Contracts and Comments
Novel Writing Courses
Algonkian Pre-event Assignments and Readings
Below is a healthy sampling of pre-event assignments sent to you prior to Algonkian workshops, retreats and conferences. Do not be surprised at the amount of work. If you wish to write a competitive commercial novel, you will take this all seriously. Your work should change and transform as you make your way through the readings and assignments. All are crucial. Nevertheless, if you must prioritize, we rate the work below on a scale from MANDATORY to STRONGLY RECOMMENDED.
VERY STRONGLY RECOMMENDED
1. Articles on Advanced Fiction and Novel Craft
Many of the following were written by Algonkian director, Michael Neff, in his role as a contributing editor to the Algonkian Author Salon and "The Writer's Edge" blog:
STRONGLY RECOMMENDED READING
2. A Sample From the Algonkian Study Guide (86 pages DOWNLOAD PDF)
PLOTTING AND STORY DEVICES
For our purposes here, we define the novel as a long and interesting story that must make sense, no room for artifice or clunkiness, only phenomenal yet natural flow. During the course of pathing plot and story, the crafty author employs a variety of devices to smooth the flow, deliver necessary information, create a pause in the action, and more. Having knowledge of these methods in advance allows the author to storyboard with more creative flexibility, to push forward past problems that would otherwise confound and frustrate the inexperienced writer.
No Verisimilitude Without "Masking" : Foreshadow, Aftermath, Discussion and Repercussion Application
Certain events must take place to move the novel forward, and often the author must use skillful storytelling technique to produce verisimilitude, i.e., to make the occurrence of the event seem natural rather than too convenient or contrived. "Masking" refers to the sum of this technique, the cumulative effect rendering a necessary yet potentially awkward event believable. Proper utilization of this indispensable technique allows the author more freedom to explore the introduction of unusual and/or surprising events and/or endings.
In Nabokov's Lolita, the wife of Humbert conveniently dies so that Humbert can proceed with his plans to seclude himself with Lolita:
First, the event is foreshadowed - Humbert receives a phone call from a neighbor stating that something has happened to his wife. Next, (beginning a new chapter) Humbert goes outside and witnesses the aftermath carnage of the accident - the scene is complex with objects and nearly surreal in portrayal. The police show him the body, he observes the details of it, etc. All of this lends credibility to the event. A few pages later, as a repercussion of the event occurs: a discussion ensues with a man who arrives to hash over accident details with Humbert--the question of the event's verisimilitude is settled.
Novels studied or referenced in the study guide:
- "Bel Canto" (Ann Patchett)
- "Third Degree" (Patterson and Gross)
- "The Five People You Meet In Heaven" (Mitch Albom)
- "The Secret Life of Bees" (Sue Monk Kidd)
- "The Life of Pi" (Yann Martel)
- "Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" (Michael Chabon)
- "Evensong" (Gail Godwin)
- "The Burden of Proof" (Scott Turow)
- "The Shipping News" (E. Annie Proulx)
- "Claudius The God" (Robert Graves)
- "Lucky You" (Carl Hiassen)
- "The Poisonwood Bible" (Barbara Kingsolver)
- "Lolita" (Vladimir Nabokov)
- "Year of The Rhinoceros" (Michael B. Neff)
- "The Illustrated Man" (Ray Bradbury)
- "Wise Blood" (Flannery O'Connor)
- "The Great Gatsby" (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
- "All the King's Men" (Robert Penn Warren)
- "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" (Ken Kesey)
- "Miss Lonelyhearts" (Nathaniel West)
- "The Sun Also Rises" (Ernest Hemingway)
- "Wuthering Heights" (Emily Brontë)
- "One Hundred Years of Solitude" (Gabriel G. Marquez)
- "The Centaur" (John Updike)
3. Online Novel Workshop Assignments in Forum
THE ACT OF STORY STATEMENT
Before you begin to consider or rewrite your story premise, you must develop a simple "story statement." In other words, what's the mission of your protagonist (hero/ine)? Their goal? What must be done? What must she or he create? Destroy? Save? Accomplish? Defeated?Defy the dictator of the city and bury brother's body (ANTIGONE)? Place a bet that will shake up the asylum (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST)? Do whatever it takes to recover lost love (THE GREAT GATSBY)? Save the farm and live to tell the story (COLD MOUNTAIN)? Find the wizard and a way home to Kansas (WIZARD OF OZ)? Note that all of these are books with strong antagonists who drive or catalyze the plot line going forward. More on that later.
