Target Shooting As A Writer: Pixar Rule 7!

We’re one full week down in the Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling blogging challenge! Today rule 7 is up:

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Beginnings are important. They set the stage, draw in the reader, and present the problem. Often they have catchy first lines, hilarious boy-meets-girl moments, frightening she-might-die conflicts, and dozens of compelling questions we want answered. Middles have raising stakes, surprising twists, and character motivations revealed in ways that make us desperately wish they get what they’re after. But endings. Endings. They are the payoff.

We read for the journey, right? The complete experience. Following along after Augustus and Hazel. Watching Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy overcome their pride. Trying to figure out what happened to Jason Bourne before it’s too late. It’s less about where they end up and more about how they get there.

But that’s how we read. If writers wrote that way, we’d have a directionless path winding forever onward, and eventually, readers would bail. When we write- wait for it- we have to take aim.

As a farm girl, I’ve done my share of target shooting. Sometimes I’d use my brother’s .22, but most often it was an air rifle that fired BBs or this wicked little BB pistol I had. Not a real gun, I know, but that was kind of the point. I knew I wasn’t likely to accidentally kill anyone. Plus, BBs are cheap. So, sixteen-year-old me would tie a soda can to the fence and shoot away until I cut the can in half. When I took aim and pulled the trigger, I had a target in mind.

From the very beginning of the story, writers need to aim at their target. Sometimes the target changes, and that’s fine, as long as the writer adjusts for it. Aiming at the target gives the story a journey, makes it progress, and pulls the reader onward. They are going somewhere, not wandering.

When I started writing DINAH, I didn’t know the beginning. I still need to work out a chunk of the middle. But I’ve known the ending since I started plotting: a seventeen-year old girl standing in the town square, with a gun to the head of the man who took away her land and killed her family. (What happens next is top secret.) As I plot and write scenes, I’m aiming to get my characters there. Everything leads up to that moment and the aftermath, the echoes of the shot she does or doesn’t take.

Figure out your ending. Pick your target and aim for it. Chances are you won’t hit much of anything if you fire wildly into space. It’s rare to hit your target if you don’t take aim.

How do you figure out the end to your story? If your target changes, what do you do to adjust for that? Tell me what you think. 🙂

Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and lit agency intern,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

Destroying Your Character’s Comfort Zone: Pixar #6

I hope you all had a great Easter! After a one-day break for the holiday, we’re back to discussing Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. Today rule 6 is up:

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Pushing your characters out of their comfort zones is a key concept in developing compelling conflict. If your characters are good at everything they’re doing and don’t have to push themselves, we don’t wait around to see if they’ll get the job done. We know they will. When the conflict challenges the main character, we see character development happening all over the place. So, yes, of course we want to throw something at them that challenges their abilities.

But here’s the twist, and really, the most important part: don’t just give them something HARDER, challenge them with something completely opposite of what they’re comfortable with. The pro assassin who has his toughest case yet might be interesting, but it’s not as gripping as it could be. What does Katniss not have time for? Impractical things. Where does she have to go? The Capitol– the height of impracticality. She doesn’t have time for entertainment and doesn’t understand people who do, but yet she has to not only participate in but BE entertainment. Even when her life and Peeta’s are at stake, she still has to be good entertainment, or they won’t get help when they need it. Seeing Katniss struggle (remember post 1 on character struggle?) with things that directly conflict with her ethics, in an area she can barely understand, having to develop skills she has never used before, is a gold mine situation for character development. How she reacts tells the audience a great deal about her motivation, intelligence, resourcefulness, insecurities, and compassion. It takes every bit of who she is to survive.

And that’s key to this whole rule. Gripping conflict should push your characters to the limits, especially in their weak areas, because when it does, we find out who they really are. When you do that, characters have to change. They become deeper, more complex, more relatable, more memorable, and even more compelling.

Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and lit agency intern,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

As always, thanks for reading!

A Plotting Tool (With Good News for Your Query and Synopsis): Pixar Rule #4

I’m blogging my way through Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling as compiled by Emma Coates, Pixar storyboard artist.  It’s been a ton of fun so far and is really exercising my blogging muscles! If you didn’t see my interview with author Mindee Arnett from yesterday, check it out in the right sidebar, because she’s brilliant and so is her book.

Here’s the 4th rule of storytelling from Pixar and Emma Coates:

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This one is a bit different. It’s actually a formula for the spine of your story, and it’s a great one. Filling this out before you start writing your draft will help you think through where you want to go with your concept. The first two blanks establish character and situation. The 3rd is the initial conflict- bam, your protagonist has a problem. This problem intensifies and the stakes leap higher with 4 and 5. One of those should probably even be a twist we didn’t see coming. Finally, the main characters hit the do-or-die moment. Of course, you still need to fill in your resolution.

This kind of 6-sentence synopsis is a great writing tool. Fill it out before you start writing- just one sentence for each step.  (To follow my own advice, I’m going to sit down and fill this out for THE BALLAD OF DINAH CALDWELL today, so why not do it with me?) Then revise it as you draft the first half, and revise again when you finish. Not only will this help the plot stay focused, avoid tangents, and progress at a good pace, but when you’re done, you will have your synopsis basically written. This is a fantastic starting point for both your synopsis and your query. Turn each sentence into a paragraph for the synopsis, and that’s a great start. Use the establishing and main conflict sections of the 6-sentence outline plus a few killer developing details, and you’ll have the bones of a query!

If you want to see a great article that expands each of these 6 ideas and adds in the resolution, go here.

Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

As always, thanks for reading!

Pixar 22: Rule 1- Character Struggle

If you read my post from yesterday, you know that today is the first day of my blogging challenge. I’m blogging my way through Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling as compiled by Emma Coates, Pixar storyboard artist. If you want to see the background on why I’m doing this and hear my thoughts on that article from The New Yorker that challenges those rules with some decisive language, my post from yesterday discusses that.

The rules themselves arebasic, time-tested methods and tips for writing fiction. Even though they are fairly basic, they are not always easy and definitely not always part of a writer’s process– even though they should be! Many of the issues I see in the slush pile that makes me pass on a project could be solved if the writers used these 22 rules. Often, when I love something in a submission, it’s because the writer did one or more of these 22 things well. They really are hallmarks of good stories.

Here’s rule 1, and my thoughts on it:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

I love that this is rule 1, because I love, love, love it. Character struggle is at the core of so many riveting, impacting stories. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s struggles are endless and we’re never quite sure if she’s going to win. She struggles to feed and protect her family. She struggles to hide her practical personality and her hatred of the materialism around her in order to become an engaging tribute people will support– which is part of her struggle to survive. She struggles in a dozen other ways, too- surviving her burns and dehydration. Figuring out how she feels about Peeta.  Readers become involved in her struggles and care about what happens long before they find out if she fails or succeeds. In fact, we admire her for getting back up and trying again. Hard things happen to everyone, but it takes someone special to get back up and keep trying.

In the early seasons of The Vampire Diaries, noble vampire Stefan just lacks something. He’s not nearly as interesting as his brother Damon, and even though they know he’s the morally better character, many viewers (dare I say the majority?) root for Damon. Why? Damon struggles with his nature, while Stefan has already beaten it. Stefan really doesn’t have much of anything to struggle over in those first seasons. Later on, his character becomes more complex, but it takes a while. Damon is the one who is torn between his evil vampire nature and wanting to be a better man than he is. In season 2, we see one of the most impacting moments of his struggle in the middle of the road, as he’s trying to decide whether or not to kill the young woman who stopped to help him. This moment is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes of the show. Stefan lacks a significant struggle. He’s got it figured out, and since he’s so noble and always does the right thing, we prefer his far more interesting brother.

