The Art of Incubation

 

At Agile Writers we’ve been reading Sage Cohen’s book “Fierce on the Page.” Each week one of the writers will take the book home and read a chapter and digest it down to one page. Then, they return the next week and share what they learned and we talk about how it applies to our writing in general and what it means to us as Agile Writers.

  • Procrastination is sometimes confused with incubation, the process of ruminating and allowing ideas the time they need to take root.
  • Nobody looks at a six-months-pregnant woman and says, “Oh, she’s procrastinating. If she were a real achiever, she would have given birth to that baby already.”
  • The challenge is that the writing life doesn’t have finite gestation.
  • Henri Poincaré, mathematician & scientist proposed creativity happens in four steps.
    • Preparation: We set our intentions and define our goals.
    • Incubation: We dream into the possibilities, honor the unknown, and become receptive to what is seeking us.
    • Illumination: We have the revelation in which some new possibility takes shape.
    • Execution: We create to manifest and materialize our discovery.
  • Many writers leap straight to execution without having first grappled with what they are striving for
  • Execution without vision is like a house without a foundation.
  • Procrastination— which is born from fear— often happens between steps three and four
    • You have a crisis of confidence that prevents you from taking the next necessary steps.
    • This is a very different from incubation, in which you have a goal or a vision

 

Greg’s Thoughts: At Agile Writers we do Preparation when we write our abstracts. We’re setting up our goals by writing down what we think our story is about. Incubation occurs during the synopsis. We extend into Illumination by creating a storyboard and massaging it until it is ready. Then, finally, we Execute – we write 10 pages a week until we’re done.

Fail Fast

At Agile Writers we’ve been reading Sage Cohen’s book “Fierce on the Page.” Each week one of the writers will take the book home and read a chapter and digest it down to one page. Then, they return the next week and share what they learned and we talk about how it applies to our writing in general and what it means to us as Agile Writers.

This week, it was my turn. Here’s my take on Cohen’s chapter called “Fail Harder.”

  • Book Review – Cohen received a book review from a reader who loved the book but went on at length about a typo.
  • Cohen started out a perfectionist
    • did not send my work out for fear that it contained a flaw.
    • did not share it with anyone, ever
    • What if my writing was no good
    • What if other people didn’t like it
    • What if the writing contained a mistake?
  • She stumbled upon a mural that said “Fail Harder.”
    • failing hard is often in direct proportion to trying hard
  • In Japan, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic rooted in the art of imperfection
    • a celebration of the flaw that makes a piece of art (or a life) unique.
  • When you embrace imperfection in your writing
    • you cultivate the compassion and acceptance that you (and your writing) deserve.
    • trust your material instead of fear of making a mistake.
    • your mistakes make you vulnerable enough to connect with other humans.
  • Sharing writing and making an authentic connection is more important than perfection
  • The Japanese art of Kintsugi involves mending broken objects by filling the cracks with gold.
    • to illuminate the repair and honor an object’s history of usefulness rather than to try to disguise the damage.

 

Greg’s Thoughts: Not only “Fail Hard” but “Fail Fast.” At Agile Writers we write abstracts, a synopsis, and a storyboard so that when our plots fail – they fail fast. It’s easier to see the flaws when we lay out our plot up front. Get the errors on paper right away rather than a year down the road after the first draft has been written. When I send you home to fix “Stage 2” it’s a failure – but you’re failing fast. You’ll also succeed fast!

The Idiot in the Room

176451-004-0848859CThere are a number of ways to expose information to the reader: dialog, letters, news reports, and flashbacks are just a few. But by far the best way to expose information to the reader is to have someone close to the hero who doesn’t understand what is going on. I call this “the idiot in the room.”

When you want to let the reader know a fact that may not be intuitively obvious, you can have some uninitiated character ask obvious questions. Think about the classic example of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.  Watson was constantly asking questions that allowed Holmes to explain how he knew what was going on.

