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.
Writing had taken such a hold in my life, it was nearly impossible for me not to write. But at the same time, I wondered how I’d survive in an industry that felt like it was simultaneously sucking the life out of me.
Welcome to publishing.
I think all artists go through this. Art of all forms is undervalued in our society. People pirate movies and songs and e-books and think nothing of it. Most people don’t pay for original, quality artwork to hang in their homes or offices. And a lot of readers sacrifice quality, edited literature for something cheaper.
Because, let’s face it, we’d all like to get more bang for the almighty buck.
Me included. The $500 painting pays for a plane ticket to see my kid. I’ll glance at that bare piece of wall for the rest of my life in exchange for a week with any one of my children. Maybe I’ll cover the blank space with a thrift-store cork board and some pictures from the trip. And $500 is cheap for an original painting.
After another round of querying and another round of form rejections, I quit writing. I didn’t have it in me. The words were there, the worlds existed in my mind, and I went back to the stories in my head while folding clothing and doing the dishes. Life went on.
Until one day, my husband confronted me. “What’s up with you lately?” A conversation about my mental, emotional, even physical health ensued. I wasn’t nearly as happy. And my husband told me I needed to go on a writing retreat because it always helped. (Yes, he’s that good.)
My heart fluttered but my brain remained fixed. “No way. I’ve given that up.”
He shook his head. “Why? You love writing. I thought it was your dream to be published.”
“Was being the key word.” I folded my arms and clenched my jaw.
He sighed and gave me a hug, kissed my cheek, squeezed me a bit harder even when my arms remained folded. And I cried.
I couldn’t face it.
Nope. Nope. Nope.
I didn’t think so. At least, not if I had to face querying again. But…
What if I was never published? I could write for me. Writing stories made me happy. And that’s what mattered. The next time I had a free moment, I sat down at the computer and started a new novel. And for the first time in years, I felt free.
So how do we know when enough is enough?
If you can quit writing and it doesn’t ruin you, do it. I say that with all the tenderness and care I possess.
You might be unhappy with that notion or disagree with me, and that’s fine. Feel free. But after watching hundreds of published authors go through the process, I’ve learned what it’s like. If you don’t love writing and write for yourself, for the love of the words and the worlds and the characters—the struggle, frustration, and rejection will eventually leach out every other positive part of the writing process.
You’ve got to have a passion that will sustain you through all the struggle to get published. You have to have it after you get published and don’t sell enough copies or get a hateful review or don’t sell the next book or don’t sell the next three. Even if you sell well and things go wonderfully, you have to love writing enough to find time to write while you’re marketing, promoting, editing the last book, and dealing with everything else in life.
So, if you have to write, how do you know when your manuscript is ready to query?
This is a complex question. Sometimes the answer is, you don’t.
Most people don’t have enough money to hire a professional editor. That’s okay. I never did. So how do you figure it out on your own?
Remember that you’re not alone. You have critique partners, hopefully, that will give you their opinion. They might be wrong, but it’s a place to start.
Use contests like Pitch Wars and Author Mentor Match to submit as if you were querying and see what happens. They’re free, so no harm. Usually, you’ll get an idea of how well your manuscript is doing against the competition. These are a bit more helpful in that you can choose the mentors who read and write in your genre and age category just the way you would submit to agents. Again, don’t let that completely discourage you. Use them a gauge, not an end all be all. They can only accept one manuscript, where an agent can accept multiple. So you might’ve made the cut. And often, the mentor will tell you that or give helpful feedback.
There’s also the free workshop, #1st5Pages. They take the first five people every month who submit and give a free critique of your pitch (the flapjacket or blurb part of your query) and your first five pages and let you revise a couple times in the process.
Use critiques at conferences or online to see what industry agents and editors think of the manuscript. They do cost $40-$50, so it’s sometimes prohibitive, but paying a little can get you a lot of information. This is a career you might have to invest in, just like most people would pay for classes or training. Often, these conferences will offer ten page critiques. I’ve been both sides of the table here, getting critiques and then giving them. My advice: let yourself go through the grief process with them. You can get a little angry, feel hurt, let down, but give it a couple days and then go back and read the critique. Often, the agent or editor will have some great advice for how you can make your novel better.
