Is there really only one?
Fatal – ? You tell me.
(full text here)
Is there really only one?
Fatal – ? You tell me.
(full text here)
“Authors of so-called ‘literary’ fiction insist that action, like plot, is vulgar and unworthy of a true artist. Don’t pay any attention to misguided advice of that sort. If you do, you will very likely starve trying to live on your writing income. Besides, the only writers who survive the ages are those who understand the need for action in a novel.”
—Dean R. Koontz, August 1981
Years ago a client came to me with a massive unpublished coming-of-age manuscript set in an era rife with racial tensions. She had a magical way with description. During a workshop a brief excerpt had even been given tons of praise and attention by an award-winning internationally renowned author, who saw great potential in the writing and in the bones of the story. This author even gave the writer her agent’s name and contact info, with express consent to name drop to the agent.
Take a moment to let that kind of opportunity sink in.
It’s almost hard not to picture said author giving said writer a little chuck under the chin and a knowing wink.
So the writer came to me to help her get the story into a publishable state. About 600 pages later the character had passed through all the epic horror and beauty you’d expect from that era and place, including a brutal act of violence experienced by the protagonist.
It was never published. All the lush description in the world could not save this manuscript or this writer. The world-class author could not have known how problematic this manuscript was based on the first few pages – which can be the best pages in a m/s, or the worst. Upon completing my analysis I informed the writer that unless she followed my advice it would never be published. She didn’t – or couldn’t – do it, and what might have been an important story likely became bird-cage liner.
So, what went wrong?
There’s some advice that’s been around forever about the narrative “and” versus “and then”. This happens, and this happens. Or this happens, and then that happens. One is supposed to be better than the other, but let’s break that down and see what kind of value it really has in storytelling.
Beginning writers often take a character and drop them into a successive string of events, with the idea that as long as the the protagonist’s the center of action and an end is reached they’ve succeeded. This is the simple addition of narrative. Event + Event. Scene + Scene. This happens, and this happens, and this happens, the end.
Now, these stories might be really well written but it’s not storytelling, and often this approach results in a sprawling, disjointed, pointless, tedious product. Yes, in the case of this manuscript the protagonist went from childhood to womanhood and even found inner peace, but only because the writer said so. The story proved nothing of the kind. The protagonist moved through a succession of scenes typified by the era – in fact, one might argue, the equivalent of a tour-book cliche of it. The end.
Let me repeat that. The protagonist moved through a succession of scenes.
The protagonist did not experience the events. She didn’t even witness them or offer reportage. She merely passed through them like an inert bubble. In them, but not of them. The placement of the protagonist into guidebook attractions only compromised any hope for authenticity, as though the writer had wanted to touch upon all the touristy things that absolutely must be experienced in this locale in order for it to be recognized by readers. In truth, she did not trust that she could tell a story about place without them. This lack of any real agency and authority would give any story all the earnestness of a Paris Hilton driving through Jim Crow South in the back of a Hummer with a Condé Nast Traveller, then trying to write To Kill A Mockingbird.
The damage this additive approach – scene+scene – causes to a story is endless (see sprawling, pointless, tedious, disjointed above), but the chief failure in this case was that the writer seemed unable to give the protagonist any kind of emotional or psychological functionality. Part of that was a consistent urge to tell rather than show.
Say a serial killer broke into your kitchen and slaughtered your beloved Ma. I just made that up to drive home a point. There you are, standing at the door looking in on this scene, a plate of hamburger and fries slathered in ketchup in your hand, and you think OMG, I’m s-o-o-o terrified. Police arrive, you tell them you were s-o-o-o terrified, then you leave the scene and … never think about it again? And if you passed in and out of that kitchen regularly for the next few years, would you just go right ahead and squeeze that blob of ketchup out, lick a dab off your thumb, and never even get a twitch?
I was so terrified. Meaningless. What does terror feel like? How can you make the reader experience terror by proxy? In our manuscript example, the worst was when the protagonist as a young woman was gang-raped, then went on for the rest of the story exactly the same way she had since page one.
