Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

A Thank You to the English Teachers

November 25th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wIn honor of Thanksgiving (and because I haven’t come up with a new series idea yet), I thought I’d take the opportunity today to say thank you to some folks who played a big part in helping me become a person who loves words and stories and commas and gets to work with them every day; namely, my high school English teachers.

Some of you might have seen my post last year about Miss Stinson and the journals we kept for English 9, and how her encouragement and creativity and restraint in not rolling her eyes at every third word I wrote gave me a lasting sense of worth regarding my writing– not that I left English 9 thinking that everything I wrote had worth, but I left knowing that writing was something worth doing, not because of the result, but because of the process, and the freedom, and the way in which finding the right words can bring order out of chaos in the way the right words brought dry land out of the deep in the beginning. If there’s a group in greater need of a little order in the midst of personal chaos than high school freshmen, I’m not sure who they are, and we loved Miss Stinson for giving us that means of bringing some order to our chaos. (She also accidentally cussed once in class– I doubt anything could have earned our loyalty more quickly.)

Mrs. Baldwin’s love of story was more infectious than any teacher I’d ever had– even the slackers read the books for her class just so they wouldn’t be left out of the passionate (and occasionally violent) discussions about whether Our Town was boring or brilliant  or whether or not Jay Gatsby was an antihero. She connected the stories we read in American Literature to her own life and her own past, and by doing so gave us sheltered, dumb, narcissistic teenagers a vague sense of our place in the context of history, and of the reality that our experiences and our opinions and our passions were all echoes of those who had come before us. Mrs. Baldwin shocked us all by reciting “Baby Got Back” in its entirety one day, and shocked us all again by dying far too young two years later.

Mrs. Dennis taught British Literature, and I was her favorite. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit it, because my love for Brit Lit was real and completely without sucking-up motives, but I do feel a little guilty for the time I was stealthily chatting away to Joe Smith (name changed to protect the innocent) during class and Joe got in trouble even though I had totally been the one talking. Sorry, Joe. Mrs. Dennis’s shared passion for the British children’s books I loved awoke me to the joy of discovering “kindred spirits” with whom you never have to feel nerdy or obsessive when talking about books you love because they feel exactly the same way and actually are sometimes even more obsessed than you are. And in terms of the teacher who brought the most joy to my life; well, Mrs. Dennis first recommended that I read P. G. Wodehouse, so I credit her account with about a thousand laughs.

Mrs. Doyle taught advanced writing and never wrote in red pen, which I think tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the type of critic she was– like the famous rule of improv theater, there were never any “No’s” in her class, only “Yes, and _____?”; few periods, lots of question marks. Mrs. Doyle used to require us to write assignments in 100 words or less, teaching us to conserve words (a lesson which obviously didn’t stick) and make strong choices and yes, she counted every one to make sure we didn’t go over. Her beautiful handwriting came back all over the margins of our stories and poems and she was just as enthusiastic about the dumb boring gritty contemporary short stories written by some of the pre-pre-hipster guys as she was about the inevitable fantasy/Biblical-allegory epic trilogies one learns to expect from Christian homeschoolers, which many of my classmates were. Mrs. Doyle was a mirror to hold our ideas and stories up to, preventing us from stagnating and reminding us again and again that “writing is rewriting.”

I learned plenty more about writing and craft and literature after high school– honestly, I probably became a better writer in one semester of graduate-level Victorian literature than my four years in high school– but it’s to those four women in high school I owe thanks for first showing me how to be passionate about books, how stories can be life-changing and life-giving, and how the process of writing doesn’t always give the world a better book or story, but nearly always gives the world a better writer and thinker.

If you have an English teacher or writing mentor or someone you’ve learned from at some point in your writing journey who has had a profound impact on your writing, track them down and tell them thank you; knowing they’ve had a lasting influence on a student fills a teacher’s tank like nothing else. If your biggest influences are gone, honor their memories by telling someone about the impact they had on you, or better yet, go try to have that same kind of impact on someone else– there are plenty of writers in need of guidance, plenty of people who would be enriched by your experiences. And if you’re reading this and are an English teacher (or really, any kind of teacher), thank you. Thank you for inspiring a new army of thinkers and readers and wordsmiths– you’re bringing order out of chaos, dry land out of the deep. Happy Thanksgiving!
Thanks for reading! If you have any craft-related questions or suggestions for future posts, please let me know in the comments. 

Nonfiction that Stands Out

November 11th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wToday’s question comes from a nonfiction author:

“Apart from platform, how can I stand out to an agent or editor? There’s a lot of demand for books in my subject, but also a lot of similar titles already in print.”

Great question! It shows especial savvy that this author began with “apart from platform;” obviously, platform is usually one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) factor in catching an agent or editor’s interest as a nonfiction writer and it’s best to be realistic about that. That said, relatively new and non-famous nonfiction authors are published every day, and the factors that caused an agent and then editor to say yes to those authors are often the same as the answers to the question asked above, “How can I/(this project) stand out?”

The answer to this question is part knowing-your-project and part developing-your-project; in other words, there are probably ways in which your project already stands out in its field that you just need to identify and highlight in your pitch materials, and there are probably also a few ways in which your project has the potential to stand out in its field that will require you to do a little re-writing or re-framing of the manuscript or proposal. We’ll look at both.

Knowing the Stand-Out Aspects of Your Project

To identify ways in which your project already stands out, ask yourself some of these questions:

  • What is the best thing about this project? What do you do REALLY well that is obvious in your nonfiction book? Is it the writing? The easy-to-understand instructions? The unconventional teaching methods? The fun anecdotes? If you don’t know, ask a few people who have read several similar titles to read yours and tell you what stands out, what you do better than anyone else they’ve read.
  • What is the most unique thing about this project? What do you do differently from the majority of authors/titles in this field? Why is that an advantage?
  • In what way does this project target a more specific audience than the competition? If there are a lot of home improvement titles aimed at do-it-yourself-ers, how is yours tailored to a more specific segment of that readership, such as women in their 30s, or retirees, or _______? You don’t want to get TOO specific– there probably aren’t a whole lot of publishers willing to sink big money into a title geared toward Southern Baptist pastors’ wives who want to know how to remodel doghouses, just because that’s not a huge segment of the reading population, but a slightly more specific target audience puts a publicity department one step closer to getting your book in front of the people who are most likely to buy it.

