Tag Archives: chapter

Manuscript Rejected After Only 20 Pages? What gives?

Ever wonder how an agent can reject a manuscript, having read only the first 20 pages? How can they know a book isn’t something they want to represent with so little to go on?

Before a writer curses all agent-hood while typing the url, Smashwords.com, self-proclaimed Novel Diagnostician (and doesn’t she deserve such a lofty title?) Kristen Lamb says, “There are too many authors who dismiss why agents are rejecting them and run off to self-publish instead of fixing why their manuscript was rejected.” (Not that you shouldn’t self-publish; please do, so we can read your book. But! BUT! Before you do, get that MS polished to perfection by a professional–someone with demonstrated
industry knowledge of storycraft.)

Lamb points out, “Agents know that a writer only has a few pages to hook a reader. That’s the first thing. But agents also know that the first 20 pages are a fairly accurate reflection of the entire book. So let’s explore some common problems with beginnings and look to the problems that they can foreshadow in the rest of the work.” Here are excerpts from her post:

Info-Dump

The beginning of the novel starts the reader off with lengthy history or world-building. The author pores on and on about details of a city or civilization or some alien history all to “set up” the story.

In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters and even plotting. How can I tell? He begins with his strength…lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout.

This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story.

Readers read fiction for stories. They read Wikipedia for information. Information does not a plot make. Facts and details are to support the story that will be driven by characters with human wants and
needs. Keep the priorities straight. In twenty years people won’t remember the setting, they will remember people.

Book Starts Right in the Middle of the Action

A lot of new writers are being told to start right in the action, and this tip needs to be clarified. We need some kind of conflict in the beginning to make us (the reader) choose to side with/like the protagonist. This conflict doesn’t necessarily have to do with the main story problem (directly).

For instance, in the Hunger Games we are introduced to Katniss and we get a glimpse of the hell that is her life and the burden she has of feeding her family. We feel for her because she lives in a post-apocalyptic nightmare where life is lived on the brink of starvation.
Nothing terribly earth-shattering happens, but we care about this girl. So,
when Katniss is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games–a brutal gladiator game held by the privileged Capitol–we want her to win, because that means a life of food, shelter and relative safety.

Suzanne Collins didn’t start out with Katniss in the arena fighting the Hunger Games. That is too far in and is too jarring. We need
time with Katniss in her Normal World for The Hunger Games to mean anything or this action would devolve quickly into melodrama. Even though in the beginning, she isn’t per se pitted directly with the Capitol, she is pitted against starvation and depravity…which leads us nicely into the main cause of that starvation and depravity (the Capitol) and the solution to this life (win the Hunger Games).

Yet, many new writers take this notion of “start right in the action” and they dump the reader straight into the arena. There are world-shattering stakes and we are only on page 2.

This shows me that the writer could be weak in a number of areas. First, she may not be clear what the overall story problem is, so she is beginning with a “gimmick” to hook the reader. Secondly, this alerts me that the writer is weak in her understanding of scene and sequel novel structure.

Scenes are structured: Goal-> conflict -> disaster

So when a writer begins her book with Biff hanging over a shark tank surrounded by ninjas, two major steps in a scene have been
skipped. When a writer totally skips some fairly vital parts and thrusts us
straight into disaster, I already know the author will likely rely on melodrama from this point on. Why? Because that was how she began her book.

Book Begins with Internalization

Fiction is driven by conflict. Period. Writing might be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. When a writer begins with a character thinking and internalizing that is another huge warning flag of a number of problems.

Do you need internalization in a novel? Yes! But it has its place. Most internalization will be part of what is known as the sequel. Sequels transpire as a direct reaction to a scene. When a writer begins the novel with the sequel, that is a huge warning that, again, the writer is weak when it comes to structure. There is a definite purpose for reflection, but kicking off the action is not one of them.

Also, beginning with the protagonist “thinking” is very self-indulgent. Why do we as readers care about this person’s feelings or thoughts about anything? We don’t know this character. The only people who listen attentively to the thoughts, feelings, and disappointments of total
strangers are shrinks, and they are being paid well to do so.

Give us (your readers) time to know your character and become interested in her, and then we will care.

Like people who tell you about their abusive alcoholic father the first 30 seconds after you’ve met them, they likely will keep this trend of rudely dumping too much personal information. When the protagonist begins with all this thinking and more thinking…and more thinking,
it is probably a bad sign for the future. Just sayin’.

Book Begins with a Flashback

We do not need to know why a certain character did this or that or why a bad guy went bad. Again, that’s for therapy.

Did we really need to know why Hannibal Lecter started eating people for Silence of the Lambs to be an awesome book AND movie?
Now I know that there was a later explication of this….but it was an entirely different story (and one that really didn’t do well, I might mention).

Flashbacks often alert me that the writer needs time to grow. She hasn’t yet developed the skill to blend background details with the current conflict in a way that supports the story.

I’ll give you a great example: Watch the J.J. Abrams Star Trek. We find out exactly how Dr. Leonard McCoy gets his nickname, Bones…one line. “Wife got the whole planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.” The audience didn’t have to have a flashback to get that McCoy’s divorce was really bad. That is a great example of a writer seamlessly blending
character back story.

Also, sometimes, not knowing why adds to the tension. The Force was more interesting before it was explained.There are three really great books I highly recommend if you want to work on your beginnings (and even learn to fix the problems that bad beginnings foreshadow). Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Hooked by Les Edgerton, and Scene and Sequel by
Jack Bickham.

Many authors are being rejected by the first 20 pages, and because most agents are overworked, they don’t have time to explain
to each and every rejected author what they saw. Thus, too many writers are
reworking and reworking their beginning and not really seeing that their weak beginning is a symptom of larger issues.

Hopefully, though, today Kristen Lamb gave you some helpful insight into what an editor (or an agent) really sees so you can roll up your sleeves and get to what’s truly going on.

What are some novels you guys can think of that had amazing beginnings?

What hooks you? How long will you give a novel before you buy it? How long will you give a novel you have bought before you put it down?

Kristen Lamb’s best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer. Lamb’s methods teach you how to make building your author platform fun. She helps writers change approach, not personality.

Can’t get enough Kristen Lamb? (Me neither!) Check this out: Editing Fiction for Intelligent Readers (No Spoon-feeding Allowed.)

 

Advertisements

7 Comments

Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing

Fiction Writing: 7 Elements of the First Page

First pages are like first dates. No, worse. First pages are more like the ten seconds it takes your blind date to come into sight and walk toward your table. It’s often a make-or-break deal, and in many cases, a delusive representation of what follows in chapters behind.

Or am I jaded? More often than I care to admit, a book’s finely-crafted opening pages evoke lovestruck stars in my eyes, much as one too many nervous cocktails over tentative introductions. But when I dig deeper, get to Chapter Two–or the second date, as it were–the luster of those brilliant opening lines fades to a dull incompatibility. But, we can discuss second dates/chapters in another post!

The dating world and the publishing world share a urgent requirement to hook the bait from that first glance. Below, a guest post from  Linda R. Young’s W.I.P. It blog shows us the seven elements a first page should include. (I’m tempted to share seven first date tips, but then you’d have to “red-mark” me for digression.)

1. A distinctive voice. A unique voice is essential to capture the imaginations of the readers and pull them into the story. Voice will make your novel stand out above the rest.

2. A strong character. Readers will engage with strong and interesting characters.

3. A sense of time and place. This grounds the reader into the story. They should be able to recognise the story’s genre in the first page. These should be markers only. Avoid wads of descriptions.

4. Questions. Don’t answer all the reader’s questions at once. Don’t give them everything they need to know about the characters, the history, the setting. They don’t need paragraphs of backstory. They don’t need–or want–everything explained too soon.

5. Intrigue. More than simply holding the cards to your chest, tease the reader into wanting to know more.

6. The point of change. The story should start at the point of change. This
change should reflect conflict. Note: the conflict doesn’t have to be explosive.

7. No wasted words or throw-away lines. Keep it tight. Every word should have a reason for being. Try to avoid redundancies.

Can you think of other essential elements in the first page?
How many times have you rewritten your first page?

Lynda R. Young writes fantasy and science fiction short stories, and is working on two Young Adult novels. One is an Adventure Fantasy set on the High Seas and the other is a Steampunk Fantasy. She also writes Christian articles and maintain a Christian Devotional Blog: Fearfully and Wonderfully.
Also, please read this article, Something Has to Happen. (Seriously, this is important. Something HAS to happen in the first 250 words of your story.)
Let’s connect on Twitter? @TheRJLacko

6 Comments

Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts

Critiquing Other People’s Writing: 7 Tips for Making Manuscripts Better

“Just shoot me now.”

A good critique may begin with this response, but soon the scolding red marks reveal overlooked obstacles to your work’s potential.

When you make friends with the red pen pointing out weak story points, redundancy or grammar errors, you give yourself the opportunity to grow as a writer and refine your final product. But is the job of the red pen wielder easier than that of the writer?

Mark Nichol of the Daily Writing Tips blog advises you make clear whether you’ve offered to evaluate a brief sample as a guide to help the person extrapolate what they should look for when they revise their draft. (If you’re asked to critique an entire book in-depth, Nichol says, you should do so only for pay or as part of a bartering arrangement, because you’re being asked to devote dozens of hours of your time.)

Let’s make one thing absolutely clear before we go any further: Critiquing is not the same as editing.  If your critique partner is “editing drastically,” the result is no longer a critique but a rewrite.

