7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Stephen Graham Jones

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Stephen Graham Jones, author of THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

Stephen is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Larry C. won.) 

      


Stephen Graham Jones is the author of nine
books, and has two recently released: Stoker
finalist horror collection The Ones That Got Away
(Prime Books, 2010), and It Came from Del Rio
(Trapdoor Books, 2010). Two more novels will come
 soon, from Dzanc, and likely a couple before
then as well. Learn about him at his website.


1. Characters are most interesting when they lie.It’s when they’re the most naked, the most vulnerable, the most perplexing—the most like us. Stories need stupid decisions that, at the time, seem absolutely rational and necessary. Without stupid decisions, the world isn’t thrown out of balance, and so there’s no need for a “rest of the story” to balance it back.

2. If you keep having to dip into the story’s past to explain the present, then there’s a good chance your real story’s in the past, and you’re just using the present as a vehicle to deliver us there. However, we cue into that charade extremely fast, and move on to another story, another book.

3. Don’t run down every single rabbit hole. Yes, your twenty-five-year old character has endless Kool-Aid stands and dances and family reunions behind her, all of which add texture to who she is. But, please, we don’t need to know about each and every one of them. If it doesn’t contribute directly to the end, then it doesn’t belong.

4. If the main character’s not in jeopardy—physical, psychological, emotional, whatever—then you don’t have any tension, and you don’t have a story. There’s no reason for us to turn the page, as what you’re delivering us is simply a recounting of these events that happened, none of which matter, as nothing’s at stake at the character level. The story is the ups and downs, though, the near misses, the impossible obstacles, the unlikely saves, the sacrifices, the victories, the accidents.

5. If you haven’t manipulated us such that we’re invested in either one outcome or another, then we’re not engaged with what’s happening on the page—again, you don’t have a story. At the end of any piece of fiction, we need to have that feeling of satisfaction—not so much that this was the outcome we were rooting for, or the outcome we suspected (one of the most basic pleasures of reading is to have our expectations subverted), but that this was the inevitable thing that finally had to happen to make the rest of the story true.

6. The only question you need to be able to answer about your story is: Why today? Why this day out of your character’s life rather than all the other days? And the answer, it’s always Because this is the day that’s breaking the rhythm, the day that’s an aberrance, the day everything can change, if the character can just walk that tightrope to the last page.

7. Making people laugh is so much more difficult than making them sad. Too much fiction defaults to the somber, the tragic. This is because sad endings are easy, in comparison—happy endings aren’t at all simple to earn, especially when writing to an audience jaded by them. But the truly great fictions, they trick you into thinking we’re heading for something dour, some big final downer, but then, at the last moment, there’s a flower in this expanse of tundra, and the main character sees it, and just leaves it there for the next person coming along, and you’ve done your job.

 

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33 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Stephen Graham Jones

  1. Lynne P Alexander Holligsworth

    A very insightful and helpful collection of tips to avoid and to embrace. I appreciate them as I create my own characters for my first book! Yes, well, the first on actual PAGES, for there are many drifting through the windmills of my mind, hopefully not getting too chewed up. I believe it is crucial to learn from those who have done what you want to do; why re-invent the light bulb, right? A cliche one avoids in a novel. Ok, so my characters will lie, deceive, surprise, stay more often in the present, jump over those rabbit holes,barely escape certain danger and, oh yes, make the reader laugh along the way. Easy! Thank you SO much. And remember, ‘Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put!" (attributed to Winston Churchill)

  2. Sheldon Nylander

    Interestingly, I’ve struggled with number 2 the most in my most recent project. This is all excellent advice, though, and I’ll admit that I’ve struggled with each point and one time or another, and still do when I don’t pay enough attention.

  3. Mark V.

    Terrific distillation of real craft knowledge into pity, memorable nuggets. Most list-based short articles for blogs are more trendy than substantial. Thanks for providing an excellent and thought-provoking exception.

  4. Ana

    SGJ is my new favorite author. I was assigned Ledfeather for my English class. I just met him yesterday at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk. Amazing writer! I’m going to start writing again thanks to some of the work he shared with us yesterday. I wish I would’ve grown some stones to talk to him. Ha, next time.

  5. Jim Kelly

    Great advice here, especially about the laughter. It’s easy to succumb to negative emotion. It’s much harder to find the humor, but worth it.

  6. Haley Whitehall

    I love the interview–great questions and great advice. It is so true that making readers sad is easier than making them laugh. Maybe that is why I deal with dark, serious subject matter. I’m taking the easy way out.

  7. Maryanne Fantalis

    These are all excellent points. The one that stands out for me is number 4. It took me a long time to learn how to put my beloved main characters in harm’s way, to let my romances get rocky, to force myself to let them suffer… Not only did I feel terrible about what my characters were enduring, I had to endure their suffering with them! When my lead couple was broken up, I was miserable for the whole time, as if I were in a break up too!

  8. Michele Cacano

    It’s interesting to me that you’ve managed to encapsulate several broad ideas into such concise almost-"rules" for characters and story. Thanks for that~ it will give me some reference points to think on!

  9. courtney

    Wow! What great content. I’ve read a LOT of advice on writing, and this is unique and spot-on. Thanks for the tips! Especially, especially #7’s flower. 🙂

  10. Wyatt Winnie

    I enjoyed this post. Many of the 7 things columns I’ve read talk about what the authors have learned about the industry, or marketing or some aspect of the business that isn’t writing. This one focused on the writing and I really liked that. Thanks for the post.

  11. Kirkus MacGowan

    Gah! I’m new to writing and I keep combining #2 and #3. I find myself going down so many rabbit holes (mostly with back story) that I have to force myself to stop. Great advice, apparently I need to hear it over and over again before I understand.

  12. karen lee hallam

    Thank you–very relevant to me. I’m xeroxing your ideas and putting them up on my desk. 🙂 And I thought everyone wanted a sad ending–good thing i didn’t believe this.

  13. Nik Korpon

    Great advice as always, Stephen. I try to remember #7 when writing. It doesn’t have to be butterflies and rainbows, but leaving the reader with nothing after they’ve invested themselves in 300 pages is always bummer.

  14. Richard Thomas

    Such great advice, spot on, brother. I’m going to re-read these seven over and over again. I think I can actually apply these to my current WIP. Off to tweet and FB share this. Thank you, Stephen as always.

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