As you know if you’ve read the blog for a little while, my favorite musician is Ben Folds. His band’s most recent album was called The Sound of the Life of the Mind. Not only is the title track my cell phone ringtone, but the idea of “the life of the mind” comes into play today.

In a lot of manuscripts, I’ve seen descriptions like, “My mind exploded with questions” or “He interrupted my train of thought with his voice.” There’s nothing technically wrong with these bits of narrative, but they fall onto the chopping block because of my aversion to filler. If the mind is exploding with questions, you don’t need to narrate that. Cut right to the interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) and the specific questions.

If someone is brought out of a meditative moment or otherwise interrupted, let’s get that in interiority instead of the simple description. For example:

Should I get the light-up pumpkins, or the little spiders? Gosh, Target is tough. Too much good stuff, but I can’t get it all. I wish I had more of a decorator’s eye. Maybe these sconces shaped like witch hats will redeem me. I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
“Sweetie?”
“Huh?”
My husband looks at me like it’s not his first time trying to get my attention. “I think we have enough Halloween stuff.”

I can’t possibly figure out what inspired this excerpt. Certainly not a trip to Target over the weekend. ;) But here we can see the train of thought interrupted in action, rather than narration. It would be superfluous to also include description of how I’m brought out of my thoughts, for example:

I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
My husband interrupts my thoughts. “Sweetie?”
I’m still thinking about candy bowls when the fantasy comes to a grinding halt. “Huh?”

Here, the idea of being interrupted is pasted on so thick that it slows down the narration. As a bonus side note, let me remind you that you can also exterminate filler on the topic of interruptions in dialogue. There’s formatting to do that work for you. Use an em-dash to denote interruption. I’ve seen a lot of writers using an ellipse and narration, but there’s a much easier and cleaner way.

Before (less correct):

“I think we need more candy. What if a lot of kids…”
Todd interrupts me. “We don’t need more candy. We have ten bags already.”

After (better!):

“And what about pumpkins? Let’s line the driveway, and get one for each step, and–”
“You’re giving me a migraine.”

The em-dash successfully communicates the interruption. There’s absolutely no need to narrate it (“Todd interrupts”) because your formatting is doing all the work on your behalf. An ellipse, on the other hand, indicates a speaker who has drifted off instead of one who is abruptly cut short. For example:

“But I don’t want any of that…”
“Any of what?”
“The stuff, the spider…”
“Webs?”
“Yes! No spider webs. We’ll be picking them out of the bushes until Thanksgiving!”

There you have it, some thoughts on filler, interiority, and interruptions! Happy (early) Halloween!

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Scott Plumbe checking in again about his Kickstarter campaign to publish his illustrated novel, THE UNCLUKY FOX via digital installments. Really interesting stuff, I’m really enjoying seeing a glimpse from the other side of the crowd-funding curtain! Please check out his campaign if you’re interested. It promises to be a very cool project if the funding is successful.

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My Kickstarter campaign has been equal doses exhausting and rewarding. So far The Unlucky Fox has nearly 100 backers. I am grateful for this solid base, but the campaign still has a long way to go to make the $30,000 goal. In fact, financially I’m only just over 10% of the way there. I’m now considering ways to tune up my campaign mid-stride.

Going on the assumption that my project isn’t completely undesirable, the first place to look is the rewards. Kickstarter allows you to edit and add new rewards once the campaign is underway. Some people have mentioned that they want the physical book as a reward. I understand that. I’m a bibliophile too. I’d love to be able to offer it, and it is tempting, but I’m not sure realistically how many people would be willing to pay up front and wait almost two years for a hard copy. That was one of the considerations for choosing the incremental release model. So I’ve decided to stick with my original offering, especially as so many people have already pledged on the current reward tier. It seems disrespectful to change that now.

