Should You Go to A Writers Conference? A List of Pros and Cons

At some point in every aspiring writer’s life, they will ask themselves: should I invest in a writers conference? That’s how you should phrase it, anyway. It is an investment in how to get published: of time, of money, especially if you want manuscript critique from one of the attending faculty. A lot of people report feeling more committed and professional after an event. But is a writers conference right for you? Or right for you right now? Read on!

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Look at these writers conference attendees, meeting peers, learning how to get published, and feeling awesome!

Writers Conference Considerations: Pros and Cons

Here is an easy list of pros and cons of a writing conference, in case you’re on the fence about going to your first or going again. Use this list to keep your writing conference expectations in check (very important).

Cons: Why You Might Not Want to Go To A Writers Conference

  • Expense: Conferences are expensive. The conference fee (usually between $100 and $500 dollars). Hotel. Airfare. You’re usually looking at about $1,000 bucks if you go to a larger writers conferences outside of your home state. Some conferences, though, do offer scholarships. It’s always a good idea to ask. Smaller conferences and  regional SCBWI days are a good alternative if cost is a huge factor.
  • Intimidation: This might be one of the first times in your life you’ll be meeting real, walking, talking agents and book editors. Some of them may be giving you a manuscript critique. You just want to know how to get published, maybe you’re not ready to be up close and personal. This makes some people more nervous than excited. My advice: try as hard as you can to get used to the idea. We’re the people you want to work with. And we’re just people who love good books. Look! We already have something in common!
  • Other writers and workshops: For some more advanced users, conferences are frustrating because some of the other writers operate on a really basic level. For some complete newbies, the advanced level of other attendees might be really scary. Workshops at conferences are also a mixed bag. One time, I was at a conference where someone raised their hand (totally unrelated to the discussion at hand, mind you) and asked what the difference was between fiction and non-fiction. Color me underwhelmed! It’s best to go into it eager to make new friends and expecting to learn something (but not have your mind blown) from the workshops.
  • Crazy opportunists: Conferences are rife with crazy opportunists, desperate to crack the code of how to get published, or people who hawk their projects to anyone who will listen. These are the people you hear about, sliding their manuscripts under the bathroom stall to a terrified agent. You’d be wise to avoid these folks. If you ARE one of these folks, don’t waste your breath/time/money. These tactics are much more “cautionary tale” than “success story.”
  • Unrealistic expectations: It is very, very rare that you will spot an agent from across the room, leap all over each other like Romeo and Juliet, and ink an agency contract by the end of the weekend. Writers connect with agents and editors all the time, especially in a manuscript critique setting. But don’t expect it to happen. You will most likely get your heart broken if that’s the only reason you’re going. And don’t, whatever you do, show up with 10 copies of your full manuscript, all nice and printed out, and try handing them out. Nobody will take them. It’s ALWAYS best to query after a conference or, if you make a connection with an agent or editor, to send them a follow-up e-mail. I repeat: nobody will take the 300-page brick of paper off your hands right in the middle of the hotel ballroom. Don’t try it.

Now for the good news! There are tons of reasons to go to a writers conference.

Pros: Why You Should Go To A Writers Conference

  • Agents and editors: Most people, people really serious about launching their careers, go to conferences to network. Forming bonds with other writers is great but … at a conference you can meet (and impress) some agents and editors. Saying “I met you at so and so” really does catch my busy eyes when I’m combing the slush.
  • Motivation: A near-guaranteed aftereffect of a writers conference is that you will get new ideas and get really pumped to write them. Don’t take your meanest writing block to a conference and expect it magically fixed, but you’ll be impressed with how motivated you feel.
  • Other writers: Yes, you’ll probably make some friends who also are learning how to get published! Friends are good! Friends on the same journey are better!
  • Manuscript Critique: Writers conference settings are great for getting your first critique or pitch session in with a real, live publishing professional. Yes, they cost money. But the way I figure it, you’re already spending a lot of cash. What’s an extra $50-$100 for a critique? Skip lunch and dinner and opt for sandwiches from the corner store, if you have to. You’ll get to sit down with an agent or editor one-on-one and talk about your work. You might even get a request for more material, if your work is really polished.
  • A change of pace/scenery: Sometimes, a conference is great just because it doesn’t feel like your real life. You feel like you’ve just vacationed in Writerland and that’s a nice way to recharge your batteries.
  • Self-confidence: Every little bit helps, right? Well, after a conference, a lot of people get much more comfortable with the idea of writing, the logistics of becoming more committed to their work. It can work psychological wonders and, if you haven’t figured it out already, writing is a mental and emotional challenge for the ego.

