A Five-Page MFA
I recently had the honor of critiquing a first novel for a good friend, who surprised me by asking how I’d learned to critique so fast and thoroughly. Counting up, I realized I’ve critiqued over 160 manuscripts, half of which were fulls, not including second, third or even fourth reads.
And for every comment I make, I’ve been there myself, taking every wrong turn along the writing journey. After wandering in circles, I’m thankful for the course-corrections I’ve received from trustworthy writers, agents and editors—sought out at conferences, classes, a luckily-won auction, the incomparable VCFA, through revising for my agent and a few R&Rs, and many a fruitful exchange with my talented and generous CPs.
So in the hopes of shortcutting other journeys out there, I’ve compiled thirteen of my favorite craft tips here. If you’d like to discuss or for me to elaborate, tweet or PM me @abigailhingwen
Tip #13: Color Matters
I once read the opening of a manuscript in which we were moving through an ancient city. Then a girl with red hair exploded onto the scene. Why was she so striking? I asked our workshop leader, who explained: Her world was grayed out by contrast.
I was floored—genius in simplicity. I reread the pages, and sure enough, the setting descriptions before the appearance of the girl were filled with those printed words: gray, beige, stone. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, one of my all-time favorites, is similarly filled with black and gray and dark throughout its pages as well as in my head:
Tip #12: Introduce Descriptions in Motion
Anna Craig’s manuscript had a black spider symbol rippling on a flag in the wind, and when she read aloud, that symbol popped right off the page. How and why? I asked her, and with a wriggling of fingers she passed on this tip I’ve since heard from a number of master writers: The movement is what makes it pop in our mind’s eye. Who knew?
One of my favorite examples is the entire opening of M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: “The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testament, the wet and twitching volume of a new-born Pentateuch…”
Tip #11: Build Chemistry through Banter
I tackled an R&R in which I was charged with slimming word count. What did I do? I zealously stripped away all banter since those lines didn’t advance the plot. For my prior readers, who’d already come to know my characters, the banter wasn’t missed, but my new readers found the relationships dry. I’m grateful to Adi Alsaid, my Writing in the Margins mentor, who identified what was missing. Tirzah Price’s 2015 VCFA lecture on banter provides a thorough treatment. For examples from a master of light-humored banter, read Stacey Lee.
Tip #10: Concretize Your Abstractions
What T.S. Elliot called the objective correlative, defined as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” (Hamlet and his Problems, 1919). This is a variation on Show-Not-Tell and I would advise concretizing as many story abstractions as you can.
Some examples: Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak uses tree imagery that evolves from winter to spring as her narrator journeys from death to hope. Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere shows bliss interrupted by the pain of her narrator’s sister’s recent death: “All of a sudden the breath is kicked out of me and I’m shoved onto the cold hard concrete floor of my life now, because I remember I can’t run home after school and tell Bails about a new boy in band.” And in my current novel, a depressed character metaphorically sews another stone into her clothes with every failure, until she’s so weighed down she can barely get out of bed mornings.
Tip #9: Use Touch to Ground Characters and Setting
This bit of genius was imparted by the brilliant Sabaa Tahir of An Ember in the Ashes. Now I see it everywhere. Instead of my heroine admiring the hot guy from afar, she should run into the guy, feel the denseness of his muscles or scrape of his backpack’s zipper against her arm. When she enters the crowded bar, she should jostle against the tray-bearing waiter, who might spill a bit of champagne on her sleeve. These touch points place the reader more deeply inside the character and gives the reader a stronger sense of her world.
McCarthy’s The Road illustrates this principle from his first lines, when the unnamed man reaches out to touch the child sleeping beside him, and his hand rises and falls softly with each precious breath.
Tip #8: Every Page Holds at Least Three of Five Senses
The first writing tip I received from a pro: college summer roommate, Dara Horn. Three of five. A scene comes to life when you see the curve on the orange swaying on the tree, hear the dull thud of it hit the ground and smell its citrus-fragrance on an uptick of wind. I often stick a note to my wall labeled “sight, sound, smell, touch and taste” to remind myself to include them. In my perfect-writer fantasy life, I would page through my novel and check every one holds three. Someday.
Tip #7: Give Your Reader 1+1, not 2
Another favorite variation on Show-Not-Tell. Instead of telling your reader the answer is “2,” give them the two separate components, and trust them to add them up on their own. Don’t overwrite. The extra bit of work engages and invests your reader as they move through your story.
Note that it’s 1+1, not the prime factorization of 764.
Examples abound, but here’s a recent one from Little Horse, a short film directed by Levi Abrino:
In the opening, Mom and Dad are watching their son, Ollie, sit on the sidelines of a soccer match, while Coach Mark tries to cajole him into the game. A little while later, Coach Mark joins Mom and Dad for a chat. Mom kisses Coach Mark on the lips and slips her arm around his waist. Still later, as Dad drives Ollie home, he asks whether Mark now lives with Mom and Ollie. “Divorced” is never once mentioned, but the act of figuring out the relationship among the actors works to pull us into a heart-filled story about a dad navigating his changing relationship with his son.
Tip #6: Every Scene Needs a Goal
At least in commercial fiction.
