Writing consumes me. It consumes most of my time when I’m not playing with my kids, helping my wife out with all the chores necessary to run a household and working full time. As a teacher, summers are great. I get to spend more time writing, working on the novel, and generally futzing about with the mechanics of creating something that people will want to read.
I also have an English degree and have taught writing and literary analysis for over 14 years. If there is one thing that this experience has taught me it is that novelists (good ones) answer five questions for readers or that reader finds something better to do than read your book. Below are five of these questions and commentary for each.
1. Why Should I Care? – Sure you care so much about these characters you have created, the setting, the ideas, but why should your reader care about it? I have listened to countless would be writers who have told me about their idea for a novel. They spill out endless backstory with character after character wrapped in one cliche after another. They tell me basically something I have heard before in another form, but with no real individuality. The point is that you caring about what you are writing does not necessarily mean that the reader is going to care. Readers latch on to something that has what I like to call “stakes”. It reaches them on some basic level. One of the strongest plot devices is the love triangle where two people are after the same person romantically. It creates instant tension, but why? It creates a what if moment inside the mind and heart of the reader. In order to make your reader care and have a vested interest in your writing, you must create these kinds of what if moments throughout your text. It must be dripping with them.
2. What Does This Place Look Like? – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: show, don’t tell. There are several ways to do this:
- Eliminate “to be” verbs – This forces your writing to describe the actions that take place in your novel.
- Imagery – Use more of the five senses than only sight or sound. Play around with how things smell or feel.
- Describe Using Metaphor – Metaphors are the butter that coats the bread, the gravy on the mashed potatoes and the glowing ember that sets the forest alight. Use them.
3. Who Are All These People? – Novelists deal with multiple characters, sometimes over ten or twenty that are either main characters or characters who are fleshed out enough so that they are necessary for the narrative to have meaning. The problem with characterization for most novelists is that sometimes the characters do not seem real enough or are too flat for the reader to care about them. When you cause something tragic to happen to one of your characters you want your reader to fret about it, or possibly even shed a tear. In order to pull this off, a writer can try a few of these techniques:
- Create Detailed Character Sketches – I spend probably a week designing characters. I use Mindnode specifically which is a webbing program that helps me create branches and aspects of the character. I then print this out and with a good old fashioned legal pad I create that characters history from birth to the point we find them in the novel, year by year. This might seem monotonous, but it works well when I am creating characters that are rich, deep, and have tons of back story. I also have a handy reference if I want to write a flashback episode in the middle of the novel.
- Show, Don’t Tell – I know that writing teachers harp on this, but it is essential to creating great characters. I could write: “Ethan was befuddled, angry at himself for the mess he had made with Amy.” OR I could write “Ethan grimaced, his eyes flashing back and forth at Amy shamefully, his fingers tapping incessantly on the graffitied wooden table.” This takes a lot of practice, and you will want to show your work to others who understand this idea, such as a writing group or a creative writing class (or fellow English teachers <grin>).
4. Where Is the Peril? – Michael Crichton once wrote that he “tries to make sure that there is some type of conflict on every page. This is the ink that fills my writer’s pen. No reader wants to read endless pages of description that never go anywhere or threaten anyone or that does not at least show some kind of internal conflict. That may have been fine and dandy in Charles Dickens’s day, but not today. Today’s reader is competing with every kind of media junkie habit imaginable. Your novel needs to be dripping with conflict, even if it is the internal conflict of marital adultery. Life, at least real life, is dripping with conflict, but it is the extraordinary conflict that will keep your readers interested. I am not afraid to kill characters off if it will further the plot and give my other characters something to fight for and believe in. This is simply one example, but you must find that gem of conflict in every situation in your novel and on literally every page.
5. What Are You Trying to Say? – Adventure stories are great, but the best adventure story is the one with a message about sacrifice or loss or some other topic that has something to say about the human condition. Twilight is a novel with absolutely nothing to say, yet it was highly popular. It was about teenage angst and romantic love, sure, but beyond that it had nothing really lasting to say about anything at all. In order for our novels to really mean something to our readers in the long run they have to reach down into the well of the human condition and draw up something that is what I like to call the soap box idea. Is there something about politics that makes you grit your teeth in anger? Is there some social problem that keeps you awake at night? Is there one terrible problem about the human condition that you would like to address? Turn this into a novel. Base your entire plot around it. No one will remember Twilight in twenty years. Everyone remembers 2001: A Space Odyssey. Why? It spoke to the big question of “why are we here?” and “what is our purpose?”. Do this, dear writer, and the world will be a better place for it.