Pub Rants

Sacrificing Plot And Character Motivation For Fun

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STATUS: It’s sunny and our windows are open. And it was quiet because of the holiday. I got tons accomplished. I officially declare this an awesome day.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? LOVE SONG by Adele
(The Cure were one of my fav bands from my youth and I kind of like her rendition.)

I like the heading of the entry as you can read it two different ways.

1) Just writing for fun and not worrying about the story/motivation,
2) The writer got lost in the fun of the world and forgot that a story needs plot and clear character motivation.

As a writer, sometimes it’s great to just say the heck with plot and character and simply have fun with your story and your world. It can unblock that critical voice and let you just write.

I’m all for that!

However, that’s why you go through the critique and revision process. You don’t want the above and then send me a full manuscript with out that second critical step.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read two full manuscripts that had great beginnings, solid writing, creative and interesting world building, the whole enchilada that starts an agent getting exciting.

Then I hit page 100 or 140. Suddenly the stories stop making sense. I puzzle over the character motivations and why they are making the choices they do. Then I start reading scenes that are fun but don’t actually move the story forward in any identifiable way. Then I can’t figure out how this scene fits with all the building elements of the first 100 pages.

If I’m this far into the novel and I’m asking the above questions, I’m passing on it. And no, I won’t write up an editorial letter because it would be far too complicated and time consuming to really outline these thoughts in a way that will actually help the writer.

By the way, when I’m writing up an editorial letter for one of my clients, on average it takes me 2.5 hours to complete. We often follow it up with a Skype call to just to talk it through and bounce ideas of one another. It’s a significant time investment.

21 Responses

  1. rictheturtleryan said:

    Well maybe the writer got the I have to finish this fire. If it was that good to start a note to review and refocus the story to finish the way he started. Which was probably focused. I have started stories and not known where they were going and lost it. Some were salvageable and some not. A word of encouragement can help a writer to refocus. It might turn into the book you hoped it would be.

  2. Carmen said:

    Thank you. I especially appreciated the final note about the time involved in doing what every writer wishes every agent could do. It makes the form letter responses seem that much more reasonable when also considering the sheer volume of submissions every agent receives.

    I missed seeing you at the Missouri Writers Guild conference this year. I don’t see the 2012 conference on your upcoming schedule (yet). Do you anticipate possibly attending again in 2012? I promise I’m not stalking you! I just live in the vicinity and have been hoping for a second chance at a pitch appointment with you.

  3. Kiolia said:

    I think this can stem from a writer getting the feeling that they’ve done the heavy lifting to get their story rolling, and now they’re free to goof off a little because the reader must be hooked by that point (also, possibly an extension of that “first chapter syndrome”? Page 100-140 is probably all the farther you’re going to get in a [limited-duration] novel workshop, so if a writer doesn’t take feedback that got their beginning so good and apply that throughout, they’ll likely have a comparatively undercooked middle arc).

  4. Ebony McKenna. said:

    Uh-oh, sagging middle syndrome.

    It goes to show how hard it is to get the whole thing right. It’s also where writers need crit partners who they can swap entire mss with so you can see your mistakes in another person’s work – and they can see yours.

    When you know what the mistake is (or how many there are), it’s so much easier to fix.

  5. Pauline said:

    Oh, dear. You speak of the malady I currently suffer. It’s fatal! I have a contract for book one, and am following it up with the 2nd instalment of the trilogy and I know, I JUST KNOW, I’m hedging around adherence to plot building and allowing my characters have a bit of fun. I’m finding it diffult to tear myself from that path. I wonder if I’m avoiding the first ‘kill?’ It’s the death of a well loved character. Oh well – I’ll just pull out the guillotine and be done with it.

  6. Gladspooky said:

    I’ve never liked plots. I like my characters to acknowledge a plot exists, but to avoid it as much as possible. That said, there must be some kind of motivation, some plot going on that’s important to the characters, otherwise you’ve got a vaudeville show, not a novel. It’s a subtle problem, though, and one I’ve never really thought about until just now. Thanks for the insight.

  7. JennaQuentin said:

    Do you suggest more character development before starting the book, so the author knows their motivations/reactions better? Or more plot outline, so that the characters can move and breathe inside a set form that is moving forward? I think I get cuaght up in planning and then am scared to launch into a first draft, but sometimes find myself in the middle wondering what is actually happening!!

  8. Kiolia said:

    The best advice I ever got on combating this was to go scene-by-scene asking WHY everything important (especially every decision by a character) was the way it was (e.g., why does this person do X if they want Y, why does this scene fail to advance the plot, etc.), and to rip or fix anything I didn’t have a concrete answer for. If you’re not afraid of rewriting, this can work very well.

  9. funny in the 'hood said:

    I think it’s a good thing you’re identifying this problem at the submission level. I’ve had an increasingly high number of novels that were DNF’s lately because the blurb was good, but the book fizzled out 100 pages in and I just wasn’t motivated to pick it back up.

    My TBR pile is way too high to spend time on a book that’s going nowhere. For me, an exciting plot and likeable characters is very important. Unfortunately, there are a lot of books out there that lack both which makes me sad because all I hope for when I pick up a book is to get lost in the story.


  10. Ebony McKenna. said:

    PS, my RWA magazine came and it featured some comments from our fabulous international visitors to the Melbourne conference, including some from you.