Recently there have been articles surfacing from news sites like Gawker Media about how successful KS campaigns often have a hired ‘guru’ who is responsible for preparing and presenting the campaigns. I did find a few such individuals online during the pre-launch stage but confess I was skeptical. Essentially, they work as a PR company to position your project, devise rewards that will pique a backer’s interest, and spread the word through social media, blogs and various media outlets. Some such consultants even guarantee success! When I reviewed my rewards and calculated the time it would take me to fulfill what I’d promised, I didn’t see any room left for a consultant’s commission.

Some people have suggested I set my financial goal too high. Conversely, I have had people tell me I’m not ambitious enough with my project! They advise that I should aim for more and deliver my story in a variety of formats and through numerous channels. While I appreciate that kind of strategy and input, I don’t feel it squares with who I am. I want to guarantee that I fulfill my promises. I have a realistic understanding of what is achievable and can be delivered with quality and professionalism. I’m a firm believer in the practice of ‘bootstrapping’ for small businesses — and that is exactly how I think of The Unlucky Fox, as an emerging small business. Furthermore, doing it in steps allows it to happen on my terms. That may at first seem narcissistic, but what’s the point of following your passion if you’re not going to be true to yourself as a creator? I could have easily set a much lower goal in hopes it would be easier to reach. I have seen many projects on KS that have done so. But they’re not honoring their backers and are selling themselves and the crowdfunding platform short. Especially if they then struggle to fulfill their rewards in a timely manner — one of the #1 criticisms of crowdfunding.

So where does this leave me? I’m an independent creator who has spent countless hours getting this project underway and is now asking for an injection of support to bring it to fruition. So far, I’ve felt genuinely blessed to have so many backers that believe in my quirky project. The enthusiasm shown by absolute strangers is utterly humbling. More than ever, I feel a deep obligation to ensure The Unlucky Fox happens for those who have entrusted me with their hard-earned money!

Now that the campaign has launched, there is a limit to what I can do, yet I do still have a few avenues. Spread more press releases and woo various bloggers. Continue to engage on art and writing forums like DeviantArt, Wattpad and others. I’ll continue to post updates to my Kickstarter page and provide answers to the questions I receive daily. Social media, you ask. Yes — I can do that too, although not being ‘social’ by nature makes it particularly agonizing! Ironic, yes. As many other creators can understand, being less social is how I’ve found the time to hone my art! Now it’s time to flip the switch in the other direction.
In a few weeks time, I plan to submit my final report on my crowdfunding process. I look forward to reaching this to a conclusion.

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Here’s something fun. Due to popular demand and encouragement from a few early clients, I’m launching a one-on-one writing coaching service to my roster of freelance offerings. This article from Writer Unboxed really helped nudge me in this direction, and if you’re at all curious, it’s worth a read. Normally, writers have been contacting me with completed manuscripts to review. Or questions that fill up a 30-minute phone consultation. Writers ready to submit have requested query and synopsis edits, or my most popular service, the Submission Package Edit, which is a comprehensive look at what agents and editors want to see: the first ten pages, your query, and your synopsis.

Things have been going really well and I’ve gotten to know hundreds of writers from all around the world. Several have gotten agented, and there has even been a publishing deal for a project where I’ve edited a partial. It’s been a terrific almost-two-years! Except I’ve discovered that I’m leaving out a whole group of writers: those with an idea or those in the early drafting stages.

This is where coaching comes in. I’ve developed and tested two tracks, and I’m ready to get some clients in the pipeline!

One option is for writers who need help with deadlines and motivation: we check in over the phone, I read some of your materials and see where you’re getting stuck, we set some goals, and you check in with me up to several times a week to report on progress, rant about a place you’re getting stuck, and otherwise stay accountable to someone while you try to meet your deadlines. I try to suss out your style, whether you want a task master or understanding guide, and we stay in touch during your writing process. Lots of writers thrive with a source of external pressure (gentle, of course!), and it’s a comfort knowing there’s someone to turn to if you need help.

My second coaching option is to work with you at the earliest stages of idea and manuscript development. Is your concept worth putting a year of your life into? Does your story have legs and enough substance to make a compelling manuscript? I will ask you to create a long outline, chapter-by-chapter, and think about character and plot in as much detail as you can. This gives us a map. I do a developmental edit on this, working to suss out your theme, make sure you have enough cohesive elements, point out things that have potential to the story and market (and things that don’t), and otherwise pressure check your idea.

