Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript: Conflict

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Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript 4: Conflict 

You have conflict. Lots and lots of conflict.

unnamed (3)Conflict is drama. If your story has conflict, it adds the spice that any love affair needs.

Stories don’t have to start with fist fights or space battles. Conflict can be as big as finding love in a civil war or as small as choosing the right ring to propose with. It can be as fast as a car crash or as slow as the new valet showing up with a limp.

But those are really situations, not conflict. The most important element of conflict is that it involves characters. Even in a pitched space battle, I care about R2-D2 and C-3PO. Conflict is personal, and conflict involves characters I care about. If you lose the characters I root for, the conflict loses its power. Now it’s just noise and confusion.

Something has to happen in your story, and it has to happen fast. Don’t waste time setting up the scene or characters before you dive into the meat of the tale. Stories I love start as close to the initial crisis as possible with characters I care about and let things spiral downhill from there. If you never let up on the conflict, and you make it personal, I won’t be able to put your manuscript down.

Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript: Your Characters Breathe

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Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript 3: Your Characters Breathe

Unless, of course, they happen to literally be suffocating.

When I hear your characters’ voices in what they say and see them in what they do, I can’t help but fall in love.

Characters need strong identities. As an editor, I need a sense of who they are early on. I need to see their personalities in their actions and speech. Dialogue should be so personal no other character could say it, and actions so unique only one character would react that way.

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This is where good preparation comes in. Characters are like icebergs. We only see ten percent of them above the water, but we can sense the ninety percent below that moves them. A character’s background informs what they know, how they speak, and how they react to situations. Remember all that work you put into backstory but never got to tell us? This is the part of the iceberg that shows through. Say your character walks by a homeless man on the street. Did your character grow up poor, or was she raised demonizing the homeless? Did she grow up in a military home, which explains why she gave a homeless veteran money while she passed by a dozen others? With one simple encounter, her actions and words reveal her character and make her feel real and alive.

Another often overlooked element that brings life and dimension to characters is the little nuances, the nervous ticks and dialogue tags the character has. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight is one of the finest acting performances in years. So many elements went in to his character, but the most important pieces might have been the most minor. He made the Joker real by constantly flicking his tongue out and licking his lips. Playing with his ratty, greasy hair. Moving his hands in a subconscious, jittery flow. All of these nuances added to the chaotic insanity of the character.

THE DARK KNIGHT, Heath Ledger as The Joker, 2008. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

THE DARK KNIGHT, Heath Ledger as The Joker, 2008. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

Be sure to add these details to your own characters to reinforce their personalities. Maybe your protagonist chews his fingernails to the quick, plays with the brim of his hat, strokes the edge of his chin or jogs his leg when he’s sitting. Perhaps he runs his hands along everything he encounters or doesn’t look directly at anyone when he talks. These elements are small, maybe a few words of description here and there, but these small, unique quirks speak volumes.

Take a great character (say, Sherlock Holmes) and analyze him. Would any of Sherlock’s dialogue or actions feel comfortable coming from John Watson or Moriarty? Would any of his actions? Of course not. Make sure your characters are just as alive.

Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript: You Cut The Backstory

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Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript 2: You Cut the Backstory

I don’t need backstory. I don’t want it. Neither will your readers.

It’s crucial for you, the author, to know your subjects and backstory better than anyone. But writing isn’t a test. You don’t need to show your work. Manuscripts I love respect my intelligence and don’t patronize me by feeding me backstory.

There are a lot of things I don’t need to know in order to enjoy a tale. Show me what’s happening. Know it doesn’t matter to me that your protagonist graduated first in her class from Harvard in 2005 and is an expert on North African Pre-Egyptian fossils, which her dead but much-loved grandfather inspired her to study. Show her in action and I know she’s an expert. Keep my interest by leaving her history unsaid until it’s pertinent.

