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  1. #1
    Ray Veen
    Guest

    "the narrative wasn't engaging enough..."

    I recently received a very nice rejection from Amy Berkower on a partial where she listed some strengths and weaknesses of what she read. The only thing I feel ill-equipped to correct was her comment that my narrative needed to be more engaging.

    This is grim news considering it was my seventh book (yes, I'm unpublished except for a short story being printed in anthology).

    I'm taking a writing class in the fall, but in the meantime, I'd like to know your opinion on what you feel is THE VERY BEST book (or two) on writing 'more engaging narrative'. I am well aware that there are lists of resources splashed all over these pages, but it's a little overwhelming. I'm looking for the Holy Grail, here.



  2. #2
    R. Radish
    Guest

    Re: "the narrative wasn't engaging enough..."

    Ray, why don't you post a few excerpts, maybe ~800 words each? It's difficult to suggest solutions without examples.

  3. #3
    Chuck Shaw
    Guest

    Re: "the narrative wasn't engaging enough..."

    Instead of reading another "how to" book, may I suggest you take a break from writing and try reading a few books? You probably remember more than a few books that kept you up until one in the morning. Try re-reading it / them and then analyzing what compels you to sit there and keep reading unless and until the house burns down around you.

    If no particular book comes to mind, try something by Nora Roberts (AKA J.D. Robb) or Barbara Delinsky. I have read some of Nora Robert’s work and it doesn’t spin my top, but my wife thinks she is great.

    These two are Ms. Berkower’s star performers. I note that in spite of her recent NYTBS’s most of the authors she represents are CH or YA genre. She is credited with building the children's book department at writers house from the ground up. Is this agent looking for what you have to sell?


    If you have written seven books I doubt reading someone else’s rules for success will do as much good as analyzing what works in the real world for yourself.

    Consider that I have not finished initial editing on my first book when evaluating the above advice!

    Good luck

  4. #4
    Clayton Lindemuth
    Guest

    Re: "the narrative wasn't engaging enough..."

    Any chance you could convert narrative into action or dialog?

    Have you read it out loud to see where you get bored with your own words?

    Have you had other readers critique it for you, to tell you where it gets dull?

    If the premise of the story is interesting, then trimming out the narrative and strengthening the action will make something that reads more "engagingfully". Have you read Stephen King's "On Writing"? HIs basic advice is to get rid of everything that isn't "story".

    Post an excerpt that you suspect is dull. You'll get a lot of help from these folks.

    Clayton

  5. #5
    Ray Veen
    Guest

    Re: "the narrative wasn't engaging enough..."

    Whew, I feel like I'm going to school in my underwear, but here goes - a sample of some of my most boring writing.

    (It's a YA fantasy. Keep in mind, the kid thinks he's human but he's actually a half-breed selkie)

    Mathan soon found himself struggling through the kelp-forest with the huge collection bag, though he was not alone. The sturdy overseer labored along on the opposite side of the day’s harvest, but neither of them spoke. They each held one of the hide bag’s two handles, but it was half as high as Mathan and had to weigh nearly as much. There was no way the young human could swim with it, and instead, he was forced to trudge along the muddy sea-bed, dragging it along beside him. Being a merrow, Graden’s body was stronger when it came to swimming, but the load was awkward, even for him.

    No merrow in the village was as big or as physically powerful as Mathan, so heavy work like this was simply expected of him. On most days, he’d struggle along with the overseer, knowing that the rest of his skall was off frolicking on their free-hour, laughing and playing games while he continued to labor. He liked to think that Graden at least appreciated the extra work he did for the village, but still, the overseer never spoke a word.

    Despite the deadly encounter they’d just shared, the short journey to the village was the same as any other day. Mathan was still shaky and nervous from the shadobrinn attack, but he knew that that the work still had to be done. The only thing that made this day any different were the scratches across the young man’s bare chest. He ran his fingers over them from time to time, hoping Graden would notice and at least comment.

    The action eventually caught his attention. The overseer shot him a sideways look and his ears twitched.
    “Do you need to see the healer?”

