Elements of a Query Letter: Send a Manuscript Sample Anyway

You will see many a frustrated agent harping over and over again that the elements of a query letter should always follow submission guidelines. I will be the first to add my voice to the chorus: you should always follow submission guidelines when sending your novel query letter!

elements of a query letter, novel query letter
Are you confident that the first ten pages of your manuscript are exceptional? If so, they could be a strong addition to your query letter submission.

Elements of a Query Letter: Always Follow an Agency’s Specific Guidelines

But…you should always follow our submission guidelines. At ABLit, we request the first 10 pages as one of the elements of your query letter submission. I’m here to say something a little controversial that might raise some hackles. I say, send the first 10 pages to all the agents you’re querying, even if they don’t ask for them. (Sorry, guys!)

Before we proceed, I will write one note of warning here — this advice is for Advanced Users Only. Your first 10 pages have to be solid gold, or you shouldn’t bother with this strategy. Try to take an objective look. Try to determine whether or not you’ve got Conference Polish Syndrome. If your first 10 are a marvel and the rest of the manuscript is even better, send them with your novel query letter regardless of the guidelines. (Check out my post on how to finish a novel for more info.)

Why You Send Send Your First 10 (If You Know They’re Good)

Here’s why. When I read a novel query letter that catches my eye, I have absolutely no way of knowing if the writing is any good. And that’s all that matters at the end of the day. If I was judging a submission on query only, I’d have a very high chance of requesting something that ended up being totally off-base. Query writing does not equal manuscript writing, the two are completely different by nature. Or I’d request something and wait to receive it and forget what I liked about the query in the first place and so the sample would make no sense and I would’ve lost interest in the meantime or gotten busy with something else, etc. etc. etc.

If some sample pages are an element of your query letter submission, I can look at the writing  right away. There’s much less room for error in terms of requesting something that ends up a hot mess, and I have instant gratification. A query intrigues me and I can keep reading immediately. No wait, no chance to lose any enthusiasm. Sometimes, it’s a total let-down. Other times, I like the sample and get even more excited and request the full on the spot.

My Personal Experience With Sending the First 10

Before I joined the agency, I was an agented writer myself. My third manuscript and, hence, my third round of sending novel query letters, landed me an agent (full disclosure: I am no longer with that agent, as that would present a conflict of interest). When I sent out only queries for my first two manuscripts, I got a lukewarm response and it took forever. With my third try, I decided to send 10 pages as an element of my query letter submission, whether requested or not. I think Sarah Palin might’ve called that a “mavericky” move. Almost everyone responded right away, the whole process took two weeks and I got offers from six agents. I’m not saying that’ll happen for everyone, but this strategy made it easy for an agent to a) read me right away, b) like me right away, c) get really excited. (Note to writers: I did mention above that this was my third try at getting an agent…that means I’d tried and failed several times. It takes a lot of practice to write a novel that agents consider publishable enough to offer on.)

That’s why I’m so happy the first 10 pages are part of our submission guidelines at ABLit. And I think there’s a good case for making it your submission strategy, regardless of guidelines elsewhere. Just make sure you paste the text in the body of an email if you e-query. Also, the “No attachments” part of many submission guidelines is one you really shouldn’t ignore.

Are you struggling with how to pitch an idea effectively? Hire my query editing services and I’ll guide you through the process.

Writing in Different Genres or for Multiple Audiences

I got a great question about writing in different genres the other week from Gisele:

I had a random thought this morning–do agents typically prefer to represent writers who write in multiple genres (like YA, MG, picture books, etc.) or authors that focus on one or two? Are there advantages or disadvantages to writing in different genres or sticking to one? Or, does the issue depend on the agent?

writing in different genres, writing in multiple genres, multiple genres, writing for multiple audiences
If you write for multiple genres, you may have more career juggling to do.

Writing in Different Genres as a Career Path

As an agent, considering a client’s career trajectory is part of the job. We make sure the author has the kind of career they want, we help them choose their next projects, we position them in carefully chosen ways to editors and houses.

I know that a lot of writers want to write in multiple genres or for more than one audience within the juvenile market. Luckily, kidlit lends itself well to this. In adult publishing, it’s harder to go from a hard-boiled mystery, say, to nonfiction investing “how to.” In children’s, it’s a bit easier to transition from middle-grade to picture book to YA, if your voice is flexible enough and you’re familiar with the particulars of each audience.

