May 4, 2021
by Elizabeth Sims
To stand out to the gatekeepers who hold the keys to publication, it’s not enough for your story to be good. Use these techniques to take your fiction to new heights and make a good story great.
Whenever I think of the word gatekeeper, a little film clip from The Wizard of Oz starts up in my head, where the fearsome palace guard denies Dorothy and friends access to the Wizard. “The Wizard says, ‘Go away!’”
If aspiring authors are Dorothy, agents and editors are that guy. They seem bigger than you. They give stern lectures.
Except remember what happens? Dorothy’s sob story melts the mustachioed, bearskin-hatted guard’s heart, and he winds up letting them in.
Thus the great secret is revealed: You don’t have to do anything but tell a fabulous story to make them love you.
There are subtle differences between fiction that’s passable and fiction that pops—fiction that shows that you know what you’re doing. Consider agents and editors your über-readers. If you win them over, a larger audience won’t be far behind.
Here are seven ways successful authors make their stories crackle with authority and get the gatekeepers on their side. These techniques will work on any kind of fiction: literary, romance, mystery, sci-fi, you name it. What’s more, you can implement them no matter where you are in your writing process, from first draft to final polish.
1. Go beyond the five senses.
Most writers know enough to put in sensations beyond sight and sound. It’s always great to read about a character who takes note of the hot metal-and-oil aroma that lingers over the rails after a fast train has passed, or the weight of a new tweed coat on his shoulders.
Agents and editors love the five senses, but they want and expect more. They want physical business that deepens not just your setting, but your characterizations.
Here’s the key: The best authors use body language in their narratives. Odd thing is, I have never once heard an agent or editor comment on my (or any author’s) use of body language, and I think that’s because it goes by so smoothly it’s almost unnoticed. Yet it absolutely gives texture and depth to your work. When it’s missing, fiction feels flat.
Begin by reading up on body language. You’ll find that two things are at the root of all of it: anxiety (or lack thereof) and hidden desires. Dwell inside your characters and sense how they feel in any given situation.
Brian paused and lit a cigarette. He exhaled a stream of smoke at the window.
That doesn’t tell anything about the character or his state of mind. If Brian needs a cigarette, use the moment fully:
Brian paused and lit a cigarette. He held it close to his body, as if he didn’t want to take up too much space. He exhaled a stream of smoke at the window, avoiding Anne-Marie’s eyes.
We learn something about what’s going on with Brian here, without having to plow through an internal monologue from him or Anne-Marie.
2. Embrace idiosyncrasies.
People behave rationally only part of the time; the rest of the time we take stupid risks and do other things we can’t explain.
Agents and editors know this as well as anyone, but because they don’t want readers to have to work too hard to suspend disbelief, they really harp on believability. And when they do, frequently their objections have to do with a character’s motivation. (I should add that you can pick apart any masterwork on that basis: “I really don’t think Ophelia would kill herself in this situation. I mean, don’t you think suicide is way over-the-top? Much more plausible to have her develop an eating disorder, wouldn’t you agree?”) The trouble is, if you bow to this and have your characters behave totally rationally at all times, you’ll write dead-boring fiction.
Here’s the key: Human weirdness follows patterns we can all relate to (or at least understand).
One of the biggest is that love—or sex, at least—makes people irrational. We throw over the picture-perfect millionaire for the rough-around-the-edges dirt biker with debt; we lie to our faithful wife on the phone while bonking the secretary in a motel. Which goes to show that if you incorporate a strong enough motivating factor—even an irrational one—you can easily establish a plausible reason for erratic actions on the part of your characters. And those characters are far more interesting to read about than those who always behave rationally.
Similarly, any number of terrific plot turns can result when you give a character an obsession—random or not—or an idiosyncrasy that can act as a thread through the story.
For instance, someone who is obsessed can become single-mindedly so, leading to horrible errors in judgment. Control freaks turn vainglorious and become prone to fatal decisions:
“Aw, Captain, let’s just go back to port. We’ve lost half the crew already.”
“Shut the hell up! I can’t let that white whale win!”
