What Makes a Great Character?

Today, I want to talk about what makes a great character. A publishable one? First, let me say: book elements do not exist in isolation. A stellar protagonist must be put into action with great plot and dialogue, a fascinating plot must have great heroes to act it out, etc. etc. etc. Character, for me, is most important, so I’m starting here. You’ll even find a character development worksheet to help you along.

how to create a character, how to write a character, novel protagonist, novel writing, children's books, what makes a great character, what makes a character
How to create a character who’ll engage and dazzle young readers.

How to Create a Character

Every story has a main character. If the story is written in the first person, the character is also the narrator. If it is in third, I’d argue that there still needs to be a main anchor to everything, even in omniscient narratives. (Or two main characters… Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is a good example of a narrative balanced fairly equally between two people.)

A character-driven book usually focuses on your character and their life, and it is the character who dictates what the plot is. Other books toss a character, a John Everyman, say, into an aggressive outside plot that determines the course of the book.

Questions for Character Development

In either case, I say that the writer needs to have answers to the following questions in this character profile worksheet:

  • What is your protagonist’s nature? Are they shy? Gregarious? A homebody? A great girlfriend? A backstabber? (Examples of personality and nature are endless…)
  • What is your character’s physicality? Are they fat? Thin? Awkward? Do they have some kind of physical issue? Are they a slouch? (Also endless…)
  • What is your character’s self-esteem? Is there something about themselves they want to change? Why?
  • What are their secrets? Are there things they’ve never told anyone? Do they wish they can tell someone? Why?
  • What does everyone else know (or think they know) about your character? Is it true? What does your character wish everyone knew about them? Why?
  • What are your characters goals in life and moment to moment? Their wants in life and moment to moment? Their needs in life and moment to moment? Their frustrations in life and moment to moment? Why, for all of the above?
  • What is their motivation in life and moment to moment? Why?
  • What is their “normal” baseline? What is life usually like? (This usually gets disturbed pretty early on in the story.)
  • What are your character’s relationships with other characters? What is the most important relationship? The best? The worst? The most fulfilling? The most frustrating? The one they most want to change? The one that will never change? Why?
  • What is the character’s unique perspective on life? (I will talk more about this when I talk about voice.)
  • What is the hero’s past? What is their present? What is their future?

Character Development Exercises

When you’re reading your book over, feel free to use some of the above questions as writing exercises to brainstorm. I’ve tried to avoid questions that would trigger simple “yes” or “no” answers. Drill deeper than that. You probably don’t have to be so thorough about every person in your book. But the above character development worksheet is a good place to start.

You don’t really need to spend valuable time figuring out the deep, life-defining secret of the guy your character borrows a pencil from on page 37, for example. But your protagonist? Yes. The important parent/guidance figure? Yes. The best friend? Yes. The love interest? Yes. The enemy? Yes.

When you start brainstorming, you’ll be surprised at what you find out. That’s the great thing about creating (See? You do get to be creative during revision!). When you start thinking about some of these things, your mind will just come up with answers you never anticipated. And they’ll feel right. Give it a try. Maybe answer one of these questions a day. When you comb back over your draft, figure out places where you can reveal whatever answers you want your readers to know.

Character Development Brainstorming

A lot of these things may never make it into the manuscript itself. And a lot of them, like the goals and motivations, will come out in scene, but below the surface. A character’s past will emerge through backstory. Relationships will come out in dialogue and plot. Secrets and yearnings, other private thoughts, will come out in narration (if in first person… if you’re writing in close third, the narrator can peek into their head).

I’d say that, out of the above questions in the character development worksheet, the answers that will make a huge difference to your story page by page are the questions of goals/needs/wants/frustrations and their motivation. A human being changes from moment to moment. In one scene with their crazy mom, they might want to stick it to The Man. In another, they might just want a parent who can listen to them.

Character Objective and Motivation

As you go through your plot and through ever scene, ever action your hero takes, think about what’s driving them in this moment. What needs/wants/goals/frustrations are in play. Those will usually factor into why they’re doing something — the motivation. And every scene and moment in your story — as well as the larger story arc — needs motivation.

