Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Is It Done Yet - Part 6: Destabilizing and Inciting Incidents

This is the sixth installment aimed at helping writers know when their novel is ready to query. The series is based on the presentation I made at the Las Vegas Writers Conference in April of this year, "Is It Done Yet? How to Know When Your Novel is Ready to Query"

Is it Done Yet - Part 6: Destabilizing and Inciting Incidents

As I was getting ready to move to the final stage of revision, What the Reader Needs, it occurred to me that I haven’t touched on a very important aspect of What the Story Needs: The destabilizing and inciting incidents. So I’m going to do that now before moving on to the final stage of getting your manuscript ready to query.

These two moments are absolutely crucial for getting your novel moving forward, and, surprisingly, a lot of the manuscripts I edit miss them, minimize them, conflate them, or have them occur too late. If you’ve ever gotten comments that your story starts in the wrong place, chances are good you’ve misplaced either the destabilizing incident or the inciting incident.

So what are they?

The Destabilizing Incident
The destabilizing incident, as the name implies, is the thing that unbalances your main character’s world. It’s Frodo Baggins when Bilbo disappears from his birthday party in Lord of the Rings. It’s the renting of Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice. It’s the discovery of the direwolf pups – one for each of the Stark children – in Game of Thrones. It’s Athena telling Telemachus he needs to leave Ithaca and visit his father’s friends in the Odyssey. It’s the moment the main character’s life is interrupted by something that breaks them out of their regular routine or pattern.

Though destabilizing incidents need to be present in the story, not all of them occur onstage. In the famous opening of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the destabilizing incident has already occurred – the wife’s discovery of Count Oblonsky’s affair with the children’s governess – three days prior to the opening of the novel. The moment in which Dolly discovers the infidelity is given to the reader in retrospect, but the focus is on the upheaval (the destabilization) this discovery creates from the first sentence.

Whether it occurs onstage or off, the destabilizing incident almost always occurs within the first few pages, even better (for contemporary fiction) if it occurs on page one. I’ve referred before to the opening pages of The Hunger Games and urge you to take a look at it.

Collins opens the book with about 300 words of Katniss Everdeen’s regular life – the poverty, Katniss’s cold life-or-death pragmatism, the restrictions of the society in which she lives. There’s also the sense of something unsettling about to occur. In the very first paragraph, which is three sentences long, Collins references the bad dreams Katniss’s sister has been having: “Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.” Collins doesn’t tell you what “the reaping” is until later, but, importantly, she conveys the sense this thing makes this day different even as Katniss goes about her regular routine of meeting Gale in the forest to hunt.

An effective destabilizing incident really has two components – the ordinary world the main character exists in, and the event that upends the ordinary world.
The destabilizing incident is important to both the story and the reader.

For the story, it’s important because it sets the main character up for the inciting incident. The main character’s world is no longer routine, their awareness is heightened, possibly things no longer fit together the way they used to making the main character restless and ready for change.

For the reader, the ordinary world is the baseline that allows the reader to see the changes that occur in the main character over the course of the story. If the reader doesn’t know what’s normal or routine for the main character (not just in their external world, but also their internal one of reactions, emotions, decision making, etc.), then the reader has no understanding of the effect of the events on the main character.

The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is that event, without which, nothing else in the story can occur.

In the Lord of the Rings, it’s Frodo picking up the One Ring (though you could also argue, it’s Bilbo giving up the Ring before he leaves the Shire). In Pride and Prejudice, it’s Elizabeth Bennett dancing with Mr. Darcy. In Game of Thrones, it’s Robert Baratheon’s arrival at Winterfell and Bran’s fall from the tower. In the Odyssey, it’s Hermes telling Calypso to let Odysseus go home. In Anna Karenina, it’s the titular character’s arrival, having shared her journey from St. Petersburg with Vronsky’s mother. And, in the Hunger Games, it’s when Prim is selected as tribute.

While the destabilizing incident can occur offstage and still be effective, the inciting incident needs to occur onstage where the reader can experience it (notice I say “experience” it – in contemporary fiction, it’s most effective if this moment is portrayed in scene, shown to the reader, rather than the reader being told about it in exposition).

The function of the inciting incident is to generate the energy needed to propel the main character (and the reader) into the story. Think of these two moments in your story as if the destabilizing incident lights the fuse on a stick of dynamite and the inciting incident is when the dynamite explodes.

But, wait, you say, your novel isn’t a thriller with explosive pacing, it’s literary fiction. Even so, even when the pacing of the novel and its focus is on more introspective and quite moments, the inciting incident is still the moment that propels the main character forward into the rest of the story. Austen’s pyrotechnics come from the verbal sparring that occurs between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy while they dance, setting up Elizabeth’s disdain for the recalcitrant Mr. Darcy and their subsequent interactions, including her willingness to believe Wickham’s story about Darcy cheating him of his birthright. The essential aspect of the inciting incident is that, without it, nothing else happens in the book, and that holds true no matter the book’s genre.

