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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Back to Basics

By Richard Curtis

As the stakes continue to rise in the publishing business, writers are adopting a wide range of strategies to advance themselves out of the midlist and onto better-selling plateaus. I myself have recommended a number of such strategies. Recently, however, as I respond again and again to the question of what one can do to escape midlist oblivion, it's begun to dawn on me that many writers have been ignoring the most obvious answer: write better. The truth is that if all other things are equal, the author with better writing skills is the one who will rise out of the pack.

Instead of reviewing what's selling these days and who is buying it, I thought it might be worth reminding you about some of the most common and flagrant writing transgressions to be found in a typical harvest of fiction works that fetches up on my desk. I hasten to point out that the perpetrators are by no means mere amateurs, but professional writers as well, so let those who are without sin skip this article.

I have to confess at the outset that as I was preparing my list, I realized that nobody has ever come up with a better formula for analyzing problem manuscripts than the boss I had in my apprentice days, Scott Meredith. Meredith created the "Plot Skeleton," which goes something like this: A sympathetic hero or heroine confronts an obstacle or antagonist, creating a conflict that must be credibly overcome through the protagonist's efforts. These efforts result in a triumphant resolution that is satisfying to the reader.

Unsympathetic protagonists, inconsequential conflicts, and uninspired resolutions are the characteristics of most of the fiction that agents thrust into stamped, self-addressed envelopes and return to senders. I have made notes, however, on some other fundamental failures that personally turn me off, and I've boiled these deadly "sins" down to seven. I should add that the problems listed here are the kind that jump out at me so quickly that I can usually make a determination about a book containing them after only a few minutes of reading.

1. The Sin of Lousy Dialogue. Many writers try to carry their books on narrative alone, leaving me hungry for some conversation. Often, when at last I do encounter dialogue, it's of a trivial "Hello, how are you?" "Fine, thank you" variety. By fanning a manuscript like a deck of cards, a professional agent or editor can instantly perceive a paucity of quotation marks. Or, if you like your torture slow, you can read page by page waiting for somebody to talk to somebody else. Dialogue is an invaluable fictional device, yet many writers believe they can tell a story with a minimum of it. A playwright once said that a good line of dialogue reveals something about the speaker, the person spoken to, and the person spoken about. Without dialogue, a work of fiction becomes a tract.

A rapid scan of a manuscript often discloses the opposite problem, a book so replete with dialogue that it reads like a screenplay. In such books, the dialogue reveals little about anybody, because it's mostly talk, and you have to listen to endless conversations in the hope of seizing some nuggets of genuine story. It should be remembered that dialogue is not only a character-revealing device, it is also a form of action, but an excess of it will have the opposite effect. Those guilty of this particular shortcoming should ask themselves in what way a dialogue scene moves the story forward. If too slowly, or not at all, you're doing something wrong.

Writers sometimes forget what dialogue sounds like when actually spoken, and they should therefore try speaking it aloud or performing it with another person. That way, they might avoid one of my all-time pet peeves, which might be described as, "What did you say your name was, dear?

"John, we've been married for fifty years and you haven't given me flowers for the last thirty."
"Gosh, Mary, I hadn't realized it."
"It's true, John."
"Well, Mary, I'll just have to do something about that.
"I hope you will, John." etc.

2. The Sin of Inaction. I hate this one because it takes me so long to diagnose. I may have to read as much as half of a manuscript before I realize that nothing, in fact, is happening. This is also the most heartbreaking failure in terms of wasted time and talent, particularly when you realize that it is the most avoidable. Most of the time, it's the result of poor outlining or no outlining at all. By synopsizing your work before you begin, you will readily detect soft spots in your story.

A common offshoot of this problem is often found in mystery novels. I call it the "travel fallacy." After a crime is committed, our protagonist picks up a clue and visits a witness or suspect, where he picks up another clue and visits another person or suspect, who leads him to another, and so forth. All that traveling from one place to another gives the illusion of action, but when you analyze it you realize that the only thing that has happened is the protagonist has gotten into a car or boarded a plane, boat, or bus and gone somewhere. But travel is not to be confused with action.