Use the querying process itself to see if you’re ready. Choose ten agents. Five who are young and hungry for manuscripts and five seasoned agents. If all ten are form rejections, there’s probably something wrong with your query, synopsis, or first ten pages. I’ve got a post on The Modern Query Letter here. And The Simple Synopsis here. Get help. Edit them. Have people read them. If they don’t understand anything in one single pass, make sure they tell you where they were confused. Get it as good as you can. (Don’t feel badly. I know plenty of published authors who need help because queries and synopses are so difficult.) Then query ten more as before.
Still form rejections? Consider getting professional help–but make sure you do your homework! Not every freelance editor is the same. And often, your best bet is to go with an agent or editor from places like #MSWL Consultations. Agents and editors offer critiques, and they might like the premise enough to ask you to submit. If you need a cheaper option, go with a freelance editor who’s been in the query inboxes with agents as an intern and been groomed to read queries.
Revise it. Soon, you’ll start getting requests. If you’ve done your best to revise and perfect your query and pages and you’re not getting any requests for more, you need to think about querying another novel. There is no magic number of queries to come to this conclusion.
It might just be when you can’t take anymore. It might be that you have made a list of every single agent who accepts your age category and genre and you’re going to get to the end of that list no matter what. Either one is acceptable. Do what you need to in order to be satisfied, and then let it go. (That’s the hardest part.)
Hopefully, during this whole process, you’ve continued to write.
Often, it’s not until the third, forth, or even fifth novel that a writer catches agent interest.
Another thing, make sure the type of novel you’re querying is selling in the current market. As stated before somewhere (I think), what agents are signing is 18-24 months behind what’s hitting shelves. So they may know the market is saturated well before you do. My next post will be about how to follow the current industry sales and what’s being picked up now, so you as an author will be privy to what’s being scooped up.
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. 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 a vampire novel and that trend is over. That said, it’s also you can dust off that vampire novel sitting in that file when an agent tweets out that they want to see those vampire novels again.
The reason I never wanted to query again was because so much of what I heard felt like I wasn’t good enough.
I. Me. Not my manuscript.
Every rejection basically said, we don’t want this manuscript. What they really meant was, I can’t sell this manuscript. For whatever reason.
I had to know why. I could accept the truth if I understood it.
A few people, mostly readers, gave me helpful hints.
There were things I needed to fix: the grammar, the punctuation, finding my style, finding the characters’ voices, learning to plot and world build.
There were issues with some of the books I couldn’t fix: this idea isn’t high-concept enough, the market doesn’t want that right now but wait fifteen years and it’ll come back around, that book is too quiet, that just isn’t the right fit for me (or my list).
Notice the word books: I hadn’t stopped writing for myself. At this point, it had been about five or six years since I’d started writing. I’d written about five books and completely rewritten two of them after deleting every single file of the original, so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back and look.
And this whole time, I felt like I wasn’t good enough.
Me. Not my manuscript.
It’s easy to get resentful, to say the gatekeepers are to blame, to become dissatisfied or even angry with the publishing industry. I’ve been there more than once, especially after a round of rejections. But I’ve also been on the other side of this business, shuffling through the queries and reading hundreds of manuscripts on behalf of agents and editors.
Agents and editors have to love the book so much that they’re willing to read it about fifteen times and still be excited about it. There are books I’ve written myself that I can’t say that about. So how would I expect an agent to love it that much? I’ve seen so many excellent manuscripts that I wouldn’t want to read again. They were well written, had voice, great worlds, and satisfying endings. Even if I’d read them a second time, there wouldn’t be a third. It’s still a great book, written by a talented author.
So very often, that’s exactly what they mean.
There are a lot of other reasons agents don’t think they’re the right fit for your manuscript.
