Monthly Archives: November 2011

Trusting Readers To Figure It Out

Once again a novelist, a person I respect, said in essence that intentionally incorporating a theme in fiction makes the story preachy. This position, while widely held by Christian authors, is far from the truth. Anyone who can remember back to high school or college literature classes knows this. The classics we studied in those days, and that many students still study, are far from preachy, yet one of the points of analysis teachers emphasized was what the author was saying in the story — his theme.

In truth, theme does not equal preachy. It never has. However, a poorly crafted theme might indeed come across as preachy. The way to eliminate a poorly crafted theme, of course, is not to eliminate theme, yet that’s what many writers seem to advocate.

Some, of course, suggest that the theme will naturally form itself because the author has deeply held beliefs. By that reasoning, then, there is no need to carefully craft our characters since the author himself is a person, and there is no need to craft the plot since the author himself lives life.

Perhaps most inconsistent in this movement to downplay theme is the idea that it is right, even necessary, to carefully craft each sentence so that the prose sparkles, but not necessary to craft the ultimate meaning behind each sentence that gives the story significance.

In the opposite camp from those advocating theme-less fiction, however, are those who believe in their theme more than they believe in their reader’s ability to understand the theme. These writers, in fact, do turn their theme into an essay or a sermon, largely because they want to be sure the readers “get it.”

Photograph by Andrew Dunn

I remember struggling with this in my writing. Shortly after one of the Lord of the Rings movies released, a group of self-proclaimed pagans gathered in England for the celebration of a pagan rite, and they referenced J. R. R. Tolkien as their hero and Middle Earth as their hope. Since I write epic fantasy, I tried to imagine what it would feel like to have my writing so thoroughly misunderstood and misused as these people were doing to Tolkien’s work. Wouldn’t it be better to spell things out and to eliminate any doubt about what the author means?

Actually not. Fiction isn’t about the author. It’s about the characters. As soon as the author intrudes, he pulls down the curtain, and the reader is no longer lost in the pretend of the play. Instead, he might well feel as if he’s been manipulated into listening to the equivalent of a commercial, when he thought he was getting an ad-free story. Consequently, the author, rather than making his point and having his reader think deeply, has lost the reader who may also vehemently reject the point out of hand.

In short, a writer committed to saying something important in her fiction must do so with intention, weaving the meaning into the fabric of the story. What happens to the characters and how they grow or change ought to tell the reader far more than what the author states plainly. Symbols sprinkled throughout can reinforce the main point, and will add artistic flare that make the story far deeper. But just as a magician doesn’t reveal how he performed his tricks at the end of his show, an author shouldn’t tip his hand at any time and explain what the story was all about.

Will some readers misunderstand? Possibly so, but even if this is the case, they will think a great deal more about the theme than if the author intercedes to tell them what they should think. After all, no author can force a reader to believe as she believes. It’s really up to the author to paint the picture with words, then trust the reader to get it.

To come full circle, no reader will get a theme that’s not there, so an author first needs to give attention to what precisely he wants to say through the vehicle of story. He needs to weave it well into the story, then trust the reader to make sense of what he has read.

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Story Triage

In my experience readers, reviewers, and even critique partners might recognize that something in a story is amiss. It’s another thing to be able to identify accurately what that something is. Too often secondary issues get blamed: sentences need to be tightened, a better story hook inserted, most -ing words and all -ly adverbs need to be cut, passive verbs changed to active, and so on. While these Browne-and-King type writing guidelines (so named for the authors of a good beginning writing resource entitled Self-editing for Fiction Writers) have merit, they most likely are not the real problem. Too many stories are sitting on the best-seller lists with all these taboos glaring back at the unpublished writer who then asks, How can that bad writing get in print, and my perfect prose not find an agent?

The problem might actually be “the perfect prose.” No one is particularly interested in reading a story that sounds more like a text book. Stories need to have character and they need to be about character.

In a recent Writer’s Digest article, writing instructor Donald Maass gave his top two mistakes novelists make, and neither one of them dealt with point of view or passive voice, nor did he mention loose body parts or the presence of the nasty “be” verb forms. Instead he honed in on the things that are critical to the story itself if readers are to keep reading.

When doing story triage, then, it is important to look at the foundation first — what the story is, not how the author has told it. If the story itself is flawed, no amount of prose doctoring will fix the problem.

So what are the critical things Donald Maass pointed to?

1) Failing to create characters for whom we have an immediate reason to care, and 2) Not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read everything on every page.

Interestingly, I’ve seen the failing of those two elements just this week. In one book I am reading (it seems I am never reading just one book 😉 ), I noticed the problem of not having an immediate reason to care for the characters. As it turned out, the further into the book I read, the more I cared for the characters. But can we count on readers staying with a story for a hundred pages if they don’t love a character at once (or at least connect with him) or have a reason to cheer him on to victory? I don’t think so.

This means characters must be believably real, but even more importantly, they must have some desire, some goal that drives their actions. They can’t have a desire about which they do nothing and have readers care deeply. The characters can’t even be reactive to the things that happen around and to them, and have readers care deeply. It is in characters taking steps to obtain their significant desires that gives rise to readers joining in their quest emotionally.

Donald Maass’s second point, not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read every page, was something I saw in my own writing. As I reworked my opening scene for the umpteenth time, I created what I thought was an intriguing hook. My basketball-player main character, who was used to trash talk on the basketball court, was hearing it in his parents’ condo. I was happy with that first paragraph (still am) because it introduced possible conflict and created an unexpected — and therefore intriguing — encounter.

