Today's quick tip is about how to name your files when you're ready to start querying. There are two main things to keep in mind when an agent asks for a document as an attachment.
1. Always include your last name and title in the save file name.
For example, if you were to look inside one of my main writing folders, it looks like this:
You'll notice how file versions that have been sent out with queries all have the title in all caps and my last name, plus a brief descriptor of the document--query, first chapter, etc. This also prevents me from accidentally sending out the wrong version of a file.
Agents receive thousands of emails. You always want to make sure enough of your contact information is on every document and email for them to find you. When an agent downloads a submission to read, it can be difficult to remember which email and query it went with. Make everyone's life easier by including your name on your file.
2. For the benefit of agents who read on e-readers, make sure your information is correct on the document's properties.
This one is simple to fix, but I didn't know about it until I saw a few agents mention it some time ago. In MS Word, when you click on the blue "File" tab, you'll see a screen that has all sorts of information about your document. On the right side of the split screen, it lists the number of pages, word count, editing time--which I'm not sure I want to know!-- author name, and title. (The default on author name is often the computer company.)
So why does this matter? Because it can affect how your document information is displayed on an e-reader. Remember, your goal is to make it as easy for an agent who likes your work to find your information as possible. See where "Properties" is underlined in yellow? Click the arrow there, then go to "Advanced Properties," and then "Summary." That will bring up a dialogue box where you can set the document's title and your name in the author field. There you go! Now you're ready to send your documents off into the wild, in search of an agent or a publisher.
Today's post is inspired by the time I spent this week helping one of my kids, who has some learning disabilities, with a writing assignment. She had to write a short story for English, after plotting it out with a nice chart the teacher had given out. And even though kiddo is extremely smart and creative and great at telling stories, putting them on paper is an incredibly stressful experience for her.
Enter writer and editor mom, to the rescue! And as we tackled her assignment together and I did my best to nudge her along, I realized something that hadn't quite clicked before.
Every sentence is a choose-your-own-adventure type pivot point.
Each sentence builds on the one that came before it. Presenting her with choices at each sentence when she didn't know what to say next helped her to avoid getting stuck in the dreaded writer's block.
In practical terms, our discussion went something like this:
Me: Okay, you have a mob of angry villagers approaching the main character and her giant, hungry cat. Does she hear or see them first?
Her: Hear them.
Me: Okay, what do they sound like?
Her: Describes it.
Me: Okay, so does she see them next or run away?
Her: She sees them.
Me: What do they look like?
Her: Angry mob with pitchforks! Standard stuff.
Me: Got it. So how does the main character react? Does she say anything, do anything, feel anything? What is the giant cat who's the cause of all the fuss doing?
Hopefully you get the idea. By using this technique of approaching every sentence as a potential fork in the road, we were able to keep her from getting stuck in any one spot, and actually wrote a first draft that was twice as long as it needed to be. (Oops. But that's what editing is for!)
So next time you feel a bout of writer's block coming on, or you just aren't sure where the scene you're working on is going, try the choose-your-own-adventure approach at the sentence level. You might be surprised at how well it works!
Chances are, if you participate in any online writing communities, you've probably seen NaNoWriMo mentioned a lot this week. NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge that happens every November, with an alternate version in April where you can set your own challenge. For NaNo, participants aim to write 50,000 words of a new story over the course of a month. You can outline and prepare as much as you like beforehand, but no writing until November 1st. If you're shooting for 50,000 words in 30 days, that's an average of 1,667 words per day.
Not everyone does NaNo, and not all participants finish. And that's okay. There are writing tools offered as prizes for the winners, and stat-trackers and writing help groups to keep you on track. The "Adopt a plot-bunny" forum is always one of my favorites, personally. I've participated several times; sometimes I "win," and sometimes I don't.
Here's the key thing to remember: You win at NaNoWriMo when you get words on paper. Any words at all.
It doesn't have to be 50k. It doesn't have to be a thousand. The point of NaNo is to encourage people to write. The theory is that if you sit down to write, and let yourself go, and forget about editing, you help yourself develop routines and strengthen your creative writing muscles. Too often writers get bogged down in trying to edit sentences as they go, striving for perfection in early drafts. This isn't realistic, and inhibits your progress. It's a lot easier to trim and shape and polish a manuscript once you have a completed draft to work from. And editing as you go tends to be discouraging; it's a process that has killed many stories over the years.
Some years NaNoWriMo may work for your schedule, and sometimes it doesn't. This year I'm in an editing phase, so I'm not doing the official challenge. Instead, I'm committing to editing a manuscript in one month. You can do your own version, with whatever goal is realistic for you, any time you want.
