Swoon Author Dee Garretson: Why Your Story?
If I could only give one piece of advice to writers trying to get published, it would be this: Write a story (or edit an existing one) with a clear idea of how you are going to entice a reader to pick up your book. There are thousands of books out there, so ask yourself the question, “Why my story?”
When I was first trying to get published, I went to a writing retreat that ended with the participants pitching to an agent. That person, before she took up agenting, had been the editor to acquire Tom Clancy’s breakout first book, The Hunt for Red October. She’d had years of experience in the publishing world and had heard thousands of pitches.
Great experience for us, not so great for her to be faced with a bunch of newbies. Unfortunately, I was last to pitch and the poor agent’s eyes had glazed over long before I sat down. She did manage to rally though and put me through a series of tough questions that all revolved around the “Why your story?” question.
You may have read that there are only seven basic plots. My mind was blown when I first heard this and it took me a while to believe it. (Now I do!) That means we can’t just tell someone one of the basic plots and hope they’ll give the story a chance. Imagine if someone told me their story was about a girl who meets a boy who she’s not sure she likes and their relatives oppose any potential relationship. That sounds fine, and I love these types of stories, but what about this particular one would make me pick it up rather than reread Pride and Prejudice?
How do you answer the “why your story” question and begin to write an intriguing description? Take yourself through a series of steps to narrow down some possibilities. First, identify five aspects of your story: your main character, your plot, your antagonist, your setting, and the stakes if the character fails to get what they want or need.
Next, answer some basic questions. No one is going to be able to answer all five questions with something unique and reader-grabbing, but that’s okay. I think you just need one. And sometimes it’s a combination of aspects of your story that can make it unique.
- What about the main character sparks interest? For example, is there something unusual or unique about their background? Their interests? Their talents? Something in their situation that will make the reader sympathetic to them? It doesn’t have to be something extraordinary, but you want your reader be able to visualize the character as a unique individual.
- Is there a twist on the basic plot? For example, if you are writing a fantasy and your character is the "chosen one" who must overcome odds to survive, is there a twist in there?
- Who or what is the antagonist? What makes the antagonist different from your ordinary villain? Sometimes the antagonist is not an identifiable person. It could be nature gone wild, revolution, or some other disaster. If it is a disaster, what happens that makes it stand out from an ordinary survival story?
- Is there something about the setting or time period that adds interest? (I love books set in places I haven’t been to or have been and want to know more.) I’m sure the setting of my very first book, Wildfire Run, was the reason it got published. I set it at Camp David, which hadn’t been used in a middle grade book before.
- What are the stakes? This one is a tough one to go beyond the predictable, but think about it anyway.
So what if you go through these questions and you realize your story may not have something you think stands out? There’s no reason you can’t rewrite it to make it stronger, adding in that little something to spark more interest. I did three major rewrites on All Is Fair even before I submitted it to Swoon because I knew I had to work on a better answer for "why my story."
And now I answer these questions before I even start a story, because while I’m fine with rewriting, I’d much rather not have to spend so much time wrestling a story into shape. Write on!