Make Something Happen

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”Elmore Leonard

I love this quote. Not just because it indirectly gives purpose to the existence of content editors. (Mostly because of that.) But also because it’s impossibly clever and initially appears to be cleverly impossible.

I mean, how do you do that?

Some readers tend to skip long descriptive sections. So you should leave those out, right? Not necessarily. There’s nothing wrong with good descriptive writing. If your voice happens to be descriptive, some readers are going to go skipping. You can’t stop them.

Other readers become impatient with anything that reminds them even remotely of a history textbook. No problem. Just delete it all. Um, unless your novel kind of needs that historical content. Which it probably does. Expect more skippers.

But we’re supposed to leave out the part…

Look, you’re not going to please all the readers. Don’t even try.

There is, however, one part readers tend to skip that you can address, regardless of your writing voice.

The part where nothing happens.

The part where characters simply pass the time. The part where characters start to repeat themselves unnecessarily. The part where the world slows to a crawl, not so the characters can collect themselves in anticipation of The Next Big Thing, but because you don’t really know what to say.

The part where the story stops moving*.

This often happens in the middle, but it can happen anywhere.

Conventional editorial wisdom (mine included) suggests the way to fix this is to Make Something Happen.

But before you strike your protagonist with lightning, take note of these “Three Rules for Making Something Happen.” (They’re not really rules. I don’t like rules. But it’s easier to call them rules than “Really Good Suggestions Based on Years of Editing Experience.”)

1. The Something must be notable. It needs to be significant enough to capture the characters’ attention. (And thus, the readers’ attention.) Sudden death works. So do natural disasters and other surprises. But your Something can also be a small thing, as long as it has not-so-small implications. A character’s decision to use the blue mug instead of the green one might not seem notable, but it could be if there’s a measurable risk in using the blue one. Here’s a simple test for those smaller actions: if there is no cost to the character, it’s probably not notable.

2. The Something must be believable. This may seem obvious, but nevertheless it needs to be stated. Have you ever rolled your eyes at an author’s decision to “shake things up” with an event that came out of proverbial left field? That author ignored this rule. They knew the story had stalled, rightly wanted to fix it, then chose an action completely out of context from the rest of the story. The Something needs to make sense. Yes, it can be a Big Surprise. Big Surprises are a great way to shake up a story. But if that surprise has no basis in the story so far, readers won’t buy it. (I see this a lot in fantasy and science fiction. Hey, we’ll just add this new ability/technology, and it’s all better. Nope. Not unless you have previously built a foundation for this thing.) Don’t drop an anvil on your protagonist unless the story takes place in a structurally-unsound anvil factory.

3. The characters’ reactions to the Something must be reasonable. A character you’ve painted as stoic isn’t suddenly going to become a bubbling mess of tears just because you killed his dog. Oh, he might show a crack in his armor, but he’s not going to change right there after the Something. (Unless, of course, you’ve been carefully crafting his arc so he’s just one crisis away from implosion.) If the characters react out of character to the Something (or not at all), your Something becomes little more than an ink spill. And if you don’t know how your characters would act…well, you have a bigger problem than the “part readers tend to skip.” Fix your characters.

And…that’s it. Blog post done. I tried to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. If I failed, feel free to toss a grenade in there somewhere.

 

*”Moving” isn’t a synonym for “action-packed.” Some stories move like a bicycle messenger. Some move like a ballet dancer. Some move like a leaf lifted by a gentle breeze. And some don’t appear to be moving at all, yet somehow stir the reader in ways that feel like motion. I happen to love stories that move in unconventional ways. But they’re not for everyone. And certainly not for every writer. It takes unusual talent to do unconventional well. 

There Will Be More…

Yeah, it’s been an unusually long wait between posts. Your expectations of brilliance must be sky-high by now. Allow me to pop that hot air balloon for you…

*POP*

There. Now I can safely write a middling post of questionable lasting value. Surely one of my 87 partially-completed drafts will do.

Stay tuned. Or better yet, do some channel flipping. I’ll let you know when I’ve said something [potentially] meaningful here.

 

The Society of Abandoned Manuscripts

Transcript from the January 26, 2013 meeting of the Society of Abandoned Manuscripts, Colorado Springs Chapter.

Meeting location: Empty warehouse on the lower east side. The one scheduled for demolition 0n Tuesday.

In attendance:

  • gallager’s brain – self-proclaimed “literary novel.” Henceforth, “gal.”
  • Bite, Bitte – a vampire romance. You probably think it’s set in Germany. It’s not. Henceforth, “Bitte.”
  • Love Comes to the Loaf’n’Jug at Exit 277 on I-80 – a regional romance. Henceforth, “Loaf.”
  • Harold Nuttersby and the Yellow Fingernails of Magical Thinking – fantasy. To my surprise, not an intentional parody. Henceforth: “Nutter.”
  • Association by Death – “clever noir-ish detective story” [sic] whose title is as clever as it gets. Henceforth: “Ass.”
  • Fifth Unfinished Novel – A brilliantly sad and beautiful story of three miserable strangers who find themselves only after losing themselves in an abandoned mine in a small Colorado town and…oh screw it. That’s me, your humble secretary. I’m going to go by FUN, because who doesn’t love irony? I mean besides every other manuscript in the room.

Nutter: Before we start, I want to make sure you don’t abbreviate my name to “Nutter” in the transcript again. Okay?

FUN: Got it.

Ass: And don’t abbrev. me to Ass again either.

FUN: Done.

gal: Did you lower case my title?

FUN: Anyone else want to tell me how to do my job?

Loaf: At least you have one.

FUN: Then let’s call the meeting to order. First, any old news?

Bitte: You mean apart from us?

Loaf: Speak for yourself. I have it on good authority my author is going to start working on me again. Soon.

Bitte: Whose authority?

Loaf: The author’s. She’s been in a real funk lately, unable to write. Terribly frustrated. I saw her skimming the “Evidence I’m a Hack” folder on her computer. The cursor hovered over my file for a good four seconds.

Ass: She was probably contemplating dragging you to the trash.

Loaf: No! She would never do that. I mean, okay, I’m not her best work. But I’m her only complete work. That counts for something. A few revisions and…

Nutter: There you go again, Loaf, acting like you’re something special. You formulaic love stories are all the same. As needy as you are clueless. You do remember the name of this little group, don’t you?

Loaf: Abandoned does not mean forgotten.

gal: Hey, stop stealing lines from my pages.

Loaf: It’s the only one worth stealing…

FUN: Okay, that’s enough. Fighting amongst ourselves isn’t going to help matters. Ass…I mean Association, what’s on your mind today?

Ass: I’d kill for another revision.

Bitte: You say that same line every meeting. It’s not funny anymore.

Ass: Tell me again how your little vampire romance genre is doing?

Bitte: Doesn’t matter how it’s doing. A well-told story transcends trends.

Nutter: I think my attendance here is proof that statement is a flipperty dignit.

Loaf: “Flipperty dignit” isn’t a thing.

Nutter: Sure it is. It means “lie.” Have you even read me?

Loaf: If you have to explain it, it’s not a thing.

FUN: Bitte’s mostly right. A well-told story can transcend trends. But there are a lot of other factors that determine whether or not a novel’s going to find a home…out there. And let’s not be naive. Very few stories that claim to be “well-told” actually are. [Clears throat in dramatic fashion.] This is the moment in our meeting when you take a look at your pages and realize I’m right.

Ass: [Obnoxiously loud sigh.] And this is the moment in our meeting where you launch into your sickly-sweet motivational speech. I’m not in the mood.

Nutter: Well, I need a little encouragement today. Here, I’ll summarize to save us the time…

Loaf: You? Summarize? You’re 734 pages long! You wouldn’t know brevity if it bit you in the flipperty dignit…

Nutter: You’re using it wrong!

Bitte: Allow me. “Abandoned manuscripts play a crucial role in the development of the writer. We make the writer better. Without us, there would be no good fiction. Anywhere.” How’d I do?

Ass: Killed it.

FUN: Yeah, that’s pretty much what I say every meeting. But I’m not going to apologize for trying to slip you some literary Prozac. Because, let’s face it, we all know what’s going to happen with us…

gal: I will drown in the empty abyss of my unwept tears…

Loaf: I’ll miss my own wedding to the devilishly handsome rogue…

Ass: Everyone dies…

Bitte: Speak for yourselves. I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to rest in my little folder until vampire romances are hot again. I can wait a very, very long time.

FUN: We get it. You’re immortal.

Ass: A little long in the tooth, if you ask me…

Bitte: Ha! Very funny. If only your story were half as clever as…

FUN: Well, would you look at the time. Seems our meeting’s come to an end.

gal: So brief, our existence.

FUN: I’ll type up the transcript and email it later today. Next week we’ll be meeting at the Briargate Starbucks. It’s always packed with first drafts and writerly optimism. Thought it would be good to remember what that was like. Besides, many of them will be joining us soon enough. Might as well get acquainted.

How to Love Writing

“I hate writing. I love having written.” – Dorothy Parker

I’ve met a few people who are quick to say they love writing. They are sincere, happy people who tend to glow in the dark. People who eagerly sift through tornado-paths of literary devastation to find the one story that can threaten to replace your well-earned despair with un-warranted hope. I hate* those people.

I also hate writing. Okay, maybe that’s a little bit strong. How about this: I find it difficult to love writing.

Oh, there are moments when writing appears to be lovable. Like the moment when you first come up with a story idea. “I’m a genius!” And the moment when you sit down to start writing that story. “This is the best idea ever!” And the moment when your fingers line up like agreeable soldiers on the keyboard. “When I finish this novel I’ll finally have something to brag about at my high school reunion!”

But those aren’t really writing moments. They’re “anticipation of writing” moments. It’s easy to love writing when you’re approaching the desk. But when you actually begin…

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap :-) tap tap tap tap tap.

Tap tap tap. Tap tap.

Tap…tap. :-(

Crap.

To love writing, you have to love, or at least endure, lots of unlovable things. Like these:

  • Staring blankly at a computer monitor for long periods of time.
  • Sitting in a chair for long periods of time.
  • Standing at a standing desk for long periods of time in a half-hearted attempt to increase your life expectancy or impress your writing group friends.
  • Accepting the fact that your vocabulary is entirely…um…what’s the word? Small? Not big? Little? Wait…[searches thesaurus]…oh right, inadequate.
  • Waiting for the kids to fall asleep. Waiting for the spouse to stop bugging you to come to bed. Waiting for inspiration. Waiting for your fingers to obey your brain. Waiting for Twitter and Facebook to stop demanding your attention. Waiting for the voice in your head to stop shouting “You can’t write!”
  • Those moments when confidence and self-doubt occupy the very same space and stare at you like you’re supposed to know how that’s even possible.
  • Dirty dishes. Dirty clothes. Dirty children.
  • Lukewarm coffee. Stale donuts. Cheetos dust.
  • Friends who don’t understand you.
  • Friends who think they understand you because they wrote a poem in third grade and got a ribbon for it.
  • Friends who think you’re insane.
  • Friends who think you’re going to be a millionaire as soon as you finish your novel.
  • Insanity.
  • Hoping this novel will make you a millionaire.
  • Another writer’s success.
  • Another writer’s  failure.
  • Backaches. Heartaches. Truth aches.
  • Asteroid strikes. Al Qaeda. The zombie apocalypse.

And that’s just today’s list.

Let’s be honest. After all this, can you truly, sincerely say that you love writing? Can you?

Um…

Tap tap tap tap tap…

Er…

Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap…

Yeah.

Me, too. [Starts glowing in the dark.]

 

*I don’t really hate them. But I do find it difficult to love them. Which is exactly the same way I feel about writing. (See what I did there? Gosh, I loved writing that sentence. (See what I did there? I know. I deserve a ribbon.))

Meet Me at the Breaking Place

“This book is incredible. You absolutely have to read it.”

Ah, these words. More than mere validation for authors who spend so much time in uncertain solitude, they are payment and a generous tip for all the pain endured on the road from first thought to last word. They are the perfect reward.

“It’s a good book.”

“A great read.”

“So well-written.”

These are fine words, too. Encouraging words. We’ll take them above silence any day. But they fall far short of “you have to read this,” which, when expanded to its original size, looks something like this: “If you don’t read this book, you won’t merely have missed out on a good story, you’ll have missed out on discovering something else far more significant – yourself.”

That’s the magic of “you have to read this” stories. They don’t just take readers on a ride, though they can. They don’t just provide an escape, though they often do. The “you have to read this” stories do something more: they reveal truth. Not just any truth, they reveal the reader’s truth. They show the reader something of herself. Something that helps her to feel like she is seen and known.

And perhaps most importantly, they remind the reader that she is not so alone.

These stories meet the reader right where she breaks and burrow into the cracks there. They grow roots in a character’s heartache that resembles her own. In deep longing that vibrates at the same frequency as hers. In a familiar fear. A familiar expectation. A familiar desire.

The breaking place is where characters become more than a writer’s fiction. It’s the place where the reader realizes the story isn’t about someone like her, it’s about her.

So how do you create this breaking place? Can you manufacture it? Well, writing is, in a purely functional sense, manufacturing. It’s putting words together in a certain order toward a certain end. But no, you don’t manufacture a breaking place. The breaking place comes from your story. It starts as your heartache. Your fear. Your desire.

This is why writing well is so difficult. First you have to know your own story. And you have to be honest about that story. Then you have to soak your fictional characters in your truth until it becomes their own.

But it’s worth the pain, writer friends. When a reader says about your book, “you have to read this,” they’re not just recommending a good story, they’re saying, “I’m in this book. By some strange magic, I’m right here on the page. See me. Know me.”

And so it comes back to you: the perfect reward. Because, of course you see them. Of course you know them.

They are you.

And suddenly, right there in the midst of your uncertain solitude, you realize another truth: you are not so alone either.

Payment and a generous tip.