Posts Tagged ‘novel writing’

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I started working on my daughter’s and my middle grade novel, PRINCESS MATERIAL, around four years ago (it was originally called The Last Princess).  We finished the first draft about two years ago.  Since then we have been deep in the trenches of querying, workshopping, and revising.  So much revising.

So, I’m pretty seasoned when it comes to feedback.  I’ve talked about that.  You need to develop an ear for what advice is worth following … and not.  But if you’re honest with yourself and are truly committed to improving your craft and your manuscript, you have to push through your resistance to radical or brutal advice.  In other words, you must learn to embrace bad news. Because that’s where improvement originates [insert allegory about omelets and broken eggs].

That being said, I don’t think writers ever outgrow their need to receive praise.  For writers with unfinished projects, the only real way to get that is through beta readers and chapter critiques.  And this can be the biggest source of angst, because unless you write flawless first drafts the purpose of beta readers and chapter critiques is to highlight what’s wrong* with your manuscript.  So when you’ve lovingly polished your manuscript, rolled it up, and put it in a bottle, your feeling as you watch it drift out to sea is that you hope people will like it, that they will tell you it was good, that they will justify all of your choices and the product of your blood, sweat, and tears.  Typically, the thought at the front of your mind when you hit “send” is not, “Oh, boy! I sure hope they rip it to shreds.”

The thing is, it probably should be.

I’m currently in the middle of some big revisions (read my last few posts to hear about my experience working with an editor), and while this is the blazillianth time I’ve revised chapter one, this is the first time I’ve been really excited about the outcome.  By this time, I’ve developed a kind of filter through which I view the advice I receive — especially the early advice because as good as it seemed at the time, much of it clearly didn’t resolve the issues at hand (or else it created new issues). This is part of developing that ear I mentioned up above.  But at the same time, I have recently received some stunningly good advice involving big changes (hence these major revisions), so I know the system works.  It’s still blindingly obvious that quality feedback is as essential to the writing process as knowing your alphabet.  So I ran my newly-revised chapter one through the critique mill at Critique Circle and waited eagerly for the responses.

It has been awhile since I ran earlier drafts of this particular manuscript through CC. So every one of the six readers who provided a critique were brand new to the story.  The responses were — almost universally — positive.  One or two very minor word-choice suggestions, and one paragraph where a reader misread a description.  That’s it.  Closing comments were all full of praise.  And utterly devoid of advice.

It was a bit of a let down.

I’m dead serious about this book, now. Driven. Devoted. Committed. I wanted to be told, in no uncertain terms, exactly what was wrong with this so-very-important first chapter so I could fix it. I didn’t get it. I took my book-baby out in public and all I got was this stupid praise.

Old me from two years ago would have been doing an embarrassing happy dance with a sloppy smile plastered on his face.  Because stupid old me would have been lulled into a false sense of security and confidence that the chapter was “good,” was “ready,” was “done.”  Okay, sure, I’m obviously pleased at the response.  I’m still human, after all.  I’m a writer, for cheese sake — we eat praise for breakfast (and go hungry most of the time).  Yay! People like what I wrote!  This is good!

I just don’t trust it.


*By “wrong” I mean missing, weak, confusing, or inconsistent. The stuff your readers judge need to be changed.

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Dark and Story Night

This is where we start the actual “editing” part of the writer/editor relationship. During our phone call, I took extensive notes. Because while I had my editor’s edit letter — which  was efficiently organized by plot, pacing, world building, character development, and writing style — it was during our phone call that she was able to elaborate and we had time to discuss possible solutions.

In the past I have done several major revisions to this full manuscript, including a Revise and Resubmit for an interested agent.  In those cases, many of the changes were global and required that I trace each thread through all of the chapters, keeping a careful eye on consistency.  In most cases, several of these threads were in effect simultaneously — such as changing my main character’s motivation throughout while also adding a new source of tension.  Or I may have cut a major scene altogether which was referenced a number of places later on, while at the same time adding a new scene elsewhere to replace some of the missing elements.  This required a lot of planning and outlining.  All of the changes had to work in concert, so everything I revised had to be part of this master plan.

