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I’ve written before about generic words that don’t add much in the way of specific emotions. Now I’m on to generic descriptions that don’t add anything to scene. For example:

The teenagers congregated at the store, listening to music on their devices. They wore various outfits, featuring the most popular brands.

I’d imagine this is the type of sentence that would appear in a textbook for an alien about humans. They’d have a lot of knowledge about us, but because they’re outsiders, they’d speak more in generalities than specifics…getting close to an accurate depiction, but without any of the detail that makes the knowledge realistic or engrossing.

The issue with this type of generic description is that the reader will already have a vague imagine their minds. As soon as you say “shopping mall,” the reader paints a place-holder picture that’s very much like my example sentences.

Your job as a writer, then, is to take that vague image and embellish it with detail that’s specific to your world, your characters, and your story. The purpose of description is to take the generic and sharpen the image. So a reasonable replacement for the example would be:

They headed to the shoe store so Nikki could get another hot pink pair of kicks to match her screaming neon yellow yoga pants. Josh cranked his Shuffle. Whatever song came next would be better than the Taylor Swift blaring from the speakers.

Now, I’ve written about specific references in a manuscript (like the Taylor Swift line), but I decided to do that here just because I’m targeting vagueness. I hope that you can see how painting a more specific scene, with some emotional overtones, clarifies the scene more than simply inserting arbitrary-seeming narration.

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Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. In my work with editorial clients, I often see two types of stories. This can extend to the offerings on the shelves. Sometimes there are stories about making fate, and sometimes there are stories about following it. Both are valid and interesting, but there are unique considerations to each.

What is your protagonist setting out to do in the story? Is their future an open book or are they bound by some sort of mechanism to a specific outcome?

In the example of “making fate,” I’d say that your protagonist has something that they absolutely, positively want (objective) and they set out to get it. They are more active throughout, and they drive the events of the story by pursuing whatever it is. They are the tip of the arrow, and the plot follows from them. They will encounter obstacles, certainly, and they will be frustrated in their pursuits, but if I look on the page, I will see someone who is spearheading the story. The character leads the plot, more or less, with usually some wrenches thrown into the mix.

In the example of “following fate,” I’d say you’re writing about a character who may or may not be in charge of dictating where the story is headed. One very common version of this is the “Chosen One” or “prophecy” story style, where the protagonist has something they’re bound to do, whether they like it or not. This is usually sprung upon them at a very inopportune time in their lives, and has dire consequences if they reject the fate or fail at their mission. In this case, the protagonist isn’t as much the leader of their destiny as they are a follower, and in stories like this, the plot leads the character’s development instead of the other way around.

Both story types are valid. But they have a lot to learn from one another. I think that, in the long run, a strong character has more potential than the one that’s simply following orders, training, learning their mission from a dusty piece of parchment or oracle, etc. etc. etc. So when there’s a “Chosen One” plot on my desk, I suggest that the writer find some agency for the character and let them lead certain events, rather than spend the bulk of the plot being groomed by others to fulfill a prophecy.

If you’re worried that this might be describing your plot, here’s a previous post on how to make the character more active, someone who manages to steer, regardless of their circumstances. And take heart, though this story type has the potential to lie flat on the page, and I see it a lot in aspiring manuscripts, two of the most famous heroes in children’s literature have started in this situation. Katniss in The Hunger Games and a little wizard named Harry both had their destinies planned. Katniss was to die as a Tribute in the Hunger Games, and Harry had the double pleasure of first facing the destiny of being forced into an ordinary Muggle life, then being forced into a very extraordinary wizard’s life. While he does end up filling his extraordinary wizard shoes (the prophecy of the Boy Who Lived comes true), he does it in his own way.

While I don’t often see this issue, a “making fate” character can run into trouble as well. When these stories go south, it’s because they can be all personal conflict (internal) without too much plot tension (external), because that decision-making protagonist tends to be the end-all and be-all within a story.

What’s the conclusion to this line of thought? The usual. It’s all about balance. If your plot is driving your character, give your character some moments of choosing her own destiny. If your character is driving your plot, let their relentless drive forward take a few unexpected left turns, courtesy of an enhanced plot.

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I was working on an edit this morning and it reminded me of a small writing issue that I see way too often in manuscripts. Now, some people have called me very strict when it comes to dialogue formatting, and I’d agree. I have very low tolerance for excessive dialogue tags, too much gesture/action clogging up scene, improper formatting, and fancy “said” synonyms or adverbs. What I’m about to discuss here is another one of my pet peeves. The good news is, it has a very intuitive fix, which you can begin to implement as soon as you’re aware of the issue.

