Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How Do You Cross "the Line" and Take Your Novel to the Next Level?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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)?
A strong conflict will draw the reader into the story and make them want to know what happens next and how the protagonist will solve this problem.

(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?
Stakes make the reader care about the outcome of the story. If there's no prize for winning or punishment for losing, what happens between page one and the end of the book doesn't matter.

(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?
The choices the protagonist makes and the actions she takes are what create the plot for the novel. Without those choices, the protagonist is just along for the ride.

(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?
Characters need good reasons to risk themselves for the plot or they can feel like cardboard cut outs just acting out a script. Give them solid reasons to act.

(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?
Being unique doesn't mean the entire book needs to be unique--it just means one (or more) aspects of the story handles things in a different way, or readers view the story from a new perspective.

(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? 

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  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
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  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I've always been able to spin a good story, but sometimes I leave out details that would make the story more intriguing for the reader. It's only after numerous critiques, edits, and reading my words for the thousandth time that I finally get what's missing.

    1. I've had good laughs (and face palms) over things that got missed after countless reads and edits. It's like a light goes on and you think "Why didn't I see that sooner?"

  2. This is such a great article! Originality is a big factor I see in contest entries (I've been judging several for RWA). Sometimes a simple premise with fantastic writing and just enough of a twist is all I need to keep reading. Others seem to fall flat with too many expected plot turns and low stakes--or unknown stakes, especially in those early chapters.

    1. Thanks! Judging contests must give you such a great perspective on what works and what doesn't. That must help a lot with your own writing.

  3. Nicely said. The fun thing is that most of these arrange onto a continuum of the same thing: the MC has a motivation that gives him a stake, it's enough to drive him to acting (not reacting), and it keeps forming conflict at each stage on the way-- enough that by the story following its own lights it finds the uniqueness it needs (which is usually how it happens).

    1. That's storytelling in a nutshell :) It's really very simple in nature, but it has so much variety that it makes itself complicated. We should put that description on a post-it to remind us!

  4. In the second pass-through on my WIP, I've found stuff my subconscious only hinted at. Heightening these aspects allowed me to connect the subplots more cohesively and even solved story flaws I struggled with the first time. Now to make the MC's motivation more clear. A lot happens to her externally at the beginning, and she needs to be more active in changing the cards she's been dealt. Will be re-reading your earlier post on character motivation. Thanks, Janice!

    1. Happy to help. My subconscious is a much better writer than I am, so I hope yours is just as helpful :) It always leaves me hints on what to do.

  5. Something else worth noting -- it could be a personal preference is doing something in your writing that you're not realizing. I've been getting personal rejections and have been told I'm writing at a professional level. But no acceptances. It was after I took a class on genre that I realized that I was allowing a personal preference override other things in the story that were required for the specific genre. My reading preference is for characterization. I don't care as much about the setting -- setting won't draw me to the story. So I tend to focus more on the characters and not do enough with the setting, and worse, I end up forcing the setting into the story. I ended up trying a cozy mystery short story where characters did come first as a genre requirement, and setting was second, but had to be a lot. It allowed me to really work the characters and plug the setting in at the same time. Now I'm pondering how to do a fantasy short story where setting is first, and I have to tone back the characterization.

    1. Excellent point. I'm that way with description. I'm just not a fan, and I always have to add it in during revisions. As a fantasy writer (which is often heavy on description) this can be a problem since readers expect it.

      It's worth checking to see if you're missing common tropes or elements of the genre you're writing for.