Writing What People Want to Read
I. Ellen M.
This is not a comprehensive look at fiction and how to write it. Although this essay discusses some common pitfalls and clichés that new writers fall into it is only focused on these issues in the early chapters of the work. The object of this essay is to help the budding writer avoid filling the first quarter of their story with such rubbish that the reader will not wish to read the rest of their story.
It was hard to decide what to start with but I though this was the most cohesive. After all, this is about how to get people to read your work. This section deals with ways to entice the Reader into opening your story as well as the importance of spelling and grammar.
1.1 'lol I suck at summaries'
Well that's nice. If you can't string three sentences together do you think you can at least string a whole story together? Pretty please? But thanks for your honesty; it's the first step to rehabilitation. Summaries use a different format to stories. You only have about three lines on FictionPress and that's a lot of condensing there. When writing summaries try to make your character someone the reader can easily relate to. Don't write the character's name in the summary, especially if their name is in the title. Instead give tell us about them and how they deal with the world.
"Alison Ashley must fight the forces of evil and find a date for the school in the same week."
Is pretty nice but vague. We don't know Alison Ashley because we're waiting for you to introduce us to her. A better summary might be:
"A young girl must fight the forces of evil and find a date for the school in the same week."
The two really aren't that different. However one is closed off to the reader. We don't know who Alison Ashley is and we shouldn't have to yet. That's the point. We don't know how Alison Ashley would react in any given situation. Of course, we don't know what a young girl's going to act like in any given situation either. But we can see it in our mind's eye: a young girl, alone against the forces of evil, a young woman looking for love. We have the knee jerk reaction that she's a young girl therefore she's helpless and we want to reach out and help her. That's fantastic. We care about her enough to pick up the book.
But Alison Ashley might be anything but helpless. And Hell, she might be a cynical bitch who is only looking for a boy to take to the dance because otherwise she'll be beaten up for looking like a dyke. Maybe she'll force that force of evil to go to the dance with her. Tell us that then, let the summary reflect the character you're asking us to read:
"15 years old and already having to go save a world that isn't worth it and find someone willing enough to go to the school dance: a girl's life dramas."
What you're doing by taking the name out, something I'm sure you worked very hard for (see chapter three), is showing who the character is as opposed to what they are called. It's taking away the character's identity so that the Reader can more easily identify with them. You want the Reader to either care for the character or want to be the character. In a summary we're not looking for character development, we're looking for a fun story to escape into.
Summaries in Fiction Press and on the blurbs on the backs of books aren't really summaries in the true sense of the word. If they were we'd get the ending too. Here's a summary of the New Testament:
"Jesus is born and says and does some things which prove to the people around him that he is the son of God. Many of those things are written down as examples for how we should live our lives. Many people disbelieve him or see him as a threat to the establishment. So they crucify him. Then he rises up again three days later, reborn kinda, promising that he would return to take those people who believed in him to Heaven and those who didn't will get totally owned. The last part's still in press."
That's what a summary is. Except that's not what you're doing. No you need to tantalise the reader. Hopefully you'd stop at the sentence: 'Many people disbelieve him or see him as a threat to the establishment.' and make it more foreboding or you're story would start with the promised Armageddon. You know that so why am I telling you? Because as ridiculous as it is so many writers go the other way:
"Mark, Luke, John and Mathew meet a mysterious man who could potentially change the world. R&R. Flames will be used to roast marshmallows."
What is that? In an attempt to not give anything away Writers become coy and well, don't give anything away. You need to show a little of what makes your story interesting in the summary so that it stands out from the crowd. What made this man mysterious? Was it that he could walk on water? That he said that he was the son of God?
"'I am the son of God,' he said. 'I will unite the world in my name. Kings will be made through me and kings will fall under me.' The people stared up at him and couldn't help but believe him. He had the powers of a god; they had seen him use them. But he was more then that: he was hope."
It's not giving anything away and I'm prompting the reader to ask questions. Because there's something more then 'he's mysterious' the brain is being stimulated. What kind of person would think that? Why aren't they pissing themselves in fear if he's got god-like powers? I wonder if they're actually real or just tricks. I wonder what's happened to get up to this point. I wonder what's going to happen. Will he really unite the world? How? It's a bit of showing vs. telling too: it's alright to say he's mysterious but it will stick a lot more if you say that he's the son of God and that instead of making everyone piss themselves in fear he's giving them hope. Now that's pretty mysterious. Make us feel the mystery instead of telling us it's there.
