Supertaunt Tension and Sizzling Stakes

Mmm… sizzlin’ steaks… Oh! Hello! What? Were we talking about something? (A great example of low tension, BTW.)

Tension and stakes are two absolutely important elements to a novel if you want your readers to keep turning the pages. A lot of stories flounder simply because the author hasn’t thought of adequate stakes for their characters or infused their story with enough tension. Let me quickly define both terms for you. Tension is a feeling of unease, of something unresolved, that usually bubbles under the surface of the story. Sure, there is more overt tension that is contributed by plot — like the gang of roving vampires out for your sweet, sweet blood — but there also has to be tension in every paragraph, on every page, in every scene and chapter. The greater dramatic arc keeps readers engaged on a book-length level but the smaller tensions of characters and relationships are what connect the dots between larger plot points. Stakes are very closely tied to tension. We want to feel like our characters matter, like their choices are important, like they are always on the edge of danger. Stakes — what will or will not happen in a plot, for a character, in a moment — are key to keeping tension high. Without stakes, there is usually low tension. Without tension, there are usually low stakes. Let’s explore both a little more.

Stakes

We’ve all heard of stakes, but where do they come from? What makes for compelling ones? Read on:

  1. Personal Motivation: When a person wants something, they need to have enough motivation behind it to make it compelling. In other words, they have to really want what they want. If they do, it becomes important to the reader, too. And when the character gets thwarted (as they should, nobody wants to read a story about a person who gets everything they want whenever they want it), that setback will ache for the reader. We’ll start to care. We’ll start to want to see the character succeed. We’ll want to avenge them and smite their enemies! High stakes.
  2. Choices… and Consequences: We want to read about characters who make choices. Maybe not always good choices. But the thing that makes choices seem important, that makes moments seem important, is the fear of consequence. All choices in your story should have consequences. Not After School Special consequences, mind you, like Little Abby taking one sip of a wine cooler and ending up pregnant, in jail and pumping gas (all at the same time, somehow) but real consequences. Characters can’t take their choices lightly because they know they might burn bridges, get punished, break the law, ruin friendships, screw up in front of the cute boy, etc. They might make some good choices, sure, but they should make a bad one at least once. They should lose something important at least once. Each choice, then, gets a gravitas to it. High stakes.
  3. Relationships: Relationships between people are never static. This is almost a repeat of the above, but characters do derive stakes in a situation from their relationships with others. When we add friendships, relationships, families, rivalries, enemies, etc. to the mix, involving people who want different things in different moments, the stakes should automatically get higher. So think of all the ways that you can find conflict in a relationship, in people’s wants and needs, in a scene. Whenever two people come together, the stakes should be pretty high. A group of great gal pals getting along swimmingly really doesn’t make for compelling fiction. Not even in picture books.

Tension

Now that you have a slightly better understanding of stakes (I hope), let’s move on to what stakes play into: tension. Here are the biggest sources of tension and areas where tension needs to be high:

  1. Beginnings: As we discussed in my post on beginnings, beginnings are usually best when they start in the middle of action. Each of your chapters (and especially your novel’s actual beginning) should start in a way that puts us in a scene or situation so that the reader hits the ground running. A lot of people begin with description, character sketches, backstory and other “throat clearing” (as it’s usually called in the industry). There’s not a lot of tension in straight telling. Make sure your beginnings have impact and action, then layer in necessary information as the chapter and story continues.
  2. Scenes: Scenes are full of people and people are full of complicated wants, needs, goals, desires and notions. They rub against each other and, more often than not, cause static. Or they should, if you want to keep tension high. I’m not saying you should have a book full of catfight scenes, unnecessary drama, people bitching each other out and otherwise shrilling at the top of their lungs. That’s exhausting to read. But every time you have two or more complex and fleshed out characters in a place together, they’re going to find ways to disagree or pursue different things. And this is where tension is most often subtle. An offhand remark, a gesture, an action that shows a reader which side a character is really on, how they actually feel. The best dialogue has subtext worked into it — the stuff and deeper meaning that runs below the surface — and is truly an art form. If you read a scene in your mss. and feel this nice, complacent pleasantness afterward, then your scene isn’t doing the work it needs to be doing.
  3. Endings: Each chapter has to have at least one thing happen in it that further the plot, shows us something new about our characters or otherwise leaves us in a different place and with a different understanding of the story than we had when that chapter began. That’s why endings are so important, too. You’ve given the reader a great chapter/scene/paragraph and now there’s a natural pause. They could easily stick the bookmark in, wander off to make tea, turn on the TV… and never come back to your story. Life could get in the way. Chapter endings are the worst, because they’re a natural stopping place. So don’t let your reader stop. It’s a careful balance. You don’t want to end each chapter on an insane cliffhanger and give your reader a heart attack every 10 pages, but you have to leave the chapter on such a note that they must turn the page and start another chapter. Does a character get thwarted? Does a plot complication arise? Does a surprise happen? Does a scene get heated? Does the tension simmering underneath the surface finally break wide open? Work your chapter endings, or “buttons” as I call them, until even you, who knows exactly what happens next, want to read on.

