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How to Approach a Literary Agent and Interpret Submission Guidelines

This answers a question that both Haylee and Siski asked a while ago, about how to approach a literary agent when you’ve got several projects kicking around your desk, and what to make of submission guidelines. Lots and lots of writers have multiple projects that they’ve completed. This is even more true for picture book writers, who may have 20 or more manuscripts. If this is the case for you, read on.

how to approach a literary agent, submission guidelines, how to get published, children's book publishing, query letter
Wondering how to approach a literary agent and what goes into the envelope? The submission guidelines are a great place to start.

How to Approach a Literary Agent When You Have a Lot of Ideas

The problem is, if they are beginning writers, those 20 manuscripts likely have some of the same issues. If I look at a manuscript that someone has queried me with and it lacks a strong character, for example, or a strong plot, or the voice is wrong, or there’s a lack of active language, or there’s no scene setting, seeing that the author has 19 more, hot off the press and ready to go, isn’t going to be a draw for me. Plus, if a writer is sending me that much, they’re not following submission guidelines. If they were all written around the same time, or even before the one I’m looking at currently, they’re likely suffering from the same issues as the first manuscript. (Querying multiple projects is quite a problematic way of how to approach a literary agent to begin with. Learn why.)

Every time you sit down to write, you are getting better. You’re learning. Sometimes it takes writing an entire novel-length manuscript to teach you a valuable lesson about your own craft. And sometimes, that lesson won’t get published. Sometimes, in fact, it takes five manuscripts, ten manuscripts, twenty, for you to feel your way around the novel form. The same is true for picture books. In fact, it’s even more true. Picture books are deceptively simple and it is awfully hard to make a great one. Lots of people think otherwise, and happily churn out an entire slew of drafts. I think it’s more reasonable to see your early work and your early, prolific output as more of an exercise rather than a finished product. As such, I don’t want to see all of your exercises in my inbox. Per my submission guidelines, I want to see your single stronger project at first any way. Some practice is better left for your eyes only.

Submission Guidelines for Prolific Writers

If you get the itch to query and you’ve got multiple projects, query  with your absolutely strongest one. I read thousands and thousands and thousands of queries and manuscripts. I can tell where an author is from looking at their work. Not every project — especially not the ones you wrote when you were still beginning and figuring things out — will sell. Show me only your strongest work. If I’m considering taking you on, I’ll be asking about your future projects and what else you have in mind, since those will more likely be even better. I will very rarely say, “Hey, do you have any problematic drawer novels I can sell?” unless you are a 12 out of 10 genius. Wondering how to approach a literary agent? With your best work, period.

Agents really dislike it, actually, when people send a stable of their work on first contact. I wish that was featured in more submission guidelines. Pick the best one. If I want to see more, I’ll ask. This is especially pertinent to picture book authors. If I like the project they query with, I always want to make sure they have at least two more that I love before I take them on.

Bonus Tip: If you query an agent and get rejected, wait at least 6 months before querying them — of anyone — with a different project. Some submission guidelines even say that. Per my thinking above, the new thing you send me is most likely going to have the same issues that I noticed when I just rejected your first project. If you send out a project and it garners lots of rejections and little personalized or positive feedback, the cure isn’t jumping back into querying with a different project. The smarter thing to do would be to go back to the drawing board for a while and work on craft.

If you have a lot of projects on your plate, let me help you zero in on the ones with the most potential, especially you picture book writers. I guide writers through bigger picture questions all the time as a book editor.

Why Good Writing Gets Rejected

I know you’re all wondering, dear blog readers, so here we go — I’m going to address why good writing gets rejected. It has happened many times that I get a great story, full of believable characters, with good voice, and one that’s well-written. Sometimes I jump all over it and offer representation. Other times, though, I hesitate. These end up being the most difficult decisions for me. Why do I hesitate? Because this is the thought in my head: I really like this, but can I sell it? This, my friends, is why manuscripts get rejected — even when agents love them.

why good writing gets rejected, why manuscripts get rejected
Why good writing gets rejected: even if it’s good, does it have market viability?

In other words: Is there a larger market for this? What do I think? Will publishing houses agree with me and buy this?

Why Good Writing Gets Rejected: Is There a Market for Your Story?

And this is a very difficult thing to say for sure. TWILIGHT was rejected by a dozen or so agents because, I bet, most people didn’t see a market for teen vampire romance. They were wrong. Very wrong. This is one reason why manuscripts get rejected — the inability to predict unpredictable market trends. If agents had crystal balls, Stephenie Meyer’s first manuscript would’ve been snapped right up.

