Fiction Submission Guidelines for
Sophia Institute Press

Regina Doman and Andrew Schmiedicke, Fiction Editors
Chesteron Press

UPDATED 2014: When we worked for Sophia Institute Press as fiction editors, we used the submission guidelines below. Although we are not accepting unsolicited fiction manuscripts at this time, we are leaving these guidelines here since authors have told us that they find them useful to understand what publishers are looking for in a manuscript.

 

Our Goals:

We see our goal as building up Catholic fiction - Catholic genre fiction - by giving faithful Catholic readers "really good stories about folks like themselves." Fiction can help us escape, dream, process life's experiences, and build our self-identity as Catholics - something that has been lacking since the changes in the culture around the time of Vatican II. This is a perfectly valid motive for writing fiction, one that we shouldn't be ashamed of. Ultimately, all fiction is about telling a good story.

Contemporary Catholics have been treated to a few good stories in modern culture, but most of those stories are not about people like themselves, just people who happen to have a passing resemblance to them because of accidental morality. We want to give Catholics, particularly young Catholics, stories featuring characters they can relate to and love. Youth are often unconsciously looking for people to identify with, and they consistantly turn to fiction or fantasy to fill that need. Giving them good Catholic fiction can assist them in finding out and deciding who they are, and how they can be Catholics in the modern world.

We are aiming to build up the pool of good Catholic fiction books. Great Catholic fiction on the level of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, and so on seldom arises in a vacuum. Great writers are nourished and fed by being in the company of many, many good writers. For every ten great books, there are a thousand books that are merely "good." The question of greatness we leave to individual talent and the Holy Spirit. Right now, we are looking for a few good books -- or, rather, a few good authors who can produce many good books.

Our Ground Rules:

Please read these guidelines in their entirety before submitting your query letter to us. If you have read these guidelines before, scroll through and check for any updates (which will be captialized and highlighted in RED). We regret that manuscripts or query letters about fiction books that do not adhere to the criteria below will not be considered.

These are our current genres. We highly recommend obtaining a copy of one of our fiction books in each genre and reading it to get a better idea of what we are looking for. When you send your submission, please try to categorize it into one of the following genres:

Young Adult (as exemplified by the John Paul 2 High Series and Awakening)
Grade and Middle School Fiction (NOT picture books)
Mystery (as exemplified by Bleeder)
Women's Fiction (as exemplified by Rachel's Contrition)
Romance - (as exemplified by Waking Rose)
Comedy
- (as exemplified by Catholic Philoshopher Chick)
Suspense and Thrillers - (as exemplified by Viper)
Historical Fiction (as exemplified by The Spanish Match)
In this last category, we are particularly seeking well-written books on time periods of particular interest to Catholics which aren't adequately represented in secular or CBA historical fiction.

UPDATE: Until further notice, we are not accepting Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Literary Fiction manuscripts.

We are CONTINUING TO LOOK FOR manuscripts in the following genres: Young Adult, Grade & Middle School, Romance, Mystery, Women's Fiction, Suspense, Thrillers, and Historical Fiction.

UPDATE August 2011: Picture books. Until further notice, we are not accepting any submissions for picture books.

Changes to Your Manuscript

Please recognize that as freelance editors, our publisher reserves the right to ask you to change anything about your manuscript in order to make it publishable. This includes the title. If you are not willing to make extensive changes to your manuscript, we ask you not to submit your manuscript. We simply cannot promise to take anything "as is."

This includes material that has been published before, particularly self-published material.

Why will we ask you to make changes?

We are interested in seeing your story be as good as it possibly can be. We may ask you to cut out extra verbiage. Or we may ask you to expand Spartan passages so that readers can more easily visualize what is going on. We may ask you to change around the order in which story events occur to give a satisfying conclusion. We may ask you to eliminate characters or events which we decide have little or nothing to do with the main point of the story. We may ask you to expand or deepen minor characters or events that will enhance the book's theme. In short, we may ask you to do almost anything, including rewriting your entire book from start to finish. This is because we want to see you tell your story in such a way that it is a fantastic read that will rivet, provoke, and satisfy our readers.

We will not necessarily edit in order to censor a book: that is, we will not automatically ask you to change the book's content if it contains violent or sexual material. However, we may ask you to change the presentation of the material so that it is tasteful and effective, instead of appearing crass and gratuitous.

If you feel that the changes we are asking you to make would substantially change the story to the point where you as an author would be unhappy with it, you are free to take your manuscript elsewhere, or self-publish it. You are also free to explain to us why these changes would cause undue violence to the story. You can tell us what compromises you would be willing to make, as well as what is non-negotiable. You might change our minds. Please feel free to try.

We recognize that doing this sort of heavy revision can be more work than some authors are willing to do. That's fine. We are looking for writers who are willing to work with us. We promise to try to make your story even better than it already is.

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Technical Guidelines for Submissions:

Submissions can be made by email to [WE'LL LET KNOW ONCE WE DECIDE TO ACCEPT FICTION SUBMISSIONS.]

Please send them as a Microsoft Word Document with a .doc extension (not a .wps or .docx or .docm extension). We can also accept .rtf files. PLEASE DO NOT SEND PDFs. They are too difficult for us to easily edit. PLEASE DO NOT ZIP OR COMPRESS YOUR FILES. We can handle large files.

At this time we prefer that submissions be made to us via email or email attachment. In the subject line, use the words "Fiction Submission to Chesterton Press by N____" (inserting your last name).

In the body of your email, include your cover letter and the completed questionaire so we can easily see what your MS is about. You may include your first three chapters as one attachment and your synopsis as a second attachment, or send both chapters and synopsis as one attachment.

Please do NOT mail us your submission unless you cannot submit by email. But if you must use snail mail, you can find it below.

