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Your Best Daily Writing Goals

Many writers familiar with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) have a complicated relationship with the number 1,667. That’s how many words one must write each day for 30 days in order to hit the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month. Some writers blow right past that number every day of the year in their sleep—and, kind of annoyingly, like people who do CrossFit, they won’t hesitate to work their generative abilities into conversation or humblebrag about their daily word counts on social media. For others, that number is too far out there, and missing that goal time and time again becomes demoralizing and demotivating, as does comparing their output with that of those high-daily-word-count superstars.

Should You Do NaNoWriMo?

I bring this up not to discourage anyone from participating in NaNoWriMo. Rather, it’s to encourage you to consider how the challenge can help you grow as a writer. The short-term and extrinsic rewards are definitely worth it: bragging rights, a sense of personal accomplishment, fun swag, and opportunities to meet other writers during in-person and online write-ins. But the long-term benefit is what you’re really after. NaNoWriMo is about creating a brain change. It’s psychological. It’s about fostering the practice of turning off the analytical, judgey, editor part of your mind so that your creative mind can more effectively and efficiently do its job. You need both, but you need to learn how to let them take turns.

That brain change is more important than 1,667.

Yesterday, I came across an excellent Facebook post by my friend, prolific science-fiction author James Van Pelt. With his permission, I’m sharing his thoughts and experience with with setting daily word-count goals with you here.

James Van Pelt says:

“When I finished grad school in 1990, I set myself the goal of 1,000 words a day (because I’d read that’s what Stephen King did). I was teaching high school English full time and raising a family. If I was on a roll, a thousand words could take an hour. Unfortunately I wasn’t on a roll all the time, and that one hour could stretch into four. Obviously I couldn’t get a four-hour session in with the rest of my schedule, so what happened is that if I didn’t think I could hit the 1,000 I wouldn’t write at all.

“This was disturbing.

“At the end of the year I would tally my words. The number was always disappointingly low, and a low-grade self loathing lingered for weeks.

“I’m a slow learner. It took me until 1999, when at the end of the year my total looked like it would be around 35,000 words that I decided the problem wasn’t in my motivation or will power; it was the damned 1,000-word goal. It was just too much.

“I asked myself what I needed to be happier. I was going to be finishing the year at 35,000 words. Would I be happier if I did twice that much? Sure, way happier! The math on a 70,000 word year is about 200 words a day. That’s less than a page. That’s one conversation or setting description or moment of action. I could do 200 words before school started or during lunch/planning period, or during a staff meeting (plus it looked like I was taking notes).

“This was a doable goal, but it would only work if I didn’t skip days like I did with the 1,000-word goal. So, starting in November of 1999 I’ve been writing 200 words or more a day. If I’m on the road or at a convention, I’ll write at 5:30 in the morning or in the last half hour before going to sleep. What I try to do is not tell the people in my life, “Sorry, can’t join you. I have to write.” I haven’t missed once.

“Different systems work for different people. This is what works for me. I like streaks and they motivate me. I’ve written and sold a lot of fiction since 1999 and I always carry that pleasant buzz of knowing that I’ve written recently, and that I’m going to be writing soon.

“Between living a creative life or thinking that I’ll lead a creative life someday, I choose the first one.”

Connect with James Van Pelt on Facebook or check out his website.

Your Best Daily Writing Goals

Setting goals is important. Studies across all disciplines tell us over and over that people who set goals and then use those goals to guide the ways in which they spend their time are far more likely to accomplish desired outcomes than those who don’t. Furthermore, we know that breaking long-term goals down into digestible chunks is a key to success. As you make a plan for NaNoWriMo, or for next year, or for your next big writing project, or whatever, here are some ways to approach setting goals that are right for you.

Start by observing your writing habit.

Before you set word-count goals, spend two or three typical weeks writing when you can at a pace that feels like something you can sustain. These should be weeks representative of your life in terms of work, family, chores and errands, and other non-writing responsibilities. Don’t choose weeks that you are on vacation, laid up with a broken leg, entertaining your in-laws, or dealing with an unexpected project or crisis. At the end of those weeks, tally your total word count and tally the total hours you spent writing. Which makes you feel more positive about your efforts?

Decide whether to track word count, time spent, or both.

Some writers, like James, have dialed in to a realistic, sustainable daily word count. But there are others who find greater success tracking time spent. You can also track both! If you do, pay attention to the ratio of time to words when you’re drafting versus when you’re plotting or revising. These will not be the same ratios. You might be a writer who tracks word count when drafting and time spent when revising. Whatever the case, having a solid idea of your volume and rate of output under various circumstances will help you over time to develop even more realistic goals.

Practice positive self-talk based on what’s realistic and sustainable.

You’re going to get derailed. You just are. Suddenly you’re not putting gold-star stickers on that progress chart you made back at the beginning of the project or coloring in the “I did it!” squares in your bullet journal anymore.

When that happens, adjust. Instead of thinking “great, now I have to double my output tomorrow, and that probably won’t happen, so then I’ll need to triple my output two days from now, and that’s never going to happen,” take a realistic look at your calendar and set new goals for the next three, seven, ten, or X-number of days. A gold star or checkmark is still a gold star or checkmark, regardless of whether the goal was 2,000 words or 200.

Another strategy: Switch from a word-count goal to a time-spent goal or vice versa. That way, your self-talk switches from the negative “no way can I write 2,000 words tomorrow” to the positive “it’s not realistic for me to write 2,000 words tomorrow, but it is realistic to spend 30 minutes with my fingers on the keyboard before work tomorrow.”

Off track? Look back before looking ahead.

If you feel like you’ve fallen so far behind in your daily progress that you need to adjust your final deadline, don’t make a new plan for moving forward until you’ve looked backward. What derailed you? Was it something within your control, like spending too much time scrolling through social media or saying yes to projects or favors you could have said no to? Or was it something outside your control, like an unexpected work trip or a sick child?

Either way, I have good news. If it’s the former, make a list of all time-sucking behaviors that derailed you, and then make a plan for saying no. No to wasting time staring at screens. No to Aunt Betty who wants you to help her alphabetize her recipe cards. Yes to yourself and your goals.

