Becoming a critique partner will not only let you help out another writer, it’ll help you get better at critiquing your own work. The higher level writing you submit, the higher level of revision you’ll be able to accomplish with their feedback.
Please note, this is all off the top of my head, so there’s a lot more things to look for. But it should give you a general outline of what I’ve found to be the most effective way to critique another’s writing.
Note the good and the…not so good.
Don’t only note what’s not working, but make sure to say what you love, what makes you laugh, anything positive that will be uplifting and also help them keep what they should keep while also discarding or changing what isn’t working.
When I first started editing, I’d get the manuscript back and a lot of the stuff I loved would’ve been taken out. It’s easy as a writer to overreact to an edit you receive and either trash the whole thing or clip entire scenes that didn’t need to go. Reinforcing what’s working will help the writer make better decisions.
Never send pages or chapters.
The first time you read something, it’s a magical opportunity. It’s the only first read you’ll ever get. When you read chapters at a time, you’ll see the book as chapters. At that point, you’ve ruined the freshness of the story, the words, the voice. Then, when you need to read the whole book for pacing, plot holes, tension, world, voice, character arc, you won’t see those things as clearly because you’ve already got the story in your head.
Read the first time as a reader.
When I first get a novel, I put it into a format that’s much like a published novel. Put it on your phone or kindle or laptop at 1.5 spacing with narrower margins and read it all the way through. Make comments on a separate sheet of paper or file, note the page number if needed.
Read it and see where you begin to skim, where you’re feeling a little antsy, bored, etc.
What doesn’t make sense?
Does the plot flow?
Are you feeling positive or negative tension on every page?
Are you connecting with the characters?
Are they sympathetic?
Do the subplots support the main plot, playing off the theme of the novel?
Is there enough conflict?
Do you know the characters’ motivations?
When you put it down, do you want to pick it back up?
There’s a lot more here I could mention, but you probably know enough basics as a reader to get what I’m saying. Does the plot, the subplots (including the romance), the character arcs, the world building work? You’ll never get another first read, so in this first round, you really need to be looking at big picture mechanics of the novel.
Think about the novel for a day or two.
After cleaning up your notes about all the issues you saw, give it some time. Just like we need time to digest edits for our own writing, we need time to think about what we read. Without trying, over the next couple of days, what stands out? What do you remember? Who do you remember and why? Things will come to your mind if you give it some quiet time while doing dishes or folding laundry or going on a bicycle ride–whatever it is you do.
Note the big picture issues.
After a couple days, come back to the notes you’ve written. Add anything that worked and didn’t work for you. Note what you thought back on, what resonated with you.
Do you still remember the end?
Do you remember the characters’ names?
Do you remember the scenes that made you laugh or cry?
Note the things that stuck with you and why.
Give your notes back to the author.
They’re going to need to make fixes–if they choose to. It’s better to make big fixes before a second read, because not only is it a waste of time to do consistency and line edits when whole scenes might be cut, rewritten, or written new, but you’ll never get a second read again either. Distance from the story is key until line edits.
When the author then gives back the edited novel, please don’t get offended if they didn’t take your advice. Trust them to have reasons, then do your best on the next round. If you want the CP to trust you with your own novel, you have to trust them.
If you didn’t suggest major changes on the first round…
Just do the second read right away (without giving it back). The sooner, after those couple days of thinking, the better. Your eyes will be more keen to see the smaller things.
What to look for…
Consistency of world and the rules of the world.
Character consistency in behavior.
Dialogue tags, talking heads, clarity of who’s speaking.
Passive voice, weak words, word echoes, redundancies, etc.
Are they wearing a different color sweater than they were two minutes ago and we haven’t seen them go change?
Are the voices consistent and unique, especially in dialogue? Or do all the characters sound the same?
Is the sentence structure and length varied? Paragraph length? Could it be rearranged for emphasis?
I personally read the novel through making major comments and noting track changes, then read a third time for word choice.
Of course, there are more things I could list here, but just do your best.
Reinforce the positive–again.
Note places where you smiled, laughed, cried, got mad (sometimes that’s what the author wants), connected on a deeper level, anything positive that will be uplifting and also help them keep what they should keep while also discarding or changing what isn’t working.
First, see the positive. You don’t have to change anything.
Never force edits on yourself.
Wait until you’re ready to face them.
One of the main things that gets me down as a writer is getting back edits and having someone say, “I think this needs to be rewritten.” So much time and effort and tears and emotional highs and lows and all my personal affront for my characters! It feels like it just got flushed.
But it didn’t. Just wait for it. Read it and put it away for a while.
Let yourself grieve.
It’s a strange notion to grieve, but it’s necessary sometimes. Doing a revision is a lot of work! It’s like losing a future we’ve envisioned for ourselves that includes getting an agent and book deal and all that jazz, sooner rather than later or even much later.
We all want edit letters to come back with a note that says, “This is the best book I’ve ever read, and I honestly don’t know how to improve it.” But that’s not reality unless you’ve given it to your mother. It never will be. Nevertheless, we’re trained as authors to hope for the nearly impossible.
Rely on your knowledge of why you’re writing each word.
You should know your character, with all their flaws and motivations and why they are the way they are. Know your theme and how the character, world, plot, and subplots all play to prove or disprove the theme and give you the resonance throughout the book that every reader is looking for. If you know these things, know the voice of your character well, and have a decent grasp of language rules (well enough to know when to break them), you can look at edits with an informed eye. You’ll know whether to keep or throw them out, comment by comment.
It’ll also help you to see whether or not the comment is pointing to something wrong that might not be exactly what the editor is focusing on. For instance, someone says their confused when little Johnny rolls a stone up the mountain when he first gets up in the morning. Maybe what’s really wrong is not Johnny rolling the stone in that scene but the fact that the reader needs more context of the world rules–he’s in a prison camp where they have to do it before they’re fed.
Read everything before changing anything.
Read all edits in the manuscript as a whole. Are there several things that might be all fixed with the addition of one scene or a few sentences spread throughout a key scene?
Take time deciding how to fix the issues. As with everything in writing, thinking things through when we’re less emotional can make all the difference.
Ignore rewritten passages.
I’m not talking about when someone rewrites your sentence in a comment to clarify what they’re saying. I’m talking about when they delete sections of your work and then rewrite them in their own words and narrative voice. If you have a critique partner who tries to rewrite your words, it means that they want to write the novel for themselves, not read and enjoy what you’re offering. You should either have a serious discussion about this or get a new critique partner.
It will be okay!
You just need to wrap your head around what they’re saying. Talk it out with someone you trust whose a writer and understands what you’re going through. Brainstorm ideas that might help you solve whatever problem it is. And BAM! When you hit on a good idea, it’ll excite you! You’ll say, “This is going to be even better than before!”
Writing had become an addiction, and rejection made it a downer. If I didn’t write, I was depressed. If I did write and got rejected, I was depressed. There was no winning this thing.
I stopped telling people I wrote books. I moved to another state. (Not because of that, though it didn’t hurt.)
Then in one bold and crazy feat, which nearly gave me a heart attack, I went to a local writing association at my new city.
A key to my progress as a writer started when I began reading for other novelists. They read for me. We chatted and became friends. They’d been through rejection, were going through the frustration of that steep learning curve of newer writers, and they got me. They understood.
Within a couple years, one of us was published with a small press. The excitement of his success fueled the rest of us with renewed hope.
The reading and critiquing had made us all better writers.
While we didn’t last as a group, they will always be my friends.
The one who published left the group to get a masters degree. It’s okay to have a goal, meet it, and then try new things.
One of us got an agent and became a Pitch Wars Mentor, then later self published. Everyone has their own path. Every path is valid.
One of us died suddenly, which made me realize I had to do what I loved and forget the little stuff.
One of us went on to become a NaNoWriMo leader and still writes as a hobby. She never lost the love of writing and didn’t mind not getting published.
All of these people helped me on my journey, and I’ll never forget them for what they taught me. I went on to become other things in the publishing industry. I’ve been a professional editor for a company in the UK and US. I was Managing Director of Pitch Wars, Pitch Madness, and #PitMad. I’ve interned for agents, reading and managing the queries. I’ve worked as a reader and editor for small presses.
Every person I’ve met on my writing journey strengthened my foundation and gave me support as I progressed in the art of writing and the business of publishing.
Even the negative things, the people who never said one positive thing about my writing, the people who told me I should quit, the people who said I needed to learn basic writing skills after being a professional editor for years, the people who threw out pages and rewrote them because my writing wasn’t good enough–all of those things helped me learn what kind of critique partner, editor, and writer I want to be.
And not everyone has to love it. If my writing improves one life, it’s all worth it. And that’s already happened by making me happier when I write it.
I’ve learned many things over the years after collaborating both personally and professionally with hundreds of authors. What we need most is support and a leg up. Whether paying or trading or gifting advice, there are things you should always do when critiquing.
Whether it’s bread or lettuce or lavash, every good sandwich has something on either side or wrapped around it. For a good critique sandwich, that’s pointing out the positive. You can fill it in with whatever else you’ve got around. Maybe it’s plot holes, character issues, or the world doesn’t add up or add much. You can fill the sandwich with tasty advice. If it’s wrapped in a way that’s digestible, the writer will be able to move forward rather than reject your critique.
Here are some steps to giving a good critique…
There should be at least three positive things you can say about any writing. It could be the way a single sentence is phrased, the voice, the title, the imagery, the pacing. Anything that you like or think might resonate with the audience that the writing is intended for will help. And remember, this work might not be intended for you. So read it as if you were the audience. What they would think should come before what you think.
For instance, I can’t stand books about poo or farts, but it’s a whole thing in picture and chapter books. That can’t stop me from seeing the plot, the character arc, and the world they’ve built for the young readers who love this s**t. 😉
Read the Whole Piece
Art should be seen as a whole. Books are no exception. It isn’t until you can understand the entire novel that you what to say. The theme, the character arc, etc.–each piece weaves together to form a united statement that leaves the reader with a resonating feeling, a changed worldview, a question about themselves.
Giving a critique to a specific scene or line editing is fine. But if the scene doesn’t fit into the overall structure of the book, why waste the time with one scene if you’re going to toss it out? In fact, it makes it harder to toss when you’ve worked to polish it.
The publishing industry standard is three general types edits, in this order…
Developmental: the plot, characters, and world in general are working.
Consistency: the chapters and scenes follow one another and work together.
Line: the words and voice and phrasing in each paragraph and sentence and phrase.
If you only ever say things that are positive, you’re not helping the writer improve. It’s rare that a submission to a critique group is so near perfect that there’s nothing you can help them improve on some level. If there aren’t any issues with big stuff, keep going down to the line edits.
Just Do Your Best
Not everyone is at the same level. But we’re all readers. Where are you upset and why? (Maybe you’re supposed to be.) Happy, sad, frustrated. Note why in the sidebar comments. Don’t go overboard, but especially at emotional turning points. Where do you want to skim? Where do you want to put the book down? Is there anything that confuses you? Did you have to reread any sentences?
Even if you can’t say why there’s a problem, that’s okay. Just noting that a problem exists is often enough for the writer to figure out a way to improve it.
A lot of times, even when an editor or agent spots a problem, they don’t know exactly what the problem is, only that it exists. It’s up to the author to know their story well enough that they know what the chapter, scene, and words are supposed to be doing and figure out why they’re not.
