Thursday, January 6, 2011

Food for Thought: The Anatomy of Your Book

I spend a lot of my time on inkpop doing two things: reading and writing. Most of the first comes from projects sent to me in my inbox; most of the latter comes from critques I give on how to improve them. But sometimes I have something on my mind that I'd like to share, and today's topic is "how to make your book come alive," which, I hope, won't bore you too much.

The best way to do this, I think, is to think of your book as a person, and to build it like we are built. I admit, I'm chock-full of analogies and metaphors, but among them, this extended one seems to make the most sense to me and--- if you are able to bear with me from beginning to end, head to toe--- I think you'll see what I mean and learn something about the difference between books on the shelves and books on our computer screens.

I'm going to post each individual "body part" as a separate comment just to break things up; as with the human body, there are several components to your novel. And yes, I said "novel" because I think essays, poems, and short stories follow different rhythmic patterns and structures and would be better thought of in a different light than the one I'm going to shine, BUT there's something to this for every writer regardless. I do hope if you have thoughts on this, you'll share them with me, and I hope that for some who are looking for the "how to write a book" answer, this will put things in perspective so you can understand what I personally thinks makes a good one.

Here we go,

--- This is an analogy/ extended metaphor SO I'm going to say things like "person" or "body" to refer to your book and sometimes, since I'm long-winded and a rambleholic, I'll talk about your book eating, praying, or whatevering. Bear with me; if I lose you, let me know.

CONCEPT: The Skeleton
I'm always referring to concept as the backbone on which the rest of your story will stand. That idea you have?... That whisper that sparks your need to recount a tale?... THAT is the bare bone of your story. It cannot stand on its own, but the stronger it is, the stronger your book will be. If you're working with a very unique concept, we're more likely to love the flesh you put on your skeleton, but even worn concepts can be strengthened with twists and amazing characters that will help your story stand on its own. There are "fleshier" parts of concept (such as your title and how you sell it), but this general idea--- the RAW idea--- is the foundation, and the more connected we feel to it, the more willing we are to give your project a look-see.
CONTENT: The Flesh There are several aspects of content, but here, I'll talk briefly of the gist of this portion. Content is, obviously, a very wide scope--- it's ALL the things that go into your book! It's the "meat" of your story--- the muscle, the skin, the everything your "person" wears--- for the most part, it's everything! And it's hard to get completely right in all areas the first go around. One thing, though, is that your ''person" can work out--- it can tone it's muscles (characters), get plastic surgery to tighten up its skin (subplots)... there's always room for improvement and with editing, that improvement can be made!!! I'll talk about each individual aspect, but there's the flesh that keeps your skeleton from going flabby; and, Loves, it can always get better.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT & RELATIONSHIPS: The Muscles and The Nervous System Character development and the relationships between those characters are two very different bodily functions for your book. When an author can understand and hone EACH of these, their story is much more life-like. Here's the thing:

---Character development is about each individual character INCLUDING the ones who aren't the MC. Each character is it's own muscle; your MC is the heart. Of course, you want the strongest heart you can possibly create, BUT you need your other muscles to be strong, too, so that your "person" can walk around, reach out to more than one person, and interact with its audience. Your side characters are as important--if not more important--- to develop as your MC because they will be the ones influencing your main character's decisions, motives, thoughts, circumstances, and life on an external stand-point. If your side characters are not well-formed, and if they don't have wants, desires, flaws, quirks, or goals, then don't make them important... don't rely on them to be the leg-muscles of your story. Make them a nexk muscle or better yet a toe muscle so that they can be as stiff and one-sided as they want to be without having too much influence on your book as a whole. Individual character is really important and must be done with care.

---Relationships, though, may be more important, since HOW characters interact is like the nervous system of your book. If you have a great nervous system, then your characters will move realistically and some may be able to think for themselves (your MC, for example, should ALWAYS tell you what they should do. He is the heart, you know). However, if the relationships you form between your characters aren't solid or well executed, your "person" is going to start spazzing and those of us looking at it are going to stare and say, "what the heck?" Good, realistic relationships beget good, realistic movement and dialogue--- two very important parts of content.
CHARACTER MOVEMENT: The Hands and Feet (fingers and toes...) Character movement is important because, without it, your characters just sit all day in the same little room or on that same park bench with nowhere to look forward to going. They need to move around, dance, skip school, high-five, slap that girl's butt, wave their hands in the air, take a walk, woot! woot!, have a jog, step into the other room, sneak out, go to a party, drive around, swim, jump off a cliff, get on a plane--- GO SOMEWHERE/ DO SOMETHING. If not, they are robots. In stories, we don't like robots (because they're always trying to take over the world!). When you add movement, make the characters do what they do according to what they are like. Movement is not just going from place to place (feet); it's also action and reaction (hands). Move your "body"--- you know you want to.

Now you've got some muscle and a skelton, but you're not quite human, yet. We don't go around in life with a single problem, wait a few days until it's solved, and then say "the end." There is more to life than one big problem and having those minor bumps in the road gives your story some definite features. Through subplots, your person obtains a complexion (story tone), they mature, but get acne (conflict) along the way, and most importantly, you achieve "REAL"--- that, my friends, is what makes your book human. Your subplots, though, only are the manifestations of your central plot and all of the stuff you've already built off of. If your central plot and foundation is no good, the skin is going to sag and wrinkle, and ew! Who cares about the subplots, then? Let your subplots be enhancers of the story instead of the story itself.