If it’s the latter, recognize that the hiccup is temporary. Depending on the severity of the crisis, it might not feel temporary, or you might not know when your life will be back to normal, if ever. Again, it’s time to adjust. Do you need a break from the project? Take one! But schedule it. Make a date with yourself, even if it’s only one hour next Saturday afternoon, to keep your head in the game. If you’re used to getting two or three hours a day to write, but suddenly that can’t happen, adjust. Try writing in ten- or fifteen-minute increments. Try writing three sentences instead of three pages. All progress is progress.

At the end of the day, writing is hard, whether it’s your full-time job, part-time job, or avocation. Setting goals is important, but so is setting the right kinds of goals for you, at the right time in your life. Be flexible and positive, and keep your focus on what is realistic and sustainable, not for anyone else, but for you.

Photo by MART PRODUCTION from Pexels

Genre Isn’t Everything and High Concept Isn’t King

In the writing world, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on genre. After all, knowing what you write, who it’s for, and how to reach your market are critical elements of many a successful career, and so much of that boils down to understanding genre. There’s also a low, constant buzz about concept. What does high concept mean, is it necessary, and how does it play into an author’s potential to achieve bestseller status or sell into Hollywood? This month, I present a new way to think and talk about fiction—one that argues genre isn’t everything and concept isn’t always king.

Conceptual appeal gets a lot of positive press, and high-concept stories do tend to rise to the top of any given slush pile. Why? Because they feel new and fresh and pitchable and buzzworthy. If you’ve ever received a rejection that says your manuscript is “too quiet,” what the person doing the rejecting is most likely commenting on is your concept. Or lack of concept. They want an idea that feels bigger, something that’s going to stand out on its genre’s shelf rather than conform to it.

But is high concept really the only way to get your book published? Absolutely not. In fact, concept is just one of four ways that stories appeal to readers. In addition to conceptual appeal, there is also emotional appeal, experiential appeal, and literary appeal.

Conceptual Appeal

A story with conceptual (or high-concept) appeal is built on a clear, easy-to-pitch premise.

That’s a definition you’ll find floating all over the Internet, but it’s about zero-percent helpful to writers trying to wrap their creative brains around the idea of conceptual appeal. That’s because the pitch for a high-concept story must be much more than clear and brief. (In other words, you can deliver a clear, one-sentence pitch for a story that doesn’t carry a single hot ounce of conceptual appeal.) So what’s the missing ingredient that will make a highly pitchable story truly conceptually appealing?

Stories with conceptual appeal deliver something unique—some fresh twist or never-been-seen-before what if…? that makes people’s eyes light up. If your pitch gets strangers (not friends and family) saying…

  • That’s a million-dollar idea!
  • How in the world did you come up with that?
  • I can’t imagine how your story is going to resolve that problem!
  • I wish I’d come up with that idea!

…then congratulations! You have a story with conceptual appeal.

Here’s another key feature of stories with conceptual appeal: They will only be new and unique once. After they explode onto the scene, they get broken down into tropes that get reimagined by writers writing to the market, hoping to capture the vast readership you’ve amassed. (Ask any agent who was in the biz in the wake of Harry Potter how many query letters they received for middle-grades featuring magic boarding schools. Ask how many they’re still receiving.)

This is not a judgement statement by the way; it’s merely a description of how high-concept books cause genres to shift as readers develop appetites for new types of stories they never knew they were missing.

Emotional Appeal

The emotion-driven story engages our hearts, our primal selves, maybe even our very souls. It promises to make us Feel Something Big that will stay with us long after we finish reading. Whether that something is joy, sorrow, or terror, authors whose stories are foremost an appeal to emotion do their best work when they’re tapping into the human condition. These stories often dive deep into the following:

  • Connection (family, friendship, love, reconciliation, redemption)
  • Endeavor (conflict, struggle, indomitable spirit, triumph against insurmountable odds)
  • Separation (failure, pain, loss, death)

Experiential Appeal

Stories with experiential appeal must be experienced to be felt or understood. They are difficult to describe (and even more difficult to pitch), and any attempts to do so often end with, “You just have to read it to get it.” In the movie world, there are plenty of great examples of experiential appeal: Memento, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Inception, and The Matrix*, to name a few. Experiential fiction often intersects with the speculative genres—especially science fiction, magical realism, and horror—but it doesn’t have to. You can write a story in any genre that unfolds in a “you just have to read it to get it” sort of way.

*Before we move on, let’s chat about The Matrix, which many might argue is high concept. I disagree. Remember that stories with conceptual appeal are based on a clear, easy-to-pitch premise. Can you write a clear, one-sentence pitch for The Matrix? Can anyone? Sure, you can briefly encapsulate the core premise: “What if all humans were living comfortable but virtual lives, and the cost of waking up to the truth meant living in a dystopian hell?” But this concept as pitched doesn’t even come close to the experience of the movie itself. So although the writers landed on conceptual appeal, it was their choice to let the story unfold in an experiential way that truly blew moviegoers’ minds. Therefore, the conceptual appeal of The Matrix is secondary to its experiential appeal.

Literary Appeal

Writers who aim to appeal to readers’ sense of literary excellence put the writing itself first. The artistry of the style, voice, rhythm, meter, lyricism, phrasing, use of poetic devices, and so on, are as important (if not more) than plot, action, or a snappy pace. In other words, these are stories readers find worth reading for how they are told.

A term adjacent to “literary” is “upmarket,” which you might see on agents’ and editors’ wish lists. Upmarket refers to works that employ familiar features, tropes, or structures of genre or commercial fiction but that are told in a more literary writing style. So if you’re a writer striving to appeal to readers who appreciate the artistry of language, but you also want to play in the sandbox of a favorite genre, then you are an upmarket writer. Hooray!

