I am back from Europe and ready to rumble. And by rumble, I mean edit manuscripts. When I work with my editorial clients, I work a lot with interiority, which I define as thoughts, feelings, reactions. Emotions are a big part of getting to know a character. Often, a protagonist’s (or other POV character’s) emotions are the reader’s guide for their own feelings. If Chris is getting anxious about X, we will also feel that tension mounting. If Amy can’t wait for Y, the audience will (ideally) sit a little straighter in anticipation of it.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is this idea of anticipation. Tension rises best when it builds gradually, in my opinion. Think about it. The most (wonderfully) painful horror movies are the ones where the doomed character searches the entire house for the murderer who we know is there. The first few opened closets (complete with musical crescendo) are painful. The part where they peek into the attic is worse. But by the time they’ve searched every room and they’re about to open the final door, I’m on the very edge of sanity, eyes half-closed, rocking in my seat. It’s an altogether different thrill when the first door they open is the one hiding the killer. It works, and it’s shocking, but the build-up is missing. After all, a lot of ink is spilled in dating advice columns reminding readers that seduction starts long before you reach the bedroom.

Tension and anticipation.

The same principles apply, I think, when working with character emotions. Imagine that your character is nervous about an event that’s a big part of your plot. You would be squandering the chance to develop emotion by hiding that from readers until the minute before the event. Instead, build tension. And layers of it. Not just “I’m nervous” but “I’m nervous that… (insert specific fear here)” and “If X doesn’t happen, then I’m afraid of Y” or “I can’t imagine my life without a successful outcome here.”

“Nervous” is a blunt instrument. Specific manifestations of how someone is nervous, why, and with what consequences, now that’s a more human and personal interpretation of the emotion. And it doesn’t come online right before the event, either.

Personally, I hate flying. I do it all the time, and I love the adventure that awaits me once I land, but I hate the act itself. There’s certainly the acute fear of flying that takes over once we’re roaring down the runway (take-off is my least favorite part). That’s definitely a nervous feeling. But there are many different shades to my fear of flying. Every time I book a plane ticket, for example, I get a little twinge in my gut of, “I can’t wait for my trip but, ugh, I have to fly.” A few weeks before the trip, I’m invariably hit with, “Ugh, maybe I can just call the whole thing off and stay home. Besides, it’s unfair to leave the dogs for so long.” As I’m packing my toiletries in the TSA-required zip bag, “Should I write a living will?” (Yes, I really am this irrational.) At the airport, “Uuuuughhhhh, dread dread dread dread dread.” And on and on. And on. Trust me when I say that I’m really no fun to travel with until that double bell goes off signalling that we’ve reached 10,000 feet.

This is perhaps a bad example because all of this tension and anticipation has been leading up to an event that, I hope, is perfectly anticlimactic. In fiction, the emotional groundwork you’re building should lead to things that are a big deal. Plot points. Turning points. Shifts in relationship dynamics. Etc.

Imagine an on-topic example, then. Eileen is angry. Her best friend blew her off because of a “bad cold,” only to post pictures on Instagram from a mall outing that includes new, more popular people. People who, Eileen thinks, are trying to steal her best friend from the second grade. Eileen feels betrayed. She has a sick, anxious feeling in her gut that she’s about to be replaced. Or worse, that the switch has already happened. Now who will she turn to? Self-pity enters the mix, making the existing anger boil. Maybe uncertainty: perhaps the picture was from before, and she’s blowing this whole thing out of proportion. Self-doubt flexes its muscles.

When should we hear about this toxic cocktail of emotion? When Eileen explodes at her best friend, maybe thrusting a phone open to the damning pics in her face? That’s just part of a much bigger story that’s been unfolding inside Eileen since she was hurt. All of this is to explain a very simple concept that I hope more writers take to heart:

Especially when you’re writing a scene that calls for big emotions, focus less on the scene itself, and more on peppering in the lead-up to it, which usually happens in interiority. Tension and anticipation. The power you have to build something up shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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Thanks to the fabulous Eric Fox of BSD Systems, who has been helping me out with IT over the years and does a great job for small businesses (this praise is unsolicited!), this website has been cleared of spam that snuck in through an outdated version of WordPress. I’ll be back in the second half of March with some fun new posts!

