Today's tip was inspired by an email I sent to myself, full of notes and ideas for future posts:
Yes, that was supposed to be blog tip ideas, not top ideas.
Oops. I blame my phone keyboard and the late hour.
So today's lesson is, whether you're a new writer or a professional editor,
Always proofread your work. Especially if it's a professional email.
Thankfully this little mistake was easy to laugh off. But here are some things you definitely want to double-check any time you're sending an email or query:
All email addresses
The agent's (or other professional's) name. Especially if you're sending queries and cutting and pasting; there are too many horror stories of writers who forgot to change the name. Don't be that writer.
The formatting. Yes, it's boring. But you still need to follow directions.
Your subject line
Your word count
Whether you were asked to send attached pages or pasted in pages
Your contact information. Wouldn't it be terrible if an agent tried to call you and you gave them the wrong number?
After you write a query, set it aside for a day if you can. Then read it aloud slowly, to make sure every single word is spelled correctly, means exactly what you want to say, and needs to be there. Voice in a query is good. Purple prose isn't.
Check again to make sure you've spelled the agent's name correctly. Do it.
If you're sending an attachment, make sure you actually attach the document. (I've never done that, I don't know why all my CPs are laughing at me right now...)
And lastly, if you're entering a writing contest, make sure to read the rules one last time before you hit send. You don't want to get your manuscript thrown out on a technicality when five minutes of extra attention could have prevented it, right? Which also means don't wait to submit until the literal last minute.
Anyone out there have suggestions of things to add to your manuscript or query's pre-flight checklist? Or cautionary tales of woe that you'd like to share? Our comments are always open. And as always, have fun editing!
Today's tip comes to you from the many editors and agents I follow on Twitter. I see one of them say this at least once a month, and it's good, solid advice, so I'm passing it along.
Read in your genre.
If you don't read in your genre, it shows in your writing. If someone sits down to write a kids' book but hasn't read one lately, chances are it's not going to be up to today's standards. And no, Harry Potter is not today's standards. Kids who grew up on Harry Potter are now adults writing books of their own. While HP is still beloved by many, books existed before it and books kept on being written after it. And the same goes for Twilight and YA.
To get an idea of the current state of your genre, try reading books that were published in the past 2-3 years. You'll see what sort of pacing works for different age groups and different types of stories; what the vocabulary level expectations are; how much conflict a story is expected to have and whether those conflicts are internal, external, or both.
When a writer queries an agent, claiming "you've never seen anything like this before!" it's usually because the writer hasn't read enough. Reading other authors is great research, and it shows respect for the work of publishing and others in your field. And plus, it's reading homework - always fun. Reading widely improves your own writing skills as well. Find a story you like and re-read it slowly, to discover what techniques the author used.
So do yourself a favor. Go pick up some books from your local library, and take a little time off to read.
Today's tip is going to be a bit different. It's less about editing, and more about how to survive as a writer. Writing can be a daunting, solitary career. It's draining. Time-consuming. Often, writers are surrounded by family and friends who don't quite understand what they're doing, how hard it is, and why in the world they won't settle down for a normal career.
That's why you need writer friends. The emotional support writer friends provide is precious. If you watch online interactions between writers, you'll often see something magical happening. Writers reaching out and helping those around them and behind them, taking time to teach and mentor and pass on knowledge.
So here's today's tip:
Pay it forward.
Help the other writers you see around you. Make friends. Offer support when someone feels like quitting. Be a shoulder when someone needs to cry. Give a scared, talented friend a push when they need it.
Because this community will embrace you, and do the same for you.
In the spirit of paying it forward, I'd like to share two stories with you all about two past PitchWars mentors in need of help.
First up is Derek Chivers. Derek joined the team last year as a much-needed adult SFF mentor. His humor and helpfulness were immediately evident to those of us looking for mentors in that category. He embraced the idea of giving back and helping others along.
Derek sadly passed away suddenly, leaving behind his wife and two young daughters. They had recently moved and were still job-hunting, so money for hospital and funeral expenses has been tight. If you feel like giving, the family's GoFundMe campaign is here: https://www.gofundme.com/ChiverFamily
Second is Clarissa Goenawan. Clarissa is an amazing Indonesian writer from Singapore, who joined the PitchWars team last year as well. Clarissa loves to help boost other under-represented authors. Clarissa's husband was hit by a car a few days ago as he was walking on the side of the road. He's going to need brain surgery, and his doctors don't know how much functionality he's going to recover.
