When Imagery in Description Is Useful, and When It’s Overkill

Recently, I’ve walked a few full novel editing clients through the use of imagery in description. I decided to write a post about it because there seems to be some confusion about what imagery is, when to use it, and why you’d want to in the first place. Read on!

imagery in description, imagery in writing, how to use imagery, what is imagery, imagery description
Imagery is what connects the thing you’re describing to the reader’s emotions.

What is Imagery in Writing?

I have an MFA in Creative Writing, and as you can imagine, us Creative Writing MFAs spend a lot of time sitting around in coffee houses, thinking about the building blocks of the fiction craft. (Just kidding! Sort of!) Well, one of those important building blocks is imagery.

An image is a description that is meant to evoke emotion. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. Because we all know that the number one thing a fiction writer must do is make the reader care.

So an image serves to deepen the reader’s understanding of what’s going on and how to feel about it. The image is a tool. It adds something. It enhances.

A lot of writers believe that an image is necessary for every situation. It isn’t. My preference would be that you use imagery more sparingly. That way, your figurative language will mean more.

When to Use Imagery in Description

So that brings up the question of when to use imagery. A big mistake I see in manuscripts is that writers use imagery when it really isn’t necessary.

Here’s a good example of imagery used incorrectly:

He was so hungry that he felt like a swarm of ravenous bees were buzzing around in his stomach.

There’s figurative language in this sentence (the bees). But what does it add? The information is: He was hungry. Does the image of “ravenous bees” and all of this activity in his stomach add anything to our understanding that he’s hungry? No. It’s restating the information and there’s no sense of depth or enhancement.

I’d argue that, here, there is no need for an image. A lot of writers are terrified of doing any kind of telling, and I understand why. And that’s where this overuse of imagery comes into play. But sometimes it’s better to just include information (our friend is hungry) and move on, rather than trying to make it into a Writing With a Capital “W” moment.

Here’s a good example of a situation where imagery works:

He watched her accept Jake’s promposal. Regret gnawed at him like a hungry tiger, and he stormed off, slamming three dozen red roses into the trash. Why hadn’t he made his move yesterday?

This is a bit of a melodramatic description, but the image here serves a purpose. It introduces the idea of a specific emotion that’s playing out inside him, and adds the layer of how deeply it affects him. Regret is like a predator, and he feels like prey–vulnerable, exposed.

This is an emotional moment, and the image spins it in a more visceral direction. The alternative would be:

He watched her accept Jake’s promposal, feeling regret. He stormed off, slamming three dozen red roses into the trash. Why hadn’t he made his move yesterday?

This has a lot of the same information, but it might be a little dry. Does it have the same resonance? That’s up to you as a writer. But it’s a good example of where an image might be desirable, if you’re the type to add embellishments to your significant and emotional moments.

Using Focused Imagery in Description

Another thing to consider is how much imagery to use. A reasonable description of regret, per the example above, instantly becomes overkill in an instance like this:

He watched her accept Jake’s promposal. Regret gnawed at him like a tiger, lashing into him like a thrashing shark, dripping into his veins like acid. He stormed off…

This might look like obvious redundancy to you, but it’s something I see all the time. Once a writer has decided that an occasional calls for imagery, they might decide that “more is more!” That’s actually not true.

Picking one specific and powerful image is going to focus your reader’s attention. Picking multiple related images to try and evoke the same emotional response will actually be counterproductive. Once you’ve identified an occasion that would benefit from imagery in description, pick one image and stick to it.

If you’ve gotten the feedback that your writing can sometimes slant toward cliché, really think about it and maybe pick the third or fourth image that comes to mind. You want to make sure you’re being evocative and fresh. That’s how you’re going to develop your writer’s voice.

On a lighter note, I hope that I never have to write the ridiculous word “promposal” ever again! 🙂

Struggling with voice, description, and imagery? I’m happy to help troubleshoot your manuscript in regards to these important concepts. Hire me as your novel editor, and we’ll dive in together!

Using Compressed Narration in Fiction to Speed Up Plot

When thinking of how to convey the events of your plot, you may be considering using compressed narration in fiction. Compressed narration is a quick description of what happens. Its opposite is narrating the entire scene.

compressed narration in fiction
There are two ways of rendering action in fiction.

