Starting a Novel With Setting Description

Today’s post is a video response, and it’s all about starting a novel with setting!

What follows here is a transcription of the video. You can watch for the advice, or read it below. I have a question today from Melissa who wrote in to ask, how do you open a novel? Is it wrong to start a novel by describing setting? What if the setting reveals something about character?

Novel Beginnings Are Incredibly Important

Writing a novel and starting a novel are two of the biggest question categories that I get. And a lot of writers have heard, yeah, maybe it’s not so great to start with setting because it’s static. It’s not active. There is really nothing going on.

There’s a concept called the objective correlative, which is a literary concept where you use something inanimate like the weather or setting to communicate emotion. So a really typical example is, starting a novel with setting like a storm, and that’s a literary device for conveying that there is something going on. There’s a big storm raging in the story.

And so I think Melissa is asking this question because maybe she’s been turned away from starting with setting. Maybe she has been told that starting with setting is not a really great thing. And my response to that would be when you’re starting a novel, you really want to ground the reader. And there are two components to grounding the reader.

One is the reader wants to know where they are, and then the reader wants to know when they are. And this applies to starting a new chapter as well. So when you’re starting a chapter after there has been a break, you really want the reader to catch up with where they are after you spit them out after the break and when they are relative to where they came from. The same concept applies for the very, very beginning of a novel which is excellent real estate.

Grounding the Reader But Giving Them Context, Too

So sure, you really want to ground the reader at the opening, and setting is a wonderful way of doing that because that takes care of the “Where are we?” question, right? But the other concern that you really have to have when you’re beginning a novel is action. There are way too many novels that begin in a completely static way. It’s the character in their room, and the room might tell the reader a lot about the character, you know. We’ll see kind of what kind of posters are on the wall. We’ll see the paint color is very, very dark which is meant to evoke something about character.

So the writer thinks , “I’m really doing my job here. I’m starting with this evocative setting. This setting tells the reader a lot about the character. My work here is done,” right? Well, that’s static. Nothing is actually happening, so I would say that the sweet spot would be, to answer Melissa’s question, a strong sense of setting which is essential for the beginning of a novel or a beginning of a chapter, but you can’t rest on your laurels with a really strong setting. You have to do a little bit more. You need to introduce the character, so the character does need to be on the scene, at least for me. That’s what I would recommend. It gives you a much stronger foot up in the beginning of your novel.

starting a novel with setting, beginning a novel, starting a novel, setting description
Starting a novel with setting or weather or a big event is just one piece of the puzzle.

Adding Character and Plot to Setting

The point is, setting can’t be the end-all and be-all. Character, you need to put the character in the setting, and the character should be interacting with the setting somehow, or something needs to be happening which brings me to the third component which would be action, which would be a sense of plot. Now, you don’t have to kick right into your main plot at the beginning of a novel.

I think doing so is problematic because if you start…you come out swinging with a giant plot, readers are not gonna be invested enough emotionally in what’s going on. So they’re gonna have a hard time caring about it right at the onset. So if you come to us with a huge, huge plot right away, you’re gonna be overcoming some obstacles because the reader will be like, “Wait a minute. What’s going on? Who is this person? I don’t care about them yet, so I’m not really getting invested.”

So you need to have something, and Donald Maass who wrote the wonderful book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, calls it bridging action which is it is action, something is actually happening. It’s not just static at the beginning of your novel, but it can be a smaller conflict. So it’s something to get the reader a little invested, give them the come hither finger, but it doesn’t have to be, you know, high stakes, huge action right away because that could be a little alienating.

The Formula for Starting a Novel

So to recap the beginning formula for starting your novel, setting? Yes, Melissa, setting is very important, and you should be beginning with a strong sense of setting absolutely. But we also need character. We need a strong sense of who the character is. Ideally, they’re interacting with your setting. They’re existing in it but in an active way which brings me to three. Something needs to happen right away.

And when I hear writers asking about setting and why can’t I start with setting? It’s usually because they’ve created a setting, they’ve put the character in the setting, and they really wanna get away with the character sitting there and existing without anything happening on top of that. And that’s what I think a large pitfall could be with this question. If you have a setting, if you have the character and you’re hoping that that is enough magic for the start of a novel, what you really need to do is actually add plot.

