About Those First 30 Pages…

March 20, 2013

Beagle-reading

Kristin Nelson has a great post today on the top two reasons she passes on sample pages and, as usual, she’s spot on.The prime death knell with reading the first 30 pages of a manuscript is a lack of red meat. Sure, you may have a ton of action going on, or great dialog, but it needs to be a set up of the plot.

Kristin suggests that authors read their first 30 pages, and outline the plot points in a list list by chapter.  Don’t summarize the chapter, simply list the action found in it.

Kristin says that if you find…

1) The work is missing a plot catalyst to really start the story (so there is a lot going on action-wise but no actual story unfolding).

2) There is nothing at stake for the main character.

…then you might think about going back to the drawing board. I run into this a lot, so I’m glad Kristin blogged about it. If your first 30 pages don’t give the reader a solid idea where the story is going and what’s at stake for the main character, then they’re going to close the book. *Ungently.

Take a look at your first 30 pages. Do you feel those pages set up the plot and present the high stakes for the main character?

*Yes, I realize “ungently” isn’t a real word

Series of Events or Plot?

January 7, 2013

chain_f

In playing catch up with queries, I’ve noticed a heavy concentration of queries written by authors who have mistaken a series of events for the plot. Thar be a difference. I don’t care about the series of events; I need the plot because it’s the guts to your story. It’s the reason your book exists. It’s the kapow.

A series of events is a collection of scenes that happen in the course of a book – it ain’t da plot. Note the difference:

“Sally goes to college, where she meets John, the hunky prime slab o’ beef who sits behind her in Math 207. They begin dating, only John is confused because he’s still hung up on his hometown girlfriend, Jane, and can’t figure out who he likes more. Sally, in the meantime, meets Derek in Science 101 and has her own share of confusion. It’s impossible for her to resist his curly hair and the fact that he can speak Pig Latin with a German accent.

Sally sticks it out with John, but lusts for Derek, until John goes home for semester break. Over a pizza party with a group from their science class, Sally ends up making whoopie with Derek. When John returns from semester break, Sally decides to tell him it’s over, that she’s in love with Derek and his German accented Pig Latin. John, meanwhile, discovers that Jane, his hometown girlfriend, has taken up with the undertaker’s son. His mind is made up and Sally is the only girl for him, only now she’s with Derek

John is so undone, he decides to transfer to Podunk University, so he can forget all about Sally. Sally, in the meantime, grows weary with Derek’s Pig Latin, and almost faints when he decides to shave his head. Goodbye sexy, curly locks, hello buzzhead. She begins to think about John. Was he really the one for her? She considers contacting him on Facebook, but he won’t accept her Friend Request. Her emails have gone unanswered, and he won’t answer her phone calls.

She gathers up the nerve to take a road trip to Podunk U and confront him, only to find out he’s disappeared. She goes over to the house of one of his friends to see if he knows where John is…”

…blah, blah, blah…get to the point already. And the problem is, there never is a point, and the query letter continues on for far too long, describing general scenes, but never revealing any reason this story exists. There is no purpose. What’s worse is we don’t even know who is the protagonist (I made this, btw).

Now there are times when a story is all that…a big conglomeration of nothing…and if your story looks like this, you may be in Lack-of-Plot Hell. On the other hand, your story really may have a point after all, but you’ve hidden it too well under long underwear and heavy jackets (forgive the frigid metaphors…it’s really cold in Pitts – yay!). If you don’t reveal the plot within the first couple paragraphs of your query letter, I’ll quit reading…pinky swear.

On the other hand, Plot (as defined by Dictionary.com) is the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story. And here’s the thing; it may be completely different from your boring series of events. I had this very thing happen last week. I read a query that consisted of nothing but a series of events. I rejected it and explained why. A few days later, the author wrote back, thanking me, and included the actual plot. It was much more interesting, and vastly different from the original.
So let me show you what I mean. Here’s the plot to the mess I wrote above:
Sally feels terrible about the way she treated John while they attended university, so she travels down to the campus he transferred in order to forget her…only he turns up missing. Sally begins to consider the possibility that his disappearance is related to his math thesis, which challenges Einstein’s theory of relativity. Since Sally had worked with him the project, she wonders if she’s a target as well, and she’s torn between digging deep to find him and being concerned for her own well-being.

