It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. To kick off the celebration, we’ve launched 10 on the 10th. This series of monthly resources will bring tips, advice and inspiration directly to your inbox. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.
Here are your first 10 tips:
1. Get the action going
Replace passive, weak verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”
Before: It was a dark and stormy night.
After: The storm raged through the blackness.
2. Keep things moving forward by reducing the use of “had”
“Had” refers to “completed’ action. It has no forward movement. Use “had” once or twice at the start of a section/paragraph to establish the time period, then revert to simple past tense.
Before: She had been the only one in the house, and had paid the rent faithfully each month. She had taken care of the place and had put up drapes and painted.
After: She had been the only one in the house, and paid the rent faithfully each month. She took care of the place and put up drapes and painted.
3. Keep the action going
Delete empty words like very/somewhat/really. Energize the word being modified instead.
Before: Despite the very hot afternoon….
After: Despite the afternoon’s sweltering heat…
4. Keep your actions strong; beware the “-ly” adverb
Can you replace it with a stronger active verb?
Before: He went quickly
After: He ran – or dashed, charged, bolted…
5. Change up the senses you use in description.
We default to the sense of sight. Try replacing visual details with ones of another sense.
Before: Anita set the gold-rimmed tea cup on the lace cloth…
After: The tea cup rattled in the saucer as Anita placed it on the lace cloth…
6. Take your reader deeper into the world of the story
Look for named emotions (happy, sad) or physical states (fearful, tired) and replace with concrete and sensory detail.
Before: She felt disappointed
After: She sank onto the bench and hugged her knees
7. Keep your writing fresh
Look for tired and overused clichés. (Microsoft Word’s grammar checker notes clichés with green squiggly lines.) Create visuals that add to the story or your character.
Before: His beard was as white as snow
After: His beard was as white as his lab coat
8. Eliminate repetition. Eliminate repetition.
Identify any “writer’s tic” that you know you have. Phrases, descriptions, gestures and so on, rapidly lose their energy when they are overused or placed too closely together.
How many times do your characters “roll their eyes” or “take a deep breath?”
How many times have your told readers it’s “a red car?”
9. Keep your tricky words tamed
Are there words you constantly mispell…um…misspell? Are you working with strange names or technical terms? Keep them correct and consistent by adding them to your software’s dictionary or AutoCorrect function.
How to: Right click on the word. Choose either Add to dictionary or AutoCorrect
10. Know your country
Is it color or colour? Are they good neighbours or good neighbors? Writing for American readers, Australian readers or British readers? Incorrect spelling won’t please your publisher. Make sure your software is defaulted to the “right” English.
How to: Most MSWord programs have the language default on the bottom info bar. Left click to select your language.
If you found this helpful, let your writing friends know. Share it!
Guest blogger Stephanie Gibeault is a freelance writer with a passion for fiction for young readers. She recently wrote a post for Writescape about the benefits of writing away at the Highlights Foundation’s Pennsylvania retreat. As she promised in that December post, she’s here to share what she learned about getting a novel unstuck:
Whether you call it writer’s block, an empty tank or say your creative well has run dry, every writer has days or weeks when putting words on the page is a challenge. This past summer, I found myself stuck on my middle grade manuscript.
I created a storyboard (on my closet doors) to help me see the flow of the plot, only to discover there were structural issues I hadn’t noticed before. I could see what the problems were, but had no idea how to fix them. Thankfully, I had already signed up for a workshop dedicated to getting unstuck.
Stop spinning your wheels
In my recent guest post, I wrote about my experience at the Highlights Foundation workshop Getting Your Middle Grade Novel Unstuck. I learned many things at the workshop, but the main focus was how to deal with being stuck.
Beginning, middle or end of your story—there are great techniques that can help move you forward. Instructors Chris Tebbetts and Elise Broach armed me with loads of options. And many of them don’t even involve working directly on your manuscript.
The most valuable piece of advice I took away from the workshop: there’s always something you can be doing even if it’s not writing.
Experiment with play
Sometimes, it feels like anything other than writing a new scene is procrastination. That’s simply not the case.
Anything that moves you forward with your writing, builds your skills, increases your familiarity with your characters or fleshes out your plot is a productive and effective use of your time. That’s incredibly liberating.
Discovering your characters
Successful middle grade writers create characters their readers connect with—and characters the writers know inside and out. Chris and Elise offered lots of suggestions to get to know our characters better. Here’s a really effective one for me:
Create a chart with a column for a character’s self-perception and a column for how they are seen by others.
The two columns are those perceptions that are true or accurate and those that are false. This provides insight into your character’s psyche – what they hide from others and what they hide from themselves.
HOW BOB SEES SELF
HOW OTHERS SEE BOB
Cute but annoying
Makes light of tough situations
Journal as your character. Get at their innermost thoughts, motivations and goals.Other ways of getting in touch with your characters include:
Fill out a questionnaire or survey as one of your characters. How do they answer differently than you or another character would?
Write about a character’s perfect day. What makes him or her happy?
Create a character profile with details like hair colour, favourite movie and best friend. The more details the better.
Write a letter to yourself from a character about what you are getting right and wrong about him or her in your manuscript.
Stretch some more!
I learned how writing prompts helped uncover details about our characters and plots. I thought it would be limiting because I’d have to go in a particular direction rather than letting my creativity flow.
I was amazed. Forced to explore areas I might otherwise have ignored, I answered questions not directly related to my story but essential to understanding it. Simple questions like, “What does this character want?” or “Why do I love this story?” gave me a great start.
ReVision to move forward
Editing can be as radical as starting from scratch and rewriting a scene entirely from memory. You’ll likely retain your favourite parts while stumbling onto some new descriptions, dialogue and directions at the same time. With track changes in your word processor, it’s easy to compare the two versions, choosing the best sections to keep.
Or be more conservative and only delete what isn’t completely necessary. Decide what, if any, details need to go back in and what the reader never needed in the first place.
One of my favourite suggestions was when Chris told me to rewrite a section of my manuscript in first person point of view. The purpose was not to rewrite my entire manuscript, (although that is exactly what I will do), but to get me deeper into my main character’s head.
I couldn’t believe the difference it made. No longer hovering over my story, now saw it through my protagonist’s eyes. Changing point of view, or even tense (from past to present, for example), allows you to approach your narrative from a different angle and that can be all you need.
No more excuses
With so many available options, I no longer have any reason to be stuck. Or to use the phrase “writer’s block”. If you’re feeling stuck with a writing project, consider trying some of these suggestions.
Remember to take advantage of workshops and retreats to help propel you forward. My experience at Highlights sure made a difference for me.
Did You Know
Are you stuck? Writescape retreats offer the perfect space to stretch your writing skills, re-imagine your work in new and exciting ways and the safety you need for full-throated expression. Spring Thaw is already half full of eager and focused writers like you, ready to give focus to their work.
Join us for an all-inclusive escape on the shores of Rice Lake. Elmhirst’s Resort boasts cozy fully equipped cottages with fireplaces, private bedrooms and gorgeous sunrise lake views. All you need is your jammies, toothbrush and writing materials; writers at all levels are welcome. Choose either a 3-day or 5-day retreat.April 20-24.
Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:
I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”
In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.
I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.
I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.
Dialogue has work to do
I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.
But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:
propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”
convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak
If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.
For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.
The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.
Here are two approaches to consider.
1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.
“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”
By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.
“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”
2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”
Knowing when to bring in dialogue
If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.
I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.
Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.
Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.
It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.
Did You Know?
We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.
Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.
Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.
I’m here to pay a bit of tribute to Ruth Walker. No. Not me. The other one. One of two reasons for the E. in my writing name. The international influence that put the “tentative” in my early writing career. My secret nemisis.
Because every time I hit up Google for Ruth Walker (go on…admit it…most of us did it when we started out) there she would be: Ruth Walker. Seasoned journalist and editor. Decades of reporting in the U.S. and abroad (including a stint in Canada), and editing for The Christian Science Monitor.
Sadly, Ruth passed away this past September. The Society of Professional Consultants, of which she was the 2017 President, offers up this as part of her obituary:
[Ruth] served as the Monitor’s deputy editor, editorial-page editor, and online news editor before leaving to pursue a freelance career as a writer, editor, and consultant in 2006. Ruth was currently the author of Verbal Energy, a popular weekly column on language and etymology in the Monitor.
Had they asked Ruth, I suspect she might have suggested that “was currently” could be replaced with “was most recently” but that just proves she and I shared some interests.
Adding ink to your porridge
Here’s another reason to like Ruth. From a January 2010 Verbal Energy column, she takes on the misuse of the apostrophe, referencing The Oatmeal and the delightful spelling and grammar posters you’ll find there. There was no link to the Oatmeal from Ruth Walker’s article in the Monitor, likely due to the decidedly non-PG13 state of some of the work there, but I have no such qualms. Nonetheless, she offers:
Ah, thou apostrophe! Thou useful but so oft misused mark! (The foregoing is an example of apostrophe in another sense: “address to an absent person or personified thing.”)
The Oatmeal opus, in the form of a flow chart, walks the would-be punctuator through some basic if/then steps. “Is it plural? DON’T use an apostrophe.”
The misuse of apostophe also makes me crazy. But I know it’s one of many common errors that editors stumble across. So I really liked the quickie grammar references at the end of her column, “How to be possessive about apostrophes:”
In the Oatmeal spirit of “just enough” grammar, here are some hints to use as editorial first aid until a professional can make it to the scene:
1. If you aren’t absolutely sure about who and whom, go with who. Use of whom in the wrong place looks much worse than failure to use whom in the right place.
2. Forgo and forego are both real words; they mean “give up” and “precede,” respectively. But “forego” (as distinct from foregoing) is almost always wrong. “I will forego you out of the room”? Yeah. Right.
3. Both affect and effect can be either a noun or a verb. But you could probably live your whole life without using effect as a verb or affect as a noun. Many people do – and quite happily, too.
I am only sorry that I didn’t actually read her work until now. I rather like her wit and direct style.
Power in a name
At the beginning of this post, I said that Ruth Walker was one of two reasons for the E. in my professional writer’s name. (possessive, not plural.)
Before I discovered my life as a writer in 1996, I spent a couple of decades in Human Resources. Yes. That department. I had a lot of bosses over the years. Many of them women. Some of them so insecure or poorly trained/supported that they made my working life challenging at best, hellish at worst.
But then In the late-80s (plural, not possessive) the hospital hired a new HR manager. A woman genuinely interested in work-life balance long before it was an HR buzzword. A revelation, in fact.
My boss demonstrated the best kind of management qualities for the women and men in her various departments: mentoring and modelling in a positive and instructive manner. I learned how to ask with confidence. She nudged me forward, until I discovered I could actually talk in front of groups without fainting. And I learned that kindness and empathy could open doors in even the most difficult situations.
She was the most self-assured manager I’d ever worked for, so I looked for all the ways she pulled it off. I believed (and still do) that one of her secrets was to use her middle initial in her professional capacity. It was, to me, something of a statement, a Here I am world, more than Mary Smith. I’m Mary D. Smith. How many times in my clerical years had I seen men use their middle initials on the letters I’d typed for them? Lots. And the women? Never. Not until this boss.
Taking on the power
As soon as I had the opportunity to establish myself professionally, I considered the E. I, too, would make that statement. Finding another well-known and respected Ruth Walker in the world of writing sealed the deal.
So there you have it. The desire to be someone different from a noted writer and editor, coupled with my nervousness when I first started writing, drove me to my middle initial. Do I regret it? Not one bit. On the one hand, I feel like I’m honouring a woman who stood out as a wonderful model to the other women in her orbit. And on the other hand, I wanted to stand out in the art of words among other Ruth Walkers as me, the one with the E.
Did You Know?
Many writers choose not to publish under their own names, using pseudonyms instead. Their reasons for writing with a pen name are as diverse as their narrative voices. Some, like 19th century French novelist and memoirist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin wrote under the name George Sand. Canadian author and filmmaker Leslie McFarlane wrote 20 of the Hardy Boys adventure series as Franklin W. Dixon. When he moved on, the Dixon name continued under a series of other Hardy Boys writers.
At our most recent retreat, participants were given a series of clues at every meal, all leading to the final clue and answer. It seemed fitting as our Turning Leaves guest author, Vicki Delany, writes mysteries and thrillers. The answer to each clue was a pen name for a famous author. From Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) to Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), participants were challenged to use their sleuthing skills to discover the answers.
At each retreat, we find ways to stretch your thinking and take you outside of the box. Next retreat: Spring Thaw, April 20 – 22/25, 2018.
I was out on a walk and practicing the art of noticing, when I was drawn to a garden and stopped to look at it a little more closely. It was functional: a small patio under a huge maple, a swing for the kids hanging from an overhanging branch, herbs growing in an old wheelbarrow, flowers, veg and a patch of lawn.
Given that it’s autumn, the fallen leaves, frosted hostas and general state of waning made it messy and a little sad. But it wasn’t the kind of yard that looked as if it had been delivered from the local big box store: linear and precise, shallow and predictable – in other words: no message, no heart. This garden had soul.
Whenever I travel, I visit gardens; I seek them out in concrete-jungle cities and have a vast one of my own. My mother and grandmother taught me to create landscapes that worked with nature, not against it. They taught me how to create a green space with soul. And I realized as I looked at this tiny urban gem on my walk, that creating a garden that has a heart is very much like writing.
Let it speak
To create a garden that lives and breathes, a gardener must understand that fine line between control and releasing what is already there. This example on my walk was not about control or even taming the wild. It was about using what was already there, unearthing it and allowing it to blossom. To speak. That maple tree killed the grass but welcomed a small shaded patio sitting area. The overhanging branch was perfect for a swing.
Like writing – don’t control and delineate as you write. Allow your characters to speak as they want to, to do things you could never dream up. Allow the story to unfold. Let the subconscious through.
Work with what you have
We all have big writing dreams: maybe the next best seller, perhaps an award or earning enough to live on. But on any given day, don’t worry about what seems unattainable. Work with what you have.
This garden made the most of limited space. If you only have limited writing time, write bits that are already in your head, finish something you started, or plan or research or edit. If a novel seems overwhelming, begin with a single scene, or a short story.
If the dialogue you are producing seems flat, or you don’t really know how to punctuate it, write it anyway. You can always read up or take a course on dialogue later. And you can come back to your piece and edit it when your skills improve. But if you are always waiting for the perfect time or the perfect ability or the perfect story, you’ll be waiting a long time. And as Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
And keep things manageable. Better to finish small projects or one large one than to have twenty projects that never see the light of day. There’s nothing like being able to write “The End” to motivate you to write some more.
Don’t throw good bits away
Not everything we write is worth keeping, but often you write a really good scene or stanza that just doesn’t fit with the piece or poem you’re working on. It might even be one of your proverbial “darlings.” Keep it. It may well be the start of another piece or fit into another project. Or it may serve as inspiration and impetus for a new piece that—like the wheelbarrow used as an herb garden—is very different from its original intention.
Give to get
I belong to online gardening swap sites, picking up free rhubarb plants and giving away hostas. I scour the roadside ditches for day lilies and black-eyed Susans and give them new homes. As a writer, you need to have a writing community—maybe just a writing buddy, maybe a critique group or membership in several writing organizations, or perhaps all of them.
