I’ve talked quite a bit about story structure on this blog, and I’ve used Harry Potter for most of my examples, but it’s important to know that story structure can change depending on the genre you’re writing in.
In my next few posts I’m going to break down an example of a YA romance: Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything.
But before we dive in to that, I first want to talk about why I chose this book in particular.
Behind the Scenes of the Book Biz
What It Really Took to Publish Everything, Everything
If you look around online, you’ll find a fairly run-of-the-mill story behind Everything, Everything’s road to best-sellerdom:
- It was Nicola’s first novel.
- It was bought in a bidding war by Delacorte Press (an imprint of Random House).
- The buying price was high enough that Nicola quit her day job.
- The novel debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
- It stayed on the list for eleven months.
- It was optioned for film before the book itself even hit shelves.
- It went on to become a major motion picture with MGM.
But what’s the real story here?
What’s the story behind this fairytale version?
I have always encouraged writers to dig deep and find out what it really took for their favorite authors to get published.
I believe that often times aspiring authors give up not because they’re necessarily doing anything wrong but because they don’t know what writing a book actually looks (and feels) like.
As Dani Shapiro said:
When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know—if we know anything at all—is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown.
Handling Feedback and Revising
As I showed in my (lengthy) post on what it was like for Rowling to write Harry Potter, the road to publishing fame is rarely—if ever—smooth.
There’s more to Nicola’s story than immediate success.
She started her publishing journey by signing on with Alloy Entertainment, a literary agency (kind of—they’re more like a collaborative; their past work includes The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and the Gossip Girl series).
Nicola’s reps had big plans for her (which they followed through on with a very successful auction), but first they had some requests.
They wanted Nicola to revise parts of her story. And so, they sent her some notes. Twelve pages of notes—single-spaced, double-sided.
Kudos to Nicola for surviving what must have felt like an editorial tsunami (and for being courageous enough to mention it in her acknowledgments).
Knowing what we know now about Nicola’s success (the large advance, the NYT Best Sellers list, a movie deal), twelve pages of notes seems like a trivial price to pay, but Nicola didn’t know any of that back then. At the time, it probably felt like a part of her soul was getting stomped on each time she turned a page.
Being able to handle feedback (as well as being able to differentiate between useful and non-useful feedback) and then revising as necessary are vital skills for a successful author.
Structure, Structure, Structure
Of course I don’t know exactly what the twelve pages of notes said or how Nicola integrated them into her novel, but I’m willing to bet that at least some of them dealt with story structure.
Why do I think that?
Because structure is a good indicator of the overall strength of a story.
Readers read to make sense of themselves and the world around them. They read to experience, and one cannot experience a story if it doesn’t make sense—if it doesn’t flow and build and connect and lead somewhere. Even a story with fantastic characters is dead in the water without structure.
In my next post we’ll look at the beginning of Everything, Everything—how it hooks readers and sets up the rest of the story for success.
WARNING: DO NOT DO THIS
One more quick side note before ending this post.
Please do not take Nicola’s publishing story as proof that literary agents will pore over every manuscript and painstakingly edit each one.
Ninety-nine percent of all manuscripts get rejected outright, and even the ones that do get representation, many don’t go on to get publishing deals. Agents know this, so they only take on projects they feel have the absolute best chance of success.
Make sure your manuscript is as perfect as possible before querying agents. Most of them will not give you a second chance if you revise your story and then try to contact them again.
You can’t predict the future. It turns out that you can’t predict the past either. Time moves in both directions—forward and backward—and what happens here and now changes them both.
—Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything