Writing a Proactive Protagonist

Writing a proactive protagonist is one of the single most important things you can do to set your novel up for success. I feel like I’ve been giving this note over and over in my freelance editorial practice lately: Your protagonist is too passive. They do not drive the plot. They are passenger, not driver. What is this problem and how can you address it? Read on!

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Your character needs a strong idea of where they’re going. They should be someone the reader will be compelled to follow.

Active vs Reactive Protagonist

Novels are hampered when a “main character” takes a backseat to action. Higher concept plots are often vulnerable to this. (Because, remember, stakes in writing can be tricky.) If you have Ordinary Kid and you throw them into Extraordinary Circumstances, they are likely, a) not going to know what’s going on for quite a while, b) not going to know what to do, and c) going to rely on others for help.

You’ve perhaps made a plot that’s “too big” for your Everyman character. This thwarts them because they spend the entire novel either, a) learning the ropes, b) discovering their talents, and/or c) figuring out where they fit in.

Thematically, this makes sense, especially for a middle grade or YA novel. If every kid was self-assured at the beginning of their story, you wouldn’t have a relatable novel for tween and teen readers (who often feel incompetent or unsure). But it’s possible to make your character too impotent.

Take a look at your novel. Does your character spend a lot of time receiving instruction? Are there a lot of guide/mentor characters? Do events happen to your character, rather than your character making events happen?

You are in danger of having a passive protagonist. After a while, if the character doesn’t become “activated” and start acting with their own goals, desires, and agency, they are going to be the eternal backseat driver and their power to affect the story–and, more importantly, the reader–will evaporate.

Writing a Proactive Protagonist

No matter how unsure your protagonist is about their life, themselves, or their upcoming challenges, they still need to be a hero. For sure, this doesn’t have to happen immediately, or there’s no growth trajectory. But when you’re writing a proactive protagonist, you should at least the hint of some confidence/ability at the beginning.

Everyone is good at something. And even if a character is not good at anything (or just believes they aren’t), they have a secret weapon that you shouldn’t hesitate to deploy: their desire or need. This secret weapon can make all the difference between an active vs. reactive protagonist.

Use Desires or Needs to Motivate Your Protagonist

Desires and needs are universally relatable and everyone has them. They come together to form your character’s objective and motivation. The objective is what they want, the motivation is why they want it. I define desires as things characters want, which can be external. Whether a physical object or an outcome. A need is something a character, well, needs on a deeper level, so it’s usually an internal conflict. They desire to win the championship but they need the validation such a coup would provide, for example.

The best thing about desires and needs? They make us brave and they make us active. I may not usually be outspoken (Ha! Obviously not speaking personally…), but if my desire is on the line, I’ll act.

Too many times, a character arrives on the page without strong desires or needs. “Ugh, I’m so ordinary. Ho hum. If only something good would happen.” This isn’t specific. Sure, everyone can relate to being bored, but boring characters are … boring. Sitting around and waiting for “something, anything” to happen is a prime set-up for a passive protagonist. This leaves them wide open to anything that comes along, but not really pursuing anything.

Instead, give your character strong goals and wants. Let’s see them chasing after something right away, even if it isn’t yet their central objective. And when the plot does kick in, solidify their objective, motivation, desire, and need. That way, even if the plot sweeps them along on a wild ride, they are always able to take proactive steps, they always have their eyes on the prize.

Better yet, the plot might threaten their objective. Then the stakes rise. They can’t lose X. They can’t sacrifice Y. They only have one shot at Z. Or else what? They go unfulfilled, because their deep need isn’t being met. If you have your character actively chasing, no matter what else happens, you give the impression of a hero.

Secondary characters and subplots help in terms of making your protagonist active rather than reactive. A character can do things for others, or do things that dovetail with another plot thread. Ideally, all of these actions serve their core need (not every need should be 100% selfish, but you should always have strong personal reasons for selfless actions, too). If the primary plot puts your protagonist in a passive position for a moment, is there anything they can DO for anyone else?

Give Your Characters Enough Info to Act

Finally, too many writers hamstring their characters by not giving them enough information. Why? The misguided urge to save everything for a huge reveal at the 70% mark of the plot. Well, guess what? If readers aren’t compelled by a character or story right away, they won’t even get to the 70% mark. Too many writers withhold too much information, stalling until “the time is right” for a reveal. Instead, give your protagonist information earlier. Empower them. Allow them to act with some of the facts in hand. Otherwise, they’re sitting on their thumbs until you’ve decided to throw them a bone. In this active vs reactive scenario, reaction is going to win out — which spells disaster for your protagonist.

Big Choices and Small Moments

Even if you can’t give your character a bunch of information or make them an ass-kicking hero from page one, you can let them be proactive from moment to moment. Study this article on writing active character reaction. If they simply can’t participate just yet, at least let them be engaged. You’ll also want to take a few big risks and step outside of your comfort zone.

Keep training/explaining to a minimum, especially in the first 100 pages. It’s always better to have your protagonist active vs reactive, even if they make a mistake doing so because they’re green or don’t have all the information yet. Really take a close look at all of these types of montages. I will bet that you can make some big cuts and redistribute key information elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest choice you can make to empower your hero is to stop giving them so much help. The best friend who only exists to support them? Give that friend some nuance and conflict, or they’re just going to be boring scaffolding for your protagonist. The older, wiser mentor who gives the trainee the lay of the land? Let the character start to discover things for themselves, make assumptions, and get out there, ready or not.

Remember, fiction is life elevated. Big stories. Big characters. Big stakes. Most of us feel like we’re just along for the ride in our daily lives. When we come to get away from it all and read fiction, we want to see protagonists who take risks, make choices, chase dreams, and grow into their power. There’s definitely an aspirational component to relating to character. Make sure your hero is someone readers can be inspired by, warts and all, and put them in the driver’s seat. What are you waiting for?

