As promised, my Featured Guest today is Vivian Vande Velde, an old friend and outstanding author of children’s literature. You are in for a treat. Vivian delivers good advice for writers in all stages of experience. Vivian, the floor is yours.
BY COINCIDENCE, HERE ARE THE RULES
by Vivian Vande Velde
Some aspiring writers seem to think that secrets are being kept from them. That if only a helpful editor would explain what she’s looking for, or if an already-published writer would share The Rules–then they, too, could get published.
Such writers complain when an editor, asked at a conference what she wants in a manuscript, answers, “Good writing.”
“Well, duh!“ the aspiring author sighs. “It’s not like I was planning on sending her bad writing.”
But turn the tables around. If I asked you, “What do you look for in a story?” what would you answer? You can tell me what you’ve liked in the past and what you traditionally haven’t enjoyed, but there are always exceptions. Perhaps you love convoluted mysteries with idiosyncratic characters, or maybe stories of adventure and magic, or how about something heartwarming and with gentle humor? Even without knowing you, I know that sometimes you’ve started reading a book–maybe even by your favorite author–that sounded exactly right, but then it just didn‘t capture your attention.. And–on the other hand–you’ve sometimes had zero expectation for a book or movie, and suddenly found yourself unavoidably charmed by it.
So editors are not being cagey when they seem to be avoiding giving a straight answer.
And neither are authors who can’t give you the secret formula to success.
Why? Because there are no rules in writing. In math, yes: If you understand the rules in math, you can come up with the right answer. But there aren’t right answers in writing. There are only certain things that are commonly done: The main character USUALLY is about the age (or maybe a year or two older) than the intended audience, and most often (because it’s generally more interesting this way) it’s the main character who solves the central problem of the story. There are other things that are, traditionally, harder to pull off: A story meant for 10 – 14 year old boys PROBABLY WILL NOT have as its main character a girl who is mostly concerned about hair and make-up; and very few readers at all will be interested in a story whose theme can be summed up with an Aesop-type moral such as, “Good little children appreciate their parents.”
But there is no rule that someone won’t disagree with, often pointing a finger at a published exception and saying, “See? Here’s a story with… (fill in the blank: an unlikable main character, unresolved loose ends, a very strong element of moralizing). What do you mean I shouldn’t… (switch viewpoints, have the parents come to the rescue, stop the story to give background information) …when this author has done it?”
As authors (or, for that matter, as readers), we have to decide for ourselves what makes a good story, keeping in mind that we each have our own ideas about what makes a story good. That’s why we can have radically different books aimed at the same audience, such as Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall (67 pages of crisp lyricism) and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (309 pages of action and well-thought-out surprises)–both right for 9 – 12 year-olds.
So, in the absence of engraved-in-tablets-of-stone rules about what always works and what can absolutely never be done in writing, all anyone can do is give opinion.
Here is my opinion: I don’t like coincidence.
“What do you mean?” I’ve had people ask me. “Coincidence happens all the time in real life.”
I can’t argue with that.
Do you remember hearing the set of coincidences that linked the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln? There were a lot, including:
Lincoln was elected president in 1860; Kennedy 1960;
Both men were shot in the back of the head, in the presence of their wives;
Lincoln was shot in the Ford Theatre; Kennedy was shot in a Ford car (a Lincoln, to be creepily exact);
Each one was succeeded by a vice president named Johnson (Andrew and Lyndon).
What do those coincidences add up to?
And that’s the difference between reality and fiction. In fiction, we want the story to mean something, not to be a random set of happenings.
So, my three-fold opinion regarding coincidences in fiction:
1. They should be used sparingly.
2. They’re better at the beginning of a story than at the end.
3. They are more believable if they complicate things for the main character rather than help him.
Let’s say we’re reading a story about a poor girl with nothing to eat, she’s bare-footed and her clothes are rags, her parents’ house is about to be repossessed by the bank, and her dog will go blind without an operation. We want the book to end with something good happening for the unfortunate child. But if that good is someone handing her the winning lottery ticket, I think the majority of us would be tempted to fling the book at the wall.
