Magic in Fiction

Defining the Indefinable: Quality-and Magic-in Fiction

Sometimes, quality is hard to define. For example, in Super Bowl XLVIII (that would be 48 for the Roman-numeral-challenged), the best defense in the NFL was pitted against the best offense. Going into the game, most pundits thought the score would be close. In reality, the Broncos and their explosive offense were impotent against the Seahawks and their dynamic defense. Seattle won that game 43-8.

So Super Bowl XLIX (aka, 49) should have been easy to predict. Same great defense—Seattle—pitted against just the third best offense in the NFL—New England. No brainer, right? Wrong. After a hard-fought battle, the Patriots came away with the ring.

I’m no football guru (though I am a huge Patriots fan), so I won’t try to analyze what happened. My point is that sometimes, quality feels as elusive as magic—and just as easy to measure.

When I’m looking at other people’s work, I’m good at analyzing quality—to a degree. I often see what’s wrong with a manuscript pretty quickly. Maybe the point of view is amiss. Perhaps the author hasn’t grasped show don’t tell. Often the storyline doesn’t add up or the characters’ motivations aren’t clear. There are a lot of little things that can drag a manuscript down. Sometimes, those things jump out at me.

But sometimes, I’ll look at a manuscript and think it has all the right elements. It’s well-written, tells a good story, has well-developed characters and a strong plot. Still, it’s missing something.

And occasionally, I fall in love with a manuscript, and I can’t tell you what I love about it. It has everything a novel should have, but it’s bigger than a sum of its properly-placed commas and well-defined motivations. There’s something more. That magic ingredient is…indefinable. Maybe someone smarter than I am can define it. I know a lot of writing coaches have tried.

So what’s an author to do? I can’t give you a definitive recipe for how to make that magic happen in your novel, but I can share a list of ingredients.

Let’s go back to those Patriots. They might have that little something we can’t define. But what else do they have?

  • Talented players
  • Lots of practice
  • Time in the workout room
  • Excellent subordinate coaches
  • Time watching game tapes
  • A great head coach
  • A desire to win

Champions don’t sit around hoping magic will happen. They position themselves to make magic by being the best they can be.

Does this translate to writing a great book? I think it does.

  • Talent: A great author needs a modicum of talent. I believe that everyone the Lord has called to this writing business has been gifted with talent.
  • Practice: Writers write. I’m not one of those rule-making folks who’ll insist you need to write every day, but I will say that if you’re not writing consistently, then you’re not improving. It’s impossible to get better at anything without practice.
  • Time in the workout room: This is different from writing. This is time spent reading books and finding other ways to improve your writing skills. You must learn the elements of writing, understand them, and practice them. Don’t read a book about some writing skill without flexing that muscle. Try it. Do the exercises in the book and if there aren’t exercises, go to your work in progress and give the concepts a whirl. And then do it again and again until you’ve mastered it.
  • Excellent subordinate coaches: Do you have a critique partner or three? I have eight, and each one of them is valuable and offers me a unique perspective that makes my books better.
  • Time watching game tapes: When players watch game tapes, they’re looking to see what went wrong and what went right. For writers, this is your time to rewrite, edit, and shine that manuscript. Maybe it’s good. Make it better. Make it fantastic.
  • A great head coach: As the head coach of a football team sees not just the individual players but the game as a whole, a great editor will grasp your vision for the manuscript and help you bring it into focus.
  • A desire to win: For writers, this does not mean a desire to sell a lot of books. It means a desire to craft the best stories imaginable, stories that touch readers’ hearts.

While I can’t promise you that if your novel has all these elements, it’ll have that magic that’ll make it a bestseller, I can tell you that no novel became a bestseller without these elements. You don’t have to sit around hoping for magic to happen. Instead, do your part at becoming the best writer you can be, and trust God to bring the magic.

Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

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