The Nuts and Bolts of Crafting Better Fiction

Volume 4 - Issue Number 2
ISSN: 1529-0441

To subscribe to Fiction Fix, send a blank email to: 
[email protected]

I N   T H I S    I S S U E :


o Creating Sympathetic Villains


o Trade Secrets
o Toolbox Challenge Winner


o From the Editor's Desk
o It's a Given with Sable Jak
o This Writer's Opinion



Don't miss out on two brand new courses, Writing Magazine Articles and Creating Characters: In Biography, Memoir and Fiction. And of course, we're welcoming back some of our most successful courses, including Suddenly, Flash Fiction and Writing for Dollars. For details, see our course catalog

"I want to thank you for the...inspiration taking your course gave me. I have since published nearly 50 articles and two short stories. I have regular columns in two online publications and have actually just completed work on a book proposal. An article I wrote will be featured in an e-book shortly. I'm actually seeing checks in the mail nearly every week!" 

     -- Kimberly R., Secrets of the Professional Freelancer student


On Feb. 2nd, Punxatawney Phil, the famous Pennsylvania groundhog saw his shadow and scooted back into his den for six more weeks. I like to picture him in a little La-Z-Rodent recliner with a stack of delicious novels and literary magazines on his tiny end table. If there's any bonus to having a long winter, it has to be the guilt-free excuse it gives readaholics to stay inside and indulge. 
Whether your do it for craft, for pleasure, or for both, reading is an essential--and sadly neglected--aspect of becoming a better writer. I'd like to invite those of you who already know the importance of reading to name some of your favorite writers, books, lit mags, and short stories. In 50 words or fewer, tell us who or what inspires you and why. Be specific. And stick to fiction, please. 

I'll prime the pump. 

I recommend Thomas Moran's contemporary Irish-flavored fiction (THE WORLD I MADE FOR HER and WATER, CARRY ME). Complex characters, stark images, and deft use of language make his works read like intimate prose poems. I ration the pages of his books, like chocolate truffles, to make them last. 

Here's another. 

The Missouri Review is an excellent literary magazine with high standards and a terrific website. TMR offers dozens of short stories (not just excerpts) via the current issue and archives. Writers range from first-timers to Joyce Carol Oates, with the common denominator being a great story and a strong voice. 

Are you part of the crowd who doesn't read? You can contribute too. Within that same 50-word limit, state your case. Do you want to read but can't seem to find the time? Does cracking open a novel feel like bracing for root canal? Or are you overwhelmed and perhaps intimidated by the sheer mountain of material out there? Tell us what keeps you from reading. 

Please, take a few minutes to send us your thoughts and we'll share the best responses in the next issue. Send your name if you want credit for your submission, and let us know if it's okay to print your email address (if you'd like reader feedback). I'd also like you to dash off an identifying line or two. Who are you? What do you write (or aspire to)? I can't promise fifteen minutes of fame--fifteen seconds, maybe--but this is another way of seeing your name in print. 

Miranda Fuller
Articles Editor
[email protected]

P.S. I want to say thanks to all of you who wrote concerning our companion articles on writers coping with ADD. Judging from the intensity of the responses, it seems this topic struck a chord--or hit a nerve--with many. Just a reminder--Bob Hanford's wonderful strategies can benefit ADDers and non-ADDers alike. If you'd like to read the January edition (Vol. 4 - Issue 1) of Fiction Fix, visit our online Topica archives.


If you've had experiences with ADD, please visit a new resource from the managing editor of Fiction Fix, Karen Hertzberg. You'll find articles, links, books, a Q&A section and more at:

A Monthly Column by Karen Hertzberg


I'm going to share a trade secret all successful fiction writers know--something eagerly embraced by the Secret Society of Published Authors. Don't let this get out, whatever you do. If everyone who wanted to be a writer embraced this simple philosophy, we'd all have a lot more competition. Are you ready? Here's the secret:

In order to be a successful writer, YOU MUST WRITE.

Now, I'm going to be really charitable and tell you another highly guarded secret. This one's lesser known, but equally important:

In order to write better, YOU MUST READ.

Were you hoping for something a little more profound? Face it, the truths we already know, and often ignore, make the biggest difference in our lives. For instance, we know we should get plenty of exercise and eat a well-balanced diet. Those who do are rewarded with fitness. Those who don't, often search for a magic bullet that will make it all effortless. But magic bullets don't exist, just as magic doesn't exist. It's all smoke and mirrors.

