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Sunday, February 27, 2005



Roadmap Through the Minefield of Novel Writing: Writing Seamless Stories
Milton Trachtenburg
(copyright 1998)

The distance between a story idea and a published work is a journey of many miles, a distance covered with increasing understanding of how writing can be developed to affect the imagination of the reader. If a writer is to have any chance of competing in paying markets, she must first polish her skills so that her work reveals the story, not herself.

The best stories are seamless; no trace of the writer is visible to detract from the reader's ability to absorb the essence of the characters. To create a seamless story, you need to stick to the story rather than using the writing to express your personal values and beliefs. Further, seamless stories, you want the reader to keep focused upon the story. Avoid sentences or passages that are convoluted by flawed or ambiguous grammar. A seamless story touches the nerves of the reader with action verbs that create the illusion of motion, taste, odor, touch, sight, sound as well as tension that demands that she read on. A seamless story relies on dialogue to shape the characters. Hold description to a minimum. When your descriptions are spiced with strong sentences, a feel of real action is created by active verbs. Most of all, a seamless story is character-focused; readers identify more with characters than plots. We know that plots are fiction with events that do not happen to the average person. Characters, on the other hand, possess some of the same qualities we have -- though they are exaggerated. Characters, however, must find a means of overcoming the obstacles designed by the writer, created to foil their ambitions. Writers allow their characters to lead them through the plot as they shout silent encouragement to those characters they favor.

New writers may be confused by the vast array of writing tools. We are trained in school to believe in absolutes. One plus one always equals two. Two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen always equals water. A preposition at the end of a sentence is something up with which a teacher will never put. Hmmmm . . . . Sometimes you must break writing rules to establish a tone or a theme that captures the reader's interest. If the sentence I have written about the preposition were to appear in a work of fiction -- or for that matter, nonfiction -- the writing would be rejected, and should be. Though correct, it is stilted, awkward and nearly impossible to read without being jolted into a state of disquietude.

There are many rules of writing we can violate if we understand that we are breaking them and we can justify what we do in order to create an effect upon the reader. To understand language, it is necessary to learn it first. Few published writers, including many who have been published in venues from newspapers to novels, lack understanding of the basic rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Beyond the fear of rules of grammar is an even more frightening trend; there is a fear of words. Too few writers are willing to use a thesaurus and dictionary to seek out the best word, and instead, settles for the most convenient. Just as a surgeon wouldn't enter an operating room without having a set of the instruments prepared and laid out for convenience, neither should a writer embark on a journey into writing without a library that contains at a minimum: a complete and unabridged dictionary, a comprehensive thesaurus, a modern volume of the rules of acceptable grammar and the best works on the elements of fiction and non-fiction writing. Look for one that covers elements of writing such as plotting, scene building, dialogue, characterization, description, creating conflict, hooks, epiphanies and denouements). We, as writers, also need material that describes the requirements necessary for manuscript submission including the protocols of the specific publisher, the essence of a query, a market survey and a list of what each agent and publisher is looking for.

After you have read about writing, read published works that have demonstrated their ability to transcend the times in which they were written. Discover why and how classic literature in any era is timeless. Though we do not copy from the masters, we need to learn the principles they applied – those that made their works successful. For instance, four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets they are still performed and enjoyed. Why? What elements did he employ that made his works classic? Standing above all else are his characters. Each character, even minor ones, have a variety of motives, behaviors and attitudes that, to this day, all the king's psychiatrists have not been able to unravel their mystery. The fact that fictional characters, like Hamlet, have become the topics of professional research and speculation four hundred years later though he didn't exist in the first place, tells you how powerfully he was constructed.

Following character development in importance is dialogue. In order to make characters come alive, we need to throw away description of them and allow them to grow in the mind of the reader. A single line of dialogue can say more about another character than a page of description. "Methinks the lady doth protest too much," was a means chosen by Shakespeare to give the audience a foreshadowing of character and plot. Shakespeare's characters continue to provide a challenge to the most skilled actors. Regardless of the kind of story we are planning to write, it is essential that we help the reader suspend her disbelief. Dialogue is the best tool we can use to accomplish this goal.

Dialogue needs to be confrontational; it is the engine that drives a story forward. Shakespeare's dialogue was focused upon three kinds of confrontation: confrontation between two characters as in “ Taming of the Shrew,” confrontation between a character and a situation as in “Julius Caesar,” and confrontation within a conflicted character as in “Hamlet.”

Since there are so few plots, an important task of a writer is to give a new twist to those themes that already exist. Whether the basic plot involves boy meets girl as in “Romeo and Juliet” or filial loyalty, as in “Hamlet,” the writer creates a unique view of plot twists, and it is a new take on the plot, unique characters whose dialogue is exciting that separates great writing from pedestrian writing.

I've learned an important life-lesson that I use to keep my writing focused: If you aim for mediocrity, the chances are that you will fall considerably short of your target. Aim for mastery in every endeavor and not only will you elevate your skills, you will continue to grow as a person. No writer ever attained a state of perfection. A sharp eye will find mistakes in every story. The writers who become icons make fewer mistakes because they are attuned to the sound of their writing and understand the rules that bring a story to life. Their choices are nearly perfect.

If you want to be a published author, you must first take the time to learn the rules of writing. Before attempting a novel, practice short story writing and read works by a wide variety of writers. Only then, find a story that intrigues you. Allow the characters to emerge from your imagination and learn about their intricacies. Set the characters loose in the plot and allow the story to shift and develop as the characters interact with each other and with the traps and pitfalls of the plot. Allow them to fail, to lose control, to become politically incorrect. Give them significant flaws that emerge in context instead of giving a laundry list of characteristics in the first passage in which you introduce the character. Think of a character in a film. He doesn't enter stage right and say, "I'm Bill's brother, John. I have a nasty temper and I drink too much."

Allow your characters to take over the direction of the story so that even you are surprised. When you finish your first draft, check to see that there are no loose ends. Then go over the manuscript line-by-line to determine if every word is the best available word needed to accomplish the job you created for it. If the story doesn't work after a couple of drafts, set it aside and go on to a new project. It is too frustrating to continue to beat on a dead manuscript. A manuscript isn't a treasure. It is a simply a bunch of words until it is contracted by a publisher. A manuscript can be altered, revised, shortened, lengthened or discarded. If you fall in love with your own words, you will have an audience of one -- yourself. Remember that the reader is supreme. Only the reader can judge the merits of a book. Our job as writers is to learn what elements please readers and apply them to our own private stories. The world doesn't place restrictions on characters or plots. It does, however, insist that you find a unique way to show your chosen subject. How you approach your subject must be different from the way every other writer treats the same subject.

Through experience comes knowledge. Through knowledge comes understanding. Through understanding comes the ability to be self-critical. Trial and error give way to successful accomplishment. Are there shortcuts to writing success? Yes, however, the probability of winning the lottery is higher than the probability of sitting down and writing a publishable novel before you have developed a full understanding of the elements of writing.

As with any journey to an unknown destination, begin the journey to publication with a road map to guide you. For the most part, the people who wrote the books about writing have been there and learned from their own mistakes. Or, if you prefer, you can lose time by learning through rejection. Editors are not nice to prospective writers who demonstrate that they don't understand the elements of writing. Rejection can be cruel, discouraging and disheartening. Writing a seamless story minimizes rejection and when it does come, it is often accompanied with the line, "Loved your story but, sorry, it isn't for us. Why don't you try another publisher. They may even state the name of a competitor and tell the writer, “They are looking for a project like yours." Editors, unlike a common misperception about them want to see worthy writers get published. I have experienced having an editor of one publishing house tell me that his firm didn’t publish works like mine but gave me the name of a publisher who might want to look at it. The outcome of the contact was that the manuscript was published as my first book. The words most important for a writer -- manuscript published. The central purpose of all the work of a writer is to attain publication.

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