What you're really summarising is the first chapter(s) of your work. Hopefully your summary will be interesting enough that people are prepared to read the expanded version. Usually, once they get that far, they are.
Now you may think that spelling isn't that important and for the most part people can comprehend what you're trying to say. True but good grammar's important for three reasons:
To show you care. We take the time to read your story, the least you could do is spend two minutes running it through a spellchecker. Yeah, you might not care about it but there are plenty of writers who are much less arrogant.
Spelling and grammar (S&G) are part of the English language. If you can't master these then what hope do we have that you can master pacing, plot, character much less the higher order literary devices? You may think that S&G are only the vessel to display your masterpiece but guess what: if you have crappy packaging people are going to decide it's a crappy product.
Because when Readers read they forget that they're reading. They switch off the outside world and immerse themselves in your story (hopefully). And then you put in some hilarious typo like 'she had the slimmest waste he'd ever seen outside a corset' and you've destroyed all momentum and tension in your story while the reader rolls around laughing before showing all their friends the idiot they found online and using their story as an example of bad fiction in the essay they're writing. Bad S&G is distracting because people comfortable with reading, as any activity, do it unconsciously and when they come across something unexpected, like a typo or improper grammar they have to stop taking in the story and start trying to figure out what you're trying to say.
Knowing that, it's often hard to have perfect S&G all the time because You know what You want to say and it's obvious to You. It's also disheartening when you've written a 5000 word chapter and all you get is people nit picking the spelling mistakes. I understand that and have been there. I suggest you get a beta, someone who will read your work before it hits the presses. They will do so much that a spellchecker just can't. And I hate to say it but if the only comments you're getting are about S&G then either a) you're that bad or b) your story just isn't interesting enough to merit more. Either way don't hate S&G just realise that you do need to take a few backward steps to make your work shine.
Chapter Length and Update Schedules
A good sized chapter should be *at least* 3000 words long. Because you're writing on FictionPress, the readers don't have the next chapter in their hands like they would a physical book, so you need to give them something to bite into. Your chapter needs to tantalise the reader to the point that they want to click the 'next' button but it also needs to satisfy them.
Sometimes you'll find that your idea just doesn't stretch that far. It might be easier to think of chapters as mini stories in themselves as well as adding to the main plot. Each chapter should have at least three of the following:
· Character development
· Plot development
· Resolution and connecting paragraphs from the last chapter(s)
· A crisis
· A climax
· A resolution or a cliff hanger
· A hint of what might happen in the next chapters and how this chapter affects the story.
If you can't stretch that into at least 3000 words then you have a pretty thin idea. What a lot of new writers forget to explore is how the plot affects the characters. Example:
Charlie Maincharacter fell to the ground as James McEvil-Guye plunged the knife into his gut. Charlie struggled with McEvil-Guye, while fighting the pain in his abdomen until his wife (Elaine Maincharacter) could get a clear shot.
Of course Charlie felt pain and fear when he got stabbed. Who wouldn't? Who wouldn't respond in the exact same way?
This is a great time to differentiate your character from any other. How does Charlie describe his pain? What was life like before the stab wound that shapes him to describe it in this way? Does it remind him of his mother cutting through the Sunday lamb when he was a child? Or does he compare it to a surgeon's cut and feel disgusted that this one is so much more sloppy? Or does he resolutely refuse to think about or look at what's just happened? Does he trust Elaine to shoot James or is he holding on to bare, invalid hope? How the hell does Elaine feel? Is she confident with the gun? Is she scared shitless that she may kill her husband? Or that she may kill a human being even if he is scum? How does knowing her husband just got stabbed affect her ability to aim? Is she going to take a deep breath and hurry up or hesitate even more knowing how close to death her husband could be?
That's something so basic writers often forget it. Because anyone in that situation would behave broadly in the same fashion writers loose the intricacies that make their character unique. Because you know why a character is doing something you forget to spell it out for the reader and so the depth of the character never comes across.
Now for something more advanced:
There was too much blood in Charlie's eyes to see but he heard the gunshot and felt James' unmistakable weight against him. Even in death the bastard was trying to crush him. But that was okay, thought Charlie as he finally started to pass out. He could hear Elaine in the background talking frantically. The ambulance was on it's way.
