Margot McGovern pens an open letter.
While there are many most excellent stories out there (cheers for those), there’s also a lot of sub-par slush that somehow works its way through the editorial process and into bookshops where I buy it. How this occurs, given the difficulty in getting a book picked up by a publisher, is beyond me. Honestly, the mind boggles.
But I think readers are in part to blame. We keep buying these not-so-awesome books—creating a demand for them—out of what? Laziness? Complacency? The same ‘it’ll do’ attitude that compels us to order drive through dinners and watch Dance Moms marathons even when both leave us feeling slightly sick and unsatisfied? How many times have you yourself been frustrated to find a good story ruined by clunky writing and niggling logic problems, or been all excited by the first few chapters only to find the story playing out like a dozen others you’ve already read. Call me a snob, but I want more.
I’ve come to the conclusion that if all writers just wrote excellent stories, then this problem would resolve itself—simple! Being a proactive, helpful sort of person, I’ve come up with an easy-to-follow list of things I’d really appreciate you keeping in mind when writing your next book. I’ve even divided it into sections: five things to do (or keep doing) and five more to avoid.
Five things every story needs
Life is short and my TBR list is long. I don’t want to waste time reading thinly veiled retellings of stories that weren’t that great to begin with. I like an author who isn’t afraid to experiment. Give me stories that play with language and structure, cross genre boundaries and challenge the traditional ways readers interact with narratives. I’ll take a story that tries something new and falls short in the execution over something polished and predictable any day.
Rounded characters, complete with flaws
Way, way back in antiquity a character was either for the action (protagonist) or against the action (antagonist), yet somehow this often gets muddled as protagonist = good, antagonist = bad. So here’s the thing, no one sets out to play the villain. ‘Because I’m evil’ is not a realistic motivation. Similarly, no one, not even St. Atticus Finch himself, is perfect. Writers, this is storytelling one-oh-one, but two dimensional characters are THE WORST and there’s enough of them out there that this needs to be said: decide what your characters want (money, power, fame, true love, a banana, whatever) then figure out why they want it.
The best characters have complex motivations and desires. They are malleable and develop over the course of the narrative (or have a good reason not to). Most importantly, they are flawed. If you love your characters, show me their weaknesses and let them fail, at least for a little while. I need to find them intriguing; I don’t necessarily have to like them.
A fancy prose style
I don’t care if your story is the pulpiest crap: quality of writing is important. As I see it, you have two options: a) make your prose so seamless and clean that I don’t notice it or b) make it extraordinary, really Nabokov me. There is nothing that irks me more than a good story ruined by lazy writing. Your mixed metaphors, run on sentences and enthusiasm for adverbs and adjectives shit me to tears.
I like stories the way I like my ogres and onions, with layers (and the possibility of a good cry). I want depth of meaning, and I want you to make me work for it. Throw new ideas at me, or help me to approach old ones in different ways. Show me something about the world that I didn’t understand before, and open my eyes to new perspectives. Put me in someone else’s shoes and make sure they pinch. Provoke me, unsettle me, question me, hit me where it hurts. I dare you.
That said, if I just wanted to ponder ideas and ethics I’d go read philosophy essays and books on cultural theory. In fact, I spent much of my early twenties doing that, and while I learned a lot, it wasn’t super fun. Ideally, I’d like you to read that stuff and rework your thoughts into an engaging narrative—because a story shouldn’t just make me think, it should be entertaining (big ask, I know, but reality check: it’s not all soy lattes, moody notes in Moleskines and hanging about at trendy cafes waiting for the Muses to make an appearance—writing is an incredibly tough gig).
A story is an invitation to make-believe. It should inspire a sense of wonder. No matter how serious the subject matter, on some level, the writer has to say: ‘Come play with me.’
Five things every story can do without
Weak female characters
By weak characters, I mean flimsy, two-dimensional stereotypes. All characters who fall into this category suck, but female characters especially because too often people impose these stereotypes on women in real life. Women are not simply mothers, sisters, wives, quirky sidekicks, evil queens, sluts, virginal princesses or, heaven forbid, heroes’ rewards. Society as a whole still has some serious work to do in the ‘not reducing women to objects’ department, and one of the ways we can work on that is to think about how women are portrayed in the stories we tell.
That doesn’t just mean inserting a female heroine, either. To be honest the ‘strong’ woman stereotype isn’t much better than any other because it still fails to imagine a woman as having more than one attribute or role. Give me female characters who are complex and flawed, you know, like people. At the very least, give me a story that passes the Bechdel Test, that is: a story with a) at least two [named] female characters, b) who speak to each other c) about something other than a man.
No argument, dialogue is hard. People in books don’t speak like they do in real life because everything they say needs to move the story forward, while still reading as authentic and true to character. I don’t want dialogue that reads like a lecture. You want to write a story that presents an ethical, political or ideological debate? Awesome. Please don’t do this by having your characters get up on soap boxes and argue with each other. No one’s having fun with that. Similarly, wooden dialogue laden with ‘um’s ‘Mmmm’s ‘er’s ‘oh’s ‘huh’s ‘like’s ‘oh my’s and other snorts and sniffles that pad out the word count and express next to nothing is an excellent technique for lulling your reader into a nigh irreversible state of glassy-eyed boredom. Please refrain.
Instead, give me characters who speak with authentic and engaging voices, dialogue that’s smart and to the point—bonus points for wit. For assistance with this, see point two: round characters.
Admittedly these can be hard to see at close range. They vary from niggling oversights, such as when your protagonist/journalism student struggles with the concept of email, to major problems, for example if your protagonist/rebel leader has the power to control electricity and uses it to out security cameras and ceiling lights instead of, I don’t know, destroying the evil overlords. Logic flaws make me want to throw your book against the wall. Sometimes I do. Give your manuscript to the most critical, cynical friend you have and ask them to tell you what isn’t working. It’ll hurt, but your work will be better for it in the long run.
While psychic powers have their advantages, I don’t want to feel like I’m putting them to use when I’m reading. It shouldn’t be possible for me to have the twist sussed by the end of chapter one, and I don’t want to find myself ten steps ahead of the protagonist, unless you have strategically placed me there. I certainly don’t want to see what’s coming because I’ve read another story play out the same way. Dare to dream differently and embrace your uniqueness—you are a special little butterfly.
If, at some point during the writing process, you chuckle to yourself and think: they’ll never see this coming, stop. FYI, I will. Or I won’t because you’ve failed to use a little thing called foreshadowing and I will feel angry and cheated. Cheap tricks of the deus ex machina, ‘then-I-woke-up-and-it-was-all-a-dream’, ‘surprise!!-I’ve been-outright-deceiving-you-for-two-hundred-pages’ variety are lame and lazy. Please don’t insult my intelligence. Going in with the intent to outsmart me is a bad game plan: you’ll either bore me or enrage me, and in both cases I won’t be buying your next book, so you lose.
Basically, I want a good story well told. I know it’s a big ask. I, too, have manuscripts that have been quietly relegated to a locked desk drawer. But if you can keep these things in mind next time you write a book, that’d be swell and I’d love to read it.
Love and hugs,
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