Example of Compressed Narration in Fiction

It may be difficult to visualize compressed narration if you’re not familiar with it, so here is an example:

I hung out after school, picked Stella up from her swim practice, and we got ice cream. The entire time, I meant to talk to her about what Dad told me, but I couldn’t find the nerve. It was still hanging over me by dinner.

As you can see, we aren’t privy to the entirety of this scene. It’s described quickly and then the present action of the story, presumably, resumes. We don’t see the scene with Stella and the narrator eating ice cream. If the action was a movie in a VCR (remember those?!), it’d be squiggling by on fast forward.

So is compressed narration in fiction a good way of conveying plot? It sure is, when used appropriately. You don’t want to rely on it too much, but it can certainly help keep your narrative moving.

Three Times to Use Compressed Narration

One great use for compressed narration is to skip over scenes that aren’t necessary to render, but important to mention. I doubt anything exciting happened over ice cream. The point of that example paragraph wasn’t even the ice cream, it was the narrator keeping a secret. So compressed narration was used to move the action forward a little and put even more pressure on the narrator to spill the secret.

This is a nice use of this technique. Remember, readers don’t need to read about every single little thing that happens in great detail. Sometimes a mention of it is enough.

A second use for compressed narration in fiction is to bring characters up to speed on information the reader already knows. If Bob just went through an ordeal, and wants to tell Sue about it, the ordeal is new to Sue, but not the reader. So handle it with compressed narration.

For example:

I told Sue all about what happened. She asked a bunch of questions and, when she was satisfied, we gaped at one another. “What do we do now?” I asked.

The third use of compressed narration is when providing context. For example, it’s good in flashback, when you need to insert a little information, without going into full detail.

For example:

That summer the possum got stuck in our toilet and Mama finally put her foot down about moving, we ate rice six nights a week so Dad could save up all his tips.

This doesn’t necessarily need to be a long and drawn-out memory. The mention of it is enough to communicate the more important point: The family had to make ends meet, even if a toilet possum was what touched the whole thing off.

Summarizing Compressed Narration

Basically, compressed narration is used for things you want to mention, but which aren’t important enough to warrant the spotlight of attention. If you have been told that your narrative drags or that your plot lacks momentum, consider using compressed narration to speed things up. Which events need a full render, and which can be compressed?

If you’re worried about your plotting and pacing, hire me as your novel editor. I can help you with many elements of your fiction craft, and help you tighten up your storytelling.

The Good Old Days

I recently received a beautifully written question. (If you have questions of your own that are of a general nature, and not necessarily specific to the manuscript you’re working on, check my sidebar for how to contact me!) My reader, Cate, had a lot to say about the golden days of children’s publishing. I know many of you are probably wondering the same things as her, so I’ll let you read it, and then I’ll answer.

Here goes:

A little over a year ago I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and was amazed that somebody had been able to look at that manuscript and draw To Kill a Mockingbird out of it – and was struck by the fact we probably wouldn’t have TKAM today if it hadn’t been for Tay Hohoff. Then I forgot about it, until recently, when I was reading a collection of Ursula Nordstrom’s letters. She told about receiving a collection of random notebook entries, called the writer in to discuss them and how they could be developed into a book, and was taken aback when the writer finally said, “I’m sorry you don’t like them,” since she’d just spent an hour and a half talking about them. The writer was Louise Fitzhugh and the pages turned into Harriet the Spy. Ursula Nordstrom also talked about going to FAO Schwartz and being so impressed with a window display that she asked the designer, a kid from Brooklyn, if he’d like to “draw some pictures” for her. That was the start of Maurice Sendak’s career. Then last night I was looking at a collection of letters by Margaret Mitchell, who said that (contrary to popular legend that says her book was rejected umpteen times) Harold Latham of MacMillan tracked her down on a trip to Atlanta, persuaded her to let him see her incomplete first draft of Gone With the Wind, and had to buy an extra suitcase to carry it back to NYC with him.

You know where I’m going with this, right? It seems like the relationship between editor and writer has changed a lot over the past few decades. I’m wondering if you can address that – why the change, and what expectations are realistic these days. I’m also wondering if you have any thoughts on the fact that some of our favorite books might never have existed if they came along today?

***

Oh Cate, Cate, Cate, sweet Cate. I hear you, loud and clear. I also think you know what I’m going to say.

