Fall, that time of year when leaves are changing and sweaters are being pulled out from closets. It’s also time for Halloween, costumes, and turning regular old pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns.
I like to think of pumpkins like a first draft of a story. They’re fine. They’re complete. They’re pretty solid. From the outside, at least.
But, if you were to cut that pumpkin open, you’d find a gooey mess inside, carefully hidden under that solid veneer.
That’s what you need to revise. You need to scoop out the messy stuff, using a spoon, a knife, even your fingernails when it comes down to those last stubborn bits of orange goo that cling so tightly to the sides you think you’ll never get them out. You toss it all into a bowl and assess the situation.
You separate the orange goo from the seeds, those inklings and good ideas to make use of later. You cover them in salt and bake them in the oven and turn them into something worth keeping by giving them a little attention.
Next, you need to…plot…I mean plan. This is when you need to look at the whole story. Look at the pumpkin from the outside. What face is it calling for? What shapes lend themselves to its curves? What needs to happen next to bring it to life?
Start carving away. Cut away the unnecessary bits. Refine the story. Maybe the face begins to take shape, and you realize you don’t need that extra tooth because it’ll be overwhelming or that the eyes should be triangles instead of circles because they fit the character better. You slowly learn what the story needs and how it’s going to appear to your reader.
After you’ve got the face cut out, you go back in and refine. You level out where the smile isn’t quite even. You make sure those triangle eyes are the same size. You look at the little details to make sure it all comes together evenly.
Finally, put a small candle inside and close the lid. Watch as the pumpkin takes on a face of it’s own and comes alive, polished and full of the heart you put into it.
Getting a literary agent can seem like finding the Holy Grail! You’ve accomplished your goal, and all is right in the world. However, what most people forget is that it’s usually a long, strenuous quest that leads to Literary Agent Land. Of course, you could be one of those lucky few, those fairytales in the flesh, who gets an agent in the first few days (or weeks) of trying. It’s not impossible; it does happen. But the odds are that you’re going to have to face a few more feats on your own journey.
At least, that’s what my journey felt like.
But let’s start at the beginning. Fresh out of my MFA program, I was ready to query my thesis project. It was as shiny as I could make it, but I had no idea where to begin. I did all the right things. I researched how to write a query letter. I found the agents who represented the books that I loved. I submitted queries without any attachments. And…..crickets. Okay, I got a few little requests here and there, but nothing stuck.
I felt like a failure. No one wanted my amazing book? Well, maybe that’s because my novel needed a complete rewrite (but that’s another story….literally!). I regrouped. While I was waiting to hear from agents, I’d written another book, a better one. This time, I had a better plan of attack, too. I was going to query a smaller group of agents who were the ones I actually wanted to work with. I’d do it in smaller batches to see if my query letter and first few pages were garnering the right level of attention. I also added a conference to the mix.
I attended the Midwest Writers Workshop, where I met top agents and got to pitch them my book. Better yet, they loved the idea! So…is that where I met my agent? No. But I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have landed my agent without Midwest Writers Workshop because while there I talked with an agent who gave me an R&R (a revise and resubmit request). Based on her feedback, I changed the opening of my novel so that it was stronger and more attention grabbing. I also learned from Midwest Writers Workshop that I should be on Twitter because virtually every writer in the world was on Twitter.
So I joined Twitter, and I saw that an agent I was following (who liked fairytale retellings!) was having a contest on her blog. I posted the first 250 words, and I waited. Well, I lost the contest because a winner was randomly selected to win the free query critique. Yet, I won in the end because that agent requested the first 10 pages from me based on my first 250 words.
However, this request came at a very odd time for me. I was sitting in the Atlanta airport about to embark on a trip to Antarctica. (If you’ve read my About Me blog post, you’ll know I love to travel.) That’s right ANTARCTICA…a place where I would have no Internet access for a couple of weeks.
I had materials out with a few other agents, so I did what any sensible writer would do when heading off on such an adventure- I wrote a book for my sister on how to handle any literary matters that might arise in my absence. That manual covered everything from how not to respond at all if I got a rejection to how to properly send materials if I got a request and, of course, what to do if I got an offer.
Well, while I was happily off playing with the penguins, that same agent came back and asked for the full manuscript. My sister obliged by sending it. Then came the offer. AN AGENT WANTED TO REPRESENT ME!!! Of course, I didn’t know any of this until a few weeks later, although thankfully my sister had followed the guidelines I’d set out for her and told the agent I was out of town and would respond to their offer immediately after I returned.
