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What I would have said, part 2

Note: this is part 2 of answers to a set of interview questions from an interview I didn’t end up doing. Read part 1 here.

What does it really mean to ‘show don’t tell’ and how does a writer DO this?

That’s actually a very deep and involved subject. I could begin to do justice to it were I to dedicate an entire blog post to it. Which, come to think of, I kind of did when I guest-blogged for Seekerville last year. So you can read that.

In a really tiny nutshell, though, it is this: you remember back in grade school and high school how English teachers were always admonishing you to “read between the lines”? Personally, I always hated that because I had no idea what they meant when they said that. Now I understand that my teachers just didn’t know how to explain the difference between showing and telling.

When they said “read between the lines,” what they were really saying was “this writer did a really good job of showing, and because of that, there’s a lot we can tell about the people and the story even though it’s not stated directly.” Here’s an example. Imagine you knew everything you currently know about life, literature, and popular culture except that you had somehow remained 100% oblivious to the very existence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Now someone hands you the book, tells you nothing, and says “read.” What does Jane Austen give you? This:

> It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

That’s showing. How do we know? Because without telling us what it is, we already know what the major theme of the book is. Had Jane Austen been given to telling instead of showing, she might have penned this instead:

> This, dear reader, is a romance novel.

One is showing: Jane Austin gives us the evidence we need, straight away, to deduce a’la Sherlock Holmes, that this book is a romance. But never does she tell us that fact flat-out.

Telling is when you directly state the deep truths you want readers to know. Showing is when you don’t, when you never do, but instead only give the evidence readers need to figure out those deep truths for themselves. That’s what “Show, don’t tell” means. It’s the flip-side of “read between the lines,” because showing is how you put anything between the lines in the first place.

Why should a writer hire a book doctor rather than asking friends, family, teachers, and critique partners to edit their book?

Well, why do you go to a medical doctor instead of asking friends, family, teachers, and critique partners tell you what to do about that persistent rash? Because there’s a difference between saying “Yup, looks like a rash,” and saying “That rash is a symptom of anemia caused by underlying kidney disease. We’d better get you on a low protein diet and talk about lifestyle changes.”

You hire a book doctor because, while readers are common, trained analytical readers are not. Friends, family, teachers, mothers, et cetera—even if they’re avid readers—usually don’t have the analytical skills to actually diagnose your writing. Untrained readers, those who simply love to read, are great at telling you what they don’t like. They’re great at telling you when something isn’t working for them.

But they’re usually lousy at telling you exactly why that something isn’t working for them, in such a way that you can see what to do about it. It’s feedback, but it’s not helpful feedback. Telling you “I didn’t like that part where the car breaks down on the bridge” isn’t so-called actionable feedback. It doesn’t tell you what to do about it. It’s “Yup, looks like a rash,” all over again, leaving you no wiser as to whether you should put lotion on it or change your diet.

Sadly (though not for me, because otherwise I couldn’t make a living doing what I do), even most writers are lousy at this. Even most writers, as I discovered when I started seeking out constructive feedback for my own novels, are no better at critiquing than non-writers.

You don’t go to a book doctor for an “I liked it” or “I hated it” verdict. You go to a book doctor for a diagnosis and prescription. You go to a book doctor because you want your novel’s rash to actually get better.

What advice would you offer to new authors?

There are hundreds of fiddly little bits of advice I could give to new readers, none more worthy than the others. And you already asked about “Show, don’t tell,” so I can’t use that (though I would). I guess what I would say is this:

Recognize that this is a hard thing you’re doing, and check your ego at the door.

The thing is, a well written novel is a deceptive thing. When done right, a novel flows past the reader so smoothly, so effortlessly, readers don’t really even feel like they’re reading. They’re just enjoying a great story. A great novel is such a transparent, transcendent reading experience, that readers don’t feel like they’re doing any work at all. Though in fact their brains are working quite hard, every second, it feels so easy that we’re left thinking that it must also be easy to write one.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s easy, relatively speaking, to nail some old roller-skate wheels onto a couple of boards and call it a go-kart. And it’ll go, but you’re in for a pretty rough ride. Just getting around the block is going to leave you winded. It is worlds more difficult to build a 450 horsepower V8 high performance luxury sedan that rides like a dream and will take you from Boston to Chicago with less effort than that once around the block on the go-kart.

I doubt I need to unpack this metaphor for you. Suffice it to say writing novels is hard. You will need to learn a lot of new skills, both in writing craft and story craft. You will need to discover that story craft is, in fact, a wholly different skill set than writing craft. You will make a lot of mistakes along the way. This is inevitable.

But if you go into it thinking you’re God’s own gift to literature, and nobody can tell you anything about your story, and how dare they try to influence your artistic genius with their cookie cutter notions about conflict and character arcs and raising the stakes and showing versus telling—

Well, let’s just say if you go into it with that attitude I can promise you something else that will happen: not only will your writing suck—that hardly makes you special—but you will also never improve.

It’s just plain hard to write a novel. You need criticism. You need feedback. But all the helpful feedback in the world won’t do you a lick of good if your ego is blocking you from hearing it.

August 15, 2013 04:08 UTC

Tags: interview, book doctor, show don't tell, evidence, critique, analysis, diagnosis, feedback, advice, ego, writing, writing craft, story, story craft

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What I would have said, part one

Recently, I was approached to do an interview about book doctoring. As mine is a poorly understood corner of the editing world, I was delighted for the opportunity. Unfortunately, the interview didn’t work out. The reasons are neither here nor there, but the questions they wanted to ask me were good ones, and I’d still like to answer them. So, without further ado:

What is a book doctor?

It’s a clever moniker for “freelance developmental editor.” Which basically means I write book reports for a living. Extremely long, excruciatingly technical book reports, designed to help aspiring authors produce a much stronger next-draft of their novel.

When in the writing process should an author engage a book doctor?

Well, there’s the ideal, and then there’s the practical.

Ideally, people would contact me while they’re still outlining their book. Think about it this way: the easiest time to fix issues with the plot is before you’ve actually written the story. Once the story is set down word by laborious word, it becomes much harder to change. Fixing plot problems at that stage means maybe moving a scene here or there, adding a bridge scene, tweaking a few details.

That’s if you’re lucky. Far more commonly, though, fixing a plot issue means changing something deep in the bones of the story. It means altering characters, events, motivations, or other details which demand updates to many scenes. It can mean ripping out whole chunks of the book to re-draft some section of the plot. Worst case—but by no means a rare case—it means admitting that while the core story idea may be good, the plot as it stands is too much of a mess to fix, and then writing a new one from scratch.

Maybe that’s fine if you don’t have to worry about the concerns of making a living and tending to family. But the preponderance of writers I know do have to worry about those things. So ideally, you’ll get your plot problems worked out beforehand, and save yourself vast time and labor fixing problems that could have been avoided.

(And yes, what I just wrote amounts to a pro-plotter, anti-pantser screed. I’m not trying to dismiss the pantsers in the audience. It is certainly possible to fly by the seat of your pants and yet end up with a plot that holds together. But it is also true that the worst, most haphazard, nonsensical plots I’ve ever seen from clients have come from clients who don’t plot ahead of time.)

That’s the ideal. But in practice, almost nobody contacts me while they’re still outlining. Normally, people pop into my inbox only after they have manuscript in hand. That’s fine too. Generally that means you’ll be doing more rewriting than you might have liked, but it beats giving up on the novel. In my experience, the writers who succeed are the ones who don’t give up.

What makes for a good plot?

If I were to name anything specific (Conflict! Drama! ’Splosions!), someone would inevitably criticize that answer as being applicable only in certain genres. And they’d be right. There’s only one thing I know of that makes for a good plot, no matter what genre you’re writing in. Only one plotting principle that genuinely stands up whether you’re writing an action packed thriller, a cozy mystery, a memoir, or even a quiet, introspective literary piece:

Questions.

A good story is one that constantly raises questions in the reader’s mind. Curiosity, that human drive to know, to figure out, is at the heart of why readers engage with a book. If your narrative is constantly making us wonder about stuff—big stuff, little stuff—chances are we’ll be interested, and will keep turning those pages. After all, how else will we find the answers?

