A guy the AKA (Gwen Hunter) knows, a lawyer who did some work for us back in the 1990s, asked me/us to read his book opening. Actually it was 16 pages of concept thrown onto the pages, single spaced, a lot for shock value. It read like a short story that needed a lot of work, or like a rough outline for a novel, with a JD Salinger ending. I read it and sent him a letter back, then we talked on the phone.
I know this guy. (Let’s call him Simon.) He’s a smart, funny, Southern lawyer, who can talk rings around me, and most other people. He’s my age-ish, he writes legal papers and briefs, and now the idea of writing this book has taken him over. Suddenly Simon has a burning desire to write. It’s fun to watch the writing-bug grab hold of a new vict…er…person.
NOTE: Each individual bit of the advice I gave him would not fit everyone here, because it was tailored to fit him, his personality, legal training, and his project. Yet, because most of my advice was basic to any genre, I asked his permission to present it here at MagicalWords.Net. Without giving away Simon’s story (changing parts but still keeping the flavor) and with his permission, here it is:
General Comments From Me:
Your novel has three parts: The intro, where he fights the court-ordered AA-type meeting, the middle where he suddenly, for no reason, feels a change coming over him and launches into this tale of murder and its solution, and the ending, where he sorta flips off the reader, having gotten the reader invested in the tale and then, in the last line, tells the reader it was all a lie to satisfy the leader of the AA meeting and get out with the required signature.
The 16 pages have a good voice and a good story, but the presentation implies it could be more than one story. Or it starts in the wrong place. It starts off as a tale of redemption because major scenes take place in rehab. Frankly, because there are a blue-million of them, rehab stories about the fight to sobriety won’t sell in NYC unless you do something funky with it like make a fantasy story and he’s attending WA (witch anonymous.) That might sell, but it isn’t what you are writing.
Then the story switches and becomes a murder mystery, which has a better chance of selling. Because it’s a first novel, however, you will need to present your story within a commonly accepted murder mystery format with a commonly accepted (bang for your buck mostly happy) ending. You don’t do either. An editor will not know how to slot your book (market your book among existing company models), and will, therefore, have less of a chance of buying it.
The plot line wanders. A lot. You need to decide what your book is about and write that.
The character voice wanders and needs to be solidified, but in places is crystal clear and reads like really good Southern fiction. Three stories: Redemption, Murder, Southern Fic.
It you just want to write a novel for self expression go for it with what you have. If you want to write a novel to sell, I do have advice.
I want to write it to sell. But I don’t know how to go about it.
Below are the back-and-forth comments about his novel and how to craft one. My comments are in parentheses at the end of each segment, with more afterwards.
- whoooew. never took a creative writing class so not used to being critiqued. no hurt feelings; just trying to put it in the context of what i’m supposed to do to fix it, but i reckon that’s what writing at night and thinking about it is for… (Me: Yes. Exactly.)
- one sentence summary of my story: it is a murder mystery where this kid tells his story to a randomly picked rehab group, and i picked a group only so he’d be telling it to someone and have a reason to be telling the story…but i could just have him telling the story to the reader while describing this life in this society in which he lives, which was really gonna be a “great southern novel meets Holden Caulfield (the character in Catcher in the Rye) meets murder mystery” …and i was going to just go thru the story and his search for the killer; and was thinking about having him leave the church at the end and having (the murder victim herself) pick him up in her car to go home. (Me: The opening is long enough to lead me, as a reader, into believing that this is a tale of the streets where a street kid makes a turn for the right path. It lasts all the way through the book, to the *screw you* ending. It’s a *screw-you* ending because there never was a murder. He never actually recovered from drug abuse. This would totally tick off the demographics: the redemption book readers who what him to succeed, and the mystery readers who want a satisfying ending. As a literary novel it might work. This isn’t a literary novel. As straight Southern Fic it might work. This isn’t that either, though it has many elements of a Southern Mystery.)
