Agent Monday: Dig Deeper for Ideas

Red Lightbulb in Fixture

Happy Agent Monday, everyone! Last day of February – WOOT!  I’m all about springtime and being outdoors and longer days and digging in the garden – and I can’t wait for all of that. I’m also eager to dig through the submissions in my agent inbox to find  the next engrossing read. However, what I’m often finding are manuscripts that, while well written, are just all too familiar. That’s a real shame. The writers have skill, but the idea behind their book is one I’ve seen too many times before. I wish that these writers could dig deeper so that more original plotting can grow.

What do some of those all too familiar plots look like? Here are a few examples:

For middle grade or YA: A child or a teen must spend the summer with a grandparent or other relative they hardly know – and it’s always in the middle of nowhere or on some waterfront setting. There the kid uncovers some sort of mystery they must solve, whether magical or spooky or historical, and an unlikely person ends up helping and becoming a close friend. In the end, the kid learns about themselves, and also sees that unknown relative in a new light.

For women’s fiction: A young woman has tried to make a go of her career and love life, but finds embarrassing failures and is forced to go back to her home town with its small town ways. There, she eats humble pie, sees that simple life as not so simple and even sophisticated and enviable and heartfelt, and that old flame of hers is there to rekindle a different life path.

For women’s fiction or memoir: A person’s life falls completely apart, and they go on a journey to leave it all behind and are challenged in new and surprising ways that change everything.  For a memoir, this can be a trek or a world tour or some other adventurous trip. For fiction, it is often spurred by a death in the woman’s family, or a divorce by a cheating spouse, and the heroine either inherits or buys some rundown home in some isolated place and is challenged to make a go of things – of course the attractive but surly and mysterious handyman is there to help.

There are many other too familiar plots I could site. Just conjure up ideas of dystopian fiction, fantasy middle grade, silly picture books, and you will likely come up with a number of familiar story lines yourself. Call them tropes if you like, and they could be entertaining, and well done. But I say talented writers can go deeper in their ideas and plotting. As an agent, I’m looking for originality and fresh journeys to go on. In a weird way, it’s a lot like trying to find something on NETFLIX to binge watch. You want something engrossing and interesting and wonderful. Something worth investing your time in, and you want to be surprised and delighted in the adventures that enfold. You don’t want to watch a few minutes and have many things figured out, and to feel like you’ve seen something just like this before.

Pile of LightbulbsSo what’s a writer to do? I say dig deeper. Find what you most love about your idea, and then as you plot, don’t go to the first or second idea of what could happen next. One technique that I really like to use when plotting my own novels is from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (a craft book I highly recommend). Think of what could happen next in your story. Then write, say, 5 more ideas. Then 5 more.  Take that last idea on your list and use THAT. You’ll be using something on a much less obvious train of thought.

And you’ll be creating something that may just surprise and delight you, and please agents and readers too.

 

*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.

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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.

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.

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!