Monday, May 27, 2013
I talk a lot with my clients about plotting, and we often get involved in editorial work and revisions on manuscripts before they go on submission. When new author Elle Cosimano entered my life with her query in February 2011, she had a strong idea and the makings of a great voice, but was about to embark on a journey into the wonders (and challenges) of intricate and high-stakes plotting. A journey that led to her gripping and emotionally powerful thriller, NEARLY GONE, being preempted in a 2-book deal by Kathy Dawson, a legendary and award-winning Penguin publisher. Kathy now has her own imprint, Kathy Dawson Books, and NEARLY GONE will be on her high-profile launch list which publishes in early 2014. You can read more about Elle Cosimano here.
Now Elle shares her thoughts on what she learned about plotting while writing and revising NEARLY GONE . . .
This post is about high-stakes plotting.
This post is not about:
A) gratuitous violence,
B) exploding muscle cars, or
C) ridiculous sums of ransom money.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “I write quiet works of literary fiction, and the importance of high-stakes plotting does not apply to me,” then the answer is D) sit your lyrical ass down and keep reading. This post pertains to all of us.
Don’t get me wrong.
I get it. If you were to Google “high-stakes plotting”, you’d come away with pages of examples of “loss” in the form of death and destruction, and “gain” measured in simple monetary terms. These only serve to further our very black-and-white understanding of literary versus commercial fiction. I argue that the two, when done well, aren’t as mutually exclusive as we are led to believe.
So if A + B + C does not equal a high-stakes plot, then what does?
Forget wooden vampire-obliterating sticks for a moment, or the mountain of chips on a poker table. All good examples of stakes, but these aren’t the kind we’re talking about.
When it comes to plot, we define “stakes” as personal or emotional concerns of value. Notice, there is no quantifiable thing. Because we are not measuring an object to be won or lost, but rather the value of its emotional resonance. Heightening stakes is not about increasing the value of the physical things our characters want or stand to lose. It’s about tying those things to a deeper yearning – assigning each gain and loss a devastating or life-changing emotional impact.
In his book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, Robert Olen Butler says, “Desire is the driving force behind plot. The character yearns, the character does something in pursuit of that yearning, and some force or other will block the attempt to fulfill that yearning. …You cannot find a book on the bestseller list without a central character who clearly wants something, is driving for something, has a clear objective… You name the genre. Every story has a character full of desire.”
When I embarked on my first full re-write of Nearly Gone, Sarah (my agent) asked me, “What does your character want?” This was a transformative revelation for me. My character had been doing all these things – going through all these motions without any true sense of destination. The plot was fuzzy. It lacked direction, because the end goal didn’t resonate deeply enough to drive it. Truly knowing my characters meant not only understanding what they wanted, but why. I had yet to fully grasp what their physical wants and goals represented to them. What they yearned for—whether it be identity, a place in the universe, redemption, or connection with another—and what they were willing to risk for it. I had to dig beneath the surface to reveal a yearning strong enough to hold together a plot, and hold a reader’s attention.
Heightened stakes don’t have to do more. They have to mean more. They’re anchored in the character’s innermost fears and deepest desires. They make the reader care, so that we sit up and take notice when those desires are threatened.
And threatened they must be.
Because antagonists yearn, too. They have their own stakes, their own desires. Conflict lies at the intersection of these opposing desires. It’s this balance between the main character, and the counterbalance of a person or the world or events standing in her way that creates tension, and gives the plot focus.
Perhaps our misunderstanding of high-stakes plotting lies in the name we’ve assigned to it. Maybe if we called it deep-stakes plotting, we’d stop building stories on mountains of meaningless events, and look beneath, at the white-hot human core of them, to find the stuff worth risking for. The real gems are hidden inside.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
There’s been a lot of change in my life over the last few years.
As some people know, five years ago I took the huge decision to move to the USA, marry an American guy, and create the Greenhouse. It was heart-stoppingly scary. I had everything in place back in London: a great job, a family, friends, and decades of continuity in a place where I was deeply rooted and at ease. Suppose I couldn’t make it work in America? Suppose I failed? Suppose I wasn’t happy? There are a lot of ‘What If’s’ in that situation, and your imagination comes up with the very worst scenarios.
About 18 months ago, some more things changed when I took other, smaller decisions. I asked myself what I wanted to achieve in my life outside of work. The answers? I wanted to be able to speak French fluently, and I wanted to learn to run.
Now the change timeline comes closer. In January I decided I wanted to learn to dance . . . And then my husband lost his job on our first day back in the office after the Christmas break.
