This is a guestpost by the writer Eros-Alegra Clarke for the EditorUnleashed.
As a mother, I find that parenting analogies come easily to me when contemplating the process of writing. Regardless of whether a writer is a biological parent or not, I think most writers have a sense of ‘raising’ their stories. After all, most of our stories are conceived by a mysterious combination of personal experience and an outside source that grabs our attention, our passion, long enough to begin the creation of a life on the page. Like most parents, we are eager for our children to develop to their greatest potential. We want them to be well received by the world. For many writers, the mark of their success equals publication.
This desire, while good intentioned, sends most of us to the parenting section of the bookstore where all of the craft books sit. We browse through the promises that each one will provide us with a formula, a set of do’s and don’ts that will guide us through the process of developing our story. But I think if we are too anxious, too eager to receive the mark of publication approval, we endanger ourselves as writers into becoming a ‘stage parent’ of sorts; dressing our stories up and urging them on a path that we believe will lead to success—without taking into account what our stories actually want for their own lives.
I started out as a new mom with no prior experience when it came to writing this novel. After several years of immersing myself in craft to catch up on the basics, I now focus on using craft in a way that supports the story in front of me, rather than forcing my story into the rules of craft. I don’t always do it perfectly, but parenting has never been about perfection.
The process has made me stop and reflect about this mad rush to shove our stories out into the world and what we might lose along the way. Impressed both with my meeting him in person and his first book Writing the Breakout Novel, I decided to look at literary agent Donald Maass’s new book The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great.
One of the aspects that has made Maass a ‘parenting’ author who I trust is that he seems to address this issue of needing both a balance of ‘how-to’ craft while also focusing on encouraging authors to develop an intimate relationship with their stories.
Donald Maass has been gracious in offering to answer a few questions about his new book. Read his answers below.
1. One of the things you discuss in The Fire of Fiction had me declaring ‘yes!’ out loud when I read it. You differentiate between writers who seek a certain prestige and status by being published and those that are focusing on storytelling. Will you elaborate on this?
Almost every fiction writer wants to be published. After a certain number of years spent learning the craft, the hunger for validation can become overwhelming. So much time! So many manuscripts! So many questions from well-meaning family and friends! So close!
It’s at this point that writers can start looking for short cuts. Self-publishing probably is the least effective. Turning to genre fiction is understandable—hey, paranormal is hot, right?—but only teaches one to write genre fiction. Gimmicks and strategies to get the attention of agents and editors grow in appeal but unfortunately don’t work. So what is one to do? There’s only one answer: commit to powerful storytelling, whatever or however long it takes to get there.
2. I have noticed a trend for writers to pride themselves on being business-savvy about their writing. Meaning, there is a tendency for writers to summon a brave front and willingness to do what it takes to get their story published. It has almost become a mark of good ‘parenting’ to formulate a story based on what the author thinks will sell. I have wondered if both of your books were inspired by realizing the need writers have for a way to marry the world of storytelling and crafting for publication. Have you seen in a change in the type of queries and manuscripts you have been receiving over the years?
Well, we get more of them. It’s never been easier to find agents. What hasn’t increased is the proportion of great manuscripts. You mention “savvy” and writing what one thinks will sell. Let me propose something to think about: Are the most successful authors imitators of others? Certainly they may be influenced, or find inspiration in a tradition (noir, say), but those who make it big bring their own individual voice to their fiction. Put more plainly, they write with a passion that is uniquely their own. Even if they write within genre boundaries, highly successful authors create their own genre, as it were. Nobody else writes quite like them.
3. Your books have a permanent place on my shelf (well, Kindle) because of the way you cleverly present lessons in craft that serve the double task of demanding honesty and intimacy in the author/story relationship while also giving a story the best chance of being published. You discuss the use of tension a lot in both of your books. Do you think focusing on the tension in a story is a key to achieving this balance between raising an authentic story and giving it the greatest chance to be well-received by readers?
Tension is the key to everything. There are three kinds: plot tension, scene tension and line-by-line tension–what I call “micro-tension.” Let me elaborate on that last one. Micro-tension is what causes us to have to read every next thing on the page. If you are skimming, micro-tension is absent. If you are staying up too late to read just one more chapter, micro-tension is high.
It doesn’t matter what category we’re talking about. Micro-tension is what makes a novel a page turner. Now, how do you create it? I spend a whole long chapter in The Fire in Fiction detailing the methods, but it boils down to this: Tension in dialogue comes from the tension between people, not what they’re talking about. Tension in action does not come from flying bullets—sorry!—it comes from inside the POV characters. Exposition (interior monologue, stream of consciousness, or whatever you want to call interiority) does not produce tension: it is the tension between conflicting emotions or warring ideas that makes exposition crackle. Once you understand the techniques of micro-tension you can do anything, break any rule.
One more thing: You may think your novel is crackling with tension. I promise you, it’s not. Every manuscript needs more tension. Every manuscript.
Eros-Alegra Clarke is currently writing her first novel.