Tag Archives: editors

Characters Need To Act–Even In Pitches

“Conference season” is approaching. Well, perhaps it’s in full bloom. At any rate, chances are, serious writers are considering a conference or two they’d like to attend this year because they will have the opportunity to meet agents and editors and perhaps pitch their story.

So what is a pitch? I thought this might be the time to reprise the article about crafting the pitch for a story. Here’s the revised version of the one that appeared here in November 2012.

– – – – –

I’ve read too many novels in which the main character has no plan of action. Things happen, and he responds when necessary. In other words, he is reactive, which means outside forces are largely responsible for any character development that might occur.

Some time ago agent Rachelle Gardner allowed writers to post in the comments section of her blog one-sentence story pitches which whittle a novel to its bare bones—the premise.

According to former agent Nathan Bransford, there are three necessary elements in a twenty-five word pitch:

– The opening conflict (called the Inciting Incident by Robert McKee)
– The obstacle
– The quest

Gardner expands on this to include the following:

→ A character or two
→ Their choice, conflict, or goal
→ What’s at stake (may be implied)
→ Action that will get them to the goal
→ Setting (if important) [emphasis mine]

In the template she borrowed from Mr. Bransford, the character is to “overcome the conflict.” She then gives an example pitch she borrowed from Randy Ingermanson of a well-known story in which the character “battles for his life.” (Examples are always helpful!)

In response to Gardner’s invitation, many writers bravely put their pitches out for critique. However, I noticed one commonality—not universal, but frequent: the recurring actions in which the characters engaged in these pitches were things like “revealing” or “discovering” or “finding.”

Yes, those are verbs and therefore actions, but they are not graphic or explicit. They aren’t necessarily reactive, but they don’t show what the character is actively pursuing.

I’ll be the first to admit—writing an active pitch is not easy.

For one thing, not every story has a character hunt down the killer or free the princess. Some stories key in on the protagonist’s inner struggle, but the key word there is “struggle.” The hard work of facing life as a victim of rape or of recovering from a divorce or fighting out of addiction or any of the other cataclysmic events that can change a person, must still come through as active in a pitch.

A character can defeat her doubts or conquer her fears, but she can also do something more particular in your novel. The more unique or original, and active, the verb in your pitch, the more likely it will catch an agent’s or editor’s attention.

Here’s the pitch I wrote of a few familiar stories (fictitious or true). Do they sound intriguing? Do you recognize them or are they too general?

  • When a trusting king expects instant riches from the miller’s daughter, she must outsmart a magical imp to save her life and that of her firstborn son.
  • When a rebellious prophet sails away from God, he must survive the stormy consequences of his rebellion and repent in order to escape a watery grave.
  • When a family leaves their secluded home for a day, they must solve the mystery of the disturbing break-in that decimated their daughter’s belongings.
  • A loyal lieutenant must escape through a window and live like a fugitive in order to avoid the undeserved murderous rage of his father-in-law, the king.

No doubt you can improve on these, but each contains action. And action is what you want to show those reading your pitch.

Now it’s your turn.

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Writers’ Conferences

2015 OCW keynote speaker Jane Kirkpatrick

2015 OCW keynote speaker Jane Kirkpatrick

I had the privilege of teaching a workshop last week in the Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference held at the Red Lion Inn in Portland. I hadn’t attended a writers’ conference in a number of years, so it was a delight to be back with familiar faces and people of like interests.

Mostly, though, I was reminded of how valuable writers’ conferences are.

First, I was inspired—to write well and to write for a greater purpose. OCW had two keynote speakers—one a pastor known for his nonfiction and the other a sought-after speaker and fiction writer (pictured here).

In the extended learning classes held each morning, I also received excellent instruction. Some classes dealt with marketing and promotion, others about writing certain kinds of nonfiction, and others about the craft of fiction writing, from novels to screenplays. I chose a class about novel writing, taught by agent Sally Apokedak. Though directed at children’s book writers, the information was relevant to all levels of fiction.

The afternoons offered a variety of one-hour workshops (such as “Blogging And Blog Tours—The Whys and Wherefores,” which is the class I taught). Again, there was something for everyone during these afternoon sessions which included such topics as self-editing, essentials for a nonfiction book, voice, marketing, story beginnings and endings, synopsis writing, and more.

Third, I had a chance to attend both an editors’ and an agents’ panel during which these professionals answered questions from the audience. These panels offer a window into the business side of the publishing industry, and I never tire of hearing from those on the other side of writing talk about their work, their expectations, their advice for those of us who have not broken into publishing.

Another important part of writing conferences is practical, hands-on learning. OCW offered a pitch session, in which writers could learn how to write a brief pitch they might wish to use when they met with agents and editors, or to hone the one they already had.

The second night I led a critique clinic which allowed writers to break into small groups, and with the guidance of a more experienced writer, offer each other critiques of the first three pages of their work in progress. At the same time there was a poetry class and one on web design.

All this learning and inspiration is important, but another vital aspect of writers’ conferences is the opportunity to schedule an appointment with editors or agents. In some cases a writer can also request a pre-conference critique from the professional of their choice (some conferences offer this service as part of the conference package and others make paid critiques available), meaning that the professional with whom the conferee meets may have already read a sample of his writing before their meeting.

In other words, the agents or editors likely have an idea about how the conferee writes, if they’re interested in seeing more, and what she might need to do next.

OCW provides something I hadn’t encountered before—mentoring sessions. These are thirty-minute meetings with available staff—usually more experienced writers who can field questions, give encouragement, and offer advice to those who aren’t sure what direction they should take next. With so many changes in the publishing industry in the last five to ten years, this kind of help is so valuable.

Writers’ conferences offer one additional help—time to meet, talk, and connect informally with other writers. There’s something encouraging and challenging in getting together—beginners with multi-published authors and mid-list or self-published writers. Conferences seem to point to our commonalities, but beginners can be spurred on to greater heights by seeing successful writers who were once like they.

And published authors can remember how they started, the work it took, and the drive, determination, and enthusiasm they had to keep going. They can give of their time to help others as a way of paying back those who helped them.

Certainly writers’ conferences aren’t essential. As technology improves, and instructional sites such as Udemy and WOW (Women On Writing) proliferate, writers can receive instruction in the comfort of home, saving travel and lodging expenses. These classes can even bring writers into contact with an agent or an experienced writer or a freelance editor. In addition there are Facebook groups and Goodreads groups where writers can congregate online with other writers.

And yet . . . Writing conferences offer the intangibles of face-to-face contact. In a post back in 2013, I included the following information (with some minor editing) about writing conferences:

There are hundreds of writing conferences. Wikipedia has compiled a partial list, but a Google search will uncover many more. The key is to refine the search based on genre and location. Some of the more well known conferences include Writer’s Digest (East and West), SCBWI (LA and New York, as well as smaller local gatherings), and RWA. Christian writers’ conferences include Mount Hermon, Colorado Christian Writers, Oregon Christian Writers, American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), and Blue Ridge.

Conferences may not be essential, but they are valuable. My recommendation is to plan ahead—pick a conference that seems to be a good fit and start now saving for 2016.

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Clarifying What’s Passive

Instruction manuals and conference workshop teachers say to avoid passive voice, and there’s a good reason to do so, but in order to follow that bit of advice, we need to have a clear idea what we’re talking about. As it turns out, writers of all stripes — including experienced novelists, MFA grads, freelance writers, and editors — can be confused about the term “passive” when used in reference to writing.

Passive voice is a grammatical term identifying a particular subject/verb relationship — a specialized one that runs counter to the usual active voice.

Typically, the subject of a sentence is the agent that does the action of a sentence. In the examples below, the subject of each of these simple sentences is the agent doing the action.

  • The writer cleaned off her desk. [Who cleaned? writer]
  • The editor marked the final page of the manuscript. [Who marked? editor.]
  • The publisher congratulated the team on a job well-done. [Who congratulated? publisher.

In sentences utilizing the passive voice, however, the subject is actually the recipient of the action. Again, examples may be helpful.

  • The book was published by WaterBrook. [The subject book is the object of the action was published rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • The email was sent from her phone. [The subject email is the object of the action was sent rather than the agent doing the action.]
  • Another writer was added to the group without advance warning. [The subject writer is the object of the action was added rather than the agent doing the action.]

Writing instructors discourage passive voice. Since the subject is, for all practical purposes, supine, there’s not much for a reader to see in a sentence with a passive verb. Sentences, like good stories, need action. They need an agent who goes out and makes something happen. Passive characters make for boring stories, and passive subjects make for boring sentences.

So far, so good.

But here’s where problems start cropping up. Some writers (and even some editors) have taken the concept of active subjects to mean that all sentences must have action verbs. Any verb of being, then, gets lumped in with the passive voice. Here are a few sentences with verbs of being.

  • Despite everything that happened, the speaker still wasn’t late to the conference.
  • Her children are all gifted writers, singers, or artists.
  • I am certain about this one.

In each of these sentences, there is no action, so consequently, the subject is not passively standing by having some action foisted upon it. Rather, these sentences identify a condition or a state the subject is in. These are legitimate sentences and perform necessary functions in our writing. Still, they play a minor role and should not be overused.

Another form that gets dumped in with passive voice, and isn’t, is a helping verb working with a present participle (-ing form of a verb).

  • The writer is finishing the last chapter.
  • Her friend was posting on Facebook late at night.
  • The members of his critique group were giving line edits instead of overall impressions.

This kind of sentence is clearly not passive. In each of the examples the subject is the agent doing the action, and there is a strong action verb.

Is there a reason to steer clear of these sentences? Perhaps, but for an entirely different reason than for the erroneous accusation that they are passive.

Sentences with ongoing action, which is what this verb construction communicates, are a little harder for readers to visualize. The beginning of a thing, we can picture, but what do we see when the action is ongoing?

In addition, if an entire paragraph or page or scene contains numerous sentences with this construction, the repeated –ing acts like any other repetition: it becomes annoying.

Believe it or not, there’s one more sentence construction that gets accused of being passive, and it is innocent of the charge. These sentences are the ugly ducklings of writing. They have everything wrong with them — no action verb, the subject in the wrong place, and a bland, unspecific word up front. I’m talking about sentences that start with There is or Here are and the like.

  • There were three Facebook friend invitations in her email box.
  • Here is your coffee.
  • There aren’t any more books available.

These sentences are as legitimate as any other. They serve a necessary purpose, but like other sentences with verbs of being, they should not be overused.

So here’s what we covered:

  • Sentences with verbs in passive voice aren’t as strong as verbs in active voice. A writer would be wise to rewrite them.
  • Sentences with state of being verbs are perfectly fine but shouldn’t be overused.
  • Sentences with helping verbs and the present participle (-ing) form of a verb, while not passive, nevertheless should be used sparingly, largely because of repetition but also as a means to help readers visualize scenes.
  • Finally, sentences with construction similar to there is … may look passive, but they aren’t. The subject comes after the state of being verb, which adds to the impression that there’s a passive something going on. But remember, with no action verb in sight, there is no possibility of a passive subject. 😉

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