Many believe there are only seven basic plots. What amazes me are the variations on those plots writers come up with—the twists and leaps they make within those structures.
As a contest judge, I've seen entries in all fonts and formatting. We may be creative people, but what is clear that some of those professing to pursue professional writing are shooting themselves in the foot with unprofessional presentation.
MARKS OF AN AMATUER
• A nonstandard typeface—most places still prefer to see only Times New Roman or Courier fonts in 12 point.
• 1.5-line spacing rather than 2-line (double spaced) spacing
• Full justification instead of ragged right (left justified)
• Too narrow or too wide margins (standard is still 1” to 1.25”)
• Top and bottom margins are under 1" (the standard)
Make sure you follow the guidelines for formatting.
The competition is stiff
But editors and agents have mounds of submissions on their desks to plow through. Wise writers don’t give them reasons to set those manuscripts aside, instead they work to develop their skills to the level editors expect.
If you’re serious, you’ll want to ensure any freelance editor you hire (like me) can spend time polishing your prose rather than correcting obvious mistakes you could have caught.
FIVE STEPS TO TAKE
There are many things you can do to develop your skills, but these five ideas will provide a great return:
1. Join a critique group. Several writers organizations incorporate critique options, like American Christian Fiction Writers.
2. Purchase, read, and use resources. Excellent books are available on standard manuscript formatting.
3. Proofread your work. Form a partnership with a writer friend and pass manuscripts back and forth. Then proof again—and again.
4. Take classes. You can do this through conferences, online courses, or a local university.
If you do these things, your take on one of the seven basic plots could end up published—rather than tossed in File 13.
It's how real they are. Does the writing pull you, the reader, into the story enough for you to experience it? Do you feel like you're part of the story? That this character is your friend?
Motivation, that's what. If we can relate to the character, through his/her motivation, we will follow the character through anything.
For instance: let's say your heroine wants to teach elementary school, third grade. What's her motivation? Your first answer might be that she loves kids. But is that a great story motivation? Or are you yawning? Yeah, not much conflict. Sure you can have a resistant kid, but where's the story? Unless you're a school psychologist, you'd probably pass on that one.
We need to go deeper. Okay, how about she wants to help kids.
Uhm, maybe a teacher helped her learn something hard that changed her life. So? That doesn't excite me. Does it you?
Again we ask why teaching kids is so important that if she doesn't reach her goal, she's devastated? That's the question that needs answering.
Could it be she wants unconditional love? The kind of love a child can develop for their teacher? Is that why she wants to teach?
Now we have a universal desire … unconditional love.
That's something with which any reader can empathize. And now we have a story, because she's looking for unconditional love in all the wrong places.
And now we have a motivation that will carry a story forward and give us lots of conflict.
Writing description for its own sake doesn't add anything to your manuscript other than telling the reader what you're seeing. They aren't experiencing it with your character, though, and that distances them from your story.
So how do you draw them into the story world? How do you create an intimacy between the character and the reader?
Everything in your story should have a reason to be there. Even the description of where your heroine is should have a purpose. Make its purpose more than just showing the where or what. Let it tell the reader something about the character.
Climb inside your point-of-view (POV) character's head and describe the scene through her eyes. Filter it through her mood, her circumstances, and her past. Yes, even her upbringing, because that helped form her response to circumstance and environment. What does the place—the scene—tell us about her?
Let's take a look at a simple description. It's good and includes some good details, but it lacks the character's reaction to what we're seeing.
The original paragraph:
Mary dipped one toe into the water, sending a ring of ripples outward. The early morning sunrays shone like spotlights through the trees across the inlet. Morning birds sang their happy songs and two glimmering dragonflies chased each other along the water’s edge. Towards the mouth of the cove a fish jumped.
Besides the fact that one toe won't send out a ring of ripples, what was Mary's reaction to the water? Was it cold? Warm? What's Mary's mood? Is she pensive, happy, sad, or nervous?