Examples of Taking Setting to the Next Level

If we were to take the example that we started this video with a character sitting in their room, we have setting. We have character. We’re hoping that they are evocative and letting the reader into the character’s world. But something needs to start happening. For example, somebody comes home. Mom comes home and slams the door so hard that the whole house rattles, you know, so something literally happens to the setting. Something literally happens where the character’s emotions get involved because “Oh, no! What’s happening now?”

Or something, something…maybe the character is rearranging their room, for example. So they’re in their setting. We have the character, but there’s a lot of action. Maybe it’s like, you know, all of the pictures that the character has of them and their best friend, they’re ripping them down off the walls. And you know, throwing a picture frame and the glass breaks, you know, these examples are off the top of my head, so some of them might feel a little familiar. There could be some clichés, but they’re meant to illustrate a point.

So you don’t just have setting and character, you have plot as well. So something is happening between setting and character. So I would say that Melissa’s onto something, but the advice to not start in setting, there is a strong basis for that advice. So as long as you’re hitting these three points with the beginning of your novel, you can absolutely start in setting. It just has to be a little more dynamic than just straight-up setting description. I hope that helps, and thank you for asking.

Get actionable, personalized, one-on-one novel advice if you hire me as your developmental editor. We can work on your query, your novel beginning, or the entire manuscript.

Directing Reader Attention

Directing reader attention is an art. As the writer, it’s up to you where that precious resource goes. Are you doing a good job?

directing reader attention, description, narrative voice, creative writing
It’s your mission to show the reader what’s important.

As the writer, you know what’s important about your story. Your reader doesn’t. They’re brand new to the thing and eager to learn what matters about your character and plot. It would be terrible to just tell them. So instead you show them. But how?

You Are the Curator

You need to pick the elements that are important to the story, and leave everything else by the wayside. Act like an art curator when you sit down to write a novel. You need to pick the characters and events that are crucial to the telling of your tale. Then you need to layer in every other element that needs to be noticed.

How do you do this in a way that readers can interpret clearly? Think of the metaphor of a spotlight operator. They sit in the back of a darkened theater. Their objective is to direct the audience’s attention. If there’s a love scene going on downstage, they aren’t going to focus their spot on a big player dancing upstage. That doesn’t make any sense.

As you craft your manuscript, you don’t have a spotlight at your disposal. But you do have other tools. These are the amount of description, and the type of description.

Directing Reader Attention With Amount of Description

One consideration when directing reader attention to what’s important is the amount of writing that you’re going to lavish on the element in question. If an amulet is going to become very important in your fantasy novel, for example, you may not want to mention it in one sentence and move on. That will not be enough to pique the reader’s interest.

But it’s a balance. If you lavish too much attention on describing the amulet, the reader will think, “Ah ha! This writer is trying to tell me something. This isn’t the last we’ll see of this amulet.” So if you’re looking to draw attention without giving away any big reveals, keep your description notable but short.

The adverse is true, too. If something isn’t important, don’t spend time there. If you go into great detail describing the man at the bus stop, his five o’clock shadow, his wrinkled silk tie, and we never see him again, then you’ve wasted the reader’s time. The man was just set dressing. Interesting set dressing, sure, but there was no reason to treat him like the star of the show.

Directing Reader Attention With Type of Description

When you think about how to describe certain elements of your story, think of the emotion you’re attaching to your description. Important elements should have some kind of voice attached to them, they shouldn’t just lie neutrally on the page.

Look at these two examples:

The dog came over and sat on my lap.

The dog trundled over and lolled into my lap, letting his head rest heavily on my knee.

We may not know a lot about the dog yet, but the second description tells me, as a reader, that there’s probably more to know. The first description is so generic, there’s no emotional signature at all. The second uses interesting words and some sensory details. It paints more of a picture. If you want to be especially emotional, you could even do something like:

The little bastard pranced into my lap and nuzzled his homework-chewing chin into the palm of my hand. I couldn’t stay mad at him, but Mrs. Turner would have my neck for missing yet another assignment!

Here, there’s a clear emotional signature to the description. It’s also a good example of the concept of interiority. We can’t help but start forming a relationship with this dog because, clearly, the narrator already has one. I’m also getting some more context about the situation here, and how the dog fits into it.

Of all three descriptions, I’m going to remember that third dog the most, because it was described in an emotional way. It’s also the longest description, practically guaranteeing that my attention is drawn to it.