Not so much, this time. The changes my editor suggested were all specific and fairly contained.  Which, to my unending delight, means I can tackle each of them in turn. For example, my favorite suggestion is to change the setting for the novel.  Not every setting, but the main setting, where the key action takes place.

Most of the scenes take place at home, at summer camp, at a sleep-over, etc.  There is a scene at soccer practice, another at the mall, yet another at a restaurant.  None of these have to change, or not much. But the main action takes place at the family business — a booth at a local craft fair and farmer’s market, where the family spends their weekends and makes their living.  This is where the story starts, where the inciting incident happens, where the villain makes his moves, and where the climax takes place.  Aside from the family’s booth, several other important characters also reside at the fair, and our hero learns about her destiny and works toward her goal by visiting — sometimes secretly — these other characters.  It’s important that there are lots of people and activity.  But in my ongoing efforts to streamline the beginning of the book and strip out every superfluous word or sentence, my descriptions of the scenery fall a bit flat.  There is no real sense of “place.”  And no weather or seasons.  It’s just a backdrop.

I immediately saw what she was talking about, and based on our conversation I settled on a brand new setting.  Before, the book took place in the made-up town of Rockford, in no particular state — or even region — of the United States.  I thought it might be good to let my readers imagine the story took place near their own town.  Now, it’s going to take place in Rockford Harbor, Maine.  This is still a made-up town (which my editor and I agree is best, since I’ve never been to Maine, and would never be able to accurately describe a real place).  It is on the southern coast of Maine (near the real towns of Rockport and Rocklin).  Specifically, it will take place on the Ferry Beach Boardwalk and Pier, which is modeled after the real Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

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This is where the family business will be — on the boardwalk, tucked in among the amusement rides and crab shacks.  And the old lady who tells our hero her destiny will have her shop at the end of the pier.  There will be the sounds of rides and arcade games, the smell of the ocean and lobster rolls, crying seagulls will fly overhead, and there will be tourists and sand everywhere.  It will snows in winter when business is slow, and the crowds will come when school lets out for the summer.  My setting will come alive.

And I can go through the book, scene-by-scene and revise the settings where needed, leaving many of them — home, mall, restaurant, camp — exactly the same.  Then when I’m satisfied with these changes, I can move on to the next item on the list.

I’m in no hurry.  Eager, but not rushed.  First I need to research the Old Orchard Beach Pier, as well as the state of Maine. It needs to feel real, especially to people who have been to these places. But I am more excited about this change than any other I have made so far.  Because without having to alter the story (much), I will be adding a rich, new layer that will be evident from the very first sentence, and will give readers a whole new reason to want to turn the page.

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Last week I introduced the idea of “preinforcing” — going back after you have finished a manuscript and revising with the intent of adding details to support later scenes. This is in contrast to “foreshadowing,” which I distinguish as putting in details as you write to support future scenes not yet written.

By preinforcing, you have a much better opportunity to fold in finer details and make them more subtle.  When my daughter and I wrote our first draft of THE LAST PRINCESS, we knew that near the end of the book our hero would discover she is descended from trolls. We also wanted this to be an “of course!” moment for our readers by sprinkling in many supporting hints along the way.  However, as the book evolved, so did our definition of a troll.  Also, those scene where we wove in our clues changed, moved, or were cut, and many of those details were erased or altered to the point where they were no longer useful.

At this point we have a finished and polished manuscript, which has gone through several revisions of varying degrees, but there is one new idea we would like to emphasize. Near the end of the book, our hero is locked in a duel with her rival for the crown, and losing. She has all but given up and is succumbing to his special kind of magic, when a voice of encouragement pulls her out of it.  Then more voices. She discovers that all of her friends and many people she has never met have come to support her in her hour of need. That support gives her the strength to defeat her foe.

We realized that we weakened a potentially big moment, here, because it is later revealed that her best friend called most of these people and told them to come. Which is important to their friendship. But we realized this would be stronger if those people came to support our hero because our hero inspired them to do so.  This is a perfect case for preinforcing.