The goal is to set aside time for your writing, whatever stage you may be at. The world needs more stories, including yours.
Today's editing tip will hopefully not only help you keep rejections at bay, but also will help you keep heartache away.
Back up your work in multiple locations, in multiple formats.
Thankfully, this particular post is not inspired by recent personal experience, so no need for condolences. But we've all had that mini heart attack when the work-in-progress begins to load, and it looks like half the document is missing. However, computers crash, files get corrupted... There are too many ways to lose your precious work to list them all here.
And your work is precious. It's something unique, that only you can create and add to the world. So treat it accordingly.
What does back it up in multiple locations mean, and why should you do it?
Multiple locations means more than just different folders on your computer. Computer experts recommend using at least two or three different types and locations of backup for any important documents. If all your backups are on a laptop, and that laptop gets stolen, then you're out of luck. If you use a home computer and an external hard drive or USB drive and you have a fire, your work is gone.
A good plan includes backing up your work with multiple versions on the device you write on AND backing it up online somehow. External drives/USB drives are also useful, as long as you update them frequently. Having multiple versions is handy in case the file ever becomes corrupted or you simply change your mind about that massive revision. It's also a fascinating snapshot of how your work has progressed during revisions.
Backing your files up online can be done several different ways.
1. You can periodically email yourself your manuscript as an attachment. I like to email it as a PDF and a .docx file, just in case. You can even email your manuscript as a PDF to your e-reader, if you have one. (For Kindle, if you go to "Manage your content and devices," and then the "Devices" tab, you can click on the ellipsis button to the left of your Kindle and it will bring up your device's email.)
2. You can also use a service like Dropbox, which provides free online storage up to a certain amount per user. The great thing about Dropbox is you can set it to sync across your devices, and you can tell it how often to save and backup your work.
3. You can use Google docs, which will automatically save and sync across devices as well.
4. Microsoft's OneDrive is similar, although I personally have trouble getting mine to sync.
Why back up in multiple locations? Because redundancy, in this case, is your friend. If you lose your computer somehow, you'll still have online versions. If your internet is down and you can't access your Google docs, you'll still have a copy on your computer. If you want to work on your manuscript away from home, you can access it on your phone. You can take a USB stick and borrow a friend's computer. Back it up enough ways, and you'll be able to deal with just about any problem. No more writer nightmares of losing hours worth of work because Windows decided to update or your battery ran out.
English is a strange language, no doubt, and it continues to evolve. But sometimes, people forget that even with all its irregularities and rule-defying spellings, on a sentence level, English still makes sense.
What does that mean? Well, when someone uses a figure of speech or a common saying, the sentence should still make sense. But people make mistakes with these sayings fairly often, especially when they've never seen them written down.
You can usually avoid this common pitfall in your writing if you stop and ask yourself: does this saying make sense?
Here are some examples of common mistakes we see:
WRONG: a Chester drawers
RIGHT: a chest of drawers
(While the usage of chest here as a piece of furniture, like a toy box, is a bit old-fashioned, a "Chester drawers" makes no sense.)
WRONG: I would of come
RIGHT: I would have come
("Of" may be how many people pronounce this, but it doesn't make sense if we stop and think about it, right? And perfect past-tense verbs take had/have as helper verbs.)
WRONG: I could care less
RIGHT: I couldn't care less
(This one I have to stop and think about every time, because it's so commonly misused. If I could care less about something, then that logically means I DO care about it. If it doesn't matter to me, then I could not care any less about it than I currently do.)
WRONG: I defiantly agree
RIGHT: I definitely agree
(Defiance generally indicates opposition to something, so while I can agree with someone and have an attitude about it, I can't really defy them while still agreeing with them.)
WRONG: Peek/Peak my interest
RIGHT: Pique my interest
(This is a vocab mistake we see fairly often. Pique just isn't used often enough in English, outside of this particular phrase, for it to be familiar. But if we think about it, neither "peek" nor "peak" make sense. Sneaky look my interest? High point (of something) my interest? Both choices are plainly nonsense.)
There are many more examples we could go over, but let's cover solutions to this particular editing problem instead.
Step one is to think it through and see if the phrase or figure of speech makes sense.
Step two, if the phrase doesn't seem to make sense the way you've written it, is to look it up. Ask a friend, ask an editor or writer you know, throw it out on social media as a question (because chances are if you're making one of these mistakes, other people are too--it's pretty common, and nothing to be that embarrassed about). Or check it out on your search engine of choice. Googling "sayings people get wrong" brought me up pages of results with lists of all the sayings people tend to misspell.