When you’re revising, think about directing reader attention like a spot operator and curator with your descriptions. Let them work for you, and guide the reader through your story.

Is your descriptive language hitting the mark? Hire me as your novel editor, and I’ll help you take your writing voice to the next level.

Starting a Novel With Aftermath

Starting a novel with aftermath (the reaction to a big event) is hugely temping. After all, writers are inundated with the advice to “show, don’t tell,” start with action, raise the stakes, etc. etc. etc. It puts a lot of pressure on starting a novel!

starting a novel with aftermath, starting a novel, starting a chapter, writing a novel, beginning a novel, prologue, tension, stakes
Whoa whoa whoa, what happened here? Let’s take a step back…

Starting a Novel With Aftermath Is Jarring

The other day, I was working on a an editorial project, and found myself not quite invested in the opening. I should’ve been. The novel beginning was a high-stakes trial. But there’s often a problem with stakes that are too high: it’s harder for the reader to get emotionally attached. When we’re screaming about the end of the world from page one, the reader is trying to muster up an insurmountable level of caring.

So when this client project opens with a trial, the real issue is that the conflict is already behind us. There’s no time to fill in context, let the reader discover who the character is, or foster emotional connection.

The interesting deed is done, the problem has happened, and now we’re knee-deep in aftermath.

How to Begin a Novel

Instead of taking this dramatic approach (or writing a prologue that’s high stakes right from the get-go), think about the balance of action and information. You want to present the reader with a compelling character who has a manageable problem. Donald Maass calls this “bridging conflict.” The problem is manageable enough that we’re not completely overwhelmed with high stakes. Nonetheless, the problem matters to the character. As a result, we start learning about the character and what their objectives, motivations, priorities, etc. are.

We see them in the middle of this problem, trying to work through it. This is much more compelling than seeing them after the problem has already happened. We see them getting invested or emotional or upset. Our attachment to them grows. Then the initial problem is either solved, or it grows into the larger problem that’s going to carry the entire plot.

By this point, the reader should have an emotional foothold not only in the problem, but in the character, and as a result, the story.

Start Your Novel With Action…But Not Too Much

Without introducing a smaller problem and the character first, you’re going to have a hard time selling the reader on the major plot points you’ve cooked up. So it’s important to start your novel with action, but maybe not too much action.

And as you layer in that action, make sure to layer in context about character. When we start with a trial, for example, I am much more interested in what happened, who did what, and most importantly, why the crime occurred. The dry legal procedural stuff? It’s near the bottom of my list. My curious reader mind wants all sorts of other fodder.

Go where you think your reader wants to be. Court rooms are inherently full of tension, sure, but when you start in one, you’re trying to harness tension you didn’t earn with plot and character first.

Are you nailing your novel beginning? Wondering how to start a novel? Let me be an expert pair of eyes on your first pages. I’ve read tens of thousands of novel openings, and bring that experience to my editing services.

Learn to Love the Revision Process for Writing a Book

The revision process for writing a book can be extremely intimidating. I completely understand. There are some really great points in the comments about why this situation arises, but that doesn’t change the fact that writers are still often too intimidated by revision to give it the time it deserves. Read on.

There’s More to Writing Than Query Letters

I have a harsh lesson for you today about the revision process, my dear readers. Hear me out.

In the spirit of retrofitting my website with all the latest gizmos and gadgets, I’ve also been doing work behind the scenes on SEO (search engine optimization). It’s the art and skill of making websites more friendly to search engines and, ideally, pulling potential readers in off of Google by using keywords that relate to the site’s content. That way, you reach people who are searching for what you have to offer, and they get relevant content. It’s a win-win!

The sweet spot happens if you find keywords that are searched for a lot, but that aren’t terribly competitive. That’s where you find your opportunities to rank high in search engine results. I read a book about it, so I’m basically a pro now. Deal with it. 😛

Revising Your Writing

In reviewing some keywords, I came across the perfect example of why so many writing efforts fail. I feel like the smug spinster aunt for pointing this out, but just look at these two keywords, and the associated search volume. JUST READ THEM AND WEEP (I know I did):

revision process, creative writing, creative writing revision, revision, editing, editorial
You should be ashamed of yourselves, Googlers!

What’s this you’re seeing? These are two search engine keywords and their monthly associated search volume. Up to 30,000 of y’all are searching about how to do creative writing every month, and only 100 brave souls (or even fewer) actually want to know what to do with all that beautiful creative writing once they’ve written it!

I apologize for this scolding post if you’re right there with me on the revision train. For the rest of you, the revision train is leaving the station, and you better be on it!

This reminds of me of all the times I spoke at conferences. 9 out of 10 writers would ask about fuh-reaking query letters. Rarely, rarely, and I mean every third or fourth weekend conference, would I get a craft question at a panel discussion. Or someone would approach me with an insightful writing concern.

Every other time, writers would be falling all over themselves to ask about queries. Queries! Those 300-word letters! Compared to your 70,000-word novels! This misdirected energy continues to surprise me.

Love the Revision Process

The revision process is where it’s at. Writing is actually in the rewriting. Once you’ve done the creative writing, there are so many wonderful things that happen during the revision process. Revision is where you find the shape of your writing, it’s where you tease out all of the rich thematic elements.

I can’t get enough of it. So this is a call to action and a plea from your dear friend MK. If your zest for writing ends as soon as you type The End on a manuscript, dig into this website and think about learning to love revision.

A literary agent’s slush pile is overflowing with manuscripts where the writer wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and rev–nah, let’s just send it in! In the overwhelming majority of cases, these are not the manuscripts that get offers of representation.

How to Revise

If you’re stuck or just getting started with your manuscript revision, take this tip: Put your manuscript away for a few weeks. (Ideally three months but nobody ever takes me up on this advice!) Once you’ve typed The End, your subconscious has gone into overdrive thinking of your story and all of its various elements. When you return to the page, you will actually be seeing it with new eyes.

It’s the easiest advice to give, but the hardest to follow. Are you up for taking the challenge and loving the revision process a little more with me this year?

If you really don’t know where to start with manuscript revision, hire me as your novel editor. I’ll give you a comprehensive, actionable, and inspiring map.

Writing About Feelings: What Do Feelings Feel Like?

moody, feelings, melancholy, on the beach, how to write feelings
Feeling all the feelings.

Say what? Feelings feel like feelings, duh! Or do they? If you’ve been on the blog for a while, you know that I talk a lot about writing about feelings and making it compelling. The word I use is interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions). You can see older posts where I discuss how to write interiority here. Go ahead and catch up, I’ll wait…

The Most Important Thing a Writer Can Do

I firmly believe that a writer’s most crucial job is to make the reader care. And putting authentic, relatable emotion on the page is one of the easiest and best ways to do this. But a lot of writers get tripped up here.

Whether they name emotions outright, or engage in a lot of telling, or sink into melodrama, a lot of writers aren’t very good at crafting genuine emotion.

This post was inspired by an editorial consultation I did last week. What I said really resonated with the client, and so I wanted to share it here. In this particular manuscript, the character was very angry. But the writer had written something long the lines of, “Her anger rose.” (I’m making up my own examples to protect client confidentiality, but it’s enough to give you the gist.) Basically, a flavorless telling description of anger.

And? So? How Do You Make the Reader Feel It, Too?

Okay. That’s a start. But I’m not going to feel angry or relate to the character just because I see the word “anger” on the page. That’s not how it works.

So what I’m more interested in is what anger feels like to the character. Let’s call her Erin. Does Erin relish the warm rush of wrath? Is she looking forward to lashing out? Is she afraid of her own anger? Does she think fearfully of what happened the last time she felt like this?

There’s so much more nuance to human feelings. “Anger” simply doesn’t cut it. An example of a rewrite would be: “Erin felt the anger rising and rushed to tamp it down. She couldn’t risk losing it again, not after last time, and the fight that got her suspended.”

Writing About Feelings: Add Context, Make It Fresh

Because we’ve all read scenes where characters feel angry. It’s familiar. What can you bring to the scene that’s new? Well, you are giving us a new character. With a new personal history. And new feelings about their feelings. Do you see how this takes the idea of feelings one level deeper?

What does anger feel like to your specific character? What experiences with anger are they bringing to the situation? My anger isn’t the same as your anger isn’t the same as your protagonist’s anger.

So instead of just saying “anger” and leaving it at that, I want you to really work at introducing layers. How do they feel about what they feel? What do those feelings bring to mind? You can call the feelings by their names, sure. As long as you don’t stop there.

