Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Accomplishing the Possible: On Writing Good (and Great) Fiction

If there’s anything that I’ve learned this semester (this being my first as an MFA), it’s that there isn’t a formula for good fiction. There is no single aspect of it that’s more important than others. Wonderfully complex characters can suffer if the dialogue is hokey. An intriguing plot can derail if the characters aren’t complex. A distinct voice can risk failure in carrying a piece if there’s not some sort of plot or growth.

I should acknowledge that all of the things I’ve mentioned could work and as creative writers, we should try to figure out how. After all, I think that once we learn all the “rules” for writing good fiction, it’s up to us to try to break them (successfully). But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that most of the fiction that I love often has more than one aspect that makes it strong. It’s finding the right combination that’s the tricky part. But I believe that’s what our workshops are for: targeting the aspects that are working and those that aren’t. How do we make this piece stronger? It’s the question we ask ourselves when we read each other’s work—what we set out to do when we revise.

So maybe this is my long-winded way of saying that feedback and revision are some of the most important aspects of composing good fiction. It often takes stepping away from our work and letting others lay eyes on it to find the direction we need to go next. Finishing a piece isn’t enough. Good fiction comes from thoughtful revision.

But how does one progress from writing good fiction to writing great fiction? This was one of the many questions that Professor Bucak posed to us this semester and to begin trying to answer it, we have to ask ourselves how we define great fiction. Is it simply more successful at doing what good fiction does or does it fulfill a completely different set of criteria? As Professor Bucak pointed out, if great is defined by standing the test of time, does it then imply risk-taking, originality, historical significance, or timeless themes? What is it that separates good contemporary fiction from short stories and novels that hold up over time?

I’m still working out how I would answer these questions, but I think that it’s something that we should all consider as writers as we try to revise our stories. In the end, it comes down to what we want our fiction to do. Do we speak closely to the issues that we are currently encountering or do we want our fiction to still be relevant years from now? Do we want to push boundaries with our writing or do we use traditional or familiar methods?

I realize that I’m posing many questions that I don’t necessarily have the answers to, but I’ve come away from my first graduate fiction workshop with as many questions as things that I’ve learned. As Professor Bucak told us in one of our last workshops, “I feel that you should come out of this class less sure of what makes great fiction than ever. I think that should be a good thing. But you should feel clearer on what you each individually would like to try as writers.” For me, now is the time to try everything. The possibilities seem limitless, which is simultaneously daunting and exciting. But my focus has now shifted away from what is “right” in fiction and towards considering what I want to accomplish as a writer. Towards what is possible.

Madison Garber is originally from Tallahassee, Florida—or South Georgia, according to South Floridians. In 2015, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Florida State University with a B.A. in Creative Writing. A semi-professional ballerina for 17 years, Madison is now focusing her creative energies on fiction writing as a Master of Fine Arts student at Florida Atlantic University. Madison also hopes to hone her teaching skills as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the university’s Writing Program. She is a movie buff, a part-time introvert, and an Anglophile itching to return to Britain for another (hopefully extended) visit.