Writing a Proactive Protagonist

Writing a proactive protagonist is one of the single most important things you can do to set your novel up for success. I feel like I’ve been giving this note over and over in my freelance editorial practice lately: Your protagonist is too passive. They do not drive the plot. They are passenger, not driver. What is this problem and how can you address it? Read on!

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Your character needs a strong idea of where they’re going. They should be someone the reader will be compelled to follow.

Active vs Reactive Protagonist

Novels are hampered when a “main character” takes a backseat to action. Higher concept plots are often vulnerable to this. (Because, remember, stakes in writing can be tricky.) If you have Ordinary Kid and you throw them into Extraordinary Circumstances, they are likely, a) not going to know what’s going on for quite a while, b) not going to know what to do, and c) going to rely on others for help.

You’ve perhaps made a plot that’s “too big” for your Everyman character. This thwarts them because they spend the entire novel either, a) learning the ropes, b) discovering their talents, and/or c) figuring out where they fit in.

Thematically, this makes sense, especially for a middle grade or YA novel. If every kid was self-assured at the beginning of their story, you wouldn’t have a relatable novel for tween and teen readers (who often feel incompetent or unsure). But it’s possible to make your character too impotent.

Take a look at your novel. Does your character spend a lot of time receiving instruction? Are there a lot of guide/mentor characters? Do events happen to your character, rather than your character making events happen?

You are in danger of having a passive protagonist. After a while, if the character doesn’t become “activated” and start acting with their own goals, desires, and agency, they are going to be the eternal backseat driver and their power to affect the story–and, more importantly, the reader–will evaporate.

Writing a Proactive Protagonist

No matter how unsure your protagonist is about their life, themselves, or their upcoming challenges, they still need to be a hero. For sure, this doesn’t have to happen immediately, or there’s no growth trajectory. But when you’re writing a proactive protagonist, you should at least the hint of some confidence/ability at the beginning.

Everyone is good at something. And even if a character is not good at anything (or just believes they aren’t), they have a secret weapon that you shouldn’t hesitate to deploy: their desire or need. This secret weapon can make all the difference between an active vs. reactive protagonist.

Use Desires or Needs to Motivate Your Protagonist

Desires and needs are universally relatable and everyone has them. They come together to form your character’s objective and motivation. The objective is what they want, the motivation is why they want it. I define desires as things characters want, which can be external. Whether a physical object or an outcome. A need is something a character, well, needs on a deeper level, so it’s usually an internal conflict. They desire to win the championship but they need the validation such a coup would provide, for example.

The best thing about desires and needs? They make us brave and they make us active. I may not usually be outspoken (Ha! Obviously not speaking personally…), but if my desire is on the line, I’ll act.

Too many times, a character arrives on the page without strong desires or needs. “Ugh, I’m so ordinary. Ho hum. If only something good would happen.” This isn’t specific. Sure, everyone can relate to being bored, but boring characters are … boring. Sitting around and waiting for “something, anything” to happen is a prime set-up for a passive protagonist. This leaves them wide open to anything that comes along, but not really pursuing anything.

Instead, give your character strong goals and wants. Let’s see them chasing after something right away, even if it isn’t yet their central objective. And when the plot does kick in, solidify their objective, motivation, desire, and need. That way, even if the plot sweeps them along on a wild ride, they are always able to take proactive steps, they always have their eyes on the prize.

Better yet, the plot might threaten their objective. Then the stakes rise. They can’t lose X. They can’t sacrifice Y. They only have one shot at Z. Or else what? They go unfulfilled, because their deep need isn’t being met. If you have your character actively chasing, no matter what else happens, you give the impression of a hero.

Secondary characters and subplots help in terms of making your protagonist active rather than reactive. A character can do things for others, or do things that dovetail with another plot thread. Ideally, all of these actions serve their core need (not every need should be 100% selfish, but you should always have strong personal reasons for selfless actions, too). If the primary plot puts your protagonist in a passive position for a moment, is there anything they can DO for anyone else?

Give Your Characters Enough Info to Act

Finally, too many writers hamstring their characters by not giving them enough information. Why? The misguided urge to save everything for a huge reveal at the 70% mark of the plot. Well, guess what? If readers aren’t compelled by a character or story right away, they won’t even get to the 70% mark. Too many writers withhold too much information, stalling until “the time is right” for a reveal. Instead, give your protagonist information earlier. Empower them. Allow them to act with some of the facts in hand. Otherwise, they’re sitting on their thumbs until you’ve decided to throw them a bone. In this active vs reactive scenario, reaction is going to win out — which spells disaster for your protagonist.

