Part of a series of articles for the new writer
~ Mark Twain
You write, you polish, you edit, and you even submit your work to a publisher or two hoping for lightning to strike. But in the end one thought circles, needing an answer: “On a scale of from one to ten, where seven is publishable and ten is godhood, how close to eight am I?”
That question brings you to the grumpy old writing coach, with your work in hand, hoping for a bit of advice and maybe a number on that one to ten scale—hopefully some praise, too. That’s as it should be, but you need to be aware of one important fact: Of the first time offerings, virtually every single one displays the same recurring problems. The words change. The story changes, but invariably, the problems are the same.
It’s Not My Fault
Not only are the problems the same, when I point that out, what do I hear? “No Jay! Take a closer look. My work is the exception. I have a natural talent for writing. Everyone tells me so.”
Uh-huh, but it also could be that instead of trying to argue the reader into liking the work the writer should be asking: “Why? What could make everyone screw up in exactly the same way?”
Blame The Schools
The answer to that is a classic Catch-22 situation. The people who plan the school curriculums aren’t fiction writers, and haven’t a clue that writing fiction requires as much training, experience and practice as any other profession. And of course, the teachers presenting that curriculum are training the people who will take over their job when they retire, perpetuating the problem. Freshman creative writing courses in our colleges are very often no more than a continuation of that training.
A well kept secret: The successful writer is not someone with a knack for storytelling, though that does help. The successful writer is someone with a knack for using the tools of the writer. Why? Because craft is the horse your talent must ride. Given that, it makes a lot more sense to be riding Pegasus than the puny little pony issued by your school system.
A second secret: In school they’re teaching you to reports, not fiction, and reports require the fact-based techniques of the non-fiction writer. Schools were created to provide employers with a standardized work force, remember, and fiction has little place in office writing, other than in stockholder reports, of course.
But… but I’m a great storyteller… really
You might be the most brilliant storyteller of your generation. But without the necessary tools—without the emotion-based techniques of the fiction-writer—new writers are forced to graft their existing verbal skills onto the non-fiction tools they’ve learned in school. But can we do that? A storyteller is alone on the stage, taking every role. It’s damn hard to be all the people in a conversation, so the storyteller increases the role of the narrator, until the story becomes an interpretive dance, in which the choreography includes body-language, tone, delivery, facial expression, and cadence. By necessity, the storyteller talks about the story—as a series of facts—because one can’t very well stab a character, be stabbed, and be the bystanders, too. And of course the techniques of the non-fiction writer appear to mesh with that because they’re fact-based, too.
When the audience can see and hear the storyteller that works. And as they say, the best place by the fire is reserved for the storyteller.
But… pluck out that marvelously flexible instrument that is the human voice. Remove the visual portion of that dance. Remove everything but the words the reader sees when they open the page. What’s left? A parade of facts about the story that will drone in the reader’s head like the voice of a text-to-speech program: It’s the lecture hall, when the reader came to ride the roller-coaster. Think of yourself in an office with me, trying to tell your favorite story by scribbling it on paper slips and handing them to me. How much emotion and excitement would there be in what I got?
Am I tricky enough?
Desire is fine, but if the only tool you own is a hammer everything is going to be whacked on the head, because everything is going to look like a nail. So, let’s see how many tools you own.
• When we begin writing there are a host of tricks and techniques we should already know, through osmosis, because we’ve been reading for most of our lives. But for unknown reasons, virtually every new author won’t know many of these tricks or recognize that what they’re writing is totally unlike what their favorite authors turn out. Look at the list of some basic terms below. If you don’t recognize and use them you may be in trouble.
POV, black moment, info-dump, three act structure, inciting incident, backstory, climax, scene and sequel*, fly-on-the-wall, omniscient, third person limited, scene-goal, tag, prose, exposition.
• Do you have the feeling that if given your choice you would rather submit something other than your first chapter, because all the background material you had to include makes it less exciting than you would like? It’s the most common new author problem. Simply put: Start your story where the story starts, and feed in backstory unobtrusively, and only as needed for the reader’s understanding of that story.
• Look through the work. Do you have more than a handful of exclamation points in the novel? In most cases, lots of bangs say you’re trying to put excitement into prosaic language through delivery tricks, like gluing on glitter.
