What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Requests From The Agent Round)

Hi there Pitch Wars people. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It’s the agent round. How’s everybody doing?

beaker-freak-out

That good? Excellent. Well try to breathe. I know you’ve got a lot invested in this, and most of you probably aren’t going to hear what I’m saying. But I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway. The agent round doesn’t really matter. Look, it’s a great opportunity. There are some wonderful agents participating, and it’s great to get requests from people who really want to see your work. But if you don’t get the request you want from the agent you want, it’s not the end of the world. There’s a chance they didn’t even get a chance to read your entry. There are like 150 posts. That’s a lot of reading. A failure to request is not a rejection, and querying works.

To try to give a little context, I asked Pitch Wars mentees from last year who have signed with agents to share their stories. I’ll go first. I got one request in the agent round. I signed with my agent four months later from a cold query. Here are some other stories:

Sean Grigsby: I received three requests during the agent round. While waiting to hear back, I finished and began querying a completely different book that got me my agent.

K Kazul Wolf: My first time in PW I got a few requests, signed with an agent, who then dumped me shortly after. Second PW, I got zero requests and some pretty scathing responses the queries sent afterward. Almost two years after the first PW and 200 queries later, I signed with my dream agent. (Mike’s Note: This is really an amazing story. You can read more about it here.)

Becky Dean: I received six requests in the agent round, and while waiting on those, I sent lots of additional standard queries for the same book. I signed with my agent in February off one of those other queries.

MK England: I received nine requests during the agent round, but my fantastic agent came from a cold query sent immediately after. She gave me an R&R in late November, and I signed with her a few months later. Of the three offers I received, only one came from a nudged agent round participant. (Mike’s Note: Add her book on goodreads here. It looks Ah-Maze-ing.)

Kat Hinkel: I had 4 requests in the agent round. I queried my agent a few weeks after. Getting the requests was great but didn’t lead to my agent. But I think saying I was a #PitchWars alum in my query letter helped!

Suzanne Marie: I had three requests from the agent round, but I sent out twenty queries directly after. All of the PW requests were eventual passes. I signed with Sharon in December.

Leigh Mar: ZRC, babies. I had ZERO requests during Pitch Wars. None on my page, no ninja requests behind the scenes. I sent my first query Nov. 22. I got my first offer of rep on Jan. 29. I wound up getting two offers (one even came from a PW agent who did not request from me during the agent round). I sent 59 queries total and saw a 36% request rate (including many reqs from PW agents I queried after). Some stories just work better as a query than a pitch.

Lyndsay Ely: I had six requests from the agent round, but the agent I ended up signing with had requested materials via a Twitter contest months before. When she offered, I was able to send her my much stronger Pitch Wars version! (Mike’s note: Her book deal just got announced! Add her book on Goodreads here.)

Jim O’Donnell: With ninjas, I had 12 requests which led to zero offers. I signed with my agent almost exactly a year after PW started with the next book I wrote.

Wendy Parris: I had 13 requests in the agent round which was beyond exhilarating! Then the rejections started. I kept querying while awaiting responses, which was a good thing since none of my PW requests turned into offers. Six months to the day after the Pitch Wars agent round started, I signed with my agent off a cold query

Sheena Boekweg: My agent requested the full a month before Pitch Wars started. I had to put her on hold while I revised, which terrified me because she was such a dream agent. I think I had seven fulls out when I got into Pitch Wars, and a few sent a rejection after I told them I was revising. I ended up with 6 requests from the agent round. I sent off the requests and then sent the revised manuscript to the agents who had requested the full before agent round. My dream agent stuck around, loved the revision, and we signed about a month after Pitch Wars.

Julie Artz:  I got seven requests during the Agent Round, so I was absolutely positive I would get an offer and devastated when I didn’t. But I picked myself up, wrote a new story, and got an offer from the very first agent I queried with the new manuscript (albeit about six weeks after I sent her the full). People always say just keep writing. And they’re 100% correct.

Leah Collum: I had three requests in the agent round (including one ninja request.) I signed with a non Pitch Wars agent I queried based off a client referral.

Heidi Stallman:  I had 1 official request and two “ninja” requests during the agent round. After a slow start querying, I revised my first first three chapters (and changed their order) with my mentor’s help. I got my agent 5 months after the agent round with a standard query and my shiny new beginning (which alas, was the first thing my agent wanted revised). (Mike’s note: Heidi has the best agent in the world. Really. You can look it up.)

Michella Domenici: I got seven requests in the Agent Round. I sent lots of queries in November and the following months. In January, I revised my opening pages based on feedback from an agent. Here’s the fun part: in February, my agent requested the full based on the original opening pages from a November query! Looks like it was always meant to be.

E.S. Wesley: I got zero requests in the agent round, but tons of full requests after the agent round and sold my manuscript without an agent to a small press around Christmas. Queried my next manuscript in April/May, signed with agent in June. (Mike’s note: Add his book on Goodreads here.)

Elle Jauffret: I got three requests in the agent round, but received more than a dozen requests for my full when I cold queried shortly after. I signed three months later with one of these agents.

Cindy Baldwin: I got six requests in the agent round. I had a 20-25% request rate consistently for my pitch wars MS while querying, but ultimately exhausted my agent list without getting an agent. When I wrote my next book, though, with the help of my new PW CPs, I was able to create the strongest story I’d ever written! I began querying it in mid-March; within six weeks I’d had 10 agent offers, and within five months I’d sold that book at auction. My pitch wars MS remains shelved, for now, but the whole experience was a powerful lesson in moving forward and not giving up on my dreams! (Mike’s note: Add her book on Goodreads here.)

Isabel Davis: I had two requests during the agent round. Afterward, I queried wildly and got an R+R from an intern working at an agency. Even though this agency never ultimately offered, I felt like the experience was a fruitful one, especially for my PW book. I again started to query with my revised PW book, and landed an agent through the twitter contest DVPIT, 5 months after Pitch Wars.

Monica Hoffman: I got one request and one ninja request during the agent round. Neither resulted in an agent offer. I jumped into the query trenches after the agent round and it took 5 months before I signed with my agents through a twitter pitch party called #DVpit

Maria Mora: I got four last-minute requests in the agent round. I connected with my agent during #SFFPit, sent her a query, and signed with her six months later after an R&R.

Believe me yet? I can keep doing this all day. If you ask the Pitch Wars mentees from 2014, they’re going to tell you the same kind of stories. The important thing to remember is to take advantage of any chances you get. Some of those chances might come from the agent round. Some of them will come from other places. There are as many different paths to success as there are people travelling them. You are on your own journey. Keep your head up, and enjoy the path.

A Message to the Incoming Pitch Wars Mentees

I wanted to write a post giving advice to the people about to be selected for Pitch Wars. Because for the people who get selected, this is uncharted territory. It’s awesome, and it’s new, but it’s a little bit scary. Things are going to happen. All of a sudden, people are going to look at you a little bit differently. The resources available to you just increased by a wide margin. But it comes with stress, too. You’ve got a deadline, probably for the first time ever. People are looking at you. They expect things, and that’s hard.

I couldn’t write it alone, because everybody’s experience is different. What I have to say might not apply to you. So instead, I polled the Pitch Wars mentees from last year, and I asked each of them to give their best piece of advice. The one thing they want you to know about the journey they’ve been on for a year, and you’re about to start. We all had different mentors, and we’ve all had different results, so everybody comes from his or her own place.

Everything in here rings so true.  I’ll do my best to collate the advice into topics, but really these nuggets of wisdom could all stand alone. These are the folks who have been there.

We’ll start with the initial approach:

Priscilla Mizell: Go in with a thankful heart and an open mind.

Erika Grotto: You might not get an agent out of this. You might not get an agent for this book. THAT’S OKAY. Pitch Wars is not just about this book. It’s about advancing your career as a writer, putting your work out there for others to critique, celebrating the victories, and commiserating in the defeats. You got into Pitch Wars because you have something to offer, and that something does not begin and end with one manuscript.

Suzanne Baltsar: It’s easier said than done, but you gotta run your own race. It’s easy to compare yourself to others and get discouraged, but remember writing is a marathon not a sprint. Then again, I hate running and am terrible at it, so don’t forget to stay hydrated and have some fun!

C.L. McCollum: Embrace the community! Everyone involved in Pitch Wars has been so supportive and encouraging. Both my mentor and my fellow mentees were a huge help whenever I hit a blue period and starting getting down on myself!

Heather Murphy Capps: Take your time — pause and THINK about your edit letter before diving in. The tight timeline will make you want to Go Go Go, Push Push Push. But a necessary part of good writing includes giving yourself permission to let the notes and your new ideas marinate. It’s ok to reflect before you dive in and ROCK that revision.

M.C. Vaughan: Know thy pace, and block out time accordingly. If you write best words during frequent, small blocks of time, do that. If you need a marathon session before you hit your happy place, do that. Set aside the time you need to do the work you need to be done, and guard it ferociously.

Steph O’Neil: This isn’t your big break. It will be something different to each writer who gets in, but ultimately, it won’t change your life or your writing unless you use it as an opportunity to change yourself.

Mike’s note: Can I suggest that you read that one twice? Seriously. Pin it to your wall. You’ll get out of it what you put into it.

Lynn Forest: Getting into Pitch Wars isn’t the biggest hurdle you’ll face on your writing journey. It’s a step into a larger world, a lasting community you’ll cry happy tears every time you realize you belong there. And you do belong there. No matter how many successes and failures (yes, both) you face, you’ll face them with your friends at your back. Don’t lose hope. You got this.
Your partnership with your mentor is an individual thing. Every relationship will be different. Some of you will become great friends. Some will become CPs. Some won’t. It’s important to embrace what you have and not compare it to others. It’s going to be hard. You’re going to hear about this mentee who got this, and it’s natural to think ‘oh, I wish I had  that!’ But that’s self defeating. Play the cards in your hand. Some other thoughts on mentor relationships and the revision process:

David Gillon: You’re taking part in Pitchwars to gain the advice of a mentor. That advice may go counter to your own instincts. You don’t have to follow their advice, but remember, you’re doing this for their advice, and they know more than you do. Give it a try before discounting it.

Jenny Ferguson: Every mentorship is different: don’t compare and do make the very best of your experience.

Rebecca McLaughlin: You’re a writer. You like writing. You love it, in fact. But these next months aren’t about writing. They’re about revision, and revision is the hardest thing to practice because it’s at the end of the writing road, which is a very long road on its own. So take these weeks and commit to revisions the same way you commit to writing: wholeheartedly, fervently, and with a hard-won passion that toes the line between stubborn workaholic and manic inspiration. You can do this. Tackle it. Revel in it. Learn from it.

I was amazed how many people addressed self care. It wasn’t something I really thought about, but here are some ideas:

Sheena Boekweg: Calories count, even during Pitch Wars. You are going to be spending a lot of time eating your feelings in the next few months/year, and yes, your feelings taste best brownie flavored, or perhaps as ice cream, and you might think that eating the entire bag of Swedish Fish is necessary in order to rewrite your book in two weeks, but the calories won’t go away as easy as they came. Take more walks. Choose to mindlessly eat sugar snap peas, or carrots, and not the entire carton of Ben and Jerry’s.

Leigh Mar Take care of yourself! Get enough sleep, bolster your immune system. A lot of us wound up getting sick about halfway through the revision period last year. Spoiler: Revising is a little easier when you don’t feel like death.

Tracy Gold: Take care of yourself in healthy ways with all of the emotional stress you’re in for. Check out more on her post here.

Relly Annett-Baker: this was my survival kit: 1)Batch cook meals  2) print a calendar of the next two months and work out what time you have AND BOOK IT IN 3) make friends on the Facebook group. They will understand you in a way your partner, friends and even possibly your mentor won’t.

M.K. England: Schedule relaxation time. Probably sounds strange, but if you relax without giving yourself permission to, your brain labels it ‘slacking off’ and beats you up for it. You need that time, though. At least one day per week, give yourself a few solid hours of video games/hiking/netflixing/whatever hits the reset button on your brain. Take care of yourself.

