Assignments | So You Think You Can Write. – The event is over for this year, but the assignments are still up.
Day 1 Assignment: The Opening Page
Are you up for the challenge?
You know you have a great story waiting to bust out. The key is getting started. First things first: a great opening line leading into a captivating opening page. How will you get the editor to take notice, put down her coffee and clear her appointments for the rest of the day? What are your characters saying to you? Don’t ask me, write it down.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Don’t get bogged down in eloquence. Just start writing the your story. You can finesse your words later.
- Make sure your story starts in an exciting place. Don’t have the heroine thinking about her entire life, where she was born, her first job out of college as she’s brushing her hair or driving her car. The characters should be moving somehow, even if they’re actively grappling with a dilemma.
- While your opening page is fabulous, grabbing us in from the start, don’t forget to describe the physical elements of your setting and characters. Immerse us in the story.
- Remember that this opening page is a way to hook your reader. Show us what you’ve got! Pull out all the stops! Great opening lines can live forever and this is your chance to show off.
- Characterization is key to survival in a romance novel. Since your reader has to live with these characters for hundreds of pages, you should show the hero or heroine through action, dialogue, point of view—or all of the above. Make us have to take their journey with them.
Day 2 Assignment: The Scene
Are you up to the challenge?
You know a memorable scene when you read one. A pivotal event usually occurs in a dynamic scene. In real life, you have many “events” but not all of them are significant: making dinner, brushing teeth, waking up. For a novel, you need to provide scenes that keep the reader obsessively turning pages. The day-to-day scene and events can be a nice slice of life here and there, but for a romance, you need to cut to the chase a bit more: write and show us the most exciting parts of a love story.
What makes a scene great? Drama, tension, setting, characters, conflict and that special “x factor” that makes your fans look for your stories on the rack. A good scene makes hairs on your skin rise up and you’re rooted to the ground/bed/bathtub/plane seat. You think you might implode if you don’t find out what happens next.
For a successful romance, those juicy scenes are a must. Readers need to see the characters, sympathize with them (or at least feel something about them), and want to continue. By the end, the reader should wonder how the hero/heroine is going to make it through this journey. You, the reader, may be crying or laughing hysterically because you can’t believe that character could do such a thing. And you never forget that moment in a story.
Remember these scenes?
- Hugh Grant can’t go through the wedding in Four Weddings and a Funeral and has to communicate through his hearing impaired brother.
- Lizzie tells Darcy that he’s the last man she could ever marry.
- In the deli, Sally does something a little outrageous to prove a point to Harry.
- All the instances where Jane Rizzoli happens upon a clue that solves the crime.
- Bridget Jones realizes that she can’t go back to Daniel Cleaver even when he offers himself up to her for the second time.
- How mortifying it must have been for Julianna Margulies’s character to stand by her philandering husband at the opening of The Good Wife.
Think of the scenes that affected you. What made them resonate for you? Why was this scene important for the story? How did it change the characters? Your scene could be as simple as a trip to the store—where something crucial occurs (and not a discount on canned peas, even though this can be exciting). A useful exercise would be to think of jarring scenes from your own life, the ones that flash through your mind at odd moments and those that have shaped you into the person you are today. Scenes are vital. They don’t have to involve a burning building, gunfights and car chases. They could show an exchange of some kind, but this exchange has to move the story forward in a major way.
Here are some tips:
- Show us the characters. What are they doing? What are they feeling?
- Introduce the conflict in the scene. What are they fighting for?
- Provide atmosphere. Where are they?
- Move things along. Excite your reader!
So, now that you’ve done some pondering, it’s time for you to show us your scenes. Make us—the editors—burn to know what comes next for your characters. You may have the scene in your head—a good starting point. Next you need to describe it to us. Take us on a journey—a succinct one you can encapsulate beautifully in 3-5 pages (or 750-1250 words).
Day 3 Assignment: The Synopsis
Are you up for today’s challenge?
No one really likes to read or write a synopsis, but it is a useful tool for editors. We tend to refer to them throughout the publishing process: writing memos to recommend the stories to senior editors; filling out the cover art forms; and writing the back cover copy. We need an organized synopsis that summarizes the story.
We all have different opinions on how long a synopsis should be. Some like 1-2 pages single-spaced, some like 10 pages double-spaced. This can be maddening to a writer, but it’s one of those tasks you have to grit your teeth and do. If you’re not sure what an editor wants in a synopsis, just ask. For our purposes, how about we compromise with 5 pages, double spaced synopsis, using 12-point size font? Sound good? Good.
In the writing/submission process, you may have faced the blank page and thought, Why in blazes do I have to do this? Why can’t I just write the story and let the editor figure out the synopsis? Because it doesn’t work that way. Writing a synopsis guides us so that months after we read your book, we can refer to the synopsis instead of rereading the entire book. Remember how your parents told you to eat your vegetables? Writing a synopsis is a bit like that and will benefit you/us in the long run. It might even help you organize your story.
