Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Context is Key (the lesser known adage to Content is King)

I've decided to augment today's post with photos of my husband & I in New Zealand.
No particular reason other than NZ is awesome.
This is me looking ridiculously happy in front of Mount Doom.

I had an enlightening writing experience recently. One of my critique partners read an older novel of mine. I love the novel, but I wanted a fresh perspective on why I couldn't get any agent interested in it.

I knew the story itself evolved into something fairly fun-to-read with enjoyable characters (obviously I'm biased). My husband (yes, also biased) said he had a hard time getting started with the book but around the 2/3 mark he started reading and got so absorbed he forgot where he was.

The problem, of course, is that readers give a book maybe 5 pages. More likely 1 page. After that, if their interest isn't gripped, they're putting it down.

This was like a tiny lawn shrub we have at home.
Only it was enormous. This wasn't even the biggest one we saw.

Here were some of the early comments my critiquer made:
  • "I feel disoriented."
  • "Why?" - As in "Why on earth did this happen?"
  • "I don't have context."
  • "I still don't know what's going on."
And, weirdly enough, I loved those comments because they really put the problem into perspective. They told me exactly what my first few pages needed.

My husband likes to skip rocks.
I've got a rock skipping picture of him from pretty much every vacation we've ever taken.

Yes, you need engaging characters and an interesting plot. Yes, the overall book needs to work.

But first you've got to build a world for your reader. You've got to get them interested in the plight of your main character. You've got to make it clear who the heck your main character is and why the reader should care about him (or her). And you've got to immerse your reader in your world. These pages didn't do that.

A lot of my novels failed to give a good sense of place. One thing I've started to do is extensive world building before writing (or revising) my novels. It's funny how the littlest things can seep into the world and make it feel like a nuanced, well-thought-out place that might actually exist.

Our feet propped up on the balcony of our Queenstown hotel.

Holly Black gave me some similar advice, and I can see how following it would help me build a much better sense of my world and main character.

This post talks more about what details to include and exclude, in case you were looking for a more in depth analysis.

So, I'm off to revise. Or, rather, re-write. I've decided my next project is stripping that old novel down to its bones and giving it new life - with a little more context.

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