BY NANCY KAY CLARK, CommuterLit editor
Judging the Merits of a Story
As a long-time editor of a literary ezine, I know what I’m looking for in a story, but I’ve never really articulated my criteria for judging merit. I’m going to give it a go: I am in no way looking for perfection, rather I’m looking for potential. But what does that mean?
1. Characters. Are they cardboard cut-outs or clichés? Or can I feel some rumblings of complexity there?
2. Dialogue. Does the dialogue serve only for exposition? Or does it push the narrative along and show character? Do real people talk like that?
3. Point of View. Regardless of whether it’s in the first or third person, is the story written from inside the protagonist looking out? Does it fully inhabit that head- and heart-space, without wavering?
4. Plot and pacing. Does it have a story, with a beginning, middle and end? Does the story unravel the way it should? Does the pace vary effectively?
5. Themes. Is there a point to the story? Do the themes interweave well with the plot, characters, and imagery?
6. Imagery and wordplay. Is there the right amount or is the story bloated with turns of phrase? Do the descriptions and wordplay zing?
7. Exposition and back story. Is there the right amount? Is the right info conveyed? Does it fall in the right spots and is it interwoven seamlessly into the story?
8. The ending. I’m not necessarily looking for a twist ending, but I need to feel that the ending was inevitable.
9. Emotion. Does the story move me?
10. Surprise. Does the story surprise me?
11. Authenticity. Does it feel like the author is invested in the story?
Why Readers Keep Reading
I read both fiction and non-fiction, and across genres. Some books I devour in one go; others I read slowly and savour; while still others I struggle with before giving up entirely. I’m not unique in this, but the reasons some books appeal to me and others don’t probably are. Everyone will have their own list of what they love and hate. Here’s my list:
1. Flights of imagination. I love good world building, but too much (you know, those books that come with glossaries of terms, dictionaries of made up dialects, and extensive lists of characters? ) and I’ll pitch the tome across the room. The sweet spot is a narrative that drops me in a fantastical land of weird tech, cultures and languages but somehow communicates it all perfectly clearly without footnotes.
2. Protagonists who take action — even when full of angst. I hate characters who spend the whole book wallowing (and wallowing writers and artists are the worst). Stop talking, and do something practical for God’s sake! Tie your shoelaces before you trip over them! Eat a proper meal! Get up and try! If I lose respect for your characters, you’ve lost me.
3. Intellectual curiosity. I like an authorial voice that is curious and questions the world and its creatures, who draws thematic connections, but please do not veer into the three Ps: preachy, pompous or pontificating.
4. Villains with plausible motivations. You can do better than he’s a villain because, you know, he’s evil.
5. A plot that moves. Please, please, please, use poetic imagery sparingly, and get on with things.
6. Touch me emotionally. Something that makes me laugh out loud or tear up is always a lovely surprise.
7. Do not mess with the archetypes and conventions too much. Tweak and twist by all means, but I’ll stop reading and hate you forever, if you ever kill off a character I’ve just spent five chapters falling in love with. I will never read another book you write (yes, I’m hopelessly unsophisticated that way).
8. Don’t strip me of all hope. If I want to feel depressed, I’ll read the news.
Public Reading Tips for Writers
Public readings of your work is an essential part of marketing your books, finding readers and establishing yourself as a known literary figure. But not all of us are comfortable with public speaking. Here are some tips:
1. Respect the time given to you by the organizers. Time yourself — including your preamble.
2. Choose material that has some emotion, action, lively dialogue, a beginning, a middle and an end.
3. Unless you are already a well-known literary star, keep your preamble to a minimum. Resist the urge to explain everything.
4. Practice, practice, practice out loud in front of your loved ones or alone in your room.
5. If you feel you are talking too fast — take a deep breath and slow yourself down.
6. Speak up, even if there is a mike.
7. Lift your head from the page from time to time and look at the audience.
8. Channel your characters, who you know so well. Put some emotion into their words.
9. Do not waste the opportunity to sell some of your books and gain more readers for yourself. If you have no published books, self-publish a chapbook to sell or give-away at the event.
10. Remember it is a performance — be larger than life.
When to give up on a manuscript
Do you have a first draft stuck in a drawer somewhere? Perhaps you tried shopping it around and got nowhere; or perhaps you shelved it because you recognize it needs mega-work. So what are you going to do with it? Ditch it or fix it?