Some Things to Look For
If you’re an experienced writer, here’s a list of some basic things to look for in addition to the last section.
Character depth and arc
Plot that keeps the page turning but also gives the reader time to recover
Language and diction
World building inconsistencies or improvements
Plausibility, suspension of disbelief
How are you phrasing the critique? Are you intending to help them or make yourself feel like a better writer?
The focus of a critique should always be to uplift other writers. Make sure your comments are gentle and kind while being informative and truthful.
This is not your work. Do not ever rewrite someone else’s work. You can suggest how to rephrase, give ideas to get them brainstorming, but when you try to supersede their writing with your own, you’re invalidating them as a writer.
Be Positive Again
Always end on a good note. Find one more thing you like about the work. If you’re critiquing a whole book, point out the things that work for you along the way, what made you laugh, lines that resonate.
Often we as writers toss out the good stuff along with the bad because all we’ve heard is the negative, what’s not working, which could be surrounded or embedded in a lot of great writing.
So, you might ask, how would I get into the mind of a villain?
While many of us don’t want to admit it, sometimes we are the antagonist. Think of a time when you’ve been hurt by someone. It could be emotional or physical or mental damage.
Did you think about why they did it? “How could they do this to me?” “How could they be so mean?” “What the $%@# were they thinking?” If so, you’ve thought about an antagonist.
Have you ever wondered why you were chosen as the victim? Maybe you were walking down the alley at just the wrong time. Maybe you were carrying the suitcase full of diamonds. Maybe you were interfering in when someone was trying to get stolen gemstones to the force-field generator and save the thousands of people on your ship. You were the antagonist in the eyes of your “villain.” The hero of your novel is the villain in the eyes of your antagonist.
If you’ve ever been made fun of, been hurt, been attacked, been in a fight, then you know about villains. Another person decided it was a good idea to hurt you, and you paid the price. There’s a story that leads up to their heinous action, and a story about how you overcame (or maybe still are or haven’t) what they did and learned from it, changed because of it, and became either a better or worse person.
Now think of someone you hurt that you could’ve chosen not to. What did you do? Why did you do it?
Think of that person as a hero. To them, you were the momentary or perhaps long-term villain.
This is why we love stories—we’ve lived, loved, and been loved in return. We’ve been hurt, wronged, and wronged in return. We’ve been heroes, secondary characters, and antagonists on occasion. When constructed with proper protagonists and antagonists, stories increase our understanding of humanity, the guy next door, and ourselves.
THE MAKINGS OF A PROPER VILLAIN
Making a villain come to life is similar to the construction of every character in your book, whether they’re a hero, secondary character, or antagonist. Each one will have important aspects that you, as the author, need to know.
Before mapping out a villain’s character chart, there are some important aspects to creating the perfect villain for your particular story. In crafting the conflict and therefore the antagonist, you must think about your hero as well as your theme. You have a hero, exploring and learning certain things, and overcoming whatever it is to reach their goal. Everything they learn or overcome should support your theme.
So while your hero is supporting the theme, the villain is going to work against that theme, or try and prove the opposite of whatever truth the hero is working toward. This usually happens unconsciously, because the villain and hero are making choices based on their own needs, their perceptions, and the consequences for them. This works even when the villain is an act of nature, another person or being, the world the main character lives in, or the main character themselves.
The villain will keep the hero from their goal. They will be the one who criticizes your hero. Therefore, villains are not necessarily evil. They are simply the opposing force from at least one major aspect that’s going to make the antagonist stop (or be in the way of) the hero getting what they need and maybe what they want.
In this way, the basic philosophy or moral premise or the plan of action of the protagonist and antagonist are opposing. They’ll work against one another throughout the novel and both continue changing. Our hero will come to some truth while the villain will continue their descent. And of course, there are variations of this. On occasion, the villain might see the light and that’s what resolves the conflict. Or the villain is so bad in the beginning that what worsens is their methods of attack. Overall, one learns and grows for the better while the other meets their demise.
To fully connect your villain with your hero, add in something about them that makes them similar as well. This common trait will have a two-fold affect. The villain will know how best to properly understand and therefore torment your hero. It’ll also showcase the ways they’re different, which will be the characteristic that defines one as good/right and the other as evil/wrong in the eyes of the reader. (Think of Holmes and Moriarty. Genius but different uses for that genius.) As usual, you can overdo this. Make sure you don’t go so far as to make us love the villain to the point of siding with them.
Now that we have a general theme and opposing viewpoints, the details of your characters can be filled in. As you get to know your protagonist, you’ll begin to understand the proper antagonist or vice versa.
Internal Goal(s), Wants, Desires
External Goal(s), Wants, Desires
Internal Need(s)—that they might not be aware of
External Need(s)—that they’re usually painfully aware of
A Value System—that they’re loyal to
Humanity and Kindness—at least toward what they care about
Similarities to Protagonist (optional)
Internal and External Goals
Fairly straightforward, these are what the character wants out of life. It could be something as basic as being loved, as simple as buying a lollipop from the store, or as complex as curing cancer. The character’s backstory is going to provide the set-up for this.
Internal and External Needs
These aspects of the character are more hidden, but they’ll become apparent as the character makes choices throughout the novel. They might sacrifice their wants, like making new friends with nice people, for a need, like gaining an ally they hate who can help them fight off the zombie hoard. When the main character is kept from the things they need, there will be a heavy consequence.
The most satisfying endings come when the main character gets what they want and need, but there’s always some varying combination of the internal and external wants and needs that will make a realistic and mostly satisfying ending for the reader. Maybe they get what they internally need and but not what they externally wanted. These are the things you’ll consider in plotting how the antagonist might keep the protagonist from succeeding fully.
These can be complex. Being made fun of by insecure people wanting to make themselves feel better. Name calling by people who were trying to be funny. An attack on the way to get ice cream by a drunk man out of money for another shot.
Could the child killing you during childbirth be considered by someone who loves you a villain? Absolutely. For the husband who resents the child for the rest of their life, yes. Do we want to read about that guy? Maybe. He might be an interesting character and if done right, could be fascinating to read about. Other readers might prefer the kid to be the protagonist whose father resents him for killing his mother.
Why is that?
Because it’s an injustice that doesn’t have to be there, which makes the father an antagonist because of his choice. But at least he’s real, with his reasons and individual perspective, even though we can’t justify his actions. His actions will provide the major conflict of the story against a child who couldn’t control what they were doing.
So one key to a good villain is understanding the motivation behind what they do, but we can’t justify their unfair behavior to the protagonist. The most terrifying villain is one we can understand but not justify.
Internal and/or external enabling traits lead the character to make the choices they do and see the logic in what they’re doing. Think about an antagonist whose been lied to, who thinks they’re helping. Their internal moral compass is justified and right, but their external conditions or circumstances have caused them to foil the main character in a serious way. Again, the possibilities of internal and external enabling traits can be combined in innumerable ways.
The protagonist and antagonist can have the same goal as well, but one goes about it differently because of a flaw in their ideology. (Think Dr. Xavier and Magneto.) Their methods get in the way of one another, and of course, each has an end game that accomplishes the goal but also has the desired outcome for them personally, so they work against one another.
Remember that the backstory of a villain is complex. We often skimp on creativity when it comes to the backstory of the villain, or use some stereotype like abuse to turn them into a ‘bad’ person. But people don’t have to have been abused to become antagonistic or even evil. Indulgence, manipulation, justification of mistakes, and the list goes on. Make the backstory and therefore the triggers of your antagonist unique.
When I say triggers, I mean the things that make them act a certain way. What part of their past incites their current behaviors? An example: An artificial intelligence programmed to protect humanity ends up ‘protecting’ people from themselves by taking away agency. (I, Robot)
A Value System
If they’re not loyal to any value system, they’re unrealistic as a person or considered insane. More about that later. For the rational villain, we need to see that everything they do fits into their value system. How they justify themselves in their mind helps us understand them. When we understand them, we’ll be more terrified of them.
Most often, the villain doesn’t see themselves as the bad guy. When laying out their value system, remember that, from their perspective, they’re the ones fixing the world of its ailments. The reader will be able to see the duplicitous nature and hate them all the more for their hypocrisy. Or the reader will see their twisted mind and be fascinated, if disgusted by their actions. However you play it, it’ll make a better villain.
Humanity and Kindness
Even bad people care about things. Often, they have the same values as the protagonist but -follow them in a twisted way. Perhaps the villain has a family they love, a spouse they provide for, a church they attend. They won’t kick their dog, but when they go to work…their job is to run a sweat shop and make sure the workers are properly motivated with beatings when they fail.
How do the people who love the villain feel? Think about them that way yourself. Sympathize with your villains. It’s tragic that they’ve taken the path they have but won’t allow themselves redemption.
Let us see the perspectives other characters have on your villain. Like a testimonial, we’ll see various aspects of your villain through their eyes. Don’t make the mistake of demonizing them in every way. Take the opportunity to have many varying opinions. We’ve all had professors or teachers we hate. Most likely, there were other students who loved that teacher. Humans, even villains, are capable of good and bad. In addition to this, create scenes where the reader sees the villain interacting with other characters. These different types of situations with characters of varying opinions of the villain will reveal their character.
Make the villain as capable as your protagonist. If they aren’t, it’ll stifle the arc of the protagonist and make defeating the villain less fulfilling. They don’t have to be equally smart. Their talents can differ while remaining equal to or stronger than the protagonist.
The more capable mentally, emotionally, and physically the antagonist is, the more valuable and rewarding the defeat of this villain will be for the hero and the reader. The protagonist will have to grow to match the capabilities of the antagonist and win the prize, which will increase their character arc. Just don’t bend it until it breaks our ability to suspend disbelief.
Similarities to Protagonist
As discussed earlier, this can be a powerful tool.
In considering which traits your protagonist and antagonist share, think about the strengths and fears of the protagonist. Sharing the same strength can make it possible for your protagonist to become exactly like the antagonist.
Think of Darth Vader, equally powerful in the force. One of them uses it selfishly while the other wants to save the people he cares about and build a better world.
A strength like faith can be a positive in keeping your main character motivated, but it might also allow the villain to justify their actions.
Humor can protect the main character from feeling overwhelmed or give them a reality check. A humorous villain might be better at convincing people they’re right because they’re so likable.
The reader will take these traits and automatically compare.
The villain can (and maybe should, depending on your story and theme) be outwardly beautiful. There’s a tendency to paint villains with an ugly exterior: ruddy, pockmarked skin, a grimace, greasy, wearing a wife-beater, etc. While your villain may actually have that—and that’s okay—think about the reality of life. Design your antagonist to be believable. Maybe an accident happened to them, but that’s not what turned them to a life of crime. It was the choices they made to either overcome the adversity or let it overcome them. That should be very clear.
Conversely, a lot of people who do bad things are beautiful: the tailored businessman who skims retirement funds, the woman at the gym who seduces men to steal from them, the famous actor who destroys reputations to secure parts in films. Conversely, a lot of heroes are plain, everyday people.
Even if your villain is handsome, they can also have some internal part of them be horrific to the reader. Humans have a tendency to relate the bad with the grotesque, so if your villain has something terrible that they hide or mask, it can make them more intriguing and complex. Relate this horrific trait to their main flaw that makes them the primary antagonist.
Every trait they have should be a part of their backstory and have a reason fro being there.
