Friday, August 3, 2012

5 Classic Plots to Make Your Novel Shine

5 classic plots to make your novel shine

There are, of course, infinite possible plots to carry your novel forward. But if you feel a little lost about the direction of your story, think about whether it fits into one of these handy archetypal plots, and let it take you the next step forward.

What is your lead searching for?

In this novel, of course, your hero sets out in search of something. The objective of the quest could be a physical thing or an intangible one—knowledge, a secret, the Truth.

Main ingredients:

  •         Create an imperfect or deficient lead who has something to learn from his quest.
  •         Include a thing of vital importance to provide the goal of the quest.
  •       The hero must face tremendous adversity to impede her in her quest.
  •       The quest must change the protagonist in some way—he may learn something or become a better person.

We love reading about quests because we would each like to believe that our life is a quest, even if we really just slouch from one crisis to the next.

Think here of Heart of Darkness, Ulysses or Searching for Caleb by Anne Tyler. The quest may end happily, as in The Hobbit, or tragically, as in Moby Dick. This type of novel may feature a succession of encounters that result in an episodic structure, much like The Wizard of Oz. Each step may be more difficult, but brings the heroine closer to her goal. The Catcher in the Rye is often thought of as a quest plot, detailing Holden's search not for a tangible object but for a sense of purpose or reason. If you think your hero may be on a quest of one sort or another, try turning to these works, or one of countless other quest novels.

  • One or both lovers may be main character of this type of story.
  • The love may be requited or unrequited.
  • Immense obstacles must keep the lovers apart.
  • The story may end happily, tragically, or just unhappily.
  • The lovers will learn something or be transformed.

Obstacles like a rival lover, war, or a tragic flaw may keep your lovers apart. People adore a love stories because it gives them a chance to reflect on their own loves, happy or unhappy. It is something we all have in common.

If love is a prominent element in your tale, consider re-reading some of the great love stories or watching them on DVD. How do they match/diverge from the above formula? What parts of them do you like the best?


At last!
Probably as old an archetype as the first murder. Or the second.

Things to do:

  • -Create a likeable protagonist, to make sure that the reader sympathizes with her desire for revenge.
  • -Make the transgression against your hero out of proportion to any faults in her character.
  • -See to it that the desire for revenge changes your hero’s soul.

Betrayal, murder, the sky’s the limit. During the story, the main character may miss a prime opportunity for fulfillment or may suffer heinous injury or anguish, or make terrible sacrifices. He may go through with his vengeance, or may come to see a greater truth. In the end, the reader sees the self-destructive folly of revenge, or feels satisfaction at seeing justice done. Bone up on revenge by rereading The Count of Monte Cristo or watching a really good version of Hamlet.


  • As in a Quest novel, the main character sets forth on a journey, but this time only excitement is our main focus.
  • Colorful characters and situations are encountered along the way.
  • The main character should realize something about himself or his life.

Wild blue yonder
The lead may be thrust on her adventure, as in Treasure Island or Robinson Crusoe, or set out from home, as does Huckleberry Finn.  At the beginning of his story, Huck Finn plays juvenile jokes on Jim, but by the end – after many colorful escapes – he has learned responsibility. In Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins starts the story as a mere boy hiding from danger behind his mother, but grows bolder as he faces a series of dangers, ultimately taking command of the ship after the pirates. It is essential for the character to grow and change, but also for him to take us on a colorful romp through many dangerous encounters. Treasure Island, in particular, was vivid enough to inspire a whole genre of books and movies.


In this novel, your lead stands up for what is right, even though the world is against her. It may end happily and inspire us all, or it may end tragically and cast a dystopian cloud over our world view.
  • Your protagonist takes up arms against a tyrannical force
  • Her act of rebellion may inspire others to follow
  • The hero may die trying, or achieve his aim through martyrdom
  • Win or lose, the hero remains morally superior to the oppressive force

If you feel that you novel may be a get up, stand up novel, reread some classics like 1984 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If you need a break, watch Erin Brockovich or 12 Angry Men to get ideas and inspiration. The lead in Erin Brockovich (based on a true story, but still adhering to the classic plot) almost singlehandedly takes on a heartless corporation guilty of poisoning the local community’s drinking water. In 12 Angry Men, Henry Fonda holds out against the vociferous animosity of his 11 fellow jurors to finally prove the innocence of a young man accused of murder. This type of story inspires us or teaches us a hard lesson about life. 

