15 August 2016

Your novel's chapters

A combination of Twitter conversations, client work, and working on my own latest novel have put it in my head today to talk about approaches to chapters: length, breaks, and titles.

First let me say that there are no hard-and-fast rules in storytelling. As with any aspect of craft, choices about how to do chapters are driven by the experience we want our readers to have. It's about the effects our choices have on how readers understand and experience our stories. Decisions about chapter length and breaks are mostly about pacing. Since I like reading fast-paced page-turners, that's the effect that I go for in my own writing. I want my books to be unputdownable, so that's my mindset when I'm making decisions about chapters.

Chapter Length
There's no minimum. No, really. I've seen a one-word chapter done successfully before. (See also these examples, which include several chapters that one-up the one-word chapter by containing zero words.) That said, if I'm reading a book that has a bunch of super-short chapters, each one is going to have to be riveting and compelling to prevent me from getting frustrated or fatigued.

06 July 2016

Your Pitch to Publication query letter

Query letters are tricky beasts, difficult for most authors to write. Going in, we know this. But your query letter is important because it's what's going to get me excited about reading your first five pages and, more importantly, give me a sense of what I'm not seeing: namely, p. 6 to the end. It's going to clue me into whether you know what your book is about, whether the narrative arc makes sense, and whether you have a story I can invest myself in.

There are LOADS of posts all over the Internet about how to write a tight, enticing query letter for an agent. See for example Jane Friedman's, the one on Writer's Digest, or the oft-cited Query Shark site. This post is about how to write an enticing query letter for Pitch to Publication.

How is the P2P QL similar to a QL for an agent?

It's not that writing a query letter for Pitch to Publication is entirely different from writing one for an agent; there are definitely some guidelines that apply to both.

Your Pitch to Publication query letter should include the book data (title, target audience, genre, word count, comps if you can/want to), hook, bio, and thank you.

As with any good hook, I want to know about the setting, MC(s), premise, goal, and stakes. The best query letters also have a strong voice that reflects the voice of the novel; it's a window into what I can expect when I get to the pages. Your hook is the mini-synopsis; it should be no more than three paragraphs, and aim for 7-11 sentences total.

21 June 2016

Your novel's word count

Today I'd like to talk about a four-letter word: word count. (Okay, I know that's not literally a four-letter word. I'm being metaphorical.)
"I just hate how I 'come off as' as a debut writer with a super high WC, even when I'm doing a genre that has higher WC. I don't like agents to think of me as ignorant or judge my story because it is a longer work. And I hate that they just reject it on the spot without even reading sample pages or trying to have a discussion surrounding it." - Nicole Evans, fantasy & scifi author
Can you relate? Then this post is for you.

Thing is, you believe that your high word count is warranted. And maybe it is! But I saw a lot of submissions during P2P with word counts over 100K (one was even over 200K), and I came to see some patterns. Here are four factors that might be driving your word count up unnecessarily and how to check for them.

1. Starting in the wrong place.
Hands down, this is the most common issue I've seen in debut novels. Most of them start too soon, in a scene that lacks goals or stakes and isn't close enough to the catalyst that's going to make the MC(s) take their first steps on that road leading to the primary conflict, and thus adding unnecessary length to the book. I wrote "Your first five pages" to help with this one.

2. Too much backstory and/or world building unrelated to what's happening in the scene.
I won't go so far as to say that you should only include details that are necessary to understanding the scene at hand - there are definitely times when a well-placed sentence or two of backstory sets up something important without trying readers' patience - but it's quite common for authors to front-load their books with too much information under the mistaken assumption that readers actually need it all.

06 June 2016

Your book's Darkest Moment

Back in March, when I requested partials from ten #P2P16 authors, I asked them to include the 5 pages that included their book's Darkest Moment and also to tell me where in book the DM landed. Why? I wanted to get a sense of the book's pacing, to make sure that the DM was dark enough, and that it was in alignment with the expectations set up in the first fifty pages.

Today I want to talk about your book's Darkest Moment and give you some ideas about how to self-check that it's the best Darkest Moment it can be.

Illustration: "Pay's good" by TPA
What is the Darkest Moment?
It's that moment when it looks like your main character (MC) isn't going to get what they've been after all this time. Despite everything they've tried and all the tears they've cried, it looks like they're going to lose. Your book's Darkest Moment should have that All-Is-Lost feel--meaning that, at least for a moment, there is no hope. It looks like your MC is going to die or give up, or they've hit some other obstacle that seems impossible to overcome.

Let's take the movie The Wizard of Oz as an example. Dorothy's goal is to get home. She travels far through a strange land, dodges terrifying flying monkeys and gray-faced Oh-We-Oh dudes with spears, passes the scary wizard's test by destroying the scarier wicked witch, discovers the wizard's true identity, gets her friends what they wanted, and is about to return home with the wizard, only to have him fly off in that hot air balloon without her. This is the Darkest Moment: despite everything Dorothy has been through and overcome, in this moment it looks like she will not get home because, as far as she knows, there is no other way home. In this moment, all hope is lost.

(Side note: Notice that if Dorothy had known before the wizard flew off without her that the shoes could get her home, it wouldn't have been a true DM because she'd still have had some hope.)

16 May 2016

Your first 5 pages

You've heard it before, but it bears repeating: whether you start on a prologue or Chapter 1, the opening of your novel is important. It's what's going to either hook an agent, a publisher, and a reader or help them decide that your book isn't for them. A good first line is important, but if it's followed by several paragraphs of background information to set up your world or character, you're going to lose us. We want to feel something - shock, amusement, curiosity, fear, excitement - and we want to get invested.

As a result of my participation in March's Pitch to Publication Twitter contest and The Work Conference, I've read a lot of people's first five pages in the last couple of months, which led me to reflect on what makes excellent first five pages.

And, in short, it is this:

The first five pages of your novel should be rooted in a scene with a goal and stakes; convey a strong sense of voice, emotion, and setting; either include a catalyst or the promise of one coming soon that's related to the primary conflict and/or include a mystery or question that the reader is invested in.

[Update 6 June 2016] One more thing. If your first five pages contains your main character, then we should also get at least a hint about what internal conflict or flaw s/he will need to overcome in order to triumph in the primary conflict.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Any questions about what I mean? Anything you'd add? Do you know of a novel published within the last five years that hooked you with its beginning but doesn't fit the above description?