So here’s tension. As you can see, it is a perfect mix of how character and plot come together and interact. When you’re revising, you have to keep all of these three things in mind because they are very closely tied together. On Monday, I will tackle a book’s ending. That will then wrap up our main building blocks of the story — plot, character, tension, from beginning to end — and then I’ll start in on other writing mechanics like dialogue, description, showing vs. telling, all that good stuff. If you have any revision questions for me in the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask!

How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Steps

Many writers get stuck on how to write a novel plot. How do I know? I’ve seen thousands of plots, and very few that worked well enough to sell. Plot is one of the most important elements of any story, from picture book to chapter book to middle grade to young adult.

Novels are quite the tricky kettle of fish. We’ve already talked about character, but characters mostly add internal conflict to a story when left to their own devices. They sit and contemplate how lonely they are, or how unpopular, or how much they want something exciting to happen. So what do we do? We give them external conflict: plot.

How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Key Points

I’ve had the tremendous luck to study with middle grade author Lewis Buzbee in my MFA program. Not only is he a very talented writer but he’s an excellent teacher. This way of looking at plot is cribbed almost entirely from him, because I think it’s just that good. (But he often gives this workshop in person and, if you ever get the chance, do listen to him talk about it… my version will be a pale imitation.)

So, basically, what Lewis teaches and what I believe is that there are only four key points to a plot. This is that “dramatic arc” that you hear so much about. Some writing teachers subscribe to a “three act” structure, some like five acts, some like to choreograph your plot right down to what should happen in a story when. I think these micromanaging techniques miss the point.

All The Novel Structure Your Need, With None of the Gimmicks

Put whatever you want in your plot, run your characters through the story that’s in your imagination, but when you’re reading your manuscript over again, make sure it adheres to this very simple arc:

how to write a novel plot, plotting a novel, novel structure
Memorize this little graph so you’ll know when to zig instead of zag in your plot.

Do you like my lovely drawing? I never said I was visually gifted, mind you. Let me explain what’s going on here, point by point:

  1. Normal: This is your character’s baseline. At the beginning of a story, your character is usually their normal self in their normal circumstances (as much as possible). Something has probably happened to knock them off balance but they are making do. They might even be doing well. Even if they’re starting on their first day at a new school, they’re making a friend or two, they’re not completely failing their classes, they discover a magic shop where the owner seems very interested in them, etc. This leads us to…
  2. The Rise: This, for the near future, is as good as your character is going to get. You want to spend some time, maybe the first quarter of your story, building relationships, exposing your character and their goals and motivations, creating a world and planting all the seeds of plot, story, theme and character that will be important later. If your story is longer, maybe spend only the first 1/5th or 1/6th here. Then get ready for…
  3. The Fall: But things were just moving along so nicely! Oh well. We don’t pick up books to read about nice people in calm, tranquil situations. All that stuff that you’ve established in the first quarter, fifth or sixth of your story… screw it up. Things go from okay to bad, from bad to worse, and from worse to impossible. The character’s relationships get troubled, their goals and aspirations are thwarted at every turn, they make dumb decisions and have to deal with the consequences, etc. The very bottom of this point on the graph is usually the climax of the story, aka. when things seem hopeless or so bad that they can’t get any worse. Then, the character triumphs, and…
  4. The Evening Out: No, not a nice night out on the town with a date. This is the getting back to some kind of equilibrium again. It shouldn’t be the same equilibrium because, hopefully, your character has changed over the course of their journey. It is a new normal, a new way of living and thinking and existing in the world of the story.

There you go. Now, you’ll notice that the graph outlines more of an emotional journey than specific plot points.

Focus on Character Emotions to Get the Most Out of Your Plot

Unfortunately, I can’t sit here and tell you all the things that must happen in your story. I don’t know. They have to be born from the character who’s starring in your book and the story that you want to tell. But take this four-point structure to heart and make sure that the plot you’re creating puts your character in roughly this emotional state over the duration of your story.

How you get them to these emotional highs and lows, to these particular experiences, is up to you, but make sure you’re massaging and revising your story into the above shape. It is the most effective and a great starting place, even if you do want to experiment later.

How to Write a Novel Subplot

Subplots don’t need to be quite as dramatic — the highs shouldn’t be so high, the lows shouldn’t be so low — and they don’t have to span the whole length of the book, but do make sure that they follow some semblance of this graph, too. Subplots are usually generated by secondary characters. Let’s say the plot of your book is American Pie-esque… a guy, Joe, trying to get laid before the end of his senior year in high school.

That quest will form the main plot. Let’s say, though, that he’s got a best friend, Sam, who can’t seem to stop getting laid, and he’s been hiding all his various girlfriends from each other.

Sam’s subplot is that he wants to simplify his life and get rid of some of his attachments. This subplot could interact with the main plot because Sam might try to pawn off girls on our hero Joe, for example, or one of the girls pretends to like Joe just so she can get back at Sam. So subplots usually belong to other featured characters in your story and have this same trajectory. The moments when they interact with the main plot should serve to move the main plot along.