    You were so fabulous, and you commented on the high quality of our tea.

    I think I have the answer. You’re too high up in Denver to get good tea.

    Melbourne, on the other hand, is at sea level.

    At sea level, water boils at 100 degrees c and makes an excellent cup of tea.

    One mile up, water boils at only 95 degrees, so it’s not hot enough to get the right reaction with the tea leaves.

    I’ve thought way too much about this.

    But I also love my tea.

  11. Anonymous said:

    Dear Kristin, I have a question based on the very savvy and excellent advice you gave in a recent Writers Digest. (Also, I love Jamie Ford’s book)…

    Do you have tips on how writers can choose between different agents; determine if or when to switch agencies; and broach issues/ concerns with an existing agent in a productive way?

    14 agents wanted to rep me (proboably because I queried close to a hundred – it’s all percentages). Of these, I narrowed it down to 5. Of the five, I had a terrible time choosing, they all sincerely seemed great and were repping at least one major author whom I really admired.

    In the end I chose at first based on “who seemed the most literary minded”; then realized she was working way too slowly (very very slow to get back, etc) to make me comfortable given that I was about to give birth and wanted to resolve certain things before then. So then I chose a very ‘can do’ agent — but her editorial vision is simply not as sophisticated. She has an excellent commercial sense, but is somewhat at a loss re: literary critiques.

    So we got less money for the novel as we submited than we would have in its current form I think…but she’s overall a great agent. I just don’t know if we’re the best match.

    Any advice on figuring this stuff out would be much appreciated.



  12. Suz Korb said:

    Good point. I’m having major fun writing a zombie novel at the moment. It’s only the first draft, so I’m just blitzing my way through this crazy world I’ve created. During the editing process is when I can make sure my story isn’t lacking in plot and character flow.

  13. Danielle said:

    My first draft was more of a “let’s get a time line and get the characters from A to B” thing (ended up around a mere 45K words) Now that I’m in draft 2, and know I have so much room to work around, I’m just letting my characters fill the voids left and have fun! They really take a life of their own. I think that making multiple drafts and reading each one thoroughly from start to finish in hard copy is essential to making sure you don’t lose the story.
    Also, thanks for letting us know how long it takes an agent to draft an editorial letter. I like learning how agents do things and how much effort they put into their work.

  14. Lucy said:

    Yowch, what a problem to have!

    One thing I found that may lead to it: when a writer falls in love with elements or parts of the story, and insists on keeping them whether they work or not.

    I discovered during a particularly brutal round of second drafting that it doesn’t matter how hard you try to cobble those pieces together; you can ignore it or you can scrap it, but if it don’t work, it don’t work.

    Dear writer friends: Truth and reality do not have to be logical. Fiction does.

  15. Jamie Sedgwick said:

    I was going to say the same thing as Ebony, up above. Even pro writers with decades of experience say they have trouble getting the middle right. 40,000 words into a novel, it’s easy to get lost. By then you’ve burned out the fire in your belly that started things rolling, you’ve gotten used to the characters and you probably know where they have to go, but you can’t figure out how to get them there. And of course, you’re no longer in love with the premise the way you were 150 pages ago.

    A good trick I picked up somewhere (sorry, I don’t remember where) is to focus on the antagonist when you get lost. Spend time thinking about what the antagonist is doing behind the scenes. What new scheme is the villain working on? What roadblocks and danger will he present to the hero, to force the hero deeper into the abyss (based on the assumption that the story has a hero and conflict… most do, right?)?

  16. Kristina Mathews said:

    Thanks for the reminder. A lot of workshops and contests focus only on the begining of the story, so I am trying to take everything I’ve learned about my first three chapter and apply it to the next three, and then the next three after that and so on until I get to the end.

  17. Suzanne Warr said:

    This is why I love screenwriting books like ‘Save the Cat’, because they can really help in the rewrite process by outlining where the bones of a story should go. My first drafts are super fun, and a wild monster romp, but I’ve learned that the first draft had better be followed up by a disciplined second draft in which everyone is required to go to bootcamp!

  18. Anonymous said:

    I would be very grateful if someone told me, in a rejection, “The beginning is great, but then you start wandering and I finally gave up at page 100.” No more than that. It would be invaluable information for me. ^_^

    As people have said above, saggy middle is a very common problem, particularly for discovery writers. No shame in it, just means it needs some more work to connect the beginning to the end.


  19. Anonymous said:

    Total non sequitur: My god, it’s like we have the same exact music collection. Glad I’m not the only one.

    That is all. Carry on.

  20. Rob Crompton said:

    Recently I reviewed a self-published novel which had it the opposite way round. The first two thirds of the book had the character wandering around in a fairly unstructured way. Building character and setting the scene, I suppose. And then, suddenly the story began.
    I would never have got far enough if I hadn’t had to review the thing. Shame really, because itcouldhave been two decent books – a nonfiction travel guide and a novel. But it was definitely prematurely published.

  21. Gemma Buxton said:

    At the end of the day, I can see why you can’t get round to giving in-depth responses to the authors. You’ve already invested so much time and effort into reading the manuscript – you are a business!
    I do think that it’s up to the author to make sure that all problems are fixed before they send it out.