Genre Lessons: Literary Fiction

Book with flowers.

Image by Pixabay user condesign.

As many of you know, I spent last weekend at the Midwest Writers Workshop. I’ll be sharing my notes and takeaways from that in a future post, but while I’m recovering and absorbing everything from the conference, I hope you enjoy this month’s genre lessons.

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re discussing literary fiction. I have a hard time with this genre because these books often employ unusual structures, formats, or elements with (in my opinion) mixed levels of success. This month’s exploration was more of a look at what does and doesn’t work for me as a reader and why. But I did have a few takeaways that I think other writers could benefit from, too.

1. Know what viewpoint is right for your book, and if it feels like something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to experiment. First person plural narration is very tough to pull off, but when done correctly it’s extremely effective. In a recent read, that narration simultaneously made the main characters (a collective group of immigrants) more and less human. It gave them a voice, but one that reflected the way those outside their group saw them — as people of a certain background, rather than as individuals. The author used this narration to show their differences as well as their similarities, to convey that no two people had the same experience while also suggesting that there was a universal way to look at their experience. None of the story ideas I’ve come up with so far would work in first person plural, but with the right story, it can be a powerful tool.

2. Be careful introducing a lot of characters at once. I had this problem with another recent read — for a while, every section focused on a different character who was loosely connected to the characters from previous sections. I almost stopped reading because I wasn’t deeply invested in any of the characters. Then, when we finally settled in with one character, it wasn’t the character I cared most about. The whole time, I wanted to skip ahead to the parts with my favorite from the beginning.

This is likely a problem that not all readers would have with a book. I’m drawn to character-driven stories, and I write character-driven novels, so I’m more focused on characters than some readers. Those looking for an interesting setting or intriguing plot would likely not have the same complaint I had. So in that sense, reading this book was a reminder that not every reader will love your book, but that in no way means that it is a bad book. It just means that particular reader didn’t connect with it.

3. The right detail can be more effective than pages of mediocre description. In many cases, readers don’t need several paragraphs to set a scene; a line or two about a distinctive smell, the way a certain plant grows in a certain town at a certain time of year, or even a look at what’s out-of-place (the corn should be up to the narrator’s waist, but a recent drought/flood/blight has it barely ankle-high). These days especially, when there are so many alternate forms of entertainment, most readers aren’t looking for long flowery passages about the exact shade of green the mountain is in late spring. Give them the right sentence or two, and they’ll feel like they’re there without feeling like the story is dragging.

So, those are my takeaways for this month. Have you read any literary fiction lately? What writing lessons did you learn from it?

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