Leave Room for Tension, Mystery, and Surprise

This brings me to my last consideration about how to write a novel plot. Readers like to be surprised, they like suspense, they like the unexpected. Your plot shouldn’t be so linear. That’s why I like using the emotional highs and lows of your story for guidance. For me, as long as you hit these emotional points, there’s a lot more room and flexibility for an interesting plot. Ally Carter, in a workshop I went to, talked about surprises. They’re characters and plot points that dig into the story you’re telling and spin it around, shooting it off in a completely different direction.

Make sure you’ve got key places in your story where a character or event acts like a bumper car and sends the story in a new or unexpected place. Let’s say Joe, our high school virgin, is about to ask his dream girl to the prom — where he’ll try to seal the deal — but she asks Sam, blissfully unaware of his Hugh Hefner tendencies. Now Joe is caught between his loyalty to Sam and wanting to save Dream Girl from Sam’s clutches. This creates a whole new wrinkle in the story.

Complications! Surprise! You don’t have to be zany for the sake of zaniness here, like I have been, but do try to keep the tension and suspense of surprise alive and well in your story.

Wondering what to do with your specific novel plot? Get one-on-one,  in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor. I can look at your synopsis, a partial, or your whole novel to really drill into how you’re using plot.

Fix Your Beginning

Let’s begin at, well… enough smart-assery for today. But seriously, let’s talk your beginning. The first sentence of your novel. The first paragraph, the first scene. This will, in most cases, determine whether an agent reads on or not. Whether an editor reads on or not. Whether a reader picks you book up, scans the jacket and then the first bit, and buys it… or not.

Before I tell you what to do, I will tell you what not to do, in no particular order:

  • Waking up: DO NOT. DON’T. Don’t even think about it. Many of the manuscripts I get begin with a character waking up. Why are you making this choice? Most good stories begin with a character who has just been knocked out of their usual equilibrium or is going into a tense situation. Surely, you can begin in a more interesting place than waking up. And even if the character is waking up into their strange new situation, just change it. Make them awake. Do you really want to be exactly like everyone else I reject today? On that note…
  • Regaining Consciousness: This is also a no-no. I know a lot of people like starting their books moments after a character has just received a blow to the head. Here’s the problem. A reader wants to be grounded when they begin a story. They’re looking for basic information: Who is this character? Where are they? When are they? What’s going on with them? A little bit of confusion is fine, but that doesn’t play well with a reader, especially at the beginning of a story, because all the reader wants is information. If your character is confused, your reader is confused, they’re working hard, they’d rather put your book down and go have a cookie. You have to hook them… not give them a headache. So if your very own character is asking “Who am I? Where am I? What year is it? What’s going on?” then your reader will not have anything to hold on to. They’ll put your story down.
  • Scene Setting: People care about characters, not landscapes. Start your story with a person, not with beautiful prose about the glorious rolling hills of I Don’t Care. This especially goes for weather. Remember how “It was a dark and stormy night” is lambasted as being the worst first sentence ever written? Lots and lots of people start out talking about the weather… especially stormy weather… because they think it’s dramatic and will heighten tension. No, relationships between two people who want different things, in a scene together, are dramatic and heighten tension.
  • Emotional Scene Setting: The same goes for a long description of a character’s emotions. I read a lot of manuscripts that begin with things like, “He was so depressed. Depressed-er than depressed. Things were so wrong, they’d never be right again. He felt like he’d been plunged underwater, all the colors and the sounds and the joy… gone!” (Obviously, this is bad on purpose.) Well, this is fine, but we don’t know why things are so terrible for Emo Boy, so we don’t care. It’s a bad place to start.
  • Normal: This is perhaps the biggest cliche I see in novel openings. “Jimmy was just a normal kid, everything about his life was so totally normal. He woke up when he typically does and walked the normal path to his normal school. ‘What a normal day!’ he told his usual friends, Norm and Al…” etc. And then, something completely changes him into an extraordinary kid!!!! WOW!!! Okay, so, granted, this is usually how a book starts. A character’s “normal” way of life, their equilibrium, has been knocked off-kilter. Now they have to find a new normal. That’s fine. BUT DON’T TALK ABOUT IT! SHOW US! (More about showing vs. telling later.)
  • Backstory: A long prose-filled retelling of the backstory of a character, place or event isn’t a good start, for me. I don’t know the character, event or place yet, and I’d rather see it with my own eyes, see it in action, than being told about it. Work backstory and context into the prose later, but not in the very beginning (and not too much of it).

I bet you’re asking yourself: “Well, what’s a good place to start my story?” If you hadn’t gathered from the above, a good beginning involves tension, conflict, relationship and characters. In other words, a scene would be a very good place to start! You have a main character, you have what they want, you have what’s getting in the way right now, and you have another character. Toss them like the Chaos Salad they are and give us a scene to launch your story with action.

