Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by glorybee » Sat Nov 01, 2014 8:41 am

This lesson lists characteristics found in most contemporary fiction. Not all of these will be present in every piece of contemporary fiction, and it’s by no means an exhaustive list. But if you’re unclear of what contemporary fiction looks like, this should help to clarify things a bit.

1. The story takes place in the present time. That doesn’t mean that it has to happen in November of 2014, but it should be set in a time period that is distinctly not historical. Some of the sites I researched for this lesson suggested post-WW2 as ‘contemporary.’ I feel as if pieces that are set in the 50s or 60s, with a Leave It to Beaver feel or a Flower Power feel, aren’t particularly contemporary. The reader should feel at home in the story—as if is happening in their lifetime. Yes, I’m aware that many of us (including myself) were alive in the 50s and 60s. But think back at how the world was then: does that feel contemporary to you? Me, either.

2. The events of the story are realistic. This is not the place to introduce sci-fi or fantasy, or even highly improbable, but possible, events like a civil war between red and blue states or an 8.2 earthquake in New York City. Contemporary fiction is far more likely to reflect the lives of characters who could be your neighbors. That is not to say that the events are humdrum—no one wants to read that. The things that happen to your characters can be very significant to them, even the sort of things that might make the news (or not).

3. Contemporary fiction often tackles contemporary issues. My favorite writer, Jodi Picoult, has written novels about a school shooting, abusive priests, a wrongly accused teacher, a family who conceives a baby to provide transplants for an older sibling. These issues are all examined through just a few characters’ lives. For the writing challenge, you might want to tackle even smaller issues. When I was entering, I wrote about a bully, a woman in early stages of Alzheimer’s, a person struggling with OCD, a new wife trying to win over her reluctant stepdaughter.

4. As you can see, contemporary fiction isn’t generally humorous. Occasional amusing things can happen, and the characters can smile, crack jokes, have fun. But the prevailing tone shouldn’t be humor. The characters are dealing with things that are significantly impacting their lives. However, although contemporary literature is serious, there certainly may be a hopeful or satisfying ending. (Or there may not.)

5. Contemporary fiction doesn’t typically fit into any other genre. There may be a romance, but the romance isn’t the thing that drives the plot, so it couldn’t be considered a “romance story.” Similarly, there may be a crime or a mystery or an element of suspense or a flashback to the past or something humorous…but the book doesn’t unfold according to the formulas expected by readers of those other genres. Rather, the story focuses on the main characters, how they react, and how events change them. There’s likely to be narrative about the characters’ thoughts, feelings, motivations.

6. Because contemporary fiction is realistic, the themes are often universal. The main characters, as they grow and change throughout the story, may be experiencing something I’ve never experienced, but when they learn something significant (dishonesty will eventually cause bad consequences, a mother’s love is stronger than anything), it’s something I learn, too.

7. People speak the way real people speak. They use contractions and fragments, they interrupt each other, they use slang, they have regional dialects and individual quirks of speech, and generally their speeches are short (few people in real life speak entire paragraphs at a time). The children are not abnormally clever and articulate in what they say.

8. Some contemporary fiction writers experiment with unusual writing styles. While this isn’t true of all contemporary literature, there has been an increase in recent years in writing that is different from the classic writing of the past. Some writers have chosen unique narrators: a dead girl narrating from the afterlife, an autistic teen, a five-year-old boy, a woman in a coma. Or they may flout the conventions of writing—writing entirely in 2nd person, writing dialogue without quotation marks, or USING some other writing method that looks or sounds different from a typical narrative. You may have heard the phrase “literary fiction”—this subset of contemporary fiction often has an experimental quality.

Here are a few past challenge entries that could be called Contemporary Fiction. Don’t feel as if you have to read them all, nor am I trolling for comments. But if you’re unclear of what contemporary fiction in 750 words might look like, one of these might give you an idea.

A Subtle Softening features the overprotective mother of a child recovering from a bad accident.

Mirror has a subtle Christian message in a story about non-identical adult twins.

The Sun’s Rays, Through Rusted Iron features a jaded writer and a hint of romance.

A Waltz in 4/4 Time has a middle-aged couple who have drifted apart, and what brings them back together.

If you read one or two of these, you’ll see that they’re serious, but not oppressively so, and although they don’t have endings that solve every problem the characters were experiencing, there’s the suggestion that things might be fine. That leads to my last characteristic:

9. Contemporary fiction trusts the reader to fill in the rest of the story. No pretty, tied-up, happily-ever-after endings. Even if the main conflict is resolved, the reader gets to decide for herself how the characters’ changes will affect their lives, and how the events will continue to play out.