The backstory rule also applies to historical, technical and mythical/magical information. You as a writer need to know every detail of pertinent information for your tale. If your story takes place in the Ottoman Empire in the thick of World War I, you better do your historical research, and probably study the military hardware of the time too. If you’re writing a speculative fiction piece, you need to know how the warp drive your ships use and the phasers your ships fire work. But after doing all your research or technical development, it’s tempting to tell it all as soon as something is referenced.

Don’t do it.

Here you need to know the target audience for your work a little bit. Some historical fiction readers want to get deeper in the historical weeds, and some science fiction readers want to go further under the hood. But ultimately the important thing for the reader is what these items do, not how they do it, or how life is during the time period, not how it got that way. You as author need to know these things so you can add background detail, explain when necessary, and, above all, avoid inconsistencies. Even if a reader doesn’t understand the technology or history, he or she will spot an inconsistency immediately. (“I have no idea how shields or transporters work, but I thought you couldn’t use a transporter through shields!”)

Too many times a good manuscript goes off the rails when the author starts to dump in backstory about characters, history or technology. It slows the narrative to a crawl, and most of the information I don’t need. Accept that I, and your readers, will appreciate your exhaustive research and backstory without needing to know it.

 

Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript: It Feels New

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During my time as a developmental editor, I longed to fall in love with a manuscript. I wanted to read stories that spoke to me, that haunted me when I went to bed and I woke thinking about. Almost every submission had something I could fall for. But far too often I rejected the submissions I read and critiqued.

The attributes that spark a love affair with a manuscript are not the reasons you might think. Sure, I recoil at the twelfth adverb in a paragraph, pervasive passive voice, misspellings and its/it’s mistakes. I grumble at stories that start in the wrong place or have superfluous exposition. But these are lover’s spats. An editor cleans up language, recommends moving scenes and cutting unneeded characters or chapters. I can love a manuscript despite these faults. But the reasons I fall for them are much more fundamental.

No matter your genre, editors want to love your manuscript. Make sure your submission delivers on the following things, and I guarantee they’ll love yours.

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Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript 1: Your Story Feels New

I guarantee your story has been written before.

Think of your favorite book. Game of Thrones? Try Lord of the Rings, George MacDonald or Arabian Nights. Twilight? Anne Rice, Romeo and Juliet, Dracula and Camilla. Eragon? Star Wars, which was in turn influenced by every hero’s journey myth ever. Every plot and story has been told before, and by a master. The manuscripts I love feel refreshing and new, despite having been told before.

How do you accomplish this? First, by reading. A lot. Not only will this inspire you and teach you the craft, it will expose you to tales already written so you can avoid being the carbon copy.

Second, bring something new to the story, like a new setting or theme. Weave two existing stories together in unexpected ways. George R. R. Martin made his fantasy world unique by getting rid of fantasy races, making magic rare and adding realism and nuance to a world more gray than black and white.

Never rest on one or two unique elements. Add as much as you can at every turn and breathe freshness into your tale.

Refine Your Prose: Use The Landscape

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Previous Refine Your Prose Posts:

Be a Sadist

Build by Scenes

Learn Dialogue

 

Refine Your Prose 4: Use the Landscape

Landscape should mean as much to a story as the characters. When used with purpose, landscape is invaluable in creating and emphasizing emotional tone. What would The Great Gatsby be without the landscape of the nouveau riche of the ‘20s, or The Grapes of Wrath without the Dust Bowl? The landscape in these works and countless others is as much a character as the protagonists.

 

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Exactly.

 

In general, I loathe description of landscape, and over-description in general.  It is a prose sinkhole. No other facet of writing gives an author more opportunity to encumber the flow of the story. But many well-known authors describe a lot. Both Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald go to absurd lengths to describe. But they are brilliant at it because their descriptions always matter. Everything described in their works serves the narrative and tone of the story.

Whenever you describe a country, a room or a twig on the ground, make sure it serves the narrative. Use it to establish the emotional tone of your story and reinforce it along the way. When you edit, add description that strengthens your tone, and delete description that doesn’t. Does your detailed description of the rain highlight your story’s themes? If yes, keep it up. If not, rewrite or delete it.

