Sunday, March 27, 2016

Question Whether You Question Enough

Tip: Nonfiction is for answers. Fiction is for questions.

Certainly, fiction has much to teach, and not just about society or morality, but also about ornithology, teen pregnancy, Victoria’s reign, the Song of Songs, and so on. But if fiction accomplishes this teaching with a sound that’s overtly educational, most readers close the book. What’s the solution? Questions.

The questions that propel fiction originate in the writer’s own questions:

~ Who is the audience?
~ Why struggle through this when I might make more money at McDonald’s?
~ Does my plot deliver my theme?
~ Wait. Do I have a theme? If not, do I need one?

Start there. Then consider your writing lifestyle. Maybe, like many writers, you’re addicted to critique, conferences, coaching, and a canon composed of brilliant minds like John Truby’s, Robert McKee’s, Donald Maass’s, John Gardner’s, and so on. Great!

Yet instruction doesn’t necessarily pose questions the way that good feedback does. Do you let rules or explanations bury the fundamental questions?

Whether you struggle with your first or twenty-first draft, work alone or with a group, certain questions always apply:

  • Is your scenario original and electric? Too good to ignore?
  • Does at least one character evoke empathy?
  • Do you capitalize on your point of view?
  • Do you open the first chapter, and every chapter and scene thereafter, with a big bang?
  • Do the details support the story, or mostly your own subjective interests?
  • Do you dramatize what’s truly exciting, and summarize what isn’t?
  • Does your plot keep readers turning pages?
  • Is your story more important to you than your readers are? (Oh, oh.)
  • Are too many of your sentences annoying?
  • Does your novel ask more questions than it answers?
The best fiction leaves us with questions. Nathaniel Hawthorne wonders whether hypocrisy is more contemptible than adultery. F. Scott Fitzgerald invites us to decide what the past means. Harper Lee asks if we ever considered the connection between innocence versus racism or sexism. Tracy Chevalier questions whether we noticed how many women influenced a history peopled with men. Jonathan Franzen speculates on the meaning of “purity.”

If you prefer answers to questions, is fiction the best genre for your tastes and talents?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Edit like an Agent

Whether novelists submit paranormal, YA, or literary, the reasons underlying rejections and requests for rewrites constantly overlap, regardless of genre. Doesn’t this across-the-board similarity seem odd? Actually, not at all. Because fundamental qualities apply to every work of fiction—and every agent seeks these fundamental qualities.

Tip: To land an agent, think like one.

So what are some things that agents might be thinking?

~ Begin earlier than you thought you could.
Over and over, I hear about agents asking novelists to cut five, ten, even one hundred pages. Why? Because you need to start where the trouble does. Don’t set up, take your time, create a world, or establish a serenity to disrupt. Instead? Begin with an actual inciting incident. And right away.

~ Eliminate self-indulgence.
This insidious issue can creep in without writers even noticing. Too many characters. Too much amazingly aggravating alliteration. Heartfelt anecdotes about Gram, whom you loved so very much. Irrational contempt for your arrogant brother-in-law. Be on the lookout for stuff that belongs in your diary, not your professional submissions.

~ Delete backstory.
Donald Maass got an audible groan from a large UW-Madison Writer’s Institute audience when he insisted, “Once you’re seventy percent of the way through the book, have as much backstory as you want. Before that? Forget it.”  Agents are readers, and every reader longs to know what happens next—not what happened yesteryear.

~ Shore up the middle.
            What’s worse than hitting page 102 and no longer caring what happens next?

~ Fix clumsy sentences.
It’s human nature to rationalize. “Oh, the sentence isn’t that bad. They won’t notice.” For better or worse, they definitely will. Every awkward sentence conveys one of the following: The author doesn’t know which sentences don’t work, or the author didn’t care enough to fix that one. Seriously. Do you want to convey either of those messages?

In the background, I imagine increasingly audible grumbling. “How do I know how late I can start?” “How many characters are too many?” “This published book I read made all of these mistakes, and so I…”

Forget all that. If you curb rationalization, you already know the answers to all those questions. Objectivity reveals when to start your book, which characters you can cut, and when your syntax is clumsy or cutesy. Pay meticulous attention to everything you already know, and you’ll read like an agent. That’s how you get one.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Do you serve a buffet?

