Imagery Writing: Images Are Not All Created Equal

When we think about the writing craft, it’s easy to focus on imagery writing. After all, finding fun, creative, or beautiful comparisons is a huge part of a writer’s job. Right? Well, sure. But not all images are created equal.

imagery writing, image writing, writing images, cliche images, familiar images, heavy-handed images, writing imagery
Thinking about imagery writing? Soon your skills will transform from an ugly duckling into a beautiful…oh, wait. I’ve heard this one.

Obvious Imagery and Clichés

Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. – C.S. Lewis

Perhaps the first consideration of any image you use should be: Does this image enhance a reader’s understanding of the moment?

A lot of images fail this test right away. For example:

He glowed like the sun.

Her tone was sharp, like barbed wire.

Not only are both of these clichés, and telling, but the bigger issue is: They just aren’t needed. “Glowed” does the work of suggesting light and warmth. That’s what the sun does, too. So you don’t need it. “Sharp” is already describing the character’s tone, so an image of barbed wire (also sharp!) is redundant.

The best imagery adds to our appreciation of what’s happening, and maybe introduces a surprising or unexpected idea. Take, for example:

He extended the coffee. Such a simple exchange, but in that moment, it looked like a rope that could drag me back into the real world.

Here, it’s a coffee. Easy peasy. Then the reader might be surprised to learn that it’s more than just a coffee to the character, it’s a lifeline of sorts. The image doesn’t just describe what’s happening or offer another, similar idea. It adds a new idea that changes the original action or context and gives it layers.

The takeaway is that images have to work. They have to do new work, not redo work you’ve already done. They have to enhance. You have to ask yourself, is an image even necessary here? Does this moment even require an image to really make it clear (a lot of moments don’t, yet are piled with imagery anyway)? Sometimes, you can leave well enough alone. Sometimes, imagery can be overkill.

Heavy-Handed Imagery

Per a previous article, I’d like to remind you that heavy-handed imagery is not your friend. In the same vein as the above, it’s very easy to overdo imagery. Not just in terms of redundancy. But in terms of meaning, too.

Great images add or deepen meaning, but it’s possible to use this power of theirs for evil. In other words, it’s possible to get too deep and too meaningful.

Let me rewrite the example from above:

He extended the coffee. Such a simple exchange, but in that moment, it became my lifeline, a life preserver in stormy water that made all the difference between me floating and drowning.

The first example may not be incredibly deft because I hate writing examples, but this revision hits the ground like a lead balloon. Clunk. So heavy, so obvious.

Your images are not the time nor the place to preach your themes. As with cliché images or unnecessary images, remember that less is often more. If you can make an image appropriately profound, without hitting your reader over the head, absolutely do so.

If you find yourself working hard to get your message out, realize that you are probably working too hard. And it will show. This is good writing advice in general, and I give it probably once or twice a day: Stop working so hard, trust that you’re getting across, and trust that your readers are following. It applies twofold to images, where “trying too hard” is glaringly obvious.

Ill-Fitting Imagery

You want to make sure that your imagery writing matches the mood and content of your scene. I wish I could show you some examples from work I’ve read, but out of respect for writer privacy, I cannot share. You may look at the two sentences below and think, No way are people writing images that are this weird. But they are. Every day. You may have even written some yourself. It is not as uncommon as it seems! Take, for example:

She relaxed into his wonderful embrace, warm like an attic that hadn’t been opened for years.

He drove the ball into the end zone, glowing like a languid sunrise over the prairie.

Huh? The first sentence conveys warmth and a happy mood. But a stuffy attic, while warm, is not happy. Just because the temperature fits doesn’t mean it’s a similar type of warmth. Same for the second image. We’re in the middle of an intense sports scene. The peaceful, slow sunrise over amber waves of grain has no place in a loud, frantic moment.

So what are the key bullet points with imagery?

  • Don’t use too much. Not everything needs writerly frosting.
  • Only use them when they will deepen and enhance understanding. Focus on emotional moments for your character, for example.
  • But not too deep! Avoid the temptation to Be Profound because Images Make You a Writer With a Capital W. They don’t. Often, they get in the way and show your nervous writer sweat.
  • If you’re going to use an image, pick one that fits. An awkward image is going to raise eyebrows and pull the reader out of scene.

Is your writing hitting the right balance of beauty and substance? I’ll be your novel editor and steer you toward your authentic writing voice.