A small question—who’s ringing the doorbell? Who’s on the phone?—might only propel us a few sentences or maybe a paragraph further. That’s fine. That’s all it needs to do. A larger question can drive us to the end of the scene or chapter. The biggest questions—whodunit? Will James Bond save the world for democracy yet again?—those are the questions that propel whole stories.

A good plot provides a lot of questions, and then answers them when the time is right. A great plot does the same, but carefully manages the questions so that by the time one question has been answered, something else has come along to take its place. Or several things. A great plot weaves questions and answers together into a complex, rich pattern that keeps the reader totally hooked until the very end. Or even into a sequel…

What do new writers often need the most help with?

Two basic areas. Writing craft, and story craft.

Writing craft is all the stuff having to do with how you put words together into sentences. It’s about writing beautiful prose. New writers, no matter how much they wrote in school, almost always have a lot to learn in this area. So do I. It’s an endless art, and I’m convinced it is always possible to improve one’s writing. Usually, the greater fraction of my developmental editing reports are devoted to helping writers see things in their writing that aren’t so great, and explaining how to fix them.

From my own perspective, I’ve been writing novel-length fiction for close to a decade now. I’m a lot better than I used to be. Spending my days analyzing my clients’ writing and explaining to them how to improve it has certainly helped make me a better writer too. But even now, I still find new things in my clients’ manuscripts that help me understand the craft of writing better. It never ends. Nor, I think, should it. How sad would it be, to know you could not be better than you are?

Story craft is the other side of the novelist’s coin. It’s everything having to do with constructing a great plot. Raising questions is part of it, but it’s also about setups and events and conflicts and character motivations and surprises. All that stuff.

But here’s the thing. Most new writers don’t understand that writing craft and story craft are distinct crafts. They are wholly separate skill sets. I’ve seen beautiful prose wrapped around some truly awful plots. And I’ve seen the clumsiest prose imaginable hiding a corker of a plot inside. Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can tell a story.

Most writers don’t understand this. And really, why should they? When, in most of our lives, are we ever exposed to story craft as a distinct skill? Not in grade school or high school, that’s for sure. Or at least, not in the dark ages of the 1980s when I was in school. Essay structure? Sure. Story structure? Not so much. Thus, another healthy chunk of my developmental editing reports are devoted to helping writers see what is and isn’t working in their plot, and offering suggestions for how to fix it.

Click here for part two

August 09, 2013 03:58 UTC

Tags: interview, book doctor, plot, plotting, outline, curiosity, questions, writing, writing craft, story, story craft

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Author Intrusion Outside of Your Manuscript


Orson Scott Card

This is Orson Scott Card, author of the wildly popular Ender’s Game and its sequels. Looks like a happy, friendly guy, doesn’t he? Maybe. But, maybe not.

Quite a long time ago, I wrote a post on the ways authors reveal themselves to the reader, usually to the detriment of the book.

That post covered the basics of “author intrusion"—when an author injects his or her personal feelings into a manuscript in such a way that the reader feels like the author is lecturing to them—and I’ll leave you to go read it if you’re not entirely clear how that works in practice.

here’s the thing about author intrusion I didn’t explain very deeply in the earlier post:

Author intrusion is a no-win situation

If you author-intrude and some reader happens to agree with you, you’re just preaching to the choir. What’s the point? All you’ve done is bog down your story with extraneous material that adds nothing the reader doesn’t already believe, slows down the pacing, and undermines your credibility as a storyteller. Even if the reader agrees with the sentiments of your intrusion, they can still spot it as an intrusion, and will conclude that you’re not a very good storyteller if you can’t keep your book focused on the actual story.

But if a reader doesn’t happen to agree with you, it’s game over. Now the reader knows that not only are you a poor storyteller, but that you’re also whatever variety of crackpot people who disagree on that issue are. For example, if your reader is a liberal and you author-intrude to spout some bit of conservative political theory, that reader is going to brand you in their minds as a nut-job. You will become, to them, untrustworthy.

Reading someone’s novel requires a fair amount of trust: you have to trust that the author will give you a good reading experience, that they know how to tell a story, et cetera. But trust doesn’t compartmentalize well. It is difficult to trust someone in one area, but distrust them in others. When you lose the reader’s trust, you tend to lose the reader.

Remain invisible

As I said in the earlier post, they don’t have to like you to enjoy your book, but they can’t hate you either. If they like you, well I guess that’s nice, but you’ll never get everybody to like you so it’s pointless to strive for that. The best situation, in my opinion, is to remain invisible. Leave the reader with no particular impression about yourself one way or the other, so that the story itself can stand on its own most clearly.

The Orson Scott Card Problem

What does any of this have to do with Orson Scott Card and the title of this post? Unfortunately for him, he has provided an excellent case study in how to perform author intrusion even from outside one’s manuscript.

Card wrote Ender’s Game in 1984. At that point in time, nobody knew who he was. He was just another author, and all we knew was his book: an admittedly fun, engaging, creative, and even somewhat thought-provoking science fiction novel.

The novel took off, and sold like hotcakes. I don’t believe it has been out of print since 1984, and if you know anything about how publishing works, you’ll recognize that for the astonishing feat that it is.

But since 1984, Card has become increasingly vocal about his own personal beliefs regarding homosexuality and marriage equality. Namely, he’s against them. His rhetoric has often been quite strident and vitriolic.

Given trends in social attitudes towards gay rights, and given the demographics of typical consumers of science-fiction, this puts Card in the minority with respect to the beliefs of his readership. As one might expect—anyone, it seems, except for Card himself—there has been a backlash.

Sci-Fi fans have railed against him. People are actually walking away from business opportunities rather than work with him. People have called for boycotting his books, and now also the upcoming Ender’s Game movie.

What’s going on?

Doesn’t Card have the right to his opinions? Doesn’t have the right to express his opinions according to the first amendment?

Of course he does.

What he doesn’t have the right to do is demand that people accept his opinions, or to demand that people not have feelings about him based on his opinions. That’s not how human beings work.

My earlier writings on author intrusion focused on what can happen inside a manuscript to make readers dislike or even loathe you. For an unknown author—as Card was in 1984 and as nearly everyone who reads this blog is likely to be—that’s the only real danger. And within the text of Ender’s Game, Card successfully keeps himself invisible. When I read Ender’s Game lo these many years ago, I didn’t get a homophobic vibe from it, and I enjoyed the book very much.

What Orson Scott Card has done since then, though, is to make his audience dislike him so much outside of his novels, by means of his public statements, that few people can now successfully set aside their personal feelings about him when reading his works. Much as I liked Ender’s Game, I can’t pick it up now without my knowledge of Card’s rampant homophobia creeping in and ruining the experience. And evidently, I’m not the only one.

I don’t know that there’s a real writing lesson in this post that isn’t captured in my earlier post. Few of us will ever be so famous as to necessitate worrying about readers ever learning what our personal beliefs are. But to the extent that we benefit from understanding the full spectrum of factors which affects how readers approach our works, I do feel there’s an important lesson to be learned.

July 09, 2013 16:57 UTC

Tags: Orson Scott Card, author intrusion

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How to create creepy characters

As we head into both http://www.nanowrimo.org and Halloween, it seems the perfect time to talk about strategies for portraying creepy, spooky, and just plain unsettling characters. Whether for villainous or red-herring purposes, a good creepy character can really liven a story up.

There are probably countless ways to make a character give your readers the willies, but here are five of my favorite techniques. Mix-and-match to your heart’s delight!

Rulebreakers

Every society has a complex set of rules which set the limits of normally-accepted behavior. These social norms indicate everything from how close we stand when talking to people, to how much eye contact we make, how firmly (and how long) we hold a handshake. The list is almost endless.

People who violate these social norms tend to come across as creepy. We’re uncomfortable when the close talker insists on standing six inches from our face, where we can feel every puff of warm breath and fleck of spittle as he talks. We get nervous and don’t know where to look when the starer locks eyes on us and never blinks. We don’t quite know what to say when the walnut-crusher grabs our hand too firmly and then won’t let go.

We interpret them as being either unaware of or unconcerned with how they are making us feel, and they tend to creep us right out.