I’ve had some issues with the blog over the years but nothing quite as serious as what I’m dealing with now, a pharmaceutical hack. In Google results, this site shows up with a flag that suggests it’s been compromised. I know all about it and am working hard to cleanse the site with the help of my IT guy. I apologize for any anxiety this may cause. Please feel free to refrain from visiting until I post the “all clear,” as I’m not quite sure, myself, how the hack works.

In other news, I’m going to NYC and Europe for a few weeks and will resume posting the week of March 24th. When it rains, it pours, right? Thanks for your patience and understanding.

 

I’ve had many writers coming to me over the course of my leaving myself open to questions. (If you have any general writing or publishing questions, email me at mary at kidlit dot com or leave them in the comments anytime!) Some of these writers are struggling with their agents. I know, I know. Most would simply die to have an agent in the first place, but once that hurdle is cleared, there really are issues that come up. Sometimes agent/writer relationships dissolve. Sometimes communication isn’t the best. It’s certainly a wonderful professional achievement to land an agent, but being agented isn’t a magic bullet guarantee of getting a publishing contract.

One question that a lot of writers have goes along these lines:

I got an agent. Yay! But my agent isn’t really sending my project out to a lot of editors. Is this normal or does this spell trouble? Do they not like me anymore? Etc.

There are a few behind the scenes reasons why your agent might be sending to a smaller list. First of all, “small” and “a lot” are quite subjective. That’s why you should talk to your agent about submission strategy before you sign with them. They might be the type to blast your submission all over New York, or they may be more selective, sending to six or eight carefully chosen editors at a time. Both of these approaches can be the “right” way of submitting. It all depends on the project, its prospects, and the agent’s personal style.

When I was submitting, for example, I would try between six and twelve editors at a time for a project, and I’d have a list of other potential names ready to go for future submission rounds, if necessary. That way I could control the submission, be deliberate about my selections, and usually only contact one editor per publishing house. You can submit to more than one if you target different imprints, and sometimes that approach makes sense, but those judgment calls, again, depend on the circumstances of the project.

This is the part that can get dicey, though, and it’s frustrating because it’s largely out of the client’s control. Sometimes an agent has projects out with a lot of editors. If you have twenty clients, for example, and they’ve all turned manuscripts in recently, you can find yourself with fewer and fewer potential available editors that aren’t already considering your other submissions. You want to send to the right editor for the project, always. But you also want to send to editors you know and like. This keeps your relationships alive and inspires those editors to give your projects more careful consideration. You want to work with them, they want to work with you. And, more importantly, they trustyou to bring them good stuff that they can buy.

This brings up the issue of capital. Just like editors have capital with the pub boards–it’s understood that they will bring their directors great manuscripts and only really fight for what they believe in, rather than bringing ten things to every meeting and trying to make a case for things they’re lukewarm on–agents have capital with editors. You don’t want to send an editor three projects while they’re still reading your previous subs. That’s careless and maybe they won’t be as excited to open your future emails or take your future calls because soon your pitches will feel like impersonal spam. You’ll be backed into a corner, because you don’t want to cannibalize their attention in favor of one client over another. So if an agent already has other projects with the Perfect Editor that they had in mind for you, you may not see Editor’s name on your submission list. At least not until the previous project either goes through or doesn’t.

And sometimes an agent gets into a relationship with an editor at a certain house, and they want to take care of that relationship because said editor is handling a big book or top client for the agent or agency. (This sounds a lot like office politics, and it is. Sometimes an agent has the agency’s other interests to consider.) It’s unspoken but recommended that the agent bring more projects to that editor, in the hopes of lightning striking again. If that’s the case, and that editor isn’t a fit for a certain client’s work, maybe that whole publishing house falls off of the submission list for the new client. Agents try to be as diplomatic as possible, but it’s a tough decision sometimes between thinking either “I hope it doesn’t alienate Mr. Editor that I sent him something not quite his style” or “I hope it doesn’t alienate Mr. Editor that I contacted a colleague of his instead of wasting his time with something not quite his style.”

Sometimes, it’s true, an agent will only submit to a few editors because they don’t believe in the project 100% and they want to test the waters. That’s a tough pill to swallow. To be perfectly honest, sometimes agents send out projects against their better judgment because they are feeling undue pressure from their clients. “I have a feeling this won’t sell as is, and I feel like I’ve tried to discuss the issues with my client,” they think. “But the client says it’s ready and wants to see a submission list, so maybe I’ll send it to a few editors. If it doesn’t sell, at least the rejections might mention the same issues, and maybe the client will finally listen.” That, and sometimes you want a little vindication when a publishing colleague agrees with you. This way you’re not the only bearer of bad news about a writer’s beloved manuscript, and there are more messengers to shoot! Editors, of course, do not appreciate being used as a “second opinion” on problematic manuscripts, but this does happen on occasion.

This article lists some scenarios that might result in a smaller submission list from your agent. The key takeaway, though, is that you should keep all this in mind and yet be more proactive. It’s your agent. They work for you. If you suspect any of the above, ask them why their list seems small. Get into specifics. Don’t look at it and take offense or start constructing conspiracy theories. A lot of realistic considerations go into a submission strategy, and you deserve to know what’s going on. If an agent is out with projects all over town and that leaves no editors out there to give you a fair audience, see if you can’t wait a little bit. If an agent is frustrated because they feel like your manuscript still needs work, do the difficult thing and try to see where they’re coming from.

Client management is difficult, as is sitting at your computer and waiting for news from your agent–the person in charge of making your dreams come true. Be honest, be informed, be understanding. Keep your lines of communication open. And if you feel like something is going on, and it’s not making you feel great, start that conversation sooner rather than later. Judging by the emails I’ve received from agented writers, there are too many out there stewing in silence or complaining on message boards. That doesn’t have to be you!

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There’s a book that I recommend over and over called SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. One of the central ideas is that you can never start building character sympathy too early. And you can’t do it by telling, either, or sharing what the character thinks about himself, or even what other characters think about him. Two of the biggest vehicles for showing (read my perennial post on “Show, don’t tell” here) are choices and actions.

To create a character who the reader will relate to, even if it’s an unreliable narrator, unlikeable protagonist, secondary character or villain, put them in the situation to choose or act as early and as often as possible. This opens up a whole world of potential for you. Do they say one thing and do another? Do they want one thing but choose a path away from getting it? Are they always consistent with thought, speech, and action? All of these things teach the reader about your characters.

Choice and action are very powerful because they show about character, but they also move the plot forward. While it’s possible to take a choice or action back, most will have ramifications. The best choices and actions will be clear dividing lines between a “before” and “after” in your story, whether it’s with a plot, a relationship, a feeling, your character’s self-knowledge, etc. The bigger the choice or action, the more significant it will seem to the reader.

For example, your character is a princess who threatens to run away all the time to escape her responsibilities. Rather than talking about it, or holding it over the heads of those around her (the more often a threat is made without follow-through, the less effect it has over time, per the Law of Diminishing Returns), get her to a place where she has to choose/act. What does it tell us about her if she runs away? What does it tell us about her if she stays?