Since I don’t have a crystal ball, I talk to editors and read publisher catalogs, follow publisher and librarian blogs, read industry publications, go to trade shows, the whole shebang. I also stop into every book vendor I see (from the neighborhood indie to big box stores to the airport) to browse and see what books are on the shelves there (what books that store is selling and keeping in stock because that store sees demand for those books). I see what queries I’m getting in and listen to rumors about the next big thing. Even with all this research, I don’t know everything that will succeed in the marketplace. Some books that I’m sure will sell, don’t. Other books that I’m iffy on, go to auction.

Even if I Love a Manuscript, My Job is to Sell Books

The most I have is an educated guess, a passion for the project and a gut feeling. It’s persuasive but not guaranteed. That’s what makes the “why good writing gets rejected” question so difficult. Even if I love it, there’s still a voice in the back of my head: “Can I sell this project? Is there a market for it?” When my gut and my market knowledge tells me “no,” I tend to waffle and put the rejection off anyway. Because it is — technically — a good book, and I don’t want to let a talented writer go. But it’s that last detail of selling it to a publisher and eventually getting it into the hands of readers (you know, my job) that prevents me from taking on every single good book that comes into my inbox.

A Different Agent Might Connect with Your Story

The great thing is, there are many agents with many different sensibilities. So if you’re trying to crack the code around why manuscripts get rejected, the answer might be to just query another agent. There are the types of (sad) agents who passed on TWILIGHT because they didn’t think they could sell it. Then there’s the one who took it on and is very much enjoying that decision. When I see a good book but decide that I can’t personally see a way to pitch it or imagine which editors will love it and buy it, there’s another agent out there who probably can.

It really does come down to that with the most difficult rejections I make. At those higher levels, the deciding factor regarding why good writing gets rejected is the fit and the passion. The projects I end up taking on are those that I’m 100% passionate about and think I can sell to publishers. A writer deserves nothing less from their representation. If I reject a great project, it’s usually because I’m not feeling confident and creative about the selling part. Someone else, though, might feel completely differently. (For more on this topic, check out my post on how to write a book that sells.)

Now, that’s not to say that I’m hot to reject the next TWILIGHT. If anyone has that kicking around, please do send. 🙂

When you hire me as your novel editor, I’ll push you to produce a piece of work that balances emotional resonance with commercial appeal.

Creative Writing Revision Exercises

Here are some creative writing revision exercises that’ll help those of you wondering how to rewrite a novel. Grab your red pencil and read on!

creative writing revision exercises, how to rewrite a novel
Want to know how to rewrite a novel? Sharpen that pencil and dig into these creative writing revision exercises.

Creative Writing Revision Exercises to Strengthen Character

100 Declarative Sentences

This is a great brainstorm tool, and it’s really hard. This creative writing revision exercise works best with a character or a setting that’s giving you difficulty. Maybe your critique group thinks it’s thin or flat or unconvincing, or it just doesn’t feel right to you. Concentrate on this place or this person and write 100 declarative sentences about her, him or it. Sounds simple, right? Well, it really calls into question how well you know what you’re writing about. A declarative sentence is just an informative sentence that states a fact. Let’s say I have a character called Claire who isn’t working for me. I would start my list:

  1. Claire plays JV tennis.
  2. Claire likes to eat ice cream but only after she wins a game.
  3. Claire wishes she had long hair like Abby does.

Etc. etc. etc. A lot of it will feel like you’re just riffing. You’re making things up. You’re improvising. But you’ll come up with some great surprises, like quirks of a character that you never thought of. Then, around sentence 80, you will feel like you will never finish this stupid exercise. And you will hate me. And you will probably give up and watch some TV. So it goes. But the point here is that you’re thinking of the place or person as something real. Declarative sentences are simple and informational. It will force you to think about things you haven’t been considering yet.

Who knows if you will use all of the 100 things you come up with? But the truth and beauty of fiction always lies in the specifics. Here, you have an opportunity to come up with specifics, quirks, tidbits and other things that will flesh out your character or setting and make them seem more real, more significant. Some of my favorite details about a character or place, the ones that stick with me long after the book is over, are small things like this. That Claire has the purple nail polish chipped off the big toe on her left foot. That Bellmeadows, the town where Claire lives, has three car dealerships but no gas station. Character and setting are in the details. Force yourself to come up with some. You’ll get maybe 10 or 20 new things to add throughout your manuscript.

Creative Writing Revision Exercises to Strengthen Prose

Cut Boring and Ambiguous Words

In my slush pile, I get a lot of queries that use boring and ambiguous words. What do I mean? Here’s an example (an amalgamation of all that is bad, one it has pained me deeply to write):

Johnny learns a mysterious secret at the beautiful Temple of Adventure that will change his life forever. Shadowy conspirators push him into a meaningful choice — and there’s no going back. When Johnny is faced with the truth, dangerous circumstances propel him to a thrilling and exciting climax that will leave readers begging for more.

Huh? What? What is this book about? All I have are general words that are meant to hype me up but they’re all fluff. Just like a booming announcer’s voice during a movie trailer that’s trying to tell me a story, it’s all dazzle and no substance. There are some words that are so general that they mean nothing. Or they mean different things to different people. What one person finds “beautiful” or “thrilling” isn’t the same across the board. Using some in a query or manuscript is okay, but I’m seeing a lot of paragraphs that resemble the above. If I read a paragraph full of generalities and ambiguous words, I really have no idea what your plot is. Plot is made up of specific events, not hot keywords. Avoid these words in your query and in your manuscript. Specifics are key. What does “beautiful” look like to this character? How does that character react uniquely to something “exciting”? Use instances where you’d normally use a boring or ambiguous word as an opportunity to show us something about the characters you’ve created. Striking out these blah words also goes a long way toward adding to voice.

Eliminate Filters

Filters are phrases like “I think” and “I see” and “in my opinion” that dilute your prose. They’re most noticeable in first person but appear in third person, too. For example, it’s a lot more wordy to say, “I saw a dog bounding across the lawn,” than, “A dog bounded across the lawn.” Obviously, the narrator saw it, or they wouldn’t be describing it for the reader. Same with, “I thought her hair looked stupid.” That’s weak compared to, “Her hair looked like a skunk had set itself on fire.” The “I thought” and “I saw” just lessen the impact of what follows. Of course, you’re allowed to say things like, “I thought I saw a ghost,” if they’re important to your plot, but try and weed filters out of your ordinary prose. Tangentially, one of my biggest pet peeves is when writers put: “… blah blah blah, I thought in my head.” Yes. Obviously. What else do you think with? Your elbow?

Reading Aloud

As many readers have mentioned in comments, a nifty trick for how to rewrite a novel is reading your manuscript aloud. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, you sometimes lose your voice doing it, but you catch so many things you never would’ve caught before. My favorite thing to do — during workshop and critique sessions — is to actually have another person (or, you know, if you’ve got such a patient person at your disposal at all times) read your manuscript or parts of it to you. This is extremely instructive. You hear it in another voice (one that’s not inside your head) and you get to see where you reader stumbled or seemed to get caught up in certain sentences. You get to see if another voice makes the prose come alive (which means it has voice of its own) or if it lies flat on the page and makes your reader start droning. Very useful stuff!

More Resources for How to Rewrite a Novel

The above are just a few creative writing revision exercises that you can use. There are literally millions of writing exercises, books, methods and other authorities that you can study on the subject. I’ll name some of my favorites in my next post (and the last for Revision-o-Rama, boo!).

In the meantime, you can find more creative writing revision exercises in previous blog posts. Here’s a post about how to avoid writing cliches, and here’s another post about a nifty novel revision tip. Feel free to leave your hot tips and brainstorming ideas in the comments.

Feeling stuck on your WIP? Need help with how to rewrite a novel? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll offer a fresh perspective on your work.

Writing Imagery, Theme, and Description

There are a few things I want to focus on in today’s post: writing imagery, theme, and description. They’re important considerations when revising a manuscript, but they usually come into play below the surface. Things like plot, character and dialogue are obvious, they’re right in the reader’s face.

writing imagery, thematic writing
Thematic writing: Think of theme as the lens you’ll look through as you’re writing imagery and description.

It’s the subtler things that can really make or break your work, though. And a huge part of revising is seeing what common threads and themes you’ve left for yourself. It’s like magic. Your subconscious usually puts lots of things in your manuscript for you to find on a second or third read… connections you never knew you’d made, common images and ideas that resonate with the larger meaning of your work, all sorts of interesting stuff.

Theme Emerges During Revision

When you revise, think about what your work is saying. You’ve got to have a reason for writing it. There should be distinct themes and ideas that you could point to as the center of your book. GRACELING isn’t just an awesome fantasy story about people with special talents, for example. It’s also about one’s place in the world, duty, honor and empowerment. Those are the ideas that Kristin Cashore weaves into the manuscript, her themes.

