figuring out what they’re not telling you

by Toni McGee Causey

If you’ve been querying or sending your work out and you’re getting
positive responses but you’re not quite crossing that elusive sale
line, it can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating. Sometimes,
it’s an issue of luck or timing, and there really isn’t a helluvalot
you can do about that.

A friend of mine and I recently discussed this, and she pointed out that there were four elements to this business: work, luck, timing (marketplace), and talent.

You cannot control the last three, not as a writer. The amount of talent you have is what you have, but you can improve your craft through practice, you can hone that talent to a fine edge. You cannot control luck, and timing–how things will fall together in the marketplace–is anybody’s guess, but it certainly not something a writer can control.

What you can control, however, is the work. How much effort you make, how hard you reach to improve, how much risk you’re willing to take, how objective you’re willing to be about what you have, and haven’t, managed to get onto that page. That? Is all you can really control.

There are times as writers
that we’ll get encouragement and nice comments without really knowing
what is making them–those people who buy–say "no, not for me." In the course of a discussion
on Backspace (a while back), someone asked,
"How do you know what to fix when they don’t tell you?" I had gone
through a self-evaluation process before the first book sold. My analysis of my own writing below is certainly not a "fix-all" sort of thing; however, it may be a way of looking
at your own work and stepping outside what you’ve been seeing up to
that point to analyze it. On the off-chance that it might be of help,
I’m re-posting my answer here:

A much larger part [of the analysis process] was sitting down and dissecting my own way of telling stories, pros and cons. Instead of
listening to what readers were saying, I started to look at what they
were not
saying. The gist of what I was hearing was that they always loved my
characters, loved the humor, loved the setting. Well, that kinda sounds like I had it covered, but something about the
way I told the stories wasn’t working since they weren’t selling, and
no one could tell me why.

Believe me, I asked.  Especially of those producers with whom I had a personal relationship.

Instead of assuming that selling was all just subjective or luck, and in
order to figure it out why that wasn’t happening, I started giving my writing to people and asked
them to list the positive feedback they’d give me, and then I’d look at
those things and say, "What’s missing? What am I not seeing on this
list?" This is an odd sort of way of going about this, I know, but the
critiques I was getting weren’t pointing out the "gestalt" — the
overall problem.

(I started doing this sort of analysis with my screenwriting, and when
it worked, I transferred what I’d learned to my fiction. The relative
shortness of a script as compared to a manuscript may have given me an
advantage because it was easier to see it as a "whole" when trying to
break it down. )

With that in mind… 

So… what was not being said?

The one thing that popped in my head that I noticed wasn’t said (or if it was, it was only occasional), was,

"I couldn’t put it down."

That whole "couldn’t stop reading" aspect is critical, especially if
you want to maintain an exec’s attention (in the screenwriting world)
or an agent’s attention (either world).

Now here’s the kicker — people would say how much they loved the
read, how immersed they were in the characters, so you’d think these
were the same things, but they’re not. And it took me a little while to
realize that.

Second thing that happened is pretty notorious in the screenwriting
world– you get killed by encouragement. But when you try to get to the
heart of why they’re not buying, they’ll use vague terms. They’re not
doing this to be mean, but because they aren’t writers and they have no
clue how to explain to you that there’s something not working. So
they’ve come up with a sort of shorthand which sounds like they’re
telling you something, when in fact, they’re basically saying, "I don’t
know jack, I just know I can’t buy it and I can’t put my finger on why." In the book world, this translates into "I can’t get the marketing team behind it."

I’ll break down one example for you, and how I analyzed it.

One of the things I had heard was that they loved the scripts
(the romantic comedies), but they were "soft." What the hell is soft?
It’s a romantic comedy. If it was ‘hard,’ it would be porn. How is ‘soft’ a definition for writing? 

