Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Writing That Stellar Novel Part Four: Marinating

Inspiring Me Today: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

In my previous post in this series, I used the analogy of preparing a steak to describe the editing process. We discussed "trimming the fat," being able to recognize the true difference between fat and meat, and knowing when to cut fat and when to cut meat.

But what if you've cut too much fat, now you're steak... I mean your novel... is doomed for dryness? Or, what if your novel is a little dry from the start? Well, that's definitely a problem.

How do you know you have this problem? Well, you'll get comments from critique partners and agents (and editors, if you're lucky enough to be that far in the process) that say things like, "I just didn't feel a strong enough connection to the character," or, "I didn't care what happened to the MC," or worse, "I didn't like the MC." Another thing you'll hear a lot is "the story just didn't seem to have any heart." Of course, you're reading that and going, "It's a zombie book. There's plenty hearts. It's a favorite delicacy after the brains!"

Umm, you're being too literal dude. We're wanting the emotional stuff. If you're killing off characters and it should matter to us at all, we'll need to know something about them. Death in the abstract is, unfortunately, not enough to make an impact on most people. That's the whole point of The Hunger Games (which if you haven't read, SHAME ON YOU! Go buy it today!). The people in the Capitol don't care about what happens to the tributes because they don't know enough about them. The best they get is a little five-minute interview, and everything is mostly staged to get sponsors, so it's about how they'll win in the arena. Not really anything about them as a person.

For your book to succeed, whether you're killing people off or not, you're going to need that investment in your characters. How do you get that? Well, to keep with the food theme... you marinate. In other words, as counterproductive as it may feel to add when you're trying to cut down, you're going to need to write some.

The first question you may have is, "What's the difference between a marinade and fat?" Well, the truth is, marinades usually have some sort of fat in them. However, it's fat that is specifically chosen for its taste and its burn temperature (watch Alton Brown's Good Eats if you don't know what I'm talking about). We're talking about oil, not beef fat, which is why cooks cut fat only to add it back in with a marinade. These fats bring certain flavors and properties to the party that help with the overall experience of the dish. The choice is targeted and deliberate.

That's how marinating works. The same is true for novel-writing. If we don't care about your MC, you'll need to add in some fat, but the additions should be deliberate, and do more than add humor or insight. They shouldn't have a single flavor profile. Marinades usually combine oil, an acid, and also some herbs and spices. The different flavors "marry" and as such, the marinade serves many different purposes, including adding taste and tenderizing the meat. Your added scenes should have the same multidimensionality to them. If it's just a funny scene, it can go. If it's just a sad scene, it can go. If it's just an informative scene, it can go. It needs to be all that.

Make a list of all the things you know your novel is lacking. Do we need to know more about the main character's background so we can understand why it's so important that they find the cure for these zombies? Has the story been rushing along with tons of zombie killing action, and now your readers are worn out? Do we not understand what's binding these people together at all beyond the basic need to survive? Well, sounds like your story is needing some marinade.

In this particular instance, you're needing some info for the MC, some humor for your readers, and some interaction between your characters. Ok, so... info, humor, and interaction. How can we get all of that in a single scene? How about a conversation between your characters where they discuss your MC's background in a humorous way? Not that tricky, really.

Of course, with conversation scenes, it's best if you have them doing something instead of just talking if possible (I'm not always great at this part). Let's take the zombie book again. Well, one way is the classic of having your character talking while killing zombies (in a "this is starting to get routine now" sort of way). In fact, the scene itself could be humorous, and so the background element could be more personal and heartfelt. Another option would be having them talk while carrying out some important plot point (sneaking into the facility where the zombies were created so they can get the cure, for example). That's what I mean by targeted. Don't make it more fluff. Make the scene multidimensional and integrate it with the existing plot points. If it's just hanging out there disconnected to everything else going on, it's destined for the knife at some point.

It's a very delicate balance, I know. It's certainly not one I've mastered. However, if you can do it correctly, the right marinade can set your steak... your writing... apart from any other your readers have ever tasted.
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