Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
November 2012

One Really Good Story
Or don't tell me about what happens in Book 3

It happens fairly often that, while trying to critique chapter one of book one, a writer will interrupt a critique with descriptions of what happens in book three and why that makes any criticism of book one invalid. Of course, this is a rather obvious defensive mechanism, allowing the writer to continue telling their own story without having to allow anyone else a chance to speak and force them to reconsider. But it is also particular to science fiction and fantasy writers, who tend to write almost everything in a series rather than in stand-alone books which are far more common in the contemporary, realistic world. I love series books, but I also think that as a writer, you have to tell one really good story. Sometimes writers gets too focused on the cool effects that they are setting up, and forget that simple rule of one really good story.

There is a bit of prejudice in the adult world that adult books with higher word counts and more povs are more "mature" and "complex" than young adult novels that tend to have fewer barriers to entry (less world-building up front), more action from page one, and more concise language. I don't know that this is true. Recent studies seem to indicate that more than half the audience for young adult novels is actually over the age of 30. What is published as adult sf/f also tends to have a wide audience ranging from early teens (and younger) through adult years. My point here is that the best stories tend to reach a wide audience, no matter what category they are put in. If you want to write long and for adults, there is nothing wrong with that. If you want to write shorter for young adults, there are a lot of different rules that I'm not going to go into here. But writing for young adults has taught me about making sure that I'm not getting bogged down in telling so many different stories that I forget what the one core story is. The shorter the story is, the less there is to cover up.

When I hear editors or readers tell me that they don't read any fantasy or science fiction, I suspect what they really mean is that they have read a lot of books that don't justify to them the word count. It is a huge investment to spend twenty hours reading book one of a series that you discover doesn't actually move the story forward much, that you have to read books two through ten to find out the answer to the question you are expecting from page one. I would argue that as a writer, you are making a mistake if you don't tell one really good story in each book in your series. Sure, there are a lot of writers who have made a living disobeying this rule, but I think they annoy their fans and they end up not having as wide an audience as they might have otherwise.

Also, the rules of publishing have changed since the books you read as a teen were popular. What brought a writer success in the past will not necessarily work now. That writer already has fans who are willing to keep reading no matter what. That doesn't mean you will be able to get away with the same meandering plot lines and lack of resolution. Readers today expect a faster paced story than in the past and they expect closure (at least at the end of a trilogy, if not each book). Even if readers say that they love long books with lots of characters and a slow start, they need a strong plot that drives the story forward, and they don't want to be told several different stories that have nothing to do with each other. No matter how many viewpoint characters you are using, eventually, things are going to have to come together and the story is going to become fairly simple. This person wants this. That person wants that. One of them will get it and one of them won't.

The foundation of a great novel is one really good story. You may choose to add other really good stories to the foundation, but listen carefully when you hear critiques about your main plotline. You don't fix a weak main plotline by adding more side plots. Or by explaining more about the world building. (I can almost hear the howls of protest here!) You certainly don't do it by insisting that if the reader (or editor or agent) would just keep going, they would come to the "really good part" that is either four hundred pages into the book or in the next book. If you truly do not have a compelling enough main plot line, you are going to need to do some serious re-thinking. You may realize that your best story is (like Star Wars) the one that happens in the middle trilogy (books four, five and six). So tell that story. If you have enough readers who love it, maybe they will put up with the more meandering storytelling of the first trilogy.

You may discover that everything you have written so far will actually never appear in your novel at all, but is practice for the better story you can imagine now that you are a better writer. A lot of the time, writers do character building exercises on purpose. Sometimes that happens on accident, and you realize that what you have written is important for you to establish the character, but isn't important for the reader to read. Don't be afraid to cut out long swathes of storytelling that don't move the story forward quickly enough. I know that adult readers are more willing to put up with long pages of world-building information in chapter one, but see if you can find a better way to tell your story cleanly. You may not need to explain the world-building at all. You may not need to use six different viewpoint characters in book one. I recommend that if you possibly can, cut your pov characters in half and cut your word count in half, as well. Make your central story really shine.

Let me also say that having one really good story does not necessarily mean that it has to be something that no one has ever written before. In fact, this is probably impossible. Accept as a writer that you are going to be retelling stories that other people have written time and again. If your story is about a boy who travels to another world, finds friends there, battles evil, and then has to return home, there is nothing wrong with that story. You don't need to add flying turtles or flesh-eating robots to the story -- unless they truly belong there.

One simple story is not a problem. In fact, the simpler your story, the less people are likely to say that it feels derivative. This may seem counter-intuitive, but in my experience, it is true. The more you follow trends, the more you are going to be putting frills onto old, great stories that look like the same frills other people put on. The more you peel away the unnecessary parts of one really good story, the more original your work will feel. Because it turns out that if you tell one really good story the way that you believe it, the way you have lived it, in your own words, the more it will inspire and enlighten your readers.

Tell a story about a girl who comes into her power and uses it badly, and then has to decide whether she ever wants to use it again. Tell a story about a boy who doesn't want to grow up and how he convinces others around him to join his eternal childhood. Tell about a man who realizes he is married to the wrong person and has been living someone else's life. Tell about a woman who falls from grace and enters a cold, lonely world filled with dangers and other fallen creatures. Tell about two people who fall in love for the first time and who believe that their love is the most passionate, most honest love that has ever been. Tell about a man who seeks revenge against the person who destroyed him, and who realizes that there is no purpose in that revenge. Tell about boys who go off to war and never come home.

There probably really are only a limited number of stories and they probably all have been told before. But that doesn't mean that you can't tell them again, your way. I think the idea of "originality" that seems to be so much of our modern times and our current laws of copyright, has really confused artists about what they are supposed to be doing. In the middle ages, bards admitted openly that they were telling the same stories as other bards. Telling the story the "right" way or the "best" way, the way that suited their audience, their patron, their country and their language, was the goal -- not originality.

I suspect that part of the reason people want to add frills to the simple story they are telling is fear. Writing well is for me always about conquering fear. Writers are magicians in a way and we try to distract the audience in a multitude of ways from seeing the simple basis of the trick we are playing on them. But what if you don't try to distract them with such elaborate designs? What if you go back to the basics and use a very old trick, but do it very, very well? What if instead of trying to make a whale disappear in a box, you just do the old rabbit in the hat trick, but you practice it again and again, so that your hand motions are so fast that it is nearly impossible to see what you are doing?

I think if writers focused more on this and less on the frills, their stories would sell to a wider audience. Whether or not you want to write for young adults, think about the one really good story you want to tell. Tell it well and don't be ashamed that you're not the first one to tell it. It's going to become your story as you focus on the details that really matter and you tell the story of your heart.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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