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Writer's Block/Structuring a novel, first-time publishing


QUESTION: Hi Francis, mine is a two-part question.

A) I've struggled with my humorous fantasy trilogy for over a year now. It's written in a style very similar to the Shrek films--snarky fantasy with a little bit of heart and a lot of weird magic.

I've written about six chapters (of twenty), and I feel like I need help. I have lots of ideas and plenty of notes, but I feel like the structure might be messed up...this is where I'm blocked. I feel like this novel reads too much like a series of essays. It feels inflexible, as if I'm doing write-by-the-numbers instead of composing a fluid narrative.

I'm adding the general structure here. It's a bit lengthy, but perhaps you can advise about whether this is a job well done, because right now I feel like I'm failing...I'm just "not doing it right", and it's annihilating my confidence. Please take a look at this setup and judge whether it's working well; but do take note that his is a VERY general description of the story as a whole, as there are many little "good parts" along the way which would take too long to describe here.

B) About the editing process: if agents like my query but feel the manuscript "needs work", will they express interest? Will an editor take interest in a manuscript that's "a little rough around the edges", or must submissions be extremely well done in order to interest them? as a young author, this is all very new to me--if my structure isn't perfect, might editors take interest anyway and help me rework the not-so-great parts to their satisfaction?

Here's the general structure:

Prologue; you've never heard the epic tale of sparky the dragon, who saved the whole world by accident? awhile ago, in the enchanted land of Otherwhen....

1 - ...a middle-aged dragon named Sparkfizzle lived alone in a cozy three-room den. the brief history of dragons; who Sparky is; a brief "day in the life" of Sparky; sparky loves to be home relaxing in the evenings, and he leaves adventuring to younger, idealistic dragons (ala Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit).

2 - "One warm autumn day...." our hero returns home and finds someone of great evil magical power has broken in and stolen something very precious. if sparky doesn't recover it soon, he'll die; infuriated and anxious, he sets off down the road seeking answers from the commercial wizard (Professor Oingous) who sold him the prepackaged home security scroll.

3 - the professor's bungalow on the corner of Fairytale Lane and 42nd Street; the professor is missing and his house is wrecked; sparky finds vague clues and mysterious circumstances; he acquires a new "party member": the Trash Golem, the professor's young assistant and victim of an accident. they set off to find the professor, and hopefully sparky's object nearby.

4 - they've settled down and slept all night in a grove; we meet a foolish young knight-hero, Byron, who begs to join the party to impress his True Love. he joins; they set off to the desert together.

5 - the desert; they drive off a band of brigands and fight a monster, and take the professor out of captivity; they set off toward the middle of the desert; a subtle clue about the Big Boss' identity which comes into play in the last chapter.

6 - stopping to ask for water at a small castle; they confront an evil witch and her steampunk princess daughter, who "saves herself" from her tower and decides to leave home once and for all. she joins the party and they continue to the oceanfront town. (no more party members join after this part.)

7 - they acquire a ship and set off across the sea; they fight a sea monster; the ship sinks and they narrowly escape alive. they awaken bruised and battered on strange shores far across the sea.

8 - the search for water and directions takes them to a tribal village; we meet the first mini-villain who sends them on a side quest; mysterious clues about the thieving wizard's identity; they set off for the side quest grudgingly.

9 - they do the side quest and return to the mini-villian; a confrontation and battle; they defeat the villain; they set off again into the wilderness; while they sleep, the princess is kidnapped in the night by monsters.

10 - they head out to recover the princess; a battle with monsters; they recover her and take a much needed break to rest and regroup.

11 - a few days of rest; backstory about the princess and the professor; around the campfire, sparky tells an epic tale about how he acquired his precious object centuries ago.

11 - fruitless searching as time drags on; fall is turning to winter; desperation begins setting in; in the mountains now, the boy knight pulls a sword from a pile of bones and we meet the dwarves; they crown him king of the fire festival as a reward and take him into town.

12 - the fire festival; the boy is made king; a wild drunken party ensues; more odd information about the mysterious wizard who stole sparky's object.

13 - the morning after; sparky's hangover; the festival turns out to be a dark sacrificial ritual which sparky must rush to prevent; a bloody battle with the dwarf champion ends in sparky's victory; the volcano erupts and the party narrowly escapes with their lives.

14 - another night out camping; the food is getting low as the weather turns freezing; the boy knight's tale of woe; sparky has a vivid nightmare about zombies eating him alive.

