For the first time I attended Storymakers that they typically hold in Provo, UT, and now I’m wondering what ever kept me away for so long. There are tons of helpful workshops, forums, and opportunities available to us aspiring writers—and of course, I’m going to do my best to share the experience with all of you who aren’t able to attend as many conferences as you’d like.
On Thursday I attended what they call “Boot Camp” which is where you take the first 15 pages of your novel and work with a published author on ways you can strengthen it. Of course, I’ve been eagerly applying those tips and have a much stronger first chapter for it. We were helped by and had the opportunity to help other aspiring writers. The ladies at my table both had phenomenal stories. If there’s one thing you learn at a conference, it’s that great ideas abound, but the real trouble is getting it on the page in a way that conveys that idea best to the reader. You hope your peers get published as much as you hope for yourself, because those are stories you want to read when they’re ready.
Friday is when the conference officially began. First on my docket was a workshop taught by agent Hannah Bowman. And without further ado, the notes:
High concept means you have a premise that instantly engages. For example, the movie Alien was sold as “jaws in space.” It’s important to have an engaging premise and that’s the first step in writing an engaging novel.
Example: “His Majesty’s Dragon”
- A character can be part of the premise
- Romance premises are often based on characters
The point of a first chapter is to hook you in with the premise. The first chapter is like a short story. However, in a short story the conflict is worked out, but in a chapter it’s meant to lead you into the next chapter.
You can have the best premise in the whole world, but if things don’t keep happening in an interesting way, your book will fall flat. Hannah sees a lot of interesting premises, but admits many of them fall flat because the author didn’t continue fostering tension and more good ideas.
There should be one good idea on every page. Just one good idea alone is not enough for an entire novel.
The climax should begin when the character is at their weakest point. All along the way to the climax, you should be making things worse for your character. Build your stakes gradually and show your audience why it matters so that when they reach the climax they’ll be fully invested in the story and find it “believable.” (For clarification, she means believable to the world of the story, not actually believable in reality.)
Your pitch should certainly include the premise, but that alone won’t make a good pitch. It should be the premise and something about the climax combined. Essentially you’re saying: here’s the premise, and here’s why it’s even more interesting.
She then had us take a break to work on creating a one-sentence pitch. You’ll want to identify how the conflict develops and what the climax is, but to take caution in making your pitch too plot-heavy. The point of the pitch is to sell the agent or person on reading the book. Your pitch won’t be a play-by-play synopsis. Also, it’s good if you can include some of the more unique elements of your book to make it feel less generic. There’s nothing new understand the sun, except perhaps for viewpoints. Show your agent why your book is that unique viewpoint.
ACTS IN A NOVEL
The standard 3-act story is standard for a reason. However, don’t think that you must follow this standard for every story. For some stories it just wouldn’t work.
Hannah said she’s a math geek, so she used a backward check (some fancy math term I can’t remember, but I’m sure one of you can probably tell me) to illustrate the broad shape of the novel.
At the top you start with stasis, then conflict running down to the lower right point which is climax before the resolution. This is the broad view of a novel. For example, with Twilight she did:
- STATIS: Bella and Edward fall in love.
- CONFLICT: But his secret forces them apart.
- CLIMAX: They must decide if staying together is worth the risk.
You can go do the same thing for each act, like so, labeling the statis, conflict, and climax of each act, like so (NOTE: this is for a 3-act book, yours may have more):
And you can do the same thing for each scene. Hannah says she’s a visual learner, so this works for her. If you’re comfortable doing this in an outline format or whatever format, all good, just make sure you do it and understand the structure of your novel.
We then took several minutes to practice looking at our novel’s structure. Some parts of it were easy, others not. But it can help you see if you’re missing any of these pieces in scenes or acts—and if you are, that may be slowing your novel down.
What does she mean by this? Conflict. The most satisfying conflict comes from characters—from their fears and motivations. We want our characters to face their worst fears. When we talk about high stakes, it doesn’t have to mean the whole world is at risk, just what our character is most threatened by.
JAE NOTE: And here came one of my favorite parts of the workshop, the Star Wars examples!!!
Take these examples from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. (By the way, SPOILERS!)
- External conflict causes internal conflict e.g. fighting Darth Vader and the Emperor forces Luke to fight his own hatred and the Dark Side of the Force
- External conflict contrasts with internal conflict e.g. Han and Leia
realize they’re in love as he gets frozen in carbonite
- External conflict mirrors internal conflict e.g. Luke loses a hand as
he learns Darth Vader is his father
- External conflict is caused by internal conflict e.g. Darth Vader’s conflict between the Emperor and Luke leads to his final decision to kill the Emperor
Then it was our turn to do the same in our own novels, using the check mark exercise we’d created.
She stressed the importance of these exercises in keeping our novels from falling flat and keeping both readers and agents engaged. It’s important to have a great premise, with lots of continuing conflict that leads to a high stakes climax with a satisfying resolution.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a phenomenal novel. Now go forth and do. 😉
What did you take away from the workshop? Anything you’re eager to try with your own novel? Anything you’d add?