Big Choices and Small Moments

Even if you can’t give your character a bunch of information or make them an ass-kicking hero from page one, you can let them be proactive from moment to moment. Study this article on writing active character reaction. If they simply can’t participate just yet, at least let them be engaged. You’ll also want to take a few big risks and step outside of your comfort zone.

Keep training/explaining to a minimum, especially in the first 100 pages. It’s always better to have your protagonist active vs reactive, even if they make a mistake doing so because they’re green or don’t have all the information yet. Really take a close look at all of these types of montages. I will bet that you can make some big cuts and redistribute key information elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest choice you can make to empower your hero is to stop giving them so much help. The best friend who only exists to support them? Give that friend some nuance and conflict, or they’re just going to be boring scaffolding for your protagonist. The older, wiser mentor who gives the trainee the lay of the land? Let the character start to discover things for themselves, make assumptions, and get out there, ready or not.

Remember, fiction is life elevated. Big stories. Big characters. Big stakes. Most of us feel like we’re just along for the ride in our daily lives. When we come to get away from it all and read fiction, we want to see protagonists who take risks, make choices, chase dreams, and grow into their power. There’s definitely an aspirational component to relating to character. Make sure your hero is someone readers can be inspired by, warts and all, and put them in the driver’s seat. What are you waiting for?

Are you struggling with writing a proactive protagonist? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.

Query Letter Webinar Registration Is LIVE!

The query letter webinar is coming up! As I posted a few weeks ago, I’m going to be trying a new webinar platform and running some independent webinars. This first webinar is “Writing an Irresistible Query” and focuses on nailing that oh-so-elusive document, the query letter. Registration is now live!

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Join Me for a Query Letter Webinar

My first-ever query letter webinar is a test run of the class, as well as a webinar software that’s new to me. If you join me for this first outing, I invite you to participate for FREE! All I ask is that you fill out a short feedback survey after the webinar to let me know how you enjoyed the experience.

The webinar will be held:

Saturday, September 29th, at 11 a.m. CDT

All you need is a computer with Internet access and the capability to play video and audio content. The webinar will feature me, speaking on camera, as well as a PowerPoint presentation.

Once you register, you will receive email instructions for joining the webinar live, or watching the recording after the event.

Please clink the link to register for my first-ever query letter webinar, or fill out the form embedded below:

Register for September 29th Query Webinar

Grab your spot. Seats at the live event are limited. You will receive email instructions for accessing the webinar once you sign up. Thanks!

 

If you can’t make that date or time, please register anyway. As a registrant, you will receive a link where you can replay the recorded program. Please note: Only the first 100 registered attendees will get to view the webinar live, so show up a few minutes ahead of time. There are already more than 100 registered listeners, two days after the link went live. If you really want to hear it live, please plan to be early. If you aren’t able to hear it live, you will still receive the recorded event via email later that afternoon.

Looking Forward

I love speaking and teaching, so I hope to bring you more webinars on topics like character, voice, interiority, queries, the agent submission process, etc. If I like this webinar platform (and this is where I’m especially looking for your feedback!), I hope to do one or two events per month.

In the future, different webinars will be free and paid. Paid webinars will always include critique of any relevant documents. For example, the query letter webinar will include critique of, of course, your query letter. To clarify, this September query letter webinar will not include query letter critique because my focus is on testing out the platform.

If you’d like personalized help with your query letter without the wait, consider hiring me as your query letter editor today!

Upcoming Virtual Conference and Webinar

I’ve been really getting into virtual conferences lately, like WriteOnCon. They’re a great (and economical) way of hearing some wonderful presentations without, you know, putting on pants and leaving the house. The best of both worlds!

With that in mind, there are two upcoming ways to hear me speak in September! One is run by the awesome Writer’s Digest University program. Another is something I’m launching independently, the very first of many webinars to come.

Writer’s Digest Middle Grade & Young Adult Virtual Conference

Coming up the weekend of September 14th, you can hear me and several other wonderful presenters discussing about topics specific to writing for middle grade and young adult readers!

My specific presentation, all about character development and the topic of interiority, will be on Saturday, September 15th, at 5 p.m. Eastern. You can learn more about it and register for the event here.

I hope you’ll join me there!

