Reading the Right Book on Writing: Improving your Novel-Writing Skills

(Part 1)

This summer I’m giving myself a mini self-guided MFA program on novel craft. As I perused numerous books that purport to teach me the craft of writing, I decided, what better way to absorb their material than to write a brief review of each?

Brief being the goal. I’ve actually never been brief in my life. 

You can read my first two reviews on Goodreads here:

The First Five Pages: For novice writers looking to avoid common writing pitfalls, and for any level of writer hoping for good writing exercises to stretch themselves.

The Art and Craft of Fiction: For all levels looking for breezy, feel-good, albeit digression-filled insights on the writing life (and some techniques.)

Writing Blockbuster Plots: coming soon 

As I launch the project, I pose a few thoughts about what makes for a useful book on craft. Why? Because asking ourselves what a “good book” on craft should teach requires us to define those intangible questions we’ve been struggling with in our own writing life. So please, in response to this post, pose the questions you’d love to see addressed by a non-fiction book on craft. 

  1. My initial reaction when reviewing books on writing– and this holds for conference sessions, writing workshops, and even college courses– is that we want the content to deliver what is promised  by the title, subtitle, and back cover copy.
  2. Even though a book can’t replicate a class, we want a book that can come close to doing so. We need concrete, tangible, actionable advice, not mere espousing on the art of writing itself. Lamott (Bird by Bird) has already done this so well we likely don’t need too many others.
  3. If we’re getting close to publishing, we want the insider scoop on the industry, not complaints or condescending treatment by editors tired of seeing spelling mistakes.  
  4. Sure, we like when something inspires us, but more often we want exercises that can improve us.
  5. Sometimes, we want help getting through a block, but we need the many kinds of writers’ block addressed, not the “I just can’t think of anything to write” advice blather that many articles and blogs toss out without thought, further trivializing our efforts. See my blog on this topic.
  6. Of course, we often reject self-help and how-to books when the proficiency level doesn’t jibe for us. That means, folks, that this part of the job is on us. Aspiring authors would benefit, as they begin searching for craft resources, from some understanding of their current proficiency level. This can be hugely hard to peg, considering we’re likely too hard on ourselves and considering that our friends are likely too kind to us on the topic. 

Personally, I’d love a book detailing what current, saleable novel arcs should look like. We all know that we won’t make our debut with an arc such as House of Leaves or Slaughterhouse Five, or with a word count like Rowling’s. So next—The Plot Whisperer, and then I plan to also evaluate Save the Cat, On Writing, The Story Grid, and at least one other on the topic of overall novel pacing/plotting. 

Any suggestions for what you’d like me to review?

Portrait of girl with glasses and open book sitting on pile of books
Portrait of girl with glasses and open book sitting on pile of books

Lastly… here are some questions to ask yourself that I’ve gleaned from teaching writing (and some “tells” I spot with new students that I use to keep in mind to meet them where they’re at.) I can’t provide an exact equation for the list below, but if you say yes to several, you’re probably at least in the intermediate-plus range. The problem inherent with this list, as with the art of writing in itself, is subjectivity. And you well may be an accomplished dialogue-writer with a serious lack of awareness of plot and story arc. Or vice versa. I’ll discuss techniques for gaining reflection on yourself as a writer, and thus a better audience awareness, in a future blog—once I’ve finished reading all these books!

Do you write four plus days a week?

Do you write at least an hour when you do write?

Do you read in your genre regularly?

Have you attended any creative writing conferences?

Have you taken any classes in creative writing?

Have you taken any MFA courses?

Have you published any short stories, poems, or novels?

Have you written any short stories or poems in the last month?

Have you finished a novel (first draft?)

Have you finished a novel (edited?)

Have you published a novel?

After reading my blog on “Distinct Dialogue” did you already know most of the basics mentioned in the first few sentences?

I promise, these questions are not meant to engender guilt or a feeling of inadequacy. We’re all amazing creatures with complicated lives that conspire at times to keep us from writing as much as we’d like. If you want to accomplish any of these goals, you eventually will!

So stay tuned for Part 2 of my search for the most useful books on writing!

11 Strategies for Blocked Writing

I’ve always scoffed at books or blogs or workshops that addressed the dreaded WBS. But then, to my total embarrassment, I got stuck. Mired in a very real, very block-headed slump which I refuse to call by its full, cliché name, like He-Who-Shall-Not-Be Named. I won’t even refer to it directly as the title of this blog.

So there I was, about three quarters through a novel so marketable that an agent chased me down after a conference first-page critique and asked for the entire book. Seriously. The other attendees at my table literally (and I use the word “literal” very sparingly) stared with slack-jawed envy. Yet I had just begun writing the novel and wasn’t even ready to query. A year later, at another conference, more query critique sessions yielded the same interest. Thus, I knew my idea was solid and my first pages strong. And yet… I couldn’t write the end!

Okay, I promised some tips for getting out of WBS, not a story about me. So first, let’s try to identify what kind of block you’re experiencing. Are you:

Photo by Jacob Prose on Pexels.com

Stuck on a minor detail, like solving a problem or plot loophole? Time for a “Say Yes Night.*” Every time you hear yourself saying, “I couldn’t possibly change that part,” you should immediately try changing it (just in a draft format). It will expand your work, no matter how much you keep. And yes you can modify things if need be—you’re the master creator! Or, less excitingly, see if you can modify a different variable in your novel that isn’t crucial, which might enable an easier scenario to present itself to you. Also, try bouncing ideas off friends, especially the ones who are not writers. They’re not attached to outcomes like you are. The idea here is to stay open!

Stuck for the next plot point because you don’t know how it ends, and pantsing is no longer working? It might be time to outline—sorry! I feel you! I’m a pantser, too. This is a boring suggestion on my part, but the writing teacher knows sometimes ya gotta just suck it up.

