The following are the notes Lucia Zimmitti promised us at our October meeting.
The Ten Most Common Problems in Fiction Manuscripts
|Lucia Zimmitti speaks|
at our October 13, 2012 meeting
Fiction teaches. Story teaches. Humans have always learned from storytelling; not only the facts of history, but how to connect with others, how to empathize, how to relate to each other. We cannot overestimate the power and the importance of story to our brains and psyches. And whether or not you are seeking traditional publication, you write because you want someone else to be moved by your work (even one person). You want someone to connect with you through your work, to validate you by loving what you’ve written, what you’ve created (and this may be a subconscious desire at this point). And that’s why it pays to know what readers want, and to learn how to craft fiction, whether your target audience is a group of ten or ten thousand.
Often learning what not to do gets us to where we want to be more quickly than learning what to do. You must read copious amounts (this can’t be stressed enough…some experts say reading is more important to improving your writing than writing is) and you must write, write, write. And when you revise, it’s helpful to know where many writers fall down so you can avoid those pitfalls and potholes at your own desk. Don’t worry about “mistakes” or “problems” while you’re writing your first draft. You must allow your right brain (the creative side) free rein while you’re getting the early bones of the story on paper. Banish the very idea of “correction” while you’re breathing life into those first attempts at telling the story. Only use the following guide to identify potential problem-spots in your manuscript after the first draft has been born.
The Ten Most Common Problems in Fiction Manuscripts
(in no particular order) occurring in the manuscripts that cross my desk:
1) Breaking the promise to the reader. The first chapter holds out a promise to the reader (in tone or content or theme), and when writers break that promise by revealing a very different story somewhere mid-way into the manuscript, readers tend to feel mislead. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t surprise your reader: you should. But you should surprise them within the framework of the story, within the story you’ve implied that you’re setting out to tell.
2) Agenda-driven/didactic/obvious lesson or moral. Story must be king! Stories certainly do teach, but they teach subtly or peripherally, not directly. When readers feel the author has an agenda and is trying to persuade the reader s/he should see things the author’s way, the reader tends to put the book down. Readers don’t pick up fiction to get preached at or to have their opinions manipulated (again: their opinions might change after reading a story, but that has to happen naturally, through the story itself, not because the author is clearly trying to convince readers of a certain thing).
3) Imbalanced in terms of head-talk and action/dialogue, as well as in description and story movement. In other words, the character thinks too much and acts too little. Or the author spends too much time on static description and not enough on dynamic, interpersonal interaction between characters. Also, there is too much exposition/backstory (and that slows the story’s pacing and often bores the reader).
4) Not enough tension/conflict/struggle. The characters are coddled. Things come too easily for the characters. Put your characters in a proverbial tree and throw rocks at them until the end. Don’t save them with a doorbell, either! (I see this quite often when there’s a scene that’s promising to be emotional and deliciously tense: authors will have the doorbell ring at a crucial moment, thereby tamping down the tension, just when readers hoped it would be ramped up.) Characters need obstacles, antagonists, something to push against, something to challenge them and force them to grow (or to show that they can’t grow). Characters need messy situations to prove their mettle. Don’t clean things up so tidily that they can’t ever engage in meaningful struggle.
5) MC’s <MC = Main Character> goals are too big/too small/too muddy/feel unattainable. Goals focus the story. What’s at stake for the MC? Don’t let readers ask themselves, “So what?” as they read. (And that’s the reader’s default setting, so you must work against it.) The MC must want something, and something else or someone else must be standing in the way (or perhaps something within the MC stands in the way). And that thing the MC wants must be achievable, yet not so small that it feels insignificant.
6) Unlikeable MC, or one that is too perfect (and becomes unlikable that way). You need to create relatable, flawed MCs with situation-specific motivations that readers understand (even if they wouldn’t necessarily undertake the same behaviors themselves). Readers need to relate to/identify with the protagonist (or need to fear the MC’s circumstances). ALSO: Beware of secondary characters that outshine the MC! It’s so easy to fall into this trap because the secondary characters are typically fun to write; it’s the MC that has the storyline issue, the throughline resting on his/her shoulders, and so when you write him/her, you may be feeling that weight on your shoulders, too. But when you write the secondary characters, you find yourself having fun, giving them quirks that really make them pop. You don’t need to have boring secondary characters, of course: just work hard to make the MC the most compelling, interesting character of all.
Character development exercise:
(Read the following Raymond Carver poem, “Late Fragment.”)
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
<Now, using that poem as a starting point, write from the point-of-view of a character…a new one or one you’re already working with. Either extend the poem and see where it leads, or put your character in the position of questioner or answerer. Let yourself go, without judgment or self-editing or self-censoring, and see what bubbles to the surface. You may be able to use some of what you’ve written in your work-in-progress...a new idea may shine brightly from it, or perhaps even a chunk of narrative. But even if that doesn’t occur, you will have worked your writing muscle in a meaningful way and pushed yourself to see your character through new eyes and in a new framework.>
7) Voice problems/POV (point-of-view) problems (i.e., a kid that sounds adult as a voice problem; head-hopping as a POV problem). Typically, you should choose one point-of-view and stick to that POV throughout (or at least for a whole chapter). That means you shouldn’t be able to get the direct thoughts of other characters—you should only be able to get inside the head of your MC. There are exceptions, but those are infrequent and usually are made for bestselling authors. Readers like connecting with one character (or, if you switch POVs, then only switch at the character break). Readers want to get immersed in one character in a way they can’t with the others. This is why first-person or third-person limited POV (not omniscient) are the typical options for today’s readers.
8) Dialogue used as filler: it doesn’t move the story along, doesn’t reveal character. It breaks the cardinal rule of dialogue (letting one character tell another something s/he already knows). Readers love dialogue: not only does it give them a chance to experience the characters in an immediate way, but it allows for lots of white space on the page, thereby letting their eyes “breathe.” So be sure to use healthy doses of dialogue, even if you’re not a fan of writing it. But never let one character tell another something s/he already knows (that’s not authentic), and don’t fill up the page with filler phrases like “um” or “dunno” or chit-chat about the weather (unless that’s important to character development by revealing something about situation or character reaction).
9) Unnecessary scenes and/or chapters. If the scene/chapter doesn’t reveal something new about character or propel the story forward, it should be cut (no matter how much you like it…actually, if you like it too much, it might be one of those ‘darlings’ we’re supposed to kill; when you love one isolated piece of the whole too much, you are probably blinded to the fact that it may not be working for the good of the entire work). Otherwise, that’s the place where the reader is likely to disconnect. Each scene must work for the advancement of the whole. (Never delete anything permanently, though: put the scenes/chapters you think may not be necessary into a graveyard document…keep them safe. That way, if you realize you want to use all/parts of them, you won’t have to re-create them.)
10) No surprise in the story. The events are totally predictable. Readers (and moviegoers and TV watchers) crave surprise. When books don’t give us that surprise, we tend to feel letdown, tend to feel like we invested our time and energy and didn’t really get something that we couldn’t have dreamed up ourselves. Whether you’re an OP (and outline person) or a NOP (a no-outline person…see James Scott Bell’s book that I mention below for further discussion of those terms), you want to leave the story open to elements of surprise as you write. Hemingway said he never knew the end of the story while he was still writing it, or else the reader would, too. Jane Yolen said she treats writing like driving: she only looks at what she can see in her headlights, even though she knows where she wants to go (but she doesn’t know everything she’ll see along the way).
Exercise for infusing surprise into your work:
When you’re working on your story and feel bored/stuck/uninspired, stop writing. Flip open an encyclopedia or pick up a newspaper (something away from the computer is best). Or open a book of poetry to a random page. Commit to the first thing you see (don’t ‘cherry-pick’ for something that interests you). Now think about it from the framework of your story and see if it can inject surprise, if it can be worked into the story
For instance, free-write for fifteen minutes (more if you’re moved to) on the following line:
“Whoops...there seem to be triplets here...,” the doctor says.
Another example, a line loosely adapted from a Philip Larkin poem:
Most things will never happen; this one will.
Write with that in mind for fifteen minutes, without judging or trying to “steer” the output in any way. This exercise can help you discover something new about your story, something you had hidden in your subconscious because you were only looking at the story in a linear way, or in some cases, it can even trigger a whole new story.
NOTE: The above common problems in fiction manuscripts are all discussions of craft in the department of story. It should go without saying that poor writing in general will hobble even a great story idea. However, “bad” writing in people actively pursing the craft is less common than you might think. Usually when adults voluntarily pick up a pen to write, it’s because they want to write, which means they’ve had positive reinforcement over the years (school, friends, etc.), and writing, at least at the level of putting sentences together, comes relatively easily to them. But here are some things to watch out for in your own mss all the same (again, only at the revision stage): Monotonous sentences (all are the same in structure/length); inadvertent repetition (the echo effect); prose that is overly simplistic (too spare) or overly ornate (over-dressed to the point of distraction, it asks the reader to admire the sentences, rather than the story); accidentally switching verb tenses (there isn’t a “right” verb tense—past and present are both fine. You just must choose one and be consistent with it throughout [with the exception of flashbacks, of course, where you’d deliberately switch]).
The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Story by Robert McKee
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
On Writing by Stephen King
Happy Writing, everyone!