We all know we need to put butt to chair and write if we want to produce fiction. There's really no simple formula as to how often you must write. You don't need a special haven or retreat (although privacy certainly helps), and you don't need any fancy equipment or computer programs. Studying the craft will certainly help you become a better writer, but only writing itself will MAKE you a writer. Like the Nike commercials say, "Just do it."

Reading is another matter all together. The best writers are also voracious readers, but many novice writers ignore reading once they decide to become REAL writers. A friend of mine once commented, "I don't have time to read. Not if I want to get any writing done." I responded, "Bullsh-t. How many hours of television do you watch each week?" The figure ended up being somewhere between 8 and 12 hours. (Personally, I think the amount was conservative, considering all the television shows this person lists as "favorites.") "So," I said, "you can find time to watch up to 12 hours of TV in a week, but you can't find, say, and hour a day to read a book?" Finally, my friend agreed that he probably COULD make time.

I'm not suggesting everybody stop watching television all together in favor of reading books (although, it's not a bad idea). If TV is your thing, then, by golly, don't miss that upcoming episode of "Temptation Island." But if you want to be a fiction writer, and writing fiction is truly important to you, you need to make reading a priority. You'll probably find that reading a book is equally relaxing-maybe even more relaxing--than watching that rerun of "Friends." You don't have to study the craft as you read. Lose yourself in the pages of a novel for the pleasure of it. Do it for the love of words, the rhythm of language. Occasionally, something will resonate for you--some element of the craft of writing fiction will jump off the page and you'll understand that basic tenet just a little bit better. You don't necessarily have to look for an education when you're reading--it will happen by osmosis.

A writer is someone who writes. A fiction writer is also somebody in love with the art of storytelling. To become a writer, you must write, and you must read. There they are, the universal truths all successful writers know. What you do with these trade secrets is up to you.

DO YOU HAVE SUGGESTIONS for an upcoming Fiction Writer's Toolbox column? Send them to Karen at: [email protected]

===== ADVERTISEMENT =========================


FLASH FICTION FLASH: The Newsletter for Flash Fiction Writers will include flash fiction publishing news, flash fiction markets, flash fiction contests, writing tips, The Editor Says, featured flash fiction markets (print and electronic) and more.

For the purposes of the Flash Fiction Flash newsletter, flash fiction will be short-short stories 2,000 words or less. (We won't accept news for anything but short-short pieces of this length.)

TO SUBSCRIBE to The Flash Fiction Flash:

Send a blank message to: 
[email protected]


Our January Toolbox Challenge tasked you with writing a story without using adverbs. (An adverb is simply defined as a word that describes a verb, adjective, or adverb. It often ends in "ly". Examples: carefully, easily, barely) Many writers--about 90 of you--rose to the challenge. We had a hard time picking a winner from so many excellent entries, but when the smoke (created by our collective brains churning away) cleared, one entry emerged triumphant. Here it is!

By Paul Alan Fahey

I opened the door.

Light snowflakes pelted her face, and I knew she'd been crying. "Ready for our walk?" Donna said. She loved the snow and was an avid skier and sports enthusiast. I found myself wondering about her life, her life without Gerald.

We were dressed in ski pants, down jackets, knit caps. A man and woman, two colleagues on a morning walk. She spoke about her classes, the students sitting with glazed expressions, paying little attention to her lectures on teaching methods.

"How will they get through student teaching?" she said. "No spark, no enthusiasm."

We walked along the path by the frozen lake. I thought of last autumn. The three of us, Donna, Gerald and I, sitting on the deck, drinking martinis, toasting our friendship, watching leaves fall and drift to the shore.

"Listen, Donna," Gerald said as they were leaving. "You're drunk. Do you understand? Get in the car and let's go."

Donna had a strong personality, forceful and candid, yet in Gerald's presence, she became tiny Alice sipping from the bottle with the tag, "Drink Me!"

I hated him for the way he treated her.

A sudden rumbling, jarring as thunder, pierced the calm, and we stopped a moment, her hand on mine. I imagined land masses colliding and pulling apart but knew it was the cracking of the ice.

We both laughed and continued along the path fronting the lake. I wanted to ask how she'd managed the past months without Gerald. All the mundane tasks: waking early, caring for her children, prepping for her classes, teaching, sitting on endless committees. I wanted to know, but something stopped me from asking her.

The snow heavy and the visibility low, she turned and pointed to my house, and I shook my head in agreement. Something came over me. I grabbed her and brought her close. I held her, wanting to kiss her, to make her problems mine.

"No, please," she cried.

I looked into her eyes and knew.

Gerald. She was waiting for Gerald to return.

I let her go, afraid she would learn the truth and hate me. I followed her up the hill to her car, and we said goodbye.


In my dream, I see a two-story home on a snowy landscape feeding into a frozen lake. A dog barks under a leafless tree, and the sound echoes over the white stillness. The lake ice cracks. Gerald's body lifts from the bottom and rises to the surface.

Waking, I wonder if she knew, what she would think of me.

 BIO: Paul Alan Fahey is a learning disabilities specialist at Allan Hancock College, a community college in Santa Maria, CA. He also edits the school's new literary magazine, Mindprints, a journal of flash fiction, memoir, poetry and black and white artwork for writers and artists with disabilities or for those with an interest in the field. He has taught high school English as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, preschool at Hull House in Chicago and teaching methods to undergraduates majoring in special education at Green Mountain College in Vermont. He has been published in Potpourri, Artisan, The Palo Alto Review and other small literary magazines

*** WATCH for a new Toolbox Challenge coming in April! ***



"All I am is the trick of words writing themselves." So sayeth our classy writer's mugs...and mouse pads...and apparel. Show the world that you're a WRITER!


[We're recommending WRITER'S ONLINE MARKETPLACE once again, in tribute to Debbie Ridpath Ohi, the founder of Inkspot. As many of you may know, was recently shut down by Xlibris publishing due to budgetary belt-tightening. The online writing community will sorely miss this outstanding resource.]


By Debbie Ridpath Ohi

The Internet ushered in a new era for writers. Submitting queries and manuscripts is easier than ever before, and electronic publishing means markets are more plentiful. That doesn't mean success in online publishing comes easily. Enter WRITER'S ONLINE MARKETPLACE, a helpful guide to navigating the world of electronic print markets and freelance writing opportunities. You'll find advice on crafting email queries, writing for the Web (which is much different than writing for print markets), using the Web to network and promote your writing, and even some basic advice on building your own website. And if that doesn't convince you to purchase this reference, perhaps the listings of 300+ online markets will. Any writer who uses the 'Net should have a copy of WRITER'S ONLINE MARKETPLACE close at hand. 

BUY IT AT AMAZON.COM -- It's Fast and Easy!


Creating Sympathetic Villains

By Sharon Silverman

I've always been one of those people who enjoyed villains more than heroes. Growing up, I rooted for Sylvester rather than Tweety, Wile E. Coyote rather than the Roadrunner. Later in my life, I began to enjoy Anime (Japanese animation), which led to participating in role-playing games RPGs) via email. Playing a villain showed me just how hard it is to make a bad guy believable.

All characters need motivation, but in my experience, if you want a reader to empathize or even sympathize with a villain, that character needs a clearly defined motive, one that even the purest of pure hearts could understand. Start with an ordinary character who is being misunderstood and if the results are drastic enough, vengeance, jealousy, and greed become understandable. 

In the type of game I participate in, it is common for a player to step into an already created character and use the personality, strengths, and weaknesses already available. I find it much more intriguing to play a character of my own invention. Usually you are required to submit some sort of writing sample before you are accepted into the game and the competition is tough. In a few RPGs you are given a selection of attributes from which to mold your character. In others you have free reign. Once you create a character, a small description might be in order, but it's usually better to show what your character is like through his or her behavior, a direct parallel to writing fiction. 

Free-style RPG set-ups are a lot like those for creating a good character in any sort of writing. You can start off with a person who is perhaps normal, and then give him special qualities that make him differ from those around him. Play with his personality and emotions until they fit what you want to convey. Fill him with fire and passion for some sort of goal. Then, over time, reveal what makes him tick. 

When I first started role playing as the villain, Shakuku, I had a lot to learn about character development. Although I wanted him to be able to stand freely, I created him as a minion of sorts, working against an adversary on someone else's orders, not because he had any personal vendetta against them. As such, Shakuku was little more than a two-dimensional lackey, deserving of being killed off in one battle. 

