Querying 101: Plot Arc & Stakes

My recent #QueryTip on Plot Arc & Stakes in a query letter got a lot of attention, so I thought I’d expound on it in a blog post. The tweet: “There’s a fine line between hooking me with a “tease” & leaving out the plot arc. Plot arc and stakes (high stakes please) are key #querytip.” (NOTE: If you are in a rush, please scroll down to view the PLOT ARC & STAKES diagram I created, which will hopefully offer some direction on just what those things are. Sometimes when you know the parts of something, it’s easier to break it down.)

Here’s the thing about query letters: Writers wait weeks for a response that takes an agent just a few minutes to formulate. After said agent trudges through the endless queue of queries, yours rises like cream on fresh milk to the top. You know you’ve got a few minutes of their time, so you try to do something flashy. You tease them about your story. Your tease is sooo Twitter pitch perfect, so you figure it’s all you need to get that next look.

SORRY. WRONG. IT’S A NO FROM ME, says Simon.

The agent there is effectively making a business decision when they read your unsolicited query. That takes time, and time is money. No one likes to waste money, right? And no one likes to lose an AMAZING author because they queried incorrectly.

But an agent cannot evaluate your novel without a clear sense of the plot arc (it proves you know what you’re doing as a writer) and its stakes (the “why” does this story even matter moment) reflected in the query. THIS DOES NOT MEAN GIVE AWAY THE ENDING. That’s for the synopsis. It does mean: show the agent enough plot to prove there’s a valid story there, and then give them a reason to care. The: “If this happens, then this (horrible / wonderful) thing happens” and that’s why we should care moment.

So, when querying: Keep it short but thorough. Don’t make their eyes glaze over. Mmm. Okay? With a doctoral thesis….

Agents needs to know (and yes, all the following are actually important):

  1. TITLE
  2. Genre (Scifi, Paranormal, Romance, etc.)
  3. Age Group (Children’s, Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, Adult)
  4. Word Count (use your WORD program to count the actual words. Not page numbers; it’s not the same thing)
  5. Plot Arc (2 paragraphs max)
  6. Stakes (bottom of 2nd paragraph, perhaps a stand alone sentence to make it stand out. Feel free to take a liberty here!)
  7. Comparables (novels similar to yours or … would appeal to fans of INSERT NOVEL(s). This helps agents know where to “shelve” it in the market.
  8. Short bio, if relevant.
  9. SAMPLE PAGES (this is different for every agency, so check web sites. Talcott Notch asks for the first 10 pages PASTED in the body of the email).

If querying nonfiction, I cannot tell you how important it is for you to speak to your author platform, aside from the pitch. Nonfiction is often sold on platform: do you have an education in the field you are speaking to? Do you have a well-followed blog? Do you pod cast? Do you do speaking tours? Hey, do you happen to be famous? Cool. Let’s meet for lunch and discuss…

BUT BACK TO THE FOCUS OF THIS POST. Because I’m nerdy like this, I made you a fancy smancy diagram about PLOT ARC & STAKES. Get an idea of the mechanics of them, then put that on paper!

I hope the best for you querying authors! I’ve written queries myself, and they are RIDICULOUSLY hard to write. When your work is so important to you, boiling it down to a few paragraphs isn’t easy. But it can be done – and done well. So go do it!

PLEASE NOTE: Click on the diagram to view larger!

PlotDiagram_AliHerring

 

 

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1st Rule of #WRITECLUB

WC16

Today, I happened upon a writing contest styled after FIGHT CLUB. For anyone who’s seen the movie, you’ll understand why I was drawn to WRITE CLUB 2016.

Here’s how it works: During the next 7 weeks, WRITE CLUB will pit anonymous 500-word writing samples against each other, designated by a pen name created by the writer. The winners of each bout will advance into elimination rounds, then playoffs, then the penultimate faceoff between two finalists to determine the winner. The writing can be any genre or style (even poetry),  from a larger work or from a work of flash fiction.  And the winners of each bout are determined by you – WRITE CLUB readers!

