Friday, January 21, 2011

Fiction's Fatal Flaw: The Missing Deadline

Ready?  BEGIN!

This post is short. You should be able to read it in a minute.  Minute and a half at the most.

That in itself may be incentive to keep reading. (Ah well, I can spare 90 seconds while waiting to see who RT'd my latest tweet.) But imagine that I promised to give $5000 to everyone who finished reading it in under 90 seconds...

OR that your life depended upon your reading and understanding every word before the counter hits 90.

Suddenly, this little post takes on a whole new persona. It becomes alive.  It affects the reader on a personal level.  It means something to you.  Your relationship with the words on the page is now imbued with tension, conflict, and drama.

Such is the power of the deadline.

Last summer, the fabulous and amazing uberagent Conrad Williams graciously read and critiqued one of my screenplays. The script is my go-to contest entry: it consistently places well and, at the time I screwed up the courage to request Mr. Williams' opinion, it was as good as I could make it.

His comments were insightful and gracious (and overwhelmingly positive, which was a relief since it took me 3 days before I could find the guts to read what he said).  Hands down, however, his most useful note was the one where he zeroed in on my story's fatal flaw:

No deadline.

See, throughout the script stuff happens. Lots of stuff: swords and sorcery, intrigue and mystery. But there is no clear root-for-the-hero-before-time-runs-out deadline.

As soon as he pointed the flaw out to me, I saw it.  (More difficult to see, it pains me to admit, is how to fix the flaw without making it appear contrived. Truth be told, I'm still working on it.) I had an ah-ha epiphany: So THAT'S what's been missing. And I could have kicked myself for not noticing the problem sooner.

Deadlines are critical to getting your audience invested in the outcome of your story.  (How you doin' with the time, there? Think you'd get those 5 Gs?)

Imagine the original "Star Wars" if all the rebel forces had to do was take out the Death Star. Good, but not great.  Factor in the added threat that they have to neutralize the Empire's newest weapon before it destroys the planet with Leia & the rebels on it, and the deadline bumps the story's "Gotcha Quotient (GQ)" into the stratosphere.

Deadlines anchor a story and its characters in time ("If I don't have the money by noon tomorrow, your career is over!").  They give the audience something specific to root for ("I've got to be in Fresno before 6 for my wedding!).  The audience also understands - and fears - the consequences that will ensue should our hero miss the deadline ("Without that medicine in the next 24 hours, my little boy is dead!").

Deadlines serve another critical function: They force the story to move.  Ever read something that wasn't poorly written per se, but that just didn't grab you? Bet it was missing a few deadlines!

Want to keep your readers hanging on every word? Let them sink their teeth into a deadline.



Thursday, January 13, 2011

Huck Finn's Acceptance Letter

(With humble apologies to Mark Twain.)

Dear Mr. Clemens,

Thank you for your recent submission of Huckleberry Finn. We are delighted to offer you a publishing contract, should you be willing to make one or two small editorial changes to the manuscript. Details follow:

1. A quick once-over to remove racial slurs is of the utmost importance.

Your little story of a young boy who takes a trip down the river with an escaped slave contains over 200 uses of what we in the Publishing Industry call "the N-word." Though you may argue that this is the way people spoke in the 1880's, our marketing department assures us that the N-word won't fly in Alabama.

We suggest doing a global search-and-replace to change the word in question to the more PC "slave."

Likewise, we suggest renaming "Injun Joe" as "Chief Joseph."

2. Help us help Marketing.

Publishing, like the entertainment industry, is entirely ruled by fear. We're not concerned about literary merit so much as we are about things like buzz and viral marketing. Here's a thought: why not quote Snooki's novel and say that Jim "tasted like fresh gorilla?" We could build an entire marketing campaign around that.

We'd like to market this title to high school English teachers. We believe it would make a nice diversion from sparkling vampires and dystopian games. But we need to give marketing a little help.

From PosterText.

As it is, the manuscript is skewed heavily toward a male audience. But teenage girls are the largest reading demographic. Consider adding a female sidekick that joins in the grand adventure. (Perhaps a mermaid? Or a selkie? Both possibilities give our head of marketing heart palpitations.)

3. Clean up your dialogue.

You have a lovely voice. At times it borders on the poetic. However, successful authors know one should not "attempt to duplicate regional dialect." It only makes for difficult reading. And, really, we're all about making things easy for the reader, aren't we? If readers have to think too much, they'll just close the book and turn on the TV. Or, God forbid, give a bad online review. So you can see why we require that before publication all dialogue must be written in Real English Words.

4. Cut approximately 40,000 words.

The manuscript you submitted has over 110,000 words. But a young adult manuscript should have no more than 70,000 words. It can top out at 80,000 if it's science fiction or fantasy, but yours is neither. So, go ahead and pare things down. I'm sure you'll discover much that can be streamlined in your story.

For instance, you might consider axing all references to the main (underage) character smoking. The cross-dressing incident could be lost as well, as could the lengthy paragraphs. Think short and snappy. It's not as if American literature will ever miss the 40,000 words that currently stand between you and publication.

5. Consider renaming your main character.

Kids can be cruel and, let's face it, the name "Huck Finn" almost dares them to transpose the beginning letters in the two words.

In order to stem this sort of linguistic horseplay, we suggest steering clear of names (like "Dick" or "Harry," for example) that can be easily convoluted into questionable words. The last thing we want to do is encourage young consumers to get creative with language.

For obvious reasons, we'd advise against changing Huck's name to something like Milkweed. "Weed Finn" brings with it a host of marketing pitfalls. However, changing your main character's name to Strawberry ("Straw Finn"), Mako ("Shark Finn"), or Winn Dixie ("Winn Finn") would be doing the teachers who we hope choose this book for use in their classrooms an enormous favor.

We hope you agree with us that the changes required to get this manuscript published are both minor and necessary. We look forward to working with you and helping to guide you in your writing career.


The Gatekeepers