The Last Threshold and Writing What You Can’t

Here’s a post written by Mary-the-Writer, not Mary-the-Agent. I’ve written a lot of manuscripts in the pursuit of my craft. Each has been better than the last one and I have no doubt I can tell a story, but there’s a threshold in my way that I’m always grappling with. It’s the hardest, most menacing final hurdle, and I haven’t hopped over it yet, as my work remains unpublished.

My struggle is voice. A voice that’s believable, that changes, that evolves and reeks of humanity. Because that’s what is necessary in today’s market. And my biggest problem is impatience. I want to publish a book and I want to do it right now. But things don’t work that way. In my pursuit of the manuscript “just good enough for someone to publish it already!!!” I’ve been turning out lazy, one-dimensional, generic writing. Some writers, those trained in critique groups and workshops, will automatically move to pat me on the knee and whisper that no, it’s actually very good and that I shouldn’t say that, and that I’m being self-critical, and blah blah blah. But compliments don’t help a person improve. They’re the last things you’ll remember, after you process all the real, honest and challenging advice you get.

In the pursuit of the book that’s good enough, I haven’t written a book that’s alive. Something with a pulse. Something that has the “x factor” to succeed. (Hint: the “x factor” in any manuscript is voice.) Not yet. That’s what I finally have to tackle (in all my “spare” time, ha!). And the painful funny thing is, I’ve known it all along. In my rush to write and revise, I’ve known that these manuscripts haven’t been my absolute best work. A long time ago, in college, I figured out that my lazy try was better than some people’s absolute best writing. That’s the moment when I decided to play it safe. I know I’m not alone in this.

People have a tendency to stop short of doing their best. It’s a self-defense mechanism. If they don’t write the things they really want, if they don’t pour out the real effort, then the failure they’re imagining (and will most likely experience) can’t hurt them that deeply. Criticism slides right off, because they have a dirty little secret: this wasn’t the real try anyway.

Well, I am throwing in the towel on that attitude these days. It’s childish, it’s self-defeatist and it’s the last great threshold in my writing life. Is there anybody out there with me who’ll do the same? Have I hit upon anybody else’s dirty little secret? Good.

Here’s my advice to those writing what’s just good enough:

Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time.

I’m done with writing safe, bloodless manuscripts that get me nowhere. Just like any writer, I’ve faced a lot of rejection. But I’m grateful for it, so thank you to all the editors who haven’t published me yet. Thanks for not letting me get away with it. I’ll be here until next time, getting over my self-inflicted BS and finally writing the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

I want nothing less from the writers who query me.

What Editors Want

I had the great fortune to hang out with some editors recently and talk about writers. Especially new writers.

What is the #1 most important thing an editor wants from a new writer?

Is it astronomical talent and mind-blowing prose?

Writing is important, of course, but…

Is it a story worthy of the next Harry Potter/Twilight/Percy Jackson and the Olympians?

Story is important, oh yes, but…

If an editor is interested in your work and the writing and the story are solid, the number one thing they want is:

Willingness to revise.

Sure, a book starts in an oddly sparking synapse somewhere in your brain, ends up jotted on a journal page and blossoms from there. But if that book is going to hit the real world, a lot more people are going to be involved in bringing it to life. That includes agents, editors, designers, sales reps, librarians, booksellers, etc. etc. etc. And while not all of those people are going to be giving you direct input, it’s important to remember that they’re all on your team.

So when an agent or editor ask you for changes (and they will, I guarantee it)… hear them out, see it from their perspective and go into the process with an open mind. Then revise your butt off and turn out a book that’s all the better for it.

The more I learn about writing, the more I realize its real name: “revision.”

Describing Emotions With Physical Cliches

Without further ado, here are the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse with regard to describing emotions:

  1. Eyes
  2. Hearts
  3. Lungs
  4. Stomachs
describing emotions, showing emotions in writing
She darted a menacing glance over her shoulder at the Four Horsemen coming for her lazy writing…

What do I mean? These four areas of the body are the well-worn favorites of writers everywhere when it comes to describing emotions of any kind. Count how many times you’ve seen the following (or similar) phrases.

