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.


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