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When I was recently asked, “What do you think makes good fiction?” I was stumped for a minute. Honestly, when I was younger and before thinking about it seriously, I would have said: good fiction happens when one sits down to write it. That would have been my response then, simply because I thought just sitting down to write was it, the thing, the way that the words got on the paper—the beginning of “good” fiction. Then, I thought about it more and wondered: where in the world did that idea come from? Where, in my process of becoming a published writer, did I think just sitting at the table would make good fiction? Now I know that answer is, at best, misguided and inauthentic.
To really answer the question about what makes good fiction, I had to think back to when I first started to write. It began my 8th grade year in my Major Work/Honors English class at Patrick Henry Junior High School in Cleveland, Ohio. That year I was introduced to Mr. Robert Telford.
Mr. Telford was a large, white man with golden blond hair that seemed to sparkle in the artificial light of our classroom. He had a booming voice that echoed and bounced off the walls; he usually stood with his arms crossed, and his head leaned towards us as we answered the questioned he peppered us with. He wore red-framed glasses and, sometimes, when he explained things, he walked through our room with large, sloping strides. Mr. Telford and his red-framed glasses scared me. But I also loved him because of the inventive and creative ways that he taught us vocabulary.
Each week we were given a list of ten vocabulary words. One week we had to memorize the spelling of the words for our Friday exam; the other week we had to actually define the words and write a story using the words correctly. The prize for writing a story that was creative and used the words correctly was a gold star and placement on the board as the best assignment. I am inherently competitive, and I wanted nothing more than to get a gold sticker and see my paper displayed on the board.
However, I was terrified of the assignment. I had never written a story before. We were reading wonderful books—Homecoming and Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voight—and having great discussions about the books. But writing? I was clueless. Still, I did not want to let Mr. Telford down. I remember coming home from school, sitting at our dining room table, staring at the words on the list. I opened up my dictionary, defined the words, and set about creating what I thought was a good story. I took it back to school, turned it in, and eagerly awaited my gold star.
When Mr. Telford posted the gold star paper, my heart sank. It was not mine. I was stunned. I knew the definitions of the words and I used them in sentences that I thought were good—no great—sentences. I walked to the board and looked at my classmate whose paper got the gold star and read it: it made sense, it wasn’t just a series of sentences; there was a beginning, middle, end. It had images that I could see…. It was a story. My homework was not.
Two weeks later when we got another vocabulary list, I sat at the table and thought about what I needed to do to win that gold star. What did I need to do to ensure that my story was better than the one that was posted on the wall? I sat at that table, distraught, because I did not know where to begin. I knew the words, had memorized the definitions, but I had no idea of what to do with them.
As time passed by, all I saw was the gold star going to someone else. I looked at the words and tried to figure out what they had in common—what could I do to make them all sound good together. What could I do to make my story rise to the top?
Over the school year, I wrote many stories that did not get gold stars. It was not until the end of the year that I finally got my gold star and essay placed on the board for the entire class to see. That paper, I now realized, was creative, original, and told a story from beginning to end. It made sense; it was one that I was really invested in—it was not forced; it felt more natural. More importantly, when it was hard, I did not give up—I wrote and wrote until I had a story that I enjoyed reading.
Why tell this story? What does this have to do with writing good fiction? This story is important because this is when I discovered that I wanted to write stories for the rest of my life. This story is also important because what I know about writing as an adult I learned, although inadvertently, as a child: that good writing—good fiction—begins with an idea. And this idea has to have a soul, a pulse, a heartbeat; it has to live and breathe. And this living and breathing idea grows into a narrative through cultivation (constant revision) and dedication (consistent writing). These narratives cannot exist if there is nothing to propelling them—nothing making me, or any other person, read them. That is where it begins, for me, that small gem, that little thing—idea—that fuels the soul of good fiction.
I now know that the stories that I wrote as an eighth grader were not as revolutionary as I thought. But, if I had stopped working hard on them—there are times now that I wish that I still had my mother’s dining room table, a dictionary, and that level of tenacity when I am writing—I would never have become the writer that I am today.
But, it still requires more than that idea—it still requires hard work; more importantly, it requires an imagination. As I tell my students in my writing classes, I can teach you how to write pretty sentences; what I cannot teach them, and I am very clear on this, is how to come up with ideas. For me, the genesis is the idea and the construction of good fiction comes from what you do, as a writer, with that idea.