Monday, January 2, 2012
Things my agents & editors have taught me over the years. (In case they thought I wasn't listening.)
I have had the great misfortune, I mean luck, of working with 3 agents and 5 editors and a couple of sharp-eyed copyeditors during my fiction career. I've learned from every single one of them (even when I wanted to strangle them, like Editor #2, or as I lovingly called her, The Dominatrix.)
1. Your main character doesn't have to be likable, but he/she has to have spunk. Spunk in the past or spunk in the present. Wounded spunk, subtle spunk, suppressed spunk that slowly works its way to the surface.
2. When plotting, logic is your friend. Coincidence is your enemy.
3. When describing, be concrete. Mementos over memories. The soft hand of the sheets matters as much as the harshness of the dreams.
4. No one could ever sigh as much as women sigh in early drafts. It's not medically possible. Could they maybe breathe deeply once in a while, or shrug their shoulders, or shuffle their feet?
5. I tend to think of character’s back story as boring cocktail party small talk. Readers, not so much. Readers naturally wonder about characters' pasts. So clue them in now and then. Let their backgrounds shine through by constantly asking yourself, “Why?”
3. Try to leave every chapter with a hook to the next. But don't let this hook be obvious, like “Jenna was about to learn how very wrong she was.” Yes, this is harder than planting potatoes in a frozen field. But do it anyway.
6. Don’t let anyone tell you differently: A little bit of “telling” is absolutely fine. IF it’s brilliantly written.
7. The title of the book has to feel like the genre and style of your writing. You may have inadvertently titled your chick lit book with a high falutin’ literary title. Or your mystery may have a title that sounds like non-fiction, leading people to believe an actual murder has been committed. It needs to match, so the reader’s expectations are properly met.
8. Make the acknowledgments at the back of the book as complicated and effusive as you like, but keep the dedication simple and humble. A too-lofty dedication can set the wrong tone.
9. Read and revise your manuscript onscreen, sure, but also print it out, and staple the chapters together. The act of reading it on paper uses different mental muscles.
10. The opening sentence is far, far, more important than the closing one.
11. That being said, if you screw up the ending no reader will ever forgive you. Think long and hard about what would be an emotionally satisfying ending. Not a happy one, necessarily, or a beautifully written one. But an emotionally satisfying one.
12. If you screw up the middle, you won’t be alone. Many writers’ books have flaws in the middle. However, yours isn’t going to be one, so put some more plot in the freaking middle, would you?
13. There are really two types of writers: Those who need to be told no no no, no more of that! Get rid of that! And those that need to be told yes, yes, yes, more more more of that! Put more in! Figure out which you are, and try to act accordingly.