Gentle dictators

The defining characteristic of a gentle dictator is that he—they’re always guys, or at least, I’ve never met a female one—is most at home when bossing people around in ways that subtly undermine other people’s autonomy, all backed up by the implicit threat of violence. These are people who you just know were cut out for a career in cult leadership. They never threaten violence outright. Oh no, that would break the veneer of respectability they carefully cultivate. But just the same, they are not subtle in demonstrating their temper and just how close you are to crossing them and feeling their wrath if you should happen to step over the line. These are spiders in the center of their insidious web, whose nature doesn’t become clear until you’re already within fragging distance, leaving you no comfortable escape route.

Mind gamers

The defining characteristic here is intentionally creating ambiguity in how others are to interpret their behavior. They love to leave you thinking, was that an innocent compliment or an outright pass? These are people who are exquisitely aware of where the boundaries of social norms are, and delight in pushing their behavior as close to that line as possible. People who send mixed batches of signals, some clearly over the line, balanced by others just as clearly on the acceptable side of the line. These are people who feel power in other people’s discomfort and uncertainty. Who get a thrill out of seeing how much they can get away with. Other people are a game to them, or perhaps an experiment, and if you ask me that’s plenty enough to creep their victims out.

Conspicuous loners

These are people whose defining characteristic is the willful creation of mystery regarding who they are, what they’re up to, what they’re into, and so forth. It’s the person who explicitly arranges for as little information about themselves as possible to leak out into the world. This is the neighbor whose curtains are always closed. Who never comes and goes in the daytime. Who drives a panel van with jet black windows. Or at work, it’s the guy who has been with the company forever, but never talks to anyone. The one whose cubicle is absolutely bare of personal effects. Whose desk never has a stray scrap of paper on it. Who nobody’s really sure what he does or who his boss even is. The conspicuous loner is creepy by virtue of never letting you know anything about him.

Oscar winners

With apologies to actual Oscar award winners, this category of creepy are those whose public face hides a very different private face underneath. They’re the people who do all the right things in public. When other people are around, they know exactly how to play the game. How to mix and mingle. How to conduct affable chit-chat. How to listen to your stories and make you feel like they really care about you. How to seem like the salt of the earth. Until, that is, they get you in private. When the mask comes off, and you discover the hard way that they’re a mind gamer, a gentle dictator, or worse. And there’s nothing you can say to anyone, because they’ll never believe you. The whole rest of the world has swallowed the Oscar winner’s public face, hook, line, and sinker. The Oscar winner is the ninja of the creeper world, the stealth creep who doesn’t creep you out until it’s too late.

The roots of creepiness

The common element to all these creeper types is that they are rooted in unpredictability. Rulebreakers can’t seem to follow society’s little rules, so how can you trust them to follow the big ones? How can you rely on their future behavior? Gentle dictators leave their followers uncertain as to when and if they’re going to snap and lash out. Unpredictability is the whole point, for the mind-gamer; if you can’t figure out what they really mean by everything they do, how can you ever predict how they might react to anything? The loners are unpredictable due to the carefully curated void of information about them. Who knows what a loner might be up to, behind those closed curtains? And the Oscar winners, well, they let you predict all happy-nice behavior from what they show you in public, only to prove your predictions disastrously wrong once in private.

So if you want to create a creepy character—whether one of these kinds or others, make them unpredictable.

October 23, 2012 22:38 UTC

Tags: character, creepy, unpredictability

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The three worst words in fiction

This morning I asked Twitter what the three worst words in fiction are. I got answers like suddenly, something happened, tall, dark, and handsome, purple, throbbing, and manhood, and my favorite of those submitted, only a dream.

Those are good answers. I mean really, I would hope an author can be more specific about what happened than “something,” and when it does happen, I certainly hope it doesn’t turn out to be a dream. But for my money, the three worst words in fiction are:

The chosen one.

That’s it. I can’t stand it when a character is the chosen one to complete some quest, go on some journey, win an epic sandwich-making contest, or whatever it might be. I hate that. This has long been a pet peeve of mine, but it was only this morning while I was making the kids’ breakfast that it finally clicked for me why this drives me so bonkers. So now I’ve got to blog it, because if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll know I’m big on understanding the why of writing.

It’s plot motivation.

Plot motivation, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when characters do things purely to satisfy the particular plot direction the author wants to go in. Plot motivation contrasts with character motivation, which is when characters do things because it makes sense for them to do it, given who they are, what they can do, their state of mind at the time, and the particulars of the situation. Plot motivation is extrinsic; character motivation in intrinsic.

Being the chosen one is inherently plot motivation. It has to be. For a character to be the chosen one means they’re making sandwiches because, well, they’re chosen for it. Not because they necessarily want to or feel driven to. Not because they’re good at it. Not because making sandwiches fulfills some deep-seated psychological need the character has. Not because a lack of sandwiches might spell the unraveling of the universe (though that might also be true, depending on the plot, but that’s just stakes).

No. None of those character motivations applies to the chosen one. The chosen one slathers metaphorical mayo on metaphorical bread because of some arbitrary choice imposed on them from the outside. Or in other words, because the author is making them do it. Sure, the author always applies some thin veneer of legend or mystic second-sight or special bloodlines or whatever other fairy-mustard they like as a justification for the choice. No offense, but that’s little more than a shallow, hand-waving attempt to distract the reader from the author’s failure to come up with a real reason why this character has to make sandwiches. A reason based on genuine needs or desires. A reason based on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic compulsion.

It hoses the drama.

If you need a secondary line of argument, in my view being the chosen one also kills much of a story’s drama. Basically, the instant you tag a character as chosen for bologna-on-Wonder-Bread greatness, readers know how the story’s going to turn out. I mean, come on. It’s not like you’re going to let the bloody chosen one fail, are you? Of course not.

The thing about drama is that it relies on the reader’s perception of uncertainty about the outcome of situations in your plot. So as soon as you make so-and-so the chosen sandwich-maker, you drastically reduce the uncertainty about the outcome, and with it, you kill the drama dead.

Think about good old Frodo Baggins, ringbearing his way into Mordor. How dramatic would it have been if Gandalf had said, there in the bucolic Shire, “Frodo, my boy, you are the chosen one, foretold in the legends of the Maiar to bring about salvation to Middle Earth. Now take this ring of power and go forth into Mordor!” Backed by such a prophesy, would we ever have been worried for Frodo’s safety along the way? Of course not. We’d know the Balrog wasn’t going to get him. That he’d escape from Shelob somehow. That Gollum wouldn’t ever actually kill him for the ring. Don’t worry, such a prophesy tells us, it’ll all work out fine in the end!

Thankfully, that’s not what Tolkien did. Frodo wasn’t chosen by anybody but himself. His motivations were always intrinsic. He took the ring to the council at Rivendell not because he was chosen but because somebody had to, and it might as well be him because the Nazgûl were going to kill him for it anyway. Then when the council couldn’t make up their damn minds what to do, Frodo volunteered for the quest because he knew what was at stake, with no guarantees or prophetic reassurances that he would survive. It was an act of noble self-sacrifice, not the churlish whim of fate, destiny, or arbitrary external choice. Which one sounds more dramatic to you?

Faux success

In the end, the problem is this. I need a protagonist I can root for. But I find that I have a lot of trouble rooting for the chosen one, because on some level to be “chosen for greatness” is a cop-out. The greatness is fake.

Fiction has a completely legitimate role in escapism. It’s fun to read about characters with radically different lives, and imagine ourselves doing things that would be radically impossible or foolhardy in the real world. And certainly it’s fun to imagine the wild success of winning through an epic quest, of bringing home the biggest damn blue ribbon for sandwich making the world has ever seen.

We all want to be successful, right? And fiction has a role in letting us vicariously experience that through the characters in books. The thing is, real success is hard. It’s supposed to be. Great achievement is necessarily difficult. One must face challenges. Overcome personal and external limitations. Discover new things. Make mistakes and fix them. All of that. That’s what true achievement looks like.

My problem with chosen ones is that their route to success doesn’t require them to actually be great. They simply have to march along the path the writer has cleared for them, their foreordained successes ringing hollow with every step. As with everything in writing, this is yet another application of show, don’t tell. When a writer makes a character be the chosen one, that writer is trying to tell me that the character is great. They’re begging me to believe in the character’s greatness simply because they say so. Sorry. It doesn’t work that way.