This can also work in reverse – by having the hero be the idiot in the room. One great example of this is the old TV series “Columbo.” Columbo would constantly ask questions of the suspect requiring them to explain himself. And his classic maneuver was to ask “Oh, just one more thing…” This was always his moment to skewer the villain with the crime.

I recently watched a rerun of “Lie to Me.” The main character, Dr. Lightman, is played by Tim Roth. He is a PhD. whose secret power is that he can read micro-expressions and tell when people are lying. He has a sidekick named Torres who is just learning the craft. Whenever Lightman figures out who is lying, Torres asks how he knows. He then launches into a description of the facial ticks or body language that exposes the liar.

If you need to explain something to the reader, a great way to do it is to create a sidekick who needs mentoring from the hero. Or, make the hero a character who needs information from a more experienced character (like a reporter asking questions of a professor). The idiot in the room is your secret weapon to exposition that is natural and not information dumping.

The Problem With Star Wars

StarWarsMoviePoster1977Star Wars has been a phenomenally popular movie franchise. The original Star Wars came out in 1977 and was an instant success. But when I first watched it, I was not impressed. My first impression was that it was the King Arthur legend in outer space. Even at the age of 14 I had expectations of my science fiction adventures. We all have a sense of a good story when we see one. But when I first saw Star Wars, there were things missing. Let’s look at one of the flaws of Star Wars and why the film has endured despite it.

The Elements of Good Storytelling

At Agile Writers, we follow the basic pattern of the Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

  • The Hero starts out in his ordinary world
  • Something happens that upsets the hero’s world
  • And he is cast into an unfamiliar world
  • Where he makes new friends, enemies, and overcomes trials
  • After overcoming a major crisis
  • The hero returns to his ordinary world, with a lesson learned.

What Star Wars is Lacking

Star Wars follows this pattern nearly to a tee. However, one thing lacking is the lesson learned. What is it that Luke understands about the universe that he didn’t understand at the beginning?

Luke starts out with what we call a “Missing Inner Quality.” He lacks confidence. In the end, he acquires this confidence when he trusts in the Force. So we have to ask ourselves, is this the message of this film? Is this the lesson learned?

If so, then the lesson learned is that we should all trust in the Force to resolve our issues. But the Force is a fictional element of a fictional galaxy, long ago and far away. This is not a message that any of us can use.

Alternatively, you might argue that the point of Star Wars is that we should trust in some higher power. But that doesn’t really seem to be the message that George Lucas was attempting to impart. We don’t really see Luke or any other character giving praise and credit to the higher power. Using the Force in the final scenes of the film is merely the device that signifies Luke has overcome his lack of confidence and has found a new confidence in the Force.

Why Star Wars is Popular

What Star Wars does right is the use of archetypes in story telling. These are fundamental character types that all humans seem to recognize intrinsically. The archetypes Star Wars employs are:

  • The young hero (Luke)
  • The damsel in distress (Leia)
  • The comic sidekicks (R2D2 & C3PO)
  • The rascal (Han)
  • The mentor (Obi Wan)
  • The villain (Darth Vader)

When we see these elements combined in the right ways, we are instantly engrossed in the story. You can see them employed over and over again in storytelling. Look at The Karate Kid, The Wizard of Oz, and The Matrix.

When George Lucas created his story, he consulted Joseph Campbell on the use of these mythical archetypes. He got this right. He got it so right that he was able to build an empire from this one story, and overcome a critical flaw.

The Serial and Roller Coaster Rides

Lucas based the structure of Star Wars, in part, on the serial movie shorts of his youth. Serials like Flash Gordon, for example, were episodic and often began with a recap of previous episodes. So, also, does Star Wars begin with an opening scroll.

These action/adventure stories were designed to thrill and excite young movie goers. They weren’t meant to teach a deep lesson. The idea was to pull the viewer in and keep them coming  back for more in subsequent releases. As such, they are very much roller coaster rides.