- the problem i already see are how is he as a kid gonna do all this, so i may change his age up a little bit. (Me: Perfect. Your brain is already picking apart the holes. You are already thinking like a writer or an analytical reader. Yes, he’s too young in the scenes from his early POV. The main character in Grisham’s The Client would be as young as you should go. The Client would be a great novel for you to use as a teaching tool. More on this later.)
- how does it come off as a tale of redemption…because he is at rehab? (Me: Yep. And because all the important scenes take place there. Three scenes are about other people and he is just an observer. His own story doesn’t start until over a third of the way through. This is his story. You should start a novel in the direction it is supposed to go. The reader should have a grasp of what they are reading by end of page 1.)
- when you say it wanders and needs to tighten up do you mean not to interject unrelated issues or things into the tale as i go, or use them later? (Me: Right. Both. Suspense requires info be doled out slowly, not given all at once as an info dump. You want these southern relationships to be the flavor of the book, the special stuff that makes it read as a Southern Mystery, so you want to place bits of it at a time, like the onion in a lasagna.)
- i guess i was talking about the other folks in town, legal stuff etc to try to cram it all in…would filling in a lot of details, transformations, etc to space out and organize this stuff better be what you are talking about…? (Me: Exactly. This stuff is not the story. The story is a Southern murder mystery / who done it. These Southern details are the flavor of the book, the details of small town life that will ratchet up the tension and give you, the author, things to draw on that will make the reader care about the people and the main character. Empathy is vital and this stuff, these details of life, will give the reader empathy, will make him care.)
If Simon were John Grisham he could write it as outlined. If he was an established literary writer, he could pull it off. As a first time mystery novelist, no one is gonna buy it. Though there are exceptions, 99% of first time novelists have to follow a format, must put their story into a shape and form that is familiar to an agent, editor, and first-time reader, and give the reader an ending that makes him happy, not an ending that makes him feel like a fool.
Now, let’s deal with the larger questions in light of who Simon (the writer) is. First, he needs to learn how to impart the plot line (the facts and conflict of the story) in a way that will build suspense. John Grisham’s The Client is a novel by a Southern lawyer, about some kids who discover a dead body in a car in the woods. It was great. He needs to learn how to parse out his book concept like that.
I suggest that he go buy the book, 3 or 4 different color markers, and colored sticky notes and read the novel with a pen, a legal pad, and the new supplies handy. One color marker will have one purpose, to mark sections that increase suspense. One color for stuff he hates. One color for setting, color, and flavor. Maybe a fourth color for How Tos: how write a flashback, how write dialogue, how to write courtroom scenes or action.
On each page where something happens to further the plot, put a sticky note and on the note, give one short line what happened. Tear the book apart. Write in the margins. Make notes. And on the side, on the legal pad, outline the book. Put page numbers so you can see the progression page by page, scene by scene.
Simon is a lawyer, so I advised him to think like a lawyer, learn to be a writer like a lawyer might. That part of his brain, that *dissect, devour, and destroy* part, is already honed and sharp. For all of us: Use the skills and talents already in place and build your creative thinking around them.
Last thing (and this I didn’t share in quite this way with my friend on the phone, so he’s reading it for the first time here) a character should never tell his story. He should experience it. If the story starts like it currently does, at an AA meeting, then, when he starts to tell the tale, it has to be written as a flashback, dropping the reader into the past and making it immediate. (This is called a story within a story novel or SWAS.) Not a narrative as it is written now. He can’t tell the story, he has to live it so the reader will live it with him. So the reader will empathize. Will care.
I don’t give this kind of advice to every writer wannabe who comes to me for advice (though becoming an analytical reader is always helpful) but it fit this particular guy, this particular brain. All real advice has to be tailored to the person asking. And the person giving it has to then step back and let the writer in the wannabe develop and take over. That’s hard for a control freak. (Me???) So if you read this advice it and toss it across the room, or blog about how awful it is, I’m not offended. (grins) Really.
But I might sic my lawyer on you! (laughing)