I had the great fortune to hang out with some editors recently and talk about writers. Especially new writers.
What is the #1 most important thing an editor wants from a new writer?
Is it astronomical talent and mind-blowing prose?
Writing is important, of course, but…
Is it a story worthy of the next Harry Potter/Twilight/Percy Jackson and the Olympians?
Story is important, oh yes, but…
If an editor is interested in your work and the writing and the story are solid, the number one thing they want is:
Willingness to revise.
Sure, a book starts in an oddly sparking synapse somewhere in your brain, ends up jotted on a journal page and blossoms from there. But if that book is going to hit the real world, a lot more people are going to be involved in bringing it to life. That includes agents, editors, designers, sales reps, librarians, booksellers, etc. etc. etc. And while not all of those people are going to be giving you direct input, it’s important to remember that they’re all on your team.
So when an agent or editor ask you for changes (and they will, I guarantee it)… hear them out, see it from their perspective and go into the process with an open mind. Then revise your butt off and turn out a book that’s all the better for it.
The more I learn about writing, the more I realize its real name: “revision.”
Your manuscript file name may seem inconsequential, but it’s an important element of submission etiquette. Whenever you send your manuscript to an agent, you should be super aware of what the file name is. That seems like common sense but you’d be surprised.
Manuscript File Name Do’s
When I scroll down to the bottom of a query e-mail, I expect to see a mundane manuscript file name, like:
Something nice and neutral.
Manuscript File Name Don’ts
What I don’t really want to see is:
Or, worse yet:
Keep your manuscript file name really simple, really professional. If you track your revisions with the document title, make sure to take the ten extra seconds and “Save As” a copy of your document with a nice, generic title.
In acting class, my teachers always said: “The audition doesn’t start when you begin your monologue. From the second you enter the building to the moment you leave, you’re auditioning.”
So watch the message you send with your manuscript file names. The ones about “first draft” or “revision 37” or “overhaul” can sometimes make me either dread what I’m going to find when I open the document or make me wonder what’s wrong with it. All those numbers and markers are part of your process… keep them behind the scenes.
Hire me to do a manuscript critique and I’ll guide you towards making a positive first impression when you’re ready to submit to agents.
In October 2006, I quit my job as a telemarketer sales rep for a web hosting company. It was the job I’d been holding down since college graduation, a job I got because everyone else was getting .com jobs in Silicon Valley. But it made me miserable and I couldn’t write a word when I got home. So I quit. It took me about two weeks to really muster up the courage (plus, I was waiting until after the really cushy company anniversary party came and went… Take the free food and drink while you can get it, I say, especially if you’re about to be unemployed!) but I did it.
There was no other job lined up, no shining recommendations coming my way since I’d been a lousy, lousy hawker of useless products salesperson. Considering that I was young, and yes, I had unemployment benefits, and no, I didn’t have a family to support, some might not see this as a great accomplishment, but it was.
It taught me something very simple very early on: if you jump, the ground will rise up to meet you. If you believe it will, that is. That’s why I’m a big proponent of taking life risks. Taking a life risk means facing the thing you’re most afraid of, whatever that means to you. For some, it’s tattooing a snarling tiger on your forehead and moving to Brazil. For the less bold of us, it’s quitting a lousy job or sending a query to your Dream Agent or writing the idea all your friends think is stupid. (And unless your friends are editors or agents, don’t listen to them when it comes to books.)
In the few years since I quit my job and walked out of my cube with a box, a plant and a deflated orange yoga ball, I’ve learned the following:
If you don’t take the risk, you’ll always wish you did.
Nobody can believe in you or your work more than you. That’s where everything else needs to start.
No matter what you’re doing, you could commit to it even more.
You will fail and you will fail hard. But if you get up, that means you’ve learned from it.
After I quit my job, I tooled around and wrote for a while with the money from my last paycheck. Then I got a job three days a week at a restaurant. After that, the restaurant took me on as a prep cook and I got to show up early in the morning, before anybody else, and walk into a kitchen with the stainless steel glinting all around me. I got to shuck oysters, peel carrots, put the caviar away. It is, to this day, the best job I’ve ever had. Then I got another job, and another one. And none of them involved explaining what a web browser is to grandmas who just wanted to put pictures of their grandkids on “that world wide web everyone is always talking about.”
It’s your life and you’ve only got the one. If something sucks, especially about your creative life, fix it. Until you do, the only person suffering is you.
Without further ado, here are the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse with regard to describing emotions:
What do I mean? These four areas of the body are the well-worn favorites of writers everywhere when it comes to describing emotions of any kind. Count how many times you’ve seen the following (or similar) phrases.
Well-Worn Favorites in Describing Emotions
She darted a menacing glance over her shoulder.
He cast his eyes to the ground.
My heart clenched in my chest like a giant fist.
