Save Yourself from Mediocracy: Commit to Learning the Fundamentals of Fiction

So Ernest Hemingway wasn't always *The* Ernest Hemingway. Before he was the badass no-nonsense Nobel prize-winning author with an unshackled appetite for sexual congress, he worked as a journalist. While in Switzerland covering the Lausanne Peace Conference, he was asked by an editor to present some of his fiction.

He also was unabashedly committed to becoming a famed and virtuoso writer.

Sooo, jumping at the possible big break, Ernest called for his then-wife Hadley (the first of four wives and one of many "love interests"—the dirty dog) to pack up his work in Paris and make her way to Switzerland. The always doting and supportive wife, she amassed everything she could find.

Every. Last. Bit.

While in route on a train to deliver the goods, Mrs. Hemingway thought it'd be grand to go have herself a little tipple. I imagine Hadley sipping on her dry martini, watching the countryside slide by, breathing easy as she anticipated her beloved consort's writing career finally taking flight.

The martini did the trick. It gave her the slight tingle in her legs she needed to walk with her head high and a little swing in her hips. She was, after all, the wife of the future illustrious master of prose. Can't you just see her? Ambling back to her seat with a faint crooked smile and ethereal twinkle in her eyes catching the attention of every man along the way?

...Only to find Ernest’s creative blood, sweat, and tears gone upon her return.

Can. You. Even. Imagine?

Her stomach must have twisted and turned into a tight-whorled knot at the sight of the empty space where the suitcase had once rested.

How many drinks must she have had after finally succumbing to the ugly truth that his work was gone. I bet her amble along the clouds degraded to tiptoeing on eggshells.

You know, those unpublished manuscripts have yet to surface.

Their fate?

No one knows. But imagine being the lucky duck who found them stashed away in some attic or something. It’d be like winning the literary lotto! But we know that never happened. Some illiterate schmuck probably stole the case hoping to snag a few valuables and tossed the whole thing when all that was found were a few pair of scanties and pages upon pages of "worthless" scribbles. Or maybe he kept the scanties. Who knows.

Poor Hadley. And poor Ernest! All that hard work gone. And he considered it hard work, you can bet your ass. Work that needed to be solid at its core with no fluff to hide any weaknesses.

He was known to profess...

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration."

I love this. It’s only a tiny snippet of his overall musings about writing, but it really hits home.

What he’s saying is that writing is serious business. Serious in that it takes time, much time, education (whether formally or not), and diligent practice to become an accomplished writer and avoid the fate of the mediocre. Part of this learning process involves knowing the building blocks of a story. What he refers to as the architecture. What I refer to as the fundamentals of fiction.

His predilection for understatement supports his quote. That if the writing is naked and strong and not dolled up like a skinny strumpet in pearls and garish stilettos, it will attract authentic attention. It will have solid standing, and it will not fall flat following the rolled ankle of the weak ass wearing knock-off Valentino Garavanis.

—There's a video that my husband and I laughed about time and time again when we first started dating. It was a chick standing at a counter wearing waaaaay too tall heels. And outta nowhere, her ankle turns and she buckles to the floor. THIS is what I envision my little skinny strumpet doing!—

As a general reader, you can usually sense when a book feels "off" or like something's juuuust not right. And if you beta read in the hopes of helping the author, you must be able to articulate what is off. What feels juuuust not right.

That's why knowing your shit matters. If you want to really help, that is. And if you want to be paid for your services? You've got to know the basic architecture and be able to spot it amongst all the fluffy décor and say as much. And you've got to know when the writer has built a feeble house of straw cloaked in beautifully papered walls and drapes and filled with fine furniture. All rhetorical and grandiloquent (you see what I did there) adjectives and adverbs and no strong verbs, for example. Or all narration and no action (wall of words). Or flat characters that no one cares about or relates to. Basically you're ensuring the core elements of fiction are present and solid. And if they're not, that the author is not overcompensating with some of the nonsense I just mentioned.

*If you want to solidify your fundamentals of fiction knowledge, snag a copy of Learning the Fundamentals of Fiction. It's a straightforward resource that is an easy read, not boring like a textbook (so I've been told), and will help keep you on point as someone reading with the purpose of providing helpful, actionable feedback.*

You know, it is a wonderfully helpful yet hinky experience for an author to have someone review your work and give you honest feedback. But imagine experiencing all those nerves and anxiety and then that feedback being vague and unhelpful.

"I don't know. I just didn't like it." Okay. Shoot me now.

How, as an author, do you fix "it just needs more work"? So you write more? Fluff more? Nix more? Pull your effing hair out more?

Not exactly valuable or inspiring, is it? No. That's the feedback of the average mediocre beta reader. The beta reader that has no chops to charge for their service.

But authors, they absolutely do need feedback and really they need it from their target audience. That's where you come in.

Beta readers—trained beta readers, that is—remove the disconnect that happens between the target audience and the author.

A target audience that knows what they like and expect AND can tell the author where and how they are missing the mark.

Beta readers are really starting to become more of a standard step in the novel creation process. That didn't used to be the case. Authors are wising up. And when I first set out to create a system to teach effective beta reading skills, I sometimes wondered if I was maybe delusional in thinking there was even a real demand. But there is. For sure. But the demand is for helpful feedback, not mediocre half-hearted, inarticulate opinions.

I once met Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad at an intimate event at my library. (My library director, who also happens to be my BFF, has the best connections!) Egan was there discussing her latest release, Manhattan Beach. She spoke so enthusiastically of her writing process and research techniques. Absolutely fascinating.

We, the audience, were entranced. The questions came at her from every corner of the room, and there were great ones with even greater—and entertaining—answers.

But what most stood out to me, and what I most wish to share with you...

is the final question of the day. Egan was asked what has most helped her as a writer. In short, her answer was reader feedback. She spoke of her first work that initially went nowhere; she referred to it as a boomerang:

* that when she finally sent it to friends and family to read, they suddenly became MIA

* that after many missed and avoided phone calls, her mother finally told her the truth.

She spoke of the risks of writing in a vacuum:

“All I had was the routine of putting words on a page, but what I had lost track of was what makes something interesting to read. And since I wasn’t getting any feedback, I had no occasion to realize that I was failing to meet that very basic standard.”

Authors need feedback. And not from their mothers. They need well-articulated, honest, helpful, actionable feedback from their TARGET AUDIENCE. The art of beta reading comes in constructing that honest feedback. But it’s impossible to practice an art without knowing the fundamentals of the craft.

The basics.

They're not hard to learn. In fact, if you love the idea of working with authors or writing yourself, you'll undoubtedly find that they're loads of fun. Every aspect of writing is absolutely entrancing to me, as it is for most book junkies. And although Mr. Hemingway may refer to the core of writing as serious business, it doesn't mean it can't be enjoyable.

The same goes for editing or beta reading or proofreading. Yes, learn the fundamentals. Know them well. That is a serious command. But do it with curiosity and enthusiasm.

Learn Ernest's "architecture" so that you can give authors concrete feedback. And if the foundation of their literary house is solid, let them hang some drapes if they like. It is their book after all. But at least they won't be spinning their wheels trying to weave an iron curtain rod through a flimsy wall of hay, wondering why it won't hold up. Because you'll have their back. And their work will stand strong. And they'll love you for it.

That's it for passing on my building skills for the day.

Until next time, happy reading you fiction freak and have the day you deserve.



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