Episode 23: How to Write Great Fiction… with Barlow Adams

Today we explore the elements of good writing with Barlow Adams, a prolific and versatile writer well-known for both his microfiction as well as his longer projects like the novella Appalachian Alchemy.

Barlow Adams is a writer living in the Cincinnati area. He’s managed bars, guarded cemeteries, written airplane manuals, and delivered diamonds cross-country. He’s a former journalist and the author of two novellas and an upcoming novel. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous print and online journals. Be sure to check out his pieces this month in formercactus, Delphinium, Ghost Parachute, and Five on the Fifth. Follow him at www.facebook.com/BarlowJAdams or on Twitter at @BarlowAdams.


Some of the topics we discuss on today’s show are

  • #vss365 on Twitter and how Barlow crafts his popular pieces of microfiction.
  • How to evoke complex characters in a short amount of time
  • How to overcome the pressure or influence that family and friends might have on your writing
  • “Planning” verses “pantsing” in planning a longer work of fiction
  • Creating “little mysteries” for your reader to keep them engaged in the story
  • The importance of concision in writing and revising
  • Advice that Barlow would have given himself as he was starting out as a writer


Today’s Wise Word comes from writer Bernard Malamud as he offers some great insight on how he approached drafting and revising his work:

“I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times—once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say. Somewhere I put it this way: first drafts are for learning what one’s fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.” – Bernard Malamud

I like this three-part structure because it gives us a clear goal as we are writing and revising. And it reminds us that revision should be a pleasurable process. Revision is the polish that makes your story shine. Without it, your story is just another ordinary stone on a beach full of stones. Once it’s polished, though, it stands out and begs for someone to come along, examine it, and add it to their collection. It should be pleasurable to see the quality of your story begin to shine forth out of the rough draft.


Our weekly challenge this week has to with our discussion with Barlow about “little mysteries.” Can you find a place in your story where you may have told your reader too much? Is there a place where you can hold a piece of information back that might be more powerful if delivered later? I encourage you to read through the first bit of your work-in-progress and search out places where you might want to let your reader wonder about something for awhile. Once you’ve found it, decide if it’s something that you’ll need to reveal explicitly later on or if it’s something the reader can discover for themselves as they read. If they can be the one to unravel the “little mystery” then you’ve got them playing a role in your story and they are invested.

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