Typically, the inciting incident occurs somewhere around the 10-15% mark (in an 85,000 word novel, that would put it between 8,500 and 12,750 words or approximately between pages 25 and 40), though I’ve seen it effectively placed as late as page 50 in longer works. What’s absolutely essential is that the destabilizing incident creates tension for the reader, draws them forward with the awareness that something is about to change, and the inciting incident releases that tension in a way the propels the reader and the story forward. Both events need to be meaningful, organic to the central organizing principle of the story, and relate to the story’s climactic moment and ultimate resolution.

One of the reasons I chose to include this post in a series focused on getting your manuscript ready to query is because these two moments in your novel occur at the very beginning, the pages most likely to be read by an agent. Without them, the reader (whether it's an agent, editor, or someone who bought your book) doesn't have the sense of a story getting ready to be told. They're crucial moments, in the early pages of your novel, that can make the difference between engaging a reader and having the reader say, "No thanks."

And with that, I promise, the next installment of this series will deal with the final stage of revision: What the Reader Needs. See you next time!

If you'd like to hear more about how to use destabilizing and inciting incidents to create a dynamic opening for your novel, I'm speaking on this topic at the Thoughtful Book Festival on Friday, August 28, 2020. Please go HERE to reserve your tickets. 

If you’d like to receive a copy of my revision flow chart, please contact me at: diane.glaz@gmail.com

If you'd like more information about my editing services, please visit my website or contact me through email, Facebook, Twitter, or IG. I specialize in literary, upmarket, commercial, YA, contemporary women's, erotica, and fantasy, and have a diverse and international client base whose work has appeared on the NY Times best seller lists and Amazon top seller lists.

Twitter: @DeeGeeWriter
IG: diane.glaz
(If you follow me on IG, be forewarned: you'll see a lot of pictures of my Airedales and whisky)

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Is it Done Yet - Part 5: What the Story (also) Needs

This is the fifth installment aimed at helping writers know when their novel is ready to query. It's based on the presentation I made at the Las Vegas Writers Conference in April of this year, "Is It Done Yet? How to Know When Your Novel is Ready to Query"

Part 5 – Stages of Revision

Stage 3: Telling the Real Story

While Stage 2 dealt with the macroview of the manuscript (what’s working), Stage 3 looks at the microview (how is it working) with one important exception. Stage 3 is guided by your novel’s premise, the thing around which everything else in the novel turns, the thing that drives the action of your novel forward, that guides your characters’ exploration of the novel’s essential questions, and the thing that provides the narrative arc to your story.

Understanding your novel’s premise is absolutely crucial for writing a succinct and compelling query letter. It’s the number one issue I saw with query letters (and submissions) in the two and a half years I read submissions for a literary agent. As much as no writer wants to hear this, the simple truth is if you have a solid understanding of your novel’s premise, the query letter becomes fairly easy to write. I think most writers have problems with query letters because they haven’t pushed far enough into the revision process to get to this stage (let alone the final one that focuses on the reader’s experience of your story).

I’m going to repeat something I said earlier: the revision process isn’t about the number of drafts you’ve done, it’s about how close to query-ready the manuscript gets. There’s no magic number of drafts that will do the trick if you aren’t asking the right questions of the manuscript.

I also want to add that, even though I’ve broken down the revision process into stages, the stages don’t necessarily correspond to the number of revisions it will take to move the manuscript to query-ready. Some writers, especially ones with several novels under their belts, can do most of this work in a single draft, while others need several. The number of revisions may also vary from work to work. For myself, I’ve got one novel that has taken seven complete revisions and more than a decade to get to what might possibly be Stage 3 (I think I know what it’s about now and can move forward with that guiding every scene), but I’ve also just finished a novel that pretty much wrote as a polished manuscript from page one to the end.

Most of my clients seek help when they’re mired somewhere in the second or third stage and frustrated because they can’t quite get the novel to function correctly or come together as a cohesive whole. Remember, the goal is to create a fully-realized novel that’s driven forward by a central focus or organizing principal.

This is why I call Stage 3 “Telling the (Real) Story.”

This stage of revision is driven by what’s at the heart, the core, of the story you’re telling.

