I've finally eluded the curse of the recovering English major: After having my first child, when my personal time dropped to precious increments of minutes rather than entire hours or days, I decided that I don't have to read every piece of fiction I slide in front of my eyes. I can behave like that theoretical reader authors write to, the one who gives writers all of a single sentence to either draw the reader in or push the reader away.
If a piece of fiction doesn't grab me, and grab me quickly, I give up on it.
Here's today's Rule of Writing Fiction - Thou Shall Write Fiction That Propels Not Repels
Pick your engine: character, plot, description, voice. Of course every work of fiction has healthy doses of all these and more, but one engine will purr and hum as the primary force driving your piece, and for you the writer, recognizing that primary engine will help you to shape the work appropriately.
Character: A common piece of advice is for the author to allow her characters to guide the direction and shape of the story. This isn't exactly wrong, but strict, character-driven pieces can quickly become tedious, especially if they are devoid of a compelling voice or plot. And by all that is righteous and holy if you write a piece solely to highlight what the kids call 'an unreliable narrator' you are forever banished to the Phantom Zone. Here's a secret that's not really a secret: all characters and all narrators are by definition unreliable because they are human incarnations with limited perspectives. Just like all of us. If 'unreliable narrator' is all you've got, you've got nothing. Find some other way to make your characters interesting.
Plot: Literary fiction more than most genres is allergic to plot, and I've never understood why. (It probably explains my attraction to the genre forms and comic books and 'Twilight Zone' episodes - the plot in these works is the thing. And while such an approach has obvious flaws, I'd rather read or watch something that has a plot than something that does not.) Take some time to ask yourself what the ending of the piece should be and how it is you are going to get there. Throw in some interesting twists and curves (your characters, if written well, will assist you in going places you didn't think you were going to go). Don't be afraid to plot. It's going to be OK.
Description: Writing a piece of fiction with the aim of showing off your poetic prowess is an egregious sin. Write a damned poem if that's what you want to do. Fiction needs to be about something, and that something is not pretty words. A well-placed, just right description can make a piece of fiction resonate to transcendent levels, yes, but burdening each and every paragraph with neck-deep adjectives and similes and metaphors bogs down the narrative flow--stalls the engine as it were--and keeps the reader spinning in some eddy when the reader should be flying along the rapids of your narrative.
Voice: Voice is the most elusive, mysterious and integral driver within a writer's propulsive devices. How or why some writers have a compelling voice while others do not is one of those wonders that draws us to art in the first place. Is it talent? Skill? Who knows. I don't. But I do know when I read a work that has a compelling voice, because I will follow that writer and his or her story anywhere s/he wants to take me. If you are a writer with a compelling, naturally propulsive voice, you need only sprinkle in character, plot and description to bolster your momentum. I hate to even write this, but I think voice is the one part of writing that can't be taught. It can be acquired through practice and absorption, but no person can teach another how to evoke voice.
There are, or course, other engines that a writer can use to propel rather than repel his readers. I've only highlighted the few that occur to me during my bleary first cup of coffee. But the overall point and takeaway is that a reader's time is precious, and they do not owe you nor your fiction that precious time and energy unless you give (and give everything) in return. Yes, we writers must serve the work--that is our task--but the work must serve the reader. Without the reader what we do simply doesn't matter.
We owe those readers fiction that moves them.