How To Tell If Your Manuscript Is YA

Being able to accurately categorize your writing as middle grade, young adult, new adult, or adult is an important part of writing for your audience and preparing to query. Sometimes writers assume because a novel has a main character who is a teen, the story is YA, but that isn’t always the case, and it’s not really the character’s age that’s the main determining factor. Many thrillers deal with teens and children, and aren’t YA.

When I first started writing, I thought the MS I was working on was YA because it was about a teen, and it wasn’t really YA. It had several young adult elements, but it was a much closer match to adult fiction. So how do you tell, really, if you are writing YA, or something else?

Here are some examples of works that muddy the waters:

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn is told from two points of view, and one POV is from a boy who’s fifteen years old. Room and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have children as the main characters, but they’re adult fiction. The Harry Potter series is one of the most well-known examples of category confusion. The series is shelved in the children’s section because the first few books are MG. But Harry grows up, and so does the series. So, is the series middle grade, young adult, or adult?

Whether a manuscript is MG, YA, NA, or adult isn’t defined primarily by the main character’s age, although certain experiences, settings, and plots lend themselves to characters of a certain age group. Basically, it boils down to perspective.

Perspective is chiefly what makes a story young adult fiction. The lens through which the main character sees the world is what gives YA its distinctive flavor. The characters tackle adult issues, but when they do, it’s for the first time. Of course, YA can contain all the grit and reality of adult fiction, but the characters confront those things without the experience and often without the resources adults have. Of course, teens tend to go to high school, date other teens, have parents and homework. Other category tendencies are the use of first person, school as a major setting, and frustrations with parents and gaining independence. But what ties all these things together, what makes YA fiction YA, is the perspective of the characters.

To me, this perspective of facing the adult issues for the first time is what makes YA unique, and it’s why I love it. Over half the YA-buying readership is adults, and that’s probably a big reason for it. We read it and write it because YA is about change, and we all remember those years—and we don’t stop changing even as adults.

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle says:
“Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. And to be able to be childlike involves memory; we must never forget any part of ourselves. As of this writing I am sixty-one years in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and….and… If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.”

It’s not about being a certain age, it’s about what it means to be that age. YA keeps that part of our lives, that unique perspective on the world, awake and healthy.


I originally wrote this post for The Thrill Begins as part of my blog tour for my book release– I wrote about 30 posts that went up on different sites over November and December, and with all that content out there, I’d like to keep it all in one place, so I’m posting it here for archiving purposes.

5 #Subtips For Writers

As an editor and now as an author, I know it can be tough to write a great manuscript, write yet another one, slog through the query trenches, go through edits, release that book into the wild, and still keep your sanity. I tweet on my #subtips hashtag on Twitter to share thoughts and tips as I learn them, but several things keep coming up in the slush and with my clients as I edit. So, here’s some of my advice for those most common issues:

1) Keep writing. When you’re querying, when you’re on submission, when you’re waiting, keep writing. Having another project to put your energy into is a great way to help balance the nerves, time, and stress that goes along with publishing. Plus, if you decide to shelve that first manuscript, you’ll be well on your way to having a new one completed, and if you do land an agent/book deal, having another project nearly ready is great.

2) Trust your ability to rewrite. Holding too tightly to sentences and paragraphs and ideas in my manuscripts held me back more than almost anything else. Someone once told me that if I can write one good line, I can scrap it and write another, and if I can have one good idea, I can come up with a second. Skill and talent aren’t accidents you can’t repeat. Doing what’s best for the story and the prose and not keeping myself locked in to something just because I’m proud of it is essential to being a good writer. That’s been a huge factor in reducing the stress of revisions. If you’ve done it once, you can do it again.

3) Don’t expect your first draft to be magical. Don’t get discouraged when you’re drafting if you’re not seeing magic happen. That magical touch and those insightful moments you see in great books aren’t magic at all. They’re the result of blood and sweat. First drafts are limp and flat and awkward—that’s normal. The depth and layers come as you revise. And revise. And revise.

4)  Focus on your own writing. When I was querying, it was sometimes a struggle to not be jealous when someone else signed with an agent. When I was on submission, it was hard to not be jealous when someone else landed a book deal. Even though I was happy for my friends, it often made me wonder if it meant I wasn’t as good because it hadn’t happened for me yet. And now that I have a book out, there are other authors’ awards, bestseller lists, and publicity and buzz I could be worrying about. But no one else’s success diminishes mine. One of the most wonderful things I’ve been realizing as I find critique partners and connect and blog with other authors, particularly in YA, is that we’re much more colleagues than competitors. Readers can pick up my book, and they can pick up someone else’s, too. Another author’s success doesn’t limit or detract from mine. What does limit my success is me looking at someone else’s plate, and wishing I had what they had, and letting my own work suffer.

5) Think of writing and the publishing journey as pursuing any other career. Study, learn from experts, network, study more, practice, take constructive feedback, and work, work, work. Writers sometimes have the expectation that it should take maybe a year to write and revise a MS and a year to get the querying process figured out, query, and hear back. Either way, 2-3 years is about the time we expect to have an agent and be on submission by if we’re any good. I don’t think that mindset is accurate or necessarily healthy. Writing is a competitive, demanding, detail-oriented, incredibly complex career. No other career like that gets off the ground in 2-3 years. It takes more than that to become a teacher, lawyer, engineer, graphic designer, or doctor, and even then, most of them have to work their way up. You haven’t failed and you aren’t a bad writer just because your journey takes longer than someone else’s. Treat it like a long-haul career both in your expectations and your work habits. You are the biggest factor in your career.

I originally wrote this post for The Secret Life of Writers as part of my blog tour for my book release– I wrote about 30 posts that went up on different sites over November and December, and with all that content out there, I’d like to keep it all in one place, so I’m posting it here for archiving purposes.

My Twitter Pitch Guidelines

I’m participating in several Twitter pitch contests this year, and I’m looking for great YA, NA, and adult submissions.

If I favorite your pitch, it means I’m requesting material from you. Please send the query and three chapters if I favorite your pitch. Use “Twitter Pitch Request: TITLE” as the subject, and send to

I work primarily with YA and NA, and very selectively with adult. MG, nonfiction, and picture books aren’t for me. Entangled accepts submissions from both agented and unagented authors.

For who I am and how to submit to me, please use the “about Kate” and “submit” pages above.

Are You Letting Rejection Make You A Better Writer?

I just posted last week about handling success as a writer, so this week I’m talking about the other side of the coin: rejection.

When I taught high school English, I tried to keep in mind that negative comments have about seven times as much power as a positive comment. As an editor, I try to give my clients “critique sandwich”- one positive comment on either side of a negative one. People simply feel negative things more intensely- and take them more personally- than they do positive things.

This is especially true of querying and being on submission. It’s hard, discouraging work, with more ups and downs than most people can imagine. We feel rejection intensely. Someone said no, and it’s hard to hear- even though we know agents can only take on projects they love, think they can sell, and are willing to risk their income on. All the reasons aside, someone still said no. Some days I handle it better than others. We can tell ourselves all sorts of things about how many famous authors had X number of rejections, how long it usually takes to get an agent/publishing deal, and how many factors affect those decisions- but those rejections pile up. Even when it’s not a huge pile, it can feel like one.

What rejection feels like is actually really important. For a long time, it felt like no one was interested in the story I poured my blood and love into, it felt like “the call” would never happen, and it felt like I’d trying forever without results.


Remember those are just feelings. They are a normal part of the process. Every writer feels them. Writers have to be able to take rejection, try harder, persevere longer, and keep going.

Continuing on when you’re feeling those rejections is hard. Even normal efforts can be draining when you’re discouraged. A lot of people just quit at that point- way before they should. But don’t quit. Use those feelings to make yourself a better writer. Here’s what I try to do:

  • Recognize the feelings are normal. Almost every writer has gone through the rejection blues. It’s not a sign from the universe that you can’t do this. It’s both natural and expected. It’s like the ache after working out; you tried really hard, and now it hurts. That’s okay.
  • Allow yourself some time to wallow- but just a little. Call in sick for a day if you need to, but don’t quit the job. Recognize that it’s discouraging, that it’s hard, and that it makes you worry. Admit it to get it out in the open. Don’t feel like you need to pretend.
  • Use those negative feelings to push yourself. Writers push themselves a lot already in a hundred ways- but when I’m feeling those rejections, I have to remind myself that writing is a job. I have to work when I don’t want to. I have to do things that are boring and frustrating and discouraging. If I’m serious about being a writer, I have to keep doing it.
  • Get back to work- but don’t just slog through feeling like your writing is worthless. I can never keep going if I am functioning like that. Make a plan for dealing with rejection.