Terror has an aftermath too, so this client put her character through some unspeakable events whose effects had exactly zero impact on anything once that scene was over.
No emotional/psychological functionality. Not good. Not in fiction, not in life. Not in a writer.
Now, if you’re writing about sociopaths or particular psychological states where the protagonist regresses or detaches, that’s one thing. The writer did not appear to know how to offer the reader anything but descriptions of things and places, or understand how to write growth or development into a character, which is hard to miss in a coming-of-age story.
If you look at the most hardcore non-linear literary works they are never merely strings of events out of order. Even epistolary and picaresque novels give the appearance of this simple narrative addition, but are far more complex and carefully orchestrated.
Writers then tend to go from the additive approach to writing into the realm of narrative algebra. This happens, and then that happens takes the scene+scene idea up a notch, suggesting a movement that simple narrative addition lacks. Here order matters. To even get this far our promising writer needed to make each scene serve a purpose to the story that went beyond describing what everything looked like, or as mere breadcrumbs between beginning and end.
In mathematics, addition is a basic operative function. Order doesn’t matter. In storytelling, this would be the equivalent of one scene having no more or less value than any other. You can keep adding scenes but it will not give the outcome any more weight. You can have 2+1+1 or you can have 1 + 1+ 2. Writers who are just stringing scenes together get the same outcome, with nothing else making any difference. No particular scene changes the character much, or the plot points.
Algebra (al-jebr: the reunion of broken parts) involves mathematical systems of representation (letters for unknown quantities). After approaching the writing process as additive, writers might begin to put some weight on the events and scenes to end up with something more like this:
(Scene a + Event b) x X = novel
This can work just fine for very formulaic stories or genres. The whodunnit, the bodice-ripper. But there’s still something missing. It’s the connectedness and reflexivity between the events. Breadcrumbs lead somewhere, but they are only discrete placeholders. Picking up a narrative thread and following it to wherever it leads is better but almost as limiting. You still don’ t know where you are in the grand scheme of things. You’re just going from here to there.
(Event 1 + Scene 1 ) + Purpose Y x ∑ (Δ emotional state/Δ psychological state ) + time X + Event 2 = Scene 2
Now, all that’s just a bunch of fancy looking nonsense to demonstrate the complexity of storytelling, but the truth is that everything beautiful in mathematics is what makes storytelling rich. Calculus is the mathematics of change. Calculus deals with differentiation, integration, function, and symbolic reasoning. Wow, that’s beautiful for writers. The pros know it deep in their solar plexus.
One of my suggestions to the client was to take the rape out and rewrite it as a children’s story. Certainly the makings of an excellent children’s story were there. In fact, it was too naively written to be anything else. If she could not develop the character maturely, or could not see the story through the filter of cynicism needed to create the kind of emotional and psychological ugliness the events demanded, children’s writing was the only realistic option.
My guess is that she promptly made a beeline for the agent’s open door, cashed in the secret handshake given by the famous author, then …
If a writer’s lucky there’ll be some generous hints from an agent or a publisher about how to fix what’s broken. Most just get rejected, no specified reason. What happens when a manuscript is fixable but the writer can’t or won’t do what the story requires? Back then I’m sure the client continued trying to find a publisher or agent, obviously without success. Today she might go straight to self-publishing, then wonder why only close family and friends and a handful of strangers interested in the subject have bought a copy. The despair of rejection or the inability to understand storytelling will make most writers give up. I’m sure she did.
Any time I’ve worked with beginners the mistakes are the same. They’re stuck at the narrative addition stage. Or they go in the opposite direction and the characters’ emotional and psychological states are gut-spattered all over the pages until none of it has any value. There isn’t enough internal value carried through the story. Dropped threads. Meagre or nonexistent internal lives. Events and experiences that pop up with little or no continuity or connection to each other or to the characters’ internal lives. There’s no sense of because.
This happens because that happened, and because that happened, there is change.