Clarissa's first novel, RAINBIRDS, just came out at the beginning of March. She's had to cancel all her promotional efforts for the book so that she can be with her husband. As a writer, can you imagine? We all dream for years of publishing our first books, and she can't enjoy that experience because of this tragedy. And if her first book bombs, it could affect the rest of her career. So other authors are stepping up to help promote Clarissa's book.
If you'd like to help, you could share her story, buy her book, share the link to her book on Amazon, or contribute to her GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/clarissaandchoo.
I know many of you won't be able to give, and that's okay. Some of you may not want to, and that's okay too. It's hard sometimes to help out people you have no connection to. But the bigger point I hope you take away, whether you get involved with these two cases or not, is that the writing community is about more than just writing. It's about helping each other out, because we've all been there. If you're lucky enough to have a group of writer friends who can talk you off a ledge when you need it, then pay it forward. Help someone else out the next time you see a writer in need of some advice or a friendly reply. Because writing isn't a race to see who gets there first. It's a marathon, with a giant picnic party at the end, and you want to have friends to hang out with along the way and once you finally get to the party.
Judging from the amount of manuscripts I've seen where characters don't ever use contractions, everyone else must have had the same English teachers I did. Mine drilled into us in school the evils of contractions. Using contractions in a paper, even a fiction project, was enough to give them fits.
I did not enjoy high school English, in case you were wondering.
I'm here to tell you the honest truth. Your English teachers were wrong.
Sure, if you're writing professional papers, you want to use more formal language. But in fiction, uncontracted words are generally more distracting than contracted ones; they jolt a reader out of the flow of the reading experience. Especially in dialogue. For the love of all you hold dear, please use contractions in your dialogue. If contractions suit the time period and the style of the character you're writing, then use them. It's how most English-speakers talk.
(PS: I know there are elision-type contractions in many Romance languages at least; I'm curious if writers working in those languages run across the same issues, or if contractions are more accepted in non-English literature? Feel free to chime in below if you've got experience to share.)
Having an outrageous word count is one of the fastest ways to get your manuscript rejected by an agent. But how long should your manuscript be? As long as you need it to be to tell the whole story, right?
Readers expectations for pacing and lengths vary depending on the genre and age category. There's always a range, and there will always be outliers, but if you're trying to get your first manuscript published, it's generally safer to stay pretty close to the established norms.
You want to research what standard length is for the age category you're writing for (picture book, early reader, MG, YA, Adult, etc) and what standard length is for your genre (non-fiction, fantasy, adventure, contemporary, romance, etc) within that age category.
Here are a few of our favorite resources for checking on word count standards:
This excellent post by agent Jennifer Laughran covers kids up through YA: http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2011/05/wordcount-dracula.html
Another great post by agent Jessica Faust here, dealing more with YA and adult fiction: http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2009/07/word-count.html
Blake Atwood breaks down word counts here: https://thewritelife.com/how-many-words-in-a-novel/
And for those of you writing children's books, whether early reader, MG, or YA, there's a handy (free!) online tool you can use to see how long your comp titles are. If you go to http://www.arbookfind.com, you can plug in titles of children's books and it will tell you what level that book is considered to be, as well as its word count.
One last key thing to remember: these are word counts for final drafts. Your first draft may come in way under or over, and that's okay. I've taken 16,000 word drafts and turned them into 90,000 word novels. And 120,000 word novels and trimmed them down to 80,000. It's possible. So don't despair if you aren't on target right away. That's what editing is for!
The most common punctuation mistakes we see authors make usually involve proper comma usage. Not all authors are grammar pros, and that's fine! That's why editors exist, after all. But if grammar isn't your strong suit and you'd like to change that, today's tip is for you.
Lists don't require commas unless there are three or more items.
For example, the following would be incorrect:
"You have my sword, and my ax." Since there are only two items, no comma is needed.
But if the list has three or more items, then you need a comma after the first item. If you're team Oxford comma for clarity, then you need a comma after all items except the last one. We won't get into the Oxford comma debate here, but I'm personally a fan, so I'll use it in my example.
"You have my sword, my ax, and my bow."