This week we’re talking about proper formatting for interruptions and trailing off in dialogue. Let’s first look at examples of this done the wrong way:

I began to say, “You just never let me finish any…” when Mom interrupted me.
“That’s because there’s nothing you can say,” she moaned. “What you’ve done is so…so…” She trailed off.

Here we find both an interruption and a trailing off description (with a bonus fancy “said” synonym). We also find, and I hope this popped out at you, a lot of excess description of pretty obvious stuff. This dialogue is currently bogged down in logistic. Instead, it should really move quickly and fly off the page.

The good news is, you can accomplish that with punctuation that exists for just this purpose.

To create an interruption that everyone will recognize as such, use an em-dash where you want to end the dialogue. You create an em-dash by typing two hyphens, and most word processing programs will tie them automatically into the longer dash.

To indicate a person trialing off from their train of thought, whether in speech or narration, use an ellipse. You create one by typing three periods in a row with no space before and sometimes a space after. If there’s a pause within a sentence…like this, you don’t need a space after. If there’s a pause between sentences, use a space… And that’s really all there is.

Now we can use both of these punctuation tools to revamp the example:

“You just never let me finish any–”
“That’s because there’s nothing to say. What you’ve done is so…so…”

You’ve cut the whole “I began to say” business, and the “Mom interrupted me” because it’s all right there in the punctuation. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!

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There’s something to consider when you describe something or someone in fiction: are you describing them directly, or indirectly? One thing I keep getting on freelance clients about (maybe to an extreme) is the idea that they’re “saying something simple in a complicated way.” Sure, I want writers to flex their artistic muscles and come up with amazing descriptions, novel words, and interesting turns of phrase. But the more I read, the more I can appreciate the sense of style that lies in simple…simplicity.

The same applies when I see something or someone described indirectly, usually with a comparison to another known quantity in the story or in the negative.

Comparison:

Henry is just like Craig, except a little rowdier.
Each hill was like the last, covered in flaxen wheat.

Negative:

Craig didn’t have Henry’s nerve or sense of outgoing frenzy.
This sky was not the bright orange of a sunset, not bright or dazzling in hue.

Rather than telling me what Henry’s like, or what Craig is like, or what the hill or sunset are in their own terms, I’m meant to understand them from the side with an indirect comparison. This is totally fine. I won’t sound the alarm if you should use it occasionally.

But sometimes I wish writers would take a more direct line. If we’re talking about Henry, let’s talk about Henry. (And, ideally, we wouldn’t be telling about character, either.) If we’re talking about the sunset, let’s get to what it is, rather than what it isn’t. It seems almost too simple, almost like a trick. But sometimes it’s good to relax and expand a bit into your writing without worry about flexing any muscles or tying too many strings together. Look directly at the story element and show us around it. Give it a place in your world that’s unique to it, that’s simple, that’s direct. There’s boldness in that, and clarity.

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This post is a continuation of my previous week’s discussion of stuck emotions. When a character feels inadequate or down on himself, it’s very hard to get a character who cares about themselves or the story. Another alternative to this situation is a character who doesn’t want to be involved in their particular circumstances–they couldn’t care less about taking over the family business, for example–and so they try very hard to convince themselves and the reader that they simply don’t care.

This is very difficult to forge into compelling fiction. After all, I hold that the basic aim of any writer is to make the reader care. So if a character doesn’t care, my first objection is that they’re making it that much more difficult for me, as a reader, to get invested in the story. It feels a little unfair. After all, I’m working so hard to get into the book, suspend disbelief, latch on to a character, inhabit a point of view, hear a voice…that I want the protagonist to be in the same boat. You’re ideally creating someone the reader can get invested in. And if it’s an anti-hero type or someone stewed in apathy, who won’t invest in herself, that’s a tough sell.

It’s realistic, sure. It happens in life, and it’s very full of deep and real emotions. But it’s hard to pull off well. So if your particular writing challenge is creating a compelling character who just so happens to be detached, pent up, hidden behind defenses, or just a straight-up nihilist, you need to crack those walls at some point, and soon. Even if it’s for a minute, even if only the reader can see it because it happens in interiority…some measure of vulnerability needs to happen.

