Figuring Out What They’re Not Telling You

by Toni McGee Causey

If you’ve been querying or sending your work out and you’re getting positive responses but you’re not quite crossing that elusive sale line, it can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating. Sometimes, it’s an issue of luck or timing, and there really isn’t a helluvalot you can do about that.

A friend of mine and I recently discussed this, and she pointed out that there were four elements to this business: work, luck, timing (marketplace), and talent.

You cannot control the last three, not as a writer. The amount of talent you have is what you have, but you can improve your craft through practice, you can hone that talent to a fine edge. You cannot control luck, and timing–how things will fall together in the marketplace–is anybody’s guess, but it certainly not something a writer can control.

What you can control, however, is the work. How much effort you make, how hard you reach to improve, how much risk you’re willing to take, how objective you’re willing to be about what you have, and haven’t, managed to get onto that page. That? Is all you can really control.

There are times as writers that we’ll get encouragement and nice comments without really knowing what is making them–those people who buy–say “no, not for me.” In the course of a discussion on Backspace (a while back), someone asked, “How do you know what to fix when they don’t tell you?” I had gone through a self-evaluation process before the first book sold. My analysis of my own writing below is certainly not a “fix-all” sort of thing; however, it may be a way of looking at your own work and stepping outside what you’ve been seeing up to that point to analyze it. On the off-chance that it might be of help, I’m re-posting my answer here:

A much larger part [of the analysis process] was sitting down and dissecting my own way of telling stories, pros and cons. Instead of listening to what readers were saying, I started to look at what they were not saying. The gist of what I was hearing was that they always loved my characters, loved the humor, loved the setting. Well, that kinda sounds like I had it covered, but something about the way I told the stories wasn’t working since they weren’t selling, and no one could tell me why.

Believe me, I asked. Especially of those producers with whom I had a personal relationship.

Instead of assuming that selling was all just subjective or luck, and in order to figure it out why that wasn’t happening, I started giving my writing to people and asked them to list the positive feedback they’d give me, and then I’d look at those things and say, “What’s missing? What am I not seeing on this list?” This is an odd sort of way of going about this, I know, but the critiques I was getting weren’t pointing out the “gestalt” — the overall problem.

(I started doing this sort of analysis with my screenwriting, and when it worked, I transferred what I’d learned to my fiction. The relative shortness of a script as compared to a manuscript may have given me an advantage because it was easier to see it as a “whole” when trying to break it down. )

With that in mind…

So… what was not being said?

The one thing that popped in my head that I noticed wasn’t said (or if it was, it was only occasional), was,

“I couldn’t put it down.”

That whole “couldn’t stop reading” aspect is critical, especially if you want to maintain an exec’s attention (in the screenwriting world) or an agent’s attention (either world).

Now here’s the kicker — people would say how much they loved the read, how immersed they were in the characters, so you’d think these were the same things, but they’re not. And it took me a little while to realize that.

Second thing that happened is pretty notorious in the screenwriting world– you get killed by encouragement. But when you try to get to the heart of why they’re not buying, they’ll use vague terms. They’re not doing this to be mean, but because they aren’t writers and they have no clue how to explain to you that there’s something not working. So they’ve come up with a sort of shorthand which sounds like they’re telling you something, when in fact, they’re basically saying, “I don’t know jack, I just know I can’t buy it and I can’t put my finger on why.” In the book world, this translates into “I can’t get the marketing team behind it.”

I’ll break down one example for you, and how I analyzed it.

One of the things I had heard was that they loved the scripts (the romantic comedies), but they were “soft.” What the hell is soft? It’s a romantic comedy. If it was ‘hard,’ it would be porn. How is ‘soft’ a definition for writing?

I’d ask my then-screenwriting-agent, who would be just as confused. We would try to get more specifics out of them but the execs didn’t think “soft” was a bad thing per se…and since they were in the middle of telling me all of the good stuff, it was easy to set that aside as a vague excuse.

Until one day, I finally realized what they weren’t saying.

They weren’t saying “I couldn’t put it down.”

I’d get stuff like, “I love reading your scripts, I will always give your agent a read overnight for your stuff,” and “Your characters and your worlds are so original, and I laughed all through it, so it’s funny!” Which is great! But no one was saying, “Ohmygod, I had to pee and I refused to get up to go to the bathroom because I had to see what happened next and now I have to buy a new leather chair, damn you.”

That is critical. You have to write in such a way as to get to feel a freakishly urgent sense of needing to finish the read, which is what translates into them being compelled to convince their bosses to spend the money.

A lot of other writers and people in the business were trying to guess what “soft” meant at the time (since this was a fairly common excuse floating around), and one opinion was that it was the opposite of edgy. Well, not everything can be edgy, so that wasn’t really working as a definition. Then one day I put the two things together and I realized what ‘soft’ meant: it meant that there wasn’t enough forward motion in the story to actively compel the reader to keep reading, regardless of all else.

‘Soft’ is the opposite of ‘crisp’ and ‘urgent.’

How did that apply to me?