According to Nichol, the chief purpose of a fiction critique is to enable the writer to improve a manuscript by getting rid of:

  • unnecessary exposition
  • character inconsistencies
  • pointless dialogue

Thoughtful critiques from other writers can help the writer focus on essentials.

  • What exactly is the writer’s purpose?
  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What does the protagonist want?
  • Does each chapter advance the plot?

Here are seven tips for a positive, productive critiquing experience:

1. Tolerate the Task
When you write, you don’t have to be an aficionado or expert to produce an article or a story on a given topic. Editors don’t need these qualifications, either, and they don’t have to be enamored of the writer’s voice or technique. The same goes for someone conducting a critique: Don’t turn down a request for feedback just because you’re not interested in the subject or you don’t like the writing style. Help the writer succeed in reaching the audience they are writing for. (But don’t hesitate to express your opinion if you think the approach is flawed.)

2. General House-keeping
The manuscript sample you receive should appear exactly as it would look when it’s ready for submission to a publishing professional. Hard copy should be double spaced and must be free of handwritten annotations or emendations. An electronic document should be professionally formatted and at least mostly devoid of the writer’s notes to self.

  • If you’re reviewing an electronic copy, activate change tracking and edit it. Insert notes using the comment feature or by entering them in brackets, highlighted in boldface or with colored type or background, so they are easily located and distinguished from the content.
  •  If you’re working on hard copy, use a pen or a colored pencil for brief notes, and write or type your detailed queries and comments on a separate sheet of paper or in a computer document.

3. Evaluate the Writing, Not the Writer
Compliments and complaints alike should focus on the product, not the producer. Refer to the sentence or the section, the character or their actions, the narrative flow or the exchange of dialogue rather than to the person who requested your help.

4. Start — and Stop — with the Positive
Begin by lauding the strengths of the sample, and reiterate your positive feedback when you summarize your critique. Refer to strengths, not weaknesses, and use positive language: “stronger,” “more interesting,” “a better approach.” Be frank but diplomatic: Even people who can take criticism need to hear that they’re doing something right, and that’s what you should start (and end) with.

5. Craft Your Critiques
Be specific, not vague. Be active, not passive. Point out problems, but suggest solutions. Your goal is to clearly communicate to the writer about how they can more clearly communicate to their readers.

6. Invite Questions
Set up a time to go over your critique after the writer has had a chance to review it. Welcome the writer’s requests for clarification and discussion. If the writer becomes defensive, mention that you have offered your perspective, and that they are free to act on your critique as they see fit.

7. Know Your Limits
It’s reasonable for a writer to ask you for a second light look at the piece after they have made changes in response to your comments, or to request that you provide a general impression about a revision based on your in-depth critique. But establish boundaries about how much time and effort you intend to offer on the writer’s work.

Check in with the writer. No matter how careful you are about being diplomatic, the writer may feel a bit battered, and part of your unwritten contract should include a clause requiring you to keep in touch about the project.

Want to read more? Check out this article  at DailyWritingTips.com: “Critiquing” is not “Editing”. Mark Nichol is a freelance editor and writer and a former editing instructor for UC Berkeley’s Extension program, edits trade and academic books for various publishers and publishes occasional articles about the Golden Age of Hollywood at Yahoo!’s Associated Content.

8 Comments

Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, Freelance Writing

14 Rocking Good NaNoWriMo Tips

With an entirely out-of-control outline tipping the scales at over 12,000 words, I dove headfirst this fine November 1st on a journey to make a messy manuscript my own personal heaven. Yes,  I wrote fast and furiously, throwing editing, self-censorship and occasionally good taste out the window.

I loved every minute of it.

I wish I could remember who tweeted it this morning, but a fellow Tweep/WriMo commented that NaNoWriMo feels “like Christmas.” I heartily agree. The process of opening an unbridled vein of creativity (even armed with a well-thought-out outline like mine) is a.) the ultimate gift to yourself; b.) an awe-inspiring opportunity to uncover moments of genius you didn’t even see coming; and c.) an universal gathering of all creation called to do what we  are created to do: create.

(Follow me on Twitter @RebeccaLacko. Buddy up with me on NaNoWriMo.org–my username is RJL.)

Ready? Get ready to rock National Novel Writing Month with these tips from saucy (and often profane–you’ve  been warned) author Chuck Wendig at the terribly fabulous Terrible Minds:

Do Make Discipline Your Takeaway

You want to know how most writers fuck up? Seriously, here it is — the fatal flaw of the writer: we are lazy no-goodniks, forever hopping from project to project. We’re like meth addicts, our dopamine centers blown to ragged tatters, forever in search of the next high. Except, writing can’t be about the high. It can’t be about that one great day of word count. It also has to be about all the shitty ones. What NaNoWriMo will give you is discipline: the ability to staple-gun your shit-can to a chair every single day and pound the keyboard the same way a beat cop pounds pavement. It can’t get done unless it gets done.

