By Joyce Sweeney
Part of The Writer’s Life Series
JH: It’s not always clear to know what to focus on to improve our writing, but Joyce Sweeney has a formula to help writers grade their stories. Please give her a warm welcome.
Joyce Sweeney is the author of fourteen novels for young adults and two chapbooks of poetry. Her books have won many awards and honors. Joyce has recently switched to writing adult fiction and is represented by Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour agency.
Joyce has also been a writing teacher and coach for 25 years and offers online classes. In 2019, she, Jamie Morris and Tia Levings released Plotting Your Novel with The Plot Clock (Giantess Press). At this writing, 62 of Joyce’s students have successfully obtained traditional publishing contracts.
Joyce lives in Coral Springs with her husband, Jay and caffeine-addicted cat, Nitro.
Back when I was studying poetry, I discovered a formula for poetry assessment that caught my imagination. I may have it wrong now, but the idea was that you should assess a poem on four things: idea, music, story and structure. As a fiction teacher, my brain immediately went into overdrive wondering how this might translate and I came up with my similar list: concept, voice, plot and structure.
Then, of course, I asked myself how I measured up in these categories and I discovered something magical. I knew I was born with an A in structure and I knew I had a D in plotting. That discovery alone was gold to me on a personal level and it led to an intensive attempt to ‘raise my grade’ in plotting. Moreover, I knew that my concepts were 50-50 (as were my book sales from project to project) and that my voice was pretty bad on the first draft, but I could always polish it to a good level. In other words, my report card as a fiction writer was: Structure A, Voice B, Concept C, Plot D. And I knew just where and how to do my homework from that day forward.
Since I never have a problem with seeing one case as a scientific study, I decided maybe we were ALL like that. Born with one ‘free ticket’ and one ‘horror category’ with the other grades falling in between. I started assessing the manuscripts I edited on this basis and I realized it’s true. Which means identifying where we fall in these categories and working to ‘bring up our low grades’ was very possibly the Key to Everything in being ‘ready’ for publication. I continued to develop this idea into a workshop and also one of my online classes which is actually Lesson One in the upcoming Fiction Writing Essentials. I think it’s kind of a life-changing thing. So here it is in a very abbreviated version.
Let’s start with voice.
For a definition, voice is the whole way a writer uses language. So let’s say that’s the gift you are born with. In fact, I think a lot of people who choose writing have a fabulous voice and that is the easiest thing for teachers and friends to notice. I’ve discovered that people who have a real way with language, that is to say a beautiful voice, can become very frustrated, because they get standing ovations in their critique groups, they dazzle the crowd, and everyone tells them “you’re there!” when maybe they have not mastered the other elements listed above.
To my horror, I find these are people who might give up too soon. They feel, “I can’t make my writing any better so if it’s not good enough, I’ll quit.” They don’t realize they are polishing the wrong thing. Oddly, people who struggle with voice often succeed, even though they get the most picked on in critique group. Fixing voice is a slow process and these people often feel ‘behind’ the others. But they also stick around a long time, determined to crack the code, and if they are strong in plot and structure, they make it to an editor who will help them out.
Some of my voice tips are: use a narrative voice that works with your natural voice. A lot of MG writers have a YA voice and vice versa. Read poetry. It gives you voice by osmosis. And of course, study the elements of voice.
That’s my D. I used to write poems and short stories. You don’t need a lot of plot for that. When I started writing novels, I felt if a character had some kind of epiphany near the end of the book, my work was done. Amazingly enough, I was strong enough in other ways to get published, but my sales were very up and down till I mastered plotting. I studied it so much, I’m now known more for plot writing and plot teaching then anything else.
If you’re weak in plot, you often make it beyond the pitch to a request. They may read beginning pages and keep requesting, because your voice is good. But when they get to the end of the manuscript it’s a no-sale. Plotting is easy to learn and easy to teach. Of all these skills, it’s the most mathematical and logical, so once you get the hang of it (unlike concept!) you’re in business. If you’re strong in plot, you may find that your agent, your editor and some critics are still finding flaws in your books, but they always tell you you gave them a darn good ride. That’s what a plot is. A darn good ride. Studying movies and plays is one great way to work on your plot grade.
So, if plot is the ride, structure is the type of vehicle that takes the ride.
It’s the hardest of these concepts to explain, but concretely, it plays out in things like point of view, length of scenes, story beats and swings. It’s an inner knowing of what the reader wants and needs at every turn of the story and delivering it. It’s often learned more by experience or trial and error and especially from feedback by others, so deliberate study doesn’t always work. If you read to a critique group and they say they didn’t understand something, the event went by too fast. If they’re bored, you went too slow.
Working with structure is like tasting and adjusting a recipe. Often writers who study their craft diligently find structure to be the last battle, the thing they work with agents on in R&R’s. Structure is vital because it delivers the emotion of the story. Like those lucky voice people, I was good at structure so even my first novel, which is VERY flawed, was emotionally powerful and that got me published, possibly too soon. If you’re poor in the category of structure, you hear ‘show don’t tell’ a lot and you very likely have more distant points of view than you should. You are a person who can actually benefit from taking colored markers to a powerful novel to see what the author did and when.
Then there’s concept.
Concept means your story has a clear hook, people can easily grasp ‘what it’s about’, and there’s almost always a visceral reaction when you pitch. People hear your concept and immediately want to read, or feel like that’s the story they’ve been waiting for. Your concept has interesting elements or a great twist on something classic. If you’re great at concept you usually have more ideas than time to write them, you excel at pitching but then find yourself frustrated because after you submit, you get rejected. It just means something else in your execution needs work, but the industry is driven by concept, so if you work hard, you will probably do well.
Now I really want to reach those of you who struggle with concept. Because I think this can really sideline you. Some people work on the same book for years, decades even, improving every element of that same book, but not realizing they are pouring energy into something that will never work. I find this heartbreaking. I know, often your first idea is so close to your heart (and maybe your life story or the story of someone you deeply love) but it just may not be the very best idea for launching into a competitive market.
Since I work with writers over the course of many years, I can tell you, the most successful are always starting a new book. Think about it. When you’re published, you’ll have to do that almost every year. And if you write many books, you eventually learn a lot about what makes a good concept. You refine and adjust so that the things that resonate with your heart also resonate with the collective heart. And then you can sell.
Problems with concept can be, it’s been done too many times before and you haven’t innovated enough, not enough drama or excitement, it’s so close to you, you can’t work with it (like a book that’s a tribute to someone you love). I am here to tell you. I won’t give numbers, but I’ve had some really great sales on some books and some really, well disappointing sales on others. The quality of my writing didn’t vary that much. I just sometimes picked concepts that didn’t excite readers. And this is another area where I’ve really tried to learn. I don’t want to waste all that work and energy anymore. If I shoot an arrow, I want to know there’s a target for it. If you have issues with concept, you may have heard the same criticism about your story many times but you keep saying, oh, that’s them. Or you get those rejections that praise you but say ultimately, they just can’t sell that. Do yourself a tremendous favor and move on.
So right now, just for fun, jot down your own scorecard.
I firmly believe that most writers start out with a clear A, B, C and D. And hopefully as they study craft, some of these grades start to rise. I also believe if you can get to an A in all four you can sell a book. Period. So it’s really worthwhile to look at this honestly, and if you find a category that is holding you back…well now you know just which courses to take and which books to read. Finding these categories and working with them honestly made a huge difference to me as a writer, as an editor and as a teacher. I hope they’ll be just as beneficial to you too!
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