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.

Submitting Multiple Queries to Multiple Agents

Recently, an editorial client of mine wrote in with the following awesome question about submitting multiple queries to multiple agents:

Is it ok to query two books at the same time to different agents? A novel and a picture book? An agent I want to work with is accepting queries for both picture books and novels. Is it ok to query the same agent with two different books? But I’d also like to send both projects to other agents.

This is a two-parter, so buckle your seat belts!

multiple queries to multiple agents, submitting multiple queries, sending more than one query at a time, querying multiple agents
Thinking of lighting up New York City with your submissions? Think very hard before querying multiple projects to the same agent, or multiple projects to multiple agents…

The two questions here are:

  1. Should I send two projects to the same agent?
  2. Should I query multiple projects at a time?

If you’re like my client, you have a lot of ideas in a lot of stages of development. You have a picture book here, a middle grade there, a YA up your sleeve, and maybe a few non-fiction pieces, just for the hell of it. You want them all to become real, live books yesterday. So how to do you proceed?

Submitting Multiple Queries to the Same Agent at Once

Should I send two projects to the same agent? No. Let them consider one project and respond before you send them something else. That’s just good etiquette. And based on their response, you might realize, “Hey, I have a better idea now of what they’re looking for,” or “Maybe they’re not the one for me.” If you’ve already sent them another submission, you won’t be able to tailor that second letter to increase your chances.

Also, you might run the risk of scaring them off. If they haven’t yet gotten a chance to read Project 1, and Project 2 just hit their inbox, is Project 3 next? How many are there? Is this what you’ll be like to work with? Too much! Too soon! Aaah! That’s a bit melodramatic, but you really will run the risk of the agent being put-off because it looks like you’re just fire-hosing all of New York City with a bunch of projects. They’d rather see a writer who is passionate and focused on one project at a time.

Querying More Than One Project at a Time

Should I query multiple projects at a time? Absolutely not. Let’s say the best case scenario happens. Watch how quickly it turns into the worst case scenario. In this day and age, remember, most agents represent more than one category. Sure, sometimes agents only represent novels. In that case, some of them will be fine with you having a picture book agent on the side. But some won’t be. Keep that in mind.

Let’s say Agent A wants your novel and Agent B wants your picture book. But A represents both categories, while B only does picture books. You’ll have to tell them about one another at some point. When you do, I guarantee Agent A is going to ask you, “Why the heck didn’t you send me the picture book?” You run the very real risk of turning B off. You’ll immediately look like you were sneaking around behind their backs. I hope you can see that it’d turn into a mess very, very quickly.

Multiple Queries to Multiple Agents is Too Much

FOCUS on one project at a time. Submit it. Hear feedback. Then you have two options: Revise that first project and submit it again, or put it away for a while and focus on the next project. Use what you’ve learned to make the pitch for your next project even stronger, then submit it when it’s truly ready. The take-away: ONE PROJECT AT A TIME, PLZ.

Everyone wants to rush rush rush through this process, but I’m here to tell you that if you have a need for speed, publishing is not for you. If you sold a book today (not gotten an agent for a book, SOLD the book), the earliest it’d come out is 2019. So, as the song says, “Take your time, do it right.”

Not only do I do manuscript editing, but I am also a publishing strategy consultant. If you’d like to talk your submission plans over and plan your next move in a sane and productive way, please reach out.

Life Post-Publication

Over the holidays, I received a great question from Jenny. She makes the very valid point that there’s so much focus on life before publication, because so many writers are striving to take that crucial step, and then there’s, perhaps, a dearth of information about what happens after. Here’s her question:

There is much information out there about the “publishing process,” what happens if/when you get “The Call,” and the time line of events that follow from contract to publication. I often find myself wondering what happens AFTER that. Should I be so lucky as to receive a contract for one of my picture book manuscripts, what would life look like for me, after the final product is ready to sell? You speak often of authors being required to become marketers to push their book once they are created. I can see where that is a crucial step, but what are the logistics of that? How much travel is involved? Are new authors flitting about, across the country selling their books? How much is accomplished electronically? What does ‘real life’ look like for a newly published author, trying to make a name for herself?

