I hope you’re enjoying your Friday. Fridays as a freelancer have always felt like every other day of the week, in that there’s always some kid of work to do. Granted, the workload isn’t always the same, but there’s always something I could be doing that isn’t a video game or watching Netflix.
Today I want to talk a bit one of those questions I tend to deflect, because there’s always some other question to answer first, but today seems like a great day to answer it. I don’t skip this question because it has no answer, it’s just that the answer it does have is really … never what a person is expecting.
When the question is “What makes good fiction?” there are two ways to take that question. First, it’s “What book can you recommend?” but more often than not, I’m being asked as a freelance editor or as an editor at Parvus Press, “What makes for a good MS?” meaning “What can I do to get my MS published?”
If you’re asking for book recommendations, I just finished The Force Awakens audiobook, because I’ve been listening to it while driving places. It was a full production, with the Williams score and sound effects under great narration. Totally worth the $20-something iTunes price tag.
But chances are you didn’t come here for books to read/hear today. So let’s talk manuscripts.
Before we get too much farther along, I have to disclaim that what I’m talking about here is specific to me, and that while many people may share similar suggestions, because “good” can be such a subjective decision, you may find that what I like, some lady over there may hate. And I know, I know, a lot of writers decry the fact that there’s no enforced standard, but I’m glad there isn’t. Because all of the variation in writers and criteria and edits and revisions, we get a wealth of books on the shelf rather than a collection of sameness. We’re not making beige cubes at our local Norse furniture emporium, we’re telling stories – we wouldn’t want them to be the same.
Here then are my signs for “good” fiction:
Characters I can connect with in multiple ways. I will prize a character above all else, because they’re the people doing the stuff in the stories. A good character has many different ways I can connect/agree/believe in them, whether that’s their attitude, their decisions, their moral compass, or their skills I envy. I put myself as the character in the story, and ask, “Were I in this spot, would I do the same thing?”
It’s not that I believe myself to be the character (do you know many cops, detectives and superheroes I’d be?), but I can project myself into their situations and get a sense of whether or not I’d do what they do. It helps ground the character for me. It helps me to feel like I’m connected to an actual person, even if they’re a space robot with shoulder missiles.
Conflict that matters. A boring story is boring because I’m not sure why people are bothering to do whatever they’re doing. There are supposed to be stakes, and they should be high, relative to the scope of the story. The bigger the scale, the higher the stakes. If the whole world is in trouble, I expect to see a big deal at the heart of the matter.
I want to see the characters on an atypical day, a day that isn’t like the ones you haven’t mentioned, even if all your characters do is save the world Monday through Friday. Why should I care about what you’re making these people do? What’s the point? Why do I want to read on if you’re just telling me that they’re going out for tapas? Find your stakes, and elevate them, consistently, keeping a view on the consequences and their potential rewards or failures. Make what the people do matter. Give these things weight.
Dialogue that sounds like people. Yes, I know, you’re maybe not writing people. You’re writing an advanced race of techno-yeasts that want to save the galaxy from the outbreak of the Bast virus, but if you want people (readers) to relate to your yeasts, they need to communicate in a way that we can understand and empathize with, else we’re right back to the “Why should I care?” problem discussed above.
One of the ways, and I think the strongest way, is to get a ear for hearing how people speak. Get a sense of their cadence, their volume when speaking some words over others. Listen for how they break up the sentences. Listen to how they run on. Find the quirks. No, I don’t mean manufacture quirks just you can insert world-building jargon (looking at you BSG and “frak”, you’re that sore in the mouth that would just heal if everything stopped being so damned cutesy about it), I mean distinguish characters not only by aesthetics or cosmetics, but also their linguistics. How someone says something can be as or more important than what they’re saying.
These are all practical skills that take time to learn. Nope, it’s not easy. But that’s why we take our time writing and rewriting. You can get better at this stuff, just keep writing.
I’ll see you guys next week. Have a great weekend.