Monday, May 18, 2009

Building Just Enough Fire in Your Story to Attract a Reader

A writer in my Loft Literary Center book-writing class was working on her memoir. She asked a really good question during the weekend workshop. "How do I keep enough personal fire or passion in my story, since it's about me? Yet not be too big a presence? If I'm there too much, interpreting and being the narrator too obviously, my reader can't connect with the story herself. It becomes a three-way conversation--not ideal."

This writer is smart. She wants to understand a very basic book-writing challenge. How do we add just enough of our own passion to ignite the story for a reader--but not hang around warming our hands on the blaze?

Have you ever read a story that had too much narrator presence? Beginning book writers often feel they must interpret for a reader--tell why something happened, give too much background, rather than let the story tell itself. It's indeed like buiding a good campfire. You get it going. It lights up the dark. The reader approaches, tentatively at first. If your fire is blazing and inviting, maybe they'll linger.

Don't stand there talking the reader's head off, telling them about what wood you used and why it's so hard to build good campfires in this particular spot. Just let them enjoy the warmth. Let them inch closer. Otherwise, you're overwriting.

Are You Overwriting?

Your job, as the author, is to feed the fire, not worry it to ashes. You let a fire blaze on its own, after it has enough oxygen, kindling, dry wood. If you keep poking it every few seconds, the blaze will probably die out. Publishers, agents, editors--and readers!--look for stories that stand alone, fiery and bright, burning without any interpretation from the author. And it's not easy to keep a fire burning. Keep your passion for your story alive but take out your desire for interpretation.

This is called "overwriting," this is when you decide the dialogue isn't enough alone--you have to tell the meaning behind it. Some examples I've read of overwriting and author interpretation (beginning students' writing--used with permission):

The trashcan smelled really bad, like a million rotted apples.
Jason's hands shook and fear raced his throat. He felt scared.
I longed to be outside, smell the trees and feel the spring air. Nature always gave me strength. I loved the great outdoors.

Can you pick out the places where the author is standing too close to the fire, talking to the reader instead of just letting the reader enjoy the story that's being woven?

Here are how these sentences could look, without the overwriting:

The trashcan smelled like a million rotted apples. (We know rotted apples smell bad--why interpret?)
Jason's hands shook and fear raced his throat. (These are already signs of being scared--why add it?)
I longed to be outside, smell the trees and feel the spring air. (We'll read further to find out why--and the action itself will demonstrate that nature gives the narrator strength. The "love of the great outdoors" is implied--no need to restate.)

This week, as an exercise to hone your fire-building skills, read two pages of your recent work. Look for any place where you restated the obvious, added more background or feeling or information just in case the reader didn't get it. Strike through those sentences and read the paragraphs without. See if you don't feel a stronger blaze.