Pub Rants

Category: Writing As A Career

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

This Month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Josh Malerman, author of recently released novel Pearl and New York Times bestselling novel Bird Box.

In your new novel, PEARL (Del Rey, October 12), an unusual suspect—a pig—might just be responsible for the grisly havoc on Walter Kopple’s farm. How do you give a voice to non-human characters? How do you keep the voice consistent?

I’m interested in what I’ve come to think of as the space “between intelligences”, the idea that we are no smarter than animals and animals are no smarter than us, that our minds work in different ways and so therefore there’s a canyon (or a distance anyway) between how we process, how we exist. Now, that space between those intelligences… that’s fun. Not the differences so much as the irreconcilable differences. So, Pearl, to me, is a living creature that finds himself capable of traversing that space, of experiencing both states of mind. His entire life he’s been “elevated,” but today, the day of the book, is when he finally glimpses the full potential of his mind. To me, because it’s day one of discovery, there must be a sludginess to how he’s handling it, even to how he’s evolving. And it’s in there, in that sludge, that I found his voice. It’s atonal. It’s half-right. It’s brilliant. It’s simple. And as he grows? As the day grows long? He can (and must) change, too. Because that’s what today is for Pearl: the day he rises above.

Besides an “un-put-down-able thriller,” Kirkus calls PEARL “part twisted fairy tale, part animal rights protest, part PTSD drama, and part Triumph the Insult Dog.” I love that! What’s your response to that endorsement? Is there anything you’d add?

Well, I’m glad they liked it. That’s for sure. And I like all that. But I definitely see Pearl as more akin to Joe Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie, in which the little boy Anthony has God-like powers and lures people into his mental web. Pearl to me is more Carrie than Charlotte’s Web, more slasher, too, than fable. As goes the animal rights part of things: I’m a vegetarian and I was more than happy to see Pearl gain power by the minute, especially over those who dismissed him as product. In some ways, I really relate to Pearl. Insomuch as he’s ambitious: he had a glimpse of what he is capable of and I’m not sure anything can stop him from reaching that mountaintop. At the same time? I wouldn’t want to drive too close to Kopple’s Farm. I’m the exact kind of persuadable person who would be sucked right up into that telekinetic web without knowing I was.

With PEARL, you took a wild and maybe tough-to-take-seriously premise and succeeded in making it an acclaimed work of slasher horror that’s twisty, dark, and truly chilling. That’s not easy! Was that a challenge you set out for yourself with this project? Or is this a story that took on a life of its own as you wrote it?

Let me tell you! While working on the books, any time I was talking to friends and they’d ask what I was up to, it was nearly impossible to explain this story. The second I started to do it, I’d feel like, “WHAT am I talking about?” But Pearl is one of those books where the actual book itself is better than the “pitch” and I think we’d all rather write books like that in the end. But from my angle, it wasn’t a difficult book to write because, like the river in Bird Box or the Trail in Unbury Carol, Pearl’s evolution is something of a straight line, right? A clean path upward and outward, his “web” stretching out and out to all the locals in town until almost everybody is stuck in his design. In other words: it grew, on itself, and it wasn’t hard to “top” the scene before it with each day’s writing because Pearl got more powerful as the book grew, too. Then again, all the books take on a life of their own, in a way, especially when you don’t outline. And I almost never do! 

It feels like horror is really opening up right now and making space for storytellers to explore new concepts and themes in unique ways. What story-development advice do you have for writers who might be working on finding their niche in this expanding horror space?

Well, trends scare me. They always feel like moving targets. At the same time, I’d already written some 14 books by the time my first came out and so now I’ve got a back log of twenty-four books or so and sometimes it’s tempting to choose one of them to come out next if the horror-verse seems to be leaning its way. I guess my advice would be this: you think you have “your” voice and there are voices you believe are more elastic, more far-out, than your own. You can equate this to music. And a young musician might think, could never be as expansive as David Bowie, as St. Vincent, so I’m not going to try. But the thing is, you’re not David Bowie (and thank God for that! David Bowie is David Bowie, you are you), so if you try to stretch like he did, you’re going to end up with a different result, but you will still have stretched. Am I making sense here? What I mean to say is: go for the idea that feels a little outside your idea of yourself, and once you do it? Then that book is now part of your style, your voice, yourself. And if you do this enough times, you’ll end up closer to the artist you want to be than if you never make a move to stretch at all.

Finally, because inquiring minds always want to know, tell us about your writing habit. Any charms or talismans hanging around your writing space? Any rituals you do to get you into the creative headspace? Or can you just sit down anywhere, anytime, and write?

