Jeanne: The Chicken and Egg of Fiction Writing

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I’ve been doing an in-depth critique for a writer friend. She has a lot of talent, and she’s as committed a writer as I’ve ever seen. She stood up to the scrubbing sandstorm of my critique and kept asking for more. Tough lady!

Working with her has gotten me thinking about the kinds of issues exhibited by the work of newbie writers:

  • Wandering POV
  • Lots of telling rather than showing
  • Dialogue issues
    • All characters sound alike
    • Dialogue is stiff and unnatural
    • Lots of “as you know” dialogue–where one character tells another character something she already knows in order to clue the audience in.

There were also some plotting problems–the third act, which should be the most consequential and high stakes, revolved around a character who had been a really minor player up to that point. The conflict between the romantic partners was already resolved, which meant the couple could work together to save the minor character, but eliminated the sexual and relationship tension that might have upped the Act Three stakes.

There were plot holes and dropped plot threads. (Full disclosure: these types of issues *may* continue to hound even the more experienced writer, if my editor is to be believed.)

There were also places where characters did things for no apparent reason, behaved inconsistently from their previously defined characterization and even did things that seemed to go against both their best interests

You know, the stuff we all do when we first start writing and often continue to do in our first drafts.

I give this writer huge props, because she was very open to hearing feedback (lots of feedback) and made amazing strides in addressing the issues I identified. She was committed to writing the best book she possibly could, and she was willing to set aside her ego and put in the work to make that happen.

In working with her, I focused on the first set of problems (word-craft) more than the second (plotting), mostly because that was the order in which I learned to write. Back in 2002, I formed a critique group with some people I’d met in a novel-writing class at the local community college. For the next ten years, we hammered on each other about the items in the bulleted list above. We didn’t give each other a lot of feedback on plot, other than to point out plot holes and character inconsistencies. This may have been because we didn’t know enough about plotting to do that.

It makes sense to me that you need to work on your prose first. It’s hard to get anyone to read your story until your writing becomes strong enough for them to make it through to the end of your book.

On the other hand, the popularity of books like Fifty Shades of Gray and The Shack prove that you can create a bestseller with really weak word-craft if the story is compelling enough.

What do you think? Which should come first–word-craft or plot?

8 thoughts on “Jeanne: The Chicken and Egg of Fiction Writing

  1. It would depend, I suppose, on whether as a writer, you are big picture- or detail-oriented. In your example, you are critiquing for word craft for your friend and not plot, which to me implies you offer a detail-oriented view. When I write, I am more likely to see the structure/plot because it is in my head (mostly) while I write. But one probably doesn’t exclude the other, does it? If fact, does one even exist without the other? Ugh. This is why I don’t eat eggs…

    • LOL. For the book to be truly satisfying for me, it needs to be both well-plotted and well-written.. When people summarize their stories, I’m pretty good at picking out the goals and turning points (or lack thereof) but when I’m reading, the prose has to be seamless enough not to attract my attention. Otherwise, I’m going to dive into those problems first.

  2. As you said, Jeanne, chicken and egg, but I found when I was judging contest entries that I was more likely to want to read on if I found a compelling story with okay writing than when I read beautifully written but not hook-y pages. Your mileage may vary 😉

    Raising a glass to your writer friend for sucking up the criticism and coming back for more!

  3. It’s kind of like you find an egg, and then a dinosaur pops up, and you keep working on the dinosaur until you get another egg, which may be another dinosaur, or it might be the chicken (finally!) or even better, the golden goose. I don’t know which is the dinosaur and which is the avian, as far as identifying plot. I suspect it depends on the writer, and I also suspect that it might depend on if you are a pantser (in the moment) or a plotter (writing from an outline).

    As a pantster, I think that carries over into my reading. I’ll forgive a holey plot, but if you don’t keep me very entertained on the paragraph level, I will leave you. That said, there are few really awfully-written books that have left me satisfied because of the plot, or even just that the concept was well-executed (even if the sentences weren’t). I’m thinking about Rutherfurd’s books about England. I’ve read more than one, even though I was often frustrated in the moment. When I sat back and let the story stew a bit, though, it was really quite epic, and I loved the broad sweep of history.

    • I got about halfway through Sarum. Like you, I loved the broad sweep, and I thought his characters were interesting (especially they kept recurring through time) but at some point the weight of all that stonework just crushed me.

      • That’s exactly what kept me reading! I loved the characters repeating genetically through time (I don’t believe that’s true, really, however, it was fascinating food for thought and reminds me of why I love genealogy), and I wanted to see how the next permutation turned out. I was often frustrated when I put down the book at the end of the reading session, but outside the book, I loved reflecting on the themes and ideas.

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