Discover more from The Shit No One Tells You About Writing
✨ From LA with Love: what book-to-film agents are looking for; Samantha Downing on how to build your writing network; one simple equation to keep your readers hooked ✨
✨ Plus, a sneak peek into how you can prep for The Call ✨
Hello friend and welcome to another issue of ✨The Shit No One Tells You About Writing’s newsletter!✨ Up here, summer is drawing to a close and there’s definitely a back-to-school feeling in the air. Are you returning to your manuscript after a summer break or have you been hard at it through the sunny months? Perhaps you’re starting a new project or polishing up an old one to start querying. Wherever you are on your writing journey, we’ve got industry experts and publishing insiders to support you on your way. We’ve got lots of great stuff this month, so let’s dive in!
❤️ The Shit No One Tells You About Writing Team
P.S. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, happy spring! We’re very envious!
A monthly newsletter chock-full of guidance and support from publishing industry insiders. Expect author interviews, guest blogs, giveaways, and more! Sign up and immediately receive an exclusive webinar from literary agent Carly Watters
Carly Watters, CeCe Lyra, and Bianca Marais will host One Night Only, a three hour webinar, on September 6 at 8pm ET.
CeCe will take you on a deep dive into the glossary of terms used on the podcast, giving you examples of tension leaks, curiosity seeds, easter eggs, and so much more.
Bianca will do live edits of selected pages submitted by delegates (info on how to submit pages below).
Carly will take you through five queries that got her excited to offer representation, detailing why they stood out.
This will be followed by an hour long Q&A in which you can ask Carly, CeCe, and Bianca all your questions.
| $59 USD | September 6, 2023 | Virtual | 8pm ET |
If you would like to attend but can’t afford to, please reach out to us at theshitaboutwriting at gmail dot com ☺️
SHELF LIFE with Bestselling Author Samantha Downing
SHELF LIFE caught up with the internationally bestselling thriller writer Samantha Downing whose new book, A TWISTED LOVE STORY, is out now.
Samantha Downing is the New Orleans-based author of My Lovely Wife (2019), He Started It (2020), For Your Own Good (2021), and most recently, A Twisted Love Story, which hit shelves in the US and Canada last month and went on to become an instant USA Today bestseller. Downing wrote over a dozen manuscripts before selling her debut, My Lovely Wife, which was nominated for the Edgar, ITW, and Macavity awards and won the Prix des Lectrices award in France. In April of this year, Deadline reported that My Lovely Wife would be adapted for Netflix by the creative team behind La La Land. We caught up with Downing to see what words of wisdom she had to share.
SHELF LIFE: Do you have any regrets about your journey so far? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
SAMANTHA DOWNING: I don’t know if this is a regret, but I did not think about or realize how much would change when writing went from a hobby to a job. For many years, I wrote whatever and whenever I wanted. It didn’t matter if it was marketable or if I finished it or if it was so over the top that no one would ever publish it.
Now I have to think about all of these things. It’s very different than a hobby, because this is how I keep a roof over my head and food in the fridge. My thought process about writing is very different than it used to be.
SL: What do you think you’ve done right during your career to build a strong and supportive writing network?
SD: For several years, I’ve had critique partners who have also become friends. We met through a local writer’s group and eventually formed our own. Joining that group was the thing that changed my life, I was ultimately published because of it.
Objective feedback wasn’t something I sought out in my early writing days, but I quickly realized how invaluable it is. There are times I’ve written something that seems so clear to me, but to readers it doesn’t make sense. So I didn’t get the job done, I didn’t convey what I wanted to. The group helped me a lot and still does.
Since being published, I have met more authors and people I can turn to for advice or for an opinion or just to vent. I think it’s invaluable for writers to have people who understand this process, especially since we spend so much time alone and in our heads.
SL: Is there any piece of advice that resonated with you while writing your debut, My Lovely Wife, that you still stand by today?