Every writer has something that sets them writing. The poet Richard Hugo in his marvelous book on craft The Triggering Town, talks about this moment of inspiration that propels the writer to the page. Whether it’s a line of dialogue, a situation, a character, something sets you off on this journey to write. If you’re writing a novel, that spark is big enough, intriguing enough, important enough to keep you working on it for months, years even. But, as Hugo observes, something happens to that spark and all the ideas that follow. They begin to take on a life of their own, they change and grow. New ideas, better ideas sometimes, come along and present intriguing alternatives. Sometimes, the book you thought you were writing turns out not to be the one you end up with. Sometimes a plot element or character has taken over the book and thrown the whole thing off course. The story may have all the same pieces you started out with – the same characters, the same plot, same setting and story arc – but something’s changed and the pieces don’t fit together the way you thought they would.

Or, nothing’s changed, but that incredible Franksteinian lightning bolt did not strike and, instead of being a vibrant novel brimming with life, you’ve got a collection of words that flop around in kind of an interesting manner. Sort of. If you squint in just the right light…

If you’ve worked on your draft in Stage 2 with an eye towards fully assimilating all the “ghost marks” of its creation into the forward movement of the story, you should have a fairly streamlined manuscript. All the pieces are pretty much in the right place, the pacing is pretty much on target so things happen in the narrative arc when they should, plot elements build on one another to create complexity, major characters have discernable arcs from the start of the book to the end. When I say Stage 2 deals with things on a macrolevel, this is what I mean.

The microlevel of Stage 3 is about making sure that all those elements and details are the right ones for the story you’re telling. In order to do that, you first need to understand what your story is really about.

In many ways, this is where genre writers have it easier than general fiction writers. Genres not only come with a set of conventions, they’re genres because they tell a certain type of story. Mysteries are driven by someone needing to figure out the cause of something that happened. Thrillers are driven by the need to stop something dire from happening. Romance is driven by the relationship between two (sometimes three or more, depending on your subgenre) people (Please note: this is not to say genre novels are formulaic – far from it. Part of the joy of reading genre is watching skilled writers take a well-worn trope and reinvent it or provide readers with the expected ending (the couple ends up together, the bad guys get caught) in an unexpected way. My point is that genre writers don’t have to figure out what drives their novels forward, it’s built into the genre).

Fantasy and historical fiction are a little more complicated because the stories told in these genres can be driven by a multitude of ideas, but what they have in common is the need to create a realistic world in which certain rules govern what characters can and cannot do.

It’s sometimes a bit trickier to define the premise of a general fiction novel no matter if it’s commercial, upmarket or literary because, to paraphrase Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, the whole of human existence is the writer’s subject. But figuring out what drives YOUR novel forward is crucial for being able to understand if all of your novel’s elements work in service to its basic premise. Sometimes it helps to have outside readers at this point because they can often see things that the writer is too close to recognize.
In any event, whether you’re looking at your own manuscript or asking readers to take a look, you’re looking for those elements that tie the work together, the question that underlies the novel’s narrative arc, the way in which different characters represent different aspects of an issue. This is where the microview reveals the bigger picture. The minute choices you’ve made for language, voice, details, repetition of imagery, balance between exposition and action/narration and scene, choices for point of view, setting reveal the central premise.

Yes, there will be things that don’t work or are slightly off – make note of them as you do your readthrough but don’t try to fix them yet. This is the moment to get brutally honest with yourself and flag those passages or scenes you love but are secretly hoping no one notices that they don’t work or you think “yes, but…” when you read them or you flat out get a sinking feeling in your stomach. Listen to your intuition here and be as honest as you can. You’re not cutting anything yet, you’re just seeking to find those soft places where the novel doesn’t live up to what you envision.

The good news here, by the way, is that most often the problem is one of execution. One of my guiding principles as an editor is: honor the impulse. Nine times out of ten, what I see is that the writer had the correct impulse for a scene or a detail, but the execution was off – the scene happens at the wrong moment, the writer backed off putting pressure on the characters at a crucial moment, a detail doesn’t quite have the impact the writer is looking for to create a multi-layered image, the element only functions on the most surface level rather than resonates with other elements in the story.

In one of my own novels, my main character sees someone he hasn’t seen since they were younger. I wanted there to be a moment of confusion but some way for my MC to recognize this character. Initially, the character had a shortened ring finger on his left hand – the result of an accident when he was young – but I knew that wasn’t the correct detail. It didn’t resonate with anything else in the book, and, this recognition scene was important because it sets up elements that happen at the book’s climax. So, the detail had to be right. When I pushed into, questioned the detail against the central premise of the novel, it opened up an entire subplot that was absolutely perfect, and I realized the detail I needed wasn’t a shortened ring finger (surface level detail that only helps my MC recognize this other character) but a ring (detail that resonates with other themes of the book and has a payoff in the climactic scene). Honoring the impulse that led me to focus on the character’s hands but questioning the execution and making the choice more conscious, led me to the perfect detail.