You may feel that “locking yourself in” to a classic plot form will restrict your creativity, but often the opposite is the case. Because your novel has an inherent direction, you may find that you are free to write forward through your scenes without worrying “where it’s all going.” Ask yourself what archetypal plot best suits your novel and give yourself a leg up!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

How Do I Decide if I Need an Agent?

Can't you see I'm busy!?
Agent or go solo? The pros and cons are many!

The tools for self publication grow more effective and more accepted every day.  Platforms like Kindle and social media such as Twitter give you the means to publish with low hassle, and to make your audience aware of it if you are savvy and assiduous enough. Should you jump in?

Our list below can help you set your head straight about the benefits of having an agent and of being a loner.

First, the AGENT side:

  1.       The agent can help you overcome your own laziness.
New writers’ no. 1 mistake? Sending their work in before it is ready. A good agent will hector you ’til your book is all set. If necessary, the agent may have you spend months in revision. Sound tough? Many published writers who have gone along with this advice – not sacrificing the core of their work – are glad they did.
  2.       Agents have the editor’s ear.
Face it: your unagented manuscript may sit for any length of time in the slush pile before – in the face of an impossible workload – a junior, underpaid staff member opens it and stuffs it right into your SASE for return unread. Unfair? Bear in mind that a smaller publishing house like Dutton receives 3500 queries a year, and only about 1% of that slush pile measures up in terms of quality and market.
  3.       Your agent can negotiate a better deal for you.
Unless you yourself are well positioned in the publishing biz – effectively qualifying you to be an agent – then you probably don’t know how much your books is worth or how much of an advance you can get away with asking for.
  4.       A good agent will navigate the labyrinth of a publishing contract in ways you can’t.
Myriad tricks and innocuous-seeming – but toxic – clauses await an inexperienced writer as she first dips her toes into the business side or writing.
  5.       The agent can act as a referee between writer and editor.
A writer nervous about the purity of his first-born book may come off as a prima donna. Busy, disgruntled editors will look like tyrants. The agent will pass issues on in a diplomatic way.
      6.       Coaching.
Good agents know the market and can powwow with you, nudging you towards which of the many projects you are keeping warms has, in his experience, more market potential.

Whew! That’s a long list. So what’s the question here? Well, many writers have had bad experiences with agents, too.

  1.       Your agent may not do anything.
This is a much shorter list, but point no. 1 here is worth at least five above.  It is worth expanding upon. Children and young adult author Sandy Asher summed up her experiences:

[An experienced agent] took me on—and placed me in the very last stall of her very large stable of authors, some of them impressively rich and famous. She rarely visited my stall. She rarely answered my phone calls or my letters. ... Looking back, I suppose her theory was that I showed promise and eventually I'd send her something she could easily sell. No hurry. When that time came, she'd trot me out to the starting gate.
In the meantime, I sent her manuscripts—revisions of Daughters of the Law and a string of those ever-hopeful picture books. As far as I know, she never submitted a single one of them to publishers. Two years passed. I grew so angry, frustrated, and sick at heart, I stopped writing. The woman was, for some of her clients, wildly successful, and for others, like me, toxic. I finally called her secretary and said, "Gather up everything you can find and mail it back to me. Whatever this relationship is, it's over."

Obviously, Sandy’s agent – who just waited for Sandy to shine on her own – was the wrong choice for her.
  2.       Agents don’t usually submit your work to small publishers.
The small advances offered by independent publishing houses – sometimes just a few thousand dollars – will amount to peanuts for your agent’s commission. However, a small publisher may be just the right fit you’re a novice. Naturally, your chances of getting a foot in the door are vastly greater with a Hungry indie publishing house.

So there’s plenty to be said for having an agent – but let the buyer beware. If you are saddled with a do-nothing agent, then give her the boot and go elsewhere to get the treatment you deserve.

And Sandy, above? She’s gone through six, and is mightily satisfied with her current one, Wendy Schmalz.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

New Author Speaks Out

"...the story wrote itself."
Today Scribes takes you Salford, UK, to visit new author Debbie Hope, and talk about her first book, Lunar Regeneration. We found out she is a very busy woman!

How would you describe yourself as a writer?
I write about the things that interest me. Once I had the intriguing idea about a regenerating skeleton the story wrote itself. Perfecting my English and editing took a lot longer and I am studying a BA in English to help perfect my skills.

How would you describe your genre?
My genre is very much Young Adult/Fantasy with a little romance.

How did you decide to self publish? Do you think there is a stigma associated with self publishing?
As a businesswoman, I have taken a businesslike approach to publishing my own work and I have no time for phrases like 'vanity publishing.' Journalists that use terms like that need to get with the times. I write for YA and talk to them direct through Twitter and reader sites like Goodreads. They would never dream of judging a work by the publisher's logo. 

