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:
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.
August 09, 2013 03:58 UTC
The unavoidable character
Ask yourself this question about your current work-in-progress: What character is in every scene and on every page? Don’t be so quick to say “none.” I don’t care what kind of book you’re writing. Even an omniscient POV book with tons of head-hopping has a character who is in every scene and on every page.
The writer is inescapably present in every novel. Readers will suspend disbelief about your book, but they never truly forget that they’re reading a story you wrote. Your name is even on the front of it!
This is obviously true for memoirs and novels where a writer intentionally inserts himself or herself into the story. I’m not talking about those. What I’m talking about are the vast majority of novels in which the writer does not intend to be in the story.
You are anyway.
The question then becomes, does your writing minimize your own presence on the page? Generally speaking, the better a writer is the more invisible he or she remains to the reader. When the reader becomes aware of you, you’ve pulled them out of the story. That’s never a good thing.
In working with my clients’ novels, I’ve put together a list of common and not-so-common ways that writers reveal themselves to readers. Strive to avoid these:
So-called “author intrusion” is when a writer inserts something into the book which doesn’t feel like it fits. This can happen in narrative, or through dialogue. But usually it comes in the form of an opinion on an emotionally or politically charged subject that isn’t directly attributable to any character in the scene, and is often written in a style that seems directed toward the reader. For example:
The phone dropped from Susan’s hand, clattering on the kitchen floor. She gripped the countertop for support. John was dead, found hanging from a light fixture in his apartment. Suicide is a mortal sin. It’s wrong to kill yourself, and no one should ever do that. Susan squeezed her eyes shut, but tears leaked out anyway.
Here, the writer reveals his own opinions about suicide, reveals his religious beliefs, and tosses in a little morality lecture as a bonus. The reader may well agree with the sentiment, but it has no place in the story unless that thought belongs to one of the book’s actual characters. If it’s just your opinion, leave it out.
When readers run into something like this, it’s like you’re waving yourself in their face. “Yoo hoo, writer speaking! Here I am!” Furthermore, it’s impossible for the reader not to be aware of you trying to tell them what to think. Nobody likes that. Even if they agree with you it leaves them feeling negatively towards you.
It is very easy to make mistakes in one’s story that undermine your own credibility as a writer, that sabotage the reader’s belief in you as a person who has any business writing a novel. If readers stop believing in you, they’ll stop caring about the story and probably stop reading. At the very least you make it much more difficult for them to continue suspending their disbelief. There are three main credibility issues I see in my clients’ work:
Plot holes. If the cops take a character’s gun away in chapter three, but then the character fires the gun in chapter 4 without first having gotten it back, that’s a plot hole. It’s a logical inconsistency within the structure of your story, and what it tells readers is that you don’t know your own story well enough to tell it right. That being the case, what confidence can a reader have that the rest of the story is going to be worth reading?
Factual errors. Similar to plot holes, when your characters make mistakes about verifiable facts it tells the reader that you are either lazy or ill-informed yourself. Again, it conveys the message that you haven’t any business writing a novel, or that you haven’t put as much work into the novel as you should have.
One or two of these, when they’re small and on facts that don’t matter much to the plot, can be tolerated. Nobody’s really going to care all that much if you, say, refer to the “nine graceful arcs atop the Chrysler Building,” when in fact there are only eight. As long as you’re not screwing up minor details all over the place, it’s tolerable.
What isn’t tolerable is to make mistakes about facts that matter to the plot, or which are well known and iconic in the culture at large. For example, misplacing the Hoover Dam from the Colorado River to the Mississippi, or accidentally referring to 1973 as “the year Kennedy was assassinated.”
Bad or missing emotional responses. In my opinion, these are the worst. These are when your characters fail to react in emotionally appropriate ways to the events they face, or when emotional responses that are in the book haven’t been well supported by the preceding narrative.
For example, if your main character receives a call in the middle of his high-stakes business negotiation informing him that his mother has died unexpectedly, yet he carries on with the negotiation as though nothing happened, readers aren’t going to believe that for a second. Similarly, romance sub-plots where a character seems to be madly attracted to another for no discernable reason just aren’t credible. That latter one is one I see way too much of, and for some reason it seems to be an especially common problem for writers of thrillers.
These mistakes undermines your credibility as a writer because they make readers believe that you just don’t understand how real people think, feel, and react. If that’s the case, you really don’t have any business writing a novel that has any people in it. If that’s the case, consider writing Sci-Fi about aliens with wholly different mentalities, for whom dispassion towards their mothers and unmotivated romance are the norm. Or about robots. Robots are good.
If you don’t understand people, you shouldn’t write about them. That’s why this is the worst thing you can do for your own credibility.
Plot holes and factual errors are relatively easy to fix. Any decent editor can help you catch those, as can your writing group or people on internet critique websites. But if your characters don’t act like real people, there’s not much that can be done except to write the whole thing over.
Portraying yourself as an unsavory person
To enjoy your book, readers have to like you. At the very least, they have to be indifferent to you. Their opinion of you, if any, will prejudice them towards or against your book. Thus, your book should avoid making readers feel you are a loathsome human being, or they’re going to have a hard time liking it. How do writers betray themselves like that? Here are two examples.
One client’s characterization of the female characters in his book consisted of, without exception, descriptions their physical assets. Especially their breasts. I could really tell he was a breast man. There wasn’t much else in terms of characterization for these women. As the book progressed, this pattern left me with the feeling that the client wasn’t merely a fan of the female bosom, but was in fact a male chauvinist. The men in his book had goals, aspirations, and even feelings. But the women were little more than glorified furniture. It didn’t leave me feeling good about the client as a person.
Another client had a main character who—and to avoid the threat of being sued for libel I’ll be particularly vague here—did some very, very bad things. However, the book was written with enough author intrusion that I couldn’t escape the suspicion that my client was writing from experience. A little bit of internet research only deepened that suspicion. I quit the project, tore up the client’s check, and I hope never to hear from that client again.
Think about that: I was being paid to read the book, and I couldn’t do it because of my opinion of the writer. The client showed enough of him/herself on the page that every fiber of my being was screaming “get away from this client!” So I did. I wanted nothing to do with any of it.
It’s one thing to “write what you know,” as the saying goes. But when what you know would make a person think you belong behind bars, consider writing about something else. I’m just saying.
You are in your book
Like it or not, you are a character in your book if for no other reason than readers never fully forget they’re reading a story that was written by a person. The best you can do is to keep yourself as invisible as possible by avoiding the mistakes I’ve described here.
January 15, 2010 20:32 UTC
Novelists' black holes
This month, an enormous amount of my work time has been sucked up in preparing to do book doctor consultations with aspiring novelists at the annual PNWA 54th Annual Summer Writers Conference. They signed me up for 24 of these one-on-one consultations, each one accompanied by a 25-page excerpt from the aspirant’s novel for me to read and critique.
Anybody who has made a serious attempt to write a good novel knows that there are endless pitfalls one can blunder into on the trail from blank page to finished first-draft. I’m getting down to the last few excerpts in the pile, and I have to say I’m surprised some of these pitfalls haven’t been eliminated simply because they’re full to the brim with the bodies of those who have fallen into them before. I’m thinking you ought to be able to cross right over them on a crusty bridge of bones.
But, alas, some of these pitfalls seem more like black holes than holes in the ground.
Since they never fill up, I’m going to take a little diversion from my usual character-development fare to point out some of the more obvious ones, so future aspiring novelists can at least try to step around them. I’m not going to talk about little stuff: how to avoid run-on sentences, or even how to “show, don’t tell” or what have you. There are hundreds of credible books on creative writing that can help you with the basics.
I’m not so interested in the basics because those issues are comparatively easy to fix in an edit pass. What isn’t easy to fix in an edit pass are the big blunders. The ones that affect the bones of your story (if I may mix metaphors for a moment). If you all tell me in the comments that you want me to write about the basics and the intermediate stuff too, I’ll be happy to do so, but for today I want to talk about the big blunders that you ought to think about before you start writing chapter one.
Your line has no hook, or your hook has no bait.
I have yet to come across one of these excerpts that opens with a sufficiently well-constructed hook. I talked about how to do this the other day, in Hook ‘em with Character, but it’s important enough to be worth talking about briefly again. As I said in that earlier post, a great hook shows character through conflict. That is, it opens with a situation of meaningful conflict, one in which the POV character is forced to speak, act, and react in ways that show what that character is made of. You’d think that at least 5% of unpublished manuscripts would manage to do this, wouldn’t you? Yet, I haven’t found a single one that has put a sharp hook on page one, and baited it with a compellingly interesting character.
It’s not difficult to add a mere hook scene to the beginning of a novel that lacks one, but if the rest of the novel doesn’t contain interesting characters to work with, then there’s nothing to bait the hook with. That’s why I include this issue in the hard-stuff-to-fix category, because your opening hook isn’t going to catch many publishers if you can’t bait it with compelling characters.
Before you start writing chapter one, make sure your characters are worth writing a whole book about. I’m continually surprised at how rarely this happens.
"Country two-step” Pacing
These are books where the plot takes a step forward, then two steps back, then a step, step forward and a Do-Si-Do. If I had a dollar for every one of the excerpts in this set of 24 that opened with some plot, then took an immediate, pace-killing detour into flashbacks and backstory, well, I wouldn’t be rich but I could certainly buy myself a pizza.
It’s hard enough to craft a well-paced opening to a novel even if you only do the essentials: establish the premise, setting, and characters. The burden of starting the story inevitably makes the pace in the beginning slower than in the body of the novel. But, throw a bunch of infodumpy flashbacks, character background, or premise exposition into the mix, and the novel’s pace stops dead. Readers yawn—or at least, they would if they got to see it. They won’t, because agents and publishers will throw it in the trash and send you a “not right for our needs at this time” letter.
What kills me is that the material that’s in these pace-killing bits of backstory is almost never actually necessary. Usually, it’s material that is just plain irrelevant. The reader doesn’t need it. In the maybe 10% of cases where the material is relevant, nearly all of these do nothing but answer questions the reader hasn’t thought to ask yet, and as such, rob the story of a lot of mystery, drama, and suspense. These aspiring writers haven’t learned that leaving the reader with some questions and puzzles is a good thing. If the questions are compelling, if the puzzles are enigmatic without being trite, then the reader will read on and on to find the answers.
But when you kill your novel’s pace with an infodump flashback that reveals all of your character’s tragic secrets, you also spoil the mystery. Cut out all those pace-killers, throw away the truly irrelevant material, and sprinkle the other 10% here and there throughout the body of your story. Reveal it by degrees, to create a deliciously evolving portrait of your characters.
"Waiter, I wasn’t done with that!” Plots
These are books that open like one kind of novel, but then—surprise!—turn into something entirely different mid-way through. If it’s going to happen, this will usually happen right around the end of act one. If the best possible thing has happened, that is, the reader has actually enjoyed act one of your novel, switching it on them is an extremely risky move. It’s like your reader going to a restaurant only to have the waiter (you) take their plate away mid-way through the meal and replace it with something entirely different from what they ordered. Oh, and then also for the waiter to be surprised that the reader gives them a lousy tip.
If a reader actually gets as far as the end of act one, they have invested a lot of time and energy into your story, with an expectation of some sort of payoff: that the story will finish well. If, instead, it finishes by turning into an entirely different story, you’ve violated the implicit contract between author and reader. You’re saying to the reader “I know you were enjoying my hard-boiled detective story, but come on, don’t you really want a rollicking historical romance farce with aliens?”
I’m not saying you should never surprise the reader. Obviously, you should. The right kinds of surprises are good. I’m just saying that the middle and end of your plot should live up to the promises made by the beginning.
Film Negative Plots
Every novel has to find its own balance between showing, creating fully life-like scenes of important events, and telling, summarizing events that don’t need to be shown. A film negative plot is when the author confuses the black with the white, and shows us the boring parts while telling us the exciting parts.
You would think it would be utterly obvious not to do this, but again, this black hole knows no bottom. This is in the hard-to-fix category because it means re-writing everything, turning shows into tells and vice-versa.
I had one of these 24 excerpts start out with so much that was right: it had an interesting premise, and a main character who was doomed to struggle through events his background didn’t prepare him for. But, in the book’s opening, the author chose to show us a dialogue scene between the main character and his amicably-divorced ex-wife. In this scene, the main character recounts for her the most dramatic event in the whole first act: a dying man using his last breaths to give our hero a cryptic set of instructions. He literally tells it. The dialogue scene itself was well crafted, but for crying out loud, open with the dying guy! If you’ve got that in your back pocket, why on earth would you ever open with a congenial chat with the ex-wife?
So there you go. Four killer black holes in the universe of novel-writing. Now you know where they are, so please, try to avoid them. And if you’ve got any favorite pet-peeve ones of your own, please add a comment and share!
July 23, 2009 20:15 UTC
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