The worst thing someone can say upon reading your manuscript is, “And? So? So what?” This second type of coaching will help you think about your idea in a bigger way, and help you brainstorm things to add (or take away) before you really start the long, hard work of writing. There’s a lot of brainstorming and back-and-forth involved with me.

Both types of coaching include a 30-minute consultation to start, review of your query and synopsis, and a glimpse at any writing samples you have so that I can know what your strengths and opportunities for growth are. Then we dig into the project at hand. You can add editorial services of additional phone check-ins. Because I keep strange hours, most of our work will be email-based, or we can layer in more calls.

It all comes down to what you need. “Mary, I want a taskmaster.” “Mary, I want a cheerleader who’s realistic but kind.” “Mary, look at this and tell me if I’m crazy.” This is the sort of highly customized and deeply personal stuff that coaching is about.

Because it’s time-intensive, I can only take on a few clients per quarter (ideally, the back-and-forth part of the relationship will last for two or three months, especially in deadline-based coaching). The price will be $599 for the services outline above, with add-on or a custom quote available depending on the length and breadth of your project.

I’m just starting this service, so it may change or morph in the next few months. For the first five clients who are ready to dive in and be very pampered guinea pigs, I’ll offer 15% off for mentioning this post. I’ll do some initial coaching and see how my workload changes. The price may change in the future. Check out my website for a full description of coaching. Let me know what you think in an email or the comments!

 

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Naming Emotions

Here’s something I encounter often in my editorial work. The naming of emotions. Or, as I see it, the most flagrant use of telling that writers can come up with. Telling about feelings and character is the lowest form, something to generally avoid. It often breeds things like:

Hannah felt very sad about the death of her bunny.

Ellis couldn’t be happier.

Let’s cut to the chase. Reading the word “happy” doesn’t make me happy. (No matter how much the cute embellished throw pillows at Joss & Main would like me to feel otherwise.) Hearing “sad” doesn’t bring a tear to my eye. Simply naming the emotion makes any opportunity for true emoting lie flat on the page.

There are a thousand different nuances to being happy, and to expressing that emotion. Find ones that are personal to your character. Go above and beyond naming the feeling, since that is the territory of the lazy. There’s a whole art and science to making the reader care through creating emotions in them, and I’m afraid there’s no simple shortcut.

The very job of writing fiction starts with feeling your own feelings, and finding your own story through those hard-won emotions. If you can’t wrangle your own feelings, how can you nail them down onto paper or screen? With a lot of moments in editing and writing, I tell my clients that maybe they haven’t stood in their characters’ shoes enough at pivotal moments.

They know what the basic emotion is, and they put the obligatory placeholder on the page–”grumpy,” or “heartbroken,” or “exhilarated”–but there’s often an aversion to standing in that emotion and pulling something more specific out of the experience to really ground it.

Too bad, lovelies. You gotta go there first if you want your readers to go with you!

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Relatability

There was a New Yorker article that made the rounds about six weeks ago. Why am I writing about it now? Because I just bought a house and I’m super slow. Besides, let’s face it: You get your breaking news from Facebook and Reddit and wherever else. If you’re trying to get it from my blog, I…I feel terrible for you and I’m sorry.

The article in question calls out “The Scrounge of ‘Relatability‘” by Rebecca Mead and it’s a great think piece. It goes into a brief history of the word “relatable,” takes some pot shots at Ira Glass, and completely denounces the concept of relatability as the act of readers or viewers demanding “a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, The New Yorker. You look a little tense. Take a seat, loosen your tie. Would you like a drink? You seem a little…peaked.