Intrigued yet? I was.

Brad-Pitt-Fight-Club-6

But here’s the kicker, TODAY (Friday February 26) is the last day to enter. So, last minute, I’m jumping in the ring, but be warned: I’m not wearing any gloves. I’m doing it WRITE CLUB style, bloody knuckles and all.

For more information and how to enter: http://www.dlhammons.com/p/write-club-2016.html.

Do note: There are 6 rules of Write Club, so make sure you follow them. And even if you don’t enter, you can still vote. The blog gives information on this as well.

So, get ready to rumble. I’m coming for you.

funny-baby-fight

 

 

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Want to bore an agent? Do this.

Welcome to the universe of 30-second commercials, 140-character tweets and 35-word contest pitches. Welcome to the land of short attention spans and brains trained to be wowed in under a minute. And finally, welcome to writing for this generation.

Having worked as a nonprofit magazine editor and communications specialist, I’ve written and edited professionally for years, and now that I’m working at a literary agency, I’ve read my fair share of those dreaded queries too. So, I’m writing today to help promising authors get their shot by avoiding a common problem that keeps landing in my inbox – a great concept and well-written prose that ultimately avalanches from those promising shimmers of first snowy words into a snooze-fest of backstory and completely unnecessary info dumps. It’s just too much people. Really. You’ve got to get to the point faster. You’ve got so little time.

Discovering an info dump or backstory in a first chapter is like sledding on fresh powder only to collide into a block of near-frozen snow. It stops you in your tracks. I ask: Why hide the inciting first incident of the story – the snow jump that sends agents flying into the next 100 pages – behind such a mess?  Why does the backstory, this info dump of information, always hide only a page into the first chapter? Why does it feel so necessary to the author that they give up the prime real estate of the first 500 words an agent reads to it?

The reason is pretty simple, but that doesn’t make it any less easy to avoid. Backstory is hugely important to the author because they’ve used it to frame or construct their world (that’s world building) and develop the qualities and peculiarities of their characters (characterization). They want you to know everything up front to help you make sense of their world. But – and this is the part that should scare the snow pants right off you authors – your reader could probably care less. Well, that’s a slight overstatement. They do care, but they don’t want to know everything at once – especially when they have no clue or investment in your characters as of yet. They need something to root for first. That inciting first incident.

So, let’s switch metaphors. Now consider your manuscript a tapestry of beautiful stitching. You can only use a small bolt of your favorite gold, shimmering thread in the whole thing, but you’ve got a host of other colors to work with too. You’ve guessed it – the gold is your backstory, sitting so pretty, able to add so much depth and light if used correctly. But, whatever you do, don’t use it all at once or it just becomes a blob of gold stuck in one small eye-drawing corner. But, if you thread it carefully through the tapestry, you can add depth, light and beauty that makes sense but doesn’t overwhelm.

The best reason, however, for avoiding this info dump is you get to the point faster – you know – that point where your desired agent goes, “a ha, this is why I do this for a living.” And in this land of sound bites and crunched sentences, you need to hook your reader (and your agent) fast. Whether physical or emotional in nature – an inciting first scenes begs the reader to, well, keep reading. It’s this blend of marketable, hot-right-now concept + craft + keep-me-wanting-to-read-more pages + personal taste that gets authors the sought-after request for more pages. That’s a lot of factors that you, the author, control. 

So, is there a checklist you can follow to make your manuscript an incredible piece of literature? Not really, no. But there are definitely things you should be aware of as you write. For the time being, think about one of them: the way you start. And if the start bores with backstory, consider if you haven’t already written a better beginning just a few chapters in. Maybe that’s where your story should begin?

 

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Compilation: #SFFPit Tweets for HalfWorlder

What a fun day! I walked away with four likes from #SFFPit, screaming a little inside (okay, outside too) every time my phone dinged!