Stuck because the characters and story went rogue, and you don’t know what they want next? Harder. Hmm. Try asking each character what they want to happen next, and what they really don’t, and then make at least some of those undesired things happen to shake things up. Either way, you’ll learn more about their motivations.

Stuck because you’re trying to make a character do or be something they’re not? This will also require either a restructuring of their persona or some intensive journaling for backstory.

Stuck with where to even start writing your new novel? If you’re trying to open a story you know you want to write, or have a character you see clearly but for whom you lack a clear plotline, then I’d let go of the idea of ‘starting at the beginning.’ Just dive in anywhere that feels exciting and the rest will follow. Writing is not always the Yellow Brick Road. Sometimes it’s a scavenger hunt. Or a game of whack-a-mole. Or that car chase in It’s a Mad Mad Mad (and onto infinity) World. Start writing, and keep writing, at any point. Movement is your friend.

Stuck because your arc is complete, but your novel feels very short? You might need a subplot, or to brainstorm backstory about your character to flesh out smaller arcs for them. Or invent an irresistible minor character who just has to nose their way in.

Stuck because you’re too close to the story and it’s either depressing or hard to get perspective on? Hint: This was my problem. I’ll explain more later. You might need to start a side project or find a way to make it less like your own story. 

You may have a combination of WBS symptoms. Here are some more specific approaches. They all have their use, to varying degrees. 

1. Refuse to allow the possibility that WBS exists, and keep writing even if you’re not feeling energized by what you’re saying.

Pros: You’ll very possibly write your way through, like steering through a huge puddle and getting safely out the other side. You’ll come up with some great lines, and even if you don’t keep the majority of what you write, it’s food for thought and/or backstory. Eventually you’ll get back on track—right? 

Cons: If you’re really off track, you’ll continue to feel depleted. 

Hard-won Tip: If you continue to write and feel really depleted, it’s the sign you ARE off track and at least you now know for sure. 

2. Suss out where/when/how  you feel inspired and spend some quality time there. For some reason I feel my thoughts are set free in three places—walking, driving (only on a road trip, where I know I’m going somewhere “new” to find one of the lost pieces of myself), or listening to live music with a crowd of people. Sometimes I even hear lyrics and lines over what they’re singing. Take your phone with you in case you want to dictate, but do let the voice talk a while before you try to pin it down.

3. This is a related strategy to 2. Go somewhere or do something where that inspired voice can yell! It’s like singing. Your literary lungs need to be full of air before you belt out the notes. Your voice wants to yell, and risk-take, and scat, and free-form, but it’s become shy with all that pressure of working itself into a novel arc so that you’ll finally be famous/published/good enough/rich/finally worth of your parents’ love, etc. Let that voice yell—over music or a buzzsaw or live music or out the car window—let it yell loud until it’s hoarse.

4. Take a short break, but do something that uses a different part of your brain—like math. Or filing your back taxes. If you end up playing Fallout, try not to get lost for too long looking for the perfect power-armor.

5. Take a real break, like at least days if not months. (Ugh, right? Who wants to do this?)

Pros: You can finally stop thinking about the novel. You might get perspective. You might currently be so far inside the book that you’re unable to generate enough new brain cells about anything else and you need to refuel. 

Cons: You might not go back. It’s up to you to know this about yourself. 

Hard-won Tip: Really, this works best if you do what makes you happy during this time and don’t obsess over the novel. Again, obsessing over power-armor is probably not the best use of this time. Maybe work on your author platform?

6. Work on a different novel and try to trust that letting one part of the field relax for a season will allow to be replenish. I call this the crop rotation theory.

7. Read up on story structure and find a plotting device or model that jogs your brain. The Story Grid, the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, what have you. Sure, maybe you already know what you’re doing as a writer and you feel it’s beneath you, but these are some of the better books out there, and going back to the fundamentals will always resonate.

8. Also to be tried at this point are journaling and freewriting on your characters or world. One of my tricks is to open a fresh doc and write at the top of the page: “What am I really trying to say in this section?” It seems super-easy, almost too easy. It’s for low-level WBS, and it has helped me many times. Journaling/ freewriting on your intended themes and goals is a great low-stakes way to get momentum again. It’s so easy that we experienced writers might overlook the simplicity of the idea.

9. Go back to where you last felt it was working and start from there again.

Pros: You’re going to write from a place where you are energized again! This is why you love writing! Remember now?

Cons: It takes time and may result in your trashing several thousand words. This is my least favorite strategy, but it is sometimes necessary. 

Hard-Won Tip: You’re potentially going to be annoyed you have to do it, so that might add even more energy. But, you might be tempted to simply revise the other arc/direction you went in. It will go better if you don’t look at at the last draft at all.  Open a fresh document so that other plotline is not just a few clicks away. 

10. Find a writing group, take a class, or go to a conference with agents or critique circles. I call this the “joining the gym” theory. If you pay money for something, or add some social pressure to the mix, it might force you to perform.

11. Look for comps. Not only will you need them for your query, but they might help you understand what you’re trying to achieve with your work.

12. If all else fails, meditate, pray, talk to a counselor—maybe tell your favorite compassionate, wise tree why you are frustrated. As in, meditate directly on the themes of the book.

“I’m so stuck because the protagonist has to overcome his greatest struggle now, and I have to make it exciting, but really, what the character needs to do is just stop being so codependent, and that doesn’t seem really interesting, so I don’t know what to write!

“And hey, god/Universe/Dr. Jung/Piney, I’m not sure that’s heroic enough. To just do the right thing, but quietly. Is it enough? What would it look like?”

Pro: You’re improving yourself even if the book doesn’t get fleshed out.

Con: Welcome to soul-searching. You might have to confront something in yourself. 

Yes, folks, this is the one it took for me. When I had finally picked a salable topic — an edgy contemporary YA that drew heavily from my own fragmented teenage — I started writing too fast for my fingers to type. Literally. Then, I hit the third section, where it should have all been ramping up, and my train collided into a brick wall. A wall made of bricks that looked awfully square. Blockish, even. Why? Because I wanted it to end more cheerfully than the novel or reality demanded. I had to be ready to let some major bad things happen to good people, instead of making it all turn out mostly well, like the YA books I enjoy.

For almost two years, I tried editing, re-editing, and writing the ending, but I kept stopping just short of the last 3,000 words, then rewriting and re-editing and on to infinity. In the interim I went to another conference. And AGAIN with the agents wanting me to send pages or the entire book. But I knew it wasn’t ready yet. I put it down, I asked friends, I wrote two other middle grade novels, and I did study the art of novel arcing/plotting. I also started this blog.

But I finally got through the block the hard way — by realizing that I had to let my protagonist mostly fail and another character mostly succeed. And a third character — the reason I was inspired to write the book in the first place — him I had to let fall down and keep falling. I cried as I wrote the real ending. That’s probably a good sign.

The point of this post, and my website, is to find secret passageways into your work by changing your position and viewpoint. I imagine that our minds are like houses, and we travel around from room to room (a puny metaphor—one room might be the entire continent of Asia, perhaps—) as our mood and experiences dictate. A work of art is much the same. If you can’t get in through a door, you need to peek in a window. Or slip a note under the door. Or slither down the chimney like the Grinch. Sometimes if you glance at something from the side without realizing what you’re looking at, you’ll see it differently.

13. So my last suggestion is to try the suggestion that most interested you (and gave you a thrill of hope), but only AFTER doing the suggestion that most made you cringe.

Yup. It might be the outline. Sorry. Getting through WBS is about doing something differently than the last twenty thousand times you did it. Thereby making yourself saner. You can get through this block! I did. And all of these techniques will make you a better writer.

Remember, when it’s dark outside, a window becomes a mirror. If the view is blocked, looking inward and working on yourself as a writer will keep you serving your highest purpose. 

For more ideas on writing and craft, and to feel generally encouraged that life is good, or at least tolerable, check out my website at http://kendragriffin.com

*Yes, I stole this phrasing from Grace and Frankie!

*I know. I gave you 13. I always talk too much 🙂

What to Do While Waiting to Secure a Literary Agent

Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could straight up just tell you how to land an agent in this post? And wouldn’t you think I had a ton more credibility if I’d already secured one?

I’m heading to a writing conference this weekend to learn more about craft and marketing, and I’m hopeful. (See my post on PPWC and questions I’ll try to get answered). I’ve only recently begun querying, having waited a long time for my 10,000 plus hours of “mastery” to ennoble me. I’ve also done a copious amount of revision on both my series and and standalones. My first recent rejections have reminded me that I chose to be in this for the long haul and cannot let myself be stuck in the swamps of despair.

It’s okay. I’m new at this, but determined. As a writer, you’re probably like me– you’d rather do your taxes, clean the sink traps, gutters, and even your friends’ sink traps and gutters, and then do your back taxes (not based on a real incident), than begin querying.

Man sleeping on the table with laptop at home
Man sleeping on the table with laptop at home

I’ll tell you that querying will be daunting, time consuming, and ultimately, a learning process that will improve your manuscript and your skills. I know it has mine. Also, I like to put things in the positive. Yes, I realize there’s a finite number of agents, book deals, and Harry Potters. Meanwhile, we’re competing with a possibly infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters. But since I’ve begun writing my novels, the creative process has been kind to me in that the more I write, the happier I am. I can only believe that honoring our creativity means we’re on the right path for our lives.

I teach creative writing at a college and have an endless (and perhaps annoying) amount of optimism for the craft. So here are a few pick me ups as we wander that path together…

Not finding an agent right away means you have more time to work on that next novel. That’s right–you can’t stop writing just because you’ve finished that first book. You have too much to learn by writing your second! The process will give you clarity on your previous work and teach you about your strengths, weaknesses, patterns, and process. While waiting for those slow-to-arrive responses, if you’ve been working away, you’re already even better at writing than when you sent the query!

Rejections of your query letter itself tell you that you need a better query, and this is useful info. Really. The query is not the book. It’s an animal unto itself, and if agents are not responding, then you need to reconsider how you’re approaching them. Luckily, there are many resources for writing good queries, and I’ve linked a few at the bottom of this post.

If you are getting asked for pages based on your query, you can take heart that the main features of your query (genre, concept, word count, pitch, character arc, comps, and overall author demeanor) must hold some appeal. But if agents are not getting past those first ten pages, that also indicates that you need to write better first pages. Why is this good? Well… okay. I’ll stall and admit something here: that back taxes thing was based on a real incident, which I suspect you knew.

Seriously, though… the opening pages of any book are the hardest to write, and very likely, you can improve them! So take heart. If your novel concept appeals to agents but you’re having trouble leading in to the book, it’s easily fixable. Often authors hit their stride a few chapters in. Your work on other projects as you wait for query responses will again help give you the perspective to improve the start. However, since you might not see this rewriting endeavor with quite as much optimism as I do at this moment, I’ll move on.

Most importantly, you’ll have time to work on that author platform! You don’t want to miss out because an agent liked your query and pages but checked out your public persona and found you had none. No, not all agents care about platforms, but some do, and you should have some awareness of this by researching each agents’ own platforms. You’ll also learn more about their personalities, wishlists, and if you two would work well together.

Pitfalls to avoid (I need a better verb here. Who swerves toward a pitfall?)

Ahem: Pitfalls

Don’t give up. You don’t suck. Probably. And even if so, that’s a subjective judgment you have no time for. Once you keep going, and keep writing, and keep learning, you will no longer suck, anyway. So tell that critical voice in your head to take a vacation or jump off a cliff, depending on your mood. The creative process loves you and wants only the best for you. Publishing is beyond its ethereal control, but writing regularly and with passion is within yours.

Don’t tear the book apart with massive reconstruction until you’ve written at least one more book and have a better sense of how novels are constructed. Most authors’ first books are not published, or at least, not published as their breakthrough novel. Frustrating as that is, keep going. That’s what a writer does. So write. Write. Write. Drink water occasionally. Then write more.

Don’t turn to self-publishing as a knee-jerk reaction. It may well be the best option, and I’m all for fighting the power and resisting the massive profit portions that publishing houses take. But if you do turn to self publishing, again, wait until you’ve had time to thoughtfully edit and revise the manuscript. You don’t want to immortalize something you might later realize wasn’t ready to be published! You also need to thoroughly research self publishing. You might not be able to ever market that book to an agent afterward. We’re better than random monkeys, but we’re not all Andy Weir, either.

Okay, enough with the pep talk! Here’s a great blog by a compatriot on the trials and tribulations of beginning the search for an agent.

Searching for an Agent

And below, some good resources on queries:

How to Write a Darn Good Query Letter

Agent Kristen Nelson’s Pub Rants and Sample Queries

Writer’s Digest Dos and Don’ts

Ask (me to ask) a Literary Agent at My Upcoming Writers Conference

Yup! I’ll do my level best to get your question answered by an agent as I attend the Pikes Peak Writers Conference next weekend (May 1-4) in Colorado Springs.

Either ask by commenting on this blog, or use the “Contact Me” form to ask me a question.*

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

Writing conferences, although pricey, are a fantastic way to get real-time, expert advice on specific questions pertaining to marketing, querying, synopses, market trends, first pages, and loglines. I have no affiliation with PPWC, although it’s my favorite. For advice for the PP conference and how to get the most out of writing conferences in general, click here. For more info on how to get an agent’s attention at writing conferences, click here.

If you don’t have an agent yet, you’re only likely to get tailored information from one in two ways: by checking out their agency websites to see if they’re answered your specific questions on wishlists, blogs, pubrants, etc– or by catching them when they hold open sessions, usually at a conference. They’re so dang busy reading queries and marketing their authors that it’s understandable, although frustrating, that they can’t give a specific reason why they rejected, or seemingly ignored, your query.

Here are two questions I’ve had answered from a variety of agents in the past few years at conferences.

Question:

What should I include on my query bio section if I’m unpublished?

Answer:

Relevant education (briefly), participation in current critique groups (this shows understanding of the exhaustive need for revision before submission and the ability to take feedback), related skills or experience (editing, presenting on writing, teaching writing), and published writing besides the novel in question. Also, this is a good place to include your credentials for writing on this topic, especially if you’re writing non-fiction or fiction about a marginalized population in general. A link to your author platform if not already provided.

Yup! Every agent said something different, and really, you want to keep this part brief if you’re unpublished. Your goal is to seem knowledgeable and demonstrate people/social skills that won’t send them running from the idea of forming a business relationship with you. Don’t get too cutesy here, although you might demonstrate having something in common with the agent if you’ve researched them.

Question:

“Is my novel more marketable because it’s part of a series?”

Answer:

Possibly, but not if you’ve only written one that’s dependent on sequels that you may never write (these agents can’t bank their income on the idea that a new author will write the rest of the series).

Best advice: say it’s a “standalone with series potential” (if that’s true) and then note if you have written the others already. If it’s not a standalone, it’s going to be really hard for an agent to take you on as a new author. I have heard agents might be happy to know you’ve already written a few sequels. In general, emerging authors will do best by querying novels that fall squarely within industry standards for word count. (Here’s my post on “How to Wallop Your Word Count” if you’re struggling with novel length).

Here are some questions I’ll be asking, so tune in for my post-conference blog! I’m attending with friends and students, so they can help me get the scoop.

How should I handle multiple POV in my query letter? And can my query be longer if I have multiple protagonists?

Where can I find good examples of successful novel synopses?

I have an ethnically diverse ensemble cast. Do I need to specify ethnicity in the novel when characters are introduced (which seems fake) or can I simply describe the characters’ appearances when it feels natural? Follow up: it seems annoying of me to highlight ethnicity of supporting characters in a query, but should I if they are major?

Do I need to include authors’ names in comps, or just the book titles? How old can a comp be before it’s irrelevant?

Is it okay to mention other current books or movies in my novel? For example, if someone has named their pet mouse “muggle” or if kids reference Dumbledore as part of their everyday pop culture experiences, is this an infringement or just an allusion (artistic license)?

If I write children’s novels, to whom should my author platform be aimed?

Where can I find good info on self-publishing vs. industry publishing?

Is the dystopian genre trending again with agents?

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for as many answers as I can glean, and good luck with your writing until then!

*You knew there’d be an asterisk… Please keep questions reasonably simple and pertaining to novels (not other genres). I can’t read your novel for context. If you ask “How do I write a query letter” I’ll direct you to my favorite resources.

*If you send me your question, you’re agreeing that I can SHARE your question, and any answer, on my next blog. If you don’t want your name used, email me the question and tell me to omit the name. Please consider following my blog as a courtesy, so I can prove to agents that I exist in the land of zeroes and ones.

*In the spirit of supporting the conference, I won’t mention agents or anyone else by name, I’m not recording anything, and I’ll focus on only on questions asked by myself or a friend who gave permission. Depending on the question, I might answer with what I’ve gleaned from other conferences/prior experience.

Cheers!

How to Create a Novel Critique Group that Won’t Drive You Crazy

So you want to be a member of a fantastic critique group. All your friends have one. Every writer you know offhandedly mentions their beloved circle of trust whose members can spot every plot hole, straighten every bent character arc, and untangle every mixed metaphor. 