This is where it got tricky. I went through my stories and on the surface, it seemed like I was already doing what needed to be done.

interesting characters………..check
clear goals………………………. check
obstacles………………………… check

So, hmmm. That looks like everything I need. What the hell is up with that? Then I looked more closely at story structure, which is when I realized: a lot of what is motivating the characters isn’t revealed until sometime later in the story. And some of these were pretty important reasons for being motivated, but they were buried deeper. And by trying hard to be mysterious, I just ended up with vague motivations.

But… but… (I can hear the outcries), in mysteries and thrillers, the real reasons aren’t usually revealed up front.


But the reader still needs to have a reason, a motivation, for the action. They need to understand what that motivation is–whether or not you end up disproving it later.
The problem with writing so “indirectly” is that for the first part of the story, the reader has to take it on faith that you’re going to eventually supply them with the motivation and what’s at stake for the main character. I managed to dance fast enough to keep them interested, but I am certain that when they put my stuff down and had to go explain to their boss, they weren’t able to sum up the character very easily, or what the character wanted / needed or why. I definitely had reasons all along the story trajectory as to why the character was doing what they were doing, and the reader could deduce some of the motivations, but at the same time, I blocked the reader from getting too much information because I wanted to reveal more about them later. My assumption had been that this sort of structure made the story deeper, more thought provoking, creating a greater impact. That delay can work, but it also renders a lot of your story as appearing to be re-active instead of active: it doesn’t look so much like the character is forging forward as they are simply reacting to what’s happening, and that can make the story feel passive and less immediate.

I will give you a movie example that I think many of you have seen: The Usual Suspects. In it, [SPOILER ALERT, OLD MOVIE] Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) has been brought into the police station for questioning about his part in the gang who’ve ended up dead. Through flashback, Verbal tells the story, and we believe that his motivation is to get his ass out of a sling. He is just this sort of slow, innocent guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His motivation to stay out of jail is palpable and his fear of Keyser Soze, the real bad guy behind the slayings, drives the story.

Except, of course, at the end, there is the long reveal that he is Keyser Soze.

If the writer, MacQuarrie, had not given Verbal Kint a hard-driving reason for telling his story, the reveal wouldn’t have been as powerful.

Nor would it have been as compelling.

The story drives forward fast on the motivation of Verbal Kint to stay out of trouble with the police and with Soze. It is *really* being driven forward by the fact that Soze is completely manipulating the police detectives doing the questioning, and they just don’t realize it yet. He’s toying with them, showing off, and they’ll understand that later.

Complex characters can make for excellent writing, but you have to do one very simple thing to pull them off: give the reader at least a surface motivation as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Why they must have whatever it is they’re going after in the story. Even if you want to deepen that later or turn it in on itself and twist it to surprise your reader by making the character more complex, you still need to keep the reader invested in the story, and they have a hard time staying invested if they don’t know what’s at stake or why it’s critical to the character.

So the new list:

interesting characters…….check
clear goals…………………… check
obstacles…………………….. check

Then I looked at the “obstacles” and analyzed my writing, and I realized that not only did I have to make those obstacles incrementally tougher, they had to matter so much and the character had to keep failing.

Terry Rossio, over on his Wordplayer (highly, highly recommended reading) used Indiana Jones as an example…

Indy [PRE INDY 4, OBVIOUSLY] is this great archaeologist / hero, able to go into difficult areas and retrieve these priceless artifacts, and when he’s going after the ARK, he keeps failing. When it looks like he’s about to succeed, there’s another twist and he’s not only failed, he’s in a bit of a worse situation than he was when he started. And now he’s got to brainstorm his way out of that.

Someone once said to me: character is shown by the choices we make when things aren’t going well.

A person may talk the talk of a pacifist, for example, but when confronted with a situation, realize that they would resort to violence to save someone they loved… so their character is not a pacifist after all (something they may have difficulty dealing with in the story.)

When you make sure that your stakes are escalating and that your character has to keep dealing with these problems, and the problems are getting worse, then you’ve got the chance to show what this person is really like — good and bad — which, along with the stakes, renders the story a ‘page turner.’

So I looked at my scripts and realized I wasn’t applying that sort of tension. (This can, honestly, apply to literary fiction as well. The stakes are more intimate, more personal, but they have to keep increasing and keep mattering to the character.)

Once I realized these things, I looked around for the kind of story that resonated with me, the kind of character I just could not put down. I looked for a way to tell this story without sacrificing voice or style, a way to immerse the reader immediately and have them hanging on, turning the page to see what happens next. When I started getting that “I couldn’t put it down” reaction consistently, I knew I had stepped onto a higher level playing field. (There are always higher levels, no matter where we are, where we’ve started.)

These things which applied to me may not apply to you. You have to really look at what is being said, make a list of the positives and the negatives, and then start looking at what’s missing. Most people are not Simon Cowell (American Idol) and aren’t going to tell you the brutal truth, even if they’re thinking it. They’re going to sugarcoat. But I think by looking at what is consistently not said, you may be able to dig up some useful truth.

If you’re getting the “I couldn’t put it down” sort of responses from just about everyone reading but it hasn’t crossed that elusive “sold” line, remember that a big part of what we do is sales, and not every buyer is looking for exactly what we have. That’s the frustrating part about the business, but it doesn’t mean you’re not on track with your writing (if you’re getting the great responses)… it’s just a matter of right person and right time.

Persistence is everything.

[I originally published this piece over on Murderati when I blogged there.]

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