A type of plot I’ve run into a lot recently has been the “hands tied” or “crash test dummy.” These are passive plots in which the character either can’t do anything because of their circumstances, or gets dragged through the plot by fellow characters or circumstances without contributing much. If your character is in jail, they obviously can’t really choose or act much. That’s a very difficult situation to render in an effective way. Their choices and actions will most likely deal with their inner life (choices reflecting who they are) and relationships (if there are any to be had in the dungeon). At a certain point, though, if your character can’t make any choices or take any action, you need to look at your premise as a whole and decide, honestly, if maybe it’s too limiting to create the sort of dynamic fiction today’s market demands. Sometimes writers back themselves into a corner with a story that’s self-limiting. A “crash test dummy” plot has the opportunity for choice, but the character doesn’t take a stand or act with agency, for whatever reason. It may run into some of the same problems as the “hands tied” type of story unless the character can begin to take the wheel.

Think about whether your character can be described as active or passive. How much do they move the story forward through their will and actions? What plot points has your character spearheaded? Can you call much of what they do or say binding or consequential? If not, you may be underestimating these very powerful tools in crafting character and plot.

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I’m working on a lot of freelance editing client manuscripts these days and loving it. (Maybe working a little too hard, hence the blog neglect!) Every time I make a note that I think will be a good post, or that can apply to more than just the moment in question, I flag it for potential follow-up on the blog. I’ve now stockpiled so many that I have material for weeks. All I need to do is figure out the most engaging way to illuminate all of these craft issues that I’m feeling so passionate about for a wider audience. (Easier said than done, ha!)

Today, I want to talk about “blah” words as they pertain to your objectives and motivations. This is a topic I’m super intense about. I’m writing my annual article for the Children’s Writers’ and Illustrators’ Market about it, in fact. (Which reminds me, I should really get on that…) My theory is that it’s more difficult to engage with character if we, as readers, don’t know what they’re doing (in the small and large sense over the course of your story), or, very importantly, why. And if you’ve followed me for a while, you probably know what I mean by “blah” words. If you have no idea, check out this post. To summarize, they’re generic words that have shallow emotions attached to them because they can mean many different things to many different people.

I encountered a character recently who made plenty of statements about motivation. This is great. I was excited. Hearts popped out of my eyeballs, anime-style. But something was wrong. Instead of being specific about motivation/objective, the character resorted to “blah” words. What does this look like? Example time:

I’m seeking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
He won’t stop until justice is served.
Her highest goal is peace.
If I could only get proof.

These are not from client work, or any work. They’re merely samples. Do you see a connecting thread, though? They all rely on “blah” words (truth, justice, peace, proof) that are connected with positive, wholesome emotions, but don’t really tell me much of anything about the character or the plot at hand.

A character will ideally have many small pieces of objective (what they want) and motivation (why) throughout a story. These elements exist from scene to scene and overall, for the entire arc. These “blah” words tend to work themselves into the larger objective/motivation that drives the character throughout the story.

You’ve long heard me say that generalization or the generic are the enemies in fiction. Specificity is where it’s at. Instead of having a character walk around talking about achieving justice or getting proof, break it down further so that it applies to the character where they are in the story and the plot as it’s progressing. For example:

If I could only get proof that Sadie stole the parade float, I’d feel so much more at peace. The Girl Scouts have been framed, I just know it. Nobody will listen to them, and that’s an injustice. And, worse, nobody seems to want to know the truth. Hmm, I wonder if the gas station across from the high school has any video footage from last night…

Here, we have tons of “blah” words (proof, peace, justice, truth), but they have taken on a concrete meaning in context. Not only do we get a sense that morality and “the right thing” are important to the character (this is likely applicable story-wide), but we get a sense of what’s going on now, what’s driving the character now, and what they plan to do in order to achieve their specific objective in this section of the story. The vague has become the specific, and now it applies directly to the events at hand. Establish and reinforce objectives/motivations through, on a scene-by-scene level, and for the larger arc of your manuscript. Don’t rely on some “blah” words and principles to stand in for specificity.

