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Here’s a terrific follow-up to an earlier post of mine, “Why I Quit Reading Your Book.” The Red Ant hits some specifics that resonate for me. Especially this one, which addresses a problem I’ve seen over and over:
So you have a great plot and good, strong characters (quirky individuals or admirable, real people), and now… nothing keeps happening. The characters chat, hang out, look at the landscape, wait for the curtain to go up so the show can start… how long will you keep the reader waiting?
Folks, something has to happen—fast. Not necessarily a bomb going off, but something. Some really great advice from a conference I attended: Start with conflict, not crisis. Get those characters arguing about a challenge or a problem that’s got to be taken care of. They’ll start talking, and you and your readers (me, at least) will soon be taking sides!
I also echo the points about finding the balance between too much and too little world-building. Exposition and description piled up in the first pages are static. Get people doing things, and let their world settle into place around them.
More great advice in this post. Check it out!
I just came across this post again:
Back then I thought she had nailed it. I still think she does, as do some of the commentators. I agree with Roughseas that it’s more than just Voice; but I also agree with Virginia, there has to be Voice.
Ireland is amazing. (I knew it would be.)
Almost everyone I encounter here is a natural storyteller. So it’s hard to understand, if this comes so natural to people here, how others can struggle to write so it engages the reader.
You write a story the way you would tell it to a crowd of avid listeners.
Those passages that make you blush? Strike them from the manuscript! The parts where your audience starts yawning and looking around? You know you’ve lost them, you need to intensify the writing. Maybe lie lower on the description…
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This article from Writers Helping Writers by Deborah Dixon, author, editor, and racial justice activist, addresses an issue that has troubled me and that should, in my view, be of concern to us all. Not everyone may agree with Dixon on every point, but as a middle-class white woman (raised in the south at the end of Jim Crow and on the edge of the Civil Rights Movement) trying to produce writing that entertains yet does no harm, I’ve struggled with how to or whether to develop minority characters in my work (as well as how to address socially problematic themes).
I don’t want to preface this post with an extended essay on my own consciousness—there are probably better places for that, if it needs to be written at all—but I do want to say that when I wrote the novels that were published in the 1980s, I was massively ignorant and insensitive (though perhaps not insensitive enough to commit most of the more egregious mistakes). When I returned to these books to self-publish them, I reread them with more awareness and indeed made some changes, so that I hope people buying my two republished books purchase those and not the earlier versions (this is truer of Blood Lies than of King of the Roses, although I still sometimes consider further edits of that book).
My depictions of characters came from my experience of the people around me in the horse world. That those experiences were incomplete goes without saying. In my defense, I think that in those books, I write about a range of characters with many nuances, good people and bad.
In any case, Dixon’s discussion gives me some guidance, and with that guidance, perhaps some confidence going forward that will allow me to take risks I’ve probably been shying away from. Even if you don’t agree with every request Dixon makes of us, I hope you will agree with me that it is better to make decisions about representation thoughtfully, with our eyes open, even if we don’t always get it all exactly right.
Have you ever struggled with representing people different from you in your writing?
As usual, The Book Designer provides important information for those of us learning to market our books. Here, Amy Collins, book distributor and marketer, clears up those pesky Amazon rules on book reviews. I haven’t seen this information laid out more clearly than this.
A great list that gives you a process for proofreading—and I can attest that these steps work for me. I especially want to echo Dave’s advice to read in hard copy. Not only will you spot errors you miss on screen (track changes be darned), you will see your work in a different light. Something changes in your head when you hold a sheet of paper and a pen in your hand. I can’t explain this, but I know it’s true for me.
When you’re done with this process, run your manuscript through my “Things You WILL Miss When You Proofread” posts. They’ll help you catch those little things your eyes will still miss but your computer won’t.
Proofreading. Some writers love it, some writers despise it. But whatever your feelings, proofreading is your final task when preparing to share your words with the world.
Writers often read their words the way they believe they wrote them, not how they actually wrote them. This means spelling mistakes, typos and grammatical errors, such as poor sentence structure, wrong choice of words and punctuation can all go unnoticed by the writer. These factors impact the context and readability of the work.
The good news is that proofreading skills can be learned, developed and improved. Where is the best source for information on learning how to proofread, I hear you ask (at least I hope you are).
Fear not my friends, help is at hand and The Haunted Pen is here to save the day!
The best source for hands-on information is a professional proofreader – someone who has spent years…
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In my own writing and in my various writing groups, I’ve often focused on the need for a “story question.” Basically, if you don’t have a story question, you don’t have a story. You may have a diary, or a set of episodes, or a journal, but you don’t have a story.