If you struggle with adding relatable emotions to your manuscript, let me take a look and give you personalized, hands-on character critique.

How to Write a Character the Reader Believes

how to write a character, how to make the reader care, how to write fiction
Look at this guy, he really doesn’t trust your protagonist…

A lot of writers wonder how to write a character. I’ve been giving the following note a lot in my consulting work, and it’s a fascinating idea. Ideally, you are creating a protagonist who the reader relates to and wants to (bad publishing joke alert…) be on the same page with. But are you secretly undermining the all-important reader-protagonist relationship with your writing?

It’s Your Word Against the Reader’s

As your reader, well, reads, they are creating impressions of your characters, your plot, your world, your writing style, etc. Ideally, they are discovering these impressions by reading your action-packed plot that is slim on telling.

So where is the potential problem? If the reader’s impression of anything in your story clashes with what you (or your protagonist) is insisting.

For example, imagine that your protagonist has nothing nice to say about their math tutor. They’re a show-off. And super rude. And nothing but trouble.

Except the young tutor on the page is…nice. She shows off a little bit, maybe, but she’s actually quite helpful and pleasant. So what’s the problem?

This situation actually drives a wedge between your protagonist and your reader’s impression of events. And in this conflict, your reader is going to side with…themselves. Now you’re left with an undermined protagonist, because the reader will always want to trust their own impression.

How to Write a Character With Credibility

Unless you’re working with a notoriously unreliable narrator and that’s a storytelling choice you’ve made, make sure your protagonist is someone the reader can align with. If the protagonist hates the math tutor, the math tutor should be hateable. Maybe not in a way that makes them a caricature (rather than a well-rounded character), but in a way that the reader can get on board with the protagonist’s opinion.

If the reader’s opinion and your protagonist’s diverge, make sure it’s for a good reason. The more clashes there are, the less relatable your main character will seem, and the less inclined the reader will be to trust them.

As a writer, your number one job is to make the reader care, and you have a lot more power over the reader’s emotions when you’re funneling it through a character who they like and relate to.

Think about the effect you’re creating.

If you wonder how your characters are coming across, and whether your characterizations are consistent with the reader’s impression, hire me as an expert set of eyes.

Creating a Daily Writing Practice

One of my wonderful, intelligent blog readers wrote in with the following excellent question about creating a daily writing practice. I’m not trying to butter her up, I really think it’s a good question and it’s worded very well, with a nice citation and everything. Here we go:

For the past several months I’ve been revising a manuscript and querying agents. But while I’ve been doing this, I haven’t been writing. As you suggest, I put my manuscript in a drawer for several months and started working on a new manuscript. Now the new manuscript (which isn’t finished) is in the drawer. I also have another idea twirling around in my head. How do I balance my writing life? Kate DiCamillo says she writes two pages every day. But how does she do that when she’s in the throes of completing a project?

balancing your writing life, making time for writing, commiting to writing, daily writing practice
To find balance in your writing life, just make like this rock..and roll. What a terrible joke. I’m so sorry…

Finding Your Commitment to a Daily Writing Practice

Most of us don’t walk around complaining about how much free time we have. Life is a busy thing. So how do you do everything you have to do, keep the bills paid, and still find time to write? I don’t have a definitive answer. I do have some thoughts, though. And I think you’re on to something in your very own answer, and with Kate DiCamillo’s advice.

There’s this old adage, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Writing isn’t going to fall into your lap, you have to go after it. And once you get into a writing habit, it’s much easier to maintain it and keep writing. So whether that’s two pages a day, or ten, or fifty (ha!), the number is irrelevant. The key piece of info is: “a day.” That means every day. When you’re sick, when you’re stressed, when the baby is cranky, you still do your daily writing.

If you need to wake up 30 minutes early? Or cut out those fifteen minutes that you spend absently browsing Facebook at night and replace it with writing time? Then that’s what you need to do. The key is, do it every day. Two pages a day sounds so insignificant that it’s not even worth it. But that habit of writing every day? That’s really the secret.

Rotate Between Writing Projects to Maintain Momentum

The other advice is to rotate between projects, as you’re already realizing. There’s only so much you can do when you’re querying. You send out all those emails and then…you wait. That’s just part of the writing life. So instead of letting that waiting drive you crazy, put it away and work on something else for your daily practice.