It used to be I wrote novels in a bus, in a van, touring America. I wrote in bars, restaurants, people’s homes that were housing us. Dad’s basement and all-night coffee shops. Everywhere. These days I’m mostly in my office, with a horror movie soundtrack playing on the record player. But I’m still game for doing it anywhere, and maybe I should. Maybe your question will prompt me to write another one freehand. I love doing it that way. One thing I’ve noticed is this: while there isn’t an overall routine to how I write books, a routine does exist for each book in and of itself. Bird Box was written from around 8AM to 11:30AM every day, about 4,300 words a day. Ghoul n’ the Cape was usually in the afternoon, 1000 words a day. So those experiences were totally different, but consistent in and of themselves. And there is one weird thing I do (that I can’t believe I’m telling you): I wink at the page or the screen when I think I nailed a scary scene. Yep. I actually wink at the book like, “Yeah, we did it. We did it.”

The verdict is in. With headlines such as HarperCollins Sales Near $2 Billion and Publishing Sales Jumped 18.1% and First Half Profits Soared at Penguin Random House, it’s clear that at least in term of earnings, Covid is not having a negative impact on publishing. I should be thrilled. My industry is sound. This is good for authors. Time to celebrate. Right? Yet, I’m grumpy. Here’s why. 

I’m glad that the future picture of publishing is rosy. I just wish there was movement in the industry to share that financial rosy picture with the content creators who make it possible. The opposite is happening. Royalty share to authors has contracted in the last five to seven years. 

A few examples:

For YA and children’s deals, when I first started in this biz, it was common to negotiate royalties for a project starting at 8% with an escalation to 10%. Now that royalty structure has gone the way of the dinosaur. Publishers hold the line at 7.5% (excepting grandfathered-in authors with higher royalty structures). All this despite the children’s segment being a huge revenue-growth sector for publishing for the last decade. As publishers earned more, authors received a smaller piece of the earning pie with this reduction in royalty. 

In the mid-2000s, Random House used to pay an ebook royalty of 25% of retail price until advance earn-out, and then it switched it to 25% of net receipts (which roughly equals about 17% of retail price). And there were deals where publishers offered 30% or even 40%. That went the way of the dinosaur, too (except for the highest echelon of established authors). And to be clear, I’m talking about traditional publishing here. Plenty of smaller, indie, electronic-only houses probably still offer those kinds of rates. 

The death of the mass-market format. This used to be a whole other royalty revenue channel for the author. It’s mostly just gone now (and ebook sales do not make up the difference). Despite the trade-paperback format becoming king and increasing earnings for publishers, there is no movement from the 7.5% flat royalty rate in over two decades. Two decades. Probably longer. 

And then there is audio. Earnings from this format have skyrocketed in the last five years. Yet here we are at 25% of net receipts for digital download and publishers “insisting” they must control audio rights when agents used to partner with audio-only publishers and would still prefer that. 

So yep. I’m grumpy. 

To add insult to injury, lemon juice to the wound, or insert another catchy phrase here, agents often heard several variations of the following this past year:

  • Because of Covid, we have an abundance of caution and that is reflected in the advance we are offering.
  • Because of Covid, sadly we’ll not be able to pick up this author’s latest option material.
  • Because of Covid, we are not supporting (translation: spending any money on) in-person events.

The litany is that publishing profit margins are “slim,” costs of printing are higher now, etc., etc., etc. Yet these recent headlines paint a different picture. And although Publishers Marketplace recently reported that at long last, advance levels are on the rise for the last quarter of 2021, the advance is only one part of the publishing-earnings pie. A book doesn’t exist without the content creator. The author. I’d love to see a headline that proclaims a publisher is offering authors a bigger slice of that earnings pie. Now that would make me smile.

Photo by Cats Coming from Pexels

What I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Novelist

This month, we asked three NLA authors for their best advice for first-time novelists.

What’s one piece of advice you wish someone had given you before you began writing your first novel?

Kathleen West, author of Are We There Yet? and Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes

I’m fairly certain people did tell me this, but I wish I had internalized it: There’s very little authors can control in the publishing realm. The two things you can always do, though, are to keep writing and also to cultivate genuine, mutually respectful relationships with other writers and the members of your publishing team. Otherwise, hold it all—the “success” and the “failure”—loosely.

Meghan Scott Molin, author of The Golden Arrow Mysteries series

One piece of advice I think I wished I’d known (or internalized) when I started: One book deal doesn’t mean you “arrive.” Even a multi-book deal. I wish I’d known how many friends would switch publishers, agents, editors, publicists in their first year of getting a book deal. I’m slowly adjusting to the idea that it’s always a battle in one arena or another…the road isn’t smooth sailing. I think better preparing young writers for the “building years” between contracts, the months spent waiting on sub, the heartbreak of an editor backing out on an additional project…it’s all really valuable conversation.