It’s called in medias res in Latin. And no, I don’t know a lot of Latin, just enough to make me seem slightly pretentious. It means “in the middle of things.” Launch right into some conflict with more than one character and catch the reader up with backstory and quick flashback as needed. Start with a scene. Most movies start like this, so do most plays. You don’t often go to a movie and see the main character monologue for 15 minutes before the action starts, right? The same should be true for your book. Start with a scene that shows the reader, a) who the character is, b) what they want and c) how things have changed for them recently. Try imagining this scenario for your characters and writing a scene for the beginning of your story. It’s hard, but beginnings are often the most time-consuming and most-frequently rewritten bits of a novel.

Speaking of which, there’s also a little something called the “promise” of a novel that you need to consider in the opening pages. I need to know, after the first 10 pages, what the rest of the novel will be about. This is the promise you make to the reader when you start out. You don’t have to say, explicitly, “The rest of this book will be about alien warfare.” But little Jimmy should at least be gearing up to fight aliens or in alien warfare class or something so that, in my head, I get a sense for where you’re going with this. Don’t start the book off with Jimmy in alien warfare class and then make the rest of the story about his passionate fight to save the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest. Both stories are fine, but you need to make sure you make a promise to your reader — my book will be about _____ — and stick to it. We won’t know how far you’ll go or where your plot will take us, but if we’re prepared for the general idea of your story from the first page, we’ll follow you very far. Up next… plot!

How to Create a Character

Today in Revision-o-Rama, I want to talk about how to create a character. What makes a good one? A publishable one? First, let me say: book elements do not exist in isolation. Talking about them one by one is just the way I’m organizing my posts this month. So a stellar character must be put into action with great plot and dialogue, a fascinating plot must have great characters to act it out, etc. etc. etc. Character, for me, is most important, so I’m starting here.

how to create a character, how to write a character, novel protagonist, novel writing, children's books
How to create a character who’ll engage and dazzle young readers.

How to Create a Character

Every story has a main character. If the story is written in the first person, the character is also the narrator. If it is in third, I’d argue that there still needs to be a main character to anchor everything, even in omniscient narratives. (Or two main characters… LEVIATHAN is a good example of a narrative balanced fairly equally between two characters.)

A character-driven book usually focuses on your character and their life, and it is the character who dictates what the plot is. Other books toss a character, a John Everyman, say, into an aggressive outside plot that determines the course of the book.

Questions for Character Development

In either case, I say that the writer needs to have answers to the following questions:

  • What is your character’s nature? Are they shy? Gregarious? A homebody? A great girlfriend? A backstabber? (Examples of personality and nature are endless…)
  • What is your character’s physicality? Are they fat? Thin? Awkward? Do they have some kind of physical issue? Are they a slouch? (Also endless…)
  • What is your character’s self-esteem? Is there something about themselves they want to change? Why?
  • What are your character’s secrets? Are there things they’ve never told anyone? Do they wish they can tell someone? Why?
  • What does everyone else know (or think they know) about your character? Is it true? What does your character wish everyone knew about them? Why?
  • What are your characters goals in life and moment to moment? Their wants in life and moment to moment? The character’s needs in life and moment to moment? Their frustrations in life and moment to moment? Why, for all of the above?
  • What is their motivation in life and moment to moment? Why?
  • What is their “normal” baseline? What is life usually like? (This usually gets disturbed pretty early on in the story.)
  • What are your character’s relationships with other characters? What is the most important relationship? The best? The worst? The most fulfilling? The most frustrating? The one the character most wants to change? The one that will never change? Why?
  • What is the character’s unique perspective on life? (I will talk more about this when I talk about voice.)
  • What is the character’s past? What is their present? What is their future?

Character Development Exercises

When you’re reading your book over, feel free to use some of the above questions as writing exercises to brainstorm. I’ve tried to avoid questions that would trigger simple “yes” or “no” answers. Drill deeper than that. You probably don’t have to be so thorough about every character in your book.

You don’t really need to spend valuable time figuring out the deep, life-defining secret of the guy your character borrows a pencil from on page 37, for example. But your main character? Yes. The important parent/guidance figure? Yes. The best friend? Yes. The love interest? Yes. The enemy? Yes.

When you start brainstorming, you’ll be surprised at what you find out. That’s the great thing about creating (See? You do get to be creative during revision!). When you start thinking about some of these things, your mind will just come up with answers you never anticipated. And they’ll feel right. Give it a try. Maybe answer one of these questions a day. When you comb back over your draft, figure out places where you can reveal whatever answers you want your readers to know.

Character Development Brainstorming

A lot of these things may never make it into the manuscript itself. And a lot of them, like the goals and motivations, will come out in scene, but below the surface. A character’s past will emerge through backstory. Relationships will come out in dialogue and plot. Secrets and yearnings, other private thoughts, will come out in narration (if in first person… if you’re writing in close third, the narrator can peek into your character’s head).

I’d say that, out of the above questions, the answers that will make a huge difference to your story page by page are the questions of goals/needs/wants/frustrations and their motivation. A human being changes from moment to moment. In one scene with their crazy mom, they might want to stick it to The Man. In another, they might just want a parent who can listen to them.

Character Objective and Motivation

As you go through your plot and through ever scene, ever action your character takes, think about what’s driving them in this moment. What needs/wants/goals/frustrations are in play. Those will usually factor into why they’re doing something — the motivation. And every scene and moment in your story — as well as the larger story arc — needs motivation.