Writers Conference Encouragement

So there you go! Literally! Go, if you feel compelled to.

For kidlit writers, I highly recommend making it out to a national SCBWI writers conference at least once. More info here: SCBWI. I prefer the summer one in LA over the NYC winter conference, though maybe I’m biased because the shorter flight has lured me. Seriously, though, it is the longer-running one and, puzzlingly, seems to attract more New York agents and editors. Manuscript critique opportunities are plentiful. If you can’t make it to one of the national conferences, do go to your regional SCBWI chapter’s events. Some excellent chapters throw amazing conferences, like the Nevada SCBWI chapter run by Ellen Hopkins. Why I like SCBWI events: all the people you meet are into kid’s books. Every single one of them. So you’re not sitting next to a cozy mystery/romance thriller writer at lunch.

With any writers conference, you have to watch the list of participants and speakers like a hawk. Seriously. Do your research. Google everybody. Figure out where in publishing they are. The last thing you want to do is spend all that time and money and show up at a writers conference populated by non-fiction or adult fiction agents and editors. This is not how to get published. Make sure at least a handful of children’s book professionals will be there. The benefit of zeroing in on the kidlit people at an adult conference, though, is that you’ll likely have more face time with them as one of the few children’s writers in attendance.

So no matter which writers conference you choose, take this list to heart and take the plunge. It’s worth it at least once in every writer’s life.

You don’t have to wait for a conference to receive manuscript critique. Hire me as your one-on-one book editor and let’s get you in shape to pitch.

How To Become A Novelist

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

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

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

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

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

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

Degree Optional

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

Tenacity Required

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

Find Your Voice

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

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

How To Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

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

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

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

Avoid Dialogue and Tag Redundancy

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Use Dialogue Tags to Choreograph Action

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

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

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

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

Don’t Stuff Adverbs in Dialogue Tags

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

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

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

How to Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Some things to remember about how to write dialogue:

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

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

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

Writing Bravely: The Last Threshold

Here’s a post by Mary-the-Writer about writing bravely. 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.

writing bravely, permission to write
Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time. Writing bravely means you’ll cross the threshold to more authentic, vibrant writing.

Developing Authentic Voice Requires Patience

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.

Are You Playing it Safe?

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 give themselves permission to write bravely, 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.

Writing Isn’t Supposed to be Easy

But here’s the cold, hard reality. If want to do it well, if you to get published, writing is hard.

So I’m throwing in the towel on my lazy attitude these days. It’s childish, it’s self-defeatist and it’s the last great threshold in my writing life. I’m finally giving myself permission to write bravely. 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.

Writing Bravely Will Carry You Over That Last Threshold

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 bravely in order to craft the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

If I’m giving myself permission to write bravely, I expect nothing less from the writers who query me.

I know that writing bravely is hard. Hire me as your book editor and I’ll give you feedback that’ll get you a little closer to crossing the threshold to authentic, vibrant writing.

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.

Writing for Children and Young Adults — Why it Matters

“Why are you writing for children and young adults?”

This is a question I’ve had to answer frequently in my career. It got me thinking that I should write down my answer and see if anyone agrees with me!

writing for children, writing for kids, writing for young adults, why i write
Writing for children and young adults is a way to hand them a road map that just might help them navigate adolescence.

Writing for Children — a Way to Keep Learning and Growing

As most adults grow older, it seems that their world narrows. Doors and windows, possibilities and opportunities, that used to exist when they were kids seem to close or disappear. People make up their minds, stop learning, evolve more slowly or not at all. On the other hand, growing up is all about change. Ideas aren’t set in stone, minds change every day, people explore the world before forming their opinion of it.

