Thursday, June 10, 2010

"THE Secret"--Revealed

There are several questions commonly raised by many new, and even not-so-new, writers that I think are tied together. One of them is "What's the secret?" These people want to know why those who get published rise above those who don't. They don't think it's a matter of a better story or better writing so much as a mysterious "in" that only certain people are privy to. They want to know how to join the fraternity, in other words. Whom do I have to know? If only so-and-so would recommend me to her agent. Why don't editors give reasons for rejections? My book is better than X; how come X got published? What's the secret handshake? What's the secret? Part of the secret is perseverance, getting that fiction writing is tough work, and facing that there are no shortcuts, but that's beside my point today. When asked this question, editors often say, "There's no secret. Just write a great book." Grumbling, the writer says, "Well, assuming I believe that's all [!!!] it takes, how do I do that?"

A related question goes like this: "How come Z got published when it breaks all the rules? They say you can't start with a dream, a prologue, weather, setting, dialogue, or backstory, and Z does it all. And then chapter 1 opens with the alarm going off in the morning! They say you can't info-dump in chapter 1 or much of anyplace else, and Z does. They say you have to present the conflict right away, and Z doesn't. They say the protagonist has to be likable but she's such a whiner, and the writing is full of adverbs and 'wases.' If I had even one of these problems in my story I'd get a form rejection. How did this ever get published?" I'm not sure how often writers get to, or dare, ask editors such a bald question, but when lamenting along these lines to fellow writers the answer they often get is, "You can do anything if you can make it work." Fine, but what on Earth does "make it work" mean?

I think it means two things, and those are also related. Neither are macro-things, such as conflict, plot, setting or POV, and even character isn't the whole answer. First, "make it work" means identifying with your character well enough (basically, climbing inside his or her skin as you imagine the story) that you are aware of all of the tiny increments and adjustments in his or her emotions as the story unfolds, and write true to those. We might call this micro-emotion. Fiction is at bottom an emotional experience. One of my new favorite writing quotes, by Les Edgerton, says "Emotion is the chief coin in the trade of writers." If the reader doesn't believe in the emotions, she doesn't believe in the story and it doesn't address her chief reason for reading. Get the emotions right, and she's hooked down to her very core. Second--and this term comes from Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction--is micro-tension. What this simply means is moment-by-moment tension. Maass explains this so well that I'm going to quote him here. He says micro-tension:

"keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds. It is not a function of plot. This type of tension does not come from high stakes or the circumstances of a scene. Action does not generate it. Dialogue does not....Exposition...does not.... When you don't have micro-tension, you are slowly losing your reader. When you do have micro-tension, you can do anything." (Emphasis mine.) Great, but how do you achieve micro-tension? Maass puts his finger on this, too. It comes from emotions. But, because this is tension, it specifically comes from conflicting emotions, either between two or more characters or within the protagonist himself. Whether you're writing dialogue, action, or exposition, find the tension within the MC or between the MC and others in the scene, even if it's as mild as friendly disagreement or presenting two credible sides of an issue, and you can achieve that "What's going to happen next?" quality. This is how we can "do anything and make it work."

So how do we find "the secret?" (1) Learn the macro. (2) Learn the micro. (3) Accept that writing is a lifestyle and an identity, not something you do in that mythical "leftover time," which has been well covered here. (4) Persevere, and (5) Learn to submit to agents and editors professionally. If you're like me, (2) came last and is the final clue to the puzzle. I'm excited to have found Maass's good words to define and describe what's been stirring in my mind and spirit. I've found what I think is the closest thing there is to the secret! :)

22 comments:

Christina Farley said...

Great thoughts here. Although the secret handshake sure sounds like fun. You'll have to teach that to us sometime!

From what I've seen it's endurance. Not giving up and allowing yourself to become a better writer every day.

Andrea Vlahakis said...

The books (and manuscripts) that have hooked me are the ones that have a thread of tension running through them. Not tension as in constant angst, but the micro-tension Maass describes. Great post, Marcia!

Marcia said...

Christy -- LOL, whenever the secret handshakes were passed out I was always behind the door. I'm just as glad there isn't one. Yes, constant improvement and never giving up is a one-two combo. With my first book I just didn't take no for an answer. You've got to cross over into plain old stubborn.

Andrea -- Me too. I just loved his point that this isn't directly related to the plot or action. The feeling I had when I read was, "This is within my reach!"