There are different kinds of change: the ones you seek out and nurture – and the ones that fall on you like a ton of bricks, making you question and reassess. But really, all change makes you dig deep and get out of your comfort zone. If you want to speak French like a native you’re going to need time, practice and a ton of work. If you want to run, you are going to have to build up your stamina incrementally. And if you want to dance salsa, you’ll risk making a fool of yourself with people who make fancy footwork look easy.
If you lose your job? You’re going to do all the practical stuff to find a new one, while also hanging on to self-belief and faith that it will turn out to have been all for the good.
Do I make this sound easy? There were some days back in January when I’d be talking with clients and know my reserves of encouragement and cheer were running low. (Um, I don’t think they knew that.)
Three weeks ago another piece of change happened. I was wandering around the National Gallery in London look at Impressionist art when my cell phone rang. It was our lovely UK agent Julia Churchill, telling me she’d been made an offer she just couldn’t refuse, by an old-established London literary agency, and that very sadly she had to leave Greenhouse.
Shushed by the security guard, I dived out into the lobby, sat down on the marble floor and (I must admit) put my head in my hands as I tried to hear what Julia was telling me. It was a shock, but not entirely unexpected. Greenhouse has attracted attention both sides of the Pond, for our energy and succession of debut deals, for our Funny Prize, for our openness and collaborative style. I knew other companies were sniffing around. But what you know intellectually doesn’t always moderate your instant emotional response as your brain gives you a lightning-fast tour of what you’re going to have to do – and fast.
We are sorry to lose Julia. She and I have worked closely together for four years, ever since I appointed her in early 2009, and it’s been exciting and a lot of fun, building the agency’s client base, interacting on transatlantic deals, and riding the agent rollercoaster together. I will miss her.
However, three weeks on, change has begun to work its magic. My new US colleague John Cusick has announced his first deal for Greenhouse, and I have three deals of my own brewing. We are 10 days away from the Bologna Book Fair with packed schedules, and I’m really excited to do my first fair with John. It will be different. It will be interesting. Together we have our own style, and that is fun to discover. What new relationships will we make? What new opportunities will come our way? I love that he’s good at stuff I’m not good at; that he knows different people to me.
We’ve just rejigged our submission guidelines and are tweaking the Greenhouse website.
And the UK? For now I’m looking at subs from that market (alongside my US ones) - I already rep Americans AND Brits. And I’m talking to people about the position we have to offer a new agent in London. Can’t say more about that yet, but my fingers are crossed. I know who I’m after. They will be Greenhousey; smart, creative, driven, editorially strong, open, kind – and with a great contacts book.
The one thing I know about change is that it happens, and everything depends on how we respond to its challenges. As writers, we need to get out there and seize it. If you don’t change, you don’t grow. If you run from rejection and revision, you’ll never discover their lessons. If you don’t drive through the disappointment, you’ll get stuck in self-pity. There is a secret shining ruby at the heart of the most painful setbacks, but somehow we’ve got to open that black velvet bag and make the glowing jewel our own.
So now it’s March. Last week I bought my first pair of ‘real’ running shoes and took them down to the track. I can run two miles now and I’ve got a bit of muscle. Sure, girls in Lycra power past me, but who cares?
I’ve got a bunch of friends who speak French, and I spend my Saturday afternoons with them chatting away about everything and nothing. There’s a lot of laughter.
Every Monday night I learn to dance with my salsa posse. And when David-with-the-trilby spins me around, I giggle like a maniac. One day I’d like to go to a real dance. I’ve decided that I will.
This week my husband set off for his new office and has admitted that he never much enjoyed the old one, anyway. It was kind of boring. I see the new spring in his step.
Here’s what I know. Change is out there, and it’s coming for us all. Maybe it’s even time to seek it out. In your writing. In your life.
There’s a black velvet bag in your hand. It looks scary and unknown. But I guarantee you there’s a shining ruby inside.
Pix: 1) Frenchman’s Creek, Cornwall, England (as made famous by Daphne du Maurier) 2) So French - cafe chairs in Amiens 3) Quoi?! A crazy sign in Northern France. But isn’t life about change? 4) The ruby. Seek that baby out!
Monday, February 11, 2013
We’ve just opened the doors on the Funny Prize for 2013. Last year was so much fun, and we found such a star in Pip Jones and her young series SQUISHY McFLUFF (pictured celebrating her deal with Julia), that this year we’re running it again, and opening it up to the US and Canada.
It’s going to be even bigger, with a winner in both the UK and North America.
The prize is representation by the Greenhouse, and in the UK you’ll also get a ticket to the fabulous Festival of Writing in York.
The winner may be a picture book like SQUISHY McFLUFF or THIS IS NOT MY HAT, or a young series à la HORRID HENRY, or for 8-12 year olds like M.T. Anderson’s WHALES ON STILTS. It could even be for teen readers like ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL or THE PRINCESS DIARIES.
