This one comes from Lyn South, who submitted her question to Victoria’s Advice Column, which I like to think of as Miss Lonelyhearts for the Word-Worn.
- Identify your protagonist(s) and their nemesis(es) clearly right up front in each book. Your reader wants to know who this series is about. And they’re not going to go hunt down earlier books to learn.
- Identify your protagonist(s)’s dilemma for each book clearly. Each book gets a major dilemma, and all of these dilemmas can be traced back to the one overall dilemma of the entire series. Simultaneously identify your protagonist(s)’s overall dilemma clearly. Handle both of these right off the bat, i.e. in your first one or two chapters.
Although you give your protagonist(s) a new dilemma for each book, always keep the overall dilemma pointed like a diamond at your protagonist(s)’s greatest nightmare (which of course you will address in the final book). This overall dilemma is going on at all times, no matter what else also happens to be going on.
- Fill in backstory—what happened in earlier books—as briefly as possible, each time with a slightly new slant, and without repeating yourself. That way your most loyal readers will not be your most ANNOYED readers. They will get something special for their loyalty: multiple layers of the same story told with some tiny fresh illumination every single time. (This is harder than it sounds.)
- Think of your series holographically, that is: each book has a hook, development of conflicts, faux resolution, and climax. And the series itself has a hook book, development of conflicts in separate books, a faux resolution (at the beginning of the final book), and climax (the bulk of the final book).
- Lose track of your protagonist(s)’s basic, driving agenda. They need something. They have always needed it, and they will always need it. And their ultimate failure to get that something is the climax of your series.
Although characters should grow and change throughout your series—fiction is, after all, the record of a human change—this basic agenda is your Pole Star. Don’t wind up with a final book starring a main protagonist who couldn’t possibly be the same character as the main protagonist of your first book. If you do make a serious change in character, make sure you’ve accounted for it properly in a significant place.
- Muddy your subplots. Make sure you’ve got these mapped out. Writing a novel is complicated. Writing a series—which is really an uber-novel—is that much more complicated. It’s all too easy to find yourself solving the wrong problem for a given book. This is, um, bad.
- Guess what? You knew I was going to say this, especially after that last point. Don’t pants. You’ll wind up with your climax in some book other than your final book, and later books won’t be able to compare. And the loyal readers who read all the way to the end will COMPLAIN LOUDLY.
- Forget your supporting characters’ personalities. No kidding. It happens all the time with enormously long works—you change your mind about characters in mid-stream. This is completely acceptable in early drafts, so long as you go back later and re-create either character arcs or at least character unity. It is death, however, to published fiction.
P.S. Hi, Spork people! I don’t know who you are, and I can’t get onto your website to say hello, but you guys are cool. And there are a lot of you!
I got a letter this afternoon from an aunt I haven’t talked to in years, telling me her cousin—whom I’ve been close to for a very long time, but hadn’t traded email with since last summer—died suddenly last week, after a whirlwind bout of lung cancer that I hadn’t even heard about.
This woman has been an aunt to me my whole life. She was the one who kept me up-to-date on far-flung family. She was the one I talked genealogy with and commiserated with over the fading away of her mother’s and my grandmother’s generation (they were sisters). She held the thread between the generations for me and talked about how it felt to see her elders go. Over the years, she shared with me in detail her memories of her grandparents, my grandparents, my great-aunts and -uncles and cousins and second cousins. She was even the one who acted as fact-checker for the mystery stories I used to write that were set in the 1950s.
And when someone we both loved died—an uncle, a great-uncle, a cousin—she was the one who let me know.
Get up out of your chairs, you guys. Go find the ones you love and hug them. They’re all you have, and no matter how long it is your time with them is going to be so short.
Even though it’s so very precious.
- He lifted his leg and fired.
- With a whoop and a cry, she shot it out the back.
- They bent to examine their special organs.
- He couldn’t believe he was alive—he touched himself with gratitude.
- She knew he’d never get at the secret she was sitting on.
- If he couldn’t grab them with both hands, what were they worth to him?
- She fingered her favorite bits.
- He snatched up his balls and ran with them.
- They still didn’t understand why they were stuck together.
- He always got belligerent about its size.
- When she let go of him, her hand was sticky.
- They pressed their parts close.
- He waved his pole frantically over his head.
- With a tender sigh, she shut the box he loved forever.
- He stood under her balcony until dawn, quietly whacking it.
- Your characters need to be more distinct from each other. We all have different personalities out here. We want to identify with one character. If you make us look less-than-unique, we will get bored and decide you don’t understand us.
- Your plot needs to be more solidly structured. Cause. And effect. Which is a cause. With an effect. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Ad infinitum. All the way to the end of the line.