Well-Worn Favorites in Describing Emotions

She darted a menacing glance over her shoulder.

He cast his eyes to the ground.

My heart clenched in my chest like a giant fist.

His heart knocked against his ribs like a caged bird.

She let go of a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

Timmy gasped for air like a drowning man.

The sound of his raspy breathing was the only noise in the otherwise death-silent room.

A gnawing feeling radiated from her guts.

Acid roiled in my stomach, threatening to make an exit up my esophagus.

And on and on and on. Now, that’s not to say that describing emotions in this way is inherently bad. It’s not. But as writers, you should always be thinking about how to describe emotion in creative ways. There aren’t many areas of the human body that act as emotional centers. Eyes, hearts, lungs and stomachs are the four biggies. A lot of stuff happens at these hotspots as a character moves through the emotional arc of a story.

Innovate How You’re Showing Emotions in Writing

But every time you’re showing emotions in writing with eyes darting, a heart clenching, breaths catching in throats or guts rumbling, just know that these Four Horsemen appear in almost every manuscript. It is your job to put a fresh twist on describing emotions and giving your readers new images.

Just because you know everyone struggles with this problem and just because you want to easily jump to showing emotions in your writing doesn’t mean you can get complacent and fall back on the stuff I’ve outlined above.

I issue you a challenge and throw down the gauntlet! What are some fun ways you mix up describing emotions in your manuscripts?

Characters need to be believable and relatable in order to hook readers. Hire me as your book editor and we can hone in on your protagonist together.

How to Write Thoughts in Fiction and Formatting Thoughts

If you want to go deeply into your character’s experience, or interiority, you will want to write their thoughts. And how to write thoughts in fiction includes formatting thoughts correctly. Here are some, well, thoughts on both topics.

how to write thoughts, formatting thoughts, interiority, characters thinking, writing character thoughts
Character thoughts are where the good stuff is, but think you know how to write thoughts? Or formatting thoughts? Think again!

Formatting Thoughts

There are several schools of (ahem) thought on how to write thoughts and then format them in fiction writing. One is that all verbatim thoughts are formatted in italics. The second school is that verbatim thoughts can be left unformatted as long as you use a “thought” tag, for example, “she thought” at the end of the phrase. This isn’t my preferred because I struggle to get writers away from excessive dialogue tags in general.

I would say just italicize your thoughts and then forget about it, but there’s more nuanced discussion of formatting interiority here.

How to Write Thoughts Tip

Can we please put a manuscript moratorium on the following phrases:

I’m so bored, she thought to herself.

I need a cheeseburger, he thought in his head.

Of course a character thinks something to themselves. They’re the ones thinking it! They don’t think it to someone else unless they can communicate telepathically (in which case this moratorium doesn’t affect your book). Normally when someone has a thought, it is directed to his or herself. And, usually, unless there’s something creative about their anatomy, they think in their heads!

That makes logical sense to you, right? So why am I seeing so many characters thinking to themselves?! Or thinking in their heads?!

The correct thing to write would just be “she thought” and “he thought.” Or, better yet, italics and nothing at all. Simple, effective!

If ever you find this in your WIP, highlight it and then … press the delete button.

Interiority (getting deeply into the character’s experience) is the cornerstone craft concept that I teach as a novel editor. If you’d like to explore this as it applies to your project, please reach out.

How to Write Action Scenes

More writers should be wondering how to write action scenes. Because the more action sequences I read, the more I’m convinced that they’re the Achilles’ heel of even the most seasoned writer (with the exception of thriller writers, of course). Lovely and agile prose sometimes tends to fall apart when an action sequence is called for.

how to write an action sequence, writing action, pacing, plot
How to write an action sequence even this guy would be proud of.

How to Write Action Scenes With the Movies in Mind

This is a difficult situation for writers who have to contend with an action movie world. Cinematography can do things that prose can’t. It can show us five quick moves from a martial arts sequence in the space of one second.