First of all, let’s dispense, for the moment, with the notion of an author flying around the country on “book tour.” In most cases, that is not going to be your reality because publishers are investing less and less in these brick-and-mortar-heavy strategies, especially for debuts. If you have the sort of marketing plan for your book that includes a book tour, you will be in the minority. And then you don’t have to worry about the logistics as much, because the level of marketing that includes a book tour will also include a support person on the publisher’s end to walk you through the finer details.

So let’s toss the idea of a book tour out for a moment. Sad, but true, you’re likely on your own. So here is what the life of a writer who has a book out (or is about to have a book out) looks like. There are two kinds of marketing you’ll be doing, passive and active.

Passive:

  • Setting up a simple informational website for your book, series, and/or yourself as a writer. Most of the content here is going to be “set it and forget it.” You can add a blogging function, to be discussed later.
  • Set up a profile on GoodReads, flesh out your Amazon Author page, create a Facebook Page (rather than just your personal feed). The first two are rather static, the latter is more active. Make your book cover your profile image.
  • Create paper marketing materials if you wish, postcards of your cover, etc. Have them at the ready.
  • Create ways of people online to message you (via your Facebook page, for example), put a contact form on your website, and set up a mailing list submission form that collects email addresses on your behalf. I use Vertical Response, for example. It’s not going to knock your socks off with responses right away, but you’re building your list, regardless.

Active:

  • Start being an active participant on publishing blogs, blogs specific to your book’s category (there’s a lively YA writing scene), Facebook pages (there are groups and communities for everything). When you’re active here, contribute to the conversations going on instead of just spamming people about your book.
  • Look for timely articles that have to do with your book’s category, or your book’s subject matter. Post these on your blog, on Twitter, on your Facebook page, and in your relevant communities.
  • Generate lists of contacts with youth librarians and bookstores with good children’s programs, starting in your area, and then branching outward. Your publisher may be able to help point you to resources for doing this. You can start reaching out by mailing those postcards you made.
  • In the same vein, talk to buyers and event planners at bookstores and literary festivals, universities, schools, etc. in your area. Pitch them something of value instead of just “an appearance from wonderful me!” Say your middle grade deals with a character who moves around a lot. Call schools and say, “I’d love to give a talk on Thriving in a New Place.” Or however you want to brand it. You’re more likely to get speaking opportunities if you have something to offer, instead of simply a sales pitch for you and your book.
  • Make connections with other writers who are being published around the same time, writers who you admire, and writers who are still looking to break in. They will be your allies and a great wealth of information, as long as you don’t just talk about yourself and spam them with sales messages.
  • Join and get involved with the SCBWI. They will often have authors speak or do workshops at regional conferences.
  • Reach out to journalists who have written articles about your book’s subject matter. Again, you should figure out what your hooks are. In the middle grade example, it’s that your character is an army brat and moves around a lot. That’s a topic you might be able to speak about. That’s a topic people might be interested in. So get on the radar of people who are writing about it. Offer yourself as an expert. It might seem weird to think of yourself that way, but once you’re quoted in one article, it becomes easier to get quoted in another one. Start small, with a blog or local website. From there, approach more journalists.

These are examples of what an author who’s about to be published or has recently been published should be doing. As you can see, a lot of this work isn’t going to pay off in obvious or immediate ways. By building a network of journalists, you aren’t going to get on the cover of Time next week. But the more seeds you plant, the more chance you have of something coming to fruition.

Ideally, you’re doing this a year before your publication date. Basically, as soon as you know that you’re slotted for Winter 2018, you start putting plans in place to do some of this stuff. You don’t have to do it all at once. And some days, you’ll have other things to do.