I’ll be the first to admit that I talk a lot about the concept of relatability as it, ahem, relates to writing fiction, especially for picture book, middle grade, and young adult readers. And no, I did not have an epiphany reading this op-ed piece about how that’s stupid and “hopelessly reductive” to advocate. I still believe that relatability is very important when targeting younger readers, because one has to take their mindset into consideration. Today’s MG and YA readers, especially, thrive on connection and are going through a lot of stuff that they don’t have the facilities or life experience to process yet. Good stuff, and negative stuff. And a lot of the time, they run into problems when they feel alone. They are bullied, they are abused at home, they feel like they have no voice, something secret gets out about them and they feel like they have no control over it, etc. etc. etc. Readers in these age groups want to read to form relationship.

And relatability is a natural extension of wanting to capture a readership that craves connection. Do we make each character an Everyman meant to emulate and capture the widest possible audience by having the most generic (more relatable?) traits possible? No, nobody said that. I would argue that even the more quirky or odd or unsympathetic characters in fiction are relatable by virtue of how weird they are. Because we all have, at one point or another, felt like a profound freak. And even if they’re not the same kind of profound freak, we find solace in their freakishness.

One of my favorite “weird” characters is Beatrice from Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye In Robot. I have a lot in common with Beatrice and a lot absolutely not in common with her. But something about her is so damn relatable that I can’t stand it. Why? I believe it’s because the character is so specific. She feels real. A lot of detail went into her creation. She is the very opposite of the wide net Everygirl trying to be all things to all people. And yet she’s as relatable as any character I’ve read.

Rebecca Mead says that relatability is a pox because it somehow demands that a work to “be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader… (who) remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” Again, I disagree. Those works that pander to the audience and try to grasp the loose concept of relatability might maybe fall to this flaw.

But when Natalie Standiford was writing Beatrice, I don’t think she was coming from a place of “I have to construct this girl to appeal to all.” She wrote a quirky and TRUE character. Now, what’s true about Beatrice to you might be very different from what’s true about Beatrice to me. And that’s okay. The fact remains that there’s just so much there to choose from about this rich and complex characterization.

Instead of producing a cookie-cutter character and a one-size-fits-all book to strive for Rebecca Mead’s portrayal of relatability, Natalie Standiford created a work where relatability was a natural byproduct of a lot of tough, honest, and incredibly specific characterization and plotting. Nobody cut any corners, in fact, I bet it was harder to write someone so nuanced.

Long story short, I think that PB, MG, and YA readers are precious. And if they’re anything like I was in those age groups, they are searching. They crave connection. If the idea of relatability urges writers on to write even better characters and stories for readers who will very much flourish when relating to the work, I’d say it’s an amazing thing. Let The New Yorker see the glass as half-empty, I see it as half-full of great inspiration and potential for writers.

(Also, and not to ruffle any feathers with my off-the-cuff attempt at humor, I am a damn theatre major and I think that a lot of Shakespeare sucks. It’s a rigorous mental exercise, and a lot of fun to perform, and it revolutionized the English language, and all that is fine and good, but, as a modern woman, I’m happy to leave it at that without putting it on a pedestal. I’ve read the complete works once, when I was young and full of idealism. And you know what? Ain’t nobody got time for that!)

 

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The post below is written by my editorial client Scott Plumbe, who came to me for the first time last year with a highly illustrated MG story about a fox named Theo who has some family secrets and a fascinating adventure across India and the Himalayas. It’s been really great working with Scott, and when he decided to independently release his book with a subscription model, I approached him to write a few articles about his experience.

I’m sure that a lot of my readers are curious about independent publishing and Kickstarter. As a freelance editor, I’m seeing more and more clients self-publishing or pursuing alternate paths to seeing their work in print or digital release. If a guy can make tens of thousands of dollars off of a potato salad, why can’t books get funded?

Here’s Scott’s first article about his process. I’ve contributed to his Kickstarter. If you’re curious, you can find the link here.

***

The past few weeks have brought about a massive change of direction for me. I am officially starting a Kickstarter campaign. This post is the first of three in which I’ll share my crowdfunding experiences before, during and after my campaign.