The Greenhouse is looking for funny, and we’re wide open to all ages. Tell your friends, spread the word, the Greenhouse Funny Prize is open, and you can find all you need to know here.
We thought an interview with Pip Jones would be a great way to open this year’s prize, and pull the curtains back on what the last six months has held.
Pip, tell us about you and your writing. Is SQUISHY McFLUFF the first book you’ve written?
I write for a living now. I used to edit magazines, but writing was all I ever really wanted to do, and I remembered that when I left my job having had two babies in the space of 13 months. It seemed like a good time to try to be what I always wanted to be.
SQUISHY McFLUFF, THE INVISIBLE CAT was the first book I’d written since MaxBurger, which was a children’s book I wrote for my communication studies A-Level. I never did anything with that. But I got an A, actually, maybe I should dig it out!
How did SQUISHY come about? Did you know it was good?!
‘They’ do say you should write about what you know, so when I started feature writing, I concentrated on parenting. I had an endless source of material with two very little girls. SQUISHY McFLUFF actually started off as a story just called The Invisible Cat, and it was a re-jig of a column I’d written about my daughter Ava’s imaginary kitten. So Squishy was, erm, ‘real’ in that sense. I loved it when I’d done it, but I definitely didn’t know if it was good enough. I wanted to find out though. I actually enjoyed writing it so much, that I pushed on and wrote two more stories before anyone even looked at the first one.
How did you find out about the Funny Prize?
I was feeling a bit frustrated about how I could the right person to look at my texts, and the right person to like them. So I was browsing the web, looking for a forum where I could chat with other writers, and also for somewhere I could get the stories professionally appraised. I was on The Writers’ Workshop website when I noticed the advert for the Greenhouse Funny Prize, so I clicked on it. I think there were only about 10 days ‘til the deadline, but by then I had six Squishy McFluff stories done and ready to roll, and I thought, sod it, I’ll send all of ‘em!
What were your expectations entering?
I spent a morning formatting the stories correctly and pinging them over one-by-one – I was really keen to enter. But then after I’d sent them, I decided that a) it looked completely desperate sending in all six and b) I had no chance because the co-judge Leah Thaxton had discovered Andy Stanton’s MR GUM – and he is soooo funny.
Did you have the dates in your diary?
No. I think it was only a month or so until the shortlist was due to be announced, but I’d talked myself down off the cloud where I might get anywhere in the competition and had forgotten about it.
Was it a surprise to hear you’d been shortlisted?
Er, yeah! Actually, what happened was I got back from dropping Ava and Ruby off at nursery, made a coffee, looked at my emails, thought about starting work, then decided to faff about on Twitter for an hour, as you do. And I saw that Julia Churchill had followed me. It didn’t click for a second. Then ‘Greenhouse’ jumped out and I thought: ‘Noooo...?!’ Julia called me 25 minutes later to say I’d been shortlisted.
How did you celebrate when you won?
I think I cried a bit when Julia telephoned me, which was a little embarrassing, but she pretended not to notice. Then I demanded my partner Dan come back from the hospital where he was having his hand fixed (I felt a bit bad about that after, but he did have time to get it strapped up), then I called my mum, then I ditched work for the day and Dan and I went for a big lunch and sat in the sun with a bottle of wine.
Your prize was representation by the Greenhouse, and also a ticket to The Festival of Writing in York. How was that?
Fab, I met loads of interesting people, and attended many talks and workshops. I learned a lot that weekend. I came back feeling really invigorated about what else I could do. People who go get a lot from it, I think it fires their passion and determination, and it’s a great opportunity for them to get advice direct from people in the industry.
What happened after the prize was announced?
Soon after I went to meet Julia and just about managed to resist squealing and squeezing her ‘til she went purple. We had lunch, and Julia told me about her ideas for McFluff. Also, I suddenly found myself entering into a different author-y world, connecting with people on Twitter and so on. And Squishy McFluff was being talked about online, on people’s blogs. It was a bit surreal, like reading about someone else’s invisible cat.
How was it when you went in to the Faber and Faber offices to meet the team?
About a week after Leah had received the manuscripts, she invited Julia and I in for what she said would be a creative chat. I think I expected it to be a bit like an interview, for them to see if Squishy McFluff and I had legs, as it were. To say it wasn’t quite like that would be an understatement – I was floored, I felt wooed. There was a cat basket in the corner of the room, bearing Squishy McFluff’s name. Rebecca Lee (an editor at Faber Children’s) had made invisible cat cupcakes. And Leah had a table full of children’s books and was talking about illustration style, format, when Squishy McFluff might publish. And she said she intended to make an offer.
Tell us about Faber’s offer.
