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Plot Mash Up: The Four Act Structure, The Twelve Point Outline & the Quest

During a discussion with a client, I decided to take a stand and say something that might be unpopular.

Do not use a screenplay formula to write a novel.

While the general plot points of a screenplay are extremely useful, the page numbers and pacing of a movie are inherently different than a novel.

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The Modern Query Letter

The publishing industry shifts and changes constantly. What worked for a query letter even ten years ago isn’t what agents currently prefer. I’ve hosted many query webinars, worked with hundreds of agents, and there’s a standard method for queries in the industry today that gets the most important information to the agent first.

It’s simple, clean, and requires you to be a minimalist.

They don’t want to scroll the email down. That’s one of the reasons the title has changed as well, so it pops out in the all caps. The following is a conglomeration of what I’ve learned over the years.

I’ll try to keep this updated as things change. There are still a few agents out there who might want a different format. You can easily research them and see at the following haunts…

Publisher’s Marketplace | Manuscript Wishlist | Twitter Lists like this one… | Writer’s Digest New Agent Alerts

 

GENERAL ADVICE…

Send what’s asked for and only what’s asked for. Only the number of pages, only the first pages, a synopsis if they ask for it, not your favorite chapter, etc.

Send to the query email. Do not use the agent’s business or contact email unless it’s the incredibly rare occasion that they are the same. But make sure.

Use at least a medium size font in the email. If snail mail, 12 pt, Times New Roman. Business letter format. The last thing they need is to go blind.

You don’t have to tell them what their submission requirements are. (i.e. As per your submission requirements, I’ve included the first ten pages below.) They know and will assume you followed their instructions.

Do not ever send cc’d or bcc’d emails to agents. They have filters that will bounce you into their spam.

Keep the word count as low as possible. 300 words max.

 

THE SUBJECT LINE…

Most agencies will have a specific format for the subject line. Follow it.

If there isn’t one, put in, “Query MANUSCRIPT TITLE”

EXAMPLE:

Query BEST BOOK EVER

If you don’t follow the guidelines they’ve set up, they most likely have filters that will send your email to spam. Just like they have filters that send your email to their inbox if they include the word ‘Query.’ And spell it right. Just double check. We’re human.

 

ADDRESS THE AGENT…

Use ‘Dear’ and their name. Keep it simple. Their eyes will skip over this quickly if it’s the correct spelling, and they’ll be glad you didn’t try anything fancy.

If you misspell their name, it’ll most likely be a pass.

Use their first name or last name. If using the last name, use Mr., Ms. for women unless you are sure they’re married, and be sensitive of agents who identify with the gender pronoun ‘they.’

If you don’t know their name, you shouldn’t be querying them. NEVER put any general address, such as ‘To Whom it May Concern,’ or ‘Dear Agent.’

EXAMPLE:
Dear Heather,

 

PERSONALIZE AND INTRODUCE YOUR BOOK…

This is the title paragraph. The first sentence (or two if you have space) should contain why you’re querying this agent. Something as personal as possible without being creepy. Do not be proud of stalking them. Agents know it happens, but be sensitive to their personal space and be professional. This sentence is quite possibly the beginning of a lifelong, professional relationship. Don’t bullshit your way there.

Some good examples to use are:
~ they represent an author your work is similar to
~ they represent a novel close enough, yet varied enough, to your novel
~ they requested your work at a conference or workshop or webinar (In this case, there is usually also something they’ve asked you to include in the subject line of the email. Don’t forget these. They’ll lift you out of the slush.)

If you have had personal contact with the agent, it’s good to mention it.

When discussing your book, don’t say you hope or you might. Be confident. I think you’ll like…

The second part of this paragraph should be your book, the title in all caps, the genre, age category, word count.

EXAMPLE:
Thank you for the wonderful class you gave for us at Random Writing Event. While my manuscript isn’t straight from  your wishlist, it does include some fringe sci-fi I think you’ll enjoy. BEST BOOK TITLE EVER is a(n) Age Category Genre, complete at ??,000 words.

Caveat…if your word count is very high, don’t include it. (But they might know…)

 

THE HOOK…

There’s an option here to set apart a hook or tagline, strapline, endline, whatever you want to call it. If you have a great one you think will catch agents’ attention, let it stand out as its own paragraph here. Use caution doing this. If the tagline is outstanding, sometimes it’ll get an agent to just skip down to the pages and start to read. This could also be the last sentence of the title paragraph, especially if you’re short on space or you know the agent doesn’t want to scroll the email down.

EXAMPLE:

Best friends make the deadliest enemies.

Winning will make you famous. Losing will earn you certain death. (Hunger Games)

Some people have started using comparable titles here instead. If you do decide to use comps, make sure you’re being specific and realistic. The comps should be recent, published within the last two years. They should add clarity to a comparable setting, style, or fan base.