Later, I was invited to join a second RPG group. I had learned by trial and error what worked and what didn't, and I now had a fresh start to give my character the villainous depth I knew he deserved. In this RPG, I made Shakuku a rebel, defying instead of obeying his master. But why would he do such a thing? 

I decided to make Shakuku nearly identical to one of the heroes. This created deep jealousy in him toward someone who seemed similar but had everything he did not, a feeling many have experienced on a milder level. 

Villainous motives often stem from some unresolved conflict in the villain's past. If Shakaku were a happier person, he might still be jealous, but he wouldn't react as if the world had been taken from him. Shakaku, however, was downright unsatisfied with what life had presented him. Before he was even born, his father abandoned him, and at the age of six, his mother also left him. For seven years he was forced to raise himself on the streets. During that time he built up emotional barriers to keep himself from ever getting hurt again.

At the age of thirteen, he was thrust into more turmoil. To save himself from certain death Shakuku was forced to become an apprentice of a black magician who didn't care in the slightest whether he lived or died. This man exploited Shakaku's weaknesses by constantly telling him that everyone left him because he was worthless. Every day Shakaku listened to the words of his new master and tried to improve himself. He vowed to make himself worthy of acceptance in the future. 

After I made Shakaku a more dynamic and sympathetic character, things started to happen. First, I found him easier to write and then I found myself enthused about my character's progress and well-being. I also started to see doors unlock. I could make Shakaku bitter over what had happened, or I could open him up to the possibility of healing. Either choice was perfectly justified by the history I had created for him, and furthermore, both would be understandable by other players. 

When I was writing Shakuku as shallow and expendable, I found it hard to work my way into the storyline. Shakuku wasn't able to capture anyone else's interest or sympathy either. The other players ignored nearly all of my posts. A few good friends shared their character development skills and taught me how to change Shakaku from a one-sided character with a heart of obsidian to a damaged person harming others out of heartache and longing. A villain is most believable when we can see the person and the emotions behind the violent behavior. 

After giving Shakaku some dimension, I got an overwhelming response from other RPG members telling me how much they loved my character. I had one writer tell me he had always despised villains but found himself actually rooting for this one. That's when I realized that the only thing that separates a villain from a hero is his perspective. He sees his actions as being right, or at least justified. Change a hero's experiences and he can become a villain. Change a villain's experiences, and he can become a hero. 

But what is the point of creating a sympathetic villain if the protagonist still wins? There are a couple of benefits. By presenting both sides of the story, you give your fiction a more realistic feel. Readers used to be trained to follow a clear-cut right vs. wrong path without straying. Nowadays they prefer to choose their own path and that means completely black-hearted villains are out. Editors in the speculative fiction or mystery market will quickly discard manuscripts that present readers with cartoonish bad guys and point them to a rigid conclusion. 

If you don't want readers to feel the slightest spark of identification with the antagonists you're writing, go ahead and write them without sympathetic motives. But if you want your readers to think twice before completely despising and discarding your villains, give them a reason to care. 

BIO: Sharon Silverman is one of the few Gainesville, FL residents who is not a U. of Florida student. Along with her other writing, she puts most of her creative energy into her current Japanese animation project, a series called
"Hari Keimei." She can be emailed at [email protected].


The Shame of it All

By Ingrid Ruthig

Oh, the unspeakable withering shame of being a writer. 

How many people do you admit that to? Your mother? Your best friend? Your dental hygienist? Or does the thought of anyone's reaction keep your lips and pen sealed?

One young woman with an MFA in creative writing confessed to hiding both her degree and her true passion behind teaching music to children. By her own admission, she taught to pay the bills but also to hide her dirty secret-long, dark hours of solitary agonizing over words with no guarantees of publication, recognition or remuneration for her efforts. Not to mention that what she writes is fiction! Her ploy worked and she wrote in blissful anonymity, until reviews (good ones) of her first published collection of short stories began to circulate. Then, her students pointed fingers, grinned slyly and giggled, "My mom saw you in the newspaper. You're a writer!" She pled guilty.

