Finding the Story

Lisa Cron, author of a craft book I recommend a lot called Story Genius, has often said that the biggest mistake she saw writers make when she was a literary agent is that they write pages, not stories.

“They have a great idea, their prose is gorgeous, and there’s a lot of action, [but] there’s no real story, and so no driving sense of urgency,” she writes.  “Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one.”

There are so many ways to fall into this–digressions, elaborate descriptions, or following a character around for 30 pages, just to see what they do. Research is my weakness. I’ll interrupt a scene five times to tell you about the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

And it’s not wrong to write those things and follow those thoughts in our early drafts. Early drafts are for discovery, in my opinion, and if you want to write a page of description to discover one great line or write about the Galveston Hurricane to keep one juicy factoid, well, Ok then.

For author Harrison Scott Key, his traps are humor (no surprise there, he’s a winner of the Thurber Prize for Humor), and backstory. In a recent visit to my class, he said that in the first draft of his most recent book How to Stay Married: The Most Insane Love Story Ever Told, he dedicated many entire chapters to backstory.

“There were a bunch that were so fun, and, I don’t know, maybe Dostoevsky or Tolstoy would have left them all in,” he said. “But I took them out because, while they fit within the structure of it, I’m not Tolstoy and I need to keep things moving.”

He started thinking about how his book would answer the question, “What is going to get people, when they finish a chapter, to turn the page?”

The book’s inciting incident is the moment that his wife of 20 years tells him she’s in love with another man. High drama, right? But… where’s the story?

Harrison started trying to figure that out with spreadsheets, which, for a while, helped him get perspective. Until they didn’t.

“Every story is really 2 stories. The first half is the thing [the protagonist] sets out to do. And then the second half is whatever actually happens,” Harrison said. “If our job is to win the football game, you’re going to win that football game by the middle or you’re going to lose it by the middle. And then the last half the book is going to be about what was really going on with you when you were trying to win that football game.”

Harrison took the moments that felt special beyond their inherent drama, wrote them on post-it notes, and tacked just those moments to a bulletin board.

“It’s a good practice to ask, what’s got to be in there?” Harrison said. ”Put a pin in those big moments, and you can build your bridge on all that.”

And how were the post-it-worthy high-octane moments different from the rest?

“Change,” he said.

Once they were up there, Harrison could see an infrastructure. And once you have that, you have a story.

Your turn, writers. Take whatever you’re working on right now, and look for your high-octane moments, then find the ones where something big changes, and give those turning points their own space.

What story are they telling?

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Kicking Down the Door, Part 2

Hey, this is part of a series on writers who kicked down a metaphorical door with their writing. Like Marie Curie with science and Little Richard with music…

There’s a story I like about a kid riding the subway to visit his mother who’s in prison. It’s a children’s picture book called Milo Imagines the World, written by Matt de la Peña (illustrated by Christian Robinson).

That’s right. It’s a children’s picture book.

Who told de la Peña that he could write a picture book about a kid going to visit his mother in prison? Yes, I know picture books can be sophisticated and layered and a bit dark. But still…

It’s brilliant storytelling. During the subway ride, Milo (the boy) draws pictures of the people he sees and imagines what their lives are like. For example, he sees a smartly dressed boy and imagines he lives a fancy life, but his perceptions are shaken when he sees this boy at the prison, also visiting his mom. Milo realizes first impressions may not be so accurate.

This is what de la Peña does. He writes books about kids who aren’t typically represented in children’s literature. At a conference, a teacher told him her school doesn’t carry his books, good as they are, because their students aren’t like his characters, and de la Peña asked how many wizards attend their school.

Another of de la Peña’s picture books, Last Stop on Market Street (a Newbery medal winner, also illustrated by Robinson), is about a kid riding the bus with his grandmother to help her work in a soup kitchen in a rough part of town, and the kid learns to see beauty in even the most scarred of environments.

De la Peña’s picture book Love, more tone poem than story (illustrated by Loren Long), has a page spread where we see a kid hiding under the piano—the dad looking disheveled, the mom crying, a glass of liquor in sight. The publisher wanted to cut this image, but de la Peña insisted it stay.