Boom. There it is in one paragraph. It’s a mystery, we know who the protag is, and the plot. All that other blather in the first example has squat all to do with the plot – and it’s this kind of writing that makes it impossible for me to care about reading more – which is sad because you can see the first example has zip all to do with the real plot as revealed in the second example.

So take a look at your query letter and see what you have; a series of events or the plot. Remember; the plot = your character’s journey.

  1. Something happened that created an experience for your main character(s). What is it? A murder? Cancer? Threat to world peace? Job loss? This experience is your trigger point for the story.
  2. Your character is uniquely qualified to have this experience. What is it? Was her loved one murdered? Does she or someone close to him have cancer? Is he a spy who can avert the threat to world peace? Did he lose his job?  What I’m looking for is how the experience relates to your main character.
  3. Your main character can make certain choices that will change the outcome. What are they? Call the police about her loved one’s murder, or investigate it herself and possibly become a target? How does she deal with cancer – does she fight or give up? Does he have enough strength and know how to avert world tragedy? Does he go on welfare, or does he take the only job available to him – which won’t cover the rent? I want to know what the personal stakes are for your main character. I’m looking to see how big the stakes are for them. If it’s a matter of a chipped nail, then there isn’t much to pull me in. However, if we’re talking about finding sanity and comfort in the wake of a major killer of a disease, then I can get wrapped up in that.

If you look at 1, 2, and 3, you’ll see that it’s far easier to avoid committing the Series of Events query letter, which I guarantee will result in a rejection.


The Dangling Carrot and Character Development

October 17, 2012

I ran this post last year, and I thought I’d run it again, since I’m giving this seminar at the Florida Writer’s Conference this weekend.

Since we specialize memoir/biography, I am regularly humbled by people’s experiences and how they had to dig deep to overcome whatever experiences unexpectedly entered their lives. It’s like the Cosmic Muffin looked down and said, “Ok, see that huge pile of goo I just dumped in your lap? Deal with it.”

We never really know what we’re made of until we face that pile of goo. Some people fold like a bad poker hand, and others rise to the occasion and become better/stronger/more thoughtful people for their experiences. These kinds of people don’t know they have the strength within them until they are tested to the limits. Many of have to gain those abilities along the way in order to overcome or push through their experience. Hardship and challenges are the great separator of the wheat and chaff. I love hearing the “wheat” stories.

I thought about those elements that make for great nonfiction and how they play into the character development of fiction. We all know that characters are the vehicles used to unfold the plot, so it goes to reason that these characters need to be three-dimensional in order to maintain our interest. I read a lot of manuscripts, and the biggest problem I see is with character development. They are flat, colorless things,which makes me think the author doesn’t know their characters well enough.

The Dangling Carrot may be an important feature to helping you give your characters a few extra layers and, therefore, a lot more interest and dimension. I’ve separated The Dangling Carrot into three distinct elements.

The Dangling Carrot – three part symphony

The Dangling Carrot is something waves right in front of your face, but it’s out of your reach. The harder you run to grab it, the more frustrated you become because it’s always just beyond your grasp. The only option left to you is to develop new skills in order to nab that dang carrot. You might have to test out a few ideas before you find the one that helps you achieve your goal.

So here’s how that normally plays out:

1)  Your character’s current life:  When we meet your character, he/she is rolling along with his/her life, la dee da.

2)  Holy shock, Batman!:  While your character is innocently moving through his life, something comes along to test/challenge/frighten/influence him. This event, which is your plot, dangles in front of him and upends his world.

3)  “Do I have what it takes?”:   The carrot forces your character to dig deeply into their souls to obtain/overcome/destroy/resolve the plot. The problem is the character doesn’t have the skills to overcome the obstacles facing him, and this forces him to draw upon a strength they didn’t realize they possessed. The act of denying your character of the skills in which to overcome the plot makes for a much richer story because the character is playing off the plot.

What moves the story along is the character’s journey of growth and maturation to meet this new demand because there are numerous choices the character can make that will influence the outcome.  Your character(s) has to rise to the occasion in order to achieve their goal, or they’ll fail. The lovely byproduct is that the character is changed forever, which is your “riding off into the sunset” moment, be it tragic or happy.

Even Superman has his Kryptonite, so absent the clear view of elements 1, 2, and 3, you create a disconnect that pulls your reader out of the story. I’ve found that if writers adhere to the Dangling Carrot, they are forced to delve more deeply into the psyches of their characters’ backstories. It’s an important consideration because I see far too many stories where I feel the author doesn’t really know their characters, that they sprung to life on page 1…which really isn’t the case.

Our characters have a backstory just like we do. They have baggage, fears, and Kryptonite. Your job is to have that clearly defined in your mind when you start to develop your characters. Otherwise, they could be lifeless gobs of goo that I don’t care about…the characters, that is, not the authors!

If you consider the three elements of the Dangling Carrot when you’re creating your characters and the structure of your story, it might be the difference of a ho-hum story to a “Stop the margaritas, beagle, I gotta have that story!”


Plot vs Arc: Effecting Change

April 24, 2012

The pen is mightier than the sword, it just depends on how well you wield it.

The idea of Plot gives a lot of writers apoplexy…especially if they hear some scabby editor mention the weakness of said plot.

Plot is defined as the events that make up the story, particularly as they relate to one another through cause and effect. Yes yes, it all sounds so simple, right? Heh.

The problem that I see with a few queries that cross my desk is that they do have a plot, but it lacks interest because writers don’t necessarily grab the concept of cause and effect. It feels more like a science experiment. We always blabber on about conflict and resolution, but many don’t really get it.

So I thought maybe an easier way to explain things is to talk about Arc, which I see is missing in many queries that cross my desk. Arc, is defined as an extended or continuing storyline. In other words, the driving force that runs throughout the book.

Now here’s the kicker:  The purpose of a story arc is to move a character or a situation from one state to another; in other words, to effect change.

Where you have CHANGE, you have CONFLICT. Because, hey, no one changes without conflict. Something happens to ignite that change. Does that make sense?

Since I specialize in memoir/biography, I see many works that have no arc. Just because you’re writing someone’s biography doesn’t mean there isn’t an arc at play. Let’s use an example. Our book THE NEXT 15 MINUTES: STRENGTH FROM THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN is a riveting story about Kim Kircher coming face to face with her husband’s near-fatal illness and finding a way to be strong for herself and her husband.

This isn’t a linear story where Kim’s story remains unchanged. She goes from Point A to Point B because of her husband’s illness. She went from idyllic, to holy shit, to a state of grace. That is arc. Few make a conscious decision to effect change – they are dragged into it kicking and screaming. That makes good reading because we’re all in the same boat.

Fiction is no different. If your character never evolves or has change forced upon him, then what’s the draw? What’s the point?

If you’re struggling with plotting, maybe it would be helpful to consider the arc – the driving force that effects change. That is where conflict takes place because change can suck stale Twinkie cream, and it can kick up your plot a notch or three.

 


The Dangling Carrot and Character Development

September 26, 2011

I ran this post last year, and I thought I’d run it again, since I’m giving this seminar at the Florida Writer’s Conference this weekend.

Since we specialize memoir/biography, I am regularly humbled by people’s experiences and how they had to dig deep to overcome whatever experiences unexpectedly entered their lives. It’s like the Cosmic Muffin looked down and said, “Ok, see that huge pile of goo I just dumped in your lap? Deal with it.”