Seeking Editorial Assistant: Mary Kole Editorial is Hiring!

Updated: THIS OPPORTUNITY IS NOW CLOSED TO APPLICANTS. THE POST REMAINS FOR REFERENCE ONLY. THANK YOU!

Whew! The time has finally come for me to train and work alongside a talented and passionate fiction expert in my editorial practice. Business is booming and I would love to expand my offerings and availability with a specialist in proofreading and manuscript analysis.

I will continue to be the primary editor on every project, but I am looking for someone to do proofreading work, research comparative titles, and otherwise support me and my clients. I will train you in my editorial approach, including the concept of interiority, so that you may become proficient in applying my principles to manuscripts down the road.

Familiarity with my work is a big plus. Ideally, I am looking for a long-term relationship with the right individual.

About You

The ideal candidate must be well-read in the current marketplace, with a focus on picture books, middle grade, and young adult, but, ideally, with wide interests elsewhere as well. I work on genre and literary fiction outside of the kidlit space, and have recently been doing a lot of narrative nonfiction, for example. The ability to reference contemporary published titles in an informed way is key. (The ability to read quickly while retaining information is also a huge bonus!)

Proofreading is a large component of the job, so the ideal candidate will be proficient in grammar, usage, and formatting. English training at the college level (or above) will be given top consideration. Also key is the ability to summarize what you’re reading so that we can discuss projects. Eventually, providing micro- and macro-level feedback will become a bigger part of your role. In terms of editorial work, you must already have some affinity for giving constructive response to writing in progress, but this skill will be developed according to my editorial philosophy.

From a logistical standpoint, I’m looking for someone with good time management skills, who is very communicative, can set and then meet (or exceed!) expectations, and is otherwise honest, punctual, and responsible. You are going to be a key part of my business, and so I want you to think of this as more than just a side-hustle.

Just the Facts

It’s okay if you’re still a student, but I hope to work with someone who has a good handle on their other time commitments. Student schedules tend to fluctuate, but reliability and availability are key for me. I’m busy year-round!

I love entrepreneurial, self-starting personalities, but I ask that you not engage in any other freelance editorial work during your tenure at Mary Kole Editorial. It’s perfectly fine with me if you have another job, even in a related field, but you will be contractually excluded from acting as direct competition.

Pay is hourly, and you can expect to work up to 20 hours per week, but the ideal candidate would have bandwidth for more hours, if needed. I can guarantee 10 hours of paid week per month during our training, though my goal is to transition to approximately 20 hours (or more) per week.

Training is paid, and there is a 30-day probation period before the official hire. The pay is $16 per hour with room to grow, paid twice a month. You are a 1099 contractor responsible for filing your own taxes. Unfortunately, I am not in the position to provide any employee benefits.

I am looking for US-based candidates at this time, who are able to legally work in the US. Within that parameter, the job can be performed remotely from anywhere, though I will ask that you be available for check-ins with me during my business hours. I am on Central time. I do not discriminate against anyone who wishes to apply–all are welcome! The only necessary tools are a computer with Microsoft Word and Internet access…as well as your passion, knowledge, willingness to learn, and creativity, of course!

How to Apply

Please write a cover letter that explains why you’d like to work as my editorial and research assistant. Make sure to discuss your most relevant experience and how it qualifies you. Include a recent resumé. Be sure to note your availability and location. I’d prefer if you copy and paste this information into the body of an email. Yes, I’m evaluating how well you follow directions.

I hope to use the month of August to make a decision, but depending on response volume, I reserve the right to go into September! I will respond to every submission, but please give me up to two weeks after the deadline for applications, below, before checking in. The next phase of the process will involve a phone interview and sample editorial work.

THANK YOU FOR THE INCREDIBLE INTEREST! THIS OPPORTUNITY IS NOW CLOSED TO APPLICANTS.

I can’t wait to work with you!

Forcing Yourself to Write What You Don’t Want To

This is a very different post from one of my favorite “advice” posts: Write What You Can’t. There, I talk about pushing yourself (in a good way) to write what you don’t want to (in a good way) because that’s a strong signal that a breakthrough is coming (in a good way).

This post is not that post. This post is for those writers who are currently trying very hard to write what they think they have to, but deep down, they really don’t wanna.