Regina Doman
P.O. Box 949
Front Royal, VA 22630

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Criteria for submission:

 

1. Completed questionnaire (in the body of your email)

2. First three chapters of your book (in the email body or as an attachment)

3. Synopsis of the rest of the book (in the email body or as an attachment: see our updated notes on the synopsis by clicking here)

4. Please allow three months for a reply from us before you inquire about its status. (We are receiving more manuscripts than ever and hence it now takes us longer.)

Generally speaking, we prefer exclusive submissions. If you are making a simultaneous submission, please inform us of the fact.

In your cover letter please tell us whether your manuscript is complete or not, and, if it's not complete, the time frame in which you hope to have it completed. Please note that your manuscript does not have to be completed before submitting it to us. We are more than willing to look at a detailed chapter by chapter summary, so long as the first three chapters are as polished and finished as you can make them.

If you wish to work with us, we will expect you to finish writing your book in a reasonable period of time, not longer than a year.

Incomplete submissions will no longer be considered and will be automatically rejected.

 

Questionnaire:

A: Contact information

Please provide us with your:
Name (legal)
Name (pen name, if applicable)
Address:
Phone Number where you can be reached most easily:
Email address: (required)

Previous publications: books, articles, print or web-based.

 

3. How much work are you willing to do on this manuscript?
Would you be willing to rewrite the manuscript according to our specifications?
Would you be willing to rewrite your manuscript two or three times, and then possibly still have it turned down if we think that it is still not fit for publication?
How fast can you work?
How much time do you have to master the craft of writing?
How long does it take you to do a rewrite?
To accept or reject editorial suggestions?

4. Who is the main audience for this book?
Who would read it and why?
Can you tell me what other books they typically enjoy?
How is your book like these books?
How would it satisfy readers?

5. What are your plans for marketing the book?
How would you reach those people who would like to read your book?
How much time are you willing to invest to reach those people?
Will you travel or speak at conferences?
Do you have contacts in the media that you could use to promote your book? How many contacts?
Do you have access to an email or mailing list of potential readers you could use? How many names are on it?
Do you have a marketing plan? Can you create one or is it beyond you? How much time do you have to learn?
Do you have a slogan or tagline you could use to sell this book?

6. Can you write a sequel or a companion book sufficiently similar to intrigue readers of your first book?
How invested are you in this particular genre? Do you want to master it or try something different?

 

 

An Explanation of the Questionnaire:
(read this before filling out)


Section A is, we hope, self-explanatory!

B. About your manuscript

1. What is the title? What is the backup title?

The title of a book is almost always the first thing the reader will see, and hence the publisher (Sophia Institute Press) will have the final say on the title of any book they publish. So be aware that if your book is accepted, the publisher may change the title. That being said, a manuscript with a wonderful title is more appealing to a publisher, so if you take time and care to choose a title that really fits your manuscript and sparks interest, it will help your manuscript to get noticed.

2. Can you summarize in three sentences what your book is about?

Sentence One should include who the protagonist is and how the protagonist gets herself into the main trouble that is the substance of the book.

Sentence Two should summarize the main struggle in the book: concrete is best. "Karen struggles to find herself and her faith" is not. How is the struggle incarnated? This can be a complex-compound long sentence. Tell us the concrete visual stakes: what the cost of failure will be, what the risks are.

Sentence Three: Tell us what major change occurs that solves the book's problem and leads to the conclusion.

In technical jargon, we are asking you to summarize Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3 of the book. If you don't understand what this is, or if you suspect that you are missing any of the above, then click here.

You will use Sentence One and Two to sell the book to a potential reader. That is why you must be able to summarize the book in three sentences. However, when you are summarizing the book for us, do not worry about giving away the book's ending. We need to know what the story is about.

3. How much work are you willing to do on this manuscript? Would you be willing to rewrite the manuscript according to our specifications? Would you be willing to rewrite your manuscript two or three times, and then possibly still have it turned down if we think that it is still not fit for publication?

We will look very carefully at the answer to these questions. Unlike nonfiction, which is more straightforward, fiction usually requires rewriting, usually several times, before it is fit for publication. Be prepared for this process to take over a year.

How fast can you work? How much time do you have to master the craft of writing? How long does it take you to do a rewrite? To accept or reject editorial suggestions?

Also important.

4. Who is the main audience for this book? Who would read it and why?

Hint: the wrong answer is, "Everyone would enjoy this book!"

That's no help to a publisher trying to figure out how to market your book. You must be specific. Who is your target audience? How old are these people, and where do you find them?

Can you tell me what other books they typically enjoy? How is your book like these books? How would it satisfy them?

It is good to be able to say, "Readers of the Harry Potter novels will love my books... fans of Danielle Steele romances will really enjoy these." It is not good for your book to be TOO unique.)

5. What are your plans for marketing the book? How would you reach those people who would like to read your book?

The sad reality of the publishing world today is that authors must do much of the marketing for their own books. Sophia Press is a small publisher with limited funds. While larger publishers might use print advertisements and media campaigns to market their titles, we don't have those kind of resources at our disposal. What this means is that we need to find authors who are willing and invested in building their own readership and who have ideas on how we can help them do this.

How would you help us reach people who are not among our estabilshed audience of readers? We would prefer a book that would bring us new readers, but we have no plans for reaching those people on our own. This is where you can help us out.

How much time are you willing to invest to reach those people? Will you travel or speak at conferences? Do you have contacts in the media that you could use to promote your book? How many contacts? Do you have access to an email or mailing list of potential readers you could use? How many names are on it? Do you have a marketing plan? Can you create one or is it beyond you? How much time do you have to learn?

If the answer to any of the above is "no" or "don't know," please begin thinking along these lines. Do send us a response, even if everything is "I don't know!" We're just trying to demonstrate how you, as an author, need to think about your book in order to publish it.

Do you have a slogan or tagline you could use to sell this book?

Many books have such a tagline on the cover, sometimes just above their title. This slogan or tagline can provoke interest in the book, give a hint as to what the book is about, or why it is important. Look at published books similar to the one you have written, and take note of their taglines to get ideas.

6. Can you write a sequel or a companion book sufficiently similar to intrigue readers of your first book? How invested are you in this particular genre? Do you want to master it or try something different?