I’m an illustrator who has always had a desire to tell my stories through words and pictures. Comics and graphic novels may seem the obvious choice, but the complexity of my story, The Unlucky Fox, isn’t suitable for either. Instead, I’m creating an illustrated novel of 60,000 words and over 100 pages of full-colour illustrations.

After much consideration, I’ve chosen to launch the story through the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter. I’m offering potential backers a monthly subscription to the story. Every four weeks, backers receive a fresh chapter replete with newly completed illustrations.

Why crowdfunding instead of other emerging or traditional avenues?
Being a freelance artist who has never sought representation, I have a strong streak of DIY in me. And without that characteristic, I don’t think anyone could undertake a crowdfunding campaign.

Why Kickstarter?
There are numerous crowdfunding options out there, including Indiegogo. I like the inherent risk aspect of KS — it’s all or nothing! If a campaign fails to meet its target, no money is collected from your backers. This prospect weeds out a lot of potential creators who are not as confident. It places those campaigns that do launch with KS amongst a community of like-minded creators and entrepreneurs. I believe the core KS users are creative types. That means artists, designers, innovators and makers — people accustomed to calculated risks. And let’s face it. As a debut writer, I’m a risk! By choosing KS and sharing the process of bringing my project to life, I hope to reduce the unknown and gain some support along the way.

What kind of preparation is involved?
I took a full year to decide on my current path. During that time, I followed KS projects and undertook a major revision of my manuscript. I also sketched out a list of ideas for possible rewards and sourced suppliers. I’ve spent the last six weeks putting that plan into action. That means finalizing the rewards, writing my pitch, making the video and a website to support it all. I also poked around and made a list of blogs and local news outlets to send press releases to.

Why an incremental subscription release model?
From a traditional publishing perspective, as a first-time author I have many challenges. Not only is it a hurdle to promote the work of a debut author, but add on top of that my desire for accompanying colour artwork! It has taken nearly four years to bring the manuscript this close to completion, but I still have heaps of artwork to finish. I decided to take my cue from the world of comics and TV serials and break up the delivery of the story. Interestingly, some anecdotal evidence from friends in the gaming industry suggests that many game studios are moving away from the traditional Hollywood ‘tentpole’ model, pushing projects forward with incremental expansion instead. They deliver their content in small doses, rather than one big launch. Studios are taking less risk and getting instant audience feedback as they progress. In their case, the result is a product that essentially has no end and can lead to a more empowered fan base.

What are your risks and challenges?
I have many! Most are obvious, while others are specific to my story. In particular, the chance of not connecting with an audience is notable. The KS community is primarily adult, not the young teens my novel is written for. But encouragingly, there have been several successful campaigns for young readers. Most notably, Augie and the Green Knight that earned nearly $400,000 in pledges. Of course, this is the exception and not the rule!

Well, I guess it’s time to hit LAUNCH!
I’ll check back in when my campaign is underway.

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I Got Rhythm

In my career, I’ve worked a lot with rhyming picture book texts. Not on my agenting list, unfortunately, since the market for rhyming picture books was (and remains) tough. Of my dozen or so picture book author clients, most were author-illustrators who could bring a unique art voice and sense of balance between text and image, the rest were prose picture book writers, and only one worked exclusively in rhyme. Tough odds. The rhyming one did get a book deal during our work together (the absolutely charming GOODNIGHT, ARK by Laura Sassi, illustrated by Jane Chapman), but I heard over and over again from editors that rhyming was tough.

Well, let’s leave rhyming out of it and talk about rhyming’s black sheep sister for a minute: rhythm. If you want to write rhyming picture books, I would actually argue that rhythm, not rhyme, is king of the genre. Most people get so caught up in finding the right rhyme that their rhythm is all over the place and completely sinks the manuscript, almost before it gets started. Are you writing in rhyme and failing to count your syllables? Disaster lies in that direction.

The biggest mistake people writing rhyming PBs make is letting rhyme dictate story. Why does the dog have fleas? Because it has to eat cheese in order for the rhyme to work? Wrong. You’ve written yourself into a prison and you’re going to keep sacrificing the integrity of the story just to hit your rhymes. That’s not great.

The second biggest mistake, as you might be able to guess, is not paying attention to rhythm. If you aren’t yet familiar with syllable counts, iambs, trochees, and all the other trappings of verse, it may be worth your while to get a high school or college poetry textbook. That’s right. A textbook. Because there is stuff to learn about rhythm that was so intricate that you quicky repressed it in the 9th grade. People have been hammering away at poetry for centuries and centuries. Give their hard work at least a cursory nod and study the poetic form before you throw your hat in the ring.

You could have the most beautiful rhyme in the world but if the read-aloud factor isn’t there, and it’s pitted like a road after winter, with starts and stops, your rhyming picture book will go flat. And if you aren’t reading your work aloud as you compose or edit, especially for rhyming picture books, what, exactly, are you doing?! That is absolutely essential, because how it sounds in your head probably isn’t how it sounds out in the air.

Ideally you compose for content (story) and cadence (rhythm). Those two come first and foremost. Only when you master rhythm can you even think about incorporating rhyme.

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The tendency to do this has risen to the level of such cliché that it is now a joke. But in case anyone hasn’t gotten the memo, I want to run an idea by you: do not save villain motivations until the very end. How has this usually happened in the past? A villain does all sorts of dastardly deeds, with seemingly no motivation in sight, until they have the hero in their clutches, and then they start to “monologue” about all the hurts they have endured (probably some perpetrated by the hero, often without the hero’s knowledge), and how they are now enjoying their sweet, sweet revenge. Then the power goes out, their death ray is rendered useless, and the hero turns around and saves the day, etc. etc. etc.

(Random thought: If anyone has read a lot of my writing, I would be honestly curious as to how many times “etc.” appears in my body of work. The total count must be staggering. I wish I had a way to tally all of my blog entries, my book, and my notes that I share independently with clients. I bet it would be a trip. So if we’re ever sitting down and I say something like, “You know, I think your overuse of ‘just’ is one of your writing tics,” don’t feel too badly, I clearly have them, too!)

But it’s one thing to say, “Don’t do X, don’t do Y,” and it’s another to delve into the “why?” factor. Here, it’s a matter of explaining why motivation works for your protagonist, and setting the same rules for your antagonist. Generally speaking, if your hero doesn’t have a clear reason for doing what she’s doing at the scene level or the manuscript level, it’s going to be that much harder to get reader investment (which is, probably, the most important aspect of attracting your audience). “I’m doing all this stuff and I can’t tell you why!” gets old.

The more you establish motivation, the more you can generate relatability. After all, we have goals and strive for them, so seeing someone else strive similarly is instantly attractive and releases deep feelings of empathy. You want this when creating any character, whether you’re working on your protagonist, their sidekick, or, yes, the villain*.

In my book, I talk about why Voldemort of Harry Potter fame is such a great antagonist. First and foremost, he’s eerily relatable. He’s a guy with a lot of hurt inside him, striving to know what love feels like, but going about it in a totally terrifying way. I remember the moment where, despite my best efforts, I sympathized with him. Wow! Think of all the interesting feelings I would’ve missed out on if Voldemort had been characterized in a way that saved all of his motivations and deeper drivers until the very end? That would’ve only given me a few chapters to wrap my mind around everything, and generated a much shallower experience of the story.

Another reason to leak villain motivations over time instead of saving them up until the end is the questionable payoff of “the big reveal.” There are only a few books in recent memory that have surprised me on a level that works well. Being mildly entertained by a twist is not the same thing as shakes-you-down-to-your-socks surprise. The former happens all the time, the latter, very infrequently. So unless you’re banking on the surprise to end all surprises that is so deeply rooted in the story that it will undo and reverse everything that has come before it, you’re not going to get as much mileage out of your reveal as you’re expecting.

