Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 4, The Lukewarm Ending

April 14th, 2015 | Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wI’m continuing my conversation on writing great endings today with a look at what makes a weak, or “lukewarm” ending and how to scrub this kind of ending from your writing.

There are few things worse than being in the middle of a great book or movie and having someone spoil the ending for you, right? All the fun of the building tension, the suspense as to who’s going to live or die, the question of which guy the protagonist will choose– I personally feel that you’re totally justified in punching anyone who ruins the ending of a great book for you. Now, imagine someone is reading your book and some jerk decides to spoil the ending for them– and instead of being furious, the reader’s reaction is, “So… that’s it?”  The best endings, the ones that readers can feel the strongest emotional connection to and find the most satisfying, aren’t just a checklist of “resolved the conflict, established the immediate future, wrapped up subplots.” While these elements might meet the “requirements” of an ending, your readers are looking for something more than just mathematical resolution at the end of a story. Our favorite endings are surprising, or complex, or poetic, or even aggravating or sad or cynical, but they’re rarely just “fine.”

The best endings are those that it is impossible for the reader to be ambivalent about. They should love it, or hate it, or be deeply conflicted about it, or be left with lingering questions about it (in a good way, not in a the-author-dropped-four-plot-threads-and-so-the-reader-has-no-clue-what’s-going-on kind of way). Think about some of your favorite books, specifically their endings– if asked to talk about how one of these books ends, you’d probably say things like, “It’s so beautiful!,” or “It’s SO sad,” or “It’s really happy!” Your reaction to the ending of a book isn’t specific to a certain kind of ending– happy, sad, poetic– but to your connection to it– whether you stayed sufficiently emotionally engaged with the characters and the storytelling universe that you felt something at the end of the book other than a sense of technical resolution because all the right boxes were checked. “What I’d really love for my reader to feel at the end of my book is apathy and mild approval,” said no writer ever. So how can you ensure that the reader who has been perfectly willing to follow your characters through their story aren’t left lukewarm after the last page is turned? A few suggestions:

  • Raise the stakes in your conflict. Often, the ending of a book feels bland because it doesn’t contrast sufficiently with the climax– one moment, the main characters are in a disagreement, the next they’ve worked it out in a long conversation over coffee and are happily planning their wedding. Yawn. The more the main conflict and climax disrupt the characters’ lives, the more the conflict affects the world surrounding the main characters, and the harder it is to resolve that conflict, the more deeply we feel for the characters when the do get their happy ending.
  • Surprise the reader (fairly). The reason the ending of “The Sixth Sense” works so well is that, as the viewer is reeling from the shock of the final revelation, we’re frantically playing back certain scenes and relationships in light of that new knowledge and discovering that it actually DOES make sense that (spoiler alert) Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. It’s a twist that makes perfect sense in that story universe but that hooks the viewer anew right at the end, so they’re essentially glued to the screen right until the very end. Last-minute surprises and revelations and twists can certainly be gimmicky, but when the right groundwork has been laid, they stoke the reader’s interest in the story just at the moment when he was ready to skim over the happily-ever-after fluff and leave him energized and more fully connected to the story, which is exactly what you want– you want to end the book on your terms rather than give your reader a nice sleepy chapter in which to detach from the story universe as the last pieces fall neatly into place. These don’t have to be big surprises– you don’t have to end your cute romance with an evil twin showing up at the wedding (and probably shouldn’t)– just fun, clever, or sweet twists or inclusions that make the reader feel more deeply about a character or situation.
  • Make strong choices. Now, I’m the last person to encourage you to kill a character or break up the main couple at the end just for shock value (I personally Hate unhappy, cynical endings), but the truth is, sometimes the stronger writing choice, the choice that stays true to the characters you’ve written or the world you’ve created, IS for the main character to have to make a major sacrifice or hard choice, or for the couple decide NOT to stay together (within the expectations of your genre, that is– no romance reader is going to want to read a book where the couple doesn’t end up together, and no romance editor is going to publish it). There still has to be resolution, and there should still be hope and a sense of justice having been done or potential for something good to come out of the events of the ending, but a strong choice generally makes a more memorable and more polarizing ending than a weak or easy one.

By making every effort to ensure your reader can’t remain neutral about the ending of your book, you guarantee that they’ll remember your book, think about it, have conversations about it, and will be more likely to seek out additional titles from you in the future.

Have you ever been left “lukewarm” by the ending of an otherwise enjoyable book? How could the author have salvaged it? How have you avoided lukewarm endings in your own writing? I love to hear about your experiences in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!

The Thrill of the Journey (a guest blog)

April 9th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

 

As a fresh kid rounding the bend on the second half of life, and after a series of challenging events, I’d determined again to dive into a childhood calling of becoming a writer.

A trip to the Oregon Coast never failed to give me the much needed kick in the aft, so off I went. I strolled the docks at Newport, admiring the wizened characters of assorted commercial fishing boats, and recalled one summer of my first youth when I considered donning a flannel shirt and chest waders to become a commercial fisherwoman in pursuit of romance and valiant endeavor. But my goals, while no less valiant and only slightly more realistic, had since changed course.

I moved along, skirting tackle and dock debris, and shooting portraits of the more experienced, therefore more aesthetically interesting vessels, until there before me, requiring an entire length of dock, I saw an imposing black giant of a boat, moored with the others but not of their ilk. It arrested my attention for its sheer mass and for her name. Her hull was free of rust and barnacles, like they scrubbed her clean after each run and added a freshen-up of marine paint as needed. Ropes as thick as my wrist tethered her close, while trios of fat, orange fenders cushioned her side. Rigged for success with high-powered lights, radar equipment, and the most rubbish-free deck of the lot, this lady floated high for action. And her name in bold gold against the black read, PERSISTENCE.

I wondered what kind of struggles and disappointments her skipper and crew had overcome, with a handle like that. I was curious about how long the owner had sweat and waited to save enough for a boat of his own. How many legal hassles or personal setbacks? How much waiting.

Suspecting I’d have need of it along the course I’d chosen late in life, so-called, I snapped her picture and walked on to satisfy my yearning for the open sea with a salmon dinner.

I’d attempted writing before, but always let discouragement preside over determination. I became familiar with writing conferences and attended a few, took classes, and read great books on how to do the deed well. But nothing prepared me for the waiting.

The first version of my manuscript took two years of purposeful writing to complete. I figured the infant was ready for delivery, or as close as I could make it before working with a professional editor or agent. During the following four years I queried, waited, received denials, received nothing, declined one myself, inhaled deeply enough professional and subliminal encouragement to plod forward, rewrote the query, waited, revised the story, you get the picture. Throw in to the mix several helpings of wine, whine, prayer, and tears and you’ve got a good image of the journey.

When I wasn’t questioning my sanity, I wrote other stories and articles. By God’s amazing grace, I ended up with my own weekly column in a regional newspaper and sold an expanded article to the folks at Chicken Soup for the Soul.

I likely would have called it quits on the novel and hunted for a job that paid money if it hadn’t been for a sustaining supply of go-juice from people in the business. They fed me the right mix of constructive criticism and sugar to enable hope to light the path, one step at a time. And I listened. Oh, I may have thrown a few tantrums. But, the cat eventually stopped racing up the stairs, and I put my hands to the keys because what the critics said made perfect sense, and I wanted to improve—still do.

With help from a patience that I lacked in my twenties, and stubbornness I brought with me, the hard work paid off. I had won my dream agent, Chip MacGregor, or so I’ve heard. After all, I’m a newbie and the proof is in the shortbread, eh Mr. Chipping?

What I find crazy is, how every wave that threatened to swamp and mouthful of froth swallowed was worthwhile to land on the next plateau, writing—and waiting.

 ======================Peggy

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer living in Southern Oregon. She writes the weekly column, “Southern Oregon Journal,” for the Mail Tribune Newspaper. Dover is represented by MacGregor Literary.

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 3, Avoiding Anticlimax

April 8th, 2015 | Books, Quick Tips, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on writing great endings, I’m talking today about how to provide satisfactory resolution without letting the energy of your story run out.

I spent last week talking about all the resolution the reader expects from the denouement– resolve the events of the climax, answer unanswered questions, wrap up subplots, and establish main characters’ immediate futures. Sounds like a lot of content, right? But you as the author have a delicate balancing act to maintain, because while it’s true that the reader is going to be dissatisfied if you leave out the resolution they expect, it’s also true that there’s no better way to make sure your reader’s enthusiasm has flagged by the time they read the words “The End” than by dragging the book out two chapters after the story has actually ended. Ending on an anticlimax leaves a dull taste in the reader’s mouth and causes their last impression of your book to be a less positive one than if you send them out on an emotional high note, and the way to do this is to fit all your resolution in before the excitement of the climax has fully worn off.

The reader’s emotional high point usually coincides with the characters’, which is usually the climax– in a romance, the climax is not the wedding, but the dramatic moment when Slim rescues Peggy Sue from the train tracks and confesses that he always loved her, he just didn’t think a lawman had any right to ask a nice well-bred young lady to marry him and share his dangerous life. This is the moment when tension and emotions are the highest, and this is the moment that readers have been waiting for. Sure, they want to read that the happy couple got off the train tracks in time and know that Salty Sam is going to jail for his crimes, but the story is effectively over when Slim and Sue finally get together. The author then must resist the temptation to spend a lot of time on the new status quo– yes, the reader wants resolution, and glimpses into a character’s future can be fun, but it’s ultimately anticlimactic to spend a lot of time on the “happily ever after.” I’ve been disappointed by book weddings a surprising number of times, not because I’m heartless and cynical (I cry watching those “surprise Disney trip reveal” videos), but because the wedding scene has kept me in the story universe too long after the climax without really continuing the story.

Think about how much time it takes to reach the climax in the average novel– the climax is usually near the end, so the author has about 90% of the book to take the characters from their nice, safe, boring, everyday life into the exciting, different, dangerous, emotional atmosphere of the climax. The reader enjoys the building tension and the changes taking place because of the expectation of a dramatic climactic scene and some significant change/result– the main character will finally find his soulmate, the world will be saved, the murderer will be stopped, etc. Once this has happened, the story is essentially over, and the author who takes the characters all the way back into the nice, safe, everyday life where we found them at the beginning of the book risks the excitement of the climax fading into the background and a reader who’s left feeling like nothing much changed. I definitely don’t want to go from the exciting train tracks rescue scene to three chapters about Slim and Sue planning their wedding and how Sue is afraid Mama won’t want to come out from Boston for the wedding because she hates the west. This is Not part of the story and isn’t vital to its resolution, either. So, how to finish on a high note without sacrificing resolution? Here are some strategies to keep in mind:

  • Resolve the events of the climax quickly. I talked last week about how, if there were loose threads related to the immediate aftermath of the climax, they needed to be at least partially resolved, but this doesn’t have to happen in fully-realized scenes. Think about the end of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy– the various hobbits and dwarves and elves have essentially spent nine hours getting to their various scenes of climax, but do we watch them retrace every step of their journeys after the ring has been destroyed and the battle won? Nnnnno. That would be excruciating. Obviously, the filmmaker couldn’t just jump from Frodo and Sam watching the ring tumble into Mount Doom straight back to Frodo at home in the Shire, but by letting us see a glimpse of approaching eagles and a shot of the ground passing beneath an unconscious Frodo, we’re given enough to connect the dots as to how Frodo and Sam got back to safety without the filmmaker having to spend three hours showing exactly how. Exit your climax scenes the same way, in a fast retreat or select flashes of scenes, picking up scattered characters and dispatching leftover minor villains as needed.
  • Use representative, rather than inclusive, resolution. The problem with packing all your resolution into the denouement is that often, if you try to resolve every single thread/minor character’s story line, it will start to read like the family Christmas letter– “Billy did this, Sally went here, Joe married Lisa, Grandpa died, Bev started a business–” and no one likes to read those Christmas letters. They’re tedious. (Except for mine. They’re hilarious.) Let’s take one of the types of resolution readers typically expect in the denouement– that some kind of justice be done for the characters who were wronged. This doesn’t have to be a matter of “make sure every bad guy is caught and goes to jail and every bully learns her lesson,” which would be tedious and unrealistic, but as long as some restitution is made for the places the reader felt loss or injustice or helplessness, the reader will generally be satisfied. The last Harry Potter book is a great example of this: there are about a million “bad guy” characters and betrayals and wrongs and murders that happen over the course of Deathly Hallows, and it would have been dull, unreasonable, and extremely unwieldy for Rowling to have shown resolution/justice done for ALL of them– we don’t see Harry get a new owl to replace Hedwig, Umbridge isn’t shown being eaten by piranhas like she deserves, Griphook is never confronted on the page for his betrayal– but we are given enough scenes of justice and triumph over evil to satisfy us– Mrs. Weasley’s duel with Bellatrix and Harry’s showdown with Voldemort are cathartic and serve to vindicate many earlier wrongs, and the story is allowed to end very shortly after the climax while still satisfying the reader’s need to see justice done.
  • Layer your resolution. The more information you can impart in a single scene, the quicker you can bring the book to a close after the climax. Consider how you can accomplish resolution through the setting– a scene taking place in the new wing of the hospital tells us that they eventually did raise the million dollars they needed without wasting page space talking about the last three fundraisers they had to do (yawn), a scene taking place at the B couple’s wedding reception answers all the questions about their on-again, off-again relationship without us having to watch their reconciliation, their proposal, etc. Observations on the part of a main character can also serve to provide a lot of resolution– if the main character glimpses his ex across the room, laughing and talking with the friendly lawyer who’s popped up a couple times before in the story and is known by the reader to be a nice guy, we can assume that she’s moved on and won’t be trying to sabotage the main character’s happiness anymore and that the lawyer is not going to be lonely anymore, again without the author having to spell it out for the reader. Readers are pretty good at picking up on clues, don’t be afraid to give them some pieces to put together on their own rather than fitting each one into place for them. A line of dialogue is another way to include resolution in a scene that’s really about something else– a character finishing a phone conversation with, “No, I’m sorry, I’m booked through June of next year” lets the reader know that she did start that photography business after all and it’s a big success without drawing focus from whatever the scene is actually about.
  • Fast-forward. Epilogues are in danger of becoming as overused as prologues, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sometimes the best way to provide a lot of resolution without compromising the momentum of the story. The popular “X years later” format is a good example– it may only be a page or two, just a tiny glimpse of a scene from the future story universe, and it doesn’t have to fill in all the gaps, but that glimpse at the main couple welcoming the B couple to a Christmas party at the family homestead with a baby crying in the background lets the reader know that, yes, they did rebuild after the fire, she was able to have kids after all, the B couple eventually made up and got together, without following the exciting climax scene with ten tame ones to show the resolution for each one of these plot threads. Remember, the reader rarely needs to know everything YOU know about a character– as long as you sow the right bits of information and have laid your foundation well, they’ll connect the dots on their own.

If you need more examples of how to fit a lot of resolution in before the “buzz” of the climax wears off, watch some action-adventure movies or a formulaic mystery show or any movie with a quest-type storyline, paying close attention to how many subplots and plot threads/minor characters are introduced throughout the rising action, and then noting how each is resolved after the climax– through a single shot showing something revealing about a character or a situation, through a line of dialogue, by using a setting, by providing epilogue-type title cards at the end of the film, etc. Hopefully, you’ll get even more ideas for ways to satisfactorily wrap up a story before the reader’s enthusiasm has the chance to lag.

 

 

Five Lessons I’ve Learned About Writing (a guest blog)

April 3rd, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 5 Comments

  1. Have something worth saying.In his book Culture Care, artist Makoto Fujimura tells a story he confesses may be legendary about a Yale student taking Hebrew from the great Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs. The student, discontent with his grades, asked the scholar how he could raise them. Childs’s answer: “Become a deeper person.”

Peggy Noonan writer of seven books on politics, religion, and culture, and weekly columnist forThe Wall Street Journal, was at one time the speech writer for the man considered The Great Communicator. In her book Simply Speaking, she says that what moves people in a speech is the logic. The words “Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev” are not all that poetic when taken at face value. But they express something that resonates in the human heart. In the words of Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
In the same way that logic is what moves people in a speech, logic is what moves people in writing.  And to have logic, to move people, we must have something worth saying. In fact, probably about 90% of writing is having something worth saying. And how do we get something worth saying? By expanding the world of ideas to which we expose ourselves and by cultivating a rich inner life.

  1. Decrease your vision. That is, “think local.” Start with your family. Doug Bender, the bestselling author of I Am Second: Real Stories. Changing Lives. wrote a book for an audience of one. When Doug’s wife had a miscarriage, it grieved the Bender’s little girl. So Doug wrote a child’s book about death and loss just for her.

    My husband’s favorite seminary professor told his students, “Stop thinking you will go out and save the world, and instead become the best family member you can be, the most grateful child of your parents, the greatest and most dependable encourager in your church, the best contributor to your community.” We influence the world one small corner at a time. Cherish the small.

In the days when Abraham’s descendants had been carried off from Israel to Babylon, their prophet, Jeremiah, sent a letter to King Nebuchadnezzar for the surviving leaders in exile. Jeremiah’s counsel: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce….   Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jere. 29:1–7). Seeking the good of the city where we live is always good counsel. So write for your kids, if you have any. Contribute good columns to the local paper. Donate some book reviews for your favorite local web site. Do readings at the library. And do so simply to give back and because you wish to make your corner of the world a better place.

  1. Read or listen. A lot of people say that to be a good writer you have to read. But that is not totally true. Not everyone can read—even among bestselling writers of worth. Bodie Thoene, who has sold millions books, has dyslexia, which makes it nearly impossible for her to read. My own husband, who holds a master’s degree from a rigorous program, can hardly read without falling asleep, due to a mild form of dyslexia. But he watches a lot of National Geographic shows and keeps up with the news in non-written forms. Some say that Emily Dickinson’s meter draws not on the cadences of authors she read but of hymns she sang.

Those who cannot read can listen. And even those of us who do love to read can benefit by hearing. These days I learn aurally from NPR’s book reviews, the weekly podcast of the New York Times Book Review, and at least one Audible book per month. In the past six months, I’ve switched my drive time from passive radio listening to more active listen to books on audio. The list has included mostly fiction such as The Goldfinch, The Invention of Wings, Lila, Gone Girl, and The Fault in Our Stars. But I’ve also enjoyed Unbroken, Quiet, I Am Malala, and Bonhoeffer. I would never have had time simply to sit and read those books.

  1. Write what contributes to human flourishing, not what you perceive as the next hot market.Trying to predict what will sell is like leaning on cobwebs. Just about the time you find a post to rest against, it gives way. By the time you finish writing a book to meet demand, the market will have left you in the dust. So write what you love to write and/or what you can write with excellence. (Sometimes we must write what we do well to pay the bills, even if it’s not our favorite.) Of the twenty or so books I’ve authored or coauthored, the one that continues to bring the most income is Sexual Intimacy in Marriage. There are fifty shades of books available on the topic of sex that sell many more copies than the one I coauthored. I could have turned up the steam and helped people live less fully human lives. And I probably would be making a lot more money. But the world needs more beautiful relationships, not those that are more hollow.
  1. Measure success accurately. You will be tempted to measure your own success by a number of externals that have nothing to do with your worth. Tell yourself they are lies.

Someone once told me that the only human-made structure visible from space was not the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower or even the tallest building in the world, but only the Great Wall of China. Think of all the amazing structures that “failed” to make that list.
But that does not make these structures failures. It just means that when measured by one narrow definition of success, they failed. As writers, any number of false measures can make us feel like losers. Did our last book fail to earn out its advance? Did we do a book tour? Did the work gain rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal? These are not accurate measures of whether we can write. Lots of crummy books sell big. Many divergent books make their authors lots of money, but that does not make the books or the authors successes.
At one time, I thought doing a book signing would indicate I had really arrived. Imagine my humiliation when I had to share a book-signing table with a famous person who had a long line of fans lined up out the door while I had nobody. Well, okay, one person. But she probably felt sorry for me. Still, that book itself changed some lives for the good. The humiliating signing experience had no correlation with the book’s success or mine.

So measure not by money or fame, but in influence on human flourishing. And of course, that is impossible to measure. Which is precisely my point.

===================Sandra Glahn

Sandra Glahn (PhD, UT Dallas) teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, her alma mater. She is the author or coauthor of eighteen books, including the CBA bestseller and Christy Award finalist, Lethal Harvest. She is also editor-in-chief of the award-winning magazine Kindred Spirit.

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 2, The Art of Denouement

April 1st, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on writing great endings. This week, I’ll be talking about a misunderstood but vital part of any story, the denouement.

The Google dictionary definition of “denouement” is “the final part of a narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.” “Denouement” is one of those literary words that most of us learned somewhere in high school or college English classes and then filed away along with “synecdoche” and “antithesis” to be trotted out when we need to sound smart, but whereas you could probably write a pretty great novel without being able to identify the areas where you used antithesis, it’s REALLY hard to end a book well without having more than a dictionary understanding of the functions of a denouement.

Think of the denouement as “the beginning of the end.” If you’re plotting the arc of a story or plot, the denouement appears right after the climax and generally encompasses everything else taking place between the climax and the end of the story. Let’s start by looking at the jobs a denouement needs to do:

  • Resolve the events of the climax. If the climax occurs when Slim pulls Sue off the railroad tracks seconds before the train thunders by, we don’t have to see every second of what happens next, but we would eventually like to know how they made it back to town after Slim’s horse ran off, how Salty Sam was finally apprehended, and whether or not Slim’s sidekick died of his rattlesnake bite. The actual top-of-the-tension moment is when Sue and Slim declare their love seconds before they might be smushed by the train, but these other events were all pieces of the climactic scene and the scenes leading directly up to it, and the reader wants to know how they turned out, even if it’s in a paragraph of narrative at the beginning of the next chapter rather than in five more scenes showing the aftermath/resolution of each. (And actually, it’s usually better to resolve the events of the climax more quickly than not, but we’ll talk more about anticlimactic endings next week.)
  • Solve mysteries/answer unanswered questions. Think about the end of an Agatha Christie novel, when Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple are explaining how they figured out the identity of the killer. They go through each of the clues/mysteries involved in the crime and helpfully point out which were red herrings, which could be explained by the hitherto unsuspected romantic sub-plot, and which actually point to the killer. While most novels won’t end with a nice tidy monologue listing mysteries and their solutions, these answers all still need to find their way into the denouement, otherwise the reader feels gypped and the author comes across as either flaky or untrustworthy.
  • Wrap up your subplots/follow through on your promises. Is there anything more frustrating than getting to know some fun minor character or glimpsing an interesting subplot and then never hearing from them again? It’s like the old rule about the rifle– if you tell the reader there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in chapter 1, somebody better fire it by the end of the book (there are various versions of this quote having to do with both novel-writing and playwriting, and it has been attributed to Chekov, thought not 100% confirmed). Don’t spend words to bring in minor characters’ conflicts or spend the whole book talking about the upcoming town carnival without giving the reader some resolution for those conflicts, or letting them experience a bit of the carnival before the book is over, even if it’s just a mention in passing or a single scene at the end of the book.

  • Establish your main characters’ immediate future. The extent to which you need to do this varies widely depending on the genre you’re writing, but no book should end with the main character being dangled off a cliff by his ankles. In a romance, the reader wants to know that a relationship finally has staying power (we’ve probably seen them break up at least twice over the course of the novel, after all, so we’re a little skeptical). We don’t need to find out an exact wedding date or how many kids they’re going to have, but a proposal or a reference to whose family they’re going to spend Christmas with or a longtime commitment-phobe giving her boyfriend a key to her apartment gives us some closure and assures us that it really will be “happily ever after.” In a thriller, the reader wants to know whether the main character changed his mind about leaving the CIA or what the lawyer is going to do now that she’s been fired from her elite law firm for standing up for the little guy. Again, we don’t need to follow the main character’s every move for the next five years, but some clue about the direction their life is taking, or even just assurance that the main character is happy even if her future is a bit unsettled is important to the reader’s sense of whether or not a complete story has been told. In books in a series telling a larger story, we still need to get to a somewhat “safe” stopping point for the main characters and have reached resolution for some of the story arcs, even if there is unresolved tension and continuing danger, e.g., the end of The Hunger Games, after Katniss has survived the games but realizes that there is more trouble and danger coming for her family and her district.

So there you have some of the major roles of the denouement. Authors who skimp on resolution at the end of their books risk alienating readers who feel cheated out of the full story, especially if the author dangled “bait” in the form of subplots, mysteries, and upcoming events throughout the book.

Now, as I cautioned several times in today’s post, one of the biggest dangers in writing your denouement is that your narrative can start to drag as you dump all kinds of info and resolution at the end of the book, so before you go too far down the Miss-Marple-monologue path, make sure you come back next week when I talk about how to make strong choices in your denouement that allow the energy of the narrative to remain intact while satisfying the reader’s need for resolution.

What else do you expect a denouement to provide? Have you ever been frustrated by unanswered questions or dropped plot threads after finishing a book? I’d love to hear your examples. Thanks for reading!

Mystery vs Suspense… What’s the difference? (a guest blog)

March 27th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

I started out my career writing mystery and now I write mostly suspense novels. What is difference between mystery and suspense anyway? It’s a question I hear often. I suppose I ought to know the answer since I’ve written twenty plus books in the suspense genre. I tell folks who ask that suspense is a situation in which the stakes are high and some is usually running for their lives. Yes, stakes are high in mystery, too, but there is not the same level of danger to the protagonist. It’s more about solving the puzzle, than survival.

Creating suspense is trickier than it sounds for the hardworking author. Conflict is not the same as suspense and neither is surprise. Those are lessons I’m still learning! A while back I stumbled across an interesting view from the master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s idea was that the difference between surprise and suspense has to do with what the audience knows. Surprise occurs when something we don’t know is going to happen, does. For example, a car bomb goes off. Suspense is when the audience knows and watches it play out on the unwitting protagonist. “Don’t turn that key,” we silently shriek, wondering if what we know is going to happen actually does. The bomb doesn’t necessarily have to explode, but the suspense comes in our knowledge that it most likely will.

So what do you think? Does Hitchock’s analysis work for you? What suspenseful book or movie have you seen recently?dana

 ——————–

Dana Mentink is an award winning author of eighteen mystery and suspense novels. She is honored to have received an ACFW Book of the Year nomination, a Holt Merit Award, a Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award and two ACFW Book of the Year Awards. Please visit her on the web at www.danamentink.com or find her on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. Dana hosts monthly contests at www.dmentink.wordpress.com.

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 1, The Importance of Endings

March 25th, 2015 | Books, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’m starting a new series today, one that will last until I run out of things to say on the topic or until I get bored, whichever comes first. I’ve received several ending-related questions over the past few weeks as well as been disappointed by the endings of several otherwise-good submissions I’ve read lately, so I thought we’d spend a few weeks talking about how to end a novel as effectively as you began it.

There are a whole lot of resources out there to help you craft a dynamite beginning of a novel– plenty of “first five chapters” workshops, lots of conversation on the importance of a great opening sentence, a bunch of opinions on how soon in a book the action needs to kick off– but not as much attention paid to how to END a novel well. It makes sense; the beginning is what makes someone decide whether or not to keep reading, and therefore gets most of the responsibility for selling a book to an agent, editor, or reader, but too often, all this emphasis on the beginning of a novel leads to some neglected or rough endings by comparison, and endings are what make someone decide whether or not to look for another book from that author. If you’ve managed to entice a reader into picking up your book and making it all the way through, you want them to stick around longer than just that one book. This week, we’ll talk about how the end of a story and the end of a book are (or should be) connected, as well as preview some of the topics we’ll address over the next few weeks.

“When is a book done?” “When is a story over?” These questions came in separately, and while they’re asking about two different things, the answers are related. A complete story has been told when the major conflict has come to a head (climax) and the events of the plot and sub-plot have been resolved in the aftermath of the climax (denouement). A book is done (or should be done) when the story has been told. The majority of problems I have with endings can be traced to a failure on the part of the author to either A) finish the story satisfactorily before ending the book, or B) end the book when the story is over.

Let’s look at problem A first– failure to finish the story to the reader’s satisfaction. Obviously, “reader satisfaction” is a subjective quality, and you can always find a reader who will want more details or more resolution than whatever you’ve given them, but for the most part, readers expect that the major conflict will be resolved (or at least ONE major conflict will be resolved or brought to a stopping point, in the case of individual books in a series), loose ends related to subplots or secondary characters will be tied up, and some lingering questions will at least be addressed, if not answered. When an author loses track of a subplot, or introduces a secondary character and a problem or scenario and then never brings it up again, the reader is left feeling cheated, and justifiably so.

That’s not to say that everything has to be sewn up tidily at the end of a book– unanswered questions, relationships in limbo, and continuing conflict are all parts of life and therefore are legitimate choices for inclusion in fiction, but there has to be some kind of resolution (a “story” is defined at its most basic, after all, as having a beginning, middle and end), and  the reader does have to be left with the sense that the author is still in control of his universe and is fully aware of the lack of resolution rather than feeling like the author has been stringing them along and dumped them in the middle of nowhere without a map, or worse still, that the author has forgotten about the plot holes, unsolved mysteries, and unfinished subplots. The former feels like a con on the part of the author, and the latter like bad craftsmanship.

Problem B is less frustrating, but almost more damaging to the reader’s perception of your book. Psychology 101 teaches that people’s memory/impressions are tied most strongly to primacy and recency– in other words, the things that stick with us the most from a study session or a conversation or a movie or a book are the first things we see or hear, and the last, or most recent, things we see or hear. There could be a lot of good stuff in the middle, and we might enjoy it while we’re reading/watching/studying, but that middle content just doesn’t stick with us like first and last impressions. Need proof? Think about someone you see on a regular basis, such as a coworker or a teacher or a pastor. You can probably recall the first time you saw or met that person, or at least one of your earliest interactions with them– where it took place, maybe who else was around, perhaps even some aspects of their appearance, such as a different hair color or cut– and you can probably recall what your last conversation/interaction with them was about and where it took place, or even what they were wearing the last time you saw them, but you probably can’t pin down a whole lot of specific outfits or conversations or sermon topics from the time between when you first and last saw or heard them. If you’ve ever had a falling-out with a friend, you know that your perception of that person is colored by your most recent interaction– even if you had five great years of friendship with them, if it ended badly, with an ugly confrontation or hurt feelings, that’s going to be how you remember that person.

What this means for authors is that, even if a reader loved the beginning of your book enough to keep reading, and even if you do a great job of building tension and they really enjoy reading the middle, that enthusiasm will be tempered with apathy if the ending leaves them cold– you want them to remember feeling excitement and satisfaction at the end of the book, not just pleasant interest, so you want to end the book while the reader is still basking in the emotional high of the climax rather than giving them time to come back down to neutral, emotionally, while you drag out the book for four more chapters. This causes the reader’s last impression of your book to be more tame or more forgettable than it could have been had the book ended at a point closer to the emotional high point.

I’ll be talking more about how to avoid anticlimax while still satisfying the reader’s need for resolution after the climax in the coming weeks. Next week, I’ll be talking more about denouement and how to give readers the resolution they expect without letting the momentum of your story peter out. If you have any ending-related questions or issues you’d like me to address in this series, let me know in the comments! As always, thanks for reading. 

 

Ten Lessons I’ve Learned (a guest blog)

March 20th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 30 Comments

Before I opened my freelance doors for business, I worked as an associate editor for a small publishing house. Long before that I earned a degree in Journalism. But much of my training for my current job came from many hours writing fiction and working with my critique partners. Since I started this freelance venture, I’ve worked with all sorts of authors, newbies to multi-published veterans on multiple projects, fiction and non-fiction, in various genres—contemporary and historical, romance and suspense, memoir and magazine articles. As a writer, a critique partner, an associate editor, a copyeditor, and a freelancer, I’ve learned a few things.Keyboard

  1. Talent matters. All great writers begin with talent. I can’t carry a tune, but suppose the height of my ambition was to become a famous singer. Suppose I took voice lessons and spent lots of money and time honing my skills? Suppose I spent thousands of dollars going to singers’ conferences (are there such things?) and hob-nobbing with the best? I might possibly be able to carry a tune someday, but would I ever be singing at Carnegie Hall? Heck, my church’s worship team wouldn’t even want me. I can become a better singer. But I would never be good enough for people to fork over hard earned cash to hear me. Hard as this is for some of us to hear, talent matters.
  2. Hard work is everything. I’ve seen many writers with only a modicum of talent transform their writing through sheer determination. These writers don’t rely on instinct. Rather, they work with good critique partners, question their editors, and subject themselves to arduous rewriting sessions. They don’t settle for that’ll-do writing. They read craft books, attend writers workshops, and devour great works. Eventually they hear the words, “You’re so talented.” And they are, but that talent would still be raw without these writers’ passion for excellence.
  3. Writing is hard. You’ve heard the joke about the brain surgeon and the novelist who chat on the golf course. The brain surgeon says, “I’m going to take this summer off to write a novel.” And the novelist quips, “Really? I’m going to take the summer off to perform brain surgery.” Too many people believe writing is easy. They remember what they learned in ninth grade English, and they know where the commas go. They have decent vocabularies and a story that (they’re sure) needs to be written. What else is there? I’ve worked with folks like this. They pen their first manuscript and send it to me to edit, figuring they’ll get it back ready for a big New York publishing house. Instead, I send it back dripping in red. Even after they make the changes I suggest, in most cases, that manuscript still won’t be ready. I hate to break this to you, but your first manuscript probably isn’t very good. (I’m no exception. My first was terrible. My second rose to the level of mediocre.) Are you surprised? Was your first painting akin to a Van Gogh? Was your first Play-Do sculpture comparable to a Rodin? Writing is hard.
  4. Writing costs. Oh, I know, all you need is a computer. Theoretically, all you really need is paper and a pencil. But you also need what’s inside you. Your heart, your experiences, your emotions—these need to be liberally poured into your manuscript. If you’ve never felt heartbreak, you can’t write about it authentically. Sure, you can imagine a scenario, but unless you dig into yourself, find the heartbreaks in your past—even if they’re quite different from those in your story—and apply those feelings to the scene, your words won’t have the depth of emotion your readers are seeking. When you attempt to write without touching those deep, difficult places, your writing turns out flat and inauthentic. No editor will pull your truths into a story. Only you can do that.
  5. The editor isn’t always right. In fact, I’m sure I’ve often been wrong. I might read something one way when you intended it to mean something different. (However, one could argue that if it’s not clear to the editor, then it might not be clear to readers, either.) If your editor misses the mark, shake your head and move along. If he misses the mark a lot, consider chatting with him about it. If he misses the mark more often than not, it’s time to find a new editor—assuming you’re working with a freelancer. Having said that, please consider the fact that, though your editor might be wrong, if he is experienced, if he has worked with many manuscripts and authors over the years, and if he is an expert in the field, he might be right.
  6. Tension is king. Your manuscript needs big conflicts. But it also screams for minute-by-minute tension. That’s what makes readers turn the page. It’s not what happens at the climax of the book, it’s what happens in the next page or two that keeps a reader up at night. There are lots of ways to add tension. Learn those techniques and employ them on every page. Yes, on every page. It’s not your editor’s job to add tension to your manuscript, and we don’t like it when our eyes glaze over, either. Unlike readers, we don’t have the luxury of putting the manuscript down.
  7. Planning helps. Sorry, seat-of-the-pants writers, but it seems to me that the plotters have an edge. It might not be as fun to write with a detailed outline, but it usually makes for a better, cleaner book. I’ve seen so many plot holes and lost storylines in novels written by non-planners. Obviously, not all pantsers leave holes and hanging storylines, but that’s often because they’ve gone back and fixed them. If you must be a seat-of-the-pants writer, plan to do a lot of self-editing before you send your book to an editor.
  8. There’s no such thing as a good first draft. If you’ve ever been tempted to send your first draft to your editor, go back and read that opening line again. I’m serious. Don’t do it. Find a critique partner or two (I have eight). Rewrite and edit. And then, when you’re absolutely convinced it’s perfect, send it to an editor to prove you wrong. (He will, by the way.)
  9. Even the best editor can’t fix ugly. You should treat your editor as you treat your housekeeper. Everybody picks up before the housekeeper comes over. We joke about it, but do you really want to pay someone to pick up your dirty socks? If your housekeeper walks into a room covered in clutter, even if she hasn’t been paid to pick it up, she has to move it to clean around and under it. Either she will charge you more or not clean as well. If your book is filled with spelling, grammar, and usage errors, if it’s riddled with overdone metaphors and overflowing with unnecessary adverbs, your editor will spend half her time sifting through that junk to dig out the story beneath. It’s easy to miss plot holes when they’re cluttered with bad writing. So clean up that manuscript before you pay someone to shine it for you.
  10. Good critique partners are priceless. Find one—or a group of them, if possible. Your local and national writer’s organizations should be able to help you. And if you’re not involved with a writer’s organization, get involved. Once you’ve found a good critique partner or group—and beware: they’re not all good—you and your partners can learn and improve together.

So there you have it: ten lessons I’ve picked up in my years as a writer and editor. I strive to learn even more this year, not just about editing, but about writing and marketing, too. If I’ve picked up anything since I started this journey, it’s this: the more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know.

=========================

Robin Patchen runs Robin’s Red Pen, an editorial service specializing in fiction editing. She is one of the editors we really like and respect, and we’re thrilled to have her offer this guest blog to our readers. Robin blogs regularly with a group of friends over at Quid Pro Quills, and she is the author of several books, including the just-released Finding Amanda. 

Ask the Agent: Children’s books, writing coaches, & agents

March 17th, 2015 | Agents, Career, The Writing Craft | 4 Comments

We had a bunch of questions come in this past week, so let me get to several of them…

This came from a reader in the Midwest: I’m at the point where I think I’d like to work with a writing coach. How can find someone reputable? Is there some sort of accreditation out there? Do you have any recommendations?”

That’s a wonderful question. I think a writing coach or mentor is a GREAT idea. Getting another set of eyes on your manuscript is always helpful, and finding someone who has experience, who is a little farther down the path, is one of the best ways to move forward in your writing career. I don’t know if there is any accreditation service of note (but I’d love to hear from readers who can suggest such a service), but there are a ton of experienced writers who serve in this capacity part-time, helping other writers who can benefit from their wisdom. I know of several, but it probably wouldn’t be fair to name one or two. Going through a reputable writing organization like RWA or SCBWI or ACFW is one way to find a good writing coach. Exploring some of the people available through Writers Digest or a good conference is another. But you may want to simply start asking around through writing friends or those at the next big conference you’re attending.

This question came in on the website: “I recently read somewhere that you don’t necessarily need an agent if you write for children, and that it might be better use of your time to submit directly to a publisher. Is that true?”

We have our own in-house expert on children’s books. Erin Buterbaugh handles all the chldren’s stuff for MacGregor Literary, so I posed this question to her. Here is Erin’s response:

 

I wouldn’t say having an agent is any more or less vital for a children’s writer than it is for any other writer. If you have the connections to get your manuscripts in front of the right editor, the know-how to package/position your manuscript and your brand in the way the editor expects, and the confidence to negotiate your own contracts, then certainly, go ahead and submit directly to a publisher (keeping in mind that some editors flat-out don’t accept unagented manuscripts). Some areas where a children’s writer needs to be especially savvy (and where having an agent who knows the children’s arena is a big advantage) include presenting your brand as a children’s author and knowing the requirements/characteristics of the imprint you’re submitting to. 

For instance, rather than receiving a single picture book manuscript from a debut author, most editors prefer to see two or three manuscripts (or at least ideas) that demonstrate some understanding on the part of the author as to her “brand,” or the themes/characteristics/voice that make her picture books distinct and recognizable, such as a zany sense of humor, or whimsical subject matter, or multicultural family tales. Because picture books are so expensive to publish, an editor prefers to make that investment in an author who has more than one idea along the same lines, the hope being that if the publisher is successful in pairing a complementary illustrator with a story and finding an audience for it, that same audience will seek out future stories from that team looking for similar themes or subjects, rather than the publisher doing all that work to find out that the author’s next ideas are completely dissimilar. An agent can help you refine and develop your brand as a picture book author and advise you as to which manuscripts to present together in order to give the editor the best overview of your work and the best idea of the kind of audience you’ll appeal to. 

Regarding the specific characteristics of various imprints, if you don’t know that a certain picture book line only publishes books under 300 words, you’re wasting your time submitting your 900-word manuscript, no matter how good it is, just as an imprint that only publishes middle-grade isn’t going to have a place for your early reader series. A good children’s agent is familiar with the parameters of the various imprints/lines and will help you avoid wasted submissions and dead-ends. 

 

And a related question about children’s books:I am a kidlit author & illustrator. Over the years I went from picture books to chapter books to novels and most recently to board books. I do the full span of kidlit formats, and it’s rare to find agents who are willing to represent all of them, and of those who do there can be specifications: only funny picture books, etc. It keeps me from submitting to them since not every picture I’ve written is funny. Should I submit anyway? Is there a way past this obstacle?”

You have to understand that nobody can represent everything. I don’t even review children’s books, since I don’t sell them, wI don’t have the background with them to feel terribly competent in exploring them, and don’t have the contacts in publishing to really sell them. So sending me a children’s manuscript is on par with sending me poetry – it’s pearls before swine. It might be great, but I wouldn’t know it. So my advice for you would be to do some research on the agents who represent the types of projects you write. If you’re not involved with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI, called “squibby”), check them out. They do local, regional, and national conferences, and are the leader in getting together authors and agents for children’s projects.

If I’ve published 2 books on my own, without an agent, does that make me more valuable or less valuable to a potential agent?”

Generally that would make you more valuable to a literary agent. It shows experience and the fact that publishers want to work with you. Of course, if you’re a novelist and both the books bombed, you may find it tough. Right now publishers are staying away from writers (even good writers) who have had a bad track record. (And I don’t say that to be negative, by the way – just pointing out the facts.)

“Will an agent represent a book that is actually two novellas in one volume? One POV character crosses over from the first book into the second.”

Beats me. They might if the writing was really good. Most agents aren’t looking at the format so much as the genre, the quality of the writing, and the personality of the writer. That said… I’m not sure this particular idea will appeal to agents. Are there some good comparable titles you could list, to show this has been done a bit?

“What is the single most important factor in your decision to rep and work with a new writer?”

Hmmm… There are several factors that are important to me – the voice in the writing, the importance of the book, the fact that the writer isn’t crazy… But if I had to pick one thing, for me it would probably be the salability of the project. If I don’t think I can sell it, then I’m not going to represent it, no matter how much I like the author or his/her work.

 

Got a question you’ve always wanted to ask an agent? Send it to me, and I’ll try to get to it this month!

 

The Pros and Cons of Prologues

March 11th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wThis week’s post is one I always think about writing after attending a writer’s conference, the reason being that, for every three manuscripts I’m handed at a conference, two of them (on average) begin with a prologue. Now, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with starting your book with a prologue, but over the past few years, there seems to have been an increase in authors treating a prologue like a required element of a novel. It’s not.  The problem with this trend is that, in many cases, these prologues are either boring, unnecessary, or straight-up misnamed, so that, right off the bat, I’m distracted or distanced from the story rather than drawn in the way I want to be by the first page of a manuscript. This doesn’t mean beginning with a prologue is always a bad idea, just that you should be sure you understand the function of a prologue and whether your story is best-served by one.

What is a prologue? A prologue is an introductory part of the story (meaning, it’s fictional– not to be confused with a forward or an introduction, which are written from the point of view of a real person such as an author, as opposed to a character or the narrator) that, for whatever reason, doesn’t “match” the rest of the story. Examples include a piece of the story told from a different perspective, such as when the prologue is told from the point of view of the murder victim while the rest of the story is told from the point of view of the murderer, or taking place in a different time period, such as when the prologue shows a scene which takes place during the Civil War while the rest of the story takes place in 1978. A prologue along these lines is used when an author wants to make sure the reader has a certain piece of information or sees the beginning events of the story through a specific lens. So, sure, there are times when a prologue is completely appropriate, even necessary, but there are more when it’s not. Here are a few of them:

  • When it’s an info-dump. There’s a difference between necessary backstory or an important scene/event from the past and an entire chapter of background information on your main character. I’d say about half of the prologues I see fall into this category. It makes sense– the backstory of your main character is often some of the first writing you do as you’re getting to know your characters and where they’re coming from, so it’s fine for a birth-to-present account of your main character’s life to be the first thing that ends up on the page, but it’s not where the story starts. It’s not the first thing you want people reading (which works out real well, since it’s also not the first thing people want to read). All that development is important for you to know, but your reader doesn’t need to know it all right at the beginning (and sometimes, they never need to know it). Let that information inform your writing, but don’t expect the reader to wade through it all to get to the story of what’s happening to your main character now. Note: this is especially applicable to fantasy novels– I need to be drawn immediately into the story and connect with the characters, and a “prologue” that’s really just a detailed history of your world’s politics and flora and fauna and warring unicorn herds doesn’t do that. Sow the information we NEED artfully throughout the novel, and get us involved and caring about the main characters in the present moment as soon as possible, keeping in mind that this doesn’t usually happen in a prologue.
  • When it’s unnecessary. Every character has defining moments in their past, every story is informed by past events, and sometimes, showing the reader one of these moments or events is an effective way to establish the stakes or set a certain tone– if the reader knows from the prologue that the main character watched his sister drown when he was seven, they’re immediately going to understand what’s at stake when he gets assigned to investigate a child’s drowning death. There’s a lot to be said, however, for letting some suspense build about why a character is so afraid of a particular circumstance or why she has such a problem with commitment– not every break-up or parents’ divorce or traumatic experience in a character’s past needs to be shown in a prologue, and I see a lot of manuscripts starting out with an unremarkable or non-compelling scene from the past; your story is often better served by starting with the events of your unique story rather than a scene that feels familiar. If a prologue doesn’t drastically affect the way the reader experiences the story, why include it?
  • When it’s mislabeled. Finally, I’ve seen plenty of manuscripts  in which the author seemed to think “prologue” is just what you’re supposed to call the first chapter– truly, “prologues” which are no different in tone or timeline or perspective from the rest of the manuscript are not prologues! Labeling them such doesn’t make your book fancier or more complex, it makes your reader confused about why content that’s part of the story proper has been labeled prologue.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not against a prologue that immediately draws me into the story by giving me vital information or sets the tone in an importent way, but it shouldn’t be used as a lazy substitute  for sowing backstory artfully throughout a book or thrown in just because you think you need one. Bring your reader into the book at the moment your story starts and get him to connect with your characters as soon as possible (and make sure the first pages an agent or editor read are representative of your writing skill– prologues sometimes don’t reflect the voice/technique of the rest of the manuscript). If the best way to do that is with a prologue, write a great one, and if your prologue gets in the way of that, get rid of it and good riddance!