DRAWN Haunt – Just Because You Can

Edinburgh - Writer's museumThe DRAWN Haunt party continues today with a post about how to tame all those big ideas into one tightly written book.

The DRAWN Haunt is a month-long celebration for my award-winning novel DRAWN‘s 5th anniversary. All October you’ll find here book-related posts about writing, romance, ghosts, time travel and more. To catch all the spooky DRAWN Haunt posts, explore the blog, and check back often or subscribe to this site (see bottom of this post for how).  And for more about my novel DRAWN, click here. 

DRAWN was a complicated novel for me to write, but it definitely taught me a lot. So here’s the most important thing I learned…

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN

Fiction writers can create a story out of anything, and every character they put down on paper can have their own conflict, their own story line. This is both a blessing and a curse.

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In DRAWN, Marie Lamba deftly entwines romance and mystery, past and present, into a page-turning adventure. Buy it today and I promise you’ll be finished reading far too quickly! — Joy Nash, USA Today bestselling author

When writing my ghostly time-travel novel DRAWN, I knew I was creating what, for me, was a “big book.” Up to that point I’d been writing novels that took place within a tight one month time frame. My plots revolved around my town and were populated by people very familiar to me. “Write what you know,” they say, and I knew the worlds of my first two young adult novels WHAT I MEANT… and OVER MY HEAD very well. But DRAWN was a different sort of story.

Time is slippery in this time-travel book, involving a month-long time frame in the present, but also an eight-month long time frame in the past. The setting is present day AND 1460 England. I’m a bit familiar with modern England, having lived there for a semester and visited numerous times, but the past? Not so much. Intensive research was required. My characters in this new novel range from Italian-Americans, to British citizens, medieval lords and courtiers and servants. Add into this mix a plot line where the past and the future continues to be altered as our heroine travels back and forth in time and, well, you have a big book indeed.

And I struggled a bit to make sure it didn’t turn into one big mess. Which gets us to the heart of this post: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I can’t tell you how many characters I spun out into entire story lines with their own scenes and character arcs…and some of these characters don’t even appear in the book anymore. You might think the solution is an outline, but even when using an outline it can be hard to tell just how far to go with a character’s story or to know which scenes might be important.

Sometimes the only solution is to write it through and then cut cut cut! Sure, you are doing a ton of character research by writing those extra scenes. But when the character ends up being barely a minor one, it becomes a case of TMI. You don’t need all, or sometimes any of that stuff. And by heading off here and there on wild plot chases, you are wasting time, wasting your energy, and muddying your own clear view of things.

In DRAWN, I’d created this character Guncha, who quickly became one of Michelle’s friends after Michelle moved to England. Guncha was gossipy and romantic-minded, so she was the perfect person to give Michelle the scoop on things, and to nudge her in matters of romance when Michelle finds herself stalked by an unknown guy who also, by the way, mysteriously appears in Michelle’s sketches. But when it came to Guncha, I didn’t stop there. Before I knew it, Michelle was visiting Guncha’s house, sleeping over, meeting her family, learning of Guncha’s conflicts with her traditional family. And Guncha was planning an escape with a secret and unsuitable boyfriend, etc. etc. etc. Nearly one hundred pages later, I realized that my story had naturally strayed far from its central focus: Michelle and her encounters with Christopher Newman, the hot medieval ghost with a sketchy past.

So, refocus and cut cut cut! In the final book we only see Guncha at school and at a carnival. There is no secret boyfriend. No family to speak of. And Michelle wishes she felt closer to her, but realizes that she just can’t share her own secrets with Guncha. How would Guncha ever understand that Michelle’s budding new relationship just might be with a ghost? As Guncha implores Michelle to tell, but secrets continue to build, the reader is in on the gossip instead of Guncha, which is fun. So in this case, I would have saved a ton of time if I could have decided up front not only that Guncha was going to be a minor character, but also what her true function in the plot would be. This is a biggie, because if I knew this I could have smacked my own hand every time I deviated from this mission.