Throughout the book, our hero meets or is introduced to new characters who help her on her quest or provide a vital clue along the way. These people make up the core of those who come to support her at the end. But to believably change the reason they all show up, we needed to go back and add a pinch of motivation to each of those conversations.  So our notes for this revision pass looked something like this:

LAST PRINCESS – CLIMAX SETUP

GAIL: Gail needs to mention how none of the fae-born races can see each other anymore. Cat needs to think about that.

MR. P: Make sure she mentions she wants to unite the fae-born. He scoffs at this.

NANNY S: Nanny says her mother was friends with different types of fae-born. Cat points out she might meet more of them herself if she went out in the daytime.

ROSE: Cat shares with Rose the bit in her reading about how all the fae races used to be united.

MR. G: When he mentions that dwarves and elves don’t get along, she asks why and he admits he doesn’t really know.

MR. & MRS. J: When Cat tells them who she is, add that she wishes to bring the fae-born communities together. Mr. J will think this is a great idea because of his business.

HUNTER: When Hunter gives Cat the figurine, she tells him she would like to give his number to her dwarf-born friend. As an elf-born, Hunter is not enthusiastic about the idea. She tells him things will change when she becomes princess, and he might as well get used to it.

FAYE: When Cat tells Faye she plans to re-form the Seelie Court, add that she hopes to reunite the fae-born into one big community.

BONE-BREAKER: Work in that she wants to unite the fae-born, not control them. The prince will think that is the stupidest thing he’s ever heard. He claims the fae-born will never voluntarily get together.

By subtly slipping in these little preinforcements to already-established scenes in such a way that makes them a natural part of the conversation, it will become perfectly reasonable for all of these people to come out and support her in her hour of need — which they already do as-written. However, now, it will be because Cat spread the idea that they should all get together.

So, without having to completely re-write the story, we are able to weave in a new idea to support a scene already written, and give it a whole new level of meaning.  Try this yourself, and let us know how it works for you.

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As an aspiring novelist— No, strike that. As a novelist who is aspiring to be published, I’m beginning to see how reaching my goal is something like achieving the speed of light. As one approaches success, one finds it becomes exponentially harder to keep moving forward.

Of course, for writers, the answer to the question of how to continually improve one’s craft is simply to keep writing. And I’m doing that. In fact I’m doing that this very moment. This blog is as valuable or more to me as it is for anyone who reads it and learns some tiny fragment of wisdom or gets a momentary smile. I’m also working hard on my third novel and have plans for several more. I have a loooooooong way to go before I am going to run into the issue of struggling against my own momentum.

No, what I’m talking about is actually getter my most recent book published. We move closer and closer to success by increments – some of them only measurable by highly sophisticated scientific instruments in some high-tech lab – but with each rejection, each bit of feedback from a contest judge, each new insight from a fellow query-trench commando – my daughter and I learn somthing which we can apply to our manuscript or our query to better entice an agent. But I fear the big easy fixes are all past, and the only improvements ahead are increasingly more subtle. Or more difficult.

We have run our first several chapters and query letter through countless beta readers, workshops, critique groups, and contests. We’re getting requests. But still no offers. I’m beginning to suspect if there us something wrong with our book, it is somewhere in the middle. One of the things that drives me so enthusiastically into many of these contests is that if we get in we can have our whole manuscript edited by a professional editor with a proven track record of success. Because we can not afford to pay a decent editor.

This is where a dedicated critique partner comes in.  He or she can be your personal editor, your cheerleader, and your writing partner all rolled into one.  If you can find a fellow writer who gets your writing (and whose writing you get), and with whom you get along, it is better than an editor.  For one, it is free.  Of course, you have to be willing to give as well as you get with regard to reading and critiquing your partner’s work, but as I’ve observed in the past, giving critiques is as good or better for you writing than receiving critiques.