This is the level of interrogation that needs to happen in Stage 3. You’re looking for the central premise, the question you’re exploring, the element that drives all the action forward. This is the central organizing principal for your novel and the thing that all the other elements work in service to. Stage 3 is about defining it and evaluating all the elements of your story against it.

Another timeline exercise?

Yup. This one is a little different, though. This timeline puts every event that is mentioned in your book (whether it appears on stage or off) in chronological order. There are several reasons for doing this. One, it will help you see where the story might still be bogging down with backstory. Two, it helps you see what backstory is necessary and how those events interrelate (this is especially important if you’re novel is non-linear). Three, when I do this exercise for clients’ books, I often find the very first event in the chronology is important for finding what the book is about and helps guide the writer toward recognizing the essential question.

At the end of Stage 3, you should have a real sense of what your book is about, and every element of the story works to explore, deepen, complicate, understand, and communicate that idea.

In the next post, I cover a necessary and important part of Stage 3: correctly locating and using your novel's destabilizing and inciting incidents to create the dynamic opening contemporary publishing demands. 

If you’d like to receive a copy of my revision flow chart, please contact me

If you'd like more information about my editing services, please visit my website or contact me through email or on Facebook, Twitter, or IG. I specialize in literary, upmarket, commercial, YA, contemporary women's, erotica, and fantasy, and have a diverse and international client base who's work has appeared on the NY Times best seller lists and Amazon top seller lists.
Twitter: @DeeGeeWriter

IG: diane.glaz
(If you follow me on IG, be forewarned: you'll see a lot of pictures of my Airedales and whisky)

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Is It Done Yet? Part 4 – What the Story Needs

This is the fourth installment aimed at helping writers know when their novel is ready to query. It's based on the presentation I made at the Las Vegas Writers Conference in April of this year, "Is It Done Yet? How to Know When Your Novel is Ready to Query"

Part 4 – Stages of Revision

What the Story Needs

In Part 3, I talked about the first stage of revision, Telling (Yourself) the Story. Essentially, a Stage 1 manuscript is driven by what the writer needs to know or discovers about their characters, plot, story, etc. There’s often a good-sized chunk of backstory or core dump of research. A Stage 1 manuscript sometimes withholds crucial information until the end of the novel, which leaves the reader guessing about character motivation or being bewildered about the situation a character is in.

In the previous post, I explained that this often happens because the writer has completed that first draft and moved on to editing without taking the time to understand the story they’re telling. They assume that the backstory they needed to write is an essential element of the story or that the withheld information builds suspense. Sometimes it does, but most of the time those elements need to be more fully digested and integrated into the story for the novel to move forward in a dynamic way.

This is why the next steps are an important part of the revision process. Stage 2, Telling the Story, and Stage 3, Telling the Real Story, are driven by the needs of the story. These stages ask you to take a look at what you put on the page at both the macro and micro level and turn all the subconscious choice you made while writing into conscious choices that work in service to the larger story.

In order to do that, there are two things you need to do before you begin revising:

Read your draft – Just read it as quickly as you can without making any changes. No matter how painful this is (and it is sometimes VERY painful), it’s important for you to get a sense of the draft as a whole.

Reading the draft is important because it’s difficult to get a good feel for the rhythm of your novel while you’re writing it because some scenes take forever to write but are very quick to read, while other scenes that go on for pages may only take us a few hours to write.

You also catch things like continuity errors (Did you change the name of a character halfway through the novel? Change a detail in the character’s history? Leave a subplot unresolved because you realized it wasn’t working?) and repetitions of ideas, phrases, imagery, etc. Take notes if it makes you feel more comfortable, but don’t get bogged down in revising just yet.

If it’s distracting to do this on either your computer or hard copy, I recommend emailing your manuscript to your Kindle reader. It will show up, formatted as a book, in your library (you can find the email address for your device on the Amazon homepage – scroll to the bottom and click on “Manage Your Content and Devices”).

Create a timeline – this isn’t just a scene-by-scene outline of your novel (another tool that’s useful if you’re feeling ambitious), but a timeline of your story with indications of scenes that are in the present storytelling moment (á), scenes that are backstory or flashbacks (â), or digressions (à).

This exercise does two things. 1) it helps you see the novel more objectively because you’re not reading it as much as processing the information, and 2) it gives you a visual of how often the forward movement of the novel is suspended, breaking what John Gardner called “the continuous dream of the novel.”

This is why I make such a big deal about backstory. Every time you interrupt the present storytelling moment and break the forward flow of the action, the reader has to do a mental recalibration to locate your characters within the story (How old are they? Where are they living? What was the last thing that happened to them?). And every time the reader leaves the dreamlike state and goes into their head, you give the real world a chance to intrude – What do I have to do today? What time is it? – and risk the reader putting down your book, possibly never to return.

