Pub Rants

Category: writing

This month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Jonathan Messinger, author of the series The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian, as well as a podcast of the same name.

You established an audience for your stories through a different avenue. Did you find that made it easier to bring words to a page?

It definitely made it easier. I had over 100 episodes to find the personalities and voices of the characters, and to figure out what resonated with kids, and what jokes or plot lines fell flat. It was a little difficult at first to write for a book, rather than a podcast, because with a podcast I have all sorts of crutches I can rely on: music, sound effects, funny voices. Putting the story in a book meant I had to try to evoke those same feelings just with the words.

What parts of your own personality did you use to write for a young audience? 

When I published a book of stories many years ago, a critic said I had written “fiction for aging hipsters.” I was 27! I’ve never forgotten (or forgiven!) that line, probably because it was accurate. As a 40-something dad now, I’ve aged out of hipsterdom. Writing for kids has meant stripping away all pretense, not trying to be “cool” or “interesting,” just trying to tell a good story that connects with the audience. It’s really allowed me to be more myself and have a lot of fun. I try to pack as many jokes as I can into the story, because that is a very dad thing to do.

What writing techniques did you focus on or leave behind to suit your reading audience?

When I submitted my first manuscript, my editor had me shorten or break up almost every sentence. I got rid of all the circuitous phrasing, many commas and loads of parentheticals. It was a humbling and fascinating process. Because I had written stories for a young audience on a podcast, I could make almost anything work by how I paced or paused as I was telling the story. But on the page, I had to be much more direct. The books are way better for it, of course. Not just for the kids, but on a very technical level, the writing is just better because I stopped trying to impress myself.

What advice would you give to an author who wants to write for a younger audience?

Read the work aloud. You can see how sentences drone on or get lost just by reading it out loud. Also, I’d say read it to a kid. I have, with my kids, something I call “the Lego test.” If I’m reading a story to them and they reach over and start picking up the Legos, I know I’ve lost them, and that part needs to be shortened or tossed altogether. It’s instant, ego-bruising feedback, and it’s very helpful.

Follow Jonathan online:
Podcast
Twitter

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

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

I have a confession to make: up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know a lot about permissions. Sure, I could explain the clause in a publishing contract where it states that the author is responsible for securing permissions from third parties for use of third-party material in the author’s books. But I kind of assumed (or hoped) that if it ever came to it, the publisher would walk the author through the actual process. Not so. So when one of my authors wanted to secure permissions for some song lyrics she wanted to include in her upcoming release, we ventured down the winding road together. Here is what I learned:

  • What do you need permission for? You need legal permission any time you want to quote or excerpt someone else’s work in your own. That can apply to anything from poetry to song lyrics and every magazine article or blog entry in between.
  • The concept of “fair use” is murky. Isn’t there a law that states that you can use a percentage of someone else’s work for free? Not really. As Jane Friedman so smartly points out in her post A Writer’s Guide to Permissions and Fair Use , there is no defining rule about how much of someone else work is “OK” to use without permission.  So your best bet is always to ask.
  • Your publisher really isn’t going to help you. Publishing contracts specify that the author is responsible for securing all necessary permissions, and they mean it. It is the author’s job to figure out who to reach out to regarding securing permissions. Don’t expect your publisher to have a list of record executives’ email addresses or standard forms to fill out for such an occasion. This part of the process can require quite a bit of leg work in terms of tracking down the right individuals. Side note: agents won’t necessity be able to help either. While I’m always happy to advocate for my clients, I do not have the necessary connections to move this process along.
  • There is a cost and it can be steep. Most of the people my author reached out wanted to know certain information such as print run and territory of distribution before calculating permission fees. They then based their fees accordingly, and they were notable. One of the terms I learned during this process was “favored nations,” which basically means that one party cannot be paid more than another. As it pertains to permissions, don’t think you’ll be able to strike a deal with a record company because you’re only using a few lines, for example, or that another company will give you a break because they like the premise of your story. The people you’re reaching out to are, in turn, advocating for their clients. They want to make sure that the content their clients made is respected in the marketplace, and that means fiscal compensation. And they pretty much have a going rate. The other thing to consider is that you have to pay regardless of how much money you’re making or if you’ve been paid your full advance or not.
  • Permissions live with your work. If your book takes off, know that permissions requests will follow you. So far, from what I’ve seen, costs are associated with the publisher’s proposed print run and are limited to the territories requested. That means that if your book sells over whatever your publisher initially projected, you will have to pay permissions fees again. Same goes for every foreign license (and there are some caveats depending on whether or not a foreign publisher intends to keep the lyrics in English). In sum, this is not a one-and-done thing.

So what can you do? Think about how important any excerpts are to your writing. Can you write around them? Mention them in passing? For example, reference a well-known chorus that readers will be sure to get, if we’re talking about music? Your other option is to search public-domain offerings that will fit the bill. Works in the public domain can be used without permission. 

Creative Commons Credit: F Delventhal

(Just a note, this article was featured in our September 2020 Newsletter. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

Hello to all the PubRants readers sheltering at home. Hope this article finds you healthy, safe, and sane. Glad you are still with us and reading our monthly missive. It’s been a year in the making, but I’m very excited to share with you our brand-spanking new website that just launched this past week. Although September’s newsletter follows the old format, you can expect a newly redesigned newsletter to follow in a couple months, so stay tuned. 

For eight months, I was closed to queries to cover two back-to-back maternity leaves for the NLA family. Congratulations, Samantha and Maria! At long last, I’m back in the query game, so it seemed apropos to talk about trends I’m seeing in my QueryManager inbox

As always, don’t put too much weight on the trends I spotlight here. It doesn’t mean your project is dead in the water. It just means you need to be more creative in your query letter to make your story stand out. One interesting thing to note is that we’re fielding a lot of queries from authors who’ve had prior agent representation and are looking for a new partnership. Because of Covid, agents, like everyone else, are juggling a lot, and I wonder if some are paring down their client rosters. 

Good luck out there! Persevere. 

In the Adult realm:

  • Historicals set in the time periods of the 1960s through the 1990s. Might writers be reminiscing on their pasts so as to escape our present crises?
  • International thrillers with main characters that work at the CIA, FBI, etc. This is a specific thriller genre (espionage thrillers) and not something Joanna or I are looking for, but we still get a lot of inquiries.
  • Lots of stories that use BIG LITTLE LIES as a comp.
  • Jane Austen retellings are trending again. Humorous. Gender-swapped. From a different character’s perspective. That kind of thing.
  • Old-school speculative fiction in the vein of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson—which isn’t quite where the SF&F market is right now.
  • Angsty fiction in which the characters must “find themselves,” but that lacks a clear hook or concept to drive the story. This tends to be perennial.
  • Short books—queries for novellas and novels under 70,000 words. For some reason this is popular, but 70K is pretty short for a full novel.

In the YA and Children’s realm:

  • Steampunk submissions have really wound down over the last year.
  • Pirates, pirates, pirates! Not sure what in the Zeitgeist is driving the trend, but it’s big in YA and MG (middle grade).
  • Fantasy built around elemental powers or magic.
  • Fantasy built around the guardians trope: characters who must protect a chosen one, a secret, a portal, a wall, a source of magic, etc.
  • Fantasy built around court intrigue. Heads up: this market is saturated for editors. Some sales still occur, but they are far fewer than two years ago.
  • Cool dragons with inventive premises are trending for both the YA and adult-fantasy realm.
  • Middle-grade portal/time travel stories—probably because we need to escape our current world. 

Your Protagonist Must Fail

Throughout your story but especially in Act II—that yawning abyss between your story’s beginning and end sometimes referred to as “the swamp” or “the mushy middle”—your protagonist must fail. They must fail big. They must fail often. Why? Because if they’re not failing, they’re not trying.

Try-Fail Cycles
Try-fail cycles are a great way to test the weight-bearing capability of a story’s structure. Often, a weak story—one likely to collapse under the scrutiny of discerning readers—lacks try-fail cycles. These are exactly what they sound like: a character faced with a problem formulates a plan, then carries out that plan (try), but they are outmatched, or an unforeseen obstacle pops up, and the attempt is unsuccessful (fail). They fall back, lick their wounds, consider the added threat of the new obstacle and the new stakes that have been raised, and formulate a new plan…thus launching the next try-fail cycle.

Try-Yes-But Cycles
Not all try-fail cycles end in complete failure. The alternative is the try-yes-but cycle. Here, the protagonist carries out their plan, and some or all of their attempt is a success (yes); however (but), that success comes at a high cost, with some unforeseen and devastating consequence. This is the two steps forward, one step back effect, and while your protagonist might not have failed per se, the outcome still feels like a failure to readers because the stakes have been raised, the tables turned, and the jeopardy heightened.

Suspicion-Confirmation Cycles
The enemy of try-fail and try-yes-but cycles is the suspicion-confirmation cycle, which is inherently passive and uninteresting. This happens when a protagonist has a suspicion that rather quickly, usually within a few pages and through very little action, gets confirmed. For example, the suspicion “I think Jack is the one who betrayed me” is confirmed in the next scene when the protagonist passively overhears Jack colluding with the bad guys.

This is not to say that your characters should never have suspicions or work to confirm them. On the contrary! But it is not uncommon for newer writers to construct entire manuscripts on suspicion-confirmation cycles in lieu of the other types of cycles. Having a suspicion is not the same thing as attacking a problem head-on or being forced to actively react to an opponent’s unexpected maneuverings. Know the difference. In your own manuscript:

• Be aware of how many scenes are largely dialogue or internal rumination about what your protagonist suspects, or that culminate with the articulation of a new suspicion.

• Be aware of how many of those suspicions turn out to be correct. Newer writers let their characters be correct most of the time, if not every time.

• Be aware of how soon after a suspicion is formed it is confirmed, and how soon after it is confirmed a new suspicion is formed. You might be stuck in the suspicion-confirmation cycle.

• Be aware of how hard you make your protagonist work to confirm a suspicion. Make it challenging. Make it active. Make it fraught with jeopardy. Make it come at a cost.

• Be aware of how many suspicion-confirmation cycles you’ve used in relation to how many of the other more active and interesting failure-based cycles you’ve used. In commercial fiction, you’ll be miles ahead of the field if you build your story’s structure on the latter, using the former sparingly.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Paul Keller

(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