Anything can be story if it matters to you …

This will be the last post about what I learned from the Surrey International Writers Conference. Yes, I hear you, it was in October. Why, you ask, has it taken you so long to tell us what you learned? Well, there was Halloween, the launch of my debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch, cups of chai to drink, lentil soup to eat, the endless extraction of my cat’s paw from my cup of tea, and, of course, my never ending fascination with the Sasquatch – it’s time consuming let me tell you.

The last workshop I attended was given by Independent Editor Lisa Rector, of Third Draft New York City. She works with advanced fiction writers. She talked about the 11th Hour Checklist. The following was taken from my notes.

The last 10 per cent is the hardest and trickiest, when you have a ‘near ready novel.’ Look at what you are resistant to doing. Are you putting your soul on the first page? What are you holding back from us? Put a little bit of yourself on that page. How has your own personal growth been reflected on the page?

Take a look at your opening sentence. Can you get it down to six words? If you can summarize your book in six words you can sell it. Do that with every chapter. Pick a random sentence from the middle of a scene – does it suggest tension or conflict or animosity? You may have a better first line in the middle of a chapter.

Look at the last lines of your chapters. Do they pose questions? Do they set up someone or a plot point? Do they set up a counter point or ask a question of another character?

Ask yourself: if I were to write that book today, what would be the first thing I would say to my reader? Look at your response and then look at your first page and chapter. You can always add more passion, excitement and fear if you genuinely believe in the book. If I were a reader, what would be the one detail about his book that would catch my attention?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions then the manuscript is not ready to go out.

The first line introduces us to conflict or change that pulls us into the story. Find a way to make the reader care. Anything can be story if it matters to you – then it will matter to readers. The unexpected rather than the familiar gets our attention. Do you have that on the page, and in more than one place? Can I raise more questions?

The style of the writing gets our attention but the substance sustains the story. Style alone is not story. Substance alone is not story – they have to work in tandem.

As something starts to resolve set something else in motion. Often the consequences are too small, too local, and they don’t affect us in a deep and meaningful way. Minor characters don’t have to be insignificant.

How are you sustaining conflict and complicating the plot? Can your conflict hold up through the length of the novel? Is your character still questioning something up until the end? The moment your character stops questioning things, your story is over.


Cheryl Tardif said…
Great post, Jan. Thanks for sharing what you learned at the conference. The questions you ask are so relevant. I'm doing final edits on a romantic suspense and you've given me something to think about. Cheers!

Cheryl Kaye Tardif,
Canadian suspense author