In the good old days, a lot of crafts used to be much more obscure, or at least prohibitive to most people. If you wanted to make a video, or take pictures, you had to afford or borrow cameras and film. If you wanted anyone to see your work, you had to schlep it around on media that you carried in your hands, and you had to sit them down, and you had to show it to them. Flash forward to now. Now my dogs could have a thriving YouTube channel with millions of subscribers, and I could film, edit, and post their content all from one gadget. While wearing pajama pants.

Publishing used to be a niche industry. It wasn’t until the paperback revolution that books started selling to the masses and actually making money. It turns out there was a market for this stuff! That revolution didn’t come to children’s books specifically until the 1990’s. If you’ve read Ursula Nordstrom’s letters (and if you haven’t, you absolutely should), you will get a sense that she was seen as the red-headed step-child at Harper. Children’s books weren’t sexy, they didn’t bring in the big bucks. They were…quaint. And then Harry Potter showed everyone what a “dumb little kid’s book” could do. In terms of cold, hard sales numbers. Enter the commercial revolution, kidlit phase!

Editors used to have to track writers down and squeeze books out of them. Develop their careers. Foster their talents. Deal with their eccentricities. Take the train to Vermont and trudge through the snow to their cabins in the woods, if need be, to get good books. Believe it or not, it wasn’t always thought of as glamorous to be a writer. Kids didn’t aspire to it. People didn’t dream of it. “That’s my weird old aunt Emily Dickinson,” folks would say in an embarrassed whisper, “she’s a writer.” So editors wouldn’t have thousands–yes, thousands–of submissions coming to them per year. They’d have to go out and make submissions happen.

Trust me, I would love to have a kindly editor come to my house and say, “Mary, I know that you’re having an existential crisis and have written five pages in the last six months, but I really think there’s something there. Why don’t I advance you a little money so you can pay for that cabin in the woods and some quiet time to create?” I would love it.

But the crux of this new age is that publishers and platforms are swimming in content. They no longer need to make content happen. It comes to them. Their jobs now are to cherry pick good and marketable content. Today’s editors are overwhelmed with submissions. Sure, they do tremendously important editorial work with their stable of authors, but those authors are brought to them on platters. The tough truth is that editors also spend their days attending powwows with marketing and sales people. Doing administrative work. Meeting with agents. They often edit–which many would consider to be their actual jobs–on their own time. Any effort they spend to massage good books out of people becomes a second job.

Furthermore, your weird old aunt Emily Dickinson would have someone standing over her, in today’s market, asking her where her next poetry collection is because the last one didn’t perform as hoped, and we’d really like to get on a book-a-year-schedule, kthnx. Today’s most successful writers are expected to produce. With minimal hand-holding, if possible.

Sad? Yes. True? Yes. That’s why more and more writers are choosing to work with developmental editors before they get to the publication phase. In this new reality, you are just not going to find the same editorial relationships as you did in the good old days.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

An editor friend of mine recently wrote to me and said, loosely paraphrased, “Can you please write something about why asking lots of questions in interiority to make the reader wonder those things is lazy so that I can point writers there and let YOU be the bad guy? I’m sick of giving the same note over and over again!” I love my friends. They are more than happy to let ME fall on the sword. 😛 No problem!

Honestly, I’m happy to write this post because it’s an extension of one of my favorite topics: WHY things like “show, don’t tell” are a writing adage. If you’re still confused about the editor’s request, let me give you an example of what my brilliant friend means. She’s referring specifically to this technique in interiority:

I stared longingly across the bleachers at Paul. For a second, it almost seemed like he was looking back. A sly, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile later, though, his eyes had moved on. What if he liked me? He had completely broken character earlier and talked to me during lunch. A shiver worked its way through me but ended on an icy note. I reminded myself that I had to be careful. Catelynn’s killer was still out there. The police that came to the school had reminded us that cold-blooded murderers often lurk where we’d least expect. Especially in small towns like Dalebrook. A family friend. A seemingly friendly pastor. The cute guy at school. My heart squeezed painfully. What did I know about Paul, anyway? Where had his family moved from, again? Despite that dashing smile and those soulful brown eyes, could I actually trust him?