SD: I think it was the advice from someone in my writing group who said My Lovely Wife should be published. I almost didn’t finish it, in fact I put it aside at one point and started writing something else. She encouraged me to finish the book, which I did, and then she sent it to someone who knew someone who knew someone… and here we are.
You can purchase A Twisted Love Story on our Bookshop.org affiliate page here. Buying books through this link supports a local indie as well as The Shit No One Tells You About Writing 📚❤️
From LA with Love: a Literary Agent reports on what book-to-film agents and scouts are looking for
Fresh from a slew of meetings in LA, Carly Watters dishes on what kinds of projects studio scouts and film / TV co-agents are looking for.
Hello newsletter subscribers!
I’m back from my trip to LA and ready to report on what tv/film co-agents and studio scouts are looking for.
If you follow the podcast on Instagram you’ll know I did a daily round up there but I wanted to put it all in one place for you.
Everyone is looking for…
Sweeping romance: the next English Patient or The Notebook, something with forces greater than humans keeping them apart (war, hurricane, time).
Grounded sci-fi: everyone wants an Arrival or something “10 minutes into the future” or drama with one element that changes the world.
Action thrillers: the next Jack Reacher or Jack Ryan—but also make it female?
RomComs: the genre is coming back! And everyone wants it.
Workplace stories: The Bear and Succession fall into this bucket. Something intense and interesting where the forced containment creates the stakes.
Procedurals: everyone wants a multi-season project like House or, now that it’s ending, Grey’s Anatomy.
Smart horror: everyone who’s looking for horror wants it to be “smart” (i.e. offers social commentary).
Bigger trend notes:
Many people think the business is going to swing back to feature films with viewers returning en masse to movie theatres. If Barbie and Oppenheimer are any indicator, we’re already on our way there.
No one thinks the actors’ and writers’ strikes are ending this summer.
Everyone is looking for new entry points into existing categories. Whether it’s sub-cultures within a known category or new points of view.
How does this affect and / or help you writers? In some ways, not at all! Write your books and focus on your craft. It’s always good, however, to know what cultural moments are happening and what is going on in media industries that intersect with your own.
Carly Watters is a SVP and Senior Literary Agent at P.S. Literary and the sitting VP of PACLA, the Professional Association of Canadian Literary Agents. She is the co-host of popular writing podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing. Carly received her MA in Publishing Studies from City University London. Her clients’ books have been translated into over 40 languages, optioned for TV and film, adapted into podcasts, and have been on every bestseller list from coast to coast.
Are you interested in becoming a literary agent? Come listen to a senior literary agent at P.S. Literary talk about what it takes to get your foot in the door and succeed at the job.
From education, to internships, to actually doing the job, you’ll hear from someone who has been doing it successfully for over ten years. This webinar is for anyone who is in college or university, a recent grad, or someone looking to pivot from a publisher to a literary agency.
Your host, Carly Watters, will talk for 40 minutes and answer questions for 20 minutes.
| $5 USD | September 8, 2023 | Virtual | Noon ET |
Carly Watters is a SVP and Senior Literary Agent at P.S. Literary and the sitting VP of PACLA, the Professional Association of Canadian Literary Agents. Carly Watters has a BA in English Literature from Queen’s University and a MA in Publishing Studies from City University London. Her masters thesis was on the social, political, and economic impact of literary prizes on trade publishing.
She began her publishing career in London as an assistant at the Darley Anderson Literary, TV and Film Agency. Carly joined Toronto-based P.S. Literary Agency in 2010 and has sold over 100 books during her career. She is known for her long-term vision for her authors and being an excellent collaborator with a nose for commercial success. She has close ties to publishers in the major markets, is a member of the AALA, and works directly with film agents to option film and TV rights to leading networks and production companies.
Her clients’ books have been translated into 40 languages, optioned for TV and film, adapted into podcasts, and have been on every bestseller list from coast to coast, including the New York Times, USA Today, the LA Times, the Washington Post, the Toronto Star, and the Globe and Mail. Carly is the co-host of the popular writing podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing which has over 2 million downloads.