So now you’re armed with some important information about your draft. You’ve got a sense of what is and isn’t working, as well as a sense of what’s essential to the story and what you needed to write in order to tell it. Now it’s time to turn to…

Stage 2: Telling the Story

One of the biggest mistakes I think writers make is believing that everything they wrote during a Stage 1 draft is important to their story. It is very important and necessary to the writer because it’s the way we discover the story we’re really telling. But it’s not necessarily important to the actual story or to the reader.

Stage 2 is about fully assimilating the hallmarks of the story’s creation and making active, conscious choices about how the story is being told. Revision here is focused on the questions of what it is:
·       the novel’s structure (is it linear or modular; chronological or asynchronous)
·       the novel’s market – literary (language driven), upmarket (character driven), or commercial (plot driven)
·       its genre and the genre’s conventions (does it conform to reader expectations or subvert them?)
·       pacing (does the novel hit the right turn or complication at the right time for its market?)
·       POV (single, multiple, 1st, 3rd? Does that choice give you the best vantage point from which to tell the story?)
·       descriptions/details/setting (do they work in harmony or do they feel “off”)
·       what questions does your novel explore and do the choices you’ve made work in service to them?
·       information flow (what gets revealed when)

Of these, the last one is where the timeline comes in. If you see a lot of breaks from the present storytelling moment, take a look at the backstory or flashback moments and decide what the most relevant pieces of information are. Is there a way to convey this information in the present moment of the story through character action or reaction? In the details of a scene or the setting?

In my work as an editor, I most often see writers using backstory within the first fifty pages as a way to give the reader information about their character or the situation the writer thinks they need to know. In real life, this isn’t how we get to know people or understand the world. There isn’t a narrator to sit us down and give us someone’s entire history, so we’ve become very good at discovering patterns of behavior and learning in the moment. The same is true when we want readers to get to know our characters and the world in which they live. Finding ways to integrate the important information is more natural to the way people learn and discover.

Another thing to pay attention to as you revise is what I call “real estate vs payoff.” How much space are you giving in your novel to minute pieces of information? One of the first books I edited back when I was working for a literary agent, was a mystery that took 65 pages to set up the very first clue. Usually, that first clue in a mystery is pretty low stakes, the more important pieces of information will come later as the plot becomes more complicated and the situation more dire. I suggested summarizing most of the original setup, streamlining the scene where the information is revealed so only the most relevant parts of the conversation were rendered in dialogue, and simplifying what leads the main character to this moment in the first place. The result rebalanced the pacing of the novel, so this first clue took up space (real estate) was more in line with how important (payoff) it was to the overall story.

The same is true no matter what genre you write. A literary novel I worked on recently took roughly 5% of the entire novel to explain a small detail of how the world of this novel functions. By integrating that facet into the way characters interact from the very first page, the explanation wasn’t necessary. This, again, is a part of paying attention to the difference between what you (the writer) need to write to create the world and what the reader needs to see or know to understand it.

The main thing to keep in mind when working on this revision is paying attention to what’s truly essential to the story and what isn't. 

Up next: Stage 3 – Telling the Real Story (I’ll try to make it a shorter blog post, but I’m not promising anything).

If you’d like to receive a copy of my revision flow chart, please contact me at: diane.glaz@gmail.com

If you'd like more information about my editing services, please visit my website or contact me through email, Facebook, Twitter, or IG. I specialize in literary, upmarket, commercial, YA, contemporary women's, erotica, and fantasy, and have a diverse and international client base whose work has appeared on the NY Times best seller lists and Amazon top seller lists.

Twitter: @DeeGeeWriter
IG: diane.glaz
(If you follow me on IG, be forewarned: you'll see a lot of pictures of my Airedales and whisky)

Monday, June 1, 2020

Is It Done Yet? Part 3 - What the Writer Needs

This is the third installment aimed at helping writers know when their novel is ready to query. The series is based on the presentation I made at the Las Vegas Writers Conference in April of this year, "Is It Done Yet? How to Know When Your Novel is Ready to Query"

Part 3 – What the Writer Needs

The goal of revision is to produce a fully realized novel. As I said in part 1 of this series, a fully realized novel is one in which all the novel’s elements work together to create the dynamic forward movement that propels the characters (and the reader) from the first word to the in a satisfying and unified manner. There is a clear and well-defined premise or central question that organizes the plot, characters, theme, setting, relevant details, structure, information flow, and sequence of scenes. In a fully realized novel, everything that is on the page has a purpose and a payoff and is relevant and necessary to create the overall effect of the work.

