Skills in Fiction-Writing: Specific Things I Learned and Want to Improve On

Some years ago, an author friend told me about a saying in the writer world: You only become a great writer after writing a million words. I believe that the million doesn’t include written assignments from school. At the time that my friend shared this saying with me, I had already written over a million words of fiction. I didn’t feel like a “great writer,” whatever that means, and I thought it was because I had very little editing experience in comparison: I had only partially edited a few of my stories.

My Present Word, Book, and Story Counts

Today in mid-2018, I have written approximately 3.1 million words of fiction, where about 1.4 million are English words and 1.7 million are Chinese words. English is my first language, but I’ve been told that my Chinese written abilities are pretty decent as well.

Moreover, I have finished writing a total of 20 novels, where each novel averages around 300-400 pages; the English books are about 300 words per page, and the Chinese books have about 400 words per page. 11 of these books are in Chinese, and they are a complete series. The other 9 books are in English. 2 of these English books are the first and second in a series, but can be read as stand-alones. Another 2 books are the first and second books of a different series—I am writing the third and hopefully last book right now. Yet another book is set in the same universe as my WIP, but can be read as a stand-alone novel. Finally, the four remaining finished books are all the first books in their own series, but are not stand-alones.

There are books I haven’t finished writing yet, of course, but for the sake of simplicity, I won’t include them here. Aside from the 20 completed novels, I also finished one novella and 5 short stories. There were some flash fiction and other short pieces I wrote for fun, as well as some medium-length stories penned in my earlier years that I didn’t count in the 3.1 million, again for the sake of simplicity. As well, some complete and incomplete stories that I wrote in my childhood were lost.

With regards to my editing progress, one of the stand-alone novels is mostly edited. Moreover, I have partially edited another of the stand-alone novels, the 11-book Chinese series, the novella, and the 5 short stories. In addition, for each novel, I do a “basic edit”: after finishing every 2,000 words (approx.), I would “brush” the writing before I continue the story. This basic editing involves making the sentences smoother, clearer, and more pleasing to the ear. It’s basic because I only make quick changes at this stage; it’s really like giving your tangled hair a preliminary brush. With this preliminary editing all throughout the drafting process, the prose would be much easier to work with when I finish the novel and begin the in-depth revisions.

Nonetheless, you may wonder why my writing progress is so much faster than my editing progress. The issue is that though I care a great deal about editing, I also feel a sort of “duty” to at least finish writing the stories, so that I don’t let my characters down. But since I keep starting new stories, I may not be able to complete everything in my lifetime, which is a reality I will have to accept. Regardless, I am very driven to finish the series I am currently working on, before I go back to further editing.

Specific Improvements in Writing Skill

After writing these 3.1 million words, I don’t know if I’m a “great writer,” because how can we measure greatness of skill? However, since I have written that many words, I must have learned quite a lot over the years; the vast majority of the writing I did began in 2009, so that would be 9 years worth of learning. So for fun and some encouragement, I wrote down a list of specific skills I have acquired or made significant progress on, thanks to practicing more in certain areas.

Note: I may add to or modify this list even after publishing this blog post.

1. I have much better flow and rhythm in my sentences now. My prose is more melodious and satisfying, and I have grown much more sensitive to word sounds.

2. Similarly, I’ve become much more attuned to the subtle differences between word choices, and can pick the one that fits the context most. Every word has a sound, a speed or duration, a visual appearance, a tactile sensation when you enunciate it, and a network of cultural connotations.

3. Over the years, I’ve picked up many strategies to make my writing clearer and easier to read. My motto is that you want the reader to use as little mental energy as possible to understand what you’re saying.

4. My character development is much deeper and more complex. The people I write about are more 3D. I can flesh out characters with dialogue, internal monologues, motives, backstories, different personality sides, plot events that alter my characters’ personality traits or beliefs, and other methods. Nowadays, no major characters are flat anymore.

5. I’ve grown much better at writing comedy. It’s now second nature for me to write funny things in my novels. I actually have trouble keeping my stories completely serious now.

6. I naturally dive into and weave in themes and deep topics, like philosophy, sociopolitical issues, and other profound matters.

7. Much greater insight into psychology, relationships, humanity, and society. This increased knowledge and understanding is really showing in my stories!

8. More ease in conveying character personality via dialogue scenes. How people talk, and how they behave in groups, can show you a lot! I can also contrast a character’s behavior in groups versus their behavior in one-on-one conversations.

9. Deeper understanding of conversation dynamics and their subtleties. I learned about these complexities partly from real-life chats and group discussions.

