Good Morning Writers! I am so lucky to have Frank Allan Rogers back on my blog today. I’m excited to share this letter. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, but there is a great deal of wisdom in this advice Frank offers to the writer. He is a wonderful editor, by the way. He edited a few of my books, and I often go to him for advice. See more about Frank on my Porch Guests page!
Here’s a critique I wrote after I reviewed a manuscript for a writer I know. Most suggestions I make to the author are about story structure – how it works and why it’s important. Like most other writers, I had trouble with many of the same issues, and still battle with them now and then. I’ve been helped by editors and many writers over the years. If this helps you, it allows me to give back.
Frank Allan Rogers
I read the first 7 chapters of your manuscript, enough for me to get a feel of the story and make some comments about the overall work. First, let me say I think your story is worth writing. It has potential. But it needs work – quite a lot.
To begin, ask yourself what this story is about, not a synopsis or shortened version of the story, like, “It’s about a New York woman who falls in love with a cowboy from Arizona and…” Not that. Maybe it’s about how tough it is to make a relationship work for two people with very different backgrounds. Or maybe it’s about how love triumphs over all obstacles if two people are determined to make it work. Or maybe neither of those. The point is – make sure you know the purpose of your story, what message you want to convey. That’s the theme. Then stick with that theme throughout in every chapter and every scene.
Plot: Most new writers are intimidated by plot. I was, because I couldn’t really define what a plot was, and I didn’t know why it mattered. Then I read, “How to Write a Damn Good Novel II,” by James N. Frey. He said, plot is how your lead character (and sometimes another character) changes from the start of your story till the end as a result of conflict. What a relief that was. And I’ve learned over the years, it really is that simple.
The goal is to advance the plot with every scene and every chapter. Otherwise your story gets off track and the reader feels lost. You must create additional conflict as your story progresses, to maintain the suspense and tension and keep the reader interested. Example: A young woman alone in a kayak is on a fast-moving river (danger). Farther ahead she encounters rapids (greater danger). Just when it seems she’s mastered the current and the kayak, she sees a waterfall ahead. As if that’s not bad enough, the paddle slips out of her hand, flies back and breaks her arm. (She’s up that old familiar creek without a paddle.) That’s real suspense, spine-tingling tension that builds as the story develops, and keeps the reader glued to the pages.
The chapter you wrote about the boys who baptized the cat seems realistic for boys that age, very believable. But it doesn’t advance the plot, so it doesn’t fit the story. If you keep that scene, play it down. Tell it with just a paragraph or two to illustrate the cultural differences in that part of the country. Those differences make life more difficult for Rachel (increased conflict), and it can work for character development as well.
Another chapter deals with Rachel helping a new friend select a prom dress. It’s realistic – that’s what friends often do for each other. But how does it contribute to the story? Advance the plot? Develop character? Where does that scene take the reader?
Showing versus Telling: This is a biggie. Most of the story reads like a synopsis, a cryptic version of what happens to (and with) the characters. Much of the time, I’m watching Rachel from a distance because there is not enough detail for me to see what she sees, to hear what she hears, to taste what she eats or drinks, or feel what she feels. If you tell me she feels neglected, that has no real emotional power. However, if I become aware of it based on what she says and how she says it, what others say to her, what she does, the choices she makes, and how she reacts to others, I feel her neglect.
When Rachel notices the buildings and weeds as she walks down the sidewalk, your reader needs to see them too. Are the buildings made of brick? Run-down wooden structures that haven’t been painted in decades? Gutters hanging off the roof? Broken windows? Doors missing or hanging open? Are they covered with graffiti? Does Rachel see trash on the floors of the empty buildings – like bags from a local drive-in? Beer cans? Wine bottles? Does it appear that teenagers use these places at night to party and have sex? Is this scene a block long? Three blocks? If this scene impacts the character’s impression about the town, it must also impact the reader’s impression and make the reader feel the same way. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. Put the reader in her shoes, under her skin, behind her eyes. SHOW the story.
Head Hopping & POV: Ideally, an author should immerse readers into a story and a character to a level so deep that the readers don’t realize they are reading. They sympathize with and identify with a character, and live the story as it happens. To accomplish that feat, the author must create a POV (point of view) character and maintain that POV all the way through a chapter.
At the beginning of your story, Rachel is the POV, and it works because she is the principle character (it’s her story). But remember that she cannot read minds. So if you tell readers what another character is thinking or feeling while Rachel is the POV (known as head hopping), you yank the readers away from Rachel and away from the story. More than one POV in a chapter frustrates and confuses readers. You can let your readers know what other characters are thinking by their dialogue and body language.
If a secondary character is important enough to the story to get inside his head (which is often the case) keep that POV through the entire chapter. NO MORE THAN ONE POV IN ANY ONE CHAPTER. Yes, there best-selling authors who sometimes break that rule. But you shouldn’t break it until you become one of those best-sellers.
Also… don’t jump from first-person narrative to third person. Rachel should not be referred to as “I” except in her own dialogue where she’s talking about herself. When you make that narrative jump, it has the same effect as head hopping, or worse.
Writing a novel is an enormous, often daunting, project. It takes time, energy, planning, dedication, and rewriting to make it all work. More than anything else, it requires passion – passion for your characters, passion for the story, and passion to tell it better than anyone else could.
Remember to show your story as it develops. Make your reader laugh, cry, sigh, gasp, and scream. Grab him by the throat and drag him into the middle of a fight. Push him over a cliff or in front of a moving train. Tease him, squeeze him, screw him. Then slap him in the face, abuse his friends, and break his heart. Just make up for all of it at the end, and the reader will love you for it. People read fiction because they want an emotional experience. Give it to them. You can do it.
Thank you for sharing this Frank. I’m sure we all will benefit. You are welcome back ANY time!