As I give seminars around the state on writing and publishing books, I’m asked about “how to?” put into publication that book that everybody seems to believe they have in them. There are lots of ways to do that beginning with the first idea for the book, either non-fiction or novel, targeting your audience immediately and writing for them, being aware of both voice and modern conventions in writing, scoping out other books like yours to see how you can be distinctive or better and developing a research and support plan to help you get information. These are methodology tips. We teachers all give them.
Research tips are big these days. Fiction, creative not-fiction such as we see in murder mysteries, historical character biographies, and famous news story depictions all call for skills in observation of specific detail and researching. Non-fiction depends on good research as well as good story-telling—it’s probably at the heart of sound methodology for most books..
But lately, as a reader rather than a writer-publisher, I’d like to say that I think you can over-scope a book, depending on pages of research details and formulaic patterns and then presenting the stuck-together hodge-podge stew as an enjoyable book for readers.
Lately I’m getting from the library an armful of books and finding perhaps one or maybe two that are worth reading. What’s the matter? Lots of things. It’s easy to find formulas on any sort of book you may think about and writers are depending on them. You can pick up The Insider’s Way to Craft Your Mystery Book or The Nincompoop’s Step-by-Step Guide to the Romantic Novel or look on the internet for Jane Friedman’s daily blog which tells in detail “how to.” How to structure your first paragraph—and your last. How to research in historical materials, how to avoid sounding mundane or avoid clichés. She and the rest of the true experts are right about most of this but they succeed with these things out of their own creative instincts, and that sort of writing skill isn’t always able to be gifted to someone else.
The books I’m reading sound like the authors have read the “how to” writing manuals and have missed a couple of big mileposts on the road to good writing: plot and character. Let’s mention plot and its close relative, setting. What I’m reading are mystery stories set in Victorian times, for instance, where it’s obvious the author has read everything she can get her hands on about how a Victorian parlor looks. She has visited the local Victorian tea house and taken notes on the cigar boxes, the fire screens, the Haviland china, the spittoons, the reticules (that’s pocketbooks, folks.) So what we the readers get is the main character entering the parlor of a prime suspect and looking at, or handling, twenty different items to show off the author’s research, things which have nothing to do with, or advance, the plot.
Preposterous actions for which the plot has not prepared the reader come up suddenly. Characters whom we’ve come to view as important appear and then disappear forever from the plot, sometimes without explanation. Supernatural explanations and solutions for plot quandaries are stuck onto the story like band-aids, but they don’t aid. In mystery books all too often, even from supposed masters of the craft, we reach the end and we just sort of fall off the cliff. Some weak explanation is put forth for the very tortuous plot complications we all wandered through. A recent one said, “And so the answers to those secrets went to with the murderer to his grave.” Wait a minute! I just drove five miles to the library to be told that? Or paid $12 at B&N to leave me floating in the air like a balloon? The author hadn’t really thought about what the end might be.
So enough already of the formulas and how-to manuals in writing books. Story, story, story whether it is non-fiction or fiction, is what we readers crave. And take some time to craft it little by little, building interest, holding some of it back, lingering over unique characters, as those famous yarn-spinner relatives of ours did, the ancestors of all story-telling. They sat before the campfire surrounded by enthralled audiences. And believe you me, those faces around the story-teller, lit with firelight and flickering shadows, would feel free to stop at any time and shout out, “Don’t tell it that way. What happened to the Cyclops?” That’s a good question we as writers need to think about a lot.
Nancy Niblack Baxter