Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Big Picture

The Banks of the Spree near Stralau--1817--Karl Friedrich Schinkel My 8th grade son is working on a social studies project that’s due tomorrow.

He’s carefully portioned out the work over the space of a week. He’s researched, cited sources, found images, organized data, and decided on a format.

His teacher gave a grading rubric and he’s meticulously followed it, ticking off each thing as he’s worked.

I decided to look over the assignment before he handed it in. The research and mechanics and presentation? Wonderful.

The problem? “Sweetie,” I said, “this is supposed to be an advertisement. Your brochure needs to convince people to move from overcrowded 1735 Britain to the New World to settle in Massachusetts. The facts are right. But it has to be persuasive.”

That was the whole point of the project. Not, however, listed on the rubric. :) He rewrote the material.

I think lots of writers do the same sort of thing. I know I did when I was new to writing— I followed a mental checklist. What was my hook? Did my first sentence grab the reader? Did I use too many adverbs? Show instead of tell? Write too much description…or not enough?

But, really, I was missing the whole point, which should have been: had I written a good story? Had I entertained the reader? Because most of us are writing to entertain.

Instead I should have been asking:

Did my characters come to life on the page? Were there moments of excitement? Humor? Characters for readers to relate to—and characters for them to hate? Was there something at stake for my protagonist?

Would the reader keep turning the pages… for the character depictions, the quality of the writing, or the exciting plot?

The other stuff can be fixed in revisions. Everything, ultimately, just boils down to the story.

It can be hard to get rid of the rubric in our heads—the checklist of the writing rules. How do you return the focus onto your story?

Hope you’ll join me tomorrow in welcoming Alex Cavanaugh to Mystery Writing is Murder. He’ll be talking about the importance of test readers.