This classic New Yorker cartoon by Victoria Roberts expresses my state of mind!
This morning I happened upon a computer file of notes I kept while writing The Shadow Queen. I was particularly interested in a section on formulas for figuring out a novel’s “elevator pitch”—the summation of a story in a sentence or two.
This is invariably difficult, at least for me. My mind does not lend itself to reductions. I’m more of the expanding type. (Not an asset.) These formulas give one hope that a difficult task will be made easy.
Don’t be fooled, however!
These 4 formulas, which I’ve gathered from hither and yon — without always noting the source, so my apologies for not crediting the creators — are helpful in getting at the core of that unwieldy beast: a novel.
The 1-sentence formula
When _____ [OPENING CONFLICT]
happens to _____ [CHARACTER],
he/she has to _____ [OVERCOME CONFLICT]
in order to _____ [COMPLETE QUEST].
As applied to the YA novel I’m writing now, I came up with:
Haunted by dreams of her dead father, a 15-year-old girl goes on a quest to find out if she was the cause of his death.
This is a tidy summary, but as with most one-sentence summaries, this doesn’t actually fit what actually happens in the novel.
The 3-sentence formula
_____ is about _____, who wants to _____.
The only problem is that _____.
As a result, he/she _____.
Yet, ultimately, he/she succeeds because _____.
So, once again, applying this to Moonsick …
Moonsick is about a girl who hates her awful stepfather Napoleon, and longs for her wonderful father, whom she idolizes. The only problem is that her father was beheaded, and it may have been her fault. In her quest to find out why he died, she discovers some unpleasant truths. Seeking her father in the realm of the afterlife, she learns that his death had nothing to do with her. Yet, ultimately, she succeeds because she comes to finally appreciate the real-life love of her stepfather, Napoleon.
The 3-part book formula
A book summary should give 3 things:
1. The genre (i.e. “mystery novel”);
2. Parameters: what happens and what the reader getting into (“Seattle”, “a detective” “a dead boyfriend”);
3. Something left to the imagination (a dead body, a framed main character).
Moonsick is historical fiction for Young Adults. It’s about Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense, who hates her stepfather Napoleon and idolizes her dead father … until she finds out some unpleasant truths.
Better, I think …
The 5-part story formula
2. Situation (What trouble that forces the character to act?)
3. Objective (The character’s goal.)
5. Disaster (The awful thing that could happen.)
Make each of these elements specific.
Put them together to form two sentences.
Sentence 1: A statement that establishes character, situation, and objective.
Sentence 2: A statement—or question—that pinpoints the opponent and potential disaster.
Haunted by nightmares of her dead father, 15-year-old Hortense goes on a quest to find out if the father she idolizes is trying to tell her something. Was it her fault that he was executed? What she finds out is not at all what she expected, and more of this world than the next.
I think this is a better summary — but I don’t think I’ve nailed down the 5 elements, exactly.
This is so hard!
Do any of you have formulas you use successfully? I’d love to know.
October 5, 1789, the Women’s March on Versailles. They were an angry mob of nearly 7,000 working women. Armed with pitchforks, pikes and muskets, they marched in the rain from Paris to Versailles in what proved to be a pivotal moment in the French Revolution. It is significant that the Woman’s March worldwide on January 21, 2017, was without violence, but may also prove to be pivotal.
The day before the Woman’s March
Election Day. The Man Who Shall Not Be Named was sworn in as President of the most powerful nation on Earth. Some were cheering. The majority were in depression.
This is a watercolour I finished that day, titled, simply, “January 20, 2017.” I see the American eagle as somewhat worn, world-weary, and just a little disgusted.
My watercolour, “November 20, 2017.”
The morning before the Women’s March
The morning of the Woman’s March, a friend on Facebook asked why women were marching. Perhaps, she suggested,
”… they would be better served by watching what ensues and then, if dissatisfied, work on finding a candidate who can better represent their goals.”