His heart knocked against his ribs like a caged bird.
She let go of a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.
Timmy gasped for air like a drowning man.
The sound of his raspy breathing was the only noise in the otherwise death-silent room.
A gnawing feeling radiated from her guts.
Acid roiled in my stomach, threatening to make an exit up my esophagus.
And on and on and on. Now, that’s not to say that describing emotions in this way is inherently bad. It’s not. But as writers, you should always be thinking about how to describe emotion in creative ways. There aren’t many areas of the human body that act as emotional centers. Eyes, hearts, lungs and stomachs are the four biggies. A lot of stuff happens at these hotspots as a character moves through the emotional arc of a story.
Innovate How You’re Showing Emotions in Writing
But every time you’re showing emotions in writing with eyes darting, a heart clenching, breaths catching in throats or guts rumbling, just know that these Four Horsemen appear in almost every manuscript. It is your job to put a fresh twist on describing emotions and giving your readers new images.
Just because you know everyone struggles with this problem and just because you want to easily jump to showing emotions in your writing doesn’t mean you can get complacent and fall back on the stuff I’ve outlined above.
I issue you a challenge and throw down the gauntlet! What are some fun ways you mix up describing emotions in your manuscripts?
Characters need to be believable and relatable in order to hook readers. Hire me as your book editor and we can hone in on your protagonist together.
If you want to go deeply into your character’s experience, or interiority, you will want to write their thoughts. And how to write thoughts in fiction includes formatting thoughts correctly. Here are some, well, thoughts on both topics.
There are several schools of (ahem) thought on how to write thoughts and then format them in fiction writing. One is that all verbatim thoughts are formatted in italics. The second school is that verbatim thoughts can be left unformatted as long as you use a “thought” tag, for example, “she thought” at the end of the phrase. This isn’t my preferred because I struggle to get writers away from excessive dialogue tags in general.
I would say just italicize your thoughts and then forget about it, but there’s more nuanced discussion of formatting interiority here.
How to Write Thoughts Tip
Can we please put a manuscript moratorium on the following phrases:
I’m so bored, she thought to herself.
I need a cheeseburger, he thought in his head.
Of course a character thinks something to themselves. They’re the ones thinking it! They don’t think it to someone else unless they can communicate telepathically (in which case this moratorium doesn’t affect your book). Normally when someone has a thought, it is directed to his or herself. And, usually, unless there’s something creative about their anatomy, they think in their heads!
That makes logical sense to you, right? So why am I seeing so many characters thinking to themselves?! Or thinking in their heads?!
The correct thing to write would just be “she thought” and “he thought.” Or, better yet, italics and nothing at all. Simple, effective!
If ever you find this in your WIP, highlight it and then … press the delete button.
Interiority (getting deeply into the character’s experience) is the cornerstone craft concept that I teach as a novel editor. If you’d like to explore this as it applies to your project, please reach out.
“Why are you writing for children and young adults?”
This is a question I’ve had to answer frequently in my career. It got me thinking that I should write down my answer and see if anyone agrees with me!
Writing for Children — a Way to Keep Learning and Growing
As most adults grow older, it seems that their world narrows. Doors and windows, possibilities and opportunities, that used to exist when they were kids seem to close or disappear. People make up their minds, stop learning, evolve more slowly or not at all. On the other hand, growing up is all about change. Ideas aren’t set in stone, minds change every day, people explore the world before forming their opinion of it.
Young adulthood is such an engaged and dynamic time in someone’s life. Writing for children and young adults is a way to hand them a road map; a way to help them through the volatility. I also know that if I keep my imagination there, my world will never narrow. I’ll never stop learning and growing, and that’s exactly the kind of life I want to live.
Writing for Children — My Story
My young adulthood is a prime example of this. I immigrated to California from Moscow when I was seven, essentially leaving one childhood behind. To this day, I feel like the ten years afterward, from age seven to seventeen, were some of my most significant. Not only did I have to come into my own as a young adult, but I also forged an identity, juggling between my Russian heritage and my future as an American. Twice the growth, twice the change.
It was such a rich, painful, life-altering time and that’s why writing for children and young adults is important to me… to capture and share those moments. To keep their memory alive in my life because that’s one of the only links I have to my first childhood and the first girl I was, the one that’s still intact somewhere, flying on a rickety Aeroflot plane over Siberia, on her way to a new life.
Are you writing for children or young adults? Hire me as your children’s book editor and I’ll help you polish your project so it’s the best it can be.
More writers should be wondering how to write action scenes. Because the more action sequences I read, the more I’m convinced that they’re the Achilles’ heel of even the most seasoned writer (with the exception of thriller writers, of course). Lovely and agile prose sometimes tends to fall apart when an action sequence is called for.