So where do you find a critique partner?  Find your CP wherever fine writers are sold.  Or, less cheeky, fin them on Twitter, joining contests, querying, and looking for advice and tips just like you are.  Last week there was a #CPMatch Twitter party, and these happen all the time.  Sometimes writers host these parties, where you pitch your book on Twitter with the #CPMatch hashtag, and other writers seeking a CP will look for someone with a book that appeals to them.  Sometimes writers host these on their blogs and announce them on Twitter.  Or, you could just send out a call for writing partners through your own social network.  However you do it, be aware it may take several tries before you find a compatible partner.

Hey!  Just like dating!

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In just the last few hundred words of our work in progress, THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER, my daughter and I moved our heroes and our story from modern day America (with fairy-tale creatures) to Northern Ireland in 1507 (chock full of faeries).

From a writer’s standpoint, this is like waking up on Mars.  Without a spacesuit.

How did people talk?  I don’t mean just how to write an Irish accent, but what words do they use?  Many, many turns of phrase we take for granted when writing modern dialogue didn’t exist 500 years ago.  And things had different names.  Not to mention, they had an entire vocabulary of words for objects and activities that no longer exist today.  They had different greetings, different common expressions, different superstitions.  And they surely talked about other things than we do today.

What did people wear?  Believe it or not, there are not a great deal of books with pictures or descriptions of what average people wore in Ireland in the 16th century.  I know; I’ve looked.  I can tell you what nobility or soldiers wore in England in the early 16th century, but that doesn’t quite work, does it?  I’ve read that the Irish of that time wore yellow, since the association of green with Ireland is a much more modern occurrence.  But I need slightly more detail to describe what my characters are wearing than “yellow.”

What did they eat?  What was their daily routine?  How did they travel?  Where did they sleep?  How did they treat strangers?  What did a house look like?  A castle?  A dungeon?  What did they buy and what did they make themselves?  Where did they get money?  What did a market look like?

I was so excited when we finally got to this much-anticipated point in our book.  This is the “inciting incident” that sets up the whole rest of the book, in which our heroes must pass for natives and figure out a way to get home to the present.  But as my fingers hovered over the keys, itching to write the next scene, I found I could not make them type.  I don’t know where I am!  I can’t describe anything, write any dialogue, or even understand what my characters should see upon waking up.

Gah!  It’s like being a virgin writer all over again, except without the benefit of that cocky naivete that lets you just bully your way through a story despite your utter ignorance.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: virginity [in a writer] is overrated.

 

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There’s been a be it of a debate over at my critique group.  This isn’t the first time this has happened.  Our long-standing debate has been a kind of a glass-half full/glass half-empty philosophical conundrum for as long as I have been a member (three years).

The feature in question is the Hook Queue, in which members can enter the first 1,000 words of their story and get feedback.  This sounds great on paper, and in practice many, many members like it.  I don’t happen to be one of them.

See, here’s the thing.  The whole critique group is based on a credit system; you have to critique the work of others to earn the credits you need to spend in order to submit your own work.  It creates motivation and an atmosphere where giving critiques is as valuable or more valuable than receiving them.  Which is actually true.

The Hook Queue is a little different.  Entering into the Hook Queue costs you 3 credits, but you can earn them back by critting 10 other hook submissions.  Here’s how the queue is described:

This queue is a little bit special. Here the critter is playing the role of an underpaid editor searching for that special perfect snowflake of a manuscript amongst a pile of hopefuls.

Anyone can post into this queue but you must have extremely thick skin. The queue is meant to give you an indication of how good your hook is and where editors might stop reading, and more importantly, why.

The theory is that you should run though these quickly (you are timed) and when you feel like stopping, make a short note explaining why at that spot.  It is quite a contrast to the regular story queues we use for chapters, in which additional points are awarded to critters for making more verbose critiques.

The Hook Queue is only open one week per month.  And after each one the debates roll out anew.  Some people (myself included) want more detailed comments on these all-important opening pages of our story, not a cold brush-off.  We want to know what is working so we can make more of that.  But the entire concept of the Hook Queue is that members are asked to pretend they are editors or agents, when mostly likely none of them actually are.  Critters are only guessing at what an editor is looking for.  These people are writers themselves — an entirely different breed.