Making that plan for handling rejection is important. I use my “rejection plan” all the time. When I don’t have the physical or mental energy to keep trying and manage my mood, I fall back on my rejection plan, and it works. Here’s what mine looks like:

  • Find a critique partner to cry on. They get it like no one else. As supportive as my husband and friends have been, they haven’t been through this in the same way CPs have been. Vent, rant, spew disparaging diatribes if you must. Get it out in a private environment with someone who understands. (Not in public, and not with a professional contact. Keep venting where it belongs.)
  • After wallowing, I pick up a great new book to read. I try to save one that I’ve been dying to read. They helped me discover again what I love about writing, and they inspire and encourage me again. A great new book lets me check out of my problems and discouragement, and gives me the time to find some emotional distance. TV and movies and hanging out with friends often don’t do this for me when I’m discouraged, because even with friends I’m still likely to be discouraged about the issue, and TV and movies (unless they are really wonderful) might let me check out of my problems, but they don’t inspire me to go back to writing and keep trying in the same way a great book does.
  • Then, I resort to my lists. When I’m too discouraged to put words on the page, when I don’t trust my diction and hate all my sentences, I work on items I can break down into lists with a yes or no check-mark. Character profiles, chapter outlines, scene lists,  research, etc. I don’t have to finesse those, and they do need done. Sometimes it’s just sending a new query. When I was querying, part of my plan was to send a new query immediately every time I received a rejection. It was hugely helpful, because it was exciting to find a new agent who might like my work, and send off that email. Hope! And eventually, I sent the query that got me the request, which got me the call, which got me the offer.

Those short-term rejection plans really help me bounce back and limit the damage my discouragement does. Try making one for yourself that hits those same goals– venting, inspiring, and continuing to make progress.

Long term, of course, the most important element of my rejection plan is this: start a new project. Beginning a new MS is exciting and encouraging and full of potential. Having something like that to fall back on kept me going while I was querying and on submission, and it’s what’s keeping me from freaking out during the waiting months before my debut releases. It keeps me from obsessing and it keeps me working, both absolutely necessary things.

So here’s my encouragement: Keep at it in spite of the feelings. They’re natural, and they just mean you’re in the thick of it.

Writers are tough people. Being tough doesn’t mean we don’t want to quit- it means we keep going anyway because we know its worth it. We have stories and characters and what-ifs to share. We love pulling all those things together, and we’ll do what it takes to make it happen.

What do you do when you get discouraged? How do you handle rejection?

The Query That Got Me My Agent

Hello, readers!

Yesterday the lovely EM Castellan featured me on her blog with a quick interview on how I wrote my query and advice for querying writers, plus of course the query that got my agent’s attention. It’s a great way for readers to see examples of queries that worked.

Since that’s often helpful for fellow writers, I’m going to post it here today with the query results so you have a bit more info. If you want to see my advice on querying and a few more questions, head over to see the rest of the interview! (And great queries from other authors.)

Here’s my query:

Dear (agent)

After (personal detail) I’m hoping you’ll be interested in my MS. HOW WE FALL, a YA suspense, is complete at 88,000 words.

Making out with your cousin has its pitfalls. Seventeen-year-old Jackie hasn’t been able to end her secret relationship with Marcus since he kissed her on a dare. He’s her best friend, which only makes it harder to quit their obsessive relationship.

Except she has to, because she’s falling in love with him. It’s not like it’s illegal to date her cousin, but her parents would never approve and the families would split up their multi-family home. Afraid of losing her best friend, she calls it off. She can’t lose Marcus right now: the cops just found her missing friend’s body.

Hurt and angry, Marcus starts dating the new girl, Sylvia. But with Sylvia comes a secret and a stranger. The stranger starts following Jackie everywhere she goes, and Marcus is nearly killed in a car accident. When Jackie finds out Sylvia lied about not knowing her murdered friend, Jackie’s certain Sylvia is connected to the man threatening Marcus.