There's a difference between plot and character but they intertwine. Charlie has been wounded and James fatally killed just as the plot demanded. Now it's time for the characters. How does being a killer affect Elaine? How does coming so close to death affect Charlie? More importantly, how has the relationship between Charlie and Elaine been changed? Has their love for each other intensified? Or have the seeds of doubt been planted in Charlie: why didn't she shoot sooner? Did she want me to die or is she just weak? Even though she knows it's irrational does Elaine resent Charlie for forcing her to become a murderer? How do all the other characters react to her now? She's a hero surely but isn't there something different about her?
Yes, yes there is. Every new plot turn changes the characters, whether it's because they have access to new information or they've accomplished new things or undergone new experiences, and that needs to be explored. If the characters haven't been changed at all then you need to ask yourself if this plot point is as necessary or shocking as previously thought. I'm not asking you to force your character into extremes but a slow build up of Charlie's growing doubts will create a tension that will fill out your chapters as well as your characters.
It may also push your story in unexpected directions as you realise that your characters might not want to do the next task that the plot requires to move on. This is difficult if you're writing a plot driven story rather then a character driven story but you as the writer need to find the balance. You may find that you need to modify your characters' personalities but you also need to tailor your plot so that the characters can believably stick to it. Such are the pitfalls about forward planning.
What I'm constantly seeing is very short chapters with a hugely significant event (HSE) in which the writers refuse to include the ramifications in the same chapter. I can understand the temptation to keep the chapter separate so that readers can chew on the event and speculate on what the characters will do before seeing what you've planned. However they can only chew on so much for so long. When you get a chapter update alert you expect a chapter not a paragraph. Even the ones done well feel like a grab for more reviews over story telling decisions.
Some ways to avoid this:
Piggy backing: since this HSE is too short to hold its own weight as a chapter in itself tack it on to the chapter before it. It's called a cliff hanger and it can be done well.
Catch up chapters: especially when you have big casts or one character has a particularly long arc your other characters and plot threads can get lost in the noise. Dedicate a whole chapter to people the reader is starting to miss and use it to align and build up all those little plot points. And then wham the reader at the end with your HSE.
If you *really* can't bring yourself to sacrifice your art, have the decency to let the reader know before hand that the next update will be short and try and make it a special bonus update in between the regular chapters. Or if you constantly do short chapters because that's your writing style and there's just no way around that update more often. If I have to wait a fortnight for a chapter then it should be 7,500 -10,000 words. If I have to wait a week: 3,000 – 5,000. And if you're updating every day then you should be writing 750 – 1000 words but because you're updating every day readers will have more patience and lit you skive a little.
But remember: no matter how artistic you think it is, to your readers it looks like a cheap grab for reviews and ratings because you can't be bothered to flesh out a chapter in time.
That said, don't make it too long. I've seen some brilliant stories that deserve to be savoured yet their authors dumped a whole story into one huge post leaving the reader emotionally exhausted and upset, wondering how many other wonderful works they've missed. The point of this site and others is that you get instant feed back (we'll be looking at how to get the reviews you want in a later chapter). Many authors use this instant feed back to stroke their ego and if they're good why not? But by putting something in one massive post you don't get to use that feedback to improve the story you're working on and you don't get the pleasure of watching the readers take the journey that you're leading them on. And obviously the more often your story appears on the front page the more readers you'll get.
· Don't make the prologue its own chapter. You think it builds up the suspense, but the fact is that it's usually only a few sentences more then the summary and it's usually vague enough as to not give anything away. The fact is all you've given the reader is air, nothing to sink their teeth into. I've read some really good prologues in my time but the anticipation usually evaporates before the next update. If you give me a whole chapter underneath I have something to bite and I don't feel cheated when clicking onto a story that promised two chapters but actually had one and a paragraph.
· Don't dedicate a whole chapter to an update, especially one that apologises for not updating. Part of presentation is keeping an update schedule. To do this you need part of your story completed and an idea of where you're going. If you find you can't maintain this then let readers know at the end of your last chapter that this might be the last update for a while rather then having them get all excited only to find out that no, you aren't reliable.
A/N: What do you think? Is it good? Needed? Next installment next week. Obviously, if you see any S&G mistakes tell me and I'd love a beta to look over my work and bounce ideas off (pref. someone who works in English English rather then Americanised but the differences are slight). And if you have any pet peeves that you keep seeing in every new story let me know.