 

INTRODUCE THE MAIN CHARACTER AND INCITING INCIDENT…

Make sure this section is from the MC’s perspective. Don’t talk about what their father or sister or best friend did that made them this way. Keep it centered on the MC. If this is a middle grade or young adult query, it’s helpful to state their age. Not an absolute though. Nothing in writing ever is.

Tell us about the main character’s unique yet normal-for-them daily life. DO NOT include backstory. Then give us the inciting incident and how the balance is upset. (They’ll try to maintain the status quo but will be unable, which will have a domino effect as they try to rectify their life and only make things snowball to the key incident.)

THE KEY INCIDENT THAT FORCES THE HERO TO MAKE A CHOICE, WITH STAKES EITHER WAY…

This paragraph should mention some of the dominoes that fall as a result of the inciting incident, but not more than a sentence here. What we need is the thing that happens that sends the hero on their journey, and what is going to happen if they decide not to go–stakes!

If your novel is a dual POV, you can make the second paragraph from the other main character’s perspective, so the query shifts in the same way the novel does. This would be a second paragraph that would introduce the second MC and their inciting incident, then wrap up with a third paragraph that brings the two story lines together. Or you can just have a brief intro of MC number two and then a weaving of the story lines to get the stakes for everyone.

For some examples of these paragraphs, see my post here. It says it’s about pitches, because that’s what your query is. Just take the pitch and add relevant details until you reach your word count. Not the other way around.

 

YOUR BIOGRAPHICAL PARAGRAPH…

If you don’t have anything writing related to share, agents will tell you over and over to just skip this part.

If you’re part of a writing group, if you have education that influences your work, if your day job informs your writing, then include it.

Most agents will indulge your for one sentence, but if you include information not relevant over one sentence, you’re risking rejection. This is a professional, business letter. If you were sending a proposal to a bank asking for a loan to start a new business, would you discuss your puppy and your nice home in the hills of Montana where you raise chickens? I hope not.

Every word you make them read that’s not vital to your story or specific to a writing career is another word that keeps them from your sample pages.

And if they like those sample pages, they’re going to use your links that you’ve provided in the signature to turn the tables and check you out. They’ll find out from your website or Twitter or Facebook links that you love to weave bracelets and are obsessive about retweeting cat pictures.

MY OWN EXAMPLE…

I’m the Managing Director of Pitch Wars and #PitMad. Previously an editor for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, US, I now freelance edit and intern for Secret Agent at The Amazing Agency. I have a BS in Biochemistry, am a member of SCBWI, and teach regularly at writing conferences as well as attend them to continue improving my craft.

 

NOW PUT IT ALL TOGETHER, ADD YOUR INFORMATION, AND END GRACIOUSLY…

Dear Heather,

Thank you for the wonderful class you gave for us at Random Writing Event. While my manuscript isn’t straight from  your wishlist, it does include some fringe sci-fi I think you’ll enjoy. BEST BOOK TITLE EVER is a(n) Age Category Genre, complete at ??,000 words.

Maxwell Jarvis,works at a children’s hospital and does research in his spare time. He’s hoping to cure all disease with his revolutionary formula. He’s sabotaged by the pharmaceutical company who makes their billions from the sick kids.

What nobody else knows…Max is dying, too. Unless he stops them and finishes his work within the week, his funding will run out, and the living producers of his cures will die–only weeks before himself.

I’m the Managing Director of Pitch Wars, Pitch Madness, and #PitMad. Previously an editor for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, US, I now freelance edit and intern for Secret Agent at The Amazing Agency. I have a BS in Biochemistry, am a member of SCBWI, and teach regularly at writing conferences as well as attend them to continue improving my craft.

Thank you for taking the time to read!

Heather

Heather Cashman
@HeatherCashman
www.heathercashman.com
heathercashman@email.com
add your phone number

 

Thank you for taking the time to read, and I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any questions in the comments.

Happy querying!

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The Four Act Structure–Witches Brew or Scientific Formula?

 

formula1As a scientist, I became used to the idea of formulas. It was better if things didn’t die or blow up. I learned that you had to be precise, adding just the right amount of this chemical and that liquid to get the desired product. Maybe it was fake banana flavoring or the right mixture of agar to feed the sprouting plants in my Petri dishes. Once you knew the exactly correct formula to make things work a certain way, then you could “experiment” with the formula to see if you could make things better. And sometimes things died or burned me or fizzled out.

Writing books is the same. Formulas have their place. And it isn’t until we understand the formulas that work that we can tweak them, change and bend and twist them. Sometimes they snap. Sometimes they look better twisted. When writing, I probably look more like a witch at her cauldron rather than a scientist in a crisp white coat, but the end result feels remarkably similar sometimes.

f4

So this is the formula I use. It has evolved over the years from three acts to four, I’ve added in things gleaned from books or talks or blogs. I don’t know where it all came from at this point, and if I’ve taken it from you, please let me know so I can give you credit.