- Your details need to be more realistic. Did you go there? Take notes? Or did you just try to guess? “I’m pretty sure nuns wear wimples.” “I think guys who box probably sweat a lot.” “Mommy bloggers swear.”
- Your dialog needs to be more interesting. “Huh, dude,” “Yeah, dude,” “Uh. . .I’ll think about it,” is not interesting. It’s just realistic. Stop making your dialog so realistic.
- Your action needs to be better paced. “She threw the lamp, and it shattered into millions of pieces, reflecting rainbows in the sunlight after the long rain, while she screamed in anger. He picked up the fireplace tongs and ran his hand down them. They would work. He flung his arm up and warded off the attacker in the black mask with the flowing black robe who looked slightly like Uncle Mark, only more robust,” is all colorful enough, but it hardly puts the reader on the edge of their seat.
- Your exposition needs to be more profound—if you insist on using it at all. “Life is so sad,” was good enough for Madeleine Bassett, but it’s not good enough for you.
- Your language needs to be more accurate. Do you really want to say, “The Christmas packages twinkled their invitation”? Because, unless they’re covered with tinsel, packages don’t twinkle. And inanimate objects are incapable of issuing invitations. Even my cats can’t issue invitations. Be factual and straight-forward.
- Your revision needs to be more thorough. Take out every single word that doesn’t absolutely have to be there. Yes, even those. Now your sentences are all short and choppy, aren’t they? So go back and re-create flow without putting those unnecessary words back in.
Hard, isn’t it? This is called writing.
- It can EAT YOUR LIFE. Go ahead. Spend all your time and energy blogging, texting, IM’ing, hunting down great writers’ articles and posts on Twitter, connecting with other writers on Facebook, updating your LinkedIn profile, registering with StumbleUpon, Digg, Squidoo, and all the other bazillions of blogonetworking tools out there. You’re going to have to start setting an alarm to get yourself up on time in the morning, and your family is going to get used to enjoying dinner without you. And you still won’t be able to keep up with it all.
Writing? Were you going to find time for writing?
- It can MAKE YOU STUPID. Everyone says, “You know what’s great about Twitter? A hundred and forty characters. Teaches you to write clean & kwik.” Yeah. But the thing is, 140 characters is a silly number of characters. Who picked that number? And why characters instead of words? Not a professional writer. No professional writer is going to say, “It is more important 2 say it in fewer char’s than it is 2 say it in exactly the right words.” And does it count as writing clean and quick if you write all kinds of crap in those 140 chararacters, whether you need to or not?
“Hey, U! Gud 2 C U! I 8 chocolate 2day. Did U?” Go back to high school until you’re done hanging out in front of your lockers, dudes.
- It can CONFUSE YOUR PRIORITIES. Why are you writing? Because you want to be A Writer—you want to live in a garret on the Left Bank, hunched over your pages with your pen gripped in your sweaty, honest hand, getting those words down so you can meet up with other writers at the Lilas later for red wine and philosophical talk into the heart of the night? You want to master this craft in the solitude of your individual silence, excavate with your simple little words the vivid, heartbreaking, deathless experience buried inside the world we navigate all day long every day? You want to be good? You just want to be published? You just want to be read?
Everywhere you go on social media, you’re going to find people yelling through megaphones, “YOU. Yeah, you! Writer! Come over here! I’ve got something to show you! It’s going to change your life! It’s going to give you wheels! It’s going to make you famous! MONEY-BACK GUARANTEE! You don’t get famous with AT LEAST ONE PERSON, I give you your money back! Plus a million bucks! How about that, huh? Who’s going to turn down a million bucks? Not me, buddy! I’m not that rich! Are you that rich? You can turn down a million bucks? Hey—don’t walk away! I’m talking to you! I’m talking to YOU! Hey, Writer!”
They might as well attach an IV to your bank account and set up a permanent siphon. And you get for this. . .what? Do you even remember what you wanted?
- It can KILL YOUR SOUL. Because you’re not on this planet to be glued by the fingertips to a computer. You weren’t born with eyes that only work on an LED screen. You’re here to go outside and walk on the earth, to breathe huge amounts of air, to put your hand on the trunk of a growing tree. You’re here to wrestle with your dogs like Mark Vonnegut and invent the greatest tool rack ever like John Steinbeck and shade your eyes against the sun across the velde like Nadine Gordimer and put your hand to the face of your own child like Anne Lamott. You’re here to be you.
And you’re not in the blogosphere. Look down at yourself. Put your hands on your chest.
Do it right now.
You’re sitting. Right. There.
I picked this up on the Bloggess today, and although she’s applying it to bloggers, frankly I think it completely explains writers.
Why do we do what we do?
You know why? We’re not motivated by the money. No, we are not. It’s not there. Even if a writer makes, say, $5k for a book, cranking them out at the amazing speed of two books a year, that’s, um, $10k a year. You can be homeless on that.
