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ASK THE EDITOR At The Heart of All Writing

By Susan Malone

August 2001

We've been talking over the last few months about the nuts and bolts of writing: characterization, starting and finishing a novel, plotting and pacing, in essence, the elements that fit together to make a book all of one piece. The trees, if you will. And we have to go about the process in this manner, since you, as the author, are responsible for delivering to your readers a book where these elements add up to a whole. But now let's switch gears just a tad and take a look at the overall forest.

Most likely you had an idea, a concept, a generalized plot of your novel before you began it. And I'm not talking genre here, although that enters into it in a vital way. But deeper than that, you had a "feel" for what the book was to be about; an all–encompassing sort of thematic point, which you then began to put together via all those elements of fiction, one by one.

Did you shoot for making a social statement (think CIDER HOUSE RULES)? Did your plot come straight out of today's headlines (think, oh lord, just about any Thriller out there)? Were you trying to emphasize some aspect of the human condition (think Amy Tan's newest, THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER)? What was that one deep-seated impetus for your novel? Get a grasp of it for a minute as we discuss this.

Because everything else trickles down from that apex. The rest of the pyramid forms the structure, from foundation up, that supports the crown, the core, the crux, of your book. And the paradox is, your readers will have the opposite experience if you succeed in what you do: all of the elements will slowly build upon one another until by the end of the read, your audience will "get" the point–the very one from which you started.

Most writers are voracious readers, and the better you get at your craft, the more adept you become at being able to pinpoint exactly how another author achieved his desire effect. Of course, some best-selling authors are so transparent, even the casual reader knows she's being beat over the head by some ax being ground. But the better writers employ finesse to achieve their goals, and accomplish this so seamlessly, that even other writers and editors sometimes get that take-your-breath-away feeling. You know the one–where you've been reading along and all of a sudden the epiphany comes and for the life of you, you can't pinpoint exactly where it happened, or more importantly, how. Not long ago, the fine Earnest Gaines novel, A LESSON BEFORE DYING, did that for me. And I'll thank him forever for the experience.

Because in some form or fashion, that's what we, as audience, lust after. Readers read for lots of reasons. To be entertained. To learn something. To be thrilled or cajoled or to meet folks they wouldn't meet in their everyday lives. And conversely, to meet folks they'll feel they've known ALL of their lives. In essence, your reader is trusting you to give her an experience of something. A glimmer. A thrill. That epiphany. He is not there to be told a story, but rather, to experience one, to participate in some manner in the tale along with your characters as they navigate whatever waters–from those within the deep psyche to alleged droplets once on Mars.

Remember this and let it be the umbrella under which every word that comes from your pen stems: no matter in what genre you write, in the final analysis your reader is reading for one thing and one thing alone. To feel. Everything else we do as writers builds up to this climax. It's what Graham Greene would call THE HEART OF THE MATTER. And it's the most vital element in what separates real writers from those who merely put words on paper.

So study the skills. Learn the tools. Focus on the Characters and Plot and find your Voice. Then use all of those things so that the final story becomes much more than the sum of its words. Craft a great tale and you'll be ahead by a neck coming down the stretch. Touch the emotions of your readers, and you'll win going away.

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. Ten books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last three years. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com