Once you know what these are — and you usually won’t until you’ve started revising — you can use them as a lens for when you’re writing imagery and description. This sort of fits with the point I’ll be making about developing writing voice before the month is out. A theme for your work should color everything in it, subtly, especially the descriptions. If you’re working with a theme and a plot with a lot of loneliness in it, settings aren’t “empty,” they’re “desolate,” which has a much stronger resonance with the themes you’ve set out to play with. When you’re working on thematic writing, look at all your descriptions and characterizations through the lens of the bigger idea you want to work with.

Theme as a Lens for Writing Imagery and Description

The next time you’re reading a really well-written book, think about how the author is writing imagery, description, metaphor, all of those fancy-pantsy literary devices that usually crystalize during revision. I bet all of the author’s prose seems to just fit with the plot and the theme of the work. In writing, everything is a choice. When you get to the really fine-tuning work of a fifth or sixth pass revision, you’re looking for all the little places where you can make the right choice. If you’re setting up a scene where a person is alone in their snowbound house, you wouldn’t say that a “boisterous” wind rattled the windows, you’d maybe say, “a pang of wind made the glass shiver,” or whatever.

Everything has to fit. From the way you describe a scene to the verbs you use to the seemingly-innocuous metaphor you choose for your character’s frame of mind at the moment. I hate putting labels on it like “theme” or “message” (because you really don’t want to be teaching anyone stuff with your thematic writing, readers, especially kids, don’t cop to that sort of thing) but there really should be something larger at work, something subtle but everpresent, in your novel. It’s in revision that it gets teased out and crafted. Every sentence should ring with it… whatever it is that you want your reader to feel and experience as they’re moving through your story.

Watch Out for Purple Prose

In that same vein, don’t overload on the literary stuff either. Don’t go crazy with metaphors and similes to the point where every sentence has a “like” or “as” in it. And don’t go crazy with description, either. Those days when readers indulged in long, lavish scene-setting and endless purple prose are over.

When you’re writing imagery and description, you want to get the job done quickly and economically. I like to tell people that the best writing comes from very specific, extremely well-chosen details. Let one or two perfectly-picked specifics do the work of paragraphs. Isn’t it enough for me to say, “Dinah saw that her thong was sticking out past the waistband of her jeans, blushed, and pulled her pants a notch lower,” for you to get what Dinah’s about as a character? I don’t have to describe her push-up bra or skimpy tank top or hooker heels or the silver cross nestled ironically in her cleavage… you get it right from the thong-flash.

So when you’re working on thematic writing, make intelligent choices that fit the larger goal of your work. Think like an MFA student for a day and make sure your images and descriptions match your theme. Cut out blocks of description and replace them with well-chosen details. See if you can’t make your writing tighter and more effective, sentence to sentence, page by page.

When you hire me as your book editor, we can create a customized plan to achieve your writing goals. Do you want help fine-tuning your thematic writing? Let’s work on it together!

How to Create a Story: Write a Million Bad Words

If you want to learn how to create a story, all you need to do is write a million bad words. Easy, right? There are so many different iterations of this advice that I don’t quite know which genius began it all. I’ve heard it personally from Scott Westerfeld and Barry Lyga and Ally Carter and, hell, pretty much everyone. But the brunt of it is this: in order to get published or anywhere near publishable, you’ve got to write about a million bad words.

how to create a story, million bad words
Better fill up on that coffee because you’ve got seven figures of words to churn out as you’re learning how to create a story!

Why Writing a Million Bad Words Makes Sense When You’re Learning How to Create a Story

That’s right. A million of ’em. Only after you write a whole bargeload of BS will you a) start to recognize what’s good and b) start getting a handle on how to create a story. Yes. Start. Don’t open a Word doc, type until the word count reaches 1,000,000 and expect words 1,000,001+ to magically be Newbery-worthy prose. After a million bad words, Young Grasshopper, you will truly be ready to begin.

Hey, no grumbling! No “but I’m special and the exception to the rule” allowed! If you’re not published yet, you’ve still got work to do, my friend. If writing a great novel was an easy task, nobody would be pining away in offices or waiting tables. They’d all be sitting around in coffee shops, bent over their laptops. Getting published is not for everyone, not everyone will attain that goal, and it really has to be earned.