Now, the tricky part is, all this stuff is hidden. We never walk into an argument with someone saying: “I want such and such and I plan on yelling at you until you give it to me!” No. First we might flatter. When that doesn’t work, we might get nasty and say something mean. When that backfires, we’ll try to guilt trip the person, and so on and so forth.

In college, I got a theatre degree (as well as an English degree). It was the best thing I ever did because I got to take playwrighting and acting classes. I highly, highly recommend this to any fiction writers, because you figure out just how essential motivation and goals and actions are to character.

Character Development and Subtext

If you think about the stage, every moment has to be alive, to keep the audience engaged (and awake). How to do that? Lots of tension, lots of subtext. Every moment has to have something larger running underneath it. This comes from a character’s wants and needs. If you put two people who usually like each other into a scene and they want totally opposite things underneath the surface… voila! Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!

We all understand this on a fundamental level. There are very few times when we’re just bantering with someone without any ulterior motives. That sounds bad but it isn’t. We are all built to care about our goals/wants/needs/frustrations a lot. And when we do things, we’re primarily motivated by what will serve our goals/wants/needs/frustrations. Be aware that your character would, too. That’s how to create a character, in a nutshell.

From moment to moment and scene to scene, make sure you map out their goals/wants/needs/frustrations and see what their motivation is at the beginning of the encounter. What do they want? What are they going to do to get it? Do they get their objective by the end of the scene? (Sometimes they will, but that’s boring… it’s better if they don’t and then they have to try something else, try another action, fall flat on their faces again… Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!) You will also want to work with the idea of interiority, which you can learn more about.

Character Development and Plot

And so, with a character who is fleshed out and has strong motivation, you can start to string together scenes and moments. As you go back through your work, make sure you know what’s operating below the surface, what’s important and at stake for each person. What each character is really doing in a scene.

If you have a lot of scenes of people hanging out, making small talk, not moving toward their goals, not caring about their wants or needs, not advancing away from their frustrations… you’re probably creating less tension than you could be. Go scene by scene, moment by moment. And always keep your character’s interests at the front of your mind. This way, you slowly start assembling next week’s topic: plot!

Want personalized help with what makes a great character for your story? Come to me for book editing services and we can dig into your protagonist together.

Revising Your Manuscript Is a State of Mind

I know a lot of you reading think that revising your manuscript sucks. Writing out the first draft, while time-consuming and frustrating at times, is also freeing. You’re spilling words on the page. You’re creating. You’re letting your imagination roam. Basically, you’ve got your “first draft goggles” on and everything is great.

revising your manuscript, revising fiction
This woman’s gonna have to take off those first draft goggles before her manuscript is ready to see the light of day.

Removing the First Draft Goggles

Then you’re faced with looking at your manuscript in the cold, sobering light of morning for the first time. There are typos. The dialogue is flat. Characters make the same gestures over and over. We don’t know what the protagonist looks like but we’ve spent 5 pages on the love interest’s glittering blue eyes. You forgot to describe anything or you described everything way too much. And how did it escape your notice that absolutely nothing happens for five straight chapters in the middle other than a lot of driving around and witty banter? Plus, it needs an ending. It has either dropped off so quietly that it’s completely unresolved or it went out with such a bang that you’re sure you forgot to print the last 20 or 30 pages.

You hit the liquor cabinet. If there is a mild-tempered cat or squeezable puppy nearby, they know to scamper out of your path and hide under the nearest couch. You crawl into bed. Things look a lot worse than they did before.

Assembling the Puzzle

Well, guess what. Writing and plotting and tension and dialogue and description and characterizations are all elements of craft. It might’ve been fun to get all of your ideas in one place and in a semi-coherent order, but now they actually have to make sense. Revising your manuscript is the hard (and rewarding!) work of actually teasing a publishable book out of that novel-length wordcount.

This is actually the most wonderful part of writing, and the people who have revised enough manuscripts figure out soon enough that they actually love revision. It’s like putting together a giant puzzle. Characters need motivation, logic and consequences for what they say and do. Every scene needs to teach us something new about a character or plot element. Every chapter needs to further the plot along. Each sentence needs to earn its keep in your writing and justify staying in the draft. Each plot and subplot needs to have an arc and resolve itself by the end. Characters, no matter how big or small, need to make some kind of change or progress. Emotions have to rise and fall like waves throughout.

