Here’s a compilation of resources I recommend when revising your own writing.
For the Opening
Book: The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.
First page reads: You can often find these sessions at writer’s conferences. Authors submit a first page, which is read aloud and critiqued by an editor or agent. Even if you don’t submit a page, hearing feedback about others’ first pages is helpful.
First paragraph/page/chapter classes: Last fall I took “Killer Openings” by Alexa Bourne. It’s great to learn what makes a strong opening while getting feedback on yours from fellow students and the teacher. And, these classes are often taught online via a forum, so you can take them wherever you are.
More Books on Revising Your Work
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark (read my review, here) The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them by Jack M. Bickham
Story Geniusby Lisa Cron: There are a lot of writing craft books, and no one book fits all writers. I gained a few very useful ideas out of this one, which focuses on how the human brain relates to storytelling and how to use that relationship to craft more-powerful stories.
Save the Cat Writes a Novelby Jessica Brody and Romancing the Beatby Gwen Hayes: I’m not totally sold on these two. The idea is that using certain story “beats” (a pattern of the plot) will increase your chance of success because the pattern is a winning pattern, but some perfectly good books DON’T fit this pattern. Even if you don’t want to conform, though, it is worth thinking about the beats of your plot and how to use them for maximum impact on readers.
The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi: This is a reference book of emotions that lists “symptoms” of each emotion, to help writers show an emotion instead of telling the reader about it. For example, if you had written “He looked angry” you could look up “Anger” and find a list of items like “face turns red” and “fists clench.”
Book maps: I learned about these in a class by Heidi Fiedler (https://www.helloheidifiedler.com/workshopsforeditors) and I cannot say enough good things about them. Making a book map is the first thing I do after writing a story draft. I use it to keep track of the plot, the character arcs, the relationships, and tidbits (like what phase the moon is in; you don’t want a full moon rising night after night!). I blogged about book maps here: https://emilybuehler.com/2018/book-mapping/
Classes: I mentioned some online classes about the story opening above. Other classes focus on different parts of revisions. Recently, I took “Character Torture” by Linnea Sinclair. The class looked at the goal, motivation, and conflict that drive a story along. These concepts are now the first thing I chart in my book map when I begin revising.
Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward: This book is not about revising, but it’s so important that I wanted to include it. It is the go-to resource for authors who want to write characters who are different from themselves, in an authentic way. There are also courses taught and online resources at https://writingtheother.com.
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.