The people in favor of this method like to point out (according to everything they “know” to be true about slush readers) that they are all just looking for reasons to reject your manuscript.  One member went so far as to suggest they already have all the clients they need and the slush pile is their lowest priority, so in order to get home to their families they slam through it — just like the Hook Queue is designed.

I’m here to tell you it just ain’t so.

The editors, agents, and slush readers I’ve spoken to (quite a few) express their love of their work.  They can’t wait to find the next great book that takes their breath away, and they invite anybody with an Internet machine to send them their manuscript. But don’t take my word for it.  The other day I ran across an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit, being conducted by a slush reader for a New York literary agent.  He answered questions for hours revealing, among other things, that he does it for no pay because he simply loves books, and would rather read a good story than watch television.  Here are a few of his comments/answers:

Most agents will read nearly 100% of all queries and probably something close to that in full requests. What the readers like me are doing is helping to level them out. We’re making sure that good stuff gets noticed quick, because the agent is racing to find new talent before someone else scoops them up. And we’re leveling the agent out when they fall in love with a book that may have some serious flaws. Trust me when I say this – Agents and readers alike want desperately to be in love with your writing and your story. We live for it. Look at it less as gate-keeping and more as trying to find the gold nuggets in the sifting pan faster because there’s only one giant pan and a thousand gold-hungry sharks swimming in it. More eyes is better than less.

 

A good slush reader has to be aligned with the agents interests. The agent wants to find great writing and great/talented authors to sign. Slush readers that are just looking for reasons to hate things last about as long as critique partners who like to tell you how horrible you are at writing (maybe a week?). Now, we sure may get a bad rep for pointing out things that we feel are flaws (especially when the writer doesn’t agree) but I can tell you that what we present is opinion and sometimes Agents ignore their slush readers completely and go with their gut and sign authors they simply love.

 

Anytime a [slush] reader likes a work, it’s good for the author and the agent alike. A reader helps the agent have a pulse on what the “average joe” reads and likes. It gives the agent a more rounded opinion of the work. It can help the agent overcome a gut reaction or objection, and it can point out a flaw that the agent didn’t see.

So, if you are in the query trenches right now, desparing because you think the keepers of the keys to your publishing kingdom only have eyes for your mistakes, buck up.  The people you’re querying want to love your book.  As this slush reader said, “There are exactly 1000 things pulling the attention of an agent at any one moment. If you can keep them from caring about anything but reading the next sentence, you’ll have an agent by tomorrow morning.”

Now, I just need to wade back into the debate and convince everyone that our Hook Queue has got it’s head on backwards.

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People will tell you writing is work, you must treat writing like a job, no serious writing ever came from treating it as a hobby. Basically, you have to commit.

Okay, sure. There are merits to those viewpoints. But never forget writing is an art, an act of creativity, a process of love and tears. You can’t force it. For many people (myself included) the secret to good writing is like the secret to catching a soap bubble: you can’t pluck it out of the air, you have to let it land.

To be sure, you can learn how to judge the falling bubble, note the prevailing wind, and know when and where to place your hand for the best chance to capture the bubble intact.  You’re still going to miss occasionally, and some days it’s too windy or there are no bubbles at all.  But you will eventually learn to catch more bubbles and keep them alive longer before they pop.

Here’s the thing about that: you can’t consider yourself a failure if there are no bubbles, or if they don’t blow your way for a period of time.  Everyone has dry spells — fishermen, farmers, actors, lawyers.  We writers think ourselves special and give it our own name; WRITER’S BLOCK.

Made you cringe, didn’t it?  Like a cat just walked over your grave.  Yeah, I know.  It’s how we’re trained.  Like avoiding walking in the woods alone in the dark.  It becomes ingrained on a subconscious level.  But I think pauses are an integral and vital part of the writing process. Since it is a creative endeavor, it is naturally tied to your mood or your state of mind, and sometimes your state of mind is like a turbulent wind sending all of the bubbles away.  Don’t panic.  You’re not failing.

