The Short Road Home, Part III

Hello, readers —

As promised, today I am bringing you some practical examples of the subtle form of Short Road Home, so you may see this common mega-problem in action and learn how to fix it. I want to be as clear as possible about this, because there is a reason that most professional readers will dismiss a manuscript that has more than one Short Road Home in the first couple of chapters: it is one of the single most frequently-seen mega-problems in fiction.

Long-time readers of this blog, did a light bulb just appear above your heads? Did it occur to you that, as with nonstandard formats, an ultra-frequent mega-problem in a manuscript might actually be a WELCOME sight to an agent, editor, or contest judge, because it means that the work can be rejected without further ado — or further reading time? Yes, they are always on the lookout for that great undiscovered new talent, but the faster they can sift through the rest, the better they like it.

Or so I’m told.

My point is, you can’t assume that when you submit your work in any professional context, it will meet with readers eager to give it the benefit of the doubt. Seldom does one hear a professional reader say, “Well, there are problems with this manuscript, but I think it’s going to be worth my while to expend my energy on helping the author fix them.” And never does one hear, “This author seems to have trouble moving the plot along, but that’s nothing that a good writing class couldn’t fix. Let’s sign this writer now, and help her grow as an artist.”

Just doesn’t happen, alas, to writers who don’t already have a solid platform — i.e., a special expertise or celebrity status to lend credibility to the book. I suspect that, say, the first readers of Barbara Boxer’s recent novel or Ethan Hawke’s granted them quite a bit of latitude (not to say editorial help), because, in the industry’s eyes, what is being sold when a celebrity writes a book is the celebrity’s name, rather than the manuscript.

As a non-celebrity writer, on the other hand, you can generally assume that the first reader at an agency, publishing house, or contest is looking for reasons to weed your work out. They don’t worry too much about too quickly rejecting the next great American novel — since writers are resilient creatures who improve their skills on their own time (and dime), the publishing industry is fairly confident that the great ones will keep coming back.

For some reason, people in the writing community — especially those who write for writers’ publications and teach seminars — don’t like to talk about that much, I notice. Maybe it’s so they can put a positive spin on the process, to concentrate on the aspects of this honestly hugely difficult climb to publication that are within the writer’s control.

As far as I’m concerned, mega-problems are very much within the writer’s control, as are other rejection triggers — but only if the writer knows about them in advance of submission. So let’s get down to the proverbial brass tacks and see about clearing up this mega-problem.

The subtle flavor of Short Road Home seems to appear most frequently in the work of authors who have themselves spent quite a bit of time in therapy, 12 Step programs, or watching Oprah: the second an interpersonal conflict pops up, some well-informed watchdog of a character (or, even more often, the protagonist’s internal Jiminy Cricket) will deftly analyze the underlying motivations of the players at length. Even when these characters are not therapists by trade (although I’ve seen a LOT of manuscripts where they are), they are so full of insight that they basically perform instant, on-the-spot relationship diagnosis.

Ta da! Situation understood! Conflict eliminated!

No messy loose ends left to complicate the plot here — or to keep the reader guessing. In many instances, this examination is so intense (or lengthy) as to convince the reader that there is absolutely no point in trying to second-guess the protagonist (which is, after all, one of the great joys of reading, isn’t it?), if the author is going to tell her right away what to conclude from what has just passed.

It also creates a problem internal to the book. This kind of instant analysis often relieves the conflicting characters of any urgency they might have felt in resolving their interpersonal issues. Since Jiminy Cricket hops on in and spells out everyone’s underlying motivations, the hard work of figuring one’s own way out of a jam is rendered unnecessary.

If this seems like an exaggeration to you, take a good look at your manuscript — or, indeed, any book where the protagonist and/or another character habitually analyzes what is going on WHILE it is going on, or immediately thereafter. Does the protagonist leap into action immediately after the analysis is through, or wait for new developments? In the vast majority of manuscripts, it is the latter — which means that the analytical sections tend to put the plot on hold for their duration. Where analysis replaces action, momentum lulls are practically inevitable.

