Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

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!

Why does everyone want to be published?

August 25th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 56 Comments

I thought you’d like to see this question someone sent me: “I’ve been writing for several months now, and I’m trying to figure out what my motivation is. Can you help me understand WHY so many writers want to become published authors?”

A fascinating question. Okay, this may surprise you, but I believe most new writers basically Keyboardwant to get published so that they’ll be famous. They want that thrill of holding up a book with their name emblazoned on the cover, show it to their friends, leave it on their coffee table, maybe peruse a copy at the bookstore and casually mention to someone in the aisle, “You know… I wrote this.” I think most new writers are seeking fame and encouragement, that they believe validity and meaning will arrive out of publication. They see fame as offering a measurable amount of worth and competence.

That’s not to say most new writers don’t also have something they want to say — they do. It’s just that many newer writers struggle with having a worthwhile story. Think about it — we all know it takes a while for a writer to become competent. Rarely do you see a novelist get her first completed work contracted. The industry average is five complete books before landing a deal… in other words, if you’re starting out, it will probably be your fifth completed novel before you get a contract. That’s why so many writers give up after one or two — it takes persistence to complete five novels before a publisher will pay attention to your work. So, in my opinion, many writers get into the business as a way to express themselves; as a way to get noticed.

Yet most writers who have achieved some level of fame fairly quickly eschew it in favor of craft. They may still enjoy the warmth associated with being recognized, or having someone come up and praise their words, but most successful authors discover that fame is not only fleeting, it doesn’t make us better people or better writers. And that, I think, is why so many successful writers I know spend considerable time attempting to improve their craft. In other words, the best writers are always trying to get better.

If that’s true (and it might be too much of a leap for some readers to accept), then the one thing a beginning writer ought to do is to devote himself or herself to improving their craft of writing. As an agent, I see hundreds of manuscripts every year that I reject for representation. Nearly all of these are rejected for one basic reason: the writer simply isn’t good enough. The ideas may be interesting, and the marketing may be slick, but the authors simply aren’t good enough to publish. That’s a message I’ve tried to get into the heads of beginning writers everywhere: Don’t try seeking “the secret” of writing; improve as a writer. I’ve yet to meet a great writer who is not published.

And how does one go about doing that? I don’t think it’s all that complicated – write regularly and expose yourself to great writing. A beginning writer should read widely, and should focus on great, not just popular, writing. A beginning writer should set aside time to write regularly, and should make writing a habit in his or her life. A beginning writer should find someone who can help him or her improve – a writing instructor, a writing mentor, an experienced editor, even a writing critique group, so long as the members can bring some wisdom to bear on the issue of craft.

I know of no other craft that promotes beginners before they are ready. Surely a young pianist doesn’t take a couple lessons and rent a concert hall to present Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” A first-year ballet student doesn’t expect to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. An artist cannot expect to move directly from paint-by-numbers to creating fine portraits. Yet I often meet beginning writers who are hell-bent on publishing “something.” They often have no clue of their motivation or message (though they can dress it up with fancy talk and make it sound like “a calling”). What they really want is to be noticed — to have be able to show someone “I did a book.” So my advice to beginning writers is to study the craft of writing by reading and listening to those who already know it, in order to become more like them.

Now, having said that I realize there are those in the industry (including a couple editorial friends) who disagree with me. They think “market” is more important than “craft.” In other words, “Don’t focus on becoming a good writer, focus on creating a salable book.” I understand that thinking, but I don’t agree with it. Right now ANYBODY can get ANYTHING published. Go to, and you can find a way to get anything (your company reports, your school papers, your nutcase political screeds) into print. Lulu and PublishAmerica and Author Solutions will print anything you send them. We’ve made “becoming an author” into the easiest, most-accessible form of “art.” You may not be able to paint well enough to sell a still life, or sing well enough to be a finalist on American Idol, or dance well enough to get cast in a show… but you CAN become an author!

Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not really legitimate. One of the things that real publishing professionals provide is a filter. There is training and evaluation involved as agents figure out who can write, and editors determine what is valuable, and publishers produce books that offer something of merit. So part of the role of those of us who work in the industry is to strive toward some sort of quality. As I always say, if I were in this strictly for the money, I’d do porn. (It’s cheap, it’s easy, and there’s a huge market for it.) But I can’t make myself go there, since I still think part of my job is to help writers become better, and to help publishers sell good books.

