Yesterday Teresa Nielsen Hayden talked about my letter to my Novels In Progress students. Mixed in with dozens of comments about the letter's usefulness and the usual quibbles and tangents were a bunch of complaints about the PDF format.
Okay, so here it is as HTML. Jenn Reese asked for this weeks ago, but she was nice about it. Apparently I only respond to carping.
Every teaching year, I write an informal letter to my
students, addressing the main issues I've found in the stories I'm critiquing.
I figure if I add to it every year and then cut out the parts that don't make
any sense, I'll eventually have a "How To" book.
Possibly a very short one.
Here's this year's version:
No problem is just one kind of problem.
Every weakness is a weakness in more than one way. A problem
with "characterization" turns out to be, coincidentally, where the plot also
happens to lose track of itself. Lack of sufficient description is also where
character voice disappears.
That means several things. First, it means a story is a
unified whole, and that discussing "plot," "character," and "setting" as though
they are separate is a mistake. Second, it means there's more than one way to
attack the problem. In the case of insufficient description, it would be easy
to say, "Put in more description!" However, it might prove as fruitful to say,
"You've missed a chance to let your point-of-view character tell us how she
sees the world."
This may go partway toward explaining why I'm probably
contradicting other authors from whom you may have had advice, and why the next
author you consult will contradict me: Sometimes, it's because somebody's
actually wrong, but it's also possible that we're all seeing the same weakness,
and simply approaching from the particular angle with which we're most
comfortable. We see the same problems, but solve them differently. So if more than one reliable source complains, but they're complaining about different
things, try to figure out the root cause of the symptoms they're pointing out.
In many cases, since plot and description often come from character, the
problem will be with the people you've invented.
This relates strongly to something I believe, which is:
Good writing does more than one thing at a time.
If too many passages are only about setting, or only
about character, or only about plot, not only does the story move
slowly (or fail to move at all), but all kinds of opportunities are missed. In
a passage of straight description of setting, the opportunity to illuminate the
point-of-view character's personality is lost; in a passage of straight
character history, the opportunity to advance the plot is lost. Some of the
writing I admire most accomplishes more than one thing at a time; it's an
efficiency of craft that becomes invisible when it's mastered.
Can you do just one thing sometimes? Sure, it's your story.
You can do whatever you want. I like what EM Forster said of point-of-view
changes in Aspects of the Novel: You can do it if it comes off.
Ineffective writing isn't necessarily the result of doing
things wrong; it's usually the result of missing opportunities.
Look for places to be interesting, unusual, unexpected,
efficient, galvanizing, heartbreaking, funny, intriguing, clever, provocative,
evocative. If it suits your style, try writing (as Raymond Chandler said,
though I can't confirm the quote) "something delightful in every paragraph." If
you don't, you may be getting a lot out of writing your book, but what am I
getting out of reading it?
"Show, don't tell" really is a common problem.
I get annoyed when "how to write" books command the writer
to "show, don't tell," because it's a rule, and I hate those. However, after
having read innumerable manuscripts in which it's a real problem, I feel forced
to say it should be something a writer should choose to ignore as she wishes,
not something the writer just doesn't have a handle on.
I'm pro-tell. I like being told when it's the
most efficient way to get a piece of information across, or there's some other
reason it's a better choice than show, like when showing a character
doing something just doesn't pinpoint the character's thoughts or feelings at
that moment. A well-placed "tell" can sometimes send it home in a way a "show"
can't. The Brothers Karamazov is a great book, and it's got whole huge
chapters of "tell." Elmore Leonard cuts out entire scenes and
replaces them with "tells"--and it works.
They also know the difference and use each to its best
advantage. Showing lets the reader observe your character and draw a
conclusion, the same as we do in our everyday lives. We see someone do
something, we make a judgment. Telling doesn't allow the reader to draw a
conclusion; it is the conclusion. The reader has less of an opportunity
to engage with the story, because it's already laid out for herâ€”and that's what
you want your reader to do: engage. A reader wants to not just understand what
you're saying, but to cooperate in making the story live in her mind. If you're
leaving no room for that participation--"collaboration" isn't too strong a
word--you're denying the reader a big part of the enjoyment.