If you cannot conceive or write a simple story statement like those above (which will help define your story premise) then you do not yet have a work of commercial fiction. Keep in mind that the PLOT LINE is an elaboration of the statement, of this "primary complication" of story statement. Also, look over the brief summaries of these novels in Author Connect Deal News 2012 (https://authorconnect.authorsalon.com/index.php/topic/2287-latest-deal-news-sf-general-thrillermystery-romance/). These contain the simple statement, but more elaborated into a short hook.
FIRST ASSIGNMENT: write your story statement.
THE ANTAGONIST PLOTS THE POINT
Since the antagonist in most successful commercial fiction is the driver of the plot line(s), what chances do you as a writer have of getting your manuscript, regardless of genre, commercially published if the story and narrative therein fail to meet reader demands for sufficient suspense, character concern, and conflict?
Such a dearth of vitality in narrative and story frequently results from the unwillingness of the writer to create a suitable antagonist who stirs and spices the plot hash. And let's make it clear what we're talking about. By "antagonist" we specifically refer to an actual fictional character, an embodiment of certain traits and motivations who plays a significant role in catalyzing and energizing plot line(s), or at bare minimum, in assisting to evolve the protagonist's character arc (and by default the story itself) by igniting complication(s) the protagonist, and possibly other characters, must face and solve (or fail to solve).
CONTINUE READING ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE:https://www.authorsalon.com/page/general/AntagonistsInLiterature/
SECOND ASSIGNMENT: in 200 words or less, sketch the antagonist or antagonistic force in your story. Keep in mind their goals, their background, and the ways they react to the world about them.
CONJURING YOUR BREAKOUT TITLE
What is your breakout title? How important is a great title before you even become published? Very important! Quite often, agents and editors will get a feel for a work and even sense the marketing potential just from a title. A title has the ability to attract and condition the reader's attention. It can be magical or thud like a bag of wet chalk, so choose carefully. A poor title sends the clear message that what comes after will also be of poor quality.
Go to Amazon.Com and research a good share of titles in your genre, come up with options, write them down and let them simmer for at least 24 hours.Consider character or place names, settings, or a "label" that describes a major character, like THE ENGLISH PATIENT or THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST. Consider also images, objects, or metaphors in the novel that might help create a title, or perhaps a quotation from another source (poetry, the Bible, etc.) that thematically represents your story. Or how about a title that summarizes the whole story: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, etc.
Keep in mind that the difference between a mediocre title and a great title is the difference between THE DEAD GIRL'S SKELETON and THE LOVELY BONES, between TIME TO LOVE THAT CHOLERA and LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA between STRANGERS FROM WITHIN (Golding's original title) and LORD OF THE FLIES, between BEING LIGHT AND UNBEARABLE and THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING.
THIRD ASSIGNMENT: create a breakout title (list several options, not more than three, and revisit to edit as needed).
DECIDING YOUR GENRE AND APPROACHING COMPARABLES
Did you know that a high percentage of new novel writers don't fully understand their genre, much less comprehend comparables?
When informing professionals about the nuances of your novel, whether by query letter or oral pitch, you must know your genre first, and provide smart comparables second. In other words, you need to transcend just a simple statement of genre (literary, mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction, etc.) by identifying and relating your novel more specifically to each publisher's or agent's area of expertise, and you accomplish this by wisely comparing your novel to contemporary published novels they will most likely recognize and appreciate--and it usually doesn't take more than two good comps to make your point.Agents and publishing house editors always want to know the comps.