The form rejection might make it feel otherwise. (Even the ones that feel personal are usually cut and pasted–because agents are already worn so thin on time, they have to.) Sometimes, they don’t know any editors who they could sub it to. Agents try to keep tabs on what editors are looking for. They might already have a client who’s either written or is currently writing a manuscript very close to yours that would be a conflict of interest. They might have a list already full of that age category or genre that they’re trying to sell and have too many submissions already out to editors in that area. That genre or sub-genre might be already saturated in the current market. (Remember, the publishing industry is 18-24 months behind what’s hitting the shelves, so you might not think it’s hit yet.) There are heaps of reasons agents might reject your manuscript.
In fact, I wish everyone would say that their manuscript was rejected, not that they were rejected. Their manuscript wasn’t a right fit, not that they weren’t a right fit.
Believe me, I know how difficult this advice is to take, BUT–It’s not something you should take personally.
And even if it is personal, take a lesson from kindergarten. Not everyone is going to be your best friend. And you shouldn’t expect everyone to. Be honest with yourself–do you love everyone you come in contact with? Do you love every book you read enough to read it over and over and over and then provide support and enthusiasm and crisis intervention to the author for the few years it’ll take to get it published? Is there even a handful of books you could say that about?
Even wildly popular books get terrible reviews. The rejection never ends. Ever. Some people don’t want to read them. Some people just don’t get what all the fuss is about. With so many people on the planet having their own unique experiences, with so many polarized perspectives, there will always be people who don’t like your writing.
You don’t need everyone to love your book. You just need about 0.000002 percent of Earth’s population to like your book. And you can do that.
This is the kind of post I’ll be updating as time goes by, but over the years, I’ve learned more from books on how to write craft than from any agent or editor or workshop I’ve ever taken. Most of these I’ve read more than once and have highlighted, marked, stuck post-its in reference spots, generally used and loved them to the point of abuse. I’m like my poor daughter who loved her baby chick so much she hugged it to death–literally.
The first book on writing craft I ever read was a set of editorial letters from the celebrated editor Ursula Nordstrom to her clients, namely Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Shel Silverstein, Garth Williams, John Steptoe… You get the idea. It was the moment I knew I wanted to be published, because I wanted an editor like that. I knew I needed someone in my corner who would be my creative partner in all of this mess that is writing.
Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom,
Collected and Edited by Leonard S. Marcus
She trusted her immense intuition and generous heart–and published the most. Ursula Nordstrom, director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, was arguably the single most creative force for innovation in children’s book publishing in the United States during the twentieth century. Considered an editor of maverick temperament and taste, her unorthodox vision helped create such classics as Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and The Giving Tree.
Leonard S. Marcus has culled an exceptional collection of letters from the HarperCollins archives. The letters included here are representative of the brilliant correspondence that was instrumental in the creation of some of the most beloved books in the world today. Full of wit and humor, they are immensely entertaining, thought-provoking, and moving in their revelation of the devotion and high-voltage intellect of an incomparably gifted editor, mentor, and publishing visionary.Ursula Nordstrom, director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, was arguably the single most creative force for innovation in children’s book publishing in the United States during the twentieth century. Considered an editor of maverick temperament and taste, her unorthodox vision helped create such classics as Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and The Giving Tree.
Leonard S. Marcus has culled an exceptional collection of letters from the HarperCollins archives. The letters included here are representative of the brilliant correspondence that was instrumental in the creation of some of the most beloved books in the world today. Full of wit and humor, they are immensely entertaining, thought-provoking, and moving in their revelation of the devotion and high-voltage intellect of an incomparably gifted editor, mentor, and publishing visionary.
Once I realized my current writing abilities were less than industry standard (to put it gently), I wanted to improve so badly. I asked someone I knew who was a major in some kind of English or Journalism what books they studied in college about wriitng. And they told me about…
The Elements of Style
by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
You know the authors’ names. You recognize the title. You’ve probably used this book yourself. This is The Elements of Style, the classic style manual, now in a fourth edition. A new Foreword by Roger Angell reminds readers that the advice of Strunk & White is as valuable today as when it was first offered.This book’s unique tone, wit and charm have conveyed the principles of English style to millions of readers. Use the fourth edition of “the little book” to make a big impact with writing.
