I’ve said before what a fan I am of legendary literary agent and author Donald Maas. I first encountered him when reading Writing The Breakout Novel. What a book! Maas outlines the essential elements of a commercially successful novel, including beginning with a defined theme. I’d never thought of doing that before. I’d just hoped a coherent theme would somehow emerge amorphously from the growing manuscript. Now I consciously plan a theme before starting the story.
But what I find most interesting, particularly when I’m at the stage of plotting a new book, is his concept of the novelist’s paradox – your story matters more than anything, and your story matters not at all. It matters more than anything because fiction injected with high purpose and high stakes carries more force than fiction that merely seeks to entertain. If it provokes thought and moves our hearts, it will remain in our memory. But an author who lets their story matter too much, may rush past much of its potential greatness. It’s important to relax and take the time to dig deep – deep into your characters’ motivations, conviction and nature. Not taking the story too seriously gives you the freedom to explore these inner journeys. A difficult balancing act!
Donald Maas tips for writing characters that matter to readers:
– Your character matters to someone else. Whom? Why? Find a moment for them to weigh that responsibility and rise to it.
– The conflict means something personal to your character. What? What piece of them would be lost if they fail? How will they become whole if they succeed?
– What’s going on in the scene you’re writing? If it illustrates a larger principle, have your character recognize that.
– Your character is on a personal journey. Seeking what? Finding what instead? What’s already accomplished? What’s left to learn? Put it down on the page.
A couple of years ago I decided I wanted a literary agent. I read everything I could on the subject, lurked on agent blogs (Kristen Nelson’s Pub Rants was a favourite, along with mysterious Agent Sydney’s Call My Agent)and poured over the acknowledgement pages in my local bookstore, searching for likely candidates. I completed a third draft of my manuscript, and launched into an organised campaign bearing all the hallmarks of a military operation.
Firstly, I purchased an up-to-date copy of the Australian Writer’s Marketplace. Each country has its own version, containing current details of every contact you could ever need in the publishing industry, including agents. This is also available online, but there was something very satisfying about highlighting each suitable listing, and then ticking them off as I made submissions. Australia is a small market with a correspondingly small number of agents. After carefully reviewing them all, it turned out just eighteen agents were accepting submissions for adult fiction.
I listed them in order of personal preference, agonised over a query letter, then in October I queried the top twelve all at once. I received six requests for chapters. Of those, I received four gracious rejections and two requests for the full 80,000 word manuscript. One of these was from Curtis Brown (Aust), my first choice! Trying to remain calm, I sent off my submissions and waited. Finally in February I received a phone call from Curtis Brown requesting a meeting. It turned out I was already heading to Sydney that week for an Australian Society of Authors course. That meeting was a great success and I was offered representation.
Hurray! I thought all my troubles were over. It was only a matter of time before my manuscript found a home. Nothing could have been further from the truth. My agent submitted to six publishers and got knock-backs. Write the next one she said. I did, while my old manuscript languished. By the time I’d finished the next one (about a year) the agency had lost interest in me in a major way. They couldn’t even find the time to read it. A cold stone settled in the pit of my stomach. If I didn’t do something soon, I felt sure they’d drop me. What I needed was a plan B!
Next week – Plan B The Conference Pitch