Writing, Rewriting, and Craft
By Elena Hartwell
As a novelist and playwright, I’m often asked where I get my ideas. Almost every writer I know gets this question, and I think we all feel the same. Ideas are never the problem. That’s the easy part. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard part, the magic part, is turning the idea into a polished, final manuscript.
The writing process varies wildly from author to author. Some write extensive, detailed outlines. Others sit down with an idea and write scenes on the fly. A number of writers fall somewhere in between, while they may not outline, neither do they sit down and write completely organically. They might write a synopsis or outline a chapter in advance.
The various combinations of these methods all work, depending on the writer and the project. There is no “wrong” way to write a novel. The “how” a writer works isn’t why their manuscript sells or doesn’t sell. The primary reason an author’s work has not yet sold is a lack of craft.
People who lack craft skills rarely sit down to write a novel. Or if they do, they can start, but never finish. Or if they do finish, they don’t rewrite. Or if they do rewrite, they quit after a single pass. Or, if they do continue to rewrite, they aren’t aware enough of craft to recognize the flaws in their own work. You get the picture. The problem is the writer stops too soon.
As a writing coach—I do one-on- one manuscript critiques as well as teaching workshops—there are some fundamental issues I see repeated in early drafts, over and over. These same issues show up in my own work, and probably on some level, in the early drafts of every writer out there. So the first thing aspiring writers can do to increase their chances of writing a successful manuscript, is learn how to identify these problems.
The first is a lack of clear objectives, obstacles, and stakes. It’s not enough to have a dead body to write a mystery. Someone has to investigate the murder. The person investigating the murder has to need to solve the crime. If they don’t need to solve the crime (objective) there’s no tension about the investigation. If the solution doesn’t matter to the investigator, it won’t matter to the reader.
The sleuth also can’t solve the crime easily, that’s not dramatic. Various impediments (obstacles) have to appear, one after the other, to prevent the protagonist from catching the killer. The more the investigator has to overcome, the more satisfying to the reader when they do.
Lastly, it has to matter (stakes). For example, the protagonist with an internal struggle, coinciding with their investigation, is far more interesting than someone who simply goes through the motions of solving a crime.
The more important solving the case is to the protagonist, the more dangerous or difficult the journey, and the greater the importance to find the guilty party, the more invested a reader will be. That’s what keeps a reader turning pages.
Complex protagonists will also have personal objectives, obstacles, and stakes to go along with their investigation. For example, a crumbling marriage, a child in danger, or overcoming an addiction are common tropes within the genre. When we know an investigator has to choose between catching a killer and saving their marriage, the stakes are high and we breathlessly turn each page waiting to see what the character chooses.
Another common error I find is a lack of structure. All stories have an underpinning structure. While there are variations to that structure, for the most part, especially in crime fiction, we start with the world as we know it, which is disrupted by a specific event, followed by rising action, where events pile one on top the other, each more important than the one that went before. This ends with a climactic scene, with the maximum danger to our hero or heroine, followed by a glimpse into the new world order for our characters.
If any of these parts are missing, the story can feel unfinished. For example, if we don’t have some sense of what the character’s life was before the intrusion, we don’t know what they are putting at risk. The “world before” can often be well hidden, it might not appear in the first chapter, but later in reflections the character makes as the story progresses, but usually a reader can identify it if they look for it.
The middle of a manuscript might falter if a lot of exciting things happen at the beginning, then nothing exciting follows. Rising action is important, because it builds dramatic tension, making it impossible to put the book down.
Lastly, an ending can feel unsatisfying if we have no sense of the outcome. Readers don’t need everything tied up in a bow, but they do want the primary threads to be resolved enough to know what the character’s lives will be like after they read “the end.”
Dialogue can also be difficult to master. One of the most common problems I see is when authors have their characters say exactly what they feel and exactly what they mean. That doesn’t ring true. People lie all the time. We lie because it’s expedient, it benefits us in some way, it keeps us from hurting others, or we don’t want to get in trouble. We rarely say what we mean, we obfuscate, we dither, we agree out loud when disagreeing feels like a mistake. Dialogue works best when each character speaks distinctly from the others, through word choice, sentence length, grammatical accuracy, and the use of slang.
If a writer can identify just these specific problem areas in their own writing, their next draft will be a much tighter, more polished manuscript. It can feel overwhelming to try to identify and fix all the issues I’ve outlined at one time. My recommendation for writers is to choose one aspect and rewrite just for that. Heighten the stakes in one rewrite. Focus solely on dialogue for the next. Breaking down the process into smaller chunks can make each rewrite a more successful venture. This will help the writer get through a series of rewrites rather than attempting one and feeling like the mountain is too high to climb. My final piece of advice. Don’t give up. That’s the only difference between a published author and an unpublished one.
Elena Hartwell was born in Bogota, Colombia, while her parents were in the Peace Corps. Her first word was “cuidado.” At the age of nine months, she told two men carrying a heavy table to be careful in their native tongue. She’s been telling people what to do ever since. After almost twenty years in the theater, Elena turned her playwriting skills to novels and the result is her first book “One Dead, Two to Go,” followed by “Two Heads Are Deader Than One.” “Three Strikes, You’re Dead.” For more information on Elena, please visit elenahartwell.com or like her Facebook Page ElenaHartwell/Author. You may get to see cute pictures of her dog and her horses.