Respect the Process

If I can’t make you love revision like I do (usually ‘cuz I’m not the one doing it, LOL), at least I can help you respect it. Because if you don’t respect or recognize the importance of revising your manuscript, you’ll have a very tough road ahead of you in professional writing. Most writers tell me that they spend between three and five times as long revising as they did writing their first draft. This is completely normal. In fact, most people spend all that time revising just so they can give their manuscript to their critique groups or beta readers… and revise some more! (Check out an old post of mine: How much revision is normal?)

So consider this your pep talk. On Friday, I am going to start talking about, I think, one of the most important elements of a book: character. Then I will go down the line to plot. After that, I’ll tackle dialogue. Then description. Then… dun dun dun… voice. After that, I’ll finish out the month talking about tweaks, tricks and smaller things that you can look for in revision. Sound good? Good. Wake up and smell the red ink, writers! We’ve got some literary babies to sacrifice!

If removing your first draft goggles has you hitting the liquor cabinet, hire me as your fiction editor to help you through the revision process.

A Writer’s Worst Enemy

Impatience is a writer’s worst enemy. To all those who are rushing rushing rushing to get your manuscript out the gate and into my hot little hands, think of it this way real quick: you’ve spent… what? A year of your life on this manuscript? Why not give it the best chance possible and spend as much hard work revising as it — honestly — needs?

There is a finite number of agents and editors. Once you query your project around to every agent who represents your genre or age group (or every smaller publisher that still accepts unsolicited submissions) and once they reject you, you can’t do anything else with that project other than a) self-publish it (a whole other bucket of fish, to be discussed later) or b) revise the hell out of it and submit again to people who might be open to seeing a drastically different version (your pool this time around will be much smaller). So… just take the time, revise the hell out of it from the get-go, and skip that whole nasty getting-rejected-first bit! In other words: be patient.

Sad truth alert! Not every manuscript you write will go somewhere, publication-wise. Far from it. Every manuscript you write is supremely useful, though. I think every time you sit down at the keys, you should be striving to improve. Everything you write this week should be better and more exciting to you than what you wrote last week. You hear people talking about starter cars and houses, maybe even starter spouses. Well, I think that almost every currently published writer has written at least one starter (or drawer) novel. MG and YA superstar Lauren Myracle wrote something like five books, she said once, before getting her first published. Some have many more than that. So will all the novels you write be published? Even eventually? Probably not. In fact, I think it should be a good and healthy thing to look at some of your starter novels and be horrified by the quality of the writing. That means you’ve come a long way since.

Everyone knows the story of the person who never once sat down at a computer before, wrote a first draft manuscript inspired by a dream they had, sold it for a million dollars and got six thousand movies made of their story, etc. etc. etc. You know why everyone knows the story of “the exception to the rule”? Because it’s news. It’s so rare that everyone talks about it and raises it to mythical status. The other 99.999999% of us mere mortals have to write plenty of dreary starter novels (and don’t forget about the Million Bad Words) before we can figure out how to draft a living character, create a compelling plot, achieve tension and humor and literary magic. That sort of stuff takes practice. And practice takes… patience.

For a lot of writers, or anyone working in the creative arts, our ego often compels us to think we’re “special.” What teen girl hasn’t heard stories of some chick at the mall getting discovered by a modeling scout and then immediately dressed up really cute and gone to the mall in hopes of scoring her one-in-a-million chance at stardom? It’s worse for writers, because they don’t actually have to get dressed and leave the house to indulge in such fantasies. Who among you hasn’t started in on a hot idea and thought, “This is a brilliant, undiscovered masterpiece that everyone will love the second they read it”? Who hasn’t let themselves boast, “Let all the other writers slog around in the trenches because I’m special“?

