Is your WIP in need of some manscaping? Pluck out those to-be verbs (From the Archives)

I published this post originally back in the fall of 2011 and as I sit here completely blank on what to post today, I thought I’d pull up this fun post. So here’s the old post, with some small changes:

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Is your WIP in need of some manscaping? Pluck out those to-be verbs. Or at least eliminate enough of the suckers so they’re not populating your manuscript like the wiry hairs on a hirsute male.

Argh! As my fingers poise over my keyboard, I hesitate. Recently, I’ve become loathe to point out style advice like this when critiquing because this might be someone’s style. In fact, my fingers hesitated so much, I just returned to writing this after taking a 2 hour procrastinating tour around twitter and klout. Sigh. Okay, getting over it. Onward.

So, what do I mean by to-be verbs? These are any time we use is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been in constructing our sentences. These verbs indicate a state of being, which is important to remember when applying this guideline because sometimes what we really want to illustrate is movement, not a persistent state. But! There are times when we DO want to indicate a state of being and using a to-be verb is entirely appropriate rocks (like the to-be I used in the second sentence of this paragraph).

Like any writing tip, this is a guideline only. Not a rule. You should only write what resonates with you.

In case you do want to see how it might improve your story, here are some structures to look out for in your WIP. I like to see them as flags of possible weak areas. I find them, analyze, and either leave them as is, or change them:

  • was + -ing. Just convert the -ing into the action verb. These are the easiest to fix. He was riding > He rode. Sometimes we can go even further, because it’s still not specific enough. For instance, he was speaking before a large group could be changed to he spoke before a large group, but that’s still pretty blah. What kind of mood is he in? What’s happened leading up to this? Can we use this to illustrate the character? Possibly! Maybe something like: he hunched over the microphone, eyes downcast. He swallowed and… you get the idea…
  • was + adjective. They can indicate we’re telling and not showing. Consider something as simple as this: He was gorgeous. That’s telling. How was he gorgeous? Describe what makes him gorgeous to the narrator. As often is the case when showing and not telling, we will use more words to show his hunkiness to the reader. Just using shortcuts like this, or the house was elegant, the food was tasty are like placeholder cards (cardboard cutouts!) scream ‘cardboard cutout!’ in your manuscript telling the reader how they should feel about a character or envision the scene. Better to take the time to describe it in a way that empowers them to feel and see it on their own without tacking on such a nonspecific descriptor. The reader will be pulled into the story in a much more visceral way. Plus, everyone’s tastes are different differ, so what’s tasty or beautiful to one person might not be that way for another, so we’re missing a chance for character development here.
  • was + verb + infinitive verb. Here are two examples from my WIP: she was tempted to say became she itched to say and they were due to leave  became they planned to leave.
  • was + adjective + noun. Again from my WIP: She longed to tell him, but really that was a stupid idea became She longed to tell him, but that would top the list of stupid things to do.
  • was + noun forms of verbs. Just convert it to its original verb. For instance, she was the inventor of… can be she invented
  • was + any kind of word expressing emotion. For example: He was scared about the monster under his bed. Don’t label the emotion, show it instead. A five-headed beast with poisonous drool lurked under his bed, without a doubt. Just his luck, too, today of all days. He sidled across the wall, one eye peeled

There are probably other structures where this pesky guy shows up, but these should get you started. The point is to be aware of it and really scrutinize whether it’s the best way to describe it captures your character or scene. Sometimes it is does! Or it would be very strange to convert it. Or that’s the voice of your character. Or it fits the rhythm. But if you’re getting feedback that your prose is lackluster, consider going on a fishing expedition through your WIP with a pair of tweezers in hand. Sometimes it will be really hard to find another way to say it (at least it is for me!) but when I finally do, it pops! And generally characterizes my heroine or hero in a much better way. I’m offering this tip precisely because it is something I still struggle with it and didn’t find a heck of a lot of practical advice out there, other than don’t use it. I liked Shirley Jump’s example (tip #2) in her article Show Not Tell: What the Heck is that Anyway?

And in case you thought my opening sentence was just for shock value I wrote the opening sentence for shock value, I really did have a purpose. Some people really like overly hairy men, who am I to judge? Same with writing guidelines like this. If it works for you, do it, otherwise don’t; leave the hairs in, or pluck ‘em.

How about you? Do you struggle like me trying to convert to-be verbs? Do you have other tips for helping to eliminate them where advisable?