3. The Sin of Skimpy Detail. Many fiction writers believe that the best way to improve their craft is to study other fiction writers. Certainly one can benefit from reading the work of others. But if your spare time is limited you might benefit more by reading nonfiction. And not just history and biography but esoteric stuff like costumes of eighteenth-century France, Florentine church architecture, Samurai swords, and modern glassmaking. This will help to cure one of the surest signs of amateurism in fiction, the generalized description: "On the Czarina's desk lay a Fabergé egg." Don't you think a reader would rather read something like, "On the Czarina's inlaid walnut and ormolu escritoire a gorgeous gold Fabergé egg stood on a tripod of wrought gold. The egg was segmented with translucent green enamel trellising and inlaid with ceremonial scenes, miniature portraits of her children, and a particularly handsome portrait of Nicholas resplendent in blue uniform and gold epaulettes . . ." etc.

Though books about furniture-making or Russian enamels may not be as entertaining as the latest novel by your favorite writer, reading the former will ultimately pay bigger rewards in the rich texture of your writing.

4. The Sin of Unimaginativeness. Not only do writers fail to describe the real world in sufficient detail, often they portray imaginary worlds in inadequate detail as well. If that world is not thoroughly thought out, readers will know it and eventually lose attention. I find this to be particularly true of fantasy and science fiction, where it is all too easy to think readers will buy into a writer's world simply because it is alien. A planet warmed by binary suns may be a good premise, but if the writer does not describe in detail how these twin stars affect this world's ecology, culture or customs, the strangeness of the premise will soon wear off and the reader will be left in the equivalent of Akron, Ohio, in space. Worlds that never were possess as much detail as those that are or used to be, and the writer's task is to research those worlds as assiduously as a scholar might research ancient Thebes or Alexandria.

5. The Sin of Weak Characterization. A similar criticism applies to characterization: many writers simply do not "research" their characters in adequate depth. Making up character details as one goes along may work well for a rare few, but I get the impression that many writers have not "investigated" or "interviewed" their characters at length. The result is trite people.

The way to investigate your characters is to create dossiers on them that can later be reviewed as though one were a reporter going through diaries and scrapbooks. When and where was your character born and raised? Who were his parents, his grandparents? What events, friendships, circumstances affected his upbringing? What schools did he go to, jobs did he take, romances did he have? Whether or not you actually use all of the material you enter into your file or database, your intimacy with your characters will come through to your reader and they will feel you know more about the people in your book than you have revealed.

6. The Sin of Clichéd Story. The boredom factor is higher among agents and editors than it is among average readers, and a good thing it is, too. Writers don't always realize that stories that may seem unique to them are trite in the eyes of agents and editors. For every plot you write, we may see dozens of similar submissions. I freely confess to being easily bored, and I've stopped castigating myself for it, for I realize boredom is a critical symptom that a manuscript has gone wrong. I try to monitor the moment at which I started to lose my concentration and involvement, then to analyze precisely what it was that turned me off.

Much of the time, it's a story I've heard before. I am weary of coups against the President of the United States (the Vice-President is behind it every time), former-CIA vs. former-KGB cat-and-mouse games, Arab-Israeli terrorist machinations, female journalists turned detective, and Colombian drug lords doing just about anything. Not that these stories cannot be rendered fresh: indeed, that is precisely the point. I demand, I beg, that they be rendered fresh. But if I start to nod off, I know that the author has failed to approach a familiar story from an unfamiliar angle, and that's it for me.

7. The Sin of Triviality. In order for a book to feel big, it should deal with, or at least allude to, issues that go beyond the day-to-day concerns of its characters. Yet, many authors fail to give their story weight or dimension, and the result is often a book that feels trivial and inconsequential. Take a simple love story: boy meets girl and they fall in love. They have a jealous quarrel and break up, but they are eventually reconciled and end up getting married. Such a story is the stuff of a romance, and that's probably where it will end up.

Now let's retell the story. It is December 7, 1941. Boy and girl have met and fallen in love, but on that fateful day the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and the world is plunged into war. Boy enlists and is shipped overseas to fight. In war-torn Europe he falls in love with a beautiful French girl, while at home girl has fallen in love with an older man in the munitions factory where she works. Boy and girl break up, marry their lovers. Years go by, both marriages go bad. Boy and girl look each other up, discover they still carry the torch for each other, and are reunited.

The difference between these two love stories is vast, but what is the essential difference? It's that in the second one, history, destiny, and war play a part in the story as if they themselves were characters. The war has taken a silly love story out of the realm of triviality and invested it with a dimension that approaches the tragic. It is not difficult for writers to add such dimension to their work but not all of them do so, and if it is missing, I quickly lose attention.

A team that is struggling is often told by its coach to go back to basics. That's not bad advice for struggling writers, either.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

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