Writing Exercise (from Teri Brown): Teri handed around scent vials during our meeting. Maybe just stand at an open window (on this lovely spring day) and see what smell reaches your nose. Then write for 10 minutes and see what story reaches the page.
Writers’ Mill Minutes March 18 2018
We were delighted to welcome five new members to our March meeting, where author, editor, math-hater, and teacher Teri Brown led an amazing workshop on plot, character and the writing life. I doubt my minutes will do her justice, but let’s hope Jean succeeds in inviting her back sometime! Thank you Teri!
Teri sold her first book in 2008 and her second in 2011. She has a great agent, enjoyed a three-book deal with Harper Collins (!), writes to deadlines (because that’s what happens when you’re published), continues writing even when seriously ill, sells internationally… If you’re anything like me, you want to be more like her, and just maybe the lessons she taught at this meeting might help. See below for detailed notes from her talk, and try the writing exercise above.
Jim brought most excellent, abundant and delicious snacks, which we enjoyed halfway through the meeting. Then Judy announced the contest results:
- Richard with How I Lost Control and Found Tranquility
- Judy with Labyrinth of Uncertainty and Jessie with Lost
- Sheila with Navigation Lane
Upcoming contests (all with 1200 word limits) and deadlines are below – entries to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Something set before 1900 (Matthew) entries by April 1st
- Plunged into darkness (Judy) entries by May 6th
- If I’d only known (Karin) entries by June 3rd
For more contest details and inspiration on contests, don’t forget to visit our website at http://portlandwritersmill.org/contests/upcoming-contests/ and to read the last contest entries if you missed them, please go to http://portlandwritersmill.org/contests/current-contest-march-2018/march-entries-voting-booth/
Then go to http://teribrownbooks.com/ to find out more about our speaker.
Our next meeting is on April 15th, when Joyce Creswell, author of a Great Length of Time, a self-published Oregon Book Award winner (click the link to find it on Amazon), will speak on how to self-publish and sell.
Plot and Character, from a workshop led by Teri Brown
Before we write, we might want at least some idea of what we want to write. Teri suggests we start planning our next novel with two sentences:
The premise sentence
The story question
So this is where her workshop begins.
It can take weeks to complete either or both of these sentences. First boil your novel idea into a simple statement for the premise sentence (yes, it can be run-on!), and note that premise is NOT THEME.
Your Premise Sentence should include:
- 1 or 2 characters
- A conflict or goal
- What’s at stake
- What action will be needed to get your character(s) to the goal (not the same as the conclusion)
- And the setting if it’s important.
This sentence will identify your protagonists and state your story’s goal and most obvious conflict. It will help direct your writing toward that goal. And if well-written, it might become part of the back-cover blurb, the query letter, advertising material, and anything else you can think of. But first you have to think of the sentence – maybe start by coming up with a premise sentence for some well-known novels such as Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, etc.
A high-concept novel is something that sells – it needs an interesting character and cool plot twist; it should have universal emotional appeal; it should be visceral; and it should reducible to one sentence! (Literary fiction may be different.)
While working on the premise sentence, try describing the protagonist, the goal, the concept… When you’ve written it, start working on an expanded version to make the sales pitch, the back-cover copy, the query letter and more. But DON’T TELL THE END. (After all, you haven’t written the whole novel yet, and things can change.)
Next comes the Story Question.
It’s the second sentence you’ll use to form the plot. It’s the goal of the primary plotline:
- What drives the characters to do what they do?
- Why does this story exist?
How you answer – the depth of your answer – might depend on the audience you’re writing for. But the questions should be answered logically in a way that lets the character grow and entertains the reader. Again, try writing story questions for well-known stories – Alice in Wonderland, Green Eggs and Ham…)
Then comes the plot:
Imagine a straight line from beginning to end. The inciting incident is at the start. Plot point 2 (or the midpoint) is (not surprisingly) in the middle. The Climax is just before the end, and everything else fits in between in the same order as below.
- Inciting Incident –
- the moment something changes to drive the story.
- Start as close to the beginning of the change as possible without going beyond it. (Try looking for the inciting incident in a famous story such as Hamlet – it’s not the death of the king because that happens earlier.)
- This is the HOOK (for reader/agent/editor) and will keep people turning pages.
- It makes the reader care about the character (even if they hate him)
- It establishes trust between author and reader, and provides enough background to make things intriguing. It’s NOT BACKSTORY. If you find you need too much background information, you’re probably starting in the wrong place.
- Plot Point 1:
- The character knows what needs to be done, but not how to do it.
- establishes the story question with a scene: Note, all your scenes should be anchored in ALL SIX SENSES (i.e. 5 plus intuition)
- Pinch Point 1: The antagonist shows itself
- Plot point 2 – MidPoint –
- New information comes about and things change.