Number one piece of advice, for this and any other editing problem? Never be afraid to ask for help. We've all been there.
One of the biggest differences between what I thought writing would be like and the reality of what an author's life is like is editing. In high school, English teachers teach minimal revision skills. And with the amount of information they're trying to pack in to limited class time and disinterested students, they're hardly to blame.
The point is, most students (in America, at least) come out of school not understanding how to approach intensive revisions. If you'd asked me ten to fifteen years ago what editing meant, I'd have said copy-editing and a quick check for continuity errors, that sort of thing.
Pause for laughter.
In case you're an editing innocent like I once was, here are some steps you can take in your editing process once you have a completed draft. You don't have to do all of these, or even in this order.
1. Outline your plot as it currently stands. Then compare it to a beat sheet, and plan how to adjust any pacing issues.
2. Write a one-sentence summary of each chapter/scene. Look at pacing, and how each scene furthers the plot. Is anything unnecessary? Does anything need filling out?
3. Examine the main character's emotional arc. What challenges do they face throughout the novel? Do they experience growth? A flat internal arc means readers may have a hard time investing in that character.
4. Find your novel's theme. What's at the heart of the story, and is it clear enough on the page?
5. Read over the draft, making notes on changes to be made. Don't do anything other than minor copy-edits at this stage, because it's a waste of time. If you're going to rewrite massive chunks--and there's a good chance you are--there's no point in perfecting sentences on this read through.
6. Start looking for critique partners. Once you have a draft you're comfortable with, and you feel you've done all the big revisions you know you need to, CPs can help you figure out what to do next. Build friendships and goodwill be being a reciprocal critique partner. Plus, it will help you flex your own revision muscles.
7. Let the manuscript sit for a week or two before diving back in. Coming at it with a fresh eye helps you see problems you might not catch otherwise.
8. If it helps you get your creative process flowing or to pin down themes, characters, or moods, make aesthetics or playlists, etc. Some people find them useful. Some don't.
9. Fill out character profiles to discover what's hiding under the surface of your main cast. When you know more about who your characters are, it comes across on the page.
10. Think about the setting. Is it important? Is it realistic? Do you know enough about the world you're writing? If you need to do some world-building, in between drafts is a good time to do it. Making up major aspects of how your world works can cause inconsistencies, and readers will notice.
11. Research appropriate final word count ranges. A draft doesn't have to be in the right range, but it's good to know if you need to cut or add to get to your target before you write fifty-thousand extra words and then realize you have to cut sixty-thousand.
12. Research and read about comp titles. You may not want to actually read comp titles as you're working, because it can be intimidating. Or worse, it can influence your own work and land you in copyright trouble. But if you don't have comps in mind already, you can still research online to find books that sound similar in theme, tone, plot, etc.
13. Keep reading in your genre. It's fun, and it's good research for what audiences expect from your type of story.
14. Make sure to keep your creative batteries charged.
15. If you want a boost of energy, researching agents and manuscript wishlists can help. Finding an agent who is asking for your story is a great kick in the pants to keep you going, even when revisions get tough. Plus, making a to-query list early on in the process gives you time to research potential matches and hopefully avoid pitfalls. Never send materials to someone you haven't vetted.
If you have revision process suggestions, let us know in the comments below!
One of the most common questions we get about showing after "how can I improve my Showing vs. Telling techniques" is "how can I figure out when to Show and when to Tell?"
Remember, not everything needs to be shown in a narrative. Showing creates an emotional response in the reader. Sometimes, though, it's better for the pacing to tell an event briefly instead of showing it in full detail. Here's a tip to help you decide whether showing or telling is what a situation calls for.
Showing is best used when you want to evoke feelings in the reader. Telling is best used when something doesn't need to create that emotional connection.
So what does that look like in a manuscript? Let's take weather as an example. Imagine it's important for the reader to know that it's raining, because it affects the characters' choices. Does the storm need to be shown or told? It depends. Does the storm have an emotional significance to the characters? Then use some telling. Is it simply a small element of the plot, without any deeper meaning? Then it can be told.
The choice whether to show or to tell is two-fold. It affects both the emotional response in the reader and the pacing of the story. Too much showing can actually drag the pacing down too much. Too much telling speeds the pace, but it also makes the story feel shallower. Finding the balance between the two is important for crafting a story with good pacing and compelling characters.
Today's editing tip was inspired by my personal editing work. I always have to double-check mentally whenever I mention "breathing" in a manuscript. And while my characters don't let out breaths they didn't know they were holding any more, they still have to breathe sometimes.
So how can you remember the difference between breath (short E sound) and breathe (long E sound)?
We have two handy mnemonic devices for you!
Tip #1: Lack of breath can lead to death. Breath and death rhyme, and they're spelled the same way. It's not the cheeriest mnemonic, but it works.
Tip #2: Breathe, with the long EE sound, is the one with more E's.
Now take in a deep breath, let it out, and enjoy your editing! For more hints and tips, you can browse our archives on the sidebar, or read tips sorted by category. -->
And you can always use the Contact Us form with suggestions or questions.
Adverbs. Possibly the most maligned part of speech.
Stephen King famously said, "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs." But why does everyone hate them so much?
Because most adverbs are unnecessary. They're sentence clutter, and usually indicate places where the writing could be stronger.
Now, before we dive into the mechanics, I'd like to clarify: like most other writing "rules," this isn't an absolute. You're still allowed to use adverbs. Just use them sparingly. In fact, in the King quote linked above, he used eight adverbs in discussing why adverbs are so bad (not counting the ones he used as examples).
Why are adverbs often a sign of weak writing? Take a look at these examples:
#1: "Coffee, black," he said brusquely.
#2: The child skipped happily around the playground.
#3: She quickly ran from her car to the building.
#1. This isn't bad, but it could be better. Instead of using a boring verb plus an adverb, I could pick a better verb:
"Coffee, black," he snapped.
Or I could use an action to show the man's mood:
"Coffee, black." He rapped his knuckles on the counter while the waitress fumbled to make the right change.
"Keep the pennies, just get my drink already!"
This second method results in more words, but it works to create a mini-scene. Depending on how much weight you want to give to an event, you can spend less time on it (with stronger verbs) or more time (with actions and showing).
#2. Part of the problem with this one is that "happily" is, presumably, redundant. "Skipping" implies a happy mood, unless the scene has demonstrated otherwise. So this adverb can be cut out altogether:
The child skipped around the playground.
Or I could add body language or some other type of showing to demonstrate the mood instead:
The child skipped around the playground. A grin spread over his face as he skipped faster and faster, the wind rushing past him like he might fly away in between a step and a hop.
#3: This is another redundant adverb. Running is already quick. Again, this passage would be stronger either by removing the adverb or by showing why she's running:
She ran from her car to the building, holding an old grocery bag over her head to keep off as much of the rain as possible.
So when you're editing and looking for adverbs, think about if the adverb is necessary. Is it adding any new information to the sentence/scene? Does that information change how the reader views the scene? If it new and important, would the sentence be stronger by choosing a different verb or by using showing techniques instead?
Today's tip is a twofer: a tip that helps you, and helps other writers at the same time. What could be better than that?
Take time to thoughtfully review other authors' books.
Reviewing other authors' books is helpful, because more ratings mean books appear higher in search engines and bookseller rankings. Readers are more willing to take a chance on a new book or a new author when that book has a decent number of reviews. As a writer, you'll want people to leave reviews of your own books someday, so it's good karma to help other authors out by reviewing their books.
But how does reviewing other people's books help YOU, as an author?
1. It can help you build your own following, which will hopefully help you create sales of your own someday.
2. It can help you build a broader network of fellow writers. Building goodwill in the community and engaging meaningfully with other authors makes it easier for you to find help when you need it. Critique partners, beta readers, listening ears, friendly advice, shoulders to cry on, sounding boards for that weird idea you thought up at 3 A.M. that you're not sure about...other writers are great resources for all these things. Make friends and build your network!
3. The biggest reason of all. Reviewing books thoughtfully helps you become more aware of what works and what doesn't. A while back I posted about why it's important to read in your genre; reviewing is just as helpful.
When you finish reading a new book, there are layers to your response. Did you like it or hate it, or just muddle through? How many stars would you give it? That part is simple. That's based off a gut response to how the book made you feel. (And leaving star-only reviews is still helpful, so if you don't have time to take it a step further, don't feel bad!)
To look deeper, you have to ask questions: Why did I like the book? Did I like the plot, the characters, the romance, the suspense? Did I like the magic system? Did it make me laugh? Did I enjoy the plot twists? Did I appreciate the setting or time period?
Once you've pinned down what you liked or disliked about a novel, you can take it one step further. If you liked the characters, why? What made them compelling or relatable? Find specific passages or plot arcs that illustrate that. If you liked the author's way with words, look for passages that stood out and analyze them. Anything you thought was well done can be broken down into a miniature lesson on how to improve that aspect of your own work. And if you run across a book you don't enjoy, ask the same questions and figure out how you can avoid any mistakes the author might have made.
Do you have favorite books or authors you've learned a lot from? Share in the comments, so everyone else can enjoy them too!
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!