This is why, in my editing work, I don’t pay a lot of attention to the number of revisions writers tell me they’ve completed. There’s no magic number of revisions after which the manuscript is suddenly done. Instead, I look at revision in terms of stages. Without understanding the stages, it’s difficult to know what work you need to do in order to bring the novel into its fully realized form, and a lot of the issues that I see in clients’ work stems from issues that arose in the initial stage of writing and were never integrated into the story.

I want to stop for a moment and define my use of “story” vs “plot.” There are a number of definitions out there, but this is how I think about them and how I will be using them in these posts. 

Plot is the string of events that occur within the scope and timeline of your novel (this includes events that happen “off-camera”).

Example: the king died; the queen died

Story is the connective tissue that creates meaning between the events, their effect on the characters, and the selection of details used to provide context.

Example: the kind died, then the queen died of grief.
Or: the king was poisoned by his brother, and the queen, knowing nothing of this, married the brother to keep her crown, only to die when she drank poison her new husband intended for her son.
Or: the king encounters a young man on the road who refuses to move out of his way. The two fight, and the king is killed. The young man eventually comes to a new city where he meets the queen, they fall in love, and marry. Years later, when hardship strikes the city, it is revealed that the young man is actually the queen’s son. The queen goes mad and kills herself.

So when I talk about the story or writing in service to your story, I am talking about it in these terms.

Stage 1: Telling (Yourself) the Story
No matter if you are a plotter or a pantser, there’s no getting around this one because it is the very basic stage of taking your idea from inspiration to completed first (or zero) draft.
I liken this stage to when you do or experience something. In the moment, it simply happens. You don’t necessarily know what the outcome is going to be, so you don’t have the perspective yet to know what’s going to be the most important aspect of the experience. You don’t know what was relevant before it happened, that maybe gave you warning about it, and you don’t know yet where to direct your reader’s attention. You’re figuring all that out as you write or outline.  

This stage is driven by the writer’s needs. What do you, the writer, need to know in order to tell this story? What do you need to know about your characters in order to make them compelling, know their conflicts, their reactions, who they are? What world do you need to build around your characters (even if you aren’t writing SF/F or spec fic, you still build a world within your novel that has rules specific to your story. In general fiction, most of the rules mirror the world we live in, but there are still rules that govern how your character interacts with friends, families, work peers, etc., that have an effect on your novel) in order for it to be the most effective container for your story?

This stage is about discovery, and most writers have to write A LOT more than the reader will ever need to know in order to figure these things out. In addition, the things the reader truly needs to know may only arrive on the page after two or three pages of backstory, scene setting, dialogue, etc. Most of the decisions you make at this stage are not going to be conscious or deliberate. Happy accidents, synergy and inspiration, sudden connections and realizations abound in this initial draft, and, often times, the completed Stage 1 draft reflects this.

A completed Stage 1 manuscript will often contain a lot of backstory, especially in the first 50 pages. The writer needed to write the backstory because the writer needed to know these things about the character or the situation, and writers often leave these “core dumps” of backstory in the draft where the ideas occurred to them.

The advice I most often give to clients is: 1) backstory is not story, and 2) backstory ONLY becomes relevant to the reader when it informs the forward movement of the narrative. I’ll come back to this more when I discuss the next stages of revision.

Some of the other hallmarks of a completed Stage 1 manuscript (and remember, all this is fine at Stage 1 while you’re discovering your story, it’s what the manuscript SHOULD be doing here):
-        “Withheld” information: I put withheld in quotes because I think what happens during the initial writing is the writer discovers something really wonderful about the character or the situation. Instead of incorporating it earlier and building the foundation for it, the writer holds back that information thinking it will be a dramatic twist or character reveal. The problem here is that, without knowing that piece of information, the reader might not be able to understand your character’s motivation. My second most-given piece of advice to clients: the drama is not in the thing (the reveal), the drama is in your character’s reaction to the thing, the complications is causes, and the way in which your character resolves it. In most cases, and in most genres, you actually increase tension and drama by letting your reader in on it.

-        False starts and disjointed second or third acts: this occurs because the writer started off in one direction and wrote toward this new idea without going back to the earlier pages and revising them to build the foundation for the new resolution or complication.

-        Mushy middles/second or third acts: basically, it feels like characters are wandering around in search of a plot or that thing happens, thing happens, thing happens, without the connective sense of story that gives meaning and subtext to those plot points. Events in the novel feel contrived rather than arising organically from the characters and their conflicts. There can also be a lot of what I call “place holder” scenes where the writer knows something needs to happen but hasn’t chosen quite the right something in the right place yet.