Are you struggling with writing a proactive protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.

How to Write a Novel Synopsis

The novel synopsis is a source of great consternation for many writers, and I completely understand why. To be honest, I hate writing them, I hate reading them, and I know I’m not alone. They are, usually, both crime and punishment. But they are a necessary evil for several reasons, which I’ll mention. Read on to find out how to write a novel synopsis in a way that’ll keep your sanity intact.

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“Do I really have to read this thing? You read the synopsis! You read it and I’ll get you coffee for a week…”

What a Novel Synopsis Is and What It Does

A novel synopsis is, in very basic terms, a one-to-four-page document that explains every major plot point and character development moment. That’s it and that’s all. For such a short and simple document, it sure seems to stir up a lot of angst.

Okay, so maybe my perspective is biased. I’m sure not everyone hates the novel synopsis. I’m sure there are writers out there who write amazing synopses, and agents/editors who gobble them up. Don’t get me wrong, they serve an important purpose.

A novel synopsis demonstrates how you think about story, how you plot, and how you wrap everything up. These are very important skills. A wonderful elevator pitch can very easily fall apart in the execution.

Agents and Publishers are Curious to Know the Following

  • that you have a lively cast of characters
  • that you are working with enough plot and subplot, or whether it’s too little or too much
  • that you’re building appropriate stakes and tension as the story progresses
  • how you plan on landing this thing once it’s going, whether everything will be resolved or you’re leaving some threads open for potential future stories
  • if you have any big red flags or fatal flaws in your story, which usually happen in the second half (see “Fair Warning”, below)

Some agents and publishers pay a lot of attention to the synopsis. Some glance at it. Others don’t even request one. But no matter what, you should know how to write a novel synopsis. Better yet, it would behoove you to have this document available in at least two lengths, to deploy when necessary.

How to Write a Novel Synopsis

The best way to write a strong novel synopsis is to sit down and do it. Sorry! That’s it! There’s no secret magic dust that I can give you in this case. But once your butt is in the chair, here are some basic tips on how to write a novel synopsis.

Open a blank document and jot down all of the major plot events of your story. You can start in bullet points, if that helps, but eventually you’ll want to write them out in narrative format. Don’t worry about making it cute, pitchy, or voice-y. Your writing should be clear and tight. Just the facts, ma’am.  Be sure to fold in the three or four biggest character turning points, too. These are the changes your character goes through as they get where they’re going. My strong belief is that a synopsis will involve character somehow, to give a sense of how plot and protagonist play together.

For plot, at minimum, you want to hit your opening (the inciting incident that launches your story), a handful of strong points in the middle as things go wrong and obstacles arise, your climax, and your resolution.

Mention only those details that are necessary for clarity and understanding. If the mom’s job is important to the plot, include it. If the dog and cute neighbor factor into the story but not in a big way, you may want to leave them out. For the purposes of this document, you are running lean.

For all of my surprise and reveal fans: Sorry. I’m about to crush your dreams. But you have to reveal your twists and turns, and your ending. I know you want to tease, tease, tease an agent into reading the whole manuscript. You think that if you just withhold the major twist ending, they will fall over themselves to request and sink five hours of reading into your novel because the suspense will kill them otherwise. Well, catch-22, the odds that they’ll request the full and then get all the way to the end are slim if you don’t demonstrate that you know what you’re doing first and that your twist is worth it. (There are people who vehemently disagree and will fight me on this. You’re not changing my mind, but I fully expect to hear from you!)

Tips for Novel Synopsis Writing

The most common lengths for a novel synopsis are: one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages (roughly the same as one single-spaced page), two single-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages. The reason for this wishy-washiness is that different agents/publishers will request different things in different formats. I recommend having three synopses available to send when you start submitting: a tight one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages (this one will not be requested that often).

So you can attack this beast in one of two ways:

Option 1: You sit down and write your entire novel in one single-spaced page (you still need normal 1″ margins and paragraph spacing, so you can’t just use every available centimeter of space). This is the more difficult approach, because I’m guessing your novel probably has more than one page of material. So whittling it down so drastically is daunting. But doing it all at once is also very helpful, because once you’ve shrunk it, you can much more easily add some substance to make a longer synopsis for a two-page and four-page option.

Option 2: You sit down and you do the painful shave. Start with four double-spaced pages. Put down more detail than necessary. Introduce the bulk of your secondary and tertiary characters. Mention events that don’t have a lot of bearing on character change or plot stakes. Save this version. Open another document. Now you’re aiming for two double-spaced pages. Shave, shave, shave. Delete everything possible that doesn’t impact the reader’s understanding of your story. Save this version. Then single-space it and realize that you’re over one page. Now the real agony begins as you distill further. Save the one-page version. And voila! This is perhaps the more scenic route, but the destination is the same.

There is one great test of a novel synopsis that I recommend to everyone: Show it to someone who doesn’t know your story, and then have them explain your book to you. If they kinda sorta get it and are able to hit the major points, you’ve written a successful synopsis. If they start to squirm, you’re not being clear enough. Your synopsis is either too thin or too detailed.

The only way out is through, my friends. So sit down, embrace our love/hate relationship with this document, and let’s get started.

Fair Warning: Part of the synopsis’ job is to reveal story problems. If you write a synopsis and have trouble filling it with actual plot points, it might mean that your plot is too thin. If you can’t possibly omit any plot points and your synopsis is five pages, that might mean that the scope of your novel is too broad. Be prepared to learn that you might have bigger issues as you write this summary document. It definitely happens.

I had a client recently come to me for a 30-minute discussion of his query and opening pages. My big piece of feedback was, “I don’t know if this is a query problem or a novel problem, but I’m not seeing any plot here. Something should be kicking into gear in these opening pages, and the query should be covering more development than I’m seeing.” We moved on to a complete manuscript service and, guess what? There is very little plot, and that is a big issue. Keep your eyes and ears open as you prepare your synopsis documents, you might learn more than just how to write a novel synopsis.

I include synopsis comments with every service as a manuscript editor. If you’re really struggling with yours, let’s work on it together.

How To Overcome Writer’s Block: Three Tips

This post about how to overcome writer’s block is very different from one of my favorite “advice” posts about writing bravely. There, I talk about pushing yourself (in a good way) to write what you don’t want to (in a good way) because that’s a strong signal that a breakthrough is coming (in a good way).

This post is not that post. This post is for those writer problems where you’re  trying very hard to write what you think you have to, but deep down, you really don’t wanna.

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Want to know how to overcome writer’s block? Stop doing what you think you should. The sad sweat of your efforts will be obvious in your writing.

How To Overcome Writer’s Block: Three Tips

1. Let That Knee-Jerk Reaction Be Your Guide

Over the weekend, I had a lovely client phone call with a person who was trying to decide between categories. Is the idea a chapter book? A picture book? An article? Someone had told this client that it would make a great novel, but the problem was…she just didn’t wanna write a novel. Her manuscript is too short to be a novel and she didn’t want to flesh it out. Full stop. That’s it and that’s all.

Could it have worked as a novel? Sure. I thought so. Other people thought so. It could’ve been a strong contender for a novel.

But there was a problem.

The writer didn’t wanna!

And sometimes that is the best reason not to write something the way you’re being told to write something (unless, of course, you are a contracted writer employed by someone to write something a certain way, then you should probably avoid “freestyling”). Why?

It’s Easy To Tell When The Passion Isn’t There

If you are just writing YA because you think that’s where the market is and you’re writing a kissing scene because you have to (even though it makes you cringe) and you are putting swear words in because that’s what all the kids want these days, etc. etc. etc. Are you being true to you?

Another phone call last week. A woman had been told by several people (not in the industry, so with questionable experience, see below) to abandon her ambitious multiple-POV narrative and make the story more streamlined. That’s sometimes good advice–people can get in over their heads when they experiment with advanced narrative techniques.

But the multiple-POV idea had been with her since the very beginning, since the first dream she had for her novel. Could she get rid of it? Sure. Would she still have the prospect of a novel without it? Yes.

But…

(say it with me here)

she didn’t wanna!

And sometimes, that “don’t wanna” instinct is a good guide. (Sometimes it’s not. Like, I don’t really wanna pay my mortgage every month, but I probably should…)

2. Be Selective About The Feedback You Follow

The issue with writing feedback is that, sometimes, it can be wrong. Sometimes the problem is that the advice-giver doesn’t know what they’re talking about. (I often see this problem with people who have asked family members or children for feedback.) Sometimes the issue is that the advice they’re giving is the wrong advice for you and your project.

I often encounter writer problems where the issue is conflicting feedback. They are stuck. They don’t know how to overcome writer’s block when there’s not a clear path to follow.

The more feedback you receive, the more different people you work with, the more you will develop your own compass. This will help you parse through feedback and know whether or not to act. Does this feedback feel right? Does it make sense? Does it stir up your inner “don’t wanna”?

Not All Feedback Is Created Equal, And Not All Feedback Is Going To Be Useful

I just responded to an email from another client. This client had some rebuttals to my notes, and we probably have some disagreements about the project. My advice to him? “Take the wisdom and leave the rest.” I stand by my feedback, even though I understand his points. But if my advice isn’t working for him on certain things, then he can move forward, having at least considered it. I count that as a win, because the advice–even if he didn’t end up taking it–helped this client make more conscious choices about his story.

Sometimes realizing you don’t wanna do something is a great way to resolve your questions about how to overcome writer’s block.

So following unqualified feedback can be dangerous, because, simply put, people love to give uninformed opinions. But even more seriously, following your own advice can sometimes be even more dangerous. Because, as humans, we are prone to having a very skewed sense of what “should” be. A lot of human misery sprouts from these ideas we get about what everyone else thinks we should or shouldn’t be doing.

Examine your motives. Are you only writing something a certain way because you think you “should”? Are you acting on advice you received but didn’t like?

3. Find Your Passion Again

The real issue is that writing that comes from a “should” place is not likely to sell. I talk about this in my post about children’s book writing trends. Because if you’re not having fun, and if you don’t have the passion for the project, that will eventually show on the page, no matter how good you are.

If you’re slogging through it, imagine how un-fun it’ll be to read. (This, by the way, is the issue with most synopses. It falls under the category of classic writer problems, because writers hate writing them–and it shows.)

Sure. There are some projects that are just a bad idea, no matter how much energy and love you pour into them. My favorite example is the 200-page picture book. It’s most likely never gonna happen. So if your heart’s desire is a 200-page picture book, then, yes, you may want to take some advice about basic feasibility. But if your project is do-able, market-wise, but you just don’t wanna do it, listen up.

Step Away From The Word Processor

Do some freewriting or daydreaming. Try to reconnect with what inspired you about the story in the first place. Did you start with an idea and then lose it during the writing process? Were you forced to make cuts or changes that you didn’t agree with, deep down, in order to please someone else?

This rut often happens when we get away from our vision and away from ourselves. The lesson? Just because you feel like you should be good at something or you want to be good at something, try to develop your authentic writer self. What do they want to do? What excites them? Start–or very likely, get back to–there.