Do Not Believe That Haste Is A Critical Ingredient To Your Word Soup

And yet, NaNoWriMo sets a very arbitrary pace: 50k in 30 days, or ~1,667 words per day. It’s certainly doable — I tend to write 2-3k a day. But I was only able to do that steadily after years of freelancing, and that’s when I have a deadline (and money) waiting at the end. Writing a novel can be a different creature, and it isn’t so easily boxed into the same schedule. Most novels I’ve written took me about three months to write from start to finish — still not a bad stretch of time, but certainly not 30 days. So, if you find that NaNoWriMo’s pace doesn’t fit your own — then stop caring about NaNoWriMo, and start caring only about the novel. Your goal is the novel. Your goal is not to “win” an Internet experiment-slash-experience. If you need three months, take ‘em. If you need six, take ‘em. If you need eight… well, let’s try for six, okay?

Do Take Time To Smell The Word Count (And Do A Little Planning)

Writing isn’t about writing. It’s a misnomer — a myth. The actual writing, meaning the pen-to-paper fingers-to-keyboard part, actually comprises a very small portion of the writer’s life. So much else exists between those spaces: planning, marketing, selling, rewriting, editing, researching, and so forth. Assuming that NaNoWriMo is very much about a taste of the job and the life, then for yourself and for the novel I’d recommend taking time in your day away from the writing to concentrate on some other elements. Hit your word count mark for the day, then attend to other matters your novel may require. Put your back into a little planning for tomorrow’s word count. Start writing up a sample query letter and treatment to keep yourself on task. Do up some character notes. Think in beats, scenes, sequences, acts. Then, when all that is said and done? Sit back, relax, and enjoy what you have accomplished so far. Take pride. Eat candy.

Don’t Stop Writing, Neither For Hell Nor High Water

And yet, despite this side prep, don’t stop writing. Writers can easily get lost in the prep. Lift your head from the murk! Clear your brain of the crazy bees. And always, forever anon, sit your ass down and write. This novel isn’t going to write itself. Unless it is? And if it is, then you need to tell me where you bought that awesome novel-writing robot. I seek to purchase a clone of NovelBot for a hefty sum. And if NovelBot one day goes nuclear and attacks the United States, I reserve the right to scowl at you. I’d sue you, but it won’t matter, because the entire infrastructure of our country — the legal system included — will be surely defunct thanks to the cruel reign of the word-crunching NovelBot. Damn you, robot.

Do The Work, And Realize That It Is, Indeed, Work

Surrounding NaNoWriMo is an existing giddiness, an airy and intrepid spirit — and that’s a good thing. Yes. Have fun with it. Smile now, you poor bastards because you may not be so giggly and gassy after two weeks have gone by. The reality is, writing is work. Like, work-work. It can at times be as exacting and punishing as dentistry, and sometimes you might feel like you’re a Chilean miner trapped in the deepest, darkest earth. This is, contrary to how it feels, a really good revelation. If you go into this thinking that writing a novel will be fun from day one until day 30, you’re fucked right in the ear. This isn’t a log flume ride, pal. This is a mountain climb. And climbing a mountain is a hard slog. And you might fall. Or encounter mountain lions. Or even cyborg bears. Point is, be excited for the thrill, but be ready for rectal misery.

Don’t Believe That 50,000 Words Is A Proper Novel

Writing a novel is work, and writing 50k of a novel is a lot of work — but it isn’t a complete work unless we’re talking middle-grade or young adult. For the most part, a novel is going to need to be somewhere around 70-90,000 words. Which means, uh-oh, you’ve got a lot more work to do. Now, this means one of three things — a) you create a complete 50,000 word “novel” now, then go back in and flesh it out and beef it up; b) you write 50,000 words now and realize that you’re going to, in the subsequent month, hammer out another 20-40k; or c) try to write a 70-90k novel in 30 days, which is all well and good until you pull a mental hammy and shit your brain-diapers and end up having to eat mushed-up peas and bananas for the next six months. Again, do what needs doing for the novel, not for the “contest.”

Do Consider This A Zero Draft

I consider a first draft a proper draft. It is your first completed draft, a draft that doesn’t need to be good, but needs to be utterly whole. Let this NaNoWriMo draft escape the pressures of that. Let it be a “zero draft.” It’s allowed to exist a little bit unbaked — soft in the middle, uncertain, still finding its feet like a goo-slick calf. That’s okay. Take the pressure off. You have time. Unless you’re dying from some terrible disease. And if you are, then, uhhh. Sorry? Good luck? Here, have a Hallmark card!