Hint: mastering the genre is a good thing from a marketing viewpoint. If the author's first book is successful, the publisher is fairly sure that a second book on the same topic will sell well. But if, say, an author whose first book was a successful mystery wrote a romance (with no trace of a mystery in it), the publisher would be forced to market the second book "from the ground up," so to speak.

 

Before Submitting, Please Read All of the Below
Please read all of the following articles before submitting your manuscript. We think that you might find it useful in discovering what we are looking for in a manuscript for a novel, and if we critique your manuscript, we will be assuming that you're familiar with the terms and concepts below.
There are three articles:
Thank you for submitting your material to us!

Andrew and Regina

 

 

 

 

A Brief Analysis of Story Telling: The Harry Potter Standard

and Why It Affects How We Look At Your Submission

Controversial in Catholic circles as they are, there is no question that the Harry Potter books by their complex plotting, language, and subtle literary references have redefined the standard of quality by which mid-grade children's fiction, high school fiction, and adult fiction are judged. As the best selling fiction series in the entire history of book publishing, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling deserves study by every serious writer of fiction today. We are not asking you to enjoy the books or to expose your children to them. However, you should become familiar with the books themselves if you are interested in writing fiction. (Merely reading summaries or critiques of the books or watching the movies will not help you to do this.)

One way to see the structural quality of J.K. Rowling's writing is to examine her use of plot points. The term "plot point" deserves definition. A plot point, simply put, is something significant that happens in a novel.

Examples of plot points:
  • A significant action occurs.
  • A significant decision is reached.
  • Significant information is revealed or discovered.
  • A significant character is introduced.
  • A significant setting or place is introduced or revisited.
  • A situation is set up or introduced.
  • A situation is paid off or concluded.
- The average novel may have about five to ten plot points per chapter.
- Classic adult bestsellers such as Gone with The Wind have thirty plot points per chapter.
- A typical scene in a Harry Potter chapter might have ten plot points in just that one scene.

 

As an example, examine this scene from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling, Chapter 9: "The Writing on the Wall" (referencing the paperback edition by Scholastic, pages 152-155:)

This scene was selected at random from the center of the book, at a time in the story when not very many things are happening. The scene is a transitional one which takes up four pages in the 20-page long chapter in this 341-page book. It begins when the characters leave one classroom in their castle/school and ends with them entering a girls' bathroom on another floor.

At this point in the book, the protagonist Harry Potter and his friends Ron and Hermoine are trying to find out more information about the lost Chamber of Secrets underneath their school, reputed to hide a terrifying monster whose job is to rid the school of any wizard with tainted (ie: ordinary human) blood. They have just left their history class after an unsucessful attempt to make their history professor tell them all about the chamber.

Plot point # and description:

# 1: Setup/revelation: As Ron expresses his disgust with pure-blood wizard racism, started by the head of the House of Slytherin, Harry suddenly remembers he has never told his friends about an incident that happened his first year at school: he was almost put into Slytherin House.

#2: New event: As they go through the crowds on their way to class, Colin Creevy passes Harry and says that a boy in his class is saying something (unheard but presumed ominous) about Harry. Creevy is shunted away before he can finish his sentence.

#3: Payoff of information: Ron and Hermoine ask what that was about, and Harry guesses (correctly, as it turns out) that people are starting to say that Harry is the Heir of Slytherin, who alone can open the Chamber and purge the school.

#4: Setup: When asked for her opinon on the Chamber by Ron, Hermoine answers that she is guessing that the caretaker's cat, which was turned into stone a few days before, must have been attacked by some sort of monster instead of by a wizard, as had been assumed.

#5: New event/Setup: the trio reach the part of the corridor where the cat was attacked and examine it for clues. Harry sees scorch marks on the floor.

#6: Setup: but he is distracted by Hermoine, who has spotted a long thin line of spiders exiting the castle.

#7: Setup with new information: Ron becomes stiff and reveals that he has a terrible fear of spiders. He goes on to tell a comic relief story about his older brother turning Ron's teddy bear into a spider when he was young.

#8: Setup: Harry remembers another odd thing about the attack: there had been water all over the floor, but it's gone now.

#9: Setup/New problem: Ron remembers the water was coming from under a nearby door. He halts in front of the door, suddenly recognizing it as the girls' bathroom. Comic moment.

#10: Problem resolved/setup: Hermoine persuades the boys to follow her into the currently-deserted bathroom to investigate, saying "It's only Moaning Myrtle's bathroom." They enter the bathroom and a new scene begins.

Ten plot points are covered in four short pages: at least two plot points per page. This is one reason why readers have a difficult time putting the Harry Potter books down. J.K. Rowling wastes very little space: every moment of the book, she is giving information, having a new event occur, setting up an event, giving a humorous or satisfying payoff-reward for our having paid attention to a previous setup, or entertaining us with thoughtful insights or funny conversation.

To illustrate how the plot points given in the list above are used in the rest of the story:

#1 is an event that is important in character development. This event is part of Harry's journey towards the choice to distance himself from the elistist mentality of the Slytherins and embrace courage and generosity instead.

#2 is a setup and #3 is a payoff of the setup. Notice that there is a slight delay between raising the question (What are people saying about Harry?) and the answer (he is the Heir of Slytherin). Rowling does this on purpose to keep the reader finishing the page. Sometimes Rowling will put a longer gap between raising a question and giving the answer -- say, several pages -- for the same reason.

#4, #5, #6, #8 and #9 are crucial bits of information that aid the trio in discovering the identity of the monster and the location of the Chamber of Secrets at the climax of the book.

#7 is a comic setup moment that is paid off handsomely later when Ron has to follow Harry and the spiders into the forest to confront a monster spider. It is also part of Ron's character arc, as he has to overcome his crippling phobia to help save a student's life.

#10 begins the introduction of a significant character in an important scene. Hermoine's comment sets the reader up to dismiss Moaning Myrtle, a ghost, as a pointless distraction who happens to haunt this particular bathroom. This is deliberate misdirection on the author's part: Myrtle and her location turn out to be a crucial component in solving the overall mystery of the book.


Remember: this all takes place in a short in-between-events transitional scene that most readers will not remember. Rowling uses such "throw-away" scenes masterfully in her books.

Notice how Rowling interweaves character development points with informational points and with setups for further developments. The constant interlacing of plot points, particularly setups and payoffs, gives the reader a sense that something important is about to happen. This component of storytelling is called narrative drive. Narrative drive can be generated by style, but in a very concrete way, it is generated by introducing new things or explaining previously-introduced events more deeply to the reader on every page.

Authors who work with us must earnestly endeavor to cultivate narrative drive in their books.

 

 

 

Terms We Use to Evaluate Your Book

 

The following vocabulary is used by professional writers of novels and screenplays to evaluate and communicate about plot. We will be using these terms as we evaluate your manuscript and synospsis. Please become familiar with them.

Synopsis

A summary of a book.

To write a synopsis, tell us what happens in your story. Either list all the major plot points, or the most crucial ones in every chapter. A synopsis should be no more than ten pages long. There is no need to reproduce conversations in the book, though it is fine to excerpt significant sentences from conversations. Editors use a synopsis to see what happens in a book, and to see what a book is missing.

Don't worry about giving away the plot in your synopsis for us. It is not helpful for us to read in your synopsis: "When Jacinta reaches the abandoned house, events transpire which reveal to her the identity of the villain and forces to confront her deepest fears." What we are looking for is something more like:

Jacinta enters the warehouse alone. She hears a sound and turns to find a man behind her holding a gun. It is Pastor Jack, who tells her that he is actually an atheist posing as a Christian. Jacinta keeps calm and questions him, discovering that he is an abortion clinic owner working to bring down the pro-life coalition from the inside. He says to her, "But I know about you. You've had an abortion, haven't you?" Jacinta realizes that she has to face her own guilt and shame. "I did, but I've been forgiven."

So please feel free to give us all the information we need to know about events in your story in order to evaluate them.

The synopsis is a VERY IMPORTANT TOOL for editors when evaluating a manuscript. Most editors (including ourselves) do not have time to read an entire manuscript and will automatically reject a submission if the author says, "I didn't have time to make one: but here's the entire MS if you want to find out what happens." So don't skimp on this very crucial aspect of the book. A synopsis can and should be about three to five pages long. Two pages or less is generally too short, and more than five pages is too long.

Before sending us your synopsis, have a friend who doesn't know anything about your story read it. If your friend is confused, chances are the editor will be as well. And editors (including ourselves) tend to reject books that seem confusing.

 

Three Act Structure

Three Act Structureis the simplest story structure. Movies, which are constrained by length, are structured around three acts. So are most plays. Novels can have more than three acts, but they must have at least three to be complete. Jane Austen's masterful novel, Pride and Prejudice, can be divided into three acts (being a longer work, it actually has more acts, but we'll consolidate the middle acts into one unit for the purpose of the explanation).

Act I is the part of the story (usually short) that sets the scene, introduces the main characters, and tells us the stakes, the dilemma, hints at what will be lost if no solution is found. In a modern popular novel, Act I usually ends with Chapter 3 or before. By the time we hit the first 30 pages or the end of chapter 3, we know what the story is about, and we are on the adventure.

Act I in Pride and Prejudice roughly ends when the Bennett family finally meets their new neighbor, rich, affable and single Mr. Bingley. By the time we meet Mr. Bingley, we know the Bennett girls are poor: that it is crucial that at least one of them "should marry very well" to save the family's fortunes. There are enough hints for us to understand that the story will revolve around the second oldest daughter, Lizzie, and we understand her attitude towards the rest of her family and towards love, and have hints of her tragic flaw of prejudice. We also know that the youngest daughter, Lydia, is a dangerous flirt whose mother indulges her and whose father neglects her. In addition, we know enough of the rules of the story's world to understand what happens next.

Act II is the bulk of the story, about 70-80%.

By the time we are approaching the final act of Pride and Prejudice, its many characters have made many choices that lead inexorably to the climax, particularly the clueless Lydia and the smooth fortune-hunter Wickham. Their choices and the choices of the protagonists (Lizzie and the aloof Mr. Darcy) inevitably culminate in the Final Turning Point, which sometimes we call the Last Free Choice. At the end of Act II, the main characters make a crucial decision that will determine their involvement in the climax of the book and whether or not they will be changed or converted by the events in the book.

Act III is generally a shorter part of the overall book, usually about 10-20% of the story. In a modern popular novel, Act III generally begins in the last three or four chapters and contains the climax.

The action in Act III should be predetermined by what happened in Acts I and II: after the Last Free Choice, the other events should follow like dominos falling.

The inciting action that provides the fire for the crucible of Act III of Pride and Prejudice is Wickham's spiteful seduction of the teenaged Lydia and their elopement. When Lydia runs off with him, the family faces social disgrace which they will probably never recover from. Horrified by the terrible news, Lizzie confides in Mr. Darcy, who happens to be present. That is her Last Free Choice. A dually pivotal Last Free Choice is Mr. Darcy's, the second protagonist. Once he chooses to pursue the eloped couple to force them to marry respectably, his success, the restoration of the family fortunes with the marriage of Jane to Mr. Bingley, and Lizzie's accepting Darcy as her husband are foreseeable events that follow naturally because they have been well set up. (To understand the term "set up," see below.)

Remember the length of each act. If your Act I is too long, your reader will put down the book before you've gotten a chance to explain what it's about and why she should keep reading. Modern writers are impatient and their time is limited.

If your Act III is overlong, it will cause the same problem: would you like to hear from readers, "Oh, I got to the part where they finally got engaged, but then I lost interest and never finished the book." And as you know, readers who don't finish a book don't recommend it to their friends or rave about it on Amazon. And most Catholic books sell PRIMARILY by word of mouth, so this is crucial.

Sometimes writers are tempted, a la Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, to give a long extended denouement to their book, taking their time about getting to the ending and meandering through the story to give extended descriptions of the rest of their character's lives. The Lord of the Rings is a great book but a bad model. Do not think that the long Act III of this book gives you permission to do the same in yours: in our experience, few writers can pull this off.

To summarize the three-act structure again:

In Act I, you introduce the problem

In Act II, you show how the problem gets worse, and worse ... and worse

In Act III, you show how the problem is solved.

Screenplay writer Janet Batchler describes one way to remember the components of each act:

Act I: you chase your hero up a tree

Act II: you throw rocks at him

Act III: you get him down.

 

The Worst Possible Thing

The last "rock" thrown at the main character should be what we call The Worst Possible Thing. The thing your protagonist most fears, the thing that will cost him the most, his worst nightmare should occur, or threaten to occur in Act III. Lizzie's worst fear, articulated in the very first act, that her parent's bad marriage will result in disgrace and a life of unhappiness for herself and all her sisters, seems destined to happen.

Notice that the Worst Possible Thing is relative to the character. It need not be death or damnation. In Lizzie's case it is public humiliation: social death, the death of her beloved family's hopes and dreams. The Worst Possible Thing must be connected integrally to the main character's struggle.

The purpose of the Worst Possible Thing is not just so that "something dramatic can happen." On the contrary, the imminent threat of the Worst Possible Thing is the catalyst that triggers the chemistry that brings about true change in the characters. As the apostle Paul wrote, "We are tested as though through a fire." The trial by fire and purification that occurs as a result of encountering the Worst Possible Thing is what brings about change, conversion, grace: a new thing is created by the crucible or crucifixion the character endures.

In Lizzie's case, the trial changes her: she, who was previously prejudiced against Darcy sees him with new eyes and can accept him as her husband. And he, formerly bound by social pride, has lowered himself by stooping to fix the problems of this middle-class family, and no longer professes "any inordinate pride."

As you consider the climax and third act of your book, ask yourself:
Does my character confront the Worst Possible Thing? Or did I try to spare him or her from the worst out of fastidiousness or a desire to avoid messy situations?
What happens when my character confronts the Worst Possible Thing? Is he or she truly changed BY the confrontation? (note: do NOT try to have your character safely converted and ready for the trial BEFORE the confrontation, or it's no longer the Worst Possible Thing for them.)

Is the Worst Possible Thing truly what my character fears? Or is it just an exciting scenario I created that doesn't substantially affect my character in any real way?

 

The Turning Point:

An event which happens or a choice which is made or revealed that sets in motion the problem that is the center of the book.

The First Turning Point happens at or near the end of Act I. In the movie The Sound of Music, the first turning point is the Mother Abbess's decision to send the free-spirited postulant, Maria, away from the Abbey and make her the governess of the Von Trappe children. The main problem is Maria's finding her vocation as a wife and mother by struggling to parent the unruly Von Trappe children and appease their distant father.

The Final Turning Point is at the end of Act II or the beginning of Act III. I term this the Last Free Choice. In The Sound of Music, it is the decision, supported by his new wife, Maria, of Captain Von Trappe to turn down the Nazi commission and flee Austria with his family. Notice that this choice does not flow naturally from the First Turning Point: it is a flaw in the story. By rights, the Final Turning Point should have been Maria's choice, not the Captain's, since it is her story that is central. However, the story is based on true events, which don't always nicely conform to three act structure. In addition, the writers of the movie tried to solve this integral problem by setting up the conflict with the Nazis and the Captain's conscience from the very begining of the story.

Please make sure to list your first and final turning points in your story synopsis. (Of course, your First Turning Point should appear in your first three chapters.)

 

Your First Three Chapters:

You have three chapters to sell the book to us and the reader, to convince them that this book is worth continuing to read. It's even better if you can convince us by the first chapter. Or even better, the first page. Or best, the first sentence. Think of Pride and Prejudice's memorable first sentence: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.

Introduce your conflict. There should be conflict of some sort on the first page: internal conflict, metaphysical conflict, external conflict, interpersonal conflict, one of these or a combination of all four. The setting can be beautiful and tranquil, but the person looking at it can be agitated and upset, producing conflict. Hint at the problem: hint at a purpose. Or start with a bang and suck the reader into the conflict from the first sentence. Subtle or forceful, conflict must be on your first page. Even scenery description can hint at the conflict.

Your book does not need to chronologically start with Act I. Some authors have their first chapter start well into Act II, and choose to give the critical information about Act I in flashback form. This is fine. What is important is that by the end of Chapter Three, we should know what the main thrust of the book will be: we should have met the main characters; and the villain (if there is one) should have been introduced, referred to, or foreshadowed.

The First Three Chapters contain seeds or hints or foreshadowings of how the book will end. You don't want to tell us this, but you want to subtly gear our expectations in the right direction. If the book has a tragic ending but begins in a light-hearted manner, we should get some sense of the possibility of tragedy even in the beginning.

Your first three chapters reveal the genre of the book as well: do NOT deceive your readers by presenting a conversion story as a mystery story, a love story as a murder story, etc.

 

Plot points

Simply put, a plot point is a point in your novel inwhich something happens to forward your plot.

Examples of plot points:

A significant action occurs.
A significant decision is reached.
Significant information is revealed or discovered.
A situation is set up or introduced.

A situation is paid off or concluded.

Plot points place pieces of information before the reader. The web of words, languages and images that surround them tie the situation together to explain significance, context, and create story.

Plot points are defined by Albert Zuckerman in his book Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Writers' Digest Books, 1994. Read his book for additional explanation of plot points and how the master storytellers use them.

 

Narrative Drive

The sense in a story that something significant, worth paying attention to, is about to happen.

Most amateur books have very little narrative drive. It is a crucial component in getting published and in getting readers to finish your book. Learn how to acquire it.