Brand New “Writing an Irresistible Query” Webinar

And then, for my next trick, I’m trying something new. I love speaking directly to writers and teaching live. I love it. But since I have a small child, traveling to a conference can get tricky. (Plus, there’s the whole putting-on-pants thing! What a drag it is to leave the house and make oneself presentable!)

So why don’t you stay in your house, and I stay in my house, and I will come to you! A webinar is the perfect venue for doing just that.

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In the next few months, I will be ramping up a webinar program that allows me to speak directly to writers via an online video and audio presentation. Some webinars will be free, others will be paid (but include a critique element to really make them worth your investment). I love speaking, and I am so excited about this!

WHAT:  My trial run! And there’s seemingly nothing more interesting to aspiring writers than the query letter, so why not talk about that? In the future, my query letter webinar will be paid because I will also provide critique on attendee queries*. For my first outing, I’m really interested in testing the webinar platform and process, so this is a chance to hop on, hear the presentation, give me feedback, and do it all for FREE!

WHEN: Come join me for the first ever “Writing an Irresistible Query” webinar. Pencil me in on your calendar for Saturday, September 29th, at 11 a.m. Central time. The format will be about 40 minutes of presentation about queries, then some time for questions. (If you cannot make this date and time, the recorded webinar will be available to view at your leisure.)

HOW: More info on registering will appear on the blog in the next few weeks. Registration is first come, first served, and attendance is going to be capped to the first 100 people in the room, so keep an eye on this space! (If we reach the limit, all overflow attendees will be sent the recorded version a few hours after the event, but they won’t be able to ask questions or otherwise interact.)

I will be trying out a new webinar platform. The process promises to be seamless, from registration to email instructions to joining the webinar. You will not have to download any software to participate. The only equipment you’ll need is a computer with Internet access. I’m definitely interested in feedback from attendees on the logistics of the webinar. If you could fill out a brief survey after your experience, I would really, really appreciate it.

I look forward to connecting with you at one of these events in September!

* (To clarify, a critique will not be included with this September presentation because I’d really like to focus on creating the best webinar possible.)

 

How to Write a Novel Synopsis

The novel synopsis is a source of great consternation for many writers, and I completely understand why. To be honest, I hate writing them, I hate reading them, and I know I’m not alone. They are, usually, both crime and punishment. But they are a necessary evil for several reasons, which I’ll mention. Read on to find out how to write a novel synopsis in a way that’ll keep your sanity intact.

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“Do I really have to read this thing? You read the synopsis! You read it and I’ll get you coffee for a week…”

What a Novel Synopsis Is and What It Does

A novel synopsis is, in very basic terms, a one-to-four-page document that explains every major plot point and character development moment. That’s it and that’s all. For such a short and simple document, it sure seems to stir up a lot of angst.

Okay, so maybe my perspective is biased. I’m sure not everyone hates the novel synopsis. I’m sure there are writers out there who write amazing synopses, and agents/editors who gobble them up. Don’t get me wrong, they serve an important purpose.

A novel synopsis demonstrates how you think about story, how you plot, and how you wrap everything up. These are very important skills. A wonderful elevator pitch can very easily fall apart in the execution.

Agents and Publishers are Curious to Know the Following

  • that you have a lively cast of characters
  • that you are working with enough plot and subplot, or whether it’s too little or too much
  • that you’re building appropriate stakes and tension as the story progresses
  • how you plan on landing this thing once it’s going, whether everything will be resolved or you’re leaving some threads open for potential future stories
  • if you have any big red flags or fatal flaws in your story, which usually happen in the second half (see “Fair Warning”, below)

Some agents and publishers pay a lot of attention to the synopsis. Some glance at it. Others don’t even request one. But no matter what, you should know how to write a novel synopsis. Better yet, it would behoove you to have this document available in at least two lengths, to deploy when necessary.

How to Write a Novel Synopsis

The best way to write a strong novel synopsis is to sit down and do it. Sorry! That’s it! There’s no secret magic dust that I can give you in this case. But once your butt is in the chair, here are some basic tips on how to write a novel synopsis.

Open a blank document and jot down all of the major plot events of your story. You can start in bullet points, if that helps, but eventually you’ll want to write them out in narrative format. Don’t worry about making it cute, pitchy, or voice-y. Your writing should be clear and tight. Just the facts, ma’am.  Be sure to fold in the three or four biggest character turning points, too. These are the changes your character goes through as they get where they’re going. My strong belief is that a synopsis will involve character somehow, to give a sense of how plot and protagonist play together.