TYPES OF VILLAINS
The Evil Villain
This is the antagonist who is evil for evil’s sake. They’re bad and they know it and they want to be bad, or at the very least don’t care about what they have to do to get whatever it is they want. In the modern novel, this type of villain rarely works.
The trick with the evil villain is to make them believable rather than a stereotype. Do this by focusing on their humanity and their backstory. Focus on ways they have been good or show characters who love the villain and why.
A basic sub-category of the evil villain is the monster. They don’t have the same moral system and can’t be expected to, so it makes them evil on more of an instinctual level. The reader experiences a primal connection with the protagonist and their need to survive. While we can’t expect the evil monster to have our own moral code, we also can’t excuse them for wanting to destroy the hero.
All antagonists (world, alien, nature, etc.) can be personified and humanized by giving them human traits. They could be lonely or misunderstood or anything relatable. (The monster in Super 8)
The Everyday Villain
You could think of the everyday villain as nothing more than someone who keeps the main character from reaching their goal. Perhaps they have the same goal as the protagonist but have a different way they think it should be obtained, or they want it all to themselves and for good reason. This antagonist could simply be discouraging, they could be a hindrance to the protagonist’s goal because they’re an authority figure who thinks differently. There are an infinite number of possibilities for this villain.
One type of everyday villain is the person who’s jealous or envious of the protagonist. They might seem to have it all, but they have some deep-seeded insecurity that they’re also needing to overcome but don’t. (This isn’t their hero’s journey.) They feel threatened and, like an abused dog backed into a corner, they can commit every crime to protect themselves.
Another type of everyday villain that deserves a shout-out is the beloved antagonist. This is someone who cares deeply for the main character, and who the main character loves in return. But they’re actively against the main goal of the protagonist, and they provide the main conflict.
The main difficulty with the everyday villain is usually keeping the tension of the novel high. This villain isn’t usually trying to destroy anyone, and often they can be easily understood and even leave the reader feeling like they aren’t sure who to root for. But remember, we’re in the point of view of your antagonist, so this everyday villain needs to look worse or appear worse to the protagonist than they really are. For example, a parent keeping their child from sneaking out at night is trying to protect their child. But to the child, our protagonist, who knows that if they don’t sneak out and meet their best friend, she’s going to have to go and face something terrible alone and may never return—the parent is doing something more terrible than they realize. We can sympathize with both the protagonist and antagonist, while creating tension for the novel.
The Nebulous Group
The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person or single entity. Sometimes the villain standing in the protagonist’s way is a large group or society. This group has a moral system or a goal that the protagonist is against. This could be an oppressive government, a morally strict society the protagonist doesn’t inherently believe in, a group that’s done something wrong that the protagonist witnessed, etc. The possibilities are endless.
The difficulty with this type of villain is finding a way for the protagonist to fight back. Often it’s just too big of a task for one person to accomplish on their own. This can be dealt with by personifying the group using their leader or turning them into a few individuals who the protagonist can interact with. A villain and their crime become more personal when it’s personified.
In a lot of character driven stories, the villain is an antagonistic force that the main character must face and overcome. It’s their primary fear, a regret, a major flaw, a past event that haunts them and stifles their progress.
This can be illuminated in different ways. There can be a goal that the main character wants to achieve. If they don’t, their life will get worse, but the internal problem is also standing in their way. Another possibility is showing the main character’s dissatisfaction with their current life as compared to some other character the protagonist is forced to interact with. They know life could be better and they can’t stand themselves or the issue anymore, and it’s approaching a breaking point. They’re either going to lose something they have that they hold dear, making life worse, or they’re becoming run-down or unfit to continue.
Sometimes there is an external force ( adversity as the adversary) that causes the main conflict for the protagonist. A few examples are nature, a physical disability or tragedy, an illness, a supernatural force, technology. The list goes on.
I would also categorize the insane villain here. Like a storm or a lightning strike, they’re more of an irrational force that can’t be reasoned with or predicted.
A writer uses this to challenge the MC. When the external villain poses conflict, the main character must develop and overcome the adversity. How the main character learns to cope with these new external forces becomes the hero’s journey.
SOME GENERAL NOTES FOR CREATING COMPELLING AND USEFUL VILLAINS
Avoid stereotypical and melodramatic dialogue like the maniacal laugh or “I’ll get you, my pretty!.” This only makes the villain more difficult to believe in, and therefore, less threatening.
Have more than one villain. Every person is facing more than one conflict in their life at a time. Things are messy, and if you only have one villain in your novel, the reader won’t be able to suspend disbelief.
Use a combination of external antagonistic forces, for example, an adversity that already exists, a secondary character who has a different agenda, and then the main villain who all work against the protagonist.
Give the antagonist minions. There are often other people who work with the antagonist to make life difficult for our hero, and they can create conflict and wear our hero down while building to the main climax of the novel, when the protagonist faces and (usually) defeats their primary antagonist for the reader to have a satisfying ending.
The variety of villains is endless. We know them, because we’ve lived with them, been them, and worked against them. Readers know how strong the adversity of life can be, and we expect it to be just as strong for our hero or heroine. The true satisfaction of any hero overcoming the villain is because that’s what we’re trying to do everyday–overcome our own adversity. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the satisfaction.
Remember to not be melodramatic or over-the-top. It has to feel doable. But the stronger your villain will be, the stronger your main character will become to defeat them.
Several times since I’ve started writing, I’ve lost pages. I’m sure you have too, unless you’re a genius and extremely diligent to boot. I’ve found that I’m neither. While losing pages isn’t the end of the world, it can also be a benefit. More about that below–and some suggestions to make sure that losing those pages is intentional.
When I was a new writer and had never lost pages, I didn’t think that much about having a back-up. Big mistake.
One file on one computer.
1 + 1 = 0
It was the first book I’d ever written. My computer died, probably because I was pounding away for hours every night. I was so ecstatic to find out that my husband had backed up our entire computer a couple weeks before that. Still. Poof! I lost 100 pages.
