Friday, December 14, 2012

Story Plans: What's Your Characters Goal?

My brother, script writer Doug Eboch, had a recent blog post titled Not According to Plan. In it he states, “Over the last month I’ve read several scripts that suffered from lethargy and/or a feeling they were too episodic. The underlying cause was that the main characters were failing to make plans. They were reactive to events rather than driving the story. Giving the character plans keeps them active and gives the story forward momentum.”

In recent months, I’ve critiqued several manuscripts that were generally very strong. However, they suffered from the same problem. Here are couple of excerpts from the critiques (with some details hidden for privacy).

What’s lacking, I think, is clarity in MC’s Goals/Motivation and the Stakes.

Try to establish what MC wants up front, and keep reminding us of that or let us know how her goals change. For example, as she’s entering town, she may hope to find out more about her past. Once she knows about X, she wants to do Y. All of this ties into a longer, deep-seated goal of finding her place in the world. She may not be able to express that clearly, but we’ll see it in her short-term goals….

Her goals and motivations are also tied into the stakes. It’s important to have clear and high stakes – why her goals are important, and what happens if she fails. For example, if she fails to convince her mother to stay, she loses the chance to ever truly find a home with family who love and accept her.

She could even have both fears and hopes, sometimes seeing the positive and sometimes the negative. But showing us why this is so important to her will expand your theme and increase the stakes (what she has to gain or lose if she succeeds or fails).

And another:

One thing that may help you with your scenes is to think about scene goals. In every scene, your characters should have specific goals. These are likely immediate, short-term goals that lead to a larger story goal. For example, MC and MC2 want to get X, so they can do X. Focus on that goal, and the limited time they have, in each scene. If your main characters don’t have a goal – if they are just watching Comic Relief’s antics – it doesn’t move the story forward.

There’s an extra benefit to focusing on your character’s goals:

I think if you focus more on goals and stakes, you’ll also naturally develop your plot some. At times MC seems too passive, simply hoping things will or won’t happen and waiting for them. But if she has a strong, clear goal, you’ll see ways to increase the tension. (I went into more detail on this in my post on Happy Endings.)

And don’t forget –

We should also see MC actively pursuing her goals. If she doesn’t want to leave, she shouldn’t just silently hope for that. She should be trying to get what she wants.

For more on cause/effect and clarifying goals, see the first couple of posts under the "pacing" label.

Here are more posts on conflict, goals and motivation:

Ask an Editor with Theresa Stevens: A first-page critique discussing goal, motivation, and conflict.

Channeling The Reader’s Brain: What We Expect of Every Story, by Lisa Cron on Janice Hardy’s blog: The protagonist should want something, fear something, struggle, and change.

Goal - Conflict - Stakes. Why You Need All Three, by Janice Hardy (you also might do a search on “goals” on Janice Hardy’s blog, as she has a lot on the subject).

The Two Things Every Novel Needs—Conflict and Suspense, by James Scott Bell on Crime Fiction Collective.
Worrying Isn’t Action by Mary Kole from 

And please do see my brother’s full blog post, Not According to Plan.

So, what’s your goal now?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On Becoming a Writer: My Path to Publication

I'm on a listserv for mystery fans, and we recently had a discussion on paths to publication. I wrote up my experience, so I thought I'd share it here. People often don't know what they're getting into when they decide to "become a writer," and no one outside of the business has a clue how challenging it is. Here's just one example. [Note – many, many people on the list didn't start writing until they were in their 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s, and many also took 20 or more years to get published.]

My path to publication is unusual – I sold the first novel I ever wrote, before age 30. 

But wait! Before the other authors start throwing things at me, let me tell the whole story.

I first went to art school (Rhode Island School of Design), where I studied photography. I learned I didn't want to be a photographer, but I got a great education in creativity and critiquing. Learning how to analyze and express what I feel works and doesn't work in other people's art has served me well in analyzing my own writing and especially in teaching/critiquing others. And learning how to take a critique as a learning experience helped build a thick skin. I also started writing for the school paper and got interested in journalism.

After two years of going nowhere much, I went back to college for my MA degree in Professional Writing and Publishing. Although I was focused on magazine nonfiction, I took classes in fiction, children's picture books, and book publishing. I went to New York City to look for work in magazines. While job hunting and doing temp work, I decided to start a novel for my own entertainment. I had an idea for a middle grade (ages 9 to 12) novel set in Mayan Guatemala, where I'd spent a summer traveling after college.

The Well of Sacrifice CoverThat became The Well of Sacrifice, which got me an agent and a book contract with Clarion – mainly because I was very, very lucky. First of all, historical fiction for kids was selling much better then than it does today. And there was no other historical fiction about the pre-Columbian Maya for middle grade kids. I didn't know that, or that kids study the Maya in fourth grade, or that teachers often use supplemental fiction when they teach history. So I accidentally wrote a book that was very marketable. It came out in 1999, and I still get a nice royalty check twice a year, mainly because of school purchases.

I also got lucky because I didn't make any of the mistakes first novelist typically make. I saved those for my second book… And my third… And my fourth… In fact, I went on to write something like eight novels that I couldn't sell. I don't know if I would've had the stamina to keep with it if I hadn't had that early success. 