For plot, at minimum, you want to hit your opening (the inciting incident that launches your story), a handful of strong points in the middle as things go wrong and obstacles arise, your climax, and your resolution.

Mention only those details that are necessary for clarity and understanding. If the mom’s job is important to the plot, include it. If the dog and cute neighbor factor into the story but not in a big way, you may want to leave them out. For the purposes of this document, you are running lean.

For all of my surprise and reveal fans: Sorry. I’m about to crush your dreams. But you have to reveal your twists and turns, and your ending. I know you want to tease, tease, tease an agent into reading the whole manuscript. You think that if you just withhold the major twist ending, they will fall over themselves to request and sink five hours of reading into your novel because the suspense will kill them otherwise. Well, catch-22, the odds that they’ll request the full and then get all the way to the end are slim if you don’t demonstrate that you know what you’re doing first and that your twist is worth it. (There are people who vehemently disagree and will fight me on this. You’re not changing my mind, but I fully expect to hear from you!)

Tips for Novel Synopsis Writing

The most common lengths for a novel synopsis are: one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages (roughly the same as one single-spaced page), two single-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages. The reason for this wishy-washiness is that different agents/publishers will request different things in different formats. I recommend having three synopses available to send when you start submitting: a tight one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages (this one will not be requested that often).

So you can attack this beast in one of two ways:

Option 1: You sit down and write your entire novel in one single-spaced page (you still need normal 1″ margins and paragraph spacing, so you can’t just use every available centimeter of space). This is the more difficult approach, because I’m guessing your novel probably has more than one page of material. So whittling it down so drastically is daunting. But doing it all at once is also very helpful, because once you’ve shrunk it, you can much more easily add some substance to make a longer synopsis for a two-page and four-page option.

Option 2: You sit down and you do the painful shave. Start with four double-spaced pages. Put down more detail than necessary. Introduce the bulk of your secondary and tertiary characters. Mention events that don’t have a lot of bearing on character change or plot stakes. Save this version. Open another document. Now you’re aiming for two double-spaced pages. Shave, shave, shave. Delete everything possible that doesn’t impact the reader’s understanding of your story. Save this version. Then single-space it and realize that you’re over one page. Now the real agony begins as you distill further. Save the one-page version. And voila! This is perhaps the more scenic route, but the destination is the same.

There is one great test of a novel synopsis that I recommend to everyone: Show it to someone who doesn’t know your story, and then have them explain your book to you. If they kinda sorta get it and are able to hit the major points, you’ve written a successful synopsis. If they start to squirm, you’re not being clear enough. Your synopsis is either too thin or too detailed.

The only way out is through, my friends. So sit down, embrace our love/hate relationship with this document, and let’s get started.

Fair Warning: Part of the synopsis’ job is to reveal story problems. If you write a synopsis and have trouble filling it with actual plot points, it might mean that your plot is too thin. If you can’t possibly omit any plot points and your synopsis is five pages, that might mean that the scope of your novel is too broad. Be prepared to learn that you might have bigger issues as you write this summary document. It definitely happens.

I had a client recently come to me for a 30-minute discussion of his query and opening pages. My big piece of feedback was, “I don’t know if this is a query problem or a novel problem, but I’m not seeing any plot here. Something should be kicking into gear in these opening pages, and the query should be covering more development than I’m seeing.” We moved on to a complete manuscript service and, guess what? There is very little plot, and that is a big issue. Keep your eyes and ears open as you prepare your synopsis documents, you might learn more than just how to write a novel synopsis.

I include synopsis comments with every service as a manuscript editor. If you’re really struggling with yours, let’s work on it together.

Now Hiring! Part Time Social Media and Web Marketing Associate

As my editorial business has grown (and grown, and grown), I have slipped behind in my social media and web marketing engagement. It’s time to fly the surrender flag: I can’t do it all by myself! You may have noticed that I’m also hiring an editorial and research assistant. Five years into my business, I can admit it freely and happily… There are only three things I like to do at Mary Kole Editorial: Edit, edit, and edit. There’s not a lot of room for anything else! So I’m looking to hire a part-time social media and web marketing associate to help support my business.

Laptop? Check. Coffee? Check. Facebook/Twitter/Insta? Check. I’m looking for someone with social media and web marketing tools and skills!

About You

Top priority is given to candidates who have professional SEO and social media marketing experience, whether self-taught or, ideally, corporate. Be prepared to discuss your success metrics. My ideal fit is someone who already works  in the startup or marketing space, or manages a portfolio of small business clients and does social media support as their primary gig. Any existing access to SEO tools like Moz, etc., is a big plus. Of course, publishing and/or writing experience counts here, but it isn’t the first thing I’ll look at, as this is a specialized position.