Young adulthood is such an engaged and dynamic time in someone’s life. Writing for children and young adults is a way to hand them a road map; a way to help them through the volatility. I also know that if I keep my imagination there, my world will never narrow. I’ll never stop learning and growing, and that’s exactly the kind of life I want to live.

Writing for Children — My Story

My young adulthood is a prime example of this. I immigrated to California from Moscow when I was seven, essentially leaving one childhood behind. To this day, I feel like the ten years afterward, from age seven to seventeen, were some of my most significant. Not only did I have to come into my own as a young adult, but I also forged an identity, juggling between my Russian heritage and my future as an American. Twice the growth, twice the change.

It was such a rich, painful, life-altering time and that’s why writing for children and young adults is important to me… to capture and share those moments. To keep their memory alive in my life because that’s one of the only links I have to my first childhood and the first girl I was, the one that’s still intact somewhere, flying on a rickety Aeroflot plane over Siberia, on her way to a new life.

Are you writing for children or young adults? Hire me as your children’s book editor and I’ll help you polish your project so it’s the best it can be.

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.

How Many Characters in a Novel?

Many beginning writers wonder, “How many characters in a novel?” And, unfortunately, many writers approach this question by assembling a character horde. They simply have way too many characters. Worse, they seem to always be possessed to introduce these characters in large chunks. (Ah! I’m writing a scene where my main character arrives at a new school… here are twenty new secondary characters for her to meet!)

how many characters in a novel, secondary characters
How many characters in a novel? If your cast is starting to feel like a crowd, it’s time to think about paring down your secondary characters.

How Many Characters in a Novel?

If you find yourself tracking your characters or having to go back and look up the name of the character you want to use…if you find yourself boasting that you keep track of your cast with a spreadsheet (and you’re not writing high fantasy)…I beg you to slash the cast list.

When you’re considering “How many characters in a novel?”, keep in mind that characters on a page are people that your reader can’t see or hear. That’s where your job comes in. Because you’ve got a pretty big barrier to reality — the character is alive only in words, your reader has never seen them and oh, yes, you made them up! — you have to work that much harder to flesh out this person and make them realistic. In real life, a person can walk down the halls at school and notice some dorky girl named Cathy in some gross penny loafers and then remember her. Or they can spot a friend from grade school that they don’t really talk to anymore and try to avoid them. In a book, the reader has a more limited attention span for these types of secondary characters. And if Cindy or the old friend don’t appear again, there’s almost no need to mention them if you don’t have to.

Valid Reasons to Introduce Characters

  1. They’re going to be instrumental in the plot.
  2. You want to characterize an environment by introducing us briefly to one or two of its characteristic inhabitants.

Both are totally valid. You want to introduce us to the girl who your Nerd Herd MC is going to beat out for Homecoming Queen, because she’s involved in the plot. You also want to introduce us to some of the dumb jocks hanging out in the cafeteria and throwing bananas at each other because you want to provide dumb high school foils for said MC.

Cutting or Combining Characters

If you find yourself with too many characters, ask yourself honestly if anyone in your brood can be cut or, better yet, combined. One writer friend of mine ended up combining her MC’s two best friends into one person. And she did it, because it made the book stronger in the end. The characters she’d written were too similar and served similar functions to the MC. That’s another great thing to look at. If all your secondary characters serve the same function (support main character, irritate main character, bully main character), do you really need many iterations of the same thing?

If you were to look at your manuscript with a cool, objective editorial eye, which characters could you get rid of altogether? Which characters could you combine? Nothing disorients a reader more than being introduced to three, five, ten or more new secondary characters at a time. Sadly, I’ve seen this a lot lately.

Strive for Clarity and Simplicity in Your Writing

Don’t forget that you’re the one creating characters in your story. You’ve got the added bonus of having “seen” them before. As a reader, though, we’re going in completely blind. The disadvantage of having a lot of characters is that it’s almost impossible to flesh them all out to the level where they come alive. When we’re considering “How many characters in a novel?”, I’d rather have fewer characters who are much more fleshed out and involved in the plot, than lots of secondary characters who appear for a scene or two, don’t pop up again and remind me more of furniture than of human beings.

Strive for clarity, simplicity and not to overwhelm your reader.

Struggling with when and how to add secondary characters to your work? Hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work through it together.