It's your job to lay out the dots. It's the reader's job to
connect them. Nothing's less fun than a connect-the-dots puzzle that somebody
else has already completed.
Nothing's inherently wrong with telling; nothing's inherently
wrong with showing. Know the difference, and choose according to whether you
need to engage or inform at this particular moment in the narrative. When
Picasso paints a canvas using only blue, you can still tell that he knows what
he's doing with color. When I paint a canvas using only blue, you will be quite
certain from the result that it's because I have no clue what to do with red or
yellowâ€”and you won't be too sure I've got a grip on blue, either. Learn all the
colors; then choose whichever seems right at the moment. Master the whole
It's hard to understand what's your story and what isn't.
Ted is six-one. He comes from a small town in Michigan,
about fifty miles from Detroit. He has one sister, Theresa, who married Ted's
best friend, Walter.
On a Wednesday morning in July, Ted walks into a bar with
his dog, Rex. Rex is a retriever, but, interestingly enough, has never been
good at retrieving; when the gun goes off, Rex looks at Ted and barks. He has a
little nick out of one ear.
The bar Ted walks into has been there for sixty-five years,
having gone through a series of owners, openings, closing, and depressions
major and minor. In the summer of 1962, Fabian once stopped in, sweaty and
irritated because his bus had broken down on the frontage road, and his bass
player was stoned senseless, and they weren't going to make it to Ronkonkema in
time for the Up With People concert.
The bartender, Steve, whose father was a bartender before
him in this same place (Steve says a prayer for him every morning), says in a
gravelly voice, "Hey, we don't allow dogs in here. There's a sign outside, but
apparently you missed it. I need to get a new sign, but I've been busy with the
tax audit. It's like a guy can't even make a little money without the
government taking it away."
Steve's father had been the bartender on duty when Fabian
had stopped in. He'd had tax problems, too.
Dogs are related to cats if you go back far enough on the
evolutionary chain. Sometimes Ted thinks he can see a little feline genetic
influence in the way Rex can sometimes become aloof.
Ted smiles the same smile that got him a free beer last
week. But that was a different bartender. And a different bar, now that he
thinks of it. He was already drunk that other time.
He points at Rex with the stump of the second finger on his
left hand, the hand that's not holding the leash. He lost the finger last year
in a lawnmower accident, and he bought Rex right around that same time. "This
is a talking dog," he says.
I won't go through the whole joke. (The dog looks up and
says, "DiMaggio?") But here's the point: Everything in a joke is there because
it has to be there. Too much stuff, and the setup/punchline relationship
gets blurred. Nobody knows what they're supposed to be paying attention to; the
joke isn't sharp; the audience's attention wanders; the punchline doesn't
punch; nobody laughs. On the other hand, too little information, like this:
This guy has
The dog says,"DiMaggio?"
...doesn't make enough sense to be funny. It's the same
punchline--but it has no context, and therefore no setup.
So when you're telling a joke, you have to keep in mind,
"What is this joke about?" People who don't tell jokes well don't know how to
do this. Similarly, when you're telling a story, you have to keep in mind,
"What is this story about?" You don't need to cut every little thing that
doesn't directly move the plot, but you do need to be aware of where you're
going. If you're not someone who outlines in advance (I'm not), then you need
to think about this during your rewrites, whether that means your daily perusal
of yesterday's work or your major overhauls "per draft."
If you can't identify how a certain piece of dialogue or
description moves the story, it's probably just decoration. Decoration is
important. It's what makes a Christmas tree not just some dead, brown bush
somebody dragged into the living room--but it's the easier part, because a lot
of it is just a matter of taste.
In these critiques, I try to concentrate on structural,
functional elements. There's still a degree of taste there, but there are also
things that simply do or don't make sense.
If you can identify the function of a scene, it's easier
to solve your problems.
Seeing your novel as a series of scenes, each of which has
some sort of concrete purpose that you can articulate, can be helpful when
trying to figure out how to attack problems.
For example, figuring out which dialogue to cut becomes
clear when you know what the scene is for--you just cut whatever dialogue
doesn't agree with that function. Same with description, narrative, and
everything else; there's always going to be stuff that you keep because it's
fun, or chilling, or sad, or interesting, even if it doesn't directly contribute
to the scene's function--but when you keep the scene's function in mind while
you're cutting, it becomes easier to recognize what's expendable and what's
not, and you'll start making the choices that make the scene feel taut.