The Genre-Appeal Grid

Now that you know the four ways fiction can appeal to readers, what’s next? Check out the grid below, which features the four appeals across the top and a few (but definitely not all) genres down the side. Where does your current work-in-progress fit? Keep in mind:

  • Knowing your story’s genre as well as its primary appeal can help you figure out how you want to approach the telling of that story.
  • A story can appeal to readers in more than one way. Maybe, like The Matrix, your book has a primary appeal and a secondary appeal.
  • More isn’t better. Trying to write a story that appeals to readers in all four ways is like trying to write a story that crosses too many genres: you’ll end up with a muddy mess that in its manic attempt to be for everyone will actually be for no one.
  • Whichever square on the grid feels most like home to you can help you define your niche and author brand. You’re the one who writes experiential historicals! You’re the one who writes literary westerns! And you! You’re the one who writes high-concept romance!
  • Or every book you write can belong to a different square. You decide!
  • Every square on the grid is valid. None is better than any other. Your success lies in how you execute the story you want to tell, for the readers you want to write for because they value the same things about story that you do.

Photo by Gratisography from Pexels

A few years ago, I presented at the monthly meeting of a writing organization that wanted to know more about what agents are (and aren’t) looking for when they read submissions. I ended up talking about how premise, plot, and prose make a three-legged stool, and how when one leg is missing, the stool falls over—and the submission is likely to get a rejection. I’ve always wanted to expand on that idea for a more general fiction-writing audience. So this month, that’s what I decided to do.

+Premise +Plot -Prose

A manuscript that falls into this category promises a cool, unique premise, hook, or concept, and it’s well structured, moving along at a good, genre-appropriate clip…or at least it appears to be at first. Agents aren’t going to make it very far into this manuscript because the prose itself is a problem.

When I say prose here, I’m talking about two things. I’m talking about craft: spelling, grammar, semantics, syntax, mechanics, punctuation, etc. I’m also talking about art: voice, style, rhythm, imagery, symbolism, use of poetic devices, and so on.

A writer’s mastery of craft is relatively easy to assess. There are rules and standards about such things, after all, and a writer’s ability to demonstrate functional knowledge of those rules and standards should be requisite for professional-level publication. However, judging a writer’s mastery of art is far more subjective. One human’s Elmore Leonard is another’s Cormac McCarthy. Furthermore, the relative artistry of a writer’s prose is examined differently through the various lenses of genre and intended audience.

Style aside, what agents are looking for when they’re reading sample pages is the feeling that they’re in good hands. They want the sense that the writer knows what they’re doing, that they’ve both mastered craft and delivered artistry that will satisfy the expectations of a particular market.

Improve Your Prose

+Premise -Plot +Prose

This manuscript is built on a mind-blowing, never-been-seen-before idea, and the prose is gorgeous, but there’s no plot. No sequence of events leading one into the other in a logical, plausible way that builds suspense, raises stakes, and keeps readers turning pages. No cliffhangers, turning points, or reversals. No artfully planted clues that give the reader a fair shake. No satisfying sense of wholeness or completeness. No connections between the first half of the manuscript and the second.

This manuscript can often be summarized “characters doing stuff, having conversations, and thinking thoughts.” It rambles. It indulges the author’s whims. It feels like an early draft.

Plotting a novel is not the same thing as writing down a list of things that will happen in your story or summarizing scenes on stacks of notecards. No, plotting a novel is like trying to solve a puzzle. It’s a painstaking back-and-forth between working on the whole and working on its parts. It’s about making connections and ensuring that every character, scene, description, internalization, line of dialogue, etc., has a job to do and earns its real estate on the page. Even pantsing (writing by the seat of one’s pants) is a method of plotting—pantsers, too, must eventually arrive at a structure that the human brain recognizes as “story.” It’s just that a pantser’s process is to get there by writing multiple drafts.

Agents will read further into this type of manuscript than they will the previous type. If you’ve hooked them with a great premise and masterful prose, then they’re more likely to stick with your story to see if the plot is sound—if the story hangs together and if you nailed the landing. But if you haven’t, you’re likely to receive a pass.

Improve Your Plot

-Premise +Plot +Prose

This manuscript is well written with an airtight plot, but it feels bland. Derivative. Predictable. A little too tropey. Like it rolled off the assembly line into a bin marked “Stories We’ve All Seen Before.”

Of all three types of manuscripts in this article, this one is most likely to get represented and published. It’s a “good” book, a “competent” book. That makes it a safe bet for a lot of agents and editors. But will it be a standout or become a bestseller? Will it earn out its advance (if an advance was offered)? Will its sales bring you subsequent contracts with improved terms? Without a twisty, unique premise, probably not.

Note that for the sake of this article, I’m using “premise” as a synonym for “concept,” which brings the idea of “high concept” into play. There’s lots of info online about high concept (what it is and why it rises to the top of slush piles), but I’m not going into that here. What I do want to say here is that if you’ve mastered prose and plot, don’t stop there. Do the work—and it is work!—of developing one-of-a-kind ideas, premises, hooks, or concepts. As Larry Brooks writes in the book I’m recommending below, “At the professional level to which you aspire, you really cannot, with great confidence, sit down and write just any old thing that appeals to you.”

Improve Your Premise

This month, take some time to assess where you are with all this. Rank premise, plot, and prose in order of your greatest strength to your greatest opportunity. Pick up one of the recommended books and commit to exploring how you can give your next manuscript the best possible chance at becoming a bestseller!

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Four Ways to Create Inter-Character Conflict

I was reading a manuscript recently that featured a strong, interesting protagonist and a strong, interesting antagonist. Off to a good start, right? Well…

As I continued to read, I realized there was a problem. While both characters were developed well on the page, I couldn’t nail down why they were experiencing such conflict with each other. More to the point, the conflict playing out between them was inconsistent, seemingly about Thing A in these chapters, but then morphing into Thing B in those chapters, and later on, it was all about Things C, D, or E with Things A and B abandoned and unresolved.

Eventually, as a result, the plot fell apart, and the inter-character conflict devolved into nothing more substantial than snarky dialogue…all the way up until one tried kill the other for no apparent reason other than the author couldn’t figure out how to wrap up the manuscript. (Nothing like a tacked-on climax to reveal that a story needs revision!)

