So you want to know about contemporary fiction?
Rob Gregory – Author
An introduction to writing contemporary fiction books, from a contemporary English fiction author, who does exactly that.
According to Wikipedia, contemporary fiction is a sub-class of contemporary literature, which is defined as any writing set after the end of World War Two. For me, that’s about as stuffy and boring a definition as you can get, so I prefer to talk about contemporary fiction as anything that is written with a modern twist on the world.
Okay, so that loose definition pretty much covers everything written in the last seventy years, apart from historical fiction and historical romance that is. But when you think about it, seventy years is a fairly long time and a lot has been written since the Second World War reached its final conclusion.
Contemporary fiction is characterised by, oddly enough, a modern narrative among other things. That is, language that would not be out of place in today’s world, rather than the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen or Dickens. Strong, realistic characters that drive the story along, coupled with compelling plots are also a main component of contemporary fiction, as are cynicism, frustration, personal challenge and increasingly, the ‘mashing-up’ of different subjects and genres.
Some people argue that contemporary fiction is the same thing as commercial fiction and while the distinction between them is undoubtedly blurred, I would argue that not all commercial fiction is contemporary — just think about the plethora of historical romance stories that abound on Amazon — and that not all contemporary fiction is commercial. I should know about that last point, because with almost three years on Amazon and Smashwords, I still suffer from underwhelming e-book sales!
Writing Good Contemporary Fiction
Okay, here is a little bit of conceit. Please forgive me, as I don’t do it often. I may not sell many books, but I do think that I write pretty good contemporary fiction, well, good stories at the very least. How do I do this? Well, there are a number of factors involved…
Plot (aka Storyline) is an Essential Ingredient for all Good Contemporary Fiction
First of all is a strong plot. You can write a good story about the inside of a ping-pong ball, if you can come up with a good enough plot (believe me, I have done it). Unfortunately, this comes down to the power of your imagination. So, if you have a hard time imagining what the inside of a ping-pong ball looks like, let alone what might be going on inside of one when you aren’t looking, then a career as one of the world’s best contemporary fiction writers might not be for you.
On the bright side, however, real-life often presents us with situations that are way more convoluted and compelling than a John Grisham novel (and John’s lawyers, I mean that in a good way), so the chances are you can piece together a half-decent plot, simply by observing what is going on in the world around you. The truth, after all, is far stranger than fiction. Many authors, including myself, get plot ideas in this way, so smile, you’re in good company!
The world (or Setting) is the Foundation of all Good Contemporary Fiction Books
Then, there is the world that you set the story in. As mentioned above, most contemporary fiction is set after the end of World War Two, so if you want to be taken seriously as a writer of good contemporary fiction books, then it would help if you set your story in today’s world, or one decade or three on either side of it. The exception to this is if you are writing Science Fiction or something like ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’. Parody, especially if it contains zombies, is a great way of being contemporary!
However, setting you story in a time that qualifies it to be considered as ‘contemporary’ is only half the battle. Your world also needs to be believable and an ill-placed word in your highly polished masterpiece can destroy an otherwise excellent story. A friend of mine recounted the tale of a book he read, set in the nineteen twenties (so not contemporary fiction), where the main character was doing kitchen chores on ‘autopilot’. Even though the autopilot was invented in 1914, the term didn’t pass into common usage until far later, so for him at least, the whole story was rendered unbelievable.
Similarly, you can’t have a gritty, nineteen sixties spy thriller — a classic contemporary fiction genre — where the hero uses his smartphone to communicate with his home base; they simply weren’t around at that time. You can, however, have a hero that uses a miniature walkie-talkie or an experimental communications device, that looks a bit like a mobile phone, because that fits in more comfortably with the world of the time.
And here’s the great thing about world building, especially in contemporary fiction. As long as you set your world up right, then you can do what the heck you want in it!
Believable Characters are the Centrepiece to all the Best Contemporary Fiction Novels
Now let’s have a look at your characters. I mentioned above that characters in contemporary fiction tend to be strong, possibly with tendencies towards frustration, cynicism or struggling with personal challenges. Mark Renton, the main character in Irvine Welsh’s brilliant ‘Trainspotting’, is a perfect example of this. Young, cynical to the bone and frustrated by his situation in working-class Edinburgh, he is a (recovering) heroin addict. Plus, he talks in Scottish English, which adds further credibility to his fictional persona.