Here are a few tips for creating your synopsis:
- Make a list of all the events that happen. Hero and heroine meet. They both have major issues. He takes her out to breakfast. They fight. She reveals secret baby. He stomps off, she thinks, because he doesn’t love her. He comes back and tells her he just started trust fund for their child. They live happily ever after.
- Those are the main points of the story. Now you can string these sentences together, fill out the main points with a fuller picture of the setting, the characters, and the conflict. While you don’t want to write: This happened, then this, then this, then this little thing, you can provide more minor details to add spice. Bear in mind that the editor wants the highlights. You can also pretend you’re telling an editor the story and just record your words on paper. Before you know it, you’ll be done with those five pages. In fact, it might be much easier than you thought.
- One last item to consider: Make your synopsis readable. A synopsis can be dry. While it doesn’t have to be edge-of-your-seat gripping, you are allowed to write a synopsis we will enjoy reading. But mostly, make sure you include the highlights.
So, now that you’ve done some pondering, it’s time for you to send us your synopsis. Make us—the editors—excited about your story and the directions it takes. Take us on a journey—a succinct, well-written one you can tell in 5 pages (or approximately 1250 words).
Day 4 Assignment: The Query Letter
Now it’s your turn!
The ideal query has three paragraphs. While you want to convey your personality, remember that editors read many cover letters and submissions. A gimmicky query letter tends to bomb and put you at the bottom of the pile. Why is this? Because most of all, editors want just the facts about your story. You can put all your wit and sparkling prose into your writing, but the query letter should go something like this:
What is this submission and what line were you targeting? It only needs to be about three sentences, a brief overview and introduction of your story. You should also mention if the book is complete or not. Consider, as well, that we keep track of our submissions, so if you have previously sent this manuscript to us, we will have records of this.
In Deadly Waters is my 55,000 word story which features a couple white-water rafting in Colorado. Danger strikes as an enemy sabotages their romantic trip. This romantic suspense would be ideal for the Romantic Suspense line. If you’ve met the editor in person, you can include that here: I enjoyed meeting you during our editor appointment at RWA in New York City.
There. Wasn’t that easy? On to the next paragraph.
What is your story about? In about five sentences, you should describe your novel more thoroughly, focusing on the most important aspects. What is the major theme? Who are the key characters? What do they learn at the end? If you have a romance, what is the big conflict between the hero and heroine? You’ll want to use enticing language to make the editor want to read the story. Also, bear in mind that the editor wants to know how the story fits into her line.
To try to mend their relationship, Jesse Smith and Martha Brown take a vacation in Colorado. No sooner do they begin than they encounter bad luck on their trail. The further from civilization they go, the more dangerous their trip becomes. They have to band together to fight a vicious threat from the past. You can add a few sentences from here and just remember to write the most exciting parts of the story. Leave out that it took Martha Brown two hours to pack her suitcase. We just want the juiciest parts of this tale.
What is your background? Do you have any writing credits? Day job? Night job? Do you belong to RWA and/or a chapter of RWA? This is the part where you get to brag about what you’ve done or how much you love the romance genre. After this, remember to thank the editor for her/his consideration.
And you’re done! With this foolproof formula, you can crank out a winning query letter in no time.
Day 5 Assignment: Submit Your Manuscript and Synopsis
Show us what you’ve got!
We’re put on our thick reading glasses and are ready to read your work. It’s time for you to fine-tune your prose and synopsis. Here are some last-minute pointers:
The Opening Chapter & Beyond:
Begin your story in an exciting place. Does your story open with the heroine picking out yarn to use for her next sweater? Or maybe the hero can’t decide if he should put skim or whole milk in his coffee. These more mundane activities can be woven into the main story, but for the opening chapter, you should work on luring the editor/reader into your tale. Stay away from: gimmicks and clichés. For example: SEX! Now that I have your attention (that’s a gimmick). Cliché: the heroine is rushing out the door and runs smack into the hero.
Strong points of view win the day. You could have a character doing a mundane action if the point of view is fun to read. The heroine could be brushing her hair, if she’s planning something devious, something exciting. This is often the exception to the rule, but if you have a strong voice, you can get away with a lot more.
Beyond that first exciting chapter, try to end as many chapters with a bang. Keep us wanting to turn the pages. How do you do that? If I could capture this secret, I would sell it for millions. But for now, just keep putting as much momentum as you can into your story. Make sure your story stays fresh, captivating and does right by the characters. Keep up the excitement, the fun, and, of course, the romance.
Be aware of the word count and the line you want to target. You’ve heard a lot about the different series lines and doing research.
Oh, and please double-space your prose, using one-inch margins.
Ah, yes, the dreaded synopsis. We know they’re not fun to write, but they can help keep you on track and they help editors in a variety of ways. The ideal synopsis is between 5-7 pages, showing a clear vision of the story’s arcs and characters. As editors, we want to see how the characters develop and how they’re tested. In addition, we need to gauge if your story builds in momentum to the end. If not, we can help you find ways to strengthen your plot. Often, if a synopsis is too short, the writer isn’t quite sure what he/she is writing. If the synopsis is too long, the writer might be bogging down her/his story with too much detail and not enough romance. You want to get to that just right synopsis-length that gives a clear overview.