There are about as many different answers to Gisele’s question, however, as there are agents. Some people believe that a writer should stay with one market audience and establish themselves with a few books before switching. This type of agent will argue that John Green, for example, who has published four contemporary/realistic YA novels, can now switch to another market. There’s a lot of good rationale here.

A writer should consider writing at least two books in a row for one audience before switching markets and writing in multiple genres. The benefit of this is that you’ll establish a readership and build a reputation. Once you’ve got a foundation in one market, you’ll start getting a sales record, too, and it will be easier to attract a publisher for that picture book you’ve always wanted to write. (If you’re having trouble identifying your genre or category, start here.)

How to Pull Off Writing Multiple Genres

Others don’t see the harm in diversifying. Some suggest market-hopping openly, others might suggest a pseudonym. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t spread yourself thin over too many houses and that you don’t compete with yourself. That means, you shouldn’t sell two fantasy MG novels to two publishers and have them both come out the same season, for example, or any other countless permutation of this scenario. As long as your publishers are happy with your schedule and the variety of projects you’re doing, you’ll be okay.

Personally, I’m happy to work with someone who wants to diversify. At the point where we’re planning career strategy, it really will go on a case by case basis. It’s very difficult to generalize about this. The one constant with everyone who writes across markets, though, is the talent and aptitude to do so. If a writer has a truly excellent picture book and an amazing YA that they want to bring to market, what could possibly be stopping them? Surely not me.

It will be a bit more challenging to sell to multiple publishers for multiple markets right from the beginning, sure. Even if you have sold one or two books already, those books aren’t out yet and you haven’t established a sales record for prospective future publishers to consider. And each time you pick a new market, you’re basically starting from scratch in terms of the money they’ll offer, especially when you’re at the beginning of your career. But such are the growing pains at the start of every journey.

If you want to start diversifying right from square one in multiple genres or establish yourself and then branch out, I will personally welcome the adventure of charting the exact career path you want. For every published writer, though, their career path and the markets they break into will be on a case by case basis between them and their agent.

Have diverse writing interests? My editing services cover many different genres and categories, from children’s book to memoir to fantasy.

Getting a Book Deal and THEN an Agent

Elizabeth asked this great question about getting a book deal and THEN an agent and I wanted to tackle it for everyone:

I am unpublished and unagented, but I have a picture book manuscript under serious consideration at a great publishing house. If I am offered a contract, can I (without annoying the publisher) try to find an agent before accepting the contract? Would this take too much time from the publisher’s point of view? Would agents be likely to take me on at this stage? I have heard that many agents are not interested in picture book authors. Is it better to try to find a literary contract lawyer and pursue an agent after I have a published book under my belt? Such a raft of questions! I am obviously in a stew.

getting a book deal, publishing deal
Congrats on getting a book deal! Now you just have to find an agent…

Getting a Book Deal

Most of the advice I can give Elizabeth will apply to all creators who have received a publishing deal on an unagented submission, so read on. First of all, congratulations! Even though there’s no firm offer yet, you’re in a good place in terms of getting a book deal. I’d advise you to take the time — once you receive a firm offer — to find an agent. IMPORTANT: Tell the editor “Thank you so much for your offer. Before I get back to you, I’m going to try and partner with a literary agent.” They’ll be fine with this, it happens all the time. But make sure you don’t agree to the terms of the offer just yet (I know that can be hard and anxiety-making. Don’t worry, they won’t withdraw it.) When you query, put something like this in your subject line: “Picture book Query — OFFER RECEIVED.” Believe me, you’ll catch a few eyes because it’s good news for both you and the prospective agent.

Finding an Agent

Since you have a publishing deal on the table, the agent search won’t take too long. Agents tend to read things that have offers quickly, and picture books are easy to evaluate fast. I’d say that, if getting an agent is your eventual goal and you’re sure you’ll have one sooner or later, do it now while you can seem more attractive to them and rope them in from the first contract, not after it. There’s really not much reason not to.

Now, the agents I know are still taking picture books on but it’s tougher to attract an agent with a picture book than with a fiction manuscript, that’s true. Make sure you query people who deal in picture books or have in the past. When I’m evaluating a picture book author, I always ask them what else they have. Before I take one on, I like to know that this author has other manuscripts. I’d be less interested to take an author on who only has one or two picture book ideas in them. I want someone who has potential for a long and lucrative career, of course.