I’ve compiled a list of my 10 tweets from the 12/10/15 contest in one spot! I hope together they create a picture of what my #SFF #YA novel HalfWorlder is all about! Most important, my MS turns the “chosen one” trope on its head, making for a surprising ending.

If you’re an agent interested in my query and pages, OF COURSE, I’ll be more than happy to send it your way!  I’m @HerringAli on Twitter! Like away if you are so inclined.

  1. A miscast destiny leaves a boy on an epic quest he can’t finish. But modern-day JOAN OF ARC will complete it w/her sacrifice #SFFpit #YA #SF
  2. Try saving the world when your only ride’s a mouthy spaceship & the girl of your dreams is sabotaging true love #SFFpit #SF #YA INDYJONES #R
  3. Borrow spaceship. Follow clues through Egyptian ruins. Save Earth. Life was easier when Gil thought he was human. #SFFpit #SF #YA IndyJones
  4. A boy n love. A girl resists her heart. An ancient artifact wakes. A countdown 2 doom. A choice that will leave 1gone. #SFFpit #SF #YA
  5. Epic INDIANA JONES-style quest w/a #R meets STARGATE-esque ½-aliens w/HEROES style superpowers. Written4 PERCY JACKSON grads #SFFpit #SF #YA

    0 retweets 1 like

  1. In a world where Egyptian gods were powerful aliens, a 17yo alien hybrid tries 2save Earth 3,000 years after they fate him2. #SFFpit #YA #SF

    0 retweets 1 like

  1. Modern-day JOAN OF ARC saves Earth when the boy can’t. Epic INDYJONES quest w/ ½-alien teens. Written 4 PERCY JACKSON grads. #SFFpit #SF #YA

    0 retweets 1 like

  1. Picture a kick-butt Georgia Jagger w/no makeup & mommy issues & comic-loving Jake Short w/super powers on quest 2save Earth. #SFFpit #YA #SF
  2. A journey through Egypt. Clues left by Ra. Earth faces destruction. Life was easier when Gil thought he was human. #SFFpit #SF #YA INDYJONES

    0 retweets 1 like

  1. When an ancient biotech powers up after millennia, a 1/2-human hybrid must find its key before it destroys Earth. #SFFpit #SF #YA INDY JONES

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The long-haul truckers of editing: Magazine versus manuscript editors

Going from magazine editing to manuscript editing is like switching from the life of a commuter to the life of a long-haul trucker. Sure, commuting raises your blood pressure and sometimes you want to drive off an interstate river bridge, but after about two hours most people reach their destination without choosing to swim with the fishes. For manuscript writers, agents, and editors, everyday’s a lesson in patience and perseverance. They know that with time and effort, they will reach their final destination, but first there’s a lot of work involved to drive it to completion.

Magazines are by nature publications with quick turnarounds. They are stocked with a lot of short articles – some no longer than paragraph-long blurbs — and usually written by a multitude of authors. Magazine features are in the 1,000 to 3,000-word range — about the length of a chapter — so the writing arc and editing time is truncated. The line and copy editing and fact checking is a 3-pass job more often than not. (I’m talking small press and trade pubs. I don’t pretend to know about the big boys. My career took a “I just had twins” 8-year happy hiatus and I never made my way to one.)

Manuscripts, on the other hand, are innately personal and encompass many thousands of words. For instance, my sci-fi fantasy should shake out somewhere under 100,000 when I’m done editing down. These word counts are not only based on reader preference (middle grade less, adults more) and necessity (fantasy and sci-fi are often longer for sufficient world building) but eventual printing costs. (For a good guide to manuscript word count by genre, visit Writer’s Digest: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post.)

Now, imagine trying to shorten a magazine article to fit a column so there’s room for a big photo or some fun headline art. You cut a sentence or two, or tighten phrasing easily without losing meaning. Now, take a debut sci-fi fantasy novelist like (ahem) me, for instance, who needs to cut 11,000 words just so an agent doesn’t toss it immediately because the printing costs on a work that long are just too risky for a first-timer. Cutting this without losing meaning requires hours of work. Days of work. Metaphorically speaking: Cruise control, missed turns, detours, tolls, sleep deprivation, pit stops and murder. After all, you’re supposed to kill your darlings. But don’t focus on that now. There’s snacking too — lots of it. A box of those pink coconut covered Twinkie things and Coke Zero. A lot of people say chocolate. Whatever you need to get you there.

But that’s not the half of it. Once you do secure an agent, there will be agent edits. And when you get that book deal, there will be MORE editors. MORE edits. Realistically, your book will not be the same one you sent to agents by the time it’s ink on paper. This isn’t a bad thing. The articles my writers sent me were never the same articles I printed either. It just took me far less time to get them their final copy in hand.

NOTE: “The Word Loss Diet” book has been an immeasurable tool for me. It taught me to use a brevity of words, so that the ones that do end up ink on paper, carry the most weight. Critique partners are great. Contests like #PitchWars open your eyes. Networking with other authors opens doors. 

Now. Break’s over. Get the keys back in the ignition and DRIVE.

 

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Will you take the 7x7x7x7 challenge?

After the #PitchWars announcement tonight, I came across this challenge. For the 1,400-ish or so of us who weren’t chosen, this should give us something fun to dotop-7-manliest-swordfights-on-film!

Get out your sword.
Take the 7x7x7x7 challenge. 

Here are the basics: Starting at the seventh line of the seventh page of your current WIP, post the next seven lines and tag seven more authors to join in the fun.

So … here’s my challenge, counting from the 1st page of the prologue to page 7. (Classic prologue problems…)

TITLE: HalfWorlder
GENRE: YA Science Fiction Romance
THE SET UP: My protagonist Gil’s father is missing at a Temple Dig and he’s been pushing down his emotions. When he finally let’s it all run free, he’ll inherit some otherworldy powers from his powerful alien mom. And she thought he was a dud… Nope.

THE LINES: It all ran free in my head, tumbling into one another, cracking from one side of my skull to the other, until the inside of my head was a mess of heated, tangled emotions and my heart pounded against my chest. The bus lurched, throwing me back into reality, but I didn’t want reality. I wanted back in my messy head. It felt good to be free and dirty for once.

I rubbed my temples.

The bus picked up speed and I let it churn all over again. Instead of being numb, I felt a rush of emotion. I finally let myself feel. The adrenaline made my chest pound. …

There you have it authors. Now, let’s have yours. I challenge you to a duel of s”words.”

I TAGGED: @WritingIzzy, @JmeKara, @VLC_Photo,
@CasieBazay, @gingergrouse, @JennyMarieH, and @ashleygraham55

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Returning to ordinary

So at least two good things happened on vacation 1) I survived the flight to the Atlanta, and 2) I survived the flight back to Newark. Yay! I’m alive – even with all the red lasers being aimed at the pilots coming in on midnight flights like ours to Newark – so you know, double happy. Of course, vacation was wonderful on many levels, but as the daughter of a pilot, I’m kind of uber aware of the perils of flying. And, considering good ole’ dad was the first guy to survive a backseat ejection out of an S3-Viking into the shark-infested waters of the Pacific Ocean, I figure he knows a little on the subject. As you can imagine, I much prefer road trips and holding it for hours, to security lines and tiny plane toilets. Give me a gas station bathroom any day!

But I did get a road trip out of it. We picked up the grandparents and a rental van at the airport and hightailed it to the panhandle of Florida. Our destination was a beautiful spot called Santa Rosa Beach on 30A (which all Southerners know about. Just ask one.) So ensued 7 days of … thunderstorms! At least that’s what the forecast said. I did spend Monday (#PitchWars day people) huddled under a blanket, working on my query and first chapter just one more time, before submitting them to the contest. It was storming that day, which was perfect. No guilt for this mamma bear.