There is more than one reason for this. First, it helps them understand your readership, and thus how to position your work for the market. Secondly, it demonstrates up front that you are a professional who understands your contemporary market, not just the classics. Very important! And finally, it serves as a tool to enable them to pitch your novel to the decision-makers in the business.Most likely you will need to research your comps. We've included some great starter websites for this purpose below. If you're not sure how to begin, go to Amazon.Com, type in the title of a novel you believe very similar to yours, choose it, then scroll down the page to see Amazon's list of "Readers Also Bought This" and begin your search that way.
Keep in mind that before you begin, you should know enough about your own novel to make the comparison in the first place!By the way, beware of using comparables by overly popular and classic authors. If you compare your work to classic authors like H.G. Wells and Gabriel Marquez in the same breath you will risk being declared insane. If you compare your work to huge contemporary authors like Nick Hornby or Jodi Picoult or Nora Ephron or Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling, and so forth, you will not be laughed at, but you will also not be taken seriously since thousands of others compare their work to the same writers. Best to use two rising stars in your genre. If you can't do this, use only one classic or popular author and combine with a rising star. Choose carefully!
- Read Caitlin's Comparables on Author Salon: https://www.authorsalon.com/craft/view/62/ - Develop two smart comparables for your novel. This is a good opportunity to immerse yourself in your chosen genre. Who compares to you? And why?
CONSIDERING THE PRIMARY CONFLICT - COMING OF THE "AGON"
Conflict, tension, complication, drama--all basically related, and all going a long way to keeping the reader's eyes fixated on your story. These days, serving up a big manuscript of quiet is a sure path to damnation. You need tension on the page (esp in fiction), at all times, and the best way to accomplish this is to create (or find them in your nonfiction story) conflict and complications in the plot and narrative.
Consider "conflict" divided into three parts, all of which you should ideally have present. First, the primary conflict which drives through the core of the work from beginning to end and which zeniths with an important climax (falling action and denouement to follow). Next, secondary conflicts or complications which can take various social forms (anything from a vigorous love subplot to family issues to turmoil with fellow characters). Finally, those inner conflicts the major characters must endure and resolve.
And now, onto the PRIMARY CONFLICT.
If you've taken care to consider your story description and your hook line, you should be able to identify your main conflict(s). Let's look at some basic information regarding the history of conflict in storytelling:
Conflict was first described in ancient Greek literature as the agon, or central contest in tragedy. According to Aristotle, in order to hold the interest, the hero must have a single conflict. The agon, or act of conflict, involves the protagonist (the "first fighter") and the antagonist (a more recent term), corresponding to the hero and villain. The outcome of the contest cannot be known in advance, and, according to later critics such as Plutarch, the hero's struggle should be ennobling. Is that always true these days? Not always, but let's move on.
Even in contemporary, non-dramatic literature, critics have observed that the agon is the central unit of the plot. The easier it is for the protagonist to triumph, the less value there is in the drama. In internal and external conflict alike, the antagonist must act upon the protagonist and must seem at first to overmatch him or her.
The above defines classic drama that creates conflict with real stakes. You see it everywhere, to one degree or another, from classic contemporary westerns like THE SAVAGE BREED to a time-tested novel as literary as THE GREAT GATSBY. And of course, you need to have conflict or complications in nonfiction also, in some form, or you have a story that is too quiet.
For examples let's return to the story descriptions and create some CONFLICT LINES. Note these come close to being genuine hook lines, but that conflict is present regardless of genre.
The Hand of Fatima by Ildefonso Falcones A young Moor torn between Islam and Christianity, scorned and tormented by both, struggles to bridge the two faiths by seeking common ground in the very nature of God.
Summer's Sisters by Judy Blume After sharing a magical summer with a friend, a young woman must confront her friend's betrayal of her with the man she loved.
The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud As an apprentice mage seeks revenge on an elder magician who humiliated him, he unleashes a powerful Djinni who joins the mage to confront a danger that threatens their entire world.
Note that it is fairly easy to ascertain the stakes in each case above: a young woman's love and friendship, the entire world, and harmony between opposed religions. If you cannot make the stakes clear, the odds are you don't have any.
FIFTH ASSIGNMENT: write your own conflict line following the format above. Keep in mind it helps energize an entire plot line and the antagonist(s) must be noted or inferred.
