This issue comes up a lot, framed in a lot of ways.
Essentially: “How do we manage chronology in our stories, vis-a-vis the narrative point-of-view?”*
First caveat: I’m no expert. In fact, there are no experts on this. (However, there are people who supposedly know all the “rules”—and have the paperwork to prove it—but in my experience you don’t want to take writing advice from them.) Because…
Second caveat: There are no rules. This is art, not science, right? Whatever works, works.
Third caveat: I can only tell you what works for me, and maybe a few other writers I know. You need to try things out and see what works for you. Your solution may be different than mine, which is wonderful.
[*For me, the only meaningful answer to this question is some version of: In a way that feels smooth and natural and transparent to the reader. That’s all that matters. All else is low-signal and high-noise.]
Let’s look at the most common example: managing flashbacks.
The very first issue to consider: Does the benefit of the flashback outweigh the cost of removing the reader from where she is and flinging her somewhere new, then waiting for her to get acclimated to the new place, then bringing her back to the present? That’s totally up to you, but overall I’d say there seems to be a tendency for newer writers to want to put flashbacks into their early pages because they think the most important thing is that the reader understands everything from the get-go. That’s not really the goal… the goal is to get the reader immersed in the character/scene to the point where they’re invested in the character and the story feels real to them. If you do that, they’ll follow you anywhere. (And of course they’ll expect you to catch them up a bit at a time as you go along, and you should hold up your end of the bargain and do just that, but not at the expense of throwing them out of the story by info-dumping or jerking them back and forth in time just so they have “all the facts.”)
In brief: Information is not nearly as important as interest.
But sooner or later—when the reader knows the character and the time/place in which they reside—you may need to jump back and show them something important that happened before the story started.
In the above sentence, the operative word is “show.” That’s why we use flashbacks… to show a scene instead of just telling us, Six months ago, X happened. If you can simply tell us that and it feels natural and doesn’t interrupt the flow (and we don’t need a high level of detail) then by all means, do that.
But otherwise, the goal of a flashback should be to make it feel like part of the story, not like a separate, non-story event. While still making us aware that it happened before the present story time.
One way to do this is to have the POV character say or think something that relates to previous events; have a scene break; set us clearly where—and when—the back-in-time scene happens. And then…
Then… if you’re going “by the rules,” you would use the past perfect tense to describe everything that happened in the past. (Ex: “I had done this, then she had done that, and then we’d decided to do this other thing…”) Which is 100% correct, except… (and feel free to insert f-bombs for emphasis as you read this) it doesn’t feel like story—it feels like someone telling you what happened. Which is in violation of the ‘how do we do it?’ answer, namely: In a way that feels smooth and natural and transparent to the reader.
So instead, consider tossing the rules and not doing the whole ‘past perfect tense’ thing. Instead, consider completing the three pre-flashback steps above, then starting the body of the flashback with one or two uses of past perfect tense, then segueing into regular past tense for the duration of the flashback scene (assuming the rest of the book is in past tense, of course, otherwise use whatever you’re using), then another mechanical scene break, then bring us back to the present with something (action, dialog) that takes up where the pre-flashback scene left off.
For an example, let’s make up a goofy little origin story which transitions present-past-present (as origin stories are wont to do)…
### ### ###
[story, story, story…]
…and as I crested the hill it occurred to me that riding a blazing unicycle from hell felt as natural to me as riding a bicycle did to most boys, but it sure wasn’t always that way…
I’d wanted a unicycle for as long as I could remember, but I’d never expected Krampus Himself to conjure me up the Flaming Wheel of Fire on Krampusnacht three years ago.
I woke early that morning—well before the sun—expecting the usual oranges and walnuts and such from Saint Nicholas, because I’d been “good.” (Well, except for that episode with Petra in her father’s barn, but we’re not talking about that.) But I guess that horned asshole knew all about it, because he showed up instead of Ol’ Nicky, and instead of treats he had a bundle of birch rods for whipping my bottom, along with a fierce grin... indicating he was going to enjoy said whipping rather more than I.
In a moment of terror-inspired brilliance I held up a finger, quietly reached behind the pantry curtain, and brought out a jug of my father’s favorite schnapps and a couple of stone mugs. “You can whip me and carry me off,” I offered, “or you can have a drink. Your choice, my good sir.”
Well, everyone knows schnapps is Krampus’ second-favorite thing, so pretty soon we were knocking 'em back like two old mates down to the public house.
“So, what do ya really want, my boy?” he rumbled.
Leaving that frighteningly possessive pronoun aside, visions of oranges and chocolates flew in one earhole and out the other. “Well, sir…”
“Drop that sir shit!” he boomed, half in his cups already.
I took a swig. “Well, Krampy… what I really want is a unicycle.”
“A unicycle???” I was certain he’d wake my parents, but you don’t just shush Krampus, now do you? I bobbed my head. He rubbed his hands. “But it’d have to be a… special sort of unicycle, wouldn’t ya think?” No, I did not think. But I just nodded again. What would you have done—argue with him, I s’pose?
He reached into his big black bag—I could just make out the mewling of some of the less-quick-on-their-feet village boys—then pulled out a feathered pinecone and flung it into the fireplace with such force that it cracked a brick. After the smoke cleared and he’d disappeared—precisely as my parents awoke—standing of its own accord in front of the hearth was my singular wish. Already alight.
As I barreled down the backside of the hill, I had to give the devil his due… that fiery rocket of a monocycle has changed my life in ways I couldn’t have fathomed back when he first gifted me—or cursed me—with it.
In fact, waiting for me at the bottom of the hill was…
[story, story, story…]
### ### ###
(1) POV thinks/says something related to the past;
(2) use a mechanical scene break of some kind;
(3) anchor the flashback early in the scene;
(4) maybe use a little past perfect—if at all—then;
(5) dump it and get back into your normal tense (which will feel way better to the reader), then;
(6) use another mechanical scene break, and finally;
(7) anchor us firmly back in the present with a familiar or expected action.
Or… use any other methodology of your choice.
I think the cardinal thing to keep in mind here is that a flashback should be a scene, and the sooner it feels like a scene and not an info-dumpy chunk of exposition, the smoother and more natural it’ll feel to the reader.
And, therefore, the lower the cost of diverting the reader from the present to the past and back again, which is all to the good.
Not metaphorically. Literally.
We are trying to re-create an emotional experience—at the cellular level—aided by the selective application of endorphins.
When people fall in love, their brain produces chemicals (dopamine, among others) which contribute to the magical feeling of “finding your soul mate.”
When people are thrilled/scared/excited, the brain produces other chemicals. (Adrenaline, anyone?)
And when people are bonding, yup… more chemicals. (Oxytocin, primarily.)
These are the sorts of events that people like to re-live, especially from the safety and comfort of their favorite reading chair.
But simply writing, “They fell in love,” or “He was scared,” or “She felt a connection with her baby” doesn’t do it… doesn’t provide the high… doesn’t have the mojo… of the real thing.
We’ve talked before about the importance of craft when it comes to writing something that will have the impact of actual lived experience when someone reads it. This goes doubly so when it comes to writing about the ‘big event’ type situations described above.
And the funny thing is, it seems like the more we attempt to describe—at great length—the feeling we’re going for… the less it feels real to the reader. But when we show it, with the small, unique, personal events and details that smell of actual life... if done well… it can feel real to the reader.
Ideally, to the point where the reader’s subconscious can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality, and actually produces the same chemicals it would produce were the reader actually experiencing the events IRL.
At that point--boom!—the reader feels as if they were falling in love or fighting off terrorists or rescuing a loved one. And then you have them. They’ve bought into your story on an emotional level, and at that point they’ll forgive pretty much anything (as long as it doesn't throw them out of the story) because you’re giving them the fix—the visceral kick in the heart—they’re craving.
There’s no faking it here. The work either does or does not give them the feeling, on a gut level, of the emotional experience you’ve incorporated into your work.
Like a chemical lie detector test.
In those instances where your work causes the needle to swing to the far right and the buzzers to buzz and the flashing lights to spell out TRUE!!!, there’s a chance you might develop a loyal fan base and perhaps even join the ranks of authors either beloved or reviled as bestsellers. You know who I’m talking about… those authors who some call amazing and some call hacks and some call brilliant and some call commercial… yet who, in all cases, have a loyal readership that’s willing to plunk down their hard-earned money every time a new book comes out from their favorite writer. Because, regardless of how ‘literary’ or ‘writerly’ these authors may or may not be, their work passes the only test that matters to their readers—it’s written in such a way that it convinces some part of the reader’s brain, on an emotional level, that what they’re experiencing is real.
Whatever we’re writing—whether upmarket fiction or poetry or romance or kidlit or literary non-fiction or a multi-book SF/F saga—we could do much worse than to attempt to write in a way that passes the same test.
As part of our continuing deep dive into different areas of novel writing, we’re taking a look at a specific aspect of point-of-view, namely when to—or maybe more important, when not to—switch between POV characters.
At first glance the whole discussion might seem silly. I mean, this is art and there are no rules, so we—as writers—can switch between characters whenever we want, right?
The issue—as always—is that the writer knows more (generally much more) about the story at any given place within the text than the reader does. And unless we’re purposely being vague for specific effect (which can certainly be valid at times), we generally want readers to feel at least somewhat grounded regarding where we are and in whose head we’re residing.
And more important, how they feel about said character at any given time.
We’ve discussed the importance of reader connection—especially with your main character(s)—and it can hurt the emotional bond we wish to build between reader and character to jump from character to character without some sort of framework or boundary between these transitions.
To move from one POV character to another without following these conventions is sometimes referred to as “head hopping.” (Generally in a less-than-complimentary way.) A typical case might be where the author moves from one person’s POV to another… within the same scene.
Although it can happen in 1st or 3rd person, past or present tense, it seems most common in close 3rd. We’re in one character’s head, then bang, we’re in another’s. With no scene break. When this happens, the author is actually switching (either intentionally or unintentionally) from close 3rd to omni 3rd. Oops! (If unintentional, which it generally seems to be.)
With 1st person, of course, it can only really happen with multiple POV characters. This can be even more egregious than with 3rd person, because in 1st the narrator doesn’t name the POV character (because they’re one and the same). There’s no, “Hi, this is Fred talking to you now. So as I was saying…” Many authors writing in 1st with multiple POV characters use chapter headings with the viewpoint character’s name at the top of each chapter, just to keep the reader grounded as to who’s head we’re currently in.
Because this is important.
Not the heading, but the understanding of which car we’re currently driving. We want (strike that—we need) the reader to have understanding/empathy/connection with the POV character, and that clearly can’t happen until the reader is comfortably seated behind the wheel.
There’s something I call Cost of Transition. It implies that with any instance of transitioning from one time to another, one setting to another, one character to another, there will be a cost in reader attention. It’s in our best interest to keep this cost as low as possible for the reader, while still transporting them to another location, scene, day, or character. (If the cost is deemed too high—especially after a few of these in a row—this is where the reader is likely to put the book down. For an hour, for a day… or maybe forever.)
The cost goes up, not down, if the transition comes at an unexpected place… a place where the reader was thinking, “Hmm… I like it here. I’m interested in this place. I want to stay here for a while…” Then, just when the reader thought they were going to stay there until the end of the chapter… wham. You yank the rug out and throw them into another character… where they have to go through the whole ‘getting comfortable in this new place’ routine again.
This is generally not a good thing. Unless handled with skill, it can feel clunky… jerky… uncertain and uneven… like there’s a student driver piloting the bus.
Part of the reason is that it can feel more like telling than showing. We’ve probably all seen scenes in a manuscript similar to this:
Dick looked at Jane and thought, She’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen… I bet there’s no way she’d ever go out with me.
Jane tried to guess what was going through Dick’s mind, and wondered, Hmm… is he ever going to ask me out?
Pretty tell-y, right? Instead of showing us, via actions and mood and dialog, etc. This sort of character-hopping within the same scene can come off as the polar opposite of “Paint a nuanced picture where we discern the dynamics of the relationship from dialog, tone, body language, etc.”
Maybe one of the reasons it can feel unnatural and clunky is that in real life, we are always in the head of the same person, and the only interior monologue we ever get is our own. So… maybe we’re willing to visit more than one person’s interiority, but only if we get closure before moving on to the next. (Sort of a “literary serial monogamy,” I guess…)
Regardless, I’d generally say: Consider not head hopping unless you have a very good reason (and the chops to actually pull it off without the downsides described above) because—as mentioned—there’s a cost to it. I’m sure some really talented and successful authors have used it to good effect, but when I see it in the wild, it frequently comes across as the opposite.
But as always, you do you.
In the ongoing quest for improvement (school never really ends, does it?) I’ve been doing a deep dive into different aspects of writing fiction. Lately I’ve been fellowshipping with the concept of voice.
We hear it all the time… Voice is one of those things that really matters when it comes to a book succeeding (whether that’s getting an agent, getting an editor, getting published, getting good reviews, selling well, or—most important—getting love and recommendations from engaged readers).
In fact, “voicey” has become the publishing adjective of the year. Maybe of the decade.
(Followed by “pacey,” which we’ll talk about in a later post. Not to be confused with “plotty.”)
Voice… Before we can begin to talk about how to develop it or implement it or improve it, we need to consider something that seems to be occasionally misunderstood: what is it?
And this is where things can get confusing, because there are a couple different ways people talk about voice, and conflating these can really hurt reader engagement. (Which is ironic, as engagement is the primary goal of voice.)
These different aspects actually exist on a continuum, but for the moment let’s call them “authorial voice” and “character voice.” The first helps define who you (the writer) are, as a person. The second adds depth to who the character is, as a person.
In the starkest example, think of a nonfiction how-to book. (i.e. a book that has nothing in the way of characters, inner monolog, or dialog). This book is entirely in the author’s voice. If you’re the writer, you decide the tone(s) you want to set (formal and scholarly; casual and matter-of-factly; humorous and personable; etc.) and how far you may wish to range between them, then you get to work.
At the other end of the scale, think of a novel written in first person POV. Except for dialog from secondary characters and the like, the book is written entirely in the character’s voice. Not yours. (This is critical—we’ll revisit in a minute.)
An in-between case, of course, is third person POV. And even this is on a continuum, with ‘omniscient third’ being mostly the author’s voice, and ‘close third’ being in (or near) the character’s head at times. Overall, think of this as “narrative voice.”
A couple things to keep in mind…
When writing in third person (esp. close 3rd), we need to be aware of the difference between the narrative voice and the character’s voice. The latter comes to the front when we see/hear the character’s interior monolog, but also—not quite as obvious—when we’re looking at the world around them through their eyes, yet their views are being transported to us via the narration. It can be a nuanced balance, more distant than the constant “I, I, I” of in-the-head first person, yet clearly closer than 3rd omni or non-fiction narrative.
The other thing to keep in mind—and perhaps the main point here, as many of us working in fiction are working in 1st, especially those of us working in kidlit—has to do with writing from the direct point of view of someone who is not you. They may look like you… same age, gender, race, religion, etc. Or not. But regardless—if this is truly a work of fiction--they are not you.
So we should keep our voice out of their mouth.
By getting out of our own heads and into theirs.
What “voice” primarily means—when used by agents and editors discussing fiction—is the character’s voice, as evidenced in their interior monolog. And of course, if written in 1st person, virtually the entire book—minus any dialog—is interior monolog. (Or narrative description/exposition by the viewpoint character, which is close enough to interior monolog for these purposes.)
So the entire book is in “voice.” But not your voice. Your character’s voice.
Which means we need to really know them. To the point where we’ve internalized their personality, so we can wear it like a comfortable old sweater when we sit down to write. I’m going to suggest that if we have to think, “Hmm… what might someone like my character say in this situation, and how might they say it?” then maybe we don’t yet know them well enough to be writing in their voice.
Have you ever read something featuring a young character who seems to have the intellect/education/experience of a thirty-something college graduate? This can happen when we conflate our voice with our character’s voice. (I’ve had writers ask if they should add more metaphors, etc., to their fiction in an effort to have a more “writerly voice.” This is art, not science, so I hate to give yes or no answers to these things. Plus it's subjective as hell. But generally, in terms of reader engagement, I would say probably not. It would take us further from our character… and our readers. Which is exactly the opposite effect we generally wish to have with fiction.)
One good mitigation strategy here is to ask ourselves (and others who are conversant on the topic), “Is this the way a 13-year-old would talk?” And more important, “Is this the way a 13-year-old would think?” Not how we might want them to talk and think and act (because one of the very worst things we can do is write fiction that’s either prescriptive or proscriptive, telling kids what to think and do… or not think and do). But how they might really think and act. Then spend some quality time with your characters until you’ve absorbed their personalities to the point where you no longer have to ask the question.
Having said that, we’re not looking for some sort of “Jane/Joe Average 13-Year-Old” here. Your characters are probably different in some regard… maybe a lot different. (Which generally makes for a more compelling story, regardless.) But even a complete genius of a 13-year-old is still a 13-year-old, and doesn’t have the perspective of someone who’s been walking the planet for an additional 20 or 30 or 40 years.
So… we want to create characters who feel real to us… so real that we actually care about them, and what happens to them. (This, of course, is the big fat secret to getting readers—including agents and editors—to care about them. And connection to your characters may be the most important factor in getting a positive response from gatekeepers and readers, along with sentence-level craft.) For a deeper dive into caring about your characters, see this.
And finally, “voicey” (when used as a complimentary adjective by agents/editors) means having a character with an interesting, unique, accessible voice… readily identifiable and engaging in some way (humorous, snarky, poetic, wryly observant, geekily sincere, etc.) such that their voice itself adds significantly to the enjoyment of—and engagement with—the work. (In short: Is it fun to spend time in your character’s head?)
And—along with everything above—it should feel real. All this is not necessarily as simple as placing your inciting incident 37% of the way through Act 1, but perhaps more likely to grab—and hold—the attention of the person at the other end of your manuscript.
What do these books have in common…?
The Scorpio Races
The Fault in our Stars
The Running Dream
100 Sideways Miles
The Queen’s Gambit
Even Road Rash, not that I’m placing it with the above. Heck, even my new YA novel which will pub in the fall of next year. And the one after that, which I’m currently polishing…
These books have lots of struggles, lots of challenges, lots of setbacks and victories and defeats and triumphs. All done differently. But what they have in common is… no bad guy. Not that they don’t have unlikeable secondary characters, even some downright jerks and full-on asshats. But…
No arch enemy.
No mortal opponent.
No “antagonist” in “direct conflict” with the “hero” as she/he is “set into action” by the “inciting incident” and struggles to achieve their “hidden desire.”
To be clear, I’m NOT saying that having an antagonist (or even an old-fashioned villain) is a bad thing. Many stories have one, including some great works. (Where would Harry be without Voldemort? Or Luke without Darth? Or Frodo without Sauron?)
Bad guys can be great—they can add danger, action, and conflict, and there’s wonderful satisfaction in seeing a bad guy get his comeuppance in a story’s climactic scene (whether that’s an embarrassing defeat or full-on death and destruction).
So… Yay, bad guys!
My point is that novel writing is far less formulaic and far more open-ended and organic than some would have us believe. Of course, one benefit of having specific, Boolean rules is that it’s pretty easy to bundle them all up and say, “Apply these to achieve success!” And then simply list all the mechanical attributes that supposedly go into a work of great fiction.
On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to sell a book (or program or system or webinar) that says: “This is art. There are no rules. No formula. Do what you want. The challenge is to do it well enough that people will pay for it, read it, and recommend it. Work hard. Don’t shop it until it’s absolutely as good as it can be. Never stop improving, never stop working on your craft. Maintain a positive attitude, and for God’s sake, persevere. Good luck.”
(There. My goofy little take on how to succeed as a writer. Free of charge.)
As you’ve likely guessed, this post actually has nothing to do with antagonists. It has more to do with the fact that if a foundational aspect of the conventional wisdom on “How to write a novel!” can be completely missing from many novels—including some beloved, critically acclaimed, bestselling books—then maybe all the other CW* around “how to write a novel” is suspect as well…?
[*As I’ve alluded to before, I think the reason for much of this—the paint-by-numbers CW we often see online around writing novels—can be attributed to the fact that although they seem similar, in reality a screenplay and a novel are about as alike as a song and a poem. In other words, not very. It may make for an easier sales pitch to pretend they’re the same, but IMO it makes for less engaging novels. And of course, if you want to sell a manuscript the primary goal is to engage the buyer… whether agent, editor, or reader.]
All of which makes you wonder if disrupting some of the other foundational aspects of writing CW can lead to interesting stories. Like, what about a story that starts so ‘in medias res’ that there literally is no inciting incident? (Maybe we’re fully in when we join the story. ‘And We Stay’ by Jenny Hubbard had some of this vibe about it, to great effect IMO.) Or instead of none, maybe a story that has two or more inciting incidents, perhaps one pushing the protagonist toward the cliff and the other completely over it? (My book-after-next has a whiff of this.) Or maybe a book where the climax of the story is truncated because it turns out that the protagonist simply showing up for the big battle IS the climax, not whether he actually wins or loses? (‘We Are the Goldens’ by Dana Reinhardt had something sort of similar, where the story ended at what might have been the inciting incident in a more typical story.)
And so on…
My point being there is a lot of fertile creative ground out there—much of it relatively untouched—and the novel might be the perfect vehicle to use in exploring it. Because with a book, if you can think it, it can happen. Period. No extra budget needed for special effects, no two-hour runtime limit, no three-minute song length needed to get airplay. It’s wide open. And if the world you need to set your story in doesn’t exist… you simple build the damn thing.
The sky’s the limit, as long as you follow the dictum listed earlier:
Do whatever you want… as long as you do it well enough that people will pay for it, read it, and enjoy it.
The more I pay attention to it, the more I begin to believe that one factor may be more important to producing quality work than any other: The ability to recognize it.
And taking it one step further, the ability to recognize its absence.
And finally, the ability/willingness to replace <non-quality work> with <quality work>.
The above posits two things:
1. We can produce quality work at times.
(This seems to apply to every single writer I know.)
2. We are imperfect, and don’t always produce quality work.
(This also seems to apply to every single writer I know.)
Therefore, we can do good work, yet we don’t always do good work. Why is this? I mean, wouldn’t we want everything we do to be “quality” work?
I believe it’s partially because we don’t always take the steps necessary to recognize when we’re not doing quality work. This takes time, effort, and an understanding of what constitutes good work*.
[*I realize this opens the huge can of wildly subjective worms known as: What is good writing? We’re certainly not going to solve that one here, and far be it from me to set the bar for this, regardless. So for the sake of this discussion, let’s loosely accept “Writing which you and agents and editors and publishers and especially readers believe does an effective job at conveying the story such that it feels like ‘lived experience’ to the reader. It doesn’t take the reader out of the story, or get in the way of the story, but instead presents it as an emotional experience that feels real – at least in the moment – to the reader. Regardless of the type of story.” Let’s go with that for now… ]
One could undertake a focused study specifically designed to help them recognize, understand, and—hopefully—produce quality work in fiction. (There are a number of MFA programs aimed at exactly this. Some of them are even genre-focused, such as a deep dive into kidlit, etc.) Some writers take this path, and some have good results with it. In my view, any educational experience that asks the student to look deeply into why something works or doesn’t work is likely to be beneficial on some level. (And aside from that, there are lots of other opportunities to study the craft both within and outside the traditional educational environment.)
On the opposite end, you could simply read with abandon – broadly, deeply, and at a high volume. This—although usually done without the knowledge at the time that it’s great training for being a writer—is how many of us learned the fundamentals of the craft. If we’ve spent a significant amount of time reading as described, it would be hard not to absorb and internalize at least some of the precepts of “good” writing*. (This assumes we’re reading “good” writing, but again simplifying for the sake of discussion: We’re very likely reading what we will later want to produce—publishable fiction that we like in a genre with which we’re familiar. Which is close enough for now.)
[*Synchronicity! I just read an interview in a separate-yet-still-creative field (audio mastering) which said, about the same concept, “There is something that comes from that level of immersion where the depth of what is absorbed cannot be fully articulated. It is the repetition, the problem solving, and the law of big numbers. Smaller samplings don’t reveal as much information…” I couldn’t agree more.]
This doesn’t automatically make us a good writer, any more than being a music lover automatically makes us a good musician. But at least it gives us a critical bar to aim for. In the hierarchy of self-knowledge, going from “unconsciously incompetent” to “consciously incompetent” is a massive step in the right direction. (Because once we know we need to improve—and where—we’re on your way. But until then, we’re sort of stuck.)
Taking the music analogy a little further, when young musicians first learn how to play, they almost universally work up a set of cover tunes—they learn to play popular (and generally good) songs, by popular (and generally good) bands. They’re not doing it as a conscious study of “what the greats of the field have done before us.” They’re not doing it as a study at all. They’re doing it because (1) it’s fun to play cool tunes, (2) they want to jam with friends, and it really helps to have some agreed-upon songs they can all play, and (3) they want to gig, which means they have to learn and play songs other people want to hear. Yet in this process they’re also unintentionally giving themselves an education that’s vital to continuing their musical journey. (And as a counterpoint, occasionally you’ll hear a competent musician try to play a song in a certain style—funk or country or blues or whatever—and it’s clear they haven’t ever really listened to that genre.)
You see this sometimes with writing. You’ll read something by someone with the ability to put together well-written sentences, yet when you read it, you might think: Have they ever even read a romance (or SF or mystery or YA or whatever)…? Because it’s written in a way that indicates unfamiliarity with the canon. (And consider the following: whoever reads your Romance/SF/Mystery/YA novel will likely have already read a ton of Romance/SF/Mystery/YA novels… even if you haven’t. And they’ll be comparing it to everything that’s gone before. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be unique, but there’s a significant difference between “new & unique” and “misses the mark.”)
And finally, you’ll sometimes see a manuscript containing good writing (however we define it) followed by a patch of over-baked, cliched writing. And the question here might be: Can they not see the difference between this stuff right here and that stuff over there, only three pages away?
I’m going to suggest that maybe they actually can’t. At least, maybe not in the moment. And the reason for that may be that they spend a certain amount of their reading time perusing work that has the very issue described above. Which can have the opposite result as the “raising the bar” effect that can come from reading really good stuff. I’ve personally noticed a phenomenon where if I’ve recently read a fair amount of “not so good” work (however we define that), my own writing seems to suffer. I’m not sure exactly why, but the effect seems to be real. Maybe it sort of de-calibrates my “quality compass”…? (Imagine if you watched a whole bunch of subpar, student-made, cliché-ridden slasher films, then set out to make a moving, nuanced, coming-of-age film? I’m guessing you might be better off studying the masters, instead.)
Which is why I not only say ‘Read Good, Write Good,’ but also… perhaps… ‘Read Bad, Write Bad.’
Sometimes a producer, during the pre-production phase of making a record, will distribute a list of records for the bandmembers to listen to prior to going in to the studio. Maybe records that have a certain vibe or quirkiness or sophistication (or whatever aspect the producer wants to spotlight). This is not in an effort to tell them, “Let’s play music just like this!” It’s more to give them an overall bar to shoot for… often the records are in a completely different genre than the record they’re going to make. (Which is all the better, as copying it is completely off the table.)
So… perhaps we can do likewise if/when we find ourselves a little adrift regarding being able to self-critique our own work for whatever reason. Prior to starting a recent realistic/contemporary novel, in an effort to calibrate my “What does good look like?” meter, I read a book in a totally different field (magic realism, in this case). It was very different from my work in a lot of fundamental ways (character, voice, vibe, plot, etc.) but it was brilliantly written, it let me know what was possible, and it sort of put me in the frame of mind to try to “get out there and do good work.”
So… happy reading!
The “Three E’s” of novel writing—as I see them—are Events, Engagement, and Execution. They form the three-legged stool on which a strong manuscript depends, and we can get in trouble if we’re leaning too hard on one while ignoring the others.
Let’s break this down a bit…
Events = The storyline aspect of your novel. The concept, the pitch, the premise, the plot. This can include the setting and time of the story—if important to the concept—but overall it can be thought of as “What happens to whom, and when.”
Engagement = The aspect of the story that allows you as the author to become connected to it, and which also acts as the emotional point of entry the reader needs if the story is to resonate with them. Various aspects of a story can provide this connection, but humans are hardwired to care about humans so the most visceral connection is usually through your characters.
Execution = Not only how you write it (style) but how well you write it (craft). Is the story told in such a way that it not only conveys the concepts in your head, but gets them across to the reader in a way that carries emotional weight? (It’s sort of like 1 + 2 = 3. How do you get events to affect a reader? Usually by focusing on how they affect a character with whom the reader has identified.)
Clearly these aspects are not mutually exclusive, and sometimes overlap. (Style and craft are often blurred together for me, and both can certainly affect the engagement of the reader, hopefully in an intentional way.) But to one degree or another they all need to be in the mix.
However, it seems like lately we might be putting more emphasis on the “Events” leg of the stool. Which can be great—I mean, who doesn’t like a well-plotted novel?—except it seems to be to the exclusion of the other two legs. Which can be a problem, as we’ll see.
But first, why is this happening? I think it’s a sign of the times, a byproduct of the information age. We’ve gotten used to answers at our fingertips—the quicker and soundbitier, the better. And we like things laid out in easy-to-follow listicle fashion: Do A, then B, then C… then arrive at Success!
This “just add water” approach doesn’t work well with the “Engagement” aspect of fiction. This is a subjective, emotional component to our writing, really nuanced and usually requiring multiple iterations to arrive at something that will actually move our readers in an emotional fashion to the point where they care deeply for our characters and are willing to follow them anywhere.
There’s no paint-by-numbers approach to “Execution,” either. Take everything we just said about characterization and expand it to include every aspect of the manuscript: voice, description, setting, theme, dialog, action, interior monolog, vibe, etc. There is a TON of finesse and nuance here, requiring a lot of time and energy to make it as good as it can be. Sounds like a long, hard process, I know, but (in my most humble opinion) this is the shit, right here, that will set your work apart from the myriad of other works cranked out without the care and attention the written word deserves.
So what’s left? “Events.” They dovetail nicely with the Boolean how-to concept of Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. And a dizzying number of guidelines are available, varying in granularity from “Have some events… and maybe a beginning, middle, and ending” to “Here are the five… or seven… or nine… or twelve (up to fifteen in some cases) essential plot events for your story!” Because I spend a certain amount of time reading online about publishing and writing, my social media feed is full of ads promising to help you “Write your novel!” A quick perusal shows that most of these teach almost nothing about the craft of writing, but are mainly a fill-in-the-blanks template meant to give you a perfectly plotted plot-ish plot (from which you magically create a meaningful work of art almost as an afterthought). One I checked out just this morning had a timeline for creating an 80,000 word novel via their method. After filling out the plot creation template, the calendar allotted you something like three weeks to draft it. (“It’s simple! You just follow the plot we’ve created, so it’ll flow from your fingertips!”)
Okay, it’s way too easy to burn that straw man to the ground, so moving on…
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with knowing exactly where you’re going ahead of the journey, including all the little way-points along the path--if that works best for you and your creative mind—but thinking a story-beat template automatically makes for a well-crafted novel is like thinking that having a cookbook automatically makes for a great meal… there might be a little more to it than that.
The potential problem is, if you don’t apply equal attention to the actual crafting of the thing, you’re likely to end up with a book that reads like a litany of ideas, concepts, and plot events, as opposed to creating an emotional experience within the reader’s mind that has the depth, complexity, and nuance of actual lived experience.
Because that last part—having the feel of actual lived experience—is what ultimately grabs the reader. And if it’s not there, having all your story-ducks in a row isn’t likely to keep the reader turning pages if they don’t care about the people involved.
But interestingly, the opposite can often be true: you’ll rarely see a really well written book with engaging characters fail simply due to a lack of approved story-beats. When NYT bestselling & Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead was asked about the plot of his novel Sag Harbor, he said, “Well, nothing much really happens.” Which is true. Yet the critics fell all over themselves praising it, using words like: Carefully observed and beautifully written. Delicious. Enchanting. Lyrical. Hilarious. And, perhaps most telling, He can write sentences like nobody’s business (“Execution”) and, Stokes our emotions and intellect at once (“Engagement”).
(Oh yeah… and people bought it. And read it. And loved it. Lots of people.)
I need to stop here and reiterate that I’m not saying plot is secondary or unimportant or anything of that nature. Plot is fundamental—it’s the framework upon which we build our work.
So why am I bringing all this up? Simply because more and more I see aspiring writers mistakenly thinking that plotting is it. That writing fiction consists of knowing where the beats lie, and nothing more. And I understand why—we’re inundated with the concept these days, because it’s far easier to sell a “system” than to engage in a nuanced discussion around the art and craft of writing. (Although there are some great books that discuss the nuances of the art form. Three of my favorites are On Writing, Bird by Bird, and Hope in the Mail.)
And when one of these aspirational efforts fails (for whatever value of fail has significance to you—commercially or artistically or fails to land an agent or editor) it’s usually not due to a lack of Events, but to issues with Engagement and Execution.
It’s pretty rare for a rejection letter to say, “The writing was wonderful and I was so invested in your character, but… I just wish more stuff happened!” (Partly because this is eminently fixable, and may result in a request to R&R… “Revise and Resubmit.”) On the other hand, “I just didn’t feel connected to the main character” (Engagement) and “I just didn’t love the writing” (Execution) are probably the two most common reasons agents and editors give for passing.
So… by all means, do all the event-planning and story-boarding you need to do to be able to write your book. But if things aren’t working out, don’t automatically default to thinking you somehow need a newer/bigger/better system to follow. There’s a good chance the fix may lie in giving the second and third “E” at least as much attention as the first.
Maybe “luck” isn’t the perfect word here. But it’s way less clunky than, “The strategic optimization of your odds of success.”
Yes, there is an element of random chance at play in almost anything we aspire to. But in my experience, it’s also true that the harder you work, the luckier you get.
In other words, there are odds, but there are also ways to increase the odds. How…?
First off, you not only need to be willing to work long and hard, but smart. (And of the three, smart may be the most important. Imagine some dude who spends years on his manuscript, then simply shotguns the whole thing to every single agent he can find in Writer’s Market—literally hundreds of them—no matter their requirements or list. And each with the same cover letter, which probably starts with, “Dear Agent…” No matter what, this guy isn’t likely to ever have “good luck.”)
Awareness of your field will greatly increase your “luck.” Study the market—not because you’re going to write to it, but because you’re going to sell what you’ve written into it—and figure out who’s buying what. Then target the best “who” with your best “what” as intelligently and professionally as you can.
In other words, pay attention.
To agents. To editors. To publishers. To art directors (if you’re an illustrator). To School & Library marketing personnel (if you’re a kidlit author). All these people are industry gurus who work in the field every day, and have the straight info. And pay attention to authors. Including those who are repped by agents you’d like to be repped by, selling to editors you’d like to sell to, published by houses you’d like to be published by, and—especially—writing the types of books you’d like to write. (The way you pay attention to these is to read those books, of course. It’s a subject for another post, but I can’t imagine anyone succeeding in a specific genre without reading pretty widely in that genre. Yet I see the opposite of this all the time… not exactly the definition of “working smarter,” is it?)
Industry personnel are people. With literary likes and dislikes. And they sometimes discuss these on social media. Follow them. Pay attention to who’s repping what. PW regularly puts out roundup reports of recent book deals, including editor/author/agent/house/etc. Editors (and agents) frequently post their "manuscript wish list" desires using #MSWL. (Some may say “agented submissions only.” That’s fine. If you have a manuscript that really fits what a legit editor is looking for, this is definitely worth a mention in your query to an agent. Just get on it—these things all have a “use by” date…)
I had a writer describe his completed manuscript to me—a political thriller—and ask for advice on next steps. I said it sounded a lot like a certain popular TV series. He agreed it was in the same ballpark. I said, “Well, agent so-and-so’s favorite TV series happens to be that show. She tweets about it regularly. I would read three or four books she’s repped which you think are in a similar genre, then polish the heck out of your manuscript, write a brief, compelling, complimentary-yet-professional query letter, and submit to her. Then go through the same process with at least a dozen more good agent candidates. That might be a good first step…”
I guess the takeaway here is, there is so much useful, actionable information available these days about the workings of the publishing industry that you’re doing yourself a major disservice if you don’t do a little research before trying to place your hard-won manuscript.
4.1 (bonus) Talent…
This comes up a lot: But what about talent? Yes, talent is absolutely a factor, and I think we can all agree that at least a modicum of it is required in order to commit successful writing.
But what is it?
That’s an age-old question. My personal answer is that it resides somewhere at the intersection of Heart and Craft, honed with desire over time (Persistence)… and the more you apply these factors, the more likely you are to have “Luck.”
Some regard talent as inborn, some as a mysterious proclivity toward certain art forms, some as a gift from on high, visited upon the lucky. So instead of those vague definitions, let’s talk about other words. Facility. Skill. Mastery. And perhaps the most important… Affinity.
Because really, it’s largely about desire and effort, over time. You rarely hear someone say, “I don’t care at all about playing the violin and I’ve never really put any time or effort into it, yet for some reason I’m a virtuoso.”
I think it’s largely a circular self-fulfilling prophecy… you think you might like something so you try it, you find you enjoy it so you continue doing it, the practice helps you get better at it, which makes you like it even more, so you do it even more, so you get even better, and… Voila! You’ve acquired a certain amount of skill at it, and if you truly enjoy it (and we tend to enjoy things we excel at), you’re likely to continue the practice until you’ve gained a level of mastery at it.
Yes, people’s minds all work differently, and may be drawn toward different things… perhaps language, or music, or visual arts, or physical expression. And this can add to the early “you find you enjoy it” factor, making it more likely that not only do you practice it, but you also tend to think about it when not practicing it. Which adds not only to the enjoyment of it, but the facility at it.
Because through this you’ve developed an affinity for your chosen art form, which is a definite advantage in acquiring mastery. (People rarely get really good at something they don’t truly enjoy, which is why people who take up something as a route to fame and fortune—as opposed to having a love of the art form itself—rarely achieve success. Because the “Heart” factor is missing.)
So, that sums up our four attributes of successful writing. This is obviously experiential opinion, not concrete fact. Because writing is art, not science. And these attributes are not always separate, discreet steps—they combine to form a unified mindset which will help you get to wherever it is you want to go. They feed into each other…
Without Heart, you won’t have enough emotional investment to spend the time to fully invest your Craft into the story, and without Persistence, you won’t give Luck a fighting chance to come through for you.
Best of luck!
Okay, maybe there is a formula to this after all. My personal equation for it…
P = ET, where…
P = Persistence
E = Effort
T = Time
In other words, persistence is how hard you’re willing to work for something times how long you’re willing to work for it.
Success—even so-called overnight success—almost always comes from regular, incremental steps forward over time. Without getting discouraged to the point of permanently quitting. My take on it is that “failure” is simply what “success” looks like from the middle of the process.
Accept that there are going to be more strikeouts than homeruns by a large margin… that’s the nature of the game. The answer is to keep working, keep improving, and keep swinging.
This applies to every step along the pathway… You will likely have to query multiple times to get a partial request. Perhaps several partials to get a full. Probably more than one full to get an offer of representation. Then your agent may not land a deal with the very first editor she submits to… and maybe not with her first sublist. And maybe not with that particular manuscript at all.
You have to be okay with that. It’s not always fun (tell me about it) but the challenge is to reject rejection of a manuscript as rejection of you—or of your writing in general—and get back in the ring.
You are selling into a buyer’s market. Always have been, always will be. This doesn’t mean you won’t eventually sell. This just means the buyers will be picky… you need to find the right buyer at the right time who’s in the market for what you’re currently selling. But keep your head up, because new books are being acquired every day. And a fair number of them from debut authors.
Persistence also comes into play during the writing itself. Yes, you need to keep writing if you want to make it to the end, but I’m talking about after you’ve finished drafting it. We’ve already touched on revision, so I’ll just say that this is what often separates the women from the girls: the ability to roll up your sleeves (after celebrating completing your first draft!) and do the less glamorous work of making your story so strong (compelling, engaging, unique, emotional, entertaining, resonant…) that someone can’t say no to it. Not everyone will be unable to resist it, of course, but it only takes one. Our job is to keep it in the market until it finds that kindred person.
In other words, be persistent enough that you eventually get lucky.
“…the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence—an overwhelming determination to succeed.”
~ Sophy Burnham
I believe the single most important factor in publishing success is having a strong manuscript. (There are other factors—mostly (a) rolling up your sleeves and doing some serious, organized, thorough research, (b) querying in an intelligent, friendly-yet-business-like, non-sociopathic manner, and (c) the willingness to work with your agent and/or editor to further improve the story, once they’ve taken you on. Most of these are covered in Parts 3 & 4, coming up soon.)
But having a strong manuscript is by far the biggest part of it, and without it, it won’t matter how much you network and schmooze and spam. You can’t talk someone into liking your manuscript—you can only write them into liking it, by doing a great job of crafting it. However, you can easily talk someone out of wanting to read it, so pay attention to (b) above.
“Writing craft” can be an endless topic—and there are a lot of good books on the subject, as discussed here—so I’m only going to touch on two fundamentals: story creation and revision. In other words, the beginning and end of the novel writing process.
Story Creation: Many writing books, podcasts, blogs, etc. focus on the process of plot outlining, some to the point of methodically laying out prescribed beats and when to hit them. Yet many writers are self-proclaimed pantsers to one degree or another. Stephen King famously “doesn’t plot,” and I recall hearing a million-selling British thriller writer say he rarely knows where he’s going beyond the next five pages.
So what’s up with these seemingly conflicting paradigms? Is one method better and the other a waste of time? I don’t think so. They both clearly work well for different writers, and many (most?) of us are actually somewhere in between, sometimes going from plotting to pantsing on the same project.
But here’s another angle on the ‘plotting vs. pantsing’ issue:
They’re actually the same thing.
With both of them, your brain creates a plot and follows it to the end of the story. The difference being simply when the major plot points are decided upon.
Consider two cooks, baking the same dessert in different kitchens. (Let’s say bread pudding, because…bread pudding.) One gets out the recipe card, lays out the ingredients, follows the instructions—maybe varying them slightly according to her taste—and gets a tasty dessert.
The other has cooked (and as important, eaten with attention) quite a bit, and has a pretty good idea what to put in the dish to get something she thinks her guests will like. So she jumps right in, adding the basic ingredients she thinks belong in this particular bread pudding, maybe varying the spices slightly according to her intuitive sense of what will work. And gets a tasty dessert.
They both chose to use specific amounts of specific ingredients to arrive at roughly similar results. But in one case, the measurements were mostly determined ahead of time, while in the other, they were mostly determined during the process… which doesn’t mean they were just randomly guessed at.
It’s the same with plot construction. It’s not that the pantser just wildly throws stuff into the manuscript at random. It’s that they've read enough and/or written enough and/or thought about it enough that they have internalized the fundamental process of “story,” and don’t necessarily need to write it all down… any more than a cook needs to dig out a recipe to whip up a batch of waffles. But they’re still following the basic principles of good storytelling.
So we get to a little sub-secret: Read. A lot. In a lot of genres. And age ranges. Try to read good stories, well-loved stories, award winning stories, innovative stories, popular stories, classic stories, experimental stories. And those interesting little bastard mutt stories nobody else seems to love... but which speak to you anyway. (Those are the best stories, of course.)
You will absorb storytelling, and you will naturally absorb more of the type of storytelling that resonates most with you. And later, when you’re in the middle of your manuscript—whether plotted or pantsed or somewhere in between—and your brain throws out a flyer that wasn’t exactly in the masterplan, give that little bastard mutt of an idea a chance to develop into a contender before tossing it.
Story Revision: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a draft—my own or someone else’s—that couldn’t be substantially improved through thoughtful and thorough revision. But more important than what I think, virtually every editor I’ve seen discuss craft has said the same thing. We’ve talked about what an editor actually does in detail before, but here’s the TL;DR: Scraping a manuscript for mechanical errors—spelling, punctuation, grammar, and basic continuity--ISN’T EDITING (nor is it revision). And does almost nothing to improve the fundamental story contained within the manuscript. (Yes, you still absolutely need to do it before sending your manuscript to an agent or editor—or “pressing publish”—but that’s beside the point.)
Just today I heard an editor say she cringes when she sees an aspiring writer doing first-round revisions at the sentence level, agonizing over commas, etc., because at that point the priority should be revision based on story development, making the story as strong and impactful as possible… tightening up dragging sections, making scenes carry their weight and have as much emotional resonance as possible. (Plus it’s pretty inefficient to worry about commas first, when the whole paragraph or page is likely to change… or be cut entirely.)
I filed the following under “Important Things I Have Learned…”
I have learned that when I write something I think is great as-is and I give it a quick spit-shine and excitedly send it out… it doesn’t get published. With everything I’ve ever had published, I did judicious post-first-draft work before submission.
And… this holds true for every author I know.
So please learn from my mistakes—if you write something you think is awesome and you’re proud of it, resist the urge to quickly spell check it, have your friend-with-English-degree read it and give you the thumbs up, then submit it. Because it probably is awesome, and you probably should be proud of it. So you should give it the best chance to succeed against all the other (likely more polished) works it’s up against. Because after an agent has passed on a manuscript, they’re typically disinclined to ever look at it again, even if you realize the error of your ways and do the work to make it “ready for primetime.” (And with editors it’s even worse, as once an editor at a given imprint has passed on a manuscript, all the other editors at that imprint typically won’t look at it, either.)
So that’s my .02 on the beginning and the completion of the novel writing process. In between, it’s just a lot of good old-fashioned hard work. Which we’ll talk about next time…
I was doing a workshop for young writers recently and as usual I started with a quick assessment…
Who writes—or wants to write—the following:
And so on…
The good news is I saw several hands go up for each area, and many of them went up multiple times.
Then on a whim I added, …and what about fanfic?
Lots of hands, and (even more important) lots of excitement. “Awesome!” I said, and we were off and running.
Fast-forward to a while later, as we’re discussing the revision process. I’m trying to give them two fundamental takeaways…
1. Revision can really improve our work.
2. Revision can really be enjoyable. (Because without them buying into #2, #1 isn’t likely to happen.)
The first one is pretty direct: Revision is where you can go from good to great, etc., along with explaining various reasons why virtually any manuscript can be made better with judicious revision. The teachers are nodding in agreement, and the students seem to get the idea. In theory.
The second one is a harder sell. I talk about how I changed my mindset from dreading revision to enjoying it. “Look at it this way: you’ve actually reached the end, and in the big picture it probably hangs together as a story to one degree or another. So the stress of wondering if you’re even going to finish the initial draft is gone. You made it! Now you get to return to your world and make it even better and—”
I stopped, as something struck me. “Remind me again—who’s into fan fiction?” Three fourths of the students put their hands up. “Well, this is similar.” I had their attention now, if not their concurrence. “With fanfic, you start with a world you love and characters you love and a basic story holding it all together, right?” They nodded. “So you don’t have to do the heavy lifting of world-building or character creation or fundamental rulemaking because it’s already been taken care of, right?” More nods. “So, you guys are basically saying that the fun of it is, you get to dive back into that world and improve things and add new things and just generally make it into the story you always thought it should be. Sound familiar?”
The room lit up with fifty or so lightbulbs turning on. Including the one above my head.
It was my turn to nod. “So it sounds like… revision is doing fan fiction on your own story!”
And it is.
My views on revision changed when I began to realize it was an opportunity to go back to the world I’d created—and the characters I’d created and was invested in—and play around some more. (With credit to my child bride here, because she got over her dislike of rewriting before I did and thus helped show me there was light at the end of the tunnel.)
And I think a big part of this is—as we’ve discussed before—reading like a reader instead of a writer: Take some time away from the story then go through it like a fan. And as you read, keep note of the things that bore you or confuse you or that you’d just like to see done better or different.
Then take that punch list and go back through it as “writer you” and make all the changes that “reader you” was wishing for, making sure the transitions are smooth and natural and that none of the stitches are visible after the surgery.
And when you’re done… congratulations! You’ve just created some awesome fanfic based on the work of an author near and dear to you.
…so five minutes ago—as I write this—one of the best writers I know is working toward the end of perhaps the best thing she’s ever written, and tears are pouring down her face.
She notices me in the room and looks up from her laptop, eyes wide. I don’t even have to ask. “Oh, my poor little friends!” she says by way of explanation, then blinks as more tears run down her face. And—because I know her little friends too—I nod, and suddenly find myself involuntarily joining in.
I can think of no better illustration of honest-to-God writer engagement. And I believe pretty firmly that without writer engagement—real, gut-level, emotional involvement with your characters—it’s very hard to generate that level of reader engagement.
In other words, you have to give a shit.
And how do we do that?
A good start might be to internalize the concept that caring is an emotion, not a thought.
The good news is we all have a built-in barometer for things like this. We don’t have to think about it—in fact, thinking about it puts us at one more degree of remove from it. An analogy might be our sense of taste. When we take a bite of something—for example, homemade hand-cranked vanilla ice cream—most of us can answer the question, “Do you like it?” without too much intellectualizing, especially if we just listen to our initial emotional response and don’t think things like, ‘Is this healthy?’ or ‘Is this considered quality food?’ or ‘Do other people like it?’
The same can apply to your characters. Instead of thinking (there’s that word again), ‘My character has been designed with these attributes and those personality traits and faces this specific challenge—which the reader should be able to relate to,’ maybe ask yourself the simple question, ‘Do I care about them?’ Go with your gut response here rather than an intellectual one.
[NOTE: This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like them, although it can certainly help you—and readers—care about them and what happens to them. There’s a time-honored place in literature for the unlikeable protagonist, although this only seems to really work when the author sets out from page one to purposely create a fascinating-yet-unlikeable protagonist. I think the fairly common criticism of a book “having an unlikeable main character” usually means the author unintentionally created a not-very-likeable character. This is a subject deserving of its own post, but one thing that can definitely help here is the use of good betas.]
[NOTE #2: We should also recognize there are plenty of novels where having an emotional connection with the main character isn’t a top priority, either for the author or the reader. These could be plot-driven thrillers or humorous capers or broad historicals or any number of other types. And these can certainly be entertaining, successful works, but they’re typically not as likely to be the sort of stories readers bond with for the long haul… the type that sometimes come to be known as “beloved.” Maybe because humans seem to be hardwired to be more invested when there’s a person in the story they truly care about.]
So how can we raise the odds of this connection happening?
I think it’s largely a matter of spending time with them. I have a theory that, everything else being equal, the more time we spend with someone—assuming they’re generally good people—the more they come to mean to us. (I think this may be anthropologically tied to the human concept of “family.”) Regardless, by “spending time” I don’t necessarily mean writing a thousand page book about them. I mean letting them occupy space in your head… and in your heart.
When possible, spend some non-writing time thinking about them, just running scenarios through your head and imagining what they might do in various situations. Yes, this’ll also help you come up with plot ideas, but maybe even more important, it’ll help you get to know about them—and care about them—as individuals.
And if we invest enough time, attention, and research into our characters, they can become real to us. Not real in a “break with reality and visit the psych ward” sense. Real in an emotional sense. In the same sense that we—as readers—might care about Harry & Hermione & Ron or Hazel Grace & Augustus or Liesel & Rudy or whichever characters you’ve ever found yourself personally invested in.
And if you develop an emotional attachment to your characters to the extent that you find yourself springing a leak over your ‘little friends,’ take it as a sign that your readers might feel the same way.
Which—when you boil it all down—is the whole point of what we’re trying to do here, right?
No, this post isn’t about music, but the above impromptu clip can serve as a writing analogy. It’s just a simple little groove, shot with a phone, with no rehearsal or audio processing or anything.
In other words, it’s the first draft of an idea, not a polished manuscript. It could undoubtedly be better were it rehearsed, recorded with decent microphones, and mixed with some processing. (In writer-speak, it needs revision, polishing, and editing.) And already I can tell how I’d “rewrite” it. (IMO it should be maybe 10 bpm slower, with a little more triplet feel “swing,” more quarter-note accents on the cymbal bell, and a little more orchestration around the kit, instead of primarily on two toms. Perhaps with a shaker overdub. And of course, it should exist within a song, serving as a support structure for other instruments and melodic ideas… it’s certainly not a complete story within itself.)
But still, even in early draft stages, it tells me what I need to know—does it do what I want it to do? Does it evoke a slight world-beat vibe (interesting setting)… can I hear the “song behind the song” (subplot)… does it have an implied melody (theme)…?
And—getting granular here—did the hi-hat add the right texture? Because what makes this little experiment work for me isn’t the obvious stuff (what the hands are doing). To me, what makes it worth exploring at all is what the left foot is doing… the slight jazzy lilt from the little hi-hat notes on the “ands” in between the quarter notes. For me, if they were absent (or—almost worse—right on the 1-2-3-4 quarter notes), then it would be obvious/plodding/boring to the point where I’d have zero interest in using it.
(Think of writing a story about a geeky-yet-goth girl, the adorkable guy who sits behind her in math, their insta-love, and their Scooby gang of misfits that save the world in between episodic bouts of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Yawn. Now make the characters senior citizens, but no ‘Assisted Living Rom-Com’ here—because NFW can they afford it—so they all live in a shitty little trailer park on the edge of town. With the currently-more-ambulatory taking turns caring for the currently-bed-ridden (though they all rotate through all positions sooner or later), until they’re forced to resort to crime to cover the increasing cost of their meds. In between bouts of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, of course. Because really, who’s more likely to blast Zeppelin at annoyingly high volumes—a sixteen-year-old with earbuds or a hard-of-hearing 70-something?)
My point is, sometimes what we need to do to find our emotional way into a story (see: Finding a Way In and a Way Out for more on this) is to change some aspect of the story to make it uniquely ours, to make it fresh, to make it resonate with us. You could age up all your snarky teen characters… by sixty years. You could take a “He Said, She Said” story and instead of showing Scene 1 from her point of view and then Scene 2 from his, you could show Scene 1 from hers, then turn right around and write Scene 1 again, only from his POV. You could tell a poignant wartime tale of destruction and loss, but instead of telling it in the voice of the heroic child protagonist, you could have it narrated by Death, who—far from being a heartless killer—is basically a kind, introspective being who feels overworked by the stupidity of man.
None of these is a gimmick, any more than playing a subtle offbeat with your left foot is a gimmick. The story may work without them, but your particular slant adds an intangible quality, a certain you-ness to it that may not only feel new and unique to the reader but—perhaps more important—feel new and fresh to you… which may give you the inspiration and motivation to dive in and do the hard work necessary to bring it to fruition.
One of my dad’s favorite quotes was a line from The Little Prince: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” He first heard of the quote by way of James Dean (who apparently appreciated it for the way he felt it related to acting). Taking that same philosophy a step further, I’d say it applies to any creative endeavor, whether acting or music or painting… or writing.
So find that little thing… that invisible thing… that essential thing… that makes your story feel like yours and no one else’s. And once you add that small essence to the mix—so small others may not even be aware of it—you’ll have something amazing.
Something only you can do.
Something that is you.
A musician I work with has a saying, occasionally recited when someone in the band isn’t wild about playing a given song: “Every song is someone’s favorite song.”
This applies to a lot of things, even literature. Maybe especially literature. Because you never know when some small throw-away scene is going to resonate with someone…
I’m in a bookstore in Wyoming on book tour when a middle-aged woman corners me, hauls out her personal copy of my book and turns to a specific page, then proceeds to read a specific passage to me. Word for word. “This, right here…” she says when she’s finished, tapping the text with her fingernail, “…is exactly what it feels like.” We have a brief discussion, I thank her for her kind words, and she leaves. That’s it. But it’s clear the scene means a lot to her.
The reason this made such an impression on me is that the scene in question wasn’t what I’d consider one of the signature scenes in the book… not the end of a section or chapter, where you rework it until you think it really conveys what you’re trying to say. And not one of those aha! scenes where you’re revealing important information or the viewpoint character suddenly has an epiphany. It was just a transitional piece of interior monolog between two bits of action.
And yet, to this woman, it had significance. Maybe because it was about something she’d experienced herself, or maybe because it described things in a way that hit home for some reason. Regardless, the scene was important to her, and I was relieved I’d apparently done it justice.
There’s a small scene in one of my favorite novels… almost a throw-away line. Very understated. Basically, someone looks at someone. And not either of the main characters. But upon reading it, the tumblers clicked into place and a minor subplot to the primary story suddenly had more dimension. If you missed it the story would still work just fine, but for me, that small piece of elegant ‘under-explaining’ grew to represent everything I loved about the book as a whole.
In another book I read a few years back, there was a short scene—culminating in a bit of dialog—that really worked for me. Honestly, that brief scene was pretty much the only thing from the book that I can recall in detail, but it was enough. More recently, I was reading an interview with a well-regarded editor. One of the questions was on the topic of favorite books or scenes that the editor had worked on. The editor said what authors and editors always say (…that’s like asking me which kid is my favorite…) but then she added, “Well, there is this one scene in a book I edited…” and proceeded to quote my very favorite line from the book in question. (And yeah, you’d better believe I pay a little more attention to that editor and her work since then.)
On the flip side, there was a bar scene in Road Rash that my editor thought could probably go. (Okay, half the scenes in that book take place in a bar… what can I say?) However, to me it was one of a handful of pivotal scenes in the book, so I felt it should stay (although she has very good instincts and I did tighten it up). The point is, that little scene was one of my ‘favorite songs,’ and I feel that the more the writer is emotionally engaged in the story, the more the reader will be engaged also. (See this post for more on “finding a way in.”)
I’m not saying all the little transition-type bits in our work should have added meaning or extra inflection. Quite the contrary—often the best way to say someone went to the store is to simply write, “She went to the store.” But if there’s a scene that’s about why someone does something, it may be stronger to show the character’s thoughts and feelings around this--from the inside—than to describe it from the outside. Because it’ll inform us much more about the character herself—and how she thinks and feels—than a more objective observation. And having readers identify with your character on an emotional level may be the single most important aspect in getting them to “fall into” your story.
However, you can never really tell which scene or section or bit of dialog is going to grab the reader (because readers are like writers—each unique, with their own tastes and preferences). All we can really do—especially during the rewriting/revising/editing stages—is to consider everything carefully, without thinking, Well, this little throw-away scene doesn’t really matter because it’s just a bit of transition or monolog or explanation. Maybe it’s better if we realize that any of the hundreds of scenes in our books could end up as someone’s favorite scene. And treat them all accordingly.
Because it all matters. We shouldn’t have any throw-away parts. If there are, we should throw them away. But if they’re going to be in the book, we should treat them like they matter.
Because they do.
For various reasons I recently clocked several versions of “Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughn. Virtually all iterations—including the official studio recording—start around 120 bpm but eventually end up (after multiple verses and solos) around 128-132. And no one minds. Or even much notices. Because it totally works, on an artistic level.
Yet were you recording something like this today for a commercial label, there’s a good chance they’d have you record it to a click track (which keeps the tempo absolutely steady). The theory behind using a click is that music supposedly sounds better if the tempo is metronomically perfect. And, arguably, some types might. (Electronica and variants thereof come to mind.) But in practice, the real benefit of using a click has almost nothing to do with the music itself. It’s for the convenience of the producers, because it allows them to edit with impunity between different parts of a take, or between different takes. So the art is fundamentally changed for administrative reasons, rather than the other way around.
Some pretty high-tech people have recently posited that—for time management/productivity purposes—it may be beneficial to write all your tasks on a large physical calendar where you can see everything at a glance. Using a scheduling app on your phone/tablet/computer is great, but when you can see it all at once, laid out in front of you, your brain apparently gets a better overall picture of how to manage your resources.
There’s evidence that hand-written lists may be some of the very best productivity tools available. The act of making/updating/adding/crossing off seems to keep the brain engaged in task completion, and—as with the calendar concept—simply having it in front of you can help you wrap your head around it. Furthermore, just physically writing things down seems to help plant them in our memory differently than reading them or entering them via keyboard.
Anecdotally only, all of the above ring absolutely true. For me. And for my workflow.
I’m happy to gen up a click in the studio if someone wants or needs it—and I’ll play to it—but I’m aware of the artistic costs and I’m also happy to fly untethered, assuming everyone can play together nicely.
I used scheduling tools daily in my corporate gig, but I also was a huge fan of the “big calendar.” (I once made—and pinned up in the office—a really large calendar of the entire upcoming year, with all known events on it, including who was supposed to be doing what, when. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’d see people standing in front of it, holding an impromptu brainstorming session.)
And we definitely live by the written list around here. We even joke that if we complete something that wasn’t on the list, we should write it down then immediately cross it off. And then we’ll do exactly that. Because if the act of doing so causes something positive and productive to happen in our brains, who are we to argue?
The overall point here is (a) there are many different ways to accomplish any given task, and (b) there are many different tools available. I believe it’s helpful to determine your working methods, so you can determine the best tools for you. Regardless of what anyone else is doing.
I used to write mostly by hand, in notebooks. Because much of my writing happened where a computer wasn’t available, and because I was a poor typist. (Somewhere I have a box full of old 6x9 notebooks filled with my handwriting, much of which became published articles, and much of which were typed up by my wonderful wife.) When I bit the bullet and decided to write all initial drafts on a computer not only was my wife happier, but my writing improved. Because—against conventional wisdom—I often wear both “writer” and “editor” hats as I write, and if I compose a bad bit of writing I have difficulty moving on until it’s at least serviceable. On the computer change is fast and easy, so I can rapidly do a first-pass edit at the end of a paragraph or page or scene, then charge forward again.
I know this isn’t the norm, but it’s how my brain likes to work so I accommodate it.
A similar discussion arises around writing software. You’ll see online arguments raging over the “Word vs. Scrivener” debate (or similar) and it invariably follows this script: Player 1 will point out all the things right with Brand X and everything wrong with Brand Y, and Player 2 will do the exact same only in reverse. I think someone’s missing the big picture in these discussions. Not that the tools are the same, but that we (as writers) are different.
Because when it comes to art, “This is better” is meaningless. Unless you add “for me.”
So, analyze the way you work. If your brain needs to know details about where it’s going before it can get there, if it likes to think of “story” as groups of discrete scenes, if it likes to play around with scene arrangement before or during story creation, then you will very likely have better results with writing tools which use the “3x5 card” paradigm and allow you to construct, edit, and re-order scenes at will.
On the other hand, if you’re the old school, strong willed type who gets a rough idea then writes linearly until the end with no real revising before the first draft is finished, you could use a typewriter and get the same results as using the most sophisticated software. (William Gibson used a manual typewriter to write Neuromancer. If that’s not irony, I don’t know what is…)
And if you’re old school and a serious plotter/arranger, you could use real 3x5 cards pinned onto a corkboard. This can actually work pretty well, as it leverages the benefits of the “see it all at a glance” thing we mentioned earlier, and can be rearranged at will.
Personally, I’m somewhere between a pantser and a plotter, and Word has the right balance of simplicity, directness, and functionality… for me. (Or, to put it another way, when I have writing problems they almost never have anything to do with the tools I’m using.)
However… when I’m making notes (of the planning/pondering/plotting kind) it works so much better for me when I write them by hand. And it seems that the more informal (read: quick and dirty) I make the notes, the better. Not only better for actual content, but the better for flow. Which, when spinning ideas out of nothing, is perhaps more important. The best methodology for me is to staple a dozen or so blank pages together—no formal notebook or even lines on the page—and just start scrawling. I’m guessing this works because it sends a signal to my subconscious that this is just play… almost throw-away… which frees up my mind much more than using a fancy notebook which says, This Is Important! Perhaps—for me—it’s harder to be free and creative when I think the results have something really important riding on them, and/or have to be really good right out of the box. I’d rather tell my brain: This doesn’t effing matter. I’m simply blue sky spit-balling, just for fun. Nothing to see here… move along.
I’ll draw a wavy line after a discrete section, to delineate scenes or passing time, but that’s about it. And when an idea comes, I’ll work down to whatever level of granularity my brain will support, until the tank is dry. Sometimes, if I really get going on a scene, I’ll find myself writing actual dialog in what should be my “big picture” plot notes. (Truth be told, my brain probably doesn’t care about the big-picture concept as much as the small-picture, character-oriented stuff. So I go with that.)
And I’ll keep on doing it until I’m out of ideas for the moment. Then the next time I sit down to write, I have some tasty little ideas scratched out, and I get the (for me) exquisite fun of breathing life into them.
All of this works pretty well. For me. And would almost certainly be an absolute fail for a pretty large percentage of other writers out there.
Which is the real point here. Don’t get hung up on other writers’ processes. Unless you’re really lost in the wilderness, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time or energy worrying about which specific tools or methods other people are using. Because, by definition, they are other people. They’re not you. What matters is what remains after the process is finished: the story. Your story. The one that only you can tell. So tell it in a way that works for you, using methods that help you get your best work onto the page, whole and intact.