Let's try another example of the same paragraph:
Mary dipped one toe into the water. The iciness surprised her, since it was May. Shivering, she pulled her sweater tight across her chest. The early morning sun shone through the trees, spotlighting two mocking birds as they called out warnings to nest-robbers. In the mouth of the cove, a fish jumped, sending out a ring of ripples. Like the little lie she told sent out ripples of consequence.
Now we know something about Mary through the description. Even without the last sentence, you sense she's on edge. The use of mocking birds and warnings give the general feeling of uneasiness.
Here's another example of the same basic paragraph:
Mary dipped one toe into the water, followed by its mates, then her whole foot. Then the right one. Closing her eyes, she let the cool water massage her tired dogs. A trill of birdsong rang out nearby. The sun sparkled through the trees, spotlighting white-throated sparrows as they sang and flitted from branch to branch. In the mouth of the cove, a fish jumped, sending out a ring of ripples. She wished Rose could share this magical cove.
Even without the last sentence, we'd know Mary's delight in this spot. The description is filled with relaxation, comfort, and hope. Happiness.
Another good example for deepening characterization came from a member of the critique group, Penwrights. He told how after a particular critique, something clicked. Now when his character hears tires on the gravel driveway and looks out the window, she just doesn't simply see the next-door neighbors coming home. She takes note of Jasper, their son. She describes him and even renders her opinion:
He had his father's build, looking like another welterweight boxer, but Jasper had his mother's looks. Fortunate for him.
Being privy to the character's thoughts and opinions, filtered through their past, brings them alive to the reader, making them feel like the character is their friend (or enemy in the case of an antagonist).
Many years ago Ron Benrey taught me his Magic Paragraph. He's included it in his book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Christian Fiction, which I highly recommend. That little bit of advice has a tremendous impact on your writing. It goes like this:
1. Signal which head to enter
2. Twang an appropriate sense, emotion or mental faculty
3. Show appropriate action
4. Repeat if necessary
Write all your descriptions with purpose. Use it to set a mood, foreshadow an event, or perhaps even be a metaphor of the story question.
I often hear writers complain about having to “follow the rules” or guidelines of writing. They see seasoned authors breaking these rules. Here’s what I’ve learned: Storytelling is a talent. Talent is a gift from God with some assembly required. And that entails learning the craft.
It’s much like when we first learn to print back in kindergarten. We had paper with large lines...guidelines. We all made our letters the same, straight up and down, first the lower case and then the upper.
After time, we graduated to cursive. Once again, the paper had guidelines. We slanted the letters at an approximate 45-degree angle, and kept the lowercase letters in the bottom half of the guidelines. It wasn’t until we’d mastered those guidelines that we began to apply our artistic creativity to our signatures.
It’s the same with writing. We must first learn what constitutes good writing, things like point of view, show vs telling, characterization, plot, conflict, etc., before we can understand when and how to break the rules. When you have mastered your craft, you can then know how to do it with panache.
The quote on the left is why we want to master the craft.
I’m often asked about my “One Sheet” which is a single pitch sheet for a book or series. My critique partners and I spent a lot of time learning how to do a good one. When I had mine requested by an agent to use as an example of a good one, I knew we’d done it right.
It should include:
· your hook
· a short synopsis like the back cover blurb
· the book's status, i.e.: a 92,000 word completed work of women's fiction
· your bio
· and finally your contact information.
The one sheet on the left has more graphics than I've used before, but it seemed to fit the story.
Plain or with photos and graphics, as long as the one sheet includes the information listed above, you'll be fine.
Finding Your Voice by Les Edgerton
Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins
GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon
Keys to Great Writing by Stephen Wilbers
Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
Revision and Self-Editing, by James Scott Bell
Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne & King
Story by Robert McKee
The Art of War by James Scott Bell
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction, by Ron Benrey
The Emotional Craft of Fiction, by Donald Maass
The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
The Fire in Fiction, by Donald Maass
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
Writing the Popular Novel, Loren Estleman
A Novel Idea, by numerous multi-published authors in Chi Libris