And if you hit a wall with Project 2? Don’t let that writer’s block stop your daily practice. Put the new project away and start working on an outline for Project 3. Then Project 2 might call to you. Or you might receive feedback from an agent on Project 1.

By that point, you’ll have enough momentum to be more flexible about what actually happens during your writing life daily practice. Should you write new pages? Revise pages that have been sitting in a drawer? Sketch out some broad ideas for something that’s on the back burner? Your muscle memory, once a good habit is established, is going to get your butt into that chair. From there, you can let your creativity guide you to whatever needs to be done.

Make Your Life a Writing Life

The hard part really isn’t the writing, it’s making that space in your life that says, “Writing is necessary today.” Besides, you’d be amazed that two pages a day can turn into 700 pages in a year. That’s two novels! When I’m editing, I can provide notes on about 20 pages an hour. In two weeks, even if I work one hour a day, I’ll have that whole novel edited. Or if I can only work 15 minutes (or 5 pages) a day on revising something, it’ll take me two months, but that novel will be done. That’s all that matters. Every day, you’re making progress.

The wheels of publishing turn very slowly. Six months to write a novel, in the grand scheme of things, is NOTHING. Two months to revise a novel, in the grand scheme of things, is NOTHING. They say, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today.” You could commit to 15 minutes/two pages/whatever a day, and in six months, you’ll be a hell of a lot farther than you are today.

Or you could agonize about how you never have time to do anything and two pages doesn’t really seem like a lot and you’ve got analysis paralysis, etc. etc. etc.

So don’t worry about what the balance part will consist of once you’re actually working. Where you want to put your energy is making that work mandatory, and getting to the working place every day.

Wondering what to do with the results of your daily writing practice? Hire me as your developmental editor and I can give you actionable, motivating revision advice.

Rushing Through Revision

Recently, I had a potential client come to me for freelance editorial work. He had a 4,000 word manuscript and a dummy that he wanted me to review. It was a rush request, which is fine. I charge more for those because I have a lot of clients who wait quite a while to get on my calendar. Not a problem. But I ultimately ended up declining to work with him, and I got to thinking that I’d write a post about why. The real reason was this client’s personal deadline, and a potential issue it implied. Note that I received this email on December 10th, six days before the writer wanted me to turn the work around, and ten days before his submission goal.

Here is how I responded to this potential client:

Thanks for writing in. Winter is my absolute busiest time. I call it the New Years Resolution effect. Do I have an hour to look at 4,000 words and scroll through a dummy? Sure. But, to be honest, I am hesitant for a number of reasons. Two have to do with how I operate, personally. First, I’ve had people sign up in August to work with me over the winter. I sometimes do expedited services, but because you’re contacting me to skip the line and all of these other clients that are on my plate right now have been waiting so patiently, I do charge 25% more than I usually would to accommodate rush requests. Second, I always need an agreement and deposit in place to begin work. You’re not allowing a lot of time for those logistics. I could just dive in, sure, but I operate on a fairness principle. I don’t want to throw my usual workflow out the window for one client, when others would’ve probably liked for the same. I didn’t make exceptions for them, and so I won’t in this case, either.

My next two hesitation have to do with your self-imposed deadline. First, publishing essentially shuts down during the holidays. Since so many people are away from the office, very little gets done. I’ve been discussing submission strategies with several clients and I’m recommending that they fire work off to agents and editors in mid-January at the very earliest. Could you submit five days before Christmas? Sure. What are the odds your submission will actually be read on the 20th? I would say 1%. I realize it’s a symbolic deadline that has a lot of meaning to you, but it’s probably one of the most hectic times to try and show your best foot forward. You risk hurting your chances if you submit now.

