Writing About Feelings: What Do Feelings Feel Like?

moody, feelings, melancholy, on the beach, how to write feelings
Feeling all the feelings.

Say what? Feelings feel like feelings, duh! Or do they? If you’ve been on the blog for a while, you know that I talk a lot about writing about feelings and making it compelling. The word I use is interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions). You can see older posts where I discuss how to write interiority here. Go ahead and catch up, I’ll wait…

The Most Important Thing a Writer Can Do

I firmly believe that a writer’s most crucial job is to make the reader care. And putting authentic, relatable emotion on the page is one of the easiest and best ways to do this. But a lot of writers get tripped up here.

Whether they name emotions outright, or engage in a lot of telling, or sink into melodrama, a lot of writers aren’t very good at crafting genuine emotion.

This post was inspired by an editorial consultation I did last week. What I said really resonated with the client, and so I wanted to share it here. In this particular manuscript, the character was very angry. But the writer had written something long the lines of, “Her anger rose.” (I’m making up my own examples to protect client confidentiality, but it’s enough to give you the gist.) Basically, a flavorless telling description of anger.

And? So? How Do You Make the Reader Feel It, Too?

Okay. That’s a start. But I’m not going to feel angry or relate to the character just because I see the word “anger” on the page. That’s not how it works.

So what I’m more interested in is what anger feels like to the character. Let’s call her Erin. Does Erin relish the warm rush of wrath? Is she looking forward to lashing out? Is she afraid of her own anger? Does she think fearfully of what happened the last time she felt like this?

There’s so much more nuance to human feelings. “Anger” simply doesn’t cut it. An example of a rewrite would be: “Erin felt the anger rising and rushed to tamp it down. She couldn’t risk losing it again, not after last time, and the fight that got her suspended.”

Writing About Feelings: Add Context, Make It Fresh

Because we’ve all read scenes where characters feel angry. It’s familiar. What can you bring to the scene that’s new? Well, you are giving us a new character. With a new personal history. And new feelings about their feelings. Do you see how this takes the idea of feelings one level deeper?

What does anger feel like to your specific character? What experiences with anger are they bringing to the situation? My anger isn’t the same as your anger isn’t the same as your protagonist’s anger.

So instead of just saying “anger” and leaving it at that, I want you to really work at introducing layers. How do they feel about what they feel? What do those feelings bring to mind? You can call the feelings by their names, sure. As long as you don’t stop there.

If you struggle with adding relatable emotions to your manuscript, let me take a look and give you personalized, hands-on character critique.

How to Write a Character the Reader Believes

how to write a character, how to make the reader care, how to write fiction
Look at this guy, he really doesn’t trust your protagonist…

A lot of writers wonder how to write a character. I’ve been giving the following note a lot in my consulting work, and it’s a fascinating idea. Ideally, you are creating a protagonist who the reader relates to and wants to (bad publishing joke alert…) be on the same page with. But are you secretly undermining the all-important reader-protagonist relationship with your writing?

It’s Your Word Against the Reader’s

As your reader, well, reads, they are creating impressions of your characters, your plot, your world, your writing style, etc. Ideally, they are discovering these impressions by reading your action-packed plot that is slim on telling.

So where is the potential problem? If the reader’s impression of anything in your story clashes with what you (or your protagonist) is insisting.

For example, imagine that your protagonist has nothing nice to say about their math tutor. They’re a show-off. And super rude. And nothing but trouble.

Except the young tutor on the page is…nice. She shows off a little bit, maybe, but she’s actually quite helpful and pleasant. So what’s the problem?

This situation actually drives a wedge between your protagonist and your reader’s impression of events. And in this conflict, your reader is going to side with…themselves. Now you’re left with an undermined protagonist, because the reader will always want to trust their own impression.

How to Write a Character With Credibility

Unless you’re working with a notoriously unreliable narrator and that’s a storytelling choice you’ve made, make sure your protagonist is someone the reader can align with. If the protagonist hates the math tutor, the math tutor should be hateable. Maybe not in a way that makes them a caricature (rather than a well-rounded character), but in a way that the reader can get on board with the protagonist’s opinion.

If the reader’s opinion and your protagonist’s diverge, make sure it’s for a good reason. The more clashes there are, the less relatable your main character will seem, and the less inclined the reader will be to trust them.

