Evidence of Things Not Seen by Lindsey Lane

As soon as I read the first words of Lindsey Lane’s debut novel, Evidence of Things Not Seen, I knew. I would kill the weekend with this book. It’s a slim volume that I could have probably gotten through in a single day in editor-mode. But I was reading for pleasure. So I forced myself to take it slow, to savor.

“We leave pieces of ourselves everywhere. Every time we meet someone, they take some of us and we take some of them. That’s how it is. Little particles stick us together. Bit by bit. I think it’s how we get whole.”

That text from the first of many torn “piece[s] of notebook paper found on the side of US 281” is how Evidence of Things Not Seen opens.

I couldn’t help thinking of James Dickey’s novel Alnilam or David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as I read deeper into the secrets of the book’s small Texas town. Like those older works, Evidence is also an opaque mystery, a hunt for a missing teen that dances on the edge of fantasy. The magic in Lane’s story is powerful but shy, preferring to hide in the spaces between. And it takes the form of particle physics. That’s right, I said particle physics.

Tommy, the boy who’s disappeared, is a cherished outsider in his community, an eccentric genius the other kids at “Fred High” all look out for, even if they don’t understand him. And he’s really, really into theoretical physics, especially the idea of alternate dimensions. Many of his peers think that’s what happened to him, that he stepped into another dimension.

Peppering her story with highbrow physics is just one of the many wonderful ways Lane breaks the rules. Another is the structure. This novel could easily have been marketed as a collection of short fiction. Its a string of eyewitness accounts and standalone stories, each from a different perspective. But I came to agree with the choice to label Lane’s book a novel. It has the requisite long-form arc.

Boy does it. Evidence builds like the sound of a passing semi at night. To force the metaphor, Lane’s climax and resolution has the glare and shadow of that speeding big-rig, as well. I recognized it’s power more from the memories and associations her words invoked than from the scene she showed me. If you like neat and tidy endings, this book may frustrate you.

It’s risky for a debut novelist to break as many rules as Lane does. But she pulls it off beautifully. For example, her chapter called “The Last Dance” is essentially a short story about an elderly married couple taking a drive.

How is that YA?

It’s because the wife’s dementia has broken her bond with linear time. She mostly lives as a teen in her mind. Her clear-headed husband, who just wants to stay with her, plays along, drifting hand in hand with her back to the beginning of a long shared history. It’s poignant and tragic and joyful all at once. And somehow, it works beautifully in a book written for teens.

Even with all its iconoclasm, Evidence of Things Not Seen does strictly adhere to the one unbreakable rule of novel writing: you can do whatever you want so long as you’re good enough to pull it off. Lindsey Lane’s debut proves she is so much more than good enough.

Read Evidence of Things Not Seen. Now.

Make More of Setting: Affordances

If there is a gun over the mantel in the first act, by the end of the play it should go off. If you put something into your fictional world—especially if you draw attention to it—you should think about its affordances, and make the most of them.

If there is a gun over the mantel in the first act, by the end of the play it should go off. If you put something into your fictional world—especially if you draw attention to it—you should think about its affordances, and make the most of them.

As a writer and an editor I often find myself staring at a scene where the character is stuck in a blank space—thinking without acting. How do we get ourselves out of these habits? How do we find more potential for action?

A lot of times, I think we’re told to go back to our plot (What is the next story event? How do I make that happen?) or character (What does the protagonist want? What will she do next to try to get it?) While these are both good options, I know that sometimes they work better in theory than in practice. Sometimes I go back to my plot and my character and still surface an hour later, not sure what to actually start writing. How to start building a scene.

In this case, I’m going to recommend going back to setting.

One of the helpful terms that I’ve stolen from a psychologist friend is the idea of affordances. An affordance is the potential for action inherent in an object. A doorknob affords turning. A glass of tea affords drinking. A setting is filled with objects, and each object has many affordances—possible actions.

Look around at the setting you have created. What is there for your character to interact with? How many different possibilities are inherent in the same object? What would it show us about your character if, instead of drinking the glass of tea, he threw it at the wall? Offered it to someone he thought needed it more than he did? Used it to tell someone’s fortune?

If you’re working in a world that has different parameters than the real world (magical realism, fantasy, etc) ask yourself if anything in your setting has different affordances.

To create action, first you have to create the potential for action. How can we get the most potential from our settings? The most interesting potential? The most telling potential? The most explosive potential? The most unique potential?

The idea reminds me a bit of the Chekovian bit of wisdom that is often repeated in theater circles: If there is a gun over the mantel in the first act, by the end of the play it should go off. If you put something into your fictional world—especially if you draw attention to it—you should think about its affordances, and make the most of them. In my favorite brand of storytelling, the gun will be used by the end of the story, but not in the way we expect.

When I go back to my wandering, floating, not-quite-doing-anything character, and sketch in a few more details of the setting, things immediately start to happen. Keeping plot and character in mind, I follow these small actions to see what they can tell me, and to see where they lead.