Older isn’t necessarily better.
Newer isn’t necessarily better.
Cheaper isn’t necessarily better.
More expensive isn’t necessarily better.
Only better is better.
Do what’s better for you.
Various studies have shown that something on the order of 80-90% of American adults wish to write a book.
Which is perfectly fine, except…
Surveys also show that 27% of American adults didn’t read a book at all in the past year. And 40% of them didn’t read a fiction book in the past year. And of those who did, many only read a handful.
So in essence, significantly more people want to write than want to read. Which is analogous to someone saying they want to be a musician but they don’t want to listen to music.
I think this hubris comes from the fact that the vast majority of adults can write, in the functional sense—they can compose a work memo or social media post or email, and for the most part it’ll be comprehensible. Most of us can do this by middle school. (Which, not coincidentally, seems to be where reading peaks out for a lot of us. An issue definitely worth discussing at some point.)
So there may be some sense of, I already know how to write—I learned that in school. In full denial of the fact that there is a craft to writing which goes way beyond obvious things like spelling and punctuation and being able to diagram a sentence. (Similar to how being able to operate the basic controls of a car doesn’t automatically qualify one to enter a NASCAR event.)
Note I’m not suggesting we need an English degree or MFA or anything along those lines in order to write. (But if so, fine. You do you.)
I’m simply saying we need the recognition that there is a craft to be learned. The good news is, much of the pertinent info is available right in front of our eyes, for minimal cost. The amazing learning devices containing this information are called books. There are of course non-fiction ones specifically written to help aspiring writers better learn the fundamentals of writing. (See this post for a round-up of some of our favorites.) But beyond that, the best teachers of all may simply be well-written books in our chosen genre.
Because with books (as opposed to some other art forms) we can literally see the smaller components the artist combined to create the entire work. Sure, there are behind-the-scenes things that influenced the finished work, like early drafts and editing and revisions. But when it comes to the actual words the writer used to craft the final story—how they were chosen and arranged and punctuated and emphasized and ordered into sentences and paragraphs and chapters and sections, well… it’s all there in front of us, in black and white.
So we should read. But not like a reader… like a writer.
Read well. Read deeply. Read widely.
Good books don’t happen by accident. (Just like overnight successes don’t happen overnight.) They’re created by talented writers working to the best of their abilities for significant periods of time, writing and revising and polishing until it’s as good as they can make it. Then further tightened and smoothed via the editing process prior to publication.
First: What’s a good book? That’s an endless discussion, but in this admittedly narrow context a working definition might be: the type of book we’d like to write. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if the book were somewhat successful on some level (critically acclaimed or sold well or award winning or considered exemplary of its genre or whatever) but beyond those third-party accolades, perhaps the most important quality is simply that we like it.
Next: We should find these books within our desired writing area and immerse ourselves, reading wheelbarrows full of them, paying attention to the how as much as the what. (What they have to say is important, and—for many readers—it’s paramount. But how they say it—for writers—can be a masterclass.) At first we’ll learn what the common tropes of our chosen area are, then as we delve deeper we’ll notice how good writers either avoid them altogether or turn them on their heads and use them in fresh ways. Also, we’ll learn what’s possible, where the boundaries are, and when they can be broken. (When I see someone saying, “I want to write a YA but I have a problem because I want my characters to [have sex / swear / smoke weed / whatever] but I don’t want to turn publishers off with mature content…” I think, Dude, you clearly have not read a single YA novel published in this century… show some respect for the field, por favor.)
Then: We should broaden our stylistic view and read outside our genre. Not just slightly off the chosen path—like going from mysteries to thrillers—but completely different, like going from contemporary romance to biographies of nineteenth century innovators. Read authors from different cultural and geographic backgrounds… covering different subject matter… with different points of view. My dad used to go to our local library and find a loaded returns cart, then grab the first five books on it and take them home. Not all were wonderful, of course, but it forced him to read broadly without a lot of selection bias (other than that someone, somewhere, recently thought the book in question was worth looking at). We could do worse.
All the above will feed into our writing, improving and deepening and broadening it. I’ve heard people say they don’t read because they don’t want any outside influence on their writing. If nothing else, being aware of previous work in our genre will help us avoid overused tropes, clichés, and devices that would otherwise be a flaming “keep away!” sign to editors and agents. (Fresh work is wonderful, but work that implies we have no knowledge of our field… not so much. It’s important to learn the difference.)
But besides the practical reasons we’ve discussed, probably the most important reason writers need to be readers is that, almost universally, good art is done by people with a deep love for the art form. (And conversely, almost never by people looking for a quick buck.) Reading will help us discover what we love about literature… not just what genre or style, but which aspects of the written word resonate with us. Are we drawn to well-rounded characters? Quirky dialog? A detailed, well-conceived plot? Realistic, slice-of-life writing? Interesting descriptions of new-to-us locations? Lush prose that sings like poetry? Or maybe an economic turn of phrase that contains volumes within a single sentence?
And this romance with reading, of course, will help us discover what we’d love to write.
It’s all there, right in front of us, in black and white.
I’ve gotten pretty good at skunk abatement. Just ask my wife/partner-in-stink. If you can get her to stop laughing, that is. The first time we had a skunk problem I called the county and asked if they could come trap it. They could, but it turns out they have to kill them after they trap them. (Something about the law… yada, yada.) Heck, anyone can kill a skunk. I wanted to move them. Unharmed. (After all, they’re just doing what skunks do. And they were here first.) So after a little trial and error we hit on a fairly successful process for safely/humanely relocating skunks. It’s better for the skunk, it’s better for us, and—believe it or not—it’s actually kind of fun. In a goofy, semi-thrilling, Tom Sawyer-ish way.
There’s invariably some trepidation, it sometimes takes longer than planned, and yeah, it’s occasionally downright smelly. But every time we manage to relocate one of the little stinkers to greener pastures, we’re always glad we went through the effort.
Guess what? The same thing applies to our “literary skunks.” You know—those scenes (or chapters or sections or maybe even entire books) that, while perhaps well-plotted or well-written when considered alone, don’t really work in the larger context. We sometimes like our stinky little darlings too much to kill them dead, so we tend to hem-and-haw and lightly edit and rationalize, trying to find some way to justify leaving them in the work at hand. Which we often do… to the detriment of the larger work.
There’s another way. One that’ll allow you to remove these favorite-but-ill-fitting scenes without the trauma of killing them dead: Excise them (and artfully re-connect the remaining loose ends in the ms), re-label as appropriate, and save them in a folder of “favorite unused scenes” or similar.
Some real-world examples…
The original draft of Road Rash had a scene in the middle that ended up not working, plot-wise—due to downstream events—so I rewrote the chapter without that scene, but filed the original chapter away because it had things I liked. (Primarily descriptions of onstage connection and communication.) And sure enough, in the penultimate chapter two friends are onstage again (after some time apart) and—with a little revision—I used maybe a page of the original material (split into two separate scenes) and I was really happy with the result. (It’s not that it saved me a bit of work. It’s that the writing captured a vibe I wanted to portray, and I didn’t want to lose that when I excised the original scene.)
A while back I wrote a short story featuring a middle-aged woman who had a rather harrowing day on the job. I wasn’t real happy with the resolution but I really liked the character/setting and the opening adventure. So I ended up taking the basic scenario (rewritten with the protagonist being younger) and used it as the opening of a novel. (Which is now out on sub, so light a candle for me…)
I know someone whose OBFN was an adult thriller that wasn’t acquired, but he hung onto the original plot concept and later used it as the basis for a successful YA novel. Likewise, another author friend had a short story that didn’t really gain traction, but they expanded it into a novel (which did gain traction).
I recently revised a WIP which had a book-within-a-book as part of it. And during revisions (you guessed it) the “book-in-book” sections had to go… they broke the flow and perhaps confused things for the reader. The revised manuscript is tighter and better for it. But I also saved those sections—because, in the micro, they were some of my favorite parts—and I may write a book based on that character later. (So light another candle, please.)
So yes, retaining selected sections you’ve trimmed can give you potential seedlings that might grow into something interesting later.
But (and this may be the more important part) the act of excising the scenes and carefully storing them away as a separate document for possible later use makes it far easier to cut them. Because in your mind you’re not really killing them… you’re putting them in the deep freeze for later, which is a lot easier to stomach than simply highlighting and deleting.
I’m certainly not suggesting we do this with all our trimmed passages… that’s crazy talk. By all means, when you see something that clearly needs to go, the best path is almost always to cut it and move on. But on the occasion you find something superfluous which you also happen to love, try the following: Cut and save it, continue on with whatever editing you’re doing, then go back afterward and read the passage without the extra text. Assuming it’s better, mollify yourself with the thought that your favorite passage is safely in the vault, then move on. The manuscript at hand will almost certainly be stronger for it, and who knows… you might even find fertile ground for the excised text to spring to life in the future.
Sure, skunks are cute little critters. But that doesn’t mean they belong in your basement or backyard or under your porch. But it also doesn’t mean you have to kill them dead. Make the effort to move them safely and you’ll find you can live skunk-free and guilt-free.
In talking with young musicians, one teachable point seems to come up repeatedly—the benefits of being about to “get outside yourself.”
Working on an art form isn’t always a smooth learning curve. There are definite peaks, with plateaus - and even valleys - in between. With music, one of the leveling-up accomplishments is being able to get outside yourself as a creator. Typically, we learn how to play our chosen instrument somewhat, then we start a band. With many young bands, you watch them play and realize they’re a bunch of musicians playing in the same room at the same time, but they’re not really a band yet. You can tell they’re each thinking only about what they’re doing as they’re doing it (the epitome of this is looking at your hands as you play, with no regard for what anyone else is doing). Then, as the next step, they start to think about what they’re going to play, with little concern for how it’s going to fit into the song. (The example here is the young drummer who’s determined to play that flashy fill he just learned—no matter what—even though it doesn’t fit the mood of the music. Ask me how I know…)
A big leap forward is finally getting to a place where you aren’t thinking about your own playing in the moment at all; you’re listening to the music as a whole and adjusting to the others, trying to make it sound like a cohesive unit. Then, ultimately, you want to be able to interact with the band almost without conscious thought and really get some distance from it, so you can step back and hear the music as it appears to the audience. Because—unless you’re just playing by yourself for the fun of it—one of the primary goals is to have the audience feel what you’re attempting to convey. It doesn’t really help if you’re working away but your creative ideas aren’t coming through due to a disconnect between intention and execution.
It’s the same with writing—it really helps to be able to step back and look at it from the outside. You know what you want to say with your story, but is it getting across to the readers? Imagine you’ve designed a cool piece of office furniture, with the goal being that other people might buy and assemble it so they, too, can enjoy it. If the overall design is good but the instructions aren’t clear and concise, it’s going to be a frustrating experience for the customer. I think this is a not-uncommon weak spot for many of us: we have a good story idea, but our implementation may lack the perspective to get our story across to the reader the way we intend.
I saw a manuscript recently containing something like: He hung his head. “I did a poor job,” he said dejectedly. I’ve done this myself. It comes from us (as writers) being really intent on making sure the reader knows exactly how the character feels. So we overdo it and veer into territory that we (as readers) might find less-than-transparent while reading. (When you read a line like this, you can almost see the writer looking at his hands as he plays.) But if we get outside of our good writing intentions and view it from the other side, we can see that simplifying it might make the writing itself less intrusive on the story.
Looking at the above snippet as a reader, if the description of the character’s mood is clear enough through his actions (i.e. showing) we don’t need the “dejectedly” (i.e. telling). So, He hung his head. “I did a poor job,” he said. reads smoother and is less clunky. (“ly” adverbs used as dialog descriptors are often clunky sounding to readers, and our inclination to use one should be taken as a sign that we may need to show more of the character’s mood vs. telling the reader about it.) And since the author is already talking about “him,” the reader doesn’t need an attribution at all. So, He hung his head. “I did a poor job.” is even tighter and smoother, and every bit as clear. (And as I’ve heard from my editor more than once, tighter is usually better. Especially from the reader’s point of view.)
I’m as guilty as anyone of creating this sort of prose during initial draft. One way to mitigate it is to write it, then take off the writing hat and put on the editing hat while you do what you can to make sure everything’s consistent, tight, believable, engaging, etc. Then go yet a step further in getting outside yourself—take off the editing hat and put on the reader’s hat. While letting some time pass in the interim, if possible. And while you read, try to stay in the mindset of: I’m a new reader to this work… I didn’t write it, I didn’t edit it, and I have no idea where it’s going. I’m simply going along for the ride. Then, as you read, try to stay attuned to your enjoyment level. If it wanes, look for and note any nearby plot drift or inconsistent characterization or over-explained motivation—even down to the sentence level as in our example above. Then, when you’ve finished reading it, you can put your writing hat back on and revise to those notes, then back to the editing hat, and so on.
Writing is interactive, but not just between author and editor. It’s also between writer and reader. But before you get to a real editor—or to real readers—you may have to assume both roles along the way. So don’t look at your hands as you play, don’t place cleverness above clarity, and don’t try to shoehorn that brilliant riff you just thought of into chapter two if it doesn’t fit.