But you should hold yourself to the standard of doing some marketing every day. Reply to a message that comes in via your website. Post something interesting from Twitter to the YA writer’s Facebook group. Craft a blog post. Send five emails to librarians in your area. Call and ask to speak to the book buyer at your local bookstore. Call the English department of the university that’s having a literary speaker series. Maybe it won’t pay off, but maybe it will.

Most importantly, you’re getting in the habit of marketing, and of selling subtly, and of positioning yourself as an author with something important to say, not just a book to hawk.

For more marketing ideas, don’t forget to check out the Book Marketing Power Bundle from Writing Blueprints. It’s a wealth of ideas and information. I’ve gone through the program myself and can’t recommend it highly enough. The money and time you invest in marketing will only pay off exponentially in the long term, you just have to know what you’re doing, so you’re working smarter, not harder.

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!

“What’s In It For Me?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about marketing. Every week, I get emails offering guest posts, articles, contests, programs, services, etc. The well-meaning writer always says that they’re offering me an opportunity. My blog is pretty humble, but I do get a fair amount of beautiful, wise, talented readers. I’ve been around a long time. It’s not surprising that I come up on search engines and in rankings for people who are looking to market their whatever.

On principle, I turn their offers down. I don’t want to use this blog to sell stuff. (Other than the occasional reminder about my book and services, of course. A girl’s gotta eat!) I don’t want to feature someone’s guest post, unless they’re someone I know personally or professionally and I like their idea. I don’t want to flood my readers with a product or app when I know the average writer struggles with the very idea of scraping together enough focus to practice their craft.

The last thing I want to do is sell my website out. I don’t want to give people guest post slots (with a few notable exceptions over the years). This is my blog, and you come here for my articles. I’m not going to dilute my voice or credibility by letting John Doe publish his “101 Tips for Classroom Success” article (more on this example later). I’m not going to muck up my Resources page by putting any product or service that comes my way. Those are resources I found and loved on my own. They are tried and true, in my eyes. That space can’t be bought.

It’s not an “opportunity” for me. It’s marketing people doing their marketing thing. I get it. How do you get attention for your goods or services? This game has changed completely with the advent of the Internet, and the advent of analytics for said Internet. Now, in addition to trying to score hits in traditional media, people with something to sell are contacting tastemakers with lots of followers. All in the hopes of a mention, a link, and a boost.

I’m not against this practice at all. I sent hundreds of emails when my book came out. I market my editorial services once or twice a year to my mailing list. But I think that the focus of any good marketing piece is, “What’s in it for me?” That’s the question I’m always asking as someone with a blog that gets a certain number of eyeballs. Because I want to always deliver value to my readers. I want them to come here for information, not marketing and sponsored posts and all sorts of other garbage.

And THIS, ladies and gentlemen, this is what makes book marketing so damn difficult!

I’ve just spoken as a person turning down a lot of solicitations. Now, it’s true that I get requests to market people’s individual book projects. When someone writes to me and says, “I wrote this book, I’d like for you to help get the message out,” in my head, I ask, “What’s in it for me?” The answer, again, in my head, is always, “Um, a good…book?” And 99% of the time, that’s just not compelling enough for me to amplify your message. The one exception is the recent guest post I did about a book that was published via a crowdfunding platform. Why? Because I found the process compelling, the writer is a client of mine, and I wanted to hear how it was going.

I wanted to hear how it was really going, mind you. When she sent her first guest post draft, it was full of hearts and unicorns about how great everything was. I wrote back and pushed her to give me the peaks and valleys, the obstacles, the real story. Because I owe you more than a fluff piece. You’ll notice that the article in question wasn’t about the book at all. It had something for my audience about a new publishing platform.

As the curator (major cringe for that word now that everything is “curated” and “artisanal”) of this site, I was asking, “What’s in it for me…and my readers?” That particular guest post passed the test. As did another series about a Kickstarter funded graphic novel that didn’t make it.