This little book became my writer’s bible. I’ve read it so many times over the years, I had to buy a second copy. In hardback. It’s just a standard, and I love it.
Since that time, I’ve always tried to open my mind to more and more opinions, but I have to say, I don’t agree with all writing craft books. I’ve enjoyed them, taken what I can and left the rest. I used to feel guilty for wanting to argue a point, but I’ve realized that what makes great writers is their fresh and unique way of doing things. So I don’t think we all have to agree on everything. It would be a boring world of literature if we did. And what works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another.
So these are the books I’ve used, read, and loved. Some more than others. But I’m not going to bias you one way or another. Because they’ve all had something to offer and made me a better writer, especially a better editor, in the process.
In no specific order…
by Stuart Horwitz
In Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula, Stuart Horwitz returns with his trademark clarity to help writers craft a powerful plot and an effective outline for their works-in-progress. Whether your manuscript is an advanced draft or you are just starting out, whether you are working in fiction, film and TV, or creative nonfiction, you will learn a new approach to structure that will transform the way you look at your writing. Along the way, Horwitz offers detailed, concrete examples that reveal how the Book Architecture Method works with everything from literary classics to blockbuster films. And you won’t have to resort to using a formula–which may seem risky! But it can be done.
The next book is like a companion novel or workbook to Book Architecture, and reading both was helpful.
Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method
by Stuart Horwitz
The first draft is the easy part…
In Blueprint Your Bestseller, Stuart Horwitz offers a step-by-step process for revising your manuscript that has helped bestselling authors get from first draft to final draft. Whether you’re tinkering with your first one hundred pages or trying to wrestle a complete draft into shape, Horwitz helps you look at your writing with the fresh perspective you need to reach the finish line.
Blueprint Your Bestseller introduces the Book Architecture Method, a tested sequence of steps for organizing and revising any manuscript. By breaking a manuscript into manageable scenes, you can determine what is going on in your writing at the structural level—and uncover the underlying flaws and strengths of your narrative.
For more than a decade this proven approach to revision has helped authors of both fiction and nonfiction, as well as writers across all media from theater to film to TV.
Steering the Craft
by Ursula K. Le Guin
A revised and updated guide to the essentials of a writer’s craft, presented by a brilliant practitioner of the art.
Completely revised and rewritten to address the challenges and opportunities of the modern era, this handbook is a short, deceptively simple guide to the craft of writing. Le Guin lays out ten chapters that address the most fundamental components of narrative, from the sound of language to sentence construction to point of view. Each chapter combines illustrative examples from the global canon with Le Guin’s own witty commentary and an exercise that the writer can do solo or in a group. She also offers a comprehensive guide to working in writing groups, both actual and online.
Writing Irresistable Kidlit: The The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers
by Mary Kole
Masterly and concise, Steering the Craft deserves a place on every writer’s shelf.
Captivate the hearts and minds of young adult readers!
Writing for young adult (YA) and middle grade (MG) audiences isn’t just “kid’s stuff” anymore–it’s kidlit! The YA and MG book markets are healthier and more robust than ever, and that means the competition is fiercer, too. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, literary agent Mary Kole shares her expertise on writing novels for young adult and middle grade readers and teaches you how to:
Recognize the differences between middle grade and young adult audiences and how it impacts your writing.
Tailor your manuscript’s tone, length, and content to your readership.
Avoid common mistakes and cliches that are prevalent in YA and MG fiction, in respect to characters, story ideas, plot structure and more.
Develop themes and ideas in your novel that will strike emotional chords.
Mary Kole’s candid commentary and insightful observations, as well as a collection of book excerpts and personal insights from bestselling authors and editors who specialize in the children’s book market, are invaluable tools for your kidlit career.
If you want the skills, techniques, and know-how you need to craft memorable stories for teens and tweens, Writing Irresistible Kidlit can give them to you.
