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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
Have never pitched to an agent or editor before but would like to be traditionally published
Don’t know what a pitch is
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.
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.
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
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.
I was asked recently about my thoughts on prologues. Prologues are those pre-chapter chapters in some books that serve as an introduction into the story. The prologue’s purpose is generally to provide a backstory to the main story, and/or to give some insight into one of the characters, or the prologue will give some insight into the plot. In effect, the prologue allows the author to begin their story twice, at two different points in time.
A good example of a well-written prologue is Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity where the inciting Incident is Bourne waking up with amnesia and having to remember the events in the prologue.
Prologues seem most prevalent in crime fiction such as the Bourne books, and fantasy novels where they describe the other world.
Let’s be clear upfront. I am not a fan of the prologue most of the time. Because prologue is usually backstory that could be spoon fed to the reader in small bites during important moments of the story, I find them unnecessary. I might even be anti-prologue. I reserve the right to change my mind at a later time, but in this moment, I usually find them a waste of time and I don’t want to read them.
Consequently, if you’ve written a prologue, I have some questions for you.
Do you genuinely need a prologue in your story?
Are you sure?
Can you give the reader the information contained in the prologue elsewhere in your novel? Yes? Delete your prologue and add the information elsewhere in your novel.
What does your prologue do for your story? This is important. Make sure you can answer this question. If you can’t, you may want to re-think having a prologue.
If you genuinely need it, is your prologue written well? No? Re-write it.
Is your prologue boring? Revise it.
Is your prologue an information dump? Ugh. Delete it. Please.
If you are going to write a prologue, do make sure that it is essential to the story. It must contribute to the plot, and not be a device to inform the reader of some bit of information because you are being a lazy writer.
If you leave the prologue out, how does that effect the story? It doesn’t? Delete it.
Will anyone notice if it’s not there? No? Delete it.
Are you using your prologue to introduce your main character? Delete it. Introduce your main character in your novel.
If you truly need a prologue, make sure you do it well.
Grab the reader’s attention with a hook in the first couple of sentences.
Make sure the prologue somehow foreshadows events in the novel.
If the prologue’s purpose is to showcase the inciting incident, make sure it is pertinent information that piques the reader’s interest.
Make it evocative with sensory information, setting, mood, etc.
Make the prologue dynamic.
Your prologue should be structured like a mini-story with a beginning and middle and a hook ending.
Do not drone on with boring backstory, I beg of you.
Illustrate useful information that is necessary for the reader to understand the novel.
If the prologue is from the protagonist’s past, make sure that it’s important and has an effect on the current protagonist. Think about a movie for a moment. Think of Raider of the Lost Arc. No one knew why Indiana Jones hated snakes and didn’t find that out until two movies later. If that WHY sequence had been in Raiders of the Lost Arc it would have dragged the story down. Don’t drag the story down. The fact that Indy hated snakes was intriguing, but it didn’t take away from the story that the backstory of Indy’s hate was absent.
Ensure that your prologue is not too long.
If you are going to write a prologue, study prologues written by master authors. Make sure your prologue is there for a reason. Do your best. Work hard. I’d love you to change my mind about prologues.
I wrote the first chapter of my work in progress and then workshopped it with my critique partner. I wanted feedback on chapter one before I moved on to writing chapter two. I did this for a couple reasons, but the main reason is to make sure that the character is coming across in a way that draws the interest of the reader, in this case, my critique partner.
So, I emailed him my chapter to review, and then we schedule a meeting to discuss my pages (this is a back and forth thing – we send each other pages and meet to discuss). I had some misgivings. This is a new book idea and it’s always nerve-wracking to put new pages out there for the first time, even with a trusted friend and critique partner. Plus, this new character I had created was a bit…negative. My intention was to show the character arc over the course of the novel to show the character moving from negative to positive. At critique time I confirmed that my character was too negative. Too whiney. Too much. So, it’s revision time.
Does it really matter that the character is too negative at the beginning of a novel?
Would you want to read about someone whom you didn’t particularly like? Granted, readers have different tastes but as a rule, we readers don’t want to spend our time reading about people we dislike or find annoying.
The issue was the character was too whiney, too judgmental of other characters, and didn’t have any redeeming qualities to make the reader like her. In screenwriting terms, the character didn’t have a Save the Cat moment. Granted characters should be complex. They should have good qualities and fatal flaws. But if they are too extreme either direction, they become unlikable.
I revised the structure of who my character is and am completely re-writing the 1st chapter, and it is better. The re-think on the character not only made the character better and gave her some redeeming qualities which was essential to make her likable, but it also forced me to revise my story structure to compensate for the different character concept. Yeah, it’s work, but it’s worth it.
Things to think about when creating your characters:
Be careful to make your character have a balance of good qualities and bad.
Don’t make them too mean or too negative.
Be careful that your character is not too perfect, or too goody two shoes. Just like in real life, too good, too perfect can be annoying.
Some snark in your character can be okay but extreme rudeness makes the character unlikable.
Give your character some redeeming qualities.
Make sure your character is not a doormat. They need to have some sort of a moral compass so they are not easily manipulated by other characters. Give them some backbone as it were.
It might be helpful if you consider character archetypes as a basis for each character you are creating. This may help you consider their fatal flaws, as well as their redeeming qualities. You do need to make sure that your characters are unique and infuse originality into their makeup even if you are basing them on an archetype, so be careful that you don’t create stereotypical characters.
A most important concept in character development is that your character must have the goal that will drive them all the way through the novel. Any wishey-washy goals should be edited. Your character must want something and this something is what ensures that your character will reach the end. It is their driving factor. The goal is why they are in your novel to begin with.
You might also consider giving your character a secret, especially something that they don’t want anyone else to know (except the reader). This tendency to hide the secret from other characters will help you create some interesting interactions with other characters and creates an interesting dynamic for the reader to follow.
Your character should also have some form of vulnerability factor. This vulnerability will draw the reader in and create an emotional bond on some level. Usually, this factor, or emotional wound, will be triggered by something and cause a reaction. If you create this well on the page, your readers will love your character. Again, this creates an interesting dynamic for the reader to follow.
Fill your novel world with characters that feel like real people with all their problems, faults, and joys. Your book will be better for it.
Writing is a solitary activity. It just isn’t possible to have someone else do your writing for you. Sure, you can hire a ghost writer, but then the ghost writer is the actual writer, not you. If YOU are the writer, then you must do that activity all by your lonesome. There is no other way around that.
So, there you are, the solitary writer, sitting at your desk, or in a coffee shop, or library, or bathroom, or kitchen table, or wherever you do your writing. You had an idea that would make a great story, or you dreamed it, or you brainstormed it, or you went through your personal writing process to come up with a story idea. You clearly see the story in your mind’s eye and know exactly what should happen and when, and who your characters are, and what they want. You know exactly how the story should begin in order to hook the reader, and you know exactly how the story should end to give the reader a satisfying experience.
You plotted out your novel if you are a plotter, or if you are a panster (someone who writes by the seat of their pants without a plan) you just started writing. You have written page after page. You have written each scene with care. You are positive that your characters grow and change, and that each scene moves the story forward. There are no lulls, dead spots, or unnecessary sub-plots, or sidelines.
“This is the most amazing novel,” you say as you type THE END. “It’s perfect!” You believe yourself. After all, why would you lie to yourself about your writing? You have doubted your ability in the past, but in this moment, you are a genius.
Immediately, you start to think about finding an agent, and a six-figure contract with a publishing house.
Just a moment.
I know this is a difficult thing to ponder.
When you write in isolation, you are writing words on a page based upon the skill level you are currently at. You can’t improve that skill level without input from others. And you can not see your own short comings.
And, because you see the story perfectly in your mind’s eye, your brain doesn’t really interpret what is actually written on the page. It only interprets what you intended to be on the page. Even if you read your own pages, your brain will fill in all the gaps of what is not actually there.
What does that mean?
It means what you think you wrote is not actually what you wrote.
“But I have all the pages right here,” you say. “Four hundred pages. Everything is there. I have read it several times!”
Yeah. Sorry. It’s not all there. I promise you it’s not.
Because we can not see our own limitations, and short comings, and writing faux pas, and our bad dialogue, and vague scene setting, this means that we need other people to read our work.
“I don’t need no stinking people,” you say.
Yeah, you do. You need someone to be gracious enough to read all of your pages in detail with a critical eye. You need someone who writes and knows writing craft. You need someone who can articulate why a particular scene does or does not work on any given page. You need someone who has more skill as a writer than you, so you can learn from them. You need someone who has less skill than you, so you can teach them (one of the best ways to learn a thing is to teach it). You need multiple someones because all of those someones will be good at different things and if you have enough someones they can help you fix all your writing foibles BEFORE you submit your novel to agents and publishing houses who will then reject you with a generic rejection letter and won’t tell you what the issues are in your manuscript because to do that takes a lot of time they don’t have to give to someone they are not contracted with. Yeah, that was a long freakin’ sentence. Take a breath.
Sure, your mom, or your spouse, or your friend can read your story, but are they going to give you an honest reaction? Can they tell you why your character motivations are unclear? Will they know what character motivations are? Or, will they just tell you how fabulous the book is because they don’t want to hurt your feelings? Your mom may be good for your ego, but she’s probably not a good critique partner.
Yes, you need other writer people.
“But where do I find other writing people?” you ask.
You Google writing organizations in your area, or you find an online critique group and join it, or you look for a MeetUp group. If you can find even a tiny pocket of other writers, you can create your own critique group. Or find a writer’s conference and ask them for help.
And then what.
Then you give your new critique partners your pages to read according to the group’s process and ask for honest feedback.
“But—but! My pages are my babies! What if they don’t like what they read? I will be devastated!”
Yeah. That’s normal. Putting your pages out there and asking for feedback can be scary. You will need to grow some thickness to your skin as you sit back silently and listen to other people tell you what needs improvement and why. Remember, this is not personal. These writer people are not criticizing you. They are volunteering hours of their personal time to help you become a better writer. And they are just as terrified to put their pages out there for critique. But all of these someones are doing their best for you.
After some time goes by and you let go of your ego, you will realize that most of their comments are valid. Their ideas really do make your story better. You revise your pages and submit them for critique again. And again, you sit back silently and listen to the commentary. Over time, you become a better writer. You also develop new and lasting friendships. You learn to trust that these writer people who have your best interest at heart, just as you have theirs. You learn craft together. You teach each other. You become better writers together. Eventually you joyfully celebrate the publication of your books together.
It’s scary. It’s time consuming. You will have to swallow your pride. But in the end, what you think you wrote will actually be what you wrote and that is good for everybody.