This one might be a little esoteric but hang with me. It’s a somewhat different take on resolving a book than the “Stick the Landing” post, which primarily delineated where we can go astray when ending our manuscript. That was a “how” thing, this is more of a “why.”
My theory is that a story doesn’t end when you stop writing. It really ends in the reader’s mind, when they think about it and imagine how it might unfold, going forward. Or how it might not. And the more the reader thinks about the story and the more they carry it with them after finishing the last page, the more resonance it has with them. (I don’t want to add, “…and the more they like it,” because that’s a bit simplistic, but saying, “…and the more important it may ultimately feel to them” probably has some validity.)
And who among us doesn’t want to write important books… books that resonate? (Even the term resonate conjures up things ringing on after the initial note is struck, like a church bell that carries on long after the rope is pulled.) As authors, we hear feedback about our work—both good and bad—constantly. Maybe more than any other profession. But it’s telling that the single comment on my work that meant the most to me was someone in the industry simply saying, “I finished it on Saturday and felt bereft on Sunday, as though I had lost touch with friends.” That meant more to me than any amount of “Loved it!” or “Awesome!” or “Thought it was great!” because it indicated that—at least somewhat, on some level—I may have achieved one of my goals for the book: to create characters who felt real, who seemed like people you might know, or might want to know. (I realize it’s kind of funny that someone basically saying, “I read your book and felt sad when it was over” was so meaningful to me, but there you go: resonance uber alles.)
So what factors might lead to a story carrying on after “the end”…? I think one is simply when the reader gets the feeling that—even though this particular episode is finished—at least some of the characters may have more life yet to live. Yes, we saw them—and some important times in their lives—but we probably didn’t see all there is to see of them. You don’t necessarily need to hint at what comes next (although that can be cool in some cases), you just need to give the reader the feeling that there is the possibility of more. Imagine a story that basically finishes with: Everyone died - The End. Even if the characters were interesting while they lived, it’s hard to believe anyone’s going to spend a whole lot of time thinking or wondering or worrying about them after they finish the book, because it’s a lost cause. For your characters to occupy someone’s thoughts beyond the end of the book, they need at least the vague vibe that something—ideally something interesting—is going to happen to them at some point in their future. (Yes, there are notable exceptions. One of my favorite books as a young man was Freedom or Death, by Kazantzakis. Let’s just say it doesn’t end in freedom.)
Another key factor is having characters that feel real. This can mean different things to different people (both readers and writers) and there are a lot of factors which can increase or decrease the credibility of your characters—so much so that there are whole books about the subject. So what I want to say here is simply to be mindful of the difference between your characters having realistic circumstances, and being plausible as real characters. The circumstances can be as bizarre as you like, but the characters should respond to their surroundings in ways that have some correlation to how real people might actually respond. One thing that can kill a reader’s suspension of disbelief is a character who’s not self-consistent. Readers will buy any number of fantastical settings, but they won’t buy a character who acts “out of character” in order to make the plot work. So… giant flying scaly alpacas? No problem. A smart character who suddenly does something really stupid for no reason other than to get us to the next plot point? Not so much.
It also helps if we actually care about the characters. Maybe have a little empathy for them… want to see them succeed, or at least survive. Another word for this is likable. Snark is currently popular, which is fine as far as it goes—humor can be a bonus in a manuscript. But if overdone, it can lead to characters readers don’t like. I can think of a few recent books which were well written but not well received, and many of the critical reader reviews basically said, “I didn’t like the main character. She was too [choose one] snarky / bratty / whiny / mean / spoiled / etc.” This is one area where beta readers can really help, because the odds are you—as the author—really like your main character. Which is as it should be. You created her, so you know all the back-story, the hidden motivations, the justifications for her misbehaviors, everything. Which also means you’re the least qualified person to judge if she’s really likable. Not everyone will like every protagonist, but if you get notes from multiple early readers that your POV character isn’t all that likable, you may want to address this before submitting.