Joining Your Publishing Deal and Prospective Agent

As for the publishing deal itself, I do want to tell you that a) if you get an agent before you sign your contract, they will take 15% of the money you’ll earn and b) there will be a very limited number of things they’ll actually be able to do for you with this contract. Especially if you’ve already accepted, verbally or in writing, the offer. They might not be able to get you a better advance, but they probably will be able to negotiate better terms for you, like rights, options, royalties, etc than you would’ve gotten on your own. So you will lose some money in the short term but will most likely fare better in the long run with this particular book when you bring an agent aboard.

All that said, getting a book deal isn’t a magic bullet. The agent will still have to love you and your work enough to be your long-term advocate, for this deal and for those in the future. I wouldn’t take someone on automatically just because they have an offer. Overall, a good situation to be in. I’m obviously in favor of writers getting agents, but I’m also very much in favor of this particular scenario, since this is exactly how I got my first picture book author/illustrator client, who I love!

Did you find this practical advice useful? I am happy to be your manuscript editor and consultant for writing and publishing advice that’s specific to your work.

How to Finish a Novel

Do you know how to finish a novel? Producing a complete manuscript is hard, and it’s where many writers get stuck. Here’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed in queries versus the full manuscript. At my agency, we request the first 10 pages along with the query in our submission guidelines. That’s great for me because, if I like a query, that means I can start reading immediately and continue (I hope) to enjoy what I see.

how to finish a novel, complete manuscript
Put in the hours to produce a complete manuscript before your start querying. An agent won’t offer you a contract based on your first 10-20 pages.

Queries and Writing Samples Don’t Show the Whole Picture

There’s only so much a person can tell from a manuscript query letter. A writer could’ve had someone write their query, could’ve workshopped it relentlessly with other writers, could’ve polished it for years. There’s just no guarantee that the quality of writing in the query will match the quality of the sample. And query writing is pitchy and explanatory by its very nature — quite the opposite of prose. Only the manuscript matters, after all. So I like to see a little writing before deciding to either reject or request.

Lately, however, people have been sending more and more polished writing samples in those first 10 pages. On the one hand, it’s great because everything looks good. On the other hand, it’s a horrible trend because after those first 10 pages, or 15, or 20, the manuscript tends to fall apart. Many writers are able to nail those first 20 pages, but it’s a select few who know how to finish a novel.

How to Finish a Novel: Look Beyond the First 10-20 Pages

Why do so many writers get stuck on how to finish a novel? Conferences, critique groups, writing workshops and the like usually work with the first 10, 15 or 20 pages of a manuscript. It’s a manageable enough chunk and the writer can learn a lot from getting it critiqued. Also, conventional wisdom goes that the first pages are the most important, so they get a lot of focus. Those writers who use a lot of resources like conferences and workshops end up with freakishly well-polished first chapters… and then are left to their own devices to produce the complete manuscript. And the agents who read these types of first pages/chapters are tricked over and over again, only to become confused and frustrated when we see a noticeable decline in quality.

Here’s the bottom line. Are you especially proud of your manuscript’s beginning? Great! You’ve accomplished a lot. Now, though, you have to put that same amount of work and excruciatingly close attention into how to finish your novel. If it starts out great, we’re only expecting it to get better, not worse, when we read the complete manuscript. The last thing you want to do is disappoint.

I provide editorial services to writers at all stages and skill levels. I’d love to help you develop an idea, finish a draft, or polish a completed manuscript.

Writing Clichés to Avoid: Using “Suddenly” in Your Manuscript

Using “suddenly” in your manuscript falls under the category of writing clichés to avoid. There are tons of writing adages out there along the lines of “Show don’t tell” that you’ve no doubt heard your old creative writing schoolmarm repeat hundreds of times.

But unless you know what they’re really saying and what they really mean, though, these cheerful mottoes can’t help you. Today, I want to fire off some thoughts on words to avoid in writing fiction — especially “suddenly.”

writing cliches, words to avoid in writing fiction
Words to avoid in writing fiction: Suddenly, a chameleon appeared!

Using “Suddenly” in Creative Writing Is a Cheap Crutch

“Suddenly” is one of those words to avoid writing in fiction because it’s a crutch. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s a writing cliché. Lots and lots of writers pepper their manuscripts with it because then they don’t have to worry about writing transitions, describing actions or giving the reader any context. They just slap a “suddenly” on to an event or feeling and voila! It fits!

Except it really doesn’t. A reader’s job is to react and infer and analyze what is going on in a manuscript or book. When we’re faced with “suddenly,” it’s like a power surge. Our system is scrambled. Something suddenly comes on the scene that takes us by surprise, whether it is a plot twist, an action, a feeling or a thought. And that’s fine. We react. We try to understand what the new development means. If it is an emotion, we try to fit that into the character and situation. We do our job.

The problem is, though, that a writer who leans heavily on the “suddenly” crutch usually thinks that “suddenly” is enough. They wallop the character and the reader with something and then move on. We don’t get a reaction from the character, we don’t get the feeling explained, we don’t see a lot of context. The “suddenly” has been used to shoehorn something into the narrative without much regard for how well it fits.

Examples of When “Suddenly” Works and When It Doesn’t

For example:

Suddenly, a big slimy alien burst out from behind the wall.

Reader’s reaction: Jarring, but okay. Hopefully there are aliens elsewhere in this book and this isn’t the first one we see. It’s still a writing cliché, but it’s not as egregious as the following example:

A rage overtook her and she suddenly punched him square on the nose.

Reader’s reaction: Whoa! Wait. They were just kissing. Where did that come from? Why?

As you can see, “suddenly” is usually a treasure map of lazy writing. When you come across “suddenly” in your own work, you’ve likely found a section of the narrative where you could’ve given more context, more reasoning, more explanation. Let’s rework one of our examples:

She pulled away from him and looked deeply into his eyes, only to catch him staring blankly at the TV over her shoulder. The rage that overtook her was so intense that she sent a fist flying straight for his nose.

Context Is Key When Evaluating Writing Clichés

At least now we understand her rage (even if we think she might be overreacting just a liiiiittle bit). So take a look at your manuscript for words to avoid in writing fiction. Are there any places where “suddenly” is standing in for something that could be expanded, deepened? That could be given some more meaning and context? It’s not the word itself that’s bad, it’s what it does with the reader’s understanding of your work.

If you’re finding writing clichés in your manuscript, bring me on as your novel editor. I will give you actionable revision challenges to help you take your work to the next level.

Teenage Perspective in Your Young Adult Novel

One of my favorite parts of SCBWI (where I took no pictures, because I am made of #epicfail, by the way) was Krista Marino’s voice workshop, where we dissected and discussed the young adult novel and writing teen characters. One of the keenest insights came when she invited her author Frank Portman (mastermind behind KING DORK and the forthcoming ANDROMEDA KLEIN) to talk about his songwriting for his band, The Mr. T Experience (better known as MTX).

young adult novel, writing teen characters, writing teen perspective, writing authentic teen voice
As you’re writing your young adult novel, remember that nailing voice is critical. If you need a push in the right direction, use music as a reference point.

Know the Teens Who’ll Read Your Young Adult Novel

Dr. Frank and Krista made a very good point during the workshop. Writers, remember:

Teens aren’t stupider versions of adults. They’re just as smart, just as emotional, just as perceptive… they’re simply lacking the experience and perspective that most adults get in the process of living more years on the planet.

And, since your character will change over the course of your young adult novel, your narrative is just one way they’ll get some different perspective and evolve as people, right? Excellent. In the meantime, as you’re fleshing your characters out, MTX songs make an excellent primer in teen voice and angst.

Tap Into Those Angsty Teen Emotions

Have you forgotten how desperate guys are to find a girl, any girl who likes them/wants to talk to them/can stand looking at them? Do you remember the sting of feeling completely alone and invisible to the opposite sex? Listen to the hilarious “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” off of Our Bodies Our Selves.

Have you forgotten the tremendous roller coaster of first love? The ups and downs and the dizzy compulsion to make it work despite any and all common sense? Try “Who Needs Happiness (I’d Rather Have You)” from Revenge Is Sweet, And So Are You on for size.

Do you remember the ecstasy of finding the one person who understands you? The relief of discovering an oasis amidst the torture of high school? Listen to “Thank You (For Not Being One of Them)” off of Love is Dead.

