Posted by tomleveen at 5:40 pm
Joy and I recently got to have dinner with some amazing people, ranging from college professor-friends and bookseller-friends to author-friends and teacher-friends. We got to hang out for a bit with incredible authors PJ Haarsma and Frank Beddor. Some of you may remember PJ from my ill-fated attempt to climb a mountain a while back.
We got to hear a friend of ours pitch his first realistic YA novel to us around an Italian dinner. I won’t divulge the plot here—thought it was very cool—but there are two things he said that leapt out at me and made my little writerly heart shout for joy. These are two of the critical things your pitch needs, which means they are two things your plot needs. Ready?
1. “…but he has this secret.”
All protagonists have secrets, whether they know it or not. This secret is tied directly to the plot. Maybe she doesn’t even know she has this secret. Protagonists (and antagonists) are people, too! The secret may be “small,” and undergird the character choices he makes from page to page. Or maybe they are huge; like, say, “I’m in love with a vampire,” or “I’m the most powerful wizard ever born.” You know, little stuff like that. In PARTY, Beckett’s secret is about her mom, and that secret propels her to take action.
So what is your protagonist’s secret, and how does it impact your plot?
2. “Then one day…”
This. Yes. Perfect.
Remember that in your story—long or short—today is the day that everything changes. Whatever your protagonist took for normal is about to be upended all over the place. Whether that’s an interstellar space opera adventure, or running into That Guy in the library, it doesn’t matter. Nothing will be the same after today. This is the piece missing from a lot of queries I’ve read.
And a lot of plots.
In ZERO, Amanda meets Mike, and nothing will ever be the same for her. Today’s the day everything changes.
Now let me clarify this one a bit:
PARTY takes place over the course of only about 12 hours. My upcoming realistic YA, MANICPIXIEDREAMGIRL likewise takes place over only one night (but with flashbacks interspersed). My upcoming YA horror novel, MONSTERS, takes only about a twelve hour period to resolve.
But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m not talking about cramming a whole plot into a 24-hour period. I’m saying that chapter one, wherever it begins on the calendar, pushes the boulder down the hill and your protagonist will have to deal with those effects for the rest of the book. Make sense?
I would avoid using these phrases in the query itself at all costs. The secret and how today changes everything should be evident in your summary of the plot.
So take a look at that NaNoWriMo manuscript sitting in your thumb drive. Does your protagonist have a secret, and is today the day everything changes?
Don’t worry if not; that’s what revision is for.
See ya! (And pick up copies of PARTY and ZERO for holiday gifts, a’ight? Cool.)