If you’re not getting anywhere with your stories, or if you’ve self-published and have sold poorly, ask yourself whether your writing is too additive, or too algebraic. Are your characters’ emotional and psychological states carried over across the entire story, expanded and contracted by joy and trauma in the same way they would if real people had those same experiences? Does the calculus of you narrative account for change?
Have you looked for and developed the “because” in storytelling?
This is a student video presentation about the immigrant experience, and the themes of loss and love in the late Alistair MacLeod’s stirring – and only – novel, No Great Mischief. Quotes from my essay Staring Down My Ghosts In Northern Ontario, published in the Globe & Mail a while back, were included as part of the presentation. Interesting synchronicity that the students couldn’t have known: MacLeod not only taught me, but was the first person to offer encouragement about doing graduate work, an astounding idea considering I had a business degree and one mediocre English course credit under my belt. About a decade later he sat in on my thesis defense, which I didn’t realize was unheard-of until it was over and my defense committee commented that they’d never seen him do that before. It’s humbling that my name even came within glancing distance of his when it comes to writing, even in a student presentation, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. Dr. MacLeod was one of the loveliest men you’d ever meet with a fantastic sense of humor that got me through Jane Austin without going postal (sorry Austinites, but I’m more of a Frankenstein kind of gal). Thanks, students, whoever you are.
Click on Video above, or this link:
The average employee will put around 2,000 (+/-) hours per year into a job. That’s eight hours a day, five days a week, week in, week out, excluding holidays, paid overtime, and the odd Monday morning I’ll-kill-myself-if-I-have-to-go-in-there time.
If there’s any truth to the the 10,000-hour rule for mastering a skill set, it would take approximately five years to accomplish anything meaningful on the job. Of course, give or take, considering differentials like intelligence, talent, ambition etc.
Let’s just say the average “writer” has one of these jobs that causes bills to be paid and food to be eaten and dumpster-diving to be forestalled. Let’s just say. Now, the 2,000 hours does not include off-site time spent finishing reports, ulcerating quietly on the bathroom floor, crying, or doing research.
Now, there are maybe another good 50 hours left in the week . That’s pretty awesome, translating to potentially 3,000 more hours during the year to excel at something more important to you, like writing.
Oh, but oops – forgot about preparing meals, eating, and cleaning up after meals. Shopping. Housework. Yard work. Grooming. Childcare. Trying to figure out why the printer won’t print.
Friends. Social time. Sick time. Down time.
Even if writers were left with half that time free (a generous estimate) to concentrate on writing, it would take a minimum of nearly seven years of dedicated effort to produce writing that resembled anything like mastery. Notice I said writing and not a manuscript. That’s because telling good stories is a whole nuther level of mastery and requires far more than a skillful way of stringing words together. Of course, that seven years includes everything from pre-writing to final editing, whether you’ve told a good story or not. Bear in mind that even after the Beatles began their insane rocket-ship ride to celebrity it took years to produce their truly great material.
Then there’s the publishing process. It can take years of rejection and tinkering and full-out rewrites before a junior editor sifting through a slush pile notices you – if it’s a particularly good query. But even the query process has its own learning curve. If a query is noticed it might be 3-9 months before they let you know, and if a full manuscript is requested it can take up to a year or more before it’s read. If they like what they see, rewrites may be suggested. Make that “suggested”, ie: do it or get lost. Depending on the involvement, tack on another year, then another waiting for an analysis of the rewrites. Then there’s the hurdle of the editorial board approvals at every stage.
If it’s accepted, throw on another 1-3 years before a book reaches a shelf.
If it’s rejected, back to square one.
This is why so many turn to self-publishing as an express route to authorship.
So, what is all this getting to? Writing is not like making popsicle-stick birdhouses. Treat it like a hobby, and you will be lucky if you can get your Gammy to take a copy.
Maybe you feel the years slipping between your fingers, and as becoming a published author dims on the far horizon somehow it becomes more urgent than ever. Before I’m 30, you say. Then: before I’m 40, 50, once I’ve retired.
