Guest Author: Magdalena Ball on How to Create Literary Fiction

How to Create Literary Fiction

By Magdalena Ball

As a book reviewer, I get anywhere from fifty to one hundred review requests a week. Of these, I might accept five or so. While I do occasionally take nonfiction books, most of what I accept will be in the genre known as literary fiction. But just what is literary fiction? What differentiates literary fiction from what most publishers class as commercial or genre oriented fiction, and why am I biased towards it? It’s a question I get asked regularly. Some, like author David Lubar (“A Guide to Literary Fiction,” 2002) equate the label with work that is pompous, dull, plotless, and overly academic: “If you’re ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there’s a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes.” Publishers often use this label for work which defies other genre distinctions, eg it isn’t romance, isn’t “chick-lit,” isn’t science or speculative fiction, isn’t a thriller, action, or political drama. It is meant to denote a fiction which is of higher quality, richer, denser, or, as the literary fiction book club states, work which “can make us uncomfortable or can weave magic.” These distinctions aren’t always clear, and there are some superb exceptions to the genre rule, such as Margaret Atwood or China Mieville, whose high quality work fits the speculative fiction genre, or Umberto Eco and Iain Pears, whose work is full of mystery and suspense. All writers feel that their work is high quality, and most write fiction with the goal of producing great work. So how can we ensure that our work is literary fiction rather than some other form? Here are five tips to guide writers who are inclined to produce literary fiction:

1. Aim for transcendency. The one quality which seems to be present in abundance in literary fiction and much less so in other forms, is what agent and author Noah Lukeman calls “transcendency.” It isn’t easy to define, and in his exceptional book, The Plot Thickens (St Martin’s Press, 2002), Lukeman presents a number of points, such as multidimensional characters and circumstances, room for interpretation, timelessness, relatability, educational elements, self discovery, and lasting impression. I would say that transcendency equates to depth, to writing which does more than entertain its readers, and instead, changes something, however small, in the way they perceive themselves. How do you get transcendency in fiction? With a deep theme, deep and powerful characters, complex plots, and exceptional writing skills. Sound easy?

2. Read quality literature. This is a lot easier than transcendency, though not unrelated. Since achieving literary fiction is a subtle and difficult thing, you’ve got to develop your literary senses. The best way of doing that is to read books which fit this genre. If you want to create literary fiction, chances are, you probably are already reading it. These are books by the writers we call “great.” Your list of names may differ from mine, but these are the writers who win prizes like the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Commonwealth Prize, and the National Book Award to name just a few. The more great literature you read, the better able you will become at recognising the elements which make a fiction literary.

3. Don’t get defensive! Lubar’s article is fun, but literary fiction isn’t meant to be snobbish, academic, plotless, or boring in any way, just well crafted. That may be daunting if you are a writer, but it won’t help your work to shrug off quality by calling it dull or unachievable.

4. Re-write. This may be the single most important distinction between literary and other types of fiction. Work which is timeless takes time. There’s no other way to achieve literary fiction than re-writing, dozens, and maybe many more, times. It isn’t glamorous, nor is re-writing dependent on a muse or inspiration like the first draft is. It is just going over and over a work until every word is relevant and integral to the story. This process cannot occur solely in the fingers of the author. Every writer of literary fiction requires an ideal reader, a critique group, a mentor, or someone who can provide the kind of objective advice which will transform your inspiration into a stunning creation.

5. Don’t stress about it! Of course there is no point in worrying so much that you get writer’s block. If you read great books, write fiction which is true to your own creative vision, and revise (with feedback from others) until the work is as perfect as you can make it, you will produce literary fiction. That’s all there is to it. Writing a novel is about as hard as writing gets. Writing literary fiction can take years, often with little reward, at least until the book is completed (and in many instances, thankless even after publication, assuming you are published). But if you can’t stop yourself; if the desire for producing something truly beautiful outweighs utilitarianism, then you are really and truly a literary writer and your work will have transcendency. I’ll look forward to reading it!

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com

 

Advertisements

About jlwylie

Stay at home mom of 2 boys, avid reader and writer. Published by Untold Press

9 thoughts on “Guest Author: Magdalena Ball on How to Create Literary Fiction

  1. Maggie, thanks for the great post. Do you have some favorite books/authors you’re reading now?

  2. rozmorris says:

    Love this post. Writing literary fiction is like being an oyster. Take one grain of sand and add, add, add. But there’s one big difference – as you say you have to tweeze, tweak, polish and mature. I can write a genre novel in a matter of months. But my literary work takes years.

  3. Great article! I don’t think I’ve read much literary fiction, but I think I’ll add some to my “to be read” pile after this. Thanks for the insight.

  4. jen says:

    Great tips! I enjoyed learning more about writing quality literary fiction.

  5. I tweeted this ’cause I know my followers will find this article useful. Thank you Maggie. And Jennifer for bringing Maggie’s talent to us!

    Best,
    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Blogging writers’ resources at Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites pick http://www.sharingwithwriters.blogspot.com

  6. Wonderful article! Literary fiction is difficult, but I think the advice about rewriting goes for all areas of writing. If it’s not worth the autor’s time to rewrite, it’s probably not worth reading. Thanks for the great insights!

  7. Karen Cioffi says:

    What a great post Maggie. For those of us who weren’t sure of what Literary Fiction is, you’ve helped clear it up. I don’t think I’ve read much Literary Fiction either.

  8. Thanks so much for hosting me Jennifer, and for the great comments everyone. Margaret, I’m always reading and I’m surprised at how often the work is exceptional – there are so many wonderful books being written (and so little time to read them all in!). But the last great literary fiction I read was Gail Jones’ Five Bells, which was so reminiscent of one of my favourite (and most challenging) books of all times – Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, that I actually went back and re-read The Waves again afterwards. For more on Five Bells, you can read my full review here: http://tinyurl.com/4ss6wqw

  9. Excellent post. The definition of literary fiction has always seemed elusive and subject to many interpretations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s