How to Write Action Scenes With the Movies in Mind
This is a difficult situation for writers who have to contend with an action movie world. Cinematography can do things that prose can’t. It can show us five quick moves from a martial arts sequence in the space of one second.
Take this example from page 83 of SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT*, a perfectly lovely book that came out with HarperCollins in 2008, written by Derek Landry, a screenwriter, as it happens:
He screamed and let her go and staggered back, cursing, and Stephanie rolled off the car and ran to the Bentley.
Give that sentence a coffee break, it’s been working too hard!
Action Sequence Writing Needs to Flow
As you can see, there’s a bit of conjunctivitis going on (and no, I’m not talking about pink eye, I’m talking about an overload of conjunctions). The author’s “and” addiction sends way too many images shooting at the reader and we can’t quite make a clear picture of the action. Put this sentence in a group of similar sentences and we’ll get whiplash.
Tips on How to Write Action Scenes
This is a reminder to check back on all of your action sequence chapters and run through these revision tips:
Clarity. If you hadn’t written it, would you be able to tell what’s going on? So much, well, action happens in an action sequence that clarity is of the utmost importance.
Consistency. Just because they’re in an action sequence, characters should still act and speak like themselves. They should not develop any surprising but convenient powers or skills in the heat of the action.
Sentence variety. The heavy emphasis on description in an action sequence usually means that style takes a backseat. For example, you get an entire paragraph of sentences that start the same: “He grabbed his gun… He volleyed over the wall… He slid into the driver’s seat… He skidded to a halt to smell the roses…” Make sure your sentences have structural variety. Your readers will get bored with all the “Subject verb” construction, or of any other sentence tic that you develop.
Brevity. Even if your plot calls for the longest action sequence in the world, make sure there are pauses in between bouts of action. Break it up with some snappy dialogue, let the character take a breather. No one can be an action machine 24/7, that includes the reader whose heartbeat has been (hopefully) racing for the last ten pages. Let them take a rest. Some readers are great at reading action sequences, other gloss over them (I have to admit, I skimmed most of the Quidditch sequences and the big finale fights in the HARRY POTTER series, because I am just not that great at reading action scenes and keeping all those pieces and images in my head.)
Believability. Alas, every action sequence must come to an end sometime. Make sure yours ends in a believable way. No “how convenient!” scrapes. No deus ex machina**. And don’t be afraid to let something go wrong or to let someone get hurt. There are always winners AND losers in an action sequence. Give us a taste of both.
There you have it. Now go forth and blow our action-movie-addled minds!
* This awkward action sequence aside, you should definitely read SKULLDUGGERY PLEASANT or any of its sequels if you write MG. It’s a great mix of action and adventure that appeals to girls and boys, realistic and fantasy lovers alike.
* Latin: “god from the machine.” This term refers to “a plot device in which a person or thing appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty” (nice, articulate definition from Wikipedia). This means that if something feels like a “cop out” in your book…if ane scape is too easy or too good to be true…your reader will probably think so, too, and you’ll lose credibility and authenticity points with them.
Plot and action can be hard to master in a vacuum. Hire me as your manuscript consultant, and you’ll never write alone.
Many beginning writers wonder, “How many characters in a novel?” And, unfortunately, many writers approach this question by assembling a character horde. They simply have way too many characters. Worse, they seem to always be possessed to introduce these characters in large chunks. (Ah! I’m writing a scene where my main character arrives at a new school… here are twenty new secondary characters for her to meet!)
How Many Characters in a Novel?
If you find yourself tracking your characters or having to go back and look up the name of the character you want to use…if you find yourself boasting that you keep track of your cast with a spreadsheet (and you’re not writing high fantasy)…I beg you to slash the cast list.
When you’re considering “How many characters in a novel?”, keep in mind that characters on a page are people that your reader can’t see or hear. That’s where your job comes in. Because you’ve got a pretty big barrier to reality — the character is alive only in words, your reader has never seen them and oh, yes, you made them up! — you have to work that much harder to flesh out this person and make them realistic. In real life, a person can walk down the halls at school and notice some dorky girl named Cathy in some gross penny loafers and then remember her. Or they can spot a friend from grade school that they don’t really talk to anymore and try to avoid them. In a book, the reader has a more limited attention span for these types of secondary characters. And if Cindy or the old friend don’t appear again, there’s almost no need to mention them if you don’t have to.
Valid Reasons to Introduce Characters
They’re going to be instrumental in the plot.
You want to characterize an environment by introducing us briefly to one or two of its characteristic inhabitants.
Both are totally valid. You want to introduce us to the girl who your Nerd Herd MC is going to beat out for Homecoming Queen, because she’s involved in the plot. You also want to introduce us to some of the dumb jocks hanging out in the cafeteria and throwing bananas at each other because you want to provide dumb high school foils for said MC.
