Good morning creatives. I’m writing this to you from the Ugly Couch (though I believe its technical name is “The Couch No One Really Likes But Never Tells John Why”), while Minnie the Wonder Dog and I engage in our second favorite activity – watching old replays of WWE Raw in between naps.
If you hadn’t heard the news from Twitter, over the weekend I formalized an arrangement to work with Parvus Press in a more complete and serious capacity, having removed the “Consulting” out of the “Consulting Editor” title, and take over their Editorial operations. Call me The Managing Editor/Writer Next Door.
So from the casual office, I put together this post to talk about 3 things that are really super 5-star giant thumbs-up important and should be in the pages of your manuscript (but so often aren’t, for reasons I cannot guess).
1. The opening page YES REALLY, THE PAGE, should involve some combination of character, world, story tone, and your writing style. When I say “character” I mean ideally a character that’s a main character. Think about Watson in Sherlock Holmes; Daredevil in … Daredevil; Princess Leia in Star Wars; or the Sea in Old Man And The Sea. It doesn’t always need to be the mainest of main characters (especially if you have an ensemble story to tell, but that also doesn’t mean the reader needs to be force fed you entire MS roster), it just needs to be a character that isn’t going to get ditched when the “real” characters show up.
How does “story tone” make itself different from “your writing style”? Because you use your writing style to flesh out your story’s tone. Erratic tone, where you jump from (for example) comedic to romantic to Gothic to fantastic, is a killer, because the reader isn’t going to know how to interpret or how to feel about your story. And if we look at this from a publisher standpoint, erratic tone makes the book a hard sell. How do you market a book that feels all over the place?
If we accept the maxim that the average published page is 250 words (I’m willing to take that up to 255), then you’ve got some decisions to make. It’s okay to go skimpy like a bathing suit on world building if you’ve put some word count on your character and style. But there does need to be a little bit of everything. There’s a lot riding on your first page, and when you go all in on something to the exclusion of something else, the void you leave is palpable. And it’s tough to keep a critical reader engaged and determined to hit that second, third or even fifth page. Don’t leave it up to them to “keep reading and see if it gets better.” Don’t pin a lot on the idea that if the reader just gets into chapter 4, that’s where the story really picked up. As the kids say, “Ain’t no one got time for that.”
So what’s the right balance? That’s up to you. Sorry, I don’t mean to be a dick about things, but there’s no magic bullet. There’s no one single formula. I can tell you the best combination of character, world, tone, and style is the one that best serves you and what you’re trying to do.
2. Something more than the “Talk Template“. The “Talk Template” looks like this:
“The dialogue starts,” a character speaks, “and then carries on to start every paragraph or nearly every paragraph on the page.” (italics mine)
I see this especially with inexperienced authors. Page after page is built out of paragraphs that start with people talking, often to each other and often as a way to describe what they’re about to do. And sometimes the whole paragraph is dialogue. We already have a word for a manuscript that is more character talking than anything else, it’s called a screenplay. If you’re writing one of those, awesome, you’re doing great with all the talking. But if you’re writing a novel, not so much.
We need more than dialogue. We need exposition. We need plot development. We need and so badly want your story to play out beyond just characters talking.
3. A plot that may appear complex, but can be parsed into a simple understandable package. Pick a favorite story. Can you put the plot in a sentence, especially if you don’t use proper nouns?
How about: While never taking a math or gym class, a young wizard student and his magical group of friends are put in constant magical danger as they quest to defeat the world’s vilest sorcerer by breaking his stuff.
How about: A mumbling boxer takes on the greatest boxer ever while learning about love thanks to a pet store.
How about: Kevin Bacon and Remo Williams fight giant dirt slugs with the dad from Family Ties.
A plot can have a lot of moving parts, it can have great nuance and subtext, but it does need to be boiled down to a degree that can be translated into “Hey you, other person, you should check this out.”
That’s not to say it’s simple, or that it needs to be dumbed down at all. But the plot that’s so complex it can’t be boiled down into a sentence is not a plot that’s easily shared with someone else. See, when you put all the material in one sentence, you present everything you need. The proper nouns are window dressing, no matter how cool they are. The backstory behind the plot, all those sweet bells and whistles you’ve built, are just bells and whistles. What’s at the heart of the plot?
If the heart is solid, then I will get into the manuscript to see it unfold and burst forth all its awesome. Keep it simple, keep it exciting.
Let’s talk more about this on Wednesday. See you then. Happy writing