By: Daleyna Abril
John Matthew Fox is a previous Tampa Review contributor. He is the author of I Will Shout Your Name and The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel’s Key Moments.
The following interview was conducted via email.
Daleyna Abril: You have been posting writing advice to Bookfox via writing courses, blog posts, and more since 2006. What inspired you to share that advice in book-form with The Linchpin Writer?
John Matthew Fox: Successful blog posts require a structure that can be limiting (same for social media platforms). And after working inside those limitations for a long time, I wanted to explore the freedom of a book.
Going from blog posts to a book feels like going from short stories to a novel—you feel this immense freedom, like a giant canvas has been unfurled before you.
The book allowed me the space to tell stories about the writing life, rather than just cut-and-dried advice in numbered lists. It also allowed me to get to topics that aren’t Googleable. No one ever searches Google for “how to create wonder” in a novel, and so there aren’t good blog posts about that topic. But in a book, I don’t have to pay attention to SEO, and can focus on underserved elements of the writing craft.
DA: In chapter two, you explain the four critical components of a successful first paragraph: characterization, energy/tone, mystery, and emotional bedrock. Why are these elements so essential, and what are some telltale signs that a first paragraph is not achieving them?
JMF: They are so essential because most first paragraphs use them. I didn’t prescribe them as much as observe them time and time and time again. I’m not making stuff up—I’m taking a wide and broad survey of literature and seeing these commonalities.
DA: In the same chapter, you state that writers should “learn from everything.” You mention that even genres looked down upon can teach writers how to fulfill readers’ expectations: “Don’t be snobby—be a vacuum.” I think this advice is very reassuring for a lot of young writers, like myself, starting out in genres like fanfiction. What skills do you think writing something like fanfiction can teach new writers?
JMF: One of the most popular pieces of advice for beginning writers is to type out an entire chapter from one of your favorite authors. Here’s the pedagogy behind that: you learn by imitation. By writing the exact words that your favorite author did, you see how they built a story, defined their characters, moved through dialogue, and described scenes. You feel it through your fingertips in a more intimate way than you could if you just read the passage.
Fanfiction works on the same principles. What you’re doing is writing with training wheels. You’re jumping on the train of an established author’s world and characters, and you construct new scenarios and dialogue for them. It’s a fantastic way to practice certain skill sets:
- Scene construction
- Imagining narrative variations (great not only for a single book but also for series)
- Dialogue writing
It’s easier than creating characters and a world wholesale, and yet it’s still helping the fanfiction author learn foundational writing skills that they can use in their next writing project.
Also, when you borrow characters and worlds that have already been created, you get a better sense of how to continue to create that characterization. For instance, we know Hermione is smart and has some wicked insults. But when a writer practices that personality on the page, it helps them make the leap between knowledge about a character, and a character that seems alive, doing specific things that expand on their characterization.
DA: In chapter eight you emphasize writing toward an ending. How soon should a writer know what the end of their story is?
JMF: John Irving starts the process of writing a novel by writing the last sentence. Then he writes from the beginning toward that ending. Now that’s planning! But I don’t think any writer should put that kind of pressure on themselves. The truth is that there are many ways to write an ending and just as many methods of writing to get there.
I will say that it’s usually a good idea to have some sense of where the story is going. Perhaps an idea for the climax, or an idea or what happens to your main character. But don’t feel pressure to have all the details nailed down before you start.
Writing is a journey of exploration, and if you plan everything meticulously, sometimes that doesn’t get you the most exciting story. Remember the old adage: no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. Let yourself be surprised by a plot development.
DA: And what advice would you give to a writer who realizes their ending has changed in the process of writing their story?
JMF: Embrace it. It’s natural. It happens more often than sticking with the original ending.
But understand that now you have a lot of revision to do—you have to comb through your story and rewrite it so the whole book appears to be aiming toward that new ending.
DA: Stemming from your discussion on the difference between mystery and anticipation in chapter 10, how do you build proper anticipation without dragging it out and losing the reader’s interest?
JMF: In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the reader knows there will be a death before they even read the first sentence. It’s right there in the title!
And yet … we don’t see that death until the very last sentence of the book.
So there’s no built in time limit to how long you can make anticipation work. It has the possibility of working forever—or at least across an entire book.
I think what you’re implying in that question is that sometimes a reader can feel manipulated by anticipation. But I find that most of the reader feels manipulated, it’s because the author has started treading water in the plot. As long as you’re inching closer and closer and closer to the ending, offering new developments that move the plot forward, the reader won’t feel cheated.
A second mistake is when the mystery/anticipation technique is too transparent. Readers don’t want to see the scaffolding of your story, they just want the story itself. Ultimately, you just need beta readers to tell you whether they feel like you’re using delay as a manipulative technique, rather than using delay as a natural storytelling device.
DA: What advice would you give to beginning writers out there struggling to begin their newest projects?
- Start with the scene that’s clearest in your mind. Doesn’t matter where it is in the story—beginning, middle, or end. If you’re imagining a key scene, write that first.
- Our brains often want to start at the “beginning,” which is deep backstory on a character, what happened to them through childhood, etc. You need to trick your brain into starting at the right point. To do that, use this phrase. “And then one day …” And talk about what happens. Of course you’ll delete the “And then one day” once you get started. But it’ll help you start at the true beginning of your story.
- Some writers get trapped in research or worldbuilding. It’s usually not a good idea to start with abstract information about your world. Instead, start with a single character taking action. Ideally, there will be a sense of conflict or tension with that character, and they’ll want something. Novels are always about people, not ideas.
- Squash your sense of perfection. Nobody’s first draft is perfection. They’re all rubbish. Let yourself write rubbish, because it’s the only way to get a draft down on the page. You can always fix it up later, as long as you have something down on the page—you can never revise an empty page.
DA: What are you working on now?
JMF: I finished a novel that’s with a developmental editor, and I hope to send it to agents in the latter half of this year. It’s about a bunch of Christians on a cruise ship that get struck by a worldwide apocalyptic event. Think Marilynne Robinson meets Haruki Murakami.
John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he provides editing and creates writing courses, and is the author of I Will Shout Your Name and The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel’s Key Moments. His writing has also won awards from the Chicago Tribune and been published in the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Orange County, California, and offers writing advice on Youtube and Tiktok.
Daleyna Abril is a senior at the University of Tampa majoring in English and Writing. She is president of UT’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, editor-in-chief for the Neon Art and Literary Magazine, a tutor at the Saunders Writing Center, and a student worker for the UT Press. In her spare time, she posts food reviews on her blog, daleynaeats.com.