Sporting events are pure narrative drive: we watch them to find out what will happen next: who will win, who will score the next goal.

Soap operas with their fake characters and cheesy plots are a good example of pure narrative drive in a story setting: they usually lack deep and unique characters, significant themes, rich style, or anything else that enriches a story. All they usually have IS narrative drive.

Narrative drive does NOT simply mean that things are constantly, frenetically happening. Plots move so slowly in a soap opera that you spend twenty minutes watching them and you wonder why you are wasting your time. Even though very little happens, they are written to make you feel that Something Is About to Happen. So you keep watching. So you keep turning pages in a Danielle Steele novel. So you watch the whole episode. So you finish the book.

One way to cultivate narrative drive is to use different elements to build suspense. Be stingy about giving the reader enough information to fill out the whole picture. One easy way to generate narrative drive is to raise the question of significant information or a significant action and then deliberately withhold the answer. Less important information can be held back for a paragraph or a page or two. More significant information can take a chapter to come out (and make good use of chapter breaks!) Really major bombshells can take a whole book to reveal.

We hope that our authors will be able to offer our readers deep and unique characters, significant themes, and rich style IN ADDITION TO narrative drive. This will make your book one that readers can't put down until they finish. And when people finish a good book, that's when they start recommending it to their friends.

These definitions and examples of narrative drive are taken from Larry Beinhart's reccommended book How to Write a Mystery, Ballantine Books, 1996, in the chapter "Narrative Drive."

 

Setups and Payoffs

Rule: Always set up your payoffs. Always pay off your setups.

The terms "setup" and "payoff" originate from standup comedy. A setup is drawing your reader's attention to a piece of information or a phrase or raising a question. Certain questions or elements demand payoffs: for example, you can't have a character murdered with no explanation of why it happened or who did it. It would be foolish to draw your reader's attention by having a character say, "I was once a hired assasin," and then never mentioning this again.

Suspense and mystery novels draw part of their fun from setting up or introducing apparently trivial pieces of information which turn out to have crucial significance for the end of the book. But even ordinary novels can use the setup-payoff structure to engage readers and keep them hooked in the story.

A good writer will set up many situations in the story early on, and then satisfy the reader by paying some of them off, while stringing the reader along with the promise of bigger payoffs at the end of the book, and then delivering the payoffs in a satisfying pattern of large and small payoffs that tie the story neatly together.
Amateur writers who have not yet mastered the concept and the execution of setup-payoff can make either (or both) of these mistakes:

Mistake #1: Failing to pay off a setup.

As we mentioned, readers will expect certain things or events to be paid off. For example, a stage convention is that if a gun is seen on stage during the play, it must be fired before the curtain falls. Otherwise, the audience has their expectations raised without satisfaction. Introducing the possibility of a death threat when none exists, drawing the readers' attention to odd behavior or situations and forgetting about them, suggesting a romance is about to occur when none really will, introducing an exciting or colorful character and then not having them play any part in the novel -- these can be unforgivable lapses in storytelling from the readers' point of view. About the worst thing one can do to a reader is killing off a likable important character whom readers fully expected to survive the book -- with no payoff. The reader might ask, "Why did you ask me to care about this character? What was the point of that?"

Some writers feel that they are being unconventional or clever by tantalizing their readers with all sorts of exciting possibilities in their readers' minds and then failing to have anything materialize from them. "I'm not trying to write a conventional potboiler novel," these writers might justify themselves. "I'm trying to surprise my readers." But more than likely, readers will resent being toyed with, and suspect you are sneering at them. (And you should ask yourself: are you sneering? That's not a great attitude for a Catholic writer - or any writer - to have.)

"Real life isn't like that," other writers will say. "Things aren't always so easily explained in real life." But fiction is not real life. Master novelist Tom Clancy made this clear: "What's the difference between fiction and real life? Fiction has to make sense."

Readers tend to know this better than many amateur writers!

But other writers fail to pay off their setups simply because they don't realize what they are doing. They think it is acceptable to introduce characters who don't have anything to do with the plot as "comic relief" or "moral examples." They can't see what their story looks like to someone who doesn't know the ending. They don't recognize that by asking a reader to pay attention to a particular person or detail, the author is making what songwriter Stephen Sondheim called a "contract with their audience." Writers may be unaware of this contract, but readers are aware: they try to follow the rules set up by the contract, and they know instinctively when they've been cheated or let down. Readers will usually forgive a writer for a few loose ends at the end of an otherwise satisfying tale. But too many loose ends will breach the contract -- and readers will be disappointed.

Always pay off your setups. Become aware of when you are setting something up: better yet, consciously plant setups and payoffs throughout your story. Minor setups and payoffs are easier for amateur writers to add in the second draft of a manuscript. Learn to split up situations and events so that you can use them as part of your setup-payoff structure. For example, in your first draft, you might write:

As Max opened the door to the chapel, he nearly bumped into a beautiful brown-haired girl, tears streaming down her face, who hurried past him without seeing him. "Who's that?" he asked his friend Peter.
"Oh, that was Maggie," Peter said.

Second draft:

As Max opened the door to the chapel, he was nearly knocked over by someone running the other way. Catching himself, he saw it was a brown-haired girl. To his surprise, he saw that tears were streaming down her face. But she apparently didn't see him, and hurried on.
"Who was that?" he asked his friend Peter.
"No idea," said Peter.
Max paused, his hand on the door, his first instinct to follow the girl and see if she needed help. Who was she? Did she need help?

The name of the girl can easily be withheld for another page or so to provide a nice little payoff.


Mistake #2: Failing to set up your payoffs
.

What happens when you solve problems without setting up the problem first? The reader isn't sure why she should care.

What happens when you resolve big problems without setting them up? It looks like coincidence.

The rule is: never (or hardly ever) use coincidence in your story - unless it gets your hero into bigger trouble, or causes more problems for him.

Max pelted down the hallway of St. Catherine's dorm, hoping against hope that he would find Maggie alone in her room so he could explain. But she wasn't alone. His heart sank to see, that of all people, Clarissa was with her.

