Novels need a first page that hooks the reader—whether it’s the agent you’re querying or the potential buyer browsing your book. Last week at the RWA conference I attended a panel of agents and editors assessing first pages of novels, as well as a session on submitting your novel that included tips for an effective first page. The first pages read aloud were all well written, but a few suggestions kept popping up.
Set the Scene, with Balance
Many of the first pages leapt into a scene, starting mid-fight or mid-dialogue. Over and over, the agents and editors commented, “We need to be grounded in the location” or “I need to know what genre this novel is.” Interestingly, no pages began with a long-winded description of the setting. I figured that all the writers had been told to start mid-scene and warned away from the long description, and gone to the opposite extreme, starting so mid-scene that readers could not understand the action, and providing no setting at all. One of the agents said, “Don’t throw the reader into the middle of the action if it is confusing. Start a breath before the action.”
In addition to providing a basic setting (time period and location, real or imaginary), the setting should be special to the book—not a travel guide–like description but a place that resonates with the story and couldn’t be swapped for any other location.
Make It Easy on the Reader
Getting into the story should be as easy for the reader as possible. Don’t take too long to get to the point (the interesting point, that makes the reader want more). Convey the story’s genre as soon as possible so the reader knows what to expect. Don’t introduce too many names all at once, or try to describe an entire family history or the entire setup of a fantasy world. Give enough interesting details that the reader wants to keep going, but don’t cram everything in at once.
Make sure the beginning is clear and understandable. In particular, don’t have too many “layers of remove”—for example, the character starts daydreaming of a different scene, or we enter a flashback. Make it easy for the reader to follow along.
Propel the Reader Forward
The first page should not be an average day in the main character’s life, or a mundane scenario that the reader has seen time and again. Something should make the day special. The reader should also have a reason to root for the main character. A glimpse of “regular life” is needed, too, so that the reader can see why the day is different than usual. Just don’t get bogged down. For example, don’t include mundane dialogue (even if in real life, people might have such a dialogue).
The first page should create some sort of tension, by presenting the conflict that the main character faces or hinting at the coming conflict. But then this tension must be maintained—don’t drop it after the first paragraph to set the scene or give background. Those setting and background details should be woven into the story in bits so that the main focus is the tension-filled story that maintains the reader’s interest.
I’ve been preparing for the RWA 2019 conference, where I plan to pitch my fantasy romance novel, The Forest Bride,to agents and editors. After much reading and study, I finally (I think) have a grasp on the differences between a blurb, a tagline, a pitch, and a query.
Since I struggled with understanding these differences, I thought I’d share them.*
This is a catchy few sentences that aims to hook potential readers into wanting more. It is used in various ways (see more below), and you can have different versions of it to use in different places. It often ends up as the back cover copy when your book is published. As an example, here is mine for The Forest Bride:
When Princess Rose is sold in marriage to a repulsive brute, only one person can save her: Prince Dustan, the suitor she hoped for, and the one her father didn’t choose. But Rose learns that Dustan harbors a secret: he may not be a prince… or human. Can Rose trust Dustan? Or will his hidden agenda prove even more perilous than the marriage he helped her escape?
This is a brief one or two sentences to catch someone’s attention. You can have more than one. One often appears on the back cover of the book, before the blurb. When they make a movie of your story, this might appear on the poster. Here’s mine:
Her fiancé was a monster. Her rescuer may be worse.
The pitch is what you say when telling someone about your book. It varies depending on the circumstances. For example, a shorter pitch is needed if you meet an agent in the elevator and she asks what you are writing, or if you attend a pitch event with short time slots. A longer pitch might be okay if, over dinner, another writer asks what you are writing, or if you attend a pitch event with longer time slots.
The pitch includes some basic information, some variation of your blurb, and comparable titles. It should balance using precise wording with being natural (i.e., don’t memorize and read it). I’m participating in four-minute pitch sessions, so I planned a “one-sentence pitch.” (Run-on sentences seem to be allowed.) Here’s what I plan to say (note, I’ve never done this, so post-conference I might have a different view of this):
The Forest Bride is a 70,000-word fantasy romance set in the agrarian kingdom of Sarland.
It follows a princess, Rose, who’s sold in marriage to a repulsive brute, and the only one who can save her is Prince Dustan, who’s the suitor her father didn’t choose; but Dustan has secrets: he may not be a prince… or even human.
The Forest Bride is Ella Enchanted, written by Sarah J. Maas. My target audience includes readers who enjoyed Jeffe Kennedy’s Mark of the Tala or Miranda Honfleur’s No Man Can Tame.
The query is a letter you send to agents (or editors) to ask them to consider your novel. This could be a first attempt at contact, or a follow-up to an invitation from an agent you pitched to. (If the latter, you begin the query by reminding the agent how you met.) The query letter includes basic information about your novel, some form of the blurb, comparable titles, plus some other possibilities. There are many articles online about how to write an effective query letter, plus some about what NOT to do.
I hope this helps clear up any confusion about the differences between these items. If you have a different understanding of how they work, please share it.
*I’m not giving advice here on how to write effective blurbs, etc., because I’d only be copying the advice of others. Many articles online give good pointers for pitching and/or querying. What really helped me understand the different was an online class with Linnea Sinclair, “Pitches, Blurbs, and Taglines, Oh My,” which I highly recommend. The class is also a great way to get the items written, while getting excellent feedback.
Since beginning to write fiction, I’ve read numerous books on self-editing and the craft of writing. How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark is a different kind of book.
Books on the craft of writing abound. Many present a strategy: a method of plotting the action, steps to develop the main character, or a structure the novel must follow. I classify these books into three types, which depend on their reader:
Books you totally “get,” and get a lot out of
Books that give you a few good pointers
Books that don’t speak to you at all
Reading books on the craft of writing, trying to find the ones that resonate with you, seems like a good idea, if you can make the time for it. Similar information can be found online, in classes, or at conference sessions.
I’ve gotten more value from books on revising your draft. The two I always recommend are The First Five Pages (Lukeman) and Self Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King). Much of what is useful is what NOT to do: Don’t use adverbs when you could use a better verb. Don’t use multiple descriptive terms in place of “said.” This guidance overlaps with what I found in How Not to Write a Novel.
How Not to Write a Novel is a long list of what not to do, divided into sections (e.g., plot, characters) and sub-sections (e.g., beginnings, bad guys). The reason not to do the things listed is that an agent or editor will reject your novel because of them. So, the authors don’t argue that one method is better than another, simply that if you want to be traditionally published in today’s world, you should follow the advice.
From the plot section, “The Waiting Room”: Don’t begin your book with a long introduction of background information, so that the reader is waiting and waiting for the story to start.
From the character section, “The Clone Entourage”: Don’t introduce the main character’s five friends who are indistinguishable and do not have separate purposes in the plot.
From the style section, “The Puffer Fish”: Don’t use a huge amount of difficult vocabulary, which distracts the reader and makes you seem like a show-off.
Each item has a title, an example, and an explanation. Reading the example (using while cringing) really clarifies the “bad behavior” and motivates one to avoid it. The book is also very funny and an easy read.
The book’s only flaw is the final section, in which the authors discuss self-publishing. They make the good point that even if you plan to self-publish, forgoing agents and editors, you should still strive to publish the best novel possible. But they equate self-publishing with using a vanity press, and they contend that a success story in self-publishing is one that ends with the author getting a traditional publishing deal. These days, hundreds of romance authors are making a living with self-publishing. Some traditionally published authors are turning to self-publishing as a better way to make a career writing, due to the higher returns. One of the biggest self-publishing success stories is Wool by Hugh Howey; while he did eventually work with a traditional publisher, he retained ebook rights, and I’d argue his was a success story before the traditional deal. I was saddened that two people with so much knowledge of the publishing industry would have such a narrow view of self-publishing.
But other than that last section, this is a great book!
Usually New Year’s Day is a time where I reflect back and clarify goals and feel positive about moving forward in the new year. This year was kind of a muddle. What do I do with my manuscripts? What genre are they? How much more work do they need? Should I be putting more time in as a freelance editor, instead of writing?
As nothing came together, I did what I do when I need clarity: put the questions “out there” and then walked away. Over the next few weeks, some ideas came to me—not specific answers but general guidance. As of January 2019, I think these things are true. (If you disagree or have alternate ideas, please share your thoughts in the comments.)
Things Authors Should Do
Regardless of how you decide to publish, doing these things will help you:
Find your readers (or, for beginners like me, potential readers). Preferably, connect with them directly (e.g., they subscribe to your blog or sign up for your mailing list). Also connect with them via an intermediary (e.g., a social media platform).
Hone your craft and keep revising your manuscript. Learn through classes, webinars, conference sessions, reading about craft, working with various types of editors, and using beta readers. Each time you think your novel is done, learn more and then see if you want to revise again.
Read everything in and around your genre and sub-genre. If like me, you don’t have good comparable titles, read as many possibilities as you can. I have recently categorized them on a shelf in my library. Know exactly where your book fits and, therefore, who your readers are.
A Word About Publishing
This seems to be the current state of publishing, based on what I’ve gleaned from fellow authors and agents at conferences:
A handful of books/authors are discovered and cherished and published as they are, and are allowed to change the industry. Most authors, though, have to write what already sells to get published traditionally.*
In addition, since most publishers require authors to have an agent, the author must either write what appeals to a certain agent or find an agent who already likes what the author writes (or who thinks it will sell).
So there it is. I’d love to hear any universal truths you’ve discovered or questions you are mulling over.
*Please note: I’m not saying anyone has to write what already sells. Just that it seems to be what it takes to be traditionlly published.
Last month I participated in a workshop on character led by Barbara Claypole White. Here are some of the tips that helped me.
Deep Characters Take Work
Barbara’s books are known for their deep characters—her goal is to have each character’s voice so distinct that the reader will know who is talking even if she uses no dialog tags!
Barbara shared several exercises she goes through to get to know her characters and allow them to develop in her mind. For example, she asks herself questions, like “What scares me about you?” She explores the character’s backstory, which may or may not make it into the book. She interviews characters to get to know them. She creates character notes and boards to refer to. She comes at each character from many angles: What is their body language? What flaws do they have? What contradictions? Personality types? Voice?
She advised the class to cherrypick the techniques that seemed useful, since her method is hers and will differ from other writer’s.
My first reaction to all of the ideas was, Oh God! This is so much extra work! I have to spend time writing out an interview with my character, and I can’t even use the writing in the text? No, thank you!
But as I’m continuously learning, the craft of writing is much more than the simple first layer of thinking out a plot and putting it onto the paper. Maybe I felt rushed because I was participating in NaNoWriMo at the time, or because I feel so eager to have a fiction book published. But I want my first fiction book to be good, too!
The Low Hanging Fruit Tips
So, I started with the tips that seemed most manageable to me, applying them to the novel I was writing for NaNoWriMo. Even before I left the class, the tips had generated some new ideas—ideas I could add to my draft.
My two main characters are Cailin (a nerdy art history student who lacks self-confidence when it comes to dating) and Anders (the heir to an estate who doesn’t trust himself to know when a woman really likes him, and not his money). Here are some of the tips I used:
What is each character’s greatest fear? Cailin: opening up to love someone. Anders: disappointing his grandfather, who left the estate in his hands.
What is each character’s contradiction? Anders is a famous, wealthy bachelor who appears regularly on magazine covers, but he finds public attention tiring and likes to spend time at home alone, reading. Cailin is studious, careful, and rule-abiding, but when she sees that Anders needs help, she ventures into uncomfortable situations.
Think about a negative quality of a character and a time it became a positive. I thought about Anders being a workaholic as he manages his family estate, and his brother who likes to drink and party, and this led me to a scene with them as boys, where Anders drinks with his brother and has fun, but is ashamed when their grandfather catches them. This leads to a schism between the brothers. (So, I didn’t complete the exercise, but I did discover a new development.)
Make lists of themed words for your characters. For example, Cailin is an art history student. As she and Anders drive through a city, she is likely to notice the architecture. Anders likes gardening. He is likely to notice the trees along the street or the flowers in planters outside a restaurant.
The concept of third-level emotions and digging deeper to find them. For example, Cailin’s creepy art history colleague hits on her in their study room. She is repulsed by him and turns him down, and eventually he goes away—for now. How does she feel? -She feels unhappy because she has to tolerate his advances. -She feels angry at him for hitting on her at work, which she knows is inappropriate. -She feels frustrated with herself that she doesn’t know how to turn him down assertively. -She feels angry at herself for not trying to turn him down assertively, which might be uncomfortable. -She feels angry at herself for being a coward.
Amid all this consideration of my characters, random truths popped out. Like I had Anders focused on estate security as a teen, but his character would be more interested in managing the gardens. But he overachieves and wants to impress his grandfather, so he works all over. It felt like the exercises were loosening things up in my brain, allowing the characters’ truths to escape.
Do I Want to Do All This?
One exercise bugged me: the “fresh smile” exercise. Barbara had us write sentences to replace a simple “he smiled” with a more complex image. For example, “he gave her the honey-I-swallowed-the-canary smile.” Classmates read sentences aloud. A lot of them were similes, which made me not sure I liked them. Things like, “His smile twitched like a dying fish.” “His smile faded like a closing scene.” (I just made those up.) It felt like middle school writing class. I thought, isn’t it nice to just read, “He smiled”?
But now, rereading the notes from the class, some of the examples do seem good. Maybe this can be done well or it can be done too much or badly. Maybe “His smile faded faster than the end of an eighties rock song” would be more specific and illustrative. (Or maybe it doesn’t work at all.)
Given how productive the two-hour class was, I think there is value in going through Barbara’s tips and spending time developing my characters. Now that the rush of writing for NaNoWriMo is over, this time spent seems less like a waste and more like part of the craft of writing.
I had a full schedule at the fall writer’s conference November 2 to 4. The keynote address by Randall Kenan and panel discussions over breakfast were filled with inspirational quotes and points I connected with, like “Writing is a path to discovery,” “A book is never finished; it’s abandoned,” and “I carry the landscape [of home] in my subconscious.” It only got better from there!
I had signed up for the Manuscript Mart, where I’d sit with an agent to receive feedback on how she reacted to the first 15 pages of my novel. I had been practicing a pitch, just in case I was expected to give it. And, my first session was “The Perfect Pitch” with Kim Boykin, Erika Marks, and Kim Wright.
The teachers explained that I should have a two-sentence pitch to use when I meet an agent on the fly and only have ten seconds to catch their attention. Then there is an expanded pitch for when the agent asks to hear more. The expanded pitch is similar to the back cover copy—trying to intrigue the agent to want more. You might include basic information at the end (word count, genre, a very brief bio).
They described the reactions I might get: “I’m interested,” “It’s not for me,” or a referral to another agent. At a pitching event, where you’ve paid to have time with agents, you can fill extra time after a pitch with questions: “What are editors looking for?” “Is my idea marketable?” “What turned you off?” “What did you find most compelling?”
Then everyone in the room practiced our pitches and received feedback: don’t begin with “My book is about…,” be clear and use short sentences, put the hook first, indicate the book’s genre with the language you use, and more.
A panel of agents provided more tips on pitching:
Follow all guidelines and be sure the agent is looking for the book you are pitching
Be a person, but also be professional
Make it clear that you read in the genre you are pitching by providing good comp titles (not outliers, movie books, or classics)
Include what makes your story unique
Don’t talk more about yourself than about your project
An author should have a website; otherwise, as far as author platform, an author should go where they are comfortable; some agents will help an author develop their platform
Talking to an Agent
It turned out, I didn’t have to pitch the agent. She’d marked up my manuscript (The Knowledge Game) and went through it with me, giving her reactions. It was enlightening, and I have six pages of notes to sort through. So on the plus side, I know what I need to work on. On the down side, I really thought I was almost done! Each time there is a new stage of revisions, I see more of how much work goes into a novel, how it doesn’t just flow out ready-to-go, at least not for a beginner. I decided I would finish NaNoWriMo and revising Rose Fair with the end of 2018, and then turn back to The Knowledge Game in 2019.
I also learned that the new-adult genre is no longer a thing—no longer used in the industry. It was absorbed into romance. I had been struggling to figure out what qualified as new-adult (see blog post here) and where my books fit in, so the agent’s disclosure made sense to me. The Knowledge Game is simply an [adult] science fiction thriller.
The whole experience got me thinking about the dilemma of how much to change to fit in with what sells, versus writing the novel you want to write. I wrote a whole post about this (here), but then kept thinking on it. James, a sci-fi writer who leads my book club, used to have a publisher but moved to self-publishing when the publisher refused his new ideas. He’s successful, but had already built a fan base when he made the switch. It seems to me that whichever route I take, I should work on finding my readers.
The Writing Craft
I participated in three sessions about the craft of writing. Here are some takeaways.
Scene Sequencing in Novel Structure, with Kim Wright: I’ve read a few books on the structure of novels and have conflicted feelings about the concept. On one hand, I don’t believe that a novel must follow of specific structure to be good. On the other hand, if a structure works for readers, it will help them like the book (and make it commercially successful). And, as a beginner, following a proven structure might help my novel. Here were some other ideas:
If you’re a pantser, you can spew out a first draft and THEN apply a structure to it
The opening is about 15% of the novel and creates the world, introduces the characters, and hints at the theme
A catalyst propels the protagonist into the main body of the novel
Pivot points (like the catalyst) should be well-spaced, like ornaments on a Christmas tree
The opening and finale are the easy parts to write; the middle is where it is easy to mess up
The middle has three aspects: (1) the plot, a sequence of scenes that builds to a climax, (2) the character arc, the growth of the protagonist, and (3) the story arcs of other characters, woven in.