Well, talent is a huge piece of the puzzle, naturally. But hard work, I’ll argue, is a bigger piece. Because naturally talented people — especially the people who know they’re naturally talented — often get an entitled attitude and wait for the success to come to them. It’s the people who think “I might not be special enough yet but, damn it, I will be successful” who usually end up towering over their smug counterparts. Because the ordinary writers have to work for it and they know it. They have to put in the hours to see improvement, to witness the talent start to shine. They learn to work hard and never give up. And those are the people who make it, while some of the naturally talented people sit around on their couches, waiting for that model scout to come knocking.

In the writing game — and I’ll say it is one, on many levels — the qualities of patience, hard-work, humility and the eagerness to learn will get you much farther than striving to be the exception to the rule. The former you can control, the latter you can’t. Wouldn’t you rather be in control of your success and your career?

Revising Before Contract

I did a post a few weeks ago that dealt with the types of rejection a writer usually receives from an agent or an editor. At least, these are the types of rejections I send. Now I want to talk a bit about the last type, the Revision Rejection.

This is as close as you can get to having an agent offer representation. This is basically an agent saying “I will give you revision notes and work with you like I would a client, but I have a few reservations and don’t want to officially offer you representation yet.”

On the one hand, this is great. A Real, Live Publishing Professional believes in you. On the other hand, it can also be tricky. I always consider everything very carefully when I offer a Revision Rejection because there are a lot of things at stake. The writer could take my notes to heart, do a revision, send it back to me and it still wouldn’t be strong enough. That puts both me and the writer in a nasty situation. I feel bad and the writer gets their hopes up.

I try not to offer too many Revision Rejections because, if I care enough about a project and love it enough to spend all this time thinking about it, I will usually offer representation and revise after contract with a writer. A Revision Rejection is if I do have some pretty substantial issues with the manuscript — a character, a plot point, a voice issue — but really think it could have great potential. The big thing I’m trying to figure out when I give this kind of rejection is whether or not an author can revise. Some authors will be great at revision, I can tell. Others, well, they get the Revision Rejection because I need to know for sure how well they tackle a revision before I sign them.

However, I want to give writers everywhere a complete picture of this tricky issue. If you’re faced with a revision rejection from me or any agent, it’s not something you have to listen to. I’d suggest waiting until you get some similar feedback before ripping your manuscript apart. If, however, my revision notes hit home and really resonate with you, you can revise and you’ll come out of the situation with a better book, even if the revision doesn’t end up being strong enough for me to represent.

Always use caution when revising for someone without a contract. It’s your book and your vision. Don’t let any one person’s reaction or notes pressure you into changing your project too drastically unless you agree with them. Just because I’m a Real, Live Publishing Professional, it doesn’t mean I know your book better than you do. I know my taste, I know the publishing marketplace, I know editors, but you’re the expert on your own work.

So a Revision Rejection is really good news, it means you’re a breath away from even better news, but you always have to take it with a grain of salt.

Types of Rejection Letters and Query Rejection

Query rejection is still rejection, sure,  but if you stick to writing for any length of time, you’ll soon begin to see that there are some nuances to getting turned down by an agent or editor. I’m talking about types of rejection letters. There are entire gradients of rejection and, the better your work, the higher you climb up the ladder toward that “yes” that you’ve been chasing.

agent rejection, slush rejection, types of rejection, query rejection, slush pile
Sure, it’s one discouraging word, but it can mean so many things!

Types of Rejection Letters

Here are the basic kinds of query rejection I used to give as a literary agent:

Form Rejection: I reject the project but don’t give any feedback or thoughts. I will always personalize with your name and the name of your project but I don’t say anything specific about it. This is usually what I send when the writing isn’t solid enough, the voice doesn’t grab me, the idea doesn’t resonate, etc. You get one of these if your work is obviously not a fit for me, which I can tell almost immediately.

Personal Rejection: I still pass on the submission but provide general feedback. I will use this one either for a query rejection when I thought a project had promise or an easily articulated flaw or sometimes for a full manuscript that falls short of what I was hoping for. Maybe the project shows potential but isn’t right for my list — which isn’t something the writer can help. Or maybe I have thoughts on how it could be improved before I’d consider representing it — which the writer can take into account if they wish. I don’t give detailed editorial notes, however, because I think the project shows promise but might be a little too much work to get into.