Wondering how to overcome writer’s block? Get some feedback you can trust. I even help writers synthesize conflicting critiques they’ve already gotten. I am also great at giving you permission to try the thing you deep-down-want-to-try, if that’s what’s been holding you back. Hire me as your book editor today.

How to Write Big Character Life Changes

Many writers wonder how to write big character life changes, massive events that rock your characters to their core. But this is a necessary discussion to have, since, ideally, your novel will be grappling with huge life stuff. So how do you render a big plot point in a believable and relatable way? Read on.

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Rendering character life changes on the page takes a light and thoughtful touch.

Coping With Big Life Changes

Two recent editorial projects come to mind where a novel’s protagonist has been thrown into an absolutely new life. In both cases, these were thrillers, so it was a life of sudden crime, badass skills, high stakes. Two perfectly nice small-town young women suddenly became Lara Croft in the span of one life-changing event each.

In both cases, the writers just ran with this new “badass persona”, without paying a lot of attention to the idea that big character life changes often come with a lot of angst. I can’t be walking my neighbor’s dog one day, then breaking into a bank vault with a Glock the next, without some kind of psychological upheaval.

The thing is, rendering big stakes in writing is hard because they’re so big, so unbelievable. When your character inevitably goes through a huge life event, your job is to follow them through the transition in a way that takes many steps.

One leap from Girl Next Door to Action Hero is not believable. Any huge shift to identity demands several steps. When the unthinkable happens to your protagonist, what are the layers they feel?

Let’s take our Lara Croft example. When she wakes up the next day, suddenly charged with stopping a money laundering ring, and she finds a gun in her hand, how many different ways does she feel?

Scared of the potential outcome? Guilty for what she has to do? Worried about the people she’s leaving behind? Empowered that she has the chance to do something big? Like she wants to crawl back into bed? All of these are different.

Of course, in the interest of your plot, you want your character to embrace their story, to run with it. To buy in to the inciting incident. But too many times, I see a character going from Mode A to Mode B so seamlessly, that it’s like Girl Next Door never existed. She did, and she’s instrumental to keeping your reader attached to the big plot point that happens next.

Life Before and After Big Character Life Changes

Speaking of which, be sure to give your character enough of a life “before” the big plot point. Something that can act as a touch point. Do they think about a childhood pet (a symbol of comfort) when things get intense? Do they remember previous moments of triumph when they need motivation in their new circumstances?

In both of the manuscripts I worked on recently with this issue, one of my big notes was that there wasn’t enough of a “before”. But if the character is too thin when they launch on their big adventure, there’s something too glossy about their new personality. It’s hard to relate to. I’ve never held a Glock. I’ve never woken up as an international jewel thief. (All of the examples I mention are made up, they don’t have anything to do with client manuscripts.) I can’t relate as well to our protagonist now that she is these things.

So that “before” life is going to come into play to not only help her weather the storms of her new predicament, but to help me connect, as a reader. Character life changes are incredibly powerful tools in your plot. They keep your action moving forward, and they are very necessary to creating good fiction.

But remember who your characters were before their lives changed, too. That’s years of rich material you can draw on, especially if present circumstances are rocky or larger than life.

The Bigger the Event, the More Nuanced the Reaction

There’s a note I often give about melodramatic writing. You know, when the boy’s girlfriend dies and he all of a sudden becomes a poet and weeps about “the darkened chambers of my heart”. A big reaction to a big plot point is not always the best choice.

The problem is, we don’t often know how to write nuanced and compelling reactions to big events. Matching big event to big tone often results in purple prose. Souls shattering. Angels weeping. That sort of thing. These have become cliches.

As you consider your character’s reaction to big life events, think instead of the small thoughts he or she could have. Everything is falling apart around them. With a pang, they suddenly remember the treehouse where they used to hide out when their parents argued. What they wouldn’t give for that childlike sense of safety and security, to hide away until everything blows over.

Or when their best friend falls into a coma. They could drop to their knees and rend their hair, sure. Or they can remember that time they filmed an N*Sync music video in their backyard*. They even went to Ross and got matching costumes. How they laughed when they played it back.

Look for contrasts. Big events/quiet thoughts. High action/small realizations. I’m always on my editorial clients to aim for complexity, to add layers to their work, to connect in unexpected ways.

When your novel serves up big character life changes, the first reaction that comes to mind may be a familiar one that readers will expect. Take a step back. What else is available to your imagination? There, you might find the fresh, nuanced choice to really reel your reader in.

*Absolutely, positively not something I did in the seventh grade. Okay. Okay. But it was my best friend’s idea…

Are your characters coming across as you’ve always envisioned? If not, hire me as your novel editor and learn how to make them a reality.

Writing Emotional Meaning

Writing emotional meaning can be very difficult because most writers are so focused on getting information down on the page. What it all means, how it makes the reader feel, how to get the most out of it…these are higher order concerns that sometimes don’t enter into a first draft.

And they don’t necessarily have to. Sometimes we don’t know what our books are really about until we’ve written them. But that’s what revision is for! If you have no idea how to convey emotion in writing, read on.

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Sometimes writing emotional meaning feels like juicing truth out of a rock. A very meaningful rock.

Writing Emotional Meaning for Character

Writers often get caught up in putting character details down on the page instead of focusing on how to convey emotion in writing. Your character’s eye color, favorite food, quirky hobby. For some, this is the stuff of spreadsheets. The contents of the character’s room or locker or backpack are meant to tell the reader who they are.

I do not understand this, nor have I ever. Sure, if they like mumble rap instead of country, this tells me something about them. Some vague, mass market, cookie cutter thing. But it doesn’t give me their soul. Writing emotional meaning entails digging beneath these surface details to the how and why at the core of your character.

This is a pretty subtle difference. Keep in mind that your character has had a past, they have a present, and they are hoping for a future. Instead of just the facts about each of these, I want to know how your character backstory is affecting them.