CAN YOU SEE WHERE I’M GOING WITH THIS? ARE YOU SUSPICIOUS OF PAUL YET? Whoa, sorry. I should probably put away my Obvious Megaphone. Because that’s really the effect when you start to weave too many questions into your character’s interiority. It’s basically the same as telling, though you’d like to think you’re not telling because of that ingenious little question mark at the end of the sentence. Writers are wonderful at telling themselves they’re not telling (telling to the negative degree?). They will put things they want told into dialogue to avoid long passages of backstory. They will sneak information into letters. They will overdose on flashbacks. All of these techniques are okay within reason, but let me remind you what’s harmful about telling to begin with…

Telling takes the initiative out of the story for the reader. It depletes that sense of discovery that always accompanies working your way through a good book. These questions are meant to lead the character down a certain path. Rather than luring them with bread crumbs, this is the equivalent of clubbing an audience and dragging them back to your cave. Readers like to participate in a story, that’s what gets and keeps them engaged. We’d much rather formulate our own opinions about Paul and brew our own suspicions. Maybe as a reaction to something Paul has done that’s a little shady. Maybe because we’ve read one too many “hottie bad boy” plots. Whatever the reason, we want to be suspicious of Paul on our own, and that’s something the reader is bringing to the page, rather than the author.

It all comes down to trusting the reader. We tell because we desperately want that information out there in black and white instead of leaving it as a delicious little gray area clue for the reader to find. There’s tension in the latter, though, there’s intrigue, there are even higher stakes, because if we’re not sure about something, we are more likely to care about where it goes. My suggestion is to try and bury the obvious until it’s less so. Make it a game. Don’t give away the answer in the questions.

(BTW, the title of this post is meant to be clever rather than political!)

Next Steps and Considerations

Katie Van Amburg, a recent college graduate, wrote in a few weeks ago and wanted to know what she should be doing next to further herself as a writer. Should she get an MFA? Should she work at a publishing house? These are some of the “next step” questions that a lot of writers have when they’re looking around and wondering if the writing that they do in their rooms is going to be enough to speed them toward their goals.

Is taking the next step and working at a publishing house or getting an advanced degree for you? Well, as a lady who has done both…

This is a tough answer to hear but it’s necessary: There is no magic bullet. I worked as an intern at Chronicle Books in San Francisco, and it was wonderful. I learned a lot. I also got an MFA degree and wrote a thesis, which was a completed fiction manuscript. Again, I learned a lot. But working at Chronicle didn’t get me automatically to some new level as a writer, and neither did the MFA. Neither ended directly in a publishing deal. I published a book this year but it took into consideration all of my experiences in publishing. And everything I wrote for Chronicle or for the MFA certainly must’ve played a role, but at the end of the day, the sum of all my experiences came out on the page.

Writing isn’t a linear progression. There’s no “go get your medical degree, then do a residency, then…” path outlined for it anywhere. That can be liberating, but it can also be scary because there are so many variables and fewer tangible results than in other fields.

If you do any of these things, you are doing them for YOU and to grow as a writer, not to get brownie points on your resume. Remember that. If you expect to wake up the morning after your MFA thesis is accepted and somehow be changed, it’s not going to happen. (Sorry to say, but it’s sort of like publishing a book. When I got the deal, I called Andrea. The first thing she said to me was, “That’s great, but just don’t think it will change your life.” At first, I thought she was being a bummer. Now I know she’s right. That one thing will not change your life…unless it becomes a megaselling hit and makes you lots of money. Most books are all about what you got out of writing it and then all about what you do with them. Waking up on publication day is like waking up on any other day.)

However, if you think a structured, workshop-based program will help you get to the next level, apply to an MFA and get everything you can from it. If you want to see how a publisher works from the inside out, go intern at one or work for a literary magazine or read for a literary agent. But don’t expect either of them to be more than what you make of them.

Sure, good programs and good publishers will furnish you with mentors and experiences you’ve never had before. And there’s a lot of value in that. But there’s usually no benchmark with something like this. The lessons and realizations (and then the energy and courage to use those insights when you’re back at the page) mean the ball is in your court. All of these things are just individual steps, it’s up to you to put them together into a ladder a climb it.

Starting in the Present Moment

One of the most important notes I can give to an aspiring writer is a gentle reminder that they should start in the present moment when they begin their story. Often, a story will start with generalizations or philosophy. Maybe a description of the weather or a person’s mood. Perhaps physical details or action that hasn’t really been given a time or place. For example, take this:

First days of school were always the worst. They made Caylee feel bad. Nothing was ever exactly how she wanted it to be, and she supposed that was the point of life. But first days were the worst, because they combined a hope she should’ve probably learned to ignore by now with the eventual disappointment of growing up.