One important thing to note is that you don’t need to like your characters, but you must care for them, otherwise they won’t be believable. In my series of fantasy children’s books, which I ultimately compiled into ‘The Lucius Chronicles’, Uncle Lucius is the villain of the piece. He is mean, self-centred and utterly unlovable. He has no redeeming qualities and is hell-bent on destroying everything around him. I can’t say that I like Uncle Lucius very much, let alone love him, but from the very beginning I cared about what sort of character he was going to be and what motivated him, so that he turned into the delightfully wicked character that I had intended, rather than a sorry pastiche of your typical bad guy villain.
The Twist is at the Core of Good Contemporary Fiction Writing
We all know about the twist and a large number of the best contemporary fiction novels have one at their core. It’s the moment where the main character is betrayed by their best friend, or the person you think is the murderer gets knocked off by the real killer. Many twists have become so common that they are now seen as ‘tropes’, so you would be wise to try and avoid them and come up with something new. That said, if your work is strong enough, then a tried and tested twist can still work really well.
Also, be aware that twists don’t necessarily have to be complex. In one of my unpublished short stories, I played with the simple idea of Darwinian pre-adaptation. In that story, my two protagonists, neither of whom were particularly loveable by the way, ended up being the sole survivors of a global catastrophe, simply by virtue of their unique affliction. A simple idea, but one that wasn’t revealed until the final page.
Not all contemporary fiction books need to have a twist, but all of them must have some means of creating suspense. A story about going to the shops, buying a loaf of bread and coming back home again for some toast, all without incident, might work for a surrealist writer playing with societal views of boredom, or someone who really, really likes stories about toast, but other than that, it is going to be a pretty drab read. Far better to kidnap the protagonist on their way to the shops, stage a daring bread robbery in the local supermarket, or even just have the toaster refuse point-blank to perform its duties, all of which would add a little more action to the story and more importantly, create a little suspense.
I do this regularly in my Fotherington-Tomas series of short stories — create suspense that is, not write about toast! Each is only a few thousand words long, so there isn’t much opportunity to build masses of tension or create deep, earth-shattering twists. Nonetheless, in each and every one of them, I try to build a degree of tension to keep the reader engaged. Will Fotherington-Tomas survive? How will he solve the crime? Where is the villain lurking? How much ice-cream can Maxwell, his faithful sidekick, eat before he is sick? That kind of thing… you get the idea.
Incidentally, Fotherington-Tomas qualifies as contemporary fiction, because even though the central characters are deliberately outdated in their speech and fashion, they operate in the modern world… with hilarious consequences I might add!
The All-Important Resolution (aka The End) of a Great Contemporary Fiction Novel
All good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the same is true for contemporary fiction, be it written for adults, young adults or children. The good news is that because contemporary fiction is generally more realistic (or grounded) than works that have gone before, you don’t necessarily need to finish on a ‘happily ever after’. In fact, more often than not, these days, stories don’t end happily at all… period!
For example, in my debut novel, ‘Drynwideon – The Sword of Destiny (Yeah, Right)’, body-blow follows body-blow, until the poor hero is left utterly deflated by the world around him. However, it doesn’t matter that his dreams are shattered. After all, this is what tends to happen in the real world on a regular basis and besides, it fits the preceding storyline like a glove, which is what I had intended all along.
Drynwideon is a good example of contemporary fiction. It is an ‘anti-fantasy’ novel, possibly the first in the world, with a strong dystopian theme running through it. Like zombies, dystopia is another good way of showing that you are contemporary.
FUN FACT: Somewhat ironically, the term ‘dystopia’, which underpins so much modern writing, was first coined in 1516, by Sir Thomas Moore, so is definitely not contemporary!