Sounds good, right? But what if your extra character’s story parallels and weaves into the main plot, adding intrigue and mystery? Why wouldn’t you stray into that storyline?  DRAWN involves an ancient murder, and a chilling curse that still lingers in the town’s castle. In the book, the Wallingford Papers (based on the real Paston Letters…look ‘em up if you’re curious) are a series of preserved family letters dating back to the 1400s. They detail the history of the murder, and the heroism of the Wallingford ancestors. But are all the letters actually in the public record? And are they to be believed? This plot is essential to the book, involving the fate of the ghost and pretty much everyone in the story.

Okay, so doesn’t it seem obvious that a scholar could be at the heart of rooting out this mystery? Since the Wallingford family reputation (and much of their success) hinges on their heroic background, wouldn’t you expect that family to do anything to keep their family name clean? So, is it that crazy that I created a scholar who in the ‘50s uncovered their secrets and was about to go public with it, before an untimely death? Flash forward to the present, and I also created Mr. Llywelyn, a history teacher at Wallingford Academy (Michelle’s new school) who was related to this very scholar and who is also fighting to uncover the truth of the murder, the papers and the death of the scholar, and…

Cut cut CUT!!! Jeesh. Do you see how the fiction writer’s mind can spin and weave and deviate from the main story path, even while she is following that very same path? Yikes, it’s like entrapment I tell you. In the end I had to give a long hard look at the story elements that were most essential. Yes, I wanted a scholar who was silenced, but I decided that this scholar would have absolutely nothing to do with the history teacher. The scholar now has merely a mention, just enough to add to the danger and the gravity of the treacherous ancient secrets being kept. As for Mr. Llywelyn? Well, he’s Michelle’s history teacher, instructing the class about the very era Christopher the ghost inhabits. The teacher’s role is now limited to occasionally adding in a fact about the Wallingford Papers, about the dangers of living at that time, etc., thereby ramping up the tension for Michelle when she realizes what these facts mean to a ghost she’s starting to have spooky good feelings for. I had to focus on Michelle as the hero, as the person who solves the mystery and makes things happen. No way should this be relegated to another character.

So again, a supposed major-player was reduced to a few lines. Lines that were necessary and served the plot. And beyond that? Well, this just wasn’t his story.

Sometimes writing a book is a process, sometimes it’s an ordeal, but it’s only successful if we give our draft a hard look and decide if scenes are moving us forward, and if our deviations are truly creating the book we’d set out to write.

As I get further along in my writing career, I’m training myself to create a clearer story line and to force myself to stick to that path. If the story is complex enough, like DRAWN is, there is no need to deviate and take elaborate side trips into other character paths. It’s enough, while plotting, to stick to the main issues and simply ask myself: And then what? And then? And then?

The answers, surprisingly, can equal a rich and complex novel.

 

*Marie is a Literary Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site.

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Agent Monday: Too Many Points of View?

MP900321197Happy Agent Monday, everyone! Recently I’ve received a number of novel submissions with multiple viewpoint characters. Today I’m happy to welcome the following guest post by one of my interns – Colin Gironda. As a first reader for me, Colin has his own point of view on why multi POV’s sometimes work really well, but at other times can actually lead to a rejection.

So here’s HIS view of things. Take it away Colin…

A book written from one perspective can sometimes become limited in its scope, but using multiple perspectives in a manuscript can be a great tool because it allows for other characters to have a voice.

The way one character views themselves or others can be different from the way another character does. With two sets of eyes on a person instead of one, you can create better developed characters by revealing different aspects.

Also, perspectives can foil one another. Using this technique, you can place in the reader mistrust or curiosity about another character’s actual intentions. This allows a reader to be drawn deeper into the plot and to become more compelled to discover the truth. This can also help the reader identify more closely with a character –  we are choosing sides and deciding who we like and believe in.

