Pub Rants

Category: opening pages

Give Your Women’s Fiction a Glow Up

We here at NLA were talking a couple weeks ago about women’s fiction. The consensus is that WF seems to be transforming. Expanding. Shedding dusty old tropes. Reinventing itself. It’s having a glow up, and more readers than ever are showing up for it. We as an agency want to show up for it too. So if you write women’s fiction and want to catch this train with us, here are some tips to get you started.

Defining Women’s Fiction

Women’s fiction is generally written by women, about women, for women; therefore, the themes and conflicts that drive the stories are deeply, personally familiar to, well, women:

  • Fertility, motherhood, empty nesting
  • Marriage, infidelity, divorce, loss of spouse, love after loss
  • Caring for aging parents
  • Complicated female friendships
  • Family secrets, dysfunctional families, sisters
  • Homecomings, returning to one’s roots
  • Balancing any or all of the above while also…
    • navigating societal expectations that women do/be/have it all
    • building a career
    • re-entering the workforce after raising a family
    • searching for happiness and personal fulfillment
    • dealing with life-altering tragedies

In sum, WF has traditionally boiled down to one thing: Women overcoming obstacles.

Women Overcoming Obstacles: Handy but Dangerous

It’s handy when an entire genre can be distilled into three words. But it’s also dangerous. What we’ve found after reading a few thousand WF submissions over the years is this: Too many WF plots can also be summarized “woman overcomes obstacles,” and that isn’t a concept that will support the full weight of a novel. In fact, it’s not a concept at all. (For an excellent class on what concept is and isn’t, read Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves by Larry Brooks.)

In other words, just because the genre can be summarized that way doesn’t mean you should write a manuscript that can be summarized that way. In today’s WF marketplace, editors, publishers, and readers demand more.

Why do so many WF manuscripts get rejected?

We just covered one possible reason: too much suffering or victimization, too many run-of-the-mill obstacles, too many tropes that haven’t been twisted, subverted, turned upside down, or otherwise made unique. Another possible reason is that you’re using tired tropes but you don’t realize they’re tired. Here are a few we’ve seen in submissions far too many times to count, plus some possible ways to start thinking outside the box:

  • Tight-knit mommy or friend groups comprised of stereotypical Mean Girls in Lululemon or Balenciaga that our protagonist feels inferior to.

Instead, maybe play with developing a diverse ensemble of unique humans, each three-dimensional and complex, with her own secrets, goals, stakes, etc.

  • Yoga, spin class…and running. So much running.

Somewhere it is written that a WF protagonists must be runners. We know, we know: A lot of bestselling WF features protagonists who de-stress with a quick 5K around the park, but it’s become so overdone that it’s almost comical. Instead, what surprising, interesting, or unique ways might a female character address her concerns about her health, those extra pounds, or her stress levels?

  • PTAs that are the high-school cafeteria writ large: the Mommy Mean Girls sit over there, single dads over there, the problematic president’s cronies over there…

As mentioned above, what unexpected characters can you develop for your PTA, and what surprising motivations might you give them to have joined? Further, what unexpected—rather than typical—conflicts might arise among members?

  • PTAs grappling with problems that feel too typical or too familiar—anything from the outlawing peanut butter to installing gender-neutral restrooms.

Whether you’re going for comedy or drama, what surprising “no PTA has ever had to deal with this” issues could you force on your fictional PTA? How did that predicament occur, and what even more surprising outcome will feel brand-new to readers?

  • The opening scene in which the protagonist is dealing with a screaming toddler, a food-flinging baby, a phone call from the PTA president (“Don’t forget you promised to bake cupcakes for Principal Johnson’s retirement party today!”), and a flustered husband who can’t find his car keys. Conversely, the opening scene in which the protagonist is spreading organic sunflower butter on gluten-free bread while her cute kids finish their breakfasts and pouring freshly brewed French roast into her husband’s travel mug as he pecks her on the cheek and heads out the door to the Tesla in the driveway…all while feeling so alone and overwhelmed.