If You Need Inspiration, Try Music

If you think the voice in your young adult novel is lacking authenticity, if your teen emotions aren’t ringing true, do yourself a favor and pick up a couple of Mr. T Experience albums. And yes, this is extremely, extremely gratifying for my 16 year-old inner fangirl. Who knew my nerdy MTX fandom would pay off career-wise? You can check out Dr. Frank’s website by clicking here.

Are you hitting the right young adult voice? Hire me to be your young adult fiction editor.

 

When to Use Second Person Writing

Is everyone clear on what second person writing is? It’s the you POV in a narrative. Many narrators, usually first person, use the “you” occasionally.

second person writing, you pov
Leave me out of it and get on with your story.

Examples of Second Person Writing

“My heart pounded with the kind of beat you only get after running for your life.”

“I’m telling you straight, man, she was so hot you could fry an egg on her.”

There’s also implied second person writing, which is sort of like the second example only the you POV is never explicitly stated. This implied 2nd person is usually used with a storytelling sort of voice:

“It rained so hard, honest to God, I never thought it’d stop.”

In all of these examples, there is either a “you” addressed or hinted at. The narrator is always talking to someone (usually interpreted as “the reader”) and breaking the fourth wall. (Theatre geek here, remember? “Breaking the fourth wall” is a theatre term, meaning the actors break the barrier between the stage and the house and address the audience directly.)

There’s also a less widespread use of second person writing… that’s when the “you” is another character in the story and the narrating character is talking directly to them. An excellent recent example of this is WHEN YOU REACH ME.

Finally, there are books that are written entirely in the you POV, where “You” is the main character. These do not work for me, at all, as the direct address feels like it’s pulling me out of the story the entire time. A book that I have recently been unable to get into, despite knowing how brilliant it is and having deep respect for its writer and editor, is (the aptly titled) YOU by Charles Benoit.

Avoid Carelessness With the You POV

Now that we’re all clear on what second person writing is, I want to make a point about it. A lot of writers are very careless with the occasional you POV because it has become very common in our way of talking. Everyday speech is studded with expressions like “you know?” and they translate into our manuscripts. Sometimes a narrator will go on a 2nd person jag, and every simile has a “you” embedded in it. Other times, the you POV will be absent for hundreds of pages at a time only to show up randomly.

Be very careful with the 2nd person. It is confrontational. It breaks out of the 1st or 3rd person and crosses the line between story and reader, fiction and the real life of the person reading it. It makes the reader part of the story and, when used intentionally, can have a really cool effect (which I still probably won’t appreciate, as is the case with YOU, because I don’t personally enjoy 2nd person).

Second Person Writing Tip

But I’m seeing a lot of sloppy, careless second person writing outbursts in narratives that don’t necessarily demand the 2nd person. My tip, while you’re just feeling out a story and getting the hang of writing it, is to leave the 2nd person out, if you can. If used correctly and consistently, it rocks. Otherwise, it just seems spotty and annoying. From me, it gets the reaction of: “Leave ME out of it and get on with the story!”

So that’s what I’d say. Either you use 2nd person consistently in a manuscript (and I’m talking narrative here, not dialogue) or write a draft without the 2nd person and see if you miss it. All I’m saying, folks, is make it intentional.

Bonus Query Tip

If there’s one thing that bugs the jeebus out of me, it’s the use of second person writing in your query letter POV:

“What would YOU do if a flesh-eating virus was descending on YOUR town and only YOU had the antidote… locked in a small capsule in the base of YOUR spine?”

Um… are you honestly asking me? Because I’d probably mess my pants, eat a pint of ice cream and go hide in the basement with my back to the wall.

See, when you get the 2nd person involved, it automatically elicits a reaction from your reader. By starting a query with a rhetorical question, you’ll get on your reader’s nerves and most likely elicit the reaction of: “I don’t want to hear about ME, I’d rather hear about YOUR book, dingus!”

Not that any serious publishing professionals have ever been known to use the word “dingus.” (Okay, that might be a lie.)

If you’re still struggling with POV, tense, or revision, hire me for freelance editing services. I’m well-versed in these and all other craft topics and we can tackle big changes together.

