Agent Monday: About Those Form Rejections

Office Worker with Mountain of PaperworkHappy Agent Monday, everyone! It’s been a VERY busy time for me, filled with deadlines and travel and pitching and meetings. Yet I have been able to weigh in on plenty of queries that have pinged into my inbox. And I couldn’t have done that without the help of my form rejection letter. Writers don’t exactly love these, of course, but I thought I’d share a bit of perspective on why these aren’t SUCH a bad thing.

First of all, here’s my form rejection letter:

Thanks so much for sending me your query. I’m going to pass on this one because I found it didn’t spark my interest.

I wish you the best in finding a home for your work.

Sincerely,
Marie

Here’s the good thing about an agent using a form rejection letter: it enables her to respond more quickly to queries. By using this, I can zoom through a number of queries at a time and let writers know as quickly as I can that I am not the right agent for them. That way the writer can move on.

I’m a writer myself, and have received more than my fair share of rejection letters. I know rejection can sting, but I also know that it is part of this business. There is nothing I as an agent can say in a rejection letter that will truly take away that sting. All I can do is let you know that I’ve seen your piece, that it’s not for me, and to wish you well. I do make the effort to address the writer personally in my reply, and take care that I spell the name correctly, but beyond that I generally don’t personalize the letter.

Why the “didn’t spark my interest” line? Because that’s what it’s all about. And if my interest isn’t sparked by your query and pasted-in pages, that means I don’t feel intrigued enough to see more of this work.

That’s the function of such a note. Okay, now I’m saying this next part as not only an agent but as a writer: A rejection letter’s purpose doesn’t also involve making a writer feel better and inspired. That’s not to say it is meant to tear a writer down, BUT this is a business, and agents that you query are not there to hold hands and whisper encouraging words and inspire you to continue to scale great heights and pursue your dreams.

You need to get that inspiration elsewhere. From your writing, from you own community of supporters. Most of all, from yourself. That’s the stuff that will keep you going.

I’m saying this because sometimes (more than you might think) writers respond to my form rejection asking me for more. Much more. Can I give them an example of what would spark my interest? Can I point out what, specifically, made me pass? If they changed such and such, would that work? Do they have what it takes? Should they keep going? Are they wasting their time?

Responding to these questions? Not my job. If I did that sort of hand holding and career counseling and soul searching for every one of the hundreds of queries I receive, I would never have sold a single book for any one of my clients. Instead I would be too busy trying to help every writer who has ever pressed SEND toward my inbox. Something to think about…

So I’m hoping this post is a bit of a reality check for folks who are querying. A form rejection letter isn’t the end of your career. It isn’t a statement about every effort you’ve ever made to become a better writer. It is simply a response to your query, sent in as timely a way as possible. And it lets you know that you need to seek a different agent, because I’m not the one for you.

Yes, I’ve rejected queries for books I’ve later seen as sold projects on Publishers Marketplace. And I’m happy for those authors. They didn’t give up. The query I’d received presented a book that wasn’t my cup of tea, and perhaps never would have been right for my taste. Or perhaps they polished their query and opening pages after too many form rejections, and therefore did spark the right agent’s interest.

Remember, this IS a subjective business. A project that isn’t right for me, could be just the right thing for another agent.

Like I said, it’s been a VERY busy season for me here, with tons of hours spent every day working with my clients and with editors at publishing houses. Yet I’m currently up to March 1st in my query responses (trust me, that’s pretty good). And I’ve also been able to respond to other more recent queries too, if I see immediately that they aren’t right for me. (Please look at my guidelines here, so you’ll know what I am looking for and what I definitely don’t want…)

Thanks to the form rejection letter, those writers aren’t left hanging longer than needed. See? Glass half full!

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

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Agent Monday: How Fast Do Agents Respond to Clients?

Speed skaterHappy Agent Monday! Almost spring time. Take THAT little mound of dirty snow left in the parking lot! Last week I talked a bit about how fast editors respond to agents. This week I’d like to chat about how quickly a writer can expect their own agent to respond to a manuscript when they submit it to that agent. A hot second? A day? A week? A month? Several months? The answer is YES. Here’s why.

