Evey posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Which elements of style mark something as more literary or less? Word choice? Rhythm? More use of metaphor? Choice of theme?
Also, when in Fic 201 you say “10 hours minimum of writing to begin modeling habits of a Junior” do you mean strictly generation of new words, or revising your material, studying craft, reading fine examples etc. aswell? 10 hours is not enough to do all that! And if I can only grab 10 right now, how do I breakdown all the tasks of a professional writer for maximum effect? 75% new stuff? 10% revision, 5%craft study, 5% reading? 5% marketing?
Randy sez: It’s not very easy to define literary fiction. I’m tempted to avoid trying to define it by paraphrasing what a Supreme Court justice once said of another matter, “I don’t know how to define it but I know it when I see it.”
But let me take a stab at it. Literary fiction is art and therefore it’s defined by whatever the current generation of artists define it to be. Literary fiction these days tends to be “sentence driven,” or so I’m told. If I understand this term correctly, it means that every sentence needs to be well-written. Every word must be perfectly chosen. Some literary novelists are very good at rhythm or metaphor or their choice of theme or the beauty of the language.
I‘m not a particularly good person to ask about literary fiction because I don’t write it, although I do read some literary fiction when it’s also good strong commercial fiction. If you want to write literary fiction, I’d say your best bet is to first get a good foundation by reading a lot of it. Then, when you know what you like and who you aspire to be like, it’s probably a good idea to get a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from a school that has teachers who can teach you the kind of fiction you want to write. There are a number of schools these days with low-residency MFA programs.
As for those pesky 10 hours that I mention in my Fiction 201 course, I’m not saying that one block of 10 hours will do it! Of course not. I’m talking about 10 hours per week of work on your writing. If you want to be a professional writer, you need to be in the habit of spending 10 hours per week on your writing. Less than that is not going to cut it.
There is no easy way to break down how you spend your time. My own rule of thumb is pretty simple. Figure out what you’re strongest in and what you’re weakest in and then focus on trying to improve those two areas. Editors say “yes” because of your strengths. They say “no” because of your weaknesses.
One more point about your weaknesses: Your goal is NOT to improve your weaknesses so that you’re “best in class.” Your goal is to improve your weaknesses to be “acceptable.” In some cases (such as punctuation or spelling) your best strategy may be to outsource to somebody who’s good at it. I’ve met very good writers who just couldn’t spell or just couldn’t master the comma. Nobody’s perfect. Don’t try to be. Far better to spend your valuable time learning to be the best you can be on your strong points. If you look at all the wildly successful novelists, each of them excels at one thing and really delivers on it — that’s why their readers buy their books. So ask yourself what it is about your writing that your readers will LOVE and then focus on how to deliver that better.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Thanks for the data! I did mean 10 hrs/week, not just 10 hrs period! 😀 Low-Residency MFA?
Randy sez: Yes, a low-residency MFA program means that you don’t have to be on campus very many days in the school year; most of the work is done while you’re at home and then you get together with your professors and classmates for a few days at a time for intensive work.
I have in mind an allegory that I would like to write in a literary style and I would like to be able to take your suggestion to read a lot of literary fiction before I write it. Can you recommend any good sources or booklists of literary fiction? I have done some googling but mostly what I come up with are examples of various styles of writing general fiction, not “literary fiction”
Randy, I left her a reply earlier that you can ignore because it all depends on the search terms doesn’t it? I was searching before on literary style fiction but when I took the word “style” out of my searches I started getting bucket loads of results. So, you can ignore my other reply and thanks again for a great blog!
Val Clark says
Good advice, Randy. In Australia we call ‘literary fiction when it’s also good strong commercial fiction’ Popular Literary Fiction. It’s what I started out writing, accessible lit fic. Why should someone need a university course to understand what I write? But the novel is more that just a story… Anyway, back to my point. I do have an MA in Creative Writing from a very reputable Australian university and have spoken to several commisioning publisher who have rapped my proverbial knuckles and told me that in Oz only one author writes Popular Literary Fiction and that’s tim Winton. So I continue to write good fiction that is accessible – regardless of the lable it might or might be given. Somewhere out there’s a publisher….
Randy sez: There are any number of literary novelists who sell decently well. Some of those that I’ve enjoyed over the years include Chaim Potok, Audrey Niffenegger, John LeCarre, Tracy Chevalier, Alice Sebold, Mark Haddon, and Elizabeth Moon. I suppose it’s debatable whether some of these are in fact literary novelists, but all of them write better style than I do, so I would consider them all at least somewhat literary. Maybe that’s a lame definition, but it works for me.
My writer friend, Marjorie, says literary fiction is fiction that asks more of the reader.