So what’s the motivation? In writing it’s probably to tell a story, I suppose. We write to inform, to entertain, to expose, to convince, to enlighten — there are a ton of motivations. But from a personal perspective, I think every good writer wants to be a great writer.

Editing for Authors: Part 4b, The Great and Powerful Style Sheet

August 12th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on editing for authors. Last week, I started to talk about the role of a style sheet in the editing process, specifically the story and character-related elements. This week, we’re looking at the craft and style-related elements of a style sheet, as well as how to use a style sheet to focus your editing.

As I said last week, style sheets are largely descriptive rather than prescriptive– in other words, your style sheet is based on the writing voice/habits that are already in evidence in your manuscript. When you’ve finished a draft of a manuscript and are ready to start editing, you want to look at your manuscript and determine which conventions you’ve used most often and which ones you want to define your voice, and build your style sheet accordingly, adding entries addressing usage, punctuation, spelling, style, and formatting questions that will arise as you edit your manuscript.

For example, if you hyphenated a word the first three or four times you used it (“birth-mother”), you would probably make the hyphenated version an entry on your style sheet, the idea being that you will use that entry as a reference by which to determine that you will alter any subsequent uses of that word where you didn’t hyphenate it. If, however, you hyphenated it the first time but then used it seven more times in the first three chapters without hyphenating it, you’d probably want to let the majority dictate your style-sheet entry, and use the non-hyphenated version as the rule to be followed on your style sheet, since, again, the goal of a style sheet is to define the elements of your style that are already in evidence in your writing and your voice so that you can ensure that they are reflected in your whole manuscript, since precious few of us write with perfect consistency throughout a 75,000-word manuscript. Use this process throughout the first several chapters to determine the “measuring stick,” based on your personal writing norms, that you’ll use for editing the remainder of the manuscript: if you use a serial comma in two out of your first three lists, make a note on your style sheet to always use the serial comma in lists, then change and all subsequent lists to reflect the style sheet; if you usually use italics-only for your first several instances of internal dialogue, add that to your style sheet and then edit all subsequent instances in which you used quotation marks and italics; etc. You get the idea. Types of entries that should be added to your style sheet as you begin to edit your manuscript include:

  • Hyphenated or compound words (e.g., “ebook” vs. e-book,” “web site” vs. “website”)
  • Rules for using numerals vs. spelling out numbers
  • Punctuation rules– serial comma, quotation marks around internal dialogue, etc.
  • Abbreviations (what words you abbreviate, what words you spell out, how abbreviations are punctuated, e.g., “US” vs. “U.S.,” etc.)
  • Intentionally stylistic but technically “wrong” or questionable usages and the exact circumstances or character where they are used (“nothin'” or “sumthin” used to evoke a dialect or a lack of education on the part of a character)
  • Dialogue formatting guidelines (“new indented line with every change of speaker”)

And all of this assumes that your personal writing norms mostly exist within the rules set by recognized authorities such as a dictionary or a common style manual or writing handbook– that you have consulted some reputable resource such as a dictionary or style manual and can defend your stylistic choices as being “correct” at least according to one authority. If I were actually using “birth mother” in manuscript, I theoretically would have done enough research to find that it’s virtually never hyphenated and my style sheet entry would reflect that. The exception to this is, of course, any grammatical or usage decisions that preserve your voice as a writer, the voice of a character, or the tone of a story– books like The Help or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Just So Stories, in which the unusual syntax or incorrect spelling or grammar connote a dialect or level of education or tone on the part of the narrating character or the author. In these cases, the special conventions of the specific choices would then end up as entries on the style sheet to ensure consistency in the formatting and voice, such as “Contractions: never used by the narrator,” or “Civilize: spelled “sivilize” when used by Huck.”

This process of adding entries to your style sheet can be painstaking, but it’s absolutely worth it– a slow, careful read of your first several chapters during which you take the time to notice inconsistencies in spelling, punctuation, usage, or grammar and make a conscious decision about which version you’re going to use as the “correct” one going forward saves you hundreds of additional decisions/questions later in the manuscript. The more complete your style sheet, the less you have to wrestle with questions of usage and grammar and punctuation– having a style sheet entry for a word or a punctuation scenario means that every time you encounter that word or scenario, you can automatically correct it for internal consistency based on the style sheet rather than having to debate each instance throughout the length of the manuscript. The act of compiling a style sheet both trains your editorial eye to notice various types of inconsistencies throughout the manuscript and preemptively answers dozens of editing/style questions for you before you’ve encountered a tenth of them. When your book is contracted for publication and assigned to a professional editor for further editing, he or she will compile a style sheet of their own to ensure the manuscript’s adherence to the publishing house’s specific style conventions (such as always putting internal dialogue in quotation marks, or always spelling out numbers greater than ten), and there’s a chance that some of these will differ from the decisions you made, but the point of authorial editing using a style sheet is not to turn out a manuscript that is ready for publication with one specific publishing house, but to turn out a clean manuscript demonstrating consistency and strong voice that will make the best possible impression on whoever reads it. When I’m reading a manuscript, I’m not passing judgment on whether or not the author’s style conventions agree with mine at every turn, but on whether or not the whole of the document is in agreement with itself.

A style sheet is the tool a professional editor uses to ensure that your book is consistent throughout as well as conforming to the guidelines/style dictates of their particular publishing house. By compiling and using one yourself, you give yourself a valuable reference manual that can both help you identify writing and story inconsistencies within your manuscript as well as shave hours off the editing process.

I’m a Writer Because I Write

August 10th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 18 Comments

A writing friend sent me this question: “Are you a writer because of your distinctive ideas, the volume of material you produce, or because of a call or skill or gift?”

None of the above. I’m a writer because I write. It’s my venue for sharing truth and beauty and all that is important to me. It’s how I express myself. My friend Rebecca is a singer because she puts herself into her songwriting and musical performance. My buddy Brad is a doctor because that’s how he connects to the world and shares himself and his abilities. Maybe that constitutes a calling — it’s certainly a gift. But I’ve always seen books and words as a reflection of who I am. Some of us have to write, the way others have to sing or run or paint or speak or run or lead. With me, words tend to pour out.

The thing that doesn’t get talked about very much is the fact that not everybody can be a writer, and few of us can ever be great writers. I’m all for writing conferences, because I often get to meet and encourage diamonds in the rough. And I’m a big supporter of mentor/protégé relationships because they allow an experienced person to share with an inexperienced person. But I’ve come to believe there’s a limit to the talent that can be shared. I believe I can make a writer better, but I’m not convinced I can ever make a writer great — some people just have the gift. Some people can paint, some people can sing, some people can dance – we can write.

Occasionally I come across a writer whose talent is enormous, and it usually leaves me in TomRobbingsawe. I love that. At a conference this past weekend, I had a chance to host a salon with one of my favorite writers, Tom Robbins — an author whom many believe is one of the great American novelists of the past 50 years. I need to do a blog post just on his words, because he was amazing — insightful and funny and encouraging and very practical. And he didn’t need to be any of those things, since he’s one of the greats. He could have been arrogant or dismissive (um… I’ve met my share of successful authors who have forgotten how to relate to beginning writers), yet he wasn’t at all. Instead, he just shared some of his wisdom, telling the folks at the conference what he thinks is important, and what they need to consider in their writing.

For all my ego, I still appreciate someone who can do something better than me. I have represented several writers who are simply marvelous wordsmiths, and much better at writing than I’ll ever be (off the top of my head, I can name Lisa Samson, Ann Tatlock, Susan Meissner, Elizabeth Musser, Gina Holmes, Jessica Dotta, Mark Bertrand, Rachel Hauck, Mindy Clark… there are others). It doesn’t bother me one bit to know they’re better at their craft than I am – I’m just happy I get to represent their work. As a man, it doesn’t bother me that Tiger Woods is a better golfer than I’ll ever be, or that on an off day Diana Krall still has more musical talent that I could ever hope to have. And I’m at peace with that.

A couple questions for writing friends… Why do you write? And if you could sit and talk with any living writer, who would you like to chat with? 

Editing for Authors: Part 4a, Meet the Style Sheet

August 5th, 2015 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on editing for authors, I’m talking today and next week about the role of a style sheet in the editing process and why a good style sheet can be an author-editor’s best friend.

