Why Write?

writer2Part of my job description as an editor is to keep writers from getting discouraged as they struggle to publish and publish well.  It’s not easy, since it takes a lot of effort to learn the craft of writing, and once you break into print, your readership tends to build slowly.  Even writers who are prepared for these natural roadblocks often give up – I can think of several clients with promising first novels who I wish were still writing.

Maybe the answer is to change the focus, from writing to publish to just writing.

Of course, you want to publish.  You want to share the joy of your creation with other people.  It’s nice to have the marketplace affirm your skills.  And it would be even nicer to be paid for writing, if only because it gives you more time to do it.

But if all you’re interested in is making money, there are easier ways to do it.  I once had a potential client who said he didn’t want to spend money on having his book edited unless I could guarantee it would earn $100,000.  I don’t think I need to explain to Writer Unboxed readers why we parted ways.  So don’t lose sight of the other reasons for writing. [Read more…]

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Bombing Through It

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Back in the nineties, before social networking or even blogs had been invented, I belonged to a chat list for published writers.  You carried on a slow conversation with like-minded people by sending e-mails to a central server, which then sent them out to all members of the list.  Tom Clancy, another list member, used to give a piece of advice to writers who were stuck at various stages of the writing process: “Just write the damned book.”

I think of that advice whenever potential clients ask me to read over the first few chapters of their work in progress, to make sure they’re “on the right track.”  They don’t seem to realize that there is no track.  When you write your first draft, you lay the tracks as you go.  As you follow your story, you may find out that a minor character moves to the center of the action, or that a plot twist you’ve been building toward for a hundred pages just won’t work.  Or your story may simply transform into something else as you write it.  In its original draft, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was magical realism, with Simon having genuine mystical visions and sacrificing himself willingly at the end.

The process is a little different if you work from a detailed outline, but not much.  True, you do have an idea of where you’re going when you actually begin writing.  But some of the creativity and surprise – the getting to know the story and characters – that other writers experience with the first draft, you get with the outline.  And no matter how detailed your outline might be, you should still treat it more as a guide than a rulebook.  The actual process of getting the story down on paper has a unique intimacy and particularity.  Stories are organic.  You’ve got to let them grow as you write, even if you’ve already built a trellis.

Still, the problem those clients are looking to me to solve is real — a lot of writers get lost in the middle of their first draft.  One reason may be a lack of confidence and drive.  I find it’s usually second novels that I’m asked to keep on track.  Many writers enter the field because they’re burning to tell a particular story.  But after the first novel is done and they launch into the second one, they often lack the passion for the story that got them through the first novel.  After The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan began and abandoned seven different second novels — at one point breaking out in hives — before writing The Kitchen God’s Wife.

You can also trip up on your first draft by focusing on the mechanics of writing – like the beginning writer who recently complained on the Writer Unboxed Facebook site that, whenever she read a how-to-write book, she felt like she was going about it wrong.  It’s easy to get so obsessed with the technical details – how you’re managing your micro-tension, if you’re giving your readers enough physical description to imagine the scene, whether your antagonist is sufficiently balanced or your dialogue is pithy enough – that you can’t find your story.  You’re like the centipede who was asked which leg she lifted first when she walked – and never walked again.

On the other hand, not having a firm enough grasp of the basic skills of storytelling can also run a first draft into the ground.  If your descriptions are inept, then your locations will never take on reality.  Flaws in your management of point of view can keep your characters from coming to life.  So what you’re writing may feel flabby, impotent, just plain wrong, which makes it hard to keep going.

So how do you thread the needle between being aware of the mechanics of writing and ignoring them enough to focus on your characters? [Read more…]

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Feeding Your Readers Information: A Look at a Master

lecarre    As so often happens, the comments on last month’s piece (What Do Your Readers Know and When Do They Know It) showed that there was a lot more to the topic than I could cover in a single column.  So I thought it would help to look in some detail at how a master of the craft created tension by how he fed his readers information.

If you’re not already familiar with John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the quickest, easiest way to get to know the story is to stream the movie.   The plot follows the book very closely.  Besides, Richard Burton and Claire Bloom are always a pleasure to watch, and keep an eye peeled for a very young Robert Hardy.  If you’d like to check it out now, I’ll wait.

 

So, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold opens with Alec Leamas, the head of the Berlin bureau of MI6 (i.e. the Circus), waiting for Karl, his last remaining operative, to make a desperate run across the border from East Germany.  Karl finally appears but is gunned down before he can reach safety.  All of Leamas’ other operatives have also been hunted down and eliminated by Mundt, a particularly vicious chief of the East German secret service (i.e. the Abteilung).  So when Lemmas’ boss, Control, offers him a chance to destroy Mundt once and for all, he jumps at it.