Take this example from page 83 of SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT*, a perfectly lovely book that came out with HarperCollins in 2008, written by Derek Landry, a screenwriter, as it happens:

He screamed and let her go and staggered back, cursing, and Stephanie rolled off the car and ran to the Bentley.

Give that sentence a coffee break, it’s been working too hard!

Action Sequence Writing Needs to Flow

As you can see, there’s a bit of conjunctivitis going on (and no, I’m not talking about pink eye, I’m talking about an overload of conjunctions). The author’s “and” addiction sends way too many images shooting at the reader and we can’t quite make a clear picture of the action. Put this sentence in a group of similar sentences and we’ll get whiplash.

Tips on How to Write Action Scenes

This is a reminder to check back on all of your action sequence chapters and run through these revision tips:

  1. Clarity. If you hadn’t written it, would you be able to tell what’s going on? So much, well, action happens in an action sequence that clarity is of the utmost importance.
  2. Consistency. Just because they’re in an action sequence, characters should still act and speak like themselves. They should not develop any surprising but convenient powers or skills in the heat of the action.
  3. Sentence variety. The heavy emphasis on description in an action sequence usually means that style takes a backseat. For example, you get an entire paragraph of sentences that start the same: “He grabbed his gun… He volleyed over the wall… He slid into the driver’s seat… He skidded to a halt to smell the roses…” Make sure your sentences have structural variety. Your readers will get bored with all the “Subject verb” construction, or of any other sentence tic that you develop.
  4. Brevity. Even if your plot calls for the longest action sequence in the world, make sure there are pauses in between bouts of action. Break it up with some snappy dialogue, let the character take a breather. No one can be an action machine 24/7, that includes the reader whose heartbeat has been (hopefully) racing for the last ten pages. Let them take a rest. Some readers are great at reading action sequences, other gloss over them (I have to admit, I skimmed most of the Quidditch sequences and the big finale fights in the HARRY POTTER series, because I am just not that great at reading action scenes and keeping all those pieces and images in my head.)
  5. Believability. Alas, every action sequence must come to an end sometime. Make sure yours ends in a believable way. No “how convenient!” scrapes. No deus ex machina**. And don’t be afraid to let something go wrong or to let someone get hurt. There are always winners AND losers in an action sequence. Give us a taste of both.

There you have it. Now go forth and blow our action-movie-addled minds!

* This awkward action sequence aside, you should definitely read SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT or any of its sequels if you write MG. It’s a great mix of action and adventure that appeals to girls and boys, realistic and fantasy lovers alike.

* Latin: “god from the machine.” This term refers to “a plot device in which a person or thing appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty” (nice, articulate definition from Wikipedia). This means that if something feels like a “cop out” in your book…if ane scape is too easy or too good to be true…your reader will probably think so, too, and you’ll lose credibility and authenticity points with them.

Plot and action can be hard to master in a vacuum. Hire me as your manuscript consultant, and you’ll never write alone.

Introducing Climactic Details

Writers, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, of all people, about dramatic arc. But maybe I will, just so we’re clear. Dramatic arc looks like, well, an upside down check-mark, actually, more so than an arc, with the pointy part making a mountain near the end.

The story starts off on ground level, then slopes up nicely until the climax (the mountain) and then slopes quickly downward to a nice resolution.

A large part of this nice, inverted-check-mark shape, is the sloping. As the novel builds and builds, the tension and the stakes and the action rises toward a climax. Yes? Yes. Then, after an exciting climax, things decelerate quickly and we have a satisfying conclusion.

The key point of getting that great building action in your story is that the reader is aware of what’s at stake. They know what the characters want and they know, pretty much, what is going to turn into a dangerous situation near the end. In other words, they have an idea where your story is going and what your climax is going to be about, pretty much after the first 50 pages. Some people would ask: “Doesn’t this make your novel predictable?”

No. It gives the reader something to fear, something to anticipate, and something to care about. And if they know what could possibly be at stake and what kind of danger could possibly transpire, they’ll be that much more eager to read and find out exactly how it all goes down for the characters that they’ve grown to empathize with.

This brings me to the one thing you never do in a manuscript (there might be more of these, but so far, this is the high and exalted One Thing).

Do not introduce an event or person or thing or consequence in the last 50 pages (or so) of your manuscript if that event/person/thing/consequence will become instrumental to the climax. (The only viable exception to this is introducing a villain who has, up to this point, remained hidden or shadowed or otherwise dark and creepy.)

Ideally, the same stakes and goals and characters and threats that you build from the very beginning of the manuscript should be the forces involved in the climax. The whole point of the climax is that you bring everything that you’ve worked so hard developing and making irresistible together…and that comes from the reader having spent a whole book with these things and really, really caring about what happens to them.

If you introduce something a few pages away from the climax and hinge the climax on that thing, you’re going to lose some readers because they simply don’t care. For example, if you’ve been building up to a battle for the main character to avenge their father’s death for the whole book, then you interrupt the story ten pages before the battle with some bad guys who burst on the scene and want to steal the Magical Decanter of Shmegoo (that we’ve never heard of before in the book, or only heard in passing once or twice) and then make the battle about the Decanter instead of the hero’s father, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

By all means, introduce new complications, villains, conflicts as your book develops. But don’t introduce something that becomes instrumental in the climax near the end of the book and expect us to care about it. More often than not, your readers will be let down in a big way.

Is your plot flowing the way it should? Hire me to review your manuscript and give you hands-on plotting advice.

Changing a Manuscript’s Narrative Point of View or Tense

A writer makes many decisions when it comes to approaching a manuscript. We have to decide on our characters, our plot, our setting, our descriptions … all that content jazz. We also have to decide several storytelling issues. Is this story going to be told in past tense or present tense? Will it be told in first or in third person narrative point of view? If it’s going to be in third person, will it be third person limited or third person omniscient*? Which character’s POV** will tell the story? Will I have one narrative point of view or multiple POV’s? And on and on. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t take up brain surgery instead.

narrative point of view, pov, manuscript tense, past tense, present tense
Decisions, decisions…

Narrative Point of View Choices Can Be Wrong

Believe it or not, though, almost every choice I’ve ever made about a manuscript has been wrong at some point. That’s totally okay. It’s a huge pain in the butt and you wonder if you are just the densest person on the planet when you realize your error, but there’s only one thing you can do: change it. (There’s also Secret Option B: eat a sheet pan of tiramisu.)

In terms of difficulty, here are the above changes, ordered by degree of difficulty from easiest to hardest:

  1. Tense
  2. First to third or third to first narrative point of view
  3. Third person limited to third person omniscient or vice versa
  4. One POV to multiple POV’s or vice versa

There are tons of changes a writer makes to a manuscript, of course, but the above four are the big “universal” changes that are likely to affect the entire thing. I’ve repeatedly, REPEATEDLY, made the first two changes to several manuscripts. In fact, with one manuscript, I went from first to third and then back again to first, like a total dunderhead.

How to Change Manuscript POV or Tense

If ever you’re faced with one of these huge changes, take heart. The only way to do it is to put your head down and power through. Besides, every single time you read through your work, it gets stronger. You’ll notice a sentence that sounds off, you’ll see that some new thread could easily be woven into the story here, here and here.

Also, there’s a great psychological effect to making these huge, whole-MS changes … you’ll get comfortable with ripping it apart and making it messy for a little while. After that, you’ll be more willing to do bigger revisions, if it comes to that, which it most likely will, and you’ll handle them with more aplomb! And doesn’t everyone want more aplombfulness in their lives? =) (Plus, the deeper you can get into POV in writing and your characters’ heads, the better.)

* In case you’re wondering. Third person limited is narrated in the third person (he ran down the hallway, etc.) but it follows one character (most likely the main character) the closest. It can also see into that character’s thoughts and feelings but not anybody else’s. Third person omniscient, which is more difficult to pull off successfully, follows many people, can access all of their thoughts and feelings, and gives them equal weight.

** POV stands for “point of view.” Every time you follow someone’s thoughts or feelings, as in, say, the third person limited example above, you are in their POV. A book can primarily follow one person or have multiple POV’s (usually broken up into sections or new chapters, as in The Luxe series by Anna Godbersen), and this term applies to books written in both first and third person.

A great book I’d prescribe in writing narrative point of view is Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld. A must-read if you’re making big POV decisions.

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.

Character Arc — Is It Necessary?

Character arc — or how your character changes throughout the course of your story — is critical to developing compelling fiction. Believe it or not, I have read manuscripts where the writer seemed to ignore character arc completely and came up with an almost entirely static character.

character arc, character development, passive character, static character, active character
Are your characters changing with the events in your story, or are they a static character despite what you throw at them?

Your Character Arc Should Be a Journey

This is a huge question, with an easy answer. First, consider this quote:

“A story is a character’s journey from innocence to experience.”

Dunk that in your morning coffee.

Without any kind of change or narrative arc, you have a passive character. They do not change, they do not learn, they do not care, and therefore, it is very difficult for the reader to care. However, your number one job as a writer is to make readers care.

More practically, you are asking readers to invest hours of their lives in your story. If your character arc goes from point A to … point A, readers may not necessarily feel like they’ve gone on a satisfying journey. Sure, there’s something in fiction called the “antihero,” who seems almost stubbornly against changing. Isn’t a passive character one of the evils of modern life, after all? But this type of characterization is a big risk, because antiheroes tend to come off as bored (and therefore boring) or too misanthropic to be truly relatable.

Character Arc in Children’s Books

The antihero tends to be more of an element in adult fiction, anyway. Since young people, young readers, and therefore young characters are living in such a dynamic period of their lives, they almost can’t help but change. Take this to heart.

A passive character might play in moody literary fiction or short story, but it’s a tough prospect in most children’s books. The obvious exception is nonfiction picture book, for example, where the character arc isn’t the main point of the story. Otherwise, you’re on the hook for putting some a dynamic protagonist on the page. Sorry! Dig deeper into what makes a great character here.

Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll guide you towards creating characters that readers will connect with.

What Happens Here?

Every once in a while, I stumble upon a dead scene. One where, technically, nothing happens. It usually involves either an author who is brimming with information or really loves writing witty banter.

In two manuscripts I’ve read recently, I’ve encountered dead scenes. These dead scenes occurred for two completely different reasons. For one, the author felt compelled to outline the bulk of a fantasy world in the form of a more-experienced person filling a newbie in. The second MS, the author had established some good tension and a compelling plot with potential danger, then spent about 40 or 50 pages writing: witty banter at a family dinner, a witty scene at the best friend’s house, witty banter at another family dinner, witty banter at the coffee house, witty banter by the lockers at school.

Are you getting my drift? What do the two above mss. have in common? What’s that? Did you say “lot’s o’ blabbing”? Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!

When you find large places in your MS with nothing but dialogue, you’re most likely in trouble. *cue wails of distress, cries of “but my MS is different!”* That very well might be, but editors and agents are looking for story, they’re looking for plot. In most cases, even a literary, character-driven masterpiece will only be half the package.

I’ve never met a publishing professional who wouldn’t also want to know: “What happens next?”

Authors usually either write long conversation scenes to serve as a) an info-dump (about a world, a situation, a threat, a character, etc.), or b) to bask in their own wit/wordplay/writing.

Both of these pose huge revision problems. Huge. Make-you-want-to-eat-a-sheet-of-tiramisu-from-Costco huge (I know from experience… I can still taste the powdered chocolate dusting my tear-stained cheeks). The first author wails: “But how else do I introduce all that information??? It’s the crux of my story!!!”

The answer is: you layer it. Introduce one thing. Then add another layer to it. Add some backstory in another conversation. Better yet, make your explanation triggered by something. Your characters find something and it starts a story. Or something happens and a character explains something. Instead of having a conversation triggered by your urge to world-build and spill the framework of your concept, have it be triggered by action. And don’t give it to us all at once. Put the pieces together as they arise naturally through plot.