But you’ll find that you get more out of your writing community when you contribute: give of your time, your expertise and your encouragement and support. We all have high and low times as writers and whether you need someone to help you with a practical plot problem, to celebrate a success or just give you a kick in the pants to submit or get writing, your writing tribe are the best people to do it. But, offer the same to other writers. I know that over the years, I’ve learned more about the craft by talking to fellow writers and giving feedback to others than from any book.
Tend and nurture
Without planning and fertilizing, weeding and maintaining, gardens wither or become something else you have no use for. Your writing, like any art form, is the same. You wouldn’t expect to play the piano well without practising regularly. Writing is no different. Write, write and write some more. Plan writing time into your schedule. Fertilize your craft with workshops, reading and communing with fellow writers. Weed out all your negative attitudes about not being good enough. And fill your creative well often.
Dare to be different
The garden on my walk was different from all the others on that street. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. The gardener (maybe a young mother?) created what was personally important and meaningful to her, created what was within her creative and maintenance capabilities at the time, what was pleasant and functional for her family’s lifestyle. I’m sure she also hoped that others would like it, but I doubt she created it based on what others wanted. She followed her creative path, made a garden that spoke with her voice and embodied her heart and soul. Let your writing do the same.
DID YOU KNOW
My garden at Glentula reflects my heart and has served as inspiration to many writers. Custom “Just Write” retreats and one-day escapes are offered every summer. Gather your group, pick your date and contact Writescape to put together what you need to get writing and stay writing.
Seems like a simple question, but increasingly these days it can be confusing. Genres not only have subgenres, but subgenres have sub-subgenres: Steampunk is a sub genre of science fiction (or science fantasy) but steampunk itself has sub genres like steamgoth, gaslight romance, clockpunk and dieselpunk.
Then of course, you have the age cross-overs and cross-genres like paranormal romance, crime fantasy, or action comedy.
The mind boggles.
Why does knowing your genre matter?
Initially, it doesn’t matter. When you begin your first draft, story is key and the story will land in the genre it fits best. But once that draft is done, knowing your genre is important. You’ll need to know so you can fine tune your manuscript and pitch it to the right agent or publisher.
It’s a marketing issue. How many places will your book fit? Knowing your genre shows a better understanding of the market, which can only help your submission. If you don’t know where your book fits, you’re saying you don’t know your target audience.
We all like to think that our book is unique, but the reality is, if we can correctly categorize it, readers can access it and agents and publishers will know immediately whether it potentially fits their market.
Genre and editing
And because knowing genre is a marketing issue, it becomes an editing issue, so you can mould your submission to fit publishing needs and reader expectations.
Let’s take the crime/mystery genre as an example and the typical “dead body”. In a cosy mystery, your readers will expect to spend a few chapters meeting the inhabitants of a cosy community and getting to know the protagonist and her friends before the “dead body” is discovered. The actual killing will be off stage. In a police procedural mystery, the “dead body” is there by the end of chapter one. Readers may even witness the murder. It will be important to follow real police investigative and forensic procedures.
Some publishers have well-defined expectations that can help tremendously at this editing stage. Harlequin, the world’s largest publisher of romance, provides clear, detailed guidelines on their website for each of their genre imprints, from the word count to the level of sexual content.
So what is my genre?
Genre definitions are constantly changing and evolving, but you have to start somewhere.
1. Prepare a book jacket blurb
Once the first draft is done, prepare a book jacket blurb (the paragraphs on the back cover that entice readers to buy because they answer the question “What is this book about?”.) Writing the jacket blurb helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc.
It also helps define what genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
2. Define the main genre
With your book jacket blurb in hand, you have your main dominant story thread. Use that main thread to define the main genre. For instance, if your book involves a mystery and a romance, is the dominant story thread a classic “who done it” with a bit of romance thrown in for character growth? (mystery) Or is it really about a relationship blossoming between two people who happen to be solving a mystery together? (romance)
Here’s a list of some of the main genres to get you started:
Action/Adventure — epic journeys, lots of conflict/pursuit, high stakes, some violence.
Crime/Mystery — stories that involve solving a crime, usually a murder.
Fantasy —magic, other worlds, myths and mythological/mystical figures.
Historical — fictional characters and events in an historical setting
Horror— stories that invoke dread or fear.
Thriller/Suspense — harm/danger about to befall a person or group and the attempts to evade the harm/danger, high tension.
Sci-fi —impact of technology, aliens, science-related alternative worlds, often futuristic
Women’s fiction — stories about women experiencing emotional growth
Nail down the age group your book is aimed at: children, young adult, new adult or adult. If your manuscript appeals to more than one group, you have an age cross-over. (Think Harry Potter (children/adult) or Hunger Games (YA/adult).)
Imagine your ideal reader. If you were that reader looking for your book, where would you look? Again, focus on the main narrative thread. Is your ideal reader looking for a romance with a bit of mystery thrown in, or are they problem solvers who like mysteries and might like some relationship stuff thrown in?
Ask your beta readers where they would expect to find your book. Ask your critique group. Tell other writers your blurb and then ask them, “What section of a bookstore would you look in to find my book?”
4. Visit a book store
Go to a bricks & mortar bookstore or hop on the Net. Identify half a dozen books similar to yours and find where they are shelved. Go to Goodreads and check the Listopia recommendations for your main genre, like “Best Science Fiction.” That will lead you to the sub-genres like “Best Steampunk Books.” Read the blurbs on the back covers. Does your book jacket blurb follow a similar pitch?