At Agile Writers, I warn writers away from writing roller coaster rides. When you begin your story, you are entering into a contract with the reader. That contract is that you promise if the reader hangs in there with you, you will deliver a story with a point to it. If the reader gets to the end of the story and there is no point, they will wonder why they spent the time and money on your story.

Have a Message

Roller coaster rides are fun. They are nice once in a while. However, as a beginning writer, I advise you to have a message to impart upon your reader. You have an opinion about the world we live in. You have a unique perspective about this world. Draw upon your unique experiences to craft a story that imparts a message to your readers that will enrich and engage them. That is the ultimate point of story.

Non Standard Plots: A Dog’s Purpose

At Agile Writers we adhere to The Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell in his seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. We also take lessons from movie plots and combine them into the Agile Writer Method.

The Hero’s Journey has a standard pattern. The hero starts out in a familiar world where things are pretty static. Then something happens that upsets the hero’s world and he is thrust into unfamiliar territory. He must learn the rules of this “Special World” and overcome some great obstacle and return to the “Ordinary World” with the lessons learned.

The vast majority of story plots follow this pattern. But it’s not necessarily the only pattern. Sometimes writers break the mold of the hero’s journey to tell a compelling story using a different device to good effect.

One example I like to use is 2011’s War Horse – a Stephen Spielberg film. In it we’re introduced to a horse who is bought by a farmer at auction at the start of World War I. The horse is a thoroughbred – built for racing. But the farmer uses the horse to plow the fields. The horse demonstrates great heart in her work. Ultimately, the farmer is forced to sell the horse to the English cavalry. The horse is then owned by a captain who runs into a German infantry troupe and is killed. The horse then changes hands again and is used to pull cannons for the German artillery. The horse escapes and befriends a young French girl whose father works for the resistance. Finally, after the war is over, the horse returns to the farm only to find that it is overrun by cars, jeeps, and buses.

This pattern is the “anthology” story. The horse is not really the hero of the story. The horse is merely a.token that is passed from mini-story to mini-story to give the movie continuity. The horse doesn’t learn any lessons. But we’re witness to the loss of innocence of Europe and the transition from an agrarian society to a technological one. The world is changed, not our hero.

A similar device is used to good storytelling effect again in A Dog’s Purpose. In it, a dog, Bailey, is born, dies, and is reborn over and over. In each life the dog learns something new. And all through the multiple lives, Bailey has experiences that teach him how to be the best dog he can be.

It’s hard to watch a good dog die. Especially over and over again. While the story is cloying and tugs at the heart strings, the anthology pattern is used to good effect here. The message this movie wants to push home is “be present and happy in the moment – like good dogs do.” It does it by following one dog’s spirit through multiple reincarnations.

Not every story is a hero’s journey. At Agile Writers, we adhere to this pattern because most stories can be told to great effect using it. There are times, however, when other patterns, like the anthology pattern, may suit your needs better. Choose the pattern that serves your story best.

Avatars: Your Ideal Reader

imagesRecently at Agile Writers the topic of what is “allowed” in certain genres came up. In particular, a couple writers are working on Christian Inspirational fiction and wondered what words or topics were taboo.

In that genre, readers are very sensitive to words that are perceived as “swear” words. Our own Cat Brennan related a story of how a Christian writer had a villain who had a foul mouth. The writer allowed only one swear in to the text. But when a bookseller found that word he called and complained bitterly to the publisher. The publisher then recalled all the books and removed the offending word.

This is an example of how you, as the writer, regardless of your genre, need to know your audience. You need to know what language your audience will be willing and able to read. You also need to know the conventions of the genre and the expectations of your readers.

I recommend to my writers that they create an ideal reader. The “ideal reader” is an idealized representation of the person most likely to read your book. Steven King, for example, claims that he writes with his wife in mind. He reasons that if she likes it, others will too. His wife then, is his ideal reader.