Once, when I was in a hurry, I cut and pasted a section into my full document. What I realized only when I reopened it the next day–I’d accidentally pressed CTRL+A somehow and deleted everything but what I’d pasted. Poof! 5,400 words gone.
Once, I was at a retreat with no internet. I’d been saving my work before that with an online back-up program and so I just saved it at the retreat, thinking I would sync it as soon as I got back. Poof! 23,000 words gone.
Ultimately, the pages were rewritten, and in every single case, they were better for it. When I realized this, I took a book that I’d shelved, wrote down every scene I could remember about it without going back and reviewing it, and that became my outline. The only things I remembered were the important and exciting and poignant parts.
Now, if I write a book and can’t figure out what’s wrong, I shelve it for a while and then write down every scene I can remember. Put that up against a plot outline (like on this post, here), and It helps me filter out what isn’t important and what I’m missing all at the same time.
Some writers write this way. It’s free form, backstory, no rules on the first draft. Then they let it sit for a while, make an outline from what they remember, and write the second draft from that without peeking. The amazing thing about this method: You only have in there what the reader needs in order to understand the story, because you’ve already told it to yourself as the author. Another thing that happens is that you know the characters so well, the little things about them come out organically instead of feeling like devices or dropped in at random.
It’s a lot of words. It takes time. It’s not for everyone. But here’s something that is…
Ways to Make Sure You’re Backed Up:
First, use multiple methods. Have a second or third hard copy as well as an online backup. That way, if you’re away from your computer or there’s a hurricane and you have to evacuate, this is one thing you won’t have to stress about.
Second, get in the habit of backing up files every day. More if you feel the need.
If you use Google Docs…
The document gets saved automatically to the cloud at a specified interval.
If you use Word and Windows 10…
You can have Word documents automatically saved to a folder at a specified interval.
Select the Start button, select Settings > Update & security > Backup > Add a drive, and then choose an drive or network location for your backups.
All set. Every hour, we’ll back up everything in your user folder (C:\Users\username). To change which files get backed up or how often backups happen, go to More options.
If you’re missing an important file or folder, here’s how to get it back:
Type Restore files in the search box on the taskbar, and then select Restore your files with File History.
Look for the file you need, then use the arrows to see all its versions.
When you find the version you want, select Restore to save it in its original location. To save it in a different place, press and hold (or right-click) Restore, select Restore to, and then choose a new location.
If you’re using Scrivener…
Scrivener backs up after two seconds of inactivity and saves your versions.
Some services offer continuous backup that you don’t have to monitor. They charge a fee but backup a specified folder from your hard drive on a timed basis. A couple of these are Carbonite and CrashPlan.
As a professional editor, I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts with basic problems that would’ve caused an agent to reject it no matter how good the premise was. There are other issues with manuscripts that wouldn’t necessarily cause a pass but might make the agent think twice.
You don’t want them to think. You want them to fall in love.
Hopefully, these hints will help you polish your manuscript and lift it to the top of the slush pile.
Use Times New Roman (or Courier if you have to, no matter if you like it or not) and 12 pt font. The title page should be single spaced, your name and information top left, the manuscript information top right. The larger and bold title goes center page. Double space the rest of the manuscript. Center the chapter headings, one-third down the page. The first paragraph of each chapter is usually not indented. When reading tons of manuscripts or queries or synopses, it really makes a difference in the ease of reading. And you want your editors and agents to have it as easy as possible.
The best hooks are an internalization or a vivid image. Both have the power to capture us.
An internalization should share a worldview from the main character’s perspective about the unique way in which they see the world. Often, it’s the wrong perspective that ends up changing during the character’s arc. The best hooks tie in the theme, the conflict, voice, and make us ask a question that keeps us reading.
It’s a lot to ask, I know. But it’ll set us up for what lies ahead.
A for instance, here’s the first line from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
(Even if you don’t like the books, she’s a master writer.)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” ~Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice
Just a sentence or two about her perspective on the world that ties in her central conflict, the theme, her voice/attitude, character, etc.
The reality is, we see her own pride and her prejudice against rich men in general, which nearly ends up losing her true love and happiness. And she’s declaring her uniqueness, in that she does not need a husband, despite her poverty. It introduces the central conflict, that if one of the Bennett girls doesn’t get a rich husband, they’ll all be destitute when Mr. Bennett dies. It shows her attitude, her desperate independence and lack of faith in the men of her world.
I know it’s asking a lot, but the best hooks are the ones that tie all of this together while making us ask a question. When presented with her conflict and her view, we’re wondering, “How’s she going to deal with or overcome that?”
From the moment we meet the main character, we need to be connecting with them emotionally. The more universal that emotion is, the broader your audience will be. Throughout the novel, we need to see the emotional conflict through the thoughts, actions, and expressions of the characters.
Your novel might not be able to use internalization if it’s third person distant or omniscient. If that’s the case, you’ve got to layer in the emotion through expressions and actions, which is difficult but doable.
For close third, second, and first person, take full advantage of that POV. We should be having internal emotion layered in at regular intervals. Not every sentence or even every paragraph, but sprinkled in so we can connect more readily. Use the following pattern.
Not always, but telling is caused a lot by passive voice. Passive voice is when someone is being, not doing. Active voice is when the character is doing something, acting. Even if it’s sitting still. This is also a huge issue with killing pacing.
The word ‘was’ is occasionally part of the past progressive tense and indicates continuing action, something that was happening, going on, at some point in the past. This tense is formed with the helping “to be” verb, in the past tense, plus the present participle of the verb (with an -ing ending). That’s not what I’m talking about.
