Get to the story already!

by Ksenia Anske

I keep reading novel excerpts that we exchange on Twitter with fellow writers, and sometimes I'm afraid to comment directly on them because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. Hey, I'm a writer too, and I am such a fragile creature, it's not even funny. I stoically listen to critical feedback, laugh it off, and then, when the party is over, I crawl into bedroom and bawl my eyes out. Of course, after about 30 minutes of it, I dry my face off and set to work to make my story better. Today it's my turn to be critical. What I'm seeing over and over and OVER is - the story doesn't start till page 5, or 10, or, worse, 20!

So, please, PLEASE, cut those beginning sluggish pages and GET TO THE STORY ALREADY!!!

You will lose the reader if you don't. I've talked about summarizing your novel in its first paragraph already, so this is along those lines. If you don't grab the reader in the first few pages, the reader is gone. The reader is smart. The reader likes to be smart. Don't tell the reader that the reader is stupid. The reader will get pissed at you and throw your book across the room, or, worse, into the bushes (and who knows WHAT will eat your book there). The reader will figure out the backstory as you go along, but don't bore the reader. It's a big no-no. Grab the reader, hook the reader, make the reader sit on the edge of the seat. THEN, only then, can you take the liberty to stretch it out a bit and slow down. But not before.

Your submission will be rejected if you don't. Ok, on this one, those of you who have been through the process (I haven't yet) can beat me up. Go ahead, do it. I will speculate here, and please PLEASE tell me if I'm wrong. But here is what I'm suspecting. Agents are people too. After they hang their titles at the door and get home, they are like us - readers. And you want to grab them. Yeah, I heard horror stories about the right or the wrong way to write the query letter, etc, etc. It's an art in itself, I get it, and I haven't written mine yet (when I do, I will publicly post it here so you can butcher it). Here is the catch. As far as I know, you have to grab the agent with the query letter, do you not? And what do you grab the agent with? Oh, the summary of your novel, of course, that one line and one paragraph. And where does that lead us? You guessed it, back to the beginning. 

It will help you as a writer to not get lost. And it is one hell of a beast to get lost in. I mean, we are talking about 65,000 to 100,000 words. That's A LOT! I've been there when I've looked at my 1st draft and didn't even remember where I started by the time I have finished it. And if you are lost as a writer, where does that leave your reader? Yeah, same place, or worse, because often we as writers don't spell everything out, and the readers can't guess our thoughts, unfortunately, no matter how hard they try. The lesson in this is (and I had to learn it the hard way) - you as the writer are the first to also read your own work, so please take care of yourself. Dive right into your story.

Less introduction means more story. It's not me who said "less is more", and I already mentioned this quote in another blog post, but I will say it again with my own twist. Less introduction means more story. If you are afraid that without enough introduction you won't be able to hook the reader on your story, think again. All you have to do is give it a few quick brush strokes. The reader likes to feel smarter than the author, the reader will fill in the details. Just get on with the story already. We want to know what happens. We want to know who goes where, what happens to them, where they go, what do they do there, etc, etc. Think about the way you tell someone about something exciting. You say: "So we were driving along the street, and then, BAM, there was this old guy standing naked, belly and all, right on the corner where that bakery is, remember?" We're hooked. We want to know who, why, how. Curiously enough, our brain starts throwing out ideas BEFORE we hear the end of the story. You, right now, are wondering, don't you? This is real, by the way, me and my boyfriend saw one today. You can weave a story out of this, could you not? You got your opening line all right, and as readers we're hooked.

Of course none of this is set in stone. And I'm not some genius to tell you what to do. This is simply my latest observation. There are plenty of books that begin with long drawn out introductions, especially the ones that have been written 10, 20, 50 years ago, or more. So feel free to throw your opinion at me in the comments and let's have a friendly fist fight. I'm all for it. I bet you, though, if you read your work after reading this and try, just TRY, to let your gut tell you where the REAL story starts, you might be surprised. 

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Easier Than It Looks, Harder Than You Think

by Ksenia Anske

Please welcome A. Lee Martinez, an American fantasy and science fiction author of the award-winning Gil's All Fright Diner (2005), as well as In the Company of Ogres (2006), A Nameless Witch (2007), Monster (my personal favorite), and many more novels.


People think writing fiction is hard for all the wrong reasons.

They think coming up with "an idea" is hard, when it's pretty damn easy.  Perhaps it's because there's this mistaken assumption that originality is important.  It isn't.  I don't say that lightly or in criticism.  People think they want originality, but originality is as likely to confuse as impress.  Is there anything truly original about Harry Potter or his universe?  Luke Skywalker and his?  The Game of Thrones is merely mythological melodrama dressed up in pretty new clothes.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  The more closely a story follows established patterns, the more likely it is to be enjoyed.

Formula isn't convention.  It's fact.  It's the end results of thousands of years of storytelling, of experimentation, of exploration.  Stories evolved like everything else.  What worked stuck around.  What didn't was discarded.  This is why Homer's original version of The Odyssey where Odysseus has a nice leisurely trip home and goes home to his wife and kids was roundly rejected.  You can bet his editor told him to stick some monsters in there, add some conflict, some tragedy, some triumph.  Every story is better with a cyclops, I think we can all agree.

Formula isn't an excuse to be lifeless, and a story told badly that conforms to formula will usually crash and burn.  These stories are the ones we often mistaken label as "unoriginal".  But we aren't put off by the unoriginal part so much as the uninteresting part.  We only notice formula when we aren't involved in a story.  So when someone comes to me and tells me they have a great idea for a story, I will listen politely.  They might even have one.  But no matter how great the idea is, the skill of the writer is far more important than any idea behind it.

People think writing fiction is easy for all the wrong reasons.