But there can be pitfalls and dangers for writers using multiple points of view as well. Each perspective needs a distinct voice. Without that distinct voice, the plot can feel convoluted; the reader can lose track of who’s doing or saying what.

Each point of view character must also be well developed. If the character isn’t 3-dimensional, or they don’t have a large voice, you may want to refrain from using their perspective. The reader will likely become bored with them or confused at the presence of someone so minor.

When not used properly, multiple view points can spell trouble for your plot, too. Bouncing from character to character too quickly and too often can slow your story down, especially if the storyline itself doesn’t advance enough. Readers can lose track of what’s going on, and when they don’t feel invested in what happens next, or truly know why it matters, they might just stop reading altogether.

Multiple view points really can have multiple benefits in a story. But as powerful as this tool can be, it’s just that – a tool. Don’t let it become a distraction to readers or drag down the pace. Instead make sure it’s enhancing your story, adding depth. Get that right, and the end result will be complex and rich storytelling.

Colin Gironda is earning his Bachelors degree in Creative Writing at Franklin and Marshall College, and is an intern for The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City .

*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: The “Your book’s too quiet” Rejection

Childhood GirlsHappy hot and steamy Agent Monday, everyone! Ever received the following rejection and wonder what it might mean?: “I have to pass because I found your book too quiet.” Too quiet? What’s that mean? And how do you get it to make some noise? Let’s take a look… (Thanks again to client Caroline Noonan and her writer’s group for this great post idea!)

To me, too quiet means that while the book may be written in a lovely manner and the manuscript clean and the plot interesting, overall the book lacks characteristics that would make it stand out in the commercial marketplace.

Remember, an agent’s job is to sell your book to commercial publishers, and an editor’s job is to purchase books that will become stand outs on the shelf and sell.

So what can you do if your book is consistently rejected as “too quiet?” Well, first of all look hard at the type of book you are writing – what distinguishes that sort of book? Have you elevated those elements in your manuscript?

For example, if you are writing a literary novel, is your language and imagery more than adequate? Does it stand out? Are the observations and revelations unique and transforming?

If you are writing for the YA market, is your book different from what’s already out there? Can you come up with a one-liner about the book that’ll get everyone’s attention because your story has a unique approach? Is there a hook that’ll make it stand out – and if so, have you put that unique part of your story front and center in your plotting?

If you are writing for the thriller audience, is your story truly gripping, your plotting original and does your character command the page?

And if you are writing romance, does your hero truly break your heart and does the passion sizzle?

In the historical realm, are the characters riveting and are we fully caught up not only in the lovely and accurate details of the time but also the true drama and personalities and stakes you present?

What are your strengths as a writer? Characterization? Scenery? Plotting? Imagery?  Have you heightened these so they are truly stand out?

Another thing to look at is how you are labeling and targeting your manuscript submissions. If you are calling your book a thriller but it’s really a cerebral mystery, you’ll be missing the mark. If you are directing your submissions to a commercial press, when your book is really a lovely lyrical literary novel, then your piece won’t be judged within the context that you want it to.

So next time you get a “too quiet” comment in a rejection, give your manuscript a hard look. Make sure you’ve really made its most important elements unique and stand out fab, and that you are labeling it correctly.  Then send it back out there and go make some noise!

*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: Some Quick Answers to Your Questions

SnowflakeHappy Agent Monday, gang! Storm’s coming, Harry!!! Lots of snow on the way here. So, while I still have electricity and hot coffee in hand, let’s tackle some of your questions — quickly!

Last week, I’d asked readers for  questions they’d like to see me answer in future posts. Thanks to everyone who chimed in!  Some responses are worthy of their own posts (keep your eyes peeled for these in the near future), while others can be quickly answered in a short and sweet manner. So here goes…

Q.: How important would you say it is for a person to read their manuscript out loud before calling it finished?

