Chip MacGregor

May 28, 2013

Where does depth in fiction come from?


Someone wrote to ask, “Put simply, where does depth in fiction come from?”

Depth is found when multidimensional characters who I can relate to, who I care about, face the timeless questions of life in the midst of complex circumstances, then make decisions that are open to interpretation. Their choices may not be right, but as a reader, I get to go through the experience with the characters. I see people in your story I have come to care about facing big decisions, making choices that I may or may not agree with, and I get to go through that season with them, and see the results of their choices, then measure them against my own life. THAT’S what causes me to learn, helps me to understand myself, and leaves me thinking about your book. And this can’t be faked – any bright reader will figure out when you’re faking depth or artificially trying to gin up emotion. So you can’t write with an agenda. Nothing is more boring than to read a polemic masquerading as a novel.

One novelist sent me this: “Writers of historical fiction seem to be interested in knowing what time period editors might be looking for. Is there a ‘hot’ time period you would like to see a book set in or any to avoid?”

Well, it’s changing all the time. Publishing is a tidal business– the tide comes in, the tide goes out. So Amish fiction doesn’t exist, then we’re awash in All Things Amish, then there are considerably fewer of those titles. And there’s nothing wrong with that — the culture embraces some topics or periods for a season. Some have more staying power than others (so “westerns” became their own genre, “Amish fiction” has become it’s own sub-genre in Christian fiction, and Chick Lit disappeared as a relative flash in the pan).Watching the trends can be fun, just to see what publishers are (and are not) interested in. But I rarely encourage writers to try and chase the trend — usually by the time you’ve spotted it, the market has moved on. 

That said, you’re asking a fair question. I’d say right now people have grown tired of the Civil War, but are still interested in Reconstruction, in both the North and South. There is once again interest in the Great Immigration period of 1880 to 1910, but the Downton Abbey craze seems to have gotten a lot of people interested in the empire-building period of the early 1900’s through World War 1 and into the Roaring Twenties. Of course, we’ve seen popular novels set in just about every decade of the 1900’s. Tales set in the 1960’s and 70’s have bombed in most markets so far, so I’d generally be wary of the era of long hair and love beads (and, of course, now that I’ve said that, I’m sure the next #1 NYT bestseller will be something like “Love Child: The Haight-Ashbury Series”).

Finally, I’ve had a couple people say to me, “I write fiction, and I’d like to know what you think is the one best step I could take in my novel writing career?”  

I’ve thought about this a lot, since I represent a number of novelists. I suppose part of me wants to say to beginners, “Take a class so you’re forced to write” or “find a writing partner so you’ve got someone to hold you accountable.” But, after having mulled it over, here’s my response: First, attend a great writing conference, then force yourself to attend stuff and meet people. It just seems like most of the novelists I know (not all, but most) found their careers moved forward by a writing conference. They got a chance to learn from really good writing instructors, they got to hear about the bigger industry, and they got to rub shoulders with a bunch of other writers.

That last part is part is particularly important. Writing is a solitary business, and it’s easy to go into your cave, produce something, and have no context for knowing if it’s any good (besides having a firm belief in your own abilities, and a loving partner who tells you how wonderful you are). So being able to sit and talk with other writers is a blessing — you find out they are facing some of the same obstacles you are, and you’ll be encouraged by the people who overcame those problems and moved on to the next step. You’ll discover creative people who you like, and who inspire you, and who sometimes have great solutions to suggest to you. I don’t do a bunch of conferences any more, because my schedule won’t allow it, but I try to go to RWA and ACFW every year, and get to Thrillerfest or West Coast Crime or Bouchercon or one of the suspense-writers gatherings. Every other year I aim to be at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, since it’s such a fabulous gathering of great minds. And once in a while I’ll speak at a smaller conference (I did one in Nashville and one in Dallas this year), just to meet with authors and try to give back a bit. This is the start of conference season, and there will surely be a good writing conference close to you this summer — try attending one and participating fully. It will make a difference.