Long, food-laden tables aren’t just popular because of all that food. The variety attracts. So does the freedom. Once you pass the meat and seafood and advance to the salad items, you can always return for one more shrimp. You can circle the table to sample a mini-brownie before you dig into that crab cake. It’s all available at whatever order and pace you choose.

Readers can’t control fiction that way. However obvious it seems, it’s significant that nearly every reader proceeds in a linear fashion. Of course one can skim, backtrack, or peek at the ending. What readers can’t do is position the setting beside the dialogue or help themselves to more of this and less of that. The buffet that fiction ought to provide is the writer’s gift and responsibility.

Why wouldn’t every writer host a buffet every time?

  • It’s easier for writers to focus on one thing at a time, such as dialogue.
  • It’s easier not to shift gears, because then you don’t need as many transitions.
  • If you adore setting, for example, you might overdo it at the expense of action.
  • If you see the complete picture already, you might not notice its absence from the page.
 How can you break this habit of offering only desserts or appetizers instead of a full buffet?

~ Improve your skill with transitions.
Make friends with transitions. Once you bridge acting with thinking, tension with backstory, and so on, you’ll shift more willingly, knowing your readers can follow. Build transitions from the underlying similarity between what’s going on and where, between gesture and symbol, and between rumination and behavior.  What better way to engage reader emotions than to create a whole world instead of one part?

~ Read like a reader.
As Harper Lee put it in To Kill a Mockingbird, imagine someone else’s consciousness by willingness to “climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  This isn’t easy. It is doable.

~ Imitate reality.
When we converse, we still notice surroundings. If we terminate a job, investment,  friendship, or marriage, we experience a range of emotions, all of which impact all our perceptions. For credibility, fiction must re-create a world where more than one thing goes on at a time. That’s reality. Fiction must follow.

~ Accentuate with contrast.
Description matters in novels only when it supports the characters. Tension enhances dialogue, which enhances action. “Light can only be understood with the wisdom of darkness,” said Ka Chinery. Since readers can’t supply what’s missing, make sure that you do.

Tip: Break the habit of long stretches of dialogue, description, or narration. Blend them.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Don’t Ditch Your Novel

Rejections. You might think you prepared yourself. You probably didn’t. The longer you worked on a book and the harder you hoped, the more it hurts. It might hurt worse that loved ones who aren’t writers don’t completely understand. The clash between book and business is an ugly one. Suddenly you’re a wordsmith without the words to communicate disappointment—the pain.

Clichés you would normally never use fill your tortured mind. “I can’t believe how bad this hurts!” “My insides are emptied out.” “It’s like being kicked in the stomach.” “No one will ever love my book.” “No one understands me.” “I’m a failure!”

But after all the time, energy, and heart you already invested, does it make sense to cower in a corner? Lick your wounds in the dark? Of course not. Grace Hopper, a Navy Rear Admiral born in 1930, who surely had her share of disappointments, said, “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” Didn’t you build your book for readers? Go get some.

Tip: Don’t give up on your book too soon. Watch out how you define “too soon.”

If it feels as if you’re starting fifty steps below square one, read Chuck Wendig’s superb blog on rejection at And try these.

~ Remember why you want to be a writer—and why you poured your heart into this book.
           “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” ― Ray Bradbury

~ Maintain your sense of humor.
            Here’s what they told Dr. Seuss about “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street:
“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”

~ Learn from any criticism you’re lucky enough to receive.
“Every rejection is incremental payment on your dues that in some way will be translated back into your work.” – James Lee Burke

~ Stand up straight. Don’t slouch.
“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” — Harper Lee

~ Redirect your emotions.
“Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger. That’s my favorite part. It drives me, feeds me, and makes one hell of a story.” — Jennifer Salaiz

~ Write something.
It’s fine to start out negative. But swiftly assume figure skater mentality. If you fall, get right up and execute the next leap. That’s what skaters and writers do. After all, “A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it to be God.” — Sidney Sheldon