-        Character overreactions: this is another form of place holding is caused because the writer knows the character needs to react but doesn’t know the character well enough yet to understand the nuances of their reactions nor know how to chart their character’s growth through their reactions – I see a lot of characters who yell, scream, shriek, become furious, pound walls, slam doors, behave in ways that most adults don’t in public.

-        Irrelevant details: overly descriptive scenes, expansive cast of characters, authorial intrusion.

All of these are examples of the creative marks left by the need to tell yourself the story before you can move on to Stage 2: Telling the Story, and Stage 3: Telling the Real Story, and are necessary parts of a stories creation. As I said before, writers need to write a lot more than readers will ever need to know. We have to create whole worlds and entire people in our heads in order for them to feel real to us, and we need them to feel real to us, so can they feel real to our readers.

One of the biggest mistakes I think writers make is believing that everything they wrote during a Stage 1 draft is important to their story. It’s not. It is very important and very valuable to the writer, but the distinction I’ll be making in my next posts is learning what is important to your story (Stage 2, which focuses on information flow and making active, conscious choices about the elements of your novel, and Stage 3, which focuses on your novel’s essential questions, what drives its forward movement, and ) and what is important to your reader (Stage 4).

In Part 4, I turn my attention to the What the Story Needs and look at how to develop your novel's central organizing principle. 

If you’d like to receive a copy of my revision flow chart, please contact me at: diane.glaz@gmail.com

If you'd like more information about my editing services, please visit my website or contact me through email, Facebook, Twitter, or IG. I specialize in literary, upmarket, commercial, YA, contemporary women's, erotica, and fantasy, and have a diverse and international client base whose work has appeared on the NY Times best seller lists and Amazon top seller lists.

Twitter: @DeeGeeWriter
IG: diane.glaz
(If you follow me on IG, be forewarned: you'll see a lot of pictures of my Airedales and whisky)

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Is It Done Yet? Part 2 – Know Your Genre

Part 2 – Know Your Genre

This is the second installment aimed at helping writers know when their novel is ready to query. It's based on the presentation I made at the Las Vegas Writers Conference in April of this year, "Is It Done Yet? How to Know When Your Novel is Ready to Query"

In the previous post, I said I would talk about identifying the stages of revision, but I realized I need to back up a bit and talk about one of the most basic steps for knowing when your manuscript is ready to query.

Do you know your novel’s genre?

Surprisingly, there are a lot of writers out there querying who don’t, and this is such an important question because if you don’t know your genre, you won’t know which agents are more likely to represent your work and you may not understand the conventions of the genre. Every genre, from literary (and, yes, literary is a fiction genre) to historical fiction to thrillers has conventions that the readers of the genre are not only familiar with, they expect. Those conventions cover everything from use of language to pacing to what drives the action of your novel forward. A mystery without a crime to solve, isn’t a mystery. A romance without a relationship at its core isn’t a romance. And a literary novel that doesn’t turn on deeper aspects of human consciousness and the writer’s use of language isn’t a literary novel.

Understanding and reading in your chosen genre not only helps you find comp titles when it’s time to query, but it also helps you avoid overworked tropes and genre clichés (or use them to your advantage by subverting those tropes), and recognize other conventions that vary from genre to genre, such as the average number of pages and word count.

In addition, most agents only represent a select number of genres. Besides personal preference, agents specialize because it allows them to get to know the imprints and the editors who acquire books in those genres. They understand the current marketplace demands for those books and are familiar with the genre’s conventions. So, if you query, say, a serial killer thriller with only one murder that takes place over halfway through the book and no plot line about someone trying to stop the murder from occurring, you’re likely to receive a slue of rejections because the readers of the genre expect a fast pace, a string of murders that happen during the course of the book, and tension derived from the attempts to save the next victim, and the agent knows they’ll be hard pressed to find a publisher.

The Large Buckets for Fiction – Commercial, Upmarket, and Literary

Though some people call these terms “genre” as well, I prefer to call them “categories” so there’s less confusion.

The first question you want to answer about your novel is where it falls on the market spectrum. These are the big bucket categories of commercial, upmarket, and literary. Like genre, each of these categories has conventions, but they’re pretty straight forward. And, please remember, these are generalizations, and these terms have nothing to do with the quality of the writing.

In general:
·       Commercial is driven by the plot
·       Upmarket is driven by the characters
·       Literary is driven by the language

Commercial fiction – like Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, Suzanne Collins, Stephen King – is driven by the plot. It’s fast paced, oriented more toward what happens than character development (note: sometimes commercial fiction is also labeled "genre" fiction, which means that it conforms to the tropes of the genre rather than subverting them or commenting on them, as a reader would expect for an upmarket or literary mystery or YA or fantasy, etc).