You’re jealous to the core. Heck, you’re even jealous of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien for having the Inklings, and they’re both dead. Meanwhile, all you have is a bunch of Meetup misfits who never remember to staple their single-spaced pages and whose go-to comments for your work are always either, “This really flows!” or “I don’t feel like this flows. Can you add more details?”

Well, not to rub it in, but I do currently have two excellent critique groups, though I’ve had many mishaps along the way.

I’m going to begin with some advice about how to recruit a good critique group. Disclaimer: Use common sense here. Do not take candy from strangers.  

Take/audit a college class on creative writing. A community college course costs a few hundred dollars and will gain you feedback from students and a professor, as well as a review of craft. You’d easily spend twice that for one conference, professional writing series, or editor. Of course, each group of students is different. Most likely, you can drop within the first two weeks with a refund if you sense the group or curriculum won’t meet your needs. 

A university-level or upper division class might be more rigorous, but enrollment requirements get trickier. Either way, you’ll make at least a few friends who will want to meet and workshop outside of class, and by then you’ll have a feel for their skill/experience level. Many community college students are non-trads, perhaps like you, with a good deal of life experience. One of my two awesome critique groups is comprised of former students. (I teach creative writing).

Most local libraries host occasional free author talks or editor/agent workshops. Writing professionals need to promote their books, expand their client base, and deduct tax write-offs. You’ll learn about craft and current industry and market trends; you can also join mailing lists or meet with other attendees afterward for coffee and networking. I frequent writing conference on the Front Range and can attest that often the library hosts the same quality workshops, sessions, and even presenters from the expensive, professional conference circuit. In addition, the library calendar of events will announce meetings such as critique groups. 

Attend a conference, network there, and or/join a regional writing group. Some are free; some have affordable yearly membership fees ($20-40) for which you can also attend occasional quality workshops. My second awesome writing critique group stems from my joining the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers group (RMFW, based in Denver). Their website listed the email contact for critique groups in my town. This is likely the most effective option, as you’ll be able to get a feel for genre and experience level before you join.

Even if you don’t want to write 50,000 words in one month, Nanowrimo.org is a fantastic resource and platform. There, during November, you can attend “write-ins” hosted all over your local area and meet like-minded writers.   

If these ideas don’t work for you, there’s always Meetup or other social platforms. (If anyone has any other suggestions, please contact me!) Whatever you do, plan to meet in a public area until you feel very sure that no one is going to end up sobbing if you don’t think their writing “flows” well enough. (Or worse, stalking you because you told them it does!)

Tips on making that new critique group successful:

  • Meet regularly to gather momentum. Pick a dedicated time and keep plugging away until you pick up traction even if it’s just two of you for a while.  
  • Consider asking new members for sample pages before offering them a spot. It’s easier to tell someone a door is closed than to push someone back out it later.`
  • Try to find people near the same skill level as you. This can be hard to ascertain. If you’re not sure, then at least try to ascertain the same experience level. 
  • If you’re working on novels in particular, don’t let the group get bigger than five or six regulars or you won’t have the time you need for your own. 
  • Make the workshopping space sacred. Place boundaries around how much “off topic” discussion you’ll allow. Members who really want to chat, not workshop, could agree to meet half an hour earlier or stay late. 
  • Of course, camaraderie is key. Avoid politics unless you know you’re all on the same page. Sorry for the cliché.
  • If a member doesn’t have pages, consider devoting that time to brainstorming or working through blocks or arcs. This activity is beneficial for all, supports the writing process, and/or creates that aforementioned camaraderie.
  • Overall, remember: this is your precious time, and it’s okay to be picky about your groupmates. 
  • Check in every once in a while—what’s working, what’s not?

You might not end up with the Algonquin Roundtable or have a barstool retired for you like Hemingway, but hopefully you’ll get the feedback you need to improve your novel. Keep in touch for my upcoming post on how to give, receive, and apply, useful feedback. What has worked for you in your own critique groups?

Writing Distinct Dialogue for Better Fiction

Sure, everyone has heard the basics: don’t overuse names; don’t rely on cutesy dialogue tags (“he chortled”); avoid clichés; use contractions; observe grammar and punctuation conventions, and of course—show don’t tell. If a guide to anything involving writing doesn’t throw that last bit of golden advice in, it’s not worth its weight in—gold? (That’s what I get for using a cliché.)

One of my pet peeves as an educator is that so often writing advice is framed in either very specific and suffocating “do not” statements or obnoxiously vague “do” statements. 

Closeup portrait of a male hand writing on a paper

In contrast, this post will offer some specific dialogue considerations I’ve gleaned by reading thousands of student essays, participating in numerous critique groups, and most of all, revising my own work. I’ll also attempt to frame my advice in the positive. 

Tip 1. When writing dialogue, you are always balancing authenticity vs. readability. 

Your job as an author is not to write “exactly how a character would speak.” It’s to represent, with a good degree of authenticity, the cadence, features, and timbre of realistic speech. To do this, imagine that your characters’ genuine spoken words are revised and improved before being offered for public consumption. 

Here’s an example of a passage in need of revision:

“Huh. I guess.” Jake said, sipping his coffee. He thought for a while. “I never thought of it that way before. But now that you say it, I can see that I should probably have believed my sister when she told me that guy was stalking her. Wow. What a creep. I just thought she was a drama queen, as usual. Just looking for attention.” 

Honestly, I was bored just writing that. But that’s what first drafts are for—discovering our story and thinking through what our character would authentically say in a certain situation. Upon revision, we want to make speech less realistic but more interesting and succinct. As writers, we’re fascinated by wading through our characters’ streams of consciousness. Our reader probably wants to keep their socks and shoes on with the condensed, polished version. After removing redundancies and qualifiers, the result is:

Jake nodded before sipping his coffee. “I should’ve believed my sister when she told me that creep was stalking her. I just thought she was being a drama queen, as usual.” 