Character struggle taps into two very important things: 1) forward motion in the plot, and 2) human nature. Plots need things to happen. We all know that. Some specific goal needs to be present. The character has to WANT something- finding her self-identity, escaping the kidnapper, winning the election, putting his marriage back together. So all the things that happen, the events, need to build toward that goal- even if she doesn’t get what she wants in the end. But it has to be difficult to get there. If characters got what they wanted without hardly trying, stories would be much shorter and much less interesting. If Katniss so impressed the Capitol by volunteering to be a tribute that they granted her and her family an exemption from the games, the book would hardly be worth reading. The difficulties along the way, the struggles thrown at the characters to keep them working hard for what they want, maps out an obstacle course that tests them to the max. Struggle provides something for the characters to do, something to fight against, and an instigator of character change. Struggle moves the plot forward.

Struggle is also a fantastic way of connecting with the audience. It’s one of the things that makes readers care about the character. Interestingly enough, it’s also a significant character development tool, because it does (or should) change the characters.  Struggle, it seems, is intricately connected to human nature. We identify with someone who struggles because we know what fighting for or against something is like– even if it’s just yourself. Perhaps especially if it’s fighting against yourself. We can relate to it. It’s not the winning or losing that we’re after when we follow a character around for 300 pages. If the winning was easy, we’d barely care if the character succeeded. The emotion of the situation is all tied up in the character’s struggle.

So yes, we admire characters more for trying than for succeeding. Writers, use this idea when you write to boost conflict, deepen the struggle, and change the characters. Readers, look for the character’s struggle when you read, because identifying that is a fantastic means of accessing theme and really understanding the characters.

Also, all of you should check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me! The first posts go up today.

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

We’d love it if you’d comment on our posts and share anything you enjoyed as we do this blogging challenge to keep us accountable and motivated! As always, thanks for reading!

Blogging Challenge: Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

I’m starting a blogging challenge! I’ll be blogging every day for the next 22 days about Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling. I’ll blog on one rule each day- short posts with my thoughts and reactions to the principle. Basically, the how and why of the idea.

So, here’s why I’m doing this challenge:

Back in 2012, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats tweeted 22 140-character pieces of writing wisdom under the hashtag #storybasics. If I’m understanding the story correctly, these aren’t official pieces of advice from Pixar itself nor are they necessarily techniques or ideas Ms. Coats developed herself. I’ve seen some of the ideas elsewhere, and some are time-tested story techniques. Here’s her post compiling the advice.

The advice Ms. Coats tweeted circulated widely under the name “Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling.” March 13 of this year, an article from The New Yorker, “The Problem with Processed Storytelling“, discusses the idea of those 22 rules. The article protests that “the story-processing that the Pixar list outlines turns movies into a delivery system for a uniform set of emotional juicings, and the result, whether for C.G.I. or for live-action films, is a sort of cyborg cinema, a prefabricated simulacrum of experience and emotion that feels like the nexus of pornography and propaganda.”

I disagree. Storytelling works according to certain principles, which can be bent or turned inside out as creativity demands, but it still operates according to basic ideas. Why? Because of how humans process and perceive things. Following those principles doesn’t create a cookie-cutter, emotionally-manipulative product. Poor execution of those ideas might, but that’s just poor writing. Good writing uses principles like Pixar’s 22 rules to tap into how people think and react, thereby connecting with the audience. Writing is both an art and a science, and it does function according to certain basic principles.

My purpose here isn’t to discuss the article from The New Yorker, however. The article just provided my motivation for the blogging challenge. So, I’ll be blogging about 1 rule a day, starting tomorrow morning!

Writers, if you want to join the blogging challenge, let me know on Twitter or in the comments here! I have a few friends who are going to do this with me, and I’ll be linking to their blogs in the bottom of each of my posts. Basically, you’d post once a day (or more if you didn’t see this in time and need to catch up a day or two), working down through the list of rules I linked to above. Link to the other bloggers (who will be introduced in my post for day 1) at the bottom of your daily post. That’s it!

Readers, keep an eye out for my post on Rule #1 tomorrow morning! Also, check out the 22 rules from Ms. Coates and read the New Yorker article, if you like. It’s interesting stuff and they do have some worthy points. In case you’re interested to see more of my thoughts on that article, here are my thoughts I posted on Twitter this morning.

List of Agent Blogs and Interviews

A writer’s job is to read, read, read. Read fiction. Read nonfiction for research and nonfiction on your craft. Read your manscript aloud. Read publishing industry news. Read more fiction- bestsellers, books in your genre, and books nothing like your own. Read until your eyes cross. Read, read, read.

One of the most important things for aspiring authors to read is agent blogs. Whether you are querying agents, trying to break into the publishing business, or simply learning more about the world of books, agent blogs are an absolutely necessary source of information. During my plunge into querying agents, I’ve painstakingly divested the internet of its most valuable resource (don’t argue with me on that descriptor): agent blogs.

Blog posts from industry professionals contain the personal details you need to make your queries stand out, the contests that will give you a leg up, and the industry knowledge that will help jump start your writing career.

Actively Maintained Agent Blogs

Thoughts from a Literary Agent: blog from Marisa Corvisiero.

The New Literary Agents– blog of Kae Tienstra and her business partner, Jon.

Chip’s Blog: Blog of MacGregor Literary.

Ask a Literary Agent: Blog from Noah Lukeman, president of Lukeman Literary and author of multiple books on writing queries and fiction.

Carly Watters: Blog of literary agent Carly Watters. Great post from July 12 on making your query stand out in the slush pile.

Bookalicious– blog of agent and top YA book blogger Pam van Hylckama Vlieg.

Mandy Hubbard: author and agent with D4EO Literary.

LaVie en Prose: blog of Meredith Barnes, ex-literary agent now working in digital marketing for Soho Press.

Rapid-Progressive: The blog of Victoria Marini, agent with Gelfman Schneider Literary Agency.

New Leaf Literary: The blog of a brand-new agency headed by Joanna Stampfel-Volpe

This Literary Life: The stylish and thought-provoking blog of Bree Ogden, agent with D4EO Literary Agency.

Magical Words: Featuring posts on helpful topics by several literary agents and published authors.

Confessions: Posts by agent Suzie Townsend.

Janet Reid, Literary Agent: Posts by agent Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management. This blog in particular contains a wealth of information and blunt advice for writers. Janet has also been known to host contests.

Query Shark: Janet Reid, master shark of the query waters, also maintains this blog where she dices queries to bits. Enter yours, if you dare! Reading the archives is one of the most entertaining and alarming things you’ll do as a writer.

Pub Rants: Maintained by agent Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency. Personal, informative posts about all things literary.

Rachelle Gardner: Posts by Rachelle with Books and Such Literary Agency. Many of these posts contain enormously helpful information on the daily life of a successful author- taxes, social media, and the changing publishing landscape are all covered.

Coffee. Tea. And Literary: Blog of the Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation.  Contests are occasionally run here as well.

Kathleen Ortiz: Agent with Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation.

Glass Cases: Blog of the fabulous agent Sarah LaPolla with Curtis Brown, Ltd., featuring short stories, flash fiction, and memoir and novel excerpts from readers.

dhs liter show + tell: The wide-ranging blog of DHS Literary/Inkwell Management.

DGLM: Blog maintained by Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. Frequent posts revealing the world of publishing and writing in valuable detail.

Full Circle Literary: Blog of Full Circle Literary, with archives going back to 2006.

Et in arcaedia, ego. Blog of Jennifer Jackson, powerhouse agent and Vice President of Donald Maass Literary Agency. Frequent “query wars” reports  and contests. Archives back to 2003.

The Knight Agency: Blog of The Knight Agency- fantastic recent post on preparing your manuscript for submission.

Lucienne Diver’s Drivel: News, advice, and entertainment from author, agent, and superhero Lucienne Diver.