And we are not motivated by the fame. No. It’s not there, either. We all go to blogging now for our fame (even though it’s not there EITHER). Jenny Lawson, aka the Bloggess, gets 300k visits a month on her blog and has been voted one of the top 9,000 bloggers in the world. Top nine thousand. Like being people’s 8,999th favorite is a good thing! (I don’t mean to disparage her, either—I love Jenny’s blog.)
We writers work in the creative, not the labor, industry, and that means we are motivated by the autonomy, the mastery, and the sense of bringing something into the world that makes it a better place to be. Because we’re all here together in this world, aren’t we? And the books that others have brought into it have enriched and gladdened our lives, and we want to be a part of that, a part of that community, a part of that greater family known as Writerhood. We want to be in this with each other.
And we are all in this together.
Thanks for pointing this out, Jenny! And also the guy with the pen! And everyone at Ohio U! (I LOVE the guy in the staff uniform.)
That’s today. I know. I’m springing this on you. Sorry about that.
Today, Sunday, 3:00-4:30 Pacific Time, I’ll be talking about exposition on #storycraft on Twitter. I’m the guest speaker. I don’t know what time that is where you are—you’ll have to break out the ole calculator. Just go on Twitter and search for #storycraft. That’ll be us.
I’ve been writing a lot of pieces about exposition on the magazine lately, but not so much on this blog. So here’s your chance! Haven’t you ever wondered what exposition IS? Much less how to use it properly? Tricky little devil, I know. Just like omniscient narrator is, only different. Because they’re not the same thing at all, although they share certain characteristics and goals, and they have a quality that makes them two of the most misunderstood and misused aspects of the craft of fiction out there, especially by beginners.
Are you confused enough? Because I am.
Join us today on Twitter: exposition on #storycraft.
(OH. Almost forgot! The #storycraft folks will be hosting a flash fiction contest on exposition after this chat, over on their site at the Storycraft blog. Judging will be performed by moi. First prize: a freebie downloadable version of my new book The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual, 2010, La Favorita Press.)
Ever wonder why you keep getting all those form rejections from agents and editors?
When I was in college, there was a guy in my Early American Lit class who complained that he didn’t understand why the teacher even took his papers, she ought to just carry a big rubber stamp so she could stamp “C-” on his right there at his desk.
This is a very hard way to live, people, and yet it’s the way so many aspiring writers do.
Therefore, without further ado here’s the brutal truth, from an independent editor who loves you:
- Your story is badly-written.
You haven’t bothered to pay your dues. You thought you were going to fly through writing a book like you flew through your wedding, high as a kite on the excitement and with no idea what you were going to do about it afterward. Years and years of sweat and tears and patient toil did not even occur to you.
Go to the library, go to your local community college, go to your mother’s bookshelves, and find the classics. Read them. Not, you know, antiquated language like Cervantes or that pantywaist Hawthorne or difficult language like Faulkner or Joyce or Gertrude Stein (for god’s sake, not Burroughs). But straight-forward writers like Dickens and Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor and Dashiel Hammett and Edith Wharton and P.G. Wodehouse and Isak Denisen and Ivy Compton-Burnett and Maxine Hong Kingston and Raymond Chandler and Elizabeth Bowen and Irene Nemirovsky and Conrad and Updike and Bellows and Saligner and Kerouac and Graham Greene and, if you can take his subject matter, Paul Bowles. Read books in which every single word was chosen specifically for where it is. No getting down the general gist. No leaning on popular culture to hold up the sentences. No hoping the reader won’t notice. Every single word. Read books that were—as they once were in all the major American publishing houses, although they really aren’t much anymore—well-edited.
Sit yourself down and study those sentences. Learn how to choose every single word specifically for where it goes. Learn how to be even better with sentences than the greats, because you’re probably not going to get edited. (You’ll fail, but, you know, too bad for you. These are the times you live in.) No cheating.
Do this forever.
- Your story is badly-plotted.
Who is this character all alone in the hook? Why do they disappear forever on page 10? What’s with the guy with the mustache on page 37? Where did the heroine go? How come the hero doesn’t appear until page 214? Why is that dog always underfoot? You pantsed this damn thing, didn’t you?
Take apart your favorite classics to find the essential building blocks: hook, conflicts, faux resolution, climax. Find them. They’re there.
Sit down and learn how to design a proper plot. Do not get up until you have.
- Your imagination is unoriginal.
CLICHE CLICHE CLICHE. Stop it! You’re making professionals in the industry hate you!
If you don’t want to learn to develop your imagination, fine. Don’t. Nobody’s forcing you to try to get published. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head and walking you and that stack of queries out to the mailbox. “Mail those, or I shoot.” You’re a free agent.