Writer’s block is like a forest fire.  Sometimes it’s best to let the fire burn itself out.  In places like Yosemite people went to a lot of trouble to put out naturally-occurring forest fires to “save” them, but we have since realized that naturally-occurring forest fires have been burning unchecked for precisely as long as there have been nature, forests, and fire.  Nature adapts; fires are part of the process, letting new growth access to sunlight and other arboreal sciencey things.  It’s the whole Circle of Life jazz.  Interfering with it just futzes it up.

Same with writer’s block.  It will pass, and in most cases take with it whatever was gumming up the works.  I talked about forcing yourself to write in an earlier post.  Unless you are a journalist or you make your whole living from putting words on paper, just let the forest burn.  New growth will come.  Trust it.  If you put out the fire every time, you will do long-lasting damage to the forest.

I got to a rough patch in chapter two of my second book, and ended up not writing anything meaningful for about three months.  It felt like I would never write again, like the whole forest was burning down.  And then I started writing again, and started happily churning out pages again, working late into the night instead of turning in early, and even pulling up my manuscript at work during my lunch hour.  The new growth was lush and inviting, and has a real chance to grow into a might forest since all of that old wood is gone.

So, if you are experiencing writer’s block, do what I do: embrace it and let it happen; find some other outlet for awhile and don’t beat yourself up. The desire to write will come back to you in its own time. You can’t nab it out of the air, you have to let it land.

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You’ve either gotten them or you are working hard to be able to get them.  Rejections.  From agents, from publishers, from contest judges.

But there is a huge stigma attached to the word “rejection” out in the world.  I mean, sure, rejection actually means that you have been rejected, y’know, the opposite of accepted.  But it is nowhere near that cut-and-dried in the publishing world.

Rejection doesn’t mean “Failure.”  At worst it just means “No.”  It might also mean “Not for me,” “Not quite,” or “Not yet.”

We’ve received quite a few rejection letters, my daughter and I.  A good portion of them were form letters.  Usually those form letters included an apology for sending a form letter.  I get it; reading and evaluating hundreds of queries a week is hard.  Time-consuming.  Emotionally draining.  An agent can’t be expected to give back as much heart and soul as each hopeful writer has poured into their query (not to mention novel).  And nearly all of these form rejections include some version of the same comment: “This is not a reflection of your writing … this business is very subjective … we hope you continue querying.”  Those are all positive, comforting, friendly sentiments.  And they are all true.  They mean it every single time.

Okay, fine, agents undoubtedly receive and reject abysmal writing samples they wouldn’t wish on any fellow agent, let alone future reader.  Maybe in those cases some agents eschew the form rejection and say it like it is.  But I bet even then, the agent advises those writers to dig in, improve their craft, and try again.

Here’s my point.  These aren’t failures.  These aren’t the end.  They are more like when a door-to-door salesman goes to the next door.  Each time you knock on a door is an opportunity to hone your schpiel and greet the next prospective customer with a slightly better pitch.

Most of the time its a “No.”  Some people don’t even want to hear how great your cookies are.  But that’s no reflection on the cookies, is it?  There’s a sweet tooth on every street, but you have to knock on a lot of doors to find it.  So it is with querying.  For sure, if an agent takes the time to advise you in their rejection on how to improve your presentation, you should consider that advice.  If you do and you steadily improve, and you keep trying, there is every reason to believe you will eventually find a home for your manuscript.  You certainly have a better chance than if you don’t.

 

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I’ve been writing this blog for a bit over two years, now, and I’ve seen the steady trickle of viewers and followers.  Some weeks the trickle grows to as much as a minor stream for a day.  Over the years I’ve studied the analytics, and one thing has stood out.  Almost every single day a good portion of visitors to this site visit one particular post.  So since I am camping this week, I am going to repost this popular topic.  Enjoy!


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When my daughter and I were writing our first novel, THE LAST PRINCESS, I had already written a novel on my own.  I started it in High school and didn’t type “The End” until over 20 years later.  182,000 words later.  I learned a great deal about writing in those 20 years – how to write natural dialogue, how to build tension, how to show instead of tell, how to vary sentence structure, how to foreshadow and deliver on a promise, and hundreds of other little things that eventually become second nature to a writer who writes.  But one thing, possibly the key thing, I neglected to learn was how to plot a novel.

