Before I knew the difference between commercial and literary fiction, I faked it. In fact, I think it is safe to say I truly did not comprehend the nuances of literary fiction until I was in grad school. Money well spent, by the way.
In high school I wanted to be a writer of important words. By my junior year I had written the great American novel three times over. I wanted to change readers’ perspectives. I wanted to be John Steinbeck. Harper Lee. Ernest Hemingway. Ursula K. Le Guin. Flannery O’Connor.
Kurt. Vonnegut. Junior.
I could build good sentences. However, I could not make them say what I wanted. Because of this I became motivated to improve my story-telling skills. This drive led me to a world filled with innuendo and metaphor. It led me to the sexy embrace of literary fiction.
defining literary fiction
Literary fiction separates itself from commercial fiction in how it functions. Commercial fiction entertains by design only. It is that simple. Literary fiction, however, strives to present merit. Lit fic explores the human condition. It shares political criticism and social commentary. Its stories are written to enlighten. It educates. There is a message and a lesson buried within. Therefore, literary fiction is weighty, thought provoking and debatable. As a result, it wields merit.
For example, Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle is a fictional portrayal of the meat packing plants in Chicago in the 1900s. The book follows a family struggling to survive in horrid squalor. The novel is a social commentary, focusing on environmental conditions and lack of regulations within a growing commercial meat industry. Consequently, The Jungle prompted change.
In Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, humanity and individuality are explored in themes of class struggle and social status. Consequently, Melville even takes a whack at contemplating the balance of good and evil and the existence of God. The novel is packed with exemplary symbols and metaphors – The white whale as obsession. The ship as a prison. The narrator as the embodiment of reason. Because of these weighty elements Melville elevated his novel above pure commercial adventure fiction into the realm of literary observation.
drafting literary fiction
To begin, it is important to distinguish between plot and story within literary fiction. Plot is the logical construction of the main events of a piece of creative writing. The plot incorporates Who, What, When and Where aspects that help a reader follow along. For example in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the protagonist Scout lives in 1930s Macon County where her father is a lawyer defending a black man for a rape he didn’t commit. These are the facts. Hence, they are the elements that carry the plot.
The story of Mockingbird lies between the lines. It suggests a changing world where race and social class define the way people behave. The book explores how people are willing to destroy innocence to maintain the status quo. The story found within literary fiction therefore incorporates the element of Why. Tom is found guilty because he is black, not because he did it. The story is told to prompt an introspection of ourselves. We see the world through Scout’s eyes and gain understanding. This is the merit of Harper Lee’s novel.
Literary fiction drafts require that both plot and story are on the author’s mind when each sentence is written. To write literary fiction, take into account the story you want to share. Use metaphors to suggest the underlying story without being blunt. Recognize the strengths of the characters and how they view the world around them. Most importantly, remember that literary fiction has a purpose.
revision process for literary fiction
Kurt Vonnegut once said that eloquence should be the servant of ideas. A rule might be this: If a sentence does not illuminate the subject in some new and useful way, remove it. Revision is the process of ensuring your work attains the strongest voice possible, while maintaining clarity and value. It is all fine and well to have action, drama and humor but with literary fiction the merit lies not in a good tale but in the story itself.
Therefore, remove sentences that do not belong. Delete them to nothingness. Writers call this ‘killing your babies.’ Trim excess words and ideas to strengthen your writing. Be brutal.
However, revision does more than remove parts from a piece of writing. It also adds new material. In the end, the goal is to produce a strong piece of work that has everything in it you want to say. If a story is missing elements, add them. If a description is vague, clarify it. Look for plot holes and mixed metaphors and correct them.
Revision converts a rough draft into something readable. After all, stories are not written. They are revised. Therefore, a strong writer revises every step of their work, line by line, to make sure each sentence is important and serves a purpose. Accept that no writing project is perfect when first drafted. Since many writers do not follow this advice, you will have an edge when competing for editorial attention if you do.
Ask these questions while revising to stay on track:
- Does the sentence advance the plot?
- If I remove this adjective, adverb or even paragraph, does it matter?
- Is a reader gaining new insight?
- Does this sentence/description/scene have merit?
- Are the characters true to themselves?
- Is the meaning clear?
Use this stage to review grammar, spelling and punctuation as well. Present a clean read for your audience to enjoy. After all, it does not matter how powerful your social commentary is when the basic rules of English rules are not used to convey it. No one will read beyond the second page. Because of this, write well and with purpose.
Writing is a skill like any other. Therefore, to do it well takes practice. That also includes revising. Write every day and read as much as possible to learn how others produce stories of merit. Keep at it and your skills will improve.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the nuances of literary fiction, your favorite writers and any techniques you care to share. Please leave your comments below.