Fire Up the Writing Machine

Ally Carter has a great analogy for what it’s like when you’re learning how to create a story: a garden hose that hasn’t been used in a while. Think about your own backyard. If you’ve got a pretty old hose there that’s been sitting through the fall and the winter, you’ve got to flush out all the leaves and gunk and spider webs first. When you turn on the water, it’ll be full of dirt. You have to get all of that out before the water can run clear.

That’s just what you’re doing when you begin your writing practice. By writing a million bad words, by turning on that garden hose and waiting for the pristine water, you’re getting all the bad story ideas, the flat characters, the predictable plot arcs, the cliches, the boring descriptions, the bad jokes, the overblown hyperbole, the bombastic scenery, basically, the crap, out of your writing system. (Learn how to avoid cliches.)

Once you’ve drained it all away, you’re left with a more agile and intelligent writing brain that can get cracking on the good stuff. Writing is a thing to be practiced, just like everything else. Write every day. Do it diligently and without ego until those million bad words are behind you. Then write every day, diligently and without ego some more. (Need help finding time to write?) And, you know, if you’re feeling sympathetic to the Plight of the Slush, please don’t send me a sampling from that first million. I’m much more interested in words 1,000,001+. 🙂

I would love to be your fiction editor and help you learn how to create a story. I work with writers of all levels, from those who are on word one, to those who have already written a million.

Types of Rejection Letters and Query Rejection

Query rejection is still rejection, sure,  but if you stick to writing for any length of time, you’ll soon begin to see that there are some nuances to getting turned down by an agent or editor. I’m talking about types of rejection letters. There are entire gradients of rejection and, the better your work, the higher you climb up the ladder toward that “yes” that you’ve been chasing.

agent rejection, slush rejection, types of rejection, query rejection, slush pile
Sure, it’s one discouraging word, but it can mean so many things!

Types of Rejection Letters

Here are the basic kinds of query rejection I used to give as a literary agent:

Form Rejection: I reject the project but don’t give any feedback or thoughts. I will always personalize with your name and the name of your project but I don’t say anything specific about it. This is usually what I send when the writing isn’t solid enough, the voice doesn’t grab me, the idea doesn’t resonate, etc. You get one of these if your work is obviously not a fit for me, which I can tell almost immediately.

Personal Rejection: I still pass on the submission but provide general feedback. I will use this one either for a query rejection when I thought a project had promise or an easily articulated flaw or sometimes for a full manuscript that falls short of what I was hoping for. Maybe the project shows potential but isn’t right for my list — which isn’t something the writer can help. Or maybe I have thoughts on how it could be improved before I’d consider representing it — which the writer can take into account if they wish. I don’t give detailed editorial notes, however, because I think the project shows promise but might be a little too much work to get into.

Revision Rejection: The most rare and desirable of all the types of rejection letters. This is only for cases where I’ve read the full manuscript. In this situation, I’ve spent some time with the project and give the writer specific notes for revision. If they were to revise, I say, I’d love to see it again.

As you can see, there are several types of query rejection. The rule of thumb is, the more personal the rejection, the more time the agent or editor spent with your work. And the more potential and talent they see. A Personal Rejection and a Revision Rejection are like doors that are half-open to you. (Here’s something else to consider when faced with a revise and resubmit query rejection.)

See Query Rejection as an Opportunity

You can turn the two more personal types of query rejection into opportunities. An agent who sends you a Personal Rejection would probably be up for seeing your next project. An agent who sends you a Revision Rejection would probably be enthusiastic to see another version of your current one. Especially if they took the time to give notes. In the grand scheme of things, this is relatively rare, so definitely don’t file it away as a simple “pass” and move on.

So keep querying and keep racking up those rejections. If you find yourself getting mostly Personal or Revision Rejections, that hard-won “yes” might not be too far behind.

Feeling unsure about your query letter, synopsis, or manuscript? Hire me as your freelance editor and we can work on your submission materials or dig deeper into your picture book, novel, or non-fiction proposal together.

Writing in Different Genres or for Multiple Audiences

I got a great question about writing in different genres the other week from Gisele:

I had a random thought this morning–do agents typically prefer to represent writers who write in multiple genres (like YA, MG, picture books, etc.) or authors that focus on one or two? Are there advantages or disadvantages to writing in different genres or sticking to one? Or, does the issue depend on the agent?

writing in different genres, writing in multiple genres, multiple genres, writing for multiple audiences
If you write for multiple genres, you may have more career juggling to do.

Writing in Different Genres as a Career Path

As an agent, considering a client’s career trajectory is part of the job. We make sure the author has the kind of career they want, we help them choose their next projects, we position them in carefully chosen ways to editors and houses.

