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Guest Blog by Melissa de la Cruz: What Does She Mean, The Book Has NO PLOT?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The wonderful Elizabeth Scott (edit from me: blushing here, Melissa!) said I could write about anything on her blog today, so I thought I'd talk about the most critical moment in my writing career, when everything was on the line.

Growing up, I've always been a facile writer. English was my favorite subject and I always got top marks in it. I won a seventh-grade essay writing contest, and several high school poetry contests. Ever since I can remember, I have been praised and patted as a 'writer' and had always seen myself as someone who was talented at writing.

I imagine a lot of you teen writers are the same way—very proud of your accomplishments and pretty much thinking you're the bomb. I know I was. I didn't have a lot of vanity other than the pride I took in my talent as a writer. (I didn't care for instance, about my bad hair, or perennial boyfriend-less status.) I had something special. I could write. Everyone said so. My teachers, my peers, the judges of several summer writing internships, merit scholarships, the list went on and on.

My youthful arrogance helped me ride out the very many stings of rejection I faced when I finally set out to fulfill this childhood dream and fantasy that I had come to believe was within my reach, and my due.

I knew it would be difficult, but the rejections were easy enough to brush off "Not quite for our list", "Acquiring editor too young and could not get house behind it", they all seemed to say, "It's Not You, it's Us." Darn right it is! I kept slogging.

I went through six agents and as many book proposals in five years until I finally landed my first book deal at the age of 27. (It seemed massively old to me by then but in retrospect was very young.)

The hard part was over—I was finally going to be published!

So imagine my surprise when after I'd turned in my manuscript, my editor demanded an urgent in-office, face-to-face meeting with me and my agent.

She ushered us into her cozy, book-lined office (is there anything more awesome than an editor's office? With all those book jackets and publishing paraphernalia?)

"The writing is wonderful," she began. "It's funny and stylish and has a real voice. HOWEVER." And at this juncture, she stared me down. "THE BOOK HAS NO PLOT."

WHAAAA???

I knew things were bad when we got called in to meet with her as if to the principal's office. But the "this book has no plot" threw me for a loop! What did she mean? NO PLOT?? What? What??

The bottom line was my publisher was giving me six months to rewrite the novel—they weren't going to cancel my contract (at least – NOT YET)—they were going to give me another shot---but I would have to turn in a book that had a STORY, not just a bunch of funny little vignettes and wisecracks and observations about the glittery life of New York, but a novel that had a beginning, a middle and an END.

My editor asked me for an outline, which we worked on together. She schooled me. She pushed me. She drove me insane.

But I also understood that this thing, this WRITER thing, this DREAM, wasn't just something that someone would hand me on a plate, that if I wanted to write novels, I would have to discover how to build its BASIC FOUNDATION. Which was Plot. A Story.

Thankfully, I was laid off from my day job right about when this happened—so I had a lot of time. Of course the pressure was on—not only to make my dreams come true, but also to find a way to make a living out of writing. But back then, I didn't even think of it that way.

All I knew was that I had been given a second chance, and I had to make the most of it. Who knew if anyone would ever buy another book from me again?

So I wrenched a plot out of that mess. I realized I only had a surface understanding of what "plot" meant, that in fact, my characters would have to grow and change, and be affected by their actions and what happened to them. It couldn't just be a fun romp through New York. There had to be something else. Something more.

I still don't know how I did it really. I think I learned from desperation than anything else.

They accepted that book, and I've gone on to write quite a few more. But I never forgot that first lesson, because it was the first time it hit me—that just because "everyone" said I was talented enough to become a writer didn't mean that I was.

For the first time, I was fearful that I might not have enough of this "talent" to do what I wanted to do.

It's funny because when I recently met with my new editor at my publishing house, the first thing she said to me was "I hear you're really great at plots."

And for that, I have to thank that stern, no-nonsense editor who told me to my face, what no one had ever told me before in my writing life. That I was good, but not GOOD ENOUGH. That I had to try harder and WORK harder and then MAYBE, just MAYBE, they would publish it.

No one owes you a career in this business.

So the basics of plot: Point A, Point B, Point C. Or in my books Act One, Act Two and Act Three. I outline. I plot and sub-plot. I arc it on a graph. I look at the pacing and re-read and re-shuffle. I read more books (mysteries are the best because they are ALL plot). I write copious notes. Some authors storyboard.

But that first innate understanding of what story was? It did not come naturally to me. Even as a lifelong reader, I still needed a bonk on the head to realize what was different about my book and the books that were sitting on shelves.

I wish you all stern, no-nonsense editors who are able to beat a story out of you. You'll be glad they did.

(Wow!!!! Are you all as impressed as I am by how awesome Melissa is? Talk about an amazing post--thank you SO much, Melissa, for stopping by!)

