I read a manuscript recently in which the first chapter told me the history of where the story took place, and the second chapter told me about the main character’s family: where her grandmother came from, her mother’s interest in acting, the dysfunctional nature of her parents’ marriage. All valuable information, all too much too soon.
Your reader needs to know what motivates a character to act and where those actions take place. But delivering that information in one big chunk at the beginning of the story may bore your reader and delay the inciting incident–-the trigger that changes your character’s trajectory and launches them on their journey.
Your character’s world and their backstory need to be woven through the story in a context that drives the plot forward. In the words of author Alexa Dunne (her YouTube channel is excellent), it should be organic and dynamic. She suggests you choose situations early in the book that show off the world the characters live in, then convey that world through details.
If you can show who the character is and what they are up against, your reader will be more engaged in the story than if you describe it in one long exposition.
Imagine your character has been sentenced to community service. They show up for their first day and are assigned dishwashing detail at a soup kitchen. Standing in front of a sink full of dirty dishes, they could reflect on what it’s going to do to their expensive manicure or remember their first job in high school. They could have thoughts about their partner in crime and how they managed to get off with only a reprimand. A person standing next to them could say, “What are you in for?” Now your character has to react and respond, both internally and externally.
Your character may be on a road trip to their childhood home and stops at a diner. Describing the diner, the heat of the day, what’s on the menu is a great place for the character to contrast it with what they are now used to. The server could say, “You talk funny. Where you from?” The character could reflect that they have been gone for so long from the area they have lost their accent.
Giving your POV character something to react to—a situation or a question—can reveal much about their backstory without dumping a lot of information.
For excellent writing advice, go to alexadonne.com
Books make me happy. I know, that isn’t exactly a surprise. In order to have books, there must be writers. Hence, my love for writers.
Writers take chances. They toil away creating worlds in which I get lost and then found. They make life better one book, one sentence, one word at a time. They reveal themselves to the world in print. Sometimes those revelations are a little muddy, because it is really hard to get things out of the head and on to the paper. That is where I come in.
I love to help writers. They have given so much to me, I figure editing is my opportunity to give back. Sometimes it’s an easy clean up, sometimes it’s a deep dive into what is motivating a character to do what they are doing. Either way, colour me there.
There is nothing I like better than working with a writer, seeking the perfect word or phrase to convey their thoughts and feelings. It doesn’t matter if it is a self-help book or an angsty novel, each writer deserves to have their book look its best.
And I am happy to help make that happen.
You've done the work. Your book is finished. Your beta readers love it. Your editor loves it. You know a publisher is going to love it.
But wait, there is more work to be done. As well as part of the manuscript, the publisher wants a query letter and a synopsis.
If you are like most writers, you would rather have a root canal and a rectal exam than write a synopsis.
But don't despair, help is out there.
Start first with the publisher you want to submit to. Do they have a specific format? If so, adhere to those guidelines. Deviating from expectations may make you stand out, but it also may lead to rejection.
Be prepared to have a one-page synopsis, up to a five-page synopsis. If you have those in your back pocket already, submitting to a publisher will be much easier.
Query letters are much shorter. They are an introduction to your book, but also to you. Don't be modest. If you have a horn to toot, do so.
Here are some resources to help you along the way.
When you are done, I'd be happy to look them over.
If you are writing a story that has a romantic element to it, at some point in time you will have to decide how heated the physical relationship will be. Will your characters be having sex on the page, kissing with fervor, or exchanging looks of great longing? All of these levels of intimacy have their place in books. A few factors will help you decide your level of heat.
Who is your audience?
Without getting into an argument about censorship, I don’t believe that sex on the page should be in a book intended for young readers. If you are writing for readers other than adults, give the level of heat some serious thought, check with publishing houses for what they consider acceptable for YA fiction and younger.
I cut my teeth on Harlequin romance novels. This was the early 70s and a fierce embrace was about as heated as it got. These days, Harlequin has multiple lines of imprints from chaste handholding Amish romances to stories so hot you need to wear asbestos oven mitts to hold the book. Some readers are all about the sex, while others just want that warm fuzzy feeling of a happily ever after. Figure out the expectations of your readers, and turn up the heat accordingly.
What is your comfort level?
One writer could not write a sex scene while her mother was alive. Another writer is constantly searching for the best sources of bondage equipment so that she can describe it accurately in her scenes. The point is, if describing intercourse makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it. A love story can have a satisfying ending without the characters making love. Romance is about the heart, not the libido.