Not only is there telling about emotion (“They made Caylee feel bad”) but the writer here (me) is hitting the reader over the head with the coming of age theme of growing up and tempering expectations. Yawn. Notice that we don’t have a concrete place yet, nor do we have a specific time (it’s the first day of school but is the character at home in the early morning, on her way to homeroom, reflecting on it at night, etc. etc. etc.).

The reader is in limbo and, without any additional action that could potentially make this clunker of an opening go down more smoothly, there’s really nothing here to hold on to in any serious way.

Your beginning is Prime Real Estate, remember. Not only do you want to start strong and grabby, but you also want to get away from the vague, get away from the general, get away from the philosophy, stop writing bumper sticker expressions of your theme, and go toward the specific and the well-defined. In that vein, a reboot of the above example could be something like:

Caylee tried to close her locker but the stupid thing stuck. Only five minutes before homeroom on yet another “first day of school” that she was supposed to be so excited about. She imagined what it would be like to walk in late and have everyone staring at her. Suddenly the brand new white toes of her brand new pink Converse felt fake–like she was obviously trying way too hard. She kicked the locker door closed and scuffed her right shoe. Great. A visual reminder of how perfect-seeming days usually ended in disappointment.

A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but we know exactly when and where we are, and I’m still working with some of the same emotions and ideas. Notice how the much more specific thoughts about them really help do away with that limbo/hazy/floaty feeling inspired by vague statements like “the eventual disappointment of growing up” and “First days of school were always the worst.” These same issues have now become much more specific to the time and place, and also to the character.

Make sure that, within the first two paragraphs, the reader can always point to exactly where and when your story starts. If you need a lot of time to get to grounding your reader, you haven’t found your beginning just yet.

Sounds Great, No Substance

If you’ve ever listened to the trailer for an action movie, you know what I’m talking about. A guy with a deep and raspy voice (think Will Arnett) is narrating as the sun rises over a wasted landscape:

In a world of destruction, the danger of explosive secrets will bring one man to the edge.

Sounds great. Really juicy. Until you think about it and realize you have no idea what the movie’s about. Well, this is the kind of thing you want to avoid in your prose and in your pitches. I see this a lot with novel openings. Writers think that they can juice up the tension by making their first few paragraphs sound like action-trailer nonsense. They often do this in queries, also, where they give me even less of an inkling as to what their book is really about.

We get a lot of talk about danger and secrets and tension and action, but nothing is actually communicated and, since it has all been telling, the reader never feels the emotions that those volatile things are supposed to be stirring.

The antidote to this is specificity. I don’t want to hear about “danger,” I want to see it, and I want to know exactly what it is and what it means for the character. I don’t want to hear about “secrets,” I want to be blown out of the water by them and see their high-stakes ramifications play out on character and relationship. And if you find yourself writing one of those filler paragraphs to open your novel, delete it and start in scene, with specific action, with specific characters.

That pretty much does it for my daily “show, don’t tell” plug. Now, I’m off on my day of intrigue, excitement, and thrills!

(Translation: My day of reading a manuscript, taking a lunch meeting, and checking out my new gym. Sure, this line-up doesn’t exactly sound as flashy as “intrigue, excitement, and thrills,” but it is specific, and now you have a much clearer sense of my day.)

The Real Beginning

As I say, I’ve been doing a lot of Writer’s Digest webinar critiques lately, and so a lot of posts have been inspired by things I’m seeing and notes I’m giving. While there are lots of personalized notes that I give on each manuscript (which are specific to the work), there is a handful of notes that I cut and paste from a master Word document (5 pages long!) because I have to give them over and over and over again, as they apply across dozens of manuscripts. No blog post is about a single critique that I’ve given. If I’m writing about it here, that means I’m seeing it a lot. One webinar student, Barbara, wrote back to react to a note that I’d given her. This is the note:

If you have to go into a flashback or two in the first 500 words, my guess is that you haven’t found your beginning yet. A strong opening scene is one you want to stick to for a few pages without yanking the reader away.