Okay, I don’t know about you, but I am only one person with one set of eyes, and two hands, and I have a list of clients. Unfortunately there is no organized scheduling of when my clients submit manuscripts or revisions of manuscripts to me. They finish them and hit send.

That means that in a given week, I can suddenly have 6 full-length novels ping into my inbox for a careful review and response. And they can arrive on top of a stack of already received manuscripts from clients. So, the clock starts ticking in a writer’s mind… They expect a quick turnaround. A month at the most, right? Isn’t that what other writer’s get from THEIR agents? Well… not exactly.

Some agents might hand these off to readers, who will respond to the writer with comments – in that case, the agent may not even see the manuscript. Me? I always read my client manuscripts myself. That takes time. Perhaps some projects don’t require a lot of time, and can be quickly handled and answered. If that’s the case, I might be able to flip it back to the writer ahead of other projects in my queue. This can happen with a quick polish where the changes have been tracked, or with a very clean manuscript that needs just a read, or with a shorter manuscript, like a picture book or chapter book that is in great shape. Other projects DO require time and thoughtful comments. Tick tock, right?

And since the agent is only human (gasp – WHAT???), other things should be factored into the writer’s expectations. Things like: did I submit it just before the Christmas holidays? If so, while the agent might be doing work during that time, should it be expected and counted as work time? Hm. Perhaps consider those two weeks off. How about if the agent is off at conferences within this time period? Perhaps spending a few days at BEA and then presenting elsewhere. That will set the clock back a bit (by the way, you DO want your agent doing these things, since it ups their visibility and contacts with editors). And while your manuscript is there with her, it is 99% likely that other manuscripts ahead of yours are also being pitched, and authors are calling, and editors are emailing, and film rights people are demanding attention, and fires are being put out.

So, message to writers: Don’t expect a month turnaround. Expect your agent to do her best.

What do I do when client manuscripts come in to me? Well, I always acknowledge receipt and let them know I’ll get to it as soon as I can. Next I log it into a spread sheet, so I know exactly what came in when, and what is still pending. And I let that list nag at me. I’m one of those people who hates having things unfinished – so I am ALWAYS aware of what I still need to do. I then typically take those projects on one by one. The exception? A quick turnaround project. If I have a tiny bit of time where I can’t even begin to get into a novel, but I can finish up on responding to something shorter, then, yup, I’ll get it back to the writer ahead of others.

My clients are a prolific bunch. So that leads to another exception: multiple projects spilling in from the same client. Okay, so if you do send me a novel in need of heavy revision, and it’s logged in, then two weeks later, you send me a shorter project, or one that is nearer to completion and that I see is nearly market ready, I will take that one and work with you to get it out into the world. What does that mean for the other novel that is tick tocking away in my spreadsheet? It means I stop the clock on that one till the other is complete.

That’s important for writers to know. I will go back to the original project, but I also do represent other writers. I’m moving all of your careers forward in every way I can, which means that I can’t drop everyone else for weeks or months while I’m working on everything that’s come in from you.

Okay, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE a prolific client. But it’s a step by step business. It’s okay to check in on projects and to see where things stand. Your agent-writer communication is important. And it’s also important to know that the “well, my agent ALWAYS gets back to me in a month” comment from other writers needs to be taken with a vat of salt. If you find yourself waiting more than a month, I say look at the real situation at hand. Is a month realistic for your project, given the form it’s in? Is your agent responding personally to your submissions while others get “reader’s reports” perhaps? Is the timing a factor? (Holidays, conferences, etc.?) Is the agent already amid another project from you, and therefore dealing with that one first? Or have you since sent one (or more than one) project that is a hotter property or a quicker turnaround, and therefore keeping her currently busy? Just how busy is your agent?

Chances are good that she is VERY busy. I’m working ALL the time on my client’s behalf. So trust in that. Communicate. Being aware of all that she is dealing with can help you to see what is realistic.