Do you have any words of advice for anyone starting their first manuscript?
If you are just starting a novel my advice is to FINISH IT!

How about some advice for anyone just having just finished their first manuscript?
Edit, edit, edit again. Then hire a free-lance editor (I used Anne Greenberg) and if you can't afford a copyeditor ask an English Teacher friend for help.

What is the absolutely most important thing you would like people to know about you?
My pen name 'Hope' is very important to me. I never give up hope.

What was your biggest help in writing your novel?
I love fantasy and never stop reading and that will always be important.

What was your biggest hindrance?
Time and life's practical nuisances will always keep creeping up to delay the would-be writer. Set yourself a writing period and stick to it. Even if it has to be in the middle of the night to work in peace.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process.
I write in the late evenings when everything is done, including the ironing. Writing is my me-time, my reward; I work full-time, pursue an English degree in the evenings and have a family. Once I sit down to write, I am totally happy. I improvise when in full stream, and lost in the story, and I can write 2000 words a night. However, editing for me is a slow and painful process, and I may only keep the best 200 of those 2000 words and will revise a thousand times. I always keep a copy of the first book in my The Immortal MacAbre series by me to encourage me to finish the next book. I love to Twitter to my readers but I don't dare switch it on until my writing is finished for the night.

For the technical side, check the 'about this book' section on my website. I had no money to spend, but I did collect lots of advice and assistance along the way. If you are looking to self-publish, get your writing techniques and your work polished first. Then when you have something to promote make sure your precious budget is spent with the right people. I give technical talks on 'how to self-publish' for business networking groups because it is a skill you need to acquire.
Lunar Regeneration is available via Amazon in ebook and print formats and via

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Slamdunk Your POV and Move On!

Katherine noticed her reflection in the mirror. She gazed 
at her delicately arched eyebrows and observed her full lips. 
"Why--THAT'S ME!" she exclaimed.
See if you can find the mistake in the following lines:

“Hi! I’m John! Won’t you sit down? Hi! I’m John! Would you like a bite to eat? Hi! I’m John! Did you find your way here OK? Hi! I’m John!”

If you’re truly a sharp reader, you’ll notice that John is either what used to be called a broken record, or else suffers from truly short-term amnesia.

We would never put these utterances into the mouth of a character, but even experienced writers may find themselves introducing and reintroducing their point of view, alienating and boring the reader.

Of course, it is important to introduce us to the point of view of your story, novel or chapter at the opening bell to avoid confusion. Let’s take a typical beginning:

Rima looked out over the meadow, waiting for Drew’s return.

Great. We know this part of the tale will be from Rima’s perspective. Let’s see what happens next.

She watched as mariposas swayed in the breeze, running her hands over the rough wood of the railing Drew had built on their veranda. In the distance, she could see clouds as they threatened to block out the sun. She noticed a smudge against the horizon. She knew it must be a campfire. She wondered if there would be visitors at this time of year.

See how the writer (OK, it was me) reintroduces the POV in each sentence. What is happening in this description? Rima watched. Rima could see. Rima noticed. Rima knew. Rima wondered. OK! We get it! It’s Rima! We’re seeing this through her eyes!

I believe we writers often feel it is somehow necessary to justify each observation our POV character makes, to show that she could realistically have observed it. However, once you have established your POV character, there is no need to excuse every observation she makes with a she saw, a she noticed or a she smelled. This is like old broken-record John, above, re-introducing himself at a party before each and every sentence. Nail the POV, and then make all observations (anything your character might reasonably know or perceive) without further preamble.

Rima looked out over the meadow, waiting for Drew’s return. Mariposas swayed in the breeze beyond the rough wood railing Drew built on their veranda. In the distance, clouds threatened to block out the sun. A smudge grew against the horizon--a campfire. Visitors at this time of year?

Mariposas swayed. Clouds threatened. A smudge grew. Notice how much better a summary the main verbs of this paragraph make than the previous, “She watched, she saw, she noticed.” Snarky readers may point out that even more improvements could be made. Yet with this simple measure, we have trimmed the fat off our little description. You may grumble that the five senses are all important. But why say, “Randy could smell bacon cooking,” when we can say, “The smell of bacon drifted in from the kitchen”? If the sentence is about bacon, make that the subject! We can all guess that Randy smelled it.