I discovered, though, that I was conflating “story question” with a related term, “plight.” I’ve twice posted—my own thoughts and those pilfered from other bloggers—about this mystery word, “plight.”
“Plight” is what Donald Maass calls “the story beneath the surface.” An important difference between the two: You must have a story question to have a story. A plight is that extra something that elevates your story out of the realm of the mundane.
The story question is generally the immediate and concrete problem or goal or issue demanding resolution. Will they escape the marauding hordes? Will they escape the flood? Will the detective find the murderer? Will the evil bully get his or her comeuppance?
A story question does not have to be this simple or easily solvable, but it must be there. Will she stay in the unsatisfying job or leave it? Will he reach his goal of becoming a great rap star? This is where the classic “rising action>crisis>climax>denouement” structure comes into play. The plot rises through all the character’s efforts with obstacles at every turn, to finally reach an answer: “yes or no.”
In a multistory serial, like, for example, Lord of the Rings (a great source of examples), each of the books is built around a story question: will the troop survive the obstacles posed by the various segments of their journey? Each book ends with a “yes” (for most), and each of the first two sets up the question to drive the next.
Even the most supposedly literary of novels/stories (I suppose with a few really outlying exceptions, but I can’t name any offhand), poses this type of “will they or won’t they” question. The “what will happen to them next?” is the page-turning element.
A story can function quite well on this simple principle. If readers are interested enough in the will-they-or-won’t-they, they’ll keep reading. And it doesn’t take a lot of “literary skill,” whatever that is, to build a story like this. All you need is someone about to fall off a cliff or a ravenous lion leaping out of the brush.
Of course, even with a strong story question, pace and the empathy of characters can affect whether readers keep reading; for my part, I’ve now abandoned two John Grisham novels and won’t try a third because they were sooooo darn slow and didn’t offer me particularly interesting or engaging characters to fill in the slow spots. But most of us have favorite stories based simply on a “what will happen next?” or “what is the answer to the puzzle?” question. (See. e.g., Agatha Christie’s enduring popularity.)
Plight comes into play when the entire “what-will-happen” plot asks a second-level question. In my view, such plots almost always ask of the character(s), “Who am I?” Or more precisely, what kind of person do I want to be? What kind of person can I become—or fail to become?
My ideal novel has both these elements: a “will-they-overcome-the obstacles?” story question, and a plight question: “If they do (or don’t), so what?” A story that engages on both levels uses the plot question, the simpler one, to confront the main character with the larger one. Here you are in this demanding concrete situation. How you respond will tell you (and us) something about who you are.
Let’s look again at Lord of the Rings, in which the story question repeatedly puts the characters in a position where they must answer a larger question: whether or not they can resist the temptations offered by the various detours they can choose—detours involving character and heart. For Frodo in particular, the story events ask, “Are you Gollum? Will you give in like Gollum did?” This is the characters’ plight, their struggles to see where they stand in relation to these larger questions of identity and choice, which loom over the whole trilogy and bind it together. It’s not just a story of kids in the woods who have to escape the latest tiger. It’s about a tiger who asks, “Are you ready to show me who you are?”
I’d argue that most stories, maybe especially those written for younger audiences, work to create such a story-behind-the-story: the
response to the tiger defines character and teaches how to confront fear. That all sounds so simple and self-evident, but of course it can be monstrously hard to achieve.
But I’ve begun to think more and more in terms of these issues when thinking about future books. As a pantser (really don’t like that word, but it does capture the mindset), I often find that the plight takes shape slowly. I’m thinking about a new book in which thinking through the plight before beginning to write seems to be helping. As I work out the immediate problem my developing character must solve, I also find myself thinking, “Okay, he solves that problem, but so what? How will his success change him? What does it matter to his confrontations with the world he has to negotiate every day?”
An important difference between story question and plight is that plight questions can remain open-ended whereas story questions cannot. People can reach turning points in their understanding of who they are, but still have more work to do. Not all tests are as definitive as Frodo’s. Not everybody just retires to a nice hobbit life.
But that’s one thing that makes a character memorable: the sense that they have a life after the book, they’re part of an unfinished journey where we might meet them again—maybe, in fact, not in a book.
So my do-as-I-say-and-I-hope-as-I-do rule: Look first to see if you have a story question that plots the sequence of events in the rising-action-crisis-denouement structure. If not, no story. But then step back and ask, “Once that question is answered, so what?”
That’s where you might discover the element that makes all the difference, your character(s)’s plight.
Do you have favorite books in which the “yes/no” story question asks characters to confront a larger plight?