As a writer, your number one job is to make the reader care, and you have a lot more power over the reader’s emotions when you’re funneling it through a character who they like and relate to.

Think about the effect you’re creating.

If you wonder how your characters are coming across, and whether your characterizations are consistent with the reader’s impression, hire me as an expert set of eyes.

Creating a Daily Writing Practice

One of my wonderful, intelligent blog readers wrote in with the following excellent question about creating a daily writing practice. I’m not trying to butter her up, I really think it’s a good question and it’s worded very well, with a nice citation and everything. Here we go:

For the past several months I’ve been revising a manuscript and querying agents. But while I’ve been doing this, I haven’t been writing. As you suggest, I put my manuscript in a drawer for several months and started working on a new manuscript. Now the new manuscript (which isn’t finished) is in the drawer. I also have another idea twirling around in my head. How do I balance my writing life? Kate DiCamillo says she writes two pages every day. But how does she do that when she’s in the throes of completing a project?

balancing your writing life, making time for writing, commiting to writing, daily writing practice
To find balance in your writing life, just make like this rock..and roll. What a terrible joke. I’m so sorry…

Finding Your Commitment to a Daily Writing Practice

Most of us don’t walk around complaining about how much free time we have. Life is a busy thing. So how do you do everything you have to do, keep the bills paid, and still find time to write? I don’t have a definitive answer. I do have some thoughts, though. And I think you’re on to something in your very own answer, and with Kate DiCamillo’s advice.

There’s this old adage, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Writing isn’t going to fall into your lap, you have to go after it. And once you get into a writing habit, it’s much easier to maintain it and keep writing. So whether that’s two pages a day, or ten, or fifty (ha!), the number is irrelevant. The key piece of info is: “a day.” That means every day. When you’re sick, when you’re stressed, when the baby is cranky, you still do your daily writing.

If you need to wake up 30 minutes early? Or cut out those fifteen minutes that you spend absently browsing Facebook at night and replace it with writing time? Then that’s what you need to do. The key is, do it every day. Two pages a day sounds so insignificant that it’s not even worth it. But that habit of writing every day? That’s really the secret.

Rotate Between Writing Projects to Maintain Momentum

The other advice is to rotate between projects, as you’re already realizing. There’s only so much you can do when you’re querying. You send out all those emails and then…you wait. That’s just part of the writing life. So instead of letting that waiting drive you crazy, put it away and work on something else for your daily practice.

And if you hit a wall with Project 2? Don’t let that writer’s block stop your daily practice. Put the new project away and start working on an outline for Project 3. Then Project 2 might call to you. Or you might receive feedback from an agent on Project 1.

By that point, you’ll have enough momentum to be more flexible about what actually happens during your writing life daily practice. Should you write new pages? Revise pages that have been sitting in a drawer? Sketch out some broad ideas for something that’s on the back burner? Your muscle memory, once a good habit is established, is going to get your butt into that chair. From there, you can let your creativity guide you to whatever needs to be done.

Make Your Life a Writing Life

The hard part really isn’t the writing, it’s making that space in your life that says, “Writing is necessary today.” Besides, you’d be amazed that two pages a day can turn into 700 pages in a year. That’s two novels! When I’m editing, I can provide notes on about 20 pages an hour. In two weeks, even if I work one hour a day, I’ll have that whole novel edited. Or if I can only work 15 minutes (or 5 pages) a day on revising something, it’ll take me two months, but that novel will be done. That’s all that matters. Every day, you’re making progress.

The wheels of publishing turn very slowly. Six months to write a novel, in the grand scheme of things, is NOTHING. Two months to revise a novel, in the grand scheme of things, is NOTHING. They say, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today.” You could commit to 15 minutes/two pages/whatever a day, and in six months, you’ll be a hell of a lot farther than you are today.

Or you could agonize about how you never have time to do anything and two pages doesn’t really seem like a lot and you’ve got analysis paralysis, etc. etc. etc.

So don’t worry about what the balance part will consist of once you’re actually working. Where you want to put your energy is making that work mandatory, and getting to the working place every day.

Wondering what to do with the results of your daily writing practice? Hire me as your developmental editor and I can give you actionable, motivating revision advice.