This is what Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk calls “the part where the character looks into a shiny mirror or teapot so they can describe themselves—all those hackneyed, obligatory 19th-century things.” I want to watch people doing things, not watch the character looking at someone doing something. And the revised version is truer to our natural flow of perceptions. I assure you, as I sit here, your faithful Scribe, I am absolutely not “watching my fingers fly effortlessly over the keyboard.” I’m typing.

Speed bumps like the ones detailed here are fine for you first draft. Don’t get bogged down with revising before the first draft is ready! But when it comes time for revision (after you write THE END on your first draft), take care to eliminate superfluous point-of-view elaborations that distance the reader from what is really happening.

Friday, April 27, 2012

8 Ways to Make Your Story Stand Out

Your manuscript has arrived!

Editors and agents see enough manuscripts in a day to make their heads spin, most of them with the same mistakes. If you want to forestall the “Not again!” reaction, follow these 8 steps to a more competitive story. 

1. Make sure you base your story on some kind of action that propels it forward. This could be a problem that the protagonist encounters in the first scene, one that she works the entire length of your story to resolve. Sometimes even writers with a good publishing track record submit what are known as “walking around thinking stories,” which follow the protagonist from encounter to encounter, each one related to her problem in some way, but not bringing us any closer to the point where she solves it.

2. Conversely, avoid the “macho hero story” in which your protagonist goes from climax to climax like Sylvester Stallone in Cobra. You will have a hard time making this kind of story seem fresh.

3. In a similar vein, avoid repetitive profanity, sex and gore. If they are necessary for the story, then fine. But these, when not essential, will do nothing to hold the attention of weary and revulsed editors. Quite the opposite. Add alcohol, drugs and rape to the list. The writers of these tales (there are many!) realize they must avoid “walking around thinking stories.” But rather than turning heads, they will be turning stomachs.

4. Sympathize with your characters, even in a comic novel. Too many agents meet sorry, unrealistic characters who fart, belch, scratch and pick their noses throughout the story. If we don’t feel for you protagonist at least, we will turn off and put your manuscript down.

5. Persist. As science fiction great John Campbell said: “The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.” You can be absolutely sure your favorite author was rejected far more than you before the publication of her first book.

6. Don’t just submit. Resubmit. Find the right home from the thousands available online and in print. Editors may reject a newcomer many times before letting him into the fold. Submit, rewrite, resubmit.

7. Be yourself. Don’t just try to hit the hottest new fad in publication. Chances are prospective agents and editors are sick to death of it. Harlan Ellison put it this way: “Publishers want to take chances on books that will draw a clamor and some legitimate publicity. They want to publish controversial books. That their reasons are mercenary and yours may be lofty should not deter you.” They make money off of finding new things.

8. Work on a strong ending. End your story in the right place. Does you ending focus on particulars and the tying up of loose ends? Or does it focus outward and help us see something greater? Is there an earlier point which would fill the bill? You may have to cut a few pages off the end of your tale.

You can do it. Remember: the good news is, if you can avoid the mistakes that editors see 99 times out of 100, then you have a foot in the door. Make the best of it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Writer’s Life

  Writing is easy, publicity is hard.

Today we talk with Rosemary Lynch, author and artist from Wiltshire, England. We asked her the trials and tribulations of the writing life and self publication.

When did you decide to become a writer? What made you do it?

I dabbled a bit when I was younger and then when my girls were small I wrote a few children's stories about the animals on my parents’ farm.  The main bug kicked in about 2 1/2 years ago when I was off work due to an injury, and rooting about I found a chapter I written about five years ago.  I read though it and thought “Hey this is good! Did I really write that?”  Then that was it; I’ve been hooked ever since!

We all need feedback. Do you have a writer’s group?

I don't have a writer's group, but I join in as much as I can with forums and have my contact email on my website for feedback. I am fairly new to this, having only just released my first book, Kainan, so I’m learning about new ways to reach out to people every day.

What, for you, are the important steps of the writing process? Will you change anything the next time around?

For me it’s the whole enjoyment of writing.  Establishing the characters and giving them real personalities so the reader can empathize with them and feel their joy and pain. As I don't have an agent yet, I am pretty much working at my own pace. I haven't really changed anything with the book I am writing now, the sequel to Kainan.  I enjoy writing it – I have laughed and cried my way through.  Still not 100% sure where or how it will end, but that's the excitement of writing each word, each page leads somewhere else.

What’s your daily routine like?

