Let me tell you a sad story.
So two years ago, I went to RWA. I ended up having lunch with a girl I’d never met, a friend of an acquaintance. She was very nice, and she was coming to lunch fresh off a pitch session with an editor.
She claimed the pitch had gone horribly. She had spent two years writing this romance novel, all about a girl moving to Paris to escape a bad relationship. She’d been querying somewhat successfully, but no real interest. The pitch session started well. She’d felt encouraged when the editor showed interest in the premise.
Then the editor said, “That’s great. What’s the external conflict?”
The friend-of-a-friend went on to talk about the girl finding herself, and becoming independent, and all those great things you want to see a female protagonist do in a novel.
The editor said, “Yeah, okay, that’s great. What’s the external conflict?”
Aha. The problem.
There was no external conflict. She had a 100,000 word novel about a girl moving to Paris to escape a bad relationship. That was it. There was no plot.
The lunch was a real downer after that.
But you know what? The whole scenario was a real eye opener for me.
There’s a lot of advice out there about writing the perfect query letter. Here’s the thing: if writing the query letter feels impossible, the problem might be your story.
I do a lot of writing from the seat of my pants. Sometimes I’ll start a thread and see where it goes. Sometimes those threads get deleted, sometimes they make a perfect connection later in the story. (In my current novel, I gave one character a retired police dog for a pet. No real reason; just because I thought it would be cool. But later in the story, I needed the dog’s owner to locate another character who’d gone missing. My amazing critique partner Sarah Maas said something like, “Well…Isn’t the dog a police dog?”)
The problem with seat-of-your-pants writing is that it’s very easy to lose track of a plot. Seat-of-your-pants writing typically just starts with a scenario (OMG, I would love to write about fairies on the moon!!), and you have to either come up with a plot right away (The fairies need to find magic moon dust or their race will die!!) or you’re going to be stuck writing nothing but a series of events.
First the fairies begin building houses on the moon. Then the boy fairy and the girl fairy kiss. Oh, but there’s another fairy who’s interested in the girl fairy. And now they want to go on a journey for no apparent reason but it’s fun to write!
First, let’s get the guilt out of the way: there’s nothing wrong with writing a series of events. It’s great practice for putting scenes on paper, developing character, finding out the theme of your story.
You know how sometimes you’ll say, “My story really gets going in chapter five”? That’s because you spent four chapters screwing around, trying to figure out what your plot was going to be.
That’s not an insult. I have two of those sitting in a drawer myself.
It wasn’t until I started getting a lot of rejections that said things like, “The writing is great, and I love the characters, but the plot really isn’t linear,” that I realized I needed to have my core plot in mind before I started writing.
This doesn’t have to be complicated. My novel that’s currently on submission started out pretty simply:
When Becca saves a classmate named Chris from what she thinks is a cruel act of bullying, she learns he and his brothers are part of a secret race with special powers, and they’re at war with others of their kind.
That’s the scenario. That’s usually all I’d have in mind to want to start the book. That’s NOT the plot. There’s no conflict. There’s the promise of conflict (bullies, war, high school), but it’s all hypothetical. That core conflict is what needs to be nailed down.
A lot of queries stop there, too. They shouldn’t. That’s just a scenario. It’s like saying, “I stopped off at the store this evening, but men with machine guns were hiding behind the display case of the bakery.”
Imagine your spouse walked in the house, dropped that line, and then went about making dinner. Wouldn’t you be like, “OMG!?!?!? THEN WHAT?!?!?!?”
So, yeah. Scenario is great to get you started, but not enough to carry you through. I know, I know, you really want to get those first pages on paper. Go ahead, do it. But don’t get more than a chapter down before you stop yourself. Because you really need to think of a plot. I learned this the hard way. Learn from my pain. Please. I get excited too.
So before I let myself get too excited and start writing, I force myself to think of the core conflict — the plot.
By saving Chris and befriending his brothers, Becca unknowingly throws herself into the middle of their war. When her life is threatened, she must decide whether to stand with Chris and his brothers — a decision made more difficult when their actions show they might not be the good guys after all.
There’s a key word in there: decision. There’s your core conflict. She has to decide whether to help them or stand against them.
These examples are deliberately vague for a reason. THAT’S OKAY. We’re not talking about a pitch, we’re not talking about a query. We’re talking about finding a core conflict to start a novel, especially if, like me, you want to write from the seat of your pants. (This can be built into a query/pitch later.)
Right now, details aren’t important. You don’t need to know whether Chris and his brothers will actually be heroin addicts or murderers or kitten rescuers or boy scouts. All you need to know is that at some point, your protagonist is going to face a decision, and you should have some idea what that decision is. If she goes one way, the bad guys win. If she goes the other, the good guys win. At this point, you don’t even need to know who the bad guys will really turn out to be. Just what the options are.
Starting with your core conflict is like building a house and starting with the frame. You can hang everything (drywall, bricks, whatever) from it, and it will stand up pretty well. But if you start slapping up drywall before the frame is in place, it’s going to be a mess to fix.
Trust me, I learned that the hard way, too.