A Final Word On Writing Fiction

This snowy day I have been thumbing through writing magazines and it is amazing the advice you get from second rate writers (like myself!) telling other writers (like you!) how to write.

I have been reading about ‘submission strategies for literary journals’ and ‘what makes literary fiction literary?”

Most of the advice is predictable (by the way that’s a no-no, writing a predictable story.) The advice goes this way: Know the literary journals; Themed issues are your friend; Play the odds. Etc. Not too useful.

One comment stood out, this from Marc Fitten, editor of the Chattahooochee Review. I never heard of the little magazine, nor Marc, but he commented, “A strong, distinctive voice is the first thing I read for. Whammo! Does the voice grab me and make me read the story.”

That I agree with. Now whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, a memoir or an academic tome, you can’t throw your voice like a ventriloquist. Your voice is your voice. And the more I read, what brings me back to a particular book is that clear voice that catches my attention.

So here’s a little snowy morning test. Here are ten opening lines.  Name these writers based on their distinctive style, their voice, and I’ll send you a prize. Also, note that 7 of the 10 are first person. When you write your next book, do it from the first person. Meanwhile, let me see what you guess.

 1. I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.

2. I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student fifteen years before.

3. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind every since.

4. When he finished packing, he walked out on to the third-floor porch of the barracks brushing the dust from his hands, a very neat and deceptively slim young man in the summer khakis that were still early morning  fresh.

5. Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. And the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.’

6. It was one of the grievances of the business element of Pompey’s Head that the all-pullman train from New York to Miami reached its community at five forty-six in the morning.

7. The pass was high and wide and he jumped for it, feeling it slap flatly against his hands, as he shook his hips to throw off the halfback who was diving at him.

8. Not many people ever see the game and not all those who see it can follow the scoring, and among those who can score it fewer still can play it, and, finally, in the entire world there are probably fewer than fifty men who play it well.

9. In the late summer of that year we lived in a  house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.

10. On Sunday, the eleventh of November, 196_, while sitting at the bar of the New Parrot Restaurant in my home town, Watertown, New York, awaiting the telecast of the New York Giants–Dallas Cowboys football game, I had what, at the time, I took to be a heart attack.

 [On Monday, Peace Corps Day, I’ll tell you the winners!]




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  • Elmore Leonard could have written all of them since the first of his rules of good writing is: Don’t start with the weather.
    But I’ve always liked: It was a dark and stormy night…
    So charming that a writer needs to tell us that a stormy night might also be dark though I’ve never heard of a stormy night that wasn’t.

  • Thanks for gearing this quiz for the oldest of your readers, John. My guesses:
    1. Jack Kerouac, On the Road
    2. John Knowles, A Separate Peace
    3. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
    4. James Jones, From Here to Eternity
    5. William Faulkner, Light in August
    6. John Cheever
    7. Irwin Shaw, The Eighty Yard Run
    8. John McPhee
    9. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
    10. Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes

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