Faber’s offer was absolutely brilliant. I mean, any offer would be brilliant, but it was written almost entirely in rhyme, which was very funny (and it scanned very well!). It made me feel quite emotional, that Faber was pitching to me, asking me if they could have SQUISHY McFLUFF in their stable.
Squishy McFluff was entered into the prize as picture books, but they’re publishing as something slightly different. How did that come about?
Yes, they’re not quite what I thought they were! Actually, I sort of knew when I entered that the stories were too long to be standard picture books, but I didn’t know what else to call them. I didn’t know at the time there was a different format in which they could be published. So they’re going to bridge a gap between picture book and early reader, and each book will be split into three sections. They’re for 4-7 year olds, so at first children will have the stories read to them, and hopefully they’ll soon be reading them by themselves. I love that idea.
What’s the timeline?
One whole year from now the first book will be published! The text for SQUISHY McFLUFF, THE INVISIBLE CAT is done and with Faber (I had to extend it to fit the format, I had to double the length actually). The people at Faber are currently searching for the perfect illustrator, and it’ll be so exciting to see what Squishy McFluff and Ava look like. After that, it’ll all start being put together. I’m blogging about the whole process as it goes, and as I learn – I’m hoping this year’s Funny Prize entrants might enjoy reading about how it all happens. The second book (I’m working on the text now) will come out in August 2014, and there will be two more books, in February and August 2015.
What are you enjoying most about this process?
Well, I just love writing these stories. Few things make me happier actually, and I can sit down and do a solid eight-hour day on them without feeling jaded (although the rhyming in my head does send me a bit doolally). They make me laugh and they make me cry – the stories are funny, but I hope they also have quite a sweet take on the family dynamic. I don’t expect them to make other people cry though! I’m close to them because they’re based in truth, on my own children, my own family. The best thing of all is that I used to feel, when I was writing McFLUFF, that I was bunking off ‘real’ work, that I was indulging myself. Now when I write them, I am legitimately working, and doing something I love. How lucky am I?
What have been the biggest highlights or surprises?
Being shortlisted! Winning the prize! Getting the offer! Those are the highlights of course. Maybe the biggest surprise has been finding, and using in context, the perfect rhyme for ‘pigeon’.
Can you give us a burst of SQUISHY?
How about the beginning? I wrote the first two lines as one sentence, but I realised if I split the sentence in two, I had a rhyme. They were the whole reason that SQUISHY McFLUFF became a story told in verse:
As Ava played out in the garden one day
When the air was all foggy, the sky rather grey
Something appeared (or rather, did not)
From among the wet leaves in the vegetable plot
The marvellous creature was fluffy and tiny
As cute as a button, with eyes big and shiny
A tail that swished proudly, first this way, then that
A fabulous, friendly, invisible cat!
Thanks Pip, we love Squishy and Ava!
Pip is blogging about the process of getting published on her website, so do go and say hello.
If you’re writing funny, we’d love to see your work, from picture books right up to young adult fiction. All details for the Funny Prize are here.
What are you waiting for?! Show us the funny!
Sunday, January 20, 2013
A belated welcome to 2013 in the Greenhouse.
We’re in rip-roaring form over here in our cosy glass house. The sun’s warm on the panes, the soil is fertile, the scent of growing plants is rich in the air (oh, I love a good metaphor) . . . and we hope some of you will be joining us this year for the writing adventure of your lives.
Our big news is out there, but here it is again:
We’re delighted to welcome John Cusick as a new Greenhouse agent representing North American writers and eager to build his client list in middle grade and YA. Between us, John and I will be notching up the miles this year around America and beyond, speaking at conferences, attending trade events, and generally out and about meeting writers and editors, scouts and film people. Take a look here to see if either of us will be coming to an event near YOU. We’d love to meet you, love to receive your queries. We are banking on people like you sending us great stories.
In the coming weeks and months you’ll be discovering a lot more about John, his literary tastes, and I’ll get him to do a guest post on this blog very soon. Should you submit your work to me or him? He’s maybe a touch more geared to writing for boys than me, but please don’t polarize us too much. We’re both seeking great writing in all genres, we both like a really wide range of styles and voices - and if we think a manuscript would better suit each other, then don’t worry - we talk all the time and can be flexible. So, take your choice. The cool charismatic guy with the specs or . . . . me. Now there’s a dilemma!
Development #2 this January is that at last we are going to be Plunging into Picturebooks. Well, maybe not plunging; that makes it sound too easy in a tough marketplace. Rather, easing ourselves in with elegance. We’ve been repping a few PBs along the way already, but now Julia will specifically be seeking debut PBs from both US and UK authors (previously she’s only been repping UK/Commonwealth writers). It’s going to be a bit organic. I already rep PBs by authors I’ve taken on for older fiction, and that won’t change. But Julia will be the one to go to with specifically debut texts. Julia’s an ace talent-sniffer, and her nose is to the ground. Again, go to How to Submit to find out more.
So why changes now? What’s different about 2013?
As we moved through 2012 I knew that Greenhouse, at 4+ years old, was growing fast. We had opportunities coming at us from all directions and milestones that felt really significant. It was time to branch out and say even more strongly, ‘Here we are! Good things are happening in Greenhouse!’
Our clients have really been out there in the last few months. S.D. Crockett’s AFTER THE SNOW in Kirkus Best of 2012 and now shortlisted for the prestigious Morris Award in the US, plus longlisted for the Brandford Boase first-novel award in the UK, along with Sarah Lean’s A DOG CALLED HOMELESS. A slew of starred reviews for Erica L Scheidt’s haunting USES FOR BOYS, Brenna Yovanoff’s PAPER VALENTINE, Blythe Woolston’s razor-sharp thriller BLACK HELICOPTERS, and Sarwat Chadda’s epic Indian blockbuster THE SAVAGE FORTRESS. Megan Miranda’s FRACTURE continued its great run with Best of YA 2012 in the Boston Globe and nomination for Teen Reads of the Year, with Megan’s second novel, HYSTERIA, achieving a VOYA Perfect 10.
As we go into 2013 we have an exciting TV deal in the offing, as well as our first book deals of the year about to announce. In an incredibly competitive marketplace, the hard work of our authors is paying off in both the US and UK, and around the world in foreign rights sales.
So that’s why it was time to grow.
But what does that all mean for you? If you’re a new writer, I know how these great achievements can feel impossibly remote. Like these great authors I mention are an alien species, so different to you that you can barely relate because they’re sitting up there on Mount Olympus and you’re down in a puddle at the bottom of the hill. In fact, when you’re struggling to write your first novel, hearing of others’ success probably makes you feel a bit queasy.
But that’s where you may have it wrong. All our authors began with a query. One little query that landed in our inbox. All of them struggled to craft that query, write an interesting pitch, and stumble through a few lines about themselves. All of them wrote a bit, hit delete, tore their hair out, ate chocolate (repeat), and struggled out a few more lines maybe just a bit better than the first lot. All of them wobbled through how to create a story, how to write some lines about a character that weren’t cliched.
Our authors are just like you. Sure they have talent, but they also persevered (ie, Rome was not built in a day). And persevering is a big, big part of the writing equation. No one said writing was easy, and it isn’t – if it was, everyone would be lording it over the NYT Bestseller list or winning the Newbery or Carnegie Medals. You’ve got to keep getting back on that horse, learning and developing, looking for new ideas and the words to make them come alive.
We are excited for 2013. There will be thrills. There will no doubt be a few spills. But that’s how the business goes, and if you’re in the Greenhouse we walk the twisty road with you in all weathers.
Are you writing? Please keep going. Without you there isn’t a literary agency. Without you we’re sitting around twiddling our thumbs. Our authors are everything, and we need you and your stories.
Hoping to see you in the query inbox when you’re ready. Happy writing in 2013 - and let’s live it to the max, like we’ve got nothing to lose.
Pix: 1) Growing grapes in a Virginian vineyard. 2) BLACK HELICOPTERS by Blythe Woolston (Candlewick) 3) HYSTERIA by Megan Miranda (Walker) 4) The Colisseum. Rome. You see, it really wasn’t built in a day.
Saturday, November 17, 2012
This is the second in a series of posts in which I share a talk I’ve given widely around the USA over the last year or two. I hope you’ll find the posts useful, and before I begin you might like to read the first extract if you haven’t already: http://greenhouseliterary.com/index.php/blog/article/from_ordinary_to_extraordinary_part_1/. Here, I talked about ideas – in particular, what might constitute an extraordinary one (in terms of writing fiction). And again, please remember the very specific sub-title of the talk: The art of creating a great, saleable story and the craft of teasing out its full potential. My aim is to be both reflective and practical; big picture and small picture; art and craft.
So, onwards into Part 2!
After you’ve had your Big Idea - the WHAT IF that might form the foundation of your story – what else do you need?
You need a DEEPLY FELT THEME.
In other words, a strong ‘emotional driver’, which will propel your story forward and ultimately make it a satisfying and memorable reading experience. Which will turn the WHAT IF of your plot into the reader’s very own, very personal, WHAT IF as they inhabit the world, the characters, the dilemmas, you’ve created. And as your protagonist’s interior world - their dramas, confusions and choices – reflect and illuminate those of the reader him/herself, so that through your story the reader makes their own emotional journey. So that your story ends up having something strongly emotional to say - not didactically, but organically, through the action and characters.
