The Eighth Element

From Donald Maass, at Writer Unboxed, this: The Eighth Element

As some of you may know, Donald Maass is a very well-known agent. Here’s how this post starts:

As you can imagine, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts.  How many?  Many thousands, certainly.  Generally, they are good, just not ready.  Why not?  There are eight common lacks but the last one is the hardest to pin down.  It’s not so much a craft technique as it is a quality.

The missing quality is one that falls somewhere between insouciance and recklessness.  It has aspects of courage and authority.  It’s not safe.  It’s not careful. Not that a novel should offend readers, but neither should it make few ripples in readers’ minds.

Timeless stories are written with high authority.  It’s authors who don’t apologize or wonder if they are worthy.  They assume that they are and not only that, they have been appointed to tell us who’s who, what’s what, and to do that in their own quirky way and if you don’t like it then go jump in a lake.  It’s as if those authors don’t care a damn who approves their novels but care like hell about the ache and joy of the human condition.

Maass goes on from there. It’s a fiery post — I like it! — and then he offers a bunch of writing prompts and suggestions, of which the last struck me:

Write better than your favorite author and/or better than anyone.  Write that way right now.  Who’s telling you that you can’t?

Writing prompts never work for me — writing advice is normally something I ignore or critique — but you know what, I actually think that’s good advice. I really do. Aim high! Write better than your favorite author! Do it right now!

That’s exactly what I aimed to do when I wrote The City in the Lake. Maybe not better. But I was aiming to write as well as Patricia McKillip, the same kind of story. That was exactly where I aimed. Aim high!

The funny part of this post is what isn’t in it. There are eight common lacks but the last one is the hardest to pin down. Really? Could be, hard to say, because Maass never mentions what the other seven are!

That certainly leads to a sudden urge to guess what he might mean. At least, I have that impulse. Seven elements of craft or art where authors fail? Let me see. Seven. Okay, in no order whatsoever:

  1. Lack of setting up front; “white room” opening.
  2. Lack of engagement in the opening; failure of the voice to engage the reader; “boringness.” I mean the prose may be functional, but it goes beyond plain or unadorned to drab.
  3. Lack of coherent plot; episodes of disconnected action.
  4. A failure to draw out an effective character arc; a failure to give the protagonist or others motivations that seem plausible and strong enough to drive their actions.
  5. Sheer lack of sentence-level craft; awkward syntax or using words that don’t mean what you think they mean — like “tenet” instead of “tenant!”
  6. Unrealistic dialogue — I mean dialogue that feels unrealistic, of course, as all dialogue is pretty unrealistic. Or boring dialogue. Or clumsy dialogue.
  7. Failure to land the ending. An unsatisfying ending is a dire fault.

I have absolutely no idea what Maass had in mind. Maybe he’s listed those out in other posts. In fact, I’m sure he has. Also, these sorts of things mostly take a book out of the “good but not ready” category and drop it into one of the many and various “not good” categories. Still, when I think of points of potential failure, these are some of those points.

None of that interferes with his essential point:

Write better than your favorite author and/or better than anyone.  Write that way right now.  Who’s telling you that you can’t?

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6 thoughts on “The Eighth Element”

  1. Your point 5 reminded me of the old but excellent Slushkiller post by Teresa Nielsen Hayden. She referred to that one as an author “on bad terms with the Muse of language.”

  2. Rachel, I like all of your books, some more than others, and although part of it is my preference for extreme competence and heroism with a small amount of romance, a lot of it has to do with your language and voice. Gereint, Nemienne, Natividad, Ryo and Kuomat all have distinct voices and your writing style is different with each world you build. As I have said before, the language in Shines Now and Heretofore is particularly beautiful. Yes, everybody tends to think circularly, but you don’t have the same main character in every novel. So there’s something (for me) about your writing that makes you special.

  3. OtterB, I still pull out the Slushkiller post sometimes at workshops or whenever. A fun post, and much of it certainly rings true!

    Alison, thank you! Shines Now may be one of my particular favorites, at least for now. It was both harder to write than I expected, and easier, and I think wound up in a really good place. You can nod to commenter E.C., who gave me advice particularly about the ending that I think improved the final draft.

  4. Oh, wow, Donald Maass is someone whose books I reference regularly. An excellent post, from him and from you. It reminds me of another book I keep on my shelf, called Measure and Madness, by Leon Surmelian.
    As for Shines Now, I cannot take too much credit; you did all the work that made it awesome. I just read it and enjoyed watching the process! :D

  5. Alison, I’m going to be using “ extreme competence and heroism with a small amount of romance” from now on when I try to push Rachel’s books onto friends and strangers!

  6. Don’t sell yourself short, E.C. — your comments nailed something that was important about the ending.

    And I’m happy to have my books slotted into the category of “extreme competence and heroism with a small amount of romance.”

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