“At most there are models”: Tips on writing “literary” fiction

Andre Babyn Nanowrimo Blog

“At most there are models”: Tips on writing “literary” fiction

Posted on November 12 by André Babyn in Events, Fiction, Recent Releases
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For me the hardest part about writing literary fiction is having something to work with. Once you have a full draft it’s only a matter of time before it becomes what it is. But building out that first draft, in the face of everything that it could be, that it will not be, that you want it to be—that’s difficult.


So how do you get there? Start with a situation. Then try to find an angle, a question. Move obliquely. Asking questions in literature is never about answers, because in some respects literature is the understanding that answers rarely matter as much as the question. If books are answers to questions most of them can be answered in one or two sentences. Books that are meant to be answers usually extinguish themselves in just a few pages, even if they go on for much longer than that.


But questions are productive. They impose limits and constraints and focus.


The problem with writing literary fiction is that there aren’t any rules. There is no Moses, weighed down with heavy tablets of ten laws that must be followed. At most there are models—examples that you can follow or move against. There are alternatives to be explored. Literature is alternatives.


Sheila Heti said that when she was writing The Middle Stories, after writing her first draft she went back over everything and took out whatever didn’t seem true. I read this so long ago that I couldn’t find the source for you if I tried. But I think about it a lot, and I think it makes sense, if you read her book. But I can also imagine an author writing a draft and doing the opposite, taking out everything that felt true. It would perhaps be a different kind of book, impossible to say whether or not it succeeded until you read it yourself.


Writing literary fiction is maybe about deciding about whether you want to be the kind of writer who takes out the truth or leaves it in. It’s about finding a question and leaning away from it, even though that question is something you’re occupied with at every turn. Sometimes you finish something, and you realize that what you’ve finished is not what you thought it was when you began—it was something you had to take the truth out of, when you thought you’d be putting more in. That your relationship to the question was different than you thought.


This was all about as oblique an answer as I can imagine, so I’ll leave you with some practical advice: read constantly; forget to read; throw away your phone (at least leave it behind you); write every day, as much as you can; allow yourself space to get stuck, to work out problems (but not too much space); write with a friend; allow yourself to be wrong. Eventually the work will find you.




André Babyn

Posted by Dundurn Guest on April 30, 2019

André Babyn

André Babyn has an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. His short fiction has appeared in Maisonneuve, the Fanzine, Hobart, Grain, and elsewhere. He lives in Toronto.