10. Greater understanding of how group and dyadic relationships work, especially when it comes to “special but non-romantic” relationships, special connections between certain people, etc. I believe I have a more in-depth understanding of interpersonal relationships, particularly the more nuanced and lesser known types, than most people do. This is because I’m intensely interested in these things and frequently observe these phenomena. I can clearly see my new knowledge about relationships seeping into my stories.

11. More adept at using indirect and diplomatic language, subtle sarcasm, or barely detectable mockery. These are harder than direct, frank statements.

12. Increased awareness of moral ambiguity. This includes moral dilemmas, and morally more questionable but not evil characters. I have a greater handle than before on morally ambiguous characters, and I can navigate moral gray zones much more easily now. You can tell that the writing is from an adult, not from a child.

13. I’ve become very skilled at pantsing. I can now do pure pantsing and actually finish novels. The novels are still very structured and organized, with complex plots as well. (See an example of a pantsed novel series and its structure in the last section of this post.)

14. Increased sensitivity to formal versus less formal language, where different words and language are suitable for different settings. I can deliberately play with social expectations of language use, however.

15. It has become much easier for me to overturn tropes and write unexpected things, for humor or for fun.

16. I’ve really been finding my preferred level of elaborate to simple prose. I like it not too bare but not too embellished either.

17. Greatly improved in my metaphor-making abilities. I can come up with metaphors to symbolize abstract feelings almost immediately now. The metaphors tend to be original or at least vivid and effective.

18. I’ve grown much more independent in my opinions; for instance, I know not to take writing “rules” too seriously, as I’ve seen so many instances by now where the “rules” don’t apply or are inappropriate. For example, are flat characters always bad? Are adjectives and adverbs always to be avoided? Should you always use the active rather than the passive voice? There are benefits to having a completely bad, 2D villain. Showing and telling both have their pros and cons, so knock it off with the anti-telling sentiment.

19. I discovered that oftentimes, plot holes happen simply because you neglected to explain or mention something.

20. Gained more self-awareness of some personal reader quirks, such as my realization that I’m not a very visual person—I have a very sparse and basic visual imagination. So I require less visual description than most people do. Usually, a simple statement telling me that we’re in a forest is enough. I’m not really interested in the specific configuration, colors, or species of the trees. Sometimes, I even feel that telling me the species of the plants is wordy and superfluous, unless it’s something I find particularly pleasant, like tulips. Generic descriptors are normally enough for me. I don’t care much about details unless it’s a sci-fi or fantasy setting that we don’t see here on earth. But again, most other readers may want to have more specific details.

21. Better understanding of why I find it easier to empathize with emotion words (“character X was elated”) than with action descriptions (“character X smiled widely”). Emotion words are like buttons for me: they tell me what to feel, so I can generate that emotion in my mind and body. For action descriptions, they are more indirect: I have to imagine how a person making that gesture in this story situation would probably feel, so there is some quick logical inference involved. As a result, the emotion I feel is more distant and weaker for me. I can feel more intense emotion and empathy towards “I was elated” than towards “I smiled broadly.” So sometimes I deliberately use an action description to make the emotion milder and more detached.

Yet, I know that apparently, it’s the opposite for most people. To them, seeing an action is stronger and more direct in emotion, while emotion words are more abstract and distant for them. I personally find that very hard to understand, but it’s good to be more aware of your own versus other people’s needs, especially if your reaction is in the minority.

22. More awareness of what sorts of things make me feel tense and gripped as a reader. (E.g. Conflict, frustration, relationship issues, mystery, nervousness and unease, etc.)

23. Learned more about why some characters feel “cute and innocent.” I’m only just learning about these characters. It might be to do with their youthfulness, optimism, enthusiasm, zest for life…Though not always. I’m still discovering things about this phenomenon.

24. I enjoy and seem fairly good at describing magic energy. These are colorful displays of magic. I like movement descriptions, so I revel in showing how the magic energy acts and unfolds itself.

25. Learned that I’m more engaged by setting passages that contain clear emotion, movement, or mystery and suspense. I like food descriptions too. In addition, I seem to be most affected by tactile sensations, like the softness and warmth of a hug, or the satisfying feeling of a comb brushing across your scalp.

26. It seems easy for me to automatically write in coherent sentences, even if I had only intended to write in bullet points. (On the minus side, it might be harder for me to write shorter bullet points.)

27. A friend told me that I’m pretty good at describing delicious food. I believe that I’m also adept at describing music.

