Examining the Essentials

As my planned date of publication for my debut novel draws closer, I find myself thinking a lot about what makes a story worthy. What should an author most pay attention to? I came up with 4 essentials.

Essential 1 – Don’t Make Stupid Choices

So your story takes place in some ancient country that I’ve never heard of. Great. I’m sure it’s a wonderful setting, but do you really have to use authentic names for your characters? The five scholars who make the study of that country’s history their lives’ work will be appreciative, but the rest of your potential audience will give up reading when they lose track of who and where.

I do understand that no problem is too great that it can’t be solved, and a creative writer can make anything work.

The truth is, writing something people will want to read is freaking hard. Becoming competent in the basics is challenging enough. I just don’t need additional hurdles.

Essential 2 – Setting and Events Don’t Matter Without Context

Let’s say I’m writing a story and choose for my setting: late evening in the French Quarter of New Orleans on February 7, 2010.

To the vast majority of people, the time and date will have no relevance. The location might have some. They may remember a drunken Mardi Gras. Perhaps they have a pleasant association involving their appreciation of the city’s architecture. Maybe they have a negative feel for the place because an old girlfriend from there dumped them.

I wasn’t there at the time the story takes place, but I get goose bumps thinking about it. If I expect my audience automatically to feel the same way, I’m an idiot. It takes work to get them to that point.

The story isn’t about a setting or the events; it’s about a guy. If I show him as a long-suffering Saints fan — throwing the TV remote at the end of yet another 3-13 season, his despair at a series of poor decisions and squandered opportunities — when I take the reader to the culmination of Super Bowl XLIV with this guy surrounded by throngs of the faithful, I can make any reader feel the same emotion that I do (well, maybe ANY reader. It requires the capacity for emotion, and I have a hard time ascribing any human attribute to a Falcons fan.).

Essential 3 – Tension

If a story is life without the boring parts, tension is what removes the boredom. Truthfully, if you want to find a single area on which to concentrate, pick this one.

A story with the tension done right will keep the reader turning pages even if everything else about it pretty much sucks. The reader will finish the book and say, “That writing was kinda crappy,” but they’ll probably buy your next book.

A Brief Aside…

Not making bad choices is the least important of the essentials. Unfortunately, it’s also the one I’m the best at.

I didn’t come to understand the importance of filtering through your POV character until writing my 3rd draft, and I think it shows. I made a valiant effort in my editing, but I still have work to do.

I don’t think that tension is a weakness of mine, but I also wouldn’t consider it a strength. I’ll try to ramp it up in both the final drafts.

That brings me to:

Essential 4 – Emotion

If you want your reader to love your book, you have to make them feel something. The only way to do that is to get the emotion right, and that’s not an easy proposition. You can’t just tell the reader what the character feels; you have to demonstrate it in a way that makes the reader truly understand. If you go too far, though, it induces eye rolling.

This morning, I used my DVR to catch up on an episode of Grimm. One of the ongoing plot lines is the development of a relationship between two of the supporting characters, and it struck me how well the writers are handling that subplot. They don’t devote a lot of time to it, but, what time they do spend, they use well.

First, the guy is just enough of a loser to be sympathetic. I’m firmly rooting for him to win the girl.

Second, they don’t get sappy. He never pines over her. Instead, they show him doing things that indicate his feelings.

In the episode I watched today, the character, a clock repair man, gives his girlfriend a, wait for it, clock. He doesn’t go on and on about his feelings for her; he goes on and on about how awesome the clock is. The camera cuts to the girl, and her expression indicates her understanding of his meaning. It’s fantastic writing.

Quite simply, the 3rd draft of my novel is not where I want it to be in this respect, but I’m working on it. I found this blog post recently that offers tremendous advice: http://awriterstouch.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/words-concrete-and-stacking-stories-3-tips-for-writing-emotion-in-fiction/

I strongly suggest you check it out.

The 5 Things I Most Need from Beta Readers

Writing a first novel is a huge learning process, and how to deal with beta readers was one of the biggest lessons. Before I get to my 5 Things, here’s a bonus 2 procedures that I’ll change:

1. I sent the 2nd draft of Power of the Mages out in 5-chapter increments. While I’m glad I did it that way because the comments I got back improved my writing, I’ll send out only complete drafts in the future. There was simply too much loss of continuity. I’d change character traits, story arcs, and names of things and places from one section to the next, so the beta readers never got a true sense of the book as a whole.
2. In addition to getting comments for the 2nd draft, I’m sending out the 3rd draft to beta readers, mainly because of the continuity issues mentioned above. For the sake of efficiency in the future, I’ll send manuscripts out only once.