I’d ask my then-screenwriting-agent, who would be just as confused.
We would try to get more specifics out of them but the execs didn’t
think "soft" was a bad thing per se…and since they were in the middle
of telling me all of the good stuff, it was easy to set that aside as a
vague excuse.

Until one day, I finally realized what they weren’t saying.

They weren’t saying "I couldn’t put it down."

I’d get stuff like, "I love reading your scripts, I will always give
your agent a read overnight for your stuff," and "Your characters and
your worlds are so original, and I laughed all through it, so it’s
funny!" Which is great! But no one was saying, "Ohmygod, I had to pee
and I refused to get up to go to the bathroom because I had to see what
happened next and now I have to buy a new leather chair, damn you."

That is critical. You have to write in such a way as to get to feel
a freakishly urgent sense of needing to finish the read, which is what
translates into them being compelled to convince their bosses to spend the money. 

A lot of other writers and people in the business were trying to
guess what "soft" meant at the time (since this was a fairly common
excuse floating around), and one opinion was that it was
the opposite of edgy.  Well, not everything can be edgy,
so that wasn’t really working as a definition. Then one day I put the
two things together and I realized what ‘soft’ meant: it meant that
there wasn’t enough forward motion in the story to actively compel the
reader to keep reading, regardless of all else.

‘Soft’ is the opposite of ‘crisp’ and ‘urgent.’ 

How did that apply to me? 

This is where it got tricky. I went through my stories and on the
surface, it seemed like I was already doing what needed to be done.

interesting characters………..check 
clear goals………………………. check 
obstacles………………………… check 

So, hmmm. That looks like everything I need. What the hell is up
with that? Then I looked more closely at story structure, which is when
I realized: a lot of what is motivating the characters isn’t revealed
until sometime later in the story. And some of these were pretty
important reasons for being motivated, but they were buried deeper. And by trying hard to be mysterious, I just ended up with vague motivations.

But… but… (I can hear the outcries), in mysteries and thrillers, the real reasons aren’t usually revealed up front.


But the reader still needs to have a reason, a motivation, for the action. They need to understand what that motivation is–whether or not you end up disproving it later.

The problem with writing so "indirectly" is that for the first part
of the story, the reader has to take it on faith that you’re going to
eventually supply them with the motivation and what’s at stake for the
main character. I managed to dance fast enough to keep them interested,
but I am certain that when they put my stuff down and had to go explain
to their boss, they weren’t able to sum up the character very easily,
or what the character wanted / needed or why. I definitely had reasons
all along the story trajectory as to why the character was doing what
they were doing, and the reader could deduce some of the motivations,
but at the same time, I blocked the reader from getting too much
information because I wanted to reveal more about them later. My
assumption had been that this sort of structure made the story deeper,
more thought provoking, creating a greater impact. That delay can work,
but it also renders a lot of your story as appearing to be re-active
instead of active: it doesn’t look so much like the character is
forging forward as they are simply reacting to what’s happening, and
that can make the story feel passive and less immediate.

I will give you a movie example that I think many of you have seen: The Usual Suspects. In it, [SPOILER ALERT, OLD MOVIE] Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) has been brought into the police station for questioning about his part in the gang who’ve ended up dead. Through flashback, Verbal tells the story, and we believe that his motivation is to get his ass out of a sling. He is just this sort of slow, innocent guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His motivation to stay out of jail is palpable and his fear of Keyser Soze, the real bad guy behind the slayings, drives the story.

Except, of course, at the end, there is the long reveal that he is Keyser Soze.

If the writer, MacQuarrie, had not given Verbal Kint a hard-driving reason for telling his story, the reveal wouldn’t have been as powerful.

Nor would it have been as compelling.

The story drives forward fast on the motivation of Verbal Kint to stay out of trouble with the police and with Soze. It is *really* being driven forward by the fact that Soze is completely manipulating the police detectives doing the questioning, and they just don’t realize it yet. He’s toying with them, showing off, and they’ll understand that later.