Writers are likely to be subjected to misconceptions and mistrust. I know of a published novelist who moved to another country and gave up teaching to write full-time. His brother recently visited and the writer revealed his desire to move again, this time from the city to a house in the country, where he could write in peace. Eyeing the novelist as if he had grown horns, the brother shook his head and blurted, "You're crazy!" 

Questions such as "what do you really do?" or "when are you going to get a real job?" speak volumes. High-profile authors may earn the public's grudging respect but let's face it, the rest of us are dismissed as lazy traitors who avoid W-O-R-K. Anyone can pick up a pen and do it, right? Odd thing is, utter the word "Shakespeare" or rekindle memories of high-school English exams, then watch the shudders and white faces. 

In the end, the best one might hope for is "What do you write?" It implies some level of understanding or acceptance. Yet a truthful reply usually triggers a blank stare, as though you've begun to wax poetic over quantum physics. It's just as well you didn't try to explain what you write; they'd never get it in a million light-years.

At my first public reading, I admitted that I'd shelved a sixteen-year career in architecture to write. A single gasp (from a writer, strangely enough) escaped from the otherwise silent audience. I see now that I may as well have confessed to abdicating the throne for life as a public toilet attendant. 

I thank heaven for my writer friends who continue to encourage and guide me. My husband is grateful too--he's convinced I'd have lost my marbles long ago if it hadn't been for the writing. 

There are times I still do battle with frustration and guilt, but the kids understand that Mum is working when she stares at the computer. And it doesn't bother them provided they're fed, read to, and tickled, and can count on her to assemble Star Wars fighters or assist Barbie into leggings.

I have come to accept that this passion, this euphoria I feel when my fingertips dance feverishly over the keyboard or scribble down words the old-fashioned way--as I'm doing now--will never be fully understood by anyone except other writers. Even so, when I'm tempted to hide my writing as if it were sheer debauchery or worthless dabbling, I resist. If someone asks what I do for a living, I look them in the eye and say, "I'm a writer." 

I'm learning to enjoy those blank stares.

BIO:  Ingrid Ruthig lives with her husband and two daughters in Ajax, Ontario. She writes short stories and poetry and is the Marketing Director and Design Editor for Lichen, a Canadian literary journal.

A monthly column with Sable Jak

Hi all. It's a Given is going to be a little different this year, but keep sending them in. This year I get to "wax eloquent" or at least attempt to wax on about life's little hiccups.

Jeanette Nalani Scharsch-Hao sent a few Givens to me back in January and one of them has been sitting on my shoulder demanding attention. Jeanette says it's a given that, while driving, "at every stoplight you're scribbling another sentence in your notebook on the dashboard of your car."

Ah, a fellow notebook junkie. As I don't drive, I don't have one on my dashboard, but I do have one of those waterproof diaries in the bathroom, just in case I get an inspiration while in the tub. I can't think of a room, nook or cranny of our apartment that DOESN'T contain a notebook, pen, pencil, crayon, paintbrush, or anything to write with and write on. I've even found recipe cards with odd messages on them: mix sugar with flour - the elf ran UNDER the exposed tree root, not OVER it - and gradually add milk. Say what?

I can't guarantee it but I do hope and pray that I haven't done anything like that in letters to friends, relatives, the IRS, etc. I know, however, that a writer's thought process never lets up (or down) and that's exactly why I'm sitting here at 4:30 a.m., writing and thinking about Jeanette scribbling in her notebook during traffic stops. After all, I got up and scribbled the idea for this month's Given in the notebook beside the bed before giving up and coming into the office to enter it in the PC.

So, where are all of your notebooks hidden? And Jeanette? Do, be careful while driving, please. I'd love to get more Givens from you.

Until next month, take care and remember: Writing is a solitary activity shared by many.

Email your Givens to Sable Jak at:
[email protected]


Managing Editor: Karen Hertzberg
[email protected]

Articles Editor: Miranda Fuller
[email protected]

Associate/Copy Editor: Esha Neogy 

Copyright 1997-2001
All Rights Reserved

Authors hold the copyrights to their articles. Permission to reprint an article should be sought by contacting the individual author. No single article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the author.

Fiction Fix is never sent unsolicited. If you received this mailing, you subscribed at our website or by email, or somebody forwarded it to you. If this newsletter was forwarded, please consider a free subscription.

TO SUBSCRIBE send a blank email message to:
[email protected]