Fiction structure and norms have before familiar. Hence the fact that we’re playing with all of these elements as clichés, hence the term “monologuing” even exists to define this phenomenon. There are few very real surprises in fiction because so many stories and plot points have been exploited over time. You aren’t likely to shock your readers, so stop investing so heavily in your reveals and start building character from the beginning. Readers these days are skeptical and wiser than their years. They are more likely to appreciate a complex character relationship instead of a big surprise at the end which, with social media and book review sites, might get leaked ahead of time and ruin the experience. A surprise is a gimmick. If you rely entirely on it, you may pay more in opportunity cost than have that gimmick pay off. (Unless you’re writing in a genre, like a thriller, where twisty plots and surprises are expected, of course.)

Plant clues and small explanations throughout about your villain’s psyche and needs. Their reasons. Their weak spots. Not only will this give your readers more to latch on to, it will give your hero more to work with when it comes time to face their foe. Don’t rely solely on plot and surprise at the climax, try for spychological depth as well.

* Come to think of it, don’t do the big motive reveal for your hero, either. I didn’t think that note could possibly apply to anyone, but now that I think about it, I might as well put it out there in case any writers happen to be struggling.

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I hope everyone had an amazing summer! Now it’s back to school, work, and, hopefully, working on your manuscripts! May the second half of 2014 bring you many creative breakthroughs and challenges. If there’s ever anything I can do in an editorial capacity, please check out my freelance editing and consulting website. Now get out there and wear some white! Or whatever it is that people do on Labor Day…

If I had a series about, well, series, I’d make a few key points. Namely, there’s my old yarn about writing your story as having “series potential” instead of REQUIRING a three- or five- or nine-book contract to execute your idea properly. We’re not in the Harry Potter boom years anymore, nor are we deep in a recession, but the market is still risk-averse. And signing up a debut writer for one unknown book, let alone three unknown books, represents a potential opportunity, sure, but also a big potential loss for the house. Basically, you’re in a much stronger position if you write one amazing manuscript with “series potential” (a few threads left open and the suggestion of future adventures that could be exploited) and then have the publisher asking you for a sequel, than you would be if you were the one needing multiple books to get your story told.

Now, how do you leave those threads open in a way that keeps your sequel options open while letting your manuscript seem whole enough to stand alone? Ah, now this is a good question. First, I would recommend that no more than three threads be left open. And they should be subplot threads with maybe one main plot thread, not all main plot threads. Your job is to resolve most of those by the end of Book 1. If you’re ending on a cliff-hanger or you’re leaving the main plot undecided, you’re not paying attention to everything the current market is telling you about sequels.

If, however, you haven’t entirely resolved one character’s problem, and your protagonist is still wondering about a certain element of the subplot, and the ending feels buttoned-up but you’ve hinted at the potential that everything could go to hell in a handbasket at some point in the future, then you’re doing it right. Future threat that may or may not come to pass is compelling enough to use as a launching-off point for a sequel. Present threat that’s not resolved slaps your reader in the face after they’ve spent four hours reading your story with a, “Yeah, you’ll have to buy the next installment and find out.”

Another thing I’ve noticed in a few manuscript is that seemingly random details are planted that stick out like a sore thumb. They have little bearing on the story that we’ve been reading so far. What gives? Invariably, the writer admits that they are “seeds being planted for the sequel.” This balances on the razor’s edge between “smart” and “silly.”

Let’s say that you are definitely planning a sequel if only someone would give you one, so you’re sneaking things into the manuscript that will only make sense once you get to execute the second (third, fourth, fifth, etc.) parts of the story you’re envisioning. That’s fine. To a point. But if the last third of your book starts to read like the prologue to Book 2, you’re in trouble with the reader. “Why are we spending so much time talking about something that has no precedent in the entire story I’ve just read?” they’ll wonder.

Balance is key to most things, in life and in fiction. Plant some details, leave some threads. But stick to your principles and your duties to the reader. Finish up the story you’ve invited them to read. That is first and foremost. Once you have a really solid resolution, then you can plant a few seeds. If you never get to do that sequel, they will be nonsense at worst, and not many people will notice. But if you’ve gone overboard and every second page hints at something that has no bearing on the present denouement, you’ve overstepped your bounds.

 

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