The more Jackie finds out about Sylvia, the bigger the wedge between Jackie and Marcus, but she doesn’t have long to figure out what’s going on. She may have lost both her relationship and her friendship with Marcus, but she can’t lose him for real.

If she doesn’t act fast, Sylvia’s secrets may mean their bodies will be the next ones the police dig out of the Missouri woods.


Thank you for your consideration,

Kate Brauning

(contact info)

Query stats:

Queries: 53

Requests: 23 (6 partials, 17 fulls)

That’s a pretty darn good request rate, but I do want to highlight that the agents who didn’t request often wrote back with a polite but definite pass. I’m pretty sure half the publishing community thinks I’m crazy now. 🙂

Another thing I think is important to highlight in this kind of post is that it is not your query that lands you an agent. It is your story and your writing. The query serves to catch the agent’s attention. You’ll reuse it in various ways down the road, and you want it to be as sharp as possible, but it’s really not the query that gets you an agent.

That said, the query is your foot in the door. Take it seriously, make it sing, make it reflect your story the best it can.

Have a question about querying? Ask in this post, and I’ll answer! I’ve read slush for a publishing house and a literary agency, and I edit so many hours a week I have trouble counting them– and I’m glad to help!

On Waiting

Waiting. Waiting for queries, agents, editors.

Waiting to find the time to write. Waiting for drafts to pull themselves together, waiting for beta readers to get back to you, waiting for edits from your editor, waiting for reviews, waiting for something, anything to happen.

Waiting is a huge part of a writer’s life. And I hate it. When I’m waiting, those thoughts creep in. That I’m not a very good writer, that no editor would want my book, that I’ll never have another idea as good as the last one I wrote. And even if I manage to fight those thoughts off and tell myself that’s not what the silence means, it’s frustrating and stressful. Waiting on other people to get back to you before you can meet your own goals, waiting for a yes so you can continue– it’s frustrating. It’s stressful when you’re not sure what’s going to happen, and if readers or agents or editors will like your work. Stressful waiting for the approval, the advice, the go-ahead.

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to handle the waiting involved in a writer’s life. Adjust, work on a new project, spend time with your family. It’s all good advice. And I’ve tried it, and it works pretty well, for the most part. People would ask me “So how’s the writing thing going?” and I got pretty used to saying, “Oh, you know, just waiting.”

I don’t think that attitude is good for me. It weighs on me. It takes a toll. I don’t like saying I’m waiting.  I can’t turn off the writer part of me for very long and pay attention to something else. A consistent, balanced lifestyle works better for me, where I’m making progress daily or weekly and moving toward my goals.  I can handle rejection and lack of news much better when I know things are moving forward anyway.

So, for  those of us who can’t handle the waiting, here’s my thought:

Stop waiting. Stop saying you’re waiting. Stop thinking about it that way.

If you want news to come to you, make the news happen. Of course, spend time with your family and take a break if you need it, but stop telling yourself you’re waiting. Find things you can do when you can’t move forward in one area. Read that book you want to use as a comparison title. Research the next ten agents you’re going to query. Connect with writers in your area. Blog genuinely and frequently. Build your platform with meaningful connections. Take the time to read Writing the Breakout Novel and On Writing and Master Class in Fiction Writing. Go to a conference and learn, connect, be inspired. And yes, write that next manuscript.

If you don’t want to be waiting, don’t wait. Push forward in any area you can. Small success are a tremendous encouragement, progress builds over time, and no one holds more influence over your career than you do. It’s yours.  Go get it.

Before I Got My Agent

Lots of writers when they sign with an agent write a lovely, helpful, awesome blog post about the experience. They’re often titled “How I Got My Agent,” and contain query stats, timelines, and tons of gratitude and encouragement. They’re a great way for writers to become familiar with what to expect when an agent offers and how to handle the emotional roller-coaster that comes along with it. I posted my own “how I got my agent” story last Friday, but I wanted to write a follow-up this week.