‘What are you trying to SAY in your story?’ That’s the question, more than any other, that I ask my clients of their works in progress. I don’t mean ‘What lesson are you trying to teach the reader?’ I mean, through the power and the thrust of your storytelling, what important new understanding do you hope to open up for your reader by the time they turn the final page? How will you have shed new and unique light on love, hope, family, faith (or whatever), in such a way that they are caught up emotionally in what they’ve discovered and the journey of the heart that they’ve made?
I have said it before and I’ll say it many more times, but this is one of my favourite quotes about writing. I’ve no idea who said it, and I suspect I’ve added my own embellishments, but here it is:
In an extraordinary story, the best stories, we don’t just discover more about the characters (ie, what they look like/do/say) – we discover more about ourselves.
Again: Great fiction makes us discover more about . . .ourselves.
I think the great artist Picasso was saying something very similar when he commented, ‘Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.’
My own reading persuades me on that – and I think yours will too. What personal journey did you make as you read WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech or THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green or THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie? As you read RULES by Cynthia Lord or THE REPLACEMENT by Brenna Yovanoff or WIMPY KID by Jeff Kinney.
‘Er, back up a moment,’ I hear you say. ‘Did you really mean to say WIMPY KID??? But that’s fun and funny; that’s . . . really light.’
Hah yes. But I believe that ‘truth’ can be conveyed through all kinds of stories, for all age groups, picturebooks upwards – and that includes through humour. If you’ve never read TWO WEEKS WITH THE QUEEN by Morris Gleitzman, have a look and see how closely humour can walk with poignancy; comedy with tragedy. It’s all about creating the insight, that kernel of wisdom, which makes the reader sit up and say, ‘I know exactly what they’re talking about. That’s me! I’ve been there – I AM there!’
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the best comedy is very close to pain, very close to the bone. Think about it.
Let’s regroup for a moment:
Where might your big idea, your inspired concept, come from? Your family history, the news, a documentary, a morsel overheard on train or plane . . .? Absolutely. But something else must happen as you process and blend those fragments, because writing great fiction is not simply about, or from, the intellect. It comes from your emotional responses to the world around you.
Yes, your emotional responses to the world around you.
In my previous post I mentioned iconic British author Graham Greene’s quote about stories coming from our ‘emotional compost’. Let’s expand that quote. Greene said: ‘All good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of your imagination. Your past is full of stories that have been composed in a certain way; that’s what memories are. But only when they decompose are you able to recompose them into new works of art.’
Wow. You might want to take a little time with that one. The link between memory, story, and art.
So what about that ‘deeply felt theme’; the ‘emotional driver’ I mentioned at the beginning?
The great writing teacher, Robert Olen Butler, talks about writing ‘from the white-hot center of your unconscious’ (THE PLACE WHERE YOU DREAM/Grove Press/Edited by Janet Burroway). Or, to put it another – maybe less intimidating – way: writing with passion. And I believe that however you subsequently craft it, your story must be drawn from something raw and powerful inside you. Something passionate. Something white hot.
Back in the day, I used to have a band. I wrote songs. I performed a bit. So the image I return to is that of a guitar string. As you pluck it, the string twangs and resonates. As writers, do we twang and resonate as we listen, reflect and take part in the world? How might that resonance affect your story? What do you deeply know and feel - and could you make your reader experience that understanding too?
I also believe that if you want to write with power, you may at times need to look at, interact with, draw on, the darkness within yourself.
What is your personal heart of darkness? Oh, it exists all right.
I know a writer who lost someone very close to them. It was a terrible tragedy. But that individual told me that after writing many manuscripts that didn’t get anywhere, they finally dared to access some of the almost untouchably painful experiences of the past and channel them into their writing. I don’t mean that the specific story was told in memoir-style. I just mean that some of the rawness that surrounded those feelings and events was allowed to percolate into the story in various ways. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that was the manuscript that finally found a publisher. It felt real; there was an intensity.
What is your story? What preoccupies and interests you? Whatever it is, I think that to be a writer it must come out of your head and into your heart – initially, at least. That there must be an intensity in your engagement with your characters, story, world.
One of my favourite words is ‘vocation’. It speaks of a big dream, a big mission.
I know that I have a vocation. To use all my years of editorial and business experience to help writers find their way. At the moment I have no interest in writing a novel of my own. I am the midwife to yours. Sure, it’s a job. But actually it’s a lot more than that; it’s what I know I’m supposed to be doing, and that’s why I’m driven.
I believe that as an author of fiction you also have a vocation. What is it? To deeply ‘get’ the chaos of being human and everything it comprises – the pain, the dilemmas; but also the humour and the sweetness of life. And then, from that understanding, to be able to perceive order and meaning in that chaos – so that you can then use it to create a unique story framework; a shape to the messiness of being human that will ultimately become a new work of art.
Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth. Thank you, Picasso.
In Part 3: Getting practical: You’ve decomposed the memories; turned emotional compost into a Big Idea suffused with (controlled) emotion. Now to plant some seeds (ie, get words down).
Pix: 1) A knife. And an orange. Draw your own conclusions. 2) Greenhouse window during the great Washington DC snowstorms of a couple of years back. 3) My guitar. She’s a beauty; a Yamaha semi-acoustic. 4) The heart of darkness - Vietnam war memorial, Washington DC; shot on one steaming hot summer night.
Monday, November 05, 2012
This is a post with a very important sub-title, so here’s the title in full:
FROM ORDINARY TO EXTRAORDINARY: The art of creating a great saleable story and the craft of teasing out its full potential.
I have given this talk at various conferences around the USA in the past 2 years, and I have tended and nurtured the content, tweaking and polishing it over time. There are many nuggets in here which delight me. But now it’s time to share the love! So here is the first of several instalments, in which I’ll set out my thoughts on dreaming up, and crafting, a great story. While some bits inevitably have to change/diminish from the spoken version, I hope it will be a useful and inspiring series.
Please note, it is aimed primarily at MG and YA writers, but even if you’re a picturebook author there may be something here for you too.
So buckle up and sit back for the ride. I hope you’ll enjoy being the audience and return over the next few weeks to read the rest.
This is a talk in two halves, and I chose the title because it strikes to the heart of my daily submissions inbox.
The first half of the title: How to create a great, saleable story. ie, How do you find an amazing idea – and know if you have one?
The second half of the title: The craft of teasing out its full potential. ie, How do you then get that idea out and on to the page?
My subject is therefore both reflective and very practical.
But first, what is an extraordinary story? Well, here’s one from real life – the story of Wilfrid and Gladys - just to get the juices going: http://greenhouseliterary.com/index.php/blog/article/cheep_at_the_price/ Oh, and you might like to know that Wilfrid’s picture is at the head of this post.
The story told in this link always gives me a sharp intake of breath. What I call the HAH! factor. Why? Because it is full of the big questions, great juxtapositions, high stakes, which are the bedrock of an intense story. It has dilemmas, life and death, loss and fulfillment, despair and hope, love and sacrifice. Like an iceberg most of the story is hidden below the action I’ve described, and there are so many possible interpretations for our imaginations to fill in. What did that young Edwardian woman feel as she stood at the altar to marry the wrong brother? What were her secret thoughts when her family received the telegram telling them that Wilfrid, the brother she’d loved, was dead?
This, and so many other true stories, have taken up residence in me in what the novelist Graham Greene calls ‘the compost of my imagination’. And what Tolkien describes as ‘the leaf mould of the mind’. It makes me ponder fascinating ideas – forgiveness, redemption, the continuity of generations; courage, friendship, power. And of course my own identity. Because the girl I wrote about in ‘Cheep at the price’ was my grandmother, Gladys, and I grew up on her stories, sitting on the floor in her creaky old apartment, rolling marbles around the lid of a syrup tin and contemplating the meaning of true love and how my family came to be what it is.
But most of all, this old family story encourages empathy in me. It doesn’t set out to teach me something didactically (as so many subs that I see do). And yet, implicitly, woven through its storyline, it invites me to step into the shoes of its protagonist. And isn’t that why we encourage young people to read? So our hearts and minds should be enlarged by occupying someone else’s head space, however briefly?
That’s the kind of story that I – and, I believe, children/young people of all ages – want to read. Intense, fascinating, and memorable – on whatever level that is delivered, and to whatever age group. Whether through the medium of sophisticated YA or, in different ways, through a younger, even funny story. Whether your protagonist is facing her own untimely death or whether he’s lost his mom in a crowd, there can still be high stakes of intensity, the compelling need to see what happens next.
A great story will make the reader ask: WHAT IF THAT WERE ME? What if I were victimized? What if I were to date the wrong guy? What if I lost my teddy bear? As human beings, it’s as if we have a driving need to see others go there for us – maybe so we can practice, vicariously, living in extremis. We certainly don’t want to go there ourselves, but through the medium of YOUR story, we want to know whether WE would have found a way through and what it might have been. Would we have found the courage to climb up and keeping living – and living well?
I see many submission queries every day, and I can walk away from most of them. Why? Because I’ve seen the story before. Because it doesn’t make me care. Because it feels superficial. Or banal. Or confusing. Sometimes it’s almost as if it tries too hard or it’s overwritten – laden with adjectives and adverbs. Sometimes because a strong story concept is pulling weak writing. Or because strong writing is pulling a feeble story. And often I decide to walk away because the words don’t weave that magical, musical cadence of originality for me – as I inevitably read through my own personality and ‘emotional compost’. Even agents and editors have highly individual mental/emotional ‘leaf mould’!
