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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Three Things I Consider Before I Offer Representation



Voice

The very first thing I notice about a book is the voice of the narrator. A writer I love may employ a snarky voice, a self-deprecating voice, a shrill voice, or a lyrical voice. I can be drawn in by any of those What matters is not which voice you choose, but whether I feel like I'm in the hands of a competent writer. Sometimes I open manuscripts and I find myself reading because I have to read--it's my job. Sometimes I open manuscripts and I immediately settle in, trusting that writer to take me on a journey that will be worth my while. 

Character


I need a character to love.

We often tell writers they need to hook the reader. And that's an apt analogy. But sometimes it's not so much that you need to hook me. Sometimes you need to give me something to latch onto. I want to hang on to a person I love. I want to protect the orphan girl who might be sent back to the orphanage because she isn't a boy. I want to see her succeed.

Some of the openings of stories I read make me think that when we say writers need to hook their readers that's interpreted to mean they must start in medias res and, what's more, they must make sure that the action, into which they are dropping their readers, is full of bombs blowing up and lives in danger.

That's not how you'll hook me. Hook me by giving me a character with an interesting voice. 

 Story

Once you have a great character you need to give her a story that is interesting.

Pretty quickly.

Because the best voice and the most interesting character will get boring fast if all we see her do for the first three pages is brush her hair, put on her clothes, and eat a bowl of cereal.

Give me an inciting incident fairly early--give me an idea about what she wants and why she can't have it. And then tell me what her plan of action is.

Here's a simple story structure that's pretty common:

  • Opening=
  • A character wants something. 
  • An obstacle is in her way. 
  • She makes a plan. 
  • Middle=
  • Failure and now we're in worse shape. New plan. 
  • Failure and now we're in worse shape. New plan. 
  • Failure and now we're in worse shape. New plan. 
  • Victory in sight. 
    • Ending=
    • Temptation--dark night of the soul. She can have what she wants, or she can sacrifice what she wants to save someone who is unworthy (Jesus Christ is the greatest hero--he gave up heaven to sacrificed himself for unworthy people). 
    • Climax--she decides to sacrifice what she wants and she saves the unworthy person. 
    • Denouement--she gets what she wanted all along and then some--her selfless act has won her more than she ever imagined she could have. 

    That's common because it works. There are other ways to tell stories, but all good stories must have conflict and struggle and resolution.

    That doesn't mean they have to start with explosions or fistfights or miserable, whiney characters.

    Two more things come into play for me, when I decide to offer representation: marketability and shared vision/compatibility. But I'll get to those another time.

    What about you? What draws you into a story? The character? The world? The action?

    photo credit: mikebaird via photopin cc

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    Sally Apokedak
    Sally Apokedak is an associate agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. She's in the process of of building a dynamite list of authors. She is also active in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

    7 comments:

    Lori Ann Freeland said...

    My favorite stories are character driven with people I grow to like as if they were real. Sometimes it's hard to close the book!

    Becky Doughty said...

    Sally - this is a great post! Wonderful, simple breakdown of what works.

    Thanks!

    Elaine Stock said...

    Ah, what a wonderful topic, especially through the eyes of a literary agent. I've heard many agents say that they want and expect to "fall in love" with the main character(s). Now tell me, please, can you love a character--enough to stick with the character throughout the story--if the character is: not noble or kind or emotionally unstable or any assorted criteria that deems her or him as "dark"? In other words, I write about troubled, flawed characters that through God's mercy and love do a 360-turn and His brightness once again shows. Or, does this type of character totally makes an agent representing Christian fiction toss the manuscript down and issue a I-pass-on-this-one?

    As a reader, this is also the type of story I enjoy reading. I just finished reading Jodi Picoult's THE STORYTELLER, full of flawed, wounded characters--some whom were not nice people in-- that I rooted for and couldn't stop reading about.

    I know this is all subjective, but I'm curious about your take.

    sally apokedak said...

    I fall for characters, too, and like to get to know them as if they were real. Sometimes--a lot of times--at the end of a great book I am a little heartbroken. As if I've lost a good friend.

    sally apokedak said...

    Thanks, Becky.

    sally apokedak said...

    Elaine, this is a good question. I've thought a lot about it. Sure our characters need flaws. The flaws I can overlook are, as you say, different from what others will overlook. But, in the end, I think if a character shows some flash of bravery and love, I can stick with him to see if he'll turn out OK.

    Wounded is different from spoiled rotten, I think. And it's different from whiney, too. I love wounded, brave characters who don't feel sorry for themselves. I don't care for wounded whiners.

    But sometimes you can make the spoiled rotten person or the whiner seem to be a secondary character to begin with. Eustace Scrubb, for example was very unlikeable but he was a secondary character--or so I thought. And I loved him in the end.

    Elaine Stock said...

    Excellent views, Sally. Thanks!