The second writer will balk at this advice: “But this is hilarious. It’s so fun to read!” Sure, you wrote some funny stuff. And I’ll probably enjoy reading it. But most writers can’t keep a book in suspended plot animation for long before a reader gets antsy. If you want to showcase your wit, punctuate it with action. Have a witty moment discussing something that happened. De-stress after a long day of ACTION by hanging out with your BFF and bantering. Don’t let the witty banter be the entire book, though. That’s the grave mistake.

As you can see, the answer to both situations is action. Something happening. Plot. Every scene and every chapter must not only develop character and story and world, they must also move the plot forward. Another reason to avoid long dialogue scenes without plot is that dialogue leads toward telling, not showing.

Are you worried about this? Good. If you’re the fantasy writer in my examples, start with the chapters you loathe re-reading the most. The ones dense with info you already know, the ones you tend to skim in revisions. That’s where your problem lies. If you’re the second writer, start with the chapters you love the most. The ones that make you feel the most satisfied. The ones where you’re showing off. My guess is that they’re the witty banter ones.

Neither is easy. But when you’re revising, ask yourself about every scene, every chapter: “What happens here?”

Honesty is important. If your honest answer is: “Two characters walk into a room, sit down at the table and talk,” that’s trouble.

Reductive Revision

There’s almost nothing harder than “killing your babies” and axing chunks of your writing. Everybody loves their writing. It’s always hard to lose a word here, a line there, sometimes an entire paragraph. But cutting makes for a leaner, meaner, more amazing manuscript.

I’ll be posting some craft articles on revision in the next few weeks. Maybe because I’m revising stuff myself right now, it’s on my mind.

At my MFA program, my teacher, Lewis Buzbee of Steinbeck’s Ghost fame, makes the class do reductive revisions. We turn in a manuscript of 20-30 pages, then everyone in the class takes two to three pages of that week’s submission and cuts, cuts, cuts until only one page remains.

It’s a lot easier to cut through the fat and be merciless when it’s someone else’s work. However, to be a successful revision expert, you’ve got to develop that sort of keen ruthlessness toward your own precious manuscript. Especially after your First Draft Goggles wear off and you have to streamline.

One of the biggest problems some writers have is redundancy. They’re not sure the reader gets what they’re trying to do so they explain it. Then they explain it a different way. And then, just in case, they introduce another way of saying the same thing.

This is all fine and good. Maybe your subconscious is spinning all these repetitive statements so that you, the writer, understand the scene better. But the reader doesn’t need them. When I’m looking at a manuscript, redundancy is the number one thing I axe for the reductive revision exercise.

Exercise:

Let’s do a reductive revision together. The objective is to halve the length. Let’s give it a try. I’ll do my revisions and then you can do yours in comments, if you want, to see how ours match or don’t match.

Edna looked Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs. Her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
“I know, me too.”
“If we don’t find this book soon, the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the shelves. “But where could the book be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open.

Okay, so this scene is serviceable as is. But notice some redundancy issues. The characters are sneaking around and they’re nervous. We get it. We can convey it in a much simpler way. Our word count is 93. Let’s see if we can’t come in under 50.

Edna looked at Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs, H her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
I know, me Me too.”
“If we don’t find this book it soon… the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the forbidden shelves. “But w Where could the book it be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open with an ear-splitting creak.

And this is how it reads without the delete lines:

Edna looked at Chris, her back to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around. “I’m scared,” she said.
“Me too.”
“If we don’t find it soon…”
They scanned the forbidden shelves. Just then, the door flew open with a ear-splitting creak.

All I did was delete things the reader already knew, with the exception of rearranging the last sentence. Now, I was pretty ruthless. Notice, I took out all mention of the book and the library. That’s because they’re worried about the librarian and they’re scanning the shelves, so “book” and “library” are implied. I also got rid of all the emotional but cliched heart/eye/blood stuff that writers tend to lean on too heavily.

You might not want to go so sparse, but notice how much quicker the scene moves. We still get they’re scared and we still get a sense of danger. But guess what? Word count 49!

Have your own version of this revision? Post it below. More memos from the office of repetitive redundancy office coming soon.