Stop doing what you think you should. The sad sweat of your efforts will be obvious in your writing.

Let That Knee-Jerk Reaction Be Your Guide

Over the weekend, I had a lovely client phone call with a person who was trying to decide between categories. Is the idea a chapter book? A picture book? An article? Someone had told this client that it would make a great novel, but the problem was…she just didn’t wanna write a novel. Her manuscript is too short to be a novel and she didn’t want to flesh it out. Full stop. That’s it and that’s all.

Could it have worked as a novel? Sure. I thought so. Other people thought so. It could’ve been a strong contender for a novel.

But there was a problem.

The writer didn’t wanna!

And sometimes that is the best reason not to write something the way you’re being told to write something (unless, of course, you are a contracted writer employed by someone to write something a certain way, then you should probably avoid “freestyling”).

Why?

It’s easy to tell when the passion isn’t there. If you are just writing YA because you think that’s where the market is and you’re writing a kissing scene because you have to (even though it makes you cringe) and you are putting swear words in because that’s what all the kids want these days, etc. etc. etc. Are you being true to you?

Another phone call last week. A woman had been told by several people (not in the industry, so with questionable experience, see below) to abandon her ambitious multiple-POV narrative and make the story more streamlined. That’s sometimes good advice–people can get in over their heads when they experiment with advanced narrative techniques.

But the multiple-POV idea had been with her since the very beginning, since the first dream she had for her novel. Could she get rid of it? Sure. Would she still have the prospect of a novel without it? Yes.

But…

(say it with me here)

she didn’t wanna!

And sometimes, that “don’t wanna” instinct is a good guide. (Sometimes it’s not. Like, I don’t really wanna pay my mortgage every month, but I probably should…)

Whose Writing Feedback Are You Following?

The issue with writing feedback is that, sometimes, it can be wrong. Sometimes the problem is that the advice-giver doesn’t know what they’re talking about. (I often see this problem with people who have asked family members or children for feedback.) Sometimes the issue is that the advice they’re giving is the wrong advice for you and your project.

I work with writers all the time who have received conflicting feedback. They are stuck. They don’t know what to do.

The more feedback you receive, the more different people you work with, the more you will develop your own compass. This will help you parse through feedback and know whether or not to act. Does this feedback feel right? Does it make sense? Does it stir up your inner “don’t wanna”?

Not all feedback is created equal, and not all feedback is going to be useful.

I just responded to an email from another client. This client had some rebuttals to my notes, and we probably have some disagreements about the project. My advice to him? “Take the wisdom and leave the rest.” I stand by my feedback, even though I understand his points. But if my advice isn’t working for him on certain things, then he can move forward, having at least considered it. I count that as a win, because the advice–even if he didn’t end up taking it–helped this client make more conscious choices about his story.

Sometimes realizing you don’t wanna do something is a great way to point yourself toward what you do want!

So following unqualified feedback can be dangerous, because, simply put, people love to give uninformed opinions. But even more seriously, following your own advice can sometimes be even more dangerous. Because, as humans, we are prone to having a very skewed sense of what “should” be. A lot of human misery sprouts from these ideas we get about what everyone else thinks we should or shouldn’t be doing.

Examine your motives. Are you only writing something a certain way because you think you “should”? Are you acting on advice you received but didn’t like?

We Can Tell When You’re Faking It

The real issue is that writing that comes from a “should” place is not likely to sell. I talk about this in my “Should I write according to trends?” post. Because if you’re not having fun, and if you don’t have the passion for the project, that will eventually show on the page, no matter how good you are.

If you’re slogging through it, imagine how un-fun it’ll be to read. (This, by the way, is the issue with most synopses. Writers hate writing them, and it shows.)

Sure. There are some projects that are just a bad idea, no matter how much energy and love you pour into them. My favorite example is the 200-page picture book. It’s most likely never gonna happen. So if your heart’s desire is a 200-page picture book, then, yes, you may want to take some advice about basic feasibility.

But if your project is do-able, market-wise, but you just don’t wanna do it, listen up.

Step away from the word processor and do some freewriting, or daydreaming. Try to reconnect with what inspired you about the story in the first place. Did you start with an idea and then lose it during the writing process? Were you forced to make cuts or changes that you didn’t agree with, deep down, in order to please someone else?