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Every year, I advocate for the Big Sur Writing Workshop, one of the best in the United States. I’m biased because I used to work with the fabulous agents of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and was on faculty for several years. However, I truly believe in this intensive, hands-on, close-knit, workshop model for a conference, and every writers needs to experience it at least once. This spring’s offering is March 7th to 9th in Seaside, California. Learn more about it and register here.

If you’re based in the Midwest, you will likely have heard of the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Their depth and breadth of writing programming is quite impressive, and the events are put on by a diverse and interesting group of writing and publishing professionals, called “Teaching Artists” at the Loft. This spring, they’re doing their annual Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference on April 26th and 27th in downtown Minneapolis. Details have yet to be posted but I’ll be speaking about pitches and queries that weekend, which I’m really excited about. Keep an eye on this page for more information.

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The Blurt

No, I’m not talking about blurbs, the juicy quotes you try and get as a soon-to-be author that (may or may not) help sell your book. Though I probably should at some point, because it’s a pretty hot topic in the publishing world and ahuge source of anxiety for new authors. This post is actually about the action of blurting. No, I haven’t run out of things to talk about. I have about 100 ideas in the “soapbox file” on my computer. (Lucky you!) I know this sounds very specific, but, as usual, I have a larger point to make by delving into something small.

You know those times when you open your mouth and…the worst possible thing just seems to fall out, as if on its own. I know I’ve had this happen. A few times. Usually during fights with my mother. And I hear about it for the rest of my natural life. Ha! Well, in addition to this happening a lot to me, I’ve noticed that it happens quite a bit with fictional characters. A lot of big events in manuscripts I’ve seen seem to spin on characters blurting. The big secret. That they love the guy. That they’re not who they say they are.

I understand the urge to throw one’s arms up and hinge an important scene on a blurt. It’s easy. Your character would never do something so silly until, she just does it! You know how that goes, Reader. Sometimes ya just run your mouth! But here lies the problem. It’s careless and unintentional and often feels like a cheat. Especially if blurting is out of character for your blurter (new word). It tells me that the writer needed certain information to emerge but didn’t know how to go about it. This technique is especially disappointing when the character has, elsewhere, been in control of themselves with interiority and being present and vulnerable with the reader. A blurt under those circumstances just feels wrong and a little too convenient.

So how do you get around the blurt cliché? If you think I’m going to say, “interiority,” you would be correct! You’re writing compelling MG and YA fiction with great access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, yes? Great. Since you have spent time making your character mindful and aware, they must know that what they’re blurting will have ramifications. They will know the risks of confessing their love to their crush. They will know what awful things might happen if they let their true identity slip. They will think about it. And instead of blurting it once their author has painted himself in a corner, which is passive, they will make the choice to say it with intention, which is very much active.

Make the moment of your blurt a conscious turning point! Get in their heads when you feel tempted to blurt and have them make the decision to say the Big Deal thing instead. Anyone can blurt anything. But we will learn so much more about your character if they take the risk and do the stupid thing with full agency. If blurting is careless, then knowing the risks and going for the reveal full-bore is ballsy. And that’s the kind of action that gets me more invested in your character.

Are there any blurts in your manuscript? Can you make it work as a choice instead? How will that reel your reader in or reveal a new shade of your character?

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This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

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Two quick-and-dirty nuts-and-bolts things. First, if you are addressing a character by name, the standard formatting includes a comma before and the capitalization of the name. An example:

“Would you like this disgusting tennis ball, Gertie?” (My dog’s favorite question.)

Second, if the character happens to be the parent in your story, you need to make an important distinction. Are you addressing them as Mom or Dad (as if it is their name), or are you referring to them as a noun? I see this all the time in manuscripts. Here’s an example that makes the distinction clear:

“Do you have a mom, too, Mom?”

Here, you can talk about “a mom” or “her dad” or “his mommy” all you want, but it is lowercase. The second you use it to address a character, just as you would a name, it becomes capitalized. A quick proofread will tell you if you’re on the right track. If not, commit this simple rule of thumb to memory.

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