Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hook ’Em Fast

Here's another excerpt from one of the guest author essays in Advanced Plotting:

Hook ’Em Fast
by Lois Winston

As both a published author and a literary agent, I can clue you in on a dirty little secret: most editors and agents will toss a manuscript aside after a page or two if the voice/style/plot hasn’t hooked them by that point.

I would like to distill this down further and suggest that an author needs to hook her readers with the opening sentence of her book. As someone who has read countless submissions, I’ve come across thousands of openings with what I can only describe as blah first sentences. The authors go on to compound the problem by adding several paragraphs, if not pages, of back-story and/or boring description. An author may have a fantastic story, but if she puts her readers to sleep before they get to that story, she’s got a huge problem.

The first sentence of a book should make the reader want to read the second sentence. The hook doesn’t have to be defined in the first sentence, but that first sentence should lead you into the next, and that one to the next, until you have a paragraph that becomes a hook that grabs the reader and won’t let go. That first paragraph should do for the first page what the first sentence does for the first paragraph, and the first page should do for the subsequent pages what the first paragraph does for the first page.

Here’s an example of a poorly written opening paragraph:

My name is Anastasia Pollack. I’m a forty-two year old, pear-shaped, more than slightly overweight brunette crafts editor at American Woman magazine. A week ago I was living a typical middleclass life. I had a loving husband, two great sons, a job I looked forward to going to each morning, and a yellow rancher with white trim and a picket fence in a New Jersey suburb known for its good schools and easy commute into Manhattan. All that changed when my husband, who used to answer to tall, dark, and handsome but had turned into bald, paunchy, and boring over the years, dropped dead at a roulette table in Las Vegas when he was supposed to be at a sales meeting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That’s when I learned of his secret gambling addiction and that he’d squandered away our life savings and left me up to my eyeballs in debt with a long line of bill collectors having my telephone number on speed dial. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his loan shark is now demanding I pay back the fifty thousand dollars my husband borrowed from him. I don’t have fifty thousand dollars. And last but not least, I’m stuck with my husband’s mother, a card-carrying communist, living with me and my sons.

Now, here’s the opening paragraph as it actually appeared in the published book:

I hate whiners. Always have. So I was doing my damnedest not to become one in spite of the lollapalooza of a quadruple whammy that had broadsided me last week. Not an easy task, given that one of those lollapalooza whammies had barged into my bedroom and was presently hammering her cane against my bathroom door. — Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, by Lois Winston

The opening of a book should be filled with interesting action and/or dialogue that intrigues the reader and makes her want to continue reading. The opening of a book is meant to suck the reader into the world the author has created. Back-story can come later, trickling in to tease the reader to continue reading more, not as information dumps that pull the reader from the story. A good opening will include only the barest minimum of back-story that is essential for that moment.

If you want your readers to get lost in your plot, make sure you grab them with a dynamic opening.

Award-winning author Lois Winston writes the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries featuring magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the series, was a January 2011 release and received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Kirkus Reviews dubbed it, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” Lois is an award-winning crafts and needlework designer and an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency.

See the complete essay and two dozen more in Advanced Plotting, plus a detailed explanation of the Plot Outline Exercise, a powerful tool to identify and fix plot weaknesses in your manuscripts. Buy Advanced Plotting for $9.99 in paperback on Amazon or as a $.99 e-book on Amazon or Smashwords.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Plotting by the Seat of Your Pants

To celebrate the release of my new book, Advanced Plotting, here’s an excerpt from one of the guest author essays.

Plotting by the Seat of Your Pants
by Susanne Alleyn

They say there are two types of fiction writers: plotters and pantsers.

Plotters are blessed with the ability to create complex plots from beginning to end; they write down a complete outline, whether in a loose synopsis, a tightly structured timeline, a series of index cards, or whatever, before they write Word One of the actual novel. Pantsers, on the other hand, can’t possibly think that far ahead, and take an idea, a situation, a setting, a character or two, with a rough idea of where the story is going, and just plunge onward, writing “by the seat of their pants.”

There are advantages to both of these methods, and which method works for you depends on what kind of writer (and basic personality) you are. I, for one, am a pantser. I write mysteries, among other things, and I couldn’t come up with the entire outline of a novel, particularly a mystery novel, even if you held a gun to my head. But if I begin with a basic idea, if I know how my story begins (who got murdered) and how it ends (whodunnit and why), then I trust my subconscious to come up with the dreaded middle of the story as I move... OK, feel my way blindly... forward.

By starting my novel at Point A, without much knowledge of how I’ll get past Points B through Y before successfully arriving at the end (Point Z), somehow the plot manages to create itself without too much goading from me. The situation or character I might suddenly come up with for Point E in the story eventually creates an idea for Point J or K, which leads to Points L and M, and so on.

