Tomorrow, I’ll be heading out to Calgary, Alberta, for ConVersion, a sf/fantasy convention. The organizers have been kind enough to make me their literary guest of honor, and so I’ll be giving talks, perhaps reading from some of my work, and sitting on various panels. (I’ll also get to meet several actors from the Star Trek universe, including Marina Sirtis, John de Lancie, Ethan Phillips, Chase Masterson, and Robert Picardo.) Before the conference begins, I’ll be leading a two-day writers’ workshop. I’ve spent the last week reading manuscripts for the workshop, and that’s what I want to post about today.
As I’ve read, I’ve noticed some recurring issues. I suppose they’re things that all of us struggle with, whether we’re still trying to publish that first piece or completing our ump-teenth novel. And so, here is a brief primer on a few of the more common problems that crop up when we write:
1. Point of View — Wandering point of view is one of those problems that seems to come up all the time. It’s not that writing in omniscient point of view — with a narrative voice that hops from character to character telling you what every person in a given scene is thinking or feeling — is wrong. In fact, there was a time a couple of decades ago when this was the standard. But in today’s market, limited third person POV is the norm, and most editors will view a wandering narrative voice, as opposed to one that stays with a single character in each scene or chapter, as a flaw. This is not to say that your novel can’t have several POV characters, but when you switch from one POV to another you should give your readers a clear visual clue in the form of a chapter or section break. Other point of view issues tend to be more matters of taste. For instance, one of the stories I read used first person POV and present tense. In most cases, I would warn the writer away from these, because in today’s market these are risky choices. But in this case, the choices work very well with the story.
2. Overwriting — Read the opening pages of your favorite book. I don’t care who the author is: Neil Gaiman, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tim Powers, Misty Massey, Faith Hunter, C. E. Murphy. Chances are, what you’ll find is prose that is lean, simple, direct, and, for these reasons, very effective. What I’ve seen in a couple of the manuscripts I’ve read this week, as well as those I have looked at for previous workshops, is overly ornate prose. Sometimes it will be in the form of descriptive passages that rely on language that is so dense as to be rendered unreadable. Sometimes it will be overuse of a thesaurus, leading to passages that are so grandiloquent as to be bedizened, lexiphanic, and, dare I say it, meretricious. There is nothing wrong with eloquence. Descriptions that rely on unusual prose can be incredibly effective. But overwriting for its own sake doesn’t work. Let your narrative and your characters speak for themselves. We’re writing stories here. Yes, at times we want them to be beautiful. But we always want them to be readable.
3. Fidelity to Character — One of the great challenges of storytelling is finding a balance between the needs of our characters and the requirements of our narrative. Whether we are working on a book or a piece of short fiction, we are trying to tell a story. We are following a plot. But, if we have done our jobs as writers, we are also developing characters and writing about their growth. What happens when plot development and character arc come in conflict? Quite often we try to bend our characters’ behavior to fit the demands of our narrative. To be honest, sometimes we have no choice. In our real lives we often have to sublimate our needs and desires to circumstance, so why shouldn’t our characters have to do the same? Well, because fiction and reality are different. When writing a story, we have to avoid making our characters do things that don’t mesh with the personalities and personal histories we have given them. Because our readers, we hope, are going to be drawn to these people; they’re going to identify with them; they’re going to come to expect certain patterns of behavior from them. And if we suddenly send our characters in directions that don’t work with all that we’ve established about them, our readers are going to be ticked off. We have to allow our characters to be true to who and what they are . . .
4. Disciplining our Characters — . . . To a point. The fact is that if we’ve done our jobs correctly, our characters are going to behave very much like real people. They will be assertive to the point of willfulness; they will be self-centered and will try to make the book all about them. And it is our job as authors to keep them in line. They may want to take our books in a direction that has nothing to do with the plot we have slaved over and nurtured. And we may decide that they’re right and we were wrong. Or we may decide that our characters are certifiable and it’s time to rein them in. The point is we have to be the one making that decision. I love it when my characters surprise me, when they take a story thread in a direction I never anticipated. That tells me that they have come alive in a sense, that they have become something more than names and lists of attributes jotted down on a page. But ultimately, they are still creatures of my creation, and I need them to do the things that plot and (planned) character arc call for.
5. Knowing the Beginning and the End — This probably sounds pretty basic. We should all know when the story we’re writing starts, when it’s over, right? Well, sometimes it’s not as obvious as it should be. Sometimes what we think is the beginning of the story is really the middle, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that should have come before that we haven’t put in yet. Other times, just the opposite happens: we begin a story WAY too early in the timeline, and wind up with a narrative that languishes for the first ten or twenty or fifty pages. And endings can be even harder. I’ve read stories that were brilliant for twenty pages, but should have ended on page 21 instead of page 35. And I’ve also read stories that ended on page 21 but really needed another ten pages to resolve the central conflict. How do we know what’s right? I can usually determine this for myself when I reread and revise, but I’ve been doing this for a really long time. Early in my career, I needed help with these issues from my beta readers and my editor. To a certain degree it’s a matter of trial and error. But if a story isn’t working and you can’t figure out why, you might want to ask yourself if the beginning and ending are where they should be.
6. Maintaining Proper Tone — I like to put moments of levity in my books. I like to have my characters say funny things that I know will amuse my readers. But I also have to guard against my real-life penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Our books and stories have a certain tone that we should try to establish early on. Different tones work for different books. But my point is this: Whether our books are funny or serious, irreverent or somber, they should be consistent. Now my books tend to be fairly serious, and still I try to put in those occasional light moments. I’m not contradicting myself. Really. This is another of those trial and error things that beta readers can help us balance. Blending moments of levity with serious narrative elements is fine. Writing a story that can’t decide if it wants to be a serious epic fantasy or a farcical romp is not. It takes time to develop a sense of where that right balance can be found, but it is a crucial skill that all writers should work on.
7. Maintaining Credibility — This is a site devoted to fantasy and other subgenres of speculative fiction. So it might seem odd that I would end with a statement about maintaining a sense of realism. But as we have discussed here before, writing fantasy does not give us license to write things that make no sense. Magic systems need to be consistent; they need to have rules and limitations. Plots should follow logical progressions, even if every step along that rational path isn’t revealed until the end. Surprising readers is fine, so long as we don’t tick them off by changing the rules to make the surprises work.
So, do any of these problems sound familiar? Or are you grappling with other issues?David B. Coe