New Month, New Book, New Proposal, Argh

Because I must get a proposal done before Nita is finished, I have started on a new book. Yeah, I’m not thrilled about that either; I love the book but balancing two narratives in my head is not a good idea, especially since one is overworked and the other is nascent, but here we are. At least it’ll make a nice change for you all since I’ll be bitching about Alice (aka Haunting Alice) instead of Nita (aka The Devil in Nita Dodd).

So what’s a proposal you ask, and how am I making one for Alice? (You have to ask because I need a blog post.).

A proposal is a quick-and-dirty way of showing an agent or an editor the book you want to write. The agent or editor needs to know three things:

• Can you write, especially can you put character on the page?
• Can you plot?
• Is this book of any interest to her? In particular, can she sell this sucker?

To answer “Can you write?” you send the first thirty or so pages of your book.
To answer “Can you plot?” you send a synopsis of the plot.
To answer “Can I sell this?” you send the pages and the proposal to see if she likes it, and you include a cover letter/query letter that includes a paragraph that sells the book.

I could go into all of that in much more depth, but I’m not going to because what I’m interested in here is taking the raw materials of my very early discovery drafts for Alice and whipping them into a proposal, or at least the first-thirty-pages-and-a-synopsis part. This is a real bitch for me because in general I like to have at least half or more of a discovery draft done before I start trying to nail down a plot. For reasons I will not go into here, I don’t have that luxury this time, this needs to get to New York. So…

The good news is that I have the start of the story and I’m very happy with it. The bad news is that it’s only about 8000 words. The good news is that’s about thirty pages, so once I go through and polish it after I knock out the synopsis, it’ll be Good Enough For A Proposal.

So the synopsis. There’s a pretty easy method for synopses that I use based on the central idea question in concert with the whole act system I talked about last week. The central idea question, courtesy of Michael Hauge, is:

Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and get the goal?

So the synopsis prep starts like this:

Who’s the protagonist? Alice Archer
Who’s the antagonist? Uh, not sure. Could be the love interest, Ethan. Could be the devious parapsychologist, Ulrich. Could be Alice’s murderous Aunt May. Let me get back to you.
What’s the conflict? Alice is trying to close down Archer House because it’s dangerous. The parapsychologist and May both have good reasons to oppose that. How they’ll do it is another question, but I can hit that later. Alice is also trying to keep her insane life under control, one of the many reasons she became a scientist (lepidopterist), and Ethan the magician/illusionist is not helping with that.

Okay, that’s not bad. If it turns out the story is a romance (probably) then the whole Archer House bit becomes a subplot that tests and advances the romance, and Ethan the Annoyingly Unscientific becomes the main antagonist, but the action kind of plot is much easier to plot than a romance, so I’m going with that for right now.

So based on that central conflict (I’d do a conflict box, but it’s pretty obvious), I can use the five turning points to make a plot.

1. Turn out of stability: Alice is leading a stable life. Boring, so what blows that up and catapults her into conflict, preferably on the first page? For the Archer House plot, it’s finding out that her brother wants to sell the house which Alice still considers dangerous. For the romance plot, it’s meeting Ethan. The first scene is meeting Ethan, the third scene is finding out about the sale. Yeah, this is a romance.

2 (End of Act One). Situation gets worse: The guy who wants to buy the house is already renting it and is holding seance weekends there. Relationship grows closer: Alice and Ethan are appalled (Alice) and fascinated (Ethan) by the whole ghost weekend thing, and keep meeting for coffee to collaborate to figure it out. When Ethan tells her that the parapsychologist is having a big blowout at the house on Halloween, they both head south again to stop him.

3 (End of Act Two): Point of No Return: Alice accidentally sleeps with Ethan (not part of her plan) and then realizes her Aunt May (deceased) is still in the house and she’s not alone; somebody dies.

4 (End of Act Three): Crisis: Alice and Ethan are trapped in the house by a storm with a bunch of loons who signed on for more than they can handle in the Halloween Ghost Weekend (I’ll think of something catchier) and some very aggressive ghosts.

5 (End of Act Four and the book): Alice and Ethan burn down Archer House and commit to each other standing in the smoking ruins. (I have no idea what happens at the end except the Good Guys win and live happily ever after; the Smoking Ruins ending is just a placeholder.)

So what do I find crunchy in that admittedly slapdash five point outline?