Whether it’s the “I’m a complete mess on the outside” or the “I’m a complete mess on the inside,” these opening scenes are like siren songs to WF writers. Which makes sense, because they cut right to the heart of the universal, the relatable. But that means a ton of other WF writers are using these opening scenes too. So instead, in what surprising, unique way could you open your story? (Reminder: Avoid running in the opening scene.) What’s a hookier entry point or more compelling introduction to your character?

The Familiar: Also Dangerous

If your WF places too much focus on the familiar or too much hyperbole of the familiar—too much “it’s funny/sad because it’s true”—then your story lands more as satire than well-conceived, concept-driven fiction. Step outside that box! Explore stories, characters, settings, scenarios, and concepts that, while perhaps rooted in the familiar, also provide readers with an escape from the familiar.

How do I give my women’s fiction a glow up?

If you’re searching for that singular concept that will feel like a must-have to agents and editors, then start by upping your market awareness. What’s on the bestseller lists right now? Read the back-cover copy and zero in on the concept. Remember, “woman overcomes obstacles” is not by itself a concept, high or otherwise; it’s a genre. What are bestselling WF authors adding to that to the idea of women who overcome obstacles? How are they elevating it? Which tropes are they using and which are they perhaps inventing?

Don’t skimp on the stakes!

This one’s so important I’m giving it its own heading. Far too many WF submissions are far too light on stakes. If what’s at stake in your story is emotion based (“at the end of my story, my character will be sad or disappointed if X happens or doesn’t happen”), then your story might be in trouble. Sadness or disappointment are not compelling stakes. Again, circle back and make sure you have a strong concept, and then raise the stakes in any way you can. Do only this, and right away, your submission will stand out in the slush pile.

In WF, we at NLA are currently excited to see:

  • Stories that show women exercising their power and agency in a plot-driving way from page one rather than stories about women who don’t discover their power and agency until the end.
  • Sister, mother-daughter, or best-friend stories that dive deep into the complexities of those relationships throughout the whole story rather than stories about relationships under stress that are reconciled at the end.
  • Hopeful, funny, poignant WF with charming ensemble casts we wish we knew and could hang out with in real life.
  • Contemporary WF with speculative or magical-realism elements—like time travel (Emma Straub’s This Time Tomorrow is a current obsession).
  • Dark, twisty, suspenseful stories or domestic thrillers that are rooted in women’s power and agency rather than solely in their victimhood, jeopardy, or struggle.
  • Stories where no character is either completely good or completely bad (think Liane Moriarty).
  • Stories that play with 80s, 90s, or 00s nostalgia in plot-driving ways rather than as fun “wallpaper” for the background of the story.

Photo by cottonbro: www.pexels.com

For twenty years, I’ve worked with extremely talented writer clients. Having done so, I’ve learned that talent and mastery of craft cannot fix a story if it’s not the right story the writer should be telling. Here’s why. 

All writers need to learn this one simple lesson: Give yourself permission to “fail.” In doing so, you might actually discover the story you should be writing. Here are two real-world examples of the power of letting go. 

Scenario 1: When Marie Lu first conceptualized and wrote the opening chapters of The Young Elites, the story concept just wasn’t coming together. After the two of us had multiple brainstorm sessions and Marie tackled several revisions, she finally realized that the story was being told from the wrong POV. The minute she figured out that it was Adelina Amouteru’s story (who was only a minor side character in the initial concept), everything clicked into place. The rest is history for this New York Times bestselling book, the first in a very successful trilogy. 

Takeaway for aspiring writers: Marie is incredibly talented, but numerous attempts at revision were not going to fix the fact that she initially had the wrong POV character. All her writing mastery wasn’t going to transform those opening chapters into the right story. If a project isn’t coming together, try a radical shift in POV, first person to third, change up the narrative timeframe. Established authors do this all the time. If the right story emerges, you’ll know by how readers respond to it. But also know that the magic doesn’t happen every time, which leads me to the second scenario. 