Why? Because when I was querying, I’d see someone else’s agent story go around, and as completely thrilled for that writer as I was, sometimes I– confession– got a bit jealous. Maybe jealous isn’t the right word. I was happy for them, thrilled with their success, willing to cheer them on, aware their success didn’t make mine any less likely. But sometimes it hit at a bad time, when I was particularly frustrated by a rejection or a tangle in my WIP or things that had nothing to do with writing, and it made me 80% happy for the writer and 20% sad for myself. I’ve heard some of my close writer friends make similar confessions, too. It’s hard to watch others succeeding when we feel like we aren’t. It’s hard when their story looks easier than ours. It’s really hard when some writers get multiple requests  in contests or multiple offers or there’s a flurry of querying news immediately after they start querying, and it looks like the whole of the publishing industry is launching themselves at Fabulous Writer A, and we’d really just love to have one agent interested in us.

So, because I am so familiar with those feelings, I had a few quick thoughts I thought I’d share.

It looks easy from the outside. No one’s story is ever as easy or glamorous as it looks. I’m tempted to write out that line and hang it above my computer, because it’s so true. It’s not fair to yourself to compare the worst parts of your story to the best parts of someone else’s. I know it looks easier from the outside, because my “how I got my agent” story barely scratches the surface. There was definitely a “before I got my agent” story.

I wrote a novel in high school. I was deadly serious about it. I researched hours every week, wrote almost every day. I wanted to be published by the time I turned seventeen. (I have no idea why; it probably wouldn’t have been good for me.) It was a sprawling plotless wonder, but I loved it. 400 pages of a tangent-prone Mafia-western. It was completely unmarketable, and if anyone had told me that, I would have been crushed. I probably would have quit. But no one did, and so I figured I’d keep trying even though I gave up on the plotless wonder when I went to college. I wrote short stories in college, but felt like I’d never come up with another good novel idea again. My short stories got so-so reactions from my professors, so I figured that wasn’t for me.  4 years went by, during which I read and wrote and tried to figure out how to become an author. By the time I graduated, I’d been working at it for seven years. I really had no connections with anyone published, and no novel I was working on, but I still wanted to be an author.

I kept looking around for ideas, kept reading, and 8 months after graduation, found an idea I thought was marketable. I loved the idea, and started writing it. Unfortunately for the timeline but fortunately for my skill development, it was a research-heavy, historically based urban fantasy with a frighteningly large cast of characters. Of course, it was the first of a series and took over 100k to wrap up the first book. It took me two years to get it ready to query. I had joined Twitter, learned a lot from agent and author blogs, and poured sweat and tears into my book. I queried it, revised once I learned a little more, queried again, revised, wondered if I should start the second book while I waited, wondered why no one loved this book as much as I did, and received mixed reactions from agents and authors and critique partners. I’d been writing for nine years, by this point. I wasn’t working on a novel the entire time, but especially in those last two years, I learned a lot about story structure, and even now I can see it’s a pretty solid manuscript. It had unique elements, but wasn’t unique enough. It was adult, but had some YA elements. It had a twist on what was already out there in urban fantasy, but the twist wasn’t strong enough. It didn’t have enough something, and I knew I could do better.

I swore I wasn’t giving up on that MS. I wasn’t trunking it. Some day, when I’d learned how to turn the so-so elements into something awesome, I’d go back to it. I spent a year querying and revising that MS, and while I was doing that, I started a new MS. I’m so glad I did. (Incidentally, if you’re writing a series I don’t recommend starting the sequel right after you finish writing the first. You never know what’s going to happen with that first book, and it’s usually better to start a different project next so you don’t spend five years writing a series that never sells.) I didn’t want to sign with an agent on my second book, because I thought my first one was good (it’s decent) and it was unique (it really wasn’t) and I had worked so hard on it. I’d written it while working a full-time job plus a publishing internship, which I’m surprised didn’t drive me to a breakdown.

If someone had told me that that MS would get trunked, and still needed completely rewritten, and wouldn’t land me an agent, I don’t think I could have started a new MS. But I’d started a new one while I queried the first, and hey, it was awesome. I loved that new story. And you know what? It didn’t take me two years. It took me five months. And I could see it was better, so much better, than my first. I started seeing the issues with my urban fantasy– things I had looked for and tried to address before, but just couldn’t see what the problem was. It made sense to me why that manuscript wasn’t getting the agent attention I wanted it to have. (I’m so glad I didn’t self-publish the fantasy MS out of frustration, because it’s still not the story it deserves to be. I can probably get that urban fantasy where it needs to be, because I have tools now that I didn’t before. This is a prime example of why there’s so much waiting involved in writing and publishing–I was waiting on my skills to develop.)

That second manuscript was faster, less frustrating, and got me my agent. But there’s a backstory there of two other manuscripts, twelve years of writing and hoping to be published, sweat, tears, juggling three jobs, and lots and lots of rejection. My querying stats from MOON RIVER, my second MS, look like this:

Queries: 53

Requests: 23 (6 partials, 17 fulls)

R&Rs: 4

Offers:  1

But… yeah. The backstory. Here are my stats from that urban fantasy:

Queries: 160

Requests: 8 partials (5 from pitch contests) and 3 fulls

R&Rs: 0

Offers: 0

Writing is fun and exciting and worth every minute to me. But I didn’t know it would be this hard and I had no idea how much work it would be. I still think it’s worth it, and just because the work is hard doesn’t make the time doing it miserable. But it can sometimes make it a bit easier to know other people aren’t skating by us on the road to success while we toil away with no one noticing. Finishing a manuscript or signing with an agent or landing a book deal or reaching a bestseller list is almost never as easy as it looks. It’s true with our characters, and it’s true with writers: there’s always a backstory.

And here’s the encouraging part: your current situation is not an omen of where you’re going to be next month or at Christmas or next year. Rejection and discouragement happen to everyone. Focus on your successes, keep going, and keep in mind when someone else succeeds in an area you’re trying to, that it probably took them years and a lot of work. It wasn’t easy, but if they did it, there’s no reason you can’t. Love your book. Give it your best. Start a new one and let the process sharpen your skills. Be a writer, because that’s the whole point. You already are succeeding, just by continuing to write. The rest will happen along the way.

As always, if you read my blog and need help or advice, let me know. Pay it forward, right?

New Agents Don’t Have Cooties

by Maria Vicente (@MsMariaVicente), a literary agent intern

There has been quite a bit of discussion lately in the writing world about whether it’s a good idea to query new agents. There are some people who will throw themselves in front of a train before even considering the possibility. Other writers flock to new agents, hoping that their queries will stand out more in a not-so-flooded inbox.

New agents don’t have cooties. There’s no reason why you should avoid the whole group of them. However, you also shouldn’t send a query to each and every one. There are many things to consider before querying a new agent, and it’s a process that should take a decent amount of time.

Remember that everyone starts somewhere. Those agents with years of experience? They were once new agents too. The thing is, there should be a starting point. If an agent has recently joined an agency, his/her bio will have details outlining their publishing experience. There should be some indication that they’ve learned a little bit about this crazy publishing world. If they’re a new agent, they won’t necessarily have deals and clients to boast about – but they should have had some education or training to lead them into this side of the industry.

Your next major consideration should be the agency’s background. If a new agent is taking on clients, it is very important that there are knowledgeable people within the agency to help them out. There’s no formal training program for agents and no one is going to know everything right away. That’s why you need to make sure the agency has a good reputation and has other, experienced agents to hold the new agent’s hand for the first little bit. If the agency is brand new – and the other agents have little to no experience – then you’ll probably want to steer clear.

Always find out the agent’s interests. New agent or not, it’s important to understand what type of writing he/she is looking for. If a new agent joins a reputable agency and they’re accepting your genre, then you’re golden. A new agent does have a client list to build, so they’ll really be looking out for the queries that interest them the most. New agents will want to start their lists off right, which means they’re going to represent genres they know and love.

You should also use social networking to your advantage. If this new agent has a Twitter account and they’re approachable, then ask questions! There’s a wealth of information available for writers thanks to the immediacy and slightly creepy lack of privacy of social media. We live online for a reason. You should be able to analyze a new agent’s involvement with the publishing community and use it to your advantage.

Honestly, an agent is an agent is an agent. You should be doing just as much research about new agents as you are about agents who have been in the industry for 20+ years. An agent with a ton of experience is not necessarily the best match for you as a writer. Similarly, a new agent with limited experience (because they should have some) is not automatically wrong.

You’re asking an agent to take a chance on you. Guess what? You are (most likely) a NEW writer. If everyone does their research and good matches are made, I think taking chances on new talent is a very good idea.

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!