14 - lost in the wilderness and chaos; aimless wandering and bickering; their maps turn out to be false. a serious argument and fight threatens to splinter the party; sparky's emotional breakdown; a promise of friendship and renewed hope reunites the party and they continue into uncertainty.

15 - encountering the druid, Showercap, a seemingly friendly naturalist magician; deception and black magic; they're put under a sneaky sleeping spell ala The Odyssey. they break out just in time, are harangued by evil talking trees and narrowly escape the druid's wrath; pushing through rough terrain until at their wits' end; they reach the wasteland.

16 - in the wasteland; no way to tell time or place; sparky's body is falling apart; sparky's near-death vision; he drags himself on; they finally reach the end of the realm and confront the last mini-boss.

17 - battle with the mini-boss ends quickly; it seems too easy; the true Big Boss emerges; all seems hopeless as the party friends are paralyzed with magic; it all depends on sparky's courage now.

18 - the final battle with the Big Boss; in a last desperate attempt, the monster is vanquished; sparky descends into the cavern to recover his item; he recovers it a few moments too late, ala the magic rose in Beauty & the Beast; sparky dies.

19 - sadness over sparky's death; sparky emerges from his death renewed, as he wasn't too late after all; sparky triumphant and victorious; much treasure is recovered from the cavern; they set off for home with everyone elated.

20 - the journey home; seeing what became of the realms they'd visited before; final goodbyes; sparky returns to his den to find it pillaged by archaeologists and treasure hunters.

Epilogue: how everyone turned out; what happened at home when sparky was away; what everyone is doing now; all loose ends tied up; tantalizing lead-in to the sequel.

Does this seem like a workable structure? I feel like if I can gain confidence in my story's structure, I can proceed to finish this book with renewed hope and courage. Please advise me, because I need it dearly, and I could use some straightforward advice (and a little encouragement). Thanks!


ANSWER: Hi, Bobby,

First of all, please spell my name right. It's Frances.

You've asked a rather long question; however, I will answer it as you asked: A & B.

A. You appear to be writing what's called an episodic novel. Here's a definition with examples that I got from

"An episodic novel is a narrative composed of loosely connected incidents, each one more or less self-contained, often connected by a central character or characters. It is one way of constructing a plot.

Examples: Both Fielding's "The History of Tom Jones" and Pynchon's "V." are examples of episodic novels."

So you're not necessarily off-target. You may feel that you're "writing by numbers" because you actually have a PLAN. There's no harm in that at all. Besides, nobody's first draft is fascinating. Jot it down now and jazz it up later. (BTW, "V" is a hard read. You might enjoy Tom Jones more even though it's longer.)

Unfortunately, I can't tell you if you have a "job well done" or not, because it's not done yet (and what I like maybe a publisher won't. Vice versa is also true).

B. Don't, don't DON'T plan on submitting a full ms to an agent. Why do all that work without some kind of assurance you're on the right track from the person/people who decide if they want to sell your book to a publisher for you? Write and submit a book proposal first. You can find out more about how to do that by googling "fiction book proposal". Keep the quotes around the phrase or you'll get 1M+ random hits.  

One last comment: It's statistically all-but-impossible to get a first novel published by a traditional publisher, and if you do, they won't promote your work (i.e., minimal or no marketing budget). Plus, you (or your agent) will wait months for a response. To me, going that route is a version of approval-seeking. (You may have a different opinion, and that's okay.)

Have you considered self-publishing first? I've noticed that some self-published novelists on Amazon have been approached by regular publishers. Remember, you may be writing for its own sake and/or in order to be read, but, based on most classic novelists' bios, a getting readers and cash for your efforts are valid ways to measure success.

Finally, the best source of encouragement is yourself. Don't confuse the boredom of writing a planned draft with lack of enthusiasm. It IS boring. But if you don't get it written, you won't have the opportunity to make it unboring. Know that it's an episodic novel. Learn more about that genre if you have to. Then slog through it and get it done, doing the best you can. Start playing with the completed draft. Play with it so much that your readers will think your published work was effortless.  

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Frances, sorry about the name thing...I was pretty tired.

I'm a little confused about some things.

