In Which ‘Save the Cat! Writes a Novel’ – and Saves Mine!

A while back, I mentioned that I’d been avoiding my manuscript like the proverbial plague, and I was. Definitely was.

I have a love/hate relationship with my work, as most authors do, I think – we want to see it thrive and grow and succeed, and yet, sometimes, the damn things insist on doing the exact opposite. You say ‘Characters! Do this and this!’ and they say, ‘Eh. Go away.” You say, ‘Plot! Sit up and roll over and fetch!’ and the plot says, ‘Yeah? Make me, wuss.’ After a while, you get tired of carrying a rolled-up newspaper in one hand and treats in the other, and you give up and go away.

That’s where I was pretty much all spring. For years, I’ve bee thinking I’ve found The Thing That Will Make It All Work. Every time there’s an issue, I go out, I read books, I find The Magical Solution (which, of course, never turns out to be quite as magical as I hope it to be).

But this time, I might actually have done it.

save the catAt Barnes & Noble a couple of months ago, I picked up a book called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Based on the popular screenwriting guide Save the Cat!, this book applies those techniques to novel writing, utilizing the ‘beat sheets’ that make movies so compelling to make novels just as compelling.

The subtitle of this book is a bit egotistical:  The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. I can’t say that’s true – but this book saved my life and my novel and that IS true!

I always knew there was something wrong with the novel that had to do with the plot and structure. I had betas read it. They declared it to be fine. The characters were fine; the dialogue was great. But something was always off about the plot, and no matter how I tried to fix it, it never worked. My characters had problems! They wanted to solve them, and they tried hard to solve them! Why wasn’t that enough?

Well, with one paragraph, Brody made it all clear to me. I don’t know why – it’s just how she phrased it:

“Now, the question is, what does your hero think will fix those problems, or what does your hero think will better their life? Whatever the answer is . . . that is your hero’s goal. That is what they will be actively striving to achieve throughout the novel (or at least in the beginning). . . . And most important, what will really fix your hero’s life? What does your hero actually need? This is the crux of your story.”

Suddenly, in the space of two pages, I was scribbling in the margins. I never scribble in margins. But here I was, writing down sudden plot points and holes and how to fix them. And I did that through the entire book. 

For example:  my MC, Erin, states on page 10 that she is done seeing ghosts. They have screwed up her life for the last time. So her want, or what she thinks she wants, is to be normal and ghost-free. That has to drive the novel, in part, and I realized that it actually never does. She’s even given hints on how to do it, and never follows through! Boom! Instantly, I sat down and within an hour had two great scenes drafted in which she does just that. Plus, I highlighted that want through the rest of the novel. What she needs, of course, is to give in to her gift and learn to live with it. And by the end of the novel, she learns that lesson. (Great. Now I just gave away the ending!)

Does that mean the wants can’t change, or that your characters can’t have more wants? Of course not, and Brody provides several examples of novels in which the hero’s wants change during the book.

Chapter 2 of this great book is the Beat Sheet – where Brody walks us through the three acts that all stories should have. If you’re like me, that idea has never quite gelled, never quite made sense. Well, Brody fixes that! All three Acts are placed in the context of the 15-Beat Story Arc. Each Act has set ‘beats’ that should be included (as much as possible), in order to ground your novel, ensure the characters are doing their part, and make sure you have all the components of a successful, suspenseful novel. She discusses the purpose of each act, and then explains each Beat contained therein, along with its purpose.

The clouds parted. The skies opened. The sun shone. The angels sang a chorus. Seriously. It was THAT much of a revelation! I suddenly saw where the holes were. Where the plot and structure had gone awry. What scenes were missing. What scenes needed to be deleted. Where the tension needed to be punched up. Where the secondary storylines needed beefed up or changed. I was getting ideas AS I WAS READING. I finally understand the importance of the Midpoint! Once Brody characterized it as ‘the shit just got real! beat,’ I GOT IT. Raise the stakes. Make it impossible to back out. Fast-forward the deadline. Throw in a major plot twist. All of these belong to the Midpoint, and I finally get it!

In the rest of the book, Brody explores how the Fifteen Beats apply to various genres. She chooses a book in that genre and walks you through it, beat by beat, so you can see the underlying structure. She also provides you with a list of other novels in that genre you can read and study as well.