Tweetables:

  • Is your WIP in need of some manscaping? Pluck out those to-be verbs @AngelaQuarles  <–click to tweet
  • If your prose is lackluster, consider going on a fishing expedition through your WIP for to-be verbs @AngelaQuarles <– click to tweet

Do you know your own GMC? Not your characters, yours as a writer?

By Auregann (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

For writers of genre fiction where plot and story are central to the success of the book, we’re often told to clarify our characters’ GMCs. For non-writers, this stands for Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. And it’s best if you can have both an external and an internal one for your Main Character (and your other Main Character if it’s a romance) and your Antagonist (if it’s sentient).

This can be easily transformed into a sentence: Hero wants x because y, but z happens. Internal GMCs would be: Hero needs x because y, but z.

Anyway, as writers we can be so focused on perfecting our craft that sometimes we can neglect ourselves and hamper our goal. Last week I was at my monthly critique group meeting and one of us has multiple unpublished novels under her belt. She’s definitely put in the 10,000 hours of practice as she’s been writing for the last 10 years and she is extremely talented. Her prose drips with ethos and voice, her scenes and characters come alive, and she has great stories to tell. But you can’t read any of her work. In fact, though she’s been doing this for so long, we’re part of only a handful who actually knows she writes. She also has a fear of having folks she knows reading her work (I think she’s fine with strangers).

And this is all fine if she is writing solely for her own benefit. So at the meeting I asked her what her ultimate goal is, as that will help clarify whether she needs to go through the time-consuming and often gut-wrenching process of getting your work out there. And she would like to be published. She’s starting to research going the indie route and we were discussing it with great energy.

So to grossly simplify my good friend’s GMC, it would be: She wants to be published because she’d like to share her work with others, but she lacks time. And her internal GMC would be hampered by a fear.

Why is this good to know for yourself? Because just like with your Main Character, you need to know your goal, what’s opposing you, and then launch yourself into your own Story World and start tackling the steps to take you to your own Goal. Along the way you’ll have setbacks, your internal fears will hamper you, but keep yourself focused on your main goal and you’ll get there.

And if you need some inspiration to help you keep going through your Story World, an earlier post of mine talks about pushing past each setback you’ll hit on your journey, Writer Wednesday: When You Hit That Wall, Do You Nurse Your Head, Or Climb Over? Then once you picture yourself climbing over (or around or under) that wall and the multitude of writers who are not doing that, read Kristen Lamb’s post What Are the Odds of Success? …Really? In it, she maintains that “It has been statistically demonstrated that only 5% of any population is capable of sustained change.” So with each metaphorical wall you hit as a writer, remember that only 5% get to the other side. Do you want to be part of that 5%?

Do you know your own GMC? What fears are holding you back? Do you have your next immediate goal you need to tackle?

Tweetables:

  • Do you know your own GMC? Not your characters, yours as a writer? @AngelaQuarles <– Click to tweet
  • Have you launched yourself into your own Story World? Know your own GMCs @AngelaQuarles <– Click to tweet

Image source: By Auregann (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Guest Post: Stephanie Lawton on The Art of Genre Hopping

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Excited to have fellow Mobilian Stephanie Lawton on my blog today to talk about her new release, Need, which is the follow-up to her debut release Want! Take it away, Stephanie!

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Thanks, Angela, for the opportunity to say a few things about my new release, Need, genre-hopping and nontraditional publishing. Quite a mouthful, that, but I assure you they’re related and relevant to most writers.

In an ideal writing world, we don’t sit down and immediately conjure up the perimeters of a specific genre. Instead, we tell our story the way it needs to be written. Only when it’s finished do we begin to think of its marketability and where it fits in the pigeon holes of the publishing world.

Nine times out of ten, it’s easy to tell where a book belongs. Narrator under eighteen? It’s probably YA. Silk sheets and a red room of fun toys? Probably erotic romance or erotica (or perhaps comedy, but I’ll leave that one alone …)

So what happens when your story genuinely doesn’t fit a specific category, or doesn’t fit well enough to be a sure thing for an agent or publisher to be comfortable selling? Answer: You go indie.

For some, this means hitting up indie publishers, which are doing quite well in this changing market. They’re also generally more open to well-written stories that may not conform to what’s currently popular or projected to be so. The good ones still demand quality, but they often see the value in putting something out there that appeals to specific readers, or readers who are tired of the same big-house tropes.

This is where I lucked out with my romance series. The first book, Want, was published as upper-YA. The story hinges on the heroine being seventeen, but the issues she’s facing are very adult and all the rest of the characters in the book are adults. Is it YA? Not really. But is it adult? Most potential readers would automatically assume it’s not based on the narrator’s age.

A year after publication we’ve seen the rise of a category known as New Adult. Bingo. And guess who pioneered this wildly successful trend? Indie writers (many self-published) and indie publishers.

There were many demands from readers for a second book to find out what happened next to a certain character, so I penned Need. This time, I wrote from the main male adult character’s POV (I can’t call him a protagonist or antagonist and be completely accurate). He’s twenty-eight, beyond New Adult and well beyond YA.

Plus, when his story began pouring out, it was really adult, as in practically erotic romance. When I first sent it off to my indie publisher (right of first refusal and all that) I figured there was no way they’d let me get away with veering so far away from the first book’s genre. I honestly expected a big ‘ole “Hell no!” complete with finger snaps.

But guess what? They loved it. What’s more, readers are loving it.

The moral of the story, boys and girls, is to take a chance, write what you love, and trust that there are options for your story and readers who will jump at the chance to delve into something off the beaten path.

Happy writing and reading!

Need’s blurb:

NeedIsaac Laroche is cursed. All he wants to do is hide out and feel sorry for himself. Never mind that he got caught sleeping with his seventeen-year-old piano student, or that he abandoned her when the truth was exposed.

Isaac’s feisty high school sweetheart has different plans. Heather Swann has returned to their hometown of Mobile, Alabama, to regroup after breaking up with her troll of a fiancé. She’s restless and looking for a diversion, but she bites off more than she can chew when she sets her sights on rehabilitating Isaac with her unorthodox sexual, mental, and physical plans.

The two quickly reconnect, but their happiness is threatened by family secrets, old vendettas and the death of a beloved father-figure.

Can Heather handle Isaac’s baggage, or will her own come back to haunt them both?

Where to get your hands on it:

Inkspell Publishing (paperback and digital) | Barnes and Noble (paperback and Nook) | Amazon (paperback and Kindle) | All Romance eBooks (digital) | The Book Depository (paperback) | Kobo (digital)

Author bio:

photo 3After collecting a couple English degrees in the Midwest, Stephanie Lawton suddenly awoke in the deepest reaches of the Deep South. Culture shock inspired her to write about Mobile, Alabama, her adopted city, and all the ways Southern culture, history and attitudes seduce the unsuspecting.

A lover of all things gothic, she can often be spotted photographing old cemeteries, historic buildings and, ironically, the beautiful beaches of the Gulf Coast. She also has a tendency to psychoanalyze people, which comes in handy when creating character profiles.

Links for stalking!

Author website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

Thanks Stephanie for giving us this peek into indie publishing! Visitors, have you found this to be the case too with indie books? Have you let a story take you where it needed to go and found acceptance? This is definitely an exciting time to be a writer!

Dealing with Critiques and Reviews – the 40-20-40 Rule

One of my earliest blog posts was about dealing with critiques and I shared what I called the 30-40-30 rule that I learned from my uncle. Well I just had a short vacation with said uncle and found out I had the percentage wrong! He said it’s 40-20-40! So here’s my old post, revised a tad with that calculation.

As a writer, at some point you will reach the stage where you will need to have others critique your work. There are many reasons to do so that others have covered before, but as a former computer programmer, one way I like to look at it is: you cannot test your own code. You think you’ve written the program to do exactly what you want, you test it and hand it off to the Beta tester. And they find mistakes. The reason is because they didn’t build it and so don’t know your thinking behind it and do what comes natural to them. Consequently, they take paths you never dreamed of and hadn’t tested for. Yikes!

How does this relate to writing? You think you’ve sufficiently explained motives behind character actions, or have shown the emotional reaction sufficiently because YOU know the character so well and know EXACTLY why they’re doing it and fail to see that it didn’t quite come across the way you pictured it. Oops! A good critiquer or beta reader will find these ‘thin spots’ for you.

Okay, so you’re ready to get critiques? Are you sure? I’d like to tout again this great advice from Writer Musings: How To Get The Most Out Of A Critique, Part Three: if you don’t know the heart of your story, you are not ready for feedback. This is so true because you are going to get a wide array of feedback. And by wide array, I mean some folks will hate a particular line and others will like that same one. Soon, you’ll be wanting to pull out your hair. Or, worse, you’ll take every single suggestion as gospel and water down your story, your voice, to such a state that it will be milquetoast.

The problem is, if you’re doing things right, I think, you’ll have some people not like it. Crazy I know. But I think I’m right. Here’s why. If you have a unique voice or your characters’ voices are interesting and unique, that means some people are not going to like it. It’s just not their thang. And that’s okay. Make it bland, though? No one will find it objectionable, but are any of them excited? Probably not.