HOMEWORK:

Make a comment or ask a question about contemporary fiction. OR

Link to something you’ve written that fits into this genre. If you do this, please don’t just give the link, but tell us something about your writing process. OR

If this is a genre that you read (or write) quite a bit, feel free to add to my list.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by wheelygirl58 » Sat Nov 01, 2014 2:48 pm

I just finished reading "Subtle Softening"--wow, that may have been taken right out of my mom's diary, if she wrote in one. She was very overprotective of me; she had already lost her eldest daughter to our mom's alcoholism. Add to this fact I had a congenital heart defect. So, I can place my mom in Beth's sandals! You did an excellent job with the story. Thanks!
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him who are called according to His purpose." Romans 8:28 This is,another of my life verses!!

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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by swfdoc1 » Sat Nov 01, 2014 5:03 pm

A question, a thought, and a question about the thought.

What differences—if any—do you see between secular contemporary fiction and Christian contemporary fiction?

I know your advice is geared towards the Challenge, but as I thought about what Christian publishers want, I thought of something that perhaps should apply to the Challenge as well: Most Christian publishers want writers to submit manuscripts according to the publisher’s guidelines. And most Christian publishers consider “women’s fiction” to be a sub-genre of contemporary fiction. In turn, they consider “chick lit” to be a sub-sub-genre of women’s fiction. Chick lit often (always?) has humor. (I think humorous chick lit ought to be a sub-genre of humorous fiction or—as with secular publishers—a sub-genre of romance; but alas, I don’t get to decide such things.) So, for many Christian publishers, this sub-sub-genre of contemporary fiction can/does include humor.

Which leads to my question about the above thought: I wonder whether the Challenge judges will mark down a chick lit entry as not fitting the genre?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by glorybee » Sat Nov 01, 2014 6:01 pm

swfdoc1 wrote:A question, a thought, and a question about the thought.

What differences—if any—do you see between secular contemporary fiction and Christian contemporary fiction?

...

Which leads to my question about the above thought: I wonder whether the Challenge judges will mark down a chick lit entry as not fitting the genre?
I'm probably not the best person to answer that question, because I've read very little Christian contemporary fiction. That probably sounds a bit shocking, but sadly, the Christian fiction that I've read is--in my opinion--not particularly well-written. So that would be the biggest difference, sadly. The only Christian contemporary writer that I've enjoyed is Lisa Samson. Again, that's just my opinion; I'm aware that many people reading this will have plenty of contemporary Christian writers who they love.

Other than that, the difference would be the obvious one: Christian contemporary fiction has a decidedly Christian message. If the MC is not a Christian at the beginning of the book, she surely will be by the end. If the writer examines the characters' thoughts, feelings, and motivations, then the characters' faith (or their lack of faith) will definitely be significant.

I think (but Deb might clarify) that chick lit is its own genre. It's typically lighter in mood than contemporary literature, and has more of an expected story arc. If I were judging and I read an entry that seemed to be geared definitely to female readers, I wouldn't necessarily consider it off topic--I suppose I'd also look at the mood and the tone of the piece.

I seem to have hedged a bit in that answer. Maybe others who read more Christian contemporary fiction than I (or more chick lit) will chime in with their own opinions.

Great questions!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by Anja » Sat Nov 01, 2014 8:09 pm

This genre is more alien to me than sci-fi or fantasy. I seldom, if ever, read contemporary fiction. I find it tedious and don't relate to it well. I think my thought process equates "contemporary" with "urban" or "technology."

When and if I do write contemporary, it has to solidly fall into "what I know," because I'm wary of stepping into that world of technology and social trends and concerns that I know absolutely nothing about. I don't find it so easy to research either, and I am challenged to find "atmosphere." (All that said, my entry this week was contemporary, but it was something I "know." It has to be something I know, and know well.)

I have read several novels that have fallen into this category that I did enjoy immensely. One is Evensong by Gail Godwin. Not "Christian," per se, but definitely about faith and religion and the MC's pursuit of God. No preachiness, no glib prayers that end the story well, but characterizations and events which get deep into the kernel of issues.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by Shann » Sat Nov 01, 2014 8:17 pm

This was hard for me to even find an example. Most of my stories are children's stories or memoirs or just about anything but contemporary fiction. I'm not even positive if this one will fit the genre. It's about an assignment in a college classroom loosely based on a real event that happened in the '60s. Not based so much, more used as a point of reference if that makes sense.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=38489

I had another one where I defined my pain comparing it to being lost at sea. It had a dream sequence (shiver) in it so I'm not sure if it would qualify.I don't know what genre it would be. It was based loosely on my life, but also fiction.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=36995

This next one is one of my favorites. It deals with the issues of cutting and self-abuse, which would definitely be contemporary. It's written in the first person, does that matter? It's fiction though.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=38620
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by glorybee » Sat Nov 01, 2014 8:20 pm

Anja wrote:
I have read several novels that have fallen into this category that I did enjoy immensely. One is Evensong by Gail Godwin. Not "Christian," per se, but definitely about faith and religion and the MC's pursuit of God. No preachiness, no glib prayers that end the story well, but characterizations and events which get deep into the kernel of issues.
That book has been recommended to me at least once, maybe more than once. I really have to give it a shot, I think!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by glorybee » Sat Nov 01, 2014 8:24 pm

Shann, of the three that you listed, they're all contemporary, but the third one in particular has that particular, undefinable "mood" that I tried to describe in the lesson. And the POV (1st person) works just fine.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by dmbowman » Sat Nov 01, 2014 10:16 pm

Jan, do you have a website you go to for writing prompts?