📣 Calling all writers with good news to share 📣
Have you got exciting writing news to share? If you’re a fan of The Shit No One Tells You About Writing podcast or newsletter and have recently landed an agent, sold a book, or have any other exciting writing news, then we want to celebrate with you!
Email us at theshitaboutwriting at gmail dot com with the subject line “Good News” and we will share your special announcement on our website so that our whole community can cheer with you 👏👏👏
Let’s Talk About… Raising The Stakes
In this monthly advice column, we share actionable tips to elevate your writing craft and career. This month, newsletter editor, Bronwen Keyes-Bevan, fills in for Bianca Marais and shares the magic equation that will keep your readers up way past their bedtime finishing your book.
Can I let you in on a secret? Despite being one of the most fundamental elements of storytelling, it took me YEARS to figure out what people actually meant when they talked about “raising the stakes” of a story.
Like “show, don’t tell,” the phrase “raising the stakes” is uttered so often that it can seem impenetrable, all-encompassing, and incredibly complex. But today I’m going to share with you a simple equation I devised that will allow you to harness the stakes of your story so that your readers stay up way past their bedtime to finish your book.
To paraphrase Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby… in my younger and more vulnerable years my screenwriting instructors gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “If the reader asks, ‘so what?’,” they told me, “just remember that you need to raise the stakes.”
You see, before I was a struggling writer trying to become a successful author, I was a struggling filmmaker trying to become a successful auteur. Throughout the years I spent getting a degree in filmmaking, a post-grad in screenwriting, and working as a producer churning out low-budget ad campaigns and music videos, people kept telling me that I needed to raise the stakes. And I kept trying to figure out how to do that. So I’d re-read the definition in a screenwriting craft book. But stakes are a surprisingly slippery thing. Just now, I pulled out two books from my bookshelf: Save The Cat by Blake Snyder and Screenplay by Syd Field. In screenwriting programs and writers’ rooms across North America, Blake Snyder and Syd Field are about as close to gods as you can get. But stakes are not listed in the index of Syd Field’s book at all. And in Save The Cat, they are explained solely as a way to raise the tension. Which, okay, but what does that actually mean and how do I do it?
It took four years and seventeen drafts of a feature-length screenplay, countless rounds of notes from the project’s director and producer, for me to finally whittle down the sprawling concept of raising a story’s stakes into one simple (and I think quite elegant!) equation. In the eleventh hour, just as my creative team and I were about to ink a deal with an influential executive producer that would see our little baby screenplay turned into a fully-fledged movie, the deal collapsed, and the project died on the vine. Heartbreaking, yes, but what I learned in those long years writing and re-writing has stayed with me ever since.
So, what are stakes and why do you need to raise them?
The stakes are what make the reader care enough to stick around to see what happens at the end. For sure, fully fleshed out characters, an intriguing premise, and a well-paced plot all play a huge role in getting someone invested in your story. But the stakes are what will keep them sticking around until the very last page.
You already know that a protagonist needs a goal. They have to want something. They have to want something enough to propel them to act. And when they try to achieve that goal, things are going to get in their way. Those pesky obstacles keep cropping up and that mean old antagonist will rear their ugly head again and again.
These are the elements that most writers think about and spend time developing during the writing of their book. If you’re like me, you spend months and months in prep mode building out these story elements before you ever write a single word of the story. Or you might be the type who sits down to write blind and then at some point in the process, perhaps after you’ve completed your first draft, you return to your pages to tease out and develop these elements. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, but almost all writers will need to do it at some point.
A quick disclaimer: not all books, films, or stories hew to this framework, nor should they. For those of you who love reading and writing and watching stories that sit outside this framework, you’re probably breaking out in hives just thinking about shoehorning your story into this shape. This narrative framework is not for everyone and thank god we’re not all the same, eh? But for those of you hoping to give your book a good shot at becoming commercially successful, then like it or not, your story will most likely need to adhere to this form.