Complex characters can make for excellent writing, but you have to
do one very simple thing to pull them off: give the reader at least a
surface motivation as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Why they
must have whatever it is they’re going after in the story. Even
if you want to deepen that later or turn it in on itself and twist it
to surprise your reader by making the character more complex, you still
need to keep the reader invested in the story, and they have a hard
time staying invested if they don’t know what’s at stake or why it’s
critical to the character.

So the new list: 

interesting characters…….check 
clear goals…………………… check 
obstacles…………………….. check 

Then I looked at the "obstacles" and analyzed my writing, and I
realized that not only did I have to make those obstacles incrementally
tougher, they had to matter so much and the character had to keep failing. 

Terry Rossio, over on his Wordplayer (highly, highly recommended reading) used Indiana Jones as an example…   

Indy [PRE INDY 4, OBVIOUSLY] is this great archaeologist / hero, able to go into difficult
areas and retrieve these priceless artifacts, and when he’s going after
the ARK, he keeps failing. When it looks like he’s about to succeed,
there’s another twist and he’s not only failed, he’s in a bit of a
worse situation than he was when he started. And now he’s got to
brainstorm his way out of that.

Someone once said to me: character is shown by the choices we make when things aren’t going well.

A person may talk the talk of a pacifist, for example, but when
confronted with a situation, realize that they would resort to violence
to save someone they loved… so their character is not a pacifist
after all (something they may have difficulty dealing with in the

When you make sure that your stakes are escalating and that your
character has to keep dealing with these problems, and the problems are
getting worse, then you’ve got the chance to show what this person is
really like — good and bad — which, along with the stakes, renders
the story a ‘page turner.’

So I looked at my scripts and realized I wasn’t applying that sort
of tension. (This can, honestly, apply to literary fiction as well. The
stakes are more intimate, more personal, but they have to keep
increasing and keep mattering to the character.)

Once I realized these things, I looked around for the kind of story
that resonated with me, the kind of character I just could not put
down. I looked for a way to tell this story without sacrificing voice
or style, a way to immerse the reader immediately and have them hanging
on, turning the page to see what happens next. When I started getting
that "I couldn’t put it down" reaction consistently, I knew I had
stepped onto a higher level playing field. (There are always higher
levels, no matter where we are, where we’ve started.)

These things which applied to me may not apply to you. You have to
really look at what is being said, make a list of the positives and the
negatives, and then start looking at what’s missing. Most people are
not Simon Cowell (American Idol) and aren’t going to tell you the
brutal truth, even if they’re thinking it. They’re going to sugarcoat.
But I think by looking at what is consistently not said, you may be
able to dig up some useful truth.

If you’re getting the "I couldn’t put it down" sort of responses
from just about everyone reading but it hasn’t crossed that elusive
"sold" line, remember that a big part of what we do is sales, and not
every buyer is looking for exactly what we have. That’s the frustrating
part about the business, but it doesn’t mean you’re not on track with
your writing (if you’re getting the great responses)… it’s just a
matter of right person and right time.

Persistence is everything. 

I’d love to add to my examples of movies or books with double layered motives. Especially any good sting type of movies (like, well, THE STING) where the motives hit the switchback trail a couple of times and still keep you utterly compelled. So what have you seen (old or new) where the motives were utterly compellingly written?

14 thoughts on “figuring out what they’re not telling you

  1. Pari Noskin Taichert

    My gosh, Toni! I feel like I just read through the notes of an entire year’s worth of writing classes . . . with all the nonessential bullcrap edited out.


    I can’t even answer your question because I’m trying to process EVERYTHING you included.

    Holy cow.

    The posts this week are, IMHO (really it’s HO), why Murderati is so incredibly special.

  2. Louise Ure

    I was very lucky, Toni. Several early readers of my first book rejected it … but were incredibly articulate about why they did, and they all said the same thing. They loved the characters and they loved the writing, but they knew who the killer was too early.

    Keeping his identity a secret had not been my intention, but it was clearly an assumption they wanted to make. And they were right. I rewrote the back half and changed the villain along the way.

    Thanks for the insightful post today, my dear, and have fun at RWA!

  3. billie

    Toni, I agree – this is amazing info and along with the other Murderati posts this week, makes for a solid gold week.

    Not that that’s unusual here, but I like to say it now and then. 🙂

    I immediately picked up my notebook for revision ideas and jotted down several things that today’s post prompted. I did the same thing yesterday with Alex’s post.

  4. Jake Nantz

    Well, now I’m looking at my (SO FREAKIN CLOSE TO BEING FINISHED! DAMMIT!!) manuscript, and I see a little motivation void where I was trying to be mysterious. UGH!

    Thank you, Ms. Causey. Frustrating as this is, I bet the book turns out better/more saleable.

    As far as double-layered motivation, how about Pacino in THE RECRUIT, God in EVAN ALMIGHTY, pretty much everyone on the team in OCEAN’S TWELVE, and (my favorite other than Verbal Kint) Leonard in MEMENTO.

    For a good literary example, try the character of The Watchmaker in Deaver’s THE COLD MOON. He gives great advice at one point, something to the effect of, “if you ever get caught, cop to the lesser of two evils…never reveal your true motivations.” That’s certainly not exact, but that guy goes through like three sets of reasons for doing what he’s doing. Just great stuff.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Fantastic post, Toni – spot on.

    When producers say something is “soft”, what they’re really saying is the premise isn’t big enough to justify the expenditure of the kind of money and effort it takes to make a movie. They’re saying it’s not high concept enough. If a script has a big enough concept, it’s going to get bought even if the writing is mediocre.

    And actually, I think when editors reject manuscripts these days, they’re often rejecting them because they’re “soft”, but that’s not a word I’ve ever heard in publishing. Maybe it would be a good word for us to adopt in publishing, for clarity.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Superb, as always. And especially this comment:

    “Someone once said to me: character is shown by the choices we make when things aren’t going well.”

    And as I’m just hitting the first 10k words on my way into the new book, what you’ve said here will make me look at the outline again – much, MUCH harder.

    Thank you ;-]

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Pari, wow, thank you. I’m humbled if it helped in any way. Writing is such an individual journey and yet, we all learn from each other constantly. (Thank goodness.)

    Louise, that’s terrific about the feedback. And great that the readers weren’t afraid of being honest. At that stage of the game, it’s a difficult thing to find. I have been lucky, too, in finding those kinds of readers. It’s harsh, sometimes, to find out something needs improvement. Damnit. But it’s a good thing, too.

  8. toni mcgee causey

    billie, I did the same thing with Alex’s post, too. She rocked it, didn’t she? 😉

    And thanks — very glad to be helpful. I’m constantly learning stuff from everyone here, especially in the comments discussion.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    Alex, I am cracking up… is *that* what they meant? Because damn, that would have been much easier to hear. 😉

    I think motivation is inherent (generally) in high concept, which is probably one of the things that makes it so appealing to sell: they know the overarching crux of the story, and they know what the characters want at the beginning, and that that motivation will drive the narrative.

    [we should have a whole blog / discussion about this, actually]

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Jake, yikes! I completely empathize with that feeling. I both HATE and LOVE the person who creates those epiphanies for me when I’m writing–it’s always one of those head-plant-to-the-desk moments. I sometimes sort of wish I’d have a way of knowing everything I needed to know before I started the book. But then again, if I wasn’t learning and growing, I’d be bored and would be wandering off to something else. This definitely keeps me entertained.

    Much good wishes on finishing.

  11. Stacey Cochran

    Incredibly helpful post, Toni.

    To answer your question… a couple of books that come to mind where the character’s motivation seems plausible and memorable…. Clarice Starling in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and Jack Torrance in THE SHINING.

    Clarice definitely has something to prove, and Jack desperately needs a break (and help).


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