So what’s a writer to do? I like to invoke my uncle’s 40-20-40 rule. He got this advice when he became dean of a department — 40% of the people are going to like you no matter what, 40% will not like you no matter what, it’s the 20% in the middle you need to worry about. This rule is so handy and applicable that I’ve quoted it many times for different scenarios. It’s why politicians are really in trouble if they drop below 40% in the approval ratings, because they’re losing folks that would normally support them no matter what.

When writing, use this rule, too, during your critique period and also when it’s published. Make sure you show your draft to people outside of your 40%-guaranteed likes (i.e. your family and friends). One excellent place to get a wide sampling and great advice is my favorite critique forum: Critique Circle. It runs by a credit system — the more you crit others, the more credits you earn and so the more you can post for review. The other part I like is that it is broken up by genre and there are only a certain number of slots for each, so you’re guaranteed to get crits, unlike other sites where you join a huge long list and folks have to wade through. The more crits given in a particular genre for that week’s cycle, the more slots available for that genre for the next week. Check it out.

But then be prepared for diverse opinions! It can be very overwhelming and it’s tempting to take every single piece of advice. Make sure you evaluate each one, even if it’s contrary or hard to swallow. They may have an excellent point. Take a few days and let it sink in. If it will make your piece stronger, use it. If it resonates with you as the writer and fits with your vision, use it. But if it doesn’t, don’t. You’ll get ‘critters’ who don’t like your genre, so of course they’re probably not going to like your piece. Evaluate to see if the critter ‘gets’ what you’re trying to say/tell. You’ll soon get the hang of it. I had one critter in the beginning that was telling me to delete things that were what made my character different. She didn’t like the character and so was watering her down to what she liked. I didn’t take her advice because I knew this was how my character thought, and others were liking this exact aspect of her.

So, I’m going to risk that 40% will not like my character and my story and hoping the 20% in the middle do.

EDIT: A sharp commenter noted that this is a breakdown of the Pareto Principle, known as the 80/20 rule. The lesson is the same: concentrate on capturing that elusive 20% in the middle, and the 40 on either end are the ‘trivial 80%’ noted in Pareto’s Principle!

What has been your critique experience? Do you find this rule applicable as well? Do you think the percentage distribution is right? Or do you feel 30-40-30 is more accurate?

Photo by jared

Tweetables

  • Dealing with Critiques or Reviews – the 40-20-40 Rule click to tweet
  • When evaluating crits & reviews, aim for the 20% in the middle! The 40-20-40 rule click to tweet

Are you using a thesaurus correctly? And is this irony?

179909_620791327948192_959396268_nSometimes I wonder about the universe and how it will sync random events to make a point, teach us something, or just plain laugh at us.

Case in point

Yesterday, a fellow writer posted this some-ecard with the quote from Stephen King on Facebook and I wrote the following comment:

I don’t know– I think there’s an exception–if you’re only using words you find in there that you already know well and have just forgotten it, and so you’re like “oh, yes, that’s a good one.” Problem is when people use it to use words they don’t know and so potentially use it in the wrong context or it has a shade of meaning they are unfamiliar with. Or are just trying to use ‘impressive’ words. I sometimes (I’m of a certain age) find that I also forget nice simple words too.

And then I proceed to fire up the old Kindle to read a new book that should be right up my alley–a quirky, nerdy heroine stumbling toward love. It was recommended by another writer in a blog post as a refreshing, new voice and I just had to check it out. It started out great (voice, check), and I do really like the quirky, nerdy heroine (check), but soon I started cringing.

The problem?

The writer is using a vocabulary wider than her own. It clearly suffers from thesaurusitis and while the heroine is supposed to be über smart and nerdy, and so it would seem to be appropriate for the heroine to have a great vocabulary and use big words, the problem is, the writer doesn’t have the same vocabulary as the heroine she’s trying to write and so is using words that she thinks portrays the synonym for the word she looked up, but the shade of meaning or context is completely wrong. Making for some unintentional funny moments. Frankly, it’s spoiled the book for me, though I’m still going to continue reading it today just because I do like the heroine and her situation. But I won’t be recommending it to anyone. My co-worker asked if it was supposed to be intentional, but I don’t think so–this character isn’t being portrayed as someone who thinks she’s smart and using words in the wrong context to provide hilarity, she’s actually supposed to be smart.

And is this irony or just Alanis Morissette irony?