28. I’ve grown a lot more sensitive to the emotional subtleties of different word choices in dialogue. (E.g. “Lysander asked” sounds and looks different from “Lysander inquired” or “Lysander said.” Look carefully at the context, think of what feeling you want to communicate about Lysander and the situation, and choose the word accordingly.)

29. When I read a book on the writing craft, I don’t blindly accept everything the author says now. I’m able to question or disagree with their advice, not because I want to be a rebel, but because I’ve seen counter-evidence or exceptions to the “rule.” Alternatively, I see that the author is making an over-generalization, doing some black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, or is being extreme or absolutist in their opinions.

When an author does provide examples of what they consider to be “good” and “not so good,” I sometimes disagree and sincerely prefer the “not so good” one. Again, I’m not being rebellious, it’s just that this example personally works more effectively for me as a reader. Of course, I may be in the minority of readers, but this is still my own preference. Self-awareness is good, especially if you differ from the majority, as I often do.

30. Greater appreciation that different readers (and writers) have different perceptions and brains. I might fancy this passage more, but you might fancy the other passage. This is because we are two different people with different perceptions and minds.
Some authors seem to think that all readers will react the same way…Nothing could be farther from the truth!

31. Likewise, I learned that writers can have very different ways of perceiving and processing things. For example, I am a pure pantser, and I cannot understand how a plotter would want to plan so much. A plotter wouldn’t understand how I can write without planning at all and completely rely on my intuition.

Another example: I genuinely don’t understand how some writers and readers can see characters as mere devices and functions… I personally see characters as unique individuals, people to be respected, appreciated, and loved. The “device and function” belief about characters may help some writers, but my “unique people to be loved and appreciated” belief about characters helps me write with more depth, insight, and enjoyment.

32. My characters often question their beliefs and even the fabric of their society and world. They go into the unexplored in-betweens. For instance, they might question the meaning and implications of emotional connection, emotional attachment, or romantic attraction. Don’t take anything for granted!

33. My characters may talk about abstract ideas, such as theories of art, aesthetics, and literature. Some characters may have unconventional opinions on art, science, and other domains of knowledge.

34. I’ve become quick and adept at writing sexual innuendos, and I’m quite good at writing kissing and sex scenes.

Specific Skills I Want to Improve On

Most of the skills below are my current areas of weakness. This list is a lot shorter than the “specific improvements” list, but that does not mean that these are the only areas I need or want to work on. These are just the areas I have thought of so far. As in the above, I will likely still add to the following list after publishing this post.

1. Write more setting descriptions!

2. Need more variety for body language and gestures. It would be helpful to have more variation in dialogue tags too. Recently, I rather like “babbled” and “blurted.” I have improved somewhat in my variety of tags and body language, however.

3. I could put in a few more character action beats throughout the scene, without making the actions look like unnecessary fillers, of course.

4. I would like to fine-tune my balance between metaphoric and poetic, versus simple and straightforward language use.

5. Need much more concise scenes. Specifically, I have such long dialogue exchanges! I need to cut things out even if they are interesting or entertaining.

6. Related to writing settings, I encourage myself to use more of the five senses. I seem to favor and rely on the sense of touch, which is understandable because my tactile memory and imagination are the most powerful out of the five senses. For visuals, I am drawn to writing about colors. I appear to be much more interested in colors than in shapes and sizes, unless they become an intriguing texture that I can describe using my tactile imagination.

7. Again, related to setting descriptions, I understand now that most people have much more vivid and detailed visual imaginations than I do, so that’s why I tend to need visual descriptions less, while other readers may desire more visual depictions of things. So I can offer a few more visual details on my settings and character physical appearances, even if I personally don’t really care how they look like in detail. I am very indifferent to the specific clothes they are wearing. Telling me their clothing colors is probably more than enough information for me.

8. Get to know my “happy characters” better. Characters with a sadder backstory or terrible parents tend to be easier to explore in depth. Characters with brighter pasts or awesome parents, are more difficult to delve into deeply. However, nobody has a perfect life. An outsider could glance at my life and think that I’m a lucky and blessed person. But I too have my griefs and tragedies, and so do my more lighthearted and happier characters.

An Example of a Long Pantsed Story and Its Structure

As I promised, here is an example of what I meant when I said that I can pants out an entire story, and still have it end up as a coherent and structured first draft.
In this particular story I have in mind, there are clear threads of narrative that make up this book series. First of all, there is a main action-adventure plotline. As well, there are multiple other plotlines running concurrently to this main plot. You could see these concurrent plotlines as “subplots,” though on an emotional level, they feel just as or even more important than the main plotline. Some examples of these “subplots” include:

1) The romance between A and B (the two protagonists)

2) The love rectangle between C, D, E, and F. C and D are classmates of another character, G, where G is a close friend of A’s and B’s. F is the child of B’s father’s good friend. E is the younger sibling of A’s childhood close friend. D and E are cousins and have been best friends since childhood.