Rushing Through Revision

Recently, I had a potential client come to me for freelance editorial work. He had a 4,000 word manuscript and a dummy that he wanted me to review. It was a rush request, which is fine. I charge more for those because I have a lot of clients who wait quite a while to get on my calendar. Not a problem. But I ultimately ended up declining to work with him, and I got to thinking that I’d write a post about why. The real reason was this client’s personal deadline, and a potential issue it implied. Note that I received this email on December 10th, six days before the writer wanted me to turn the work around, and ten days before his submission goal.

Here is how I responded to this potential client:

Thanks for writing in. Winter is my absolute busiest time. I call it the New Years Resolution effect. Do I have an hour to look at 4,000 words and scroll through a dummy? Sure. But, to be honest, I am hesitant for a number of reasons. Two have to do with how I operate, personally. First, I’ve had people sign up in August to work with me over the winter. I sometimes do expedited services, but because you’re contacting me to skip the line and all of these other clients that are on my plate right now have been waiting so patiently, I do charge 25% more than I usually would to accommodate rush requests. Second, I always need an agreement and deposit in place to begin work. You’re not allowing a lot of time for those logistics. I could just dive in, sure, but I operate on a fairness principle. I don’t want to throw my usual workflow out the window for one client, when others would’ve probably liked for the same. I didn’t make exceptions for them, and so I won’t in this case, either.

My next two hesitation have to do with your self-imposed deadline. First, publishing essentially shuts down during the holidays. Since so many people are away from the office, very little gets done. I’ve been discussing submission strategies with several clients and I’m recommending that they fire work off to agents and editors in mid-January at the very earliest. Could you submit five days before Christmas? Sure. What are the odds your submission will actually be read on the 20th? I would say 1%. I realize it’s a symbolic deadline that has a lot of meaning to you, but it’s probably one of the most hectic times to try and show your best foot forward. You risk hurting your chances if you submit now.

Second, you’re requesting editorial feedback. If I do read the manuscript, chances are, I’ll have notes for you. A lot of notes. But you want to submit by the 20th. Is four days enough to address them and do a revision? A really good revision? That’s where I have to draw a hard line and say, “No.” The bulk of a writer’s work isn’t in the writing, it’s in the revision. You’ve told me that you don’t plan to change your dummy at all. That makes sense. You’ve already created it, and you’d prefer not to repeat that work. But the manuscript might have a lot of opportunities for growth. A lot of opportunities that you don’t want to miss. 4,000 words doesn’t sound like a lot to some, but any story, even a short one, has a lot of moving parts. There’s plot, character, voice…

If you engage a developmental editor who’s likely to give you suggestions for changes, I’d say you’re not giving yourself enough time to make them. There are writers who submit to freelance editors with the expectation that the editor will say, “This is perfect as is, you’re ready to send.” I have only encountered a “ready to go” manuscript twice in my years of editorial work. Even those two could’ve benefited from some tweaking, which both writers took their time to do before going on to secure their agents. Much more often than not, there is a lot for a writer to do after they receive feedback. If you’re looking for someone to just give you the green light and no notes, I’m not that person.

It’s for this last reason that I am going to kindly decline your rush request. I have the hour, absolutely. Everyone has an hour. But I don’t think it’s a good use of my time or your money to give you thoughtful editorial feedback if you’re just planning on zipping through a revision in four days. If you want to really jump into the editorial process, let’s talk. If it’s not right for you at this time, I wish you all the best.

***

I don’t mean to sound harsh. But there are a lot of writers, it’s true, who engage an editor with the expectation that they’ll hear, “Wow! Rush this off tomorrow, it’s perfect!” I’m not saying that this writer thought exactly this, but given the timeline he wanted, I just couldn’t see how there would be bandwidth for anything else. The point is, many people spend all of November pouring 50k words onto the blank page. Is this an accomplishment? You bet! But once their first drafts are done, some writers decide that it’s time to find an agent yesterday. They’ve written a novel, after all! It’s right there in Scrivener, formatted and everything! So what more could possibly be needed?

A lot, actually. If you’re like the other 99.99% of us mere mortals. So I hope this post serves as a reminder of the importance of revision. And a peek into my thought process. (And a reminder that December is a dead zone in publishing!) It’s rare that I turn down an editorial client, but it does happen. Some projects simply aren’t a good fit for me to begin with because of subject matter, genre, or style of writing. It’s very rare that I consider a project unreadable, but it has happened once or twice. In that case, at my rates, it really doesn’t make sense to have me come in and try to bring it up to a basic level. You would go broke, and I would go crazy. More likely, when I pass on a client opportunity, it’s because I don’t see how I’d be able to add value. If I don’t have good ideas for how to work with you, I’m not going to take your money. Or, in cases like this, I see a potential red flag that a writer’s expectations will not align well with the actual service that I pride myself on providing. It’s always a tough call to make.

In a very satisfying plot twist, I heard back from this potential client. He took the points I made to heart and scrapped his self-appointed deadline. We’re working together on his project next month, and he’s giving himself the time to turn around a quality revision. Sometimes these stories do have a happy ending!

Heavy-Handed Imagery and Theme

I was recently working on a novel outline, helping the writer flesh the idea out so that they had the strongest possible “road map” to work from when writing their story. It’s a service that I really like because I push writers to consider all aspects of their story before they invest the time and energy in turning the idea into a manuscript. I believe it makes the writing process tighter and easier. It also leads to less long-term headache because we’re figuring things out ahead of time that most people don’t realize until revision. Well, this writer happened to have a very specific theme in mind. In fact, I believe the theme might’ve been the idea kernel that set the whole story in motion. Unfortunately, the story idea was mostly just a vehicle for this theme. In other words, the theme was so prominent that it became heavy-handed.

Why is this an issue? Well, in the case of this story, the writer could’ve easily turned the theme into a motivational poster and left it at that. You know those inspirational quote squares that are all over your Instagram and Facebook feeds? One of those. Why write a novel when all you want to do is communicate an idea that can be summed up in one sentence? This is why theme-heavy story ideas hardly ever work. There’s simply not enough nuance for the reader to be interested in digging deeper. “The point of the story is so front and center, what is there for me to do?” the reader might ask.

A lot of writers have such strong themes. It’s not bad to have a theme. In fact, every story needs at least one. The issue becomes how to express it. If you’re quite subtle about it, you may not be communicating your idea clearly. But I hardly ever see this problem. Much more likely is the issue of overt theme.

Picture books probably suffer the most from theme overload. Many writers are extremely tempted by the idea of putting a wise adult character into their stories for young readers that voices the theme outright. “And that’s why,” the kind grandmother said, “it’s so important to share.”

Yuck. That belongs on a classroom poster. Not at the heart of a story. Now, if you show a character’s life being enriched by sharing, that’s another thing. That lets the reader see the benefits of sharing for himself, and to make the connection that sharing is probably great on his own.

In novels, theme usually manifests itself in imagery. Let’s go back to my client’s story. It was a classic coming of age, where the character goes on a journey of self-discovery. Now I’ll depart from the actual idea for the sake of anonymity. What images can we use to talk about transformation, freedom, and self-expression? I know. Butterflies! They go from weird caterpillars to beautiful creatures. The journey is painful. The outcome uncertain. They crawl on the ground and then, all of a sudden, they take flight. These images are evocative and they fit the theme. In that sense, using the image of butterflies to communicate a coming of age theme is a home run, right?

The problem is, this image is heavy-handed. Too many writers have gotten to it already. It feels very familiar. There’s nothing fresh here. Unfortunately, more creativity is required not only to avoid clichés in writing, but to couch the theme in a way that’s thought-provoking, and not just a shortcut.

I would wager that if you were reading a YA novel about a character’s personal transformation, and the climactic scene took place in a botanical garden where there’s a butterfly exhibit, and the main character let a butterfly take flight from the tip of her finger, you would…groan a little? It’s been done. It’s a part of a very obvious conversation.

If you innovate in terms of your imagery as it pertains to your key theme, you will likely get a more engaged reader out of the bargain. What is your theme? What images are you using to convey it? How can you freshen up those images, make them more unexpected, ask the reader to use their imagination more?

After all, the world is your…abalone. 😉

A Boring Edit

I’m not calling my editorial work boring. Not in the slightest! I am suggesting a specific revision technique to work on pacing. I call it the “Boring Edit.”

