confessions / e / fiction / memories / novels / writing


This post is for the literary writers. The ones who fall in love with their sentences and can sometimes, you know, when a sentence is extra-pretty, forget that a world exists outside it. A world where THINGS HAPPEN. Yes, I am talking plot.

Don’t run away! I’m scared of plot, too. But, wow, is it necessary. And I don’t just mean plot lowercase, I mean PLOT. Big giant plot. Imagine how awesome your book could be if you have a Big Plot and pretty sentences? That’s a book of my dreams.

I was inspired this morning by this post from agent Donald Maass about “beautifully written” literary/commercial novels. He says:

High impact doesn’t just mean high sales.  It means moving readers’ hearts, shaking their convictions and even changing their world.  Strong plot alone can’t do that.  A journey by itself is just a trip.  To collide with high—and lasting—impact, aim to make your novels beautifully written.

Read more of that post for advice on how to achieve this.

I write the L-word, or I strive to. Yes, literary. I’m not afraid of the L-word. This is not a literary vs. commercial smackdown post, either. This is about what happens when the literary and the commercial meet, and meld, and create something strong and, yes, beautiful. A novel can be entertainment, but it can also be a work of art—and why not both at the same time?

Literary has come to be a bad word. A while back, the wonderful agent Jennifer Laughran (literaticat) posted the definition of “literary” in this fantastic informative post and I remember taking issue with that one definition because it sounded like writers trying to be “literary” were only being snobby saying their novels were better than everyone else’s. I don’t think that. You’ll see my attempt at a definition there, but really, I don’t know how to define it. To me, “literary” just means a piece of writing that focuses on the writing itself, on the art of it. As someone who wanted to become a writer because she fell in love with books—with not just the stories but with the beautiful words, too—I think the writing of a novel, the execution, is just as important as the story. It can elevate an idea to a whole new level. I love stopping and savoring a paragraph. I love reading a book again because I need to taste those words one more time. Don’t we always hear that there are only a finite number of stories, but each of us is different in the way we’d tell them? I do believe this. So why not celebrate the execution and focus on the writing? That’s what I like, personally.

A big, quickly moving story can make your sentences soar even more than before. I love savoring a page and wanting to drink in every word and yet also at the same time wanting to race through to find out what happens. Now that’s a good book.

But for the longest time, I didn’t try to do that. I thought the pretty sentence was enough.

I went into a grand amount of debt to get my MFA in writing—stupid stupid stupid, but that’s a whole other post—where I studied and wrote literary fiction. For years, I focused inward on my sentences and my paragraphs. To the detriment of my writing, I kept my head down and tried carving out the perfect page. I spent years on a thesis—a semiautobiographical (I hear you gagging) novel for adults that was lacking in plot and plumped up to a full 500 pages. It wasn’t the plot of the novel that was ever really of issue in my workshops. I don’t remember studying plot. I remember the WRITING being everything, and characterization being king, and setting something to explore, and voice desperately wanted, and as for story? Plot? I remember the events of the story—the plot—being this thing commercial, genre writers had to wrestle with, so we didn’t really think about it. (Again, the idea of “genre” is a whole other post.)

Probably I just wasn’t paying attention.

Because then came the day when I had my thesis review. I remember sitting in the room while my thesis readers—MFA professors in addition to my adviser—talked about my novel. I remember very specifically that one professor said he worried my manuscript would fail as a novel.


Because not enough happened, he said.

My god, it hit me then… Something more is supposed to HAPPEN?

I passed my thesis review. I graduated. I got that expensive piece of paper in a frame on my wall saying I got the MFA. But the novel I graduated with? It did fail. That’s why you don’t see Bardo by Nova Ren Suma on right now. Not enough happened in the story—my plot wasn’t well executed even though I had a bunch of fine sentences—to merit it being published. I actually don’t even know what the plot of that novel was, if you want the honest truth.

Fast-forward like about ten years.

I’d started a YA novel and I had the voice, I had the characters, I had the world, I just didn’t have an actual story. I remember a deep conversation with my other half, (E, an actual person, I don’t have a split personality), about raising the stakes of the story. Thinking big picture and bringing in some PLOT. It was exhilarating. It was deathly frightening. It was what I thought I didn’t need to do because I had nice sentences. I was wrong, and E was right.

