POV-Who’s head is it anyway?

Point of View covers a LOT of territory, so let me know if there are any parts of this you want me to get more in depth on, and I’ll try to work it in.

First: .

  • First person, present-I am writing a novel-This is most common in YA and MG. It gives it a stronger sense of immediacy, which is helpful in getting that younger sounding voice. (Scorpio Races, of course, uses this from two character’s perspectives.) Some adult novels use this too, especially ones that have a focus on action.
  • First person, past-I wrote a novel- Mostly used when you have an older version of the character telling their story. (Six-Gun Snow White)
  • Third person, present-Hetal is revising her novel
  • Third person, past -Hetal wrote her novel.-Most common in Adult novels.

There are, of course, exceptions. You also have the choice of limited-readers can only know what the character knows- vs omniscient-it can jump between people/events that the main character may or may not know- narration.

The Star Trek: Next Generation tie in novels, for example, are in third present omniscient, and so it mimics the effect, mostly, of looking through that camera lens. It gives you a little more insight to the thoughts and motivations of the characters than the TV episodes, but that’s basically just replacing the body language you’re missing from the screen. When you do this unintentionally, it’s called head-hopping, and gives me a headache to read, frankly. It makes it hard to get to know the characters, and often ends up making a mess in action scenes. Generally, if you want to do third person, stick with one or two people in limited POV. Past or present, whichever is more common for your genre and fits your story best.

What’s harder to figure out is who that I should be, or who needs to be holding the proverbial camera the most in third person. Your main character should be the person with the most at stake emotionally. This is why I always suggest keeping as few POVs as are ABSOLUTELY needed to tell the story. Sure, you can show what’s happening to the research team, the hot archeologist, his love interest, her cat, and the new intern who gets eaten by a grue… But some of these have more at stake, and the more POVs you have, the more chances for things to go wrong. Each person you take a POV to needs to earn their perspective, not just because it’s cool in this one spot.

Since this is already getting a bit unwieldy, I’m going to focus on the most common- First person past limited, and third person past limited.

A lot of YA does first person because it lets you FEEL a lot more of the emotions. When you’re a teenager, everything feels so much more immediate than once you get older. So this is great if your story has a lot of strong emotional situations causing internal conflict, and less external conflict. I hesitate to use it for stories with a lot of explosions or frequent battles, because that tends to end up with a lot of the POV character being knocked out, which is not nearly as fun in real life as novels tend to make it sound.

You’d think, from that, you’d want most adult romance novels in first person, right? Nope! Oddly, it’s a genre with the convention of dual close third narration. You follow the heroine, and the hero, but you’re not entirely seeing the world from their perspectives. It’s more like a camera that can read their body language as key thoughts, you just don’t get the ongoing narration. Close third is more useful, generally, than omniscient third. (For a good example of omniscient third, check most any TV tie in novel, like the Star Trek: The Next Generation ones.) You get a strong sense of the main characters, who they are, what they want, and how they feel, without getting bogged down in their internal monologue. In the case of romances, this lets you relate to the heroine/hero without getting in the way of the fantasy it’s building. The characters there are developed, but as part of those roles specifically.

Either POV, if you’re using more than one POV character, you have to craft different voices for them. You should be able to easily tell, without a chapter heading, which character you’re dealing with. It’s in the details-word choice, the details they notice, and the cadence of the sentences. We’ll go over this a bit more in a later post, but the way you weave the details in around the dialogue and into the action is really key to making a novel work well. This is where studying awesome books comes into play. I’m a firm believer that all the advice and help in the world won’t get you anywhere if you’re not reading. Yes, I know, it takes time, time you could use for your writing. Do it anyway. Read amazing books, read mediocre books. Just don’t read books you don’t enjoy. Life is too short for that.

More to come! (I’m not 100% sure what post is next at this point. Whatever I finish next, haha!)

#PitchWars Lessons: Character Arcs

Not the Advanced Readers Copies of books. I’m talking about your character’s emotional journey. As much as the external events of the story pull the character from one crisis to another, the emotional events of the story cause them to grow.

There are three people you need to focus on, typically:

Main Character(MC)-What makes someone the main character is that they are the PRIMARY DRIVER of the story. This isn’t always your sole point of view character, but the more you take away from them, the worse for your story, generally. They are the one with the most to lose, and their growth is a result of this. This is something I think Brenda Drake does well in Library Jumpers, for example. Gia discovers the magic of books, finds love, and finds danger, and grows as a result of all these things. The Gia of the beginning of the story, without those experiences, would not have been able to handle the climax of the story.

Love Interests(LI)-Almost all stories have these, because there’s nothing like intense emotion to heighten your tension. Love, more so than simply physical attraction, forces people to grow. Think of it like putting together a jigsaw: The first time you tried, it was overwhelming and you thought, there’s no way. Then you figured out you could put the edges together, and use the picture on the box to give you an idea of what it looks like. But you still have to figure out where each of the middle pieces go. Depending on the relationship, some puzzles are easier to solve. Some pieces click into place easily, other pieces take work, and others still will never fit right. Like, I love Owen dearly, but there are some parts of our relationship that we acknowledge are flawed. That’s okay. You don’t want everything perfect, you’ll get bored. Your love interest needs to grow almost as strongly as your MC, to stay worthy of them.