You must be comfortable with updating and maintaining profiles/pages on all of the major platforms. You will be creating content once or several times a week (negotiable) and stay on top of engagement. You’ll also be checking in with each platform regularly, managing responses, and identifying opportunities to grow profile presence.

About The Job

This blog has ten years of evergreen content that can be mined and packaged into “From the Archives” material. I’m interested in freshening up the SEO optimization for my most popular posts, as well as keyword research to make sure I’m not missing any opportunities. This is Phase I.

Once you perform an overhaul, the job becomes a maintenance gig: checking in with existing platforms, engaging with users, generating new social media posts and content (except new Kidlit blog posts, those are always going to be my territory), and otherwise keeping things fresh. This is Phase II.

I have several big projects coming up that will need an extra marketing boost, so support around these will be crucial. Long-term, I’m interested in maintaining, engaging, and growing my social media audience, and making sure the blog functions well to a) serve new and existing Kidlit readers, and b) dovetail with my editorial website. You’ll be working primarily with my Kidlit family of profiles, though this online presence is tied to my freelance editing business, Mary Kole Editorial, which is my primary revenue generator.

I’m hoping to monitor your concrete progress and strategize together using tools like Google Analytics. Marketing can be an art, rather than a science, but accountability and results are important here.

Logistics

Initially, our “warm up” period may involve more work, as you spruce up and fine-tune what already exists. Then, I hope to establish a maintenance relationship of several hours a week. That’s why I’m looking for candidates who already work in the space or manage a portfolio of other clients, ideally, because this isn’t going to be an especially meaty part-time position on its own.

Pay is negotiable, whether monthly flat rate or hourly. I have some numbers in mind but I’m very open to hearing your pitch. You can break your pricing out into separate fees for Phase I and Phase II, if that helps. This is a 1099 contract job. It can be performed remotely, but candidates must be legally eligible to work in the US. I’m looking for someone who can start immediately.

I’m specifically not looking for spam from dodgy overseas SEO companies. I get enough of that, as is. Since my primary audience is smart and literary, and I’m asking for new content, I’d prefer someone with impeccable English skills. Please be sure to demonstrate that you’re a real US-based professional who’s interested in this job in particular.

Please submit your social media and marketing resume, a cover letter with your proposal for my specific situation, and your pay requirements. Thank you very much for your interest!

Submit to: mary at kidlit dot com

Deadline for Submissions: September 7th, 2018

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. So are you in need of some descriptive writing tips? Read on!

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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 writing 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.

This is one of my biggest descriptive writing tips: 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 in writing can be overkill.

Heavy-Handed Imagery

Per a previous article about writing theme, I’d like to remind you of another one of my favorite descriptive writing tips: heavy-handed imagery is not your friend. In the same vein as the above, it’s very easy to overdo imagery writing. 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.

Writing Imagery that Doesn’t Fit

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.

Key Descriptive Writing Tips

  • 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!

How To Overcome Writer’s Block: Three Tips

This post about how to overcome writer’s block is very different from one of my favorite “advice” posts about writing bravely. 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 writer problems where you’re  trying very hard to write what you think you have to, but deep down, you really don’t wanna.

how to overcome writer's block, writer problems
Want to know how to overcome writer’s block? Stop doing what you think you should. The sad sweat of your efforts will be obvious in your writing.

How To Overcome Writer’s Block: Three Tips

1. 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…)

2. Be Selective About The Feedback You Follow

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 often encounter writer problems where the issue is conflicting feedback. They are stuck. They don’t know how to overcome writer’s block when there’s not a clear path to follow.

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 resolve your questions about how to overcome writer’s block.

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?

3. Find Your Passion Again

The real issue is that writing that comes from a “should” place is not likely to sell. I talk about this in my post about children’s book writing trends. 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. It falls under the category of classic writer problems, because 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

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.

Wondering how to overcome writer’s block? 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 a big plot point in a believable and relatable way? Read on.

life changes, writing character, character life changes, how to write compelling character, big plot point
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 character 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, rendering big stakes in writing is 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 to the inciting incident. 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 big plot point that happens next.

Life Before and After Big Character Life Changes

Speaking of which, be sure to give your character enough of a life “before” the big plot point. 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 plot point 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 character life changes, 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.