Upmarket fiction – like Sara Gruen, Jennifer Egan, Nick Hornby, Gillian Flynn, Emma Donoghue, Khaled Hosseini – is focused on the character. There’s more emphasis on how the character reacts and changes over the course of the novel as well as an increased need for the character to be well-rounded and compelling.

Literary fiction – like Donna Tartt, Margaret Atwood, Anthony Doerr, Ian McEwen, Cormac McCarthy, Celeste Ng, George Saunders – turns on the writer’s use of language and deeper explorations of psychological and experiential meaning. (I’ll have to do a future blog post about meeting Margaret Atwood a few years ago and our conversation during which she admonished me several times that writing was “all about the language.”) Literary novels can be slower paced (though not always) because readers read for the nuances of the language and expect stories that aren’t as straight-forward as books in the other categories.

The major difference between books in these categories (and there is some overlap depending on the personal tastes of whoever is creating the list) is what drives the novel forward. Going back to the previous post, it’s the question of your novel’s central focus or question. If your novel is focused on the question of what happened, it’s likely you’re writing commercial fiction. If your novel is exploring what happened and the effect it has on the characters involved, you’re probably writing upmarket fiction. And if you’re exploring a philosophical construct or ideas about consciousness and memory, the odds are good you’re writing literary.

Genre – History, Mystery, and Romance, Oh My!

Now that you’ve figured out your category, it’s time to look at the question of genre. As I said above, identifying genre is important because it helps you narrow down your agent search and understand the marketplace.

A good place to start (though a tad overwhelming) is the BookIndustry Study Group’s listing of fiction genres. It’s a comprehensive (and exhaustive) list of genres and subgenres that’s used by the publishing industry (including Amazon) to group like books together. It’s also a good resource for writers who want to identify their genre and, in the case of large genres like SF/F, mystery, romance, and historical, their book’s subgenre as well. For example, there are sixteen subgenres for mystery including cozy, hard-boiled detective, police procedural, and historical. For romance, there are forty-seven including Regency, contemporary, Christian, military, and historical.

You’ll notice “historical” shows up as a subgenre for both mystery and romance, while there are also historical romances, historical mysteries, and historical thrillers under the historical fiction heading. The question of how you label your book goes back to the idea of what drives the forward movement of the story. If the central focus of the novel is the coming together of a couple set in Jane Austen’s time, it’s likely a Regency romance, but if the relationship is a subplot and the main focus is the protagonist’s attempt to stop a bomb exploding, it’s a thriller (think the Keanu Reeves/ Sandra Bullock movie, Speed – the main focus is the bomb on the bus, a subplot is the relationship that develops between Jack and Annie as they attempt to thwart the bomber). Always look to what the novel’s main focus is when attempting to label its genre.

So What Does All This Mean??????

What all this really boils down to is being able to identify the agents who represent the type of novel you’re writing AND giving the agents the kind of novel they want to read.

This is important because an agent won’t represent a book, no matter how well written or marketable, in a genre with which they are not familiar. When I was reading submissions for the literary agent, we received a spectacular query that identified the book as a mystery, which the agent represented. I recommended she ask for the full manuscript, which she did, but about 100 pages into the novel, I realized the novel wasn’t a mystery at all. It was a thriller, which this agent didn’t represent, and so the manuscript was rejected. Similarly, the agent represented historical fiction and was quite specific about the time period in which she was particularly interested: the American industrial revolution. We received a very good query for a novel set in the Roman era but the agent declined because it wasn’t a time period with which she was familiar enough to know if the author was getting the details right and she didn’t want to risk looking foolish to an editor by sending something that got major historical facts wrong.

What this also comes down to is sounding professional from the first line of your query letter: I am seeking representation for my upmarket contemporary women’s novel OR my commercial legal thriller OR my genre millionaire/billionaire romance OR literary amateur sleuth mystery…

In addition, knowing your specific genre is also important because it helps you find comp titles. Remember I said Amazon uses the genre/subgenre list? If you do a search for, say, bestselling dystopian fiction or bestselling cozy mysteries, you'll find comp titles to use in your query letter. 

Now that the ground work has been laid, let's take a look at the stages of revision starting with What the Writer Needs in the next post.  

If you’d like to receive a copy of my revision flow chart, please contact me at: diane.glaz@gmail.com

If you'd like more information about my editing services, please visit my website or contact me through email, Facebook, Twitter, or IG. I specialize in literary, upmarket, commercial, YA, contemporary women's, erotica, and fantasy, and have a diverse and international client base whose work has appeared on the NY Times best seller lists and Amazon top seller lists.

Twitter: @DeeGeeWriter
IG: diane.glaz

(If you follow me on IG, be forewarned: you'll see a lot of pictures of my Airedales and whisky)