Second, you’re requesting editorial feedback. If I do read the manuscript, chances are, I’ll have notes for you. A lot of notes. But you want to submit by the 20th. Is four days enough to address them and do a revision? A really good revision? That’s where I have to draw a hard line and say, “No.” The bulk of a writer’s work isn’t in the writing, it’s in the revision. You’ve told me that you don’t plan to change your dummy at all. That makes sense. You’ve already created it, and you’d prefer not to repeat that work. But the manuscript might have a lot of opportunities for growth. A lot of opportunities that you don’t want to miss. 4,000 words doesn’t sound like a lot to some, but any story, even a short one, has a lot of moving parts. There’s plot, character, voice…

If you engage a developmental editor who’s likely to give you suggestions for changes, I’d say you’re not giving yourself enough time to make them. There are writers who submit to freelance editors with the expectation that the editor will say, “This is perfect as is, you’re ready to send.” I have only encountered a “ready to go” manuscript twice in my years of editorial work. Even those two could’ve benefited from some tweaking, which both writers took their time to do before going on to secure their agents. Much more often than not, there is a lot for a writer to do after they receive feedback. If you’re looking for someone to just give you the green light and no notes, I’m not that person.

It’s for this last reason that I am going to kindly decline your rush request. I have the hour, absolutely. Everyone has an hour. But I don’t think it’s a good use of my time or your money to give you thoughtful editorial feedback if you’re just planning on zipping through a revision in four days. If you want to really jump into the editorial process, let’s talk. If it’s not right for you at this time, I wish you all the best.

***

I don’t mean to sound harsh. But there are a lot of writers, it’s true, who engage an editor with the expectation that they’ll hear, “Wow! Rush this off tomorrow, it’s perfect!” I’m not saying that this writer thought exactly this, but given the timeline he wanted, I just couldn’t see how there would be bandwidth for anything else. The point is, many people spend all of November pouring 50k words onto the blank page. Is this an accomplishment? You bet! But once their first drafts are done, some writers decide that it’s time to find an agent yesterday. They’ve written a novel, after all! It’s right there in Scrivener, formatted and everything! So what more could possibly be needed?

A lot, actually. If you’re like the other 99.99% of us mere mortals. So I hope this post serves as a reminder of the importance of revision. And a peek into my thought process. (And a reminder that December is a dead zone in publishing!) It’s rare that I turn down an editorial client, but it does happen. Some projects simply aren’t a good fit for me to begin with because of subject matter, genre, or style of writing. It’s very rare that I consider a project unreadable, but it has happened once or twice. In that case, at my rates, it really doesn’t make sense to have me come in and try to bring it up to a basic level. You would go broke, and I would go crazy. More likely, when I pass on a client opportunity, it’s because I don’t see how I’d be able to add value. If I don’t have good ideas for how to work with you, I’m not going to take your money. Or, in cases like this, I see a potential red flag that a writer’s expectations will not align well with the actual service that I pride myself on providing. It’s always a tough call to make.

In a very satisfying plot twist, I heard back from this potential client. He took the points I made to heart and scrapped his self-appointed deadline. We’re working together on his project next month, and he’s giving himself the time to turn around a quality revision. Sometimes these stories do have a happy ending!

Heavy-Handed Imagery and Theme

I was recently working on a novel outline, helping the writer flesh the idea out so that they had the strongest possible “road map” to work from when writing their story. It’s a service that I really like because I push writers to consider all aspects of their story before they invest the time and energy in turning the idea into a manuscript. I believe it makes the writing process tighter and easier. It also leads to less long-term headache because we’re figuring things out ahead of time that most people don’t realize until revision. Well, this writer happened to have a very specific theme in mind. In fact, I believe the theme might’ve been the idea kernel that set the whole story in motion. Unfortunately, the story idea was mostly just a vehicle for this theme. In other words, the theme was so prominent that it became heavy-handed.

Why is this an issue? Well, in the case of this story, the writer could’ve easily turned the theme into a motivational poster and left it at that. You know those inspirational quote squares that are all over your Instagram and Facebook feeds? One of those. Why write a novel when all you want to do is communicate an idea that can be summed up in one sentence? This is why theme-heavy story ideas hardly ever work. There’s simply not enough nuance for the reader to be interested in digging deeper. “The point of the story is so front and center, what is there for me to do?” the reader might ask.

A lot of writers have such strong themes. It’s not bad to have a theme. In fact, every story needs at least one. The issue becomes how to express it. If you’re quite subtle about it, you may not be communicating your idea clearly. But I hardly ever see this problem. Much more likely is the issue of overt theme.

Picture books probably suffer the most from theme overload. Many writers are extremely tempted by the idea of putting a wise adult character into their stories for young readers that voices the theme outright. “And that’s why,” the kind grandmother said, “it’s so important to share.”