But when a writer shows me a character’s greatness through choices and actions—when the writer gives me a Frodo Baggins who risks his whole existence, with no expectation of reward, simply because he can’t stand to see a very bad thing happen—I get to watch the character become great by what he accomplishes in spite of every obstacle and limitation. The writer doesn’t have to tell me the character is great; I can conclude that for myself.

May 15, 2012 19:47 UTC

Tags: chosen one, plot motivation, character motivation, hero, hero's journey, drama, show don't tell, J.R.R. Tolkien, character

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Everything you wanted to know about editing but were afraid to ask

Maybe there’s something in the water, but in the past few days I’ve encountered a lot of confusion over the question of editing. I’ve seen it from prospective novelists, on blogs, and even on a nascent freelancing website.

So let’s just answer what kinds of editing there are, when you need them—and most importantly—what they can and cannot do for you. I can’t stress that last point enough. You wouldn’t hire a painter when you need a plumber; in like fashion, it pays to know what kind of editing to ask for.

Developmental Editing

  • What is it? Developmental editing centers on the question, “is this story any good?". It is deep structure editing, answering that question in terms of the elements of story craft: conflict, stakes, pacing, et cetera. And note, the editor’s personal taste is irrelevant. I’m not into vampire novels, but I can still tell you whether you vampire novel is based on a compelling conflict, has meaningful stakes, moves with appropriate pacing towards a satisfying climax, and so forth. Developmental editing involves an editor taking a look at the building blocks of your novel and gives you feedback on what works, what doesn’t, and what you might do about it. You’ll get feedback on everything, including the premise, the storyline, the characters, their arcs, and even your writing craft. Be aware, though, not every editor can do this. Developmental editing demands a very different skill set than line editing and copy editing.

  • When do I need it? As early as possible. The great tragedy of developmental editing is that nobody asks for it early enough. If your premise has some tragic flaw in it, some logical inconsistency that makes the whole story fall flat but could be fixed easily enough, or if your storyline has a plot-hole in it that’s going to require you to re-write two thirds of the manuscript in order to fix it, wouldn’t you like to know about it before you write the whole manuscript? Of course you would. Yet, almost invariably, authors don’t look for editorial assistance until after they’ve finished their manuscript. That’s ok; I can still find all those issues and tell you about them, it just means more work for you in revision. It’s like building a house and then discovering you didn’t leave any place for the stairs. It’s laborious and time-consuming to retrofit stairs into the house; much better to find and fix those flaws in the blueprint stage. For developmental editing, earlier is always better.

  • What can it do for me? Ideally, a good developmental edit yields a roadmap you can use to turn your first-draft novel into something that is of publishable quality. Developmental editing helps you see your story from a different perspective, exposing issues you might not have seen and opportunities you may not have thought to take advantage of. But that’s not the most important benefit. Not by a longshot. There’s that old metric that most writers have to write about five manuscripts before they reach a truly professional level, or the classic million words of crap. By giving you what amounts to a Master Class in plotting, character development, and writing craft, with a curriculum that’s based on your work, developmental editing also turbo-boosts your own writing skill. If you’re willing to put in the work of fixing everything your developmental editor, you can cut that five-manuscript metric down to three, or the million words down to perhaps 600,000. That translates directly into extra productive years added onto your writing career, and how much is that worth? This is why, more than for any other reason, I always suggest new novelists start out by finding a good developmental editor.

  • What can’t it do for me? It won’t fix your story, clean up your prose, or address your mechanical issues. It’ll show you what you need to do, but it won’t actually do them in your manuscript. Developmental editing does not touch your words. A developmental editor will identify the problems—that’s the whole point—but it’s still your job to fix them. It’s your story, not your editor’s. If you want somebody to actually fix the problems for you, then what you really want isn’t an editor but a ghost writer.

Line Editing

  • What is it? Line editing centers on the question of “is it well written?". That is, regardless of the story being told, does the prose itself read well? Does it flow? Is it appropriate to the genre and target audience? Without laboring over definitions, if your basic concern is whether you’ve written it “pretty enough,” then you’re looking for line editing.

  • When do I need it? After you are 100% sure that you have addressed any structural issues—the ones your developmental editor found—in the story. After you’re absolutely certain that the story itself is what you want it to be, that every moment and action in the plot achieves the storytelling function you intended, then you’re ready for line editing. Not before. But, as you can only see issues that are within the scope of your present skill-level, and as most writers haven’t gone through their five manuscripts or million words yet, here’s a good rule of thumb: if you haven’t had someone developmentally edit the novel (and if you haven’t made the corresponding revisions yet), it’s not ready to be line edited.

  • What can it do for me? Bottom line, it can help you “write it prettier.” A good line edit will yield a manuscript of professional-quality prose. But as with developmental editing there’s a deeper benefit. A good line editor is someone who can help amplify your authorial voice. For writers who are still working to establish their voice, this is invaluable. A good line editor is someone who can absorb the voice of your writing and reflect that back to you in the edits. A good line editor is a literary chameleon, and is not always easy to find. But that process of reviewing a manuscript’s worth of edits that read like a better version of yourself can work wonders for helping clarify your authorial voice. When you find yourself reviewing the edits and saying, “yes, that’s what I meant to say,” then you know it’s working.

  • What can’t it do for me? Address any structural issues with your story. Line editing works at the level of words and sentences. It makes your words read better, but it does not change the underlying meaning of those words. Meaning is structural. Anything that would affect the plot itself, in any way, is the purview of a developmental edit, not a line edit.

Copy Editing

  • What is it? Copy editing centers on the question, “did I make any dumb mistakes?". This is superficial, fit-and-finish work. The scope of copy editing is somewhat variable, and there is some gray area between copy editing and line editing. Copy editing typically addresses errors in spelling, punctuation, and standard usage (i.e. whether to spell out numbers or leave them in numeric form). Depending on the editor and/or what you and the editor agree to, copy editing may also fix minor grammatical issues, involve some amount of fact-checking, et cetera.

  • When do I need it? After absolutely everything else is done. Copy editing should be the very last step before sending your manuscript to any other non-editor person in the publishing business. That includes agents, publishers, and literary contests. For the indie author, that includes your book designer, POD services like Lightning Source, Lulu.com, et cetera. Copy editing should be last, last, last, or else you’re just wasting your money.

  • What can it do for me? Copy editing brings your manuscript as close to perfection as possible with respect to mechanical errors. Errors somehow always slip through anyway, but this is your last, best line of defense against embarrassing typos, using the wrong homonym, leaving the period off of a sentence, et cetera.

  • What can’t it do for me? Anything else. Copy editing won’t help you write it prettier. It won’t come anywhere near to addressing structural issues. Think of it like getting your car detailed; it’ll come out clean as a whistle, but a detailer isn’t going to change the oil or give the engine a tune-up.

What does editing cost?

Now that’s a loaded question, isn’t it? Obviously, it’s going to depend on a whole lot of factors. You can see what I charge here, but the best rule of thumb I can give you is “time is money.” Developmental editing, although I think it is the most valuable to a writer’s overall career, is the least time consuming service I provide. Consequently, it’s less expensive. Line editing and copy editing, which are very meticulous arts, are quite labor intensive and you can expect to pay more for them.

Every editor will have his or her own price system. Some will charge by length. Some will charge hourly. Check their websites, which ought to at least give you a ballpark idea. And if you’re shopping around, by all means ask a prospective editor to give you a quote. They may need to evaluate a sample chapter or two, but by all means ask for an estimate. No surprises, right?

Finally, a word of encouragement

Sometimes I think learning the art of novel-craft is nothing more than an extended exercise in developing one’s humility. So many writers I encounter start off with a belief that there’s nothing to it. That writing a novel should be easy. I will confess that I was guilty of that myself, once upon a time. Discovering that there’s actually a whole lot to it, much more than you may ever have imagined, can be a very humbling experience. Yet, too often, those same writers seem to think they must struggle through on their own, or they aren’t real writers. That needing help represents some tragic failing within themselves.

Bluntly, that’s crap. There is no shame in getting help from an editor. Do it, and with pride! That’s how you will move most quickly towards becoming the writer you want to be. That’s not shameful, it’s just smart.

Writing novels is hard. It is. And everybody needs help doing it. Professional athletes still have coaches helping them improve. Presidents have advisors. CEOs have boards of directors. Everyone in the world who had a hard job has somebody helping them see how to do it better. Why should writers be any different?

April 30, 2012 19:21 UTC

Tags: writing, editing, developmental editing, line editing, copy editing

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Writer's guide to working with freelancers

This is a departure from my usual material, but one which I hope will be helpful not only to independent writers, but also to freelancers like myself. Having been a book doctor for a few years now, I’ve assembled an informal list of dos-and-don’ts for working with the people who will help you bring your book to market.

If you have an agent who can land you a traditional publishing deal, none of this is likely to apply; chances are, the publisher will handle all of these things for you. But if you don’t, the burden of producing a professional-quality book that holds its own next to traditionally-published titles falls on you. And unless you’re a masochist, happen to be insanely talented in the many non-writing arts of book production, or are merely insane, you’ll hire a variety of freelancers to help you out.

Who might you hire?

Here is short list of freelancer types, in roughly the order you’ll need them:

  • A book doctor or developmental editor (same thing, different names. Go figure). This person will help you turn your rough story idea, first draft, or even 27th draft, into something considerably more polished. This person doesn’t edit the words on the page, but carefully analyzes the higher level concepts of premise, story structure, and character arcs. That’s much of what I do, and if you want a better description, go check out the services tab on my site.

  • A line editor and/or copy editor. Having digested your developmental editor’s feedback and produced a (hopefully) much stronger draft of your manuscript, line editors and copy editors will help you polish your prose until it shines. A good line editor concerns him or herself with the overall flow of the language, and will be sensitive enough to your authorial voice that their edits will be in keeping with your style, rather than imposing their own style on your work. A copy editor deals with the fiddly bits of punctuation, fact checking, typo-spotting, and other final, detail work. Depending on the strength of your writing, you may or may not need the line editor (though most people benefit from one), but please don’t skip the copy editor. You’ll be amazed at the embarrassing goof-ups a good copy editor will spot for you.

  • A book designer. I used to think that if I fiddled around in Microsoft Word with fonts, margins, and line spacing until things looked nice, that I was good to go. PDF that sucker, and ship it off to Lulu.com, CreateSpace, or wherever. You can do that if you want. Nobody will stop you. And that’s fine, if you want your book to look like crap. If you want people to open up your book and wonder, “Why does this book look so weird?” then by all means engage in uneducated, DIY book design. I used to do that very thing. But once I actually met a book designer and heard him talk about how and why he does what he does, I learned there is an incredible amount of arcane lore involved in putting text on a page and making it look just so. It’s not easy, and since I don’t have a spare decade to learn all that stuff for myself, now I hire it out. A good book designer will have an eye for proportion, text weight, font choice, and a zillion other things that will blow you away.

  • A cover art designer. I don’t think I have to say much about this, since countless other sites have covered cover design, as it were. Just, don’t be that guy who buys a box of colored pencils and draws a sixth-grade level picture of an elf to go on the cover of his DIY-designed, un-copy-edited, fantasy novel. Don’t be the person who thinks, “How hard could a little Photoshop be?” Unless you’re uncommonly artistic visually as well as verbally, pretty hard. Be smart. Hire it out. It’s worth it. Pro-tip, though: DO NOT (I repeat, do not) have the cover designer place the title, author’s name, and other text on the art. Have them leave room in the design for that, but let your book designer handle the layout and other font choices for your cover, too. That way, the outside look of your book can be unified, design-wise, with the inside.

That’s who most independent authors will—and IMHO, should—end up using. Depending on the nature of the book, (e.g. a guide to selling your house without a real estate agent, a diet or other health/lifestyle guide, etc), you may also hire a lawyer to write you a disclaimer. Depending on how much time you want to put into promotion, you might also hire a publicist. But the above four people are the core freelancers you’ll be interacting with.

What should you expect from a freelancer?

Professional service, with a smile, right? Basically, yes. You want the freelancer to treat you professionally. You want them to respect your work, and your vision for your work. You want them to do quality work that is worth your hard-earned dollars. You want them to be clear about what they can do for you, and when they can do it by. You are well within your rights to expect all of that.

What should a freelancer expect from you?

But it goes both ways. The freelancer expects you to treat them like a professional, too. This is how we make a living, so we treat what we do pretty seriously. The golden rule really does apply, here.

Just like you expect the freelancer to respect your work, you should respect the freelancer’s skills and abilities—after all, you’re hiring them because they can do things you can’t, right? Just like you want quality service, we want to get the best material from you that you’re capable of producing. The better your manuscript is when we see it, the further we can help you take it.

We need you to be able to clearly communicate your vision for the project, particularly where artistic choices are concerned, as often comes up in line editing and cover art. A line editor needs to know about any peculiarities of your authorial voice that are important to you. If you absolutely don’t want green as a strong color on your book cover, because green makes your protagonist vomit or something, tell your cover artist up front. Don’t let them spend ten hours doing a mock-up, only to have you say “Oh, no green. Sorry!”

Where do freelance interactions go wrong?

From my experience, here are the most common problems that mess up my freelancer/client interactions.

  • Book them early. Think of the freelancer like a medical specialist. When your doctor refers you to a really good dermatologist for that funny itch that just won’t go away, you’re not surprised if you can’t get an appointment right away, are you? The better the person is, the longer you’ll generally have to wait. It’s the same for freelancers. Yet, I have long-since lost count of the number of e-mails I get from prospective clients asking me to do a developmental edit for them in two weeks because they want to submit their book to a contest with an imminent deadline, or because an agent said “get it to me by the end of March” and it’s already February 20th, or something like that. It sucks for the client and it sucks for the freelancer. I hate turning business away, but I don’t have any choice but to tell these people “sorry, I’m booked out six months in advance.”

  • Be on time. When you hire a freelancer, there will be some date by which you need to hand over your manuscript. If the person can schedule you right away, there’s no problem. But if the person can’t schedule you for a while, then you have due-date on your calendar. It’s your responsibility to turn in your materials on time. If it gets to be two or three days before the due date, and we haven’t heard from you, we begin to get nervous. Most freelancers will send you a reminder e-mail, to which we’re hoping to hear, “Yes, I’ll have that to you by the due-date!” But all too often, what we hear is “Oh, sorry, I forgot all about that. I’m re-working the middle of the book, and I’m just not ready. Can I reschedule?” That answer makes us want to snap small trees in half with our bare hands. In all likelihood you can reschedule, but you’ve also left us scrambling to move other clients around to fill the hole you just blew into our schedule.

  • Communicate clearly. You’re a writer. This should be a gimme, but unfortunately, it isn’t. Take the time to make your own ideas known to the freelancer up-front, again, especially as concerns line editing or cover art issues. One really good line editing client I had was from Canada. He told me up-front that he had made a decision to use the British spellings of words like ‘colour’ and ‘flavour’ and so forth. Perfect. That makes it easy for me to give him a great line edit while still respecting his authorial style.

  • Communicate often. If your plans change, LET THE FREELANCER KNOW. I really cannot emphasize this enough. When you ask a freelancer to do work for you, you’re trusting them with a chunk of your money in exchange for quality service. But the freelancer is also trusting you with a chunk of their time. Time is the freelancer’s fundamental commodity. It’s the thing we can trade for money that we use to pay our mortgages and feed our families. We’re trusting you to make good on your promise to use the time we’ve set aside for you. So when your slot comes around, and we e-mail you to ask for your manuscript, and you tell us “oh, sorry, I changed my mind” or “my car died a few months ago, and I really can’t afford it right now,” that also makes us want to destroy innocent foliage. Had you told us immediately when your plans changed, we could have found someone else to use that time. But by keeping mum about it, again, you’ve blown a hole in our schedule. You’ve taken a paycheck out of our wallets, and have made it harder for us to provide for our families.

  • Be flexible. Your freelancer will likely be very flexible with you. You’re the one with the money, and our reputations are golden to us. We never know how someone will react, and we can’t risk irritating you and having you badmouth us on your blog or on Twitter. The rumor mill doesn’t care who’s “right” in such a situation. So look, we get it. Life happens. Sometimes you will have to reschedule, or may be late on a deadline, despite your honest and best intentions to the contrary. Your freelancer may grit their teeth about it in private, but in all probability he or she will be very flexible towards you. All we ask in return is that you afford us that same flexibility. We have lives too, and we can’t control everything.

It’s a question of trust

A successful freelance experience boils down to trust, in both directions. You’re trusting a developmental editor to intuit what you’re trying to do with your story—to see past what the story on the page, down to what you intended the story to be—in order to best advise you how to make the story on the page match your intentions. You’re trusting a line editor to be a gifted and chameleon-like writer, able to absorb your authorial voice into themselves, and reflect your voice back to you in the edits. You’re trusting a copy editor to know the difference between that one tricky homonym-pair that always trips you up, to know that UK English spells “aluminum” with an extra “i". (And that UK punctuation puts the period on the other side of the close-quote.) You’re trusting a book designer to know the thousand little tricks of typography and typesetting that, collectively, make your text beautiful to look at and physically comfortable to read. You’re trusting a cover designer to understand how the nuances of color, composition, lighting, and form combine to nail the specific mood you’re looking for to represent your book.

But the freelancer is trusting you, too. When you contract a freelancer to help you with your project, that person dedicates time on their calendar for you. Time is a freelancer’s stock in trade. It costs us time to talk to you up front about your project, so we can work up a proposal and cost estimate for you. It takes time to set you up in our customer tracking system, to collect material and other resources that may be necessary for your project, and so forth. That time is largely invisible to you, but it’s very real to us. Before we ever see a dime from you, we’ve already invested a chunk of our time in you, and we’re trusting you to be as good as your word. When I say it’s about paying our mortgages and feeding our families, that’s not hyperbole. That’s the real deal.

A freelancer will generally bend over backwards to be flexible to you, to say “yes” to you as much as possible. After all, you’re the one with the money. But that’s no license not to act professionally. Remember the golden rule, and that both client and freelancer have skin in the game. For you, your authorial dreams are on the line. For us, our livelihoods are. Let’s both play nice, so we can both keep doing what we love.

Note, I intend for this blog post to be a living document. Please share your freelance dos-and-don’ts, too, and I’ll add them to this list. But I do not intend for this post to become a directory of freelance editors, book designers and cover artists. Elizabeth S. Craig (@elizabethscraig on Twitter) already maintains such a list, and I’m sure she will be quite happy to have any such recommendations.

February 28, 2012 00:45 UTC

Tags: writing, freelancing, clients, business

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Reading roundup 2011

I started 2011 on a mission: read ten million words of fiction. I got to wondering what it would be like just to blast my brain with words, words, words, for a whole year. So I bought a lot of books and went to work. In the end, I didn’t make it, which is just as well because the stack you see here pretty well pushes the limits of what I can read and still get enough sleep to be a functional human being. And besides, if I had reached ten million, I’d never have been able to stack them all up. But still, I did pretty well. The stack you see is 70 books, and about 5.1 million words.

So what did I learn?

I have little patience for bad books

I finished them once I started, but reading that much, you want it to be an enjoyable experience. So when certain titles which shall remain nameless kept poking me in the eyes with awful writing, cliché plots, or horrible point-of-view abuses, it’s not fun. It starts to feel like work. Somehow, I doubt that’s the experience most writers want to give their readers. And while I won’t name the specific titles, I can say that the most disappointing books in the stack were all middle grade titles. Now, I grant you I am many standard deviations away from the mean age of a middle-grade reader, but I like to write for middle grade audiences, I have a budding middle-grader in my household, and I take to heart Maxim Gorky’s quote:

You must write for children in the same way you do for adults, only better.

Those titles didn’t do that.

I’m pretty picky about perfection

Not only did I do word count estimates of all those titles, I also rated them for my own amusement. And out of the 70, only three titles got a perfect 4-star rating from me. Two of them are classics, which I readily admit I judge differently than modern titles: Kurt Vonnegut’s stellar Cat’s Cradle, which is just sublime in its juxtaposition of deeply philosophical ideas against absurdist skewering of, well, everything. And antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, which I simply adore because it is sweet and beautiful and utterly distilled down to its barest, simplest possible essence. If you want to study spare writing, that’s your textbook. Also, the scene with the fox kills me every time.

The only modern book to score a 4, well, that’s as good a segue into a top-ten list as any:

My top reads of 2011

10: Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary. By number of titles written in my stack, Beverly Cleary is this year’s clear winning author. I read the entire Ramona Quimby series and the entire Henry Huggins series to my kids for bedtime stories over the summer. If, like me, you like to write for middle-grade audiences you could do a whole lot worse than to blast your brain with a whole bunch of Beverly Cleary. I was particularly struck by the elegance and truth with which she captures the feeling of being a little kid. Really, several of Cleary’s titles were approximately as good as Ramona the Pest, but I pick this one for my top-ten list because of its utterly immaculate plotting. Everything in that book is there for two reasons. First, it all supports the scenes in which you find it, but second, it sets up lovely twists, surprises, and hilarious situations for later. It’s brilliantly done, and I’ll admit I’ve recommended that book to more than one of my clients as homework, just to study the plotting.

9: Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. This is the Newberry Medalist winner from 1994, and I can’t really argue with the committee’s selection. It’s a lovely, quiet story, very intimate and personal to its protagonist. That’s a story oeuvre I particularly enjoy, and this title nailed it. But I was also totally impressed with Creech’s facile use of a parallel storyline structure, past and present, to explore the book’s overall theme of loss and healing. Great read.

8: The Curse of the Blue Tattoo, by L.A. Meyer. This is book 2 in the Bloody Jack adventures series. I absolutely adored book one of this series so much I went right out and bought the next five of them, and they’re so good I’m rationing them out to make them last. If you don’t know Bloody Jack, start with the first book—it’s amazing, and has such an incredible character hook on page 1 that I’ve used it as an example in lectures I’ve given on hooking the reader. Anyway, even though Blue Tattoo spends a lot of time setting things up that will clearly be used in later books, and even though it spends not a page on the high seas as book 1 does, it still presents a great storyline, good mystery and danger, and is a very credible sequel. If I ever dare write a sequel to any of my novels, I can only hope to measure up as well.

7: Factotum, by D.M. Cornish. I talk up D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo series every chance I get, because they’re amazing books. Factotum is the third and presumably final in the series, which begins with Foundling. This is straight-up high fantasy, and it is arguably the equal of Tolkien. Them’s fightin’ words, I know, and I do not say them lightly. What’s amazing about this whole series—besides the characters, and the story, and the writing—the thing that makes me talk the series up, is the world-building. Cornish has a savant-like imagination. I don’t know how he fits the world of the Half-Continent and an understanding of the real world into his head at the same time. Tolkien was a great world-builder, but I promise you, you’ve never seen world-building done like D.M. Cornish. The contrast between the two comes in the use of invented language. Tolkien invented whole languages and alphabets for his fictional cultures, but they remain foreign languages; Cornish has taken the business of coining words to a whole new level, and does so in a way that at once adds marvelous texture and color to his world, while also being immediately understandable to the reader. You don’t need a separate glossary to understand D.M. Cornish’s invented language, although one is provided. I certainly hope Cornish writes more Half-Continent stories, and I feel comfortable suggesting that any modern writer of fantasy literature needs to put Cornish on their must-read list.

6: The Winter of Frankie Machine, by Don Winslow. This is a crime novel set in the underworld of the Southern California mafia scene. What happens when a mob hitter tries to go straight? What happens when his past catches up to him? Frankie Machine’s the hitter, and his past is something else. What I loved about this book was, actually, Frankie himself. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a better example of how you get a reader to sympathize with a dark protagonist. Because let’s be clear, the guy’s no saint. And he doesn’t claim to be. Nevertheless, I defy you to read the book and not find yourself rooting for Frankie to win.

5: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. I think if you took the whimsy and imaginative playfulness of The Phantom Tollbooth, mixed it with the dark undercurrent of Alice in Wonderland, and rendered the result as a modern fairy tale, you’d get something like this book. At any rate, that’s how I found it: an utterly charming modern fairy tale, with a malignant darkness hiding, only hinted at, underneath. Just the sort of thing for kids of all ages.

4: Shadowed Summer, by Saundra Mitchell. This is a southern gothic, paranormal teen novel. It’s quite short, and a very fast read, but it is oh so evocative of its setting. You almost feel like you’re there. The writing is lovey, and the story is brilliantly plotted with (at least to me) a great twist at the end. The perfect kind of twist that leaves the reader kicking themselves for not seeing it coming. Just wonderful stuff.

