Thursday, March 8, 2012

March Madness: It's not me, it's you

As heard in conversation between Query and MS:

MS: It's not you, it's me.
Q: I thought we were doing so well together, I complement your themes perfectly!
MS:  You do, it's just that I'm missing something in my plot.
Q: I'm flexible. I'll change. Anything you need, I'll reflect your brilliance.
MS: I need to find myself. I need to fill the holes, complete my characters before I'm worthy of you.
Q: What will I do without you? I can't function without you! I have no purpose but to tell everyone about you!
MS: I'll be back, and when I am, you and I will be better for it. I promise, I'm doing this for you.

Some queries get rejected, not because they're poorly written--on the contrary, they can be the best representation of your ms possible--but because something is lacking in your characters or plot. For all I know, your query may not be representing your ms to the best of its abilities and the ms itself is golden, perfect. But I--and many agents--tend to take the pessimistic view and assume your ms is probably lacking the same elements as your query.

Often at conferences, I'll ask a writer to describe the main character. They will then proceed to tell me what happens to them in the plot. No, no, no. I asked about the character. Who is your character? Why should we care? What makes them tick? What will draw readers to them?

For example, try describing your best friend. Would you start by telling me about how, in the ninth grade, she went on this epic journey across the state to meet her biological father? That's a really cool story, one I'd like to hear from her if I ever meet her. Or would you tell me, a perfect stranger, about her bubbly personality and perseverance even when things seem bleak? Does she dress as a goth but always accessorizes with pink because of a girly streak she's proud of? Does she have this super quirky habit of writing people's names on her arm in sharpie when she meets them so she can remember their name better because she has a poor short term memory and she's determined to improve?

Now that's a character worth reading. And writing.

And when I read a query that begins, "Jessica was a normal teenage girl until the new kid at school starts paying attention to her and before she knows it, she's sucked into a werewolf clan," my eyes glaze over and my right pinkie toe starts to twitch.

Honestly, I don't want to read about a normal teenage girl. I want to read about an extraordinary character who experiences extraordinary things. In fiction, normal does not exist. Every character needs quirks, issues, a past to overcome. Think Sarah Dessen, Jennifer Echols. No vampires. No werewolves. Contemporary. And, arguably, "normal" characters. And, arguably, rather "normal" lives and events. But something about the "normal" girl and the "normal" events is off--something sets off a chain reaction, rippling not only to the plot, but to her personality and emotions. Suddenly, the tiny little things we knew about her--a fissure in a parental relationship, an OCD tendency, a drug habit--is magnified tenfold as she clings to anything she can while the plot ravages her life.

(I'm not knocking paranormal--you all know me, I love me some vampires. But I feel like talking about contemporary today. All of this can, and should, be applied to all genres.)

Let's have some fun.

"Jessica, a normal teenage girl" suddenly becomes "Jessica, a girl who obsessively buries herself in her garage band and mastering guitar riffs rather than deal with the reality of her mother's death and her father's drinking."

And the new kid at school? Let's give him a makeover too. Turn him into the boy next door, Chris. Chris and Jessica used to play in the sandbox together, but Chris's perfect family unit made Jessica uneasy as she watched her mother go through round after round of chemo, until she finally drew away from him--and his tone-deafness--completely. Are you tempted to make Chris an A-plus student who will tutor Jessica so her grades will improve so the school and child services don't start asking questions about her home life? Now, where would the fun in that be? As an agent, and a reader, I'm looking for intriguing and unique characters all around. And plot. Yes, plot. So make Chris a football star. No football, you say? Now you're thinking. Okay, hockey (cuz I know as little about hockey as I do football). Chris's own grades are slipping. They may be next door neighbors, but they don't pay attention to each other (and no, Chris has not been holding a candle for Jessica since sixth grade when she started to pull away from him; he's moved on) until they're stuck in study hall together.