In Fact, Do Think Of This As A Very Powerful Outline Or Story Bible

Write this draft like it’s a very deep, intensive outline, story treatment, or story bible. Yes, yes, it’s still a novel, and it’s still a technical draft of your novel — but with the kind of haste and waste you’re going to make churning through this work, you might find yourself better served looking at the end result as a clumsy “first go.” This means it makes a truly excellent and highly-detailed preparatory tool. You take this draft, you finish it, you find the mistakes and mis-steps, then you rewrite the whole damn thing with a deeper devotion toward all those fiddly bits that make a novel truly great — character, dialogue, action, theme, mood. Oh, yeah, and plot. If one thing is going to get its head lopped off on the altar of haste, it’s plot. So, for now? Fuck plot. Just write. This is your outline, after all. A really big, really robust outline.

(Which Means You Don’t Need To Work So Hard This Month)

You say, “I’m writing a novel,” and (for me) that’s a lot of pressure. But you say, “I’m writing a novel that’s really just an outline for an even awesomer and ass-kickier novel,” then — ahhh. Woooo. The shoulders unclench. Your sphincter loosens (but not so much you make a mess on that most critical of implements, your writing chair). You let slip a few drops of happy pee. Now? The pressure’s lessened. This is just a plan. This is just really exacting prep. You’re not foolishly rushing onto the battlefield. This is a battlefield simulation! This is your own X-Men Danger Room. Breathe easy. And learn how to bring down Juggernaut.

Don’t Stop With Your Zero Draft

All that being said, don’t stop with this draft, whether you think of it as a first draft, a zero draft, or a really plump outline. NaNoWriMo is one month, but your novel cannot and should not be contained to a single month. It needs more time. Trust me, it needs more time. You’ve got more drafts to write. Possibly one, two, even ten. You don’t write until November 30th. You write until it’s good. (Or, put differently: drink until she’s pretty.) To continue the alcohol metaphor, it’s like a wine. You uncork it too early, it’s going to taste like piss and vinegar.

Do Embrace The Community

NaNoWriMo’s shining awesomeness comes in the form of being connected to something greater. You’re all embarking on a really weird journey together. Use that. Enjoy the camaraderie. Listen, a writer’s career isn’t formed just on what she can write — it’s formed on who she knows. It’s build in part on the backs of relationships. Make those relationships. Both professional and personal. It will not only give you the morale to keep on kicking, and it won’t only let you boost the spirits of others — but it’ll hopefully create lasting relationships that go well beyond November, 2010.

Don’t Rely On It, However

And yet! The writer’s life is a lonely one. Online relationships are only so real, after all, and your devotion is not to other people. Your priority isn’t social. It’s mental. Your job lurks in the words, not the words you write to encourage others but the words you write on the pages of this beast you call a novel. It can be easy to get caught up in other people’s drama, and the last thing you want to do is duct tape your novel’s fortunes to those who aren’t helping you — so, be a part of the community but know its limits. Know that the only thing that gets the book written is you writing the goddamn book.

Do Take Yourself And Your Work Seriously

Once again I’ll point out that the motif of NaNoWriMo, the prevailing mood, is one of fun — it’s a challenge! It’s a game! Hoot! Gibber! Eeeee! Well, okay, that’s very nice. But my assumption is that you’re serious about wanting to be a write. Otherwise — why do it? If you’re doing it “just to see if you can,” well, hoo-hah for you. Except, I’m not talking to you. You can go now. Shoo. Go on, skedaddle. You, glib dilettante, will soon learn that writing is a devotion, a discipline, a craft (and to some, an art), but it is not a throwaway piece of cake left on the counter for the ants. It’s serious business. And so those engaging in NaNoWriMo, I encourage you to take this seriously and more importantly, take yourself seriously. You are an ass-kicking, neck-throttling word jockey. You command the powers of the verbal elements. You make characters dance, fight, fuck, eat, love and kill. You can set the mood of the room the way most people set the temperature in their house. You are a god here. Accept that mission for what it is: a responsibility.

Do Not Take It So Seriously That You Start Sending It Out To Agents And Editors Immediately, Because That Makes Word Jesus Turn Evil And Doom The World

The one flaw in NaNoWriMo (and why it sometimes earns the ire of professional writers) is that it kind of floods the marketplace a little bit. November 30th rolls around and suddenly you have a world with thousands of new novels birthed screaming into an unkind world, and while that remains a truly sublime act of creation, it also means that you have a lot of writers who don’t have the sense of a tree grub, and these writers decide to abdicate their own sense of work and responsibility by throwing their unformed fetal drafts into the world. They choke the inboxes of agents and editors with their protoplasmic snot-waffle novels and they think, “Gee golly gosh, I’m a real writer now!” Except, they’re not. They’re rosy-cheeked, empty-eyed shitheads. Don’t be that shithead. Don’t just loose your garbage onto an unsuspecting world (which creates more work for agents and editors who already have a hard time finding diamonds in a sewage tank). Take time. Polish your work. Give it six months. Give it a year. Give the novel the air it needs to breathe. Give yourself, as a self-serious novelist, time to realize when this book is ready to roll or (a bigger and more mature revelation) that this book just isn’t “the one” — and that it’s time to write another better book, a book that doesn’t beg to be written only from November 1st to November 30th, a book that can be written whenever your fluttering wordmonkey heart so desires.