Antagonist (A)- Love and hate are two sides of the same proverbial coin-You can’t hate someone if you aren’t emotionally invested in them. If you, truly, don’t care about someone, you aren’t going to invest the energy in hating them. Feeling sorry for them, thinking they’re an ass, sure, but hating takes a lot of energy. To have a strong antagonist, there needs to be something they want, something they’re growing towards. The key? What they want most cannot happen if the MC and LI get their ways. To make them believable, they have to be at least as developed as the love interest, without making them too sympathetic that we don’t like your MC. If you’re having trouble with an antagonist that feels one dimensional, try seeing the story from their POV instead. If they were your protagonist, what would they think they’re trying to accomplish? How would they justify their actions?

So how to do this?

Go back to that outline, or make one: look at each scene, and ask yourself: What do I learn about MC/LI/A here? What situation, as a whole, ties them together? If your MC or Antagonist could just say “You know what? This is too much, I’m done.” and walk away unscathed past ~20%, you’ve got a major problem with their motives. They need to be in over their heads, and it needs to be intense for them. Whether the plot is full of explosions or personal revelations, it doesn’t matter. Your book will have a much stronger chance in the market if these characters have an emotional connection and the reader feels that.

Once you do that, look at how they bind together. They can’t get too comfortable with each other-If the LI and MC sit down for coffee to discuss their relationship, it needs to have tension still. If the Antagonist is a factor in that tension, all the better. Your MC should be willing to risk conflicting more with the Antagonist to make things work with LI, and vice versa.

Questions? Shout!

Next week: POV!

#PitchWars Lessons: Genre Lengths

Genre lengths are guidelines, but it’s to your advantage to try to follow them. (As always: All advice is a tool, not prescription. There are exceptions to every bit here.)

  • Publishing is a business full of risks. They aren’t going to push the envelope for a debut author. They’re already taking a risk on publishing a book with a new author. You have to earn your way, via having good sales, to pressing the envelope. This is also why it can be helpful to write solidly within your genre, and target it towards what a specific group of publishers tends to like (Especially in romance, where each publisher tends to have their guidelines known, they’re not likely to take on something that can’t follow their basic instructions.)
    • Readers have certain expectations. In category romance, especially, it needs to fit with the other books on their shelves of that line. If you go too long, they might think the story’s boring. If it’s too short, they might not feel they’re getting their money’s worth.

      So what to do you do when your Ms is too long? Judicious cutting.

      • Reoutline with your ending in mind. Every scene should add to your character growth, plot tension, and world building. Make sure they do. Any scenes that don’t, either fix that, or cut them. Every single scene we see SHOULD be essential to the one before it and the one after it. We want the highlights reel. The beginning and middle most often have this problem, so go through and make sure you’re not starting too early. Eliminate flashbacks and trim any place you over describe.
      • Do you have more than 2 points of view? Consider cutting them down. Make sure that nothing repeats, and that they’re really needed. You need to know whose story it is, and the reader needs to be able to follow that.

What to do when your MS is too short?

  • Look at your pacing. Is it too fast? Add more description, carefully, and if it’s first person, show your characters’ thoughts more at key points.
  • If your pacing is fine, consider if you need to add a subplot or a more complex plot. Nothing should come easy to your characters. If they just swipe the keys from the guard and walk out of the prison, that’s too easy, there’s not enough tension. Always be thinking, what is the worst thing that could happen at this moment to the character that will progress the story? Not every story has enough meat to it to be a novel. You might have a short story or novella on hand instead.
  • Look at your character arc. I’ll go over this more in detail next week, but you need space to develop your characters and their relationships, so having their arc and growth is absolutely key.

Next week- Character Arcs!

 

#PitchWars pitches #Pitmad

So you have a curve ball, a fast ball, a screwball… No, I’m not talking about baseball (Let’s be real, that’s about 75% of my knowledge of baseball right there). I mean pitches for contests like #Pitmad!

At the most basic, a pitch is a short bit meant to entice someone into reading your MS. There  are a few different templates you can use, and tweak to your heart’s content: (I’m pulling examples from movie log lines, because they’re easy for you to see the pattern on)

There are two main ones:

MC wants GOAL, But/Because of  OBSTACLE

Archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis.”

A young boy named Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father in order to defeat a vengeful spirit from the past.”

An ex-con reunites with his estranged wayward 16-year old daughter to protect her from drug dealers who are trying to kill her.

This is the most common. But simplifying your story enough to get to those bones is HARD, I know.

Start out with the obvious. Your MC. Don’t name them in your pitch unless they’re well known, you don’t have enough space for that. Give us a small label for them. We need to have just a very basic idea of who your protagonist is. If you have more than one, pick one per pitch, or roll them together- A team of misfits, A pirate crew, Two stubborn lawyers, etc.

Then let’s skip to the obstacle. What is it that causes the external tension in the story? Your antagonist, usually. Drug dealers, an evil overlord, cancer, doesn’t matter, strip them down to their closest match.  If there’s more than one, your plot might be a mess if they can’t be connected together into something.

