Tag Archives: Novel writing

Is Your Story Self-Propelled?

Flintstones car

Every novel and short story needs a hook if its writer expects attention from publishers and agents. The better it sounds in a logline, the more likely it is to get noticed.

For example, Alice Sebold’s The Lovey Bones offers this intriguing concept: “After a young girl is brutally murdered, she tries to intercede from beyond the grave as her father searches desperately for the killer.”

Not that he needed a logline at that point in his career, but Stephen King could have described Pet Sematary with this one: “After a young doctor discovers that the pet graveyard behind his new house can bring dead animals back to life, a heartbreaking family tragedy tempts him down a grim path from which he can never return.”

Those are pretty great hooks. The problem with a lot of books, though, is that the hook is not supported by an actual story. In recent months, I’ve quit a number of books with good hooks because they lacked something ultimately more important, which is internal momentum.

That is, a good story must not be able to end before it ends. I’m going to be vague in this example because I think it’s bad form for a writer to publicly trash another active writer, but I will explain why I just stopped reading yet another novel with a good hook but zero momentum.

It’s about a guy who is saved from a terrorist attack mere moments before it takes place when a strange woman hands him a note from his dead girlfriend urging him to flee.

Given the way modern stories are sold to publishers, that’s not a bad hook. The problem is that the hero survives the terrorist attack unscathed and then spends the next who-knows-how-many pages asking around and asking around and hitting dead ends, at least when he is not reminiscing about all the fun things he and his girlfriend used to do. Perhaps a threat and a villain emerge later in the novel, past the point at which I quite reading, but for quite a long time, the story has zero conflict. The hero could easily have said, “You know what? I have no idea what happened, but I’m fine, so I’m just going back to Wisconsin to finish radiology school.” The end.

Meow?

Meow?

One way around plot inertia is inevitability. Pet Sematary is a shining (pun intended) example of inevitability. The doctor doesn’t have to return to the cemetery that revives corpses, but you know he will. King masterfully sets up the tension by showing us how deeply the doctor loves and cares for his family—that he will do anything for them—and then showing us the dark magic of the graveyard when the doc buries his daughter’s dead cat there, hoping to protect her from discovering the critter had become roadkill.

The dark magic works and the cat returns alive… but it is decidedly off.

Then, when the person he loves most is killed in an abrupt and gruesome manner, the doctor misplaces his perspective on right and wrong and… well, if you haven’t read it, you can probably guess where the story goes. If you have read it, you know it goes there and then ten times farther still.

A writer can also inject story momentum by giving the hero a stark choice: a Seemingly Impossible Challenge vs. an Inevitable Dreadful Outcome.

The movie Alien pulls this trick off more than once, which is why it’s one of the most suspenseful films of all time. When the “facehugger” attaches itself to Kane’s face, the heroes have to choose between letting it potentially kill their friend or cutting it off and hoping the creature’s acidic blood doesn’t eat through the hull of their spaceship.

Later, after the Alien has killed two of the crew and is hiding somewhere in the ship’s air ducts, Dallas has to choose between going into the air duct with a flamethrower to hunt the monster, or letting it hunt them. I’ve seen well over two thousand films, and I’d rank this air-duct sequence alongside the restaurant scene in the Godfather as the among the most nerve-racking moments in cinema history.

Dallas (Tom Skerritt), armed with only a flashlight and a blowtorch, crawls through his spaceship's air ducts searching for the titular ALIEN in one of the most hair-raising suspense sequences ever filmed.

Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), armed with only a flashlight and a blowtorch, crawls through the spaceship Nostromo’s air ducts searching for the titular ALIEN in one of the most hair-raising suspense sequences ever filmed.

Still later in the film, after the monster proves virtually unkillable, last survivor Ripley turns off the ship’s engine-cooling system to destroy the whole craft and the alien with it, only to discover the thing has blocked her only path to the escape pod.

There are many other ways to imbue a short story or novel with internal momentum that keeps the reader turning the pages. What are your favorite methods?

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When Literary Agents Turn You Down: A Useless Analogy

Rodney Dangerfield

For novelists seeking traditional publication through agency representation, the most spirit-crushing moment in the whole sordid affair may occur somewhere around rejection number 8. That’s when reality hits, shortly before the numbness kicks in. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us go back to the beginning of the querying process for a moment…

Though you have written a literary masterpiece, you know on a rational level that rejections are coming for one of the following reasons:

  1. No one wanted the last thing you wrote, proving rejections do exist.
  2. The book people warned you about rejections.
  3. The book people are idiots who don’t recognize a brilliant, innovative, blockbuster work of art and/or a merchandising goldmine when they see it.

There’s no concrete evidence yet, but scientists who can’t get their books published believe C is the correct answer. Still, you’re different from the other writers. You are meant to be.

You start querying.

The first two rejections hit. No problem. Those were only part of the pre-game warm up anyway. The next two submissions bounce back. Who cares? You didn’t want to work with those agencies anyway. Then another drops, and you adjust your tie, Rodney Dangerfield style. Did you overestimate yourself a bit maybe? Then another. You start to sweat. A seventh! What? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Surely somebody should have recognized—

Your smartphone chimes to indicate a new email. You look. It’s her! The agent at the very top of your wish list, the one who needs exactly what you wrote, is about to tell you she is simply dying to read your manuscript. You tap the icon and the email opens.

Dear Author. Thank you for considering our agency. Unfortunately, due to the high volume of submissions, we regret that…

You delete the message in an instant and jam your smartphone into the front pocket of the handbag you got for 75% off at TJ Maxx so you don’t have to look at the stupid ugly ungrateful little bastard anymore. But it’s not your phone’s fault you keep getting rejected, is it?

No. It’s because you suck. You are the worst writer who ever lived. Ms. Agent probably forwarded your query letter to all the other agencies, where it was laughed at hard for good 30 seconds and then forgotten forever.

That’s not remotely true either. You are as talented as anyone. Writing futility is just another reminder of the meaninglessness of life (that’s the numbness kicking in, by the way. Congrats. You are now dead inside).

Though we all know the chance of landing an agent for our novel is slim, it still stings when you are not picked, because statistics aren’t especially effective at buffering disappointment or boosting self-esteem. Most of us who manage to actually finish a novel, revise it, polish it, and dream about publishing it are also the kind of people who work incredibly hard at honing our craft. After all, the agent said she was looking for New Adult Paranormal Romance Spy Thrillers in Esperanto, and you wrote a New Adult Paranormal Romance Spy Thriller in Esperanto, putting two years of your life into making it as awesome as you possibly could.

Ready for a non-sequitur?

I have two superpowers. One is the ability to compose funny limericks on any subject. The other, unfortunately, is not the ability to solve unsolvable problems, like why a good writer can’t find an agent. My second power is to come up with analogies (that may or may not stand up to logical scrutiny but at least sound good on a folk-wisdom level).

So here’s my analogy for when literary agents turn you down. If you are a frustrated, unpublished novelist, it won’t get you any closer, but it might help the sting feel less personal:

But does he speak Esperanto?

But does he speak Esperanto?

Pretend you are looking for love and sign up at Match.com. In this scenario, you are interested in men who are over 6 feet tall and have dark brown hair and eyes, and you let your potential suitors know this via your online profile.

The caveat: If you make it to a third date, you have to stay with him for at least a year, and you have to give him a lot of attention despite your insane schedule. Not only that, you have to find him a job with a company that has only a few openings but thousands of applicants. All this time, he doesn’t have to spend a penny on you.

Are you gonna take the first 6-foot-tall brunette that asks for a date? The second? The third? You might meet 50 guys fitting your dating preferences and not click with a single one of them. Not to mention all the short redhead and blonde dudes who didn’t bother to read your dating preferences and cluster-bombed you with requests.

In this analogy, you are the literary agent.


What exactly are “unnecessary” words?

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don't understand nuance.

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don’t understand nuance.

One of the problems with writing rules is that writing deals in words, and we, as writers and readers, experience words differently.

The term “rule” implies (to me) a black-or-white statement with no nuance. Do not drink bleach is a pretty good rule. Get rid of words that do not add meaning, however, is more complicated. Applying that rule without nuance may not leave you with the best-possible finished work.

Look at my post title as an example. On a mechanical level, the word “exactly” is unnecessary. Without it, “What are unnecessary words?” is still an easy-to-understand construction. But on a subtextural level, is does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” The addition of that single word says, Eric is skeptical about something, and this post is going to challenge the status quo. Not bad for one of those crappy old adverbs everyone hates.

If writing served the solitary, utilitarian purpose of conveying information, banishing words that do not add literal meaning would be a sound objective. But writing isn’t solely function; it’s also art. Art has style, rhythm, form, and flow. In the previous paragraph I wrote that “What are unnecessary words” does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” At all does not add surface-level meaning. A robot would not glean additional information from it.

However, I’m not writing for robots, I’m writing for humans. I added at all because I like the rhythm of the sentence that way, and I like how it flows with the rhythm of the sentences before and after. You may look at that sentence and say, “I would not have written it that way,” which is fine, but, see, it’s my sentence. Write your own blog post. Damn it.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

If you have taken a writing course or read books on said subject, you’ve likely been presented with an essay showing the power of lean, simple, crisp writing from which all unnecessary words have been excised. No doubt the essay was at once like a cool breeze blowing off the ocean and a bright blue sky with life-renewing sunlight washing over your body. You were suitably impressed by the writer’s (and editor’s) expertise.

Of course, those essays are great lessons for the rest of us. Learn how to be a lean, mean writing machine! But what if you are going for gothic dread or satire or noir? Sometimes you need those “unnecessary” words to lend weight or make people laugh or perfect the timing associated with stylized storytelling.

I do not suggest that when writing teachers talk about “words that do not add meaning” they lack the insights presented in this post. I do think, however, that the nuance of this message gets lost by the time it filters out to inexperienced writers and novices, leading some of them to obsess over rules and, in the process, lose the unique character of their writing.

Most times, extraneous words are exactly that: Clutter that must be cut away to reveal your voice and bring your story to life.

Sometimes, though, a word that adds no meaning can change everything.

♦♦♦


The Art and Science of Editing

Writers. Your best friend is your editor.

The members of your writing group and your beta readers can be great assets, nudging you toward the type of material you were meant to create and, sometimes, painfully, letting you know it’s time to move on from a piece that isn’t working.

Mike Babcock

But whether we writers want to admit it, we are competitors. Pretend you are a hockey player for a moment, and imagine your fellow writers as team members. You all want to win the game together, but that doesn’t mean they are okay riding the bench while you get all the ice time. What player ever fantasized that someone else scores the big overtime goal?

When our fellow writers read their pages in a critique group, or when we are asked to beta read a story, a big part of us wants to provide support, encouragement, and guidance. Meanwhile, a deeper, more concealed, far less secure part is busy comparing ourselves. Am I as good as this writer? Am I better? Would I have written it that way? If I slam this piece in front of everyone, will I feel a bit too much sadistic pleasure?

Your editor lacks something your writer friends carry into every writing-related interaction with you: An agenda. Or maybe I should say you and your editor share one agenda. Your success.

Ideally, your editor also has experience and fluid intelligence, since these tools are essential to the science and the art of the editing craft.

I’m going to get the “science” out of the way first. The science of editing, of course, deals with grammar, punctuation, syntax, and language mechanics. A good, experienced editor can spot the extraneous words, dangling modifiers, and parallel-construction errors you passed over a dozen times in revisions. Your editor can also see story logic problems and help fix them by moving a paragraph or sentence up or down the page.

When your editor makes such corrections, it does not mean she understands writing better than you do or that you are not good enough. Every writer makes mistakes. Your editor makes those sorts of mistakes in her own writing, which is why we all need an editor. Writing is hard.

As an editor, the art of editing is the aspect that intrigues me the most. The art entails appreciating and respecting the writer’s voice, embracing the poetry in his words, understanding the rhythm and flow of his prose, and, for lack of a better term, “getting it.” A good editor can see the aesthetic quality in a manuscript, and her edits only remove that which obscures the writer’s vision.

