Not)

(third or fourth draft -- eliminating any last vestiges of passive voice - enter the breakout novel)

Senna and her father set the traps together, for Senna possessed the unique ability to see the trails of the animals they hunted.

Father never saw the thin and shimmering trails in the air that marked the passage of living creatures through the world. His blindness to it seemed like a failure to him. But to Senna, her "trail eyes," as she called them, felt natural and effortless, always a part of her vision. The newer the path of the animal, the more blue the shimmer. Older ones glowed in hues of green or yellow, and the truly ancient ones softened to a dark red.

As a toddler, Senna quickly learned what the shimmering meant, because she saw everyone leaving trails behind them as they walked or ran. Besides the color, a signature of sorts attached to each one, and over the years, Senna became adept at recognizing them. She knew at a glance the difference between a human and an animal, or between the various species, and if she looked closely, she could sort out the tracks so clearly that following the path of a single person or individual beast came easily.



MORE INFUSION OF IMAGINATION AND EMOTION

(draft five or six -- towards a major award - National Book or Nebula?)

Senna and her father set the traps together, for Senna possessed the power to see the trails of the animals they hunted--often dangerous trails that led the two of them into wounding thickets or up the slick trunks of tamarand trees, following wild Cholu monkeys that set traps for predators like themselves.

Father never saw the thin shimmering trails in the air, scattered all around and leading every which way, looking as if interweaving spiders had drawn impossibly gigantic webs, only a few parts of which might be seen at any one time. He could not mark the passage of living creatures through the world, and his blindness to it felt like a failure to him. At times he found himself jealous of Senna, irritated by her instincts that contradicted his own hunting wisdom. But to Senna, her "trail eyes," as she called them, felt natural, her ability effortless and always part of her vision. The newer the path of the animal, the more blue the shimmer. Older ones glowed in hues of green or yellow, and the truly ancient ones softened to a dark red.

As a toddler, Senna quickly learned what the shimmering meant, because she saw everyone leaving trails behind them as they walked or ran. Besides the color, a unique scent attached to each one, and over the years, Senna became adept at recognizing them. Many a time her father watched in a befuddled daze as his daughter stooped to one knee and lightly sniffed the air, breathing in the molecules in one part per million infused with the gossamer thread of trail. To her, humans smelled a bit salty and raw, and most animals too, but with a scent of warm earth about them. She sorted the tracks so keenly with her eyes and nose that following the path of a single human or beast came easily.

Father could only fume, or act amazed, depending on the hour and his mood.  Senna avoided him if the mood darkened, and she feared that any further development of her power might make him feel even more obsolete and irritable, for her power grew each day. She knew that soon, she would detect the odors with her eyes alone, the hue of the trail invoking the scent within her.

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THE METHOD

Do the analysis on the fiction narrative examples above and learn for yourself what it takes to make a huge difference in the quality of your writing.  Note how the potential conflict with the father developed and caused complication and therefore tension, and note also the non-passive voice, and more importantly, the injections of imaginative imagery and circumstance, as well as more development of setting (e.g., the thickets, trees, monkeys, etc.).

Experiment with gradually evolving your own block of sample narrative through the four stages.  Be aggressive with your work.

You'll be glad you did, and so will all your future readers.

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