Before I die.
But no, you say. No way am I waiting years, decades to get this done. That brass ring is right there, if you could only reach –
Yes, do it. Do. It. Go ahead, self-publish, get your work out there and you’ll be the next Wool, and then it’ll be you making them bloody well wait for that contract.
Stop. Please. Stop and think for a moment about what it means to be an author versus a writer.
Be a writer first. Being a writer is all about you. Write because you love it and you have a story to tell, because it helps you work through your issues, because it relieves the stresses of life and lets you express yourself. But being a writer doesn’t mean being readable or publishable.
Becoming an author is no longer about you, because there’s another mind involved and that’s the reader. Becoming an author means you have a story that needs to be communicated to readers, because no matter what your issues are or how many stessors there are in life, you are first and foremost dedicated to perfecting your craft and raising your work to the realm of art no matter what the consequences are.
Because being publishable starts with being readable – and that includes everything from children’s fiction to complex works that require an annotated concordance just to read.
Readability is good storytelling. Good storytelling attracts readers. Publishers are looking for great storytelling because they want to attract readers. Because, ultimately, readers mean sales. Not always, but mostly they know a good story when they come across it. And remember that what gets published is not always that good because the bulk of what comes in for review is just so gut-wrenchingly, pukingly awful. Sometimes what gets published is just the best of what came in, and that can be very little above mediocre. Rejection is not a way of hurting writers, but a way of saying you’re not there yet. Rejection is Writing 101 at the university of work harder, write better.
So why are you going to self-publish? To attract readers? Oh my dear, self-publish because you have readers, because you have the stats to prove you can get more readers besides your besties and your family (hey, Gammy!). Readers don’t come because you’ve put your work out there. They don’t even come because you’ve set off a monster marketing and PR campaign. They come because the story is worth reading. To them, not to you. That’s why Wool happened.
Is it panic, then, because you want your name in print before you die? And what will that get you in the end? Humiliating failure with no up-side except maybe some vicious trolling and online snark to rip a hole in your soul (as opposed to, if you’re lucky, some very generous commentary from an editor in the process of rejecting you).
Because what’s the point in being published if nobody reads your work? Notice, though, that I’m not talking about sales. I’m talking about readers. Readers are not necessarily sales, but readers are definitely necessary – and absolutely pave the way – for sales.
Is wanting to be a published author such a blind ambition that you’ve lost sight of what it takes to have readers?
The time is necessary, fellow writers. Time is your investment, and not just the hours per day you dedicate at the keyboard, but the years of doubt and questioning and self-reflection required to move a story from its sacred position in your mind to a sacred position in the reader’s mind. Invest in this time no matter how much is required of you, and do it gladly because it is the birth canal that will bring story from within you into the world. It’s messy and it’s ugly and many can’t go through with it. But like a baby’s gestation from zygote to beautiful autonomous infant ready to take on the world, the writer requires a gestation in order to become an author. Writing requires a gestation to become storytelling.
Ten thousand hours. Five years. Seven years. Ten.
So how about it: do you want to be published?
Or do you want to be read?
If you’re tired of trying to figure out how to tell a great story, stay tuned to this blog for news about a revolutionary new structuring tool that will help you not only get the bones of your story right, but also help you keep track of changes so your story makes sense from beginning to end no matter how many drafts. Be sure to subscribe to this blog to be kept in the loop so you can be among the first to try it out. In the meantime, download my free fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara to help get your story working now.
So you’re all geared up for some more eye-popping, cringe-worthy gore and storytelling wizardry and – as always – delicious character development. The tension is positively aching. You’re ready for the jump-out-of-your-socks moment.
Then Daryl swings his crossbow over his shoulders, leans back on his Harley, looks up into a cloudless Tiffany-blue sky – and starts talking about the music of solitude and how the weight of one empty heart is greater than weight of the world.
I know. I mean, he might have all that in him but that ain’t Darryl’s voice. That ain’t even his character.
