Plot Part 2

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What is plot?

Plot is what happens in your story. Plot is the way you organize the events that occur in the novel. Plot is your story line. Plot is the direction of a story’s main events and incidents and how they relate to one another.

Let’s start with thinking about plot as a simple sentence: The world’s heroes must learn to work as a team in order to battle their enemies (Super-basic plot of “The Avengers” movie).

Every action/scene/chapter that shows the heroes having to learn to work together and/or battling the enemy is part of the plot.

Example: Loki steals the Tesseract. Natasha retrieves Bruce Banner. Nick Fury recruits Captain America.

All these events move the story forward and are necessary to get to “The End.”

Let’s think about what’s not plot.

Example: Loki eats a sandwich and takes a shower and has a nap and then goes to the store to buy ice cream.

If Loki does things which don’t impact the outcome of the story in any way, and these actions don’t provide any information about character or anything else, and they don’t move the story forward, then they are not part of the plot.

(Of course, it is totally possible that Loki eating a sandwich could be part of the plot, provided the sandwich was perhaps the only thing that would bring Hulk to Nick Fury…but that’s a whole different show.)

So, what do you call that scene or chapter where Loki eats a sandwich which has no impact anywhere else in the story? It’s Schmerfoople (made up word—Thanks, Angie Hodapp). It’s sloppy scene craft, first-draft writing, loose writing, zero-tension writing, boring, tangential…

It’s bad.

Delete it.

Or better yet, stop yourself from writing it before you spend days, weeks, years working on it.

If “The Avengers” actually had 15 minutes of Loki eating a sandwich, movie watchers would walk out of the theater because it is bad story telling. If you write 15 pages of your character eating a sandwich, readers will throw your book in the trash because It is bad story telling.

Make sense?

Plot is the things that characters do, or feel, or say, or think, that make a difference later in the story.  If you are going to spend your time writing, make sure what you are writing has a plot so that it is not a pointless waist of time. Having a plot makes you a better storyteller. Be a better storyteller.

Plot

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I was recently at Colorado Gold, which is a conference geared toward writers wanting to improve their craft and writing skill. It was a great conference attended by 300+ writers. While there, I chatted with people and I noticed that for some of them, the concept of plot seemed to be an afterthought.

These were generally newer writers.

The conversations when something like this:

“What have you written?” I ask.

“I am writing a story about {fill in the blank}.”

“How’s that going?”

“Well, {long pause} I was really excited when I started writing it after I got the idea. It sounded like such a great story, but it’s kind of bogged down, and I’m stuck.”

I then began asking questions about the story, and the characters, and the author’s intention. Many questions usually resulted with shrugs. I don’t ask these questions to be mean. I ask them to help the writers figure out what the story problems are so they can be fixed.

Usually, I find these issues are plot problems. See…most newer writers begin writing with an idea. They write with gusts of great enthusiasm. A fair number of them will begin writing without the general story line worked out. There is nothing wrong with writing this way. It can be a great exercise in discovery—which all writing is, even when the story is fully plotted—but it can lead to frustration when the writer discovers that what they thought would be a great story, isn’t actually great. Especially when they don’t know what should happen next. Or how to get the character from point A to point B. Or if they don’t know why their character is going off on random tangents.

Consequently, I am starting a series of posts on the various aspects of plot. Over the next several weeks, I hope you will find something that helps you—if you are one of these writers in need of a plot boot camp—figure out why your story has fizzled, or why your story is stuck.

 

 

Writing and the Mid-Year Evaluation

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It’s summer which is a reminder for me to evaluate my writing progress.

While I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions at the beginning of the year, I do make a list of goals. I never achieve them perfectly, but I do move closer to achieving them over time, and I do the work step-by-step to get me where I want to be. Eventually.

This year I have not written nearly as much as I listed on my goal. My word count is abysmal. But I am writing, slowly, progressing toward the end of my newest novel. I may not finish by the end of the year and I am okay with that.  I keep writing. I keep working toward my goal regardless of completion by the self-imposed deadline or not. It’s the journey, right?

I expect some of you made some goals this year too, along the lines of writing, or writing more, or writing every day. Good for you! I hope you’ve had much success on whatever that goal was. And I hope you have confidence that you are making progress as you evaluate your goals mid-year even if you haven’t been perfect, or even great, or even good at doing the work you need to do to get what you want. If you re-visit your goals regularly, that will help you achieve them.

And as you evaluate your writing goals this year, how does reality look compared to the goals you made six months ago? Are you meeting your goals? Exceeding your goals? Have you actually started writing yet? There is no judgement here if  you haven’t started. Just remember that you can start right now. Evaluate your plan, adapt, adjust, and start now. There is no reason to be discouraged.

It’s never too late to begin. It’s all about adapting the plan.