So you’ve spent ages developing a fully fleshed out protagonist, you’ve come up with an intriguing premise, you’ve given your protagonist a goal, you’ve set them off on their journey to achieve said goal, you’ve thrown obstacles in their way and they’ve either overcome them or changed course, you’ve developed a fully fleshed out antagonist. But now you’re reading what you’ve written, and something is not quite working. Your beta readers tell you their attention started to wander. Your critique partner reports that there’s a lack of tension. The agent who rejected your query says they enjoyed the story but felt they didn’t quite connect with it. So, what gives?
Stakes, my friend.
It’s my opinion that we often start talking about stakes way too late in the game. In Save The Cat, for example, Blake Snyder refers to stakes as something that must be raised “at the midpoint” of the screenplay or movie. But that’s way too late to start raising the stakes. I believe that to write a story that becomes a compulsive read, you need to build the stakes into those original story elements: Protagonist. Goal. Obstacles. Antagonist. Stakes.
The stakes are what make us stick around to see if Connell and Marianne will get back together in Normal People, or to see if Carmie will get the restaurant ready in time in The Bear.
But surely, you might be thinking, that’s just us hanging around to see if they achieve their goals? And you’d be right. But only half right.
If any of you watched The Last of Us, you might recall that, in episode one, Joel was trying to get to Wyoming to find his brother. That was his goal before the teenage Ellie was thrust upon him. As a viewer, I didn’t really care if Joel found his brother, whole episodes went by when I forgot that that’s what Joel’s goal was. But the stakes—on which more later—kept me gripped. I watched that show compulsively, along with millions of other people, and then told everyone I know that they had to watch it too.
The most critical element in ensuring a reader sticks around to find out what happens at the end is whether or not they care. And the way to make the reader care is to add, and then continually raise, the stakes.
Let’s look at an example:
Let’s say our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Bee, is desperate to track down her mother, Bernadette, who has gone missing. This is no easy feat; Bernadette appears to have disappeared off the face of the earth. To make things worse, Bernadette has been extremely depressed, and Bee is concerned for Bernadette’s welfare. Bernadette also managed, before she disappeared, to amass many enemies at Bee’s bougie private school. One of these enemies is Soo-Lin who, with Bernadette now out of the picture, spots an opportunity to gently coerce Bee’s father, Elgin, into marriage.
The story elements here are:
Protagonist = Bee
Goal = to find her mother, Bernadette
Obstacles = no sign of Bernadette anywhere, Bernadette is very depressed and seems to not want to be found, Bee is sent away to boarding school to keep her busy, it is in Soo-Lin’s interest that Bernadette not be found
Antagonist = Soo-Lin and the rest of Bernadette’s enemies, Bernadette’s depression, the boarding school administration who dissuade Bee from tracking her mother down
In case you haven’t guessed it, I’m breaking down Where’d You Go, Bernadette which was published in 2012 then adapted for screens and released in 2019. It’s a fun story with a lot of heart and readers devoured it. The compulsiveness of this read can be attributed to a number of things, not least of which may be the way the book’s author, Maria Semple, played with form by telling the story though a series of “found documents” which Bee gathers to try and solve the mystery of where Bernadette is.
But I would argue that readers could not put this book down and kept recommending it to their friends because of the stakes involved.
Now let’s pause for a moment so I can introduce you to my magic little equation:
If P does not achieve G, then TT will happen.
In plain English: If P [Protagonist] does not achieve G [Goal], then TT [Terrible Thing] will happen.
It’s not enough to say the protagonist wants to find her mother. Sure, we can all empathize with a sixteen-year-old whose mother is missing. That sounds painful and only the most cold-hearted amongst us would not care. But for 350 pages? It might sound callous, but the reader needs more of a reason to care.
