5 Essential Elements of Fiction

Character: You at least need a main character or protagonist. And yes, you can have more than one main character. Dual timelines remain very popular and many well-regarded stories explore the points of view of more than two main characters. This is especially true if you’re writing a novel versus a short story. My one piece of advice? Try not to repeat the same scene, showing it from different characters’ viewpoints. This can end up frustrating your readers and making them impatient.

If you have a character who is adverse to your main character, they might be an antagonist.  Sometimes the antagonistic force isn’t another character, but another sort of obstacle standing in your main character’s way—or even a force of nature, such as an approaching storm.

Pacing: the speed at which your plot unfolds. A quiet, literary story may have a contemplative pace whereas a mystery or thriller is going to be a page-turner that rarely slows down.

Plot: Something has to happen to your character or the reader will become bored. The plot draws the reader into your characters’ lives. Plot is the bouncing ball, the up and down, of the narrative. Your main character encounters obstacles, learns lessons, and gets closer to, or further away from, her goal.

Setting: Where does your story take place? Of course, difference scenes are likely to have different settings. Give some thought to how setting might impact your characters and plots. Why is the story taking place here? Time period is closely related to setting. Are you writing historical fiction, contemporary, or speculative (set in the future)?

Theme: What are you trying to say with this piece? I tend to favor themes that emerge organically. Otherwise fiction can feel forced or preachy.

One of your goals as a fiction writer is to weave these essential elements together to make a cohesive whole. This involves asking yourself a number of questions as you write. Have I selected the main character with the most dramatic story arc (i.e., the character who changes the most)? Why is this particular setting the right one? What does this time period mean for my main character? Does the story’s pacing help or hinder the emergence of the theme? By keeping these questions in mind you are well on your way to crafting a multi-layered story that will keep your readers’ attention.

How is your story unfolding?

We talked at the beginning of the year about writing goals. Now that we’re approaching summer, I wonder how we are all doing. I don’t know if life has thrown you a curve ball or two, but I want to leave space for that possibility.

As for me, my day job as a lawyer has been taking up more of my time than anticipated. And the nature of it—litigation involves so much conflict—can be draining.

But I love spring. The warmer weather. The flowers. The sunshine. Did I mention the warmer weather?

Every day I take our Yorkie, Blue, for a walk. He’s a rescue dog and we don’t know for sure how old he is. Suffice it to say, he’s a senior dog. He can’t walk as long as he used to. With these limitations in mind, I help him down the front steps and off we go. We sniff at interesting smells (Blue) and admire the latest hydrangea blooms (me). By the time we return home, we might have solved a plot problem or two.

My friend Renea Winchester recently asked me, “How is your story unfolding?” I found this so lovely. It’s a completely non-judgmental question—the best kind.

How is your story unfolding, my friend?

Tips for Getting a Literary Agent

Photo by Lum3n on Unsplash

My last post discussed whether you might, or might not, want to seek representation from a literary agent. I’ve been getting questions about this topic so if you’re interested in getting a literary agent, this post is for you.

How the Process Works

First, yes, it can be extremely difficult to get a literary agent’s attention. It’s a numbers’ game. Agents’ in-boxes are overflowing.

Let’s consider a hypothetical. (Sorry, I’m a lawyer so I’m all about hypotheticals…) Meet Agent Jasmine, who is working hard for her existing clients. Although Jasmine is certainly interested in adding new talent to her list, she can afford to be picky. Jasmine receives hundreds of submissions called “queries” every week. She might request additional pages from a small percentage. If she’s going to offer representation, those pages must wow her.

Also, Jasmine isn’t simply reading to see if she likes the story. She’s already thinking about whether she can sell it to a publisher. That’s how she gets paid.

Tips for Success

It’s critical to follow Jasmine’s submission guidelines, likely located on her agency’s website. If she specifies five sample pages, don’t send her fifteen. If she wants the pages pasted into an email versus an attachment, then do that. Don’t make it easy for Jasmine to say “no” and move on to the next query.

Research agents before pressing send. You want an agent who represents similar books to yours. If Jasmine represents cozy mysteries, you probably want to look elsewhere if you’re querying an urban fantasy.

Keep track of the agents who represent books you’ve enjoyed. You can find their names in the acknowledgements.

Generally, you can’t re-query Jasmine multiple times on the same project. If you send queries in small batches, you can adjust your submission package before sending out another batch. If you start off sending fifty queries, you’ve limited your ability to do that.

Be careful about querying too early. Take your time. Once you’ve incorporated feedback from critique partners and polished your manuscript until it shines, it will be ready to wow Jasmine. I’m cheering you on.

An Introduction to Literary Agents

Photo credit Yannick Pulver via Unsplash

Who needs a literary agent?

Most large, well-known publishers of full-length works do not accept “unsolicited” submissions, which means manuscript submissions directly from an author. To get your foot in the door at this type of publisher, you’ll need a literary agent.