MAIN PLOT: The stomach.
Here's the thing: your "person" can't live without its stomach. Without it, it can't eat, and if it can't eat, it won't live. No one wants to read a book without a point. Make a point and draw off of it, and don't take to long to introduce it to us. Does this mean you should hurry up and get to the nitty-gritty? No... as a writer, you should take your time and only add things in when you think the book is ready to reveal them to us. But, eventually, your "person" is going to get hungry, and if you're at around 10,000 words and your book doesn't have a point, feed us your plot before your book dies of starvation.

TITLE and/or YOUR COVER: The Face Let's be honest: we are a lustful people. And when I see a pretty face, I can't help but smile or say hi. Same thing when it comes to your book. You want to grab our attention IMMEDIATELY so we pick it up and read the book jacket, right? Give your "person" a great name (title) or a pretty face (cover)--- make it stand out--- and I'm 99.9% sure that someone will give the first chapter a look.

DIALOGUE: The underwear
Temporarily, this is going to sound dumb, but I think you'll understand this. Without dialogue, your story would be naked BUT there are rare and sometimes necessary occasions when a project can go without much or any of it. Dialogue can't be your full out ensemble, then, because if it were, it'd be completely necessary. But without good, realistic dialogue, your "person" is going to get a rash. Trust me--- dialogue is a GOOD thing. It can only enhance your story! It's like wearing a wonderbra, Ladies, or your lucky boxers, Gents. It's full of support, humor, memorable moments, and goodness--- if you use it well, your "person" will look and feel its best. Now DIALECT is like fancy lingere--- when you can use dialect, ooooo!!! I LOVE stories full of it. It makes it more believable, more humorous... I love dialect... what can I say?

PERSPECTIVE: The Accessories, or The Joints, or The Appendix The truth about perspective is that it's in every story, but it's an underlying element that some people don't pay attention to. There are different elements of perspective (the angle, the view, the time frame covered and, sometimes, tense and voice/narration), but on top of that, there are different STAGES of perspective.

---For the author who just picks one:
Perspective is like accessories. You know your person needs them, but you're not exactly being too deep about it. Perspective isn't some big thing to you if you treat it like the accessories, but at least you're acknowledging that it will enhance your story, at least a little bit, if you use it.

---For the author who uses it to connect with the reader:
Perspective is like the joints of your story. Your a deeper writer because you're connecting perspective to your concept. It's supposed to reach out to a specific someone--- you're being choicy about it because you're trying to make a specific point. This is good--- this is what we aim for.

---For the author who uses it as the base of the story:
Perspective is like the appendix. You know that, if executed properly, it will enhance your story and help get rid of toxic waste; if not, it will be the death of your story and it's best to go back to square one. This outlook is for "artists" I'll say, because it's difficult to hone and build a story off of perspective and perspective alone. But it's possible--- I've seen it done. And it works out beautifully if done correctly.

VOICE/NARRATION: The Personality
Voice is super important. UBER-dy-DUPER important. Because it makes us decide if we like your book or not. Can we get along with the Moaning Myrtle? Or can we put up with the super-fast paced scene? We all have different tastes and can relate to different stories, but it's usually the VOICE we can connect with. It's the personality of your book--- the charisma. It's what makes us feel empathetic for the characters and what makes us remember a story as powerful or weak. Some "people" have more aggressive personalities--- others have eccentric ones--- but the way you tell your story is how you want us to know it. If it has amazing charisma, or a personality we can relate to, we'll love, love, love it.

Stories are best when we are able to see the world as if through the character's eyes. If you can see the world your character is in and put it down on paper, then your story has that much more depth and meaning to us as the reader. We're there. We can see it. And you know that goose-bump feeling you get when you're really close to someone and can see your own reflection in their eyes?... that's what you're aiming for when you create your setting, choose your era, and SHOW US YOUR WORLD. Backstory falls under this category. When you can weave in history--- when it's evident that before this story starts, these characters had lives that may sometimes interfere with their present--- you know you've created a whole new world. It's hard to create those "show me eyes", but when you edit, and edit, and edit, and finally get there, your story has achieved seven different kinds of awesome.

GENRE: The Clothes Your "person" wouldn't be complete if it didn't have a scene. Let's be honest... again: there are only so many types of people in the world. What makes us different is WHO we are, but I know I fall under the "geek" scene at school, and my best friend falls under the "super band geek" one. I'm a step up--- woo-hoo! But that doesn't change the fact that I love who she is because her category doesn't make her--- it just helped me find her a little easier.

So genre is the clothes your "person" wears. Do they wear all black and listen to death metal? You may have a dark, paranoramal thriller on your hands. Is your person wearing bright colors and her boyfriend's jacket? Congrats! You're in the YA romance novel section! Here, your genres are limited, but you can pretty much find a very specific category for your "person" or you can dress them loosely and let them flow amidst several genres. It's up to where your book ends. If you're curious about specific genres, you can follow this link to try to place your book with others already on the shelves.
P.S. THE AUTHOR: The Brain 'Tis true... no story would be complete if YOU didn't write it. The brain controls the body as you control your story. I'd like to think that we authors ARE connected to our stories in such a deep way. And, honestly, you're at the heart of your book anyway. You're the mind behind the madness. You're really important to your book, Loves; just know you aren't the only element of it.

Gosh, I hope this helps. And geewhiz... I hope I didn't bore you too much. For specific examples you can find this same speel with examples here.

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