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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.

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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

Do You Know Where Your Antagonists Are? (Part II)

Imagine the opening of a contemporary YA fantasy manuscript. The heroine is fleeing through a forest at night, chased by a hulking, hairy hellhound with sharp claws and sharper teeth. The heroine trips over a log and breaks her leg. As the beast closes in, the heroine, dizzy with pain and fear, loses consciousness. Chapter two opens with “One Month Later.” The heroine is comfortable in her own bed, a cast on her leg, and she’s ruminating: What did the beast want? Why was it chasing me? Will it come back? How will I defend myself?

This is an extreme (but true—this was submitted by a writer I worked with many years ago) case of a writer losing track of her antagonist. Imagine: The hellhound finds his quarry lying injured and unconscious on the forest floor, and thinks, “Poor thing. I’ll give her time to recover so when I chase her again, she has a fighting chance”?

Antagonists do not cease to exist when your hero’s attention is elsewhere. If your antagonist has time to lean, he has time to be mean.

You might think this is a rookie mistake, but we see disappearing antagonists all the time, and not just from new writers. Multi-published, award-winning authors lose track of their antagonists, too. Or finish a manuscript only to realize the antagonist was an eleventh-hour plot device who wasn’t a significant operator in Acts I or II. If you gave some thought to last month’s article, you’re well on your way to avoiding this trap. Here are some things to try now:

If you’re a plotter, try a two-column approach. Column one is what your hero is doing in each scene; column two is what the antagonist is doing during the same period of time. Awareness of your antagonist’s behind-the-scenes machinations will necessarily affect your hero’s own reactions, analyses, interactions, and emotions.

If you’re a pantser, finish your first draft. Then write a scene-by-scene summary. Now do the two-column exercise. How is your antagonist moving closer to his goal every step along the way? How is he motivated by his perception that your hero in an obstacle?

Write a synopsis of your novel from your antagonist’s point of view.

If your second act is sagging (ah, the mushy middle!), get your antagonist on the page. Make him more active. Give him more complexity as a character. Set a ticking clock for him.

Hold your timeline sacred. Writers whose stories move around in time often have the greatest challenge when it comes to tracking characters. Whether it’s a dual-timeline story or a single-timeline story that unfolds over a long period and regularly skips ahead (“three days later…,” “the following week…,” “after a month…,” etc.), remember that the same amount of time must pass for all characters. We see lots of manuscripts that violate this and create what we call “temporal confusion”—and when this happens, characters start dropping off the radar. For your own reference (not necessarily for the finished book), date and timestamp every scene to keep track.

If the antagonist is one of your POV characters and the reader knows all along he’s the bad guy, you’ve got a couple options. If you’re in first person, don’t hold back. The point of choosing first person is to allow readers inside a character’s head. Take us deep into his dark, twisted psyche, or create empathy by developing his emotionally complex backstory, or both. On the other hand, if you want to set up a twist or reveal by withholding from the reader certain things your antagonist knows or plans to do, then you’re better off choosing third person. Either way, giving your antagonist POV chapters can shed interesting light on your hero.

If you’re writing a single-POV story from the POV of a villain or antihero, remember that opposition is the engine of story. There will still be opposition characters gumming up the works for him, so those are the characters whose movements you’ll need to track.

If the antagonist’s identity is a third-act reveal, then scrutinize everything that came before. What conflicts drive each scene? What conflict drives the central story question you set up in Act I and developed in Act II? Is it clear to the reader how all prior conflict relates to the antagonist’s newly revealed goal and motivation? Did you give readers a fair shake by planting clues that now point to what your antagonist has been doing for three-quarters of your novel? And does the reader understand why the antagonist didn’t just make himself known to your hero back in Act I?

  • If the prior conflicts your hero faced are largely circumstantial (dumb luck that could happen to anyone),
  • if they affect other characters with more oomph (stakes) than they affect your hero, or
  • if they return too often to nebulous fear and confusion (your hero spends too many scenes in the “scary, mysterious things are happening and I don’t know what’s going on” headspace)…

…then your plot probably needs work. Start by tracking your antagonist.

Knowing what your antagonist is up to behind the scenes does not mean your other characters or your readers need to know. Master storytellers hold all the cards and decide who gets to know what and when. However you choose to do it, make sure your antagonist is a card you play often!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dejan Krsmanovic

I wanted to chat this month about something that happens quite frequently in fiction (both published and unpublished), something I’ve dubbed “miraculous knowing.” This is when answers or solutions conveniently occur to a character at key plot moments. It tends to manifest thusly:

• They didn’t know how they knew. They just knew.
• She felt it in her bones. This was the place.
• He sensed it deep with his soul, so deep that he was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that he knew exactly what had happened to the woman.
• I had a bad feeling. I knew I was being watched.

Writers of all stripes use this technique all the time. And you can too! But I’d caution you to use it sparingly. When instinct, intuition, and insight get overused—or used in place of the development of a character’s keen intellect, observation, analysis—it becomes “miraculous.” When a character’s knowing is too miraculous too often, readers disengage and stories fall apart.

Humans are intuitive, instinctive, insightful beings. We’re animals. Our survival drive makes us reactive to vibes others are giving off, to that cold prickle at the backs of our necks, to hunches that danger lurks nearby. We intuit other things as well: when someone is lying, how to perform a task we’ve never done, what’s motivating a loved one’s mood or behavior, and so on. Therefore, it stands to reason that characters in fiction would also experience these types of intuitive moments, right?

Sure. However, in fiction, it’s not quite that simple. The human brain demands a different sort of logic from a story (which has a contained beginning, middle, and end) than it does from reality. When a character “senses” or “just knows” more than one crucial piece of information (maaaaaby two) over the course of a novel, that often signals one of three things: incomplete character development, limp plotting, or false tension.

Incomplete Character Development. If you’re writing in a speculative genre, you need to set up the rules. Does everyone in your world have extrasensory capabilities? Only some? Only one? What are the rules? Limitations? Costs? If you haven’t set up for the reader that your character is capable of heightened intuition (and under which circumstances they can call upon it, and what they’ve gained or lost in their lives as a result of this ability, etc.), then even one episode of miraculous knowing can come off feeling like a cheat.

Limp Plotting. Too much miraculous knowing in your manuscript might mean your plot’s in trouble. Look for opportunities to layer in clues that your character will encounter well ahead of the big plot moment when you need them to Realize The Thing. In other words, give them blue and yellow early on so that when they later see green, the reader buys in. Know that any clues you add in are stimuli that your character must respond to in some way in the moment (even if it’s just to think, “Huh, that’s odd”), which might affect how they decide to proceed, which might alter your plot.

False Tension. When a writer suspects they don’t have enough meaty, plot-driving conflict in their story, they sometimes throw in some miraculous knowing to give the illusion of tension. Here are some examples of false-tension scenarios we see in slush manuscripts:

• “She had a bad feeling about this guy”…but the guy doesn’t end up doing anything bad, affecting the plot, working against her, or even showing up again for the rest of the novel.
• “The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. It felt like someone was watching him”…but it turns out no one was watching him, or someone was watching him, but the watcher doesn’t have any plot-related reason to have been watching him.
• “They both felt it from the tops of their heads to the soles of their feet: going into that warehouse was a very bad idea”…but it’s never revealed what they think is inside the warehouse, or what they’re worried will happen to them (stakes!) if they enter.

It’s okay for a character to act on instinct, intuition, or flashes of insight. But if they’re saved too often by “suddenly I miraculously Knew The Thing,” that’s too easy. Think of miraculous knowing as an internal deus ex machina. Can you use it? Sure. But, use it sparingly. Avoid using it because you’re rushing to wrap up a particular scene, sequence, or story. And make sure that if you do use it, that there’s a plot-related payoff. In other words, avoid false tension.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: uberof202 ff

Books That Go Bump in the Night

(Just a note, this article was featured in our October 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

Happy October, Friends! This has always been my favorite time of year. I love sweaters and scarves and fall leaves and pumpkin spice. I love the chill in the air…but what I love even more is a good chill down my spine. So horror writers? To celebrate this most wonderful time of the year, this one’s for you: here are three things we at NLA look for in horror submissions.

Literary or upmarket prose. We’re unlikely to request anything that leans too heavily on cheap scares, gratuitous violence, or gore porn. But send us a more cerebral, psychologically challenging work that demonstrates the tense, suspenseful, unsettling, atmospheric slow-burn of masterful horror writing, and you’ll definitely get our attention. Read 100 reviews or blurbs for bestselling horror novels and count how many times the words “tension” and “suspense” are used. So much of a writer’s ability to bring tension and suspense to the page lives in their writing style and voice. In the horror space, we’d love to see the next big crossover project—the one publishers are going to release in hardcover, the one booksellers are going to set out on their front-of-store displays because the writing is so artful it has the potential to capture readers who “don’t read horror” as well as those who do. 

Premise. There’s no shortage of gorgeous, voicey prose in the slush pile, but a solid, unique, fresh, high-concept premise? That’s rare. This is where being well-read in your genre is so important. Know what’s already been done and by whom. A query that hits me with a premise I’ve never encountered, one that makes me think how in the world is the writer going to pull that off?—you can bet a query like that is going to get me to read the sample pages. Many a horror premise is often built on a corporeal fear that, when confronted, leads to some sort of psychological disintegration: being buried alive, abducted, trapped, imprisoned, or tortured; being accused of something you’re innocent of; getting lost; being chased; encountering any supernatural beast or force…the list goes on. Plenty of great horror plays on more than one type of fear. But premise can also be built on a real horror, like slavery, say, and then amplified or twisted in some way. Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation explores an alternate post-Civil War world in which slavery has been abolished—but when the dead soldiers rise up off the battlefield as zombies, the new American government forces former slaves to train as zombie fighters, claiming they have a natural immunity to zombie bites (which everyone knows is a lie). So Dread Nation offers us the horror of both a real and an imagined-but-plausible injustice to grapple with, as well as the external threat of zombies. Rather brilliant.

Plot. It’s such a disappointment for an agency reader to get halfway through a manuscript that’s artfully written and that promises a cool, unique premise, only to realize the author is a little lost in the weeds when it comes to plot and structure. Plot is hard, but I firmly believe that anyone who devotes themselves to learning it, can. Start with Story Genius by Lisa Cron and Anatomy of Story by John Truby. For horror specifically, have you honored your contract with your readers by building speculative elements and conflicts that are uniquely creeptastic but that don’t strain their willingness to suspend their disbelief? Have you avoided falling back on deus ex machina? Have you developed complex characters in physical and/or psychological distress—or have you made the threat of that distress terrifyingly palpable for readers?

Prose. Premise. Plot. Any manuscript, regardless of genre, that delivers all three is definitely a manuscript we want to see. Happy Halloween!

Creative Commons Credit: Kamaljith K V