Now, the tricky part is, all this stuff is hidden. We never walk into an argument with someone saying: “I want such and such and I plan on yelling at you until you give it to me!” No. First we might flatter. When that doesn’t work, we might get nasty and say something mean. When that backfires, we’ll try to guilt trip the person, and so on and so forth.

In college, I got a theatre degree (as well as an English degree). It was the best thing I ever did because I got to take playwrighting and acting classes. I highly, highly recommend this to any fiction writers, because you figure out just how essential motivation and goals and actions are to character.

Character Development and Subtext

If you think about the stage, every moment has to be alive, to keep the audience engaged (and awake). How to do that? Lots of tension, lots of subtext. Every moment has to have something larger running underneath it. This comes from a character’s wants and needs. If you put two people who usually like each other into a scene and they want totally opposite things underneath the surface… voila! Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!

We all understand this on a fundamental level. There are very few times when we’re just bantering with someone without any ulterior motives. That sounds bad but it isn’t. We are all built to care about our goals/wants/needs/frustrations a lot. And when we do things, we’re primarily motivated by what will serve our goals/wants/needs/frustrations. Be aware that your character would, too. That’s how to create a character, in a nutshell.

From moment to moment and scene to scene, make sure you map out their goals/wants/needs/frustrations and see what their motivation is at the beginning of the encounter. What do they want? What are they going to do to get it? Do they get their objective by the end of the scene? (Sometimes they will, but that’s boring… it’s better if they don’t and then they have to try something else, try another action, fall flat on their faces again… Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!)

Character Development and Plot

And so, with a character who is fleshed out and has strong motivation, you can start to string together scenes and moments. As you go back through your work, make sure you know what’s operating below the surface, what’s important and at stake for each character. What each character is really doing in a scene.

If you have a lot of scenes of people hanging out, making small talk, not moving toward their goals, not caring about their wants or needs, not advancing away from their frustrations… you’re probably creating less tension than you could be. Go scene by scene, moment by moment. And always keep your character’s interests at the front of your mind. This way, you slowly start assembling next week’s topic: plot!

Want personalized help with how to create a character? Come to me for book editing services and we can dig into your protagonist together.

Revision Is a State of Mind

Well, we’re finally here: December Revision-o-Rama! I can already hear the shouts of joy (or are they groans of agony?). I know a lot of you reading think that revision sucks. Writing out the first draft, while time-consuming and frustrating at times, is also freeing. You’re spilling words on the page. You’re creating. You’re letting your imagination roam. Basically, you’ve got your “first draft goggles” on and everything is great.

Then you’re faced with looking at your manuscript in the cold, sobering light of morning for the first time. There are typos. The dialogue is flat. Characters make the same gestures over and over. We don’t know what the protagonist looks like but we’ve spent 5 pages on the love interest’s glittering blue eyes. You forgot to describe anything or you described everything way too much. And how did it escape your notice that absolutely nothing happens for five straight chapters in the middle other than a lot of driving around and witty banter? Plus, it needs an ending. It has either dropped off so quietly that you’re completely unresolved or it went out with such a bang that you’re sure you forgot to print the last 20 or 30 pages.

You hit the liquor cabinet. If there is a mild-tempered cat or squeezable puppy nearby, they know to scamper out of your path and hide under the nearest couch. You crawl into bed. Things look a lot worse than they did before.

Well, guess what. Writing and plotting and tension and dialogue and description and characterizations are all elements of craft. It might’ve been fun to get all of your ideas in one place and in a semi-coherent order, but now they actually have to make sense. Now comes the hard (and rewarding!) work of actually teasing a publishable book out of that novel-length wordcount.

This is actually the most wonderful part of writing, and the people who have revised enough manuscripts figure out soon enough that they actually love revision. It’s like putting together a giant puzzle. Characters need motivation, logic and consequences for what they say and do. Every scene needs to teach us something new about a character or plot element. Every chapter needs to further the plot along. Each sentence needs to earn its keep in your writing and justify staying in the draft. Each plot and subplot needs to have an arc and resolve itself by the end. Characters, no matter how big or small, need to make some kind of change or progress. Emotions have to rise and fall like waves throughout.

If I can’t make you love revision like I do (usually ‘cuz I’m not the one doing it, LOL), at least I can help you respect it this month. Because if you don’t respect or recognize the importance of revision, you’ll have a very tough road ahead of you in professional writing. Most writers tell me that they spend between three and five times as long revising as they did writing their first draft. This is completely normal. In fact, most people spend all that time revising just so they can give their manuscript to their critique groups or beta readers… and revise some more! (Check out an old post of mine: How much revision is normal?)

So consider this your pep talk. On Friday, I am going to start talking about, I think, one of the most important elements of a book: character. Then I will go down the line to plot. After that, I’ll tackle dialogue. Then description. Then… dun dun dun… voice. After that, I’ll finish out the month talking about tweaks, tricks and smaller things that you can look for in revision. Sound good? Good. Wake up and smell the red ink, writers! We’ve got some literary babies to sacrifice!