On the other hand, if the story starts with the character holding the winning lottery ticket, and she’s rushing to turn it in, delighted at the thought of no more money worries ever, then a gust of wind tears it out of her hand and sends it skittering down the street, into traffic, and–before she can catch up–into the river, through the rapids, and over the waterfall, at which point a passing alligator snaps it up and swallows, that’s coincidence we want to believe. Now, we’re eager to see how far she’ll go to try to retrieve the ticket, or how she’ll cope with the loss.
Here’s another opinion I have, related to the first: I don’t care if it really happened.
People will frequently bring up that it-really-happened argument when someone says about a character’s actions or a plot twist, “I don’t know about this…”
“Yes,” the criticized author will assure us, “but there she was, my next door neighbor’s mother, about to have her house taken away for back taxes, when a stranger walked up to her, handed her a scratch-off lottery ticket, and–after she scratched it off with her fingernail because she didn’t even have a dime–she saw she was holding the winning number.”
Well, if you absolutely assure me it happened to your next door neighbor’s mother, I guess I’ll believe you. But if you write it in your piece of fiction, I won’t. Unless, of course, you make me believe it. And I don’t mean by having an author’s note where you swear to the veracity of the incident. I mean by setting up believability within the story. I might buy into the scenario if the stranger is a fairy godmother. Or a time-traveling employee of the organization that runs the lottery, a person whose plan is to trick or blackmail that main character out of her winnings. Or if the lottery ticket turns out to be invalid because all the tickets were misprinted, every single one with the same number. Or if…
Just keep in mind that–as long as you’re writing fiction, not non-fiction–making up details or motivations, or adding people who weren’t really there is not only allowed, it’s necessary.
Another opinion, something else I’ve already mentioned in passing: The story has to add up to something. (Unless, of course, it’s a New Yorker story, which is a category all by itself.)
Sticking with that lottery ticket theme, let’s say our character cracks open a Chinese fortune cookie and reads that she’s going to win the lottery. Where can the story go from there?
1. The cookie is right, and she wins the lottery.
2. The cookie is wrong, and she doesn‘t win.
If you choose to write the first, she wins, the story can go off in all sorts of directions, including but not limited to: it can be about how she loses the ticket or has it stolen from her; how winning changes her, or how it changes the people around her; how the money solves all her problems, or how it causes new ones. (Or, going for that ironic O. Henry-style ending: She wins the lottery, but meanwhile she chokes on the fortune cookie and dies.)
If, on the other hand, the prediction doesn’t come true, we can still have an interesting story–but only so long as our character entirely believes the fortune and acts accordingly. Perhaps she cashes in all her savings to buy a multitude of tickets to increase her chances of winning. Maybe she tells off her boss, since she figures she won’t need a job next week because she’ll be a millionaire by then. Maybe she chooses now to sever her relationship with friends or relatives in order to avoid their coming to her for money once she’s hit the jackpot.
But what won’t work is what actually happens most often in real life: She reads the fortune, does nothing to ensure or prevent it, and the prediction doesn’t come true.
What I’m saying is that when things are mentioned in a story, they should not be there simply to beef up the word count or to get your character from one scene to another.
Which means you don’t need to start your story the way you start the majority of your days, by having the character wake up in his bed at home at his normal hour, nice and calm and normal. (Translation: boring.) You shouldn’t have him eat his cereal, brush his teeth, pet the dog, and have a routine morning conversation with his family–unless, of course, your character is about to be poisoned, have his teeth fall out, get bitten by the dog, or learn that his parents and siblings have been replaced by aliens.
Choose your details carefully, and make them relevant. Make them be about things you would want to read even if you hadn’t written them.
Which brings us to the one opinion which I believe qualifies as a rule: You should write the story YOU want to read. If you try to write to a trend, or about a topic someone has told you is hot, or in a genre that you think is marketable but that you don’t care for, you won’t be happy, and that means your readers most likely won’t be happy either.
So be happy.
And good reading–and good writing–to you.