One way to do this is to have two windows open, one on Amazon and the other on Goodreads. Read the blurb on Goodreads and then search the book on Amazon to see its classification.
I always like the section below the “purchase” button with the phrase “People who bought this also bought….” It’s a great way to find other novels that are categorized the same way. Could your book fit here?
Still not sure?
You’re fine as long as you know your main genre and reader age. Agents will be able to spot a crossover even if you haven’t mentioned it. If your query letter has a good hook and good comparables, the sub-genre will be apparent to them.
However, the time you spend on defining your genre will help you make a better connection between your story and your reader. And your well-crafted blurb will be ready for those moments when someone (maybe an agent or publisher) asks “So what are you writing?”
DID YOU KNOW?
Vicki Delany, our guest at this year’s fall retreat, Turning Leaves 2017, writes in several subgenres of the crime/mystery genre. As Eva Gates she writes the cosy Lighthouse series, and as Vicki Delany she writes a Police Procedural series featuring Constable Molly Smith.
The writer in the attic garret, a single candle barely illuminating the page, the scratchscratchscratch of the pen crossing the paper. Is this your idea of the writer’s lonely life?
Well, not this writer. Yes, the act of writing is solitary. And some of us do isolate ourselves for short periods of uninterrupted time. Sometimes, even with a candle or two. But eventually, even the most private of writers needs to surface and find readers. Because, with few exceptions, that is what writers crave: a connection to others through the writing.
At a recent workshop, one writer asked the others if they wrote with an audience in mind. The answers were as varied as the participants. Some start out with an “ideal reader” in their head; some brought in the idea of a reader later on, the second or third edit, for example. But we all agreed that eventually we work with the concept of someone actually looking at our words.
An agent. An editor. Readers.
So you have the final draft of your manuscript. Seeking publication and submitting our work is a challenge at best and often, it borders on terrifying. Surely there’s a simple way to feel more confident when you press the SEND button.
I belong to a fairly intense critique group: Critical ms. That intrepid bunch has saved my writerly bacon many times as they gave feedback on chapters and scenes every few weeks. And over the past summer, they all read my final draft manuscript. I know I’m lucky to have them; critique groups rarely look at the complete work.
So what if you don’t have a Critical ms in your life? You have the manuscript in hand, hoping to catch a publisher’s attention. And you want feedback from readers. Here’s where beta readers come in. They are not copy editors or proofreaders. Instead, they will read that entire manuscript and give you a reader’s response.
How to find beta readers
Beta readers often read your work for no charge. But some charge a fee. Decide in advance how you will ask for the favour or if you will pay experienced beta readers for the service. If you decide on paid readers, make sure you ask for and get recommendations on their past performance.
Connect with beta readers through networking, word-of-mouth opportunities and social media:
Workshops and conferences for writers are great places to meet other writers working at the craft, just like you. They can be your beta readers or connect you with their beta readers.
Offer to be a beta reader: give and you can receive. Besides, a wise writer learns from reading others’ writing.
Tell friends and family members you are looking for beta readers (proceed with caution: feedback from people you know and care about can be more emotionally energized than you realize.)
Connect through writing blogs, reader/fan-fiction websites, social media such as Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. You can let others know you want beta readers through these platforms.
Be open to readers who are unfamiliar with your genre or topic. They might ask questions and see things that others gloss over when they read your work.
How to treat a beta reader
Once you find a beta reader or two, let them know what you expect. And give them the tools they need to do that.
Don’t offer a rough manuscript to beta readers:
A polished manuscript is properly formatted: page numbers, chapter headings/numbers, 2-inch margins, double-spacing and indented paragraphs.
Work hard yourself first to ensure few typos, grammar glitches and logic slips
Imagine your beta readers talking with others: I just read this really confusing book. I couldn’t make sense of the timelines and the characters were just so flat…
Ask yourself:Is this draft complete and ready for readers?
Present your manuscript professionally:
Have your polished draft ready in both electronic and hard copy formats.
Some want to read it more “book style” — 2 pages per sheet, landscape format; some want it in manuscript format (see point #1)
If they want a hard copy, be prepared to print it: don’t expect them to pay for the printing.
Ask your reader:How do you want to read this?
Give your readers guidance:
Offer at least a cover page, outlining what you are looking for, such as: plot glitches, slow sections, any confusions, characters that don’t connect with the reader, etc.
Prepare a checklist if that is simpler for you and your reader, but leave lots of room for comments and questions.
Encourage your reader: I welcome any and all criticisms and suggestions, and appreciate your time in reading my book. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings.
Use beta readers to help with your query or marketing:
You can include positive comments from your readers in your query letter. But keep it really brief and professional: Beta readers offered excellent feedback that helped refine the final draft.
If you’re self-publishing, a snippet of praise on the back cover or inside can help sell your book.
Example:A fast-paced and exciting thriller… A timeless love story that kept me reading to the end…
Say thank you:
Send a personal note following up after they give you their feedback.
When your book is published, it may be appropriate to thank your readers inside.
Ask:I’d like to recognize your help. Can I mention your name in my acknowledgement page?
Remember:A beta reader is not there to feed your ego. Don’t take the comments personally. Perhaps you don’t agree; reading is subjective, after all. But always say thank you, nonetheless.
And if you are getting comments or questions from more than one reader on the same topic, perhaps you need to rethink your opinion. This just might save you from having an editor or agent ask you the very same questions.
DID YOU KNOW?
Mark Coker of Smashwords, the highly successful e-book distributor, has a few things to say about beta readers. He and his wife used a specific process for their novel Boob Tube to ensure their beta readers had the right tools to respond. He shared some great tips in Publishers Weeklyonline.
Do you use beta readers? Let us know about your experience.
At a Spring Thaw retreat, one participant spent much of her time squirreled away in her room, papers spread across her bed, editor’s pen in hand. Poet and artist Ingrid Ruthig was completely focused on her manuscript and surfaced occasionally for meals and evening chats.
After the retreat, Ingrid continued to refine her manuscript. A poetry collection is meant to be far more than the sum of its parts. Not only does each poem have to stand on its own, but there needs to be an cohesive “whole” that pulls together the entire work and leaves readers changed.
As poet Emily Dickinson would have it: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
Right on, Emily.
Eventually, Ingrid’s manuscript was accepted by Canadian publisher Fitzhenry & Whiteside. And the collection, This Being, was launched in 2016. And then, just last month, Ingrid was awarded the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. This League of Canadian Poets’ prize recognizes the best first book of poetry published in Canada, and This Being fits that bill completely.
We are thrilled for Ingrid. She’s an artist on many levels and brings an architect’s precision into everything she does: from curating collected works and shepherding insightful essays on Canadian poets, to designing exquisite chapbooks of her poetry and textwork, to preparing solo shows of her outstanding art — all of it, perfected before she releases it to the public.
So what drives a poet — this poet, in particular — to be committed to exactitude? And what happens to that clear direction when creativity pushes its inevitable way in? A recent interview on her publisher’s website intrigued us, so we’re sharing it with you today…
Congratulations, Ingrid. What was your initial reaction on hearing that your first collection of poetry,This Being, was awarded the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award?
I punched the air and whoohoo’d! And I knew for a fact, then, that patience can pay off.
You worked many years as an architect and have written a fair deal of criticism. How has this affected your writing of poems?
It is all related, I suppose, but it’s not easy to measure or describe – it’s a way of thinking, of approaching the task at hand, which is to order and resolve something that is, at first glance or in a sense, chaotic. By inclination and training, I’m used to connecting dots – I notice things on a number of levels and begin to sort, align, or discard them, paying as much attention to detail as context. Then I set out in one direction, following clues, trying to keep sight of the big picture or the intended plan, hoping I will arrive at some kind of resolution. Sooner or later the creative process takes over, and I have to give in to it. Without that willingness to relinquish a measure of control, there would be no discovery. And it’s at this stage that writing poems veers away from kinship with raising a building off paper and up out of the ground. In architecture, surprises are usually costly and unhappy ones!
The opening poem in the collection is “Ten Mile Point”, which starts at a stop on a journey – Manitoulin Island – with car doors flung open and “water far as you can see.” But as you turn the reader back to land, with its gift shop and model tepee and our commercialized habits we’re led to something gently epiphanous, that we are somehow standing at a brink. Why did you choose this poem to start the collection? (Click here to see the poem Ten Mile Point.)
Although the poem was written much earlier than others in the collection, it seems even more timely now. It’s a recognition of the most important moment – always and ever the present moment, because we can’t go back and change what has passed, and the future is impossible to grasp. So, here we are, teetering on the edge of a precipice, surrounded by all this apparently endless beauty which also sustains us, but rather than pay attention, we let ourselves be distracted by the shiny stuff. The land’s continuance, and ours as well, hinges on the choices we make from here on in, individually and collectively. This piece set the right tone for what follows – an invitation to the reader to look around and see where we’re standing at this moment in time. To see how we change, and can change. Hopefully in time.
In terms of change and its possibilities, what can you tell us about the title, This Being?
A title, in my view, is like a key that unlocks the door of the book. This one rose slowly to the surface and insisted on staying put. Those two words brought together weave a mystery, and the meaning remains fluid. While it points at humans as beings, it also points to the act of being, of understanding we’re only able to exist in the present, and there’s no living in the past or future. So much about us, about our habits, doesn’t change. Nevertheless we remain fluid as we move from moment to moment. In fact, we’re always changing. And in those small, sometimes imperceptible alterations lies the possibility that we might yet become something better.
Is that the ultimate goal of poetry, to help us become something better?
W.H. Auden, who is quoted excessively from his tribute poem to Yeats, wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Of those who read poetry, many, including me, will disagree – it can strike a chord and resonate long after the book is closed; it reveals things we’ve become blind to; it settles or unsettles by mirroring shared human experience; it stirs thought and emotion. It changes the reader. If we look again at Auden’s poem, it goes on to say “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” Maybe that’s as close to an answer as any. A poem offers a different way of being. It’s an open mouth providing a way to speak and the words for what’s next to impossible to say, even if it’s only a trace of what we really mean. Yet, we keep trying.
DID YOU KNOW?
Revered American renaissance poet Emily Dickinson (1830 to 1886) was known for her reclusiveness, remaining much of her later years in her bedroom and refusing most visitors. Maybe the reception her poems received from publishers contributed to her solitary lifestyle.
Fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published in her lifetime. That’s probably because nobody really knew what to do with her poetry at the time. The ones that got published were edited to fit what constituted “true poetry” at the time (you know: pure end rhymes, regular stanzas, no darn dashes…)
She probably just gave up in frustration. And can you blame her?
What would Emily make of how her poetry is viewed today? Her work is studied in schools and universities throughout the United States and beyond, and you can’t pick up a decent anthology of English language poetry without a Dickinson poem or two in there. The renowned critic, Harold Bloom, cites Dickinson as one of 26 central writers of Western civilization. Her poems and her strange, solitary life have inspired music, plays and feature films.
Is there a lesson here? Emily Dickinson wrote her poetry, her way. The world wasn’t ready. Eventually, the world woke up. Patience, as Ingrid Ruthig notes, can pay off.
The lesson for you: stay true to your creative vision and your voice. Hope that others get it but if they don’t, that doesn’t mean it isn’t exactly what the world needs.
Last week, I wrote about the role of an editor when working on your manuscript. Editors France Peck and Sherry Hinman shared some ideas on the qualities of an editor that writers should look for.
But what about your role? Do writers have any responsibility in this delicate dance between what you thought you’d written and what the editor discovered?
Yup. And it doesn’t include arguing every little point you think the editor missed or misunderstood. I was once in a critique group with a writer who argued every bit of feedback offered by his colleagues. He felt he was arguing others’ “opinions”. He argued even when those opinions were clearly shared by the majority (“All the characters sound the same in dialogue”; “The pacing is slow in the beginning.”; “Who is the protagonist?”, “What’s at stake for the protagonist?” etc., etc.) No one, apparently, understood his work.
I remember thinking, Oh dear. How will he ever work with an editor? To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t yet.
Does an editor need to like your manuscript?
Nope. But an editor should understand and support the heart of your manuscript — what you want your manuscript to do, who to reach, etc. A good editor values your intent. And a good editor will let you know if liking your story matters to how they work on it.
Some years ago, I edited a self-help book for men by an American writer. I totally understood his intent and applauded him for it. But in the editing, I discovered that he was quoting some facts and figures that didn’t quite add up. I asked him for his sources. He had none.
So I sent him back to the drawing board and he returned with new facts and figures that did add up. With sources. Reliable sources that offered even better support to his thesis.
I didn’t entirely agree with his thesis. But his heart was in the right place. And I was pleased I could help him enhance his message with solid facts.
Is there any benefit to self-editing if you’re hiring an editor?
So, think of it this way: Would you hand in an essay for marks that you haven’t checked for errors? Of course not. So why would you treat your writing like something that doesn’t really matter? Own your words, writer. And make them the best possible.
There are so many things a writer can do to self-edit a draft manuscript. Here’s a partial list:
Use proper manuscript format: double-space, 1-inch margins, pagination
Read your work aloud; your ear will catch errors your eyes will often miss
Use a ruler to separate sentences for a line-by-line reading; look intensely at each line
Try the FIND feature in word processing to look for problem words/phrases; frequent misspellings, typos, etc.
Use FIND again to find passive verbs (was/is/were, etc.); replace with active verbs when you can
Pay attention to your known “issues”; for me, it’s numbers and I always have to triple check
Why would an editor want to work with you?
Consider my former writing critique colleague. Working well with an editor means you need to actually consider the editor’s notes. Obviously, spelling errors, typos, awkward phrasing — these are clear areas that need fixing. But what about that comment that the spectacular chapter with the choreographed hand-to-hand combat scene is…too long!?! And, in fact, may be unnecessary to the plot. Well, what does that editor know about a great romance with a combat twist anyway?
Step away from the “no” and think for a minute. The editor may have something. Or not.
I had an editor suggest that I had the Canadian army being gassed in WWI too early in the war. I went back to my notes. Nope. My research supported my scene: April 22 – 24,1915. But how I handled it was wrong. I got defensive. Rather like a “know-it-all”, in fact. That editor was hired by an agent to review/recommend my novel. The agent ended up rejecting my manuscript.
Was it because the book wasn’t for her or was it because I was a bit of a jerk with the editor? I’ll never know. But it was something I’ve always remembered and have always worked hard at not reacting to critique but instead, listening, considering and then responding as appropriate.
Good editors are a writer’s gift
I will always thank George Down of The Book Band who edited my novel Living Underground. He was patient with a first-time author, giving me both phone time and endless emails to answer questions or clarify comments. He was encouraging in a quiet and consistent way. And he was so helpful with issues around the German language and culture that helped strengthen my character, Sigmund.
And I will ever be grateful to Peter Carver of Red Deer Press for his wonderful comments on the early draft of my current WIP: The Last Battlewipe. His reading and feedback of my manuscript was part of the first prize I won at the 2014 Muskoka Novel Marathon for my Young Adult novel. Peter’s questions and comments have been a beacon as I’ve worked to make my crazy illogical planet make some kind of sense.
When I edit others, I am committed to honouring the words. Technically, I am looking for errors and logic glitches, dropped threads and underdeveloped plots and characters. But emotionally, I’m looking to enhance the words and bring the story’s heart out to where readers can see and feel it too.
It’s only through a relationship with the writer that this editor can get a sense of that heart. And that’s the best part of any editing assignment.
Did You Know?
The first point in self-editing Ruth refers to is proper manuscript format. Is it the same for all manuscripts? Not by a long shot. A manuscript for a poetry collection is not the same as for a non-fiction or fiction manuscript.
Writer’s Digest has a great resource for fiction manuscripts, defining some basic standards. These standards can be applied to non-fiction manuscripts as well. With poetry, the form of the poem is not meant to conform to standard paragraphing, for obvious reasons. But the importance of proofreading and clean copy applies to everyone.
Jacob took one look at our dying tree and agreed, it had to come down.
As cottagers, we’re always in that delicate balance between celebrating the beauty of nature and needing to keep it manageable. On two acres of riverside property, we have a lovely mix of conifers (majestic white pine, balsam, spruce and fir trees) and deciduous (delicate birch, maples, black cherry, poplar, beech and a few I-Don’t-Know-Whats.) Safety is always a consideration, as in “If that 30′ spruce fell on the cottage, it wouldn’t be pretty.”
So bringing in Jacob Outram and his tree service was the right thing to do. The spruce had to go.
Jacob wasn’t finished. He listened to us and our concerns about another tree. And then, like the certified arborist he is, Jacob walked the property.
“This will need trimming on one side so if it falls, the weight is away from the building.” Check.
“One half of this birch is dead. It’s next to the gazebo. The dead part has to go.” Check.
“Those branches are over the roof. Winter snow weighs them down, right?” Check.
“This one is losing its needles on the lower branches from lack of light. Trim here and it will be fine.” Check.
By the time he was finished, our one dead tree wasn’t the only one slated for removal or trimming. And as he pointed out the issue with each one, I thought how is it he saw so much of what we didn’t? Then one second later, I thought, Jacob is my tree editor!
Trim Trees, Tighten Text
Think about it. We love our forest (manuscript) so much and look at it so often that we failed to notice pressing issues (spelling, grammar, plot, pacing) and future issues (reader expectations, marketability) that Jacob (editor) saw with his fresh eyes and professional experience. His assessment (feedback) gave us insights to our surrounding forest. And while we will pay for his expertise and work, I don’t begrudge a cent of it. We’ll sleep better at night.
A good editor does for your manuscript what a good arborist is doing for my cottage property. We found Jacob through recommendations. But how do you know when an editor is the right one for you?
“For many people, the qualities that first spring to mind are things like meticulousness and perfectionism, being detail-oriented and able to memorize spellings and grammar rules, having the kind of eye that jumps to the error on the page. While those are certainly desirable qualities for the copyeditors and proofreaders of the world, they carry with them the sharp, unpleasant whiff of negativity.
Good editors must recognize the risks of being forever in critique-and-correction mode, and must balance that orientation with healthy doses of understanding, patience, diplomacy and—yes—empathy.
In the Editors Canada document Professional Editorial Standards, the “hard” skills and practices for each level are always accompanied by softer skills related to communication and judgment. All the knowledge and critical skills in the world won’t help an editor who takes an “I’m right and you’re wrong” approach to a project. We must be collaborators, not antagonists.
The editor as midwife has become a favourite metaphor in Canadian editing circles. We are there to advise and prepare, to smooth and reassure, to massage and adjust, so that authors can deliver the healthiest, most nearly perfect offspring that they’re capable of producing.”
Frances gave a Writescape workshop a few years ago on editing and it was a smashing success. It might be a good time to invite her back.
Editing Skills Checklist
Next, I turned to a local colleague and professional editor, Sherry Hinman of The Write Angle, for her opinion on what skills a good editor needs. Sherry works with a variety of writers and corporate clients, and she says:
Editing skills do relate to the kind of job an editor is working on. No matter what the task, there are Seven Must Haves for any editor:
Author/Editor relationship: The connection between you and the editor should feel respectful and collaborative. (This one’s #1 for good reason.)
Knowledge of the process: The editor should have a good understanding of the steps involved in editing your project, and preferably beyond that.
Style guides: The editor should have access to a variety of style guides and know how to use them.
Technology: The editor should be able to explain what program(s) will be used to edit your project (editing is almost always done on screen) and how you will exchange versions of your document.
Types of editing: The editor should be able to speak easily about the different types of editing (though not necessarily offer services in them all) and to describe what each type includes.
Understanding of your needs: The editor should know what type(s) of editing your project requires and either offer to edit your work or suggest you seek an editor that offers that type of editing.
References: The editor should be prepared to provide references, preferably from clients with similar projects.
So writer, now you have some ideas about what to expect from a professional editor and what you need to look for. But have you thought about what you, as the writer, need to offer an editor?
Hold that thought. I’ll be exploring your role in all that next week.
Did You Know?
Writescape’s Ruth E. Walker and Gwynn Scheltema have happily served as editors for both fiction and non-fiction writers. They honed their editing skills as senior editors/writers for the Ontario government and as founding editors for the Canadian literary journal, LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview
It’s been their pleasure to work with writers at all stages of the editing process: from a general reader’s report and feedback to copyediting, and intensive, substantive editing. They are also excellent coaches for writers who need support on their way to a polished manuscript.
Both Gwynn and Ruth benefited from having an excellent editor at various times in their writing lives.