I’m talking about Imaginary Girls. Once I changed my book—throwing out a detailed outline and about 200 rough pages and starting over—I got an agent out of it, and a two-book deal out of it, but those are outside measures of success. The true measure of success is how I feel about my writing when I’m working on a project like IG. My writing feels more alive when I have a story worth telling.

This is what I strive for as a writer: beautiful writing where SOMETHING HAPPENS. My agent is always pushing me to be more active in my writing—he knows my strengths and my weaknesses, and he knows how to make me better. I admit I struggle, I do, every day, sometimes sending wild emails about how much I hate plot to certain writer friends, and lamenting how books can’t be published just made of unconnected pretty sentences, but I don’t really mean all that. A Big Story and a literary voice is the best thing I could imagine.

It’s what I tried for with Imaginary Girls, it’s what I’m trying for now with the novel I’m writing—and having trouble, and just wait till my editor gets a hold of this and we start talking building momentum and high-stakes plot points—and I’m taking it to a whole new level with the idea I have for my third YA novel… still forming and growing in my mind.

I’m not against quiet stories. I do love them, and I’ve written quite a few. But I’ve since seen the light. I want to write beautiful novels and I want them to be LOUD.

16 thoughts on “When I Realized SOMETHING Must HAPPEN

  1. Great post. I’ve been having trouble with plot as well. For the stories I really WANT to write, I have the world and characters, but the plot hasn’t worked itself out yet. I know what I would like it to be. Brilliant. Full of those twists and turns that readers love so much, while also focusing on my character’s development. Unfortunately, she/he can’t develop without plot.

  2. I totally relate to your initial experiences (though not from an MFA point of view) with plot and I find it so sad that literary has become a bad word. I still love quiet stories the best and am aware I’m very much in the minority. There can be a world of meaning in quiet books, unfortunately I think most people don’t have the patience for them. So the market dictates that something loud must happen. It doesn’t make the louder books better; it’s just ever-increasingly market taste.

  3. I’ve always had the feeling that my sentences were never going to be exceptional. I’m re-reading The Bostonians, and I realize once again that every sentence Henry James ever wrote was better than any of mine (and he’s not the only one). So, I do try to make sure things happen, and then characters talk about those things in interesting ways.

    Oh, and (on a lighter note) I did write about “literary” writing on my blog once:

  4. I read Donald Maass’ post on beautiful writing today, too, and your post here is a great follow-up to that for me. I’m always struggling to remember I need a plot, lol, but plots are Very Good Things (and combined with beautiful writing, they are Great Things!).

    Thanks for your post!🙂

  5. Bravo! I tend to get lost in character introspection, and realize ten pages later that even I don’t know what’s happening anymore.

    I also read too much Thomas Hardy, John Irving and Saul Bellow–meaning I adore long, wordy sentences that take up half the page. And that I adore heaps upon heaps of introspection.

    I get accused, all the time, of being too flowery. My re-writing process is heart-wrenching for me. I get it–really, I do–but sometimes I wish I was around in Dickens’ day, when flowery was a GOOD thing.

    Am I prattling on again?

  6. This is why I stopped writing fiction for several years. I was all about the pretty prose, but I was hopeless at plot, at thinking up stories. Or so I thought.

    The minute I had the brainwave to write a children’s novel instead of an adult one – BAM. Tons of plot ideas came to me. Sometimes it’s just a matter of relaising the TYPE of stories you should be writing, ie the ones I wanted to read, not the ones I *thought* I should be writing.

  7. I loved this. A nice metaphor for this that’s come up in several workshops I’ve been in: The train has to leave the station. You can have all of your passengers (characters) on board and some lovely scenery outside, but if the train doesn’t pull out and start chugging, your novel isn’t going anywhere either.

  8. What a great post. Thank YOU for sharing. Because yeah, concentrating on the writing is sending my plot for the toss. So many loose ends all through. I have to re-work on it. But I’ll be doing it with your words in mind ~ “I want to write beautiful novels and I want them to be LOUD”🙂

  9. Pingback: Weekend round-up of writing posts « Write on Deck

  10. Ah, the truth. Hearing it from an author makes it so much better. And yeah, it’s really important to concentrate on plot. I didn’t do so for my first story… and I failed.

  11. I am planning on beginning my fisrt youth fiction this summer. This is a great reminder to me (a selft taught wirter) to be sure there is action to show where the words are going! Thanks!

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