• Do you use the word “had,” in the sense, “He had been thinking about it all morning,” in your work? If so you need to rephrase the line in more current terms, because everything after “had” can only come from the author, and the reader wants to walk in the character’s footsteps, not yours. There is an old expression, that says to really know someone you need to walk a mile in their shoes. The goal of fiction is to make the reader make the journey in the character’s shoes, not just know where they went.
• Does your story read like something you would relate after saying, “Wait till you hear this,” told all in the storyteller’s voice? That’s as exciting, emotionally, as reading a transcript of a boxing-match announcer at work.
• Do you, in your voice as author, talk about a character, or something within the scene, as though you were there watching? Did you feel the need to explain something to the reader that wasn’t obvious? This is the second most common cause of rejection.
One Strike And You’re Out
Sad but true: when an agent or editor looks at your work you have one chance. Bore or confuse them for one single line and it’s over. So, in continuation of the points above, open your story to page one and let’s check for what an editor may find as a rejection point. And when I say rejection point, make no mistake. I mean that editor stops reading right then.
1. A “told” story: It reads like one side of a phone conversation. It’s a storyteller’s dance without the dance steps. This is a problem with the vast majority of work submitted by new authors.
2. Backstory: In an attempt to bring the reader up to speed the author talks about the characters rather than opening the story with action, so the first chapter is a history lesson. Zzzzzzz.
3. The info-dump. The author calls for a freeze-frame, locks the characters in place, and then pours in buckets full of backstory, area history, and a host of things unnecessary to the action that we’d much rather be experiencing. An info-dump of backstory is boring to read, just as the name implies.
4. The explainer: The author, an invisible character in the story, follows the characters around and volunteers information and gossip about them to the reader. And strangely, though they politely wait until it’s over, none of the characters seem to notice, and none ask who that stranger in their bedroom is.
5. The big bang: Having gotten a discount on exclamation points at the grammar store the author sprinkles them ten to a page rather then ten to a novel.
6. The beauty pageant: The author in trying to be poetic uses three paragraphs to say, “It was a nice day.”
7. Said-Book-itis: There was once a small tome that listed all the alternatives to “he said,” and the writer is trying to hit them all.
8. The philosopher: The story opens with a dissertation on why the story is being told.
Everyone Writes Crap, We Just Write Less Of It As We Progress.
The odds say you’re still reading because you need advice on filling that tool kit and in making that effort you’ve spent on creating your story work for you.
So let’s get the bad news out of the way, first: You can’t fix the story, you’ll probably have to rewrite it… from scratch… twice. (Lord, I love telling writers that, especially when they whimper)
The good news is that unlike most professions, once you know how to use the tools of the writing trade, the experiences you’ve been accumulating for years, through just living, give you things to write about.
More good news is that the university-trained fiction writer has no major advantage over the person who takes a more humble but diligent approach. That’s because successful authors and writing teachers like to write about what works for them. For less than the cost of dinner at a nice restaurant you can have a conversation with writers like Ben Bova, Stephen King, and Debra Dixon. For the same price, editors like Sol Stein, teachers like Dwight Swain, agents like Donald Maass, and a host of others, will sit at your elbow and whisper their secrets in your ear as you write.
Writing Is A Journey, Not A Destination.
So what do you do? You get to work collecting the tools you need, and perfecting their use as you slip them into the toolbox. If you have no more training than English class and maybe a freshman creative writing course, you might want to take it as a given you need to spend time with a book or two on writing technique. If grammar is your weakness, let Strunk and White’s Elements of Style be your Bible (A free, updated version can be found here: http://home.ccil.org/~cowan/style-revised.html)
And when you think you have things under control, workshop a few pages, posing the question most new writers forget to ask:
“If you found this in your bookstore among the new books, would you pay the going rate for it? Would you choose it over what you usually find there If not, why not?”
Take a deep breath, then, because the answer might sting a bit. It will, though, tell you what you need to know, rather then what you hope to hear.
And when you get response, always remember Shel Silverstein’s observation that if you pay attention to the good reviews you also have to listen to the bad ones.
The most important thing:
All of us—every single one of us—start out not knowing which end of the crayon goes on the wallpaper.
* Lots of writers haven’t heard of this one (though if they’re selling they’re using it), but it’s an important point. There’s a pretty good article on it here in Pearl Luke’s Blog.