Here’s how I decide:
1. I read the draft again only when I have gained some distance from it. I may have to wait a couple of weeks, a few months or a year.
2. Upon reading it, I gauge my first impression. Does it stink to high heavens, or does it hold up?
3. If I can, I make a list of all the things that need to be fixed. If I can’t figure it out by myself, I may decide to seek advice from a beta reader, members of my writing group, or a professional editor, or I may decide to put it back in the drawer for a while in hopes that time will give me some clarity.
4. If I know what I have to do, I estimate how much work and time it will take to fix it.
5.Then I gauge if I’m still interested enough to make the effort.
The last is the most important question: if I’m just not into it anymore and can’t see myself ever being back in that head space again, I go on to the next story.
Shopping your manuscript around? Beware of Fraudsters
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, under its Writers Beware program, posts THUMBS DOWN lists of Agencies and Publishers that members have complained about. Complaints include fees charged for everything, misleading advertising, author-unfriendly contracts and more. Before shopping your manuscripts around, take a look at these lists.
For more on this subject read this Quick Brown Fox blog by Brian Henry.
Three Awards Competitions for Self Publishers
Publicity, recognition, exposure to publishing houses and cash are just some of the benefits self publishers can win by entering their work in literary awards competitions. Here are three, specifically for self-published books, you might like to check out:
Writers’ Digest Self-Published Book Awards
Deadline: June 14, 2017
IndieReader Discovery Awards
Entries for 2018 start in September 2017.
Next Generation Indie Book Awards
Entries for 2018 accept now
Five Signs Your Writers’ Group Isn’t Working for You
1. It’s more of a social than a working group. It’s fun to hang out with people who love talking about character development and imagery as much as you do. However, if most of the chatter during meetings is not about the work at hand, but your personal lives, it’s not going to help you become a better writer.
2. You come out of meetings depressed or unchallenged. Good writers’ groups balance support and encouragement with thoughtful, detailed feedback. It’s equally unhelpful to you if all you get is wild praise or all you get is vicious criticism. Neither will motivate you to work harder.
3. It’s become someone’s fiefdom. Yes, all groups need facilitators, but if your official or unofficial leader usurps meetings to bestow favours, punish challengers and keep the discussion on his/her work alone, move on. You don’t need to be back in high school again.
4. Questions you have about your work, go unanswered. You can predict the feedback each group member will give you. The discussions never go past a certain superficial level. No new ideas or suggestions are offered. You’re the only one who’s really serious about publishing or self-publishing. If you recognize any of the scenarios, you’ve outgrown your group and it is time to move on.
5. The format doesn’t lend itself to long-form work. It can be very frustrating reading half a chapter per session and if people miss a session, you spend 10 minutes catching them up. Instead, perhaps think about gathering a smaller group of beta readers you can email great chunks of your novel to, or search for a mentor who is willing to read your manuscript and give you some feedback. Alternatively, you can use a manuscript evaluation service.
Years ago, I attended a week-long writers’ workshop. In the mornings we workshopped our stories; in the afternoons guest speakers would come to entertain and inform us on how to get published. Over the course of those afternoons, I gleaned some valuable ammunition that has stuck with me and kept me going through many rounds of publisher and agent rejections.
The first bit of ammunition came from a literary agent, who will remain nameless, who in answer to a question “what types of stories are you looking for?”, stated that she was not at all interested in stuff written about or by white, middle-class, middle-aged women. As a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman, who had just spent a pretty penny on this workshop, I was pissed off and completely discouraged. But through that discouragement and anger came a fierce determination to say what I needed to say to the world — regardless of those who thought my life experiences’ boring.
The next afternoon, Canadian writer, filmmaker, artist David Bezmozgis, in answer to a question about self-discipline and how to get yourself to write when you, strictly speaking, don’t have a deadline, said: “You do have a deadline. It’s called death.”
That pithy remark has stopped me from procrastinating on many occasions. Happy Writing.
Write from Inside your Characters
The notion of writing your story from inside your protagonist’s head looking out came up frequently during CL‘s last ReWrite Workshop. It is central to my own writing process. Let me explain:
1. We all start from the outside
Even those of us who write detailed character sketches and a plot outline beforehand don’t really know the people we’re writing about when we start the first line. We only get to know them by the time we’ve finished the first draft. So when you begin to write the second draft — go into the process inside the head of your protagonist (and all your other characters). If anything seems false, because your protagonist wouldn’t say that, wouldn’t use those words, wouldn’t do that, change it. Even descriptions of settings or body language will differ depending on whose head you’re in.