Good description establishes and reinforces emotional tone. It does not show the beautiful picture in your head or act as filler. And it can be deadly for the beginning of a novel. Done well, description can take your narrative further than the characters can alone, and heighten your themes beyond what your protagonists do or say.

 

 

Refine Your Prose: Learn to Write Dialogue

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Previous Refine Your Prose Posts:

Build Your Story By Scenes

Be a Sadist

 

Refine Your Prose 3: Learn to Write Dialogue

 

“As you know, Bob…” is the worst dialogue phrase in existence. If Bob knows, why are you telling him? It’s so you can tell the reader. What follows is likely a patronizing infodump that takes the reader out of the story.

Good dialogue trusts the intelligence of the reader and lets them fill in the gaps without holding their hand. It breathes life, personality and individuality into your characters. Good dialogue hauls your reader into the story and doesn’t let go.

So what’s the secret to learning to write dialogue?

Eavesdrop.

 

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Dude, it’s cool. I’m a writer.

The very suggestion feels dirty. We’ve been taught since childhood not to listen in on private conversations. But it’s the key to writing good dialogue. Besides, everything a writer does is dirty in one way or another. And doing dirty things is a lot of fun.

Go to your local coffee shop, sit down next to a full table and listen to the neighboring conversation. Pay attention to each person’s voice, mannerisms and word choices. Take notes in the notebook you carry for story ideas. (You do carry one, right?) Listen to what they say… and more importantly, what they don’t.

Eavesdropping lets you absorb the nuances of real dialogue. It drives home how much you don’t need to know in order to follow a conversation. The people at the next table are not going to tell each other what they already know. Moreover, they aren’t going to tell you, the dirty eavesdropper next door. You have to figure out the backstory yourself based on context. And you’ll be surprised how well you do. They may make references you don’t understand, but you either figure them out based on context, or decide they’re not important and move on.

Readers are the ultimate eavesdroppers, able to spy on the most private details of your protagonists’ lives. By delivering dialogue that trusts your readers’ intelligence and makes your characters feel alive, you make your narrative that much more compelling.

Refine Your Prose: Building your story scene by scene

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Welcome to my second writing advice blog. I thought I’d open with an inspirational message from the Avengers:

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Unless you’re currently the Hulk. In which case your Great American Novel would be written with somebody’s bloody leg stump on a chunk of concrete and would just say “Smash.”

2. Think in scenes

What’s a story? If you say a story is character, situation and plot, this is true. A story needs those three basic elements, but it is much more complex than that. That’s like saying a cake is butter, eggs and flour. Those materials go together in a certain way to create an effective cake, whose ultimate purpose is to be delicious. Character, situation and plot have to go together well to create a story, and a story gives your protagonists conflict that ultimately changes them. The act of change makes the story a story.

(We will leave discussions on whether people can truly change for a later blog. Debates on this have made me curse Twitter’s character limit well into the night.)

You need building blocks to create conflict and change in your story, and scenes are those blocks. At its most basic level, a scene is a unit of drama that happens in one location. But like a story, a scene is much more than this definition. Every good scene does at least one of two things.

A scene puts a character in a different emotional place than he was at the start. Say your protagonist, a devoted husband and father, sees an ex-girlfriend at his local coffee shop. He realizes he still has feelings for her. With one chance encounter, his current life doesn’t fulfill him like it used to. He hasn’t done anything, but the scene puts him in a different state emotionally.

A scene also gives characters a choice that they can’t undo. Later in the story, the protagonist sleeps with his ex. Now he has acted on his emotions, and he can’t ignore it or take it back. He must deal with the consequences of his decision whatever they may be.

If each scene in your story accomplishes one – or better, both – of the above goals, then each scene strengthens the impact of your narrative with added conflict and character depth. Building your story through scene after scene, driving your characters forward through the situations they’re in, will make sure your readers are still with your story when it reaches its destination.