The problem came in the next line. I downplayed the emotional reaction my character had to this trash talk aimed at him. After all, he’d heard worse from guys more threatening than the man in front of him. With the portrayal of that cool, in control reaction — which was true to my character — away went the tension which the first paragraph had introduced. If the trash talk was no problem for my character, than it was no problem for my readers, so why should they care? I have to give them more tension, not less, if I want them to keep reading.

As I see it, Donald Maass put his finger on the twin beams upon which good stories are built — characters readers care about, acting in ways that generate tension. Writers who want to improve their novels would be wise to look at those two factors first before concerning themselves overly much with secondary elements.

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Ideas

I’ve read my share of author interviews, and inevitably the question comes up: Where did you get your idea for your story? I used to think that was a question interviewers used because they couldn’t think of anything else. 😆 But just this past week, an author (whose debut novel landed on the New York Times best-seller list) created a frequently asked questions page on her site, and she included “Where did you get your idea for …”

So I relent. Apparently people really are interested in where story ideas come from. I have a writer friend, in fact, who has expressed some interest in writing short stories but generally says she doesn’t think she could because she doesn’t know what she’d write about.

I’m familiar with the problem. When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who assigned us a story every Friday. My friends used to moan and groan. What could they possibly write about?

When I became a teacher and handed out my own writing assignments, the chief complaint I heard was, “I don’t know what to write about.”

Honestly, all this subject-matter angst has mystified me. In my own writing I’ve had questions about selecting subject matter for a non-fiction piece, but generally the issue is a non-issue for me when it comes to fiction. Finally I realized, perhaps I needed to tell other writers why.

As I see it, stories ideas come from everywhere. From an author’s dreams, his home environment, his work environment, from his childhood memories, from what he reads in the newspaper, from what happens in the grocery story or bank or gas station or library or church, from special days and from regular ones, from the hair dresser or from the dentist, from the generous friend or from the demanding neighbor, from his child’s teacher, from the Little League coach or the hot dog vendor or the ticket taker. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. 😀 Ideas are everywhere.

The key is in recognizing them when we see them. One way to recognize a story idea is by asking probing questions — things like, I wonder why she decided to finish college in a small school instead of the state university where she started? From there a writer can begin a list of “maybe” answers. Maybe she followed a guy she met. Maybe she got involved in a cult. Maybe she was following in the footsteps of her older sister. Maybe she was running away from her family. Maybe she wanted a simpler lifestyle. And on and on until the list begins to include the bizarre and improbable. The more outlandish, the more a writer is stretching her imagination.

Of course, each of these “maybe answers” comes with a “why.” It is in answering this that a writer begins to get a glimpse at which of these stories might be interesting to write.

So the real answer to the question, Where did you get your ideas, lies in observation and curiosity — and the great news is, with practice every author can cultivate and increase both.

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Get It All Down


If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is a great motivator for us writers to turn off the editing side of our brains and write. Rough drafts, after all, are supposed to be rough.

The problem is, novices think the first thing onto the screen is brilliant and a finished product. On the other hands, those of us further along the writing process tend to think we have to polish and perfect scene one before we can progress to scene two.

Years ago I was in a critique group with a writer (actually more than one) whose desire for perfection froze her. She couldn’t get past the problems of her previous novel and move on to her second. She endlessly fiddled and tweaked and rewrote and could not move on. Nothing was good enough. Nothing was perfect.

The truth is, nothing we write ever will be perfect. There is always something more we could do to make the story stronger or the character deeper or the theme more intricately woven into the plot.

It’s a hard truth for those of us who want our books to be our best. It’s such a hard truth that it ends up paralyzing too many good writers.

Enter a contest, of sorts, that pushes writers to produce volume, not quality, and suddenly stories are taking shape and frozen writers and pouring out pages.

But do we have to wait for November to experience this rush of creativity? I don’t think so. What we need to do is to commit first to getting the story down. Then we need to commit to going back and polishing those pages until they shine.

I don’t want to slide by the months when a story is gestating. I think that’s also a necessary step. Unlike children, however, stories don’t have a set amount of time they need to develop. And writers can take some steps to move the process along.

The “move along” activities are sometimes referred to as pre-writing. They might include research, writing character sketches, filling out character charts, or doing the early steps of a process like Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method.

For me, my first pre-writing activity was to make a map of the fantasy world I was envisioning. As I worked, story elements suggested themselves, and I began to make notes. Eventually I worked on an outline, and then I was off.

In those early days of my writing career, I was operating with that false idea that I’d get the story right, with some minor tweaking, as soon as I transcribed my handwriting into my computer. (Yes, I still write my rough drafts in long hand, even for short stories, but that’s just me.)

The bliss of that ignorance was that I plowed forward and got the story down. As I learned more about writing, I found a disturbing truth emerge: getting the story down was becoming harder. I felt less and less willing to write what I knew was drivel and keep going. This scene was wrong, that character motivation was weak, this plot point was predictable. I wanted to get it all right that first time.

I’d been around writing circles long enough to know the importance of getting the story down, and yet at one point I was forcing myself to move on. I’d already torn up one opening and started over. I’d gone back and added in a scene I was pretty sure would make things better. But I was still unhappy, still stalled.

Until I made myself write. Without going back. Without rendering a judgment on what went on before.

This act of getting the story out may be the very best thing that NaNoWriMo does for novelists — even ones like me who don’t play. The emphasis on volume serves as a reminder that at some point we all have to sit down and release the words, which will add up to pages, then chapters, and one day a completed story, rough though it may be. After all, a rough story is a lot easier to pretty up than a non-existent one!

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