I had naïvely quit my job at a magazine and moved west after selling the book, because I had money in the bank and thought I could make it as a writer. Over the next decade, I did work for hire nonfiction, sold a couple of short stories and a larger number of articles, and taught writing for children through a correspondence course and at local colleges (and did a lot more temp work).

I finally sold a series in 2008. Haunted, about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, launched with three books. Then my editor got fired and the publisher canceled the series. You know how common experiences like this are? I was recently on a panel about "hope and rejection" at a writers schmooze, and three of us have had gaps of at least seven years between book sales. The fourth person had sold her first novel a couple of years prior, but the publisher went out of business six months before they were supposed to release it. Another publisher took on the book, but her editor had just rejected her second novel.

A couple of years ago, I was feeling burnt out on writing for children, so I decided to start writing romantic suspense for adults. My former editor had become my agent, and he wanted to represent my first book. However, I had been reading a lot about new options in indie publishing, and I wasn't happy with what I was hearing from traditional publishers (lower advances without higher royalties, etc.). I said I was thinking about self-publishing, and my agent agreed that was the best path today for genre fiction.

I have released three books for adults in the last two years, under the name Kris Bock, to separate that work from my children's books. I haven't sold a lot of copies yet, but I have gotten good reviews, even from strangers. I've been focusing more on getting the first books out, so that I could market a body of work. I didn't want to get bogged down in publicity after just one book. I've also been learning a lot about publishing and publicity, so hopefully I can be more focused with my time.

I also released two of my unsold children's books – the fourth book in my Haunted series, because I'd already written it and I had an interested audience. And a mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh. Although many of my early, unsold books were not publishable, I was confident this one had merit. It was a finalist in the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards, and it has been picked up by several teachers for classroom use. It's the one making me the most money so far. Second is Advanced Plotting, a guide for writers adapted from my workshops, blog posts, and articles in Children's Writer and Writers Digest.
I'm still doing a lot of work for hire (children's nonfiction, test passages, manuscript critiques, writing articles, workshops) to pay the bills. 2011 has been fairly good financially, but my goal is to shift more of my income to my fiction.

I'm thinking about doing a breakdown in the new year on where my 2011 income came from, as an example of how a professional writer makes a living. Would you be interested in hearing about that, or should I stick more to writing craft?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Writing Tight: Don't Be Wordy

I have two tight deadlines next week, but I've already missed a couple of posts recently, so here's a quickie. I do a lot of manuscript critiques. (See my rates and recommendations. If that link won't click through, copy and paste this link: Even advanced writers often get wordy. Here are some tips on eliminating that problem so your writing is as tight as my deadlines (plus other sources with more detail).

One of my pet peeves is characters nodding their heads or shrugging their shoulders. What else would one nod or shrug? We don't nod our elbows or shrug our stomachs. (If you have a character doing that, then definitely specify!) Otherwise, you can simply say he nodded or she shrugged. Yes, I know, this is a tiny, unimportant detail. But trust me, once it's pointed out to you, you'll start to notice and find it irritating!

Another unnecessary phrase – he thought to himself. Unless you have psychic characters, we'll assume he's not thinking to someone else. (In close point of view, you don't need to use "he thought" at all; just state the thought and we'll understand that the character is thinking it. But that's another issue.)

I need to get back to work, but in case you have more web browsing time, here are a couple of my favorite posts on eliminating wordiness.

Cut the Clutter and Streamline Your Writing, from Crime Fiction Collective, by Jodie Renner Editing: “Once you’ve gotten through your first draft, it’s important to go back in and cut down on wordiness and redundancies in order to make your story more compelling, pick up the pace, and increase the tension and sense of urgency.”

Cut the Clutter and Streamline Your Writing, Part II, from Crime Fiction Collective by Jodie Renner Editing: “Start by cutting out qualifiers like very, quite, rather, somewhat, kind of, and sort of, which just dilute your message, weaken the imagery, and dissipate the tension.”

It’s a Story, Not an Instruction Manual!, from Crime Fiction Collective, by Jodie Renner Editing: “Whether you’re writing an action scene or a love scene, it’s best not to get too technical or clinical about which hand or leg or finger or foot is doing what, unless it’s relevant or necessary for understanding.

And a warning not to take things too far:

Crossing Words Off Your List: Making the Most of Editing "What Not to Use" Lists, from The Other Side of the Story by Janice Hardy: “The right word for what you're trying to say is always the right choice, no matter what that word is. Most times, cutting that flabby word or finding that strong noun or active verb is the right choice, but once in a while it's not.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Another Company Enters the Self-Publishing Market

Simon & Schuster has announced a new self-publishing imprint, Archway Publishing. The imprint is run by Author Solutions, a vanity press with a long and questionable history. Here are a couple of blog posts on the subject. These contain individual opinions,but the bloggers' numbers appear to be correct based on a quick look around the Archway site. Please be very cautious about doing business with anyone who claims to be representing Penguin who may really be trying to sell you services through Archway. A traditional publisher NEVER asks for money up front.

This may sound familiar because Penguin’s parent company, Pearson, purchased Author Solutions in July. (Here's an opinion on that: Penguin’s New Business Model: Exploiting Writers) My personal opinion: Big publishers need to look for innovative ways to increase revenue. Valid options include starting e-book-first imprints and lowering or eliminating advances while giving authors a greater royalty rate. They do not involve lending the publisher's name to a shady and overpriced vanity press.