This is quite possibly the best $14.95 I’ve ever spent on a book. EVER. I have rewritten this novel so many times, but this is the first time I can truly say I feel at peace with the rewrites, that I truly see why I’m doing them. Most of all, this is the first time I feel that the rewrites are worth the effort. That I feel I may actually get somewhere with them, that this time, it’s the real deal. I have a bit of research left to do – again, structure holes! – but I feel closer than I’ve ever been.

And it’s all thanks to Save the Cat!

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Seriously, Authors: Finish Your $%!@* Series.

Readers love series.

We know this, as readers and as writers. Publishing houses and agents tell us this all the time. When you submit a novel, the first thing an agent asks is, “Is this a series? Could it be?” We invest in series. We fall in love with the characters and the settings. We follow them over years and follow the authors on Twitter to see when that next book is coming out. We get antsy when the author says, “It may take a bit longer than I thought . . .” and we pounce and demand to know the new deadline.

And it doesn’t matter if there are three books, or seven, or more. It doesn’t matter how long we have to wait, as long as we know that book is coming (right, Outlander and Game of Thrones fans?!). We only halfway joke about being ready to donate a kidney or lung to the author if necessary, so long as they finish that freaking series in our lifetime! I’d even dare to say that we live in fear – just a little bit – that something might happen to prevent our favorite authors from completing our favorite series.

But you know what I hate more than almost anything? More than hangnails, more than melted ice cream, more than a car that won’t start because it needs a $1600 fuel pump?

Authors who don’t finish their $#/(&^@! series!!!!!!!! 

The thing I despise most is an author who starts a series, and then just – abandons it. Abandons the characters, and abandons us, their readers. Abandons the whole thing to go traipsing off to greener pastures with new characters. Or maybe they get to a point where they suddenly realize they have no idea what to do next.

NOT ACCEPTABLE, PEOPLE.

81NOl5U5bULOf all the authors who have likely done this, Dean Koontz is the master offender. In my opinion, his two best books – of all the books he has written in a very long and prolific career – are the first two books of the Moonlight Bay Trilogy, Fear Nothing, and Seize the Night. These books are absolutely amazing. The characters – Christopher Snow, his best friend Bobby, and girlfriend Sasha – are the kind of characters that stay with you more than twenty years after you first read their books. I devoured them the second they were released. Amazing characters, incredible plots, mind-blowing tension. Fear Nothing was released in 1997; Seize the Night, in 1999. And because the second book ended on a cliffhanger, I waited, anticipating that third one like I anticipate the return of the Starbucks’ Mocha Coconut Frappuccino.

Know how long I’ve been waiting on that third book?

Twenty years. 

Yes. Twenty years. TWENTY FREAKING YEARS, DEAN. Give me my damn third book already! You cannot leave us with our characters in the middle of a cliffhanger crisis! In fact, I’ve boycotted Dean Koontz and all his novels until I get that third book. I’m not the only one who’s upset by this, by the way – there are websites devoted to this. He’s been saying the third book is ‘in the works’ or ‘halfway done’ for 19 years. At this point, I think we can safely assume it is, in fact, not halfway done.

Dean, here’s a personal message to you from me:  sit your ass in a chair, and write the third freaking book. NOW.

My second most frustrating offender is author Maureen Johnson. She’s a British author, and has written several books, but you may know her best because she took a break from writing the Shades of London series to co-author some books with Cassandra Clare. Not acceptable! Cassandra Clare is capable of writing her own novels. We got the first three in the series, and the third one left us on a cliffhanger that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind for two years! (Before someone points this out, YES, I’m aware that there’s a new novella about Stephen, but it’s not a continuation of the series.) Again, a freaking cliffhanger?! What the frack?

soapboxLet me get on my soapbox for a minute:

WRITERS, IF YOU INTEND TO EMBARK ON A SERIES, KNOW WHERE THE HELL YOU’RE GOING WITH IT, AND WHEN THE HELL YOU’RE GOING TO FINISH IT.

See, when you put fingers to keyboard and start that very first book, when you introduce those characters and their problems, when you start to draw us into the world you’re creating, you are making a contract with us. You are promising that if you write this, and if we read it, you will finish it. You will keep writing. We, as readers. trust that you know where you’re going with the series. We trust that you have a process, a road map. We trust you to get us there, with your characters. We may not always like the choices you make, but we are there and we are reading because we have made a contract with you in return:  you write, we read.