There is a mix of quiet scenes and climatic ones, and of summary versus detailed scenes; new writers often have too many scenes
Fewer characters is usually better; all named characters should be developed
World-Building, with Gail Z. Martin: I expected a list of the parts of world-building (religion, politics, economy, etc.), but Gail went beyond the list. Here are some examples:
Geology affects where people settle—along a river, for example; think about how this happens in the real world
Be realistic: for example, horses are expensive to own, so in a town of poor farmers, not everyone would own a horse
History matters—even in a time of peace, a history of war affects your characters’ views
If you make up a world, make up the religion of the world; don’t use “Presbyterians in space”
Cultural references will date your book if they are obscure; some (like Batman or Star Wars) are established enough to last over time
Gail pointed out that in the research to find correct information, you often find interesting nuggets you can use in your story. With museum collections now digitized, it’s possible to find anything online.
This session made me realize how much I’m aided by the experiences I’ve had: I have friends who are farmers. I eat what’s in season, and my mom preserved food. I’ve learned bits about traditional crafts like weaving and blacksmithing in my time at the Folk School. I read nonfiction. World-building involves understanding the bottom layers, the things we often overlook in our real lives.
Creating Diverse Characters, with Paula Martinac: I’ve been reading Writing the Other, but Paula’s session brought a new perspective on writing characters with different traits than my own. (She also recommended Writing the Other, however.) She pointed out that writing diverse characters is part of the basic process of characterization (i.e., writing good characters). She also talked about the “own voices” concept and writers’ intent when including diverse characters: Is it because you think you should? Does the character have a role in the plot? Is the character a prop for your main character? Or do you simply want to portray the world accurately?
True diversity is inclusive and authentic. Research does not mean following one person (with a certain trait) on Instagram and using them as your character. Paula described the efforts made by writers who have successfully written books with a main character with traits different from their own: interviews, reading memoirs, finding news articles written by members of the relevant community. Paula also talked about the line between being an ally and appropriating.
Paula listed eight methods of characterization in general, which helped me as someone who’s never thought much about characterization at all: appearance, accessories, dialogue, thoughts, actions, personal history, what others say about the character, and what the narrator says about the character. Writers often focus on appearance and accessories; we can get to know characters by pretending to interview them, for example by using the “Proust questionnaire.” Remember that diverse characters should be real and complex, with flaws.
A Performance of Native
At the banquet Saturday night, we had the good fortune to watch an abridged version of a play called Native, by Ian Finley. The Paul Green Foundation commissioned the play, which explores the relationship between Paul Green and Richard Wright as they work together on a stage adaptation of Wright’s book Native Son. Most of the dialogue was taken from historical documents and was the men’s own words. (Documents from Green were plentiful, but for Wright, Finley’s main lead was that Wright had written an unpublished New York Times piece on the partnership. Finley mentioned the piece to his mother, and two weeks later she had tracked it down.)
Green and Wright disagreed on the ending of the play. Wright wanted it to match the book: he wanted to show Bigger Thomas as a violent monster, the result of a racist American society. Green didn’t think the (white) American public would take away this message; he wanted to humanize Bigger Thomas. Green gave in, but the disagreement ultimately ended the men’s friendship, which Green came to regret.
In the panel discussion after the play, poet Jaki Shelton Green made an insightful comment: Green is depicted as a hero for risking his life to stop a lynch mob from attacking Wright when Wright visited Chapel Hill, NC, but in truth, Green never should have brought Wright to Chapel Hill, where his life would be in danger. Green’s pride (at being a white man associating with a black man) drove him to invite Wright, without considering what was best for Wright. I was glad to gain this perspective, which had not occurred to me.
One comment at the conference meant a great deal to me. When I self-published Somewhere and Nowhere, my memoir of my bicycle trip across America, I knew it probably wouldn’t sell well. But I already felt like it had succeeded, because I learned so much writing it. Since it came out, however, I’ve struggled not to feel like it is failing because of slow sales, and wished I’d done some things differently. It’s been hard to feel confident.
At the agent panel, Lynn York, publisher at Blair, commented on memoir. Memoirs are the toughest books to sell, because there is so much competition from celebrity authors. Lynn said that the process of writing the memoir and sharing it with your community is valuable, whether the memoir is a commercial success or not. A memoir is a record of a time, a place, and people. Hearing this made me feel better.
On the train ride home, I sat with two new friends and wrote another chapter of my NaNoWriMo novel. (Hotels and trains, it turns out, are both great places to get writing done.) I’m inspired for more writing through December and into 2019!
Update: At the NC Writer’s Network’s fall conference, I learned that new-adult is no longer a thing! Learn more here.
I used to read a lot of young adult fiction (YA) books. I liked how the characters were learning about themselves, forming relationships, and discovering the truth about the world. But I got tired of reading about teenagers; I hadn’t learned and discovered all this stuff until I was 30 or even 40!
When I first tried writing fiction, I decided to write the book I wanted to read: a YA-like book with older characters. Then I discovered that new-adult fiction (NA) was actually a thing. Since then, I’ve been trying to read NA books, but they’ve been hard to find. What exactly counts as NA?
What Makes a Book “New Adult”?
This image is what results when I search “new adult” on Pixabay
Wikipedia (as of October 2018) describes NA as having “protagonists in the 18–30 age bracket” with a “focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices.”* This sounds hopeful.
I’ve ordered some of the new-adult books I’ve read about online, and so far they all have characters aged around 20. This disappoints me a little, because I wanted books written for my age group. But 20ish is the age of the former YA audience who are now new adults, whom publishers may see as the biggest market. When I wrote The Knowledge Game, the characters were 30, but the editor I worked with suggested I make them 25 to help the book sell to a publisher. I guess I can look forward to ten years on, when the original YA readers age into their thirties, along with our characters.
NA is about more than the protagonist’s age. Like YA, it seems to include the characters’ emotions and thoughts, with the reader following along as the character changes. When I started a NA shelf in my library, I considered the books in my adult fiction section. Some of the books written before NA became a thing seem to embody the NA ethos. I decided that Sophie Kinsella and Emily Giffin both count as NA, because their 20-something characters are struggling with relationships, careers, and making it in the world, and changing internally as their stories progress. I decided NOT to shelve Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next books in NA, however. Even though Tuesday is the right age, those books focus on Tuesday’s world and the action she’s involved in, not on her inner changes.
New Adult Sub-genres
So far, the NA books I’ve read focus on contemporary romance. While I love contemporary romance, I was kind of hoping NA would include the range that YA does: dystopian futures, science fiction technologies, fantasy worlds, mythical creatures. Maybe I just haven’t found these books yet, or maybe they are coming. For some reason, I have this fear that NA will be stifled before it takes off—if publishers decide that all the money is in contemporary romance.
I also hope that NA will be allowed to include larger, deeper books. I want it to include two recent books I loved: (1) Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic(see my review) features a graduate student who stumbles through a portal into a world filled with magic. She has to escape evil fairies and train with a grouchy wizard before she’s able to find her way home… and by then she isn’t sure she wants to go home. (2) Holly Goddard Jones’s The Salt Line(see my review) is set in a future where disease-ridden ticks have forced humans to live in isolated cities, and a trip into the woods is considered an extreme adventure.
Here’s what my NA shelf looks like so far:
What About Historical NA?
Family struggles? Check. Difficult job situation? Check. Resident hottie? Check.
During this process, I wondered about some of the older books on my shelf. There’s a series I loved in the 1990s by Cindy Bonner that starts with Lily, featuring a teenager growing up and falling in love in 1800s Texas. This book should be YA, but I can’t bring myself to move it off the adult fiction shelf. Is it because it was written before YA became a thing? Or because its target audience was not teenagers?
And what about classics like books by Jane Austen or the Brontes? They feature teenagers and new adults, with many of the right themes: difficult family dynamics, evil bosses, the love interest who stops by for tea. The themes are universal, but somehow these books in historical settings don’t seem to gain access to the shelves of YA or NA. Maybe this again has to do with marketing—publishers don’t include them in the genre because there’s no money to be made.
I’m excited to see where the NA genre goes, and hopeful that it will thrive in various forms in the current publishing world, perhaps via the new models of publishing like hybrid and self-publishing. If you have a favorite NA book please share it in the comments!
* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_adult_fiction, accessed October 7, 2018
Last week I wrote about my initial attempts at plotting a novel, in preparation for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November. (Read here.) I persevered and finished an outline, and also clarified a process that works for me. Maybe it will be useful to other writers; if so, there’s a template to print below.
When I last left my plot… I knew my next step would be actual writing: that is, brainstorming scenes. I also realized that plotting takes time; somehow it had seemed like an outline has so few words, I should be able to jot one down in five minutes. Not the case.
The romantic gardener’s cottage in the rose garden at Biltmore inspired me
I sat with small blank pages (index cards work great; I used the backs of old page-a-day calendars) and waited for the scenes to come. This was hard. I reminded myself of the main themes of my story: it was a love story at heart, with a crime/mystery keeping the characters apart. Once I focused on the love story, I was able to envision some scenes I’d like my characters to experience: they go on a research trip together, they go into town together and are besieged by the press, they escape a rainstorm to a cottage in the gardens—right before the evidence appears that makes her look guilty of the crime (spoiler: she’s not).
It also helped me to use what I know. When they take the trip, what city could they go to that I’m familiar with? What could she be studying in school that I know enough about to add detail to conversations? What topic has always interested me, that I’d like to research more, to get the detail I need? Maybe some writers can make this stuff up, but I can’t.
At times, a more complex issue would start confusing me, and I would stop brainstorming to write out the issue. For example, one character’s family history is entwined with the story, and I kept confusing his ancestors, and which one did what. I wrote out a family tree, labeling as needed (grandpa was the kind one who sent him to school, great grandma was the one in the painting, etc.) and noted the approximate birth dates of each to make sure my timeline worked and fit with history (they lost their fortune during the Great Depression, for example).
Splitting My Outline in Two
As I worked, I found that I kept diverging from writing what happened in a scene to writing about how the action affected the main characters (MCs): how they felt, what they learned, how they changed, what new challenges arose for them. This diversion kept getting me off track. So I got this picture in my head: running along the bottom was the timeline of the character arc—how each MC changes in the story—with the individual scenes tacked on top. I liked this picture because it paralleled the idea that each scene must have a purpose and must advance the plot, with the MC changing in the process.
I started making this picture, using the scenes I had brainstormed. Eventually, my picture evolved to have this structure:
Note that I had two MCs, so my picture actually had two left columns.
I kept working until I had used up most of my scenes. Had I plotted enough? I counted my scenes and compared with the number of chapters I expected for a 50,000-word novel, and the outline seemed reasonable. So I tied things up with a few final scenes. (Note: I’m using the word “scene” where others might use “chapter.” Sometimes the MCs might leave one location and go to another within one scene/chapter, but in my head, this was still one scene. Other writers might prefer a different definition of “scene,” or might have shorter chapters where each chapter only has one location or event in it.)
For Next Time: The Whole Plotting Process
My first attempt at plotting was a little messy, but I can now see what I would do next time. I’d start with some initial questions:
Who is(are) the main character(s)?
What misconception has the MC internalized?
What is the status quo when the story begins?
What are the main events that occur in the story?
What are some challenges the MC faces?
How does the MC change? What does the MC learn?
What are the subplots?
What are the climax and resolution?
Then, I’d make an outline:
Brainstorm scenes (stick to plot details and events)
Work out the details of any tricky parts (like the timeline or family tree)
Make the outline using the template
If you’d like to try this method, here is a PDF of the template to download. Page 1 is for a story with one MC, and page 2 is for a story with two. Print multiple copies of the page you need; the “status quo” box only needs to be filled out on the first page of your outline.
You may have heard of the concept of plotting versus pantsing: some writers plot out a novel before they begin writing, while others sit before a blank page and “fly by the seat of their pants.” Both my Nanowrimo experiences were pantsing, and I loved it. I didn’t know how I even would plot a book, since I always start with an opening scene and no idea where the book is going.
This past year I worked with a developmental editor on my new-adult novel (The Knowledge Game [or maybe The Knowledge Trick?]; Nanowrimo 2014), and she cut about 30,000 words and suggested some major rewrites. After working through the revision, and feeling certain she was right about it, I returned to my romance novel draft (Rose Fair; Nanowrimo 2016) and found a similar mess, and set about reworking it.
So I was thinking, maybe there is something in this plotting. I was waffling on Nanowrimo 2018—can I really fit it in this year?—and decided to try plotting a new novel. If I could generate an outline before November, I’d sign up.
My First Attempt
The rolling hills around the house suggested plenty of opportunities for my protagonists to sneak away from the tourists
I knew the opening scene, at a grand estate. Mom and I were heading to Asheville to see a Chihuly exhibit at Biltmore, so I decided to keep alert for plot ideas in the background of my brain during our visit.
A romantic tryst on the bridge?
At the farm, we watched a video on the historical residents of Biltmore Village. I jotted ideas. As we rode the shuttle to the Biltmore house, I scanned the countryside and imagined my characters venturing into it. More ideas. I took notes in the gardens: there was a greenhouse, a gardener’s cottage, a team of workers planting mums. We walked to the pond through the azalea garden; if it were spring, the azaleas could be blooming.
When I got home, I sat with my notes and a sheet of blank paper and started planning my scenes, writing a few words about each and connecting them with arrows. I plotted eight scenes before running out of notes.
Getting Advice on Plotting
Here I am relaxing on the loggia
Setting aside time to plot felt like it opened my imagination. But now I was back in normal life, with the cats crying for breakfast, the rug un-vacuumed, the office job looming over my morning. How would I continue?
I googled “how to plot a novel” and the results overwhelmed me: use our template, the definitive guide, the Story Circle Method, three awesome plot structures. There was one video that seemed to be Google’s top choice, though, so I watched it: Ellen Brock’s “How to Plot a Novel,”https://youtu.be/cems_-085nQ. Ellen offers a simple approach. (1) Write down every scene you can think of that you’d like to include in your novel. (2) Put them in order. (3) Make sure each is part of the main goal, and has conflict or an obstacle. But where do these scenes come from? I thought.
I also applied the main lesson I learned from reading Story Genius (see my review here):* the main character existed before the story begins, and developed a misconception about herself that she tries to overcome in the story. I’d be writing a romance novel, but the central thread of the novel couldn’t just be “Cailin wants to find love.” It would be that Cailin has begun believing she is unlovable, and can’t believe Alex would love her—especially not when she realizes who he is. What about Alex? He’s grown distrustful of women since they’re so often interested only in his wealth. Cailin seems different; she likes him before she finds out who he is. But then the circumstances indicate she might be playing him (spoiler: she’s not), and he is forced to tread carefully. Identifying this central belief for each character seemed to bring my plot to life.
More Advice: I Test Ride the “How to Plot a Novel” Articles
I gave googling another shot, first thing on a Saturday morning. This time the results didn’t seem so overwhelming. I’d recently learned that Google ranks results based on how long users stay on a page after clicking, so I would trust the writers who had searched before.
The Jericho Writers method
1. “How to Plot a Novel,” by Jericho Writers:https://jerichowriters.com/how-to-plot/
This article stresses keeping it simple, which I like. It asks you to jot down seven points about your novel; there was a pad and pencil sitting next to me so I made myself do it, and guess what? It was easy, and I had enough material to do it. So far so good.
Then I jotted down subplots and put everything into a template. There were also tips for if you don’t have enough material. I hoped for another step to turn my sketch into an outline, but the article ended there with a sales pitch. Still, I give this one five stars.
2. “How to plot a novel: 7 tips for success,” by Now Novel:https://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-plot-novel/
This article gives a writer a lot to think about. At first I found both the article and its links overwhelming, but I read through it all and found it worthwhile. The tips include
Think about the elements of the best plots
Create an outline
Consider the goals of each character
Identify the purpose of each scene
Plan for characters, events, and settings, not just one of these elements
Plan what else will change as the novel progresses
Use index cards to create a storyboard; each scene has a reason
Add subplots to reinforce the main plot
Another link is to “Plot outline creation: 7 smart methods” (https://www.nownovel.com/blog/7-ways-write-plot-outline/), which lists different methods that might work for different authors. No particular method jumped out at me, but rather I noted what they all have in common: start with a sketch, add detail, then add more detail.
The monochromatic initial sketch (that’s my painting spot in Andrews Hall at William and Mary!)
This general method reminded me of painting: Before I had any training, I would approach a painting by starting at one spot with detail and working outward. Often the result would fall off the canvas, or have an inaccurate overall shape. Then I learned to sketch the whole painting first, in one color, before filling in detail, and it worked much better.
3. “How to Plot a Novel: The Definitive Guide,” by Novel Writing Help:https://www.novel-writing-help.com/how-to-plot-a-novel.html
The third Google result was an overview with links to the articles of the “definitive guide.” I read the whole overview and then skimmed through the articles. A lot of the material now felt like repeat material, but the organization and detail might make this a good starting place for some writers. The one section that filled a gap for me was “Plotting the middle” using linked “mini goals” and “mini plots” to keep the reader hooked. That said, the detail overwhelmed me and I gave up about a third of the way through the page.
Here’s the final painting, in case you were wondering; in the class critique, my peers described it as “the dark side of obsession”; it’s not one of my favorites but my mom likes it
I clicked on a few more Google results, and there was more good material, as well as repeat material and recommendations that fell flat. But none of the websites told me exactly what to do next. I gradually accepted the truth: the next step would be sitting to write, forcing myself to come up with (1) more scenes and (2) more detail. There’s no magical method for making it happen that doesn’t involve (wait for it) actual writing.
Being at Biltmore gave me a boost and made the process feel fun and effortless. Cailin is an art graduate student who hangs out in the library carrels with her classmates. Since I live close to UNC–Chapel Hill, and used to frequent the libraries there, I plan to take a “research” trip to visit the libraries and art department.
And even when all I can do is work at home, I can aid my plotting effort by setting aside time and clearing my head of distractions.
What’s been your experience with plotting? I’d love to hear more tips.
*There are dozens of books on writing craft, and I hope to read them all eventually. It seems to me that authors will find most of them useless but will connect with a few. Or, some authors might find key takeaways in each, while not subscribing to the entire method presented. This is how I felt about Story Genius; I got a lot out of it, but at this point in my writing career, I would go nuts trying to follow the plan step by step.
This week I added categories to the subscription widget for this blog. Originally the blog was only for news updates, but then I started posting tips for writers and editors. As I continue my fiction writing journey, I hope to post content related to my future books; considering this new content pushed me to make a change.
I put off making this change for a while because it seemed daunting. Below, I’ve shared how I added the category capability.
About the Categories
First I clarified the categories I’ll be using. I wasn’t sure about the new category, which is why it has the vague title “Emily’s Thoughts.”
News about Emily’s upcoming books and events, and other happenings in her life. Usually there is one post every few months.
This is a new category as of fall 2018, and I’m not yet sure what direction it will go. It’s a place to post ideas and topics that may interest readers of my (upcoming) new-adult dystopian fiction book.
Practical posts relevant to authors, including resources and ideas about the craft of writing, as well as tips on the business of writing.
Practical posts relevant to editors, including tools and resources as well as the business of editing. Authors may be interested in this category as well, to learn tips that can help them self-edit their writing.
Practical posts relevant to those interested in self-publishing.
(I categorized this post as “For Authors” because of the how-to content below.)
The basic idea is to use an outside email service (I chose MailChimp) to manage my list of subscribers. My list will have “groups” (that is MailChimp’s term, and is parallel to the blog’s categories). Subscribers will be able to choose which groups they join. I’ll then set up an automatic “RSS to Email” campaign for each group; when I post in the News category, for example, everyone in the News group will automatically receive an email notification.
MailChimp offers a free account if you have less than 500 subscribers. This free account only includes support for the first 30 days; so, plan to set up your list immediately after signing up, so that you can get help if needed.
I had used MailChimp at my day job before setting up my own list. It can be a little confusing. I hope the steps below will help!
How to Add Subscription Capabilities for Categories
Step 1. Get started.
Create an account at MailChimp, and answer their questions. They will automatically create your first list, with your email address in it, using the name of your business; you can change the list name if you want. This list is where you will add your subscribers. There are other pages you should look at and customize under Settings (“List fields and *|MERGE|* tags” is where you can choose which information subscribers are required to provide, for example), but this post’s focus is on creating the campaigns and a sign-up form including categories, to use with my blog.
Step 2. Create groups.
On the main menu, choose Lists. Then choose the name of the list to open it. Under Manage contacts, choose Groups. Click the gray button to Create Groups. Choose “As checkboxes” so that subscribers can be in more than one group. Name your Group category (I used “Emily’s Author Blog”) and then fill in your blog categories under Group names. (This is a little confusing because MailChimp uses different terminology! Don’t create a new group category for each blog category.* You can see mine below.** Remember to Save.
Step 3. Create segments.
When you send an email campaign in MailChimp, you can send it to your whole list or to a segment of your list. You cannot, however, send it to a group. So, you will create a dynamic segment for each group; the segment will update as the group updates. Then you will send the campaign to this segment. To create a segment, choose Manage contacts,Segments, and click the gray button to Create Segment. Then use the dropdowns to find your Group category and one Group name, like this:
Click Preview Segment, and Save Segment. Don’t worry about the “Goose egg” screen; there is just no one in your segment yet. Name your segment and save. Now repeat Step 3 for each blog category. Note: you can’t rename a segment so get it right the first time, otherwise you’ll have to delete it and create a new one.
Step 4. Create signup form.
Choose Signup forms from the menu, and then Embedded forms.***
The embedded form will appear with information already filled in. You can see a preview on the right (you might need to scroll to see all of it) as well as the code. You can customize the form under Form options on the left; I changed the title, to indicate a blog. Copy and paste the code into a text file and save it. (There doesn’t seem to be a way to save it in MailChimp.) Then, paste this code into your website and the form should appear. For me, using WordPress, I used a “Custom html” widget in my sidebar, although a “Text” widget seemed to work as well.
Step 5. Test the form.
Your email address is already subscribed in MailChimp, but use the signup form on your site to subscribe to all the blog categories. Having an email address in each group will make Step 6 easier.
Step 6. Create an RSS campaign for each group (using segments).
Choose Campaigns and then click on the gray button to Create Campaign. Choose Email,Automated, and Share blog updates. Rename the campaign to match one blog category, and click Begin. Note that steps of creating the campaign will appear along the bottom of the screen. Here are the steps:
RSS Feed: Paste in the URL of the RSS feed of your blog category. I’m not totally clear on how RSS feeds work, but I think if you go to your blog, click on a category, and add “feed” at the end, the URL will become the feed URL. (You can’t see the feed on Safari; you’d need to download a feed reader app.) When you try to save, MailChimp will tell you if the feed URL is invalid.
My feed URLs for the above categories look like this:****
You also need to set when the emails will go out. If you post often, you might decide to send emails once a week, as a digest. I decided to send on most weekdays at lunchtime. So, if I post in the News category on Saturday, subscribers in the News group will receive an email notification on Monday at 11 AM. If I post in the For Authors category on Tuesday night, subscribers in the For Authors group will receive notification Wednesday.*****
Click the blue Next button to proceed to the next step. If you need to stop working, click Save and Exit at the top right. Note that you would find you campaign under Drafts when you are ready to continue building it.
Recipients: Choose Segment or tag, and choose the segment from the options that appear. (You can also create new segments at this point, but we created segments in Step 3. I find it less confusing to create the segments in advance.)