Agent Savant: “publishing morsels from Laurie McLean.”

Agent in the Middle: posts by RT-award-winning literary agent Lori Perkins.

KT Literary: blog from “shoe-obsessed superagent Daphne Unfeasible.” Immensely informative peeks into her query pile included.

Call My Agent!: Blog from Australian “Agent Sydney.” Emailed questions will be answered in a blog post.

Writing and Rambling- A Literary Agent’s Industry Musings: posts by Nephele Tempest.

Fresh Books, Inc.: infrequent but substantial posts from Fresh Books literary agent and founder Matt Wagner.

All that’s new(s) from A to Z: posts from The Zack Company, Inc.

Ask the Agent: Posts from Andy Ross.

Kidlit: Blog from YA and children’s lit agent Mary Kole.

The Forest for the Trees: Maintained by Betsy Lerner- author, ex-editor and agent with Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency.

Between the Lines: Business Blog of Books and Such Literary Agency

Jennifer Represents: the blog of Jennifer Laughran, children’s and YA fiction agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

Jill Corcoran Books: posts from Jill Corcoran, children’s book agent with Herman Agency.

Agent Incite: Posts from agent Mike Kabongo

Red Sofa Literary: Red Sofa’s agency blog. Eclectic industry news.

Babbles from Scott Eagan: posts from Scott Eagan from Greyhaus Literary Agency. Frank and unique presentations of industry news and advice.

Slush Pile Hell: “one grumpy literary agent, a sea of query fails, and other publishing nonsense.” Sometimes it helps to see what not to do in your query.

The Steve Laube Agency:  Browse it and learn from it- you’ll love it. Fantastic “News You Can Use” feature.

Upstart Crow Literary: new book announcements, advice on getting published, and more.

Navigating the Slush Pile: “Agent and book lover discovers the world of publishing one fast paced, eye opening step at a time, armed with only a handful of books and an English Lit Degree.” Posts by Vickie Motter, agent with Andrea Hurst Literary Management.

Inactive Blogs

BookEnds, LLC- A Literary Agency: Recently inactive, but chock-full of must-read posts on submissions, query letter samples, and pitch lines.

Fox Literary: Blog of Diana Fox of boutique agency Fox Literary.

Miss Snark, the literary agent: Inactive since 2007, but still a valuable resource.

Deep, Deep Thoughts: informative posts from John Jarrold of John Jarrold Literary Agency.

B.G. Literary: inactive blog of Barry Goldblatt Literary.

The Rejecter: Blog of a super-secret agent. See if you can find out who it is! Contains fantastic archives going back to 2006.

Lyons Literary LLC: “tips and quips on publishing from a literary agent,” Jonathan Lyons, formerly of Curtin Brown, Ltd., and McIntosh & Otis, Inc.

A Gent’s Outlook: inactive since 2007, but still valuable archives.

Blogs Interviewing Agents

Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog featuring new agent alerts, “How I Got Published” stories, conference/event spotlights, and author interviews.

Hunger Mountain: The VCFA journal of the arts Listed by interview type, the archives contain interviews with authors and agents.

Algonkian Writer Classes: Online Workshops and National Conferences for Agents: Great list of interviews with well-known agents.

Stacey O’Neale: Writer, Publicist, Superhero.  Most of these interviews are very recent and therefore most likely to contain accurate information.

Agent Advice: “a series of quick interviews with literary and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else.”

Literary Rambles: “spotlighting children’s book authors, agents, and publishing.” The agent spotlights are invaluable for personalizing your query letter.

Mother. Write. (Repeat.) Long list of agent interviews. Be sure to check out the main page of this blog for “how I got my agent” stories, contests, and more.

YA Highway: Writers hosting contests, introducing agents, and collecting publishing news. Fantastic resource.

Comment to let me know what you think of these! I’d love to hear any agent-related blogs you follow. I’ll add them to the list! As always, thanks for reading.