Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How I almost got published in WD

Yes, that’s Writer’s Digest, a very well known magazine geared towards us writerly folk, and here’s how it happened:

Back in the day when I was younger writer and had just finished The Way to Dendara I sent the first 10 pages off to Writer’s Digest for their feature critique. Lo and behold, one day I got a call from the critic, Dave King, who said I’d been chosen and that my 10 pages [you can see these in the static pages at the top] and his critique would soon be appearing in the magazine. I was ecstatic. Even more so when I received the copy of what was said about my work. There’s a lot of great stuff about what I wrote, but also, some great stuff about how to do it right:

"Writer’s Clinic: Getting it Right

   Normally, Writing Clinics focus on the victims’ -- er, subjects’ -- mistakes and show how you can profit by their example. But Marcy Hatch offers us the instructive and much more gratifying chance to see how someone is getting it right.
   In just a brief prologue and a single chapter, Marcy sets up a marvelously engaging situation. The prologue introduces readers to a nameless man pursued by some great evil (which is apparently tied to his family) and haunted by dreams of his own death. In the last sentence of the prologue, we learn that he also dreams of a savior named Lucy. The first chapter then introduces Lucy as a timid, withdrawn librarian who carries the scars from some tragedy in her past (also tied to her family) and is haunted by formless nightmares. Lucy also receives a pair of other-worldly keys, then gets a visitor from this other world who greets her as an old acquaintance, knocks her out, and kidnaps her.
   After only ten pages or so, Marcy has left me hungry to read more. How did she do it?

Characters to Love
   Readers will naturally sympathize with any character in danger or distress, so by placing both Lucy and the nameless man in perilous situations controlled by powerful and possibly malevolent beings, Marcy almost guarantees that readers will care about what happens to them. The dangers are made even more frightening because of their element of the supernatural. Zhora, the young man’s nemesis, apparently dominates his life by controlling his father, his appetites, even his dreams, and there is no enemy so frightening as one who can penetrate into your very consciousness.
   Also, even in the brief time we get to know her, Lucy is an admirably plucky character, making a life for herself despite a history of nightmares and daytime fears. And she still has enough of a sense of mystery and magic to not only keep the keys but to treasure them. Also, the strange creature who steals her away (literally) manages to convey an intriguing worldview in only a handful of pages. I was particularly impressed by the offhand reference to the goblin’s ball.
   In addition to the external dangers they face, both Lucy and the young man have complex internal struggles. Both are haunted by nightmares, which are either a sign of unprocessed tragedies somewhere in their past or a prediction of tragedies yet to come. And because of the way Marcy has presented their stories together, readers know that timid, withdrawn Lucy will have to grow into whatever she needs to be in order to save the young man. This creates a nice balance between internal and external tension and sets the story up for a complex, multi-layered resolution.

Stylistic Risks
   Marcy supports these obvious advantages of character with a number of very well handled stylistic subtleties. For instance, note that the prologue is written as narrative summary, with no scenes -- something most editors (myself included) would recommend against as a matter of course. Essentially, the prologue is simply a window into the young man’s emotional state at the beginning of the story with no anchors to the concrete details of his world. By not giving us even a glimpse of the world Lucy is about to be drawn into, Marcy makes that world far more strange and mysterious. But by showing us the emotional effect of that world on one sympathetic character, she makes it immanently dangerous. Again, it’s a nice balancing act.
   Using the first person for the young man’s section is also a wise decision, whether Marcy reintroduces him as a POV character (in the first person) later in the story or sticks with Lucy’s POV in the third person for the entire manuscript. The difference in person emphasizes the strangeness of the young man’s alternate universe. The first person also creates a much greater sense of intimacy with the young man -- he is, in effect, pleading for help directly to readers -- which both makes him more sympathetic and makes his emotional state that much more real, despite the lack of scenes.
   Note, too, that the opening few pages of Lucy’s chapter are also given as narrative summary. Again, this is a risky approach that would not work for most stories. But here it does, since the narrative summary creates a smooth transition between the young man’s narrated distress and Lucy’s abduction scene. Also, readers need to know a lot of the details of Lucy’s life -- the hints of The Tragedy, the arrival of the keys and the investigation of their strangeness, the arrival of the note -- before the abduction scene will mean anything to them. Yet if Marcy were to develop all of these details through scenes, she would delay the onset of the abduction until long after the emotional impact of the prologue had been forgotten. Narrating these details is less immediate but saves a lot of time, so that she can show Lucy’s abduction almost immediately after the young man’s troubles, further emphasizing the as-yet-unrevealed connection between them.
   But note that all of the narration is in Lucy’s voice, using the language Lucy would use and even scattering bits of interior monologue through the passage. By tying the narrative summary so closely to Lucy’s character, Marcy is doing far more than getting the facts across. Readers are getting to know Lucy, whom they already know from the prologue will be a key character. Even though she is primarily filling in background, Marcy has managed to get her main story started.

Art and Craft
   The question that most interests me, though, is whether or not Marcy has used these techniques intentionally. Many writers are able to rise to this level of sophistication entirely on instinct. (Well, not quite. They have probably absorbed techniques from reading their favorite authors, but they’re not using them consciously.) Others of you come to Writer’s Digest and its sister publications to learn these techniques. To perfect the craft or writing.
   Some might argue that intuitive storytelling results in more organic, less mechanical stories. And it’s often the case that writers become so caught up in the mechanics of storytelling that they lose track of the story and characters the mechanics are designed to present. No techniques will ever teach Marcy how to write characters like Lucy, the young man or the mysterious stranger. No mechanical rules will ever lead her to set up the plot situation that makes them what they are. The only way to create at this level is to pay loving attention to the real-life people and stories around you, then to let your imagination work on what you’ve learned. The best stories and characters always come out of the subconscious.
   But technique does have a real role in getting these stories across. If you are already consciously familiar with a wide range of techniques and have paid attention to how the authors you love use these techniques to create the stories you enjoy, then you’re in a position to work these techniques even into your first draft. And if you start your second draft (i.e. begin revising your first draft) and find that your characters and story aren’t coming across as well as you’d like, then it’s probably time to start considering what techniques you’re using and whether or not they’re the best ones for the tale you want to tell.
   In the end, it’s all about balance -- between internal and external tension in your characters’ lives, between narrative summary and scenes, between art and craft. Only you can say what’s the best balance for your story. But you’re not likely to hit the right balance if you’re not aware that there’s a balance to be hit."

Sadly, my 10 pages never appeared. It was cut for reasons unknown and my dreams of fame and fortune went pfft! But boy did that give me some needed encouragement, a taste of what it might be like when my work was actually published for real and read by thousands. Which is why I haven’t quit. Because I know I’m good. I just have to connect with the agent who sees it like Dave King did.


  1. I have heard good things about WD critiques. They are thorough and respectful. This one is wonderfully complimentary! I'm not surprised it keeps you going. It should!

  2. Wow, this is a great crit. Congrats!

  3. That's an awesome critique. You should definitely search till you find an agent who agrees with it. Good luck.


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