- You say it's "nearly impossible" to get books published traditionally, yet I see it happening all the time. What about that "Twilight" garbage? That girl didn't even study fiction writing, and a publisher accepted it. My books are way more amazing than that trash. Doesn't that give me a much better chance than someone who's totally clueless about the art of writing? I mean, if a total amateur with no writing experience can succeed, doesn't that make my chances all the better? By the mere fact that a clueless amateur can grab the interest of a publisher (and let's face it, "Twilight" is by no means ingenious, innovative, groundbreaking, or culturally significant), shouldn't that prove that almost anyone who writes "what publishers are looking for" has a chance of succeeding...and a pretty good one, even if it's commercial tripe?

- Of course I've considered self-publishing...for about 30 seconds. After looking on Amazon and all these other places, seeing 2 million so-called authors essentially begging people to buy their books for $5 (and not having much success by the look of it, since I read constantly and have never heard of any of these authors)....why on earth would I pay someone else for the right to publish my books? I'm intent on getting paid for my work, not making others rich buying unedited imitations of books (the last self-published book I purchased, the memoirs of Joshua Chamberlain, had replaced every U with a V...throughout the entire book).

Before she passed away in 2012, my writing mentor (a former editor at Penguin), advised me to NEVER pay anyone for the right to publish, especially because self-published books are not professionally edited (meaning they're generally lower quality).

In fact, I've been told by other experts that "self-published novels do NOT count as authentic writing credits", and to not even mention self-published novels in query letters because they count for el zilcho. I mean, explain this to me: one has lousy chances of getting published traditionally, and lousy chances succeeding via self-publishing? One must have better odds than the other. What are the chances of agents picking out MY self-published book among the countless other ones floating around the internet? It seems like the numbers favor traditional submissions to agents.

I'm confused about this. I see "new authors", and "featured first novels" on publishers' websites all the time. So if they aren't marketing the books themselves, who's putting these new authors on these sites for promotional purposes?

- Interesting thoughts about proposals. I've been writing and submitting for some time now, and I never see agents' websites asking for fiction proposals. The majority ask for "the first chapter", or "first ten pages", or simply a query. I've mainly submitted to YA agents in the past, though; is it different for adult fiction agents?

This is the trouble I find when seeking person says green, another says yellow, yet another says neither knows what the others are talking about and ALWAYS go with red. It's very, very confusing. It's almost like this whole business is meant to be confounding in order to weed out the weak-willed and reward the tenacious. If that's the case, then I'll just be even more convinced that I'm following the right track.

At any rate, thanks for the advice regarding the plotting. I was pretty sure my path was correct regarding the plot structure...after all, I've been getting praise and admiration from writing peers and teachers my entire life...but a little bit more encouragement always helps. So thank you.


You're not confused. In fact, you're absolutely right.

1. "NEVER pay anyone for the right to publish." The best advice you could get.

2. "This whole business is meant to be confounding in order to weed out the weak-willed and reward the tenacious." Yep. Nothing wrong with that; I'm not terribly interested in reading the work of a weak-willed writer. I'm guessing you wouldn't want to, either.

3. You'll get lots of different advice based on the actual experience of those giving it. That doesn't mean it's right for you, but it's what's right for them, and it worked for them. Each successful writer I know (or know about) eventually found his or her own path. Each of these paths turned out to be unique. But for a new writer, being told that every writer's path is "unique" is neither helpful nor comforting.

Quick quip:

Q. How is writing like baking?
A. Practically everybody likes chocolate chip cookies, and there are thousands of recipes for making them.

Good luck, and keep going.


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Frances S. Ponick


EXPERTISE: Unblocking communications is the main focus here, so all questions are answered publicly. I will answer questions from adults who are struggling with a book, a major report for an employer, a dissertation, or something equally hefty in business, science, or academics. I can help if you absolutely have to write something and can't get started, or if you've started writing and don't know what to do next. If you need help beyond individual questions, I also offer personal coaching, book doctoring, or critiques and analysis. I can answer questions about your novel, your journal, or your poem if you are under the gun because of a contract deadline or some other legal or workplace pressure. Unblocking communications is the main focus here, so I don't accept questions marked private.