    The young man tried to act surprised. “What these? No. There is very little pain.”

    “Good.”

    Graden was quiet for a moment. The seconds stretched on and became awkward as he seemed to be searching for words. “You… you fought well. You may want to consider becoming a protector when you move on to an adult skall. Although I wish you’d have been able to give me a chance to skewer that monster on his own spear.”

    Mathan felt a stir of hope at the merrow’s veiled compliment. “I’ve never considered becoming a protector before. Perhaps with a little training I could’ve done better.”

    “Yes, well. Fighting is not your job for now. You are a harvester like the rest of your skall.”

    Despite the rebuke, Mathan felt slightly encouraged at the conversation he was having with his overseer. He sensed a chance to reach out and confide in Graden, and chose his words carefully. “I know that I am a harvester, like my skall-mates, and I enjoy the work that we do for the village. I just wish that they would treat me like one of their own.”

    Graden grunted. “But you are not one of them, Mathan, you are a human. I suppose that as long as you continue to be a productive worker, though, they should at least respect you for that.”

    “Do you suppose that one day they’ll invite me to spend their free-hour with them?”

    Graden shrugged. Mathan could tell that he was already losing interest in the discussion. “I don’t know. You’ve been with the merrow for nearly fifteen summers. If they haven’t taken to you by now, it might never happen… But then again, nobody knows what the future might bring. The important thing is that you remain a faithful worker.”

    Mathan nodded and let the conversation taper off. He didn’t know quite how to feel about what Graden had just said, but it didn’t give him any more hope. They were approaching the opening in the path that would lead them out of the whale-kelp and into the village, and Mathan stared off into the sun-dappled forest, trying to take his mind off from his disappointment. It was full of dark colors: green and brown and black and gray, and it all faded into the murk a few hundred yards away.

    Like all of the sea’s creatures, Mathan loved and feared his home at the same time. One never knew what lurked beyond the shifting gloom; perhaps something beautiful, perhaps something deadly, or perhaps something that fit into both categories. The reality of life under the sea was that it was both lovely and dangerous at the same time. It had a mystical beauty that one could stare at for hours, yet it was deceptive, hiding its secrets and dangers equally well.

    For this reason, Mathan felt a special kinship with the ocean. He too had secrets that he hid from the merrow, secrets that they could never see or suspect from his simple human appearance. Staring into the lovely sea-scape, he called forth one of those secrets to help him pass the time. There was music in his soul, a song that played continuously, forever matching his mood. It was lively and inspiring while he worked, soft and soothing while he slept, and at the moment, it was sad and haunting. He embraced it, letting it flow over him, and wash away his dark feelings of self-pity. The melody was high and sweet, while the rhythm moved soft and slow, ebbing through his heart like ocean waves lapping at a sandy beach. It filled his mind and began to quiet the disappointment he felt over his continued loneliness.
    He didn’t know if other humans had the same songs within them, but the merrow were not musical whatsoever. They were obsessed with labor and seemed to value little else. Music was considered a worthless distraction, so Mathan kept his songs a secret. He treasured them for their ability to take his mind off his work and make the time pass more swiftly.

  6. #6
    gulliver h
    Guest

    Re: "the narrative wasn't engaging enough..."

    you know, it's strange, because while your writing is certainly good, I found myself losing interest pretty quickly. And I can't quite put my finger on why. Besides that it's out of context and so we're dropped in, but still...

    This is really minor, but once you name him and we know he's the protaganist, calling him 'the young man' introduces a degree of distance you don't want or need. That's how you reference a tertiary or minor character, not the main one. Huh. Maybe that's it. It's a little remote. The young human, etc. The overseer, etc. Though it's still hard to say, since I don't know where this falls in the story.

    Also a little confusing--is he one of the sea's creatures, or not? What does he know? I wonder if the narrative confuses this for the reader. Within this small passage I can't tell what he knows and what is real and what isn't.

    I'm not sure this is helpful, really, but it's not a writing problem, skill/language/word wise, because you write well. It's more that I'm having a hard time engaging with it. You're introducing distance that I think you need to remove. Let the reader closer somehow.