Then write more while you are waiting!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

Agent Monday: Trust your Gut

IMAG1006Happy Agent Monday, everyone! It feels like summer has truly arrived. Today, I thought I’d talk a little bit about feelings… or rather, intuition. In a few weeks, my  wonderful author Tracey Baptiste and I will be presenting a talk on the author/agent relationship at the NJ SCBWI Conference. What should a writer look for in an agent? How can a writer know if an agent will be right for her? There are many things writers should consider, but Tracey pointed out one factor that is often overlooked: Intuition. She told me, “As soon as I talked to you, I just knew.” Something about the ease of conversation, about our shared wacky humor…  Um, I’m not sure WHAT she means about that (see our picture here from BEA for clues, perhaps?). So here’s the big question. Are you trusting your gut?

I definitely am. When something is right, I just know it. As a writer myself, I listen to what feels important to me, and I pour my heart and soul into writing that. As an agent, I look for that gut reaction to what is submitted to me. I often pass on projects that I know I could sell, but that just don’t feel right for me. I trust my intuition to guide me to the books that I feel have true heart and importance. Sure, I have a checklist of things that I’m looking for, but there’s something more. That just knowing when it’s right. And when I speak with an author, I’m also tuned into whether or not we are communicating well and whether or not we share the same goals and expectations.

What about you? Do you listen to your gut enough? When looking for an agent, you should do all those things you know to do when researching them. But, when an offer comes in, you know what I’m going to say…TRUST YOUR GUT. Because at this point, it’s not about getting an agent, it’s about getting the right agent. This is a business partnership you want to last throughout your career. You are entrusting your “baby” to this person. Does it feel right?

Many writers are so thrilled to get any offer of representation that they are eager to just say YES! I always tell writers I make offers to that they should wait a few days to let me know their answer. I know I risk that author changing their mind, but I want this to be the right decision for both of us. I want them to think it through and really feel good about our partnership.

So when you get that offer, I advise you to pause. Think, can you communicate well with this person? Do you feel confident about them? Is there something they say that bothers you on some level? If so, don’t brush it aside because you are so anxious to get representation. Pay attention to your gut. Ask questions.

In Tracey’s case, she said she just knew we were a great match as soon as we talked on the phone. Yes, I told her to take a few days. To let other agents reading her manuscript weigh in during that time. And to let me know. I wanted it to be right for her. She trusted her gut, though, and just told the other agents thank you but I have an agent, and then she accepted my offer. It wasn’t the way many “how-to” articles tell you to do it, but it was the right way for her.

I’m happy to say that Tracey’s manuscript THE JUMBIES was then sold to Algonquin Books for Young Readers, and that it’ll come out in 2015!  Here we are at BEA a few weeks ago with her awesome editor Elise Howard.

Elise Howard, Tracey Baptiste and me BEA 2014I knew as soon as I read this book that it was something special. I knew as soon as I spoke with Tracey that she would be a delight to work with. Tracey knew as soon as she spoke with me that I was her agent. And Elise at Algonquin knew as soon as she read THE JUMBIES that this was the right book for her list.

Trust your gut!

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

 

Agent Monday: Meeting Face to Face

MP900387533Happy Agent Monday!  Last week was just TOOOOO busy for posting.  The Book Expo America (BEA) conference was held in NYC last week, and I was there all day Wednesday. That meant prepping for the event (figuring out which booths to visit, which editors I wanted to meet up with, which clients’ books I was going to do some “market research” on, which events I wanted to attend, which other authors/agents were attending that I could say hi to, etc. etc. etc.)….  The day itself was awesome. There’s just something about seeing people…about meeting face to face.

At BEA I was able to talk with some fabulous editors who had only been a voice on the phone, or, in the case of one London editor, a “voice” in emails. Sitting with these people, relating our enthusiasm about their publishing line, about my clients, is energizing. As they say in one of my fav mindless programs The Bachelorette (new episode tonight – woot!), we had an awesome connection.

I also loved being able to talk at depth with various publishers’ head sales people. Where were their lines headed? What was their vision as a house? What did they hope to publish more of? These people were fabulous in giving me all the juicy details. I scoured the exhibit floor, pulling catalogs of smaller publishers, eyeballing the very best in literary presses, seeing who had the most innovative new approaches.

One of the supremely thrilling things about BEA is seeing so many people in one spot who are completely devoted to the written word. Hoards of readers and authors and editors and publishers and agents and booksellers, lugging bags filled with ARC’s and catalogs. The excitement was palpable.

