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.
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.
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!
Ideas are common. Good ideas are less common. High concept ideas are rare. The good news is, they can be constructed if you know how.
When you’re writing, you’re constantly creating. It takes a lot of energy and mental effort. I think of my brain like a battery. It needs recharged. When I’ve spent all day expending creative energy, it needs to be fed with experiences, listening to other people’s thoughts and ideas, and discovering new things about the world. We also need an environment where even bad ideas are allowed to be shared, where mistakes can be made without shame, and our minds are allowed to go to new places without fear of what others will think.
So every day, I like to make sure to learn something new and write down one possible way that idea could be used as a premise for a story. I read the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I especially like their Demystified articles. Or I ask a questions about how something is done. I used to love watching “How It’s Made” with my kids. There’s so much information out there now, it’s easy to learn new things.
Most of these ideas will be okay. Some will be terrible. Some will be great.
As a storyteller of any kind, the ideas that garner the most attention and usually reach the largest audience are high concept ideas. There are the general tenants of a high concept idea or premise:
The ability to entertain a mass audience…
This just means it needs to appeal universally. It should have at its core something that will ‘speak’ to or is a common experience for most people. It’s the human experience.
An emotional focus….
This will usually manifest as a theme that resonates emotionally with a lot of people.
Asks a ‘what if’ question…
These are questions you could ask yourself or that could arise from combining ideas together. More about this later. But it’s the question that creates curiosity. Like what if instead of normal animals in a zoo, you could see dinosaurs and add in a theme part ride or safari–Jurrasic Park.
It’s unique and original…
Not everything about the story will be unique, and rarely are things original. But things that are done in a more unique format or medium that showcase an idea in a different way can make something higher concept. An example is the movie Avatar. It took a basic story like the Pocahantas legend and added in the idea of aliens and then added in the idea of body-borrowing. Mix that with our next tenant.
With movies, this is easier to conceptualize. For the written word, it has to be vivid, use specific words that create new and amazing worlds.
Now take two or three of your own amazing ideas and put them together. They can sound crazy. They might sound outlandish. But that’s how to make things fresh and exciting and different. If you do this enough, you’ll begin coming up with high-concept ideas that you love, that are ideal for showcasing the theme you’ve been toying around with, or fit perfectly with that main character you’ve always connected with.
Here are some other places you can look to learn how to get new ideas…
How does the metaphorical lightbulb go off? Is it a flash of genius? The power of crowds? These heady talks explore the nature of ideas themselves: Where they come from, how they evolve, and how each of us can nurture them.
While I do think getting an agent is the best route to go…
We don’t all have the luxury to find an agent who loves our manuscript the way we hoped they would. If you’re looking for an alternative to self-publishing to get your book out there, you might consider these imprints. Some of them even take books on that have been previously self or traditionally published, as long as you have the rights back.
Remember, it’s best not to query agents and publishers at the same time. Go one route or the other, or exhaust one and then the other.
Most of these publishers close on occasion and then reopen when they’ve sorted through their slush. Patience is still required. 😉 You can follow them on social media to see when they reopen.
Also, take note that several of them do not read queries but only take pages or the full manuscript via submission forms. Do your homework and read the submission pages carefully!
Another alternative are mid-size or smaller, independent publishers that can help you garner a fan base that can help you get an agent or bigger deal later on.
They accept submissions in science fiction and fantasy, fiction of all other types including but not limited to general fiction, historical fiction, horror, mystery, paranormal, suspense/thriller, urban fantasy, and women’s fiction. Children’s and Young Adult books for the chapter book, middle grade, and young adult audiences.
Big, high concept historical and contemporary romances! Primarily, inclusive and diverse romances that reflect our world–all sexualities, races, ethnicities, religions, genders, body types, disabilities, and ages!
Digital-only imprints focused on romance and women’s fiction titles.
Their contract was a point of contention for a long time, and royalties are split 50/50 with no advance, but it’s a viable way to get your book out there and start getting fans. You can read more about the initial controversy here.
A digital first imprint. The SMP Swerve team seeks for romance authors. From their page: We are looking for dynamic and diverse voices, compelling stories, and authors who are ready to build their brand.
DAW accepts unsolicited submissions of science fiction and fantasy novels. No short story collections, novellas, or poetry. The average length of the novels they publish varies, but is almost never fewer than 80,000 words.
Scroll to the bottom to find their submission info.
They occasionally shut this page and it’ll seem like an error. It just means they’re closed.
All of their works have spiritual underpinnings akin to The Life of Pi, The Screwtape Letters, etc.
From their site: HarperLegend seeks to discover and publish new authors of visionary and transformational fiction in the digital first format . We know that there are many many writers out there who work in this genre. If you are one of these folks, we want to help your work reach the world. We hope that you will embrace our offer to submit your work to HarperLegend.
The firm is renowned for its international list of literary fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s books.
Scroll down to the word ‘Editorial’ and you’ll find this:
Unsolicited submissions are accepted at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All submissions must be submitted through the mail—we do not accept electronic submissions, or submissions delivered in person. Please include a cover letter describing your submission, along with the first 50 pages of the manuscript. If you are submitting poems, please include 3-4 poems. If you wish to hear back from us, please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope with your submission. If you wish for us to return your manuscript, please include a self-addressed, appropriately sized and stamped envelope with your submission (we cannot return manuscripts if you do not send this envelope with your submission). We will reply in three to five months of the receipt of the submission.
Schwartz & Wade, Penguin-Random House, an imprint of Random House Books for Young Readers
Accepts submissions directly from authors. Schwartz & Wade publishes about 15 to 20 books a year, mostly picture books, as well as middle grade and young adult fiction, non-traditional nonfiction, and graphic novels. Schwartz & Wade also accepts unsolicited picture book manuscripts and proposals for longer books.
Make sure that your submission is a good fit for our small imprint. All submissions may be sent to: Schwartz & Wade Books, Submissions Editor, 1745 Broadway, 10-4, New York, New York 10019.
To review titles currently published under the Schwartz & Wade imprint, visit this link.
publish only science fiction and fantasy. Writers familiar with what we have published in the past will know what sort of material we are most likely to publish in the future: powerful plots with solid scientific and philosophical underpinnings are the sine qua non for consideration for science fiction submissions. As for fantasy, any magical system must be both rigorously coherent and integral to the plot, and overall the work must at least strive for originality.
Swoonreads is an imprint of Macmillan that accepts all genres of novel-length YA! Anyone can upload their ms to the site and the community of readers and writers can read it and give feedback. Three times per year they select books to publish in print and e-book, based on reader feedback.
This is also a great place to read YA novels!
Many editors also take unsolicited submissions when you meet them at retreats, conferences, or occasionally through contests. Organizations like SCBWI often have editors featured in their newsletters that will also open for a brief window to those belonging to the organization.
If you find anymore, please contact me through the contacts page and I’ll try to include them here.