A.: I’d say it’s critical. OF COURSE it’s critical for picture books, which are designed to be read aloud. But for any level of writing, the author simply must read their prose aloud. And listen to themselves. As an author myself, I always read my writing aloud as part of my revision process. It helps me to pick out when phrases are overused, or punctuation needs to be changed, or when pacing is off. And it helps to listen to dialogue – is it ringing true?

Q.: Does a historical setting automatically categorize a manuscript as being historical fiction? Is it acceptable to have a historical setting even if that history is not integral to the plot?

A.: Historical setting in a novel DOES make it historical fiction. If the setting doesn’t influence the thought of the characters, their actions and their challenges/life in some way, then why not set it in present day? It doesn’t need to be a moment for the history books, but it does need to belong in its time period. The exception? A time travel piece, which would make it fantasy or science fiction vs. historical. Even then, though your main character isn’t of that time, the time period would influence that character’s adventures, and the people surrounding him would be of that time.

Q. When an agent asks to see more manuscripts (picture book), is it advantageous to send in manuscripts that are consistent style-wise vs. showing a breadth of style?

A. First of all, it’s great that you have so many manuscripts completed that you have choices! Speaking from my own point of view, what I’d most want to see is your very best work – whatever the style. Unless the agent asked for more of a “type” of book from you, that would be your best rule of thumb.

Q. Have you ever rejected a manuscript because you were not “connecting” to the material, narrative arc, and/or the main character? What did that mean to you personally?

A. That happens often. What this means to me is that I’m just not personally excited by what the author is trying to do for some reason, or that I’m not finding myself feeling drawn in. This can be for many reasons, such as I like the idea of the plot, but find I’m not liking the main character. Or I like the character, but I find the plotting too obvious or too hard to believe. Or I don’t “get” why the main character is so upset or reacting the way she is. In short, something is stopping me from relating to things or feeling invested in the story. I have to really want to root for my authors and their writings – and you really want an agent who will do that. So keep querying and writing and polishing until you DO find someone who “gets” you.

So that’s it! Some quick answers to quick questions. Now it’s time for me to quickly use all the electricity I can while I still have it (makes mega-pot of coffee). Stay safe and warm, everyone!

 

*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: Writing a First Draft

Jumbies cover small

Happy Agent Monday! Now that everyone is back to school, this is a great time for writers to get serious about tackling their muse and getting thoughts onto paper. But ugh that blank page. Are you staring at one today? Then this guest post by my client, the fabulous Tracey Baptiste, may be just what you need.

WRITING A FIRST DRAFT
guest post by Tracey Baptiste

Here’s the thing you need to know about writing a first draft: You just have to get through it. There are no other rules or tricks. A first draft is basically quarrying rocks. You go, you grab the ones that seem about right, you put them in a nice pile, and then you figure out what that pile is supposed to be later on. But being the creative types that we are, we stumble over every word, beat ourselves up over whether a plot arc or twist is working the way we want it to, and wonder—seriously wonder—why certain strings of words look as awful as they do. I’m better than THAT we think. True. We are. But not today. Today is a draft day, and you can whip that horrible string of words into shape in a little thing I like to call rewrites.

If you think I’m imparting this wisdom to help you out with your writing, or to keep you from stalling out, you would be wrong. Well, mostly wrong. Mostly, I impart this wisdom to help myself, because right now I am stalled in a first draft, wondering why everything looks so horribly bad, and seriously reconsidering my sanity for ever having considered I could write as much as a thank you note.

So this is to remind me (you too, but mostly me) to relax already and not worry so much about which words exactly get put on the page, so long as words that mostly approximate the thing that you think you’re trying to say get on the page. I mean, it’s not like you’re going to write an entire draft of the word “and” or anything. It has to make some sense.

OK, deep breaths. We can do this. We just need to remember that there is only one thing a draft needs to be: Done.