Setup: I altered the From name but otherwise left the defaults in place. I selected “Personalize the ‘To’ field” using the subscriber’s first name (*|FNAME|*) because I like the idea of the notifications going to a person’s name. Note that the Campaign name is not visible to the public.
Templates: This is where you start designing the actual email. The body of the email (the links to your blog) will be generated automatically, but you might want to add a logo or header at the top, and a background color, among other things. You can build from scratch or start with a template from the Themes tab. My advice is to start simple if you are new to MailChimp. Remember that whatever you use will be in every email (until you change it); you would not want to include five photos and a lot of text introducing yourself, because your subscribers would then receive this material every time they get a notification. I wanted a simple design that would work week after week. I chose Basic, 1 column.
Note that below, after designing the email, I saved it as a template. Then when I repeated this step, I used the same template, so that all emails would have the same look.
Design: MailChimp has a drag-and-drop system where you drag elements from the right onto the email on the left, and then click on an item (on the left) to open an editing window (on the right) where you can make changes. You must click Save and Close after editing each element. I’m not going to give details here, other than to say that you’ll want to use “RSS Header” and “RSS Items” because those are the elements that will automatically populate with your blog posts. The RSS information comes from your feed, so (for example) if you don’t like the title of the feed, you would update it at your blog. MailChimp’s design help is here: https://mailchimp.com/help/design-an-email-campaign-in-mailchimp/
Here’s what my campaign ended up looking like:
And, if I click on Preview and Test and Enter preview mode, it looks like this:
Just to make sure it was working, I published two test blog posts in my News category and checked preview mode again, and saw this:
Note that, as seen in the above images, the merge tag “RSSFEED:TITLE” is being filled in with “News – Emily Buehler” while “RSSFEED:DESCRIPTION” is blank. I can try to find the place to change the title or to add a description at my blog. I can also remove either merge tag by clicking on the “RSS header” element in my email, choosing “Custom,” and editing the code.
(This is where you should click Save as Template.)
Confirm: I had an error here that no one was in my segment. I knew that my own email address was in the segment, however. I tried logging out and in, but it didn’t help. It took a whole day before MailChimp got on track and recognized that an email had been added to the segment. Once the error was fixed, I clicked Start RSS and was told that an email would go out Monday at 11 AM. It would only go to me (the only subscriber).
Now repeat Step 6 to create a campaign for each of the other blog categories! Remember to use your template. Don’t worry, this step goes much faster with the template.
Step 7. Add subscribers.
You now have a form on your website where fans can subscribe to your blogs by category. If you collect email addresses at events (note: you need permission to subscribe people), you can add them to your list and to the various groups from inside MailChimp (open the list and use the Add contacts dropdown). If you previously used a subscription plugin, you can export the emails and import them into MailChimp.
Note that when someone subscribes, MailChimp will send them old posts going back a day/week/month if you have chosen to send daily/weekly/monthly.
I also sent an email to all subscribers (using a separate, one-time campaign in MailChimp) that explained why they were receiving the email, that I was changing to a new system, and that they could now choose which categories to subscribe to.
So, to sum up, you now have a MailChimp campaign set up for each category on your blog. When you post in a category (e.g., “News”), the post goes into the News feed, which MailChimp picks up. The RSS to Email campaign you created in MailChimp for the News feed creates an email that is sent to everyone in the News segment, which is everyone who subscribed to the News category on your blog. Yay!
Resources I Used
Here are the articles I read while doing this process:
In the past I’ve sometimes added a blog post to multiple categories. Subscribers would get one email each time there was a blog post. With the new system, if I add two categories and someone subscribes to both of them, the subscriber will get a separate email notification for each category. So, I will try to use only one category per post. (This seems to be a best practice for SEO reasons anyway.)
Right now, the notification emails are set to go at lunchtime on most weekdays. I think this will work because I don’t post constantly. If I started to post multiple times per week, I would switch to a weekly send time, to announce multiple posts at once. However, MailChimp does not have an easy way to combine the notifications from different categories, so someone who subscribes to multiple categories would receive multiple weekly digests, if I use a weekly send time. I’m not going to worry about this for now.
I did add an “All Categories” group, however, along with a segment and campaign, and redid the signup form. Readers who check the All Categories box will receive notifications of any blog posts bundled into one email. (If they check all the other boxes AND the All Categories box, though, they’ll get multiple copies. I included some text at the bottom of my emails [see above] to avoid this.)
The feed URL that you use for All Categories is the feed for the whole blog, not just one category. It should look something like this:******
I created three test posts in various categories on my blog. I also used the custom RSS header block and removed some of the code. My preview of the campaign for All Categories looked like this:
I hope these instructions help anyone else who wants to add the ability to subscribe by category to their blog.
*You might if your categories fall into different types—like if you had an author blog AND a plumber blog, and you wanted a set of groups/categories under each.
**After taking the screen captures, I streamlined my categories and removed two.
***This is not relevant to the current process, but it is worth looking at the Form builder, which is where you would make a “free-standing” sign-up form; you could then send interested people to this form via a link. There are also items like the confirmation email subscribers receive, which you may want to customize. There are a lot of items here, and I am not clear on which ones get used when. Another option is a pop-up form, but I did not want anything popping up on my website, because pop-ups have become common and I find them annoying.
****I had some trouble with the campaign for the Thoughts category. I wondered if the punctuation in the category name might be causing the feed not to work, so I changed the category from Emily’s Thoughts to Thoughts. Use simple names to avoid possible glitches.
*****I’m not totally sure how many days back a campaign will look for posts. Presumably a weekly send time will make the campaign look back a week. Some of my “daily” send times did not work unless I posted the blog within 24 hours of the send time; but other daily send times did look back many days. My current best guess is that selecting multiple days but not every day results in some weirdness.
******On my site, I had originally named the blog page “News,” so my feed actually appears at this URL: https://emilybuehler.com/news/feed/. But since News is now a category as well, this is confusing. On most blogs, the default name will be “Blog.”