You can do this.

 

 

 

 

Word Counts

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We’ve had a substantial number of submissions at Literary Wanderlust lately. We always take the time to read every submission with the goal of finding some really great stories to contract and turn into books. Well, that’s not actually true. There is one category of submissions that we reject without reading—books with exorbitant word counts.

What?

Yeah.

Here’s the dealio. If you submit a romance novel but the word count is 190k, we just aren’t going to read the submission. It gets an automatic generic rejection and we won’t even read the query letter.

I know that sounds cold, but we can’t sell a 190k word romance novel, especially from a 1st time author. Readers just won’t buy it. There’s just no point for us to take the time to read it.  Note that this also works in reverse. If your book is too short for the genre, it could negatively affect the submission outcome.

You see, each and every genre has an expected word count. The expected word count is based on reader expectations. In order for the book to sell, it has to be something that the reader will buy. This is a business, remember? We all want to sell books.

To help you figure out if you are in the ballpark for word counts by genre, look at the below list. Note that there are some count variances based on publisher and sub-genre. Do your research so you don’t waste your time writing something that just won’t sell because it is unrealistically long, or too short.  If your genre/sub-genre is not listed below, look at a good handful of the most recently published books and average the page count.

  • Fantasy: 90-110K
  • General Fiction: 75-100K
  • Historical: 90-120K
  • Horror: 80-100K
  • Literary: 80-100K
  • Mystery: 75-90K
  • New Adult: 60-85K
  • Paranormal: 75-95K
  • Romance: 50-90K
  • Thriller: 70-100K
  • Science Fiction: 90-120K
  • Western: 50-80K
  • Women’s Fiction: 90-100K
  • Young Adult: 60-80K

Yes, yes, there are always exceptions. But you are not it most likely.

The main takeaway is that you should know the expected word count for your genre so you can write something that readers want and expect. If your genre is not listed above, Google it. You will find it listed somewhere. Research marketing categories and genres so you can find the expected plot structure. Then write within that framework. Throw in a lot of creative stuff while you are at it. Then you will have more luck selling it. Size matters. Length matters. Yeah. Get your mind out of the gutter.

It’s all about the past tense part

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You know how it is. You are some place, maybe waiting in a long line, or at the car repair shop. You strike up a conversation with someone. You talk about the wait time, or the weather, or the food, or some safe topic. Inevitably, the conversation will get around to the business of what it is that each of us does for a living. This happens faster when talking to men, less fast with women. Please note there is no intention of sexism in that last sentence—it’s just an observation.

I usually respond I am a fiction editor at a small press, which often stirs the interest of the other party. Note that this is not my goal usually—it is just what I experience. If I wanted to really stir up interest, I would say I am an ethical hacker, or a Hollywood stunt double, or an expensive madam or something (I am not these things, but it could be fun—especially since most likely I’d never see that person again so there is no risk—it’s just that I am not one for bullshit).

I usually hear a response that equates to something like I always wanted to be a writer, or I’ve never written anything before but am writing a book, or I have a great book idea and am looking for a ghost writer, or something similar. Not always mind you, but a fair percentage of the time.

I usually ask at some point, “What have you written?”

Note that I don’t ask what it is you write or what have you published, which can be quite the topic of bullshit. I ask about what you’ve written (past tense). I am not trying to be funny or mean. I am just trying to cut to the chase.

Here’s the thing. Being a writer is not about some pie in the sky dream of fame and fortune, or the dream of making something of yourself based on your self-perceived story genius. Being a writer is about putting your ass-in-a-chair-and-actually-writing-something. And to be a writer you have to have written something. Anything. Past tense. Writers write. Aspiring writers don’t.

Note that this doesn’t mean that writer’s love the process of writing. I don’t know any writer who loves the process of writing a novel. I do know a lot of writers who love having written. Past tense. They like it once they are done.

There was one person I had this style of conversation with recently, and I was intrigued. I asked her what she’d written. Her response was something akin to she had written in her journal every day since she was eleven, but she didn’t think that counted. She just aspired to be a writer.

I stopped her. She IS a writer. She HAS written. For years and years and years she has written. And yes, that counts in my book. It’s all practice for the next step in her evolution as a writer—if that is what she wants to do. It doesn’t matter that no one has ever read her journal, or that she’s never published a short story, or never outlined a book idea. It matters that she has written. If she has written, then she is a writer. If she makes the time and effort to learn story craft, she can be a novelist. Or a short story author. Or a poet. Or whatever she wants. The next steps are just next steps.

We spent the next forty-five some odd minutes talking about how to learn what she wanted to learn so she can write what she wants to write and how to move forward as a writer. I have full faith that if she learns story craft then she will write a novel. Because she IS a writer. She has written. Maybe she will sell. Maybe she won’t. None of that has any bearing on being a writer.