Pick up any book on writing, especially any book on writing a series, and the very first piece of advice is this:  make sure you know your overall story arc before you ever start. Obviously, things might change a little.  You might find that certain plot twists don’t work out the way you thought, or that certain characters take over and do things their way. That’s fine. But work with it. You’ve made a contract with us. We’ve invested in your and your characters. We’ve shelled out money to buy your books. We’ve stolen time from other activities – work, watching Big Bang Theory reruns, watching the kids’ soccer games, whatever – to read them.

You have a responsibility to deliver on your promise. You, dear writer, have a responsibility to us – and your characters – to know the ending before you begin. That’s the heart of a series, after all – that overall story arc that carries us through several books to a conclusion that we just can’t wait to read, and at the same time, can’t bear to read. Imagine how long JK Rowling would have lasted if she’d gotten to the end of Book 4 and suddenly . . . she sheepishly announced she didn’t think the series would continue because she wasn’t sure where to take it from there? Millions of teenagers would have hunted her. (So would millions of adults, for that matter.)

If that means you write the first three novels of a series before you have a firm grip on where it’s going, like Naomi Novik, go for it. You don’t have to publish one, and then another. My plan is precisely that – write the first three, then lay the groundwork for the next three. If that’s what you need to do, do it. But do not, for all that is holy, DO NOT LEAVE YOUR READERS HANGING.

They will never forgive you for it.

Yeah, I’m looking at you, Dean Koontz.

 

Deadly Perfection – Why It Kills Writers (and our novels!)

“A poem is never finished – only abandoned.” – Paul Valery

Have you ever been frog-marched to a particular session at a writing conference because your writing friends are absolutely convinced you HAVE to be at that session?

OH. Good. I’m not alone! 🙂

Last Saturday, I attended the Nimrod Writer’s Conference at the University of Tulsa on Saturday with a group of fellow writer friends. One of the sessions was cleverly titled, “How do I Know When I’m  Done? Strategies for Revision.” That’s the one I was forced to attend. Seriously. You’d think I had a problem with finishing novels or something . . .

This was a panel session, meaning that four authors held a discussion with the audience about their revision strategies and – yes – knowing when you’re done. Three were fiction writers; one was a poet, so they had varying points of view about this issue!

For me – as for many, many, many writers, maybe even you! – perfection is the siren call. We know it’s a siren call. We know that by following it, we are abandoning all else. We know that by trying to find it, we’re risking running ashore, having our novels crash and burn, having ourselves crash and burn. That’s what sirens do. They make you destroy yourself. Perfection is a Siren. She’s insidious and seductive, and she makes you think one more draft, one more set of rewrites, moving this scene here and tightening this, creating a better motive for this character . . . ad infinitum . . . and then it will be done because it will be Perfect. 

I am a perfectionist. I know whereof I speak. I also know that perfection is not achievable. So did the panelists. But for them as well, it’s a siren song that’s hard to resist. So how do they do it? Well, as one put it, “Perfection is the enemy of the paycheck.” When you’re a published author and on a deadline, you just don’t have time for perfection! It has to get as close as you can get it by the deadline, and then you have to let it go. (Though at least one admitted that when your intuition tells you the novel isn’t right, you should listen to your intuition . . . because otherwise, your lovely, sweet, supportive editor will call you and in the nicest voice possible, say, “Oh, honey . . . NO.”)

However, for poet Patricia Smith, it’s a little different. She has more time to work on her poems. She performs her poetry live, and so she gets feedback on it constantly. Or, as she said, “Perfection is fluid, it changes from audience to audience. Perfection is a shifting thing, depending on the needs of the people I’m writing for.”

So perfection isn’t a realistic goal. So . . . you’re off the hook, right?! No edits! No rewrites! One draft and you’re done! Right?

WRONG.

Perfection may not be achievable. But in today’s world of publishing, we have to get as freaking close to it as we possible can. Your first draft, as my friend and novelist Debra Dockter says, is a sandbox; you put up railroad ties and pour in the sand, and then you get to play in it. Revisions. Revisions are where we pull out ideas of theme, deepen character motivation, establish settings. Or, as one panelist put it,

“Revision is where the magic is.” 