We did get a few showers throughout the vacay, but the rest of the week was spent on the beach or in the pool relaxing (and checking the #PitchWars Twitter feed – sometimes surreptitiously, other times not so much). This brings me to good thing 3) No one got eaten by a shark, although PBS assures me they were swimming unseen all around us. However nearly all of us were stung by a jelly fish. And while I’m glad I didn’t get kissed by a shark, those jellies are brutal lovers too.

So, armed with a new tan and several jelly fish hickeys, we packed our bags, loosened our belts (thank you seafood restaurant paradise), and hopped a midnight flight home. Road weary and bleary eyed, we found our car, battery dead, in the garage. Disaster averted, a nice man came in 2 minutes and got us going. Home at 3 am, one child now definitely ill with a fever, we return to ordinary.

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Writers beware. Don’t lose your voice!

Here’s the thing about us writers; we all have a voice. Our own voice – a unique voice. We each have a way to group words into something someone else (hopefully) wants to read. There are lots of voices out there. Yours might be a long, flowing poetic voice, a crisp and sassy voice, an aloof voice, or a warm-as-honey draw-me-in kind of voice. Whatever yours is, it’s yours alone. Be proud of it.

So here’s my word of caution to authors out there tonight. Maintain your own voice! As you reach out to others in your community for critiques and help with queries, chapters or a synopsis during #PitchWars, be thoughtful as to how you use the feedback you are given. I came at this tonight, not because I was frustrated at someone else’s critique of my own work, but because of my own thoughts on another’s. This author’s voice is light, airy and crisp. It’s a little punchy and not afraid to take a risk. I loved it. And while I did have suggested edits like any good critique partner, I worried they were too much, too out of character for this author’s work.

That’s when I wrote this person and shared with them what happened to me when I took someone else’s suggestions too far. In writing and critiquing my original query, I joined an author’s group whose many commentaries and suggestions eventually watered my query down to a semblance of my original voice. In the end, this query was perfect. And completely boring. Yes, it touched on the set up and the plot and the stakes. Someone may have even found the idea intriguing, but I’m guessing they passed over the query wishing the voice had been stronger (or even there at all.)

So, if you do agree with the nature of the changes that are given to you (and you certainly don’t have to), make sure you find a way to put them into your own voice. No one wants a watered down version of something that should scream, YOU! It’s your voice that will sell your story, not someone else’s you might respect.

It’s yours.

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Monkey see. Monkey do.

What’s up buttercups? Nothing munch, Captain Crunch? Then stay a while and get to know me! In the spirit of the #PitchWars Mentor blogs, I’ve decided to do a Top-10 on good ole’ me. If you’re a fellow author stopping by, a mentor, a friend, or an agent, I think this is a great way for us to get to know each other outside of 140 character Twitter tweeting. I like to write BIG, and 140 is small.

As for me, I’ll be pitching my YA SFF Romance, HalfWorlder in #PitchWars August 17. It’s best described as alien (the loveable human kind) Indiana Jones with a tug-your-heart-out love story. It’s also a big romping adventure through the heavy sands, suffocating heat and ancient temples of Egypt … well, that is until it starts snowing on the Great Sphinx. But hey, this is fantasy, right?

TOP-10 Things you should know about me.

