There's been a question sitting in my to-answer pile for a while:
Any tips you have on getting just the right amount of description, plot/subplot tangles, and internal thoughts will be appreciated. Now that I've reached the higher side of the curve, the 'line' seems to be the capstone I need to make it to the next level. It's so hard to be objective about exactly where that 'line' is.This isn't an easy question to answer. Well, that's not entirely true, it's easy to answer but that answer isn't very helpful.
There is no line. It depends on a multitude of factors that's different for every book and every writer.
Like I said, not very helpful.
Last week, Victoria Grefer over at The Crimson League wrote a fantastic article about balance in fiction, where she talks about how it varies from writer to writer, genre to genre and even reader to reader, and your best bet is to keep your target audience and what you want from the book in mind as you write it. She covers the first half of the question well (and there's little I'd add), so I'll focus more on the second part now.
How to bump your writing to the next level.
When your technical writing skills are at a professional level, but you're still not getting bites from agents, editors, (or readers if you self publish), it's time to look at the story itself.
A beautifully written, technically perfect, yet boring story will not grab readers.
A generically written, technically average, yet amazing and gripping story will grab readers.
Now, I'm certainly NOT saying that good writing skill isn't something to worry about or work toward, but we all know books out there that sold millions of copies and aren't well written. But the stories resonated with readers on such a deep level that they didn't care. They didn't read the book to marvel at the technical skill of the author, they read it for the story.
So with this is mind, if the writing skill is clearly not the reason you're getting rejected (and you'll know this by the types of rejections you're getting--usually they'll say "while this is well-written...") shift focus to the story, because odds are that's what's holding you back.
Possible Reasons the Story is Holding You Back
A lack of conflict
A good protagonist needs an equally good antagonist to struggle against, be it a person, inner demon, society, or force of nature. The obstacle that has to be overcome should be worthy of the person trying to overcome it. If the struggle isn't a life and death fight (either literally or metaphorically) readers probably won't care.
- Is it a problem your protagonist has to deal with or her life comes to a screeching halt (again, literally or metaphorically)?
- Do things get harder to overcome as the story unfolds?
- Do the problems and conflicts of the overall novel tug the protagonist in different directions?
- Does the protagonist have to make tough choices or is the path always clear (and thus predictable)?
(Here's more on creating conflict in your novel)
A lack of stakes
Without consequences for failure, it's hard to care about the conflict in the first place. A character might have her heart set on getting a job developing computer games, and have huge competition for the position, but if nothing happens to her but disappointment if she doesn't get the job, readers won't care. They also won't care if nothing good happens to her either, except that she's happy for getting her dream job. If her life is basically the same before and after the book, why should anyone read her story?
- Are there consequences for both failure and success that fundamentally change the life of the protagonist?
- Do the stakes escalate as the protagonist struggles to overcome the obstacles?
- Are these stakes personal to the protagonist or could they apply to anyone?
(Here's more on raising the stakes in your novel)
A reactive protagonist
The protagonist should be the person driving the story. She makes it happen through the choices she makes and the results of those choices. If all she does is react to what's happening around her, she can feel pointless as a character. She never does anything of her own volition so the story feels aimless and thus pointless. If you took her out of the story, nothing would change, because she wasn't doing anything to make the story happen in the first place.
- Does the protagonist make choices that affect how the story unfolds?
- Do those choices cause things to happen that would not have happened had she not made that choice?
- Is the protagonist planning and acting out those plans to achieve a desired result?
- Does the protagonist have goals or does she just deal with whatever is in front of her at the time?
(Here's more on making choices that matter)
A lack of character motivation
Even if the protagonist is making decisions, she also has to have good reasons for acting that make sense to her character and her problem. Her motivation for why she's willing to do whatever the story requires her to do needs to be believable or readers will wonder why she's even there. Would John McClane have risked his life to stop the bad guys in Die Hard if his wife hadn't been held hostage in the building? Probably not. If your protagonist is risking her life for no good reason, readers will call you on it.
- Are there personal reasons for your protagonist to do what she needs to do in the story?
- Does she have a personal stake in what happens?
- Does she care about the outcome or is she doing it because plot says so?
- Do her motivations hold up under questioning or do they fall apart after one or two questions about why she's doing this?
(Here's more on character motivation)
A lack of originality
Sometimes a writer has done everything right and the book still gets rejected, because the story is one agents, editors, and readers have seen many times before. This can be the hardest snag to fix because the novel is working, it's just not fresh enough to stand out in a crowded marketplace. The common story makes the plot feel predictable and gives the sense that we've seen this all before. This kind of story needs a fresh twist or different angle to capture a unique aspect of a familiar tale.
- What's unique about this story vs. others like it?
- Does the plot unfold in predictable ways that readers can see coming?
- How many books like it can you name?
- Is the fresh angle just a twist at the very end or is it woven through the entire book?
(Here's more on adding a fresh twist to a common idea)
Novels are all about stories, and sometimes in our pursuit of publication we forget how important those stories are. It's easy to get scope-locked on craft and let the story flounder. If you're feeling stuck, try taking a hard look at your story and see if you can make it stronger.
Are you working on your writing skills, your storytelling skills, or both right now? What do you feel your weak areas are? Your strengths?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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