Today I have a free tip for anyone who aspires to write novels with plots. But first a little digression.

Ten years ago I wrote a fantasy novel called The Leafstone Shield. It was much too long, and not serious enough. When my agent finally got around to reading it, he said he didn’t see a market for it. I’m sure he was right.

Later on, I created a PDF of the book and made it available as a free download. I’ve since withdrawn it, but at least one person downloaded it. Recently he read it and sent me an email. He agreed with me about the weaknesses of the story. But along the way he suggested that I might want to consider self-publishing it as an Amazon e-book, specifically in the YA (young adult) category.

My story features three strong female characters, and they get into some pretty hair-raising difficulties. By making them just a few years younger, I could conceivably transform the story into a viable YA novel.

Intrigued by this concept, I decided to do a little research into the YA genre. I wandered over to the Teen shelves in the local library, checked out three YA fantasy novels, and read the first few chapters of all three. They’re all pretty good. I might even finish reading them.

What they have in common, which my story conspicuously lacks, is the substance of the tip I’d like to share. I understood this concept when I was writing my first couple of novels (which were both published by real New York publishers), but somewhere along the way I got distracted. I got interested in other stuff and lost track of how to do strong plots.

If you want to be successful writing plotted fiction, here’s what you have to do: Put the lead character’s ass in a meat grinder, preferably on the very first page, and then keep turning the crank. It’s that simple, and that difficult.

In my too-long unpublished fantasy epic, the lead character does indeed have a goal that propels her into action. But the goal unfolds over the course of the first 250 pages or so — the first 1/3 of the book — and during that time she encounters no profound or agonizing obstacles. To be sure, there are some hurdles she has to leap over, but they’re just hurdles, not brick walls she has to bulldoze her way through. Really, the first 1/3 of the book is a vastly bloated prologue. What’s worse, if I skip or skimp on the prologue, the rest of the story doesn’t make much sense.

Don’t do it this way, kids. Learn from my horrible mistake. Put the lead character’s ass in a meat grinder on page one, and don’t stop turning the crank!

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