2. This is true regardless of point of view
On the face of it, getting into your protagonist’s head should be easier if you write in the first person — and often it is However, sometimes first-person narrators start sounding like Barry Exposition from the Austin Power films — commenting about setting, backstory or plot points in much more detail than they ever would if they were real people living through the story.
Other times, because of the story you are trying to tell, third person restricted works the best. And that’s fine, you can still get deep into your protagonist’s head in third person.
3. Beware the walls you’ve built
It’s emotionally draining and traumatic to write about characters who do terrible things or suffer through terrible things. And, as I think we all take bits and pieces from our own lives and weave them with our imaginations, writing about trauma can also make us feel exposed. So consciously or unconsciously, we try to distance ourselves from what we are writing about — by using third person omniscient, or writing in a style or genre that is divorced from real life events, or by placing a story within a story within a story, or by being too arch, too poetic & too clever. But those defenses sometimes stop us from writing an effective story that will grab people emotionally. If you aren’t close to your characters — your readers won’t be either. You have to live through your story alongside your characters.
If, after I write a scene, I begin to tear up, or laugh out loud or get enraged, I’ve know I’ve managed to tear down the barriers and get inside my protagonist’s head.
To increase pace, tension and suspense, try these structural techniques:
• eliminate as much backstory as possible — remember backstory slows the pace
• jump cut back and forth from different points of view or scenes (a shot of the oncoming train, a shot of the damsel tied to the tracks, back to the train now closer, back to the hero trying to free the damsel)
• keep scenes and/or chapters short
• let readers know something your protagonist doesn’t
• prolong outcomes for your characters by continually putting obstacles in their way
• and craft cliffhanger chapter endings.
How to write action scenes
Trying to write a do-or-die action sequence that leaves your readers breathless, shocked and wanting more? To increase pace, tension and suspense use:
• short paragraphs and sentences (or fragments)
• the active voice
• concrete words and onomatopoeia
• crisp and punchy verbs
• harsh consonant sounds
• and pared down speech;
• dialogue attributions
• descriptions (except for the most telling details)
• prepositional phrases
• and linking verbs.
You can also increase pace and tension through structural choices — which I’ll cover next time.
Imagine your story as a movie
Often when reading through the first draft of a novel or story I am critiquing — or indeed writing — I find it helpful to imagine the characters and action up on screen. If I can’t picture the scene, the characters or the dialogue making the final cut, I know something has to change.
It’s amazing how we get so caught up in writing about our characters, who they are, and where they come from that whole scenes or chapters go by without anything actually happening, or the pace is so slow that before we know it half our audience has left.
I ask myself these questions when writing a scene:
1. Have I written a scene or a character sketch? Do the main characters in the scene have motivations and goals throughout?
2. How much exposition have I put in and how much can I eliminate without confusing my readers? Many editors and writing coaches will tell you to eliminate all exposition, but I find different genres have different standards.
3. Does the descriptions add to the scene or merely slow the pace down? What can I cut, and what can I keep as a telling detail? Telling details are like close ups on the screen: those few descriptive words that sum up the entire setting, or character or subtly foreshadow what’s going to happen next.
4. Does the dialogue further the plot, narrative arc or understanding of the characters? Has the same information been conveyed to the readers more than once? If I have a character who is recounting to another character what she did in the previous chapter, it will be repetitive to readers and will merely slow the pace. Dialogue that does not further the plot or character development should be cut.
5. Does the action in the scene serve the plot or character development? If not, I cut the scene. If it does, I ask myself, how important is the action? How much space within the story should it take up? Sometimes I have a big scene in which a character goes to a meeting to find out something that he could have found out through a phone call, email or text. Instead of taking a page and half, the scene could have taken three sentences. In contrast, sometimes I have cut the scene too quickly and I need to expand it.
And always when I think of my story as a movie, I can see more clearly the giant holes in my plot and the characters who are out of focus and perhaps unnecessary.
A trend in literary writing circles is to go very plain Jane with your dialogue attributions, i.e. Mary whispered, He shouted, Marvin demanded, etc… Many editors will not tolerate anything but “he/she said” and think that it’s redundant if you put “he/she asked” when you’ve already punctuated the line with a question mark. You will be pegged as a novice writer, if you end a line of dialogue in quotation marks with “he smiled” or “she laughed.”
And I see their point. A person says — not smiles — a line of dialogue. Better, I think, to change the attribution to “he said with a smile” or “she said and then laughed.”
As well as seeing a lot of “he smiled” and “she laughed” in submissions to CommuterLit, I encounter many “he continued,” “she interrupted,” “she shrugged.” Often these lines can be rejigged — “he said, continuing his story,” “she said, interrupting him,” “she said with a shrug” — or, if you think about it more, gotten rid of altogether.
I’m not as rigid as some other editors on this point. I can accept that a person can whisper a line of dialogue, can scream a line of dialogue or call out something to someone. Beyond that though, weird attributions will jar me and I will edit them.
Fiction writing, like anything else in this world, is prone to fads and trends. And here I’m talking about writing styles and conventions, not subject matter.
For instance, creative writing mavens will frown in disapproval if you use too many adverbs — believing that you should ditch adverbs in favour of more precise verbs to convey action and character. It’s an interesting exercise to rewrite something you wrote a while back without the adverbs, using the verbs alone to describe the action. Try it, learn from it, but recognize that the “no adverbs” style is a trend in fiction writing. Many beloved and classic 19th century novels are full to the brim with adverbs.
So should you use adverbs or not? That will depend on the piece that you’re writing. If you feel strongly that adverbs are essential then by all means go for it. I would not stick so strictly to a trend, but I wouldn’t disregard the trend entirely. What appealed to the 19th century reader will not necessarily appeal to the 21st century reader or more importantly to today’s publishing gatekeepers — the editors, literary agents and publishing houses.
How to write a query letter
A number of contributors have recently asked me to take a look at their query letters before they send them off to literary agents and publishers. So I thought I would jot down a few thoughts on the subject here.
If you would like me to comment specifically on a draft of your query letter, you can submit your letter through our Query Letter Critique service. The cost is a nominal $15 (including all applicable taxes).
Very basic stuff
The first thing to do, of course, is to decide which literary agent or publisher would be the most suitable for you and your work. If you’ve written a sci fi novel, there’s no point in submitting it to a publisher or literary agent who only deals with literary novels. Do your homework.
The second thing to do is to read carefully the publisher’s or agent’s query/submission guidelines. Many differ in terms of the amount of manuscript (none, first three chapters, the whole manuscript, etc…) they want you to submit with your initial query letter. As well, the guidelines usually tell you what specific bits of information they want you to put in your letter, i.e. length of manuscript, genre of book, age group (adult, young adult, children).
Stuff you probably already know, but I thought I’d mention anyway…
Keep your query letter to one page. Publishers and agents get a lot of these things — assume that none of them will read past the first page.
Have someone proof your letter. Proof it yourself, of course, but fresh eyes will catch more mistakes. No one will take you seriously if you spell the name of the company wrong or have trouble punctuating. And I know what you’re going to say. Yes, despite all my best intentions and proofing, there is an occasional typo on CommuterLit. No one is perfect, but you need to try to be. And be sure to tell me when you catch a mistake on CommuterLit. I’ll fix it.
Query letters in three paragraphs
The classic query letter has three paragraphs:
1. Your Hook. Your first paragraph should be a hook to get the reader interested in your manuscript. It’s one or two sentences — basically your story’s tagline. Think of it as the back jacket promotional blurb: “Conned into selling the family cow for a handful of magic beans, Jack is ridiculed by his mother, but plants the seeds anyway. When a gigantic beanstalk grows from the seeds, Jack climbs it to find a world of riches, danger and one really angry giant.”
2. The Synopsis. In your second paragraph mention the title of your story, the word count, the genre, and age group. Then summarize, in a little more depth then the first paragraph, your protagonist, the main plot and the main theme of your story. Do not leave the ending out to intrigue the reader of the letter; clearly state how your story concludes. The tricky part is to keep this as succinct as possible.
3. Your bio. The third paragraph is where you boast about yourself — mention your writing credits, any writing awards you might have won, your education, if you have mentored with a well-known writer, if you come with a recommendation from a writer the agent or publisher would know. If your manuscript is based on your real life experience, for instance as a crocodile hunter in Tahiti, mention it. If your education or experience is not particularly relevant to your story, don’t mention it.
If you want to delve into the subject more, a simple Internet search for “How to write Query Letters” will lead you to numerous sources.