Monday, June 15, 2015

Don’t Stay Tuned! Episodic Writing is Good for TV Shows but Not Your Novel

I’ve been a reader for a literary agency for over two years, and I go through about six manuscripts a month. I’m closing in on 150 reports, and sadly very few of them recommend the project. Most are passes; a small percentage advise sending the writer a “revise and resubmit” letter, and maybe five have been “offer representation.” (I write at least five pages describing the manuscript so that the agent I read for can draw her own conclusions.) “Revise and resubmit” usually means the story doesn’t work, but the writing was so good, I’d want to see another draft. I often give notes about specific changes the writer can make to tighten the story.

Sometimes the manuscript is so close and the fixes are so obvious and easy, I wish the writer somehow could have contacted me so I could have worked with her (it is usually a her) to make it as strong as possible before querying. (And I do offer affordable developmental editing services! Contact me for details!) Usually, though, there’s something fundamentally wrong with how the story is designed that the writer needs to do a complete page one rewrite for the book to succeed. And often that “something” is the writer’s failure to tell one complete, cohesive story. In other words, it’s episodic.

“Episodic” doesn’t sound bad, but it will doom the book. It violates the three act structure requirement and leaves readers wondering what the story is about. Readers end up muddling through, as the story lacks the tension and pacing that are created when a protagonist has a specific goal and is taking concrete steps to reach it. A pace that’s appropriate to the story and tension in scenes keep readers turning pages.
How do you know if the story you’re working on episodic? Usually after the first few chapters, the reader should have a general sense of the story’s ending. It’s either yes or no. Yes, Dorothy will get home to Kansas. No, Scarlet will not end up with Ashley.

It’s the difference between “A woman goes on a series of dates with inappropriate men” and “A woman goes on a series of dates with inappropriate men in order to find the perfect escort to her sister’s wedding.”

Sometimes in women’s fiction, the protagonist has a goal that isn’t necessarily specified or under her direct control. Examples of these types of stories would be a woman whose husband leaves her, or her daughter gets cancer, or her father develops Alzheimer’s. These novels do not suffer from episodic disease. Rather, the protagonist’s goal is to get life back to the way it used to be before the crisis, or to work out a new normal. The reader intrinsically understands this, even if the protagonist doesn’t spell out her wishes.

Having an episodic novel is usually the kiss of death when it comes to traditional publishing. If you’re not sure whether your book is episodic or not, post a few sentences about it in the comments and I’ll let you know what I think.

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