Yes, all of this was fab. But I had one other face to face ahead of me at the end of the day – a dinner with one of my clients who I’d not met yet. And I couldn’t wait!

It may seem strange to think that I have clients I haven’t even met yet, but that’s the way it often goes. Of course I feel like I know that author the moment I fall in love with his or her writing. Their personalities are all over those pages – that’s what we mean by “voice.” But still, I wonder will that person be just like I’d imagined? Will I be like they imagine?

For those of you about to meet your own agent for the first time, whether it’s at a conference or for coffee or for dinner – I want to remind you of something: you are already their client!  This is a happy moment to connect face to face and deepen your relationship…or, as they say on The Bachelorette, “to take things to the next level.” So relax and be yourself. You don’t need to sell yourself. Phew, right?

It’s a great time to learn a little more about each other, to talk about your journey as an author, to share more of your dreams, but also just to hang out and see what else you have in common.

But also remember that it is still a business relationship you are forging here. So that means you arrive on time, dress appropriately, and try to keep things as positive as possible. If you need to share concerns, definitely do. If the agent asks you about your relationship with a past editor or agent, be honest, but don’t be a gossip or dig dirt for dirt diggin’s sake. And you don’t need the meet up to be all about business or even slightly about business if it isn’t needed.  A lunch or dinner that is 99% hanging out with just a few biz-related questions tossed in is just fine too.

In the end, you want to feel more connected to your agent, to understand them better, and to enjoy  their company. And visa versa.

So, after BEA, I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and having dinner with my client Tracey Baptiste! She was on-time, and smiling, and we hugged immediately – she’s part of my agency family, after all. We had a lively dinner filled with laughter and experience-swapping, and talking about her future and both of our wacky paths to this moment. And we ended with some exquisite desserts and another hug.

I’ll soon be pitching Tracey’s exquisite middle grade novel THE JUMBIE SEED, about a girl who unwittingly draws out the jumbies, malicious monsters inhabiting her island’s woods, and soon discovers she has more in common with these creatures than she could have ever imagined. I can’t wait to send this one out to publishers…and now, after meeting Tracey face to face, I’m more excited than ever.

Here’s the thing: I always feel passionate about my clients and their work and I feel an almost mother-bear like protectiveness about them. I want them to thrive!  After I meet a client face-to-face, I have a face – voice – and fully formed person even more in my mind when I think of them. Mother bear to the max! After meeting Tracey in person, I know without a doubt that not only will a publisher be fortunate to have her manuscript, but that an editor will thoroughly enjoy working with this author. And that certainly will give me even greater conviction when I pitch.

So if you have a chance to meet your agent in person, grab it.  Perhaps she is coming to your area for a conference and you could drive up to meet her there (that’s how I got to see Stephanie Winkelhake), or perhaps you are flying into NY to meet your new publisher (that’s how I got to hang out with Carmella Van Vleet).

Meet up, make a connection. As they say in The Bachelorette, it’ll be “just awesome!”

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: Writer’s Regression

Signpost of TimeHappy Monday! As an author of YA novels I, like many writers, felt my career rocked by the recession. And as an Associate Agent, I encounter many extremely talented authors who have had their careers derailed by the economic downturn and are still reeling to this day.  I feel your pain, and I am one sympathetic agent. So today I want to talk a bit about what I call the Writer’s Regression.

There are many writers who struggled to break into print at a time when everything in the publishing biz was dramatically contracting. Hard indeed. But in some ways it was even harder for those of us with debut novels in 2007-2009.

These writers worked sometimes for decades to finally land an agent and a book deal. This was the beginning of their true career as a published author!  What happened instead? Many of these writers lost their editors when jobs were cut, and that resulted in the loss of their biggest cheerleader at their publishing house. Booksellers, in their own panic over the economy, decided not to carry this particular author’s books at all.  The book didn’t receive any other push, and certainly no sizable advertising budget from the publisher. And even though a novel may have gotten awesome reviews, and perhaps even earned out its modest advance (though just barely), and even though this earning out was a feat in itself given the odds…well, the profit numbers to a cold and clinical eye may have seemed kinda, well, “eh” when stacked up to previous years.

So, though that writer was exceedingly talented, and the book was beautiful, and what happened is no fault of the author’s, that same author couldn’t interest that publisher in doing another book with them. And everyone else from agents to publishers seemed to look at that author with a jaded eye. It’s not personal, it’s just business. And the author didn’t sell big, right? So perhaps it was safer to just pass…

Okay, I’m generalizing here. Sure, there are cases where debut midlist authors did manage to land another contract with the same publisher, etc. But I must say I’ve run into many many fine writers who have found their careers stumble to a halt. For these authors, the economic recession feels like a writer’s regression.

Sure, they published a book, but since then, nothing. They feel stuck and hurt, and sad. Will they ever have that chance again to wow readers? Will big publishers ever give them another go? The writer can’t help but feel that maybe they are somehow at fault. That maybe they just aren’t good enough. If they were dropped by their agents because manuscripts just weren’t finding a home, the authors worried if any other agent would ever take them on.  As one very talented author said to me just last week, “What do I do? Do I give up my dream?”

Writers are a tenacious bunch, but even the most tenacious author will begin to lose heart when 2, 3 even 4 years go by and there is no new book contract in the works.  Well, if an author is talented and dedicated, I for one want to see their work.

I don’t believe that an economic downturn is the end of your career, and I think you need to know that it hasn’t diminished your considerable abilities one bit. It’s good sound business to recognize talent and promote that talent to the world. In my eyes, it’s the smart thing to do.

You know, when I research editors I want to pitch my clients to, I don’t even consider the deals that editor made prior to 2009. Honestly, that was a different world. The publishing biz has changed that dramatically. And I believe that looking back on the whole mess with our feet set nearly into 2013, smart editors and publishers get that too. The clever ones will parse out what happened at that time as really not about that book or that author.  And the smartest of editors and publishers and agents will see this as a great opportunity to snap up this talent floating around in the stratosphere.

Because it’s not always about the next new thing. Or that same tried and true thing over and over again. It’s about talent and voice.

So don’t give up on your dream. Please believe in your words. Step back into your writing world and hold your head high. Move forward.

Your lucky readers are waiting. Me too.

For my submission guidelines, click here.

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Notes from a Plot Party Virgin

I was a Plot Party Virgin, up until last weekend when I attended my very first plotting event sponsored by the Bucks County Romance Writers. Truthfully, I’d never heard of plot parties before, and didn’t have a clue what to expect. All I knew was that it would take 6 hours, that I needed a stack of stickees and a brand new book idea, and that at the end of it I should have an entire novel plotted out. Yeah, it sounds almost too good to be true.

In my last post, The Plot Sickens, I shared how my writer’s crit group, The Rebel Writers, struggles with plotting issues, and included some special resources we’ve been using to help our novels develop and flow.  We’d all been wrestling with plotting issues — all had the GREAT IDEA that petered out, the agonizing middle that tortured us, the unknown ending that baffled us.  And I was personally struggling with finding and fleshing out my next novel idea.

According to my online research, plot parties seem to be fairly common among romance writer’s groups. The BCRW group does a party every year, and many members told me they always come out of it with a completely plotted novel.  Sounds excellent. But since this was a romance group and I’m a mainstream author, would I end up with some bodice ripper plot I’d never set out to write in the first place? And what is it they say about “design by committee?” Isn’t that how a camel was created?

So last Saturday I showed up with some trepidation, my stickees, and my idea. A fairly vague idea at that, involving three sisters, some wonderful Italian recipes, and an unpredictable grandmother who stirs up everyone’s love lives.

There are many ways to run a plot party.  Sometimes the group comes to the party with a previously-issued list of questions about their ideas that they’ve already filled in.  Sometimes the group receives a special list of questions that they work through filling in as the party progresses. Our party, the stickee party, was thought up and led by Judi McCoy, who is author of numerous titles, including her series of Dogwalker Mysteries.  In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly dubbed them “delightful,” and said her books were filled “with humor, quirky characters, and delicious hints of romance.”  We were in good hands.

First she had a few ground rules for us.  We sit in groups with no more than 4 people. We don’t sit with a crit partner we’ve worked with before, since we want the suggestions and ideas to be fresh. If an idea is proposed to an author and that author says, “My character wouldn’t do that,” then they give that idea away and someone else can use it in their own work, otherwise, all ideas belong to the person the group is currently helping to plot.

