I’m still trying to find a good yoga studio here in my new home of Silver Spring, Maryland. My new idea is to join the neighborhood fitness center two blocks away from my apartment. You can’t argue with convenience, and in addition to yoga classes they have barre, Pilates and Zumba. I signed up for a free five-day trial, and last night I went to the barre class. It was okay, I guess. Except it was too easy! When I go to barre, I want my legs to shake and my abs to scream. I want to feel the change in my muscles afterwards. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?
On a separate topic, lately I’ve been trying to organize my computer files, which has proved both overwhelming and impossible. I have hundreds of half-finished or barely-begun stories on my computer, each occupying its own Word document. I have about twenty versions of about twenty different novels, none of which made it past page 100. And perhaps most frustratingly, I have an abundance of Word docs that contain a single phrase or a handful of sentences each. I thought I’d come back to the idea later, but never did.
The other day I decided to go through some of these old documents from the past twelve years and see if there were any awesome ideas I had forgotten about.
But much of what I found was disappointing. In one document labeled “ideas,” I had typed, 22-year-old woman who is involved with a married man and a teenage boy. That was literally all this document contained. Was that the extent of my idea? Did I really think this was such a stunningly great premise that it warranted being stored in its very own document?
Then there was another document labeled “girl is a bum.” In this document I had typed, Girl decides she doesn’t want to work. She likes reading, sitting in the sun, taking walks, etc. and that’s all she wants to do with her life. So she lives like a bum, and an uptight man falls in love with her. Hmm. This was my entire idea? Sounds more like a life fantasy I was having at the time.
I began to notice a pattern with my ideas and half-baked novels from my twenties: they were too small. Either the idea itself was too small (a lot of my early novel attempts were along the lines of “a shy girl becomes friends with an interesting girl”), or the idea was good but the execution of it was too small.
Take, for example, “girl is a bum.” That’s an idea with potential – a character who chooses to be homeless ala the parents in The Glass Castle – but I didn’t go anywhere very interesting with it. An uptight man falls in love with her. Yawn. I mean, fine, that might create some conflict, but we need something bigger to really give this story oomph. These days there are so many books and wannabe-writers out there, you’re not going to get the attention of an agent or publisher or reader unless your story is bigger and better than the rest.
As agent Mary Kole says in her (awesome) book Writing Irresistible Kit Lit:
Most books fail to create emotional resonance because the writer hasn’t built in enough conflict… We want to read about events and days that are life-changing. How many truly core-shaking moments have you engineered for your characters? …If you can’t put your finger on the page and show me where all of these emotional hot-button issues happen, I’m guessing you don’t have a big enough story (37).
I mean, what is the major conflict in this pretend-bum-girl’s story? What does she desperately want? What does she need to learn? What twists and turns and crazy events are going to happen that take her from point A to point B?
In this Word document, I should have brainstormed ways to make a bigger story with more intense conflict and life-changing events. At the idea stage, I should list every possibility, even the totally outlandish ones (the man is actually a vampire who feeds on the homeless?), because, as John Truby says in The Anatomy of a Story, “one of the biggest reasons writers fail at the premise stage is that they don’t know how to spot their story’s true potential (18).” And when a story doesn’t reach it’s true potential, it runs the risk of being too small of a story. People don’t want to read about a girl sitting in the sun reading, no matter how beautifully the prose is written. They want a story in which extraordinary, challenging, and life-changing events happen.
I now work as a manuscript consultant (for more info on that go here), and I would say that smallness is one of the most common problems I see in the manuscripts that come my way. Either nothing much is happening, or what’s happening isn’t big enough. Why should I care? What’s making me turn the page? What’s the major revelation?
I think a lot of beginning writers are afraid to go big. They are afraid that their story will seem unbelievable if they make extraordinary, life-changing events happen. They make things too easy for their characters. And sure, writing something that will allow your readers to suspend their disbelief can be tough. But that doesn’t mean you should play it safe and small. That just means you need to practice writing big stories that your readers both believe and care about.
After all, what I look for in a book is similar to what I want in a barre class. I want to shake with emotion, I want my heart to scream. I want to close that book at the end and feel that the characters have changed… And so have I. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?