The most common rejection you will receive from agents and editors is this: ‘I didn’t love it enough’. This probably feels frustratingly minimal but, deconstructed, it’s a powerful shorthand that leaps to the heart of your writing goal and process. What they’re saying is – it didn’t engage me emotionally. It didn’t make me sit forward in my seat and go HAH! And that intake of breath is ultimately the big difference between Ordinary and Extraordinary, and it tends to burst from stories with a strong foundation of WHAT IF.
To be brutally commercial, WHAT IF also has a large $ sign hanging over it. By which I mean, WHAT IF concepts feel exciting; the need to ‘see what happens next’ makes us want to read on. And that can translate into a publisher spending their acquisition dollars, because they know readers too will want to keep turning the pages. So, as you unearth your story concept, ask yourself WHAT IF questions. That may help you start thinking more boldly and outside your regular plot envelope.
Quite simply, one of the first necessities for achieving your extraordinary novel is this: a great idea, an inspired concept. Or sometimes, even an idea you can spin differently to how anyone has ever spun it before.
Just suppose a girl was to live through a day of exceptional banality, doing what teen girls do: high school/friends/mean stuff/boys/fun – only to die in an equally banal car crash that night. From the explosion, the lights, the pain, she knows she must be dead, but instead she keeps waking up to face that same day again – 7 times over – each time making different choices, discovering new insights, new pathways to understand and redeem herself. In so doing she is able to inch ever closer to experiencing love for the first time. She begins to find her courage and honesty – and move gradually towards a place where she can let go and die in peace.
That story has a huge HAH factor and it’s called BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins), which became a major NYT bestseller and turned Lauren into one of the biggest YA talents around. (Sadly, I don’t represent her!)
BEFORE I FALL is a story about regular kids, in regular places, doing regular things. Yet it takes one ordinary day and makes it extraordinary. And it’s Unique Selling Point, its intense emotional wallop, are woven into its structure in a very different and interesting way. 13 REASONS WHY by Jay Asher – also a NYT bestseller – does something similar via its cleverly compressed time structure, in which Clay has to rapidly piece together the clues to the part he played in a girl’s suicide. Who knew that the subject matter of 13 REASONS could be turned into a story that has thriller-like qualities?!
Both stories portray regular lives against a context of high school and small-town America, yet both achieve something unique and compelling through clever use of structure.
But how about a very different kind of story? What if a young girl were to love the street she lives on almost more than anything else in her life? That street – Fox Street – is outwardly like any other rundown, average, idiosyncratic street in the USA. But to Mo Wren it is not only home, it’s where her mom died, and where her heart lies. So what would she do, what would she feel, if she were asked to leave it? What would it take to separate herself and start a new journey to self-discovery?
This book is called WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET by Tricia Springstubb (who I DO represent! Pub: Balzer & Bray, HarperCollins). Quiet, lyrical, small-scale and classic-toned MG, it packs a huge emotional thump, as does its sequel, MO WREN LOST AND FOUND. At the time I went on sub with it, FOX STREET didn’t check a single box that publishers would have announced that they were seeking, yet I could have sold it to many different houses. Why?
Why do all these books stay in our heads and in our hearts? Why did FOX STREET receive multiple starred reviews?
Sure, we admire, intellectually, the concepts behind them. But I believe the common denominator is that all these stories reveal in intense ways what it means to be human. To face dilemmas that call on the deepest selves of the protagonist. Interestingly, the teens who blogged about BEFORE I FALL have often said, ‘It made me want to be a better person.’ And then they told their friends to buy the book.
Mo Wren in the utterly different Fox Street makes us – and child readers – feel Mo’s potential loss, reflecting through the prism of every small or large loss we’ve ever experienced.
Here is a thought that intrigues me: Each of these books I’ve mentioned creates a big story from small lives. And then I’m reminded that my grandmother Gladys’s life in the early 1900s was also very small in physical scope, yet contained the building blocks of great fiction - big themes and very high stakes.
So here’s the good news! You don’t need to be a world traveler to write great fiction. You don’t have to climb mountains or do esoteric and expensive things. You can write gripping, fascinating and memorable stories from the stuff of small lives that are all around you.
What is your emotional compost? Have you dug into it and taken a long look? It’s not a bad place to start.
In Part 2: The deeply felt theme. A.k.a. The emotional driver of your story.
Pix: 1) My Great-Uncle Wilfrid who died Oct 1, 1917 during the battle of Passchendaele. This was taken in 1914. 2) Sargie the dachsund. Cleverly camouflaged in leaf mould.