Monday, March 11, 2013

What Makes A Story Good?

I think one of the things I like most about being an agent is having the chance to really find those "diamonds in the rough." It's about having the chance to really find those hidden gems of a story that really do need to be "stumbled upon." When I get one of those in my in-box, I really start to drool. But, after all of that salivating, I have to bring myself back down to Earth and truly examine what it is about the story that made it something I simply had to have and work with? What was it that the author did that made this story stand out amid all of the other "stuff" being written, submitted and even being published.

There really isn't one set of guidelines out there that state, "If said author does the following things in a story, you will have a good story." And please, if you ever read an article or book, or for that matter take a workshop where someone makes such a statement, please don't believe it. Don't throw the ideas out though, there are probably some really good points here the presenter is making, but remember, it isn't a fixed rule.

So, back to that amazing manuscript I was drooling on.

When I see a manuscript like this, I always return to the basics of literature first that we grew up on in our K-12 education. This would be character, plot, setting and the theme. I look at these and determine if the author is doing something that stands out. Because I focus on romance and women's fiction, I always start with character since these are genres about human relationships, human existence and certainly human emotions feelings and so forth. I want to know if these characters jump off of the page and enter my world as if they are next door neighbors or colleagues. Are these people like me?

Editor, Shauna Summers of Bantam Dell/Ballantine commented once on an editor or agent panel that stories with characters that she can talk about not as characters in a book but as if they are real people are just the type of character she is looking for and what sucks her into a book. This is the same for me.

As an author, therefore, it is crucial that you take the time to truly craft characters that are real. The things they do, the way they react, the things they say - all of these should be real. If you are creating chracters just to be different or to create a "conflict" in a story, then the odds are the story will not have that authentic feel to it. I think of Sharon Lathan's books about the Darcy family. What is it that draws readers into her stories? It is simply the characters. These are real people with real emotions and feelings.

Going back to my list, I now start looking at the plot of the story. Is this a story that needs to be told? Is this story full of authentic conflict, rising action and so forth. In this case, we return to that classic diagram of a short story that, again, we have all discussed time and time again. I think that too often, I read stories that really seem to be going no where. Successful writers have the ability to know how to get the reader hooked into a story and keep the pages going. They know when to slow things down and give us a chance to relax and enjoy, as well as knowing how to get us moving really quickly when we need to.

When I pick up a new submission, I alway know I have a great book when I simply cannot put it down. I will keep reading it and often put aside all of my other work simply to keep reading it. I don't want to put it down.

I also look at the theme of the story. What is it that I should be taking away from the story by the time I am finished reading. This is that theme element we learned about. Stories need to have a purpose to them. We need to get a sense early on that there is a reason to read this. I do think a lot of writers out there think that just reading for entertainment is enough, and you know, there might be some times that this is the case, but, I do have to argue that even these "entertainment books" have a purpose. Is it there to mock or laugh at human existence? In thise case, I think of one of my client's books, TAKE IT LIKE A MOM by Stepanie Stiles. This book is funny! This book keeps you on your toes as you watch this mother deal with all of the things of raising a family and kids while going through pregnancy. What do we get from all of this? We're all alike and we all get to go through this.

I think the point of all of this comes down to authenticity. As you write your stories, you need to do the things that work for "your" story. Don't spend the time obsessing over technique and the things other people have told you are the only ways to make things work. THINK! Use your brain and make the stories work. If you do this, you will certainly be heading in the right direction of having a "good story."

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