Official Website of Holly Bodger

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Why You Need Beta Readers

So I read this book that had a character the same age as my 7-year-old daughter. This character vacillated between doing things that my child would have done at the age of 3 and things my child probably won’t do until she is 14. And you know what? This drove me nuts. I know I am a trees person and I get my knickers in a knot over details many people probably wouldn’t see, but this one in particular drives me crazy. If you want to write about characters of a certain age, you HAVE to have a beta reader who is or knows that age. So, if you are 40 and you’re writing about 14-year-olds, yes you need to get betas of that age (or, at the very least, betas who are parents or teachers of kids that age) and if you are 14 and you are writing about 40-year-olds, you also need to do the same thing. Don’t assume you know how a 6-year-old acts if you’ve never been around one (it does not count if you were one 20 years ago!) and don’t assume that you understand the motivation of a parent if you haven’t been one either.

I’ve said it before but I will say it again: making mistakes like this weakens the strength of your narrator and thus of you, the author and once you lose that trust, you can’t get it back.

When the goal is a secret

A lot of my posts seem to start with the words, “So I read this book…” and this one is no different. For the book in question, when I first started to read it, my initial reaction was, What the H? There was a character talking about stuff but there was no goal, no conflict, no nothing but, well, stuff. It felt like something had to happen but it took until 1/3rd of the way through the book before a goal (and plot) became apparent.

I started to think about why it took so long to get to the goal and it finally came to me: the goal was a secret. The author set up the story so that the initial hook for readers was in finding out what the goal was. The problem, of course, is that the only reason I didn’t stop at around the 10% mark was because I’d been PROMISED that this book was FABULOUS.

So what does this mean? It means that you might be able to get away with things like not having a plot or goal for 1/3 of your book if it is so fabulous that word of mouth will force people to stick it out, but in my opinion, you are going to have a much harder time getting to that point.

Inciting Incidents versus First Plot Points

I have seen a lot of confusion over the difference between the inciting incident and the first plot point. To me, it is simple:

The inciting incident is the event that changes status quo for the main character. For example, Anne finds her dog dead.

The first plot point is the point at which the main character decides to pursue his/her goal. For example, Anne decides she must find the asshole who ran over her dog with a milk truck.

These two things cannot happen at the same time. The main character needs some time to adjust to the event, question its meaning and convince herself/himself to take the journey. Without this struggle, the goal will not be perceived as difficult for the character, both outwardly and inwardly, and if it’s not difficult, the reader will have no reason to want to hop on to the journey.

Mud?

Don’t make it worse

Those of you who are familiar with Donald Maass’s books and seminars will have heard him use the words “make it worse” over and over again. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a rash of books lately where the author has taken this advice a bit too literally.

What Maass wants you to do is to add more obstacles to your main character’s journey. For example, your 19th Century heroine needs to get to the church before the love of her life marries some dolt with 20,000 a year. Rather than just making it take a while for her to get to the church, Maass would tell you to make her journey harder. Maybe a herd of cows blocks the road for ten minutes. Maybe the carriage wheel gets stuck in mud. Maybe the driver goes to the wrong church.

What Maass is (hopefully) not suggesting is that you think of random bad things to throw in. For example, your 19th Century heroine who needs to get to the church to stop the love of her life from marrying a dolt with 20,000 a year should not suddenly fall into a pit of sharks and then climb out only to be sucked into a spaceship. Yes, this does make things worse but it also makes the reader say, “What the H–?”

Final thought: Even if you do keep your obstacles appropriate for your character’s journey, be careful not to mount them too high. Yes, everyone has bad days, but if you throw 147 bad things into the same day, you will lose your readers. For good.

Oh look. A handsome squirrel…

The ratio of squirrel to non-squirrel metaphors in my posts is about to go up. Yes, I could use a chipmunk or one of those dwarf bunnies, but that would require that I find another image and I’m too busy eating soup.

UPDATE: Since starting this post, I have finished my soup. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

So here’s the thing: your protagonist has to stay invested in her goal from the moment it’s incited until the moment it’s achieved or abandoned at the end of the novel. There are NO exceptions to this rule. Yes, she can have moments where she thinks she won’t achieve the goal but she cannot give up wanting it. What you really, really, really (did I mention really?) don’t want to do is something like this:

Protag wants goal. Protag REALLY wants goal. Protag is like OBSESSED with goal. Oh look, a handsome squirrel:

Protag forgets goal while gazing longingly at squirrel’s silky fur and chocolate-coloured eyes and perfect teeth and blah blah blah. Eventually, squirrel needs to find an acorn so protag goes back to REALLY WANTING GOAL. Unfortunately, the reader has now decided that protag, a) is a vapid idiot and, b) doesn’t want goal as much as she said or she wouldn’t have forgotten about it for 34 pages.

So, if you want to add a handsome squirrel to your plot, make sure that squirrel is connected to the goal, either by being someone the protag needs assistance from in order to achieve it, or by being someone the protag needs to avoid/overcome in order to achieve it.

P.S. And by squirrel, I mean love interest. For the love of soup, please don’t write a book about a squirrel. It has already been done by the wonderful Mélanie Watt.

When the goal is reached

Your main character cannot reach their goal until the 90% mark in the story. For screenwriters, this rule is non-negotiable. For novelists, it’s a little fuzzy, but I would argue that “a little” means you have maybe 5% padding on either side of this mark. Why? If the whole point of your plot is for character A to reach goal B, once they either do so or give up on doing so, the plot is over. People will stay with you for some tears and wrap-up, but not much more.

For example, I read a book recently where the main character met her goal at the 50% mark. Yep. Halfway. You want to know what happened then? I lost interest in the book. I kept going since I’d already invested a lot of time in this character, but I had zero engagement in the story. I was no longer desperate to pick it up and when I did, all I heard was  blah blah blah. I wanted it done. Like now.

Think about this when you are revising. If your ending lacks lustre or feels too rushed, maybe your goal has been reached too early or too late.

End note: If your response to this is, “but after she meets the goal, she has to go get XYZ”, then guess what? Your goal is actually XYZ!

The Journey

Novels are stories of how one character gets from point A to point B, however, the beauty of the novel is not in the point A or the point B; it’s in what happens along the way. Boiled down to its simplest form, this is because novels are journeys that don’t go as planned.

For example, Bob is busy living his life until, all of a sudden, his coffee maker spits out watery slush and he decides he must replace it with a new fancy one. He decides to get in his car and drive to Walmart so he can buy a new one ASAP. Sounds easy right? It is until he gets to Walmart and finds himself in lockdown due to an approaching tornado. He spends his entire day with people who can’t afford fancy coffee makers and by the end of the day, he leaves the store without one because he realizes that, maybe his crappy coffee maker isn’t so bad.

In this example, there are three important elements to the story:

Bob wants a coffee maker (goal)
A tornado prevents Bob from getting his coffee maker (obstacles)
Bob learns that he doesn’t need a new coffee maker in the end (character arc) 

Think about your character’s journey the next time you try to write a logline or query.

1. Where does he start? It must be somewhere imperfect or there is no reason for #2.
2. What happens to make him choose to go somewhere else? Note the choose. This is very important. He must choose to embark on the journey. People don’t end up on journeys by accident. At some point, they need to stand up and start them.
3. What prevents him from getting there in a quick and orderly way? This is the real meat of your story. There must be obstacles and they must directly cause #4.
4. How do these bumps change the person he is (and possibly, the thing he wanted when he set out on his journey)?

Putting things in context

It’s quite common to use similes and metaphors to put a character’s experiences in context. For example:

The sky reminded Jane of…
The sound was sharp like a…
It was like her favourite song…
It was like the housekeeper from that show…

There are two purposes to these kinds of references:

1) To help the reader experience what you’re describing. If your character says that someone’s jacket smelled like coffee, the reader will smell coffee when he/she reads this. Obviously, this will fall flat if he/she has never smelled coffee before but that risk must be weighed with the ever-important #2.

2) To add depth to your characterization. This one slips me up a lot.  If your character says that a sound reminds her of an out-of-tune piano, the reader assumes she’s familiar with out-of-tune pianos (and in-tune ones for that matter). The reader then concludes that the character is a musician. Excellent. Well, excellent if she is a musician. If not, what you have is probably what I find myself constantly avoiding (*cough* revising *cough*) and that is the tendency for writers to use metaphors that work in their own heads. This is why we see a lot of references to 80s culture in YA novels (because 80s culture works for the 30+something writer, not today’s teen!) 

The advice here is: be careful. Every time you use a simile or metaphor in your writing, make sure it is the right one for both your audience and your character.

The Secret as Plot

I know I shouldn’t harp on this one anymore, but I can’t help it. I harp. I’m a harper. The fact of the matter is that I’m currently reading a book and it’s only plot is the main characters’ desire to find out a secret (except, in the case of this book, the main characters don’t even want to find out the secret…more on that later!)

There are many problems with the secret as a plot and I like lists so I’m going to make one:

1) Books are about journeys. If they only reason for readers to turn the page is to find out the end, they might as well just read the last chapter and save themselves the 4 hours of their lives that they’re never going to get back. Ever. So if you want to have a secret in your book, you need to make the discovery of said secret an interesting journey (by the way, main character sitting on ass saying, “I wish I knew___” is not interesting!)

2) The longer something stays secret, the bigger the payoff needs to be. I read a book recently where the entire plot was finding out what happened to a friend of the main character. When the big reveal came in the end, I was very disappointed, almost to the point where I couldn’t recommend the book to friends. I’d read 200+ pages for this secret. That’s 200 pages of growing expectations. So, if you want to do this, your secret better come with fireworks and I’m talking, “Luke, I am your father” fireworks.

3) Creating realistic obstacles to secrets is a challenge. If your main character’s goal is to find out a secret, what stops them better be pretty serious. Another character saying, “I don’t feel like telling you” is not serious. Neither is the main character not thinking to ask when it’s stupidly obvious to all readers that he should. Oh, and neither is the main character not getting off his ass because he can’t be bothered to ask. These aren’t obstacles; they’re stupid and annoying main characters. You need a real obstacle which means the keeper of the secret needs a REALLY good reason for keeping the secret and the main character needs a REALLY good reason for wanting it revealed. And, if you’re really smart, these reasons should oppose each other.

4) A secret with no purpose is like a race that ends at a brick wall. You need your main character to DO SOMETHING with the secret once they get it, otherwise your story ends the second it is revealed (and yes, I mean the second and not 20 pages later). This is why secrets work well as obstacles to goals. For example, imagine you have a main character who is a cop and he needs to find a killer so he can put him in jail. In this case, there is a REALLY good reason for the killer to keep the secret and there is a REALLY good reason for the cop to want it. But more importantly, once it is revealed, the goal is not dead because the cop has to use the secret for something (which is the real goal…put killer in jail).