When we were all seated in our groupings of 4, we chose one person to be the first “plotee” (eventually everyone would get a chance), and one person with good handwriting to be the scribe. The scribe would put the ideas down on stickees, and then face those post-its down on the table, stacking them. When done, the theory was that the plotee would have a stack of notes containing all scenes from her newly plotted novel. And the writer could, of course, rearrange these scenes with ease later, simply by rearranging the stickees if needed.

I, as a virgin, was of course selected to be the first plotee in my group.  I had to give the basic plot line as I knew it, what sort of book it was to be (mainstream, literary, for a particular publishing line, etc.), basics about the hero, basics about the heroine.  And from then on, the group’s job was to ask questions, especially “why?”

I’m happy to say that for me, it totally worked. Seriously. My group (which only had 3 people), posed some interesting questions, which opened my mind to some wonderful twists and turns.  Even when they proposed something that would not work in my plot, it was helpful, because I was clarifying exactly what WAS to be in the plot.  An hour and a half into it, we were done. My modest quarter inch stack of filled-in stickees does not have scene by scene notes, but the framework is there, and I’m ready to roll. Ye-hah!

By now, frankly, we were a little burned out!  Here’s were plot party members tuck in to an impressive spread of food, vital to any successful event. And we all eat a little more than we probably should…Hey, we were working hard!

Then back to work we went. I think the stickee format was especially helpful for me, because I had a strong feel for the sort of book I wanted to do.  My other two group members were in a different position. Kate had written 10 pages of her new novel idea, a paranormal with boundless possibilities. As we worked with her, we asked her many questions, but she was unsure of the answers, so we didn’t actually plot out her novel. She did wind up with a huge stack of things to think of and consider, though.  When it came to Becky’s turn, she didn’t really have a novel idea to start with. So we spent our time asking about what sort of stories interested her most, and her life experiences, and she felt encouraged and that she would start exploring some of the ideas that we’d discussed.

So, in the end, not everyone came away with a fully plotted book, but we all left with work to do, and a feeling that this was a day well spent.  I encourage anyone to pull one of these events together.  You’ll be energized, you’ll get excited bouncing ideas around, and just maybe you’ll leave with your own stack of stickees that will set you on the path to writing your next great novel.

Special thanks to Judi McCoy, to Becky and Kate in my group, and to the BCRW for hosting the plot party.  Gotta go. I’ve got a new novel to write!

The Plot Sickens

Plot. Ugh! We writers need it to make our great ideas flow. Readers crave it…it’s what makes them turn pages, what creates tension, what makes them CARE about a book. But here’s a dirty little secret: many writers have a love-hate relationship with plotting. Mostly hate, really.

The Rebel Writers are (left to right) Damian McNicholl, Russ Allen, C.G. Bauer, Jeanne Denault, John Wirebach, David Jarret and Marie Lamba

I belong to an amazing novel critique group called The Rebel Writers.  (If you want to learn more about this group and our unique methods of critiquing long manuscripts, you can check out my article Plotting a Novel Group in Writer’s Digest Magazine by clicking here.) This month, our meeting was devoted to discussing plot. Our personal struggles with it, how it tends to bite us in the ass mid-way through our novels, how uncomfortable we are with artificially manufacturing it, and what the hell we can do to make sure our novels are tightly written starting right at the first draft. We came up with some interesting thoughts that I’d like to share…

All 6 of us were on hand for this meeting, offering a variety of perspectives. I’m a young adult author; Damian McNicholl is author of the critically acclaimed literary novel A Son Called Gabriel; C.G. (Chris) Bauer is author of the stunning debut horror novel Scars on the Face of God; Jeanne Denault is author of an amazing memoir about raising a son with Aspergers titled Sucking up Yellow Jackets – soon to be published by the UK publisher O Books; David Jarret writes historical novels and hysterical short stories, John Wirebach writes gritty crime and mystery novels, and Russ Allen writes literary novels.

C.G. Bauer's debut horror novel is "hotter than the flames of hell," says horror master Scott Nicholson

One thing we all acknowledged: we are uncomfortable with following plotting formulas and using step-by-step advice to plot novels. Here’s the thing: writing is an art. At least we writers hope so.  Art should flow, should be organic and original. Should be something new and exciting and enlightening.  We authors want to get to that spot of artistic originality in our completed works with every single bit of fiction that we create.

So imagine how a bunch of artists (put your nose in the air when you say that word) feel when they consider planning out their work of art on 3×5 cards or with post-its. When they think about following formulas in designing their novels… It feels so, so…artificial.

And herein lies the problem. Novels ARE artificial. And, as cheesy as it sounds, writers are manipulators. We use technique to create suspense, tricks to make cliff-hangers, melodrama to induce tears…if we are doing it well, then no one will even notice we are pulling the strings. And we need to be aware of these plotting techniques and embrace them on some level, don’t we?

So we Rebel Writers decided to take our noses out of the air and look around.  Pulp fiction writers use formulas. Soap opera writers use formulas. Many romance authors use formulas. So do television script writers. So do film writers. So, in fact, do many novelists. Maybe its time we face the facts: we can learn something from these folks!

Damian McNicholl's celebrated novel was a Book Sense Pick of the Year

Okay, so once we packed away our collective artistic snobbery, the info sharing really began to flow.  It was like a confessional of sorts, with each of us sharing our own secret plotting cheats.

Russ introduced us to a text called Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D., which outlines just over 50 plots, and argues that every story ever told was one of these plots.  We Rebels quickly found our own novels’ plots in the listings.  Humbling. Forget originality, right? All we have to do is pick one of these plots, and write a story…

We discussed our discomfort with this, but soon admitted that, yeah, it would be convenient to know the sort of story we were writing before we embarked on months to years worth of actually writing it and uncovering our direction. And we all reassured ourselves that whatever we wrote would be distinct if we were true to our own voice and our own view of the world.  That’s the clincher, isn’t it?

Many of us swore by Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which has exercises that ensure your novel has a sound structure, a strong subplot, tension on every page, etc. etc. etc.  John pointed out how focused movie script writers are in plotting, and how most scripts have a climactic moment on a certain page according to an understood formula. He recommended we look at books about treatments, including a book I have on my own shelf: Writing Treatments that Sell by Kenneth Atchity and Chi-Li Wong. Another favorite of the group is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It follows myth and archetypes culled by folklorist Joseph Campbell in his incredible The Power of Myth, and applies the hero’s journey to plotting and structure. It’s phenomenal, and I used parts of this while plotting my newest young adult novel, Drawn. Jeanne shared how she used index cards to decipher the plot of one of her murder mysteries and to reorganize the plotting to fix a problem in its pacing.

I know, right about now you’re thinking: So if everyone has been secretly using all of these plot theories, what’s the big deal? What did the Rebel Writers actually learn here?  Well, every one of us have used these tools AFTER we wrote our novels. First we spent forever writing our monster works, then we sat down with our drafts and thought, hm, the middle is really slow, or huh, the ending just doesn’t do it, and we spent forever dissecting our works and fixing them by applying all of these plotting theories.

Jeanne Denault's stunning memoir about Aspergers

But wouldn’t it be nice to start out with a better sense of the structure and plot at the start? Wouldn’t that cut down on the length of time it would take to write a novel? Imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to create two novels a year vs. one every two years. And wouldn’t we enjoy our writing more if we didn’t have to agonize over our edits, going over the plotting and structure again and again and again? Wouldn’t our final work benefit?

We are all nodding now.  But still scepticism rears its ugly head. Can you really sit down and plan out a novel, plotting its structure, its twists, its climax and conclusion, and still come out with a work of art?  I’m about to find out. See, I’m also a member of the Bucks County Romance Writers, and will soon attend my very first plot party with them. They ask that each member bring a brand new novel idea not worked on yet, a pen, and a stack of stickees. At the end of the 6 (!) hour event, each person is supposed to leave with a completely plotted out novel, and all we’ll have to do is simply write it. Easy, right?

Can this possibly work? Can I come up with something fresh and original, yet plotted, with only stickee notes, my imagination and some strong plotting traditions? Can I then save time writing my novel, with my first draft being close to a final draft? Will I end up writing more novels and being more productive because of this? God, I hope so. Stay tuned…