Pub Rants

Category: writing craft

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

-Premise +Plot +Prose

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

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

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

Improve Your Premise

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

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

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

This month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry excitedly interviewed Quressa Robinson’s client Brittney Morris, author of SLAY and her recently released novel The Cost of Knowing.

How has writing for other platforms, like video games, aided in your writing for novels?

When writing for video games, you have to take the player into account as a second storyteller. It forces you to give the reader (or in this case, player) enough respect to let them decipher and infer things on their own—like tension between characters, etc, which is a great skill to have when writing books too!

How do you go about incorporating supernatural abilities into a character who can still be related to?

Supernatural abilities come with supernatural weaknesses. Mental and emotional ones, not just physical. Relatable characters have strengths, weaknesses, goals, and fears, so I try to make sure those all shine through on the page.

The characters in your books, like Alex, a young Black boy trying to do right by his younger brother, all have a well thought out backstory which many can relate to. How do you map this out before beginning a book?

Thank you! I give myself 24 hours to outline before jumping into drafting, which forces me to listen to my characters as they give me their first impressions. I can’t let myself overthink it, or it won’t feel real. Their backstories, their personalities, even their names, are almost always the very first one I thought of.

What is the impact that you want your books to have?

I want to take a concept my readers have maybe lived with for awhile (one in The Cost of Knowing is “accidental racism,” for example), and show it to them through a different lens, and a different angle, on new terms. I want my readers to think about things in new ways and enjoy the ride along the way!

Follow Brittney online:

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

Achieving Writing Goals

This month, we asked three NLA authors to give some tips on how they achieve their writing goals.

If you set a writing goal, what are two tips to achieve it? If not, what is something that you do instead?

Alison Hammer, author of You & Me & Us

I’m the type of person who writes things on my to-do list that I’ve already done, just so I can have the satisfaction of crossing it off. I take the same approach when it comes to goal setting.

While I admire people who set stretch goals for themselves, I find I’m much more successful when I have smaller, more achievable goals.

One of my favorite examples of this is a good friend who set a goal to open her manuscript each and every day. She didn’t have to write a single word to meet her goal—but most days, she did. After all, the manuscript was already open and ready for her.

I personally have a goal to write every single day. I believe in the daily writing habit so much that I started a Facebook support group for women writers called the Every Damn Day Writers. Some days that means writing for ten minutes, others I set a word-count goal anywhere from 250 to 500 words or 1,600 words if it’s November and I’m NaNo-ing.

Whatever goal I set, I just make sure that I’m setting myself up for success.

Miranda Asebedo, author of A Constellation of Roses

It’s pretty much impossible for me to dedicate an entire 8:00 to 5:00 day just to writing, so I schedule chunks of time when I know I can be my most productive, and I stick to them no matter what. For example, pre-Covid, one of my “chunks” was from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm every day while my kids were in after-school activities. I’ve gotten a lot of writing done in ballet studios and my car while waiting for them! Headphones are a must for this, but once it becomes a routine, it’s amazing how your brain just switches on to writing-mode without any big pre-writing rituals or anything.

My other tip is a reward system. If I hit a certain word count on schedule, I get to spend some time with the book I’ve been dying to read or the next episode in my Netflix queue that night. It always works!

Reese Eschmann, author of Etta Invincible

When I’m working toward a goal, the thing that helps me the most is to find someone to help keep me accountable. These days that means texting, Zooming, joining critique groups, and scheduling writing sprints with friends, but I’m looking forward to a time in the near future where I can sit across from a writing partner at a coffee shop again!

My second-best tip is that I’ve found that when I’m beginning to get overwhelmed, setting a time goal instead of a production goal (i.e. “I will spend one hour with this project” rather than “I will write 500 words”) takes some of the pressure off and allows me to get ­into a more relaxed, creative mindset! 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dave Herrmann

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

(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