Barbara’s was personalized slightly for the manuscript at hand, but that is the heart of the comment. I give this note when a writer establishes a present moment with their novel opening, but then they either go into a flashback or cut the scene short and dash off to another scene within the first 2 pages (or 500 words, which is also the limit for critique submissions for the novel webinars).

And this was Barbara’s reaction to it:

Just a quick note to thank you so much for your critique. I have been struggling for a long time now on my opening pages, not quite understanding why they weren’t working. Your observation that maybe I haven’t found my real beginning yet was eye-opening. I am now filled with ideas for a new first chapter, and so relieved that I can take all the pressure off my current first chapter!

I wanted to share this with you because I think it’s a very common issue that a lot of writers struggle with. Beginnings are hard. You have to accomplish a lot with them (there’s a checklist in my upcoming book that I thought long and hard about). You almost never know everything your beginning will have to do until you finish the book, and it’s often the section that you’ll have to go back to over and over again to make sure it works and pulls the reader in while introducing your character and world without too much heavy telling or backstory. Whew!

As such, most writers don’t land on their real beginning until much later in the revision process. Some don’t even land there until their book is sold and they’re deep into editing it on a more professional level. The point is, do the best you can with the beginning, learn as much as you can about how to make a good beginning work (while you’re waiting for my book, check out HOOKED by Les Edgerton, out from Writer’s Digest, and discussed on this blog already here), and then give it your best shot.

If you lock yourself (mentally) into a beginning that isn’t working, it will hurt you in the submission pile, since that’s what you’re showing off to agents and editors. Stay as open-minded and as flexible with your novel opening, and make sure you write one that you will want to sustain for a scene or two without slipping into flashback or making a scene transition. That’s one easy way to know when a writer is in their opening mojo–they grab on to a beginning and they run with it for a while. Thanks to Barbara for letting me pass on this reminder, and keep my note in mind for your own writing.

Should you want a chance to get a critique from me, I’m giving another Writer’s Digest webinar on May 10th. This is a general market overview, which I’ve given once in September 2010 and which I often give at conferences. If you haven’t taken a webinar from me before, or haven’t heard me speak, this is a great opportunity to hear a talk that I’m phasing out of my repertoire.

It covers the picture book, middle grade, and young adult marketplace and some bigger picture craft issues. Every writer will get a personalized critique of their picture book (up to 300 words), or the opening of their MG or YA novel (up to 500 words). It all happens on May 10th at 1 p.m. Eastern, but you don’t have to be present (if that time doesn’t work for you) to get the critique. Just register as a student anyway and you’ll get a recording of the webinar after the fact. You’ll also get to submit questions which are guaranteed an answer, either live or in a PDF that arrives in your inbox, and your work for some personalized feedback from me. Register here!

Imagining Multiple Platforms

Karen wrote in to me the other day to ask the following:

What is the role of the artist/writer of children’s picture books in parallel platform markets if they are to be successful? How can knowledge or experience in multiple areas be leveraged when submitting to one platform with the hopes and vision of it transcending to multiple platforms? Should something be included in the query letter?

Here’s what I wrote in response:

When someone is talented or knowledgeable in many areas, it is difficult to know how to wrap it all up in one package. However, I urge debut writers whose interest lies primarily in landing a print book deal to focus there first. If you try to pitch an idea in too many directions at once (as a magazine, app, TV show, clothing line) without first having any print titles under your belt, agents and editors will think you’re ambitious…and not in a good way.

Focus. Create the best book you can, publish it well, and let audience demand for your talents make ideas evolve across platforms. Don’t start by stretching your idea in many directions right off the bat.

This happens to me all the time in query letters. The author will write something like:

While I think SAMMY THE SKUNK would be a very strong picture book in today’s market, I am also envisioning an app with the same branding, and have turned Sammy’s story into a feature film. The script for potential theatrical release is being written as we speak.

This almost makes me think that the author isn’t in love with his idea being a book…he’s just in love with his idea and will throw it against any wall to see if it’ll stick. That’s not a focused approach when trying to enter the publishing game, because we are into books. That’s what we do. That’s what we love. And it takes a lot of passion, dedication, knowledge, and, yes, really strong ideas to be involved in the book world. You have to really want to have a book, specifically.

Lots of books do get picked up by other platforms and go online or into theatres or into toy stores. Sure. But those properties are usually leveraged when the property that started it all (be it a book or a movie or whatever) stood on its own merits and attracted and audience and made other platform gatekeepers and tastemakers seek out the creator.