Yuck. That belongs on a classroom poster. Not at the heart of a story. Now, if you show a character’s life being enriched by sharing, that’s another thing. That lets the reader see the benefits of sharing for himself, and to make the connection that sharing is probably great on his own.

In novels, theme usually manifests itself in imagery. Let’s go back to my client’s story. It was a classic coming of age, where the character goes on a journey of self-discovery. Now I’ll depart from the actual idea for the sake of anonymity. What images can we use to talk about transformation, freedom, and self-expression? I know. Butterflies! They go from weird caterpillars to beautiful creatures. The journey is painful. The outcome uncertain. They crawl on the ground and then, all of a sudden, they take flight. These images are evocative and they fit the theme. In that sense, using the image of butterflies to communicate a coming of age theme is a home run, right?

The problem is, this image is heavy-handed. Too many writers have gotten to it already. It feels very familiar. There’s nothing fresh here. Unfortunately, more creativity is required not only to avoid clichés in writing, but to couch the theme in a way that’s thought-provoking, and not just a shortcut.

I would wager that if you were reading a YA novel about a character’s personal transformation, and the climactic scene took place in a botanical garden where there’s a butterfly exhibit, and the main character let a butterfly take flight from the tip of her finger, you would…groan a little? It’s been done. It’s a part of a very obvious conversation.

If you innovate in terms of your imagery as it pertains to your key theme, you will likely get a more engaged reader out of the bargain. What is your theme? What images are you using to convey it? How can you freshen up those images, make them more unexpected, ask the reader to use their imagination more?

After all, the world is your…abalone. 😉

A Boring Edit

I’m not calling my editorial work boring. Not in the slightest! I am suggesting a specific revision technique to work on pacing. I call it the “Boring Edit.”

Now, I can give advice until I’m blue in the face, and I know that maybe only 1% of people will actually try it. For example, I routinely tell writers who are struggling with a manuscript to put it away for three months and THEN try revising it. So far, I’ve heard from maybe a handful of writers who’ve tried it. (They loved it, BTW. Just sayin’…)

Yet I still persist in giving advice! Because it’s good for you! (What a Mom thing to say.) This technique is especially useful if you’ve been told that your writing sags or slumps or stalls. I’m looking at you, Muddy Middle. There’s not much of a trick to it, it’s very simple. All that’s required is a printer and some marginal self-awareness. As you “edit,” you only have ONE task. Sounds great, right?

Here are your steps:

  1. Put your manuscript in single-space formatting. This is so you’ll be less tempted to scribble on it and line edit. Sure, it hurts the ol’ eyeballs, but we all have to suffer for our craft sometimes.
  2. Print it out and pick a time when you can read it as you would any other book. This works best if you have a few solid chunks of time to really kick back and sink into it.
  3. Start reading. Consciously avoid trying to edit as you read. Try and read it like you would any other book.
  4. Have a pen in one hand. The pen is NOT for editing.
  5. Look at your own mind as your read. Your one job is this: Put a check mark in the margin whenever you feel yourself starting to drift, mentally. If you start thinking about the grocery list, or what you’re doing this weekend or sinking into a mire of self-loathing about how crappy your manuscript is, or whatever, put a check. That’s it, that’s all. Don’t even analyze it, just put a check mark.

Awesome. Now you have a manuscript with some check marks in the margins. And what does all that mean?

These are the parts of your book that are boring.

I’m sorry. Someone had to say it. But we can’t all be brilliant for 250+ pages, especially in the early stages of crafting a manuscript. Scenes run long. We lose the point of what we’re trying to say. We get more excited about crafting wonderful prose than actually accomplishing any action. Objectives disappear and are replaced by banter that may or may not be witty. Plot points go into hiding. Or maybe you’re just trying to make your 1,667 words for the day because it’s NaNoWriMo. (I’m on to y’all…) It’s OKAY.

With this largely hands-off read-through, you are identifying the parts of your story that need work. That are, let’s face it, a little boring.

The most important take-away is that, if even you can’t focus enough to read it, you can’t expect a reader to slog through. Simple as that. You have a vested interest in this manuscript. Nobody else does. (Yet.) If you’re boring yourself, you need to take a long hard look at those places. Usually the culprit is too much thinking/talking and not enough action. I have tons of plot-related posts you can check out to help beef up in that respect.

So who’s with me? Who’s excited to do a Boring Edit?