I set Drynwideon in a completely fictional world — another good contemporary fiction device — which meant that I could do exactly what I wanted in it, without falling foul of ‘real-world’ conventions. Although it is a place that predates electricity and at times, flits between the sub-medieval and seventeenth century, the characters behave in modern ways and more importantly, see the world through modern eyes. They are sarcastic, self-serving and possessed of some pretty appalling habits, none of which would be at home in classical literature. Jane Austen would probably faint at what the dwarves habitually get up to, although on reflection, William Shakespeare would likely raise a giggle at the ribald humour within the book’s pages. The language is deliberately modern, as is the plot, which centres on the themes of escape and the subsequent loss of paradise found. Finally, there is the central driver for the latter part of the story, ‘The Quest’, which is basically a far bloodier version of the television show,‘Britain’s Got Talent’, although anyone who thinks that I based Ka, the evil Dragon Princess on Simon Cowell, is sadly mistaken!
You can read a selection of sample chapters from ‘Drynwideon – The Sword of Destiny (Yeah, Right)’ here, for free.
Key Points for Writing Good Contemporary Fiction:
- Strong plot/storyline.
- Believable world (preferably set sometime after WWII or in a completely fictional environment).
- Strong and engaging characters.
- Some form of twist or suspense-building mechanism.
- Resolution (good or bad, it doesn’t really matter these days).
Writing Contemporary Fiction Books for Kids
Writing contemporary fiction books for kids or contemporary young adult fiction, is similar to writing for adults, however even more care needs to be taken. The great author, Roald Dahl, once famously claimed that writing for adults was far easier than writing for children, because while an adult might only read a story once, a child would read it over and over, until they knew every line of it off by heart. That means, although the world the story is set in might be made up, it has to be absolutely real to the mind of a child, if the flaws in it are not to be seen.
Writing contemporary young adult fiction is even more difficult, because young adults and their teenage brethren are the most cynical beings ever known to walk the earth, with the possible exception of English stand-up comedians that is! For that reason, if even the slightest bit of your story fails to pass scrutiny, the rest of it, no matter how good it is, will be torn apart and discarded like a Snickers wrapper on a Devon train station floor and your aspirations to be a children’s contemporary fiction writer will be well and truly shattered.
The stories in my children’s fantasy book, ‘The Lucius Chronicles’, are all contemporary fiction. As with Drynwideon, the world they occupy is completely made up, however, it is most definitely set after the Second World War. It has modern cars, computers, electronics, Mini-Eyes™ and even a Doomsday device, complete with a glowing red button! The characters talk in a contemporary way and one of them is, to all intents and purposes, a tomboy, who is just as likely to get into trouble as the male characters in the book. The adventures they have are classic in terms of the storyline that they follow: good versus evil, good triumphs, but not without sacrifice, however, the situations they find themselves in are most definitely not what you would encounter, in say, fine Victorian literature!
The bullet points for writing good contemporary fiction listed in the preceding section, apply just as much to writing contemporary fiction books for kids, however, I would also add the following:
- The story has to be enjoyable. Despite what anyone might say, children are children and while it is true that they often appear to act like little adults, they are not going to be very impressed if you give them a storyline with so many twists and turns that they need a PhD in English Literature to work out what is going on. Similarly, they won’t thank you if you give them an ending where everyone dies tragically in miserable circumstances or the lead character wakes up and ‘it was all a dream’. Your job as an author of contemporary fiction books for kids is to give them a story that lifts them up and helps engender a love of reading that will follow them into adulthood. In other words, makes the little ankle biters want to read your book over and over again.
- The language needs to be simple. I am not for a moment saying that you should dumb down your writing for a juvenile audience, unless, of course, you are writing early-learning or pre-school books, but you should definitely consider the nature of the audience you are writing for and this is where contemporary fiction wins out over classic children’s literature from years gone by. Contemporary fiction allows you to use language and situations that younger readers will be immediately familiar with and can help to really engage them in the storyline. Anyone who has read the excellent ‘Artemis Fowl’ series by Eoin Colfer will know exactly what I mean, although I do think that Eoin did make a slight error by naming all of the computer equipment that Artemis used in very specific terms. Computer technology dates so very quickly that children reading the books now might find some of the devices mentioned in the stories a bit of a stumbling block. Better, in my view, to stick to generic terms like computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone and let the kid’s imaginations fill in the details.
When it comes to resolutions, i.e. the ending of the book, then I would suggest keeping things fairly upbeat for younger readers. If J. K. Rowling had killed and then resurrected Harry Potter in ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’, then she may well not have had the success that the series ultimately achieved. Far better to save that for the last instalment, when the readers following it were a bit more grown up.
