I’ve been to writers’ conferences, sat with professionals, been critiqued, read books and blogs, read more books. I sold articles and short non-fiction, but not my fiction. Here are some of the biggest flaws fiction writers struggle with that sink their chances with agents and editors.
My latest WIP has me really excited. However, in the writing process, a few very glaring differences have stood out to me between this work and my other past solo efforts and it’s been easy to identify why those others didn’t fly. This list isn’t exhaustive, but perhaps you also struggle with some of these issues. (And no, Marcy isn’t the difference – not entirely anyway.)
In high school, teachers had us recite and identify basic conflict structures: man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself, man vs supernatural. We learned to plot high conflict points on a graph and identify the denouement. There’s more to creating conflict a good story though, and without compelling conflict your story is bound to sink.
In a character driven story, every character must want something. What is it that drives them? And you need to be more specific than – to get a job and get married. In our new novel, our female protagonist Elena is next in line for her mother’s throne – but she needs to prove she’s earned the throne not just inherited it and she must do that by following all the rules—no exceptions. That’s a specific goal and dream with a clear path of how she plans to achieve that goal.
To create sustained and compelling conflict, we throw up obstacles that threaten to keep Elena from reaching her goal and force her to deviate from her ‘plan.’ Obstacles that force her to make choices that conflict with other dreams and goals she has. What would you give up, cheat on, do in secret, to achieve that one thing you want most? A really great resource for this is Brandilyn Collins’ book Getting into Character.
Not writing to my strength
My writing strength is dialogue. But I continued to write stories that required a lot of internal narrative. I’ve learned that my best writing comes when I write what comes naturally to me. Not to say I don’t work on my description or other things, but my stories come to me as dialogue, and when I tell a story through dialogue it’s a more compelling piece. Do you know what your strength is? This is where a critique is really helpful.
Finding my voice
What’s your voice? What makes a Stephen King story sound like a Stephen King story– or any other prolific writer? That took a very long time to learn: to stop trying to sound like a Ted Dekker or Lori Wick or Karen Kingsbury and start sounding like Lisa. Learn to say things in a way that’s unique to you instead of copying other writers. You’re telling the story and you’re going to emphasize certain details more than others, that’s what makes the story yours.
Writing for a trend
The problem with writing to a trend is that when you account for the publishing time required for a novel to make it on the shelf at Chapters, the trend is over. It can take a year to two years from the time an agent or editor agrees to represent or publish your novel to when it hits the shelves. Generally speaking it’s very difficult to write for a current trend and have the story hit shelves in a timely manner.
Also, if you aren’t already a fan of whatever the trend happens to be, real fans will know. If you don’t particularly enjoy vampire stories, don’t make your main character a vampire just because vampire fiction is selling. Every genre has subtle nuances, understood traditions-and every writer must have a unique twist on that genre. Just writing for the trend will not give you that required insight. Write what you love to read, that’s what will draw a reader in.
I have this really great US Marshals story sitting in a drawer. It has tons of built-in conflict, but the problem with it is characterization. I know my two protagonists inside and out – ask me anything and I can tell you what they’d do. But the villain in my story is this obscure ‘really bad person that people love to hate’ who serves a purpose but has no personality. My secondary characters are ‘just there’ to step forward and move the plot ahead when required.
You have to know these other characters also. What’s their motivation? You have to similarly identify their specific goals and place obstacles in their path to make them convincing—not perhaps to the same degree as your protagonists, but they have to have a reason for the choices they make. Cardboard bad guys and secondary characters can sink your story fast.
Are you able to identify what drags your fiction down? Tell us about it.