"The new boy at school" becomes "an old friend" and the "werewolf clan" becomes "Chris's big Italian family who starts to pay way too much attention to Jessica's problems, and empty refrigerator." The implied "needing to stay away from the werewolves to save her own life" becomes "needing to keep the whole family at a distance to keep them from discovering her father's dark secret, a penchant for too much booze and losing his temper on the only other person in the house--her. But Jessica is beginning to realize that just because her family is falling apart, doesn't mean she can't have one, and losing herself in music has cost her something more important--warmth and friendship. But Chris isn't at all eager to welcome Jessica into his big noisy family or rekindle their old friendship--he wants out of it all." Because he's a werewolf and no one knows it. Just kidding.

Holy crap, see how much more fun that would be to write? And pitch? And read?

So, at a conference, when I ask WHO your character is, be prepared with quirks, maybe a tiny (like, five words) backstory, and her true personality.

Another example? Let's!

<Disclaimer: I honestly hate picking on Twilight, I do. But nearly everyone has read it so it makes for a good bad example. And I am nit-picking, deliberately overlooking the good so I can make a point. I'm not beginning an argument here over the qualities of Twilight, because there is actually a lot of good that can be said. But for today, go with it. And I am getting a little tired (ok, not really) of always talking about Anna and the French Kiss or Lola and the Boy Next Door. They're just too awesome for their own good. But, since they are so awesome, they'll go in the "good good example" category.>

Describe Bella Swan.

...I'm waiting.

She's a decent looking girl who is forced to move in with her father in the rainy Northwest. She's pale, despite having moved from Florida. She's never had a boyfriend. She's independent (wants to get her own job, pay for her own things). Book smart.

Ya. That's all I've got. She's normal. I want "normal."

Describe Twilight's plot.

The mysterious boy at school who has never paid attention to another girl, suddenly starts paying the new girl attention, even though it will endanger her because he's a vampire and can easily kill her, and his enemies will use her to their advantage for their sick games; but he involves her anyways because really he's just a horny teenage boy.

By the way, I'm 98.2% sure I would have rejected that query.

Describe Lola.

She's a budding costume designer and never wears the same outfit twice. Her passion for creativity outweighs any teasing she might get at school. She is so dedicated to the idea of being creative, worldly, and mature that she forgets sometimes that she is still just a teenager--which makes dating an older man hard for others to understand but makes perfect sense to her.
I want her hair

Not only do I want to read about her--I want to be her.

Describe Lola's plot.

When Lola's next door neighbors move back in after two years away, her confidence is severely tested. Her childhood friend, and one time love interest, Cricket is suddenly back in the picture, as wonderful, nice, nerdy, and caring as she remembered. Her parents see this as an opportunity to show Lola how much better it would be to date someone like Cricket, rather than her older musician boyfriend--but her boyfriend doesn't appreciate, or understand, Lola's sudden insecurities, a reminder that she is, in fact, much younger than him. Lola must discover who she truly is under the extravagant makeup, wigs, and costumes.

I'm 99.993% sure I'd have requested that query. And I haven't even mentioned the biological mother or quirky best friends or Lola's monstrous costume project.

So if your query, decently written, isn't getting the hits it should be, you may not have to (only) rework your query. It may be your ms. Same advice applies if you're getting comments on your ms along the lines of "I didn't connect with your characters; the plot didn't pick up fast enough; I liked your characters, but the plot wasn't solid or new."

Happy writing!


J.P. Sloan said...

This reminds me of something my wife always says... "Normal is a setting on a washing machine."

Richard said...

While I really enjoy the changes in the characters, I think there is a worry about pushing characters to be too eccentric. It is fiction, so straying from "normal" is the idea, but if your book takes place in reality, then it has to make sense.

You want a good character, so that the reader (and you) will actually care what happens to him/her. However, if we are too lost in a world that seems like a cartoon parody of our own, it is easy to lose people.

Lisa Collicutt said...

Excellent advice--worth taking!

Jennifer Pickrell said...

This is awesome, thanks for the tips! I'm so Eddie Izzard when it comes to describing my characters. "She likes you like bread?"

Courtney said...

Great advice!
But I would rather that first example (the one you made up), have him be a werewolf and nobody know about it like you joked. That would pique my interest, but to each their own ;)

Unknown said...

This makes so much sense it's scary. My query is definitely the problem. I only describe the plot and leave out what is special about the MC. Duh! Thanks for "smacking me upside the head". :)

Anonymous said...

An author with good characterizations could be clinically diagnosed with multiple personality disorder.
My humble take on 3-D characters, and my interest in learning more on character development: The Reality of Fictional Characters

Tim Barzyk said...

Speaking of characters without background -- Anonymous up there has a name, it's Tim Barzyk, ... brain zombified during comment process.

Julie said...

I needed this post today. Thank you!

Ash-Matic said...

This is excellent advice.

And not just for querying, but for any character-driven piece.


Huntress said...

When you made the Twilight disclaimers, I had an image of you ducking snarky missiles from both sides.


Charlie N. Holmberg said...

Love this post! I paused halfway through to make sure I could describe my characters as people and not by what's happened to them or what they do. Thanks for posting this!

Also, Bella moved from Arizona, not Florida. Feel free to judge me for knowing that fact without looking it up (I had a Twilight phase...)

Cortney Pearson said...

The Twilight references made me laugh. And this is so true! Now I'm running through in my head how to describe my characters...plot too... *winks*

Susan Fields said...

I'm digging deep into my main character's head today for my new wip - this post is exactly what I needed. Thanks!

Carrie Butler said...

Yes! I love posts with examples. Thank you so much! :)

Nikki said...

Great post. Gave me several things to mind both when writing and when sending out queries. Thanks!

Nikki said...

*sigh* Several things to 'keep' in mind.

Scott Springer said...

Thank you, Vickie

that's so right on it hurts

Donna K. Weaver said...

Oh, but don't forget that Bella's a klutz.

Points well made.

The Writer said...

Awesome post, and great advice. I can't wait for the contest to begin, even if I don't make the cut. It's a golden opportunity.

Rebecca Christiansen said...

This post totally inspired me to write. And really, reeeeallyyyy inspired me to reread LOLA.

And it also made me want to query you with my new project because I think you might like it.

Martha Ramirez said...

Loved this! Too funny. What great examples and advice. I ended up purchasing Anna and the French Kiss a long time ago when you recommended it. I must have forgotten about Lola. I know my cp loved that book too. I definitely want to read.

Thanks for putting a smile on my face. ;)

Shell Flower said...

Great advice. Wow. This are perhaps the best/ms query tips I've ever seen. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into the mind of an agent.

Laura Renegar said...

Brilliant! I'm marking this post as a favorite.

Unknown said...

I just revised my query thanks to you! I'm feeling much better about it. Thanks :)

Tee said...

This is a great post. The part about characters really resonated with me, mostly because I will only stick to a book that has great characters. And it's what I sort of pride myself on, my character development. (Not to sound big headed)

I honestly think knowing your characters is the most important thing, because they can be authentic in their actions/dialogue.

Anyways, great post.

Unknown said...

I can't resist: When her flighty mother marries a minor league baseball player, Bella cuts the apron strings and exiles herself to her father's tiny Washington town....

That's what always struck me about Bella. An ordinary girl wouldn't have done that.

Still, I'm definitely pondering on whether my own characters have enough quirks. :)

Awesome post!

Sara Murphy said...

Thank you for this. Perhaps my character IS too normal...must revisit MS.

Juliana said...

One of the best posts of the year.
'nough said!
Thanks for this ;)

S.P. Bowers said...

Great post, very informative. Thanks. It's exactly what need to hear as I start my final edits before querying.

Joyce said...

This post was amazing and, like everyone else, exactly what I needed! Thank you so much!

Nichole Giles said...

Thanks for the excellent advice. Much appreciated.

Ileandra Young said...

Fantastic advice and definitely pointers I should keep in mind while constructing description of my characters vs plot. :)

Anonymous said...

It's really pathetic that you would censor the only slightly critical comment on your blog and leave only the obsequious ones.

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