6 Comments

Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts, Who is Writing What?

Act One: 10 Essential Elements

I’m a little addicted to the The Script Lab. As I worry over and scrutinize my fiction novel, tweets about screen-writing from @TheScriptLab interject with lucid, helpful, applicable ideas. My blog is for creatives of all stripes, and ideas for good writing can come from any genre. I really like this list of elements; it reminds me of both my responsibility to me reader and also makes a handy checklist to ensure all the key pieces are visible and organized before pitching a potential agent with my first chapter.

Let’s see what we can learn about the ten essential elements of Act One today from the informative folks over at The Script Lab:

The first act is very simply: the beginning of your story.
Usually the story begins at the moment when the first character faces the difficulty that he or she has to solve, and it better be a clear difficulty, and he better realize that he must do something. Dramatic form means action, and action brings tension. So the awareness of the tension, and the clarification of what the nature of your tension is, helps to build the whole manuscript.
ACT ONE: ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS
Tone.  Very quickly you want to establish the tone: is it serious, a comedy, a fantasy, a spoof? Let people know right away that it is okay to laugh, to cry, to dream, etc.
Theme. You will also want to establish the theme – what message are you trying to convey: “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover”, “The underdog triumphs”, “Good versus evil”, etc.
World of the story. As the story begins, you will introduce the world of the story – where does it take place? What is different and interesting to this world? What are the rules of this place?
Character introductions. At the same time, you will introduce the principle characters to the audience. Be specific and original. Let us know their age, how they dress, walk, talk. Give them a scene in which they stand out from the others. Let the audience know these people are special.
Protagonist weakness. The main character’s weakness(s) must be clear so that the later obstacles can attack that weakness in the second act.
Point of attack. The point of attack (or inciting incident) is the moment when the dramatic conflict announces itself. It’s the first perception of the predicament to come, and usually, a moment that is very visual.
Main tension. This predicament sets up the main tension around which the story will be built: Will they fall in love? Will they rob the bank? Will they escape alive? Will they do all three?
The stakes. The stakes have to be clear in order to show the audience how and why this tension is important to them, or – more importantly – what will happen if the character does not solve his/her problem. It should be huge – a matter of life and death.
Objective. A character’s objective or goal is what drives him. This should be very specific, very clear. How badly does he/she want something and what are the lengths he/she is willing to go to get it.
Lock-in. The first act concludes once the main character is locked into the predicament, propelling him/her forward on a new quest trying to accomplish a specific goal. Now the reader/audience knows the character, the predicament, and the objective, so everything else is about the future.

Usually the story really begins at the moment when the first character faces the difficulty that he or she has to solve, and it better be a clear difficulty, and he better realize that he must do something. Dramatic form means action, and action brings tension. So the awareness of the tension, and the clarification of what the nature of your tension is, helps to build the whole script.

Follow me on Twitter @RebeccaLacko

Leave a comment

Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts

5 Key Questions Every Book Proposal Must Answer

The book proposal may require as much time to prepare as your first draft of your manuscript. Or perhaps your fifth. While there are several schools of thought on what agents specifically look for in an effective book proposal, Gary Smailes, the author of several history books for children including the Brave Scots and Modern Hero series, has identified The 5 Questions Every Book Proposal Must Answer.

Smailes is quick to remind writers that “the agent or publisher will be assessing you, your book and your concept for commercial viability,” in order to determine if it to sell enough copies to actually make a profit.

“The job of a good book proposal,” says Smailes, “is to convince the agent or publisher that your book is a solid business investment, as well as a well written work of literature.” Here are Gary Smailes’ tips for ensuring your book proposal has answered five key questions:

1. What is your book’s genre?

The book industry is divided along the lines of genre. Publishers and imprints collect expertise in editing, production, sales and marketing all based on a particular genre. After all, it takes a completely different skillset to sell cook books, as opposed to romance novels. In turn, agents look to gain knowledge and trust of these publishers. This means agents too become genre experts. An agent with in-depth knowledge of the cook book market, its publishers and internal editors, is very unlikely to have the same insider knowledge of the romance genre.

As a writer looking to have their book published, it is essential that you pin point the correct genre. Only once you know your genre, can you then go on to find a suitable agent or publisher with expertise in that genre.

One good method of identifying your genre is to look at competitor titles. If you look for books that are like your book, there is a pretty good chance that these will be in the same genre. My advice would be to go into your local book shop and find just one book that you are sure readers of your book would also enjoy. Then, identify two or three other titles that are come under the same genre.