• Well, Alice and Ethan, scientist and illusionist.
• Love the idea of Dennis (you all remember Dennis?) meeting his arch enemy Ulrich (must find a great placeholder for Ulrich).
• Love the idea of science and magic colliding, reality and perception.
• It’ll be fun to do Ulrich’s clients, the people insane enough to spend $1000 to stay in a haunted house for a weekend. There should probably be about a dozen, but that’s way too many characters. Maybe a lot of them cancelled. Six loons would be good.
• Love the idea of everybody coming back to Archer House, the whole clown car thing from MTT again.
• The butterflies. Thinking about using the four stages–egg, caterpillar, pupa, butterfly–as act headings but not sure how it works. Could be a metaphor for Alice finally dealing with the trauma of her childhood, coming out of her shell, spreading her wings, but that might be too trite.

Now to make that into a synopsis.

You will notice that in between each of those five points is white space which in my method of plotting is an act. In that white space I will write a paragraph detailing the action that happens in that act. Please note that it is action, not thoughts, not themes, not back story, action. One paragraph in each white space, four paragraphs total.

So the first draft of the synopsis is:

Sentence about inciting event.
Paragraph about Act One.
Sentence about things-get-worse turning point.
Paragraph about Act Two.
Sentence about point of no return turning point.
Paragraph about Act Three.
Sentence about crisis turning point.
Paragraph about Act Four.
Sentence about climax and resolution.

This is much harder than it looks, so if you’re trying this at home, yes, I am tearing my hair out. Having a road map does not mean the trip will be easy, it just means I won’t lose my grip on my journey and end up in the literary equivalent of a ditch.

So then all I have to do is go through and smooth out the writing, adding more to the first act because I also have to set the scene and establish character in that first act paragraph which is now probably two, and probably doing one more five-point outline to sketch in the subplot which is Carter and Nadine. I definitely do not want any more than four pages. One would be better. (Update: Synopsis is finished and it’s two pages.) No I’m not going to put the synopsis up here, SPOILERS, and also the book’s going to change so much that there’s no point. The synopsis is to sell the book and you’re not my market. Yet.

Oh, and since I’m sending this to my agent and she’ll do the selling, I’m not doing a query letter.

So that’s all good, right? No. Before I send it off, I need to figure out what this book is about to make sure I know there’s a book there. So what is this book about?

It’s about a scientist and a magician falling in love.
It’s about ghosts and in particular the idea of moving on after a major life change (like death or trauma), about how not evolving is a kind of death of its own.
It’s about perception, illusion, and reality, about how perception is reality.
It’s about how making a connection with somebody is always in part agreeing to share their reality.
It’s about butterflies.
And magic.

Some of this stuff is already baked in because I’m using characters from earlier books–Alice and Carter (and others) from Maybe This Time and Nadine and Ethan (and others) from Faking It. Alice was always going to be a lepidopterist, so butterflies have to be part of the motif/metaphor structure of the book. I can’t remember if Ethan was always a magician, but he was always easy-going and curious and in love with Nadine, a plot point here. Carter was super-serious even as a twelve-year-old. Nadine was efficient and insane even as a sixteen-year-old. While this restricts what I can do in this story, it’s also helpful in that it gives me a huge head start on these characters and ideas. I loved these characters as kids so writing them grown up is going to be a lot of fun.

Plus I’m really interested in all of this, magic and perception and butterflies. So I’m gathering up research on ghosts and Halloween and insects and slight of hand and it’s all lovely and crunchy, and I love the characters as adults already–Ethan has a lot of Max in him without the whole conman thing and Alice is ruthlessly efficient which is so much fun–so I’m comfortable that even though this book is going to change radically from what I’m proposing (those of you who have spent the past four years watching me thrash through Nita know how radically my books change) the basic story is solid and, most important, I want to write it.

So I’ll send the proposal off to New York and then do the final polish on Nita to get ready for betas and probably send that off to Jodi, too. And then, god willing, I will only be writing one book, Haunting Alice, although there’s this other book, Stealing Nadine . . . .

59 thoughts on “New Month, New Book, New Proposal, Argh

    1. I laughed aloud at the same line. Which is not good, because I’m supposed to be writing about building control systems.

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  1. Ethan the Annoyingly Unscientific: sounds like a superhero to me. I can see him in a cape. (Slavering over outtakes you haven’t yet written.)

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  2. *Squeeeeeee* I’m so excited! So! Are you thinking of setting up Stealing Nadine in this book? Carter and Nadine being to meet and mingle? Or do you think, so far in advance I know, that this will replace that?

    And, when you have time/would like to share, why do you have to jump to a proposal suddenly?

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    1. I’m still up in the air about Stealing Nadine. I love the idea of an art theft book, a kind of How To Steal a Million, and I really love the idea of running it at the same time as Haunting Alice, so that the Nadine book would be everything that’s happening in the background of the Alice book. But first I need to get to the end of the Alice book. So . . . .

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      1. I wrote two books with concurrent (is that the right word?) timelines. I wrote the first, then left that manuscript open while I wrote the second, because I wanted to have a few scenes from the first in the second, and anytime something happened in the second that affected the first I had to match sure they matched. It was a bit of a nightmare, to be honest. It was a great exercise, and I think it turned out reasonably enough, but it was tricky for me!

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        1. That’s why I’m thinking of having Nadine’s book come after Alice’s, except it has to stand on its own.
          Also, I kind of love having some of the same scenes in the two books, but completely different because the PoVs are different. But that’s just the wonk in me.

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          1. I love thatidea, and remembered from before! Would you, or even generally speaking, publish them then concurrently? Did you Brenda? I love the idea of concurrent publishing, but that might be hard contract wise.

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          2. They might do it. Come on, having watched me stagger through Nita, do you really think I have ANY idea of what I’m doing at this point? Check back this time next year.

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          3. Nicole – I still separated publishing the books by 3 months (they are ALLEGRO COURT and GATEWAY CRESCENT if you’re wondering) but that was more because I wanted to build moment for the series by spreading them out. Whether that worked or not I’m not sure. 🙂 Also, they only share the same timeline for the first half or so of GATEWAY, so while there were no spoilers for ALLEGRO there is a time difference.

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          4. Or you could have Nadine’s start part way through Alice. So there crossover and some same scenes but also room to go in a different direction. I’m very excited for these books because I love these characters (in fact I think I’m going to go reread Maybe now) but can I put in a plug for one one of the near future books to be the one with the semi live clockwork creatures and the secret in the woods? That world haunts me!

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          5. Paradise Park? I’ve started buying things for the collage for that one, so it’s a pretty safe bet.

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  3. I’m so very pleased to be given these glimpses into your process. I will never do it myself (too lazy), but you really do satisfy my need to know how stuff works.

    You had one point a little off though. We are your market, always.

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  4. While on the surface a magician/illusionist appears unscientific, I would be wiling to believe they have to have a very concise, scientific brain in order to work the tricks. So I think it could be interesting to explore how Alice and Ethan are more alike than they appear to be at the start.

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    1. I think they’re very different people who meet in the middle, which is good for plotting.
      While magic tricks are very complex, they are completely illusion: nobody actually saws a woman in half. So Ethan is very clear-eyed about how things work, but he knows there are no facts, there are only perceptions. For Alice, ghosts and seances are not an illusion, they’re real and sloppy and uncontrollable (not like magic tricks) but she knows for a fact that they’re real and dangerous. Facts are the basis of Alice’s world because of her traumatic early childhood (once And and North got hold of her, she had a very stable life); Ethan’s world has always been stable (daddy’s rich) so he doesn’t need facts, and one of his earliest influences were the Goodnights and their free-form approach to reality and law. Alice clings to the stability that Andie and North brought her; Ethan embraces the chaos the Goodnights introduced him to. Neither is a balanced way to live.

      I think they’re going to be a very crunchy couple.

      And then Nadine is nuts and Carter is very sober, very serious, so there’s that.

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      1. I don’t remember Nadine being nuts. She seemed mature for her age and highly capable, but didn’t come across as nuts.

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  5. The story sounds wonderful, and I hope the work goes well.

    Another resource might be the “Adam Ruins Little Bugs” episode of a show I hate, Adam Ruins Everything. My husband watches it when I’m out of the room, but sound travels…and then I hear, “MJ! Come see this bit about caterpillars!” And we were both amazed.

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    1. Also, let me explain: What I hate isn’t the “ruining,” which is often interesting; it’s Adam’s frequent bald overstatements or even misstatements of the position he’s opposing. Fight fair, dude. And use a less obnoxious voice.