This rut often happens when we get away from our vision and away from ourselves. The lesson? Just because you feel like you should be good at something or you want to be good at something, try to develop your authentic writer self. What do they want to do? What excites them? Start–or very likely, get back to–there.

Get some feedback you can trust. I even help writers synthesize conflicting critiques they’ve already gotten. I am also great at giving you permission to try the thing you deep-down-want-to-try, if that’s what’s been holding you back. Hire me as your book editor today.

Callout for Successful Query Letters!

Have you gotten an agent or a publishing deal with a compelling query letter? Would you mind sharing that letter with me so that I can use it in a very exciting class that I’m teaching? (I can’t reveal the class just yet, but stay tuned for news this fall.)

I am always on the lookout for awesome examples of query letters, but I obviously can’t use a query from my agenting days without the author’s permission. If you’d be willing to generously allow me to reprint your query in an online class and discuss its strengths, I would be so grateful! (I’ll even throw in access to the online class for free to the writers whose queries I end up picking!)

This callout is for queries you’ve used successfully to get an agent or a publishing offer. They can be in any category or for any genre.

Please email them copied and pasted or as attachments to: mary at kidlit dot com

Thank you so much for your willingness to share your awesome queries with the next generation of aspiring writers!

How to Write Big Character Life Changes

Many writers wonder how to write big character life changes, massive events that rock your characters to their core. But this is a necessary discussion to have, since, ideally, your novel will be grappling with huge life stuff. So how do you render these events in a believable and relatable way? Read on.

life changes, writing character, character life changes, how to write compelling character
Rendering character life changes on the page takes a light and thoughtful touch.

Coping With Big Life Changes

Two recent editorial projects come to mind where a novel’s protagonist has been thrown into an absolutely new life. In both cases, these were thrillers, so it was a life of sudden crime, badass skills, high stakes. Two perfectly nice small-town young women suddenly became Lara Croft in the span of one life-changing event each.

In both cases, the writers just ran with this new “badass persona”, without paying a lot of attention to the idea that big, identity-shifting life changes often come with a lot of angst. I can’t be walking my neighbor’s dog one day, then breaking into a bank vault with a Glock the next, without some kind of psychological upheaval.

The thing is, big stakes are hard because they’re so big, so unbelievable. When your character inevitably goes through a huge life event, your job is to follow them through the transition in a way that takes many steps.

One leap from Girl Next Door to Action Hero is not believable. Any huge shift to identity demands several steps. When the unthinkable happens to your protagonist, what are the layers they feel?

Let’s take our Lara Croft example. When she wakes up the next day, suddenly charged with stopping a money laundering ring, and she finds a gun in her hand, how many different ways does she feel?

Scared of the potential outcome? Guilty for what she has to do? Worried about the people she’s leaving behind? Empowered that she has the chance to do something big? Like she wants to crawl back into bed? All of these are different.

Of course, in the interest of your plot, you want your character to embrace their story, to run with it. To buy in, as I call it. But too many times, I see a character going from Mode A to Mode B so seamlessly, that it’s like Girl Next Door never existed. She did, and she’s instrumental to keeping your reader attached to the plot that happens next.

Life Before and After

Speaking of which, be sure to give your character enough of a life “before” the big event. Something that can act as a touch point. Do they think about a childhood pet (a symbol of comfort) when things get intense? Do they remember previous moments of triumph when they need motivation in their new circumstances?

In both of the manuscripts I worked on recently with this issue, one of my big notes was that there wasn’t enough of a “before”. But if the character is too thin when they launch on their big adventure, there’s something too glossy about their new personality. It’s hard to relate to. I’ve never held a Glock. I’ve never woken up as an international jewel thief. (All of the examples I mention are made up, they don’t have anything to do with client manuscripts.) I can’t relate as well to our protagonist now that she is these things.

So that “before” life is going to come into play to not only help her weather the storms of her new predicament, but to help me connect, as a reader. Character life changes are incredibly powerful tools in your plot. They keep your action moving forward, and they are very necessary to creating good fiction.

But remember who your characters were before their lives changed, too. That’s years of rich material you can draw on, especially if present circumstances are rocky or larger than life.

The Bigger the Event, the More Nuanced the Reaction

There’s a note I often give about melodramatic writing. You know, when the boy’s girlfriend dies and he all of a sudden becomes a poet and weeps about “the darkened chambers of my heart”. A big reaction to a big event is not always the best choice.

The problem is, we don’t often know how to write nuanced and compelling reactions to big events. Matching big event to big tone often results in purple prose. Souls shattering. Angels weeping. That sort of thing. These have become cliches.

As you consider your character’s reaction to big life events, think instead of the small thoughts he or she could have. Everything is falling apart around them. With a pang, they suddenly remember the treehouse where they used to hide out when their parents argued. What they wouldn’t give for that childlike sense of safety and security, to hide away until everything blows over.

Or when their best friend falls into a coma. They could drop to their knees and rend their hair, sure. Or they can remember that time they filmed an N*Sync music video in their backyard*. They even went to Ross and got matching costumes. How they laughed when they played it back.

Look for contrasts. Big events/quiet thoughts. High action/small realizations. I’m always on my editorial clients to aim for complexity, to add layers to their work, to connect in unexpected ways.

When your novel serves up big life events for your characters, the first reaction that comes to mind may be a familiar one that readers will expect. Take a step back. What else is available to your imagination? There, you might find the fresh, nuanced choice to really reel your reader in.

*Absolutely, positively not something I did in the seventh grade. Okay. Okay. But it was my best friend’s idea…

Are your characters coming across as you’ve always envisioned? If not, hire me as your novel editor and learn how to make them a reality.

Writing Emotional Meaning

Writing emotional meaning can be very difficult because most writers are so focused on getting information down on the page. What it all means, how it makes the reader feel, how to get the most out of it…these are higher order concerns that sometimes don’t enter into a first draft.

And they don’t necessarily have to. Sometimes we don’t know what our books are really about until we’ve written them. But that’s what revision is for! If you have no idea what “emotional meaning” even, well, means, read on.

writing emotional meaning, making meaning when writing, characterization, character detail, character backstory
Sometimes writing emotional meaning feels like juicing truth out of a rock. A very meaningful rock.

Writing Emotional Meaning for Character

Writers often get caught up in putting character details down on the page. Your character’s eye color, favorite food, quirky hobby. For some, this is the stuff of spreadsheets. The contents of the character’s room or locker or backpack are meant to tell the reader who they are.

I do not understand this, nor have I ever. Sure, if they like mumble rap instead of country, this tells me something about them. Some vague, mass market, cookie cutter thing. But it doesn’t give me their soul.

Instead, I am looking for how things matter to a character, instead of what matters to them. This is a pretty subtle difference. Keep in mind that your character has had a past, they have a present, and they are hoping for a future. Instead of just the facts about each of these, I want to know how your character is letting these things affect them.

For example, your character grew up in an abusive home. Instead of just detailing the abuse in flashback, surprise the reader. Maybe your character thinks of the treehouse where they escaped from everything. Or maybe they felt empowered in the midst of tragedy by making pancakes for their siblings before the mom got up and the day started on a bad note.

An Example of Emotional Meaning

If the character relates to this fact from their past with some nostalgia, or even fondness, there is richness there. How do they think about the past? Compare this example:

I was abused ever since I could remember. Mom would come home late from one of her benders, then it’d be up to us to stay quiet all morning while she slept it off.

This is very factual. We get just the straight truth here. Now compare it to this one:

Th smell of maple syrup always sets me off. I remember cooking as quietly as possible. Huddling everyone around the table. But instead of the fear, I remember watching everyone eat and smiling. For just a moment, we are all safe in the kitchen and it’s because of me.

This character has a tough backstory. Sure. Everyone knows that child abuse = bad. But don’t just make that preconceived notion in your reader’s mind do all the work.

Finding an emotion that’s more than “just the facts”, and maybe a surprising emotion, adds some interest and intrigue to the character attributes you’re creating. You can have the character react with the same level of complexity about their present and future. For example, they are about to receive a full-ride scholarship to an elite prep school. Amazing. All their dreams are coming true.

But how else might they feel about it? Resentment because they’ll have to actually work hard, unlike some of their fancy new classmates? Pressure?

Don’t stop at “what”. Move past it to “how” and “why”.

 

Layer Emotional Meaning In Before You Need It

The other day, I was reading a client manuscript about two best friends who really miss one another, because the main character moved away. The friend is mentioned briefly in the first chapter (by name, with the attribution “best friend”), then it’s not until a dozen chapters later that they are able to talk on the phone.