Writing contemporary young adult fiction gives you a bit more flexibility in this regard. In his most excellent book, ‘Brother in the Land’, which I would thoroughly recommend, Robert Swindells takes young adult readers through the horror of a nuclear holocaust, with a climax that is truly grim by any standards. While on face value, the book should have been a ‘no-no’ for non-adult readers, the story ticked all of the boxes for writing good contemporary fiction and so, to my mind at least, it worked.
My Life as a Contemporary Fiction Writer
Almost everything that I have written to date has been contemporary fiction of one sort or another. Partly this is because I don’t particularly enjoy historical fiction or historical romance and also because I happen to have been born well after the Second World War, so it sort of comes naturally to write about the modern world, rather than one set in the past.
I started out way back in 2007, with ‘Death and the Schoolboy’, which would turn out to be part one of ‘The Lucius Chronicles’ some ten years later. That book, well, short story to be precise, came about when a few friends of mine said that there was no way that I could ever write a book. I think that I was as surprised as they were, when I gave them the first draft of the manuscript just a few weeks later!
When I made the decision to focus on writing full-time in 2017, I dusted off ‘Death and the Schoolboy’ and began work on a sequel, which became ‘Death and the Atom Bomb’. Then came ‘Drynwideon – The Sword of Destiny (Yeah, Right)’, which was absolutely burning to be written, following a short period of illness, during which time I was bed-ridden.
[Note: Never let an author get sick, because their imaginations go onto overdrive and when they recover, they won’t be seen for dust in their haste to get back behind the keyboard!].
I followed Drynwideon with ‘Death and the End’, the final instalment in ‘The Lucius Chronicles’ and then set about work on the only piece of mine to date that hasn’t been contemporary fiction, a revenge thriller spanning seventy years of the last century. I haven’t published that one yet, so if you are interested, please petition your favourite publisher to pick it up for me!
Since that brief aberration, I have returned to contemporary fiction, with my Fotherington-Tomas series of short stories and am currently working on two projects, which most definitely fall under the contemporary fiction banner. The first is a series of humorous, fantasy short stories, with a saucy and culinary theme, while the second is a gritty tale of modern-day life in Northern Thailand, which is where I spend a fair bit of my time these days.
Throw in a few dystopian/future imperfect short stories, which are still waiting to find homes in magazines when I can find the time to submit them and you have one very busy contemporary English fiction writer on your hands, which is exactly the way that it should be!
Conclusion – Now That You Know Everything About Contemporary Fiction
In summary, contemporary fiction may be defined as anything written after the Second World War, but it is so much more than that. It is the collective imagination of thousands of authors, including yourself, all toiling over unique worlds and situations that they have created from their own imaginations. Some have become global best-sellers, others languish in the doldrums, waiting for that moment when they are finally discovered, but all of them have the potential to bring pleasure to readers, which after all, is what creative writing is all about.
I have only been doing this for a short time, but it has brought me immense pleasure as an author and is something that I hope to be able to continue for many years to come. I hope that you have found this little guide to writing contemporary fiction both entertaining and useful. If you have, then please do take a little time to have a look at my various books, even if it is only to thumb through the free sample chapters. Who knows, maybe you will find the inspiration for your next bestseller in amongst them?
About Rob Gregory
Rob Gregory was born in Bristol, England, in the mid-nineteen seventies. After a relatively uneventful childhood, bad haircuts aside, he entered Reading University in 1993 to study biology and ended up leaving Oxford University almost eight years later with a PhD in animal behaviour.
Despite his many qualifications, a career as an academic was not on the cards, so after a brief hiatus, he ended up working for a television company and taught himself online non-linear editing. Unfortunately, the television company decided that it had too many online non-linear editors, so at the beginning of 2002, he found himself once again without a vocation.
Unperturbed by this state of affairs, Rob booked passage to New Zealand and embarked on a career as a farm animal welfare expert. Eventually, this led to him running humane farming projects all over South East Asia for a major international charity.
Then, at the beginning of 2017, he decided to take some time out and focus on writing. Since then, he has written what he hopes are a number of compelling works of contemporary fiction and has the ultimate (and very conceited) aim of becoming one of the best contemporary British fiction authors in the world.
Check out Rob’s blog here.