Monday, May 14, 2012

Ask An Editor: Plot, Similarity and Length

In the last two weeks, this blog has really taken off. Part of me wants to say this is because all the seeds I planted about it are finally bearing fruit, but more than likely, people are responding better to the more honest tone I've been taking.

One of the new experiences I have to acclimate to is this idea that I'm now getting a lot more mail. Now while some of this mail isn't great (really, people still send trolling hate e-mails in 2012?), a lot of these messages ask the same things, which has led me to start this new post on the blog, "Ask An Editor".

Now, some disclaimers:

1. The answers I'm giving ARE NOT to be etched in stone, and they're not the be-all or end-all of information. They are a combination of many years experience and my opinion, melded together to help you.
2. My answers are not sugar-coated. I...don't really like to sugar-coat things, and quite frankly, it doesn't do you a whole lot of good to get a pat on the head when you may sometimes need a kick in the rear.
3. You don't have to believe what I'm telling you, you're very welcome to think I'm full of shit, but please consider at least reading what I have to say and then filing it away for later - you may surprise yourself.

Onto the questions (note: If you said it was okay to use your names, I'm using them. Otherwise, they'll get  reduced to initials.)

C asks:  I've been working on this novel for three years now. I've written and revised this plot so many times because a lot of the rejections I'm getting say my plot is too complicated or "too much". But I read published books all the time where the plots are WAY more complicated...what gives?

C, I have no idea what your specific plot is about, and please, don't go send me an email explaining it. It's not important to the answer I'm giving you here. No, really, I'm sure you've put a lot of detail and love into it, but in explaining it to me, you're not going impress me with it. We have to start with some basics:

i. "Too much" is shorthand for either "boring" or "too complicated". Suppose you're writing a multi-generational romance saga with three eras of family members grow up, find love and experience life. And now suppose you add some quirks into this story like time travel, maybe some lasers and magical tap-dancing fairies. You know, to spice it up. The plot hasn't changed really -- it's still going to be the story of character 1 going through plot points A to B to C and then character 2 going through their version and so on. But all those bells and whistles? Well, that's not plot detail.

Here's how you find your plot -- strip out all the names for people, places and things. Boil down all the verbs to their most simple and active. Using really simple nouns and active verbs, spell out what happens in the story. That's it. No rocket science required.

Here's an example of a complicated, congested "too much" plot:
Sally Heaven is a hard working college student who graduates from school and moves into her ancestral home, only to find that because she is the fifth daughter of a fifth daughter born under a full moon, she is also the sole heiress to a vast fortune of pirate treasure, assuming she can figure out the map before sunrise on her next birthday.

Here's the same plot concentrated:
A young woman learns she can inherit a treasure, assuming she can find it before her birthday.

But, I hear you say, you've taken all the "spice" out of my story! It sounds boring that way, story-ruiner! And before you come to my door bearing fire and pitchforks, I want you to learn something -- SPICE IS NOT PLOT. Plot is just an expression of the problem(s) the characters are challenged by over the course of the story.

ii. You don't have to 'give it all away' in the query. No, seriously, please don't. The query, as I've said before, is just an opportunity to lead the reader into the manuscript. It acts as bridge, seductress, chat up line and movie trailer...not Cliffs Notes version. We should want to / have to read the manuscript to find out more details than those offered in the query. If you tell us how it begins and ends in the query, why should anyone bother with the manuscript?

Next, we have a message from Thomas who writes: "I've been following a lot of agent blogs and re-tweeting a lot of agent tweets lately, but none of them are really talking about what I need them to. My problem is that I've written a story and well, it sounds a lot like three other books that just got published. How big a deal is that?"

Thomas, we need to first figure out what "sounds a lot like" means. Are you saying you and these other authors wrote exactly the same story? Or are you speaking more generally, because if we look at all stories from a wide enough scope, we'll see similarities. If I zoom out far enough, all stories share the same set of traits and genealogy, all we're ever doing is putting new skins and spins to them.

Yes, it's very tempting to concern yourself with the ideas of originality, that whatever you're created be the only one of its kind...but we've been telling stories for millenia, and while the foundations are universal, look to use that originality on whatever springs up beyond the foundations.

Great, it's a story about woman overcoming Nature, (I know your specific book isn't Thomas, I'm just giving an example), but what element of Nature is she overcoming? How is she overcoming it? What's trying to stop her? What is she risking? These are the sorts of questions that sit on the foundation of "woman overcoming Nature", and this level is where you start to define your story against the backdrop of all these other stories.

To distinguish your story, we come back to the very commonly discussed idea of voice and craft - what do you do, author (Thomas), that other people do differently? What makes you stand out from the rest so that were I to pick your story out a hat (or crowded inbox) I'd know it had your fingerprints all over it. That's the sort of "deal" readers/agents/publishers/your grandmother is looking for.

I say again: No one wants you to or expects you to re-invent the wheel. And if you feel that you have to do that in order to get published, please leave all pursuits of writing behind and go take a knitting class or learn all about cat food or something, because you've entirely missed the point of writing and you'll continue to miss it every time you charge up these batteries of "scarcity" "pressure" and "publication equals success".

The reason why people say things like, "Just tell your story." or "Just write the f#$king thing." or "When in doubt, write." is not to get you thinking about all that crap that publishers and agents and publication want you to swallow in copious amounts. Yes, writing's hard. Yes, writing's scary. But it's a thousand times harder and scarier when you're writing your guts out AND worrying that you sound too much like other people.

Believe you have the story in you to tell. That's step 1. Transfer the story from your brain to some format. That's step 2. Step 3 involves getting your story read, your craft honed and your first taste of feedback and revision. You're going to repeat Step 3 for a while, until the story is complete and told to the best of your ability. Publication and an agent don't even factor into most of step 3 so long as you're still working out the story that you're trying to tell. Also, you don't always need one (the agent) to get the other (published), and I'd seriously look twice at anyone who stills holds so doggedly to that maxim.

And while we're at it, what do you think the point of Twitter is? Retweets are not yours. You're just passing on someone else's thoughts to your audience. Now while I'm all for shouting to as many people as possible, every once in a while I like to have my own thoughts mixed in there, not just a grocery list or an update about what I did in the last two hours. When I say thoughts, I mean YOUR thoughts on publishing. Your fears. Your anxieties. Put it right out there in 140 character sandwiches for us to nibble on. It's yet another way to tell YOUR story.

And lastly we come to a quick note from M, whose message I'm paraphrasing because they've written it with a lot of emoticons and acronyms and I'm not sure I've got the patience to figure out why M is laughing at the end of every second line.

M writes: "I'm writing a novel. Can you believe it? (see, this is where there was a LOL, mind the gap) But I'm stuck. How come there are so many different listings for how long a novel should be? (also a LOL here)"

Okay, I'm going to let you behind the curtain and give you some special writing secrets. Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Here's your answer M.

Your story will be as long as your story needs to be in order to be complete and told to the best of your ability.

Now before you get snippy and say I didn't answer the question because I didn't mention that there's about 250 words to a printed page, or that the average book is 300 pages in paperback, remember that you're in charge of this story. If it's coming up short, that's not some random publisher's fault. That's on you, dear author. (Yes, I will further argue that you can't really have an idea of "short" because it's grossly subjective.)

The reason people can't agree on what's "right" for a novel is because thanks to the wonders of publishing, there can be more than one "right", and they're all acceptable. You may talk to Agent X who says a book should be a certain length, while Publisher Q says it should have twice that, and maybe Editor H says you have eight times too much, cut it back.

Who's right? They all are. But that doesn't mean you have to agree with them. They're not the boss of your work. Yes, you may hold onto the notion that they're "gatekeepers" and they're opposition for you on some kind of publication-chessboard, and you may also think that editors want nothing more than the cackle gleefully over the charred remains of your life's work.

Your story (novel, novella, piece, manuscript, baby, whatever) is however long it needs to be. Rather than worry about some label when people ask about it (or what you're doing) tell them ABOUT what you're doing. It's way more interesting to hear that you're writing a story about a man who wants to build a golem out of cereal than to hear you're writing a novella.

Find those opportunities to talk about your love, so that you can grow your love and make new opportunities.

I hope people found the answers to these questions useful. I'd really like to make this a regular blog feature.

Happy writing.