One thing I’ve learned over the past several years of writing is that the way I write doesn’t stay the same, nor does the way I edit. Nor, fortunately, has my attitude about what I already know. Continue reading
Is it neurotic if I’m partly right?
I’ve been worrying about my writing not being good enough.
On the one hand, there’s physical proof backing me up on this: I don’t have books on the shelves in a bookstore yet. Not there = not good enough yet. On the other hand, I just started submitting novels this year, so even if I had written a book good enough to win the Pulitzer, Hugo, and Nebula (I haven’t), it still wouldn’t be on the shelves yet. So we’ll discount that and just get back to my worrying.
Specific worry #1: People in my novels are always meeting for coffee, sipping tea, grabbing a bite to eat. Yes, normal people eat and drink, but the generally accepted view is that these scenes do not move a novel. In the Harry Potter books, for example, whenever there was eating, something else was going on — Harry was getting blamed for a floating pudding, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher was being announced, howlers were being sent to students — tension mounted, the plot moved, characters reacted. If, on the other hand, I have my main character and her best friend sitting down to Saturday brunch and talking about their upcoming college reunion, it doesn’t matter how much subtext I’ve layered in that will come to fruition at the climax of the book because no one’s going to read that far.
Response: I have a friend reading the first few chapters to tell me if my urban fantasy is as bad in this regard as I fear. The current plan is to continue the edit pass I’m working through to make sure I’ve added in all the world-building and scene-setting that I left out in my first pass. Then, I need to go back through it again and add more action and tension, deleting (or revising) the ho-hum scenes so that readers will want to keep reading. I even have one idea for something to add. Yes, this means it will take longer to reach a final draft — probably until next year sometime. It’s worth it, if it’s jaw-droppingly good when it lands on an editor’s desk.
Specific worry #2: I’m concerned that my characters, though believable, are not compelling. This worry started when I asked a question on the NaNoWriMo forums (which of your characters would you like to spend a day with?) and realized that most of my characters have rather prosaic lives, interrupted by action or murders to solve. Most of the time, hanging out with them wouldn’t be any different from hanging out with my other friends.
Response: Actually, I’ve been told before that characterization is one of my strong suits. One of my beta readers once applauded a couple of my larger-than-life characters. It’s possible that the only reason I think my characters aren’t compelling is because I live with them in my head. It’s like thinking about somebody dating your brother — what could anyone see in him? (Yes, I’ve asked that of women my brothers have dated. What else are sisters for?) This one may actually be a neurotic worry — I have to worry about something, and this looks like a good choice!
With some series, it almost doesn’t matter where you pick up. Oh, sure, there’s a larger story arc across the series, but each book or story is written such that it can stand alone. Everything you need to understand what’s going on in the story is present in that story.
Jim Butcher does a good job of this with the Dresden Files. Yes, there’s a larger arc in Harry’s life through the series, but each book describes his home, tells about his basement laboratory and his “assistant” Bob, and gives a brief description of any relevant character and how and why Harry knows them. (Okay, I was a little confused when Michael Carpenter first showed up, but generally speaking, especially with recurring characters, they’re handled well.)
Some people don’t do this as well. In another series (that will remain nameless), I picked up the fifth book because it was the only one my library had. In the first chapter, the main character said about someone else that she didn’t understand why the other character was behaving in a given fashion, that the action made no sense to her, and that she went along with it. I put the book down and never read anything else by this author because I figured either the main character was too stupid to live and shouldn’t have gotten to the fifth book OR the author was assuming that readers, based on previous experience with the main and secondary characters, would agree that was a sensible method to behave. I didn’t have that experience.
Anything we write may be the first story (or blog post) that a reader finds of ours. If it doesn’t make sense or provide us with the tools to make it make sense, it fails for that reader.
This was recently brought home to me in a rejection of a short story. The editor said that it felt like part of a larger whole, a series where the reader might not know all that was going on with the characters. I had conceived the MCs as series characters (although, failing so far to sell this story, I haven’t written any more) and wrote a story where only a partial character arc was shown, without explaining any of the emotions or history behind it for the two main characters.
That might work for a chapter in a book, but it doesn’t for a short story.
Now I know what I’ve got to change with edits. Maybe that will translate into an acceptance the next time the story goes out. First, however, I have to do the work.