Now, I can give advice until I’m blue in the face, and I know that maybe only 1% of people will actually try it. For example, I routinely tell writers who are struggling with a manuscript to put it away for three months and THEN try revising it. So far, I’ve heard from maybe a handful of writers who’ve tried it. (They loved it, BTW. Just sayin’…)

Yet I still persist in giving advice! Because it’s good for you! (What a Mom thing to say.) This technique is especially useful if you’ve been told that your writing sags or slumps or stalls. I’m looking at you, Muddy Middle. There’s not much of a trick to it, it’s very simple. All that’s required is a printer and some marginal self-awareness. As you “edit,” you only have ONE task. Sounds great, right?

Here are your steps:

  1. Put your manuscript in single-space formatting. This is so you’ll be less tempted to scribble on it and line edit. Sure, it hurts the ol’ eyeballs, but we all have to suffer for our craft sometimes.
  2. Print it out and pick a time when you can read it as you would any other book. This works best if you have a few solid chunks of time to really kick back and sink into it.
  3. Start reading. Consciously avoid trying to edit as you read. Try and read it like you would any other book.
  4. Have a pen in one hand. The pen is NOT for editing.
  5. Look at your own mind as your read. Your one job is this: Put a check mark in the margin whenever you feel yourself starting to drift, mentally. If you start thinking about the grocery list, or what you’re doing this weekend or sinking into a mire of self-loathing about how crappy your manuscript is, or whatever, put a check. That’s it, that’s all. Don’t even analyze it, just put a check mark.

Awesome. Now you have a manuscript with some check marks in the margins. And what does all that mean?

These are the parts of your book that are boring.

I’m sorry. Someone had to say it. But we can’t all be brilliant for 250+ pages, especially in the early stages of crafting a manuscript. Scenes run long. We lose the point of what we’re trying to say. We get more excited about crafting wonderful prose than actually accomplishing any action. Objectives disappear and are replaced by banter that may or may not be witty. Plot points go into hiding. Or maybe you’re just trying to make your 1,667 words for the day because it’s NaNoWriMo. (I’m on to y’all…) It’s OKAY.

With this largely hands-off read-through, you are identifying the parts of your story that need work. That are, let’s face it, a little boring.

The most important take-away is that, if even you can’t focus enough to read it, you can’t expect a reader to slog through. Simple as that. You have a vested interest in this manuscript. Nobody else does. (Yet.) If you’re boring yourself, you need to take a long hard look at those places. Usually the culprit is too much thinking/talking and not enough action. I have tons of plot-related posts you can check out to help beef up in that respect.

So who’s with me? Who’s excited to do a Boring Edit?

Getting Around First Person POV Limitations

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

Not Being Able To Go Inside Another Character’s Head

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

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

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

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

Or you can put the emotion in dialogue:

“Ugh, I don’t know, okay?”

Or you can venture a guess like this:

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

Or like this:

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

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

The Protagonist Having to Be Present

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

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

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

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

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

Revise or Give Up?

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

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

In other words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Do I Make My Familiar Premise Fresh?

There are no new stories in the world. I’m sorry, but there really aren’t. Every story ever told can be boiled down to archetypes. So where does that leave the story you’re writing right now? No, not in the trash can. Don’t worry! But, it does leave you with some work to do on that story if you want it to stand out.

In the last few months, I have had a lot of clients come to me and say, “Mary, I’ve written yet another boarding-school-for-wizards story. I know it’s probably not a great idea, but I can’t just not write this novel. It has gripped me. Yet the odds seem so high against a story that’s been done and done and done, maybe to death. What do I do?”

There are a lot of stories that would fit in this category of “overdone.” A lot of them happen to be “high concept” stories, instead of, say, contemporary realism. Examples: Birthdays that bequeath magical powers. Vampires. Dystopian worlds. Time travel. Apocalypses. Schools for those kids with magical powers. It’s not that these stories are bad, it’s that they were trendy at one point or another, and now the shelves are full of them. And for every one that’s published, there are probably a thousand more in manuscript form that didn’t make it past the agent or editor’s slush pile.

And yet there are still extremely well-meaning writers who want to toss their hats into these crowded arenas. And that’s okay. Now, some agents will flat out say, “No vampires. Don’t even try. I don’t want to see it.” And that’s okay, too. But I’m here to say that all hope is not lost just because you want to write in a familiar category.

