Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Flat, Flat, Flat

I was talking with a colleague recently about recent submissions as well as books we had seen on the shelves. We had both seen many of the the same things about the writing. It was flat. I even went back to take a look at my submission log and sure enough, the number one response I have given to writers was just that - The writing was flat.

With that in mind, I dusted off my literary criticism hat and started seriously looking at what makes the difference between writers that have 3-dimensional writing and writing that is more 2-dimensional. I had really thought it was going to take much more work than it did, but the answer was fairly simple (although I am not sure the writing of it is as simple).

I began first with the "flat" writing, and in this case, I took some time to look at the stories that had been published so there must have been something the acquiring editors had seen in the work to sell it. Here is what I saw:
  • There was action in the story. The plot started in a great place and did keep moving.
  • The conflict in the story was unique.
  • The words the characters said were unique and strong.


There was a serious disconnect between all of the writing. The words from Bob's song on Sesame Street suddenly came to mind, "One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn't belong." The writing had all of the elements of a great story but it just didn't fit together to round out the picture.

I picked up a couple of other books and saw the same thing - the disconnect.

So I tried the 3-dimensional book books and guess what. The connect was there.

Let me explain. with the "flat writing" again.

The first story I read had the hero plunged in the middle of a battle. Apparently he and his friend had been in the middle of the serious combat now for some time because exhaustion was breaking in. (I was told this). But the dialogue, made it sound as if they were sitting around White's having their brandy and discussing the day's business. Sure the words told me otherwise, but the tone was just not there.

Look, if they are tired then the words need to struggle out of their mouth. No, the writer doesn't say, "When we get back to London, I'll by you a brandy," he said but the words stuggled out of his mouth. It should be...

"When we get back," pausing to take a breath of air, "to London that is... I'll have to buy you a brandy." (O.K., I've only had one cup of coffee this morning). The idea is, using the same words we can use action tags to enhance the depth a little. Now, adding in more physicality of the characters, wiping the sweat off the uniforms, noting the tears in their shirts, the feel of the unshaven beard combined with the sweat and dirt we have a little more. Of course, you have to make the characters very aware of this.

Is this the showing vs. telling arguments. Partially, but I believe it is one step more. You have to tie everything together nicely.

I am working with a writer now that is adding more depth to their writing much in this way. The approach we are taking is very much like a method actor would take. As she examines her character, she thinks of the similar characters from movies that she wanted to use. It doesn't have to be from the same historical period, but she focuses on the tone of their voice and the way they look and sound (no, not the dialogue and their physical description). Now she uses that as a muse.

Think of these characters. Think of how they talk and how they move. Very distinctive and unique and certainly VERY three dimensional.

Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient (when he isn't burned)

John Malkovitch (in anything)

Emma Thompson

Al Pacino

Cate Blanchett

Get the idea? Now, your homework is to find some more three dimensional elements in your stories and work with each. Please, help me stop writing the word FLAT on rejection letters.


  1. Thanks for this post Scott. I've been lurking for a month or so and enjoy your blog very much. This particular post echo's a critique i often hear and give in my writing group, and it seems to be a commonality of most new writers. However, your explanation of "flat writing" is wonderful, especially describing the disconnect problem. Thanks for more supplying me precise words that can be applied throughout a WIP (including my own).

  2. Well, I tried to correct my typo, but obviously I didn't get it stopped in time. Trying to say: Thanks for supplying me more understanding and a set of precise words...sigh

  3. Beth,

    Glad to hear this helped out some. Make sure to log in every now and then to comment. Also, if you have additional questions, don't be afraid to ask. That's what I'm here for.


  4. Hi Scott,
    Thanks for the explanation of not only why you reject some submissions, but how exactly we can work on fixing it before we send characters your way. Excellent advice in making characters more 3-dimensional.

