The Short Road Home, part VII: those pesky teenagers — and a major milestone!

Sic transit gloria.

The reconstruction of my devastated back yard proceeds apace — there have been so many workmen with great big boots tramping through my erstwhile flowerbeds of late that I’m quite positive the resident mole believes a hostile army has invaded his territory.

The photo above represents the last hurrah of our hot tub before it went the way of all flesh. Since my agent is currently circulating my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, it seemed only appropriate that the little statue should be the last thing evacuated.

With great destruction comes the possibility of new growth, though, and I have to say, even as an editor experienced in making large-scale cuts to manuscripts, I have been impressed to see just how many new vista opportunities have been opening up each time a backhoe accidentally knocks over a small tree.

An ornamental cherry, just about to bloom. Talk about killing your darlings.

The process has been reminding me a great deal of the first two years after I sold my memoir to a publisher, actually: after working up courage to dig up a story that hadn’t seen the light of day for over twenty years, all hell broke loose for two solid years. Every time I started thinking, “Okay, I could learn to live with the new status quo around this book,” BANG! Down went another tree. Or a backhoe took a great big hole out a flowering pear, doubtless cutting the coming summer’s crop by a third.

Metaphorically, of course.

The upheaval on both the garden and memoir fronts remains substantial — and ongoing — but I’m sure the wee Buddha would approve of the hourly evidence my environs are giving that nothing is really permanent. And that building something lasting typically involves quite a bit of ground-clearing first.

Doesn’t that just make you want to take out the machete and leap back into revising your manuscript? No? Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

But before we launch into the topic du jour, a drum roll, please, for an announcement of moment: this is my 500th blog on this site!

To those of you who didn’t follow me over from my old Resident Writer blog on the Organization-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s website, this total may seem a bit off, as there are about 800 posts archived here, including roughly 300 from my former gig. (Also, I haven’t been counting guest posts and interviews toward the final count.)

So these last half-thousand have all been written specifically for you, the Author! Author! community, under my own aegis. You’re welcome.

When the blog has reached similar milestones in the past, I have gone back and figured out how many pages I’d written, measured in standard manuscript format, but at this point, it’s just too daunting a task. Suffice it to say that it’s been thousands of pages of my ranting at you about the joys and imperatives of standard format, the ins and outs of pitching and querying, and my vast preference for writers reading their work — chant it with me; you surely know the words by now — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it to make its merry way through an agency or publishing house.

Clearly, I need to take a weekend off.

But let’s finish this mini-series (so to speak) first, shall we? For the last week, I’ve been talking about that graveyard of literary tension and promoter of telling rather than showing, the Short Road Home, a scene or plot that resolves conflict practically the nanosecond it appears.

After a lifetime of reading and a decade of editing, I have to say, I don’t think that most writers appreciate just how much the average reader enjoys savoring conflict — or how much more trivial an easily-solved problem appears on the page than one with which the protagonist must struggle for pages or chapters on end. Just as an Idiot Plot that is resolved the instant someone thinks to ask Aunt Joyce her ring size is less than dramatically satisfying, a plot resolved by a Short Road Home tends to leave readers feeling underfed.

They came for a full meal, you know, with many succulent courses. How could they not be disappointed when a narrative merely gives them a glimpse of a nicely-fried brook trout, then whisks it away untasted? Or when the waiter spends the whole meal boasting of the spectacular dessert, then brings out a single cookie for the entire table to share?

And that’s non-professional readers’ reaction; the pros are even more ravenous. Just because Millicent spends her days grazing upon query letters and munching on synopses doesn’t mean she wouldn’t be thrilled to have a full meal come submission-reading time.

Please say you’ve grasped the concept, because this metaphor is beginning to whimper under its explanatory load.

A good place to start sniffing around for instances of the Short Road Home is when a narrative begins to stray close to stereotype territory. Why? Well, stereotypes thrive upon generalization, so when they rear their ugly heads, they tend to nudge the narrative toward summary statements, conclusions, and the like. Grounding a scene or argument in the specific has the opposite tendency.

This is particularly likely too occur in memoirs and novels where writer is working overtime to make a character likeable — or always right. A character who is never wrong is, among other things, predictable; when predictability has pulled up a chair and seated itself in a scene, tension tends to take a flying leap out the nearest window.

Too theoretical? Okay, let’s take a gander at one of the more common marriages of stereotype and Short Road Home: the troubled child of the protagonist, particularly if it’s a teenager.

At the very mention, Millicent has already started cringing in her cubicle in New York, I assure you. The TCoP crosses her desk so frequently in manuscripts that she can scarcely see a character in the 13-19 age range without instinctively flinching and crying out, “Don’t tell me — she’s going to be sullen.”

