Friday, July 20, 2007

Compelling, Part 2

I haven't been blogging much lately because I've been too busy writing. While we were in Utah, I realized, thanks to promptings by my mother mentioned in earlier blog entries, that I had really written two books, not one, even though it was one story.

So I cut, added a few lines, and sent it off to my beta readers (I know you're not supposed to use husband, sisters, and parents as Beta Readers, but my family happen to be extremely competent editors and well-read in many genres, and with different but equally refined tastes--why search for someone else?).

My beta readers said it was boring.

They were right.

So I skipped back to the rewriting I was doing at the moment--re-doing the query to reflect the "two books" status.

My beta readers said that was boring, too.

They were right.

So I sat down with Tim and he said, "Think movie trailer. Decades ago....." and he went on and told me what would really be interesting and catching. He, a great student of movie trailers (he watches and studies hundreds) gave me the "quick and dirty" of what makes something interesting and compelling or not, with examples of trailers that work and that don't. He said, "Put on the most cliche movie trailer music and get to work." Then he went to bed and I went to work. Now I'm embarrassed about the queries I've sent so far. The fact that they got good responses lets me know the quality of the other queries out there!

Anyway, that fixed, I started thinking about if the query is the trailer, the book is the movie, and suddenly the issue of what's compelling became very clear to me.

I have to go back here to fill in the blanks in the thought process, or it won't all be clear.

It actually all started with Dad's comments (emailed privately) on my previous "compelling?" post. He said that "hooking" the reader like a fish seems unfair, and referred to D&C 121 that talks about your dominion flowing to you without compulsory means. I thought that this was the key to the issue, but I didn't understand it myself, even after talking to Dad. Wouldn't a writer use the same techniques to hook the reader as to make them want to come to you? What's the difference between those, anyway?

I didn't have answers, so I let the questions ferment.

Then, in Utah, I had sick kids, sick husband, and I was sick, day after day. Just as soon as one person got well, another got sick. So I sat in my mom's house and ended up picking up the books she had lying around. Mom reads murder mysteries. One after another I picked them up--legitimate, published books, mind you--and read the first chapter or two and then gave up. They just didn't catch me. Then I picked up Sarah Graves' book, "Mallets Aforethought." Man, I was caught. I read it straight through, every word, in order. You know the last time I did that? It's been so long I don't even remember. Probably the last Harry Potter Book, and even then I skipped ahead a few times and went back.

So I spent a few days thinking about what caught me. There were a few elements that I'm just a sucker for: a historic mystery that has to be solved alongside the modern one, secret rooms and passages in an old house. But that was only part of it. The thing that surprised me was that the story itself was so formulaic as to be predictable. It followed the exact story that I criticized at the beginning of the early drafts of Poison Spindle, down to the last predictable detail. The characters were fun, lovable, interesting, and not entirely believable--and not in the larger-than-life way that Donald Maass thinks is ideal but other agents don't really go for. She didn't even follow up on every detail that she made out to be important (spent a lot of time talking about a cat and then never followed up with it). But it was still compelling!

Then I realized that one of the themes of Poison Spindle is that the real world is formulaic, and knowing the formula doesn't make living it any less traumatic or surviving it any less satisfying. (Didn't even know I put that in there!). In "Mallets" the journey was satisfying anyway.

So it was something about the writing itself that made the story compelling. Looking at the writing, the one thing that stood out, above and beyond the other books, was that Ms. Graves didn't waste any words. It's not that she didn't include anything that didn't move the story forward. Obviously (the cat) she did. But she only said as much as she needed to, in an easily accessible way, to get the story told. The other thing she did was put a body in the first line. Dear Departed Miss Snark used to say she wanted a body in the first paragraph. One of the other mysteries I got into still didn't have a body by page 20, so I gave up. Took too long to get to the story. And THAT is exactly what my beta readers missed in Poison Spindle. They wanted action up front--a body on the first page, and it was on the sixth (or maybe fifth, but still....).

The problem with the novel before, that made the story "just not come together in my mind" was that I was writing the novel as if it were a bit of expository writing. The story and characters are interesting enough that this almost works, and definitely has it's good parts.

I realized, as I tried to make the first chapter less boring, that I was trying to "hook" the reader. I was trying to create something that was interesting and intriguing, and I couldn't make it work. The harder I tried, the more contrived it was. I finally realized I was just trying to manipulate the reader. It might work to keep them reading, but it wasn't fair and it didn't make for compelling work. Instead, it created the kind of work I skip through quickly just to get the answer to the "hook", but I don't get lost in the story. I was trying to force a body into the first paragraph, and all I got was a lot of bodies, but not story still.

Then I read Orson Scott Card's analysis of Snape, and, in it, his analysis of what makes a character interesting and alive. I was struck by his comments that at some point, Rowling got lost in her own story. I have thought I got lost in my story before, but I hadn't. I had gotten lost in the incredibly pleasurable experience of writing. But not in the story itself.

So then I got to "Decades ago...." When Tim verbally turned my query into a movie trailer, I was floored. I actually HAD written an interesting story. It had been so long that I wondered. He hooked me, and I wrote the darn book!

So how did he do it? With Living Language. It wasn't just that he took out the passive voice because I don't really have a serious problem with that. It's that before, the language was expository, and the story was just being told. But in a compelling book, the story isn't just being told. It's living and happening. The characters aren't just cardboard cutouts being moved by the writer through events set up to take them to the end of the story, they are live people that the writer watches and knows and follows.

Writers have said this all before, and I've known it. But I finally "got" it.

It's not that the writer has to know the story well. It's that the story has to be alive (and worth telling), and the writing has to be alive, and then the reader, without being compelled to, WANTS to stick with it and read it. Not just to find out what happens, or how all the pieces fit in, but because they just somehow got lost in the story. They might go back and appreciate the novelists' craft and skill, but that's not what makes them want to read every word. That's the after-the-fact effect.

Can I write a living story? I don't know. Visualizing it all as a movie helps--where would the director cut to a shot of out the window? Where are the characters? What lighting is there? Where does he zoom in, or cut to the wall instead of the speaker's face?

The first time Tim read my book, he said, "You're a playwrite." All my experience to that point had been something like that. But now I hope I've moved on. Suddenly, in my mind, my novel isn't just on a stage, it's a real, living, thing.

Does this mean I have to rewrite every word? Probably.

Will it be better? I hope so, or I should stop trying to get published and just keep enjoying the experience of writing as an end in itself.

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