We never really know what we’re made of until we face that pile of goo. Some people fold like a bad poker hand, and others rise to the occasion and become better/stronger/more thoughtful people for their experiences. These kinds of people don’t know they have the strength within them until they are tested to the limits. Many of have to gain those abilities along the way in order to overcome or push through their experience. Hardship and challenges are the great separator of the wheat and chaff. I love hearing the “wheat” stories.

I thought about those elements that make for great nonfiction and how they play into the character development of fiction. We all know that characters are the vehicles used to unfold the plot, so it goes to reason that these characters need to be three-dimensional in order to maintain our interest. I read a lot of manuscripts, and the biggest problem I see is with character development. They are flat, colorless things,which makes me think the author doesn’t know their characters well enough.

The Dangling Carrot may be an important feature to helping you give your characters a few extra layers and, therefore, a lot more interest and dimension. I’ve separated The Dangling Carrot into three distinct elements.

The Dangling Carrot – three part symphony

The Dangling Carrot is something waves right in front of your face, but it’s out of your reach. The harder you run to grab it, the more frustrated you become because it’s always just beyond your grasp. The only option left to you is to develop new skills in order to nab that dang carrot. You might have to test out a few ideas before you find the one that helps you achieve your goal.

So here’s how that normally plays out:

1)  Your character’s current life:  When we meet your character, he/she is rolling along with his/her life, la dee da.

2)  Holy shock, Batman!:  While your character is innocently moving through his life, something comes along to test/challenge/frighten/influence him. This event, which is your plot, dangles in front of him and upends his world.

3)  “Do I have what it takes?”:   The carrot forces your character to dig deeply into their souls to obtain/overcome/destroy/resolve the plot. The problem is the character doesn’t have the skills to overcome the obstacles facing him, and this forces him to draw upon a strength they didn’t realize they possessed. The act of denying your character of the skills in which to overcome the plot makes for a much richer story because the character is playing off the plot.

What moves the story along is the character’s journey of growth and maturation to meet this new demand because there are numerous choices the character can make that will influence the outcome.  Your character(s) has to rise to the occasion in order to achieve their goal, or they’ll fail. The lovely byproduct is that the character is changed forever, which is your “riding off into the sunset” moment, be it tragic or happy.

Even Superman has his Kryptonite, so absent the clear view of elements 1, 2, and 3, you create a disconnect that pulls your reader out of the story. I’ve found that if writers adhere to the Dangling Carrot, they are forced to delve more deeply into the psyches of their characters’ backstories. It’s an important consideration because I see far too many stories where I feel the author doesn’t really know their characters, that they sprung to life on page 1…which really isn’t the case.

Our characters have a backstory just like we do. They have baggage, fears, and Kryptonite. Your job is to have that clearly defined in your mind when you start to develop your characters. Otherwise, they could be lifeless gobs of goo that I don’t care about…the characters, that is, not the authors!

If you consider the three elements of the Dangling Carrot when you’re creating your characters and the structure of your story, it might be the difference of a ho-hum story to a “Stop the margaritas, beagle, I gotta have that story!”


Approach your book idea thoughtfully

April 29, 2011

No, no, I’m not talking about holding the door open for your book idea and insisting they enter first. Or saying “please” and “thank you” to your book idea. I’m talking about the veracity of your idea – the legitimacy, the viability.

Believe me, I know what it’s like to get caught up in the fever of an idea. I remember when Barfy McLennon decided we should rip off the teacher’s afternoon lesson plan so we’d be forced to play on the playground for the rest of the day. It was Barfy’s idea. In fact, Barfy had two claims to fame in the third grade; 1) he held the only distinction of hurking on his desk during a math test and earning the coolest moniker of the school. The teacher felt so sorry for him, she gave him an automatic A, and b) thinking up great ideas.

So Barfy got me all a-twitter. YES! We would rip off teacher’s lesson plan. Playtime was in our grasp. The rest of the class would shower us with the good parts of their lunches. Victory and faithful obedience were assured. We tittered about it all during lunch and recess. By the time the freeze bell rang, my knees started to go shakey. Was I wussing out? Barfy would never let me live it down. In the end, I chickened out, satisfied to let Barfy claim all the glory.

I had come to my senses and realized this wasn’t a good idea.

And this is what I wish more authors would consider before they sit down to write their books. No, let me retract that. Go ahead and write it. Get it out of your system because I’m a proponent of following your literary urges.

But just because it’s an urge doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. What I mean by that is that it is either too personal to be marketable, or simply not an interesting subject matter.

The Approach

Let’s use the example of a query I got a couple weeks ago. The author is a cancer researcher and put together a bunch of vignettes about his patients. For starters, vignettes are hard to sell. I generally dislike them because the quality of the individual stories are inconsistent. Read one bad story, and you lose the reader. Bookstores shy away from them.

My problem with his idea  – aside from the fact that it was 200k words – was that it took the focus off of him, the author. The author is the glue, the golden thread that ties these stories together. Minus that,  you have a collection. Big deal. Cancer has been Done. To. Death. Do a search on cancer at Amazon. The pages go on forever. If you’re gonna do cancer, you gotta be unique.

The author approached his idea with good intention and conviction since these were people he’d treated over a long period of time. He got caught up in the notion that his patients made for a good book. But that’s not enough. What seems great in real life may not translate well to paper.

I didn’t feel the idea was marketable. However, if he’d approached this by simply asking himself, “What is the glue that makes my book a gotta have it?” Oh sure, he had the usual platitudes – inspirational, romantic (?), sad, thoughtful…blah, blah, blah. But what he couldn’t tell me is WHY. He couldn’t make a case for the viability of his book.

Now, if he’d approached his idea thoughtfully, he may have thought to make himself the central focus of the story and write about how his patients affected his life and changed his perception of how he views life – let’s say he’s a cynical, angry guy. By weaving in their experiences into his narrative, the reader can see how the author is affected and influenced by those who are suffering and dying. I find that compelling because I’m an old Sociology major from the early Jurassic Era, and I love stories about people who are altered by their surroundings – how they react to life experiences.

In one simple twist of thought, this book could have gone from uninteresting and unmarketable to “please send me pages.” That is why you approach your book idea thoughtfully. Letting your idea serve as your internal fuel is marvelous, but I caution against getting caught up in your idea. Don’t lose sight of the reality that you actually have to sell your story.

Is your story idea a good idea, or is it akin to stealing the teacher’s lesson plan? That takes thought, research of your genre, and understanding your competition.

As for Barfy? Well, he got caught for snatching the teacher’s lesson plan and was suspended for two days. Totally glad that I came to my senses and decided this was a bad idea.


Elements to enhance your plot

March 10, 2011

Nicola Morgan is brilliant. She can’t help herself – she’s simply hardwired that way. I used to suspect it was in the water, but nowadays I’m more inclined to believe it’s in the wine. Wherever she gets it, she’s simply one smart crabbity old bat. Now, I can say that because I’m older than she is – the tart.

Nicola has a blog post about goals and obstacles that are driving your plot.

Go.
Read.
Be brilliant.


The Basics

July 20, 2010

I feel a bit stupid doing a post on this because this info is virtually everywhere on the internet. But given the lackluster readings I’ve seen this summer, it makes me think writers have forgotten the basics of how to build a story – the plot – which includes all these goodies that you see in the picture.

It really doesn’t matter what you’re writing, fiction or nonfiction, the basic elements still apply. These are the Charles Darwin Moments I wrote about in my last post.

Exposition – intro stuff

The beginning of your story is vital to me – and to you! – because this is the hot zone for Rejection City. If I don’t get enough lead-in to your story – meaning a clear grasp of your characters and the setting – then I can’t possibly become engrossed in your story.

I’ve been seeing a lack of both this summer. The characters are dry, lifeless things that lay flat on the page – much like my attempts at baking. your characters are the vehicles that move the story along. If I don’t care about them, I certainly won’t care about the story.