Independent book doctor, author coach. Author of "Only Angels Can Wing It: Write a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately" and "101 Telephone Interview Tips for Speakers of English as a Second Language". Other titles in progress. Director of Publications at MENC: The National Association for Music Education, the largest nonprofit arts education association in the world. 1997–2008. Recruited experienced authors and developed novice authors. Their names are listed below in “Past and Current Clients,” and their books can be viewed on At conventions, gave presentations to nonprofessional writers: “How to Get an Article Published,” “How to Write a Book,” “The Publications Process,” “Working with Your Editor,” and similar subjects. Coached book authors and taught staff editors to coach authors. Ghost-wrote forewords for books, endorsements, speeches, marketing materials, presentations, proposals, technical writing, executive summaries, press releases, and other projects. Co-owner, Edge City Press. The Logic of Microspace, a collection of essays on rocket science used as a textbook at the U.S. Air Force Academy (2000). Senior Technical Writer/Marketing Support Specialist, Unisys Corporation, Publications and Engineering departments, 1984–93. S and TS clearances. Designed and taught classes in administrative, business, and technical writing. Wrote and rewrote all types of technical documentation, including proposals. Senior Technical Writer, Informatics General, Rockville, Maryland, 1982–83. Sole writer to thirty-five member Federal Marketing Organization. Conceived and created, wrote and edited numerous marketing brochures, commercial and government proposals. Designed document formats, provided hands-on assistance to technical personnel with documentation assignments, and edited their completed work.

National Speakers Association, Asian-American Chamber of Commerce

Some of these include: Contributor, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 282: New Formalist Poets. (New York: Gale, 2003). Entries on Dick Allen, pp. 3–15; Jared Carter, pp. 31–40; Frederick Feirstein, pp. 83–90; and Bruce Meyer, pp. 223–32. Writer for major area HMO, responding to 300 client complaint/comment letters, 1995, 1997. Managing and poetry editor, The Edge City Review, a quarterly literary magazine, 1991–2005. Arts critic for the Times-Mirror Newspapers, a community newspaper chain with a circulation of 120,000. Reviewed galleries, music, fine arts, poetry/fiction, and profiled personalities. Arts reviewer for the Connection newspapers.

MNM (Master in NonProfit Management; coursework) Regis University, Denver, CO. M.A., American Literature, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC. B.A., English Literature, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH. P-ESL Certificate (Pronouncing English as a Second Language), IPL (Institute of Language & Phonology) Attendance at seminars and similar learning opportunities about twice a year.

Awards and Honors
American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Deems Taylor Award for excellence, Music Educators Journal, 2004. Two First Prizes, Poetry Society of Virginia, 1999. Best Small Business of the Year Award, Reston Chamber of Commerce, 1997–98. Washington Dateline Award, Washington DC Professional Chapter, Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi (National Press Club), First Place for 1993 Arts Criticism, 1994. Award for Writing Excellence, DCI Publications Group, Alexandria, VA, 1992. Achievement Award, Independent Research and Development (IRAD) Brochures, Unisys Corporation, 1990. Exemplary Action Award, for proposal writing skills and for developing a data base of corporate capabilities to support proposal efforts, Unisys Corporation, 1989. Exemplary Action Award, for setting up and publishing a monthly project newsletter with sole responsibility for reporting, writing, and coordinating word processing, graphics, reproduction, and distribution while completing other duties as project editor, Unisys Corporation, 1989. Exemplary Action Award, for writing, editing and coordinating production for over 300 resumes within a one-month period for GSA STRIDE proposal delivered January, 1988. Commendation from Comptroller, U.S. Department of State, for designing, developing, writing, and producing the Budget Reporting System used by over 156 embassies worldwide, 1980. Honorable Mention, American Academy of Poets, 1975. University Research/Teaching Fellowships, University of South Carolina, 1972–75. Phi Sigma Iota Romance Languages Honor Society, 1975.

Past/Present Clients
Most recently, Selected authors include Bennett Reimer; Maureen Harris, Jody L. Kerchner, Carlos R. Abril, Charlene Ryan, Zachary B. Poulter; Natalie Sarrazin, Victor V. Bobetsky; Patrick K. Freer Karin K. Nolan, Elise S. Sobol, Michael Mark, Lois Veenhoven Guderian, William Gradante, Margaret Schmidt, Steve Eckels, Rebecca E. Hamik and Catherine M. Wilson, Janet Barrett, Michele Kaschub and Janice Smith, Charlene Ryan, William J. Dawson, Tony Bancroft, Susan L. Haugland, Kevin Mixon, Chris Tanner, David Doerksen, Carol Frierson-Campbell, Debra Kay Robinson Lindsay. Their books can be viewed at Also Rick Fleeter, Ph.D.; Kaiser Permanente; Unisys Corporation, and many, many other individuals and companies over the past 35 years.

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