 

Tracey Baptiste - headshotTracey Baptiste is the author of the young adult novel Angel’s Grace (Simon & Schuster), and the forthcoming middle grade novel The Jumbies (Algonquin YR). You can find out more about Tracey at her website, www.traceybaptiste.com, by following her on Twitter @TraceyBaptiste, or by connecting on Facebook at TraceyBaptisteWrites.

Writer Wednesday: Just Because You Can…

*This post originally appeared on Janice Gable Bashman’s site as part of my Drawn Blog Ghost Tour.

Fiction writers can create a story out of anything, and every character they put down on paper can have their own conflict, their own story line. This is both a blessing and a curse.

When writing my new paranormal novel DRAWN, I knew I was creating what, for me, was a “big book.” Up to that point I’d been writing novels that took place within a tight one month time frame. My plots revolved around my town and were populated by people very familiar to me. “Write what you know,” they say, and I knew the worlds of my first two young adult novels WHAT I MEANT… and OVER MY HEAD very well. But DRAWN was a different sort of story.

Time is slippery in this time-travel book, involving a month-long timeframe in the present, but also an eight-month long timeframe in the past. The setting is present day AND 1460 England. I’m a bit familiar with modern England, having lived there for a semester and visited numerous times, but the past? Not so much. Intensive research was required. My characters in this new novel range from Italian-Americans, to British citizens, medieval lords and courtiers and servants. Add into this mix a plot line where the past and the future continues to be altered as our heroine travels back and forth in time and, well, you have a big book indeed.

And I struggled a bit to make sure it didn’t turn into one big mess. Which gets us to the heart of this post: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I can’t tell you how many characters I spun out into entire storylines with their own scenes and character arcs…and some of these characters don’t even appear in the book anymore. You might think the solution is an outline, but even when using an outline it can be hard to tell just how far to go with a character’s story or to know which scenes might be important.

Sometimes the only solution is to write it through and then cut cut cut! Sure, you are doing a ton of character research by writing those extra scenes. But when the character ends up being barely a minor one, it becomes a case of TMI. You don’t need all, or sometimes any of that stuff. And by heading off here and there on wild plot chases, you are wasting time, wasting your energy, and muddying your own clear view of things.

In DRAWN, I’d created this character Guncha, who quickly became one of Michelle’s friends after Michelle moved to England. Guncha was gossipy and romantic-minded, so she was the perfect person to give Michelle the scoop on things, and to nudge her in matters of romance when Michelle finds herself stalked by an unknown guy who also, by the way, mysteriously appears in Michelle’s sketches. But when it came to Guncha, I didn’t stop there. Before I knew it, Michelle was visiting Guncha’s house, sleeping over, meeting her family, learning of Guncha’s conflicts with her traditional family. And Guncha was planning an escape with a secret and unsuitable boyfriend, etc. etc. etc. Nearly one hundred pages later, I realized that my story had naturally strayed far from its central focus: Michelle and her encounters with Christopher Newman, the hot medieval ghost with a sketchy past.

So, refocus and cut cut cut! In the final book we only see Guncha at school and at a carnival. There is no secret boyfriend. No family to speak of. And Michelle wishes she felt closer to her, but realizes that she just can’t share her own secrets with Guncha. How would Guncha ever understand that Michelle’s budding new relationship just might be with a ghost? As Guncha implores Michelle to tell, but secrets continue to build, the reader is in on the gossip instead of Guncha, which is fun. So in this case, I would have saved a ton of time if I could have decided up front not only that Guncha was going to be a minor character, but also what her true function in the plot would be. This is a biggie, because if I knew this I could have smacked my own hand every time I deviated from this mission.