Kamerhe Lane: Recognize that taking time off is an integral part of the creative process. When you hit a tough spot, the right strategy is not always to power through it. Rather, the solution may be to read a good book, go see a movie, take a walk, play with your kids, go out to lunch with a friend. Let your mind wander. Sometimes the wanderings are the only path forward. That said, sometimes you *are* being lazy and whiny, and you need to just shut up and get the work done. So be self-reflective and try to figure out which strategy you need to employ when.

Kat Hinkel: Be prepared to let the experience kind of take over your life, but also try to not let it. (no good advice on the latter. I was in the former camp) … I am pretty sure that I drove all of my friends and family nuts talking about it, but that’s sort of how it goes. The mentee group will be your anchor during this time… rely on everyone in the group! Don’t be afraid to participate. Don’t get jealous or compare yourself. Offer to work as a CP early on (trade writing with people. Work together on updating your query.) And most of all–enjoy it. It’s a very special experience. It goes fast. Try to stay positive and remember you are learning a lot in a short period of time!

These next comments I decided to put into their own section. I don’t really know what to call it, but it’s super important. Everyone is going to have things happen for them at a different pace. There will be people who get agents and book deals faster than you. That’s a new feeling, being happy for someone while simultaneously wishing it was happening for you. It’s hard. You’re all going to feel it at some point. Or maybe it will be the opposite. Maybe you’ll be first, while your friends wait. Either way, it’s hard.

Heidi Stallman: Don’t compare yourself to others. It is poison. It is also impossible not to do. So forgive yourself for the inevitable comparisons and let them go. Everyone’s journey is different. Everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are different. Go the distance at your own pace in your own way and honor your own unique path.

Lyndsay Ely: Manage your expectations on all things; don’t raise them too high out of excitement. Mentally prepare yourself for a lot of emotional ups and downs—both yours and the fellow mentees you will come to know. Celebration and disappointment will happen concurrently. Don’t be afraid to celebrate, and don’t be afraid to express disappointment.

We got a few takes on how to handle the agent round (Apparently my advice to drink heavily isn’t “responsible.” Whatever. It’s a valid plan.)

Elizabeth Newman: During the agent round, schedule a trip, go to the movies, or set timers on how often you can look at the page. It is very easy to otherwise fall into a constant trap of “refresh.”

Cindy Baldwin: The agent round is very, very stressful. I really underestimated the amount of stress it would be (and I even got requests!). It’s tough to feel like you’re in limbo, and it’s tough to see other people’s posts getting tons of responses while you’re getting fewer or none at all. Schedule some serious self-care during the time the agent round is open! And keep your expectations realistic; while many in our group went on to get agents with their Pitch Wars books, only a small handful had those offers come about during or shortly after the agent round.

And several thoughts on what happens after the agent round:

Julie Artz: Pitch Wars isn’t over at the end of the agent round, and neither is the stress of the process. Even if you’re one of the few who sign with an agent in November, the stress continues in a different way as you go out on sub to editors or as you wait for that first review on your debut. So pay attention to self care now, because your ability to roll with ambiguity and stress will be useful throughout your writing career, not just during Pitch Wars. The more you can enjoy the writing process (and ignore the stressful business stuff) the happier you’ll be.

Jim O’Donnell: Write something new. You may or may not get requests. If you get a lot, write something new, and if you don’t get any, write something new. You just spent a lot of time on this manuscript, it’s time to write something new. And I don’t mean something new with your PW MS. Stop revising. Yeah, that’s a great idea for a new twist on your PW MS, but it doesn’t count as something new. Sure, your PW MC would be more exciting if they were half camel, but for now, write something new.

Maria Mora: Take this one step at a time (it’s a marathon), and make a new email address to query agents with so you don’t spend every waking our refreshing your normal inbox at work.

Eric Bell: Learn to wait. Learning to wait, to be comfortable with the silence that comes after sending your work into the world, is an essential skill you must master if you want to succeed as a writer. There will always be unknowns – responses on queries, submissions, feedback, input, reviews, you name it. Waiting is hard. You will wait at every single step of the writing process. Find your coping mechanism and adapt, because waiting isn’t going away. But neither are you, right?

And then a final, closing thought from Amanda, who more than anybody else has kept our group together. She ran our mentee Facebook page and helped steer everybody. Who better to close the post?