3: Chime, by Franny Billingsley. This is another teen paranormal, but this one bordering on fantasy, set in some nebulously-rural English village in the early 1900s. I loved the characters in this novel, but was especially impressed with Billingsley’s narrative voice. Or, should I say, her protagonist’s voice, as the book is written in first person. The story’s no small potatoes either. It builds to a high-stakes climax, piling layer upon layer of mystery as it goes. But oh, that voice. The book could have been twice as long and I’d have been glad to read every page of it.

2: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. I don’t know what’s up with me and the paranormals crowding the top of this list, because to be honest, I don’t actually read all that much paranormal. But, here in the number 2 slot, we find the most unusually-premised paranormal I can recall ever having read. I suspect all of us have, at some point or another, had that conversation with our friends: “what super power would you want to have?” Rose Edelstein’s super power is to taste the emotions of whoever made the food she eats. Super power, or super curse? That depends, and Aimee Bender does absolutely yeoman work in fully thinking through the ramifications of such an ability, while also wrapping them up in, as the Los Angeles Times calls it, an “ethereal and surprisingly weighty” story.

1: The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley. This is the only book I read this year, outside of those two classics, to earn four stars from me. Mosley is a highly experienced writer, and it shows, although this is the first book of his I’ve ever read. I hardly know what to say about this novel, other than it’s astonishingly, shockingly, good. Brilliant, even. The writing? Smooth as glass. The voice? Impeccable and completely captivating. The plot? Quiet, but very high-stakes for its protagonist. And the love story woven through it? Like nothing you’ve ever seen. If you read nothing else on this list, read The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. It’s a powerful piece of work, and I stand in awe.

So that’s what I did in 2011. What were your favorite reads of the year? Share them in the comments!

December 31, 2011 22:32 UTC

Tags: writing, reading

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Does your denouement murder your characters?

I have a confession to make. I’m a murderer. Only in the third degree—I didn’t mean to—but murder is murder.

You know what I remember most about writing my first manuscript? Writing the ending. I’d had such a wonderful time writing that whole manuscript. I loved those characters. When I wrote what I knew was the last scene, I became so choked up the lump in my throat literally hurt.

The story was done. They were done. But I wasn’t ready to let those characters go.

So what did I do? I wrote an epilogue. It’s a sweet epilogue. Kind of sappy. To this day I still like it. It gave me a chance to say the goodbye I wasn’t ready for in the last scene.

But it killed the characters. I didn’t understand that at the time, but it did.

I don’t mean I literally killed the characters off in the epilogue. They got their happily-ever-after. What I mean is that I killed them for the reader. Without meaning to, I murdered my beloved characters.

I did it in my second manuscript, too, before one of my critiquers told me to cut it. “You don’t need that,” he said. “It’s too much.” I rankled at that piece of feedback. I liked my epilogue. It was sweet, kind of sappy, and let me say goodbye. But the cool thing about writing is you can undo any mistake, even murder. I gritted my teeth, cut the epilogue, and brought my characters back to life.

So when I see my clients accidentally kill their characters at the end of the book, I understand. Sometimes I can tell that my client is looking for their own emotional closure on the book, just like I was. Sometimes, it’s equally evident that my clients feel like they have to wrap up all the threads to give readers perfect closure on everything.

I’ve been there. I understand that drive. But I’ve now written enough manuscripts of my own and analyzed enough from my clients that I can finally articulate what that critiquer meant when he said my epilogue was too much. He meant I was killing the characters.

Not for me. Not in the story. But for him.

The purpose of a denouement

To explain what that means, I need to establish a little groundwork about a novel’s ending—or if you’re writing an epic series, about the end of the last book in the series. Your story builds to a gripping peak. You write a climax that resolves the story’s major issues one way or another. And then there’s the denouement at the end.

Ask people what’s supposed to go between the climax and the final page, and they’ll say things like “that’s where you wrap up any loose threads,” or “that’s where you bring the reader back down from the emotional high of the climax, so they don’t leave the book feeling unsettled.”

True, but trivial. That’s tactics, not strategy.

The strategic purpose of a denouement is to reorient the characters towards the next phase of their lives.

You might indeed do that by wrapping up loose ends. You might do it by giving a flash-forward scene that shows a less tumultuous time in the characters’ lives. It is in how you implement those various strategies that you will either accidentally murder your characters, or will allow them to live. The difference lies in whether you keep your denouement focused on reorienting the characters, or whether you stray too far outside those bounds.

That’s what my critiquer was trying to tell me. “Your epilogue goes way beyond reorienting the characters towards the next phase of their lives.”

The important bit

Reorienting, that’s the important bit. The reason for this has nothing to do with you. It has nothing to do with the characters, either. It has everything to do with the reader.

As readers of fiction or watchers of movies, usually we want to leave the story with the feeling that, after the climax, the characters are facing a new, better future. We want to have the belief that they’re going to be ok. We want that same sense of an unbounded but positive future for those characters, that we ourselves have when we conquer major obstacles in our lives: the feeling that “now, anything is possible!”

You graduate high school or college, bursting with the feeling of accomplishment, and confident that you’re going to kick-ass in the rest of your life. You ask the person of your dreams to marry you, they say yes, you endure the ordeal of wedding planning and in-laws, and you head off into your honeymoon feeling like life is just going to be awesome from here on out.

It doesn’t always happen, but that’s how it feels, and that’s the feeling readers just love to leave a book with. Here’s the thing. Simply by seeing the characters turn away from the now-completed problems that led up to the climax, and turn towards something else, we know that they are now facing a new, better future.

We don’t need to be told just what that new, better future is.

Committing murder

That’s how you go too far in a book’s denouement. You do the good work of reorienting the characters, but then you also specify where and how far they go along their new paths.

When you do that, you murder them in the reader’s mind.

Ok, perhaps that’s melodramatic. I guess it’s not so much that you murder them, per se, as it is that you prevent them from living on for us.

This is a tricky point, so bear with me.

As the writer, the characters live for you because you are imagining their feelings and choices and actions and responses and so forth during the events of the main plot. It is your imagination which brings them to life for us.

As readers, we don’t have that same full freedom; we’re not allowed to imagine our own choices and so forth, because those are part of the story. Different choices would lead to a different plot, so obviously the writer has to do that part. The writer must imagine the characters’ choices and present them to us through the narrative.

That difference means that on a very fundamental level, characters in a novel necessarily must feel less alive to the reader than they do to the writer.

This is true from page one up through “the end.” But once we get to “the end,” the situation changes.

When the plot is done, suddenly the doors of possibility are thrown wide open. The characters might now choose anything. They might do anything. How exciting! And having come to know them through the course of the story, we readers are finally in a position to imagine them into further life just like you imagined them into life while you were writing the story.

You had your turn. Now it’s our turn, but only if you allow us to imagine what the characters might do next. If you imagine it for us, we can’t. If you write it all down in a tidy little epilogue or final chapter—if you let us know that Mary Louise got her biology degree and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on tissue regeneration, while Charlie eventually bounced back from the breakup, married another woman in Iowa, had two kids and a dog and settled down to a modest life as an auto mechanic—then we don’t get our turn.

If you imagine the rest for us, we cannot then imagine them into further life. Murderer!

Reorient the characters. Then stop.

Just don’t be so specific about your story’s Mary Louise and Charlie. Leave it more open-ended:

Mary Louise slipped the envelope from her purse and walked into the post office. She stood in line. Two people ahead of her, she saw the back of a familiar brown leather jacket.

Awkward, she thought, but not as awkward as saying nothing.

“Charlie?”

Charlie turned. “Oh. Hey. What’s up?”

Mary Louise motioned with the envelope. “Grad school application.” His usual Sunday-evening stubble looked out of place on a Wednesday morning. “How are you doing, Charlie?”

He shrugged. “Not great, really. But I’ll be ok. It’s cool.” She glanced down. After all those years together, how strange not to have anything left to say. He held up a form. “Change of address. I’m going to Iowa,” he said.

“Wow. Your dad’s?”

“Yeah. He’s talking about retiring. He keeps hinting for me to take over the shop, but you know him. He won’t just come right out and say it. I figure I’ll give it a try.”

Mary Louise smiled. “You should. I think you’ll like it. You always were good with your hands.”