Revision Rejection: The most rare and desirable of all the types of rejection letters. This is only for cases where I’ve read the full manuscript. In this situation, I’ve spent some time with the project and give the writer specific notes for revision. If they were to revise, I say, I’d love to see it again.

As you can see, there are several types of query rejection. The rule of thumb is, the more personal the rejection, the more time the agent or editor spent with your work. And the more potential and talent they see. A Personal Rejection and a Revision Rejection are like doors that are half-open to you. (Here’s something else to consider when faced with a revise and resubmit query rejection.)

See Query Rejection as an Opportunity

You can turn the two more personal types of query rejection into opportunities. An agent who sends you a Personal Rejection would probably be up for seeing your next project. An agent who sends you a Revision Rejection would probably be enthusiastic to see another version of your current one. Especially if they took the time to give notes. In the grand scheme of things, this is relatively rare, so definitely don’t file it away as a simple “pass” and move on.

So keep querying and keep racking up those rejections. If you find yourself getting mostly Personal or Revision Rejections, that hard-won “yes” might not be too far behind.

Feeling unsure about your query letter, synopsis, or manuscript? Hire me as your freelance editor and we can work on your submission materials or dig deeper into your picture book, novel, or non-fiction proposal together.

Working With a Literary Agent: What to Expect

There’s something I’d like to clear up about working with a literary agent: their job is to sell your already-polished work to a publisher. Their job isn’t to help you develop a half-baked idea or to provide free editorial services.

Granted, when I was an agent, I loved the editorial process of working with a manuscript. It said that right in my bio on the agency website. That’s why I started my own editorial agency — so I could focus on the work I enjoy the most.

working with a literary agent, literary agent notes, when to hire a freelance editor
Working with a literary agent means that your manuscript is ALREADY sparkling at the time of submission.

But when agents say, “I love to do editorial work with clients!” it opens up an ugly Pandora’s box. When certain unprofessional writers see an agent’s passion for editorial work, they think it’s okay to query with statements like:

I know this needs a lot of work but I’m fed up with it. I need professional help because, if I ever have to look at this manuscript again, so help me God…

I never done written nothin’ befor so I need sumone to healp mak this teh best book evar…

Together we can develop this into a bestseller bigger than Twilight and Harry Potter combined…

My idea is so great, and if you could only write it for me…

Working with a Literary Agent: What it Entails

An agent makes money by doing one thing: selling books. Not by developing projects (though that’s a huge part of the work they do every day…for clients), not by taking on the role of a freelance editor, not by ghostwriting, not by playing critique partner for free. That’s not an agent’s job, and is essentially wasting time on something that, most likely, will never amount to anything.

When I was an agent and I said that I loved doing editorial work with my clients, that didn’t mean that I had the ability or desire to rehabilitate every querier’s Ugly Ducking Manuscript into The Next Bella Swan. It didn’t mean I wanted to fix your hot mess. It meant that I was hands on and loved to give guidance to the clients I signed.

The Most Important Thing to Remember

The clients I took on already had manuscripts that were 95% ready for editors to see them. That meant I took the best of the best and made sure it was irresistible to publishers. If I saw promise and potential and, ahem, professionalism and craft, I worked with a writer until the ends of the Earth. If a writer begged for me to fix their thing for free, I shook my head and chuckled. Impatience, as you can see from the comments in It’s Easy to Get Published, is one of the biggest mental hurdles writers have.

The point is, if you can’t bear to look at your manuscript one more time, hire a freelance editor. If you’ve never written anything before in your life and you want to know whether you’re doing it right, keep writing because you’re probably not. If you want free guidance from another reader, join a critique group. If you want someone to develop a project with you, try to get a co-writer who will agree to work for free and take a risk on you.

However, if, and only if, you want someone to take your nearly-editor-ready, sparkling, beautiful manuscript and sell it, then working with a literary agent makes sense, because that is what an agent does.