Now, on with the actual post —

In any endeavor involving working with people, communication is key. Define the feedback you most want from the critique process and relate that desire to your beta readers. Here are the 5 Things I think are most important:

1. My biggest goal is to engage the reader, and, to that end, I need to know if there’s anything in my writing that draws you from the text. Did you have to read a sentence twice to figure out what I was trying to say? Did you get confused over who was speaking? Are there any formatting or punctuation issues that made you spend mental effort being annoyed rather than experiencing the story? Did you get irritated because I overexplained something?
2. Tension and pace are hugely important and are difficult for an author to judge correctly. If the pace is too fast or the story too tense, the reader can get worn out. I read a book one time with Energizer Bunny battles; they just kept going and going and… On the flip side, if the pace is too slow or the story not tense enough, the reader will get bored. I need to know if/where these problems occur in my text.
3. Emotion is both crucial and difficult to get right. My second draft was flat because I didn’t include enough. I fear I’ve swung the pendulum too far the other way and induced eye rolling in the 3rd draft by making the characters too melodramatic.
4. Where did I screw up? Did I have the group journeying north, turn right, and say they’re now heading west? Did I make a character do something that completely contradicts who I’ve established that person to be? Did I refer to the same town by different names?
5. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s how insidious typos, homonyms, and grammar/punctuation mistakes are. They bury themselves in the text to actively try to hide from me. Each one of these that a beta reader points out is one that doesn’t make it into the final version.

Why Does That Scene Exist?

It is my firm contention that an author should ask himself the question posed in the title of this post for every scene.

I know I’ve expressed the same sentiment before on this blog, and I probably will do so again because I think it’s the second most important piece of advice I can give you. However, I have a different end purpose in mind for telling it to you this time.

Usually, the subtext to the comment is that, if you can’t answer the question, you should delete the scene. On this occasion, the point is that answering the question can make the scene better.

In the most recent chapter of Power of the Mages that I’m editing, I got a bunch of beta reader comments that suggested alternative things that could happen instead of what I wrote. My takeaway — “These scenes are so incredibly boring that I spent my mental effort trying to find kernels that might provide interest in order to distract me for the mind-numbing prose.”

Boring. Got it.

Long time readers of this blog will instantly know how to fix boring — add tension and add emotion.

While doing just those two things made up a part of my troubleshooting strategy, these scenes required some extra TLC. The root cause of them being boring was that they did not fulfill the story need that justified their existence.

Simply put, it felt like the scenes didn’t belong because they served no purpose.

Easy fix again, right? Just delete them.

In this case, no. The problem wasn’t that they’re not needed; the problem was that the idiot author (me) hadn’t written the scenes to make them fulfill their respective objectives. By tightening the focus to emphasize fulfillment of the scene goals, I was able to make the scenes feel like part of the whole instead of boring outliers.

Filtering – The Biggest Technique I Have Yet to Master

Whenever I learn a new writing rule, I go through a process to incorporate it into my work:

1. Skepticism – I read in Self Editing for Fiction Writers that you shouldn’t use “, gerund” in your writing. My first thought was, “I do that all the time, so the authors of that book must be mistaken.” Example: The character stared at the sky, wondering if…
2. Acceptance – The more I thought about it, the more I gradually began to agree with them. I still think the technique is okay sometimes, but my default is now: The character stared at the sky and wondered if…
3. Working to Incorporate It – At first, I had to look for places where I had done it incorrectly and make the correction.
4. The Wrong Way Starts to Stand Out – As time went on, the incorrect version stood out more and more to me. I didn’t have to look for it. As soon as I typed it wrong, I’d hit backspace and correct it.
5. Internalized – Now, I don’t even have to think about it; I automatically type “and” instead of the comma.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with my writing, but there’s one technique that would take it to the next level if I could just manage to internalize it – Filtering.

Filtering refers to the process of channeling everything that happens in your book through your POV character. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

The wrong way is as follows:

Joe watched the bird fly across the sky.
Joe heard the water plunging from the cliff and splashing onto the rocks below.
Joe smelled the odor of fresh baked bread wafting from the inn.

Joe is your POV character. In most cases, Joe watched (or heard, or smelled, etc.) simply is wasted words that give no emotional context. The bird flew. The water plunged. The odor wafted.

The correct way:

Use filtering to give an event emotion and context.

Take, for example, this:

With great fanfare from the accompanying trumpeter, the soldiers unfurled the flag on the pole. Its gold squares on a black field stretched over the land.

A flag unfurled. Great. What should I feel about this? What does it mean? Why is it in my story?

Instead:

A sounding trumpet drew Durloc’s gaze to the top of the parapet. His heart soared as the soldiers unfurled the flag. Under that banner, we shall rule them all, he thought.

And:

At the sound of a trumpet, Seraius looked to the top of the parapet. The filth that called themselves soldiers proudly unfurled their garish flag. He clenched his fists. This shall not stand, he thought.

Instead of worthless words that tell me nothing about the story, I have paragraphs that engage the reader and set up the conflict that is to come.

The Two Biggest Battles I Face in Writing

As much as I want to break writing into a series of techniques to create a specific impact (see my last post, there are a lot of choices I have to make simply by feel. Most of these decisions are a matter of degree — I know I need tension but how much?

This post is about the two areas where I consistently have the most trouble deciding the answer to that question.

Battle 1 – Too Flat versus Melodrama

Adding emotion is, by far, the hardest part of writing for me. I know I can subtly indicate what the character is feeling by using setting details and the character’s actions. At some point, however, if you want it to come through strongly, you must sell it more, and it is quite difficult to find the right balance.

Too little, and your writing is flat, dull, and uninteresting. Too much, and your writing induces eye rolls.

Battle 2 – Clarity versus Over-explaining

It’s quite easy to add clarity to a piece. Your beta reader says, “I didn’t quite understand why this happens or the relevance of this.” To fix it, you add explanation. Then you find that more questions arose from your explanation. The fix? More explanation.

Too little clarity, and your writing is going to seem muddled and confusing. Too much explaining, and your writing is going to be too wordy and insult your readers’ intelligence.

When Should You Tell to Convey Emotion?

Today’s topic combines the two hardest questions I’ve encountered as a writer:

  • How do you convey emotion?
  • How much do you Tell vs. Show?

It’s easy to say, “Show, Don’t Tell.”  However, I’m trying to take a more nuanced approach to my study of the craft of writing.  Frankly, I can find a million posts that tell me to Show; it’s much more difficult to find discussion of when Showing may not be your best strategy.

Let’s examine the situation logically.  Telling has two big advantages:

  1. It’s concise.
  2. It’s clear.

It also has major downsides:

  1. It does not engage the reader.
  2. It doesn’t fully convince the reader.

Thus, the obvious conclusions are that the author should use Telling when:

  • The longer story space required to Show an emotion isn’t warranted.
  • Clarity is more important that immersion.
  • The passage isn’t needed to persuade the reader, such as when the author is reinforcing a character trait rather than establishing it.

Let’s examine an example I crafted just for this post:

Kirl hesitated at the door.  He was sad about Zamin’s loss, but what could he do about it?  Whistling, he turned the knob.

Presumably, the reader would know what loss Zamin suffered and be able to draw a conclusion about Kirl from the fact that his friend’s tragedy produced so little reflection.  The passage above efficiently conveys this trait of Kirl’s to the reader by using the telling phrase, “he was sad.”  It wasn’t necessary, in this instance, for the author to get the reader to experience Kirl’s sadness, and thus Telling, in my opinion, worked.

I’d love some further thoughts on this topic from my readers.  Are there other instances where you believe that Telling works to convey emotion?

You Can Have Too Much of a Good Thing – 3 Techniques Prone to Overuse

No matter how good or effective a writing technique is, it can be overused.  Take Show versus Tell for example.  Showing should be your default method of storytelling, but, if you show too much, you risk bogging the reader down in unnecessary detail.

A writer needs to be particularly careful with any technique used to add emotion or emphasis.  If you stress a sentence in a chapter, it stands out.  If you stress a sentence in every paragraph, not only do those sentences lose impact, but you annoy the reader.

Here are three techniques that are prone to overuse and should be applied sparingly:

  1. The semicolon – If you separate two independent clauses with a semicolon, you’re signaling that these are two sentences are closely related.  Done correctly, this slight emphasis can bring out an important plot point.  Overuse, however, just makes the writer look like an amateur who doesn’t know when emphasis should be added.
  2. Phrases tacked on with a comma – The writer needs to develop a deft hand with phrasing, to understand what each word and punctuation mark means.  Using a comma with a phrase, whether participial or prepositional, can make a statement seem more dramatic, and, used sparingly, can be effective.  Overuse makes the writing seem melodramatic.
  3. Using names inside dialogue – In general, a character referring to another character by name inside dialogue sounds stilted and unnatural.  If the author only uses the technique in times of great anguish, however, it can add just that extra bit of emotion.

Bonus Pet Peeve:

  • Then – The vast, vast majority of the time, “then” is an unnecessary word.  Stories are told sequentially.  Take, “Bob walked down the street.  He turned left.”  The reader understands that Bob turned left after walking down the street.  Writing, “Bob walked down the street.  Then, he turned left” adds nothing.

Are there any techniques that you see overused?