There are many, many, many people who aspire to write books, but they never do. They are not interested in learning about plot, or structure, or how to create characters that seem like real people. Somehow, they magically feel they can write the Great American Novel without ever having practiced or having written a word before. Life doesn’t work that way. Even Leonardo DaVinci sucked when he first learned to draw.

If you are already a writer, don’t you want to be a better writer? Yes? Then take the time to learn your craft. If you aspire to be a writer, maybe make a plan, and find out what you need to know to reach your dreams of being a writer. Meanwhile. Just write. Anything.

It’s all about the having written part. Past tense. So you are a writer you say? What have  you written?

Plot Twists Teaser

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Sometimes when I am reading the slush pile (my submission inbox for Literary Wanderlust), I come across a really good story idea but the story winds up being boring. Usually, it’s because the story does not contain any plot twists to pique my interest.

What is a plot twist?

A plot twist is an unexpected, surprising development in the book that takes the story in a new direction. Note that the plot twist should always be narratively sound. In other words, there has to be some logic to the twist. The plot twist should always be a surprise to the reader. And it could also be foreshadowed, but not always. But, when the reader gets to the end, the plot twist must make sense to the overall journey that your character has been on.

Think about the movie The Empire Strikes Back. No one is really sure who Luke’s father is in Star Wars. Luke thinks his father id dead. But then—plot twist—Luke discovers that his arch nemesis, Darth Vader, is actually his father.

This plot twist is narratively sound because the father question was raised early on in Star Wars. The reader (movie goer) did not know that Darth Vader was Luke’s father and so was surprised to discover this new information even though this information was foreshadowed when Obi-Wan tells Luke that his father was “the best star pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior.” And Darth Vader pilots his own fighter which is a clue that he is a cunning warrior. This is a visual example of the plot twist. As an exercise, go back and watch the two movies and make a note of where ever you see the foreshadowing for this plot twist.

If you are going to consider adding a plot twist to your novel, set it up carefully. This is something that you may want to plot out in an outline so you know where to foreshadow it (if you are going to do that) and where the twist would be best placed in your novel to create the most conflict and cause the most chaos for your character. The main point of importance is that the plot twist should push your character in a new and unexpected direction from where the reader thinks the character is going.

You may want to consider using subtle misdirection as you set up your plot twist. Guide the reader’s attention away from the potential plot direction created by the plot twist. Planting false clues (red herrings) steers your readers in the wrong direction which will help make the plot twist more striking.

Perhaps your novel needs multiple plot twists. Outline them to ensure your story logic is sound but do be careful not to do so many plot twists that you risk confusing your reader.

Plot twists make your story more dynamic, and consequently more saleable. If you’ve never considered adding a plot twist or two to your story, give it a try. I could really make your story more interesting.

 

Get Matched! with a Critique Partner

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via Get Matched! is an online critique partnering service to help you find just the right person to partner with.  It’s free. It’s a great idea. And I wanted to share.

 

How to Query a Publisher

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Recently my press was mentioned in an author’s listing for publishers seeking submissions.

It’s a great thing, truly. I am not complaining. The more submissions the better. The number of queries we received (so far) in the month of March is 75% more than the number of queries we receive in the month of February. And that, to be modest, is a significant jump in the number of book submissions that our team of editors now needs to read through. Not bad. Not bad at all. Hopefully, there are some great books in the slush pile just waiting for us to love.

What I noticed with the sudden influx of submissions, is that a goodly percentage of these submissions are from authors who clearly have no idea how to do a submission, or how to come across as professional.

Consequently, I thought I’d post today about the submission process.

If you are not going to self-publish your book, then this means you are going the traditional publishing route. You can try to publish with the Big 5 (see list: http://almossawi.com/big-five-publishers/), or you can look for an indie press (see post Self-Pub, Indie-Pub, or Big 5 https://susanbrooks.wordpress.com/2017/05/03/self-pub-indie-pub-or-big-5-part-1/ for detailed information on the pros and cons of each process). Basically, if you want to publish with the Big 5, you must get an agent first. If you want to publish with an indie press you don’t necessarily need an agent.

A query means that you are contacting a publisher so they can consider contracting the book for publication. The query consists of a letter that introduces you and your book to the publisher, and any other information that each publisher requires. EACH PUBLISHERS’ REQUIREMENTS are different. You will have to investigate their submission guidelines (located on their website) to see what they want specifically and how to submit to them.

It’s not in your best interest to bulk email many publishers at once with a single query. Mostly because they will probably just delete it. Why? Because you can’t bother to follow directions. And you look unprofessional.

Moving forward, I will be Literary Wanderlust specific, because our submission guidelines are those I know best.

Literary Wanderlust ( https://www.literarywanderlust.com/ ) wants a query letter, the 1st 3 chapters of your manuscript, and a synopsis. Our submission website (http://QueryMe.Online/LiteraryWanderlust ) also asks questions about you as author, and your book. Most publishers will want some variation of this information but not exactly this information, which is why you have to read each publisher’s guidelines.

Your query should be addressed to a specific editor if possible, and should include the story’s premise, the total word count, the genre, and a bit about you.

Here’s an example query letter (I just randomly pulled a letter that had all the elements—the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the letter has been simplified)

Dear Ms. Brooks,

BOOK TITLE will engross readers of thrillers and paranormal stories. THE CHARACTER is a psychic can see and talk to spirits. After a fire has destroyed much of California, she has been hired by the mayor to investigate a series of murders that many people believe have been committed by spirits…

I have published the following works: TITLE, TITLE, TITLE

I live in California with my husband Dan and two dogs. In addition to writing, I enjoy playing with my dogs, gardening, working with my students, and contributing as a board member and director to the local theater group.

Best Regards,

AUTHOR

This is generally how query letters look. To that letter, attach your superbly polished novel pages. You want to put the best possible example of your writing forward for review. Make sure there are not typos or missing words. Your synopsis (see post How to Write a Synopsis https://susanbrooks.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/writing-tips-how-to-write-a-synopsis/ for information on that topic) should include all the major story arcs and the ending.

When you have all your pages ship-shape then do your research and submit to publishers (who should never charge you any money to publish your book. If they do, run!). Do your best to be professional. Remember that you are representing yourself and you are a professional. Be kind. Be thorough. And hopefully, your book will move to the next step. Good luck!

 

The Pitch

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I will be taking pitches at Book in a Day on April 13, 2019 in Golden, Colorado (https://rmfw.org/special-events/) and also answering questions from attendees, and I thought it might be good to talk about “The Pitch” for those of  you who:

  1. Have never pitched to an agent or editor before but would like to be traditionally published
  2. Don’t know what a pitch is
  3. Have an upcoming pitch appointment scheduled with me, or with some other agent or editor at another event and are unsure of the process

First off, before anything else is said and done, remember that agents, editors, and publishers WANT to publish your book. It’s their business and livelihood and they need great books they can get to readers. As they wait for your pitch, they are hoping against odds that your book will be the perfect book they are looking for. They want to get your pages in their hands.

When you are meet them, remember to be professional. You are representing your brand—you as author. Be as prepared as possible. Practice your pitch for your friends. Practice in front of a mirror. Don’t be nervous (this is difficult I realize). Remember that these people want you to succeed. Breathe.

If you do not get a request to submit pages to them, realize that this is not a reflection on you personally. It just means that your book, right now, doesn’t match what the agent, editor, or publisher is looking for at this moment. Thank them for their time and input, and keep in mind that you might approach them in the future when your book might be perfect for them. Often, it’s all about timing.

So…

What is the pitch?

The pitch is a concise, evocative two sentences about your book that you will express to the publishing professional when you meet them. The goal of the pitch is to pique the interest of the acquiring professional so they will request to read your pages, and in time, hopefully, give you a publishing contract.  Sometimes this is called an elevator pitch because it shouldn’t take longer than a short ride in an elevator. Think two sentences.

Can it be longer? Sure. Maybe three sentences. But that’s it.

To help you come up with your pitch, I suggest you do a few things:

  • Write down what your book is about in under 50 words. Don’t try to be witty, just write down the basic story
  • Include the basic story world. Does it take place in the current time? Off world? An alternate universe? Mention that.
  • Then condense this down into a paragraph.

Now…

  • Streamline your above paragraph into one or two clever sentences that describe your novel
  • Include a hook to catch my interest if you can
  • Include your main character’s main conflict
  • Say what your character has to do to overcome that conflict

Other information to provide the publishing professional

  • Your name
  • Book title
  • Word Count
  • Genre

So, your pitch should sound something like…

“Hi. My name is Bill Shakespeare. My humorous novel, set in modern Italy, is called ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and it is completed at 21,000 words. It is about an unwilling wife named Katherine Minola, who despises her roguish husband Petruchio, who sees himself as a shrew taming champion, that is, until Kate comes to adore him.”

That’s it. That’s the pitch. Usually, the publishing professional will then ask you questions about your book. You should be prepared to answer those questions. These questions can be on anything, but since you know your novel better than anyone, you should be able to answer them. You might also get questions about you, your writing style, your author platform.

Just do the best you can.

You don’t need to bring your pages to the pitch appointment. If your pages are requested, you will have some time to do a final polish and then digitally submit them according to the directions of that publishing professional. Follow their directions. Each person will have their own process.

The hardest part is getting your novel boiled down into a sentence or two. And that is a good exercise even if you aren’t ready to pitch.