A Writer’s Worst Enemy

Impatience is a writer’s worst enemy. To all those who are rushing rushing rushing to get your manuscript out the gate and into my hot little hands, think of it this way real quick: you’ve spent… what? A year of your life on this manuscript? Why not give it the best chance possible and spend as much hard work revising as it — honestly — needs?

There is a finite number of agents and editors. Once you query your project around to every agent who represents your genre or age group (or every smaller publisher that still accepts unsolicited submissions) and once they reject you, you can’t do anything else with that project other than a) self-publish it (a whole other bucket of fish, to be discussed later) or b) revise the hell out of it and submit again to people who might be open to seeing a drastically different version (your pool this time around will be much smaller). So… just take the time, revise the hell out of it from the get-go, and skip that whole nasty getting-rejected-first bit! In other words: be patient.

Sad truth alert! Not every manuscript you write will go somewhere, publication-wise. Far from it. Every manuscript you write is supremely useful, though. I think every time you sit down at the keys, you should be striving to improve. Everything you write this week should be better and more exciting to you than what you wrote last week. You hear people talking about starter cars and houses, maybe even starter spouses. Well, I think that almost every currently published writer has written at least one starter (or drawer) novel. MG and YA superstar Lauren Myracle wrote something like five books, she said once, before getting her first published. Some have many more than that. So will all the novels you write be published? Even eventually? Probably not. In fact, I think it should be a good and healthy thing to look at some of your starter novels and be horrified by the quality of the writing. That means you’ve come a long way since.

Everyone knows the story of the person who never once sat down at a computer before, wrote a first draft manuscript inspired by a dream they had, sold it for a million dollars and got six thousand movies made of their story, etc. etc. etc. You know why everyone knows the story of “the exception to the rule”? Because it’s news. It’s so rare that everyone talks about it and raises it to mythical status. The other 99.999999% of us mere mortals have to write plenty of dreary starter novels (and don’t forget about the Million Bad Words) before we can figure out how to draft a living character, create a compelling plot, achieve tension and humor and literary magic. That sort of stuff takes practice. And practice takes… patience.

For a lot of writers, or anyone working in the creative arts, our ego often compels us to think we’re “special.” What teen girl hasn’t heard stories of some chick at the mall getting discovered by a modeling scout and then immediately dressed up really cute and gone to the mall in hopes of scoring her one-in-a-million chance at stardom? It’s worse for writers, because they don’t actually have to get dressed and leave the house to indulge in such fantasies. Who among you hasn’t started in on a hot idea and thought, “This is a brilliant, undiscovered masterpiece that everyone will love the second they read it”? Who hasn’t let themselves boast, “Let all the other writers slog around in the trenches because I’m special“?

Well, talent is a huge piece of the puzzle, naturally. But hard work, I’ll argue, is a bigger piece. Because naturally talented people — especially the people who know they’re naturally talented — often get an entitled attitude and wait for the success to come to them. It’s the people who think “I might not be special enough yet but, damn it, I will be successful” who usually end up towering over their smug counterparts. Because the ordinary writers have to work for it and they know it. They have to put in the hours to see improvement, to witness the talent start to shine. They learn to work hard and never give up. And those are the people who make it, while some of the naturally talented people sit around on their couches, waiting for that model scout to come knocking.

In the writing game — and I’ll say it is one, on many levels — the qualities of patience, hard-work, humility and the eagerness to learn will get you much farther than striving to be the exception to the rule. The former you can control, the latter you can’t. Wouldn’t you rather be in control of your success and your career?

Revising Before Contract

I did a post a few weeks ago that dealt with the types of rejection a writer usually receives from an agent or an editor. At least, these are the types of rejections I send. Now I want to talk a bit about the last type, the Revision Rejection.

This is as close as you can get to having an agent offer representation. This is basically an agent saying “I will give you revision notes and work with you like I would a client, but I have a few reservations and don’t want to officially offer you representation yet.”

On the one hand, this is great. A Real, Live Publishing Professional believes in you. On the other hand, it can also be tricky. I always consider everything very carefully when I offer a Revision Rejection because there are a lot of things at stake. The writer could take my notes to heart, do a revision, send it back to me and it still wouldn’t be strong enough. That puts both me and the writer in a nasty situation. I feel bad and the writer gets their hopes up.

I try not to offer too many Revision Rejections because, if I care enough about a project and love it enough to spend all this time thinking about it, I will usually offer representation and revise after contract with a writer. A Revision Rejection is if I do have some pretty substantial issues with the manuscript — a character, a plot point, a voice issue — but really think it could have great potential. The big thing I’m trying to figure out when I give this kind of rejection is whether or not an author can revise. Some authors will be great at revision, I can tell. Others, well, they get the Revision Rejection because I need to know for sure how well they tackle a revision before I sign them.

However, I want to give writers everywhere a complete picture of this tricky issue. If you’re faced with a revision rejection from me or any agent, it’s not something you have to listen to. I’d suggest waiting until you get some similar feedback before ripping your manuscript apart. If, however, my revision notes hit home and really resonate with you, you can revise and you’ll come out of the situation with a better book, even if the revision doesn’t end up being strong enough for me to represent.

Always use caution when revising for someone without a contract. It’s your book and your vision. Don’t let any one person’s reaction or notes pressure you into changing your project too drastically unless you agree with them. Just because I’m a Real, Live Publishing Professional, it doesn’t mean I know your book better than you do. I know my taste, I know the publishing marketplace, I know editors, but you’re the expert on your own work.

So a Revision Rejection is really good news, it means you’re a breath away from even better news, but you always have to take it with a grain of salt.

Types of Agent Rejection

Agent rejection is still rejection, sure,  but if you stick to writing for any length of time, you’ll soon begin to see that there are some nuances to getting turned down by an agent or editor. There are entire gradients of rejection and, the better your work, the higher you climb up the ladder toward that “yes” that you’ve been chasing.

agent rejection, slush rejection, types of rejection, query rejection, slush pile
Sure, it’s one discouraging word, but it can mean so many things!

Types of Agent Rejection

Here are the basic kinds of rejection I used to give as a literary agent:

Form Rejection: I reject the project but don’t give any feedback or thoughts. I will always personalize with your name and the name of your project but I don’t say anything specific about it. This is usually what I send when the writing isn’t solid enough, the voice doesn’t grab me, the idea doesn’t resonate, etc. You get one of these if your work is obviously not a fit for me, which I can tell almost immediately.

Personal Rejection: I still pass on the submission but provide general feedback. I will use this one either for a query that I thought had promise or an easily articulated flaw or sometimes for a full manuscript that falls short of what I was hoping for. Maybe the project shows potential but isn’t right for my list — which isn’t something the writer can help. Or maybe I have thoughts on how it could be improved before I’d consider representing it — which the writer can take into account if they wish. I don’t give detailed editorial notes, however, because I think the project shows promise but might be a little too much work to get into.

Revision Rejection: This is only for cases where I’ve read the full manuscript. In this situation, I’ve spent some time with the project and give the writer specific notes for revision. If they were to revise, I say, I’d love to see it again.

As you can see, there are several types of agent rejection. The rule of thumb is, the more personal the rejection, the more time the agent or editor spent with your work. And the more potential and talent they see. A Personal Rejection and a Revision Rejection are like doors that are half-open to you.

See Rejections as Opportunities

You can turn the two more personal types of rejection into opportunities. An agent who sends you a Personal Rejection would probably be up for seeing your next project. An agent who sends you a Revision Rejection would probably be enthusiastic to see another version of your current one. Especially if they took the time to give notes. In the grand scheme of things, this is relatively rare, so definitely don’t file it away as a simple “pass” and move on.

So keep querying and keep racking up those rejections. If you find yourself getting mostly Personal or Revision Rejections, that hard-won “yes” might not be too far behind.

Feeling unsure about your query letter, synopsis, or manuscript? Hire me as your freelance editor and we can work on your submission materials or dig deeper into your picture book, novel, or non-fiction proposal together.

Being an Agent Who Edits

I’m an agent who loves the editorial process of working with a manuscript. It says that right in my bio on the agency website. There’s very little more satisfying to me — other than, of course, getting to call a writer and say that their dreams are about to come true and that someone wants to publish their book.

But saying “I love to do editorial work with clients!” opens up an ugly Pandora’s box. When certain unprofessional writers see my passion for editorial work, they think it’s okay to query with statements like:

I know this needs a lot of work but I’m fed up with it. I need professional help because, if I ever have to look at this manuscript again, so help me God…

I never done written nothin’ befor so I need sumone to healp mak this teh best book evar…

Together we can develop this into a bestseller bigger than Twilight and Harry Potter combined…

My idea is so great, and if you could only write it for me…

An agent makes money by doing one thing: selling books. Not by developing projects (though that’s a huge part of the work I do every day…for clients), not by taking on the role of a freelance editor, not by ghostwriting, not by playing critique partner for free. That’s not our job. That’s us wasting time on something that, most likely, will never amount to anything.

When I say that I love doing editorial work with my clients, that does not mean that I will rehabilitate every querier’s Ugly Ducking Manuscript into The Next Bella Swan. It doesn’t mean I want to fix your hot mess. It means that I’m hands on and love to give guidance to the clients I sign. And here’s the most important thing to remember:

The clients I take on are already going to have manuscripts that are 95% ready for editors to see them. That means I will take the best of the best and make sure it is irresistible to publishers. If I see promise and potential and, ahem, professionalism and craft, I will work with you until the ends of the Earth. If you beg for me to fix your thing for free, I will shake my head and chuckle. Impatience, as you can see from the comments in my last post, It’s Easy to Get Published, is one of the biggest mental hurdles writers have.

The point is, if you can’t bear to look at your manuscript one more time, hire a freelance editor. If you’ve never written anything before in your life and you want to know whether you’re doing it right, keep writing because you’re probably not. If you want free guidance from another reader, join a critique group. If you want someone to develop a project with you, try to get a co-writer who will agree to work for free and take a risk on you.

However, if, and only if, you want someone to take your nearly-editor-ready, sparkling, beautiful manuscript and sell it, I am gladly at your service, because that is what an agent does.