As a bonus editing tip, a lot of comma usage is about rhythm. When you read the list in the example above, it feels a little bouncy, with a break between each item. That's the comma, making itself felt. So if it feels like there ought to be a pause in the sentence, chances are you need a comma.
Today's tip is a quick fix for adding more detail and engaging your readers.
Remember, sight isn't the only sense you can work with.
For most people, sight is the sense we rely on the most when we encounter a new situation, so it makes sense that authors fall back on it when adding descriptions. Touch and hearing are the next most frequent senses we see in descriptive passages.
But what about smell and taste? There are obviously situations where these won't apply, but when you can use them, they're incredibly powerful. Reading a description of a smell or taste can evoke a physical response in the reader, even though it's only words on a page.
And as a bonus, many scents and tastes come with common emotional associations. Try thinking of cinnamon and sugar, or warm chocolate chip cookies, or an outdoor barbecue. It probably made you salivate a little, and put a smile on your face. And you can create the same type of reaction with a mention of unpleasant odors and tastes.
Smell and taste are actually very strongly linked to our memories, so use those experiences to your advantage. A scent can set the mood and make the reader feel linked to the character faster than anything else. (If you like to learn about the science behind this sort of thing, there are some great articles here: http://www.fifthsense.org.uk/psychology-and-smell/ and here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-babble/201501/smells-ring-bells-how-smell-triggers-memories-and-emotions)
So go ahead, shake things up a little. Think about that fresh book, old-bookstore smell, and then try adding some extra sensory detail to your manuscript to kick it up a notch.
Welcome back to our live critique blog series. Today, we're critiquing the pitch paragraphs of an author's query letter. As usual, find the unedited version first followed by the query with our comments and suggestions in red to follow. And, if you have any suggestions you'd like to add, please do so in the comments.
Eleven-year-old Alexander Sighs hates being the middle child. His mother spends most of her time with his youngest sister teaching her the art of beauty pageants, while his father spends his time with his older brother teaching him little league jousting and sword fighting. His family never notices when he’s there, so he decides to teach them a lesson and run away from home. His original preparations get botched when he captures two leprechauns.
Alexander is convinced to join them on a quest to find unicorns that were stolen by the evil King. It'd be just like running away only better because he's promised an exciting adventure, fraught with danger. Unfortunately, leprechauns take that promise seriously. They get unexpected help from the evil king's daughter--a witch. While she helps Alexander escape one near-death experience after another, he is surprised to find himself on the King's most wanted list for helping her run away. If Alexander fails to retrieve the unicorns, leprechauns and all they stand for will cease to exist. But if he succeeds, his own existence might come to an end.
ALEXANDER is a 40,000-word MG standalone fantasy novel, with sequel possibilities.
Eleven-year-old Alexander Sighs hates being the middle child. – This is a great opening line. It shows an ordinary problem, but gets straight to the conflict and tells us a lot about Alexander pretty quickly, and kids will sympathize with his plight – His mother spends most of her time with his youngest sister teaching her the art of beauty pageants, while his father spends his time with his older brother teaching him little league jousting and sword fighting. – This sounds such fun! You have used “spends … time” twice in the sentence, however, so consider revising to avoid the repetition. – His family never notices when he’s there, so he decides to teach them a lesson and run away from home. – You could delete “from home” as this will be clear to the reader. Also, could you add more voice here? Perhaps: “His family never notices him, and now Alexander’s done. Over it. His only option: teach them all a lesson and run away.” Or similar. – His original preparations get botched when he captures two leprechauns. – This last sentence seems a little sudden and lacks detail. First: what are his “original preparations”? Are they important? And second: How does he 1) encounter leprechauns and 2) capture them? Perhaps some more detail here would help show the reader more about the leprechauns: where Alexander was, if they met by chance, what he did to capture them, are leprechauns normally found out and about, and why did he capture them rather than running away from them.
Alexander is convinced – Passive; try “They convince Alexander…” – to join them on a quest to find unicorns that were – perhaps delete “that were” for smoother flow – stolen by the evil King. – If the unicorns were stolen, wouldn’t the King still have them? Why do they need to find them? Did the unicorns belong to the leprechauns? Why are they looking for them? Is all this happening in the real world where Alexander lives or does Alexander live in a magical place where leprechauns and evil kings and unicorns are pretty normal? – It'd be just like running away only better because he's promised an exciting adventure, fraught with danger. Unfortunately, leprechauns take that promise seriously. – Are these details all necessary? Alex’s motives for joining the quest are pretty obvious, and it seems obvious that the leprechauns are going to hold him to his promise. Instead, maybe include more about why this matters. Why did the evil King take the unicorns, who did he steal them from, and what are the consequences for whatever magical place he took them from? You don’t have to answer all of those questions, but this is where you can add some all important stakes, beyond stating simply that they want to get the unicorns back. – They get unexpected help from the evil King's daughter-- – use an em-dash here rather than two hyphens – a witch. While she helps Alexander escape one near-death experience after another, he is – contract: “he’s” – surprised to find himself on the King's most wanted list for helping her run away – How is this surprising? Perhaps all you really need is “he finds himself on the King’s most wanted list…” –. If Alexander fails to retrieve the unicorns, leprechauns and all they stand for will cease to exist. But if he succeeds, his own existence might come to an end. – You’ve got clear stakes here, but perhaps try to make them more compelling. If he fails, things will go badly for the leprechauns and all the nebulous, generic things they stand for. If he succeeds, he dies. Alexander better have a darned good reason to be risking his life to save the leprechauns. Clear, specific stakes: why does any of this matter to Alexander?
ALEXANDER – Perhaps it's best to use the whole title here – is a 40,000-word MG standalone fantasy novel, with sequel possibilities. – There’s nothing really wrong with “sequel possibilities,” but the typical phrase is “series potential.” Using the industry standard lingo shows you’ve done your homework. Could you also add something with comp. titles here? Such as "...that will appeal to fans of XXX and XXX"?
QUERY CRITIQUE OVERVIEW...
So in general, a solid query needs to answer 4 questions to work well and pique an agent’s interest. This technique might provide a different way of thinking about what you need to include in your query (and what you don’t).
Today's tip is for authors who have a hard time with dialogue. Which includes me! But the great thing about having been really bad at dialogue is that I've learned quite a few techniques make mine sound better, and I like sharing. (Knowledge, at least; chocolate is a different matter.) And if I can improve my dialogue, so can you.
One of the most important keys to interesting, authentic-sounding dialogue, is voice. So how do you find a character's speaking voice?
You have to try walking in their shoes. Step up to the mic, and imagine you're them, as it were. Consider everything you know about this character: what's their background, education level, age, gender, orientation, politics, wealth, religion, ethnicity, current emotional state, how they feel about the person they're talking to, motivation overall and within the scene.
It's a lot. But in real life, that's how our word choices and speech patterns are determined. Personally, I do a lot of profiling of my main and secondary characters. Once I develop a clear enough feeling for who this person is that I'm writing about, the voice begins to flow. For minor characters, I keep in mind simpler things: age, station, job, mood. Five year olds shouldn't sound like twenty year olds, and neither should sound like sixty year olds. A prison guard doesn't talk like a school teacher out on the prairie; a devout priest will sound different from a policeman. And you can use those contrasts to your advantage and create an extra layer of subtext and tension in your story.
Flat dialogue, or characters who all sound the same can distance your readers from the story. Giving everyone their own, slightly different voice in the chorus makes for a much more interesting read. Diving this deep into your characters' heads may sound like a lot of work, but it pays off in more ways than just better dialogue.
Today's tip is all about decision making - your characters', that is. You know that stereotype about how characters in horror movies always make really poor choices that they wouldn't make in real life? Unfortunately, this is something we see fairly often in manuscripts (and even query letters) that need some TLC. So ask yourself:
Are my characters' decisions realistic and true to their motivations?
If a character misses her older brother she doesn't get to see very often, she's not going to ignore the phone when he calls. If a character is a scaredy-cat, you'd better provide them with a good reason to go investigate that bump in the night. If a character is trying to get from point A to point B as fast as he can, he isn't likely to stop and smell the roses.
Too often we focus on what we as authors want to have happen next, and we force our characters to make bizarre choices that don't make sense. Doing this reminds the reader that the character is nothing more than a construct in a story. If you need a character to do something out of their normal, established behavior, then you have to give them a believable push in that direction. We're human beings; we're resistant to change at a fundamental level. Even if you're writing non-human characters, we expect internal consistency. Either you give your character a push, or you need to listen to your character and figure out what they would really do in that situation. Sometimes their natural reactions make for an even better story.
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!