Of course, this means you have to do some work first: You
have to decide what that function is, and that's not always easy. But once you
know that answer, a lot of smaller problems almost solve themselves.
My outlook as a writer is a little different from my
position as a writing instructor. As a writer, I think anything can be art, and
art is largely ineffable. As soon as you think you have a handle on what makes
successful art, somebody makes something that contradicts everything you'd
figured out--and it's successful, dammit.
However, as a writing instructor, my assumption is We are
here to tell a story. That assumption gives me something teachable: craft.
Without it, there's nothing I can teach except "trust yourself."
Which is, of course, also valuable.
You're here to evoke, not just inform.
Part of how novels are different from screenplays is the
extent to which the people and environments can be evoked. A great screenplay
description might give one or two details the first time a location is
encountered. After that, it's been described; the production designer knows
what it looks and feels like and will design the set accordingly.
In a novel, if you're not keeping your readers' senses
informed, you may be missing opportunities to engross your audience. Movies
have all kinds of ways of keeping viewers interested besides the basics of
compelling story and good dialogue--they have music, lighting, camera work,
shot flow, and so on. Each of those things requires several expert artists and
a support staff.
In a novel, there's just you; you have to be the one who
really makes the reader feel he's in the scene. If you're not naturally a visual thinker,
learn to be one. Practice it. If you can't visualize the entire scene, neither
can your reader. This may not be a problem for you--after all, if you're not a
visual thinker, you're not a visualizing reader, either--but many of your
readers may experience a strange lack of engagement. Not only that, but you likely have some physically improbable
things going on, just because you don't know where all your fictitious objects
If you're not used to thinking in terms of the other senses,
learn to do that too. Sensory descriptions are tools for tricking your reader's
imagination into believing it's really experiencing your story. You might even
think of it as plugging your own data into your reader's eyesight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, temperature, and balance. Our
real senses are how we know about the real world; and our fictional senses are
how we know about fictional worlds. Your readers' are already there, waiting to
be used. Use them. Learning to do this can be as simple as learning to pay
attention to things you don't usually bother to notice.
You're here to do more than inform. You're also here
to entertain and to transport. If you want readers to really feel it,
give them things to really feel.
If you're trying to do one of those boffo international
thriller things that stays on the New York Times list for twelve decades
because people who don't usually read are reading it, it may not matter how
finely you feed your readers' senses. All anybody cares about in that case are
the broad strokes of the story; you can write cardboard dialogue and slather it
in cliches, and it's okay because you've got a page-turner of a plot and an
audience with a taste for just that.
I'm the wrong guy to teach you how to do that stuff. I care
even less about it than I care about celebrity romances. Sorry.
There are two basic views. One says "The goal of
writing is to communicate, and everyone understands cliches." Another says
"One goal of descriptive writing is to make the reader see things anew, and that's
impossible with a cliche." I'm in the latter camp--with the occasional
exception when it feels right and I can't find an alternative that feels
I don't like rules, and "don't use cliches" is
one. Rules are necessary in, say, engineering, but in engineering, there really
are wrong ways to do things. If you're building a house, margarine is the wrong
choice for your foundation material. Don't use it. This is a rule that exists
for a good reason. You should not break it.
In art, though, it's whatever works. No matter what the
rule, somebody can ignore it and get a good result. You can do it if it
comes off. But here's my best reason for avoiding cliches whenever
possible: You want the reader engaged and paying attention. Nobody really pays
attention to things they've heard a thousand times before.
Hide and Seek
Some new writers love to withhold information so they can
give the reader a surprise later. This is not necessarily a bad thing in all
cases, but it can mean the reader is being denied the chance to enjoy the book now.
It might also mean you're relying too much on the idea of surprising the reader
later instead of entertaining the reader now.
The Sixth Sense was
built around the idea of hiding information (in plain sight) and then springing
it on the viewer at the end. The entire movie is structured around this plan,
and it works.
If you're hiding information, the question I'd ask is why?