I hate to admit this, but I struggle with whether something is true irony, so help a girl out. Is the fact that I wrote that comment on Facebook saying there is an exception and then on the same day I start a book that illustrates the other half of my comment:

Problem is when people use it to use words they don’t know and so potentially use it in the wrong context or it has a shade of meaning they are unfamiliar with.

Is that true irony? Because I rarely read a book that suffers from thesaurusitis and it was kinda freaky for me to start one on the same day that did.

Do you agree with Stephen King re: thesaurus usage? Or, do you use one? And if so, how?

Tweetables:

  • Today @AngelaQuarles asks: Are you using a thesaurus correctly? And is this irony? click to tweet
  • Is a thesaurus useful or do you agree with Stephen King that a writer should never use it?  @angelaquarles click to tweet

My Thoughts on the New Golden Heart Scoring System

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The scores for Romance Writer’s of America’s (RWA) unpublished manuscript contest, The Golden Heart, have been sent and there’s already some discussion on loops about what the scores mean and whether it’s working.

First, some background. The Golden Heart’s mission from RWA’s website is to:

…promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding romance manuscripts

This is a coveted contest final in the Romance world. After finalists are announced, agents regularly give automatic requests for fulls to them. At the national conference, the finalists are announced and winner awarded during the final gala night in an Oscars-like setting.

This is the first year a new scoring system has been used. In the past, the judge gave one overall score based on how they viewed it. There’s been criticism in the past that this wasn’t based on any specific criteria. This year, judges were asked to break down their score into the following categories:

Romance (1-20)
Writing (1-10)
Characters (1-10)
The Story/Plot (1-10)

For a total score of 50.

On the loops I belong to, writers are asking what it means when they get a wide range. Some have said it’s as varied as 11 (as a total score!) to 48, for the same manuscript, and others are reporting the same wide range. I’ve also seen some writers say they received a 1 or a 5 for their Writing category. In the instance of one of the ones who got a 5, I actually Beta read that manuscript and their writing (which should be based on the craft, i.e. grammar, command of language, etc) was not 5, IMO.

It’s a true adage, that in contest feedback, large swings in opinion can mean that you have a strong voice and so you’re alienating some folks who just hate your voice.

Golden Heart this year has taken care of some of the unfairness in these large swings by dropping the lowest AND the highest score, but I’m wondering if there’s more to it than this. I judged entries this year and here’s my thoughts:

There was no grading scale given to help orientate the judge on what a 1 as opposed to a 5 or a 10 means (other than that 1 was on the low end, and 10 was a perfect score). Lacking this, I made one up for myself by taking the grading scales used in local chapter contests. So when I judged the entries, this was the criteria I used by taking the 1-5 scale used in local contests and extrapolating it out to:

9-10 Ready to Publish, no changes needed.
7-8 Almost there.
5-6 Several minor problems.
3-4 This area could be strengthened with some significant rework.
1-2 Major problems in this area.

And for the Romance category, I used this:

17-20 Ready to Publish, no changes needed.
13-16 Almost there.
9-12 Several minor problems.
5-8 This area could be strengthened with some significant rework.
1-4 Major problems in this area.

And so I gave my scores accordingly. But do you see the problem here? I did this on my own. Who knows whether this is what the coordinators had in mind? Who knows what other judges used to assign their numbers?

In many local contests that use a scale, they give what the judge should look for in each category. Perhaps a way to improve this would be to give some kind of scale guideline for each category in order to take out this part of the subjective equation. Because yes, every judges opinion is subjective, but how to use the numbering system shouldn’t be subjective.

Also, some folks had high scores in all categories except romance, with their romance number being 7s and 8s, consistent with what they were getting in the other categories. So, it makes one wonder if the judge didn’t realize the scale went up to 20?

I also had an interesting phenomenon happen. I had one entry I judged that I thought was so great, I gave it a perfect score (the only one I gave). The writing was great–sharp writing, sizzling sexual tension (I was literally squirming) and the synopsis was well done in that the plot was crystal clear, plausible and the character’s goals and motivations were all clear and made sense (it was the only one that did). I was surprised it didn’t final and then I saw that it was published, so it must’ve been disqualified. Anyway, I bought it, so I could read it, and the story completely did NOT hold up. The prose was still technically flawless, but man, for the Black moment/final climax, it totally hinged on the character doing something completely out of character as it was written (but which in the synopsis made it sound like it was totally their character) and also the characters never really got fleshed out past cardboard cutouts to serve the plot. Just goes to show how only reading first 50 and a synopsis truly do not help pick the best. Jami Gold’s post yesterday touches on this in her post “Why Is Storytelling Ability So Important?” based on judging a recent contest.