This doesn’t mean you want your protagonist to be Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy. Real people are flawed. They make mistakes. They get pissed off—sometimes at the wrong person, sometimes at the wrong time. Sometimes in trying to solve a problem they overstep and create a worse one. In other words, they’re human. We tend to like that in people. Especially fictional people we’re trying very hard to believe in.
And finally, the veracity of the world in which your characters operate matters. It doesn’t have to be real (or science fiction and fantasy novels wouldn’t exist) but is should feel real, at least for the duration of your story. This means you should treat your setting almost like a character… develop details that go beyond what’s on the page, create a rich backstory, pin up images if that helps you visualize it. Then use just enough of these to intrigue us and make your place seem real, but consider sprinkling little tidbits throughout—without interrupting the flow of the story for an explanation—as an option to info-dumping everything on us at once. There’s a natural tendency (which I’m as guilty of as anyone, during first draft) to think, Damnit, I did all this research, I’m going to use it! (Around here we have a phrase we use when we read things demonstrating this: “You can see the research.” It’s not necessarily a compliment.)
So… these are some of the factors that can help your story live on in the mind of the reader after they’ve closed the cover on the last page. And in the end, isn’t that what we’re all shooting for?
This being the month after NaNoWriMo, I think we should designate December as NaNoEdMo: National Novel Editing Month. Yeah, maybe not as sexy as “national novel writing month.” But probably as important.
Boiled down to essentials, the fundamentals of having a strong manuscript are:
Rule #1: Have good stuff.
Rule #2: Don’t have bad stuff.
It’s important to note that—primarily—#1 comes from writing and #2 from editing.
To clarify terms:
By good stuff we mean the generally-agreed-upon basics of quality fiction: characters we care about, interesting plot, believable dialog, well-paced scenes, an ending that resonates, etc. All of these hopefully combine to make the reader feel something.
By bad stuff we mean overwrought dialog, inconsistent characters, illogical plot points, rambling scenes, lack of thematic through-line, and plot threads that are left un-resolved. And boring. Boring is worst of all…
By writing, we mean the initial writing to the point where we feel the story is complete and we are no longer actively adding to it. Frequently accompanied by the initial euphoria of “I’m done!”
By editing, we mean “re-writing as done by the author,” as opposed to the editing done by an editor after the author has done copious revising and feels the manuscript is finally submittal-worthy.
It’s also important to note that #1 and #2 above—as similar as they seem--are completely different. Having good stuff actually has very little to do with not having bad stuff. Largely because they require different mindsets to accomplish. Especially for the newer writer.
When we first attempt to write we start out writing bad stuff almost exclusively. Because we don’t yet have the skill to write good stuff. Then as we improve our craft—largely through writing a lot and reading even more—we finally learn to write in coherent sentences and create believable character and construct an interesting story. Yay—good stuff! But guess what? In between the good parts we still have bad parts. And the bad parts aren’t always obvious to us when we’re actively writing. Because as we’re writing, our minds are in the story and its creation (as they should be). And because we’re enthralled with the occasional well-turned sentence or evocative scene.
But the downside of being lost in the wondrousness of our own creation is that we don’t notice the bad stuff… the overwrought dialog, the inconsistent characters, the illogical plot points, the rambling scenes that don’t really serve the story. Or if we do notice it, we forgive it because right after it… hey look--squirrel! I mean, good stuff!
So our newly-created manuscript seems wonderful, and after a quick pass through it (typically just fixing obvious blunders and spell-checking it), sometimes the temptation to “just press publish” is too great, and there it goes—off to an agent or an editor or to join the raft of self-published works currently sailing the salty seas of Amazon. This tendency—this failure to see the revision process as an integral part of the writing process—leads to what Chuck Wendig lovingly refers to as the “shit volcano” currently extant on Amazon Kindle.
Flaming fecal fountains notwithstanding, there’s some very good writing in the indie field. I try to read broadly in the YA arena—not just the obvious buzz books and best sellers—and I’ve read quite a few indie novels recently, along with a slew of traditionally published works. Overall I’d say the best parts of the indie books are typically on par with the best parts of the trad books. But they occasionally seem to have a slightly higher percentage of not-so-good writing per book, diluting the good stuff. More than once I’ve come across a 400 page self-pub’d book and thought it would make a really strong 350 page book with some judicious revision.
This isn’t a diatribe against indie publishing. At all. If it fits you and your skillset(s), self-publishing your work can be a wonderful option. When writers ask me about it at book signings and such, my general response is to say "Don't even think about it until the manuscript is completely submittal-worthy." As an author there should be zero difference between self-publishing, small press publishing, or Big-5 publishing until the day you finally deem the manuscript good enough to send off. (The difference at that point simply being who you send it to.) But up until then, the goal is exactly the same—create the strongest manuscript possible. Period. And an essential step in that process is taking your newly “finished” manuscript and—after a break to allow you to get out of writer mode and into editor mode—looking at it with fresh eyes, rewriting anything that doesn’t really sing to you as a reader… and tightening, trimming, or brutally slashing anything that has even a whiff of being superfluous. Or worse, boring.
Remember, having good stuff is not enough. We also need to not have bad stuff.
Imagine you’re relaxing, listening to an amazing piece of classical music. Lights down, headphones on, eyes closed. Wine may be involved. You’re so into it you don’t even register the sound as music anymore. All you know is you’re in a meadow on a gorgeous spring day… the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and you’re on a blanket with a gorgeous companion and a picnic basket. Wine may be involved.
Then during a pause in a delicate birdsong you hear a quiet cough, and…
You’re jerked back into your surroundings with the sudden awareness that no, you’re not in a meadow, those aren’t birds, and that isn’t sunshine. Instead you’re instantly reminded it’s merely an aural illusion created by people who were assembled in a concert hall to perform a piece of music they were hired to play. Perhaps in Philadelphia. Perhaps in 2014. And one of those people coughed, which somehow made it onto the final recording, leading to the dissolution of your sublime listening experience.
The same thing can happen with our writing if we’re not careful.
I was speaking to a group of writers recently and we were discussing why self-editing was important before sending a manuscript to an agent or editor or whatever the next step is. I briefly outlined the self-editing technique I described in the Seek & Destroy blog post, then tried to explain why it was important to avoid—among other things—unintentionally repeated words or phrases in your writing.
Fiction depends on the “willful suspension of disbelief,” as the phrase famously goes. When I’m reading a well-crafted work of fiction, it’s a total tête-à-tête—just me and the story. There is no author to that story anywhere in the room, and at its very best, the book itself disappears, much like the listening experience described above. Everything is story, and story is everything. This is magical, and the last thing you want to do as an author is destroy this spell by reminding the reader that the story they’re experiencing is a manuscript written by a real, live, imperfect human being. Perhaps one sitting in their family room in sweatpants a couple of years ago. Perhaps in Hoboken. Or maybe Albuquerque.
And using the word “actually,” for example, on every other page is precisely the sort of thing that will remind the reader that this book has an author. So is having characters tell each other things they both already know. So is having your fifteen-year-old protagonist sound like a thirty-something woman with an MFA. Who listens to music that was popular when said woman was in high school. And so on…
Another spell-breaking issue is transparency in the writing. Or lack thereof. After the above writers’ meeting was over, an attendee came up to discuss adding a bunch of metaphors to their manuscript in order to make it seem “more writerly.” Personally, I can get behind the (subtle, and occasional) use of metaphor to reinforce the theme of a work, but deliberately trying to sound “writerly” is probably a mistake. As a reader, nothing reminds me there’s a person on the other side of the text as much as coming upon a patch of over-wrought prose that yanks me out of the story. There are obviously exceptions to this, but writing that’s fairly transparent and stays out of the way of the story seems to do the best job of allowing the reader to remain immersed in the work.
Writing and storytelling are two separate aspects of creating fiction. Sometimes a strong play is best presented on a simple stage without a lot of extra props and window dressing cluttering things up.
So yes, we will absolutely cough on occasion during the creation of our story. That’s unimportant—everyone does. The important thing is to find and remove them before anyone else hears them, breaking the spell we’re trying so hard to cast.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.