You’re quite right, Millicent — 99% of the time, she will be. And rebellious. Not to mention disrespectful, sighing, and eye-rolling.

Yes, troubled kids and teenagers across the land have been known to do all of these things from time to time — but remember what I said a few paragraphs back about predictability? When Millicent encounters the rare non-stereotypical teenager in a submission, it’s a red-letter day.

Not quite a 500th post kind of day, perhaps, but close.

I can feel some of you getting restless out there. “Yeah, yeah,” I hear a few seasoned self-editors piping, “I already know to avoid stereotypes, because Millicent sees them so often and because the whole point of writing a book is to show MY view of the world, not a bunch of clichés. What does this have to do with the Short Road Home?”

In practice, quite a bit; it’s very, very common for a narrative featuring a TCoP to expend considerable (and usually disproportionate) time explaining the kid’s behavior — and, often, justifying how the protagonist responds to it. Unfortunately, this rush to interpret not infrequently begins as early as the first scene in which the TCoP is introduced.

What might this look like on the first page of a manuscript, you ask? A little something like this — and see if you can catch the subtle narrative bias that often colors this stripe of the Short Road Home:

When hard-working Tom Carver opened the front door, arriving home late from work at the stuffed animal plant yet again, his daughter, Tanya, refused to speak to him. Glaring at him silently with all of the dastardly sneer her fifteen-year-old face could muster, she played with her spiky, three-toned hair until the third time he had considerately asked her how her day had been.

“Like you care!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes dramatically. She rushed from the room.

The now-familiar sound of her slammed bedroom door ringing in his ears, he wandered into the kitchen to kiss his adored wife on her long-suffering cheek. “Criminy, I’m tired of that, Mary. Someday, all of that slamming is going to bring the house tumbling down on our heads. I’ll bet she hasn’t done even one of her very reasonable load of daily chores, either. Why did good people like us end up with such a rotten kid? I try to be a good father.”

Mary shook her head good-humoredly as she dried her wet hands on a dishtowel, slipped an apple pie in the oven, settled the home-make brownies more comfortably on their plate, and adjusted the schedule book in which she juggled her forty-seven different weekly volunteer commitments. “Well, Tom,” she said, “she’s not a bad kid; she just acts like one. Tanya’s felt abandoned since her mother, your ex-wife, stopped taking her bipolar medication and ran off with that bullfighter three months ago, totally ignoring the custody schedule we invested so many lawyers’ bills in setting up. 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 the full custody you’d been seeking for years because you loved her so much. All you can do is be patient and consistent, earning her trust over time.”

Tom helped himself to a large scoop of the dinner he had known would be waiting for him. “You’re always right, Mary. I’m so lucky to have you.”

Now, this story contains 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 and affection for matadors; a father suddenly thrust into being the primary caretaker for a child who had been living with his unstable 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, 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, the narrative’s eagerness to demonstrate the protagonist’s (or other wise adult’s) complete understanding of the situation stops the story cold while the analysis is going on. Not for a second is the reader permitted to speculate whether Tanya’s father or stepmother had done something to provoke her response; we hardly have time even to consider whether Tom’s apparently habitual lateness is legitimate ground for resentment.

A pity, isn’t it? If only Tom had thought, “You know, instead of avoiding conflict, I’m going to maximize it, to make things more interesting for the reader,” and gone to knock on Tanya’s door instead of strolling into the kitchen for coffee and soporific analysis, we might have had all the narrative tension we could eat.

Had the narrative just gone ahead and SHOWN Tom and Mary being patient and consistent, earning Tanya’s trust over the next 200 pages, the reader MIGHT 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.

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 excellent 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.

Here’s a radical thought for revising a Short Road Home scene: what if you tinkered with it so 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?

Sound familiar? It should: it’s a pretty solid prescription for a narrative that shows, rather than tells.

Which you should strive to do as often as possible — 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.

Happy 500th, everybody — and, as always, keep up the good work!

4 Replies to “The Short Road Home, part VII: those pesky teenagers — and a major milestone!”

  1. Happy 500th to you, Anne. You’re so spry for your age!

    I’ve been soaking in this series on showing tension. Also, thanks to your suggestion, I bought a ream of paper today with plans to print out my recent manuscript so I can read every word out loud and make myself sick with the sound of my voice. I know at the end of the project, I’ll bless you for the exercise. Who knows? Someone may very well ask for a copy and I want to be ready.

    Again, happy 500th. I tell my husband that you’re the best literary teacher I’ve ever had.

  2. Happy 500th. Almost done with printing off manuscript with momentary angst that I might have settled a conflict too soon. In other words, a Short Road Home. Pencil is ready.

  3. I can’t swear to it, but I think I’ve read everyone of the 500 posts! In many ways they anchor my ever increasing knowledge of writing and the publishing industry!

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