Plotting Along: Outlining a New Project

I didn’t use to outline my novels. In fact, I was grumpy and opposed to the whole idea until I was required to create one for part of a writing group project. I dragged my feet. I whined. I’m amazed I didn’t blog about it before, whining.

I thought that it would somehow squash or restrict my creative process. That it would ruin the way that I wrote. That it would take something away from me.

I’ve changed my mind, though. After being “made” to create an outline for my urban fantasy manuscript, I was forced to ask myself plot and character questions and then address them before I had more than a few chapters written. It was like getting advanced notice on what to watch out for in the near future, giving me time to prepare for it.

So now I’m working on the outline and characters for the second book in the same series (while the first manuscript is in beta reading this month). There are some important questions that everyone needs to ask themselves while in the outlining/plot planning phase:

  1. Are character motivations consistent?
  2. Is the conflict set up early and clearly? Is it resolved?
  3. Does the setting contribute appropriately to the overall mood or tone of the scene/novel?
  4. Does the narrative voice reflect character, genre and tone effectively?
  5. Is there a theme (or themes) you can identify in the story?
  6. Is this an original idea/characters? Is it too much of a familiar trope?
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The Trouble with “Strong Female Characters”

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I was inspired to talk about this topic thanks to a freelance job I have writing about gaming culture AND this great blog post from Chuck Wendig. Wendig addresses something very important to me in his post: the idea of agency. 

What is Agency and Why Does it Matter?

Agency and ego are tied together in a character, creating a fictional person who thinks, reacts, and – most importantly – acts to move the story forward. The character has motivation. She does more than reacts – she acts and, because of her actions, the story moves forward. In fact, without her actions, the plot would not and could not exist.

A “strong female character” who kicks ass but has no depth or human desires is no better than a damsel who exists solely to be rescued. It isn’t ass-kicking that defines a believable, human, interesting female character; it’s a metric we should rid ourselves of because, in the end, shooting and kicking and magicking aren’t what makes a character interesting. Ass-kicking does not inherently equal agency.

Identifying Agency and Evaluating Character

There are several simple “tests” suggested to identify if female characters are even remotely three-dimensional. The first and probably most well-known is The Bedchel Test which asks if two named female characters in a book (movie, comic, etc) talk about something other than a man. It’s a simple enough test, but a startling number of stories “fail” it.

Comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick offers the “Sexy Lamp Test” that goes like this: “if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft. ”

We are, I think, all of us looking for characters who are interesting, who think, who act, and who have drives and desires.

The Strong Female Character

So often, female protagonists are described as “strong” almost as a justification – a defense of the strange decision to choose to tell a story about a woman. Are we ashamed, in some quiet way, as a culture, to be telling women’s stories? Is it so bad and scary that we must defend our female characters with the traditionally male definition of “strong?” Next time you see one of these so-called “Strong Female Characters” remember to dig deeper and see what she’s really made of.

Query Letters 101: Research and Glossary

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Research is Your Best Weapon

Care about your writing and your project enough to learn as much about the industry as possible. Being prepared, researching agents, and knowing the jargon is going to give you a huge leg up.

  • “Big Six” (Now the “Big 5” as Random House and Penguin have merged) – The six largest publishers: Random House, Penguin Group, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan
  • Commission – The amount an agent receives for their services. Agents typically receive a commission of 15% for all domestic sales and 20% for foreign sales. Agents only receive commission on works they sell, and thus aren’t paid unless the author is paid.
  • Exclusivity – When an unpublished author gives an agent an “exclusive” look at their manuscript, usually for a period of time. This means the author cannot then send their manuscript to another agent during that time period.
  • Genre fiction – A blanket term that refers to books with certain familiar settings and plot conventions. Genres include romance, science fiction, mystery and suspense, westerns, etc.
  • Partial – A partial manuscript. When an agent likes a query they may ask to see a certain number of pages or chapters. If they don’t specify, just send 50 pages.
  • Royalties – The amount an author receives on every net copy sold of their book (see “net sales”).
  • **TWO TERMS THAT YOU WANT TO USE VERY CAREFULLY: Author and Book. You are not an author until you are published. Until that point in your career, you are a writer. You have not written a book or a novel until you are published. Until that point in your career, you have written a manuscript.
  • Key agencies: know the reputable agencies. Check websites such as querytracker, absolutewrite, literaryrambles, and agentquery to read up on the good and the bad agencies.
  • Contracts and Rights: You can’t know all of the different types of contracts because every agency and publisher will be a little different. But know the overall norms of contracts and rights. Such as: how much percentage is normal for agents to take on your advance, what a typical advance from a publisher is, what the royalties on a paperback, hardcover, or e-book are…etc. This will help you to avoid pitfalls. It will help you avoid agencies or publisher out to take advantage of you. You can find a lot of advice on publishing contracts on the web.
  • Comparative Book Titles: It’s good to know other published books that are similar to yours. This will help you accurately categorize your manuscript. Also, by knowing the popularity and success of these comp titles, you can adjust your publishing expectations.
  • This is a fantastic glossary of publishing terms. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/08/book-publishing-glossary.html

From Query Letter to Sale (In an Ideal World)

Your manuscript MUST be completed (unless you are writing nonfiction) and have gone through as much editing as is possible. You may have sent it through one or more beta readings. You may have even paid a substantive or line editor to go over your manuscript.

You will send out approximately 80 bazillion query letters to appropriate agents. Steel yourself.

An agent(s) will express interest and request a full or partial manuscript. She will love your book and offer to sign you. It’s possible that multiple agents will request your manuscript at roughly the same time; a good agent will give you appropriate time to consider which agent/agency to accept an offer from.

A good agent will keep frequent contact with you, probably via a phone or Skype call. This is a serious relationship so be sure it is the right one. Be sure they are going to fulfill all of your professional needs.

An agent will give you ample time to look over a contract and should be able to answer any questions you have about it.

Check out the other parts of the Query Letters 101 Series:

Letters and Agents

Your Query Letter