There is, I believe, a lesson here for those of you who are looking to market your own work. Because the hard truth is, even once you’ve achieved the major milestone of being published, your work is not done. You have to become a marketing person. And almost everyone will give you the advice of finding people who are tastemakers in your respective subject area, and reaching out to them to pitch your work.

I have the biases I’ve expressed above. I happen to have high standards for featuring stuff. If you want to succeed with someone like me (and believe me, it’s a bigger success to place your story with someone who has standards than with someone who loves free shit and will blog about anything), you need to ask yourself, as if you were the tastemaker, “What’s in it for me? What’s in it for my readers?”

Usually, it’s not going to be just your story. But something interesting about your story. You wrote it entirely on a train. It’s the first novel written by AI. You were declared medically dead and it came to you while you were out. What is interesting about it? What is something I can blog about and find exciting? What is something my readers might like? Pitch from that angle.

And here’s a second bonus tip. Remember how my example article, above, was something about the classroom? Well, my blog is Kidlit.com, and my search terms are (among other things) children’s books. You might be totally justified in thinking that this blog is a resource for children, or about children’s books themselves (like a review site), or about children’s reading habits, or whatever. But you would be wrong.

My site’s audience consists of passionate writers who aspire to write or are actively involved in writing children’s books for publication. It’s a very specific audience. So if you don’t do your research on my site, see the words “kid” and “lit,” and email me a great opportunity to hawk your children’s educational resource for you, you will fall flat.

Marketing is a numbers game. You have to send X emails to get something from even 1% of your targets. It’s discouraging. But if you approach it from the angle of pretending to be the site owner and asking, “What’s in it for me?” AND if you target specific sites which have an audience in common with you, you will have more luck.

AND A THIRD BONUS TIP. As writers for babies, children, tweens, and teens, your marketing audience (most likely) isn’t actual children. There are very few places where children under 13 can legally be online. Your marketing audience is the people buying stuff for those children, and the educators and librarians of those children.

Want more marketing stuff? I recently wrote a somewhat related post about agents and editors who are writers themselves marketing their own work.

Getting Around First Person POV Limitations

This post was inspired by a question from Debbie B., one of my editorial clients, and her critique group. First person is great. A lot of people use it. It lends a sense of immediacy and accessibility to your work. The logic is that it’s easy to connect to a protagonist when you’re intimately involved in their interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions). But first person POV has a lot of limitations. (Plus it’s overused, and some writers avoid* it because of how common it is.)

Not Being Able To Go Inside Another Character’s Head

Perhaps the biggest character-specific limitation is that you don’t have access to anyone else’s interiority. In close third person, you don’t really, either, but in omniscient third person, you can “head hop” to your heart’s content and access any number of characters. First person limits you. For example, you cannot say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, feeling annoyed.

Since Susie is not our protagonist, we can’t now her inner landscape. So how do you get around it? Instead, you can say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, annoyance in her voice.

Or you can put the emotion in dialogue:

“Ugh, I don’t know, okay?”

Or you can venture a guess like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, as if I’d asked the most annoying question ever.

Or like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, and she was probably still mad at me for being late.

It’s up to you how much to use these techniques. I would suggest to limit the guessing and let Susie’s action and dialogue tell the story. The hard and fast rule is that the one thing you can’t do is tell the reader what’s actually going on in Susie’s head. That crosses POV lines.

The Protagonist Having to Be Present

The biggest plot-related problem with first person POV is that your protagonist has to be around for everything. Dagnabit! But, they are the narrator. So if they’re not there when the murder weapon is found and planted in their locker, they can’t narrate it. So the reader can’t find out about it. And it doesn’t get on the page.

How do you get around this? I’m less able to prescribe a solution because a lot depends on what you need to narrate. Here are some common workarounds, though do be warned that some of these are cliché at this point:

  • Eavesdropping (they can overhear key information)
  • Clues (they can find clues to key information)
  • Direct confrontation (not everything has to be hidden, sometimes you’ll solve problems by revealing your secret sooner because the ramifications are actually where the drama is)

How else do you get around these issues? Are you grappling with any particularly hairy POV-specific questions? Leave some thoughts in the comments.