Now, the writer has done a few things wrong here. First of all, if it really is a best-friendship, why does it take ten chapters for them to get on the phone after a traumatic separation? Second of all, it’s not enough to just say “Oh, she’s my best friend and I miss her” and then count on the reader’s idea of a best friend to do all the heavy lifting.

What this writer should’ve been doing is writing emotional meaning into the friendship in every chapter. Does the character think to text their BFF, only to sadly remember that it’s past midnight on the East Coast? Does someone at their new school remind them of their friendship? Does mint chocolate chip ice cream not taste as sweet without their amiga?

Have Your Characters Think About the Important Stuff

I read a lot of manuscripts where the character says something like, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about my BFF. I miss her so much.” And yet in 50 pages, the protagonist hasn’t thought of the friend once, except to name them and tag them “best friend”. I have access to their thoughts! I’ve been looking! Not one thought on the actual page. So “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about XYZ” rings incredibly false.

All this is to say, if something is meaningful, put it on the page early and often. Try to find surprising emotional meaning behind it. Add depth and richness. By the time we get on the phone with BFF in chapter ten, we should know something about their friendship. We should have feelings about it that are inspired by the character’s feelings. We should know much more than, “Oh yeah, that’s the best friend character she mentioned.”

Plant seeds. Add layers. Writing emotional meaning is a job to undertake from the very beginning for those elements of your story that are truly important.

All of your details are on the page, but the emotions are falling flat. Work on your character’s interiority and your emotional writing with me as your novel editor.

Writing Tension Instead of Teasing

There is a big distinction between writing tension and merely teasing the reader along. Unfortunately, a tease is not enough and doesn’t respect your audience. Here’s how to recognize if your scenes have enough tension, and how to fix it if you have a teasing issue.

writing tension, tension in novel writing, creating tension
Tick tick tick, keep that tension high without teasing…

Have you ever written a sentence like:

If only she knew then what she knew now, she would’ve done everything differently…

They enjoyed their ice cream, not knowing what was about to hit.

These are examples of a classic tease. Writers usually use this kind of language when nothing is going on in the present moment, but they want readers to tag along until something more exciting happens. This is a fine instinct–you know you need more tension than you have, so you are trying to create it. However, it’s not the best approach. Read on to find out why, and how to create genuine reader interest without gimmicks.

Why Teasing Doesn’t Work

Teasing is especially problematic for middle grade and young adult fiction, because those novels tend to be very immediate. The character is in the moment, and there’s none of this, “I’m telling the story from the future, looking through the hazy sands of time.” When you resort to the “If I only knew then” ploy, that puts your actual character’s storytelling in some undetermined future and pulls your reader out of the present moment of the story.

Sure, the reader may wonder what’s about to happen, but this is a short term fix to a moment that lacks other tension. It may not be enough. One or two sentences of teasing might give you a very temporary tension boost, but if you are working with a global lack of tension in that scene or chapter, it’s not going to be enough.

Even more problematic is the idea of teasing repeatedly. Every time you mention a tension-building event, it loses a bit of power. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a simple application of the Law of Diminishing Returns. If you keep teasing without actually putting the climactic event on the page (and soon!), readers will lose interest as the tease becomes more and more transparent. If you simply must build tension this way, try to add new information with each tease to keep readers engaged.

Writing Tension In the Present Moment

Teasing is especially problematic for middle grade and young adult fiction, because those novels tend to be very immediate. The character is in the moment, and there’s none of this, “I’m telling the story from the future, looking through the hazy sands of time.” When you resort to the “If I only knew then” ploy, that puts your actual character’s storytelling in some undetermined future and pulls your reader out of the present moment of the story.

Ideally, you will be capitalizing on tension that is present in the moment that you’re writing. This is hard to do, because sometimes your moment doesn’t have a lot of tension. You know it needs more. You just don’t know how to create it. So you tease about the future. This often happens in chapters where there has been a lot of telling and the writer is eager to pick up their pacing.

This isn’t the answer you want, but it’s the real answer: You need more tension. If you don’t have it, create it. Or maybe the moment you’re putting on the page isn’t working because there’s not a lot going on. Really analyze the moments where you’ve been using teases. Do they work? Is there more that can happen there? Can you create conflict via character? Maybe loop in other characters or bring in a secondary plot thread? Have a bigger world event happen to shake the characters up?