The same can be said for settings. It’s not enough to say the story takes place in San Francisco. Where in SF? Use all five senses to set the scene. What is the weather like – besides foggy, that is? What smells are in the air? What does the character see? What sounds does he hear?

Imagine you’re walking with someone who’s blind. You have to describe everything around you in order to help that blind person “see” their surroundings. Well, your readers are also blind, so help them see.

Rising Action – we gotta go somewhere, right?

So you have the preliminaries over, and the story has to go somewhere. This is, oddly enough, where many manuscripts fall apart. You spent your first three chapters introducing the characters and setting the scene – it’s the busy work, and now it needs to take a specific direction. It’s the  “what’s next?” phase – which is usually Chapter 4.

This is where you have to commit to your story and build the foundations for the big Ta-Da, and this is where I see many stories flounder. Writers almost always have a clear vision of the big Ta-Da Moments because that’s more than likely the reason they’re writing the book.”Hey, I’ll write a book about how a small, freckled beagle takes over a publishing company!” The writer is keenly focused on the beagle achieving her intent and doesn’t really consider how to get her there.

That is the rising action.

This is where the conflict resides. For example, maybe the beagle’s attempts of her planned takeover are continually thwarted by a cagey editor who’s on to the evil plot, so the beagle decides to discredit the cagey editor by screwing up a manuscript right before it goes to print. But what if the publishing company is also discredited? Then the beagle would be Queen Bee of nothing. Should she resort to character assassination instead?

As you can see, there are different roads the beagle can take to achieve her ultimate goal – and each of them have their own set of consequences. Conflict.

But many manuscripts this summer are missing that logical sequence of events that create conflict. Instead, I’ve been seeing big dreks of backstory and fluff that derail the movement of the story. Note: you cannot build a foundation on backstory and fluff. This is why planning your story out is vital. Build up – don’t fall backwards with backstory.

Climax – exactly what you think it is

Here is your Ta-Da Moment. It’s the culmination of your Rising Action – your Darwin Moments – your sequence of building events. It’s working all day long for that T-giving dinner and sitting down to eat it.  I’ve been underwhelmed this summer. There have been stories that had lots of great build-up only to come to a crash with an unfulfilling climax. The climax – the big Ta-Da – needs to be proportional to your Rising Action. It’s a balancing act that comes with experience.

Falling Action – the “whew” moment

This is where the the reader sees the results of the climax – i.e. the beagle has managed to disgrace that rotten, mean editor without hurting the publishing company, thus enabling her to take it over. The Falling Action – the “whew” moment – is showing what comes next for the beagle now that the company is hers. What policies will she implement now that she holds the bloody red pen.

I’ve read too many manuscripts that omit this important step. They have the Ta-Da climax, then jump to the “and everyone lived happily ever after.” This leaves me screeching, “hey, waitaminute…what happened to the characters? How are they impacted because of what happened in the climax?” As far as I’m concerned, a lousy Falling Action diminishes the Climax and leaves me with a “so what?” feeling.

Denouement – “and they all rode off into the sunset”

This is the calming effect. You’ve had your Climax (why does that sound dirty?), you’ve had your Falling Action, now it’s time for the dust to settle. Your characters are obviously changed or impacted because of the Climax, so the denouement is used to show what those changes are before riding off into the sunset.

As with the rest of the story, the “riding off into the sunset” moments need to make sense and be satisfactory. With our T-giving dinner example, the denouement is turning on the TV and watching old home movies while everyone is sucking on antacids.

As for the beagle example, there will be no riding off into that thar sunset. That cranky editor returns and poisons the beagle with tainted tequila in order to exact her revenge – thus inviting a sequel…

ETA: As Nicola Morgan [aka Shoes], my dear across-the-pond-co-conspirator in all things literary and mayhem, sagely points out – the illustration at the top is out of whack. The Climax should come much later than as depicted above.


