Pub Rants

Category: Drafting

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

This Month, NLA’s Tallahj Curry had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Sarah Zachrich Jeng, author of upcoming novel The Other Me.

In The Other Me, Kelly is trying to make sense of a life that feels unfamiliar. She finds answers that lead to more questions. What is your process of mapping out a mystery that grows throughout the novel?

I spent some time brainstorming ideas for how Kelly could investigate—what if she interviews a certain character? What if she finds some sort of document?—and tried to figure out what she might discover using each method, what bearing that new information would have on her “case,” and where else it might lead. Since I did a lot of this in revisions, I knew most of what she would ultimately need to find out. It was just a matter of getting her there in a way that didn’t feel like too much of a leap.

Do you write the novel ending first, last, or somewhere in between? How does this help you build suspense?

I usually don’t have the ending written or even outlined too exactly when I start. Though I like to have some idea of where I’m going, the last couple of things I’ve written have ended up in very different places than I thought they would. With The Other Me, I wrote two or three different endings, because the middle of the book had changed in ways that demanded the ending change as well. Generally revisions are where the real attention to pacing and tension gets paid.

Kelly goes through a massive, unexpected jump that tests her own memory. The life she is told she lived does not match the life she thought she lived. What is your method for making two versions of the same character?

Spreadsheets. Really. I had a tab for her Chicago life and a tab for her Michigan life, with dates and key events from birth until the novel’s present. I also made lists of things that might have changed, such as her appearance, and the ripple effects of those differences, like how her brother Nick now has a son and a decent job, because since Kelly didn’t go to an out-of-state school he had no excuse to keep living at home to look after their parents. 

Not everything was super precise. Our memories play tricks on us all the time, and I figured in a parallel universe kind of situation, some things would just be different because a butterfly flapped its wings a thousand years ago. But I tried to include enough plausible anomalies to keep Kelly off balance.

What was your process for writing a different take on a familiar trope? How did you follow the rules of the fictional world as you wrote the story?

I’m going to try really hard to answer this without spoilers. The short answer is “more lists.” (Can you tell I’m a list maker?) I had a list of the way events proceeded linearly, as well as according to each key character’s perception. I had a list of the principles that a certain important piece of technology in the book operates under, and theories that either correspond with or contradict what happens in the novel. I wasn’t too concerned with accurate science (for reasons that will be obvious once you’ve read the book), but I was concerned with consistency.

I also wanted to make sure that by the end, I’d made it clear(ish) to readers why Kelly’s life changes all at once, at the exact moment it does. So I spent a lot of time thinking through the implications of what happens to cause that, and writing and rewriting. I drew this really ugly diagram of [redacted thing that happens] so I could have a graphical representation to refer back to when I forgot what a certain character was supposed to know about at a certain part of the story.

How much did you draw from your own life when creating the characters for The Other Me? Do you believe advice to write what you know is helpful or restrictive?

I played in rock bands in my twenties, but once I got a “real” job and had a child, that lifestyle wasn’t practical anymore. However, I found myself missing both the creativity and the feeling that something exciting could happen at any time. (When you live in the suburbs and go to bed at 10pm, not much happens that’s unexpected, except maybe getting puked on.) So writing The Other Me was both a creative outlet and a way for me to work out my feelings about the ways in which my life had changed.

“Write what you know” can be helpful when you’re feeling your way into a new project or trying to evoke emotions. My writing is always more resonant if I’m trying to capture a feeling or an experience that I myself have had, even if I’m coming at it from a different direction. That said, like any writing guideline it’s not absolute. If you decide you want your main character to have a job you don’t know anything about, that’s what research is for. “Know what you write” might be more apt advice in those situations.

I do think writing is enriched by personal knowledge. As I’ve learned more about the zero-sum nature of publishing, I’ve come to believe that white, privileged writers (who are still the majority of published authors) shouldn’t appropriate the stories of marginalized people, when those stories could be better portrayed by authors from those groups. 

What is the greatest lesson one of your characters has taught you?

That one thing you think you want is probably not the thing that’s going to make you happy.

What is one of your favorite lines from The Other Me?

Kelly: “Everyone has regrets. If you don’t you’re either an a**hole or you’re lying to yourself.”

The Other Me by Sarah Zachrich Jeng releases August 10, 2021. Preorder the book here!

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