A good editor does not try to change your vision or trample your voice. If your editor is caught up in rules and cannot see the words for the letters, get a new editor. If you write noir and your editor does not understand noir, get a new editor. If your editor tries to take over your manuscript and make it read as if she wrote it, get a new editor.

If your editor is smart and makes suggestions that sometimes sting but that you know, deep down, to be true, listen. A good editor is your most trusted advisor.

In our hockey metaphor above, your editor is the coach. She never gets to leave the bench. She wants all of her writers to score the overtime goal, because no matter who scores that goal, she wins.

You.

You.


The 3 Keys to Writing Success

Disclaimer: I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about. But neither does anyone else, I reckon, or that expert would be the only person a writer ever listens to. So it’s possible that, however accidentally, my advice today is worthwhile.

The changeling

If a writer tried to follow all the writing tips flying around on WordPress, agent/publisher blogs, and in writing magazines, she would probably explode like that robot on Star Trek who couldn’t handle paradoxes (by the way, why do electrical things in the twenty third century explode instead of flashing a useless error message like every HP printer I’ve ever owned?).

If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve found yourself exasperated by all the contradictory messages (sometimes from the same source) about what you should be doing that you’re not. I used to get frustrated too, but then I stopped listening to advice and became much happier.

I think a lot. I analyze. I study logic. If someone said I reminded him of Spock, I’d take it as a compliment. Through thinking and analyzing and logicating, I’ve formed a hypothesis that the following three activities are the keys to writing success, and the rest is noise. They are drawn from the worlds of business, sports, entertainment, science, and personal observation.

If you see me selling lots of books with my name on the cover someday, that means my test supports my hypothesis, ‘cause the following are going to be my three writing practices from now on. If I’m wrong, you will have long forgotten this post and me. I can’t lose!

Practice, Practice, Practice

Whatever you do—be it knitting, painting, playing Pong, photography, writing, or following some skeleton keyother passion—nothing beats practice. The Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hour rule, however unscientifically derived, is hard to argue with on a practical level. If you want to be an advanced writer, you’ve got to hammer through the beginner and intermediate stages. If you can’t push through, you aren’t cut out for having writing passion.

Kristen Otte is an author many of you know from WordPress. She writes a cute children’s book series about the adventures of Zelda, her pet pug, as well as sports-themed young adult novels. Her prose is as clean, slick, and professional as any you’ll find in Barnes and Noble. Although I believe there’s such a thing as innate talent, I’m convinced Kristen’s work is that good because the woman is simply possessed by the urge to write. She writes a lot. Her daily tweets typically say things like, “Finished another manuscript today.”

To get good, we gotta write.

Modeling Successful People

Ripped from the pages of business books!

skeleton keyPeople often dish writing advice based on their personal quirks and preferences rather than on proof that what they say is true. I’m sure you have your own advice peeves, but my two are “You have to use an outline” and “You have to join a writing group.”

Since heaps of authors have written blockbuster novels without using outlines (Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and JK Rowling, for example), and tons more never joined a writing group, the above declarations are really just personal choices. If you write better with outlines, use outlines, and if you enjoy the support and experience of a writing group, join one. But don’t tell me I have to.

I prefer to study what a successful person did to achieve success, not what [irony/paradox alert] people like me say. Everyone takes a different path, of course, but as with practice, you can’t argue with success. If Writer X makes the bestseller list, don’t you want to know how?

It works in business and sports, so why not in writing?

Stop Worrying about What Other People are Doing

Yes, model success. No, don’t compare yourself.

skeleton keyDo you know what type of athlete is most successful? The one who keeps practicing when others are off watching TV. The one who doesn’t worry if someone else scores more points or gets more press. The one who listens to his editor coach. Any sports psychologist will tell you so.

Another bit of advice I often get is to read everything in my genre and know what my competitors are doing. Why? Is that going to make my writing better? Is it going to help me finish my novel? I doubt it. From one writer to another, I wish you success, but when I’m creating, I ain’t thinking about you, and you shouldn’t be thinking about me.