  5. Two of us may now be ready for the psychiatrist. I have tried and tried to understand why recent romances that are very well-written, set in unusual and very interesting locations, and contain a good deal of the excruciatingly explicit gyneocology textbook-level sex that publishers are convinced women find exciting ( more like my interest in this encounter just headed south at warp speed, courtesy of the aforementioned "winking sphincter," but whatever rings your bell, girl, and the books still tank. Why? Why?
    I am thinking in particular of
    Ca;; of the Trumpet," and "Silk Dreams," by Diana Groe, a writer who I thought would shoot straight to the top.
    All of the elements are there. The books still flounder and die. There's no predicting the marketplace, apparently.
    Can the heroine of a historical romance still have a "woman's journey" and remain in her correct time frame? Is a book that stays in the "500,000 "selling level a success or a failure? Does it earn back its puny advance at all?
    This is enough to make a person really unhinged. When reliables like Nora Roberts have multiple books on the best seller lists at one time, it is impossible to see why anyone would welcome new writers. The bookstores can't sell the books they have now. Why, and where, would thry ever want more?
    It really feels like a total crap shoot. A very poorly paid crap shoot to boot. If only writing were not such a pleasure. When is my next session with Dr. Phil ? Perhaos he has answers.

  6. Haleigh,

    Glad I can be of help. Remember that this is just one approach when it comes to making improvements. I have found that sometimes the best way to find the solutions is to examine and dissect the authors you know have figured it out. I would always recommend taking a look at newer authors because sometimes, the more experienced authors can get away with things in their writing that newer people can't.


  7. Anon...

    Don't give up hope yet. Yes, the market is very tough right now and yes, we do see things out there that I question as well.

    As to why the books fail, much of that really has to do with the marketing of the book as well as the followership of the author. In the end, if the book is good but marketed poorly, it will fail. Nothing you can do about it. Sometimes it is as simple as the title and/or the cover. Along the same lines, really bad books continue to sell because of the readers out there that "always buy Author X." There is an expectation that the book will be great simply because of the name.

    In answer to your question,
    Can the heroine of a historical romance still have a "woman's journey" and remain in her correct time frame?
    Yes, I do believe this is possible. A bit harder in certain time periods and locations but it is very possible. As a writer, you simply have to know the time period inside and out to pull this one off.
    Is a book that stays in the "500,000 "selling level a success or a failure? Does it earn back its puny advance at all?

    You need to understand in the romance industry, for new writers, the chance of you earning back the puny advance is always difficult. Mostly because there are so many writers out there and the romance reader isn't that picky. If the title looks good and the cover is great, they read it. I always tell new authors, don't count on selling more than that advance. If it does, great! I have one writer that was shocked that the book suddenly started receiving royalties. O.K. it took almost 4 years but...

    As far as new authors, the publishers want them but they have to do something amazing. Why do they want to sign another Nora Roberts or Candace Camp if they already have one. They want someone new.

  8. All right, Dr. Phil, er...Scott. Funny you should mention it, but considering the relative success of groe's first two books, I was very surprised that her publisher had chosen such a cheesy and cheap cover for her third book. Not only wasd it simply unappealing, it had Nothing to do with the story, which was odd. It was if they had used a leftover cover for somebody's else book they had declined at the last minute. But she really is a very capable writer, and it must have been a disappointing result after all that work.
    As for Call of the Trumpet, even without the owner of the press having ample resources to promote the book, and the very enticing video they placed on their site, must have cost quite a bit, the book still sank quickly out of sight. Too bad. If you are a lifelong horse owner, as are we, the thing was darn near irresistible. And it had a dandy cover! Hold the sphincters, please. Anyone who has driven a horse...I leave, mercifully, to your imagination.

  9. Haha, this is so funny because I just posted a blog about writing in 3-D and your post blows mine out of the water. :-)
    Of course, you do know what you're talking about. I try to know, lol, but I'm still new to this biz.
    But not to reading. I completely agree with you and love your examples.
    I feel like sending you a query just so you can tell me whether mine is flat . . . just kidding. :-)

    I think I already know the answer, but I was going to ask you a question on your other post but didn't do it in time.
    You used to be on my list until I noticed that you don't sell inspirational romance. But then I saw you'll take category inspy romance. I'm aiming for the category house right now, but I know in the future that I'll want to try single title.
    So, how does it work with an agent when a writer hands in manuscripts the agent can sell, but then the author wants to switch to a genre/audience the agent doesn't rep?

    I know you're busy so if you don't get to this, no problem.