This was a case of an author who started out with a solid sense of how to create good characters and scene-based conflicts, but who hadn’t yet figured out that scenes are the building blocks of a central story line. With no central story line, conflict exists merely for conflict’s sake—and it often comes off as contrived or melodramatic.

As you outline, draft, or revise, remember that conflict drives your plot, or central story line. Therefore, to improve your story’s cohesion, focus on developing a single conflict-driven through-line. How? The following are four easy ways to set two characters at compelling odds with each other:

  1. They want the same goal but only one of them can have it. There is only one piece of pie, gold medal, promotion, throne, whatever.
  2. They want the same goal but have different motivations. Jane and Ben both want to steal the diamond, but Jane wants to return it to its rightful owner, and Ben wants to sell it on the black market.
  3. They want two different goals that are mutually exclusive. If one achieves their goal, then the opportunity to attain the other goal disappears. Sally wants to be promoted to partner at her Colorado law firm, but her husband, Mike, wants them to move to the coast and live on a boat. They can’t both attain their goal and keep their marriage, so either one or the both of them must abandon their goal.
  4. One has a vested interest in preventing the other from achieving their goal. If one achieves their goal, the other will lose something of importance. Sam bets Carrie $500 that she won’t spend the night in the haunted house, but now it looks like she’s going to do it—that is her goal—so Sam’s goal becomes to convince her the house is actually haunted so he can keep his money.

Take a look at your work-in-progress and articulate why your main hero and main villain are at odds with each other. If you have an ensemble cast, then nail down the various types of conflict that exist between various pairs or groups of characters. In all likelihood, there will be all sorts of conflict going on throughout the manuscript, but what I’m asking you to do here is distill the primary nature of your story’s conflict down to a central story question in the form “Will A happen or will B happen?”

  1. Will Ann or Ian win the race?
  2. Will Jane return the diamond to its rightful owner or will Ben sell it on the black market?
  3. Will Sally accept the partnership in Colorado, or will she give up her career to move to the coast and live on a boat with Mike?
  4. Will Carrie spend the night in the haunted house and win Sam’s $500 bet, or will Sam succeed in scaring her away?

Now make sure that whatever distilled, central-story question you came up with here is the question that gets answered at the end of the manuscript. You might be surprised to learn how many manuscripts we read in which the author loses sight of their original story question. (It’s a lot!) Preventing that misstep can be as easy as re-orienting yourself around your story’s conflict.

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Ten Tips for Virtual or In-Person Pitching

The writing world is transitioning back to in-person conferences, and we couldn’t be more excited! But the unexpected benefits of virtual events means they’re probably here to stay. Whether you’ll soon be pitching in-person or over Zoom, here are ten tips to help you present as professional, knowledgeable, and ready to take on the publishing industry.

1. Practice.

Run through your pitch a few times in front of the mirror (if you’ll be pitching in person) or in front of your computer with your camera on (if you’ll be pitching virtually). You can even record yourself and play back your practice pitches until you feel like you’re nailing it. If you’re super nervous, start by pitching to a sweet-faced stuffie or your least judgy-looking pet. Work up to your friends and family. But know that you’re going to get the best feedback from other writers. They can give you tips on the pitch itself as well as on your delivery, so when you’re ready, ask your critique group if you can practice on them. (See #6 below for another practice tip.)

2. Avoid reading off a piece of paper.

Have you ever attended a lecture or keynote where the speaker read word-for-word off their PowerPoint slides or note cards? Of course you have. Everyone has. It’s a little monotonous, right? The speaker’s lack of interaction with the audience is awkward and yawn inducing. The same can be true of a pitch appointment. Reading the agent your query letter or synopsis isn’t your best move, and there are several reasons why. First, imagine what the agent or editor will be looking at while you read: the top of your head. Second, it can be difficult to hear you if you’re aiming your voice at the paper in front of you, especially in a crowded pitch room. If you’re pitching on Zoom and reading off your screen, speaking right into your mic, that’s not as bad, but your reading-aloud voice might still be a little flat. Which leads me to the third and most important thing: a verbal pitch should be an engaging conversation starter. As such, it should be shorter than your query letter’s pitch paragraphs. Therefore…

3. Avoid talking the whole time.

Pitch appointments average eight to ten minutes, and those minutes go by fast. The best pitch appointments for both the writer and the agent are those that turn into personable dialogues about the book, comparable titles, and the writer’s inspiration, journey, and career goals. Yet my colleagues and I have taken tons of pitch appointments over the years that end with the writer still talking—either because they haven’t practiced their pitch and are kind of wandering through a vague recounting of their story’s events, or because they’re still explaining their backstory, world building, or themes. There’s just not time during the average pitch appointment for that kind of elucidation. Therefore…

4. Encapsulate your premise or concept.

Lead with your story’s title, genre, word count, and character- or concept-based “person with a problem” proposition. You can expand a little, but not as much as your query letter does. Then give the agent an opportunity to ask you questions…or better yet, to just go ahead and request your manuscript.

5. Make eye contact.

Whether in person or on screen, eye contact conveys confidence and commands the attention of the listener. Without it, it’s easier for the listener to zone out.

6. Avoid memorizing your written pitch.

Maybe you’re making stellar eye contact and not reading off a piece of paper. That’s good! But the word-for-word recitation of a memorized pitch also risks being humdrum—especially when the writer forgets to breathe. And let me tell you, pitch memorizers are the most likely to forget to breathe! You’re much better off knowing what you want to say and then letting it come out naturally and personably in the moment. How do you practice that? Here’s something a writer friend of mine did: Write “tell me about your book” on a dozen notecards or stickies and have a friend post them around your world (on your toothpaste, washing machine, fridge, rearview mirror, TV remote). Whenever you come across one, pretend it’s an agent or editor at a conference, and right then and there, deliver your pitch impromptu style.