So here’s some thoughts I have on how the contest could be improved for the future:

  • Give a scale on what each number means for each category
  • If Romance will still count double, perhaps double the score after the scores are turned in. I’m sorry, but there’s some people who just don’t pay attention. How many folks missed out on finaling because they were unlucky enough to get more than one judge who didn’t look close enough to see the scores went to 20 in this one category only?
  • Unfortunately, I think asking to read a full will be too much work, so fixing the instance I found where the problems exploded only once the full was read probably can’t be addressed. RWA had a hard enough time getting enough judges this past year

What do you think? I see this as a place to discuss the new scoring system and whether it worked or didn’t. Is it an improvement on the old system? Do you have some suggestions on how it could be improved for next year?

Are You an Obsessive Series Reader?

If you read and enjoyed Book One of a series, do you then have to read all of the rest? I just finished reading all eleven books in JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series–I started on March 29, and chewed through all of them by this past Saturday.

As I step out of this Ward fog, life is still going on around me. And I’m kind of relieved actually. I really have other things I need to be reading, but more importantly–doing. Because when I get my teeth on a series like this, I’m reading when I don’t normally read. Barring something unusual going on, I read every day, but within certain time allotments. But this past month, I was reading in the mornings on weekends, or coming home from work and reading, when I should be concentrating on writing or revisions.

But I also miss the Brothers! I love getting immersed in a world like that, with an author who delivers. I’m not usually someone who tears up reading romances, but man, the emotional rollercoasters she executed were quite something, and more than once had the ol’ tear ducts working. I think my favorites were V and Z stories, and my heart just broke for Qhuinn. And Lover At Last was my first M/M Romance. I think my least fave was Phury’s, which was disappointing because I was really looking forward to his.

Reading them also had a side benefit–they were a great lesson in Deep POV writing. If you’ve been wanting to see Deep POV in action and don’t mind walking on the dark side for your romance, you can’t go wrong reading these.

What about you? Do you chew through a series that grabs you to the exclusion of other things you should be doing? Have you read the BDB series? Which were your faves?

Agent Pitch Prep Tip: Make Dossiers

agent_megibowConference seasons is here again! Some of you may be headed to the RT Convention coming up shortly and participating in their Pitch-a-Palooza, or taking advantage of the pitch appointments at the RWA conference, or those at regional conferences. Whichever you’re doing, it’s best to be prepared. I’ve now pitched seven times at three different conferences and I thought I’d share one of my tips: Make a dossier on each agent!

This serves several purposes:

  • Ensures you’ve researched the agent
  • Helps you get to know them a little before you meet them
  • Helps make you feel like you’re prepared
  • Provides you with info to help break the ice
  • Gives you something to review quickly while you’re waiting for the appointment to start

This last is super-important if you’re pitching to more than one. You can quickly review and remind yourself that yep, this is the one that likes The Hobbit, or this is the one that loves dorky heroes. Whatever it is that you have in common that will help cement that agent in your mind before you go in.

Things to include:

  • Photo
  • Agent Name (Duh)
  • Name of Agency
  • Location of their office
  • Who their agency represents (only list those authors you know or are familiar with)
  • Who they represent (again, just the ones you’re familiar with)
  • Books they like (Obviously only ones that you like too or that might be comps for your work)
  • Other Items of Note (anything else about what they’re looking for, personality quirks you have in common, anything else that’s relevant to your project. I knew one agent hated having pitches that started with the author handing her a business card, so I made sure to note that)

Things I didn’t list, but that could be good to add:

  • Questions to ask
  • Possible icebreaker topics

I took these sheets and made a folder with each one, complete with a label printed for the tab.

agent_kye_casella

What if you don’t find much?

Some agents keep a low profile on the web (like mine!). But still it helps to put whatever you can find. To the right is all I could glean on my agent before I pitched to her. But it really helped to review this and know what she looked like. Be careful what you do find on the web–QueryTracker accidentally had Vicky Dreiling listed as being represented by her and it turned out that was incorrect. Double-check what you find with another source.

Anyway, I think my ice-breaker was going to be about her looking for quirky characters, but it turned out I didn’t need one. We were interrupted right when I sat down because I’d dropped my little stuffed Yoda that I had attached to my conference bag as a mascot and quick way to identify it amongst other bags. We had a laugh over it and she said “I love Yoda!” and off we went.

