WHERE DID I GO WRONG?
I’ve heard countless people ask this question, and I’ve voiced it a few times myself. When I’m frustrated, struggling with edits, or reeling from a rejection, this question inevitably rears its ugly head.
But this is the wrong question to ask.
Amy McCaw—author, blogger, critique partner, and fantastic friend of mine—poses a better one:
Why would a reader stop reading?
There are infinite answers, but let’s delve into a few common ones.
Does your character wake up for his first day at a new school? Does he startle from a frightening, yet forbiddingly-prophetic nightmare? Does he happen to glance in a mirror and catch a glimpse of his thin frame, brown tussled hair, and strikingly violet eyes? Does he run into run-of-the-mill ugly bully? Join up with his sassy-yet-slightly-less-good-looking best friend to lament about it?
No, no, no, and no.
We’ve read all of these (plus many more) a thousand times before, and, unlike a fine cheese, they aren’t getting any better with age. Aim for original. The story doesn’t necessarily start where the character’s day starts. Frankly, I don’t care what Brooding YA Hero had for breakfast.
Far too often, especially in genres involving complex world-building like science fiction and high fantasy, I see authors inundating the reader with bucketfuls of secondary details before getting to the main conflict.
Notice I said secondary, not inconsequential. Sure, Gandalf tells Frodo all about how the rings were forged in the dark fires of Mordor, but the opening passage of The Fellowship of the Ring draws the reader in by introducing Bilbo Baggins, a peculiar hobbit who doesn’t seem to age and swaggered back to the Shire, filthy rich with plunder, after a mysterious adventure. The rest of Middle Earth—it’s deities, currencies, countries, races, etc.—are parceled out throughout the story organically, and that’s what we mean when we say that’s some darned good world-building.
Reading your spy thriller shouldn’t be like reading a textbook or a biography. We’re here to hear a story, not to run down a list of facts. Think about your setting as a movie set. Yes, that movie set needs to be spectacular. Details must be in place, inconsistencies ironed out, and the tone and colors should be as vivid as they are exciting. But no one goes to a movie just to watch the set. They’re watching what happens to a character in that set.
As soon as I see long chunks of info dump, I’m out.
Telling, Not Showing
This goes hand-in-hand with my last point. Regurgitating a grocery list of happenings is usually quite dull. Reading about someone’s experiences, however, tends to be much more riveting.
“Lucy walked into the living room, missing her mother, who’d been mauled by feral cats only six months ago.”
You’ve just told me all about Lucy and her feline trauma. How does that compare to this?
“Lucy slipped into the living room, the pang of memory tightening her chest. There was Mom’s needlepoint, and there were her dirty dishes—chipped and moldering, as if marking the calendar date six months earlier. There were her shoes, ripped and shredded, still stained dark where the blood had pooled around her ankles. Lucy imagined she caught the faintest whiff of cat hair, and she shuddered.”
The second example doesn’t give us much information as the first, but it shows us more about Lucy—how’s she’s thinking, feeling, and coping with the traumatic ordeal. Unless I’m studying thermonuclear engineering, I’m not reading a book for someone to prattle off a description. I want the author to paint me a picture.
Your first responsibility as an author is to make us care. So you’ve created this fictional character doing fictional things. So what? Plenty of other people do that, and if I’ve got the imagination, I can probably do it myself.
Why should I connect with your character? Why do I care whether or not she reaches her goal? Let’s take Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy. Why do I care that overweight Willowdean wins a beauty pageant and actualizes her self-esteem? Because, from the very beginning, I liked Willowdean. I connected with her struggles and admired her character.
Conversely, let’s look at The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, which begins with the man Jack murdering all three members of the main character’s family. For the record, I don’t like Jack. I don’t admire his character, and I don’t connect with his murderous appetite. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued because I immediately know the stakes—life and death. If something miraculous doesn’t happen, Jack is going to kill the protagonist.
Whether your book is character or plot-driven, you have to make me care.
In Medias Res
“In medias res” simply means “in the middle of the narrative.” It’s when the curtain opens and we’re suddenly in the middle of a bloody battle or warping to the dark side of the moon.
Movies and TV shows do this all the time, but our craft works a bit differently. Why I’d never blatantly tell you never to use in medias res, I would caution about how you use it. If done poorly, this technique can be a disaster. Often, I see authors launch whole-hog into a fight scene, then never explain who was fighting and why they were dueling with fondue forks. Prologues and immediate action sequences aren’t evil in themselves, so long as you ensure they have direction, purpose, and a coherent role in the overall story.
The Sorcerer’s Stone begins with an in medias res prologue, but the grander saga of the wizarding world never halts Harry’s personal narrative. Additionally, Rowling doesn’t drag her feet about demystifying all the strangeness in the first chapter—that in medias res prologue that entices us with a twinkle of magic—as soon as Hagrid shows up.
This point doesn’t have anything to do with actual weird names. Feel free to name your character Tinderwit Bunnysniffer, if you feel so inclined. This is just how I address world-building.
World-building is the subtle, yet inescapable art of weaving structure into story-telling. What is your world, how does it work, and what are the rules? Science fiction and high fantasy tend to be the lowest genres on my list because world-building is such a tricky skill to master. Don’t get me wrong, I want something new—something fresh, original, and imaginative—but if you dump a bucket of “Baltholomew”’s and “Ribbondale”’s and “quad-atomic-piggy-blaster”’s at me without any sort of context, I get overwhelmed and jump ship. I don’t have time to study the handbook on how your world works. I was counting on you, the author, to do that for me in the form of a story.
Parceling out finer details within an engaging plot is crucial, but it can be a hard balance to strike. Like I said before, these things must bloom organically.
Not to My Taste
This is the most common thing I hear in rejections, and, unfortunately, it’s the most frustrating. You will never write a book that everyone will love. Ever. No matter what you do, some readers will stop reading because they simply don’t like the book.
This is where you have to grin and bear it and take every ounce of feedback for what it’s worth. Personally, I didn’t like The Name of the Wind, but that didn’t stop it from being a best-seller and winning multiple awards, now did it?
What should we take from this?
Start the story where the story starts.
I read so many wonderful books that start at the wrong place. That’s not a huge problem. They’re still wonderful books. Many times, it just takes that extra “backstory” or “exposition chapter” for a writer to hit stride. I write three or four (or thirty) drafts of my first chapter for this very reason. Don’t be afraid to hash things out in the safety of a draft, but also be cognizant of where stories begin—the moment our main character meets conflict. By the end of the first chapter, I should know who we’re dealing with and what that character wants.
Look at points, not lines.
A point of criticism is a point. Don’t take it as any more than that. Maybe your reader stopped at a certain point, but that doesn’t mean the entire manuscript is trash. Maybe it’s one scene. Maybe it’s a common thread throughout the story. I recommend chipping away at those edits one at a time so you don’t lose the forest for the trees.
Not everyone is going to like everything, and there’s really nothing you can do about that. Someone is going to say no. Someone is going to put it down. If you get your suspenders in a tangle every time someone politely (or not-so-politely) disinclines, you’re going to have very knotted suspenders.