To better understand the value of a style sheet, let’s consider first the earmarks of a well-edited manuscript. Compared to an unedited manuscript (or one that has merely been proofed for typos), the following is usually true of an edited manuscript:

  • The voice has been refined
  • Plot clarity has been improved
  • Story universe is more clearly defined
  • Pacing is more consistent
  • Syntax is tighter/cleaner
  • Word choice is more effective

Some of these qualities are dependent on the author’s experience/writing skill– it generally takes a more practiced ear to pick up on and critique things like sentence structure, weak word choice, or inconsistent pacing. Others, however, are virtually entirely dependent on good record-keeping and a disciplined adherence to the established norms– plot and character details are vivid at first because the author wrote them that way, but they stay sharp and clear in the reader’s mind because the author kept track of and stuck to the initial rules he made for that universe/character. An author’s voice is most effective when it is consistent and clear throughout rather than weakened by distractingly inconsistent usage, punctuation, spelling, or grammar. That’s where a style sheet comes in.

What is a style sheet?

Think of a style sheet as a reference tool written especially for and tailored specifically to your manuscript. Remember the APA or MLA reference books/handouts your teachers in high school or college gave you and expected you to use when writing your papers? If a teacher wanted your paper in APA style, you consulted your APA style manual to determine whether or not to use an oxford comma, how to format a quotation, which spelling of “cancelled” to use, etc. A style sheet (and don’t be confused by the name; it’s rarely a “one-sheet” document, and is often several pages long) is the reference manual you compile based on your experience with and knowledge of your story, your voice, and your writing. It helps you keep track of story details, such as characters’ physical appearance, backstory, and style of speaking, and the writing “rules” you’re following, such as which spellings you’re using of words/names, words you’re choosing to hyphenate or not, what numbers you’re spelling out versus using numerals for, etc. Once you’ve established your “official” stance on the details/rules/practices of that particular manuscript, the style sheet becomes an all-powerful oracle you can consult during editing to quickly provide direction and answers to dozens of questions and uncertainties. We’ll look this week chiefly at the components of a style sheet that speak to story– characters, plot/timeline, setting, etc.– and leave the writing/style elements of a style sheet to talk about next week.

Compiling a style sheet.

A style sheet is a living document, meaning it changes and grows as your manuscript takes shape. At the beginning of its life, a style sheet is mostly descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning it’s simply reflecting/recording the choices you’ve already made rather than dictating your next steps. It would be exhausting and unrealistic on multiple fronts to compile a complete style sheet for a book before writing it– you would have to anticipate each and every possible scenario that could arise while writing the manuscript (“If I write the word ‘seat-belt,’ I will hyphenate it.”), know each of your characters and your setting in detail in advance (“The coffee shop that the main character will meet her birth-mother at in chapter 24 will be called “The Mud Hut,” and the furniture is orange and brown”), and then painstakingly consult the style sheet as you wrote to make sure you were following your rules. Obviously, most authors prefer to write freely and let their story pick up momentum as they go, even the ones who plan or outline their books in detail before writing them.

The difference between an outline and a style sheet is that an outline merely dictates the direction and events of the plot (“protagonist will meet her birth-mother in a coffee shop”) while a style sheet records the exact details and keystrokes (“hyphenate ‘birth-mother’ every time you write it,” “coffee shop will be decorated in orange and brown”) of a scene, usually after it’s written, for the purpose of achieving consistency throughout the remainder of the manuscript– in the case of my made-up example, the information on the outline tells the author what to write; the information on the style sheet reminds the author of what they already wrote so that they can make not to contradict themselves in additional scenes set in the coffee-shop or additional uses of the word “birth-mother.”

Because most of these tiny decisions are made in the moment, while you’re writing, it’s much easier to go back after the manuscript is complete and tweak certain scenes or details to conform to the rules/details you settled on than it is to think through every punctuation and biographic and setting and spelling decision before you put words on paper. That being the case, you want to start with the bare minimum on your style sheet– names, basic descriptive information, etc.– and add details to each entry as you reveal/establish/discover more about each character, the setting, or the events of the plot.

So what kind of info should end up on your style sheet by the time you finish your manuscript?

