Monday, May 3, 2010

Guest blogger: Agent Roseanne Wells talks kitchen sink plots, or "Adding a dragon won't help."

My pal Roseanne Wells is a new agent at the Marianne Strong Literary Agency. An avid reader since forever, she discovered her passion for book publishing during her internship at W.W. Norton and hasn't looked back. She is also an arts reviewer for PlayShakespeare.com and loves dance, food, and awesome people. I asked Roseanne to talk a little bit about the dreaded "kitchen sink plot", a device that every new writer uses at one time or another to try to write themselves out of a plot hole or a bad book. Here are her thoughts:
Writing Tip: "This story needs a dragon!"

My friend Jane* has a tendency to tell really boring stories. She inflicts you-had-to-be-there stories, I-find-this-to-be-funny-but-you-might-not stories, and this-is-interesting-but-not-well-told stories on us all the time.

In college Jane started noticing that when she was telling a story, people started picking their nails, looking past her for the nearest exit, or falling asleep on the spot. Even when she could feel that the story was dying a soporific, painful death, Jane couldn't stop herself -- she felt she had to finish it to the end. She so desperately wanted her stories to work that she grasped for something that could save them, any lifesaver that could bring them home. Jane peaked when she was telling a story and, just as my eyelids began to flutter, she blurted out: "And then there was a dragon!"

Don't do this in your manuscript.

As appealing as this may sound -- and as hilarious it is to picture a dragon in line with your character at the grocery store -- don't do it. Adding a dragon or a long-lost brother or slutty secretary or a conveniently placed key under the doormat to the castle is not the fix for a broken story.

Just like a band aid will not patch a broken arm, a drop-in device can't mend a disjointed plot, polish a character, or create strong conflict. And sometimes, even a tourniquet can't save it: the whole arm has to go.

The key is to see what wasn't working before the dragon was needed. Are there two characters that need to meet, but there's no real bridge between them? Is there a romantic subplot that isn't taking off? Are the stakes not high enough for the reader to care?

The grain of salt? I can't say avoid any or all of these things: the memoir of a dragon whose long-lost brother is engaged to his slutty secretary (and that dragon's luck at finding the key under the doormat to the castle!) could be the best story written this year. But these components can't be a crutch, designed to support waning tension or flagging reader interest. (This also applies to nonfiction, especially memoirs, where the characters, plot, and themes are [supposed to be] sifted from everyday life.)

I find that dragons and the like often appear when writers feel they're out of options, that too many parts that are fixed in stone, and they have to come up with a magic fix-it-all to glue the pieces together.

But nothing is as static as it may seem, even when you feel that your manuscript is ready to give to a peer, agent, or editor. Don't be afraid to change or cut for the benefit of the whole story, even if it's only temporary. (I often remove what may be a dragon in disguise and put it in a separate document; if I do end up needing it later, it's sitting there, ready to come back to work.)

Dragons are awesome, but they can't make Aunt Millie more interesting than you've written her.

*Name changed to protect the boring.
If you're looking to submit to Roseanne, she's looking for strong literary fiction, YA, sci-fi (most subgenres included), fantasy, and mysteries (more Sherlock Holmes than cozy mysteries). Her nonfiction interests include narrative nonfiction, science (popular or trade, not academic), humor, history, true crime, religion, travel, food/cooking, and similar subjects. Query letters can be sent by email (with no attachments!) to queries(at)stronglit(dot)com.

19 comments:

Joanna said...

Ha! Dragons.

Love it.

Genie of the Shell said...

Hilarious! I read this just as I'm finishing up my fifth chapter in which a dragon suddenly enters the scene.

However, the dragon was a part of my initial plot outline and serves a few different purposes. He is also some of my writing group readers' favorite character.

But I will now be EXTRA careful that my pre-dragon part of the story isn't "draggin'" (ah ha ha).

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

I now feel the need to blurt out "And then there was a dragon" somewhere in the middle of my next conversation.

Karen said...

We always knew you were a dragon slayer!

Corinne O'Flynn said...

Excellent post, sage advice, *deleting a few pages in my manuscript*. ;)

Corinne

Freelancer said...

Just finished deleting my dragon :D

This was a really great post. I freely admit it's really, really hard to delete pages of writing that I think are soooo good. That's where a really good critique/writing partner comes in handy. They force me to see beyond the love of words...

fallen monkey said...

We be warned, then...I've been staring down several little threads from earlier chapters that need to nicely weave together, so must remember that the dragon's breath may only set them all aflame. Huh. What about a monkey?

Chuck said...

Yeah, dragons won't solve the problem.

May I suggest 1) "...and then I found five dollars," or 2) "...that's when Vanilla Ice walked in the bar."

Much better options.

clindsay said...

Vanilla Ice! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!

shonagonchan said...

Thank you for this!

It reminds me of the Cheech and Chong movie "Corsican Brothers," and their method of telling a story.

"Uhhh... a dragon flew by. But then we killed it. Yeah, yeah we killed it. WITH A GUITAR."

Haha, great blog as always.

Valerie said...

What about a dragon interrupting at a moment of high tension and confrontation? Is that just as bad? I'm asking for... a friend, that's it.

Firynze said...

An addendum to this might be what I like to call the "throw it at the wall" plot - where you chuck everything in and see what sticks. One aspiring author I work with has a great narrative voice, but insists on writing "multi-dimensional epics" - which is code for " I couldn't decide whether to write an alternate history, a vampire story, something with elves and sorcerors, or an urban fantasy, so I chucked 'em all in there!"

And yes, there's a dragon.

Susan Kelley said...

Is the dragon reference similar to the secret baby plot? I do love dragons though but as a central part of the plot not the surprise baby.

dragonet2 said...

I had a fairly scary writing teacher for a budding fantasy writer, James Gunn. He taught me to be very rigorous about magical elements in stories so they aren't so 'gee, they pulled this out of their butt' kind of thing.

But dragons are part of the world I'm writing in now, including smart-mouthed, slightly-larger-than-cat-sized house dragonets.

Adding dragons don't help if you don't have them as part of the place to start with.

Angela McCallister said...

I hate it when you just can't decide whether it's a dragon or not. To delete or not to delete...

rjcrowtherjr said...

Wonderful post, Ms. Wells. Oh, do I know dragons. Mine was, "So you think there's really one serial killer, but there's a copycat, and he's an even bigger sociopath." Sadly, my dragon twirled his moustache and was named Snidley Whiplash. Out he went, kicking and screaming with a third of the manuscript. Sometimes the dragon in the room gets so big, that you can't see the story behind it.

Ee Leen Lee said...

"Name changed to protect the boring" hahah

Lori Ann said...

This is a delightful post, Ms. Wells! I'll save for the future when I'm in a sticky place and am tempted by dragons...Even in literary fiction, a dragon by any other name is still a dragon.

Matthew MacNish said...

Wait. So even fantastic characters can become deus-ex-machinas?

That actually does make sense, once you lay it out. Love you guys. Thanks, Colleen!