Does it move the story along?
Every scene in your story needs to have a purpose. Writing a story about a resort where people come to have mindless sex with strangers? Then frequent sex scenes make sense. There has to be a reason for characters to have sex. And there has to be a reason for the characters to have sex in a particular scene. If it’s their wedding night? Sure. If they’re running from a bear? Doubtful. Throwing in a sex scene serves no purpose if it doesn’t move the story along.
You can write chaste. You can write bawdy. It doesn’t matter. As long as the scene fits the story and as long as it’s worth the words.
Goodreads lists 452 books inspired by Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” These include “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” by Seth Grahame-Smith, “Death Comes to Pemberley” by P.D. James, and a personal favourite, “Pride” by Ibi Zoboi. That’s a heck of a lot of inspiration, which leads me to ponder the universal appeal of Austen’s novel.
Part of it is the reflection of English society at the time. A well-bred young woman had so few options available to her, marrying the odious Mr. Collins seemed like a good idea to Lizzie’s best friend Charlotte, knowing full well how ridiculous he was.
Sharp-tongued, too smart for her own good Lizzie Bennet is unwilling to adhere to the limitations of civilized society. And as much as she is able to, she will live life on her own terms. She has no interest in the rich, brooding, condescending Mr. Darcy. She is not blind to the foolishness of her family but they are her family, she will defend them, and he has no right to mock them.
When she kicks Darcy to the curb, everyone who has ever been spurned by someone who later realizes how fabulous you are, rises up to cheer. Take that you pompous bastard!
I love the fact that Lizzie doesn’t compromise, while recognizing that her world is better with Darcy in it. I love that Darcy apologizes, because every good alpha male should know when to apologize.
I don’t care for Caroline Bingley. She is scheming and vindictive, constantly trash talking the Bennetts and displaying their flaws. Perhaps it’s because I don’t like mean girls – I believe that women should be lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down. But every book needs a villain, and she does the job admirably.
I think Caroline deserves a redemption story. Perhaps that will be my next book…
The image of an author at work is often that of an individual, laboring away in solitude, or camped out in a busy coffee shop, headphones clamped on to diminish the noise. But crafting a book all by yourself is not necessary.
Many writers rely on the support of like-minded individuals. Persons, who, like themselves, scribble down stories any chance they can get. Writing communities can be both physical or virtual. They can be as informal as an online group that commits to write together at the same time, or as structured as a chapter of an organization.
There are many benefits to being part of a writing community.
· Suggestions for writing resources.
· Accountability partners to hold you to your goals.
· Someone to help you figure out how to get your hero off the cliff.
· Moral support for the times when the words just won’t come.
My own personal community is the Greater Seattle Romance Writers Association. This awesome group brings in speakers each month who share their expertise. I have made friends, improved my craft, and learned valuable information that I have used in my stories.
I encourage you to find a community. Your people are out there waiting for you.
Don’t know where to start? Go to the Google and type in “How to find a writing community.”
I’ve chewed off all my fingernails. Yep, I’m a nervous wreck. You see, my masterpiece, my great Canadian/American novel is with my editor. Why is that you may ask. Aren’t you an editor? Yes, I am. However, I can’t edit my own work.
My editor has not lived with the book for the past year. They have not sweated over it. They don’t think every word is perfect.
When they look at it, they will do so with fresh eyes. My editor will be looking at the story as a whole, and will let me know if the story hangs together and what parts need to be revised or possibly thrown out. They will see one main character is fully developed while the other is a bare outline. They will see unresolved conflicts and the multitude of plot holes. They will see head-hopping, passive voice, continuity issues, and – you get the picture.
I’m really hoping they won’t find all of those problems, but I’m girding my loins, just in case. I expect it’s going to be like getting waxed. Painful, but the results are worth it.
So my character got his happily ever after and it was time to expose him to the world. It was with great trepidation that I sent the manuscript to my beta reader. I chose my beta reader carefully; someone who reads in the genre I am writing, someone who is not a writer herself, someone who would be honest, constructive, and not brutal.
I’ve been a beta reader and I gotta tell you, sometimes it’s a slog. So I was unprepared for her to text me the next day to say she was finished reading. While the story was still fresh in her mind, I sent her a bunch of reflection questions.
Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, I went to the Google to find questions specifically for beta readers. The ones I chose I found on writingcooperative.com. They were great. Some were pretty basic “Did the story hold your interest from beginning to end?” Some were quite inciteful “Were there parts that frustrated or annoyed you?” I shipped off the questions, she completed them within an hour and then we discussed them over the phone.
She pointed out things that were a stretch, things that weren’t believable, places in the story that needed more development. One surprising thing, the character that never made it past high school had a vocabulary that was broader and more refined than the college-educated character. Definitely food for thought.
Now I have to read over her responses and work on the next draft.
What a great experience, especially when she said that she looks forward to reading the next version and asked if I had plans for one of the minor characters. Which I do because I have already started the outline for the second book.
I’m reading three novels at the moment. And I gotta tell you, my head is spinning. One is on audio, one is an ebook, and one is a hardcover. While the books are wildly different, they have two things in common.
A strong main character who you care for and want to succeed. Each of them is highly flawed, and at times I want to smack them upside the head. However, that means that their potential for growth is huge.
Each character has obstacles aplenty to overcome. The obstacles are hard for me to deal with, because when I like a character, I don’t want them to get hurt. But if there aren’t any obstacles, the characters don’t get a chance to grow. So, I’m biting my nails as I peer around corners with the following three kick-ass women.
Life Lik3 by Jay Kristoff is a dystopic YA novel. Eve is mostly human with a cyber-optic plate in her head who scavenges to keep herself and her grandfather (or so she thinks) alive. All goes to hell when in the midst of a bot battle she is able to destroy a machine using her mind. Now everyone is after her.
I am not a fan of the undead. However, Jesse Petersen has changed my mind with her book Married with Zombies. Sarah and her husband are in counselling. They show up to their appointment to discover their therapist snacking on another couple. They haven’t been a team for a while, but must work together to outrun the zombie apocalypse.
I’m late to the party in reading Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I was afraid to read the book because it would make me cry. Well, that hasn’t happened yet, but this book has all the feels. A young girl is left alone to raise herself in the North Carolina marsh. Kya is resilient in the face of adversity as she figures out why she is always being left behind. I started this as an audiobook. I love it so much I bought a copy for a friend; however, I may wind up keeping it. I have a feeling I will be reading this book again and again.
I’m not sure if they will each get a happily-ever-after, but I sure hope so. Because kick-ass women deserve it.
I encountered a client at a coffee shop recently. Before the caffeine had a chance to catch up with my day, she had an editing question for me.
When do you capitalize mom?
She'd been told that it doesn't matter, tht she could upper case or lower case the M, and as long as she did it consistently, she was fine. But that is so not the case. (See what I did there?)
When you are addressing a person, using mom in place of their given name, mom is capitalized, because it is being used as a proper noun.
"Hey Mom, you look fabulous!"
When you are referring to your mom, it is not capitalized, because mom is being used as a common noun.
"My mom looks fabulous!"
Why is capitalization important?
Your writing reflects you. It reflects how much you care about what you are writing, and how much you care about who is reading it.
Towards that end, employ a professional to help you navigate the treacherous waters of English grammar conventions. Your document will be presentable, and your mom will be happy.
When should you capitalize mom? When it can be substituted for a name.
"Hey Lynne, you look fabulous!"
When don't you capitalize mom? When there is a possesive or an article in front of it.
"My mom looks fabulous."
You've got this! You can thank me later.
It is a curious thing to be able to type your name into the Amazon search box and find a book with your name on the cover. When the book dropped (that's publishing lingo) I must have looked it up a dozen times. The next day my publisher texted to tell me that the book was #1 in Methodist Christianity. That didn't last terribly long, but still.
Filling the Void started with a conversation. Rev. Kristin Joyner is a United Methodist pastor. In the spring of 2018, she and I were talking about the many stories of good things accomplished by congregations that never get heard. We realized that if those stories were going to be heard, we were the ones who were going to have to tell them.
We reached out to clergy members throughout Washington State and asked them to tell their stories. Specifically, where they see God at work in the Pacific Northwest.
The stories came in. Stories of hope, and stories of transformation.
Each chapter was written by a clergy person who had witnessed individuals and congregations working with God in transformation, and embodying the love God has for all.
I submitted the book to a huge publishing house. Crickets...
I submitted the book to a small publishing house who responded within twenty-four hours. In less than two weeks, I received an offer. Woo hoo!!
Kevin Slimp, the patient publisher of Market Square Books, explained that massive amounts of money would not be made on this book. Not a problem, Kristin and I decided that proceeds would benefit the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
It was a seriously cool experience. However, working with clergy was a lot like herding cats - it took a lot of patience and perseverance. Not sure that I'm ready to do it again.