Now, how are those two opposed? What is the KEY plot in the story. Looking for an item? Building an army? These all require your MC to conflict against the antagonist, with their goal being the thing the antagonist is opposed to.

You’ll see this sometimes as MC must Thing before Consequence. In those cases, the antagonist is obscured by their actions. Good if they’re not revealed in your first book,

No antagonist? That’s ok. Try this:

MC, CHANGE IN SITUATION, STAKE

A man returns to his small hometown after learning that his mother has fallen ill and is about to undergo surgery.”

An Irish immigrant lands in 1950s Brooklyn, where she quickly falls into a romance with a local. When her past catches up with her, however, she must choose between two countries and the lives that exist within.”

That second one’s a bit wordy and explains the situation more than you’d want for a twitter pitch, but you get the idea.  It still keeps the main character, but instead of there being an antagonist, the situation itself is what drives the conflict, with the stakes built in. Usually, these are the stories with emotional stakes in the foreground. There’s no explosions, no person or group responsible for their situation as such. It’s either brought by circumstances out of their control, or as a side effect of a choice they made. It’s often earlier choices coming home to roost, or choices that were the best at the time, but have outlived their usefulness.

You still keep the MC at the front, but then what the change is comes next. Think in terms of discovery, moves, or loses. Most of the time, those words will resonate with these kinds of pitches.

Then what’s the cause of tension? Usually, these are emotional stakes inherent in the situation. Failing health, failing businesses, a war, etc.

There are other variants, obviously, but these cover the majority of stories.

So write your pitch. Then trim it to the space you have. Look for over elaboration. For example,

““A young boy named Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father in order to defeat a vengeful spirit from the past.”

Could become “A young boy must find his dead Samurai father’s magic armor to defeat a vengeful spirit.”

An Irish immigrant lands in 1950s Brooklyn, where she quickly falls into a romance with a local. When her past catches up with her, however, she must choose between two countries and the lives that exist within.”

Becomes “An Irish immigrant falls in love in 1950s Brooklyn, but her past forces her to choose between two countries and futures.”

Does it catch all the nuances? Nope! That’s not what this is for. The key is to simplify without using too many unfamiliar terms (especially in SF/F!), and while keeping the primary conflict in mind.

Questions? Shout! Good luck in #Pitmad, I’m cheering you on from my editing cave!

(Next week: How long should your story be? Exactly as long as it needs to be to tell it… but.)

Post-#PitchWars Advice

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So now that picks have been announced, a couple things to note:

  1. The next two months are jam packed for me. Between working on Hetal’s fabulous MS, client work, a trip to NYC for a Broadway show and meeting up with one of my CP’s while we’re there, the dayjob hitting the end of the contract year and pushing us so we at least get close to our goals… Yeah. I’ll be around, but blog posts are going to be once a week, on Mondays.

  2. I want to pick your brain: What else would you like me to post about? I’m planning to write up a whole bunch of posts on the craft of writing. I’ve got several started, but if there’s specific areas you’d want to see my thoughts on, suggest them in the comments! I’d like to give you guys a mini class, basically, so you can edit along with Pitchwars.
  3. I know it’s tempting, when you don’t get picked, to want to quit. Don’t. Your not being picked is not a judgement of you or your work. It’s sheer numbers. Walk into a bookstore, and allow yourself to only buy one book. Why did you pick that one, not the one next to it, or the one with the blue cover? It was because you hate blue and only like purple, right? No! Unless you get specific feedback saying “Yo, this blue here? That’s problematic, it won’t sell”, don’t take it as anything other than it was one book on the shelf, and something about theirs appealed slightly more. There were easily 20 more that, if we’d had time, I would have wanted to request and they could have easily been picked instead. We were also having to consider what the other person likes, what the market does, and the amount of work it’d need vs the time we have.
  4. Especially in such a crowded area as SF/F, the market was a major factor. Writing is a craft, an art. Publishing is a business. One of the things that I always feel is rather soul crushing-You can write the best novel in the world, but if it’s a hard to sell concept in the market, if it’s something like vampires or dystopian right now, it’s going to have a harder go of it. Not saying it can’t sell, because amazing writing has a way of wiggling past barriers. But something that’s only good, and would sell in a hot market, won’t in the tight market. So much of this industry is timing, luck, and keeping up on what’s going on. So keep following new friends who are writers and watching what sells on Publisher’s Marketplace (Not all deals are reported there, but a lot are).
  5. Find CPs, find editors (I’m booked til November, but the other kickass ladies at Chimera are also fabulous. Many other mentors edit as well.), but get fresh eyes on your book. Take whatever of their feedback resonates with you, after you sleep on it. Always sleep on it first, because your kneejerk reaction WILL be to feel like they’re mean and your writing is awful. I promise you, it’s not. Look for big issues, and then tackle them.

    Set goals, set deadlines, and then crush it. You’ve got this!

 

Characterization-More Than Paper Dolls+A peptalk for #Pitchwars

I have the worst time with characters in my rough drafts. They’re always too SOMETHING- Too heartless, too timid, too something. It’s not until I get the feedback from my beta readers that I usually see it. But then the fun begins: How do you take these characters who are one or two dimensional and make them leap off the page?