I think this quarter has been harder than usual to come up with an idea because the topics are so wide open. Especially this week.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by glorybee » Sat Nov 01, 2014 10:55 pm

dmbowman wrote:Jan, do you have a website you go to for writing prompts?

I think this quarter has been harder than usual to come up with an idea because the topics are so wide open. Especially this week.

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Diane, I'm not sure exactly what you mean. If you're talking about coming up with writing prompts for the Writing Challenge--getting them from some website? No, on two accounts: I don't come up with the prompts, that's Deb Porter's job, and she doesn't get them from a website. She brainstorms and comes up with them all on her own.

If you're talking about using prompts to give you ideas on what to write on, given the topic of the week--no to that, too. I can give you a few suggestions, though, if you're having a hard time narrowing your approach to the topic.

1. Since this week's story should cover some contemporary issue or some aspect of contemporary life, do some brainstorming, perhaps by watching the news or simply by taking inventory of your home or some of the things that you do in a typical day. If I did that for my life, today, I might have this list: annoying neighbor, observing a possibly neglected child, person who can't put cell phone down, waiting for biopsy results, politics dividing a family, seasonal depression, home repairs. (Not all of those things are happening to me or my family--just things I know about or observed).

2. If you have an iPhone, there's an app called "barnstormer" that will give you random words or phrases to use as writing prompts.

3. This won't work for this week's challenge, but if you find yourself frequently at a loss, you can purchase this wonderful box of writing prompts: http://store.mentalfloss.com/Mental-Flo ... z3HsMCNfkO
I have this box, and I love it! There's a version for children, too.

4. Google "writing prompts." There are thousands of them out there, and you should be able to find a site or two that are a good fit with your writing style.

It's funny--in some quarters, people have difficulty with the Writing Challenge topics because they're too general, and in some quarters, people have difficulty with the topics because they're too specific. So there's always something to stretch someone--one of the reasons why those who stick with the challenge will find their writing getting better and better. That writing muscle will eventually get quite a workout!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by Deb Porter » Sun Nov 02, 2014 1:01 am

Karen Kingsbury is the author who comes to mind when thinking of Christian contemporary fiction. Not always, but a fair number of her books deal with families going through normal issues of life (marriage breakdown, depression, etc). The difference is that a Christian contemporary novel doesn't shy away from the reality of Christians experiencing these things, and may not always tie everything up with a neat "just trust Jesus" bow, but does give hope.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by glorybee » Sun Nov 02, 2014 2:36 pm

Thanks, Deb!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by helen1975 » Sun Nov 02, 2014 11:13 pm

Hi Jan,

Thanks for the writing tips/lessons. Personally, I would rather read the phone book than a Jodi Picoult book; ugh, all that reality and, you know, "real life stuff". Give me fluffy chick lit anyday! ;-)

Seriously, though, I will give it a go. Hey, I might surprise myself ;-)

Blessings, Helen

:) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :superhappy (couldn't resist!).

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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by glorybee » Sun Nov 02, 2014 11:29 pm

Helen, don't feel obligated to read a Jodi Picoult book just because I like her! We all have different tastes; I feel the same way about fluffy chick lit as you feel about more serious fiction. I just don't care to read it.

If you want to read some contemporary fiction to give you an idea of how to write for this week's Writing Challenge (and with less time investment than reading a whole novel), read some of the writings of Lisa Mikitarian or Chely Roach by searching their names on FW home page. Both of them wrote excellent contemporary fiction when they were writing for the challenge.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--CONTEMPORARY FICTION

Post by helen1975 » Sun Nov 02, 2014 11:42 pm

Hi Jan,

I was just poking a bit of fun :-) I have tried one of Picoult's books. I made it to page 3! ;-)

My favourite author is Ireland's Maeve Binchey. Sadly, she passed away last year. I'm not sure if her novels would be classed as Contemporary Fiction or Chick Lit? They are mostly uplifting, with threads of reality running through them. She had a magical way of writing stand-alone novels, but with characters returning here and there. I always feel good after reading them.

Anyway, I will have a look at some of the Challenge writers you have suggested and get the old brainbox churning away.

:-D

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