Sunday, April 14, 2013

Getting to the Core of your story

Anyone who has written a query letter or synopsis knows how difficult it is to explain your 68,000+ word story in less than 250 words. It is a task writers loathe and avoid like I loathe and avoid cleaning the bathtub. Unfortunately, my hatred and avoidance of both unpleasant tasks does not eliminate their necessity.

So after completing my first YA manuscript, I visited various writing blogs about query letters and synopsis and read through dozens of successful examples. After a few months of teeth gnashing and hair pulling, I felt that I had composed a decent summary of my story.

And then I was accepted into to Stephen Roxburgh’s Editing for Writers workshop and given the following homework assignment. 
Write, in 100 words or less, the core statement of your story.

In the months preceding the workshop, I made several attempts to write a core statement for my manuscript IN THE CREASE. At one point I even summed up my story through haiku.

Fitzy moves from home
Joins a Mohawk lacrosse team
And learns to be brave

Ultimately I decided not to go with the haiku. Surprising, I know. And in late June 2011, I packed up my 100-word core statement and drove to Honesdale, PA.

During my first one-on-one session with Stephen, who had read my entire manuscript, he asked to see the statement. Upon reading it, he told me what I’d written was not the core of my story. I explained that I’d found it difficult to summarize IN THE CREASE in so few words. He explained that the limited word count was not the issue; my attempt to summarize the story was the problem.

Instead of summarizing the story, I should have been pinpointing the plot. The story is the sequence of events. The plot has causality and ties the events together. He further explained that though IN THE CREASE was a sports story, its plot dealt with deeper issues. Those issues were the core of my story. And then he sent me off to my cabin to revise the statement.

Over the next couple days I struggled with differentiating between the story and the plot, but by the end of the workshop and with much guidance from Stephen, I crafted a true core statement, which I am proud to announce weighed in at a scant 55-words.

This is the statement I wrote with Stephen’s help:

Traumatized by his father’s death and his older brother’s deployment, fifteen year-old Fitzy finds protection and guidance within the crease of a Mohawk lacrosse team, but when the team’s leading defenseman and Fitzy’s best friend dies on a smuggling run, Fitzy must discover the confidence and strength within himself to step out of the crease. 

Stephen further whittled it down to 8 words:
Fitzy’s recovery from trauma and discovery of self.
And then he gave me this directive:

Cut anything in your story that does not relate directly to your core statement.

Twelve months and numerous revisions later, I had cut 6 characters, 3 extraneous storylines and 200 pages. I revised my query letter to begin with my new 55-word core statement and began researching agents.

With subsequent projects, I’ve worked on crafting my core statement earlier on in the process. It keeps my writing anchored and prevents tangential storylines, which I’ve discovered I’m prone to writing.

As painstaking as it is to write a core statement for your story, I highly recommend it. As a writer, it is important that you know what lies at the core of your story, for if you can’t define what your story is about, chances are your reader won’t be able to either.

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