I know a lot of people will think “But what if something really is a diamond in the rough and will be the next Harry Potter if only some enterprising agent plucks it from the coal mine where it’s working and gives it a good shower and a hot meal?” I’m sure this has happened. But you know what? In my own work, I’ve tried doing that with a few writers. I really saw promise…or convinced myself I did. There were glimmers of hope. I spent hours giving extensive notes.

But the problem with people who have promising yet unpracticed writing is that the writer doesn’t have as many revision skills as people who have been writing and honing their craft for a while. Every single one of the “diamond in the rough” projects I’ve tried to rehab have fallen apart in the revision phase and I have pretty thoroughly learned my lesson. If some writer comes to me and says “Here, please fix my urchin of a manuscript and, oh yeah, I’ve invented a machine that’ll give you 24 more hours in every day”…then we might be in business, but not before. 🙂

Inside the Agent/Client Revision Process

Last week, Christa asked the following question (edited slightly):

What are revisions are usually like between agent and writer? Are there common mistakes you see with each client, or does it vary? What is most revised, usually, or is it all over the board? And what kind of turn around time do most agents appreciate (I’m sure it all depends on the amount of revision–but maybe an approximation or something) for the revisions to be completed?

Great question. I love doing editorial work with clients and I think most agents feel similarly. A lot of writers also appreciate the chance to work on their manuscripts before going out on submission. My thought is… if we can strengthen a project and give it the best chance of attracting an editor, why the heck not?

The process of working on revisions with a client really does depend on the manuscript. Here’s how it usually goes, though:

First things first: I read your book, I love your book, I float a few revision ideas by you before offering representation, you like my thoughts and you sign up with me.

The second read and giving notes: I read your manuscript again. I do some light line-editing, honing in on small nitpicky details and areas where the writing or voice could be smoothed in the manuscript. More importantly, I look for character, plot, structure and pacing issues on a macro level. These are things that affect more than just a paragraph or a page. Do two similar best friend characters need to be combined into one? Is the tension of the subplot low throughout the piece? Can we strengthen a character’s relationship with her mother? Etc. etc. etc. These are the bigger changes that I think will make the manuscript stronger and help the storytelling become more compelling.

Genius at work: The writer gets my notes, crafts a voodoo doll in my image and eats some ice cream. Several days pass and they realize a) I’m on their team and b) I’m freaking brilliant (and humble!). If there are any questions or disagreements, I invite my client to talk to me, argue, discuss, vent. We brainstorm together and often surprise each other with unexpected solutions. Then the writer works on revisions. These really do take as long as they take, and each project is different. I’ve seen them take a weekend, I’ve seen them take months. For me, I want them done in a timely manner but quality is much more important. My big pet peeve is seeing a revision that’s been expedited but is incomplete. Revision is a complicated process… you think, you stew, you gnash your teeth, you get ideas, you work and rework… it can’t be rushed.

Now it’s my turn again, and I’m faced with a decision: I read the revision ASAP. My challenge is to try and see it with fresh eyes, forget the last draft, and evaluate whether or not it’s “editor ready.” That last bit can be a difficult decision. Do I want to push the writer into another revision and make it perfect perfect, or is the potential clearly evident, even if I still see a few small tweaks that could be made? I’m a ruthless perfectionist. I find holes and opportunities in everything, even books that have been published and decorated with awards. I realize I can’t hold every manuscript to the standard that’s in my head. So at this point, it’s really my call whether or not to go back to the writer. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If the manuscript looks great or only has a few tiny issues remaining, I go out on submission. If it needs another revision, it’s lather, rinse, repeat, only there should be much less work to do on the second pass.

There are all sorts of situations that can arise, though. The writer can totally go off in a different direction and it turns out they’ve made the manuscript worse. This is a situation that’s happened to every agent and it is an icky, horrible one. Everyone has different skills when it comes to writing. Some people are good at revision, others aren’t. You never know how strong your client’s skills are in this department until you go through a round. Luckily, though, once writers are at the level where they’re working with an agent, they’re usually revision professionals.

A lot of Christa’s questions can only be answered, unfortunately, with “It depends on the client and the manuscript.” However, I just want to hammer home that the most common revision mistake I see is rushing through the work. Some writers see notes and take them very literally. They only fix those notes — as if checking them off a To Do list — and spend no time thinking and imagining how else they might refine, finesse, deepen. They go through page by page but never stop to consider how to take their manuscript to the next level. My expectation is that there’s always some creative evolution, above and beyond the things I mention in my notes. I can always tell when a writer has rushed through revision, because it comes back with changes that have only been made at the surface level.

But let me make one thing perfectly clear. I only sign a client and work on revision in-depth when I absolutely love the project and am confident I can sell it. Otherwise, it’s a disservice to me and the writer. I can’t pitch something I’m not crazy passionate about and every writer deserves nothing less in their advocate. So when I give revision notes — even if they seem like a lot of work — it’s because I believe in the project and the author with all my heart. And there is very little that’s more satisfying and gratifying to me than reading a revision that has been absolutely, positively hit out of the ballpark.