Over the weekend I attended the League of Utah Writers Conference. We have quite a few authors out here in Utah, many of them who were members of the League or attended some of our Utah conferences before getting published (and still come back as visitors).
I decided to attend this year and lucky for all of you, I took notes which I will now share. So put on a lanyard, go into a crowded hotel with your laptop and pretend your right there with me.
This was basically a grammar and other tips session. I guess in previous years they did a boot camp where you get to work on your pages. While I thought much of the information I received was helpful, I still wish it had been the boot camp. If you already have a strong grasp of grammar and the industry, I would skip things like this at your own conferences. But if you can do a boot camp on your work, sign up for it. Super helpful (I’ve done a few in the past). And now onto the notes.
KNOW YOUR GENRE
Definition of genre:
1. A loose set of criteria for a category of composition. Genre can be determined by literary technique, tone, content, or even (as in the case of fiction) length.
2. Genre is often used for marketing purposes
Genre in Fiction. There are two major groupings: realism and fantasy. Realism is stories that could have really happened (Like The Help). Fantasy is stories not possible in the real world, and they often follow the quest pattern. Of course there is genre blending these days, but it’s still important to know where your story lies in genre.
Themes in Fiction/Non-Fiction.
- growing up/coming of age
- man vs. man
- man vs. nature
- man vs society
- life, alienation, death
- peer relationships
- family relationships
Target Audience. Know your audience. These serve as guides for approximately how many pages your story should be, especially if you’re interested in traditional publishing. These are based on manuscripts in the traditional format of Times New Roman 12 point font, double spaced with 1″ margins.
- Picture book – 1-3 ms pgs
- Chapter book – max. 100 pgs
- Middle Grade – 100 to 200 pgs
- Young Adult – 150 to 300 pgs
- Adult – 150-several hundred
PLOT – THE BACKBONE OF STORY
What is plot? To put it simply, it’s what happens in the story. A story needs conflict, which is anything that gets in the way of the protagonist. The inciting incident is the problem that changes the status quo. Exposition is background information. Rising action are events or scenes that build to the climax. The climax is the moment where everything changes. And the resolution is where some of the story’s questions are resolved, but not necessarily all.
The inciting incident should predict the climax.
How many plots do I need? Most well-told stories will need a main plot for the main character, a secondary plot for the main character, a plot for secondary character, and sub-plot lines each chapter.
Plotting your Query
Yes, even your query needs a plot. Most successful query letters that get requests will include the following things:
- Who is the protagonist?
- What are they trying to accomplish?
- What is the problem that stands in their way?
- What are the consequences of failure?
Why plot? Understanding plot will help you tell a compelling story.
THE WHO AND WHY
When writing a story, we should always keep in mind the internal character and the external character. What’s the difference? With internal character you must know the motivation, goals, emotions, and fears of your character because these will have an influence on what the reader sees externally.
In external character consider for your character (be they villain or hero or secondary) the looks, shapes, movements of the character. These will have an influence on the internal character.
Knowing both will help you in scenes to keep your characters reactions and actions consistent. (And readers will love you for it).
Internal: Step One. Determine your character’s primary goal. Why are they doing what they’re doing?
- Love – family vs. romantic
- Power – domination vs. control
- Money – desperation vs. wealth
- Security – acceptance vs. future
- Revenge – anger vs. avenging
- Absolution – God vs. self vs. others
- Justice – truth vs. resolution
Internal: Step Two. Determine your character’s secondary goal, based on the same list as above.
Internal: Step Three. What is your character’s motivating fear? They should be equally driven by their fear and their goals. For them, facing this fear must “seem” devastating. Their fear helps fuels action toward the primary goal.
Internal: Step Four. The point of change. For your character, this is where 1) the goal changes -or- 2) they realize they were wrong -or- 3) they act against their nature to accomplish the goal.
Internal: Step Five. The conclusion. The goal is achieved -or- progress is made towards goal -or- commitment to goal renewed -or- a new goal is set -or- the goal is not achieved.
Internal: Step Six. Self-discovery. This is what the character learns about themselves, someone else, or the world and should reflect character growth. More than just the main character makes a discovery of self. Villains too should make some new discoveries if you don’t want them to be flat.
Internal: Step Seven. Create a 30-word summary about each important character that states all of these steps. Examples provided below.
Phantom of the Opera: After years of hiding, he sacrifices the protection of his sanctuary in order to posses Christine at any cost only to realize she could never be his.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: In order to save Hogwarts, Harry risks the only friends he’s ever had and uses basic magic to discover an unknown enemy determined to destroy him.
Hunger Games: In order to save her family and secure her future, Katniss plays every game the capitol puts before her and wins the Hunger Games.
Internal: Step Eight. Now create a 200-word summary that includes all the previous steps. Sample from Harry Potter, though of the character Ron Weasley:
After a life of hand me downs and jokes at his family’s expense, he makes new friends which offer him new adventures and a place in the world where he can feel comfortable with himself. Though not a great wizard, he’s a devoted friend and becomes more confident in his abilities as he’s put to the test, both socially and in the realm of magic. In the end, his loyalty and determination proves him a hero and more than just another Weasley.
If you’re doing a series, make sure each book reflects character growth. Each book must have its own goal that plays into the series goal.
External: Step One. Contrast vs. Compliment. Remember your characters are a product of their childhood. Always give your characters a reason, that is tied into their history, for what they do. Does the external trait or behavior you give this character reflect internal traits/characteristics? Deflect internal traits/characteristics? Also, consider how others around them (as well as your readers) will perceive these traits/characteristics?
What do you want the world to see about your character? Name them wisely. Imagine a female viking. Now imagine that viking is named Candy. What images does that evoke vs. Helga? While it’s okay to name your viking Candy, understand what people’s expectations are with such a name. You could surprise, delight, or simply disappoint them depending on what you do with it, but be aware.
External: Step Two. You can give your characters a standout feature. What do other people notice about them? Is it good or bad? Does it reflect the internal?
External: Step Three. You can give your characters a physical flaw. Use it toward conflict. It can be the same as stand out feature. Make sure it reflects the internal. Does it make them different? How so? How is the flaw a strength?
External: Step Four. Perception of physical self. Do they use their beauty, body, appearance, etc. to their advantage? Do they try to hide it? Do they feel burdened or blessed?
Leftovers. There are several things you can do when writing your characters depending on the story you want to tell. You could give them a special ability, but if you do, make sure it sets them apart and makes them worthy of their own story. It should give them the edge they need during the final battle.
Consider the most important person in their life. This person often reflects the primary goal. Also ask yourself why is their primary goal their primary goal? Consider their history, accomplishments, and failures.
Why is their secondary goal their secondary goal? Consider their primary goal when putting in a secondary goal. This secondary goal should directly influence the story.
TIME FOR A BREAK
Okay, wow, that first day was a lot of notes. Rather than keep going, I’m going to save the rest of this for Thursday.
For a lot of you, this is old hat, but did you learn anything new? Was it a good review? Anything you would add?