Tag Archives: story

Clarify the Concept

This is a follow-up to my October 2013 post Resilience.

“We like your writing, but we don’t like your concept. . .”

After receiving a dozen rejection letters from literary agents all stating the same thing, I started to wonder: what do they mean by “concept” and why don’t they like mine?

Concept is NOT what a story is about. It is a specific thing that happens to a specific person that must be specifically solved.

My query letters all stated situations, ideas, and plot points. As a result, my query ended up reading like an episodic adventure, which is why I kept getting those rejection letters.

I needed to rewrite my query to focus on the concept, to tell the dramatic core of the story and leave everything else out.

The problem was I didn’t know how to describe a novel in which multiple storylines overlapped. I only knew that if I left the query as it was, I would continue to get rejection letters.

I put the query aside and started focusing on other things: art, exercise, prayer, and family. I played a lot of hockey on the XBox and watched more movies of the books I wanted to read. I followed the advice of successful authors who suggested I read developmental studies on how to build a story from a concept and how to transform a weak query into a stronger one.

But, most importantly, I let go of all expectations.

Months later, I woke up hearing a voice. The person was reading from a piece of paper. It was my concept turned into a story. I leapt out of bed and sat down and transcribed the words until tears brimmed in my eyes.

I had my pitch!

Sometimes when we give up, we are really giving in to the universe and allowing our dreams to manifest. By turning away from my problems and enjoying the abundance of life and giving thanks for the wonderful opportunities I have been given to grow, I allowed my prayers to be answered.

Now the true test: will a literary agent like my revised concept enough to request the full manuscript?

Follow me on Facebook


GPlus Share

Focus on the Story

Now that I’ve successfully completed two rounds of revisions and shipped off the manuscript to beta readers, I am busy polishing up a back cover copy blurb in an effort to focus the storyline even further.

Why bother writing that one paragraph teaser now?

When I pitch the story to an agent for representation or answer a curious reader who asks, “What are you writing now?” I have to be able to summarize the story in as few as words as possible to pique as much interest as possible. It increases my chances for representation and encourages sales.

It’s much harder writing a 100 word back cover copy than it is writing a 100,000 word novel because it distills the story into its essential elements: whose story is this, what does the person want, what stands in the way of getting it, and what does the person learn along the way. Writing it now while the work is still in progress helps shape the overall product, because it forces me to deliver on my promise. It highlights areas I haven’t fully developed and casts shadows on extraneous subplots that can possibly be eliminated for clarity and brevity. The overall result will be a tighter, faster-paced, streamlined story with a coherent and satisfying beginning, middle, and end.

Next up: the one line elevator pitch. Yes, I have to take those 100 words and winnow them down to one sentence. Yikes! How can anyone do that successfully? It’s my turn to learn.


GPlus Share

Medicine and Writing

Medicine and Writing 2

If you read books on writing, you will find various theories on the art of rewriting. Some writers suggest tackling the whole project head on. Others recommend breaking the story down into manageable pieces: Part 1, Chapter 1, Scene 1, Paragraph 1, and Sentence 1. Still others advocate a multiple step approach, from structure to syntax.

In spite of all the great advice from experienced writers, sometimes things don’t work out. You can’t organize your thoughts in an outline. You can’t structure your plot into three neat acts. You can’t delete that scene or eliminate that character without the whole story coming apart.

You get overwhelmed and lost and don’t know where to go for help.

The same thing can happen in life.

Since my daughter’s mysterious illness, we’ve consulted doctor after doctor, specialist after specialist, seeking first a diagnosis, then a cure. But in spite of all the great advice from experienced physicians, things haven’t worked out. My daughter still sleeps most of the day. She complains of constant headaches and migratory aches and pains. Her digestive system is completely out of whack.

Our family is overwhelmed and lost and doesn’t know where to go for help.

As a writer when I am stuck in a rewrite, I step away from the work. Sometimes I seek out other writers who have overcome similar challenges to see what they have done. Some writers have joined writers’ groups. Others have taken online courses. A few have hired professional editors. Still others have sent their work out to beta-readers for advice.

As a family, we’ve asked around and found others who have experienced the same mysterious illness. A teenage boy suffered for one year until he was well enough to return to school. Another teenage girl was misdiagnosed for several months before she was finally treated. Some parents have hired acupuncturists, herbalists, and even shamans.

In spite of all the advice I’ve received from others about rewriting, I have discovered only one thing remains true: I need to listen to the story.

In spite of all the advice we’ve received from others about our daughter’s health, we’ve discovered only one thing remains true: we need to listen to our daughter’s body.

In medicine and in writing, you need to know the techniques that have worked for others, but you also need to trust in your ability to decide what is best for you.

As I trust in the story, my rewriting gains momentum, building scene by scene each day. As my daughter trusts in her body, she slowly recovers, gaining a little bit of strength each day.

In an uncertain world, sometimes the answers we need are the ones we invent ourselves.


GPlus Share

Like

Return to the Zone

A Crime Novel_Pic

I’ve been wondering what to devote my writing hours to besides the articles and essays that put food on the table. The nonfiction book proposal I’ve written and rewritten hasn’t come together in the way I had imagined. The sample chapters are nothing that any reader would appreciate. Fifty pages into the book I knew something was wrong, but I continued writing. By the time I reached 150 pages, a sagging disbelief in my ability to communicate something meaningful gnawed at my soul. I decided to not write for a while. I would lay fallow. Take a vacation. Go visit family and friends. Let my thoughts bubble up and float away like helium balloons instead of jotting them down in my notebook.

Only one week passed without writing before something miraculous happened.

On the drive through the desert, I passed the location of the beginning of my crime novel and felt a jolt of joy and enthusiasm I hadn’t felt in months. When I wrote that book I knew it was only a draft and not a very good one at that, but I had been content to hole up in my office tapping away for every moment I could steal until the story was done. My husband warned me to hurry up and finish before I became too lost in the imaginary world I created and lost my job, my children, my family, and my friends. I wrote about the entire experience in “Surviving the Zone” which is currently under consideration. If I had been at a writer’s retreat, I could have indulged my obsession and polished off the book in two weeks. But I had other responsibilities that interfered. People who didn’t know what I was working on commented that I seemed distracted. Of course, I was. I was living in two worlds, not sure which one would pull me under and claim me first.

Passing the scene of the crime reawakened me. Why am I writing a nonfiction book? I asked. I’m a novelist. I should be writing novels.

That’s when I decided to return to the crime novel that held me captive for so long. If it possessed that type of power for me as a writer, what type of power would it possess for a reader? How selfish I had been to shelf the draft and never look at it again. No matter how disappointed I was with the imperfections, everything could be fixed. Fact-checking, plot structure, and characterizations should not be an excuse to deny the heart of the story, which pulsed with as much life as an actual event I had lived through and needed to share.

All of my fears melted as soon as I returned home and unburied the manuscript from underneath my desk and started reading. The chapters flew by effortlessly. It didn’t read like something I had written. It read like a good book I could not put down.

So this is how I will be spending my summer: returning to the zone.


GPlus Share

Your Breakout Moment

This week I was asked how well my books are selling. “Not well enough to quit my day job,” I said.

“What does it take to increase sales?” the person asked. “Social networking? Speaking engagements? Book tours?”

I thought about it carefully before responding. “Usually, it’s a breakout book. A story so compelling no one can put it down. It’s something you either find or it finds you.”

I haven’t published that breakout book yet.

Sure, there are moments when I thought I had. With my first novel, Legs, the breakout moment came when a scriptwriter approached me about turning the book into a screenplay. The arrangement, however, didn’t work out and the movie was not made. But for a moment, I had visions of quitting my day job, moving the family to Hollywood, and becoming the next novelist-turned-screenwriter. With my second novel, Blood Moon Rising, my publisher anticipated a wave of sales in response to the phenomenal success of Twilight. For the first time, I had help with promotion. But the fanfare fizzled with poor reviews and even poorer sales. The book survived only because a few readers discovered the novel is not a book about vampires but a book about motherhood. Word of mouth spread slowly and steadily, the exact opposite of what happens with a breakout book. My third novel, Out of Balance, seemed to catch my readership by surprise. After all, I had one book in one genre, a second book in another genre. Who knew what to expect with the third book? But it turned out to be the best of the three so far.

I don’t know what to expect when my collection of short stories, The Human Act and Other Stories, is released from All Things That Matter Press. Die-hard fans will definitely purchase it and write good reviews, but who knows what the rest of the world will think.

Although I have not had a breakout book yet, I have had breakout moments in my writing career. From the controversial story in my high school paper that landed me a job at the local paper to the short story turned memoir that won the Mary Tanenbaum Literary Award and the attention of literary agents and an editor at one of the largest publishing houses in the United States, I know what it takes to write a breakout story and it’s nothing a professor, a literary agent, an editor, a reader or another writer can teach you.

Then how do you learn it?

You live it.

You write from the heart about your deepest, darkest secrets, the things you are ashamed of, the things that keep you up at night. You write about what you love and fear and hate, the things that make you proud, the things that make you ache. You write like there is no one in world who cares about you or what you have to say, because you will die if you do not say it. You write in your own voice, very simply, one word at a time. You stop writing because you are crying or laughing too hard to see the page. You throw your fists against the wall, break the crystal vase, and clean it all up before you sit back down again to finish what you started to write because the words won’t stop coming from wherever they are coming from. You write from what you’ve experienced, not in the moment but after time and forgiveness has softened and shaped them into something beautiful and new. You write because you want to connect, to share, to touch, and to feel what you once felt before but didn’t have the words or the wisdom to explain. And then you find the courage to expose all of that to the world.

Those hard stories, the ones you say you can’t write, won’t write, find you. If you listen to them, you can write a breakout moment. But if you turn away and return to the safe words, the safe stories, the stories you think you want to write, then those breakout moments go away.

The problem with breakout stories is the world isn’t always ready for them. That’s why there is so much rejection.

But if you are persistent and continue to pour out the words you are meant to write, then you may experience the magic when finally, finally, you do your job as a writer and connect in a way that forever changes not just one reader’s world, but the whole reading world.