The list of competitor titles that you produce will allow you to do two things. The first is to correctly identify the genre of your book. Using Amazon as a guide, you should be able to do this. The second is that the competitor titles will allow you to demonstrate to any potential publisher or agent that you have knowledge of your given genre. When pitching your book, your list of competitor titles will encourage the agent or publisher that they are dealing with a book that they can sell. The agent/publisher will have an intimate knowledge of the genre, if you are listing titles they know well, then there is a pretty good chance that your book will be a fit for their list.

2. Who would read your book?

Readership is an important aspect of your pitch and is closely related to your genre. My suggestion is for writers to develop the concept of the ideal reader. This is a fictional person who represents your target audience. You need to be able to explain the age of your ideal reader, their buying habits, the kinds of books they like, the lifestyle they lead and the reasons they will buy and read your book. Once you have this person in your head, it becomes easier to paint a picture to potential agents and publishers of whom will be your target reader.

3. Is the book written, if so how long is it?

In regard to fiction books, submitting a proposal for a completed book is better than submitting a proposal for a partially written book, or an idea. Think about it, when submitting a partial the best response you will realistically receive is a request for the full book. This will send you into a tail spin of panic as you rush to finish, simply because an agent has shown a glimmer of interest (an agent request for a full manuscript, is a long, long, long, long way from an offer of representation). Before you submit a partial, ask yourself why? Are you simply looking for someone to like your book? Are you looking for validation? If so, then the book submission route is not the best way to discover if your partially written book has commercial potential.

Assuming you have completed your book, the agent/publisher will be interested in knowing the book’s word count. There is no exact science here, but agents and publishers are looking to check whether your work is not too long or short. Look at your competitor list, the word count of these books should be roughly similar to your own. If your book is too short, then consider expanding before submission. If it is too long, then consider removing sections, or even splitting it into two or three separate books. Either way very long or very short books present agents/publishers with a problem.

4. What aspects of your biography may provide an interesting marketing angle?

Your book proposal should establish that your book will fit into the agents/publisher’s area of interest, show that you understand the marketplace and clearly identify the readership of your book. However, there is still one important aspect – YOU. When it comes to marketing your book, the publisher will be looking at you as a writer, and trying to determine if any aspect of your life can be used to leverage the book. If you are a skateboarding granny or a skydiving vicar, then great. But even us mundane, normal people will have an angle to offer. Maybe you have a huge online presence, or an interesting childhood or even a record number of rejections. There will be something hidden away that can be packaged to make you a more interesting prospect as a writer.

The key to understanding what to include in your biography is not to see it as an interview, but an opportunity. The agent/publisher is not looking at your credentials as a writer (though these play a part) they are looking at you as a whole and what you can bring to the marketing party. So when writing your biography, don’t be afraid to share.

5. Are there any unusual issues that are worthy of mention?

Agents and publishers hate surprises! If your book comes with baggage, then it is better to get it out in the open as early as possible. If you need illustrations or photographs, then include this in the pitch. Translations costs money, so do fancy covers. Color photos are more expensive than black and white. Oversized books bring their own problems and if the book has appeared as a self-published project the agent/publisher needs to know. The general rule is that if it is going to cost money then mention it up front.

One aspect that worries writers, agents and publishers alike is copyright. It is essential that you have a clear copyright position established prior to pitching. One special word of advice here comes in regards to songs. The use of song lyrics in a book can be a potential stumbling block for any proposal. Getting permission for using song lyrics can be expensive and time consuming. My advice is to simply avoid using lyrics at all costs.

@RebeccaLacko’s note: This last item causes me tremendous strain. If you’ve read my book pitch, song lyrics play a significant role in my story. I’ve already broken one of Smailes’ rules: I pitched my fiction book idea and received requests for three chapters and a synopsis. It sent me into exactly the tailspin Smailes described, but it also validated to me that I had a commercially viable story. Hmmm.

Leave a comment

Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts

“How I Evaluate Full Manuscripts” (Porn for aspiring authors)

You’ve finished your manuscript. You took an online class about preparing the perfect query and pitch for your beloved manuscript, the result of countless months and/or years of laborious love. You spent hours online researching the perfect agent–that one talented and dynamic marketing genius who will sincerely get you, love your book and will work tirelessly until it sits next to the checkout at the bo0kstore in the airport, among its friends (other New York Times bestsellers that just don’t seem to stop selling.) At last, an editor requests the entire manuscript! Forget sleeping; do not rest until you receive a phone meeting. But what is this agent thinking while he or she pores over each and  every word?

Here, Mary Kole, an associate agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency tells all in her blog post, “How I Evaluate Full Manuscripts” on www.kidlit.com. It’s a fantasy come true that she should share all these juicy details. In Kole’s words:

“This past year, I’ve built up a great client list and sold some great books. And I want nothing but more of the same for my next year, my next five years, my next ten years in the business. And as publishers have tightened lists and as my own experience with editors and published books and writing and marketing grows, my standards have risen even higher. It’s more difficult to catch my eye now, as I’ve seen more, and, more importantly, gotten sick everything that’s tired and flat and been done hundreds of times before. There’s still, of course, room on my list. Lots of it. But those slots are harder to grab, and those worthy writers are harder to win over, as they tend to have lots of offers. I find that, if a project has me really excited, more often than not, a handful of other agents are also about to offer or already offering on it.

So now that I’m entering my second year as an agent, I’m finding myself being more exclusive about what I want to take on, but I’m also finding myself in more competitive situations with bigger agents.

First, a query letter catches my eye. Because I want to be completely sure of my judgment and rule out chances of slush psychosis, I put it in my Maybe Pile. Since this is a fantasy scenario, let’s just say I dutifully return to my Maybe Pile the very next day (instead of a week later, after I realize that life has gotten away from me) and request those manuscripts that still sound good. For any batch of slush, I end up requesting one or two manuscripts at a time.

Once I get the manuscript from an author, I put it in my queue. At any point in time, I may have between two and ten full requests in line. And I get to them depending on how much time I have and in order of request date. It usually takes me two weeks to a month to respond to a full (unless, of course, the writer has other offers or I’m very interested in something, right after the query, and need to read immediately…and this doesn’t happen that often, even with full requests).

The other thing I do when I get a full request in is I send it to my readers. Yes, I have readers. ABLit agents work with qualified young publishing enthusiasts on full manuscripts and sometimes client manuscripts. Since we’re scattered all over the country, my colleagues and I have our own networks of readers, although there are some readers that everyone at the agency works with.

I currently have several readers and I also work with one of our agency readers. I have a very rigorous reader screening process and choose my readers very carefully. I don’t always agree with them, but value their feedback. They provide a valuable service to me, as they fill in my blind spots and make sure I’m not missing anything — good or bad — about a manuscript. (I started out as a reader for ABLit, so I love teaching and working with my readers, it’s a great learning experience for both of us.)

So anyway. I send the full request to all my readers and read it myself, as well. If the manuscript really catches my eye on a read, or if a reader highly recommends something that I haven’t gotten to yet, I kick the submission into high gear. When I’m interested, I read quickly.

Most submissions, unfortunately, tend to fall apart by page 50 — the first benchmark, when I tell my readers to check their guts and see if they still want to keep reading. If I can put a full request down by page 50, I will not pick it back up again. The issue is usually voice, character, pacing, or plotting. (The voice is flat, the character is one-dimensional, the story crawls along, and we haven’t gotten into the main plot/action of the manuscript yet.) If my readers chime in and say that they put it down as well, it’s a decline. (My readers don’t talk to each other about submissions, nor do I let my readers decide for me…it’s not rejection or offer by consensus…but because I have such good readers, I tend to agree on manuscripts with at least one of them and really do take their feedback into consideration. Still, the final decision is mine.)

If a submission is really good, a “kick it into high gear” submission, a “finished it in one sitting submission,” and I think it is especially commercial or might attract other agent attention, I will ask that all my readers finish it and send me a reader’s report. I will also take notes on the manuscript and pick out the most choice editorial ideas to share with the author. If I finish a manuscript and can’t stop thinking about it, if I bolt awake in the middle of the night with editorial ideas for it, if I start checking my calendar for a time to get the writer on the phone, I know I have a very strong candidate for an offer of representation. I usually give myself a few days to make sure the project is still an I-can’t-live-without-it submission. If I’m still obsessed with it, I let the writer know and then we schedule a call.

Still, not all of my offers end in the writer signing up. And all of the manuscripts I take on do go through revision, based on my editorial notes from my first read and from the repeat read that I always do after I take someone on. And yes, I have read good manuscripts that were getting lots of offers but that I thought needed work, and I’ve passed on them rather than competing for them.

But high as my standards are and tough as my editorial vision is, I do love the whole process of reading a potential client’s manuscript — from the exciting request to the potential treasure trove of the full to the rare manuscripts that sparks my imagination. And I’m definitely looking for more of this magic, and more successful offers. Keep those submissions coming!

What is agent Mary Kole looking for? “A really edgy, dark YA novel with a real voice to match…no edgy for edginess’ sake and no voices that are sarcastic just because, please. Ghosts, murders, mystery. Ghosts, ghosts, ghosts. Did I mention ghosts? I like them less old-fashioned-spook and more creepy-under-your-skin. A MG or YA with any of these 3 elements would be absolutely great!

If you want to find out more about Mary Kole as an agent, please check out her bio on the Andrea Brown Literary Agency website by clicking here.

Connect with Mary on Facebook and Twitter.

2 Comments

Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Freelance Writing, Guest posts