Inspiration from a Genius

So, quick moment of disclosure: I am a pretty hardcore musical theatre geek. This is a side of myself I have been rediscovering recently. And when I say “musical theatre,” I’m aware that the initial connotations are the likes of Wicked and 42nd Street. No, I like my musical theatre dark. I wrote my college thesis on Stephen Sondheim and, more importantly, on his show Company.

Last night, I was watching the DVD of Company, the John Doyle production with Raul Esparza, a show that I saw in New York last year. And, like the rabid fan I am, I was making my way through the special features when I came across an interview with Sondheim and a quote that I think is an inspiration to all writers.

The interviewer asks Stephen if it is difficult to be “a living legend” and to feel the pressure of such an impressive Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning back catalog whenever he sits down to write. This might not be a situation familiar to the likes of us (just yet), but his answer applies to you (yes, you!) this very second:

“I try to pick something that frightens me. I think a writer should frighten himself, otherwise you tend to write the same thing again.”

This is your writing reminder of the day (from a freaking genius, no less!) to take risks, make bold choices and write from that vulnerable, raw place in your heart that you swore you’d never show to anyone. Only then will you emerge with a piece of vibrant, breathing, authentic fiction that’s worth reading.

How To Become A Novelist

Here’s a question from LS about how to become a novelist:

I’ve been writing for a few years (I’m 17) and I know I want to be an author. It’s all I want to do but I know my writing needs work – a lot of work. I’ve heard from some people that the only way to improve your writing is to practice, just keep writing and reading. Is that true, or is it different for everyone? And is it wrong to pursue this as a career?

It seems like the most common advice is to do something else, “write in your free time”. I originally decided that if I made it to college, I’d major in Creative Writing. I thought that would help me become a better writer, but I’m worried now that it would be a waste of time.

how to become a novelist, writing career
How to become a novelist: Read, write, read, write, read, write, repeat.

How to Become a Novelist: Read and Write (And Read and Write Some More)

There isn’t a single writer in the world who hasn’t doubted whether a writing career is the path for them. These questions are definitely normal. The first thing I have to say is that you’ve got plenty of time on your hands to pursue how to become a novelist. A lot of writers discover their passion for it early. This is the part you might not want to hear, though: a lot of writers start early but then spend years and years and years honing their skills. To answer your question, yes, practice and reading like a writer are the best ways to improve as a writer. That’s not just for some people, that’s for everybody. The more you write, the better you get, and the more you read, the more you absorb for your own craft.

Degree Optional

Even though you’re thinking of majoring in creative writing, don’t think you’ll get out of college with that degree and begin a career writing books right away. If you want to learn how to become a novelist, you’ll learn a lot more from years and years of practice than you ever will in creative writing classes. Those classes were nice but did little to prepare me for a writing career. Heck, my MFA in creative writing was only marginally better than college in terms of craft and literature curriculum. Luckily, nobody cares about your degrees or your resume when you’re a writer. They only care about the work, as should you. That’s your responsibility to hone, so don’t feel like you need to put so much pressure on your degree.

Tenacity Required

Writing careers aren’t easy to get into. Most people don’t realize how long it takes to start writing good, saleable books. Most people have no idea how slowly the publishing world moves. I talk to writers all the time who say it took them ten years of solid writing to finally get a manuscript that sold. But if that’s the only thing you can possibly imagine doing, if writing is an irresistible, compulsive thing for you, then pursue it. Most people try and then drop out. If you want to know how to become a novelist, tenacity is pretty much a requirement.

Find Your Voice

The thing you really need to explore right now is your voice. For young writers, the voice is usually the last thing to develop and solidify. It’s true. To carry any kind of book for 300 pages, a writer needs a mature, dynamic and compelling voice. A voice that feels like a real human being, not just some caricature or persona. If there’s any advice I’d give you on how to become a novelist, it’s to educate yourself, put in grueling writing time every day and to work tirelessly on your voice. That and don’t give up just because it’s hard. The most worth-it things are always difficult.

Hire me as your novel editor and publishing consultant, and we can figure out how to position your novel in a competitive marketplace.

How To Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are like clauses. If the actual line of dialogue is the meat of the sentence, these little guys hang somewhere around or within it and add information. But there are dialogue tags, and there are excellent dialogue tags. You want the latter, obviously.

dialogue tags, how to write dialogue, how to write great dialogue, writing dialogue
Don’t clutter your scene with dialogue tags, let what’s being spoken take center stage.

