Dogpatch Writers Collective welcomes guest contributor Cate Perry.
Angela sat on the edge of the hospital bed, letting the news sink in: Her own heart was a ticking time bomb.
Now that I’ve got your attention, allow me to take a step back and tell you Angela’s life story in 100% exposition. She was born on May 7, 1985. She had blonde curly hair that turned brown over time. She never caused her parents any trouble. Now she works as a receptionist for Happy Days Travel Agency. Every day at breakfast, she eats an apple and blah, blah, BLAH!!!
We’ve all heard the bleak news about slush piles. Agent panels at writers’ conferences around North America tell us 95% of their submissions are crap, while 5% are decent enough to read past the first couple pages. And when we hear this, we simultaneously ask ourselves the same, pleading silent question: Would my work merit that 5%?
When I started as an intern for a literary agency five years ago, I got to answer that question for myself. Moreover, I got to see the 95% who got rejected and why.
We’ve all heard how important the hook is. Story needs to begin with narrative or action that draws readers in and puts questions in their minds. Why is he being chased? Will she survive? What happens next? It’s these questions that turn pages. Few people will wade through pages of telling exposition in anticipation of something finally happening.
Many writers choose to begin their stories in the “Ordinary World” (as set forth by Joseph Campbell, in his “Hero’s Journey” model), with no plot point in mind. (If you’re unsure what a plot point is, then I’ll rephrase: With no point in mind.)
Oh sure, we’re introduced to the main character and what he or she does for a living, where he or she lives, etc. But think about it. Frank L. Baum didn’t start Dorothy in Kansas waking up to an alarm clock, looking at herself in the mirror, brushing her teeth, or eating breakfast. Every person Dorothy met – every line she spoke – set her purpose and came back at the end.
Story starts on page one. Sounds obvious, I know. Yet, I’ve told countless people their stories didn’t start until Chapter Two, or Three, or even Eight. (Yes, Eight!) Sometimes we’re too thick in the forest to see where the action really begins. Or we’re too close to our characters and writing to want to make the necessary cuts. Listen to your peers, your critique groups. If people are telling you to cut, then cut! It’s never a total loss. You can always drop information in later, when it’s truly relevant and necessary to reveal it.
2. You could be in the Top 5% if you know your craft.
I began a story with the most intriguing premise in the whole world. Unfortunately, rather than placing me in a story, the writer told me, and the intrigue immediately slipped into boring.
Hopefully you know how to write scene – it’s all in the showing. You place your character(s) somewhere and around the action and dialogue you include the sounds and smells and sights. You include the protagonist’s reactions to the action. What you don’t do is tell. If you’re using the phrase, “Then s/he did this…”, “Then s/he said that…”, chances are, you’re telling.
Exposition has its place, of course. The reader doesn’t need to know every mundane detail about a character’s drive to work. Unless something plot-wise happens on that drive, then a quick expository sentence or paragraph will do.
3. You could be in the Top 5% if your story follows the hooks with more rising action in the immediate story.
Many writers seem to feel the need to follow the hook with flashback in order to fill the reader in. Nine times out of ten, the flashback is not only unnecessary, it pulls the reader out of the immediate story.
Good ol’ Frank L. Baum didn’t follow up the tornado with a flashback explaining how Dorothy’s wound up living with her Auntie Em. Who cares?!? We want to know what happens next!
Think about the hook in this very post. It brings several questions to mind. What has happened to Angela? How is her heart a ticking time bomb? How much time does she have? What will she do with this news? But rather than tell you, I pulled back and told you her life story. That she was a good child is irrelevant. That she works for a travel agency can be shown later, through a scene where she goes to work – perhaps to submit her resignation and opt to use the travel agency for her own, possibly last, vacation. I don’t need to know Angela’s backstory in order to get to know her. I will understand her through the way she deals with the situation at hand, and that will move the story forward.
If you find the flashback is necessary, then start the story there. Otherwise, trust that you started where you did for a reason, and continue the story on. Details of the characters’ lives can be dropped in here and there when they’re called for through the story itself. If you must use flashback, keep it short and relevant.
What I learned, ultimately, from my time as an intern and as a developmental editor, is that I have what it takes to rise to the surface of any slushpile – and I’m confident you do, too.
Go to any bookstore and find the place on the shelf where your book will reside one day. Look at the authors surrounding that space, all of them regular people – just like you – who dedicated themselves enough to the craft to learn it and create. If they can get published, there’s no reason you can’t. We are all players in this game. To win it, we must learn the rules, practice endlessly, and play.
Cate Perry has a BA in English Literature and a Masters in Education. She has sixteen years experience teaching writing and does freelance developmental editing. An alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley workshops and two-time agent liaison for the Chuckanut Writers Conference, she was published last fall in Dr. Bernie Siegel’s A Book of Miracles. She will be teaching Plot Your Story: Hook the Reader! at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, from Feb. 14-28, as well as Breathe Life into Your Characters!, May 15th and 22nd. You can read more from Cate at cateperry.com or not-looking.com.