Given that setup, le Carré then proceeds to feed his readers information at three different levels of reality:  what the world thinks is happening, what Leamas thinks is happening, and what is actually happening.

We first watch level one develop as Leamas comes apart at the seams.  He’s given a makework job in accounting at the Circus, starts to drink, is accused of embezzlement and fired, drinks more, and winds up in a grimy apartment working a menial job at a library.  There he meets and starts to fall for a young, idealistic communist named Liz (‘Nan’ in the movie).  Despite the light she brings into his life, he continues to spiral downward until he assaults a grocer and is jailed.  When he’s released from prison, he’s approached by a bumbling East German agent, who has heard about his situation from Liz.

At this point, le Carré pulls back the curtain on the second level.  Leamas sneaks off for a secret meeting with Control that makes it clear his disgrace and collapse are a ruse to get the East Germans to recruit him.  In this meeting, Control challenges him on his relationship with Liz – it’s out of character for someone spiraling into degradation to fall in love – and offers to help her out.  It’s during this meeting that readers also learn, almost in passing, that George Smiley, the Circus’s legendary strategist, wants nothing to do with the operation (a detail omitted from the movie).

Le Carré still hasn’t revealed how Leamas’ staged collapse will lead to his getting revenge on Mundt, so curiosity about the plan will keep readers turning the pages.  But they’ve also come to realize by this point that Leamas is intelligent, brave, idealistic, and loving.  They care about him, and are worried that he’s essentially turning himself over to the enemy.  At the same time, they’re eager to see him defeat Mundt, who has done so much damage to his life.

While all these sources of tension are in play, le Carré slips in the first hint of the third level at work – that there is a plan beyond the one Leamas knows.  [Read more…]

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

What Do Your Readers Know and When Do They Know It?

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As any good operative can tell you, information is power.  Whether you’re dropping bombshells on your readers, teasing them with hints and suggestions, or letting them know ahead of time that disaster is approaching, you control their reactions by how and when you dole out the facts.  So how do you best wield the power of information?  What do you tell your readers, and when, and why?

It depends on whether you’re getting your tension primarily from your plot or your characters.  If you’re naturally drawn to creating tension from events – if you love building a story around plot twists that shock your readers – then you want to hold things back until the big moment.   But this is trickier than it sounds.

For one thing, unless you’re deliberately using an unreliable narrator, none of your viewpoint characters can know the key facts before you spring your plot twist.  There was a time when the narrators of mysteries could tease readers with hidden knowledge.  In The Door (1930) Mary Roberts Reinhart’s narrator regularly says things like, “It was then on Sunday afternoon that there occurred another of those apparently small matters on which later such grave events were to depend.”  Today that approach to building tension seems unbearably quaint (as does her sentence construction).

But if your viewpoint characters are aware of the pertinent facts and you don’t reveal them, your readers are going to feel cheated.  After all, if your readers are inside the heads of characters who know stuff, why didn’t they learn it as well? [Read more…]

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Learning to Love your Fanatic

 

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“The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”  C. S. Lewis.

Fanatics make terrific villains, whether it’s an animal activist destroying labs where lifesaving drugs are developed, the mother who ruins her children’s lives in order to save their souls, or a terrorist blowing up civilians to trigger the holy war.  Because fanatics are obsessed with a single idea, they’re impossible to reason with.  They’ll cling to their idea regardless of evidence or argument.  They’re often blind to the damage they cause as well, continuing to destroy the lives around them with impunity because, as Lewis says, their hearts are pure.

Yet this sincerity makes them easy to humanize.  Psychopaths, by contrast, don’t feel that the people they hurt are really people, which makes them less than human themselves.  It can be frightening to watch a character fall into the hands of a serial killer, say, but in some ways it’s no more emotionally engaging than if the character is attacked by a wolf.

Fanatics, though, are generally working for what they see as the greater good.  And the ends they’re fighting for aren’t necessarily bad things.  Animal testing is often cruel.  Everyone wants the best for their children.  And as John LeCarre proved in The Little Drummer Girl, readers can even be brought to understand a terrorist’s aims.

Giving your readers a sympathetic heavy draws them more firmly into your story.  Both sides of your conflict become human.  And while readers may still want your main character to win, they’ll feel pity for your villain, giving the conflict a new emotional level.  Javert, who dogs Jean Valjean out of a fanatical devotion to the rule of law, is in the end more tragic than evil.  Readers feel sorry for him when he throws himself into the Seine.

 

But Fanatics are easy to get wrong. [Read more…]

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.