Try and eliminate the following words from your manuscript. It’ll make a huge difference.
was, had, have, were, has, wasn’t, I’ve, she’d you’ve, hadn’t, I’d, he’d, weren’t, they’d, haven’t, etc.
Be judicious. This doesn’t mean that every one of these needs to be thrown out. But at least try to rephrase and usually, you’ll find that your writing will become more vivid and specific, which will add to the intensity and impact of your writing.
She had long legs, and her gown was white.
The white gown swirled around her long legs.
The longer your sentences and paragraphs, the slower the pacing. Conversely, the shorter your sentences and paragraphs, the faster the pacing. Use this to regulate how quickly or slowly your scenes read.
Be judicious. This can easily be overdone by stripping things down to a bare minimum or having dialogue become a lecture or speech.
Simple words to show complex ideas. That’s the power of writing.
Each character should have their own voice, and the authorial voice (in third and omniscient) should also be unique and consistent.
Everyone has a unique voice. If you could record yourself and listen to yourself talk, you’d see that you don’t speak quite like anyone else. Maybe you use different words, you pause at different places, you even move different ways when you speak. All of that is voice. It’s the portrayal of your unique perspective through the written word. Because of that, word choice, punctuation, the structure of sentences and paragraphs, the rhythm of your language and the white vs. black space on the page, the dialogue, syntax, diction, semantics–all of those things and more make up voice.
To be authentic to a character’s voice, you have to know the background of that character. Maybe they’ve spent time in the marines which will make their words clipped, but they were raised on a farm in Canada so they end some of their sentences with, “…eh?” Add in that they can’t talk unless their hands are moving. The more you know, the more you’ll be able to enrich that character’s voice.
The same is true for your authorial voice.
The words ‘says/said’ and ‘asked’ are better than any other simple tag. But you miss the opportunity to use action here and build the world, setting, plot, and character. If your tags can show movement, what’s happening around the character, what they sound like or look like when they’re saying it—so much the better!
“That’s a fine dog you have there,” Judy said.
“That’s a fine dog you have there.” Judy opened her arms and knelt down, hoping it would lick her face.
“That’s a fine dog you have there.” Judy drew her skinning knife and licked her lips.
This is where you have a point-of-view character who the reader is in the mind of, then in the next paragraph or even sentence, they’re in the mind of someone else. The reader is constantly being dragged from one POV to the other, which never lets us get settled or connect emotionally.
When you’re writing in present tense (write, do), all flashbacks or things that happened in a previous time will use past tense (wrote, did).
When you’re writing in past tense (wrote, did), all flashbacks or things that happened in a previous time will use past present (had written, had done it).
Telling not Showing
Especially in the first ten pages, any telling slows us down. That said, there are times when you have to tell things to ground the reader.
Only include the necessary information, and include it just before we need it. Spread it out with small phrases or a sentence here or there if you can. If it’s a flashback, make sure it’s not in your first ten pages. Then make it as short as possible while including all the relevant information.
There was a man standing in front of me.
A man stood, blocking the path ahead.
Or–turn the telling into an internalization.
The prototype of this machine hadn’t worked properly.
Its prototype had been a total let down.
ADVERBS: Most adverbs should be eliminated. Use stronger verbs and nouns to make up for their loss, and again, your writing will not only be more vivid and memorable, it’ll improve pacing. Do a search for each of them and take them out in any way possible. You’ll end up with a few scattered here and there.
EXCESSIVE ADJECTIVES/GENERALIZATIONS: all, none, most, many, always, everyone, never, sometimes, some, usually, seldom, few, generally, in general, and overall, small, big, large, pretty, etc.
When you use any kind of simile, metaphor, personification–any literary device–we need to gain more knowledge from the image. Only use figurative language if the image conveys more than you can in words, or gives several apt associations you don’t want to spell out.
And too many of these devices weigh down the writing and slow us down or make it feel redundant.
Also, don’t make your figurative language give us conflicting images. It’s too much to take in and stops the reader while they try to justify the images in their mind rather than moving smoothly along.
Be careful how you use every word. Think about exactly what image is being formed in the reader’s mind. Forcing the reader through mental gymnastics makes them work too hard. They want to forget they’re even reading.
Eliminating this is aided by reading the book out loud. Don’t read it to yourself. You’ll skip things. Have it read to you by a computer using a text-to-speech reader. Or a person if you can find one.
When we write words, any kind of words, especially when we’re drafting, we tend to use the same words over and over that are most common in our speech. And when we use that word, it’s so easy just to use the same word, over and over. But using a word over and over makes your writing boring and monotonous. And occasionally annoying.
My rule of thumb is that you should only repeat words when you want to connect things or for voice.
To connect things…
If a character has referred to a cherry-red Porsche, then another character might refer to it as a hot-rod dipped in ketchup. Whether subconsciously or consciously, if ketchup is mentioned again, we’ll think back on the Porsche and connect the two things that happened or the characters involoved.
If someone has something they say, a tick, a pet phrase, then you’ll repeat it. But a little goes a long way. My rule of thumb is no more than once every twenty pages. So maybe a character always says, “I’ll be.” Don’t have it repeated too often, and don’t let any other character say that phrase.
Be careful to vary the first words. Make sure there aren’t a lot of pronouns or names as the first word over and over. It feels monotonous.
This is a hard one because we all talk in clichés, and it’s part of voice. But it also takes away from the uniqueness of voice and the possibility of making your character’s language even more their own.
Especially watch for this if you’re not on Earth, or even if you’re in a different culture where that phrase doesn’t exist.
These come in many forms.
Occasionally, it’s whole sentences repeated with different words but the idea is conveyed.
Maybe it’s two words right together that mean the same thing. Like fell down. You don’t need both.
Often redundancies happen because you don’t trust the reader to have gotten it the first time. There’s a balance between making sure the reader gets the needed information and beating them over the head with it. And when in doubt, trust them. Only add things in if your beta readers get confused or it’s been a long time and they need a few words to remind them.