But. How long those revisions take is another matter entirely. If you’re on deadline – well, in the words of one panelist, “Deadlines are a great way of knowing when you’re done.” You might get a small grace period, but you’ll be overnighting that thing to New York in the morning for sure.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2What resonated with me, though, was the comment made by one author on the panel. She said the danger of taking years to write a novel is that we grow, change, learn. We’re not stagnant. 

This one made me sit up and take note. That’s why I put my handy-dandy nota bene icon next to it. I know this. I know this firsthand. I’ve seen my writing grow and change over the years – yes, since I’ve been working on this series! I’ve gotten older. My perceptions have changed. The core of who I am hasn’t – but my writing style, my world-building, my word choices, have all changed. And my characters have, I hoped, kept pace a little. Grown and deepened as well.

But that’s the problem. Every time we evolve, we look at the novel with a slightly different outlook. And that outlook makes us go back to revisions. Some are good. Some are redundant, unnecessary. Who can say if taking nine years to write a novel is good or not? Maybe it takes that long for some writers to mature into their voices, to develop the skills to pull off a novel. As Patricia Smith put it, “Sometimes things don’t work because they’re asking for something we don’t know how to do at the time.” We mature as writers. We figure out solutions to things that were unsolvable a year ago, two years ago.

And at the same time, we run the risk of putting off the inevitable.

So I’ve made a commitment to myself. And now I’m putting that on paper. My novels will not be perfect. That’s a hard, bitter thing to accept, but I guess I can work up to that. What I HAVE to do, though, for myself and my characters, is get the damn thing done. Finish this last round of edits, and take a deep breath, and send it out into the world, knowing it won’t be perfect. Knowing there will be rejections, and maybe an offer, and if there are offers, there will be more rewrites, more edits.

If we ever want to be published, we have to accept the sad fact:  our novels are never finished, only abandoned. And although I known this blog post isn’t perfect, I’m publishing it anyway!

(And just so you know we’re not alone, here’s a few links to other articles on overcoming perfectionism in writing!)

https://thewritepractice.com/writing-perfectionism/

https://www.craftyourcontent.com/writers-perfectionism/

https://mandywallace.com/writing-perfectionist/

Writing a damn fine story? Read ‘Damn Fine Story,’ then!

damfinestoryIf you’ve read my blog for long, you know that I have a bit of an addiction to books about writing. I firmly believe that if you’re having an issue with your writing – whatever it is you write, however long you’ve been writing – it can be helpful to see what others have to say.

Often, if I’m stuck on a manuscript and don’t precisely know why – or even if I do know why, but can’t figure out how to fix it – I’ll go to Barnes & Noble and see what’s new in the writing aisle. I did this a couple of months ago, and came home with one of the best books about writing I’ve ever read – Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story. 

If the name’s familiar, that’s because Chuck has written many novels. He’s also a regular columnist with Writer’s Digest. And in this book, he uses popular works to illustrate his points about how to write your story. Emphasis on story. 

I bought this book because – well, the cover, for one thing! Who doesn’t love a deer in a monocle? Seriously. Who? But I also bought it because of the paragraph I read when I flipped the book open to page 7:

“You can’t plug a bunch of narrative components into an equation and spit out a perfect story. The truth is, most of what I’m telling you here is wildly imperfect. It’s guesswork. It’s lies layered with horseshit layered with I-don’t-know-what-I’m-talking-about. You don’t have the answers, either. Now writing is beholden to very specific rules, and those these rules are very flexible, they’re also teachable. Storytelling is far more . . . wiggly.” 

I knew. The moment I read those lines, I knew I wanted to read this book. Chuck doesn’t pull punches. This is not a book about getting to know your characters or crafting the perfect descriptive sentence or creating rules for your paranormal universe (although those things are covered). No. This book is about how to tell a story. And the next thing that grabbed me, and turned me upside down and shook the loose change out of my pockets, was this gem from page 10:

“Storytelling is an act of interrupting the status quo.” 

Yeah. Think about that one for a second. Chuck makes you think about it. Really, when it comes down to it, that’s what a story is, right? You have a character in stasis, until Something Happens and their status quo is shattered. The rest of the story is about the fallout and what the character does as a result. Does he come into possession of a magical, dangerous ring that must be destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom? Does she learn she can see ghosts? Do your high school classmates wake up one morning to find the Russians have invaded? Status quo – interrupted. And your story starts there.