Once you’ve identified all these factors, make sure they’re front and center in your pitch– if your home improvement project’s strong points are its deadpan humor, the 1970s styling of all the how-to photographs, and its target audience of trendy young professionals, you should lead with that information and be specific about those strengths– if it’s truly hilarious (let someone other than yourself or your mom be the judge of that), make that clear in the pitch rather than taking the chance that an agent will read past your undersell (“this project incorporates humor throughout”) to see for himself. Better yet, start off with an example right away– “Moustache Man brews his own beer and now he refinishes his own cabinets to the sounds of an indie steel drum folk trio on vinyl in my new how-to book, Hipsters Take on Home Improvement.”

Developing Your Project to Stand Out

If you’ve asked the above questions and haven’t found very definite answers, that doesn’t necessarily mean your project can’t stand out, only that it currently doesn’t as much as it could. To start thinking about ways you could revamp the project to stand out more without starting over from scratch, ask yourself some of these questions:

  • What is the best thing about you as a writer? As a personality? If you were just writing a blog post or an email to a friend, or if you were doing a TV segment or vlog, what would your main “draws” be? Are you funny? Extremely well-informed? A fabulous writer? A conversational speaker? Once you’ve identified the characteristics that set you and your writing apart, look at your proposal or your manuscript and brainstorm ways to incorporate those trademark qualities into a project that might otherwise be a little bland. And then don’t stop at simply incorporating them– saturate the project in those distinctive qualities so that every chapter is instantly recognizable as yours, ringing with your unique voice.
  • How could you reinvent your project so that it is purposefully more unique? Note: I said “purposefully” because it’s not much of an advantage to be unique if the thing that makes you unique is dumb or pointless– “This is the first home improvement book published in the US to teach you Italian while teaching you to refinish cabinets!” How could you reorganize or bundle your information in an unorthodox or surprising way that stands out as fresh, or appeals to a non-linear thinker, or______?, e.g., “This home improvement book shows readers how to bundle like tasks for four home improvement projects at a time so that users’ time is used to better advantage and so they can accomplish more for their time and money.”
  • What audience does your book currently appeal to, and how could you target an even more specific audience? If your current audience is “adult readers age 40-65,” take a look at your strengths, tone, differences and similarities to other titles on the market, and try to identify the most logical way to refine your target audience, perhaps to “empty nesters looking to modify their homes to live more simply.” You would then change your outline and chapter summaries to reflect this more specific audience, checking that your language and syntax match that of the median age of your reader, perhaps swapping out a few anecdotes and changing some of your examples, in addition to adding some new framing language to the introduction and chapter summaries to reflect the “living more simply” focus rather than the more generic “home improvement” theme.

As before, once you’ve revamped your project to reflect your strengths and more uniquely reach a more specific audience, include those selling points in your pitch materials– don’t be shy about telling an agent or an author exactly how this project stands out, where/why it fits in the market, and exactly who’s going to buy it. That’s the kind of new nonfiction author we notice even without a million Twitter followers.

Have a craft-related question you’d like to see answered in the blog? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading~

Ask the Agent: How do I approach someone at a conference? (and other questions)

November 2nd, 2015 | Conferences, Questions from Beginners, The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

I’ve been trying to catch up on all the questions people have sent in, so let me share a handful of queries: “When speaking with an editor at a conference, what is the best way to approach the allotted 15 minutes? Do I focus on the editor and the titles she’s worked on? Do I focus on my novel? Do I bring a one sheet?”

The best way to approach your time at an editorial appointment is to do some research and practice. Pitch Book CoverCheck to make sure the editor you’re meeting actually acquires books in your genre. Find out what you can about the editor’s likes and dislikes. Then practice what you’re going to say — sharing your name, your book idea, the conflict, theme, genre,and hook. Be clear and succinct, and rehearse your talk out loud, so you know what it feels like to say the words. Be ready to engage in dialogue with the editor. Dress professionally, and bring some words to show them (many like a one-sheet; I prefer the first five pages). In my view, the focus of a successful editorial appointment is your book, so think through how to talk about your book in an engaging way without sounding like just another pitch.

Another person wrote to ask, “Should I pay more attention to a literary agent’s list of authors they represent, or to their agency’s list of authors? In other words, if a Big Deal Agency has bestselling authors, how much does that mean if the agent I’m talking to doesn’t represent any of those writers?”

That’s an interesting question, since every agency tries to promote their bestselling authors. I was at Alive Communications when we represented the Left Behind series that sold 70 million copies worldwide — and while I didn’t have much of anything to do with that series, I certainly mentioned that we represented it when I was a young agent introducing myself. How much does that mean? A bit, since it means the agent you’re talking to is hanging out with successful agents who clearly know what they’re doing, even if the one you’re pitching your book to is new. That agent also gets to take your book back and talk with the more experienced people in the home office about it, so there’s certainly a benefit to working with a successful agency. But sure, you’d really like to make sure the agent you’re talking to is competent, organized, and consistent. A new agent may lack the Big Name Author you’re looking for… but he or she also may have more time to work with you in preparing your work for publication.

One writer sent this: “What would you say are the ingredients to a great novel?”

Bestselling novelist Susan May Warren and I once taught a class together on this at a conference. We said that the four hallmarks of a great novel are heroism (the protagonist does something that is considered heroic, and does it even though that type of behavior may not come naturally to them), sacrifice (the character gives up something dear to them in order to better the life of someone else), redemption (the characters go through circumstances that change them, and reveals they have become better people, having overcome past failures), and justice (good triumphs over evil). Of course, in great fiction I find that characters I care about face the big questions of life (who am I? why am I here? who is God? what is the meaning of life? who do I love and am loved by?) and make decisions that affect their lives — decisions I may or may not agree with, but which cause me to reflect on my own life. It’s that sort of reflection that allows fiction to become life-changing.

Someone asked me, “You talk quite a bit about mentors in writing and publishing. Who would you say was a mentor in your life?”