3) The special friendship between E and F, which makes D extremely jealous.

4) The romance between H and I, where H used to have a big crush on A, and I (my character, not me!) had a crush on G for many years. I is a classmate and enemy of B. I is also a cousin of D’s and E’s.

5) J’s personal journey of self-discovery and friendship. J is H’s younger sibling.

6) The romance between K and L, who are close friends of A and B. L is “sworn siblings” with J.

7) M comes to terms with his past, including his relationship with a beloved friend who had been murdered many years ago. M is the main teacher of A.

8) N tries to escape his father’s villainous organization. N’s father is the main villain of the story.

9) O, P, and Q deal with deep-rooted conflicts that began in the past. P is A’s secondary teacher (i.e. not A’s main one.) Q is the teacher of M—i.e., Q is the teacher of A’s main teacher. O is P’s foster parent.

10) P and R’s romance.

11) S, T, and U team up to save the world, where S is their leader. U’s younger classmate, V, helps them a bit.

12) A friendship tinged with some unrequited romantic attraction between D and W.

13) A side story of semi-romance plus friendship between X, Y, and Z. E befriends X and Y, though E never meets Z. W befriends X.

14) C acts in the name of justice to call out some minor villains, and these villains now want to kill him.

There are some more subplots, but as I’ve run out of alphabetical letters, I’ll stop here. Character H also writes a long novel that is interwoven with my story. Characters A and B spend much time reading a published novel, which is interwoven with the story I’m writing as well.

When you see that I have subplots #1 to #14 (as well as the subplots I didn’t have room to mention), more than 26 story characters, and even novels that my characters are themselves writing or reading, my story may seem like a mess or a hodgepodge of tangled strings. However, if you look more closely, there is a definite order and structure to my story. Firstly, almost all of my characters are related to characters in the other subplots, via blood, love, friendship, or otherwise. Also, you can see #1 to #14 as multiple paths. Different paths start and end at different parts of the story, and some paths are longer than others. Each path has a beginning, middle, and an end, which includes a climax and resolution, unless they are a very short and trivial path. A few minor paths are not yet resolved by the end of this series, but they will be addressed in the sequel series!

Thus, each of the #1 to #14 paths are stories in themselves, all twining together, winding and spiralling like vines down the tree trunk of the main action-adventure plot. The novels that my characters are writing or reading spin around my own plot events: to connect my characters’ novels back to my own story, I show my characters discussing what they read, and that they feel inspired by some of the characters in their books. In keeping with the tree analogy, these novels that my characters are reading or writing, flow through and out of my tree trunk like sap and honey.

In addition, some subplots (paths) get more attention and screen time than others. #1-#4 and #8 are the main paths, and they make up the bulk of the series. Something that makes these #1 to #14 subplots easily identifiable, is that they are almost all relationship plots between specific characters, where we see the development of friendships, romantic partnerships, and other types of relationships. Some of these subplots finish around the end of the series, while most other subplots end earlier. Some subplots continue into the sequel series.

What I feel most readers want, is a sense that something is always happening, always moving and developing into something greater, more complex, better, or worse. This sense of growth and progression could be about external actions (like in the adventure plot), emotional or psychological transformations, or the characters’ relationships with each other. Evolving relationships are something I particularly enjoy writing about.

One reason why readers might desire constant change and development in the plot, characters, and relationships, is because one of our basic human needs is to feel that we are making progress on our goals. Nobody likes to be stuck and stagnant. Each of the #1-#14 paths (subplots) I described are like goals that we keep checking our progress on.

Furthermore, in our lives, we need and want to prioritize certain goals over others, or else our lives would spin out of control. Similarly, I focus and spend most of my time on paths #1-#4. #8 is very important too, but it takes up less screen time than #1-#4 do. Having paths that are more main (prioritized) than others, gives a greater sense of order and structure.

The paths are also interrelated, such as that most of the characters from different paths are related to one another through blood, romantic love, or friendship; some paths lead or contribute to each other (e.g. P and R’s romance in #10 worsens P’s conflict with O and Q in #9); and some paths have common themes and topics (e.g. #4 and #6 both involve romances, where the characters bond with each other through their art.) This interrelatedness and connectivity between these subplots (paths), add to the feeling of order, purpose, and direction in the story.