  7. #7
    Cathy C
    Guest

    Re: "the narrative wasn't engaging enough..."

    Gulliver's right. The writing is fine. I think I see the problem, but it'll be a bit hard to explain. Take this, for example:

    There was no way the young human could swim with it, and instead, he was forced to trudge along the muddy sea-bed, dragging it along beside him.

    While words like "trudge" give a good indication of what Mathan is doing, the reader isn't there WITH him. They're watching from behind a glass screen--there, but not THERE. In YA, the reader wants to walk right behind the character, experiencing what he is. I mean, he's walking on the sea bed! Do the sharp stones hurt his feet? Is the algae slippery? If he has gills in his neck, are they aching from overwork after a battle? I can't SEE Mathan in my head, weighted down versus being buoyant in the water. I can't feel the currents flipping his hair in his eyes (if he has hair) or a jellyfish stinging a leg because he strayed too close while he was preoccupied.

    "Engaging" in this respect means that you've sucked the reader inside the story. The character (because that's who you're speaking through) isn't giving the reader the full experience. It's television football versus being on the field. When you've PLAYED the game, you can relive the experience when you watch. But here . . . the reader has no way to judge the experience, nothing to rely on to give them the sense of being there. So, you're going to have to work to bring them inside the bubble of Mathan's world. You don't have to go insane. Just have him flinch with the occasional rock that bruises--something that he knows Graden will never experience because he can swim. Etc., etc. Make Mathan a real person who feels and breathes--even if he breathes water.

    Good luck.

  8. #8
    R. Radish
    Guest

    Re: "the narrative wasn't engaging enough..."

    agree w/above comments.

    You distance the reader, beginning immediately:
    >>"Mathan soon found himself struggling through the kelp-forest..."

    Why the distant "Mathan soon found himself...?"

    Why not "Mathan trudged/struggled/fought... to/with...all the specific tangible crap obstructing him...and give sensory details? What he saw/smelled/touched...and what he felt emotionally?

    That's what this excerpt lacks, fundamentally--emotion. After reading this, I can't identify any emotion I've felt at all. And that's why the reader reads--for an emotional experience.

    You need a close-in, third-person limited POV to pull the reader into the character's experience. As is, there's just no vicarious experience of emotion at all.

    Why? You rely too much on the narrator telling the reader things. You must show what's happening.

    Now, there's some original advice, huh? Don't tell--SHOW.

    Ray, what writing books have you read, what teaching or techniques do you try to apply? I can recommend a few books.

  9. #9
    Clayton Lindemuth
    Guest

    Re: "the narrative wasn't engaging enough..."

    R.--

    Exactly.

    Ray--

    Take a marker and highlight every place action or dialoge isn't. Get rid of half of it by converting it into one of the other two. Then, involve all my senses.

    Your readability is good. You might look at Self Editing for Fiction Writers, and the Portable MFA in creative writing. I'm meandering through both, and have found intelligent guidance in both that would be relevant to the sample above.

    The good news is that there is nothing wrong with the excerpt above that can't be fixed. It is cohesive, just not vibrant. You can fix that.


    Clayton

  10. #10
    Ray Veen
    Guest

    Re: "the narrative wasn't engaging enough..."

    Outstanding.

    You all just made my Christmas card list.

    It's a huge relief to know that it's not completely hopeless, because that's the feeling I get when I look back over it.

    Anybody have a suggestion for how I can refer to my character without using his name fourteen times per paragraph? I use phrases like 'the young man' and 'the human boy' in all of my writing, and even though I've never really been comfortable with it, I'm not sure what alternative there is.

    And keep the book suggestions coming. Pretend I've never read a thing about how to write because it wouldn't be far from the truth. I honestly haven't read enough, and don't feel like I have a thorough enough grasp of language to do what I'm doing. I'm not usually this paranoid, but there's been this voice lately that tells me that I don't know the first thing about writing and I better do something about it NOW.

    Maybe the voice is coming from the crates full of rejections - I don't know.

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