So, to figure out who the ideal reader is, think about the age, gender, educational level and expectations of the person reading your book. When I ask new Agile Writers who will read their book, almost invariably they answer “everyone!” But of course, not everyone will want to read your book. A book that appeals to a 12-year-old girl likely will not appeal to a 65-year-old man. It *can* happen, but it’s not likely. And as a writer, you can’t be expected to write a book that appeals to everyone.

So consider the age of the reader. If you’re writing a cozy mystery, you’re likely aiming at an older person: perhaps in their 50s or 60s. If you’re writing a young adult dystopian novel, you’re probably going to want to appeal to 12- to 15-year olds.

Gender is also a good identifier for your ideal writer. If you’re writing a spy/espionage thriller – you’re likely going to appeal to a male audience. And if you’re writing a romance novel, you’re book is probably going to appeal to women.

If this sounds like stereotyping, it is. And in this case, it’s not a bad thing. These are not negative stereotypes. This is knowing your demographic and writing to please them. You’re not telling a woman that she cannot read or enjoy your cold-war thriller. It’s just that the majority of your readers are likely to be men. And so, you’ll want to keep them in mind as you write your work.

I encourage writers to go an extra step in this process and create an “avatar” of their ideal reader. An avatar is an outward representation of a hidden concept. The word comes from the Sanskrit meaing “to descend”. It used to represent Hindu gods who came to Earth and needed an Earthly visage for people to see. In modern terms, people use “avatars” as pictures or cartoons that represent them on Facebook or in chat rooms. These are simple images that represent their true selves.

In the case of writers, an avatar is a stock photo of someone who represents their ideal reader. I tell my writers to create a full backstory for their ideal reader, and go onto the internet and Google search for an image that looks like their ideal reader.

For example, Cat is working on a Christian Inspirational cozy mystery. Her ideal reader might be a woman in her 50s to 60s who bakes, sews, quilts, and knits. I’d give this woman a name, say, “Melinda.” Melinda lives in the midwest and has three children and two grandchildren. I’d then ask Cat to go onto the internet and find a picture of this ideal reader to act as her avatar. Finally, Cat should print the picture out and tape it next to her computer screen so that she can keep her ideal reader in mind as she writes.

Keeping your reader in mind is an important part of writing your novel. Choosing an ideal reader will help you to make the right word choices, cultural references, and situations that will resonate with your readers. And having an avatar – or picture – of your ideal reader will keep you on-track as you write that first draft.

Query Tips from an Agent

 

Very few, if any, authors look forward to writing the dreaded query letter. And honestly, who can blame them? After spending countless hours alone and staring at a computer screen crafting what will eventually become your novel, your baby, you have to condense all of that hard work into just 3-5 paragraphs. You have just ONE PAGE to get an editor interested enough in your novel to want to read it.  Just thinking about it is enough to give any author a headache. However, if you are reading this you can thank Agile Writers and David H. Morgan for making a tough task just a little bit easier.  David was graciousness enough to spend some time with members of Agile Writers, critiquing letters and giving some very informative advice on the ins and outs of writing a successful query.

 

FOCUS ON THE DRAMA

drama-clipart

When an agent is reading a query letter the worst thing that can happen is that they get bored and toss it to the side. You only have a limited amount of time to gain the editor’s interest and in order to gain that interest you must do two things: focus on the drama and establish an emotional connection.

First, what is drama? Many are under the misconception that drama comes from the situation. Wrong. Drama comes from the character. Take two people being stuck an elevator for example. Not very dramatic right? Now let’s say this elevator is at a court house and the two people stuck in it is a father whose daughter has been murdered and the defendant accused of the crime. This situation is highly unlikely to come about, but the point is, the situation is made more dramatic because of the characters that are placed in it.

Alongside drama there must also be an emotional connection to the character. The editor must care about the character or else why would they want to read past the query letter? If there is no emotional involvement there is no character. The above situation for example, most people would feel sympathy for a father whose daughter had been murdered. And they would care enough to want to know how the story ends. Does the father find peace after confronting the defendant? Does he attack the defendant in the elevator? Or does he find out that the man accused is innocent? The editor would want to read more because they are emotionally invested into the situation.

