Tuesday, October 16, 2012

ABC's of Writing - (B)egin at the Basics

In all honesty, most of the mistakes, or maybe I should say my reasons for passing on projects stems from the single element. Writers have forgotten the BASICS of writing. These are the foundation elements that hold up the entire story. Plot, Setting, Characters, and Theme.

What I often see are writers hung up with finding new strategies for writing, using "new" techniques, or other "gimicks" to make their stories unique and stand out. In other words, writers are trying to use the gimick to sell the story. In the process of focusing so heavily on that new gimick, the writers often fail to pay attention to the basics elements of literature and writing.

We have all learned these skills. You really never had to attend college to get these skills. These were the elements pounded into our heads beginning, in many cases, as early as 2nd and 3rd grade. These 4 basic elements were the platform for creating something amazing. We also learned that all 4 of these elements had to work in harmony with one another. If one was out of sync, we often found that the writing became difficult, frustrating and sometimes impossible.

THE PLOT has to be a story that meets the parameters of the assignment. The length has to be appropriate, not just for what you want to tell, but for what you can market. If the publisher you want to work for has limits, then you need to work for that range.

This element also needs to be feasible, realistic and focused. Could or would this really happen? Does the main story arc really travel through the entire book? If you have sub-plots, are these working in tandem with the main story arc?

THE SETTING - Regardless of what genre you are writing, the world building is the stage in which your characters play out their story. This also needs to be realistic and accessible to the readers. Your history is accurate. Laws of physics are working properly and are not changing during the course of the story.

THE CHARACTERS - Obviously the characters need to be three-dimensional. We have to remember to look at the elements of Goals Motivation and Conflict for each of our charcters. More importantly, these characters have to be people that readers can relate to. The readers need to be able to connect with all of the emotions and drama of the characters.

THE THEME - In simple terms, why are you writing the story. What do you want your readers to leave with in terms of understanding the human psyche. Remember, literature does fall into the category of THE HUMANITIES. This means that projects that focus and explore the human condition. More importantly, this theme needs to work with the other elements. I think what we often forget, is that the theme is the guiding purpose and goal for your entire story.

In the end, I want you all to remember the comments all editors and agents keep saying over and over again. "We want a strong story with great characters and a great read." You will notice, we are not asking for a story with "great gimicks."


  1. BUT we are also told that we should strive for "High Concept" which dilemma can sometimes be solved with something that appears gimmicky.

    Perhaps gimmick on the outside (to sell to agents/publishers), solid story on the inside (to please readers)? Or is this on the level of bait and switch? Do you reject right off the bat when you see a query that seems too gimmicky?

    Scott, I really like these ABC posts (and thanks) but something about this one made me wonder if there is more to striking a Balance (another B word!) than was addressed.

  2. Miss Sharp. You are correct. We do want that high concept, but that is not something that is gimmicky. High concept is how you can take an everyday concept, one that we know works and sells well, and then spin it in a new direction.

    What I am referring to as gimmicks come back to those things you added to the story to just because no one else has done it so far in their stories. In the case of high concept, they may have done that technique before, but your spin on it is slightly different. For example, we know the guys are often the rakes, what if the women were?

    One way to spot the gimicks is when you read the premise or the writing and think to yourself "Really, are you serious?" It is that ah ha moment that we spot.

    Do I reject something that is immediately gimmicky? No. But I do have to say it does often become a rejection because the author has relied on that gimmick to hold up the story.

    And yes, Balance would have been a great post too!

  3. I completely agree with you. I'm an avid romance reader and aspiring writer. I find that the constant new twists and turns authors try to incorporate don't often work for me. A good story that might seem similar to fifty others but that has a fresh new voice is more enjoyable to me than some crazy twist.
    I'm conflicted with my writing as well. I'm afraid I might seem too formula to get published, but I'm trying to write a book that I would enjoy reading.

    I do appreciate these tips you post. I've been following your blog for a while now, and it's very helpful.

    Donna M