The Diamond in the Rough

I know a lot of people will think “But what if something really is a diamond in the rough and working with a literary agent is what it needs to be the next Harry Potter?” I’m sure this has happened. But you know what? When I was an agent, I tried doing that with a few writers. I really saw promise…or convinced myself I did. There were glimmers of hope. I spent hours giving extensive literary agent notes.

But the problem with people who have promising yet unpracticed writing is that the writer doesn’t have as many revision skills as people who have been writing and honing their craft for a while. Every single one of the “diamond in the rough” projects I tried to rehab fell apart in the revision phase and I pretty thoroughly learned my lesson. If some writer were to come to me and say “Here, please fix my urchin of a manuscript and, oh yeah, I’ve invented a machine that’ll give you 24 more hours in every day”…then I might’ve given it a second thought, but not before. 🙂

I’m no longer a literary agent, but I love providing editorial services to writers of all skill levels who need help polishing their work.

Inside the Agent/Client Revision Process

Last week, Christa asked the following question (edited slightly):

What are revisions are usually like between agent and writer? Are there common mistakes you see with each client, or does it vary? What is most revised, usually, or is it all over the board? And what kind of turn around time do most agents appreciate (I’m sure it all depends on the amount of revision–but maybe an approximation or something) for the revisions to be completed?

Great question. I love doing editorial work with clients and I think most agents feel similarly. A lot of writers also appreciate the chance to work on their manuscripts before going out on submission. My thought is… if we can strengthen a project and give it the best chance of attracting an editor, why the heck not?

The process of working on revisions with a client really does depend on the manuscript. Here’s how it usually goes, though:

First things first: I read your book, I love your book, I float a few revision ideas by you before offering representation, you like my thoughts and you sign up with me.

The second read and giving notes: I read your manuscript again. I do some light line-editing, honing in on small nitpicky details and areas where the writing or voice could be smoothed in the manuscript. More importantly, I look for character, plot, structure and pacing issues on a macro level. These are things that affect more than just a paragraph or a page. Do two similar best friend characters need to be combined into one? Is the tension of the subplot low throughout the piece? Can we strengthen a character’s relationship with her mother? Etc. etc. etc. These are the bigger changes that I think will make the manuscript stronger and help the storytelling become more compelling.

Genius at work: The writer gets my notes, crafts a voodoo doll in my image and eats some ice cream. Several days pass and they realize a) I’m on their team and b) I’m freaking brilliant (and humble!). If there are any questions or disagreements, I invite my client to talk to me, argue, discuss, vent. We brainstorm together and often surprise each other with unexpected solutions. Then the writer works on revisions. These really do take as long as they take, and each project is different. I’ve seen them take a weekend, I’ve seen them take months. For me, I want them done in a timely manner but quality is much more important. My big pet peeve is seeing a revision that’s been expedited but is incomplete. Revision is a complicated process… you think, you stew, you gnash your teeth, you get ideas, you work and rework… it can’t be rushed.

Now it’s my turn again, and I’m faced with a decision: I read the revision ASAP. My challenge is to try and see it with fresh eyes, forget the last draft, and evaluate whether or not it’s “editor ready.” That last bit can be a difficult decision. Do I want to push the writer into another revision and make it perfect perfect, or is the potential clearly evident, even if I still see a few small tweaks that could be made? I’m a ruthless perfectionist. I find holes and opportunities in everything, even books that have been published and decorated with awards. I realize I can’t hold every manuscript to the standard that’s in my head. So at this point, it’s really my call whether or not to go back to the writer. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If the manuscript looks great or only has a few tiny issues remaining, I go out on submission. If it needs another revision, it’s lather, rinse, repeat, only there should be much less work to do on the second pass.

There are all sorts of situations that can arise, though. The writer can totally go off in a different direction and it turns out they’ve made the manuscript worse. This is a situation that’s happened to every agent and it is an icky, horrible one. Everyone has different skills when it comes to writing. Some people are good at revision, others aren’t. You never know how strong your client’s skills are in this department until you go through a round. Luckily, though, once writers are at the level where they’re working with an agent, they’re usually revision professionals.