 

FOUR ACT STRUCTURE

ACT 1
Introduce main character (hero/heroine), their main flaw, the enabling circumstances, the opponent. The hero must be an ordinary person in this world who shows hero potential.
The life-changing or inciting incident near the beginning. (by 10%)
The lock in, or something terrible that ups the stakes just before Act 2.

LIFE CHANGING EVENT => CHOICE (around 25%)

ACT 2
The MC reacts to the life-changing event and seeks out an ally or is brought out by the ally. Ally must be established with a basic modus operandi that will qualify them to be the most well-suited person to help MC out of their predicament.
They make a plan, usu the MC’s not so great plan that sounds great but will ultimately fail because they think that they can remain the same and overcome their problem as they are. (We all want to be good enough now—but we aren’t.)
The MC struggles to hold onto flaw or not recognize it while still trying to react to the inciting, life-changing event. The MC and ally must have a confrontation.

HERO-ALLY CONFRONTATION AND FACE UP TO FLAW (around 50%)

MIDPOINT—MC recognizes main flaw. This is sometimes referred to as the the Moral Premise, where the protag stops working from a false moral premise and starts working from a true moral premise. Stan Williams has a book about this called The Moral Premise.

ACT 3
After recovering from the previous debacle, MC now fully allies with ally and prepares for the final battle/confrontation with opponent/antagonist. Of course, the opponents are rallying as well, so the stakes are increased because there are more bad guys doing more bad stuff.
By the end, it appears that failure is inevitable.

RESOLUTION OF FLAW THAT ALLOWS HERO TO CONFRONT ANTAGONIST UNENCUMBERED BY FLAW (around 75%)

ACT 4
Hero, now completely unencumbered by flaw, literally or metaphorically battles the opponent to overcome and triumph. Return to new equilibrium with better hero. (around 90%)

And because I’m a hopeless romantic, hopefully they get their HEA as well. (100%)

THE END (of the book but never the story)

 

f3

 

There are always many ways to change this, make it unique, own it.

There are an infinite number of ideas out there waiting to become books.

I’d love to hear what kind of plotting devices you use!

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One of My Crit Partners is Soft (ware) . . .

But man is it hard on me!

One of my living, breathing CPs introduced me to the marvel of software designed to improve your writing. There are some caveats, I’ll admit.

~ It will never replace the creative, human editor inside you that feels what’s right to write.

~ They never catch everything.

~ Occasionally, they catch the wrong thing.
frtiz-the-dog-2

Automation issues aside, they’re still incredible tools to get the best self-edit out there. Then the human CPs can catch even more mistakes without wading through the obvious ones. (I know, I know, I have seventeen “blue”s in the first three pages.)

There are several programs out there, and each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, but overall, they have tightened my writing tremendously. One of the great things about them–most are free for small samples. If you write novels like I do, you’ll quickly become frustrated with the limitations of the free versions, but the main benefit is that you can try it and see if it’s something you’re interested in.

My two favorites are AutoCrit and ProWritingAid.

Hope this helps!

 

autocrit

How it works . . .

You can upload a file or cut and paste into the window, then click analyze on the report of your choice. You can run a variety of reports on the uploaded text: pacing an momentum, dialogue, strong writing, word choice, repetition.  My favorite sub-categories are overused words, cliches, passive voice, and repetition. There are so many. It’s designed by a writer for writers.

Once the analysis is done, you can go into the text and modify it, then immediately re-run the report to see the improvements.

autocrit page

What I like . . .

I love the immediate satisfaction of improvement. This can be taken too far, though. Another benefit (for those of us who tend to be obsessive–yes my had is raised) is that it gives you an average amount of “acceptable” infractions. No manuscript will be free of some passive voice, an extra “very” or “just”, but this gives a percentage per word count and even gives you a “Good job!” so you can pat yourself on the back.

I also feel like it analyzed a bit better than ProWritingAid. I haven’t been using it nearly as long though, so I’m not sure.

What I don’t like . . .

You can only use it in an online dashboard. No wifi=no AutoCrit. I like to go on retreats, so this becomes difficult for me when I’m out in the middle of the woods, writing at the beach, or at a monastery at the SCBWI Advanced Writer’s Retreat.

I also don’t like the hassle of cutting and pasting back into my manuscript. But that’s really just me whining a bit.

Cost . . .

Levels of memberships range from $5-$12/month to analyze various lengths of material at a time. The Gold, or lowest membership, allows 1,000 words at a time. The Premium, or highest membership, allows unlimited words as many times as you want.