An example of how the sneaky old subconscious can work? Three years ago, I was writing the first draft of The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, a historical mystery set in prerevolutionary Paris. All I had, at the start, was an idea that the murder would be connected somehow to the famous (real-life) Diamond Necklace Affair of 1785-86, and to the (now two-century-old) conspiracy theory that the Freemasons were involved in the scandal, with the goal of bringing down the French monarchy.

While toiling my way through the first quarter of the novel (not yet knowing how the heck I was going to unmask my killer), I sent my sleuth, Aristide Ravel, with the dead man’s waistcoat to a fashionable tailor, in hopes of identifying the corpse. The tailor gave him half a dozen names of customers who had had identical waistcoats made; the dead man was sure to be one of them. I already knew which one he was, and where he lived, and how the next scene would play out when, after a dead end or two, Ravel interviewed his family.

And at this point (perhaps I’d reached Point F or G), I still didn’t have the faintest idea how the story was going to play itself out, or how I was going to keep the solution to the mystery from being ridiculously obvious, although I thought I knew who’d committed the murder. And I’d also begun to realize that, unless I wanted it to be a very short novel, something else (anything!) had to happen under mysterious circumstances to complicate things.

But (spoilers ahead) for some reason, one of the names on the tailor’s list suddenly became a fully-fleshed character, a Freemason with fishy connections, and very quickly developed a personality. He walked into the story, took over, stole the corpse, and dragged the plot off in another direction entirely.

Where did he come from? I haven’t the slightest idea, beyond “somewhere in the back of my subconscious mind.” Then, because he existed, another character also had to appear, and he rapidly became one of the major characters in the novel. At last it became suddenly quite obvious to me that this second character was actually the murderer, and since he was a great improvement over my original choice of killer, I let him have the role. And when I went back to (minimally) revise all the chapters I’d already completed, in order to accommodate him, the clues I’d laid out worked much, much better for the new killer than for the old.


[So] if someone has told you that you should outline, synopsize, or otherwise rigidly structure your novel before starting to write it, and you just don’t feel comfortable or happy doing that (or if trying to come up with the next damn plot point in your synopsis feels like having all your teeth pulled out, one by one, without Novocain), then ignore the advice. You’re probably a pantser.

Take your basic starter idea and run with it. Start at Point A, with an idea of Point B, go there, write a scene, create a new character, and discover to what sort of Point C your Point B may lead you. Throw in extra stuff in the course of dialogues or descriptions or minor characters (you can always edit out the excess — the padding and the bits that don’t lead you anywhere — later). The smallest detail in a scene you write may suddenly, as your subconscious works, turn into something that drives your plot.

Susanne Alleyn is the author of the Aristide Ravel French Revolution mystery series (The Cavalier of the Apocalypse, Palace of Justice, Game of Patience, and A Treasury of Regrets), and of A Far Better Rest, a re-imagining of A Tale of Two Cities. She is the granddaughter of children’s author Lillie V. Albrecht, who penned the classic Deborah Remembers (1959) and four other historical children’s books, all soon to reappear as e-books.

Buy Advanced Plotting for $9.99 in paperback on Amazon. Through September 1, get Advanced Plotting as a $.99 e-book on Amazon or Smashwords.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Plot: Not Just Another Word for a Hole in a Graveyard

To celebrate the release of my new book, Advanced Plotting, here’s one of the guest author essays.