Remember, without emotional involvement there is no drama and without drama there is no keeping the editor’s attention.

 

DO YOUR RESEARCH        research-clip-art

Before you can begin writing a query letter you need to research the agency and agent that you are going to send your query to. During your research you need to find out the following information:

  • Who are you sending the letter to? Always address the agent or editor you are writing to. Take the time to find out the name of the person who will be reading your query letter. A query addressed to the agency tells the editor that you were either too lazy or just didn’t care enough to find out their name.
  • What does the editor require you send along with the query? Do they want the first chapter, first three chapters, or just a synopsis?
  • Double check that the particular editor you are writing still works at that company.
  • Call and see how the agent prefers to be address. Do they prefer to be called Mr., Mrs., Dear, or do they prefer to just be address by their full name?
  • Make sure you are pitching your work to the right agent or editor. You don’t want to send your query to an editor that only publishes mysteries and your novel is a historical romance.

DON’T TELL THE EDITOR WHAT HE OR SHE ALREADY KNOWS

  • “I am pitching my 60,000 word YA-“The editor has stopped reading because you are telling them something they already know. The fact that you sent them a query letter has already told them that you are pitching a novel so just leave out the word pitch altogether.
  • “I am hoping to pique your interest-“of course you are hoping to pique their interest or else you wouldn’t be writing a query.
  • When describing your novel do not say that you have written a murder mystery fiction novel. The word fiction is redundant, it is already known that your novel is a work of fiction.

SELL THE BOOK, NOT YOURSELF

One thing David Morgan said that really stood out was, “The editor do not have to like you but they do have to like your book.” The main purpose of a query letter is to SELL YOUR BOOK. You may want to point out every writing accomplishment you have to your name, but don’t. Include your writing career at the end of the letter. Remember we want to focus on the drama, your writing career is not drama.

You should avoid:sell-clip-art

  • Biographies. The editor does not need to know about your childhood.
  • “I recently read…” They do not care what you have read or are reading.
  • Comparisons. Yes you need to sell your book but do so by avoiding comparing your novel to already successful novels. An editor does not like being told what to think. If your novel is the next Lord of the Rings Trilogy, then let the editor come to that conclusion themselves.
  • Pitching trilogies. Pitching a trilogy may make the editor feel as if he or she must take a package deal. And they may not want to take that chance, especially if you are an unknown author

Stay Focused

When writing a query letter remember to stay on topic. Do not begin writing about the novel and then jump to what your inspiration was or when you and that particular editor met. Start with introducing your novel and then continue to write about your novel. Anything else will give the editor the impression that you jump around and cannot stay on subject. They will assume that your novel will be like your query letter.

Don’t spend too much time on other characters. The main character should be the focus of the letter at all times. The editor or agent that reads your query needs to get to know the main character and come to care about what happens to the main character. If not, they have no reason to read past the query. Your main character needs to remain in the spotlight at all times.

A FEW MORE TIPS FROM DAVID

  • Get the word count, genre, and title of your novel out ASAP. Don’t make the editor read an entire paragraph before getting this information.
  • “I sincerely hope that this is the beginning of a long relationship….” WRONG. Do not write this. Try: “I look forward to your response” and even more desirable would be, “I hope you will find (title of your novel) to be an appropriate book for your list.”
  • If you have previously met the editor or agent whether or not to mention it depends on the context of the meeting. If you met him or her at a writer’s conference they will most likely not remember you. They meet a lot of people at numerous conferences every year and they are required to be nice at these events. But, if you have met in a more private setting then you may include it. Do Not take up an entire paragraph on how you met. Just a sentence or two will do.
  • MAKE SURE YOU HAVE FINISHED YOUR NOVEL BEFORE QUERYING!!!!

When writing a query letter don’t be nervous, take a deep breath and remember that in the end agents need authors. You just have to get them interested.