OTHER MATTERS OF CONFLICT: TWO MORE LEVELS
Consider "conflict" divided into three parts, all of which you should ideally have present. First, the primary conflict which drives through the core of the work from beginning to end and which zeniths with an important climax (falling action and denouement to follow). Next, secondary conflicts or complications which can take various social forms (anything from a vigorous love subplot to family issues to turmoil with fellow characters). Finally, those inner conflicts the major characters must endure and resolve. You must note the inner personal conflicts elsewhere in this profile, but make certain to note any important interpersonal conflicts within this particular category."
SIXTH ASSIGNMENT: sketch out the conditions for the inner conflict your protagonist will have. Why will they feel in turmoil? Conflicted? Anxious? Sketch out one hypothetical scenario in the story wherein this would be the case--consider the trigger and the reaction.
Next, likewise sketch a hypothetical scenario for the "secondary conflict" involving the social environment. Will this involve family? Friends? Associates? What is the nature of it?
THE INCREDIBLE IMPORTANCE OF SETTING
When considering your novel, whether taking place in a contemporary urban world or on a distant magical planet in Andromeda, you must first sketch the best overall setting and sub-settings for your story. Consider: the more unique and intriguing (or quirky) your setting, the more easily you're able to create energetic scenes, narrative, and overall story.
A great setting maximizes opportunities for interesting characters, circumstances, and complications, and therefore makes your writing life so much easier.
Imagination is truly your best friend when it comes to writing competitive fiction, and nothing provides a stronger foundation than a great setting. One of the best selling contemporary novels, THE HUNGER GAMES, is driven by the circumstances of the setting, and the characters are a product of that unique environment, the plot also.
But even if you're not writing SF/F, the choice of setting is just as important, perhaps even more so. If you must place your upmarket story in a sleepy little town in Maine winter, then choose a setting within that town that maximizes opportunities for verve and conflict, for example, a bed and breakfast stocked to the ceiling with odd characters who combine to create comical, suspenseful, dangerous or difficult complications or subplot reversals that the bewildered and sympathetic protagonist must endure and resolve while he or she is perhaps engaged in a bigger plot line: restarting an old love affair, reuniting with a family member, starting a new business, etc. And don't forget that non-gratuitous sex goes a long way, especially for American readers.
CONTINUE TO READ THIS ARTICLE THEN RETURN: https://www.authorsalon.com/craft/view/97/
FINAL ASSIGNMENT: sketch out your setting in detail. What makes it interesting enough, scene by scene, to allow for uniqueness and cinema in your narrative and story? Please don't simply repeat what you already have which may well be too quiet. You can change it. That's why you're here! Start now. Imagination is your best friend, and be aggressive with it.
VERY STRONGLY RECOMMENDED TO MANDATORY
4. Additional Assignments Emailed to Workshop Attendees
For this event you must purchase and read, or re-read "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" by Ken Kesey and "The Great Gatsby" by Fitzgerald. Both make important and fundamental points concerning plot structure, theme, dramatic complication, scene construction, narrative composition, and more. Both are utilized in the Algonkian Study Guide, along with other important works. We cannot overstress the importance of this.
For your first assignment, go to your nearest library or book superstore. Read the first ten pages of at least five new literary novels (no genre, i.e, SF, mystery, etc.). Once you've spent a few hours, take out a laptop, or sheet of paper, and note bullet by bullet precisely what the author did within those first ten pages to make the protagonist appear sympathetic, original and interesting. Also, note how the information was delivered in "the hook" of the novel. Was the author telling us, or showing us the character's qualities in a vivid scene?
For your second assignment, examine the book jacket of each novel. Write the book jacket you would like to see for your novel (see your pitch model assignment upcoming). Ask yourself after you write it: WILL THIS MAKE SOMEONE WANT TO BUY MY BOOK? And if so, why? Note: limit the number of words to the average number you count on the jackets. Try to limit to 150-200 words.
Please use the following examples as models for your agent pitch session. Keep your pitch to 150-200 words, no more than a minute. Have the pitch written before the conference begins. Note that the pitch is a diagnostic tool to determine the strong and weak points of your novel. If you do not have enough novel for a pitch, then no problem. Now is the time to start thinking about it!
Take special note of dramatic tension and plot points, rising action, character qualities.
"The English Teacher" by Lily King:
(HOOK - the entire first paragraph) Fifteen years ago Vida Avery arrived alone and pregnant at elite Fayer Academy. She has since become a fixture and one of the best English teachers Fayer has ever had. By living on campus, on an island off the New England coast, Vida has cocooned herself and her son, Peter, from the outside world and from an inside secret. (SCENE SET) For years she has lived largely through the books she teaches, but when she accepts the impulsive marriage proposal of ardent widower Tom Belou, the prescribed life Vida has constructed is swiftly dismantled. (PLOT POINT creates COMPLICATIONS or DRAMATIC TENSION)
Peter, however, welcomes the changes. Excited to move off campus, eager to have siblings at last, Peter anticipates a regular life with a "normal" family. But the Belou children are still grieving, and the memory of their recently dead mother exerts a powerful hold on the house. As Vida begins teaching her signature book, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a nineteenth-century tale of an ostracized woman and social injustice, its themes begin to echo eerily in her own life and Peter sees that the mother he perceived as indomitable is collapsing and it is up to him to help. (SECOND PLOT POINT creates MAJOR COMPLICATION and RISING ACTION leading to CLIFFHANGER: will Peter save his mother?)
Another example from "Close Case" by Alafair Burke:
Investigating the brutal murder of a hotshot journalist, Samantha Kincaid finds herself caught in the middle of an increasingly personal and potentially dangerous struggle between Portland's police and the DA's office.(HOOK, SCENE SET, SUBPLOT COMPLICATION).
For Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid's thirty-second birthday, she gets an unusual gift: a homicide call out. (PLOT POINT begins MAJOR COMPLICATION: solve the crime) The crime scene: the elite Hillside neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. The victim: hotshot investigative reporter Percy Crenshaw, who has been bludgeoned to death in his carport.
Tensions in the city have been running high. The previous week, a police officer shot and killed an unarmed mother of two in what he claims was self-defense; in the aftermath, protestors have waged increasingly agitated anti-police protests. Crenshaw's death, it seems, is not unrelated: within a matter of hours, police arrest two young men who appear to have embarked on a crime spree in the aftermath of the protests. The case looks straightforward, especially when one of the suspects confesses. But then the man recants, claiming coercive police tactics, and Samantha finds herself digging for more evidence. (PLOT POINT, RISING ACTION, MORE SUB-COMPLICATIONS)
Following Crenshaw's steps, her search leads her through an elaborate maze of connections between the city's drug trade and officers in the bureau's north precinct. Samantha's pursuit of the truth puts her in the middle of city political battles and on the outs with the cops, including her new live-in boyfriend, Detective Chuck Forbes. Worse yet, the path left by Crenshaw could lead Samantha to the same fatal end.(CLIFFHANGER: will Samantha save her own life, solve the murder in the process, and later, recover her love interest? THREE QUESTIONS BEGGED!)
Now, go and write the PITCH for your novel. And please, take your time!
Once done, put it aside for two days, then read it and ask yourself this question:
WILL THIS MAKE SOMEONE WANT TO BUY MY BOOK?
At the Algonkian Writer Retreat you can be
as goal-focused or hesitant in approach as you wish. You can go to a workshop or two, discuss your novel
with us, have your synopsis and writing samples read by our onsite mentors, or just clear your head and
find your path, whatever works for you, whatever helps you grow as an aspiring author...
In keeping with the spirit of writers gone before on the California coast, you can be as goal-focused at
the Monterey Writer Retreat, or as
hesitant in approach as you wish. You can show us your manuscript, improve your skills, clear your head,
have your work read by our onsite author-agent mentors, whatever helps you grow and find your vision as
a writer ...
BOOKS AND CAREERS
Algonkian Writer Conferences
2020 Pennsylvania Ave,
Washington, D.C. 20006