Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Is Your Novel Obese or Anorexic?

Take a deep, relaxing breath then chant: "Story first! Story first! Story first!" Until you've got it ingrained for the day.

I'm going to write mostly from the perspective of a reader. You know, one of those vital people you need to read your work and buy it. And if any of you other readers would like to chime in on this, please do. The comments are open.

I'm noticing a trend lately in both published and unpublished novels, a disturbing trend. Here are the two sides:

The obese novel (usually found among the unpublished, but some published novels too): In these cases the writer has put in too much information, went on too many tangents, or is too caught up in their world-building to worry about anything else. The manuscripts are fat, indulgent, and this is the most common trend.

The anorexic novel: These poor manuscripts (which I've usually found among the published) are too thin. Key scenes and points of growth are omitted. Transitions are skimmed over to get from Point A to B too quickly, and I come away feeling rushed and disappointed.

I read one bestselling novel that finished off a series and was ready for everything to be tied up and resolved. It felt like the author skimmed over everything but the big blow-up scenes. I came away from the series somewhat satisfied but not that "Oh that was a great book!" satisfied. A pity too because it was a series I'd really enjoyed. Another couple of novels I've recently read have kept in transitions at the expense of the payoff scenes or did little to develop characters or plot.

Word count gods aside, genre expectations aside, (may no editor or agent dive-bomb me on this one because this is Joyce the Reader speaking) it's the story that counts overall. The tricky part is striking a balance between too much and too little. A reader needs to be enticed in the beginning, needs to enjoy the journey during the middle, and needs to feel satisfaction over the outcome. Putting in irrelevant information, going on tangents, skipping key scenes or necessary transitions—all are red flags to me, as the reader, that the heart of the story was shoved aside for some other reason.

Readers don't enjoy something bloated or something with only skin and bones.

How do you make sure your manuscript is keeping the story as the prime objective?

1. Stay true to your vision but also remember that the point of publishing is to share your vision with readers. They need to understand and enjoy that vision in order to want to read it.

There are usually too camps, one which says to write only for yourself and one which says to write to sell. Both are right and both are wrong. It's a balance. The writer must enjoy what they are writing but they also must keep in mind their target audience and their expectations. Writing only for yourself (and planning to publish) is selfish and indulgent. Writing only to sell is callous and the stories usually lack passion. Take your story and make sure that it is something you really want to write about and then know the ways to make that story appealing to readers. It doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your style or voice. It doesn't mean you have to create a made-to-order book. Maybe those elements you are clinging to (that aren't reader friendly) aren't true to your story anyway. In fact, they may be killing it.

2. Know what the heart of your story is. Strip all else away and take a moment to stare, wonder, and examine your story. Then keep that in front of your thoughts as you write.

Some people find it helpful to write their query letter first in order to do just this. Keeping focused on what the heart of the story is will help you avoid tangents and keep you on track when writing scenes. Every scene needs to move the story forward. Your details need to enhance the story, not merely exist for the sake of existing. Likewise, removing all necessary details and scenes or transitions kills the momentum and power of the story.

3. Readers want to go on a journey. It's one of the reasons we read. We don't want a writer to state the situation and characters then zoom right to the resolution. The middle of the story is the most powerful part—more powerful than the beginning or ending. Without a strong middle, the climax isn't so climactic and the promising beginning stumbles and falls.

4. Watch for obvious teasers. Teasers are used to drag out situations and create suspense. If done too much or if nothing new is learned or happens then these teasers become annoying to the reader. Especially if it's the same kind of teaser over and over for the sake of inflating a novel. In many cases, the writer is no longer thinking or planning on good transitions. They're too caught up in the beginning meets the ending without building a solid middle.

5. Watch your world-building. Writers must take the time to plan out and create their world, especially in the fantasy genres and sometimes the science-fiction ones. This kind of creativity is intoxicating and fun. We're playing God here and are the ones making up the rules. We're excited to share this new world with the rest of the real world. But sometimes we make the mistake of thinking the real world is going to want to embrace our world completely right off the bat. Other writers' worlds have fan sites and pages, games, movies, spin-off books, and such—why not ours? So the excited writer throws in the weight of their made-up world into their story. Entire chapters are devoted to it. What's wrong with this? There is no story, no development, and no reason for a reader to want to build a fan site.

Story first. The details of your world should be active not passive. And only those that are active and that move the story along should be included. The rest should be saved for when you have legions of fans that are now invested in your world and want more.

6. Word count balance beam. Yes, there are guidelines for word count for every genre. Yes, some agents and editors embrace these guidelines as rules and are usually the most visual and vocal in proclaiming them. Yes, you don't want to go overboard with your word count. Less is often more, after all.

But don't become so chained to your word count guidelines that you sacrifice the story. Some stories are larger and more epic than others and larger word counts are the only way to do them justice. Some stories would like to be epic and aren't, they're jiggling fat rather than muscle. In most cases, unpublished writers tend to inflate their novels. So I'd like to send a plea to the published authors. You're already through the door so please don't hack out important parts of your story for the sake of rigid word count. And if you have to hack something out because your publisher says the book's too big, work hard to keep the essential journey and key scenes, not all the other stuff. I'd rather read how a character transitions from one way of thinking to another than read about how their clothes looked, or read a dialogue banter that doesn't go anywhere.

The anorexic story trends worry me more than the obese ones. Most of us are aware of story obesity and are trying to cut out the fat. The anorexic stories aren't as widely discussed. Mention adding more to a novel in some circles will make some writers who don't need to do so. But I'd like to put out there, in this online world, that there are anorexic stories and that I'm one reader who dislikes them.

Know the heart of the story. Know the necessary steps to get from the beginning to the end and don’t skip them. Stories that build and offer a good payoff are the ones more readers will want to read and recommend to their friends and family. When in doubt whether something should stay or go, please always opt for the good of the story.

Thoughts, examples, other reader vents you’d like to get off your chest? Now’s your chance.

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