Before you start the book, I’ll warn you:  it’s helpful if you’ve seen Die Hard and Star Wars (like, the whole series) recently. Chuck uses them to illustrate the points he makes. You’ll understand why.

One thing I absolutely love about this book is Chuck’s take on the traditional three-story arc. He hates it. See, I always thought I was the weirdo, the wrong one, for never being able to make my stories adhere to that damn thing! Rising action, climax, denouement. Never worked for me. And if you’re like me, Chuck is here to assure you that it’s okay! We’re not the weirdos! (You can chant it if you want! I did!) His argument is this:  “No story conforms to a standard shape . . . if you think about story in a three-dimensional way, suddenly you get a roller coaster – it rises, it falls, it whips left, it jerks right, it corkscrews through the air before spinning you upside down in a vicious loop-de-loop.”

See? Don’t we want to write stories like that?

Now, Chuck also has a lot to say about characters. Here’s another way to look at story:  your character has a problem; the story is the solution. Again, the status quo is interrupted. What your character does about that is the story. But more than that:  how does your character change during the story? Because they should, Chuck argues; otherwise, what’s the story about? In fact, he like to give a character three transition points:  who is this person in the beginning, the middle, and the end? He also believes that every scene, every line of dialogue, should drive home who this character is (using, of course, hero John McClane from Die Hard as his example).

There’s so much to this book – structuring scenes, how to give your characters agency in the novel, using subplots, themes and symbols – and all of it will make you consider your own work-in-progress in a new way.

There are lots of general books about writing out there. There are books that are genre-specific, those that tell you how to create characters, or structure plot, or create better descriptions, or add comedy to your writing. Damn Fine Story is not quite one of those. 🙂 Instead, Chuck looks at things through a different lens. A different, irreverent lens. Yes, he uses language. If that’s a problem for you, overlook it and read the book anyway.

You will be SO glad you did.

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/damn-fine-story-chuck-wendig/1126583462#/

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/ – Chuck’s website and blog

The Manuscript Wish List

Single writer seeks agent for editing fun and publishing excitement. Must provide constructive criticism, a shoulder to cry on, unending cheerleading, and a never-quit attitude. Interested? Just call 555- . . . 

Doesn’t it just seem like finding an agent is a mysterious, magical thing? That all the stars have to be in perfect alignment the second your manuscript crosses their desk? Or maybe you have to make a sacrifice to the Writing Gods (pretty sure they take mocha lattes!) to find that literary soul mate?

Me, too.

The only person I know who actually ever found an agent is my friend, fellow writer, and beta reader Debra Dockter. I watched her go through that process. For years. This is how that process went:

  1. Finish manuscript.
  2. Edit manuscript.
  3. Create short list of agents.
  4. Send queries.
  5. Haunt your in-box for responses.
  6. Drown sorrows when the ‘no’s come in.
  7. Start over.

But for ages, that was the only way to do it. I watched Deb get emails that said, “liked it, but . . . (dystopian is dead, not looking for this right now, didn’t love it, too similar to another book, whatever).” Or those cruel emails, the ones that said, “If you’d be willing to change X and Y, and possibly Z and B, and send it to me again, I’ll take another look.” Because those are the ones that get your hopes up, and still . . . nothing comes of them.

But!

In today’s world, we have something magical. Something akin to alchemy, even.

It’s called The Manuscript Wish List. 

And best of all – it’s created by agents! 

Never heard of it? Oh, hang on! You’re going to love it, I promise. The Manuscript Wish List got its start on Twitter a few years ago. The hashtag #MSWL is used whenever an agent or editor has a sudden idea for a great novel that they want to read – and haven’t seen yet. If you follow this hashtag on Twitter, this becomes your bat signal!

But best of all, if you aren’t on Twitter (or like me, just end up using it to cuss out certain orange people who shall not be named), you can go straight to the official site – http://mswishlist.com/ From there, you can search wish lists submitted by agents, editors, publishers – even interns! You can also search by genre. Romance currently has 1,272 requests; historical, 634.

This site, http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/, also has requests from Twitter in live time, so you can see which agents are requesting what, and how recently those requests came across. They also have a blog and some other great resources.

