Today, we have a very special treat–a post from my editor, Jim Frenkel of Tor Books. In the world of writing, the great question we writers and striving writers always have is: What do the editors think? What are editors looking for?
Here is a tiny peek into the mysterious world of that most elusive creature, the editor!
Jim Frenkel and his son Josh
Reading and Writing
When I first started editing books I had already been an avid reader for more than fifteen years. Throughout my youth, I read everything I could get my hands on. i’m not sure why I was such a voractious reader. I never s aw my parents reading anything except the newspaper, or maye Newsweek Magazine. But for as long as I can remember, I have loved to read.
Fiction, non-fiction. Science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, biography, history, sports, contemporary realistic fiction, romantic fiction, thrillers, true crime . . . I can recall books from as long ago as when I was eight or nine, that I borrowed from the library–a biography of Kit Carson; a Landmark book about the Panama Canal; Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein, The Wonderful Trip to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron, the Hardy Boys mystery The House on the Hill by Franklin W. Dixon . . . I could go on and on.
Don’t ask me how I remember titles. My wife tells me I have a ridiculous memory for trivia, and she’s probably right. My own theory is that I remember particular titles that caught my fancy when I was very young and impressionable. Of course, I also remember a number of books I’ve read in the intervening years, decades. And remembering some of the best books I’ve read gives me great pleasure.
Yes, I am an incurable literature junkie. And no, I find no disconnect between the word “literature” and the terns “science fiction, fantasy, mysteries or romantic fiction. Yes, there are those who will contend that if something is considered “genre” it can’t be very good, and if it’s very good, it can’t be “genre” but I don’t buy that elitist argument. There are countless examples of works published in one genre or another for marketing purposes, which years later are lauded as literature worth the name. In the best of all possible worlds, I’m with Ursula K. Le Guin, who once suggested that books should be shelved alphabetically, by author’s names, ie: Shakespeare next to Shatner. Perhaps an extreme example, but you take her point, I hope.
You may wonder why I am discussing this. There’s a simple reason: L. Jagi Lamplighter asked me to write something that would be read by people who have literary ambition. And the very first thing you need in order to even think about being a published writer is a love of reading.
I’m sure there are those who would argue with that statement. I’ve talked with writers who tell me that they don’t read in the genre they write. I’ve even met writers who say that they’ve never been avid readers. I can understand the former. Some writers are wary of reading books that might influence their own work. That makes sense. I know an equal number of writers who read voraciously in their own field. Either way is fine, if it works for you. But the other assertion–that someone wants to write books, but has never particularly cared about reading, seems very odd to me.
When I was a senior in college, an English major who wanted to write the great American science fiction story, I took a tutorial in creative writing. My professor told me I’d have to write a story a week. But before I started writing, he wanted me to read certain books. I remember the first one extremely vividly: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. It isn’t science fiction. But it is a marvelous example of contemporary American fiction by a masterful writer who is also a great storyteller. My professor, Gerald Nelson, impressed upon me that in order to write well, one had to learn how to to read well, and then read good writing.
I have never had reason to disagree with what he said. Ever since then, I have sought out short stories and novels by writers I believe to be very, very good at their craft. Having been an English Literature major, I had the benefit of being forced to read many of the greatest writers in the English language from the past five hundred years (and earlier). The language changes, and so do literary forms, but reading broadly has been for me a bracing, exhilarating lifetime of discovery. We have a fabulous literary heritage of enormous breadth and depth, and while the details of modern life are changing with mind-boggliing speed, human nature has not changed that much. The heart that beats in the breast of Shakespeare’s protagonists feels the same kinds of joy and pain as might afflict the most modern protagonist.
Good writing, dammit, is human. That’s the plain truth. It doesn’t matter what kind of a story you want to tell. At the core of your story is a protagonist. It can be male or female–or neither, or both; it can be human or alien, or a magical creature. But whatever kind of plumbing, whatever external appearance, whatever powers your protagonist may possess, the single most important asset that protagonist must possess is some quality that enables readers to identify with him, her or it.
I cannot tell you how many bad manuscripts I have received that have cardboard cut-outs the author thinks are realistic characters. I don’t know what these people are thinking, but when I get a manuscript that is peopled by thinly veiled stereotypes or just plain empty bodies that have no discernible souls, I know I have to read no further. It doesn’t matter what is going to happen; it is not important what kind of inventive hoops the would-be author forces the characters to navigate,. If those characters don’t feel real to the reader, all is lost.
So my first advice to those of you who want to be writers is to learn how to read well, so that when an editor says to you, “Your characters are flat; they’re dull; they don’t convince me,” you understand what the editor means, because you have experienced the joy of reading works that are peopled by characters so real that the fictional creations become, at least during the reading experience, as real as if they were truly alive.
That experience is what people are referring to when they say, “The story comes alive on the page!” It’s the story of someone who seems real that engages the reader’s interest and fires the imagination. Oh, the joy of being so swept up in a story that one completely forgets the real world. That state–forgetting the physical world because one is enraptured by the narrative spun by a skilled storyteller–is what we refer to as the “willing suspension of disbelief.”
Yes, disbelief. Fiction–I’m talking about fiction, though really fine non-fiction is often praised–when it possesses the kind of urgency and passion as outstanding fiction–as being novelistic . . . fiction is not real. For a reader to enjoy fiction, the author must win the reader’s willing cooperation, forcing the reader to accept what is an absolute fabrication as something the reader must care about as if it was important in the real world.
Achieving that cooperation–that willing suspension of disbelief–is the magical feat that writers must perform in order to be accepted, embraced by readers. If you can do that, you’ve done the most important thing you need to do as a writer. Readers will forgive a lot of sins in their authors, but if you aren’t able to win the reader’s trust, the heart of the reader, so that the reader will allow you to take him away from the real world to the world you have constructed, then the reader will not keep reading your fiction.
When I say “the world you have constructed,” I don’t necessarily mean a world of the future, or an alternate world, or a fantasy world, It can be anyplace, any time, right now, or the recent past or future, on a world that never existed, or in your reconstruction of the real world. But it’s your narrative to which the reader must subscribe; your version of reality.
There are many other things you need to do as a successful writer, of course. But that’s job one. Get the reader on your side–on the side of your protagonist, your viewpoint character.
So how do you do that? Many would-be writers think that if their protagonist is really, really talented, and charming, and smart, and goodlooking, that should work. Well, maybe. But it’s far more important that the protagonist be a person you see not as a “character,” but rather as a real, live person. Looks and charm aren’t everything. No kidding.
There is no formula or secret handshake that will get you into the club of published writers. What you need to do is to read, look for characters that become your friends–or enemies–in the pages of books you love. And think about what it is about them that makes them memorable.
That’s something to chew on. I hope it helps.