Writers do this all the time. Even published writers. In an industry where in-house editing is still smoking from the seemingly endless economic slash-and-burn, these mistakes slip by more and more.
So what’s going on? Well, likely the writer is the one who thinks about the music of solitude and the weight of the empty heart. And Tiffany-blue skies. Probably there’s even a notebook with this very phrasing scribbled out in woke-up-at-3am-giggling-over-this-idea handwriting. The writer has been dying to use it somewhere for quite some time, and when the protagonist is placed into a position where solitude and empty hearts become a focal point – BAM! There it is.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the kind of earned wisdom that comes from working the land or an embattled life. Some of the most powerful words have come from the least powerful people.
The writer wants to philosophize and wax poetic to show off his or her ideas and some writing tricks, and uses a character to do something the story will otherwise not allow.
Don’t count on publishing houses to catch this for you. One editor might be juggling the whole list for a season where there used to be a whole team. Or you might get someone who isn’t experienced enough, awake enough, or interested enough in fighting over it. But, you might say, if it doesn’t bother them, then what’s the big deal?
Well, buttercup, once the book’s out there, readers will care. Sure, if you’re a good enough writer they will enjoy your novel or story but those weird inconsistencies will irritate like a sesame seed under dentures. In a hyper-competitive book environment, can you afford to lose credibility and authority? What about your next time out? Word of mouth is still the greatest form of promotion, so when talking (or posting) about your book, readers are more likely to feel less positively than they would have if you hadn’t barged into the story.
Let’s put it this way: The Walking Dead is the powerhouse that it is because the writers know their characters. Even when they do something out of character, it is consistent with the circumstances. It all makes sense together. There is more going on under the storytelling surface than meets the eye, but it is within the narrative scaffolding and not the writers’ whims.
But just watch. As soon as they forget what their story is about, and as soon as their characters go off the map without circumstances that make sense, the viewership will drop like a bird having a heart attack in mid-air. When the writers start intruding on the storytelling to say something they’be been dying to add for a long time, to make the story about something other than what it’s about, to play with the underlying driving factors, this show is done.
It’ll be Lost all over again.
Is that what you want for your writing career?
Know you characters. Know your purpose. Know what drives the whole. Stay the aitch-ee-double-toothpicks out of your own story.
Then you will be less likely to storybomb your own writing.
Want to know how to prevent storybombing through structure? Read my post about an exciting one-of-a-kind writing tool soon to be launched that will change the way you write. Subscribe to this blog for updates on this never-before seen product, and be among the first to get hold of a copy. In the meantime, download my free fiction-timeline-worksheet-3-0-sandrachmara to get your plotting on the right track.
Workbooks: Scribble scribblescribble scratch. Erase-erase-erase. Scribble. Scribble. Who the – What the – Why’d I write that? And why did I put it there in the first place? Erase erase erase. Scribble. Rip. Dayum –
Software: Tappity-tappity tap tap tappatappa. Tap. Delete delete. Tappity tap. Backspacebackspacebackspace. Tap. Delete delete delete. Tappity – Hmm. Where’d I put that part about the atheist praying mantis? Tap tap – Where did – Ah! Oh. Ugh. Delete delete delete. Wait – maybe I need it after all. No, it’s gone. But – maybe it really is important to the story. But then – Aw, I don’t even know any more. Click. P-khew!
Files & Notes: Aaargh! Sob –
Structural Flowchart* – Write write write. Oh! So that’s how that works! Wow. Just – wow. Write write. Oh, so that’s not supposed to be there. Correct. Track track – yes, now it makes sense why it didn’t work. It doesn’t link up with any of the other narrative threads. Ha. Lee. Loo. Ya.
* Coming soon to a Kickstarter near you: the Writer’s Studio Series: Structural Flowchart (Classic Arc Narrative). Tell your friends. If you (and all those friends who are dying to write better stories) want to be updated about the progress of the project launch, please subscribe to this blog.