If the answer is that you're writing a story with a twist
ending--like The Sixth Sense--and all the hidden information builds
toward it in concretely identifiable ways, then you may be fine.
If the answer is "I just like surprises," then you may be
reducing the dramatic impact of your story by sacrificing an interesting story
now for a structurally meaningless surprise later.
It's an easy trap to fall into. For some reason, we think
springing a gotcha on the reader will make them go "Wow!" But it often doesn't
work out that way; by the time we get to the surprise, we've had to slog
through too much that wasn't interesting on its own.
And then--often--the surprise serves no identifiable
purpose. So first there's a slog, and then there's no payoff.
Okay, so you got me. Big deal.
If this is one of your bad habits, the solution is simple:
If you've got something interesting, use it sooner instead of later.
Sometimes what gets a book published isn't how well it's
Instead, there's a spark someplace--the language, the
characters, the situations--and it just happens to catch the right tone at the
right cultural moment. This does happen; it's a real force in the novel
Unfortunately, I can't teach you to predict lightning
strikes, so you're stuck with what I do know.
Thanks for trusting me with your story.
# # #
How this critique works
My assumption is that your reason for attending NIPW is to
improve, so I focus on things I think need work rather than finding places to
praise the manuscript.
Take what helps; leave the rest. No writing instructor is
omniscient. Catch us on two different days, and we may even give you two
different opinions. We're mostly in this odd position of guruship because we've
been published, but one of the drawbacks of success is that it validates both
your good ideas and your bad ones. So if you hear something from an instructor
that just doesn't seem real, maybe it's not. (And if the critique focuses on
you, rather than on your manuscript, get your money back.)
Regarding your synopsis, I read it last. One reason is that
often, there's stuff in the synopsis that doesn't appear in the manuscript.
While you're working on your synopsis, you're forcing yourself to think about
what your story is, so the synopsis will sometimes have more direction and
structure than what ends up on the manuscript page.
It may also explicitly state things that ought to be in the
manuscript but aren't, such as the gender of the narrator. If I read the
synopsis first, I have "he" or "she" in my head already, and may miss the fact
that in the manuscript, it's 60 pages before we get that information.
Why you're not getting a marked-up manuscript back
Because you wouldn't understand the weird notes I made on
it. My thoughts are organized in a coherent form in the critique I give you.
They're completely disorganized in the scribbles I made on paper--and often
I'll disagree with half of them by the time I'm done thinking. You'd go nuts
trying to figure out what they meant--not to mention wonder what kind of idiot
you just paid good money to.
Why I'm not line-editing
In most cases, you're here because you've got a manuscript
that you're not entirely happy with. Usually, the source of your unhappiness
will be something structural: A plot that doesn't happen, a character who's not
really a person yet, an incompletely thought-out thing of some sort.
Line-editing doesn't make sense in that context; there's no
point agonizing over a single line if the entire chapter might be cut during
your next revision. A story with structural problems is like a car with six
side-view mirrors, one wheel, and twelve front seats; we can work on polishing
each of the mirrors, and congratulate each other on how nice the seat leather
is, but how much good is that really going to do when what the car needs is
three more wheels, eleven fewer front seats, and an engine?
My first concern is getting the car running. After that, we
can talk about interior appointments and paint color choices. So usually, my
critiques are going to be about larger-scale elements. Once those things are in
line, we can talk smaller-scale stuff, because then we'll be working on
sentences and paragraphs that have a better chance of surviving large-scale
In my second book, there's a chapter in which a house has
been ransacked and the people living there get upset. I worked it, polished it,
tweaked it...then I realized that the house doesn't actually get ransacked at
all, and the whole chapter got junked.
Since we only have a week, let's do what gets us the
farthest. This may or may not be the perfect approach, but it's the one that
seems most sensible to me. I'll start with the largest issues I see and work
from there. (And obviously, if the story already seems to hang together, we'll
look at smaller-scale stuff.)
If you have specific things you want to talk about, bring
them up. Just because I have a plan of attack, that doesn't mean you shouldn't
get your questions answered. And you''ve lived with your manuscript a lot longer
than I have.
Every instructor at this workshop is mortal and fallible.
Take what rings uncomfortably true and leave the rest.