Memoirs are particularly susceptible to this type of stalling. Memoirists LOVE foreshadowing, because, obviously, they are telling about their past through the lens of the present. In the course of foreshadowing (often identifiable by the historical future tense: “It was not to turn out as I hoped…”), the narrator will all too often analyze a scene for the reader before showing it, thus killing any significant suspense the reader might have felt about how the scene will be resolved.

Yes, you know the story you are telling very well, but remember, your reader doesn’t. Just because something really occurred does not relieve the writer of the obligation to make its telling vibrant and dynamic. You may be excited to share insights gleaned over the course of a lifetime, but if they are not presented AS the stories unfold in the memoir, the reader may have a hard time tying the lessons to the anecdotes.

In other words: show first, conclude later.

Sometimes, foreshadowing tension-killers are apparently inadvertent in a manuscript, mere matters of transition: “On the day my brother shocked us all by running away from home, I woke with a stomach ache…” Think about this from the reader’s perspective — yes, there would be a certain curiosity as to why your brother ran away from home, perhaps, but why not let the reader experience the shock along with the family? Start off with a description of a normal day, and let the events unfold dramatically, rather than giving away the ending.

The subtle flavor turns up especially often in memoirs and novels where the protagonist has a troubled child, particularly if it’s a teenager. With the fictional child, the protagonist (or his wise second wife, or her experienced mother) will frequently give (at least in his or her own head) the pat psychological explanation for the child’s attitude, thus diffusing what might have been an interesting scene that either showed the conflict (instead of telling the reader about it), provided interesting character development, or moved the plot along. Effectively, it stops the story cold while the analysis is going on.

For example, Tom’s teenage daughter Tanya refuses to speak to her father when he comes home late from work; she rushes into her room and slams the door. Instead of following her into her room, Tom just hangs out in the kitchen with his wife, Mary, who obligingly relieves him of his anxiety by explaining what has just happened: “Well, Tom, Tanya’s felt abandoned since her mother, your ex-wife, ran off with that bullfighter three months ago. She doesn’t have any safe outlet for her anger, so she is focusing it on you, the parent she barely knew until you gained custody. All you can do is be patient and consistent, earning her trust over time.” End of scene.

Now, this story has all of the elements of a good character-driven novel, right? There’s a wealth of raw material here: a new custody situation; a teenager dealing with her mother’s madness; a father suddenly thrust into being the primary caretaker for a child who had been living with his ex; a stepmother torn between her loyalty to her husband and her resentment about abruptly being asked to parent a child in trouble full-time.

But when instant therapy intervenes, all of that juicy conflict just becomes another case study, rather than gas to fuel the rest of the book. Had Tom and Mary just gone ahead and BEEN patient and consistent, earning Tanya’s trust over the next 200 pages, the reader would have figured out, I think, that being patient and consistent is a good way to deal with a troubled teenager. But no, the subtle Short Road Home demands that the reader be told what to conclude early and often.

Whenever you notice one of your characters rationalizing in order to sidestep a conflict, ask yourself: am I cheating my readers of an interesting scene here? And if you find you have a Jiminy Cricket character, for heaven’s sake, write a second version of every important scene, a draft where he DOESN’T show up and explain everything in a trice, and see if it isn’t more dynamic. Do this even if your book’s Jiminy Cricket is the protagonist;s therapist.

Perhaps ESPECIALLY if it’s the therapist.

If you are writing a book where the protagonist spends a significant amount of time in therapy, make sure that you are balancing two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking scenes with scenes of realization outside the office. And make sure to do some solid character development for the therapist as well, to keep these scenes tense and vibrant.

If you are in doubt about how to structure this, take a gander at Judith Guest’s ORDINARY PEOPLE, where most of the protagonist’s breakthroughs occur outside of the therapist’s office. The therapist appears from time to time, punctuating young Conrad’s progress toward rebuilding his life after a particularly grisly suicide attempt with pithy questions, not sum-it-all-up answers.

Which brings me to a final prescription for subtle Short Road Home plotting and pacing: make sure that your protagonist learns his lessons primarily through direct personal experience — or through learning about someone else’s direct personal experience told in vivid, tension-filled flashbacks.

At least in your first book, where you really need to wow the professionals to break in. After you make it big, I give you permission to construct a plot entirely about a couple of characters sitting around talking, motionless.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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