By Beth Terrell
Lately, I've had occasion to read a number of manuscripts from aspiring authors. Some have been excellent, some interesting but rough around the edges, and some in need of serious editing. One of the most frustrating issues I've seen is the grammatically polished manuscript that lacks emotional resonance. I hear the same complaint from others who are involved in the same endeavor as I. "This is very well written, but...," followed by a helpless gesture. "No spark." It's frustrating because these stories are written by good writers, writers who have worked at their craft and who clearly have ability.
Sometimes the plots are action-packed, but there's no one with whom the reader can be emotionally engaged. These stories, no matter how brilliantly-conceived, feel flat. Sometimes there is a remarkable prologue that is both poignant and authentic, with a richness of detail and a depth of emotion that made me say, "Yes! This is what it's all about." But then, chapter one would bring an adequately written scene with a reasonably likable protagonist doing things that ought to be rife with tension but somehow aren't. Often, the rest of the piece has no connection to the prologue, or the connection is only tangential. Sometimes the story is elegantly written, but the writer gets caught up in the language and forgets to tell the story. Beautiful writing can only carry a story so far; if there are twenty pages between the time our hero pours a vodka tonic and the time he takes his first sip of it, there's a good chance the story could use some tightening. (I'm talking about mystery/suspense, not literary fiction, but even in literary fiction, a writer who's going to try that had better be very, very good at it.)
I think this happens for several reasons. First, we know our characters so well, we often think we've put things on the page that we haven't. "Of course she locked him out of the house and threw his electric guitar out the window. He knew her father was an abusive drunk who beat and humiliated her throughout her childhood, but he still came home three sheets in the wind after a night out with the boys." We know our character's motivations, but unless we find a way to (subtly) show our readers this, they'll just think she's an irrational witch who just broke her husband's most prized possession without warning.
Another reason may be that we tend to do more of what we do well. Elmore Leonard does dialogue very well. You'll notice that his books have a lot of dialogue. James Lee Burke is a master of description. Guess what his book is full of. Of course, Leonard and Burke are geniuses at what they do, but we lesser souls do the same thing. I'm good at character development. The first draft of my book had almost no plot at all, but boy did it have character development. It was one long character study with a little thread of mystery woven through it. I'm pretty good at dialogue too, so naturally, people in my first draft talked a lot. To make that book into something readable, I had to become aware of my strengths and weaknesses and then work hard to showcase the former and strengthen the latter. I'm still no James Lee Burke, but I learned how and when to describe things. I'm no Philip Margolin, but I learned how to plot.
Reading these manuscripts taught me that, while the ability to write beautifully is a great gift, it can only carry a book so far. The reader has to care about what happens---and they usually only care what happens if they care who it's happening to.
Give us someone to love, though, and we'll follow you anywhere.