Pub Rants

Writing Craft: Mechanics Vs Spark

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STATUS: Everything is literally on fire around the city of Denver. From Colorado Springs and Monument to Boulder to Fort Collins. I was so happy to see the rain this afternoon. Sadly it only lasted 20 minutes. We need more rain.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? WINDOWS ARE ROLLED DOWN by Amos Lee

When I’m doing the Agent Reads The Slush Pile workshop, the toughest moment is when the volunteer reads an entry that is completely sound. In the reading, there is no problem that I can point to and say, “here, this is the issue” or “this is not working.” On a mechanical level, there is nothing wrong with the opening pages.

The form is acceptable, the grammar is fine, the writing is solid. I can even identify that the writer understands the tenets of craft. By all the “rules” of writing and publishing, I should be glowing about this entry.

But something is missing.

And I have no other word for the “what” that is missing except to say the work is lacking narrative “spark.”

In other words, the writing is missing a distinctive voice.

And when that happens, what can you say during the workshop? That I don’t love it? Well, that’s not accurate either because when something is missing “spark” it’s probably not just a Kristin subjective thing. Listeners sense it too. I can tell by watching the workshop audience. When something lacks spark, it loses people’s attention. They start to shift in their seats or stretch or focus on something else.  It’s not just me that notices the absence.

On the other hand, when a work has that elusive spark, I know it, because the workshop audience becomes completely still and enrapt in the reading. Their attention is glued to the reader so as not to miss the next sentence. It’s a palpable change in the atmosphere of the room.

Sadly I can’t give an example because none of my authors have this problem. I’d have to grab something from the slush pile and I certainly couldn’t post it here without permission.

And speaking of getting read, it all begins with the perfect pitch paragraph in your query letter. Pub Rants University is hosting Goodbye Slush Pile: How To Write The Perfect Query Letter Pitch Paragraph for your Novel tomorrow night, Thursday, June 28 from 6 to 8 pm Mountain time. Given by yours truly.

I can’t tell you the number of emails I’ve received over the years from participants who have attended, revamped their query pitches, and then landed an agent and went on to sell. Dozens and dozens. In fact, one person even came up to me during the Litfest closing party the week before last to thank me.

You won’t want to miss it!


8 Responses

  1. Shannon said:

    THIS! I had this problem with my manuscript. I finally pinpointed what it was:

    My story had -narrative- voice, but no -character- voice in the early chapters.

    The character’s dialogue was good. The story had conflict and the writing flowed, but when I’d initially written the story, I’d been so overwhelmed by plot and details that the protagonist’s personality was a bit somethered.

    The happy ending is that I know who and what my character is now, so I just need to go through and rewrite some early chapters. 🙂

  2. Jane | @janelebak said:

    I noticed in some of my students that when they were very self-conscious, they’d turn out perfect essays that sounded like perfect essays. When they stopped being so self-conscious they were much more fluid and it lead to a much more relaxed reader.

    I think it’s an issue of control. We need to relax a bit and let our characters breathe, and give the characters the free rein to fully inhabit the page. It feels less scripted when the characters are off the leash.

  3. Kristin Laughtin said:

    I agree with Jane that it’s an issue of control, and something very common to writers who have been writing for a little while.

    With our first writing experiences, we’re often passionate and the words flow out of us. As we continue to grow, we become more concerned with the mechanics of writing, which isn’t a bad thing, but we get obsessed with rules and lose some of our spontaneity and voice in the process. It takes a bit more practice to be able to inject the unique elements back in and learn the rules well enough to follow or break them without it interfering with our spark.

  4. --Karen H said:

    Funny thing, there comes a time after you control your writing to the strangulation point that your muse leaves you–if you’re lucky. Then you give up out of despair that you’ll ever write again, and la voila!–you understand that utter control is the death of prose and storytelling. I’ve seen more than a few new authors go through this, but the good news is that they’re better after this travel through the desert.

    I think the spark comes from a combination of skill and the understanding that you have to leave room for discovery as you write. I’ve read books where the skill could have been better, but there was such joy in the writing that I could understand the appeal.

  5. mendelid said:

    In the classic book “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”, Robert Pirsig talks about exactly that in the third part of the book where the protagonist is teaching English. Students could recognize whether an essay was good or bad, and most of the time you can analyse some of the “rules” or tricks involved, but you can’t get to a good quality simply by following some rules – even though evryone seemed to be able to recognize good quality, it couldn’t be defined. Pirsig actually connects this up (later) to one of Plato’s dialogues, “Phaedrus”, so you can see it’s a problem even the classic Greeks have struggled with when writing!

  6. jstan9 said:

    Hello Kristin,

    I was traveling during your June 28th seminar. Is there any way to watch the recording? I didn’t see an option to pay for it. I know a recording isn’t the same as live and that it won’t give the viewer a chance to interact, but it sounds like a great seminar and I’d like to see it if possible. Thank you.