By: Jayne Ormerod
Absolutely Fabulous Abs! The Abdominizer! Abs of Steel! Quick-fix gimmicks to tone and firm America’s sagging middles abound. They look good on TV, but the only surefire way to squeeze into that gold lamé bikini is by laying off the Krispy Kremes and hauling your body out of the La-Z-Boy for some exercise. Trimming your waistline involves hard work and self-discipline.
Sagging middles are not limited to human flesh – your novel may also suffer the same affliction. Here the results can be more than an unsightly bulge; you can actually cause your reader to lose interest and toss your novel into the nearest library donation box. Again, the solution involves hard work and self-discipline. Anyone who has ever waged the battle of the bulge can apply the same dieting techniques to their literary masterpiece.
Cut the Fat
Everyone knows a person who cannot tell a “short” story. When sharing an experience, said person includes too much irrelevant information, down to the color and texture of the new underwear he received from his Aunt Martha six Christmases ago. Often, when this raconteur sees his audience nodding off he says, “Well, to make a long story short . . .” Too late! Too much story-fat has buried the original point of the story so that the listener not only doesn’t know, he doesn’t care about the ending.
Nothing slows a novel down faster than too much fat. In the writing sense, fat includes: backstory (everything that happened before your tale begins); travelogue (nobody wants to see those vacation videos); and repetition (great for a songwriter, not for a novelist.) Show some willpower and cut anything and everything that does not directly impact the outcome of the story.
Anyone who has ever “sweated to the oldies” knows that Richard Simmons slowly increases the level of intensity of the workout until your heart is hammering in your ears and sweat is cascading down your limbs. Just when you feel you can’t do another can-can kick, the activity slows down until you are once again breathing normally.
Your novel should follow the same path. It’s not uncommon for the beginning novelist to rush to build intense conflict in the first ten pages in order to hook the reader, but the conflict is not resolved for another 150 pages. That leaves the reader with a 140-page equivalent of finger wiggles for the remainder of the workout. It may be physical activity, but it’s not going to raise your heart rate and burn many calories. Follow Richard Simmons’ example by slowly increasing the intensity of the story until its climax, then offer a gradual cool down.
Boost your Metabolism
A Google search will show you hundreds, if not thousands, of sites that will give you advice on boosting your metabolism. By revving up your inner engines, they will continue to burn calories even when you are not involved in high-intensity workouts.
Your novel needs a revving metabolism so that readers continue to be engrossed in your story even when it is not a high-action car chase scene. By increasing conflict, you can effectively increase the energy level in your story and keep your reader engaged. To do this, ask yourself if the conflict you have created is strong enough to sustain interest for hundreds of pages.
Don’t base an entire novel on Sigourney not speaking to Lazarus because he did not call her one night. If she were to ask, she would discover he had been helping his elderly neighbor whom he had discovered face down in her petunias. This conflict could be cleared up quickly with a simple conversation, and will never sustain a reader’s interest for 75,000 words. The story’s conflict must be seemingly insurmountable. It must be emotional. It must be intense. By boosting your metabolic conflict, you are giving your reader a reason to continue reading.
How are you supposed to get in tip-top shape if you run out of energy during your workout and need to stretch out on the sofa for a nap? Ask any marathon runner and she’ll tell you the secret to keeping energy levels high enough to complete the 26.2-mile race is to maximize the storage of glycogen (aka energy) in the muscles and liver for later use. Ya gotta eat the right carbs at the right time in order to store that energy.
In the case of your novel, you need to character-load. Create such compelling characters that your reader connects with them and is rooting for them to succeed right down to the very last page. In order to do this, begin with a detailed character worksheet, examples of which are included in just about every book ever written about writing. Spend time getting to know your characters by interviewing them or sitting down and chatting with them (preferably when you are alone—you don’t want your family members seeing you talking to yourself or they may call the men in white coats to come get you).
True characterization goes way beyond physical attributes. You need to know what makes characters do what they do, why they react to certain situations. Find out what they would do if they won the lottery; what their most embarrassing moment was; what their most painful memory is; what they dream about; what frightens them; what pushes them; what drives them to drink. I know one writer who compiles ten pages of details for each main character. The information may not be relevant to the plot (in which case, never include it just for the sake of showing how well you know your character), but it is vital to the development of your story. Strong characters make compelling novels. ‘Nuf said about that.
Any veteran dieter knows that muscle weighs more than fat. And looks better in a bikini, too!
In the novel sense, the muscle of the story is the plot. A plot is a sequence of events that unfolds over the course of a story. It is how your characters get from Point A to Point B, and all of the obstacles they overcome on the journey. Foreshadowing, or hinting at something that will happen later in the book, is a great plotting tool. For instance, if Mable Mulligan never steps outside of her house without yellow galoshes on her feet—even on the sunniest of days—then the reader is compelled to keep reading in order to find out why she does that. Main plots can then be intertwined with subplots, or little stories that seem to have nothing to do with the main story. (Ah, but they do, and the successful author will weave all of these side stories into one skimpy bikini—I mean satisfying ending.)
If your goal for the New Year is to get into better shape, the first thing you should do is educate yourself. Join Weight Watchers or buy a book on the topic . . . Gawd knows there are enough of them out there. You have to understand the food in/energy out equation in order to get those six-pack abs.
A visit to your local brick-and-mortar bookstore or online retailer will reveal a HUGE selection of helpful books on writing. But also take advantage of advice gleaned through seminars, classes, websites, and support groups (yes, writing is an addiction!) You can also learn a great deal by reading a successful novel by one of your favorite authors. Don’t just read it, but study it by sitting down with a notebook, pen, and highlighter and noting how the plot unfolds, how the characters develop, how the conflict builds, and how each and every judiciously chosen detail advances the story. Most importantly, try to determine why you sigh as you read the last page, wishing the story could go on forever.
The Abdominizer may work for your abdomen, but only hard work and self-discipline can tone and firm your novel’s sagging middle.
Write on, my friends!
About the author: Jayne Ormerod grew up in a small Ohio town and attended a small-town Ohio college. Upon earning her accountancy degree she became a CIA (that’s not a sexy spy thing, but rather a Certified Internal Auditor). She married a naval officer, and off they sailed to see the world. After fifteen moves, she realized she needed a more transportable vocation, so she turned to writing. Jayne writes cozy mysteries about small towns with beach settings. Learn more about Jayne and her writing life at www.JayneOrmerod.com.