What about you? What are some of the specific things in fiction writing that you’ve learned, made marked progress on, or want to improve? Do you have comments on any of the skills and areas I listed above? What do you think of my example of a very long story’s complex structure?

7 thoughts on “Skills in Fiction-Writing: Specific Things I Learned and Want to Improve On

  1. Hello Sieran!
    Love how you reflected on your writing strengths and areas of growth in this post. I think I might borrow this idea and do a similar post about my own “glow and grow” points if it is okay with you 🙂
    I am still amazed by how much you’ve written. 3M words is a lot! I’ve written about 500K words in novels so far as a ballpark guesstimate. It shows in your blog posts that words come easily to you and you can precisely communicate what you mean in writing.
    Some of my areas of growth overlap with yours, including using a more varied word choice. I find that I grow comfortable using a certain set of words to describe certain actions/settings/etc, but I could be more creative in my word choices. I also want to write more effective scene descriptions using the five senses as well.
    It’s amazing to read about how your mind works when you are pantsing haha. It seems like you kind of have it planned out, except it’s all in your head rather than written down! I absolutely agree that it is possible to write an excellent novel using the pantsing approach, especially once you are already familiar with story structure that you do it intuitively.
    I would love to read one of your novels one day, Sieran. Maybe an English one since my Chinese isn’t very good haha 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yeah, feel free to do your own post on your strengths and areas of growth too–I would be curious to read your lists! 😀

      ” It shows in your blog posts that words come easily to you and you can precisely communicate what you mean in writing.”

      Aww!! Thanks for saying that. ^_^ I spend a lot of time combing and re-combing my words, lol. If I remember right, I spent about 3 hrs just polishing my sentences in this post. XD Maybe that was excessive, but… Well, I do put the doc on my kindle, make notes on my kindle, then type up my edits, and repeat this whole process many more times; so my procedure might be a bit more time-consuming compared to someone else’s who isn’t using a Kindle to help them edit.

      Yes, I have many favorite words and phrases, lol. But occasionally, I pick up new favorites from the books I read. 😀

      LOL, no, it’s not planned out at all. The organizational structure just appeared, maybe because I was subconsciously following the storytelling patterns I learned from other novels or from writing craft guides. ^_^ I knew it had a structure, but I didn’t verbalize to myself what the structure was yet until I wrote the post. XD

      Thank you!! I need to get a move-on with my editing, haha, but for now, I’m working on my WIP and hoping that this will be the last novel for this series, lol.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow that’s amazing how detail-oriented you are when it comes to writing and publishing your blog posts. You definitely make it look easy in the end product though 🙂
        That’s great. It seems like story structure comes easily to you, maybe because you have so much experience writing novels. Story structure isn’t very intuitive to me so I like having to write things out.
        Keep me updated about how your WIP goes! That’s exciting that it might be the last novel in the series! Right now I am finishing up the outline for my WIP and planning to start writing in July for Nano 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Lol! Yeah I put in so many hours into writing and publishing these posts. Then I encounter all these WordPress formatting obstacles. 😂 The line spacings are harder to control than I thought, even with HTML coding. Thank God I found a way to space out my lists, or else it would be such a pain to read!!

    I spend as much time as I possibly can polishing the prose in my papers at school too. My motto is that profs are people too. So they will have a better impression if you let them use as little brain power as possible to understand your paper. So far, my motto has been working, since I’ve gotten a lot of praise from both profs and classmates that my papers are clear and easy to read. It was so validating when a prof who is known to be a hard marker, really liked my paper and said it was persuasive. ^_^ Well I think an argument is more persuasive if the reader can easily understand what you are talking about.

    I care so much about clarity. There are some parts in this post that I wasn’t totally happy with clarity-wise, but I really needed to stop editing or else I would never post it, lol.

    Oh I also spent a huge amount of time reading writing craft books when I was little, and nowadays I read a blog by a friend who posts about the writing craft, including story structure. So I’ve really internalized these things already, lol. I do subconsciously imitate the structures of some stories or series that I read, though, which also helps. 🙂

    Yes, and I’m spending more time writing this novel. My latest romance couple is SO fascinating. Even more fascinating than the couple in the second book, imo. And omg I LOVE the mom of one of my protagonists. She is hilarious.

    Can’t wait till camp nano!


    1. Oh do! I want to see your specific areas of improvement and what skills you want to work on too!

      I’m so happy you like it. 😁


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