7. Have paper and pen ready.

Unless your project is too far afield from what the agent is currently looking to represent, the agent is probably going to ask you for sample pages. That’s the only way they can assess whether the idea you pitched is executed well and ready for representation. So be ready to write down (a) what they want you to send (pages, chapters, full manuscript) and (b) how they want you to send it. This is especially important during virtual pitches. In person, an agent can hand you their business card. But over Zoom, you’ll need to be sure to write down their email address or the link to their submissions portal or online query form. When I’m taking virtual pitches, I post these things to the private chat window, so besides paper and pen, also have a document already open on your computer where you can copy-paste. What often happens is that the writer is so flustered by the request that they end up scrambling for something to write with and on…and then later, they can’t remember what they’re supposed to do. So they contact the event organizers, who then have to get in touch with the agent, who then has to reiterate the request, which then has to be re-communicated to the writer. Best practice? Expect a request, stay calm and collected when it comes, and have pen and paper (or an open document) ready.

8. Respect agents’ social-media boundaries.

In our more virtual world, it seems professional boundaries have become a bit more blurred. Resist the urge to slide into an agent’s direct messages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., whether to pitch them, send links to your content, or follow up on a pitch or other submitted materials. It’s simply not professional, and frankly, it feels a bit off. I don’t know a single agent who has ever been impressed by a writer who doesn’t follow the submission guidelines outlined on their websites. So unless an agent explicitly invites professional interactions via their personal media, it’s best not to go there.

9. Remember in-person hygiene.

This one’s a little uncomfortable to talk about, and you might be wondering if we need to talk about it at all. But every agent who’s ever taken in-person pitches has stories. Hey, I’m sure writers have stories about agents’ hygiene, too. No one wants that to be the thing they’re remembered for. So as we all return to in-person life, some grudgingly trading yoga pants and slippers for tailored slacks and hard-soled shoes, here are some tips. First, forego perfume or cologne the day of your pitch. A few years ago, Agent Kristin ended up sneezing and mopping her eyes all the way through a pitch appointment because she had an allergic reaction to whatever scent the writer was wearing. Second, slip some mints or hard candies into your conference bag. These aren’t just for your breath—they also help remedy anxious dry mouth in the moments before your appointment. To that point, have a bottle of water in your bag as well. Finally, I know several conference regulars who carry a little travel-sized deodorant or antiperspirant in their conference bags. Great to have on hand for pre-pitch anxiety, sure, but also for surviving long breakout sessions when the hotel air-conditioning is on the fritz. (Why is the hotel air-conditioning always on the fritz?) Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

10. Don’t be nervous.

Ha! Like it’s that easy, right? Of course there are nerves involved in pitching. The only way to combat the anxiety is to be practiced and prepared, and to keep signing up for pitch appointments every time you have the chance, both in person and online. Once you know what to expect, there will be fewer surprises, and you’ll be a pitching pro in no time.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

From Query Letter to Six-Figure Deal

When writers hear about a debut author who got a six-figure deal, their curiosity gets piqued. How did that author do it? Did they have industry connections? Get a referral? Did they pitch to their agent at a conference? Did their query letter get picked out of the slush pile?

This month, with the author’s blessing, we offer you a look at the query letter we received from Shelby Van Pelt for her debut, REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES, which Agent Kristin sold recently to Ecco (Harpercollins), in a major, high-six-figure deal after a multi-house auction. NLA’s Literary Associate, Maria, pulled this one out of the slush pile and brought it to Agent Kristin’s attention, and Kristin, immediately sensing a hit, acted fast. We can’t wait for this one to come out next spring!

So here it is…Shelby’s query letter, followed by a little commentary about why this is a query letter that works.

Dear Ms. Nelson,

REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES is upmarket fiction with a dash of whimsy complete at 88,000 words. Told alternately from the perspective of an elderly widow, a fatherless young man, and a giant Pacific octopus, this quirky story will appeal to book club readers who enjoyed Fredrik Backman’s Britt-Marie Was Here and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here.

Curmudgeonly Marcellus, a “prisoner” at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, wouldn’t lift one of his eight tentacles for his human captors, until he forms an unlikely friendship with the night cleaning lady.

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died two years ago, she talked her way into a job mopping floors at the Aquarium. She doesn’t need the paycheck, but keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since 1987, when her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound.

Cameron Catalinich recently turned thirty, but he has some growing up to do. He arrives in Sowell Bay on a mission to find the father he’s never known, and he lands a gig helping clean at the Aquarium after Tova breaks her foot. Marcellus, keenly observant, deduces that Cameron is a missing key to what happened that fateful night. As Tova’s injury lingers, with no family to care for her, she makes plans to sell the house her father built and move to a faraway retirement community. Marcellus must use every trick his invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for Tova before it’s too late.

I have received full manuscript requests for REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES from acquiring editors at [redacted] and [redacted]. My short fiction has won honors in international competitions and has been featured, most recently, by f(r)iction, Flora Fiction, and Funny Pearls. I currently live in the Chicago suburbs, but I was born and raised in the Seattle area near the fictional town where this story is set. It was inspired by my favorite childhood aquarium.

Thank you for your consideration,

Shelby Van Pelt

Why This Query Worked

First, take a look at that opening sentence. Title + Genre + Word Count. Boom. No awkward small talk. No messing around. Those are the first three things an agent wants to know about your project, and the less searching you make an agent do, the better. Also, 88,000 words is well within the appropriate word-count range for a work of adult upmarket fiction, so we’re definitely going to keep reading.

In the next sentence, we get a brief mention of the three POV characters, which include…an OCTOPUS??? Talk about a hook! At this point, Maria was thinking, “This is either brilliant or bananas.” But with the recent success of the Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, which since took home the Academy Award for best documentary (one of those uber-fortunate market-timing things no writer can plan for or predict), Maria kept reading.

This second introduction sentence, by the way, also includes two well-chosen comps—comparable titles and authors—that identify an existing readership likely to enjoy this book. This demonstrates the author’s market awareness, and market awareness is vital to any writer’s potential for commercial success.