If the moment isn’t doing heavy lifting, you need to inject some. Ideally, you wouldn’t have a scene or chapter without capitalizing on tension that’s currently happening.

Conflict is the engine that drives plot forward. You should be creating tension on the page at all times, no matter what else is going on. That’s why big globs of world-building, information, or backstory tend to fizzle out quickly. Action is the easiest way to create tension, whether it comes from something happening in your world or character conflict.

Teases are a cheap fix. If you really want to hook readers and keep them engaged, really invest in writing present moment tension.

Are you orchestrating the right amount of tension? Bring me on as your developmental novel editor and we can dig into your plot together.

Seeking Writing Service Providers!

Do you (or someone you’ve worked with) provide non-editorial services to writers? Services can include:

  • Graphic/cover design
  • Book layout
  • Formatting for Kindle/ebook publication
  • Book production
  • Self-publishing consulting/services
  • Marketing/PR
  • Social media support
  • Ghostwriting
  • Illustration

This is an opportunity to be included in a resource guide.  I’m always getting requests for ghostwriters, cover designers, book formatting, etc.

Please contact me at mary@kidlit.com or leave links in the comments. For all service providers, I will ask for examples of successful work you’ve done, so be prepared to talk about your services, your experience, and give a sense of your pricing. If you’re a writer who has used a service that you are THRILLED with, please spread the good word and let me know. Thank you so much.

Delaying an Agent Submission

Delaying an agent submission isn’t usually on a writer’s radar. Most writers very much want an agent to request their manuscript, so why would they delay? There is a really compelling reason to be strategic in capitalizing on an agent’s interest.

delaying an agent submission, responding to a manuscript request, slush pile
If an agent is really interested, they’ll wait for your submission.

Submitting Too Soon

Writers are humans. They are, whether you want to think so or not, vulnerable to the quirks of human nature. And one of those foibles is impatience. A lot of writers tend to submit their manuscripts before their manuscripts are ready.

I have been beating this dead horse for about ten years, but it’s true. In a lot of cases, writers are too eager to get their work out there, so they gear up for submission to agents or publishing houses one or two revisions before they should.

It’s okay. It happens to everyone. But this is my level-headed plea that you try and recognize if this is happening to you. Did you rush into submission? Are you about to send some manuscripts out that may need more revision?

Did you put your work away for a few months before doing one last pass? (Nobody ever follows this advice, but if they did, the slush may be a very different place.)

Too often, writers really want to see the fruits of their labor. They want to get “out there”, like, yesterday, and see if their project is worth anything. I get it, I really do.

But this sometimes results in a submission that will get rejected because it hasn’t had enough time and revision. And then you may have shut the door on a promising potential agent/writer relationship.

Twitter pitch contests and similar opportunities only tend to make this worse, because they create this false sense of urgency. That you need to submit now now now or you’ll miss your chance forever.

Worth the Wait

Here is an excerpt from a conversation I had with a client. This client wanted my blessing to send the first 50 pages of a manuscript to an agent. The manuscript needed some work. This is how I responded:

Looks like you’re moving ahead full steam with this submission. However, you told me that you originally wanted to wait. Now it sounds like you talked yourself out of it. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity! I need to do it!” Well, I’m about to suggest some serious revision. And I worry that you’ll be tempted to rush through it in order to submit.

You seem to have a very hard time managing whether or not you’re comfortable waiting. “Not sure I can tell her to wait?” Why the heck not? I think you might be making these situations into life-or-death, now-or-never in your head. They’re not. Plus, if you send the first 50 and the agent likes it, I think you’re going to be up against this very same dilemma again if there’s a full request. Immediately, it’ll be, “What do I do? Do you think the next 200 pages are okay to send?”

I suggest waiting until the whole thing is ready. To pull off a successful revision will take months. We’ve had extensive discussion about what happens when someone submits, then revises, and realizes, “Oh man, I submitted too early.” Even though it seems like you’re self-aware enough to know that you might be doing this, you still keep doing it, or wanting to do it.

You’re investing a lot of time and energy to get editorial feedback so that, I would imagine, you can revise your manuscript into submission-ready form. So do you want to submit early anyway? I would say no. Not only can you tell someone to wait on a submission, but there are contests running constantly.