De la Peña also writes YA novels, like Ball Don’t Lie, about a foster kid walking the mean streets of LA. Here he is…

I almost forgot to tell you about Sticky… How he keeps his raisin-brown hair cropped close. Faded up on the sides with some fancy-ass clippers he snatched from Macy’s. How he’s long and thin like somebody’s stick figure sketch, scissored off lined paper and Scotch-taped to a basketball court.

The words in de la Peña’s books vibrate with the personality of the people we’re meeting.

Matt used to teach at Gotham and was good enough to be a guest at our last Children’s Book Conference. And, man, he’s a champion to kids everywhere, many of them seeing themselves in a book for the first time.  

Alex Steele,

Gotham President

Building a Platform

Maybe you heard, but Gotham held a Nonfiction Conference recently, where one of the panels was on building a platform because it’s a thing people tell writers they need to do. But they usually leave out what a platform actually is, or how to do it.

And so, first-time authors make a lot of mistakes. In a panic to “build a platform,” new authors have started blogs where they posted excerpts from their manuscripts, which they almost immediately had to take down. (Agents and publishers want unpublished work, and a blog equals publishing.) They’ve started Twitter accounts even though they hate social media, or a newsletter because someone told them they should, sent out a trickle of tweets or issues, then abandoned them not long after.

What all these missteps have in common is an assumption that having a “platform” means having 25,000 social media followers, or a buzzy TikTok, or a Substack (which, according to publishing guru Jane Friedman can be dicey for authors). 

You can see how someone who spent years finishing their first novel might panic if they thought that’s what you need to sign with an agent.

Good news: It’s not.

“With platform, what’s most important is — make yourself easy to find,” literary agent Jennifer Chen Tran said at the conference. “Hang out in the places and spaces you feel comfortable.”

Making yourself easy to find can be as simple as building a website with WordPress or Squarespace, she said. If you use and like social media, great! Do that. If not, don’t.

Author Elissa Bassist said at the same panel that when she (unwillingly) started a platform, she “just did the things I wanted to do and tried to avoid the things I didn’t want to do, while feeling very guilty about that.”

For Elissa, that meant blogging, then editing a humor column at The Rumpus, where she published and ultimately befriended other writers. It also meant doing improv, attending shows, attending readings, making friends.

Also, and perhaps most important: “My therapist at the time was telling me to prioritize my mental health,” Elissa said. “I was just trying to have fun.”

Graphic novelist (and Gotham teacher!) Teresa Wong said she took a similar approach when she started pitching her first book Dear Scarlet. She already liked playing around on Instagram, so she started a project of posting a new drawing a day, for a whole year. She started a Substack, not because she thought she needed one, but because, during lockdown in 2020, “it was a chance to write and draw about the clothes I missed wearing.”

“Nothing ever blows up or reaps rewards right away,” Teresa said. “My goal was improving my skills, not really … becoming an influencer.”

If you’re still struggling to picture what this would look like for you, here’s a hypothetical, using my friend Sherry. She’s a little online, but not a lot. She posts pictures of her kids, and sunsets, on Facebook, but most of her online activity centers on knitting. She’s such a skilled knitter that pattern designers ask her to test out their new ones, the more complex the better. She attends yarn festivals and trade shows, so she’s very active in the fiber arts online community Ravelry. And she’s got an insta full of photos of complicated knitting patterns she’s tested and how they turned out, along with beautiful shawls and sweaters of her own.

When she gets ready to start pitching her sci-fi novel, (note my choice of relative adverb there, Sherry), the last thing she should do is try to start a Substack about speculative fiction, or start a Twitter or Threads account and start posting about books and craft. She’d be starting from scratch, and trying to interact with people she has nothing in common with — yet.

It would make more sense for her to weave (pun totally intended) posts about her book project, or her writing, or what she’s discovering on her creative journey in among her posts about mosaic shawl patterns or roosimine knitting. She could post about ways her two creative pursuits energize one another. She might even start connecting, online or in the world, with other writer+knitters and together they could launch a speculative fiction reading series, where every story has to touch on or mention the fiber arts in some way.

Is this all sounding a little silly to you? Good! I am a little silly, and Jennifer Chen Tran says above all, in this platform thing, “Just be yourself.” And also:

“I want you to know you’re doing awesome, and keep doing the good work and the hard work and if you need to step away for your mental health, it’s OK to take a break.”

Hear, hear.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty