What makes a life worth living also makes a book worth reading.

Excerpt from part two of The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist By Thomas McCormack: diagnosis requires sensibility and craft

I have argued that motion in a novel depends on some jump-starting energy-source—call it a battery, a goad, a spur. It can be some element in the make-up of a person, or it can be an insensate force like a forest fire or a flood. An opportunity or threat arises. Sometimes its resolution will depend solely on one character's bringing to bear on another some powerful aspects of his make-up. Other times a solitary figure is depicted overcoming the physical menaces entailed by being ship-wrecked, crashed in a jungle, or the like. The important thing is that the jolt-sources be there, that they be designed to lock-fit onto announced character aspects of principals, and that the reader also can recognize and feel them. For the editor, the assignment is to understand the essential craft of characterization, setting, and circuitry so if there is a weakness he can detect what it is and promote repair.

Circuitry—When the Principals Interact

Circuitry can be inadequate in different ways. When the editor's sensibility judges that it is inadequate, then it's the job of diagnosis to discern where and why. It can be, say, because the would-be motivational current streaming from George cannot find a receptor-port anywhere else in the cast. The others aren't interested in his mathematical insights, his new method of gardening, his poetry. Or the jolt can be simply too small, too inconsequential. Or it can be noxious, locking on to a motive that is despicable or narrowly selfish. The most common problem is that the situational spur simply isn't urgent enough. This is when the editor-physician black bag must be reached for.

Thus, insofar as he's interested in revealing character, the author's job is to construct setting and circuitry that will call for decisions, for actions. Indeed, this hint should be remembered whenever the editor senses that a harmful sluggishness is obtaining over an extended passage in the novel. Could it be because of a prolonged section of conversation, description, or history that keeps the vehicle of narrative in idle—no moving forward, or even promise of it? That is, not only no action, but no call for it. (In particular at such a moment, ask if the problem is that the passage is in effect repetitious of something already conveyed. But as always, if the section is sufficiently engaging as is, if you do not feel restive, leave it alone.) The sensible reader objects only when the stirred action feels synthetic, concocted, manipulated by the writer.

The Protagonist Embarks on her Quest

Consider: The situation on page one of every novel has been cunningly selected by the author and simply imposed on us. Because it has been assembled offstage, shielded from our judging eyes, it tends to be accepted more readily than a situation created right in front of us.

Another example. Picture Francine. Young, smart, with good impulses, but stuck in a barren, prejudiced western town in 1906. She's "well drawn", we see her, hear her, appreciate her quirks and qualities, and we know what she wants: to escape her evangelist father and leave this town. But as the pages begin to accumulate, the stasis of setting makes for stagnancy of narrative, and sympathy for Francine begins to turn to exasperation with her resourcelessness.

Maybe what Francine needs is a plan. She has a goal, but a goal alone can feel a flabby, passive thing. Have her adopt and announce to the reader a specific strategy for achieving the goal. This is what I'm going to try. Here's how I'm going to get off the flat ground and onto a precipitating slope. A plan frequently braces and tones up a sagging narrative. A plan entails an element of setting (or circuitry) that can be employed to advantage. Of course we can just wait for a traveling situational element (salesman, lecturer, musician, sheriff) to arrive in town, but there is sometimes enlivening merit in having a Francine know from the outset, and design for herself, the method of her own salvation.

I'm not insisting that a scheme or crusade be mechanically revealed in the first eight minutes of every fiction. But notice how many playwrights from Shakespeare forward have designed not just the problem but an announced strategy into their opening scenes. Sometimes a plan is the precise lift needed.

If the surface of a novel is jazzy, animated, and uproarious enough, the editor will seldom think to examine what's beneath. He won't notice the murmured restiveness of sensibility. Here's a common error of situation design. The familiar storyline has our heroine struggling to make it to the top. She arrives in New York innocent and alone but bright, energetic, and gifted. We see her ignored or abused as she sets forth on her career, but through hard work, inspiration, and pluck she defeats her enemies, survives her unworthy lovers, and over-comes all obstacles at last to land the corner office. The setup here seems perfectly recognizable and adequate. Especially since it's so colorfully decorated with the specific trappings of a locale or industry: We learn fascinating things about how the television, magazine, fashion, or cosmetics business really works. So it all goes unquestioned by both author and editor.

When we connect to a cause larger than ourselves

And yet, when it's all over, something is missing. That was okay, that story, I enjoyed it, lots of good stuff in there. Not bad. And because it was "not bad", because it didn't obviously fail, the editor doesn't rise to an explicit awareness of an insufficiency at the heart of things. He doesn't say, "It held me, but it didn't seize me", and then ask, "Why not?" If he did, again and again he'd find this particular shortcoming in the familiar careerist story: Its only goal is success, money, and power for the heroine—but it would be so much more cherishable an endeavor for her and for the reader if what were at stake included a benefit for someone beyond just our protagonist. We would feel much more embraced by the narrative if the issue—the situation she wants to arrive at—were not just her coronation but the saving of the school, the operation for the child, the acquittal of her unfairly accused dad. This is not cliché; it's a fundamental rule of life and of fiction: We feel greater gut-striving with anyone who is struggling for something more than just his own personal gain.

Granted, some readers identifying with the heroine will have desires as self-centered as hers, and her triumph is enough for them; their dream never includes triumph for a relative. Occasionally, the need for a "benefit for someone beyond just our protagonist" is satisfied by a kind of anti-benefit: The bad guy gets his come-uppance.

And sometimes, the benefit to the protagonist, though something he is initially seeking for himself, has a far wider range of beneficiaries—as when the black man in Mississippi fights for his rights as a human being.

And finally: The glitter of the scene, the wit of the heroine, the loathsomeness of the opposition can combine into a read of such jamboree that the editor never notices his sensibility asking: Yes, but should it have been still better? Was the narrative as widely and deeply compelling as it should have been?

Add comment

Security code
Refresh