  • Character names, descriptions, and brief bios (as far as you know them): Think doctor’s-office-questionnaire or job-application-type info here rather than introspective psychological profiles– spelling of full name, eye color, hair color, body type, height, occupation, hometown, education, immediate family’s names and statuses (alive or dead, location, etc.), important relationships– spouses, children, etc. Obviously, you won’t know/have as much info for minor characters as for main characters, and you probably won’t have all your characters established at the beginning of the writing process.
  • Setting info: Names and spellings of towns/states/neighborhoods, if applicable, demographic information– size, population, weather, major characteristics.
  • Timeline info: The order in which things happen in your story.

By compiling this kind of information during your writing process, you can avoid conflicting descriptions of a character or setting, making sure you’re not contradicting yourself or confusing your reader. At the end of the first draft, you should have a pretty good collection of the characteristics of your major characters and setting to refer to when editing, as well as a clear timeline to refer to when examining your pacing and your clarity of exposition later in the editing process.

Next week, we’ll look at the craft/style-related elements of a style sheet and how to add them to your story/character-related elements to create a really strong style sheet, as well as how to use that style sheet to focus your editorial eye and save you hours of editing time. Thanks for reading!



Writing Lessons from The Hunger Games (a guest blog)

July 30th, 2015 | The Writing Craft | 14 Comments

Call me a late adopter, but I only just read The Hunger Games, by Susanne Collins. Wow. Within three pages, I knew this lady could write. There are four quick lessons I learned from her that I’d like to share with you.

  1. Jump right into the action and then insert background info.

Notice how the story starts immediately, “When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.” Collins doesn’t first spend a chapter on Katniss’ back story or what the Hunger Games are. We don’t even learn the narrator’s name until page 5.

Instead, Collins deftly weaves the background in. “[I] grab my forage bag.” Without telling us that she is telling us, Collins tells us a lot about Katniss’ family and how they live. The result is a book that keeps a great pace without sacrificing depth.

What does this mean for you? There’s a fair chance you could remove the first chapter of your book and end up with a better story. Just because Tolkien begins with chapters of background information doesn’t mean you can! (BTW, I’d argue that Tolkien was great in spite of such chapters, not because of them.)

  1. Show, don’t tell.

Related to the previous lesson, notice how little “telling” Collins does:

Our part of District 12, nicknamed the Seam, is usually crawling with coal miners heading out to the morning shift at this hour. Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many of whom have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails and the lines of their sunken faces.

Pay attention to how much information is hidden in those two sentences and how well she paints a picture: The name of where they live (a name as soulless as “Airstrip One”), the local economy, and the hardship of their lives.

Now read a sample of your work and highlight every place you tell the reader something. Challenge yourself to show it instead. It will be slow work at first, but (like any habit) it will become easier and eventually become second nature.

  1. This takes practice.

Now the bad news. No one is born writing this well. Not only did Collins write seven books before The Hunger Games, but she was also a screenwriter for years before that.

Everyone (myself included) wants to believe that their first book will be amazing, but good writing just takes a lot of practice. If you’re not willing to write half a dozen mediocre books in order to write one really good, this might not be the industry for you.

  1. Our stories should be eerily familiar

The most disturbing thing about The Hunger Games was not children fighting to the death (though that was enough), it was how familiar Katniss’ world looked to me. The Capitol was not that different from modern America. The Hunger Games not that different than watching “Survivor.”

Someone (I think it was Robert McKee) said that we read fiction in order to visit a world we’ve never been to, but then find ourselves once we get there. Sometimes we’ll like what we see about ourselves. Sometimes we won’t. Sometimes it will give us encouragement, sometimes a sharp rebuke.

The first part of that lesson is that our stories must connect with something deep inside our reader. But the second part is the danger of creating stories that we think they’ll relate to. But this results in stories that feel contrived. Better to tell stories that we relate to, then make sure the reader can see what we see.

That, by the way, is how The Hunger Games was born:

Flipping through the channels, Collins was suddenly struck by the lack of distinction between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq war. “We have so much programming coming at us all the time,” she says. “Is it too much? Are we becoming desensitized to the entire experience?…I can’t believe a certain amount of that isn’t happening.”


I’d love to hear your thoughts – which of those lessons catches you the most? What would you add?


Josh Kelley is a speaker, writing coach, and author of Radically Normal: You Don’t Have to Live Crazy to Follow Jesus (Harvest House). As a writing coach, he uses an affordable “single session” model. If you’d like more information, visit his website: