Friday, November 20, 2009

Good writing vs. a good story

From an email I sent to my crit partner (and soon-to-be bestselling author) Brigid Kemmerer (forgive my laziness, but this is the only way I'll get a post up this week):

"People who write well don't necessarily craft stories that connect with readers. Doing so is a skill many lack." (author Georgia McBride)

That's how I'm feeling lately. I'm not beating myself up. I'm just agreeing with her that being a good writer (or amazingly talented ;-) ) doesn't help if I'm working with the wrong story. And it's very frustrating because, of course, it's all subjective. And just because I connect with what I've written doesn't mean more than a handful of others will. So it's hard to plot out a story and say, "Okay, *this* is one 73% of the people who read it will like" because how do we judge subjectively for *others*? Don't follow the trends, they say... which I've never been tempted to do because I know how quickly they change and because as much as I might love a good vampire story, for instance, I wouldn't know how to write one that wouldn't be a rehash of someone else's.

Very few authors are read purely because they're good writers. I'll go back to the most well-written book I've read in the last five years: A Widow for One Year by John Irving. The story? A little girl is abandoned by her mother when she's five, because her mother can no longer BE a mother after her two older sons are killed in a car crash. The little girl grows up under the poor watch of her father, who is a womanizer. As a woman, the girl becomes a writer and reconnects with the boy (now man) who babysat her the last summer she had her mother around. The boy was her mother's lover for those few months and has never gotten over her (the mother, that is). At the end of the book--the last few pages--the mother returns, and I wept. It's all about relationships and angst and pain, and the writing was phenomenal. I read and re-read passages just to figure out how Irving had come up with a turn of phrase. But the story? Meh. Boring, frankly. But he's John Irving! He can write anything and people will read it because he's that amazing. And if they don't like it, they'll assume they missed something because, come on, it's JOHN IRVING.

So writers--not just me--can hone their craft until every sentence they write is perfect. But that doesn't mean anyone will read their book (or that any agent will represent it) if they don't recognize a good story from a mediocre or bad one. Unless they're John Irving. And there are SO few John Irvings out there.

There are hundreds of blogs that talk about how to improve your writing. But for coming up with the right idea for that writing? Nothing. And there shouldn't be really. I mean, if there were a formula--or a set of formulas--we'd be reading the same 12 story lines over and over.

But if there were a way to find out whether your own idea is worth saving or dumping? That I wouldn't mind knowing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

No excuses

As a mother of four, I've heard more excuses than I can begin to list--more than you want me to begin to list. And I don't like hearing them.

As a reader, I'm not so crazy about them either. And as a writer, I know I've made a few of my own.

I was reviewing some chapters for someone recently and came across a few instances of the author making excuses for her main character. I've been guilty of this, and 'even' published authors are often guilty of this. I read a NYT YA bestseller this weekend that had the main character trying to explain to the reading audience--without addressing the audience directly--why she was doing what she was doing although it might not make sense. The thing is, it did make sense, and the explanation (i.e., excuse!)ended up being distracting and took me out of the story. I ended up thinking more about the author sitting at her computer, saying, "Crap. I'm afraid the audience is going to think Main Character did this out of the blue. I don't want them to think I don't know what I'm doing. I better explain in case they're not catching on." It was jarring, and, frankly, frustrating.

Here's my advice as a reader: If it doesn't make sense, don't have your character do it. If your character has to make excuses, then you know she's acting out of character. For example, if Maisy is shy and quiet and scared of her own shadow, chances are she's not going to run for class president. So don't surprise us with that move. If, on the other hand, Maisy is shy and quiet and scared of her own shadow but wants to change, and her little brother's cancer has made her realize life is too short to stay hidden, and so she decides to run for class president, we'll understand why she's doing what she's doing because we've been following her for the last 70 pages. (*takes deep breath after long sentence*)You don't need to tell us, "This wasn't something Maisy normally would have done but nothing was normal anymore." We already know. Again: Remember? We've read this far already. We're great friends with Maisy by now.

It's about more than giving your reader credit. It's about giving yourself credit for having created a character that we're getting to know well enough to know what his/her motivations are. And if you really, truly believe you have to spell out those motivations, then something is wrong with the story up to this point. You need to go back and ask yourself, "Where have I missed the opportunity to let my readers get to know my characters better?"

And, please . . . no more excuses.