The Short Road Home, Part II

Hello, readers –

Yesterday, I told you about another manuscript mega-problem — i.e., a writing problem that is difficult to catch unless you sit down and read the work straight through, as a reader would, rather than on a computer screen, as most writers do — that I like to call the Short Road Home, too-quick major problem resolution. I brewed it for you in its full-bodied version, where it directly affects the plot in a notable way: “What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s fallen into the well?”

Today, I am going to deal with the subtle flavor of Short Road Home, scenes where character development or conflict is curtailed by too-quick analysis. Like the full-bodied version, this mega-problem is not limited to works of fiction, but runs rampant through narrative nonfiction and memoir as well. I see it in my freelance editing practice all the time, and literally every time I have been a judge in a literary contest, I have seen otherwise excellent manuscripts infected with it — and, inevitably, penalized for it.

(Not that the other judges have called it that when they see it. Just so you know, the names I have been bestowing upon mega-problems — and the terms mega-problem and micro-problem themselves — are of my own making. If you use them with an agent or editor, you will probably be rewarded with a blank look. I am used to this.)

The subtle flavor of the Short Road Home is easy for the author to overlook, particularly in a first novel. First-time novelists tend to be so pleased when they develop the skill to pin down an emotional moment with precision that they go wild with it for a little while. The instant a solidly conflictual moment peeps its poor little head above ground, these eager beavers stop the plot cold to devote themselves to analyzing it. With the vim of medics rushing into a disaster area, they staunch the flow of speculation practically before it seeps from the body of the work.

I’m sure that I could come up with many more colorful mixed metaphors for what is going on, but I suspect you get the picture.

Why is this a problem? Well, when situations and motivations are over-explained, the reader does not have to do any thinking; it’s like a murder mystery where the murderer is identified and we are told how he will be caught on page one. Where’s the suspense? Why keep turning pages?

And that’s just the problem from a reader’s POV; from an agent, editor, or contest judge’s POV, it is still more serious. Professional readers’ first experience any given writer’s work is in sizeable chunks — the first 50 pages, say, or a chapter submitted to a contest. If a subtle Short Road Home appears once in that brief a portion of a book, the agent, editor, or contest judge is left to speculate whether this is a writing habit, or a one-time fluke. The agent or editor may choose to take a chance that it is a one-time gaffe, and ask to see the rest of the book — although, more frequently, they pass with thanks.

A contest judge, on the other hand, does not have the option of asking to see the rest of the work. Generally, she will conclude that this is a recurring writing problem, and score the piece accordingly. And, naturally, if more than one subtle Short Road Home occurs in either a submission or an entry, chances are that the professional reader will not read beyond the second one. The writer is labeled as promising, but needing more experience in moving the plot along.

Vague, isn’t it, given that what is occurring is a very specific mega-problem? Subtle Short Roads Home often trigger the feedback, “Show — don’t tell!” But frankly, I think that admonition does not give the writer enough guidance. There are a lot of ways that a writer could be telling the reader what is going on; a subtle Slow Road Home is only one of many, and I don’t think it’s fair to leave an aspiring writer to guess which rule she has transgressed.

But then, as I believe I have pointed out before, I don’t rule the universe. If I did, though, every writer who was told “Show — don’t tell!” would also receive specific feedback on where and how. Because, frankly, subtle Short Roads Home bug me. As anyone who has ever been in a writers’ group with me can tell you.

For me, seeing a subtle Short Road Home stop the flow of a wonderful story reminds me of the fate of the migratory birds that used to visit my house when I was a child. Each spring, lovely, swooping swallows would return to their permanent nests, firmly affixed under the eaves of the house where I grew up, invariably arriving four days after their much-publicized return to Mission San Juan Capistrano, much farther south. For me, it was an annual festival, watching the happy birds frolic over the vineyard, evidently delighted to be home.

Then, one dark year, the nasty little boy who lived half a mile from us took a great big stick and knocked their nests down. The swallows never returned again.

Unfortunately, once the underlying emotional rubric of a relationship has been laid too bare by in-text analysis, the rhythm of a story generally has a hard time recovering momentum. Readers of good writing don’t want to be passive; they want to get emotionally involved with the characters, so they can inhabit, for a time, the world of the book. They want to care about the characters — that’s one big reason for turning page after page, to find out what happens to them. And when a writer over-analyzes, the reader is left with nothing to do.

Essentially, subtle Short Roads Home are about not trusting the reader to draw the right conclusions about a scene, a character, or a plot twist. They’re about being afraid that the reader might stop liking a character who has ugly thoughts, or who seems not to be handling a situation well. They’re about, I think, a writer’s being afraid that he may not have presented his story well enough to prove the point of his book.

And, sometimes, they’re just about following the lead of television and movies, which show us over and over emotions analyzed to the nth degree. But TV and movie scripts are technically limited to the sensations of sight and sound: they cannot tell their stories any other way. A writer can draw upon the full range of sensations — and show thoughts. A book writer who restricts herself to using only the tools of TV and movies is like a pianist who insists upon playing only the black keys.

Live a little. You have a lot of ways to show character development and motivation; use them.

Consider your manuscript for a moment: does it contain scenes where, instead of interaction between characters showing the reader what the conflicts are and how the protagonist works through them, the protagonist sits around (often in a car) and thinks through the problem to its logical conclusion? Or sits around drinking coffee with her friends while THEY come up with analysis and solution? Or — and this one often surprises writers when I bring it up — sits around with her therapist, dissecting the problem and coming up with a solution?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, sit down right away and read your book straight through. Afterward, consider: would the plot have suffered tremendously if those scenes were omitted entirely? Are there other ways you could convey the same points, through action rather than thought or discussion?

A very powerful agent who specializes in genre fiction once told me that he stops reading a submitted novel as soon as he encounters a scene where characters are drinking coffee, tea, or any other non-alcoholic beverage, because he has found over the years that those scenes almost always involve the characters sitting around and talking about what’s going on. To him, such scenes are the kiss of death: they indicated, he said, that the author did not know how to maintain tension consistently throughout a book.

I would not go so far — since I edit primarily for Seattle-based writers, if I advised them to skip every possible coffee-drinking opportunity in their works, I would essentially be telling them to ignore a fairly significant part of local community culture. However, I do suggest that authors flag any lengthy let’s-talk-it-over scenes — then go back and read the entire manuscript with those scenes omitted. Nine times out of ten, the pacing of the book will be substantially improved, with little significant loss of vital information.

The moral: pacing is HUGELY important to professional readers. If it slows the book down, consider cutting it out.

Lest you think I am asking too much, or that massive cutting is an easy suggestion to make about someone ELSE’s manuscript, let me share an early debacle of my own: in my first novel, I wrote 300 pages of therapy for my protagonist; ultimately, I threw out all but three scenes. Writing the therapy scenes was a great writing exercise, necessary for me to understand what my protagonist was going through, but once I understood her emotions, I was able to show (not tell about) them throughout the book. And, you know, while it was pretty spectacularly painful to throw out 300 pages of quite good writing, the book was better for it.

Please do think about it. Tomorrow, I shall load you with practical examples of subtle Short Roads Home, and discuss how to work with them.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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