I found out about the offer while sitting in the southern most city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, using a shady internet connection that I only used BECAUSE I HAD TO KNOW IF I HAD ANY OFFERS!
The first person I told that I got offer was this old guy sitting next to me in the airport because I whispered, “I got an offer,” as I stared around trying to locate my parents in the airport terminal.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind as I informed other agents that I had an offer, got another offer, and ultimately had to make a decision. But I know I made the right decision in the end.
So if you’re still looking for a literary agent, query the agents you really think would be a good fit for you, and stay with it. Sometimes it takes one or two or ten books! Don’t give up. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re frolicking with penguins in Antarctica or sitting on your sofa in Reno when the offer comes. The feeling of joy will be the exact same.
Everybody loves a good villain, right? So the reverse must also be true: everyone hates a bad villain. Worse, they’ll stop reading if your villain suffers from Stupid Villain Syndrome (SVS).
SVS is when your villain meets one or more of the following criteria:
They’re not scary enough for the reading level of the book. They’ll come across as comical and mustache-twirling if they’re not sinister enough.
They’re not strong enough to physically pose a true risk to your protagonist’s goals. Readers won’t be invested if they feel no one is truly opposing your protagonist. Nothing will feel at stake for the protagonist.
They choose incompetent sidekicks. Ruthless villains want sidekicks who can carry out their orders successfully. While protagonists might be able to get away once or maybe twice, they shouldn’t be continually able to outsmart sidekicks. It makes the villain appear weaker by association.
The villain over-explains his or her plan in the end, resulting in giving the protagonist time to escape or think of a plan. While a plot should be twisting and keep readers guessing and some explanation might be necessary to clear up certain earlier plot points, don’t use this method to give your protagonist time to come up with a brilliant plan. Your villain can gloat and revel in the moment, but just not too long.
If your hero needs time to untie the ropes that bind their hands or to get off the railroad tracks like in old cartoons, try instead to perhaps have your hero’s sidekick or another character cause the needed distraction to give the protagonist time to escape. Try to have your villain give as little explanation as possible and give your protagonist the smarts she needs to piece the rest together on her own. Or maybe, split the dialogue so that half the reason why the villain committed the murder is given while the protagonist is danger, and the other half comes when the villain lies dying or realizes they’re trapped. At the very least, have your protagonist escape while the villain is giving their speech to show how foolish they were not to kill them right away.
A good thing to keep in mind to avoid SVS is actually a quote from actor Tom Hiddleston:
“Every villain is a hero in his own mind.”
The villain is often the one that took the path the hero could’ve taken but chose not to. Yet, the villain probably had very legitimate reasons for taking that path. Something drove them to it just as something made the hero pick a different way. We spend enough time with the hero to get their reasoning, so make sure we have enough time with the villain to get their reasoning before the final few scenes when they have to over explain. (However, I will point out that SVS doesn’t apply as fully to mystery and twist endings since it’s not always obvious who the villain is. But, there better be enough breadcrumbs that readers believe the credibility of the villain after the big reveal.)
Overall, your villain deserves, nay, needs to be just as complex as your hero in order to avoid the pitfalls that come with SVS, and avoiding SVS will go a long way in strengthening your villain, which by proxy strengthens your protagonist and probably gives you a stronger, more intriguing plot!
Hi! My name is Annie Sullivan. I’m a Young Adult and Picture Book author. I love writing about fantasy worlds and fairytale retellings. One of the best ways I’ve found to get inspired to come up with unique fantasy worlds is by traveling. So you’ll see a lot of tips for how to incorporate inspiration from around the world in upcoming blog posts.
When I’m not traveling and writing, I love reading (Meg Cabot, Madeleine L’Engle, and Jane Austen are a few favorites!), taking my dog for walks, watching movies (anything from classics, to Disney, to today’s top blockbusters!), and hanging out with my friends and family. I’m an expert four leaf clover finder (perhaps you could guess that I’ve got Irish ancestors!). I love anything sweet and can easily be bribed with food, and I’m one of those people who can listen to the same song over and over again when I’m writing.
So that’s me in a nutshell! Leave a comment with a little about yourself and what you’d love to learn about writing, traveling, or both!