I love this question because yesterday was All Saints Day, and in the Anglican church we still talk about the saints and the people in our lives who helped shape us. So I’ll pick one: Brennan Manning. He was much more gentle than I am, and I love how he always tried to move everyone around him toward being better people. He saw faith as something real to be lived out, rather than a set of written behavioral guidelines to follow. He was aware of his own issues, but understood that his problems didn’t exclude him from the Kingdom. And he recognized that he was put here on earth – that we are ALL put here on earth – to be agents of grace, even amidst our sin and struggles. I used to be Brennan’s agent, and when I was turning 40, he shared a profound thought with me– that most people stop growing spiritually before their 40th birthday. Most guys are who they are by the time they reach middle age. So he challenged me to be a better human being by the time I was 50, and to not be satisfied with “just being okay” in my spiritual walk. Loved the man. And he was a mystic, which pleases me no end, since I think a lot of American Evangelicalism is rule-based Phariseeism, all dressed up in a white shirt and hair gel, with little concern for those who are suffering, solely focused on being “right;” and afraid of the spiritual side of faith. Brennan continually tweaked those people, but always seemed to answer them with loving, gentle grace. He left us just a couple years ago, and the two of us had lost touch, but I think the world lost one of its most powerful thinkers when he passed.

Finally, someone asked, “If you were to write a book, what would it be about?”

Well, I’ve written a number of books, but I long ago decided to set most of my own writing aside in order to work on the writing of the authors I have the privilege of representing. I do write on this blog most days, just to keep my hand in it, and I released a couple of books for working writers earlier this year (How Can I Find a Literary Agent and 101 Other Questions Writers Ask and Step by Step Pitches and Proposals). And I’ve got a plan to create a career development guide for novelists, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, plus I’ve also been stewing on some short stories about growing up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, and I have long planned to work on a book about the Great Schism of 1378 – a passion of mine for years, and one of the single most important events in the history of the church, but long forgotten by historians who prefer to focus on “war” rather than “ideas.” That’s my writing life… but it takes a back seat to my agenting life.

Got a question about writing or publishing? Send it along and we’ll try to think up an answer.

Craft and Process Lessons from NaNoWriMo

October 28th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIf the title of today’s post sounds like gibberish to you, you must not hang out with very many writers. NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is a month-long writing challenge performed by any author who wants to participate during the month of November. The concept is simple: write 50,000 words of fiction between November 1st and November 30th. What started as an exercise for a small group of writers has grown into a yearly marathon for hundreds of thousands of authors, during which they neglect sleep, work, children, spouses, and friends for a month and get a really short, messy novel to show for it.

I’m definitely not knocking NaNoWriMo; I’ve known dozens of writers who love their crazy November and the community created around pursuing such an ambitious goal in a month. Now, as an agent, I’m not exactly crazy about the influx of short, messy novels I get in January after people “polish” their NaNoWriMo projects and immediately hunt up the closest available agent’s email address, but I do think there can be some valuable takeaway for authors who participate in terms of craft and self-awareness as an artist. Whether you’re planning to officially participate in NaNoWriMo or not, the process of writing a big hunk of text in a comparatively short time can be one that leaves you a better writer at the end of it if you approach it correctly!

Adjust Your Expectations

If you go into NaNoWriMo expecting to have a finished, salable manuscript when it’s over, you are going to be disappointed. Let me say that again: If you go into NaNoWriMo expecting to have a finished, salable manuscript when it’s over, you are going to be disappointed. While the event may be called “National Novel Writing Month,” what it actually is is “National First Draft/Extended Outline Writing Month,” but “NaFirDrafExOuWriMo” has been slow to catch on. Really; unless you’re writing middle-grade fiction, 50,000 words aren’t even going to make it in the door at most publishers, and while you may be able to write more than that in your month, you still won’t have a polished, edited, revised manuscript at the end of the month. This is not a surprise to anyone reading this– any sane person (though you could argue that those who participate in NaNoWriMo aren’t completely sane) knows that the end product of that kind of pressure-cooker isn’t going to be unadulterated genius.

BUT! More than just knowing what NOT to expect from the month of intensive writing, you should go into the project with some expectations for what you WILL get out of the process– do you want really well-developed characters you can work with in more detail at a later date? Do you want to get your plot really well fleshed out and your timeline really clearly established? Do you want to work on writing stories using more dialogue, or more description? Consider creating a vision statement of sorts for your NaNoWriMo project to give yourself a clear goal or two to have in mind as you start and to help focus your writing efforts every day.

Examine Your Methods

If you don’t habitually churn out 50,000 words per month, chances are you’ll be making some adjustments to your lifestyle and schedule in order to meet that goal during November. And while some of those adjustments aren’t realistic for the long-term, you may stumble across some new methods/strategies for writing that could improve your writing life going forward. The most common complaint I hear from writers is that they can never find the time to write, much less to edit or read in their genre. Look at all the places you squeeze writing time from during NaNoWriMo and ask yourself what it would look like if you implemented those changes on small scale the rest of the year. For example, if you gain an hour of writing time each night by eating cereal for dinner every night in November instead of cooking, you could think about giving up one cooking night per week the rest of the year– four extra writing hours per month. If you beg a friend to babysit for you one Saturday afternoon so you can have five uninterrupted writing hours, consider making a monthly babysitter part of your budget the rest of the year (or trading babysitting with a friend)– five extra writing hours per month, etc.

Pay attention, too, to the ways you’re writing differently during NaNoWriMo– maybe you usually write in long blocks of time, but the tight deadline has you typing away in 15-minute sprints throughout the day, at the end of lunch breaks or before the kids get home from school. Maybe this on-and-off approach to writing keeps you immersed in your story and story universe more fully than when you only write twice a week and have to spend the first hour of your block of writing time getting back into the rhythm of the story and the world of the book. You might notice that it’s easier to ignore your inner editor/judge during the fast pace of NaNoWriMo, and that you second-guess yourself far less for the very simple reason that you just don’t have enough time– this could be a huge turning point for those perfectionists out there who can’t seem to get beyond a certain point in their manuscript or who can never stop messing with it once it’s “done.” If you can tune out the judge during NaNoWriMo and let the pressure of meeting a certain word quota push you past what otherwise might have been periods of “writer’s block” or indecision, you can learn to apply that same focus/ride that same momentum even when the clock’s not ticking.

Remember, the freedom of knowing that you definitely aren’t going to have a perfect manuscript at the end of NaNoWriMo gives you permission to take shortcuts that you can always go back and fix/flesh out later– guess what? You aren’t going to have a perfect manuscript at the end of ANY period of writing, no matter how long, so why not give yourself that same permission to settle for “good enough” in a tough moment in favor of moving ahead/getting words on paper, and then know that you can go back and hone and refine to your heart’s content?

Enjoy the Community

One of the major benefits/draws to participating in NaNoWriMo is the fact that something like 200,000 other people are participating in the process with you. There are dozens of NaNoWriMo groups and support pages online that all exist for the purpose of connecting NaNoWriMo authors with others going through the same process and giving them the means to share their progress, encourage one another, and hold each other accountable. Take advantage of this incredible opportunity to connect with many other practitioners of a normally isolated art form and see how being a part of that community changes how you write– are you motivated by the idea of being able to tell your group that you met your word quota that day? By the idea that several people are immediately going to read the new chapters you completed? Does reading other people’s work inspire you/help you to better understand your own? These are all qualities that can be replicated in some form after NaNoWriMo is over and done with– if you respond well to an accountability group/partner, find one! If you’re motivated by others reading your work right away, enlist a beta reader team. If you’re inspired by reading other authors’ work, ask to stay in contact with some of the writers whose work has been the most helpful/influential and offer to beta read for them when NaNoWriMo is over.


By putting a little thought into what you want to get out of it beforehand, and paying attention to your writing process and your successes/failures during the process, you can emerge from NaNoWriMo poorly rested and malnourished but with a stronger sense of your writing process and more self-awareness about your strengths and weaknesses. (And, of course, with a short, messy novel.)

Are you planning to participate in NaNoWriMo this year? How will you make the process more intentional in terms of improving your craft or process? What are you looking forward to the most? What challenge seems most daunting to you? Chime in in the comments! Thanks for reading.

Editing for Authors: Part 9, Writing Lessons from Editing

October 21st, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wHere we are at the final installment of my “Editing for Authors” series. If you’ve been following from the beginning, you know we’ve talked about several different editing styles and strategies and that the overall goal in employing any of them is to make your manuscript better (and by extension, more salable). Eventually, however, because there’s no such thing as a “perfect” manuscript, you’ll have to decide that it’s done and put your red pen away and send the thing off into the cruel world to make its fortune. And since, as the title of this series suggests, you are predominately an AUTHOR, once your editing duties are completed you’ll likely start working on a new manuscript in pretty short succession. And while the return to the freedom and creativity of writing can and should be a glorious change from the dictates of editing, you shouldn’t rule out the possibility that your recent editing exploits can offer several lessons to you about your writing– lessons that, if heeded, could result in that fun, creative writing process turning out a stronger, better-written first draft this time around.

For your future writing to benefit from your editing experience, you’re going to find it helpful to sort the types of edits you made into groups– did you have a lot of plot-related fixes to make? Holes, conflicts, missing information, out-of-order events, confusing timelines? What about cliche or repetitive language? Did you routinely overuse certain words or phrases? What kind of verbal clutter did you cull from the last manuscript? Attribution? Adverbs? Excessive description?

Once you’ve sorted your edits into general categories, you’ll start to be able to identify what your “weak areas” are. Obviously, everyone will make a few each of many kinds of errors/weak writing choices, but we all have certain shortcomings that are more prevalent than others, and these are the kinds of weaknesses you can hope to improve upon if you make yourself aware of them before beginning a new manuscript. Having just scrutinized your own writing with an eye for errors/weaknesses, you’re in the enviable position of having your editor voice still echoing in your ear as the creative side takes over again– by all means, let the creative side go nuts, but by going into the process with just a few guidelines from editor-you in place, you can go nuts with a better-planned plot, a clearer timeline, fewer adverbs, or a consistent verb tense and end up with a first draft that’s stronger than it would be otherwise.

Once you’ve identified two or three areas you want to try to work on while writing your next book (and limit yourself to two or three big ideas or categories– trying to keep any more in your head while writing is going to severely gum up your creativity), figure out how you’re going to keep an ear on that editor-voice when you’re in the middle of a writing frenzy that might otherwise take you down the same rambling or adverb-heavy or inconsistent path as last time. If you overuse certain words or phrases, make “taboo” cards for yourself and post them around your writing space to remind yourself to stay away from those words or phrases. If you had a lot of plot-related problems last time, consider planning out your plot a little more fully before beginning, even if you have to alter it as you go– having a clear timeline with major and minor events distributed along it in some kind of order can help you keep track of what needs to happen and in what order. And if you find yourself making changes as the muse takes over, go with them, but then update the timeline so you’re required to look ahead and behind a bit to make sure you’re not writing a problem or a plot hole you’ll have to fix later.

Did you have problems with consistent point of view or verb tense? Consider making a short checklist to be filled out for each chapter, either before or after you write it, consisting of questions such as, “Whose point of view is this written from? What tense is the story being told in? What information is the POV character missing at this point?,” so you can get in the habit of paying attention to things like POV and tense as you write rather than having to fix a bunch of inconsistencies at the end. Was your voice missing from or weak in your last manuscript? Create some voice keywords or a voice “mission statement,” or copy some passages from previous work where your voice showed through especially well, and post them around your writing space. Start your writing time each day by reading them to warm up your voice/get it in your head before you start writing.

By paying attention to the areas where you made the most fixes on the last manuscript, you can create tools and mental checkpoints that will help you focus your writing and improve on some of your trouble areas.

Thanks so much for following this series and for all the great feedback you’ve shared. I hope you gleaned a couple helpful tips for the next time you’ve typed “The end” and are staring down the barrel of a 100,000-word editing job. If you have craft-related questions or suggestions for future posts, please (please!) leave them in the comments or shoot me an email, I’m always looking for ideas for future posts!

Editing for Authors: Part 8, Editing for a Specific Audience

October 7th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to Editing for Authors, the series where I surprise myself every week by having something else to say on the subject!

I’m getting ready to wrap up the series, but before I do I wanted to talk briefly about a type of editing that differs a little from the rest of the methods we’ve been discussing but is still worth having in your “editor toolbelt,” and that is the ability to edit your manuscript with a specific audience in mind. This type of editing is different in that, while the goal of the majority of editing techniques covered so far is to make the manuscript objectively better, your goal in editing for a specific audience is usually to make the manuscript more marketable/salable to that particular audience, be it an editor/publishing house or the reader, whether or not that actually makes it a “better” book.

Let me start with the disclaimer that I obviously never advocate changing your book or compromising your message just for the sake of being more commercial or more “trendy” and that if you feel deeply convicted that certain content belongs or doesn’t belong in your book you should follow that conviction and trust that if it’s supposed to be published it will find the right publisher, etc., etc. Now that that’s out of the way, there may be times when you will want to edit your manuscript with a specific audience in mind, and yes, this may mean toning down certain elements or adding or removing others, as well as making different style or formatting choices than you otherwise might, even if there’s nothing objectively “wrong” with yours.

This type of editing is done to make your manuscript more appealing to a specific audience– in cases where you know that a certain publisher or imprint you’re submitting to has specific guidelines for length or content, it only makes sense to edit your manuscript with those guidelines in mind so as to provide that publisher with as few reasons to say “no” as possible. If you’re submitting to a line or a house that has extremely specific rules about content and length, you’re much more likely to sell a manuscript that has already been edited to meet these than you are to sell one that would require a significant investment of an editor’s time on the part of the publishing house.

This type of editing isn’t practical for every author or every submission– you’re going to go crazy trying to tailor your entire manuscript for each specific editor you pitch to (or your agent is pitching to for you), and many imprints don’t have specific enough guidelines for length or content for it to make a huge difference whether your manuscript was edited specifically for that house or not. That said, if you are pitching to a line or an imprint with very clear content guidelines or clearly established length/structure framework, it might be worth your time to research those house-or-line-specific guidelines and tweak your manuscript so it fits, even if you’ll only submit that version of the manuscript to that one house. Most authors who have found success in long-term relationships with publishing houses have done so due to their ability to really get inside the voice and brand of the imprint they’re writing for (or, to be more accurate, due to the happy intersection of their voice and brand as a writer with that of the publishing house). If you’re submitting to a house that you really feel passionate about working with and that you really feel would be a great fit for your books and your author brand, it makes sense to cast your editing eye over your manuscript with that house’s guidelines in mind. Here are some things to consider when editing for a specific publisher/imprint:

  • Does the line you’re submitting to have a strict length requirement? Most category romance has a very specific length requirement that differs slightly from line to line– the historical line word count may be a little longer than the contemporary line word count which is a little shorter than the contemporary romantic suspense line word count– etc. This is the length these lines are designed for, the length their readers expect, and the length of manuscripts they buy, so, yes, an extra 5000 words really might make the difference between a manuscript’s being accepted or not.
  • Does the line or house you’re submitting to have content guidelines? Obviously, if you’re submitting to a CBA house there are going to be varying limits to the amount/intensity of language and immoral behavior you can include in a manuscript– some houses are fine with mild language or characters who enjoy a drink on occasion, while others don’t even publish books containing “substitute” cursing or make-out scenes. (And, while rare, the reverse can sometimes be true– certain category romance lines require there to be a minimum number of sex scenes in a book– and no, what I’m saying here is not “go add more sex scenes to your book.”)
  • Does the line have formatting or structural norms you should be following? If you’re submitting to a certain imprint or line, get ahold of three or four of the line’s most recent releases and see if you notice any formatting or structural similarities you could apply to your own manuscript– do all of the recently published works from a house stick to one POV per chapter? Maybe you should, too. Do any of the romance novels in a line you want to submit to begin with a prologue? Maybe yours shouldn’t, either.

While you don’t want to undertake major plastic surgery on your book just so that it will fit the standards of one specific editor who may or may not take a second look at it, it doesn’t hurt to make a few nips and tucks to make it a little more compatible with your dream publisher.

Editing for Authors: Part 7, The Machete

September 30th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to “Editing for Authors,” the series where we guarantee you’ll be sick to death of the word “editing” by the end or your money back!

Most of the series to this point has dealt with editing that adds to or changes the manuscript– correcting grammar/punctuation, filling plot holes, honing your voice, rounding out characters, re-organizing information, etc. As important as these tasks are, however, one of the most important jobs of an editor is not only to add what’s missing, but to trim off the excess or mediocre content (“trim” here being a word which may mean “hack, chop, and/or slash away without mercy”). Being able to fix mistakes and add missing content is all well and good, but an author-editor needs to be able to recognize when the best course of action is simply to cut out a piece of text, and be mentally and emotionally prepared to do it.

Think about your manuscript like a garden. You planted every single seed in that darn thing, and watered and fertilized and sweated over it all summer, and now you feel an emotional connection to every living thing growing in there. The problem is, you mistakenly planted a bunch of weeds right alongside your flowers (or, if you’re weird, vegetables) and didn’t realize it until they were full grown and mixed in among the rest of the garden. Now, even though the weeds are choking out the flowers, you feel like you’ve invested too much hard work and time in them to pull them– okay, so it’s not the best analogy, but many authors do struggle when it comes to cutting repetitive, unnecessary, or inferior content.

It’s only natural– no one writes their manuscript thinking, “Okay, that was a great chapter; now I think I’ll write a mediocre one.” We usually like what we’re writing and think well of it, so when someone tells us our prologue is unnecessary, or we’ve put in too much description, or a certain subplot slows down the pacing too much and needs to go, our first response is usually to be defensive– “But my voice shows so strongly in that section! But I describe so well! But I love that minor character!” No author can learn to be a good self-editor without learning to harden his heart against the pleas of the clingy writer-persona and ruthlessly hack off material that weakens the overall manuscript.

“But what about my word count?” 

The first protest I hear from writers after suggesting cuts to their manuscript is almost always something along the lines of, “But my book is just barely _______ words and I’ve heard that’s the minimum for women’s fiction (or middle grade, or fantasy, or_____); if I cut all that out, it won’t fit in my genre anymore!” While it’s true that you do want to be familiar with the standard word count for your genre and stick as close to the median as you can, it’s silly to keep 10,000 lousy or superfluous words in your manuscript just so you can say it meets a certain word count. Books vary in length within every genre, so even if the “average” word count for a certain genre is 75,000, there are absolutely books being published in the same genre that are 65,000 words, or 70,000 words, or 80,000 words, so it’s just dumb to try to stick doggedly to whatever “average” is when cutting 15,000 words would make it a better book. I promise it’s better to turn in 60,000 great words than 60,000 great words plus 15,000 filler words sprinkled throughout, weakening the narrative.

Where to Start?

Obviously, you shouldn’t chop pieces out of your manuscript just so you can say you did– not every manuscript is going to need huge, 15,000-word cuts, but you ARE more likely to have extra content in your book if you are 1) a first-time novelist, or 2) writing a research-heavy genre, such as historical or non-fiction. That said, the following are some good places to start looking for excess content:

  • Prologues– often, a prologue is just backstory or history that YOU needed to know to write the story but that the READER doesn’t need to know up front– important info comes up naturally as the story unfolds, and bundling it up front just delays the start of the action. See what would happen if you axed your prologue, just for the heck of it– if you don’t miss it, get rid of it!
  • Excess information/research– just because you did a lot of research doesn’t mean it all needs to find its way into your book. Research should add depth and realism to a story organically rather than elbow its way clunkily into the narrative. Get rid of anything that doesn’t advance or enhance the story, even if it’s interesting or true or shows how smart you are.
  • Repetition– if you’ve included several similar scenes, such as driveway interactions with the crazy neighbor every time your protagonist returns home, or if your main character struggles with the same problem for an extended period of time, chances are there’s repeated content that could be excised. The reader doesn’t need to hear the main character’s doubts about her relationship every time she thinks about her boyfriend. The reader doesn’t need the same description of the crazy neighbor each time we see her. Do a good job of telling that piece of the story the first time and you shouldn’t have to tell it again with each new chapter.
  • Description– the amount of description that belongs in your manuscript varies depending on genre, but in general, less is more when it comes to description. If you start every scene by painting the setting in detail, you delay the reader’s immersion in the narrative and interrupt the momentum of the story. If you stop to describe every outfit or every room or every _______, you’re adding a lot of verbiage that slows down the story– pick and choose your descriptions, and go for shorter, more suggestive-rather-than-detailed descriptions when possible.
  • “Just for fun” writing– have you included quirky scenes that were fun to write but don’t advance the story? One or two for color is fine, but if every other scene is a crazy-cat-lady-neighbor interaction and they never go anywhere or add to the narrative, they’re weakening the book.

And yes, if you’re noticing a theme, you’re right: superfluous content can be some of the stuff that was the most fun or the most work to write– description and research– and so it can feel especially sad or wasteful to get rid of it, but if you let the ax fall on that extra fluff, your finished product will be tighter, more dynamic, and tell its story more effectively.

Thanks for following this series! I’m getting ready to wrap it up, so if you have any editing questions or strategies to share, chime in in the comments. 

Editing for Authors, Part 7: Rewriting vs. Editing

September 23rd, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to the series on editing for authors that will continue until I run out of things to say on the subject! If you missed last week’s post (which appeared on Friday instead of Tuesday), we discussed the second part of “big picture” editing: editing for consistent writing quality, and how, as a self-editor, one of the most important tools you can have is a knowledge of your own strengths and style.

Often, when editing a manuscript, whether one you wrote in a hurry or one you wrote in stop-and-start mode over a long period of time, you’ll encounter some of the aforementioned “big picture” problems– missing information has led to a plot hole, or hurried storytelling have resulted in an absence of your voice in part of the manuscript, or long interruptions/breaks in the writing process have led to an inconsistent tone, etc. Editor-you finds these flaws and makes note of them, but now you have a tricky job in front of you: if editor-you tries to fix these problems, you run the risk of the edited portion of the manuscript reading as less authentic or more bland/sterile than the rest of the manuscript, but if you let writer-you off her leash and tell her to fix things, there’s no telling what new mess she might get herself into. (After all, most of this is her fault in the first place.) How, then, do you reconcile your editing goals with your creative voice in fixing “big picture,” writing-or-story-related problems?

A good place to start is to treat your editing as if it were a job you were doing for someone else. If you’ve ever paid for (or received with a publishing deal) a professional edit, you know that the editor generally doesn’t just go through and make big alterations on his own. Sure, he’ll make a lot of little changes, usually having to do with usage/consistency/grammar, etc., depending on the type of edit being performed, but when he runs into problems of confusion or consistency or quality, he doesn’t just dive in and start re-writing your book. If there’s a plot-hole, the editor doesn’t immediately invent the missing piece of the story, he makes a note for you, the author, about why the confusion exists, what’s missing, and where he suggests changes be made or additional material be added. If he identifies a bland passage (or chapter, or couple of chapters), he doesn’t sit down and try to replicate your voice and re-write them, he makes a note for you about what he feels the section in question is missing, maybe comparing it to earlier passages, maybe noting a contradiction in tone, etc. The point is, the editing is done, the editing notes are made, and THEN the re-writing happens.

As an author who is self-editing, it’s important that you separate these two tasks when necessary. Sure, you’re going to be able to fix some things on the fly– you’ll see right away how you could adjust the tone of a scene, or a new sentence where your voice comes through more clearly pops into your head– but trying to do significant re-writes in the same moment you’ve identified the need for them is a recipe for frustration. Like I said at the beginning of this series, the ability to edit yourself usually involves a change of perspective– a shift from looking at your manuscript like a writer to looking at it like a reader, and if you’re trying to both edit and write in the same breath, you’re not going to be doing either one as effectively as you could be. If editor-you tries to do the rewrites, it’s likely that the rewritten passages won’t quite match up in style with the rest of the manuscript, whereas if writer-you tries to grab the reins back from editor-you and rewrite in the moment, you’re going to waste valuable time transitioning between personas/perspectives and your editing will suffer as a result of the split energy.