So, how do you go about defusing that resistance you’re likely to encounter, and standing out? Well, the devil is in the details in your case. Truly. Let’s take everyone’s favorite dead horse: vampire books. (Though it has been so long since the Twilight days that you may be able to sneak one in at this point.) The biggest mistake that people make when writing in a familiar category is that they don’t innovate. They take for granted that everyone knows the basic deal about vampires, and they don’t even think to build on that or turn it on its head.

Since you’re smarter than that, dear reader, I really want you to think about what could make your vampires, or the world they operate in, unique. And instead of being more general about it, be specific. Design all of their powers from scratch. Maybe these vampires can only recharge on the blood of those with a certain virus that makes them vulnerable. Some poor people have this virus naturally. Other unfortunates catch it. Criminals are injected with it and pawned off as vampire fodder to keep the beasts away from the more desirable members of the population. Now you have a slight dystopian tinge to your vampire story. And your protagonist, lo and behold, comes from a family tasked with keeping the vampire menace at bay. Then he’s in a terrible hovercar accident (another specific detail of the world-building) and ends up…catching the virus that makes his a prime vampire target. Now his family turns their backs on him because they cannot be seen as vulnerable, etc. etc. etc.

This is literally the first thing that came to mind, but I was trying to establish a world and a spin on the familiar vampire story. What I’ve tried to do here is come up with specific details about the world, a new twist on how vampires function, and something interesting and high stakes that will provide plenty of plot fodder for the story.

If you find yourself working on a familiar-sounding premise and worrying that it looks like everything else that has come before it, this is the thinking you must be doing. What is unique about your idea? If it’s a kid with powers, how specific and interesting can the powers get? If it’s a school for wizards, what world-building details will make it stand out? Don’t just have them go to the same boring classes and do the same boring training exercises. What else can be part of the curriculum? What can you bring to your chosen genre that will turn it on its head?

Don’t be lazy. Treat your vampire or wizard or love triangle or sorcery summer camp like nobody has ever heard of such a thing before. Forget everything you’ve ever known about mermaids and unleash your imagination, populating your water-based world with creatures and details and magical rules that set new boundaries. Free yourself from the conventions of the genre and take some risks.

Yes, you may have a harder row to hoe, and you may get bounced by your dream agent because they have five other similar projects already. So a certain level of psychological preparedness should happen on your end. And yes, you’ll have to take some care when pitching the project. But you don’t have to abandon ship.

Series Beginnings

A few weeks back, I reached out to see who had questions. Rachel had a great one:

Back when I read the Baby Sitters Club as a kid, I would always skim over the whole “introduction” to the club and group, which appeared in each book. I am currently working on a chapter series and wonder if each book needs the “introduction” to the story, or if they are a bit unnecessary these days?

This astute reader is totally right. A catch-up introduction is no longer the norm in a series. Whew! No need to write a dry and skip-able synopsis for your manuscripts. (Though, unfortunately, you’ll still have to craft one for when you submit.) However, this opens up a bigger question: “So how do you begin a series without boring readers who are familiar with your premise?”

For a more modern feel, you want to include that information in your opening few chapters. However, you don’t want to bog the opening down with tons of facts right off the bat. So what I would do is pick several key facts about your main characters and their relationships, about the world in which your story is set (even if it’s in our modern non-fantasy world, each “world” has its own rules and climate, like a high school cafeteria from a popular person’s POV vs. an underdog’s, those “worlds” look very different), and anything else from previous installments that’s crucial to know.

By providing this context but weaving it into the first few chapters of the story, you will be welcoming your existing readers back into the story while simultaneously giving new readers a chance to catch up. All without info-dumping. The important thing to remember is to keep everything brief and relevant. The story should start in action that continues the plot you’ve already been telling. This way, it’s easy to keep pacing quick while providing some relevant context.

For example, if your characters are at war at the end of Book 1, open Book 2 with them gearing up for an important battle. From the action, new readers will be able to gather that they’re at war and something important is coming up. During that scene, you will want to drop hints concerning why they’re at war, who they’re fighting against, what the stakes are, etc. Since characters will be interacting as they prepare, you can start introducing a sense of their relationships, values, personal objectives, and motivations. Sure, you have all this juicy backstory about the king and some palace intrigue, but leave it for later. Open with big action that carries the pacing and buys you a few moments to balance it with information.

I have recently been reading some craft books and if you want to delve more deeply into the topic of starting your novel, whether it’s a stand-alone manuscript or part of a planned series, I’d recommend The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.