Scenario 2: My wonderfully talented author Rhiannon Thomas (A Wicked Thing, Long May She Reign) had a fantastic concept for a young adult fantasy. She wrote a brilliant first 75 pages, but from there, she simply could not wrangle the story into shape despite a number of attempts. Subsequent chapters didn’t showcase her writing talent. After multiple revisions, she bravely set this story aside to tackle something new. Her current work-in-progress makes it is absolutely clear this is the story she is meant to write—her voice shines on every page. 

Takeaway for aspiring writers: It’s okay to “fail” because in doing so, the real story you are meant to write might emerge. If you’re in the query trenches and not getting requests for full manuscripts, or if the requests are coming in but are then followed by passes, be brave. Set it aside and write something new. Too often I see queries in my inbox from writers who have revised a manuscript I declined to read years ago. What if they’re spending year after year working on revising a story that isn’t allowing their writing talent to shine? That means the right story might never get written. For me, that is the real tragedy.

I remind aspiring writers that, for many of the clients I represent, I rejected the first work they sent to me. It wasn’t the right story. They didn’t give up. They “failed” and then found the story that actually needed to be written. Then a career was born. 

You have the power to let go and do the same. 

Photo by Pixabay

If the first three months of 2022 are any indicator, the pandemic is still informing what creators are writing about, and the proof is in the inbox. Here are the two very clear directions writers are pursuing:

  1. The world is dire.
  2. Time to escape. 

Big trends showing up in our query inbox

  • WWII is back with a vengeance—although it’s perennial as a historical subgenre and, therefore, never really goes away. But there seems to be a yearning for a time when the world united against a great evil and prevailed. I do appreciate wishful thinking, and with all that is unfolding in the Ukraine, WWII stories are not a hearkening to a time that was simpler, but to a time when the moral compass seemed clear.
  • Post-apocalyptic fiction is surging, especially climate-based stories.
  • Dystopian fiction featuring evil dictators. (Ahem: Putin anyone?)
  • Demons, demons, so many demons. We think this might be a way to personify an evil that, at least in some stories, can always be defeated, and in other stories, turned to good or leveraged for the protagonist’s benefit. There is catharsis in the ability to create on the page that which might not be happening in the world.
  • Horror. This is super hot in Hollywood, so it’s not a surprise to see so many horror projects in our query inbox. What we’re seeing most in the horror space? Contemporary stories with some horror edge.
  • Gods-based fantasies in which the protagonist is a god, must become a god, is descended from a god, or must defeat one or more gods. Perhaps this is another way of creating a palatable world to be in.
  • RomComs! The heartwarming, engaging beach read. Yes, bring it on! All of us can use this type of escape, and I know editors are looking, which means we’re looking too.
  • Intrigue in historical settings. Anything set in the past is an escape of sorts—although I imagine writers don’t necessarily think of it that way. 

Other interesting trends

  • Middle-grade stories in verse. Poetry is having a cultural moment. It’s no surprise that’s currently mirrored in current storytelling.
  • LGBTQ everything. There is always room for great stories. Take that, Texas and Florida.

Photo by Jan van der Wolf from Pexels

6 Writing Tips From My 6 Years in Publishing

I’ve worked for Nelson Literary Agency for the past 6 years, all stemming from my certain declaration that I wanted to own a publishing company. I knew nothing of what the process entailed, but I knew I loved books and wanted to be a part of putting more out into the world. I’ve thankfully had the most encouraging and admirable mentors to teach me the ins and outs. Though queries have not been my main job, I have accumulated these few writing tips up my sleeve. 

Consume what you create. “Write what you know” absolutely applies to fiction. Consuming the genre that you write in aids in your understanding of your manuscript and how to pitch it. A fast way to tell an agent you don’t understand your own manuscript is to pitch it as the wrong genre. Utilize the existing books in your writing genre.

Publishing means new coworkers. Preparing yourself to work with others and consider their constructive criticism needs to be part of your transition to being query ready. Know that every published author you know has a rough draft that needed work. 

Rejection doesn’t define you or your work. Be careful how you react in moments of rejection as it may impact your potential for moments of success. Don’t silence your story because you haven’t found the team fit for you. 

Find your identifier. Agents read an impressive number of manuscripts in a very short span of time. To maintain order in their brain, they’ll often rely on an identifier. This identifier can be as simple as “that middle grade with a diary structure” or “the thriller with the unsettlingly charming voice.” This identifier may also be recognized and utilized by your consumers, so you’ll want to know what it is.

Advice for your manuscript is not always advice for your query. Advice for writing craft can be applied in three ways: relevant for your manuscript, relevant for your query, and relevant for both. Relevant for both can be seen in the advice “show, don’t tell.” For example, in your query, you’ll want to show, but not tell the voice of your story. If your manuscript is humorous, show that humor in your query. 

Your reputation proceeds you. The publishing world has many moving parts to produce a book and then get that book to its audience. These moving parts are made up of many hardworking people who cross paths more often than you think. You gain your credentials through more than just writing.

Photo by Natasha on Unsplash

Reactive Goals vs. Proactive Goals

You’ve heard it a million times: Your character needs a goal. Something to want. Something to strive for. Something they can’t have until the end of the story, if at all. Something readers can relate to or get invested in. But here’s the thing: There are two types of goals that drive a character forward, and one type is far more compelling than the other.

Reactive Goals vs. Proactive Goals

A character with a reactive goal is reacting to forces outside her control, while a character with a proactive goal makes a plan and carries it out. Reactive goals are flight, while proactive goals are fight. Characters with only reactive goals are more passive; their stories happen to them. But characters with proactive goals happen to their stories.

Here’s an example. On one hand, we could tell a story in which the protagonist’s goal is “to hide from my stalker.” That’s a reactive goal because the character acts only once acted upon. On the other hand, we could tell a story in which the protagonist’s goal is “to learn hand-to-hand combat and, if necessary, fight my stalker to the death.” That’s a proactive goal.

Proactive goals are more compelling than reactive goals; however, reactive goals still have their place in fiction—typically somewhere in the first half of the manuscript. Keeping with our example, in the movie ENOUGH (based on the novel BLACK AND BLUE by Anna Quindlen), Jennifer Lopez’s character, Slim, must survive her obsessive, murderous ex-husband. She spends the first half of the story in reactive, survival mode and the second half in proactive, fight-back mode. What causes the switch? Somewhere around the story’s midpoint, Slim realizes no one on the right side of the law will help her. She’s on her own, and sooner or later it’s going to come down to her and her ex, and only one will survive. She decides it’s going to be her.

The Midpoint Reversal

The term “midpoint reversal” refers to an event that occurs around the 50% mark that sends the story off in an unexpected direction. It’s a twist. A surprise. An earth-shaking revelation. The gain or loss of knowledge, skills, or resources.

James Scott Bell, in Write Your Novel From the Middle, calls the midpoint a “mirror moment”—the moment the protagonist is forced to take a long, hard look at herself and realize she must change or die. (“Change” can be a change of plan, heart, attitude, effort, or direction, and “die” can be a literal, physical death or a figurative death—often a spiritual, emotional, or situational fate worse than death.)

Larry Brooks, in Story Engineering, explores the four-act structure. At the midpoint, between quadrants two and three, the hero shifts from “wanderer” to “warrior.” They are no longer drifting, confused, trying to figure out what’s going on and who’s on their side. At the halfway mark, they are ready to go on the offensive. The endgame/motivation might stay the same (in our example, to survive), but the goal changes from “run away and hide” to “train for the inevitable confrontation.”

Whatever event happens at the midpoint of your story, it’s a great place (though not the only place) to have something happen that forces your character to switch from a reactive goal to a proactive one.