Bonus: A key to blogging success is “Keep it under 800 words.” So, on that note, peace out homey.

Don’t forget to sound off in the comments!


Writers, what is the ultimate compliment?

Say you published a book that was disseminated widely enough that strangers have read it. Then imagine one of those strangers gives you a compliment? What would you want to hear?

The top two compliments I can think of for a writer (of a novel or non-fiction book) are:

1. I couldn’t put it down

2. I couldn’t stop thinking about it later.

Of course, those are not mutually exclusive. But with the conceit being that I can only hear one, I believe that “I couldn’t stop thinking about it later” is the best possible compliment. The first option is plenty special and is what I aspire to achieve one day. However, the latter means the story will have transcended the page on which it was printed. It will be a construct that continues to exist in readers’ minds, with characters who live on beyond the events the writer has chosen to describe. Only the books that touch people’s hearts and souls do that (yes, for some people that includes Twilight, Stephenie Meyer haters).

What are your thoughts, writers (and anyone else who wishes to opine)? What’s your best compliment as an artist?

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Voice-over artist Kris Keppeler did a another podcast of a Clawing at the Keys post, this time the “My Man Crush on Sean Bean” bit I wrote not too long ago. As usual, she manages to make me sound far cleverer than really I am. It’s less than four minutes long:

http://kriskkaria.podbean.com/e/my-man-crush/


Self-pity never fueled a single accomplishment

I made the above statement a few days ago and impressed myself enough to use it as a blog post title. If someone else already said it, please don’t tell me. Let me keep the fantasy alive of one day appearing in the “Quotable Quotes” section of Reader’s Digest.

pity

Pity

With so many of you on summer hiatus, I’ve been forced to troll WordPress in search of blogs to read. Here’s something you missed (besides endless talk of Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photo leak): People complaining that they can’t get their novel or story published, can’t get an agent, can’t win a writing contest, can’t get blog traffic, can’t get motivated to write, and so on. Common theme: It’s a conspiracy.

I feel like I’ve been a supportive member of the blogging community. Some writers I encounter on WP are experienced professionals while others are still trying to develop mechanics and find a voice. Wherever people fall on that scale, I am always willing to offer encouragement.  Because really, the difference between good and not-good is often practice. Innate talent helps, but talent is nothing next to determination.

We should all agree that, to be successful at something (define success your own way), you must engage in activities that get you closer to your goal. For writers, that includes writing, reading, learning and researching, observing, and seeking feedback from writing groups, beta readers, or editors. Getting to know people in the industry can’t hurt, either.

Lamenting one’s struggles publicly will not bring writing goals closer to realization. Time spent bemoaning could be time spent on one of the constructive activities mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Frustration

Frustration

I read a dead-serious blog post last week from a writer complaining that, no matter how much she writes, she is still nowhere near as good as John Steinbeck. Poor thing. The Fates have conspired to stop her from being a generational genius who writes some of the most legendary works in the entire history of fiction.

Note: None of us is owed a place in the pantheon of great writers.

I think I’m a pretty good writer. I believe my novel-in-progress is, if nothing else, clean of prose, and it has potential to be a fast-paced page-turner. Those are my opinions. I know, as a statistical fact, that my chances of getting an agent to rep it and a publisher to buy it are almost nonexistent.

Almost nonexistent.

If I were to say, “It’s just too hard. Look how great I am, but they still don’t want me. I quit,” I’d be doing a disservice to you and me. To you, because I would be dismissing your talent and effort and desire as inferior to mine; and to me, because I’d be taking an almost nonexistent chance and turning it to an impossibility. I can’t publish a thing I never write.

Moments of frustration are inevitable when one pursues a lofty goal. If the likely thing happens and I don’t find an agent or a publisher, I’ll probably want to chuck my laptop off a cliff and stop writing. But you won’t see me hosting a pity party about it on my blog, because I am not going to chuck my laptop off a cliff and stop writing. I’ll get a new idea—a better one—and I’ll spend that pity-party time working on my next story.