In Part 4 of “Dictionary for Writers,” I an continuing definitions of the criteria which editors, agents, and contest judges look for in a fiction manuscript, particularly in romance novels.
Conflict. As both editor and contest judge, I see manuscripts where the author has mistaken petty bickering for true conflict. It just ain’t so! To dredge up a few clichés, Conflict should put the hero and heroine between the devil and the deep blue sea. Between a rock and a hard place. It should appear as if there is no possible way these two are ever going to get together. Their differences might include: family feud, à la Romeo & Juliet; the threat of severe illness; religious conflict; multiple divorces; differences in class & upbringing (more clearly applicable in historical novels but not unknown in the present day). Whatever you choose, the conflict should be serious.
There are two kinds of conflict: Internal and External. For Internal Conflict readers need to see inside the Hero's or Heroine’s heads. Their internal thoughts are called Introspection. These thoughts are usually presented in third person, reserving first person thoughts (in italics) for special emphasis. Internal Conflict is where an author reveals his/her main character’s angst or joy, their most personal plots and plans. External Conflict consists of all the forces ranged against them (as individuals and/or as a couple): angry parents, society’s condemnation, a job on the brink, someone wants to kill them, they have to rescue a child, keep a bomb from going off, etc.
Even if you are writing a simple novella of 20,000 words or less, you have to find a place to fit in both Internal and External Conflict. Without conflict, as I have emphasized before, you have nothing but "Boy meets girl, they fall in love, get married & live happily ever after. The end." Which takes up not quite the width of one line. Oops.
Note: I have also run into books where the supposed Conflict consists of the hero or heroine continually referring to some dramatic incident in the past that changed their lives, yet at no time does either one reveal what this incident was. Don’t do it! This makes your book a wall-banger (or a “move immediately to Archives”). Important incidents in the h/h’s past are Conflicts the reader needs to know about.
Dialogue. Oh, how authors love dialogue! It’s so easy to let the words spew forth. And don’t all those how-to books tell you to spark up your novel with dialogue! So you jump right in, creating dialogue like mad. Totally ignoring Who, What, Where, When & Why. You haven’t identified your characters. You haven’t described them, or their setting. You haven’t given us Whiff One of what they’re talking about. They are, in fact, talking heads indulging in a mystery conversation against a blank background. You do not want to do this.
Yes, you can begin a book with dialogue, but you need to get the necessary facts in place. Identify the people talking, give some idea of where they are and whatever background is necessary to understand what they’re talking about - whether it’s just sniping about a friend, arguing over an inheritance, or plotting a terrorist attack. Don’t be lazy. Add actions and colorful descriptions along with the dialogue. Allow your readers to see the scene as you see it. Something human, alive, comic, dramatic, heart-wrenching, or terrifying. Don’t leave readers floundering, wondering about all the things you should have told them along with the clever dialogue you wrote.
Note: Women’s Coffee-klatch dialogue or Men’s Night Out dialogue, which might very well be clever or make a lot of noise, is not legitimate unless it tells the reader something they need to know. Unless it moves the story forward. Never write Dialogue simply for the sake of livening up your narrative. Instead, make your narrative colorful enough that readers don’t miss the easy-reading, quick snap of Dialogue.
Narration. This is the tough one. Narration paints the canvas of your book. Narration allows readers to see inside the Hero’s and Heroine’s heads. And inside the heads of other characters who are allowed a Point of View. Narration describes your characters, their looks, their likes and dislikes. Narration tells us where they live and work, how they view the world, the people in it, and that special new person they just met (or perhaps have known since the cradle). Narration adds color, richness, depth. Narration lets readers experience the emotions of your main characters, get right inside their heads and feel what they feel. Narration gives us action. At the movies the action is acted out on the screen, but an author has to find a way to describe that car chase, gun battle, swim meet, or sex scene in words vivid enough to paint the picture for people who have only words to go on. It’s a challenge, a true challenge. Here lies the hard work of writing. Don’t give it short shrift.
Note: I have seen instances where authors mistook the advice to add details to their books for advice to add irrelevant details. This problem is difficult to describe, but if you mention a man sitting next to you on a bar stool, then that reference should have meaning - the man is about to speak, or he’s an eavesdropper who later causes trouble. He needs to have a function & not simply be mentioned for no reason except you read somewhere you should add details and that’s the only one you could think of. How about the noise, the smoke, the smell of beer? The general atmosphere of Friday after work, the heavy beat of Saturday night, or a more peaceful weeknight when only the regulars are present? Details are for ambiance, to add color to your tale, not for adding a passing reference to someone of no importance to the story. Yes, you can describe what the POV character is wearing. If it’s a guy, he can notice females passing by. But there always has to be a reason for the details you add, not just, “Oh, wow, I’m supposed to write something besides dialogue.”
Example of a narrative opening that reveals a remarkable amount in one short opening paragraph:
Early on a sparkling summer evening, Lord Reginald Beauhampton stepped onto the terrace of Lord and Lady Mythe’s Surrey home and gazed out over the green expanse of lawn. With a grin, he dashed all the way to the white stone steps, before he reminded himself he was not supposed to do that.
[Excerpt from His Secret Heroine by Delle Jacobs, now available from Amazon]
In just two sentences we learn: 1) it is summer; 2) the hero’s name; 3)setting - the terrace of the Mythe’s home in Surrey; 4)Lord Reginald is a lively character, good-natured but non-conforming.
Addendum: To add to previous posts on Point of View, Ms Jacobs reports: “I wrote that first chapter five times and still couldn’t get it. Then I realized it needed to be in Reggie’s POV. And then suddenly it jumped to life and so did Reggie.”
Plot. An author can do the most amazing things with plots—and every book requires one, even in books where it appears the only plot is, the more sex the merrier. It is possible to do almost anything with a plot, if you can find a way to explain the improbabilities. You box yourself in only when you allow your plot to do something legally impossible; for example, allow a bastard son to inherit a British title. Or when you fail to explain, in the most clear and plausible terms you can find, why the highly improbable is possible. It’s called “suspended disbelief.” If you work at justifying your plot as it unfolds, readers will accept it. If you throw the improbable at them without set-up or explanation, again, your book becomes a wall-banger. And, worst of all, it’s doubtful readers will buy your second book - or the one thereafter.
Another example of a no-no: your hero and heroine are not likable - they do things that make them look more like villains than the type of people readers were expecting when they bought your book. Again, if you can justify this, if you can find a really good reason for them to act this way, then, fine, that adds drama to the book. But they must redeem themselves before the end. Even in Mysteries or Thrillers with little or no romance, the main character must be someone readers can root for - not someone who is mean, greedy, scornful, heedless, etc. With the possible exception of literary fiction, readers must be able to care about, even identify with, the main character of the book they are reading. And if that character does something that turns them off, bye-bye, book customer. Bye-bye, dollars and cents.
Whether you spend weeks plotting every nuance before you start writing, or you’re an “out of the mist” author who wakes up wondering what your fingers are going to record today, you must find a way to make your plot believable.
To prove my point - in more elegant language - below is the definition of “plot” from Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.
“the plan or pattern of events or the main story of a literary work . . . comprising the gradual unfolding of a causally connected series of motivated incidents: narrative structure . . .”
Please note the word “motivated.” I’ll say no more.
Style. There are varying definitions of style. I think of it as an author's approach to the craft of writing. For example, one author may be depended upon to present the intricacies of a complex plot, another may emphasize action, and yet another can be counted on to provide page after page of graphic sex. Some authors “tell” the story—the author standing on the outside narrating what is happening. Others “show” the story, letting readers see what is happening through the eyes of the main characters. (FYI, "Show" is the preferred approach for Romance.) For a bit more about “Show vs. Tell,” see Edit the Blasted Book, Part 4
An author may tend to use too many words, detracting from the story’s impact. Others use too few, requiring extensive revision to write in the color the story lacks. Whatever your personal approach to writing, analyze your weaknesses - names, spelling, punctuation, research, plotting? - and make a conscious effort to improve. For example, search an old phone book for names, check the Internet, movie credits, etc. Create lists of names - computer or hardcopy - so they are never a problem again. Buy a grammar bookand take the time to study it. Self- edit. Take out all those extra words that obscure your point. Add the color and drama you left out when you did a fast draft of that dialogue in Chapter 3. Don’t forget to run Spell Check.Can't self-edit? Find someone to do it for you. A good editor is worth his/her weight in gold.
Whatever the problem, capitalize on your strong points & don't accept your weaknesses. Use them as footholds to climb up to something better.
Voice. Voice is the way you put your words together. The thing that makes those words, sentences, and paragraphs uniquely yours. Voice should jump out and grab a reader, keep them turning pages. Voice, when well used, is a thing of beauty - even if you’re writing Horror instead of Romance. It’s the quality that sends chills up people’s spines, whether the author is talking about an evil spirit or falling in love. It’s what makes both Stephen King and Nora Roberts household names. Some authors were born with voice; others have to develop it the hard way. But voice is what makes the story uniquely yours. Your big solo, sung with the finest quality you have to offer.
Never, ever, try to write in someone else’s voice. Let your own voice be heard. And if it’s a bit ragged at first, keep trying. Yes, there are certain conventions each genre must follow, but don’t be afraid to push the boundaries. A unique thought, a new idea—a fresh voice—makes agents and editors sit up and take notice.
Presentation. The “nuts and bolts” of your manuscript - grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Yes, they count. They are vital to the impression you make. As I have stated in previous blogs, most editors were English majors. You want them to be absorbed in your manuscript, not wincing over the errors. Example: if an editor has two manuscripts of equal quality to choose from, but one will require hours of editing time and more hours of a copy editor’s time, and the other will require only minimal editing and copy editing, which one will she choose? In these tough economic times, the answer should be obvious. In any time, for that matter. When an editor chooses to publish a book, he/she is setting up a relationship which may last for years. Why should any editor choose to work for years with someone who cares so little for his/her craft that they present a book which has been carelessly written and even more carelessly self-edited?
Thanks for stopping by.
Next blogs: LEGOLAND 3, followed by Dictionary 5 - Fiction genres, primarily Romance