Vijaya said...

Great post, Marcia. It was only recently I discovered this bit abotu microtension and my writer friend and I both had such AHA! moments, even the dog started to jump up and down.

But I think the secret is voice. If you have a great voice, you can do anything. You can write about laundry or even drink the dreaded cup of tea (Maass warns against characters relaxing and having tea) but great voice has that micro-tension.

Marcia said...

Vijaya -- I'm not big on books that seem to say "Don't I have a wonderful voice?" but nothing much happens. I end up putting them down. A great voice can capture the audience if there's a story there, but I'm a bit of a dissenter in all the crowing about "voice" in recent years. Some first lines in novels seem too gimmicky and over the top these days -- trying too hard? I dunno, maybe I'm just cranky tonight. (And a bit dismayed that I'm not sure I like much of what's on my nightstand right now.)It's bedtime. :)

Vijaya said...

I agree, Marcia, that things have to happen, even with the laundry or tea, and it is microtension. But it's the great voice that allows you to talk about something mundane and give it extraordinary meaning.

Hey, I've been cranky before when my stack is less than inspiring.

Laura Pauling said...

Great post!

Marcia said...

Vijaya -- I think one thing Maass is saying is that with micro-tension "something is happening" no matter how quiet the scene seems. Momentous things can happen during mundane activities. Insofar as it takes great voice to get the words exactly right to express this, voice rocks. When voice annoys me is when it becomes self-conscious, and when I'm just so aware of it all the time that it's between me and the story. To me, that type of story becomes pretentious or arrogant because the author expects me to stick around for voice rather than get out of the way and transport me to a world I won't want to leave.

Laura -- Thanks!

Vijaya said...

You nailed it, Marcia. It reminded me of this great band we went to see and at one point, the lead guitarist was all about ... himself. Look at me, how great I am, but he was completely disconnected from the audience. It was like he was masturbating or something ... and who needs that? We did walk out of there. I've no trouble putting a book away either if it becomes pretentious like that.

Marcia said...

Wow, you nailed it too, Vijaya. When any kind of performance, meaning anything that's supposed to connect with an audience, customer, receiver (and isn't that anything we do professionally, that someone would pay us for?) becomes a pleasuring of self to the extent that the audience is cut off, it's artistic masturbation. Yeccchhh, if that doesn't make us get over ourselves, what will? :)

Jean Reidy said...

Great post, Marcia. As a fan of both Maas and Edgerton, you meld their advice perfectly in an astute assessment of the process of producing memorable literature. You've made me want to to back and reread all their books.

Marcia said...

Thanks, Jean! At first I'd gotten the books from the library, but I now own both and plan to consult them heavily during revisions.

Janet said...

Good post. Writing a great book is something that doesn't come easily. You have to learn how to do all sorts of things to make it all come together. Your list sums it up.

Marcia said...

"All sorts of things" is for sure, isn't it, Janet? Now if only it were as easy as making the list.

My word veri is "creathe." As long as we don't use creathive spelling...

Anne Spollen said...

Oh, so you're saying getting published is practicing and learning your craft then executing it with precision. What a spoil sport!

Great post -- and great advice, all round.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

Wow. THis is a very thought-provoking post. I also think there's a lot of luck in this business. Right ms at the right time to the right agent.
Your post here sums it up nicely. Great job!

Marcia said...

Anne -- 1, 2, 3: "Aw, man!"

Terry Lynn -- I think you're right: There's always the part that's out of our hands.

Thank you both. :)

Mary Witzl said...

I learn so much on your blog! I'd like to think I knew all this implicitly, but the way you make this explicit really helps.

I'm reading David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas' right now and it's amazing how well he maintains micro and macro tension.

Lifestyle and identity? Yes. The secret I'd REALLY like to learn is how to make it look like I'm also doing housework.

Marcia said...

Mary -- Haha, I was just thinking something similar -- how could I make it look like something else was getting done? I think we do know a number of things implicitly but it really helps when somebody finds the words to express it. I think that's where our ID with the writer/writing comes from.

Laura Pauling said...

Absolutely terrific post - I'm off to tweet it!

Margo Berendsen said...

I'm reading this book right now but I haven't got to the micro tension part. So glad I discovered your blog... looks like some fantastic advice.

Marcia said...

Laura and Margo -- Thanks! I really like the book. I'm moving into revisions now so I'm going to be consulting it a lot.