Many beginning writers, and even those popular writers whose publishers greenlight in a hurry, use repetitive dialogue. But if your characters are essentially saying the same thing twice, choose the most effectively phrased version and nix the rest. 

Ex: “I don’t know,” he said. “I really haven’t had much of a chance to suss it out.”

The second statement contains the idea presented in the first statement. There’s no need for both. And “really” already qualifies the verb, so you don’t need “much of” also. 

“I really haven’t had a chance to suss it out,” he said.

Tip 2.  Make sure your characters speak distinctly from each other. 

Here’s a scenario I’m faced with often since I write mostly YA and MG: three or more teens in the same age range, in a café. Our speech patterns often vary based on education level, age, and region, but in this case, likely these demographics are similar. Now let’s move away from YA—what if you have several characters all from the same region of your fantasy world? In either case, how do we make sure their speech is not interchangeable? 

Quicker strategies for distinct dialogue: diction, accents, easily identifiable vernacular, slang. Remember, if you choose these options you need to be consistent for 80,000 plus words. You also need to avoid lapsing into stereotypes and clichés. If your character has an actual speech impediment, you’ll need to work hard to balance readability vs. authenticity.

More in-depth strategies: characterization, motivation/situation (these of course overlap)

Characterization 

Who asks questions? Who gives orders? Who tries to lighten the mood with jokes? Who demonstrates confidence, insecurity, irritability, joy, sarcasm, or hopefulness? Who would be interrupted, and who would do the interrupting? Who usually controls the conversation/situation? Who is quick to apologize or qualify? Who needs to show off their knowledge? Who sits back to listen in a group conversation? Who likes to give advice? In short, does their speech accurately represent the elaborate characterization you’ve developed for them?

Motivation

Who wants the subject changed? Who might be hiding something, glossing over something, fooling herself, or rationalizing? Who’s stressed out by conflict, and who dives headlong into it? Who is preoccupied? Who is having an emotion specific to this scene’s conversation—exhaustion, exultation, despondence, blind faith, boundless optimism? In short, does their speech accurately represent each characters’ motivation and backstory?

Situation

Who just got caught having an affair and is likely really defensive? Who hates weddings and is surlier than usual inside the tent? Who got stung by a bee and is trying to pretend he doesn’t need his epi pen? Who needs to take charge during this kind of crisis? Who falls to pieces when they see the furry spider? Who has been waiting to say, “I told you so” about her mother’s kitten-kicking addiction for ten years?

I recommend a mix of both speech pattern and characterization strategies, but as you can see, dialogue inspired by characterization reflects a deeper understanding of your characters’ complexities, and thus inevitably results in a better story. 

Tip 3. Find your patterns and break them. (I’m probably going to tout this rule in every post on craft). Do you always use speech tags at the end, beginning, or middle of a sentence? Do you constantly follow speech with action, instead of the other way around? Is your dialogue frequently interrupted by action? Do you often use speech tags and action tags for the same dialogue? No one strategy is better than another, but mix them up so the writing doesn’t feel repetitive. Worse yet, it might even look repetitive, and if the reader stops to notice a pattern of text vs. white space, you’ve lost their attention.  

Tip 4. Some things are less interesting when told through dialogue (I’m trying really hard to frame this in the positive!)

It’s uninteresting when characters think out loud for too long to work their way through a problem or examine their thoughts. Avoid monologues and speeches in fiction. I’ll let the brevity of this entry speak for itself. 

It’s also uninteresting when characters too frequently stammer, hedge, stall, or say, “um,” “er” or “well.” Sure, you want to use those occasionally, but don’t aim for realism here. If you use these common expressions repeatedly, they’ll carry little weight. When your confident British detective protagonist is truly stumped and says, “Erm. I don’t know yet,” we want that “erm” to mean something. 

And for the love of god,  avoid “like,” and “you know.” Although they’re realistic, they’re flat out annoying in real life! Just like the neighbor’s dog barking as I write this …. Use “like” and “you know” very sparingly, if at all. We all say it, but we don’t want to be reminded.

Tip 5: Avoid small talk. Small talk is boring and unnecessary unless you’re constructing it in such a way as to further plot or characterization, in which case, it’s probably not small anymore. Sure, it works in “Hills Like White Elephants,” but that’s a short story predicated on the idea that small talk hides a big secret, and if we had to listen to the couple bicker for more than three pages, we’d put down the book. Trust the reader that you don’t have to give every conversational exchange or blow by blow. It’s understood that if a character orders food at a drive through, a verbal exchange ensued. 

Tip 6: Too much sarcasm or skepticism is a turn off. Save the dry comments for when they’re really funny, and don’t assume that making your character constantly irritable translates to a real personality. Not only is sarcasm cliché, especially in YA, but it’s boring to read after a while. A sarcastic voice is funny when the sarcasm stands out and is surprising, not when it’s the norm and we’ve become clinically depressed by reading it. A good friend pointed out this error in one of my own works, which is why I’m coming down so hard on it!

Exercise: Pick at least three characters for whom you have a good understanding of their personality and motivations. Write them into a scene, or take a scene you’ve already written, and try to remove all the speech tags. I’m not saying you need to keep your scene this way, but the exercise will force you to develop new strategies and apply the techniques above. Make sure to share it with a friend. Can that person tell who’s speaking? 

(Thanks for being my audience! Writing this post—thinking this through—is bound to make me a better teacher and writer.)  I’d love to hear your feedback on how the exercise went for you!