For example, your character grew up in an abusive home. Instead of just detailing the abuse in flashback, surprise the reader. Maybe your character thinks of the treehouse where they escaped from everything. Or maybe they felt empowered in the midst of tragedy by making pancakes for their siblings before the mom got up and the day started on a bad note.

An Example of Emotional Meaning

If the character relates to this fact from their past with some nostalgia, or even fondness, there is richness there. How do they think about the past? Compare this example:

I was abused ever since I could remember. Mom would come home late from one of her benders, then it’d be up to us to stay quiet all morning while she slept it off.

This is very factual. We get just the straight truth here. Now compare it to this one that showcases writing emotional meaning:

Th smell of maple syrup always sets me off. I remember cooking as quietly as possible. Huddling everyone around the table. But instead of the fear, I remember watching everyone eat and smiling. For just a moment, we are all safe in the kitchen and it’s because of me.

This character has a tough backstory. Sure. Everyone knows that child abuse = bad. But don’t just make that preconceived notion in your reader’s mind do all the work.

Finding an emotion that’s more than “just the facts”, and maybe a surprising emotion, adds some interest and intrigue to the character attributes you’re creating. You can have the character react with the same level of complexity about their present and future. For example, they are about to receive a full-ride scholarship to an elite prep school. Amazing. All their dreams are coming true.

But how else might they feel about it? Resentment because they’ll have to actually work hard, unlike some of their fancy new classmates? Pressure?

When you’re focusing on how to convey emotion in writing, don’t stop at “what”. Move past it to “how” and “why”.

 

Layer Emotional Meaning In Before You Need It

The other day, I was reading a client manuscript about two best friends who really miss one another, because the main character moved away. The friend is mentioned briefly in the first chapter (by name, with the attribution “best friend”), then it’s not until a dozen chapters later that they are able to talk on the phone.

Now, the writer has done a few things wrong here. First of all, if it really is a best-friendship, why does it take ten chapters for them to get on the phone after a traumatic separation? Second of all, it’s not enough to just say “Oh, she’s my best friend and I miss her” and then count on the reader’s idea of a best friend to do all the heavy lifting. Leaning on your readers’ assumptions is not how to convey emotion in writing.

What this writer should’ve been doing is writing emotional meaning into the friendship in every chapter. Does the character think to text their BFF, only to sadly remember that it’s past midnight on the East Coast? Does someone at their new school remind them of their friendship? Does mint chocolate chip ice cream not taste as sweet without their amiga?

Have Your Characters Think About the Important Stuff

I read a lot of manuscripts where the character says something like, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about my BFF. I miss her so much.” And yet in 50 pages, the protagonist hasn’t thought of the friend once, except to name them and tag them “best friend”. I have access to their thoughts! I’ve been looking! Not one thought on the actual page. So “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about XYZ” rings incredibly false.

All this is to say, if something is meaningful, put it on the page early and often. Try to find surprising emotional meaning behind it. Add depth and richness. By the time we get on the phone with BFF in chapter ten, we should know something about their friendship. We should have feelings about it that are inspired by the character’s feelings. We should know much more than, “Oh yeah, that’s the best friend character she mentioned.”

Plant seeds. Add layers. Writing emotional meaning is a job to undertake from the very beginning for those elements of your story that are truly important.

All of your details are on the page, but the emotions are falling flat. Work on your character’s interiority and your emotional writing with me as your novel editor.

Writing Tension Instead of Teasing

There is a big distinction between writing tension and merely teasing the reader along. Unfortunately, a tease is not enough and doesn’t respect your audience. Here’s how to recognize if your scenes have enough tension, and how to fix it if you have a teasing issue.

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Tick tick tick, keep that tension high without teasing…

Have you ever written this kind of tension in a story:

If only she knew then what she knew now, she would’ve done everything differently…

They enjoyed their ice cream, not knowing what was about to hit.

These are examples of a classic tease. Writers usually use this kind of language when nothing is going on in the present moment, but they want readers to tag along until something more exciting happens. This is a fine instinct–you know you need more tension than you have, so you are trying to create it. However, it’s not the best approach. Read on to find out why, and how to create genuine reader interest by writing tension rather than relying on gimmicks.

Why Teasing Doesn’t Work

Teasing is especially problematic for middle grade and young adult fiction, because those novels tend to be very immediate. The character is in the moment, and there’s none of this, “I’m telling the story from the future, looking through the hazy sands of time.” When you resort to the “If I only knew then” ploy, that puts your actual character’s storytelling in some undetermined future and kills the tension in a story.

Sure, the reader may wonder what’s about to happen, but this is a short term fix to a moment that lacks other tension. It may not be enough. One or two sentences of teasing might give you a very temporary tension boost, but if you aren’t writing tension into that scene or chapter, it’s not going to be enough.

Even more problematic is the idea of teasing repeatedly. Every time you mention a tension-building event, it loses a bit of power. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a simple application of the Law of Diminishing Returns. Redundant writing without actually putting the climactic event on the page (and soon!), readers will lose interest as the tease becomes more and more transparent. If you simply must build tension this way, try to add new information with each tease to keep readers engaged.

Writing Tension In the Present Moment

Ideally, you will be capitalizing on tension that is present in the moment that you’re writing. This is hard to do, because sometimes your moment doesn’t have a lot of tension. You know it needs more. You just don’t know how to create it. So you tease about the future. This often happens in chapters where there has been a lot of telling and the writer is eager to pick up their pacing.

This isn’t the answer you want, but it’s the real answer: writing tension into your moments, scenes, and chapters will automatically boost reader engagement. If you don’t have it, create it. Or maybe the moment you’re putting on the page isn’t working because there’s not a lot going on. Really analyze the moments where you’ve been using teases. Do they work? Is there more that can happen there? Can you create conflict via character? Maybe loop in other characters or bring in a secondary plot thread? Have a bigger world event happen to shake the characters up?