I’ll say it again: Focus. Seek to make one really strong impact on one part of the entertainment/content industry, then spread out from there.

The Promise of the Novel

In December, I was feverishly working on finishing my Writer’s Digest webinar critiques from the MG and YA novel presentation (if you missed it or are just joining us, I’m teaching a MG and YA craft intensive webinar again on February 9th, more info to come soon). This experience is always fascinating for me. Not just because I have no idea how it’s possible for me to do over 300 critiques in such a short period of time. It’s interesting because I get to read reams and reams of novel-openings-in-progress.

Now, a novel opening is one of the hardest things in the world to do right. In fact, there’s a whole book about why that is (and how to jump this difficult hurdle) called HOOKED by Les Edgerton (Writer’s Digest Books). I highly recommend it. Anyway. One of the issues I ran into during critiques was the promise of the novel. What do I mean by that?

As readers, we like to telescope into the future a bit when we pick up a book. After reading the first 5 or 10 pages, our imaginations start feverishly working on where the story will take us. Conflict is usually presented in the first chapter, or a world is introduced, or we meet characters, and we think, “Okay. I get it. This will be the central conflict of the plot that I’m reading here,” or, “I’m going to spend the next 350 pages with these people,” or, “I think we’re in some futuristic dystopian society, cool. Can’t wait to learn more.”

This is a natural process and readers do it almost subconsciously. The key for you — the writer — is to know that and to build the right promise into the beginning of your novel. You always want to work with your reader’s imagination, make the right promise, and then deliver it. They’re going to be telescoping forward into your story, so you might as well make them a) excited to read on, and b) at least right about where they think you’re going with your novel. The most common error I see is one of a misguided or misdirected promise.

I wish I could say this has only happened once or twice, but this scenario happens to me at almost every conference. I read a novel opening that takes place in school or with the family or during a sports game. These scenes are introductory and often info-dump-y and they don’t really do much for me, so I say that to the writer. They always look at me and say, “Oh, well, the rest of the story doesn’t even have anything to do with school/family/sports. I just thought I had to put them in a normal setting first and then go off to the good stuff.”

Not kidding. This happens all the time. And I understand it. When we talk about plot, we often talk about a character’s normal and how the inciting incident wrecks it. So, of course, for most kids, “normal” means family and school. But I also talk about prime real estate and directing your reader’s attention. This relates to the promise of the novel like so: if you start your story in school and going through all the usual suspects of introducing the bully and the Queen Bee and the crush, your reader will think (not without good reason), “Ah, I am going to be spending the next four hours reading a school story.”

And if on page 11, aliens descend and suddenly your protagonist is a long-lost space queen, well…your reader might be a bit jarred. If the story is good, they will reset their expectations and forge on, but you don’t want to give them this kind of cognitive dissonance. The same goes for genre. If something reads contemporary realistic for enough pages to make me think that it’s a contemporary realistic novel, don’t toss dragons at me on page 25. My expectations have gelled. I am settling into your tale. I don’t want to suddenly discover that I’ll be reading high fantasy.

If you have to start in a normal setting, at least drop hints. If yours is a ghost story, make your character see eerie shadows that disappear when she looks them head-on. If there are going to be dragons, you better let us know that this is a world that has dragons in it (a news report about dragon shortages playing in the background would be a cliche, but I hope you understand what I mean). If your character will be going on a long journey, drop subtle hints and foreshadowing, like briefly describing walking shoes piled by the door. Whatever. Just think about your story — the core of it, the plot, the arc — and then make sure that the beginning either starts with it or strongly suggests it.

And if any element plays a strong role in your opening, let it play a strong role throughout. No spending 10 pages focusing on a school story if school does not show up ever again. In fiction, you plant seeds from the very beginning and they grow in importance as you hurtle toward the climax. Don’t scatter pumpkin seeds at the beginning of planting season if you’re trying to grow a tomato garden.

You never want to confuse your reader by accident and leave them scratching their heads halfway through your beginning. Save the misdirection for withholding information and crafting suspense and surprise. Instead, make a solemn promise to your audience that you will tell them the story they think they’ve settled down to read. That doesn’t mean make it predictable, but it means build their expectations just so and make them excited to follow you down the path you’ve set up for them from page one.