The Charles Darwin Moment vs. The Ta-da Moment

July 19, 2010

I have a list of poignant blog posts that I regularly read because they offer insightful info. In going over my list today, I came across one written by The Intern.  Once again, she analyzes the very elements that either make me reach for a contract or a rejection letter. In her post, Intern talks about how main characters eventually experience some sort of triumph or catharsis – what I call The Ta-Da Moment.

They reach that moment of triumph/resolution/catharsis via the buildup – which, in Lynnspeak, is the Charles Darwin Momentthe process by which stories evolve from Point A to Point B.

I mean, how boring is it to read about characters who do nothing, learn nothing, never change, and meet some inglorious, unfulfilling conclusion? Yawn. I watch the beagle do this on a daily basis and it’s hardly riveting stuff.

The “Ta-Da” moment and Charles Darwin moments be mates

I won’t care about a book if the Charles Darwin moments are dull – and I’m betting readers are with me on this one. I look for characters to overcome some fairly big obstacles or  cliff-hangy moments. That’s what hooks me. It’s also what makes me care about the “Ta-Da” moment. I look at your ta-da moment as being the proportional result of your buildup. The bigger the Darwin Moments [your lead up], the bigger and more satisfying the Ta-Da – provided you have a good Ta-Da.

Let’s use the example Ms. Main Character who, at 45, works as a data entry clerk for a banana company and still lives with her mother. She decides to chuck it all and move to Spain to take up bull fighting.

Let’s say, for the sake of clarity, that moving to Spain to take up bull fighting is the Ta-Da. Making us care about the Ta-Da depends on how Ms. MC’s evolutionary process – The Darwin Moments – are written. If we aren’t hooked into her buildup, then we won’t care if she moves to Mars and takes up racketball.

Intern wrote that the most satisfying Ta-Da moments happen when the Charles Darwin Moments focus on some fairly big issues – like any one of the following:

-a character had to sacrifice something
-a character had to make a high-stakes choice or moral decision
-a character has tried several other options and failed
-a character has suffered a hard loss or injury over the course of struggling towards a particular goal
-a character has, indeed, been struggling in some way, not floating along easily.
-a character has been forced to change significantly
-a character has undergone real trials and conflicts pertaining to the goal

See? The bigger the lead in, the bigger bang for your buck.

It’s all about the timing, baby

If you let your big Ta-Da moment out of the bag too early in the book, then what’s left? Your book is a journey, a buildup that ends with the pivotal triumph. Anything that comes after tends to be incidental. It’s a lot like cooking Thanksgiving dinner. You spend all day long chopping, drinking, cutting, slicing, dicing, drinking, cooking, basting, drinking, smelling the aroma of hot buttered bird and dressing. Eating the dinner is your triumph -  your Ta-Da.

If you eat the dinner too quickly, then all you have left to write about is a few well-placed burps and a date with your favorite antacid.  You let the cat out of the bag too early.

Improving Your Query

To wit, this summer’s queries have been, for the most part, very disappointing because they are missing all the key elements that help me determine whether I want to see pages or not – ie. the Charles Darwin Moments. It’s not enough to tell me your Ta-Da, as in “after Mary Sue’s divorce, she overcomes her overindulgence of Twinkies and margaritas and finds happiness in her indpendence.” What are the events that lead up to this? As written, this is a very mundane, overused plot, and the only thing that will slap me upside the head are the Charles Darwin Moments – the events that lead up to the Ta-Da.

I think the quality of query letters would improve if writers remember one simple thing:

the Charles Darwin Moment is the process by which stories evolve from Point A to Point B that lead your MC to the Ta-Da.

Anything else is akin to the beagle stretched out on my desk sipping a frosty margie.


Plotting the Plot – not as tough as it seems?

May 14, 2010

There is an interesting blog post over at Strictly Writing that discusses PLOT – that big shiny godawful element to writing that seizes the intestinal tract of a lot of very lovely people. It asks the age-old question of whether craft kills creativity – whether worrying about plot kills the development of characters and scene building because writers are trying to follow a formula.

I’m a big advocate of knowing all about these goodies so that writers can be as effective as possible. However, I think there’s something to that notion of TMI getting in the way of creativity. Now don’t start throwing eggs at me. I see a lot of authors whose quills are in a bunch because they’re so hindered by “following the rules” that they can’t just sit down and write. And the biggie is PLOT. After all, absent a plot, why bother?

Definition of Plot

Dictionary.com says this about Plot:

Also called storyline. the plan, scheme, or main story of a literary or dramatic work, as a play, novel, or short story.

Wikipedia gets a bit more mouthy:

A literary term, a plot is all the events in a story particularly rendered toward the achievement of some particular artistic or emotional effect or general theme.

The idea is that the main character has some sort of dilemma, or personal conflict and the story focuses on what will happen depending on the choices the main character(s) take. And this applies to fiction and nonfiction.

I’ll agree that sometimes it’s just not that simple – hence my fondness for Steve Almond’s take on plot [as lifted from the Strictly Writing blog]:

“Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.”

That statement is so much easier to wrap my head around than all the various books that discuss PLOT. Storylines are as varied as the weeds vying for superstar status in my backyard, so how can we possibly adhere to a stringent set of rules that could hinder our writing?

Answer? We don’t. We sit back, relax, and write. Those deepest fears and/or desires can take all kinds of shape – Grant needs to find out who’s blackmailing him so he can regain his reputation, wife, and job back…Alice suffers a nasty divorce decides to travel to Tibet and live in a monastery in order to find God after her life falls apart…Joe’s life isn’t working out as planned, and he realizes it’s because of his horrendous childhood.

Know ‘em to break ‘em

But hold on now, you’re not completely off the hook. You need to be aware of the hard basics of PLOT construction in order to know how to break them. Michelle suggests that in many ways PLOT is simple, even a trifle boring, and advocates using PLOT as your story’s skeleton so you can fully develop your characters and scenes. I totally get that, it’s a “get out of your own way” thing. However, I see far too many writers take Michelle’s advice too literally and find PLOT not only boring, but nonexistent. Eeeek.

Living on a farm and milking cows is not a plot. It’s a description. What is it about living on that farm and milking cows that makes us want to read that book? If the writer employs Almond’s simple statement:  “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires,” then this forces the writer to dig deeper and find the raison d’etre for their story.

Getting past the front gates

Now before you go dancing in the streets shouting, “Free! Free! Good holy transitional phrase, I’m free!” remember that you still have to get past us – agents and editors. You are far from being let off the hook. There still has to be some element that grabs the reader enough to want to buy the book.

I’m currently reading Eat, Pray, Love – I know, I’m behind the times, so sue me. This book could easily be a dullish diary about a woman who takes a year to live in three different countries. Travelogue? Well, yes, there are those elements. However, Elizabeth Gilbert defined the same question every author has to ask him/herself: What fears and/or desires am I/my protagonist forced to face?”

The result is a rich inner journey of the same kind of turmoil, fear, search/questioning of faith, and resolution that affects all of us at one time or another. It has universal appeal, and it’s Gilbert’s voice and talent that lift this book off the ground and into the stratosphere. IMO, that is.

But this book could have just as easily been a misfire. No one minds a thin plot – as can be confirmed with Eat, Pray, Love – but you have to have a rich, bountiful foundation in which to appeal to an agent’s or editor’s senses. We are always thinking, “Is this marketable?”

And this comes down to how well you get your point across in your story. And more importantly, your query letter. It could have been that the farm story was filled with the same kind of abundance of Eat, Pray, Love, but the author failed to express what those elements were.

So, on one hand, you can take a small breather and try not to allow your knowledge to hog tie your writing by constantly second guessing yourself. Certainly for your first draft, shove the rules out the door and let the plot be a mere skeleton. Barf that story out. When you go back for your rewrites, drag those tools out and start putting them to use.

And don’t forget the margaritas. It helps a great deal. You may even borrow the beagle.


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