Sounds good, right? But what if your extra character’s story parallels and weaves into the main plot, adding intrigue and mystery? Why wouldn’t you stray into that storyline?  DRAWN involves an ancient murder, and a chilling curse that still lingers in the town’s castle. In the book, the Wallingford Papers (based on the real Paston Letters…look ‘em up if you’re curious) are a series of preserved family letters dating back to the 1400s. They detail the history of the murder, and the heroism of the Wallingford ancestors. But are all the letters actually in the public record? And are they to be believed? This plot is essential to the book, involving the fate of the ghost and pretty much everyone in the story.

Okay, so doesn’t it seem obvious that a scholar could be at the heart of rooting out this mystery? Since the Wallingford family reputation (and much of their success) hinges on their heroic background, wouldn’t you expect that family to do anything to keep their family name clean? So, is it that crazy that I created a scholar who in the ‘50s uncovered their secrets and was about to go public with it, before an untimely death? Flash forward to the present, and I also created Mr. Llywelyn, a history teacher at Wallingford Academy (Michelle’s new school) who was related to this very scholar and who is also fighting to uncover the truth of the murder, the papers and the death of the scholar, and…

Cut cut CUT!!! Jeesh. Do you see how the fiction writer’s mind can spin and weave and deviate from the main story path, even while she is following that very same path? Yikes, it’s like entrapment I tell you. In the end I had to give a long hard look at the story elements that were most essential. Yes, I wanted a scholar who was silenced, but I decided that this scholar would have absolutely nothing to do with the history teacher. The scholar now has merely a mention, just enough to add to the danger and the gravity of the treacherous ancient secrets being kept. As for Mr. Llywelyn? Well, he’s Michelle’s history teacher, instructing the class about the very era Christopher the ghost inhabits. The teacher’s role is now limited to occasionally adding in a fact about the Wallingford Papers, about the dangers of living at that time, etc., thereby ramping up the tension for Michelle when she realizes what these facts mean to a ghost she’s starting to have spooky good feelings for. I had to focus on Michelle as the hero, as the person who solves the mystery and makes things happen. No way should this be relegated to another character and, since this is a YA title, especially not to an adult.

So again, a supposed major-player was reduced to a few lines. Lines that were necessary and served the plot. And beyond that? Well, this just wasn’t his story.

Sometimes writing a book is a process, sometimes it’s an ordeal, but it’s only successful if we give our draft a hard look and decide if scenes are moving us forward, and if our deviations are truly creating the book we’d set out to write.

As I get further along in my writing career, I’m training myself to create a clearer storyline and to force myself to stick to that path. If the story is complex enough, like DRAWN is, there is no need to deviate and take elaborate side trips into other character paths. It’s enough, while plotting, to stick to the main issues and simply ask myself: And then what? And then? And then?

The answers, surprisingly, can equal a rich and complex novel.

Writer Wednesday: On Overwriting

Overwriting.  Not the opposite of an insurance agent’s underwriting.  Nope.  I’m talking about the tendency in our writing to say something, then restate it.  And then, just in case the reader still wasn’t paying attention, we add in another example.

Another example of overwriting is when we start the scene too early.  But does the reader really need to see everything that happens before our heroine arrives at the heart of the story?  Same applies to the end of the scene.  That’s my classic M.O. I tend to continue the scene for too long after the important moment happens.  Summing up the feelings. Or following the main character out the door and into the night.  It’s in the draft form of every novel I’ve ever written.

Because I know this about myself, it’s an easy fix. In the revision stage I simply look at the end of each chapter and chop off that last paragraph or two.  By leaving the chapter in the midst of conflict or at that very moment when things have happened, I can really strengthen the story.  It leaves the reader thinking and feeling.  And readers will assume that your character will ruminate on what’s going on, or that the heroine will leave the scene and go out into the night.

So let the reader get involved by getting out of the way.

I could say more here. Restate my point a few other ways and give you a bunch of examples. But maybe it’s best if I just stop.

Or… I could tell you I’m walking away from my computer, down the stairs, to get a cup of coffee, and then into the night, where I’ll ponder the complexities of overwriting, and I’ll think that maybe now I’ll…