Great novel Writers
Whenever I think of the word gatekeeper, a little film clip from The Wizard of Oz starts up in my head, where the fearsome palace guard denies Dorothy and friends access to the Wizard. “The Wizard says, ‘Go away!’”
If aspiring authors are Dorothy, agents and editors are that guy. They seem bigger than you. They give stern lectures.
Except remember what happens? Dorothy’s sob story melts the mustachioed, bearskin-hatted guard’s heart, and he winds up letting them in.
Thus the great secret is revealed: You don’t have to do anything but tell a fabulous story to make them love you.
There are subtle differences between fiction that’s passable and fiction that pops—fiction that shows that you know what you’re doing. Consider agents and editors your über-readers. If you win them over, a larger audience won’t be far behind.
Here are seven ways successful authors make their stories crackle with authority and get the gatekeepers on their side. These techniques will work on any kind of fiction: literary, romance, mystery, sci-fi, you name it. What’s more, you can implement them no matter where you are in your writing process, from first draft to final polish.
1. Go beyond the five senses.
Most writers know enough to put in sensations beyond sight and sound. It’s always great to read about a character who takes note of the hot metal-and-oil aroma that lingers over the rails after a fast train has passed, or the weight of a new tweed coat on his shoulders.
Agents and editors love the five senses, but they want and expect more. They want physical business that deepens not just your setting, but your characterizations.
Here’s the key: The best authors use body language in their narratives. Odd thing is, I have never once heard an agent or editor comment on my (or any author’s) use of body language, and I think that’s because it goes by so smoothly it’s almost unnoticed. Yet it absolutely gives texture and depth to your work. When it’s missing, fiction feels flat.
Begin by reading up on body language. You’ll find that two things are at the root of all of it: anxiety (or lack thereof) and hidden desires. Dwell inside your characters and sense how they feel in any given situation.
Brian paused and lit a cigarette. He exhaled a stream of smoke at the window.
That doesn’t tell anything about the character or his state of mind. If Brian needs a cigarette, use the moment fully:
Brian paused and lit a cigarette. He held it close to his body, as if he didn’t want to take up too much space. He exhaled a stream of smoke at the window, avoiding Anne-Marie’s eyes.
We learn something about what’s going on with Brian here, without having to plow through an internal monologue from him or Anne-Marie.
2. Embrace idiosyncrasies.
People behave rationally only part of the time; the rest of the time we take stupid risks and do other things we can’t explain.
Agents and editors know this as well as anyone, but because they don’t want readers to have to work too hard to suspend disbelief, they really harp on believability. And when they do, frequently their objections have to do with a character’s motivation. (I should add that you can pick apart any masterwork on that basis: “I really don’t think Ophelia would kill herself in this situation. I mean, don’t you think suicide is way over-the-top? Much more plausible to have her develop an eating disorder, wouldn’t you agree?”) The trouble is, if you bow to this and have your characters behave totally rationally at all times, you’ll write dead-boring fiction.
Here’s the key: Human weirdness follows patterns we can all relate to (or at least understand).
One of the biggest is that love—or sex, at least—makes people irrational. We throw over the picture-perfect millionaire for the rough-around-the-edges dirt biker with debt; we lie to our faithful wife on the phone while bonking the secretary in a motel. Which goes to show that if you incorporate a strong enough motivating factor—even an irrational one—you can easily establish a plausible reason for erratic actions on the part of your characters. And those characters are far more interesting to read about than those who always behave rationally.
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