  1. If you didn’t catch the Big Bang “Penny” quote above, say because you haven’t watched thousands of episodes of the most incredible show on TV (ahem, Big Bang Theory) over and over like me, then we can still be friends. But you really ought to consider setting your DVR. Truth be told, if I could be those boys’ neighbor, I totally would be. Not just because they crack me up, but because I’d want to pick their brain about the nature of the universe. Maybe I should have been a physicist, but alas I snagged a B.A. in journalism instead. But still, I’m happy. And Google can answer some of my questions even if Sheldon can’t.  And my friend who worked at the Large Hadron Collider can answer the rest.
  2. I was raised on Star Trek and Jane Austen and anything in their related genres in equal doses. I used to stay up reading said novels until 4 am with a flashlight, hiding under my sheets. I’m pretty sure my parents knew what I was up to, but figured if that’s all I was doing wrong, they didn’t have much to complain about. Then my uncle introduced me to Dune and I got wrapped up in the infuriatingly heart-rending Little Women. And the rest is history. I guess that’s what made me want to write Spec Fi with a historical / mythological grounding. I love them both.
  3. I’m sort of a nerd. Don’t judge me. I like my A’s all neatly lined up. I graduated college with a nifty little 4.0, and got to give the commencement speech because of it. But don’t think I just sat around studying the whole time. I’m not boring. I write SFF adventure stories after all! In college, I loved playing laser tag at Frost Chapel. I once had to ride in the back of a “campus police” car for swimming in the reservoir (naughty, naughty), and I did this thing called “running” that college girls tend to do to stay slim enough to catch a boyfriend. Though unfortunately for me, it worked. I caught one. But I had to throw him back one month before graduation when he started to stink. I also loved mountain biking on my beautiful campus with the wind racing back against me, and I pretty much joined every committee they would let me on. Yes, overachiever. Also, Waffle House lover. That’s where I did most of my studying — over hash browns scattered, smothered and covered.
  4.  If I were a plant: I was potted in California (If you can’t infer what I mean here, I can’t help you), this while my Navy pilot dad flew anti-submarine warfare missions a la Tom Cruise. (He had the glasses and everything.)  My roots are in the South. (I was raised near Atlanta, the “diverse, respectful, friendly” Atlanta). But my branches found the sun in the Northeast. (Where my manly man of a husband and I potted our own little garden — again, not helping.) Oh, and speaking of him, you should know the “Nothing munch,” quote above came from hubs. He’s quite funny when he wants to be.
  5. I’m jealous of the person behind the idea for a time travel mailbox in the romantic movie, The Lake House. Then I googled it to see if I could read the book, and found out it was taken from a South Korean movie called Il Mare. 1) Not so jealous anymore since it wasn’t from a book, and 2) If I find out the directors of Il Mare did get it from a Korean novel, my best friend will have to read it to me in English. Also, I like kimchi. Also, she has a southern accent and she is adorable.
  6. In first grade, I won a blue ribbon for a writing contest. It’s one of the most precious memories of my life, that and what it felt like to read Charlotte’s Web or The Box Car Children for the first time. There’s nothing like those first books that captivate you and transport you, or those first teachers who motivate you. I hold those memories quite dear. It’s been my dream to be a writer ever since.
  7. When I got my first job editing, my boss told me the college professor she called for a reference told her she should hire me because of my humor. “It’s different. You’ll like it.”  I wasn’t sure what I thought about that statement at first, but different can be good, right? RIGHT?! So, now I like to use my odd (is that a better word? probably not) humor in my writing, in my novels, etc., because it balances the serious. And balance is what most people want in life. And who wants to write something no one wants to read? I like to think “marketable.”
  8. I’m one of those people who opens their mouth and says the second half of their sentence before the first part comes out, when I’m nervous. For goodness sake, please let me write things down rather than have to talk. It’s sorta’ my thing.
  9. Did I mention I like Kimchi? I’m convinced that hot hOT HOT, spicy foods are the best kind on the planet. Sweet gets second place. (And they go well together.) I cry when I have to eat pizza without Tabasco or copious amounts of hot pepper (powder). Of course, I still cry when I eat the pizza covered in the hot peppers too, but then the tears are the happy kind. Give it to me hot. (And no, I don’t write in THAT genre.)
  10. I play the piano. By ear mostly, though my old Southern Baptist pastor’s wife of a piano teacher did try her darndest to get me to memorize the notes, God rest her soul. Try as she might, nothing stuck but the rhythm and the emotion (the woman had some passion). And somehow I figured out that you could tap into that and then the keys would write their own music. I like to create beautiful things. The piano helps me do that.

I’d love to get to know you too! If you write a Top-10, please come back and comment with the address so we know where to find you!

-Ali

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#PitchWars Mentor List by Category

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