Here was part of my answer:
I doubt that anything will be accomplished, at least in the short-term, although it may get dialogue going and help the silent supporters know that there are others out there who feel as they do. That, in turn, may encourage them to speak out, write letters, campaign, run for office, etc.
Politicians understand that for every letter of protest there are a certain number who agree, but didn’t write. I imagine that the same calculation applies to a march. A massive turn-out should make an impression.
Seeing that there are so many coming out in visible support of women’s issues may, for one thing, encourage women to run for office, and for those in office to reconsider their agenda.
The more practical actions are preferable, I agree, but it isn’t a do this OR do that situation. Many do “all of the above.”
The March itself
The Woman’s March was a beautiful experience here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Hundreds (500? 700?) showed up, both men and women.
Gathering for the Women’s March in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Before I headed out to join friends there, I’d seen the news of massive turn-outs. By the time I returned home, the astonishing numbers were coming in.
The Woman’s March in New York City.
By the end of the day, it was said by credible sources that three million protested in the US alone! Even conservative small towns had significant numbers in their Marches. The Man Who Shall Not Be Named tweeted “Why didn’t they vote?” Perhaps he simply forgot that three million more people voted for The Woman Who Will Not Be Forgotten than voted for him.
Lo siento. I sound bitter. In fact I am still a little blissed-out having been part of the largest demonstration in history. Click this New York Times coverage to get a sense of the crowds.
The morning after the Woman’s March
So, what was accomplished? I believe that in fact the Woman’s March of 2017 may have accomplished a great deal. Politicians who care about the public will have noted the turnout, and (hopefully) will give some thought to how they might vote on women’s issues. Opposition to The Man Who Shall Not Be Named was unified, energized by the experience. Some who had never made their views public before will now become active.
I leave you with two Tweets:
And this one:
In closing, a word about writing and books :-)
Lest you fear that this blog has been hijacked by political concerns, I should note that I am reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien — a well-lauded novel on the Chinese Revolution by a Canadian author. (So yes — sigh — politics.)
Also, I sent the last draft of my YA novel to my editor. It’s with teen beta readers and consultants now.
And so: a rest? Not exactly! We’re moving into our new house in San Miguel de Allende a week today.
Lovely San Miguel de Allende, where I am right now. A photo by Leah Feldon, it is similar to the view from my writing room.
Yesterday was a big day for me: I woke at 4:00am, and shortly before 8:00am I emailed my manuscript to my editor and agent. It was Friday 13. I am not superstitious, but that did give me pause.
Some writers are able to write a perfectly good novel in two or three drafts. I am not one of those writers! It takes me years (and years) to uncover the complexities, the depths and the “fall line” of a story. My revision process is extremely slow, in spite of all the techniques I use (i.e. plotting) to try to speed it up. I do hope I’m getting closer.
J.K. Rowling’s plot guideline. No doubt it helped!
Moonsick (working title) is my novel for Young Adults, a story based on the teen years of Josephine Bonaparte’s daughter Hortense. Is the novel too giddy? Too dark? I’m frankly not sure. This is why beta readers — teen beta readers — will be important to my final revision process.
Teen beta readers wanted
Later that same day I sent out a newsletter that included a call for teen beta readers. I now have three readers, and (I hope) more to come. I’d also like to find a book club that reads YA fiction — not exclusively, but often enough that they are comfortable with the genre. It occurs to me that a high school English class might be interested in reading it (although it really is a novel for girls). Let me know if you have a teen reader or a book club or class to suggest.
Going back to where it all began
Looking for reader guidelines I’ve used in the past, I discovered a blog post I wrote in February of 2012 — five years ago! — announcing that I would be writing a YA novel about Hortense.
Hortense as a teen — the subject of my next-next novel (Surprise!)
(Note that This Bright Darkness, mentioned in the post, was the working title of The Shadow Queen, which was published two years later, in the spring of 2014.)
Lovely Hortense as a teen. Energetic, creative, talented — a bright spark.