(And yes, there is a contest for this guest blog--if you have a US mailing address, please leave a comment (and a way for me to contact you) and I will pick one winner at random, and that person will get a copy of any one young adult novel written by Melissa de la Cruz. I will announce the winner the week of August 1st)

22 Comments:

Blogger FionaChan said...

wow. WOW! *bookmarks* I love this guest blog post! Thank you for sharing! :D

oh btw, not from US so.. :D

July 27, 2010 8:59 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

I really appreciate the honesty of Melissa's blog. I used to be a fairly handy writer in high school and college, but I realized really early on that I absolutely could not write fiction (not that I thought I was that good, you understand, but I knew I couldn't) because I cannot plot - at all. I really admire those of you who can. Love both of your books!

July 27, 2010 10:46 AM  
Blogger Robby said...

Melissa's writing is so easy to read. This was great. :]

-Robby
robertfrancisauld@gmail.com

July 27, 2010 10:46 AM  
Blogger The Lovely Reader said...

This is a great post, something I needed to hear. I am a teen writer and get praised for my work, but, like you said, sometimes being good isn't good enough, which is why I try to find time to write at least five times out of the seven day week. Practice, practice, practice. Even if it's garbage, I write. Thanks for posting this, Melissa!

barbrafl737 (at) yahoo (dot) com

July 27, 2010 11:11 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Great post. Melissa;s honesty is encouraging to read. I expect that trial and error is essential in the writing business.

Sarah L
two_of_hearts_101 at yahoo dot com

July 27, 2010 2:09 PM  
Blogger Elania said...

This was a truly awesome post. Very surprsing too because you would think with her series and all that she'd never had any problems with plotting.
Very inspirational! :)

Nia G.
cwriter15 AT yahoo DOT com

July 27, 2010 2:14 PM  
Blogger Mariah said...

Amazing post! It is so helpful to see the mistakes or pitfalls that successful authors have made or gotten through because it makes me believe that I can do it too! Great post Melissa.

a_readers_adventure at yahoo dot com

July 27, 2010 2:31 PM  
Blogger Kelso said...

i never realized how important storyboarding and outlining really was.....

thanks so much, melissa! [and elizabeth!]


kelly
kellylucas.bloomsbury@gmail.com

July 27, 2010 3:37 PM  
Blogger Liz S said...

Great advice! You can be a great writer, but without plot, there's no story!

Thanks for this post!

Email: LizSF72 (at) gmail (dot) com

July 27, 2010 4:01 PM  
Blogger Tammy said...

I would LOVE to *see* an example of what that plot graph looks like. Do you use index cards, a large sheet of paper, a dry erase board? I am very visual and think seeing the plot like you described is the way I need to go. Thank you.

Tammy
tmmrvs@gmail.com

July 27, 2010 4:07 PM  
Blogger Jamie said...

Awesome post! I love Melissa's books, so to know that she had difficulty just like all the rest of us is very refreshing...and gives us unpubs hope! Thanks again!

jmanni32@yahoo.com

July 27, 2010 5:46 PM  
Blogger Civil Gypsy said...

My stomach sank in sympathy when Melissa wrote about the editor's NO PLOT confrontation.

But, what a truly redemptive story. Instead of shrinking away from the criticism, Melissa went on to become a plot ace. I appreciate that kind of commitment and determination. It proves that hard work really does pay off.

July 27, 2010 6:30 PM  
Blogger Civil Gypsy said...

Should probably leave e-mail addy...ha!

marylasse@gmail.com

July 27, 2010 6:33 PM  
Blogger meriam2e said...

melissa really is a great writer, LOVE her books and this post. :)

meriammetoui@gmail.com

July 27, 2010 7:53 PM  
Blogger paige said...

I really love this post. I'm a teen and a lot of people tell me that I'm a great writer, but I'm actually not very confident in my writing. I practice everyday though because being a writer is my dream.

Paige
iloveheadbands123@gmail.com

July 27, 2010 8:32 PM  
Blogger Sandy said...

Great post. The information was really informative. I'm glad that she pushed on, continued writing, and didn't let this get her down. Many people hear a negative and give up. But, look at what can be accomplished when you don't!

July 27, 2010 11:56 PM  
Blogger Sandy said...

Great post. The information was really informative. I'm glad that she pushed on, continued writing, and didn't let this get her down. Many people hear a negative and give up. But, look at what can be accomplished when you don't!

July 27, 2010 11:56 PM  
Blogger Midnight Bloom said...

Such a great guest post! Thanks for sharing that story with us Melissa!!
I'm not from the States, but that won't stop me from dropping a comment. ^.~

July 28, 2010 12:16 AM  
Blogger Erika Lynn said...

great guest post Melissa and I loved you on Authors Now too!
sportsDOTerikalynnAtgmailDOTcom

July 28, 2010 12:41 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline C. said...

I think it's amazing that your publisher was willing to work with you despite your lack of plot! Congrats on your success so far :)

July 28, 2010 2:38 AM  
Blogger Tess said...

It's always nice to have someone that will tell it to you straight. Then you know exactly what they don't like and what you have to work on.

Tess--
lettucebeinsane@gmail.com

July 29, 2010 6:56 PM  
Blogger Jasindo said...

As an aspiring editor and writer, this was a wonderful blog. I truly admire Melissa as a writer and as a person.

unwrittn_melody @ yahoo com

July 30, 2010 6:16 PM  

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