ETA: I didn’t meant that agents and editors reject a project just because it’s in first person, I meant that some writers avoid it and try third person because they don’t want to use such a common POV. I have to be careful about the word “reject”! Thanks, Chris!

What To Expect From An Agent

Having a literary agent is great. I’ve been one, and I hope it was a good experience for my clients. It was a wonderful, frustrating, humbling, and incredibly educational experience for me. The publishing game is not for the faint of heart! But thinking about agents always gets me thinking about expectations.

What will an agent do for you? What might an agent do for you if they have certain specialties? What is unreasonable to expect of an agent? First, I’d like to discuss what an agent won’t do.

What An Agent Won’t Do

It’s nice to want an agent you can get along with. Someone who answers your anxiety-riddled midnight emails. Finally, a publishing insider on your side! But is this reasonable to expect? I see a lot of writers wishing for a BFF relationship with their representative. And I understand this impulse. But you have to remember that your agent is your business representative. They are not really around to answer all of your anxiety-riddled midnight emails. In fact, if you make the mistake of treating an agent as a best writing friend, you may drop on their priority list. I’ve seen many agent/client relationships go south because the writer didn’t understand professional boundaries.

The best agent for you may not be the funniest agent on Twitter. Or the one with the best blog. At the end of the day, you want an agent who is going to sell your work and get you favorable terms for your primary contract and any subrights that get sold. Yes, this is a little less “love connection” than a lot of people are dreaming of. That’s okay.

Agents are also not editors. While some do heavy editorial work, it behooves you to approach an agent with a polished, professional manuscript. Agents do not get paid to polish up their clients’ work. They sometimes do it because polished work sells more frequently and (sometimes) for more money. So if they see it as a good investment of their time, they will work with you. But to expect it is unreasonable. If you want to submit with a rock solid manuscript, it’s often in your best interest to partner with an experienced critique partner or developmental editor. I’m not just saying that because I am one, but it’s important to note that even agented writers use me for help with manuscripts that their agents say aren’t quite ready yet.

Agents get paid when they sell books and subrights. That’s it and that’s all. If I was looking for an agent for myself, I’d rather have one who is sitting at their desk right now, selling and negotiating and reviewing contracts, than one who is slogging through draft three of someone’s picture book essentially on spec (because the book hasn’t sold yet and there’s no guarantee it will). The more an agent sells, the more experienced they are at their core competency, and the more they may go on to sell–for all of their clients.

It may come as a surprise to some but not all that an agent is not, for the most part, paid to read the slush, full requests, or even client submissions. Most agents do this outside of their workday, which is spent meeting with editors, pitching things, traveling to conferences, and negotiating deals.

What An Agent Might Do

All this being said, an agent will probably ask you to make editorial tweaks because they have a clearer sense of what the marketplace is buying and what kind of pitch will work. Dystopian manuscripts, for example, are pretty heavily trafficked. So they might ask you to tone down on the dystopian element and bring up the volume on the romance. This is the sort of editorial work that is reasonable to expect. Some agents go above and beyond, offering very detailed notes, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Writers also ask if an agent will help them market their work. This, apparently, is a rather controversial topic. I was surprised to hear that people expect agents to do their marketing for them, but I suppose this way of thinking makes sense. An agent will very likely shout about your sale and/or release from the rooftops, but this is a matter of personal promotion as much as it is a matter of helping you out. If you have an agent who is proactively doing some marketing on your behalf, you are lucky. But it is not really their job to do so. They’re likely doing it because they want to promote their deal-making prowess and sell some subrights.