When I’m reading manuscripts, I always note some dialogue tag issues. Here are some of the most common, so you can play along at home and edit them out of your revision.

Avoid Dialogue and Tag Redundancy

Redundancy in dialogue tags is a big issue, as anything redundant in your manuscript sticks out like a big old zit in a prom photo. Go back through your manuscript and see if you’re saying anything twice in a single line… once in your dialogue, another time in your tag. Hint: this is where most of your ickiest adverbs will be. Examples:

“I’m so angry, I could spit!” she growled, nearly snorting fire from her flared nostrils.

Alex’s hands flew to blot at his crimson cheeks. “I am so embarrassed!”

“Oh yeah? What’s it to you?” she said, testily.

These are technically not bad attempts at writing dialogue. But they are redundant. In the examples above, the action or adverb basically echo what is conveyed in dialogue. If we separated those tags from the dialogue and used either the description or the dialogue alone, we would still convey the same emotions. Be careful not to repeat yourself (like I just did).

Don’t Use Dialogue Tags to Choreograph Action

Writing dialogue sometimes feels like doing blocking for a play or directing actors in a movie. You have these characters in your head and they’re moving around the place you’ve imagined for them. In real life, we take pauses in our speech, we fiddle with our keys, we put a tea saucer down then pick it back up again (if we’re classy enough to drink it out of fine china).

You want to make sure your reader gets what these characters are physically doing in space, right? You want them to see your characters like they see actors in a movie. Sure, but when you do it too much, it really drags your dialogue down. Here’s an example of one short, continuous snippet that starts to read like choreography because of all the dialogue tags (sorry, indentation and blogging do not go together):

“I don’t know, I mean, he’s got to come out of there sometime,” Suzie said, ripping a bite out of her turkey sandwich with her perfectly white teeth.
“I gueff,” Chris said, his mouth full of burrito. He swallowed it down. “I guess.”
Suzie chased her bite with a sip of Diet Coke from her dewy wax cup. “It’s the third time this week Biff’s shoved him in that locker.”
Chris reached into his pocket and checked the time on his phone. “It’s been about an hour already.”
Suzie arched an eyebrow. “What if he runs out of air?”
“Impossible, there are at least a dozen vents.” Chris put his phone away and folded his hands in his lap.
Suzie pushed her chair away from the table, leaving her sandwich nearly whole on its red checkered wrapper. “But you know he has asthma!”

What’s going on in this scene? What are the characters saying? Do we even really care? I don’t. I couldn’t keep track of the dialogue because there was so much business in between. The only actions we really needed, I suppose, are Chris taking out his phone to check the time and Suzie pushing herself away from the table. The rest could be trimmed back significantly.

Don’t Stuff Adverbs in Dialogue Tags

This one needs no introduction or explanation. For the last time, folks, let’s lay it all out there: adverbs are like corn dogs. You think they’re a really good idea, then you eat a couple and you realize they’re much better in moderation. Don’t cut all adverbs out of your manuscript, but prune… aggressively. They don’t add much — only in special circumstances do they work — and they are usually a sign of a writer not trusting their reader.

Dialogue conveys things. That’s the whole point of it. It tells us who a character is, how they talk, what they think, what they say aloud vs. what they keep inside, what people are planning to do, what people did, how people feel about things, etc. etc. etc. Good dialogue is very information-dense without hitting you over the head. If it is well-written, the reader learns new things without even realizing.

Adverbs and the other kinds of errors that clutter your dialogue tags just get in the way of good dialogue and make it too… obvious. That’s not what you should be aiming for. If you’re seeing a lot of adverbs, it’s time to really examine your dialogue and make sure you’re conveying what you need to in the actual scene and not leaning on adverbs as a crutch.

How to Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Some things to remember about how to write dialogue:

  1. Make sure your tags aren’t redundant.
  2. Let the dialogue speak for itself and don’t rely on adverbs or choreography.
  3. When you’re writing dialogue, or anything at all, really: trust your reader.
  4. Make your dialogue information-dense but not obvious.

“Now take this to heart and prosper!” she said, triumphantly, her fingers clacking on the keys of her MacBook as she wished her readers well. (Ba-dum bum ching! See what I did there?)

Hire me for fiction editing. I will comment on all facets of your manuscript, including, yes, those pesky dialogue tags!