Thursday, March 22, 2012

Writing an exceptional book by Terry Burns

I have been leading an online workshop for the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) on "Writing to Reach the Unbeliever", and I have been very pleased with the way people have been able to take from each post  what they need whether that is the type of book they are interested in writing or not. I will continue to try to address the subject I’ve been tasked with presenting, but hopefully it will continue to address a broader need if that is what is required.

In the course we’ve talked about the fact that the story is what is important, that we can’t give any message to anybody if we can’t keep them invested in the story so if down the road if they do encounter some faith content they will simply have to stay with the story. This is a subject that is important to all stories, however, not just to reaching nonbelievers. At the conference I just left I made the point to the group that I get several hundred submissions a month and obviously can’t take that many. I know a lot of writers feel that most of what is being submitted is not really that good,  so they are not really up against  that much competition, but I’m afraid that is just not true. Much of what I am seeing are good books, many worthy of being published. But I can’t take on that many. Other agents and editors are seeing the same thing, large numbers, much more than they can handle.

This means a good book is not good enough. It has to be exceptional. That’s what we are looking for, that book that stands out from the other submissions the way a llama would stand out in a flock of sheep. (An illustration I used at the last conference) At another conference I told all the attendees that a good book was just not good enough and of the hundreds that heard me say that one young lady came to her appointment the next day and said, “I don’t want to pitch my book, instead, could you tell me how to make it exceptional?”

How indeed? The obvious things, good writing, good editing, good story, but it takes more than that in my opinion. Those are things that make a good book, not an exceptional one. So what then?

We’ve worn our writer’s hat and have written a good story. We put on our editor’s visor and edited it (or had it edited) until it sparkles. But there is another step that many writers do not do. Filming a movie, all of the scenes that are going to be shot at a particular location are all shot at once, no matter where they will fall in the film. The director ends up with a lot of miscellaneous scenes and it doesn’t become a movie until he goes into the cutting room to cut them, assemble them and make them into the movie. 

To me, that’s what writers are missing, we have written a whole book worth of scenes, but have we assembled them into the final book? The material is all there but are the scenes in the right order? Do they need to be cut? Do they wrap up nice and neat like little short stories, or do they need to be broken so that some of the scene is continued further in the story to keep pushing the reader forward? If we need a glaring example of how this concept works all we need to do is watch a soap opera or two, they have this concept down to a science.

What we are talking about is not the story or the writing, that is all there. We’re talking about the flow of the story, how does it move and breathe and push the reader forward? If there are convenient places to put the book down to go do something else that is a problem and we ought to fix it. Nice neat little endings on scenes can be just such places.

Do we FORCE the reader off the first page? I don’t mean interest them, I mean leave them no choice but to turn the page. Judging first pages to see if they left us no choice whether to go on or not. I told them the big key was unfinished. Start something that doesn’t finish, an action that does not complete, curiosity unsatisfied, a question unanswered, anything that requires turning the page to complete it.

Do chapter endings hook to reader to go to the next chapter? Are there any dead spots in the story where the book can easily be put down? Are there passages of text or description large enough that they are slowing the story down too much at that point? Then there are those scene endings, do we tie them up with a nice little bow or use them to push the reader deeper in the story?

To me the difference between a good story and an exceptional story is the way it flows, how we are controlling the pace of the reader to decide how fast they read, the rise and fall of the story. 

This is not the mark of a writer, it is the mark of a master storyteller.


Timothy Fish said...

I suppose that depends on how you define good and exceptional. To me, a book isn't good if it doesn't also flow well and encourage the reader to keep reading. I suppose we might consider a few books exceptional because of those things. If you tie enough exceptional chapters together, maybe the book is also exceptional. But I really think it is how the book ends that makes a book exceptional. Sure, you have to keep the reader engaged in the story or they'll never reach the end, but it is still the ending that makes the difference. An exceptional book will end in such a way that I'm left with something to ponder, but it doesn't leave loose threads.

Cheryl said...

I fear I am still in the good book stage. I read a great deal and continue to hone my craft, but in my reading journies I see books that reach that "exceptional" mark and am unsure how to get myself there.

At the last conference I attended, an agent gave me some great advice, so I keep my ears open and continue submitting to my critique groups for feedback.

Jean Ann Williams said...

Cheryl, I agree that I too am unsure how an exceptional book becomes this way.

Although, Terry made sense about how to create that kind of book that readers can't put down. I'll keep this in mind for both my current projects.

I'm glad I dropped by.