Reorient. Point Mary Louise at grad school. Point Charlie at Iowa. Then stop, so the reader can imagine the rest. Give us our turn to bring the characters to life.

December 21, 2011 22:54 UTC

Tags: character, denouement, reorient

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Swimming to find your characters


What lies beneath

Leaving aside for a moment that icebergs probably don’t really glow like that on their undersides, the iceberg still makes a nice metaphor for the characters in your book. Or rather, for the process of coming to know who those characters are.

I’d argue that when we think about our novels ahead of time, our conceptions of the characters are much like the visible part of the iceberg. Pretty, but not nearly the whole picture.

The water hides everything else. You cannot see the rest of the iceberg until—and unless—you get into the water. You must swim down, under the cold water, to see the whole thing.

The water, in this metaphor, is the writing.

I will also argue that you cannot truly come to know who your characters are, in all their multi-dimensional glory, until you plunge in and get wet.

Two case studies

This has never been more evident to me than this past November, during National Novel Writing Month. But somehow, this year’s experience helped me understand the iceberg and the water in a new way, so I thought I’d share.

Now first, I’m a plotter, not a pantser. I spend a lot of time before writing figuring out how the story is going to develop, which in turn means figuring out a lot about my main protagonists and antagonists ahead of time. Even before setting out on page one of my novel, I can tell you how my protagonist feels about her general situation in life. I can tell you what she wants. What she’s mad about. I can tell you the same for her mother, her father, and the antagonist who’s going to hound my protagonist’s family for the whole book. For these people, the visible part of the iceberg is a bit bigger. It has to be, because characters drive stories; the plot and the personalities have to mesh just-so in order for the whole thing to work out.

But I don’t spend much time on the minor characters. Their icebergs barely poke up above the water. Before I write, I know their names and how they function in the plot. I have vague mental images of them, but that’s really all. For all my planning, they were barely even one-dimensional characters.

It was only when I jumped into the water this November that I discovered who they were. They became three-dimensional people as I swam around in their scenes. I want to share that process with you, because the thinking behind it isn’t specific to this story. It should work for any writer, and any character, in any scene.

And just to set the stage for you, this novel’s one-sentence pitch is “A frontier girl, the daughter of German immigrants, must help save her family’s homestead from the corrupt railroad barons who would drive them off their land.” It’s a middle-grade western, set in 1863, in the Nebraska Territory.

Mr. Harper

Here’s what I had about Mr. Harper before I started writing. Mr. Harper is a bachelor who lives a country mile down the road from my protagonist’s homestead. He’s good with horses. That’s it. It’s not much to go on, is it? But I figured, he’s a minor character anyway, what does it matter?

Come on. Every character matters.

The first time my 10 year old protagonist Maria meets Mr. Harper, she’s in a bit of a pickle. She has been out on the prairie, away from home, longer than she should. Now night is falling and she has to get home and she knows she’s already going to be in trouble for being out so late. As it happens, she came past Mr. Harper’s homestead on the way back to her own. I wasn’t exactly expecting Mr. Harper to appear at quite this point in the story, but that’s how the preceding scene evolved, so I went with it.

Suddenly, I had to know how Mr. Harper was going to react to Maria’s unexpected, evening arrival at his homestead. His reaction depends entirely on his own attitudes, wishes, and goals—in short, on what he wants—but I didn’t know what that was.

I know what Maria wants. She wants a ride home. And she probably wants a third-party, someone outside of the family, to be around when she gets home in order to temper the severity of her parents’ angry response.

But what does Mr. Harper want? Right there, in that at-the-keyboard moment of working this out, my vague notions of who Mr. Harper might be crashed headlong into my planning of how the story is going to unfold later, with modern-day readers’ mental image of what frontier life was like and how people acted back then, et cetera.

Mr. Harper might want anything. Maybe he’s a greedy rascal and only wants money. Maybe he’s a reclusive type who only wants solitude. There is a whole gamut of things Mr. Harper might want—goals he might have—which will drive his response to Maria’s arrival.

Except I have a story to write, and I need certain things out of him. And when he does those things, I need them to come across as believable expressions of the man I have previously shown him to be. Starting right here with this first time Maria meets him.

In particular, I need readers and Maria’s family to like him, because of things that happen later in the story. He ends up helping them with a lame horse, and when I raise the stakes later, it’s by also threatening his homestead. That won’t play strongly unless readers care about him, too.

All of which means I need him to be nice in this scene. To help her out. That makes sense: out on the prairie you never know when you might need a good neighbor’s help, so even in selfish terms, helping Maria now gives him a store of good will with neighbors who may help him later.

Filtering the spectrum of possible Mr. Harpers through the prism of what the story needs now and will need later, was enough for me to zero in on what kind of guy he is. Simply thinking through the scene from his point of view—even a barely sketched out point of view—was enough to figure out how he’d react.

From there, it was natural to imagine how he would talk to her in a way that was friendly and neighbor-like. In the course of writing that scene, I discovered a congenial southern drawl that seemed to come naturally to him. He became a genuinely friendly guy, the kind of guy who if he lived in 2011 instead of 1863, would just as soon hug you as shake your hand and you’d be ok with that.

Could I have planned this ahead of time? Maybe. But I liked doing it this way better. I think it has a more spontaneous, organic feeling to it than if I’d have tried to over-specify this minor character ahead of time. He was a lot more fun this way, and is actually kind of a scene-stealer.

Mr. LeClerc

Mr. LeClerc is a French-Canadian guy who runs the dry goods store in the nearby frontier town of Columbus. Again, not much to go on. Again, it was only when I jumped into the waters of his first scene that I could see who this character was supposed to be.

Maria meets Mr. LeClerc on the occasion of selling him some baskets she and her mother have made. She and her father are in town to attend to various business, and her father got it into his head that Maria needed to be the one to handle the selling of the baskets, even though she had never done business with anybody before in her life. I didn’t plan that part either, but it seemed like the kind of thing her father would do, so I went with it.

So Maria has to negotiate a price with this Mr. LeClerc, a stranger she has never met before, and the poor thing starts out by asking for a price that’s way, way too low. She has no experience with money. She has no idea what anything really costs, so she blows it. She asks for a nickel each—about $1.25 in today’s money—not nearly enough. When in doubt, make things worse, right?

Now, how does Mr. LeClerc react? Again, his goals are terribly relevant. What does any shopkeeper want? To build up a good business and do well for himself. So maybe he knows a great deal when he sees it, and buys the baskets for a song, never letting on how much she’s getting screwed on the deal.

Maybe, but not so fast. I have a story to write, and things that need to happen later. Next time she sees Mr. LeClerc, in fact, I need for her to trust him. And that’s not going to happen if she gets home and her mother yells at her for not getting a fair price for the baskets. She’ll know she got screwed. I’m left with needing a way for Mr. LeClerc to get her up to a fair price, even though on the surface, he would naturally love to buy a bunch of nicely made baskets for cheap.

Thinking it through from his broader point of view, considering more than just the opportunity of the moment, I realized that it’s not a contradictory situation at all. Mr. LeClerc is a frontier shopkeeper. His clientele is kind of limited. It’s a small town, and he can’t afford to be alienating his customers. This includes Maria’s father. So LeClerc knows that if he screws Maria on the deal, it will likely cost him business later.

From there, it was easy. Once I had thought through LeClerc’s goals within the context of that situation, a solution presented itself. I let him reveal that he wouldn’t feel right about taking advantage of her in that way: He said, “No! If I buy them for one nickel only, I cannot sleep at night!” From there, they worked out a fair price, and I got what I needed too: the plot moved where I wanted, Maria now has reason to trust him later (because he treated her fairly here), and as a bonus, I got some additional insight into what kind of man he is. He’s a basically honest guy, and kind enough to give Maria a way out of her mistake which didn’t humiliate her.

You must swim the waters

Those are just two examples, but I hope they give you the idea. When you’re stuck in a scene for knowing how someone will act, think about what it is they want to get out of the scene. What are their goals and desires? And think about what you need in order to for the story to go where you intend it to. Between the two of those factors, you will be able to figure out what kind of person will give you a reaction that works. That’s how you see the rest of the iceberg.

December 02, 2011 21:47 UTC

Tags: character, writing, NaNoWriMo, character motivation, personality

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