And then, there needs to be something that compels the character to move forward. Whether it’s a very personal motivation, a private objective, a small bit of light at the end of a dark tunnel, whatever, it needs to pull them forward into the story. One thing I won’t do as a reader is suffer through a manuscript where it seems like the protagonist is being dragged along, kicking and screaming. Facets of this idea are discussed in my post on “character buy-in,” which becomes an important concept here. It doesn’t just have to do with suspension of disbelief, it has to do with the character finding their own reason to engage with the story.

Finally, if your character really does care but they say they don’t care, it better not last too long, because ain’t nobody got time for that! Protest less and get into the real telling of the tale!

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Stuck Emotions

It’s been a difficult winter around here. Not just in terms of delving into yet another snowy Minnesota season… I’m speaking mostly about what my clients’ characters are going through. Protagonists in projects this winter seem to all have some common issues with self-worth. I’m reading so many attempts at putting difficult emotions on the page that I wanted to address them in a post. Everybody struggles, and so no protagonist should be spared from some good old-fashioned inner conflict.

As people, we sometimes hate ourselves, criticize ourselves, feel self-doubt, perform acts of self-sabotage. It’s just a part of being human. We are our own worst enemies, etc. As realistic as these feelings are, they should be treated with some caution when we try to translate them to the page.

To illustrate, let me talk for a minute about that person many of us know in life. Their Facebook feed is full of gripes about their injustice of the day. The bank closed early, ugh. The grocery clerk forgot to bag their mustard. Nobody invited them to the picnic. Their Goodreads review was ridiculed. If you know them well enough to be on their call list, it’s likely that you don’t get a word in edgewise as they detail the litany of hurts they’ve overcome…in the last 15 minutes. The point is, nobody likes a complainer. If you haven’t Unfriended them online, you may skip their calls when they come in. It can get to be too much.

One of the biggest reasons is usually that this personality type would rather complain that do anything about the problem. They are inactive in terms of overcoming their issues. If you try to help them with a perfectly reasonable solution, they probably don’t want to hear it. They just want to be heard and for someone to say, “Wow, that sucks.” But they’re stuck, and I personally find that maddening.

So a character who is full of woe or self-loathing or doubt only tends to magnify this dynamic. Fiction is an elevated version of life, where realistic things are elevated into something that can retain a person’s interest, be consumed, and ideally impart some valuable experience or lesson. As such, protagonists can’t be direct downloads of realistic people. They need to have momentum, even if they’re stuck in a rut.

If I see a character who has, for example, intense survivor’s guilt after a car accident, and they keep coming back to the point of “I don’t want to be alive. I wish I was the one who died,” that’s perfectly realistic. But I don’t want to sink four or five hours of my time into that emotional rut. There needs to be some traction and change as the plot moves along. The character needs to acknowledge their emotions, struggle with them, aim to change their situation, fail, struggle, acknowledge their new position, struggle, aim to change, etc. etc. etc. That sort of trajectory, at least, takes the reader on an emotional journey.

This is where stuck emotions and fiction are at odds. People who are stuck are…stuck. Self-loathing doesn’t lift in a week. Addiction doesn’t resolve itself because you meet a cute vampire boy. Inadequacy doesn’t fade after an amazing road trip. So there needs to be some suspension of disbelief to allow plot to act on these difficult emotions. As a result, the emotions are agitated, stretch, or grow, and there’s a level of payoff for both character and reader.

I think this is a really tough time for our culture. Since the economic downturn, kids are entering an uncertain world where they know they’ll face diminished job prospects, outstanding student loan balances, and an economy that’s far from booming. Stuck feelings, angst, and doubt are common. Issues of dreams and identity are more resonant than ever. All of these emotions deserve to be addressed. But just because a character is stuck doesn’t mean the narrative can be. If you’re working with a stuck character, make sure that their emotions still shift and change and grow over the course of the story instead of being bogged down in a rut. Some forward progress and redemption is expected if it’s going to be worth your reader’s investment of time and energy.