How to Get Your Novel Noticed: Engaging Agents at Creative Writing Conferences

Spring is here, and that means the season of creative writing conferences is upon us. If you’ve splurged on an upcoming conference, you’re probably equally excited to improve your craft and anxious about pitching your novel. Most creative writing conferences have agents present—possibly even a chance to pitch to one—so here’s some advice on getting your novel noticed.

Before the conference

Apply early. Agent pitch sessions, critique sessions, and other special add-ons such as editor/agent-led workshops fill quickly.

Research the agents involved for genre acceptance. Go beyond the blurbs posted on conference pages—visit their publishing websites and get a feel for their personalities. Check their blogs for wish lists. Does your dream agent say they long for an edgy murder mystery set in multiple locations but rejects all manuscripts that don’t pass the Bechdel and/or Mako Mori tests?

Absolutely plan to attend sessions hosted by your preferred agentsbefore you pitch, if possible.

Choose all sessions ahead of time to save precious conference minutes. You’ll use the short breaks between sessions for networking, giving the dreaded elevator pitch, doing some inspired writing, or most likely—making friends in the lobby or bar. (Writing conferences are very easy to navigate socially. Who doesn’t want to answer the friendly question: “What’s your book about?”)

Have a first, second, and third plan for every session block. Sometimes room fill up, or you’ll watch a presenter close down the hotel bar with “Danny Boy” the night before and realize you’re no longer so keen on seeing their session on time management. Also, if you’ve also researched the presenters (agents, authors, editors), you’ll get a feel for if they can actually teach as well as they do their day job.

Prepare multiple copies of your query, pitch, and first pages. You never know when you’ll get a chance to ask questions or get feedback on phrasing. Don’t count on being able to do too much last-minute printing in the business center.

During the conference

During a pitch session, bring a query letter in case your panicked, blank mind can’t retrieve your carefully crafted longline. If you’re doing a ten-minute query pitch, agents will simply read your letter and give you feedback or ask follow-up questions. During first page critiques, you’ll share your entire page and get feedback and advice. Query, pages, and synopsis critiques led by an agent are a fantastic way to introduce your work to them. Take every opportunity to partake in these, and always keep your most recent files accessible. I once received a request for pages because I quickly emailed my first page for critique during a revision session in which an agent/editor spontaneously asked for a volunteer whose work she could dissect on the main screen.

Many, many sessions on craft will look good, but attend at least a few agent-led sessions, not just the one you signed up for. You’ll feel more relaxed and be better able to process agents’ comments when your leg isn’t shaking so much that you’re spilling coffee from that tiny, impractical, lidless hotel coffee mug. (Side advice—consider bringing a travel mug!) The agent critique sessions, often billed as “first-page critiques,” “query critiques,” or “round-table reviews,” can benefit the spectators as much as the participants. My fellow conference-attending friends agree: watching an agent explain why another writer’s pages work or don’t work has been immensely helpful. Also, if you have extra copies of queries or pages in your hand when you attend these extra sessions, you might get to fill a slot if there are any no-shows.

By attending extra agent sessions, you’ll also get a much clearer sense of what your own preferred agents are tired of seeing. And, since you don’t have to spend those precious minutes in between sessions choosing your next workshop, you can quickly revise that favorite darling line/opening/gimmick which you now know your agent would rather fly coach than ever read again. 

I can’t stress it enough: attend agent sessions and panels. This is the best way to learn current market trends and avoid pitfalls. For example: “diversity is a buzzword lately and we’re glutted with dystopian” (this is from last year—things change quickly). That doesn’t mean you give up on your six-novel dystopian series, but you will certainly revise your query and synopsis to highlight your protagonist’s marginalized status and downplay your novel’s “dystopian” elements to instead champion its speculative science-fantasy genre aspects. 

Opportune moments

It’s really okay to spontaneously pitch! Agents are there to gain clients and encourage attendees. Elevators, hallways, even the lobby or bar are all fair game. Agents will let you know if they’re too busy to talk. Keep in mind, they are often booked solid, so walking with them from one session to another might be the only chance you get. Use common sense—don’t follow them into the bathroom or push another writer out of the way to tout your soon-to-be-bestseller.

Meals are another great opportunity to pitch or get advice. If you line up early, you can usually head toward the table reserved for your agent. However, since agents are often bombarded during this time, my preferred method is to just sit wherever I please and enjoy meeting my table-mates. I’d rather converse with an agent during lunch or breakfast on the last day after the crowds have thinned. Do keep in mind that agents often rush to the airport right after the last keynote. 

Volunteering can also be a good way to network or meet an agent unexpectedly or casually. However, you’ll have less time for yourself and your creative process.

After the conference

The good news is that most agents, even those whose websites say, “closed to unsolicited queries,” will take queries from conference attendees for a reasonable period of time. So even if you didn’t get to pitch to Agent Schmoe, you can query them later with QUERY FROM BLAH BLAH CONFERENCE ATTENDEE in the subject line. Either way, you’ve got a solid foot in the door instead of a few likely-to-be-slammed fingers. After I return home and have had time to decompress and apply my newly-gleaned conference info, I tend to query any agent who takes my genre. Except of course, if it was the agent who was closing down the bar with “Danny Boy” so loudly that first night.

And then, let’s face it–I might even query them anyway.

Thanks for reading! Look for my upcoming posts on how to get the most out of conference sessions and tips on querying!


Five Ways to Wallop Your Word Count

Okay, so you’ve glanced at the more credible websites on proposed novel lengths. Or maybe you’ve even gone so far as to research your dream agents to find they expect a novel in your genre to be shorter. (Find some handy links re genre word count expectations below)

If right now you’re panicking over cutting 10,000, maybe even 20,000 words, I’m here to tell that if you truly need to do it, you can.

books stack old antique
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This post is mainly to newer authors seeking an agent. If you’re publishing regularly, you’re probably not as worried about word count. But if you’re a new writer, you should be concerned with industry standards on the topic. 