The Art of X-Ray Reading
by Roy Peter Clark
Roy Peter Clark, one of America’s most influential writing teachers, draws writing lessons from 25 great texts. Where do writers learn their best moves? They use a technique that Roy Peter Clark calls X-ray reading, a form of reading that lets you penetrate beyond the surface of a text to see how meaning is actually being made. In THE ART OF X-RAY READING, Clark invites you to don your X-ray reading glasses and join him on a guided tour through some of the most exquisite and masterful literary works of all time, from The Great Gatsby to Lolita to The Bluest Eye, and many more. Along the way, he shows you how to mine these masterpieces for invaluable writing strategies that you can add to your aresenal and apply in your own writing. Once you’ve experienced X-ray reading, your writing will never be the same again.
Writing the Breakout Novel
by Donald Maass
Take your fiction to the next level!
Maybe you’re a first-time novelist looking for practical guidance. Maybe you’ve already been published, but your latest effort is stuck in mid-list limbo. Whatever the case may be, author and literary agent Donald Maass can show you how to take your prose to the next level and write a breakout novel – one that rises out of obscurity and hits the best-seller lists.
Maass details the elements that all breakout novels share – regardless of genre – then shows you writing techniques that can make your own books stand out and succeed in a crowded marketplace.
You’ll learn to:
establish a powerful and sweeping sense of time and place
weave subplots into the main action for a complex, engrossing story
create larger-than-life characters that step right off the page
explore universal themes that will interest a broad audience of readers
sustain a high degree of narrative tension from start to finish
develop an inspired premise that sets your novel apart from the competition
Then, using examples from the recent works of several best-selling authors – including novelist Anne Perry – Maass illustrates methods for upping the ante in every aspect of your novel writing. You’ll capture the eye of an agent, generate publisher interest and lay the foundation for a promising career.
Made to Stick
by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The instant classic about why some ideas thrive, why others die, and how to improve your idea’s chances—essential reading in the “fake news” era.
Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” His observation rings true: Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus news stories circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas—entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians, and journalists—struggle to make them “stick.”
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath reveal the anatomy of ideas that stick and explain ways to make ideas stickier, such as applying the human scale principle, using the Velcro Theory of Memory, and creating curiosity gaps. Along the way, we discover that sticky messages of all kinds—from the infamous “kidney theft ring” hoax to a coach’s lessons on sportsmanship to a vision for a new product at Sony—draw their power from the same six traits.
Made to Stick will transform the way you communicate. It’s a fast-paced tour of success stories (and failures): the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who drank a glass of bacteria to prove a point about stomach ulcers; the charities who make use of the Mother Teresa Effect; the elementary-school teacher whose simulation actually prevented racial prejudice.
Provocative, eye-opening, and often surprisingly funny, Made to Stick shows us the vital principles of winning ideas—and tells us how we can apply these rules to making our own messages stick.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
by Stephen King
Immensely helpful and illuminating to any aspiring writer, this special edition of Stephen King’s critically lauded, million-copy bestseller shares the experiences, habits, and convictions that have shaped him and his work.
“Long live the King” hailed Entertainment Weekly upon publication of Stephen King’s On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.
I’d love to hear what you’re currently reading to improve your writing craft!
Thanksgiving Day, my family was gathering for the traditional feast. The golden-brown turkey sat, half-carved, surrounded by decimated side dishes of candied yams and mashed potatoes and gravy.
“What’s up with you?”
Should I say it out loud? Gulp. “Well, I wrote a novel.”
“A novel? Well, I’ll be darned. You wrote a whole book?” My uncle’s eyebrows rose when I nodded. The clink of silverware on plates quieted down. “Wow! You’re gonna be the next J.K. Rowling!”
My cousin chimes in. “What’re you gonna do with all the money?”
“Yeah, I could really use some help.”
The most painful thing…
The accomplishment of writing a novel took the backseat on a very long bus. They asked what it was about and responded with a, “Huh. I don’t really read that.” I’d devoted hundreds of hours to it, but there was no way for them to understand that it was becoming a part of who I was in a way I didn’t even comprehend. But I felt it.
My family tried to be supportive in their own way by telling me I’d be as successful as J.K. Rowling (and they could really use the financial boost, too). But that also sets up the expectation that I’m no good unless I sell millions of copies. And I hadn’t even decided I wanted to be published.