I have a family and a part-time job.  On a normal day – if there is such a thing – I drop my youngest at breakfast club and get to work at 8 a.m., half an hour before I am due to start. I sit in the peace and quiet of my car, and I write.  Sometimes a page, or sometimes I can scribble down ideas for a chapter.  In fact, a large percentage of my third book which I have finished was written in my Mondeo!  Then family – walking the dogs, picking up my youngest, dinner for kids.  Then I have about two hours whilst they do what kids do.  So I blog, write, tweet.  Then cook dinner for hubby. 7:30-ish:  Collapse in living room with family, whack out the lap top whilst watching TV and write ‘til I can't see anymore! Saturdays I write as much as I can, or I paint if the brain is not willing!

Do you have a daily word-production target? How often do you meet it?

I don't work to a target! That would do my head in!  However, I do try and write something every day, even if it is only a few words.

What authors inspired you?

As a child I loved Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis.  Now it's people like Terry Goodkind and Terry Brooks. 

How can fledgling authors hone their talent?

Read, and then read some more.  I spent a lot of time reading books that I both did and didn't like, just to see how words are use to express feelings and actions.

How did you get the idea for Kainan?

It was on a trip up to Scotland to visit my parents. We were driving through the borders and I just had this idea for an epic fantasy as I looked out at the rolling hills.  My husband and I chatted about it, and he said, “What if you had this happen…?”  (I won't tell you what – that would be a spoiler!) And I thought “Yeah, what a good idea.”  Scribbled it all down and then did nothing with it for years.  I reread the chapter I had written and had this mega-dream afterwards. It was like a movie playing in my head, and it just went on like that for months.

Tell us a little about your journey to publication.

Initially I wrote Kainan just for my own pleasure – it was kind of like my baby!  My colleagues knew about it and started to nag at me that they wanted to read it.  I was reluctant at first, and to be honest, a bit embarrassed at it all.  Eventually I gave in and had 10 proof copies printed and sent out to willing volunteers to help me edit and proofread, by the time I had finished, it had been farmed out to their families, as well. I had such a good response that I decided to give it a go. I painted my own cover, as finances were short and that's pretty much it. I would like to be taken on by an agent, as I find all the publicity side of it quite daunting.  My heart is in writing and telling the story.  I have had 100 books printed, which are available on my website, and the first time I held one I cried.  It was such an exciting moment as I am sure it is for all authors when they see their book in print for the first time.

What advice do you have for anyone looking to publish to Kindle?

I would say go for it, it's free. The only problem is, it is very difficult at first to get the book noticed amongst the thousands that are on there. That's why sites like this and the others out there are so helpful. You learn a lot from other people. It can become a bit addictive looking each morning to see if you have sold any, and disappointing if you haven't.  Writing is easy, publicity is hard.
Find out more about Rose at

Friday, April 13, 2012

Pictures and Books

One of my book covers

Whenever people find out that I write children’s fiction, they immediately ask, “How do you find an illustrator?”  As a matter of fact, I don’t.  Nearly all publishers want to hire their own illustrators for the manuscripts they purchase.  Even if you do find your own illustrator, a publisher may love the manuscript, but not the illustrations, or vice versa.  They often just reject both and to avoid trouble with an author or illustrator who begs them to use the other person’s work.  If you want to write picture books, send them in without illustrations, unless you can do them yourself at a professional level.  (Even then, be prepared to hear, “We want to buy the story or use you as an illustrator for someone else but we don’t want both.”) 

In a way, all books are picture books—however in many cases, the pictures reside in the readers’ brains.  Especially for children’s books (and short stories), think of the illustrator.  What are you giving him or her to work with?  (Even if the reader is the one imagining it all.)  I don’t just mean adjectives, like black hair or dry leaves.  I’m talking about action.  If your story contains mostly dialogue, can you have the characters doing something while they talk?  Are they joking while standing in line?  Whispering backstage while waiting to make their entrance in a ballet?  Arguing while building a tree house? 

What if your characters don’t talk?  I have published books about non-talking animals and a short story about a child who was non-verbal.  In that case, movement and sound becomes even more critical. Think of all the ways your characters can move in their environment:  climbing, running, jumping, diving, swimming, digging, sliding, etc. Also, think of all the ways the environment can be moving, potentially affecting the character.  If you have two people just talking in a room, you might try making the scene less static by having a breeze come through a window and blowing one character’s hair, and she keeps moving it back behind her ear.  Meanwhile, the other person goes to the refrigerator to take out a soda—and maybe shuts the window on the way.  Possibly the refrigerator has only soda in it, or maybe someone spilled milk in it and hasn’t cleaned the shelf yet.  All these details make the scene more realistic. Make the picture in your readers’ minds a detailed one!