      Better yet, change the channel to John Oliver.

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      1. There was some sort of somebody ruins Adam, where they took on his hyperbole and research methods. He was part of it, and agreed with everything they said.

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  6. I can’t wait to read this book! Also, I’m working on a book proposal too, so I feel your pain.

    On the bright side, the guy who came to fix my cable turned out to be a secret Pagan and was really impressed by all my Llewellyn book covers on my wall.

    Okay, back to work. And YAYAYAYAYAYAY for Alice!

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  7. This is just an aside that I got hung up on: $1000 for a haunted house weekend. If we are talking a 2-day weekend that’s $500/day which seems okay (check out the cost of a professional engineering or scientific seminar that includes room and board. This is not peanuts but it is not expensive) and if we are talking 3 days with room and board, this is cheap.

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      1. Keep in mind for pricing that it will need staff—a cook and a housekeeper who cleans rooms at a minimum and probably a host who handles money, questions, bookings, organization. Who would also be characters.

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        1. Nope. This is a low rent production. There’s the Bad Guy, the Crooked Realtor, and probably a couple of high school kids working cheap. They’re all money-grubbing and clueless. Except for the high school kids. They’re just clueless and broke.

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          1. I thought about dragging Kelly (the character, not our Kelly) back, trying to redeem herself, but at the moment, that seems like a far reach.

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  8. And butterflies are Psyche are the soul (and also the heroine of a romance) for the ancient Greeks. Very tidy!

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  9. Given that your publisher turn down Nita because they didn’t want a paranormal, wouldn’t it be better to work on Stealing Nadine instead of Haunting Alice?

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    1. Nope. I know the Alice book a lot better than I know the Nadine book. That’s where all the juice is for me right now.

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  10. As soon as I read Alice and Ethan I wondered, “Is that Ethan from Faking It?” I’m so excited! And then you also have Nadine! You’ve made me so happy.

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  11. If he’s a good magician/illusionist, he’s going to be fascinated by what makes things work and also how something is made to seem impossible/magic.

    So to me, the very different people ultimately isn’t that different at the heart of it, just how they do things and where they came from. Which gives it the dynamic and that particular magic of them being drawn to each other.

    Also: Jonathan Creek. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

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    1. I love the early seasons of Jonathan Creek. The last season squiked me out. Just too creepy and horrible. But the early seasons were fantastic, except not crazy about the character of the female lead. Plots were outstanding fun.

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  12. So when you send out the proposals and stuff (for Nita and for Alice), how long until you hear back? A couple of weeks? Months? Do rejections come faster than offers/acceptances?

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    1. It depends on so many things. With SMP, I didn’t do proposals for a long time. I’d just send Jen an e-mail and say, “I want to do this,” and describe the book in a paragraph, and she’d say, “Go,” and later I’d send her a chunk of narrative so she could see what she was getting. I think in the whole twenty-plus years we worked together, she only turned down two books I’d started, You Again and Nita. Since this proposal is probably going to a new editor who doesn’t know anything about me, it has to be standard. It goes to Jodi first and we talk about it, and then if it needs revision I work on it some more while she makes a plan of where to send it. After that, it just depends on a thousand factors, but it’s not months because it’s agented, not part of the slush. Jodi handles all of that; I just stay home and write. Weeks, very possibly. Just depends on how Jodi handles it. If she goes wide and does multiple submissions, that usually speeds things up. Same with rejections and acceptances. The great thing about proposals is that an editor can read the whole thing in half an hour and know if she likes it enough to be able to sell it. The thing that slows everything down is that editors are really busy, so they have to really want to read something if it’s going to take half an hour out of their already hectic twelve-hour day. (The half hour is a guess. The proposal is just over 35 pages.)

      TLDR: It depends.

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    1. Thank you. I’m still figuring out the narrative and looking at the research I’ve collected. Long slog ahead here.

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  13. You have made me very happy! I love the idea of both books and can’t wait for either or both to come out.

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  14. I’m thrilled that you’re going back to the Alice book, but wasn’t there a chance we’d see a bit more of Isolde? I loved that character so much. She had the quality of stopping every expectation of what she’d do next in its tracks, which I am very fond of in fiction.

    Hoping, hoping, hoping….

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    1. Isolde is in here, but she’s dealing with Betty and Kimberley and Carter mostly. She shows up again, but she’s definitely a supporting player.

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