Mid-size, academic, boutique, and small publishers vary in terms of whether they will look at un-agented submissions. Your best bet is to check the submission guidelines on the publisher’s website. If the publisher doesn’t publicly share submission guidelines, that can be a sign that they are only open to literary agents. Note that some publishers have designated “open periods,” while requiring an agent for the rest of the year. Others may require an agent except for certain contest-related submissions.

If you would like to pursue self-publishing, you will not need a literary agent.

If your goal is to publish something like a short story, poem, or essay in a literary journal, you will not, apart from a few exceptions, need a literary agent.

What do literary agents do?

Put simply, a literary agent tries to sell their client’s book to a publisher. This means signing projects the agent thinks will sell, working with the author to get the manuscript into shape, submitting the manuscript to editors at publishing houses, and (fingers crossed!) negotiating a deal.

Agents get paid on commission, which explains why they are looking for highly commercial projects.

After the publishing deal is signed, an agent’s job is not finished. Going forward, an agent will be involved with handling commission and royalty payments and negotiating foreign and subsidiary rights. A literary agent also provides guidance to their authors about the publishing industry, future projects, author brand, social media, career trajectory, and more.

How do you get a literary agent?

It’s notoriously challenging to get a literary agent. I’m planning a future blog post with some tips that may help. Stay tuned…

Shout-Out to Public Libraries

About a month ago, I was asked by Ashley Hasty to contribute to her feature “25 Authors & Their Favorite Libraries.” Ever since, I’ve been thinking about the role libraries play in our communities.

Most historians say the first public library in the U.S. was established in the early 1700s at the Boston Old State House. The first free public library supported by tax revenue was built in 1833 in Peterborough, New Hampshire. You may have heard about Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic support of libraries; thanks to his funding, some 2509 libraries were built in the U.S. between 1883-1929. Check out The Personal Librarian for a historical novel about Belle da Costa Greene, who was J.P. Morgan’s librarian.

Libraries break down boundaries, providing resources to all members of our community. Libraries are judgment-free zones where exploration is encouraged and you can learn more about your own unique interests, whatever they might be.

Do you have a favorite library memory? Growing up in Hendersonville, I spent many a happy hour at the Henderson County Public Library. My elementary school library boasted a carpeted reading fort, which I wish was still available as it would provide a nice escape some days…

On business trips to New York, I always try to squeeze in a visit to the New York Public Library, especially the children’s room where the original Winnie-the-Pooh lives.

Now my local library is the Northeast Regional Library in Wake County. I remember when the building was under construction and I would drive by (somewhat impatiently!) to check on its progress. It’s such a joy to wander through the lovely space, filled with natural light and books of every description. When the library re-opened after quarantine, a security guard would ask each patron if they had recently experienced Covid symptoms. One day I was distracted by work emails and cheerfully answered “No, thank you,” as though he was offering the symptoms to me. That was embarrassing…

Some lucky afternoons at this library branch, from the rear windows you may spot frolicking groundhogs in the natural area out back. I have named one Dewey, after the Dewey Decimal System. He’s my favorite.

Photo courtesy of Abigail Lynn, Unsplash

5 Potential Pitfalls with Story Beginnings

These days, with so much competition for potential readers’ attention, story beginnings are more critical than ever. A writer needs to grab a reader’s interest—quickly. Although this is a subjective business and there’s no “right” or “wrong” approach, I’d like to flag these potential pitfalls for your consideration.

  1. Confusion

As writers, we have spent a great deal of time with our manuscript, but readers are coming to it with fresh eyes. When someone don’t know our characters, their relationships, or how they operate in the story world, it’s easy to become confused. The best beginnings are clear about where we are and what is happening, while keeping us in the scene. To avoid reader confusion, be mindful about:

  • introducing too many characters in the first few paragraphs of a story or pages of a novel;
  • beginning with extensive dialogue without grounding the reader in the scene; or
  • pressing “pause” on the action to explain things to the reader, which interrupts the story flow.

2. Introspection

I’m not saying it can’t be done, but beginning with a character alone can be challenging. If a story begins with a character by himself or herself, they have no one with whom to interact and might instead spend their time thinking. The reader is likely to grow impatient for something to happen. Often a story beginning will be more successful at grabbing a reader’s attention if you give the character someone to talk to. This provides an opportunity to show what the character is like and introduce tension.

3. Heavy-Handedness

In many novels considered to be classics, the opening line makes a pronouncement about the world or how life works. Dickens and Tolstoy do this often. You are certainly welcome to use this approach in contemporary fiction, but it might strike some readers (this one included) as preachy.

4. Backstory

A publisher and editor whom I admire (hi Kevin!) calls this “throat-clearing.”  The beginning of your story is valuable real estate. Don’t spend it preparing to tell the story. Start the actual story. This means, where you can, avoiding backstory, setting things in motion as soon as possible, and staying in scene.

5. Cliché

Readers want to feel like your story is one they haven’t read before. Consider whether your opening might come across as overly familiar, such as a character waking up or looking in the mirror. Similarly, a dream sequence might not be the best approach to draw a reader in.

Of course, you can pull any number of books off your shelves that break these “rules.” As long as you’re intentional about your approach, you can craft a story beginning that works.