How to Write Compelling Fiction: A One-Act Play

How to Write Compelling Fiction: A One-Act Play


Will Self

Edger Allen Poe

Hilary Mantel

Kazuo Ishiguro

Margaret Atwood

Setting: A dark cellar. Will Self stands by a small bare bulb. He has just finished putting the final masonry on a walled up section of the cellar. Margaret Atwood floats 5 feet of the ground in a Jules Verne inspired dirigible. Kazuo Ishiguro stands somewhere in the room dressed as a knight. Hillary Mantel points a sniper rifle out the only window in the cellar, staring intently through the eyepiece.

Will Self: My name is Will Self. I shot up heroin on Prime Minister John Major’s airplane and I don’t write fiction for people to identify with and I don’t write a picture of the world that people recognize I write to astonish people. I consider myself something of a modern Flaneur and once walked the entirety of the Large Hadron Collider. I can almost guarantee I am better then you. Behind this wall is Edger Allan Poe. I walled him in there because today we’re talking about how to write a compelling novel. Not only did Poe not write novels, but he also told people how to write, which is not useful. Follow anyone’s guide to writing and you risk repeating the past, a dangerous thing. Especially if you ignore modernism. Like Jonathan Franzen.

Edger Allen Poe (Muffled): For the love of god Montressor. Amontillado. Amontillado.

Will Self: It’s not very clever but it’ll do. Poe’s work besides the guide is useful but he wrote the guide so I have to punish him. The other people here also gave suggestions on writing but they were asked to by reporters so I’m not punishing them. Some reporters are hacks and others are hired because they do drugs. I was both. Edger wrote the first detective story. It was about an orangutan. That’s all you need to know.

Margaret Atwood: The secret to writing a good novel is to keep going with what you’re writing, even if your original idea doesn’t pan out. If you must abandon a novel, look it over, see what you can save, something may inspire you later. Inspiration comes when you’re not looking, but persistent practice makes it shine through all the more. And if you want your books to sell, don’t let them be genre. Genre doesn’t sell, nor is it particularly well regarded in literary circles. If it must be a genre, invent a genre with less stigma to it, or find a lesser-known genre and insert your work into that. I’ve never written science fiction. All of my works are speculative fiction. They’re inspired by Jules Verne. I’m currently writing a comic book about a man who turns into a flying cat. That is also inspired by Jules Verne.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Margaret is right. For my novel, the buried giant, I insisted that no one refer to it as fantasy. The buried giant is a story about human people experiencing human things that just happens to involve Merlin, magic fog, and ogres that are mentioned and never really explored.

Will Self: It’s also not very good.

Kazuo Ishiguro: True. Anyway, the important thing is that you get other people involved in your writing. I have my wife read my writing, and of course countless other people do it too, but those close to you can be in the best position to help critique you. Develop a good relationship with your readers. Let them be brutally honest. My wife told me the characters in the buried giant were talking in a moron language. I didn’t change anything, but it was still nice to get a critique.

Hillary Mantel: Think of the world of your work as a cohesive whole, one with its own history both for the world and for each individual character. This is important when writing historical fiction, when I do, but also when writing any other sort of fiction. Find a time to write, even if it’s on the bus or in the bath or before breakfast. Write on notecards to separate your characters. Keep track of their movements, know when they eat and sleep. Give them interesting names like Margaret Thatcher and mark down every detail. Imagine killing your characters with a high-powered sniper rifle. Sometimes, you can only understand them through that lens (she fires her sniper rifle).

Margaret Atwood: Above all, you have to write.

Kazuo Ishiguro: You have to write.

Hillary Mantel: You have to write.

Will Self: Or don’t. You might not be any good at it. Unlike me. Will Self. I am good at writing.

(Will Self-turns off the light. Edger Allen Poe can be heard breaking out of his prison, screaming with murderous rage.)


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