Ten Tips to Help Aspiring Writers Stretch Their Fiction

I’m asked on occasion what advice I might offer aspiring writers. Here are ten random suggesstions — the last a reference to the fact I was told by a creative writing professor when I was in college that I should become a banker.
1) Don’t merely write what you know. Write what you don’t know. It might be more difficult at first, but – unless you’ve just scaled Mount Everest or found a cure for all cancers – it will also be more interesting.
2) Do some research. Read the letters John Winthrop wrote to his wife, or the letters a Civil War private sent home to his family from Antietam, or the stories the metalworkers told of their experiences on the girders high in the air when they were building the Empire State Building. Good fiction is rich with minutiae – what people wore, how they cooked, how they filled the mattresses on which they slept – and often the details you discover will help you dramatically with your narrative.
3) Interview someone who knows something about your topic. Fiction may be a solitary business when you’re actually writing, but prior to sitting down with your computer (or pencil or pen), it often demands getting out into the real world and learning how (for instance) an ob-gyn spends her day, or what a lawyer does when he isn’t in the courtroom, or exactly what it feels like to a farmer to milk a cow when he’s been doing it for 35 years. Ask questions. . .and listen.
4) Interview someone else. Anyone else. Ask questions that are absolutely none of your business about their childhood, their marriage, their sex life. They don’t have to be interesting (though it helps). They don’t even have to be honest.
5) Read some fiction you wouldn’t normally read: A translation of a Czech novel, a mystery, a book you heard someone in authority dismiss as “genre fiction.”
6) Write for a day without quote marks. It will encourage you to see the conversation differently, and help you to hear in your head more precisely what people are saying and thereby create dialogue that sounds more realistic. You may even decide you don’t need quote marks in the finished story.
7) Skim the thesaurus, flip through the dictionary. Find new words and words you use rarely – lurch, churn, disconsolate, effulgent, intimations, sepulchral, percolate, pallid, reproach – and use them in sentences.
8) Lie. Put down on paper the most interesting lies you can imagine. . .and then make them plausible.
9) Write one terrific sentence. Don’t worry about anything else – not where the story is going, not where it should end. Don’t pressure yourself to write 500 or 1,000 words this morning. Just write 10 or 15 ones that are very, very sound.
10) Pretend you’re a banker, but you write in the night to prove to some writing professor that she was wrong, wrong, wrong. Allow yourself a small dram of righteous anger.

Chris’s most recent novel, Hour of the Witch, was published in May 2021.

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

6 thoughts on “Ten Tips to Help Aspiring Writers Stretch Their Fiction

  1. Storm Nix says:

    i’m not exactly new to writing, but i’m not sure about what to write. when i write something it sounded so great inside my head, like i got the whole conversation mapped out inside my head and then i go to write it down on paper and i loose my train of thought and my whole conversation!
    and i am sooooo scared to let anyone read my story, will it be good, will it really suck or
    will they just laugh in my face!
    i hope your tips will help me and my writing, but you should give some tips about getting your work noticed by people.
    thanks a lot, you’ve inspired me to start writing my own book like Anne Mccaffrey-The Dragonriders of Pern-the Chronicles of Cove Hold!

  2. Jerri Wolfe says:

    Thanks Chris,
    I appreciate your tips here – they have been very helpful as an answer to my “building my voice” question on your discussion board. More tips would be great! Of course, if you lived just around the corner, that would be better. Good luck on your writing.

  3. Katie says:

    Hi, Chris,

    Thank you so much for these tips. They will be extremely useful in helping me to sit down and write! I’m very glad you didn’t become a banker; I’m looking forward to reading your next book.


  4. Alice Liddell says:

    It was so exciting to see you in Tulsa over the weekend! I was amazed at how much like meeting a rock star it was. I’ve never heard a writer speak before, and, publically at least, I’ve never heard anyone speak so eloquently or so graciously to his fans on the spot. Your loquacity more than afforded my admiration and, I am sure, that of some of my classmates. I now have a copy of Night Stalkers (courtesy of my wonderful teacher) and I very much intend to read it all before class in the morning, as, by all accounts, it is exactly the same sort of writing I aspire toward. Listening to you speak was enough to convince me to finish the very long and complex story I have in my head of which I have completed only a very short passage but for which I have renewed high hopes. When I find myself stumped, I will think of how vivaciously you spoke about writing and the tips you gave!
    Thank you very much!
    I wonder– what are your thoughts on unreliable narrators?

  5. Carol Bodensteiner says:

    Great tips, Chris. Thanks! I particularly like the thoughts about interviewing someone who knows about the topic interviewing someone about their life. Those interviews not only uncover the minutiae but also the motivations.

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