- Protagonist learns something vital and figures out what to do
- The protagonist shifts from reactive to proactive.
- Decisions lead to action, which moves the story forward.
- Forward motion keeps the reader turning pages
- Pinch Point 2: the antagonist strikes back
- Plot Point 3 –
- begins the ramp up to the final act
- It’s the calm before the storm – the time when the roller coaster is ticking its way to that long long drop
- No new information should arise after plot point 3 or it will feel like a fake coincidence
- Creates a positive note – things will be okay after all, until it all falls apart
- Black Moment – All is lost
- This might be the easiest part to write.
- Think of the worst thing that could happen to the character in terms of their goal.
- Take away their external and internal dreams
- If the protagonist can’t get A without losing B, make them lose both.
- But remember, the reader must see it coming. It can’t be a complete surprise.
- For a real Black Moment, the reader must believe the protagonist has done everything possible to avoid disaster – don’t want the reader guessing the resolution. Then…
- Climax – Denouement –
- a downward wrapup starts here. It can be long or short, but it MUST be satisfying.
- Land the plane softly. Let the reader down gently.
- It’s your job to figure out how to get your characters out of this mess, and the answer must be logical –
- It must allow the character to achieve their goal, follow their motivation, and resolve their conflict.
What if you want to tell the story in reverse? Yes, you can start at the black moment, but then the rest is backstory and you’ll have to work hard as a writer to keep the reader moving forward.
What if you want flashbacks (Hamlet has them!)? They can slow things down if done wrong, or they can be super-effective for character development if done right. Keep them brief and powerful, then get out and move on.
And now, characters –
which each have
These may, and probably will be both internal and external. One goal may lead to a secondary goal which leads to a third, which… Try working out the GMCs for Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz as she sets out on different tasks to achieve different minor goals in aid of achieving her major goal of getting home and getting noticed.
- Goal drives the story
- Motivation makes the reader believe it
- Conflict makes it interesting.
Try creating a GMC table for each of your characters as they go through your novel.
- Each line of the table contains the three items – goal, motivation and conflict.
- By the end, all conflicts are resolved, all motivations clear, and all goals achieved.
But how does all this turn into a novel? Do you know the end before you write the beginning? Is the first draft anything like the final draft? Do you really do all these GMCs and Plot Points before you start writing?
The premise sentence gives your story direction. The plot points give you signposts along the way. But the story may well move around and change as you write your first draft. And you’ll probably hate it (the first draft). But then comes the interesting bit…
What if you’ve already written the story?
Or what do you when you’ve finished writing the story?
Revise your first draft
- Create the plot diagram, create the GMC tables.
- Find out what you missed.
- Insert what you need to make it all work. Remove what you don’t need.
- Play with the story just as you’d play with clay, molding and changing until it’s just right.
Eventually a lot of this might be instinctive and you’ll not have to change as much. But be ready to change it anyway, because that way you’ll make it better. And have those two sentences written – you need them to sell the novel.
What if your novel is part of a series? How do you know you’re writing a series? Sometimes you have it in mind from the start and pitch it that way. Other times, characters revealing themselves in different ways might not follow your plan and you end up with one.
Once you’re happy with what you’ve written, try writing a 70 page synopsis (250 words/page, double space, 12pt font). And send it to an agent.
How do you get an agent?
- Use a scattershot approach – write to lots (5-10) and send it out again with each rejection.
- Make sure all the people you send it to do accept the sort of thing you’re writing
- Look in the acknowledgements for similar books to find authors thanking their agents.
- If you get an offer,
- Ask for a few days to think about it
- contact everyone else who still has the book and tell them you’ve got an offer
- See if they can make you an offer too.
- Ask lots of questions before accepting an offer
- Will the agent represent one book or do they hope to represent your whole career (also, what do you want)?
- Are they editorial? Will they want to content edit your work, just copy edit it, not edit at all…?
- How many publishers will they send your work to, and will they let you know/give you enough information so you can keep track of how it’s going?
- How long do they take to follow up on things?
- Will they (and do you want them to) keep you informed of rejections and reasons?
What do you do while waiting for an offer? Write another book.
Will you keep the same agent throughout your career? Maybe, but agents move, quit, get sick… just like anyone else.
How much does it cost? And how much can you earn?
- Never accept an offer that requires you to pay upfront!
- Expect to pay your agent around 15%
- Remember, those six-figure offers incur large taxes – around 27%
- And you don’t get the money all at once.
- 1/3 on signing
- 1/3 on acceptance of final edits
- 1/3 on publication
- And remember, the publisher’s advance is all you’ll get, unless you make enough sales for them to recover the advance from what they would have paid you – which is a LOT
Promotion – actually getting those sales – depends on the publishing house. Some have money to promote; some don’t. Some of your advance will end up going on promotion. Meanwhile…
Write another novel!