It’s a Jungle Out There

Finding my way in the thicket of advice for new fiction authors

Steve Fendt


wood; trees | author image

There’s no shortage of advice online for fiction writers. Indeed, rather the opposite.

I see novice writers on Twitter obsessing over whether they are telling when they should, in fact, be #showing? What about adverbs: are we allowed adverbs? How many per paragraph? Does my inciting incident have to come before page 10? Is my writing sufficiently inclusive — but not culturally appropriative? What’s my genre? How many comps do I need for a synopsis? Sex in YA fiction: yes or no? Is 250K words too many for a first novel? Can I write it in the second person, future perfect tense?

There’s nothing wrong with this seeking and proffering of advice. The problem lies in the corollary: sifting, evaluation, often rejection.

Any piece of advice offered to a writer needs to be viewed suspiciously from all angles like an apple in the supermarket. Unlike with the apple, the writer can — must — take a bite, give it a good chew before maybe spitting it out on the figurative floor of the metaphorical Fresh Produce Department. Without the cashier calling Security to deal with a disturbance in Aisle Two.

Precious individuality

The spitting-out of advice which is not necessarily unwholesome, but not to the writer’s individual taste, or doesn’t contain the nutrients his or her metabolism can process right now, seems to me an important part of the learning-to-write-fiction process.

Without it, our individuality risks being crushed — and we all end up writing the same way:

Every short story shall begin in media res, in a Midwest diner, where our blue-collar protagonist orders a coffee, reminisces over Mary-Beth or Billy-Joe from high school; then who should walk in the door but … . Snippets of backstory are cast on the waters of the dialogue like bread to hungry ducks — but not too many, because we’re showing, not telling, remember, and too much bread, sorry exposition, is b-a-a-a-a-d.

We’ll give the reader just enough information to piece together what in tarnation is going on here … then confound their expectations with a deft twist and voilà!



Steve Fendt Short stories, serial fiction, memoirs of a possibly quasi-true nature. Stories of the Australian beach and bush.