An Interview with Arlene Marks: From First Word to Last

Apr 5, 2013 by

Arlene Marks From First Word to LastMichael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Arlene, you have just written a book about writing. What brought this about?

Teaching and writing are my two great passions. I’ve been doing them both, quite literally, since childhood. And teaching leads to learning and writing leads to sharing…so in this book, From First Word to Last, I am sharing everything I’ve learned and taught about fiction writing over the last 40 years.

2) Your book is subtitled “The Craft of Writing Popular Fiction“. Why a book on writing popular fiction?

There are a number of reasons. Primarily, popular fiction is what the vast majority of my students over the years have expressed the desire to write well, so it’s what I’ve tended to focus on in my courses and workshops. It also happens to be my personal favorite kind of writing and one that continues to challenge my skills, even after four decades of practice.

3) What are the “tropes and mechanisms“ of popular fiction ?

First of all, just to clarify: Popular fiction is assembled from the same elements as mainstream or literary fiction – plot, character, setting, conflict, suspense, story structure, and so on – and readers of popular fiction can be quite discerning regarding the quality of writing and storytelling that they expect to find between the covers of a novel.

However, unlike literary fiction, which is an author expressing him or herself in a story which may or may not fall into a category, popular fiction is targeted to a category and written specifically to appeal to the readers of that category. Popular fiction readers are fans of the genre and fans buy a lot of books, so publishers who specialize in genre fiction tend to pay attention to reader feedback. With reader input, each genre has developed its own set of rules or conventions, and I believe this is what you’re referring to as “tropes and mechanisms”.

A category romance novel, for example, is a love story in which a man and woman meet and are attracted to each other but must overcome obstacles in order to end up in a monogamous relationship with the promise of a happy future. A horror story is a battle between good and evil which ends in either a draw or a victory for evil. Along the way, innocents die gruesomely and a character who understands early on what is happening is mocked or ignored until it is too late. The main character, though scarred for life, survives to fight another day. Lately, there have been new subgenres appearing on the bookstore shelves, combining the characteristics of two or even three different kinds of popular fiction.

Science fiction with elements of mystery or horror, romance with elements of action/adventure or fantasy…I even watched a movie recently called “Cowboys and Aliens”. A science fiction western. It was a lot of fun.

All these different genres wouldn’t be able to cross-breed if they didn’t have characteristics in common: a fascinating main character (or two); a strong dramatic conflict with clear motivation; colorful, evocative settings; plenty of action and dialogue; some kind of justice at the end (except in a horror story, of course). Finally, readers of popular fiction expect an ending that is at least hopeful, if not actually happy. Popular fiction didn’t become popular by being depressing.

4) Are there differences between writing for children, adolescents and adults?

Yes, of course, and this applies whether or not the story is genre fiction. First of all, the protagonist of the story needs to be someone the reader can identify with and cheer for. Children and adolescents enjoy reading about characters who are their own age or a couple of years older, dealing with problems or situations that the reader may also be facing at home or at school. Adults relate best to adult main characters but can also appreciate stories written for and about younger readers (such as the Harry Potter series.)

Next, the story itself needs to be presented in a way that matches the maturity of understanding of the reader. This is just common sense when your goal is communication. The use of simpler language and shorter sentences doesn’t mean a story can’t be thoughtful and significant, however. You can write for children and adolescents about anything they are likely to have experienced or heard about.

Two prime examples: Robert Munsch (Love You Forever) and Dr. Seuss (The Lorax) were able to introduce children to very serious ideas (the death of a parent and forest conservation, respectively) by taking an age-appropriate approach.

5) We seem to be drawn to “characters”. I still remember the “character“ of Kramer in Seinfeld. Are your characters based on real people, or do you develop characters from scratch?

A little of both, actually. I’ve been a people-watcher and student of human nature virtually all my life, so there are quite a lot of interesting characters stockpiled in my memory. When I need to introduce a minor character, I pick two or three of them and ‘moosh’ them together into a composite. If I’m building a main character or an important secondary character, I may or may not begin with a character from my memory. In either case, the character will end up as a composite, but for a character I want the reader to care about, I’m a little more selective about which parts get added to the mix. At least one of those parts will come from me, from my own personality and/or experiences. Sometimes a character has grown up in the same neighborhood as I did, or shares one of my pet peeves, or has the same kind of relationship with a particular family member as I do. This gives me access to the character’s inner workings and makes him or her more real for me.

6) What is the “Ten Minute Stretch“?

The Ten Minute Stretch is, first of all, the break that we all need to take periodically from activities that are mentally and/or physically intensive (such as sitting at the keyboard working the kinks out of a piece of writing). But it is also a workout program for the writer’s imagination. After each storytelling skill is described and explained, the Ten Minute Stretch gives the reader one or more exercises to practice that apply the skill. Because storytelling doesn’t happen only on the printed page, some of the exercises involve other media, such as the newspaper, films and TV.

The reader has total flexibility, and may go through the book literally ‘from first word to last’, doing each Ten Minute Stretch as it occurs, or may flip randomly through the pages, selecting an exercise that relates to some aspect of a story already in progress.

7) Lean and mean or rich and robust- which is better?

You’re describing writing styles, and either one could be preferable depending on a number of factors:

First, what is the writer’s natural writing style? If an author has written a lot of nonfiction in which the emphasis is on the clear and effective communication of information, his/her writing style will naturally tend to be unembellished. This is not a problem, as imagery and descriptive detail can always be added during the editing process. Rich and robust writing (not to be confused with flowery purple prose) is great for popular fiction if that happens to be your natural style and you are able to communicate your vision with depth and clarity to the reader.

Next, what style does the story demand? I’ve read great stories written almost entirely in dialogue, with nary an adjective or adverb in sight, written from the point of view of a no-nonsense character focused on solving a problem, surviving a disaster, or generally just getting things done. I’ve also read great stories rich with evocative detail, set in a colorful historical period and told from the point of view of a very observant and self-aware character focused on absorbing the moment. Both kinds were satisfying reading experiences, because the writing style matched the point of view character.

Finally, what style is this generation of readers looking for? The current reading public, and therefore literary agents and publishers, are looking for stories that show them the world in new and engaging ways. To pull this off, a writer needs a rich and thorough understanding of the world of his or her novel, along with the skill to choose a point of view character who can make that world real enough to draw the reader into the story.

The bottom line: Both “lean and mean” and “rich and robust” can work well in popular fiction, but neither one is a slam dunk.

8) What have I neglected to ask?

What was the hardest lesson for you to learn about writing over the years?

When to kick my baby out of the nest and move to the next project. Writing puts you on a lifelong learning curve, and what you produce this week is going to be better than last week’s work. So it’s easy for someone with an editing background like mine to sit on a completed story for weeks or months, endlessly improving it rather than sending it out and starting something new. Eventually I had to make a rule – if I could read something three days in a row and not immediately find fault with it, it was finished.

9) What words of advice do you have for aspiring authors of popular fiction?

Read and write every day. Read what you happen to be writing and write what you most enjoy reading. And don’t throw out or delete from your hard drive a story that isn’t working for you, no matter how bad you think it is. At worst, you’ll look at it years later and be able to see just how far you’ve come as a writer over time. At best, you may rediscover it at a time when you have developed the skills and knowledge to make it work really well.

10) How can our readers get copies of your book, From First Word to Last: The Craft of Writing Popular Fiction?

My book is being released on July 15th, 2013 in both print and e-book formats. It can be pre-ordered online from Barnes and Noble or at

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