Take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I really, at heart, a professional writer? Do I really want to spend the rest of my life digging deep, deep into the world around me for the things I didn’t realize I see or hear or think or misunderstand and then pull them like worms out of their holes out onto the paper, where I can spend about seven years arranging and rearranging them until they say something they didn’t say out there where anyone could see them? In the correct order? So they satisfy NOT my secret eternal longings but those of a whole lot of anonymous readers out there I will never get a chance to know? And also, by the way, learn to play the whole, long, convoluted, difficult business game that goes with publication these days—not just to play it, but to become an expert at it? Really?
“Or do I just want people to pay attention to me?”
Because there are all kinds of great ways to get attention besides throwing a few words on paper and trying to pass the buck.
Reality TV springs to mind.
- Your story is well-written, your plot is well-structured, your imagination is great. But. . .
YOU FEEL SORRY FOR YOURSELF.
Oh, so sad. Boo-hoo. You’ve had a hard life. Me too. The agent too. The acquisitions editor too. The publisher too. We’re a bunch of sad sacks. The publishing industry’s full of ruined humans.
This one is hard to combat. This one is a real stickler. Because, let’s be honest here, we all feel sorry for ourselves sometimes. You know what’s a good thing to do at those times? Walk away from the page!
And when you come back, sit down and begin to take simple, impartial, non-judgmental notes on the details of the world around you. Cart your notebook with you when you go places, not so you can jot down profound thoughts and exciting truisms (they’re all going to read like so much uninspired nonsense when you get home anyway), but so you can stop constantly and take notes on the places you go and the people you see. I don’t bother writing down scraps of conversation—people rarely say anything particularly noteworthy in public. (God knows, I save all my best lines until I’ve got my audience cornered in private.) But record the world. This is the world you live in. It’s the world your characters live in, too.
You are here to give it immortality.
- You’re one heck of a writer, and you’ve written one heck of a book. But you know what?
You’re a little peanut. Floating on a very big, very rough, very, very, very littered sea. Everybody out here’s a peanut. (Except the folks on the NY Times best seller list, who are lying on deck chairs on a cruise ship on the horizon, trading witticism about litter on the waves in the golden sunset. Stephen King is the one wearing the captain’s hat.)
If we all got together, we could squish ourselves up and make peanut butter.
- “Stand right there and break the wind.”
- “He was waving his arms and ejaculating at the top of his lungs.”
- “I have the same problem when my pants get hot.”
- “What a sweet kitten. So delicious!”
- “You’re not supposed to spread them that far apart.”
- “Tie it off with that thong.”
- “All I want is to be laid out in the sun.”
- “Never touch another man’s gun, son. It might go off.”
- “I didn’t say you could ride it all night.”
- “Louise insisted on the leather straps.”
- “It always heats up when Frank does it.”
- “Show me where the pillow goes.”
- “If you put it way up there, how are we going to answer it?”
- “Great. Now you’ve worn it out.”
- “I wouldn’t lick anything that color.”
- “Don’t wave that thing at me.”
- “You think you’re so smart, you try to get it off.”
- “If it came with instructions, don’t you think I’d have said so?”
- “Wouldn’t it be safer to do it with a glove?”
- “Are you supposed to smell like that?”
- “At least I think he said brick.”
- “Wait until the Headmaster is erect and then applaud.”—from Marisa Birns
You have no idea what you’re doing
Even if you did know. . .
. . .you wouldn’t be able to articulate it.
You read all the advice on writing out there
How to do it, how not to do it, when and where and why to do it, and what to do with it when you’ve done what you’re doing to it—and you would parrot without a qualm anyone on earth who said, “It’s all in the service of the story.”
But when nobody’s looking you spend the vast majority of your time wondering what you’re going to wear on Oprah and answering imaginary questions for your Paris Review interview.
You have never read such a stupid, clumsy, inane, self-aggrandizing story
You have never hated a story so much
You’re ashamed to know such a story exists in the world. You want to hit it on the nose with a newspaper: “Bad story! Down, story! Play dead, story!”
You feel trapped, cheated, robbed of life you’ll never get back by this story
You’re already planning your next story.
You know your next story is the one you really love
You know, deep in your heart, this story was only practice
Someday you will write the stories you really want your name on.
You’ll finish this story to the best of your abilities and then put it in a drawer, part of an artist’s inevitable backlog of old work that never sees the light of day.
You know it takes years to learn how to do this right. You know you’re only partway there. You’re dedicated. You want to be good. Practice, practice, practice.
You have looked at that stack of pages at the end of the workday. . .
. . .when it’s raining outside your leaky window and the sun is hot and moist on the pina coladas under the coconut trees in Costa Rica and there’s a folding chair on the beach there with your name on it.
And you have thought about matches.
UPDATE: 9 Secrets Your Story Is Keeping from You
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.