Cutting or Combining Characters
If you find yourself with too many characters, ask yourself honestly if anyone in your brood can be cut or, better yet, combined. One writer friend of mine ended up combining her MC’s two best friends into one person. And she did it, because it made the book stronger in the end. The characters she’d written were too similar and served similar functions to the MC. That’s another great thing to look at. If all your secondary characters serve the same function (support main character, irritate main character, bully main character), do you really need many iterations of the same thing?
If you were to look at your manuscript with a cool, objective editorial eye, which characters could you get rid of altogether? Which characters could you combine? Nothing disorients a reader more than being introduced to three, five, ten or more new secondary characters at a time. Sadly, I’ve seen this a lot lately.
Strive for Clarity and Simplicity in Your Writing
Don’t forget that you’re the one creating characters in your story. You’ve got the added bonus of having “seen” them before. As a reader, though, we’re going in completely blind. The disadvantage of having a lot of characters is that it’s almost impossible to flesh them all out to the level where they come alive. When we’re considering “How many characters in a novel?”, I’d rather have fewer characters who are much more fleshed out and involved in the plot, than lots of secondary characters who appear for a scene or two, don’t pop up again and remind me more of furniture than of human beings.
Strive for clarity, simplicity and not to overwhelm your reader.
Struggling with when and how to add secondary characters to your work? Hire me as your manuscript editor and we’ll work through it together.
Writers, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, of all people, about dramatic arc. But maybe I will, just so we’re clear. When you’re creating a plot, dramatic arc looks like, well, an upside down check-mark, actually, more so than an arc, with the pointy part making a mountain near the end.
Benefits of Building a Strong Dramatic Arc
A large part of this nice, inverted-check-mark shape, is the sloping. As your plot points build on each other, the tension and the stakes and the action rises toward a climax. Yes? Yes. Then, after an exciting climax, things decelerate quickly and we have a satisfying conclusion.
The key point of getting that great building action in your story is that the reader is aware of what’s at stake. They know what the characters want and they know, pretty much, what is going to turn into a dangerous situation near the end. In other words, they have an idea where your story is going and what your climax is going to be about, pretty much after the first 50 pages. Some people would ask: “Doesn’t this make your novel predictable?”
No. A strong dramatic arc gives the reader something to fear, something to anticipate, and something to care about. And if they know what could possibly be at stake and what kind of danger could possibly transpire, they’ll be that much more eager to read and find out exactly how it all goes down for the characters that they’ve grown to empathize with.
The One Thing You Never Do
This brings me to the one thing you never do in a manuscript (there might be more of these, but so far, this is the high and exalted One Thing).
Do not introduce plot points (an event or person or thing or consequence) in the last 50 pages (or so) of your manuscript if that event/person/thing/consequence will become instrumental to the climax. (The only viable exception to this is introducing a villain who has, up to this point, remained hidden or shadowed or otherwise dark and creepy.)
Ideally, the same stakes and goals and characters and threats that you build into the dramatic arc from the very beginning of the manuscript should be the forces involved in the climax. The whole point of the climax is that you bring everything that you’ve worked so hard developing and making irresistible together…and that comes from the reader having spent a whole book with these things and really, really caring about what happens to them.
Why to Avoid the One Thing
If you introduce plot points a few pages away from the climax and hinge the climax on that thing, you’re going to lose some readers because they simply don’t care. For example, if your dramatic arc has been building up to a battle for the main character to avenge their father’s death for the whole book, then you interrupt the story ten pages before the battle with some bad guys who burst on the scene and want to steal the Magical Decanter of Shmegoo (that we’ve never heard of before in the book, or only heard in passing once or twice) and then make the battle about the Decanter instead of the hero’s father, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
By all means, introduce new complications, villains, conflicts as your book develops. But don’t introduce something that becomes instrumental in the climax near the end of the book and expect us to care about it. More often than not, your readers will be let down in a big way.
Is your plot flowing the way it should? Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll give you hands-on plotting advice.
Sometimes a writer forgets that their characters have pasts and futures, just like all of us do. There’s not an hour goes by that I don’t, personally, think about something in either the past or the future. It can be something mundane or something huge that I’ve either lived through or am dreaming about.
A lot of the time, especially when I’m writing a first draft or an early revision, I forget that my characters must be like this, too.
Every character must feel the weight of the past, present and future at every moment.
Not in an overbearing or obvious way, of course. Please don’t take this as free license to write something like:
Just sitting in chem lab, Judy felt ready to explode: not only was her embarrassment at the audition yesterday still fresh in mind but the callbacks would be tomorrow! To top it all off, her stomach rumbled so loudly that people all the way across campus could probably hear it.
But there is something compelling about keeping all three of these balls in the air at the same time. A lot of manuscripts suffer from a lack of tension. There’s not a very clear feeling of what is at stake in the moment. Sometimes, adding a past and mixing it with over the future just might be the ticket to increasing tension.