If the moment isn’t doing heavy lifting, you need to inject some. Ideally, you wouldn’t have a scene or chapter without capitalizing on tension that’s currently happening.

Conflict is the engine that drives plot forward. You should be creating tension on the page at all times, no matter what else is going on. That’s why exposition in writing — like big globs of worldbuilding, information, or backstory — tends to fizzle out quickly. Action is the easiest way to create tension in a story, whether it comes from something happening in your world or character conflict.

Teases are a cheap fix. If you really want to hook readers and keep them engaged, really invest in writing present moment tension.

Are you orchestrating the right amount of tension? Bring me on as your developmental novel editor and we can dig into your plot together.

Writing Compelling Novel First Pages

Oceans of ink and blog posts have been spilled talking about novel opening pages. And with good reason. Your novel first pages are the only thing an agent gets to see before they make their decision about you. Well, that and your query letter and synopsis, which is why those are such hot topics. But how do you nail your novel’s opening pages? The advice may be simpler than you think.

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Don’t underestimate the importance of your novel opening pages. But don’t try to do too much, either. It’s a tight balancing act.

Great Novel First Pages Start With Conflict and Action

I cannot overstate this point: Conflict and action hook a reader and transport them into your story. This is exactly the goal of your novel’s opening. So start in action, start with conflict. You may want to use a smaller, scene-specific conflict (or “bridging conflict“) to get readers on the bus initially. That also puts less pressure on you to start with mind-blowing high-stakes conflict, which can be difficult to pull off before the reader knows your character.

Basically, you want to give them just enough of your character so that they care, without over-indulging in information (see next section). And you want to put the character in motion. They want something, they’re experiencing an obstacle, they are frustrated or full of longing. This is a good state for your character to be in.

And, very importantly, they are starting in action, where they’re either being frustrated by an obstacle or striving toward something. You need that balance of internal conflict and external conflict.

If you start with too much external action right away, readers may not care because they don’t know the character, their objectives, or motivations.

If you start with no external action, then it’s easy to get bored. For example, a character sitting in their room, philosophizing about life and all the ways in which it has gone wrong. Maybe you start with generalities, for example:

Life can be funny sometimes. I spent 13 years thinking I was normal. Totally lame. And then one day, everything changed.

But the character is just sitting and thinking. There’s no action. This is 100% internal conflict, and you want to avoid it because nothing is actually happening.

Avoid Too Much Information in Your Novel Opening

In the same vein, information overload can sabotage your novel opening pages in other ways. You might start with action, like the character getting bullied, but then you stop and go into great detail about the school, everyone in it, and the character’s history with the bully since kindergarten.

“Context is important!” you say. But you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. If you start off your novel with a ton of information about everyone we’re meeting and all of the details of a character’s life, the plan will not get off the ground, so to speak.

There has to be a balance of action and information, and if in doubt, action should win out. For every piece of information that you introduce in the first few pages of your novel, ask yourself: Does this really, really, really have to be here? Otherwise, you may insert it later, or not at all.

Pick a Moment You Can Sustain

Finally, to tie your novel opening together, you need to pick a moment you can sustain for two or three pages without either stopping the action to give tons of information, and without leaving the moment to go into backstory (more information).

You want your readers to get a foothold in the story. The way they do that is to sink into a moment they can lose themselves in. If you open with a bullying scene, let’s get that scene from beginning to end. Let’s get dialogue. Let’s get action. Let’s get a sense of our character as he or she experiences this, otherwise called interiority. Put the reader in the moment.

If you currently start with general philosophizing (per the example above), a ton of information, a lot of jumping around in time to gather various details, or without a sense of balanced internal and external conflict, it’s time to take another look. Your beginning really is your make-or-break. So it’s your job to make it good.

Struggling with your first pages? My Submission Package Edit revamps your first ten manuscript pages, query, and synopsis, so you can make an amazing first impression in the slush. Hire me today!

Avoiding Transition Words in Writing

Oftentimes, manuscripts are cluttered with transition words, like “then”. These tend to just be filler. Here’s why it’s better to cut down on transition words in writing and streamline your manuscript. Some writers won’t be affected by this at all, but others may recognize themselves in this article.

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Instead of telling readers where you’re going, then going…just go.

Transition Words are Filler

For fun, here’s a list of transition words. A lot of these words and phrases are more at home in an essay. Writers of fiction will especially want to pay attention to the Time/Chronology/Sequence list.

Some writers use these words a lot. “Then” and “Suddenly” and “Just as” hang out and take up space at the front of many paragraphs. Some writers absolutely don’t have this issue, but others can’t help but be conscious of the passage of time. They use transition words and phrases to introduce action that’s about to happen.

Here’s the thing. Instead of introducing that action is coming, then describing the action–take a shortcut. Simply describe the action. For the most part, transitional words and phrases are filler.

Action is, by and large, written in chronological order. So words like “Then” to link descriptions aren’t necessary. Your reader will know that one event follows the other. If your manuscript suffers from inflated word count (50k words plus in middle grade, 90k words plus in young adult), you may want to really drill down to the sentence level. Are you overusing transition words and stating the obvious?

Try trimming them and you might see that your writing takes on a new and refreshing tightness and simplicity.

A Few Exceptions That Require Transition Words

There are two notable exceptions to my advice. In picture books, transition words in writing really do keep things moving. Picture book action tends to be very quick–writers are expected to do a lot in about 700 words. Sometimes, time and action move quickly. Actions are described in a few sentences. So transition words help things flow, and they help keep younger readers engaged.

In work for older readers, there are instances where you will want to use compressed narration, or when you’re hopping around in time. If you are making a transition between scenes and need to splice your timeline together, transitions are totally fine.

They’re also a good idea if you’re going into flashback or moving around in any order other than chronological. Remember, if you take a time leap, you will always want to ground your narrative relative to the scene you just departed.

Transition words help keep your reader’s feet on the ground, so they know exactly when and where something is happening in relation to a previous passage.

Streamline Your Writing

The big takeaway is that writing works best when it is tight and functional. Flourishes are, of course, allowed. Sometimes extras help define your voice and identity as a writer. But a lot of filler can creep into writing and make it dull and heavy. Are transitional words one of the things you could trim from your work?

Voice is a crucial component of publishable writing. Hire me as your developmental editor and we can take your work to the next level together.

Writing Child Characters

If you want to write children’s books, writing child characters has to be a special interest, and always top of mind. The thing is, children are different from adults. For a lot of wonderful reasons. For some people, it’s very easy to channel their childhoods onto the page. For others, it takes constant work and course-correction. Here are some tips.

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Writing child characters takes strength and vulnerability.

Writing Child Characters Believably

Nailing the mindset of a child the same age as your protagonist is crucial. As I write in Writing Irresistible Kidlit, and as I’ve said at many conferences across the country, kids have amazing built-in BS detectors. It’s hard to ring true with them because they are so absorbed in their experience, they’ll be able to pick out those who can’t connect to it very easily. (It’s the bane of every parent’s existence to be called out for not understanding, after all.)

For a lot of writers attracted to children’s books, this comes rather naturally. There is something about a young child’s experience that they remember from their own lives. They remember being a child and have something they want to say about it. Or they have a child the age of their protagonist to connect with. Something about parenting children has inspired them.

No matter where you stand, it’s always a good idea to get back in touch with your inner child–because that’s key when writing for children.

Remember Your Childhood

You may want to bean me with a yoga mat for this suggestion, but I am a big fan of journaling to help you get into (or out of) a particular headspace. When trying to connect with your inner child, don’t hesitate to write letters to that age of child, write letters from that age of child, or write diary entries as that child. Don’t try too hard to think, don’t judge yourself for what you’re writing or its quality.

Simply write. (Ha ha, easier said than done.)

Soon enough, you may find that words are starting to flow and ideas, memories, or feelings may surface after a long, deep sleep. The key isn’t just to do this once. If you want to write for a certain age group, do this over and over and concentrate on what it was like to belong to that age group.

Also, and this goes without saying, this is one of those exercises that only works if you do it. Thinking about doing it and doing it aren’t the same thing.

Connect With Modern Kids

Not in a creepy way, obviously. But another piece of the puzzle if your childhood muscles are rusty is to be in the same room as living, breathing children for a while. Volunteer for story time at the library, hang out with nieces and nephews, offer to host your teen’s next sleepover or sports party. Don’t lurk, but don’t close your listening ears or your observation eyes, either.

Childhood is different today than it was in your time, even if your time was a few years ago. A lot of the feelings might be the same, but the plot points are new. There are different issues at play. The world is different. Scarier. Bigger. Smaller. Bullies can do their dirty work on a screen or with guns instead of with their fists, for example.

Channel your inner child, but talk to contemporary children as well. They’re fonts of information and they will be more than willing to share if they believe you to be genuinely interested in their experiences.

Read, Read, Read When Writing Young Characters

Have I beat this dead horse into the ground yet? Read. Even as you’re journaling to connect with your former self, and hanging out with actual kids the age of your characters, you’ll want to see who else is working in your space, and what they’re doing.

If you’re not already reading in your chosen category, what the heck are you waiting for? If you’re at a total loss for great books, start with award winners. These are writers at the top of their game, and all kinds of age groups, genres and styles are represented. Check out the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery, Printz, Belpré, Stonewall, Morris award winner and honor books, and more. Here’s a whole list of all the awards given by ALA. This is certainly not the end-all, be-all of books published that you should be reading, but if you’re desperate for a reading list and don’t know where to start, this will lead you down a great rabbit hole of your future favorite authors.

Writing Picture Book Characters

Special considerations for writing picture book characters (and, to an extent, early reader and chapter book) include remembering that these kids are still very much developing. Their worlds are quite small. They have a family and home that fill up most of their lives. They are learning a lot and being told what to do constantly by parents, teachers, siblings, etc.

As such, your books for this age group need to empower and inspire. Kids need to be put in the starring role, to solve their own problems. Well-meaning and wise adults cannot solve everything for them. For these ages, play on universal themes like love, loss, friendship, overcoming challenges, and trying to find what makes you special. These ideas will resonate in a big way with little kids who are still extremely egocentric. (This is not a slight. Developmentally speaking, young kids have a hard time differentiating that others are different from them and not simply there to suit their needs until they’re two or three.)

Think of what’s important to the littlest kids in your life. Writing young characters for picture book and connecting with children the age of your readers is especially important when writing for the youngest age groups, because you may not have very distinct memories of what it’s like to live in the moment and feel everything as intensely as little readers do.

Writing Middle Grade Characters

I love writing young characters for this age group. Nowhere else is the split between child and grown-up felt so acutely. Middle school-aged readers (and those slightly younger) are in frenzy of activity around developing their identities. Yet they also crave a safe haven when life gets to be too much, or when they get in over their heads. To all the world, they might be confident young citizens…but sometimes they’d much rather run and hide under their covers or have Mama bring them hot chocolate after a rough day.

Identity, friendships, and realizing that the world has shades of gray (including their suddenly fallible parents) are key themes for middle schoolers. Issues like communication, bullying, and figuring out one’s own moral code and integrity will come up a lot in the most emotionally resonant plots.