If you’ve ever had a reader lose the thread of your story, or if a scene lacks forward drive, your main character’s scene goal might be missing from the page. A scene goal is distinct from the overarching story goal, although ideally builds toward it. A scene goal could be as simple as the main character not wanting her jewelry box under the rug discovered by her mother, who’s just entered the room. Or the main character might want to enter a guarded building, or confront the antagonist.
The scene goal is what propels the hero through the scene. Put obstacles in her way, and by the end, she must either succeed or fail: her mother discovers the box, she breaks past the guards, the antagonist slips onto a train and leaves the station.
Tip #5: Structure Scenes Like Jokes
Another favorite. A joke’s punchline is ruined if you have to explain why it deserves a laugh after its delivery. Same with a scene—by the time the reader hits its last lines and emotional note, all context and setup should be on the page already. No further explanation needed.
Tip #4 Start Arcs Where They Don’t End, and Grow From There
Story arc comes intuitively for most people: Ordinary girl becomes a hero. Brokenness is healed. Two lonelies find their soulmates. In addition to an overarching spine, a single novel holds many other story, character and relational arcs. If any of these storylines is falling flat, the starting point might be a good place to check. If the would-be lovers start off madly in love, there’s nowhere for their relationship to grow. Better they start off cold—or better yet—blazing with hatred. I’m still rooting for Kylo Ren and Rey.
As for where to go next, Stephanie Garber, whose seamless character growth in Caraval I greatly admired, passed along great advice: pull all the interiority around my main character’s arc into a separate document. Read through to make sure it builds, rather than simply move back and forth or flatline. Edit in that separate document, then add back into the manuscript. The act of separating the lines out into their own document makes the shape of the arc much easier to see. Thanks, Stephanie!
Tip #3: Important Events Happen in Scene not Summary
This one seems intuitive, yet I had to learn it the hard way and it might be the #1 issue I see in first drafts of first manuscripts:
Important events need to be dramatized IN SCENE, with full-blown characters engaged in meaningful action, dialogue if called for and a setting more real than reality. If the event isn’t important enough to build into a scene, is it needed? If it is, summarize (and have fun playing with voice).
When key events are buried in summary, they’re harder for readers to catch, absorb and—most importantly—feel their impact. In a mystery where the goal is to solve the crime, the discovery of the murder weapon wouldn’t be summarized: Liam snuck into the house, where he found a broken and bloodied electric guitar in a closet. Hallelujah!
Nor would we want a dramatic rendition of the next hour: in which Liam drives home along the lonely, winding highway, grimaces in the mirror as he brushes his teeth with his soft-bristled toothbrush with the small circular movements his dentist taught him as a child, spits into his porcelain sink, washes his face, turns back his favorite cotton sheets…
(Exaggerated, yes, but I’ve written variations on that and if you have, too, don’t feel bad—that initial walkthrough the world is often exactly what we need to know our story inside and out, and to figure out what’s important and what’s not. Maybe there’s a clue in that dental memory.)
But backing up an hour—in subsequent drafts, we need to be with Liam as he pries the painted-shut window open and folds his body through, then tiptoes over squeaky floorboards past the bedrooms of his ex-girlfriend’s sleeping family members to the study, where a light is on, where the closet is not just shut, but locked with a new deadbolt… In scene, we feel the work and risk Liam undertook to earn this horrific piece of evidence. Cut the next hour, unless something important strikes Liam (literally or figuratively) as he’s brushing those pearly whites.
For a deeper read on scene versus summary, pick up Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, a fantastic primer.
Tip #2: Give Your Story Structure
This tip can take many experimental shapes, but for a western, linear story, there is the tried-and-true dramatic structure analyzed as early as Aristotle in his Poetics and followed by countless movies and novels. The key points I work towards are:
10-12% inciting incident
20-25% end of the beginning / call to action
50% critical midpoint turn (often missing from new manuscripts)
75-80% darkest moment, followed by the
The good news is, you can figure out story structure after the first draft—in fact, it’s pretty difficult to figure out beforehand. I recommend both Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks, and The Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson, which come at structure from two opposite approaches.
Anatomy of a Story, by John Truby, is also amazing, especially when beginning a new project.
One way to develop your intuition around the linear story structure is to follow the time thread at the bottom of movies: many hit these milestones almost to a T.
Of course, many wonderful experimental structures don’t follow this formula. Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood is a favorite.
Tip #1: Make Your Novel Self-Aware
Another great tip I learned the hard way. Like all human beings, your character has blind spots. But your character cannot simply go her merry way inflicting her blind spots on her world. The work as a whole needs to be self-aware—meaning the rest of the cast or plot should fill those spots in, or at least point them out.
What are your character’s weaknesses? Biases? Prejudices? Is she the type to go it alone? Does she refuse to date guys shorter than her? If so, someone should call her on it, serve as a contrasting example, or better yet, the stars align so she must ask the two-inches-shorter Mr. Right to help her reach her goal.
Self-awareness can be difficult to identify in our own works (don’t we often share our hero’s blind spots?) but trusted CPs can reflect back how your hero is coming across.
And a final Bonus Tip #0: Scrivener is a Writer’s Best Friend. I swear by it.