This attitude of do-or-die, now-or-never is not going to serve you. It’s going to result in nothing but little bursts of anxiety when, frankly, you should forget completely about submission and focus on your book. Your strongest shot at publication isn’t getting into a closed agent’s inbox via the Twitter contest back door, it’s having a rock solid manuscript to impress them with.

Delaying an Agent Submission

Maybe now I’ve convinced you that a strong project, no matter when it arrives, is your best asset. That you can wait on submission while you revise. And that the Twitter pitch contest isn’t going anywhere.

But what if you’ve already submitted and you have a request? Do you rush into sending your manuscript anyway?

Nope! You can absolutely tell an agent that you need to go do some revision, and you’ll be back.

Thank you so much for your interest. I’m doing one more revision pass, and I’ll submit as soon as I’m ready.

Boom! You don’t even have to give a timeframe. That might put even more arbitrary pressure on you that you don’t need. In most cases, agents will understand. They want to see a strong project, too, even if it takes a few extra months.

So cool your jets. Revise a little more. And come out of the gate with something that demands attention. It’ll be worth it.

Need help getting a manuscript submission-ready? Hire me as your developmental editor. My “Submission Package Edit” gives you notes on everything an agent or publisher will want to see.

Writing Compelling Novel First Pages

Oceans of ink and blog posts have been spilled talking about novel opening pages. And with good reason. Your novel first pages are the only thing an agent gets to see before they make their decision about you. Well, that and your query letter and synopsis, which is why those are such hot topics. But how do you nail your novel’s opening pages? The advice may be simpler than you think.

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Don’t underestimate the importance of your novel opening pages. But don’t try to do too much, either. It’s a tight balancing act.

Great Novel First Pages Start With Conflict and Action

I cannot overstate this point: Conflict and action hook a reader and transport them into your story. This is exactly the goal of your novel’s opening. So start in action, start with conflict. You may want to use a smaller, scene-specific conflict (or “bridging conflict“) to get readers on the bus initially. That also puts less pressure on you to start with mind-blowing high-stakes conflict, which can be difficult to pull off before the reader knows your character.

Basically, you want to give them just enough of your character so that they care, without over-indulging in information (see next section). And you want to put the character in motion. They want something, they’re experiencing an obstacle, they are frustrated or full of longing. This is a good state for your character to be in.

And, very importantly, they are starting in action, where they’re either being frustrated by an obstacle or striving toward something. You need that balance of internal conflict and external conflict.

If you start with too much external action right away, readers may not care because they don’t know the character, their objectives, or motivations.

If you start with no external action, then it’s easy to get bored. For example, a character sitting in their room, philosophizing about life and all the ways in which it has gone wrong. Maybe you start with generalities, for example:

Life can be funny sometimes. I spent 13 years thinking I was normal. Totally lame. And then one day, everything changed.

But the character is just sitting and thinking. There’s no action. This is 100% internal conflict, and you want to avoid it because nothing is actually happening.

Avoid Too Much Information in Your Novel Opening

In the same vein, information overload can sabotage your novel opening pages in other ways. You might start with action, like the character getting bullied, but then you stop and go into great detail about the school, everyone in it, and the character’s history with the bully since kindergarten.

“Context is important!” you say. But you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. If you start off your novel with a ton of information about everyone we’re meeting and all of the details of a character’s life, the plan will not get off the ground, so to speak.

There has to be a balance of action and information, and if in doubt, action should win out. For every piece of information that you introduce in the first few pages of your novel, ask yourself: Does this really, really, really have to be here? Otherwise, you may insert it later, or not at all.

Pick a Moment You Can Sustain

Finally, to tie your novel opening together, you need to pick a moment you can sustain for two or three pages without either stopping the action to give tons of information, and without leaving the moment to go into backstory (more information).

You want your readers to get a foothold in the story. The way they do that is to sink into a moment they can lose themselves in. If you open with a bullying scene, let’s get that scene from beginning to end. Let’s get dialogue. Let’s get action. Let’s get a sense of our character as he or she experiences this, otherwise called interiority. Put the reader in the moment.

If you currently start with general philosophizing (per the example above), a ton of information, a lot of jumping around in time to gather various details, or without a sense of balanced internal and external conflict, it’s time to take another look. Your beginning really is your make-or-break. So it’s your job to make it good.

Struggling with your first pages? My Submission Package Edit revamps your first ten manuscript pages, query, and synopsis, so you can make an amazing first impression in the slush. Hire me today!