A lot of Christa’s questions can only be answered, unfortunately, with “It depends on the client and the manuscript.” However, I just want to hammer home that the most common revision mistake I see is rushing through the work. Some writers see notes and take them very literally. They only fix those notes — as if checking them off a To Do list — and spend no time thinking and imagining how else they might refine, finesse, deepen. They go through page by page but never stop to consider how to take their manuscript to the next level. My expectation is that there’s always some creative evolution, above and beyond the things I mention in my notes. I can always tell when a writer has rushed through revision, because it comes back with changes that have only been made at the surface level.

But let me make one thing perfectly clear. I only sign a client and work on revision in-depth when I absolutely love the project and am confident I can sell it. Otherwise, it’s a disservice to me and the writer. I can’t pitch something I’m not crazy passionate about and every writer deserves nothing less in their advocate. So when I give revision notes — even if they seem like a lot of work — it’s because I believe in the project and the author with all my heart. And there is very little that’s more satisfying and gratifying to me than reading a revision that has been absolutely, positively hit out of the ballpark.

Polish the Entire Manuscript

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.

There’s only so much a person can tell from a query. 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.

Why? 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 for the rest. 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 every other page of the project. If it starts out great, we’re only expecting it to get better, not worse, when we read the rest. The last thing you want to do is disappoint.

Crafting Exciting Prose by Writing Good Sentences

Writers who have mastered the craft of writing good sentences are a blast to read. It almost seems like magic. Your eyes just can’t stop hopping along from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, one page to the next.

writing good sentences, qualities of good writing
One of the qualities of good writing is making intentional choices about each and every sentence.

Crafting Exciting Prose By Writing Good Sentences

How do they do it?

Let me wager a guess: writing good sentences. Among other things, of course. But that’s right: sentences. The building blocks of prose, sentences are one of the crucial qualities of good writing.

A lot of beginning writers — caught up in plot and dialogue and characterization and description — sometimes lose sight of writing craft at the sentence level. Here are three qualities of good writing that will make your prose sing.

How to Begin a Sentence

Beware of structuring most of your sentences in the same way. The most common one I see, by far, is the “I verb” (first person) or “Subject verb” (third person) sentence beginning.

Take a look at these two short example paragraphs:

I looked down the street, first left, then right. I didn’t see anybody so I ran left. I picked wrong, of course. I had no idea that the bad guys were just around the corner.

Or:

He grabs the book and scans the lettering etched into the leather cover: The Volume of Secrets. He sighs with wonder. It is his at last. He slips it into his pocket just as Professor Detritus appears in the doorway.

If the above paragraphs inspire a vague sense of boredom, it’s because almost every sentence starts the same: “I verb” or “Subject verb.” Let me repeat: I see this a lot. If you’re not sure how often you fall into this trap, start underlining all of your “I verb” or “Subject verb” sentence beginnings. Seeing a lot of lines? Spice up your sentence structure so they don’t all start the same way.

How Long Should Sentences Be

Length is another thing you want to take into consideration when you’re focusing on writing good sentences. I know this might sound like a no-brainer to some of you, but varying sentence length in every paragraph is a great way to keep the reader engaged. Take a look at one example:

The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Lila stood on its banks and watched the water. Anthony hitched up his horse somewhere behind her. She could almost hear his impatience.

Now compare to this one:

The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Home. Lila stood on its banks, watching familiar water burble at her feet. Behind her, Anthony hitched up his horse, the saddle hitting Lightning’s muscled back with a hard packing sound. She could almost hear his impatience.

I’ve mixed it up a bit, varying the “Subject verb” sentence beginnings, but also sentence length. We go from the very short “Home.” to a pretty long one about the horse. This keeps the reader engaged because, otherwise, their eyes and brain get lulled to sleep by sentences that look alike. Keep your reader on their toes, right down to the varied length of your sentences.

Exciting Writing Is Mimetic Writing

Sentence length is also very useful in setting tone. Make your sentence length match the mood of what you’re saying. Take a look:

Her heels hit the pavement in staccato bursts. They were after her. Five of them. Guns drawn.