Obviously, you can use these wish lists to find an agent that fits with your particular project. That’s what I’ve been doing.

But you can also use these to think about projects you might not have considered before. Agents get pretty specific sometimes about their wants! For example, someone just posted that there’s probably a story in the Kansas gubernatorial elections – because we have teenagers running. Many want things ‘in the vein of such and such.’ And one of those things just might give you the spark you need, who knows?!

So . . . there you go. If you hadn’t heard of #MSWL before, I hope you take some time to look it over. You never know. You might just find your literary soul mate.

 

“350 Queries to Read . . .” Make yours stand out!

You probably read that title and fainted, right? 🙂

Sad fact:  it’s totally a true story. 

This weekend was the Rose State College Writer’s Conference in Oklahoma City. Along with the OWFI conference in May, it’s one of two that I get to attend every year (if I’m lucky!). I picked up some great tips (and, small brag, the first chapter of my work-in-progress Ghost Hunt took first place in the Fiction category in their contest!).

I attended a lot of great sessions, which I want to talk about in subsequent posts. But one of the best was from author Tamara Grantham on how to write great query letters. Let’s face it:  agents get too many submissions. WAY too many. In fact, from Word One, they are looking for a reason to reject you and move on to the next query.

And to tie back to my title, Tricia Skinner (an agent with Fuse Literary) said she knew for a fact that she had 350 queries waiting for her when she gets back home Monday. Yup. Three Hundred and Fifty. 

That’s the competition. That’s your competition.

Tamara gave us great hints from agent Janet Reid, who runs queryshark.blogspot.com , which has more than 250 query letters, ripped apart for your benefit. She will also rip apart yours, if you’re that brave! Here’s what I learned:

1.) Do NOT talk about ‘theme’ in your query letter. Your job is to entice the agent, not beat them over the head with a freshman Literature class.

2.) Why? Because you’ve got 250 words to get your novel across to the agent. That’s it.

3.) So how do you pull that off? Simple. You basically get 2 paragraphs to pitch your novel. Paragraph 1 should include:

  • Who is the MC?
  • What does your MC want?
  • What’s keeping them from getting what they want?
  • What will they sacrifice to get what they want?

4.) Your second paragraph should be your inciting incident, and where that leaves your MC. That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t tell the agent how the book ends. Don’t give them all the things that will happen in the middle of the book. Make them demand your full manuscript in order to find all that out!

5.) Don’t include backstory. Ever. It will waste your 250 words.

6.) Here’s another way to look at it: 

  • Your MC must decide whether to ____ .
  • If your MC decides to do ___, the consequences will be ____.
  • If your MC decides NOT to do ___, the consequences will be ____.

(Hint:  this is a great way to check that you’ve actually got a pitch-able story. If you can’t answer these three questions, it’s time to revisit your story arc.)

7.) Have others read your query letter. Give them specific things to look for:  eliminate redundancy; strong vs. weak words; and most of all, that hook. Do they want more after reading this?

8.) This is not an overnight process! Tamara recommended drafting your query letter, then putting it away for about 4 weeks. Then, before you read it again, write a second query letter. Look at them together. Is one better than the other? Can you combine elements of both to create something even better?

Now, of course, sometimes our minds just don’t work the way we wish they would, and our novels may not fit into this rubric. If not, don’t fret. Remember the basic information you’ve got to get across. Then, shake it up a bit. As long as you get the agent hooked, you’ve done your job.

Practice with this. I’ve been mentally going through novels I know well, making them fit into these molds to see if I can do it for my own manuscripts. Take my favorite novel, Outlander, as an example:

  • The decision:  Claire Randall must decide whether to return to her own time in 1945, and her husband there.  
  • If she does:  she will lose her new husband, Jamie, forever. 
  • If she doesn’t:  she will risk her life, and will lose her old husband, Frank, forever. 

Or another – let’s say, The Hunger Games: 

  • The decision:  Katniss must decide whether to volunteer to take her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games. 
  • If she does:  she may die, and her family will starve as a result. 
  • If she doesn’t:  her sister will definitely die. 

It’s all about the craft. Crafting your query letter is no different than crafting that first page. If you’re like me and nearing the end of rewrites – boy, there’s a scary thought! – then this is a great way to double-check your plot structure.

If you can’t get your novel across in this amount of space, then maybe you don’t know your story as well as you think – or maybe your story needs some tweaking. 

If you can – then congratulations! You’re on your way to writing a great query letter. 

Again, here’s the link to Janet Reid’s site:  http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

Tamara Grantham’s website:  http://www.tamaragranthambooks.com/

 

Wrong path, wrong focus – what’s your novel really about?

Sometimes, we get stuck. Stuck with flat tires, stuck in muddy ruts, stuck in dead-end jobs we hate, stuck with that last cold slice of sausage and mushroom pizza with the congealed grease on top. Stuck, stuck, stuck.

We get stuck when we write, too. We get stuck on a scene we can’t quite finish, or sometimes even on a sentence we can’t let go of. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re not quite sure where the novel is going – or because we didn’t know, when we started, just what the story would be.

I’m going to make a confession here, one that will make some of you question my sanity, and some of you question my right to talk about writing, and some of you jump up in the air and scream ‘YES, SOMEONE ELSE GETS IT, I’M NOT ALONE!’ and the confession is this:

I’ve been working on the same novel for nine years. 

Yeah. I have to let that one soak in, too. But it’s true. About nine years ago, this novel idea came to me, with the characters, and it was in part based on some research I was doing at the time. At first, I thought it was a one-off, a single novel. Unfortunately, secondary characters sort of moved in and demanded rooms of their own. That, I realized, meant that the original idea was expanded and this was likely going to become a series. Then, my MC, Erin, demanded to speak in first person. That called for rewrites. Then, about two years ago, after already submitting to an agent and having my friends DEMAND that I quit and just publish the damn thing already, it occurred to me that there was a scene early in the book that made little sense and really should be its own book.

And so. The entire first quarter of the book got cut. I had to feel my way through the rest of it. This one little scene, that could just as easily have been cut, turned into an 81,000-word standalone work.

That’s the book I’m working on now. Scenes were cut. Rearranged. Rewritten. Added back in. Characters milled around backstage, thumbs in pockets, waiting for their cues. Rebecca – who may or may not have been a 17th-century witch – made an unwilling foray to the foreground, to become the focus of the novel, insisting the entire time that this was not her job and would I please figure that out already? 

And about three weeks ago – I did.

I’d struggled with the rewrites all summer. I’d done everything I knew to do – I’d printed a hard copy. gone through it with pens and Post-It Notes, made a to-do list . . . and nothing was turning out the way it should. In short, I was stuck.

Then, blessedly, a revelation hit. As I sat amongst the ruins of my ink-spattered manuscript, wondering how the hell it had all gone so wrong and what I was supposed to do with it all now, a little random thought bubbled up from my subconscious:  Wrong focus. 

Huh? Nope. Right focus. Rebecca. Witch hunter. Got it.

Wrong freaking focus, idiot! 

And suddenly – I glanced down at the first page, and realized that the novel didn’t even start in the right place. We didn’t know Erin or Kai. We had no idea what Erin’s life had been like in the US. I needed a scene that I’d cut, and that scene had to be my opener. I sat down and spent about two hours totally rewriting that scene – and once it was done, I knew what I had to do.

Wrong freaking focus, indeed. I’d been so tightly honed in on Rebecca that I’d forgotten where my true focus was supposed to be – on my main characters, Erin and Kai. Their relationship. Their internal problems.  My focus wasn’t Rebecca. Rebecca was a catalyst, a way for Erin and Kai to work together while trying to iron out their own inner demons.

Not that I regret the wrong paths I took. Every single thing I know about Rebecca is necessary, and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t told her story first.

And since that night, the rewrites have been going smoothly. It’s like my novel finally woke up and said, “Hey! Glad you figured it out, dillweed! Let’s go.” Now that the focus has changed, I see all the other small problems with the novel. Scenes are changing. Tension can be added. Transitions are smoother. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I know precisely what needs to be done toward that end goal, and I walk away from the keyboard feeling good. I think this time, the novel may actually get done. I may be – for the time being, anyway – unstuck.

So if you’re stuck and aren’t sure why – I know this is a HUGE issue, and one I should have seen earlier, but if you’re stuck, take a look at your focus. Are you focusing on the right characters? Are you engaging readers in the true conflict? Are you telling the real story?

I wasn’t.

But – nine years on – I think I’m finally getting it.