Amanda Hill This is exciting! Celebrate! This is humbling. Listen. This is hard work. Do it. This is just one step. It does not get easier after this, only harder. Don’t be afraid. Take what you learn and keep going. Love those you do this with. Love yourself.

Pitch Wars Behind The Scenes Part 2: The Mentors Strike Back

Hi there. Mike again. If you read my post yesterday, you might notice that I’m on a different website today. I’m in hiding. They’re looking for me over at my website, so I moved over here to To The Shelves, which is a group blog, shared by the mentees of 2015.

See, after I wrote yesterday’s post, there were…repercussions.

The middle grade mentors responded with their typical dignity and decorum.

foodfight

The YA mentors looked up from their phones, rolled their eyes, then went back to ignoring me.

The Romance writers…they had a more measured response.

Kill him

So now I’m on the run from a team of romance writing assassins. At least I assume they’re romance writers. They’re sarcastic, they use a lot of dirty words, and they’re wearing pajama bottoms.

But I would not be deterred. The people need the truth*

You see, there are other groupings of mentors beyond age category, and as the contest goes toward the end, these groups become more and more stratified, turning on each other like a group of hyenas fighting over the remnants of Poomba’s carcass.

The first group consists of mentors who have already made their picks and realized that nobody is going to fight them. You can tell this group by the smug looks on their stupid faces. You’ll hear them saying things like ‘I wish the selection period was over so I could start working with my mentee today.’ And of course you’ll also be able to recognize them by all the other mentors giving them the finger behind their back.

You're an asshole

The next group are those who haven’t decided. You can tell these mentors by the coffee stained shirts, the bags under their eyes, and the e-readers surgically attached to their hands.

unsure

The third group took on different tactics. They found a book that they loved, looked around, wondering if anybody else had seen it. Then they did the honorable thing. They ran and hid. Like Rue in the Hunger Games, they took to the trees, hoping everybody would overlook them. We’re hoping they make it back in time for the selection reveal, although some reports suggest they don’t even exist.

And that of course brings us to the last group. They found the MS they love, only to find it also loved by another, like some crazy book love triangle. Or maybe two other people loved it–that would make four sides–a love square? That doesn’t sound right. What about a love trapezoid? I’m sure romance writers know the answer, but it’s not like I can ask them…that whole ‘trying to kill me’ thing.

I got a quick look at this group — though trust me, you don’t want to get too close. They’re touchy. But this is actual footage of the preparations.

battle

That’s our report for tonight. Thanks for stopping by To The Shelves, and while you’re here, check out all the great posts by last year’s mentees on a whole variety of topics.

 

*Still not true. Still making everything up.

 

Book Review: MACHINATIONS by Hayley Stone

Hayley Stone’s MACHINATIONS goes beyond the world building to do what a lot of great science fiction does: explore the question of what it means to be a human.

The machinations refer to the overthrow of the human governments of the world by robots, which is like 98.3% likely to happen for real, so you could look at this as kind of a road-map to the future. The other 1.7% is zombie apocalypse. But that’s not really our point here today. As the book opens, the machinations have already happened, and the society that’s left is living in the aftermath, fighting to survive.Machinations

The main characer, Rhona, dies. You’d think that a review wouldn’t lead with a spoiler like that. And you’d be right. She dies at the very start of the book, and it triggers the story. Rhona is a leader of the resistance, and to protect her they’ve created a clone. An exact replica of her, that’s triggered to life upon her death, so that she can carry on the fight.

Except it doesn’t work quite right. Rhona comes back, but she’s not all herself. There are holes in her memories. And that’s where the real story starts.

MACHINATIONS explores what happens when a person looks like herself in almost every way, but there are pieces missing. Whether she’s really her, and what it means to be ‘herself’ at all. It also tackles how losing her affects the people she loves, and how they react when she comes back different. Imagine that for months you thought your lover was dead, only to find out she wasn’t. You’ve grieved, you’ve moved on, you’ve got a war to fight. Now she’s back, at least in body.