For first and close third, the reader is going to be experiencing everything the main character is. What they see, touch, hear, smell, sense, emote, taste–all of those senses are immediate to the reader when done right by the author. Eliminating distancing language will bring an immediacy to your writing and a closeness between the reader and character.
I felt his warm fingers brush mine.
His warm fingers brushed mine.
I heard the dog bark.
The dog barked.
People do things. Body parts don’t do things.
Her finger pointed.
World Building Conflicts
When writing outside of your own culture or planet, make sure the words you use, the phrases, the dialogue all fits with the world you’re writing about. If it’s a historical novel, they won’t use the word computer. That’s an obvious example, but often, these more subtle things are overlooked. They’ll destroy the authenticity of your world for the reader.
Of course, rules are made to be broken, but make sure you have good reasons for breaking them.
So when I’d written some more, I thought about querying again. I mean, why not, right? I knew more, I’d studied and learned more. Maybe I was ready. Maybe not. I remember coming across an interesting quote that made me think about my life and a particular experience I’d had.
When my children were little, four, two, and about fourteen months, I hurt my back. Three discs slipped out and wouldn’t go back, which produced extreme pain for several months. I tried physical therapy, which made it worse. I tried pain therapy. There were days I’d crawl around my house to care for my children. (My floor had never been so clean once I got a good look.)
There were nights I’d sleep sitting folded forward or hanging myself upside down to try and alleviate the pain. I didn’t sleep well, could barely function. Nothing worked. After about a year of this, I was finally allowed to have surgery. About three months after the surgery, I was able to walk normally again. It wasn’t fixed completely, and I still have days where walking is difficult, but the days of crawling around and crazy positions has passed.
On my bad days, I would’ve done a lot to lessen the pain. On my darkest days, I would’ve done anything.
And the quote made me wonder what I’d do to get published…
If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
If there’s one thing that everyone who’s written for very long knows, the commonality of all published authors is perseverance. They kept moving forward, even when it seemed like getting published was no longer in their future.
Some authors will tell you that you have to be born with the talent of storytelling. I think we are born to natural ability, but someone once said:
It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.
If you have problems with your writing, then stick with it. Keep learning. Keep growing. With writing, there is always something to learn, no matter how long you’ve been doing it.
So take some advice from some truly amazing people:
When you get into a tight place, and everything goes against you till it seems as if you couldn’t hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that’s just the place and time that the tide’ll turn.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Perseverance is failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th.
Let me tell you the secret that has led to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity.
These people don’t or didn’t know this because they succeeded quickly. They know or knew this because they failed over and over and then eventually, after they didn’t think they could hold on any longer, they kept holding on. They kept trying.
Isn’t this what we write about? The hero’s journey? So be your own hero. Don’t give up the fight.
Champions keep playing until they get it right.
Billie Jean King
You might not be a champion yet, but if you keep writing and trying to improve, you will be.
Make sure the type of novel you’re querying is selling in the current market. What agents are signing is eighteen to twenty-four months behind what’s hitting today’s shelves. So they may know the market is saturated well before you do.
I personally don’t like the idea of writing for the market. It stifles originality and takes some of the joy out of the process for me. But some writers love writing for the market. If you can write a novel within a few months, you can give it a try and see how it works for you.
Either way, this information will make you a better judge of whether it’s your writing that needs improving, or whether you simply aren’t going to find a home for it because it’s the three-hundredth dystopian novel the agent has seen that month. (No, that’s not an exaggeration.)
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This service is something you can use and then cancel. So if you’re querying, it’s one of the best places to find agents, editors, and the book deals that are being announced today. These are deals that agents or authors have sold to editors/publishers within the last month or so. You can do a search for deals specifically in age categories, genres, and also using key words.
Not everyone posts their deals on PM, but enough of them do that you’ll be able to see trends.
If you search the hashtags during any pitch contest and begin scrolling, you can see the pitches agents are liking. Conversely, you’ll see the pitches they aren’t liking. Note the premises, the worlds/settings, the age categories, and the genres or types of novels. Sometimes, you’ll see a pitch that gets several likes. You’ll know that’s a premise worth thinking about or building on.
Some of you might say this would make you leery of putting your pitch out there. My answer to that: Give the same exact premise to fifty people, you’re going to get fifty completely different novels. What we write is influenced by our experience, perceptions, and imagination. No two will be the same. And often, several agents will pick up similar premises, because book sales ride on trends, which means the premises are similar and they still sell. They actually sell because they’re similar until you reach a saturation point. Publishers use the huge wave of a popular book like Twilight (2008) to springboard other books with similar premises or genre/age groups like The Vampire Diaries (2009).
Ask an Agent or Editor
Agents often get on the #askagent hashtag and offer to answer any of your questions for an hour or so. Ask them if your specific genre and age category and perhaps even premise is something that’s likely to sell in the current market. Don’t pitch them unless you’re asked, but if they’re interested in it, I’m sure they’ll say something.
When you’re at a conference, it would be appropriate to politely approach and agent or editor and ask them this question. Remember to be polite and respectful of their time, but most agents and editors offer round table discussions at lunch or don’t mind chatting after presenting.
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They have podcasts, trade show daily info, and a lot of information for staying in touch with what’s happening. If you don’t subscribe, they have a much smaller list of weekly deals. If you subscribe, you can find a lot more deals and lists that they provide. It’s a treasure trove of information on the industry.
If you belong to SCBWI (Society of Book Writers & Illustrators), as a member once a year you can usually get PW for $99 for the whole year. It’s a great deal. Other organizations (like Kobo Writing Life Authors) also have a similar offer.
If you have other ways you follow current deals in the publishing market, I’d love to hear about them.