Finally, many writers are surprised to learn that they’re probably not going to get flown out to NYC to have lunch with their agent as soon as the ink is dry on their representation agreement. In fact, some people never meet their agent in person. Only if the agent comes out to their city for a conference, or they happen to be in the agent’s city, will a meeting happily take place. Otherwise, most business is done over email and, occasionally, the phone.

What An Agent Will Do

By this point, I think you’re starting to realize what an agent’s job really is. It’s not to be your buddy. It’s not to be your therapist. It’s not to be your developmental editor. It’s not to be your PR person. It’s not to take you out to lunch. It’s to sell your rights on your behalf in a way that’s most advantageous to you.

In this regard, an agent is extremely valuable. They’ve likely negotiated deals (or their agency has) with every publisher and they’ve developed top notch contracts at each house. They likely have leverage. They likely know what they’re doing with that 30-page document that, to you, will read like legalese gobletygook. They’ll be able to help you navigate crucial business decisions that could impact your career for years.

This, in and of itself, is a whole lot of work. In my opinion, anything else you get is delicious gravy.

Revise or Give Up?

An editorial client of mine wrote me this morning, just as I was wondering what I’d post on the blog. Her question, to paraphrase, was:

I see that my manuscript has a few flaws, some big, some small. But are they fatal flaws? Is it better to revise this manuscript or give up on it so that I can focus on something else that doesn’t feel quite so full of holes.

In other words:

Does this have a chance of getting published or should I place my bets elsewhere?

If this isn’t THE QUESTION, I don’t know what is! And, as you can guess, I love and I hate this question. I hate it because it’s, for the most part, impossible to predict which projects will sell to a publisher and which won’t. Which will, once they sell, go on to achieve commercial success, and which won’t. Even publishers don’t have the secret formula: most of the books that they pay advances on don’t earn out. Yet this is the question on every writer’s mind, and understandably so. Unfortunately, I can’t answer it with any degree of certainty because I don’t have a crystal ball. (If I did, you’d see my IP address coming from some island. Cuz I’d use it to play the financial markets and not hedge my bets on publishing, ha!)

But this noncommittal nonsense is NOT why you’re reading this post. So, while I have to say it, I won’t give you some fake half-answer and call it a day. I know what you’re really asking, and despite my caveat, I will tell you what I told my client, just in less specific terms because I likely haven’t seen your manuscript. If there are weaknesses to your manuscript that you or someone else has identified, or if it’s in a very crowded category (zombies, for example) and you just don’t know if you can make a dent, I would really dig in to the area that needs work. If it’s craft, read as many plotting/character/voice/whatever books as you can get your hands on. If it’s premise, start thinking of ways to make it stand out. (I wrote a post with some ideas here.)

While you’re at it, you will want to really take a long, hard look at everything that’s going on in the book. In fiction, one element informs the other, and so it’s pretty hard to untangle them and say, “This is the culprit, revise this and everything else will seem different, too.” Take all feedback you receive with a grain of salt, and make sure you do your own digging, too. Hint: If you have a hunch that something isn’t working, I can basically guarantee that you’re right. The majority of things I comment on in manuscripts are things the writer knows are an issue but has been avoiding fixing because the fix seems complicated, or they just don’t know how. But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard, “Yeah, I thought so!” in response to an editorial note.

You know that I hate this question, but I said that I also love it. I love it because writers are asking it. That means they have the presence of mind to think critically about their own work. A lot of people don’t, believe it or not. Not any of you fine people who are reading craft articles in the pursuit of knowledge, that’s for sure. With you in mind, however, I will say this: It’s possible to be too critical and nip a good project in the bud before you give it adequate time to flower. We all want the certainty of, “If I spend six months on this manuscript, I will reap the rewards with a juicy book deal!” But it doesn’t work that way. If you’re an unproven talent, you have to do the work and put in the time long before anyone has heard of you or validated your efforts. So don’t get frustrated and quit too early, because any work you do on your WIP is good work. Is necessary work.