The stakes of a story are the threat of what will happen should the protagonist not achieve their goal. Just like a gambler in a casino stakes a large sum of money on a bet, the stakes in a story are what the protagonist has to lose. And I don’t know what this says about human nature, but readers want to know that what the protagonist stands to lose is BIG. We want to know they’re betting the house. The reader, whether they know it or not, needs the sense of a life-or-death disaster looming should the protagonist not achieve their goal.
In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, if Bee does not find her mother then her father will commit to a relationship with the now pregnant Soo-Lin, Bernadette will remain missing, Bee will grow up without her mother, Bernadette will not recover from the massive career setback that caused her depression in the first place… Essentially, if the protagonist, Bee, does not achieve her goal of finding Bernadette, then a terrible, terrible thing will happen: the family will fall apart and each of the family members’ lives will be ruined.
Now the reader cares.
Blake Snyder was right (you didn’t think I was going to have the audacity to disagree with this screenwriting god, did you?): if you want readers to feel like they simply can’t tear their eyes away from the story then, yes, you need to raise the stakes at the midpoint. But you also need to add stakes to your story-building prep list, introduce them in the first few pages of your story, and continue to ratchet them up until the last page.
In The Last of Us, I was glued to the screen from episode one because if the protagonist, Joel, didn’t achieve his goal of getting to Wyoming then he would die. Later, when he strikes a deal, his goal shifts: he must get the teenage Ellie to a hospital so that workers there can create a vaccine by using her unique immunity to the infection that has caused the collapse of the modern world. Again, I cared about Joel’s goal because otherwise everyone would die.
The stakes in your story don’t always have to mean literal life or death, but to the reader it must feel as serious, just like Bee’s family falling apart in Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
If you’ve hit a wall with your story, I hope this helps. And, as Bianca would say… you’ve got this!
Bronwen Keyes-Bevan is a Toronto-based writer and editor. Bronwen is newsletter editor at The Shit No One Tells You About Writing and is at work on her debut novel. She lives in Toronto with her husband and their son. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, or at her website.
✨ Please excuse the interruption but… ✨
Would you like to advertise in this newsletter? Drop us a line at theshitaboutwriting.newsletter at gmail dot com!
How to Prep For The Call: a Sneak Peek
Last month we asked subscribers what they wanted to learn more about and the resounding answer was… how querying writers can prepare themselves for that once-in-a-lifetime call with a prospective agent. We’re hard at work on a deep dive into this topic, but in the meantime, this insight from Carly Watters should give you a good foundation.
🎙️On The Podcast This Week🎙️
Check out this week’s podcast episode below!
Using Your Peripheral Characters Effectively
In the latest episode, Fiona Davis joins Bianca, Carly, and CeCe to critique Books with Hooks submissions while also talking about her latest novel, The Spectacular. During the episode, they discuss achieving New York Times Bestselling status several times over; having messy story setups and high stakes; interiority and emotionality; ensuring there are obstacles in the main character’s way right from the start; knowing what the main character wants; passive query letters; why having more plot and less talk of themes in a query letter matters; not starting in an obvious place; having description accomplish more than one thing; researching and choosing a setting; outlining and reverse outlining; and using peripheral characters brilliantly.
☕ Support The Shit No One Tells You About Writing on Ko-fi ☕
Each podcast episode costs us five hundred dollars to produce and edit and we aim to air at least four episodes and one bonus a month. The biggest compliment our listeners give us is that our episodes don’t have any filler, just one hundred percent helpful content. Your support helps keep it that way. Once-off and monthly supporters have access to Carly and CeCe’s written critiques as well as other exclusive content. Once-off supporters have access to the additional content for one month after their donation date. Monthly supporters will have access on an ongoing basis. Please register on Ko-fi and then follow us there to ensure you have access to the materials.
Well, that’s a wrap for another month! We hope you enjoyed this issue of The Shit No One Tells You About Writing newsletter and look forward to seeing you next month! Until then, happy scribbling ✨
❤️ The Shit No One Tells You About Writing Team