They think that once the idea is formed, everything else comes to the writer like a thunderbolt of inspiration.  It doesn't.  Writing a book is a lot of dreary work.  The glamorous illusion of the writer sitting at his typewriter, pounding the keys with fevered inspiration, is a great one.  I've been fortunate enough to be that writer at times.  But never for an entire book.  Every book has the hard parts, the moments when you find yourself staring at the screen and questioning the story and yourself.  It's not necessarily writer's block.  I haven't had a lot of trouble with that particular problem myself.  The empty page doesn't taunt me.  It's the page full of words that might be great or might be terrible or just might be okay.  

Writing a novel is a lot like saying a word over and over again.  After a while, the word starts to sound weird, lose its meaning.  You're not sure if you're saying it wrong anymore.  There's always Chapter X in the novel where you're not sure if any of this stuff is sticking together properly, if you're writing something worth reading.  With experience, I've learned to move on, keep writing, and come back later.  Usually, it's better than I thought.  Sometimes, it's worse.  If so, it can usually be fixed.  It just takes time.

And that's why writing a novel is hard.  It's finding the time when I'd much rather be playing video games.  It's trusting that, even if the story seems to have lost its way halfway through, you can patch it together.  It's moving forward despite that nagging voice that's telling you to stop for any number of reasons.  I still deal with it, even as a professional so it never comes as a surprise when I hear it from aspiring writers who only have their ambitions and optimism to keep them going.

The hard part is easy.  The easy part is hard.  And if you've ever attempted to create a novel, short story, or memoir, you'll know what I'm talking about.  You aren't doing it wrong.

You're writing.

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Hugh Howey on Storytelling

by Ksenia Anske

Please welcome Hugh Howey, the author of the award-winning Molly Fyde Saga, the New York Times and USA Today bestselling WOOL series, and recently completed I, Zombie


I get emails now and then asking me for the secret to writing success. My sad and honest answer is always that I simply don’t know why some books take off and others don’t. I have a hard time believing it’s the quality of the writing, at least in my case, because I read much better prose than mine all the time. But something occurred to me this past week at WorldCon in Chicago: We might have it backwards, just what it is that authors do. Or more precisely, what it is that readers want from us.

We tend to think of ourselves as writers, which is why we study English, master grammar, and fret over the cleanliness and quality of our prose. It’s why writing workshops, classes, and critique groups spend time clucking over adverbs and too many –ing words. We are writers. Our job is to construct perfect sentences, first and foremost. Except . . . I’m starting to think this view of what we do is wrong.

I think writing is just a tool for something more primal, which is storytelling. Humans have been telling each other stories for a very long time, in caves and across fire pits, stories about gods and ghosts, gossiping amongst ourselves, recounting that hilarious time Borg got speared in the thigh by Grog. Authors have to be able to do both, of course, but which of the two should we stress? Which of the two do readers care more about? I wonder if the answers to these two questions are in conflict, which means writers have been concentrating on improving the wrong skills. It could explain why success in writing seems random at times, why it doesn’t correlate with our narrow view of talent. It’s not a talent in writing that readers are after.

This occurred to me recently as a group of authors at WorldCon were poking fun of the Twilights and the Shades of Grey (with a lot of dismay and more than a hint of envy). I pointed out that my wife enjoyed both of these series, and that she has great taste in books (if not in husbands). How to account for this? And not only her enjoyment of these books but of the vast millions that made these works the most popular since Harry hit puberty. My theory is that what many of us as authors value is not what readers value. Readers want stories. Plot is king and prose is pawn.

Now, before your head explodes, I understand that discerning readers dearly want both if they can have it. But with the vast emphasis authors place on prose, readers are getting shafted where it matters to them most. Look at how we as writers discuss our work for evidence: We talk about how great a writer someone is, how free a work is of error, how their sentences sing. It’s why critique groups spend so much time agonizing over the rules. Breaking a rule is easy to spot. It’s like getting a math problem wrong. Describing why a story moves or startles us is much more difficult. Sure, a popular complaint in a writing group might be that a story didn’t “grab them.” Or that they “lost interest.” But it’s hard to say why. And think about how happy readers rave about their favorite books:

“I couldn’t put it down.” “Page-turner.” “Thrilling.” “Awesome.” “I felt like I was there.” “Loved the characters.” “Didn’t see the ending coming.” And so on. Ephemeral praise, if you’ll notice. It’s hard to put our finger on what makes a book great, but I argue that it’s the plot more than anything else. And how often do we discuss plot, as professional writers? When someone asks me about Wool, why don’t I have the shorthand language to encapsulate the hero’s journey described within? How about:

“It’s an underdog story with a plucky heroine. There are metaphors of class warfare designed to align readers with one group, but I fuzzified the player motivations so readers were left consumed with thought-time when they weren’t reading. Went heavy on the dinger endings on my chapters, killed off a few characters, got all cliffhangery at the end. Published serialized and then Omni. Love interest was a male naïve and a female wounded. Tossed in a breath-holding scene, a self-sacrifice finale, and a twister.”

Yeah. We don’t do this. Because it’s so much harder. We don’t even have the necessary language (though Joseph Campbell and others have tried). The most we do is talk about the “hero’s journey” and certain character tropes like “the reluctant warrior.” Is it possible to pay more attention to plot? To find some way to analyze what we feel emotionally?

Maybe we need to learn more about the elements of plot if we want to understand why some books do well and others languish. I posit this: there are storytellers and there are writers. You can be both, of course, but if you have to spend more time anguishing over one, I’d try and figure out how to lead three dingers into a zinger and get that plucky protagonist out of a villain jam without resorting to deus ex machina at the last second. I would switcheroo and best-friend-betrayal, boy meets girl and gets angry at him after falling in love, only to get back together right at the end. But maybe that’s just me. It could be that you have an even better story to tell.

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