Instead, write those editing notes to yourself as if a different person was going to be reading them. Make comparisons or suggestions, give yourself reminders to use as a jumping-off point when you go back and rewrite, but stay focused on the editing from beginning to end. A big part of being a good editor is being able to look at the work as a whole rather than getting tunnel-vision at one part or fixated on one passage; make your notes and keep going so you get a feel for the work as a whole and better understand, as an editor, what changes are needed or what pieces are missing. (This is another argument against rewriting as you go; a rewrite made in the moment might create a new problem later in the manuscript– waiting for editor-you to edit the whole manuscript and make suggestions/notes based on the big picture ensures that your rewriting supports the book as a whole rather than weakening a different part of it.) Then, as a writer, you can take the notes you made for yourself during editing as a roadmap and dive back into the writing process to your heart’s content, getting as immersed as you need to to capture your original voice or get back into the momentum of the story, but with the voice of editor-you in your ear steering you toward where you need to end up or what needs to happen. The more distinct your editor and writer personas, the better each will be at her job.


Thanks for following this series! If I haven’t covered an aspect of editing you’d like to talk more about, or if you have any questions I can address as the series continues, please leave a comment and let me know. 

Editing for Authors: Part 6, Know thyself, edit thyself

September 18th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on editing for authors. This week, we’re continuing the discussion begun last time on the developmental editing process. As I said in part 5, the purpose of a developmental edit can be boiled down to two goals: to make the manuscript coherent in content and consistent in writing quality.
Consistent quality can obviously speak to a myriad of different aspects of your manuscript– punctuation, grammar, sentence construction, voice, dialogue, storytelling, etc. all contribute to the overall quality of your manuscript, but since we’re talking about developmental editing, we know we’re looking at quality in a big-picture sense– the overall way you put together your stories and your overall writing ability. Elements that contribute to this big-picture quality include a consistently strong writing voice, effective storytelling (through good dialogue and and strong characters), and an identifiable tone throughout.
While editing for coherence can be a challenge because of your extreme familiarity with and knowledge of the story/material, editing for consistent quality can be difficult for the opposite reason– many writers, especially those who’ve only written a few manuscripts, don’t have the self-awareness necessary to first identify their voice, storytelling strengths, and tone, much less the ability to edit to improve these. One of the first questions I ask authors who meet with me at conferences is, “How would you describe your voice?” and more often than not, especially with first-time novelists or non-fiction writers, I’m met with a blank stare. Knowing what elements most strongly characterize your writing– whether it’s subtle humor, rich language, punchy dialogue, or larger-than-life characters– and knowing the overall tone of your book allows you to notice when those elements are missing from a portion of your manuscript, or when you’ve veered from your tone.
Just as beta readers can help identify plot holes and missing information, they can also help you identify your specific voice, the tone of your writing, and your storytelling strength; however, keep in mind that a beta reader who can spot a plot hole or disorganized information may not be as able to identify voice or other writing strengths, or to be able to articulate them if they do. While any reader who pays attention and follows the story or the thought process can give feedback on coherence, it usually takes a more specialized, “word-savvy” reader to help with issues of writing quality (and, ideally, a reader who’s familiar with and a fan of the genre you write in). That’s one reason why it’s worthwhile for you to become a student of your own strengths and style, so that you can big-picture edit your manuscripts for consistent quality after inevitable author tunnel-vision and rabbit-trailing over months of writing (especially for “pantsers,” or authors who write by the seat of their pants rather than planning out their books in detail in advance) result in conflicting tone or an inconsistent voice.
The first step in big-picture editing for writing quality, then, is to acquaint yourself with your writing style and your book in particular– your voice, your book’s tone, your strengths, your book’s strong points, etc. Think about what aspects of writing come easily to you– writing dialogue? Putting together an intricate plot? Creating really memorable characters? Think about both your current manuscript and your previous works, if any. Even if there’s room for improvement (like there usually is), these areas probably represent some of your biggest strengths as a writer and the best components of your current manuscript. When reading your manuscript or previous works, make a note of the passages or turns of phrase you’re especially proud of– which sentences or scenes just really delight you after you’ve written them? Which ones would you show to someone who wanted to know what your writing was like? The material you feel the most pride in, the biggest personal connection with, or the most emotional investment in usually says a lot about your voice– whether it’s humorous, cerebral, literary, conversational, gritty, etc.
Looking at the passages or fragments you are most proud of or that came most easily to you, themes will start emerging– lively, interesting characters, or subtle, tongue-in-cheek humorous narration, etc. You can then use these recurring themes to calibrate your editing eye for the rest of the manuscript– if you identify “writing lively, interesting characters” as one of your strengths, go back through and take a look at each character and make sure you haven’t “phoned in” any of them, that one isn’t going to stand out by virtue of being comparatively underdeveloped or forgettable. If three-fourths of your manuscript gives you that proud, giddy feeling you get when writing your best work but you’re just ambivalent about the other fourth, you may want to try re-writing some of it with an eye toward incorporating more elements of your voice so that there isn’t a single moment when the reader is able to tune out or forget who’s writing.
You should also consider the specific manuscript you’re editing– what are its strongest points, apart from your writing skill? What aspects of the story or setting stand out in its genre, and how can you expand on them to make it even more of a stand-out? What’s the overall tone? Where does it fall on the spectrum of its genre (e.g., how intense is your suspense novel, how casual is your non-fiction, how serious is your romance novel, how melancholy is your literary fiction?, etc.)? Once you identify the overall tone of your book and the category it falls into (thinking of comparable titles can be a big help in figuring this out), you will have a measuring stick to use when editing to help you determine whether the tone of a certain scene is too light-hearted compared to the majority of the book, or whether your descriptions in another are too tame, or whether a certain plot development is too dark, etc.
This isn’t to say that you can’t have some intense moments in an otherwise more lighthearted romantic suspense, or some humor in the middle of a horror novel, but if you depart significantly from your tone, your readers are going to feel like you conned them– if they’ve read three-fourths of a zany murder mystery, they don’t expect a tender, serious, realistic deathbed reconciliation between a mother and daughter at the end, and even though that scene felt natural when you wrote it, you have to be able to recognize the moments when your own momentum as a writer carried you too far from the path you started out on and when you might have to make the tough decision to scrap or alter material you really like. Identify your tone and examine similar works to help you determine whether a scene truly belongs in the book you’re going to try to sell.
A confident familiarity with your writing strengths and your writing voice allows you to edit your own work from a position of confidence and competence. Take some time to get to know yourself as a writer and then use that knowledge to power your editing!
As always, I’d love to hear your suggestions or your questions in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Editing for Authors: Part 5, The Big Picture