It’s a great situation, and the book doesn’t take any short cuts on the answers. There’s no simple solution. It’s complicated and messy and up and down, just like you’d expect it to be in real life. Stone does an excellent job conveying the psychological effects of war, the pressures of leadership, of love lost, and relationships where the two involved feel differently about each other.

Through it all there’s the war with the machines. Stone’s crisp, first-person present tense prose is a good fit for the story. If you’re looking for a terminator style book, full of action and massive battle scenes, this probably isn’t for you. While there’s definitely some of that, and plenty of action, MACHINATIONS is much more about the human dynamics. With that said, the strong writing and the pace of the story make this a fun, quick read.

If I had to put a rating on this book it would probably fall somewhere between PG and PG-13. I’ll give it the 13 rating due to mature themes, but it’s safe for folks who like a pretty clean read.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review.

Fantasy Book Review: ENEMY

When it comes to a new fantasy series, I have a love hate relationship. I love being in on something from the inception, and getting to read something great before everyone has read it. At the same time, publishing can be slow, and sometimes I read the first book in a series only to wait more than a year for the sequel. With ENEMY, by K. Eason, it’s the best of both worlds. It’s a great debut that people are going to be talking about, and the sequel is set for release in July, 2016, so there’s more to come soon. I’ll be grabbing the next one the day it comes out.

This isn’t fantasy for beginners. If you’re not a regular reader of the genre, I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting place. Because while it’s excellent, you won’t find a simple good vs. evil story here. There are no easy heroes and villains. This is rich, complex, and realistic world building with societies, religions, social-classes, and self-interest all in conflict. If you love the worlds created by authors like Hurley and Jemisin, you’ll feel right at home in the Illhari Republic with ENEMY. Eason-Enemy-21735-CV-FT

The world is the thing that really makes this book special. There are two opposing magic systems, both with their strengths and weaknesses. They both have risks. Costs. On one side there’s academy trained, science-based magic. It’s reliable, but only functions in certain areas. In the wilds, it creates backlash, which can be unpredictable and deadly.  On the other side there are the god sworn. They have potentially more powerful magic, but rely on the changing moods of their deities, which can also turn deadly. Add to that the fact that the gods have their own agendas, and sometimes oppose each other, and it creates a complicated, wonderful mess.

The opposition of the science-based and deity-based powers appears to be cyclical, and the cultures associated with those magics rise and fall in parallel. The god sworn fell out of power some two centuries ago, but now are back on the rise and ready to reclaim what they lost. But this isn’t the Empire versus the Rebellion. It’s not good versus evil, and there’s no clear villain. It’s more like Game of Thrones, where everyone wants power, and will do whatever they can to get it without much care for who they oppress or hurt along the way. Internal to each side of the conflict are the highborn and low, the rich and the poor, the honest and the corrupt. The main characters find themselves drawn into this broader conflict, like it or not.

Snow and Veiko don’t like it at all. That’s one of my favorite things about the book. They’re both loners, and like most loners, they’d much rather that the world just left them…well…alone. They don’t have any particular fondness for either side, but as much as they try to avoid it, the world insists that they take part.

Snow is a half-breed assassin with ties to an underground mafia, proficient with knives and magic. Veiko is an outcast who wields a big axe and learns he can speak to the dead. Thrown together by several different factions, the two individuals, for the first time, find someone else they can trust. It’s rare to find a platonic male-female relationship in fantasy, and it’s refreshing here (though fans are going to want to ship them by the half-way point). Over time these two individuals who look out for themselves find that they’ll sacrifice anything to protect the other. They’re partners. As I was reading, it reminded me of sort of a Mulder/Scully vibe. I can’t think of a better M/F platonic partnership in fantasy.

Together, they form a new side in the conflict. Their own. They play competing powers against each other, when they can, fight them when they have to. They form alliances with enemies. Whatever it takes.

The book has a unique voice. Each point of view has some quirks that take a minute to get used to, but ultimately enrich the story. The book moves with outstanding pace, but it took me about 15 pages before I got comfortable with the cadence of the writing. But that’s part of what makes it great. It’s not ‘just like everything else.’ Far from it. It’s unique, while still maintaining a solid tie to traditional fantasy. A great combination.

If this was a movie, it would be rated R for language, some violence, and one rape threat.

I’m not a big fan of putting star ratings on reviews, but if I did, I’d give this one 5 of 5. This book is great. If you like rich, complex fantasy with a side of grit, then you’re going to love it. I know I did.

Disclaimer: I paid for this book. It was my idea to write the review, and I got nothing for it.

Writing Action Scenes

Action scenes can make or break a book for me. No matter what else is going on, if you give me good, tense, fast-paced action, I’m in. To help bring out those elements in your writing, I’d like to offer two things to work on: Point of View and Focus.

When I read action scenes, the most common weakness I see is trying to show too much of what’s happening.

What? Show too much?

Hear me out. Picture a roller coaster. You’ve just entered the amusement park, and on the far side you see the giant coaster, cars zipping down the big hill. Maybe you can hear people screaming. You can see the entire ride, the path the cars will take, the blue sky above the yellow rails. This is the perspective from outside the scene. Consider what happens once we move inside. Instead of the panoramic view, show me that same scene from a seat in the lead car as it slowly crests the first hill and starts to roar down the front stretch.

 

roller-coaster-tight view

 

Both scenes show the roller coaster. The plot is the same. But which do you think is going to be more exciting? We see less of the world from inside the car, but by getting closer to the action, we bring the reader into it, ramp up the pace, and make it more urgent. If we do it right, the reader feels it. The reader never sees what’s going on in the cars behind that first one, but it doesn’t matter. The scene is all about immersing the reader in the experience.

Point of View. In our theme park example, we gain tension and pace by getting closer to the action. As you bring the camera in toward your POV character, your lens sees only what she sees. Certainly things happen behind her, happen to other characters in the scene, but does your POV character notice? Sometimes a writer has the urge to make sure we as readers understand everything that’s happening. And as the writer, you need to know everything happening. But the reader only needs to see part of the scene. That limited perspective adds to the tension and makes for a faster paced action scene.

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I walk into a bar with my friend, Bill. Bullets start flying, and I hit the floor. What do I, as the POV character, see? I’m on the floor, so maybe I’m looking between the legs of a table. I can’t see the whole room. What do I feel? My heart pounds in my ears. My mouth goes dry. Maybe I look for cover, maybe I look for the shooter so I can try to shoot back. As you notice, I didn’t look at Bill. Bill isn’t trying to kill me at the moment, so he’s not really a priority. Maybe after a moment, once I find a safe place, I give a thought to how Bill is doing. But in the action moment, I’m focused on the immediate threat.

There’s a tendency sometimes to think that we have to tell everything. Maybe Bill getting shot is a key plot point, and I really want the reader to know that Bill’s been hit. But not knowing can add tension. As your reader, I’m focused on your POV character and the action, but I haven’t forgotten that Bill is in the bar. If he’s a character I care about, you’re building suspense for me by not telling me right away. I’ll find out that he’s been shot when you’re ready to tell me, once the action slows.

Focus. On the surface, what your character focuses on seems similar to point of view, and it is, but it’s more than that. It goes beyond just what the character sees to what the character thinks. If the character’s mind strays from the immediate action, the reader’s mind goes with it. Consider my gunfight. The first shots fire, and I hit the floor. I’m deep in the scene. My  thoughts are fast. Who’s shooting at me? Why? What are my ways out? How many shooters are there? I’m thinking about things that keep me alive. This isn’t a great time to insert world building, or back story. If my character stops in the scene to reflect on the last time he was in a gunfight, back in Afghanistan, where the temperature reached a hundred and fifteen degrees, and he hid behind a mud hut, waiting for artillery fire to come in, I’ve lost the immediacy of what’s happening in the bar.

Sure, I might be doing some great characterization. I’m showing a lot about my POV character, and what made him. I’ve also killed all the action in my scene. If my character has time to think about the past, the present loses all urgency. After all, how worried can my character be if he’s got time to reflect? And if the POV character isn’t worried, the reader isn’t worried either, and I’ve bled the tension out of my scene.

By keeping the focus tight, both in what the POV character sees and where the character’s thoughts go, you keep the reader close to the scene. Like the roller coaster, the closer you get to the scene, the faster it appears to move.