You can invest your very soul in writing a whooole book. And, in the end, it can suck.
Writing is a talent which is innate to many of us, but like any other skill, it must be developed and honed. Phreak Show is either my 3rd or 4th novel–depends on which way the tally is done. I do not want it to suck. So, I have been reading the ‘competition’, as well as books on writing craft. To further polish my grasp of this seemingly simple [bullshit!] craft of writing, I constantly explore relevant blogs, and even dished out the dough and attended an SCBWI conference last month.
And I feel far more prepared, knowledgeable and humble this time around.
Along the way, I have collected bits and pieces of advice, tips, keys, and ‘secrets’ to crafting an amazing novel. Finally, I have them all typed up and congealed into a single, personal reference file. These have come from all the above mentioned sources, but I admit I have been lax in recording the attributions. I’m guessing a lot of these tidbits came from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel. Most of them, I have paraphrased or rewritten in my own words so they make sense to my specific brainwaves. I can’t claim ownership of any of these nuggets, but I hope they offer you the same bit of guidance they offer me.
THE BIG PICTURE
– The essence of story is conflict.
– The mind doesn’t know the difference between an imagined thing and a real one.
– Above and beyond setting, characters and plot, great novels alter our way of seeing the world. Amazing novels do not leave us feeling neutral; they rattle, confront and illuminate.
– Throughout every scene and twist, steer away from the obvious.
– The time-tested development tool of asking “What if [insert alternate option here]?” while creating, offers a way to escalate stakes, add layers to plot and character, and open new thematic dimensions.
– We read fiction not to just see ourselves, but also to imagine ourselves as we might be.
– The moment tension slacks off, so does a reader’s attention. Include tension on every page to keep the reader glued to your story.
– A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise, and climax [or reversal] at the end.
If you do not start with a strong premise, your story is doomed to be mediocre. A great premise should contain these key ingredients:
– Plausibility: It should contain a grain of truth, come from someplace real. It should be surprising yet credible. Readers will be concerned about the outcome of the story if what is happening to the characters could happen to them.
– Inherent Conflict: Where there is conflict, there is rich soil in which to plant a story. The world should have strong conflict woven into its very fabric. (e.g. Strong opposing forces—perhaps both in the ‘right’)
– Originality: Steer away from the obvious. It is essential to find a fresh angle, an unusual perspective. This often involves tapping into a previously unexplored aspect of a familiar subject.
– Gut Emotional Appeal: Create a premise with a strong emotion built in. It should feel personal, and touch emotions that are deep, real, and common to us all.
– High stakes yield high success. Make the stakes in your manuscript as high as they can possibly be. Escalate the stakes. Put more at risk—much more.
– A combination of high public stakes and deep personal stakes is the most powerful engine a truly amazing novel can have.
– What makes a novel memorable? Conflicts that are deep, credible, complex, and universal enough that a great number of readers can relate.
– Having your protagonist face a moral choice is one of the most powerful conflicts any novel can present.
– Push your central problem far beyond what any reader might anticipate or imagine.
– Conflict must undergo complication. It must twist, turn, deepen, and grow. Make it deeper, richer, more layered, more unavoidable, and more inescapably true.
– Use mystery. Between what we are supposed to know and what we do know—questions unanswered—there is tension.
– When conflicting ideas, values, or morals are set against each other, it grips our imaginations because we ache to resolve that higher conflict.
– Readers identify primarily with one strong, sympathetic character. It is this character’s destiny about which they most care.
– All great characters are larger than life. They act, speak and think in ways we cannot. They say things we wish we had said and do things we dream about doing. They also express for us our greatest purposes and deepest desires. They are us. That is the reason we identify with them.
– Great main characters are principled, opinionated, and passionate. They do not sit on the sidelines. They act.
– The characters in your story will not engross readers unless they are out of the ordinary. Identify what is extraordinary in otherwise ordinary people.
– Every protagonist needs a torturous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret, a visible dream, a passionate longing, an inescapable ambition, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an unavoidable obligation, an iron instinct, an irresistible plan, an undying hope…Which of these defines your main character’s motivation, drive, and inner turmoil?
– Depth is the secret to memorable characters. Fully rounded, 3-D characters have many sides, complex motives, and act in ways which surprise us.
– Test your characters’ principles and strongly held beliefs to the uttermost. Push them to the extreme.
– Push your characters to the edge. Be willing to make your protagonist suffer. Kill his/her ally. Take away his/her greatest asset. Undermine whatever s/he holds sacred. Shorten the amount of time in which s/he has to solve the main problem.
– A character’s stakes will resonate with the reader only to the extent that the character is sympathetic. When characters are strong and appealing (better still, portrayed warmly and with intimate candor) the stakes feel high, and readers’ interest also runs high.
– Self-sacrifice is the highest form of heroism. It is the ultimate expression of love and, as such, is about the most powerful action a character can perform.
– The guiding principle of cast construction is contrast. Secondary characters are most useful when they disagree or produce friction with your main character. Or, even better, add unforeseen complications to the main problem.
– Combine roles in the cast whenever possible. (e.g. A lifelong friend can also be the doctor, an ex-lover can be the antagonist, etc.)
– “Setup” is, by definition, not story. It always drags. Always. Leave it out.
– A great story involves great events. In the course of the story, your characters must find themselves in unusual, dramatic and meaningful situations.
– The central problem generally grows and grows until it seems to have no solution.
– Ask: How can what is happening matter even more?
– Ask: How could things get worse for the characters? When would be the worst moment in the narrative for them to get worse?
– Striving to attain the impossible is a struggle from which we cannot take our eyes.
– To lend an enlarged perspective—a sense that the universe is paying attention to what is happening—shatter or protagonist with a tragedy, or give him/her an unexpected gift. These things happen in real-life. Little miracles become our personal myths.
– Consider motivating your main characters in complex ways. Put them in situations that are difficult, but in which the right path is not obvious.
– The promise of transformation is what gives the journey of self-discovery its deep-rooted attraction.
– Narrative momentum resides in the main plot; subplots put on the brakes. The scene following a high point is often a good place to introduce a subplot scene.
– Subplots should only be included if they affect the outcome of the main plotline. If it complicates, bears upon, mirrors, or reverses the main plot, then it adds value. Otherwise, leave it out. It is dead weight.
– Great plot twists stem from a sudden elevation—or fall—from one level to another.
– Climaxes are both inner and outer, both plot-specific and emotionally charged. The payoff needs to fully plumb the depths in both ways if it is to satisfy.
– The secret to a strong ending is allowing your protagonist the continuing possibility for failure.
– Either relegate it to the backseat or make it the chassis on which everything rides. But DO NOT ignore it.
– Create a fictional world that exists convincingly, wholly, and compellingly apart and unto itself. The best novels sweep you away, whisk you into their world, transport you to other times or places, and hold you captive there.
– Include specific, unique emotional responses to places. This is the secret ingredient in making a setting breathe. Also, show the change in the character’s emotional response to a particular place over the course of the novel.
– Bring your characters alive in a distinct place and time which is alive itself: period, culture, human outlook, historical moment, spiritual mood, etc.
So, there you have it. A list of truths I am using to try my damndest to keep Phreak Show from being a mediocre suckfest. There are lots of other pointers swimming in my head along with the ideas. And I am hanging the novel on the framework of 4-part story structure, infused with concepts of The Hero’s Journey. We’ll see how it goes, but early reports indicate that–so far–this 3rd [or 4th?] novel doesn’t suck.