September 2nd, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back (after a couple weeks off) to my series on editing for authors. I spent the last two posts talking about the role of a style sheet in the editing process (here and here, if you missed them). A style sheet is an extremely helpful tool in making “little-picture” edits such as consistent spelling or formatting, and in keeping track of details such as a character’s hair color, mother’s name, or the kind of car she drives. When it comes to editing your book for the “big picture,” however, it’s hard to draft a checklist that can anticipate the variety of bigger-scale problems that can show up in a manuscript. Learning to recognize problems such as inconsistent pacing, incomplete plots, weak dialogue, or mushy writing voice takes a different kind of perspective and a different set of editing skills. These kind of “big picture” edits are part of the developmental editing process, the purpose of which can be boiled down to two goals: to make the manuscript coherent in content and consistent in writing quality. We’ll look at the first of these two goals this week.

Coherency in a finished manuscript is one of the hardest things to assess accurately as a self-editor. After all, all your manuscript’s content came out of your head– you invented the crazy plot, you know the thoughts running through the characters’ heads, you understand the connection between seemingly unrelated anecdotes or lessons in your memoir, you appreciate the significance of a piece of information in your business book, etc. Inevitably, some of this information that is so clear in our heads gets muddled when we transfer it to the page, leaving a reader confused about a sequence of events, a character’s actions, or a seemingly pointless paragraph. We can try to edit our own work for clarity and coherence, but because we invented these scenarios or are writing out of our own substantial knowledge or experience, we often read our own work with too much background information to be able to make an accurate call as to whether it will make sense to an outside reader or not. We automatically “fill in the blanks” left in the text with our own knowledge and so we don’t even notice them.

I remember seeing Harry  Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with my sister and my mom; my sister and I had read the book but my mom hadn’t, and a couple parts of the movie didn’t make sense to her. At first, my sister and I just assumed our mom hadn’t been paying close enough attention, because it made perfect sense to us, but after watching it a second time, we realized that there were several plot holes that the filmmakers never bothered to explain in the context of the movie– if you hadn’t read the book, you would have had no idea of the significance of certain scenes or the connections between certain events/characters. Because we’d read the book, we filled in those blank spots automatically with our greater prior knowledge and we didn’t even notice them the first time we watched it. We would have made lousy editors on that film (though apparently, that’s the kind they used…).

Because of this innate, unavoidable bias on the side of not noticing the coherency issues in our own manuscripts, our best hope for identifying issues related to confusing plot sequence or missing information or erratic character behavior is to employ a beta reader to read a manuscript and provide feedback on its clarity. Now, don’t be spooked by the word “employ,” you most likely know several people (okay, at least one) who would be willing to read through your manuscript for you and give you their thoughts for free (though gift cards are always appreciated), and they don’t have to have any qualifications beyond knowing how to read (and preferably liking the genre you write in). You’re not asking them to edit– that’s still your job– you’re just asking them to read it from beginning to end and flag any “Huh?” moments. Obviously, the more word-savvy your beta reader, the more technical and in-depth they might get with their feedback, but while you might get some bonus craft-related feedback from folks like this, even a non-expert reader will usually be able to recognize plot holes, point out seeming character discrepancies, and alert you to confusing scenes or passages.

If you’re really reluctant to let someone else read your manuscript (though if that’s the case, why the heck are you writing in the first place…) or you just can’t find any good beta readers, it is possible to detect your own coherence issues if you know what to look for, such as:

  • plot holes (unanswered questions or plot developments what happen out of the blue without explanation),
  • character discrepancies (instances in which a character acts or speaks in a seemingly inauthentic or uncharacteristic manner),
  • unnecessary, incomplete, or out-of-place information (in non-fiction).

Just like when you’re editing for punctuation errors, you have to tune your “editing eye” to be on the lookout for the types of clarity issues that might trip up a reader. You may find it helpful to work backwards through your manuscript– find the end of each plot thread or storyline and follow it backwards through the story to the beginning, making sure you can find all of the pieces in the correct order– this strategy helps you to look at your plot through fresh eyes and can help you become aware of gaps in a particular plot thread that don’t exist in your head but do on the page. To evaluate your characters, compare the extremes of their behavior and their relationships and then make sure you’ve given the reader enough information to understand any huge range between extremes– if your character had a big confrontation with a cheating boyfriend at the beginning of the book, we’re going to need a compelling reason why she just moves to Vermont without a word or a note when she thinks her new boyfriend is cheating on her. (The obvious reason is, of course, because this makes for the requisite misunderstanding-between-lovebirds that is required in every romance novel and if she’d just confronted him she would have found out right away that the girl he was hugging in the street was his sister and there wouldn’t have been a misunderstanding, but without a good reason for not confronting him like she did the last loser she dated, this move seems out of character and like a lame, plot-serving move by the author. You have to build bridges between your extremes.) For non-fiction, you can try the same backwards approach, tracing the line of narrative or the thought process back to its origin and comparing every paragraph to the theme or point of the chapter to ensure it’s all on-topic and in the correct place.

I’ll talk more in the future about techniques for fixing these issues, but without an understanding of the most common enemies of coherence and the danger our own bias poses to recognizing these issues during the editing process, we’re not going to make much progress on the developmental editing front (or, by extension, on the getting-a-publishing-deal-for-our-well-ordered-logical-and-coherent-manuscript front). Come back next week when we’ll look at big-picture editing for consistent writing quality. Thanks for reading!