The second thing I’d suggest is that you read great books. Don’t just read in your genre, though that’s a good place to start. Pick up GREAT literature and read it. There’s a reason a classic is called that, or why an influential book has staying power — it speaks to people about the art. Recently I’ve read a half-dozen titles that I think are wonderful novels — Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I also just read Lisa Samson’s latest, The Sky Beneath my Feet, Ann Tatlock’s Promises to Keep, Vince Zandri’s The Remains, and I just re-read Susan Meissner’s Girl in the Glass and Mark Bertrand’s Pattern of Wounds. All were well-written and interesting. I also read a debut novel, Holly Lorincz’s Smart Mouth (which, if you haven’t read, you should check out on Amazon — the first chapter will have you laughing out loud). And if you want a difficult, edgy bit of reading that will astound you, pick up Les Edgerton’s The Rapist. Tough title, but a fabulously well-written book. If you want to be a great writer, hang out with other great writers. My advice. (And yes, I got to represent several of these titles. I’m biased, but these are all great writers.)

I’m off to BEA. We’ll have some guests blogging this week — thanks to good writers for being here while I’m on the road. Some great advice from thoughtful writer Keri Kent, a beautiful bit of writing from novelist Tina Bustamante, and a couple thoughtful posts from some award-winning friends. Enjoy. See you in New York.



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  • Kim Kouski says:

    I agree with you about dept with characters. I love it when a character acts like a ‘normal’ person with fears and tears rather than some cardboard superman/woman.

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    “Nothing is more boring than to read a polemic masquerading as a novel.” I would tweet that if I twittered. BTW, the apostrophes are in the right place today.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    Thanks for the reading list. Always looking for great titles.

  • Anne Love says:

    You can’t fake depth–so true. Nothing makes me want to put a book down faster–or throw it!

    “#1 NTY Bestseller–Love Child”–great chuckle. 🙂

    I’ve had that question about historical fiction floating in my mind for a while now. Glad you read my thoughts, and shared yours.

    Writer’s Conferences–totally agree. I’m very much looking forward to ACFW this year again. But it’s the relationships that bring me the most joy. If I never publish, it will still have been worth the investment–what an immeasurable treasure. As they say: Elevator Pitch–shaking in my boots; Meeting with an agent–might just pee my pants; Friendships formed–Priceless.

  • Not sure if I agree that books set in the 60s have overall been busts. What about The Help, 11/22/63, Newbery winner Dead End in Norvelt, Newbery honor The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963, Countdown by Deborah Wiles, and many others? I might agree that Hippie novels haven’t worked, but I think the 60s in fiction is really hitting its prime. (So says the guy whose novel set in the 60s comes out next year and he’s now terrified it will be a bust. Thanks a lot, Chip. :))

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Sorry, Isaiah. You’re right — there HAVE been some successful books set in that era. But overall, it’s not a trending category. Will be in the future, however.

  • Clint Hall says:

    May I ask which conference you attended in Nashville? I’m in Atlanta and frankly always looking for a good excuse to drive to Nashville. Was it one of ACW’s mentoring retreats, or something else?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      It was a one-day conference put on by Bella Publications. I blogged about it a couple months ago, Clint. A good time was had by all.

  • Meghan Carver says:

    Great advice about attending a conference. I’ve attended a smaller conference a couple of times, but I’m looking forward to ACFW this year right here in Indianapolis and meeting a lot of people I know online and from their books, like the incredible Susan Meissner and you, Chip.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Meghan. You’ll love ACFW, which is simply one of the best writing conferences on the planet. And yes — isn’t Susan Meissner a fabulous writer? You’ll find she’s also a fine writing instructor. We taught together one time and I got to experience her work firsthand. She’s good, and you’ll learn quite a bit.

    • Susan Meissner says:

      Thanks for affirmation, Meghan and Chip!

  • Richard Mabry says:

    Chip, Since I’m agreeing with you, the End Times can’t be far behind. You’ve hit the nail on the head with the best advice for beginning writers: attend a conference (and make yourself go to the sessions–that’s the hard part), then read a lot.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      No doubt a sign of the Apocalypse, Richard. Thanks for pointing that out!

    • Judith Robl says:

      I simply MUST get to a conference where the two of you will be attending. Admiring from afar is not quite so satisfying as sitting down and talking over a cuppa whatever. Actually, I’ll let the two of you talk and simply eavesdrop openly. 🙂

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