It follows that an obsessed character must either find grace (or be forced to it), or reject growth and stick with their crippled, familiar life to the end. Either way, it’s compelling storytelling.
To embrace this side of human nature in your fiction, you needn’t get a degree in psychology. In fact, a little capriciousness here can be beneficial.
Decide which of your characters is the weakest—which one isn’t working well. Which one are you sort of avoiding dealing with?
Now, brainstorm the “-istics” of that character. Let’s say he is casual about commitments. OK: What if he categorically will not show up anywhere on time?
Automatically, this character becomes more interesting, and automatically we feel a little detonation of uh-oh: What’s going to happen when suddenly a lot is riding on him being somewhere on time—say, for an ultimatum, or a starting gun? This sort of characterization does two things: It makes a character stronger as a dramatic device, and it makes him more memorable.
A character’s weirdness can keep your readers guessing all the way along; it can keep them compelled, as they try to understand and spin theories. Or they might not even notice—but they will get a feeling that for some hard-to-pinpoint reason, this character just seems genuine.
3. Forget about being pretty.
Agents and editors can’t stand authors who put restraints on their work for the sake of delicacy.
A few years ago I was teaching a workshop and trying to get across the concept of writing freely (with no thought of whether you like the result).
A participant spoke up: “I once had an art instructor say, ‘If it didn’t have to be pretty, what would you draw?’ ”
I practically reeled from the force of the genius of that question. (Thank you, anonymous writer and unknown art instructor!) Everyone in the room immediately made the translation: “If it didn’t have to be pretty, what would you write?”
Here’s the key: Not-pretty has two meanings here: a) topics that are not attractive, like racism or incest, and b) the way you write.
Most people shy away from darkness, but as an author you must be willing to dwell there, see it truly, explore it before you represent it.
I kind of hate to say this, but I advise going back to your childhood years—the primal times before we really knew right from wrong, and before we were strong enough to defend ourselves from evil. Feel the fear that coursed through your body when you saw the neighborhood bully coming. Feel the shameless intoxication of wrecking something out of spite.
As for freeing up your writing, do the same thing. When you were a kid, you did everything with almost complete abandon. Call up that spirit as you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Banish all restraint!
4. Be true to your IQ.
When I worked for a large bookseller, we ran surveys that showed our core customers to be well educated and fairly affluent. This was not surprising: Educated people tend to like books, and their income tends to enable them to buy books.
Still, aspiring authors sometimes dumb down their work because they’re afraid of alienating the vast masses of potential customers they imagine they should be writing for. This is disastrous. You cannot do it. And you don’t need to—the average Joes and Janes are smarter than you may think.
Here’s the key: Don’t underestimate your readers. If they like to read the sorts of books you like to write, they’re right up there with your core demographic. And dumbing down your work can be doubly disastrous, because if you do, agents and editors will not be able to relate to it.
First, free your vocabulary while also keeping it in check. If abhorrent is the right word, don’t change it to yucky. And when hill is the right word, don’t change it to acclivity just to show off.
Second, resist the urge to overexplain, especially when portraying action sequences and characters’ thoughts.
Edwina stopped revving the accelerator. The car rocked back into the sand. She looked up at the thick spruce boughs that hung into the road. She got out and said, “Help me pull some of these down.”
We do not need to be told what went through Edwina’s mind; we can conjecture just fine.
Agents and editors will recognize an honest, unstilted voice, and they will respond to it. As will your future readers.
5. Use your best material only when it has a purpose.
Agents and editors have a sixth sense when it comes to kitchen-sink novels. You know what I’m talking about: novels that contain a fictionalized version of every cool, unusual or amazing thing that ever happened to the author.
I once read a novel manuscript at the insistence of a friend who knew the author. In it, a man on foot stops to talk to a man on horseback who is wearing a live snake around his waist like a belt. The incident was colorful but had no bearing on the story, and I suspected that the only reason it was there was that the author had once met up with a man on horseback who wore a snake around his waist like a belt. A casual inquiry proved me right.
An isolated cool-yet-irrelevant scene suggests the author’s immaturity as an artist, and will be noted by agents and editors.
Here’s the key: Put your best material in, but leave the kitchen sink in the kitchen.
When tempted to throw in something awesome that the story doesn’t really demand, go ahead and write it, but during revisions take it out and save it.
Alternatively, adapt your story to the cool thing. The author with the snake-belt guy might have brought that character into the story more, either by making him a one-shot oracle who gives or withholds a crucial piece of information, or by making a real character out of him, with a name and a crime or a heartache. The snake could then have served multiple purposes: to show the character’s determination to be different in the face of social convention, for instance. Or maybe he just doesn’t understand why he can’t get a girlfriend.
6. Make them laugh.
Did you grin or chuckle at that last line about the snake-belt guy lacking a girlfriend? What agents and editors love above all is wit. Note that wit is not exactly humor: We might laugh reading a scene where a vain person gets a pie in the face, but that’s humor and takes no intelligence to perceive. Wit is more of a brain thing.
Here’s the key: We laugh when we’re given a perspective we’d never have dreamed of. We laugh when we can see absurdity that others can’t. We laugh when we’re surprised, and when we’re caught off-guard by understatement. All of these can serve as subtle tactics for adding wit to your fiction.
If you’re feeling stuck, one easy and effective way to capitalize on wit is to comb your characters (rather than your plot) for possibilities. For instance, you might decide to give a character a blind spot. Imagine that snake-belt guy shows up for a first date and the woman slowly picks up her purse and leaves the coffee shop without so much as a word. The underlying wit is that until that moment, it had never even dawned on him to consider leaving the snake at home.
Also notice that his date’s behavior in this example is understated—another smart way to incorporate wit without overdoing it. To take this scene further, instead of having snake-belt guy get mad and storm out, or phone his buddy and say, “Gosh, I just don’t understand why that date didn’t work out,” you might have him just sit there with a blank expression—and then, when the server arrives, order coffee, patiently and acceptingly, alone.
Look for opportunities to incorporate small, believable incongruities. A character who is sharp about some things but not others can be funny. Consider the nuclear scientist who can’t heat a cup of soup, the successful MBA who runs up credit card debt, the diplomat who can’t keep peace in his own house.
7. Make them cry.
Lots of books make readers laugh and lots make readers cry, but when readers laugh and cry while reading the same book, they remember it.
What makes people cry? I’m not talking about beloved pet dogs that die. What I mean is: What’s the mechanism by which readers get overcome with emotion, whether it’s about Old Yeller or a state-fair contest cake that falls before it’s been judged?
Agents and editors are looking for emotional suspense, with a walloping payoff.
Here’s the key: Your pathos must not be cheap.
In this case, cheap is usually the crappy twin of quick. Get rid of quick, and you’ll usually avoid cheap, arriving at quality in the process.
Take your time and let emotion build from a single seed. I might add that cataclysm at the end is fine, but you don’t need it.
Let’s say you want to break a character’s heart. Let’s say the character is a big, tough bar bouncer. How to make him vulnerable?
Well, children and romantics are the most vulnerable among us, aren’t they?
Maybe our bouncer has never given up his boyhood dream of being a fighter pilot. Maybe, as a 30-year-old, he decides to go for this dream. We follow him as he attends night school, gets his GED and signs up for the Air Force.
He tells no friend back home, no one he loves what his ultimate goal is. That way, he reasons, if he fails he won’t lose face with them.
You know what to do from here: Let his dream come closer; let him overcome setbacks. Let it unfold. Then, let some big shot take a disliking to him. When he finds out he’s being reassigned to the flight line (the wallop) for no good reason (double wallop), he realizes that though he has no one to jeer at him, he also has no one to console him.
This subtle facet of emotion has fueled many a bestseller.
Agents and editors are tuned to seek flaws and weaknesses in an author, but their hearts melt in the face of author strength, competence and bravery.
Follow these suggestions, and readers of all sorts will respond to the deeper edge of realism that they recognize but cannot always name.
Elizabeth Sims is the bestselling author of seven popular novels in two series, including The Rita Farmer Mysteries and The Lillian Byrd Crime series. She's also the author of the excellent resource for writers, You've Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, published by Writer's Digest Books.
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