I know that a lot of writers want to write in multiple genres or for more than one audience within the juvenile market. Luckily, kidlit lends itself well to this. In adult publishing, it’s harder to go from a hard-boiled mystery, say, to nonfiction investing “how to.” In children’s, it’s a bit easier to transition from middle-grade to picture book to YA, if your voice is flexible enough and you’re familiar with the particulars of each audience.

There are about as many different answers to Gisele’s question, however, as there are agents. Some people believe that a writer should stay with one market audience and establish themselves with a few books before switching. This type of agent will argue that John Green, for example, who has published four contemporary/realistic YA novels, can now switch to another market. There’s a lot of good rationale here.

A writer should consider writing at least two books in a row for one audience before switching markets and writing in multiple genres. The benefit of this is that you’ll establish a readership and build a reputation. Once you’ve got a foundation in one market, you’ll start getting a sales record, too, and it will be easier to attract a publisher for that picture book you’ve always wanted to write. (If you’re having trouble identifying your genre or category, start here.)

How to Pull Off Writing Multiple Genres

Others don’t see the harm in diversifying. Some suggest market-hopping openly, others might suggest a pseudonym. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t spread yourself thin over too many houses and that you don’t compete with yourself. That means, you shouldn’t sell two fantasy MG novels to two publishers and have them both come out the same season, for example, or any other countless permutation of this scenario. As long as your publishers are happy with your schedule and the variety of projects you’re doing, you’ll be okay.

Personally, I’m happy to work with someone who wants to diversify. At the point where we’re planning career strategy, it really will go on a case by case basis. It’s very difficult to generalize about this. The one constant with everyone who writes across markets, though, is the talent and aptitude to do so. If a writer has a truly excellent picture book and an amazing YA that they want to bring to market, what could possibly be stopping them? Surely not me.

It will be a bit more challenging to sell to multiple publishers for multiple markets right from the beginning, sure. Even if you have sold one or two books already, those books aren’t out yet and you haven’t established a sales record for prospective future publishers to consider. And each time you pick a new market, you’re basically starting from scratch in terms of the money they’ll offer, especially when you’re at the beginning of your career. But such are the growing pains at the start of every journey.

If you want to start diversifying right from square one in multiple genres or establish yourself and then branch out, I will personally welcome the adventure of charting the exact career path you want. For every published writer, though, their career path and the markets they break into will be on a case by case basis between them and their agent.

Have diverse writing interests? My editing services cover many different genres and categories, from children’s book to memoir to fantasy.

Contemporary Young Adult Literature That Pushes Boundaries

I recently read two contemporary young adult books back to back: Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR (Bloomsbury, September 29, 2009) and Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE (Delacorte, September 22, 2009). Both books are similar in that they blur the line of “reality” and leave the reader wondering what really “happened” and what didn’t. The reason for the gratuitous quotation marks (lest anyone accuse them of being unnecessary) is: this is fiction. Technically, none of it is real.

contemporary young adult, realistic ya, postmodern ya, metafiction in ya
Reality has a different flavor, more layers of experience and a faster tempo right now than it ever has before, and realistic YA is changing to reflect this.

Questioning Reality

But even with fiction, the reader tends to assume that most things they read are true. Just like Micah says in LIAR, people expect truth, they need it. They want to believe. Similarly, readers want to believe a narrator, especially a first person one.

That’s what makes an intentionally unreliable narrator like LIAR’s Micah so challenging and so delicious. She revels in the falsehoods she spins, sometimes with (dubious, perhaps) apology, oftentimes without.  In the case of Cameron, from GOING BOVINE, his unreliability isn’t necessarily a choice, seeing as his brain is quickly deteriorating from the variant Creutzfeltd Jakob virus, or mad cow disease. Nonetheless, his view of the world is extremely skewed. Both narrators spend their arcs in the messy gray area between what might be happening in a realistic, linear plot and what they insist is the true story.

Contemporary Young Adult Lit and Postmodernism

Two such similar contemporary young adult books coming out in the same month makes me think that we might be entering a new phase of postmodernism in realistic YA literature. These books don’t just tell a story, they comment on the medium of the storytelling, on the life inside the story and outside of it, on reality itself, for both the characters and the reader. Postmodernism, in terms of literary criticism, refers to art that is self-conscious, self-referential. Metafiction, also at play here, means fiction that never lets the reader forget that they’re reading something somebody made up.

Evolution of Realistic YA

I think these books are an important bit of evolution, especially when I consider the young adults who will be reading them. The question of what reality is posed here is apt for teens growing up today, whose reality is augmented by technology, the Internet, social networking and virtual worlds that seem to nestle within each other like stacking dolls, among many other things. Reality has a different flavor, more layers of experience and a faster tempo right now than it ever has before, and contemporary young adult literature is changing to reflect this.

Every art form has a moment when it begins to fold in on itself and comment on the established tropes, the form, the function of its ancestry. I think this point has arrived for contemporary young adult literature — at least for the rich and extremely meaty incarnation of the genre that has developed into a market powerhouse over the last ten to fifteen years. More so than before, this fall and books like LIAR and GOING BOVINE seem to be leading the charge. I’ll be very curious to see if more and more boundary-bending, metafictional YA starts to emerge. Also, I can’t wait until reactions from teen readers pour in. I want to know whether or not these stories will resonate with a generation that gets more and more postmodern, that seems to press against it like a plane nosing the sound barrier, with every passing every nanosecond.

Are you working on realistic YA? YA is my favorite category to edit, and I’d love to be your young adult editor.

Writing Clichés to Avoid: Using “Suddenly” in Your Manuscript

Using “suddenly” in your manuscript falls under the category of writing clichés to avoid. There are tons of writing adages out there along the lines of “Show don’t tell” that you’ve no doubt heard your old creative writing schoolmarm repeat hundreds of times.

But unless you know what they’re really saying and what they really mean, though, these cheerful mottoes can’t help you. Today, I want to fire off some thoughts on words to avoid in writing fiction — especially “suddenly.”

writing cliches, words to avoid in writing fiction
Words to avoid in writing fiction: Suddenly, a chameleon appeared!

Using “Suddenly” in Creative Writing Is a Cheap Crutch

“Suddenly” is one of those words to avoid writing in fiction because it’s a crutch. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s a writing cliché. Lots and lots of writers pepper their manuscripts with it because then they don’t have to worry about writing transitions, describing actions or giving the reader any context. They just slap a “suddenly” on to an event or feeling and voila! It fits!

Except it really doesn’t. A reader’s job is to react and infer and analyze what is going on in a manuscript or book. When we’re faced with “suddenly,” it’s like a power surge. Our system is scrambled. Something suddenly comes on the scene that takes us by surprise, whether it is a plot twist, an action, a feeling or a thought. And that’s fine. We react. We try to understand what the new development means. If it is an emotion, we try to fit that into the character and situation. We do our job.

The problem is, though, that a writer who leans heavily on the “suddenly” crutch usually thinks that “suddenly” is enough. They wallop the character and the reader with something and then move on. We don’t get a reaction from the character, we don’t get the feeling explained, we don’t see a lot of context. The “suddenly” has been used to shoehorn something into the narrative without much regard for how well it fits.

Examples of When “Suddenly” Works and When It Doesn’t

For example:

Suddenly, a big slimy alien burst out from behind the wall.

Reader’s reaction: Jarring, but okay. Hopefully there are aliens elsewhere in this book and this isn’t the first one we see. It’s still a writing cliché, but it’s not as egregious as the following example:

A rage overtook her and she suddenly punched him square on the nose.

Reader’s reaction: Whoa! Wait. They were just kissing. Where did that come from? Why?

As you can see, “suddenly” is usually a treasure map of lazy writing. When you come across “suddenly” in your own work, you’ve likely found a section of the narrative where you could’ve given more context, more reasoning, more explanation. Let’s rework one of our examples:

She pulled away from him and looked deeply into his eyes, only to catch him staring blankly at the TV over her shoulder. The rage that overtook her was so intense that she sent a fist flying straight for his nose.

Context Is Key When Evaluating Writing Clichés

At least now we understand her rage (even if we think she might be overreacting just a liiiiittle bit). So take a look at your manuscript for words to avoid in writing fiction. Are there any places where “suddenly” is standing in for something that could be expanded, deepened? That could be given some more meaning and context? It’s not the word itself that’s bad, it’s what it does with the reader’s understanding of your work.

If you’re finding writing clichés in your manuscript, bring me on as your novel editor. I will give you actionable revision challenges to help you take your work to the next level.

Crafting Exciting Prose by Writing Good Sentences

Writers who have mastered the craft of writing good sentences are a blast to read. It almost seems like magic. Your eyes just can’t stop hopping along from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, one page to the next.

writing good sentences, qualities of good writing
One of the qualities of good writing is making intentional choices about each and every sentence.

Crafting Exciting Prose By Writing Good Sentences

How do they do it?

Let me wager a guess: writing good sentences. Among other things, of course. But that’s right: sentences. The building blocks of prose, sentences are one of the crucial qualities of good writing.

A lot of beginning writers — caught up in plot and dialogue and characterization and description — sometimes lose sight of writing craft at the sentence level. Here are three qualities of good writing that will make your prose sing.

How to Begin a Sentence

Beware of structuring most of your sentences in the same way. The most common one I see, by far, is the “I verb” (first person) or “Subject verb” (third person) sentence beginning.

Take a look at these two short example paragraphs:

I looked down the street, first left, then right. I didn’t see anybody so I ran left. I picked wrong, of course. I had no idea that the bad guys were just around the corner.

Or:

He grabs the book and scans the lettering etched into the leather cover: The Volume of Secrets. He sighs with wonder. It is his at last. He slips it into his pocket just as Professor Detritus appears in the doorway.

If the above paragraphs inspire a vague sense of boredom, it’s because almost every sentence starts the same: “I verb” or “Subject verb.” Let me repeat: I see this a lot. If you’re not sure how often you fall into this trap, start underlining all of your “I verb” or “Subject verb” sentence beginnings. Seeing a lot of lines? Spice up your sentence structure so they don’t all start the same way.

How Long Should Sentences Be

Length is another thing you want to take into consideration when you’re focusing on writing good sentences. I know this might sound like a no-brainer to some of you, but varying sentence length in every paragraph is a great way to keep the reader engaged. Take a look at one example:

The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Lila stood on its banks and watched the water. Anthony hitched up his horse somewhere behind her. She could almost hear his impatience.

Now compare to this one:

The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Home. Lila stood on its banks, watching familiar water burble at her feet. Behind her, Anthony hitched up his horse, the saddle hitting Lightning’s muscled back with a hard packing sound. She could almost hear his impatience.

I’ve mixed it up a bit, varying the “Subject verb” sentence beginnings, but also sentence length. We go from the very short “Home.” to a pretty long one about the horse. This keeps the reader engaged because, otherwise, their eyes and brain get lulled to sleep by sentences that look alike. Keep your reader on their toes, right down to the varied length of your sentences.

Exciting Writing Is Mimetic Writing

Sentence length is also very useful in setting tone. Make your sentence length match the mood of what you’re saying. Take a look:

Her heels hit the pavement in staccato bursts. They were after her. Five of them. Guns drawn.

Short, choppy sentences heighten tension. Alternately, long, loopy sentences have their uses:

Edward’s pale marble skin erupted in a shimmering display as soon as he stepped into the lazy beam of afternoon sunshine. A light seemed to leak from his very soul and out of his pores, like a million twinkling stars dotting the nighttime firmament, each fleck of glitter as dazzling as the next.

Martha and Whitney, that was for you! You get my drift. 🙂 So be aware of length, and you’ll be on your way to writing good sentences that enhance the tone of your work.

How to Use Punctuation

There’s not much to say about this one, really, except that sentence structure is closely tied to punctuation. Do a sentence without a comma. Then slip in a more complex sentence with a comma, several commas or (gasp!) maybe even a semi-colon.

Harnessing Your Writing Tics

Also, be aware that you might have some pet structures that you use over and over again. This doesn’t just apply on a sentence level, or a paragraph level, but on a manuscript level. Every writer has tics: pet expressions, favorite words, redundant descriptions. This applies to how you craft sentences, too.

One of my tics is this type of sentence structure, for example:

“The air tasted briny and salty and cool. As far as sunsets went, this one lit up the sky in orange, pink, and lavender.”

Using “word and word and word” and “word, word, and word” is one of my challenges as a writer. I like to describe things in threes. While using “and” sometimes instead of commas and vice versa mixes up the sentence structure, these shenanigans still litter my manuscripts.

I’m not saying get rid of your favorite way of crafting a sentence, I’m saying: be aware of it and make each choice, even on the sentence level, an intentional one. Remember: One of the qualities of good writing is making intentional choices about each and every sentence.

Sentence Craft Is an Intentional Choice

Repeat after me, folks:

Every sentence in my manuscript is an intentional choice!

Feels good, right? Writing good sentences is just one way to make your manuscript that much stronger. It is essential to the craft and these are just three small things to take into consideration. Have fun!

An exciting novel begins at the sentence level. Hire me as your novel editor and we will engineer great fiction together from the ground up.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com