Valerie Valdes, author of the Chilling Effect series

I wish someone had told me that all writing advice is akin to tools you can put in your toolbox. It’s okay to only reach for the tools you need while others collect dust, and not everyone uses the same tools, or uses them in the same way. Even you won’t necessarily use the same tools with every novel, and that’s okay, too. There’s no single right or wrong way to write.

I also wish someone had told me to focus on setting manageable goals that I control, instead of ones that other people ultimately have control over. So for example, “try to write a little every day” instead of “try to get an agent by the end of the year.” The latter is a milestone, and those are worth celebrating, but treating milestones as goals can lead to frustration and disappointment.

Photo by Ann H 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

This Month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Scott Reintgen, author of the Nyxia Triad and the upcoming novel Breaking Badlands, Talespinners series book three.

How much do you know about the plot of a series before beginning the first novel?

Saving Fable was one of the few books I didn’t write with a series in mind. I honestly just wanted to have fun again when I first started writing it. I’d been reading really intense, brooding stories. I was writing something similar. So for Saving Fable, I dove in without thinking about the big picture. I just wanted to have a blast in each and every scene. I really only had the first book in mind, even if the story and world do lend themselves to a series!

When writing a series like Talespinners, what is your process for creating a new antagonist/conflict in each book? How do you determine if the conflict will suit your main character?

For the first book, I just had to figure out who could cause Indira the most trouble in her first year of school. There were a few natural answers to that. In book two, I really wanted to imagine someone powerful that Indira could not take on by herself. The whole point of book two is teamwork, so she needs her friends if she wants to defeat the antagonist. In book three, well, she goes to the literal birthplace of all antagonists at Antagonist Academy in Fester. She’s kind of surrounded there!

In her adventures, Indira encounters many famous characters like Alice from Wonderland at Protagonist Preparatory. What is your method for writing characters from familiar stories? How much research do you do before adding a classic character to your story?

For me, I really want to honor those characters, but also put my own slight twist on them. I think that’s what people are really looking for most of the time. Something that honors the spirit of that beloved character, but that also sheds a new light on them.

What inspired you to write the Talespinners series?

The very first inspiration was that I saw a girl run and leap into a puddle with wild abandon. I imagined her vanishing, and tried to imagine where she went next. That scene never made it into the books, but it’s certainly where the entire thing began.

How do you approach writing a novel for a middle-grade audience?

My approach is to have a bit more fun, and throw in a bit more whimsy. I also kind of assume that a lot of my audience will read up. So I’m not really writing for eighth graders with this series so much as I’m writing for fifth graders. Readers, often, want to reach up into the next category. I wrote Saving Fable with that in mind.

You are an author of science fiction and fantasy, both middle grade and young adult. How do you adjust your writing process to the switch in genre and audience?

It’s mostly tone and character POV. Ultimately, though, I hope the DNA of all my stories is the same. I want to write something wildly entertaining. I want to write with the understanding that my audience could, and might, set the book down at any time if I’m not drawing their interest. So the goal is just to write a great story, no matter the audience.

Breaking Badlands by Scott Reintgen releases September 21, 2021. Preorder the book here!

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

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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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In fifteen years of researching and writing articles for Pub Rants and the NLA newsletter, I’ve never seen an agent tackle this topic. Many newsletter readers subscribe solely for tips and insights on how to land an agent and fulfill their publishing dreams. But what happens to all those writers—and there are many—who landed the dream and then decided it wasn’t right for them? What made them choose to leave this career?

As an agent who has responded “no” to tens of thousands of writers over the last twenty years, I definitely understand that aspiring writers spend a lot of time and energy on the beginning of the journey. The first steps are mastering writing craft, landing that perfect concept, writing and finishing the novel, and then investing countless hours finding an agent or publisher. I won’t even touch on the hundreds of rejections writers face during this process. Writers in the throes of submissions probably find it mind-boggling that someone who got in the door would turn around and walk back out. Why would a published (and in many cases, successful) author deliberately choose to no longer be an author? Here are six reasons given by authors I’ve known and worked with, and these reasons can be illuminating for aspiring writers.

“I’m a one-book author.”

Some writers have only one book in them. This is not an issue of having too few ideas; it’s simply that these authors said what they came to say, and that was enough. Once their book is published, their dream is fulfilled. Other one-book writers came out of the gate with a literary masterpiece, and either they feel no need to try to top it, or they know how harshly their sophomore effort will be judged by critics and readers. Either way, the one-book masterpiece can feel like a good place to stop and turn to other pursuits.

“My career has run its course.”

One of my authors published five successful novels and one work of nonfiction in a hot trend of the time. When that trend ended, other stories simply didn’t interest her, and other exciting non-writer career opportunities beckoned. She hung up her pen with no regrets. 

“I’m uncomfortable in the spotlight.”

Very few authors can pull a Salinger these days and be both famous and reclusive. Today’s writers are expected to build and maintain a public presence on social media and show up in-person at major events. One of my authors, a private individual, felt constantly exhausted by this expectation. When this author had one tweet go viral, the sudden spotlight made this person rethink the whole writing-career path. With the completion of the publishing contract, this author decided that the publicity side of writing as a career was a deal breaker. 

“The publishing industry is a mess.”

Currently, many conversations are being held in the internal sphere about lack of representation of BIPOC and other marginalized voices. Change is happening, but like all things in publishing, it’s happening at a snail’s pace. For a lot of authors of color, it’s too little, too late. After several mediocre publishing experiences (no marketing budget for the release, odd shelving in bookstores—why would a fiction title be shelved in African American Studies?), I personally know several authors of color who chose to set aside their pens.

“Life got in the way.”

Some authors loved the dream and experienced extraordinary success only to have personal tragedy, illness, or other trials play the trump card. Writing careers sometimes get sacrificed so the author can simply survive. 

“It’s time to retire.”

As hard as it may be to believe, after a long career, some hardworking writers are just ready to rest. People get tired, and that can make the dream less dreamlike.

When that moment happens, it takes courage and strength to recognize, acknowledge, and embrace the end of this life chapter. Just on the other side lies contentment, freedom, and maybe even happiness. 

Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

Honoring AAVE on the Page

When you’re writing Black characters, how you use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) on the page will reveal whether you’ve honored their voice or whether you’re using dialect as a gimmick. Here are some things to consider before tackling AAVE.

Structure. There is a right and a wrong way to go about using African American Vernacular English (AAVE). When AAVE is used as a trend, the structure that native speakers follow is often left out. This lack of structure makes it obvious when a writer is using AAVE with little to no understanding of its meaning. Using AAVE without following its grammatical rules is like playing a game of telephone: you can try to recreate the language as you heard it, but you will be misinterpreting a misinterpretation of the original. Because trends come and go so quickly, some writers aren’t taking the time necessary to understand and honor the vocabulary of AAVE speakers before they use it, and it shows. 

Misrepresentation. Recent internet discussions have perpetuated the mislabeling of AAVE. Mainstream media is crediting Generation Z for words that originated in AAVE generations ago. When used as a trend by non-natives, AAVE is seen as profitable, yet when used as a language by its own natives, AAVE is seen as a detriment to professionalism. The labeling of “a trend” and the open-arms acceptance of this robs those who fought to keep the language alive—despite consistent attempts of erasure—of due credit and accolades. This trend isn’t raising awareness or recruiting allies for the fight for recognition, as some argue. Instead, this trend is mislabeling coined AAVE words as “internet slang,” giving credit where it is not due. 

The source from which you learn a language is evident when you’re utilizing it. Beginning with an authentic source exhibits true allyship and the necessity for understanding.

What does this mean for fiction writing?

Non-black authors can write Black characters. There are many great examples of how this can be executed well. For example, Emmett Atwater from NLA’s own Nyxia by Scott Reintgen is a very well-thought-out character who isn’t presented like a trend. Emmett and his interplanetary journey created a different story and point of view because Emmett was Black. His blackness extended outside of his description. And more importantly, his purpose existed independent of his white peers. 

A non-black writer truly needs to justify the language they use when writing characters like Emmett. AAVE isn’t just a set of sounds, words, or phrases—it’s a fully formed language that many of its native speakers have been forced to discontinue. AAVE isn’t recognized as an official language. It’s often called “broken English” and is forced out of young Black kids in school. They are taught that they speak incorrectly and must convert to Standard English in order to move forward. Safe practice of AAVE requires a proper time and place. This must be reflected in how Black characters are written in fiction. Thinking of AAVE as a trend disregards this. Trends come and go, but a language native to so many important voices must be approached with the patience to understand. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Jernej Furman

Author Bio: In 2016, Tallahj Curry joined the NLA team as a sixteen-year-old intern. Now, five years later, she has earned her Bachelor of Arts and now works as the Literary Assistant at NLA handling the newsletter alongside her other work.