I realized this long after I had put my first book in the drawer.  I knew it was un-marketable, but not precisely why.  Other than the length, of course.  So when I started on my second novel with my daughter I knew I needed to learn how to structure a plot.  I bought several books, but none of them really helped.  There was all of this talk about the difference between a plot and a story, and lists of the classic plots, and so forth.  None of it stuck.

Then I started listening to Writing Excuses, a weekly podcast hosted by authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler.  The podcast referenced Dan Wells’ 7-Point Story Structure on YouTube.  Five short ten-minute clips of a single lecture, and I beheld the elusive mystery of Plot!

We were already three or four chapters into THE LAST PRINCESS at this point, having written by the seat of our pants (aka “pantsing”) until we figured out where the characters wanted to go.  But we had reached the point where we couldn’t go any further until we had the rest of the book plotted.  So overnight I went from a pantser to a plotter and created a chapter-by-chapter outline for the rest of our book.

Now we are querying THE LAST PRINCESS and we’ve started working on the sequel, THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER.  This time we started with an outline. So we revisited Dan Wells and his Magic Story Structure, and I thought I would share it with you.  Because I’m nice like that.

Here are the seven plot points, defined.  I also include where these points fall in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a common example most of you will be able to see (because most of you have read it):

(1) HOOK “Establish characters and starting state.”

This fairly self-explanatory; this is the point when your main character or characters and their situation are described.  This may or may not be the first chapter.  Usually is.  [In Harry Potter, this is where we meet Harry and see him living under the stairs.]

(2) PLOT TURN 1“Call to action.”

Also known as the “inciting incident.”  This is when the primary conflict is revealed: what the hero must do and what is at stake if he/she fails.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry learns he’s a wizard and goes to Hogwarts.]

(3) PINCH 1 “Put pressure on characters; force action.”

Sometimes your hero needs a nudge.  Characters are often reluctant to undertake what they must do, or are somehow prevented from starting.  This is the point when you build the pressure and make it clear the problem isn’t going to go away on its own.  This is often a good place to double down on what is at stake if the hero fails, or just demonstrate that the problem is real.  [In Harry Potter, this is when the troll attacks and Harry and his companions realize only they can stop it.]

(4) MIDPOINT“Move from reaction to action.”

This is a key moment in the story – and despite the name, it does not necessarily need to occur in the exact middle of your book.  This is the point when your hero stops stalling or overcomes what’s blocking them from acting, and gets busy.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry learns the Sorcerer’s Stone is at Hogwarts and Volermort is after it.  Harry and his companions decide to find the stone themselves to protect it.]

(5) PINCH 2 “Really lay on the pressure; hero on his/her own.”

Applies pressure to the story and the hero, usually through a great loss.  Also known as the Dark Night of the Soul or the Jaws of Defeat.  This is often represented by the loss of a mentor.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry loses his companions on the way to finding the Sorcerer”s Stone and is on his own with the scary bad guy.]

(6) PLOT TURN 2“Get the last piece of puzzle.”

This is where the hero finally learns they have the power to solve the problem at hand.  [In Harry Potter, this is when the mirror reveals Harry’s motives are pure and gives him the Sorcerer’s Stone.]

(7) RESOLUTION“Winning!”

Obviously, the resolution of your story.  This does not mean your hero succeeds.  Many books are about heroes that fail and then exploring the consequences of failure.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry defeats Voldermort.]

Points 1, 4 & 7 are meant to work together – Hook, Midpoint and Resolution.  This is the heart of your story.  Knowing your Resolution in advance, you work backwards to your where your story begins (Hook) and the determine the journey (Midpoint).  The two Plot Turns (2 & 6) are where your characters are spurred into motion; they carry you from Hook to Midpoint, and Midpoint to Resolution.  And the two Pinches (3 & 5) are where you apply pressure to your hero.