And most important, occasionally get outside yourself and listen from a distance to make sure your ideas are getting across as intended and your audience is along for the ride.
I’ve read so much recently—on blogs and forums and social media—about how many words per day people write... or think they should write... or wanted to write but didn’t. (Followed by the inevitable self-flagellation if they wrote less than their friends or less than their predetermined goal or whatever. There is definitely a certain amount of FOMO going on here—there’s even an online business seemingly dedicated to nothing but selling a program guaranteed to up your daily word count well into five figures.)
Personally, I never think about my daily word count one way or the other. I write until I run out of time or juice, then I move on to something else (maybe cogitating on my story while doing other tasks). And more to the point, I know authors with dozens of books to their name (award-winning, best-selling books) who feel—and do—likewise. I’m not saying don’t try to hit a predetermined word count each day. If that somehow motivates you to do quality work, then by all means, count away. But please don’t think it’s required that one count words in order to be a writer*.
Imagine the following: An agent or editor receives your manuscript. She reads it, and her overall impression is, “Not bad, but not really what I’m looking for.” She gets ready to send the usual boilerplate “thanks but no thanks” response, but then she sees your small, handwritten note at the bottom of the last page: By the way, I wrote this in a month. Does she (1) scream “Stop the presses!” and instruct her assistant to offer you a contract post haste, since anyone who wrote even a mediocre manuscript in 30 days must be a hell of a writer? Or does she (2) give a bemused WTF? shrug and send the “no thanks” response anyway? (If you live in a universe where you believe there’s even a remote chance that #1 is a plausible response, please remove yourself to a soft room with padded corners.)
Obviously if/when you get to the point where you have contracted work under deadline, you need to work diligently and make your deadlines. But even then, you’re not going to be required to write anything like several thousand words per day for several weeks or months straight. I recently read an interview with a very popular and beloved children’s author where she said she’s only good for about one decent page (approx. 250 words) per day. Any more and she feels her quality suffers. Even at this relaxed pace, she finishes a middle grade manuscript in seven or eight months. (Typically a best-selling, award-winning manuscript, so we can assume her publisher is just fine with her current word count.)
The lesson here isn’t “only write a page a day.” (Which makes no more sense than saying, “You must write ten thousand words per day.”) The lesson is that steady, sustained work, over time is what leads to the completion of a manuscript. Regardless of your words-per-day pace. And if a page-per-day is enough to complete a million-seller in less than a year, then your actual daily word count is likely not an issue.
So when might we want to count words? It can be helpful if you need external motivation to keep writing. If you find yourself regularly stopping after twenty or thirty minutes, for example, it might be useful to make a deal with yourself on the order of, “I’ll write until I hit (insert magic number here), then I’ll let myself stop for the day and do something else.” Do this every day for a couple of weeks and it should condition your brain to want to create during your writing time (which is the actual goal, of course). If this still doesn’t solve the motivational issue, you might want to look elsewhere. (Regarding that “elsewhere”… Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’ve learned that when I don’t want to sit down and write, it’s usually because I’m unclear as to where I want to go with the story and I need to do some more planning/plotting/pondering before actually writing. If I forced myself to write another couple thousand words in these cases, they would almost certainly get deleted next session. When I know—at least roughly—where I want to go, I find myself wanting to write, and need no other motivation than to want to see the story unfold before me.)
Again, I’m not saying don’t count your words. I’m saying no one else (no one who matters, at least) cares how many words you wrote today. What they care about is the end result—did you create a wonderful manuscript they love and enjoy and want to represent or publish? If yes, then they offer you representation or publication. If not, then they don’t. Period. So yes, absolutely count words if doing so leads to you creating the sort of work that will garner you representation or publication or critical acclaim or best-selling status or whatever particular gold ticket you have in your sights.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of doing writing work that doesn’t involve initial draft creation. In other words, rewriting. (Or revising or polishing or any other level of self-editing.) This often accounts for a substantial amount of the actual work involved in creating a strong manuscript, yet how do you quantify your progress when you’ve spent several hours immersed in the manuscript with a net result (word count-wise) of zero, or maybe even the loss of several hundred words? Does this mean you didn’t have a productive day? On the contrary, these can be the days that do the most to improve your manuscript, yet you’d never know it if all you go by is the total number of words generated.
In studying this phenomenon I haven’t noticed much of a direct correlation between word count and writing quality, but I have stumbled onto something interesting with regards to the whole quantity/quality issue which I’ll dive into next time.
In the meantime, count—or don’t count—as you see fit.
But either way, don’t worry.
*WRITER: One who writes. (Notice there’s a period after that definition, not a comma.)
There are lots of great tools available today to help us with revisions.
The dictionary is an obvious one, although I’d argue the thesaurus is even better. Spellcheck, of course. (“F-7 is your friend,” was one of my most common phrases when I was an instructor.) And as I’ve mentioned in another post, using the “find” function can really help with replacing overused words and phrases, as well as give you the minor-league superpower of viewing your work out of context.
And having others look at your work can be very useful—almost mandatory—before submitting. Not only will a good beta catch stuff you’ve missed (because you’ve seen it too much to even see it anymore), but they can point out where things may be unclear to the reader (again, because you’re so close to it that you know things about the story that may not actually be on the page).
However, the best tool of all may simply be your gut.
Another term for this might be: your attention span. Or: your sense of boredom. Or probably most accurate of all: that vague feeling of “less-than-perfect-but-good-enough.” But those terms are clunky (my personal name for when I think my writing may be technically “ok” but doesn’t read smoothly and is inelegant at best) so we’re going with gut.
But how do we employ our gut? Is there a shortcut command? Maybe “Shift-Alt-G”?
Nope. We listen. It’s not analysis, it’s awareness. Feeling, rather than thought. To the point where if we overthink it, it goes away. Like most things having to do with creativity.
Let’s define our default emotional state when reading writing that “works” (whatever that means to you) as engaged. You’re in the story, to one degree or another. But as you read through your story (i.e. going through your manuscript as a reader) you may come across some areas where you find your attention momentarily drifting away from the story. Or you find yourself suddenly reading at a pace that’s higher than usual, perhaps even full-on skimming. Or you might get the thought: yeah, yeah, I know what happens here, let’s just get to the next part, then jump ahead to the next significant scene.
When any of this happens, stop.
Go back. Right to the spot where you first noticed your engagement with the story lessening or your attention drifting or your reading becoming more shallow. Something there was not right. Not necessarily wrong, just not quite right. Which makes it all the more difficult, because when something’s definitely wrong, we recognize it and we fix it, from a poorly worded run-on sentence to a mix of tenses so confusing even we don’t know what happened when, all the way to technical glitches like spelling/grammar/punctuation. (I’m talking about basic copyedit stuff here. Which, as I’ve mentioned previously, really has nothing to do with why we revise, or what an editor does to a manuscript.)
No, what we’re concerned about here aren’t the obvious blunders, but those areas where the writing just doesn’t float. Or run. Or even walk briskly. Instead it just kind of lays there, blatantly disengaging us. Boring us. Or even confusing us. So go back, carefully re-read the part you wanted to skip, and re-phrase it. Or tighten it. Or maybe cut it entirely. I think the key here is to be willing to try different iterations of the same basic concept until it not only says what you want to say, but does so in a way that continues the tone you want the story to have. And when you’re trying on these variations of the offending sentence, do your best to have your “reader” hat on, not your “writer” hat, maybe backing up a paragraph or two to get a running start at it, in context, and see how it flows with the text immediately before and after the passage in question.
It seems like 90% of the time the final (“improved”) wording is shorter than the original. So first consider what you can trim and still have the sentence make sense. Try reading the overall passage without the questionable sentence at all, then add back just enough to convey your meaning. When someone (which includes “Mark” for values of someone) is really stuck on a wordy, clunky-yet-necessary sentence, sometimes I’ll say, “Look away from the manuscript. Now, just put it in your own words. What are you trying to say?” And often a completely new phrasing of the idea—rather than a variation on the original text—flows better, and is tighter and more direct and/or less confusing.
So yes, we definitely use technical writing craft to improve things once we’ve identified less-than-stellar writing in our work. But for the important part—the actual act of identifying the passages where things are “okay” but could absolutely be better--we need to be in tune with our most valuable revision tool. Our gut.
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.
I did a presentation in a prison recently. (Okay, it was a “Juvenile Detention Facility,” but trust me—it was a prison). I went with the multi-media version of my presentation—including cajon and sound system—because young men sometimes respond better to loud noise than to quiet words. And thankfully, they were into the whole drumming-as-history-lesson aspect. But the part of the presentation that seemed to resonate most of all was an unscripted comment I made about their current situation…
“How many of you like to write, or think you might want to write someday?” I asked. A few hands went up. “Or maybe write songs?” A few more hands. “Or write a stage play? Or poetry? Or develop a TV series? Or start a podcast? Or write a screenplay for a movie? Or…” By the end of it, most of the hands in the room were up.
“Then pay attention.” A few of them looked confused. “Not to me. To this.” I waved my arms, indicating the entire facility—the large common room we were all locked into, the smaller connecting rooms, the correction officers on duty, the yard outside… all of it. “This sucks for you right now. You don’t want to be here. No one does. I get that. But as long as you have to be here, pay attention. Not just to what’s happening around you, but to how you feel about it… how you respond to it… how it informs you, shapes you, changes you. Every day. Maybe make notes about it, or start a journal or write a story or whatever it takes to remember it… Because when the time comes and you go to create that music or book or film or blog, you’ll realize how unique this experience was, and what powerful source material it could be. Not that it’s necessarily a good experience, but it’s a foundational one. One that most of society doesn’t have. So pay attention…”
We sat there for a second, looking at each other. Probably with the same thought in our heads: where the hell did that come from? But I could tell from the nods that they got it, and we went on to another topic.
But the moment stuck with me.
Sometimes the most important events—the ones that help define us—aren’t the big wonderful watershed moments… the graduations, the weddings, the births, the promotions. Sometimes they’re the failures, or maybe the dragging-ourselves-off the-floor struggles after the failures. And sometimes they’re just the crap life throws at us, or the mud it drags us through. The stuff that—if it doesn’t kill us in the process—makes us stronger. Supposedly.
We had a minor-league experience of this sort recently, and while it was the polar opposite of fun during the event, looking back from where we are now—when you know everything turns out okay—there are clearly some valuable takeaways here. Not lessons, exactly. More like a behind-the-curtains peek at what goes on in our brains when we realize that events may be well beyond our control and the outcome may be very not-good. The experience was definitely worth paying attention to, and I’m confident it’ll return at some point—in greatly morphed form—adding veracity to a future work of fiction.
Someone close to me (another writer) had a more significant episode over the past several weeks, medical in nature. I was talking to him a few days ago (he has a long recovery period ahead of him, but he’s largely out of the woods regarding immediate life-or-death issues) and he said he’s documenting everything that happened to him during the apex of the situation. But rather than a nuts-and-bolts recounting of various medical events and tests and diagnosis, etc., he’s writing everything that was going on inside his mind as things unfolded. “It’s not technically accurate,” he said. “Not at all. Some of what was happening to me was nothing but a construct inside my head. But it’s my subjective truth, as it happened to me. That’s what I want to capture.” I have to give him major props for that attitude, and I have no doubt this will be useful to him in the future, on several fronts.
The things we should pay attention to aren’t always single, discrete events. They could be periods in our lives when we’re in a “paying our dues” phase. And—frustratingly enough—these don’t always have a clearly marked beginning or ending. Sometimes it seems like we fade into them, then gradually climb out. And while we’re in the middle of it, of course, we don’t usually know if we’re near the end or only just warming up. Even so, if you find yourself in one of these less-than-perfect periods, you could do well to try and capture the feelings you’re experiencing. As you’re experiencing them, if possible. Soon after, if not. “Write what you know,” as I interpret it, is more about emotional truth than trying to shoehorn your factual daily life into your novel. (In my view, one of the many reasons Harry Potter resonated like it did was that J.K. Rowling stayed in touch with the emotional truth of her previous lived reality… writing away in the back room of the Elephant House… dirt poor and not knowing if she would ever publish, let alone have the level of success that lay ahead of her. And this translated very well when writing a character for whom things were also very unclear and less-than-perfect at the beginning.)
I’m not saying “you need to be poor to write poor,” or any other version of that reductive statement. I’m suggesting that all of us face times when things aren’t going as we might wish, either acutely or chronically. And that staying in touch with the way those experiences feel—to you, on the inside, as you live them—can be very valuable later on, when you’re writing about characters going through situations which may be very different on the face of it, but which may have the same emotional truth underneath it all.
So when life gives you lemons, sure—follow the conventional wisdom. If that’s even possible. But also, take the time to study the lemon grove, seeing all the other lemons in all the other trees. And realize that the “life handing out lemons” paradigm may be unique in the micro, but it’s pretty universal in the macro.
In other words, pay attention. You’ll thank yourself later.
There’s a long-standing theory that writers shouldn’t talk about their WIPs because that’ll take away their desire to write it, or interfere in some way with the creative process.
I’m calling BS on this.
Having said that, I’m not one to publicly talk about works I’m planning to write, nor do I advocate doing so… simply due to common sense cart-before-horse reasons. In my casual observation, there’s a pretty solid negative correlation between those who do the above—typically on social media and typically in bemoaning fashion—and those who actually finish/revise/polish/publish their work. Although my business-whiz son would be the first to say, “Dad, correlation—in either direction—is not causation,” so technically we’re not sure if blabbers don’t finish or finishers don’t blab. Either way, I’m not taking any chances…
However, I have a countervailing philosophy that says there can be a significant creative benefit to discussing your works-in-progress, assuming it’s done in the right way with the right person. (The not-right person is the one whose first reaction is to immediately tell you exactly what's wrong with your idea and how they’d improve it, etc. Life is rough enough without voluntarily pulling on that specific hair shirt.)
But… When you're on page 281 of a 400 page novel and you find yourself holding a couple of competing ideas in your mind, it can be very helpful to run them by someone who knows how to listen and can help you brainstorm in a positive fashion. The other person may likely be a writer but they don’t have to be. The more important part is that they read widely and thoughtfully, and are capable of putting their emotional responses to story ideas into words. Spoken words. (And of course the most important factor is that they adhere to the Prime Editorial Directive™: Help the writer write THEIR book as best they can.) Really, it’s much more of a gentle back-and-forth exchange—like a lunar-gravity ping pong match with a nerf ball—than any sort of critiquing session. You’re looking for the “Yes, and…” kind of response vs. the “No, but…” type.
One benefit, of course, is simply getting another viewpoint (similar to what a beta reader does, but more “during” than “after”). And that’s great. But you also get something you don’t get from a beta reading—the real-time back-and-forth exchange of ideas concurrent with the initial creative process. You’re trying on ideas with your “pre-beta” without having to write them out first, and you can quickly pivot with a “…or maybe she does this instead of that” if you realize your first idea wasn’t quite right, and your brainstorming partner might reply with “…yes! And what if he sees her do it, but maybe she doesn’t know he sees her…?” to which you respond, “Yeah, and then he’d act differently toward her and she wouldn’t know why, but we would…”
And so on.
This can be an effective way to jumpstart your story elements (as well as a great time saver, since you’re essentially beta-testing without having to type it all out first), as long as you’re aware it also means you’re primarily testing plot ideas and not the actual writing itself. (For that, there’s still no substitute for someone reading the written words without any verbal input from the author, just to ensure everything in your head actually made its way to the page.)
Another way this can save you time is what I call “rabbit hole avoidance.” Sometimes, having external editorial feedback during/before the initial drafting can spare you the heartache of throwing away large chunks of writing and starting over when you come to the astute conclusion that maybe you shouldn’t go down the whole “kill & bury the uncle” path in chapter 17… which is fine, except the epiphany comes a hundred pages later—in chapter 25—when you finally realize you could really use that uncle right about now because he’d be perfect for another idea you have. Damn. If only you’d thought of that earlier…
And now for what may be the biggest potential benefit of “talking plot.” Talking about a creative activity seems to engage a different part of the brain than just silently thinking about it. I can’t count the number of times that simply outlining my plot issue verbally has led to me turning around and—again, verbally—solving it. Sometimes before having received any input from the other person. Not sure why this is so—maybe your mouth has a more direct connection to your subconscious?—but I’ve seen this work too many times to ignore it.
Not all ideas put forth will be useful ones. That’s okay—poor ideas often lead to good ones, which is the whole concept behind brainstorming. Or as my wife likes to say, “Mark will come up with 99 bad ideas, but idea #100 makes it worth wading thru all the lousy ones.” (Usually followed by a snicker.) But again, much of this process is simply the brainstorming partner listening and making encouraging noises, then occasionally asking pertinent what-if questions. The main thing is that the designated writer in this scenario not make blanket “NFW” responses to any ideas, but listen and consider in turn. When this happens—on both sides—the end result is usually very positive and productive.
The above is my experience. Everyone is different, with a different workflow, and this may or may not work for you. My only advice would be to try it and see. The next time you’re stuck in the sagging middle, instead of just putting your head down and grinding something out, consider bouncing a few ideas off someone else—ideally someone considerate and creative—and see if it sparks something. I’m betting it will.
If you have any techniques you use to jumpstart your story-spinning, please share them with us in the comments.
Sometimes there's a benefit to taking things out of context...
I was revising a recent manuscript and I’d done pretty much everything you’d reasonably do—make notes about broad plot issues and tackle them one at a time; make sure your characters are self-consistent; ensure dialog comes off as realistic (reading aloud where necessary); make sure there are no continuity issues with times/dates/etc… all the way down to CE-level stuff, including grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.
Then I recalled that during the final round of editorial notes on a previous book, we looked at and addressed a few overused words or phrases. I thought, Why wait for an editor to tell me I over-use something? So as I worked through the manuscript I started jotting down repetitive phrases that occasionally cropped up. (Most of us have these little tics in our writing—words and phrases that we tend to favor. The hard part is noticing them, because they’re such a part of us and our vocabulary.)
Some of these are pretty ubiquitous (very, anyone?) but some may be more unique to you. Either way, you’re looking for possibly-overused adverbs, adjectives, intensifiers, qualifiers, and anything you feel might take away clarity or directness from the writing. (FWIW, my list of things to be on the lookout for included like; pretty much; very; that; kind of; sort of; just; or something; actually; whatever; I mean, and uh/um/hmm/huh.) Not that I wanted to blindly eliminate them—there are times when they’re the right choice. Instead I looked at each instance of a potential offender and analyzed it to see if it could be cut or if there was a better, tighter way to say what I (or the character) wanted to say.
This is where the “find” function is really useful: Think there might be a common term you’re abusing? Punch it in to find you’ve only used it seven times in three-hundred pages. Or perhaps seventy times. And maybe after you’ve found and addressed each instance, you see that you’re down to thirty. Then on to the next word…
Okay, that’s cool, but there’s another—unintended—benefit of using the find function to locate and eliminate specific terms. Sometimes I’d be looking at the use of a word or phrase and, in reading the paragraph before or after for flow and context, I’d find something else that could be tightened. It became like a game, playing “what can I do to improve this passage?” every time I’d look at another instance of very or that.
You might ask, “Why can’t you just do that with the entire manuscript?” Well, you can, and I did. Several times. But there’s something about looking at a passage without the distraction of the larger plot which enables you to view it more as words and less as story. You know how it’s easier to trim someone else’s work than your own? Looking at a random paragraph—out of the larger context of following the story linearly—gives you a little of that “not my story” mojo, where you see a slightly clunky or over-wrought phrase and just happily tighten it and move on… without worrying about the pain it might otherwise cause the author of that brilliant phrase.
Also, when we’re reading the story for the tenth or twentieth time, it’s easy to glaze over the actual writing because we’ve seen it so many times that we become inured to it… we “hear” it in our head before we even see it on the page, and we discount little things that might otherwise trip us up if reading it for the first time. Addressing sections out of order and context lessens this “I know what’s coming” factor and helps give us a new perspective on the actual phrasing of the paragraph in question.
In other words, it puts you more in the editor mindset and less in writer-mode, which is exactly what you want when you’re making revisions at the sentence level.
So… seek & destroy with impunity. Your story will thank you.
Make us remember you.
I read a LOT of newly-published YA fiction this past year, trad-pub’d and indie-pub’d alike. And I really enjoyed most of it.
Part of that enjoyment may stem from the fact that I do my best to read as a reader, not a writer. As an author this is difficult, because often you can’t help but see the cogs turning behind the scenes. But sometimes the writing is so effortless that it disappears entirely and you’re left with nothing but story. I love when this happens—when you enjoy the book as a story instead of analyzing the authorial choices the writer made. But things can happen that jerk you out of the story and back into writing-analysis mode.
If I had to name the most common place this occurs for me, that would be easy—the ending. Sometimes they feel tacked on, like the book was due so the author just ginned up an ending and sent it off. Or maybe the author had a good idea but sent it off before it was thoroughly revised and polished, closer to a first draft than a finished book.
I understand that sometimes authors are under time constraints. And sometimes you’ve spent so much time with a book that you just want to get it over with. But the absolute worst place to phone it in, writing-wise, is the ending.
Think about a book you read long ago which made a lasting impression. You probably can’t recall all the specifics, but you probably do recall the feeling it left you with when you closed the cover. And that’s at least partly due to the ending. Looking back, did the ending relate to the rest of the book and support it? Did it have a certain amount of gravity to it? Did it make the theme of the book a little more clear, or a little more important? Did it serve almost as a stand-in for the book itself, in miniature?
I’m not saying every book needs to have a ‘Great American Novel’-type ending. But the resolution should at least be at the same level—thematically as well as craft-wise—as the rest of the work. If not, it can do more harm-per-word than a weak passage elsewhere in the book.
Why? Because the final lines in any part of a book carry more heft than if the same words were placed in the middle somewhere. Having text followed by white space—at the end of a section, or a chapter, or the entire book—puts a spotlight on it and seems to automatically imbue it with more importance. Maybe because it seems to signal a change… a summation of what’s transpired or a hint of what’s to come. Maybe both. And maybe because there’s a natural pause when you reach the end of a section or chapter or book where you can’t help but hear the line in your head. Echoing. Resonating.
These are the top five issues that come to mind, looking back at recent reads with less than satisfying endings:
1. It feels rushed.
A book I read recently had a couple involuntarily separated throughout most of the story, over a multi-year span. Their reunion was the scene the entire novel was building toward, but when it finally happened it was sort of hug/kiss/I missed you/I missed you too/The End. If the ending is more denouement than resolution, it doesn’t have to be a major set-piece. But if the ending is the climactic scene, give it its due. You can always trim, if you (or your editor) later decide it’s too much. Think of it like you’re dressing for an important event. Spend some time with it. Try different things on, maybe clothes you don’t normally wear. Hang out in front of the mirror, turning this way and that, until you’re not just vaguely satisfied with it, but really happy. You don’t want to leave the dressing room until you’re feeling like, Damn… I look sharp and I know it!
2. It’s at odds with the rest of the book.
Funny can be good. Introspective can be good. So can outright tragedy. But you should have a very good reason to have a melancholy resolution to what’s been a light comedy up until then, or to suddenly have everything all sugary at the end of a dark literary novel. I recall a novel where the author resolved a life-or-death situation with a bad play on words. And I strongly suspect he had this in mind all along and just couldn’t bear let it go, even though it would have been stronger without it.
3. It has characters acting out of character.
You can create characters as wild and unique as you like, but to be believable they need to be self-consistent. If you have to have them do something untrue to their nature at the very end to make your plot “work”, you either need to re-think your plot or revise your character. One recent book had an intelligent, funny, self-aware protagonist who was completely rational throughout the entire book, then the big reveal was… he was just batshit crazy and making it all up. Hmm. The ‘unreliable narrator’ technique can work well… if we get subtle clues along the way that their version of events might not be completely truthful. Otherwise it feels like a lazy way out or an unrealistic cheat. Likewise the very passive girl who suddenly developed an extreme case of agency while her friend—who’d been driving events all the way through the book—suddenly turned into a pull toy and let herself be dragged through the climactic scenes. I can buy flying monkeys, but not that.
4. It doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
With most fiction (and more so with genre fiction) there is an implicit deal between author and reader. With a romance, someone is going to get together with someone else. Maybe not the someone you had in mind, but someone. Eventually. And we should care about it. Same with mysteries. There is a crime, there is a solution, and we should care. Don’t lose sight of why the reader is there. I recently read a mystery which was well written at first… until the story got so lost in following the victims during the aftermath that the ending fizzled. Any crime solving—such as there was—was done off-stage by police, not the main characters. Basically the denouement was: “An old mad-scientist was the culprit but he’s gone now so who cares anyway?” Good question. Not me.
5. It doesn’t resonate.
This might be trickier to diagnose and fix, but if your ending seems to fall flat, look to see if it ties back to the rest of the story, if it addresses what your protagonist was looking for earlier in the story, or if it reinforces the theme of the story. If it doesn’t seem to do any of these, it may not carry the resonance that helps create a satisfying ending. Not to get too lit-geeky here, but the word “resonance” technically means one object or system vibrating in sympathy with another, usually caused by one exciting the natural frequency of the other. The ending of the final chapter of a novel is not (or should not be) the same as the ending of a random chapter somewhere in the middle. It’s not just about summing up recent plot points or hinting at what’s happening next. It should somehow tie back to earlier events and put them in some sort of perspective or provide resolution or summation, but ideally without actually telling us this is what it’s doing. Understatement, metaphor, and oblique reference can be wonderful here. I think it’s important to remember that a strong, resonant ending (as defined by you, the author) doesn’t always come from the first thing that pops into your brain. This is an area where it can pay to spend some time, revisiting the ending during initial drafting and then again during revisions until you’re truly happy with it.
It’s called a resolution for a reason. So don’t leave the ending until—like the final notes of a song that fully resolves the chord pattern—it feels truly complete.
Make us remember you.
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