Go To AutoCrit Now

 

prowritingaid

How it works . . .

ProWritingAid is an add-on to your word program, so it works inside the file you already have. You select the text inside your file, go to the toolbar always available, and run the report. You can run all the reports together, and this feature is superior to AutoCrit. Seeing all the issues with a sentence saves you from having to fix the same sentence twice for two different mistakes.

As with AutoCrit, you can immediately re-run the report, but it takes longer if you run them all at once. (Whining again. We’re talking about fifteen to twenty seconds.)

ProWritingAid_ProductReview_-_Google_Docs1-590x305

What I like . . .

Your text is always there, ready to be analyzed as soon as you finish a chapter. No need to upload or cut and paste, and the text is always right where you left it. To stop the editor, all you have to do is click a button and it erases all the highlights and marks in the text, leaving what you’ve changed. Viola!

It has different colored highlights for the different reports, which is nice.

What I don’t like . . .

It doesn’t catch everything. I had “you’re” and “your” slip once. A couple other things. The format isn’t as pretty, but whatever.

Cost . . .

The free version allows 19 writing reports, no interactive editing, online use only, maximum 3,000 words.

Premium is $40/year and allows interactive editing, use with MS Word or Google Docs, has no word limit, and includes more reports.

Premium + is $45/year and includes all of Premium as well as 50 plagiarism checks per year.

Go To ProWritingAid Now

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Don’t Beat Yourself Up

This is my new goal for 2015–not to beat myself up for not writing more. Perhaps it sounds lazy, but I have to let it go.

At the November Kansas SCBWI conference I met an amazing woman, an agent of Red Fox Literary named Karen Grencik–one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. I had the pleasure of eating breakfast with her at our hotel, and she gave me advice that rivaled that of my nurse while giving birth to my first child who said, “This too shall pass.” And everything does, whether we like it or not.

What a blessing this sweet lady was in my life!

Karen Grencik, Red Fox Literary

Concerning writing, Karen said–and I’m paraphrasing–“You’re doing your very best every day, so don’t beat yourself up over it.” And she was/is right. I am doing my very best every day. I go to bed exhausted, wake up tired, never take naps, rarely take free time even for lunch, and I still have days where it’s impossible to find time to write more than a couple sentences.

This is where the Margaret Atwood quote comes in. For every word after every word after every word I write, I will feel success. I should feel success. For one sentence, if that is the best sentence I can write.

So here’s to a year of words, one after another. Let’s keep them coming!

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Writing Irresistible Kidlit, by Mary Kole

My rbain brain is so cluttered with amazing information, I don’t know where to begin.

This book covers many areas of the writing craft, from the mind of your audience to theme to emotion to many words I’ve never heard. This book made me feel a bit illiterate in some ways–mostly French ways–and I had to use the dictionary. Every chapter in this book gives ideas and questions and direction about how to go about forming the structure for a knock-your-socks-off novel. (Cliches are also included in Kole’s discussion.)

I could not recommend this book highly enough. It makes you reevaluate characters, themes, plots, and teaches you about Interiority, Objectives, how to incorporate subplots for the most impact, and many other elements of writing the perfect (or as close as us mere humans will ever get) novel.

mary kole

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Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass and #WM goals

I’ve been talking with a few people about books that help us all become better writers. My firm belief is that nothing helps us learn to write more than reading with an analytical eye. Quantity is as important as quality. The bad ones are as telling about how not to write as the good ones teach us correct principles. But there are some books that changed the way I looked at writing. This is one of them: Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass.

breakout novel donald maassThere is the book to read and the workbook that helps you put his ideas into action.

He gives practical advice on why your book might not be selling, and whether you’re going self-pub or traditional, most of us care about making money for our effort. Some ideas include taking things to the limit and having conflict on every page.

While I think that a lot of what Maass says about how to write is driven by his opinions, he is one of the leading agents in the industry and has a lot of experience with what gets published and what doesn’t. Listening to his advice is worth something. And writing exercises can be painful, but nothing comes free.

#WriteMotivation Goals for Week 1:

Here are my February goals:
1) Read one book every week, one of which is about how to improve my writing.

Week 1: I am half-way through The Alchemyst, by Michael Scott and half-way through Writing Irresistable Kidlit, by Mary Kole.

2) Post on every member’s blog once per week.

Week 1: DONE

3) Send out 15 agent queries.

Week 1: Nothing yet.

4) Do not get depressed when I am rejected.

Week 1: N/A

5) Finish final edit of TPR.

Week 1: Chapter 18 of 32. I feel good about this.

6) Outline all of TGM. Decide on POV and tense for TGM.

Week 1: Have to finish 5 first.

GOOD LUCK TO ALL MY #WRITEMOTIVATION FRIENDS! I will be seeing you again this week. And I bought Girl Scout Cookies.