After the pitch

Afterward, I wrote down what they wanted on the sheet and their contact info. If they gave me a business card, I attached it. It also came in handy to keep any relevant info that transpired afterward in that folder or written on the sheet (like date partial full sent, reply, etc).

What about you? Have you used something like this and did you find it helpful? If you haven’t, would doing this help you? Can you think of other things to add that might be good to keep track of?

Melding the Enneagram with Brooks’ 3 Dimensions of Character

E-TypesNameI’ve been meaning to pen this post for a while, and Jami Gold’s post from yesterday, How to Use Character Flaws to Develop a Plot, spurred me on. In her post, she talks about using either the Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram to help with finding character flaws, and syncing them with Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Development.  Definitely scoot over there and read it–I’ll wait ;)

Back? Cool, huh? Can you see why we’re Beta buddies? We’re both plot nerds :) I haven’t studied Hauge’s techniques, but I definitely will now. Another one I really like is Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing. It’s a must-buy, I think, but one of the aspects he covered that really stuck with me was his talking about the three dimensions of character. He says that all characters, like people in real life, have three dimensions, or aspects.

  1. First Dimension – Surface traits, quirks, and habits. These are things the world sees about this person, which may or may not be what the person thinks it says about them. It’s the person’s outward identity. In fiction, a writer can show aspects of a person’s character (what they drive, what they eat, etc) and a reader may or may not assign meaning to it. The reason it’s not good as a writer to stop here for main characters is that illuminating a character’s first dimension does not tell us his true self; it could all be a smoke screen.  If, however, as a writer, you show the meaning behind these outward traits, you’ve now crossed into the
  2. Second Dimension – The realm of backstory and inner demons.  In this dimension, the writer gives the backstory, agenda and/or meaning behind the surface traits, and what the reader assumed might be totally different. It adds depth to the character. It’s their inner landscape. It’s all the juicy backstory stuff that prompts, explains, and motivates the character’s first dimension choices of identity. First dimension is what you see– a guy with a tattoo. Second dimension is why he has that tattoo. Illuminating the second dimension creates reader empathy.
  3. Third Dimension – Where the true character emerges through choices made when something is at stake. Basically, when push comes to shove, just who is this guy? The true character is not defined by their inner demons and/or backstory until the character does something under pressure, which exposes who they truly are (good or bad). Usually in fiction, this decision comes at the end to show the character’s arc. It’s what shows the character as a villain or hero. A villain will continue to define himself by his backstory, while a hero will overcome it.

Around the same time I was digesting all the wonderful advice from Brooks, I was also obsessed with the Enneagram. I probably have about seven books on it. So when I read about the three dimensions of character, I saw a connection I could use with the Enneagram. Remember in Jami’s post where she talks about Average health and Healthy versions of the same personality? What I like to do is pinpoint a character in the Average health range and have their responses to stress, their third dimension choices, come from the Average health range. Then by the end of their arc, they’re making third dimension choices in the Healthy range.

So just how to use/study the Enneagram? Word of caution–you could easily get sucked in trying to find your own type and those of your loved ones. Try to stay focused on your characters. With that in mind, here’s some books I recommend to help with character development:

Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery — this is the one you want to get to learn about the stages of health for each personality type. It breaks it down to nine levels: three in the healthy stage, three in Average, and three in Unhealthy. To keep with Jami’s example of a Enneagram 2, Mother Theresa was a Level 1, a selfless giver. Tons of wonderful traits at this level, but when you get to the unhealthy levels? An unhealthy two partly corresponds to aspects of histrionic personality disorder in the DSM-IV psychiatric types! I like to put my characters at or around a Level 4 (Average, but at the highest rung for Average) and move them to Level 3 or 2.

Are You My Type, Am I Yours? : Relationships Made Easy Through The Enneagram – since I write romance, I like to use this to get some ideas for how their relationship dynamics might work. It has a comparison for each type match. So if you have a 2 with an 8, it’ll tell you what they like most about each other and what annoys them. For an in-depth look at the Enneagram, this is not your book, however. It’s pretty basic.

Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagrams – this is a good one for looking at the different types specifically with creating characters in mind. It goes into each types Inner Fear/Wound and their heroic strengths. If you’re on a budget, you can skip the Are You My Type book above, as this one also compares each type together in a relationship.


The Literary Enneagram: Characters from the Inside Out — This one is great too, but it approaches it in a different way. It goes through each type and uses examples from literature to demonstrate/show each type, from healthy to average to unhealthy.




Related posts:

Or if you’re of an age where this makes sense (I’m not), here’s another way to look at them :)

enneagram_of_pony_personality_by_mr_uhrig-d4led2g

So have you used the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs to help with character development?

