The winners of VW#1 giveaway are:
Winners, please send your full name and ship-to address to LynnViehl@aol.com, and I'll get these goodies out to you. On to the workshop:
I. The Terminal Manuscript
A submission lands on an editor's desk. The manuscript is perfectly formatted, printed, and meticulously proofed. The prose is well-written, the characters fully-fleshed out, the settings precisely detailed, and the plotwork completely logical. Even the title is a fitting choice.
If this submission were a bed, it would be all starched sheets and hospital corners.
The editor reads the first chapter or reviews the synopsis, and then composes a letter to the novel's hard-working author. She might praise the author for their competence, but she does not make an offer. Instead, she rejects the novel and moves on to the next submission.
Why does the editor do this? The author covered all the bases. The writing is at professional level. The story is seamless. All the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed, so what's the problem?
The problem is not the manuscript -- it's the story that it tells. It's bland, unoriginal, muddled or uninteresting. No matter how competently it's packaged as a submission, a story that doesn't have the power to captivate and excite the editor is not going to snag you an offer.
II. What Makes a Story Powerful?
When we read, we want to experience the following:
1. Emotional Connection: a great story affects us emotionally, and the only way it can do that is to resonate with us on some emotional level. A love story taps into how a reader feels about desire, love, and commitment between two people, just as a science fiction story invokes the reader's sense of adventure as well as their fears and hopes for the future.
2. Enchantment: like a treasure chest, a story should reveal things that dazzle the reader. If you're showing the reader nothing new, they're going to yawn through your story.
3. Entertainment: a story has to compete with the other pleasures in our lives, like sex, food, television, computers, video games and long hot bubble baths. If a story doesn't entertain us at least as much as a good flick, most readers will toss the book aside and turn on the TV.
4. Escape: everyone can use a few hours off from the burdens and stresses in life, and a great story will whisk us away from them.
Why are the readers' desires so important? A story is only as powerful as the reader's reaction to it.
Remember that these days, most dedicated readers are as sophisticated (and often as jaded) as publishing editors are. If every story out there has already been told a thousand times, readers have probably read nine hundred and ninety-nine versions of it. To push past all those mediocre memories, you need to think about how your story will be different from everything they've already read.
III. Delivering the Goods
To crank up the power of your story, keep all four aspects of reader expectation in mind as you create or polish the work:
#1 -- Make the emotional connection with the reader early on in the novel, and use tension and conflict to increase the stakes. Avoid the same-old-same-old with your plot; take the reader on a rollercoaster ride instead.
#2 -- You can't enchant someone without magic, so look at the elements of the fantastic in your story. Are they unique and unexpected, or dull and predictable? What will thrill the reader? What will bore them?
#3 -- Humor always entertains, but so do scandals, risks, thrills, irony, poetic justic and twists of fate. Any of those in your story? Think about your book being made into a movie -- as it stands, would it be a box-office smash, or tank on opening night?
#4 -- If you want to whisk me away from doing the laundry for a couple of hours, you've got to give me the vicarious thrill of being a voyeur. Show me new worlds, exciting people, and provocative situations. Don't show me more laundry.
IV. Power Generators
Powerful stories are the ones that start trends, propel their authors to publishing rockstardom, and end up occupying our keeper shelves. Ask Helen Fielding, the perpetrator of chick-lit, or Anne McCaffrey, the grand dame of science fantasy. John Grisham gave us the courtroom thriller; Stephen King has remade horror in his own image. We just lost Kathleen Woodiwiss, whom most of us consider to be the mother of the modern romance.
All of them have the same thing in common: they wrote powerful, original stories that blew away their readers.
It's tough to take risks with your fiction, though, especially when you could be writing a competent knockoff. We all want to feel safe, especially when we're first starting out, because God forbid we get our foot in the door only to blow it. But I think we have to pour as much power as we can get into our stories, because the readers are so bored that they're finding other things to do, and we're losing more of them with each passing year.
Or maybe I'm wrong, and readers will collectively run to the stores to buy up the two hundred very competently written vampire brotherhood series that will be published in the next year.
For a chance to win one of today's two Left Behind and Loving It goodie bags, in comments to this post ask a question or share your view on story power, or just throw your name into the hat by midnight EST on Friday, July 13, 2007. I will draw two names at random from everyone who participates and send the winners a tote filled with a signed copy of my novel StarDoc (paperback), as well as unsigned copies of The Writer's Book of Matches ~ 1,001 Prompts to Ignite Your Fiction by the staff of Boiled Peanuts, a literary journal (hardcover), Unbound by Lori Devoti, One Night with You by Gwynne Forster, Raintree: Inferno by Linda Howard (paperback), Tied to the Tracks by Rosina Lippi (trade paperback), Night Echoes by Holly Lisle, the July/August 2007 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, and some surprises. This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.
Other sources on story power:
Kim Kay's To Speak or Not to Speak ~ Creating Dazzling Dialogue Part 1 and Part 2
Lost on the Border at Twilight: Finding -- and Using -- Your Life's Essential Strangeness by Holly Lisle
Play It Again, Sam - Redundancy in Writing by Tina Morgan
Rob Parnell's I Can't Put It Down - How to Write Compelling Fiction
Other virtual workshops now in progress:
Joely Sue Burkhart's Do You Know the Secret?
Gabriele Campbell's How to Make a Battle Come Alive on the Page, Part 1
LJ Cohen's Organize your Novel with a WIKI
Rosina Lippi's Workshop Day 1: The Story Machine, Workshop Day 2: Ask Your Characters
Shiloh Walker's Heat with Heart Day 1, finding that missing emotion, Exploring that Backstory (where she briefly grills me)