There is a sorry complaint that affects way too many manuscripts – even some of the best debuts that we see. Like Dutch Elm Disease or Athlete’s Foot this malady can overcome something great (a tree, a foot, a story!) and turn it somewhat rotten at the core. It can sap your potential, spoil your chances, and leave you with a heck of a lot of sorting out to do.
The complaint in question? I call it the Saggy-Baggies, and it’s defined in my Medical Dictionary of Literary Boo-Boo’s as ‘an unfortunate loss of pace, a collapse into mushiness, a slow sprawl in a bog of treacle’.
The saddest thing about the Saggy-Baggies? It can affect stories that start out with great potential, where I’m on the edge of my seat thinking I’ve found a nugget . . . . only to run into a swamp further on in the manuscript. If the story doesn’t start out strongly I don’t get far enough to experience the sag, and that’s why it’s so important to look more deeply at the causes of the disease – with Doctor Sarah at your side.
The most dangerous aspect of the Saggy-Baggies is that your reader will suddenly experience an urgent need to make a cup of tea, water the plants, visit the bathroom or walk the dogs – instead of persevering with your manuscript. Why? Because going through their mind is, ‘Where is this story going and do I really care?’ We feel we’re losing our way in scenes and dialogue that don’t seem to contribute much to the forward momentum of the story. We may even start feeling downright confused.
What are the causes of this malaise?
I speak at a lot of conferences around the country. In both my 2010 speech ‘How to write a breakout novel’ and my 2011 ‘From Ordinary to extraordinary: the art of creating a great saleable story and the craft of teasing out its full potential’, I have banged on endlessly about the importance of two things. The first is CONCEPT. The second is HIGH STAKES.
In other words, the first thing you need for your novel is the foundation stone of a really great idea – something original and twisty that hasn’t been done before. Without that central idea and a strong notion of how you’re going to plot it on the page, you’re going to be writing in an uncharted wasteland where your typing fingers potentially run away with you. Of course, setting off with no route map may yield unexpected diversionary treasures – but there’s a strong likelihood that lack of pre-planning will also ultimately run you into a swamp.
You know the Iditarod – that formidable dog-sled race through Alaska? Would you set out without a good set of dogs, moose-slaying weapons, or food to get you through a blizzard? Of course not, and the same kind of planning needs to be brought to bear on your writing journey. Know where you’re trying to go and roughly how you aim to get there.
High stakes – what does this mean? It means that your protagonist needs to have something they want to achieve, they MUST achieve, more than anything else in the world. That thing must matter hugely to them – and it must also come to matter hugely to the reader. In fact, your main character themselves must ALSO rapidly come to matter to the reader. If they don’t, we will be bored and feel we don’t care if they achieve their goal or not. In fact, we will soon lay down the manuscript, shrug our shoulders and discover an urgent need to clean out the cooker, which we’ve been meaning to do for months.
So, your goal is to keep your reader with you at all costs. If you can do that, and we really care about your protagonist’s deepest desire (their ‘high stakes’), we will experience the thwarting of that desire (which is basically what needs to happen as your plot unfolds) as both tense and exciting. We will become invested in the outcome, desperate to see the character succeed in overcoming all odds in the end. Will they defeat the demons (whether real or inner)? Will they get the hot guy? Will they find their place in the world? There are lots of possible high stakes, both physical and mental, and your job as puppet-master is to make sure we stay enthralled till the end of the show.
It sounds so simple – so why is it easy to lose your way? One big reason is the temptation to put in too much. ie, Lots of stuff going on or being discussed, but which doesn’t do enough to answer the three big questions: 1) What does the character want more than anything else? 2) Why do they want to achieve that? And 3) How are they going to do it? What you put in MUST play a part in unfolding/revealing the answers to those questions. If you lose sight of the high stakes, those key questions, your story is likely to get the Saggy-Baggies.
When you get a cold you get some nasty symptoms – a runny nose, sore throat and maybe a fever. If your manuscript has the Saggy-Baggies there are a couple of indicators you may spot.
Firstly, keep an eye on length. While I agree there are in theory no ‘rules’ about word count, my experience suggests that very long manuscripts are likely to be saggy-baggy. As an agent I’ve never yet met a YA novel over c. 90,000 words that wouldn’t have been improved by cutting and tightening. I’m not saying long manuscripts can’t be sold, but the greater the word count the more I’m looking to see if the pace is maintained.
Secondly, take a long, hard look at your pitch (I recommend writing the pitch before you start writing the story). Is your concept strong and clear? Does the pitch have a neat and crystalline shape to it – or is it a splurge of disconnected ideas? At Greenhouse we look at pitches every day and the best ones stand out a mile because they are so ‘clean’ – clear, interesting and tight.
You CAN avoid the Saggy-Baggies! Know what your story is and how you want to tell it. Identify your high stakes – the driving need and desire of your protagonist. Make sure everything you include serves to push the story forward with tension and pace.
And when you’ve finished writing? Put your manuscript away in a drawer for a while. Come back to it fresh and with (as far as possible) the eye of someone who’s never seen it before. Read it carefully, asking yourself tough questions. Does it really keep your interest? Do you think it is unputdownable? Do some scenes or conversations or chunks of description feel redundant? Does it sag and bag – even a little? Perhaps you have a critique buddy who can ask the same questions.
The good news is, it’s never too late to get out your medical kit – the scalpel, the scissors, the Band-Aids. The Saggy-Baggies is a nasty ailment to be sure – but it doesn’t need to be terminal.
Best wishes for healthy writing,
Pix: All the images are of pursuits where Saggy-Bagginess must be avoided at all costs. 1) One of the biggest lighthouses in France 2) Flying formation with the Red Arrows over Cornwall 3) Smacking a ping-pong ball.