Overall, that brief opening paragraph packs a succinct punch, including light-touch but vibrant buzzwords like “whimsy,” “quirky,” and “book club,” while avoiding lengthy explanations describing what the book is. Agents are far more interested in what the book is about. So nail that brief intro paragraph and move on to the pitch, like Shelby did.

Shelby’s three-paragraph pitch is structured in a way that mirrors how the book is structured. Each paragraph introduces one of the major characters. In truth, this is an approach I often warn querying writers not to use, because more often than not, we see it done poorly. It’s definitely not done poorly here! What’s the difference? There are three: (a) conflict, (b) connection, and (c) a ticking clock. Here’s what I mean.

What not to do: “Sally is this type of person. Jane is this type of person. Barbara is this type of person. Over the course of the novel, these three women will confront adversity, face hardship, find love, and discover the true meaning of friendship.” Or, in the case of middle-grade or YA lit, here’s another common iteration: “Billy is a nerd who is constantly bullied. Sam is the quarterback of the football team. Jamie is a fairy from the magical land of Eggwaffle. Together, this unlikely trio will have the adventure of a lifetime.”

This formula—“list and give backgrounds on the characters and then make a vague statement or two promising that meaningful or exciting stuff will happen to them”—is one we most often see in query letters for multi-POV novels. The problem is, there’s no room in this formula for a burning story question. A burning story question is the thing that lets know you actually have a story (as opposed to just “characters doing stuff and learning lessons,” which is often not story).

Instead, here’s what Shelby did. For each character, she gave us only what information is relevant to her central, burning story question: What really happened to Erik? She does that by hinting at how these characters are connected to each other even though they don’t know they are connected to each other—and we are compelled to read the manuscript because we want to find out how they find out they are connected to each other. That in itself is a second, “meta” burning story question that’s communicated through the pitch’s subtext, and it lets us know the novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. Finally, Shelby also sets a ticking clock: Marcellus has to communicate with Tova before she moves away and it’s too late. Ticking clocks are great ways to give stories tension, urgency, and stakes.

A well-crafted pitch is built on meaningful subtext. Don’t waste space in your query letter telling us you have a burning story question, and don’t tell us what it is. It should be made clear within the pitch itself. Don’t waste space telling us your novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. That, too, should be conveyed by the pitch’s subtext. Don’t tell us your characters are connected in ways they will understand only at the end of the novel (yep—use subtext instead). None of those things tell us what the story is about. Keep the pitch focused on how your character(s) is(are) connected to a burning story question, and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Finally, Shelby’s bio in the query letter’s final paragraph is brief and relevant. It lets us know she’s had editorial interest, which is important. (You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many writers I’ve had in my query workshops over the years who omit this type of thing—or other boosts or accolades—from their query letters because they’re worried it’s bragging. It’s not bragging! Step up to the mic! Give us the goods!) She lists a few prior publications, and then sums up with a personal note.

That’s about as close to perfect as you can get.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

The Making of Meaningful Backstory (Part II)

How much page-space you devote to building backstory depends on what type of story you’re telling and how you want to develop your lead characters. There’s no one-size-fits-all backstory formula, but there are some pro tips that can help you strike a masterful balance between What Came Before and What Will Happen Now.

The Balance

When I’m working on a manuscript or reading a book for pleasure, here’s how I think of backstory:

  • The more complicated or developed the backstory, the more I expect it to impact the current story.
  • The simpler or less-developed the backstory, the less I expect it to impact the current story.

That’s because the more page-space you devote to something, the louder you’re shouting at the reader, “Pay attention to this! It’s important!” If it turns out not to have been important, readers have every right to scratch their heads and wonder what the heck was the point of all that wasted page-space. That’s Page Economy 101.

What do I mean by “impact the current story”? I mean affect the plot. And by plot, I mean the external arc. Remember that all stories have an internal arc (what’s happening inside your protagonist’s head and heart) and an external arc (what’s happening in the world around your protagonist). A lightly developed backstory might inform the internal arc, explaining why a character is they way they are. But with a heavily developed backstory, the reader isn’t wrong to expect a big plot tie-in later on.

Here’s an example: If you briefly mention somewhere in the setup that your protagonist used to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, then readers think “this guy is caring and capable” and move on. But if you devote lots of page-space to his backstory (how his father taught him to swing a hammer, how he wanted to be an architect but couldn’t afford the schooling, how he got involved with Habitat, all the many life lessons he learned and wonderful people he met along the way), then my story-brain starts whirring. It now feels set up for a third act or final battle that can only be solved by someone with his unique set of knowledge, skills, resources, connections, or experiences. In other words, it feels set up to expect that you’re planting an ace up his sleeve that will get played at a critical, climactic moment.

Wound Events vs. Inciting Incidents

One key reason backstory is so important is that it’s where the wound event lives. (The idea of a wound event has been explored extensively by story experts like Michael Hauge and John Truby, so check them out if you want a deeper dive.) I’ve worked with lots of writers who’ve never heard of a wound event, or who confuse their wound event with their inciting incident, which can wreak havoc on a story’s structure later on. So to clear it up in the most basic terms:

  • The wound event happens before page one and kicks off the internal arc.
  • The inciting incident happens on or after page one and kicks off the external arc.

In other words, the wound event is a single, critical backstory event that weighed your protagonist down with whatever emotional baggage they’re already carrying when they walk onto page one of your novel. It’s this emotional wound they must overcome by the novel’s end as a direct result of the events that make up the novel’s external arc. In other words, the internal and external arcs are intertwined and resolve together.

Prologues

Here’s a secret: Many prologues in both novels and movies exist because the writer wants to get the wound event in front of the audience first thing. This is an A-OK reason to open your story with a prologue. You’ll know you’ve experienced a wound-event prologue if chapter one starts with a leap forward in time—the ol’ “one year later” technique (though it doesn’t have to be one year). Examples of movies that open with a wound-event prologue are Return to Me and The Ritual.

The Takeaway for Plotting and Revision

What does all this mean for you as a storysmith? A wound event, because it is both structurally significant and thematically meaningful, is the least amount of backstory you should focus your efforts on developing. It might also be the most amount of backstory you should develop. Again, it depends. But here’s where I want you to pull out those pages I asked you to write last month. Whether you feel like you wrote too much or not enough, my only question is this: Can you identify a solid wound event in what you wrote? A wound event that resulted in the emotional baggage your protagonist will shed or otherwise confront head-on at the end of your story?

  • If no, can you scratch what you wrote and start building a meaningful backstory from the wound event up?
  • If yes, can you cut all the other backstory that’s not related to the wound event?
  • If cutting all the other backstory feels difficult, can you articulate how all of it will affect your plot? Yea verily, why your plot—not your character development or protagonist’s internal arc—will fall apart without it?

I already mentioned that the wound event sometimes shows up as a prologue. It can also be a flashback. Or it doesn’t have to be a scene at all. It can be something your protagonist discloses in dialogue. Or something you reveal to the reader through your protagonist’s internalizations. How and when you reveal your story’s wound event is up to you. But one piece of advice I love is that the writer should write the wound event—not necessarily to include in the novel, but so that she can stand beside her protagonist as he endures that event. So that she can bear witness to that formative moment, and then later imbue his scenes with the raw emotional residue it left behind.

The Takeaway for Querying, Pitching, and Opening Pages

Finally, when it comes time to pitch or query your novel, lean away from backstory. Sure, a sentence or maybe two of setup might be a necessary foundation for your actual pitch, and that’s OK, but the sooner you get to the story story—the one that starts on page one—the better off you’ll be. I’ve read query letters where half to all of the proverbial ink on the page was devoted to explaining everything about What Came Before. I’ve also sat through entire pitches where at the end of the eight-minute appointment, the writer is still talking about their hero’s or world’s backstory. These are missed opportunities! After all, the agent has their ear open for something they can sell. Story sells. Concept sells. Backstory alone does not.

Likewise, in your opening pages, avoid big, long, explainy, expository passages meant to lay out your novel’s backstory. That’s all stuff that can (and, for many agents and editors, should) be more elegantly woven in only after the story is rolling forward and gaining compelling momentum. Your opening pages are an agent or editor’s first impression of you and your work, and if those pages read like a history textbook, you might be in trouble. Open in scene, with character, setting, and conflict, you’ll have a much better chance of engaging and hooking the reader.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic

The Making of Meaningful Backstory (Part I)

I was working with a client recently who had spent quite a bit of page-time developing a complex backstory for their protagonist. Their agent and I, looking for ways to tighten the plot and reduce the word count, saw all this backstory as an opportunity to trim. Since it never had any effect on the story as it was currently structured, it felt not only superfluous, but also unnecessarily complicating. Yet the author was reluctant to cut it.

We asked why, and their response made sense. They needed the protagonist to have a particular personality and temperament, a certain unique way of looking at the world and making decisions. Their instinct said that type of person isn’t born but made. So they created a backstory that explained why their protagonist was the way she was.

That’s a great reason. However, it did get me thinking more about backstory. Backstory is one of the crucial elements of the craft of fiction, so it definitely deserves our attention. But should backstory be a workhorse that earns its place within your manuscript’s structure by serving more than one weight-bearing function? Or should backstory be part of the wallpaper, passively decorative and meant to be glimpsed only now and then in the background? Is there a point at which too little backstory makes a novel feel flat? Or a point at which a big backstory is too big?

First, let’s look at some backstory basics. Next month, we’ll look at some ways to think about backstory in plotting, revision, opening chapters, and even query letters.

Backstory Basics

Every story is two stories. There’s the story that happened before page one and the story that starts on page one. Some stories rely heavily on a rich and well-developed backstory, and that’s OK—other stories, not as much, and that’s OK, too. In general, the human brain perceives time as a linear chain of causes and effects. When you set out to tell a story, you choose where the story starts. The second you do, you have divided your timeline into two stories: What Came Before and What Will Happen Now.

The two stories are linked. What Came Before informs What Will Happen Now. That’s cause and effect (or stimulus and response), and it’s how story works. When readers dive into chapter one of a new book, they immediately begin to form questions. Why is food scarce in this world? Why is the ship’s captain afraid to sail into that cove? For whom is this spy risking her life to gather information? Why does this man not trust his wife? What caused the people of the Badlands to despise the people of the Tundra?

In linear time, the answers are part of your backstory. But in story time, which doesn’t have to be linear, you get to decide when and how to reveal the answers to the reader. For master storytellers, such decisions are made with respect to balancing (a) the potential for maximum dramatic effect with (b) reader engagement. That’s because readers kept too long in the dark tend to disengage.

Backstory shapes character. Story-craft wisdom tells us we need to give our central characters a goal and a motivation, and that we should establish those things fairly quickly, whether on page one or not long after. Therefore, what a character wants and why they want it are the products of backstory. In other words, goal and motivation are the effects of some cause that occurred a moment, a week, a year, a decade, perhaps longer, before page one. In short, backstory is why characters are they way they are. This is sometimes referred to as a “wound event” and should not be confused with your story’s inciting incident—we’ll come back to this next month in part II.

Backstory shapes world. The world in which your story takes place also has a unique effect on What Will Happen Now as a direct result of What Came Before. Whether your story world is a vast, war-torn star system, an island nation struggling to survive a devastating natural disaster, a seemingly idyllic suburban neighborhood, or a courtroom where the fate of an innocent man will be decided, that world has a backstory. Your world’s history is a collection of causes that resulted in the laws, norms, codes of conduct, and social hierarchies (written or unspoken) that govern what your characters can and can’t do and what’s at stake for them if they stray. Backstory is why your world is the way it is.

Your assignment: Write one to two pages for each major character detailing that character’s backstory. Now write one to two pages detailing your world’s backstory. Set your pages aside. Did anything surprise you? Did anything pop up that you want to explore more in your manuscript, or perhaps in a sequel or prequel? Did you have a hard time making it past a sentence or two, or did you go way past two pages and find you had a hard time stopping? This assignment is just to get you thinking about your relationship with the What Came Before of your story. We’ll do more with these pages next month, so tuck them away in a safe place.

Next month: Ways to handle backstory in plotting, revision, opening chapters, and query letters.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic

How to Pitch a Character-Driven Novel

When it comes to pitching and querying, it’s hard for writers of introspective, character-driven novels not to feel like writers with action-forward novels have an edge. If you’ve written a quieter story (nary an explosion or shootout in sight), how can you pitch it in such a way that it will pique an agent’s interest?

Focus on arcs. Most successful stories have two arcs: an external arc (what’s happening in the world around your protagonist) and an internal arc (what’s happening inside your protagonist’s head and heart). If your story leans more heavily on its internal arc, remember that arc means change. Ask yourself: (a) what is my character like at the beginning, (b) what is my character like at the end, (c) are those two states different enough that readers will be satisfied that a meaningful change or transformation took place, and (d) what happened in the story to force that change to occur? Try framing your pitch in terms of character change. In addition, the answer to (d) is probably where your external arc lies, and getting your external arc into your pitch, too, will help make it stronger.

Focus on conflict. Conflict is the engine of story. Assuring an agent in your pitch that your character-driven story delivers enough conflict to propel a whole novel from start to finish is key. Remember that motivated conflict is always more compelling than circumstantial conflict. Easy to overlook are pitches for stories that can be summed up “watch as my character struggles to overcome hardship.” Hardship is circumstantial. It’s stuff that could happen to anyone. But motivated conflict is pressed upon your protagonist by at least one other character who has an agenda—and that’s far more engrossing than mere circumstance.

If you do write a “watch as my character struggles to overcome hardship” story, make sure whatever they do is so flagrantly audacious and outside the norm that we readers are fascinated and can’t look away. That’s a conflict-breeds-conflict story, which often features humorous escalation and tends to do well when told in a comedic or darkly comedic tone.

Focus on voice and prose. An introspective story must deliver more than a brooding character sitting alone in a room thinking—that is, it must still be a story. The writing style of a deep-dive-into-character story is just as important as a meaningful arc and propulsive conflict. Your readership isn’t looking for explosions, but they’re looking for something—often to be swept up and away by a book that is a transformative reading experience in and of itself. An upmarket voice or artful, literary prose can step up to the mic in place of a muted external arc. Demonstrate in your query as well as in your sample pages (if an agent so requests) that your voice and prose are capable of sharing the workload of driving a whole novel from start to finish. When readers get the sense they are in the presence of literary mastery, they’ll gladly follow you to your last page…and into your next book, too.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Natalia Medd

In fiction craft, it’s a nearly universal struggle for writers to keep track of their antagonists. (If you don’t struggle with this, count yourself lucky. If you do, never fear! You’re not alone, and I think this will help.)

First, note that keeping track of your antagonist is different from developing your antagonist. Development is related to character, but keeping track—knowing where your antagonist is and what they’re doing and thinking every moment they are not on the page—is related to plot. This is the piece I want to dive into in this two-part article.

Before we can learn strategies that help us keep track of our antagonists, though, we have to know what type of antagonists we have, whether they are the right type of antagonists for our genres, and whether they are the direct cause of major havoc in our heroes’ lives. To that end, here is your assignment for this month:

Identify which type of antagonist you have. Is your antagonist a villain/monster, a force, or an opposition character? In Cast Away, the island (man versus nature) and crushing desolation (man versus self) are the antagonistic forces that drive our hero to act. In Good Will Hunting, the kind, insightful therapist (Robin Williams) is far from a villain or monster, yet he’s the opposition character who forces our troubled protagonist to change for the better. Know which type of antagonist you’ve got behind the wheel of your story’s central conflict.

Evaluate whether your antagonist is genre appropriate. The bulk of “good” (successful, memorable, meaningful, etc.) stories, regardless of genre, have both an internal/thematic/growth arc and an external/action arc. (The idea that all stories can be classified as either “character-driven” or “plot-driven” is poppycock.) The opposition your hero experiences in these two realms may or may not be embodied by different antagonists. Regardless, let your genre tell you which antagonist should get more energy in your story.

For example, the hero of a police procedural is trying to catch a criminal (the antagonist of the external/action arc), but he’s also getting flack from his captain, who keeps telling him he needs to straighten up and play by the rules (the antagonist of the internal/thematic/growth arc). Which antagonist are thriller readers more interested in? It ain’t the captain! So give the criminal more energy, regardless of whether you give the criminal a point of view. (We’ll discuss multi-POV stories that give voice to our antagonists next month, in Part II.)

In a romance, the love interests serve as opposition characters for each other’s internal/thematic/growth arcs, which are of greater interest to the reader. The antagonist of a romance’s external/action arc (like the heartless land developer who intends to raze the beloved small-town inn our love interests have a stake in saving) is not the antagonist readers showed up to watch. So give the opposition moments between the two love interests more energy.

Know your genre, and know whether the antagonist to whom you’ve given the most energy in your manuscript is the one that will satisfy your genre’s readers.

Analyze the top five scenes in your manuscript in which your hero is the most unsettled. What is the source of that tension, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, sorrow, regret, anger, etc.? Directly or indirectly, it had better be something an antagonist said or did. If your protagonist is repeatedly experiencing all sorts of intense feelings as a result of circumstances they were powerless to prevent (an electrical house fire, a cheating spouse, the decline of a parent’s health, the loss of a job due to downsizing, etc.), then you are probably still trying to figure out what your story is. Or if you even have a story. That’s because while a life-changing event makes for a serviceable plot catalyst or inciting incident, heaping circumstantial suffering on a character for three hundred pages is not story. Story happens when compelling, motivated opposition happens—and compelling, motivated opposition is exactly what antagonists in fiction exist to provide.

What’s next? Once you’ve worked through these three things related to your story, you’ll be ready for Part II (coming in January): techniques for keeping track of your antagonist. Knowing what your antagonist is up to behind the scenes will, as a matter of course, amp up your story’s tension; make your conflict more believable and immediate; keep your protagonist on their toes and force them to react in compelling ways; and raise the stakes. See you next month!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Tall Chris