Plot: Not Just Another Word for a Hole in a Graveyard
by Jenny Milchman

We can bat about terms like “literary” versus “genre” fiction till people cease to die, but the truth is every body needs a grave, and every story needs a plot.
I can already hear the opposing cries. “No, no,” they say. “What every book needs is great characters.”
(And anyway, how about cremation?)
Well, yes. I agree with you. But what are great characters supposed to do?
Therein lies your plot.
But how exactly do you construct a plot?
Here’s one method, with much of the credit going to that great genius of story, Robert McKee. His book — “Story” — is worth more than a look. For now I’m going to piece together McKee’s wisdom with some of what I’ve learned myself, then challenge each of you to create the bare bones of a terrific new plot.
Each story has to have a start, of course. The inciting incident kicks things off, just as the first kick of a football game sets the players on a course to win or lose. If you come up with a toothsome inciting incident, your plot will be off to a great start.
Think of scenarios that intrigue you. Did you ever get stopped in traffic so thick you couldn’t see its source — then start wondering about that source? A terrible accident maybe? A broken down bus? (There’s just something inherently dramatic about a bus….) Or possibly a driver so sick of things he left behind his car?
Or perhaps your telephone just rang late at night. Before you pick it up to learn that your daughter got scared at her sleepover and wants to come home, let your imagination run a little bit wild, let your heart start pounding. You will have the makings of an inciting incident.
After the inciting incident is set up, and the characters needed to fulfill it are introduced, with its ramification played out a bit, you come to plot point 1. This occurs at roughly 1/3 of the way through your story. Plot point 1 takes what you have begun to create and sends it careening off in a new direction. Maybe the driver did leave behind his car — but now he comes back. Or perhaps when you get to the sleepover…nobody’s home.
About another third of the way through your story comes, what else? Plot point 2. Again, your story is going to be turned somehow, sent off in another direction. If you think about the story as a steadily rising arc, the plot points are forks along it. The action continues to rise, but it’s not a straight progression.
All the scenes and moments you have created so far call for an awakening at this point in the story. You don’t want things to be linear — you want to introduce the unexpected. Think about the least likely thing that could happen. Then think about the most likely thing. Something somewhere in-between will be a great plot point. If all else fails, you can have someone knock on the door. Even if this plot point doesn’t stand in the final version, it will get you moving towards something new.
Plot point 2 leads into the climax of your story. This is where all the scenes, threads, and characters you have arrayed come together in one knotted ball of action, only to be swiftly unraveled during the denouement so the reader can have a moment of quietude and rest — just before dashing to his or her computer.
Why will he or she dash there?
Because your now loyal reader wants to see if you have any other books — trusting you completely to deliver a well-constructed, seamless plot.

Jenny Milchman is a suspense writer from New Jersey. She is founder of the series Writing Matters, which draws authors and publishing professionals from both coasts to standing-room-only events at a local bookstore. In 2010 she created Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, a holiday that went viral, enlisting booksellers in 30 states, two Canadian provinces, and England. Jenny is the author of the short story “The Very Old Man,” an Amazon bestseller in mystery anthologies. Another short story will be published in 2012 in a book called Adirondack Mysteries II. Her novel, a literary thriller titled Cover of Snow, is forthcoming from Ballantine.

Buy Advanced Plotting for $9.99 in paperback on Amazon. Through September 1, get Advanced Plotting as a $.99 e-book on Amazon, B&N, or Smashwords.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tips on Plotting Your Novel

To celebrate the release of my new book, Advanced Plotting, here’s an excerpt from one of the guest author essays.

Tips on Plotting Your Novel
by Janice Hardy

Story ideas can come from anywhere, and those are the easy part of writing. It’s figuring out what to do past that glimmer of an idea where it can get tricky. How do you get your protagonist from that opening scene to the end? How do you know what problems to throw in their way? Let’s look at some common places ideas start and look for ways to find a workable plot from those sparks.

Event or Situation
Sometimes the idea is a situation or event: a sun going supernova; a threat to a place or person, like a kidnapped child or a terrorist attack; discovery of something profound, either personal or for the world. Something is happening or about to happen, and someone is going to have to deal with it in some way. Questions you might ask here are:

1. Who has the most to lose in this situation?
2. Who has the most to gain in this situation?
3. Who has the freedom to act, but is also restricted in some way?
4. Who can be hurt the most from this situation?
5. What must be done to resolve this situation?

Situation plots usually need the most work on the character goals and stakes, because we know the what, but not the who or why. It’s easy to find surface goals and stakes (to save the word, to stop the bad guy, save a life), but you often find that those aren’t deep enough to help you create the plot. You run out of problems for the protagonist to tackle pretty quickly. The trick is to find the personal stakes and then work from there to determine the goals. People act when they want to (something to gain) or have to (something to lose).

Personal Journey
Journeys are common in character-driven and literary novels, and even in fantasies. A woman tries to find herself after a failed marriage. A man takes to the sea to live the last months of his life after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. A group of adventurers goes on quest for an item of importance. The journey is what matters most, not what’s found on the other side. Some things to think about here are:

1. What are the inherent dangers of this journey?
2. What are the inherent joys of this journey?
3. What resistance would someone get from friends regarding this journey?
4. What fears would keep someone from attempting this journey?

Character growth is key in a story like this, as the journey is almost always what allows them to find what they’re looking for. To grow, the protagonist needs to overcome personal issues that were holding them back. They need to learn ways to better themselves and put them to use. Goals are just as important as in any other story, but they’ll often be more personal and internal rather than external. The external obstacles are the ways in which the lesson is learned.

In her essay for Advanced Plotting, Janice also discusses how to build plots from Setting, Premise or Idea, and Characters.

Janice Hardy offers more tips about writing on her blog, “The Other Side of the Story.” She’s also the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and the upcoming Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins.;

Buy Advanced Plotting for $9.99 in paperback on Amazon. Through September 1, get Advanced Plotting as a $.99 e-book on Amazon or Smashwords.