Where To Establish the Proactive Goal

Despite a relatively limited number of narrative structures the human brain recognizes as “story” (see Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story for more info on story and brain science), every story itself is unique and requires its own telling. So you’ve got options.

  • On page one. Lots of stories establish the main character’s proactive goal right away. Think of stories about endeavor: athletes who want to win the race, dancers who want to make the company, musicians who want to get the solo, academics who want to earn the scholarship. The audience knows right away what the goal is, and the protagonist is driven to achieve that goal from the get-go. Often the thing that drives these stories is the conflict that keeps getting piled on. Therefore, the question becomes, “How much more proactive can these characters remain in the face of such obstacles?” The athlete is injured. The dancer can’t master that one skill. The musician can’t afford the necessary lessons. The academic is up against twenty others for only one scholarship. They try and they try and they try, until they hit the dark night of the soul, the all-is-lost moment. Which they then overcome, digging deep one last time to win the day.
  • At the inciting incident. A good inciting incident is a lightning-bolt moment. A big “things will never be the same” moment. In typical structures, this usually happens no later than 10% of the way into the story, though tons of agents and editors will tell you 10% is too late—the earlier the better. Generally, the protagonist is given some time after the inciting incident to fall back, think, assess, analyze. In three-act terms, this is known as the debate. That fall-back-and-think moment is as good a time as any for your protagonist to get clear about what they want and to resolve that nothing will stand in their way.
  • At Plot Point I. After the setup (or ordinary world), the inciting incident, and the resulting debate, the protagonist decides how to proceed (internal)…and then they proceed (external). This first active step into the unknown is usually Plot Point I, or the transition from Act I to Act II, and it’s a great place to give us an active moment that reveals the hero’s agenda and shows us what sort of gumption they’re working with. If yours is a story in which your hero must work up to their gumption, then the midpoint (see above) might be where your character first establishes a proactive goal.

A Caution About Reactive Goals

I wouldn’t recommend that you delay establishing your hero’s proactive goal much beyond the midpoint. The problem we see in the slush pile isn’t that characters have reactive goals. It’s that they have reactive goals for too long.

In many cases, this is an issue of too much setup—too many opening chapters with too much backstory and ordinary-world exposition. Look at that first 10-25% of your total page count and be ruthless in trimming and tightening.

A character who wanders too far into a manuscript before taking the story’s reins waits too long to command readers’ attention and investment. If you wait until the third act to give us a character who proactively enacts her agenda, you risk reader attrition. Remember that this is your hero’s story. As such, don’t let too much of the story happen to your hero—give us a hero who happens to his story. He is the prime mover, and watching him take matters into his own hands is exactly the sort of thing readers sign up to experience.

Photo by cottonbro 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.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

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

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

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

I’ve been preparing for a conference where I’ll be presenting on plot structure and voice, among other things, and, in getting ready, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an author a cut above the rest. What is that special X-factor? The je ne sais quoi that can elevate someone with good technical skills to an expert writer?

We all know writing is a difficult craft to master and that publishing is a hard business to break into. We all know how impossible it can seem to write something totally fresh and new when stories have existed from the beginning and have been told and retold and retold again. And yet. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a story that surprises and delights you. Despite the fact that it seems every story has been told, new novels are published every year that prove otherwise. (Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? That book is a work of art!)

I’m a big Brené Brown fan. In fact, I have a copy of Daring Greatly sitting right here on my desk as I write this piece. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do! It’s a great guide for how to approach your own life, but beyond that, I’ve found that Brown’s work on vulnerability is also the key to the X-factor of writing. The thing that makes you special, that makes you different from every other writer, is the fact that you are, well, you. Remember that as you embark on your writing journey.

Here are some things you can do or think about to ensure you’re writing in your unique way:

Write what you know (i.e. Know Thyself). I think this is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice out there. To me, write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write your own life again and again and again. Not by a long shot! Write what you know means that you should connect with the many depths and shades of your emotional truths and put them on the page. It doesn’t matter if the truth appears in a galaxy far, far away or in a contemporary setting—it is the internal conflict a character is forced to grapple with and the growth they experience that keep readers coming back for more. If the emotional core of a novel feels visceral and real, readers will connect with it.

The universal is in the specific. As humans, we are all connected by common experiences, feelings, challenges. That’s what makes empathy and compassion possible. When a novel is truly engrossing, readers actually physically experience what the characters are experiencing—this happens on a neurological level. Trust that, no matter your character’s background, religion, sexuality, race, etc., readers have the capacity to connect. Then, rather than trying to write a story that will please everyone, focus on writing a story that will please you. Let your characters have flaws, quirks, strange interests, etc. What makes you unique is the eyes you see the world through. Let that come out in your narrative. The more you hone in on emotional details, the deeper you dive, the more specific you get, the more your characters and story will feel real, and the more readers will connect.

Write what brings you joy. One fundamental truth in life and in publishing is that things are always changing. What was trending two years ago isn’t trending now. The world moves along, and we are forced to move with it. Because of that, it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the book world and to be aware of where the successes in your genre are, but it is equally important not to write to a trend because, chances are, by the time you’ve finished writing your trendy book, the next trend will already have come along. Because of that, the most important thing is that you write a novel that you want to spend time with, that gives you creative pride, and that feels meaningful to you. When an author loves their story, it shines through in the work, and readers connect with that.

So go forth and enjoy the process of writing, of putting your own unique stamp on the world through your words. Because you are the only person in the history of the world who can be yourself.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kurtis Garbutt

(Just a note, this article was featured in our April 2020 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I think we could all use some Harry Potter in our lives right about now, so this month, I’m going to chat about what I personally consider the most important part of plotting, using Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as my example. 

No matter what stage your manuscript is in, there are three questions you need to be able to answer:

  1. What is your protagonist’s internal conflict?
  2. What is the manuscript’s major external conflict?
  3. How do those two conflicts work in harmony?

All too often, I see internal and external conflicts that don’t work together the way they need to. Here’s the secret: Your external conflict and internal conflict should be tightly woven together because the external conflict exists as a mechanism to force internal change and growth in your character.

For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s internal conflict is that he feels like an outsider. He is alienated from the muggle world, but doesn’t feel like he fits in to the wizarding world either. His interactions with the Dursleys make him feel as though he doesn’t have a family. His interactions with Malfoy and Snape make him feel ignorant about the wizarding world. Even the more positive starstruck reactions of people like Fred and George, Professor Quirrel, and Hermione all drive home the fact that Harry is an outsider from every angle. 

The external conflict in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone(and in most of the individual HP books) concerns Voldemort trying to return. In this case, his plan is to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone and use it to gain immortality. This conflict with Voldemort is set up from the very first pages of Harry Potter and is repeatedly planted in an escalating fashion throughout until it culminates in the final battle.

If you analyze the plot of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it is actually very tightly woven around these two conflicts, which are constantly in a dance with each other. For example, Voldemort’s history with Harry is the reason Harry was sent to live with the Dursleys, and it’s also the reason he is an outsider in the wizarding community. Voldemort is actually the causeof Harry’s internal conflict. 

By the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, you see Harry feeling more confident in the wizarding world and at Hogwarts. You see him overcoming his external conflict with Voldemort (for now) and becoming a hero of the school and, in doing so, winning the House Cup for Gryffindor, which symbolically cements his place as someone who belongs. If you analyze the plot, it is both a riveting adventure and a story that serves Harry’s internal conflict and ultimate growth from an orphan who doesn’t belong to a confident boy who has embraced his birthright as a wizard and discovered his found family in Ron and Hermione.

And that, my friends, is how Harry’s external conflict (Voldemort) both causes his internal conflict and ultimately forces his growth.

You should be able to do this with any manuscript you love—including your own! So as you turn back to your editing, writing, reading, etc., ask yourself how well the external conflict is dancing with the internal conflict.

Happy writing! 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kate Ter Haar