Though many of us probably don’t want to go back to middle school–it was such a cruel and confusing time–this is the proving ground for your middle grade characters. Where they figure out who they are, who they want to be, and how to start bridging those gaps. If the split between childhood and teenage-dom isn’t felt in your MG fiction, put this idea on your back burner as you revise.

Writing Young Adult Characters

Teens aren’t just miniature adults with fewer responsibilities. They certainly can seem that way sometimes, but assuming this is a big disservice to the age group. Teens don’t want to read your romanticized version of teendom. They experience everything in larger-than-life terms (which makes for great fiction). Their problems are incredibly real to them. And they don’t have the tools necessary to put their lives in context yet, or deal with their problems in healthy ways.

Remember, teens were kids just a few years ago, even if they’ll do anything to distance themselves from that idea and prove that they know better. At the same time, teens do have moments of clarity where they’re aware of their limitation. This vulnerability is an incredible thing to write into. It’s what makes YA so alive and electric.

The teen years are full of defining experiences, big questions, big fractures, and the seeds that will stay with a person for their entire lives. Who were you when you forged your identity? How do your teen characters grapple with this responsibility–if they want to touch it at all? How are they still children, deep down? This split-personality element of YA is so interesting to write.

No matter how old your characters, or how you get into the headspace of writing them, you just need to keep authenticity in mind. Write from an authentic place, and you will attract readers who value vulnerability, truth, and genuine prose. Sorry to go all Brené Brown on y’all, but I like to be reminded every once in a while of what we all aspire to.

Are you striking the right tone, voice, and emotion in your children’s fiction? Hire me as your developmental editor for anything from picture books to young adult novels.

Reading Your Way to Great Writing Voice

Great writing voice is the goal of every writer. However, voice is often the last thing to come to the surface when you’ve spent many, many hours on the page. (If you want to learn how to create a story, all you need to do is write a million bad words. Easy, right?) There are two essential tenets to writing great voice, and I bullet point them here for you.

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The key is to have fun. Have fun reading great writing, and have fun reading your own writing aloud. Are you having as much fun as this lady?

Great Writing Voice Via Reading

In my previous post about expanding your writing vocabulary, I urged all aspiring writers to read more. Read more of their favorite authors, read more writers across all categories, to read more. Reading for writers is an essential part of developing our craft.

I’m harping on this again. Maybe because I’m, ahem ahem, a bit of a nag (just ask my husband). Maybe because I’m making it my personal mission to read more myself this year. (When you read for a living, it’s hard to make room to read in your off hours.) Maybe because there is just so much damn good writing in the world, and reading it is an easy way to develop your own great writing voice.

I firmly and roundly reject the idea that writers will pollute their own voices and novels by reading the work of others. Um, no. Not at all. Everyone has to learn their craft somehow, and shelves are swimming with amazing examples of voice and writing.

Would you go a surgeon who didn’t want to pollute her creative genius by watching other surgeons at work? Didn’t think so. Luckily, in creative writing, we don’t have to spend all that time in medical school. So we’ve saved ourselves many years and many thousands of dollars. What should we do with all that bounty? Read. It’s cheap and easy and pleasurable. Reading for writers is our medical school.

Speaking of great writing voice, I’m reading Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala right now.  (Thanks for the recommendation, Ali!) It’s about a woman who lost her entire family in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. This is a woman shattered, shattered by grief. It shows in the voice. The voice is unflinching. It’s quite a difficult read, but a haunting one. With my recent steeping in grief, I recognize the fractured bursts of thought and insight. The experience is that of a brain twisting and turning and trying to find purchase on anything. It’s an amazing read.

If I was trying to write a novel in fractured sentenced, with choppy pacing, I would definitely want to know Sonali’s work. Even if I was writing something peaceful and rhythmic, I’d check it out, to see how the other half lives. The point is, you cannot know what other writing is like without experiencing it truly.

To neglect the work of your (ideally) future peers, is to shut the door on the best opportunity to better yourself and your craft. I listen to writers tell me that they don’t read all the time, and it blows my mind, every time. I will never agree with this idea. If that’s what you’ve been doing, I urge you to reconsider.

Great Writing Voice Via Reading Aloud

The second piece of advice is also very simple, and it involves only you, your voicebox, and your manuscript. This is a different kind of reading for writers. Hopefully you have understanding partners (or pets) at home, and hard-of-hearing colleagues at work. I’m asking you to demonstrate your great writing voice by reading your work aloud.

I tell this to everyone. At conferences. In editorial notes. On the street. Read your writing aloud. Don’t just think about it, actually do it. Maybe one out of ten people actually try this. Even fewer make it a habit whenever they write something new.

I always read my writing aloud. I print off a draft and pace around my house and read the longest story ever to my dogs. When I was writing my book, I went hoarse after a few days of reading. So what? This helps me find areas where voice isn’t flowing smoothly, identify points I’m not making correctly, and generally see if what I’ve written pleases me and makes sense.

It is a miracle for developing great writing voice. I’m serious.

Read your writing aloud. Better yet, especially if you have poetry or a short piece (helloooooo picture book people), have someone read it aloud to you. I guarantee that, at least once, you will be shocked. It gives a whole new life to something you think you know well.

How many of my readers will do this? Not many. How many will do it more than once? Even fewer. But before we had the written word, we had spoken story. Everything we’ve put down on paper now used to be passed verbally around the campfire.

When we write on a page or a screen, we are entirely in our heads. Reading aloud puts some of our creative energy in our bodies. You will be very surprised at what you can discover that way. Try it. Seriously. Go.

Still struggling with developing great writing voice? Let me help as your developmental editor. An experienced set of eyes on your work will put rocket boosters on your progress.