Give Characters Agency to Drive a Story

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Action-and-IntentionWhen I coach writers on their stories, I advocate the relentless use of agency for their characters. It’s not a term that’s common to writing instruction. I first heard about agency in a seminar taught by novelist Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Shepard was dynamic in those classes, teaching from the balls of his feet, always moving and taking action.

Agency is the persistent taking of action or intervention. A rich and well-crafted character is always taking action to respond to challenges and improve their life. Things do not just happen to a good character. They make choices: tear down that fence, apply for the scholarship, take the ill-marked back road, give their coat away on the rainiest day of the month to a homeless person. Lie to win a job, and so on. As a reader I enjoy living with characters who take agency. Right choices or wrong, these are interesting people.

Things happen in a story where the characters have agency. They attempt to control their fates. The payoff is that as a writer, you get to create scenes. Building scenes is hard work, when it’s done well. Actions — even the fight that ends a relationship, or the interrogation of a suspect in a mystery — are the high-octane fuel of a story.

The alternative is a story that’s driven by feelings and musings. There’s a place for those stories, too. But maybe the most important part of good stories is that their heros and villains are acting. Not talking about what they once did, or remembering in a boozy stupor what someone said, or wishing for better fortune but doing nothing to gain it. Bad things should happen to the best of characters. But those things should flow from some choice or action that character makes.

Try it out with a character when you’re stuck in a story. You know what they want. Make them take an action to get it. They should be the person who acts to product a particular result.

The Things You Buy to Write

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Well here’s a surprise: My first email from a literary agency selling a webinar on how to get published. Really not very costly at $299. It’s only 2.5 hours. Previously named “Think Like an Agent,” it’s now Creating the Road Map for Your Novel.

It’s true, a lit agency knows a lot about building a great novel. Selling you an evaluation on how to do it might have crossed a line back in the olden days. It’s a new age. There’s more money to be made serving writers in all necessary aspects of publishing than in publishing books. These are the Things You Buy to Write, or more accurately, to Be a Published Writer.

Hey, wouldn’t you like to learn about (from the offer)

Market viability – Agents see good writing all the time in projects we can’t sell. Editor or Agent-speak translated: what does “too quiet” or “not commercial enough” mean and does it apply to your project? What are all the other catch phrases that are often used when agents/editors give writers feedback? Do you have a novel idea (pun intended) or should you shelve it instead?

How To Realistically Evaluate Your Own Work – Tips and strategies on how to create the distance needed to read your own writing dispassionately. Creating the road map for your novel. Elements of good critique groups or partners that can be invaluable to your success.

Is Your Manuscript Ready? Each participant is required to submit the first 30 pages of his/her novel. All attendees are required to read each other’s work for comment and discussion. We’ll decide if your writing is market ready and if it’s not, discuss why so you can take the next step to make it so.

MS-pagesIt’s that last one that’s a shot across the bow. (I do have to wonder who the “we” is: the agent, or the other participants.) You might think it amounts to a reading fee for your 30 page excerpt. What the agents call a “partial.” On the way to a full submission. For sure, this agency will read your 30 pages, if you sign up soon enough. You also get to watch and listen to the 2.5 hours for six months online.

Why didn’t I think of this before? Oh, wait, I might have. I believe I call it a writing workshop. It lasts nine months of 2.5-hour meetings, not one afternoon of 2.5 hours, and you turn in up to 180 pages of your novel over that time. You only have to read five other writers’ work, but you get comments in writing from everyone in addition to the talk. (The lit agency likes to call this a critique group. You get a partner if you sign on as a book coach client.) And for now, that workshop’s only $90 more than the 2.5 hours of web time.

I’m not an agent. I probably haven’t read as many novel excerpts as some of these literary pros. I don’t know for sure. But like them, for the moment my writing workshop (I call it a Manuscript Brunch) is almost full-up. You do get breakfasts, being here in Austin. Maybe that’s not important to getting a book ready. It does help a writer build trust in your evaluators. We don’t decide if your book is ready on the basis of 30 pages.

But my surprise is that agencies — which used to just kick back unsuitable queries and pursue the strong ones — are now showing a few authors in why your manuscript isn’t ready, so you might take the next step. At least one agency. I’m waiting for an upcoming webinar on drafting a query letter and writing a synopsis.

So to review: The agency charges $300 for the benefit of having seven other people read your excerpt, along with the agent. Then everybody talks. Eight people, of six; can’t be much more than 15-20 minutes of talk about your writing. You get the assignment to read 210 pages of other novels. Advice on “why your manuscript [may not be ready] so you can do the next step” of work. Authors do buy this kind of advice. From agents, in our modern era. It must have great value, because publishing pros are offering it.

Would you be interested in knowing more about how to query, and sum up your book? I can offer that. Getting the brunch served over the webinar’s phone-line — that’s the real challenge.