Think about why this story is THEIR story. This is, I think, the foremost key. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz had to be a farm girl with a stubborn streak and a soft spot for her dog. Anyone else would have quailed from the Wicked Witch’s anger. Imagine a pampered city girl and her cat in the same position! Without making them a Chosen One, what is it about your MC that makes them able to rise to the occasion? It’s not enough to just say, “Well, all the action happens to them.” Well, yes, but why doesn’t it happen to the girl down the street, or her brother?

How do you avoid that dreaded Chosen One angle? Your MC shouldn’t be the only person in the world with that Specialness. But… wait, didn’t you just say, this story needs to be for them? Exactly. There’s a middle ground here. This is especially a problem in SF/F because you have all these powers to use. They can fly, they can shoot lasers, they can save the universe from the powers of Evil. But… Why? What is it about them that drives them to push themselves to be good enough/powerful enough/WANT IT BAD ENOUGH to face what seems like certain doom, no matter the scale? What drives them? It has to be internal reactions/decisions derived from the external situation.

It’s two sides of the same coin. Every time I go to edit my novels, or someone else’s, I’m looking at what drives the characters. Not just the MC, though they’re my main focus; but the love interest and the antagonist too. For example, I was helping a CP with her outline recently, and the antagonist was coming across as a bit of a one dimensional villain. She was stuck. We had to dig into the story’s bones, to the backstory, to the protagonist’s core, to find out WHY. Because ultimately, you want your antagonist to be a foil to your protagonist, but not in an obvious way. If they always go right when your MC goes left, that’s boring. I adore worlds where morality isn’t cut and dry, where the choice isn’t right/wrong, save the day or doom the world. But to make us care about the stakes, we HAVE to care about the character. We need to fear they’ll lose, even as we know the narrative structure always has them win. We have to care when those they care about are lost, and to do that, we have to feel the cost TO the main character. Swat a fly, we don’t care. Crush their support system, and we care, a lot. But it’s too simple if the antagonist is predictable and unrelatable. We need to understand the motive for both, even if we don’t agree with them.

Because then, when it’s just the MC vs the antagonist? We hold our breath, and we bite our nails. The pages fly. Because either one is set up to win, and they both want it badly enough to make it happen.

Real talk, #pitchwars: Later this week, picks will be up. A tenth of you, roughly, will be ecstatic. The other 90% of you will be disappointed, even crushed. You know, the very first convention I ever went to, there were some writers from Star Trek: Next Generation, a series I adored as a kid. When they were asked “What’s the one piece of advice you’d give an aspiring writer?”, they responded “Run, run now. Get out while you still can, because if you can do anything other than this, you should.” I was completely pissed. How dare these people crush hopes?

Yet we crush hopes every time, because we can’t avoid it. We can only pick one. Last year, some of us were lucky enough to get a bonus pick and get 2. But either way, that’s nothing compared to how many we’d want to help. But wanting to help doesn’t make it so. I can’t realign the plasma conduits to give me more free time to give every entry feedback (Even the feedback for the fulls I requested that don’t get picked may happen in November rather than September because of my dayjob, client work, and the rest of life has to come first. This is why Chimera Editing exists. It allows me to prioritize giving people feedback and help far more than I’d be able to otherwise.)

What, I suspect, those script writers meant was: This is a hard industry. If you are going to be dissuaded so easily, then you won’t make it. You’ll go sell real estate, get a call center job, do anything else but chase this dream.

Here’s the secret: You have what it takes to prove them wrong. Do what you need to, but channel that anger, that disappointment, that “I’ll show them” into growing. Because we’re in an industry where we are never, ever masters of our craft. This isn’t chemistry. We can’t just take Reagent A and combine it with Reagent B and get Particulate C and Solution D. At best, we’re taking experience, often years of it, and based on what other, similar projects have had as results, saying, “This has a better shot.” That’s it.

You can chase the market or ignore it. You can add romance or keep it out with a thorny wall. Whatever you do, FOLLOW YOUR PASSION, then temper it with your head. Much like you wouldn’t run a marathon without finding the right shoes, or wearing jeans, take the time to build the skills, to read widely, and in depth. Read bad novels, read amazing ones, and see if you can figure out why they’re considered bad or amazing. What is it that makes them tick? Write book reports, reviews, intern for an agent or publisher if you get a chance. Not because the traditional publishing side is the only way to go (It’s not!), but because you learn a lot about how the book world works from it. Get reinforcement from fans, even if they’re just your friends who think you’re amazing. Get criticism from your editors, from CPs, from anywhere you can.

Because someday? If you keep at it and keep at it and keep at it, and never let anyone convince you to give up, even if that anyone is sometimes yourself? You’ll get there. You’re not there yet, but tomorrow’s always another day.❤ For whatever it helps, I’m rooting for you all.

#Pitchwars THE END!

Endings

For this, I’m talking about right after that GREAT climax your novel just had. The main conflict is resolved, with costs, and now you want to get off the stage as smoothly as possible, and wrap it up quick.  ALSO: ***SPOILER AHEAD: If you haven’t read SCORPIO RACES, stop what you’re doing, GO do so, then come back when you’ve recovered!***

  1. Depending on your genre, your MC has gone through the worst days of their lives and succeeded, found amazing love, escaped the maniac for good, etc. This should cause some kind of feeling in the character, matching the feeling the reader should have. If you’ve done your characterization well, and your plot is tight, you’ve given your reader all the feels, and now’s the time that pays off. But the tension is now gone, so you’re working on borrowed time, and it’s easy to bore readers at this stage if you go on too long. But you don’t want to end right as they stab the necromancer or something. You need to go a touch beyond that to let the character react and show the conflict is really over.
  2. Most times, you want the first book to be able to stand alone. You can (and should) have unresolved plot threads, and if it’s intended as a series, it needs to have places to grow. Don’t tie a bow on the end, going over every result. That just ends up feeling like a list of “And then this happened”, which is both boring and unrealistic. They may only be safe/happy for now, but they have breathing room. If book 2 isn’t bought, usually because it didn’t meet sales goals, it wouldn’t cause readers to not pick up your next book because ZOMG you didn’t finish this one! It happens, even to fairly big name authors, especially in their first few books. (Maggie Stiefvater and Victoria Schwab have both had stories that were planned as trilogies and had to be truncated to duologies!) There are a few ways to do this, but my favorite is to make sure that all the main plot threads combine together to CAUSE the climax, so you don’t have much after left to resolve.I hear you screaming, “What if I really, really need to show everything that happens after it?” Then your climax wasn’t actually the climax of your novel. It might be a fantastic battle, but your climax should cause an emotional resolution, not just explosions. But if you did that and still really need to keep going, add a VERY short epilogue from AFTER the fallout, so it can get wrapped up together with something new beginning. There’s a reason Harry Potter has their kids going off to start their own adventures, after all. Or, for example, take Scorpio Races again (yes, I did go back and sneak a reread in!) Sean tries to let Corr go, but the horse chooses him over the water. That works, and is powerful, because the entire novel it’s been a fact that these horses want nothing more than to return to the sea. But note too: There are, from the time the race ends, 11 pages on my kindle (I’d estimate this to be around 3-4k words tops.) left of story. All of them are direct fallout from the story- Puck trying to figure out if she should buy her house or Corr for Sean, until her brother’s winnings solve that dilemma. Then Puck securing her future and demanding Malvern sell Corr to Sean, and Sean trying to release him. All the threads leading up to the race resolved in the race, except for 2: Corr’s future, and Sean’s, and they resolve together as a direct result of the race.
  1. You can, if you’re crafty, weave the results in with the problems themselves and set the reader up to put the pieces together. If we know that group A gets to go home when Big Bad is destroyed, we don’t need to see them packing and going. But, say that lets our MC have an emotional reunion with her love interest/family member who is key to the story (we don’t care about long lost uncle Joe) then use that. Which brings me to…
  2. Emotional fulfillment. You know when you finish reading a book and can’t stand the thought of picking up another, because you’re still in that book’s world?That moment when you finish a book, look around, and realize that everyone is just carrying on with their lives, as though you didn't just experience emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback
    For those of you who are musically inclined, think of it as a chord. Throughout the novel, there are unresolved chords and suspensions. We should finish it off with a major, tonal chord that is in the same key. For those that makes no sense to, think about the ending of Men In Black. The galaxy is found, the world is safe, and Jay is confident in his new role. Kay can leave the defense of the planet to him, and retire (at least for now). The characters’ emotional journey is done, at least for now. Jay and Laurel going off to more adventures just adds a quick hook for future movies (again, depending on sales. Obviously, since it has sequels, it did very well.) We don’t see more of their missions, or antics from HQ. We know they’re happening. In Scorpio Races, We don’t need to see Puck tell Sean he can have his horse, or the walk to the beach. We understand those things must have happened, but the ones we see are the pieces that have the most emotional impact to bring those remaining threads to a close.

It sounds far, far simpler on paper than it works in a manuscript, ever. I don’t think anyone ever gets it right on their first try either. Good endings have to be edited in, pared down, and the emotional threads have to be developed throughout the book to make the ending work. So when you’re editing, and working on the end, ask yourself these things:

  1. What are the emotions I want the reader to have at the end?
  2. What actions are the characters taking to provoke those emotions?How can I make those actions carry the weight of those emotions?
  3. Are there plot threads here that I can wrap up just before the climax or in the climax itself, instead of after? How can I make those elements increase the tension there?
  4. What is the least amount after the climax that I can show without the reader feeling shorted?

Chances are good you’ll end up with a stronger, tighter ending. Leave the reader sighing in contentment and you’ll be golden.

 

Also, housekeeping: More craft related blog posts will go up next week! If you’d tried to send a form in through the Chimera Editing site, sorry, it was broken (We’d changed forms due to an upgrade breaking our old one, and didn’t realize the field ID in the forms couldn’t have spaces like the old one could.) so we didn’t get them and you were getting an error about needing to enter information in all fields. It’s now fixed, and I tested it a couple time just to make sure! Thank you for your patience!

Middles- Or how Point A gets to Point Z #Pitchwars

So obviously, for this post, I couldn’t go line by line on a novel. That’s too much, for you to read or for me to critique with everything else I have going on (In addition to Pitchwars stuff, I had client work and was helping a CP with her outline, and I have another CP’s novel waiting in my inbox for a hole in my schedule!). So I decided instead to share the method I use, in hopes it might help you think about what to look for, then some solutions to common problems.

The same caveat applies here-This advice is a tool, not a prescription. I fully believe writing is a process you have to learn in your own way and at your own speed. Much like math, sometimes pieces won’t fall into place for you until you understand other pieces better, or have a better grasp on the basics, and that’s OK. I literally couldn’t stand outlining at all when I first started writing (Way back over 15 years ago!), much less look at it from this angle. We’re always growing, take what works for you, and combine it with anything that helps you. (I also assume if any term is unfamiliar here, you know how to google it. This does get a bit on the technical side.)

The TL;DR version-Outline events, find your major plot points, make your character’s emotional/mental progression change by each of these points, then topple each point to make sure the combination causes the next.

First,  if you have an outline that reflects the final novel, great, you’ve got the tool you need. If not, read through and just list what happens as simply as possible (This is a good guide for that). If you have a synopsis, use that. Whichever method you choose,  you need a list of some form of your main events.

Got that? Good. Now identify at least 3 major plot points: Places where your character can no longer go backwards, emotionally or mentally, from where they are. Some novels have 5 or more, particularly longer ones, few have less (It’s possible, but if so, it probably is very episodic feeling. If you can hit the reset button between chapters, that might need taken back to the drawing board.) Physical only changes are less useful without the emotional ones that come with them; Destroying the safety represented by their childhood home is very different than burning down their workplace. But if, in destroying their office, they’re setting themselves free of their fear, that can work. Include the ending in this as well. If you’re using the three act structure, these usually fall at about  25%, 50%, 75%. They’re the separation points for the acts, typically.

Once you have those, bold them in the summary/synopsis/outline. Take your beginning, whatever the status quo is for your MC when you start, and look at where they are, emotionally, at each of these points versus the start. These should, each time, change how the’re acting/reacting to the world. Focus on your character’s growth here. They need to first react to the change in their life. Second act-Act instead of reacting. Third act-They’ve screwed everything up by acting, and become determined to fix it, acting more cautiously/with more information. At the end, they’ve won, with costs, and are finding a way forward into a new normal.

We’ll go over the last one more in detail later this week, but for now, I want to focus on acting and reacting and the pacing between them, because it’s the biggest problem I’ve seen in manuscripts. Not just in pitchwars, but in my internships. Most of the time, your inciting incident isn’t something your character has chosen, or at least, what they thought they were choosing is something different. They spend the next act trying frantically to figure out what’s going on, who they can trust, whether that guy really likes him or if he’s imagining it. Most of the time, characters are overwhelmed, and to a certain extent, the reader is too. I often, in my own writing, deviate from the above formula to move the character from reacting to acting somewhat sooner, making the pacing on the first chunk faster.

Why? Because I want to get to the character making choices and acting on them sooner, rather than later. Then it’s a matter of making sure each plot point falls like dominoes, one into the next, each choice causing another, each action causing the situation to get seemingly better or worse, before the whole thing comes tumbling down, and it forces the third plot point. The tension throughout this part needs to increase. Your character needs to be forced to their limits so they can break at the next act. Your stakes need to be defined by this point, and well. If we don’t know what they have to lose, we don’t care if they lose it all.

In most cases, the third plot point is where the proverbial Darkest Moment comes in. Everything’s so broken, so hopeless, that they feel like they have no way to succeed, and they have to dig deep. It’s the moment where everything they’ve done up until this point means THEY ARE THE ONLY ONE who can push through this. I’ll do a post later about characterization and growth, but for now, keep in mind, your main character should not be able to replaced by their beginning self here, or anyone else. Whatever strength they need here, whatever reserves of belief, love, or intelligence, has to be built BY the previous events.

This directly cascades into the ending… which I’ll save for next week.

Now, there’s a LOT of problems middles can have. Most common are meandering/soft middles. Your characters need to shift from reacting to acting faster, and then they need to have pressure on them from the stakes to propel them into making those choices. Sometimes this is also the result of not setting up your characters properly. Here’s the thing: Despite pulling these elements all out separately, they lean on each other like a house of cards. If one part is out of place or built in a way that is unstable, the whole story can collapse into a mess. This is where I really recommend finding good critique partners or freelance editors who can see where your pieces don’t line up and what you can do to solve it.

Some things to look for:

  • Do you really need all those points of view?
  • Is that red herring or subplot adding to the tension or distracting from the core story?
  • What is driving your character here? We’ll get into this more on the characterization post, but think about character motives and intentions for your plot points. If they could be swapped for any other person, or the beginning version of themselves, then you have some major work to do to make them a full protaganist.
  • Look for spots your character thinks to themselves too much. Internal monologues can be just as bad as external ones.

The opposite problem is rushing them. If you go through your plot points and are still well below your word count, that’s easily fixed. Writing short, to me, is easier to fix.

  • Add sensory, especially in the first half and on action scenes. I always, always have to add sensory after I’ve finished the first draft and decided what details are important in the story.
  • Look for places your dialogue is too on the nose, and find ways to make it more diagonal without losing the reader.
  • Is your plot too simple? If at each plot step, you can think of a way the story could stop there and it would be resolved, your story is too simple and your stakes aren’t high enough. Revisit both.
  • Always think: How can I make this harder on the characters? How can I push them to maximize their growth.

PHEW! I know that was a LOT of info, so ask away! Moderation’s always on for your first comment here, but once you’ve had it approved, the rest of yours will show up automatically. I’ll be at the dayjob for a chunk of the day, but I’ll answer as I can.

 

More good resources on plot:

 

Beat sheets for romance

Connecting actions in your plot (Though imo: Doing it for every single moment of a story would get obnoxious REALLY fast. Keep your head out of the weeds, but this can be helpful for those major plot points/key scenes.)

A simplified story structure– If you find all this too overwhelming, start here first, then drill down into this.

Stakes– The best explanation I’ve found for keeping stakes relateable as the tension increases

Once Upon a Time… Opening with a BANG! #Pitchwars

Openings are hard. Plain and simple. In that first page, you have a lot to juggle. Bear in mind: My expertise is adult romance and Adult/YA SF/F, so if you write another genre/age, you may have to adjust any advice here for those. (MG? Yeah, I suspect much of this would apply, but I don’t do it. That’s KT’s territory, and she’s welcome to it.)

So let’s break this down: What do we NEED in that first page?

  1. A sense of whose story this is-We need to have someone immediately we can connect with and care about, and a reason to care about them.
  2. Some kind of tension-I don’t mean blow up stuff. I mean there needs to be some reason why you’re starting in that spot and not later/earlier.
  3. A hook-There’s almost always some first line that stands out, that lays the frame for the chapter.
  4. A feel for the world (Especially important for SF/F)-You should be able to pick it up and, in the first page, know what genre the book is. I’d suggest picking 10+ books in your specific subgenre and just reading the first page to best see this in action.

So I’m going to highlight each of these using a book: In this case, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, because I adore it and I think it does this VERY well. (Note: This is 259 words, 9 words over a proper “First page”, but I was finishing off the sentence.)

It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

This is your hook and tension in one. We immediately have a feel that the stakes here are fatal, and it makes us want to know WHY. What is it about the first of November that means someone will die, and WHO will it be?

Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: Dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever –changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.

This is entirely description, but it’s active description. The word choices here combine with the rhythm-Dark blue and black and brown, rather than Dark blue, black, and brown makes a difference. The rhythm of the words mimics a horse’s trot. There’s contrasts here as well. Brightest sun/colors of the night.

They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.

More contrasts, and reiteration of the stakes. NOTE: To here, we’re getting the descriptions through the eyes of a character we haven’t been introduced to yet. This lens effect is HARD to pull off without the transition being jarring. This is advanced craft. We know it’s from Sean’s POV only from the SEAN label up top.

This time of year, I live and breathe the beach. My cheeks feel raw with the wind throwing sand against them. My thighs sting from the friction of the saddle. My arms ache from holding up two thousand pounds of horse. I have forgotten what it is like to be warm and what a full night’s sleep feels like and what my name sounds like spoken instead of shouted across yards of sand.

Now we start meeting Sean in earnest. Note the immediate sensory grounding: My cheeks, my thighs, my arms- all once again using rhythm and repetition to create this feeling of movement. We also, from the sense of him being an incredible hard worker, have a reason here to care about him. He wants this, whatever this is, badly.

I am so, so alive.

Setting this line apart, in it’s own paragraph, contrasts it with the first line. Someone is going to die, and Sean is so, so alive, we immediately fear it will be him.

As I head down to the cliffs with my father, one of the race officials stops me. He says, “Sean Kendrick, you are ten years old. You haven’t discovered it yet, but there are more interesting ways to die than on this beach.”

This reinforces the idea that Sean may die, and gives us more context. We now know he’s 10, with his father, and about to ride in a race that has a good chance of killing him.

My father doubles back and takes the official’s upper arm as if the man were a restless horse. They share a brief exchange about age restrictions during the race. My father wins.

This gives a small sense of how Sean views his father, still relating it to the horses. You might be tempted here to show more of the argument, I mean, it is an argument, after all! But sometimes, it’s more powerful to use a broad stroke to keep the pacing tight.

“If your son is killed,” the official says, “the only fault is yours.”

Now, maybe it’s because I used to work with kids, but it shows a certain callous disregard here. Perhaps the people on this beach are not altruistic. This makes us wonder WHY, again. This is clearly not a contemporary fiction novel, no fluffy romance. Again, we wonder if Sean is going to die when we’ve just met him.

My father doesn’t even answer him, just leads his uisce stallion away.

 

Uisce? Too many vowels for most kinds of horses I know of, short of Appaloosa. The unfamiliar term underscores the fantastic element here.

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OK so obviously, a NY Times best selling author is a hard one to compare yourself to. This has also been edited to get it to the spit shine you see here.

So you want something that’s not, but does the same thing? This is a rough draft of my own, (note: ROUGH draft. I’ve done a couple light passes to try to get the voice on it, but don’t judge me too harshly on this one. This is a draft I JUST finished a couple weeks before #Pitchwars started, and I haven’t had time to edit it properly).

Whispers wake me in the morning, just as the sun begins to glow against the horizon.

Hook. We want to know who is whispering. (And no, you shouldn’t start a story with a character waking up, but that’s something I’ll be fixing in edits. I tend to word vomit my first scenes when the idea for the story hits, before I’ve even outlined.)

I lay in my hammock just a moment more, wrapped in my blanket, trying to decide if the whispers are part of my dream or just my brother Barung trying to wheedle an early breakfast. Definitely dreams, as they fade the moment I open my eyes. I yawn and slip from one net to another down onto the nearly silent deck, the only sounds seventy people breathing overhead, 2 of them snoring, and the soft calls of the watch. The bamboo deck is cold against my feet, but I’m used to that. There must have been fog overnight, the glow lamps are still lit. I glance at the rest of the ships strung like beads by the giant nets that trawl between us, catching shark and fish alike. Their watches wave at me, used to my early risings. I wave back, slipping down the rope ladder over the edge. I grab a rope line and hang on as I slide into the ocean. The water is warm against my skin and for a moment there’s nothing but me and the sea’s voice in my ears, echoing my dream-whispers.

I still need to polish the tone here (Definitely sticks out to me as out of place,) but this sets the world solidly as fantasy, with enough sensory to make you feel like you’re on a boat, but not a boat like any you may have taken. You should get a sense of the size of these ships, and that this is her normal. The whispers too add an element of tension-We want to know what is talking to her-Voices in her head, telepathy, gods? Who knows at this point, but it is important that they are here, and now. Word choice wise, I can be more specific here-giant is vague, for example, maybe I can figure out something useful to use for scale, like the ships themselves. Referencing her brother here is deliberate, as a lot of her choices are driven by her urge to protect her brother and sister. We’ll meet him properly in the next scene. But again, gives us a reason to relate to her. She’s also isolated here, though clearly not by anger or fear. Alone but accepted, basically.

Something is coming. It lurks out of reach, but I reach on the wind and waves to try to grasp it.

Tension is reiterated here. You should get a feel that there’s some sort of magic or other paranormal element going on by now.

“Are you insane? You should have waited for me!” Makir’s voice breaks me from my trance, and I wince. She’s my best friend, but she’s always the reasonable one. She could be Hawhna someday and lead the Natha fleets, if she doesn’t nag everyone to death first.

I deliberately ended here, because it contrasts with the above, jolting it out of that smoother lyricism it had slipped into. It’s a bit telling, I’ll have to find a better way to explain who Makir is to the MC (which, note-You don’t get her name in this part, but a couple paragraphs later. Probably by the time I finish editing, she’ll have her name in the first 250 ish words). There’s unfamiliar terms here too, but you should be able to use context clues to figure out Hawhna is a leader type roll, and with the reference earlier to the ships, that these people are called the Natha.

Now, armed with that, and hopefully not laughing too hard at my rough draft, take a look at your first 250-300 words. Can you break out the same kinds of patterns in yours? If not, look for ways to use word choice, rhythm, and flow to GROUND the opening, SHOW a character, and give us a reason to CARE about what is happening to them. HOOK us on the TENSION and let us FEEL the world.

More craft-focused posts will be coming up next week.😉

Book Release: Greed & Jealousy by @TinaEllery

Ooh, I know what I’m devouring after I finish reading #pitchwars entries!

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Greed & Jealousy -By Tina Ellery-Book CoverThe grass is greener on the other side…

Tova Hudson is getting by—just barely. With a crumbling marriage, all she longs for is her husband to make an effort—one small, simple gesture. When she meets Neil Hamilton, a strong, demanding, private investigator, she’s appalled at the pull she has for him. After all, she’s a married woman—even though it’s far from the fairytale she always dreamed of. Luckily, Neil has no interest in a woman who belongs to someone else.

But when peril sets in and Tova’s life is jeopardized, her husband’s absence endangers her even more. This time, greed and envy just might be the deadliest sins of all. It’s up to Neil to protect the one woman he can’t have—or shouldn’t have. But somebody won’t stop until Tova is silenced. Can Neil find a way to save Tova while protecting his heart too?

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After a successful twenty-four-year career as a business owner, Tina Ellery, is now an Indie author writing the type of romantic fiction she wants to read. A little mysterious and a lot sexy.

Ellery lives in Minneapolis, MN with her husband and two children. She’ll tell you her writing started because of her son, Salty, and her daughter, Sweetie, and one too many cartons.

When she’s not clicking on the keys, she’s holding some caffeinated beverage. She’s a freelancer with her hoard of recipes and in her free time a jewelry designer.

Writing became her obsession in 2013 when she filled six yellow legal pads and decided to “type the darn thing up.” Be careful when talking to her, though, she’s bound to find you interesting, and you could end up as material, or one of the characters in her next book.

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