Ack! I have a plot hole! Techniques to Solve in an Early Stage

download (5)So, last time I truly posted, I was taking a blogging hiatus to work on the sequel to MUST LOVE BREECHES. I’ve since then finished the first draft and have been working on high-level revisions since. I love plot and am a nerd about finding different ways to tackle looking at it. I definitely needed to find a different way to handle this one, because it had problems, and I knew it.

The biggest problem? I knew the ending before I ever started writing it, so my plot points just before the big Crisis were pushed to make this crisis happen. Result? It lacked believability and motivation. So much so, readers would’ve likely thrown the book at the wall.

Also, some of my major plot points were tied with the specific time period and I wanted to make sure the history was sound.

The first thing I did was make a spreadsheet with my scenes and it helped me a little–I saw gaps and plugged in new rows for scenes that needed to be there. When I thought I had it figured out, I transferred it to a Word Document that I created, where I just gave summaries of what happens in each chapter, a Chapter Outline. This I sent to one Welsh historian and a couple of Beta readers. Because of the possible plot problems, I didn’t want to wait until I had a readable full-length draft. I got great feedback and took that and revised the Outline again and sent it to a couple of other historians who helped me shore up the historical plot points.

But the Crisis? Yep, everyone came back and said it didn’t work–wasn’t believable. But it was the one thing in my whole plot I couldn’t throw out–it was the image I had in my head when I first started noodling this WIP around for possibilities and I also knew it was a strong image. So, it had to stay.

Back to the drawing board. I really worried each time I sat down to try to solve this that I wouldn’t figure it out. I felt like I was so close but couldn’t quite get there.

I could also tell that the Outline, while it helped as an instrument to gain feedback from others in an early stage, wasn’t helpful to me to try to make sense of it; I couldn’t play with it. Then I remembered my plotting board and fondness for stickies that I’ve used on other WIPS, so pulled it out and went to town.

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It helped me a little, some of the smaller plot issues I was able to see and fix by adding new stickies and moving others around. But the Black Moment leading up to the Crisis was still a problem. So I went to my trusty Beta partner Jami Gold and sent her my bulleted list of events leading up to the Crisis and she came back with a wonderful idea for the motivation, but also helped me look at the Black Moment I had and came up with some other suggestions for how to have it play out. This got my mental juices unblocked and at the plotting board I began making stickies, rearranging scenes, and then also saw how I could tie her idea in with the Antagonist and pull it all together. I also then saw that having a change of location helped raise the tension and stakes. I was then able to see how the heroine’s personality could be tweaked to make it even more impactful. Excited, I typed up version 3 of my Chapter Outline and sent it to Jami and some new victims for feedback.

But I can feel it–I can feel the story works now. My gut wasn’t wrong when I finished that first draft, and I’m so glad I listened to it and found a way to get valuable input in such an early stage. I really dreaded revising this WIP with my gut feeling that way, worried that I’d go to all this trouble revising and polishing and then have my gut proved right when Beta feedback came back and pointed out the plot problems. Now I feel much more confident going into actual revisions; the framework for the story is much more solid. Now I can work on all the other fun stuff I like to do during revisions and get this revised and polished. Now, hopefully, my Beta readers will be able to help see smaller issues instead of pointing out big macro issues that should’ve been firmed up before I ever got to that stage.

I also liked working with an outline and fiddling with it, not touching my prose at all. It was much easier to see, without running the risk of overreading the WIP too early.

So, to distill this for others that might be in the same boat (I’m a “plantser” –someone who does some pre-plotting but pantses the rest of the first draft):

  • Take your first draft and make a chapter outline. Mine came out to ten pages.
  • Just like in the Beta stage, get a variety of folks to look at it. I had historians who knew nothing about the writing craft, as well as others who did. Evaluate their comments just like you would on a full manuscript. See a pattern? You have a problem.
  • Fiddle and revise. Go back to any tools you’ve used in the past to help you look at your manuscript differently (for me it was the plotting board)
  • Get someone who is deeply familiar with plotting and structure, and that you trust to be honest with you, to take a look at it

How have you handled plot problems in the past? Have you also pulled in outside eyes at this early stage? Has it helped you? What techniques have you used to look at your plot in a high-level way?

DISCLAIMER: I don’t watch Dr. Who, so I have no idea if the image I used is a fair assessment of that episode, but I thought it seemed appropriate to the post to illustrate a problem common to many writers when working out their plot. Plus, appropriately enough, it deals with time travel ;)