Fun Fact: The majority of authors sell around 10,000 to 15,000 copies of a novel.
And read it? That was a whole other mixed bag of emotions. Some wanted to read it, like my mom and gram. That made me so nervous. The mom in my novel was the villain. Yikes! And what if they hated it? What if it actually was terrible?
Most of my family didn’t want to read, which made me feel a whole different kind of lame. Like I wasn’t worth a few hours of their time.
The reality is, most people think that if you write a novel, the getting it published is easy. Even self-publishing, which is a much more direct path, takes editing, copy editing, dumping some money into a cover, and a part-time marketing job to sell a decent number of copies. A select few people know how difficult it is to take a manuscript and get it across the Big-5 finish line. So digest comments about your writing while also keeping their blissful ignorance in mind. They probably don’t mean to hurt you. They most likely don’t realize they’re doing it. I know that over the years since this, my family has watched me struggle and improve and been supportive to the best of their ability.
It takes a lot of courage and fortitude to even write a novel, and by the time you’re finished, it’s such a part of you. Having that be rejected and criticized and even just passed by can be a painful experience. But if you never share your novel, you’ll never find a whole other joy that comes from the writing process–the connection with your reader. And it’s worth it. You’ll find that people who read your books will gain things from it you never intended. They’ll have joy in an escape of your making.
You can share it with your family, let them read it, but don’t make them your critique partners. Your mom or gram or sister are most likely not going to give you the real critique you need. Find and connect with other writers out there who write in your genre and age category. It matters. And as you edit other people’s work, you’ll see an improvement in your own writing as well.
Or maybe you just want to write the first draft. Sometimes all we want is to give ourselves the escape. If that’s what writing is for you, you shouldn’t feel like you have to publish your novel. If you have a dream to be published, then go for it! I’ve gone back and forth over the years, not wanting to publish, wishing I could, hoping to go Big-5, thinking Independent presses would be a better way to go. Every one of those feelings and avenues is valid and should be respected.
And when you come out about your writing to people, give yourself a break, too. It’s okay to have all those feelings. Just don’t stew in them or let them get in the way of your dream.
My family lived in a tiny house that didn’t take much to clean. My kids had all just gone back to school. I was doing some freelance work with solid modeling–a remnant from my engineering days–but I found myself with time. It felt surreal. So after I’d remodeled the bathroom, I sat down one day with the idea, a character, and basic outline for a first chapter in mind. I’d just jot it down.
Words spilled onto the page. I had no idea what I was doing. But in that moment, I fell in love with writing in a way I’d never done with any other type of art or work. Five hours later, I got a call from the school that I’d forgotten to pick up my kids.
The key to overcoming that blank page is ideas. I’d had kept so many stories for so long in my head, when I finally sat down, I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t know how to type then but forced myself to keep my fingers in the right place and stare at the keyboard as I learned to type while writing the story. There’s a post here on where to come up with ideas.
Several months later, by the time I’d finished the first chapter, I had 230,000 words in my file.
What I didn’t realize then: I used a lot of those words to build my world, to tell myself all the backstory of who my characters were, why they had these fascinating traits that made them so unique, and all the other things an author needs to know about. (But the reader doesn’t need to know all those things.) Still, I had my first manuscript.
And it was a win!
Even if you ever get published, you should take the time to celebrate every single success. Because the completion of a first draft, the completion of a revision, every step is important in the process.
I remember dreaming about sending it to publishers and knowing they’d all love it as much as I loved it. I didn’t even know about agents, what a query was, A synopsis–impossible to get all that into three pages, which is what the standard was at the time. (Now it’s one.) But I didn’t care. I’d written a brilliant-to-me novel.
In a way, I’m glad I was so naive. It gave me the chance to relish the fact that I’d done it without the worry of how difficult the publishing industry is to navigate. And that’s something that’s quickly taken away from you by the rejection. If you can find a way to never let go of that feeling, no matter who rejects you, do it. I’ve lost and found it several times over the years, and it’s a precious gift to write a book 100% for the joy of what you get out of it.