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Before I ventured into publishing, I was a Theatre major in college. (Well, I was concurrently an English major, but I thought about theatre before I thought about publishing.) As part of my thoroughly impractical training, I bought and read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which was wonderful but, at times, definitely not fun. The historical tragedies were my favorite sleeping pill after a late night performing, you know? And as much fun as it was to be a student of the thea-tah (!), I was simply terrible at it. It wouldn’t be until I started public speaking at conferences that I realized something: I am pretty good at writing and delivering my own material, but when it comes to pretending to be anybody else, with anybody else’s words, I’m pretty hopeless. That didn’t stop me from trying, but that’s another story for another day. But Hamlet was one of my absolute favorite Shakespeare works. And I’ve recently found myself citing the following quote in editorial notes:

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Wikipedia explains the meaning better than I can:

It has been used as a figure of speech, in various phrasings, to indicate that a person’s overly frequent or vehement attempts to convince others of something have ironically helped to convince others that the opposite is true, by making the person look insincere and defensive.

When I give this note, it usually goes hand-in-hand with my thoughts on characters in denial, another idea that I cite a lot in my editorial work. I’m also not trying to be sexist, because both male and female characters can “protest too much,” but admittedly it does happen more often with female POV manuscripts, especially when it comes to romance. It can apply to all manner of things where the writer wants the character to stay in disbelief just a liiiiiittle while longer, but the reader is already catching on. But yes, overwhelmingly, this applies to crushes and chemistry.

Writer, please. We have all read enough romantic subplots in fiction to know that the main character and the cute new guy are going to get together at some point. That’s what makes this event so difficult to render believably and genuinely. Because we’re all waiting for it, especially if there’s a girl and a dude on the cover with their lips hovering inches apart. The challenge then becomes acknowledging reader expectation while at the same time giving your character a full experience.

My piece of advice here would be: We know where you’re going, so get there sooner. Don’t rush through the establishing parts of your plot, but don’t also dwell in the time before character buy-in by employing denial. Often, writers put off giving a certain plot component the green light until other parts of the story have caught up. This often happens with romance. They really can’t hook up until chapter seven, but the guy has been around (and brooding) since chapter one because he had to make a grand entrance to hook the reader in the first ten pages. So how do we bridge the gap?

There are two options. The first is to have your protagonist “protest too much” that there’s an attraction:

A limo has been picking me up from school every morning, my locker is stuffed with a new dozen of red roses every day, and Garrett wrote “Will you go out with me? Love, Garrett” in skywriting, but I just don’t know how he feels about me because he’s so popular, and I’m not. Plus, I have way too many freckles for anyone to find me attractive.

I don’t know about you, but I want to take a chainsaw to this particular piece of writing. It’s overly obvious to communicate a point, but even in its subtler incarnations, this type of “protest too much” rhetoric really does sound this fake to me. It’s right there in the Wikipedia definition…this sort of breathless denial manages to sound incredibly insincere, which distances us from the protagonist. We don’t want to know more or guess more about the story than s/he knows (or is willing to admit). And once we do find out something the protagonist doesn’t know, we’re just waiting for him or her to figure it out so we can be in harmony as reader/character once again.

The second option is to allow the character to admit there’s a spark but use internal and external conflict to keep the characters apart…for probably less time than you’re comfortable with. Internal conflict can go like this:

The truth is, I’d love nothing more than to date Garrett. To give in and say “yes.” But I just can’t. He’s new here. He doesn’t yet realize that he’s made a horrible mistake. It’ll be social suicide for him to be seen with me, and he’s just too nice to realize it. For his own good, I need to stay away.

There we’re layering in some self-confidence issues where she ADMITS that there’s an obvious romantic desire between them, but blocks it. Then plot can come into play as well to keep them apart. For example, she can do something really embarrassing at an assembly and this, for her, confirms how “awful” she is. So she distances herself even further.

But if the two characters are hovering around one another with steamy dialogue, nearly kissing the entire time, and then the girl is like, “Nope. He can’t POSSIBLY be into me…” Well, I find that a little hard to swallow. If there are any instances of characters protesting too much in your work, they are probably even more obvious to your potential readers than they are to you. Writers tend to over-explain a lot to make sure readers get it (they do), and especially when it’s something a writer wants to keep hidden, the tendency to deny deny deny is magnified.

If you have a writing group (and you should), and you’re worried about this issue, ask them to read your manuscript with an eye toward what was so glaringly obvious that it was frustrating until you addressed it. That might help you tighten up your work.

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I often tell writers that good writing is about the balance of action and information. I’m also always telling writers about mimetic writing. The other day, with an editorial client, I thought of a great image that helped them conceptualize these ideas in a way that made sense.

Let’s say that we have a getaway car. It’s assumed that it will be used in a chase sequence, which is primarily action. Per the idea of mimetic writing, the narrative style of this passage should be quick and to the point, since we’re dealing with a scene that’s meant to move quickly.

Now think about a camera taking a picture of the getaway car in order to convey what it looks like to the reader. This camera can take amazing high resolution images, or it can take grainy “potato quality” shots like you’d find coming from a middle-of-the-line cell phone. In this case, a many-megabyte high resolution picture of the getaway car might be beautiful, but if we try to work with that picture or send it to someone (the reader), it’s going to be a huge attachment, it’ll take time to upload, and it’ll clog up their email bandwidth. (Unless they have fiber, in which case this analogy is useless!)

For the chase sequence, then, we’d be fine with a quick, grainy snapshot of the getaway car so that we can get on with the action and not get bogged down with information. Here the balance swings to action rather than information. If we’re establishing a very important setting, then the beautiful high res image is very appropriate, and the balance swings to information. The reader wants to know the delicate details, and you can dwell on them more, taking your time.

I hope this short but effective reminder helps you craft tight and effective prose as you start a new year of writing!

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Happy 2015!

As you’re all celebrating with friends and family this holiday season, I want to thank you for being a part of my life and reading the blog. It will be six years of writing on Kidlit.com for me this February. Wow! This year I have had a lot to be thankful for. I’ve doubled my editorial business and am working with some truly amazingly talented writers to help their dreams come true. Several writers have gotten agents this year, and one is on the way to a publishing deal, fingers crossed.

I’m looking for ways to grow and change in 2015 as a small business owner and freelance editor. We’ll see what new ideas I might have to provide even better services to my clients. I’m also going to be updating my pricing structure in January, so if you’ve been on the fence for a while about hiring me or your project is near completion, now is the time!

In fact, to help you get a jump on your 2015 resolutions, I’m extending an offer of 15% off all of my services on my freelance editorial website (marykole.com). Mention this blog post when you email me through January 5th (midnight Central time) and let’s get you on the calendar!

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I’ve had a writer ask me recently why he hasn’t found a lot of information on breaking into the market as an illustrator first, then trying to be an author/illustrator for his own projects. My first reaction is that this is a much tougher proposition than going in with an author/illustrator dummy. And I may be biased, since I worked primarily with author/illustrators as an agent. And it’s not helpful to those people who are illustrators, through and through, without really having an interest in writing.

So for the purposes of this answer, I’m talking to those people who possess some illustration skill and who are thinking that maybe they’ll pay the mortgage illustrating picture books while they put together their own author/illustrator dummies.

The basic rub with breaking in as an illustrator is that a lot of houses have hordes of illustrators that they already work with. So when a manuscript that needs an illustrator comes in (text only), an editor goes through the following thought process:

1) Did we pay enough for this manuscript and is it a big enough idea to give to one of our “famous” stable authors? We need to keep them happy with projects. If not…
2) Are there any other house illustrators that would be a good fit? Let me ask my colleagues about their stables, too. We want to keep these guys at our house. If not…
3) Here’s a stack of postcards for illustrators that I’ve been dying to work with but haven’t found a project for. Might this work for one of them? If not…
4) Maybe I’ll poke through the submission pile for any new postcards that have come in. Maybe there’s someone in there.

At this point, you’d be starting at the fourth (outermost) layer of consideration. Sure, you can definitely catch an editor’s attention, but her mind is gong to be in a million other places when considering an illustrator. It’s a very tough road. There are a few agencies that deal mostly with illustration, like KidShannon, but even they would prefer to launch you in front of editors with an author/illustrator full book project.

It’s a lot of work to get in front of editors as an illustrator, you need a strategy to get your work in front of editors (mailing or Internet-based? etc.), and the financial reward for an agent is very low compared to if they tried to sell your dummy. Not a lot of people are interested in going this route to start, unless you are committed to being an illustrator only and have no real interest in creating your own dummies. (In the list above, coming in with a dummy puts you even ahead of the text-only manuscript in the editor’s eyes.)

It’s also assuming that you can compete with the hundreds or thousands of MFA-level trained illustrators who are out there looking for projects. These are visual artists in the field of illustration who have oftentimes done years and years of study in just illustration. Illustration is highly competitive, it isn’t the easy secret backdoor to publishing that some might imagine in to be.

At least for your first project, focus on your strength. If that’s illustration, great, put together a portfolio. If it’s writing, put together some manuscripts. If you’re handy at both, put together a dummy. But all routes are quite difficult, and there’s no real shortcut, unfortunately.

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