My first novel was 145,000 words. Was it published? No way! Of course, I’ve never queried it. I finished it, started my second novel the next day, and soon realized how wordy my first one was. It’s now down to 105,000, and it wasn’t hard to accomplish once I recognized my patterns. I haven’t looked at it in two years, but with the kind of clarity such a hiatus from it will bring, I hope to lop off another 15,000 soon without hyperventilating. 

Of course, this was after I shared that novel with two friends. Both said it was wordy. 

 “I know!” I wailed in my sporadically italicized YA teen-protagonist voice. “But which words are the wordy ones? If I could tell that on my own, I wouldn’t have written them!”

Luckily for me, those friends were both college professors and were able to articulate a few spots where I was specifically wordy. This helped me see my patterns, and I’m forever grateful.

Tip 1: Before you begin whittling down those pages, assess where you are in the process and react accordingly. Don’t start cutting haphazardly. Think holistically about the needs of the project.

a. Are you still writing the first draft, but you’ve realized it’s shaping up to be way too long? My advice—don’t even consider shortening it. Just keep writing. Don’t do anything to slow the process! You’ll revise later—(spoiler)—many, many times. 

b. Have you completed the manuscript? You can think about reducing the wordiness, but your first main edit should be on the macro level, related to overall content, plot, and continuity. Cut out unnecessary scenes, snip extra plot threads you never wove into the story, and attend to any glaring wordiness that doesn’t gum up the revision momentum. (Remember, we don’t want to waste time micro-editing or perfecting one line if that line may never appear in the final draft!)

c. Have you revised a few times, but you’re still plagued by a high word count? This is the time to look for patterns, purple prose, and needless backstory or exposition. Now you can start the micro-editing. 

Tip 2. So now you’re ready to revise for wordiness. Begin by outlining, if you haven’t yet. This doesn’t need to be an extensive outline. What’s the major point of each chapter, how does it move the plot along, etc.? Once you know this, you can cut or reduce scenes that don’t further the plot. Ask yourself—does this backstory slow down the pacing?

But I get it. I really do. That scene with the stolen harpsichord really shows the character’s quirkiness! And it’s your favorite passage! Great. Can you take the few best turns of phrase and work them into a scene that is critical? And your prologue— has it become unnecessary because everything contained in it has also been covered in the novel?

Tip 3. Donate, don’t delete, what you cut on the macro level. Cut those extra scenes or bits of backstory, but give yourself the permission to write a sequel, prequel, or supplemental content for your author platform with that content. You’ll find yourself much less traumatized by cutting something if you know it’s not actually being deleted. It’s like when you realize you simply have to let go of dear old deceased Aunt Ester’s bowling shoe collection, but you can’t bear to see those colorful shoes on the curb. It’s easier to let them go if you’re donating them, because then you know they’ll have a new chance to be appreciated. 

Now you’re not abandoning those extra scenes, storylines, or subplots. You’re repurposing them in a new, cheerful, file labelled “sequel/website ideas.” When your fans come clamoring for content, barely able to wait for your next novel, you’ll be able to blog about the unknown backstory of your fascinating characters! Also, when you’ve revised again and forgotten those passages even existed, you’ll realize how much lighter you feel without them. (Sorry, Ester. But I needed my closet back!)

Tip 4. Spot your wordiness patterns. To do this, read a few pages aloud. What words do you hear repeated? Jot them down, then start doing document searches. Remove or replace with better synonyms. (Some of my go-tos are “actually,” “just,” and “really.” I’d like to blame the YA voice, but really, it’s actually just my own problem.) 

Do you have long passages where your characters simply discuss and/or figure things out? Try just relating the realization without wading through every possibility. Of course, this is genre specific. You might need some extended sleuthing or deduction scenes in a mystery, or some fun, guessing-game banter in a chapter book that engages kids with puzzles or poems.

Can you remove needless prepositional phrases? 

Did you make the same point at the beginning and ending of your paragraph? We really don’t need topic sentences in fiction, not even in the narrative.

Did you qualify things that don’t need to be qualified? “It felt a little spooky” is stronger when you say, “It felt spooky.”

Do you have clunky or repetitive dialogue patterns? How about extra speech tags and unnecessary rejoinders? I cut a thousand words from Novel # 1 just by fixing these:

“Sure I do,” said Kevin, reaching for the chips. “Of course I love you. I love you beyond all space and time.”

Kevin reached for the chips. “Of course I love you. Beyond all space and time.” 

Tip 5. Yup. Lastly, I’m going to say it—trust your reader. If you do, you can cut out the unnecessary blow by blows such as she opened the drawer, removed the knife, and began cutting up the pie. Just say she cut the dang pie! The first two phrases add nothing. Unless, of course, instead of opening a drawer, she lifted up one foot to remove a switchblade from the heel of an old bowling shoe she found at Goodwill before cutting that pie. Now that, you might want to keep. 

You will also, if you trust the reader, avoid wordy transitions from one scene to the next, avoid the need to explain why characters didn’t make alternative choices or deductions, and avoid constant repetitions of the characters’ motivations.

You can reduce your word count. Really. But before you start hyphenating every possible compound noun or replacing your catchy chapter titles with numerals, just breathe. If you’ve edited a great deal, and your book is simply much longer than industry standards, it may be that you won’t sell this one first. Edit and tighten, but don’t amputate a novel if it truly needs to be in the body it’s in. Treasure it for now as you write the next, and keep moving forward. 

Thanks for reading my far-too-wordy post on reducing wordiness! If this was helpful, check out my more detailed posts on writing distinct dialogue and tightening prose. 

Writers’ Digest on Word Count 

Info from an author/editor and former agent

Manuscript Agency