Short, choppy sentences heighten tension. Alternately, long, loopy sentences have their uses:

Edward’s pale marble skin erupted in a shimmering display as soon as he stepped into the lazy beam of afternoon sunshine. A light seemed to leak from his very soul and out of his pores, like a million twinkling stars dotting the nighttime firmament, each fleck of glitter as dazzling as the next.

Martha and Whitney, that was for you! You get my drift. 🙂 So be aware of length, and you’ll be on your way to writing good sentences that enhance the tone of your work.

How to Use Punctuation

There’s not much to say about this one, really, except that sentence structure is closely tied to punctuation. Do a sentence without a comma. Then slip in a more complex sentence with a comma, several commas or (gasp!) maybe even a semi-colon.

Harnessing Your Writing Tics

Also, be aware that you might have some pet structures that you use over and over again. This doesn’t just apply on a sentence level, or a paragraph level, but on a manuscript level. Every writer has tics: pet expressions, favorite words, redundant descriptions. This applies to how you craft sentences, too.

One of my tics is this type of sentence structure, for example:

“The air tasted briny and salty and cool. As far as sunsets went, this one lit up the sky in orange, pink, and lavender.”

Using “word and word and word” and “word, word, and word” is one of my challenges as a writer. I like to describe things in threes. While using “and” sometimes instead of commas and vice versa mixes up the sentence structure, these shenanigans still litter my manuscripts.

I’m not saying get rid of your favorite way of crafting a sentence, I’m saying: be aware of it and make each choice, even on the sentence level, an intentional one. Remember: One of the qualities of good writing is making intentional choices about each and every sentence.

Sentence Craft Is an Intentional Choice

Repeat after me, folks:

Every sentence in my manuscript is an intentional choice!

Feels good, right? Writing good sentences is just one way to make your manuscript that much stronger. It is essential to the craft and these are just three small things to take into consideration. Have fun!

An exciting novel begins at the sentence level. Hire me as your novel editor and we will engineer great fiction together from the ground up.

When To Cut Something Out Of Your Manuscript

Here are some very simple benchmarks for when to cut something out of your manuscript. If you are agonizing over revisions and trying to decide whether to keep a paragraph, scene, phrase, character, line of dialogue, etc., run it through this checklist.

(Hint: if people are telling you that your pacing is slowing down or if a scene is running long and boring to re-read during revisions… Pay attention!)

You should probably cut it from your manuscript if:

  1. It does not advance our understanding of the character. Does this piece of writing show us something new about or a deeper layer of your character? Everything you write serves a purpose (and no, that purpose is not to boost your word count). If nothing new is revealed as a result of this being in the manuscript, cut it. If no new nuance emerges, give it the axe.
  2. It is just so darn clever. Find the part you love so much because it is witty. Cut it. That’s you showing off as a writer and I’m willing to bet that it does not advance our understanding of the character (see above) or advance the plot and tension (see below).
  3. It does not advance plot or raise tension. Every piece of fiction needs plot and tension to keep the reader going. Some things have very little happen in them but they’re readable. That’s okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. “Readability” is not what we’re striving for, though. So make sure you are turning out plot points and upping the tension with every scene you write.
  4. It does not reveal anything new. In terms of plot, or backstory, or foreshadowing or our immersion in the world of the book. If something doesn’t give us more meat to chew on, it’s just fat and gristle.

This is a very reductive view of revision. But honestly? I’ve been reading some manuscripts this week where I’ve wondered long and hard: Why is this in here? Whether it’s been a particular bon mot that the writer couldn’t cut (KILL YOUR BABIES!) or a scene where the same wrinkle in a friendship dynamic is replayed over and over (“I just need to know I can trust you, man!”/”You can trust me, broseph!” for like five scenes straight…), I have developed a wicked itchy delete button finger.

And what happens after you trim all the unnecessary fat from your manuscript?

What’s that?

You’ve freed up some room in your word count and it gives you anxiety?

Go forth and fill it with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! Because if what you’re writing isn’t any of that–if it is just taking up space in your manuscript–then those are dead words anyway. It’s better if you cut them when you see them, as they’re placeholders for something more awesome.

Trust me. Now go: chop, chop, chop.