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Friday, June 29, 2007

Avoiding Pitfalls in Your Proposal, Part 2

In the previous post and now in this one, I've created a greatest hits roundup of things to avoid in your fiction proposal, specifically the sample chapters. These tips also apply to your fiction manuscript as a whole, especially the opening chapters.

These two blog entries are parts 3 and 4 of a 4-part series of tips you can read at my Web site. Parts 1 and 2 (which are Tips 33 and 34 at the site) constitute a great overview of how to be sure you've put together a fiction proposal that sidesteps the pitfalls and gets an editor's attention.

Read and heed this series of tips and your proposal will be ahead of those from 99% of the unpublished Christian novelists out there.

Last time we looked at pitfalls 1 to 6. Now we'll look at pitfalls 7 to 12.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #7: Low Stakes

This is something I could've mentioned in Tip #34 because it's often visible in the synopsis. But you need to treat it in the sample chapters, too.

You need to establish very early in your book what the OR-ELSE consequences will be if the hero doesn't succeed in his or her goal. If the stakes are absent, or simply lame, the reader won't care.

Absent stakes are when the author expects us to just read all about this interesting person who apparently doesn't want anything and is in no danger of anything unpleasant happening if s/he doesn't accomplish it. Low stakes are when the hero wants something but it's so mundane and boring that the reader just doesn't care.

Now, that's not to say that you always have to have your protagonist trying to save the universe. Stakes can feel high to the reader even if what the hero wants is something that might otherwise feel small to the reader but has become important to her because it's so vitally important to the protagonist.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #8: Low Suspense

Low suspense is pretty close to #7 but bears discussion on its own. If you establish a substantial OR-ELSE (or SO-WHAT) component in your story you're going to almost always solve this one automatically.

This is the presence or absense of the ticking time-bomb, which I discuss at length in Tip #20.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #9: Low Conflict

This one is also related to the previous two. Who or what stands opposed to what the protagonist wants?

Your hero, as the old adage goes, is only as strong as your antagonist. A wimply antagonist (or an easily achievable goal) means that the protagonist didn't have to be very heroic to overcome him.

What's your hero up against? Make sure it's a serious opponent or obstacle or you won't have stakes, suspense, or conflict. Or, for that matter, an interested reader.

You find your conflict by figuring out what stands in the way of what your hero wants. And you find out what your hero wants by reading Tip #4.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #10: Going into a Flashback Too Early

I pretty much despise flashbacks. I know they can be marvelous tools in the hands of a master storyteller, but there has been probably only one unpublished manuscript I've ever seen that used flashbacks well. All the others that used flashbacks (and we're talking hundreds of others) did so in a way in which the flashbacks were nothing but telling (and in Tip #29 you see how I feel about telling.)

If you must use a flashback, don't do it in the first 50 pages of your book. Please. The reader hasn't gotten grounded yet in this story and this timeframe before then, so she can't bear being yanked into another timeframe with, possibly, a whole new set of characters. It's too early.

And please don't have some horrible thing happen and then reveal that it was only a dream (or a flashback). Talk about your fiction cliches.

Why do you feel you must use a flashback? To explain something to the reader? If that's your reason, just say no. Explaining is telling, and...well, read Tip #29.

Whatever needs to come out about your story or main character can and should come out organically through the action of the tale you're telling right now. Consult the dumb puppet trick (Tip #21) for good ideas on how to do this without resorting to a flashback.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #11: Jumping to a New Viewpoint Character Too Early

In the same way that a reader can't bear jumping to a new timeline before she's grounded in your story, so she can't bear seeing through someone else's eyes too early in the story.

You need to stick with one viewpoint character and one storyline for at least the first 40-50 pages to give your reader time to get grounded and "affixed" into your primary story and main protogonist.

This is when you get her invested into the story. This is where you hook her to stick around for the whole book. Cut away too early and she'll spit out the hook and go on her way.

Authors often think that throwing in lots of variety early on, including a variety of viewpoints and storylines, will engage the reader. Unfortunately, doing so has the reverse effect. The reader doesn't know what's going on, whose story this is, or whom to pull for. It's disorienting.

Now, you can do a prologue from a viewpoint other than your protagonist's point of view. The reader can handle this because she understands that this prologue is something she'll need to know about later and she trusts you to fill her in about it later. It can work to build suspense and establish your ticking time-bomb (see Tip #20), and it doesn't disorient the reader.

But once you get going in the main story with the main viewpoint character, don't break away for a good long time.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #12: Not Providing Adequate Descriptions

I'm of the school of thought that says you should describe your characters and, even more importantly, your settings, and that you should describe them well and early.

If I as an acquisitions editor got 2 or 3 pages into someone's sample chapters and I still had no idea where the action was taking place, how many people were there, what anyone looked like, whether it was day or night, or any of the rest of what you're supposed to cover in basic description, I would probably put the proposal away and start working on my rejection letter.

Description not included results in a reader not thrust into your scene. And a reader not thrust in your scene is a disengaged reader, one who puts down your book and looks for something that will engage her.

I've covered descriptions in great detail in Tips 5-8.

Every Roundup Must End

Sounds like a Western, doesn't it? I just mean that this roundup of pitfalls to avoid is now at its end. [wipes tear]

May these words of counsel grant you the springy legs of an antelope that you may hurdle over every obstacle and land in the middle of a big, fat publishing deal.



Blogger Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Thanks for the info, Jeff. And thanks for taking the time.

Please allow me the oppurtunity to disagree with you on one of your tips. Namely sample chapter pitfall 11.

I agree that you wouldn't want to start out in a Tom Clancy-ish fashion with 12 plot threads from 12 different character pov's - each contributing a few lines before jumping to the next.

But the reader in me enjoys the Dean Koontz style the most. The first 6 - 12 pages start with a singular point of view, laying the groundwork as you prescribe. But a second viewpoint ( usually the antagonist ) is also established early. This back and forth usually between good and evil presents a large dose of suspense in itself - you just know that these two characters will cross each other's path. The question is When?


12:40 PM  

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