Writing advice as ingredients, not recipes

As promised yesterday, here are some of the techniques I’ve used to advance my writing. Nothing on this list is revolutionary. I’ve heard them said a thousand times, but until I was ready to admit that I didn’t know how to write as well as I thought I could. I talked the talk, but I sold four stories in ten years between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five. I realized that I was taking a lot of shortcuts, especially show don’t tell. I was starting the story far too close to the end so that all the good bits needed to be infodumped or flashbacked, both of which interrupt the flow.

As a comparison, I sent out six stories last month and got four acceptances. Writing is an art, but there’s also a particular skill set that can take an idea, marry it with a character, give them a house to act as their world and say something about life in general when you’re talking about what those characters in specific. I don’t want to show people how to make the perfect cheese souffle and all of its many variations. It’s more like showing a person what you can do with an egg. These are ingredients, they aren’t recipes.

1. Write the book you want with the character you want, but then go back and edit in all you know about the character from page one. Your character is going to let you know his fears, his needs, his wants, what he tells people his reasons are and what his reasons actually are under all of that. Each scene needs to show the reader who this character is and why he’s doing what he’s doing. Go back and put in that unique spark you found around chapter twenty or so so that the reader can fall in love with him, too.

2. I want to fall in love with your main character and you want me to fall in love with your main character so do not put barriers up between the main character and me until after I’ve fallen in love. Each book is uniquely different, of course and we all start with a touch of skepticism that this main character is going to let us down, especially for us cynical writer types reading an unpublished novel. That poor intern from yesterday’s post has had her heart broken too many times by characters who promised to be wonderful but didn’t deliver. She wants to find the main character that people are going to love whole-heartedly.  You want your reader want to follow this guy to the ends of the earth, from this 100,000 word story through six sequels and a movie. This is one of the ones that can easily be broken if you have the skills to do so. I’ve said this before, but take note of Donald Maass’s observation that heroic characters should do something everyday, everyman characters should do something heroic, and wounded protagonists should want to be better. That’s more recipe than ingredient list, but it’s one of those recipes you use all the time, like sauteing onions and garlic in a bit of butter or oil. There are hundreds of thousands of recipes that start with this and it’s just the beginning steps. Instead of looking at it like a recipe, think of it as an ingredient that is “onions and garlic, sauteed for the right amount of time.

3. Give your character a goal at the start of the book. Keep adding onto the list. For the first have, don’t cross off a goal without opening at least one (but hopefully two…or more!) more that are harder/more dangerous/can of worm-y. ABE. Always Be Escalating for that first half of the novel. Once your book goes from the ‘Oh, crap, how am I going to get this thing to be up to 100,000 words?’ to ‘Oh, crap, how am I going to wrap this all up just 100,000 words?’ you can start meshing goals or combining them or have the main character realize they can’t do both X and Y if they want to have K. And if they want K, then Q and R are out. Sacrifice and realizing no matter how much you try, you can’t always get what you want is a huge emotional moment for characters that readers love to roll around in.

4. Until you build up some reader’s trust, it is a lot harder to write an understated character than it is to write a character that’s WYSIWYG. Unless you pull off the understatedness sublimely, it’s going to read as bland. Remember the intern at her desk? She’s going to extend to you a small amount of suspended disbelief, but the number of unread messages in her inbox embarrassing and she would probably like to get a coffee before starting in on her afternoon tasks. This isn’t an absolute rule, but it’s an A is easier than B if C is your goal. If you want to write the best understated character in a first novel in the world, then writing understated characters is easier than not writing understated characters. But writing engaging (stated? Is that a word?) characters who are what they seem is a much better way to go about it if your goal is to write the best story you can, rather than to approach it as the point of an experimental writing exercise.

5. Robert J .Sawyer says that it’s the moments of the book where the characters are acting out of character that are the most emotional for the reader. I love that concept. You spend all your time showing your reader that which Character A is in situation B he will always do Action C. But in the high emotionally moment, the character does the opposite of what he would always do. This tip is more like a recipe for a cheese souffle than another ingredients, but you really need to take your time to create the perfect cheese souffle base, then keep it in the oven for the exact right moment at the exact right temperature, and whip it out when your guests are at their hungriest. But even if they’re the most delicious recipe in the world, use them too many times and their charm is gone. Mess any part of that up, and you’ve got cheesy scrambled eggs or a hockey puck that people are tired of.

The great part is, unless you really, really over-do them, even if they collapse, the scrambled eggs is still going to taste good. Souffle making is a practice make perfect kind of thing, and you’re not going to master the art of it by reading videos and blog posts. You need to write.

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