This structure will work with virtually any genre or style of book – romance, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery, and so on, and any age group, too (excluding very short children’s books and picture books).  An excellent exercise is to take a favorite or popular book and find where these plot points occur in them.  Dan Wells does this in his lecture, breaking down Pride and Prejudice, Othello, The Tell-Tale Heart, and others.  If you’re especially brave, you can put your own finished books to the test.

With this nif try crib sheet in-hand I was able to plot out THE LAST PRINCESS fairly easily.  I defined the action that would represent each of these events in the story, and then filled in the action between, roughly breaking the whole up into chapters.  By the time we were finished very little had changed from our initial outline.  We did decide to move the death of her mentor after her triumph, because we wanted her motivation to be her own breakthrough of character, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the death of a loved-one.  So we replaced Pinch 2 with a different motivation and scene.

Now, we hope we’ve pulled that same rabbit out the hat again when we plotted THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER.  Because, unlike with our first book, I am not comfortable diving in blind this time.  We know the characters, now.  We know the world and our characters’ relation to it, and we have very specific ideas about what needs to happen in this book.  And we’re in good company; many writers I have talked to started as Pantsers and turned into Plotters.

I hope you find this information useful.

Voice

What is “voice?”

Yeah … hard to define, isn’t it.  And yet virtually every agent with a wishlist or contest with judges insist that “voice” is the most important thing about your manuscript.  You gotta have some.  And if you ain’t got it, you ain’t goin’ nowhere in this bidness.

Voice is like seasoning in a recipe.  You’re supposed to add it “to taste,” which basically means, fiddle with it until you like it.  But the thing about seasoning and voice — everybody has different taste. You know that thing where they say publishing is subjective?  This is exactly why.  Your book may be fantastic, but if the agent who happens to be looking at it isn’t a fan of, say, “peppy” you get rejected.  Lot’s of agents rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before J.K Rowling got a book deal.

Voice isn’t the only thing, of course, that is judged in a manuscript.  In fact, there are about a thousand things you have to get right. Spelling, commas, formatting, the agent’s name, dialogue, white space, the first sentence, setting, the font….  But most of those things you can figure out.  Spelling and punctuation are either right or wrong.  Dialogue sounds natural or it doesn’t.  There are guidelines on how to format your manuscript and what font to use.  You research your agent.  But voice….

How do you know when it’s right?  It’s like that joke by E.E. Kenyon, “Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Same answer: Practice!

Fine, but what is it, exactly?  Well, it isn’t anything “exactly.” It’s the personality of your book.  It’s the tone, the pace, the word choice, the flavor.  Voice is where you get to play with the rules a little.  Maybe your voice is a tiny bit irreverent, so you blithely begin sentences with “And.”  Maybe you’re voice is stern and no-nonsense, so you eschew contractions and use clipped sentences.  Maybe your voice is poetic, so you sprinkle in a few purple words here and there to highlight a feeling.

Voice is where you bring the funny.  Or the scary.  Or the poignant.  It’s where you show your style.  It’s where you choose certain turns of phrase and reject others because of how they affect the “mood” of your story.  Voice is what makes you stare at the page for 45 minutes trying to decide if you should use “challenge” or “difficulty” because meaning is everything and every word counts.

To a large degree, voice is why I chose to write THE LAST PRINCESS in first person.  Because the voice I wanted for the book was Cat’s voice — the main character.  So where somebody else might have written:

I was no longer hungry and, in fact, I began to feel rather sick.

 

In Cat’s voice I wrote:

I squeezed my eyes shut as my stomach rumbled again, only this time it wasn’t a pleasant, oh-please-feed-me kind of rumble. It was more of a get-me-outta-here-before-I-hurl sort of rumble.

This is the voice of a twelve-year-old girl looking at a menu in a French restaurant, staring at pictures of escargots and pressed duck.  The sentence above is not.  Yet they both say the same thing.

That’s voice.

Most of the voice I used when writing THE LAST PRINCESS came from listening to my daughter and reading lots of middle grade books featuring girls with attitude.  If you haven’t found your voice yet, don’t panic.  You will.  It takes time.  It takes practice.  And it takes patience.

Go ye forth and get some.