You don’t get any guarantees but revision is never a complete waste of time, either. Unless you know, without a doubt, that the manuscript is terrible and even your Mom has told you so, there is something to be learned from every revision effort. You can certainly speed up the process by getting qualified feedback (not everyone who has something to say about writing knows what they’re talking about, so only seek out the opinion of people you trust). And you can speed up your ability to do something with the feedback by reading about the craft.

There’s no way to say right now whether your revision will result in a manuscript that goes on to be published. I am NOT trying to dodge this all-important question when I say that. Either way, though, it will be worth it because I can say, categorically, that every writer has at least a few things to learn. Whether they’re for your current WIP or for your next idea or whatever’s after that, you will learn something and you will be able to use it to your advantage going forward. There’s an obstacle course in front of you, and I’d at least run it, even if you don’t get the outcome you want.

If this answer doesn’t seem right for you because you suspect your manuscript is flawed as all get-out, I recommend the following: Put it aside for three months (this is key, I promise, nobody will do it but it’s good advice), and work on whatever new idea is getting you excited. Then give it one last read anyway. Sometimes revision fatigue can blind us. You may find something there that’s worth working on. Or you may confirm your suspicion that you’ve written a manuscript only its author can love. Either way, you’ve given it one last look.

Giving Characters Too Little Information

I was working on a wonderful client manuscript last month and hit a patch of “Muddy Middle.” It happens. Quite a lot, actually. Now, this particular manuscript was a fantasy adventure where the kids went to another world. I decided to write about it because this is a popular premise that many people pick. (For advice on how to innovate a popular premise, check out a recent post here.)

What really slowed this particular manuscript down, and what I’ve seen many times before, is a lack of information about the world. This is completely understandable. Writers have been put off of “info-dumping,” perhaps even by yours truly. They don’t want to simply unload all of the necessary information all at once when the protagonist lands in the new world. The downside of this approach, however, is that it leaves the protagonist in limbo.

Where are they? What’s going on? What is the context of the world? What’s everyone up to? Why? These basic world-building questions go unanswered. And the entire plot of the story stalls because it has now become a quest for information. Plus, all of the characters are now withholding information from your protagonist.

If you find yourself using phrases like, “There’s much for you to learn but not now,” or something similar, your manuscript might have this issue. The characters in the other realm know about the world, but if they don’t tell your protagonist, or they stall, then the reader starts to wonder why. They feel jerked around. The characters desperately need to know certain things, and people’s refusal to tell them starts to feel arbitrary.

Imagine the following stalling:

“Who is Oz, the Great and Powerful?”

“You’ll find out all in due course.”

“What’s with all these monkeys? Did I hear something about a witch?”

“That’s a very long story. Just follow the yellow brick road and you’ll find out eventually.”

That’s not very satisfying, is it? So the protagonist wanders around, totally clueless about the world and the various elements operating within it. And the instinct is good. You don’t want to info-dump and you get to withhold information that will arrive with a big splash later. The reveal gets to become a plot point. But what about the actual plot? What about the things the protagonist wants and how they clash with what the antagonist wants? That is really where your action is going to be.

How do you remedy this problem? Leak information strategically. Believe it or not, the more information your protagonist has, the better. Many writers assume that leaving your reader with too little information will create a snazzy sense of mystery. It won’t. You should be volunteering key world-building information throughout, as the protagonist gets deeper and deeper into the story.

“You see, things aren’t always what they seem here.”

“There is a witch, and her deal is ABC…”

“The Wizard wants XYZ and you might be just the ticket…”

Once your protagonist knows certain things about the world or the story, they can operate with that information and further their agenda, which is likely in conflict with something going on in the world. That is really where you’re going to generate most of your tension. Information has some power to create stakes and surprise, but I’m of the opinion that what your protagonist does with information is much more powerful.

If you feel like you’re wading around in the Muddy Middle, ask yourself if the protagonist is chasing information. Then think about giving it to them, and using the reveal as a springboard instead of the end all, be all.