The Last Threshold and Writing What You Can’t

Here’s a post written by Mary-the-Writer, not Mary-the-Agent. I’ve written a lot of manuscripts in the pursuit of my craft. Each has been better than the last one and I have no doubt I can tell a story, but there’s a threshold in my way that I’m always grappling with. It’s the hardest, most menacing final hurdle, and I haven’t hopped over it yet, as my work remains unpublished.

My struggle is voice. A voice that’s believable, that changes, that evolves and reeks of humanity. Because that’s what is necessary in today’s market. And my biggest problem is impatience. I want to publish a book and I want to do it right now. But things don’t work that way. In my pursuit of the manuscript “just good enough for someone to publish it already!!!” I’ve been turning out lazy, one-dimensional, generic writing. Some writers, those trained in critique groups and workshops, will automatically move to pat me on the knee and whisper that no, it’s actually very good and that I shouldn’t say that, and that I’m being self-critical, and blah blah blah. But compliments don’t help a person improve. They’re the last things you’ll remember, after you process all the real, honest and challenging advice you get.

In the pursuit of the book that’s good enough, I haven’t written a book that’s alive. Something with a pulse. Something that has the “x factor” to succeed. (Hint: the “x factor” in any manuscript is voice.) Not yet. That’s what I finally have to tackle (in all my “spare” time, ha!). And the painful funny thing is, I’ve known it all along. In my rush to write and revise, I’ve known that these manuscripts haven’t been my absolute best work. A long time ago, in college, I figured out that my lazy try was better than some people’s absolute best writing. That’s the moment when I decided to play it safe. I know I’m not alone in this.

People have a tendency to stop short of doing their best. It’s a self-defense mechanism. If they don’t write the things they really want, if they don’t pour out the real effort, then the failure they’re imagining (and will most likely experience) can’t hurt them that deeply. Criticism slides right off, because they have a dirty little secret: this wasn’t the real try anyway.

Well, I am throwing in the towel on that attitude these days. It’s childish, it’s self-defeatist and it’s the last great threshold in my writing life. Is there anybody out there with me who’ll do the same? Have I hit upon anybody else’s dirty little secret? Good.

Here’s my advice to those writing what’s just good enough:

Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time.

I’m done with writing safe, bloodless manuscripts that get me nowhere. Just like any writer, I’ve faced a lot of rejection. But I’m grateful for it, so thank you to all the editors who haven’t published me yet. Thanks for not letting me get away with it. I’ll be here until next time, getting over my self-inflicted BS and finally writing the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

I want nothing less from the writers who query me.

Describing Emotions With Physical Cliches

Without further ado, here are the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse:

  1. Eyes
  2. Hearts
  3. Lungs
  4. Stomachs

What do I mean? These four areas of the body are the well-worn favorites of writers everywhere when it comes to describing emotions of any kind. Count how many times you’ve seen the following (or similar) phrases:

She darted a menacing glance over her shoulder.

He cast his eyes to the ground.

My heart clenched in my chest like a giant fist.

His heart knocked against his ribs like a caged bird.

She let go of a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

Timmy gasped for air like a drowning man.

The sound of his raspy breathing was the only noise in the otherwise death-silent room.

A gnawing feeling radiated from her guts.

Acid roiled in my stomach, threatening to make an exit up my esophagus.

And on and on and on. Now, that’s not to say these phrases are inherently bad. They’re not. But as writers, you should always be aware of your descriptions. There aren’t many areas of the human body that act as emotional centers. Eyes, hearts, lungs and stomachs are the four biggies. A lot of stuff happens at these hotspots as a character moves through the emotional arc of a story.

But every time you write something about eyes darting, a heart clenching, breaths catching in throats or guts rumbling, just know that these Four Horsemen appear in almost every manuscript. It is your job to put a fresh twist on these descriptions and to give your readers new images.

Just because you know everyone struggles with this problem and just because you want to easily convey emotion in your work doesn’t mean you can get complacent and fall back on the stuff I’ve outlined above.

I issue you a challenge and throw down the gauntlet! What are some fun ways you outsmart the Four Horsemen in your manuscripts?

Too Many Characters in a Manuscript

One sin I see a lot of writers committing is the character horde. They simply have way too many characters. Worse, they seem to always be possessed to introduce these characters in large chunks. (Ah! I’m writing a scene where my main character arrives at a new school… here are twenty new characters for her to meet!)

If you find yourself tracking your characters or having to go back and look up the name of the character you want to use…if you find yourself boasting that you keep track of your cast with a spreadsheet (and you’re not writing high fantasy)…I beg you to slash the cast list.

Keep in mind that characters on a page are people that your reader can’t see or hear. That’s where your job comes in. Because you’ve got a pretty big barrier to reality — the character is alive only in words, your reader has never seen them and oh, yes, you made them up! — you have to work that much harder to flesh out this person and make them realistic. In real life, a person can walk down the halls at school and notice some dorky girl named Cathy in some gross penny loafers and then remember her. Or they can spot a friend from grade school that they don’t really talk to anymore and try to avoid them. In a book, the reader has a more limited attention span for these types of second- and third-tier characters. And if Cindy or the old friend don’t appear again, there’s almost no need to mention them if you don’t have to.

Introduce us to characters for two reasons:

  1. They’re going to be instrumental in the plot.
  2. You want to characterize an environment by introducing us briefly to one or two of its characteristic inhabitants.

Both are totally valid. You want to introduce us to the girl who your Nerd Herd MC is going to beat out for Homecoming Queen, because she’s involved in the plot. You also want to introduce us to some of the dumb jocks hanging out in the cafeteria and throwing bananas at each other because you want to provide dumb high school foils for said MC.

If you find yourself with too many characters, ask yourself honestly if anyone in your brood can be cut or, better yet, combined. One writer friend of mine ended up combining her MC’s two best friends into one person. And she did it, because it made the book stronger in the end. The characters she’d written were too similar and served similar functions to the MC. That’s another great thing to look at. If all your characters serve the same function (support main character, irritate main character, bully main character), do you really need many iterations of the same thing?

If you were to look at your manuscript with a cool, objective editorial eye, which characters could you get rid of altogether? Which characters could you combine? Nothing disorients a reader more than being introduced to three, five, ten or more new characters at a time. Sadly, I’ve seen this a lot lately.

Don’t forget that you’ve created these people and given them names and faces. You’ve got the added bonus of having “seen” them before. As a reader, though, we’re going in completely blind. The disadvantage of having a lot of characters is that it’s almost impossible to flesh them all out to the level where they come alive. I’d rather have fewer characters who are much more fleshed out and involved in the plot, than lots of characters who appear for a scene or two, don’t pop up again and remind me more of furniture than of human beings.

Strive for clarity, simplicity and not to overwhelm your reader.

Struggling with when and how to add layers to your work? My professional eyes on your manuscript can help.

Does A Character Have to Change From Beginning to End?

I just read a MS where the author’s answer seemed to be an emphatic: NO!

My answer? An emphatic: YES!

This question is much bigger than I have time for right now. I’ll do a longer post later. In short, though, I’ll leave you with a quote. My MFA professor, Lewis Buzbee, is probably not the first man to say this. But he said it again last night in class and it couldn’t be more applicable to what I read today:

“A story is a character’s journey from innocence to experience.”

Dunk that in your morning coffee. And no, I don’t think we’re just talking about Adam-and-Eve-style innocence here. More to come later!