Pub Rants

Category: Revision

Stories should start on page one. This we know, yet every seasoned fiction editor will tell you that most stories don’t. Most stories start on page five or ten. Or thirty. Or fifty. Hooray for critique partners, beta readers, and editors who can spot when our stories truly begin—and double hooray for writers who revise accordingly! But here’s a similar, more puzzling phenomenon I’ve been running into lately: when stories don’t start in the first book.

This is when I get to the end of a full-length manuscript and realize that I have more questions than answers. That the author left more threads untied than tied. That the entire manuscript read like a prologue to something bigger.

When I call this out to the authors, the response I often get is something like, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m going to answer all that in book two.”

Yikes. There are three red flags here.

First, we have to sell book one before book two.

From a publishing-industry standpoint, the likelihood that we’ll sell book one if, on its own, it doesn’t tell a satisfying story from beginning to middle to end is pretty low.

The Fix

Treat every book you write as if it will be the only book you write. Make it as self-contained, complete, and satisfying as you can, even if—especially if—it’s part of a planned series.

Second, we worry you got lost in the weeds or are resisting revision.

A “prologue novel” tends to read as though the author found themselves approaching 100,000 words and realized they’d better wrap things up (for better or worse), yeet some query letters into the world, and cross their fingers. Maybe they really do intend to resolve all the unanswered story questions in a sequel, and maybe they know exactly how. But again, without delivering close-the-book satisfaction with book one, we can’t reasonably expect publishers or readers to plunk down more money for another tale that might also feel unfinished.

The Fix

Getting lost in the weeds or overwriting can mean that a writer struggles with one or more of the following:

  • Prose (word economy)
  • Pacing (scene economy)
  • Plot (structure; beginnings, middles, and ends)
  • Revision (a skill far different from drafting)

Start by knowing which is your greatest opportunity for improvement. Then get thee to a critique group. In a lot of critique groups, you’ll find The Prose Person, The Pacing Person, The Plot Person, etc. Cozy up to the person who is really good at your area of opportunity and offer to trade beta reads.

If the whole idea of revision intimidates you (or, worse, if you’re laboring under the hope or belief that first drafts are divinely inspired and shouldn’t be messed with), then please pick up a copy of James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells.

Third, the writer might not know how their story ends.

By promising a second book in which All Will Be Revealed, the author might be kicking the literary can down the road, buying time to figure out the answers for themselves—and hoping for a second contract and another advance in the process.

The Fix

As advised above, find a mentor or critique partner who is good at endings. Ask them to help you figure out a satisfying ending for this book—not for your planned series of books—and then work backward to make sure your pacing and scene work lead toward that ending in a tight, satisfying way, in a genre-appropriate number of words.

What about series?

Of course, novels in a series do leave questions unanswered—hooks that entice the reader to continue reading. So, yes, you can do that as well. Here are two strategies:

  1. The Episodic Approach: Wrap up each book, making sure all the story questions are answered, and then at the very end—like, seriously, the last page or two—tease a new story question for the next book.
  2. The Series-Arc Approach: Think in terms of building both story arcs and series arcs. Each book has its own story arc complete with a beginning, middle, and end, but the series also has its own arc—an open-ended story question that will not be answered until the last pages of the last book in the series. This approach requires more forethought, but the potential for a satisfying payoff is greater. A good example is the TV show Monk. Every episode sets up a crime that Monk solves by the end of the hour, but there is one crime Monk has never been able to solve: the murder of his wife. That thread, that question, that arc, is pulled tight across eight seasons until at last it is solved in the two-part series finale.

Photo credit: Matt Deavenport, Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Pixabay

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

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