"Oh, hi Max," said Clarissa, with slitted eyes and a poisonous curve to her smile. "You weren't planning on trying to justify yourself to Maggie, were you? Because when she told me her wallet was missing and that you had been watching her purse, I told her all about your past as an identity thief."

This scenario needs no setup, but it's helpful if you've already established (set up) that the malicious gossip, Clarissa, has a habit of dropping in on Maggie. But if something like this then happens:
"I don't ever want to see you again," Maggie said coldly to Max. "Get out of here before I call the police.
"I say we just go ahead and call them now," Clarissa said, pulling out her cell phone.
Max's heart sank: it was over. There was no way he could clear his name now.

"Hey Maggie, is this yours?" Fr. Jim had walked up to the group. "I found your wallet in my office and thought I'd bring it by..."

The coincidence of Fr. Jim walking up at just that moment to clear Max's name looks too much like... coincidence. But what about if the writer had set it up in an earlier scene -- thus:
"Can I talk to you later on today?" Max asked the priest.
"Not this afternoon," Fr. Jim said, checking his watch. "I have to teach class and then I'll be going to St. Catherine's dorm to meet with the dorm director at 3."

Thus the reader can't call it coincidence: the writer DID say that Fr. Jim would be down at the dorm later on that day ... and he was. The writer has kept his promise to the reader, even if the reader didn't recognize the significance of the information at the time.

Rule: Always set up your pay offs. Always pay off your set ups.

 

Resources and Appendix:

We compiled this information based on the writings of the following authors:

Plot or Story points: defined by Albert Zuckerman in his book Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Writers' Digest Books, 1994.
Narrative Drive: defined by Larry Beinhart in his chapter "Narrative Drive" in the book How to Write a Mystery, Ballantine Books, 1996.

Three-Act Structure: taught by Janet S. and Lee Batchler in their class on "Writing Screenplays" for the Act One: Writing for Hollywood program, notes from their 2004 Washington DC class.

 

 

 

Writing About Faith and Faithful or Holy Fictional Characters: Some Recommendations

by Regina Doman


As fiction editors for Sophia Institute Press, we want to help publish fiction that deals with the lives of faithful Catholics. However, it's difficult to do this. We don't want to idolize or canonize faithful Catholics: we have our problems just like "ordinary" people. Also, with the radically secularized imagination of today's readers (including faithful Catholic readers), it's difficult to portray faith acting in someone's life without seeming as though we are preaching.

Following are a few parameters we have used ourselves for writing about faith, holiness, and morality in fiction.

1. Show. Don't Tell.

Novels are not for preaching. They are not for "sending messages to kids about premarital sex." They are not for introducing folks to the concept of courtship. They are not banner ads for the Catholic Church. That is not what novels are for.

Readers do not read fiction in order to be preached to. If you want to preach about the faith, about chastity, about pro-life issues: write nonfiction.

That is why people read nonfiction: to find answers, to be persuaded, to be convinced. People read fiction for escape, entertainment, and consolation, not for the message.

If you use your novel to preach, a Catholic who agrees with you may be pleased with the message in your book and not mind it, probably thinking to herself that it would be *so good* for her wayward cousin to read it. But if she buys it for her wayward cousin, her wayward cousin, who reads Shirley MacClain and Ophrah Wimfrey to find information and answers, and who reads Danielle Steele to relax and kick back will likely snort at the cheesy, transparent message, snigger at mistakes in your plot and writing style, and throw your book in the trash can, feeling fully justified. Then she will pick up Danielle Steele instead and think, "At least Steele can tell a good story!" She will reject the message because she was not reading for information or help: she was reading to be entertained.

If you *MUST* send a message with your story, you must be far more subtle about it in order for the message to be received. And you MUST be entertaining. You must try to be AT LEAST as entertaining as Danielle Steele (this is difficult!). Your story must be riveting, alluring, tantalizing, your prose must be liquid as water, flowing from one plot point to the next to the next in an inexorable current. The characters should SAY very little about the message: they should ACT IT OUT instead, sort of like pantomime, so that the reader is so engrossed in worrying about whether Kate and Dominic will end up together that she's barely aware that Kate is talking to God about her problems, or that Dominic is wondering if his actions are morally right. The message must be so subtle and in the background that the secular reader could miss it. The wayward cousin will put down the book and think, "Wow, that was a great read." And maybe nothing else.

BUT for hours, she's been rooting for a girl who was making the right choices. NOT, mind you, because she saw Kate was Doing the Right Thing, but because she liked Kate and wanted her to find happiness. Maybe she'll remember Kate next time she's in a situation like Kate's. Maybe (if you are REALLY REALLY good) she'll fall in love with the idea of a good Catholic man like Dominic and sort of wish he really existed. And maybe start looking for him.

Novels work their power through empathy, identification, wish-fullfillment: not through the intellect. If you want to give people straight answers, write nonfiction. Novels don't give straight answers: they suggest, they hint, they wile their way through the back doors of our subconscious. They make us love and hate by showing us things that are lovable and hateful. They don't tell us what to hate or what to love: they magic up those feelings by showing us.

Using your fiction story to "send a message" can be like using a ceramic figurine to pound a nail:
you have a fairly high chance of destroying the ceramic figurine (your story)
and the nail (the message) won't sink in.

2. If you must use words to send a message, make it short, Short, SHORT.

If you MUST have an explanation of church teaching or make a point about morality, condense your arguments and the entire conversation into one short, pithy, memorable phrase. This means, practically speaking, writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. Novels are not for presenting lengthy doctrinal explanations. As another writer memorably wrote, truths in novels are grains of sand that lodge in the oyster of the unconsciousness and rub against the ego, rub again and again until they reach home. Your grain of sand has a better chance of becoming an unconscious irritant if it's short. Become a phrasemaker, a wordsmith. Condense and distill and use humor and satire and creativity. Of course, real theology and real faith isn't able to be so simplified, but in fiction, if you MUST use words to make a point, you can make it better if you are brief.