Amy Rose Capetta is the author of Entangled (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Kids) and its sequel Unmade (forthcoming in 2014). She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has previously worked for the Writers’ League of Texas, and served as assistant editor for the Children’s and Young Adult section of the literary journal Hunger Mountain. In addition to her novels, she has written screenplays, the most recent of which debuted at the Toronto ReelHeart International Film Festival. After calling Austin her home for several years, Amy Rose now lives in the Midwest, where she focuses on writing and editing fiction.

Areas of Specialty: Narrative work for middle grade, young adult, and adult readerships. All genres welcome. Particular areas of interest: fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, supernatural, genre-bending fiction, creative nonfiction, literary fiction, LGBTQ fiction.

Available For: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, first chapter critique and edit, synopsis review and edit, private writing coaching.

Want to hire Amy Rose as your editor or writing coach? Click here!

Banish Stick-Figure Writing: How Concrete Sensory Details Make All the Difference in Fiction

Thin, generic description is the literary equivalent of drawing with stick figures. That’s a problem—because your reader’s imagination will only engage if it’s convinced what’s happening is real. And if their imagination won’t engage, their emotions won’t engage, and they’ll puts the book down and find something fun to do.

So how do you flesh your stick figures out?

In 1979, a revolutionary book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain pinpointed why so many adults and older children can’t draw. It’s because they aren’t drawing what they see—they’re drawing what they know.

In other words, they’re drawing a category, rather than the thing itself.

I “know” a face is oval and has two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, so that’s what I draw. Then I’m surprised that it looks like a stick figure, not a human face. In reality, depending on the way a face is angled and the way the light falls across it, a real face may not be oval, may not have two (visible) eyes, may have only part of a nose, etc.

I “know” a tree has a thick trunk and at the top some branches and leaves—so I draw a stick-figure tree instead of the wild living thing flinging out arms and fingers in front of me.

The same thing can happen in writing. “A dog stood under a tree. A girl ran past.”  But “dog,” “tree,” and “girl” aren’t descriptions; they’re labels for abstract concepts. Was it a tiny mutt or a graceful Great Dane? An aspen or a cottonwood? A 6-year-old Latina or a willowy white teenager?

A few fleshier alternatives:

  • A twenty-foot cottonwood, heart-shaped leaves turning lazily in the breeze
  • A mutt with a smashed-in boxer’s face and lolling tongue
  • A small girl with tangled dark hair, wiping her nose on a dirty coat sleeve as she runs past.

Now a little of this kind of description goes a long way. Be judicious: you don’t want to force-feed your reader a whole box of chocolates. If I were editing myself here, I’d decide which was the most important element for the reader to focus on. Let’s say it was the dog:

“The mutt stood under a tall cottonwood. He turned his smashed-in boxer’s face, tongue lolling, to watch a small, dark-haired girl run past. He did not give chase.”

We’re humans, we live in bodies. That means our minds won’t believe, our imaginations won’t be convinced, without plenty of concrete sensory details. Banish the stick figure. Make your writing juicy with life, and allow the reader to fall in love with your book.

We All Need Community: The Benefits of Critique Partners and Beta Readers

I talk myself out of editing jobs all the time. A new writer will approach me about a project. We’ll get to talking. And I’ll end up advising that writer to wait to spend money on a professional editor. I’ve blogged about this before in various ways, I suppose. And now I’m going to do it again because it bears restating. Writers are stubborn. Sometimes we need to be beaten with an idea for a bit to grok it.

These writers I talk to shouldn’t be spending money on editing yet. A lot of times their contact with me is the first they’ve had with a fellow writer. Sometimes it’s the first time they’ve shared their work at all, which is a monumental moment. They’ve figured out they can’t do the writing thing on their own like they once believed. They’re beginning to understand they need a community.

I usually tell them to seek out critique partners and/or beta readers. And if they’re not already reading in their genre, I strongly advise them to do that, too. So far I haven’t heard back from any of them. I take that as a good sign, a sign they got the deeper message: they need to build themselves a place in a writing community.

I’m talking about more than a writer’s need for critical, constructive feedback here. Or the need for mentors and compatriots, fellow writers who are discovering or have discovered how to make a go of the writing life. A writer needs a few fans, even at the beginning. Maybe it’s just one coworker who stops him in the hall to say how much he loves reading the writer’s blog. However it takes place, that kind of out of the blue validation helps build much needed self-confidence. And knowing there are people reading what you write makes it harder to justify blowing it off.

By the way, I’m deliberately leaving family out of this discussion because family is different. The people who live with writers have to buy in on a whole other level.

I recently had one of these quasi-fan experiences. As you may know, I’m a theater technician as well as a writer and editor. One of my day jobs is as a carpenter at the Texas State Performing Arts Center Shop. Not only do I build scenery there, I usually work on my writing and editing projects during my breaks, sitting on an air-compressor in a secluded corner of the tool cage. While I was gone on my recent vacation (if you want pictures, click here), the scenic painting professor made and installed a sign above my little space between the shelves.

She’s not a writer. As far as I know she’s never even read my writing. I’ve known her for less than a year. But she sees me in there with my computer in my lap. And she’s an artist; she understands. She gets the yen to make something as good as it can be. So she surprised me with her little sign. What I don’t think she understands is how much that small act inspires me every day, how it makes it easier to go into the noisy solitude of the tool cage and write, how she’s a big part of my writing community. I should probably tell her all that, huh?

And that’s why I talk myself out of so much editing work. There’s a lot of great things a freelance editor can offer a writer. But a hired editor can’t offer that fundamental, made-to-fit writing community every writer needs. We writers have to build that kind of support network for ourselves.

Don’t Give Me That Look! How to Improve the Emotional Cues in Your Manuscript

I’ve written blog posts about gesture before, but this particular one has been keeping me up at night! As I am about to embark on revisions for my upcoming novel (forthcoming in 2016), I keep thinking about how to capture the “looks” between two characters. It’s common to find “looks” within a manuscript. After all, how often does one character look or “gaze” at another in a moment of dramatic or even romantictension. Ooh La La!

I have a challenge for you, dear reader! Go to the story you’re working on, open the file, and do a word search. Find any incarnation of the word “look/looks/looking.”

Hurts, doesn’t it? YIKES.

In my WIP right now, I have 176 “looks.” I’m not sure how horrible that is as of yet because I’m still editing, but I know that I tend to overuse “looks” so I thought I would share some of my writing/revision process.

I keep wondering what it is that I hope to elicit from “a look” between characters. In cinema, we have the advantage of various zoomed in shots, savvy editing, camera angels, etc. On film, a look between two characters can say so much more than a line of dialogue ever could. Yet, in fiction, we have the hefty job of creating the cinematic experience in the mind of our readers. We need to create the camera angles and trigger an emotional response with our words.

We also need to ensure that a look will show us something about our characters and their world instead of just telling the readers that eyes are meeting. We can’t assume that the reader is going to understand what is being unsaid between two characters. It is up to us, the writers, to make the gaze mean more. As I revise and as you revise, I hope that these three tactics will help you make the most out of this kind of unspoken communication.

THREE WAYS TO MAKE “A LOOK” WORK HARDER (AKA I am trying to take my own advice):

1. Make sure that the look reveals something important/unknown about your character.

Who are the two people looking at one another? Why is the look important? If two characters make eye contact that doesn’t illuminate something about the characters or their relationship, then we don’t need it.

Now, I’m not saying that every single look in a manuscript has to carry weight. Generally, when you have two characters in a scene together and one looks at the other, you need to consider what is it you are trying to communicate. Here’s an example from my current WIP:

“Where are you going?” Mr. Hall says.

“You do what you want,” I say to Lila who meets my eyes and then quickly looks away. “Take the role. It’s yours. I don’t want any part of this.”

What I am trying to show there is that Lila is self-righteous. She’s hurt my character badly, but doesn’t want to make eye contact because she’s a jerk. Have I shown that? Nope. I need to make the moment work harder so that the reader understands Lila’s character through that shared gaze.

I don’t know if this is how I’ll ultimately end up revising but I could try something like this:

“Where are you going?” Mr. Hall says.

“You do what you want,” I say to Lila who snaps at her gum, eyes to her cell phone, and with a casual flip of her hand, tosses her hair over her shoulder. I’ve never hated the smell of bubble gum so much in my life. “Take the role,” I say to her smacking jaw. “It’s yours. I don’t want any part of this.”

I’ve added action, I’ve made Lila gesture differently, revealing her indifference and also employed sensory detail so that we know how my character feels about Lila’s behavior.

2. The “look”” needs to either be the focal point of the scene or it needs to push the plot forward in some way. Again, not every single “look” can matter but the ones that do should earn their place within the narrative.

Ask yourself: What can the look between your two characters change/reveal? If the answer is nothing, then think deeper and reveal the information between them in a new or varied away. This leads me to my last suggestion.

3. Deepen the gesture.  Is “looking” the only way that people interact with one another? No way!

Consider the emotional moment that is occurring between these two characters. Perhaps all of these “looks” are really a roadmap for you to go back and deepen the relationships between these two characters when you are ready to revise. As you draft, leave all the “looks” in as placeholders, but definitely go back.

When you do, ask yourself what other ways these two characters can interact? Sensory detail? Touch? Food? Action/Reaction? What is the look standing in for? What do your characters want to say?

Well, that’s it for me! I hope that I’ve illuminated some tactics to try to deepen the way your characters inhabit the pages of your story!

I wish I could go on and on about this! In fact, I probably could.