Posts Tagged suspense

Self-editing masterclass snapshots – do you have a plot or a premise?

guardThis is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.

Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.

Is it a premise or a plot?

plot or premiseA writer in my class told us she’d had a literary agent, who had said: ‘Your problem is that you have a premise but not a plot.’

So what might that mean?

A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)

Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.

So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.

Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.

Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.

Still life
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.

And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.

So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.

The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.

So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.

More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
ebookcovernyn3In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.

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‘The perfect song for my characters to flourish’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Candace Austin

for logoMy guest this week says she can ignore just about any distraction and write – except if she can hear music. But she also can’t write a character until she has found the perfect song as a vehicle for their personality, back story and secrets. Her debut novel fits rather well with this blog for another reason too – it’s the story of the world’s most reincarnated man, with all the troubles – past and present – that that implies. She is Candace Austin and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Intensity, wildness and urban mayhem’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kathryn Guare

for logoMy guest this week began her debut novel with very little sense of where she was going.  All she had was a powerful scene and a yen to explore it. While she was experimenting, she happened on an audio seminar on understanding classical music. Suddenly she realised her character should be a virtuoso violinist – and the novel came alive. (Readers of My Memories of a Future Life will recognise a kindred spirit here. When I heard about her novel I had to recruit her.) She carried on collecting music to explore her character’s world and the result is a suspense novel with a rather unusual protagonist. She is Kathryn Guare and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Do you need a literary agent?

2702312059_63159f82b1I had this note from a new blog subscriber.

I’ve just finished my first novel. A most enjoyable experience only tainted by the reaction from the literary agents I have approached so far! Any and all advice and direction will be gratefully received and much appreciated.

Although we’re now used to writers who publish themselves, there is still a sizeable crowd who are set on finding an agent and a traditional publishing deal. Most of my critique clients, for instance. Why?

1 – Kudos and confidence

If you have an agent or a publisher, you have validation. You’re not just a spare-time scribbler, which you have probably been for countless years before. If you get an agent, your friends, family, total strangers – and you yourself – have proof that you made the grade.

This cannot be underestimated. Getting an agent took me years. By the time I did, I’d already got ghosted bestsellers and a track record coaching writers. But I felt I was sneaking under the wire, using the title ‘writer’ on false pretences until an agent signed me for My Memories of a Future Life.

2 – Developmental input

We all need developmental help. If you’re a good fit for an agent, they can give you perceptive, priceless notes on how your book works and guide your revisions.

3 – Long-term career-building

Obviously, an agent helps you find a publisher, usually with a better deal than you could get on your own.

But agents can’t always sell your first book, and often the only choice is to self-publish. Some agents are giving writers a leg-up with showcase imprints of their own – Jason Allen Ashlock at Movable Type Management  set up The Rogue Reader to launch outsider suspense writers. As publishers increasingly opt for ‘safe’ books, we’ll see more agents devising ways to build audiences for their exciting new authors.

So I still think it’s worth looking for an agent. Markets change and new opportunities are opening for writers all the time. If you can, it makes sense to get the support of professionals with more legal and commercial clout than you can muster on your own.

But every silver lining has a cloud. Here are two.

pic by tony hall1 Editorial input: the flipside

If an agent gives you editorial input, they might be steering you to fit a commercially viable genre. That might completely suit you. But it may not if your aim is to pursue a more individual and creative path. You still don’t have to abandon dreams of traditional publication; many small presses will take  submissions directly from authors.

2 Self-publishing

Almost every writer will probably now self-publish at some stage, but not all agents have adjusted to this. I know successful indie authors who have been offered agency deals that claim a percentage of all book earnings – which of course includes royalties from books they published themselves. This was appropriate when all the author’s work came through the agent, but now is plainly unfair. Happily, many agency agreements demand commission only on deals that they have made. If you’re offered a deal that takes a percentage of everything, query it. They might adjust the wording. If not, think hard about whether you want to work with them.

3 The disreputable

Not all agents are reputable. Some ask for money up front to read your manuscript. Even with all the boundaries shifting, an agent should never charge to read your work. Agents earn commission on the back end.

Havisidebarcropng trouble?

So what do we make of our correspondent here, whose quest for an agent is proving a challenge? Why might you have trouble finding an agent?

1 – Your book may not yet be strong enough. It’s so easy to send off our lovely novel too early. If you nearly made the cut, most agents will try to let you know. But if they dismiss you with the equivalent of a compliments slip, you may need to hone your craft.

2 – You might have pitched the wrong agents – either their lists are full, or they don’t take your genre. Check websites before you hit ‘send’ (although agents are often quite bad at updating their requirements).

3 – You might have a great book but a dull pitch. Pitching is an art and you need to know how to make an agent curious.

4 – Your book may not be commercially viable. You might get feedback about genre mixing, undesirable subjects or unfashionable style choices. Your book might still be a good read in spite of this – and if so, agents are usually genuine enough to let you know.

5 – You might need to kiss more frogs. There are thousands of agents, all very oversubscribed, all with different wishlists. With such pressures, rejection is far more likely than acceptance, even for awesome books. Don’t do anything different until you see a reliable pattern emerge.

Thanks for the cafe table pic Tony Hall and the inkpen manuscript pic Songwind

Anyway, I’m hoping this will kick off a discussion. What’s your feeling about agents? What would you advise our friend here?

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‘I let the song dictate what I left unsaid’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Reb MacRath

for logoMy guest this week was an award-winning horror genre writer, but turned indie to try to write the sort of novel he loved to read. For several years he published nothing while he struggled with his new challenge – a high-octane blend of suspense, swagger, humour and romance. Looking for a way to humanise an unlikable hero he found a guiding light in Rod Stewart’s interpretations of American classics – a rocker thug who’d matured with surprising tenderness. He is Reb MacRath and he’s on the Red Blog today with the Undercover Soundtrack for Southern Scotch.

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‘Each song helped me see the main character a little more clearly’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Melissa Foster

My guest this week has always written in the grip of a wide-ranging playlist, but for one particular novel she found herself listening to three pieces intensively, maybe obsessively. In those songs she found her characters’ strengths and their more playful, softer sides, the great challenges they faced and the reserves they drew on to see them through. She is award-winning bestselling author, indie champion and women’s advocate Melissa Foster – and she’s on the Red Blog talking about Chasing Amanda and its Undercover Soundtrack.

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