2a: Do NOT steal catch phrases from existing writers or speakers (ie: Scott Hahn).

Only saints and dead theologians and scripture are allowed, and they must be quoted and attributed, at least vaguely ("Who was it that said, 'Oh God, make me holy, but not yet?'" asks Sebastian in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, paraphrasing (and not naming) St. Augustine). Be careful of using quotes: something that sounds deep and profound to you can be hackneyed to someone else who's heard it a thousand times. Again, note Waugh's example.

Incidentally, novels do not normally include footnotes, Scriptural quotations with chapter and verse noted, Catechism references, or appendices with lists of recommended resources. These items are more properly found in nonfiction books. Please do not include these in your novel.

If you think your readers would benefit from such material, consider saving it for a promotional website for the book or an accompanying study guide, and remember that your readers expect to be entertained, not taught, by your writing.

3. The secular rule, which still holds true for us is: you can get away with any amount of preaching if the character doing it is sufficiently insane, off kilter, evil, or unexpected.

I'm not talking about using a colorful old Irish priest to present your rules on marriage: I'm talking about having a homosexual debaucher pointing out to the main character that he's losing his soul. (Evelyn Waugh brilliantly does this in Brideshead Revisited: "I warned you at great length and in great detail about Charm. It kills art. It kills love. And I fear, Charles, that it has killed you." Charm here is the socially-acceptable compromise with morality that Charles has embraced to escape his boring marriage: no one in the entire book points this out to Charles except for Anthony Blanche, the sinister homosexual character). Readers expect priests and nuns to stand for and speak of morality. They don't expect your villain or your loser or your sappy wallflower to do it. So, for maximum impact, use them, not your openly religious characters!

4. DON'T, as a general rule, allow your characters to experience spirtual escasties, healings, miracles, etc.

Even though these may happen frequently, in large or small ways, to believers, most readers will read them as coincidences. And you are NOT allowed to use coincidence -- unless it gets your hero into deeper trouble. Or worse, healings or miracles feel like a deus ex machina -- using God to get your hero out of a jam. You (and God) have to be much more creative about solving your character's problems so that readers will believe them.

5. DON'T ever show your heroes having a "good" or "sweet" prayer time in the ordinary way of things: you know, where you experience God's Presence, where you speak to God and He speaks to you (through Scripture, etc.).

Don't show normality. Be chary of showing consolations in prayer.

Characters can pray if:
a) they are sufficiently under stress, or better yet, there is a situation causing stress - there is a fire, shooting going on, etc. Anyone, including atheists, can pray then! Having characters getting worked up and crying in prayer really only should be used when circumstances demand it: someone shedding tears mainly over their own sinfulness or someone else's is generally going to read as false.
b) the prayers aren't answered, apparently. This is almost always acceptable. A) works best, actually, if the prayers don't seem to help.
c) the character is sufficiently strange or unexpected (see #3)
d) the characters are priests, monks, or nuns, whom the reader will exect to see praying and acting in a holy, upright manner. (In fact, if such characters are not seen praying, it might weird the reader out, especially if the nuns or priests are engaged in too many other "normal" activities like playing cards, riding bikes, etc. The reader might think, "If they're just like me, why are they wearing those funny clothes?") For better or worse, prayer is expected from religious, but lay people who are devout are still seen as abnormal.
e) prayer is used for irony: someone prays for chastity and then goes out and starts lusting. The juxtaposition has to be sharp in order to work. This isn't me being nasty: think of how many times we Catholic parents can go from praying devoutly for patience to screaming at our kids!
f) the framework is humorous. Think of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof chastising God, or the Mouse character in LadyHawke bargaining with the Almighty. If someone has a unique or offbeat relationship with God, constant prayer can be fine.

6. Be wary of giving lots of "screen time" to demonic activity in your novel.

Evil likes attention, and the more attention you give it in your novel, the more it will threaten to overwhelm your imagination and your novel. The related problem to this is that an excessive fixation on evil can make your "good" characters seem faint and pale and vapid by comparison. As a society we suffer from a failure of the imagination when it comes to goodness, and your job as a Catholic writer is to help rectify that failure.

I've noticed that too many artists can draw horrifying demonic figures, but they are usually not half as as creative or imaginative when it comes to drawing angels. I've seen too much of the same in amateur Catholic novels as well. If you are going to include scenes that detail in excruciating minutiae the actions and effects of demons and Satanic workers of evil in your novel, you must counterbalance by having scenes that are bursting with vibrant, colorful, creative, memorable, and powerful vistas of goodness. Remember, people read novels for escape and consolation, not messages. Most people are too familiar with evil in our sad and pathetic modern age. Bring evil onstage to demonstrate how it can be killed, not to give it a feature-length presentation.

7. My personal rule for showing good characters praying is: treat it like marital intimacy, which in many ways it resembles.

Keep descriptions oblique, short, merely indicate that something went on, but be coy about what actually happened. Properly done, it can build mystery and (healthy) curiousity. "She knelt, breathed a quick prayer, and went on her way." "Sitting in the chapel, he slipped into timelessness until a hand on his shoulder brought him back abruptly to the present." Merely mentioning a character attended Mass or prayed a rosary is enough to establish devoutness: you will have to work hard to establish that prayer is a normal activity for normal humans, so make it as routine and off-the-cuff as possible. "It was a long car ride, and after praying five decades of the rosary, Josh was thoroughly bored." Fortunately, the routineness of the devout Catholic's prayer life lends itself to this.

Showing prayer and religiousity and virtue is HARD. You have to be tricky, sly, practically underhanded to do it so that it seems normal and acceptable to the reader, not tacky or sappy or pious.

It *can* be done. But not without special attention. And it will force you as an author to confront any such tacky, sappy pious attitudes in yourself in order to do it properly. Humility and the ability to make an honest assessment of yourself is the first prerequisite for good writing, and it is critical for writing about the devout.