Fireworks for the Entry of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria: The Lion, in “Reception de Louis XIII,” Lyons, 1623.
Happy New 2017!
I like the feel of this year already. I’ve weaned myself — to some extent — from toxic international news and immersed myself in finishing the eighth draft of Moonsick, my YA novel about Josephine’s daughter Hortense. (Yikes! Due this month.)
The funny side of revision
This is what revision sometimes feels like …
A New Yorker cartoon.
I’m also getting ready to send out a newsletter. Sign up here if you haven’t done so already. I will post links to it when it’s ready, but one advantage of signing up is that a subscriber wins one of my books with each newsletter.
A great audible edition of Middlemarch
When I’m not revising, or enjoying one of the many wonderful restaurants here in San Miguel de Allende with my husband, or puzzling over my latest watercolour, I’m listening to an absolutely outstanding audible edition of Middlemarch by George Eliot. This classic novel was destined to be forever on my Novels I’m Embarrassed to Admit I’ve Never Read List — in part because I just couldn’t cope with the pace and prose — but the narration by Juliet Stevenson really makes it come alive. Highly recommended!
Again, Happy New Year! You readers are the absolute best.
What audible recordings are your favourite? I’m always looking for recommendations.
I’ve been addicted to the theory of the Hero’s Journey as story structure since I read Cambell’s groundbreaking work,The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in high school. It’s at the core of virtually every book I admire on plot: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story by Robert McKee, The Anatomy of Story by John Truby, to name a few.
Yet, increasingly, I’ve been bothered by the feeling that there’s something missing, something that doesn’t quite fit the structure of a Heroine’s journey.
The Heroine’s Journey
There have been many alternative structures proposed (see here, and here, for example), but they didn’t really grab me.
The proposed structures felt a little forced to me. The strength of Cambell’s work is that it arose out an examination of popular stories. He began with what worked, and then looked for why. I didn’t feel that those proposing a structure for a Heroine’s Journey were evolving theories by examining actual stories.
Birth vs. Battle, a recent blog essay on Writer Unboxed by David Corbett, offers a solution. He begins by positing: “Conflict is not the engine of story.”
Right away, he has my attention. How many times have I wondered why every Hero’s Journey seems to involve a battle (what Corbett points out Ursula Le Guin called the “gladiatorial view of fiction”).
Corbett goes on to demonstrate that it isn’t conflict that creates movement, but desire.
“Conflict is desire meeting resistance.”
The three basic plot lines
Corbett states that there are “typically three plot lines in any meaningful story.” To summarize:
- The desire line… (outer pursuit)
- The yearning line… (inner pursuit)
- The connection line… (the relationships that help or hinder)
He points out that, “The most compelling stories unify these plot lines.”
(I’ve abbreviated greatly. Be sure to read his post in full.)
So far we’re on fairly familiar terrain, but Corbett differs in that he emphasizes the importance of the connection line.
The importance of connection
The traditional Hero, typically, is something of a loner. He acquires helpers and overcomes enemies, but emerges the sole victor. This model doesn’t really work for the Heroine, somehow. At least not for my heroines, much less for the heroines of the novels that truly move me.
Gin up as much conflict as you want, without desire to generate movement, yearning to create meaning, and other people to provide emotional richness and texture, all you have is sound and fury, and we all know how that phrase ends.
I was a Young Adult book editor in my 30s, editing a series of novels aimed at teen reluctant readers. It wasn’t PC — even more so at that time — but I came to the private conclusion that, in general, boys were drawn to stories that made their muscles twitch (conflict), while girls, frankly, liked to cry (connection).
This is a gross generalization, of course, and there are plenty of exceptions, but I do think it speaks to my own basic issue with the traditional conflict-based story structure.
We may be born alone and die alone but we grow through our engagement with the world—specifically, other people.
This is so refreshing. I’ve ordered THE ART OF CHARACTER; Creating Memorable Characters, for Fiction, Film and TV, Corbett’s book on writing. I look forward to learning more from him.