I’ve heard more than one agent or editor say the quality of writing in their submission stack or their slush pile is not that bad. They say there are a few terrible pieces, a few that stand out, and in the middle there is a lot of decent writing, good story-telling, and interesting ideas. It just doesn’t shine.
Leaving aside whether or not you’ve written what they want to publish, part of the problem is that the writing is not vivid, the narrative is not captivating, it doesn’t dare enough and risks little. It’s not just people who read thrillers who want to be thrilled.
One of the reasons is that, as a writer, you haven’t been bold enough – with your writing and with yourself. I know it’s part of the problem because I’ve read stories exactly like that in my writing group. And to be fair I’ve had those comments come back at me. That realisation is where this piece is coming from. To write well you have to step outside of yourself, get out of your comfort zone. How do you do this? Here are a few things that work for me:
Push your ideas. Push them hard, then push again. You come up with a great story idea, an intriguing character, an action scene. Now push those ideas further. Take your character, your situation, your plot right to the edge, beyond what is reasonable, make it the strongest, maddest, the most grotesque or passionate version you dare – and then push it again.
Here’s Pwimula Nesbytte, and she’s floating in a balloon. Better than that, it’s an airship, a 1,000’ Zeppelin with a crew, engine nacelles, passenger gondolas and searchlights. That’s good, but it’s not good enough. Now it’s an underground airship, and it’s articulated for manoeuvrability. She’s navigating the pitch-dark tunnels and caverns of a lost empire. For a map Pwimula is using the design she found tattooed on the flank of Bismark, her battle-mole, when she shaved him to stitch his wounds. Ahead in the vasty dark is a subterranean ocean, somewhere out there is an island – and The Answer.
Get uncomfortable. Write about things that bug you, or obsess you, or things that freak you out. Draw these things into your stories when it’s right to do so. Let your mind and imagination off the leash, explore these places and events. Don’t worry about letting your feelings show, they need to show. If you have opinions, then so will your characters – and they shouldn’t necessarily agree with you either. Share your insights into the motivations and feelings of your characters. To do that you need to:
Keep on digging. In the same way you push ideas, tunnel down into a character’s motivation until you find out what really drives them. You can do this by continually asking the same question – Why?
Arthur Edward Choke is a brilliant engineer, but he refuses promotion to airship flight engineer. Why? He’s scared of flying. Why? He has terrifying dreams of falling. Why? He ate some ergotised bread as a child, thought he was an owl and broke both legs when he jumped off the roof.*
You don’t have to put all these reasons in the story, but it helps if you know because then you will understand your characters.
And then there’s Sex. Oh yeah. Write the most gruesomely horrific fight or murder scene and people don’t give you funny looks. Write a sex scene and they’re nodding and winking and ‘We know what you like to get up to.’
Right. The same way we enjoy shooting people in the head with harpoons or dropping nuclear bombs on Calgary.
Writing your first sex scene needs some boldness, a certain chutzpah. Maybe you’ll find it’s easy. I didn’t at first. Sex scenes, like anything else, have moods and tones, they can be funny or hot, or plain weird. Like any other emotion such as fear or anger, or joy, you need to feel it.
A friend once told me about a character in their book, a lyrical explanation of their innermost feelings, the true core of who that character was. This was exactly what was needed to bring the person alive, genuine insight into who they really were. None of that had made it onto the page and the lack of it showed. I learned something then. Write what you feel. The only person putting boundaries round your writing is yourself. You have to be bold.
A lot of this can be fixed after the event (there wouldn’t be much point in critique groups if it couldn’t) but it’s easier if you explore as much of this before you start writing. I think it’s more fun too, and fun is good because it brings energy. For me this is one of the great advantages of plotting. Once you’re done all those scenes and events and characters are waiting for you. All you’ve got to do then is write the story.
Next week: Keeping Momentum
*Which also explains why there’s never any bread in his sandwiches. Go figure.